For as long as Darcy could remember, she'd wanted to live in New York City. Her grandmother told her that when she was two, she used to rub against the television whenever the I Love New York commercials ran. Fortunately, Darcy didn't remember that. But she remembered Trilogy: Past, Present, Future, her grandmother's only Frank Sinatra album – a gift from a persistent admirer – and playing New York, New York over and over and over. It was one of the songs on the iPod SHIELD had confiscated and when she finally got her iPod back, while the song was still there – Sinatra and Phish and Cat Power and Jacky Cheung and the Features and Devin Townsend – the Sinatra wasn't the one she'd recorded by setting her laptop and a cheap microphone a careful, measured distance from the old stereo speakers.
And okay, she hadn't responded to SHIELD's oh so subtle you know too much so we'd like to keep an eye on you offer just so she could ream out the suit who'd screwed up her playlist but it was definitely going to be one of the perks of the job.
At least they hadn't found the flash drive with Dog Day Afternoon, A Bronx Tale, and Shore Leave. She'd have probably ended up with copies of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Yankee Doodle Dandy
The Bronx was up, the Battery was down and thank freaking Thor that SHIELD provided housing or Darcy suspected she wouldn't have been able to afford to live closer than Vermont. And, in spite of the housing offer, she still spent two days in "temporary quarters" – a cross between a college dorm and Guantanamo Bay. Fortunately, between filling in an impressive pile of forms while sitting alone in a grey room checking out her reflection in a two way mirror...
"You guys know that your personality questions have a depressing similarity to eHarmony, right?" The mirror was so bad-cop-show-obvious it had to be part of the test; no way Darcy wasn't talking to it.
...and taking a barrage of physical tests...
"You know, if you needed to get my heart-rate up," she panted to the surprisingly young looking doctor, forearms supporting her breasts as she started kilometre number five, "I can think of a couple of ways that'd be more fun for both of us."
...she was too busy to really dwell on her cell-like living arrangements.
Halfway through the morning of day three, the same officious dick from HR she'd been dealing with showed up, handed her a set of keys and a lease on a studio apartment in Brooklyn, told her that her things had already been delivered, and she had the rest of the day to settle in.
"Check your email before you come into work tomorrow."
Darcy stared at him in astonishment. "Why would you get me an apartment and then fire me?"
"For your training schedule, Ms. Lewis."
"And we want to be sure you survived your first night before we issue you a locker." He didn't look like he was joking but Darcy had survived Lewis family Christmases for twenty-four years so screw him. "Your ride is waiting in the garage."
Finding the garage was definitely part of the test.
"Probationary Agent Lewis?" He was tall, skinny, and looked a bit like a young Will Smith. Circa Fresh Prince. Cute, but all ears. "I'm Probationary Driver Cadman." He frowned at her white Wall Mart blouse as though he disapproved and Darcy was fine with that, she disapproved too, but work as a Spook dress as a Spook, and while the ticket to New York had come with a dress code, it hadn't come with a clothing allowance. "I'll be taking you to your apartment," he added just before the disapproving pause stretched into bite me territory.
"Don't put yourself out, I could take the subway." She'd been looking forward to taking the subway. She knew someone who planned on doing their cultural anthropology thesis on the New York subway. Of course, she also knew someone who planned on doing their criminal psychology thesis on the New York subway, but after Thor's abs of thunder and a flaming robot destroyer thing, that didn't actually phase her much.
"I expect you'll be taking the subway back to Headquarters, Probationary Agent Lewis, but I've been assigned to drive you today."
She considered asking if that wouldn't be uncomfortable for him, given the stick up his butt and all, then decided, just this once, to cut him a break. "You know Torchwood was making fun of how obvious big, black SUV's are, right?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Cadman slid a pair of sunglasses on. "Please do up your seat belt."
About two blocks from where they peeled out of the underground garage, Darcy remembered Cadman was a Probationary Driver for SHIELD and his job would involve getting to the scene of the alien invasion/Doombots/mad scientist as quickly as possible. After careening across the desert in Jane's van, Darcy had assumed she'd seen definitive crazy driving.
She'd assumed wrong.
Priority had been given to clearing the roads after the Chitauri invasion in order to get emergency and construction vehicles to where they were needed and it seemed New York drivers had decided that not filling those roads would be as good as an admission of defeat.
New York traffic was... Darcy considered and discarded several descriptions and settled on: exactly as advertised. Everything the rest of the world believed about New York City traffic was essentially true and could, Darcy realized, be summed up with: there was one hell of a lot of it and the drivers were nuts. As she clung to the handle on the dashboard, attempting to actually keep her ass in contact with the leather seat, she wondered whether they'd started out nuts or had been driven that way by the traffic.
Apparently, in New York, if a driver stayed a car length back from the car in front of them, someone put a car into it. Usually, at least two someones tried. Cadman lost the race for space only once and as that was to a heavyset, older woman with orange hair behind the wheel of a yellow cab, Darcy figured there was no shame in the loss. The cabbie clearly had years of practice on her side. The cabbie's passenger seemed to be breathing into a brown paper bag.
As they pulled up in front of a four story apartment building, sliding sideways into a parking space with inches to spare and getting flipped off by the driver of a furniture delivery van trying for the same spot, Darcy unfastened her seat belt, twisted around, and thrust her fist at Cadman. "That was the best time I've ever had in a car with my clothes on!"
Cadman's eyebrows appeared above the upper edge of his sunglasses. "I don't think it was supposed to be fun."
Darcy let her hand drop. "Dude, if you can't have fun with a license to drive like you're filming a chase scene, you're doing the wrong job."
"Trust me, Probationary Driver Cadman, fun!"
He shook his head, as though actually enjoying his job had never occurred to him. "I have to get back. I'm being timed."
"Right." Darcy slid out of the car, her backpack barely clearing the door before it slammed shut. "Hey, thanks for the ride!" she yelled, as he made a U-turn around two Buicks and a Saab. It was hard to tell for sure, but there seemed to be a certain joie de vivre in the way he laid rubber at the corner.
The apartment building was red brick with white stone trim, had been built in 1927 according to the date carved into the lintel of the door, and might have been renovated in the late forties if the stairwell and the halls were any indication. It didn't come with an elevator and her apartment was on the fourth floor.
On the third floor landing, she switched her backpack to the other shoulder and panted, "If my calves get to big for my brown boots, I'm so taking this up with OSAH. Or the ACLU," she gasped six steps later. "Or the GMDM. Or the SPCA."
Her key looked like it opened a standard deadbolt but given the humming and the quiet beeping and the vibration, she suspected SHIELD had beefed up the security.
Breathing through her mouth – the tests might have been a delay so agents could infuse the drywall with just the right amount of eau de cabbage – she looked around at the single room with the tiny bathroom and tinier kitchen, at the ancient two burner stove, at the parquet flooring that had been patched in three separate patterns, at the brand new bland beige paint and blander beige furniture – the old paint and furniture no doubt replaced after the last agent in this apartment had messily expired on the premises – and grinned. She was living in New York.
Brooklyn might not be Manhattan – actually, Manhattan was barely Manhattan at the moment given the damage it had taken from the Chitauri – but it had a certain historical New York verisimilitude she appreciated and while the apartment was tiny, she could afford it on her Probationary Person in Black salary. If only because SHIELD probably owned the building even if the two sets of neighbours she met while returning with basic lunch supplies argued against it.
Mark, Rob, and Alan lived across the hall in a unit not much larger than hers. Mark said he was an off-Broadway – "Off, off Broadway," Alan had snorted – assistant stage manager, Rob was studying at the New York School of Design, and Alan was a carpenter.
"He's a set designer," Mark told her.
"I'm doing a kitchen reno in Long Island City." Alan had the kind of scowl that made Darcy think of eye patches and leather coats.
"As a temporary stop-gap until a new show opens."
Eyes rolling, Alan herded the other two back into their apartment, muttering, "I make more than both of them combined. You'll come over for margaritas some time, okay?"
"Absolutely," Darcy answered as the door closed. Three of them in that tiny apartment? It could be a stake-out. Twenty-four hour surveillance of the coffee shop across the street. Margaritas could be code for you'll come over to help us take down the neighbourhood mad scientist whipping mind control into skinny soy lattes some time, okay? But probably not.
When she turned to pick up the bag of groceries she'd put down to unlock her door, she found an enormous orange cat investigating the ice cream.
"His name is Sam. He is not to eat ice cream."
"I'm not feeding it to him," Darcy informed the old woman in the sky blue track suit and bunny slippers. "He got it open on his own."
"You not stopping him." She tucked hands deformed by arthritis under the cats armpit's and hauled him into the air, resting his weight against the curve of her hip with the ease of long practise. The cat, Sam, licked ice cream off his whiskers and looked as though he was planning world domination.
"I didn't want to hurt him."
"You new," the old woman muttered. "You learn."
"I didn't want him to hurt me?"
The teeth were clearly fake, but the smile was real. "Better. Sylvia Kriukov. Call me Sylvia. Mrs. Kriukov is mother-in-law."
Sylvia Kriukov had to be easily ninety years old. Maybe a hundred and ninety. Hey, she'd tazed a god. It was possible. "Darcy Lewis. Can I help?"
"No." Sylvia pivoted, the bunny slippers sliding over the worn tile, and shuffled down to an open door at the end of the hall, Sam's tail appearing momentarily by her left hip then her right. "He gets out, you bring to me. He no leave the building. No balls, no brains. Men."
Retired agent, Darcy decided as the door slammed shut. And super-villian, she added pressing the lid back on her ice cream.
Settled with Chinese takeout – real New York Chinese takeout – she called her grandmother, half listened to a lecture on working for the man, and told her where to send her boxes. Then she called Jane and left a message on her answering machine even though she knew damned well Jane never listened to her answering machine. Eventually, she'd call when Jane had the phone in her hand, Jane would call her, or, most likely, Darcy'd go hunt her down at Stark R&D.
"Oh God, no, Darcy, I'm not working directly for SHIELD. Tony says that since Eric opened the gate on Stark Tower using Stark technology, he's claiming salvage rights or something. I wasn't really listening. I'm ninety percent certain I can adapt what Eric did under Loki's influence to re-establishing a blah blah science science..."
Darcy'd listened for another twenty minutes and had understood the prepositions and about half the adjectives.
"...and when he gets back here, we're going to have a little talk about how on this world we pick up the phone!"
That, she'd understood. "And then have wild godlike sex?"
Bases touched, she shoved the leftover food in the tiny fridge, hung her messenger bag across her body, and headed out. By five, she'd hit Google's top ten vintage clothing stores in NYC – scoring work clothes that didn't make her want to spork her eyes out every time she passed a mirror – as well the first four listed vintage record stores. The record stores were all in Brooklyn but the clothing stores put miles on her brand new Metro card.
The subway was disappointingly tame.
Laden down with bags, she only just barely managed to get the building's door open. Blocking Sam's escape with her leg left her tipping a little...
"Hang on, I've got him."
The owner of the voice was about six two, blond hair, blue eyes, wearing a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up – white undershirt visible at the open collar – tucked into pressed khakis. Given that he dressed like her Uncle Stan – who was pushing seventy – Darcy quickly ticked the "No girlfriend." and "Not gay." boxes. Sam seemed to both know and approve of him though, butting his enormous orange head into a deliciously broad chest. Still, Sam was an ice cream thief. Not exactly a great judge of character.
"You're new in the building."
It wasn't a question, although Darcy heard questions under and around it. His inflections were weirdly formal so, unable to get a handle on the subtext, she merely grinned and said, "I'm new in New York."
They fell into step on the stairs, tall and blond shortening his stride to stay beside her.
Oh what the hell. He didn't seem like a bad guy and Sam did have good taste in ice cream.
He smiled. "Steve."
"So what about you?"
He looked confused. "What about me?"
"I'm new in New York, and you're...?"
"Not." He grinned. "Born and raised in Brooklyn." The grin faded. "But I was gone for a while. I just moved back last month."
Darcy had been warned about New York men. As though they were more likely to be lying, cheating S.O.Bs just by virtue of living in New York. But basic statistics said that if the population density meant the proportion of bastards would be higher than in other parts of the country the proportion of guys it might be worth getting to know would be higher too. And, Sam's opinion aside, Steve looked like a decent guy. Decent and kind of sad. "Did it change much while you were gone?"
"You have no idea."
Decent, sad, and a little twitchy, Darcy amended watching a muscle jump in his jaw.
A strangely heavy silence fell and Darcy, realizing Steve would be climbing all the way to the fourth floor with her to return Sam, tried not to breathe like a second rate porn star.
"So what about you?" Steve asked as they hit the third floor landing. "You're here for..."
"Work," Darcy gasped. "In my own defence," she added when she managed enough air for further words, "I've been vigorously shopping."
"I can tell."
"You can't score... these amazing finds... in New Mexico."
"Now... you're patronizing... me."
And the grin returned. Darcy figured seeing it again was worth her imminent demise. "Sorry."
Before he could ask what she did, before she could figure out what lies to tell him – there were options listed on one of the forms she'd filled out instructing her to pick one and stick to it – Sylvia Kriukov appeared at the top of the stairs muttering in...
"Russian," Darcy decided as Steve handed over the cat and all four of them moved out into the hall. "Took two years of it," she explained. "Temporary linguists major. Don't speak it, thus the temporary, but I recognize it."
"Girl is out of shape," Sylvia snorted. "She should go run with you in mornings."
"You run in the morning?" Darcy rolled her eyes. "Of course you do," she continued before Steve could answer. "You know what I do in the morning?"
Steve raised a blond brow.
Another grin. She could bask in his grin. "Of course you do."
"And you know what I'm going to do now? I'm going to sit down before I fall down. Nice try, Sam." She rubbed the cat between the ears, turned to tall and blond and spent a moment wanting to rub him between the ears before saying, "Nice to meet you, Steve."
"Nice to meet you, Darcy." He took two steps back down the stairs, paused, and said, "I'm in 311, if you need anything."
"Dude, don't tell me your apartment number. This is New York. I could be a serial killer for all you know!"
And one more grin. "I think I could handle you."
Sylvia muttered something new as he disappeared down the stairs.
"You just said he can handle me – where me means you – any time, didn't you?"
"Old," Sylvia snickered. "Not dead."
Darcy's first night in her first New York apartment involved sirens and something smacking into her window and more sirens and an impressively loud argument in an Asian language – although Darcy had no idea of which one or where exactly the argument was happening – and still more sirens. She put her earbuds in, pulled up her I'm going to kick New York's ass playlist and fell asleep smiling.
The next morning, she showered, checked her email, said several words Sam would have approved of – her grandmother said cats swore like sailors – and packed her plain grey SHEILD issue shorts, t-shirt, sport bra, and shoes into her backpack. Apparently even those SHIELD personnel destined for desk jobs had to pass minimum physical requirements. Darcy supposed that made sense. In the case of another alien invasion, she'd like the option of running away very fast.
Sorry. Leading civilians to safety. Very fast.
She put on her new/used navy and black tweed trousers, an actual vintage pale blue silk scoop neck blouse – from the days when women had boobs and blouses had fabric – and a 1930's style repro black cardigan. Her Docs weren't exactly office wear but they were polished and her office fought aliens so all arguments were invalid. A quick twist put her hair up on top of her head and after swiping a little Coral Sin over her lips, she dropped her makeup bag into her backpack. No point in painting and polishing if they were going to make her sweat.
Sighing, she stared at her reflection in the slightly cloudy full length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. "Well, don't I look like I'm going to work for the man."
At least the man had an eyepatch and a really kickass leather coat. She'd only seen Director Fury from a distance but she approved of the director of a secret government ass-kicking organization making an effort to actually look like the director of a secret government ass-kicking organization.
One of the cliches she'd heard about New York was that there was a coffee shop on every corner. This, Darcy discovered was not exactly true as at the closest intersection to home her apartment building took up one corner and the entrance to a small park took up one corner ,leaving only two corners for coffee shops. Darcy crossed to the nearer, got jostled around in the crowd of morning commuters until she could pass over her thermal mug for ten ounces of black coffee and two shots of espresso and jostle her way back out to the sidewalk...
...where an explosion snapped her head up in time to see a rain of burning debris heading for the ground. To her astonishment, most of the people around her merely moved in closer to the buildings and continued on their way to work. The remainder traced the debris' trajectory with their cellphone cameras, and two boys made a loud twenty dollar bet that the Chevy van would get flattened.
It definitely got dented. Before the largest piece of debris could drop below the treetops, a flaming figure swooped down and knocked it into the park.
"Darcy! Are you all right?" Motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm, Steve ran across the street toward her and Darcy realized she was stupidly standing right out in the open, staring up into the sky like the newbie New Yorker she was.
"I'm fine. Nothing came close. Were you..."
Which was when the flaming figure, who could only be the Human Torch, paused over the intersection. "You're welcome, Brooklyn. Am I hot today, or am I hot today?" He took a bow to a combination of cheers and catcalls, and sped off toward Manhattan.
"Grandstanding ass," Steve muttered.
Darcy grinned. "No, tell me what you really think."
He glanced down at her and turned a truly enchanting shade of pink. "I'm sorry. That's no language to use in front of a lady. Here it is, your first morning in New York, and the Fantastic Four take out three flying Doombots over the city. What must you be thinking..."
Darcy glanced around at the people giving superheros and supervillians both no more than same old, same old attention, at the cabbies swerving around bits of burning Doombot in the intersection, at the firetrucks roaring down the street toward the rising column of smoke in the park, at the tall, blond hottie with the stunning blue eyes and shoulders out to there and cupid's bow mouth and manly chin who'd run to see if she was all right. Manly chin... Darcy shook her head, momentarily distracted.
"What do I think?" She laughed, saluted Steve with her mug, and ground out a tiny tangle of smouldering wire that had drifted down to land between the toes of her boots. "I think I love New York."