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Previously (like a year ago):

Darcy was dealing with the complications and emotional issues arising from her trip to the past. She inherited a secret bunker in Queens, started building the new SHIELD HQ in Brooklyn with Bucky -- he's getting his bar! And he has a possum named Steve.

Pepper took Darcy out for a girls' night with Natasha, Jane, and Maria Hill. They infiltrated the Latverian embassy and busted a Latverian smuggling ring. Elsewhere Bucky let himself get dragged out with Clint, Steve, and Thor where they foiled the Russian mob, interrupted a robbery, and walked a lady home. As you do.

Now Darcy and Jane have returned to London (this is their second stint in London, Thor: The Dark World was the first). And Bucky promised that he'd take Darcy dancing, at last.

Meanwhile Tony is making a poor life choice in New York. And nothing at all will go terribly wrong there, either.

 

***

Darcy liked London. It was old and new, and big and small, and all that contradictory jazz. But, somehow the contradictions just made the city feel human scale to her; like it wasn't some monolithic mass of stone and steel. New York was still a little overwhelming sometimes. Though, she did come from the vast Southern California sprawl — not exactly the coziest of human habitats. But, that was really beside the point.

The real point in London's favor was that, at the moment, it was thousands of miles away from Darcy's family drama.

The Seattle branch of her mother's family tree were in a tizzy. The Perlmans, it seemed, were miffed. Possibly even vexed. Her cousin Marcia was getting married at a mountain resort. Somehow this was a huge, super dire problem and Darcy had to hear all about it.

It was her own fault, really. If only she'd thrown herself into the river instead of calling her mother.

"Marcia isn't bending," Rebecca said with a sigh. "She says it has to be at that resort; she and her fiancé have some deal with the owners. Your grandmother is pitching a fit."

"Oh no. It's the end of the world. How terrible," Darcy murmured and kicked her feet out, lounging back on an uncomfortable bench overlooking the Thames.

It was a nice day. The sun was out and the weather was warm. Warm for London, she supposed. But, definitely better than New York sticky. So, yes, it was a nice day. Perfect to get outside and do outside things. Like throw herself in the river. Or, call home and regret it.

Darcy and Jane arrived in the city two days earlier. And today, while Jane and her mother were bonding over academic journals and fighting over Jane's wardrobe and how she basically still mostly shopped at Goodwill, Darcy fled the apartment to wander around a little. It was a fine time to reacquaint herself with the area, get her bearings, and give her own mother a call and regret it.

"I know, I know," her mom continued. "But, she'll make the trip hell for all of us if somebody doesn't appease her. According to Jo, it's nearly war as it is. Uncle Larry's on Marcia's side, aunt Ruth's on mom's. It could get ugly. So, have you RSVP'd for Marcia's wedding yet? That might win us back a point."

"Are you kidding?" Darcy rolled her eyes to the sky and gripped her phone a little tighter, like she could squeeze the drama out of it.

Francine Perlman was not a grandmother given to displays of warmth or cheeriness or whatever grandmothers are supposed to be like. She wasn't a sweet, round, little granny who smelled like spices and made cookies. She was a thin, brittle woman, in both stature and personality. Sour and never pleased, and doubly never pleased with Darcy.

Darcy and her grandmother didn't get along, and hadn't since, as far as Darcy knew, the day she was born. Francine was never cruel, never outright rude, but there was a definite chill towards Darcy that her other cousins didn't seem to get. And it wasn't just because of that one time Darcy set her grandmother's dining table on fire. That was an accident, and Francine was unpleasant before that anyway.

The mystery of Darcy's biological father — because Rebecca refused to tell and no amount of persuasion or scorn was ever enough to get her to spill, because Darcy's mom was badass, thank you very much — was the biggest sore spot for the woman. Francine once made the mistake of referring to Darcy as a bastard in her great-grandmother Perlman's hearing. It was a flipping shame that Darcy'd been too young to appreciate or remember the look on Francine's face at a dressing down from her own mother. Seeing that again would totally be worth the pain of time traveling. Maybe.

Anyway, Darcy didn't think that her presence would tilt the scales towards familial peace with Francine.

"Do I have to?" she asked in a tone that most definitely wasn't a 'whine'.

Rebecca was silent for a moment, probably steadying herself to deal with a whining daughter, and then she let out a long breath. "No, you don't have to, but it would be really great if you did."

Darcy felt her nose wrinkle with distaste and annoyance. She didn't want to go, it was a pain in the ass, she liked to absolutely avoid the family drama, and being stuck in a mountain resort with the whole Perlman clan sounded like the opening to a horror movie. The only luck she'd get would be if it was the massacre type and not the slowly picked off one by one type. She let herself be diverted by the brief and horrible vision of her grandmother stalking them all through the woods like an old lady Terminator.

Clearing her head with a shudder, she let out a long breath. Darcy knew, without a doubt, that she'd cave and RSVP for this looming nightmare. But, she was going to make her mother work for it.

"A destination wedding to the middle of the Cascades, in October," she said, trying to make her voice as dry and bland as Coulson's when he was being sarcastic.

"It's about three hours from Seattle, so, yes, it's inconvenient for everybody," Rebecca told her, "but there's a regional airport not far if you don't want to deal with driving—"

"Like I'd give up an escape vehicle," Darcy muttered quietly.

"And it'll be beautiful," Rebecca said, a hint of sharpness in her tone. "I looked the resort up, it's very nice. Remodeled last year with a huge new spa. Amazing views. And it'll be autumn. You like autumn."

Darcy did like autumn. It was her favorite season when she was at Culver, and now that she lived in New York she'd gone all tourist-stupid in love with the dramatic fall colors. The seasons really didn't change like that in San Dimas. They had hot season, and not hot season, and mudslide season, and the burning times. But not autumn so much.

Still, she had to put up a little bit of a fight. "It'll be cold and rainy." Rubbing at her forehead, irritation threatening to cause a headache, Darcy glared at not-at-all-cold-and-rainy London. But, it wasn't London's fault it decided to be nice today, and she dropped her hand to pat the bench beside her in apology.

"I always pictured Marcia as the cliché June bride," Darcy continued after a moment. "And maybe at one of the fancy resorts on one of those islands out there. One where there'd be mandatory, structured fun and golf and wine tastings. Like out on Albatross Island, or whatever it's called. Moose Island? Whatever. Just, wouldn't have figured a mountain lodge in October. For real, did she hit her head recently?"

"There's not an Albatross Island," Rebecca sighed.

"I feel confident there's an Albatross Island somewhere. But that's not the point," Darcy protested. "I'm serious. This is wildly out of character. Should we be worried? Has she joined a cult? Is she doing drugs? What does aunt Jo say about all this?"

"Jo is very excited for her daughter's wedding," her mother replied dryly. "I would be, too. In fact, I have extensive plans and when—"

"Don't even," Darcy sniffed a warning. Rebecca liked teasing about weddings far too much. "Oh! Could she be Hydra? Or her fiancé? What do we know about him? Has anybody run a background on this guy? Maybe this is a trap. Darn, looks like I'll have to pass. For national security reasons, you understand. I am a very important asset."

Her mother made a low, growling grumble sound. "You're something, that's for sure."

"So rude." Darcy pouted and petulantly knocked the toes of her shoes together while slouching down on the bench like a put-upon grade-schooler.

"Anyway," Rebecca said, raising her voice above her daughter's attempt to change the subject into absurdity. "Marcia and her fiancé negotiated an event deal on the rooms, but only if you book by August 10th. There was a plus one with your invitation, so maybe you'd rather get a suite?"

"Meh."

"You could bring Steve," she said with a leading and kind of pleading tone in her voice. Her mother was never going to give up her star-spangled dreams for her daughter, was she? "I think he might be able to charm even my mom."

"Poor Steve, what did he do to deserve being sent on the Francine charm mission? It's practically a suicide run," Darcy said with a quiet, little chuckle. "Besides, I think bringing Captain America would kind of upstage the bride, and I thought that was the biggest possible wedding faux pas of them all."

"How about Tony?" It seemed like her mother was as desperate for a distraction as Darcy was herself. She must be, to suggest that. Tony would be a bored in ten minutes and disaster would follow. Bad enough Darcy anticipated being bored in twenty minutes. Nobody deserved two bored Starks at their wedding. Not even Marcia.

Darcy laughed out loud. "Speaking of upstaging. Though, you know, I bet he absolutely could charm Francine. Again, I don't think Marcia would appreciate it and it would be our teen years all over again with the screaming and the door slamming and the brawl in the dining room."

"And the paint bomb?"

"Nobody ever forgets the paint bombs," Darcy muttered under her breath as she shifted on the bench and winced. Technically she was still grounded from that incident at Aunt Jo's years ago, since, as she recalled, the terms of punishment were 'until you're thirty, young lady!'. "I'll leave the paint bomb at home."

"Ah-ha!" Rebecca crowed. "Progress! Look at you, ready to let go of the kid arguments with your cousin, at long last. And peace falls across the land."

Darcy snorted and felt a little aggravated because teenaged Marcia was the actual worst. Bossy, bitchy, snooty, and prissy. So, it's not like the war had been Darcy's fault. Nope, not at all.

"Right," she said, "did you or did you not have an argument with aunt Jo last year about how she hogged the bathroom when you were kids? Like, actually yelling at each other."

"Well, we were finally resolving that issue," Rebecca told her. "Sometimes it takes a while. And anyway, I'm not judging, I'm just glad. Marcia has asked me twice if you're coming. She's waiting for your RSVP. She really wants you to be there."

"To show off how together her life is while I'm still interning," Darcy grumbled. She swore she heard Jane shout 'assistant' in her head. And yes she knew she was kind of whining a lot, and probably making this worse than it had to be, but … sometimes it was just tiring being the odd duck in the family. Or the black sheep. Or that one disappointment. Or whatever it was they all saw. She was just not feeling up for the pitying looks or the sly questions about her future plans.

"Maybe," Rebecca admitted, "or maybe she genuinely wants to share the day with you. She's not the same person she was when she was fifteen, and neither are you. Give her a chance."

Darcy stuck her tongue out at her absent cousin — because she maybe wasn't so different from when she was fifteen — and told her mom, "I don't know. I'm up to my ears in things; I'm not sure if I'm in the mood for a destination wedding and Marcia's Marcia-ness."

"Okay, look at it this way," Rebecca argued back doggedly, "why don't you try to mend fences, you make the effort? And then if she's an obnoxious diva, show-off, it'll just make her look petty and you'll look like the bigger person. You win."

"That's so manipulative, mom," Darcy said admiringly.

"I know. Give it a shot. Or bring Tony. But, I'd really like you to be there." And that was that. That was the firm mom-voice. That was the tone of a woman who would no longer accept 'no'. She'd try and make it palatable for Darcy, but the jig was up.

"So would your dad," Rebecca pressed, sensing her daughter's defeat. "And your brother. And aunt Jo, and uncle Hugh. That's five people you actually like. And your great uncle Larry, who will pull a quarter from behind your ear, because who doesn't love that trick? Right? Come on."

Darcy scoffed and kicked at a tuft of grass by her feet. "I'm 25, I doubt uncle Larry will try the coin trick."

"I'm 48 and he tried it on me when I saw him two months ago at his granddaughter's bat mitzvah. Just think, free money."

"That's a pretty big inducement for me. You know me too well." Well, she did like her great uncle Larry, that was true enough. He was Francine's younger brother and was boisterous and jovial where she was frosty and brittle. And, yes, he liked to show off his 'magic' skills, which were terrible but he was so charming about it, he always got applause.

Rebecca wasn't quite done attempting to presuade her daughter. "Besides, who cares how together her life is? Good for her, I say. And, you know and I know that you're not just an intern."

"Oh sigh, mom, sigh," Darcy told her with a touch of melodrama.

"Are you cracking?" Rebecca asked. "I think you're cracking. If you agree to crack, I won't pull out guilt."

"Fine," Darcy moaned. God, not guilt. "Consider me cracked."

Rebecca was good enough not to laugh or cackle or otherwise express her triumphant glee. "So, plus one ideas? Clint?"

"Clint's a good option," Darcy agreed readily enough. It was a sort of topic change that was at least more entertaining to think about than Marcia or her grandmother. "He's fun, probably won't be able to charm Francine, but he knows how to make an escape. And God knows he's game for almost anything, no matter how awkward. And nothing screams awkward quite like a Perlman family civil war in the middle of the forest."

"He'll be a hit at passive-aggressive cocktail hour," Rebecca said with a laugh. "Any update since the proposal? We could make it a double wedding."

"The joke proposal." Darcy said, rolling her eyes for the umpteenth time this conversation. "No, mom."

"Too bad. He's cute."

"He's also got a weird thing with a hot Russian assassin," Darcy pointed out with a little laugh. "So, Clint is firmly friend material."

"Yeah, I remember. I like Natasha; I wouldn't mind seeing her again. She'd be a nice plus one. Though, she and your grandmother would probably try to freeze each other to death with icy stares. But," Rebecca's voice dropped, quieting in a way that suggested a secret — a delicious secret, "what about Bucky Barnes? I hear things. I hear that maybe you're going on a date."

Darcy was silent for a moment, shock at her mother's words tingling down along her spine. That was an unexpected conversational turn. One she wasn't sure she was prepared for. "Who told you that?"

"Steve."

"When are you talking to Steve?" That sounded bad. That sounded awkward. Her mom and Steve were chatting buddies? She'd never survive the nagging.

"Darcy, you leave your phone all over the place," she exclaimed, with exasperated disbelief. "Half the time when I call you, I end up talking to somebody else. They all pick up. I talk to Norse gods and secret agents more often than I talk to my daughter."

Rebecca made a frustrated sound and then let her breath out slowly before saying, "You can tell me these things, you do know that, right?"

Her mother had a point. Darcy had been desperate to talk to people about Bucky for a while, and she'd talked a little bit to Jane, a little bit to Phil, but for some reason she never thought of her mom. That felt kind of unfair. Some things were a little awkward for a mom talk, but maybe not her weird mixed up head about Bucky.

"It's just been a little overwhelming, is all," she said, trying to explain to herself and her mom. "Like, everything that's happened lately. I wasn't not telling you, I just have a billion things going on."

"Are you going to tell me now?"

"Sure. I mean, yeah, that would be good." Darcy blew out a long breath and nodded once to herself. "Apparently we're going dancing. I don't know when; that's his deal, but he said while I'm in London. He's supposed to visit in a couple weeks. Anyway, he got crazy stoned like a few months ago — inadvertently stoned, I mean; he's not a stoner — and he asked me dancing and I thought it was just because he was, you know—"

"Stoned?" Rebecca guessed, maybe almost kind of laughing. Darcy ignored that.

"Yes! But then he asked when he wasn't high. And I said yes. But, then I was like, is he asking because I'm the only girl he knows? Which is the truth. Or because he actually likes me. I mean, I know he likes me, because we're building a bar together and it was his idea. And we go to breakfast together sometimes, but in a friend way, not a romantical way." She took a breath before jumping into the next run-on sentence.

"But, before we figured out the dancing thing, it was kidnappings and arrests — did I say arrests? It wasn't a real arrest, and it was like five hours tops and I laughed at them the whole time because they had no legal leg to stand on so it was mostly annoying to everybody involved — and attacks on the tower and property acquisitions and unexpected bequests and … so many things! So, we haven't gone dancing yet. Is it a date? I don't know. I think he wants it to be."

"Do you?"

" … Maybe? Okay, I totally brought nice jewelry to London, okay? I haven't bought a dress yet, but that's just because I haven't had time. I plan on going out this weekend, and actually, I should say, that Jane and I plan on going out this weekend, and there's no way in hell she'd let me out of it, even if I wanted, but I don't want out, so it's fine. I'm sure we'll have fun and she'll make sure I get something suitable for kicking up my heels with a greatest generation assassin. So, I'm taking it seriously and I want to go dancing with him, and I'm just—"

"Oh sweetie," her mom finally couldn't pretend she wasn't laughing.

"Don't 'oh sweetie' me," Darcy grumbled and then paused. "Wow, I really do sound like Pepper sometimes."

"I'm sure your father loves that."

"Yeah, he always says that with this panicked look on his face." It made so much sense now. Anyway. "So, yes, I guess I'm going on a date."

"Can I offer a piece of advice?"

Darcy hesitated for a moment, but, that was what she wanted, wasn't it? "Go for it."

"Just have fun. Don't make it bigger than it has to be."

Not helpful. "That's what Phil and Jane said."

"You told the Director before you told me?" Her mom sounded hurt and like this might be something she'd hold over Darcy's head for the rest of forever unless Darcy could head it off.

"Bucky's my partner!" she exclaimed, throwing one hand up in the air and startling a passing jogger, who ran away faster in response. "There are protocols and crap. I told Phil after Bucky asked me out the first time, because it seemed like I was supposed to and also I didn't know what to do. He just said to work on our partnership, and he basically wasn't going to tell me what to do with Bucky one way or the other. Technically Bucky's an outside contractor, so it doesn't exactly violate frat regs. Which, by the way, Howard was an asshole."

"Howard? Your grandfather Howard?" Rebecca asked, no doubt confused at the abrupt change in topic. "What does he have to do with it?"

Darcy huffed and wrinkled her nose, still not sure if she was annoyed or amused by it. "He named a sub-clause in the fraternization regs — the one covering partners — after me."

"I thought you two got along?"

Telling her parents about the whole time travel thing had been fun. Actually fun, because the looks of profound bafflement on their faces as they tried to process had been beautiful. Darcy kept out some of the more harrowing details, but being nearly lost in time was bad enough. Though, the bizarreness of it distracted from the potential badness. In the end they settled for accepting the weirdness as well as somebody who doesn't deal with the "much weirder world" can, and being grateful for Howard.

And then they asked if she could just, for a little while, stop being attacked and stuff, for God's sake.

"We did," Darcy said. "I loved the heck out of him. But, he was still an asshole."

Her mom sighed and chastised lightly, "Don't call your grandfather an asshole."

"Why not? He's dead; he can't hear me. And if he can, he knows what he did. And he's probably laughing. Asshole."

Rebecca was silent for a moment and then changed to a brighter tone and tried to get the conversation back onto a more productive track, and away from the still super strange time travel reality. "So, what are your plans? For London, I mean. How long will you be there?"

"I'm shooting for a month," Darcy told her. "I have to find Jane a new assistant, but I also kind of have to get back to New York."

"And have you told Jane yet?"

Darcy's procrastination on this issue was widely known. To everybody but Jane. She bit her lip and cleared her throat.

"Darcy, sooner rather than later," her mom said, breaking out her mom-voice one more time. "You need to let her have time to adjust and you need to have time to hand off to a new assistant. You can't just —"

"I know," Darcy interrupted with a growl — though she was more irritated at herself. "I know, okay. Yes, I know. I will do that. But, let's just, you know, get settled for a few days. I mean, we only just got here and her mom's going to Spain or whatever at the end of the week, so they're hanging for a while, and that doesn't seem like the right time to interrupt. So, like, after that. When we're settled in a little bit and I see what I have to work with, potential replacement-wise."

"Alright, alright. You're an adult, I know you can make the right decision."

Narrowing her eyes, Darcy asked, "That wasn't a compliment, was it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Rebecca said in a blithe tone. "I'm going to let you go; your dad and I are going out to breakfast with your good grandparents. I love you, baby."

"Love you, too. Sometimes."

Rebecca laughed. "Oh, and call your brother. You know he goes back to school in a couple weeks and he said he hasn't heard from you lately."

"He could call me, you know."

"He says the last time he tried to reach you, he and Thor had an argument about dragons? He refuses to call until he knows you'll pick up."

Darcy rolled her eyes. Sam liked to pretend he was this poor, put-upon little brother character, always having to endure the weirdness of his big sister's life. But damned if he didn't go out of his way to pick the dumbest fights with everybody. Though, Thor did like telling everybody dragons were terrible pets — smelly, lazy, hell on the furniture. He thought it was funny.

"I'll do it tomorrow or something," Darcy promised half-heartedly.

"Don't forget to RSVP. And I want to hear all about the date."

"Bye mom," Darcy said loudly, hoping to forcefully yet not rudely end the call.

Rebecca laughed again. "Oh fine, goodbye. Have fun!"

***

It took more than a week of anxiety gnawing holes in her stomach, along with another nudge from her mother, one from Bucky, and a final one from Pepper, before Darcy forced herself to tell Jane she was leaving her. After probably a couple years too many, Darcy Lewis was officially retiring from the life of assistanting.

Jane took the news Darcy was leaving her with admirable stoicism. She was polite and professional. "It's been wonderful having you. I know you've got amazing new opportunities in front of you. I'll miss you, but you need to look towards your future. You've been a tremendous asset to my work."

If Darcy didn't know Jane as well as she did, that response might almost have been hurtful. Instead, it was kind of creepy; it raised the hair on Darcy's arms and she braced for a nuclear meltdown. That's the sort of thing you say to an actual intern who was only with you for a term; that's not what you say to somebody you went through three alien invasions with. That wasn't Jane.

But, then Jane took her to an entirely professional lunch, had three pints, and ended up sobbing on Darcy's shoulder for an hour. That was much more the reaction Darcy expected, and maybe she'd cried a tiny bit, too. The end of an era, and all that.

Jane wasn't stupid and there was little doubt she'd known this was coming as long as Darcy had. And they'd both been really good at ignoring it until they couldn't anymore. Weren't they a pair? Darcy was going to miss her like crazy.

Well, while their professional relationship might be ending, Jane was still a good friend, heck she was practically family, and Darcy would always feel the pull to take care of her. So, once they'd cried themselves out, drank themselves drunk, and slept off the hangovers, the search began for Darcy's replacement.

Now that Jane was famous and not a fringe weirdo, there were many people clamoring for her time and plenty of students in summer sessions begging to assist. It was Darcy's duty to cull the herd. To thin out the pack. To separate the wheat from the chaff. To chase off the sycophants, idiots, and the easily frightened. To find that one, special person who would know when to hand Jane a cookie.

In order to find this mythical individual, Darcy put up flyers advertising the chance to spend the day assisting world-renowned physicist Jane Foster's assistant. Astrophysics experience not required. Last time they were based in London, Darcy found Ian the Intern using a similar method, and that worked out mostly okay.

Darcy reviewed the fifty-or-so applications they received, winnowed that down to about 25-ish, then put those names in an office trash can and randomly picked ten. For two weeks they tried out a different assistant a day.

Now it was time to pick The One. Or they'd have to do the drawing all over again, and frankly Darcy didn't have time for that.

However, Jane was determined to not make this easy on anybody.

"What do you think of Meghan?" Darcy asked, leaning back in her chair and considering the pictures of the Bifrost Jane had on her office wall. They were the photos from their very first encounter, way back in New Mexico. The day they hit, tased, and met Thor — in that order. Poor guy. But, God, that felt like it was a lifetime ago. Was it seriously only three years? Damn.

"Seems sharp," Jane muttered back half-hidden behind teetering walls of books and papers spread across her desk. "She ums too much, though."

"Ums?"

"Yeah, every third word is an um. It drives me nuts."

Darcy sighed and struck Meghan's name off her list of potential new assistants. Meghan was super smart, actually an astrophysics student, and was a scary wizard with Excel. But, yeah, she did kind of 'um' a lot.

"Aaron?" Aaron liked thrash metal, knew more about tea than any person Darcy had ever met, and was crazy brilliant at math.

"He chews with his mouth open."

"You chew with your mouth open," Darcy groused sourly. "Amit?" Amit loved to bake, would be sure to keep Jane stocked with pastries, and was way strong with CAD and database programming.

"He smiles too much. How is he that happy all the time?"

Darcy rolled forward in her chair and dropped her head onto her tiny, crammed-into-a-corner desk. "You're impossible, Jane."

"You don't have to find me another assistant," Jane said, but her voice was tight. "I can do it myself."

"I'm not leaving you with somebody I haven't vetted," Darcy said with a sniff.

"Okay, really, you don't have to vet my students, Miss Agent."

"Not that sort of vetting. But you know, will they pay attention enough to feed you when you get cranky? Can they withstand the crazy eyes? Will they be able to get you to not sleep on your desk? The important stuff, Jane."

From behind her barricade of books, Jane made a disgruntled noise and tried to change the subject, "When is Bucky getting in?"

"I don't know. He was smuggling himself on a cargo plane, so whatever one he could sneak onto first. It's not like he could give me a flight number and an arrival time other than sometime today."

"Don't you have a super awesome, amazing SHIELD plane?"

"Clint offered to fly him, but Bucky said no. I don't know why. I thought they were getting along." Darcy sat up straight. "Do you think they're not getting along? Because that would not be awesome."

"From what you've said, Clint's spent a whole lot of time at the building site. Bucky might just want some, you know, space."

Clint was very excited for the bar and he was quick to offer suggestions, help, and notes on the plans. None of which anybody asked him for.

Darcy pursed her lips and nodded. "Good point."

"He's probably a little overwhelmed."

With a sigh, Darcy pushed up out of her chair and walked over to lean on the side of Jane's desk, tired of trying to talk over the walls of the book fort. "Also true. He's really put up with everybody way more than I thought he would."

Jane snickered. "Boy's night sounded fun."

"Boy's night sounded like a freaking disaster," Darcy said with a heavy sigh. "Geez. We can't ever let those guys out alone together again."

"Sure, let's ignore our night out," Jane scoffed. "Besides, they stopped a robbery, broke up a Russian mob gang, apprehended a carjacker, and walked that lady home. They were surprisingly productive, at least."

"That poor woman."

Jane poked Darcy's knee with a pen. "It was sweet."

Darcy stuck out her tongue and dodged another jab with the pen. "Can you imagine, though? Out of nowhere Captain America, Thor, some obnoxious dude with arrows, and the creepiest hobo ever, offer to walk you home?"

"It was sweet," Jane repeated, firming up her jaw, and narrowing her eyes at Darcy. "And Bucky doesn't look like a creepy hobo." For some reason Darcy hadn't figured out yet, Jane was a very fierce member of the Bucky Barnes fan club.

Darcy waggled her eyebrows and said, "I was talking about Clint."

"Har har."

"No, Bucky doesn't look like a creepy hobo," Darcy admitted. Though, he totally looked like a scary hobo. A really, really stupidly good-looking scary hobo. But, she wasn't so blinded by his attractiveness that the scary or the hobo escaped her notice.

"I finally got him to stop cutting his own hair with a knife," she continued, "and let a professional do it. That was like pulling teeth. I got him into the Tower easier."

Tilting her head to one side, curious, Jane asked, "How did you do it?"

"I found a ye old-y barbershop with an ancient barber who didn't like to chitchat and was willing to leave the hair long, even if he sort of grumbled about 'kids these days'. So, basically, they were a match made in the grumpy old man part of heaven. Bucky even let the guy give him a shave. Though, I think that was a silent apology for refusing to get his hair cut above his ears. And he let the scruff grow back immediately."

"Because he knows you like the scruff."

Darcy rolled her eyes. Except it was true. But, not really! "Because he's still trying to not be recognized."

Jane gave her a flat look, unimpressed with the excuse. "SHIELD knows he's out there, and they even know where he is."

"Just because SHIELD's hands-off, doesn't mean nobody's looking for the Winter Soldier."

"Ugh," Jane grunted and propped her elbow on the table and her cheek on her fist, glaring down at the paper in front of her. "Why do you want to be in SHIELD? It's so dangerous. Stay in academia, Darcy. Get your bachelors in astrophysics! You could do it in a year, and then we could work together on your grad projects." She glanced up at Darcy and gave her a sad frown. "It's safer."

"Sure, that time a flaming deathbot from outer space burned down the town we were in was way safe." Darcy raised one eyebrow and tilted her head down to give Jane a serious look. "Or, last time we were here, the alien elves were super-duper safe, too."

Jane stuck out her lower lip and glowered. "Fine."

Darcy stared her down for a second, then something sparked in her head and she grinned and snapped her fingers. "Sabrina."

"She's an art history major," Jane grumbled.

"I know," Darcy crowed back, feeling the warm, heady rush of inspiration wash over her. "She's perfect. Yes! Sabrina. I will bring her in, we'll give her a longer try out. Like a week. See how it goes."

"But … she's an art history major," Jane tried again, sounding plaintive.

"I know, it's great," she gleefully chirped. "You can complain about the uselessness of that as much as you complained about the uselessness of poli-sci. You know how happy that will make you."

"But—"

"She's really organized, likes interoffice mail envelopes as much as you do, and remembered how you like your coffee after the first time. She's amazingly perfect. I'm a genius." Darcy patted Jane's shoulder then went back to her desk to email Sabrina. "You'll love her once you get to know her."

"But I don't want Sabrina," Jane whined petulantly behind her stack of books.

"Think of it this way, Jane. You'll be giving a poor, misguided art student the opportunity to do something concrete and worthwhile. Pulling her to the STEM side of the force. It's like you're saving her. You're the best, Jane."

Sabrina. Yes, Sabrina would be the One. The one Darcy could trust with Jane's well-being. Which meant that Darcy could finally turn her attention to other things. Like the whole situation where her partner was flying in to take her dancing, finally. A date. The date. Finally. She still felt a little anxious about this new direction in their relationship, but anxiety was starting to give way to excitement. After all, dancing was fun. Right?

 

***

Chapter Text

Sabrina Miranda Alice Smith was a hair over five foot, had the fashion sense of a 90-year old librarian, and bore the unlikely nickname "Smash". As Smash's childhood was spent wildly crashing into every breakable object in her family's home, she insisted it wasn't so unlikely a nickname. Humor was how her parents coped with the destruction.

As Smash grew up she was drawn more and more to art; losing herself on long afternoons in her collection of art books. And it wasn't just any art that caught her eye, but old art. Old art that needed love and care; the more delicate, fragile, and priceless the art was, the more she wanted to love and tend and preserve it. Which was how she came to be an art history major with an eye towards being a restoration specialist. Fate was odd and hilarious.

"I reckon it could be some sort of penance," Sabrina told Darcy during the initial replacement-intern tryout day, as she tried to explain what drew her to art restoration, "my mum and dad almost never took me to the museums, you see. Too afraid of the liability — they do well, but not that well. So museums had a bit of the allure of the forbidden. Could be I like to live on the wild side, the thrill of danger and all that." Then she tugged at her hand-knitted, pink cardigan and smoothed her sensible, below-the-knee sundress with its dainty rosebud print.

Sabrina applied for the assistant-to-the-assistant job because her academic advisor was trying to get her to challenge herself, and she decided that since plenty of art had astronomical patterns and references, astrophysics made sense. Later, in a hushed, secretive voice, she told Darcy that it was really because she'd seen footage of Jane beating the elves in London and she had a little bit of a girl crush.

And if that wasn't great enough, at their introduction Darcy noticed Sabrina's nails were painted bright, Hulk green and she'd doodled a cartoon Hulk on her messenger bag. When asked about that, Sabrina said with a nickname like Smash, she felt sure she and the Big Guy were spiritually connected.

Add it all up and Darcy found her f'ing delightful.

Jane was taking it well. Sort of. If her smile was tense and her tone a bit clipped when she interviewed Sabrina, at least she was open and polite. Darcy stood out of the girl's line of sight and made encouraging hand gestures and facial expressions at Jane. Until Jane threw, like, five pens at her, all in a row, in a quick burst of irritated office-supply fire that emptied her pen cup and sent Darcy diving under her desk to safety.

"Does that happen often?" Sabrina asked, biting her lower lip — it has hard to tell if she was concerned or trying not to laugh — as Darcy crawled out from behind the safety of her office chair and picked up the pens.

"Don't worry, I'm her only target." Darcy smiled at her encouragingly. "You're gonna do great."

Jane accepted the pens back from Darcy and offered her own smile to Sabrina as she put them back into their cup. It was a natural smile now, having gotten rid of some of her tension and anxiety by throwing things at Darcy. "I'm happy to have you. I'm interested to see your perspective on our research. And I don't usually throw things at people. I swear."

"We've been through a lot," Darcy continued, "pen throwing is the least of it. And, really, did you see how bad her aim was? Besides, I'm not leaving yet," Darcy assured her. "Plenty of time to get you both comfortable."

"Though, you should be leaving now, because you have a date to get ready for," Jane told her.

"In like eight hours." Darcy gave her a skeptical look and settled back in her chair. "Are you kidding?"

Jane raised an eyebrow and gave her a thorough look over. "Don't you have a hair appointment? You can't go with your hair like that. It doesn't work with your dress."

Darcy and Jane hit London shops the previous weekend, searching for that elusive perfect dress. Jane seemed to have a very particular idea about the type of dress that would suit wherever Bucky was taking her. That notion was slightly alarming because it suggested that Bucky and Jane were talking. Or it suggested that Bucky was talking to Steve who talked to Thor who talked to Jane and there was a weird game of Avengers telephone going on and God only knew what sort of madness that would lead to. Darcy was afraid to ask.

Besides, she knew Bucky well enough now that she could guess. He'd made some comments about supper clubs, and Darcy was pretty sure when he said dancing he meant 40s kind of dancing and not wild, club gyrating — that was a funny but awful mental image.

But, proper dancing with a 40s fellow meant that she kind of wanted a retro sort of dress because live the life Darcy Lewis!, and Jane seemed to be nudging her that way anyway. At one point Darcy raised her eyes to the heavens and sent up all the love to Peggy's friend Angie Martinelli. When Darcy was stuck in the past, it was Angie's self-assigned mission to make sure poor cousin Darcy, driven out of her home by evil commies, had the most fashion-forward and up-to-date wardrobe in 1946 (and, okay, also with big thanks to Howard's bank account, which supported Angie's fashion mission). Because of her, Darcy had an idea of the kind of thing she was looking for and how to not look like a dweeb while wearing it.

The first dress they found that she really loved was actually sort-of-50s-ish, a dark green, a-line dress, with 3/4 sleeves and a lovely floral print cascading across it. As much as she loved the dress, though, it didn't quite say "first date" to her. But, she got it anyway, because you don't pass up on a dress you love. You see it? You buy it. Darcy got it with the idea that perhaps she would wear it to Marcia's wedding — an event she had now accepted she was going to. She'd even RSVP'd, God help her, but while she'd checked the box for a plus one, she hadn't put a name down yet. Who would she con into suffering with her?

After that first success, the right date dress did not automatically appear. It didn't appear in the next shop, or the next, or the fifth one after that. Though, she did get a pair of nude heels to go with the green dress, and Jane got a really pretty cream blouse with tiny little flowers embroidered around the collar and cuffs, and a floaty, plum-colored skirt.

Finally, when they were about to call it a day out of sheer exhaustion, she and Jane agreed to go to one of the fancier stores. Darcy hesitated, the shop might be a little too chi chi, like she was going out to an opera, not dancing with a GI, but Jane didn't wait for Darcy's agreement before striding in. And, wouldn't you know it, there, in a section of cocktail dresses, was the dress they'd been looking for, the perfect Dress for The Date.

Jane spotted it first and, in her excitement and triumph, punched Darcy hard enough in the arm that Darcy automatically retaliated by giving her a hard shove back. The saleswoman gave them both a frosty glare, which they ignored as they dragged each other over to the rack. The dress was tagged as a cocktail swing dress, and was silver with a handful of broad red horizontal stripes, sleeveless with a v-neck that gathered below the breasts in a small flat bow, and came to just below her knees. It was super cute. It looked flirty and fun, but dressy enough for a nice date. Jane declared it perfect for dancing and Darcy couldn't disagree.

After that began the hunt for shoes. Which was another story that spanned a different and equally exhausting day. And also she got a red sweater wrap thing that matched the dress. And a handbag.

Anyway.

"I'm getting my hair done at 3, Jane. And it's just a date, not prom." Darcy waved at Sabrina to join her at the desk. "Let's go over the primary database system. We'll look at the models later."

The younger woman shuffled her chair closer, but looked nervous about getting between Darcy and Jane.

"It's not just a date," Jane continued. "You two have been planning this for months." She let out a long breath and re-stacked an already stacked stack of folders on her desk. "I just want you to take a break and do something fun. Something that doesn't end in you getting arrested or … " she paused and gave Darcy a worried look, "other things."

"You were arrested?" Sabrina asked, giving Darcy her own look, much more intrigued than worried.

"No."

"Well, I don't know," Jane murmured. "Technically—"

"Technically," Darcy broke in, "I was not arrested because the did not have the legal power to arrest me. So they unlawfully detained me."

Sabrina's intrigue was starting to mingle with uncertainty and Darcy felt like they might be scaring away the new intern before they even had a chance to wear off the shine. At some point aliens would probably be a factor in their lives again, but they needed to ease Smash into this crazy world before she had to face that. Or SHIELD or Hydra or Loki or Elves or whatever the universe had in store for them next.

"It was like a wacky misunderstanding, and I laughed at them, and then I left," Darcy explained with a wave of her hand. "It's fine. It was dumb, but it's all fine now."

Sabrina picked at the Hulk green polish on her thumb nail and said, "You were wackily detained?"

"Funniest thing," Darcy confirmed. She really didn't want to talk about it, and was a little annoyed Jane brought it up. Stupid Real SHIELD. What a bunch of maroons.

Jane opened her mouth, about to say something else, something that would probably send Sabrina running for Interpol or a psychiatrist or a bunker, but then she closed it again and sat back in her chair. She sighed a long gusty sigh and sat quietly for a moment.

"It's been a difficult year," Jane said at last. "I worry. That's all."

Darcy felt a tinge of regret for letting her more flippant and irritable thoughts run around all willy-nilly in her head. Jane did worry, Darcy understood that. Darcy worried about Jane, too, after all.

"It has sucked in a variety of ways," Darcy said, gentling her tone and letting Jane know she understood her worries. "But, things are looking up, huh? What do you say? Nothing but positivity in this office, yes ma'am." She pointed a finger at Sabrina. "Positivity."

"Right," Sabrina replied, shooting a skeptical look at Jane who just shrugged. "I'm brimming."

"Perfect," Darcy said. "So, primary database, let's get cracking."

"How much am I supposed to know about this sort of physics?" Sabrina asked as she picked up a pile of paper covered in strange numbers. "Because, I'm sorry, but my last physics course was quite a while ago."

"Practically nothing," Darcy assured her.

Jane protested, "Hey!"

"At first," Darcy corrected. "Practically nothing at first. Jane is an awesome teacher. You'll learn tons of stuff about leprechauns and space tornadoes."

"Darcy," Jane growled. "Please, stop."

"Sorry, Jane, I'm just trying to pre—" her apology was interrupted by an ear-splitting, wild mechanical squeal and a painful, grinding shriek. Sabrina's hands flew up in the air, and the papers she was holding arced above their heads, spreading out and drifting down, like a fluttery firework. Darcy half slid out of her seat, all reaction, no elegance, reaching with her leg to hook her bag strap with her foot. She yanked the bag to the side of the chair and thrust her arm in, trying to find her phone. The device was still screaming and vibrating, as though in its death throes, when she pulled it out and hurriedly powered it off.

"What in the world?" Jane asked, scrambling from her own seat and crossing the room to lean over Darcy's shoulder.

"Wow," Darcy breathed out, holding the phone away from her slightly, like she was afraid it might start screaming again or explode. "No idea. It woke me up at, like, four this morning making a weird noise, but nothing like this." She'd ignored the phone in the morning, her brain still asleep, and simply shoved it under a pillow until it went quiet. But, that was like a weird little alarm she'd never heard; this was a full on meltdown.

"I've never heard anything like that," Sabrina said, holding one hand to her chest while she took a few deep breaths. "The closest was when I caught a scarf on the fire alarm in primary school. Mrs. Jenkinson shouted at me for an hour because she was wet down to her pants from the fire sprinkler. Do you know how manky the water is in those? Awful. Most of us escaped the worst, it was the end of the day, but she had to have antibiotics and a tetanus shot. Anyway, she wanted to send me home for weeks, but the head teacher saw the whole thing and said it was an accident. Which it was. There was a gust of wind through the door as we were going out, and the scarf lifted up and snagged — it was those pull alarms, right? I suppose you don't want a 'break glass' alarm in a school. I thought it was Dave Taylor pulling on my scarf, he was always a little monster, and I gave it a good hard tug back. And the next thing you know it was all alarms screaming, and a proper deluge with a sad, soggy river of Year 3 crayon art."

Darcy forgot her phone for a second and laughed. "That is an amazing story."

"Well …" Sabrina looked a little embarrassed and nodded back to the phone. "Is it dying?"

"It shouldn't be," Darcy muttered and turned it gently in her hand.

Sabrina took a hesitant tilt towards it and scrunched up her nose in concentration. "It's an odd sort of phone, isn't it?"

"It's a prototype," Darcy answered automatically. She'd had a Stark phone since high school and never bothered to try anything else, usually she just hid them in tacky phone cases and went with 'prototype from my aunt' as a stock answer to anybody curious. The fact that she had an iPod was still a sore spot with Tony; if she got an iPhone, too, she might have been disowned.

Should she crack the phone open? See what was going on inside? Tony was, of course, an amazing engineer and maker, and she'd never had anything he'd made fail on her in a massive way — tiny bugs happened. But, while this wasn't a tiny bug, he wasn't actually perfect. Darcy supposed there could be a failure in the cpu or any of the phone's other modules.

Or was it software? Oh, please don't be software. Software meant there was a much, much bigger problem, because Tony would die before he would let some piece of his tech make a noise like that all on its own, without some sort of hardware trauma. And externally the phone was fine. If a bug or virus pushed across a software update … that was a horrible thought, because not just any bug or software could get through Tony and Jarvis's firewalls. Who would even know how to write code to compromise one of these phones?

Of course, it could also maybe be a network problem. Though, a network problem was not necessarily a better problem. A network problem could be anything from simple malfunction in a satellite, or a solar flare, to a full on alien invasion, part three.

"Should you call your dad?" Jane asked quietly. There was a strange look on her face, one that said she'd calculated the possible causes of the malfunction and came up with catastrophe in every direction, too. "No, wait," she caught herself. "Do not call your father."

"I don't want to." Darcy gave Jane a sad-eyed look and said, "I'm supposed to go on a date tonight. For the first time in like two years."

"I know. And you are going on that date." Jane patted her on the shoulder, plucked the dying phone from her hand, and picked up her own iPhone off the desk. "Borrow mine for today. Just so you have a phone."

"I love you, Jane."

"I know. Go take a walk and don't call your dad."

"What's your dad to do with your phone?" Sabrina asked. It was a reasonable question. But, Darcy didn't want to answer it, because she didn't want to think about it, and she didn't want this to be something catastrophic. She wanted to go on her date and have everything be normal for once. Because this year has sucked and …

Darcy took a deep breath and stood up. She could feel the panic spiral starting. "I need to go count things," she told them. Counting things was a technique Clint taught her after China. When the walls started to close in, when the adrenaline started to spike and her hands began to shake, she was supposed to go count things. Anything. Well, any countable thing, anyway, with some variations in the technique depending on mood and situation.

"Did I say something wrong?" Sabrina asked in a hush as Darcy stepped out.

"No, it's okay," Jane assured her just as quietly, but then she raised her voice to Darcy. "Don't check the news!"

Darcy called back, "I will NOT check the news." Checking the news was a surefire way to ruin her attempts at calmly counting things. Besides, if it was really bad, wouldn't somebody have called her? Okay, maybe not on the balky phone. But, somebody could call Jane. And, like, surely Pepper would have sent an email. Or her mom? Or Jarvis?

"And don't talk to any undergrads!" Jane shouted in return.

"What does that have to do with the news?" Darcy yelled.

"They're the worst gossips in the world and you know it."

A sour-faced professor stuck his head out of his office and glared at Darcy. After a very pointed sniff and scathing once over, he slammed his door even more pointedly.

"SORRY FOR SHOUTING," Darcy shouted at his door (the third one on the left side). Dick.

Once outside, Darcy strolled down the sidewalk that circled the green between the buildings. Most of the university's buildings were older, three sides of the green were historic and picturesque, but the fourth faced an ugly cube of glass and steel. Somebody probably thought it looked modern and high tech and perfect for the computer science department. It really just looked like a very square fishbowl. Its only redeeming quality was that it was air-conditioned.

The previous few days had been intensely hot, even by Darcy's southern California standards. The heat sat over the city like a sticky bowl of liquid jello. It wasn't quite as bad as the summer she spent in New Orleans, but the weather still sucked. And London was stingy with its air-conditioning. But, the ugly cube had it and Darcy made regular excuses to go to the computer labs housed there. "Oops, I printed out to the printers all the way over here again. Sorry! What do you mean my office isn't connected to your printers' local networks? That's so weird."

Happily, the heat broke early in the morning, with a fierce little thunderstorm and an hour of light, yet somehow drenching rain. Hmm, come to think of it, when the storm rolled over that was about the time her phone acted up. Hey! Maybe some wacky static charge fried something? That was a happier thought. Until her Stark brain reasserted itself and told her that she was living in a land of cotton candy clouds and cuddly unicorns if she thought static would take down her phone. Shut up, Stark brain!

Anyway, the weather was much more pleasant today. Mid-70s, partly cloudy, and a breeze lifted the humidity. The forecast called for some light rain in the evening, but nothing that should impact her date. Oh wow, a date. It was hard to believe they were finally here. After Bucky's early struggles, Estonia, China, Real SHIELD, explosions, shootouts, 1946, and far too much running, they were actually going to go on a for real date. They were going to dance. Like people. People who did normal things.

For some reason thought brought a little swell of anxiousness and she forced her self to count things. There were two pairs of red shoes crossing the green with her. Four black backpacks. Seven umbrellas.

Something metallic flashed in the corner of her eye and she turned to peer into the small stand of trees that lined the walk down to the river path. She thought she saw something move back towards the observatory building, something taller than a person. But, a trio of students came around the same corner only a few seconds later and they didn't seem bothered.

Rubbing at her eyes, Darcy pulled out Jane's phone. She was getting paranoid. A broken phone was not necessarily cause for a panic attack. Still, she insisted to herself that she shouldn't look at the news. She'd only ruin her day, even if there wasn't anything there, even if the day was as normal as any other day that wasn't overrun by terrorist organizations or aliens. Still, she couldn't stop herself from checking the notices on the phone — Jane only had science journal alerts set up, but Tony was science and a Tony catastrophe would alert the hell out of everything. But, the only thing she saw was an update on extra-solar planetary research and a new viking burial unearthed in Denmark.

Dropping onto a nearby bench, Darcy let out a long breath and put the phone face-down on her thigh. One source of anxiety squashed, one to go. Jane was right about undergrads, they did talk, and talk loudly, in body language if not words. If something bad was going on, Darcy would be able to see it without looking at the news. Thankfully, everything looked sane and soothingly boring. None of the people around her were gathered in frantic knots, nobody was gazing nervously at the sky, and the stifling hush of devastation was mercifully absent. That made her feel better than any of the six brunettes, three bushes with white flowers, or eight street lamps set around the green ever could.

For a long few minutes she just sat. She breathed in the sweet, fresh scent of the landscaping around her, and she listened to the entirely normal hum of voices echoing off of old stone and glass. Everything was normal. Everything was calm. Her phone was being stupid and it wasn't the end of the world.

And then Jane's phone buzzed loudly against her knee, making Darcy lurch upright, her heart hammering. Checking the caller, she shook her head and answered. Paranoia. "Yes, Jane?"

"It's Sabrina, actually. I'm sorry to interrupt your counting."

"It's fine. Jane's not trying to scare you off is she?"

"What? Oh, no, that's all fine, she's been very kind. But, she is looking for some set of numbers and, in all honestly, she may as well be speaking Cantonese. Which, I don't speak. And she's said not to bother you about it, and again, I'm very sorry, but she's growling at her desk. Actually staring at her desk and growling at it. I'm afraid she might attack."

"Don't panic, she won't actually attack. Tell her I'm on my way."

"I was mostly joking about the attack. Though, not about the growling. That's unnerving."

"We'll go over the number sets when I get there," Darcy promised. Nothing like a little Jane office drama to make the world feel rational and comforting. Darcy could handle this in her sleep. "I can't promise she won't growl again, but next time she growls about numbers, you'll speak the lingo."

"Got it," Sabrina said brightly, sounding a little amused and a lot relieved.

On the way back to the office, Darcy thought she saw something skitter up the side of the craggy stone walls of the building across the way. But, when she looked, once again there was nothing there, and nobody else was reacting. It had to be nerves, just nerves. A phone being bizarre and a first date. She had every right to feel a little wound up.

Heck, the first date by itself was enough for big nerves. Though, they weren't unhappy nerves. She liked Bucky a lot as a friend, as a partner, and she wanted to see if there was something more. She was pretty sure there was, but she wasn't totally sure, and that was at least half of the anxiety. But, no, this would be good. A date would be great.

If nothing else they'd finally get the first date out of the way. Jane was right, the waiting for this lasted for months on end, interrupted again and again by a universe bound and determined to make Darcy twitchy. But, here they were at last. And it didn't have to be more than dancing tonight and dancing was fun. Fun with a guy she liked. Yep, she was totally down by that, and absolutely, rock steady calm about it, too.

Oh, look at those three birds on the two benches, in front of the little building with seven windows.