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Dating Older Men and Other Adventures in Growing Up

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Her real business card says Darcy Lewis, Junior International Affairs Analyst, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.

Her fake business card, the one she gave out to her family and all her friends, says Darcy Lewis, Junior International Affairs Analyst, U.S. Foreign Policy Research Institute. The U.S. Foreign Policy Research institute is fake but has a very real-looking website, which already contains Darcy's senior capstone paper about why game theory shouldn't discount the possibility of altruistic actors. Not that Darcy's looked at it twelve or fifteen or two hundred and eighty-six times. It's a fake website for a fake think tank - that would be stupid.

So. Real world day one. Six-color packet of Razorball pens, arranged from darkest to lightest, exactly parallel to her desk. Photograph of mom and photograph of cat, re-packaged into tasteful, subdued frames. Boring silver paperclips from office supply cart, paisley Vera Bradley binder clips she intends to guard with her life, fresh cartridge in the printer...SHIELD can bring it because Darcy is ready for this real life shit. She holds her phone over her head for the obligatory Facebook picture of the first day in the office, but a hand closes over hers before she can click the shutter.

She looks up into Agent Hill's unsmiling face.

"No photos inside SHIELD headquarters. A facsimile office is located on Level B if your family requires verification of your working environment."

***

Sometimes the real world sucks, like when you want an apartment and no one will give it to you.

"A guarantor in the tri-state area?" Darcy asks. "I don't know anyone in the tri-state area."

The landlady shrugs.

"Then no apartment."

WTF this Manhattan apartment business is not as easy as Friends made it look, Darcy writes on Facebook. Twelve of her friends like it immediately.

A guarantor? Really? What the fuck was that? And who had first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit just lying around in a bank account? Not newly graduated junior analysts with student loans to pay, that was for fucking sure. So Darcy ends up in Jackson Heights, Queens, with a landlady who doesn't ask questions about her non-existent credit history. Really, the whole situation is unfair. Her apartment doesn't even have a New York City address. It does have avocado green bathroom tiles and mauve carpet, both of which are just a little too stained to pass off as hipster chic. On the other hand, it's hers, and it's not under SHIELD surveillance. At least, it's less likely to be on SHIELD surveillance than the SHIELD apartment she was living in before. She can make do.

And so what if she doesn't know anyone in New York yet? SHIELD isn't like college. Knocking on random doors is frowned upon, and no one wants to be your BFF just because you're the only person on your floor who knows how to use a washing machine. In a city of 8 million people, friends have to be somewhere, and in the meantime, Darcy spends her evenings walking under the seven train's elevated tracks, watching as her Colombian neighborhood fades into a Bengali one. The movie theater at Bliss Street shows second-run movies for $4, and the panaderia across from her apartment puts the empanadas on sale after five, so she can score dinner for a couple dollars on her way home from work.

Her Instagram photos and witty status updates always get tons of likes from her friends back home. If she never returns their messages, she doesn't think about why.

***

Darcy's been at SHIELD for six weeks when she collides with Thor in the hallway. She'd been reading the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, so she wasn't watching where she was going, and at first she thought she'd stumbled into one of those areas junior international affairs analysts weren't allowed to see. That was actually, like, ninety-five percent of the building, and accidental intrusions never went over well.

So when the giant hunk of man flesh she'd run into exclaims, "Darcy, friend, we are re-united!" Darcy actually squeals even though she's been trying super hard to maintain professional decorum lately.

"We must have ale!" Thor booms.

"...and much hearty grog," Darcy mutters, even though she has no idea what grog even is. Also, it's three o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, not exactly prime time to cut out of the office for a drink.

Thor does not understand the concept of business days very well though, so he propels her out the door in spite of her repeated protests. When they walk past her boss' office, he says nothing and looks impressed. Note to self, Darcy thinks, if friends with Norse god, can leave office at any time. Good to know.

When Thor has two massive beers and Darcy has a pink martini, Thor leans in close and says, "Forgive me, Darcy, but you do not seem happy."

"Wha-" Darcy mutters around a mouthful of her drink. "No, I'm happy. Totally fine. Just taking some time to get established."

"You needn't lie to me. If a suitor has betrayed you, I will see that he suffers."

"Hey. I fight my own battles, thanks." She's still got a taser in her purse, and she's sent Jehovah's Witnesses to the home of an ex-boyfriend or two.

"Then what is the cause of your unhappiness?"

"Being an adult sucks. I found a dead cockroach in my underwear drawer yesterday, I don't know anyone in New York, and all I do at work is write reports. It's like undergrad all over again, but with way less time for sex and beer."

"Ah." Thor beams. "This problem is easily remedied. You shall come to work with me, and I shall slay the beasts in your chambers."

"Um, no slayage please. I want my security deposit back. What do you mean, work with you?" Living in New York is a big enough adventure; Darcy doesn't see herself moving to Asgard any time soon.

"You shall work for the Avengers Initiative. We will put your talents to use."

"I thought you guys broke up after the battle."

"Indeed, but after some anguish and dueling, we have reunited. And you shall join us."

***

"Does wanting to be a secretary make me a slacker?" Darcy asks.

Jane's eyebrows furrow in slow motion. Face Time from New York to Norway has a really annoying lag.

"Do you want the job because it's easy and you don't have to do anything?"

"No. I mean, I spent all of yesterday morning in weapons training, Agent Hill made me practice putting out seventeen different kinds of fires, and you wouldn't believe the kind of things I've had to requisition."

"So you like the job."

"Well, yeah. I get to multi-task and interact with people instead of data. And the security clearance is pretty cool."

"So what are you worried about?" Jane presses, and it's times like these that Darcy remembers she's a pretty perceptive friend underneath all the spaciness.

"I dunno." Darcy thinks of her mother, forever working in jobs beneath her abilities, and her slacker friends back home, who seem happy to use their college degrees to wait tables. "Ever since we almost got blown up by that fire-breathing robot from Asgard, I've wanted to do more than get straight C's and smoke a bunch of pot."

Jane smiles. "I think the Avengers Initiative is a good way to do that."

***

In the morning, she makes a plan for Natasha to kill someone. A lot of mornings start that way when you work for the Avengers. She even gets to make a powerpoint, which is the best.

"Can I have a laser pointer?" she asks.

Nick Fury gives her a baleful one-eyed stare. "No."

"Your target is a big foodie, so you're going to make contact on a culinary tour of Athens. After that, you'll have two days to convince him to take the overnight ferry with you to Crete. I booked you a luxury cabin, by the way, and I talked to someone in medical about getting you something to drug him with if you want to go through his luggage."

Natasha nods slowly. There is something terrifying and awesome about the Black Widow's full, undivided attention.

"After that, you have three days in Crete. There's two hours blocked out in his schedule every afternoon for conference calls, and mechanical's getting you a bug for his mobile. On the afternoon of the last day, I booked you a tour of a winery and an ouzo distellery, so he should be nice and relaxed for the final interrogation. Oh, and I found you a hotel on the edge of a cliff for convenient body disposal."

Agent Hill stops her in the hallway after the meeting. "Excellent plan, Miss Lewis."

At ten o'clock, she confronts Steve with a copy of today's New York Daily News. Captain America, Adrift in Time, the headline says. Underneath are excerpts from his charmingly antiquated emails, like "what's the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars?" and "why don't they show cartoons before movies anymore?"

"We have got to talk about password security. Peggycarter111 is not gonna cut it."

"Also, email hacking is majorly against the law, and you have a meeting with a SHIELD attorney at eleven."

At eleven, she presses the comm to the lab and says, "Tony Stark, this is your daily reminder not to build a time machine. Also, Pepper says you have a shareholders meeting at one p.m., and I'm way more afraid of her than I am of you, so you are definitely going. I got a suit dry cleaned, and it's hanging in your bathroom now."

At twelve thirty, she goes to the lab with her taser and says, "It's time for you to go."

"Don't you think that's a little extreme?" Banner asks when Tony's gone.

"You turn into a green rage monster and you call me extreme?"

"Touché."

She lays the taser on the counter between them and pulls two business cards out of her pocket.

"Please tell me those aren't what I think they are," Banner says, refusing to take them from her outstretched hand.

"They are indeed appointment reminder cards from a medical doctor. One of them is Tony's personal physician, and the other one is my friend's boyfriend's third cousin who has a medical practice in Flushing. Take your pick, but you're going to one or the other."

"No." Banner actually steps back, as if the cards are dangerous weapons. "I am done being an experiment. I'm not anyone's lab rat, least of all SHIELD's."

"Totally fair, but this has nothing to do with SHIELD. Your body goes through a lot, Pepper said to find you a doctor, and I did." She picks up the taser. "Take your pick. Both appointments are at two thirty."

Bruce looks at the taser, then up at her. "That really isn't wise." His voice is dark.

Darcy crosses her arms over her chest. "Yeah well, I'm betting that you want to not turn into a monster and kill me more than you want to not go to the doctor." She slides the cards across the countertop. "So take your pick."

Bruce gives her a sidelong glance and picks up Tony's doctor's card from the table. She thinks she detects the faintest hint of admiration in his gaze.

"Great," she says. "I'll walk you."

"But seriously, don't you think the taser was a little overkill?" Bruce asks as they stroll out of the office together.

Darcy shrugs. "It was more efficient than listening to you angst for an hour. Clint's plane is landing at three, and I'm going to have mission reports to file."

"You're really not afraid, are you?"

"No," Darcy says, which is kind of an oversimplification. It's more that she can be afraid without letting it rule her life. That's a little heavy for a supervised walk to a doctor's office though, so she says, "You interact with Tony Stark for several hours every day. If that doesn't turn you into a green rage monster, nothing will."

"Fair enough," Bruce says, but he looks at her like he wants to know more. Most people don't look at her that way, and Darcy decides she likes it, even if it is a little scary.

"Well, looks like we're here." Bruce pauses in front of a shiny glass doorway.

Darcy pushes it open and steps inside.

"Right this way, Doctor. No opportunity to escape."

She follows him into the elevator and sits next to him in the waiting room.

"Overkill?" he says.

"Nope." Darcy smiles wide. Knowing Thor got her the job, but she didn't keep it by being stupid.

***

Apparently, dating older men is a hazard of getting bored at work.

It's two o'clock on Friday. Darcy has written a fake article for the fake think tank's website, requisitioned an alarming variety of heavy metals, and painted her fingernails black. She hasn't decided if she likes it yet. It might look kind of emo. Now there is nothing to do but surf Tumblr and watch the clock tick slowly toward five.

Or she could just leave now.

If Tony Stark in the lab, you will be at your desk, watching the security camera. Nick Fury, so demanding. So good at making his voice stick in her head. Obediently, she swivels around and looks at the security feed. Stark is reading. Boring. Banner steps out the door, a stack of papers in her hand. She squints at his figure on the read out because truth be told, Darcy always likes watching Dr. Banner. He's pretty cut, and good-looking in an absent-minded professor kind of way. Very different from the guys she'd dated in college, but hey, Darcy likes variety.

So when he turns up at her desk, holding a stack of papers and looking sheepish -- which is pretty much his natural state, as far as she can tell -- she says, "Wanna go for a drink after work?"

It's a dumb idea; he's way out of her league. Not that she isn't awesome, but he's a really muscular genius scientist and all, and Tony Stark is probably hooking him up with groupies and supermodels all the time. On the other hand, Darcy has amazing boobs and her red lipstick is pretty hot, so it's worth a try.

Banner -- maybe she should call him Bruce, now that she's asked him out -- blinks at her owlishly for a minute and says, "I. Uh. Okay."

"I'll pick you up at your office at five." Darcy smiles brightly, which makes Bruce look kind of terrified, but whatever, she's been told her smile is a little predatory when she directs it at men. Intimidating someone who can turn into a giant green rage monster is kind of cool. When she's sure he can't see or hear her anymore, she gives herself thirty-four seconds to perform a victory dance because she just asked out an attractive older man genius doctor superhero, and that deserves some celebration. Then she spends the next hour frantically googling and texting Jane because she had no idea where you take real grown-ups for drinks. Darcy's twenty-three, but she hasn't quite given up the dives around NYU with flexible ID policies and cheap beer.

When Romanov wanders up to her desk an hour later, Darcy squealed, "I am so glad to see you!"

Romanov's brow furrows; Darcy guesses not a lot of people said that to her. At least, not unless they want someone killed.

"Where do I take an older guy for a drink that won't make me look like I'm trying too hard?"

Romanov scans the lab while barely moving her eyeballs, which Darcy thinks is pretty cool.

"Who?" she whispers.

"It's classified."

Romanov's brow furrows again, but she tells Darcy about a place behind Union Square with a cute patio and a selection of craft beers, which sounds nice but not intimidatingly so. The trouble is, Bruce doesn't drink, so they end up at a tea shop on St. Mark's after a super-awkward discussion of where they ought to go.

"I don't think I even remember how to do this," Bruce says. "I think it used to involve alcohol."

"Well, we still have many of the other traditional dating accouterments. For example, we could try an awkward silence." She fishes her phone out of her purse and starts a timer. They stand silently together for exactly seven seconds, which Darcy spends shifting around subtly, trying to give Bruce a good look at her boobs.

"So, awkward enough for you?" she asks, and Bruce actually chuckles, which is surprisingly gratifying.

"So what do you do in your free time, Darcy Lewis?"

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest...not good answers.

"I walk. Last weekend I walked all the way from Jackson Heights to Flushing." It had taken all day, but it was worth it.

"And what's in Flushing?"

"People. Lots of really interesting people." When she'd moved from Oklahoma to UNM, the size of her world had doubled. Now, compared to New York, her whole life before seems so tiny.

"You do that a lot?" he asks, looking surprisingly interested.

"Yeah, actually. I found this a cool theater that shows second run movies for $4, five sari shops just on one block, and this really awesome Chinese grocery store."

"Find any good Indian food?"

"Oh yeah. Seventy-Fourth Street is all Indian diners, and Jackson Diner has samosas you would not believe."

Bruce narrows his eyes. "Try me."

To be fair, Darcy goes a little over the top with the description. Probably she doesn't need quite so many wild hand gestures, and spilling tea on her shirt is pretty fucking embarrassing. But Bruce watches her the whole time, a smile playing around the edges of his lips, and when she's done, he says, "You're right. I don't believe you. You'll have to take me there."

"Dr. Banner, did you just ask me on a second date? Because I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to do that till the first one's over."

Bruce blinks a little bit, like he's surprised at what he'd just done. "Yeah, maybe I just did."

"Okay," Darcy says, "it's a date."

***

Indian food in Queens does not work out as expected. Some drunk asshole recognizes Bruce and decides he doesn't feel safe with him on the train, so he pulls the emergency stop. Which is totally logical, of course -- antagonize the Hulk, get the train stopped in between stations for an hour and half so that everyone can get sniffed by bomb dogs and certain lucky winners can get questioned by the FBI.

"Does this happen to you a lot?" Darcy asks. They'd gotten off the train at Forty-Sixth and Roosevelt. No point trying to go any further.

"Yeah," Bruce says. "Kind of."

"And it makes you angry?"

"You can tell?"

"Your hands are clenched pretty tight there, big guy. Do you want me to do something? Call Tony? Buy you ice cream?" She rifles around in the bottom of her purse. "I still have some Xanax in here. You can have them if you promise not to ask follow-up questions about how I got them."

Bruce eyes her warily. "Shouldn't you be quaking in fear? Running frantically away?"

Darcy shrugs. "Did I ever tell you about the time I tazed a Norse god?" To be fair, she hadn't known he was a Norse god at the time, but hey, it still counts.

"You tazed Thor?" Bruce asks. Darcy notices that his fists aren't clenched quite so tightly anymore.

"Yeah. He fell out of the sky in some crazy lightening storm, and he was weirding me out." She elbows Bruce gently in the ribs. "Did you think you were the only person here who smote a god?"

Bruce smiles at her, the last of the anger dying from his eyes. That's when thunder rumbles, the sky splits open, and rain pours down from above. Because their night could not get any more perfect than this.

"Do you think he heard us?" Darcy asks, staring up at the gray sky.

"Nah. He's watching the NCAA basketball tournament in Tony's basement."

"Does that mean we can't tell him to stop it?" Darcy wipes a hand across her face and it comes away black with mascara. She and Bruce are both soaked through. "What do you want to do now?" she asks.

"My apartment's around the corner," he says. "Come on."

"You live in Queens?" Darcy asks. "Your file says you live in Stark Tower."

"Yeah, well, I lied."

***

Bruce's apartment is twice the size of hers with half the stuff. Ascetic, Darcy thinks, taking in the long, empty stretches of floor, the simple white bookshelves, and the Buddha statues stashed in every corner. There's an empty space on the wall where most people would have a TV.

"You should let me take your clothes," Bruce says and immediately winces. "Not like that. I mean, there's a dryer in the basement, and if you give me your clothes, I'll put them in it."

"And in the meantime, I'll wear...?" Darcy asks, looking up at him through her eyelashes. She's not clear if she looks coquettish or stupid, but it's fun to watch Bruce squirm.

"I'll get you a sweatshirt," Bruce says hastily, not quite looking at her.

Down girl, Darcy thinks. Yes, she's alone in the apartment of an attractive older man, and yes, she could totally live out all of her naughty professor fantasies, but not if she scares him off right away. When Bruce emerges from his bedroom with a fuzzy blanket and a Stark Industries sweatshirt, Darcy leans against the wall so he can see down her v-neck t-shirt, but she decides not to flirt. For now.

"Does everything you own come from Stark Industries?" she asks, inspecting the sweatshirt.

"Yeah, kind of," Bruce says, looking a little sheepish. "I went through a renunciation of worldly possessions phase a few years ago. The books are the only thing I kept."

Darcy's about to make a beeline for the bookshelves, but Bruce clears his throat and shifts uncomfortably.

"Not that I don't appreciate your interest in literature, but you're, uh, dripping on the floor," he says.

"Right. Put on dry clothes, then inspect bookshelves," Darcy says. "Show me the bathroom, big guy."

While Bruce takes their clothes to the basement, Darcy explores the books. There's a bigger variety than she had imagined: lots of biology and physics, as she'd expected, but also John Steinbeck, H.P. Lovecraft, everything George Orwell has ever written, and a battered copy of The Once and Future King. That book is clearly the most loved, so Darcy curls up on the couch with it, wrapping a brightly colored Indian blanket around her bare legs. The pages are yellowed and brittle, their margins dotted with annotations in spidery handwriting that doesn't look like Bruce's.

"This is your favorite book," Darcy says when Bruce comes back upstairs.

"One of them," he agrees, settling on the couch next to Darcy a little closer than a friend would have sat. Darcy gives a mental sigh of relief; she'd half expected him to sit all the way at the opposite end.

"Who did it belong to?" she asks. A name had been written inside the front cover once, but the blue ink is smudged and faded.

"My grandmother," Bruce says. "I didn't really know her. She and my mom didn't get along very well. When she died, all her stuff wound up in our attic. I spent hours up there when I was a kid, reading her whole library. Half my science books were hers too."

"Wow," Darcy says, taking a moment to imagine someone that literate in her family history. "My grandma looked like she was made of leather and she smoked two packs a day. There was definitely no library. Just a lot of gerbils."

"That's...unusual," Bruce says, and Darcy nods. That's her family, always a non-sequitur in normal adult conversations.

"I love this book too," she says. Better to change the subject before she starts babbling about Grandpa Norm and his double-wide.

"When did you read it?" Bruce asks, and Darcy wonders if he really shifted a little closer to her or if it's just her imagination.

"Freshman English," she says, shifting a little closer to Bruce. She'd been a little worried when she'd realized there was no TV -- a second date is kind of awkward for a long conversation, after all -- but this is nice, sitting on the couch and talking about family and books. "Mrs. Potts class. I sat way in the back in my concert T-shirts, trying to look like I was too cool for school. But we read the coolest books, and she had this magic way of getting under your skin and making you want to see the world."

"It's hard for me to imagine you sitting in the back of a room, trying not to be noticed," Bruce says, and for some reason, Darcy's heart starts pounding in her chest. It's something about the way Bruce looks at her -- like he's really seeing her, not some random girl with big boobs and red lipstick he might hook up with.

"Yeah, well, high school. I think it was awkward for everyone," she says. "Well, maybe not for those of us who skipped straight to Harvard at the age of fourteen."
"Trust me, it was plenty awkward," Bruce says. He shakes his head. "Some of us are still pretty awkward."

Darcy elbows him gently. "I think you're doing alright. Wait. You were talking about yourself, right? Cause if you were saying I'm the awkward one, that would be...well, awkward."

When Bruce kisses her, it's slow and soft. His fingers tangle in her hair; their knees touch. It's kind of amazing how he can tell her with his lips and his hands that she can have more if she wants it, but it's okay if she'd rather just kiss him. She leans into his touch and thinks this might be the nicest thing she's ever had.

***

And so, after a month of Friday nights, Darcy feels qualified to say that older guys rock -- or at least they do if you pick them out yourself. The one who'd hit on her relentlessly at Barnes & Noble turned out to be gross. But Bruce Banner is financially solvent, willing to pay for some pretty nice alcohol, and none of his dirty dishes show signs of sentient mold. All in all, he's a big upgrade over her previous boyfriends, even if she's not sure she's allowed to call him her official boyfriend.

So she decides to ask. They've got the whole dessert sampler at Ferrara's with two kinds of cannoli and little pieces of tri-colored, cake. Bruce has had a little bit of whipped cream on the end of his nose for at least five minutes -- not that she's going to tell him -- and they're having fun.

So naturally, she wants to ruin it. Well, not ruin it -- green rage monster or no, Bruce is too level for that -- but make it awkward for a little while. She's played the scenario out in her head a couple times: either Bruce can say yes, which means she doesn't have to suppress her growing feeling of tenderness toward him, or he can say no. That would be upsetting, but it would leave her free to pick up another anguished superhero on the side. Rumor has it Steve Rogers is single. It's a win-win situation, right?

She takes a deep breath, and Bruce automatically tenses. She awards him points for perceptiveness, then curses herself. No awarding points till she knows if he's actually her boyfriend.

"You look like you're going to say something important," he says.

"No." She sounds like a four-year-old denying she stole the last cookie, even to her own ears. Put on your big girl panties and act like you're twenty-three, she tells herself sternly. "I mean, unless you count asking if you're my boyfriend as important. Which it's not. I just...want to know."

"You do that a lot. Deny things are important to you when they really are."

"Really?" she asked.

"Really."

Darcy swallows. "You really need to stop getting more attractive until after we settle this whole boyfriend thing." She couldn't think of any guy noticing that about her, ever.

"Do you want me to be your boyfriend?"

"I think you already kind of are." She ticks off the evidence on her fingers, the same way she had with Jane last night. "We have a standing Friday night engagement. You've slept over at my place, I've slept over at yours. I'm not seeing anyone else, and if you are, you hide it well."

"I, uh, I wish I could." Bruce looks down at his hands. "The thing is, I don't think I'd be very good for you, Darcy."

Right. It's not you, it's me. This is where they should have an awkward but civilized conversation, promise to stay friends, and then spend the next four weeks avoiding each other at work. Or she could pick up her purse now and walk out the door. Empowered woman and all that.

Instead she says, "That's bullshit. You're really good for me."

Who the fuck does he think she is? Some kind of stupid doormat woman? Whatever mistakes she's made in her past, she wouldn't stick around if he weren't good for her.

She starts ticking evidence off on her fingers again. "In addition to having a career, routinely cleaning your apartment, and paying your bills, you know my favorite drink at Starbuck's, you listen when I'm talking, you laugh at my jokes. You are extremely perceptive, and also very good in bed."

Bruce blushes, and the people at the next table over stare. Right, public place. She'd almost forgotten.

"That's very flattering, but I think you're overlooking a significant detriment. I could explode and kill you at any time."

"The ones who will actually do that don't advertise it," Darcy says, thinking of her mother's terrifying and thankfully brief third marriage. "You work for Nick Fury and with Tony Stark. How often are you pissed off on a daily basis? I've never seen you even the least bit green."

"You don't understand. It's always there. It's always possible. It's dangerous for both of us to think otherwise."

"Do you ever get tired of being this angsty?"

"You have no idea," he says, looking weary in a way Darcy hates.

"Then stop." Darcy sits her glass down harder than she means to, and a little of her drink sloshes out on the table. She's angry, suddenly, because she's not in the market for a fixer-upper, and suddenly that's what Bruce seems to be.

"You think it's just that easy? Stop?"

"I know it is. Do you know where I'm from? Stigler. Stigler, Oklahoma, population 2,933. I get not fitting in. But you only have to be alone if you want to be."

"You're different," he says. "You're not a danger. I don't have the right to fit in."

"Does Tony?" she asks. "Because there's a betting pool at SHIELD about who's going to kill us all, and the money's on Tony, a time machine, a cold fusion reactor, or just a slow day when he has a blow torch. I work at the same place you do, okay? I'll be in the same building eight hours on a good day, and sixteen to twenty-four on a bad one. So what if we throw in a few extra hours a week? Am I really in that much more danger?"

There's a flash of anger in his eye, but if fades fast, like a spark flying up from a campfire. Then he looks calm and sad, and his hand is light on her wrist.

"I'm not taking chances with you, Darcy. It's selfish and wrong, and I don't do things like that anymore. To you or anyone else."

Darcy's not sure why she's so angry, except that she's not Ginny Weasley or Mary Jane Watson and she's not getting dumped for her own safety. She's not some tragic hero's sacrifice.

"Well, what if you're being selfish by not having friends? Did you ever think that being close to people and talking about your problems and having regular orgasms might make you less dangerous?"

Bruce shakes his head.

"We're done, okay. I'm sorry."

"Coward," she snaps, and she sees the anger flare again before he turns his back and
walks out the door.

***

If she were still in college, Darcy would be drunk with six girlfriends in less than an hour. Since she's not in college, she goes back to her apartment in Queens with a pint of Haagen-Dazs, and almost hits Natasha Romanoff over the head with a skillet when she slips in through the kitchen window.

"Don't you people know how to use a door?"

Natasha shrugs infinitesimally. "Sorry. Habit. Clint's used to it by now."

Natasha's wearing the black catsuit thing field agents wear, and the sidearm on her hip looks like it shoots darts.

"Mission?" Darcy asks, raising her eyebrows.

"I was following Bruce."

"Oh. Right. Rage monster thing." Wait. Something's not right about that. She pauses with a bite of Rocky Road in mid-air. "Does that mean we were under SHIELD surveillance? The whole time we were going out?"

"Yes."

"By you?"

"Sometimes. Would you have preferred a stranger?"

That question is too fucked up to even contemplate, so instead she asks, "Is Bruce okay?"

"I think so. He was riding upstate on a motorcycle when I left. Clint's following him now."

Darcy wonders if she'll have to feel responsible for the destruction of a some hamlet in upstate New York, then decides no, definitely not. She hadn't said anything that wasn't true; if Bruce couldn't take hearing that he was an angst-ridden coward, that was his fault.

"So you're here because...?" Not because Darcy needed protection; SHIELD would have packed her off somewhere obscure if that were the case. And she's definitely not the kind of person who lays waste to cities when enraged, so it's not that either.

"I came to see if you were alright."

"You're here. As a friend." Darcy processes the information carefully. Natasha had not exactly made large demonstrations of caring at the office, and they had definitely not seen each other outside of work. But yes, Natasha is here as a friend. A strange, cagey friend who doesn't seem to know how to interact with normal people while not wearing a mask, but a friend nonetheless.

"What do you want to do? Clint shoots things."

"He would." Darcy tilts her head. "Is that what you do?"

Natasha snorts, so faintly Darcy almost doesn't hear it. Right. Natasha probably strangles ex-boyfriends with her thighs, if she even dates at all. SHIELD probably has a whole room in the morgue full of exes who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Maybe Darcy can get one of those too, if she puts in some time. For now, though, she's got a bottle of cheap vodka, and she holds it aloft.

"I drink."

***

Luckily, the Avengers Initiative is not short on distractions. Two weeks later, Darcy collects a shiny new fake passport that identifies her as Shawna Stephenson, American backpacker.

"I am so ready to help you guys destroy a bad thing being built by someone bad!" she exclaims, holding the passport aloft triumphantly. "I will order you sandwiches at appropriate intervals, and watch you while you are little dots on a map!"

"Excellent mission description," Barton says.

"Hey," Darcy says. "It's not my fault I'm not all fancy security clearances and ID badges." Watching a map and ordering sandwiches is pretty much all she's allowed to know about the mission.

Steve takes the passport out of her hand and tucks it into a little pouch that she can wear under her clothes, just like a real American tourist.

"You're important. You blend."

That is actually true. Natasha notwithstanding, most of SHIELD's agents move and look about as natural as wizards wearing Muggle clothing. They need an actual normal person to give them cover, which Darcy can totally do because she smiles and makes jokes and does not ever look like she can kill people with her thumb.

Clint plops down in front of her desk on a stool that's comically short. His arms are resting among her picture frames, and Darcy practices not staring at them.

"This is important. You do this right, and SHIELD will promote you."

Darcy knows that too. It's the first time she's been included in an off-site mission, and it's both a compliment and a test -- not that they told her about the test part. She figured that out herself. At least it seems like a lot of people want her to pass.

Natasha appears at her desk every few hours with questions like, "So, Shawna, what brings you to Uzbekistan?" and "Which cities have you visited so far?" Actually, lots of agents keep doing that to Darcy, even people she's never seen before.

"Is this what happens when you go under cover?" Darcy asks after the fourteenth random question from a stranger.

"Something like that. They usually hold a gun to my head and scream the questions at me in a darkened room."

"Until you punch them in the balls and run away?"

"The smart agents wear a cup."

***

Darcy is part of the advance detachment, which means she goes to Tashkent with a couple agents to set up a secret base of operations in a hotel room. The city isn't as different as she thought it would be. Except for the ring of Soviet apartment blocks around the edges of the city, none of the buildings are more than three or four stories high, and most of the cars look like they've seen better days. Other than that, it's not so different from a city in the Midwest. There's even a fried chicken restaurant with red checkered table cloths across from the hotel.

The hotel, though, that is a truly special place. The lobby has a white marble floor and a gold chandelier, but the cramped, orange-carpeted elevator makes a loud popping noise every time it passes a floor. The other agents tell Darcy not to scream every time this happens, but Darcy does not comply with their instructions: she is under strict orders to act natural, and it really seems like the elevator is going to plunge them to their doom.

Their hotel room is even more awesome than the elevator. The toilet flushes only with the aid of an enormous bucket of water, and the shower head has been replaced by a length of black hose. It doesn't seem like the kind of place that would actually make you clean, and Darcy figures she can make it at least four days without going inside. She was smart; she'd brought baby wipes.

"I thought undercover work was supposed to be glamorous." Darcy flings herself onto one of the rickety beds, which rewards her with a spring in the ass.

"Not if your cover ID is a broke college student," Agent Serious Face says. Darcy is sure he's totally nice when he's not trapped in blue jeans against his will and telling her to be grateful there are no roaches the size of house cats like in Venezuela.

Darcy's job really is to order sandwiches and buy toiletries for the agents holed up in the hotel, and to take pictures of roads and buildings while pretending to be a clueless American tourist. The last part is easy because Darcy is a clueless American tourist, and Tashkent is not exactly awash with house numbers and street signs. Still, she's got a routine down - she's found a neighborhood where old women serve food on plastic tables in their living rooms, and she knows how to get there without going through the metro station with all the corrupt cops. On the way back, she uses the bathroom in the fancy hotel by the British embassy, even when she doesn't have to pee. Sometimes she just sits in a bathroom stall and breathes in the scent of lemon soap and cleanliness because she's a little homesick, okay?

She's been in Tashkent for five days when she starts feeling like something is wrong. When she's out in the city, the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and she keeps fumbling in her purse for the taser that isn't there. At night, she tosses and turns, and she misses Natasha and the rest of the Avengers. They would listen to her, even if she didn't know how to articulate what was wrong. Agent Serious Face, not so much.

In the morning, she chugs down Uzbek tea and tries to pretend it wakes her up as well as coffee. The Avengers are here now, tiny dots moving on a map toward a target beyond her security clearance. Her hands clench around her tea cup; she wishes she had access to the comm so she could warn them about her premonition of doom and they could laugh hysterically into her ear. As it is, all she can do is wait for them to fall out of the sky.

She barely even notices when Agent Serious Face comes to stand behind her. Then the world goes black.

***

Darcy wakes up in what looks like an abandoned hospital. The pistachio green paint on the walls is peeling, half the tiles have fallen off the walls, and the drain on the floor is in serious need of cleaning. Her head is pounding, and she squinches her eyes shut because maybe she over-indulged last night and this is some kind of weird hangover dream, like the time her high school friend convinced her getting drunk on Nyquil was a good idea. Cautiously, she opens her eyes again. No such luck. She is definitely being held captive in an abandoned hospital, and now a bald man with gold teeth is leering over her like an exaggerated caricature of a Bond villain. Because apparently, this is her life.

"Ah, our little prisoner is awake," he says, blasting onion breath all over her face.

Darcy wonders if this is when she's supposed to start repeating her name, rank, and serial number like they do in the movies. But to do that, she'd need to have a rank and a serial number, and so far as she knows SHIELD hasn't given her one of those. Silence it is then.

"You will tell us about the Avengers. Everything you know."

Darcy sits up carefully. "I don't know anything about the Avengers. If you didn't realize, my security clearance is exactly nil." Most incompetent goons ever, Darcy thinks, feeling a little shortchanged. If she has to have a spy drama, she'd like one with competent spies, thank you very much.

"You are their secretary. You know their schedules, their personal habits, their passwords... And you have requisitioned some very interesting items, I believe."

Yes doesn't sound like the right answer to that statement, so Darcy crosses her arms over her chest and says, "And what? You think I'm just going to talk to you about them in a creepy abandoned hospital? At least take me out to dinner first, bastard."

As witty banter goes, it's not the best, but it's the first time she's been captured by a cartoon villain. She'll learn, or better yet, never ever get kidnapped again.

"Of course, if you do not wish to talk now, we have methods of persuading you." And then he wheels out an honest-to-god tray of surgical instruments.

"Did you graduate from the Hollywood school of hackneyed villainry?" Darcy snaps before she realizes it's a bad idea to antagonize a guy with a tray of sharp, sharp blades.

"I will give you some time to think it over," he says and ambles toward the door with his hands laced behind his back, the very picture of studied nonchalance.

"Do you even know what hackneyed means?" she shouts at his back because apparently adrenaline makes her stupid.

But the guy just ignores her, which is somehow scarier than if he had turned around and gotten mad. Darcy takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. Her high school English teacher -- the one who was always chiding her for not applying herself -- liked to say that you always have choices, even if there aren't good ones, so she just has to figure out what her options are. Choice number one is to tell everything. She can even imagine Bruce's sympathy-filled eyes, telling her she wasn't trained for this and no one wanted her to be disfigured or dismembered in the line of duty. But -- and she has to try really hard to wrench her eyes away from the tray of surgical instruments here -- not one of them would sell her out just to spare themselves a little pain. Choice number two is to run, but the guard at the door with the machine gun is a pretty good deterrent. She could probably grab a sharp thing and kill herself before they could stop her, but suicide seems like a pretty radical solution, which leaves option four: go Code Name Verity and make up some really credible shit.

Unless she can stage a distraction.

Holding her hands up, she wanders over to the guard.

"Hey, do you speak English?"

He won't look at her, and up close, Darcy can see he's not any older than her brother, so he must be about sixteen. Of course, Darcy knows sixteen-year-old boys can be plenty evil, but his age gives her a little hope.

She bites her lip because she has on good authority from six guys and two girls that that's cute and does a little pee-pee dance.

"Please, I really have to go to the bathroom."

The guard colors faintly and gestures toward the drain on the floor.

"Oh no. I've got a really shy bladder. And also..." She fishes a brightly wrapped maxi pad out of her pocket. "...I have a little business to take care of."

At that, the guard flushes bright red, but he shakes his head.

"Please." Darcy can't actually cry on command, although she's always thought it would be a good skill to learn, but she can bend her head down and sniffle pathetically. Macho and wanna-be-macho men usually fall for it. Not that she does it often because that would be bad and manipulative.

Of course, she has no idea what she's going to do in the bathroom. Or if touching things in the bathroom will infect her with some horrible disease. One thing at a time, right?

The guard follows her into the bathroom, but he lets her into the stall by herself, which she can work with. Or she could, if there were a window big enough to climb through. She picks idly at the metal weather stripping while she does her business, and a narrow shard of it breaks off in her hand. It's not sharp enough to stab anyone, but she hides it in her pocket anyway; it's got to be more useful than the Uzbek coins she's got rattling around in there. On the way out, she swipes a roll of TP too, just in case the guard won't let her come back here next time she needs to pee.

The guard escorts her back to her cot as gently as anyone with a machine gun can.

"You should tell him what he wants to know. It will be easier," he says. The footsteps approaching in the hall don't scare her as much as the sadness in the guard's eyes.

The door opens. I'm not going to let you hurt me. There's a power outlet next to her bed, and it reminds her of a thing she saw on House. The show does not particularly resemble reality, but it's not like she has other ideas, and this whole kidnapping is like living in TV-land anyway. So she puts her shard of metal inside the toilet paper tube and shoves it into the outlet.

The shock hurts, but the guard knocks her away before she absorbs enough voltage to kill her. Sparks fly; the toilet paper catches, then the splintered wood of the window sill and the curtains. Darcy doesn't think, she just grabs something sharp and runs.

***

Natasha finds her cowering in a dark alley hours later, and the rest of the day is a blur. There's some checking by medical, some swearing at evil double agents, and finally Tony's private jet picks them up because their cover's blown and they might as well travel in style now.

Steve calls her "the hero of the hour."

Tony, who has never taken much notice of her before, sees fit to punch her in the arm -- really hard.

Clint looks at her with new respect in his eyes, and Natasha raises a solemn glass of vodka in her direction.

Bruce watches her silently from a corner of the cabin. Really watches her, like he doesn't look away from her at all, not even for a minute. Maybe that's why she curls up in the seat next to him after everyone else has gone to bed.

"Everyone keeps calling me a hero," she says. "All I did was get really, really scared and then run away."

"You didn't give away any information. That means a lot," Bruce says.

Darcy shakes her head. "I would have though. Threaten me with a tray of rusty surgical instruments and I'll tell you anything you want to know."

Bruce smiles faintly. "I imagine that's why you tried so hard to escape. Knowing your limits and getting out before you reach them is part of being a hero."

"Discretion is the better part of valor, I guess," Darcy says. Arguing with Bruce when he's trying to be nice makes her feel childish, but accepting undeserved praise makes her feel worse, so she says, "I didn't do it for you guys. I mean, I wish I did. But I was terrified, and I really just wanted to stay alive."

Bruce squeezes her hand just long enough to remind her how much she misses him. "I'm glad you're still with us."

Darcy doesn't remember falling asleep, but she wakes up with Bruce's suit jacket draped over her and a pillow behind her head. The jacket is one of those perfectly cut ones that made her notice him in the first place, and the silk lining smells just like him. It was probably a gift from Tony, so it definitely cost more than Darcy's rent, but she folds it up and puts it in her duffle bag anyway. If Bruce wants it back, he'll have to come get it.

***

Darcy hangs the jacket in the little cubby behind her desk, where it sits for about twenty-four hours -- which is exactly twenty-four hours longer than it should have taken for Darcy to remember that she's not the kind of girl who sits around waiting for a man to take the initiative.

Bruce is alone in the lab when she bursts in, peering through a microscope with his white coat and gold-rimmed glasses on. And okay, he's a pretty adorable angsty cute idiot man -- but now is not the time for softness. Now is the time when she tells it like it is.

She stands in front of him, one hand cocked on her hip. "Listen," she says, "I know you think I'm some naive twenty-something who doesn't know what's good for her, but that's just an excuse to hide from the human connections you've denied yourself for so long. My mom's dated a few losers, and some of them knocked her around, and you know what I learned from that? I don't love anyone more than I want to stay alive. I swear to god and Thor and Oden and everything that I think is a god and is actually an alien -- if you even look like you're going to hurt me, I will leave you. Now you need to reconsider this whole relationship thing."

"Are you asking me out by threatening to break up with me?"

"I tried the nice way a few months ago. Didn't work out." She slides Bruce's suit jacket across the lab table. "We're going to dinner tonight at seven, and you're wearing this. It looks good on you."

Bruce just stands there, staring at her, until Darcy starts to feel a little stupid. She's contemplating a dramatic flounce out of the room when she notices the faint grin playing around the edge of Bruce's lips.

He shrugs out of his lab coat and picks up the jacket. "Come on," he says. "We're not waiting until seven."