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Darcy's Superior Ranking of All Things Fall

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“Hi everyone! It’s officially fall! If you’ve been subscribed to my channel for a while, you’ll know I like to do a sort of ‘best of’ the season type of thing. So the first episode of the fall will be dedicated to fall drinks. Love it or hate it, Starbucks’ pumpkin spice is the most common you’ll run into, at least in the US. The top drinks you guys submitted were the pumpkin spice latte, apple cider, and spiced hot chocolate.

“Unfortunately, you’re all WRONG! The correct answer is pumpkin spice chai. You can hate Starbs all you want but it’s a twist on a classic drink that you can find anywhere since Starbucks is everywhere. Plus a lot of small coffee shops have their own version of a pumpkin chai so you’re not just forking over money to Howard Schultz. If you are going to Starbucks, I suggest asking for half of the usual pumpkin sauce, otherwise it tastes like you’re drinking concentrate.

“Okay! On to the fall alcoholic drinks…”

Darcy finishes up editing her most recent video, ready to post it to her YouTube channel tomorrow. She’d first gone viral a year and a half ago, when she’d taken a video of her, Jane, and Thor at a zoo, Thor with a dozen budgies perched all over his head and shoulders. One even was sitting on Mjölnir. SHIELD hadn’t been thrilled, but by then they were employed under Tony Stark, so they couldn’t really do shit about it. Tony, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious and humanized Thor for the people who could only see him as a big alien god, and told her to go for it as long as there was no compromising information in her videos. Good, because she hadn’t been planning on deleting her YouTube channel.

“Darcy! It’s starting!” Jane calls from the living room.

“Fuck yeah,” Darcy says, making sure everything is saved before running out of her room, socks sliding on the hardwood floor as she gets to the living room.

“Hot chocolate,” Thor says, passing her her favorite Halloween Snoopy mug as she settles onto her squishy chair next to the sofa holding Thor and Jane.

“Thank you!” Darcy says, curling up in her chair. “Thanks for waiting for me.”

“Always,” Jane says, pressing play on the remote. The opening of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown plays, making her grin. Darcy snuggles on down with her hot chocolate and her favorite blanket, feeling cozy and happy as they do their yearly Charlie Brown viewing.

Darcy is in the zone. She’s transcribing Jane’s notes and has been in a groove for the last few hours. Her headphones are in, her head is bopping, and her toe is tapping. So when someone sets a Starbucks cup in front of her out of nowhere, she thinks it’s fair that she maybe shrieks. Just a tiny bit.

Darcy pulls her headphones off, looking up into the smirking face of Brock Rumlow, STRIKE commander and former triple agent. She looks down at the cup in front of her, turning it to see the order written on the side. Grande pumpkin spice chai, two pumps of pumpkin sauce. She blinks and looks back up with her eyebrows raised.

“STRIKE Alpha is heading to Europe tonight,” he says. “Not sure when we’ll be back. You okay to water Lucy?”

“Yeah, of course, just bring her by before you leave,” Darcy says, looking back at the drink. “Did I tell you my order?”

“Nope,” he says before turning and leaving the lab, throwing a wink over his shoulder as he goes.


“What?” Jane asks, coming over and taking a sip of Darcy’s chai.

Darcy gasps, grabbing her cup. “How dare you!”

Jane just grins and hands her another notebook.

Darcy really likes that they work for Tony now. Jane’s been much more relaxed, no longer afraid SHIELD will turn up at any second and ruin all their years of work. And a relaxed Jane turns out to be a productive Jane. They’ve gotten more done in the six months they’ve been working for Stark Industries than in the previous two years. They’d gotten a little nervous when SHIELD rented out a few floors in Stark Tower, but they’d just moved some of their scientists to collaborate with Stark’s and a STRIKE team to deter AIM or anyone else from getting any ideas.

Turns out the STRIKE guys aren’t that awful, despite looking terrifying. And there are two women on the team! Which isn’t a lot, but much better than Darcy had expected from macho, boys club SHIELD. Despite agents like Natasha Romanoff and Melinda May and Sharon Carter, sexism is still alive and well. And STRIKE agents Hollis and Rhodes are ready to kick anyone in the teeth who refers to them as ‘the STRIKE ladies’ again.

Darcy and Jane rarely watch Avengers team training, but they make an exception when Thor wants to show off a little or if Jane is especially blocked. The first time she’d really met Rumlow had been both. Jane was still settling into her lab and hadn’t been ‘thinking smart thoughts’ and Thor had been wanting Jane to see the new training area Tony had set up on one of the Avengers floors. It really was impressive, at least to Darcy’s limited gym-related knowledge. The entire floor of the tower was sectioned off into different training and workout areas. Thor had them in a corner that’s just covered in mats, for fake fighting (“It’s sparring, Darcy!”) that had a pretty clear view of the rest of the floor.

Thor had been fake fighting (sparring) with Steve (still felt weird to call him that) when Rumlow and his second in command, Rollins, walked in, heading to the free weights section nearby. Darcy couldn’t help how her eyes had followed them. They’re hot, all right? She hadn’t been expecting Thor to send her a sly look before calling them over.

“I’m taking a break,” Thor said to Rumlow and Rollins, motioning toward Steve. “If either of you want to tap in.”

They’d both shrugged in agreement, Rollins squaring up against Steve, Rumlow coming to stand next to where Darcy and Jane were sitting on top of a tall pile of mats. At this height, they were close to the same height as Rumlow.

“Not to be an ass,” Darcy said. “But how do you fake fight -”

“It’s sparring!” Thor said.

“ - Steve without getting a hole punched through you?” Darcy finished, ignoring Thor’s interruption.

Luckily, Rumlow looked amused instead of offended. “We were given the HYDRA attempt at the super serum,” he said. “We’re not quite as strong as Steve, but we’re not exactly helpless.”

“Well that’s handy as hell,” Darcy said.

“I’m not exactly complaining,” he said with a grin. He glanced down at her socks, visible because she’d kicked off her shoes to sit cross-legged on top of the mats. “I like the plant socks.”

Darcy looked down at her feet. They were socks Thor and Jane bought for her with monstera leaves all over.

“Thanks,” Darcy said. “I may have gone overboard on plants when my ex and I broke up. And now I’m a crazy plant lady.”

She had immediately wanted to smack herself because who talks about breakups when they first meet someone, but Rumlow had just snorted.

“My sister keeps sneaking plants into my house,” he said. “She somehow bribed Jack to bring one in and put it on my desk.”

“And I’d do it again, mate!” Rollins said from the mat, rolling to his feet quickly after Steve had thrown him.

“Did you keep it?” Darcy asked.

“Yeah,” Rumlow said. “Lucy is an African violet and lives on my office windowsill.”

Darcy had snorted a laugh, and a weird friendship was born. And she became his official plant-sitter whenever STRIKE has to go anywhere for more than a week.

A few hours after he’d brought her the chai tea latte, Rumlow’s back with Lucy the African violet. It’s blooming, bright purple flowers looking very healthy. Darcy sets it on the shelf nearest the window, far away from where elbows might hit it.

“Thanks again,” Rumlow says. “We don’t know for sure we’ll be gone for a while, but I’d rather it not shrivel and die just in case.”

“No problem,” Darcy says. “I’m feeding and watering Jane anyway. It’s easy to add a well-behaved plant.”

Rumlow snorts, shaking his head. “See you when we’re back. I’ll try and bring one of those tacky airport snowglobes you like.”

“You say tacky like it’s a bad thing,” Darcy says.

“I know better than to argue with Lucy’s temporary guardian,” Rumlow says. “Don’t get in any trouble while I’m gone.”

“I can make you no promises.”

“I swear you’re gonna put me in an early grave, Lewis,” he says.

“I think you constantly jumping out of planes is probably more likely to do that,” Darcy says.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Rumlow says. “Bye, Jane!”

“Bye!” she calls back, not looking away from her whiteboard. Rumlow gives Darcy a mock salute before leaving. Jane turns to her once Rumlow’s gone, giving her an eyebrow wiggle.

“Oh shut up,” Darcy says, unable to stop her face from heating. “No innuendos or bad jokes from you!”

“I can make you no promises,” Jane says, throwing her own words back at her.

“I have the worst friends.”

Chapter Text

“I honestly didn’t expect the candle discourse to be so intense, but I probably should have. Thank you to everyone who refrained from screaming at each other in the comments, and if you did shout at someone...dude, they’re just candles, take a look at your priorities.

“So, candles! I’m not actually going to talk about scents, because they vary from company to company. All pumpkin candles are not created equal. We’re talking brands instead! I’m gonna say it...Yankee Candles are overblown! I said what I said! Look, they’re fine. But I’m not paying thirty fucking dollars for a candle that’s just ‘fine’. Same with Bath and Body Works. They’re worth it if they do their buy two, get two free sales or whatever, but you’re still spending like $50 on candles that are fine.

“My favorite is the Boulangerie pumpkin souffle candle. It’s $18 so it’s not exactly cheap, but the scent radius is baller. That one candle fills my entire two-bedroom apartment in no time. It can be strong so not burning for an extended time, especially in a small space like a bathroom, is definitely best.

“That being said, candles from places like Ross and Homegoods are like $5. You’ll probably have to experiment with brands to sort through the stinkers. There are a lot that smell great but when you light it, you can’t smell it unless your nose is basically in the flame. Buy a few cheap ones to see which has the best range. So, give shops like that a try if you’re on a budget. Also look locally if there are any candlemakers near you that have festive scents. And stop screaming at each other about if vanilla or lavender is the best candle. I refuse to moderate that.”

Darcy really hadn’t expected the Great Candle Wars to break out in her comments section. She personally isn’t a fan of lavender, it’s just a bit too strong of a scent for her, but no way in hell was she wading into that particular debate. Who knew candle enthusiasts could be so cutthroat?

It’s been a week and a half since Rumlow and STRIKE left and Darcy’s been dutifully keeping an eye on Lucy. Surprisingly, Rumlow’s a good plant dad (and the expression on his face is amazing if you tell him that). He left a sticky note with the last time he watered the violet, plus the last time he fertilized and pruned a yellow leaf. It’s adorable, honestly.

It’s a Thursday when she gets a text from Rumlow.

Rumblin’ Rumlow: We’re heading back now. Probably won’t make it in until late.

Darcy pauses her email to an astrophysicist asking for a consultation with Jane to text him back.

No broken bones? Not going to be dripping blood all over my lab again?

Rumblin’ Rumlow: No broken bones for me, and it was just two drops of blood last time.

Darcy snorts. Does that mean broken bones for Rollins?

Rumblin’ Rumlow: Surprisingly no, though he has some scratches for an overly enthusiastic cat.

I genuinely can’t tell if you’re kidding or not.

Rumblin’ Rumlow: I’m actually not. I’ll bring him with me when I pick up Lucy tomorrow and show you

Darcy grins. We won’t be in until after 10, just fyi. We’ll probably be here until midnight so we’re taking a late start tomorrow.

Rumblin’ Rumlow: 10-4. Gotta start debriefs and paperwork, see you tomorrow.

See you. Glad you’re safe.

The next day is, uh, not great. It’s problem after problem after problem. Computers throughout the tower keep crashing in what Tony is saying is a botched cyber attack. All the important parts of their research is kept on external harddrives anyway, but it’s still obnoxious. Then there’s a brief fire in a lab on their floor. It’s not even near them and Dr. Collins put it out in like ten seconds, but they still had to evacuate into the chilly street until it was cleared. Then someone in R&D does something that makes the entire building’s power shut off for an hour. Darcy just wants to nap and pretend no one else exists, but she still has half a day of work left. A whole half a day for things to get even worse.

She and Jane are making...some progress? They both can’t really relax, expecting something to go wrong at any second. The fridge in the corner makes a weird noise briefly, and they immediately look at each other. There’s a loud thud from the floor above them and they both flinch, waiting for the inevitable crash through their ceiling. They’re both so on edge that when a bird bounces off the window in front of Darcy’s desk, she actually shrieks and jumps backwards.

“Whoa,” Rumlow says, walking in with Rollins. He has a backpack hanging off one shoulder and they’re both looking a little concerned about her shriek. “You okay, sweetheart?”

“Yes,” Darcy says with a sigh, hand over her racing heart. “It has been a day and I want to deal with absolutely nothing right now.”

“Honestly, same,” Jane says, turning her desk chair so she’s facing the three of them. “And that’s coming from me.”

Darcy looks back to Rumlow and Rollins, gesturing to Jane. “See? Even Jane!”

“What happened?” Rumlow asks.

“Network fuckups all day, evacuation because of the fire down the hall, then the power outage,” Darcy says. “At this point I’m expecting the floor to literally just disintegrate under us.”

“God, don’t say that,” Jane says.

“Maybe you guys should go home?” Rollins suggests. “It’s not like you’re going to get much done.”

Jane bites her lip, looking like she’s actually considering it, when the chemical contaminant alert goes off, locking down all lab levels. There’s a loud clunk as their lab door seals shut.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jane says.

“Jane’s really mad when she uses the f-word,” Darcy says to Rumlow and Rollins out of the corner of her mouth.

“As soon as the lockdown is lifted, we’re leaving. I don’t even care. We’re going. We’re getting pizza, or, or ice cream, or, I don’t know, throwing a pumpkin at god,” Jane says. Rollins’ eyebrows fly up and Rumlow purses his lips like he’s trying not to laugh.

“Why don’t we aim for pumpkin ice cream and make a final decision on fighting god later,” Darcy says.

“Fine,” Jane says, picking up her phone.

“No calling Thor to break the window and fly you away!” Darcy says, pointing at her.

Jane glares, but sets down her phone. “Fine,” she says, a bit sullenly. “What if I have him take you too?”

“Tempting, but no,” Darcy says.

Rollins and Rumlow are looking between them, both looking highly amused.

“JARVIS,” Jane says, “is there actually an emergency?”

“There was a minor incident in Dr. Okamoto’s lab. It’s nearly finished being cleaned,” JARVIS replies.

“How long do you estimate?” Darcy asks.

There’s a click from the lab door, signalling the lockdown was lifted. Jane doesn’t hesitate. She grabs her bag and rushes out, yelling, “Text you later!” over her shoulder.

Rumlow and Rollins look back at Darcy.

“It’s been...a shitty day,” Darcy says.

“We can cheer you up with cat scratches,” Rollins says, lifting up his shirt. Besides an impressive set of abs, he has an alarming amount of scratches on his torso.

“What the hell happened?” Darcy asks incredulously.

“What I’m allowed to tell you is a cat really didn’t want Jack near him,” Rumlow says.

“What he’s leaving out is someone threw a cat at me,” Rollins says.

“What?!” Darcy asks. “Please tell me you didn’t leave the cat with them!”

“Of course we didn’t, we’re not monsters,” Rumlow said. “It was a stray and after it finished going after Jack’s kidneys it ran off, right as rain.”

“I genuinely have no idea what to say to that,” Darcy says. “I’m glad you didn’t break your collarbone again?”

“God, so am I,” Rollins says.

JARVIS interrupts them then, saying, “Commander Rumlow, your presence has been requested by Maria Hill.”

Rumlow sighs. “I swear if it’s another goddamn form…”

“That’s what you get for moving up the ranks,” Rollins says, clapping him on the back. “Bureaucracy.”

“I take back everything nice I ever said about you,” Rumlow says. “Cody’s now my favorite.”

“Sure,” Rollins says.

“Deputy Director Hill was quite insistent,” JARVIS says.

“Yeah, fine, tell her I’m on my way,” Rumlow says. He takes the backpack off his shoulder, rooting around in it and pulling out a horribly tacky snowglobe with what looks like a baby peeing into a fountain. “Thought this was up your alley.”

“Hope you like it. He dragged me to three tourist trap shops to find a ‘good one’,” Rollins says. Rumlow elbows him in the side.

Darcy takes it with glee. “That is awful, I love it,” she says, grinning. “Thank you. I’ll put it next to the one of the seagull shitting on someone from San Francisco.”

Rumlow snorts, shaking his head. He reaches out for Lucy the violet on Darcy’s desk. “Thanks for keeping an eye on it,” Rumlow says, booping her on the nose with his free hand, snorting when it makes her scrunch up her nose.

“Anytime,” Darcy says. “Sorry about your cat scratches, Rollins.”

“I bought a big tube of Neosporin,” Rollins says, giving her a cheery salute.

Rumlow waves as they leave, leaving Darcy alone in the lab. And no way in hell is she staying. She grabs her bag from her desk drawer and reaches for her keys on the top of her desk and sees a candle right where Lucy the violet used to be. She picks it up and it’s a Boulangerie pumpkin souffle candle. How the hell did he put it there without her noticing? More importantly how the hell did he know that was her favorite?

The only answer she can think of is he’s watched videos she posted on her YouTube channel. No, that’s ridiculous, Rumlow isn’t the type to YouTube surf. He can’t be watching...can he? How else would he know about the candle and her drink order?, that’s ridiculous, there’s no way. It could be a coincidence. He’s smart and special forces, he could have figured it out. He can’t be watching, he has important things to do that don’t include watching random YouTube videos.

Oh god he’s totally watching. What if he’s subscribed? She pulls up the YouTube app on her phone and starts to scroll through subscriber names and oh Jesus there are so many of them. There are way too many names here for her to guess.


Chapter Text

“Candy corn is delicious, you’re all just mean. And I will stand by that! Give me those little candy corn pumpkins and I’m in Halloween heaven. Look, there’s not much on the candy list I’m going to talk badly about. Candy is just good whoever you are. That being said, those different flavored Tootsie Rolls are amazing. Also mini M&Ms! And Gobstones! And look, the Reese’s pumpkins are the perfect ratio of chocolate to peanut butter.

“All Halloween candy is valid. I will take no criticism here. We can all benefit from candy.”

Darcy almost posted this week’s video late because she kept fucking up filming thinking about Rumlow. She had panicked initially at the idea of him watching her videos, before she’d gone home, had a big drink, and thought it through. It’s not actually that weird, she tries to tell herself. It’s not like it’s a secret she’s on YouTube. SHIELD knows, Tony knows, a whole bunch of Thor fans know. It’s not like she’s wearing a mask on OnlyFans and he tracked her down like a weirdo.

And she stands by all her content. She ranks things, shows Thor with birds, has her and Jane blowing something up in the lab. There’s not a thing on her channel that she’s embarrassed about. So after a strange, world-tilting revelation, the world tilts back as she decides she doesn’t give a fuck. So, there.

The day after she posts the video about Halloween candy, Rumlow drops by the lab with a big bag of Reese’s pumpkins, setting them down in front of her and turning, leaning his butt against the edge of her desk. She doesn’t even hesitate, ripping open the package and pulling out a peanut butter pumpkin.

“You watch my YouTube stuff, don’t you?” she asks, taking a bite out of the pumpkin.

He shrugs and says, “Maybe.”

“Okay, so that means yes,” she says. “I don’t know if I should be embarrassed or not, but I’m leaning toward not.”

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed with me,” Rumlow says with a shrug. “You saw Romanoff paint my face like a cat when I was knocked out.”

Darcy grins. “Yeah, that’s very true.”

Rumlow snorts and shakes his head. “You two need to stop teaming up,” he says. “Actually, I need to ask a favor.”

“Oh, so these are bribery peanut butter pumpkins,” she says. “That’s fine, I can be bought.”

“Don’t let anyone from SHIELD hear you say that,” Rumlow says, in what she thinks is a half-teasing voice.

“You’re from SHIELD,” she points out.

“Yeah, but I’d never turn you in for taking candy bribes. Lopez in cybersecurity though…”

“Yeah, yeah, he’s still mad at me for the whole shoe glue thing,” Darcy says. “What’s your favor?”

“I kind of promised my sister I’d take her kids to the pumpkin patch this weekend. I’m, uh, not great at the fall spirit stuff,” he says a bit sheepishly. “I was wondering if you’d come? Pick pumpkins, do the corn maze, help make my nieces’ day better?”

“Yeah, of course,” Darcy says, startled but pleased. “What, am I going to say no to fall activities? Or seeing Commander Rumlow with small children?”

“You can call me Brock, you know,” he says. “Especially because Stella and Alessia will never stop teasing me if they hear you call me Commander Rumlow.”

Darcy grins slowly. “Brock Rumlow, do your nieces have you wrapped around their little fingers?”

“God, extremely,” he says with a dramatic sigh that Darcy knows he doesn’t mean.

“All right, I’m in, but on the condition you do not ditch me in a corn maze,” she says. “I have no sense of direction, will never make it out, and will never forgive you when I die in there and they find my bones.”

“I wouldn’t let you die, corn maze or not,” he says. “I promise not to ditch you in the corn maze.”

“Solid deal,” she says.

Brock says he’ll pick her up Saturday at 10:30 (“In the morning?”) and she immediately starts planning. She already has a bunch of fall and Halloween stuff at her apartment and she’s not above bribing kids to like her. She puts together a couple of goodie bags, each with a headband with sparkling pumpkins on springs on top, a candy necklace, a couple Twix shaped like ghosts, and a necklace with light up plastic jack-o'-lanterns on it.

Brock arrives a little before 10:30, but that’s fine, Darcy’s ready. She grabs the bags (Halloween reusable totes) and heads downstairs. Brock’s in an SUV idling in a miraculously empty spot in front of her building. He’d been surprised she hadn’t taken Tony up on his invitation for an apartment at the tower, but she likes some separation with her work and home life. She and Jane already spend most of their time together, which she loves, but she needs a space that’s just hers.

Brock hands her a pumpkin spice chai as soon as she slides into the passenger seat (she’s not above being bribed either) and introduces her to his nieces.

“Thank you,” she says, grinning.

“Darcy, these are my nieces, Stella and Alessia,” Brock says, pointing to each of them in turn. They look very similar, both with dark brown hair and deep brown eyes, Alessia is just a bit taller at 10 years old, and eight-year-old Stella has a sprinkling of freckles over her nose. Darcy waves at them and they wave back, grinning. Stella is missing her two front bottom teeth. “Stella, Alessia, this is Darcy. I work with her.”

“Are you a superhero?” Stella asks.

Alessia elbows her. “We’re aren’t supposed to know about that!” she hisses.

Brock sighs. “My sister accidentally let them hear that I work at the tower,” he says, putting on his signal and merging back in with traffic. Darcy laughs.

“No, I’m not a superhero. I work with a super smart lady though who is making a window into space!” Darcy says. She’s found that’s the best way to make kids stoked about her work.

“Really?” Alessia asks.

“Really!” Darcy says. “Do you like space?”

“They love space,” Brock says at the same time Alessia and Stella yell, “Yes!”

“I did a report on the moon!” Alessia says proudly.

“I have an astronaut playset!” Stella says.

“Our mom bought us space Barbies!”

“Space Barbies? Well that sounds awesome, I need to get one of those,” Darcy says. “I actually brought something if you guys like Halloween and candy?”

“We love candy!” Stella shouts.

Brock winces at the volume. “Inside voices, remember,” Brock says.

“Mom says we have to talk loudly because your old man ears don’t hear well,” Alessia says matter-of-factly.

Brock groans. “Yes, they like Halloween and candy,” Brock says. “And I need to have a talk with Teresa.”

Darcy snorts and passes the bags back to the girls, who squeal with excitement before thanking her. That’ll distract them for a bit, Darcy figures. There are closer pumpkin patches, but Brock insists that the one his family has gone to for decades farther outside the city is much better, so they’re in for a bit of a drive depending on how many people are out on Saturday morning.

Alessia and Stella both end up with their headbands and flashing necklaces on, chatting happily in the backseat. Brock looks over at her at a stop light, smiling slightly.

“What?” she asks.

“Nothing,” he says, though he’s still smiling when he turns back to the road.

“You never smile at nothing,” Darcy says.

Brock shrugged. “They like you,” he says, nodding towards the back of the SUV where Stella and Alessia are chatting about the kinds of pumpkins they want to find.

“You are goo in the face of your nieces!” Darcy says. “That’s adorable.”

“I refuse to comment on that,” Rumlow says, glancing in the rearview mirror. “Alessia, do not put candy in Stella’s hair.”

Alessia pouts but slowly puts her candy necklace on her own wrist instead of her sister’s head. Darcy manages to hold in a laugh.

Darcy grew up in a small town in Delaware, so she’s used to all kinds of farms, and especially, pumpkin patches. So she’s pleasantly surprised that Brock was right; this pumpkin patch outside the city really is the real deal. Stella and Alessia are nearly bouncing on their seats in excitement. There are a good deal of cars already and Darcy can tell Brock wants to swear at other drivers but is managing to keep a lid on it in front of the girls.

“Son of a...biscuit,” he says when a car backs up with their backup lights out. Alessia and Stella giggle.

“Those darn biscuits,” Darcy says, making them giggle louder.

Brock shakes his head, but Darcy can see the curve of his lips. They find a parking spot and Brock lays down the ground rules.

“Okay, first, no running off alone. You have me or Darcy with you at all times, yes?” Brock says, waiting for them to answer. “Good. Second, please don’t eat anything off the ground. We don’t need another incident like at the stadium.”

“That was years ago!” Alessia says.

“Third,” he says, ignoring her, “We have to remember to get your mom a big, ugly pumpkin.”

Alessia and Stella laugh, each grabbing one of his hands and tugging him toward the entrance. Alessia takes Darcy’s hand in her free one, pulling her along with them.

“I like ugly pumpkins,” Darcy says. “The lopsided ones with little bumps everywhere? Love them.”

“Is that why you get along with me?” Brock teases.

“You aren’t an ugly pumpkin!” Stella says sternly. “Mom says we need to say positive things about ourselves or else we’ll believe bad things.”

“Your mom’s definitely right,” Darcy says, grinning at Brock. “Say something nice about yourself.”

“Should have known you’d conspire against me,” Brock mutters. “Fine, I have nice hair.”

“That you do,” Darcy says.

Brock gets a big wheelbarrow from the front of the pumpkin patch before they go in, Stella and Alessia bouncing with excitement on either side of him. They go up and down the paths, Stella and Alessia making very careful pumpkin choices. Alessia manages to find a large, perfectly round pumpkin, perfect for carving, while Stella picks a lopsided, lumpy pumpkin. Brock also has them pick out some smaller pumpkins and choose one for his apartment.

“It has to be huge!” Stella says.

“Why’s that?” Brock asks.

“Because you’re tall!” Alessia says. “So you need a matching pumpkin.”

“What about that one?” Darcy asks, pointing at a strangely oblong pumpkin about the size of a traffic cone.

“Yes! It’s so weird!” Stella says.

The pumpkin is too big for Stella and Alessia to pick up, so Darcy carefully sets it in the wheelbarrow Brock’s pushing, making sure not to squish the other pumpkins in there.

There’s an area with big bins with all the tiny pumpkins, small pumpkins, and assorted gourds. Darcy gasps, doing exactly what Brock told the girls not to do, darting away from the group. She comes back with a lumpy, light orange pumpkin, and a large smile.

“It’s called a Cinderella pumpkin and I love them!” she says.

Of course then, Stella and Alessia needed a Cinderella pumpkin too. They also put a few tiny pumpkins in the wheelbarrow for inside decoration. Darcy snorts at a green bumpy gourd in the shape of a penis and holds it up over the girls’ heads to show Brock. She’s grinning broadly, trying not to laugh when he sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, pretending he doesn’t think it’s funny. She puts it into the wheelbarrow, and he takes it out, setting it back on the pile.

“I will throw this gourd at you,” she threatens.

“I will not put a penis gourd on my desk at work,” he says.

“Who said it’s for you?” Darcy says. “Jane and Thor will find it hil-ar-i-ous.”

Brock snorts, shaking his head. “You people on the science floors are odd ducks,” he says.

“Ducks are cool, mister,” Darcy says, setting the penis gourd back in the wheelbarrow.

Stella and Alessia are, thankfully, not interested in the corn maze. Darcy saw Children of the Corn way too young and it left an impression. They do want to do pictures and a hay ride though, and she’s just fine with that. They pose with Brock in front of the photo set up, a few big fake pumpkins to sit on with a painted wooden backdrop, while Darcy takes their pictures. And you see, she has never wanted kids, but if she did, her ovaries would be exploding right now.

As it is, she’s struggling to rein in her desire to grin like a lunatic and coo. It’s completely unfair that he’s this hot and a loving family man. Absolutely ridiculous.

After they pay for their pumpkins, Brock loads them in the trunk of the SUV, then meets back up with them in line for the hayride. Alessia and Stella are both holding one of the mini pumpkins, and they’re both still wearing their sparkly pumpkin headbands and light-up jack-o'-lantern necklaces. When they climb onto the hay trailer behind the tractor with the other people waiting, Alessia makes sure she sits with Darcy on one side and Brock on the other. Stella, getting a little tired, sits in Brock’s lap.

Darcy was kind of expecting Brock to be uncomfortable or look a bit out of his element, but he looks perfectly at ease sitting on a bale of hay, Stella’s eyelids getting heavy as she sits in his lap. Darcy hasn’t seen him in almost anything other than his STRIKE uniform or the more relaxed black t-shirt and pants, but he’s in dark wash jeans, a navy blue shirt and a dark brown jacket, looking perfectly comfortable. He’s wearing the same boots as always though.

Alessia is happy to look around at the pumpkin patch, the corn, and Halloween decorations they drive by, and Darcy is feeling nostalgic for when she used to do this with her grandpa and grandma. She smiles at the scarecrow towards the end of the hayride, nearly identical to the one her grandma was so proud of. When she looks away, she sees Brock looking at her with a soft look on his face that she can’t quite decipher.

“What?” she asks.

Brock shrugs. “Want to get lunch after this?” he asks instead of answering.

“Spaghetti!” Alessia shouts between them. Darcy jumps, but Brock, more used to his nieces, doesn’t.

“I never say no to Italian,” Darcy says.

Brock raises a suggestive eyebrow at her, making her roll her eyes. If his arms weren’t full of sleepy child, she’d have kicked him. Stella wakes up at Alessia’s shout and starts chanting, “Ra-vi-oli! Ra-vi-oli!”

“Shh,” Brock says. “Can’t shout next to people’s ears, kiddo.”

Stella switches to a whisper of, “Ra-vi-oli!” and Darcy just can’t hold in her laugh.

“I’m with you, ravioli sounds fantastic,” Darcy says.

The tractor stops completely then, and Brock sets Stella down so they can all climb down. She and Alessia both chant ‘ravioli’ the entire way to the SUV. Italian after the pumpkin patch must be a tradition, because the girls are extremely excited when they pull into a small restaurant’s parking lot, already talking about what they’re going to order.

They chatter through lunch, making sure Brock knows everything they’re learning in school, prompting Alessia to start explaining what she learned about gravity on the moon. Brock listens intently, nodding at all the right points, looking completely happy to be out with his nieces. It’s absolutely the sweetest thing Darcy’s ever seen next to Thor with the budgies. He glances up at her when Stella and Alessia pause to take a few bites, smiling softly, and she can’t help the swooping feeling in her stomach.

Alessia and Stella fall asleep in the car ride back, dropping Darcy back at her apartment before their game night (honestly, the nerve of the big, bad STRIKE dude to have a family game night). Darcy turns over her shoulder, seeing Alessia asleep next to Stella, who still is holding her tiny pumpkin.

“You absolutely didn’t need me,” Darcy says, turning back around. “You’re like a superhumanly great uncle. You had this in the bag.”

Brock shrugs. “I do all right,” he says.

“You are so bad at being modest, Brock Rumlow,” she says, making him laugh.

“Maybe, but you’re the queen of fall,” he says, glancing her way before turning his eyes back to the road. “It’s more fun with you.”

She doesn’t know what to say to that, so she settles for, “Well, I’m a hoot.” He just grins at the road.

Traffic is forgiving so it doesn’t take too long for them to get back to her apartment. Alessia and Stella are still asleep, and Darcy doesn’t want to wake them up just to say goodbye. Brock helps her get her Cinderella pumpkin and penis gourd out of the trunk.

“I can carry it, you can stop looking so concerned,” she says.

“I’ve just seen you drop enough things…”

“I would never drop my Cinderella pumpkin,” Darcy says.

“Uh huh,” Brock says, smirking. She’s getting the weird swooping in her stomach again. “Thanks for coming.”

“Thanks for having me,” she replies, then grins. “You know you’ve ruined your tough guy image now, right? You can glower all you want at work but I’m just going to see Uncle Brock with a sparkling pumpkin headband on.”

“I’ll survive,” he says. “But I never glower at you.”

“Sure, keep telling yourself that, buddy,” she says, waving goodbye as she heads into her building.

It’s not until she’s locking her apartment’s front door behind her, the pumpkin and gourd set down on her sideboard, that she finally lets herself acknowledge how completely fucking attracted she is to Brock Rumlow. She’d known he’s hot, she has eyeballs and when she wears glasses, they work, but she’s now seen who he is outside of work and she’s feeling things that are very inconvenient. She lets her head thunk against the closed door.

“A+ job, Lewis,” she mutters to the blue paint.