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How to Heal the Broken (do it all again)

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2012 – the day after the Battle of New York

 

The Avengers assembled again, this time in the Park. They had no armour, wore no insignia, carried no weapons. Well, visible weapons, anyway. Tony and Steve watched on in an uneasy silence while Bruce Banner and Erik Selvig readied the Tesseract for transport off-world. Tony could see the strain on Steve’s face as the super soldier glared at the blue cube that was responsible for the majority of evils in his ninety five years of life. Everyone would breathe easier knowing it was no longer on the Earth, safe in the hands of the Asgardians.

Tony stepped up to say a final goodbye to Thor, clapping a friendly hand on the God’s massive shoulder. Thor too was under strain, his normally gentle demeanour stiffened into a calm but readied determination. The only time his stance wavered was when the Asgardian looked at his brother, Loki, and then it became one of weary sadness. Tony thought he could understand. He too had known betrayal from within, knew exactly how it felt when someone who was considered family reached inside and stole something vital, destroyed the bonds once thought unbreakable.

Something of Tony’s thoughts must have shown on his face because Thor’s lips lifted in a bitter twist that an optimist could refer to as a smirk.

“He is my brother,” Thor explained, murmuring low enough that only Tony could hear. “And regardless of all other views, I will always see first the boy who grew up at my side, he who was meant to be my kin for all eternity.”

“He killed a lot of innocent people, Point Break, caused a lot of damage,” Tony reminded his friend, also keeping his voice quiet. “That’s not easy to forgive,”

The Norse God set both his giant hands on Tony’s shoulders and Tony tried not to wince. Man, that guy was enormous.

“Even Gods err from time to time, Anthony. And when those who wield power misstep, the results can be tragic indeed.”

Tony looked past Thor to the devastated New York skyline and tried not to think about all the mistakes he himself had made but one mistake in particular, that one crucial heart-wrenching mistake that would forever trump any evil he could ever commit, the one that seared the back of his eyelids and echoed in his ears whenever he tried to sleep, would not be forced from his thoughts.

“I know what it’s like to fuck up,” Tony pushed out from behind his gritted jaw. “Pretty monumentally, actually. So you know, if he does try to come round… well. I hope he can. You know, be your brother again and not a colossal dick.”

He might have spoken that last part a little too loud because Tony suddenly sensed Loki’s eyes on him. He turned his head and sure enough, the God of Mischief was staring holes in his face from behind his mystical muzzle. Tony must have been still recovering from his spur of the moment inter-space flight because instead of snarking something both cutting and hilarious, he remembered the face of the pretty dark haired girl who looked at him with intelligent, soulful eyes from the file Coulson had sent him, remembered the words he recorded in case of his death so she would know that despite everything he fucked up he did love her, and he stepped right up into Loki’s personal space.

“You were right, you know. You are better than this,” Tony said. “So be better. Choose the better path. It’s all on you now, pal.”

“Tony,” Steve called out, warning clear in his voice.

For once, Tony obeyed the Captain’s order without argument and stepped back to his place in the circle surrounding the Asgardians. Thor gave a solemn nod and gripped his end of the cradle that held the Tesseract and on his brother’s silent instruction, Loki grasped the opposite end. The two of them were encased in a brilliant glow and a sudden flare of energy sent a ripple through the surroundings. Tony stumbled backwards, nearly blinded by a burst of cerulean light that erupted from the Cube to engulf Thor and Loki’s form and made them shimmer like hot tarmac in summertime. Then, just before the Asgardians faded from view entirely, Loki look directly at him and winked.

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

Video footage date stamped 2010 of Tony Stark in his workshop in Malibu, dressed in jeans and an oil stained Led Zeppelin t-shirt. The glow of his arc reactor can be seen from beneath his shirt. He leans against a workbench, his arms crossing and uncrossing while in his hand he flicks around a pair of red-lensed glasses.

“So, uh...” Tony clears his throat. “So I’ve never actually, uh, made one of these before. Post death videos, I mean, not love-children. Well, actually, that’s true too, you’re the only one of them I’ve made. My children, that is.”

Tony sighs and drops his glasses on the bench next to him, then rubs his hands over his face.

“Let me start again. Hi, kid. I’m Tony Stark and I’m your dad. Holy shit.” Tony huffs out a breath. “Wow, I think that was the first time I’ve ever said that out loud.”

“Anyway, let me get to the point. If you’re watching this, then I’m dead. My AI Jarvis has been instructed to send this to you if-slash-when I die. Why not sooner, you ask? Well, I’ll get there, but let me start at the beginning, yeah?”

Tony stands up properly and begins to pace, one hand absently tapping his arc reactor while he walks.

“After, uh… when my parents died, I took it pretty bad. Obadiah Stane, my former business partner, father figure, mentor and all around megalomaniacal psychopath, looked after Stark Industries for me. Basically looked after all my shit for me, not just the company. I don’t know what your knowledge of social history is like, kid, but I was a mess. I uh, made some pretty questionable life decisions. And when word came to SI’s legal team that there was a woman pregnant with my kid… with you… well. Stane made the decision to keep that knowledge away from me. Decided he didn’t want me to know about you.”

Tony stops pacing and looks directly at the camera.

“I know what you’re thinking, that it’s pretty convenient to blame Obie, dodge that bullet. Well, you’re right. I should have been taking care of my own business, I should have been paying attention. I shouldn’t have tried to escape all my responsibilities. But you gotta trust me that if I had any idea that you… that you existed… fuck. I would have… I never would have… Fuck, I’m messing this up. Jarvis, scrap that, let me try again. I gotta do better than this.”

 

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2013 – Stark Tower, New York

 

With the Ramones blasting out from his workshop speakers at a decibel level most definitely not recommended by hearing associations, Tony tried to focus his bleary eyes on the Mark VII gauntlet in front of him for the third time that minute. He rubbed his face and squinted again but it was no use. He couldn’t concentrate properly, unable to get the vision of the Battle of Greenwich out of his thoughts long enough to focus. Maria Hill from SHIELD had contacted him to let him know that Thor was fine and so were his associates, those brave and foolish and oh so very breakable humans who helped him end Malekith and his Dark Elves and yet Tony’s mind kept coming back to that grainy cell phone footage of a particular dark haired girl running around risking her life to place Jane Foster’s equipment in time to stop the invasion. He was proud as hell – after all, what parent wouldn’t be proud when their kid helped save the planet? – but he was still damned terrified three days later.

“Sir, Miss Potts is requesting entrance to the workshop. As you have ignored all calls and messages in the last twenty hours, she is quite insistent. She asks me to warn you that if you do not grant her immediate access to the workshop she will be forced to use the Quinoa Protocol.”

“Let her in, JARVIS.”

Tony dropped the gauntlet on his steel workbench, letting it clatter against the piles of tools and other associated components just in time for the huge glass doors to slide open and Tony’s gorgeous strawberry blonde ex-Assistant now CEO and committed monogamous life partner to stride in on her four inch Louboutin’s. She waved a hand across her throat and JARVIS killed the tunes.

“Tony, I’ve been trying to get you for hours. You promised you wouldn’t lock down in emergency situations,”

Tony lifted his shoulder and turned back to the Mark VII gauntlet and pretended like he was capable of functioning as a competent engineer.

“Emergency was over, Hill called. Said everyone got out fine, all done, all dusted. Told me nobody would appreciate an American genius billionaire superhero randomly dropping by the neighbourhood, which I personally believe- ,”

“Tony. Tony.” Pepper interrupted. “Jane Foster has been trying to reach you.”

For the second time in as many minutes, the shiny red gauntlet clanged against the worktop before tipping sideways and falling off the bench entirely. Tony’s eyes flicked to JARVIS’s sensor and he opened his mouth just as his clever, clever, AI opened a display up to show he was already dialling the tiny astrophysicist’s London residence.

“Hello?” came a frantic feminine voice after a mere heartbeat. “Hello is this Tony Stark?”

“Foster, is it?” Tony replied, trying to keep his cool. Surely she didn’t know… Coulson had promised to keep it a secret, Tony had made him swear it as one of the conditions Iron Man joined the Avengers Initiative three years ago. “Why are you calling me and harassing my CEO?”

There was a few seconds of silence where only the sound of Jane’s rapid breathing came over the connection.

“Um… It’s my assistant, Darcy,” Foster began and Tony felt cold steel wrap around his heart. “You see, her mom died when she was a baby and officially I’m listed as her next of kin… but a couple of years ago she got sent this video file… and I could really use some help,”

All levity fled from his tone and he braced his arms against his steel benchtop. “Foster. What happened?”

“Uh… it was during the Chitauri invasion I think? Anyway, it was a video where you, um… said you were Darcy’s dad?”

“Not the video, Foster, focus! What happened to Darcy?”

When a startled gasp came from Jane in response to his growled demand, Pepper snaked her hand to cover one of Tony’s forearms and squeezed. He took the caution for what it was and dialled back his tone.

“Please, Jane, what is it?” he tried again.

“Well, you see, there was this astrological Convergence and it caused a lot of unexpected mystical phenomena that was really- no, that’s not the important stuff right now. Thor claims there was some kind of powerful Seidr event, or spell if you like, so powerful that he only knows of two people who could have pulled it off and one of them is his mother and the other is his brother who is dead, so- ,”

“Jane, please,” he forced out through his gritted jaw.

“Right. Well. We were helping SHIELD clean up the site of the Dark Elves incident when Darcy was hit by a unidentified energy emission that come from something I suspect was a spontaneous metamorphosed dark matter materialisation and… well… she’s been turned into a toddler version of herself.”

Of all the horrific predictions his genius brain had tortured him with, he could honestly say that Darcy being turned into a toddler was not one of them. Darcy killed, Darcy injured, Darcy missing, Darcy kidnapped, these were all terrifying possibilities but not entirely outside the realm of logical occurrences. He was genuinely rendered speechless.

“Mr Stark? Mr Stark are you still there?”

“Yes, yes, I’m here. Do me a favour and go by that again will you? Did you just say that Darcy has been turned into a toddler?”

“Er, yes. Yes I did. Like I said, it was magic, well, Asgardian Seidr if you want to be specific about it but- ,”

Tony flicked his fingers at JARVIS’s sensor and pieces of his latest suit started to hover out from its case to attach itself to his body. Pepper seemed like she wanted to say something, but wisely stepped back out of the way of the flying red and gold titanium.

“And it’s definitely her as a child? She’s okay? Healthy? Well?”

“Well… She’s scared. Terrified, really, unsurprisingly, and she doesn’t remember me which doesn’t help at all. Physically she looks to be alright but damnit Tony, I’m an astrophysicist, not a paediatrician. How soon can you get here?”

“New York to London? Give me an hour and a half.”

 

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2008 - Malibu

Tony was paralysed, frozen in place and could only watch as Obadiah lay him gently against the couch with the care and tenderness of a doting father. He could only watch as Obadiah opened up a slim case and lifted the shining circular device that would remove his arc reactor. He could only watch as Obadiah gloated above him, his face rapturous as he basked in the success of a job well done.

“When I ordered the hit on you,” Obie began, his deep voice rolling over Tony’s inert form. “I worried that I was killing the golden goose. But you see, it was just fate that you survived. You had one last golden egg to give.”

Tony’s body spasmed as Obie jerked the arc reactor from his chest and Obie smiled again as though he was granting a final benediction.

“Your father helped give us the atomic bomb, Tony. And you’ve given me a new generation of weapons with this at its heart. I wonder what masterpieces your daughter will give me?”

Tony stared, his eyes screaming his shock and confusion. His daughter? He had a daughter?

“You really thought you had gone all those years, screwing all those models and not had one single accident?” Obie smirked. “Well, not even the great Tony Stark is perfect. There was one, one single, glorious accident. My key to this ongoing kingdom. And she’s beautiful, Tony, so very beautiful. A genius, like her father and grandfather, just sixteen and halfway through college already. Your father would be so proud.”

There was a howling inside his skull, pain and fear and fury all combining to form a tidal wave of white noise that ricocheted against his bones, hammering against his skin and desperate to be unleashed.

“For fifteen years I’ve hidden this girl, Tony, waiting to see how she would grow, waiting to see if the Stark potential would be fulfilled. The long game. And its paid dividends beyond measure. She’s clever, so lonely, so vulnerable. And as the world mourns the loss of Tony Stark, I’ll be there to present her to the stage, the next Stark heir.”

A lion paced within his ribcage, roaring beneath the unnatural silence of his paralysis. He would see Obadiah dead for this betrayal. He would fight until his last breath, until the last beat of his useless fucking heart in this useless fucking body and he would protect his child. Obadiah would never go near her again.

 

 

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Even cruising at Mach 3, an hour and a half was a real long time to be alone with one’s thoughts when one was a recovering alcoholic asshole with poor impulse control and a laundry list of four decades worth of bad decisions. Tony really didn’t like being alone with nothing to distract himself from his subconscious; he usually did everything he could to avoid it, including flying in jets when his suits would be faster just so he could work or drink or play or have something else to do while travelling. When he flew long distance in his suit, other than keep his limbs in the right position and generally aim towards the intended country there wasn’t much else he could do but think. And damned if that wasn’t hell today.

From what he could piece together from Jane’s conversation and JARVIS’s memory, back during the Battle of New York when he flew that nuke through Loki’s portal into Chitauri space and all his systems crashed and he was off world with no power and no communication, all of the automatic triggers set on his ‘in case of death’ processes were activated. Upon his dramatic return to Earth just minutes later, JARVIS managed to catch most of the processes before they launched but a couple had obviously slipped through. The video to Darcy, for example, the one he made back in 2010 when he thought he was dying from palladium poisoning, and buying the new car for Happy for a second example. He had wondered where that extra Lamborghini came from.

Which meant for three years now, Darcy had known that Tony was her biological father. She knew that he hadn’t been aware of her existence until Obadiah’s betrayal, that Tony hadn’t abandoned her as such, just been ignorant of her birth because he was a spoiled trust fund brat who didn’t have to deal with real life issues such as personal responsibility. In the video he tried to explain to her that he was sorry, that he knew he had fucked up and how he stayed away from her after he found out in 2008 because he thought that he was toxic, that being around him would only cause her more pain. Darcy knew all that… but still she hadn’t let on a thing about it. No demands for money, no angry accusations, no heartfelt confessions. Not even a message of acknowledgement she’d received the information. Just… nothing.

Normally people wanted something from him. Everybody did - except Pepper and Rhodey. Money, prestige, favours, his knowledge, his suits, something. Yet Darcy apparently didn’t want anything. It surprised Tony. He didn’t know what to make of that at all.

He could understand it if, say, Darcy already had a family, if her mom had found a nice guy and settled down and they all lived happily ever after with a white picket fence and soccer practice and a dog or horse or some shit and suddenly making room for a new father would be too difficult in an already full family life. But that’s not what happened at all. Tony had read the files Coulson found for him. He knew that Darcy’s mother died when she was just two, and that no other family came forward to claim her. To his eternal self-disgust, his baby girl was thrust into the foster system with Obadiah using the government structure to squirrel away his daughter as just another unknown and unwanted burden on society. She’d grown up alone, Obadiah Stane the only constant in her life.

So ignoring her paternal heritage just didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t logical. Even if Darcy hated him and never forgave him for being the shittiest dad in the world, which was entirely probable and Tony couldn’t blame her in the slightest for it, the Stark name and money and influence could still revolutionise Darcy’s entire life. She wouldn’t even have to see him at all because with the blood in her veins she could still have everything she wanted, everything she never received as a child, never have to go without anything ever again, but no. She didn’t want it. Didn’t want him.

And now she was a toddler.

Two different instincts warred within him. On the one hand he wanted to respect Darcy’s decision to not include him in her life. She knew who he was and as a grown woman she had made the choice to avoid him. He should respect that by keeping his distance.

On the other hand he wanted to grab hold of his baby girl and never ever ever let go.

It was a long flight to London.

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

Officer Egorichev closed his eyes and sighed, knowing that this crime scene would be one of the ones he took home with him, one of the ones he remembered when he saw his husband the next day, kissed his sons goodbye before school. He knelt down to get closer to the toddling child his partner had found hiding in a kitchen cabinet, still and silent as the grave. It was difficult to tell because she was so little and skinny but she was able to walk on her own so he guessed her age to be around twelve to eighteen months. She wore a faded yellow sundress that contrasted against her birds nest of dark curls and she had cheeks that should have been pudgy and round but were instead gaunt and covered in trails of silent tears. He was no child expert but time on this job and the two boys of his own had taught him that children cry when they needed something and cried loud so someone would come and tend to them. The only reasons a child would cry silently were if they were more scared of being heard than whatever they needed, or because they knew no matter how loud they were no one was going to come. Considering she’d been found at the scene of a drug deal gone wrong and her mother was too high to remember her own surname, he didn’t know which scenario was more likely.

“Hey there little one,” the cop said, giving his best Dad smile. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up and maybe find something to eat, hey? Then we’ll see how your mom’s doing.”

The girl wobbled on her feet and he wondered when it was the last time she ate. From the state of the scene, it could have been days. He scooped her into his arms and firmly walked away from the mess behind him, shielding her eyes from the worst of the blood spatter. He would pray for this child, he decided.

 

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It was a haggard looking Jane Foster who opened the back door to her mother’s house in London. Tony landed in the back yard, quickly exited his suit and was already striding over to the tiny astrophysicist when his path was suddenly blocked by a giant Asgardian God of Thunder.

“Friend Anthony. A moment, if you will.”

“Not now, big guy, I need to get to my daughter.”

Tony tried to step around Thor, but the God moved with him.

“I understand your concern, friend, however there are matters of import we must discuss.”

Knowing he couldn’t get past Thor without a fight and even then only possibly, Tony crossed his arms and scowled. He flicked one hand, impatiently gesturing Thor to get on with it.

“Firstly I would have you know that this mishap is not of my making nor of my Lady Jane’s. She has done nothing but care for your child as best she could in the circumstances.”

“Got it. Not your fault. Check. Now move.”

“Nay, Stark, there is more. When the young Lady Darcy returned to the body she once inhabited years ago, her mind also reverted. My Jane tells me that Darcy’s childhood was not a merry one and as such special care will need to be taken to tend to her.”

“What are you saying? Has someone hurt her?” The hackles rose on Tony’s neck and Thor lifted his palms in the universal sign of peace.

“Not in this time, nay, however the child Darcy bears the scars of what occurred in her original years of youth. When she partook of the system of fostering of your country she was mistreated and those wounds are yet raw. You must tread carefully, friend, for she is wary and fearful and it would be too easy a thing to cause more distress.”

Doubt niggled at him and Tony was suddenly uncertain that he should even be here. Had he made a mistake? Should he have called someone else? Someone better suited to dealing with traumatised children? He shook his head to clear it. No. Darcy was his daughter and he failed her the first time she was young and damned if he would fail her a second time. No more strangers would be looking after his little girl.

“Let me see her. Please.”

Thor turned aside and followed behind him as Jane led Tony into the small house. He stepped through a galley kitchen that was barely big enough to fit the three of them standing and into a living area that had more scientific equipment than furniture. It was most definitely not a place suited to children. Jane motioned her hand to the stairs.

“She’s in the upstairs bathroom. She hid herself there and refused to come out and we didn’t want to upset her by forcing our way in.”

“So you just left a distressed toddler alone in a bathroom for hours?” Tony spluttered.

“Of course not! Erik has been sitting outside the door and talks to her. She doesn’t answer, but she seems to have taken to him the best out of the three of us. She’s wary of me and terrified of Thor.”

Jane ran her hand over her head to smooth her frazzled hair and Tony noticed her hand was trembling. Thor ran his big mitts up and down Jane’s arms to calm her but Tony could see by the lines around his eyes that he was upset as well. Darcy was their friend, their ‘lightning sister’, and they too had been affected by her alarming transformation.

Unsure of what else to say, Tony nodded and climbed the stairs. Once he was at the top he saw Erik Selvig sitting on the hallway floor beside a closed door that must be the bathroom. When the scientist saw Tony, he gave a tight smile and lifted his hand in a tired half wave.

“Darcy?” Erik called into the hinges of the door. “Darcy, your father is here. Will you let him come in, honey?”

Caught unawares by Erik’s announcement, Tony stumbled forward and his hand flew out to the wall to steady his balance. Your father is here. That’s what he was, though wasn’t he? The whole reason he was here? He was Darcy’s father.

“She hasn’t spoken to me yet but I think she’s listening. Well, I tell myself that anyway,” Erik gave a one shouldered shrug. “Maybe she’ll respond to you though. If you could get her to eat something, that would be great. She hasn’t eaten anything for me either.”

Before Tony could scramble together something to say in response, Erik pulled himself to his knees and then his feet, then twisted the door handle to ease it open a crack. He motioned for Tony to go ahead.

After dropping everything and flying at breakneck speed halfway round the world to get to her, suddenly Tony hesitated. Then Erik gave him a little nudge and it was enough to break the spell his anxiety had cast and Tony slowly opened the door just enough to allow him to slip through, then softly closed it behind him.

Like the rest of Jane’s mother’s house, the bathroom was outdated and small. Far too small to effectively hide a person, even if that person was tiny and trying to make themselves even tinier. Darcy was curled up in a tight ball at one end of the dry bathtub, her skinny arms wrapped around her legs and her face pressed into her knees. From what he could see, it looked like she was wearing a grey t-shirt as a dress that just made her skin look even whiter. Guilt shredded him, shards of white hot pain that stole the breath from his lungs. No child should feel so scared that they cowered alone in a bathroom.

“Darcy? Sweetheart?”

Tony slowly lowered himself down to the floor on the other side of the bathtub, wincing at the unforgiving tiles on his knees. Darcy hadn’t moved.

“Princess? Can you look at me please?”

Darcy lifted her face a fraction, just enough for Tony to see a pair of truly enormous cobalt blue eyes in an ashen, tear streaked face and his heart broke at the sight. She looked like she belonged in a stage production of Oliver, underfed and pale and waiting to be kicked. He heard a soft whining noise echo in the little room and then realised that it was coming from him. He coughed and gave a little smile, trying to reassure the girl in front of him without appearing disingenuous.

“Thank you, Darcy. Now I can see the pretty eyes you have there. Are you cold? Would you like to come sit with me? We can make a nest with the towels.”

“Are you my daddy?”

The whispered question barely made it to his ears it was so quiet and he half wondered if he had imagined it, but no, her gaze flicked over his face and she was waiting for his response. She was talking to him. The visceral rush of protectiveness that punched out of his gut made him desperate to grab hold of her and shield this little girl with everything he had, body and soul, but he forced himself to stay still. He couldn’t risk scaring her into silence again.

“Yes, princess. I’m your daddy and I’m here to make everything better. I promise.” Tony held out a hand, palm up. “Will you let me help you out of the bath?”

Darcy’s eyes moved from his face to his hand and then back again, hunting for a hidden threat, and Tony couldn’t breathe. A soundless chant looped in his mind. Trust me, please, trust me.

After an eternity, Darcy loosened her hold on her legs and lifted a little hand to place it in Tony’s much larger one, her touch feather light and hesitant. Tony closed his fingers around his little girl’s and released his breath in relief. He leaned forward over the edge of the bath and lifted Darcy, his heart twisting yet again as he registered how little she weighed, almost as if her bones were hollow. He cradled her against his chest and stood, comforting her with wordless murmurs when she startled at the movement. Twin elfin arms snaked around his neck and Darcy burrowed her face onto his collarbone and nothing had ever felt so right.

“Shh, baby, I’m here,” he murmured, steadying her with one hand while opening the bathroom door with the other. “We’re just going to go someplace warmer, okay? But I’m here, I’m with you.”

Selvig was waiting in the hall. His face softened when he saw Darcy in Tony’s arms. Darcy twitched and she tried to burrow deeper into his shoulder and without conscious thought Tony found himself rubbing her back in broad, soothing strokes. She was so small that his hand covered the entire width and half the length of her back in one go.

“Jane’s been on the phone to Pepper, organising clothes and the like and she says a plane will be ready to take you home in the morning. Why don’t you take Darcy into her bedroom for a while, try to get her to rest?”

Tony followed Erik to the aforementioned room and tried not to think about how strange it would be to lay down in a twenty one year old girl’s bed while holding a small child. Darcy refused to give up her death grip on his neck though so he rolled with it and lowered them both to the mattress, with him leaning back against twenty one year old Darcy’s fluffy pillows and the toddler Darcy across his chest, curled up and clutching him as close as physically possible. Instead of talking, he tried humming and to his immense satisfaction he felt some of the tension in her body relax. Before long her breathing slowed into the soft, steady rhythm of sleep and Tony dropped a kiss on the top of her chocolate curls, unable to restrain a grin of pride and satisfaction. His baby girl was hurting and scared and vulnerable but she had just fallen asleep in his arms, trusting him to keep her safe. Maybe he wasn’t going to be so terrible at this parenting thing after all.

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

“I found her sitting outside the steps of an apartment by herself,” the big man explained, lying through his straight white teeth. He was clean and well dressed in a crisp navy suit and the rings that adorned his fingers sparkled in the station’s fluorescent lighting when he ran his hand over his bald head. “I tried the door but there was no answer. I waited as long as I could.”

The station clerk looked over the desk and down at the little girl who stood quietly next to the man, her face lowered to the floor. She hadn’t made a sound since their arrival and the stranger’s report of an abandoned child.

“And her neighbours? Why didn’t you leave the girl with them?”

“No one was home and there were squatters next door. I couldn’t leave her there,” huffed the man. “I said I was in a hurry, not heartless. Besides, isn’t this what you get paid for? Protecting the people? This is a bad neighbourhood, anything could have happened to her mother. Who knows what would have happened to her if I hadn’t come along when I did! You should be grateful!”

The clerk frowned, her thin eyebrows coming together to form a crease in her forehead.

“You’ll need to fill in some forms and speak to the Captain, Mister… ?”

“Stane. Obadiah Stane.”

 

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A soft whimpering near his ear woke Tony and his brain snapped to attention. He tilted his head to look at the girl still in his arms. Her eyes were screwed up tight and her tiny milk teeth were biting down hard on the knuckle of her thumb. With a shock he realised she was trying to muffle her own cries even in sleep.

“Shhh, shhh, baby, I’m here,” he whispered, rubbing her back. He hummed again, hoping it would calm her like it had earlier and he breathed a sigh of relief when the creases on her forehead smoothed out and her body relaxed back into sleep.

“She’s beautiful, Tony,”

Tony looked up to see Pepper leaning in Darcy’s bedroom doorway, her eyes shining with tears. She lifted her hand, drawing his gaze to a lavender suitcase with dragonflies on the front.

“Clothes and shoes. Jane didn’t know Darcy’s size so I brought a selection.”

“We’ll buy her more when we get home,” Tony replied. He’d buy her more of everything when they got home. Darcy could wear a new outfit every hour of every day if it made her happy.

“Bruce said he’d be happy to check her over, in case you didn’t want to take her to a regular paediatrician for security reasons. He’s not a paediatrician but he has had a lot of experience working with children… like Darcy.”

Tony’s lips thinned. Children like Darcy. Bruce had experience working with children in Bengal and Nepal and Bangladesh and Cambodia, children who lived in deprivation and squalor and disease. Children with no protection against the evils of the world, who had been exposed to the worst of humankind. Children like Darcy. His throat tightened and he swallowed down the tears that threatened to spill.

“Pepper, what am I doing? What have I done? How can I pretend to be a father for a child I’ve already failed?”

His lover padded over to the side of the bed and sat down. One hand hovered over the back of Darcy’s dark head before dropping to settle on his forearm.

“It looks to me like you’re already doing well,” she murmured. When he would have argued, she tightened her grip and shushed him. “I know this is unexpected and strange and none of us are sure what exactly is happening… but have you thought that maybe this could be a second chance? For you and for her?”

A second chance. With his daughter.

Darcy was here in his arms, not in foster care, not at the mercy of Obadiah Stane. And he was a grown man, matured and sober, not a twenty year old idiot with all the money and none of the accountability. He could do this for her, give her a real childhood, a life lived in love and comfort and happiness.

“Will you help me?” he asked Pepper, his voice embarrassingly small.

“Always,”

 

 


 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

“When’s social services coming? That kid out there is freaking me out. Too quiet. Ain’t normal,” the young officer said, leaning back in his chair while flicking through his notebooks.

Next to him his older partner snorted, not bothering to look up from typing in her reports. “It is for this type of kid, Piechowski, trust me. Kids are smart. These ones have seen more’n you and me combined and have learned enough to shut up about it,”

“Welfare’ll come get em, right? Fix em up, get em back on their feet, all normal again?”

“You just keep telling yourself that, pal,” she scoffed. “More likely we’ll see her back here in ten years in a mini skirt and a- ,”

“Nguyen, Piechowski, you called for social services? Whatchya need? I’m heading there now, I can pass on a message.”

“Oh hey Egorichev,” smiled Nguyen, finally looking up from her screen. “Girl out front, real sad case. Two years old, her Mama just OD’d on a suspiciously large amount of heroin. A stranger brought her in, claims he was just passing through and didn’t see nothin, brought her here out of the goodness of his heart. Name’s Lewis.”

The newly made Detective Kolya Egorichev stopped in his tracks.

Lewis. Two years old. It couldn’t be, could it? Surely that child had seen enough in her life. After the stabbing in the crack den six months ago, her mother swore she’d go clean, get her act together for the sake of her daughter. Why hadn’t he checked up on her? Sure he’d filed all the relevant child protection reports but the department was underfunded and understaffed and everyone knew how often things slipped through the cracks. He turned on his heel and changed direction, heading to the front of the station where Officer Nguyen said little Darcy Lewis would be.

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

Tony was tired. His arms were tired from holding Darcy and his eyes were tired from holding in tears and his jaw was tired from holding in the screams that wanted to rip from his throat to spew his rage at whoever had turned his baby girl into this scared little mouse. For the first half of the plane trip home to New York Darcy stuck to him like a limpet, her arms on his neck tightening to the point they shook whenever he tried to shift her onto her own seat and ultimately he’d given up and tried to coax her into eating something instead. Eventually they did need to separate, however, when Tony had to respond to his own bodily needs and he decided no, that would not be happening with a koala child still attached to him. As gently as he could he tried to peel her arms away without hurting her but he stopped when she whimpered. Time for a new tactic.

“Darcy, I need to go to the bathroom. Please let go.”

Immediately Darcy’s arms retracted and she didn’t fight or cry out when he placed her on the plush seat, even though she did pull her legs up and drop her face onto her knees, hidden behind the curtain of tangles that was her hair. God she looked so small. She’d be okay though, he rationalised. He was just going to be gone for a minute. He hurried away to the bathroom at the other end of the plane.

Moments later Tony returned to find Darcy hiding beneath her seat, her head tucked under her arms and her eyes squeezed shut like she was prepping for an earthquake. Pepper knelt next to the chair and was trying to coax her out but if anything her voice was making Darcy curl up even tighter and Pepper looked like she was about to lose the plot herself, her bright eyes swimming dangerously with tears. With growing horror Tony realised that the only people Darcy had met in her child form other than himself - Jane and Thor and Erik - were still in London packing up Jane’s equipment and Darcy had been asleep when Pepper came to drop off her clothes so she wouldn’t recognise her, wouldn’t know her at all. He’d literally left her alone again just hours after promising her he wouldn’t. A wave of guilt crashed over him. Darcy must have thought he wasn’t coming back, that he had abandoned her.

“Darcy, Darcy, I’m so sorry,” he cried, sliding to the floor next to Pepper. “I’m here, I’m back,”

He held out his arm beneath the chair but Darcy could have been a statue for all she responded. Tony swallowed down the urge to just pull her out before she got stuck and instead tried the tactic that had worked before, a firm direct request.

“Darcy. It’s not safe under there. Please come here now.”

Cobalt eyes snapped open and Darcy’s hands fell from her head. She untwisted herself and crawled forward from her hidey hole and Tony breathed a sigh of relief when she was finally out and he could lift her up again and cuddle her close. Thank God for obedient children.

“I will never abandon you,” he whispered into her hair. “You are my little girl and I will always be with you when you need me,”

Pepper helped them resettle, placing a blanket over them both and giving Tony a sad smile that he couldn’t return.

The rest of the flight home passed without further incident. Darcy didn’t speak to anyone and didn’t respond when Tony asked her for her choice of food for dinner but when he told her to please drink some milk she did so and Tony nearly jumped for joy. Then he told her to eat some apple slices and she did that as well, still without complaint, and that was even better. Mind you, Tony was almost at the point where he would like to hear Darcy complain, just to hear her voice again. He knew she could talk but since that one sentence back in Jane’s mom’s bathroom, Darcy hadn’t said a single word.

When they arrived at the airport and transferred themselves into the black SUV Happy had waiting for them, Tony had to be firm again and direct Darcy to sit in her newly purchased car seat instead of on his lap. This time her lips parted just a fraction like she was thinking about saying something but then her mouth snapped firmly shut and she looked away from him. Pepper slid into the seat next to her on the other side and met Tony’s eyes over the top of Darcy’s head.

“What is it?” Tony huffed, struggling with the car seat straps (Really? Who made these things? He was a genius engineer for crying out loud and he was having problems). Thankfully Darcy’s stillness actually worked out for him this time. What a good kid he had.

“Nothing,” Pepper quickly replied.

Pepper,”

“It’s just… Darcy is very well behaved, don’t you think?”

Something in Pepper’s voice told Tony there was more to her comment than the words suggested but damned if he had the patience to figure it out now.

“Of course she is. She’s a Stark, she’s good at everything. Aha!”

With the straps successfully conquered, Tony sat back in his own seat and took Darcy’s hand. It was shaking a little and he smoothed circles over her skin with his thumb.

“Nearly home, sweetheart,” he told her. “And then you’ll be a princess in your very own tower.”

 

 OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

It was late by the time they were nearing the tower and the sky had well and truly darkened. Tony had hoped that Darcy would sleep again in the car but no such luck. She was wide eyed and terrified, her eyes darting from one window to the other and the hand that Tony wasn’t holding often crept up to her mouth so she could bite the knuckle of her thumb. He tried his best to reassure her, to calm her with his voice or by humming again but it was like she couldn’t hear him at all. Pepper radiated concern for both Darcy and Tony and her bottom lip was pink with teeth marks as she worried at it as much as Darcy worried at her thumb.

“Did you say that things had been organised for Darcy, Pep?” Tony asked, keeping his voice low in case he startled his daughter.

“Mmhmm, yep!” Pepper said, her voice overbright and her lips stretching into an unnaturally wide smile. “We’ve got some toys and clothes and books, and some nice pictures… We’ll have to wait a few days while the renovators finish up painting and redecorating the guest suite but soon Darcy, you’ll have the prettiest room in the whole tower. Won’t that be lovely?”

Darcy didn’t react in the slightest and Tony wondered if something might be wrong with her hearing. Tomorrow they would be seeing Bruce at the tower’s med clinic though so he wouldn’t have long before he could find out.

Happy manoeuvred the SUV onto the ramp that led down to the Tower’s underground carpark and when the automatic doors lifted Darcy let out a frightened squeak at the movement. Her head snapped round to stare at Tony, her entire body vibrating with tension as though she expected to be punished for making a noise. Fury pulsed up inside him, hot and sharp at whoever had made his daughter react like this but he pushed it down and instead tried to smile reassuringly at his little girl. It felt wobbly, like plasticine putty slipping off his lips, and it probably looked even worse.

“It’s alright, honey,” Pepper soothed, picking up where Tony couldn’t. She pat Darcy on her hand, and beamed in encouragement when Darcy didn’t pull away. “There’s lots of doors that move just when we need them to. You’ll be able to get them to move too, when you want to. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

The moment the car stopped, Tony whipped Darcy out of her seat and smooshed her into his chest. “Please don’t be scared, Darcy, you’re safe. I promise you, you’re safe.”

She didn’t reply, not that Tony expected her to by this point, but she did wind her arms back around his neck and he could breathe easier again. How quickly had that feeling become the most natural in the world, the weight of his little girl in his arms and her wrists crossed behind his neck? He exited the SUV slowly, talking non-stop and providing Darcy a running commentary on what they were doing, where they were walking. He described the other cars in the garage, the motorbikes, the lights and the elevators, the names of the security guards they passed. He remembered to explain about JARVIS and how he was a computer friend who helped them and how he could talk to them from anywhere in the tower.  And when JARVIS welcomed “Miss Stark”, his throat swelled and his lips trembled as he laid a wobbly kiss on Darcy’s forehead.

The elevator rose and Darcy tensed again so he faced her towards the blue lights that displayed the floors and counted them all the way up to ninety one, their floor. And when the doors opened into the broad living space of his penthouse, the tears that had threatened behind Tony’s eyes rolled hot and thick down his cheeks. He didn’t bother wiping them away.

“We’re here, sweetheart,” he smiled down at his baby girl. “We’re home,”

Pepper rubbed a circle in the small of his back and nodded towards the bedroom. Their bedroom. Bless that woman’s heart, she’d already figured out that Tony and Darcy wouldn’t want to be separated overnight and had planned for it. He smiled at her in thanks and walked to the master suite, chattering away to Darcy as he went.

“I know the place looks pretty boring right now, kid, but we’ll get it all straightened out for you soon enough. No more white and grey and boring adult colours. You want purple, honey? Pink and blue and rainbows? Anything you want, sweetheart, that’s what we’ll do…”

Neatly arranged on Tony and Pepper’s California king bed were dozens of little girl’s outfits, dresses and t-shirts and jackets and shorts and pyjamas in a broad range of colours and designs. Arranged all across the pillows was a collection of stuffed toys and comfort items like fluffy blankets and scarves and at the foot of the bed was a line of different shoes. In his arms Darcy straightened up and her eyes were wide as she stared.

“See something you like, kiddo?” Tony asked. To his surprise, Darcy nodded.

Nodded.

She reacted to him. To his words.

Tony’s beaming mega-watt grin was mirrored on Pepper’s face and he wanted to cry again. Pepper was crying, trying to discreetly wipe away her tears before she upset Darcy.

“How about you go get it then? Whatever’s caught your eye, it’s all yours,” He gingerly lowered Darcy to her feet and knelt next to her. She looked up at him, her blue eyes searching again just like she had back in London. She looked at the bed, then back to him, her little face far too serious for a child who’d just been given five cubic feet of presents.

“Go on,” he grinned. “Whatever you want. No tricks, I promise,”

Darcy moved to the top of the bed, checking back every few steps to see if Tony had changed his mind. Then her hand flashed out and she grabbed a stuffed toy, one of the ones that had been arranged on the pillows, then quickly hid it behind her back.

Pepper let out a high pitched keening noise and Tony stood up, alarmed. Darcy immediately blanked her expression and dropped the toy on the ground behind her.

“No, no, no, Darcy, no,” exclaimed Pepper, rushing over to kneel next to the little girl. “It’s okay, it’s okay. She’s all yours, honey,”

She reached behind the girl to pick up Darcy’s chosen toy and placed it back in Darcy’s hands. Now Tony could see it properly he noticed that it was a soft lavender coloured dragon with tiny pink wings and it showed subtle signs of wear. It wasn’t new like all the other things on the bed and Tony frowned. Darcy shouldn’t have to have toys that another child had used, she could have an entire toy store to herself if she wanted. Hell, she could have all the toys in New York if it would make her happy.

“Pepper…?” he asked, keeping his voice level.

Wiping tears from beneath her eyes again, Pepper smiled at him, then turned her attention back to Darcy and pat the dragon on its purple head. “Her name is Dot and she is a very loyal, brave dragon,” Pepper explained. “She kept me safe for many years and I just know you two will be best friends,”

Oh.

Oh.

Just when Tony thought the day couldn’t get any better, Darcy surprised him again.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

And then she smiled.

And his world was perfect.

 

Later that night, Darcy fell asleep between him and Pepper, clean and dry and dressed in green dinosaur pyjamas that weren’t scientifically accurate but Pepper told him to save it for another day and JARVIS promised to have the BBC’s ‘walking with dinosaurs’ ready for them to watch in the morning so he let it go. This time Darcy clutched Dot to her in a death grip instead of Tony’s neck but her other hand was tangled with his because she needed to know they were still together even when she was asleep and Tony found he didn’t mind in the slightest. He liked knowing that too.  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

“I understand, ma’am, but with respect I have to disagree. She’s two years old, traumatised and scared and she knows me. Why send her into temporary care with a stranger when I’m right here offering to take her?”

Detective Egorichev listened to the reply and tapped the end of his pen against his notepad, his knee bouncing with the frustration he couldn’t risk colouring his voice. He knew the moment he became even slightly emotional the government worker on the other end of the phone would shut him down.

“Are you serious? I’m a detective in the NYPD, I think that counts as being properly vetted. My partner is a stay at home parent, we already have two boys. We own our own home, we have space… Yes ma’am, I do, however- …. Yes ma’am...”

His fist clenched around his pen and it snapped in two.

“Please let me know if you change your mind. Thank you ma’am. You have a good day.”

He slammed the phone back into its cradle and swore in his native Russian loud enough to garner a few looks from his co-workers. Nguyen strolled over and leaned against his desk, one eyebrow raised in question.

“No dice,” Kolya sighed. “Apparently it’d be against procedure for me to take her.”

“That’s bullshit,” Nguyen spat. “I know for a fact it’s been done before.”

 Kolya shrugged, disappointment heavy and cold in his gut. The urge to protect this child was intense, one he hadn’t encountered in his career before now, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Experience working with other cops told him that this wasn’t uncommon, that sooner or later every cop would find a case that just resonated with them beyond the norm but Kolya couldn’t help but think perhaps there was more to it. Something about little Darcy Lewis made his skin itch, set off all his instincts, and he opened up the file on her mother’s death again. Something wasn’t right – and he hadn’t been made a detective for nothing.

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

Tony had never really bothered with dinosaurs before. When he was a boy he had already fallen in love with electronics by the time he learned about palaeontology and nothing could lure him away from his workshop that didn’t have wires and gizmos and circuitry, especially not dusty old bones of dead animals none of the experts could really agree on anyway. After this morning, however, Tony was fully prepared to reconsider this opinion.

Darcy slept poorly again overnight and Tony woke several times to the soft whimpers of the nightmares she tried to hide, spending hours rubbing her back and humming her back to sleep. By five in the morning he decided to just give up entirely and quietly snuck Darcy and her dragon out of the bedroom so Pepper could at least sleep another couple of hours uninterrupted. With Darcy on his hip, Tony stumbled around the kitchen long enough to grab an espresso, shove a straw in one of Pepper’s eight ounce almond milks and nab a bag of blueberries before collapsing on the couch with Darcy and Dot in his lap.

“JARVIS,” Tony groaned. “Dinosaurs,”

“Certainly, sir,”

Darcy startled when the enormous screen lowered from the ceiling and Tony rubbed her back with one hand while sipping his coffee with the other. God he was exhausted. Science benders and billionaire parties had nothing on the emotional hangover of being the principal caretaker for a traumatised child.

Imagine you could go back in time” Kenneth Branagh’s smooth British voice rang out. “Across sixty five million years ago…”

Graphic rendering of an ancient earth glowed from the screen and Darcy leaned forward on his lap, her toy clutched tight against her chest. Her lips opened and although no sound came out Tony clearly saw her mouthing words. Cretaceous Period. Sixty five million years.

An enormous roar boomed from the speakers and Tony jumped a foot in the air. His heart thumped out of his chest and he looked to Darcy with concern but rather than the terror he expected to see, her cobalt eyes were wide in wonder, thoroughly entranced by the thundering bellows of the battling tyrannosaurus on the screen. He watched her lips pull back against her teeth and her mouth opened wide in her own silent roar and he had to bite down hard on his tongue to stop himself laughing out loud. His daughter was freaking adorable.

While Darcy’s eyes were still glued to the screen, Tony slid the little carton of milk into her hand and brought the straw to her lips and a third of the carton was gone before Darcy realised what she was doing. He beamed an approving smile at her and Darcy’s lips quirked up in answer before turning her head back to watch the stegosauri. He did the same with the blueberries and Darcy ate five in a row before refusing more. By the time Pepper emerged from the bedroom, Darcy had slipped from his lap entirely and was leaning with her elbows on the coffee table completely absorbed in the Mesozoic era, mouthing words along with the narrator and only occasionally looking around to reassure herself Tony was still nearby.

Tony had finished two coffees, sorted his emails for the day and had begun pottering around the kitchen to cook breakfast when Pepper came up and hugged him from behind.

“Good morning, Daddy,” she smiled and damned if his heart didn’t do a little flip. “I see you have everything well in hand.”

Turning around in her embrace, Tony smiled back and dropped a kiss on Pepper’s nose. “Did I ever tell you how much I love dinosaurs?”

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

Bruce had his doctor’s smile on when the three of them walked in to the Tower’s small yet extensively outfitted medical clinic but upon seeing Darcy the smile quickly turned brittle. His gaze flittered between Darcy and Tony while Pepper murmured into his ear and Tony wouldn’t be exaggerating if he said there was a flash of green in Bruce’s pupils before he centred himself again.

“Well. Okay. Alright. How about we, uh, make a start?” Bruce suggested, tapping his fingers against his legs. He led the way into a private room and Tony followed behind, settling himself and his precious cargo on the narrow hospital bed indicated. Bruce leaned down in front of them and Tony carefully turned Darcy in his lap to face the doctor. She was rigid as a plank and her normally pale skin was a chalky white and any resemblance to the girl who watched dinosaurs this morning had evaporated.

“Darcy, honey, this is my friend Bruce. He’s going to check you over, make sure you’re healthy, alright?” He looked to Bruce. “She can speak but she doesn’t. I don’t know about her hearing. Can you… I don’t want to scare her, Bruce… It’s important, yeah, but…”

Bruce smiled, his eyes soft and kind. “It’s okay, Tony. I’ve done this before. We’ll get the most serious things out of the way first and then see how far we get with the rest. If Darcy is too upset, then we stop.”

Too relieved to form real spoken language words, Tony hummed his assent and wobbled another smile.

“Also…” Bruce hesitated. “Also, I know we need to keep this situation in-house, so to speak, but I can already see that Darcy needs more than just my medical expertise. She needs to work with someone.” When Tony looked like he would interrupt, Bruce quickly continued. “She needs help, Tony, and I can only deal with the physical. Captain Rogers’ friend Sam Wilson is a trauma counsellor. He’s out of the tower a lot travelling with the Captain and he doesn’t usually work with children but considering our options… Just think about it, alright?”

Tony breathed out a sigh, knowing Bruce was right. “Yeah,” he agreed, rubbing a hand over his jaw. “Yeah, that’d probably be good.”

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

Pepper watched Bruce lift Darcy’s arm and attach a blood pressure cuff, which was too big, then remove it again and rustle around in the equipment drawers for a smaller one. Tony’s face was lined with stress and fear and her heart hurt just looking at him. How this man thought he was unsuited to parenthood she had no idea when he was quite literally the most caring man she had ever met. Sure he had unconventional ways of showing it – sometimes downright bizarre – but the fact was that once someone managed to get past his defences, Tony Stark cared, and cared deeply. And this child was well and truly past his defences. This could either be the best thing that ever happened to Tony – or the worst.

At Bruce’s requests Tony murmured directions into Darcy’s ear and the girl dutifully moved herself and her limbs like she was a doll in a display, never once changing the neutral expression on her face. Tony thought Darcy was just being obedient but that’s not what those stiff, ungainly movements looked like to Pepper. Not that she knew what it did look like, just that obedient wasn’t it. Normal children didn’t follow orders with military precision and an expressionless mask, did they? God she wished she had paid more attention to her cousin’s babies. She made a note to buy some recommended paediatric textbooks right away and immediately felt better for it. If there was one thing Virginia Potts knew how to do, it was how to arm herself with knowledge.

Bruce was working with his back to her so she couldn’t see his face but the lines of his body were rigid with tension and as the examination progressed the doctor’s shoulders creeped closer and closer to his ears. He was barely holding it together and Pepper counted out the minutes until finally Bruce shifted back and lowered his stethoscope. All three of the adults sighed in relief while Darcy stayed as still as ever, Dot tight beneath her skinny arm.

“I think that will do for now,” Bruce began. “I’ll send away for her vaccinations and these blood samples might take a couple of days but there are some things we do need to discuss right away.”

Tony immediately straightened his posture, his arms tightening protectively around Darcy. “Like what?”

“The most critical is nutrition. Going by Darcy’s teeth and development she’s at least four years old however her weight and height range are that of a much younger child. Her hair, skin and nails all show markers of vitamin deficiency and I could see right away that she’s dehydrated. We need to get her nutrition on track, immediately.”

The doctor’s voice was even but knowing Bruce as well as she did, Pepper could hear the strain. She moved over to sit beside Tony on the narrow hospital bed, pressing her body into his side and while both Tony’s hands were around Darcy, he leaned into Pepper’s shoulder to accept the comfort she was offering him even as he offered comfort to his daughter.

Bruce swallowed and his eyes flicked to the windows. He didn’t look at them when he spoke.

“Darcy’s condition wasn’t caused overnight, this is long term undernourishment. Her stomach capacity is greatly reduced and it’s my opinion Darcy’s system is physically unable to cope with the volume of food her body needs. I’d like to start Darcy on an enteral nutrition program, one that will slowly increase her caloric and vitamin intake. With luck she should only need it for a few weeks while her stomach stretches back to a typical size, then we could taper it off and move back to an oral only system with supplements.”

“Enteral…” Tony’s mouth hung open. “You want to stick a tube down my daughter’s throat?”

“Tony…” Pepper soothed, rubbing her palm over his upper arm. If Tony got upset, then Darcy would react even worse.

“Nasogastric intubation, yes. It’s up to you, of course,” Bruce said. “But Darcy is already dehydrated and will continue to lose weight. She already has a reduced muscle mass. If- ,”

“I get it, Banner,” Tony snapped. “Sorry. I just… ugh.” He sighed, then dropped his head backwards and when he spoke again it was directed towards the ceiling. “I just don’t want to think about my little girl needing… needing a fucking tube…”

Tears welled in Pepper’s eyes and slipped down her cheeks, her heart shattering for her lover and this dear little girl. What sort of monsters would starve a child? Darcy swivelled in Tony’s lap, repositioning her little body so she could look at her father’s face and Pepper wondered just what was going through the mind behind those enormous blue eyes. At four years old Tony had built his first motherboard, programmed his first AI. What was this little girl capable of? What was she seeing as she stared into Tony’s eyes?

Tony lowered his head to look back at Darcy, his gaze moving over cheekbones that were too prominent, a jawline that was too sharp.

“Alright. Alright. Whatever we need to do, whatever she needs. Let’s do it.”

Bruce nodded. He turned and began gathering more equipment from the clinic drawers, little sterile packages of tapes and gauze and things Pepper didn’t recognise and her heartrate jumped. Tension rolled off Tony and she swallowed down her own fear.

“It’ll be okay,” Pepper soothed. “Everything will be okay.”

She wasn’t sure if she was trying to comfort Darcy, Tony or herself. 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

Kolya dropped his wallet and keys into the bowl on his entrance hall table and moved through the dimly lit apartment to his kitchen, his footsteps soft so as to not wake his family in the middle of the night. As he did often recently, the detective had worked late into the evening, however he’d called it a night when he found himself staring blankly at photos from the Lewis case for over half an hour. Abigail Lewis’s dead eyes bore into his soul, accusing him, and he found he had no answer for her. Instead he’d closed the manila folder and returned it to the bottom of his locked briefcase, suddenly desperate to hear the snuffling breaths of his boys in their sleep and feel his husbands arms around him.

“Home late again, Kolnyshka,”

Kolya slipped onto a stool at the kitchen bench and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips as his husband placed a cup of tea and a plate of gingerbread in front of him. The combined smell of the lemony tea and Marik’s homemade gingerbread was comforting, a mix of citrus and spices that never failed to spark feelings of family and home.

“Is it the girl again? The little ptichka?”

Smiling softly at Marik’s nickname for Darcy – she really did look like a little bird – Kolya nodded and sipped his tea, appreciating the warm, soothing flow of the liquid. Marik always made the best tea.

“I’ve been locked out. Me, a homicide detective, locked out of a čertovskiy homicide case. Had to ask Nguyen to grab the hard file for me.”

His husband huffed so hard his broad shoulders bounced. “Ublyudki. Why?”

“Because I’m right.”

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

Darcy would be staying in the med ward for a week or so following the procedure to insert her nasogastric tube just to make sure her system was settling alright into the new nutrition program and that meant Tony was staying in the med ward as well. Pepper wanted to join them but she did have an entire Fortune 500 company to run so she at least slept in the penthouse, even if she spent most of the day with them, tapping away on her tablet and taking calls in the hallway. As much as his body was hanging on by one exhausted thread, Tony didn’t envy Pepper’s return to their rooms in the evening. He knew that if he spent the night away from Darcy he wouldn’t be sleeping anyway so at least if he stayed with her he could catnap when she did.

The procedure – God, the procedure – had been one of the hardest things Tony had ever had to do in his life. Once Bruce and the nurses approached with the equipment and explained what they were going to do, Darcy just shut down. Just… switched off like a robot. All the life in her eyes died and her limbs turned boneless and pliant as she offered no resistance whatsoever to the medical staff. And Tony knew with cold, hard certainty the reaction was because Darcy had been hurt before, had been hurt so often that her little body had come to know what it had to do in order to survive. And now that survival instinct had been triggered by something he was doing. He whispered explanations to her over and over but then his voice doubled as voices long dead echoed in his memory, his father’s frigid authority as he rejected Tony time after time for his efforts not being enough, never being enough.

I’m doing this for you, Anthony. It’s for your own good, his father’s voice declared. You’ll thank me one day.

They had to stop so he could go throw up.

Once it was over the nurses moved Darcy into a more comfortable med room and when Tony tucked them both in to the larger, softer bed she immediately fell into a deep sleep – another survival instinct, Bruce said – but Tony couldn’t. He was too wired, too shaken. Instead he watched the machine that steadily dripped artificial formula into her body, telling himself over and over that every whir of the pump delivered another dose of the calories and vitamins his little girl so desperately needed, that each one would help her grow stronger. She would grow and thrive and he would make sure she never had to go through anything like this ever again.

Eventually Tony’s body did give in to its exhaustion and he fell asleep cuddling his girl. When he woke, however, his arms were empty. He jolted upright, terror flooding him, until he saw Darcy sitting at the end of the bed as far as the line connecting her machine could stretch, leaning over the footboard and motioning with her hands. Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, was in a chair pulled up to the bed, one arm in a sling and several butterfly bandages across his forehead. The archer’s gaze met his over Darcy’s head.

“Looks like Daddy’s awake. Nice nap, sleeping beauty?”

Tony snorted. He felt like shit warmed up and he bet he looked it too. But he wasn’t about to say it in front of Darcy, not when she had gone through worse and especially not when she was voluntarily interacting with another human. He wasn’t going to spoil that for anything.

“What are you doing here, Barton?” he asked instead.

Clint shrugged, then winced as the movement jostled his injured arm. “Tash and I just got back from a mission and considering I’m stuck in medical overnight I figured I should visit my new neighbour.”

Darcy turned back to look at Tony with a tiny smile on her lips and her blue eyes bright and shining again, and the thin tube taped to her cheek did nothing to mar her prettiness. She lifted her hand and made a curious twisting motion. He looked to Clint for an explanation.

“It looked like Darcy was getting bored here in medical with everyone asleep, so I showed her a few signs. Real smart kid. I mean, I knew she was smart when I met her in Puente Antiguo but this is crazy. Makes sense if she’s yours though. I’ve been here about half an hour and she’s already picked up the alphabet and run with it.”

Sign language? Of course! He should have thought of it before, it was such an obvious idea. ASL was silent communication- a way for Darcy to speak without making a sound. He hated that she thought she had to be silent, it killed him that she was worried she’d be punished for making noise, but he also knew that it would take time for Darcy to overcome that deeply instilled fear. ASL was a brilliant way for Darcy to express herself until she felt comfortable speaking again. And if she still felt like signing after that, well, ASL was a cool language. Who didn’t want to learn it?

“What did you say, sweetheart?”

Darcy’s hand twitched again and behind her Clint grinned before interpreting.

“D-A-D-D-Y”

Ohhh that hit deep.

Was it possible to be literally stabbed in the feels? Tony couldn’t muse too long on the possibility because Darcy’s hand was still moving.

“D-A-R-C-Y” Clint continued speaking for her. “L-E-W- ,”

Darcy’s hand stopped. Her head tilted to the side and she screwed up her face in thought. With her eyes closed this time, she started signing again.

“D-A-R-C-Y-S-T-A-R-K”

Head still tilted, Darcy peeked open one eye and looked at Tony as if to gauge his reaction, as if Tony might be mad she used his name. Their name. Tony spluttered, choking on his own tongue a little before shuffling forward on the bed and grabbing her up in a hug, keeping mindful of her tube as he wrapped both arms tight around her skinny body. He beamed at his little girl, his vision suspiciously blurry, and dropped kiss after kiss on her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, her chin. If Clint minded the emotional display he didn’t say anything but it wasn’t as if Tony cared anyway. He was a daddy and if he wanted to cry with pride and joy over his pride and joy, well, that was his prerogative.

“Darcy Stark. Yeah, baby, you’re Darcy Stark.”

A knock at the door interrupted and Tony looked up to see Pepper leaning against the doorframe with a broad grin on her face as she took in the scene. She straightened up and waved her hand to indicate her phone.

“Sorry, Tony, but Thor was trying to get you. Of course, since you diverted all your calls to my office – thank you for telling me that in advance, by the way – it came through to me.”

“What did he want?” Tony asked. When Pepper gave a little shrug and motioned her head to the hallway, he got the hint.

“Hey, baby girl,” he said, smiling down at Darcy. “I gotta go make a call, alright? But I’ll be just in the hallway there and I’ll leave the door open so you can see me okay? You want to watch the dinosaurs for a bit? Or chat with Clint?”

Darcy worried at her lip with her teeth and cast a considering look between the television to her right, Clint at the end of the bed and the doorway to her left. Tony held his breath and waited for her decision, not wanting to rush her. If she felt too insecure about him leaving the room, he wouldn’t, simple as that. Over the past forty eight hours Darcy had slowly started letting him go further away from her – this morning she had even been fine with Pepper replacing him while he had a shower, which was a damned miracle considering the koala child she’d been that first day – but she still panicked if he went out of her sight for more than a few minutes and he wasn’t going to push her. It would take time for Darcy to learn that she wasn’t going to be abandoned, that her people would always come back. That she could trust them.

Her little hand flicked out a series of letters and Tony -he really had to learn that alphabet asap- looked to Clint for help.

“Pepper,”

Pepper cooed, there was no other word for it, dropped her phone and tablet on a spare chair and hurried over to the bedside. She slipped her heels off, jumped up to sit on the bed and pulled a grinning Darcy into her lap and something about seeing his lover and his daughter happy and safe together made Tony’s heart clench. They were fucking beautiful.

Clint sent him a knowing smile and Tony remembered again that the archer was a spy and probably knew exactly what Tony was thinking but unlike how Clint and Natasha’s mind reading abilities had bothered him in the past, this time he realised he just didn’t care. He sent a glare back to Clint for appearance’s sake anyway, pulled his phone out of his pocket and slipped out of the room to call Jane Foster’s number, remembering to stay within visual range of the open doorway.

“Friend Anthony, I am pleased to hear your voice. I trust that all is well with you and your kin?”

“As well as it can be,” Tony replied. “At least until Darcy is healthy enough for me to go on a manhunt and destroy whoever did this to her,”

“You mean to fight the spell smith?” Thor asked with surprise. “Surely a sorcerer of such-”

“Not the witch, big guy,” Tony cut in. “Although that is on my to-do list. I meant the scumbag assholes who think it’s acceptable to abuse and starve innocent children. We’ve had to put Darcy on tube feeds and she’s still terrified of her own shadow.”

Across the connection came the unmistakable sound of thunder as the London skies reacted to Thor’s mood.

“Aye,” came the God’s clipped voice. “Destruction of such filth is a worthy goal. I will aid you in this, friend.”

“And you’d be welcome. Now what did you want to tell me?”

The line was silent except for the thunder and Jane Foster’s quiet murmur in the background while Thor fought to control his temper. Then there came muffled sounds of the phone being handed over and Jane’s voice grew clearer.

“Mr Stark? I’m sorry but Thor is a little upset right now. He wanted to let you know that we’re going to Asgard to speak to his mother about the spell on Darcy. Normally humans wouldn’t be allowed to access the Bifrost but he’s sure there’d be an exception in this case. If anyone can help us figure out what happened to Darcy, it’s Frigga.”

“Do you know how long that will take?”

“No idea. Last time Thor said he’d just be a couple days he was gone for nearly two years, so I really couldn’t say. I hope it’s not that long though.”

Two years.

Two years of little Darcy living here with him, two years of seeing her and Pepper cuddling and smiling together. Two years for his girl to recover from her ordeals, for him to guide her and help her and shower her with all the love he never got to give her the first time.

Two years of Darcy being affected by a strange, unknown magic with repercussions the likes of which they could only guess. Two years of his adult daughter’s life lost. Two years of Darcy being targeted by an unidentified foreign power.

“Mr Stark? Are you still there?”

“What? Yes, yeah, I’m here. You’re going to Asgard for answers, that’s good. What do you need from me?”

“Well, nothing, really. Heimdall is in charge of the Bifrost. I just wanted to let you know and you know…ask you to look after Darcy, keep her safe.”

Tony looked through the doorway to see Darcy twisting Pepper’s fingers into the ASL sign for ‘P’.

“Can do, Foster. Can do.”

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

“You sure about this, Cap?”

Steve turned away from the cabin’s wide front window and faced his friend, who was standing with his hands in his jeans pockets and a carefully neutral expression on his handsome face. Sam Wilson hadn’t been around long but he had continually gone above and beyond the call of friendship, already proven himself to be the most loyal person Steve had ever met – except for Bucky, of course. Steve wasn’t exaggerating when he said he couldn’t have found Bucky without Sam. He would have been out of commission within a month, stranded in Europe without a clue. It was Sam who had organised their accommodations, their connections, their finances. It was Sam who rendezvoused with Natasha, kept Stark in the loop, monitored the mostly abandoned SHIELD chatter when Steve was too exhausted and emotional to read another word. It was Sam who nagged Steve to eat, to sleep, to remember that for all he had gone through his body was still human.

And now, back home in the US, it was Sam who supported him in his plans for Bucky’s rehabilitation, who helped find and vet the army of doctors and therapists that would facilitate Bucky’s transition back from the Winter Soldier. Tony Stark had generously offered to finance it all but without Sam, he and Bucky would have been wandering in the dark without a clue.

“Yeah. I am,” Steve replied. “Bucky doesn’t need another hospital. He needs a home.”

“And you think this is the best place for that?” Sam asked, pointing out the window to the vast snowy wilderness beyond. “It’s hardly secure.”

Steve shrugged. “No place could keep Bucky if he really wanted out. He needs to know he’s got a choice, Sam, that he’s not a puppet anymore.”

“He’s still dangerous,” Sam countered. His voice was calm - he wasn’t being antagonistic, just pointing out the truth. That was Sam’s way. He didn’t pull punches, just handed over the information and let Steve work through it.

“That’s why I’ll be here with him. You could stay too, you know. Drink some hot chocolate. Roast some marshmallows.”

“I could,” Sam moved closer and clapped Steve’s bicep. “But I got a feeling you fellas got some stuff to work through on your own. Besides, Stark called. Says he needs me back at the Tower for something.”

“You’ll visit?”

They had been travelling just the two of them for months and now that time had run its course Steve found he was reluctant to say goodbye. He was ecstatic to have found Bucky, of course he was, and Sam was right in that they did have a lot of stuff to work through together just… he just wanted to do it with Sam here too.

“Yeah, man, I’ll visit. Someone’s gotta remind you super soldiers to take your vitamins.”

They both laughed and Steve pulled Sam into a hug.

“Thank you, Sam. For everything.”

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“It near breaks my heart to think no one wants this blessed little thing. Such a sweet girl and no trouble, quiet as a mouse. She’s not cried three times in the whole time she’s been with me.”

“I’m afraid it is what it is, Mrs. Patterson. It’s been a month and no one has come forward to claim her. Regulations say she needs to go into long term care.”

“You’ll find a nice family won’t you, dear? A sweet one, just the same as her. Not those Augustins, I come over all shook up when I seen their eyes. There’s something wrong with those people, I feel it in my bones.”

“Of course, Mrs. Patterson. The department will do its very best.”

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

“Darcy…”

Tony flicked his fingers and JARVIS slowly brought up the volume of Led Zeppelin’s instrumental version of The Rain Song. Over the last two weeks they’d learned that it was best to wake Darcy slowly in case she startled and it triggered a panic attack. Having music playing at the same time helped, especially if it was something Darcy associated with Tony. Damn this girl was good for his ego.

“Darcy, baby…” he crooned.

He stepped over to the edge of her hospital bed and began to gently rub her back through her green dragon themed pyjamas. The touch made her squirm and roll onto her side and Tony smiled when he saw her pretty face now clear of its tube. She had done so well, tolerating the tube and all the medical interference without complaint and Tony was amazed at the difference a fortnight of proper nutrition had made. Although she was still pale, her skin had lost that ghostly quality and her jawline was no longer sharp enough to slice. Her elbows and knees were still the widest part of her limbs but Bruce assured him that would soon change now that Darcy was able to tolerate a higher volume of food.

The biggest difference that they’d all noticed wasn’t physical but mental. Darcy was still apprehensive, still easily spooked by all manner of things and still wasn’t speaking but her eyes shone with thoughtful intelligence and she scrutinised her surroundings with careful deliberation. Her curiosity, they’d discovered, was insatiable and her mind devoured knowledge as voraciously as her body devoured its nutrients. Now her body was actually being adequately fuelled, her brain was working at full capacity and even Tony was struggling to come up with new ways to keep her entertained while they were still in the med bay. Well, struggling to come up with Pepper-approved ways to keep her entertained anyway. Apparently it was a ‘bad idea, Tony’ to conduct exothermic experiments in a hospital room. Whatever. He’d argued that the kid needed to learn chemistry at some point but then Bruce, the traitor, sided with Pepper and he was forced to agree to save it for the lab.

Darcy’s face scrunched up as she snuggled her face into her pillow and Tony tried not to laugh and instead just kept rubbing her back. Eventually she opened her eyes and blinked those long lashes in his direction and Tony could practically see the moment her brain clicked on and went in search of information. She sat up and her fingers flicked a question to him.

“I’ve got no idea what you mean, baby girl,” Tony grinned. “Promises from yesterday? Nope, coming up blank. Were you waiting for something?”

Her jaw dropped open in a little ‘o’ and her hand flashed again more insistently, motioning to her bare cheek and then to the door.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked, letting his voice lilt a little for effect. “Buddy, do you remember anything about Darcy going home today?”

“I’m afraid I do not, sir. Perhaps Miss Stark is mistaken?”

Darcy let out a squeak of indignation before staring at the ceiling with righteous outrage and Tony really hoped JARVIS recorded it so he could show Pepper later after work. She lifted herself onto her knees and leaned over the side railing of her bed to get closer to him and started signing to him in broad, emotional movements and Tony couldn’t keep his laughter contained anymore. He let the chuckles roll out of his chest as he lifted Darcy up into his arms and hugged her tight before she could fall out of bed.

“I didn’t forget, princess, and neither did JARVIS. We’re just teasing you. You’re one hundred percent correct, it's home day today.”

Darcy squeaked again and her body practically vibrated with excitement. She leaned back and wiggled her fingers right in his face and he nearly went cross eyed trying to follow the letters she signed.

“Not yet, we have to wait for Brucey-boo to do his doctor schtick. But hey, I’ve got a present for you that we can look at while we wait okay?”

Kicking at the bedrail lever until it lowered, Tony dropped a squirming Darcy back onto the bed and went to where he’d hidden her present box behind his chair. He loved this part. He slowly walked back to her, stretching the moment out as long as he could. Gone was the terrified child too scared to choose a toy from the dozens on his bed, replaced by a smiling, happy Darcy who was too excited to sit still. She’d loved all the presents he’d given her so far, from the light-up rainbow hi-tops she wore every day to the (scarily rare) scientifically accurate dinosaur models to the special Sicilian chocolates the same as his mother always gave him when he was younger. Sure he’d had to get one of SI’s Italian offices to fly the chocolates over to New York because they weren’t available outside the island, but whatever. His baby girl was worth it.

“You know I heard along the grapevine somewhere that there was a kid here who liked dinosaurs,” he began, watching her expression. She was trying so hard to keep her eyes on his face but every few seconds her gaze would flick down to the A4 sized gold box in his hand. “Any idea who that might be?”

Darcy nodded emphatically, poking herself in the chest with her finger hard enough he was worried she’d bruise that pale skin of hers.

“You? Really?” Okay now he was just being a shit. He eased himself up onto the bed, his ass barely planted on the mattress before Darcy was climbing on his lap and winding her arms around his neck just the way he adored. “Well, how about we see what’s in this box, yeah?”

Tony held the bottom of the box firm while Darcy carefully untied its satin bow, folded it and placed it to the side. Later she’d no doubt ask him or Pepper to weave it into her braid like she had with all the other ribbons she refused to throw away. Then she looked up at him with a question in her eyes and waited for his permission, just in case he’d changed his mind at the last minute and this gift really wasn’t for her. Like he’d ever do that.

“Go on,” he said, bouncing his leg. “Boxes don’t open themselves. Not this one, anyway. Maybe next time. Actually we should do that. JARVIS, make a note.”

“Duly noted, sir.”

With Tony still holding the bottom of the box, Darcy lifted the lid to reveal a hardcover book. It wasn’t brightly coloured and didn’t have flashy artwork like the dozens of children’s books Darcy already owned. Instead it was a plain beige with a dull black Times New Roman label. Opening the cover, Darcy flicked through hundreds of pages of heavy text, occasionally broken up by what Tony thought looked like quite boring, anatomically-inspired black line illustrations. She closed the book, twisted in his lap and beamed up at him.

“Looks pretty dull, kiddo. You sure you want it?”

Darcy’s eyes widened and she plucked her book from the box, which Tony let fall to the floor. Held tight in her little arms, it looked enormous but the book was no bigger than any other school textbook.

“Alright, alright, I can see you want it. How about we start reading it together? Kill some time before the good doctor comes to kick us out?”

Before he’d even finished speaking, Darcy was pushing her book into his chest and he laughed again. God, had he ever laughed so much before she came into his life? He settled himself back against the headrest and waited for Darcy to snuggle into his side before he ran his fingers over the title of the book.

North American Therapods of the Late Cretaceous,” Tony recited.

Darcy squealed right into his ear canal and he winced. Instantly he regretted the movement but it was too late, Darcy had spotted his reaction. She slapped both hands across her mouth and slid back away from him, her fall to the floor halted only by the remaining bedrail. Her eyes were the size of dinner plates, shining with silent tears that pooled and slid down her cheeks as she stared at him in horror.

“Baby, its okay,” he soothed. “You didn’t do anything wrong,”

Tony reached forward to comfort her but Darcy pulled away, her body language stiff and terrified in a way that tore up his insides. He hated seeing her like this, hated seeing her too scared to make a noise, be a normal kid. His blood thrummed with anger so hot it felt like it was burning him up and he breathed deep to calm himself before Darcy noticed that as well.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he repeated, wishing he could get her to believe it. “I was startled, that’s all, baby girl. You’re okay.”

Pulling her knees up to her chest, Darcy dropped her head down to hide her face and hugged her ankles. Tony couldn’t see her tears anymore but her little body shook and he’d put money on it she was still crying. He didn’t know what to do. Should he leave her alone? Give her a cuddle even though she moved away? He felt so useless.

“Darcy,” he tried again. “Darcy, look at me.”

At his request, Darcy raised her head just enough for him to see her wet eyes.

“Come here, princess, please,”

She scooted towards him and when she got within reach, Tony picked her up and placed her on his lap. She didn’t put her arms around his neck this time, choosing to huddle into a ball instead, but he didn’t force her to shift. He did wish she’d stop biting her thumb though. They sat there together for long moments until eventually Darcy’s body stopped shaking and her breathing evened out. She’d cried herself to sleep.

“She has been mistreated,” murmured a familiar voice from the entrance to the room.

Tony suppressed a snort. “No shit,”

Natalie Rushman, or Natasha Romanoff as had he found out, slinked her way over and sat down on the chair next to the bed, curling her feet beneath her legs.

“She obeys you,” said the spysassin-slash-former-secretary, keeping her voice low. “Do you know why?”

“Duh. I’m her father.”

“Children are not naturally inclined to be obedient,” replied Natasha, not rising to the bait in Tony’s tone.

They sat quietly for a few moments, the spy waiting calmly until Tony couldn’t stand it anymore and he cracked. He hated not knowing things. He hated that she knew he hated not knowing things.

“If you have something to say, then say it,” he snapped. The effectiveness of his snark was limited by its low volume.

Nat lifted a shoulder in a feline shrug. If that woman wasn’t a cat wearing a person-suit, Tony would sell his cars. And then buy new ones because cars are pretty.

“It is possible I am wrong,” she began in a way that told Tony that she did not in fact believe she was wrong. “However, you are the first person to treat her with genuine kindness and affection since she was mistreated.”

“And?”

Natasha’s eyes shuttered. She waited him out again, letting what she said sink into his brain. It did, with a horrifying gut-wrenching clarity.

“She thinks I’ll send her back,” he said, aghast. He tightened his grip on his little girl.

Nat tilted her head forward in the world’s smallest nod. “It is a logical assumption for her to make,”

“Oh my God.”

The past two weeks flashed through Tony’s genius brain, just how many times he’d requested something of Darcy and just how many times she’d done what he’d asked. Never once had she refused him. Not one fucking time. She was four and she never once refused to obey.

What had he done? He felt sick.

“She thinks I’ll send her back,” he repeated, his guts twisting in a convulsion of self-hatred.

“She does,” agreed Natasha. “But she won’t forever.”

“What do I do?” Gone was any feeling of ill feeling towards Natashalie, gone was his irritation with her sneaky spysassin ways. He clutched on to her knowledge like a life line. “Do I stop asking her to do things? Do I stop answering questions? What the hell do I do?”

Natasha lifted her gaze to the ceiling and tilted her head at the vent. A moment later the vent cover shifted aside and Barton dropped down to land whisper quiet on the ground. He slid over to Natasha and perched on the arm of her chair as though arriving somewhere via ventilation duct was something that normal people did all the time and doors were superfluous creations.

“No matter how smart she is, Darcy’s still only four,” Clint began as though he had been part of the conversation from the beginning. Who knows, maybe he had. “And every child needs an adult to guide them and that sometimes means being told to do something they don’t want to do. Continue on as you have been, with love and fairness, and in time she will learn to trust you.”

“Probably.” Nat added.

Tony rolled his eyes. So much for comprehensive advice.

“So if you don’t want me to change what I’m doing, why would you tell me this?”

Uncurling her legs, Natasha rose to her feet with the grace of a dancer but glared at him with the eyes of a panther. “So you know. And so you do not misuse it.”

Without another glance, Nat swept from the room, the door closing softly behind her. Tony thought it was probably too scared to slam. He dropped his head back onto the pillowy headboard and closed his eyes. A rustle of fabric told him Clint was settling himself on Natasha’s vacated chair.

“You’re doing good, Tony. With Darcy.”

Tony pried open one eyelid to glance at his friend-slash-colleague-slash-avian-housemate. “Yeah? Doesn’t feel like it.”

“She’s smiling more. Talking to us. In sign, yeah, but it’s still talking. She’s starting to give her opinion on things, showing her likes and dislikes. It takes time.”

“It’s crap.”

“Yeah, it is.”

The two men sat in silence, both contemplating the little girl asleep in the room and the life she had been given until Tony couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Hey, Clint, you’re a carnie right? You got contacts. Know where I can get a dinosaur?”

Chapter Text


 

 

 

“You wanted to see me, Captain?” Kolya asked, closing his boss’s office door.

The Captain nodded. He didn’t bother asking Kolya to sit down, just leaned back and crossed his arms above his paunch.

“It needs to stop.”

Kolya raised his eyebrow. “What needs to stop, sir?” 

“You know exactly what. And I’m telling you it needs to stop.”

Their eyes met in a cold stare, each testing the other’s resolve. Then Kolya flicked his eyes away from his superior.

“Yes sir.”

 

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

“All I’m saying is there is literally an entire media franchise on how bad an idea this is. Books, movies, video games, the works. Terrible idea.”

Tony let out a small chuff, unwilling to wake the sleeping child in his arms. Instead of looking at Clint, he stared above the elevator doors and watched the numbers climb as they moved closer to home. Their home. His toe tapped out a rhythm against the tiled floor, a staccato tap-tap-tap of his Italian leather oxfords.

“As if I would mess it up like that. An island? Please. Also, none of those scientists were Starks. Nice pun with the ‘terrible idea’, though, very amusing.”

“What? Oh, terror lizards, right. God you’re such a nerd. My point still stands. And how could you even do it anyway? You’re not a palaeontologist or a geneticist.”

“I could be. I could- ,”

A ding interrupted him, signalling their arrival at the penthouse. It was quieter than usual because JARVIS was exceptionally clever and knew not to startle Darcy. Tony was ready to vibrate out of his skin, every muscle tensed like he was about to fly a nuke into a wormhole. He slowly stroked up and down his little girl’s back, marvelling at the reduction in the bumps of her spine after her time in medical.

“Darcy,” he whispered. “Baby, we’re home.”

With a soft whine, Darcy tightened her arms and squirmed closer in to where his neck met his shoulder. He knew the face she was making had to be adorable, both from experience watching her wake up and from the quirk of Barton’s lips.

“Welcome home Sir, Miss Stark. Good afternoon Agent Barton.”

“Thanks J. It’s good to be home.”

When the elevator doors slid open, Darcy gasped and straightened in his arms. Her cobalt eyes went as wide as an elf’s, unblinking as she scanned the scene in front of them. The penthouse was stuffed full of a rainbow bridge’s worth of bright helium balloons and ribbons, a cornucopia of colour plastered from floor to ceiling. Sunlight streamed through the glass walls, bouncing prismatic reflections across every surface which then in turn leapt to scatter their kaleidoscope all over again. Above the couch hung two balloon-sculpture dragons that looked suspiciously like a certain favourite plush toy, holding a banner that exclaimed Welcome Home Darcy in purple and green.

Tony’s cheeks strained trying to contain the enormous grin that covered his face – Pepper had done well. Impatient for him to keep moving, Darcy wriggled her legs and he obeyed.

“Holy sh… er… Wow,” said Clint. He pointed further into the space. “Is that a…”

Darcy’s gaze followed Clint’s arm. Then she squealed and flailed and Tony didn’t know whether it was with horror or excitement but knowing her past he guessed the former. Mindful of this morning’s episode, he grit his teeth and endured the pain in his ear from her squealing and tightened his grip on her. When she huffed and kicked her heels into his kidney though, it was clear he’d guessed wrong. The second his grip eased, she was out of his arms and across the marble to disappear into the balloon forest.

Two steps behind, Tony skidded to a halt in front of the sunken living area. His own eyes widened as he and his daughter looked up and up and up.

ROAR!

“That’s a motherfucking stegosaurus!” crowed Clint from the entrance steps.

And it was. A giant red stegosaurus made of balloons with purple ‘spine plates’. It rolled its head from side to side and roared loud enough to feel through the floor before shuffling forward in a stiff, mechanical gait. Inch by inch it closed in on a gobsmacked Darcy who stared at it as if it were all her dreams come true.

ROAR!

Clint whooped again and Darcy clapped her hands, jumping up and down on the spot. She was so enraptured she didn’t notice the loud slap her palms made as they struck each other. On the other side of the sunken space stood a beaming Pepper, her face lit up with satisfaction and joy as she manipulated a little remote control. Tony shook his head in wonder. His magnificent Pepper had out-done him again and achieved the impossible, no amber-sealed dinosaur DNA required. He really shouldn’t be surprised by that anymore.

Without turning her head to look, Darcy reached out to him and Tony picked her up. She wriggled in his arms until he lifted her as high as he could and she traced her tiny hands over the crimson balloons of her dinosaur sculpture, petting them with reverence and awe.

The click-click of Pepper’s heels came towards them.

“Darcy, do you like it?”

Darcy was a genius. Tony knew this. Pepper knew this. They all knew this. Yet for some reason at this point in time Darcy chose to ignore Newton’s edicts and reject the Theory of Gravity. She threw herself out of Tony’s arms and thumped into Pepper, who wobbled backwards with a shocked “Oomf!”. Tony grabbed for both of them, either of them, some part of someone, but it was no use. The three of them went down in a tangle of limbs and sprawled in a giggling human puddle on the fluffy white carpet.

Unsurprisingly, the four year old recovered first. She bounced up on her knees then draped herself over Pepper’s upper body and squeezed her skinny arms. With his vision turning curiously cloudy, Tony watched them until a calloused hand descended to help him to his feet.

“I’m going to hazard a guess and say I think she likes it, Pepper,” Clint grinned. He released Tony’s hand and slung an arm around his shoulder in his usual irritating overfamiliar manner. Strangely, this time Tony didn’t mind.

Pepper’s head tipped back onto the plush carpet, a ginger halo against the white wool. Her arms wrapped around the Darcy-shaped limpet stuck to her torso.

“I think so too,” Pepper agreed. She kissed the top of Darcy’s head. “You haven’t even seen your bedroom yet, sweetie,”

“What are we waiting for then?” Tony laughed and scooped Darcy up into his arms, letting Clint help Pepper. “Let’s go, Princess!”

 

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

With her tiny milk teeth biting hard on her bottom lip, Darcy’s face was the definition of intense concentration. Her gaze was locked on the porcelain teapot, both hands wrapped around the handle as she tried to manoeuvre it without spilling its contents. It was only a small pot but to someone Darcy’s size even that amount of water was heavy at an arm’s length.

Across the table Tony’s eyes met Pepper’s and they shared a secret smile. They didn’t need to say a word.

Today had been without doubt the best day of his life, even better than the day he first flew an Iron Man suit. It started off shaky with Darcy’s melt down in the hospital room but that was ancient history now. Bringing her home, playing with her giant balloon dinosaur, showing her the suite they’d made up for her… Tony revelled in it. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so fundamentally satisfied. His daughter, home and safe and healthy and happy and protected and he had helped do that. It was the best feeling in the world.

After meeting the giant balloon dinosaur (provisionally named Peggy the Steggy, because he was a comic genius as well as an engineering one), Tony wondered if maybe Darcy would be too worn out to be surprised by the rooms he and Pepper designed for her. He needn’t have worried. Her reaction was everything he’d hoped for and more, and he wouldn’t be lying if he said that by the time she had peeked those bright curious eyes into every nook and cranny of the room he felt like he was a hundred feet tall and made of adamantium.

Perhaps it was a little indulgent to build a castle inside the penthouse for his daughter. He didn’t care. Not when it meant trailing behind Darcy as she swept tiny fingertips over every surface, opening each door and drawer and examining her toybox with a happy squeak and smiles that made his insides twist into spaghetti. Every time Darcy found something new, she’d look up at him and ask that unspoken question and he could say Yes honey, that too. That’s yours as well. And whoever said money couldn’t buy happiness was seriously full of shit because Tony was practically floating away with it all.

Then. Then Darcy found the tea chest.

The moment she lifted the wooden lid, her back went ramrod straight. Her fingers froze on the edge of the wood and her jaw dangled open to leave her mouth a gaping ‘O’.

“It’s a tea set,” explained Pepper, kneeling down next to Darcy. “I had one when I was a girl. It wasn’t Royal Doulton but I liked it all the same. I would serve tea to my dolls and Dot and my sister. All the people I loved. And we would have a little party of our own.”

Darcy remained silent, stuck gazing at the white and blue porcelain pieces in their satin lined chest.

“Darcy,” Pepper began. “Honey, do you think you might like to have a tea party one day?”

The lid dropped and the box slammed closed. Darcy let out a whimper and threw herself at Pepper, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. Tony fell to the floor next to his girls and wrapped them both in his arms.

“Darcy, baby, what is it? What’s wrong?” he asked, kissing the part of Darcy’s forehead that was visible over Pepper’s shoulder. “What can we do?”

Azure eyes framed with wet black lashes opened to settle on his face. Pepper startled and adjusted her balance, and he was going to ask again when a soft whisper met his ears.

“Please can we have tea, Daddy?”

It was nearly dinnertime. Bruce had told him not to let Darcy fill up on liquids before meals and Pepper had ordered a delivery from their favourite restaurant that would arrive soon. It was late and Darcy needed a bath and she was still in the clothes she’d left the medical ward in. She was probably overstimulated from all the excitement. She should really relax for a while before night time. He had been putting his work off all day and needed to at least get to his most urgent emails. Pepper hadn’t checked in with her assistant in three hours or more. He didn’t know if they had any tea in the kitchen besides Pepper’s horrible green blend. The new tea set probably hadn’t been washed yet. There were many reasons why he should say no.

“You bet we can, Princess.”

Tony might have said Darcy’s smile was like the sun, except the sun never warmed Tony as much as that smile did.

 

Now Tony and Pepper watched as a serious-faced Darcy took the role of hostess at their party. It was unlikely that this four year old version of Darcy had ever played tea parties before so when she started doing things a little less traditional than Tony and Pepper expected, they didn’t comment. Firstly, Darcy had collected a strange assortment of goods from the fridge and pantry to accompany their tea. She’d shaken her head no to milk or creamer but yes to lemon slices. She’d allowed sugar but it had to sit next to a little pot of berry jam and positioned them both away from the other foods. From the pantry she took bread, honey, crackers and a bowl of grapes but left the suggested chocolate truffles alone. She insisted each food have its own plate. And sure, maybe Darcy’s chosen tea stuff wasn’t what Martha Stewart would have gone with but Tony couldn’t care less.

Soon everything was set on the table in Darcy’s room and ordered to her liking. She kept all the teacups at her elbow and insisted on pouring the tea herself, only pushing the cups over to their owners once they had been filled. Tony tried to hide his grin as Darcy poured her own tea and then stirred in a teaspoon of jam.

A polite cough sounded from the doorway. Sam and Natasha were waiting just outside, Natasha as perfect as always and Sam looking like he just spent fourteen hours stuck in the trunk of a Fiat.

“We’re not interrupting, are we?” Sam asked. He spoke to the room in general but his worried gaze focused on Darcy, who at the realisation they were no longer alone had gone deathly pale. One of her hands made a tight fist around a teaspoon.

“Would you prefer we left?”

Before Tony could reply, Darcy got up from the table. She gulped down a dry swallow, her eyes never leaving the newcomers. Her little chest rose and fell with each enormous breath and Tony was just about to open his mouth and tell them to scram when Darcy raised an arm and gestured to the tea table.

It wasn’t the most flattering of invitations but Sam and Natasha got the message well enough. Tony’s heart swelled with pride for his brave little girl but he also knew it had been a very long day and even though she had briefly met Natasha before, Sam was a complete stranger. He drained the last of his tea and stood up.

“Princess, I’m going to talk to Sam in the living room for a while, okay? Can you stay here with Pepper? Can you pour some tea for Natasha?”

With a wobbly smile on her lips, Darcy nodded. The colour started returning to her cheeks and he congratulated himself on his decision to talk to Sam elsewhere – it was obviously the right call. He was totally getting into the swing of this whole ‘parenting’ thing.

Natasha sauntered over and dipped her head to Darcy in greeting. She took a seat and glanced around the less than traditionally set table while she waited for Darcy to fill a teacup and slide it over to her.

“Khozyayka,” the spy said. “Spasibo za chay,”

Tony had no idea what those words meant but there was no doubting the effect they had on Darcy. His daughter’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline and she stared at Natasha in open mouthed wonder. Being the ice cold spysassin she was, Natasha didn’t react to the girl’s blatant stare. Instead she reached forward to take a teaspoon of jam and slowly stirred it into her tea.

“Pozhaluysta,” Darcy whispered.

“What? What was that?” Tony asked. His voice most certainly did not squeak.

Natasha tapped her spoon on the edge of her teacup then gently placed it on her saucer. “I thanked our hostess for the tea. She said I was welcome.”

“In Russian? At a tea party? It's supposed to be English!”  

“Of course.” Natasha gestured to the tea accoutrements spread across the table. “You think this is English? No. Its Russian.”

Tony sucked in a breath, ready to unload, when he caught sight of Pepper minutely shaking her head. She slid her eyes towards Darcy then back to him. His breath rushed out again, taking his frustration with it. As usual, Pepper was right. As surprising as it was to learn Darcy knew Russian, he didn't want to upset her by overreacting. She was home. She was safe. She was happy. So she could mysteriously speak Russian and knew how to set a Russian tea table. So what? She was a genius, there were bound to be surprises. He could roll with it. Sure. Yep. Definitely. And he was in no way jealous that Natasha had picked that up before he did. Not. At. All.

Sam's carefully schooled expression spoke volumes.

"Come on, man," Sam said, graciously offering Tony an out. "Let's take a walk."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Salad on rye, minus the mayo, butter, cheese and anything resembling flavour. Heads up, Egorichev, your sad puppy usual has arrived.”

Nguyen reached over his shoulder and dropped a plastic bag on top of the file he was reading with dramatic flair.

“Gee thanks, Nguyen. You sure know how to brighten my day.”

Sinking her teeth into her own sandwich (double bacon and cheddar, Kolya could damn well smell it, that little pridurok), Nguyen hopped up on his desk and smiled at his glare. The angelic affect she was going for was marred by the grease on her lips and the way her cheek stuck out like a thieving squirrel’s.

“If I were a braver woman, I would have bought you the same as me. But I’m scared of Marik and you are too, so eat your damn salad.”

Suppressing the urge to literally steal the food out of Nguyen’s mouth, Kolya reached into the bag for his own lunch so he could tell his husband he ate ‘properly’ that day. In addition to the sandwich though, was a folded note. A raised eyebrow shared with Nguyen confirmed she wasn’t the author and she leaned over as he opened it to reveal patchy ink letters from an old typewriter. The note contained a single line of text and an address beneath it.

You’re pissing off important people. Hope she’s worth it.

 

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

 

Considering the sunken part of the Penthouse’s living space was now home to a balloon forest and a stegosaurus, Tony led Sam to his private bar outside on the balcony. He still had a direct eye line through the glass walls so he could see Darcy if she came looking for him but it was far enough away from the decorations to avoid feeling like he’d fallen into a balloon factory’s testing unit. Sam slipped onto one of the high backed stools while Tony moved behind the counter to get a drink from the fridge.

“So…” began Sam, setting his elbows on the bar top. “A castle, huh?”

Tony grinned. “Yup.”

“You bought your kid a castle.”

“Yup.”

“You know when I first got here I thought my room was lush. Never lived in anything like it. Compared to this though, it’s looking kinda crap.”

“Yeah well you can find your own castle, buddy. I’ve already got a princess. Drink?”

“Water’d be great, thanks.”

Tony grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge and slid one across to Sam, who nodded in thanks and cracked the lid. He rolled his own between his palms, the damp glass cool against his skin. Darcy’s diligent attention to his tea cup at her tea party had left Tony full of liquid but it was comforting having something in his hands while he talked. He cleared his throat, hoping his nerves weren’t showing.

“Thanks, uh… thanks for coming, Sam. It’s appreciated. Darcy’s…” he paused, searching for the right words. Amazing. Brilliant. Hilarious. The most perfect creature in existence. “She’s a good kid.”

Sam’s considering gaze made him feel like a bug under a microscope. “Sure. I’ll do what I can. You know kids aren’t my specialty though, right? Haven’t really had much to do with paediatric psychology since college. I mean, my sister’s got kids and so do a lot of the guys at the VA but…”

“Well no one really specialises in adult geniuses who have been magically transformed into abused children of billionaires by unknown space alien wizards, so…”

“It’s kind of a niche.”

“Maybe you’ll start a trend.”

“Maybe.” Sam took a long drink, then recapped his bottle. “Steve says hi. Said to thank you for your help with Bucky.”

Tony snorted. Everyone knew there was no Steve without Bucky and if he wanted Captain America on his team he had to deal with a fucked up Winter Soldier. It was in everyone’s best interests to get him help, even if he was a parent murdering killbot. Intellectually, Tony knew that after what HYDRA had done to him Barnes had no choice in what happened, that he had been stripped of anything even remotely resembling agency and literally could not refuse. That back in the day Barnes and Howard had been good friends, so it was another level of HYDRA torture to have Barnes be the one to kill him and his innocent wife. That Barnes now had to live with the memories of all the horrible acts HYDRA had made him commit and that was a far worse punishment than any man who had his free-will stolen from him deserved. Emotionally though… emotionally Tony wanted to wring that little fucker’s neck just like Barnes had done to his mom. At least a little bit.

For the sake of the team and global harmony, Tony pushed his homicidal thoughts back into his gut.   

“How’s he doing?” he asked.

Sam shifted to lean against the back of his chair. “Haven’t seen any violent episodes. The part of him that’s damaged seems to accept Steve as his Handler so now if he overloads he dissociates and goes blank. Waits to be told to be human again.”

“Creepy.”

“It’s fucked up is what it is. No one should be hurt so bad they forget they’re a person.”

Memories flashed through Tony’s mind of Darcy in medical, the way she instinctively shut down during her procedures and switched herself off. The unseeing stare of her eyes as he desperately tried to explain it was for her health. The long hours of silence afterwards where she didn’t move or speak and barely blinked, laying still as a doll in her too-large bed. Perhaps… perhaps he understood what Steve and Bucky were going through a little better than he’d thought.

“Yeah,” he coughed, clearing an uncomfortable wedge from his throat. “Uh.. Tell Steve to let me know if there’s something more I can do to, uh, you know.”

“I’ll do that,” said Sam. He was doing that shrink-stare of his again and Tony didn’t like it. He wasn’t the one Sam had been asked to help. Just as Tony was about to call him on it though, Sam switched to business mode. “So what can you tell me about Darcy? I got the file so I know the basics but considering how close you are, I figure you know more than what’s written.”

 A warm flush of pride filled him. He did know about his little girl. He cracked the lid of his water bottle and took a sip and tried to look casual.

“She’s brilliant. A genius. Bruce put her physical age at four but mentally she’s well beyond that. We thought that perhaps it was just knowledge from her adult life that she’d retained but Bruce’s tests and the SHIELD reports about her reject that idea. She’s just an amazingly clever child.”

Sam smiled and rolled his hand to get Tony to continue. As if he needed any encouragement.

“She’s strong. She’s obviously gone through some serious shit and yes, I will be following that up at the earliest opportunity because there are some people who do not deserve to live on this planet and share her oxygen. She has nightmares every night but we don’t know if they’re memories from her adult life where she experienced some pretty extreme situations or if they’re memories from her four-year-old self’s crappy life. Either way, not ideal.”

“No, no it is not. Is she speaking verbally yet?”

“A few words sometimes. Only to me, so far. Barton’s teaching her sign language because she doesn’t like to make noise. We think… well, we think she might have been punished for it. Not sure how. But whatever it was, it stuck.”

Sam nodded again, projecting a polite and professional calm as though Tony was telling him the weather forecast for Idaho and not outlining the probable abuse of his child.

“So it’s not just not speaking, it’s not making any noise at all? Are there exceptions?”

“Well, uh…” The corners of Tony’s lips lifted of their own accord. “Well, earlier she clapped her hands. She was excited, so I think she forgot to stay quiet. And sometimes she laughs.”

The sound of Darcy’s soft laughter was amazing. Fuck Asgard and their all mighty ‘seidr’, his little girl’s giggles were the real magic. There was a very small list of things Tony wouldn’t do to earn himself one of those giggles.

“I noticed Darcy’s wary of strangers which-,” Sam began. He lifted up his hands to hold off Tony’s immediate bristling reaction and continued. “Which is perfectly natural given the circumstances. It might make my job a little difficult though, we won’t be able to achieve much if she’s too afraid to work with me. What are your thoughts on that?”

Tony rolled his shoulders, physically compressing the indignant frustration Sam had elicited. As much as he wanted to snap a few scathing retorts regarding Sam’s choice of words, Darcy’s needs came first and Darcy needed Sam’s help so he clapped his trap. He frowned at the bottle of water in his hands and considered Darcy’s interactions over the past weeks.

“Darcy’s great with me, obviously, and with Pepper, although not quite to the same extent. She likes that idiot Barton too, for whatever reason. In fact, she’s pretty good with most people if she’s given time. And…” Tony’s stomach churned as he thought of what Natasha had revealed to him. “And if I ask her to.”

Sam’s head jerked up. He opened his mouth to speak when Tony was spared from having to explain that horrible truth by movement on the other side of the glass windows. He shifted out from behind the bar and met Pepper as she came through the door, questions already falling from his tongue.

“Is it Darcy? Is she okay? Has- ,”

“She’s fine, Tony,” Pepper said with an indulgent smile. “She’s ready to go to sleep though, which is why I came to get you. I don’t know if she’ll want to sleep in her room tonight or in ours or…”

A heavy clap on his shoulder made Tony jump. He scowled at Sam, who shrugged an apology.

“Let’s talk again another time,” the para-shrink suggested. “I’ll be here.”

 

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

In an old fashioned wood cabin in Nowheresville, USA, Steve Rogers paced from one end of his cramped living space to the other. It wasn’t the best spot for pacing considering its tiny floor plan but it was snowing too hard to pace outside and the single bedroom was a) even smaller and b) occupied by a broken stranger with a face more familiar than his own, which was even worse.

God, how had it come to this? How was it that he, Steven Punk Rogers, managed to survive seventy years into the future and emerge with a sterling reputation and an unlimited expense account while the best man he’d known in his entire life had undergone decades of torture and brainwashing and was now labelled a villain? His fists balled and he fought the urge smash through one of the cabin’s wooden walls. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.

The shrill whistle of an old fashioned kettle sounding from the stove broke him out of his reverie and Steve went to make some tea. Maybe this time Bucky might even drink it.

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

 

“Anthony Edward Stark!”

Tony muttered a few choice curses beneath his breath as he heard the click clacks of certain Louboutin-shoe'd doom approaching from the penthouse elevator. He’d been so close too.

“Pepper, sweetie, hello,” he said, rising to his feet and pushing his tiny daughter behind him and as out of sight as presently possible.

“Don’t you sweetie me. I can’t believe you! If Jarvis didn’t warn me- ,”

He twisted sideways and winked down at Darcy. “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling AI…”

“Tony!”

Schooling his face into something he hoped resembled chastised, Tony went straight for Plan D in his list of Pepper-specific resolution tactics. Plan A was, of course, to charm-slash-seduce Pepper until she wasn’t angry at him anymore but that was hardly appropriate with Darcy in the room. Plan B used logical arguments, which, to be quite honest, he didn’t really have at this point. Plan C was simultaneously apologising and throwing money at things until they got better. Plan D… Well, Plan D was a new one.

“Its not my fault!” he said, stepping aside to reveal Darcy in all her glory. “I need to work, Pepper. What would you have me do, leave her behind?”

The sight of Darcy stopped Pepper in her tracks.

To be fair, it was quite a sight.

“Tony,” Pepper threw a hand up to stifle the giggles that tried to escape her lips. “Is that…?”

One of the oven mitts Tony had strapped onto Darcy’s skinny arms made its slow decent to the floor and entranced, the three of them watched its progress in silence until it flopped onto the marble like a dead fish. The other, duct-taped to within an inch of its heat-proof life, remained in place covering Darcy’s entire arm as they turned their attention to it to see if it would follow its mate.

“Is that Natasha’s tac vest?” asked Pepper, pointing at the oddly stiff black dress Darcy was wearing. The reinforced bottom hem stuck out from above her ankles like an upside down bucket, complete with padded straps.

“I have no idea what you could possibly mean, dear.”

“It still has the SHIELD logo on it.”

“Well that’s simply- ,”

Darcy sneezed. The adult sized welding goggles she was wearing slipped halfway down her face to dangle precariously as their bridge got stuck on the end of her nose. Above the swaying tinted glass, her cobalt eyes blinked at Tony in question and he heaved a reluctant sigh of surrender. Damn those protective wear companies for not making proper protective wear in all sizes. Didn’t every genius want to take their tiny, squishy children with them into their dangerous lab spaces? It’s not like a set of cartoon themed pyjamas would protect them from fire and electricity and heavy metal poison and other assorted hazards, now would it?

Pepper knelt down in front of them, mindful not to crease her lovely navy suit.

“Darcy, darling, how about instead of being forced to run around like a Doctor Who props department cupboard you join me at my work today? We could have tea with my secretaries if you like? Jonathan makes a mean Earl Grey, I hear…”

While Pepper steered Darcy into her room to change out of her tactical bucket dress, Tony busied himself putting together some snacks for Stark Industries’ newest power broker. He filled a red dinosaur lunch box with an assortment of foods, proudly comparing the sizeable haul with the miniscule amount of food Darcy had eaten when she first arrived. No longer just a milk and a handful of fruit for the day, thanks to Bruce’s nutrition plans Darcy was now almost up to proper age-appropriate sized meals. Blueberries were still her favourite though.

Movement at the doorway caught his attention and this time it was Tony’s turn to grin like a loon. He had to admit that Darcy looked a lot happier in her blue skirt and matching miniature blazer, especially standing next to her similarly-clad strawberry blonde idol. In a rare moment of self-preservation, he decided against making a mini-me joke.

“Your enemies won’t know what hit them,” he declared, passing Darcy her red lunchbox.

Pepper beamed and took Darcy’s other hand. “That’s the plan.”

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

 

It was an apartment block like hundreds of thousands of others in America. An ugly concrete box made in the fifties and ignored ever since, filled to overflowing with loan-heavy students and impoverished families. It was the kind of place he knew well from his police work and he’d put money on it that this district’s beat cops knew the area well too.

Leaning against the grimy wall of a neighbouring building, Kolya sipped on his over-brewed, under-sweetened coffee and let his gaze roam over the residents of the building as they went about their lives. The boarded up windows on one of the ground floor apartments drew no curious looks, the refuse rotting in the gutter was stepped over without a second glance. Damaged and decaying, this was normal life to those whose struggles had led them to settle here.

“I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you looking for someone?”

Kolya took another sip of his shitty coffee, giving himself time to look the unexpected speaker over. White male, bald, around six-two, probably pushing two hundred pounds. Expensive suit, gold watch. Thick onyx ring on his pinky. He was giving off a familiar vibe and Kolya was certain he’d seen the guy somewhere before. He’d have to check the file when he got back to the station.

“Could be. What business is it of yours?” Kolya replied.

The white man bared his teeth in a cold smile.

“You’ll find, Detective Egorichev, that a lot of what goes on around here is my business.”

Kolya narrowed his eyes, refusing to be intimidated. He threw his coffee cup into a sidewalk trash can and the lid splashed open when it hit the rim.

“No harm in going for a walk is there?” He asked.

 “None at all, detective. Provided you keep walking.”

The big man smiled that snake smile again and Kolya had to suppress a shudder. He didn’t look back as he moved away but he could feel the eyes of the big man on him the entire length of the block. It confirmed better than almost anything else could – Darcy Lewis was in that building.

 

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

“And here we are,” announced Tony, sweeping one arm around in a wide arc showcasing his lab while holding Darcy steady on his hip with the other. “The promised land, my kingdom of enchantment and wonder. My mechanical nirvana. Miracles happen here every day I’m here, you know.”

Tony’s private lab in Stark Tower was as close to heaven as he thought he’d ever get. Spread out over three floors of gleaming metal and glass, the main floor opened up to a double-height ceiling encircled by a glass-railed gallery that displayed his prototype fabrication units, and a clear walkway underneath the central workspace showcased the continual construction and repair of his Iron Legion below. It was poetry in motion, a bee-hive of constant scientific creativity. It was his bastion, his sanctuary from a demanding world. And now he could share it.

As he predicted, Darcy was speechless. Well, speechless for her, which meant her hands were still. Her face was one of rapturous wonder and those enormous blue eyes roamed everywhere, analysing and cataloguing each new item she came across with the same curious glee Tony knew so well.

“Come on, Princess,” Tony said, taking the steps down from the elevator entrance to the main work floor. “Let me show you where the magic happens.”

“Good morning Sir. Good morning, Miss Stark.”

Tilting her head, Darcy scanned the ceilings to try to find JARVIS’s main relay point. With a gentle nudge, Tony directed her attention to his primary workspace on the main floor which at the moment looked like just a lonely steel bench with a few tools left on top but would soon be full of glowing displays and holographic representations of the ideas that constantly jostled for attention inside his genius brain. As they watched, a little blue orb lit up to hover a few inches above the benchtop. Recognising it for who it was, Darcy waved to JARVIS and signed a few sentences in excited, messy hand movements.

“I agree most wholeheartedly, Miss Stark. Might I add what a delight it is to see you in the lab? Sir, shall I begin the morning’s collations?”

“Just a minute, JARVIS, I want Darcy to meet- oh there you are.” Tony lowered Darcy to her feet and surrendered to the impulse to buss her forehead. “I’ll be right back. Stay here, munchkin, don’t go anywhere.”

Darcy nodded her compliance and Tony hot-stepped over to the corner of the main lab space where Dum-E was hiding behind a dry-erase board. A clear dry erase board.

“Come on, hurry up you stu… stupendous thing,” he said, correcting his language for his young audience. He’d really have to watch that when Darcy was around the lab.

Pulling and shoving in equal turns, Tony manoeuvred the oddly reluctant robot to where Darcy was waiting. With a soft whine of his hydraulics, Dum-E retracted himself down to his most compact, compressing his arm joints flat against his chassis. Even so, he was enormous in comparison to Darcy. He spun his claw and emitted a cascading electronic trill in shy greeting.

“Hey Tony. Sorry I’m late, I couldn’t find any gel pens with decent glittery bits. Why are there so many crappy gel pens? Who buys them?”

Tony rolled his eyes and turned towards the elevator to greet Barton, who had agreed to watch Darcy while they were all in the lab. It was pretty much standard practice for Tony to get absorbed in his work and having another adult… or adult-like person… around to make sure Darcy didn’t hurt herself was Pepper’s number one condition in letting Darcy visit. On a side note, Tony’s email to Stark Industries’ preferred protective wear company regarding appropriate PPE for children hadn’t garnered the kind of response he was hoping for.

“I said no glitter!” Tony called out.

Barton held up a bulging oversized canvas tote and skipped down the steps.

“Yeah but these are glitter pens. I’m trying to claim the spot of funnest uncle here and you can’t do that with- uh Tony?”

The concern written across Barton’s usually jovial face had Tony spinning on the spot. Darcy was frozen in place next to his workbench, her little body ramrod straight and her arms pinned to her sides. Her skin had lost all semblance of colour and her unblinking eyes stared in pure terror at the enormous mechanical beast looming over her. With gut-wrenching clarity, Tony realised that not only was Darcy scared of Dum-E, but that he’d told her to stay there.

“Oh baby, no,”

Tony raced back to his bench and scooped Darcy into his arms. She immediately started to cry, her skinny body curling in half as she heaved soaking tears all over his shoulder. Mortified, Tony cradled her head into the crook of his neck and rocked her back and forth.

“Sweetie, sweetie, it’s okay. You’re scared but I promise, it’s okay,” he crooned. “Dum-E’s really big, I know, but he’s never going to hurt you. He’s a… helper. He helps me here in the lab by doing what I ask him to. Mostly.”

Darcy’s sobs began to ease and Clint dropped his loot bag of stationery to came over and rub Darcy’s back. “Yeah, Darce. Dum-E’s a gentle giant. And the best part is that your dad made him, so it’s like you’re his little sister. Dum-E wouldn’t hurt his little sister now, would he?”

“Uh…” Tony stuttered, sending Clint his most incredulous what the fuck look. “If you want to get technical about it, I guess I did make Dum-E and uh… I played a pretty pivotal role in making you, Princess… so…”

Leaning in close to sneak a peek at Darcy’s face, Clint’s mouth twisted up into a shit eating grin.

“So that makes Dum-E your bro-bot!” declared the archer, who then dissolved into a fit of highly inappropriate pun-related sniggering. Just when Tony had been starting to not dislike the guy too.

Tony sent his eyes skyward in a silent prayer for strength. He did realise that prayers tended to work better for people who actually believed in a God, but meh. After a few more minutes of rocking and cuddling, Darcy’s tears tapered off into soggy sniffles, then eventually the occasional leaky drop. When Darcy leaned back to sign him a question, Tony had to concede that maybe Barton’s distraction-through-stupidity technique was more effective than he’d given him credit for.

“I don’t know, Princess.” Tony replied, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to dry her cheeks and wipe her nose. “Why don’t you try and we’ll see?”

“But-,” interrupted Clint. “Dum-E’s not like JARVIS. He doesn’t know ASL. You’ll have to use your voice.”

Darcy’s intelligent eyes swept over Tony’s face, gauging Tony’s reaction to Clint’s proclamation. He tried to keep his expression neutral, hoping the excitement bubbling inside him wouldn’t put her off. If this could get Darcy to speak, he would straight up hug that annoying archer.

“It’s up to you, baby girl. Whatever you want.”

After a few beats of consideration, Darcy wriggled to be let down and Tony dropped her back to her feet. Squaring those narrow shoulders, Darcy faced the corner where Dum-E was failing to hide.

“Bro-bot?” she squeaked. “Come here?”

Clint jammed his fist between his teeth to stifle his laughter, while Tony could only watch amazed as his mechanical assistant slid forward to present himself to his new overlord. Overlady. Overperson. Whatever. The girl in question turned back to him as surprised as he was, her little face alight with pleasure. After swallowing around the colony of frogs that had taken up residence in his throat, Tony urged her to try again.

“Bro-bot. Go over there,” Darcy demanded in a stronger voice, pointing to the far wall.

When Dum-E dutifully did as he was told, Darcy let out a happy squeal and stamped her feet, then quickly delivered another order. Soon her previous fear for the big machine was all forgotten and she had her “bro-bot” circling the lab, picking up random items, spinning in place and beeping on command. Tony wasn’t sure which of the two of them was happier.

Before an increasingly imperial Darcy could rattle off her next set of instructions, Tony knelt down next to her and took both her little hands in his. As thrilled as he was that she was a) no longer scared, b) speaking out loud and c) had made friends with his bot, there was still something he had to deal with sooner rather than later. Trying to strike a balance between conveying the seriousness of the situation and upsetting her again, Tony kept his voice low and even, stroking the back of her hands with his thumbs.

“Sweetie, I’m glad you’re having fun but I need to ask you a question. Earlier when you were scared of Dum-E, you didn’t move away. Is that because I asked you to not move from that spot?”

Darcy’s smile vanished. She bit her lip and nodded and Tony’s chest crumpled inwards. He leaned down even further, settling them eye-to-eye.

“Darcy. This is very important. No matter what you’ve been told, if you’re afraid then I want you to do whatever you think you need to do in order to feel safe. If you want to run, you run. If you want to hide, you hide. When it’s safe again, I will find you and I won’t be mad. I promise. Okay?”

With those little milk teeth still pressing on her bottom lip, Darcy nodded again. She extracted her hands from his and lifted them, then hesitated.

“Go on, sweetie,” Tony coaxed. “Sign if you want to.”

Darcy looked over her shoulder at Dum-E, then at Clint, then back to him. Then she twisted her fingers into a speedy question that had Clint outright cackling.

Tony sighed.

“Yeah, Princess. I bet Dum-E’s real good at colouring with gel pens.”

 

 

OOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

Steve didn’t have to go looking for Bucky. Firstly, it was impossible to lose someone in a cabin this size. Secondly, he knew where Bucky would be sitting because he had been sitting there all day, just like he had all yesterday and the day before, and the day before that and the day before that... He almost wished Bucky would go back to languishing in bed for hours just for something different.

He moved up behind Bucky’s chair, taking care to step loudly and stay within the reflection of the window even though Bucky was so hyperattentive he could probably describe Steve’s bathroom habits let alone where he was inside the cabin. That thought probably should have been uncomfortable but he and Bucky had been through a war together and before that they lived in a shoebox studio apartment together and truly, there probably wasn’t a time in Steve’s life that Bucky didn’t know any number of potentially embarrassing things about him. They were brothers – and that’s just what happened between brothers.

“I got a call, Buck,” Steve started. He waved the phone in his hand a little, then felt stupid because yeah, of course Bucky would know that he got the call on his cell phone. He was traumatised and grieving, not an idiot. Cursing himself for being an awkward fool, Steve tried again.

“It was work. They, uh… they need me to come in for something.”

He waited but Bucky didn’t respond. Not that Steve really expected him to. Bucky hadn’t spoken since his last medical exam, and boy hadn’t that been horrifying all around? He made sure the doctors were all given a generous bonus after dealing with a jumpy, on-edge assassin for hours at a time, then gave them another bonus when he realised how gut-wrenchingly awful Bucky’s medical history was to read. Everyone was relieved when it was over. Bucky slept for three days straight afterwards, the strain of being in another lab and poked by more white-coated scientists too much to bear.

“It’s apparently pretty important. I don’t know why they didn’t ask- ,”

Steve stopped himself just in time before he said the name ‘Stark’ – Bucky was still tying himself in knots with guilt over Howard and his wife and he didn’t want to trigger another episode. He hung his head and pressed the heel of his hand into his eyebrow hard enough to sting. Why was this so damn difficult? When he’d successfully swallowed the screams of frustration he wanted to unleash, Steve lifted his head and continued along a different path.

“I’ll be away for a week at least, maybe more. I don’t like the idea of you being here alone. Would you… would you consider staying with my friend Sam? You know, Sam Wilson?”

In the reflection of the cabin’s wide window, Steve watched Bucky blink. He waited, hoping. Then came a miracle.

“Sam Wilson.” Bucky said. His voice was a gravel monotone, Johnny Cash after a whiskey bender.

Steve clenched his fists at his sides and bit his tongue. He nodded, not willing to risk opening his big mouth and ruining the first time Bucky had shown independent thought in weeks.

“Sam Wilson. Your friend.”

Still lacking the courage to reply, Steve watched wordlessly as the creases at the corners of Bucky’s eyes deepened and his lips pressed together. Almost like he was trying to arrest their movement. Almost like he was… fighting a smile.

Sonofabitch.

It was small. A particular sheen to his eyes. The slightest lift of his cheeks. It probably wasn’t even noticeable to most people. But Steve Rogers wasn’t most people.

Steve grabbed Bucky’s shoulder and spun his chair around. He pointed a finger right in Bucky’s smirking face because oh yes, even if it was miniscule and hidden behind ten layers of facial scruff and HYDRA issued depression, Steve damn well knew when Bucky Barnes was smirking. Bucky’s lips twitched again as he peered up at Steve from beneath his eyebrows.

“You goddamn asshole. A whole month and you say fucking nothing to me then when you do it’s to rib me about my love life?”

Bucky leaned back to rest his head on the back of his chair still with that tiny smirk on his face and it felt like it was 1941 and Bucky was on him again about the cute boys in art class. Steve stepped back and ran his hands through his hair with an exasperated sigh. He looked down at Bucky while an incredulous laugh bubbled up inside his chest for the first time he could remember.

“Oh you’ll be packing your own bags now, you big jerk, see if I help you.”

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

 

 

Nichego sebe ! What happened?”

His grip went slack and his briefcase thudded forgotten to the floor as Kolya strode across the kitchen to take hold of his husband’s face. Marik huffed and flicked his wrist, indicating the darkening bruise on his cheekbone.

“Oh well, you know, I am so popular with the gentlemen around here…”

“Marik,” Kolya frowned.

His husband sighed and extracted himself from Kolya’s grip, then slumped down onto one of the kitchen chairs. He looked utterly defeated.

“Kolnyshka… Never once have I told you how to do your job. The extra hours, the late nights, the missed anniversaries… I don’t complain.”

Kolya’s knees creaked as he sunk to the floor in front of his lover. He took Marik’s hands and kissed them.

“Tell me what happened, dorogoy,” he said.

Marik wouldn’t meet his gaze. The shadows from the kitchen light darkened his bruise to almost black and his voice was sombre when he spoke.

“Men came to the house today and showed me a list with our names on it. With our sons’ names on it. They will send us back to Russia, if we do not obey.” He looked down into Kolya’s face. “It is time to let the little ptichka go, my love, for the sake of your family.”

Kolya dropped his head into Marik’s lap and didn’t complain as his husband smoothed his hair like he was a fussing babe. Marik continued, ever so gently cutting his heart open with his words.

“You know what would happen if we were to go back, Kolnyshka. We could not be a family as we are here, it would not be allowed,”

He did know. They had caused enough scandal years ago when the local queer boy ran off to the West with the doctor’s son. To return not only openly together but with children? They would be hounded. If they were lucky they would survive the town mob to be incarcerated. Their boys would be stolen, taken far away where they could never see each other again and placed into a state run welfare system where many poor souls entered but not as many left.  

And so for his family, Kolya Egorichev did the one thing he swore he would never do in his life as a cop.

He let it go.

 

 

 

((This chapter’s flashback is set in 1995, when Darcy was two and a half. In it Kolya’s internal monologue discusses the possibility of being ‘incarcerated’ in Russia for being gay, which is only partly historically accurate. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin signed a law re-legalising homosexuality in Russia. However this was because of a push by the Council of Europe and not because of a change in sentiment within the extremely and often violently homophobic general population of Russia. In 1995 (when this flashback was set) the threat of hate crimes was very real. People were harassed, abused, beaten in public, systematically discriminated against and hunted by the police for any reason to be thrown in jail where, obviously, they would be further mistreated.))

 

 

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

Darlene Wilson was a lot of things. Intelligent, independent, kind. She worked three jobs for fifteen years to raise Sam and his sisters and she did it with pride. Growing up, Darlene pushed Sam, challenged him to be the best version of himself that he could be. She’d taught him almost everything in this world worth knowing, including how to respect authority regardless of age, orientation, race or gender. Especially gender.

So there was no doubt in Sam’s mind that if she was here right now Darlene would be laughing her ass off.

“God damn it!”

Sam slapped his palms against his kitchen counter. He hadn’t added the linseed mix to the blender before the kiwi, even though he’d read through Pepper Potts’ personally made, colour-coded, annotated recipe card twice before he started. Despite her written warnings, he hadn’t considered the order in which the ingredients had to be added to be important. How bad could it be, he’d thought, surely he just shoved all the crap in there and hit the button, right? It was a blender. It would blend. Well, apparently not. The goopy, gluggy mess lurking at the bottom of the jug was evidence enough to never ignore a dictate from Ms Virginia Potts.

With an overly dramatic groan of frustration, Sam scooped out the mess and started again from scratch. Who the hell needed forty dollars’ worth of fruit and seeds blended to perfection anyway?

Darcy Lewis, that’s who. The half-starved four year old abuse survivor who was coming to meet him today so they could establish a rapport before their therapy sessions started. And he didn’t begrudge her a single damn calorie of that overpriced shake.

In the leadup to this meeting, Sam and Bruce had gone over Darcy’s files together. It was heartbreaking stuff but Sam-the-therapist took over and he was able to move beyond his emotional reaction to a clinical perspective. Skimming the laundry list of medical jargon, he noted key words that jumped out.

Darcy Lewis. Approximately four years old, presented showing signs of dehydration, malnourishment, anaemia, vitamin deficiency, reduced muscle tone, growth delay. Lower than average gross motor ability. Good fine motor ability. Considerably above average cognitive abilities. Below average communication. Heightened fear reflex. Below average emotional response behaviour.

Ongoing support via mental health therapist strongly recommended.

And that’s where one Samuel Thomas Wilson came in, 'cos this little girl was a mess and she deserved to be helped up. He might be god awful at blending ridiculously healthy over-complicated smoothies but helping people heal he could do. If he could help the goddamn Winter Soldier, than the magically cursed genius child of a billionaire superhero should be a cake walk. Hopefully. Except with no cake, because those were wasted calories and he had been told.

Sam’s apartment doorbell rang as he was cleaning up after his second, more successful, attempt at Darcy’s smoothie. He gave his counter a quick swipe, threw his apron over the back of a chair and made his way to the door. Time to turn on the charm and win over a princess.

“Hey Pepper, Tony,” he said, greeting the power couple with his best mega-watt smile. He squatted down in front of the smallest member of the trio hiding behind Stark’s thigh. “Hi Darcy, do you remember me? I’m Sam. Thanks for coming to visit today.”

Darcy, dressed in a white and gold sundress and cardigan combo that his mother would have cried over, looked down at her shiny gold shoes. Her baby Louboutin’s. Yes, they existed and yes, Darcy Lewis owned some. Without lifting her head, she signed something with her hands and beside her, Tony tensed.

Pepper crooned. “Darling, you know why we can’t. It’s important you and Sam get to know each other without your dad or I there.”

“Its fine if you don’t want to. We can turn around and go back upstairs right now, just give the word,” Tony added.

Tony’s messed hair, stiff shoulders and that crazy eyed stare of a first time parent were all clues to Sam that the father was possibly more on edge than the daughter. His anxiety may even have been feeding Darcy’s, if she was as perceptive of the moods of the adults around him as most abuse survivors were. Sam held out his hand, palm up. Not touching, just offering.

“Darcy, it looks like you’ve gone to an effort to look super neat today. Me too. And I’ve set up some toys I think we might have real good time with. Do you want to come and check it out?” he asked.

Darcy looked up at Tony, taking her cue from him. Yes, it was blatantly obvious Tony Stark was the epicentre of this child’s world. Sam waited, watching to see what Tony would do and how Darcy would follow. Pepper placed her palm in the small of Tony’s back and Tony ever so slightly leaned into it. He sniffed once, and licked his lips.

“I think…” Tony began. “Just a little visit wouldn’t hurt, right? And we’ll stay close by if you need us, just an elevator away.”

Internally Sam sung a hallelujah. Darcy took another minute to see if Tony would change his mind, then stared at Sam’s still extended palm. Inching out from behind Tony, she stood next to Sam in the doorway. She still didn’t look at his face or take his hand but small victories were everything at this stage and Sam claimed a point anyway.

“Right.” Tony nodded firmly. He jerked his thumb back towards the elevator. “Right. Well. We’ll, uh… just be round the corner then. Upstairs.”

Sam stood back up in time for Pepper to hand him a tote bag that Sam was pretty sure was Gucci. It shone a brilliant gold just like Darcy’s shoes. Gotta match the accessories, right?

“Spare clothes, socks, her drink bottle, her dinosaur,” Pepper ticked off on her fingertips. “I wasn’t sure if you had time to prepare anything, so I’ve put in Darcy’s snack boxes just in case. They’re colour coded in order of priority, green to red, and the purple glitter tub is only if she’s had enough of the others. I’ve added Darcy’s nutrition plan if you’re not sure what time she needs her calories by, and her emergency medical response plan and Bruce’s direct number if you have any questions. And mine and Tony’s of course. We’ll have our phones on us all the time but JARVIS can always catch us if you need- ,”

“Pepper,” Sam soothed, accepting the bag that was worth more than his first car. “It’ll be alright. We’ll have fun.”

With now empty hands, Pepper seemed at a loss of what to do and she twisted her fingertips together. Sam could understand why Pepper and Tony were so nervous, absolutely he could, but he also knew that Darcy would be better positioned to gauge her own emotional responses away from her parents’ anxiety. If their therapy sessions were to gain any sort of traction he needed to create a safe space that was purely for Darcy’s emotions, independent of influence or agenda no matter how well meaning. In other words, it was time these helicopter parents hit the road.

“Come on Darcy, let’s check out those toys,” he said, steering Darcy inside with a hovering hand at her shoulder.

“Have fun!” called Pepper. “Remember your calories!”

Tony didn’t say anything, just signed furiously to Darcy until Pepper covered his hands with her own. They stayed there watching while Sam closed the door, looking like they’d just sent Darcy off to a third world orphanage for the rest of her childhood.

Darcy startled when the door clicked shut but she didn’t freeze or cry or curl inwards on herself so Sam counted it as another teeny victory. Darcy’s situation was unusual all around and there were a lot of ways Sam would have preferred to go about beginning therapy with her, but this is what they had and this is what he would work with. He’d collaborated with her medical team, Tony had given his okay and JARVIS was monitoring the visit, all of which helped. It would be fine. Probably.

“Hey Darcy, do you like Lego? I’ve got a whole mountain of it on the dining table,” Sam turned his back to Darcy and made his way over to that section of his well-appointed Stark-sponsored apartment, waiting to see if she would follow without further coaxing. Hanging Darcy’s bag on the back of a chair, Sam settled himself at the table, swept a pile of bricks closer and started connecting some of the more regularly shaped ones. He wasn’t kidding about the mountain – he’d gone all out at the toy store because this shit was fancy now, and there were bits and pieces of pretty much everything. He’d put away all the boxes and instructions/build suggestions though because he wanted to see what Darcy would choose to build.

“Man I loved this stuff when I was a kid. Every cent of pocket money I had, birthdays, Christmas, you name it, it went on Lego. My sisters thought I was crazy, choosing plastic bricks over candy until they saw what I could do with it. And then they- ,”

“What can you do with it?” a voice peeped from just behind him.

Sam hid his victorious grin before turning around and facing his wide-eyed guest. He waved his hand across the mountain of bricks and assorted pieces like a magician.  

“Anything. That’s what makes it so amazing.”

Sam began assembling the foundations of a Lego house with full knowledge that at his elbow, Darcy was watching him like a hawk. Sorting through the heap in search of bricks, he set aside pieces he thought he might use later. Soon a little white hand joined him, adding matching bricks to his pile. She studied his reaction to her unprompted involvement, waiting to see if it was permitted.

“I’m making a house,” Sam said, choosing to ignore the silent subtext. “Casa El Halcón. It’s gonna be the finest house ever built, with a tower and big windows and a moat. What about you, Darcy? What are you going to make?”

Impossibly large eyes blinked up at him, Darcy meeting his gaze for the first time. Check off another point to Sam Wilson. He smiled back and internally stomped on the impulse to offer suggestions of what she could build, knowing that whatever she chose would grant him a valuable insight into how her mind worked. Cautiously, Darcy picked out a selection of bricks for herself. When she accepted that Sam wasn’t about to berate her, she loosened up and started to work with a solemn determination. What it was she was building, she didn’t say but she was content and interested, so another win.

Sam hadn’t exaggerated when he’d told Darcy about his younger self’s Lego obsession. With Darcy’s constant but silent building next to him, Sam not so quietly revelled in the new options available with modern Lego and quickly fell into the rhythm of his childhood. When the ‘remember to feed Darcy’ alarm went off on his phone, Sam startled and half his orchard fell off the table.

“Crap!”

Sam looked to Darcy, hoping his outburst hadn’t frightened her. He needn’t have worried – she was still absorbed in miniature Danish construction and it hadn’t even registered. Another point to Sam. He grabbed the smoothie he’d prepared for Darcy earlier from his fridge, poured it into a pretty shake glass that came with the apartment, shoved a straw in it and brought it back to the table.

“Hey Darcy, it’s calorie time. Want to take a break and tell me about what you’re building?”

When Darcy lifted her head, Sam choked on an aborted laugh and had to turn around while he recovered. She looked so much like Stark right then it was better than a paternity test –that same perplexed, who-are-you-people, why-are-you-bothering-me, what-day-slash-month-slash-year-is-it confusion he’d seen the crazy inventor sport when he was interrupted on an engineering bender. Once recovered enough to be professional again, Sam gave Darcy a reassuring smile. He placed her glass in front of her and assumed the role of a competent adult.

“So what did you decided to build?” he asked.

With the straw between her lips, Darcy shrugged and pointed to the collection of bricks she’d put together. There were half a dozen odd shapes of mostly yellow coloured bricks, although there were a few random-looking black or grey pieces speckled throughout the yellow. Some of the black pieces were from a fighter pilot build set, and some of the grey were from a factory build set and some he had no idea which set they were from. For the life of him he couldn’t guess what Darcy’s project was meant to be. Which, of course, was fine for a typical four year old. Just connecting colours, building random shapes and having fun was absolutely fine. Yet both Bruce and Tony had insisted Darcy had an advanced level intellect…

“Okay…” he said, nodding. “I see.”

Darcy blinked at him, a long, slow drag of her eyelashes, and let him stew in his ignorance while she drank her Pepper Potts Approved Potion of Excellence™. When she was done, she pushed the empty glass further up the table and returned her attention to her yellow bricks.

Casa El Halcón temporarily abandoned, Sam watched as Darcy examined each of her yellow sculptures, turned them over and put them back down in a different order. She slid over a pile of small black pieces Sam hadn’t noticed before, then with deft fingers and the addition of some of the black bits, Darcy started clicking the larger yellow shapes to each other. Sam’s mouth dropped open as Darcy’s construction came together to form a scaled construction crane, complete with stabilising platform, rotating boom, hook and counterweight. She connected the last few pieces, a series of control levers, then smiled as she used them to make the crane work.

“Um… that’s… Wow.” Sam was struck dumb. Okay, clearly there was advanced intellect and then there was advanced intellect.

Darcy switched her attention from her crane back to Sam. Seeing his look of stunned bewilderment, her smile fell. Her expression shuttered and she slid her hands from the Lego and onto her lap.

“Hey,” said Sam. He reached out and put his hand on the table in front of his clever guest. “I’m speechless, Darcy, I’m not upset with you. It’s amazing. Tell me, why did you make a crane?”

She shrugged. Still without lifting her head, she pointed at Sam’s work area. At his half built house.

Metaphorically slapped across the face for the second time in as many minutes, Sam collapsed to the back of his chair. This kid. Four years old and stomped on by life and yet she would still literally try to build a connection with someone?

Sam’s doorbell chimed. Before he had a chance to stand up properly, the door swung open and Tony bustled in. Wild eyed and frantic, Tony stormed across the apartment and pulled Darcy up into his arms like he was rescuing her from a flooded river, sending Lego bricks scattering.

“Princess! You did so great, you lasted the whole afternoon!”

Sam hid a snort behind his fist. Sure, Darcy lasted the whole afternoon just fine.

“I thought he was going to either wear a path in the floor or have a stroke,” muttered Pepper as she joined them. She looked much more relaxed than she had earlier, Sam noted, and being the great guy he was he didn’t mention Pepper’s own anxiety related antics.

“We had a good time,” Sam grinned. He pointed at Darcy’s crane. “Darcy schooled me on how to Lego.”

Tony shifted Darcy onto his hip, bunching up her dress and making the fabric crease while also giving zero fucks about said creased fabric. He looked down at the crane then back to Darcy.

“Did you make this?” he asked.

Darcy nodded. She opened her mouth to speak then changed her mind and started signing instead. Tony nodded along, occasionally examining the crane with his free hand, twisting it from one side to the other and working the levers.

“Yeah I can see that, baby girl, but it’s still good. You worked hard and you should be proud. I know you want it to be perfect right away but that’s not how it goes. We have to build up to that and this is a really good start.”

Pepper hiccupped, turned on her heel and walked directly into the kitchen. Darcy and Tony were still signing and talking about the crane, seeming oblivious to the momentous world shift that had just occurred and Sam could only shake his head. Who was this man, what had he done with Tony Stark and who the fuck taught him to parent like a boss? Because as history documented so spectacularly, it sure as hell wasn’t Tony’s own parents, that was for sure. He followed Pepper into the kitchen, leaving Tony and Darcy still discussing counterweights and lift mechanics.

“Did you hear that?” Pepper whispered. Her eye makeup was conspicuously smudged and she wiped her fingertips beneath her bottom eyelid. “You heard that too, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I heard it. It’s good, Pepper.”

She nodded a few times, pressing her lips tight together. “Yeah. It is. It’s so very good.”

Before Sam could say anything else, Tony appeared in the doorway with Darcy still on his hip and her arms around his neck. Her gold bag hung from Tony’s other shoulder.

“Hey, just a heads up, I’m taking Darcy to the lab to check out how my hydraulic lifter works. I promise we’ll be quick and I won’t set anything on fire, not even as an educational example. Pep, can you organise dinner?”

“Mmhmm, sure, yep,” said Pepper with a soggy smile. “I can do that.”

Sam followed behind as the trio made their way out of the apartment. At the threshold, Darcy wriggled until she was let down and stood in front of Sam. With a deep breath, Darcy looked up to meet his gaze and held out her hand.

“Thank you for inviting me to play today, Sam. I liked your house.”

Sam enclosed his big hand around Darcy’s tiny one and gave it a solemn shake. Good manners weren’t a thing to joke about, as his momma had taught him.

“Thank you for coming to play, Darcy. You’re welcome any time.”

With that, Darcy reached out her arms and Tony picked her back up. By the way she melted into his shoulder, Sam would bet she’d be asleep before they even got to the elevator let alone to Tony’s lab to see that hydraulic lifter.

From somewhere behind him, Sam’s phone started to ring. Tony gave a short nod and a quick thanks and Pepper did the same but added on an ‘I’ll call you later’ before the family left his doorway in search of engineering wonders and Sam could hurry back inside to take the call. If he recognised the ringtone right, it was the one he’d set for his favourite star spangled man with a plan and praise the Lord, he would run behind that boy any day of the week. Finding his phone beneath a pile of Lego bricks, Sam took a beat to steady himself before answering.

“Sam here,” he said, cool as a cucumber. He nodded along as Steve spoke in a breathless rush, punctuating with a hmm or uh huh where appropriate and trying not to get caught up in the memory of a certain American Hero in swimwear during Tony’s fourth of July party. He apparently wasn’t as successful as he hoped because he realised he’d agreed to something without really paying attention to what Steve was talking about. He could have sworn Steve just said-

“Wait, what? You want who to be my new roommate?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Damn it, Fury, I told you I was unavailable!” Tony snapped across the phone line. He stood up from the couch to pace the living room. “Do you even listen to your messages?”

“I heard you, Stark, and believe me, dealing with your snarky ass is not how I planned to spend my afternoon.”

From her favourite dinosaur-viewing spot kneeling with her elbows on the coffee table, Darcy stilled. Solemn and wary, she shifted her weight until she could watch him from the corner of her eyes and a familiar needle of pain pierced his lungs. He didn’t need Sam to tell him he’d scared her with his outburst to Fury. He gave his girl what he hoped was a reassuring smile and lowered his voice to send a threatening whisper to his least favourite spy-pirate.

“I mean it. Call someone else. Call someone responsible who might actually give a crap, like good old Captain Tight-pants.”

On the other end of the line, Fury snorted. “The good Captain has already been called in, despite also being on personal leave. If I had another option, trust that I’d be taking it. We need the whole team.”

Tony removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbing the indents where the frames rested on his skin. Fury wasn’t lying. As much as he may have wanted to, Tony couldn’t turn his back and disappear inside the tower while his daughter grew up. The world needed Iron Man like it needed the rest of the Avengers – it was inevitable that sooner or later a situation would arise where he had to leave Darcy to go do the ugly part of his role in the team. He'd been honest with Darcy about what he did. She knew that he was Iron Man, that he had a job that meant that he could be called away in order to protect people like her and Pepper and everyone they loved. However knowing it could possibly happen was a lot different to dealing with it actually happening and there were so many ways it could go horribly, horribly wrong.

His anxiety was going to kill him

Pepper was going to kill him.

He sighed. This was bad on all sides.

Tony kissed the top of Darcy’s head then walked further towards the kitchen. She watched him go, every muscle coiled and ready to bolt. Even after so much progress, all it took was for him to raise his voice and they were right back at square one. God, what he wouldn’t do to make it all better.

Actually.

He lowered his voice even further. “Alright Fury. I’ll join the tour. On one condition – the second we get back you help me find the sick fuck who nearly killed my daughter. I want every file you have on her and whoever might have done this. I don’t care how classified it is or what subterranean records facility it lives in. If it helps me find them, it’s mine.”

Fury didn’t hesitate. “Done. See you at pickup, Stark.”

 

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

It was nine hours after the phone call from Fury and seven hours from pick-up. Clint had his own preparations to take care of, so Pepper had come home to look after Darcy and once his wonderful partner arrived, Tony sat them down and explained the situation. Dear God, that had been peak awful realised. No stranger to difficult conversations, this one still rated right up there with ‘I like boys as well as girls, dad’ and ‘You’re the daughter I never knew I had because I am a monumental fuck up, sorry your life was ruined’. Although it wasn’t the conversation itself, necessarily, that was the problem. The words came out of his mouth easily enough.

 

I have to go.

There are people who need me to help them.

I’ll be as quick as I can.

I’m sorry.

 

The words flowed out easily and at speed. After all, he’d said the same little speech many times before, to Pepper or Rhodey or… actually no, just Pepper or Rhodey. But the point was, he’d said it a lot.   

This time though. This time hurt.

Darcy didn’t nod her head with military precision, a light behind her eyes glowing at the thought of Tony off to Do Good. Not like Rhodey.

Darcy didn’t hide her sadness and fear behind an understanding smile engineered to project support and comfort, hold him close in a hug that said I’m scared for you and I’m proud of you at the same time. Not like Pepper.

In fact, Darcy didn’t do anything.

When Tony repeated himself, those same traitorous words felt even more hollow and they didn’t change a damned thing. Like Goldilocks in Papa Bear’s chair, tiny and delicate and so very frail, Darcy sat on the edge of the couch and stared at her hands. Tony watched and waited for those little fingers to flick, for her to ask him something or tell him something, give him fucking something, but they were still. She didn’t move.

“Give her some time,” Pepper murmured from her spot next to Darcy. “She’s probably still processing.”

There was nothing Tony could do to make it better. With a kiss to the top of Darcy’s head and a whispered goodnight, he left for his workshop. Useless dad he may be, but Tony Stark was still an engineer and out there waiting for him were people he could actually help.

 

Now, nine hours after Fury’s call and eight hours into a frenzied geo-stabiliser compatibility patch, Sam Wilson found Tony on his back beneath the bottom half of his suit wielding a micro wrench and a flashlight and a foul attitude. JARVIS’s predictions said the geo-stabiliser would most likely be fine for a short to mid length mission but that wasn’t good enough and needed to be improved. Any issue that might cause problems getting him back to Darcy quickly and in one piece had to be eliminated. With extreme prejudice.

“Hey Tony, you here?” called the team’s secondary bird man. From the sound of his voice, Sam was still near the workshop doors. Good.

“Busy right now,” Tony snapped back. As he spoke, the flashlight in his mouth shifted out of place and he scowled at its betrayal.

There was a moment of silence and Tony thought maybe his luck was turning and Sam had got the message and left but that’s not the way the universe worked for Anthony E. Stark.

“I can see that yeah but I need to ask you a question. I know you said it was okay I had people stay at my apartment but- ,”

Tony swore and this time the flashlight fell out of his mouth entirely to roll around near his head. Trying to keep the micro wrench steady with one hand, he fumbled around to find his dropped flashlight with the other. “Wilson, I do not care who stays at your apartment. You need to leave.”

“That’s great, really, and thank you, but I’m pretty sure when Steve asked me he thought I was at my place in DC- ,”

Surrendering the fight to find his flashlight, Tony stopped moving altogether to make sure his enunciation carried enough bite for Sam to really get the message. Human Resources could suck it. He was wasting time. “Again. I do not care. Invite whoever you want. Hell, invite Hitler if you want to be bros I do not have time for this conversation.”

“See it’s funny you say that- ,”

Tony rolled out from underneath the suit display, lifted his protective eyewear and glared his hardest at the Sam-shaped aggravation preventing him from finishing his work. Hopefully his glare managed to retain some level of effectiveness considering he was basically impersonating a greasy, upside-down turtle.

“Sam. Do you trust whoever it is you want to stay at your apartment?”

“Ah… pretty much.”

“Then I hereby grant you my official Tony Stark sanction, signed in gold at the bottom of a ribboned fucking contract. Now really, go away.”

Shaking his head, Sam turned back towards the elevator and for a quick moment Tony considered the possibility he had been too harsh. Then he remembered his deadline and his daughter and got back to work.

 

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(06:02) Tony: How did Darcy do after I left?

(06:04) Tony: Has she said anything?

(06:11) Tony: Pepper? How is she? How are you?

(06:19) Tony: Is everything okay now?

(06:26) Tony: Is Darcy ok?

(06:26) Tony: Jarvis won’t tell me anything other than her vitals are within typical parameters.

(06:32) Tony: Pep?

(06:37) Tony: Pepper

(06:39) Tony: Pepper I need you to answer me

(06:39) Pepper: Stop. Distracting. Yourself. Darcy is fine.

 

Pepper let the phone drop from her fingers and collapsed forward onto the bar, hiding her face behind her hands like she could physically shield herself from the entire situation.

Darcy was not fine.

Darcy was not fine and Pepper was not fine and Tony was going to be furious when he found out she’d lied.

 

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

 

Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.

Sam reached out and swiped blindly at his bedside table, fumbling along his charger cord to grab his phone. God, he was so tired. Had he even been asleep? Or did he just pass out from exhaustion after hours of terrified anticipation of a knife to his kidneys that Steve assured him wouldn’t come? After another round of vibrations bounced his phone around, he managed to lay hands on it and pulled it in to the side of his face that wasn’t squished into his pillow.

“Wilson,” he growled.

“Sam? Hello? Sam are you there?” Pepper’s voice was shrill and verging on desperate.

Immediately on high alert, Sam sat up. “I’m here, Pepper. What’s going on?”

A creak came from the floorboards outside his bedroom door. Sam’s eyes flashed towards the sound. His body, trained to respond since he was seventeen, tensed for an attack. His mind, similarly trained, was realistic enough to recognise that if there was going to be an attack he wouldn’t have heard a damned thing. His guest had deliberately let his presence be known. Was that considered polite for an assassin?

“It’s Darcy. I don’t know what to do. She’s…” Pepper broke off and started keening. “I don’t know what to do, Sam. Tony’s gone and he trusted me to look after her but its not okay, Sam, she’s not okay. She hasn’t said a thing since Tony left and she’s not eating or drinking and she’s just sitting there and… and…”

The floorboard creaked again. Sam was under no illusions that his guest was listening to every word he spoke. How the fuck was this his life now.

“Alright, Pepper. I need you to listen to me. If Darcy sees you upset, she’ll get even more upset. Are you with Darcy right now? Is she physically safe?”

Pepper sniffed, took a deep breath and exhaled with a sigh. He heard her footsteps as she padded along what was probably the penthouse’s hallway to Darcy’s room, then heard her mumble an affirmative regarding Darcy’s physical safety. Good enough for now.

“Pepper, I know Darcy doesn’t like to use her voice. Can you please ask if she wants to listen to me talk to her instead?”

Sam waited while Pepper relayed the message, then waited through a silence that could have meant that Darcy was refusing to respond or that Darcy was signing and Pepper, not as skilled as Clint or Tony but still proficient in the ASL alphabet at least, was slowly putting together the letters in her head.

“She says she wants you,” Pepper said finally.

Sam nodded, even though no one was there to see it. “Alright, pass her the phone, I’ll see what I- ,”

“No, she doesn’t want the phone. She wants you. She’s saying something about a promise.”

Shit.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut and practiced his own calm breathing. This was a nightmare, it had to be. He’d had dreams like this at least. The timing was definitely crafted by some sort of demon. Or angel. He didn’t know which one was worse.

“Are you sure?” he asked, years of counselling experience hiding his slowly rising panic. “Maybe she- ,”

Shuffling and muffled murmurs interrupted him, then Pepper’s heavy breaths were replaced by a barely audible sniff. With his heart in his throat, both praying for and terrified of what he knew was surely coming next, Sam listened.

“Please, Sam,” the scared little voice pleaded.

And there it was.

Sam clenched his teeth, wanting to simultaneously throw the phone into the wall, scream, put his fist through the furniture and curl into a tiny ball and cry. Sam had told her. He had told her. He had knelt in front of that broken baby doll and held those trembling fingers in his hand and looked into eyes that knew far too much of the sins of mankind and he had promised. And now that same little girl was scared and hurting and vulnerable and had summoned up the last dregs of her courage to fucking ask for something, to ask for him, because she was so very brave and because she trusted him and because he had promised.

“Alright, Darcy. I’ll come and get you.”

The call clicked its termination. For a long while, Sam sat on the edge of his bed and stared at his screen in disbelief, a smile lifting the side of his mouth despite the situation. She’d actually done it. She’d asked. He was so fucking proud.

Two black boots entered his field of vision. Another courtesy. For a guy who didn’t talk, Sam’s guest sure knew how to get his point across. He looked up.

“Change of plans. We’re going to have company,” Sam said, with that crooked smile still in place.

Barnes’ face didn’t change and not a single muscle moved. Still, the air in the room shifted.

“Threat level?” Barnes rasped.

Sam resisted the urge to grin like the fool he knew his mother would call him right now. Both his charges using their words within ten minutes of each other. He was either absolutely brilliant at this or really fucking terrible and would be gruesomely killed by either the assassin in the room, his keeper or his other charge’s dad. Talk about living on the edge. Thank God he was a sucker for adrenaline.

“Negative three,” he replied, standing and looking around for some clothes. “Hope you like Lego.”

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

 

1996

 

“Egorichev! Look at you! You haven’t changed a bit!”

Kolya stood from his spot at the counter just in time to catch his former partner as she came in for in a flying hug. The now FBI Special Agent Amie Nguyen was fit and smiling. Promotion and a new department suited her.

“It’s only been two years, Nguyen. Should I have turned into a fat stereotype by now?”

Sitting down in the space next to his, Nguyen laughed and pulled his coffee over to steal a sip. Like always, she grimaced at the bitterness but drank it anyway.

“I have to admit I was surprised to hear from you,” said Kolya. He caught the waitress’s attention and signalled for another coffee.

Nguyen shrugged. “Can’t a girl spontaneously phone an ex-partner for a late night rendezvous at no notice without it being suspicious? What are you, a cop?”

When Kolya didn’t rise to the bait, Nguyen sighed and lowered her -his- coffee to the counter.

“You know I can’t talk about my job. You know I can’t tell you my organised crime task force has been watching a building you may or may not be familiar with for reasons that may or may not include some extraordinarily shady shit. I especially can’t tell you that witnesses may or may not have spotted a child there who looks extremely unwell.”

His stomach dropped to the floor.

“What else can’t you tell me?”

 

 

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2013

 

It was four o’clock in the morning and the sky was still pitch dark. Barefoot in an unwashed hoodie and inside-out shorts, Sam was playing a silent game of Lego in a luxury New York apartment that had been gifted to him completely free of charge by a friend of the friend he’d taken down a government agency with. His playmate was a child genius in a Sunday best dress, complete with white lace overlay and designer shoes while her father zoomed around the world defying physics in a tin can, shooting bad guys and kissing babies. There was a ninety five year old Russian assassin hiding in his guest room and an actual robot had delivered a box of groceries to his door. This really wasn’t the sort of future Sam envisaged when he joined the Air Force.

“Darcy,” he called softly across the dining table. “Do you think you might eat something yet? I’d really like it if you did.”

Darcy stared at her hands, turning over the same block she’d been holding for at least twenty minutes. Like they had done almost continually since her arrival, her eyes flicked up to glance at the hallway that led deeper into Sam’s apartment. If she was a different child, Sam might wonder if Darcy had super powered vision or hearing or smell. Instead, Sam knew Darcy was exactly the same as any other survivor of regular, systemic abuse at the hands of those responsible for her and had developed a bone deep intuition for when she was and wasn’t alone.

“How about a shake? Or a drink of milk?”

Darcy nodded.

“Okay. I’ll be right back.”

Feeling the weight of impossibly big blue eyes on him the entire way, Sam walked into his kitchen. Most of the groceries Dum-E delivered still sat on the counter and he rifled through in search of something simple for Darcy to eat. Pepper, despite being extraordinarily close to hysterics, had latched onto the idea of packing for Darcy like it was her last lifeline and as usual, her work was methodical and exact. Her labelling system led Sam straight to a pouch of dried apricots in a section marked ‘Snacks: at least one hour pre-meal’. He had no idea what made dried apricots suitable pre-meal and not say, post-meal or even mid-meal, but he trusted Pepper knew what she was about when it came to these things. After all, she was practically a self-taught nutritionist at this stage.

Poor Pepper. She’d done her best, thrown everything she had into looking after a girl who had just lost her anchor to the world but the fact was Pepper was not Tony and could not replace him. The Penthouse and the offices and the workshop were all Tony’s spaces and Darcy didn’t know how to navigate without him. Sam’s apartment, and to a lesser extent Sam himself, were isolated from the idea of Tony. Darcy knew she would be okay here without Tony simply because she had done it before. Fortunately Pepper was intelligent enough to believe him when Sam explained that when Darcy asked for Sam to come and get her, it wasn’t a rejection of Pepper, just that Darcy associated her with her now absent father and was having trouble reconciling one without the other. Hopefully after some proper food and rest and a chance to sort out her emotions, Darcy would realise that she was going to be okay and could wait for Tony back at home.

Picking up an eight ounce carton of almond milk and hefting it in his hand, Sam poked his head around the divider into the dining room.

“Do you want regular milk or almond milk? Cos I found- ,”

He broke off mid-sentence.

The dining room was empty.

Sam dropped the milk and bolted like his life depended on it. It probably did. He skidded into his hallway and all the way along it right to the end where a door he knew should be closed was not closed at all. It was open. He slammed into the door frame at full speed, his heart bashing chaotic and feral in his chest.

“Darcy!”

The Winter Soldier stood at the end of his bed. Feet braced apart, his weight balanced, one hand was held out in front of him, palm up, while the left hand was behind his back. His metal hand. He was still in his day clothes, which meant his daytime number of weapons were distributed across his body. His gaze was fixed on the intruder who had barged into what was meant to be his safe space. What Sam had assured him was a safe space.

Darcy, for her part, was equally as still. Tucked just inside the doorway, Darcy stared straight up into the assassin who was over twice her height and at least six times her weight. From behind, Sam couldn’t see her face but he’d bet her expression was just as empty as Barnes’.

“Darcy…” Sam began, using every tool in his kit to keep his voice steady. “We need to go back to the dining room.”

Sam was projecting a calm, measured confidence to Darcy but he couldn’t hope for the same with the greatest assassin in modern history. Barnes knew exactly how shit scared he was. For a fraction of a second Barnes met his eye and his pulse jumped. Steve said Barnes hadn’t accidentally hurt anyone in months, not even the doctors or lab techs who worked on his arm. He didn’t think Barnes would attack a child. He wanted to believe Barnes was healing, that his mind was well enough to differentiate between Darcy and a real threat. But the fact was there was a very uneven power dynamic in the room right now and Darcy’s safety came first. Any broken trust with Barnes could be fixed another time, once Darcy was safe.

With sloth-like grace, Barnes slowly brought his left arm out from behind his back and placed both palms flat against his thighs. As though it were a signal, Darcy took a step closer towards Barnes and the centre of the room and Sam was pretty sure he stopped breathing.

“Were you bad?”

Sam’s attention snapped back to Darcy with a shock. Did she just…?

“Is that why you were put in your room?”

His jaw hit the floor. Sam watched in stunned amazement as his tiny charge stared expectantly up at his oversized one. Barnes flashed another pregnant glance towards him but it was gone too fast for Sam to parse it.

“No, Darcy.  He wasn’t bad, just unwell,” rushed Sam, hoping to avoid explaining that entire situation. “No one is punishing him. No one is in trouble. Barnes is in his room because he wants to be.”

Darcy tilted her head to the side, making her even more doll-like with her dress and her curls and her tiny posed body. If at any point in his life Sam wished he was psychic, it was this one. Valuable and extensive insight into the human psyche he may have but the thoughts going through that little girl’s head were an utter mystery.

“There aren’t any bad men at Sam’s house. Sam’s house is safe.”

Darcy’s words were flat and practiced and wondering how many times she had repeated the mantra to herself made something in Sam’s chest compress with a twist. Looking between Darcy and Barnes with their matching eerie emptiness, Sam felt like he was the only true human in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Was Darcy speaking in some sort of code?  Was she telling Barnes he should leave?

Barnes, apparently, knew the code. His adam’s apple bobbed in a rough swallow and he nodded.

“Almond milk, please, Sam,” said Darcy, not bothering to turn around.

By the time Sam realised he’d just obeyed a four year old’s order, he was already back in the kitchen. And standing there in front of her packed grocery box, it only took another second for Sam to connect the dots as to exactly what had just happened in Barnes’s room. Picking up three cartons of milk despite the fact he personally couldn’t stand the stuff, Sam let himself smile. Pride blossomed inside him, quickly followed by a little guilt at how his panic had caused him to misread the situation so badly, and a healthy dose of gratitude that at least one of them got it right.

There had been an uneven power dynamic in that room alright. Only Darcy was viewing it through a very different lens. To Darcy, Barnes was not a threat. Sam was the threat.

Barnes was bigger than her, sure, but so was everyone. He hadn’t attacked, had stayed calm and quiet, and waited for her move even though she had invaded his space.

Sam, also bigger than Darcy, was in charge. It was his apartment, it was his rules, he controlled what went on. Sam held the power. Worried about Sam’s reaction, Darcy sent him away to fetch the milk.

There aren’t any bad men at Sam’s place. Sam’s place is safe.

Darcy had asked if Barnes was locked in, then when Sam explained Barnes wanted to be in his room, she’d told him it was safe to come out. She was reassuring him. She saw Barnes as someone like her.

Proud didn’t even cover it. Strutting with his chest out all the way back to Barnes’ room, Sam grinned when he saw the change in seating arrangements. Now Barnes sat on the floor with his back against his bed while Darcy sat against the wall opposite him. This time Sam knew exactly what Barnes’ look was trying to convey.

“In my defence, I was tricked,” Sam said without an ounce of apology. He lobbed a milk at Barnes, who caught it with one hand and placed it on the floor next to him. Easing himself against the wall next to Darcy, Sam ignored the incredulous glare being sent his way and passed Darcy a drink of her own.

The three of them sat in silence while Sam drank his gross milk and Darcy sipped at hers. When she set it aside after only a few mouthfuls, Sam frowned.

“Darcy, I know you don’t feel like it but do you think you could drink some more? Pepper said you haven’t eaten all day and if you don’t eat, your tummy will shrink again and you might have to go back to medical.”

Crinkling her nose, Darcy looked down at her drink, then out the window on the other side of the room. Sam opened his mouth to ask again when Barnes picked up his milk. Shoving his straw in with a huff, Barnes met Darcy’s gaze, then stared at her in an unmistakable challenge. Then he drained the entire thing in one go. When it was empty, a still-scowling, still-staring Barnes sucked through his straw to make the last dregs rattle against the carton extra loud just in case he hadn’t got his point across and it was Darcy’s turn to sigh. With heaving reluctance she picked up her milk and took another sip.

Sam beamed. He was so fucking great at this.

 

 

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“Was it HYDRA?”

Pleasantly surprised that Barnes had followed him into his bedroom, Sam tucked his blankets in tight around a sleeping Darcy’s shoulders and let his hand linger for a moment on her forehead. Dawn was only just lightening the sky and Pepper wasn’t due to come by until after work so if they were lucky, Darcy would be able to rest for a number of hours. She definitely needed it.

“Nothing’s certain but probably not,” he replied, standing and stretching out his back. They’d stayed on the floor of Barnes’ room continuing what Sam considered the world’s most frustrating game of charades until Darcy fell asleep and his spine was definitely letting him know it disapproved. “Most likely just the regular type of asshole attached to the foster system. HYDRA doesn’t have a monopoly on evil.”

Barnes stared down at the sleeping child, his eyebrows furrowed in thought. As patiently as he could after a stressful, sleepless night, Sam waited him out.

“You said she didn’t talk,” said Barnes.

“She doesn’t.” When Barnes redirected his scowl, Sam held up a hand and clarified. “Not usually. She uses ASL with Tony, Clint and Pepper. Occasionally she’ll say something to me in English and the odd word or two to Natasha in Russian. Tonight’s the most I’ve ever heard her speak.”

Sensing Barnes had more to say, Sam tried to ignore the pounding in his head and the exhaustion that had replaced his earlier adrenaline spikes. If something was bothering Barnes enough to want to talk about it, it was worth listening to.

“I remember…” Barnes wrapped his arms around his chest, digging into the bicep on his right arm with the metal fingers of his left. “I remember little girls. Like her.”

Sam nodded. He’d read the files. “The Red Room.”

“No.”

“No?”

“No. Before then. Three of them. Skinny. Scared.” Barnes looked at him again but Sam knew it wasn’t this room he was seeing with those clouded eyes. “There was yelling. And a smell. Gin, I think. I tried… I had to protect them. I don’t think I did.”

The cloudiness in Barnes’ eyes cleared and he focused on Sam with an intensity that burned.

“You lied to her.” When Sam would have argued, Barnes continued. “You said I wasn’t bad.”

“It’s not… I mean, it wasn’t a lie, I just- ,” Sam fumbled.

Barnes’ expression shuttered, any hint of the little emotion he’d shared disappearing in an instant. He pivoted on his boot heel and with several silent steps, Sam was left to figure out the end of his sentence alone.

 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

In the dim aura cast by his bedside lamp, Kolya sat on his bed with his head in his hands, a cold cup of tea forgotten on the cabinet top. Not even his husband’s gingerbread could clear the cloud from his mind that night.

Prosti menya, Marik, I am sorry,”

Halfway through folding a stack of blankets, Marik snorted. “You are sorry for saving a little girl’s life? What are you now, a monster?”

“I didn’t plan to take her. I was just going to scope it out, see what was happening. Now I’ve put you and the boys in danger. I wasn’t thinking, I just- ,”

“You just did what you would always do, Kolnyshka. You can’t change who you are.”

They quietened when Darcy Lewis stirred in her sleep, still restless even with the calming medicine that one of their doctor friends had given her earlier. The doctor, also a member of their insular gay Russian community and well used to unofficial midnight consults, had examined Darcy with sad eyes and a heavy gaze that spoke more about Darcy’s condition than any report could. Not that Kolya would be writing a report on the subject. Nguyen promised to stay quiet about what happened at the apartment building and with a few whispered words, their doctor friend ‘forgot’ about the examination the moment she walked out their door. Marik tutted and adjusted the girl’s blanket, pulling it back over her bony shoulders, and Kolya remembered he owed his husband an explanation.

“The woman at the den, Augustin’s wife, gave me evidence that Abigail Lewis was murdered by an important man. Very important. He can manipulate the government, the police, the hospitals. This man wants to keep Darcy for himself, claims she’s the daughter of another important man that is his enemy. Augustin was hiding her for him.”

Marik nodded in understanding. “Ah, and in exchange for this evidence you let the drug lord go? Tch, too kind hearted again, dorogoy. You should have killed him for what he’s done. Him and his wife.”

“That’s not how it works here in America,”

“You mean that’s not how it works for you because you are poor.”

Kolya shrugged, conceding the point. They continued in silence, Marik folding the linen and Kolya drowning in doubt and self-recrimination and Darcy Lewis sleeping in the middle of their too large bed.

“At least now someone can feed the little ptichka. Look at her, wasting away.”

Normally when Marik said a child was wasting away it was an exaggeration. Not this time.

“Should we really do this?” Kolya asked, knowing his husband would understand what he meant. The risks they would be taking. The changes they would have to make.

The question earned him a half-folded towel to the face.

Glupyj chelovek! You say you know me and then you ask this?”

Kolya smiled and pulled the towel off his head.

“Thank you, dusha moya.”

 

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

When Sam went to sleep on his living room couch, he assumed he’d later be woken up by the movements of the other occupants of his apartment. Except, upon reflection, that was a really stupid assumption to make. And thus instead of Earth’s most competent assassin or the tiny child too terrified to make noise, it was the acrid tang of burning food in his nostrils that did the job and brought Sam into the waking world.

Rolling off the cushions in a single smooth motion, Sam made it to the kitchen in time anyone but a super soldier could be proud of. The second his bare feet hit the tiled floor though, he stopped in his tracks to stare in open mouthed disbelief at the tableau that greeted him.

With her little hands gripping the wood either side of her, Darcy Lewis sat on the edge of Sam’s kitchen counter in between the box of groceries and the sink, and gently swung her legs against the cupboards below. Inside said sink was the cause of the smell that woke Sam, a saucepan that was now black-bottomed and lined with something unidentifiable that still wafted an occasional skinny streak of smoke. Across the kitchen, the Winter Soldier stood at the stovetop, his body turned side on to keep Darcy within his sight line while he stirred something in another saucepan. Every few seconds he would shift his eyes to glare suspiciously at Darcy, as though she could vanish from her position at any moment.

“Er… What’s going on?” Sam tried.

Barnes switched his glare to Sam and ratcheted it up a few notches for good measure, as though it was entirely Sam’s fault that Barnes was currently impersonating a beleaguered housewife. Which was fair, considering it was entirely Sam’s fault he hadn’t woken up when Darcy had.

Setting aside the sense he was a lot like a mouse cornered by an extremely large and unhappy cat, Sam took the time to look Barnes up and down. He’d changed clothes into something softer, workout gear that was almost definitely borrowed from Steve if the tightness around Barnes’s shoulders and chest was anything to go by. No visible weapons, no heavy boots, both arms bare from the biceps down. Even with the metal arm, the result was far less threatening than the pseudo-militaristic get-up Barnes normally sported. Considering Barnes hadn’t previously changed his appearance for Sam, it had to be for Darcy’s sake. And if Barnes was trying to make himself physically more approachable for the little girl, maybe he was trying in other ways too?

“Were you trying to cook for Darcy? Is that why…” Sam trailed off, nodding his head towards the ruined pot in the sink.

Barnes’s glare intensified. The spatula in his hand didn’t falter in its steady circuit of the pot.

 “I did that,” came a peep from the countertop.

With both Sam and Barnes’s attention returned to her, Darcy dropped her gaze to the floor. Wondering if there would ever be a time in his life where things made sense again, Sam tried to come up with a plausible scenario where Darcy would attempt her own cooking. It’s not that he didn’t believe her, just that it seemed so unlikely. The girl was obedient to a fault, would much rather suffer in silence than risk a possible repercussion, and she knew she wasn’t allowed to use the kitchen equipment. Why would she-

A soft beep sounded from behind the unpacked box of ingredients still on Sam’s counter. His phone. Sam reached across to grab it, then swiped the screen to clear the insistent reminder that had popped up. A reminder that was thirty five minutes past its original alarm time.

“It was calorie time,” Sam murmured, absolutely hating himself. “I’m so sorry.”

Neither Darcy nor Barnes replied, not that he expected them to. Not even Sam knew what to say and he was the one trained in these things. The three of them stayed in their relative positions until Barnes finished at the stove and poured some strange, pale, globular mess into a bowl. When he placed it next to Darcy, she nodded once and Barnes nodded back.

Sam dug around in his cutlery drawer for a spoon, then leaned over and dropped it into Darcy’s bowl. She stared at it a moment, then looked up at Barnes who was still watching her with his usual intensity.

Gde tvoy?” said Darcy. 

Barnes’s expression immediately shifted from his resting-murder-glare to one of extreme distaste. In response, Darcy raised one shoulder in an alarming imitation of Natasha and lifted her face to stare at the ceiling, completely ignoring her bowl and the fact she had only recently risked burning down the apartment because she was half an hour late for her calories.

“Darcy?” Sam asked.

 Darcy continued her inspection of the ceiling.

The slam of a cupboard door made Sam jump away just in time for Barnes to drop another two bowls of the … something… on the counter. He was about to ask what the hell was that stuff and what the hell was he supposed to do with it when Barnes lifted an eyebrow and Sam realised he was blocking the cutlery drawer. He grabbed another couple spoons and plonked them into their respective bowls, kind of awed with the amount of hatred Barnes was sending what appeared to be an innocent -albeit unappetising- breakfast.

“What is that?” Sam asked, receiving his answer when Barnes stabbed a spoon at some packaging inside the grocery box. Semolina porridge. Right.

With Darcy still resolutely avoiding her food, Sam picked up his bowl, tried a spoonful and instantly regretted it. It was like eating clumps of lukewarm, curdled milk. Still, Darcy had chosen it, so, for Darcy, Sam would eat it. Barnes’s nostrils flared but he followed suit, and the moment Barnes’s spoon was in his mouth Darcy grabbed up her own bowl with a cheeky grin that made Sam spit tepid semolina across the room.

“You are my favourite person today,” Sam said, saluting Darcy with his spoon.

Barnes glared. He ate another spoon of porridge.

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

The man’s face was the same face. The bones and muscles were exactly the same as they had been an hour prior, the same shadow of scruff on his cheeks, the same distance between his eyebrows, the same icy intensity of his gaze.

And yet, every atom of the Winter Soldier screamed satisfaction.

“Yeah, Pepper, everything is good here,” Sam murmured down the phone line as he watched his two charges interact. “Take as long as you need, honestly, we’re doing great.”

Darcy’s shoulders slumped forward and her skinny, soap-sud-covered arms banged on the side of the sink. Heroically, Sam was able to contain his laughter as Darcy gazed mournfully at the dishwasher Barnes hadn’t let her put the ruined saucepan in. Or the non-ruined one. Or their bowls.

“Are you sure?” asked Pepper, her voice thin with concern. “The situation at SI Sydney is apparently an emergency but it doesn’t matter. I’ll put it aside if it’s what Darcy needs. I’m just so worried. The timing is dreadful and I’d hate to think I wasn’t there when she needed me.”

From his position looming over her shoulder, Barnes clicked his tongue and motioned to a spot of scorched semolina Darcy had missed. With a Shakespearean sigh, Darcy set her shoulders and started again.

“Trust me, Pepper, it will be fine.”

Sam doubted they’d have semolina for breakfast the next day.

 

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

It was great. Really great. Sam was beginning to think he should start penning self help books and touring the speaking circuits with how amazing everything was going.

Until it wasn’t.

They’d watched documentaries all afternoon, first one on dinosaurs which was moderately entertaining and then one on hydraulics which was mind numbing. Sam sat on the couch playing games on his phone and tried not to be obviously hypervigilant. Darcy leaned on the coffee table nibbling on rice crackers and tried not to flinch whenever JARVIS spoke. And Barnes lurked from various points in the apartment, checking sight lines and not trying at all to hide his intentions. Sam gained further appreciation for the depths of conversation one could achieve using facial tics and sighs but overall it was smooth.

Exhausted as they were, it was no surprise that Darcy chose to skip her bath and went straight to bed after an early dinner, sliding in between Sam’s bedsheets in set of truly adorable dragon pjs. Barnes took to his room, too, and as much as Sam enjoyed the mental image he didn’t think the Winter Soldier wore adorable pjs. Probably just a nightgown made of shadows and knife blades. If he ever went to bed at all.

Sam was half way through packing the dishwasher when he heard Darcy cry out. Wasting no time, Sam jogged into the hall where Barnes was already waiting outside Sam’s bedroom, the door set slightly ajar. Barnes turned sideways to allow Sam to go first.

“She has nightmares,” Sam explained, padding quietly to the bedside and a suspiciously Darcy-sized ball of blankets. Sure enough another whimper came from beneath the blankets, cut off by what Sam assumed was Darcy biting her knuckle. Gently as he could, he lifted the blankets enough to see Darcy’s pale face and the thumb she was mercilessly gnawing.

Unsure of what more he could do, Sam hovered his hand above Darcy’s curls and hummed the melody of a Led Zeppelin song. At home Tony calmed her through her nightmares with copious amounts of cuddling, but Darcy was an abuse survivor and she and Sam didn’t share that kind of relationship. If Sam stepped over the boundaries they’d created and initiated unsolicited physical contact, especially during an emotional situation, it could destroy Darcy’s trust entirely. If she had been an adult client, Sam would wake her up, talk her through her feelings and ask what she wanted but that wasn’t appropriate in this situation.

Darcy curled up tighter and ducked her head. Her knuckle slipped out from her teeth enough for her to mutter beneath her breath but it was too quiet to hear. Well, for Sam to hear anyway. Barnes appeared at Sam’s shoulder, his brows furrowed and his metal arm whining as it recalibrated.

“Do you know what she’s saying?” Sam whispered.

Barnes dipped his head once, eyes not leaving Darcy’s face.

“Can you help?” Sam continued, pushing his luck.

Instead of simply telling Sam what he’d heard, Barnes moved to the edge of the bed with the obvious intention of helping on his own terms. Trusting his instincts, Sam stepped back to give him room and Barnes leaned down to take hold of Darcy’s hand in his own. He squeezed, preventing her thumb’s return to her teeth, and murmured low in Russian.

Darcy whimpered again and her eyes squeezed tighter. She called out a word, maybe a name or something Russian, and Barnes crept closer again. When Darcy’s other hand reached out, Barnes took that too, then caught the little body that flew at him.

Ne khodi,” Darcy sobbed into Barnes’s shoulder. “Pozhaluysta, ne ukhodi,”

Eyes wider than Sam had ever seen, Barnes stared at him with the naked panic of a Doberman who’d just been attacked by a fluff ball he wasn’t supposed to eat.

“Are you uncomfortable? Do you want to pass her to me?” Sam asked, his former concerns about boundaries left for dust. If Barnes was about to snap, it was better Darcy be in Sam’s arms regardless of the emotional fallout.

Barnes didn’t blink but his arms tightened around Darcy until her nose bumped the space between his neck and shoulder. Interestingly, Barnes was holding her with both his arms, the metal one just as firm as the natural.

“Okaaaay,” said Sam. “Are you uncomfortable but don’t want to pass her to me anyway?”

Finally, Barnes blinked and Sam had his answer. Stomping down his internal face palm, Sam directed the blended Barnes-Darcy creature to sit back against the headboard and pulled the blankets up to cover them. Then he shoved his laundry off the chair he never used for any other purpose, dragged it over to the bedside and resigned himself to another uncomfortable night.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Samuel Thomas Wilson was many things. A son, a brother, a healer, an exceptionally good looking man with a set of shiny, shiny wings. And one thing he definitely was not, was a quitter. Did he quit when he was thirteen and his baseball coach said he’d never make starting pitcher? No, he did not, and after an entire summer spent practicing ten hours a day, he made the spot. Did he quit when he was twenty and his SO told him he was too young to make a good paramedic? No, he did not, and his career records damn well proved it. Did he quit when an entire hemisphere of doctors told him saving the Winter Soldier’s mangled brain was too difficult, and he and his heart-broken all-American dreamboat should let nature take its course? No, he did not. Admittedly that probably had more to do with said star-spangled hero and Sam’s hard wired inability to say no to his stupid handsome face but whatever. His point was solid. Sam Wilson was no quitter.

Which is why, Sam assured himself while twisting his tie into a flawless Windsor knot, this was going to be perfect. He had this. He would nail the W and bring it home.

Darcy’s favourite documentaries had lost their shine after the first dozen or so hours of close-ups of people digging trenches by hand, using paintbrushes to dust entire fields and random old white men droning on and on and on about what was and wasn’t considered an accepted quill knob. Sam could barely keep his eyes open let alone contribute to any kind of discussion about what they were watching and seeing Darcy’s little face fall as she realised Sam didn’t share her enthusiasm for dinosaurs was gut-wrenching. He tried, he really did, but he’s pretty sure he’d rather spend two full days at the orthodontist.

Cooking was… well, cooking didn’t work out either. Darcy showed some interest in how different recipes came together and enjoyed eating frosting as much as any child but it was clear to anyone with eyes she found it as boring as he found palaeontology. She ended up asleep on the floor in front of the oven while Sam did the dishes and prayed the chocolate stains would come out of her dress.

The most recent attempt at entertainment came when Dum-E delivered a box of components and wires and thank the Almighty, instructions. It was like playing with the Lego except with more screwdrivers and grease, and Sam really thought they were onto a winner right up until he realised the instructions were more like guidelines with gaps as big as the Sahara. Darcy was far more patient than any four year old should be, but Sam sucked. Could he utilise the pinnacle of mechanical inventions to within an inch of their genius-made specs? Absolutely. Could he build a basic RC car from scratch? Oh hell no.

So there he was. Three from three, all losses on the board. But not this time. This time, Sam stacked the deck.

He’d suggested a tea party.

Sam Wilson, uncle to four beautiful nieces, was a tea party pro. Dress-ups, imaginary friends, posh British accents and holding tiny cups with his pinky out, these were all things Sam had extensive experience in. And as he ran a lint roller over the lapels of his Tom Ford for a final time, Sam knew this plan was practically guaranteed to earn him an engaged and happy Darcy.

Throwing another glance into his mirror because damn he looked fine even if he said so himself, Sam idly wondered how difficult it would be to construct a future situation where he and Steve both needed to be wearing suits. And then not be wearing suits. He grinned down at his dressing companion, the fluffy pink and purple dragon sitting atop his bathroom counter who was now sporting a rather fetching ribboned collar.

“What do you think, Dot?” he asked. “Would dressing up like this be enough for Captain Oblivious to finally pick up what I’ve been putting down?”

Dot didn’t answer the question. Sam didn’t blame her.

“Yeah, I don’t think so either. The boy weeps when he hears the Stars and Stripes Forever but ask him to talk about his feelings and he’ll jump out the window. No really, I’ve seen it.”

Dot didn’t laugh and Sam nodded along. No doubt she understood the extent of what Sam was up against when it came to his favourite emotionally repressed ultimate frisbee enthusiast. He gathered Dot into the crook of his arm and walked out to the living room.

“Princess Darcy!” he called, spotting her waiting patiently on the couch. Not playing, not touching anything, not watching tv. Just sitting quietly exactly as a child her age shouldn’t. His step bounced a little higher and his voice trilled a little louder as he swept a hand out in an operatic bow that ended with him on one knee in front of her.

“Princess Darcy, daughter of the House of Stark, Lady of the Tower of Glass! It is I, Prince Samuel of the House of the Son of Wil, Lord amongst Legends, and Keeper of the Sanity of Mount Avenger! I have come this day with my Noble Companion, Dorothy the Wise, to seek your counsel! Will you not join me for tea and grant me your ear?”

Darcy’s mouth hung somewhere near her navel and her eyes were saucers as they ran up and down both Sam and Dot, noting their ‘dress-ups’. Technically Darcy wasn’t wearing dress-ups but considering her usual wardrobe was made of gossamer and moonbeams it hardly made a difference. Her lips lifted first in a hesitant curl and then when Sam’s flashbulb grin didn’t shift, the smile widened into something truly magnificent. She scooted off the couch, took his outstretched hand and beamed at him.

Oh yes, Sam Wilson was a freaking genius. This was going to be great.

He walked Darcy to where he’d arranged the tea things Dum-E sent and set her at the head of the dining table. Darcy’s head tilted sideways and she looked over the table with that tell-tale curious gleam. If Sam didn’t know any better he would have guessed this to be Darcy’s first ever tea party with the way her eyes lingered on the individually set out places, the mountain of tiny sandwiches he’d made, the bowl of dark chocolate pieces, the matching sugar pot and milk jug, and the blue and white porcelain teapot sitting proudly in the centre of it all.

Sam sat down to Darcy’s right, which earned him another smile, and then leaned over the table to set Dot up on Darcy’s left which earned him a head tilt in the opposite direction and a few blinks. He had a sudden vivid memory of his youngest niece and how she always invited all her friends to tea and wondered if Darcy had invited an imaginary friend too and Dot had just 'sat' on them. He quickly added another place setting next to Dot and shuffled the dragon down one space.

“Terribly sorry, Princess Darcy,” he said, in his posh British accent. “I failed to realise that seat was already occupied. By what name shall we call your friend?”

Darcy’s skinny shoulders shook and she covered her lips with her hand to stop her giggle escaping as though Sam was the one imagining people. He decided to let it go for now, in case Darcy was embarrassed by having attention drawn to her invisible friend.  It didn’t really matter; the whole point of the afternoon was to make Darcy happy and if she was already giggling, even at him, it was going well.

“I’ll be Mother, shall I?” Sam asked, reaching for the teapot.

Darcy let out a cross between a squeak and a whine and Sam snatched his arm back. With both hands covering her mouth, Darcy stared at him like he was a puppy who’d just messed on her carpet. Talk about a mood change.

“Alriiiiight,” he said slowly. Clearly he was missing something here. Again.

A muffled thump from the kitchen reminded Sam of his other house guest, the one who’d been conspicuously absent as of late. As they watched, Sam in mute amazement and Darcy just plain mute, the Winter Soldier emerged from behind the dining room partition to glare and silently judge Sam’s entire life choices. Or so Sam assumed. Stalking forward like he was walking into a cloud of mustard gas, Barnes dropped a pair of bowls onto the dining table (was that jam? And plain crackers?), snorted a silent huff of air, and made to leave.

“Bucky! Zakhodite na chay!” Darcy called.

Barnes’s shoulders stiffened and Sam saw the exact moment he admitted defeat. He looked at the table, then at Dot, then at Sam who refused to feel self-conscious wearing his fanciest clothes at his own damn table. Then Barnes grabbed the back of the chair on Darcy’s left and slowly pulled it out, scraping the chair legs against the floor to make them squeal in the most obnoxious protest possible.

“Darcy’s invisible friend’s sitting there,” Sam said, earning himself a pair of disbelieving looks. One was obviously more murderous than the other.

His charges exchanged a political blog’s worth of eyebrow tics, blinks and nostril flares. Then the asshole assassin caught Sam’s eye and deliberately dropped into the chair.

“Barnes…” Sam started.

Whatever he was going to say after that disappeared from his head when Darcy began to giggle again. Only this time it wasn’t silent. And despite Sam’s sudden-onset paralysis, Darcy continued giggling as she reached for the teapot and filled all three of their teacups.

“I don’t have an invisible friend,” Darcy said, while stirring a spoon of jam into her tea. She nudged the jam bowl towards Bucky, who grunted and did his best to ignore everything in existence. When Darcy rapped her spoon against the bowl in increasingly insistent increments, he sighed and added jam to his own teacup.

“Er… did you want milk or sugar?” Sam asked, desperate for some normalcy.

He didn’t get it.

Instead what he got was an afternoon of pure awkwardness as he learned that literally everything he knew about tea parties was so wrong it was offensive. Honestly, he’d felt less guilty when he was a kid and accidentally swore in church than seeing Darcy’s face when he refused her offering of another sandwich. And when he asked if Darcy wanted to play pretend princesses while they drank, he might have well asked if she wanted to walk on the moon without a spacesuit. And then made a mess on her carpet.

The silver lining was that as awkward as it was for Sam, it was ten times worse for Barnes. If the situation was pushing Barnes’s buttons in a dangerous way Sam would have put a stop to it, of course, but it wasn’t dangerous. Just hilarious.

Somewhere during the party, Darcy had apparently given up on Sam as a hopeless case, which, although a touch bruising for his ego, was probably for the best. Instead, Darcy switched her entire focus to the reluctant Soldier and Sam didn’t even bother to try and hide his sniggering as a glowing, jubilant Darcy used a combination of lethal doe-eyes and Russian coaxing (or possibly threatening? It was difficult to tell) to force food onto a progressively moodier Winter Soldier’s plate. She switched between Russian and ASL faster than an Industrial railroad and never left his teacup empty. Sam’s cup could be sitting cold and unused for ten minutes before Darcy noticed but the moment Barnes hit the last few mouthfuls, Darcy and her militant teapot were there.

It was amazing. He refilled the teapot three times just to keep it going.

Finally, Barnes leaned back in his seat and waved Darcy off like a mosquito.

“Voz'mi yeshche kusochek,” Darcy insisted, sliding another square of chocolate onto Barnes’ plate.

Posledniy kusochek,” Barnes whined, no doubt trying to sound firm but really just sounding like an over-inflated bike tire.

Darcy beamed. So did Sam.

The tea party was definitely a win.

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

The overhead seatbelt sign flashed its disapproval but Tony Stark, who right then cared less than a hot nanosecond about anything physically or mentally unrelated to him, didn’t even notice. Instead he stepped around Rogers’ enormous fucking feet and Natasha’s ridiculously long legs to pace the interior of the jet and rant in both mumbles and random outbursts about how stupidly slow this supposedly top-of-the-line plane was and how he could have been home by now if only the repulsors on his boots hadn’t been damaged in their last fight.

“Tony, come on man. I’ve piloted wild ferrets that were less difficult passengers than you,” called Clint from the cockpit.

Tony opened his mouth, ferret-related snark already prepared, when he recognised the now obvious signs of Clint’s ‘distraction through stupidity’ technique. He changed his mind and slumped like a reluctant teenager in the seat next to Steve.

“Your girls are alright,” Rogers said in that super-confident tone that made entire countries line up behind him. “I know we were gone longer than expected but they’ll be alright. Pepper’s got a good head on her shoulders and JARVIS would have mentioned if anything was wrong, standing non-contact orders or not.”

 Tony tipped his head back and stared at the support struts on the ceiling. If he was in his suit, all he would have been able to see above him was sky.

“Pepper’s in Sydney,” he muttered distractedly. “And it’s not that I don’t trust Wilson to take care of Darcy’s needs but it’s been more than three weeks. Twenty two days. What if she’s given up on me coming home at all?”

“Sam’s looking after Darcy?” Steve asked, his voice a little too casual. “She’s in DC?”

“No, Sam’s apartment at the Tower. Pepper said Darcy was upset when I left and wanted to be somewhere that didn’t remind her of me. Can’t blame her, who would want to hang around a penthouse that stank of broken promises and fucked up fathers anyway?”

From out the corner of his eye, Tony could see Steve’s mouth open and close as though he was right on the edge of saying something. Considering it was probably Cap deciding whether or not to rebuke Tony for his indecent language, Tony ignored it.

“God, how much slower can this stupid boat go?” he moaned, throwing an arm over his face.

“Hold your horses, Mr Impatience,” sang Clint, because he was an asshole. “We’ll be home before dinnertime. You won’t miss out on spaghetti-O's.”

Tony snorted. As if Pepper would allow that kind of crap in Darcy’s diet.

“Shut up and fly, big bird.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"I know it looks scary but I promise I'm right here with you."

Darcy nibbled at her thumb knuckle and looked over at the clear water of Stark's Olympic sized indoor pool. Knowing this had to be her decision, Sam waited her out and watched as her free hand pulled on the waist ruffles of her adorable navy polka dot swimsuit. Seriously, this kid's wardrobe was unreal.

Darcy's thumb left her mouth and she moved her fingers slowly, deliberately adding space in between each motion entirely for his benefit. Sam put together the spelled letters in his head. He was totally getting the hang of this ASL jam – trilingual Sam Wilson was now a thing.

"That's right. Just like your bath. And you love your bath, right?"

Darcy nodded, still hesitant, and Sam wondered if perhaps he should have waited for Stark to be home before bringing her to the pool. Except it had been weeks now and they absolutely had to be somewhere that wasn't Sam's apartment, his balcony, or the Avengers common room. Going beyond the Avengers levels of the Tower was not an option and neither was the Penthouse, so unless Sam wanted to introduce Darcy to the joy that was lifting weights in the gym, the pool was pretty much it. Besides, he’d found a stash of water toys in the storage cupboards he knew they could easily spend hours with. Pool noodles, inflatable flamingos, hoops and balls, a volleyball set and even a waterproof speaker system; more than enough to tire out a four year old, at least. She’d be asleep on the way back to the apartment for sure.

"Darcy, I'm a good swimmer. You'll be safe, I'll make sure of it."

The doors to the change rooms slammed open and Sam barely had time to recognise Barnes in a pair of Steve's shorts before he stalked to the edge of the pool and executed a perfect swan dive. Shooting through the water like a Great White, he reached the other end without coming up for a single breath.

"Show off," Sam muttered. He watched Barnes return to their end, his powerful strokes leaving barely a ripple in his wake.

When he reached the edge of the pool, Barnes pulled himself out of the water in a single movement to stand dripping and unfairly majestic in front of Darcy, who stared right back in open astonishment. Sam didn't blame her. His own expression was probably similar considering the exhibition they'd just witnessed. Sam's eye might have been caught by a different sexy nonagenarian but there was no getting around the fact a shirtless super soldier pulling those kinds of moves was impressive as hell. Especially considering Barnes typically avoided displaying his strength or his skills in front of Darcy unless-

Oh.

Oh.

God Sam was an idiot after all.

Barnes was showing off. He was showing off to Darcy, showing her what Sam had been trying to tell her for a solid twenty minutes; she didn't have to be afraid because she was with a strong, capable swimmer who could take care of her in the water. Sam groaned. It was so simple. Actions, not words. For Darcy, it was all about what a person did not what they said and Barnes had recognized it from the start. All along he'd been using his actions to reassure her while Sam, like the good therapist he was, used words.

Well. Sam might be late to this revelation but damned if he wasn't going to use it to its full advantage.

"What do you think, Darcy, was that a good enough audition? You want to swim with Barnes? He can carry you into the water."

Barnes' expression blanked, obviously not expecting Sam to volunteer him as anything other than a particularly bad tempered lifeguard. But Sam was done letting Barnes holler shit from the sidelines, even if he did kind of deserve it half the time. He smirked, knowing Barnes would catch it in his peripheral vision. Yeah, man. I'm calling you out. Whatcha gonna do?

It was probably a bit wrong, how much joy Sam got from seeing Barnes' jaw twitch. Then Barnes settled into a calm determination that was less The Winter Soldier and more like a familiar stubborn Brooklynite. He held his hand out to Darcy, not pushing, not coaxing, just waiting for her to make up her mind. Actions, not words.

Recognising the earth-shattering moment for what it was, Sam held his breath and prayed. Darcy didn't move, just looked between Barnes' outstretched hand and his face. Watching. Judging. She was taking her time but Barnes' hand didn't waver and the longer Darcy stared at it the louder Sam's inner voice got. Come on, Darcy! You can do it!

Then milky pale fingers slid over a set of tanned calloused ones and Darcy reached up. Like she was made of folded paper, Barnes lifted her and positioned her ever so gently on his hip. With a vulnerability Sam had never witnessed, Barnes stared into the solemn face of the girl who would trust the Winter Soldier. And smiled.

"I am the greatest of all time!" Sam exploded, pumping his fists into the air. "G.O.A.T right here! Right here!"

Barnes' smile disappeared beneath eyebrows of promised doom but Darcy laughed loud enough for her giggles to bounce around the tiled walls and Sam -- Sam was flying.

 

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

 

 

The quinjet hatch was barely down when Tony threw himself out of it. He raised a middle finger behind him to a snickering Barton and forewent a bird joke to instead stomp across the landing pad. Rogers jumped out afterwards and matched his stride, obviously not understanding that Tony had more important things to do than whatever team-building crap The Captain wanted him to sign up for. The outer doors to the Assembling Floor opened without Tony having to slow down, because JARVIS was extremely intelligent and knew not to fuck around when Tony was busy. Unlike some-

“Tony,” Steve called. “Tony, wait, I need to- ,”

“Anything you have to say can wait at least six hours,” Tony snapped back, pulling off his sweat stained shirt. He strode through the Avengers’ ‘assembling’ rooms, dumped his shirt in a basket then grabbed a clean one off a conveniently positioned pile of spare clothing. The spare clothes were more for Bruce really but the sizing wasn’t too far off what he’d usually wear and he shoved his arms and head through anyway. There. Post-mission grossness reduced by at least twelve percent. There was no escaping the fact he needed a good old fashioned scrub-down but he’d at least bought himself some time.

Rogers hovered next to him like a lost puppy. He stank just as badly as Tony did, probably worse considering the amount of random body fluid splatter he’d caught in that last fight, but made no move towards the showers. Whatever. If Rogers wanted to stink up his own apartment instead of using the specific post-mission bathrooms Tony designed and installed at considerable personal expense, so be it.

“Sir, the files you requested from Director Fury are waiting for you in your lab,” said JARVIS, opening the elevator doors as Tony reached them because, again, extremely intelligent.

“Excellent, consider them my second priority. Now take me to Wilson’s floor so I can see my first priority.”

Rogers, persistent fuck that he was, slid into the elevator as the doors were closing with a muttered excuse of wanting to see Wilson too. Any other day Tony would have called him on his obvious bullshit but right now it was just another thing not worth thinking about.

“Sir. Miss Darcy, Airman Wilson and Airman Wilson’s friend are currently in the atrium of the Water Floor. Shall I take you there instead?”

“Punch it, Chewie.”

The elevator inched downwards like it was powered by an Oompa Loompa with a pulley instead of the world class system Tony knew was installed, but no matter how slow it went his heartbeat thumped faster for every foot closer to Darcy it brought him. Finally, finally, the doors opened again and Tony stepped out. By virtue of being the first to exit the elevator, it was Tony who first witnessed the scene in the atrium. A single scan showed him all he needed to know.

A steel arm, lights reflecting off its calibrating plates, wrapped around his little girl. Braced her meagre weight so her head rested against a scarred collarbone. Held her tight against a steel shoulder while metal fingers curled around her tiny, vulnerable body.

The same fingers that curled around his mother’s throat while she gasped and begged for her life.

The same fingers that punched his father’s face into the ground and left him to die.

Terror, cold and sleek and metallic, slid up his spine. Speared beneath his skull, drowned his brain. He spun around, walked back into the elevator and punched Steven Fucking Rogers straight in the mouth. Then he stole the sidearm from Steve’s belt, kicked him in the chest hard enough to push him back further, exited, then slammed the button to shut the elevator doors. The elevator was already dropping before Steve could recover from the shock of being attacked by an ally in his own home.

“Take him down to the ground floor, J,” Tony ordered. “No stops, no exceptions.”

“Stark,” Wilson called out. He stood a bit behind the others as though he’d been the last one to leave the pool area. Too far to interfere.

Tony flicked the safety off his stolen gun and held it against his thigh. He wouldn’t aim it at the murderous son-of-a-bitch yet, not while Darcy was in his arms, but fuck he was ready for when she was clear.

“Put. Her. Down.”

Slowly, carefully, the Winter Soldier shifted Darcy, who had been asleep, and lowered her to the floor. Wobbly on newly woken legs, Darcy tried to hold herself up with an arm around his thigh but the murderer detached himself to stand separate from her. Obeying Tony’s orders like the dog he was. Darcy rubbed her eyes and blinked, taking in her surroundings and noticed Tony for the first time. Her face lit up like the sun, until she saw the gun in his hand and froze.

“Darcy, come here,”

She didn’t move.

“Tony, think about- ,”

Shut up Wilson,” he snarled.

Sam stopped, stuck well beyond the point where he could intervene. The three men faced off silently, until the Winter Soldier took four slow steps to his right, far enough away from Darcy that Tony could lift his stolen gun and aim it right at his traitorous fucking face. His soulless eyes stared Tony down, gauging whether or not Tony would pull the trigger.

Tony’s lips pulled back over his teeth and he let every drop of his hatred show. Hell yes, he would pull the fucking trigger.

“Sir, there- ,” JARVIS began.

The emergency stairwell door blasted off its frame. Wood and metal showered down, pieces of the door that had been obliterated by pure force. Darcy screamed and dropped, covering her head with her hands and Tony spun to face his weapon at the new threat. Jacked full of self-righteousness, Captain Fucking America threw himself into the atrium to drag his HYDRA-kissing bestie to the floor and cover them both with his shield.

Darcy was screaming. There were splinters in her hair.

“Darcy!” Tony called. His arm shook, the weight of the gun heavy in his hand, but he couldn’t let it drop. Not while she was still in danger. Not while he was still there. “Please, honey, please come here,”

“She’s scared, man!” Wilson yelled over Darcy’s screams. “What the fuck do you expect?”

Tony snarled, turning to stare down the man he had trusted with his child. The man he had called a friend. “You think you get to have a voice after delivering my daughter into the hands of a fucking murderer? Here’s a hint- you don’t!”

“Put the weapon down, Stark!” called Rogers from behind his shield. Still protecting Barnes. Still protecting a killer, even after everything he’d done.

“Get out of the way, Steve!” he roared back. “He killed my parents! He killed my mother! There is no way in Hell I’m letting him kill my daughter!”

Tony panted with effort, with rage. His breath grated in his ears, loud in the silence, and he realised it was all he could hear. No screaming. His eyes darted to where Darcy had huddled, only to find the space empty.

“JARVIS,” he rasped.

“Sir, Miss Darcy is currently beyond the range of my sensors. However, I believe she has not yet left this floor.”

Panic flared, hot and wild. Darcy was gone. His shaking finger nudged the safety back into place before the handgun clattered to the ground. He turned back to Wilson, whose mouth opened and closed a few times before he spoke.

“I don’t know, man. I was a little focused on the gun.

“Let us help. We can find her,” Steve said, rising to his feet. Behind him the Winter Soldier also got up, slower than Steve even though they all knew he could be just as quick if he wanted to be. Footage from DC had proven that much. And more.

“I don’t need your fucking help,” Tony snapped back, already trying to think of places on the floor that JARVIS’s sensors wouldn’t be able or allowed to breach. The bathrooms. The vents. The saunas?

“She’ll be somewhere tight. A hamper, or a low cupboard. Somewhere she feels safe.”

Barnes’ voice scraped like broken glass, and Tony glared at the man who would dare speak in his presence. Eyes of a monster, of a traitor stared back, empty as the ice he’d been kept in.

I. Don’t. Need. Your. Fucking. Help,” he repeated, enunciating every syllable. “I will find my daughter. I will keep her safe. And you three will get the fuck out of my Tower before I run out of mercy.”

Tony kicked Steve’s handgun towards him and kept moving, throwing open the atrium doors to access the pools and the changerooms. He had a daughter to find.