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Darcy moves back into her father’s home the day before she turns twenty-four. Her money and her lease have both run out, and her job was suddenly yanked out from under her as a result of the new Governor’s budget. Her father was the least horrible option, even if it’s a house she’s never really lived in. Patrick Lewis bought it, downsizing from her childhood home, the week she started school at Culver. He’d packed up her life in boxes that lined the basement, thrown out everything that her mother had left behind when she ran out on them. All Darcy had managed to save was a couple pieces of jewelry that she had stuffed in her pockets before her father had taken everything else valuable to the pawnshop.

It’s not her home, but it’s where she lives now. Her father never did anything with the guest room that she’s taken over. It’s a builder’s beige and it’s filled with the thrift store furniture that she’d had in her studio apartment a hundred miles away. She breaks up the monotony of the walls with photographs clipped to string she’s hung. A few from college, a lot from her internship with Doctor Foster, when Jane was just beginning to date the improbably named Thor, a few more after it had ended. Jane had wanted to hire Darcy back when she’d learned that Darcy’s program had been gutted, but she’d just lost another grant to cuts in science funding, and just didn’t have the money to justify an assistant.

Jane had offered her couch, but Darcy’s dad lives in a bigger town than where Culver University is. Besides, their ongoing friendship is one that benefits from time apart. Otherwise, Darcy’s tendency to try to plan other people's’ lives overpowers her and the women would spend an afternoon screaming at each other, Thor trying to sort out the anger and tears from both of them. No, Darcy would visit once she scrapes up the cash and can borrow the car. It’s the best she can do.

She’s got a part time job up the road, preparing documents for scanning for a title company. It pays just about nothing, but it looks better on a resume than folding clothes or bagging groceries. It’s enough to help her dad with the mortgage, buy herself some food and pay her cell phone bill.

“Where did you apply this week?” Her father demands over dinner. He’s a good cook at least, has been since Mom left, but the conversation is one they’ve had before.

“Nothing new on USAjobs or State of Virginia, but I found a few things here and there,” Darcy pushes her mashed potatoes around. She’s not qualified for any of the positions she’s applied for, of course, because they all want at least five years of experience, despite being entry level jobs.

“Any luck in DC? You could take the train in, paper your resume around. When I was just out of college, I went door to door --”

“With a stack of resumes in your hands and ended your week with a good job, I know. That’s not how it works, now, Dad.” Wish it were, because Darcy’s drive had been strong when she first moved in, but has rapidly diminished. “And it’s politics; you gotta know people to even get them to take your resume.” Darcy had a decent thing going with Thor’s contacts for a little while -- the Odinson name got her an interview or two, but she’d run into walls when it became clear that it was the other son’s name, Loki, that carried weight.

“So, why hasn’t anyone taken your resume?” he questions, tearing off a piece of his bread. “I know why. Because instead of taking an internship somewhere useful, you went gallivanting across New Mexico to stare at the stars. I paid out my ass for your education and look, here you are, back in my house and eating my food.”

Jane’s couch is looking better and better all the time, honestly. “I think I’ll go eat in my room,” Darcy mutters, grasping the sides of her plate.

“No, wait.” Her father sighs, dramatically. “Sorry, Darcy-girl,” he says, softer and sweeter, like the father she remembers. He fingers a stack of envelopes piled on an empty place at the table. “I heard from your uncle today.”

“Uncle Arlo?” Mom’s brother did not approve of the way she had left, cutting contact even with Darcy. He’d been the one to handle the divorce papers and he’d been the only one from that side of the family to stay in touch. He’d also been the one that would come out to try to educate Darcy on her Jewish heritage. That her mother was generally ambivalent on the whole thing didn’t matter, Arlo was going to do his best. If Uncle Arlo was coming around, that was generally a good time.

“No, my brother. Jerry, with the farm?”

Now, Uncle Jerry she hadn’t seen in years. It’s not that dad didn’t like his brother, but Jerry lived on the old family farm and kept it up, and Patrick did not like the country. Patrick barely liked the inconvenience of the detached garage. Trips out to Iowa stopped before she was ten, but she remembers lying in the grass under a wide open sky and watching the planes flying above her. She ran through fields where the corn soared over her head, but was just as happy to go back home at the end of the vacation.

“Yeah? What’s with him?”

Darcy looks like her mother, but her facial expressions are all her father’s. She recognizes the look of pained exasperation on his face. “Hell if I know. One minute he’s telling me about some piece of equipment he’s buying, then asking if I remembered anything of our neighbors before some company bought them out. And, apparently, his farm manager just up and left last week.”

“Any idea why?” Darcy asks, curious in spite of the fact that she can barely remember what Uncle Jerry looks like. There’s no frame of reference for her, now, since her father didn’t really place any importance on keeping in touch with Jerry, which only got worse after mom left.

“Not a clue,” Patrick admits, picking up the stack of envelopes and tapping them a few times against the table before standing up and putting them in his briefcase. “But he talked on and on about it, kept repeating himself, too. I’ll have to give him a call later, I suppose, try to make sense of it. You have work tomorrow?”

“No. Got a couple applications to fill out, though -- that’ll keep me busy.”

He kisses the top of her head. “Something will turn up, kid.”

Darcy will believe that when it happens. It just seems like she’s stuck in neutral while everyone else has at least something going for them. Darcy doesn’t even have a cat.

It’s the same thing day-in and day-out, really. Darcy either goes to work or looks for work, has dinner with her father and the growing stack of envelopes, and sleeps too much. She texts Jane every couple of days, makes sure her friend recognizes that the world around her is just as brilliant as the stars and forces she studies. Or sends cat videos, which are a big hit with Thor, at least.

“Got ahold of Jerry, finally,” her father says early on a Saturday morning. “Took me awhile. One of his workers found the phone ringing and drove around and talked with me until he found Jerry. I think I got more information out of him than anyone else.” The stack of envelopes isn’t far from his hands, and Darcy isn’t stupid; she knows they are bills. No one gets mail in that sort of envelope that isn’t a bill or bad news.

“Between the two of them did you figure out what’s going on at the farm?” Darcy sips at a cup of coffee, makes a face, and searches for the creamer. Her father can’t be trusted with the coffeemaker. “By the way, I’ve got a phone interview this afternoon, so don’t get weirded out when I’m pacing in my room and talking to myself.”

“What the hell kind of place does an interview on Saturday afternoon?”

“I hope the kind of place that hires me, Dad.” Darcy raises her eyebrow. “Uncle Jerry?”

“According to the farmhand or whatever, Jerry’s sick and not admitting it, and trying to run the farm all by himself.” He snorts. “The guy didn’t seem all that impressed by Jerry’s attempts. Jerry’s talking about selling if he can’t find another manager.”

“Can’t be that difficult to find someone who knows about farming in Iowa,” Darcy says after finally getting the right ratio of creamer in her coffee. Heaven. She should shower and dress before her interview. It’s a good thing to do even if the interviewer will never see her.

“You’d think, but he’s having some problems. Wants me to come out there. Can you imagine that?”

Nope, Darcy cannot imagine that. Cannot imagine her father voluntarily leaving work these days to spend time with anyone outside, much less on a farm that he hated growing up on and never wanted to go back to even when she was a kid.

When Darcy puts down her coffee, her father is looking at the bills warily with his hand covering his mouth and part of his cheek. He sighs, and puts the top one in Darcy’s hand. “I can’t take the time off of work, Darcy.”

Darcy opens the envelope, unfolds the paper within. It’s a nasty letter, a final notice several times over on a line of credit opened while Darcy was living on her own.

“There were some major problems with the house that I had fixed while you were at school. We were forced to take a salary cut and I couldn’t pay the mortgage and this at the same time. I’m starting to make it right, Darce -- it’s a drop in the bucket, but with my last raise I might be able to come out on top, soon. But I can’t afford to go out to Iowa unless Jerry is dead.”

“I can pay you more in rent --”

“No,” her dad says with finality. “If your interview doesn’t go well, would you consider going out there?”

Darcy thinks this is a terrible idea. She doesn’t really know her uncle, she knows even less about farms. But Uncle Jerry is still family, which means she should give it some consideration. She could also beg for more hours at work and try to help her dad out more.

“I’ll have to think about it.” She hands back the bill. “I’ll think about it after the interview.” She’ll have to take a shower for sure now, it’s the only place she really has here to think. Darcy doesn’t remember any sign of massive renovations, but she can understand why she didn’t notice. Her father doesn’t like to share his troubles, keeps them all curled up, and Darcy wasn’t the best at keeping at touch. Her budget was so thin that visiting was rare and since it was just her and dad, he came to visit her more often.

She takes a long and hot shower, and walks out pliant and happy. She hasn’t come to any conclusions, but Darcy rarely does. Shower thinking is for meandering thoughts and mulling possibilities, after all. The rest of the morning she tries to prepare for her interview -- she likes phone interviews because she can have notes pinned to her wall, reminders on how to answer questions so she doesn’t lose track of her point. It’s great -- she got her last job with a phone interview and she’s confident it’ll work again.

The interview blows. It’s tough to say who was worse, her or the company, in general. Darcy was trying to leverage her skills in analyzing unfamiliar data as a good fit for strategic analysis, but there were things that just didn’t add up about the situation -- it was clear that this person hadn’t even looked at her resume for more than a minute, and kept confusing her credentials with someone else’s. He was going to be her manager and kept digging for personal information, and when she asked how much work was expected to be done over weekends, well, maybe her father was right. Six days of work for a low level analyst shouldn’t be expected every week.

So Darcy bombed it herself, told off-color jokes, dropped her phone audibly, and told him she wasn’t paying attention. The interviewer thanked her for her time; she cleared the call and stared down at her phone. “I would rather go to Iowa than deal with any more of this shit.”

Darcy weighs the option of just quitting her job right then and there, but instead she gives notice, and spends her off-time figuring out the best way to get there. They only have the one car, and driving is out of the question, even if she wanted to spend that much time in a confined space with her father. Flying would be fastest, but the most expensive and she didn’t want to put anyone out that much, especially not herself. She’d probably go broke trying to get a bag checked.

Between planes, trains, and automobiles, the train allows her to carry the most stuff unchecked. It’ll take longer, and she’ll have to change trains in Chicago, but it’s cheap. She’s not living there forever, she doesn’t need to bring any more than two bags packed as tightly as she can get them. Darcy books her tickets and starts packing; her dad sends the information along to Uncle Jerry so that he can pick her up in Ottumwa. She brings jeans and sweatshirts, nothing too fancy, although she throws a couple of her dresses in because they gotta have some fun there, right? A bar at the very least, for sure. Even a small town has a bar and a post office, if nothing else.

She schedules her departure for a Saturday so her father can take her to Union Station. It’s funny how she has been applying and interviewing for months to get a job in the city, and when she arrives, it’s just to get to the middle of nowhere. Her father hates the drive, hated it when he worked in DC and commuted before he moved, but he gladly takes her. He is, however, still going to be her father and be a grouse at the traffic.

“You’re doing good for the family, Darcy, and you didn’t have to do it,” he says after yelling at a Lexus who cut him off.

Darcy doesn’t say she’d rather go away than suffer the indignity of another round of getting her hopes up just to have another shitty interview or the crushing weight of never hearing a word. “Always happy to help.”

“Here’s one more thing you can do,” her father’s voice turns serious, distant in a way that Darcy rarely hears from him. Loud and aggravating he does with regularity, but cold and calculating reminds her that her father has a life that he does not share with his daughter. “If he is sick and it’s not going well, get a hand on his will, and see where the farm and his money are going. If it isn’t us, it should be. We’re the ones helping him out, after all. Make that happen.”

The car stops short as another car comes too close to them, and her seat belt tightens against her chest, constricting her breathing for a moment. She unbuckles the belt and takes a deep breath before re-buckling and doesn’t answer her father with anything more than a somewhat disgusted glare.

Her father backpedals and coughs. “Don’t take that stupidly, Darcy. I’m not asking you to break the law or smother him in your sleep. Just get on his good side, be useful, make the suggestion. You always seem to find a way to get what you want, even if it takes time.”

Darcy doesn’t say anything and turns her attention to watching the road. In the end, her father drops her off with a kiss to her cheek and opens the trunk so that Darcy can get her bags.

The train arrives only a few minutes late, and they do leave within fifteen minutes of the anticipated departure time, but Darcy’s sure they’ll more than make up for a good start during the eighteen hour trip. There’re notices that the normal dining car has been temporarily removed, replaced by a joint dining and lounge car. Darcy would never have even realized the change without the notice, but she does reserve some time in the dining car. There is a certain amount of romance to train travel and Darcy does want to enjoy some of it. art of that is eating overpriced food and watching the world go by.

Her fingers itch for her smartphone whenever her seat mate wants to talk to her about his grand idea for the Great American Novel. It’s a stunning story of a failing academic who takes a new job in a back burner institution and finds students to both inspire and love where he least expects them. Everything he says about it makes it sounds like slush pile fodder or worse - better for a bonfire.

It’s not until she pulls out her pillow and blanket around ten o'clock and feigns sleep that he leaves her alone. The majority of this leg of the trip is overnight, even with delays as they travel through Ohio. The would-be novelist gets off in Toledo, after not getting a single word written. He’d spent the entire time talking about writing and his plans, without having his hands on the keyboard for a single moment. He’s replaced by another man about her age with bloodshot eyes and whiskey on his breath, and he falls straight asleep.

Sometime before they get to Chicago, he slumps over onto her shoulder, and no matter how much she prods him to go the other way he just ends up taking more and more of her space. She gets up for a sandwich and to sit in the lounge, because she really just can’t take anymore invasion and watches as Indiana just rolls on by. It’s just before noon when the attendants announce that they are closing the lounge before they reach Chicago. She forces her hungover space invader into an upright position as an entire skyline comes into view, and they pass a building painted with the words CONTINENTAL PAPER GRADING CO.

Darcy had hoped to do at least a little sight seeing with her layover, but with the delays, she just doesn’t want to risk missing her boarding. So, she settles for buying some popcorn at Nuts on Clark, both for her and for her uncle, and paying for overpriced train station food.

The second train is the California Zephyr, and moves faster than the name suggests. She thought she’d seen a lot of farmland yesterday, but seemingly all of Illinois, once she gets past Naperville, is nothing but a sea of corn and beans.

“First time I came up through Illinois,” the guy behind her says -- this leg of the trip she is blissfully alone in her row, “I was living in Kentucky and had to go up to Chicago for a job, and good lord, that entire drive was nothing but fields and porn at the gas station. Illinois, land of corn and porn.”

Darcy snorts good-naturedly -- finally, someone on her level. She spends a good hour chatting to him, a lighting rigger on his way out to Reno, another job that he thinks will last a bit longer than the community theatre that buckled under the weight of an overeager director.

“You don’t exactly seem the farming type,” he says, after introducing himself as Mark.

“That’s the truth and then some.” She’s not going to spill her life story to a stranger on a train, like some sort of cliche, no matter how much she wants to tell someone about the creeping loss of confidence she’s feeling. “But I’ll figure it out. I like big spaces -- I spent a few months in New Mexico in college. I like seeing stars. Don’t have that at home, really.”

“Iowa’s as good a place for that as any.”

“I suppose.” Darcy just watches the farmland, accepting each barn and farmhouse and cow as it passes by. This trip is much shorter, with only a few delays to let freight trains ahead of them.

The Ottumwa station is smaller by magnitudes than Chicago, and it may have been grand in it’s day, but now it’s mostly just faded architecture and a tall chimney stack. The train pulls in and Darcy gathers her two heavy bags, folds her pillow inside of her blanket, and steps out onto the platform.

There are not many people in the station, and none of them bear any family resemblance. None are the grey-haired old man that she knows from photos and Christmas cards. He could just be running late -- Jerry doesn’t actually live in Ottumwa, after all; he had said he was an hour or so out of town. She shifts her weight from foot to foot as she cranes her neck, looking to see if she just missed him or if she’s really been forgotten after traveling half a continent.

“You’ve got to be Miss Lewis,” a man with a well-weathered face straight up ambles in her direction, dipping his head.

“How’d you guess?” She answers, warily.

“Well, ten people got off the train. I play poker with three of them. See,” he points out a group of men trying to make themselves invisible, “they owe me money and think I’ve come to collect. There was a family of four, and an older couple. And you. So you must be Darcy Lewis. I’m Clint Barton, I work for your uncle.”

Darcy look around again, and, sure enough, those descriptions fit all the people that came off the train with her. “So, where’s Uncle Jerry? He told us he’d meet me here.”

Clint leans over and takes her bags from her hands, leaving her with just her blanket bundle, “Tell you in the truck. Come on, I want to get moving while we still got some light left.” He takes the weight of the bags easily, and he seems on the up-and-up but still, Darcy’s not keen on getting into the car with a stranger.

“How do I know my uncle sent you?” she asks, falling into step behind him.

“Back pocket; grab my phone. I don’t have it locked and the text from him is up,” Clint says, slowing his stride for a moment to allow Darcy to catch up and gingerly take the phone from his dirty jeans. He fills out the seat of them very well and she resists the urge to linger just a little bit longer.

The text is from Jerry’s number, sent midday, asking Clint to pick Darcy up for him, and to give him a call around three. It could be spoofed, it could be fake, but that seems like an awful lot of preparation if Clint is secretly an ax murderer.

“It’s good to be suspicious these days,” he says, not unkindly. “Hold onto the phone until we get to my truck, okay?”

For all that it’s slathered in dried mud and has more than it’s fair share of bumps and dings, Clint’s truck is more than just a means to an end. It’s well-loved and kept clean inside. Clint looks at the space behind his seats and at Darcy’s bags, then puts them in the bed, instead. Darcy gets settled and buckled, then peers in the back: the cab is filled with boots and jackets, and an oversized toolbox. There’s enough cold weather gear to outfit a nation, should the need arise.

“So, what’s up with my uncle?” Darcy asks when they get out on the highway. “Why couldn’t he make it?”

“Doc wanted him to go up to Iowa City for a test, and he decided to stay the night. He’ll be back in the morning.” Clint looks at her. “He said it wasn’t anything to worry about; just didn’t want to drive back so late.”

“Thank you. I don’t mean to keep you from home,” Darcy says, hesitantly. She gets the feeling that Clint’s not so much a talker, or that maybe he feels annoyed at having to give up his evening to play taxi cab. “I hope it’s not a long drive to where you live.”

Clint smiles, more for himself than for Darcy, but she likes it. He’s got a face that looks like he’s lived life a little hard, but when he smiles, it is obvious where the lines are from. “I’ve got a trailer on the property. You ain’t putting me out.”

It grows steadily darker, and the houses and barns grow further and further apart as they leave the interstate; the backroads go from pavement to packed dirt and back again. They pull up to a farmhouse lit by floodlights. The front door is disused, instead there is a path that runs round the back. The paint job has started to flake off the wood siding of the two story house, but there’s a single story addition with crisp, white clapboard,and the whole thing is surrounded by a sturdy deck.

Two dogs run out to greet them: a one-eyed golden retriever that tries to bowl Clint over and a darker dog that could only be described as a mutt, with a mask of white on his snout and eyes and a coat flying in all directions. She’s skittish towards Darcy but darts between Clint’s legs as he grabs Darcy’s bags and leads her towards the back door and into a mud and laundry room.

“Yes, yes, I know, Lucky, I’ve been gone for hours and you’re hungry; we never feed you. You’ve kept watch though, right boy?” he says, keeping up a steady stream of words to the dogs. They scamper inside when he opens the door to the kitchen and he yells after them, “Stay downstairs!”

“Cute dogs,” Darcy says, grinning as the black one runs back and she kneels down to pet him, “Vicious monsters, I’m sure of it.” The mutt’s fur is soft and thick; Darcy can curl her fingers in it.

“That one’s Jerry’s dog, Bandit; the golden’s my Lucky,” Clint turns on lights, “Come on, I’ll show you your room. They shouldn’t bug you too much -- they are mostly outdoor dogs, but it’s cold enough that we bring them in overnight.”

He takes her through the kitchen and to a beautiful wooden staircase by the front door. It’s dusty though, as if no one has seen fit to oil the wood in years. Not dirty, just worn and in need of work. It creaks under their weight.

“Bathroom’s to the right and this, here, is the guest room. I left the wifi password on the nightstand.” He smiles again. “Jerry doesn’t know it and he wouldn’t have thought you needed it.”

The room is painted a gentle shade of yellow, and when she turns on the light it’s like the sun coming up. It’s a simple room, really, with a white, slatted headboard for the bed, matching white dresser, and a nightstand with a single drawer. A bouquet of multicolored daisies reside in a pink, depression glass vase. The handmade quilt on the bed is a riotous depiction of a sunrise “The flowers, though, that’s all Jerry.”

“You don’t give flowers?” Darcy teases, running her hand over the dresser’s lace runner. Jerry put out daisies, her favorite as a kid.

“Not to girls I just met,” Clint answers right back. “Give it a few days.” He clears his throat, “You want, I can stay the night on the couch if you aren’t comfortable being alone.”

She’s not, not really, but she’s tired enough that it probably won’t matter that the house will creak and settle -- Darcy will sleep like the dead. Clint’s been nice enough, and she doesn’t want to keep him from his own bed either. “I’ll be okay, I think.”

“My number’s below the password if you need me; otherwise, I’ll be by in the morning. You’ve got the two silliest guard dogs here to keep you safe, too.”

“Thank you, Clint,” she says.

“No problem, ma’am. Sweet dreams.” He turns around and he’s gone, and the dogs bark after him. She listens as the truck drives off. The motion-detecting lights turn off outside, and it suddenly feels like the only brightness for miles is the clarity and calm of this room. She digs through a bag for her pajamas and turns off the overhead light, curling into a bed made, seemingly, just for her.

“Little Darcy!” Uncle Jerry just about shouts as she rounds the corner into the kitchen around seven. Darcy didn’t really want to get up, but hearing people move about downstairs, a multitude of voices, she didn’t have much choice. She waited until it grew a little quieter, threw on the first long-sleeved shirt and jeans she found, and headed downstairs. At the kitchen table is her uncle and Clint. She hasn’t seen Jerry in years, except for a photo here and there, and it always strikes her how different he looks from her father. Her father is a grump, sure, but meticulous in keeping himself shaved and his hair cut. Jerry hasn’t seen a razor in years and his hair is receding but bushy in the back. His voice, though, is full of gregarious warmth and, instantly, Darcy is happy to be here. “I’m so glad you are here. Look at you -- last I saw, you barely came up over the counter, there.”

“Well, I didn’t get too much taller. It is a very high counter,” Darcy says before she is swept up in an over-enthusiastic hug. She awkwardly pats Jerry’s shoulder before giving into the hug and wrapping her arms around him, too.

“Was your trip okay? Did you sleep well? Is there anything you need for your room? I told Clint, here, that I had a niece coming to stay, help with the business, and he had -- oh what’s her name, the girl that helps sometimes at the market?” Jerry lets her go with a quick squeeze. Darcy doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, but this energetic old man doesn’t seem sick or tired, or even all that old. He’s the oldest of her uncles, though, approaching seventy if Darcy remembers right.

“Kate,” Clint says, setting down a cup of coffee and looking very interested in a paper bag on the table. He roots around in it, pulling out a bagel.

“Right, Kate, she a good girl, too, very bright, but she went through and made sure that everything was clean and right for a young woman in there. Do you like the flowers? I remembered you liked flowers -- Clint, you should have seen her when she was seven and came with her mother and made daisy chains for everyone to wear.”

“Oh, god, Uncle Jerry, how do you remember that? That was so long ago. Yes, the trip was fine, just long, and the room is lovely, I just need to put my things away. I was so tired I barely made it under the covers before I fell asleep.” Darcy answers just as rapidly and pulls up a chair at the table.

“Can I get you some coffee?” Clint leans forward and asks quietly.

“Clint, get the lady something to drink!” Jerry says, bursting with happiness.

“Please,” Darcy leans in and matches Clint’s volume, darting her eyes over to her uncle. If she’s going to have to deal with this much good cheer this early in the morning, she’s going to need all the caffeine she can get.

Jerry finally sits, now that Darcy is sitting, and he covers her hand with his own trembling one. Clint brings over the carafe, filling a cup for Darcy and topping off both his and Jerry’s. “Now, Darcy,” Jerry says, “It’s so good to have you, and you should have some time to get settled. I’m letting Clint take a light day to show you around, since I got to go into town to meet with my lawyer, but then I’ll sit with you about the business you’ll be dealing with while you’re here.”

Clint brings over cream and sugar, and Darcy lightens the coffee to perfection. It’s good coffee. Not fancy, but straightforward and hearty for a good day’s work. “That sounds good, I hope I’m not putting you out too much, Clint.”

“Never get all the work you need to get done, anyways,” Clint says between long gulps. “But the work will keep, and what can’t, I can spread around.”

“It’s why we have hired hands, to do the work we can’t do.” Jerry moves his and Darcy’s hands up off the table. “It’s real good to have you. Ever since Pauline left off, I just can’t handle all the business mucking myself. Used to be as long as you could do your sums and look at a calendar, you’d be fine. But nowadays? I need someone who can fiddle with the computer and deal with the bank.” He looks up at a clock. “I just wish someone else could deal with the lawyer. Coulson will have my head if I’m not on time.”

“You okay driving?” Clint says, “I could get --”

“Don’t you dare pull any of those boys out of the field just to get me to town, Barton,” his voice changes into a gruff, quick temper. “I won’t be but half a day, and most of that will be Coulson explaining why I should sell when I don’t want to.”

Clint raises his eyebrows and looks away, taking a deep breath. “Okay then.” he exhales audibly. “Let me know when you’re ready to head out, Darcy. We got a lot of ground to cover.”

A lot of ground to cover turns out to be approximately 350 acres that’s mostly farm use, but some that’s set aside for hunting use for the neighbors. They drive the perimeter of the fields while Clint explains what they’ll be planting this year. “We’re a little too small to really make good money in corn and beans in the long term. Big farms keep getting bigger and crowd folks like us out.” He goes on, pointing out sections of fields, “But we’ll grow some in the midterm. We’re working to switch operations over to a more regional focus -- selling to grocery stores, restaurants; we’ve got a presence in at least four farmer’s markets at any point in the year thanks to our greenhouse operation.”

Clint’s got pride at least a mile wide when he talks about how the farm has changed since he’s been with Uncle Jerry. “Going on ten years now; hired me on as summer help and kept me on full time.”

The greenhouse is the first place they get out of Clint’s dusty, grey pickup. “We put her in about seven years ago, paid us back within three. We’ve got four winter and early spring markets that we can go to, plus providing some year-round produce to local buyers.”

He talks up the greenhouse more, introduces her to a couple of hands that are working, skims over what they are growing, and loads her back into the truck. He’s not exactly forthcoming with anything other than information about the farm -- Darcy tries to cajole his smile and tease out what she felt last night; he just turns a little gruff.

They pull into a small, packed dirt drive that goes to the smallest single wide trailer Darcy has seen. It hardly looks bigger than Jane’s RV, probably not even 500 square feet. But it’s well-kept, the vinyl skirting bright and white. There’s not much in the way of landscaping, but Clint tells her to hop out for a second and from the side she can see a beautifully stained deck. “This your place?” she asks. It’s not all that far out there, all things considered -- she can still see the house.

“Yep,” he answers. “Inasmuch as any. It was vacant that first summer I worked and when fall came around, I asked if I could rent it. Car died and walking in from town did not appeal. I gotta stop in for a minute, you wanna come in?”

“Sure.” Darcy is led up the deck, and wonders out loud if the farm has a problem with front doors.

Clint’s lip curls up on one side, exactly what Darcy has been aiming for. “Front doors are for Girl Scouts and strangers, and you ain’t either.”

She fits so neatly in the category of stranger, though; she’s known Clint for less than a day, that’s pretty near to the definition of stranger. Clint’s polite, but he is holding her at arm’s length, and she’s getting the sense that it’s Clint that holds the key to the actual operations of the farm. Darcy’s not expecting to be here forever, but it’ll probably be long enough to have to actually do something that will require more in the way of trust.

She’ll manage. Darcy’s a pro at turning prickly people around. It worked on Jane -- she moved from a needed annoyance to treasured friend over the course of a semester. But Jane was simple to win over. Darcy anticipated her needs (food, a hand to hold, and a perfect driving record) and let herself be a sounding board. Jane was easy, Jane was in need of a friend more than an intern, and Darcy gave her both.

Clint will probably be harder since he doesn’t radiate his feelings like Jane. But he does have a nice place to live, and Darcy figures compliments are a good way to start. “That is a comfortable looking couch,” she says. She can see the nap-prints in the worn fabric, the pillows all bunched up like they are pulled close to the chest, another of the bright and beautiful quilts laid carefully over the side. This one looks more traditional, but also decidedly more patchwork than the one on Darcy’s bed. “Who makes the quilts?”

“Friend of mine,” he says, not giving Darcy the satisfaction of a real answer or something to connect with. “I uh, gotta take a leak. Kitchen’s right there. There’s some juice, I think, in the fridge, along with a pitcher of water. Glasses are above the dishwasher.” He heads down the short hall and takes a sharp right.

“Great, Darcy, way to make friends on your first day of farm school.” She sighs and pours herself a drink, anyways. At least the few other workers she met seemed to like her, or put on the appearance of liking her: shook her hand, gave their names, chatted for a few minutes before going back to work.

There’s a knock at the back door and Clint yells from the bathroom if she could see who it is. Darcy opens the door to a man that already looks vaguely familiar, in a ragged way.

“You ain’t Clint,” he snorts and yells into the house, leaning in and holding the door frame. “Clint! Buddy! You still live here?” Darcy can’t close the door without slamming his fingers, but she’s prepared to do just that. “Though if he’s finally decided to shack up with a girl, let me tell you, you could do better.”

Darcy blinks. “Clint, it’s some guy that’s already failing to successfully hit on me.”

Clint walks out of the bedroom, drying his hands off on his pants. Which is a terrible idea because his pants are dirty and that defeats the purpose of washing his hands.

“Clint, your woman wounds me,” the asshole says, and now she sees the familiarity. The man at the door is a taller, redheaded, and probably a pack a day and a bottle of whiskey version of Clint.

“Not my woman, Barney,” Clint sighs. “Darcy, this is Barney, my brother. Barney, this is Lewis’s niece, Darcy. Keep your hands to yourself.” He nods at Darcy. “Let him in.”

Darcy releases the door and steps aside, allowing Barney in. He slides past her with a grin and waggle of his eyebrows, exaggeratedly looking her up and down.

“Just wanted to let you know I was back in town. Got me a job, real one, on the books and everything,” Barney says with pride coming out of his pores.

“Where at?” Clint says with such lack of excitement that Darcy understands this isn’t something Clint is particularly enthused about.

“Just down the way. Working over at Hammer’s for the season. Say, it’s close by, can I stay --”

Clint cuts him off with a finger to his brother’s face. “Last time you stayed here you near about got shot, so, no, you can’t.”

“Just for the night,” Barney pleads. “You know what the motel is like and I’m going to head in to town today to put my name in for an apartment with some of the other hires. Just keep me from sleeping in my station wagon tonight, brother.”

“Fine. As long as you are here by eleven, alright? I’m locking the door after that. And just you, none of the other guys or stragglers from the bar.”

Barney holds up his hands and tells him that’s a fair deal. “I’m off, I’m off. Gotta pick up the rest of the guys and go to town. “

Barney is half out the door when Clint rolls his head around, and Darcy can hear his neck pop, “Barn? You said you’re working down at Hammer’s?” Barney nods. “Just…be careful over there, alright? He’s not the kind of guy who cares about the people that work for him.”

“Thanks, little brother, but I know a few things about keeping my head on my shoulders.” Barney leaves with a wave, but not even a look back.

“Family uses the back door, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it,” Clint mutters to Darcy.

The rest of the farm seems mostly like a blur of field after field, even with Clint pointing out what they'll be planting as soon as the weather holds and dries up a bit. She's shown various storage buildings and shelters. When they round back towards the house, she's shown where the kitchen garden would be planted and a chicken coop, and Clint bemoans that they’ve missed lunch.

“Your uncle’s one of the last guys to always have a lunch out for the workers,” Clint says, opening up the refrigerator in the hopes of finding leftovers. “Sandwiches and chili, mostly, but none of us are going to complain. Hammer Farms? They bring in food, but you gotta pay for it.”

“That’s where your brother is going to work.” Darcy half-remembers the conversation in Clint’s place.

“Okay, yeah, here’s where I’m going to tell you a few things that your uncle will leave out because he believes in a fair shake. Hammer Farms is bad news. The owner, Justin Hammer? It would be better if he just treated his employees like shit. Mostly, he ignores them, and it’s his headmen that pulls all sorts of crap that’s dangerous and illegal. I wouldn’t give him spit if he asked for water.” Clint shakes his head and looks out the window. “Jerry doesn’t know, but Pauline left because Hammer offered her twice as much to work for him. She wanted experience working someplace bigger, and Hammer fits that bill.”

Darcy looks down at the table and away from Clint. “That certainly doesn’t reflect well on her. I take it she knows about how much he sucks?”

Clint snorts. “Everyone’s got their price.” He pulls out a plate of meat and cheese, grabs rolls from the top of the fridge, and closes the door. Halfway to the table, he rolls his eyes and heads back, this time taking out mustard and mayo.

“Enough for me?” Darcy asks.

“Yeah,” he responds. It’s quiet as they make sandwiches, and then Clint says, “Sorry to eat and run, but I got my own work to do. Jerry should be back soon, so, until then….”

“I still need to unpack,” Darcy finishes for him, because he is clearly at a loss for what she should be doing. That pretty much makes two of them. Clint raises his sandwich in farewell and heads out the back door.

Darcy sits and eats her lunch, really looking around the kitchen for the first time, and wonders how she missed all this busyness around her in the morning. The entire kitchen is decked out in decades worth of Farmall memorabilia, right down to the toaster. Tin signs on the wall proclaim that “If It’s Ain’t Red, Leave It In The Shed”, and that this is a Farmall Farm.

It’s everywhere. There’s not a foot that goes by that doesn’t have a logo or a splash of their signature red across it. It does move from strictly Farmall to International Harvester as she begins to investigate the first floor. In the living room, a curio cabinet is filled to the edges with die-cast tractors, trucks, and other farm equipment.

“Okay, someone’s a bit obsessive.” There is wheat in vases and pictures of cornfields. “Yeah, like you need to be reminded of where you are.” Darcy raises her eyebrows and shakes her head. She needs to unpack.

In the light of day, the staircase not only needs to be dusted and oiled, but she can make out the details she missed before: the spindles are elegantly turned, the handrail has been kept smooth. The crown moulding that trims every wall and every door is deceptively simple, it’s complexity held in how it retains the natural grain of the wood. It all needs to be cleaned, but it’s all beautiful.

Darcy turns into her room and starts opening her bags and putting things away. “Don’t admit it to dad,” she mutters to herself, “but I kinda like not having all my stuff.” It certainly is cleaner. Most of her clothes fit easily into the dresser -- if she stays into the summer she will need to buy or ask her father to send a few things, but there are a couple of dresses she wants to hang up. The room has two sets of closet doors, which is outstanding, in theory, but when she opens the first door it’s not a closet. It’s a narrow and dark staircase. She does find hangers in the actual closet, and more than enough space for the rest of her clothes.

From there, it’s a few photos tucked into the mirror of the dresser -- college friends, Jane and Thor, her family. There are a few pieces of jewelry, only her favorites, only what she loves the most. She sets her laptop on the nightstand, puts her phone on the charger, and sits on the bed.

Her uncle comes back from his meeting with the lawyer and dances around the subject of what it was about, but Jerry tells her about Coulson. If her uncle is being accurate at all, Coulson’s both ruthless and earnest in equal measures, a terrifying combination if she’s ever heard one.

“I don’t trust anyone that says they are completely honest. People have to keep things to themselves when it comes to business. Help a man out, because that’s what Jesus says, but if you have all your cards on the table, you’re gettin’ cheated. Coulson’s got discretion, and I like that.” Jerry leads her towards a small office, sits her at the desk, and drags a chair to sit next to her. “Now, I know you ain’t a business woman, but you got a mind for figures, right?”

Darcy always has, but just being good at something doesn’t mean you want it to be your job, which is why she only minored in Accounting. Jerry has software that does most of the record keeping, but someone has to input and organize all the receipts and deal with payroll. The farm has ten full-timers, with Clint leading the crew. They’ve got five extra hands right now to prepare for planting, and will probably hire more on a day to day basis and paid under the table. Jerry doesn’t ask too many questions about them, just pays a fair wage and trusts Barton or one of the others to pick decent fellows to work.

It’s all paperwork. A steady stream of it, sure, but it’s paperwork that would otherwise keep Jerry away from the real business of farming. “Pauline also made sure there was food for the hands,” he says, tentative. “I don’t know if you cook, but if you do and you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it.”

Darcy’s a damn good cook, actually, but cooking for around twenty is a big deal, and she grimaces. “Maybe when I know what I’m doing here, first.”

“Boys won’t go to any harm eating sandwiches,” Jerry muses. “And I’ll make up a batch of stew over the weekend. Weather still isn’t warming up the way I’d like it to.”

There’s more explanation showing her around the house, and Darcy says in a rush, “Why is there a staircase in a closet?”

Jerry laughs, crooks his finger and directs her to the kitchen pantry. He moves a shelf, exposing a door. “They used to be servant’s quarters, back in the day. Your room and the kitchen are connected; made it easier for the help to move around.”

Over the next few days, Darcy slowly gets a handle on what’s needed to run the farm. She resolutely doesn’t get up at the crack of dawn and always waits for the bustle of workers to die down before she walks down the creaky stairs. Jerry waits for her, always interested in how she slept and what she’s working on, and most days just tells her how happy he is that she’s here.

Her own father doesn’t tell her these things.

Barton’s there sometimes, too. Usually, when Darcy comes down a little earlier, she can catch him as he’s pouring coffee into a thermos, and today’s thermos is roughly the same volume as the carafe. “Morning,” she says with a little wave and a yawn. It’s cold out this morning and she’d layered her thermals underneath her jeans and thrown a loose, black hoodie over her shirt. Her hair is about out to Mars and she hadn’t wanted to deal with fixing it until she had caffeine in her system.

“Morning,” he answers back, and he just looks at her freshly awoken self with a strange, complicated look on his face. “You rising to meet the day?”

“Yeah, figured I’d get an early start. I think I’ve got just about everything all caught up. Uncle Jerry pretty much just kept a basic ledger and payroll going. There was a great deal of mail that needed answering, phone calls to be made.”

“That’s good, cause we got the First Saturday Winter Market tomorrow,” Clint says. “That’s a bitch, big crowds.”

“Excuse me, what?” Darcy hasn’t seen a mention of any Winter Market. “What are you talking about? That’s not on the calendar.”

Clint takes a drink. “Jerry confirmed us -- right after Pauline left, that’s right. He must have forgotten. You’ll help, right? We’ll get all the goods out of the greenhouse, but it’s usually been Jerry, Pauline, and myself. Kate, if she’s able to drag herself out of bed before noon.”

That name sticks from somewhere, but she can’t recall where. There’s nothing at all in the paperwork about a Kate. “Who’s Kate? Your girlfriend?”

Clint sputters and spills part of his coffee down his shirt; Darcy grabs for the paper towels. “Aww, shirt. God, no. Kate’s like fifteen -- no she had a birthday, sixteen. She likes to help out and get in my hair.” Darcy takes a few steps with the towels and, without thinking, starts to sop up the growing stain on Clint’s shirt. Clint smiles like he’s going to strain something and takes them from her, but doesn’t step back.

“Why?” Darcy asks, and she’s suddenly aware that she’s not just in Clint’s personal space, she’s right up next to his very wonderfully broad chest. She shifts her weight, steps back, and resists the urge to blush.

“Pisses her daddy off. He’d rather her be in anything besides 4-H or the FFA. Taught her archery at a summer camp and she saw me at a market and just stuck around. Calls it real world experience. I call her a pain in the ass.” He tents out the shirt, pinching the fabric between his fingers. “It’ll do. Not like it isn’t going to get dirty. You know where the market stuff is?”

Darcy shakes her head, and Clint looks at the wall clock and then back at her, his expression shifting into a contained annoyance. “Right, and Jerry’s off at town, again. Fine, I’ll come in after work’s done and we’ll go over it all.”

“Thank you,” Darcy says. But Clint’s demeanor had suddenly changed and she wonders if her being at the farmer’s markets would be that much of a hassle? Darcy’s had to learn the ins and outs in less than a week -- she’s even watching the weather reports and has her own, private guess on when planting will start since there hasn’t been frost since she got here. She’s adapting, but maybe Clint doesn’t think she was doing a good enough job of it. “I’ll make us something to eat, if you’d like.”

Clint smiles weakly, tips his head. He picks at his shirt again, curling his lip in disgust, then drops his hands to dig in his back pocket. He pulls out a wool hat and tugs it on. “See you later, Miss Lewis.”

Darcy can’t quite figure out what to make of Clint. He’s intensely helpful, apparently indispensable, according to her uncle, and always right there with a smile in his eyes. But then Darcy will say something, try to get input on something she’s doing in the office and he shuts down to the bare minimum of information. Always correct, always needed, but not the same man who was there a moment earlier.

She spends the day cleaning. The house isn’t so much dirty as it is dusty: the kind of untidy that happens when there’s fewer hands to help make light work. There are dishes to be washed, counters to be cleared, and a hundred tiny tractors to wipe down. She opens a drawer to find dozens of pill bottles, some a decade old, but a small cluster of them from the past month. Jerry hasn’t let her know what’s going on with him yet. He could just be wearing out, could be something else. He doesn’t seem to have slowed down very much, but it’s also hard to give up on your day-to-day life when your body just doesn’t cooperate anymore.

Darcy loses track of the time when she digs out from underneath the sink an old, neglected container of wood cleaner, dilutes it in a bucket she finds in the mudroom, and carefully starts to restore the staircase’s luster.

She finds a good rhythm in the work, rubbing the cloth over the wood and bringing the worn grain back to life. Dip the cloth into the cleaner, wring it out, and work on the next section. Darcy gets lost in the lines and crevices, stripping away all of the dust and years, just bringing back beauty.

“Wow,” Clint says and Darcy only hears the last of his footsteps. “I can’t recall the last time that was cleaned. Jerry keeps meaning to do it, but time gets away from him.”

“It’s beautiful, it deserves the care,” Darcy says in response. “I’m sorry; I didn’t notice the time. I meant to make some dinner.”

Clint waves her off, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve been working; we’ll grab something from the freezer.”

Darcy doesn’t remember there being much more than frozen vegetables in the freezer: packaged and put up during the summer months, for sure, nothing commercially sold, but frozen, all the same. Maybe some ice cream. “The freezer?”

Clint grins. “Jerry didn’t show you the freezer, did he?”

The freezer is in the basement, which is down a narrow set of stairs, and Clint holds her hand to help her down towards the end. The basement is little more than an aging coal room turned into a utility room, cold storage, and a large, deep freezer.

“Jerry’s popular,” Clint explains as he opens it. “Dances with all the old ladies, makes them giggle, and, in return, he gets food just handed to him at church. More than he’ll eat during the week, so he sets them in here for the hard days. Oh!” He pulls out two small containers. “Tootsie Demon’s lasagna. Just as spicy as her name.”

“I could go for some heat. Wait, is she really named Tootsie?” Darcy asks.

Clint closes the lid to the freezer and heads back upstairs. “ Elizabeth Demons nee Johnson, known as Betsy, but her husband called her Tootsie. ‘Cause she was sweet as candy. Or so Jerry says. Every time I’ve talked to her, I get the third degree as to why I’m never at church. She’s not so sweet when she thinks she can do the Lord’s work by swearing at you.”

Darcy laughs, and Clint laughs with her. They pop the lasagnas in the oven -- because it’s better that way than in the microwave -- and they head back to the office. Clint knows the workings of the farmer’s markets in and out. This particular one is monthly, and while it’s ostensibly a farmer’s market, it’s held in a high school gym during the winter and features far more artists and crafts. “Sometimes, it’s even a bit of a flea market. We go there with whatever we have, usually herbs and greens, and it’s mostly so people don’t forget us. In the summer, it’ll take over the square for a morning, with live music and people pissed off that they can’t drive.”

“Sounds nice,” Darcy says. “You seem to really enjoy the markets. Jerry didn’t even mention them when he was explaining everything.”

“He just shows up sometimes, to be the Lewis in Lewis Farms. Before I started here he just did a couple of roadside stands with his extra produce. He was starting to make more money not selling corn than he was selling it, so I --” Clint looks at her and huffs out of his nostrils, shaking his head. “Convinced him to give me a field, grow for markets, local food outlets, and a co-op that supplies some of the corporate cafeterias in the region. Made good money so I got another one. When his contracts finish up, we convert more to the new markets.”

“Now it’s my turn to say wow.” Darcy looks over his books. Clint’s got awful chicken scratch, and it alternates with a girl’s precise hand. “Organic?”

“Not officially. Can’t afford to pay for the testing, but if someone asks, we rarely use pesticides if something else won’t work better in the market fields. Corn still gets treated but we do our best to keep it separate.”

“This is really amazing work, Clint.”

“Ain’t gonna make anyone rich,” he scoffs.

“Keeps people fed with roofs over their heads, right?” Darcy pokes at his shoulder. It’s remarkably firm, and her poke turns into a quick little squeeze, aiming for comforting and supportive. Clint looks right at her and shrugs with a little, “I suppose”.

The oven timer goes off and Darcy serves up the lasagna.

“Barney find a place to stay?” she asks.

Clint chokes on his food. It is a little hot, Darcy thinks, watching the heat rise off of the cheese. “Took him a couple of days, but yeah, thank goodness. Can’t imagine what kind of place he and the guys found this time around. Last time he was in town, I had to pay his last month’s rent for the damage to the place. Barney swears it wasn’t his fault, because it never is.”

“Stand up guy,” Darcy mutters, mostly because Barney leered. She hates leering men: the way that their entire being seems caught up in trying to be the best oil slick of a personality around.

“He used to be,” Clint says, just as quiet.

Darcy doesn’t have a choice about sleeping in on Saturday. Jerry wakes her up before the sun rises not just by knocking on her door, but with lively hymns about ‘giving God the glory-glory’. Darcy slams into the awareness that she has a job to do, that she now lives on a working farm -- the family farm -- and there really isn’t such a thing as a weekend anymore.

She manages to get down the stairs within a half hour, her hair still wet and just pulled back into a loose braid. She doesn’t bother with her contacts. The kitchen is a mess, coffee grounds spilled on the counter, multiple muddy boot prints on the floor that beat a path from the coffeemaker to the door, and two small crates on the table. She doesn’t know all the workers that congregate in the mudroom, but recognizes a few from the tour of the greenhouses. They wave; she waves back and makes a note that she’s going to have to remember their names.

“Picked and packed,” one of them says to her. “That’s the only thing that’s not fitting right. You’ll have to hold them.”

“Um,” Darcy waffles, because Darcy’s seen the truck. The truck should be able to hold a feast. “Hold them?”

“Yeah, when you head over.” A horn honks from right outside the house. “That’s you. You should go.” The man walks back out, yelling that she’ll be right out.

Darcy hurries into the kitchen, cleaning up the coffee beans as best she can with a couple sweeps of her arm across the counter and into the trash. She opens and closes the cabinets in search of a insulated cup for coffee and finds them all in either the sink or the dishwasher.

“You coming?” she hears from the doorway.

Clint. Of course. “Coffee.” Her undignified, sleepy whine is not how Darcy wants to present herself, even at six in the morning. “No cups.”

He’s clearly fighting off a laugh and does a laudable job of holding it in. “Come on, girlie, we can get you some coffee on the way.” He looks at the crates on the table, sets his lips into something fond and picks them up under one arm.

Jerry and Clint argue about who’s driving. Jerry wins. Darcy and Clint hold boxes on their laps and, while McDonald's coffee isn’t exactly gourmet, it’s miles better than “that shit that Casey’s calls coffee,” as Jerry stubbornly says. Clint takes the middle seat on the bench of Jerry’s geriatric pickup and hands over a coffee to Darcy, keeping one for himself. Jerry grumbles but doesn’t get any, since he’s had two cups already and, apparently, he has to pace himself.

Clint is a radiator of heat, and between the coffee warming her from the inside and the warmth from the man beside her, the chill of the morning is whisked away. If only the crate on her lap would stop dripping, this trip would be a perfect, if far too early, road trip.

The high school is small and Darcy can’t believe it has kids from several towns over. Her own high school had a graduating class near a thousand; this school would be bursting if there was even half that in the whole student population. The market hasn’t opened, yet, but already there is a crowd of stalls and people setting them up, going between them, greeting their neighbors with slaps on the backs.

It’s been a cold, bitter winter, but the snow was good, Darcy gathers, as she and Jerry set up their own stall, because that is all Jerry and the other farmers talk about. Clint runs back and forth from the truck bringing bits of their stall, their crates, and, eventually, a teenaged girl.

Kate Bishop has dark, and incredibly shiny, hair up in a top knot, a purple sweater that hangs off her shoulders and near to her knees, leggings, and brown boots. It’s partly the uniform of a dozen women in this gym, but there’s something to her clothes that just stands out. It’s probably money and the ability to wear name brands to a farmer’s market. Bishop is also hauling in more than her fair share of the produce, and Darcy can tell that the girl is sporting some serious biceps.

It’s Kate that organizes everything, it’s Kate that knows where everything goes in the stall, and she’s not afraid to assert her place in the pecking order. Darcy doesn’t precisely hang back, but she does ask ‘why’ a lot.

“Okay, so why do you put the crates like this up on the table. Most of the other stalls just have things laid out. You stack them on the sides,” Darcy asks.

“It’s about marketing, really,” Kate says, “If we put the crates like this, labeling each one, there’s more of a feel of picking your own produce. Instead of like, grabbing the first one you see. “

“And there’s less contact from us,” Darcy nods, getting it. “So it’s not just selling produce, it’s selling the experience of being the person that selects their food straight from the field.”

Kate grins wolfishly, and Darcy gets the unsettling feeling that this girl is not going to be content with farmer’s markets for much longer. Or someone else’s farm. The market opens and Darcy learns that while she thought she knew every type of lettuce there is, she is totally wrong. And maybe Clint was wrong, because the market makes Jerry happy. Jerry grins as he makes change occasionally, asks about everyone’s kids, and always makes sure to introduce Darcy. He gossips more than he works and knows everyone.

“Proud as a pickle to have her here, it’s about time we put the family back in the Lewis Family Farm,” Jerry says to a tall and wonderfully poised woman. Out of the corner of her eye, Darcy can see Clint wince momentarily as he weighs a bag of loose greens. “Darcy, Darcy dear, come here and shake Ms. Potts’ hand.”

“Please, call me Pepper. Jerry’s the only one that tries to ‘Ms.’ me around here.” Pepper Potts seems like the sort of woman that everyone wants to be when they grow up. Even on a chilly Saturday morning, she’s put together simply but as impeccably as a queen. “How long are you staying with your uncle, Darcy?”

“To be determined,” she answers truthfully. The respite so far has been wonderful and refreshing, and she’s been able to put her mind to something more challenging and engaging than her crappy job back home. But it is far from her long-term plans, her career goals, and her father.

“I’m sure we will see you around, then. Now, Jerry, have you given any thought to --”

“Nope, no business here, Ms. Potts, not unless you are buying rosemary or the like.”

“Pepper, Pepper, are you harassing the good farmer, here?” The man that walks up and puts his arm around Pepper is shorter, with an outlandish goatee and a voice to match. Kate and Clint both roll their eyes in synch with each other, but Jerry is laughing, “Don’t you remember his rule: no business on the weekends, and he’d prefer no business during the week, too. Mr. Lewis, you make it very inconvenient for me to try to give you lots of money for your land.”

Darcy steps back to listen, but Clint must interpret it as a request for information and whispers to her, “Tony Stark of Stark Construction. Big money, kind of an asshole.”

“I heard that, Barton,” Stark says.

“Why do you insist on using my name?” Clint raises his hands in mock outrage.

“Because someday --”

“Tony,” Pepper interjects sharply. “No business on Saturdays, remember?” Pepper smiles and introduces Darcy quickly, but Tony shrugs her off with a nod and a ‘nice to meet you’. Jerry chats with them at a lower volume, and it ends with Pepper buying an assortment of herbs.

When things slow down, Darcy gets a chance to wander the rest of the stalls and tables. There’s other produce, of course. Some have slick displays that look more like supermarket aisles and some are little more than a card table and beans.

Then there’s the art. There’s so much art. Prints of the sky spread out wide over fields of bright corn, the terrible force of storms, and the decay of everyday life. There’s another booth of lawn ornaments -- giant orbs that hang from hooks, and ornaments to mark plants in a garden. And jewelry, so much jewelry. Darcy is awash in beads, and stones, and charms.

The handmade soaps, alone, make Darcy wish she could strip down and take a shower right now, and she wants to thumb at her wallet to count the few bills she has when she finds a bar that reminds her of late summer, with lavender and lemon and enough spice underneath to remind her of the chilly nights in New Mexico. It’s the only thing she buys the entire morning.

Jerry asks her during the next week if she’s figured out the payroll system. It’s about the only system she found difficult; the learning curve is steep, but she’s about ironed it out. “Good,” he says, “Cause I’m bringing in people. Forecast is warming up and dry enough, we’re gonna get the corn in. Hammer started a few days ago, but I think we’re going to get a frost tonight, just you see.”

Darcy wakes up to the burgeoning green grass etched in silver and she grins. Uncle Jerry gloats, “Hammer doesn’t get the way weather works around here, he goes by a checklist of when things are supposed to happen. He gets good yields, but he could get better. It’s no wonder --” Jerry stops and cuts himself off. They are standing just outside the door on the porch, throwing balls to Lucky and Bandit, who can’t decide if they want attention or to play more. Jerry turns to Darcy, looking disgruntled. “You’ve been here, now, for what, two weeks?”

“Yeah?” Darcy answers, raising her voice in query. Jerry’s demeanor changes, shadows line his face and his eyes chill and focus on her, “What’s going on, Uncle?”

“Come on in. I shouldn’t talk about things where anyone can hear.” He opens the door for Darcy and they walk through the house to the office. He searches through his keyring until he finds the small, silver key that opens one of the file cabinets. “Past five years, I’ve had offers to buy this place. Hammer wants to expand. Stark wants to build. I want some peace and quiet in my old age.” The drawer is filled to the brim, bursting with papers. “Year after year they offer more money, and I keep feeling like I should be doing something about it, what with all the attention I get from this place.”

“Do you plan on selling?” Darcy asks. “Is that why you keep going to see Coulson?” Her father’s words keep coming back to her: his predicament and his imploring of Darcy to try to trick her uncle or butt in where she’s not wanted.

“I’ll sell when I’m dead,” he snaps at her, unexpectedly, then softens as he sees how Darcy’s eyebrows rise in shock. “I’ve reasons to go to town. But this needs to be cleaned up. As much as I trust Coulson, he’s not family, and he’s not paid to be sentimental. I need you to go through this drawer and see what you make of it. Shred the old stuff, keep the newest.” In the moment, Jerry looks his age -- the eldest son, the one that has made his living off the land and worked his body harder than any of the others. He shakes a little bit.

Darcy wishes he would tell her what’s going on, medically, but old men want their secrets and their pride. “Yeah, I can do that. Is it a priority? I need to get your new hires in the system,” she says, trying to ease out of the conversation. Jerry is clearly uncomfortable and needs an escape.

It’s strange: she hadn’t seen her uncle in years, hadn’t thought much of her extended family at all. They’d never been close to this part of the family, but she can feel her heart open in places to take this whole house inside.Jerry mumbles, “Of course, of course, real work first.” and leaves her be.

Her phone is out of her pocket the moment he clears the door, but the words seem to die on her fingers. What is she supposed to tell her father? That Jerry is as proud as ever? That he has offers on the farm that he’s refusing? If she speaks to her dad, which version is she going to get: the concerned brother, a father missing his daughter, the man trying to get out of debt, or the selfish asshole that he revealed before she left?

It’s not worth it, so she texts him with a bland, “We’re going to start planting soon. Getting along well here.” And leaves it at that. He doesn’t gives a rat’s ass about the farm, never will, but maybe he’ll give a shit about her.

Darcy waits all day but doesn’t get a response. She doesn’t get one until Monday morning, while she’s planning out a grocery list to feed an army, and all it says is “good. ok here lots of overtime”, because her father is as emotionally responsive as a bag of particularly inept rocks. But it’s good to know he’s working, hopefully using the money to chip away at his debt. Jerry gives her a credit card, the keys to the truck, and directions to the local Walmart. Darcy’s good, liberal sensibilities start to crumble when she realizes it’s Walmart or pretty much nothing that has a big enough grocery section for another hour and a half.

“Been real good since they opened up nearby,” says one of the farmhands, a stocky man in his forties with dark hair and a grey beard. “Used to have to spend your paycheck on bread and eggs at the local drugstore.”

Darcy supposes her sensibilities can bend if it means that people actually get to buy food. It’s just shocking that here they are, in farm country, and there’s so little food to actually buy. But she really needs to get a grip; they’ve only just started planting anything in earnest, and the market was overflowing with amazing produce.

Darcy begins the planting season by ruining breakfast. She’s not used to large-scale cooking and gets the proportions all wrong, and the casserole she attempted burns, and even if it hadn’t -- it tastes terrible. The only thing that saves her at all is canned biscuits and an oven full of bacon that she had been planning for later on in the week as a surprise. They don’t do breakfast but every once in a while, and she had thought her attempt would be a good start.

Instead, she has pans to scrape and dishes to wash and lunch to cook. At least she doesn’t screw up the chili. It’s not exactly the best thing ever, but she doesn’t know how to scale from the type of cooking she did for Jane, or for her dad, to satisfy hungry, hungry farmers.

An hour after the sun’s gone down, Darcy’s trying to wear the dogs out with a tennis ball, but seems to be only succeeding in exhausting herself. Lucky and Bandit are relentless in their pursuit of the ball, and the slobber is getting pretty disgusting, when Clint’s pickup pulls into the driveway. The dogs run out to him, and for a moment she thinks they are going to collide with the vehicle, and the dogs would be hurt, and it would be her fault.

They stop just ahead of the pickup and wait to mob Clint as he steps down. “Aww, come on let me through, let me through. I’ll play, I promise.” He’s filthy, caked with dirt that clings to his jeans and turns his white t-shirt to khaki, and he looks as beat as she feels. He pulls a tennis ball from Lucky’s jaw, the dog tugging back for a moment before Clint wrests control. He reels back and throws the ball farther and straighter than a man who has been working all day has a right to.

“You’ll never be rid of them now, you know. I’ve been out here for a half hour, already,” Darcy mentions. Jerry was raising up a holy horror inside, in his own way, sniping at her for everything she did wrong today. He didn’t seem angry with her, but was certainly angry at her; a distinction she’s trying to remember. It drove her out of the house, though, and she doesn’t really want to go back in. It’s getting cold, but there’s really no where else for her to go, and even if there was, she doesn’t know where anything is around here. If she was home, she’d just jaunt out to a bookstore or Starbucks and wait for her father to stop being an idiot.

She doesn’t have that here, and it’s stifling. Everything is far too open, so far apart, and she wants to feel crowded, if just for a moment. She sits down on the deck steps and watches the dogs run.

“You alright?” Clint says, coming to stand behind her.

“Jerry’s in a state,” she answers in a flat tone.

The boards of the deck creak and Clint sits down beside her. “He get’s like that sometimes, and he’s exhausted. This work is getting harder on him.”

Then, why doesn’t he just sell and let himself have an easier life if the work is so hard and taxing? Darcy bets that most of those deals would include the house and some of the land, and if they didn’t, it could easily be negotiated in. Just looking at the summary of one of the Stark deals, there’s more than enough compensation.

“Yeah, well, he’s acting like my dad,” Darcy mutters. “And I hate being in the house with that.”

“He’s not fun like this, yeah.” Clint sighs. “Could be worse. My dad was mean and took to hitting when he got into a state like this. It didn’t matter who.”

“I’m sorry.” Darcy looks at Clint. “He is mostly hiding out and watching television. I just don’t want to go in.”

“I was just stopping in to drop a load into the laundry for tomorrow’s work; you want to head back to my trailer for an hour or two? By then, Jerry will be asleep, and you won’t have to deal with him for the rest of the day. If it’s anything like last year, the rest of planting he’ll be alright.”

Darcy readily agrees. Clint tends to the laundry, which isn’t his own clothes but an assortment of rags and towels and gloves. Darcy lets the dogs in, tells Jerry she’s going to Barton’s for a bit. He grumbles in response.

They drive round the property until they get to Clint’s, and walk through the back door again.

“Beer?” Clint asks, but Darcy doesn’t feel up to it. He grabs one for himself, switches on the television to a rerun of Dog Cops, and motions to a seat on the couch.

Clint’s home is the rough end of lived-in, but the couch is amazing, just the perfect amount of broken-in, and possibly with just enough of the supports missing to let her sink in deep. Darcy stretches out, lays her feet on top of Clint’s thighs.

“Really?” he says with amusement, and if Darcy isn’t mistaken, some fondness as well. Maybe this is the key to getting him to like her -- constantly invading his space. Darcy grins back at him and he lays his hands on her ankles.

“I may have been a bit of a grump to my uncle, too,” she admits during a commercial break. “It wasn’t exactly my best day.”

“Chili was alright and there was bacon,” Clint half-heartedly shrugs. “Can’t ask for much more than that.”

“You guys work way harder than I do, you should get better than what I am able to make. Burnt eggs and under-spiced chili? I’ve been cooking for years and I should know how to do it.”

“Darcy, why did you come here?” Clint asks, his hand flat against her socks, and his fingers touching just a hint of bare skin.

“My life was shit, my dad resented my presence, and Jerry asked for help,” Darcy admits bitterly. “I was going nowhere rather quickly and figured it was better to do that somewhere else.”

“But you came to help.” Clint focuses on the one bright spot in her whole woe-is-me outburst. “Look, you are helping. Place looks better, Jerry’s happier than he’s been in months, the office is finally manageable. I was trying to do what you are doing and came up empty fast. So, I know a bit of feeling like shit when you come across something you ain’t so good at. But you’ll get better at feeding a farm, not like me trying to learn to run a business.”

Clint looks surprised at himself, at what he’s just admitted. “I bet you weren’t that bad,” Darcy reassures him. “You were good with the business stuff at the market.”

“That’s concrete stuff, that’s people and turning a buck. That I can do. But, I tried to learn the payroll and the taxes and all of that sit-down work because Jerry needed someone to do it, he can’t do everything anymore.”

“And I can do it,” Darcy says, quieter, understanding. Clint’s grip tightens on her ankle, and she feels like he’s letting her in for the first time.

“Yeah,” he breathes out.

“You think I’m going to push you out,” and good Lord, Darcy is exhausted. It’s been a shitty day, and apparently being angry at someone is how all Lewis’s deal when their internal pilot light has gone out. His eyes widen slightly and his jaw sets tight. Darcy wipes her face in her hands and counts to herself. “Sorry, I’m just….”

“Your uncle’s niece,” he replies. “You aren’t entirely wrong.”

Thankfully, there’s a knock on the door, and Barney barges in with a six-pack and a grin. “Hey bro, just replacing what I borrowed last week.”

“That’s a first,” Clint grumbles. “Thank you.”

Barney looks over at the couch. He’s cleaned up a little bit since Darcy saw him last, less scruffy about the face, but his hair could use some work. “I thought you said she wasn’t your girlfriend.”

“I’m not.” Darcy answers for Clint, “Just hanging out after a long day. How’s your planting going?”

Barney snorts and pulls a chair from the kitchen table to sit on, “Hammer was pissed after that frost. Told him it was going to happen, but does the man listen? He ain’t got no sense about him. You can feel frost, just like you can feel a good crowd, right Clint?”

“A good crowd?” Darcy muses and now it’s Clint’s turn to rub his hands into his face.

“Yeah -- Carson always said that you could tell a good night from a bad night within the first minute of a show, and tell the performers like Clint how to change up their acts accordingly.”

Darcy swings her legs down, grins wide and shows her teeth, and her eyes dart between the brothers excitedly. Clint moans and tries to stop the conversation, but when Darcy asks what kind of show, Barney is straightforward with an answer.

“He hasn’t told you? He’s usually so proud. Amazing Hawkeye, one of the stars of Carson’s Carnival of Traveling Wonders. He was a skilled act -- world’s best marksman.”

Darcy bites her lips to hold in her laughter, because Barney looks so thrilled about telling her, but Clint looks like he’d give anything for this conversation to be over. “You were in a circus?”

“When I was a kid, I was.”

“That’s kinda cool,” Darcy says. “Why aren’t you still with them, if you were a star?”

“When Carson’s daughter took over, she started making changes Clint didn’t like and he left. I’d been gone for years at that point, but that’s what Trick told me when we caught up a few years ago.” Barney opens up one of the cans he brought over, raising it up to Clint in a mock toast and then rushing it back to his mouth to catch the overflow on the lid.

“That’s a kind way to say it,” Clint mumbles. “Anyways, what did you guys do about the fields you planted before the frost?”

“Hammer hasn’t decided. It’s early still, may just try again towards the end of the season, get some late corn. I’ll tell you, Darcy, if you aren’t dating this lug, you should come out with us on Saturday night with some of the crew from Hammer. Meet some people, drink a little, maybe do a little dancing?” Barney lifts his eyebrows. “You’re new around here and all Clint does is work, and I got a car I can borrow.”

Darcy says yes too fast for even her own liking. But it’s something like what she would do with her friends back in college, and it’s something that resembles life.

“I don’t think that’s a such a good idea,” Clint says, with a deceptive sort of wariness.

“She’ll be fine, bro. If she ain’t your girlfriend, what’s it to you if she spends a night out?” Barney replies with a smirk on his face. “I’ll take personal care of her.” He says it without any innuendo or sleaze, just a hard stare at Clint.

“She is an adult and can make her own decisions,” Darcy reminds them. “And she would really like to get out of the house this weekend.”

They make the arrangements, when Barney will stop by to pick her up, all while Clint presses his lips together and grows more and more tense. Later, after another episode of Dog Cops and decent conversation and his warm hands on her ankles and her feet on his thighs, and it’s not fair how much she likes the contact between them, he takes her home.

The week gets better. The men work long hours, Darcy doesn’t burn any more food, and there’s plenty of it to go around. She learns names: Sid, Carlos and Markus -- who she’s met in the greenhouse -- all the way down to some of the seasonal hires. Steve and Bucky, both recently discharged from the Army and trying to settle into a life again. They are from New York, but need some quiet for a little while before returning home. Darcy likes them both. They call her ma’am and could easily eat all of her food themselves and they thank her, day after day.

“Can we keep them?” Darcy asks Clint and Jerry late Thursday night. “I really like them. Is there enough work to keep them on?”

Jerry smiles at her. “Figuring out the balance between work and number of employees now, Darcy? Make a farmer out of you yet.”

She hasn’t had much time to look through the offers yet. Mostly, she’s just organized them. Stacks from Hammer and Stark, and a smaller assortment of one-offs that don’t even come close. She can understand the Stark and Hammer ones easily. Hammer wants to expand his land, and adding Jerry’s would be substantial. Stark is hedging his bets that the area is due for expansion, and wants to start building. Darcy’s not sure which she’d go for in Jerry’s place. Stark’s are by far a better deal, and Hammer is a bit of scumbag, if the language of his lawyers is any indication. But it would still be a farm and not strip malls and subdivisions, and that means something.

Saturday rolls around and she calls it a day a little early and gets dressed. It’s warm enough that she can wear a dress without a coat, now, and she’s taking full advantage of that. Bright tights, a dress that looks entirely demure on a hanger but on her, it’s just low-cut enough to be interesting. And with her hair down and her contacts in, she feels a little less confined.

Barney fills the car with chatter and the backseat with men in ball caps and Carhart jackets. They gripe about their wives and their managers, and they ask after Clint and about Jerry. Two have worked on the Lewis farm in years past, but have steady work now. “He’s a good man though, paid nice for a couple of weeks work during harvest.” It’s a refrain she hears most of the night.

The bar is a dive. It’s a complete dive. It’s picture book version of a dive, distilled into the purest form of dive bar. There’s a mechanical bull, a dartboard, and a jukebox with nothing but classic rock and country songs. It’s the best place ever, as far as Darcy is concerned, because it is not a farmhouse, there isn’t a field in sight, and it’s warm with the thrum of people.

She’s new and she’s in the company of the regulars, the good old boys, so she gets both attention and care, warned by one of Stark’s crew -- Maria, who matches her poised looks with a dignified slouch -- which men are good for nothing, which ones will buy her drinks, and which never to take a drink from. Darcy joins Maria in her slouch against the wood paneling in one of the booths, eating a basket of cheese fries and enjoying the company of another woman and the fumbling flirtations of the men who swing by their table.

Darcy flirts back just a little, friendly and open, and nothing at all serious. She starts her own, personal drinking game: every time she’s introduced as Lewis’s niece, she takes a drink, and, after awhile, Maria catches on to the game and starts to match her.

“They don’t act like this all the time, do they?” Darcy says, amused by the third group that swung chairs up to their booth and talked up the weather, and who does Darcy go for in baseball, the Cubs or the Cardinals, and begrudgingly accept that she’s really more of a Nationals fan, if only for geographical reasons. Some act a little nervous around Maria, darting their eyes and holding their tongues. “What did you do to them, Maria?”

Maria leans forward, elbows on the table, “I got hired as their manager, and now the guys don’t know how to act around me.” She takes the mustard from the wire holder, and spurts it onto her own basket of tater tots. “I came from outside the company, too, and some --” She tilts her head toward a lean man with a nose that looks to have been broken a few times. “Some can’t accept an outsider for their boss.”

“Not a problem with a woman?”

“None more than the usual.” Maria shrugs. “Pepper would have their heads. She was Stark’s business manager long before she married the asshole. People don’t last long at Stark if they can’t accept a woman making the big decisions. It’s not like Tony is making them.”

Barney’s a few too many drinks in when Darcy challenges him to a game of darts. Darcy’s been introduced to a great number of people, many of whom offer her drinks on their tabs and Darcy forgot that she’s terrible at this game, even sober.

“You’re handling your uncle’s business shit, right?” he asks, collecting his darts from the board after his first set of throws.

“Yep,” she answers. “Using spreadsheets like a boss, making lunch, and sorting through legal crap. All in a day’s work.”

“You, uh, you,” Barney fumbles over his words while watching her trying to line up her shot. “You’re holding that wrong; hold it so the tip is up.” Darcy looks sideways at him, which makes her feel a little woozy, and turns her hand slightly. “That’s better.”

She throws, and each of the darts lands on the board, which is a grand accomplishment for her, and it’s worth hollering about. “Dude, they all actually stuck! Thank you. I’ve got to remember that when I’m sober. What were you saying?”

“You handle the legal paperwork?”

“Yep.” She pops the word out on her lips as she walks to the board and pulls out her darts. “Let me watch you this time.” Barney wobbles, but when he walks up to the line it’s like he switches to another person. He throws quickly, not perfect aim, but close. “How do you do that?”

“Genetics and practice. Clint got to be in the shows, but I learned, too. Just wasn’t as good. Had other skills. You ever hear if Jerry’s looking to sell?”

“He should,” Darcy says without thinking. Because he should. He should. There’s no one, really, to take the farm after him, and he’s being offered a lot of money. “But he won’t. Not for years, yet.”

“But it’s possible?” Barney picks up his darts and comes round, helping Darcy with her stance this time.

The steady weight of his hands, nudging at her shoulders and squaring her hips distracts her. She doesn’t quite like his touch; it seems just a little bit wrong, but not enough that she can really throw him off. “Yeah, maybe someday. The right offer, using the land the way he’d prefer it, if he gets sick enough -- yeah he might sell.” When she looks at Barney, he doesn’t look curious, the way she thought he might, nor interested, which is a pleasant change of pace from all the other brush-up, accidental hands on her from the night. He smiles like he’s cornered a mouse into a trap. Triumphant at something petty.

Barney completely trounces her in the game, but she gets him to buy her another round, and the bartender pours strong for her. The bar is starting to empty out, and Maria left. She cannot go back like this, and Barney’s in even worse shape to drive.

“Do you guys even have cabs out here? I don’t even know how to direct a cab to Jerry’s.” She blusters through her drunken thought process.

“Not unless you want to wait an hour,” Barney slurs. “Come on over, sweetheart,” he says without any heat. “My place is a couple blocks away, we can walk and pick up the car in the morning. I think the couch is free.”

Barney hasn’t really done anything that makes her think more than twice about it; she’s stayed on couches before, partied with townies at school. It’s just what you do, and it’s way better than waiting for a ride. It’s cold on the walk over, well past midnight, and Darcy pulls her coat tighter around her, trying to keep what little warmth she retained from the bar close to her body. It isn’t far at all, although Barney almost walks past the building, missing the small entrance to the apartment above a hair salon.

They walk up two sets of stairs and Darcy’s not sure if Barney is going to make it that far, and keeps to the very edge, just in case he falls. He doesn’t, but the door he opens isn’t what she was promised. The apartment is filled with people, mostly asleep. There’s two passed out on the couch alone, and someone with a full beard and a bare belly falling out of bunched up t-shirt sleeping under a rickety desk.

“Barney, I don’t think --” but Barney is already gone. She catches sight of him shutting a door and a moment later, the sound of a body hitting a bed. This isn’t just snagging the couch. This? This is her alone with strange men in an apartment not meant to hold this many people. She walks through to use the bathroom and turns around immediately. There’s not a door. The door has been kicked off the hinges, laying on the floor of the bathroom.

Darcy turns to the door that Barney went through, and she opens it to see Barney asleep sideways on a stripped-bare twin mattress on the floor. Cheap, crushed beer cans litter the tiny room, barely larger than a closet. Despite her anger, a small wave of sympathy runs through Darcy, but it doesn't last long. She kicks lightly at Barney's feet. But he only grumbles and tells her to fuck off.

She slams the bedroom door behind her. It wakes one of the guys on the couch. He's dreadfully young, the type that wants to grow out his beard but only can manage a few patchy spots. He blinks blearily, looking Darcy up and down. "You can join me here, baby."

Nope. This is not what Darcy signed up for at all. She’s drunk, scared and shaking, and she runs for the front door. Closing it tight behind her, she gingerly takes the stairs. She checks her phone, no wifi and the data coverage is practically nothing, and she can't call Jerry at this hour.

She calls Clint.

He answers in the same sleepy grumble that Barney had, without the anger or the swearing, but the family resemblance makes her laugh out of frustration.

"Whaa -- Darcy is that you?" he says, and she can hear the sounds of sheets settling.

"Yeah," she says, her voice small and nervous, and she barely recognizes herself in it. "Your brother is an idiot and there's, like, a dozen strange guys in his apartment and not a place for me to sleep like he said and that freaks me out and I don't know where to go."

Clint groans audibly and Darcy can't take the sound. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I just don't know anyone else, not really, and I don't know the town."

"Darcy, it's okay, sweetheart, it's okay." Clint sounds tired. "You know where you are in town?"

"Umm, Hair Express?" Darcy opens the small door to the outside and looks at the sign.

"Kay. I'll be there soon, okay? Call if you need to," Clint says and Darcy lets out her breath.

Outside might be colder, but it feels safer than being in the apartment or in the stairwell. She can run if she needs to, and at least there's the occasional streetlight. Looking around, she sees a bench a couple of doors down to sit on. Not many people pass by, no cars come down the street -- it’s off from the main stretch a little -- and there’s nothing open right now. It’s not a relief, the empty loneliness of the street, and she trembles both from the cold and from nerves.

"At least I wore tights," she says to no one.

“That’s good. Wouldn’t want you to catch your death out here like a poor, little match girl.”

Darcy tenses up and turns her head. The woman had answered her in such a dry, unaffected tone that Darcy is surprised to see that she’s smiling at her.

“I’m Natasha, a friend of Clint’s.” Her face brightens with warmth as Darcy relaxes a bit. “I live nearby, and he called and asked me to keep you company until he gets here.”

“Oh, god, did I sound enough of a wreck that I needed a babysitter?” She rolls her head back and then drops it down with a sigh. “He’s got to think I’m an idiot.”

Natasha sits down next to her. “He gets overprotective about people he cares for.”

He’d called her sweetheart. It wasn’t filler, not patter to convince Darcy of anything. Clint’s been nice to her, friendly, but then, she’s the boss’s family; it’s in his best interest to be kind. “I think he gets paid to be overprotective of me,” she concludes, because maybe he’s growing fond of her, but care probably goes a little too far.

Natasha takes the scarf around her neck, black with a subtle sheen throughout, hand-knitted and giant, and wraps it around Darcy’s shoulders. “Did you like the quilt?” Her hair is tucked inside a matching hat, and vibrant red wisps sneak out like ghosts.

“The quilt?” Darcy has to take a second to make the connection. “You made the quilt in my room? It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. When Clint and Kate said the room was being fixed up, I offered the last one I finished.”

Oh. When Clint said that a friend made the quilts, he wasn’t referring to someone’s grandma or auntie, but this beautiful woman, who left her house in the middle of the night just because Clint asked her to. Friend was an easy word for him to use, but, obviously, not an adequate one. “The whole room is amazing. I think whenever I leave, I just want to package it up and take it with me.”

Natasha keeps a careful eye on their surroundings, allowing Darcy to relax and shut her eyes as the panic subsides. Natasha doesn’t seem to be much of a talker, at least not this late at night, but she does keep asking Darcy questions. How does she like the farm? Does she like the work? She turns out to also know Steve and Bucky quite well, friends of hers, and Darcy wants to know everything.

She’s cagey about them, though, and Darcy begins to understand that Natasha doesn’t have loose lips. But Darcy asks, anyways, mostly about how long they will be in the area.

“Now, that is a good question. Probably as long as Sam will let them stay.” And instantly, Darcy knows she had the wrong idea about Clint and Natasha, because there is no hiding the way her voice softens at Sam’s name. “They like it here, but they are city boys and won’t overstay their welcome. Sam, however, is a man of infinite patience for guests in his home.”

“Sounds like a good friend,” Darcy says, and peers down the street at the first glimpse of headlights she’s seen almost all night.

Natasha smiles, low and graceful. “He is. One of the best.” She stands and walks out into the street, and the truck stops in front of her. Leaving it running, Clint steps out. His hair is poking up in every direction, his sweatpants are too short for him, and his socks don’t match. It’s the best thing Darcy’s seen all day.

“Why do you always do that. I could have run you over,” Clint says to Natasha, but waves at Darcy. Natasha shrugs and keeps smiling. They’ve got some sort of silent communication goes on, and both of their faces change and twitch with little gestures until Clint sighs, “Thank you, Nat. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No, I’m on call. I was mostly switching between the Weather Channel and binge-watching Love it or List it.”

“You want me to drop you off?” Clint asks.

Natasha shakes her head, “A walk would be nice, tonight. I might go see Sam. It was wonderful to meet you Darcy. I hope to see you in the daylight soon.” Darcy watches her walk off the way she came.

“You okay?” Clint asks, coming around to stand beside her, his hands hovering at her sides, barely enough for comfort. “No one tried anything, hurt you?”

“I’m fine,” Darcy says and leans into the touch, wrapping her arms around Clint’s neck. “I’m sorry.” She means it to only be a quick thank you, but she lingers. He’s warm from the drive, he’s always warm when he’s near her, and she wants to soak it all in. Clint wraps his arms around her, and the knot that been twisting in her stomach releases with a shudder.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” He awkwardly pats her back, his voice concerned, but tentative. Darcy loses the war against tearing up, and she burrows her head against his chest. Their shadows are long on the pavement and they are bathed in the yellow light of the headlights, “Let’s, uh, let’s go home, okay? I got some water in the seat for you.”

She doesn’t want to let go, but she does want to leave. She wants her bed, wants to wrap up in her quilt, and to sleep until noon. “Yeah. Yes, please.” Clint lets go with a final squeeze, turns her around, and walks her to the passenger side, his fingers light on her low back. He opens the door for her.

Darcy sits on the water bottle and it crinkles underneath her. She lifts up to grab it, watching as Clint crosses in front to join her in the driver’s seat. She opens the bottle, drinks half the water in one go, and caps it again.

“My brother’s an asshole,” Clint says after a few miles. Every bit of road looks the same, straight and unending.

“But?” Darcy finishes. What Clint said always comes with some sort of explanation, justification, or some form of making excuses for the other guys. It’s what men do when another man is an idiot -- as if one guy being a jackass is somehow transferrable.

“No but. My brother is an asshole. Always has been. He’ll charm and take what he wants or needs; a job, a place to stay, company for the night, and when he’s done, he’ll drop all pretense of loyalty or care. He doesn’t give a shit about much beyond himself.” He finishes and takes a moment to glance over at Darcy. She’s slumped in the seat, curving her spine so she can curl and let her hair hang down over her face. “I keep falling for it, but then, I was born both loyal and stupid. You’re smarter than I am; you’ll only need once.”

“He was fun until we got to his apartment,” Darcy says quietly. “Really improved my dart game.”

Darcy watches him smile with long-suffering sadness. “He’s a decent teacher, but nothing compared to a master.” He licks his lips and switches the conversation. “What did Natasha say about me?”

“Only good things, I promise. We mostly talked about her quilts.”

Clint snorts, and there’s history there that he’s not about to share.

Darcy leans over and yawns. It’s a shit lesson to learn, that the picture-perfect ideal of small towns, where even the town louse is secretly sweet, is a lie. She leans her head against Clint’s shoulder, and he takes a little bit of her weight as she falls into a light doze. Her eyes drift open and shut, the road hazy and unreal when she rouses and slips back asleep, and through it all, Clint doesn’t nudge her off or to the other side. He lets her rest.

She wakes up enough when they pull into driveway. The dogs must be inside, not a bark to be heard, not a wagging tail. Just thinking of them makes her lips turn up.

“Thank you,” Darcy says, lifting off his shoulder and unbuckling her seatbelt. “You didn’t have to come out and you did.”

It’s funny, she doesn’t really feel drunk anymore, but it’s the only reasonable explanation for why she doesn’t resist the urge for one last touch, one last moment to sink against Clint’s solid, and steady, frame. So she kisses him, sweet and simple, on his lips. Nothing more than a couple of seconds, but when she breaks it, Clint chases her lips, touches his hand to her cheek.

His eyes open wide and he pulls away from her, dropping his hand into his lap. Darcy takes her cue to get out of the truck, and, while she promises herself that she’ll forget it happened, that he wanted more for just a moment, she can’t help but look back before she opens the door to the mudroom.

Darcy watches as time passes on, something she never really thought about before. But here, she can actually watch the daily passage of time, that yesterday the garden was bare, but today there are fragile, pale green shoots triumphing over the dirt. She starts waking earlier and earlier as planting continues, moving from corn to the market crops, and she starts taking her coffee on the deck as the weather warms.

It's not a particularly nice day when she first realizes it; mid-May is a tease and constantly threatens to either extreme of temperature. Fog rolls in across the fields, only reaching a foot or two off the ground, blanketing everything she can see in a dreamlike state. The skies are grey, her coffee is perfect, and she likes it here. It reminds her of New Mexico, with Jane and Erik and Thor, where watching the sun rise or set was just part of the day's rhythm, where isolation made them all close and aware of each other to the point, and where talking wasn't usually required, just encouraged.

It’s beautiful out here, and maybe it’s helping her hide away from the fact that her degree isn’t getting her anywhere, that her father is broke and can’t really afford to help her out anymore, and that maybe she doesn’t really want the breakneck speed of the beltway. Darcy likes that her uncle is depending on her and not even trying to find a replacement, she hasn’t burned a casserole in weeks, and that she knows how to set up the market stall without any help from Kate.

Clint never brings up the kiss and neither does Darcy. Everything is exactly the same as it was before, except that Barney is not a welcome person in her life, and she’s learned her lesson about him, and who she can trust. They keep Steve and Bucky on for the rest of the season, and she’s up early enough to watch them pull up. The dogs don’t get up, just keep curled around her feet. There’s something off about their car she yells to them as they walk out, “You got a light out.”

Bucky gestures to Steve, pressing keys into his hand, who dutifully walks back to the car but not without a nipping little kiss to Bucky’s cheek. Steve starts up the the car, turns on the brights, and Bucky nods and points to the burned out light. “Damn, we’ll have to pick up a new bulb tonight,” he says, both to Darcy and to Steve, who has shut the engine off and opened the door.

“No wonder it was tough driving,” Steve says, jogging up to them. “It’s worse on the road. And I think the deer have it out for us. Nearly got us on the way in.”

“Well, I guess they were just looking for a Buck,” Darcy deadpans. The men groan and stare at her, because it is too early in the morning for puns. “Okay, fine, you don’t have senses of humor at dawn, okay. Coffee?”

“Yes, please. Barton in yet?” Steve asks. “Need to catch him about a few things.”

“Not yet, but probably in a few.” Darcy opens the door and the dogs run in before she can step across the threshold.

It’s almost fifteen minutes before Clint walks in, antsy and his hair a mess. “I uh, overslept my alarm,” he says when Darcy presses him on his tardiness. He can’t look Darcy in the eye as he says it and keeps lying his ass off. “Stayed up too late watching tv, couldn’t bring myself to leave the couch, read a good book, take your pick. I overslept.”

Any of those are perfectly reasonable. It’s just that he says all of them, and the bags under his eyes are threatening to carry the groceries in, and he still won’t look at her. Darcy sighs and pours him a cup of coffee. Clint ends up chugging it while talking with Steve and Bucky about a problem in some of the fields: an animal wreaking havoc on the edges of the fence and how best to solve it.

There’s some sort of pow-wow about guns or traps or if a scarecrow will work best, and when to repair the fence. Darcy mostly tunes it out, listening, instead, for Jerry’s movement upstairs. If Clint overslept, then Jerry has, too, which worries her. But the floorboards begin to creak above them, a sure sign that he’s alive and moving.


“I gotta wait for him.” Clint tilts his head up. “We’re supposed to head out for a supply run, be gone at least half the day, if not most of it. His garden’s got some weeds poking up, I’ll start on that. You okay with tending the rest?”

A day without Clint or Jerry means an easy lunch -- she can get away with just leaving out some sandwiches, and it would be a good day to work on purchase orders and settling up the books. A nice, quiet day, and she could easily fit in a little gardening. “Yeah, sure I could do that.”

Clint looks back up at the ceiling, and his worry is both alarming and endearing. Darcy likes her uncle. He’s a little manic, his energy radiating out of his pores, built to do work and press on. She likes to imagine her father, despite being much younger, trying to keep up with what her uncle does on a daily basis. There’s no question that he’d never make it. Patrick Lewis would rather pay someone to do the hard, physical work and complain that his job was taxing enough.

No wonder he left the farm as soon as he could. Darcy thinks back to the stories her dad tells and there’s almost none that take place at the farm after he finished college. He must have never gone back except for a few vacations with her. And all that time, Jerry was working this land. Taking it over from her grandparents and, from what she hears, he took it from a failing family farm and turned it into something that thrived. It’s admirable. It’s better business than anything her father’s done, and it makes her proud. Look at what her family has accomplished, look at the land he bought up as the other families left the area without anyone to take over for them.

It seems a waste that Jerry never had kids, doesn’t have any family to keep it going after him.

Clint wears his worry in the lines of his face, and Darcy likes those lines. Likes that there’s at least someone who cares about Jerry and will when she leaves. But she also likes the man the worry is attached to, more than she should, and maybe it’s just the fact that there’s not that many other men she’s gotten to know that aren’t attached to other people. Most of the rest of the workers on the farm are married, and Steve and Bucky might as well be, with how they live in each other’s pockets and are obviously happy to be there.

But she’s gone out since her disastrous outing with Barney -- Maria has made for a fantastic drinking partner, and Natasha swings by every so often, and she’s met a few guys. Good men, fun to flirt with, pass a kiss to if she felt like that sort of fun, but never enough to hand out her number. She keeps heading back to Clint’s and watching his television, leaning against him, and falling asleep on his couch.

“Must have been a rough night,” Clint says. “Come out and holler when he’s downstairs.”

Some nights, Jerry doesn’t seem to sleep well. The floorboards are terrible, and he’ll pace in his room in the darkest hour, and when she walks out to the bathroom, there’s light under the door to his room. If only he would trust her with whatever was wrong, maybe Darcy could help. But Jerry is too proud, or perhaps in denial that there is something wrong, to tell her.

It doesn’t matter, though, she’s making life a little easier for him just by being here. Doing his math, making their lunch, lightening the load; it’s all far more useful than going to more pointless interviews where they’ve seen a dozen people with the same qualifications. And end up going with the nephew of the boss anyways.

“You alright?” Darcy asks, because Clint can’t seem to wipe the exhaustion out of his body. “Rough night for you too?”

“Brothers.” Clint shrugs off Darcy’s concern, and Darcy knows to leave it well enough alone. She has feelings about his brother that she doesn’t really care to air out in front of Clint.

It takes a half hour, but Jerry finally comes down the stairs, gripping the railing more than usual. He’s pale and sweating, his skin nearly hanging off of his bones, and his eyes dim.

“Jerry?” Darcy says, rising from the table. “You okay?”

Jerry doesn’t answer. He looks at her and breaths in pain and shock. His lips mouth words, but they die before they can be voiced.

“Shit,” Darcy says with a sharp intake of breath. 911 works out here, doesn’t it? But she has no idea where the nearest ambulance dispatch is; even the fire department isn’t all that close. “Sit down, Jerry, please. I’m going to get Clint.”

Clint said to holler. Darcy yells, screaming his name, and he comes running towards the house.

“Darce, Darcy, what’s wrong?” he demands, responding to the serious lack of calm that Darcy’s expressing right now. She’d always thought she’d be a cool head in a chaotic sea.

“It’s Jerry, he’s … not good. What’s faster, 911 or a car?

“You waited for me? Darcy, call 911 -- no wait, we’ll get him to the hospital ourselves, it will be quicker,” Clint replies, making a break for the door. Inside, Jerry’s still the same, hunched over and breathing carefully.

“Just…give me…a minute,” Jerry says, and, yes, his color has improved, his lips don’t look quite so grey, but he’s still shaky, even seated, scared and small.

“We’re getting in the car, Jerry. No waiting it out this time.” Clint throws a set of keys at Darcy. “Bring the car around, okay? I’ll stay with him.”

“This time?” Darcy repeats. “This time? This has happened before?” Anger blurs her vision, but she takes the keys to pull the car closer to the deck, passenger side closest to the house. By the time she get back, Clint’s helping Jerry down the steps. He opens the side door and helps her uncle inside. “I’m coming with you.”

“Expected you to. Switch to the back?”

Darcy climbs over the center console to settle into the backseat, and Clint takes big strides as he walks over to the driver’s side. He manages to make the drive into town in just over a half hour, and she knows that was due to flagrantly abusing the posted speed limits. But Jerry would pink up, then start coughing and sputtering for weak little breaths, as if he was sucking through a straw. Darcy spent the who drive with her hand on Jerry’s shoulder, his cold hand covering hers.

They pull into -- Jesus, they pull through the ambulance lane of the ER, and Clint must have called 911, the hospital, someone, because Darcy is escorted through the doors and Jerry is enveloped in a tangle of people in scrubs. Clint is waved off to park before the next siren can scream through.

Darcy helps with intake with a heavy-set, grouchy, old nurse. Jerry Steven Lewis, mid-sixties, not sure of the year. Address. Phone number. Yes, he has insurance.

“Medications?” the nurse asks, and Darcy can only blink at her. “Do you know what medications he may be on?”

“Lots,” Darcy says. “He doesn’t really talk about his health with me. I just know there’s a lot.”

There’s a ruckus at the reception desk, Clint arguing with the pinch-faced woman who does not want to let Clint through because he’s not family.

“He’s with me,” Darcy urges, not caring that they’ll think that, well, they are together. It gets the job done, and she wants him with her. He knows Jerry better than Darcy does.

Clint has several sheets of folded up paper, inserts and receipts from the glovebox, and he hands it to the nurse. “His doctor and at least some of his heart meds. I think there’s some snake oil he takes too, but I’ve not gotten that close to the medicine cabinet.” Between the two of them, they finish the intake as best they can, and then they are left in a waiting room.

It seems like hours, and they take turns pacing and walking, restless in their worry, restless until they both sit, exhausted. “He’ll be okay,” Clint says to her, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. “He’s a strong man.”

“He’s an old man,” Darcy observes, fear-stricken.

“But a strong one,” Clint repeats. “Today won’t be the end of him.”

Tomorrow, however, is a distant day that Darcy isn’t sure about. She leans against Clint, thankful more than ever for his steadfastness. He’s on his phone, text and calls, directing work at the farm, and Darcy drifts in and out of an uneasy haze, until she’s called up to go in and see Jerry.

Clint comes with her, holding her hand in the hallway leading to his door, but letting go as she passes through the frame, settling in the back of the room. Jerry is sleeping, looking for all the world like a ghost grown solid in the bed. He only wakes up when the doctor comes in, looking surprised and blinking heavily at seeing Darcy and Clint at his side.

“You see my darling niece here, Doc,” he says, closing his eyes. “Isn’t she a good girl to be here? And this is Barton, my --” He looks off at Clint, turning his head to get him in his sight. “Ahh, my best and brightest. Don’t you worry about anything. I’ll be fine, won’t I, Doc?”

He introduces himself to Clint and Darcy as Doctor Nasr and doesn’t precisely ignore Jerry’s prompting, but instead pulls up a chair to sit. “I’m afraid it’s more serious than that, Mr. Lewis,” and he continues to tell Jerry exactly what has happened -- a clot that blocked his lungs, small enough not to be fatal, but large enough that it may have been if he hadn’t gotten to the hospital. He’s hooked up to blood thinners, now, but needs to be admitted until he’s stabilized.

Then, there are the words heart failure, and others that Darcy hears but only understands as not good, not good at all. Nasr refuses to give any real prognosis, wanting to leave that for the specialists, but the space between the lines is that there’s no going back at this point. And worse, yet, Jerry doesn’t seem perturbed by any of this. He’s known. He’s heard all of this before, and he’s not told Darcy any of it. Clint seems to know only slightly more.

Jerry’s moved upstairs a few hours later, to the clinical ward, and they spend the rest of the day not talking about his health, eating terrible hospital food, and sketching out what needs to be done at the farm.

“Don’t you forget about the market while I’m stuck in here with these leeches.” There’s a steady stream of people that come to take blood from Jerry, at least in his mind. “Don’t you dare shut anything down. You keep it going,” he says, shaking a finger at the two of them.

Clint looks affronted, as if he’d ever forget anything about how the farm should be run, or that he’d stop working. Jerry tries to laugh, but it causes the pulse oximeter alarm to go off, and a nurse comes to check in on him. With a look at the clock, she tells Clint and Darcy that visiting hours are about to end.

Jerry comes home a few days later. His bounce back to good health gives Darcy a great deal of hope, and he runs about the farm keeping his thumb in every pile of dirt. She’s constantly walking out to a field and walking Jerry back in to rest and be quiet. The doctors told him to keep himself calm and not push himself before his next doctor’s visit, and Jerry refuses. So, Darcy’s had to get everyone in on keeping Jerry from overexerting himself. Steve and Bucky will send a text when Jerry looks a little pale, and Darcy drives up and takes her uncle away. Clint will just turn Jerry around with his hard, restless glare until Jerry stomps off.

They refuse to let him go to the markets during the weekend. They leave him behind and that’s what makes Jerry furious.

“I’m an adult, Darcy. I will continue to do my work here on this good earth until God sees fit to take me away from it!” Jerry yells, slamming the door behind him.

“You don’t have to hasten it!” Darcy yells back. “I don’t particularly want you to die, so if you want to stick around, slow down. There’s enough of us here that care about you, about the farm, about the people that we sell to, that everything will be fine.” She’s breathing hard; Jerry’s face softens and he reaches out to hug her.

“You care about the farm?” Jerry asks.

Darcy shrugs and says slowly, “I do. I like it here. You’re better to your workers than anyone I’ve ever worked for, and I’m doing something that’s more interesting than mortgage paperwork. I like it here!” The words come out of her mouth before she can really think about them, but it’s the truth. She’s busy and it actually feels like she’s doing something. “So, sit back and let me do the work you asked me here to do.”

“I should be paying you.”

“You should be taking a nap. Take a nap, and then we can talk about what you might owe me.”

Darcy doesn’t let him talk about paying her anything, but over the next couple of days, money just keeps showing up for her. It’s not enough to add up to even minimum wage, but it is a welcome addition to her bank account. She hasn’t had to pay for much here, but there’s still odds and ends, a netflix account to pay for, that sort of thing, and Darcy doesn’t have a problem taking a little bit of money if it makes her uncle feel better.

But, honestly, she’d stay here for free, never seeing a dime. Someone needs to care for her uncle, someone not bound to him solely via a paycheck, because it’s easy to see that Clint does care about Jerry. And Jerry will champion Clint above all others, given a chance. But Darcy’s family, and family’s different. If Darcy’s mother showed up at her door, Darcy would let her in and give her a chance to explain herself.

Darcy would let her in through the back door. Wouldn’t even have to knock.

“You’ve got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow,” she mutters, distracting herself. Doesn’t want to think about her mother at all, and it hurts when she thinks about how little her father cared about the rest of his family. “Don’t you even think about driving.”

Jerry deflates, then puffs out his chest to object, but Darcy glares at him, hard enough to bore through iron, and so it goes. The next day, she drives into a different town, where Jerry’s cardiologist could see him.

Doctor Wright is nearing retirement age, himself, but still lean and hungry, willing to be a rural doctor when no one else sees the point. And he does it with gusto, Darcy learns, traveling to clinics in four different towns throughout the week so that patients don’t have to drive near as far. He’s a rarity: a specialist in a land that can barely get access to generalists. When he calls Jerry up from the waiting room, Wright speaks to him softly in the doorway, and Jerry beckons Darcy to come over.

After that, it’s a blur for her, because she knows the diagnosis that comes next. When the doc asks if you want to have someone with you, it’s never good. And it’s not good. It’s already been months since Jerry’s troubles started, and, now, the second trip to the ER, the second hospital stay. The warning signs had been years in coming, and her uncle is a stubborn, proud, old man and wouldn’t admit feeling short of breath or how much earlier he wore himself out.

“There are a few things we can do,” the doctor says, “Adjust some of your medications, particularly to decrease the likelihood of another clot, but, Lewis,” he pinches the bridge of his nose, spreading his fingers under his glasses and over his nose and cheekbones. “Your heart’s just about run it’s course.”

Jerry leans back in his chair, looking everywhere but at the doctor or at Darcy. “But I feel…”

“It may have started so gradually you just got used to it before it felt abnormal, but, Jerry, I’m thinking it’s a matter of months, maybe a year.”

Darcy holds back her own tears as Jerry starts to argue with the doctor, reiterating that he feels fine. How can he possibly be dying? Doctor Wright carefully breaks down the wall that Jerry frantically tries to build, explaining with word after word, about fluid in his lungs, diminished capacity, and so much that Darcy just doesn’t want to hear at all. She just got her uncle, just discovered how much capacity she has for familial love, and now he’s just going to slip away.

Eventually, she takes Jerry’s hand and asks, “What do we do now?” to the doctor, but looking Jerry straight in the eye with sadness and determination, willing him to start accepting the prognosis.

“Let’s set up an appointment for a couple of weeks from now to discuss your options for an advance directive. Miss Lewis, I understand that you are staying with your uncle right now?”

Darcy wakes from her foggy brain long enough to answer, “Yes. I’m staying.”

“Do you have plans to leave?”

Darcy looks at her uncle again, feels the fear in her throat, and a deep pit of sadness and answers, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jerry sleeps on the drive home, and, after he walks into the house, Darcy sits in the car a little while longer, listening to the radio and trying to empty out her thoughts. But they keep turning over in her head in time to the old car engine’s steady thrum, never really gaining traction. Everything is half-formed guilt for taking this so badly and feeling worthless to try to help comfort Jerry. She shifts the car into reverse and finds herself backing out, driving around the farm and over to Clint’s. It would be too much to open the door to the farmhouse right now; she doesn’t know what to say, how to act, what to do.

She pulls up, takes note of the motorcycle parked in the driveway. Lucky seems to have made a break for it, and is spending some time at Clint’s, too, barking up a storm and following Darcy as she walks back to the deck. Darcy has no idea who the motorcycle could belong to, prays that it isn’t Barney, because she just can’t handle his particular brand of nonsense tonight. She knocks on the back door and two voices yell for her to come on in, and when she opens the door, Lucky runs in beside her, charging towards Clint.

Darcy recognizes Natasha, who must be the owner of the bike outside, and suddenly feels like she’s intruding on old friends get together. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize you had --”

“No, stay,” Clint says. “We were just shooting the shit and watching a movie.” He makes room for her on the couch, and Natasha raises an eyebrow at him.

“Darcy, you want one of Clint’s beers?” Natasha asks, getting up from the other end of the couch. “It’s not cheap swill for once.”

“I hide the good stuff when Barney comes around,” Clint adds.

Darcy accepts, and Natasha goes to the kitchen as Darcy walks silently to the couch, sitting in the middle in case the other woman wants her spot back. Natasha brings over the beer, and pops the cap off before she hands it to Darcy. There’s no ladylike sipping or even tasting tonight, she just gulps down a good quarter in one go while Clint watches. His mouth twitches with unspoken words, but whatever it is he wants to say, he doesn’t.

Darcy doesn’t register the movie they’re watching; her thoughts distilling down to just her breathing, the couch she’s sitting on, and the drink in her hand. It takes awhile, but eventually she can take in everything else around her.

“You should,” Clint is saying to Natasha, who’s moved to an oversized chair, and Darcy’s shocked to find that she’s leaning on Clint, facing away from him, and stretched out so her feet touch the other armrest. “I mean, Sam’s lease is almost up; yours is month to month. Why not move in together?”

“He doesn’t know how long Steve and Bucky will stay, and there’s almost always someone who’s crashing with him. I never know how long I’ll be gone and --”

“Nat, you’ve been dating Sam for years. He’s always got people with him so he’s not lonely when you’re gone. You’ll just rent a bigger place. Shit, buy a bigger place. You both make enough.”

Natasha straightens out the quilt on the chair, smoothing the fabric down, “It’s more complicated --”

“Not really. It’s a sure thing, Nat. Don’t hide away from it.” Clint interrupts. “Right, Darce?”

Natasha snorts loudly. “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m not moving anywhere,” Clint lofts, circling his hand over his head. “I’m home.” His hand comes down to rest over Darcy’s shoulder.

Darcy suddenly has no idea what’s going to happen with Clint, or the farm, or the house when Jerry dies. If he sells, Clint’s home goes with it. Anyone that inherits the farm is unlikely to keep wanting to work it, and Clint is still out his home. Being next to Clint always seems to make her feel better, but right now, she just feels more and her eyes begin to water. Trying to wipe the tears away proves futile.

“I’m going to head out,” Natasha says, and Darcy is thankful for it. Breaking down in front of Clint is embarrassing enough, but she doesn’t want Natasha to think that she’s nothing but a dramatic, silly girl.

“Ride safe,” Clint says, eyes following Natasha’s retreating form and hand tightening his hold on Darcy’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” she sniffs loudly, wiping more tears away, but they just keep coming and coming, and she ends up twisting her head, closer to Clint’s stomach than his chest. Clint makes little shushing noises, his hands awkwardly rubbing circles on her back. He can’t seem to figure out how much pressure to use. She cries every tear that’s been building up since the drive home, in messy sobs and ugly snorts.

Clint finally decides that tight is best, and keeps her close, helps her up to a slightly more comfortable position, but his shirt bears the brunt of her crying. She can’t finish sentences anymore, just starts of them, saying “I’m sor-“ and “It’s not-“ and “I wish-“

“I think I know,” Clint says quietly, as if she’s not two seconds away from practically blowing her nose on his shirt. “Doctor’s appointment?”

Darcy nods, dragging her cheek against his shirt, and then finally, taking a deep, lung-filling breath and letting out the worst of all this rapid-fire emotion.

Clint’s quiet, and she wonders if he’s thinking of the home he’s made, or the farm he loves, of the boss he’s proud to work for.

“How long?” He drops his head, as though they are sharing a secret, and she supposes, for now, it will be. Who knows when Jerry will tell anyone else what is really going on. The moment he does, he’ll not have a moment’s peace.

“Year, maybe,” she answers. “I’m going to stay. He’s going to need the help.” It’s not about the farm anymore, her resume be damned. Employers want to know why she took a year off, she will tell them that family runs deeper than dollars, and they can fuck off if they don’t like it.

Darcy has an entire country to live in, and she can be happy most places. Trying to fit herself into the beltway isn’t her only option.

Clint lets out his breath, kisses her forehead with a fierce brashness, like he’s stealing something that doesn’t belong to him. “That’s good of you. Did you just decide that now?”

“I think I’ve been sitting on it for awhile,” Darcy admits. “There are moments I look out of my window and wonder how I could be anywhere but here. I want to make the house shine, I want to go to the markets, and I want to see if knee-high by the fourth of July is an actual thing.”

Clint laughs and breaks away, leaning back. “It is. Taller, usually, these days.”

“I want to see that.” Darcy smiles and bites her lip. “Thank you, for…well, you know. I feel better when I’m around you. Never fails. You’re one of the best parts about coming out here.”

“Never been the best part of anything before. Not sure that you aren’t pinning your feelings of adequacy on the wrong guy, kid. But if that’s your truth, I’m glad to be part of it.”

There’s still the odd tear leaking out of her when she shifts out of Clint’s personal space, already wishing she’d stayed there. He’s reluctant to let her go, stays close to her on the couch as he searches for a movie to watch and drinks his beer. She swipes her hands under her eyes and doesn’t think too hard about how she’s so comfortable to be such a mess when she’s with him. The light from the movie, the crying, all give her a headache. She falls asleep with her face pressed into the seat of the couch and wakes up warm and wrapped in a quilt. Clint snores from where he’s sleeping upright, his hand pressed against her ankle and his head tilted back.

Best part about being here, for sure.

Jerry knocks on Darcy’s door on a Saturday at five in the morning. “Get up,” he says, with a gruffness that’s infected his voice in the past week. He’s grieving for himself, takes it out on Darcy only a little, and for that she’s grateful. It’s not fun, though, and she hopes he moves through this portion of the process soon. Oh, it’s a selfish thought and it’s nothing she’s ever going to say out loud, because, really, Jerry’s the one who is sick. Who is dying. There’s just no comparison. Darcy can handle a little gruffness. “We’re going into town; Coulson agreed to meet us this morning, all special for us.”

Coulson. Darcy has to connect the dots through her barely functioning brain to remember that Coulson is Jerry’s lawyer. Since when do lawyers ever agree to meet a farmer on a Saturday. She thought only fancy names, like the Starks or the Hammers of the world, get the gold-star treatment. Or maybe she’s jaded by the likes of the lawyers who really just want to be politicians, and hold everyone else to some standard of respectability that they, themselves, don’t believe in.

“Half an hour?” says Darcy, blinking away the veil of sleep and the gunk in her eyes. She needs to shower. Coulson can deal with her having wet hair, and it’ll mostly dry on the way.

Jerry agrees, and, okay, forty-five minutes later -- because Darcy didn’t want to step out from the hot shower onto the cold floor -- she’s following Jerry’s directions to Coulson’s office. She’d not really expected when she came out here to help Jerry that so much of her time would be spent in the car, rather than on the farm. This appears to be farm life, though, trying to fit as much as possible into one trip into town so that your day isn’t wasted. Or, if you must waste a day, just one, rather that bits and pieces of the whole week. She’s already planning a grocery run, if Jerry’s up for it, and they could run into the hardware store, too. There’s always something needed from there, and none of it is ever eligible for Amazon Prime.

Coulson’s office is in the older part of the main strip, a beautiful building from the turn of the century. It’s three stories tall, with arched windows and floral motifs and wrought iron railings. Well-loved and maintained by whoever owns the property, it’s probably the most impressive feature on the street.

Well-loved and maintained seems to extend to Coulson, as well. Balding, but handsome, even Darcy can readily admit that old guys are getting hotter as she keeps getting older, and relaxed in the weekend wear of the comfortably-well off set: chinos and a polo shirt.

“I’m sorry about taking so long to prepare everything,” he says after there are introductions. “I’m sorry to say I had to dig in my file cabinets for the previous copy. You need keep these things updated regularly, Mr. Lewis.”

“That’s not going to be a problem for much longer,” Jerry says, firmly.

Coulson nods in understanding and pulls out a stack of file folders. Two, she recognizes as offers on the farm. The most recent ones from Stark and Hammer, which she’s read. It’s possible she’s been brought out here for her opinion on which to sell to, and she has her opinions on that matter, but she really hopes it isn’t. Selling feels like giving up already, and just waiting patiently to die. There’s a third file too, but she can’t read the name on it. It’s older than the rest, thinner

“Then, Mr. Lewis, let’s start on what brings you here, today. You said you wanted to make some changes to your will when you called?”

Darcy blinks and widens her eyes, her father’s insistence that she find out who inherits the estate looming over her. She hasn’t let her father know about Jerry, not about him dying. Jerry should choose when to tell him, but even more, Darcy knows what her father would be urging right now.

“Yes, put all of the land, the house, the farm in Darcy’s name here. Keep the dollar amounts where they are, but I want the farm to go to her, now.”

Coulson asks for clarification on the meaning of it all, pausing slightly, as if he is stumbling over the change. Darcy drums her fingers for a second, and then turns to her uncle. “Why?” It’s not decorous, her shock and confusion over the change.

Jerry is quiet for a long moment, staring down at his pale hands. “Family’s important. Before you came, I didn’t think anyone in the family would do right by what’s been built here. But you will -- you’ve been in the dirt and with the workers, and worked hard. I trust you to make good choices, even if selling is the best option.”

It’s a weight swung around her neck, so well meaning, but it still will end up dragging her to the ground.

“We’ll need to revoke your current will, and I’ll replace that provision, send you the paperwork to sign. Would you prefer I send it to the house?” Jerry nods in appreciation of small graces. He’ll probably nap on the way back to the house, before he gets out to work. The details are worked out, things are signed, and they stand up to shake Coulson’s hand goodbye.

“Miss Lewis, can I speak with you a moment?” Coulson asks.

Darcy hands Jerry the keys. “I’ll catch up.”

When Jerry’s down the hall (and she needs to stop thinking of him as spun glass. He’s walking at his normal pace) Coulson clears his throat. “Miss Lewis --”

“I didn’t ask him to do this,” Darcy says firmly. Because, of course that’s what Coulson is going to think, that Darcy’s influencing Jerry to make a choice that he doesn’t want to make.

“I didn’t think so. Jerry Lewis has always been strong willed, it would take more than one young woman to change his mind. I just want you to be aware of who you are displacing.” Coulson hits the side of a file folder in his hand, pressing his lips together, “I shouldn’t tell you, of course, but when the time comes, I want you to remember what Jerry considers important.”

Jerry said that Coulson was just a little bit dishonest, could keep things close to his chest when needed.

“Okay? This is pretty much the first I’ve heard of this plan; I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

“Part of the estate, approximately the hundred acres around the house, was to go to Clint Barton.” Coulson slides easily over the name, familiar and friendly, “Barton has also had an offer on the table to buy the farm for the past three years. It is the only offer that your uncle has seriously considered.”

“Oh,” Darcy says to cover just how confused she is by this revelation. That sounds like a solid plan, and she doesn’t understand why her presence has changed it so much. Sure, there’s family, but a few months of closeness doesn’t just negate an employee like Clint. She’s seen how Clint feels about Jerry, and Jerry is certainly fond of Clint. “Yes, of course…”

It clicks. Clint’s been Jerry’s family, like Natasha is Clint’s family. But there’s chosen family, and then there’s blood that you can never throw away. It’s why Barney and Clint will never be through with each other, why they’ll always dance around respectable brotherhood. You always have to let family in the back way, through the unlocked door, even if you don’t like them that much.

Darcy wants to always be welcome when she knocks.

“Don’t worry about Clint, Mr. Coulson. He’s like family, too.” She smiles.

Coulson nods with a thin smile of his own, “That is quite a relief to hear, Ms. Lewis.“ and lets her go catch up with her uncle.

She gets a text that night. From Jane, who often texts her in the middle of the night with excited ramblings over things she’s found, but this time it’s her asking for Darcy’s address and, oh, yes, can they park the RV for the day? It turns out that they’re heading out west for some choice research spot involving the northern lights and empty spaces and incomprehensible math.

Darcy takes a grand total of two minutes to agree, tell her uncle -- and Jerry’s feeling charitable to Darcy and doesn’t point out that, in her excitement, she totally didn’t ask first.

She’s forgotten a terrible thing about her favorite science lady. Jane likes to drive in the evening hours and sleep during the day, so Darcy’s halfway to bed when Thor calls to let her know that they will be there within a half hour. Being in the midwest for so long, she feels the weight of hospitality and, not knowing what else to do, she makes sandwiches.

The dogs run up to the windows and bark and jostle each other for the best position to see as the RV turns into the grass. They follow Darcy as she heads out the back, still in her bare feet, to greet her friends.

It’s been a year, but neither of them seems to have changed one bit. Jane wears three layers in the RV to make up for how cold she has to keep it for Thor’s benefit. The man can steam up the inside of a car just by existing. He’s first out of the RV and Darcy runs to him and jumps, letting Thor sweep her up as she wraps her arms around his neck.

Thor is solid, his long hair tied into one of those trendy man-buns and takes her weight as if they’ve practiced this a hundred times. Thor is a sturdy reminder of the last time she really felt useful as a person.

“It is good to see you, Darcy,” Thor says with a slight choke. Darcy might be squeezing too hard. Thor doesn’t have much of his native accent -- his family moved to the states when he was younger, but he’s retained a formal tone to everything he says.

“You too, big guy,” she says, and then Jane steps out and Darcy breaks off from Thor. There’s no jumping this time, just excited and half-started sentences, and the inevitable dance of arranging themselves for a hug.

The sandwiches are well-received, and even if Darcy can’t give a tour of the house because it’s the middle of the night and Jerry’s asleep, no one minds.

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind catching some shut eye,” Jane admits. “We’ve been on the road for days.” Jane looks drawn-out and tired, and Thor has a tendency towards encouraging Jane when she’s on her work binges. He’s steady, sure, and will make sure that she eats every few hours, but sleep is not one of those things he’s good at making sure she does. Darcy had once suggested that maybe sex would be a good way to shut down an out-of-synch work schedule, but that’s when she learned that Jane only gets worse after orgasms.

A Jane Foster willingly going to sleep at an appropriate time is one that should be encouraged, and Darcy leads them up to the other guest room and shows them the bathroom.

It’s hard to fall asleep, herself, her mind always returning to the will and what Coulson had said. It makes sense, now, the way that Clint has returned her friendship, but left an unknown quantity of space between them. As if he were afraid to get close -- he’s probably had an understanding with Jerry for years, and Darcy disrupts the known world for him. She likes Clint, maybe a little more than she should, and she’s not going to leave him homeless, no matter what she chooses to do.

Clint would do well with the greenhouses, selling at farmer’s markets, and it would be the best thing ever for someone to have the house rather than developers tearing it down. She just can’t even fathom the staircase being gone in favor of some suburban-style monstrosity, or Hammer taking it down to plant another field of corn. Clint’s not blood, but he’s family, nonetheless, and the family home would mean something to him after she settles the estate and figures out what to do next.

She falls asleep wondering why it’s so hard to see that far ahead, or to see herself leaving here.

Before Jane and Thor decided to stop by, she’d promised Clint breakfast on Sunday, in exchange for a few fixes around the house. The mudroom needs a new screen door, and the doorknobs to the master are falling off, and some heavy lifting needs to be done in the backyard. Having her friends makes preparing breakfast easier, making for five (if Jerry doesn’t sleep in) is just as time consuming as for two.

Jane loves french toast, Clint doesn’t eat breakfast unless it includes coffee and bacon, and Thor just wants enough of whatever she makes. She’s just pulling a slab of bacon out of the oven when the screen door slaps open and closed. Following his nose, Clint comes into the kitchen and twists up his face. “Darce, sweetheart, I know you think I have the appetite of an ox, but even I cannot eat an entire package of bacon.”

Darcy holds up a finger, hearing feet hit the ground upstairs, and the creak of the floorboards. Thor bounds down the steps, probably two at a time. “We have visitors.”

Clint looks up at Thor and straightens himself up, trying to be taller. Darcy snorts and stifles a giggle at Clint’s attempt at posture. Jane’s sleep-drenched footfalls on the ground floor alert her to start doling out the french toast onto plate. “Clint, these are my friends, Thor and Jane.”

Clint stuffs a slice of bacon in his mouth. Darcy will have to take that piece into consideration when she’s dividing the remainder out. “Hey,” he says with a full mouth. “Clint Barton.”

“Darcy did you make...” Jane’s eyes go wide at the platter piled high with french toast and squeals happily shimmying her hips and shoulders. “I have waited months. Months, Darcy.”

Darcy gets plates out to everyone, knowing just how much everyone eats, and making sure there is enough for Jerry when he wakes up and joins them, and then sits at the table to eat. Clint seems antsy in his chair, a little uncomfortable with people he doesn’t know. “I used to work for Jane in college -- I was her most useless intern.”

“Were not.” Jane is insistent, touching Darcy’s hand, and responding with conviction, “You fed me. You drove me. You tased Thor for me.”

“And I protected her from a roving band of business frat brothers, and accidentally tased the only sober one in the bunch,” Darcy admits.

Thor waves his hand and swallows, smiling between Darcy and Jane. “Worth it.” his eyes land on Jane and don’t leave. “When my brothers went on from the car lot the women were using as a research lab without me, I got to spend time with two very smart and pretty women.”

Clint smiles himself. “Smart and pretty. When’d you get married?”

Jane holds her fork steady. Thor bites his lips. Darcy yells out loud, “What, married?” She checks Thor’s hand. Sure enough, there’s a thick, plain, gold band on the correct hand, the right finger. Darcy points to Jane. “Hand. Now.”

Jane sighs and holds out her hand for ring inspections. There’s no engagement ring, no glitzy diamond like Darcy swore there would be, but a thinner version of Thor’s ring. “We were going to tell you…”

“You got married without me. I was supposed to be a flower girl,” Darcy insists. She’d always known that they’d get married, but it hurts that they wouldn’t even tell her that they’d tied the knot. “Or a bridesmaid. Something.”

“We, uh….sorta eloped?” Jane says with a nervous shrug. “His father didn’t exactly…”

Clint watches both of them intently and guesses exactly what Darcy is thinking. “Knocked up?”

Jane’s face fall, and her elbow slips off the table, her hand falling to her stomach. “Surprise?”

“My father did not take well when I told him of the news. He would have rather I had found someone who was a better --” he struggles for the right word. “Hostess? Than my Jane, and offered to have the problem taken care of if I left her.”

“Geez, that’s rough, man.” Clint looks at the other three at the table, and looks like he’s realized he’s the odd man out in the conversation. He makes a quick exit. “I’m going to check on Jerry.”

“Frigga likes me,” Jane says when she’s sure that Clint has left. “And she gave her blessing and said nothing should stop us. So we went to the courthouse, got hitched, and decided Idaho was a great place for a honeymoon.”

“At least until my father stops foaming at the mouth.”

Mostly, Thor and Jane just want to not be driving. Jane’s never quite mastered the rules of the road, and Thor is much better at driving than resting while Jane drives. Darcy ends up taking them around the farm. Most everything is empty, and Darcy takes care of a few things while she’s out, making sure the greenhouse is in good order and, as they walk along fences near the road, checks to make sure nothing’s gone through them.

It’s a beautiful day in June, and Darcy’s learning that these first couple weeks of summer are highly anticipated. The windows are thrown open, and even the most skeptical of people have taken the storm windows off of the porches. It all smells of growing things, of good rich dirt, and every drop of rain makes the whole farm radiant with ozone.

Jane talks about her research, and Darcy itches with the need to help her set everything to rights, to bring order to the brilliant mind. Even for Jane, she’s a bit spacey and making leaps she never would have made before, like she’s skipping steps.

“Pregnancy brain,” Jane admits, when Thor gently corrects her. He’s more well-versed on physics than most non-academics, and has a good mind for Jane’s thought process. “I hate it. I’ll think I’m onto something and then realize I missed entire steps and it crumples.”

“How far along…” Darcy makes a vague hand gesture, trying to encompass the enormity of holy shit, my best friend and former boss is pregnant, and still just ask a reasonable question.

“It really was a surprise,” Jane answers, with a bit of nervousness wavering her voice. “We were careful! I kept spotting at regular intervals….”

“Jane!” Darcy gasps because if Jane is hemming like this she must be much farther along than she looks.

“Almost 20 weeks.” Jane’s wearing looser clothes, yes. Not her normal jeans, but soft palazzos, but she doesn’t look anything more than if she just had a really good burger. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to look pregnant at some point, but, now, I just feel fat.”

“My father didn’t believe us when we told him, even if mother was the one to guess. He then all but accused Jane of sabotaging the birth control in order to get the family money.” Thor turns dark, and the longer story must weigh heavily on his mind. “And that was probably the kindest thing he said or did. I no longer have a place at his company.”

“So, it’s Idaho until things calm down?” Darcy asks rhetorically and adds, “Long way to run.”

“I have some research I want to finish up so I can enjoy maternity leave.” Jane laughs and adds that Thor is the one that has to figure out what happens next.

Thor has money, he has connections, and even without working for Odin, he and Jane will be fine. But Darcy’s suddenly glad that she never took Thor up on his offer of finding a place for her within the company. She’d wanted to earn her way, wherever she went, and using Thor’s name to open a door was the most she could stomach doing.

But Thor takes it in stride, the loss of his steady work. It’s the loss of his family that hits him harder; Frigga seems to be the only one keeping contact. Loki texted his congratulations on both the wedding and the baby, but nothing more. He’ll press his family later, once they see that he and Jane are happy and healthy. “And in the meantime, I can be a good father.”

Thor’s ridiculous and he means every kind word. Darcy can easily see him accepting a life as a trailing spouse, house-spouse, whatever it takes to support Jane. He’snever been all that concerned about his own successes, in the way that only a man born into wealth and power can be. He assumes they will come his way like the rule of kings, and accepts how life flows and delights in how other people carve out their names.

They come back around to the house and to the sight of Clint and a chainsaw. Before Darcy arrived, winter had wrecked the trees on the property, and there was finally a little time to take care of the dead and falling branches. They’d been lucky that no spring storm had been violent enough to cause them to crash to the ground or onto the outbuildings. An old radio blasts out classic rock, so loud it’s hard to think straight.

Clint working isn’t a new sight, but, somehow, protective glasses and stripped down to a thin and threadbare tank and a sheen of sweat that fucking glistens in the sunlight causes her to trip over herself. She can’t help herself, the memory of that stupid kiss, the moment where he started to pursue, plays over and over in her head. It’s a vicious cycle, shame and longing and a little regret that she hadn’t tried to press him further.

The chainsaw stops and Clint carefully drops it to the ground before reaching up to grab hold of an awkwardly placed branch. Jane slaps Thor on the shoulder. “Go help him!” Thor dutifully jogs over and helps Clint break off the branch.

The two men are subtle about it, but there’s a bit of taking the measure of each other. Darcy can’t hear what Clint’s saying, but she can see it, his hands expand and he grins, leans into Thor’s space when Thor responds, cupping an ear to listen.

Jane watches Darcy watching. “Come back to the RV, let Thor get some quality time in with the chainsaw. I need some help.”

Help turns out to be Darcy’s perfect, beautiful filing and organization system having been abandoned in the past few months as Jane slowly realized that her stomach wasn’t upending itself for shits and giggles. Her life, once again, descends into the siren call of paperwork. At least all the components of her system are there, Jane hasn’t invented new tags, and the little receipt scanner still works.

“It’s nice out here,” Jane says after coming back into the RV. Bathroom break. “Quiet, but not dull. How’s the light pollution?”

Trust Jane to think of star-gazing, “Not too bad. There’s enough development that we’ll never hit truly dark, though.” New Mexico got truly dark on the Bortle Scale, and on the very best of nights, it might have verged on excellent dark, but there’s enough stars for everyone on the farm.

“Also, you seem to have found a man whose biceps might actually rival my husband’s,” Jane says with a clinical dryness, an afterthought.

“You just like saying husband, don’t you?” Jane’s lack of reaction is the best reaction. “Clint and I aren’t…”

“Maybe you should. You like him,” Jane says, and Darcy doesn’t disagree. “He called you sweetheart this morning --”

“When did you start paying attention? Are you trying to match everyone up now that you got hitched?” Darcy sighs and crosses her arms. “I don’t think he’s interested; otherwise, something would have happened when I kissed him, okay?”

Jane’s lips twitch up in a sad smile. “That sucks.” She opens a file on her laptop and changes the subject. “Can you see any patterns in this?”

For a little while, it’s like nothing has changed at all. It’s back to work, as usual; Darcy alternating between sounding board and paperwork, pitching back ideas that come out of left field but help tie things together for Jane. Sometimes, the farm feels like those early days, where Jane didn’t appreciate her much, hadn’t figured out how useful she was, and Darcy kept trying to break through Jane’s stubborn streak and like her already. Darcy always wins at the friendship game, she just does.

They only plan on staying until the sun goes down, and Jane ends up crashing asleep before Thor and Clint come back in, apparently having been made fast friends through the medium of yard work.

Clint throws his sunglasses on the kitchen island. “I’m stealing Thor. He can stay here; I’ll set him up with a cot, and he can sleep at the foot of my bed.”

“Despite his demeanor, Thor is not a puppy,” Darcy responds, her voice crackling with her amusement. Thor walks in behind Clint, obviously looking for Jane. Darcy jerks her head and points upwards and he scampers upstairs. “Okay, he might be part puppy.”

“We could replace half the staff with just him, at least until harvest.” Clint grins. “I’m going to make some coffee, you want some?” Clint doesn’t let her answer, just puts on the pot and the coffee beans that Darcy likes. “This should have taken me all day; I still have half a day of sunlight left to take a nap.”

“You’re going to have coffee and then take a nap?” This sounds like her college career, so she shouldn’t doubt how effective the combination can be, but she always figured it lost it’s potency as you got older. She picks at a lock of hair that’s fallen out of her ponytail.

Clint waves his hand. “I’ll be fine. Um...” He stops for a second, looking at Darcy as she flips her hair, starting over, and running her fingers through it, bringing life back to the strands. “I, uh, there’s this dinner next Saturday for one of the volunteer firefighters. He’s got, uh, cancer, and it’s a spaghetti thing. You wanna go?”

“Oh, is that the guy all the penny jars at the gas stations are for?” Darcy asks. “Did I meet his wife at the Jefferson market? Yeah, I’d love to go.”

Clint smiles. “Cool. I’ll get the details. My treat.”

It’s not until that night, after Jane and Thor have left and Darcy’s cried about not being with them, about how Jane needs to keep her more informed on recent events and not screw up her filing system, that Darcy realizes that Clint may have just asked her on a date.

“Of course it’s a date,” Jane texts back when Darcy is freaking out about it. “You were all he asked Thor about while they were working together.”

Darcy’s not too sure about it though, not when Kate says she’s going, as well, when she stops in on Monday. And Steve and Bucky, and just about everyone around, including Jerry, who has known the man for years. But it’s just that he asked her that gives her a little bit of hope.

"Lewis! Hey, hey, Lewis!" Barney's voice echoes across the field, and he runs to her as Darcy makes her way towards the greenhouse. "Darcy, wait up. I want --" Barney trips over his own feet, stumbling, but manages to stay upright.

“What do you want, Barney?” Darcy stays right where she is, but lets Barney catch up to her. She doesn’t owe him any conversation, doesn’t owe him any time. But she doesn’t want to hear his whining or have him fall in the dirt. She’s not that petty. Maybe just let him fall to his knees; she’s that amount of petty.

“I did a shitty thing to you.” Well, that’s almost an apology. Maybe she should let him talk and see what comes out of his mouth next. “I didn’t realize how many people would be at the apartment.”

This is promising. “How many people are usually at the apartment?” she asks, curious.

“Not quite that many, I mean, there’s usually someone on the couch, and maybe the floor, but I didn’t…” Barney groans, “I forgot you were a girl. Arg, no, wait, I know you’re a girl. I mean it’s pretty obvious what with your --” Barney makes an undeniably crude gesture, holding his hands comically out past his chest. Darcy’s unimpressed; it’s uninspired more than obscene. “But I forgot that things are different for girls, and that I can’t just leave you alone like that.”

"Let's just leave it at ‘I'm a girl and you're an idiot,’ and we can be done with stating the obvious." Darcy rolls her eyes at Barney’s ramblings.

"No, wait, Clint's right, I need to apologize for this. All I wanted was to have a good time and introduce you around, ‘cause it seemed like you were lonely." Barney stuffs his hands in his pockets, balancing a large envelope between his side and elbow. "And it messed with Clint to take you out." All the bravado slips out of him, and he toes the ground with his boots. "And you did seem to have a good time, right?"

"I did, to a certain point," Darcy admits, and she uncrosses her arms, instead placing them on her hips, resting her weight on one leg. "But that certain point was a big one. I was suddenly alone and scared and you didn't seem to give a crap about me anymore."

Some anger builds in Barney, detached from their conversation and not directed at her, but anger all the same. "I'm not the good brother, okay? Older brother, right, supposed to look out for the younger one. I tried that, I tried that. But no one was looking out for me, you know? I've got to look out for me, and Clint -- fuck, even as a kid Clint would walk into trouble to try to keep other people safe. Got a bad ear that way." Barney taps his own ear, "S'why he tilts his head sometimes, ‘cause he got between my face and my dad's fist one too many times."

It's an awful, creeping feeling, this rush of information that Darcy is sure she should not know. That Clint would not want her to know at all. Some parts of your life you want to keep quiet for reasons that are just as private.

"Clint will walk into trouble for the people he cares about, and I walk into trouble ‘cause it's the only place I know where to be. He's the one with his own place, a boss that cares about him -- even a mutt that follows him around. I keep having to go around and forget that he's supposed to look up to me, not the other way around. So, I'm sorry, okay, Lewis? I forgot that not everyone feels that rush, like they are as safe as houses when they are over their head, like me."

Barney's adrift in a weird sea of envy and regret, grasping for some sort of net to cling to. He jostles the manila packet in his hands and comes to some sort of reckoning. "Clint's got the audacity to be born loyal; I was just born stupid."

"Don't say that," Darcy says automatically. "I'm sure --"

"God's own truth, Lewis. Clint followed me into the stupid circus, trusted me, and them, when he shouldn't have."

"Stop," Darcy says, holding up her hand, having enough of the man. "You've got past apologizing and into justifying. I don't care about your trauma. You hurt me, and I was close to calling you a friend. You want to apologize, fine, I accept. All I've got to judge you by is the way you act."

Barney rubs the uneven stubble on his face, then pushes his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry, Darcy. Can I walk with you on the way back to the house?"

Darcy waves her hand, letting him walk with her, as a gesture of accepting his attempt at an apology. He doesn't seem to have much practice with them, that's for sure. But, sometimes the attempt is much more telling than the actual words.

"How's Jerry doing?" he asks. Everyone knows by now, the news flying from farm to town to market by gossips worse than tabloids.

"He's still working," Darcy answers. It would be hard to make him stop. Jerry's too used to doing, and waiting to die would kill him faster than working. She's helped to temper his instincts to be everywhere, and got him to focus on the areas that need his personal attention the most. "He's started to clean out the house."

That had been a surprise. On days that he feels the weight of the end on him, he heads into storage rooms and goes through a lifetime or longer of paperwork and mementos. There's so much that heads out the door, decried as useless. Things he can't take with him and only have meaning to him. Darcy should feel happy that he's being constructive, but her heart breaks for him. He has to take apart his life, just so that there's one less burden on her when he passes.

Barney's no good at hiding his emotions; his eyebrows rise in shock. "That's, man, sorry, Darcy. I didn't realize how far along he was getting."

"Barney, he's active. He eats and sleeps and drinks. He's doing great. I think he just likes to be over-prepared."

Barney's quiet, but thinking loudly as the house comes into view, along with the car he and his friends share. "I should get going -- but, uh, here, I was supposed to give this to you." He shoves the envelope at her, and Darcy has to fumble so that it gets into her hands and not just pushed against her stomach. Barney jogs off towards his car with vigor, like an escape.

The envelope is thick and Darcy holds it, staring as Barney drives off before heading into the house, opening the prongs of the fastener on the way to the office. There’s a lot of paperwork there and she pulls it out, skimming the first page before she has to sit down. Yet another proposal from Justin Hammer to buy the farm. She’s about to put it in the pile to have Jerry look at when her eyes find her name.

Her name. Not Jerry’s. The proposal is directed at her. Either Hammer has figured out that she’s going to inherit or he’s got one hell of an intuition. This is unexpected and not something she wants to think about. Jerry’s not even dead yet and the vultures are circling overhead. Skimming through, there’s a lot more to this particular document that’s actually attractive. It’s not for the entire property, Hammer offers to retain any staff that would like to stay, things she does worry about in the back of her head as she comes to grips with the fact that she will have to figure out what to do with the land, with the farm.

With this offer, she can provide for Clint what Jerry wanted, she can keep the family home close at hand, their workers have a guaranteed job. It might be with Hammer, who, by all scuttlebutt, treats employees like interchangeable cogs, but it means no one is out of work. But, the offer, itself, seems off, and she opens up a drawer to pull out the most recent Hammer proposal to Jerry, and she rolls her eyes. Even taking into account the reduced amount of land, the offer is paltry. It’s insulting and drastically undervalued for the area.

Darcy could easily counter offer, though. Do her research and sic Coulson on Hammer like a dog, if she wanted to deal with Hammer at all. She stuffs the papers back into the envelope, and pulls out a new file folder. She labels it “DL Land Proposals” and files it away. She has plenty of time, even if the worst happened tomorrow. There’s a business to run, crops to grow, markets to sell at, and Jerry to watch over. If Hammer has found out or guessed that she stands to inherit, there’s going to be more, from Stark, at least. Pepper seems the sort to be proactive, but at least tasteful about it, and Darcy figures she might get some sly questions in the coming months at market.

“Knock, knock!” Darcy’s startled by Kate at the office door. “Sorry, I let myself in. Clint said I could come find you.”

Darcy closes the file cabinet drawer quickly. “Yeah, what do you need?”

“I’m working on a project for Future Farmers, for when we start back up next year? I want to do a mock business plan with them, and Clint suggested I use the farmer’s market as a model. Can I snag your sales figures?” Kate drops her bag in the doorway. It’s an expensive leather bag, for all that it’s worn and seen daily use by a teenaged girl who’d rather hang out in the dirt than, well, whatever it is that rich girls are supposed to do.

“Yeah, I can get you those. You want the full balance sheet, too? Expenses and the like?” It’s not like Kate doesn’t have a good understanding of the farm’s operations, anyways, particularly for the farmer’s markets.

“That would be awesome, Darcy.” Kate’s face lights up. “That’ll make life so much easier. I’m going to make it an example, so it won’t be labeled as Lewis’s farm, but I wasn’t looking forward to all that research, all those phone calls to other farms. Ugh, can you imagine? At least I know yours will be done right. I’m pretty sure Prairie Down Farms does everything of theirs on napkins.”

Darcy laughs as they work out what data Kate’s going to need. Darcy ends up asking, curious, “How’d you get into farming anyways?” as she sets the documents up to print. She’ll send it digital, too, but Kate seems to appreciate a dead tree version to write on.

“It’s kind of hard not to miss the cornfields in Iowa,” Kate deadpans. “Horses. Dad sent me to a horse camp when I was eight and the horses were nice but the tractors were better. He thought it was cute, and kept thinking it was really about the horses, which is a totally acceptable hobby. I met Clint when he was an instructor at camp. Apparently, I’m really good at archery, too. He told me about working here and I would beg rides and come help out.” Kate takes the printed pages out and shuffles them so they all line up. “And now I’m President of the Future Farmers of America and the treasurer of the Gay Straight Alliance and it’s the farming that my parents hate. You’re going to the dinner, right? I want you to meet my girlfriend.” Kate’s face breaks out into a sappy, soppy grin, and Darcy remembers that face from experience.

“Yeah, Clint asked me to go,” Darcy says. “Is this the sort of thing that you bring a date to? I mean, if you are taking your girlfriend...” Darcy pauses. “Did Clint ask me on a date?” This is what madness is, discussing the romantic inclinations of a man in his thirties, being a woman in her twenties, to a girl firmly in the teenaged years. But Kate and Clint have a weird relationship that’s not quite a mentorship, but something more rooted than a mere friendship. And no one thinks it all that strange.

Kate rolls her eyes. “Maybe if you aren’t sure if it’s a date, you should just ask Clint. Maybe do it in a way where he can’t run away. Corner him somewhere and just ask. Otherwise, he’s very squirrelly about feelings.”

Kate’s right. It’s better to be direct than to just sit around and wonder if someone likes you when you have good reason to believe they might.

“Do you want it to be a date?” Kate asks, a bit of teasing in her voice.

“So, tell me about your girlfriend?” Darcy changes the subject. Really, she doesn’t need to gossip to Kate about Clint. But Kate’s goofy smile returns and she gushes about her girlfriend, whose name is America, and she kickboxes, and she’s smart, and she’s perfect.

Darcy’s smiling, herself, by the time that Kate heads out, like good cheer is infectious, and decides that going to Clint’s is a good idea. Something to be said for clear communication. She doesn’t want to do something stupid like try to kiss him when he’s just being friendly and bringing her out as an attempt at a social life.

It’s perfect outside, and Lucky starts following her as she walks over. “Hey, boy, you want to go see Clint?” She kneels down, getting dirt on her knees, and ruffles the dog’s ears. He licks her face. Lucky likes her, and he’s nominally Clint’s dog. That’s got to be a sign.

As she walks through the property, she takes note of how everything is growing. Knee high by fourth of July is old history, she’s learning, because the corn, if it keeps going the way it has been, will be up to her chest by then, maybe even taller. It’s never really silent out on the farm, there’s always some rustling, some birds, cars and trucks rumbling by on the country roads. It is quiet, though, a quiet she’s coming to trust as stillness within her.

Barney’s car is parked outside of the trailer, and she’s about to open the door when she can make out the yelling within. Barney’s voice, though she can hardly make it out as such. It’s hard and vicious. “…pathetic, that’s what you are right now. Can’t even make it out of the trailer. At least you got out of the park, huh? Doing better than me, right?”

“Barney, you need to just leave it be. Go home.” Clint sounds tired and hoarse, like the fight’s gone out of him.

“Bullshit, you need to hear this, little brother. You think this is going to last. Fuck, it’s not, not with good old Jerry about to kick it. You think that pretty little niece of his is going to stick around after the funeral?” Darcy shouldn’t be listening, but her own anger and guilt keeps her feet heavy and rooted to the deck, her fingers in Lucky’s fur. “You really think that? You didn’t hear her talk --”

“You need to fucking leave it be, Barney!” There’s a scuffle, solid mass hitting a wall and Darcy wonders if it’s Clint or Barney.

“You think just because you’re soft on her, that you go all gooey for her, that she’s not going to sell the place right out from underneath your feet? She’s just a city girl; she ain’t for people like you. She thinks Jerry should sell! She’s already got offers on the place. You might like her, but she’s not going to stay here for someone like you.” His voice frays at the edges, with a dangerous, intentional buzz, and Darcy isn’t able to stay still any longer.

Darcy swings the door wide open, and Lucky runs in first, scurrying to find and jump at Clint, with her fuming behind the dog. “Barney, the only offer I have is the one you handed me an hour ago. Jerry doesn’t want to sell. I have not made any decisions as to what I am doing in the next year. There’s nothing for me back home except my father who wants the money from this place, and I’m not all that keen on people who try to manipulate others the same as you.” She gets into his face. “Your brother told you to leave, and I’m telling you not to put words in my mouth. Get out.”

Barney snorts and sneers down at Darcy with more pomp and show than Darcy expected out of him. He’s a real piece of work, apologizing to Darcy and then, Darcy doesn’t even remember telling him that Jerry should sell. Except, maybe she did, that night at the bar. He asked about it then, didn’t he?

“Oh, my god,” Darcy’s jaw drops and she snaps it tight. “You asshole. You complete and utter asshole!” It takes everything she’s got not to just hit Barney. “That’s why you took me out that night. You wanted to know if Jerry wanted to sell so you could tell your boss.”

If Darcy’s shaking, but staying staked to floor in an effort not to deck Barney, Clint’s holding himself even tighter. Veins in his neck bulge, and his hands are held in white-knuckled fists. “You -- fuck. Barney, is that --” Clint advances with every pause until Barney is up against the wall. But Clint is so very careful, his hands still at his sides and his mouth twitching with worse things, unsaid.

“You got to get in with the boss somehow, Clint, you know that. You got yourself good with Jerry and maybe this little --”

“Don’t you dare finish that,” Darcy says, dark and low from where she stands, watching. Lucky’s run off to the bedroom, and Darcy wants to join him and hide under the blankets where it’s safe and warm. Barney doesn’t seem like he’s off, drunk, or anything but himself. He’d almost seemed to get it, too, when they were walking together.

Barney looks off towards the kitchen, as if there’s something that’s going to help him there, and then he shakes his head. “You got in good. I gotta get me in good, too, and this was the best way.”

“You mean the easiest way,” Clint says, in his brother’s face, harsh but not loud. “I worked hard to get to be reliable, to think about the future instead of my empty wallet. You see this,” he throws his arm out, and Darcy’s never going to think of a trailer as anything but a victory now. “I made this over years, and if Jerry sold tomorrow, I’m still going to land on my feet.”

Barney pushes Clint out of the way. “Ain’t got that,” he mutters, and whatever he says next he says too quietly for her to hear. He pushes Clint again, trying to urge on a worse fight, but Clint stands his ground and doesn’t raise a hand. Barney breaks away and, with a hard look at Darcy, walks out the front door.

Darcy looks down at her hands, rubbing her fingers together like it means something other than her energy needs to run out of her body somehow. The quiet gets unbearable, and then something solid hits the wall. It’s Clint’s fist, but he shakes it off, stretching his hand out as wide as it can go. “Aww, wall,” he says, once he gets a good look at the indent on the drywall. “Something else to fix before this place sells.”

“You aren’t actually going to listen to him, are you?” Darcy asks.

Clint looks up at her with a tilt of his head and snorts much the same as Barney. “You don’t have to pretend.”

Darcy drops her hands with an audible slap on her thighs. Everything starts to muddle around her, her eyes welling up and the world narrowing. She just needs to sit down, and she tries to walk towards the couch but stumbles. It’s hard to see through tears that just won’t shed out of her eyes. Darcy stumbles again, but this time, Clint’s there to steady her, easing her down onto the cushions and sitting beside her.

Darcy sniffs and clears her eyes. “I’m not pretending. I honestly, I just -- Clint, I came here because I was quickly realizing how worthless I was. I couldn’t get a real job, I couldn’t move out of my dad’s house. This was just an out for me, a favor for an uncle I hadn’t seen in years. And now, he’s dying, I’m inheriting a rather large operation, here, my dad is proud of me. Not because I’m doing good work, but because he thinks I somehow conned Jerry into putting me in the will. I’m not pretending when I say I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Clint softens, his breath coming out in a little huff, and deflates as the air leaves his body. “Yeah, sorry, just adrenaline --” He stops and, for a moment, he looks like the floor has been snatched out from under him. “You’re inheriting?”

Darcy nods but can’t look at Clint. Can’t see the hurt radiating from him, when she doesn’t know if it’s about her or Jerry or Barney, and doesn’t think that it really matters. “Yeah, Jerry took me to meet with Coulson.” Fuck it, she should just say it, clear the air so this doesn’t fester. “I know what was in the prior version, okay. If you’re worried about -- Clint, I’m not going to make your life crash like mine was doing. I don’t know if I’ll sell. I don’t know if I can manage a farm, if I’d want to keep it going, because I’m watching my uncle die five minutes after I realized that he matters and my father is pestering me about selling so he can pay his fucking debts!”

Clint puts an arm around her and tries to stop her whole body from shaking. She doesn’t know who she can trust in her family, not really. Who is going to stay and love her? Mom left and never looked back, left behind her bitter father, who couldn’t care anything about anyone. He probably loves Darcy, but as she got older, it seemed more like he loved her for what she could do for him. And Jerry, oh, she loves her uncle, she loves him and he’s overjoyed to have her and it’s the worst thing ever to have figured out that her parents, both of them, kept her away from connecting to anyone else in the family. Darcy has now, and she’s grateful for these months, for fresh air, the smell of gasoline in the morning dew, and does not look ahead to what is going to happen in the aftermath.

Clint keeps holding her as she struggles to put her thoughts together, and she first hears it as a murmur, like you’d hear the ocean in a seashell. It’s a litany of, “Darcy, it’s okay. I’m here. Not upset. You’re okay,” as his hand rubs her back lightly, well-meant and just a little awkward. Darcy’s been crying into him for minutes now; it’s no wonder.

She sits up straight, a little ashamed and how much she’s relying on him emotionally. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall apart on you. Again. Look, you don’t have to worry.”

“I’m a little more worried about you at this point,” Clint says. “What happened today?”

“Barney apologized to me for acting like a shit and I believed him. Sob story about how he sometimes forgets that others don’t feel safe when everything else is broken. Then he handed me a sale proposal from Hammer. That is going in the fucking shredder when I go back to the house.” Darcy smiles into a snarl. “I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’m certainly not going to sell to them. Not even for billions. I’d rather see Stark bulldoze it all and turn it into a suburban cul-de-sac.”

Clint stiffens, moves away from her, taking his arm away from her shoulders. “You can’t mean that. You don’t mean that, right?”

There’s no good answer for him. She can’t promise she won’t sell, can’t promise she’s going to stay, and she flails internally for a way to answer Clint that isn’t going to break his heart, “You think I’d give Stark the satisfaction? Everyone knows that people are choosing small square footage these days.”

Clint hangs his head with a weak smile and takes a breath. He may have backed off, but he’s still close, and, as he relaxes, his hand creeps back to rest beside her leg. Not touching, just there, in case she needs him again. He takes a bigger breath, exhales in a long, calming sigh, gathering control over himself. “I’m sorry you heard all that.”

“Just don’t believe him, okay? I need you here, with me.” Darcy moves just enough so that she can feel his touch. “It’s stupid, alright? I only came down here because,” courage don’t fail her now; her heart can’t take not knowing. “Because I wanted to make sure you asking me to the spaghetti dinner was an actual date.”

Clint pauses, but his fingers move against her thigh, a quick, but certain gesture. “Yes? If you want it to be. If you don’t, as friends is totally fine.”

Darcy kisses him. Just leans over and kisses him so that he can have an answer, a good one, one he can’t walk away from. Corner him so she can get his real answer. Clint takes this kiss, lets it be perfunctory, and doesn’t chase it like the last time she kissed him.

“So, uh, that was a yes?” he says, his smile finally reaching his eyes and his voice soft and pitched only for her.

“It was totally a yes.” Darcy wants to fling herself headfirst and fly into the soaring heights of a new relationship. It doesn’t matter if it crashes; she wants this. It’s a relief when Clint kisses her, now, safe and sure, with their hearts loud and brash, that this is one less stupid worry off her mind. Clint likes her, and is willing to see what there is between them. Even if it’s just one date. But he kisses smoothly, like sliding into home, and he keeps his hands gentle, repositioning himself so that he can cup the back of her neck.

It seems, like it has been since she got here, that Clint keeps her grounded and on level footing. She wonders at what his unwritten rules are, where to touch, where to rest her hands, and she settles for the sides of his stomach, her fingers pressing into his back.

He releases the kiss, but stays close. “Good. Good. It’s a date then, sweetheart.” He’s fighting against something, a baser instinct, because he’s oh-so-very reluctant to let her go. He keeps nipping in for quick kisses every time Darcy starts to smile. There’s so much adrenaline running through her, the fight, the question, the kiss, and she’d follow him to the bedroom if he only asked. But he doesn’t, and she’s grateful for it. There’s work to be done in the morning, and prep work to do tonight, before she goes to bed.

And every time she falls into bed with someone the first night, it always ends badly. She’s terrible with newness, she tears straight through any promise of depth, seeking out the novelty. And maybe Clint’s the same way, too, somewhere, because he’s looking at her with a sort of longing that’s going to need a long shower after she leaves.

“First of many, I hope,” Darcy says, not wanting to leave but knowing that she can’t stay. Not if she wants to see this through.

“Yeah.” Clint’s answer is barely audible.

She detaches herself from the spell they are locked under, mentally shaking herself awake. She places one last kiss after she stands up. “You want to keep Lucky for the night?” It’s not even grown real dark, yet, the sun setting into twilight seems so long some evenings.

“You alright getting back?” Clint asks, his voice shifting back to normal. “I could --”

“I’m fine; let the dog sleep on your bed tonight. He whines sometimes when I won’t let him upstairs when I go to bed.”

“Sweet dreams, Darcy,” Clint says as she walks out the back door, and she responds in kind.

The wind’s picked up, and Darcy checks her phone for the weather. She hasn’t learned to feel the changes in her bones, yet. But she can watch as the clouds sail by a slowly darkening sky, and she can imagine that someday she could. If she settled, if she stayed, she could tell that the wind picking up is the sign of a storm front and, while the radar is clear, now, she marks that tomorrow will be wet by the afternoon. But for now, she settles for her phone and learning to listen to the world that’s trying to tell her it’s secrets.

It does rain. A good rain for the season, but then it turns hot. The air conditioner in the house barely keeps up during the day, and Darcy has to make an emergency trip to the nearest mall so she has some warm weather clothes. She hadn’t expected to be here this long, and what she brought with her was stacked heavily in spring’s favor, not for heat. The mall she’s directed to is an outlet that rises up out of the interstate and not skewed towards her style, but Darcy makes due and picks up a new casserole dish, besides. One-stop shopping.

The shorts and the thin shirts do their job in keeping her cool in the house, and when she walks out during the day, the sun feels amazing on her legs and arms. Even if it’s sticky and hot, the fundamental warmth is relaxing. It’ll get old, summer always does, and the heat just turns into suffering, but she’s going to soak in the sun while it’s still good to her.

There’s other benefits to the heat. The men come in at lunch to cool off, and she can sneak peeks at them without their shirts as they turn on the hoses and soak themselves in water before heading back out. They are very long peeks, if Darcy can help it, because her uncle has inadvertently hired some of the best looking men in the entire county. And if, sometimes, she walks out and Clint’s gaze follows her around as she bends down to weed in the garden, she’s not going to complain. Because it also leads to him leading her around the side of the house, pressing her against the siding and slowly learning each other’s lips and the taste of sweat on skin.

It takes forever for Saturday to roll around, save for those few, stolen minutes. Jerry’s sleeping a bit more, but not comfortably, the heat sapping away most of his energy. Darcy’s trying to convince him to upgrade the air conditioner, for his own comfort, not her own, of course, but until she breaks through to him, she’s staying at home to keep an eye on him. It has nothing to do with not wanting to burn through a flame before it can start.

It’s still hot, starting to bear down even worse, enough that Darcy keeps checking her phone and hoping it shows rain on the radar. She wears a flimsy, loose-fitting sundress in a busy floral pattern and tries to look as sweet as she possibly can before sliding into an ironic statement on the concept of sweet and feminine.

“I’m going to head on up the road, Darcy. You sure you don’t want to drive with me?” Jerry asks.

“No, Jerry. Clint’s taking me tonight.” Darcy smiles, ducking her head, suddenly bashful. Jerry smiles back in response, but doesn’t quite get the full meaning. “We’re heading up a little later. You go impress all the little, old ladies, Jerry, with your ability to drive something other than a tractor.”

“I ain’t that old, yet!” Jerry says in mock outrage. “I got all my own teeth and everything.”

Darcy and Clint have spent the past few months not all that far apart, seeing each other nearly every day. She knows how he takes his coffee (cream, no sugar, and lots of it) and he knows that the strawberry pie from the Mennonite ladies at the farmer’s market is her favorite. But when she slides into his truck, she’s forgotten everything they’ve ever talked about and it’s the weird sort of awkward. Like it’s the first time they’ve met and Darcy’s meeting him at the train station all over again.

And then Clint says, “Wow, you look amazing,” and rolls his eyes. “Not that you don’t always. But, yeah, you look good. All done up for me?” He kisses her cheek; his lips are warm but it still sends shivers through her body.

“Nah,” Darcy quirks up her lips in a sly grin. “Rory Harris, volunteer firefighter, deserves to see me at my best. It’s the least I can do for a sick man.” Everything’s okay, nothing has to change other than the acknowledgement of the feelings that have been building between them, and a new element to their relationship. “So do you know him, or is this man’s misfortune an excuse for the county to party?”

“A little of both. I’ve worked with him. They don’t call me in often, but I’ve got training in some high-skill rescue situations. I’m good in tight spots.” Darcy calls him on his shit eating grin, but it turns out there’s truth to what he’s saying. “More or less raised in a circus, Darce. Have you seen some of the schlubs who hang out at the firehouse? Who do you think is the one that gets to climb trees and rescue cats?”

“Don’t they have ladders for that?” Darcy revels in the fond look on Clint’s face. It’s a good start to the date, she thinks, just to feel happy next to him.

Clint holds the door for her when they enter the diner, pays for her meal, and she tucks a little more into the donation box. The place is packed, and it is an excuse for a party. Darcy’s glad no one’s approached her about holding one for Jerry, but then, he doesn’t have any problem with paying his bills.

Jerry’s off holding court with the retirement age majority, clearly a major social outing of the season for them. Every old woman’s eyes seem too kind, and there’s a great deal of handholding. Jerry’s enjoying himself, but he’s holding the lines of frustration at bay. A flash of profound sadness crosses his face and he looks so much older than he is, and so tired. And then it’s gone, replaced by a wheezing and building laugh.

Beyond Jerry, there is a table set up with with several baskets, filled up with gift cards and flowers, handmade goodies. There’s at least one quilt just placed in a long, rectangular basket with a bow.

“Natasha made that one,” Clint says. “She was going to be here, but there’s flooding off the Mississippi and she got called in to coordinate the relief response. Silent auction. Most of those baskets also have things hidden in them that have greater value than what you see.”

“You mean ten dollars to the car wash isn’t the grandest prize?”

“That’ll keep the truck clean for a whole week,” Maria says, behind them. “Will you both get your asses over to the booth. Sam’s about to make us all share emotions, and I, for one, will not have that.” Maria pulls Clint by the arm, and by extension -- because he’s holding Darcy’s hand -- Darcy’s pulled along, too.

“I’m just saying, man,” Sam stands up on the cheap, molded plastic of the long booth in the far corner. “It’s not about letting go, but it’s also not just about adjusting to life after war.” Bucky is slumped in the corner of the booth, while Steve can barely keep himself from shaking apart with his laughter. Sam looks perilously close to starting up a rendition of La Vi Boheme standing like that, with his arms outstretched.

One of the ladies behind the counter yells, “Samuel Wilson, you put your butt in that seat where it belongs or I am not responsible for where it ends up!” Sam sits straight back down.

“I told you, he wants us to have feelings,” Maria whispers. “The only feeling I want is Mama Carolina’s spaghetti in my stomach.”

Darcy’s feelings are like flutters in her stomach. She’s not entirely certain eating is going to help at all, it gets worse every time she even looks at Clint. But they settle down and enjoy the conversation. Clint’s different here, among friends. Home, at the farm, he’s not exactly a quiet man, but he’s focused. And whenever it’s just been the two of them, he’s on the verge of didactic, teaching as much as learning to be Darcy’s friend.

Clint has a messy laugh like a freight train, has swapped the tops of the salt and pepper shakers on Steve and Bucky’s side of the table, and is working on loosening all the lids of the grated parmesan cheese containers.

Kate shows up, tugging along another girl who can only be the girlfriend -- beautiful, for a teenager, smooth skin and curly hair and a swagger that makes her seem older than she must be, even if she doesn’t look it. Kate is smitten, can’t stop holding her hand long enough for her to shake Clint’s hand when she introduces them. They end up joining a small table of kids their age, but Kate seems straddled, longing to join the adults but not wanting to leave her friends behind, either.

Darcy’s not all that impressed by the plate of spaghetti brought to her; it looks cheap and from a can. Nothing she couldn’t do with about five dollars and twenty minutes of free time. But everyone else is eating quickly, noisily, and with great gusto, so Darcy digs in and really only expects a good time tonight. But it’s amazing. The pasta isn’t homemade, but it never needs to be when the sauce is slow cooked, robust with just enough spice and smoke. “Oh, my god,” Darcy says with her mouth full. “Oh, my god.”

Clint cracks up at her and teases, “City girl not used to real cooking?” But under the table, his feet can’t keep to themselves, and rub up on her ankle.

“City girl’s been cooking for you since April, so if you’d like that to continue…” Darcy teases right back, curls her voice into the small space between them, ignoring the way that Steve and Bucky chuckle into their food. “Is this all-you-can-eat, or is this it?” Darcy asks with the urgency of a man drowning.

“All-you-can-eat,” Sam answers. “Mama Carolina does not skimp for benefits. Wait, huh. Is that Stark? He doesn’t usually come to these things.”

Maria slurps her noodles and answers, “Yeah, but Harris was one the guys that saved his life in that accident about eight years back. Stark would buy the firefighters and ambulance service if it were legal.” She turns to Darcy, rolling her fork around to gather her next bite. “But he can’t run the whole damn county, so he settles for being the department’s number one supporter.”

Stark drops a check into the donation box instead of bills, escorting his wife along until she breaks off to meet with a large group of women. They look like the Ladies that Lunch crew, women that walk that line between technical workers and management, and struggle to break into the higher pay bracket. They don’t seem to know what to do with Pepper; is she a wife working in her husband’s business, or a career woman? Is she both or neither? But they welcome her all the same, asking her to sit and join them, because she is one of them. As long as she’s Stark’s wife, she won’t get the same type of respect as if she weren’t. Even if Pepper is really the operational brains of the business.

Stark, however, beelines it towards Jerry, which is not a good thing. Darcy really can’t handle another grab for his land right now, but Jerry is also a grown man, and he’s been handling Stark for a lot longer than Darcy has. Stark, for all his ego and forgetfulness of social graces, isn’t a bad man. Darcy hears things, now; knows his crew is well-paid, that contractors and partners all say they get fair deals. He’s not one for sharing, but he won’t do anything in bad faith. Darcy would likely sell to him, if there was no one else.

She watches Jerry and Stark’s conversation, waits to see if Jerry shows any urge to escape, but they just laugh and shake hands and talk. Stark points at his chest a good bit, and Jerry shakes his head.

“Darce,” Clint tugs on the fabric of her dress, leaning into her space and speaking into her ear. “Let them be, okay? You can more or less trust Stark with Jerry. Pepper’s here after all.” His eyes dart over at his friends, at the assortment of people in this huge corner booth, and he kisses Darcy, sweet and firm on her lips.

“Ten bucks,” Sam says to Maria. Maria’s hands come up in a surprised gesture. “What, I’m collecting for Natasha here. Ten bucks that Clint would actually get his act together.”

“How do you know that?” Maria balks. “We had that conversation at Victoria’s Secret.”

“She tells me things. I have her tell me things when it involves your frilly bits. It came up.”

“Yeah, well, Nat owes me ten, too.” Kate pulls her chair over and holds her hand out to Sam. “Because I bet that Darcy would freak a bit, and she totally freaked a bit, right?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Darcy levels at Kate, trying to hold back a blush. “I am a perfectly calm and rational woman. Why would I freak out even a little?”

Sam hands the money over to Kate, betraying the trust Darcy was beginning to have in Sam and his good sense. “Trusting a mere child over me; how dare you.” Darcy wrinkles her nose and smiles straight out of her eyes. “Trusting a child that hangs out with Clint willingly!”

“I don’t hang out with Clint,” Kate sniffs, as only a spoiled girl can. “He hangs out with me.”

“This is character assassination. Darce, they are assassinating my character!” Clint objects and holds his hand to his heart. “Just killing me. Why am I friends with you?”

“Because you are a sap that wanted to make sure Sam was good enough for Natasha,” Maria answers sweetly, stealing a piece of Sam’s garlic bread and looking as him with teasing laughter. “And don’t say shouldn’t we check if she was good enough for you.”

Sam just smiles, sly and knowing and utterly besotted, and hands over the rest of the bread.

Darcy watches this all, barely holding back her biggest grin. She misses feeling part of a group and misses Jane and Thor and her college friends. Everyone else seemed to figure things out, at least from appearances, and doesn’t really keep in touch. She’s tried the group text, Facebook messages, everything she can try to keep them all together. But it mostly comes to nothing, and she’s damn lucky to hold onto Jane and Thor. She misses them, should call tonight, so that their friendship doesn’t fall into nostalgia and a longing for things that never were really there.

Kate sucks in a breath watching the door open. “Thought he wouldn’t come to something like this.” It’s Barney, searching out and looking over the crowd of people.

“Don’t pay him no mind,” Clint says and turns his head away. Darcy keeps an eye on Barney, who keeps looking for someone in the crowd. He’s standing at the counter and lifts onto the ball of his foot, still looking. He glances towards her and she averts eye contact. Barney shoves a hand into his pocket and pulls out a few crumpled up bills and stuffs them into the bucket being used for donations and leaves.

“Didn’t expect that,” Darcy says, curious. Barney doesn’t seem the type to just give someone his well worn money. Honest or otherwise.

“Oh, no, Barney’s big on firefighters,” Clint says. “When he was a kid, he wanted to be one, but mostly, it’s ‘cause they were nice when our parents died, came to the funeral to stand with us. There wasn’t really anyone else. He’s never forgotten that.”

It doesn’t really matter how much a shit you are; there’s always something worth celebrating in a person. It might not be enough to redeem them, never will be, but no one is simple and clear cut. Darcy doesn’t want to think of Barney as complicated, but he is, and so’s Clint’s relationship with him. It says something, that for all the shakes and shatters that relationship must have, they live within spitting distance of each other.

Jerry comes over and put a hand on her shoulder, to let her know that he’s heading back home. “Drive safe,” Darcy says, giving him a kiss on the cheek. Jerry’s tired, his shoulders slump, but he’s happy.

She needs to call her father. Needs to tell him to come out here sooner rather than later. He needs a chance to try to be a brother, be family. Jerry’s not going to be here forever.

“You wanna head out?” Clint asks, later, after the restaurant’s turned over and filled up again, with more people that Darcy feels that she should know. Customers, familiar faces from the grocery store and gas station, but she doesn’t know them by name.

The weather’s turned bad since Jerry left, lightning cracking the sky into pieces and the rain falling in heavy sheets. After they say their goodbyes, hug what feels like every person who lives within a ten mile radius, Darcy gets soaked just getting to the truck. She doesn’t get the chance to really dry out before Clint has to run the defroster on high, the windows keep steaming up from the inside.

Clint’s knuckles are white, fingernails breaking the cover of the steering well with neat half-moon impressions. The wind picks up, and it’s tough to stay straight, and the country station can barely be heard over the sound of the rain hitting the roof, the windshield, plinking bits of hail. They don’t talk, just steady and calming breathing from both of them. The interstate is starting to flood around the edges, and Clint hits the rumble strips every so often trying to keep control of the pickup.

The lights behind them are too close to them, moving fast, and Clint yells as he turns the wheel to send them past the strips and onto the side of the road. The pickup slips down the wet banks and into the ditch on the right side of the road. “Fucking asshole!” Clint hits the steering wheel with his fists. The car that ran them off the road continues to race down the road, taking up both lanes. Clint looks out the window, into his mirrors, and half heartedly tries the gas. The tires spin and that’s about it.

“We should call someone,” Darcy says. “Come and grab us.”

“I don’t want anyone else to get stuck in this, too dangerous.” Clint turns on the brights and the emergency flasher. Several cars pass by, but no one stops. Darcy doesn’t expect them to; this rain is terrible. “County and the state police are going to have enough issues if the storm’s this bad.”

“So we stay put? Wait it out?” Darcy pulls up the weather on her phone. The radar is a solid mess of orange and red, no letup in sight, at least, not till the early hours of the morning.

Another car speeds past them, swerving between two lanes. “Not with these idiots on the road. We’re by the Hernandez property and there’s a building not far from here. It’ll be muddy, but it should be safer than letting another car run into us here.”

Darcy looks at her feet. The sandals she’d put on before heading out had been so cute. She slips them off. Clint turns off the pickup and tells her to wait a second. He takes off his seatbelt and twists to root behind him, pulling out a sweatshirt and a crummy pair of boots. “Put these on and tie the boots as tight as you can, alright? I don’t want you to slip and twist an ankle in the mud. I’ll bring my phone, you leave yours in the glovebox so at least one will have battery left.”

Darcy does, letting Clint take the lead when she gets out of the truck. He holds a dim flashlight in one hand and Darcy’s hand with the other. And even though her legs get soaked with the rain, and she can feel globs of mud on the back of her thighs, she’s okay. Clint seems to know exactly where he’s going, and it’s maybe five minutes before an old outbuilding comes into view. Darcy’s not sure what it could have been used for, but just below the tall roofline, there’s a line of narrow glass windows. But it’s upright and when they get inside, it’s completely dry. There’s no working lights and dust everywhere.

“What was this used for?” Darcy asks.

“Mostly a place for all of Carlos’s kids and grandkids to play in. Other than that, I have no idea.” Lightning fills the room with a brief, just perfect light. Clint starts laughing, “You look like a drowned cat.”

Darcy scowls and flips her hair back and forth, sending whips of water against Clint’s face. He flinches, the wrinkles at his eyes deepening as his grin turns into mirthful indignation. He rakes though his hair with his fingers and then shakes his head violently, like a dog. Like Lucky. It doesn’t do much except add to the messed-up state that Darcy’s already in. “Ugh, I am going to catch my death out here.”

“I can keep you warm,” Clint says, holding out his arms, but he’s just as wet as she is. Worse even, since she has his sweatshirt on. His shirt sticks to his chest and arms, a sight she’s seen before, but now she can do more than look. This isn’t such a bad first date, even with almost drowning in the storm. She likes storms; they met Thor during a thunderstorm and look how well that turned out. She goes into Clint’s arms, slides her hands up his back for a sloppy, soppy hug. Maybe the heat between them will dry them off faster.

The wind howls against the siding, the windows rattle above them. The lightning diffuses through the clouded glass, intermittently filling the shed with dull light. They shift their weight together almost like dancing and throw shadows against the wall. When Darcy looks up, Clint’s watching her with a terrified little smile, like he’s not sure what to do next, and it’s a wondrous sort of unnerving, since Clint tends to be so steady and sure of where his feet will land, that he’s afraid of a misstep about her, that she needs to kiss and reassure him. This is good, this is best, and she doesn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

They are so close, there’s heat between their lips, she can see how the corner of his mouth twitches, when his eyebrow almost meet his hairline in alarm and he lifts the hood of the sweatshirt up and pulls her down to the ground, her head cradled against his chest and almost into his armpit, and she feels the weight of his head on top of hers. The windows pop, crash and shatter above them, and the glass rains down on them. There’s a burning panic in her chest, she’s going to die in this storm, going to die on someone else’s land, this stupid shed and a new pretty dress wasted.

“Shh, shh, shh,” Clint says, his lips against her ears. “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s just old glass.” Her throat is raw, she hadn’t even heard her shriek of surprise over the howling wind. “That’s all, just the window failing. Give it a minute and we’ll move over to where it’s clean.”

“Sorry, sorry.” There’s nothing to be sorry about, it’s just the words that happen like a nervous tic; her panic is totally understandable. There’s sick trying to come back up, bitter acid at the back of her throat that she forces back and swallows down. “What else could go wrong. Was that like, a tornado or something?”

Clint lifts his head, dropping it back to let the larger pieces of glass fall out of his hair. There’s a few trickles of blood on his face, another down his neck, but he’s unscathed otherwise, as far as she can tell. “Nah, don’t think so sweetheart, those sound different. You’d recognize it, like a freight train an inch above you. And no sirens now. We’d hear them, even if they’d didn’t catch it until after. Careful standing, it’ll be all over you and the ground.” He slowly stands, his arm crooked for her to steady herself.

The door doesn’t have any windows above it, and they walk over, and Darcy is even more grateful for the oversized boots. First saving her from the worst of the mud and now the glass crunching under her feet. Clint kicks at the ground, checking for any stray glass. The flashlight is almost dead, and they get more light from the lightning. Her heart's still beating fast, and she’s in complete overdrive and she needs to do something with all the excess energy that’s in her fingertips, her lips, her heels. Clint raises his head from looking at the ground. “Should be good --” she shuts him up. Wraps her arms around his neck and drags him down for a frantic kiss, enough that he stumbles for steady footing.

She did that. She caused his feet to slip, she caused the world to unravel a bit, and she explores a bit more, in his mouth, her fingers move from his neck to his biceps. Country life does have benefits, real work builds a good body, and there’s a metallic twang on his lips. Scalps bleed, that’s what they do, and she doesn’t care one bit. Darcy stretches against Clint, learning to fit into him. This isn’t something stolen during the workweek, this is what’s been humming underneath them.

Clint has rough hands, they catch on her skin and can’t glide smooth, and the way he grabs her ass could never be described as a caress. It’s better than that; it’s better this way, a flame catching in the worst weather, than letting it grow slowly, day by day. She’s not the fucking corn. He’s hard against her thigh; she moves her leg to get a little friction, and Clint breaths hard, lifting his face just out of reach. “Baby,” and it feels like the world tilts around her when he says that. “I can’t ever be proper and it really pains me to say this, but I want you on a bed as soon as possible.”

That seems like a plan, the best plan she can think of at this moment, and he settles her down to sit, barely ever breaking contact with some part of her body, and they grow a familiarity with each other until the rain becomes a steady drizzle and lulls them into a wary sleep.

The truck’s been marked by the police by the time they get back to it, and there’s evidence of at least another car having skidded off the road nearby. Clint’s phone soaked in his pants during the night and will need to rest in a vat of rice, but Darcy’s works. When Steve and Bucky both show up to push the car out of the ditch, the three of them can nearly lift it right up.

“Go enjoy your day off,” Clint says after testing the engine. By morning, Darcy’s dress is only damp, and her hair is stringy and she just feels gross and humid, and she’s ready to finally relax after being on edge in so many different ways.

“We’ll follow you until our exit,” Steve assures him, just in case. “Call if you need anything.”

Darcy promises and promptly dozes in the morning sunshine on the way back, waking long enough when Clint pokes her as they turn onto the access road. “You wanna be dropped off back at the house?”

“I thought you wanted me on a bed?” She asks without thinking. And with the way Clint smiles, dirty and happy, she never wants to leave that smile. She wants to live in it.

Their farm, miraculously, did not flood, but the muddy ditches at the edges of the property meant when the dogs went exploring, they came back in need of a garden hose. But the corn just shoots up, over her head in places, and the other fields brighten and produce. Darcy picks and harvests her way through July and into August. Jerry doesn’t like the heat, says it’s no good for the corn and last year, with the milder summer was better. “Dirt probably could have just sprouted on its own, right up into the harvester,” Jerry tells her, patting his head dry with a handkerchief. Darcy thinks it’s more that Jerry doesn’t like the heat, because the early corn they pick for the farmers markets is delicious.

“He always gets worried, and the year before is always a better year than the current one. Or five years ago, or ten,” Clint tells Darcy in response, loud enough for Jerry to hear. They keep trying to be hands off while they are working, even at the breakfast table, but it’s a struggle, and she settles for nearness instead. “Corn’s fine. As long as the months move along like they are supposed to, it’ll be okay.”

“I keep hearing about that climate change,” Jerry insists. “The news says it ain’t real, but I’m thinking it may be.”

“You need to change the channel from Fox News, Uncle Jerry. They’ve almost got you, you could become a crank.” Darcy holds out her cup when Clint stands up to get more coffee. “But it is totally a thing.”

“We’ll be fine this year. We’ll adapt as we need to,” Clint says longingly at the carafe with enough for two fills left. He tops Darcy’s cup off, and stares at it again before filling his back up, as well.

“You can’t move land, Barton. This guy --” Jerry breaks off into a jagged and wrenching series of coughs that leaves him winded and panting. “This guy comes to me going on ten years ago, just a kid --”

“I was twenty-four!” Clint objects.

“Just a kid! You’re both kids. You’ll always be kids even when I’m dead and gone!” Jerry raises his voice, not yelling but enunciating clearly, to be heard. “This kid comes, hat in hand, with a three week old help wanted ad. I’d hired all my help for that year, but Clint was just a little shit about it. He’s strong, he’ll work cheap and off the books, won’t complain or nothing.”

“And have I complained?” Clint lofts, his mouth obscured by coffee. “No, I have not.”

“Kid is the only one that showed up day after we flooded out, ‘cause he’d been living in a tent at the edge of the property and nearly got swept away during the night. Decided then and there that even if I had to teach him everything there is about farming, he needed to have at least one useful skill.” Jerry’s relaxed, now, into a nostalgic tirade, and he presses his lips together. “And a dry place to stay.”

“You should still charge me more rent,” Clint says. “I’m not pulling my weight there.”

“You shut it. I never got a chance to spoil a child. I got you, instead, and I’ll spoil you,” Jerry says with teeth and too much honesty and he sits back in his chair. He snaps his mouth shut and closes his eyes.

Darcy looks away, wiping away the errant tears in her eyes, and then embraces the old man, kissing his cheek. “Well, you got two of us, now, okay, Jerry?”

Clint looks like he’s found himself trapped for the first time, his eyes wide and so many words wanting to fall out of his mouth. “I’m just going to, um, I’ll see you …work…” And slides his way, foot by foot, out the door, coffee cup still in hand.

“Kid still can’t take a compliment, though,” Jerry grouses, rolling his eyes like he’s a wayward youth, himself. “He’s a good boy, Darcy. Took him awhile not to run at the sight of trouble -- he kept that damn tent up for six months after I got him to move into the trailer.”

Darcy knows just enough to be dangerous, here, knows that Clint had a pile of shit for a father and his only brother isn’t exactly coming up roses, either. “How often do you tell him that, Jerry? This the first time you told him he’s practically your son?” Jerry’s eyes widen, understanding. “I think he’s still a little scared that his good life will stop short and he’ll have to pick it up somewhere else.”

“Now, that can’t be -- this life’s been good to him. He’s stable, not like that brother of his. If anything, I hope I had something to do with that.” Jerry begins to shake a little, anxiety pulling at his lips. “He makes you happy, right? I know you two are sweet on each other, and that’s more than I could ask for, but he makes you happy? You’ll make sure he stays stable? Do we need to go see Coulson, again?” His breaths just shallow out, and he starts coughing, again. It’s not a good day, and Jerry tries to do too much.

Darcy tries to distract him as he struggles to regain his breath, the paleness in his fingers as she holds his hand worrying. He’s going far too fast. “You didn’t bring me out here just so you could find Clint a woman, did you? That is cribbing from a Harlequin novel, Uncle. If I check out your room, am I going to find a stack of bodice rippers?”

“Only if you lent them to me,” Jerry responds, too quiet, but regaining his humor. “I think I’m going to go sit before heading out to work.” Jerry stands up to head to the living room, past the displays of tractors -- lovingly collected and curated over long years -- to settle on the couch. He’s aged a decade in the month, moves too slow and nothing like when she first got here.

Far too fast, Darcy thinks again, and palms the cell phone in her pocket. She thinks of Clint and Barney, about brothers who have never quite gotten along and don’t know what to with each other. Who never have. How her father moved clear across the country to get away from the life Jerry leads, and yet, still was happy to send Darcy there to live it. Even if he was a prick about his personal reasons. Is that gap between her uncle and her father too far open? Her phone is heavy in her hands as she pulls it out, even as she she walks out the door. Maybe it’s too big, too much for her to fix, but there’s not much time left. Jerry’s race is nearly run, and she’s got to try.

She sits on the porch and stares at the phone, willing herself to call her father. The longer she’s out here, the less she wants to talk with him. He’s not always a kind man, and her conversations have gone back to stilted and strange, much as they were in college. It always seemed that the more they were apart, the less he remembered and thought about her.

“It’s not about me, though. This is for Jerry,” Darcy mutters as she presses the call button. She’s expecting voicemail, it’s a weekday, and he’s not known to answer his phone at work, but he answers. She chats about how things are at the farm, how’s work, how’s the house. It’s curious, though, she thinks she hears a television in the background because it really sounds like Judge Judy.

“I think you should take a few days off and come out here,” Darcy says, rushing through the words like a river. She’ll get there, get the current moving. “Look, it’s before harvest starts around here, and everyone says that we’ll all be wishing for thirty hour days come September. It’s a good time.”

The noise her dad makes is terrible, it’s a scoffing sort of sigh. “Darcy, things are really busy around here, and I just don’t know if I’m going to have the time to go halfway across the country --”

“Dad, he’s dying. It’s not going to be long. Do you want to see your brother before the funeral, or were you planning on skipping that, too?” Fuck the river. Darcy’s going up against a dam; she’s heading straight for the dynamite.

“I don’t appreciate the way you are speaking to me right now, Darcy. That’s not the way you were raised. I have a lot of reasons that I can’t come out, you can’t just call me up and say get here now --”

“Yes I can. I am, in fact, telling you to get on a plane, a train, or in your goddamn car. Don’t be like mom and run away and hide from your fucking problems, old man. You may hate flyover country, you might even dislike Jerry for some strange reason, but he’s dying and you should come back and say goodbye before you have to do it at his grave.”

Her father stays silent for too long, and if it wasn’t for his breathing, she’d swear he’d hung up on her. Maybe she went too far by comparing him to her mom, because at least he’s still around. At least he’s kept trying and cares for Darcy. He’d wanted her to come here, so, at some level, he cares for his brother. “Darcy,” he finally answers, with a stillness that Darcy isn’t used to hearing in her father, and it’s chilling. “Darcy, please don’t bring your mother into this at all. That has…it has... there’s nothing to do with what’s… I’m --” in the background, she hears the microwave beep.

“You’re not even at work, are you? Please tell me you took a vacation day or are sick, and not that you got fired!” Darcy tries not to yell, but fails because she’s just not built for things like being subtle.

“Not fired. Furloughed,” he mutters. “We didn’t pick up the way I thought we would.”

“Get your ass here if you aren’t working.” Darcy ends the call. There’s not time for that nonsense. She’s caught her father in the lie and he can’t back out now, he won’t. She’ll call back later and check in with him, see if he’s flying in or driving. She’ll make the arrangements if she has to, she’ll pay if she has to. She’s got some money now, and this is better than buying more clothes for the season. Or more soap at the farmer’s market.

Jerry’s going to be so goddamn happy to see his brother, and that’s what’s going to make this worth it.

It takes a few days, but she wears down her father’s will in much the same way she’d try to get her way as a child. Yelling and screaming that turns into a stubbornness that rivals his, that wears down the hardest of stones. Diamond-tipped will, chips and drills and agitates against her father’s and she schedules a flight for him that comes into Des Moines during the week, and he’ll stay through Sunday.

“We should be back to work by then,” her father reluctantly says when she gives him his flight details. “And I really can’t miss paid work right now. I’ve got that loan to get back on track, and this didn’t help.”

When Darcy tells Jerry, though, she leaves her father’s lack of enthusiasm out of it. Jerry knits his eyebrows together in a moment of concern. “He really wanted to come out to see me?”

“He couldn’t think of anything he’d like better,” Darcy lies, straight through her teeth, and is gratified by the smile bubbling up on her uncle’s face. Her pocketbook feels lighter, that’s for sure, having taken the brunt of the expense. But it’s worth it, the way that Jerry starts bustling about the house, cleaning and getting a spare room ready. It’s not to the same depth that her room was prepared, but it’s work that Jerry is more capable of doing right now.

No one wants to tell Jerry to stop working out in the fields and no one wants him out on the equipment, but soon they won’t have a choice. Darcy knows it, and so does Clint. So do Steve and Bucky, and all the other hired workers. They share along grim looks every time Jerry passes them by, checking the crops, running tests on the soil. Bucky’s taken to always being one step ahead of Jerry so that he can be the one that climbs on the tractor when things get going.

“Maybe your dad can talk some sense into him,” Steve says.

“Does it work on you?” Bucky replies, rolling his eyes and slapping Steve on the back. “You and Jerry are peas, asshole. Would you see it as sense, or would you keep going until you fucking passed out?”

“I would not!” Steve objects and the couple pleasantly squabbles over Steve’s ability to say no to any sort of struggle. “Buck, this isn’t like my asthma as a kid. Jerry’s not going to grow out of being old and having heart issues. He’ll see reason.” Nobody believes Steve, but they all humor him.

Thursday morning, Darcy takes Jerry’s keys out of his hand. “I’m going to go pick dad up. Can you handle lunch today? And there’s a bit of payroll that needs to be validated, and I’m not sure if I’ll have time to do that today.” Handling Jerry isn’t easy, but he’s beginning to defer to Darcy as she starts planning the days, and she left tasks that are important to run the farm, even if they are easy and undemanding.

“You sure you don’t want me to come with?” Clint asks, tilting his head before rubbing at his pre-caffeinated eyes. There’s part of her that wants to say yes, she wants her father to meet the man she dating right away, but things are still so new between them. Good -- and not the shiny, glossy newness that means they can’t keep their hands off each other, but actually good. There’s hesitation between them, how could there not be? Clint’s honest enough to say he’s nervous about screwing things up after a history of a thousand missteps, and Darcy’s practical enough to take him at his word.

“Nah, I want him to meet you when you are sweaty and gross,” Darcy teases, kissing the top of his head. “You’ve got work to do. Oh, hey, I checked the extended forecast. Doesn’t look like any rain in the next ten days.”

“Weather stays true, we might be able to start harvesting a little early. Be nice to get it all done before we got to worry about early frost,” Clint says to Jerry who nods in agreement.

Jerry then looks at Darcy, like he wants to ask her a question, needs an answer about something, but can’t make the words come out. He has to have the jitters about his brother coming to see him after so many years apart. Darcy can’t even imagine what that must feel like; if her mother walked up to her today, Darcy has no idea what she would do. Even in her head, she’s torn between yelling at her and wanting to forgive her if she could get one more hug.

“Walk you out?” Clint asks and Darcy agrees. They stop on the deck to play with the dogs for a few minutes, enjoying each other’s company. “You tell your dad about, um, well, us? I mean, do I need to keep my hands to myself when you get back, make myself scarce?” Clint’s not resigned, but there’s a sadness to the question, like he’s used to being pushed aside when he’s inconvenient. She curls her hand into his, craving closeness with him, reassuring an old insecurity.

“It’s a bit of a drive back; I’m sure I can cover the important things in my life.” Darcy’s sure she’s said the right thing when Clint pulls her close by their tangled hands to kiss her breathless, with a sweet urgency that she’s learning is behind so much of what drives Clint. Do the right thing, do the good thing, even when it’s foolish, even when you should wait and see what happens.

“You sure you are doing the right thing? Sometimes families break off and don’t see each other for reasons,” Clint says, close to her mouth and serious.

“Do you still love your brother?” Darcy asks and is answered by a guilty silence. “It’s okay not to like your family, but I think my dad and uncle deserve a chance to figure things out between them before….”

“Yeah, before. Hey, Darcy, tomorrow night? Dinner, you and me and some farm stuff.” He kisses her fingers, the tips and the knuckles. “Give you a break from cooking.”

“You want to give me a break from the cooking, take a week and make lunch. But I’d like that.”

Darcy doesn’t manage to avoid traffic, not at all, but even on it’s worst day it’s better than any day in the Beltway. Then again, Darcy has yet to find a major airport where the traffic isn’t enough to break down in tears just due to someone else’s staggering stupidity. The flight isn’t in on time, and she spends the time a little mind-boggled at the sheer amount of people. She’s been in the back pocket of the same few hundred people, even counting the farmer’s markets, since spring, and it’s a little comforting. But it’s also loud, and, somehow, she’s always in someone else’s way, like a tractor on the road at six am.

Adapting to farm life must be getting to her if she’s comparing herself to a tractor.

When her father finally arrives, he’s pretty much the way she remembers. He’s a little gruff, but his face matches hers when they see each other, and he hugs her tight and tells her that he’s missed her around the house.

“I’m glad you came,” she says, leaning over in the car and play-hitting her father’s shoulder before she backs out of her parking spot. He doesn’t respond back. He’s tired, flying sucks, and careening through a time zone is never all that fun. Patrick stares out of the window, occasionally drifting asleep but waking up whenever she gets on a new road.

They aren’t all that far from the farm when he finally starts talking again. “It’s strange, everything is still exactly the same. I recognize the fields, the old barns that should have fallen over when I was kid. But nothing is the same, either -- there’s a lot more out here, now. We’ve passed towns that barely existed and now they have more than a post office and a stop light.”

“Time marches on, dad. What, do you think that the world stagnates if you aren’t there to see it happen?” Darcy replies. She hadn’t thought of it that way, though; that when he grew up, there was even less here. What’s come and gone in that time? Darcy’s seen photos of the farm as it was just a decade ago, and if you negated that one field tends to look the same as another, the farm is different. Clint’s greenhouse operation, alone, is a huge difference, and buildings have gone up and down. The machine shed was built in the past twenty years.

“No, of course not,” Patrick grumbles and looks at his feet.

She’s going to have to bring this up before they get to the farm. “I’m seeing someone,” she tries to play it cool but her father stiffens in the seat, lifting his head to attention.

He points his face at her, narrowing at the mouth. “You’re seeing someone here? Who the hell do you even meet around here!” It’s all intense, inexplicable anger. There’s never been a reaction like this to anyone Darcy’s dated before, even less at the mere knowledge that she’s dating someone. “Christ, kid, what sort of a loser did you find?”

Darcy chooses to ignore that, thankful that Clint didn’t come along with her. “His name is Clint. He’s the farm manager. You’ll meet him when we get there, alright? And he’s a good guy.” She doesn’t say how much Jerry thinks of him, how much she really likes him, that he’s one of the best things about being here. Or how much she dreads making any sort of decision about the future, because he’s never going to leave this farm and Darcy can’t see past the next few months of her life.

“Sounds like a real mover and shaker.” Patrick rolls his eyes and, again, Darcy knows that look, because she inherited it from him.

“That’s the dream. I went to college to find myself a rich guy and never have to work a day outside the house in my life. Be nice.”

The dogs bark and holler as she turns into the farm, and by now, she doesn't even worry about them flinging themselves under her wheels anymore. But her father worries and points out Lucky as he darts alongside them.

"Don't worry, it's just Lucky; he's letting everyone know we're home." She draws out the last few words by the vowels, indulging in the good nature of the dogs. They might be able to hear her, dogs have good hearing, and they always seem to be around when being praised. When scolded, that’s when they scatter to the edges of the farm and only skulk back hours later, watching the faces of their people.

Patrick pulls his bag out of the back seat after Darcy parks and begins walking to the front door. He makes it a few steps before noticing that Darcy isn't walking with him.

"Dad," she says softly. "Family comes in through the back."

Patrick stops, his foot kicking up dirt that clouds around his nice, black shoes, and turns around in slow motion. “Right, I forgot.”

No one is in the house, so Darcy shows him up to his room, and he surprises her.“This was actually my room, you know. I think you’ve got Jerry’s, but this was mine. I wanted so badly to switch, since Jerry would tear down the servant’s stairs in the morning and get breakfast before me. He’d always take the best of whatever was on the table.” Patrick looks up, shifts his weight a few times, the floor groaning with age beneath him. He gives Darcy a half smile before kneeling down to the floorboards. “This one creaks because I hid stuff underneath it. I took the box with me when I went off to college, though. Did they ever get air conditioning?”

Jerry had made up the room with fresh sheets, but very light and airy bedding. Dad sweats in his sleep in the middle of winter and Darcy breaks the news to him that while they may have air conditioning, it’s probably the original. “It’s kind of shitty.”

“Ah, well, I’ll survive a few days.”

The door slams from the mudroom. “Darce, you upstairs?” If Clint’s yelling for her, Jerry must not be too far behind. “If you are, snag one Jerry’s shirts out of his dresser!”

“Can do!” Darcy yells back and then raises her eyebrows to her father. “I’m going to see what’s up. New clothes is never a good sign.” She shakes her hand out towards him as she backs out, “You just get settled. Be nostalgic for your childhood, whatever.”

When she comes downstairs, fresh shirt in hand, Clint’s caked in dirt and mud and washing off in the utility sink, scrubbing down with Lava soap and making a mess. “Before you ask it was not my fault. Bucky shoved me and then dropped me. And then we may have gotten into it a little.”

“Did you kiss and make up?” There’s several visuals running through her head and all of them are very interesting, but she’s more concerned that Clint and Bucky got into a fight.

“Yeah, after Steve talked him down and he realized where he was. They’re calling it an early day, going back to Sam’s. Don’t take it out of their pay, I spooked the guy, maybe.”

Darcy wouldn’t dare dream of docking anyone’s pay, and she’s sure Jerry would be in agreement. They don’t make a show of it, but the undercurrent of why those two men are in podunk Iowasville and not home in Brooklyn isn’t all that complicated. It’s more of a riptide, the way Bucky sometimes gets angry or Steve goes cold and still. “You okay?”

“Just dirty.” He changes the subject to one he’d rather talk about. Clint doesn’t like anyone’s feelings, especially his own. “How’s your dad?”

Darcy leans up and kisses his cheek, leaving the imprint of her lips on his skin, “He’s complaining and reminiscing, so, pretty good, actually. Jerry coming in behind you?”

“He went out to start looking at the early corn, see how it’s going along.” His hands and arms clean, Clint scrubs at his face with a towel, shakes the dirt from his hair, and sheds his shirt. It’s a sight she’s never going to get tired of looking at, or touching when she has a chance. If this is what the corn-fed life does to men, hard work and food that Darcy never wants to know the fat content of, sign more of the world up. So, sue her, she’s shallow. “I think he was more anxious than anything and doing the paperwork just made him antsy.” Clint takes the clean shirt from Darcy’s hands, shrugs it on and tosses the dirty towels into the washer.

Clint reaches for Darcy, his fingertips catching the fabric of her loose fitting shirt, a sly smile that promises the good sort of reckoning. There are moments that he’s boyish with the way he touches, the way he reels her in just to hold her for a brief moment. His arms are heavy and strong around her and she drinks in the moment, soaking in it the way a cat is drawn to the sunshine.

“You the boyfriend?” The mood breaks and Darcy jumps back, acting like she’s fifteen and caught with a boy’s hand up her blouse for the first time.

Clint doesn’t even lose his cool, just puts out his hand and the best Sunday Company smile, “Sure am. Clint Barton.”

Patrick shakes the offered hand, but drops it without introducing himself. “Where’s that brother of mine I’m here to see?”

“Right here, right here,” Jerry says, and the exercise clearly did him good, today. He looks almost healthy, almost to full color. There’s still bags under his eyes, but they shine with the gloss of unshed tears. Happy, if Darcy hasn’t missed her mark. Jerry doesn’t waste any time and hugs his brother. Patrick stiffens and then relaxes. And yes, this was a good idea, and it’s going to work out.

She takes Clint by the hand and leads him outside, wanting to give the brothers time to catch up. She picks up a slobber-covered ball and calls out for the dogs. They come running and she throws the ball far away from them. “Dogs running are the best things, aren’t they?” Darcy loves watching Lucky and Bandit run and fight for the ball. They end up chasing each other as the ball flies between them.

Clint shakes his head, curls his lips into a lopsided smile. “So, odds that your dad likes me?”

Darcy bites her lip, “Oh, negative odds, farm-boy. It’s a good thing he has terrible taste in men. Mine is so much better.”

“Is this what you do all day?” her father asks when he finally makes it downstairs, nearly eleven, and find her in the kitchen, slicing up fruit for lunch. Gradually, over the summer, more and more comes from her friends at the market and less from the grocery stores, and the taste just keeps changing. Sweeter, juicier, better in every way. There’s a roast cooling on the stove, ready for her to slice up into sandwiches for everyone, and it’s not her normal Friday lunch fare at all, but her father’s here and she wants to impress him a little. Her nights to cook in high school and back home were not grand affairs: macaroni and cheese more often than not. “Do you just cook all day? I didn’t send you here to be the maid.”

“I spent the first part of the morning working out a snafu with our insurance billing -- the agent mucked with our file and somehow we lost coverage over the heavy equipment, I don’t even know how. So, I’m working on that and contemplating telling everyone to stay the fuck off the tractors today even though I’ve been assured that I will have continuous coverage. Then, yes, I started making lunch, because it’s actually more productive to have everyone eat here rather than have them all fuckoff to a diner or hide in a shed to eat a sandwich. You want to be helpful or do you want to sit in that chair and not make fun of my work.”

“It’s just demeaning, having you cook for all those men. I raised you better than that, you don’t need to cook and clean for all these men around here, they are big boys, they can do it, themselves. Jerry was just up and down about you last night, saying how nice it is to have you around the house and how it looks so much better since you’ve been here.” His face turns ruddy around the cheeks, down his neck, hiding a fury. “Office work, sure you do that. But this? This is not what I sent you to school for Darcy!”

“What does your place look like right now? Because I kept that clean, too. Coming back from college, I reorganized your bookshelves, deep cleaned a room a week, you had a year of dust bunnies under the bed. You never even noticed. I’m thanked every day, here, so shut up and enjoy lunch.” She waves the knife in her hands as she talks, and when she realizes she’s pointing it at her father she sighs and puts it down hard on the cutting board. “I was asked to do the cooking. I clean because the house is beautiful and it’s part of our family. I work out with Steve and Bucky and Clint in the greenhouse. I set up the farmer’s market with a teenager who loves farming more than she loves her family’s money. I do what’s needed around here, okay?”

“Your grandmother almost never left the house. Sunday, Sundays she left for church and brought cookies for the social hour. There was too much to be done here for her to get out and do anything, have her own life.”

“Now that’s just willful ignorance, Pat,” Jerry teeters in from weeding the garden before the morning turned to afternoon and gets too hot for him to be outside for long. It’s up in the 90’s, today, ready to roast most everyone. “Mama was out all the time while we were at school. She was on the social committee at church, took food to the sick and to new mothers. She knew every baby in the county by name and Mama gossiped over the phone for hours with at least three different women.”

Patrick huffs in rebuttal, folding his arms. “Maybe when you were young, but by the time I was in school and aware? I almost never saw her without a dust rag or a skillet.”

“Lean times. We had drought and she was needed, couldn’t hire any hands so she was needed to work during the day, same as me. I came back from school during then and never went back, remember?”

Her father turns to Darcy. “Remember this: this place eats you whole. You get too far in and you will be swallowed and any chance you had at that life in politics or law school or whatever you wanted to do is gone. The dirt takes you in and buries you, alive and breathing.” He’s still red, but staring at Jerry. “Is the farm going to take everyone I love from me?”

Jerry pales suddenly as if the blood suddenly flooded his feet. “Never like that, and you know it.” Every bit of good that was promised last night has gone from the two men and a river, a gulf, a canyon has opened up between them, animosity carving out ridges. Patrick rolls up his shoulders, shoring his defenses and ready for a fight.

“Everyone’s going to be coming in a couple of minutes, Jerry, can you get the plates?” Darcy tries to diffuse the situation churning between them. “Oh, and you’re on your own for dinner, tonight. Why don’t you take dad into town and see what he remembers?” She turns on her heel and finishes putting together lunch, but decides that they are all grown men and can slice their own meat and leaves that undone to go work in the office for the rest of the afternoon.

It’s odd that Clint doesn’t come in to see her, but she’s relieved. She doesn’t want to take the anger in her veins out on him. What, exactly, did her father think she was going to do when she came out here? Not help out? Stay in the office and go straight to bed, afterwards? He’s hardly been civil to her since she picked him up from the airport and even though she strong-armed him into coming out here, they’d always respected each other. Or so she thought. He hadn’t batted an eye when she decided to major in political science, or go on an internship on the other side of the country. Would he have thought it as demeaning if she was getting Jane and Erik coffee, doing their grocery shopping and creating their filing systems? That wouldn’t get his ire up; he’d think it a little childish, not wanting to let go of her college internship, but he’d consider it a starting step for her career. Something she could use as a hook for future employment.

But what she does here isn’t all that far off from what she did in New Mexico and the main differences are that it involves the family and the farm work. Clearly, Patrick has an idea of what that entailed, certainly he didn’t think she wouldn’t be helping with the actual physical labor from time to time. She enjoys it, loves getting dirty, has loved seeing something so concrete come alive with the help of her own hands. She has done this, she has helped with the planting, she will help with the harvest, this is the work that keeps everyone else working and living. It’s important.

She sneaks back into the kitchen to eat once she hears everyone else go back out to work. Brothers fight; she’s been told that’s what they do. Clint and Barney fought even when they were getting along, after all. It’s the nature of the strong-willed to clash, spark, and burn bright against each other, and these brothers should be no exception. Time together will help. So, Darcy works. She learned that from Jane: when you don’t know what else to do, work. Just do the work and let the world attend to itself. She works until she gets ready for dinner. She likes slipping into a dress after a long day, the simplicity and ease of looking like she’s put together with hardly any effort.

Like clockwork, Lucky joins her for her walk over to the trailer. There’s scant evidence of anyone around, even later in the day there’s usually the sound of someone putting in an extra hour, making up for time lost during the day. Clint’s home is dark and locked when she gets there, and his truck is gone. Darcy settles in on the porch to wait, fiddling with her phone and playing Candy Crush to pass the time. When she runs out of lives, hints of sunset streak across the sky, and worry begins to fill her stomach. She sends Clint a quick text message, “Waiting for you. ETA?” and gets up to play with Lucky for awhile.

When she calls, it goes to voicemail. It’s more likely that his phone is dead, and not Clint, because someone would have told her if there was an accident even if she was hiding from the world during the afternoon. No one is that inconsiderate, not even her father. But the worry has spread and fills her body, threatens to leak out from her pores. Lucky, the good boy that he is, understands her anxiety, and leans into her as she sits on the steps. Waiting, she rubs under his snout, and he jumps at her and licks her face and she’s distracted by the mutt for awhile. But somewhere Clint could have rolled over on a tractor, run his truck into a ditch, found his way into a situation that there is no coming back from, no coming back to her. It’s all she can do to keep from crying. Her world narrows and, belatedly, she thinks about walking back to the house and seeing if anyone else knows anything. The sky is beautiful, violet streaking across the sky as twilight begins to overtake the day.

The rumble of the truck coming down the road is a relief, and she sighs audibly, her shoulders dropping after being held so tight and close. Darcy locks her eyes with Clint’s after he comes to a stop and the engine cuts off, and he tilts his head back against the seat, closing his eyes, and pinching the bridge of his nose. But his breaths are big, big enough that she can see the start of a shudder of exhaustion with the exhale. His eyes open and looks at her again, his mouth a flat line, biting his lips and he gets out of the truck.

And it’s been a long day and she doesn’t watch her mouth, “Clint, where have you been? You didn’t --” but then, she notices. Clint is cut up and dusty; dirt, grime and dried sweat filling in the lines on his face, and he walks with a noticeable limp. She presses her hand to her mouth to stop that line of thinking and takes a step forward. “What happened? Is it Jerry? Clint, are you okay?”

“Hammer is a fucking menace,” Clint barely disguises his fury, shakes with it, and his eyes widen at his own intensity. “Doesn’t even know what goes on in his own land. His farm manager sent Barney to walk down the corn,” and Darcy has no idea what that even means, but it clearly means something to Clint. “The grain bin’s safety equipment was broke, or not being used. It’s dangerous work, you know, and the big farms aren’t supposed to do it, but that don’t mean it ain’t done. Barney got trapped, sucked in.”

Darcy urges Clint to sit, wraps her arm around him, pulls him close beside her. Lucky comes up between his legs and tail wagging with vicious speed.

“Is he okay? He’s not --?” Barney’s an asshole, but he shouldn’t be dead. No one deserves that.

“No, he’s…well, he’s not fine, not by any measure. Do you know what that much grain does to a person? It suffocates them, if you aren’t lucky enough to have your head above the line or find an air pocket. Barney was lucky, he refused to go in without a spotter, but once you go down you can’t just throw a rope and pull them up cause the friction will break the spine. His spotter called me, first, I’m one of the few that’s trained in rescue around here, and the fire department met me there with the rescue tube. Barney’s black and blue, but he’ll live; lucky bastard got an air pocket.” He turns in her arms, buries his face into the crook of her neck. “I thought for sure I was going to pull out his dead body, that the last time we spoke we were fighting and meaning it.”

Darcy cradles his head and shoulders, her fingers in his short, messy hair, carding through and creating a halo of dust and grit. Clint’s not crying, but his chest presses against her unevenly, and the tears will likely come as soon as he speaks. It doesn’t matter that Barney is a dick; Barney kept him alive, taught him to fight and to survive. Without Barney, Clint wouldn’t be who he is today. Barney has the same makings of a good man in him, the drive and resourcefulness, the magnitude of charisma they share in spades. But the weight and crack of the hands that instilled in Clint to never be the type of man who’d waste them against the weak turned Barney into someone who could never get past trying to survive to the next day.

And that next day may not have happened except for Clint.

“And you. That lucky bastard has you,” Darcy says with tenderness, and she can feel Clint’s lips move against her skin, but has no idea if it was a smile or just him tensing and relaxing and not finding words to say at all. So she lets him stay where he is as the sun finishes setting.

“Shit, we were supposed to get dinner.” Clint jerks his head up and apologizes, reaching for one of Darcy’s hands. “We could still go out. Or I could find something.

“Not important,” Darcy says, drumming her fingers against his neck. “I’m sure there’s leftovers from lunch if we really need something.”

“No, I had something I need to ask you.” Oh, god. No, not those words, not right now, no. If Clint starts digging into his pocket for ring before either of them says I love you, she’ll leave his ass. She’s heard country romances go quick, but not this quick, oh, no. Clint seems to sense her unease and guesses at the meaning of his words. “No, no, Darcy, nothing like that. I ain’t going to mess up a good thing again by moving faster than a blink.” There’s a story behind that again, one that she probably will hear another day, but she’s fine without an explanation, for now. People reveal themselves over time. “But it is about the longer term. The, uh, farm, that is.”

They haven’t even gone inside, yet, so whatever this is must be important. More than getting cleaned up, trying to clear his head away from the disaster and the nearness of grief. “What is it?”

“It’s almost time for harvest, and this is about the time we start thinking and ordering for next year. Jerry wants to leave it up to you if we keep the farm going next year, or not.” Darcy inhales audibly, dropping her jaw. It’s almost worse; she figured she wasn’t going to have to make a full decision until after, well, after Jerry passed. “You don’t have to decide today. You don’t have to even be here to really run the farm. I can find someone with a good head for business, someone better with figures and computers than me. But if we are going to shut down, I want to be able to tell the guys so they can start looking for new work and be decent about it.”

“I don’t have to be here?” Darcy asks, unsure of herself. “You don’t --”

“I’d like it if you were here. I want you here more than anything, sweetheart. But you’ve got a life elsewhere, and if you want to go back to it, I’m not going to stop you.”

No, he’ll just be sad, and funny, that’s what makes her heart break a little. This isn’t the life she wanted, but Clint’s the kind of guy she does want, and she feels torn in two and she can’t meet his eyes. His fingers cup her chin and cheek and he leans in to kiss her. Too soft, too wanting, too sweet to feel right, and she pulls back just far enough to let the breath mingle together.

“I have time?” she asks in a worried, breathy moment. Time, that’s all she needs. She can figure it out if she knows she has time, that she has a deadline. And, oh, how much she just wants to say, I’m here, I’m here, I’ve always been meant to be here. With you and the land and the sky, during storms and strife and stay until the snow starts falling and see spring again and again. But there’s so much she doesn’t want to give up; places to go, people to meet. What if her father is right and she wouldn’t be happy with her life in a decade, if she didn’t have a career to bring weight to her world?

“Nothing pressing for another week or so.” Disappointment colors his voice, and his lips thin out again.

“Thank you. For giving me time to think.” It’s important to say these things, important that he knows she’s not upset, that she’s not pulling away from him. “Why don’t we get you cleaned up and you can sneak me back to the house in the morning before we take my dad to the market?”

“A shower sounds good,” Clint admits. “A bed sounds better. A bed with you in it? Babe, that’s the best. Did you know your dad hasn’t so much as walked around the farm?”

“I don’t think his memories of here fill him with anything approaching nostalgia. I don’t think he was ever cut out for hard physical work.”

“It does take a certain type,” Clint says, standing up and stretching out his arm for her to take. Darcy doesn’t know if she’s the type, either, if she can live with the aches after a long day that lasts from sunup to sundown, but, at this moment, she wants to be. There’s no place else she’d want to be other than by Clint’s side when he’s hurting, curled up in his gorgeous and strong arms at night. He’ll hold onto her until sleep takes them both down, until his arms slacken and she inches away from the growing heat he puts off. There’s nothing worse than sweating in your dreams during the hot summer.

But, by morning, she wakes up listening to his heart beating.

In the summer, their Saturday Market is closer, and she doesn’t have to be up at the crack of dawn, and she doesn’t sneak into the house, but her dad is awake and dishing out breakfast. It’s his apology meal, pancakes and bacon with brown sugar on top, and she smiles when she sees him wash up blueberries for the batter. He’s made this meal dozens of times, sometimes when he doesn’t mean it, but mostly when he does, and it’s a good sign.

“I’ve got enough for the family and that man of yours, if you want to invite him in to eat.” He waves a large spoon at her punctuating with pointed enthusiasm, “And if he didn’t walk you back here after last night then I’m right and he’s no good for you.”

“He walked me back, dad.” Darcy runs out the door and yells for Clint, making sure to grin and beckon rather than making him worry, again, but Clint never turns down food. “Be nice,” she says to her father. “I’m going to get dressed.”

Not surprisingly, when she gets back downstairs, Clint’s steered the conversation to the greenhouses, and the pride blooms in his words, engaging so much that her father is actually listening to him. She listens from right outside the kitchen, looking at the metal Farmall signs. “I want to put in another one,” Clint says. “Expand our market a little more. If we can get a steady, year-round crop in there, we can sell to the organic grocery stores in the bigger cities. They get to say they buy local, we get a more diverse income stream. Few years more, and maybe we can get into a HyVee.”

“Is business that good?” Her father asks, and seriously, he’s actually interested. But then, this is money, this is something he’s always understood the language of, always loved. He’s always willing to talk business, even if he doesn’t know that business one lick. “Growing things didn’t always keep us in good shape growing up.”

“It is what it is, you know? Some years are better than others, but we’re profitable, both the greenhouses and the farm, as a whole. Jerry does well these days, it’s not the same business it used to be.” Clint answers while pouring coffee.

“I’m sure the land, alone…”

Darcy walks in before her father can speculate about the value of the land, before he can start thinking about how much money the farm is worth and how much they’ll be able to get for it when he sells it. He might be sounding sunnier, but she knows the shadow that he hides, that he wants to have the ultimate profit from the farm. And the sale of even a little land would solve the house problems, maybe set him up to ride out a slow work schedule. “You got more there for me?”

“Always, kid. Always enough for you. Jerry asked if we can swing back and get him before the market?”

“He must be feeling rambunctious today. Yeah, we got a few things to get ready before we go,” she says and her dad sets a plate down in front of her. Clint’s sly fingers try to sneak off with some of her bacon. Darcy slaps at his hand, takes the piece back, and sticks it in her mouth. The bacon is salty and sweet, the fat melts in her mouth and, instantly, she’s back to the only good thing about the week her mother left. Her mother didn’t keep kosher any longer unless she was going through a period where she thought she needed to be more Jewish, get in touch with her religion and her heritage, but bacon wasn’t a big thing until she was gone. Bacon was the start of something new, how her father got more interested in Darcy as a person, as a family, and the late nights he had been working stopped. “So, eat up!”

The conversation turns to what needs to get done before they can head out, and Darcy hops into the bed of the pickup, letting Clint and her dad step up into the cab. It’s the closest thing to privacy she’s got and she calls Jane to get the latest scoop on how the incubation period is going. According to Jane, and an impromptu selfie, Jane is definitely carrying Thor’s child. If the kid isn’t ten pounds, at least, and have an incredibly painful head as he comes out, Darcy will drop to her knees and find religion, because that would be a miracle. And Jane, despite not being in her father-in-law’s good graces yet, does have Frigga backing her up. Frigga has connections, and now Jane has a birth plan that’s part crunchy-granola and part clean hospital living, and a body that is built out of sheer stubbornness. Jane will be fine.

“I just don’t know what I’m doing,” Darcy finally admits. “One day I want to be here, and others I miss being home so much. I miss being with you. This is nothing like what I thought I’d be doing. I’m supposed to be at a think tank or be some staffer in DC, or at least somewhere that’s not Iowa. I’m in Iowa, and I’m getting ready to bring the harvest in, not debating the merits of grad school or law school!”

“Not to sound like a terrible job interview, but where do you see yourself in five years?” Jane asks. “Because, unless you want to be a nanny, now, it’s not working for me.”

“Can I be your nanny?” Darcy is totally down for that; she loves children, she’d love Jane’s kid and teach it everything she knows.

“No. Darcy, seriously. Answer the question.” Jane thinks her stubbornness outweighs Darcy’s sarcasm. Jane is wrong, but Darcy did call asking for advice.

“I don’t know. I see myself everywhere. I can’t keep one vision of the future going. I think about staying at the farm and I start thinking about everything else I could be doing. I think about working in my field and I start wondering what’s going to happen to the people, here. There’s too much possibility for me to choose one thing.”

“But that’s what you’ve got to do, Darce,” Jane says, and Darcy can hear the softness, Jane’s mothering instinct kicking in. “Choosing one doesn’t force you into it for life. But it seems to me that you are afraid to just commit to something. You want it all to be temporary so you don’t have to grow roots anywhere. Plant yourself. You’ve spent half a year growing corn, plant yourself somewhere and see what grows.”

"Jane, it's not that simple! There's so much --” Darcy isn't like Jane, doesn't have that clear-cut, singular focus that the other woman possesses in spades. Jane has known since she was young that she was for the stars, wanted to tease them out and figure out the mechanics of the universe. Darcy's not like that; she's never been able to look at possibilities and choose just one.

“I’m not saying you have to be stuck somewhere. You can always replant if things don’t work. We’ll always have a landing spot for you, if you need it, but if you never commit you will never get anywhere.” Jane’s voice is funny and firm. “You’ll either grow roots or you won’t.”

The truck comes to a stop and Clint slaps the side to let her know she needs to help out now. “I have to go,” Darcy winds up the conversation quickly, though she really doesn’t want the call to end.

“Just let me know where to send the birth announcement, okay?” Jane says softly.

“I will. Thanks, Jane. Give Thor my love, too.”

Clint helps her down, holding her hand as she launches herself over the side of the truck, her feet hitting the dirt and causing it to cloud up and dissipate over her shoes. Time to get to work. Darcy loves the markets, and she’s so much stronger, now, can carry the pallets and help haul everything in, and Jerry’s looking like the respectable farmer that he is when they come back round to the house. She switches to the car, convincing her father that he needs to come with, come see what the area is doing these days.

And it’s mostly good. Kate’s there, tapping her foot in their assigned spot “You are late,” she says. “Time is money.”

“Go stuff a carrot, Katie,” Clint teases, handing off the first of the table supplies to the girl. “I think Herman over there has some exceptionally large ones that will fit in your big mouth.”

Kate rolls her eyes and sets up their own carrots, bunched together with droplets of water still clinging to the greens. They aren’t as big as Herman’s, but Clint selects for color and heritage, and their reds and purples stand out. They still have a good ten minutes to spare before the start of the market, and the day’s heating up, already. Darcy digs in the truck and pulls out a hat for Jerry, and sunscreen for everyone that, unlike her, doesn’t slather it on at the beginning the day. She’s managed a little color over the summer, incidental tanning, but never burning. Clint seems to turn golden with just a day in the sun, doesn’t matter that he’s always a little burnt on the tips of the ears, he always forgets them during the course of the day.

“Here,” she hands the bottle over to her father. He snorts and tells her he has no intention of coming out from under the cover. “Okay, you can work, then, instead of wandering around.” He objects on the grounds that this is a vacation, but she just holds out the bottle and stares him down.

“I’ll walk with you for a little bit,” he grumbles, and Darcy really wonders what her father’s problem is. It’s not like the heat really bothers him, it’s not the crowds. He comes with her, booth to booth, and she introduces him to the acquaintances she’s made. She buys a few things that they don’t grow and that she wants in the pantry. There’s dried pasta mixes that she’s slowly been sampling; this week she picks up a lemon basil linguine that promises to cook up delicately, and pair with olive oil and parmesan and that’s all it will need. Patrick reconnects with a kid he used to run track with as the man, portly, greying, and clean-shaven, entertains the crowd on his guitar. Darcy had no idea that the man who plays folk music every week knew her father, at all.

By the time she finishes her round, her little cloth bag is full and popped into the cooler for safe keeping, and Jerry is sitting. He’s red in the face and pale everywhere else, and Patrick goes to sit next to him. Darcy gives Kate a break and makes change and weighs little containers of green beans that crackle loudly when someone snaps them in half, and bunches of rainbow chard that she explains that her favorite way to cook them is in a saute, with a little oil and brown sugar. Yes ma’am, even your husband will eat them when done that way.

“Can you grab another load of onions?” she asks Clint, taking the opportunity to touch his shoulders and trace them through his shirt, sticky with sweat.

“Sure, babe,” Clint answers, kissing her swiftly on the cheek.

“Aren’t they sweet?” Jerry says with a wistful expression. “I miss being young, sometimes. They have so much ahead of them, and they don’t even realize it.”

Patrick crosses his arms. “He’s too old for her, though.” Darcy purses her lips, holding back the words on the tip of her tongue, because they are in public, and she doesn’t want to make a scene or slow down the customers.

“That doesn’t matter; they’re good together. He respects her, and you know that’s what is needed for a good relationship.”

Darcy turns around on the tips of her toes because this is getting dangerous, and quickly. Relationships are a dead end with her father. Mom leaving ruined him, turned him bitter and despairing that good was something you could depend on. But she’s not quick enough, and her father doesn’t react well, at all. His nostrils flare and his jaw sets. “Oh, are we finally going to bring that up? That my relationship wasn’t good?”

“Pat, no, calm --” Jerry holds out his hands, gesturing for peace, and the kids at the next stall over turn their heads to see the commotion.

“No, you want to talk things out, let’s talk them out. Since you seem to know all about a healthy marriage for someone who never seemed to manage to get married, what did I do wrong? You must know. Sarah came here!” Patrick starts at a low growl, predatory and growing until he shakes, barely managing to keep himself from yelling. Jerry stays firm in his silence and Patrick stares at him. “Well, tell me!”

Jerry goes hard, his jaw settles and Darcy sees what he must have been a decade ago -- formidable, strong-willed, and careful with his words. “You already know the reason she left, you don’t need to drag her good name, and yours, in the mud.”

“What did you promise her to make her leave?” Her father curls his hands into fists momentarily, and a larger crowd has stopped. “She didn’t stay, so you must have been terrible.”

“Her CD matured. She put money away during the good years to guard her against the bad. It matured and you hadn’t gotten your gambling under control again --” Jerry says, and what? Darcy watches with a slack expression as things begin to slot away in her past. “She hated it, hated what it made you, and most of all, hated leaving Darcy behind. But she couldn’t support the two of them with what she had saved. She stayed in the house a week and emptied the account.” He’s so even-keeled, calm in the face of Patrick’s storm, the energy crackling between them like heat lightning.

“I had it -- I was fine. I was breaking even.”

“But you hadn’t stopped, and you weren’t going to, and she couldn’t enable your downfall any longer. Did it work?” Jerry shakes his head. “Did it, Patrick?”

“Did it?” Darcy echoes, crossing her arms in front of her. If her family is going to make a spectacle of themselves, she’s going to be part of it. “I never noticed anything after she left -- but those envelopes that covered the table back home, they weren’t bills were they?”

“I was fine.” Her father bites at her, snaps at Jerry, and juggles his hands. “I got a little caught up in some things over the past couple of years, that’s all. I’m handling it, I haven’t -- not even a dollar in weeks.” He turns to plead with Darcy. “Believe me on that. Trust me.”

Darcy doesn’t believe him; she can’t, not when he was furloughed when she called him. Her father’s never been good with empty time, and anyone that tells you to trust them shouldn’t be trusted. She asks Jerry, “So mom came here when she left? Do you know where she went?” It’s been too long, and Jerry shakes his head. Even if he knew, it’s been a decade, at least. Mom’s long gone and left her behind.

She can’t settle, though, she has to know. “What about all those envelopes? Was that what my rent was going to?” Patrick balks, but under the weight of glaring eyes demanding the truth he says that it was. “Paying it back or making it worse.”

“It didn’t matter, not after he called,” Patrick says, pointing to Jerry, and Darcy drops her hands. “I’d already added a second mortgage to the house. I was going to make a fresh start, maybe get into a program. But if you just croaked --”

Someone in the crowd, and it honestly sounds like Kate, but Darcy doesn’t dare look because she’s trying to will her father not to say the most willfully selfish, terrible thing he could say right now, is vocal about the level of asshole Patrick is. It sounds like Kate. Kate knows asshole fathers far too well. Tears well up in her eyes, because her father -- he raised her, gave her so much, he’s been the rock of her family. Her only family, because he stopped talking to Jerry, and, besides Uncle Arlo, desperately trying to educate her on her heritage, there’d been little contact from her mom’s side.

How much of that had been on purpose? How much had he decided to hide himself away from everyone, shielding her from the criticism and blame that Patrick took?

“You knew he’d never leave the farm to you,” she whispered. “Because he knew about your problem. So you encouraged me to go, instead.” Darcy takes a step back, and Clint’s behind her, taut muscle held against her, a solid mass to hold her upright. The gossip machine is going to have a field day; there won’t be anyone within twenty miles who won’t have heard of this in the next twenty minutes.

“Yeah, because with that fancy degree of yours, and your ambitions, you were supposed to get the money and leave.” Patrick throws up his arms, his voice loud and clear. “You were supposed to leave and sell the fucking place, and help me out. Clean slate, never have to worry, again. You know what I could do with all of that money? You weren’t supposed to get involved,” his eyes track over to Clint. “This place sucks up the women I love, steals them away, makes them small. You were supposed to leave.”

“I’m not, though.” That little voice is hers, Darcy realizes, and it’s her gut reaction that she needs to listen to. It’s what she wants more, she wants to be here and make a go of it. “I’m going to stay here; it’s a family farm, and someone from the family needs to be here. We make it run, we build it, and we grow where we plant. But you should leave and find yourself a hotel for the night.”

Her father’s face melts into a confused mess, his strength and pleading turning to weariness and resignation before her eyes. Behind her, Kate’s filled in the gap, sliding past Darcy to stand next to Jerry. “You’ve always gotten the best of everything, Jerry,” Patrick says. “Breakfast, mom’s attention. Sarah trusted you more than me, but are you going to steal my daughter, too?”

“We can talk about it in the car,” Darcy says, turning around for her keys. “You going to be okay without me, Clint? Can you and Kate --” she waves her hand around, trying to communicate the immensity of the operation, here. Soothe the crowd, get everything home, handle Jerry.

“Darcy, don’t put your father out,” Jerry says with authority. “We don’t do that.”

She takes him back home, instead. And it is her home. She’ll have to figure out how to get more of her things back to the farmhouse, soon, when she’s less angry, but this is home. The crowd had parted to let her out, and her embarrassment grew around her like a rock-hard aura, humiliated and cracked open. But there’s a fire in her belly, now. This will be her land and sky, she will learn the seasons until she can read a storm in the creak of her shoulders.

Her focus stays on the road ahead of her, driving back, turning up the radio when her father tries to talk to her. When it begins to crackle and the only station with decent reception is the Christian station, she’s ready to give up the childish game and turns it off.

“I don’t want an apology. I want an answer, and I don’t want you to try to downplay anything. Those weren’t bills.”

“They were bills. I’ve been missing payments. Darcy, I --” Darcy cuts him off with her new-found fiery gaze, but only for a second. He continues, “I’m more caught up, now, but it’s harder when I’m on my own. The games, they are fun, mostly. They fill the time and the empty space. You need to come back, I’ll be better when you’re home.” Fire and desperation fill his voice. “I needed this, Darcy. Needed you to make things right. Just sell the place and come back home with me.”

“I’m not going back to Virginia,” Darcy says firmly. “I want to be here. I don’t know why you decided that family wasn’t worth being part of, but I want to continue our history, here. I love you, and you need to get help. I’ll be waiting for you when you do.”

She can feel her father’s eyes on her, slowly accepting her words and what they mean for the future. The fight’s gone out of him, despite the anger brewing in his lines and wrinkles. He looks just as worn out as Jerry. He turns his head and watches the road, and when they get back to the house he goes in through the front door without a second glance at Darcy as she steps onto the porch.

A few weeks later, as Darcy is helping Jerry out of a chair, Clint brings in the Saturday mail. Jerry's struggling and cranky at missing harvest. He'd wanted to bring it in one last time, but he'd done little more than check the corn before he’d collapsed in the field. Darcy curses her father, because once sadness filled her uncle’s heart, there was no turning back. Let him make it through harvest, she prays. Even though faith has never been a thing for her, she prays, anyways. She prays that Jerry can see the fruits of his labors one last time, the good that his world can create, and be satisfied.

Clint hands off an envelope to her and takes Jerry from her arms so she can read her mail. A square envelope from Jane, and, when she opens it, it's a belated birth announcement. Thor had called her, day of, but Thor loves the little formalities. Erik Odinson was, indeed, a big, plump boy, with a shock of blond hair who left a scar on Jane's abdomen.

A second card sticks against the announcement. Darcy flicks her fingers to bring it forward and stifles a snort. It's a second baby announcement, but where IT'S A BOY is written, Jane has crossed out BOY and written in her blocky print FARM. Darcy flips the card over, and, in Jane’s more typical scrawl, she’s written, I couldn’t resist -- Jane.

Darcy leaves the card tucked under a magnet on the fridge.

The day before, the weather was set below freezing and the snow came up to her ankles, but it’s so unseasonably warm today that Darcy’s turned off the heat and listens to the snow melting off the roof, racing down the gutters in steady streams. She’s flung the curtains in the master bedroom wide open, tore the plastic off the windows and cranked them open to let the light and the fresh air sweep the room, chasing out the stagnant and cold air that she’s put up with all winter. Nothing prepared her for a midwestern winter, the snow that falls all the time, the bitter cold, and the bleak, relentless white and grey that the earth becomes when the sun goes down before five in the afternoon.

Darcy still isn’t sure how she wants this room to look, stuck somewhere between respecting Jerry and the way he loved this house and wanting to make it her own. She’s left the This is a Farmall Farm sign up in the kitchen but packed up the curio cabinet of diets tractors. She’ll need to go through them, but she’s learned that there’s a good market for things like this, the history of a farmer, and it goes to people who want to try to capture their own history. In dismantling a small part of her uncle’s legacy, his collections, she can spread his passion to others. It’s good, even when she wants to cry after she packs the boxes and ships them.

For now, the bedroom is at a standstill, quilts brought in to brighten up the room, but there’s a coat of paint or two in it’s future to transition it away from the darker colors Jerry favored. The bed is comfortable, and made more comfortable by the man sleeping in the afternoon sun. Clint lays on top of the quilt, stripped down to his boxer briefs, dozing. He’s worked part of the day down at the greenhouse and spent some time with Barney.

The relationship is still hesitant, but her father didn’t come to Jerry’s funeral, and Clint moved Barney into the trailer when he moved into the house, hired him on to make deliveries as they expanded the greenhouses over the next year. She keeps her distance for now, waits and sees before she gets too attached to him, but Barney’s clean-shaven and his hair is combed. There’s a change, and maybe it’s all temporary, maybe he’ll freak out in a couple of months and take off, but they can give him a chance. Hammer’s facing a lawsuit and OSHA fines, but no one’s expecting them to pay out. The big farms, they never do; it’s all a slap on the wrist so it looks like the government gives a shit. Oh, they fired the farm manager and told Barney he had a job when he recovered. But no one believed that, either, and when Coulson filed the lawsuit on his behalf, the goodwill vanished, and the farm manager was quietly hired back.

“If he’s going to do dirty work,” Clint said when he broached the idea with Darcy, still wearing the proverbial widows weeds. “He might as well do our dirty work.” Darcy can’t help but think of her father, so unwilling to work things through with Jerry, or with her. When she’d gone back, after it all happened, to pack up her things at the house her father bought and leveraged, he let her in and then walked out his own door for two days. She tied up her loose ends, and let the phone ring and ring until she had to leave.

Darcy lays down in the sun, curled up between Clint’s legs and using his thighs as an exceptionally good pillow. His fingers are draped in her hair, and they move slightly from time to time as they doze, idle little strokes for an idle little day that’s too warm for it’s own good. The day has to be savored, saved up for when the cold snaps, again, takes them under until it’s time to hire and plant. There’s snow in the week’s forecast, there’s always snow in the week’s forecast, and Darcy’s learned to stock the fridge and how to run a generator.

The house is still alive with memories, the ones inherited and the one’s she’s building. She’ll survive the February gloom and see the spring, again. And over and over again, because the winter didn’t kill her and the grief didn’t consume her, and her roots are fragile but they are spreading.

Clint’s fingers shift to touch her cheek; the muscles under her jawline twitch awake. “Hey, baby,” he says, sleep-worn and hazy, but with a sureness that he never has when he’s just waking up. Clint talks a good line about up with the sun, but, in truth, getting him out of bed is like fighting an octopus. “You there, sweetheart?”

“Mmmm,” Darcy lifts her head up just a little, not wanting to be awake. It’s so wondrously warm and lazy, here, in this bed, today, that she just wants time to stand still in this moment. Just lay here until spring comes for real, content and soaked in light.

“I wanna marry you,” Clint says in a rush, afraid of the words, and his muscles tense underneath her. He’s so ready to fight or flee that his toes clench in anticipation.

“Hnnng, okay. Ten more minutes?” Darcy says, fully registering what he’s said and what it means and not caring. She paws at his leg, rubs her face against his skin with a soft kiss. Clint chuckles and groans and throws his arm over his eyes. Her roots grow thick and strong, here, and, maybe someday, she’ll put up shoots of her own. If this is winter, when the world is dormant, it’s also a world of waiting and breathless anticipation for the life that will bloom. Her life that will bloom, right where she’s planted.