The next hour was surreal as fuck.

Tony was the first to worm past the perimeter his security had set up. He lifted a hand in an utterly careless wave, and the way the Hulk bared his teeth in response looked almost like a grin. The grunt he offered was more approving than not, and yeah, her boyfriend's violent alter ego obviously had a bigger crush on Tony Stark than he did on her.

"Hey, Jolly Green. Hey, Betty." Tony smiled at her. "How we holding up back here?"

He stayed for a few minutes, to what purpose Darcy wasn't entirely sure. "You're doing swell, girl-me. Nice job," he said before departing, and seemed to feel that to the Hulk-wrangling victor went the spoils, because he actually relinquished his flask to her. She took a covert slug of the flask once he had gone. Whatever was in it was a lot stronger than his usual Scotch, and she coughed once before deciding maybe it was better to wait on it until after the cameras had gone.

Clint came by after that, his expression dour. For all of that, he leaned casually against the wall beside her and didn't spare more than a glance for the Hulk. "We have our would-be assassin secured in one of the conference rooms. Nat is talking to him now; if there's anything more to his cause than 'I hate the color green,' she'll find out. What do you want us to do with him when she's done?"

Darcy's mind boggled at the idea that she was supposed to make that decision. "No one else has given you orders?"

"Not yet."

So...yeah. She smiled brilliantly at the cameras to buy a moment as she turned the problem over in her hear. "If he's not, like, the shittiest hired gun or Hydra flunky ever, and there really isn't anything else to this, call the cops, assuming someone hasn't already. It's their job more than ours, right?"

"Fury isn't going to be happy about that."

Darcy took a deep breath, steeling her courage less at the thought of the massive bulk of the Hulk beside her and more at the image of Fury in a seething covert hissy fit. All the Hulk could do was smoosh her; Fury would... well, the body would never be found. "Tough cookies. Him attacking Bruce was very, uh, public. If this guy disappears into the depths of SHIELD, Fury isn't the one who's going to have to beat off the government conspiracy theorists. I'm pretty sure that falls under my purview, so I'm... purviewing. Yeah."

Clint nodded, as if that was the answer he had expected. He was silent for a moment. "I oversee security on public appearances from now on. If I'm on assignment, I get to pick who's in charge while I'm gone. Some amateur with a goddamn bread knife? This never should've happened."

"You think amateur, then?"

He shrugged. "Nat will find out for sure, but honestly? It was a bread knife. He probably got it from his kitchen. I don't think he's a professional."

"I'll trust your greater expertise on that one." Darcy took another deep breath. It was soothing. Deep, slow breaths meant that she wasn't hyperventilating. It had been a very stressful day. "I'll talk to Fury, but I don't think there'll be a problem with you doing your own security thing. I mean, I'd like that. A lot. Go Team Hawkeye."

The expression on Clint's face could probably be read as, why are you even more incoherent than usual?, but he just nodded to her again and left. Steve took his place almost immediately, although he failed to imitate Clint's pose, favoring the stiff soldier routine over wall-slouching like a pro.

"You're okay?" he asked in an undertone.

"I'm dandy. I hope you are not doubting my dandiness, Steve. Can you not see how calm and accepting I am of this entire situation?"

He nodded, allowing that as truth even if Darcy wasn't too sure about her own honesty. "We've got the civilians out like you wanted. Just wave someone down when you need the press gone, and we'll make it happen."

Darcy was busy wondering how she had ended up in charge when Steve leaned awkwardly across her to pat the Hulk's arm in a manly fashion, and she heard the snap of the cameras. Oh. This wasn't about her being so freaking indispensible to the security side of things that they needed her input – it was about finding an excuse to come by and chat, so that they could make a very public show of support, and make it clear that they weren't afraid of the Hulk, that he was one of the team. Darcy could've kissed whoever had come up with that, except she was pretty sure it had been Tony, and she didn't want to kiss Tony.

"If you need anything—," Steve started to say, but ended the sentence with a shrug, a shadow of concern still lingering on the part of his face she could see past the mask.

Darcy considered. "A kitten," she decided, because Steve had enough cares without adding worrying about her to the list. "A fluffy one."

His sigh held a trace of exasperation, but he smiled a little and he ruffled her hair before he stepped away. She had a spare moment to wonder if he was actually planning to go find her a kitten, when a something big and heavy settled on the top of her head.

Darcy sat very still as the Hulk slid his hand over her head, then down over her back to the curve of her waist. He was big enough that his fingers could wrap around the greater portion of her ribs, and she bit back a startled yelp when he tugged her back further in her chair, until her hip was more-or-less resting on top of his thigh. "Mine," he said, and it was still loud enough to make Darcy's eardrums ring when she was this close, but it also sounded distinctly sullen, like a grade-schooler who was unamused by the other kids touching his things.

She wasn't usually at all tolerant of pushy, possessive behavior from her boyfriends, but thought that it might be wise to make an exception for the Hulk. Possible smashing aside, she really didn't think he was up to a whole long I'm-a-human-being-not-property-respect-my-personhood talk. "Right."

His expression didn't change and he didn't make a sound, but the vice-like grip on her waist eased a little. Darcy still wasn't willing to risk a flare-up of the Hulk's rather formidable temper if he felt that other people were honing in on his – Territory? Buddy? 'Special friend'? Girlfriend? She had no idea what was going on in that green skull of his, except that whatever it was, it had been enough to keep him from bowling her and more than a few innocent bystanders over, so, well, probably better not to look at that gift horse too closely. When Jane and Thor approached the perimeter, Darcy waved them off. If Big Green was feeling possessive, it was poooossibly better not to exacerbate the issue.

"I think," she said, a few minutes later, "that we should consider couple's therapy."

The Hulk grunted, and continued to glare at the cameras clicking to life just outside of the security perimeter.

Darcy gave it thirty minutes, until the knots forming in her shoulders and the low-grade stress of sitting next to the Hulk and facing the press got to be too much. Then she waved Tony over from where he and Pepper were bickering over a bottle of champagne that she knew she hadn't arranged to be present at this event, because while it might've been wise to let the cameras and microphones stay on a little longer, oh boy was she done.

"Make them leave," she breathed to Tony as soon as he slid past security. She expected him to draw things out with a joke and a smirk, but he just nodded, and his habitual smirk had faded into something more like determination.

He stepped forward, the champagne bottle raised like a battle standard, and Darcy let her eyes close. She heard Tony drawl something along the lines of, "That's it, show's over, you don't have to go home but you can't stay here," and from there it was just the buzz of the press grumbling protests or recording final comments as they filed out of the building.

It seemed like an eternity later when she heard Steve say, "Okay. They're gone." Darcy opened her eyes, and like a miracle, the lobby was clear of everyone – including the staff – who wasn't an Avenger, Jane, or Pepper. She was grateful enough that she felt a little bit like crying and a little bit like making rash promises of sexual favors that would make Steve blush and Tony say unforgivable things, and in the end did neither.

"Good," she said, "Great. Lock the doors and someone go get clothes for Bruce when he comes back to us. I need a minute."

She was grateful, too, that Hulk didn't show any signs of wanting to stop her when she got up. He stayed where he was, although she could feel his eyes tracking her to the glass doors she had led the Avengers through what felt like eons ago. She let herself into the hallway and made it a few feet before she had to lean against the wall. Her knees felt too weak to support her, and she couldn't stop her hands from shaking.

"It's bad, the first time."

Darcy started so badly that she almost bashed her head against the wall, and really, knocking herself unconscious only could have been an improvement on the day. She turned to Natasha, who was still glorious if a little rumpled in her red dress. "What is?"

"The adrenaline rush. The fear. Feeling like you shouldn't be weak enough to be showing either, and knowing that you can't until the job is done."

Darcy had seen Natasha's file. A lot of it was redacted, but Darcy had seen enough to say, "I'm not sure it's the same thing."

Natasha smiled, shrugged elegantly. "I'd rather be facing bullets than cameras." She held out one of the Stark Tech tablets Tony had gifted them all with in one of those fits of I-have-more-money-than-sense that seemed to strike him from time to time. "I just spent some time chatting with our new, knife-wielding friend. He's not a threat, but I found something interesting when I was cross-referencing his information with the system. He wasn't in any of SHIELD's databases, he doesn't even have an arrest record, but he was on file. Your file."


"Watch it."

Darcy's hands were steadier when she pressed play. She was oddly proud of that.

"I think they've got a lot to answer for. They can pretty up and talk to you all they like, but who's to say that some of the people who died didn't die because of them?" a voice recited, the tinny speakers stripping most of his tone. The man in the video – and Darcy recognized him, recognized his red rimmed eyes, saw him now with a knife clutched in his carefully manicured hand – smoothed that hand over the pencil-lead gray of his jacket. The logo for a local news station bounced in the corner of the screen. "Civilian casualties. That's what the newspapers call it, right? They never say that the bad guys weren't the only ones causing them, and it's always good and fine as long as everyone else made it out okay. As long as the gains outweigh the losses. Fuck that. Just... fuck—."

She stopped the video.

"It's probably true," she said, because if anyone could handle that it was Natasha. "I mean, nobody knows for sure, and you guys definitely did more good than harm, and no one should be stabbing my boyfriend over it, but – it's probably true."

"I know," Natasha said.

"Bruce shouldn't," Darcy said suddenly, the words pushing their way out of her mouth without any real intent.

After a moment, Natasha nodded. "I know. Banner probably already knows – or guesses – but it's better not to shove it in his face like this. I'll hand our would-by assassin over to the police, and then I'll bury it."

"Not literally, right? I mean, like, not 'I'm going to receive a call at 3 a.m. because you forgot a shovel' bury it?"

Natasha smiled. "Not literally."

"Oh. Good." She looked down at the tablet in her hand, then pushed it back at Natasha. "Do we know his name?"

"I do. Did you need it?"

No. Yes. "I'm going to need to make a statement at some point." She didn't want to deal with it now. "Can you e-mail it to me, along with anything else you have on him?"

"Of course."

"I should go check on things."

Natasha considered her for a moment, then sighed. "No you don't. Not yet." She hooked an arm through one of Darcy's, and led her toward a door Darcy was pretty sure opened into a conference room. "I think we need to talk."


"What makes a soldier, and what makes a general."

"I don't really think I'm either."

Natasha smiled again. "From the woman who sold me on PR by comparing it to tactics and strategy?" She pushed open the door. "There are different kinds of soldiers, and there are different kinds of generals. Before you're one or the other, you need to decide if you're willing to be either. You kind of fell into this job, but I think you're informed enough at this point to make a decision."

"Oh," Darcy said again, because she had apparently used up her quota of words for the day. "All right."

"Natasha, this is the ladies' bathroom."

"I've been reliably informed by highly trained government agents that it's traditional."

Darcy wasn't sure how Natasha managed to get tea delivered to a public restroom on the mostly abandoned ground floor of Stark Tower, but she did, and maybe that was a part of standard spy training? Darcy dumped a little bit of Tony's flask into both of their cups, they spent a while leaning against the walls of one of the extravagantly large bathroom stalls with delicate porcelain saucers balanced on the back of the porcelain throne, and she mostly felt better by the time she left.

They didn't actually talk much about soldiers or generals, but that didn't mean that Darcy wasn't thinking about it.

Darcy had read Natasha's file. She thought that Natasha knew a little bit about what happened to women who made decisions that weren't their own.

The thing was, Darcy's decisions since coming to New York had never been anything but.

She was okay with that.

Darcy swanned through the lobby briefly. She took in the destruction with a critical eye (it wasn't so bad, which left her feeling a lot more cheerful). Most of the Avengers were still there, although Clint had departed and the Hulk – Bruce – was nowhere to be seen.

"How fare you, Lady Darcy?" Thor boomed as she entered the lobby. "We were filled with much disquiet when you left us so suddenly. Is all well?"

This time, when she smiled and said, "Dandy," she meant it.

"I was very proud of you all today," she added grandly. "My babies, all grown up and facing the scary reporters like champs. Not once did any of you suggest that I might be your ill-begotten by-blow. It was amazing."

"That was only once," Tony protested. "I haven't implied that I made sweet, sweet love to your mother since."

"I hate you and everything you represent," Darcy said, and the words were rote enough at this point that she didn't even have to think about saying them, but they also made her feel better for all of their familiarity. "Where's Bruce?"

Tony shrugged. His fingers were glued to his phone, but she thought she could see him watching her out of the corner of his eye from where he sat in a folding chair pushed to the middle of the room. "He let my med staff poke at him for a bit and then he slunk off to put a shirt on. Haven't seen him since. JARVIS?"

The reply was immediate. "Dr. Banner has retreated to his quarters, Mr. Stark."

JARVIS's tone was enough for Darcy to make an educated guess that Tony already had eyes on Bruce and was asking just to keep anyone from guessing that he had maybe approached a feeling (which was fair, because Darcy would never, ever have stopped making fun of him and also puppies and rainbows and frolicking in the fields amongst the wildflowers), and it was actually still a little alarming months later that an AI could master a judgmental tone that well. The fact that Tony squawked and pulled away indignantly when she tried to glance at his phone over his shoulder was basically confirmation enough.

Since she was pretty sure that the only way to actually get a glance at that phone would be to have Steve pin him while she wrestled it from his grasp, she settled for ruffling his hair in the most annoying way possible and dropping his still-mostly-full flask into his lap. "Be prepared," she said as she headed for the elevators. "If he's being difficult, I'm calling in reinforcements."

Darcy wasn't entirely joking. If dating Bruce Banner had taught her anything, it was that he could be just as immovable as his alter ego.

She revised her assessment of the situation pretty much immediately upon entering Bruce's suite, because he was in the bedroom, and there was an open suitcase on the bed beside him.

"That seems a little extreme," she said. She sounded very calm. She was surprised by how calm she sounded. No one whose mind had descended into gibbering, furious panic as quickly as hers had should sound so calm.

Bruce paused, a half-folded shirt held loosely between his hands. "JARVIS let you in?"

"JARVIS and I have an agreement," Darcy said, waving a dismissive hand through the air, "based on mutual animosity and the fact that apparently his system actually can't register certain pitches I hit when I'm whining at him. I make him tired. Tony says he doesn't dream of electric sheep. JARVIS, that is, and I hope you know that none of this is going to successfully deflect from the fact that you're packing a suitcase."

A faint smile tugged at his lips, but it looked wrong, tension pooling like water at the corners of his mouth. "Have I ever successfully deflected with you?"

"No," Darcy said, "but that doesn't mean you aren't trying."

He was silent.

"Hives, Banner," she said. Her voice sounded too flat for what had started as a joke between them. "Deflection gives me hives."

He looked down at the shirt in his hands. Absently, he continued to fold it, his movements awkward with his thoughts obviously elsewhere. Or maybe not – she wondered how often he had actually gotten a chance to pack his belongings before leaving a place, in the past however many years. Maybe not very often. Maybe he was awkward about it because his hands had forgotten the gestures. None of which brought her any closer to understanding why he was packing now. "Someone could have gotten seriously hurt today," he said finally.

"No one did."

Bruce tossed the shirt into the suitcase and looked at her patiently. "And next time? And the time after that?" He shook his head. "You weren't wrong when you told me that being a part of the Avengers meant being more in the public eye. Needing to be more in the public eye. Unfortunately, being around the public for me also means being a risk to the public. I have to figure out if the risk is worth the potential gain of having the Other Guy around if he's needed."

"And you can't figure that out here?" Darcy took a deep breath. "Look, I know why this makes you nervous. I get it. I definitely get it after what just happened. Here's the safest place for you to be, though. I mean, you're never going to be entirely free and clear of people, not unless you're looking to make a permanent move to the Antarctic," actually, probably better not to give him ideas like that, "but at least here there's someone to keep you in check. You've got Thor if the Other Guy is looking for a brawl, and you have me and Tony if he needs to be—calmed down. He knows us, and he doesn't want to hurt us. Today proved that, at least."

He let out a shuddering breath. "He didn't hurt you, then?"

The Hulk had scared the ever-loving crap out of her. She still wasn't entirely sure her heart had climbed back down out of her throat yet. There had been a distinct moment there where she'd been sure he would be okay with hurting her.

None of that was going to be remotely helpful if she was trying to talk Bruce off the metaphorical ledge.

"Dude," she said, "I think he tried to cuddle me."

Bruce jerked with surprise, and Darcy took advantage of the fact that she had apparently stunned him into silence to plow forward. "Your alter ego is seriously handsy and possessive, by the way, and we're going to have a talk about that at some point. It was all very traumatizing, in a first-date-with-sweaty-palms kind of way. It's not just me, though. He recognized Natasha. He, uh, seems to approve of her ability to smash. Which, I mean, who doesn't? He was okay with Steve and Clint dropping by. I think he has a little love connection with Tony, not that I'm jealous. The only casualty of the day was a table and some of those folding chairs in the lobby. And this was the first time we've had to deal with the party being interrupted on account of inclement Hulk. Clint is going to take over security. I'll be a little more careful about your public appearances. We'll get better. Next time, even the furniture won't have to suffer."

For a moment, it seemed like Bruce was going to listen. His head was tilted, his mouth pursed in thought. Then he reached for a pair of slacks from the bed, and Darcy had been wrong: her heart was fine with vacating her throat in favor of the prime real estate in the pit of her stomach.

"I just need time to think, Darcy," he said. "Time away from here. There are – there are too many temptations to stay. I don't think I'd be able to look at the situation objectively. It would be easy to get caught up in Tony and the lab and you, and forget that me being here, me being happy, means potential repercussions for other people. I'm not running away, not again. Not this time. I'm not saying that I'm never coming back. I just need that time."

"Where will you go?" she asked. "Back to India? South America? Maybe Nepal, I hear it's nice this time of year."

He sighed. "Darcy."

"Were you even planning to tell anyone where you were going? Were you even planning to tell any of us that you were going?"


"Or were you – are you – just going to leave me guessing? How long is 'time'? Will I get a phone call if you decide not to come back, or is that gonna stay a mystery? I won't wait on you, Bruce. I'm not going to sit and twiddle my thumbs and put my stuff on hold in the hopes that maybe you'll remember that there's this chick and this life that you left behind in New York. I'm not Betty." Except even Betty hadn't waited, not forever. Maybe she had been smarter than Darcy, had realized ahead of time that Bruce was going to leave and that when he did, he probably wasn't coming back. "I don't have it in me. I'm finally starting to figure things out for myself, I think I might even be able to answer that stupid college essay question about where I see myself in five years, and I really like you, I do, but I can't—."

His hands closed around her wrists, firm but infinitely gentle. The slacks were sitting in a half-folded jumble on top of his suitcase. "Darcy. Calm down."

She glared at him. "You did not," she said distinctly, "just pull this I-own-the-entire-Smiths-discography teenage runaway shit, and then tell me to calm down."

Bruce smiled. It was a different smile this time, more solid and real with some of that terrible tension gone. "I told you. I'm not running away." The smile turned a little rueful. "After all, I've tried that before, and isn't the definition of insanity trying the same thing, over and over, while expecting different results?"

"You're not running away, but you're packing a suitcase and leaving for parts unknown. Not sure what else you'd call it, Banner."

He let go of her wrists and stepped back. "I told you. I just need a little time."

Darcy was silent. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do. Climb him like a tree and hope that her super seduction techniques did the trick? Call Tony for reinforcements, like she'd said she would?

Was it even worth keeping someone when he didn't want to be kept?

"I need to leave," he said, almost to himself. He was watching her closely, like he was waiting for his words to trigger another rant.

"You want to leave," Darcy corrected.

She sort of expected him to protest, but he just nodded. "Yes. I want to."

The room felt too still, too quiet, when Darcy didn't immediately reply. There was only the harsh rasp of her own breathing and the lump in her stomach and her throat, a warning sign that if she didn't get out of here soon things were going to get a lot messier than just ranting. There might be tears. She didn't want that. Dignity was going to be a pretty damn cold comfort once Bruce was gone, but she thought she should hold on to what little of it she had.

She took a step back.

Bruce was still watching her with those careful, intent eyes.

"I don't suppose," he said, "that you'd like to come with me."

Tony was the first one Darcy went looking for after she left Bruce. He was still sitting in his chair in the middle of the now-empty lobby, champagne bottle in one hand and phone in the other, like a king holding court in an abandoned castle. Darcy chose to believe that he was really involved in a rousing game of Frogger, and not using the phone for purposes of creeping on his various and strange houseguests.

The corner of his mouth tucked up into a smirk as she entered. "Your lipstick is smeared."

Wiping it away would give him far too much satisfaction. "I'm a trendsetter. I'm setting a trend."

He snorted. "Everything all sorted?"

"Not really." She crossed the lobby to him, her heels clicking out an easy rhythm. "Bruce is leaving."

It was hard to gauge Tony's emotions, most of the time. His smirk never wavered, and the way his shoulders tensed briefly before he forced them to relax would have been easy to miss. She wondered when she'd gotten to know him well enough to notice his little tells and how much time she'd spent watching him to learn them in the first place.

"Huh. I thought he had pretty much kicked that habit. I owe Fury a twenty."

"Don't pay up just yet, cowboy," Darcy said. She plucked the phone out of his unresisting fingers, leaving him with no other option than to make eye contact. "Here's what's going to happen. I'm sure you've got a dozen high-class bachelor love shacks scattered around the continent, all sitting sad and neglected ever since you were lucky enough to snag the nation's most terrifying woman in a Valentino suit. You're going to give me the keys to one of them."

"I am?"

"Yes, because the goal here is to keep him in the country."

The last of the subtle tension Tony was holding dissolved at this evidence that Darcy was handling things. "As long as I'm risking my security deposit for a worthy cause."

"Like you rent."

He smiled lazily up at her, and tilted his chair back until it rested precariously on its back legs. "There's that. I'll tell you what, you can have the Malibu house. Sun, surf, and as many miles between it and New York as you can get without swimming, freezing, or having to convert to the peso."

Darcy considered that. "Cool," she decided. "You're also going to call someone and have them gas up one of your smancy jets for the trip. Tonight would be good."

Tony overbalanced in his chair, and Darcy reached out with her free hand to grab the front of his shirt, tugging him forward before he could bash open his brilliant, idiotic head on the floor. The champagne bottle dropped but didn't break, rolling until the empty receptionist's desk at the far end of the lobby stopped its progress. "That's a pretty short timeline you're working with. On second thought, maybe I should give you a place where it'll be a little harder for Banner to hitchhike his way to the border."

The front legs of the chair settled on the floor with a faint thump, and Darcy released him. Impulsively, she leaned forward and brushed a kiss across the stubble on his cheek – then smirked at the resulting red smear. "Don't worry," she said, and then, as he opened his mouth to protest that he wasn't worried, she added, "I'm going with him."

It wasn't as easy as that, of course.

Darcy had a life, she had responsibilities. She hadn't been able to leave Jane when Jane had come to New York, and back then she had been motivated mostly by vague fondness for her boss and a kind of aimless loyalty. Jane had come here because she had a job and things to do, and now – now, so did Darcy. Her little PR project for the Avengers was still in its infancy, and not quite yet at the point where she could hare off to distant climes and leave her minions to their own devices while she pulled on their puppet strings via phone or e-mail.

Not that she was, like, controlling or anything. She welcomed initiative in her little baby department. Last week, Agent Perry had gotten her a cup of coffee without her even having to ask, and she had appreciated his enterprise and his can-do attitude very much.

(He had been so pleased by her effusive praise that he had actually cracked a smile, and probably broken a dozen SHIELD regulations regarding proper conduct for an agent and some of his more important facial muscles in the process. She sort of thought she was starting to win them over. At the very least, they were fully swayed to her cause, which was quite an accomplishment given that most of them were transfers from the Department of Covering Up Shit The Man Doesn't Want You To See.)

The point was, they couldn't be left alone. They might return to their prevaricating ways! Also, the Avengers couldn't be left alone. Tony would lie terribly to the press to amuse himself. Steve wouldn't lie to the press enough. Thor would probably reveal the color of his underwear if asked. There would be explosions and possibly a wet t-shirt contest. It would be a disaster.

A very entertaining disaster that would probably be great for some network's ratings, but still a disaster, and Darcy wasn't willing to see all of her hard work get flushed down the toilet.

In the end, she put Bruce on his plane alone.

His lips were warm and a little chapped against hers, and she was pretty sure she was clutching at the back of his neck hard enough for it to be uncomfortable, but he didn't complain. Humid New York summer was wending its way into chilly New York autumn, and Darcy used that as an excuse to press a little closer, to leech the heat from his chest and deepen the kiss into something a little dirtier, a little less appropriate for saying goodbye on the tarmac of the private one percenter's airport that Tony stabled his spare planes at. Bruce's hand was firm on her hip, tugging her forward and up against him like this was the start of something they probably wouldn't be able to finish, or the end of something they wouldn't be able to start again.

When they finally broke the kiss, she rested her cheek against his for a moment before pulling away.

There were things she couldn't say, so she reached with grabby hands for her sense of humor and managed, "Sorry I won't be able to induct you into the Mile High Club, babe."

His smile was faint, but it stayed on his face even as he stepped away from her. "What makes you think I'm not already a member?"

Trying to unravel this small new piece of the enigma that was Doctor Bruce Banner kept her suitably distracted long enough that she didn't developactual grabby hands when he picked up his suitcase and took a few more steps toward the plane.

It was probably a testament to how far they had come that when he said, "Be seeing you," he actually sounded like he meant it.


There was coffee on waiting on Darcy's desk when she got there the next day. The handle of the glossy black mug was shaped like a pistol grip, and the coffee was tepid, which probably meant that whoever had left it for her had expected her to roll in at her usual time of somewhere-between-eightish-and-nineish instead of straddling the line between ten and eleven.

Her employees were watching her warily. Out of the corners of their eyes, and while apparently focused on other tasks. They were, after all, highly trained covert agents. Only someone accustomed to their wily ways would notice that Agent Worth hadn't turned a page in the file she was reading since Darcy had walked in.

Resignedly, Darcy sipped at the coffee. If Fury had decided to have her poisoned for 'Performing Below Expectations,' it was probably better to know before she bothered to settle in at her desk.

Darcy paused. Sipped again.

It was good coffee.

SHIELD didn't have good coffee.

In this one way, it adhered to the unspoken rules of both law enforcement agencies and shitty office jobs everywhere: the coffee was always burned, with the vague suggestion that some exotic alien culture was spawning in the half inch of grounds congealed at the bottom of the pot. Which, given that it was SHIELD, was actually sort of a possibility.

They were still watching her.

"Oh my God," Darcy groused, "it's not like I'm dying. Seriously. You can begin to worry if I start listening to Hank Williams on repeat, but until then, don't we have some actual work to do?"

The room remained silent, but Darcy thought that her minions relaxed a hair. Agent Worth's sigh rattled the edges of her file, and she finally flipped to the next page. "I have a request from Stark Industries for some kind of joint operation—."

"Someday, I will wean you off of your pseudo-militaristic jargon," Darcy said. "Don't get me wrong, I find it endearing. Like a kitten with a big gun. But you're going to scare our friendly civilians with the cameras and the microphones."

Worth paused. Her expression was strained. "They want to... go on a play-date with us?" Every word sounded like it had been dragged unwillingly from between her lips.

"Better," Darcy allowed. "Keep working on it."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Darcy sat down at her desk with a smile, and got to work.


This time, when Jane showed up with ice cream and tequila, she brought Pepper.

"I'm actually fine," Darcy said, but that didn't stop her from letting them in. Jane had brought sugar and alcohol, after all, and Mama Lewis hadn't raised no fools.

By executive decision, there was no hair braiding or toenail painting, although this was mostly because Jane worried that Thor would feel left out.

One Week Later:

"I'm maybe a little sad," Darcy said.

"Jesus," Tony said, "all I asked you to do was pass me that wrench." He squinted at her, like he was daring her to have a feeling in his presence, but she thought that maybe he missed Bruce a little bit too.

She couldn't even mock him for it.

Half an hour later, when Tony fled his workshop as she yelled, "Wait, I wanted to cry into your manly bosom!" she amended that to much. She couldn't mock him much.

Two Weeks Later:

"Tony Stark," Grace said, in tones of grim foreboding. Darcy felt foreboded at least, mostly because said tones and the associated glare were both directed at her.

Darcy buried her face behind her burger. Some of the veteran Fixers had decided to go out for a celebratory meal following the official reopening of Grand Central which, given that the trains had been running for quite some time now, was more of a 'holy shit, it looks like a building again, quick, someone important give a speech' type thing than it was an actual reopening. She shot a glance at Steve, who was seated across from her and for once allowed back in his street clothes in recognition of the fact that rarely did the Fixers take an entire night off, but he was doing his best impression of furniture, undoubtedly in an attempt to keep Grace from remembering that he knew Tony too and turning her ire on him.

Honestly, Darcy didn't blame him a bit. That didn't keep her from muttering, "Way to show that famous all-American courage, Cap."

He flicked a glance in her direction, but didn't move otherwise.


One blond eyebrow rose. Steve appeared entirely unrepentant, so Darcy turned her attention back to Grace, and really, what had she been thinking to let her attention waver for even a second? Grace was dangerous. Grace might lunge. For Darcy's jugular. With her teeth.

Okay, probably not.


"What about Tony?" Darcy asked meekly.

"He's been snooping around."

"I would claim that no one as ostentatious as Tony could snoop, but Tony totally snoops. Tony is a snooper."

"Make him stop."

Darcy's mind counseled that it was unwise to contradict Grace, whose last name she had long since begun to suspect was secretly O'Malley or maybe just My Parents Gave Me My First Name Ironically, but she soldiered on. "It's for a PR project I'm working on with Stark Industries. Tony shouldn't be involved at all, but – well, it's Tony."

She prepared to dig in her heels for a fight she would inevitably lose, but Grace's glare turned thoughtful. "Good PR?" she asked, and right, Mama My Parents Gave probably hadn't raised any fools, either. Grace seemed determined to take the attention the Fixers had garnered and run with it, maybe even beyond the point where New York was Fixed. Darcy wondered idly if Grace had political aspirations, like running for mayor, or president, or Supreme Dictator.

"Nothing but," Darcy said from behind a particularly large piece of Romaine lettuce. "Trust me. It'll all be in the works by the time I leave New York, and ready to be put into action when I get back."

That caught Steve's attention, enough so that he gave up his pretense of being a particularly handsome chair. "You're going, then?"

"That's the plan," Darcy said, and tried carefully to avoid sounding like she cared. "Another week, maybe two, and my little darlings should be ready to operate without completely screwing things up."

She didn't quite succeed. Her voice came out sounding a little wistful. If anyone else noticed, they were good enough not to comment, and soon the conversation turned to more cheerful topics, like the most efficient way to clear rubble and whether or not Steve could wear underwear in that skintight costume.

Darcy chose to view the introduction of that later topic as her sweet, sweet revenge for Steve's earlier forfeiture of the field, and from the look on his face, he knew it. It wasn't enough to stop him from resting an arm around her shoulders, briefly, as they left the restaurant, giving her a quick squeeze before withdrawing.

Which was ridiculous, of course. It wasn't like she was never going to go out and see Bruce. It wasn't like he was never coming back.

Three Weeks Later:

"I told you," Natasha said, and she was too well-trained to hold her hand up to the ear that still had to be ringing or to show any flicker of discomfort, but Darcy thought that she probably wanted to, "that trying to teach her to use a weapon was a bad idea."

Clint was limping a little as he guided Darcy out of the firing range. "My mistake."

"I will never," Darcy said, still a little stunned, "touch a firearm again, for as long as I live."

"I think that's probably for the best," Natasha agreed, with admirable restraint.

One Month Later:

"It's not that we don't love you," Jane said, her pretty brow furrowed.

"Thanks, mom. I know the divorce isn't my fault." Darcy eyed Jane. "You know the coffee pot is moving with me, don't you?"

Thor made a pained noise.

"You're asking me to move out, Beowulf. You don't get to complain."

Later, Darcy will pretend not to notice when Thor hides the coffee pot under his and Jane's bed; she will simply go out a buy another one, because Thor might have been a god, but he hadn't quite figured out yet how his AmEx worked ("And this strange, thick paper is considered currency in Midgard? I think you are trying to jest at my expense, Lady Hill. No, no, it was a fine attempt! Do not feel bad that the god of thunder was too clever to fall for your cunning ruse. How we shall laugh at this in the days to come!").

She'd be lying if she said it didn't sting, a little, but they were a couple, and they needed their space.

Jane suggested, tentatively, that maybe Darcy would move into Bruce's empty apartment, with its bubble walls in the second bedroom and its familiar couch.

Instead, Darcy took the suite that Tony offered. The paint was lime green, this time. There was a projector dominating one of the living room's vast walls, and the projector was hooked in to Stark Tower's mainframe, the better to watch her hours upon hours of captured news footage and interviews.

They weren't there yet. They might never be. Darcy was okay with that; she needed her space, too.

"Captain America saved my life," the waitress said.

"Sweetheart, I know," Darcy replied, and turned off the projector.

"I think we've got it," Agent Perry said, unsmiling.

"You know, I think you're right," Darcy replied. Then she added, "Don't let it go to your head."

"Ma'am, I would never."

Almost two months had passed by the time Darcy made it out to Malibu. It was not, as the brochures had advertised, sunny. The sky was a smoggy gray. There were still a few surfers congregated off the shore, tiny specks of brilliant blue and yellow like colorful seagulls.

The house was a masterwork of glass and chrome rising out of the cliff above the beach. She knew for a fact that JARVIS was as omnipresent here as he was in New York, but the security system beeped lazily at her as she pushed the door open, a vague acknowledgement of her presence and nothing more.

The General was more than happy to make up for JARVIS' shortcomings. She hadn't made it more than three steps inside the door before he was there, his tail wagging with such fervor that the entire back of his body moved with it. She let go of the handle to her rolling suitcase and dropped to her knees, her hands immediately buried in his fur.

"I bet you didn't have to fly commercial," she cooed. "Yes, you had the billionaire jet all to yourself. Did the strippers feed you biscuits? I bet they did. Yes, they did. Who's a good boy? Did you miss me?"

"I did," Bruce said, chrome and glass like an abstract painting behind him, and the dog was basically forgotten after that.

Years later, Darcy will remember the days spent at the Malibu house as some of her best. She will speak of it (carefully edited for content) to her grand-nieces and -nephews, and they will humor her, just a funny old woman holding up her stories of superheroes and gods like trinkets.

She was not that old woman yet, and it was barely two weeks before she turned to Bruce and said, "We really should get back, you know."

Bruce traced a hand down the long line of her spine through her sundress. Even California had autumn and winter, but the air in Malibu was heavy with heat and moisture, the overcast sky like a fishbowl holding everything in beneath it. He didn't comment on her assumption that he would be returning to New York with her, but her didn't really need to; it had been there from the start, ever since she had shown up on the doorstep of the Malibu house and found him still there and waiting.

"Let me guess," he said wryly, "there's another press conference."

Darcy smiled, serene and sure of herself. "Better." She reached out and tugged on the collar of his shirt with easy affection. "I think it's time that we recognize some of New York's other heroes. Assuming you don't mind if the Avengers share the spotlight. I mean, I know you're such an attention whore, this will be hard on you, but I'm counting on you to cowboy up and pull through."

The quick flash of teeth didn't look quite right on Bruce's face, although it would have been perfectly at home on his alter ego's.

"There were more aliens," Tony informed them once they had returned. "Gooey ones. You were gone. You didn't answer your phones. You're the worst."

"I watched you on TV," Darcy said. "You were fine. I like how you didn't fail at looking heroic and smiling at the camera."

Tony looked down his nose at her. "That," he said, "is because I'm the best."

Society – News – Times Topics – The New York Times

Real Life Heroes, Good Life Parties


Published December, 2012

IF you were invited this past Friday to a very select gathering held at The Plaza Hotel, you may had been privy to what was undoubtedly the social event of the year. From Hollywood hotshots to the crème de la crème of New York's upper crust, everyone who's anyone was in attendance for what might seem, at first glance, to be a unusual cause for celebration among such rarified personages: the average man.

Or woman, as the case may be, since this event was held to honor the New York Fixers, an organization which sprung up in the wake of this summer's tragedy, spearheaded by their executive director and general Lady in Charge, Grace Hightower.

The event was co-sponsored by Stark Industries and the Avengers Initiative, and acted as a fundraiser for the Fixers' future efforts to return New York to its former glory, with attendees paying in the high thousands for a plate and pledges ranging into the hundreds of thousands – although some particularly generous attendees, including the Avengers' Tony Stark, made significantly more generous contributions. Hightower addressed her would-be benefactors prior to dinner as follows:

"Look, this is some fancy sh—stuff we have going on here," Hightower said, redolent in a gold lamée gown by Dolce. "I'm not a fancy woman. Things needed to get done and we got them done. We're still getting them done. If you think that's something worth doing, then you can write me a check. If not, enjoy your dinner. Whatever."

Hightower went on to acknowledge the role that the group known as "The Avengers" played in the events of last summer, and presented each member with one of the Fixers' signature volunteer t-shirts. The one presented to Dr. Bruce Banner was particularly noteworthy, as it was roughly the size of a bedsheet and read, "THE HULK SAVED MY CITY. I'M GOING TO FIX IT." Dr. Banner relinquished the podium shortly after receiving his shirt, but appeared noticeably touched by this gesture.

"So, yeah," Hightower said in conclusion. "Go on. Have fun. Come out and help us if you feel like working off the calories from this [redacted] chicken."

Later in the event, Hightower could be seen dancing with a most mysterious man wearing an eyepatch. The New York Times does not feel qualified to speculate, but romance may have been in the air. When asked to comment, Hightower stated, "Really? Like my personal life is any of your [redacted] business? Get a [redacted] life."

Dinner was roasted capon au jus with a citrus-sherry sauce, served with lemon green beans with walnuts and sweet potato gratin. Dancing followed.

An official source close to the Avengers commented, "They [The Avengers] did their part. They saved the city. But there wouldn't be a city without people like you and me, doing our part to make sure that there's a city left to destroy. You know, the next time aliens invade. Champagne? I've had a bit, myself. Bubbly for everyone! How long until we're done? It's, like, eleven. Why aren't people leaving? You should leave."

Donations can be made out to The New York Fixers, 81 First Ave, Suite 201B, New York, New York 10003.

Darcy Lewis Exclusive Interview – Vanity Fair

As Seen on TV: PR, Superheroes, and Behind "Behind the Mask."


Published May, 2016

IT'S humid, a blanket of New York summer lying thick over the cracked pavement and sprawling high-tech high-rises of the city. May 4thhas rolled around again, bringing with it a slew of memorials and events commemorating the Chitauri invasion of 2012. Festoons of red-white-and-blue balloons and crepe crawl over Midtown and bedeck Grand Central Station, a testament to the fact that, even rebuilt, the city still remembers how close it came to destruction and celebrates the way it has emerged, phoenix-like, from the ashes of that fateful day.

I meet Darcy Lewis near the edge of the Garment District, where she declares that she's, "just scored some totally rockin' heels, seriously, take a look at these babies." She shows me her haul with a smile more sly than shy, but it's clear that she's there for more than fashion; there's a bouquet of white roses in her free hand. We walk together toward the corner of 34th Street and 7th Avenue, where one of the city's many unofficial monuments to the dead has arisen, incongruously stationed with a subway stop to one side and a McDonald's to the other.

She sets her bouquet down when we get there, wedged between the ubiquitous teddy bear and an unlit taper candle. She tilts her head and considers her handiwork. Four years after the invasion, she's closer to thirty than she is to twenty, but there's a kind of youthful energy to her face and she wears her well-tailored suit like a girl dressing up in her mother's clothing: not quite comfortable but relishing it all the same, giving the impression that everything is a size too big even though it was undoubtedly cut to fit her. Darcy Lewis does not, I reflect, look like one of the greatest minds in public relations that New York has ever seen, and it's probably one of the great ironies that a woman so adept at managing other people's public images does so little to manage her own.

"You said you wanted to ask me some questions," she says, without looking away from the memorial. She shifts as though her shoes are hurting her, but gives no other sign of discomfort. Her smile is wide and open, the same smile that has convinced me to attend press conferences with Tony Stark for the last four years running. "Go ahead. Ask. I dare you."

I've prepared some, but none seem appropriate now. Instead, I find myself saying, "How on earth did they convince you to do this?"

'This,' for the uninitiated, is managing some of the strongest personalities in New York for those same four years: The Avengers, New York's heroes, now the nation's heroes. The Avengers might be larger-than-life, but that doesn't mean they, like any politician or budding film star, don't need someone on the sidelines, making sure that the world is looking the right way when they celebrate their victories and hastily sweeping any embarrassments under the rug.

That's where Darcy Lewis comes in. For the better part of half a decade, she has been the person responsible for highlighting the good and hiding the bad when it comes to the Avengers. Most people know of The Avengers; by the same token, most people wouldn't recognize Lewis if they passed her on the street. At press conferences and public events she's always there though, scurrying around the edges, just out of sight of the cameras, just out of reach when it comes time to gather quotes. It's a thankless job, being the head media relations consultant to America's real life superheroes, but an important one nonetheless.

"I kind of fell into it," she says, her smile widening a notch. Her teeth are very white against the burgundy-red of her lipstick. I laugh, thinking that she's joking, but she waves a hand impatiently. "Seriously. They needed someone to do it and I kind of knew how to do it, and everything else I sort of learned along the way. Next question."

She's very to-the-point. I can't resent her for it; there can't be much time in her life to slow down. Still, I also find it hard to accept her words at face value. "There has to be more to it than that."

"Not really," she says, her shoulders rising in a shrug beneath the black twill of her jacket. The traffic behind us is loud enough that I have to lean in to hear her. "Look, you said that you wanted the truth, that you wanted to – how did you put it? – show people the woman behind the Avengers. Which is kind of ridiculous, by the way. The Avengers are behind themselves. I just made sure that people had a chance to – well, see them for how they are. To see the best possible versions of them."

"What do you mean?"

She blows out a gusty sigh, and for a moment I think she won't answer. She's stopped smiling. Her eyes are distant, focused on events that are now years past, and when she speaks her voice is slow and thoughtful.

"After the invasion, there was this news footage that kept getting recycled. You probably don't remember. It was this waitress, and it was just a few seconds, this little sound bite about how the Avengers saved her life, but the local stations really loved her. God, she used to drive me crazy, because I'd be flipping through the media coverage and she'd always be there, yeah? It got repetitive after a while. Now, though, now I think she had the right of it, you know?"

As an interviewer, you get a certain feel for things: when to ask a question, when to stay silent and let the subject continue without being prompted. This is one of those times when I know better than to speak.

"The things I say to you, to the press, to the people around me, I believe those things. That the Avengers are good people, that they're heroes, all that silly, corny stuff, I believed it then and I believe it now. I studied political science in grad school, did anyone ever tell you that? I know the difference between publicity and propaganda, and I know what can happen when you give someone a reputation they don't deserve, one way or the other. I wouldn't try to convince people to think a certain way if I thought that doing so was, well, wrong."

The corner of a photograph has come loose from the wall behind the roadside memorial, and she reaches out absently to smooth it back into place, her fingers unconsciously tracing the edge of the swarthy, bearded face in the picture. New York is what it was before the Chitauri invaded, or close to, but that doesn't mean that there aren't holes left in the fabric of the city, absences that can't be paved or plastered over. In these past four years, Darcy Lewis has done her best to remind people that there are not as many holes, fewer and further between, than there might have been had the Avengers never arrived in this city. There have been new challenges and new dangers in those intervening years, and New York's heroes have faced those too, but on a day like this, when the air is heavy and thick and people paste pictures of their lost loved ones to the walls and leave flowers in remembrance, that first time seems the most important: the way it all began, or at least the turning point.

That's not what I'm interested in today, though. I've told Tony Stark's story, and Madam Natasha's, and Captain America's, we all have, and we'll probably tell them again and again as the years go by. Today, I want to know this woman's story, because, in a very real way, she's the reason that we tell the Avengers' story at all.

"When I first started to think about—about making sure that people saw the Avengers the way I saw them, I went to a friend. No, it's not important who it was. I told her I thought it was time to make sure that New York elected the Avengers as their heroes. Do you know what she told me?"

I tip my head, a silent invitation to continue.

"She told me," Lewis says, "that they were already heroes. That I just needed to remind people of that."

The smile is back on her lips. There's a secret in it, and I don't really think she'll tell me any more.

"That's all," she says. "That's it."

A/N: I don't think I fully realized how much I hate formatting for ff-dot-net until I put off posting the final chapter of this story here for, uhm, close on two years after it had been posted on AO3. Big, huge thanks to all of my ff readers for their patience, and I am really, really sorry that I have such limited tolerance for the site's tendency to eat spaces around italics and force me to use weird line breaks.