SHIELD strips Darcy of herself in bits and pieces.
It happens in the pull of a trigger, the snick of a knife being pulled out of a sheath, the meaty thud of a body hitting the floor.
She doesn't mean for it to happen, but it does, and it's awful.
“Would you like a job,” Phil Coulson asks her about a week after the dust has settled in New Mexico, and it doesn't sound like a question at all. She's been calling him nonstop for the past six days trying to get as much information—any information—that SHIELD might have on Thor as she can, and Coulson's apparently gone past annoyance into grudging admiration. “I could use someone with your particular skill set.”
“My skill set is making coffee, not burning the poptarts, and the ability to recite all of The Communist Manifesto from memory,” Darcy points out, because it's not like she can squish a robot or imitate bird calls or anything. She's not all that impressive, really.
“That and the complete inability to take no for an answer,” Coulson says. “That's something we can pretty much always use more of around here.”
Darcy thinks of Jane—pretty, tired, paper thin Jane—who's already been without Thor longer than she had him. Jane, who doesn't see her, waves her away when she tries to help, is so buried in her research and her pain that her world has narrowed to a laser fine focus that Darcy can't touch. How can she possibly leave her?
How can she possibly stay?
“When do I start?”
(“You can really quote all of it?”
“I felt like 'The Princess Bride' was just a little overdone, you know?”)
The first time she sees Clint again after New Mexico, he's coming out of Coulson's office and zipping up his pants. She honestly has no idea if they really just had sex or if he's fucking with her, but he grins when he looks up and sees her, which is a better reaction than what she's gotten from most people.
“Hey, fresh meat. You know how to shoot a gun?”
Darcy looks down at her desk. The most dangerous thing on it is her stapler. She looks back up at him. “Do paintball and laser tag count?”
“Well, they certainly don't hurt.” Something in Clint's smile shifts. On anyone else Darcy would think there's something almost sad about it. He holds a hand out to her, and the callouses on his fingers and palm are rough against her own smooth skin when she takes it. “Let's get you geared up and see what you can do, kid.”
“You can never let them see you falter,” Natasha says, a shot of top shelf vodka dangling from her fingertips. “We have to be stronger, faster, smarter, braver, and then they almost treat us like equals.”
Maria Hill gives an ungraceful snort and splashes a little more liquid in her shot glass. Says, “I'll drink to that,” and she and Natasha knock them back like water.
Darcy looks at the big, cozy sweater that her grandmother knitted for her, the jeans that she's worn through five states and nearly as many years.
“I don't think I can do that,” she says and sticks her thumb through a hole near the edge of her sleeve.
Natasha and Maria exchange a glance, then lean in close on either side of her.
“Then you find something else,” Natasha tells her, the short nail of her index finger digging into Darcy's shoulder, sharp like the bite of a knife. Maria's nodding, and she's steady and serious despite the mostly empty bottle on the table, and she keeps nodding while Natasha says, “You find some way to armor yourself, malyshka, or they will tear you to shreds.”
That night, she goes home and digs through her closet.
She slips into an old skirt that's an HR nightmare just waiting to happen, buttons up a blouse that's tight and low enough to be nearly obscene. The shoes she steps into make her feel like she's falling over, and she spends half an hour tottering around in her apartment relearning how to walk before she's willing to try risking the streets. She paints her lips a bright, blood red, her eyes a dark, smoky black and it feels like she's smudging on war paint. When she goes into headquarters, they stare at her legs, her ass, her breasts, but they don't see the fear or apprehension.
Darcy never thought success would have such a bitter aftertaste.
Tony Stark wants to sleep with her, and Darcy wants to try her hand at flying. The wind whips through her hair, ripping the carefully coiffed curls from it, and her cheeks are chapped and bitten red from the frosty cold slapping against her face.
It feels like falling and it feels like freedom, and Darcy lets her arms fall from around Tony's neck and tips back so that the only thing between her and the ground is the iron grip he has around her waist.
When they land, she laughs and kisses him once on the mouth and refuses to feel guilty that only one of them got what they really wanted.
The weight slips away so gradually that Darcy doesn't even notice until she zips up a skirt she hasn't worn in a few weeks and it nearly falls right off her hips. She's still curvy, full and heavy in places that exercise never seems to touch on her, but the inward curve of her waist is more defined than ever. Her stomach is concave, where before it had the slightest swell of softness. The ladder of her ribs is visible, hard beneath thin skin when she skates her fingertips up and down over them, and her collarbones and hipbones are sharp points jutting out from her body.
There's a callous on her trigger finger, bruises from hand to hand combat training, a long, pink scar that snakes down her left thigh from a knife lesson gone wrong.
She stands in front of her mirror, naked and not recognizing her own body, and skins her hair back away from her face. It's all sharp angles, the last of her baby fat finally melted away, and she looks colder and harder and older.
Darcy's twenty-four the first time she kills someone. She's twenty-four and she's never gone bungee jumping or ridden a horse or left the country, but she knows the warm splash of someone else's blood on her face, the under bite of iron that she can't strip from her skin or tongue for days afterward. It was a HYDRA agent, which is supposed to make it okay.
It's supposed to be okay, right?
She goes home that night and takes four showers, standing under a blistering spray that leaves her skin lobster red and feeling like it's about to peel right off. She cleans her apartment until it gleams and her hands are dry and cracking from soap and disinfectant. She makes up a steak on her little mini grill, takes a single look at the watery red dripping from it, and puts her fork down. The homeless man who squats near her stoop gets a nice dinner out of the deal, and Darcy spends half an hour dry heaving into her toilet.
The dress she picks out the next morning is long sleeved and high necked, the heels of her shoes tall and razor thin. She slathers an extra swipe of red on her lips to make up for the pallid pallor of her cheeks.
Agents she's never met before slap her on the back and tell her what a great job she did. Coulson looks at her a touch too sharply and has her file the note of commendation in her record. Maria stops by just long enough to drop off a turtle brownie and a filled flask that Darcy doesn't even notice until after she's left.
And Darcy goes through all the motions, says all the right things at exactly the right time, and she feels like something inside her is withering, but her smile stays on.
“I'm not an agent,” Darcy says to Maria late one night after work while they're splitting a plate of waffles at a diner down the street from SHIELD headquarters. “I wasn't hired to be an agent. I'm supposed to be a fucking secretary.”
Maria smiles ruefully and smudges the syrup from Darcy's cheek. “Yeah, and I was originally hired to be Fury's personal assistant."
Fury finds her crying in the break room at two in the morning. He doesn't say anything, just pours her a cup of coffee, and sits at the table with her until her sobs dwindle down to the occasional quiet, wet sniffle.
It's humiliating. Darcy's been with SHIELD for months now. She shouldn't be having a breakdown now, not over something as stupid as a poor result on her biannual shooting proficiency test, but there you have it.
When she's calm and quiet and her coffee is almost gone, Fury stands and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Nobody's making you be here, Miss Lewis.” The words are hard, make her flinch under his touch, but his tone is almost kind when he looks down at her and says, “And no one will think any less of you if you choose to leave.”
Darcy swirls the dregs of her coffee in her mug and shakes her head. “Not exactly true.” She looks up at him and forces a smile that almost feels natural. “I would.”
Fury squeezes her shoulder, nods once, and leaves her there.
She never does figure out how he knew exactly how many sugars to add to her mug.
Bruce Banner appears out of nowhere. Well, no, that's not right. Everyone at headquarters knows exactly how he got here and why, but for Darcy it's like she opens her eyes one day and he's just there. He looks at her when he thinks she isn't paying attention, tracks her movements with a gaze that is almost a physical touch, and somehow it's nothing at all like how everyone else watches her.
She keeps her distance at first, but it's hard not to be drawn in. He's quiet and reserved and nothing at all like anyone she's ever been attracted to, but there's also a tightly fisted control that makes her want to poke and prod at him until he lets it slip. Not a lot, not enough to bring out the Other Guy, but enough for that thrill of danger.
Darcy wants to push him to the brink, because she thinks it would be fascinating to watch him pull himself back away from the edge.
She starts watching him back, and there's a tingle low in the pit of her stomach that spreads out warm and buzzing the more she does. It feels kind of painful and a little bit good, like a limb waking back up after it's been numb for so long you've almost forgotten it's there.
There have been rumors going around for months now about all the people Darcy is supposedly sleeping with. She thinks it's a little funny that the one person she actually has more or less been consistently fucking never makes the list, even if they are so casual as to be practically nonexistent.
“This isn't going to keep working, is it,” Darcy asks as she leans across Maria's body to grab a cigarette from the bedside table on her side. Maria steals the cigarette and puts it between her lips to light it, inhales a long drag, then holds it to Darcy's mouth.
Maria shrugs a little belatedly. “Most things break eventually. We'll at least have had a good run and a clean split.”
Darcy wriggles down the bed until she can rest her cheek on Maria's stomach. There's a ragged, poorly healed scar above her navel that Darcy can feel against the corner of her mouth.
“Will you still bring me alcohol at the office?”
Maria runs her fingers through Darcy's tangled, sweat dampened hair, and says, “Only when you're having a really bad day.”
Darcy kisses the scar beneath her mouth and it feels like letting go.
She can't talk to him. She tries, spends long hours rehearsing what she'll say and how, but whenever she tries to reel off one of her memorized lines, her mind goes completely blank. He makes her palms itch and her skin prickle, and some days she wants to curl up in a closet for at least a year if it means she'll be able to shake the shaky, queasy feeling she gets whenever she sees him smile.
It doesn't matter anyway, she tells herself. He may watch, but given the way he avoids her, he's not actually interested.
Bruce kisses her first. It's several hours into Tony's Christmas party, and he bumps into her by the punchbowl, and when Darcy glances up they're standing under the mistletoe.
“It's tradition,” Darcy says—has had just enough to drink to say—with a little grin, because she's a glutton for punishment apparently, but instead of recoiling the way she expects him to, Bruce puts an arm around her waist and pulls her in close.
“You can't argue with that,” he says, lips wet and eyes all pupil, and then he kisses her, and Darcy's heart flip flops like a fish stranded on the shore.
They wind up in his bed, their clothes left where ever they land, and Darcy closes her eyes and lets herself believe.
It's an easy mistake to make. Bruce kisses her like he means it, touches her with hands that are alternatively gentle with tenderness and rough with need, and Darcy just clings to him and tries to gather up as much of him as she possibly can. It'll happen again, she tells herself, trying to scold herself into seeming less needy. Those aren't the lips of someone who only wants this to happen the once.
She wakes up in the morning and feels every drop she drank the night before like pins beneath her too tight skin. Between the throwing up and shaking and generally feeling like shit, there's no real time to think about Bruce, but then she goes back out into the bedroom. His expression is completely closed off, something she can only classify as 'wrong' lurking around his eyes, and her clothes are stacked in a neat, obvious pile on his dresser.
Oh, she thinks as her newly emptied stomach drops. Darcy resists the urge to cross her arms over her bare chest, just pulls her clothes on as quickly as she can.
It's no big deal, she tells herself as she stumbles through saying something; she forgets the words as soon as they're out of her mouth, and she's pretty certain that's a small blessing, because she doesn't want to know how she responded to 'this never happened'. So it's no big deal. This is the sort of thing that happens all the time. Darcy ducks her head as she tries to make her way through the tower without running into anyone. Her hair falls forward to shield the sharp pinprick of tears from anyone else's eyes, and she walks with long, quick steps and her arms wrapped tightly around her waist.
She manages to keep back the first sniffle until she's safely out on the street, anonymous in a crowd, and she spends the entire subway ride back to her apartment silently lecturing herself for acting like a silly, stupid girl. After all, what did she expect? A marriage proposal? No, best to just chock it up to experience and add it to her increasingly long list of humiliating one night stands.
The firing range is a refuge. There's something comforting and familiar about the weight and feel of a gun in her hand, and Darcy doesn't examine that thought too closely, just accepts it for what it is. She sets challenges for herself. Spends hour after long hour staring down a scope until she can put a bullet through the hole of its predecessor. Clint stops by occasionally to adjust her stance or give her a tip. New agents pause to watch her in her short skirt and heels, and Darcy imagines their faces on her target.
It's therapeutic, really, in a way that talking to any of SHIELD's resident shrinks isn't.
Of course Bruce would take even that from her.
Darcy sleeps with Tony because he asks her to.
She sleeps with Tony because he's there.
She sleeps with Tony because he's attractive and famous and occasionally not a dick.
Mostly, she sleeps with Tony just to prove to herself that she can.
She's her own person, free to do whatever she wants with whoever she wants. There's no reason that she should feel like shit for that.
(She does anyway. She feels like shit and like a user and like the kind of person she's never wanted to be.)
Bruce finds out in one of the worst possible ways, and Darcy sinks those few inches lower.
She Skypes Jane that night, and Jane is pale and drawn, but she makes Darcy laugh with a bad imitation of one of her research assistants. They talk for hours and don't mention any of the Avengers even once.
Darcy falls asleep with a smile on her face and dreams of mathematical equations and the perfect upper cut.
Tony stops by her desk with a bag of donuts and a black eye.
“That's a new one,” Darcy says as she fishes a bear claw out of the bag. “Sparring session with Steve?”
“Nah,” Tony says. He rubs the back of his neck and grins at her. “You know he likes my face too much to aim for it.”
Darcy smirks and takes comfort in the fact that at least some things are still easy. “Natasha then?”
That gets her a laugh and a hair ruffle that she ducks away from. “I wish. She would have done a neater job of it.”
She pinches his chin between her thumb and index finger and tilts his head to get a better angle on the shiner. “Yeah,” she says, skimming her fingers over the dark, puffy skin. “This is pretty nasty. Nat's an artist. This isn't something she'd sign her name to.”
Tony pauses, leans into her touch for a short moment, then withdraws. “Look,” he says as he starts to back toward the door. “Just do us all a favor and work out whatever your deal is with Bruce, okay?”
And then he's gone.
Darcy stares at the empty space where he'd been for several long heartbeats, then drops her untouched bear claw back into the bag and pushes the mass of sugary fried dough to the edge of her desk where other people will know it's up for grabs and goes back to reading files that are technically above her clearance.
“You need to be able to work with them, even if you can't get along with them,” Coulson tells her during her performance review. He's been dropping hints about retiring sometime in the next few years, and every time he does Darcy hears Maria's voice in the back of her mind telling her about being Fury's assistant.
Darcy's spine straightens. She crosses her legs and tosses her hair, her smirk firmly in place. “I can work with them. I can do anything you need me to, bossman.”
Coulson's eyes are hard and all seeing, but after a moment he nods.
Darcy meets the Hulk on a Tuesday afternoon. For a guy who most of the agency is terrified of—and most of them would never admit it, but that doesn't make it any less true—he's surprisingly easy to get along with.
“What are you going to do,” Maria asks her.
Darcy laughs and loads a new magazine in her handgun. She draws a bead on the target and puts a neat hole through the red heart of it. Then she turns to Maria and smiles as honestly as she's managed in what feels like a lifetime. “My job.”
“This is a horrible idea,” Bruce says against her neck as he tumbles her back into his bed.
Darcy fists his hair a little more tightly than is strictly necessary and says, “Shut up and get your pants off.”
Bruce groans, sucks hard on her neck in a move that's definitely going to leave a mark, and says, “Bad, horrible idea.”
“No, really,” Darcy says as she tries to shove his pants down over his hips. “Shut the fuck up.”
She can't follow her own advice, and she hates herself a little bit for it even as she hears the words escaping against her will.
And she hears each and every one of them as stupid, stupid, stupid.
Bruce doesn't want her to stick around. She knows that already. Even if he hadn't already made it clear, she would be able to read it in the awkward way he touches her after they're done that she wishes she'd picked up on the first time around.
“This never happened, right?” It's supposed to sound like a joke, but there's nothing funny about it. It hurts, but it won't hurt forever. She survived this once, and maybe it's a bad idea to go back for more punishment, but it's nothing that's going to kill her.
Except then Bruce doesn't follow the script.
Instead, Bruce says, “Stay.”
Bruce says, “Please.”
Bruce says a thousand things with his eyes that never make it past his lips.
And Darcy thinks of all of the things she's given up. She thinks of the innocence she's sacrificed and the dreams she's let go of, all without ever even really meaning to, and she slides back into bed.
Maybe, just maybe, she thinks, she can have this one, small thing just for herself. That shouldn't be too much to ask, right?
SHIELD strips Darcy of herself in bits and pieces.
She puts herself back together all by her own damn self.