“Friday, could you ask Darcy if she has a few minutes this evening to meet me in her office? I’ll be working late, so it can wait til tomorrow if she’s not avail—”
“Dr. Lewis is not currently located within Avengers Tower. Would you like me to send your request by text message instead, Dr. Foster?” Friday inquired politely.
Jane blinked in surprise. Tony’s head snapped up from behind a pile of crates containing raw materials for a new fabrication project. The Think Tank, a central lab and work space for group projects, normally buzzing with the activity of the Scientists Three, came to an abrupt and silent halt.
“Friday, did you—?” Bruce cleared his throat and tried again. “Did you say ‘Dr. Lewis’?”
“Yes. Dr. Darcy Lewis, PhD. My security protocol subroutine requires that honoraries and titles of address be updated immediately as new information becomes available. The change was noted with Human Resources at ten-oh-one this morning, per established personnel and security protocols.”
Tony’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline, but Jane’s face twisted in suspicion. “When was today’s mail delivered, Friday?” she asked.
“The Senior Level Research and Development Department, known colloquially as the Think Tank, received its mail at nine fifty-five this morning.”
“And when was the mail read?”
“Dr. Lewis opened all administrative mail and parcels and her own personal mail at nine fifty-eight. The remaining personal mail items have not yet been collected by Senior Level Research and Development Personnel from the main Senior Level Research and Development reception desk.”
Jane sucked in a sharp breath. “She promised she would tell me when it arrived!” The diminutive Dr. Foster spun in a circle, searching her work tables for her phone. Unable to locate it amongst the sheafs of papers and tangle of wires, she was forced to rely on Friday once more. “Friday, please ping Darcy’s phone’s locator and find out where she is.”
“Dr. Lewis has disabled her mobile locator beacon and asked not to be disturbed.”
“So you know where she is?” Jane asked, tapping her chin.
“Dr. Lewis is not currently located inside Avengers Tower,” came the infuriatingly vague reply.
“Does she have plans with Sergeant Barnes this evening?” Jane asked, oh so casually.
“Dr. Lewis is not currently located inside Avengers Tower.”
“Friday, I thought we were bros.”
Jane glared at Tony who shrugged. “Friday’s still new here. Don’t look at me with your judging face. I only program them. How they grow and develop their own programming is up to them. Maybe the new doctor is celebrating? Playing doctor with a certain sassy brunet cyborg assassino.” He waggled his eyebrows.
But Jane knew Darcy and if she received in the mail what Jane suspected, then her best friend was more likely off somewhere brooding. Hard.
And freaking out even harder.
The astrophysicist sighed. She got it. Adulting is hard. She’d been there, too. Hell, everyone in this room had been there once, but that didn’t mean Darcy had to skulk off and brood about major life changes alone.
That’s what best friends and tequila are for.
“I gotta find Darce.” Giving up on finding her phone, Jane marched towards the private elevator, mentally reorganizing her evening before calling in the big guns. When she arrived in her apartment, Thor, Steve, Bucky, and Clint were all gathered around the dining-turned-poker table—an assortment of animal crackers, nuts, chocolate-covered pretzels, and gummy bears piled in front of each in place of poker chips.
“What were you doing when I called earlier?” she demanded, hands on hips. Not that she was judging. She knew when she met her space viking prince that he would never be a typical nine-to-fiver, but she had to admit the idea of him wasting a day playing poker with a national icon and two part-time spy superheroes like a group of teenagers playing D&D in someone’s parents’ basement while she had to wear pants and do grown up things chapped her ass a little.
Thor spread his hands as he opened his mouth to answer, but Bucky interrupted, “Waitin’ on you, Nat, and Darce, doll. It’s poker night.”
“I—” Jane looked at the clock. “Nine fifteen! You mean Darcy’s been freaking out about this for almost twelve hours? Alone? ”
The former assassin’s eyes darkened to a stormy teal. “Freaking out about what?”
“Shit,” she cursed. “Friday, did Darcy leave her mail down in R&D or drop it off in her apartment?”
“Dr. Lewis’ mail is sitting on her kitchen table,” Friday chirped.
“ Doctor Lewis?” Bucky’s voice rose an octave in surprise. The gooey remains of a handful of gummy bears squished between his cybernetic fingers. Poor gummies.
But Jane was right there with him a second later, sputtering, “I know! She didn’t tell me, either! I had to find out from Friday!”
“Friday, where is Dr. Lewis?” Bucky demanded, incensed.
“Dr. Lewis is not currently located inside Avengers Tower.”
The sergeant growled, “That’s not what I asked.”
Friday offered a salvo, “Dr. Lewis has disabled her mobile locator beacon and asked not to be disturbed.”
“But you know where she is.”
Friday remained silent.
“I’m sorry. Was your last statement intended as a question, Sgt. Barnes?”
“I swear, she’s been taking lessons on obfuscation from Darcy.” Jane shook her head, tucking in her chin to hide her smile.
But Barnes was not amused. “She knows she’s not supposed to turn off that locator unless she’s with a member of the team!” He prowled the room, coming to a halt behind Clint’s chair. Clint shrank from the heat of the other man’s gaze on the back of his head. “Nat is late, too.”
“She is,” Clint agreed, eager to draw the soldier’s attention elsewhere.
“Friday,” Bucky asked, his voice dripping with honey. “Is Agent Romanova’s locator beacon enabled?”
“Could you ping it and share her location?”
“Friday,” the sergeant rumbled after several minutes passed with everyone holding their breath. “I can’t tell if you’re playing more word games or trying to locate Agent Romanova.”
Bucky growled. “Okay. Friday, I’ll play your game. Ping Agent Romanova’s locator beacon and share her location aloud with us. Now.”
“Of course, sir.”
“I miss JARVIS,” he lamented under his breath.
“We all do as we must, sir,” Friday consoled the beleaguered former assassin. “Agent Romanova is located on the roof of Avengers Tower and has responded audibly to the ping.”
Natasha’s quiet voice spilled into the room through hidden speakers at subvocal levels, a whisper barely louder than a slow breath, “I have eyes on Lewis. Stop worrying like an old woman, zvezda.”
“She’s okay? What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“She’s sitting in a lounge chair on the patio, glaring up at the sky. She's been drinking for at least a few hours now and shared a few choice words with Odin since I came up here forty-five minutes or so ago.”
“She could probably use her best friend right now, despite the tense, hands-off vibe she’s putting out,” Natasha admitted.
Jane and Bucky stared at one another for a moment, a silent conversation held in eyebrow ticks, twitching lips, and a small nod before Jane spoke up, “I’m on my way.”
“Zvezda, send up some of your good vodka. Lewis isn’t sharing.”
Clint grimaced. “Darcy drinking alone is never good.”
“It’s not so bad up here, Nat, if you don’t mind pretending the airplanes are shooting stars,” Darcy’s quiet observation was picked up by Natasha’s comm.
Natasha swore ripely. Then, “You knew I was here, sestrenka.”
“Dating a once-and-former assassin, friends with spies—your breathing patterns are similar. Controlled, spaced farther apart, but still audible if you know what to listen for. It’s all sniper breathing. But that’s when you’re working. Am I the job, tonight, Nat? Babysitting me?”
But the words slurred together and Jane’s heart clenched, just a little, when she glanced across the table and caught sight of Bucky’s brow pinched with worry.
Clint grabbed at his teammate’s arm as its plates shifted in a slow cascade up the length of his forearm and biceps. “This isn’t about the thing—your thing. It’s a lot coming at her all at once. Let Jane talk to her. She just needs time to process. It’s a lot of change, suddenly dropped in her lap.”
Steve murmured similar reassurances to his best friend, always the steady voice of reason.
His adam’s apple bobbed, a low deliberate movement. “Yeah, okay.” In the space between breaths, he was gone, moving swiftly across the hall and back with a large bottle of vodka and a trio of tall shot glasses. “It’s going to be cold up there. Friday, call the porters’ office and ask them to deliver some quilts to the roof, too, please?”
“Right away, sir.”
Moments later, Jane found herself riding the private elevator to the rooftop garden with an armful of top-shelf vodka and the proper glassware.
“I never come up here, you know,” she began as she exited the elevator beneath the wide, striped awning that covered the deliberately chaotic spill of flagstones across the patio. “It just makes me mad, all the city’s lights ruining the incredible view we would otherwise have this high above the city. It makes me wish for a citywide blackout once in a while and that makes me feel like a terrible person.” She set the glasses on the patio floor between the chairs, tiptoeing a bit when bare feet met cool blades of grass as she circled. “Ooh, the grass is chilly. That feels nice. Nat?” She held the vodka aloft and tipped her chin pointedly toward a lounge chair on Darcy’s right for the redhead to join them while she settled on her best friend’s left side, smooshing into Darcy’s chair for an uninvited snuggle. “You don’t mind, right, Darce?”
“Mm… Never,” Darcy hummed, planting a sloppy kiss on Jane’s cheek that smelled like too much lime chapstick and even more tequila. “This reminds me of those nights we camped out on the roof in P.A. back in New Mex, cursing the memory of Thor’s hot abs and Coulson’s sticky fingers.”
“Is that why you’re up here drinking cheap, shitty tequila?”
“No. I’m drinking cheap, shitty tequila because I couldn’t sneak past Dum-E to steal Tony’s good tequila on my way up. He came at me like a crazed spider monkey with that fire extinguisher. No bueno, mi amiga.”
“Your Spanglish is appalling.”
The elevator doors dinged open, revealing a pair of the tower’s uniformed porters. One held an armful of down duvets and cotton quilts. The other pushed a tea cart carrying thermal carafes of black coffee and cocoa with peppermint schnapps. On the second tier sat a bottle of Kahlua and a trio of syrupy mystery liqueurs.
“Compliments of Sgt. Barnes,” the first porter explained as he distributed the quilts and covers.
The second porter pushed the cart behind and between the lounge chairs and set the brakes, and explained briefly, “From Prince Thor.”
“Aw, that’s my thoughtful viking prince.” Jane cooed, spying the contents of the cart’s bottom tier, a bundle of firewood to make a little rooftop fire like they did in the old days. The porters turned over mugs and poured drinks, then carried a low table with a fire ring at its center over to their group, settling it at the end of the lounge chairs and stoking a miniature bonfire for the ladies to enjoy.
Natasha nodded in thanks. Jane copied her example.
Darcy cuddled Jane and mumbled into her boobs, “Ooh… Your double-lattes are warm, Janie.”
With a sigh, Jane brushed a lock of hair behind her best friend’s ear. “You’ve been up here for hours, Darce. It’s no wonder you’re freezing.”
“Needed the quiet.”
“I know, but you could have been quiet and alone inside. And warm at the same time.”
“Needed space, too.”
It clicked—what her best friend came up here looking for.
“You need the desert, its big sky and sea of stars. You miss it,” Jane observed sagely. The words were inadequate to the experience, but she knew Darcy understood.
“Oh god. I do,” she moaned. “The desert is quiet and huge and it doesn’t judge and it doesn’t ask me things or expect me to know things and it doesn’t care that I don’t feel like an adult or know what I’m doing with the rest of my life. It doesn’t care what the difference is between a job and a career and a goddamn profession, and it’s not parents , nagging me about getting a real job, because, apparently, ‘Tony Stark’s grown-ass-man nanny’ doesn’t sound as impressive on a resume as it should. The desert doesn’t know what an NDA is or why a dozen of them would prevent me from applying for legit jobs I’m painfully overqualified for because my potential employer doesn’t have high enough security clearance to even view my resume, much less have access to direct phone lines for my personal and professional references. The desert’s just there all the time, still and silent, and I can lay in the dirt and rocks all night and half the morning and think all the things and not have any answers and it never cares,” Darcy rambled, her drunken voice catching a time or two as her thoughts raced in every direction.
“Tell me the rest,” Jane insisted, settling Darcy firmly against her chest like an overwrought toddler. “Think all the thoughts at me. Lemme be your desert.” She gave her a squeeze.
“Graduation is next Saturday.”
“I heard. Colombia keeps in touch, what with all the new interns.”
“I’m…” Darcy took a deep breath and Jane held hers. “I’m gonna walk. Next Saturday. At graduation. The packet arrived today. My forms to order the plaques were in the envelope and it was addressed to Doctor Darcy Lewis and it hit me, like all at once, ‘People are going to start expecting me to do something productive with my life.’ Like, to know what I want to do with my life.” She took another deep breath. “Janie, there are some days when I get overwhelmed choosing breakfast from the dozen boxes of kids cereal Thor hides in my apartment that he thinks nobody else knows about.”
“You’ve been living in a bubble here,” Jane pressed her lips to Darcy’s forehead, whispering, “without your parents pushing you to make quick decisions based on finances, with Tony happily footing the bill for your continuing education. There’s been no pressure to make the tough decisions and move on to the next step.”
Darcy chuckled, but it came out sounding more pained than amused. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Jane’s gaze bounced up and over, catching Natasha’s at the unexpected note of hysteria in Darcy’s weak laughter.
“What else, sestrenka?” the redhead nudged Darcy’s calf with her boot.
A beat of silence, then— “Bucky asked me to marry him, the rotten bastard.”
The Black Widow sputtered with laughter, her shoulders shaking as she reasoned, “You’re crazy about each other—have been since day one, so why aren’t we already planning a weekend trip to Vegas for something shiny and gaudy in the Elvis Chapel to the Stars? You don’t strike me as a traditionalist.”
Jane had to agree. For the last few years, she’d secretly expected to be ambushed at a moment’s notice with a slutty red mini dress covered in silver stars and asked to be maid of honor in the same breath, but, surprisingly, they both seemed to be content in the current holding pattern, enjoying the security of the bubble. Maybe Bucky needed the time, too, to adjust. She didn’t know for sure, but it wasn’t a far leap to that conclusion.
“He proposed a few months ago, the same week Jane got on my case about filing for graduation so I could walk with the spring graduating class. It— I was just wrapping my head around the idea of being done. A PhD and M.B.A.—I should be celebrating. I’m no genius like Janie or Tony, but it’s happening so fast and it felt so huge and then—”
“James’ bad timing.” Natasha nodded. “But he’d give you time, if you asked. He’s a sniper. Patience is the name of the game.”
“He did. He said he understood—”
“He meant it, then. Don’t doubt he means what he says when he says so little,” Natasha warned. “That’s not fair to him—assuming he doesn’t know his own mind when he’s fought so hard for every choice he makes now.”
That was it—the straw that broke drunk Darcy’s back. She hyperventilated, wide eyes filling with tears. “Oh my god. I mean, oh my god. I asked him to wait . He spent seventy years as a brainwashed prisoner of war and I asked him to cool his heels while I figure out how to be a grown up. ”
Jane felt the first stirrings of panic as Darcy’s breath started to hitch in earnest, moments away from escalating into a full blown panic attack.
“Hey, hey…” she crooned as her steady hand soothed the shaking brunette from shoulder to hip. “Shh… It’s okay. Deep breaths. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a few months. You didn’t say ‘no’. You said ‘not now’. He can respect that you needed time and space. You’re worth waiting for. You did that for him when he came here. Remember?”
“Yeah.” A sniffle. “Yeah. God, I wish I could lay out in the desert one more time, just— Just lay there and be still and think. My head is so crowded and noisy all the time, lately.”
“We’ve got time,” Jane reminded her. “You don’t have to get a job the day after you walk. You have a perfectly good job right now, if your mom and step-dad start pressing you to make decisions right away. We could take a weekend, head out to Puente Antiguo. Tony owns the lease on the dealership now. We could rent an RV and drive out, stay a few weeks, if you want.”
A derisive snort from Natasha put that plan to rest.
“Right. Security would go apeshit if we took a roadtrip.” Jane had to concede the point.
“That is not what I meant.” Natasha clipped the words and lifted one perfectly carved brow. “We have a fleet of quinjets at our disposal. I’ll call Maria. We won’t need to take additional security.”
“Pepper, too,” Darcy insisted. “If she’s available. And Sif.”
Natasha already had her phone out, fingers tap-tapping at the screen. “We could leave within the hour. We’ll camp out of the jet. It’ll be fun.”
Darcy blinked as the haze of tequila cleared a little. “Jet-camping in the New Mexico desert at the Bifrost site with Pepper Potts and the Black Widow and the Goddess of War. It’s the most Avenger-y thing to ever Avenger. Let’s do this. It’ll be like my bachelorette party or something.”
Jane smiled. “But you’re not going to tell him ‘yes’ yet, right?”
“No. I— No.” Darcy shook her head, still a bit panicky around the edges. “I meant it when I said I needed time. This is one of the things I need to do.”
“One last hurrah?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Let’s do this.”
“And when we get back—” Natasha leveled her intense gaze on Darcy, “you will send me an updated copy of your CV. You’ve made plenty of professional contacts with sufficient security clearances to overcome the obstacle of NDAs. You just don’t realize all the administrative careers you’re qualified for yet.” She stopped and cocked her head to the side. “Give me two dollars.”
Baffled, Darcy fished a pair of bills from her pocket.
Natasha explained with a wink, “A retainer for your new personal assistant, Natalie Rushman. I’ll set up the interviews.”
“Seriously?” Darcy’s eyebrows disappeared beneath her bangs. “But wait… Why two dollars?”
“One for Natalie Rushman and one for Clancy Brighton, your SI administrative aid.” Natasha grinned.
The penny dropped.
“Wait, wait…” Jane choked. “Clint is Clancy, right? Because I have to see the costume for that cover.”
“I’ll take pictures,” Darcy promised.