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Legend had it that any time two souls were destined to walk the same path, no matter how brief, they left a mark as indelible as time in their wake. Darcy never put much faith in legends.

Then New Mexico happened.

Then Jane woke one morning with an actual technicolor more-than-tattoo on her wrist.

Marks were usually left in a couple of usual places: fingers, shoulders, palms, feet. Variance was rare, but still happened. Anything beyond the basic color scheme of black, blue, or the occasional red was rare but, again, still happened. Usually the wearer of the mark had one hell of a story to share about it, like Lifetime Original Movie level of story, and not always the kind that didn't need tissues at the end.

To say Jane waking up with a tiny rainbow Norse-like hammer on the inside of her left wrist was unusual was an understatement. Figuring out just who and what Thor actually was made a whole lot of sense after that.

The funny thing about these soul marks was that they were completely random. The universe might know what they meant, but the universe wasn't exactly talking. To an outsider, they might seem like nothing more than a tattoo of dubious origins. Symbols, shapes, and very rarely anything that might pass as words, though not always in an easily recognizable language - these were the norm and no one ever knew what they were going to get until they got it.

That was the other funny thing: they just sort of happened. Nine times out of ten, the mark was in the place where your soulmate first touched you. Nine times out of ten, they didn't show up until that touch actually occurred, skin on skin style. As in Person A's mark didn't appear until Person B touched initiated a touch and Person B's mark didn't show until Person A reciprocated. Every once in a while, again, there was some variance. A mark showed up seemingly out of nowhere or in a place the person swore was covered or people did touch but it was through layers upon layers of clothing - that sort of thing. Sometimes it was written off as an accidental brush in passing, other times there were some truly interesting accusations, and occasionally there was simply no reason to be found, possibly because neither party paid enough attention to look for it.

Needless to say, this led to some complex cultural norms in some places. And some awesomely fake marks that may or may not be proven to be so at a later date. Tattoo artists totally got a workout and were totally worth every penny spent.

Princesses and heiresses of certain supposed worth were covered at all times - long gloves and colorful tights being the height of fashion and all that. Darcy had an entire rant at the ready about implied ownership rights and false chastity and such for anyone daring to defend that particular practice. The word "chattel" was used a lot. Possibly overused, really. She was still working on that one.

Princes and men of all types who could afford them took to wearing gloves as well what with most touching being with hands and most marks caused by guys being handsy and, yes, there was an entire subculture that flat out refused to cover their hands at all but a lot of them were kind of skeezy and claimed possession more than partnership should a mark appear. The gloves tended to disappear after a mark was made anyway, an announcement to any and all that a match had occurred. Usually, for the rich at least, they just happened to reveal the chastest of marks on some politically relevant spouse-to-be's palm or knuckles, remarkably in the shape of some federated flag or sigil or some such crap.

It was always awesome when the paparazzi discovered other marks that totally did not match up with a person's supposed perfect mate, especially when matching marks were found on "close friends" that they happened to spend a boatload of time with.

That's not so say all marks were a sign of romantic compatibility. Sometimes the matched pair made a total powerhouse in their chosen field - board members of truly influential companies, scientists destined to find a breakthrough no one else would just because they worked on the same wavelength, bestest of best friends that simply just fit everywhere but the bedroom.

It's why Darcy subscribed to the belief that, should this whole soulmate thing hold water, people might have more than one. Polyamory was totally a thing before the Mystical Magical Whatever happened millennia before - they had the anthropological records to show it. She waved off the nutjobs that claimed that was just a sign they hadn't met their One True Love and so they were floundering in the muck. To her, maybe, they found more than one mate. To her, maybe, they found they didn't need a mate at all, and just had some awesome bros that bettered their lives. To her, maybe, there was a place in between and someone could have a mark made of political alliance right next to a mark of love. To her, maybe, they might even be one in the same.

Anyway, that had been the basis of her thesis that won her a pretty piece of really expensive paper. More than a single person had refused to even sit on her panel, but others were intrigued and called it a "thoughtful hypothesis for today's political climate" for whatever that meant. What it meant to her personally was that she finally got to add an abbreviation to her signature.

Well, that, and an increased paycheck. She still assigned herself to Jane because the woman seriously needed all the help she could get and pretty much nobody connected with her in a productive way what with all her little nuances others called nuisances, but Jane now worked for Stark who insisted there was no such thing as an unpaid intern. He also insisted that those little initials on her signature meant a higher pay scale in the Stark hierarchy of life. She, for one, was not about to complain.

Okay, so she was going to complain, just not about that.

She was going to complain that Jane needed to see the outside of a lab every once in a while and preferably the outside of the tower she worked in as well because while Thor-time was undoubtedly special in ways she really didn't need the details on, sunlight-time was special too.

This is why she forced her favorite scientist to go out to lunch at least once a week. As in out-out. True, they had only been in their new digs for like six weeks, but she had successfully gotten this to work five times now. Nearby cafes counted as much as a picnic in the park, so long as fresh air and semi-fresh food was involved. This time they had split the difference and had picked up coffees and sandwiches from a tiny hole-in-the-wall place to consume on benches with a decent view of a pond and idly converse about anything that tickled their fancy. Given that Darcy had brought along a trashy tabloid, they had plenty to talk about.

"Okay, but no, seriously? She was spotted with a third mark, this one damn near on her ass which, granted, the press really didn't need a close up of because that's a total violation of privacy, but the little umbrella-looking thing just happens to match the one on her valet's palm? Who do they think they're fooling?" she asked around a mouthful of pastrami.

Jane rolled her eyes, but reluctantly admitted, "If it's not photoshopped then, yeah, she probably should have covered it."

"No, you're not getting me here Jane-o," Darcy protested. "She could have covered it, yeah, whatever, but people shouldn't feel the need to hide their bodies just because the Great Mystical Mayhem decided to draw on them. My point is that maybe, possibly, he's her true mate and the picture perfect political union complete with marks that are damn near their fucking flag is the farce. Or, you know, she and Princey-Poo totes work well together to do what they need to get done, but that doesn't mean they need to be shacking up. Maybe they realize this and are letting her be with the other piece of her soul in private, even if they still feel the need to put on the show for the public."

"Careful," Jane warned as she wiped her hands on a napkin. "You're starting to sound like maybe you don't think the whole being marked thing is... what did you call it? Hooey?"

"Hooey," Darcy confirmed. It was totes a legit word.

Her views were well known, at least amongst those she called friends. They also happened to be gaining ground with the world in general. Too many mark matches ended in miserable marriages, it was a simple fact with the data to support it. Threesomes and moresomes were still considered subversive with the conservatives, but a logical compromise by more and more of the general public each day. She knew her thesis had absolutely no sway on said general public because it had damn near no sway on the academic world, but she really did like the fact that she was fucking right and she knew it.

A loud, high-pitched whine caught their attention before they could continue their conversation. Given that nothing in front of them or behind them accounted for such a sound, they both did what astrophysicists tended to do and looked up.

There was a portal forming above the park because of course there was.

The Iron Man armor was flying towards the portal because of course it was.

"Outta?" Darcy suggested. She started packing up their trash because there was no need to be a litterbug, even during a potential interdimensional crisis, and then sighed when she saw Jane pull out her phone instead. "Come on," she urged, physically grabbing her friend by the sleeve to tug her along.

"They better be taking readings," Jane muttered, reluctantly following. She was still snapping pictures as she went.

Darcy got them out of the park around the time the booms started happening. Whenever Stark was involved, explosions just seemed to occur. These at least seemed relatively contained to one area, so maybe he was learning.

Unfortunately, if the portal itself hadn't garnered the attention of the masses, the pretty bright lights did. Some people sensibly ducked down, others ran, and still others stood stock still with their mouths hanging open and getting into everyone else's way. She was firmly in the column of if not run then stroll quickly, and dragged Jane along for the ride.

Unfortunately part two was that drivers now noticed the the booms and alternately gawked from their cars and tried to get away. One guy decided to multitask and hung his head out of the window while he continued to swerve down the street because he was awesome like that.

He was, of course, aimed right in their direction.

Jane was still snapping pictures and only half-aware of her surroundings so it was up to Darcy to get them both out of harm's way. She still had a grip on her friend's long sleeve and used it to yank her forward and maybe give her a push at the same time. The masses were all well-clothed in this ritzy area so it wasn't like she was risking a random touch quite that much plus, if it turned out to be a hit she'd get the bonus of being saved by her soulmate which was always good for the tabloids. Not to mention Darcy really did doubt anyone would or could compete with Jane's own prince-god from another planet and the smart chick that figured out how to let him travel between worlds on a regular basis so Jane herself was fairly safe.

She was about to take a leaping step to follow her friend into the fray when some idiot crashed into her from the opposite direction. Mix that idiot with the overachiever in the car and her own less-than-stellar balance, and she was sent sprawling across the pavement.

It hurt.

A lot.

Her entire left side screamed in pain, her ankle was pressed at an odd angle against the curb and her arm at an even odder angle from her shoulder. Something warm and sticky dripped against the side of her face and she had the queasy feeling that it was her own blood. She tried to get a view of the world around her, but got like a dozen instead through the shattered lenses of her glasses.

"Darcy!" she heard a voice shout. It was a familiar voice and a familiar name and it took her far too long to figure out it was Jane calling for her.

She did what she thought was right and proper and swore profusely, even if the sound she actually produced seemed more like an incoherent sob instead.

"I called for help," Jane promised her, suddenly much closer. She thought she had only blinked. "Well, I pushed the panic button which is pretty much the same thing," she finished, now tucking her hair back from where it tickled Darcy's face. Really, that had been the last of her concerns. The blinding pain had been the first.

She heard voices, most of which were jumbled and meaningless, but then heard something far louder and far more authoritative atop them all. "Stark claims he's got the portal handled, we need to get these civilians out of here for when it all blows up in his face," someone who sounded like they actually had a clue said.

Another voice, gruffer and less showman-y, said, "We've got an alert. Someone he thinks is important enough to track." The voice dropped into a disparaging rumble after that, difficult to make out save for the promise to take care of the injured before the rich.

"It's me!" Jane exclaimed. There was movement, maybe her waving her phone around. It was hard to tell since Darcy really did not want to keep her eyes open and could mainly only see dirty cement anyway. "I work for Stark. Well, kind of. More like he begged me after... Whatever. You've got to help my friend. She got me out of the way with minimal injury, but the same can't be said for her."

There was commotion, noise, and then hands on her, turning her with what she assumed was gentleness but it's not like she could tell the difference. They pulled her onto her back and she couldn't hold back the sharp and drawn out, "Fuck," that escaped her lips.

She dared to open her eyes and saw two men, one dressed in a startling shade of blue and one damn near in all black. The one in black tried to lower her arm for her and profanity sprung anew. She had no idea why people called it blacking out in pain because, really, it was bright and burning and searing in flashes against her eyelids.

She came back to reality to hear one of the voices ask, "Is she okay?"

There was a hand on her, the press of bare fingertips like fire against the pulse point of her neck. That was just against every damned protocol ever, really, because either medics were to wear gloves or touch someplace innocuous like a wrist first to avoid the embarrassing marks of people's faces that were so common decades ago. CPR may save lives, but no one needed a soul mark on their lips for the rest of eternity. She was just thankful the idiot didn't yank open her eyelids to check her pupils first because that would totally be her luck. Yeah, she'd meet someone special and prove her theories wrong or right, but she'd also be branded like cattle for the rest of her existence.

She pried open her own eyes and adjusted her view to that of, maybe it wouldn't be that bad of a price to pay of it meant she was bonded with a guy as hot as the one that currently loomed over her. A guy that stared at her curiously, hand still hovering near before he tried to pull it back as though burned.

She reached out to grab it herself with her good hand. She wasn't sure why, maybe to prove to him that she wasn't some freaky contagious invalid mutant that fell through the portal or something. Her fingers skidded along leather though, just the tips brushing against a tiny scrap between where his stupid fingerless - seriously, who wore those - gloves and the sleeve of his coat met before he successfully pulled himself back.

"Buck?" the other guy, the one in blue, prompted. Annoyed now, that guy reached out with his actually gloved hand, then realized it was totally the wrong type of glove and way too padded to feel anything through. Instead of just verifying that his buddy got a reading, he tossed the thing to the side and reached to check her pulse himself, fingers hovering a hairsbreadth away from her skin.

She swatted him away before she realized that movement was seriously not in her future, at least anytime soon. Instead, she gritted her teeth and ground out, "Shoulder is out. Unless you two can at least manage that within somewhat standard protocols, can you find me someone who knows what the hell they are doing?"

"We gotcha," the guy in black promised. He leaned closer now and looked apologetic as he said, "You ain't going to like this though."

She wanted to ask what he meant, but found out soon enough. The guy in blue manhandled her into some sort of semi-sitting position that damn near made her scream. He pressed and prodded right where she hurt most and right where her sweater bunched in uncomfortable ways and she really wanted to yell at him for it, right up until he nodded to the other guy who slipped closer, grabbed her arm, and simply yanked.

There was a loud wailing sound and she barely self-aware enough to admit it came from her. The pain was sharp and blinding right up until there was a sickening popping noise, and then it faded into a dull ache that seemed to encompass her body as a whole. Her head lolled back against the shoulder of the man still propping her up and she managed to groan, "Well, that sucked."

Then she promptly passed out.

She awoke in a place far different than a dingy street corner. The room was made up of shades of soft grays and muted whites and a bunch of blinking machines. There were blinds to the side that were pulled and helped to cast the room in shadows, and a port for an IV was taped to her hand though whatever drip it had once been connected to had gone dry.

Gone were her sweater and jeans, which was fine since she had a faint memory of her favorite pair of denim meeting an untimely end when her knee hit the pavement. In their place was seriously the softest hospital gown that was ever made. Like, she wished her pajamas were as soft. Still the muted gray, and with thin almost gossamer sleeves that fit around the port and ended in almost gloves the way they clung to each and every one of her fingers separately.

There were protocols, and then there were Protocols. Apparently black leather and fancy blue meant you got taken to an ER paid for by more than just the taxpayers' money because this place was several levels up from that time she sprained her wrist climbing her cousin's tree.

Though, she really did wish she knew where she was. It was a little disconcerting to be moved, let alone dressed, without any knowledge of the act.

She shifted in her fancy bed and tried to see if there were any tells. Of course, having actual glasses would have helped, but she remembered them shattering in the fall. She squinted at the form just to her right, and knew it was one she'd recognize anywhere.

"Jane?" she asked, less as a verification of who she was and more as a prompt to tell her what the hell happened.

"You're safe," was the first thing her friend said.

Darcy resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but it was a near thing. "Yeah, got that with the posh hospital room and all that," she said dryly. "What happened?"

"There was a portal which was technically just-"

"I remember that. After the blacking out part. What happened then?" she prompted, not needing the science babble quite yet. She kinda doubted she would get anywhere near following it right now.

Jane smiled, hopefully in understanding. "You got rescued by the Avengers," she blurted with total glee. "Well, like two of them. Maybe one and a half because Captain America is totally one, but I don't know about his friend yet. Anyway, they picked you up and got you here. You were a damsel in distress and I'm never letting you live that down after that pining princess stuff you pulled when I met Thor."

That was fair, she supposed, but still begged the question, "Where is here?"

"Oh!" Jane exclaimed. She was either surprised Darcy had not grasped the obvious or embarrassed that she hadn't gotten to that part yet. "Stark Medical. There's a whole three floors of the tower set aside just in case, but you haven't needed that yet so, um, wouldn't know?"

"And you know this because?"

Now Jane looked chagrined. "Because I found out about two hours ago," she admitted. She waved her right wrist and it was only then that Darcy realized it was wrapped in some sort of new age splint. "Tiny fracture, barely there, hurts like hell."

"Shit," Darcy swore. She blew an admittedly lackluster curl from her face and winced. "That was totally from me, wasn't it?"

Jane clearly saw no need for lies as she admitted, "Yep, but the alternative was being hit by a car or to be seriously injured avoiding being hit by a car, so..."

"I chose one of the alternative alternatives, didn't I?" Darcy asked. She still wasn't one hundred percent sure what hit her, only that it started a spiral into a world of suck. At Jane's sympathetic nod, she asked, "What's the damage?"

She closed her eyes in preparation for the gory details. She knew about her shoulder, even if her arm wasn't immobilized in a sling. Her head throbbed and she couldn't tell if her neck hurt or if that was a side effect of the shoulder it was attached to. The entire left side of her body was in question though, as all she could tell was that it hurt, and that hurt was currently dulled by some impressive drugs that would likely wear off sooner rather than later.

She expected a matter of fact rundown, maybe some reassuring words or insistence that it wasn't so bad. What she didn't expect was the creak of a door opening and a decidedly male voice that answered with a gruff, "Shoulder was dislocated, ankle is sprained, knee has a small strain to the tendon and surrounding ligaments, and you have a mild concussion."

The voice was oddly familiar though, and she scrunched up her face while she tried to remember why. Then she remembered she could just open her damn eyes and see for herself.

It was the guy in black leather. Not that he was wearing it now. Dark jeans, dark shirt with a dark flannel atop it - dark was apparently his thing, right down to the dark hair that hung in his eyes. Those though, were not dark. From where she was sitting, admittedly too far away to see perfectly clearly sans glasses, they were a shocking light shade of what she thought was blue. It was hard to tell for certain, as he quickly looked away.

There was a lot of things she wanted to ask him, like who he was and why he had been there. Jane had given her a half-assed reason, but she preferred the full-ass version if possible. Instead, the first words she managed to blurt were, "Because suddenly you're a doctor?"

His eyes darted back to her. Definitely blue. Maybe. They were wide and spoke of a begrudging embarrassment and she almost felt bad. Almost. "No, doll," he insisted, almost apologetically. The almost was becoming a definite. "Just someone who stuck around to make sure you were alright. I should go..."

He took a total of two steps before Jane sighed dramatically, "Neither of you are that dumb. You can't be. It's not possible." She brushed her hair away from her face and almost got the long strands tangled in the brace. "Thor? Please say you're not teaming up with people this stupid?" she pleaded, a little louder than necessary.

As though summoned, the demigod in question leaned just barely through the doorway, successfully blocking Dark and Handsome from escaping. "I fear I cannot, for you have met the one called Barton," he smiled. His eyes narrowed slightly when he glanced about the room, settling on her once more before he asked, "What troubles you, my love?"

She glared at the other two occupants of the room, but shook her head. "Nothing. It's nothing," she muttered. Louder now, she asked, "Could you please see if it's okay for Darcy to leave yet? The doctor said they were just letting her rest, but she could probably do that more without an audience."

Which is how Darcy discovered she had just been in an observation room. Yeah, definitely fancier than the tree place. Outside the door was an entire world full of top of the line machines and scanners and doctors that put her little fancy piece of paper to shame. This was where heroes went when they got boo-boos, not people like her.

"Can I even afford this place?" she asked under her breath once situated in an actual padded wheelchair and given a sling that didn't feel like it was trying to saw her neck in half. There was a promise of paperwork and a recommendation for physical therapy and, better yet, a a promise of no surgery needed and then a final scan before the IV port was removed. They had not given her clothing back, but the super soft gown was actually closer to super soft pajamas complete with comfy bottoms and everything, and now came with a matching robe and little slippers that even slid over the brace on her ankle. The brace itself rested directly against her skin, something about the material it was made out of helping with circulation or some such thing she didn't actually listen to. It was washable though, and they gave her spares, so there was that.

One of the nurses, wearing the proper gloves she'd like to note, smiled at her after adjusting her ankle just so on the chair. "You are a Stark employee, believe me when I say it's covered," he promised.

She raised her eyebrows doubtingly, but took him at his word. She'd find out for certain when the bills came rolling in. She let Thor push her in the wheelchair because she knew not to question his ever so earnest offer, but she did sort of want to question why Monochromatic Man followed them onto the elevator.

She found she had far more important questions to ask however, when the elevator stopped at what was most decidedly not ground level. There was no foyer, no cab waiting to take her to her apartment, only a huge lounge-like area full of couches and chairs and what smelled like some truly excellent foodage.

Thor pushed her from the elevator and eyed the small set of steps that led to the rest of the place. He looked ready to just pick her up, chair and all, but their tagalong rolled his eyes and stepped forward before he could make his move. He scooped her up as though she weighed nothing and carried her down the steps and to a couch that looked like she could sink into. He lowered her with deceptive gentleness and added a pillow for her ankle, her wounded side away from the press of the back cushions so she could flinch without fear of them getting in the way. As a testament to the weirdness of the day, Captain Fucking America grabbed a super soft blanket from the side and tucked it around her lower half. To be fair, Captain Fucking America had also changed into civvies and it was truly a shame that he couldn't find any shirts to fit him.

No, the opposite of that, really. At least she had eye candy during her weirdness.

When she found her words, it was to say, "Not that I'm complaining about the royal treatment here, but what the hell?"

Captain America looked confused, and then looked less than pleased when his gaze transferred from her to the man at her side. "Really, Buck?" he asked, and sounded pained to do so.

"I haven't had the chance yet," the guy she finally had a name for protested. He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it up all artful-like, and looked everywhere but at her.

She scoffed because she could. "Because the last hour in Medical wasn't time enough to even tell me his name," she snorted. That's when she realized there were a few more people in the room than she first thought, some of them vaguely familiar, most of them in a class high above her own. Never one to be deterred, not even while seriously underdressed in a set of awesome pjs, she continued, "Mr. Named After a Stag here told me how I'm broken, hovered, and carried me here. Kinda stalker-y, but not a complete ass. No one, however, has told me why I was brought here and not actually home? Food smells awesome, sleep sounds better, home sounds required."

The one called Buck made to reach for her again, blanket burrito and all. "I can take you to your rooms if you want. What floor do you live on?"

"Second," she answered automatically.

He looked confused until Jane clarified, "Of a place just off Sixth in the area known as Hell's Kitchen."

Buck and his fellow bud Captain Confused blanched at that. "You don't live in the tower? I thought..." Blond and Cut turned to someone she couldn't quite see and asked, "Tony, why would you make Jane Foster's assistant live in a place called Hell's Kitchen?"

"Not my call," Tony Actual Stark replied. She had met him a few times now, usually chasing him out of Jane's lab so that she could get her work done. Not super impressed given his rep, but he seemed nice enough. Bonus that he believed that the best coffee machines ever invented should be available pretty much everywhere.

"Better question is to ask Foster why her peon rejected my offer," Stark countered. He had a tumbler in his hand, something amber and undoubtedly expensive. He waved it at her to see if she wanted any, but a woman with amazingly perfect red hair took it away from him and shook her head.

Most people would assume a recent college grad with loans to pay off would jump at the chance to live in the same building where she would be earning her first real grownup paycheck. The cost of transportation alone would make it a welcomed offer, especially in New York. Maybe. Depending on the actual rent. She had never gotten that far into the conversation before she turned him down. Anyway, most people were not Darcy Lewis, M.S.

"She's not my peon," Jane protested. "She is, or was, my unpaid intern that you now pay. I think. Still hazy on the details. She's still around and you claimed unpaid work was a blight on humanity and promised to cut her a check. As for why she said no, ask her yourself."

Stark looked at her expectantly, but she waited him out and made him ask the question himself because she knew it would annoy him. It apparently amused at least the redhead though. Darcy's answer, she knew, was not what he had been expecting. "Freckles," she replied simply.

Stark sputtered, but Thor laughed loud and bold. "Ah, the Hell Beast of the Kitchen! A great adversary to be certain."

"It's her cat," Jane clarified. She looked tired, and sat heavily on the overstuffed chair next to the couch. It reminded Darcy that she was injured too, as well as had spent most of the afternoon sitting around waiting for Darcy to wake up. "Thor gave her a kitten because of the animals she tried to save in New Mexico."

"It was an honorable endeavor," Thor agreed. "It showed her to be great of heart."

"Yeah, but Frecks is possibly descended from actual real demons," Jane cut him off. "I don't even want to know where you found him."

"Frecks is sweet and loving," Darcy objected. Freckles only ever attacked those he thought of as a threat, which just happened to be everyone save for Darcy herself. She missed her ball of fluff already. It was yet another reminder why she should be home instead to take care of him. "And I didn't take your offer because I can only imagine what the damage deposit would be in a place like this, and add a kitten to it? It was hard enough to find a place that took cats at a reasonable rate - Thor offered me a puppy but no one took dogs without signing your life away, no one - so, yeah, no, not taking you up on spending that much per month just for the convenience factor if it means I have to live fluff-free."

Captain Curious and Buck glared at Stark now, as though he had personally offended them. For his part, he waved his hands back and forth in protest. "We can house a Hulk here, a kitten is nothing, hell beast or no," he insisted. "And there is so much more than a convenience factor - safety alone... As for rent? Who the hell pays rent? Okay, a few people, but not not a lot and really not that much and... Hell's Kitchen? Over me? Really? You wound me, Lewis. Wound."

The one called Buck frowned. "Lewis?" he mouthed.

A completely different redhead from the drink stealing one sighed and shook her head. This one was recognizable for being a world class badass who occasionally left chocolates for the science staff. She offered Darcy a plate of small foods, all neatly cut up to be able to be eaten single-handedly. Her own hands now free, she cuffed the man across the back of the head. "James Buchanan Barnes, meet Darcy Lewis. Miss Lewis, meet the sadly non-housebroken James Buchanan Barnes."

"Bucky," Captain America corrected, at the same time the man in question said, "James."

"Whoa, you just have a plethora of names now, don't you?" Darcy teased. The food looked good, smelled excellent, and she was really tempted to try some, but not before she added a cutting, "Not that you mentioned any of them."

James pushed his hair back again and this time she noticed two very important things. The first was that one of his hands was metal, as in actual metal, as in probably more than his hand as his wrist was still shiny and silver beneath the cuff of his shirt. That alone told her just who he was more than anything else. She hadn't lived in a hole in the ground for the last few years and kinda even paid attention to the news during that time.

The second was the mark on the inner wrist of his human hand. She only caught a glimpse, quick and fleeting, but it asked more questions than answered them. What she saw was bright and red and not faded in the least. That meant he had a soulmate. Needlework might change color over time, but marks were another matter all together.

So why the hell was a mated guy doting on her?

It simply wasn't done. Even if you found that you weren't a good match with your mate, you didn't wave it out there for all to see. You were far more subtle about it, introduced them to all involved. Had a tattoo artist approximate your skin tone and cover that sucker up.

She tore her eyes away from the little glimpse of red to look for the obvious suspects. She had read her history books, and so she raked her gaze over Captain Cut's visible body for a sign. Though there was none that she could see, she knew that meant nothing. The two of them grew up in a different time - which kind of explained their issues with modern social mores - so maybe it wasn't in the usual areas.

She then looked to the redhead who was so exasperated with him. She was wearing short sleeves with tons of unmarked skin on display. She had readily touched Mr. Lots of Names, so she clearly knew beforehand if they were a match or not, and seemed entirely unbothered by the whole thing.

Or maybe not.

"Pepper, may I?" she asked in the same exasperated tone.

The first redhead seemed to know exactly what she meant and dug into a nearby purse to toss her something small and shiny. James-guy looked physically pained, like he knew what was coming, and moved as if to make an escape. He was cornered though, more so when Thor loomed all protective-like, and resigned himself to stand at the most awkward parade rest Darcy had ever seen.

"Here, have a look," Deadly Redhead offered. She held the mirror just so and Darcy reluctantly dared to look at it. She saw a sizable bruise on her forehead, a few little cuts on her temple that were probably from her glasses, but that was it. At least until the mirror was tilted downwards slightly.

"Holy shit, is that..." she exclaimed because she sucked at subtlety. On her throat, at her pulse point on the left hand side, was a mark that was so totally not there that morning, or ever. The light was all nice and subdued and her glasses were still missing, but it was enough to make out the most important aspects of the thing. It was small, thankfully, and held the precise outline of a star.

It was also bright fucking red.

She flinched, and her eyes immediately darted to her hovering henchman, who looked everywhere but her, not saying a damn word. He did speak, however, when the possibly literal killer redhead grabbed his arm and yanked it forward with a surprising amount of force.

"Natalia," he protested, but it was too late, the damage was already done. Darcy had seen it for herself: a tiny precise outline of a star in bright fucking red.

Her mouth ran away from her before she could stop it, and she blurted, "And this is why we wear gloves. Protocols, have you heard of them?"

He wrenched his hand away and tucked it back behind himself as though that erased the truth. "I- I'm sorry," he said, not much more than a grumbled whisper. "I didn't... I mean... It doesn't... It's not fair to you, I know this, but..."

Darcy was surprisingly at peace over this. His weirdness was now given a reason, if nothing else. "No big," she shrugged only partially regretfully. She knew she would be silently mourning that her soulmate was fucking hot and so didn't want her in that way, at least for a few minutes because she was shallow like that. "You and I just have to figure out what the grand plan is. What projects are you working on? I can totes help. Maybe that's what this means since I have no country to offer you for political alliance? Alternatively, how are you in the labs?"

"What?" he snapped, sharp and surprisingly threatening. Also surprisingly sexy but she was not going to admit that part out loud.

"Please say you're not the ownership type, because this girl don't play that," Darcy huffed, his hotness successfully abated at the thought. "You can be antiestablishment all you want, go out and mark as many chicks and chucks as you like, but you don't own me and I sure as hell won't even pretend to be docile and caged."

He looked panicked now, a hint of fear mixed with the clear expression of confusion. "What?" he repeated, far less deadly than before. "Natalia? Steve?" he asked, looking for allies.

Natalia, aka Natasha, aka Black Widow, aka Deadly Redhead, looked at her curiously, head cocked slightly to the side.

Steve, aka Captain America, aka BFF of her supposed soulmate, looked truly and utterly hapless.

It was Pepper, the other redhead that was probably the one that actually ran the joint more than Stark himself, that stepped in to clear matters up. Somewhat. "Mr. Barnes, may I suggest you read Ms. Lewis' thesis on soulmates to better understand where she may be coming from? Ms. Lewis, please remember that Mr. Barnes comes from a decidedly less liberal era with regards to the same."

He nodded numbly and she felt herself doing the same. She shook it off first though, which was frankly amazing considering her concussion-induced headache, and said, "Short version: marks might just be political or power connections as much as representing the lovey-dovey aspects. I respect what you may need out of this, but realize that I am so not the sit back and be controlled type."

He nodded again before he caught himself, shook his head, and frowned. "I would never... People do that?" he sputtered. The concept seemed so foreign to him, but he seemed to be a bit out of his comfort zone in general, so Darcy wasn't quite sure what to tell him.

"More often than you think," Pepper assured him. She turned back to Darcy and bade, "Please eat so that you can take your next dose of painkillers. You can stay in one of the guest suites for the night and we will send someone to check on your cat. Further accommodations can be discussed once you're up to it."

Personally, Darcy thought the couch was comfy enough, even with the distinct lack of Freckles. The promise of painkillers was beautiful though, especially considering the numbness from her knee to her toes was beginning to solidify into something far more excruciating. "I'm perfectly fine going home," she protested, because she was, really. Maybe they could reach a compromise and she could have painkillers and her tiny apartment. Surely they wouldn't hold those suckers for ransom just to force her into some more awkward conversation with a guy who shared a mark with her.

No one looked impressed or moved in anyway by her protest.

She sighed and took her first bite and it was divine. She had no idea what it actually was, but there was crumbly pastry around savory meat and cheese and she debated primness over shoving the lot of it in her mouth all at once. This was not Hot Pockets' nuke and puke level of food but, like, fancy shindig that-word-she-never-could-pronounce level. She ate that piece, and everything that looked remotely like that piece, maybe a little quicker than was strictly polite but, damn, she had one interesting day and reasoned she totally earned a break or three.

She tried a weird cheese that was also on her plate, but didn't like it nearly as much. She reluctantly ate another piece of it though when she saw the good stuff was already gone because she was not about to let food go to waste - she simply wasn't raised that way. She took the mug of what turned out to be tea of some sort from the guy that was hanging with Natasha who happened to have small double triangle surrounded by a circle with a little X through it on his throat. She knew better than to ask that particular question in her current status, so she sipped the tea instead, weird cheese forgotten.

Or maybe not so forgotten. Buck of the Soul Mark plopped down on the floor next to the couch and pointblank stole her plate. Before she could complain, he replaced it with a fresh one that held another three of the pastry things. He didn't say a word, but he did eat the cheese and, when she tried to balance her mug to grab at her prize, took that from her as well.

Captain Steve sat in another chair, just close enough to nudge Sullen Boy with his foot right before she needed something. Natasha narrowed her eyes at them both, but Jane tiredly grinned, possibly just happy she wasn't the only one with someone assigned to be at her beck and call as Thor tended to bring her precisely what she needed, before she knew it herself.

Two little pills appeared on her plate and she took those with the last of her tea. Either they were far more potent or she was far more tired than she had originally thought, as she found herself fighting a yawn within minutes. Her eyes started to droop shut, and she heard more than a single conversation around her grow quieter, but it wasn't until the empty plate was removed from her lap that she protested, "Freckles?"

"He'll be fine, doll," a male voice promised.

She had no idea why she found that reassuring, but she did anyway. Soon enough, even the background noise started to fade away and she drifted to sleep.