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The Kitchen is the Heart of the Home

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In Darcy's not so humble opinion, writing job applications sucked. The only thing worse than writing the damn things was the other side of that evil self-pimping coin: job rejections.

When she received not one but six rejections in the space of as many hours, she announced to the empty apartment that she gave up and pulled out the emergency box of wine from where she kept it under her bed.

More like box of win, she thought as she poured her second glass.

Everything was going to be fine. She had wine and she was just going to keep working in the Java Joint forever because no matter how terrible the job market and the economy were, people always needed coffee, right? The way she saw it, there were three jobs that were completely necessary to the American way of life. Midwife, funeral director and barista. She didn't like blood or dressing all in black, so coffee making it was.

Sighing, she turned to her laptop and loaded Facebook. She felt the overwhelming need to bemoan her lack of employability after majoring in poli sci. Then, she deleted the status update and wrote D: D: D: because this was a time when only emoticons could truly capture her feelings.

As she reached for the wine box for the third time, she decided it would be an awesome idea just to finish the cover letter that she had been writing when rejection number six had arrived in her inbox. It would be monumental. Her last ever job application. Who cared what she wrote in it as long as it was done and out of her life?

Dear [copy and pasted HR person's name],

I am interested in the [copy and pasted job title] position. My resume is enclosed for your review, but I'm not sure if it can truly convey how awesome I am and why exactly you should employ me.

I've worked with a variety of personalities over the years, so I am adept at handling people (no innuendo intended). I can take instructions well, but also like to use my own initiative to ensure the best outcome for myself and my colleagues. For example, I once tased the Norse god of thunder...

She filled two whole pages with her ramblings, complete with liberal application of emoticons, switched the font to Comic Sans before changing it back to Arial, then hit save. Darcy drained her glass and the application went whooshing out into cyberspace.

Darcy sighed. Now would be a good time for a nap. Or more wine. Which would probably lead to a nap, anyway, because she was a sleepy sort of drunk and the last time she'd had this much alcohol was when Jane had got back from a remote consulting job to find Manhattan in ruins and that Thor had been and gone without so much as a note. Jane had thoughtfully provided the booze for her own pity party as they drank a lot more than Darcy could afford on her barely minimum wage coffee monkey job.

Somewhere in SHIELD, a computer beeped, interrupting a covert game of Solitaire. The surveillance software had been quietly recording Darcy's correspondence since the New Mexico incident. Now, with certain key words mentioned in Darcy's tipsy ramblings, the email was diverted away from the intended recipient and flagged up in a flashing red dialog box.

It eventually reached the attention of someone a little higher up the food chain who had something resembling a sense of humor and took the problem in a slightly different direction than might have been mandated by SHIELD superiors. What Director Fury didn't know wouldn't make any veins pulse in an unnerving manner.

Darcy had anticipated waking up with a hangover, but what she hadn't expected was the offer of a job interview at Stark Industries to be sitting in her inbox; she promptly fell off her bed in a tangle of blankets as she scrambled for her cellphone.

***

"It was hard enough keeping track of Tony when he had one life, but now he has two..."

Pepper Potts hadn't stopped talking from the moment she had introduced herself to Darcy and seen her through the necessary security checks.

Despite this being Darcy's first day at Stark Industries, she still wasn't quite sure that this was the job she wanted. No matter who she was working for, the job description seemed to be that of a glorified receptionist, so it definitely wasn't where she had wanted to be when she had set out to major in political science.

You don't need a degree, she thought, to do filing. Darcy groaned internally as the thought crossed her mind. No, there was no need to be bitchy about it. How many of her college friends were still unemployed or working for minimum wage? Tony Stark, she thought, probably doesn't even know what the minimum wage is. She had no right to complain, even if the high heels she'd bought specially for this job were already pinching her toes: it was only 9:30.

That must be her super power, Darcy thought enviously as she trailed after Pepper and glanced down at the towering Louboutins the woman was rocking. Impervious to squished toes. Not to mention hyper organized

Having interned for Jane Foster, Darcy had developed her own super power, for she was... Super Spreadsheet Girl! Or... Excel Woman!

Darcy hadn't quite decided which, though. Excel Woman sounded a bit cooler, but had the initials EW and there could be copyright issues there.

"Now for the most important part of the tower..." Pepper turned her head to look back at Darcy and smiled knowingly.

Jane had MacGyver'd most of her own equipment, some of which had been held together witch rubber bands, so Darcy had been expecting Pepper to take her some souped-up laboratory filled with shiny equipment that had all the latest bells and whistles. (Unlike in Jane's lab where she really had used actual bells and whistles to augment her equipment.)

Instead, Pepper lead her into a shiny top-of-the-line kitchen with gleaming work surfaces and two massive refrigerators. "Coffee," she said, pointing at what appeared to be the full Starbucks set-up in the corner. "And food. Don't forget to eat. Tony will, but that's my problem."

" Seems like babysitting him is a lot of work," Darcy said, the words reaching her mouth before her brain could censor them. Mentally, she facepalmed. You didn't call your boss's boss a child on the first day. Not cool.

Pepper, however, made a non-committal sort of noise. "Something along those lines, yes." She straightened her posture, if such a thing was even possible. "Why don't you make us some coffees and bring them to my office? We'll get you kitted out with a tablet go over my schedule."

Making coffee. Darcy had known that would crop up eventually, but that was cool because she'd done hard time shackled to a faceless corporate coffee entity her freshman year of college. She knew her way around steamed milk and espresso shots.

Darcy Lewis Pet Peeve #15: People who say 'expresso'.

Pepper sashayed away and Darcy headed straight for the coffee machine, though not before sneakily toeing off her shoes. She wiggled her toes in delight, grinning as she saw the smiley face pedicure she'd given herself the previous night.

"Now all I need is some tunes," she murmured, reaching for the coffee.

Pepper looks like a double shot kind of person.

"All you need to do is ask."

Yelping, Darcy turned around. "What the..." She glared at the man standing there, but her voice caught when she tried to scold him. Every line of his body seemed to be apologizing for simply existing.

He gave a small shrug, shoulders hunched. "Sorry. I tend to scare people."

"Yeah. Most people around here look like they'd freak out just seeing an un-ironed shirt." Darcy herself preferred to live in baggy sweaters and comfortable sneakers, but this job had meant she had to abuse her credit card and get some blouses that barely kept from gaping at the bust.

The man had the good grace to look amused rather than offended by her comment. "Yeah, something like that."

Darcy could recognize the rumpled scientist type at twenty paces. Tony Stark never looked like that, though. Maybe it was just some sort of change that happened once you got your PhD. "Do you want a coffee while I'm here?" she asked, turning back to the task at hand. She didn't want to leave Pepper waiting any longer than necessary on her first day, and that was assuming that she didn't get lost on her way back to the office, either.

"Er, no. Thank you. I tend to avoid caffeine."

"Gets you jittery?" she asked sympathetically, wishing that Pepper had been a bit more specific about her coffee order. At least with Jane, Darcy had known to keep it black, hot and strong as a Norse god. "I had a roommate like that once. And she was just as bad with decaf. So weird."

"I just prefer to stay away from stimulants."

"And you call yourself a scientist," Darcy scoffed, then nearly scalded herself with hot milk; she was a little out of practice. "So what were you saying about music?"

"Just ask. JARVIS has," he frowned as he paused, "just about anything anyone could want to listen to. And then some." His gaze flickered about the kitchen, never quite landing on anything in particular.

"All right." Darcy finished making her coffee. "And he is...?"

"Mr Stark's artificial intelligence," a cool, British-sounding voice cut in, even as rumpled scientist opened his mouth to speak. "I believe Ms Potts intends to explain further when you return to her office."

"Right," Darcy said quickly, grabbing the drinks. She flashed a grin at the man. "Enjoy your non-caffeinated beverage of choice," she told him as she scurried past. Then, remembering she was barefoot, Darcy winced and went back to slip her shoes on, choosing to ignore his smirk.

JARVIS only had to give her directions once on the way to Pepper's office. Darcy was damn proud of that.

***

The next time she saw rumpled scientist dude, Darcy punched him in the arm. "Hey!"

He gaped at her, then rubbed his arm, hand sliding back and forth over the worn cotton. "What was that for?" he asked.

"For not telling me you were Dr Banner. I mean, you're the freakin' Hulk!"

Bruce winced as though he had just sucked on a lemon. "You can call me Dr Banner," he said. "Or even Bruce. The Other Guy doesn't come out to play very much."

"You call him the Other Guy?" Darcy asked, grinning. "That's so cute."

He pushed up his glasses. "I can safely say I've never heard that before."

After nearly a week at Stark Industries, Darcy knew her way around Pepper Potts's coffee order, not to mention that of most people who frequented this particular part of Stark Tower. She'd even made coffee for Captain 'call me Steve' America, which was really weird because she'd written her thesis on him. He was like a piece of living history, albeit one that ate like a horse. But thankfully with better-than-equine table manners.

"You're like a super smart science guy and you get totally ripped when you need to. It's like you're the brains and the brawn of the operation."

This drew a chuckle from him as he headed towards one of the well-stocked refrigerators. "Er... Hm. I doubt Tony would agree with that assessment," he said neutrally.

Darcy frowned, managing to kick her internal censor into gear. "I could say something about his ego, but it's still my first week at work and he's pretty much my boss."

"Very diplomatic, Miss Lewis," JARVIS said just a moment before Tony Stark himself strolled into the kitchen. Unlike the usual images Darcy saw of him on TV, he looked almost like a normal guy in beat up sneakers and a faded band t-shirt. He looks taller on TV, Darcy thought.

He seemed confused, looking around the kitchen in amazement. "I didn't know I had one of these. JARVIS, did you know I had one of these?"

JARVIS was apparently on his wryest setting. "Miss Potts thought it would be prudent to have a food preparation area beyond just the wet bar, sir."

Looking unconvinced, Tony shrugged. "Well, whatever." His gaze landed on Darcy. "You," he said, and pointed at her, presumably in case she wasn't aware of who she was.

"Me?"

He went from serious to smirking in the blink of an eye. "I've got to say, I wish more people would apply for jobs drunk. It makes for interesting reading." He hopped up to perch on the worktop, swinging his legs so that his heels drummed against the cupboard door beneath.

Color flooded Darcy's cheeks. Oh, crap.

"Though I would have thought," he continued, unconcerned, "that Rainbow Dash would be your favorite My Little Pony."

Darcy gave herself a brief reminder of the basic principles of breathing. This is freaking me out.

Finally, she found her voice and replied with an answer more honest than she'd intended. "Twilight Sparkle just reminds me of my old boss."

Tony nodded. "Jane Foster." He mused it over. "Yeah. I can see it."

"Yes." Darcy pressed her lips together, trying to remember whether Pepper had given her any advice about how to deal with Tony Stark in a one-on-one situation. Was she or was she not supposed to make eye contact? "That was just a one-off, though. I've never drunk half a box of wine and applied for a job before."

"Half a bo--" Tony grimaced; he could barely say the word. Closing his eyes, he inhaled. "Pepper," he said, strained, "has so much to teach you."

He leapt down from the worktop with surprising grace and swaggered on out of the kitchen without another word. Darcy turned to Bruce. "So how come you can deal with him all the time and yet you can't drink coffee?"

Bruce smirked. "I'm a complicated man," he said, plucking a banana from the fruit bowl.

"At least you're not a Norse god with daddy issues. They're the worst."

Before leaving, presumably to scurry off back to R&D, Bruce slugged her in the arm in retaliation for the earlier punch. Just a gentle tap, really. "Pretty puny sort of god," he told her.

Darcy couldn't explain to Pepper why she was blushing when she returned with their drinks.

***

Apparently Tony Stark had been more horrified by the thought of someone drinking wine from a box than he had of 'sweaty workmen' rebuilding Stark Tower after aliens had taken a dislike to it and the rest of Manhattan. So, when Pepper took Darcy along to California for business meetings, Darcy discovered that they had a whole day set aside to visit a winery. "It'll set you in good stead for when we're next in Monaco," Pepper had said; Darcy tried not to snort the wine out of her nose as she realized that, yes, this really was her life now.

She arrived back in New York a couple of days ahead of Pepper, who stayed to go over plans for a new Stark Tower with Tony. Darcy thought that was a really transparent excuse for wanting some 'alone time', but she wasn't going to begrudge anyone who was getting some action. The closest she'd got to grown-up alone time in the last few months was accidentally almost getting to third base with Captain America when one of Tony and Bruce's experiments had taken out all the lights in Stark Tower.

Steve had turned as red as his uniform boots and still couldn't look her in the eye. He'd even reverted to calling her 'ma'am'; Darcy wondered how long it would to take to coax him into using her name again.

Darcy spent the morning getting intimate with her spreadsheets, then tidied up Pepper's schedule for when she returned. Syncing it to the server so that Pepper would be able to see it on the system, Darcy left her shoes under her desk and wandered to the kitchen.

"JARVIS," she asked before she even arrived, "do we have any Pop-Tarts?"

"I believe so, Miss Lewis."

"Thank you!"

In the kitchen, Darcy sipped coffee and waited for the toaster to provide her with hot, sugary goodness. Which would probably burn her tongue, but whatever. They were blueberry flavor, so it was worth it. JARVIS was even kind enough to put on one of her playlists.

"I was under the impression that Tony had banned any and all ABBA from the tower?"

Darcy nearly spilled coffee on her white blouse. She glared at Bruce and JARVIS thoughtfully lowered the volume for them to hold a conversation. "For a guy that turns into a giant green monster, you're really good at sneaking up on people."

Bruce chuckled, pulling off his glasses to polish them on a handkerchief that he pulled from pants that looked as slept-in as his shirt. Either he really had slept in them, Darcy decided, or he hadn't slept for a couple of days.

She smiled to herself as the toaster popped, plucking up the Pop-Tarts with forefinger and thumb before dropping them onto the waiting plate.

"So..." she said slowly, acutely aware that Bruce was watching her with those knowing, curious eyes. "What are you working on?"

"It's a little complicated. You wouldn't be interested."

Darcy scoffed. She knew that was code for 'you wouldn't understand' and, really, what was the world coming to when she thought that other people needed lessons in subtlety? "Please. I majored in poli sci and interned for an astrophysicist. I speak, like, bureaucrat and scientist," she teased. "Not fluently. But enough to get by in conversation."

He gave a quiet laugh, looking down at the floor.

Rolling her eyes, she told him, "Just say it's classified. Much better excuse."

Bruce's lips twisted into a wry smile. "I'll bear that in mind for next time."

"Pop-Tart?" Darcy asked, holding out the plate. There were enough left in the packet for her to be able to share one. Bruce looked doubtful and she gave the plate a jiggle. "Or is the Other Guy not allowed sugar?"

"I can handle a little sweetness."

"Good to know."

***

Pepper seemed to be stuck in board meetings almost non-stop and Darcy sometimes felt as though she communicated with her boss more through text messages and emails than in person. The only times that Darcy knew she wouldn't hear from Pepper for a little while was when she was with Tony.

And if a text message came through then, it was usually all in caps and super urgent. Usually because Tony had done... something.

After the latest of these, Darcy decided to reward herself for how smoothly she had managed to rearrange a meeting that Tony had either ignored or forgotten, then send flowers to a woman who apparently really needed an apology - though Pepper had refused to tell her exactly why. Darcy had even gone Facebook stalking to see if her profile would give any clues as to her favorite kind of flowers. JARVIS was exceedingly helpful in suggesting the meanings that certain flowers held.

Her reward of choice was to make cookies. Assuming, of course, that no one else had eaten the chocolate chips that she'd spotted in the pantry.

The kitchen was surprisingly busy when she walked in, with Agent Barton, Steve and Bruce in varying states of despondency and amusement. Darcy put her hands on her hips, surveying them. Barton was sitting on the worktop (right where she'd been planning to make her cookies) with a bag of frozen peas clutched to one hand. Steve was sitting at the breakfast bar with an entire apple pie in front of him, which he seemed to be methodically eating with a fork.

Then, there was Bruce, who leant against the refrigerator with a smirk playing on his lips and his hands wrapped around a cup of something hot and steaming. "What happened?" Darcy asked, even as she engaged the camera on her cellphone and snapped a photo of Steve and his pie. She wished she could put it on Facebook, but Pepper had strict rules about that sort of thing.

"Nothing, really. But you may have destroyed Clint's livelihood."

"Me?" Darcy gaped for a moment, then pressed her lips together in a hard line, tasting the sweet strawberry of her lipgloss. "What did I do?"

"Taught Steve how to fist bump."

Are his eyes actually twinkling or is that just the light reflecting off his glasses?

Steve gave the most sheepish of smiles - Darcy snapped another picture, though he blinked and ruined it - and dug his fork extra hard into the apple pie.

Barton glared at her. "You should have stuck with high fives."

She did the only thing she thought she could do - roll her eyes.

Darcy Lewis Pet Peeve #23: Trolls.

He was only fussing to make Steve feel bad and, unfortunately, doing a good job of it, if the comfort eating was any indication.

Steve had mastered the art of the high five pretty damn easily. It just seemed like he needed to put a little less of that super-solider strength behind his first bumps. "Big baby. Your hand'll be fine."

"You don't know that!" He flexed his fingers experimentally and scowled at her.

"I do know that you're stopping me from making cookies."

It was amazing how quickly Barton stopped complaining after that. Equally amazing was how Steve still had an appetite for cookies after eating an entire pie. Darcy poured them large glasses of milk and left them chatting in a friendly sort of fashion at the breakfast bar. She thought herself very mature not to comment on the fact that Clint had forgotten all about the frozen peas and his so-called injury.

She offered the plate of cookies to Bruce. He smiled and shook his head.

"Sometimes I feel like you're the dad of the group."

Bruce's smile faltered, but didn't develop into a fully-fledged frown. "The dad?"

"Mm." Darcy bit into a still-warm cookie, the taste of chocolate and sweetness exploding over her tongue. "Oh, god. You have to try this," she said, pressing the other half of the cookie to his lips. He hesitantly took a bite and Darcy continued, unconcerned. "But, actually, I think you're more like the big brother. You look responsible, but you're secretly mocking everyone, too."

Darcy couldn't tell if it was the heat of the kitchen from her baking that made his cheeks that color or something else, but Bruce leaned in to quietly say, "They're just such easy targets."

"Yeah," Darcy murmured, feeling like the heat was getting to her now. Had she left the oven on?

Bruce plucked a cookie from the plate. "These really are good," he said. "You'll have to make them again sometime."

Darcy coughed lightly, sure she had a cookie crumb stuck in her throat. "Mm hm. Okay." Yeah, she could do that. Totally.

"I'd better get back to the lab. Think I've neglected my equations for too long."

Staring helplessly after him, Darcy reached blindly for the milk with her free hand. As she chugged it down straight from the carton, she couldn't protest as Steve took the last cookie, brushing past her on his way out of the kitchen.

"And they call me the oblivious one," he said quietly, shaking his head.

***

There were three turkeys for Thanksgiving in Stark Tower. One for Tony to carve using whatever gadget he'd dreamed up in R&D (and therefore likely ruin), one for Dummy to carve incredibly accurately ("This you can do?" Tony lamented to anyone who would listen) and one for Thor.

"I am proud to have given my name to the day on which such a feast of celebration is held!" he announced, making Darcy dissolve into giggles behind her wine. Beside her, Jane struggled to keep a straight face, eventually gulping down half her glass to mask her mirth.

Luckily, Steve took over in saying what he was thankful for, so very earnest about it that it was impossible to even think of laughing.

I just want to give him a hug, Darcy thought as Dummy refilled her glass. That was another thing Dummy was really good at. And it was really good wine. Really good.

As Darcy ate, Jane told her about her latest breakthrough in their understanding of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and she even used words that didn't have a zillion syllables, so Darcy was able to follow along. "You really need to come and see the lab," Jane enthused. "It's... it's really not the same without you."

"You mean you miss borrowing my sweaters in the middle of the night."

"That too," Jane said with a sly smile. "But mostly just you. It was nice having a non-scientific perspective."

"Especially one set to rockin' tunes," Darcy said with a grin.

"I've never been able to recreate your playlists."

"It's an art," said Darcy proudly.

Just when Darcy felt comfortably full, someone announced it was time for pie. Maybe I could manage just one slice, she decided, then offered to go fetch them. She was halfway to the door when she heard Bruce volunteer to help and so didn't see Clint toss a $10 bill across the table to a smug-looking Steve.

"We should get coffee," Bruce said as Darcy surveyed the selection of pies and tried to decide the best way of carrying them.

"I don't think I could drink coffee after all that wine," Darcy said, picking up one pie and studiously avoiding Bruce's gaze.

"Not what I meant, Darcy," he said patiently, taking the pie from her.

Flustered, Darcy blurted, "But you don't drink coffee." She pushed her glasses up, smudging them in the process.

"Dinner, then. If you think you can bear my company for that long."

Darcy made herself look at him straight on. He was dressed well today, she thought appreciatively, in a shirt she suspected that he had borrowed from Tony. It was too crisply pressed to have come from Bruce's closet. The rest of him was undeniably him, though, from the ruffled hair to the slouching posture of a man determined to make himself look as small and non-threatening as possible.

"Dinner? Yeah." She smiled. "I'd like that. But only if you're sure."

"I'm sure."

"Good."

"Good."

Darcy could feel her cheeks flushing red. "So you have been flirting with me, right?" she asked dubiously.

He chuckled. "Yes."

"Right. Just wanted to be sure." That confirmed, she darted forward to kiss his cheek. He smelled comfortingly masculine, even with the overwhelming sweetness of pie fillings in the air. "Still sure?"

He answered with a kiss, lips pressed insistently to hers as his fingers slid into her dark hair to hold her close.

Darcy smiled dreamily when he pulled away. She sighed. "Mm. Okay, I think I'm losing my interest in pie," she announced, fingers curled into his shirt. She held on a little tighter.

Bruce rested his forehead lightly against hers, their glasses knocking. "Perhaps I can show you my lab later. Even after all these months, I don't believe I've given you the tour."

"Yeah, but I've never needed..." From the way he's staring at her, Darcy realizes that he means something else entirely; it clicks into her head and she manages to cut herself off. "Oh, yeah. A tour." She grinned. "That would be awesome."