Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world - who let those bitches in, anyway?
Darcy Lewis breathed slowly and deeply - just like Dr. Banner had taught her - and managed to keep the official smile on her face as she turned her back on the entrance to the ballroom. It was some reception-celebration-honoring-thingy thrown by the mayor and the governor in recognition of the Avengers. Jane had come in from Norway, Erik was looking a lot better these days (thank God for Asgard healing stones), and even Colonel Fury had swapped his leather duster for black tie for the occasion.
All these happy thoughts evaporated when Darcy spotted a small group of people approaching the open doors. It was just like old times - except back in the day, she spent her life looking anxiously over her shoulder. Whereas by now, she thought she was past all that.
"Past all what?"
She gave a little squeak of surprise at the comment. The speaker was leaning on the wall near the corridor at the rear exit, glass in hand, looking very unlike himself in formal dress.
"Captain Rogers," Darcy sighed. "Sorry, I was kind of preoccupied for a minute there. What can I do for you?"
Steve smiled and Darcy's knees made the usual attempt to fold up and quit.
"First off, you can tell me what you're past," he said. "If it's okay with you. Not a deep dark secret or anything, right?"
Darcy eyed the glass in his hand. "You're not really drinking that, are you?" she asked.
"Nope. But holding it keeps people from offering me more and me having to explain why I don't drink."
"I bet that gets boring," said Darcy. Plucking the glass from his hand, she downed its contents in a couple of swigs (semi-flat champagne) and handed the empty glass back to him as he watched, bemused.
"The short version is," she told him, "that when I was in middle school and high school there were these - people. People who made my life hell, wouldn't quit teasing me, stealing stuff out of my desk, spreading rumors, you know."
Steve was nodding. Of course he knew; hadn't he been the 98-pound weakling in his day?
"I couldn't wait to go to college. I actually made an effort to find out where They were going and applied to schools on the other side of the country. As far from our hometown as possible."
"In New Mexico, right? So what gives, now?"
"There were five chicks that led the pack," said Darcy. "And three of them just came in the door."
"No shit," Steve exclaimed, straightening up and peering across the room. "Which ones?"
"Don't look!" Darcy grabbed his arm and hauled him out the door and a few feet down the hallway.
"Why? Don't you want to show them how well you're doing, how you're so over them?" Steve only blushed a little when he added, "What a babe you turned out to be?"
Darcy blushed a lot and giggled to boot. "Thanks, Cap." Then she looked down at her feet and sobered. "Nah, I think I'll just sneak out the back and go home and eat ice cream."
The first Avenger tipped up her chin with his finger and looked her in the eye.
"You know what?" he said. "I hate bullies."
Darcy sniffed and smiled a bit weakly.
"I wish that made me feel better," she said. "But it's like a knee-jerk reaction. I see them and it's like I'm back there getting my ass kicked all over again."
"Not literally, I hope."
"Yeah," she told him. "Literally. One of them used to follow me home from school and any time I tried to make a detour or look over my shoulder, she'd land one on my butt."
"Listen, Darcy, don't leave the party just because of them. Come on, I was going to ask you to dance and I don't even know how to dance."
"You're just trying to cheer me up," she said, but he *had* raised a little smile out of her.
"What are friends for?" He grinned. "There's supposed to be a presentation in half an hour. Can you live that long? After that the band comes on."
"Good. I have to go find Tony - I'll catch up with you later."
She wandered back into the ballroom, chagrined at having promised Captain America she'd stay. If it had been Barton or Tony Stark she would have had fewer scruples about breaking that promise, but breaking one to Cap? That would be like blasphemy.
Willing herself not to look around in fear, she strolled over to the refreshments and picked up a glass of champagne and a couple of strawberries on a small plate. Then she turned and found herself face to face with Cheryl. The number one instigator of her childhood oppression.
"Is that you, Darcy?" said the wench with a smirk. "Long time no see."
For a split second Darcy wanted to say, "I'm sorry, have we met?" but what came out of her mouth was, "Oh, hi, Cheryl."
"Hey, Caroline! Come see who I found."
Wench #2 came over with a man on her arm and made a show of looking Darcy up and down. "Well, if it isn't Lewis the Lush," she drawled. "What are you doing on this side of the table, Lewis? Is it break time for the wait staff?"
"Please," Darcy snorted, sounding more confident than she felt. "Does this look like food services to you?"
She pivoted slowly, to give the wenches' dates a good eyeful of her outfit (red, strapless, pleated, low cut, with matching bag).
"Rented," sniffed Cheryl to her date in a poor imitation of a whisper.
"Purchased," retorted Darcy, losing her already weakening grip on her temper. "Out of my very generous salary, working as liaison to the Avengers."
"Oh, so you're a working girl," said Caroline with a leer.
Darcy knew that if she opened her mouth, all her brittle, bitter emotions would spew out, so she turned to walk away. And just like old times, there they were, the third one coming along to see what was up, forming a loose half-circle, blocking her escape route.
Fuck. And Darcy without her Taser (it wouldn't fit in her teeny bag).
"Darcy, do you know what kind of caviar this is?"
From out of the blue came a woman's voice, light and casual but carrying over the muffled conversation of the crowd. Over the shoulder of Wench #3 appeared the face of Natasha Romanov.
"If it's that stuff they get from Alaska I don't want it," Natasha said critically, making her way past the blockade.
"Oh, hi, Natasha," said Darcy, confused. "I don't know what kind they're serving. Did you ask - "
"Food service," Cheryl smirked in an undertone.
"I didn't ask anyone yet," said Natasha. "I trust your palate above all others, devushka. Will you try a little and tell me what you think?"
Darcy had never tasted caviar in her life. Not that the idea repelled her - but she'd never moved in the kind of company that could afford it, before. She set down her drink and took the little spoon from Natasha, her eyes on the lady in black velvet.
"Let me see," said Darcy. If Natasha had her back she could bluff her way through this. She ate a cracker off the agent's plate, and the Russian nodded very slightly. "Cleansing the palate," Darcy said for the edification of her unwanted audience.
She popped the caviar into her mouth. It was saltier than anything she'd ever ingested and it didn't even make a quarter of a mouthful.
"For a Russian this is not a trivial question," Natasha said in an aside to the spectators. The slight emphasis on the word 'trivial' was Darcy's cue."
"Definitely, " she said. "And it is Beluga, the real thing. Not the black market product - the real, legal, above board stuff from Iran, so don't worry about it."
Natasha laughed and hooked her arm around Darcy's. "Come, let us both get some of the real thing."
Once they were out of sight of Darcy's tormentors, Natasha said, "Who were those idiots?"
"Old school enemies," said Darcy. Her heart was pounding, as if she'd been snatched from the jaws of death. "Was I right about the caviar?"
"Of course," Natasha shrugged. "I had some before coming to ask you. I just wanted to test your memory."
"Right," said Darcy skeptically. "My memory of last week's Trivial Pursuit victory in which the question about Beluga shot down your foes and prompted the lecture on the black market?"
Natasha just smiled.
"I see Nick beckoning," she said. "Excuse me, won't you?"
Darcy made a wide detour back around to the ballroom entrance, where she saw another familiar face.
"Dr. Banner! You made it!" She swooped down on him and gave him a smooch on the cheek. The good doctor was dressed in a black suit, shirt, and tie, and as usual, looked nothing like a biochemistry genius cum superhero.
"Darcy, you look great, as always," Banner smiled. "I passed on the penguin suit. It makes me look like - well, a penguin. I'm too short to carry it off."
"You could do it," Darcy protested. "Between you and me, Tony's half an inch shorter than you and he looks great in a tux."
"He has flair," Banner said simply. "Like you. Not my forte."
"Well, somebody has to balance out us crazy gaudy people," Darcy told him. "Tony and Thor can't help being conspicuous, Thor's so big, and Tony's so - well - Tony. I just like bright colors. I find you very - restful, Dr. Banner."
"You have a good grasp on perspective," he replied as she took his arm and strolled toward a corner table. "So many people don't understand balance, yin and yang, the fact that it really does take all kinds to make a world."
"Does it?" asked Darcy. Bruce Banner looked over at her.
"What 'kind' are you thinking about?" he asked.
"Oh, never mind. Just some people who showed up tonight whom I'd hoped never to see again."
"I have some of those too," said Banner. "It's hard to maintain your perspective when you run into people who don't understand you, who maybe never tried to."
"How do you do it?" Darcy sighed as they reached an empty table and sat down.
"I don't," he said bluntly. "No matter what anybody thinks of my supposed anger management methods, I haven't achieved balance. The best I can do is keep moving. And to keep thinking about people who do know me, who actually matter."
"The yin to their yang," said Darcy. "Like an antidote."
"You can't change other people, or what they think of you, not really," he said earnestly. "But you can change how you think of them. If at all. It isn't easy, don't get me wrong. But it just takes practice. And compassion."
"Sure." He grinned, a sly grin that most people never got to see. "You gotta be sorry for the poor idiots who miss out on really knowing you, Darcy."
"Idiots is too kind a word."
This judgment was spoken in a brisk, businesslike tone by the aforementioned master of flair, who had appeared next to their table, adjusting his perfectly tailored cuffs.
"True," said Bruce. "I was trying to curb my language in the presence of the lady."
Tony, who spent more time with Bruce than anyone in the bowels of the lab, grinned at Darcy.
"You have no lack of vocabulary yourself," he said to her.
"Just because I don't always act like a lady doesn't mean you shouldn't treat me like one," said Darcy, tossing her head. Tony laughed and Bruce smirked.
"Noted and logged," said Tony. "Will you dance, my lady? The presentation's been delayed, so the band is coming on."
Darcy took a quick look around the ballroom. "Where's Pepper?"
"Taking a well-earned break, out on the balcony," he replied. "She told me to go away and play. Besides, she would never suspect you of making a play for me."
"Of course not," said Bruce. "She's the brains of the outfit."
"What, no penguin suit tonight?" Tony snarked back at Bruce.
"I think you're gaudy enough for both of us."
"Now, boys, don't fight," Darcy said, rising to her feet and taking the hand Tony held out to her.
"You couldn't have worn flats, huh?" was his plaintive inquiry as he drew her out onto the dance floor.
"Nope, and I refuse to slouch, so you're just going to have to man up and stand tall, Mr. Stark. Consider it a perk - you're that much closer to my cleavage."
"There's always a bright side," he smirked.
Tony guided them expertly around the floor.
"So who was ruining your evening, over by the snack stand?" he asked.
Darcy missed a step. "What do you mean?" she stalled.
"I saw you getting a little something to eat, and next thing I know you have this deer in the headlights look and there are five people closing in on you. I was going to come and rescue you, but Natasha beat me to it."
"Thanks for thinking of it," she said, blushing. "You guys don't have to do that, you know. I can fight my own battles. But thanks."
"Oh, so there's a battle involved?"
"You know what, let's just dance, okay? Forget the battle."
A voice beside her asked, "May I cut in?"
Caroline. Would this fiasco never end? Darcy prepared to let go of Tony's hand, but he just tightened his grip and said firmly, "No, thank you."
As he turned slightly away Darcy caught sight of the look on the woman's face. She was obviously annoyed at being turned down, but instead of glaring at Tony she had turned her evil eye on Darcy.
Tony pulled his partner close and she let herself enjoy the shiver that ran up her spine.
"That's one of 'em, isn't it," he murmured in her ear and she nodded. "Okay, don't freak out, but I'm going to perform a blatant act of PDA. Ready?"
Before Darcy could answer, his face drew closer to hers and he pressed his lips to her forehead.
"Aaaaaaand here's Pepper," he said, just before Pepper's voice piped up.
"I hate to cut in, but believe it or not we've lost Clint," she said. Darcy surrendered Tony's hand and Pepper moved in smoothly.
"I was just going to try for a dip," Tony said to Darcy.
"In that case I arrived just in time," Pepper said dryly. "Anyway, Darce, you have some weird Spidey sense for herding cats - I mean, superheroes. Could you give it a try?"
"I'm on it," Darcy grinned and slipped away.
Darcy considered using her search for Clint as an excuse to depart altogether. She had promised Steve a dance, though. Having a conscience was damn inconvenient sometimes.
She knew, more or less, where she'd find him, anyway.
"How's the party going in here?" she called out as she sailed into the kitchen. Half the people working there froze, startled, while the other half laughed, seeing that she wasn't one of their bosses or a health inspector.
Darcy went out the other door, into the freezer area, then over to the main pantry where people were darting in and out, picking up items for use in the kitchen. She stood in the center of the room (bigger than her living room) and turned slowly, her gaze moving upwards as she went.
When she spotted him, she crooked her finger in a "get down here" gesture.
"Gimme one good reason," said Clint from his seat atop one of the cabinets (reinforced steel, fortunately).
Darcy shrugged, first making sure that she was in a position to provide a good view of her decolletage while doing so.
"I don't have a good reason," she said. "So, bye."
She left the room; once out of the kitchen area she slipped off her heels and padded down a side hallway and lurked. Sure enough, ten minutes went by before a familiar head of scruffy brown hair poked out of the kitchen and looked both ways, before he headed quietly out.
Darcy followed him. For about thirty seconds.
"Do you have eyes in the back of your freaking head?" she squeaked when he stopped abruptly and spun around, grinning. "And if so, why? You can't shoot that direction - can you?"
"I have skills," he said darkly. "If I told you, I'd - "
" - have to kill me, yeah, yeah," said Darcy with the usual eyeroll accompaniment. "I get that a lot."
"I was thinking more along the lines of bribery," he said. He had the worst eyes, meaning, the best puppy-dog-bedroom-eyes-hug-me look of any guy she'd ever known. (Tony's look was actually even more melting, but only when turned on Pepper, on whom it rarely worked.)
"Come on, Peter Pan," she sighed, slipping her shoes back on and taking his arm. "There's a presentation waiting."
He went with her arm in arm, but shook his head. "Not going to be on stage for that."
"Are you kidding me? Okay, answer me straight: do I *look* like somebody who falls into the category of 'Avenger'?"
He stopped and spread out his arms. His gorgeous, muscled arms, which even in buttoned-down sleeves looked buffer than hell.
"Okay, not an unbiased witness," he admitted, resuming their stroll. "Thor, Steve, those guys look the part. Tony's face is recognized more than the President's. Tasha - well, even in that velvet gown she looks dangerous. And Nick - "
"Point taken. And?"
"Somebody has to lay low, stay out of the spotlight. What's the good of being an agent if everybody knows you are one?"
Darcy had to admit, it was a good point.
"You're going to have to sell the bosses on that, though," she warned him. "I was told to bring you in. I don't care what happens after."
"Merciless," he whined good-naturedly.
Darcy towed him over to where Pepper was standing with Dr. Banner, then went in search of more champagne. She was definitely earning her stripes tonight.
Darcy had just lifted a glass to her lips when she spotted someone she'd actually been waiting all night to see.
"Jane!" she called out over the band, waving, and managing not to spill champagne on her dress.
"Oh, is your date here, Lewis?" came a snide voice. Merylynn, another of the meanies whose name had finally risen from Darcy's dark muck of memory. She stood practically behind Darcy, looking like she'd swallowed something nasty, which was her usual expression.
"I should be so lucky," Darcy shot back. "No, she brought a date, see?"
Thor was at his most magnificent, and that was saying something. He wore full regalia, from the crimson cape to the hammer in his hand; on his other arm was a petite jewel of a lady. Dr. Jane Foster, astrophysicist and beloved of Thor Odinsson of Asgard.
He had spotted Darcy, and he and Jane made their way easily across the room to join her. Jane hugged Darcy fiercely, saying, "It's so good to see you!" Thor stood by, beaming fondly, and when the two women emerged, he took Darcy's hand and bowed over it.
"Darcy Lewis," he said in that mellifluous tone. "I trust I will not give you cause to use your Taser, this evening."
"Just be good to Jane," said Darcy. "Or your ass is mine, thunder boy."
There was a strangled kind of sound behind her. Jane looked around, concerned, and Thor asked, "And who is this?"
It was Merylynn, whose eyes were wide as she stared at Thor.
"This is Merylynn," Darcy replied with relish. "She's having a rough night. Probably something she ate." Under her breath she hissed at Merylynn, who seemed frozen, "Like her words, maybe."
"Charmed," said Thor, but Darcy noticed that her ex-nemesis didn't merit a bow.
"Um, hello," said the woman.
"There's a ceremony of some kind in the offing," Thor said to Darcy. "I believe we're only waiting for - ah, Steven, there you are!"
Steve Rogers came to stand next to Darcy.
"I've been looking all over for you," he told her. "You promised me a dance."
"I'm good for it," she said. "We have to do the dog and pony show first."
"Some things never change," Steve grimaced. "Shall we?"
He held out his arm and Darcy took it, unable to resist a last look at Merylynn, who was now staring at Steve.
"You should sit down, or something," said Darcy.
As they walked toward the rest of the Avengers Steve asked, "Is she okay?"
"Just blinded by my awesomeness."
They approached the dais-platform-whateveritwas, and Darcy let go of Steve's arm.
"Go dazzle 'em, Captain," she told him. "Where's Clint?"
"Vanished, again," said Pepper from close by. "Honestly, I'm glad I'm only in charge of keeping track of Tony."
"Made easier by the abundance of flair," said Dr. Banner to Darcy under his breath. She grinned.
"By the way, thanks, doc," she said to him.
"That perspective, earlier," Darcy said. "I think the number of people who think I'm great outnumber those who think I was a loser, a hundred years ago."
Banner smiled and she dropped a kiss on his cheek.
"That's our cue," said Tony, in response to the governor tapping on the microphone. "You're point man, Steve."
Steve went up the few steps to the platform, followed by Tony, Natasha, Thor (Tony had refused to stand between 'the blond behemoths'), and Banner; Nick Fury was already standing next to the other dignitaries.
The crowd went wild. Jane, Darcy, and Pepper each picked up a glass of champagne.
"Behind every great man..." Pepper started to say.
Darcy finished for her. "...is a great woman checking out his ass."
All three of them snickered, toasted and drank.
"Seriously, I would love to be standing behind that platform right now," said Pepper. "I'm so busy keeping up with Tony's ass, I don't get much chance to ogle anyone else's."
"I could keep an eye on it for you," offered Darcy. "Any time."
"We could do it in shifts," Jane added with a grin.
Nick Fury had stepped up to the podium, once the governor and the mayor had made the usual politically correct remarks.
"This should be good," said Darcy. "He hates these functions, thinks they're a waste of time."
"I usually avoid this kind of pomp and circumstance," Fury was saying. "As my colleagues know, I'd rather be out finding and kicking enemy asses. I do want to mention in public, though, the contributions of some people whom you probably don't know, but without whom the Avengers would be unable to function as a team."
The crowd became slightly quieter as Fury cast his gaze about the room, like a teacher over an unruly class.
"First of all, we lost more than eighty agents in the battle that took place over New York," he began. "One of them was instrumental in the formation of this unique force, going above and beyond the call of duty to communicate and to negotiate some difficult cultural differences. He fell in an attempt to take out the leader of the invasion force with an untested weapon, but with undeniable courage.
"His name was Philip Coulson, and I hope we will all remember him as an example of the men and women on the front lines of defending humanity."
There was a moment of silence. Then Fury went on.
"The other agent I wish to recognize at this time is Lieutenant Maria Hill, who followed orders which challenged her own judgement but which assisted in our success, as well as set an example to others of the importance of the chain of command. Lt. Hill is currently at one of our facilities, doing the job at which she excels.
"Now I'd like to mention a few more extraordinary people, whose talents lie not in the field of battle but behind the front lines.
"Present this evening, as you may have noticed, is Ms. Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark Industries and partner of Tony Stark, whose business acumen is rivaled only by her ability to act as liaison with Mr. Stark."
"Was that innuendo? Sounded like it might have been," Pepper whispered while giving a token wave. The governor gestured for her to come up on the platform, which she did with her usual grace amid applause, falling in beside Tony, who took her hand.
"Also on our team are two leading astrophysicists, whose achievements have enabled our discourse with the people of Asgard for our defense," said Fury, leaning on the word defense. "Professor Erik Selvig is unable to be with us tonight, but Dr. Jane Foster is present."
There was a scattering of applause for Jane, who did not cut as picturesque a swath as Pepper, but Thor had eyes only for her as he held out a hand to escort her to the lineup.
"One last person I'd like to introduce you to..." Fury was saying, and Darcy heaved a sigh of relief. After this she would be headed for a last dance with Steve, and then home.
"...an invaluable asset both to me and to the team, not only in logistical matters but as a friend and supporter. Ms. Darcy Lewis."
Darcy almost dropped her empty champagne glass. There was a murmur among the guests as they looked around to guess who this mysterious person was; but there was a roar of applause and approval from the platform. Tony was waving at her to come up.
Darcy felt a hand at the small of her back, giving her a little push, and turned her head to see Clint smirking at her.
"Go ahead, you've earned it," he murmured.
She managed to make her way to the platform, where Bruce and Steve gave her a hand up the stairs; she would have wobbled off her heels otherwise. Now the audience was applauding the entire group, Tony was making poses, and Natasha was whispering something to Bruce that made him laugh.
Darcy looked over the crowd and beamed, an expression that only grew brighter when she spotted her school-days demons together, looking either confused or annoyed at the sight of Darcy Lewis in a beautiful ball gown standing with Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
"How about that dance, now?" Steve asked her as they filed down the stairs to rejoin the party.
"I'm all yours," Darcy said blissfully, and he led her out on the floor, into a basic two-step. "Have you been taking lessons?"
"Miss Potts showed me a few steps," said Steve humbly. "Enough not to do any permanent damage to my partner."
Over at a corner table, the rest of the merry band had collected food and drink and sat back to enjoy the scene.
"So what did Steve want to talk about?" asked Clint, who had come out of the woodwork once the danger of being presented had passed. "He said he wanted all of us together for something but I never found out what."
"That's what you get for hiding out from your co-heroes," Natasha said. Clint stuck his tongue out at her.
"Children," Tony protested. "It's no longer relevant. Things seem to have - resolved themselves."
"In what way?" Jane asked.
"Operation Darcy," said Bruce. "Seems there are some guests here tonight who were less than kind to her in the past, and her spirits were pretty low."
Natasha muttered something in Russian that sounded fairly rude.
"Anyway," said Tony, "when we were all up on stage, just now, Steve told me that he wanted all of us to go out of our way to cheer her up, show her she's important to us, never mind the idiots."
"I was unaware of this mission," said Thor with a grin. "But I think we've accomplished it."
"Absolutely," said Pepper.
The subject of their conversation finished her dance with Steve and he led her back to the table.
"I know you could dance all night, as the song says," Darcy told him. "But you're not wearing heels, super soldier, so I need to sit for a minute."
Steve had a look of accomplishment on his face. Pepper patted his arm. "Can I have the next one?" she asked.
The conversation went on around Darcy, who sat looking around happily at her team until her arm was taken by a firm masculine grasp. She looked up to see Clint smiling down at her.
"I think this dance is mine," he said. "Come on."
He took her hand and led her to the dance floor - and then wove his way through the crowd to the other side of the room, which opened out onto a broad balcony.
"We're not going to dance?" said Darcy, puzzled.
"Not the kind they're doing in there," said Clint and kissed the backs of both her hands.
Darcy smiled and leaned into his embrace.