Title: And When My Compass Can't Find North (I See You Shining From Afar; Guide Me Home)
Category: Thor/The Avengers
Genre: Drama/Romance/Humor
Ship: Darcy/Bruce
Rating: NC-17
Prompt: Challenge #5 – Pre-Thor/AU Darcy Lewis Week Challenge
Word Count: 9,030
Summary: [AU] Darcy Lewis has always had trouble finding direction in her life and college leaves her with more questions than answers. When an opportunity to travel to South Asia to teach English to underprivileged kids springs up, she decides it could be just what she needs to figure out her purpose in life. While her soul searching is bringing up great results, the mysterious doctor she meets, on the run from American authorities, might just heal her soul in another way.

And When My Compass Can't Find North (I See You Shining From Afar; Guide Me Home)

For as long as Darcy could remember, she never really knew what she wanted out of life; interests would come and go, job opportunities, education prospects, but nothing really jumped out at her. She'd waffled over what to major in when she traded high school for college, feeling like the flighty gypsy her mother always lamented she was. She'd started out in education; she liked the idea of teaching kids. But at some point, possibly when she was standing in line at Starbucks and some snot-nosed tween just bobbed his head to what was playing on his iPod, staring at her chest without blinking, she realized she didn't have the patience or tolerance for that kind of work. So then she thought maybe she'd major in philosophy; she loved the idea of picking apart the nature of people and the world and how everybody responded to things. But then she always felt kind of dumb during lectures, where people were getting Gandhi deep and she felt like her misplaced humor reflected badly on her. So somehow, she ended up going into political science. And after two years, a lot longer than either of the others, she thought she was finally on the right track… Kind of. Or, at least, she hadn't found a flaw yet. All she needed was six credits; an internship would get her that easy. The problem was finding someone willing to take her on. Maybe it was the attitude, but people just weren't interested in what she had to offer.

She was walking through the college job fair, her mind wandering, considering but not exactly interested in getting a hold of the astrophysicist in New Mexico who needed a like-minded scientist to fetch coffee and possibly share genius with her. Darcy was well aware that political science and physics weren't exactly two peas in the same pod. In fact, one was a pea and the other was probably like, a carrot or something. But she was getting desperate and she thought, after all the crap interviews she'd done so far, that she would be able to fake it enough that she could just be the coffee-fetching intern they liked just enough to keep around so she could earn her credits.

When she told her mom this, though, Ellen broke into that disappointed sigh that always made her feel like crap.

"Darcy, tell me you're not getting bored of this one too! I can't afford to pay for your ADD!"

She rolled her eyes. "I don't have attention deficit dis— Oh my God, I think I just saw Brad Pitt drive by on a moped…"


"That was a joke. I was joking. It's this thing kids my age do sometimes; we're just a rip-roaring generation of pranksters…" she lamented.

"Could you just be serious? For once in your life, Darcenia, I just want you to be serious!"

"All right, ma, seriously," she groaned, "I'm gonna talk this physicist chick into taking me on. I'll dress up and everything, put on a good show. She'll think I'm the best thing since sliced cheese."

"I thought it was bread."


"The saying, I thought it was sliced bread…"

"Bread, cheese, whatever." She shrugged. "Besides, cheese is like a world ahead of bread. If I was stuck on a desert island with only one food, I'd pick cheese over bread."

"What are you doing on this island?" her mother asked shrilly. "And where did this cheese come from? Somebody airlifted you cheese but didn't save you? What sense does this make?"

"Boy, they would'a loved you back in my philosophy class…" Darcy muttered, rolling her eyes. "Listen, I'm just saying that I'm gonna be on my best behavior for this Dr. Foster chick, okay? She's going to love me! I'll be hired on spot!"

"No cleavage!" her mother ordered with a huff. "You button your collar right up to your neck, reign in that mouth of yours, and you beg if you have to!"

"Okay, all right, I get it…"

She gave that long sigh again, sounding defeated. "You know I love you, Darcy, you're my little girl, always… But your life is never going to start if you keep getting in its way."

"Message received; stop sabotaging self. Ay, ay, captain!" She shifted her feet and threw her head back, glaring at the ceiling as her eyes stung. "Listen, I gotta go, but I've taken everything you said very seriously, I'm making a list and checking it twice, saying no to naughty and yes to nice, and I'll get it, all right? Don't worry about it!"

"Good. Fine. You'll call me after?"

"Sure," she said, frowning. "You got it."

"Okay… I love you…?"

"Yeah, I love you too." She reached up and rubbed her nose, a habit of hers when she was emotional and she didn't want to be. "Night."

She hung up the phone and dropped it down so the screen was against her forehead.

Score one more for Bad Pep Talks: Mom Edition. Somehow she didn't think being reminded she failed and it had become an expectation of her mother's was exactly the boost she needed. But whatever, she'd just have to figure this thing out; physicist or no physicist.

Darcy had been going over her options, a never-ending back and forth, tossing and turning in bed, and then arguing with herself when she woke up from her shitty sleep. To call or not to call. Or, to email or not to email. Or hell, to send up a smoke signal and see if the good doctor thought it was clever enough to offer her the internship. Coffee in hand, she walked through the campus, getting distracted by the banners and signs, trying to draw people in and get them interested.

The first time Darcy arrived at school, she stopped at every booth; she loaded up on pins and stickers and flags and just walked around wearing all of it, some on her and some stuck to her old, army-green backpack; she looked exactly like the no-direction kid she was. Now, she didn't bother stopping at any of the booths, where excited people were calling out for her attention, trying to convince her she had a future with them and their business. Telling her it was easy; she'd be happy doing the kind of jobs they offered. The problem was, Darcy would get interested, she always did; people offered up a plan and she went with it. But interest waned fast and it didn't take her long to decide it didn't fit. She was trying to mold herself into the people offering her a certain kind of life. Business suits didn't fit right. High heels were painful and confining. She wasn't good at being pretentious or all-knowing or patient. She was just… Darcy.

There was a lone booth set up near the fountain. Nobody ever set up there in the past because sometimes students tried their hand at skateboarding off the edge, often falling one way or the other, either falling in the fountain and sending up a flood of water that soaked the booth, or falling the other way and knocking the booth over. But today it looked like the skateboarders weren't interested, so the lone booth was home free, for now at least.

They were set apart from the others, still setting up unlike the rest who'd been there since the sun had risen, wired on coffee and handing out flyers to every single person who walked by. These two were dressed down, in khaki pants and loose t-shirts, they had a stand set up with pictures of smiling kids, some missing teeth, wearing bright colors and waving for the camera, little bracelets tied around each of their wrists. Darcy found herself walking toward the booth, gaze set on the face of a smiling boy, his skin a dark brown, his hair a ruffled mop. He couldn't be more than seven and he was hugging an old, worn book to his chest. The Very Hungry Caterpillar; it was one of her favorites from childhood.

"His name is Satyajit," a voice said and Darcy continued to stare, not bothering to look back at the woman who spoke to her. "He picked up English really fast… He's a quick learner, eager, happy…"

Darcy paused, gaze moving to the side, and realized that the booth was for a troupe of volunteers who worked in Calcutta, India, teaching English to slum and street children.

"It's the third largest city in India," the woman went on. "Unfortunately, it's home to a lot of kids who end up on the streets or living in the slums. Which is why we were work with underprivileged communities; we provide learning tools, the education they deserve to have but can't afford and wouldn't otherwise get…"

Darcy stared at the pictures, moving from Satyajit's smiling face to the others, groups of them, some sitting in classrooms, arms raised to answer questions. Americans standing at the front of rooms, book in hand, teaching. And she remembered that first day that she considered working in education; where the idea of seeing the light go on, seeing somebody get it because she'd taught it to them, made her chest turn over.

"The program is from one to six months. We have brochures if you'd like to look at one…"

Darcy took a step back, her cell phone weighing heavy in her pocket, and she remembered her mother's disappointed sigh, and Dr. Foster's posting about desperately needing an intern.

And then she stared at Satyajit's face and her chest thumped.

She took the brochure.

All in all, she didn't think it was the worst decision she'd ever made. That was probably that time that she let Brody Matthews feel her up under the bleachers freshman year and then had to put up with him telling anybody who would listen that she let him go all the way. If she'd had her taser back then, Brody would never grow up to be a proud parent of some bratty, over-privileged kids.

She stuck close to her fresh-faced volunteer group, trying to look more confident than she felt. But all she could hear was her mother ranting and raving that she'd screwed up again; that she was wasting her money. She'd eventually zoned out, going through the webpage online, constantly looking at the pictures, telling herself it was worth it; if for nothing but Satyajit's smile, it was worth it.

They'd had a few meetings during the weeks leading up to the day of take-off, trying to figure out where in Calcutta each of them should go, which part of the program fit with them. When each of them had a destination in mind, they were prepped on what to pack, local culture and customs, food, safety and precautions depending on the area and just logical deduction. She'd been feeling good about it then; a little anxiety welling in her stomach but nothing that made her change her mind. But now, having set down, standing in a busy airport, the language barrier very obvious, with a bunch of people just as green as her, she was starting to panic.

"I brought Xanax," a guy from their group offered. "Does anybody else want a Xanax?"

Darcy rolled her eyes. "Don't pop any pills yet, we'll figure something out. And FYI, Charlie Bartlett, until you know what you got yourself into, you might not want to share…"

"What were we supposed to do again? Does anybody have their itinerary on them?" a high-pitched, female voice wondered anxiously.

She searched out the owner and found a girl shaking like a leaf; she reminded Darcy of a Chihuahua seconds away from pissing herself.

"Everybody needs to calm down… We've only been here like, twenty minutes…" She shrugged. "Nobody wanders off and no, I see you, Jason!" She pointed at the Asian boy who was squirming and eyeing what Darcy assumed were the bathrooms. "We aren't 'making potty' until we've got a plan." She shook her head. "Last thing any of us needs is a news report with our faces making the rounds and a Missing American headline for Fox News…"

"I'm hungry."

"Are you sure this is Calcutta? What if we got off too early?"

"I don't think these are my bags…"

She could feel a headache coming on and started rubbing her temples.

"Darcy…" a girl said, before pointing.

Following her finger, Darcy finally saw it; a sign, marked with the volunteer group's name. Suddenly, she remembered that a representative was going to pick them up and bring them into town to where they'd be staying. During the first night they weren't expected to help out, just unpack and relax. She'd talked a bit on the flight over with some of the other volunteers and she liked a few of them, at least enough to work with for the next month; although this recent stress point was making her question that. Thankfully, she'd only paid for the first month so she didn't get her mom in a mountain of debt by agreeing to the six months and then flaking on the group when it didn't suit her.

As they met up with the representative, Darcy was happy to hand over the reigns of limited control. And after a bathroom break, they were separated into pairs according to where they'd be staying and working. Darcy breathed a sigh of relief at finding one of the girls she'd connected with on the flight was her partner. Her name was Jessica; she was soft-spoken but goofy and lighthearted. Darcy knew her own loud voice was going to constantly drown Jessica out, but she made an effort not to. She stuck close to her, as they climbed into the bed of the truck for the drive in, hooking an elbow with her and saying, "It's you and me, kid!" to which she got a friendly grin before they were both startled as the truck sprang to life and lurched forward onto the street.

Calcutta wasn't exactly what she'd expected; the smiling faces of children kind of colored her brain-picture of what it would be like. It started out beautiful; well taken care of, filled with modern architecture and a blossoming hub of activity. But later, as they got deeper into the roots of the city, where the slums had begun to take over, she realized that the beginning was like a giant, distracting sticker that covered up something that needed some serious TLC.

There were buildings; it was a city, after all. Many were tall and old, dirty with general use and a lack of upkeep. In the area that she was staying, it wasn't like back in the States where they paid to have windows and walls washed, trying to preserve an image. They didn't have Stark high skyscrapers everywhere the eye could see, clouding everything. The buildings were rich with history, though many of them looked ready to fall apart, old and decaying in places. Many were painted brighter colors; to cover up where they were falling apart, she assumed. The streets were crowded with vehicles and people, loud with honking and talking and the ringing of bicycle bells trilling a warning at those around them.

It was a long drive before they arrived at the building she and Jessica would be staying in. The rickety old truck that didn't seem nearly as stable as it should, bouncing as it moved and leaning precariously at turns, came to such an abrupt stop that Darcy slid off her seat and bumped her knee on the floor of the truck bed. With the engine still running, it was obvious the representative and driver had to go, and quick. So Darcy and Jessica hopped out of the truck and took their bags from the other volunteers who passed them down politely. Through the open window, the driver rattled off the address they needed to find their host family before the truck took off with the rest of the volunteers, crowded together on the wood benches that filled the bed of the truck.

"So… Home sweet home," Darcy said, staring up.

Their host family lived inside of what passed as an apartment building. On the second floor of an old, run-down building with faded, aged posters peeled on the outside, stuck to the cement walls, their apartment sat center, looking down on a busy street just a couple blocks from where she'd be working.

Jessica shrugged her backpack higher on her shoulders. "Can we make a pact not to the let the other person die or do anything totally weird and embarrassing while we're here?" she wondered. "My mom cried for an hour because she thought I was going to get killed while I was away..." She rolled her eyes.

"My mom mostly wanted me to stop spending her money and just finish college already…" She started toward the building. "She wasn't even talking to when I hopped a plane out here."

"Ouch," Jessica murmured.

"Eh, I'm good. Saves me some money on long distance calling…"

The walls inside the building were mustard yellow, faded over time; Darcy's rolling-bag bounced against her as she pulled it up the stairs, panting a little at the effort.

Jessica was repeating the numbers over and over again, but the doors were marked in Bengali and neither of them were exactly fluent. And by that Darcy meant she knew all of five random words, while the rest was still a bit of a jumble that made her brain hurt. Jessica, thankfully, had a pocket-translation book, which never left her hand.

They came to a stop in front of the door, traded looks and shrugs, and finally knocked.

The door swung open quickly after that, as if someone had been waiting directly next to the door, eager to meet them.

Darcy peered inside at her new digs curiously.

The walls were painted brightly, not the same mustard yellow but a little hard on the eyes all the same. The furniture was old and lived in, a mixture of different fabrics that would make any American designer cringe. Darcy loved it.

Standing patiently in wait was a tall, thin, brown-skinned man, with sparse, dark hair on his head, and a raggedy black beard. His shirt fairly hung off of him and he kept pushing his thin, wire framed glasses up his wide nose. "আমাদের বাড়িতে স্বাগতম," he said in his native Bengali.

Darcy blinked at him while Jessica thumbed through her translation book.

He chuckled warmly, pressed his hands together, and bowed his head at them. "Welcome to our home," he translated in English. He pressed a hand to his chest. "My name is Basu and I am honored to share my home with you."

"Hey, honor's all ours," Darcy told him, holding a hand out for him to shake. "My name's Darcy."

He took it with both hands. "Welcome, Darcy."

Jessica reached a hand past Darcy's shoulder and introduced herself.

"আমাদের গেস্ট এখানে আছেন?" (Our guests are here?) a much louder, feminine voice shouted from somewhere in the apartment.

Darcy looked around Basu, searching out the owner of the voice. A woman, much shorter, but just as thin, came hurrying out. She was dressed in a blue t-shirt with a grey and green wrap over one shoulder and wrapped around her body.

She threw her hands up. "স্বাগতম! স্বাগতম!" (Welcome! Welcome!) She stood next to Basu and smiled warmly at them, her brown eyes wide. The stud in her nose glinted, catching Darcy's eyes, and she remembered when she got her nose pierced as a teenager but got rid of it when it seemed like everybody else was doing it. Rebellion, man, it was only cool until it became a fad.

"I am the Rani," the woman told them, nodding her head quickly. "I am most happy that you are here with us to share in our home."

"Rani is my wife," Basu told them, hugging an arm around her shoulders. "She feels very honored when we host volunteers. She's been cooking all day to make your first night here enjoyable!"

"Food!?" Darcy perked up. "Lady, I love you already!"

The one good thing Darcy brought with her was the kind of pallet that thought Cheese Whiz was a freaking delicacy. She could eat anything and find something good about it; food was the world's gift to her and she was happy to receive.

"Come, come!" she said, ushering them inside.

It wasn't until that moment that the smell of food hit her and her mouth-watered. "Gonna love this place…" she sighed.

Dinner was incredible; she had no idea what she was eating and she was pretty sure she didn't want to ask, just in case it was something that would turn her head if not her stomach, so she just enjoyed herself. Every time she reached for more and filled her plate, Rani gave her a bright smile, which was miles better than her mom's disapproving look of 'haven't you had enough already?' and 'stop licking your fingers in front of guests; that's what napkins are for.'

"So, how many volunteers have you guys had before?" Darcy wondered, sucking a red sauce from her fingers, more or less a sign of protest toward a mother who wasn't even there to see her do it.

"We began hosting five years ago," Basu told her, nodding. "We have had at least four people each year stay in our home."

"Cool beans." She filled her mouth with rice and chewed.

Jessica sat forward in her seat; apparently not as open to food as Darcy, she'd been hesitate to eat much on her plate. "Um, so you guys must really like the program then?"

Rani excitedly proclaimed something in Bengali, clapping her hands together.

Basu smiled gently at her. "Yes. It has been very helpful, to the children especially." He clasped his hand in front of him. "I see so many hungry faces all day long, children who do not know basic skills; it is unfair that they are left to fend for themselves. But this group, it comes and it teaches and we see light, we see hope in faces, in eyes…"

"It is not perfect." Rani shook her finger. "No quick fix!" She nodded abruptly. "But one life. You change one life—" She knocked a hand against her chest. "—you grow knowledge in one person—" She tapped her temple. "—and you make a difference." She grinned widely then. "And we help." She spread her arms out. "We open our doors, our arms, we take in people and they teach skills; they teach hope." She reached over and shook Darcy's hand, squeezing it. "We are the bridge, between you and them… Together, we all change one life." She held up a single finger. "Yes?"

Darcy smiled back at her. "Yes."

"Yes!" Rani sat back, looking proud.

Basu watched her with an affectionate expression. "Rani and I were not blessed with children, but we help the world however we can."

"Well, for what it's worth, you're helping me out loads," Darcy assured. "I'm feeling full and way hopeful, so…" She gave them a thumbs-up. "Way to go, team."

Rani threw her head back and laughed, apparently what she'd done or said had triggered a memory. "একটি গল্প! আমি আপনাকে এক বলুন!" she cried, before translating herself, "A story! I tell you one!"

Basu leaned back in his chair, stacking his hands on his chest, waiting patiently for his wife to share.

Smiling to herself, Darcy settled in, resting her face on her hands.

So far, from what she could tell, Basu and Rani were good people.

Basu was the quiet, reserved type, who liked to ask questions, about their trip, how they found the volunteer program, how long they were staying. While Rani was loud and talkative and had a story for everything. Both were welcoming and friendly and Darcy couldn't help but enjoy just how loudly Rani laughed, deep from the belly. Basu watched her with fascination in his face, like he hadn't been married to Rani and listening to that laugh for twenty or thirty years. He reached out and took his wife's hand atop the dinner table when she got to a particular amusing part and couldn't stop giggling; he shook her hand fondly and chuckled lightly to himself.

Darcy smiled, biting her lip. That was love. The kind her mom and dad never had, the kind she'd never found, and the kind she was only now witnessing halfway around the world.

She decided then and there that she was going to like it there.

Darcy took to volunteering pretty quickly. Teaching kids wasn't the easiest experience. She got a pocket dictionary off one of the volunteer group coordinators and kept it on her at all times, but the kids all talked so fast and they all wanted her attention immediately. They were excited and eager and tactile little kids that were always tugging at clothes or her hands or trying to braid her hair. It was different; it wasn't like the kid with the iPod and the eyes that zeroed in on her chest and never left. These kids wanted to know about her and America and they liked to try and get her to speak their language, if only so they could laugh at her for completely butchering it.

She felt like she was constantly saying, "What? That's not how you say that?"

And they would giggle, shaking their heads and waving their arms, and then correct it back to her. But seriously, she was pretty sure she was saying it exactly like how they were.

It took a week before she thought maybe she had Joey Tribbiani disease; where she was saying some really dumb stuff that sounded legit only in her ears. Thankfully, later, she would realize it was just a slight pronunciation difference, and she was actually doing better than most of the other volunteers.

Which totally didn't stop the kids from teasing her, but she went with it. They seemed to get a kick out of her crap linguistic skills and she wasn't really embarrassed; her grandma used to say she had the Lewis Lady Balls… The fact that her grandma said that pretty much emphasized why she was the way she was. Genes. She was genetically engineered to be equal parts weird and awesome. She briefly wondered if she could patent it…

Her favorite of all the kids she taught —and yeah sure she probably shouldn't have one but whatever it wasn't like she was announcing it to the class!— was Anala; she was talkative, just constantly babbling, in and out of broken English. Anala was tiny, her head reaching Darcy's hip. She had curly black hair that was always tangled and big brown eyes that would put Puss in Boots to shame. Her clothes were hand-me-downs that were at least a size too big, and she laughed at everything. But for all her seven years, she was also insanely smart; not just book smart, either, but world smart. Like, grew up too soon but made the best of it smart.

As soon as she'd seen Darcy, she latched onto her hand and said, "You are a funny, pretty miss. I will be your friend and you will be mine."

With a grin, Darcy twirled her by her arm, and said, "Kid, I'm gonna be the best friend ever."

And after that Anala walked with her everywhere she went. If Darcy stopped moving and sat down, Anala would move to braid her hair, leaving braids of all sizes, from huge and chunky to as thin as a twined thread, randomly all atop her head, never quite following a pattern. Darcy knew she probably looked ridiculous after, but Anala always looked so proud that she just had to leave them in.

During the morning, Darcy worked with the younger kids, teaching basic letters and words. She was the assistant more often than not, since she didn't know their language well enough to take on the class without somebody to translate. She was getting better, but she was extremely glad for Jared, a man in his early sixties with a wise face and a deep, grandfatherly presence. He'd been working in Calcutta for eleven years, starting back when it was still Kolkata, and before that, he had volunteered most of his life, all over the world. He taught her the basics of the Bengali language and was always happy to encourage her to teach and interact with the kids.

The first week she was there, she was terrified she was going to screw up. That somehow she'd teach these kids all the wrong words or she'd just be a shit teacher or that she'd ruin them forever. But there was something about how open they were, how accepting, that encouraged her to keep trying. All day, she would teach and play with the kids, and then she'd come back to Basu and Rani's house and she would tell them about her day, help Rani cook when she could, and learn about their days.

Rani would always have a story or a piece of gossip to share and, despite not knowing most of the people she talked about, Darcy soaked it in and filed it away. Eventually, Rani would kick her out of the kitchen, telling her to go enjoy her time off, and she'd wander over to the table to watch Basu.

He was an accountant and he worked for the smaller local businesses, so he spent much of his time at home, going over books and figures. Darcy often found him sitting there at the table, surrounded by papers, his brow furrowed, a pencil in his hand. Sometimes he would explain to her what he was working on, translating words and numbers for her. Other times he would just hum along to the radio and Darcy would eventually either convince Jessica to dance along with her or take a nap until dinner time.

Occasionally, Rani would dance with them, others she would wave them off, saying she was too old, to which her husband would tell her she was as beautiful as the day he had married her. Which would only prompt Rani to fuss over him, encouraging him to eat and making him tea; she rubbed his shoulders and told him stories or jokes she'd heard while she was shopping for food earlier that day. She never looked more proud than when she made Basu smile or laugh.

Darcy thought she could say just about anything and it would please Basu.

Sometimes, Darcy just liked to people watch. She would sit on the outskirts and observe people coming and going, stopping to talk, hurrying around. She watched the kids as they played, as they read, over and over, their school assignments. But of everyone, her favorites were Anala, Basu and Rani.

She was beginning to fall in love with Calcutta as a whole; finding the good in even the slums, seeing the people and the children and the hope in their faces as they came to classes. She knew she wasn't fixing everything; one month spent teaching didn't make her some superior being. But she thought they might be teaching her too; giving her direction, purpose, self-awareness, global awareness, and really, just a truly heart-warming experience.

Every day, she woke up, and she felt like she was where she was supposed to be.

It wasn't perfect; there were downsides to seeing the stark side of things too, but she tried to adapt.

The woman who'd left CulverUniversity in search of herself was not the same one who stood in Calcutta. Even just physically, she felt different. The weather made jeans practically impossible, so Darcy took to wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a loose t-shirt with the organization's name stamped on it. She tied her frizzy, sweat-damped hair up in a ponytail, much of which ended up in Anala's braids, and left things like make-up and good hair days in the past. She accepted that she wasn't going to look all that put-together, but she was passable, and at some point, thinking of her appearance just didn't occur to her.

It was the stuff on the inside that really changed though; finding that part of her that didn't get bored, didn't want to give up, didn't immediately look for something else to grab her interest. She felt content for the first time in her life. She felt like what she was doing, who she was with, it was enough to fill up those holes inside her that always seemed to gape and sag.

Explaining that was hard, understanding it was difficult. But she thought that maybe if she could figure out who she was, where she was going, what she wanted out of life, she would find the happiness that had always seemed so out of reach for her.

Communication wasn't always easy; she was cheap and paying her cell phone bill would probably mean its own pile of debt. So instead, she wrote her mom letters, sent home pictures, of Rani and Basu, the school, the kids, her. And while there was radio silence on Ellen's part for the first few weeks, something changed when that first month ended and Darcy signed up for a second. Like she was getting that this was different or that it meant something, she broke down and accepted that she would just have to support her and hope for the best.

With her mom's blessing and life in Calcutta looking up, Darcy reveled in finding something that finally suited her.

As the first month ended and Darcy signed herself up for another, quirky, soft-spoken Jessica went home, and a new volunteer was brought in to bunk with her. Claudine was super tall, beautiful, athletic, and probably ate more than even Darcy could pull off. She was friendly and happy to help and she was just about always moving. More often than not, she could be found playing with the kids, any sport she could find the equipment to (or, given their budget, something similar to the needed equipment that worked just as well). Darcy made sure to take pictures of Claudine skipping rope, playing basketball and football and soccer, and learning the local games, laughing with the kids and sharing her own learned skills.

Two months became three; Claudine was replaced with Georgia, the Southern belle with a heart of gold and a twang that Darcy, given her lack of brain-to-mouth filter, often imitated without even meaning to.

Three became four; Georgia, unable to see children in dire straits and not fix it completely, left for home in the second week, leaving Darcy with a room to herself until mid-way through the fifth month, where Susan (a red-head with a foul mouth and a strong hatred for spotty wi-fi) showed up to help out. At some point, Darcy learned not to get too attached to the volunteers that came and went; she grew friendships with the program staff, the kids, and her host family only. But even those could have their downsides.

In the third month of the program, one of the kids didn't show up. One day wasn't something to worry about, even two was acceptable, but when a week had passed, they really started to worry. Darcy found out that he'd died during the night; cold, hungry, and alone. Nobody had known who to contact when they'd found him and so they hadn't contacted anybody. While the program workers faces had been stricken, Darcy could read in their eyes that it wasn't something new. These kids lived on the streets, in the slums, not all of them were going to make it.

It was a harsh reality that turned her stomach to stone. She stared at the kids she taught and she worried that tomorrow one of their faces wouldn't be staring back at her.

There were a few days where Darcy felt like she was in a fog; she thought of her philosophy class and how they'd debated life and death, of what it all meant. And she became angry that they were sitting in a classroom, debating the subject, when there were children faced with the reality of it every day.

Anala found her, sitting on the ground, her back against the wall of the school they taught in. It was more like a cement room with a red roof and brightly painted outer walls. The ground surrounding it was a mixture of dirt and cracked pavement, with sprigs of grass and weeds growing through. There was a lot for playing in and an old basketball hoop set up, missing the net; just a tall metal pole with a faded orange ring to throw the balls through.

"Miss Darcy is sad?" Anala asked, leaning her head against Darcy's arm. "It is okay… Utpal is safe now. He sleeps. There is no hunger in sleep. Only arms. He finds his ancestors there; they hug him close and they keep him warm." She nodded, stroking Darcy's hair. "Be happy for Utpal, Miss."

Darcy closed her eyes against the bite of tears and hugged an arm around Anala. She nodded, her throat burning hollow. "Why don't you come inside with me, huh kid? You can braid my hair and we'll work on our alphabet, okay?"

She hopped up, twirling her arms out. "I will get the beads!" she declared, hurrying off.

She rolled her eyes, smiling helplessly. She almost wished she hadn't given Anala the clay beads she'd found one morning as she joined Rani on her shopping. Seeing a large bag of them, she'd immediately thought of her favorite little pupil and bought them on impulse. Darcy had figured they'd be used for necklaces or something; she'd even helped Anala paint each of them bright, eye-catching colors. But Anala had taken to keeping many of them in the pockets of her shorts and started adding them to the braids she was always making of Darcy's hair, which knocked together when she walked and slapped her in the face if she turned her head too fast.

Darcy stood from the ground, rubbing at her nose quickly, and followed after her, smiling as Anala danced her way into the school, singing under her breath.

There was still an ache in her heart and she still thought of little Utpal with his too long arms and legs and the way he would nearly rocket off the floor, throwing his hand up in the air when he knew the answer to a question. But she told herself that maybe Anala was right; maybe in some way, he was safe.

She focused on those that were left and she made sure she memorized every face, ever smile, every laugh and giggle and snort. All the while telling herself that it would be enough.

During the fifth month, Darcy started wondering if she could stay in Calcutta; if she could actually work for the organization and stay on full time. She wrote her mother this, only to get a long letter back detailing that now that she had these skills and understood what she liked, why didn't she come home and get a real job in education, like she'd first planned?

She considered it. She really did. She loved teaching kids and she loved that she was doing something that was good for others. But there was a part of her that was beginning to wonder if she could ever really go back, ever adapt to life at home again. She was used to the school and Calcutta. She was used to Rani and Basu, Anala, and the kids that circled her feet as soon as she left her building to walk toward the school. She was learning Bengali to the point that while she butchered it when she spoke, she understood it when others spoke, not perfectly but enough.

All her life, Darcy just wanted to make a difference; she wanted to do something good for the world; and she thought this was it.

But life wasn't perfect and she had to admit that maybe she was making Calcutta out to be a haven or her Utopia so she wouldn't have to face her own life back in the States.

She wondered if that was selfish; staying on with these people, burying herself in these kids, so she could continue hiding.

Reality couldn't be ignored for too long, though. It had a way of creeping in when she least expected it.

When Sunil got sick, she tried to steel herself against what might happen.

He was young, four and a half, and he he'd come down with the measles the week before. Darcy wasn't exactly up to date on how that was treated; she was given a first aid course when she first started volunteering, which came in handy considering she was one of the few people who didn't get squicked out at the sight of blood or broken bones. Kids would be kids and getting hurt was just a milestone of growing up, she guessed. Though, there were some that were hurt worse than others.

It turned out that sometimes measles came with pneumonia as a sequel, and Darcy knew that spelled out bad things. Money was an issue; taking him to see a good doctor wasn't cheap. Buying the antibiotics wouldn't be cheap either and while Darcy had some loose change on her, she wasn't exactly rolling in the dough. Plus, as if her mom knew having access to the funds meant that Darcy would find a way to just stay in Calcutta forever, she was limited on what she could and couldn't take out of her college fund.

So Sunil's health was in his family's hands; a small, poverty-stricken group of three that lived in the slums.

Night was much cooler and Darcy wrapped one of Rani's shawls around her shoulders as she left the building. Walking in the slums at night wasn't smart, but as much as Darcy had tried to prepare herself in the event that little Sunil would not live, she couldn't. She'd been up for hours, tossing and turning in her bed, before finally she told herself that she had to see him. She had to say goodbye or soothe him or do something.

She'd been to Sunil's once before; like all the kids at the school, he was eager to show her his home and his few possessions. Finding it in the dead of night was a little different, but there were a few people she knew still awake and they directed her to the right place.

Sunil's home was more or less a hut, a mixture of wood, corrugated metal, and fabric thrown together to make a rickety house. It was lit up inside with the glow of candles. Darcy hesitated a moment before gathering her courage. She knocked her fist lightly against the door and waited.

Tarapada, Sunil's father, answered. He bowed his head in greeting.

"I… I heard about Sunny," she said, shrugging apologetically. "I just wanted to check on him. I…" She scratched at her head awkwardly. "I know it's late. I'm sorry. I just…"

He held the door open wide for her to come inside.

Ashapoorna, his wife, walked over, taking Darcy's hand and squeezing. "Doctor. He come, he take care of my Sunil," she said, bright tears in her eyes.

Darcy's brow furrowed even as her chest ached with relief. "You… H-How? How'd you get a doctor out here?" she wondered.

Asha and Tarapada shared a look before her eyes fell to the floor and she murmured, "Ghost."

She stopped for a second, taking it in. There had been whispers these last few weeks, that there was a man, an American, who was very rarely seen and incredibly hard to find. But he was a doctor, a really good one, and he was offering medical help to those who were stuck in the slums and couldn't afford it. Some thought he was evil; they said the way he hid, how he moved through the shadows, that it was a bad sign. A few people tried to ward themselves and their homes from him, like they thought he snuck in to steal the life from one person to give to another.

Darcy wasn't so superstitious. She thought it was more likely that he was on the run and just didn't want to be seen or caught or even recognized. But she really didn't care. All she wanted was for Sunil to be okay.

Sunil was young and bright and every day he asked Darcy for a piggy-back ride that she was helpless against, so more often than not she walked around with a head full of wonky, beaded braids, and a little boy on her back. The fact that she would still get to have that boy on her back made her heart squeeze with overwhelming relief.

"Did he want anything? Money? Food? Shelter?" Darcy wondered. "I—I can help, if you guys need it. I mean, hell, he can have my bed if he wants…"

"It's nice of you to offer, but unnecessary," a deep, very obviously American voice replied.

Darcy whirled, her eyes wide, and found herself staring at a mop of unruly dark curls. He was dressed in a sweat- and dirt-stained shirt that she could very much relate to and a worn pair of olive green khakis. He offered a half-smile and a nod before turning to Ashapoorna and Tarapada. "Sunil's doing better… He'll need rest, plenty of liquids, and I'm going to leave you guys some ibuprofen; he might have some mild pain…" He dug into his pocket and took out a bottle, rattling it before he handed it to them. "If he starts coughing, don't worry, it'll help clear out the lungs. We caught it early and I think he's going to do really well." He paused and looked between them. "I can translate that, if you want…" he offered sheepishly.

"No, no, is fine," Asha assured, nodding. "I understand." She hurried forward, hugging her hands to her chest and nodding her head at him. "Thank you! You save my Sunil. He is my treasure!"

The doctor rubbed uncomfortably at the back of his neck and took a step back. "I—It's fine. I'm just glad I could help." He gathered up his bag and started toward the door, avoiding eye contact. "I'll be back in a few days to check up on him."

As Asha moved to see her son, bending down by his bed, crying against his hand, Darcy hung back. She looked to Tarapeda and offered a smile. "Tell the little warrior I'll be by in a few days; I'll bring his favorite book…"

"Thank you, Miss, for coming to see him," Tarapeda told her, following her to the door.

She grinned. "Hey, he's one of my favorites."

Feeling good that Sunil was going to make a recovery, Darcy started away from his house, weaving in and out of the others that were all so closely pushed together that she had to hold her breath to squeeze through some of them, regretting the family genes that made her chest hard to maneuver in some spots. As she broke free from the crammed huts, she could make out the faint figure up ahead, walking the dirt road. She was 90% sure it was the doctor and told the other skeptical 10% that was concerned about chasing after a stranger in the dark to shove it before she quickened her steps. Since subtlety wasn't her forte, she straight up shouted after him, "Hey Doc! Wait up!"

The man stilled for a moment, obviously hearing her, before beginning to walk again, somewhat but not much slower. She rolled her eyes. By the time she caught up to him, she was panting a little. "Since you're American, I'm going to just assume you thought it was totally cool not to wait up like a gentleman or whatever…" she complained.

He snorted. "Since you're America, I'll assume you grew up never taking the hint…"

Her mouth curled up in a grin. "Makes things interesting." She turned her head and looked up at him. "So look, what you did back there for Sunny…" She shrugged. "It was really cool…"

"Cool," he repeated, his voice amused.

"Yes, would you like me to break out the big words just because you've got a PhD or…?" She shook her head. "Can we avoid the pretentious shit and just be real here?"

He turned to look at her, an eyebrow raised at her candor. "How do you know the family?" he wondered. "You're obviously not a local."

She shrugged. "I could say the same thing about you, but I think we both know you're the shadow creature everybody's talking about…"

"Is that what they're calling me?" His mouth tipped wryly. "Hmm…"

"Well, some of them think you're stealing souls from the strong to give to the weak, like some kind of weird, twisted, Robin Hood thing." She waved a dismissive hand. "And others just think you're a God or a Saint that comes down to help out the sick and underprivileged…"

"Is that all?" His brows hiked. "And you? Miss…?"

"Just Darcy." She tugged on the end of the shawl and shrugged. "I think you're a dude on the run who happened to be a doctor before you fucked your life up somehow and now you're trying to make up for it by saving people…"

He stopped walking; she made it two feet before she realized. When she looked back, he was staring at her warily, and then he had her by the arms and he was squeezing. "Who told you? Who're you with?" he yelled. For a moment, she thought his eyes had flashed a bright, neon green.

She stared up at him, wide-eyed. "Whoa, dial it back, Doc…" She struggled against his hold, but his hands were like steel. "Nobody told me, I'm just observant!" She scoffed. "And seriously, I teach English and shapes and shit to kids… I'm here with a volunteer group!"

He glared down at her like he was picking her apart, trying to figure out if she was telling the truth or not. And then, slowly, his face fell, still wary but not worried. He released her and took a step back. "I…" He ran a hand through his hair nervously. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you…" He swallowed, looking between each of her arms where she was rubbing away the sting. "Did I hurt you? I—" He walked forward again but she stumbled back a few steps. He winced. "Sorry. I— I'm really sorry."

She glared. "Rude much?"

"Well…" He plucked his glasses off and cleaned them with the edge of his shirt. "You did accuse me of being a fugitive…"

"Uh, I don't think you would've freaked out that much if you weren't," she reminded with a huff.

He pressed his lips together in a line. "In any case, I shouldn't have… reacted that way and I'm truly sorry." He cleared his throat, looked away, and then started walking. "Please give my regards to Sunil and his family.

Darcy let him leave, spending a few seconds listening to the logical and illogical sides of her brain fight it out, and then she chased after him. "Hey…" She rolled her eyes when he didn't slow down and sped up, putting herself directly in front of him so he couldn't just keep going. She put her hands up, gesturing peace, her palms just brushing his chest before he stumbled back like she'd burned him. "Look, I just… Whatever that was, whatever nerve I hit, just ignore me…" She shook her head. "I mean, you could work on your people and personal boundary skills, but… Whatever reason you have for being here, it's not my business." She shrugged. "If you weren't around, Sunil might not live and that…" Her feet shuffled. "It would've been seriously tragic because that little monster is awesome."

He stared at her a long moment. "Do you call all the children you teach monsters?"

She nodded, grinning. "Monsters, brats, squishy midgets…"

He bit his lip in a way that made her think he might be trying to stifle a smile. "It's an interesting teaching technique."

She shrugged. "I'm an interesting person."

"I'm beginning to notice that."

With a snort, she held a hand out. "So truce?" She wiggled her fingers. "You save my kids, I teach my kids, and everything's kosher?"

He stared at her hand a long moment. "You're not concerned? What I might've done, why I might be on the run?"

"Not my business, remember?" She raised an eyebrow. "Come on, Doc, don't leave me hanging. It's rude, both here and back in the States."

His mouth twitched, but finally, hesitantly, he reached out, letting their hands come together.

She pumped his in a quick, hard shake, and then used it to drag him a few steps closer. Smiling up into his surprised face, she told him, "Thank you." And then she popped up on the tips of her toes, kissed his cheek, and fled past him, walking away down the street, feeling oddly triumphant.

When she looked back, he was gone, but she smugly remembered how he'd inhaled sharply, his dark brown eyes going wide as she invaded his space. She could still feel the sharp sting of his whiskers under her lips. Sure, it was stupid; he was a stranger and almost definitely on the run from the US government, but he'd saved a little boy's life.

That warranted a kiss and no questions asked in her books.

Sunil made a full recovery.

Darcy visited him every day to read him his favorite book.

When he returned to school, he read it to her.

[Next: Part II.]

Author's Notes:

+When I get to the smutty parts on this story, I'll be doing a fade-out, because FFnet doesn't allow mature content! If you want to read it, smut and all, it's better to find me on LJ or AO3, under sarcastic_fina.

+I have never been to Calcutta; I do not speak or know Bengali (this is all Google Translate's doing); if you're from there and there are mistakes in the translation or something that doesn't jive with Calcutta in general, please let me know!

+This will have a happy ending; I promise not to kill Darcy. That said, there is an attempted-rape in this story and things don't become magic and rainbows right away; this is Bruce we're talking about, pre-Avengers, so he's got some issues to deal with!