Actions

Work Header

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Chapter Text

“I feel blah-just blah and miserable,” Darcy told Natasha Romanoff’s cat. It had darted into her apartment when she opened the door. Little Anatoli tended to do that. He and Natasha lived down the hall. Darcy kept him whenever Natasha was out of town, so Anatoli had basically claimed her apartment, too. She didn’t know how he got out all the time, but assumed he’d picked up tricks from watching Natasha. He was a stunning Russian Blue cat, all silver-coated and jewel-eyed. “I’m telling you,” Darcy said to the intelligent and playful cat as they sat on the couch, “because I don’t have anyone else to tell.  It’s December 27th and I’m totally aloooone.” She said the last part dramatically. Darcy was alone because Jane and Thor were on Asgard for a big end of year shindig; they didn’t do Christmas or Hanukkah up there, but they had a weirdly aligned New Year’s Eve thingy. Janey and the Thor Bear had departed via hammer over a week ago. Odin had only extended an invite to one goat girl, so Darcy had stayed in DC. Jane would come back hungover, Darcy knew. Asgardian New Year’s was a week in Midgardian time. Darcy’s roommate, one Agent Sharon Carter, hyper-professional badass, was staying with her boyfriend, Captain America, at a resort for Christmas.

Everyone but Darcy was having a great holiday. “Sadness is a total b, Anatoli,” Darcy announced, sighing. “In the last two weeks, I’ve gotten in trouble at work for a wardrobe violation--SHIELD hates my tie-dye comfort-foam sneakers--and had to get a doctor’s note that I need comfy athletic footwear for sixteen hour days keeping Jane alive because otherwise I get corns and had to give the freaking note to HR. I know they’re talking about it behind my back, because Clint Barton sent me an email about Iowa’s best corn dishes today. That was just the beginning off my humiliation, ‘Toli: I was gently shot down by Captain America hisself when I asked if he wanted to see a movie because he’s dating my roommate and Sharon didn’t tell me, I had to spend seven hundred bucks in emergency car maintenance that I’d sorta earmarked for my rescue puppy adoption and medical care fund, everyone at home’s asking why I haven’t settled down yet because two of my cousins got engaged, I got a lob haircut that I hate in a misguided attempt to cheer myself up, and turned thirty-one on December 3rd. December birthdays suck, unless you’re Jesus. I wonder if I could change my birthday legally, like people change their names?” Anatoli gazed at her with his green eyes and didn’t respond to Darcy’s stream-of-consciousness monologue. Unlike Jane, who’d gently suggested that Darcy see the SHIELD therapist because “you just don’t seem like yourself lately, Darce,” Anatoli made Darcy feel slightly better when she confided her weird feelings. The cat blinked.  “Oh,” Darcy added, “I also have such bad PMS that the side of my face is all broken out and I cried at a Starbucks commercial because there’s nobody bringing me a peppermint mocha at the train station and later at It’s A Wonderful Life and also at that jewelry ad that’s, like, super-inclusive and has moms and elderly people and a lesbian couple, just because it was so touching. Nobody’s buying me jewelry, either. I feel”--Darcy sighed---“unhappy.” Anatoli meowed. He sounded almost sympathetic. “Yeah. Not just unhappy, invisible,” she continued, “like that episode of Buffy where the girl is so marginalized at school and home that she just disappears and nobody even notices?”

 

She sighed and went to get Anatoli some canned food. She was alone and she was talking to a cat. That was definitely one step closer to becoming Disappearing Darcy.

 

Anatoli batted at the fringe ends of Darcy’s couch blanket until he heard the can opener. Then he dashed into the kitchen.

 

***

“What’s the bet for this year?” Jack Rollins asked the other guys on STRIKE. They were having a post-Christmas drink at their favorite dive bar with some other SHIELD employees. “Best score in recert again?” Whoever won the best scores on the agent recertification tests got free drinks for the year. Everyone on STRIKE participated, with the exception of Rumlow, who insisted that as Commander, he ought to set an example by paying for his own booze. He was still competitive enough that he always won the recert contest, but he graciously ceded the prize to whoever was second.

“Bet?” Cameron Klein said. They’d invited him along, though he didn’t know why. He suspected it was all Jack, who was a good dude.

“Every year, the guy who wins gets free drinks,” Jasper Sitwell explained. He’d gotten friendly with Rollins and Rumlow when they were all triple agenting within HYDRA.

“Lotsa drinks, kid!” Smith said.

“Nah, we’ve done that twice now,” Rodriguez said. “I wanna do something different. Something really fun.”

“Best mission success rate?” Lee asked.

“Too difficult to quantify, since people lie,” Jack said.

“Who lied?” Smith called over. He was playing pool.

“You, asshole,” Rumlow said in a low voice. Cameron laughed.

“First guy to get into Carter’s pants!” Smith called from the adjoining pool table.

“One, she’s Cap’s girl, two, you’re appalling, mate,” Jack said, shaking his head. “That’s terrible.”

“You’re trash, Smitty,” Rumlow said dryly. “Besides, even if she was single, Carter wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole.”

“It’s an idea, though,” Rodriguez mused. “Who else is attractive?”

“It’s a terrible idea,” Jack said.

“What’s that girl’s name? The weird one? Boobs McTaser?” Rodriguez said. “Works with Foster in the labs?”

“Do you mean Darcy Lewis?” Jack said.

“Yes! Her and her amazing rack. You’d have to keep her from talking about cartoons or whatever, but she’s hot as fuck, for an ex-drama nerd,” Smith said, wandering over. He was slightly drunk; he’d been second running-up on last January’s recert and was cashing in on his last free rounds.

“All right,” Sitwell said, “that’s my cue.” He clapped Rumlow on the shoulder. “Try not to violate too many HR rules.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Rumlow said.

“Can I get a ride home?” Cameron asked.

“Sure,” Sitwell said.

“Goodnight, fellas. How’d you know she was a drama nerd?” Jack asked Smith quizzically, as the other two men departed.

“He’s guessing,” Rumlow said.

“C’mon, it all adds up: the weird scarves and sweaters and glasses, too much makeup, slightly overweight?” Smith said. “She probably has low self-esteem and would be really, really grateful. So grateful,” he drawled. Cameron Klein flinched as he walked away.

"Shut up, Smitty," Jack and Rumlow said in unison.

 

***

“What the hell was that?” Cameron said to Sitwell, as they walked to his car.

“Bullshit, probably,” Sitwell said. “Rumlow’ll rein ‘em in. He’s responsible. He doesn’t let his guys run wild.”

“Should somebody warn Darcy Lewis? She’s Sharon’s roommate,” Cameron said.

“I wouldn’t worry,” Sitwell said.

 

The thing was, Cameron was a natural worrier. Back home at his apartment, he fretted. Sharon Carter was pretty much his cousin--Peggy Carter and his grandfather had become friends because of their mutual connection to Steve Rogers--and Cameron had grown up hearing constant stories about Cap’s integrity. Cap, he thought, would warn a lady. Cap would have probably taken on half of STRIKE, just overhearing that conversation. Cameron felt like a failure. He picked up his phone and dialed Sharon’s home line. It picked up on the second ring. “Hello?” a female voice said.

“Miss Lewis? Darcy Lewis?” Cameron said. “This is Cameron Klein. I’m, uh, Sharon’s cousin, sorta?”

“Oh, she’s mentioned you. Oh em gee, is something wrong?” Darcy asked.

“Uh, no. Well, yes--uh, this is difficult to explain,” he began.

“What’s happened to Sharon and Steve?” Darcy said.

“No, they’re fine, but, um, I was at a bar with some of the STRIKE Alpha guys and they have a yearly bet,” Cameron said. “Usually, it’s something harmless, who gets the best score on recertification--”

“Oh,” Darcy said.

“But this time, someone mentioned you as a possible bet,” he said.

“Me?” Darcy said, sounding befuddled.

“Going to bed with you,” Cameron said quickly.

“Getting me into bed like a freaking teen movie?” Darcy interjected.

“Um, yes?” Cameron said.

“What do they even get?” she asked.

“The winner drinks for free all year,” he replied.

“Holy shih tzu, those fuckheads,” she said.

“Sitwell says they won’t, Rumlow will stop them, but--” Cameron began.

“Sitwell was there, too?” Darcy said.

“Yeah. I’m sorry. I know this is upsetting, but I felt like I should warn you, just in case someone tries anything,” Cameron said nervously.

“I appreciate the warning, Cameron,” Darcy said. She sounded sincere to him. “Really, thanks.”

 

When she hung up, Darcy crawled into her bed and cried. She was grateful to Cameron Klein for warning her, but she felt upset, humiliated, and just hurt. She hated working at SHIELD, even if they did give her health insurance and benefits. She just didn’t feel like her normal self at all.

 

***

The next morning, she used caller ID and got Cameron Klein’s number, so she could interrogate him about all the details before she walked into a situation at work on Friday. Someone had called her a drama nerd and talked about her boobs and her love of cartoons? It hurt more when she found out Jack Rollins--Jack who she’d met dragging Jane to the SHIELD free meditation workshops!--had been present, although he’d called the guy who suggested it trash or something? A nervous Cameron had struggled to repeat the exact convo details, but Darcy felt pretty sure she didn’t need to worry about Jack trying to get into her pants: he had a serious boyfriend, a scientist in R&D.

 

“Morning, Miss Lewis,” someone said as Darcy got on the elevator with her peppermint mocha latte. She’d stopped for a fancy one, just as a treat. She was trying to improve her mood with little things. She’d held Anatoli for five minutes before work, until he fled, clearly feeling smothered. “You’re here early,” the voice continued. She looked up. A dark-haired guy in tactical gear was smiling--no, smirking--at her around a toothpick. Darcy recognized him as the team leader for STRIKE Alpha and her heart sank. What was his name? Rollo or Russo or something? Of course she’d run into one of them so soon. And this was normally the gloweriest of the glowering crowd. So, why the smile?

“Good morning, um, Commander. Lots to do,” Darcy lied. She stepped out of his line of sight to lean against the elevator wall.

“Uh-huh,” he said. He rolled a toothpick between his teeth and looked over his shoulder at her. “You have a nice holiday?”

“Yeah, great break for me,” Darcy said, lying again. Her mother had always advised that letting assholes who’d insulted you think you were perfectly fine around them was the best way to handle things, but Darcy didn’t agree. She felt sick and miserable. Like she could actually vomit.

“Wish I could say the same. My whole family’s in New York, they rented a place upstate and I was stuck down here,” the Rollo guy said.

“That’s too bad,” Darcy said. Why is he telling me this? Oh my God, He is trying to get me to trust him, Darcy thought. Quel rat! He’s one of the creepy drunks trying to win the sex bet? You know, you’d think the freaking team leader would have a little class or at least be more afraid of Fury. Ughhhhhhhhhhhhh. This is a nightmare of bonkers proportions. I should just yell at him. Or tase him? But I’m already officially on probation with HR for my dress code violations about my shoes and the one time I wore penguin pajamas into work and those emails Clint and I sent that stuck up Miranda decided were inappropriate. Double ughhhh.

“Yeah, my sister just had her first kid,” he said. The elevator doors opened to the lab floor.

“Congratulations on being an uncle,” Darcy said smoothly, stepping off.

“Thanks,” he said, looking as if he could say more. The doors closed. Darcy went into work, alone, and tried to concentrate on filing and fiddling with lab rearrangements. It was technically easier without Jane accidentally portalling her stapler to another realm, but Darcy was lonely without someone to listen to her Office Space impression. The day passed quietly and then she went home and collapsed on the couch. She could veg out here safely all weekend until Sharon and Steve returned from their holiday getaway after New Year’s, so she watched Christmas in Connecticut with Anatoli and sighed over her inability to meet her own Dennis Morgan. 

 

Jane sent a raven on Saturday. Anatoli looked at it in a slightly alarmed fashion as it tapped on the window, a bit of parchment tied to its feet. The parchment was lined in gold. This was the Asgardian equivalent of a cheery email. Jane had written her a note asking how she was. Darcy took a purple ink pen and then scrawled a reply.

 

Fine. It’s super quiet here. Me and Anatoli are chillin’ like villains. Everything’s good, though I miss you guys bunches.

Love,

Darce

 

An Asgardian raven parchment was not--most definitely not--the place to get into sex bets, her seasonal depression, or that even Anatoli seemed to be finding her a bit too clingy this week.

 

***

Darcy had assumed she would be able to dodge STRIKE Alpha until Thor came back to put the fear of Mew-Mew into them (she could have tased them, but Miranda had a whole three-strikes and the reprimand goes into your permanent record nightmare thing; Darcy wanted to save her final strike for something really fun). But when she arrived at work on Monday--New Year’s Eve--there was a small container on her desk. A little peppermint-chocolate mini bundt cake with an attached note.

 

Darcy,

Would you like to have dinner sometime soon? This week?

-Brock Rumlow

 

“Ughhhhh,” Darcy said out loud. There was a number at the bottom and an official SHIELD email.

“Something wrong, honey?” one of the passing R&D ladies said. Tonya. Her name was Tonya.

“I, uh, just got a baby bundt cake an offer of a date?” Darcy said.

“Awwww,” she said. “That’s cute.”

“Yeah,” Darcy said.

“From who?”

“Rumlow,” Darcy said, checking her slip of paper. Tonya whistled.

“Lucky you, Lewis!” she said. “Have you seen those gym feeds?” Tonya pretended to fan herself and Darcy laughed. The people on STRIKE teams spent half their lives at the gym.

Once she was alone, Darcy sighed. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked then realized she was talking to herself again, like Disappearing Darcy. She shook her head. The nightmare is real. He’s already badgering me for a date. On New Year’s Eve? The year hasn’t even started yet! How can I escape this nightmare? Report them to HR? No, snotty Miranda would never believe me, anyway. She totally favors hot men and didn’t believe that arrow prank was *all* Clint, even though, hellllooooo, arrows! The Rumlow guy would deny, deny, deny and she’d just simper at him and bat her eyes. I’m le screwed. My only hope is Maria Hill’s flawless bullshit detector and she’s out of town until next week. What do I doooooo?

Darcy was still puzzling over logistics--would it go into her SHIELD file if she, say, tased Rumlow just off premises?--when she ran into the man in question in the breakroom. Well, ‘ran into’ was a stretch: she was making a lone coffee of sadness when STRIKE Alpha stomped down the hallway, looking particularly ominous. Rumlow spotted her and peeled off, rolling off a few instructions at Jack, who gave her a brief smile, then returned to his terrifying resting bitch face and continued on with the rest of the death squad. She had a feeling that face was what got Jack recruited all the way from Australia: the first time he’d aimed it at her, she’d been so alarmed, she looked behind her for aliens or elves. She was still thinking about that when Rumlow stepped into the breakroom.

“Hello,” he said, leaning against the door frame.

“Hello?” she said back, not impolitely.

“Did you get my note?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“I thought you liked peppermint because of the, uh, coffee thing,” he said, meaning her latte, probably.

“I do like peppermint,” she said coolly.

“What night would work for you?” he asked, clearly mistaking her yes of affirmation, re: notes, receipt of, to be an affirmative on dinner. Zero personality , Darcy thought, he’s treating this exactly like a mission thing. He must be desperate for free booze or just like being the guy who wins these pissing contests.

“Well, not tonight, obviously,” she said, laughing. He raised an eyebrow. “It’s New Year’s Eve?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I forgot.” He grinned. “I’m still on Beijing time, I must be on the wrong calendar, too.” Okay, fractional personality. But probably still a dbag.

“What about Thursday?” Darcy suggested. With any luck, Thor would be back with Mew-Mew soon; SHIELD never reprimanded him, he was too valuable, so she could sicc Thor on anybody. Worst-case scenario, she would stand this jerkface up and leave him sitting in a restaurant somewhere.

“Thursday’s great,” he said, smiling slowly. God, his smile is so smug, Darcy thought. “Assuming no major terrorist incidents, can I pick you up at Sharon’s at seven?” he asked.

“Oh, no, I’ll meet you there,” she said, slightly alarmed that he knew where she lived already. All she had for security was Natasha’s cat.

“I know a good place,” he said, tapping the door frame. “I’ll email you directions,” he told her, still smiling.

 

***

“A sex bet? A fucking sex bet?” Jennifer said to Darcy. Jennifer was one of the SHIELD archivists; Darcy had gone downstairs to have lunch with her and escape the too-quiet lab, finally confessing the weird secret she’d been keeping. The archivists were Darcy’s favorite people so far at SHIELD. Jennifer had ordered her a subscription to Us Weekly and they’d gone to the movies, coffee, or shopping a few times. Darcy considered her a new friend. She had freckles and a dry sense of humor, two boxes on Darcy’s “How to Tell if Someone is Adorable” checklist.

“Literally,” Darcy said. “I wonder if I’ll need to tase or stand up the entire team or if humiliating Rumlow will be enough?”

“You’re gonna get Thor and Jane to turn him into pavement stain, right? That should do it,” Jennifer said. “Those asshats.” She glared off into middle distance.

“Seriously,” Darcy said, sighing.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer said. “You seem...down? Don’t let these ass clowns--”

“I think I just feel sad in general. Seasonal sads? Like Christmas is over, SHIELD is a way bigger adjustment than I’m used to, Ian and I finally called it quits for what I swear is the last time a few months ago. They’re taking down the twinkle lights and everyone is making their resolutions to lose weight and this is always the saddest time of year for me….” Darcy said. She looked down at the magazine. “Look, even Chad and Michelle broke up!” One of the women from Destiny’s Child had ended her engagement amidst a still-airing reality show. Darcy had seen a ton of ads for it as she watched reruns of her beloved Dateline with Keith Morrison.

“Turns out Chad doesn’t love Michelle,” Jennifer cracked.

“Or Michelle doesn’t love Chad…” Darcy began, then clapped her hand over her mouth. She had an idea.

“What?” Jennifer said. Darcy smirked.

“I have an idea. A devious idea. Thank you Chad and Michelle!” she said, laughing.

“What?” Jennifer said. She looked incredulous. Her eyebrows were around her forehead.

“Just because we go on dates, that doesn’t mean we’re having sex. Chad and Michelle were saving themselves for marriage--”

“Allegedly,” Jennifer said skeptically.

“But the bet isn’t about dating, it’s about sex. The first person to have sex with me wins, right? Well, what if I tell this Rumlow guy that I want to wait? That I want a serious relationship established before we fool around? He’ll be hanging around, waiting, for something that never happens. That’ll run off the rest of STRIKE, won’t it?” Darcy said.

“He could tell everyone you did have sex?” Jennifer said.

“My roommate is Sharon, my neighbors are Natasha, Jane, and Thor, I’d have plenty of witnesses who saw that he dropped me off at the door,” Darcy said. “If he tried to lie--”

“He’d be totally emasculated,” Jennifer said, giggling. “Are you going to be all crazy?”

“Crazy?” Darcy said.

“Like, How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days bonkers date?” Jennifer said.  

“Oooh,” Darcy said. Jennifer invited her out for New Year’s Eve with the rest of the archivists, so they spent the lead up to midnight brainstorming the worst possible date behavior.

 

Chapter Text

January

Number of days STRIKE Alpha was in DC: 16

Number of dates: 6

 

Date One

The restaurant was very romantic: white tablecloths, little tea lights on all the tables, an extensive wine list. It was the kind of place where Darcy normally would have ordered a salad because: a.) she had always been too poor for most everything else, b.) she actually liked salads, and c.) fancy restaurants did sometimes do really nice things with goat cheese. If she’d gone with Jane and Thor, she’d very cheerfully had a pear and gorgonzola salad and several glasses of wine, then co-murdered a dessert with Jane. Man, she wished she was with them. Instead, she was sitting at a too-fancy Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant with some guy who was in a get-in-your-pants competition? Too weird for words--and she’d seen actual elves from space. Darcy looked up at Rumlow. He smiled. He was wearing a really good suit. She’d scoped it out beforehand and purposefully dressed weirdly: an off-shoulder top she’d bought as part of a 80s Halloween costume, leggings, scuffed cowboy boots, and all her silver jewelry--dangling silver birds in her ears that were a gift from Jane and multiple bangles from New Mexico on each wrist. She jangled. Plus, she’d done nothing with her short hair, so it was wiid and curly. She looked like Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob, if she had taken a liking to hippie aesthetics or Stevie Nicks.

“Would you like to see a wine list?” the waiter asked, smiling at Darcy. He was sorta hovering. “We have a sommelier who is happy to discuss things with you?”

“Is he now?” Rumlow said dryly. The waiter looked nonplussed.

“Actually, no, that’s okay. Do you have sparkling water?” she asked. He went off to get her some. Darcy was driving, so she had a built-in excuse for declining wine. Unfortunately, that meant she couldn’t pretend to be obnoxiously wasted.  “I don’t drink and drive, especially this time of year,” she told Brock. He nodded.

“My drink max is actually one,” he said. “Since I’m always on call.”

“Really?” she said. Your drink max is one but you’re in a drinking bet about my lady business? Say what now, my dude?

“Uh-huh,” he said neutrally. He was super cryptic, when he didn’t appear to be being slightly sarcastic.

“Would you like to hear the specials?” the waiter said, returning to hover with Darcy’s water.

“Oh, no, interpretative dance them out for us, please?” Rumlow said slyly. Darcy frowned. If there was one thing she did not appreciate, it was casual fuckery with people in retail or food service: don’t cheap out on tips, don’t hit on the poor barista trapped behind the counter, generally don’t be shitty to someone who probably has to say that phrase to everyone, every single damn night. She narrowed her eyes and thought. He’d already made it clear everything was going on his tab--given the waiter his credit card--in what she thought was an attempt to impress her. She caught his eye and smiled. “You know what you want?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. She was picking one of the most expensive things on the menu. “The filet mignon with mushrooms, onions, and fig essence?” she said. That would hit him where it hurt, she thought. It was fifty bucks. To her surprise, he grinned. Then he ordered the wagyu beef, which was the most expensive thing on the menu. Ninety-fricking-dollars. She hadn’t been brave or stupid enough to order that, for fear he’d stick her with the bill at the end of the night.

“And, uh, the parmesan fries to share,” he told the waiter. “I know you like those,” he told Darcy. “But I didn’t know you eat steak? I thought you lived on Pop-Tarts and french fries?” he asked her.

“Have you been reading my files?” she said.

“Maybe,” he said cryptically. Okay, that is weird. Super weird, Time for phase one to commence. Operation Terrifying Date , Darcy thought. So, she did everything she and the archivists had brainstormed the night before: didn’t let him get a word in, got slightly too loud for the room, told wildly inappropriate Asgard stories vocally enough for the senator’s wives at the next table to hear and look appalled about Fandral-related nudity, made big, waving gestures, told him it was her dream to be a crazy dog lady and have a rescue one day, kept her phone open on the table and checked it frequently, and generally behaved as if she’d been raised by wolves. She even asked borderline rude questions.

“So, how tall are you?” she asked.

“Five-ten,” he said.

“Really?” she said. “I had you pegged for five-nine, but maybe that’s without shoes,” she said innocently. Okay, not borderline rude: totally rude.

“Possibly,” he said. Darcy thought he might push back then, but he lapsed into silence. He was super cryptic, really. So she kept acting out. She also ate a lot of bread, but that was just because she was hungry. Unfortunately, she’d misjudged his fancy suit and aura of polish--he didn’t seem as embarrassed by her as she wanted him to be, especially in a place like this. When she stole the last piece of bread out of the basket as they waited for food, he even smiled. Damn, damn, damn. You’re supposed to be cringing right now, she thought, repressing a sigh, as their actual food arrived. On purpose--and totally without asking--Darcy reached over and stole some of the ninety dollar beef off his plate. Jane hated when people did that; maybe he would too?

“That’s not bad,” she told him. To her surprise, he was still grinning.

“You have an appetite, huh?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“It gets me into trouble,” she said, purposefully making an awkward, unflattering face. She’d seen him looking at her mouth.

“In what way?” he asked, sounding flirtatious. Ugh, flirting? Really?

“This is difficult to say,” Darcy began, smothering her internal smirk and faking a serious expression. She’d known a girl at Culver who’d had a bad relationship and then sworn that she would hold off on sex for a particular period to test her future dates. Darcy didn’t know if the rule had worked for Katie, but it would work now.

“Yeah?” he said, leaning forward slightly.

“I had difficulty in my last relationship because Ian and I rushed the physical side of things,” she explained. “Moved too fast. If we’d taken things slower, we would have realized that we were incompatible, you know?”

“Yeah?” He nodded.

“It was the Dark Elves thing, so we thought we’d die, but then, wham, we lived. After that, things got awkward. So, I decided on a new resolution for this year: when I date, I want to be a little more traditional, take things slower,” she told him.

“I’m Italian, my background is very traditional,” he said smoothly.

“That doesn’t bother you?” Darcy asked.

“Of course not,” he said. She waited until he was sipping his drink, the lie was so obvious.

“So, you don’t mind not having sex for six months?” Darcy said innocently. He choked a little on his drink.

“Six months?” he repeated, blinking.

“Uh-huh,” she said. He blinked again. There was a long pause in the conversation. He stared at her. Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Can you deal with that?” she said. He nodded.

“I can handle that,” he said. Then he pushed the fries towards her. “Eat your parmesan fries,” he told her.

“Thank you. You’re really not upset?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Waiting...waiting can make things better.” In response, Darcy clapped and squealed.

“You are fantastic. Just adorable,” she told him.

“Yeah?” he said.

“Uh-huh. Have I told you how much I love Chrissy Teigen? She and John Legend are such #relationshipgoals, you know?” Darcy said.

“I’m not familiar,” he said.

“Oh, we’ll fix that,” she said. She eyed him, pretending to be critical. “Do you have any suits with color?” His suit was black. Black suit, white shirt. He actually looked really good.

“Color?” he said.

“Like blue?” Darcy said.

“I probably have a blue suit,” he said, looking at her curiously.

“What about purple? You’d look good in purple,” she told him.

“Wha--” he began.

“Purple’s totally a you color. I think I’d like to get married in the next year or two,” Darcy announced. “Maybe that can be the second part of my resolution? What do you think about no sex until marriage?” He stared at her, blinking. There was another of those long pauses.

“Would you like more fries? Dessert?” he asked in a strangled voice.

“Yes to both, but I really have to pee,” Darcy said cheerfully.  In the bathroom, she texted Jennifer:

 

World’s Okayest Assistant: Oh my God! He won’t quit!

Librarians are Amazeballs: What?

World’s Okayest Assistant: He’s ride or die on the crazy train.

Librarians Are Amazeballs: LMAO. Drag him!

World’s Okayest Assistant: This is such a dumb way to get free drinks. He just bought me $53 steak. I hate math and I know the math isn’t going to work if he does this for six months.

 

When she got back to the table, he’d already ordered her an espresso and the flourless chocolate cake. “I took a guess,” he said. Darcy looked at him. There was one fork. It dawned on her that he was probably one of those low-carb, no sugar dieters--permanently. She smiled.

“That’s a good guess. Have some with me?” Darcy said.  She slid her chair around next to his noisily and basically whined and pleaded until he ate half the cake with her. It was a real challenge to leave it for him--usually, she and Jane fought over the last bite. Sometimes literally, dueling with their forks, while Thor provided color commentary. She missed that. 

He walked her out to her car. “I had fun tonight,” he said. “We should do it again soon,” he said.

“Yeah,” Darcy said wryly. Whew, I’ve done it. That’s the universal phraseology for Dates-One-Shall-Not-Repeat. I’m free, Darcy thought. Maybe word will get around to the other neanderthals on STRIKE Alpha and I’ll be left alone.

“I’m serious,” he said, surprising her. “I’d like to get to know you, spend time together.”

“Sure,” Darcy said with slightly less obvious sarcasm.

 

When she got home and ascended the staircase, bracelets jingling, she met Natasha, returning from a trip to one of the Baltic states. “How was your skiing?” Darcy asked.

“Wonderful,” Natasha said. She was holding a purring Anatoli. He blinked sleepily at Darcy. “How was your date with Rumlow?”

“How do you know about that?” Darcy said, shocked.

“My network of informants is extensive,” Natasha said.

“You told her, didn’t you?” Darcy asked the cat. Natasha laughed. “Come inside, I’ll make you a drink and we can take about this bizarre situation. I need your advice, Tasha,” Darcy said. When she explained about the phone call from Cameron, Natasha swore vividly in Russian, then asked Darcy to describe the date. Darcy told her everything she could remember. Natasha looked serious.

“What do you think is happening, milaya ?” she asked Darcy.

“I don’t know, it was weird. He’s weird. Why?” Darcy said.

“I see several possibilities,” Natasha said. At Darcy’s look, she continued, “one, he wants to win the bet. But he is known for relinquishing the prize to the second runner-up, in much less controversial circumstances, so I do not find that terribly convincing. Two, he is trying to prevent the rest of the team from meddling with you--”

“Why not just warn me?” Darcy said.

“Three, perhaps he does find you attractive?” Natasha suggested, fractionally raising an eyebrow.

“Oh no, you don’t! I know how you are, you’re a born matchmaker. This is not that. Not at all. I will not be squished together with this guy,” Darcy said. “Nope, no way. We’re done after tonight.”

 

***

 

Date Two

 

She fully expected that Rumlow would flee after that insane dinner experience, but instead he called her on the lab’s phone line the next day. Friday. “Um, hello? Jane Foster’s lab?” Darcy said.

“Hey, sweetheart. Would you like to do something with me tonight?” he asked.

“Who is this?” Darcy asked, surprised. She’d been knee-deep in answer Jane’s Science! Fanmail and wasn’t expecting a real phone call.

“Brock. This is Brock,” he said.

“Oh,” Darcy said. “Hello. I--uh,” she began.

“I can pick you up after work,” he said. Just then, someone knocked at the lab door. There was a tall guy on the other side of the glass. He was holding long-stemmed roses.

“Did you send someone from STRIKE here with flowers?” she asked Brock, seeing the STRIKE patch on his jacket sleeve.

“No,” he said, sounding alarmed. “Who does this look like?”

“Tall blonde dude?” Darcy said.

“If it’s Smith, tell him----wait, give the phone to him, he’s one of mine,” Brock said. Darcy went to the door and opened it.

“Smith?” she said.

“Yes,” he told her, smiling brightly.

“Your boss is on the phone, he wants to talk to you,” Darcy said. Smith’s glossy smile fell.

“Shit,” he muttered, walking over to the desk phone.

“Uh-huh,” Darcy said. She handed him the receiver.

“Yes, sir--” Smith began. “No, I didn’t mean to disobey a direct order--I will, sir. Right now? Yes, sir.” He looked at Darcy, phone still in his hand. “I apologize for bothering you, ma’am.” He hung up the phone, then realized his mistake. “Shit,” he said. It rang again. “Sir?” he said, sounding nervous. “It’s for you,” he said, passing her the phone. “These are for you, too. They’re, uh, from my boss?” he said doubtfully. He motioned towards the roses, then scurried out of the lab. Darcy watched him flee.

“Do you torture them to get this kind of compliance? Water-boarding? Electroshocks?” Darcy said into the phone. Inwardly, she was snickering.

“Pardon me?” Rumlow said.

“I just watched a grown man in tactical gear flee from my lab like he has a phobia of astrophysics equipment and novelty llama mugs,” Darcy said, sipping her coffee.

“Oh,” Rumlow said. “No, I’m just naturally very menacing. He knows what he did.  Llama mugs?”

“I like llamas,” she said. “They’re like camels, but cuter and fuzzier.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. “So, dinner tonight?”

“Will it break your heart if I say no?” Darcy teased.

“Yes,” he said wryly.

“Do you love me? Have you picked out names for our future babies?” she asked. “I was thinking of Sofia and Mirabella, since you’re Italian,” she told him. There was a moment of silence on the phone. He cleared his throat.

“Are we having twin girls? Or are they separate births?” he said.

“No idea,” Darcy said. “I was just making a list. I think I’ll add Bianca, too. Hey, since you’re Italian, is anyone in your family named Madonna? I never realized that was her real name--”

“My younger sister’s name is, uh, actually Fallon,” he said.

“Aww, pretty, “ Darcy said.

“Yeah,” he said dryly. “My mother named us both after soap characters. She’d probably try to convince to you to name our hypothetical children Madison and Slate. She’s gonna say little Sophie and Mira’s names are too conventional.”

“Look at you, giving our babies nicknames already,” Darcy said. “What would your mom say about Maja and Saffron?”

“Oh dear God, go back to the first set,” he grumbled.

“You don’t like Maja?” she said. “It means splendid in Arabic.”

“Since we’re dreaming up imaginary children, what are your picks for boys?” he asked.

“I have to think on that,” she said. “I’m carrying my Christmas weight like this cake baby will be a girl, so I started with girls’ names.” He actually laughed then.

 

Rumlow picked her up after work. “Where are we going this time?” she asked him. He was dressed more casually: jeans, a t-shirt, a pair of aviators in his collar. It was a much sexier look, she thought. Darcy wasn’t formal.

“Somewhere better than last time,” he said dryly.

“What’s that mean?” Darcy asked.

“I don’t think that place suited your style, Lewis. This will be better,” he said. She attempted to be obnoxious by singing off-key to the music, but he merely grinned at her. “Don’t quit your day job for American Idol,” he said.

“Shut up, Simon Cowell,” she sassed him.

“You think I’m like Simon Cowell?” he asked.

“You’re about the same age, right?” she said. “Aren’t you, like, almost fifty?”

“I’m forty-three,” he said. He took her to a little Mexican place in a strip mall. “Come on, bird girl,” he said, “you’ll like the quesadillas. This place has been here forever.”

“Bird girl?” she said.

“Earrings,” he said dryly. She was wearing her silver pair.

“Jane got me these, they’re my faves,” she told him. He plied her with the world’s best margarita, asking the waitress for a specific tequila and Cointreau. “Oh my God, this is so good,” Darcy said. She was just going to have one. Just one. One, of course, turned into two. “You’re right, this is way better than the first place,” she told him, sipping margarita numero dos and eating chips. It was difficult to be rude here. This place was actually fun. There were other people under eighty and some of them were even wearing jeans.

“Uh-huh,” he said. He grinned and eyed her speculatively. Darcy followed his gaze and looked down. Unfortunately, she hadn’t dressed to be off-putting, so the extent of her inebriation was visible across her chest. She was wearing a scoop-necked t-shirt and she was all pink.

“Aw, shit,” she muttered. He laughed.

“You sound like Barton,” he said.

“I know, that’s my Clint impression,” Darcy said.

“You’re a much cheaper date this time around,” he said dryly.

“Why’d you pick the Stuffed Shirt Steakhouse, anyway?” she asked, trying to conquer her embarrassment over the whole I-get-flushed-when I-drink situation.

“I was trying to impress you. I thought you might want to go somewhere very fancy after years of Pop Tarts, it was a miscalculation,” he said, smiling at her. That smile was curved with wickedness. “Did you want another one?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Lies, Darcy thought. He was so full of shit. She definitely was not having sex with him, no matter how good he looked in a t-shirt, or how nice his shoulders looked. She had morals! Standards! She could say no to a handsome, nefarious STRIKE Commander. No was easy to say. No. No. No.

 She had a third margarita, though. It was really good.

 

“What did Smith do?” Darcy asked finally. She’d been letting him tell fun stories. A miscalculation, she thought. She hadn’t fulfilled her end of the obnoxiousness bargain since they got here.

“Hmm?” Rumlow said. “Here, try my fajitas?” He was avoiding looking at her, Darcy realized. Avoiding the subject of Smith and his flowers.

“You said he knew what he did,” Darcy repeated. “So, what did he do?”

“He disobeyed a direct order,” Rumlow said.

“Which was?” she said.

“Nothing life-or-death, it’s just the principle of the situation,” he told her. “He got an idea for something in his mind, I vetoed it, he thought I wouldn’t catch him trying to do it anyway, goofing off at work.”

“Weren’t you also goofing off at work, on the phone with me at the time?” Darcy knew the flowers weren’t from him. The card had been signed by Smith. Clearly, Rumlow had staked a claim on her and probably warned the rest of Alpha off. That meant it was all going to plan, more or less. Rebuffing him would be easier than rebuffing him and God knows who else, so she could roll with it. Besides, he took her to nice places. She could probably eke some nice free meals out of this. Rumlow shrugged.

“I was multitasking, I’m a good multitasker,” he said.

“Sure,” Darcy said.

“Sometime in June, I’ll have to show you what I can do with my hands when my mouth is busy,” he said slyly. She snorted.

“Yeah, way to keep my expectations manageable, hot stuff. Besides, wouldn’t a full six months technically start on July first?” she said.

“Hey, I’ve already got June first in my calendar, we can’t shift dates now,” he said wryly. “It’s too disruptive to my schedule.”

“Yeah, right,” she said. Was he really planning to wait six months? No freaking way.

 

He walked her up to her apartment. “I had fun tonight. Did you have fun?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. She was clinging to him slightly; it was the fourth margarita. “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he said, looking at her intently. He pressed her slightly against her door.

“You don’t actually like me,” she said.

“Says who?” he asked.

“Me! I do.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, leaning close to her face, as if he wanted to kiss her. They were a fraction apart. “You’re wrong,” he said. “Very wrong.”

“You think you can actually stick it out for that long?” she said teasingly. “No sex for half a year?”

“Hmmmm,” he murmured. “Interesting choice of words.”

“Sure,” she said sarcastically.

“I don’t think I’ll be the one to break, sweetheart.” Darcy was just going to say something smart back when the door down the hall opened.

“Oh, hello,” Natasha said. “Did you have a nice evening?”

“Uh-huh,” Darcy said.

“Widow’s your neighbor?” he said.

“We’re friends,” Natasha told him. “She is my pet-sitter as well. Would you like some tea?”

“I think you were just leaving, weren’t you?” Darcy said to Brock.

“Yeah,” he said, turning to give Darcy one last smoldering look, then departing down the stairs. She listened to the thump-thump of his footsteps and tried not to giggle.

“He is putting the moves on me,” she told Natasha finally, bursting into laughter.

“Come tell me,” the Russian said.

“It’s so dumb. But you really should get his margarita recipe--”

“You know how I feel about non-vodka beverages,” Natasha said.

“It’s really, really good, though. I’m super-smashed right now,” Darcy said.

 

***

 Date 3

 

He woke her up the next morning. “Hello?” she said, answering the phone sleepily.

“How hungover are you?” he asked. Darcy squinted at her alarm clock. It was ten am.

“Too hungover for this conversation? My bed was doing circles last night,” she said.

“Circles?” he said.

“Round and round, like a carousel,” Darcy said.

“Did you put your foot on the floor?” he asked.

“No, I just closed my eyes tighter,” Darcy said. “Like now. The bed slowed down when my eyes were closed.”

“You want some breakfast? I’m headed out of town at midnight, so I wanted to see you before I go,” he said smoothly.

“Are you outside my apartment right now? It sounds like you’re outside my apartment?” she said.

“Technically, yeah,” he said. “But I’ve got waffles.”

“Okay, okay,” she said. It was a really good thing that she didn’t care about impressing him, because she was wearing an old nightshirt with Cookie Monster on it, her hair was probably bonkers, and there was doubtlessly mascara under her eyes. She threw on a bathrobe and shuffled out to the door. “Hello,” she told him flatly. “I might be dead, I feel dead.”

“I’ll fix you up,” he said winningly.

“Your margaritas broke me,” she told him, as he stepped inside, carrying to-go bags.

“I had no idea you were such an adorable lightweight,” he said. “I thought you and Foster did tequila shots and drank some agents under the table once--”

“Yeah, that was Jane. She’s the miraculously sturdy drinker. We were trying to steal our stuff back after Agent iPod Thief confiscated it all,” Darcy explained, hiding a yawn. “She could drink a seven-foot tall NBA player under the table.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work,” he said dryly. “Let me warm up your waffles.” Darcy had to repress a snicker. Why does he want to warm up my waffles so badly? They ate breakfast on the couch. “Do you normally eat breakfast on the couch?” he asked.

“No, I eat breakfast on the couch when Sharon is at work or absent. She’s much neater than me, it kills her that I do this,” Darcy said.

“You could eat breakfast on my couch--”

“If I spent the night? Nice try, Rumlow,” Darcy said.

“Just thought I’d offer,” he said. “You ready to go?”

“We’re going somewhere? I’m a mess,” she said.

“Dress warm, put on good shoes,” he said, rubbing her shoulders.

 

“This is a farm?” Darcy said, surprised. They’d driven out to the suburbs.

“Alpacas, sweetheart. I wanted to take you on a llama hike at a different place, but they were all booked. Did you want to get in the petting line?” he asked, gesturing to a line filled with parents and kids.

“I get to pet them?” she asked, delighted.

“Only on weekends,” he said. “During the week, they have day jobs or something.” He cracked jokes and invented backstories for each alpaca as they waited. “You can tell that one”--he pointed to a brown alpaca being hugged by all the children--”secretly wants to blow this joint, rob a bank or something.”

“You’d recognize that look, huh?” Darcy said. Natasha had filled her in on Brock’s brief sojourn as Crossbones, after the HYDRA Uprising. He’d masqueraded as an insane, burned mercenary a la Deadpool while he stole SHIELD’s stuff back from various HYDRA vaults. Helen Cho had apparently fixed up his burns afterwards, but there had been more than a year where he had to walk around horrifically burned.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s your turn, the black alpaca in the Santa hat has become available for squeezing and shrieking.” Darcy tried not to squee too loudly as she hugged the alpaca. His named was Harold. She didn’t want to scare Harold. Once she had hugged every available alpaca at least twice and taken lots of selfies, Brock took her to the on-premises alpaca store.

“Oh God,” Darcy whispered, “they don’t sell meat here, do they?”

“No,” he said, laughing. “But I thought you might want a hat.”

“Ooooh,” Darcy said. “Much better.”

 

“Can I kiss you?” he asked at her apartment door.

“Do you want to?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, adjusting her pink knit cap. It had ear flaps

“That seems implausible,” Darcy told him. He’d watched her pet livestock and look at goofy hats. She smelled like hay and rain, she thought.

“I could get shot. I don’t want to die not having kissed you,” he said.

“That’s emotional manipulation,” Darcy pointed out.

“Is it working?” he said, leaning closer. He kissed her. It was a good kiss. Light, but with a little emphasis and heat behind it. Not too aggressive. Had she been in a labeling mood, she would have called it a yearning kiss.

“You should go,” she said, when he released her. He was cupping her face.

“I don’t want to,” he said, grinning slyly.

“You’re needed in the world-saving business,” she pointed out.

“Mmm,” he said, kissing her again.

“You’ll be late,” she told him. Rumlow finally let her go. He looked back at her and winked before going downstairs.

“What?” Darcy called.

“You kissed me back!” he yelled.

“Well, hello again,” Darcy heard a voice say in the stairwell. It was Natasha. “I’ve been seeing a lot of you, Commander Rumlow.”

“Are you keeping tabs on me, Romanoff?” he said back.

“Does that worry you? I keep an eye on Darcy,” she said.

“Good. You want to get your go-bag, ride in with me?” he asked. “I’m going to crash at work until we leave.”

“No, I’m picking up Steve and Sharon at the airport,” Natasha said. Darcy heard them say goodbye and Rumlow’s tread as he descended the stairs. Natasha appeared a few seconds later.

“Does Sharon need me to pick her up, so you guys can head in?” Darcy asked.

“No, I just spoke to Steve,” Natasha said. “You will watch Anatoli for me, of course?”

“Absolutely,” Darcy said. “Have fun at work. Nobody get shot.” She hugged Natasha lightly. Then she turned back to her apartment door.

“Three dates in three days?” Natasha teased. “Where did he get you drunk today?”

“He didn’t, he brought me hangover waffles and took me to an alpaca farm,” Darcy said. Then she actually lost it and started laughing. “We petted alpacas!”

“Did you get blackmail photos?” Natasha asked.

“Of course,” Darcy said. “You’ve taught me well.”

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Darcy did at home was plaster her insta account with photos of her and Brock petting alpacas. She thought up the most obnoxious hashtags, too. Then she changed her relationship status on Facebook and started a Pinterest wedding board. A public one. She was giggling and pinning centerpieces when Sharon came back. “Hi, Shar! How was your romantic getaway?” Darcy called.

“It was fantastic. Which one of the STRIKE assholes do you want me to shoot?” Sharon said, dropping her purse and bag.

“Natasha told you about the bet?” Darcy said.

“Me and Steve. Steve is furious, by the way. He wants to have everyone fired and hit them with his shield. So, who am I shooting?” Sharon said.

“None of them yet, I’m just dealing out revenge more subtly. Come look at my Pinterest wedding board,” Darcy said. “You think Brock will like it?”

“You made it public?” Sharon said, leaning over Darcy’s shoulder.

“Yes, it’s really too bad he’s not on any social media, but Jack and I are Facebook friends, so I think it’ll be transmitted eventually,” Darcy said.

“Oh my God,” Sharon said.

“I can’t find that many ugly centerpieces, though. Everyone’s so classy now. I think I need to search for 1980s weddings.” Darcy typed for a sec. “Oh, look at that. What about silver and purple like this for wedding colors? Spray painted twigs and branches?”

 

Sharon laughed for five minutes when she saw the purple centerpieces. Then they opened a bottle of wine and brainstormed the most embarrassing couples memes Darcy could share online. It was the most fun Darcy had ever seen Sharon have, actually. They hadn’t been roommates long and Sharon was normally a little reserved. “Can you make the alpaca photos into a slideshow?” she asked Darcy, still laughing. They worked on a gushy Facebook status about Brock, too. Sharon had fallen asleep by the time Darcy decided it was perfect and posted it--at one in the AM.

 

When Darcy looked at it in the morning, she called to Sharon, “I only made six or seven drunk typos! I should have had more wine! What will my Sexy Man say?”

“Did you really call him your Sexy Man?” Sharon asked, coming out of her bedroom. She was dressed for work.

“Yup. Coffee’s ready. I called him sexy multiple times in this monster status talking about how good he is to me and I also told everyone we were waiting on sex,” Darcy said, giggling.

“You did not!” Sharon said, almost spilling the coffee she was pouring into her travel mug.

“Oh, yes, listen,” Darcy said, then read the post out loud:

I never thought I would meet someone willing to wait for me. But he’s willing to wait. For six months or until we’re married. When I met Sexy Man, I had given up totally on relationships and being in lobe after some major dissapointments--

 

“Oh my God,” Sharon repeated, looking faintly stunned.

”You think people will realize I mean love and not ‘lobe’? Should I edit that?” Darcy asked.

“I’m dying of secondhand embarrassment. Rumlow is going to freak the fuck out,” Sharon said, giggling.

“Oh, I forgot I talked about wanting to meet his mom and learn all his favorite recipes in this--” Darcy said.

“And adopt a puppy with him?” Sharon said. She peered at the screen. “When you meet the person you’re supposed to spend your life with, you just know?” she said, sounding both horrified and amused.

“Isn’t it great?” Darcy said, laughing wickedly. She kept reading out loud

 

--I feel like God sent him, just for meeeeee. I know what my purpuse in life is now: to love him and cherrish him. So If anyone knows any wedding planners, I’m taking notes! [wink emojis]

 

A little notification popped up. “Hells yeah!” Darcy said, cackling.

“What?” Sharon asked.

“Steve just liked it. The quinjet is live! The quinjet is live!” Darcy said.

“Lobe,” Sharon said mirthfully. “Everyone on that quinjet knows you’d given up on lobe and now you want to marry Rumlow after three dates and you’ve got him agreeing to no sex before marriage. Steve will tell everyone. He loves pranks.”

“I know, isn’t it great? Boo-yah! I am so winning at this game,” Darcy said, doing a little dance on the couch. “I wonder how long I can wait before I write statuses complaining that he doesn’t call me enough?” she asked Sharon. She started typing.

“Are you writing it now?” Sharon asked.

“No, I’m looking for poorly-rated lasagna recipes, I’m going to cook him a boring, flavorless meal or something? I think he’s picky about food. Maybe I can burn some steak? He’ll struggle more with putting up with me if I ruin his faves, right?” Darcy said. “I could do some really dry cupcakes, too. What’s your opinion as an agent?”

“You are devious. But isn’t that a lot of work?” Sharon said.

“Possibly, but I actually like to bake. I was planning on making Thor and Jane some Welcome Home brownies with a galaxy icing. What’s your favorite cake, by the way?”

“Ummm, white chocolate raspberry?” Sharon said. “Why?”

“You live with me, you get a cake,” Darcy told her. “Also, it may be a bribe to get you and Steve to do Rumlow-related tasks for me.”

“What kind of tasks?” Sharon asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Darcy said. “But I want to know everything you know about him.”

“Everything?” Sharon said.

“All the random facts, weird stories, everything,” Darcy said.

“We could pull in all the field agents I’m friends with, too?” Sharon offered.

 

That day in the lab, Darcy--a smidge bored and still waiting for Jane and Thor’s return--decided she would buy the fake love of her life some gifts. She wasn’t sure about his suit size (Sharon’s spy network was on it, thinking she genuinely wanted to give him lovey dovey things), so she went with a safer option and ordered him a cashmere sweater in a pink color called heathered rose and another sweater in purple. She snickered. They were nice sweaters. That was her insurance against him spurning them. She could pout if he didn’t wear them. She’d practiced whining Broooooock already, pitching her voice to its most annoying register. When she realized there was such a thing as a fancy pink pocket square at Brooks Brothers, Darcy laughed for five minutes and then clicked add to cart. Then she sent a text with a photo to Sharon.

 

World’s Okayest Assistant: Buying bae some presents [photo]

Agent Carter (No, the Other One): OMG, I love this. That all looks like something a Bond villain or Piers Morgan would wear.

World’s Okayest Assistant: I can’t decide between the pink pocket square or maybe this leopard scarf that looks like Versace from ebay?

Agent Carter (No, the Other One): Scarf’s all weather, any outfit, unlike the pocket square.

World’s Okayest Assistant: Oh, you are wicked. I love you, Sharon Carter.

 

She’d decided that cooking bad food for date number four would involve her own suffering, so she’d developed a Plan B. She was going to make great food. Amazing food. It would all be high-carbohydrate, super-rich, two-sticks of butter type stuff. Sharon’s network had informed her that Brock was a really rigid dieter. He hadn’t eaten pasta in years. Allegedly, he stuck with low-carb, high-protein stuff. So, she had sketched out a date menu consisting of her favorite carb-heavy dishes: scampi or spicy penne with oodles of garlic bread, followed by something terrifyingly sugary and rich, like salted caramel brownies or a Texas sheet cake. Zero real vegetable content. It was the kind of meal that only Steve or Thor could process without incurring high cholesterol and possibly diabetes warnings from their physicians. She laughed to herself as she got the shipping email about the sweaters and scarves and another Facebook notification sound. Her notifications were blowing up. She checked the app. Fifty-plus comments on her Brock post. Three new notifications. People were oohing and ahhing and pretending to be impressed. Well, except her favorite cousin Tucker. Darcy loved Tucker. She liked his comment. She was liking all of them, but she really meant this like.

 

Emily Jones: So cute! I love alpacas! [heart emojis]

Jennifer Stephenson: Y’all are adorable together

Tucker Lewis: Who dafuq’s that old dude, cuz? You datin grandpas now?

 

“Lewis family mischief forever,” Darcy whispered to herself, giggling. Then she scrolled past a photo of Brock trying to look sexy in aviators--next to a brown alpaca. Darcy grinned. She held up her fist, Jane Fonda mugshot style. “I’m gonna get you, sucka.”

 

She went into the breakroom and cornered every SHIELD employee she could find to brag about how sweet and wonderful and kind and considerate her Sexy Man was. Eventually, they all fled. Except for Cameron Klein. “What--what are you doing?” he asked, gazing at her in astonishment.

Rumlow thinks he’s wooing me, but my plan is just to embarrass the shit out of him and never let him in my pants , Darcy tapped out on her phone, then passed it to the tech analyst. SHIELD had ears everywhere, after all. Cameron laughed so hard, he turned all red. The tips of his ears flushed. Then he leaned forward and looked seriously at her.

“How can I help?” he said.

“Can you get the quinjet screens to flash Darcy Loves Brock?” she asked.

“Yeah, I can do that,” he said, grinning slyly.

 

***

 

“Uh, Rumlow?” Steve called. They were on board the quinjet, hurtling towards the South Indian Ocean.

“Yeah, Cap?” Rumlow asked.

“You’ve got a message,” Steve said. Rumlow stood up, frowning.

“A message?” he repeated, walking over to the mission screen. There was snickering behind him. Jack wasn’t the only STRIKE Alpha guy on Facebook; several were and they were all friends with Jack. Darcy had been tagging Rollins in posts, too.

“It’s sweet that she likes you so much that she got the tech guys to hack the screen feed,” Natasha said.

“Yeah,” Rumlow said flatly. The text scrolled by like a Stock Exchange crawler, in big red letters:

 

Darcy Loves Brock - Darcy Loves Brock - Darcy Loves Brock - Darcy Loves Brock - Darcy--

 

“Valentine’s Day’ll be here before you know it,” Steve said. “You thought about what you’re gonna do yet?”

“No,” Rumlow said.

“You should probably think about it,” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Rumlow said.

 

When they landed after the mission, Agent Collins was waiting with an armload of packages. “Commander Rumlow! Commander Rumlow!” he yelled. Brock paused.

“Yeah, Collins?” he said.

“Your fiancée left these for you--” he began.

“My what?” he said.

“Miss Lewis? She had to go to a conference with Dr. Foster, but these are your”--he checked a note--”belated Christmas gifts? She says you can pick her up at the airport on Tuesday at three pm, if you’re in town. She says you don’t have to wait to open the gifts, she wants you to have them now, enjoy them.”

“Oh,” Rumlow said.

“You got presents? Why don’t you open them?” Steve asked as they walked inside. Brock went to his office. The rest of STRIKE Alpha, lured by Steve’s sly tone, followed like ducklings.

“I can do it later,” Brock said quietly.

“But Darcy didn’t want you to wait,” Steve pointed out, flashing a grin. The other guys nodded and smirked.

“I bet it’s a corny sweater with their faces on it,” Smith whispered to Rodriguez.

“It’s not,” Rumlow said sharply. But he’d frowned.

“C’mon, mate, let’s see ‘em,” Jack said.

“Yeah. Congratulations on the wedding,” Steve said. “I had no idea you were even looking for something serious--”

“Neither did I,” Natasha said.

“You don’t mess around, Rumlow,” Steve said. “You’re decisive.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I admire that. You don’t want to wait too long,” Steve said. “Let something special slip through your fingers.”

“Yeah,” Rumlow repeated.

 

Brock tore open the packaging carefully. He looked down at the folded sweater in the box. “That looks like a nice cashmere,” Jack said pleasantly.

“It’s fucking pink,” Smith said in a low voice. The other sweaters--a purple, a teal blue--were met with meaningful eye contact and some smirks. But it was the scarf that seemed cause the most derision.

“What is that?” Rodriguez said.

“Expensive,” Jack supplied. “It’s silk. She’s certainly spending money on you, mate. How much did you spend on the engagement ring?”

“There is no--I haven’t bought one,” Rumlow said. He held up one of the scarves. It was yellow and black and leopard print.

“It’s very nice?” Jack offered.

“She likes bright and uh, interesting colors,” Rumlow said.

“Well, that’s, uh, real fancy,” Steve supplied. “Looks like that fella who died, what’s his name the fashion designer? Vertace?”

“Versace,” Jack said. “You’re right, Cap. He liked shiny yellow silk.”

“Uh-huh,” Steve said, nodding. “I watched that special on the nineties the other day. Real sad.”

“Versace?” Rumlow said.

“I think it is Versace,” Rodriguez said. He whistled. “Boss, you got a sugar mama.”

 

***

 

“What do you think he’ll say when he finds out you’ve been telling people that you’re serious?” Jane said, snickering, as they got off the plane. Thor had gone off on a brief Asgardian errand the night before--welcome home brownies tucked in his rucksack, Mew-Mew in the other hand--while they flew home from a long-planned conference. Darcy and Jane had updated each other on recent events as they ate the rest of the galaxy brownies, laughing and shrieking.

“I have no idea,” Darcy said. They both looked at each other and burst into laughter. “He’ll probably stand me up at the airport,” she said, snorting. They went to the luggage carousel and rolled their suitcases towards the exit.

“Um,” Jane said, “Darce?” She nodded and Darcy looked. Brock was leaning against a column in the pickup zone, aviators on and arms crossed. He had the terrible leopard print scarf tied around his neck. It looked especially hilarious juxtaposed against his black tactical gear. He looked like he was actually sulking.

“I’m on,” Darcy said. “Watch this.”

“What are you going to do?” Jane whispered.

“Babe!” Darcy shrieked. “I missssssssssed you!” She left her suitcase with Jane and bolted towards him. She threw herself against his chest as hard as she could, making little squealing noises. “I missed you, I missed you, I missed you!” To her utter surprise, Brock literally picked her up and closed the distance between them. “Brock!” she whined, when he kissed down her jaw and sucked at her neck. “Are you trying to give me a hickey?” she yelled. People turned to look at them. Brock lifted his mouth from her neck.

“Yeah,” he said. Then he kissed her again. Jane rolled up with the suitcases and gave them a look.

“Am I going to need to turn on a water hose to separate you two or something?” she said archly.

“Shut up, you make out with Thor in publi--oh, my God, babe!” Darcy squealed. He was grabbing her ass. “No, no, too much! Too much!” He put her down, then looked distinctly pouty behind his sunglasses.

“You want to go get in the car?” he said. “I’ll take those.” He took the bags from Jane. They walked to the parking lot. “We could pick up some Starbucks on the way into work?” he said.

“That’s the scarf I bought him, isn’t it cool?” Darcy told Jane.

“Very stylish,” Jane said neutrally.

“I’m naturally glamorous,” Brock said dryly. “Besides it adds flair to my tac gear.”

“Have you been wearing it to work?” Darcy said, repressing a laugh.

“Absolutely,” he said. “But I took the sweaters home. I think Jack might have tried to steal my cashmere, baby. Somebody broke into my locker. Jack denies it, but the man loves a fancy sweater.”

“Someone broke into your locker?” Jane said. Behind Brock’s back, Darcy looked at her and mouthed the Sharon Squad.  She knew someone had done it to check his sizing.

“I bet it was Fury,” Darcy said. “I could see him in a sweater.”

“He’s devious like that,” Brock said pleasantly, loading their bags into the back of the SUV. “Foster, give us a minute, will you, there’s M&Ms in the console.”

“Transparent makeout request,” Darcy joked. Jane rolled her eyes, but got in the SUV. Darcy tried to sound confident, but she was a smidge nervous. What if he scolded her? He popped his sunglasses on his head, then leaned down to kiss her again. He was intensely focused: she was pressed against the SUV and he was practically grinding against her.  “Brock,” she said, when he’d released her for a fraction of a second, “we’re supposed to be going slow.”

“Slow?” he said. “Oh, yeah. I forgot.” He sounded teasing. “What if we skip that?”

“Skip it?” Darcy said.

“We could elope. You want to elope?” he said, grinning.

“Wha--what?” Darcy said.

“I thought you were ready to get serious,” he said. “We could turn around, get the next flight to Vegas? Maybe Foster would be a witness?” he suggested archly. Darcy looked at the silhouette of the airport in the near-distance, then at Brock’s face. She had to remind herself to close her own mouth.

“No,” she sassed. “You don’t get to skip the getting-to-know-you so easily. Besides, I want a big, traditional wedding. People will think I’m pregnant if we go Vegas.”

“Mmm-hmm,” he said.

“Why are you smirking?” Darcy said, as he led her to the SUV’s door.

“I was thinking about getting you pregnant,” he said, helping her into the high vehicle.

“Brock!” she said.

“We could practice some first?” he suggested. He shut her door.

“What happened?” Jane whispered. She was eating candy in the backseat.

“He just suggested we elope!” Darcy said in a stunned whisper.

“Whoa,” Jane said. “Crazy. He’s hot, though.”

“Yes,” Darcy admitted, looking in the visor mirror. There were little pink suck marks on her neck. She hoped they faded quickly.

“You could hit it anyway, I wouldn’t judg--” Jane began, then shut her mouth when Brock opened the driver’s door and climbed in.

 

Date Four

 

“I was going to make you dinner for our next date,” Darcy told Brock, as he drove them home after work.

“Nah,” he said. “You’ve been traveling, baby. We’ll get food for everyone. Do a triple-date thing? Carter and Rogers and I already talked about it.”

“Triple date?” Jane said.

“Thor, too,” he said.

“That’s nice of you,” Darcy said.

 

That was how the five of them--then six when Thor arrived from Asgard and lit up at the sight of food--ended up eating pizza in Sharon and Darcy’s living room while the guys obsessed over some action movie with Liam Neeson. “Oh, I love this part,” Steve said.

“The I will find you monologue?” Brock asked. “Yeah, that’s the best part.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Sharon said. “It’s implausible he could do that at his age!”

“Why not? Your boyfriend’s, what, one-hundred? Steve could do that,” Brock told her. Even Steve laughed at that.

“I could do that,” Steve said.

“You want another slice?” Brock said to Darcy. Brock had kept his arm around her and made sure she got her favorite pizza before Cap murdered it with his serum-enhanced appetite. It was oddly...normal and fun?

“Sure,” she told him. He got her a slice, then smiled at her.

 

“I’ve got news for you,” Jane whispered to Darcy, when they went into the kitchen for drinks.

“What?” Darcy said.

“That’s your real boyfriend,” she said.

“Lies,” Darcy said. “He’s a skilled triple agent type. You can’t trust him at all.”

 

***

 

Darcy kept up the humiliation onslaught at work. She carried a giant teddy bear down to the STRIKE gym the next day. It was as tall as she was. Almost. On the elevator, she ran into Jasper Sitwell. “Is that a present from Brock?” he asked.

“No, it’s a present for Brock. He told me that he wanted one when he was little, he just could never win one, you know?” Darcy said. She’d just made that one up on the spot. “I can’t decide what to call him? Teddy? Albeart? You got any ideas?”

“Albeart is pretty clever,” Sitwell said wryly.

“I thought so, too! Don’t y’all think so?” Darcy said. “Maybe he can be Teddy Albeart. Brock will know what to do. He loves helping me name stuff.” She looked around the elevator. Several grinning SHIELD employees nodded. She toted him out of the elevator, humming happily to herself.

 

When she got to the gym, Brock was running a training exercise with the whole freaking Alpha team, plus parts of STRIKE Charlie and Echo. Darcy grinned. “Brock! Honey!” she called, waving over Teddy Albeart’s head. “Come meet your new roommate!” At least a dozen heads turned in Darcy’s direction and she smiled widely between the bear’s fuzzy ears. Brock stared and blinked. Behind him, Steve and Jack were trying not to lose it. Success!   Once he’d given out a few instructions, Brock jogged over.

“You brought me another gift?” he said flatly. He looked at the bear.

“Uh-huh. I thought you might want the company, you know, at night?” she said, smiling. “So, you won’t feel lonely.” She stressed the last word. “I was thinking he could be your cuddling substitute.”

“That so?” Brock said, blinking. Across the room, Steve was hiding behind a punching bag. He’d actually pressed his face into the bag to muffle his laughter.

 

That afternoon, Brock was carrying the teddy bear into his office when two of the Alpha guys and another man from STRIKE Foxtrot walked by. Rodriguez looked at Smith. Smith looked at Rodriguez. “What the hell is that?” the Foxtrot guy said.

“His girlfriend brought him a bear,” Rodriguez said.

“That’s a big bear,” Foxtrot said.

“Uh-huh,” Smith said. He leaned over to Rodriguez. “I can’t believe he wants to win that bet so fucking badly. I feel secondhand embarrassment,” Smith said.

“That’s our boss,” Rodriguez said, shaking his head.

“What bet?” Foxtrot said.

“Officially, there’s not one,” Smith said. “He won’t let us do anything but a clean recert contest, but he wants to win the damn thing anyway.”

“What’s the wager?” Foxtrot asked.

“Nothing,” Rodriguez said. He looked at Smith and laughed.

“What?” Smith said.

“I don’t think there’s a bet at all,” Rodriguez said.

“He told me nobody was gonna lay a hand on her, but look, what’s happening here, okay--” Smith began.

“Shhhh,” Rodriguez said.

“You’re the one who bet me $200 that they’d be all over each other after he pulled rank on me,” Smith groused.

 

***

 

Date Five

 

“You’re making him a really nice dinner,” Jane said thoughtfully, when she came over as Darcy was peeling shrimp. It had been a few days since movie night.

“She is, isn’t she?” Steve said from the couch. Darcy didn’t rise to the bait. Steve was a total troll.

“This is for practice,” Darcy said.

“Practice?” Jane said.

“When I care about impressing somebody, this’ll be how I do it. With this meal, maybe.”

“Sure, Darce,” Jane said.

“I don’t think she should even be feeding him such good food,” Sharon said, emerging from her room. “I liked her first idea better.” They were going to the movies.

“First idea?” Steve said.

“I was going to make bad food, but I’d have to eat it and pretend it was okay. Now I’m just making him the anti-Paleo meal. I’m gonna wreck his perfect body,” Darcy said.

“Wreck his body?” Steve said.

“I’m going to steal his beauty like the Evil Queen. Mwhahahahahaha,” she joked, rubbing her hands together a Disney villain.

“Uh-huh,” Steve said, chuckling. “Shar, what do you think?”

“He’s been wearing that leopard print scarf everywhere but the gym and he wore the pink sweater to work yesterday,” Sharon said.

“You should have seen them kissing at the airport,” Jane said.

“Oh, yeah. You still got them hickeys, Darce?” Steve said.

“Shut up, all of you. My revenge plan is long-term. This is phase one, okay? I just didn’t realize he was embarrassment-proof. I thought the bear alone...”

“He’s still got that big ol’ teddy bear in his office,” Steve said.

“He left Teddy alone overnight?” Darcy said, frowning.

 

Darcy ran everyone off for her first home-cooked meal date with Brock. She’d decided on shrimp scampi and salted caramel brownies because they were easier to time-manage. She had a Smitten Kitchen recipe for the brownies, but she was being lazy and using store-bought caramel pieces doctored with sea salt. The scampi was even easier: melt loads of butter, lemon, seasonings, and sauté the shrimp after the linguine had cooked. She had just taken the brownies out of the oven and moved the shrimp off the heat to pour over the pasta when the doorbell rang. “Hey,” she said, answering the door.

“Hi,” Brock said, leaning down to kiss her. “Smells delicious.” Darcy struggled not to laugh. He was wearing the purple sweater.

“Mmm-hmm, come in, I’m plating the pasta like a fancy lady in my apron,” she said, smirking. “I’ve got wine, but if you want liquor, I can get the cocktail shaker?” she said, returning to the kitchen as he discarded his coat. She had the table set: candles lit, garlic bread crunchy, wine glasses ready, extra parmesan on the table.

“No, wine is good, you want a glass, too?” he asked.

“Uh-huh,” she said, spooning the hot butter, lemon, and wine sauce and shrimp over the still-warm noodles. She set both plates on the kitchen pass-through. Brock retrieved them. “Thanks,” Darcy said. He was being weirdly helpful, she thought. She was trying not to let Jane’s opinion about his intentions get to her. She wasn’t having sex with him. Ever.  

 

She waited until they were both sitting down, the food was ready, and the wine was poured before she ruined it all. He chatted pleasantly and she smiled at him. She counted the number of bites he’d taken: one, two, three. He was smiling back. He looked happy and relaxed. “This is great,” he told her.

“Steve just told me something today. Did you really leave Teddy at work?” she asked, making her voice slightly sad. She twirled her pasta and pretended to be too sad to eat. That was difficult. Garlic-lemon butter was delish. Everything she’d made was good.

“Yeah,” he said, putting more parmesan on his scampi.

“Alone?” Darcy said, poking her lip out. He wasn’t paying attention.

“Is he not allowed to crash on my office couch?” Brock asked, looking up from his bread.

“I wanted you to take him home with you, babe. You don’t like him, do you?” she said. Darcy bit her lips and blinked. She’d been practicing her sad faces in the mirror.

“No, I like him,” Brock said.

“You don’t, I can tell you don’t,” Darcy said, sighing. “You don’t like my gifts, do you?” Pinching the inside of her leg, she pretended to repress tears. “My taste is all wrong for you,” she said, pretending to lose it. She jumped up from the chair and fled into the bathroom.

“Honey, honey, don’t cry. I love the bear,” he said, getting up and following her. “Sweetheart, open the door, please?” he said.

“You hate me!” Darcy said. “You think I’m silly!” She was shaking with suppressed laughter. She got some Blink from the cabinet and put it in her eyes to fake crying. She’d just put it back when the door popped up. He’d picked the lock.

He scooped her up and carried her back to the table. “Look,” he said, sitting her down, “I know what’s going on here.”

“You do?” Darcy said.

“You’d normally be having sex with someone by now, right?” he said.

“What?” Darcy said. She thought he’d figured out what she was doing, that she knew about the bet.

“You’re feeling insecure because of the lack of intimacy and trying to compensate for physical affection with expensive gifts and things?” he said.

“Huh?” Darcy said.

“Normally, we’d be sleeping together already and you’d worry less about my level of investment because we’d be in bed a lot,” he said. Darcy stared at him. What in the everylovingfuck? He thinks sex is the cure to my behavior? Oh em gee, this guy is so manipulative! He’s giving me sad, sympathetic face. I think he might actually be pure HYDRA. Holy shih tzu, she thought.

“Oh,” she said flatly. “You really think so?” He nodded seriously.

“I think we should see a couples’ therapist,” he said. “It’s partially my fault. I shouldn’t have suggested the elopement thing, even as a tease, it was impulsive. I pushed when I shouldn’t have, baby.”

“Why? Would you have gone through with it?” she asked. He looked at her, his expression blank.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I totally would have. I’m afraid you might have regretted it later, but I would have been lucky.” He leaned over and kissed her. He tasted like scampi butter.

“I’m going to warm these up, you sit,” he said, taking the plates into the kitchen. “Have some bread.” 

What is happening? Darcy thought. She was baffled about what had just transpired. Did I just lose control of the narrative? Why isn't he running away? How much does STRIKE Alpha spend on one guy's booze in a year? Am I going to end up at a therapists' office, talking about my no-sex for six months' rule?

Chapter Text

Date Five (sometime later)

 

Darcy felt oddly seen by Brock as they finished eating. She let him talk. It was difficult to be obnoxious when you were in shock. Darcy was still trying to process his request for couples’ therapy. What did he mean? Was this some kind of sneak attack?

“You’re a fantastic cook,” he told her.

“Um, thanks?” Darcy said.

“I’ve made you tense, bringing up sex,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no,” Darcy said. “I’ve just never been to therapy before?”

“It’s good, really,” he said. “To talk in a comfortable place. I’ve been going since after the Uprising and my Crossbones thing. And you’ve been through a lot of things, sweetheart.”

“A lot of things?” Darcy said.

“Thor, elves, all kinds of life-endangering situations. Hey, come here, your shoulders are up near your earlobes,” he said, coaxing her into his lap. He started massaging her neck and shoulders. This is it. He’s going to make a gross move, I can throw him out, it’ll all be over, Darcy thought. Grab a boob, asshole. C’mon, do it. C’mon. Honk a boob, you know you want to.  Argh. The one time in my life a man’s hands have stayed north of my armpits? Really? What if I lean back, like I’m really into it--oh God, that feels nice. So nice--

“Hey, you want a brownie? I want to try those brownies,” he said. “I’ll get them.” He shifted her back into her chair. “You have vanilla ice cream? I know a trick. You love espresso, right? Where do you keep the espresso?”

“Yeah? It’s um, the cabinet above the machine,” Darcy said. You asshat. What are you doing to my brownies?

“Oh, honey. Starbucks espresso?” Brock said, looking over his shoulder at her.

“What’s wrong with Starbucks espresso?” Darcy said. He shook his head.

“Do you know about affogato? ” he said.

“No,” Darcy said.

“Espresso and sometimes liqueur served over vanilla ice cream,” he said. “I had it in Venice first.”

“You’ve been to Venice?” Darcy said enviously.

“Yeah, I went, uh, last year. Did the whole tourist bit with my hazard pay.”

“Had bellinis in Harry’s bar?” she said. He nodded, his back to her. She could see the intricate tattoos on the backs of his forearms as he moved around the kitchen, getting out ice cream and espresso. He’d pushed up the sleeves of his--dear God, she couldn’t believe he was wearing it--purple sweater, so she could see his tanned arms. He’d mentioned getting the tattoos in Thailand over dinner. He liked traveling.

“You’ve been to Venice?” he asked.

“No, I’ve always wanted to,” she said. “But there are no observatories in Venice.” Darcy sighed.

“You gotta go before it gets swallowed up by the sea,” he joked, tapping and leveling the espresso grounds.

“Yeah,” Darcy said wistfully. She’d wanted Ian to take her, but he hadn’t been interested. He’d preferred skiing and hiking to gondolas and museums in palazzos.

“I’m serious,” Brock said, turning and waving a finger at her. “You can’t put this stuff off with global warming, sweetheart.”

 

To her dismay, affogato went really well alongside sea salt caramel brownies, though Brock insisted there were better espressos. “I’ve got to get you into a nicer espresso, it’ll change your life,” he said, as she ate ice cream and amaretto and brownie all in one spoon. It was heavenly. “I had to put a lot of amaretto in, just to smooth out the Charbucks situation.”

“Starbucks isn’t bad. I love Starbucks,” she insisted, midway through dessert. He put down his spoon and looked at her. Yes! I’ve annoyed him! Should I cry again if he gets irritated? I sho--

“You’re just so damn pretty,” he said, his face breaking into a smile.

“What?” Darcy said, stunned. Why are you so unflappable, dagnabbit?

“It’s even cute when you lick the spoon. You want more amaretto on that?” he offered.

“Shut up, I see you trying to win the Starbucks argument by subterfuge and distraction,” she said. Darcy was frustrated.

“This is an argument?” He gestured with his hands, palms flat, shrugging. “Baby, I can tell you aren’t Italian,” he said wryly. “Here, have some more amaretto on that.” He poured it over her partially-eaten ice cream and brownie. Generously.

“Are you trying to get me drunk again?” Darcy said.

“No, I would never do that,” he said, grinning. “I’m a well-behaved boy.”

“Sure you are,” Darcy said.

“Did you want me not to be?” he asked.

 

They were too distracted to hear Steve and Sharon come back from the movie. Steve cleared his throat. “Should I be leaving you two unchaperoned?” he said. Darcy looked up from underneath Brock. They’d been kissing on the couch.  Steve’s eyes twinkled at he looked at them.

“Hey, Cap,” Brock said, not making eye contact. He was doing a sort of half-look over his shoulder and looking like he’d been caught. Which, to be fair, yes, he had. He was totally on top of her.  

“You know, for people trying to go slow, I don’t see feet on the floor here, kids?” Steve asked.

“Me, neither,” Sharon said.

“Maybe that should be a new house rule?” Steve said.

“Steve, we’re not teenagers,” Darcy grumbled. She tried to move her hands subtly as Steve turned around and surveyed the dinner table.

“I see your hands under his shirt, Darce,” Steve said. “Are these brownies for everybody?”

“Yes,” Darcy said.

“I’ll get the dishes, Cap,” Brock said, sighing.

“I think that seems appropriate,” Steve said, eating a brownie straight out of the pan. Sharon was smirking at them.

“Mr. and Miss Take-It-Slow,” she said.

 

Once they’d washed the dishes together--while Steve and Sharon ate brownies--Darcy walked Brock out. She’d hardly shut the door before Brock pressed her up against the wall in the hallway and kissed her. “Broooooock,” she whined. “We shouldn’t.”

“Is it more exciting for you because we’re not supposed to?” he asked, his mouth close to her ear. “I’m so turned on right now. I feel about fifteen.”

“Seriously?” Darcy said, giggling as his stubble brushed her neck.

“Ahem,” a voice said. They turned. Natasha was standing in the hall. “Steve wanted me to give you a ride home. He’s seen the amaretto bottle, Rumlow.”  She held out a cell phone. “He’d like to discuss his new drunk driving PSA with you now.”

“Great,” Brock said, shifting back into professional mode with a slight flinch. “I’ll call you,” he told Darcy, taking the phone from Natasha and turning to go downstairs. “Hey, Cap,” Brock said. “Uh-huh. I understand--”

“Fun evening?” Natasha said. She crooked an eyebrow at Darcy.

“Ummmm, no comment,” Darcy whispered.

 

She walked back into the apartment. Steve was sitting next to Sharon on the couch. “All part of your plan, huh, Darce?” he said, as soon as she’d shut the door.

“Shut up, Captain,” Darcy said. “I won’t be sassed by the likes of you. I know you didn’t do no drunk driving PSA.”

“Yes, but Brock doesn’t,” Steve said.

“How could he know, he’s only fifteen,” Sharon said.

“Oh God, the bat ears!” Darcy said in horror. Steve roared with laughter. He laughed so hard, he actually clapped his own chest. Darcy had to leave the room. It was too embarrassing.

 

***

 

Date Six

 

“Can we go to Starbucks?” Darcy asked. He’d called her and picked her up early on Saturday. All she’d had time to do was shower and get dressed. Her head hurt.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” Brock said.

“But I need coffee,” Darcy said. “Steve spent the night with Sharon and he’s only a little bit quieter than Thor. They kept me awake. All night long Sharon’s headboard was all thunk-thunk-thunk. I’m exhausted.”

“You could always crash at my place?” he said.

“Like that’s not a transparent ploy for sex?” Darcy said sourly. Steve and Sharon had been boffing all night; it wasn’t a lie. They tried to be discreet, but Darcy had had a sleepless night and now a painful headache. Also, major PMS.

“Isn’t that what you’re missing?” Brock asked.

“What?” Darcy said.

“Sex. You miss it, right?” Brock asked.

“No,” Darcy said.

“You seem a little jealous is all,” he said.

“I am not!” Darcy said.

“Okay,” he said, “if you say so.” He was smiling.

“I’m not jealous,” she insisted.

“Sure.”

“Bite me,” Darcy said. “I hate your face sometimes.”

“Why?” he asked.

“You’re so smug, you know everything, you’re a famous SHIELD agent, you run the most badass STRIKE unit, blah blah blah. You’ve been to Venice, you jump out of planes, you have five percent body fat, your life is so much cooler than everyone else,” Darcy said. She was ranting. Just a smidge. He looked at her and raised an eyebrow quizzically. That only made Darcy more irritated. “Hi, I’m Brock, my hair is perfect, my bone structure is perfect, my abs are perfect, I’m always tan!” she said bitterly.

“Yeah, you’re not struggling with abstinence at all,” he said dryly.

“Screw you,” Darcy hissed. “Take me home, I don’t wanna be on this date anymore!”

“All right,” he said, “I just want the record to show that you’re mad because I’m too attractive.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Okay,” he said.

“No, no, you know what? I want the record to show that I’d rather let Ivan Vanko touch my boobs than have sex with you right now,” Darcy said.

“That’s an interesting kink. With or without the whips?” Brock said.

“Just take me home, okay?” she said. She was going to cry for real. He was quiet for a second, then turned the car around. She was crying a little when he turned into an unfamiliar parking lot.

“This isn’t my apartment,” Darcy said, beginning to really sob. It was the effort of talking that sent her over the edge. She was a noisy, ugly crier, too.

“I know. You need a nap in a quiet place,” he said, getting out of the car. “You need me to carry you?” he asked.

“No,” she said. He took her upstairs. It was his apartment.

“C’mon, I’ll tuck you in and see if we can reschedule our thing,” Brock told her.

“What thing?” Darcy sniffled.

“It’s a surprise,” he said.

 

She took her shoes off, crawled into his bed, and listened to him make a call. Whoever it was said they could reschedule for four that afternoon. Brock came into the bedroom, slipped his shoes off, and slid in next to her. She was drifting off when he spoke.

“Vanko, huh? You like tattoos and bad boys, sweetheart. You got a type.”

“Phhft,” Darcy said.

“He wasn’t bad looking when he was younger. Lemme get my phone—”

“Shhhh.” Darcy was so sleepy. He held his phone in front of her face and she opened her eyes slowly.

“See?” he said.

“Holy shit, Brock.”

“You better dream ‘bout me, though.”

“Shut up,” Darcy murmured.



***

 

Date Six (The Redo)

 

“Whole Foods?” Darcy said that afternoon. He’d turned into a parking lot. “You’re taking me grocery shopping?” she asked. She’d woken up in a much better mood. He’d been cuddling her, which wasn’t terrible, then he’d made her coffee and toast and not laughed at the pillow marks on her face.

“I told you it was a surprise,” he said. “C’mon.” He was grinning. They went to the back of the store.

“Can we get cheese and wine? I love cheese and wine,” Darcy said. She was wondering how to make a scene at a fancy grocery store.

“Of course, baby,” he said. “But first we have a class.”

“A class?” she said. “But Broooooock, I don’t want to study! Why can’t we get wine and cheese? I want wine and cheese. Baby, pleeeeeease?” she half-whined, half-pleaded. People near the cheese counter turned to stare at her.

“Uh-huh, sweetheart,” he said. “Class first.” Darcy pouted.

“You’re so mean!” Darcy said.

“You’re crazy about me,” he said, stroking her back.

“Yeah, right,” Darcy said sarcastically. She amplified the pouting. Brock merely grinned in response.

“I’ll get you cheese after,” he promised.

“All the cheese I want?” she asked.

“Yes, all the cheese,” he said. “We’re gonna be late for class,” he told her.

 

It turned out to be a forty minute workshop on espresso varieties. The teacher was very serious. He didn’t appreciate Darcy’s “I like a rich coffee” jokes and her whining about samples during his presentation about acidity and balance, but Brock didn’t shush her, either. He kept one hand on her thigh, even while they were tasting coffees. His hands were very warm. “Finally!” Darcy said, when they passed out samples. Darcy slurped loudly.

“You should taste caramel notes,” the instructor said.

“Do you taste that?” Darcy whispered to Brock. The instructor had been giving her a death glare for talking too loudly and too much.

“Only when I kiss you, baby,” he said. Darcy almost spit out her espresso. She’d been behaving like a spoiled child all day. What was wrong with him? He wanted to hold her hand after espresso class. Darcy was oddly irritated again. Just give up, okay? she wanted to mutter.  Purely to be extra vindictive, she picked out a bunch of really nice cheese. Was he so competitive that he’d spend sixty bucks on cheddar and her favorite soft Délice de Bourgogne and Saint-André cheeses? She looked at him when she put the cheese on the counter and raised an eyebrow. She wanted him to balk. He studied all the cheese and tilted his head. “Can you hold these for us while we get some wine and bread?” he asked the cheese expert guy.

“Yeah, of course,” Cheese Guy said. Darcy wanted to scream.

“Now, I don’t know about cheese and bread, but I got opinions about wine, baby,” Brock told Darcy, leading her to the wine section.

“What kind of opinions?” Darcy said. She would ask for rosé. He probably would hate that. Didn’t men hate pink wine? “Ooooh, rosé! I love rosé!” she said brightly.

“Oh, yeah. Me, too,” he said. Damn it, Darcy thought. “You want to car picnic with me?” he asked.

“Car picnic?” she said.

“It’s like tailgating with less drunks,” he supplied.

“Oh,” she said.

 

That was how they ended up drinking wine out of plastic cups and eating bread and cheese in the back of the SUV. He’d taken her to a park, but she didn’t have to sit in the grass or get dirty. She couldn’t think of anything to complain about. It was weirdly peaceful. “What about your one-drink max?” she said to him, suddenly getting an idea for a fight. He was on his second tiny plastic cup of pink wine.

“This is it, baby,” he said, replacing the screw cap on the wine. “C’mere?”

“Nope,” she said, scooting away.

“Why?” he said.

“We’ve already had enough physical togetherness for one day,” Darcy insisted. “You’re rushing me again. Always rushing me.”

“I’m rushing you?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Since when?” he said.

“Hello, forever,” Darcy said. “Baby, have a margarita, have some more amaretto, you make me feel fifteen, let’s have a car picnic,” she said, doing a purposefully dopey voice male. “I’m waiting for you to be all, ‘just the tip,’ or something,” she said.

“Hey,” he said. “What’s gotten into you? You’re in a mood today.”

“I’m in a mood lots of days,” she said.

“That’s no reason to be mean to me,” he said wryly. Darcy scoffed.

“Please,” she said.

“What will our hypothetical daughters say if they hear you being so mean to Daddy?”

“Nothing, they’re imaginary,” Darcy said. “Besides, I gave the names to Thor and Jane, they’re going to be princesses on Asgard now,” she said.

“You gave away Sophie and Mira?” he said. “Why?”

“I didn’t want them anymore, they got on my nerves, they were too prissy,” she said. “And Jane and Thor would be cool parents to Sofia and Mirabella.”

“But they were ours,” he said. “Our names.”

“You can’t own a name,” Darcy said.

“Sure you can,” he said.

“Nope. I gave Saffron to Cameron Klein last week.”

“Klein’s going to have a Saffron? Is somebody pregnant?” Brock asked.

“No, but Cameron’s my friend and he liked the name--”

“Cameron’s your friend?” he said.

“My good friend,” Darcy said.

“I didn’t know you knew each other,” Brock said.

“Oh, yeah, he’s over at the apartment all the time. He and Sharon are like cousins, they’re so close. Cameron’s great. I love Cameron,” Darcy said.

“Oh, so he’s the best and I’m the worst this week, huh?” Brock said. Darcy heard a flash of jealousy in his voice.

“I didn’t say it like that, we’re just friends,” she said, stressing the just. “There’s no reason to be threatened, babe. I had no idea you were that insecure.”

“I’m not insecure. Why are you being so moody?” he asked.

“This is who I am today, I’m not always so nice and lovey-dovey all the time . I’m not a robot or a phone app,” Darcy said. “I’m a person with emotions.”

“Yeah, I got that,” he said coolly.

“You should try having emotions beyond sarcastic or horny sometime,” she shot back. He gave her a long, dark look, then blinked slowly. He sighed. Darcy had to repress a smile of delight. This is it! He’s going to ditch me and tell all of Alpha that I’m super-difficult. Succ--

“Sweetheart, I don’t want to fight,” he said.

Shit, Darcy thought .

“I’ve got a little present for you, you’ve been buying me all this stuff and, uh, I don’t want you to feel like I don’t appreciate--” he began.

“Yeah, I noticed you’re not wearing any of my gifts today,” Darcy said. “I know what that means. You don’t really like them, you just feel obligated. There are plenty of guys who would really---”

“Stop,” he said. “Don’t say anything you’ll regret later because you’re sleep-deprived and grumpy, okay?” He’d pulled her into his lap. “I’ve got a gift for you, but first I think we should take a nap again. Sleep deprivation is a pain in the ass and it makes people do things they regret.”

“Oh, so you want to go back to your place?” she said sharply.

“No, we can rest here.”

“In the back of your vehicle?” Darcy said.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’ve got blankets, you can use my jacket as a pillow. We’ll talk. Maybe I’ll let you open your present.”

“If present is code for penis, you can keep it,” she said sourly.

“How much do you think about my penis, exactly?” he said laughing.

 

***

“So,” Sharon asked, when Darcy came back, “how was your date with Rumlow? You run him off yet?”

“We had a huge fight this morning, but he refused to take me home like a sane person and ditch me.” She sighed. “He took me to his apartment and we napped.”

“Napped?” Sharon looked disbelieving.

“Without sex. Then we sampled espressos at a Whole Foods and he bought me $65 worth of cheese and then we had a car picnic and another fight and another nap. And he surprised me with an alpaca plush,” Darcy said. She sat down and stared at the plush toy. It had rainbow patterned-hair. “I don’t understand. Sharon, what am I doing wrong? Why won’t he break up with me?”

“You should probably stop kissing him?” Sharon offered.

“Yeah,” Darcy said.

“Did you kiss him today?” Sharon asked.

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “I got excited about the alpaca plush. I love rainbow stuff.”


Chapter Text

Jack was walking through the parking garage in the morning when he spotted Brock putting his giant teddy bear in the back of his SUV. “You taking him on holiday?” Jack asked. Brock tilted his head and looked speculatively at the huge stuffed animal.

“Hmm? I’m wondering how I’ll see to drive,” he said.

“What are you doing, mate?” Jack said.

“Darcy wants me to take Teddy home. She’s worried he’ll get stolen or be lonely,” Brock said.

“No, I mean--,” Jack said. He stopped, shored himself up, and said what had been on his mind for weeks. “Darcy’s not your usual kind of sheila at all, so why are you pretending to find her mad antics endearing, huh? Are you trying to compete with Smith? Win a dumb bet?” Jack said.

“No, no. This isn’t about a bet. We’re having a good time,” Brock said.

“Sure, mate,” Jack said dubiously. He did not believe Brock for a second. He suspected Brock still wanted to win somehow. Brock was insanely competitive. He was so competitive, he hated to admit to being competitive.

“I wonder if I could hide guns in this?” Brock asked Jack. He looked at the stitching on the bear.

“Hide guns in the bear?” Jack asked. His commander nodded.

“Nobody’d look in a bear,” Brock said.

“Nope,” Jack said. “Do anything fun this weekend?”

“We took an espresso class at Whole Foods,” Brock said.

“Oh, yeah?” Jack said.

“It was fun. We’re probably going to see a couples’ therapist, though,” Brock said, locking the car.

“Uh-huh,” Jack said. He raised an eyebrow at Brock. “So, you see it?”

“What? See what?” Brock said.

“That Darcy’s been acting, well, not normal lately?” Jack said, as they crossed the parking garage.

“What’s that supposed to fucking mean?” Brock said.

“Well, she used to be a very fun, chill sort of sheila and now she’s, um--” Jack began, then paused. He swallowed. Brock gave him a dark look.

“What?” Brock said.

“She seems a little erratic since you got together? Not like herself?” Jack said.

“This no sex for six months thing is throwing her for a loop, causing her stress. She’s naturally not like that,” Brock said. “She jumped into things with that British dude, now she’s trying something radical, but it’s not so bad. I can deal with it.” He hit the elevator button with a sharp tap.

“That so?” Jack said. He kept his voice careful.

“Yeah, why couldn’t I?” Brock said.

“I dunno. I thought you’d be upset that she had somebody put a Darcy Loves Brock slide into Maria Hill’s presentation the other day?” Jack said.

“Nah,” Brock said. He made an airy gesture with his hand.

“Doesn’t bother you?” Jack said.

“It was fine,” Brock said.

“Uh-huh,” Jack said.

“For us, this is pretty normal,” Brock insisted, as they walked inside. Jack looked at him incredulously. “I cleaned Chitauri petri dish goop off my gun last week, anything’s possible,” Brock said. Jack shook his head.

“That lab was insane. Insane. Who tries to splice Chitauri tissue with ficus plants?” Jack said.

“Fucking terrorist morons, that’s who,” Brock said, rubbing his jaw. “Let’s weaponize office plants, that’ll work out fine!” They rode the elevator upstairs. It was quiet in the garage’s service elevator. Just the ding-ding as they passed several floors.

“You’re really not having sex?” Jack asked dryly.

“I’m honoring the six-month rule,” Brock said stubbornly. “I’m not saying it’s not difficult, but I can do it. She’s a great cook, though. You gotta help me eat some of these brownies. She makes ‘em everyday.”

“The sea salt caramel ones?” Jack said hopefully. Those were his favorites of the brownies that Darcy was always sending Brock.

“No, these have some sort of candy in ‘em? Shit, what’s it called? You know I don’t eat candy--” Brock said.

“M&Ms?” Jack said.

“No.”

“Reese’s?”

“No.”

“Cherry Ripes?”

“Is that a real fucking thing?” Brock asked.

“Cherries and coconut. It’s Australian?” Jack said.

“That sounds disgusting, pal.”

“It’s probably an American candy like Twix, innit?” Jack said.

“It ain’t fucking Cherry Ripes,” Brock said.

 

When they got to Brock’s office, Jack looked at the Rubbermaid container of brownies. He laughed. “What?” Brock said.

“Mate, these are Oreos in here,” Jack said. “That’s a bis--a cookie, not a candy.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, whatever. Have some,” Brock said.



***

“How can I be more of a Man Repeller?” Darcy said to Jane, Natasha, and Sharon. They were having a girls’ night in the apartment. Brock, Thor, and Steve were off taking a parkour class with Cap’s guy. Darcy was glad to have a break. She was a little tired of being a pain in the ass.

“A man repeller?” Sharon said.

“It’s a jokey feminist fashion website,” Jane said.

“Interesting,” Natasha said.

“I’m exhausted. It’s really difficult to create drama all the time. Drama queens must have more energy than me,” Darcy said, looking at her chardonnay. She got a notebook off the coffee table. “I need help!” she said.

“Your plan is not working?” Natasha said.

“No. I’ve whined, I’ve insulted, I’ve behaved like a jerk, I’ve cost him money in cheese, and nothing moves the needle. He’s so stubborn. What is wrong with him?”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with you making out with him,” Jane said. “I caught them in my supply closet yesterday.” She looked at Sharon.

“Steve and I caught them rolling around on the couch the other night,” Sharon said to Jane.

“Ah,” Natasha said. Jane and Sharon giggled.

“We weren’t rolling around,” Darcy objected. “And I was just giving him more brownies, he started the kissing in the supply closet.”

“Sure,” Jane said. “That’s why Jennifer caught you in the archives, too?”

“You were making out in the archives?” Sharon said, laughing.

“He found me down there when I was bringing Jennifer some brownies. We were just talking,” Darcy insisted.

“Jen said you were French kissing in the stacks,” Jane pointed out.

“He wanted to, I wouldn’t. I don’t understand why he’s stayed so skinny. I bake every single day!” Darcy said.

“He shares them with the STRIKE guys, I caught Jack eating some the other day,” Natasha said.

“Damn it,” Darcy said.

“Steve ate half a tray of those white chocolate chip and marshmallow ones, he loved them,” Sharon said.

“Ugghhhh. Okay, I have to do something. I don’t want to cut my hair, what else can I do? He’s got a training thing happening soon, so I have time to scheme. Help me scheme!” Darcy said. Her lob haircut was finally brushing her shoulders again. She’d missed having longer hair and didn’t want to get a bad haircut on purpose.

“Stop shaving your legs?” Jane suggested. Darcy nodded and wrote it down.

“What if I smelled bad?” Darcy said.

“Like garlic?” Jane said. Darcy shook her head.

“Brock loves garlic,” she told the other women. He’d told her that when she made him scampi.

“What if you wore lots of perfume?” Jane said.

“He likes my perfume, he says it’s great,” Darcy said, sighing. She used softly-scented vanilla stuff--Coty Vanilla Musk, Bath & Body Works’ Warm Vanilla Sugar and Vanilla Bean Noel, Outremer Vanille--nothing strong. She liked smelling like pound cake.

“What perfumes do men hate?” Sharon wondered.

“I’m going to Google,” Darcy said.

“You could wear lots of makeup?” Jane suggested. Darcy wrote that down.

“I think you should cry in public,” Natasha said. “Crying makes people uncomfortable.”

“He doesn’t seem to mind when I PMS cry,” Darcy grumbled. Still, she wrote down Cry more? on her list.




***

February

Number of Days STRIKE Alpha was in DC: 3 days

Number of Dates: 1

 

“All the other girls are being taken out and I’m just going to be here alone!” Darcy whined into her phone. “I can’t believe our first Valentine’s is going to be ruined.”

“I’m sorry I can’t be there for Valentine’s Day, baby,” Brock told her. “Really sorry, okay?” He was off on a week-long mission and then was leaving immediately for a two-week training seminar for all the STRIKE commanders. The middle of it was overlapping with holiday. The Avengers were exempt because it was designed for the supervisory and management-oriented commanders, so Darcy was literally the only one going to be dateless on the fourteenth: Thor and Jane were going to a spa, Steve and Sharon had reservations at a fancy restaurant, and Natasha was driving to New York to spend time with Bruce.

“We’ve only seen each other once this month and that was a group movie,” Darcy complained.

“Honey, that’s not true. I take you to lunch whenever I can, we see other every day at work when I’m in town,” Brock said. He was trying to sound soothing, she realized.

“Having lunch in the cafeteria and trying to grope me in the supply closet doesn’t count as making an effort, Brock,” she scolded. “You had to cancel our date and our first therapy appointment for this mission, too. We won’t see each other until the twenty-third. The twenty-third!”

Sharon came into the living room, grinning, at the sound of Darcy’s high-pitched whine. She held up a note: mention parkour and guys’ night?

“You know I have to travel for work,” he said. She heard him sigh. “Sweetheart, I know this is difficult—”

“I notice you can make it for parkour and guys’ night!” Darcy said, cutting him off. Sharon did a thumbs up.

“Darcy,” Brock said, sounding frustrated, “this is my job.”

“I have to go, I’m going to be late for my job,” Darcy said. She hung up abruptly.

“Whoa,” Sharon said. “I think you just broke up with him?”

“I hope he loses interest. I don’t know what else to do? I’m going to stop shaving while he’s gone and Jane and I are going to go look for stinky perfumes tonight. I’m thinking patchouli or maybe one of those Demeters that smells like Turpentine or Gasoline? You can come if you want?” Darcy said. “I don’t get it. Why has he not fled? I’ve been so much nicer to men and they’ve run like I have the freaking plague?”

“He’s the most successful STRIKE commander in fifteen years, he’s crazy competitive,” Sharon said.

“Yeah,” Darcy said glumly.

 

***

“I think you should just have sex with him, that will end things,” Natasha said later.

“Absolutely not,” Darcy said.

“Why not? He’s attractive,” Jen said.

“No,” Darcy said firmly. “I’ve come this far, I’ve got to finish this.” The five of them--Jane, Darcy, Natasha, Jen, and Sharon--were perusing the perfume shelves at Ulta. Darcy had fallen hard for Viktor & Rolf’s BonBon, but it was actually good. And ninety dollars.

“What about a men’s cologne?” Jane said.

“Ugh, nuclear waste,” Sharon said, waving away the scent strip in Jane’s hand.

“Ditto,” Darcy said. “I won’t be able to stand myself. I want this to be obnoxious, but like I want him to feel obligated to like it. He won’t feel obligated with man smell. I’m going to buy the reddest lipstick, though,” Darcy said. She didn’t mind that. She loved lipstick. “Where can I find cheaper perfumes and lipstick?”

“Marshall’s?” Sharon suggested.

“Walgreens?” Jen said.

“Bath and Body Works?” Jane said.

“Let’s go to all of them,” Darcy said.

 

Darcy finally decided on an obnoxious perfume at the drugstore. They had a row of fragrance mists. “Britney Spears’ Fantasy?” Jane said, picking up the fragrance mist in Darcy’s shopping cart. Those were cheap and she could load them on whenever he came back. Assuming he came back. She’d been dodging his calls and responding diffidently to his texts. She would respond once to every four or so and usually with brief answers.

“Yep, in theory I should like this because of the cupcake note, but it’s all loud kiwi fruit on me,” Darcy said. “I wonder if it smells better on other people? But it’s less than $10. Cheap thrills. I’m going to get some candy and one of these powdery ones, too. I read an article that said men associate florals and powdery scents with their grandmothers. What do you think? Britney’s Curious or Fiori by Vince Camuto?” Darcy asked.

“Curious,” Jane said. Sharon nodded.

“Definitely Curious,” she said.

“Oh my God, you could blend them and be clubbing grandma,” Jen said, laughing. Just then, Darcy heard her phone text notification sound again. She looked at it. Three texts from Brock. She responded. Brock texted her back immediately. Darcy told him they could talk later.

 

Cmdr. B. Rumlow, STRIKE Alpha: Sweetheart, will you call me?

Cmdr. B. Rumlow, STRIKE Alpha: Call me.

Cmdr. B. Rumlow, STRIKE Alpha: Are you ghosting on me?

World’s Okayest Assistant:  I’m just busy.

Cmdr. B. Rumlow, STRIKE Alpha: I want to talk.

World’s Okayest Assistant: Later, I’m not at home. Out with the girls.

Cmdr. B. Rumlow, STRIKE Alpha: Okay, just call me tonight, please?

 

Instead of going home, she got dinner with everyone else. They met the guys and Cameron Klein--Darcy was trying to set up Jen and Cam--at a pizza place. She posed for selfies with Thor and Jane in the brightest red lipstick she could find. She didn’t call Brock when she got home, either. Instead, they played phone tag for the rest of the week. She purposefully sent texts and then left her phone in the lab while she got coffee, so Jane would answer it and say she was gone.

 

***

 

For Valentine’s Day, everyone left work in the early afternoon. Darcy would have felt a little sad being alone, but Cameron and Jen had hit it off, so Cameron asked her to help him make cupcakes as a surprise for the archivist. Jen was making him dinner and he’d spontaneously volunteered to do dessert. They went to Darcy and Sharon’s that afternoon. He’d never baked before, so Cameron was adorably terrified. They were unwrapping caramels to put in the chocolate cupcake batter when Darcy’s phone rang. “Hello?” she said. It was about five o’ clock. She had already spooned in the batter into the paper liners.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Brock said. “I was just calling to wish you a happy Valentine’s Da--”

“Darcy, do I half the caramels or put in a whole one in each cupcake?” Cameron asked.

“Do a whole one,” she said. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Brock,” she told him.

“What’s going on?” Brock asked.

“Cameron and I are making chocolate cupcakes with caramels inside,” Darcy said. “Do you want cream cheese for the frosting or whipped cream?” she asked Cameron.

“I don’t know!” he said, laughing.

“We could do amaretto whipped cream and caramel? Cameron’s never baked before,” Darcy explained to Brock. There was silence on the phone. For a minute, she thought the call had been dropped. “Brock?”

“Yeah?” he said.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Darcy said.

“No,” he said. “Darcy---” he began.

“Yeah?” she said, getting cream out of the fridge. She was distracted by watching Cameron flailing cutely around and giggled. “Cameron, are you okay?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, trying to poke caramels into the cupcake batter dubiously.

“Are you leaving me?” Brock asked abruptly. His voice was so low that Darcy thought she misheard him.

“Huh?” Darcy said. She set the cream down and hit the speakerphone button. “What?”

“You’re leaving me for Klein?” he repeated. Cameron looked up, horrified. He started waving his arms in the universal sign for no no no.

“What?” she said. She started to laugh at Cameron. “We’re making cupcakes for his date tonight! He has a date with Jennifer from the archives.”

“Oh,” Brock said. “Shit.”

“Or I did have a date, but I think I’m dead now,” Cameron said.  At Cameron’s expression, she started laughing. “It’s not that funny, Darce,” Cameron said. “Please don’t shoot me, Rumlow.”

“He was panicking,” Darcy said to Brock.

“I’m not shooting anyone,” Brock said flatly.

“You don’t even need a gun! Your voice scared Cameron to death. He’s keeled over in my kitchen and now I’ll have to move the body. I’m not designed to hide bodies, I’m not Natasha,” Darcy said, mock-affronted. In response, Cameron lay on the kitchen floor and pretended to play dead. She giggled.

“I’m sorry,” Brock said. Darcy realized he sounded glum. “I’ll let you get back to those cupcakes,” he said. He’d hung up before Darcy could respond.

“Whoa,” Cameron said. “That was snippy. Or moody? You think you’re finally close?” He made to get up.

“Maybe?” Darcy said brightly. “No, stay there so I can take a photo first,” Darcy said. She snapped a few as he played dead. Then she posted them to Instagram with the hashtags #bakingfails #nailedit #palentinesday, because Cameron was her pal.

 

They were cleaning up when her doorbell rang. Darcy went to the door. It was a delivery guy. Brock had sent her flowers. “That’s fancy,” Cameron said, looking at the red roses and purple blooms. They were in an envelope-inspired box. It was a white box, edged in black, that resembled something like Chanel. Very swish.

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “Damn it.”

“He probably sent those before he hung up on you,” Cameron supplied.

“Good point,” Darcy said, giggling. “He was so bent out of shape! Cameron!”

“What?” he said.

“Do you realize that you are the thing that really bothers him? Out of all the crazy shit I’ve done, he only gets upset when I mention having fun with you. You’re a STRIKE Commander’s personal kryptonite!” Darcy said. She was excited. “He’s so jelly!”

“Oh God,” Cameron said, “he’s gonna shoot me.”

“Phfft, he won’t,” Darcy said.

 

***

She was totally alone that night--Steve and Sharon weren’t home, Darcy assumed they’d gone to Steve’s, bless them--when her phone rang. “Hello?” she said sleepily. She looked at her phone. It was 2am.

“Why the fuck are--are you doin’ this to me?” a voice slurred.

“Brock?” Darcy said, sitting up in surprise.

“Fuck,” he muttered.

“Are you drunk?” Darcy said.

“S’not like I wanna be gone,” he said, “it’s fucking work, baby, my goddamn job--I see him, that little asshole,” he muttered. “Soon as I’m gone, he’s all over--all over you.”

“What?” Darcy said. “Who?”

“Klein, fucking Klein,” he said.

“You are drunk,” Darcy said. She’d never seen him really wasted before. He sounded maudlin.

“You don’t see it. You think he’s so nice . He likes your friend! Bullshit. I know. I know. The minute my back’s turned--” he muttered. She heard him hiccup.

“Are you alone?” she said. “Where are you?”

“My h-hotel room,” he slurred.

“How much have you been drinking?” she asked sternly.

“I don’t fucking know. What are you, my fucking mother?” he said sourly. There was a long silence. Darcy would have thought he’d hung up, but she could almost feel his resentment through the phone. All seething.

“Are you there?” she said.

“No,” he said moodily.

“Okay,” she said. “If no one’s there, I’m hanging up.” She had a number for another of the STRIKE commanders. She could text him to check on Brock. There was a long silence.

“I don’t wanna break up,” he muttered.

“You don’t?” she said.

“You got this stupid sex rule for me, but you’ll make fucking cupcakes with anybody,” he said sourly.

“You realize they’re actual cupcakes, right?” Darcy said. “Not a euphemism for sexual favors. I didn’t do anything with Cameron.”

“Goddammit, you know what I mean,” he said. She heard him sigh heavily. “You were having fun with him.”

“You resent me having fun?” she said.

“I sent you flowers,” he said. “Nice ones.” He sounded bitter. “You didn’t even mention ‘em.”

“Yeah, because I got them after you hung up on me!” she said.

“Oh,” he said.

“They’re very pretty. The envelope is nice. Cameron was impressed,” Darcy said.

“Cameron was impressed,” he repeated. “Great. That’s--that’s who I wanted to impress. The skinny kid putting the moves on my girl.”

“He is not putting the moves on me,” Darcy insisted.

“Sure, sure.” He burped.

“Brock,” Darcy scolded.

“I know that move. I’ve done that move,” he said. “You just--just gotta cozy up to a girl, ask her what she’s not gettin’ in the relationship and give it to her. He’s away at work, she’s lonely, it’s even easier. You just hang around, get her a little wasted, tell her how you feel. Bam, you’re her man now,” he said bitterly.

“You’re talking crazy,” Darcy told him.

“You hurt me. Why do you hurt me?” he said morosely. “I’m trying so hard.”

“Brock,” Darcy said, unsure of what to say. There was silence on the phone. “Brock?” she repeated. “Hello?" A few seconds later, the call ended. She texted his coworker to check on him. The STRIKE Charlie commander texted back that he was okay and that he’d watch Brock for any puking. Darcy didn’t want him to asphyxiate and die or something. Darcy tried texting Brock, but he didn’t reply. Eventually, she tried to go back to sleep. But she couldn’t. The ceiling seemed especially mocking. The apartment was too quiet.

 

“My life is so weird,” Darcy told the rainbow alpaca. She'd named him Milkshake.

Chapter Text

“I guess it’s time to put the prosecco in the fridge,” Darcy told Jane in the am via cell phone. They’d been keeping a bottle at Jane and Thor’s to celebrate Darcy and Brock’s breaking up. “He hasn’t responded to any of my texts. I think I’m a single girl again. Maybe.” She had texted him a simple are you breaking up with me? circa 6am and gotten crickets in response. It was eight-forty-three now and Brock was a morning person.

“Are you happy?” Jane asked. She and Thor were coming back to work via Mew-Mew. They’d had a great spa day.

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “I guess?” She’d expected to feel--happier? Instead, she felt weirdly tired. It must be the sleepless night, fretting that she’d given Brock acute alcohol poisoning or somesuch. She hadn’t wanted to physically hurt the man, just run him off. And she hadn’t even intended cupcakes with Cameron to be upsetting! It was ridiculous. Everyone knew Cameron was her buddy.

“Okay. Don’t worry about getting in before nine-thirty, we’re running late,” Jane said.

“All righty,” Darcy said. She put on more lipstick. She patted Milkshake goodbye--she was keeping the alpaca plush, Brock or no Brock--because Milkshake was adorbs. Then she stopped at a Starbucks on the way into work solo. Everyone else--Jane, Natasha, Sharon, even Jen--had had a traditional Valentine’s Day and was either driving back into town or sex hungover, probably, so Darcy was driving herself instead of carpooling. She could listen to her weirdest music, she thought. That was one benefit of being totally alone. The baristas at the drive-thru looked at her funny while she listened to Joanna Newsom. Darcy shrugged it off. “Cosmia” was a good song. Feeling weirdly guilty, she switched her playlist to Lord Huron anyway.

 

She should feel peaceful, right? Relief. Darcy tried to feel relief as she drank her caramel macchiato at a stoplight. Maybe she could make a mental list of good things about not being in a fake relationship-slash-being alone? She thought of possibilities:

 

  1. Listen to your weirdest music
  2. No more 24/7 brownie baking
  3. Lose extra three pounds gained from near-constant presence of brownie batter.
  4. No more fake fights, whining, causing drama like it’s a part-time job
  5. Don’t have to go on a date anytime soon
  6. No more feeling inadequate because your fake boyfriend is gorgeous/fit/well-traveled and people are looking at you in your alpaca hat with little ear flaps like how this bitch caught him?
  7. No visit to that llama trek place Brock was talking about the other day
  8. No place to wear my kitschy new Britney Spears fragrance mists, just when I started to like them
  9. No more getting busted by Jane for kissing in the supply closet
  10. No more kissing in the supply closet

 

Darcy couldn’t get the relief to kick in like she thought it would. Brock didn’t text her, although she saw the text typing bubble pop up more than once and then freaking disappear .  “What is he doing?” Darcy muttered aloud, as she waited for the elevator.

“Hmm?” one of the logistics division agents said.

“Sorry, weird phone bubble thing is happening, but someone doesn’t ever hit send,” Darcy said.

“Don’t you just hate that?” the guy said

“So much,” Darcy said, nodding firmly. Something about all the happy couples in her work/life orbit, all coasting in on Valentine’s Day fumes of post-coital bliss made her feel a little sour, too. Thor had to be physically detached from Jane purely for feeding purposes and she spotted Sharon and Steve holding hands on floor twenty that afternoon. Jennifer had been sharing photos of Cameron’s cupcakes. I’m miserable, she realized. Why am I miserable?

“You okay?” Jane asked that afternoon. Darcy had been swearing at her keyboard’s delete key. “I thought you liked how Petey Deletey stuck. You said it gave your keyboard character like an old typewriter?” Jane said.

“Yeah,” Darcy said glumly. “I feel like I might be in a weird limbo with Asshat Brock, though?” She sighed. Her mood had been lower and lower all day, like air going out of a balloon.

“Oh, no,” Jane said. “You could end it?”

“How?” Darcy said. “I can’t. He has to--” because I might not want to.

“He won’t be back until the twenty-third right?” Jane said, looking suddenly smug and catlike.

“Yeah?” Darcy said.

“Start going on dates with other people,” Jane said.

“Jane--” She doesn’t know what I mean at all.

“No, listen,” Jane said, warming to her own idea. “That’ll really transmit that you’re done, right? We can make them fake dates, if you want?”

“More fake dates?” Darcy said. “Really?”

“I have an idea,” Jane said. “There’s a guy that Sharon knows, he’s back in town to debrief about Bucky.” She picked up the phone. “Sharon? This is Jane. Do you think Everett Ross would go out on a blind date with Darcy? Is he still single?”

“Jane,” Darcy said, but Jane waved her off. Darcy sighed. That night--having opened the bottle of prosecco and listened to a lot of very sad, moody Lana del Rey in her room like a teenager--she texted Brock one last time:

 

World’s Okayest Assistant: Talk to me? Please?

World’s Okayest Assistant: I’m so sorry about it all. I didn’t mean to hurt you.

 

He never replied. She might’ve cried a little. When she hadn’t heard from Brock by February 18th, she threw out her envelope of still-beautiful Valentine’s Day roses in an angry huff, changed her Facebook status back to single, and texted Jane. She was so furious at her own weakness, she blocked him on her phone, social media, and personal email, too. She regretted it the next day and unblocked him, but she knew it was over. He was over her crazy routine.

 

World’s Okayest Assistant: Set up the date with Ross, please.

HRH Queen Jane of Science! And Asgard: Already done. He’s taking you out tomorrow.

World’s Okayest Assistant: On a Tuesday?

HRH Queen Jane of Science! And Asgard: He has diplomatic things on weekends.

World’s Okayest Assistant: Really?

HRH Queen Jane of Science! And Asgard: He’s high-ranking-ish. I don’t set you up with schlubs.

HRH Queen Jane of Science! And Asgard: You’re welcome.

Agent Carter (No, The Other One): Ross was the Deputy Task Force Commander of the Joint Counterterrorism Center in Germany. Now he’s going to be doing the same job in DC, except as Task Force Commander. It’s a promotion because he didn’t screw up in Wakanda.

 

***

Blind Date: Everett Ross

 

“Where are you from?” Darcy asked, trying not to sound rude. There was something odd about Everett Ross’s accent. She had been trying to charm him and find him charming in turn; he had a bit of a Jon Stewart vibe, only also a British vibe--that dry sense of humor that beguiled and functioned as emotional armor simultaneously--which confused her. She’d gotten tricked by British guys like that before; the sense of humor made you think they really wanted to impress you, only it turned out that they were charming all the time and were actually shutting you out. She and Jane had nicknamed it Hugh Grant Syndrome.

“Well, I’m originally from Hampshire,” he said slyly. “But my stepfather was American, so we emigrated here and I’ve been trying to lose the accent ever since. Got the citizenship and the American college degree and the years in the Air Force, but I’ve never quite been able to sound like I’m from Cleveland,” he admitted.

“No,” Darcy said, smiling. “That explains it.”

“Explains what?” he asked.

“I lived in London for a while, you were giving me Hugh Grant vibes and I was confused,” she said to him.

“Oh,” he said. “Would you like to join me in a bookshop or perhaps stalk Renee Zellweger on our second date?”

“Hmmm,” Darcy said. “I feel like the first one, unless you don’t mind being a felon? I sort of think it might be a new and interesting experience?”

“Surely it’s a misdemeanor on first offense?” he said, sounding more British.

“Did you just spell that with a c in your head?” Darcy teased.

“Possibly,” he admitted.

 

They went to a bookshop and dinner on their second date later that week. Dating Ross was a lot like dating Ian, she realized with a pang of disappointment. Not unpleasant, but not terribly exciting. Darcy didn’t get it: if she’d made a list of desirable male qualities, Everett Ross would be it. He was kind, easy-going, a pescetarian, could talk about music for hours, and laughed at at all her jokes. He liked interesting suits, too, he told her. Mod style. He’d worn a maroon plaid three-piece that was excellent. They ended the evening hanging out with Steve and Sharon afterwards while Ross helped hook up their new mini stereo system in the apartment. He showed Darcy how to sync it with her phone. It was really nice of him. Then he and Steve got into a intense discussion about the political situation, SHIELD, and Wakanda. Darcy would have found it interesting normally, but she didn’t feel right. She followed Sharon into the kitchen. “He likes you,” Sharon said.

“You think so?” Darcy said, pouring more chardonnay.

“Absolutely. You’ve successfully rebounded with a pilot and you can discuss work with him, too,” Sharon said enthusiastically.

“Uh-huh,” Darcy said. But there were no fireworks. She didn’t even get the warm fuzzies she got when she watched Cameron struggle with making a carrot cake for Jen and wanted to say   awwwwww. Did it matter that Ross wasn’t a dessert person? That wasn’t a deal breaker, was it?

 

It must have been, because Darcy found herself declining a third date. “Was it the music or me fangirling over Captain Rogers or my height?” he asked dryly. They were in the hallway outside her apartment that night.

“No, I like all those things, but I’ve just been ghosted on by somebody else--” she began.

“Ah,” he said.

“Which I thought I would be okay with, really, but now it turns out there’s a STRIKE Commander I’d like to hit with a baseball bat a few times before I’m ready to date again,” Darcy supplied.

“I see,” he said. He took a few steps backwards, looking very snazzy in his plaids. “Which STRIKE Commander?” he asked, pausing at the stairs.

“Rumlow,” Darcy said, surprising herself by sounding pissed off.

“That so?” he said, grinning.

“What?” Darcy said.

“He’s not particularly tall,” Ross said wryly, “so I might have to believe you on it not being a height thing.”

“Everyone’s tall to me,” Darcy said, shrugging. “Doesn’t matter at all.”

“You have to admit I’m better dressed,” he said flirtatiously.

“Yes,” Darcy said. “Very much so.” He winked at her and departed.

 

“You don’t want to go out with Everett again? I like him,” Steve said, sounding sad, when she came back inside. Sharon gave him a look.

“Steve!” she said.

“No,” Darcy said glumly.

“Rumlow,” Steve said, shaking his head. He was doing his Disappointed Face. Then he brightened. “When you’re ready, I’ll set you up with Buck.”

“Thank you, Steve,” Darcy said. To her surprise, Sharon was nodding assiduously. She looked at Darcy, gestured with her hands and mouthed thighs for days, then mimed swooning. Steve caught her and laughed. “Buck’s real good with the ladies. Every woman but Peggy, really.”

“Really,” Sharon vouched.

***

Darcy was all mixed up. Turned around, she would have called it. She was half-terrified to run into STRIKE Alpha, half-longing. She’d have to see Brock at work. He’d be there, being all Italian and abs and good tattoos and, well, so him and he wouldn’t even speak to her. Asshole. Gorgeous, terrible, manipulative asshole. Why did she even want him? She’d spent all this time chasing him away, only to miss the space he left when he disappeared. Something’s wrong with me, I must’ve pretended to be crazy for long enough that I am crazy now, she thought. She went hunting for an answer to her the mystery of why she felt sad and bummed about him. The same weekend he was supposed to return, she discovered an article from the back archives of Oprah’s magazine that seemed to explain it all. “This Martha Beck woman is right, Jane,” she announced in the lab on Monday, “we do chase highs and elation and confuse them with happiness!”

“Huh?” Jane said, looking up.

“I’ve been reading this article called “How to Find Joy That Lasts.” True contentment is the little, quiet moments. Not brand new cars, diamonds, and crazy good sex, but people are chasing that endorphin high of new and exciting because they confuse it with happiness--” Darcy explained.

“Okay,” Jane said. “I get it, Darce.”

“What?” Darcy said.

“You got along fine with Everett Ross, but there’s no spark,” Jane said. “I talked to Sharon. You miss him.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re with a semi-literal fertility god,” Darcy said, going back to the article on her tablet. She’d read it so many times that she had the beagle anecdote memorized.

“You like Rumlow,” Jane said. It had dawned on Jane when Darcy had failed to jump on the chance to fly to Wakanda and land on the very cute Winter Soldier like a duck on a junebug. Old Darcy would’ve done that in a heartbeat.

“It doesn’t matter because he doesn’t like me,” Darcy said. “I’m just going to have to get over it without going on more awkward dates.” She picked up her phone and looked at it. No texts from Brock. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. She texted Cameron.

 

World’s Okayest Assistant: If I teach you to cook for Jen, can you use your access to help me not run into Brock?

Cameron Klein, Master Cupcake Artist: Absolutely! I’ll get you an alert thing synced to your phone. Can we do a whole class?

World’s Okayest Assistant: Class? I like the new screen name.

Cameron Klein, Master Cupcake Artist: Cap wants to learn to cook, too. Could you teach both of us?

World’s Okayest Assistant: Sure.

 

***

 

March

Number of days STRIKE Alpha is in DC: No idea?

Number of dates: 0

 

Thanks to Cameron’s efforts, Darcy was alerted when Brock arrived back from training at the end of February and managed to avoid seeing him.  It was touch and go sometimes. She was riding on the elevator one afternoon in the first week of March when her device from Cam--it looked like a fitness tracker--pinged her phone to say he was two floors directly above. So she yelled, “my floor, my floor,” and got off the elevator. Then she had to trudge up the stairwell to avoid any weird elevator run-ins, but it was okay. She started taking the stairs as a regular thing. Mostly, it was so she could listen to Joanna Newsom on her earbuds without getting any weird looks, but she found it improved her general mood to raise her heart rate. Sitting in the lab did diddly squat for her heart. She did have Jane re-configure everything in the lab, so Darcy was carefully hidden at the back, like a lab ghostie, instead of being right at the window. “Brock alert, Brock alert,” Jane would murmur, if he walked by. Darcy would stay in her seat, fully hidden by her desktop and the electromagnetwhatsis machine and the shelf of big science texts and bound articles. She knew to hide because of Cameron’s tracker.

“Gone yet?” she asked.

“Yup,” Jane always said. It happened two or three times a week, but Darcy could handle it. Her heart would stop doing the squeezy thing eventually whenever Jane said his name. Probably.

Darcy had begun to fill the Brock-shaped empty space with activities she thought Martha Beck would approve of: cuddling Anatoli whenever he visited, meditation apps, reading. She had adopted Beck’s theory of contentment as a personal mission. She was teaching the impromptu cooking and baking demo class on Wednesdays at her apartment to a burgeoning group that included Cam, Steve, Natasha, and occasionally, Sam. Everyone got to practice chopping and dicing, watched their pies in the oven, and alternated, so nobody was stuck with the little stove burners all the time. Sharon was a good cook and preferred to laugh at Steve and drag him off to the bedroom so he only got three-fourths of his lesson finished, but they were fun evenings anyway. She taught them simple things, in any case. Steak and brownies. Lemon chicken and chess pie. Risotto. Cameron took to cooking like a duck to water and Darcy got teasing emails from Jennifer about how spoiled she was getting and that her pants no longer fit.

 

The rest of the week she filled with other stuff to stave off any sadness. She took a wine & painting class with the girls one Monday, went to the library and read a bunch of books on cheese and wine pairing the next, a yoga class on Thursdays, and even contemplated language study. She’d always wanted to learn Italian for Venice, but it was too much like him at the moment. She needed to forget Brock. The solution was to fill her brain with other things. Soft, soothing activities, she thought. Like a mental blanket. Plus, one day, she’d meet somebody she had hot, sparky chemistry with and they’d appreciate her new skills and the way her legs looked all toned now from taking the stairs and doing downward dog. Probably. Darcy knew Everett Ross did. He forwarded her cute stories about animals and liked all the photos she posted to Instagram of her new pineapple pecan pie recipes and the oddly charming statue of Shiva that presided over her yoga class. Darcy was adding exercise to her regimen of self-soothing tricks. She was going for contentment, not the hot rush of excitement that she felt when she thought about making out with Brock in the supply closet.

She was most definitely not daydreaming about his mouth when Jane muttered, “Brock alert,” one afternoon in mid-March.

“Gotcha,” Darcy said. She kept reading her recipe for mushroom pasta bake. Then she froze. The lab door had been pushed open.

“Foster,” Brock said. The sound of his voice made Darcy’s body ache. How stupid was she?

“Commander Rumlow?” Jane said coolly. She stood and moved to block him from venturing further into the lab, effectively shielding Darcy from STRIKE incursion into Lab Ghost Zone.

“Where’s Darcy?” he asked. “She’s never around.”

“Out running errands.” Jane was a good liar.

“Okay,” he said. “Just tell her I was here, all right?”

“Sure,” Jane said, in that same distant, chilly tone.

“I’m serious, we haven’t talked since she dumped me, I think I deserve some acknowledgement,” he said, sounding tired and also a little peevish. Darcy was so astonished and furious all at once that she almost stood up and yelled at him: Are you high? You dumped me, you schmuckdoodle!

 

When he’d gone, Darcy leaned around the bookshelf and looked at Jane. “What the fuck?” she said. “What the freaking fuck?”

“Uh-huh,” Jane said.

“What?”

“Just go see him, Darce,” Jane said. “Tell him you know about the bet, but you’re willing to let it go if he is.”

“Are you serious?” Darcy said, astounded.

“I get three lectures a week from you about yoga and the value of letting go of attachments--when you’re not making sad sounds at shelter puppies on Petfinder--because you still want to climb that stupid, arrogant man like a tree. Take your own advice, Darce,” Jane said. Darcy stared at Jane. She blinked. Jane raised an eyebrow.

“Well, you’re a little edgy today,” Darcy said.

“If I have to hear another breathy voiced yoga lady talk about the power of the goddess or another weird Joanna Newsom song, I’m going to scream,” Jane said.

“Are you dissing my girl Sally Kempton, you god-dating hypocrite?” Darcy said, putting her hands on her hips. Jane made grumbly-rumbly noises of unhappiness. “Well?” Darcy said.

“I hate the phrase pregnant with the world,” Jane said. “I don’t like hippie you, either. I feel like you’ve joined a weird cult of one. I liked you better when you were normal and making out in the supply closet.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll talk to him eventually,” Darcy said. “You want special coffee shop coffee? Would that fix your sads?”

“Yes. Double shot mocha, please.”

“I’ll take my hippie and go then,” Darcy said, smirking. She wasn’t that hippie. So what if she listened to kirtan and swayed back and forth sometimes in line at the coffee shop downstairs? She still listened to Madonna, too.

 

***

 

Darcy climbed the stairs to Krishna Das’s “Om Namah Shivaya” with their mocha lattes. It was probably a total violation of yogic philosophy to mix mochas and sacred chants to Shiva, but whatevs. She wasn’t that hippie, really. It wasn’t like she prayed with her mala, she just wore it because she liked the beads. Jane was wrong. Darcy couldn’t even do 108 sun salutations in a row; she’d tried and conked out in exhaustion on the yoga mat in her bedroom at number sixty-two. She did love the chant, though. There was something about it that she connected with, in the same way that she’d put on leggings and known instantly that was never going back to pants that constrained her waist. It fit her. Or she fit it. She hadn’t expressed it out loud, afraid of Jane calling her all culty again. But she’d read that some teachers considered the syllables of the mantra themselves to be sound therapy for the body and mind. “Ommmmmm Namah Shivayaaaaaa,” Darcy was quietly singing to herself, her eyes half-closed, when someone melted out of the shadows in the stairwell platform around floor seven and seized her arm. “Ahhh! What the---?” she said, in a very unyogic shriek of alarm. Darcy looked up into a pair of very familiar eyes and stopped breathing for a second. They were so close she could see the little flecks of green in the brown of his irises. He’d let go of her arm to take the coffee tray before she spilled it.

 

“You’ve been hiding from me in the fucking stairwells?” Brock Rumlow said.

 

Chapter Text

“Umm,” Darcy said. Intelligently. He looked down at her arm, still poised to take back the tray.

“Are those prayer beads?” he asked, frowning in confusion at the mala wrapped around her wrist.

“Yes, but I--I don’t--”

“Why won’t you fucking talk to me?” he said. “I’ve been looking for you at work. Somebody told me that you were dating Everett Ross now? Everett Ross?” he repeated. Brock’s voice was incredulous. Darcy got a little offended on Everett’s behalf.

“He’s a friend,” she said.

“Funny how often I hear you say that,” Brock said hotly. His jaw was tight. He looked pissed. She’d never seen him upset before.

“All right, you want to know, I’ll tell you: Sharon set us up after you dumped me, we went out on two dates, and decided to be friends. But I don’t know what fucking business it is of yours!” she said.

“Oooh, be careful, baby, your prayer beads won’t like that language,” he said sharply.

“Give me my coffee,” she said, reaching for them and somehow stumbling closer to him. Their bodies brushed, before she pulled back. He looked at her intently.

“No. What are you talking about, I dumped you?” He held the tray out of her reach, tauntingly. Bastard , she thought, pressing down the urge to climb his muscular arm.

“For God’s sake, Brock, you’re behaving like a child!” Darcy said, crossing her arms to keep from touching him. Jane’s climb him like a tree was sort of ringing in her ears, not that she’d ever admit it.

“Me? Me? I’m behaving like a child? I guess you would know with your goddamn teddy bears and your temper tantrums and the constant whining--” he said. Darcy sucked in a breath like he’d slapped her.

“I don’t whine!” she said.

“An entire Whole Foods knows you whine like a toddler,” he said grimly. “Not that I gave a shit! I’m embarrassment-proof, I don’t give a fuck if you like alpacas or sing badly, I want to be with you.” He edged her away from the steps and back against the stairwell wall, still talking. “I was okay with it that you go a little haywire when you don’t get enough sleep, or coffee, or sex. I can manage your crazy just fine, but do you even give me time?” he said.

“Time?” Darcy said, confused. “What?”

“I need time. We have our first real fight, I need a few days to get my head back on straight, get un-hungover so I can remain calm and not lose my shit in the field. Because, gee, I’m not getting any at home and it makes me grumpy as fuck and I might accidentally shoot somebody during unit movements just ‘cause I’m irritable. I certainly don’t think we’re breaking up, which you should have known--”

“How?” Darcy said. “How am I supposed to have known?”

“What did I say to you before I passed out on Valentine’s Day?” he said. He stared at her intensely.

“Oh,” Darcy said. “That you...you didn’t want to break up?”

“Ex-fucking-actly. You know this. I just needed some time by myself before I could talk like a reasonable, sane adult. So, I come back from a three-day field training exercise without my phone and you’ve sent me all these sad texts and changed your Facebook status to single or some shit and I have a dozen emails telling me how sorry everybody is that we haven’t worked out and oh, by the way, Jones saw you having a cozy dinner date with Everett fucking Ross, the goddamn Joint Training Center elf. And then Rodriguez saw you buying books with the fucker. Buying books with him!” he said, abruptly running out of steam and raking a hand through his hair. He sighed heavily. Darcy’s brain was spinning. He hadn’t had his pho--oh, wait.

“I saw your texting bubble! You had your phone on the fifteenth! Those no-phone training exercises didn’t start until the sixteenth, ” Darcy said, feeling vindicated. She’d forgotten his itinerary until just then, although she remembered him telling her he’d be out of phone range sometime after Valentine’s Day. “You could have reminded me we weren’t breaking up then, it would have been fine, I’d have never gone out with Ross,” she said.

“Are you serious right now?” he said. “Jesus H. Christ.” He pushed away from where he was leaning his arm against the wall by her shoulder and paced up and down the stairwell platform. He actually paced a few times, waving his arms and her coffee, muttering, then stopped and pointed at her. “This is not an argument you can win. You should have given me a window! I deserved at least a week before you started seeing other people,” he said.

“A week to what?” she said.

“I dunno,” he said, pausing. He rubbed a hand through his hair roughly. “I sulk, okay? I’m a fucking sulker who needs to be in a room alone with no talking sometimes. It’s my process.”

“Oh,” Darcy said.

“Don’t you oh me, you’ve been hiding from me at work! What did you do, move your desk into the ladies room?” he said. “I thought we could talk in person, but you were just hiding from me. Taking the stairs?”

“It was good for my fitness,” Darcy said, slightly offended. “I’m not a total sloth. Just because I’m not agent-level fit--.”

“I know you had help. I don’t know who helped you, but people were helping you hide from me, Lauren told me you always knew to get off the elevators--” he began, then went a little funny.

“Lauren?” Darcy said, catching his microexpression. “Lauren who?”

“Nothing,” he muttered. He looked guilty. Darcy knew one Lauren who might be a reason for him to feel guilty.

“Brock,” Darcy said. “Did you fuck Lauren in surveillance? The one who thinks you’re cute?”

“Only after you went out with Joint Training Center Ross and his Christmas wrapping paper suits,” Brock said bitterly. “I was trying to figure out where you were--I kept stopping by and she invited me to dinner. It--it escalated.”

“Was there anyone else?” Darcy said.

“No.”

“You’re lying. Badly,” she said.

“Two women I met in bars, okay? But I missed you. I wanted to be with you, petting fucking alpacas or some shit instead,” he said. “It, uh, it wasn’t even good. Any of the times. I was drunk and miserable.” His shoulders sank.

“I want my coffee,” she said, glaring at him.

“Yeah,” he said. He handed her the tray. His righteous indignation was deflating since she’d caught the Lauren thing.

“You should go,” Darcy said.

“What? I’m--I’m not leaving,” he said.

“Then I’ll go,” she said, sliding from around him and heading for the staircase.

“What are you doing?” he said plaintively.

“I’m taking the stairs,” she told him.

“Why?”

“It’s what I do now!” she said, stomping up a few.

“You don’t want to talk? Can’t we have dinner?” he called to her retreating back.

“Ask Lauren to dinner!” Darcy said acidly.

“Darcy--” he said, moving to follow her. She did not want to be followed.

“Stop following me,” she said.

“Honey, we should talk,” he began pleadingly. “We can work this out if--”

“Well, how about this: I know about the bet,” she said lethally, turning on him. Her expression made him pause on the stairs behind her.

“The bet?” He’s pretending to look confused and bewildered, Darcy thought. “What?” he said in a lost voice.

“This whole time, I’ve been manufacturing drama and withholding sex just to fuck with you. I wanted to run you off,” she said. He stared up at her.

“You--you don’t want to be with me? I don’t understand,” he said quietly.

“Well, babe, I thought I did, but it turns out anybody in surveillance will do. I don’t know why I even bothered with having feelings for you,” she hissed. “Since everything was a trick and you can just move on with Lauren, like whatever, Darcy who?” She felt her eyes start to well up a little. She was not going to cry in front of him. She glared, then she bolted out of the nearest stairwell exit.

“Darcy!” Brock said behind her.

Fuck it, I’m taking the elevator, Darcy thought to herself, clutching the coffee. She almost ran full speed into Steve.

“Darce, you okay?” he asked, catching her gently. She burst into tears. Captain America pried the coffee tray out of her fingers and held her with his other arm. Brock emerged from the stairwell looking like a stunned rabbit, caught Cap’s Majorly Disappointed Face, and shrank back for a second.

“She and I--we need to talk,” Brock said.

“Noooo,” Darcy said, clinging more tightly to Steve.

“I think you should go,” Steve said. Brock huffed off in the other direction, muttering things that sounded to Steve like fuckfuckeverythingfuckshitfuckfuckingbullshit .


***

 

“Did you know Brock fucked Lauren in surveillance?” Darcy said to Jane, when she returned to the lab, coddled by a disgruntled Steve. She was a little bit livid. Steve was very livid. “A good person waits a minute,” he’d said to Darcy in the hallway, “before he runs off and sleeps with half a bar.”

“It was just two people in a bar. Or bars,” she’d explained. Steve had had a hard time understanding her through the crying.

“What?” Jane said. “You’re mad, right?” Darcy nodded. It might be hypocritical, but goddammit, she was mad anyway, even if she’d taken the whole relationship for a joke.

“I’m mad,” Steve said. “Real mad.”

“Awwww,” Jane said to Steve. Then she looked at Darcy. “Darce, stop crying, Steve’s making poster face. You’ve always wanted to see his poster face in action. Look, he's all stern and disapproving!”

“Th-thanks, Steve,” Darcy sniffled. She patted the Bicep of Truth and Justice tenderly. Steve gave her a soft look.

“You want me to hit him with my shield?” he asked kindly.

“Nooooooo,” Darcy said, starting to cry again. “I think I still li--like him,” she said sadly, between sobs. “Stupid brain.”

 

After Steve left, she hid in her desk warren like some kind of sadness rabbit fueled by tears and coffee. Jane got her a subpar coffee shop brownie. “Thanks, Janey,” Darcy said. Jane paused. It was a nervous pause. “Did you hit Brock?” Darcy asked.

“No.”

“No?”

“But, um,” she said to Darcy, “I got in Jack’s face about the bet, Darce.”

“Yeah?” Darcy said, swallowing.

“There was no bet,” Jane said softly.

“Cameron told me--”

“Cameron heard Smith suggest it, yeah, but Rumlow told them to all back off after Sitwell and Cameron left. He apparently has this ‘no scolding the team in front of other departments’ employees’ supervisor rule? He waits until other people are gone to dole out reprimands, thinks it’s bad for morale to chastise people outside of the team. Anyway, there wasn’t a real bet ever. I’m sorry, Darce.”

“Oh,” Darcy said. “Oh.” She didn’t know what to say or do. She just sat in her cubbyhole-slash-warren of sadness and stared at her computer screen without really seeing anything she was reading.

 

***

“Rumlow,” Steve said, catching sight of him in the gym.

“Don’t start, Cap. I’m miserable enough as it is,” he said grimly. He put down the weight bar with a clunk. His neck was all red and damp with sweat in the mirror.

“So miserable you slept with half a bar?” Steve asked archly. He was doing poster face. Brock did not want to see poster face. It was embarrassing to admit that his first reaction to being hurt was to try to fuck the pain away. Well, second reaction. Technically, he’d tried to drink it away first. Then he tried drinking and fucking.

“Does she hate me?” Rumlow said.

“That’s a question for her,” Steve said. Rumlow’s face fell. Steve sighed and softened his manner. “I don’t think she does,” Steve told the STRIKE Commander. “Talk to her.”

“Easier said than done,” Rumlow said. “Everyone says talk, talk, talk, like it’s easy. Bullshit--”

“Language,” Steve scolded gently. Rumlow pulled a face.

“You know what I mean. When it matters, I’d rather take apart an IED with a godda--a paperclip and some chewing gum than try to find the right words. It’s painful, Cap,” he said, pushing his sweat-damped hair off his forehead.

“You in love with Darcy?” Steve asked.

“Maybe,” Brock said, looking off into middle distance. His jaw worked.

“I’d lead with that,” Steve said. “If you’re maybe in love, maybe Shar and I can help you. How’s that sound?”

“Good,” Rumlow said neutrally. He was about to speak again when Jack Rollins walked into the gym, looking pale. There was a red mark on the side of his face.

“What happened?” Steve said.

“Foster slapped me,” Jack said. “Gave me a right talking-to about you and bets afterwards. I got news for you, mate. Darcy thinks you’ve been chasing Smitty’s bet this whole time.”

“What?” Brock said, realization dawning.

“Yeah,” Steve said, nodding.

“There was no bet--I forbid them to bet,” Rumlow said insistently.

“She thought--” Jack began, just as Cap spoke.

“Cameron warned her,” Steve said. “So, she’s spent this whole time wondering if you were just trying to have your way with her for free drinks.”

“Oh, fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Rumlow looked so devastated that Steve didn’t scold him about his language.


***

“Well, he won’t be seeing Lauren again,” Sharon told them, dropping by that afternoon. Darcy thought maybe Jane had called Sharon, but she wasn’t sure: she’d been zoning out all afternoon, staring mindlessly at the computer screen. Her eyes were still all bloodshot from crying.

“Why not?” Darcy said, looking up in surprise.

“Well, um,” Sharon said, her expression growing abashed. She even blushed a little.

“What?” Jane said.

“I shouldn’t--” Sharon said.

“Just tell me,” Darcy said glumly. Jane leaned forward.

“Because he called her Darcy during sex,” Sharon said. “She’s very unhappy about it.”

“Oh my God,” Jane said. Darcy had simultaneously made a strangled sound.

“I don’t need to know this,” Darcy announced. “There are things I don’t need to know. That is one of them. I’m--I’m--can I go home?” she asked Jane, wanting to cry again.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Jane said. “Let me take you home?”

“No, I’ll drive myself,” Darcy insisted.

 

At home, Darcy took a bath and cried some more. Anatoli meowed at her piteously as she sniffled on the couch. She was padding around in her bathrobe when the doorbell rang. It was a delivery guy with roses and chocolate. She took them, assuming they were for Sharon. But it turned out they were from Brock.

 

Darcy,

I am so sorry. Can we talk this week?

Brock

 

She decided to bite the metaphorical STRIKE bullet herself and called him. It would probably be easier to do over the phone, instead of in person. In person meant she’d be struggling to maintain her composure. “Baby?” he said, sounding surprised and maybe nervous.

“I thought we could talk,” Darcy said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Talk. Talking is good. I wish we had before—”

“Yeah,” she murmured.

“There was never a bet,” he said quickly. “I wasn’t trying to trick you. Ever.”

“I know. Jack told Jane.”

“Yeah,” he said. There was a long pause. “Can I make you dinner?” Darcy was slightly thrown.

“When?” she asked.

“Tonight? Tomorrow? Whenever?” he said. Darcy didn’t think she could do it today. She felt exhausted. “Darcy?” he said.

“Maybe in a few days,” she said

“Okay,” he said.

“The flowers are pretty,” she said. The roses were a peachy-pink. She liked that color.

“You like them?” he said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“I could, uh, keep our couples’ therapy appointment for this week, if you want?” he said. “I just realized I forgot to cancel it.”

“You want to go to therapy?” Darcy said, confused.

“I thought maybe yeah,” he said. “I fucked up. I can admit that. But I think we can work it out,” he said. Darcy wasn’t so sure, but she agreed to see the therapist anyway.

“If you want, you can come to cooking class?” she offered.

“You’re taking a class?” Brock asked.

“Oh, no, I’m teaching one at home. Sorta. It’s very casual.”

***

Everything was very tentative and eggshell-fragile, but Darcy forbid people from hitting Brock with shields or Mew-Mew that week. Thor was a little disappointed, but Steve looked, well, pleased. “What’s Steve plotting?” Darcy asked Sam at cooking class. They were marinating chicken in a spicy honey sauce. Sam shrugged.

“No idea, little mama,” he said.

“Somebody better warn me if there’s a prank,” Darcy whispered.

“Why, so you don’t miss out?” Sam teased.

“You know it,” Darcy said. She’d invited Brock, just to see him in a group setting. He was hovering over by Cameron, his eyes glued to Darcy like he couldn’t quite believe it was real. He’d brought more flowers and her actual favorite rosé.

“Ow,” Cameron said, nervously. He’d almost cut his finger.

“Brock, you’re frightening Cam,” she said.

“Oh. Sorry,” Brock said. “Your chicken looks good, man.”

“Thank you,” Cameron said.

“What’s in the sauce?” Brock asked.

“Honey and red pepper flakes?” Cameron said doubtfully. “It’s, uh, Darcy’s recipe.”

“Oh,” Brock said. He looked at her. “It looks good.”

“This isn’t weird at all,” Sam said dryly. Natasha said something in Russian and Sam laughed.

“When did you learn Russian?” Darcy asked.

“Nobody needs to learn Russian to understand that,” Sam said.

 

After everyone had cooked and washed dishes, Darcy pulled Rumlow aside. “Thanks for coming,” she said.

“Do you, uh, want me to leave?” he said, looking pained.

“No, no,” she said. “I just wanted to say, um, that. I like the flowers and the wine. Can we go to my room for a minute?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Lead the way.”  They sat on her bed awkwardly. “You kept Milkshake?” he asked. Milkshake was next to her pillow.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I love Milkshake.”

“I still have the teddy bear,” he said. She looked at him. He looked at her.

“I’m sorry about the presentation thing,” Darcy said.

“What thing?” he said.

“I heard they accidentally left a Darcy Loves Brock slide in the STRIKE presentation yesterday,” Darcy said.

“I didn’t mind,” he said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be okay with it now, though,” she said.

“Baby, I was never pretending. I liked it,” he said.

“What?” Darcy said.

“Did you think it wasn’t flattering to my ego to think I had a hot girlfriend who adored me?” he said dryly.

“But what about my whining?” she said back. She was being a little arch.

“That espresso workshop guy was pretentious, everyone thought you were fun,” he said.

“Are you seriously going to defend all my crazy behavior?” she said, raising her eyebrows. “It was the worst stuff I could think of!” He shrugged fluidly.

“I have a high embarrassment threshold,” he said.

“Phhfft,” she said.

“I just don’t like being ignored,” he said, reaching for her. He pushed a little hair behind her ear and touched her face with the back of his hand. “I missed your antics.” Darcy seized his wrist and leaned her face against his hand.

 

“Shouldn’t this door be open, kids?” Steve said, clearing his throat and pushing Darcy’s bedroom door open a few minutes later.

“Hey, Steve,” Darcy said, from underneath Brock.

“Cap,” Brock said, pulling his face out of Darcy’s cleavage.

“I don’t see feet on the floor,” Steve joked, before he stepped away.

“We’re fully dressed!” she called out. “Bras count right?” she whispered. Darcy heard Steve laugh. “He’s enjoying this too much,” Darcy told Brock. Brock groaned and slithered off her.

“He’s right, though.”

“What?” Darcy said.

“We should have feet on the floor,” he said.

“Why? I made that up---” Darcy began.

“I want you to trust me. Fully. We should take our time,” Brock said.

“No,” Darcy said, yanking on his shirt collar and dragging him down into a kiss. “Real me is really into kissing you,” she said. He made a sound that was somewhere between a groan and a sigh. When Steve came back a few minutes later, they were all entwined again.

“Do I need to haul Rumlow out of here, Darce?” he asked pleasantly.

“She won’t let me go,” Brock said, sounding stunned and delighted.

“‘M busy, Cap,” Darcy said, lifting her head from Brock’s neck. “Testing a theorem about hickey recovery after serum exposure. Timing it right now. Very busy.”

“Oh, yeah? I’ll leave you to it then. You might want to ask Sharon if she has any input into your theory,” he said, chuckling. He shut the door.

“Take your shirt off,” Darcy said seriously. “I need more workspace.” Somewhere in the apartment, Steve started to guffaw. He was joined by other voices.



***

The couples' therapist was visibly befuddled. “You want to keep seeing one another?” Dr. Bettinger said. They’d explained the misunderstanding about the bet, Darcy being obnoxious, them breaking up while Brock was incommunicado, Lauren and the bar women, everything. Even the six-month no sex rule. Bettinger’s jaw had actually dropped, before she re-composed herself.

“Yeah, of course,” Brock said, automatically reaching for Darcy’s hand. Whenever they were near each other, he reached for her automatically, she’d noticed. Held her hand, rubbed her shoulders, braced her lower back with his palm. “Don’t you?” he asked Darcy.

“Yes,” Darcy said. She looked at their therapist. “I want to start having sex now, but he thinks we need more time.”

“I just don’t want you to feel rushed later,” he said. “What if we do llama trek for our next date instead of sex?”

“Llama trek?” the therapist said, raising her eyebrows.

“I really like llamas. This place lets you take them for hikes and stuff,” Darcy said.

“They’ve trained one to give kisses,” Brock said. “For treats or whatever.”

“Oh,” the therapist said.

“I’d like to do llama trek, but I’m a little miffed Lauren from surveillance has seen your penis already,” Darcy said suddenly. “It doesn’t seem fair. Way before me if we wait until June or something.” Brock made his chagrined eh face. “I don’t really want to wait until June. I like sex,” she told the therapist.

“Yes,” the therapist said neutrally. Darcy sighed. She was trying to solve the problem logically. It was too much like those sixth-grade math word problems. If she waited until June, oodles of other women would have seen his penis first. But what if she counted the number of times they’d have sex against one-night stands? Maybe seeing it a lot canceled out the gap?

“Honey--it was--we barely--it meant nothing,” Brock stuttered, afraid her silence meant she was upset. “It was dark! It was really dark.” Darcy started to giggle.

“Could she identify your penis in a lineup?” Darcy asked coyly.

“Uh, no?” he said.

“Is that a serious question?” the therapist said at the same time.

“Um, no, I was doing a little bit of penis math in my head. I hate math,” Darcy said to explain. She looked at Brock. “Are you fretting? You’re fretting?”

“I’m worry I’ll make you upset again,” he said nervously. “I’m adjusting to you being...real you?” He sounded tentative.

“How is that different?” the therapist asked.

“Yeah, how I am different?” Darcy asked. “He’s pretty much the same.”

“Much more fun to be around on a daily basis, honestly, but I kinda miss it. The weird stuff? Could you, uh, do it again? Just occasionally?” he asked.

“Which thing?” she said.

“I, uh, wouldn’t mind you throwing yourself at me during lunch or bringing me more stuffed animals?” he said.

“Is Teddy Albeart lonely?” she asked. “That’s his bear.”

“I have a photo on my phone,” Brock said. He scrolled. “See? Here he is and that little bit of dark hair is Darcy behind him. She gave him to me.”

“Yes,” the therapist said, looking all befuddled again.

“We could go sweater shopping?” Brock offered. “As a date.”

“Oh God, I’ve got to get you some not preppy sweaters!” Darcy said, alarmed. “I’m writing it down, babe.”


Chapter Text

He insisted on making dinner for their first official post-breakup date after the therapy session. He would make anything she wanted, he said. Begged, really. He’d been doing that: at work, via email, on the phone, after he detached himself from her post-cooking class. He was visibly self-flagellating for the whole sex with other women thing. Jane and Sharon kept texting her funny memes about groveling. There were lots of cats and a few of Chuck Norris, apparently. Darcy--troll side still intact--had contemplated asking Brock for Pop Tarts and Cheese Puffs when he first asked to cook, but ultimately told him she wouldn’t mind some pappardelle and alfredo sauce. “You sure that’s all you want, baby?” he said, on the way home from the therapist’s office. “I’ve got everything, but I could do more food?”

“No, I like pappardelle,” Darcy said.

“Okay,” he said.”But I really could--”

“I wonder what I’d be doing for you if I’d had sex with Everett Ross?” Darcy mused. He sucked in a breath and swerved the car for a second before correcting.

“Shit,” he muttered.

“You okay?” she asked. “Sorry.”

“No, no, I just got a--a feeling that was upsetting,” he said, using the language in their recommended therapy workbooks. “When you said that, I felt gutted. I am so sorry--what if we go to a jewelry store now?”

“What?” Darcy said.

“I want to buy you things. Do all the, uh, love languages?” he said. “I’ve been reading.” He ticked them off. “There’s five of ‘em. Gifts, acts of service, compliments, quality time, and uh, physical affection? I thought we could do all of them. You can tell me which thing you like best?”

“Oh,” Darcy said, as he pulled into a shopping center.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, parking the car. Darcy wrinkled her nose thoughtfully.

“I think I’d still like sex best,” she said. He looked at her and blinked slowly. She grinned at him. He smiled back at her, one of his ambiguous half-smiles. There was a fractional pause before Darcy launched herself at him.

 

A passing shopper stared at them when Darcy’s elbow wedged itself against the car horn, but Darcy was too busy sucking on Brock’s bottom lip to care. “We gotta--we gotta stop,” he said. He groaned.

“I want you,” she said. “Not gifts.”

“Huhhnn,” he said. After a few minutes, he pulled away, breathing heavily. “You--you’re wrecking me. I’m gonna need you to do something crazy, just so I can think?”

“Something crazy?” she said curiously.

“Not crazy. That’s the wrong word. I don’t want to sound judgmental. One of your little bits or jokes,” he said.

“My comedy bits?” she teased. “That woman is still staring at us. She looks appalled.”

“Yeah,” he said, as they got out of the car.

“You really like my jokes?” Darcy said.

“Yes. And I have to buy you a present,” he said seriously.

“Honey,” Darcy said, “I’ve got a gift idea?”

“Yeah?” he said, as they walked into the mall.

“An orgasm can be a gift,” she said. “Couldn’t it?” A man walking by did a double-take and walked into a clothing rack.

“Darcy,” Brock said in a low voice, “not here, we’ll end up half-naked in a dressing room.” Darcy grinned at him and laughed.

“Sex toys?” she whispered.

“You’re bad,” he said, realization dawning. “Real you is naughty.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding, as the laughter bubbled up in her chest.

“Oh God,” he muttered.

“What?” she said.

“I’m going to end up so whipped,” he said, swallowing.

“I should probably buy you the jewelry,” Darcy teased. “How would you feel about a little pair of handcuffs to go with your Versace scarf?”

“I like that scarf,” he said.

“Sure, sure,” Darcy said.

“No, I do,” he said. “It goes with my tactical black. Let’s go get you some jewelry,” he said, steering her into a store. Darcy refused to let him buy her any absurdly expensive diamonds, even when he pressed her. Instead, she dragged him to a bath shop and bought bath oils and massage oils. “What are you doing with that?” he asked.

”Oh, I’m not, your act of service is going to be working on the knot under my left shoulder,” Darcy said. “I don’t want jewelry, I want back rubs.” He nodded.


***

 

They ate pappardelle alfredo on his couch. Or Darcy ate and had naughty thoughts about the way his arms moved when he brought the fork to his mouth; Brock ate and gazed at her happily. Teddy Albeart was sitting in the living room. “He looks happy,” Darcy said.

“If there’s ever an emergency, he’s holding a Glock 19 and a SIG-Sauer P226 for me,” Brock told her. “Left side seam has a safe inside. Code is 2-5-7-4-2. Alpha.”

“Are those guns?” Darcy said.

“Yeah,” he told her. “The SIG’s the best, it’s my custom one. Do you--you don’t know how to shoot?” he said.

“Nope,” she said. “Just always used my taser.”

“I need to take you to the range,” he said seriously.

“All righty,” she said.

“You’d go with me?” he said, looking pleased.

“Sure. You know what else I’d like?” she said, turning one of the fat noodles around her fork.

“What?” he said.

“I want to learn about pasta shapes. Do you think Whole Foods has a class?” she asked. He beamed at her. “What?” Darcy said.

“You’re adorable,” he said.

“I think it’s reasonable to be curious about what sauce goes with the little bow-tie ones,” Darcy said thoughtfully. “When do I get my first back rub?”

“Now, if you want,” he said, alert.

“Finish your food, Whipped Italian,” she told him, biting her lip. “I can’t play with you if you’re starving.”

“That right?” he said. He looked at her in a smoldering way. His resolve to resist her was crumbling. “You want another glass of wine?”

“Sure,” Darcy said. He got up. When he returned, Darcy was laughing at an ad for a reality television show. The couple on-screen were arguing about the husband’s infidelity.

“Oh God,” Brock said, looking horrified.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“I’m that asshole.” He sighed. “The guy who can’t keep his penis in our household ,” he said, paraphrasing the reality tv wife.

“You really feel genuinely guilty, don’t you?” Darcy said, smothering her laugh. He looked like a sad puppy.

“Uh, yeah,” he said, rubbing his jaw.

“Hmmm,” Darcy said.

“What are you thinking?” he said.

“I’m not used to sincerity from men, it confuses me,” Darcy admitted. “I mean, the only really sincere man I know is Steve. And sometimes Bruce Banner, but you know, I think there’s a whole ocean of stuff Bruce isn’t telling us--”

“Darcy,” Brock said suddenly, “I’m crazy about you. If I had a time machine and one thing I could undo, I’d go back and fix things so I never slept with those women--”

“What?” Darcy said.

“You gotta believe me,” he said, eyes boring into hers.

“Well, that is just stupid,” Darcy said.

“What?” Brock said.

“Obviously, if you have one thing to undo, you go back and get out of Triskelion before it falls down , instead of trying to get first crack at Alexander Pierce, you dope. You had burns over eighty percent of your body, if Helen Cho hadn’t invented the Cradle, you’d still be dealing with skin grafts--” Darcy said.

“You know about that?” he said.

“Jack told me,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, I was pretty badly burned.”

“I saw the newspapers, too,” Darcy said, nodding.

“Oh?” he said.

“I still would,” she said.

“What?”

“I’d still want to have sex with you before the Cradle, in case you’re worried about that,” Darcy mused.

“Baby, nobody wanted to have sex with me then,” he said.

“Please, scarred men are hot, don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Do you still have that suit? From when you were a fake mercenary and stole back the Chitauri stuff?” She grinned.

“Are you saying you’re turned on by my Crossbones gear?” he said, astounded.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“Really?” he said.

“Jane says I have a bad boy problem,” she said. “She staged an intervention when I started a secret Frank Castle Pinterest board a few years ago, made me delete it."

“Huh?” He rubbed his jaw, looking stunned. “Frank? You think Frank is attractive?”

“And he likes dogs,” Darcy said, nodding. “That’s like five points on the hotness scale.”

“Well, you’re not allowed to tell him that,” Brock said.

“When would I tell him?” Darcy said, baffled. “Isn’t he in hiding and maybe dead?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah. He’s in hiding. Probably dead. Nobody knows where he is. You’ll never meet him,” Brock said quickly. There was no reason for Darcy to know that Frank had received a pardon and a clean record via the same SHIELD route as Brock and all the other HYDRA triple agents and was now living in Brooklyn and calling himself Pete Castiglione. He’d just need to keep her away from the pit bull playdates that he knew Frank frequented with his dog. Brock suppressed a groan. He could almost see Frank using his damn cute dog to flirt with Darcy. Frank was a shit stirrer and weirdly attractive to women for someone who alternated his grumpy mumbling with stabbing Russian assailants; he’d probably chase Darcy around the dog park and give her a cute nickname like “Taser Girl,” and she’d end up on the run with him. It was far too plausible a disaster scenario for Brock. He was keeping his girl this time.

“Are you okay?” Darcy asked. Funny things were happening with Brock’s face.

“Yeah, yeah. You, uh, want that massage now?” he said.

“Yes,” Darcy said happily. “Can I undress to my comfort level? Isn’t that what they say?”

“Naughty,” he said. “Very naughty.”

 

She ended up stripped down to her panties on his couch. He ran his hands between her shoulder blades, sighing. “What?” Darcy said, turning her head to look at him as he pressed on her back. She was resting her face on her forearms.

“You’re beautiful,” he said.

“And yet, you refuse to sleep with me, you schmuckdoodle,” she said. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Shut up, I’m, trying to have a scruple,” he grumbled, pressing down with his thumbs at the bottom v of her left shoulder blade.

“Ahhhhh, that feels incredible,” Darcy said. She arched her lower back in his direction. “I get a knot there all the time and I have issues with my neck, too.”

“It’s your traps baby,” he said.

“Traps?”

“Trapezius muscles, they run on either side of your neck and then in a triangle shape,” he said, tracing her muscles with his hands. He worked down towards her lower back, kneading her skin with the flats of his palms, using careful amounts of strength. She seemed to enjoy it, if the sounds she made were any indication. “You smell good,” he told her. She laughed.

“I bought that to annoy you. I was going to drench myself Britney Spears’ Fantasy and watch you be horrified that I smelled like fruit punch,” she said. “Now it’s grown on me.”

“Jokes on you, I like fruit punch,” he said, sliding his hands around her ribcage.

“You do not,” she said. “Mmmm.”

“I like sangria, it's just fruit punch with more fun side effects,” he said. She shifted to look at him.

"Truth," she said.

“Real you is much less repressed that fake you,” he said dryly, when she rolled over to face him, body totally exposed.

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding. “It was a struggle not to jump your bones all the time.” She reached up and traced his collarbone with her hand and Brock felt a stronger jolt of lust. 

“Yeah,” he said.

“Why fight it?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I forgot.” He grinned slowly and rose.

“Whatcha doing?” Darcy said.

“Taking you to bed,” he said, picking her up. “My bed.”

“Goody,” she said.

 

“We’re still doing llama trek this weekend, though,” he told her, once he’d lain her down gently. She laughed, delighted, and started unbuckling his pants. She was just as soft underneath him as he’d imagined. He’d imagined a lot, actually. Mostly in the shower. And his bed. At work. The six-month rule had been fuel for his imagination. But it hadn’t captured exactly how it would feel when he pushed inside her and she made a soft, stuttering sound.

“I’m crazy about you,” she told him, as he moved his hips slowly. “Maybe not the crazy the way you thought, but pretty crazy--”

“Uh-huh,” he said, smiling. “I know. Me, too. You wanna move Milkshake in?”

“You want to move in toge--uhhhhh, baby,” she said, when he snapped his hips more playfully.

“I think I need to keep an eye on you, that might require overnight supervision,” he said throatily. "Full time, permanent position."

“Uh-huh,” she said, catching his mouth with hers. "Do I get benefits?"

“Yeah?” he said. "You like benefits? I can give you some."

“Yeah,” she said.

“Make that noise for me again,” he said, kissing her neck.

"Yes, sir," she said. "Commander."

"You're gonna kill me, sweetheart."



***

“How was your weekend, mate?” Jack asked him on a Monday. They were walking into a staff meeting.

“Good, good,” Brock said. “Got all Darcy’s stuff to my place.”

“You moved in together?” Jack said.

“Yeah,” Brock.

“You?” Jack said.

“What?”

“It’s--soon?” Jack said. Brock shrugged. The movement attracted the attention of the commander of STRIKE Foxtrot, Salinas.

“Nice scarf, Rumlow,” he said.

“Thanks,” Brock said. “Gift from the girlfriend.”

“You think I could get one of those?” Salinas asked.

“A scarf or a girlfriend, Commander Salinas?” Natasha Romanoff said, entering the room.

“A scarf, I’m married,” Salinas said, looking flustered. “I’ve been married for fifteen years, Agent Romanoff."

“You could probably get a scarf,” Maria Hill said, entering the room. She was giving a presentation and turned on the A/V equipment at the front of the room. She began explaining a complicated series of assessment data and Brock turned his attention to her at the podium, briefly glancing at her presentation slides. He was taking notes when there was a sound in the room.

“Mate,” Jack said, elbowing Brock. “Look. Darcy.” Brock looked up on the screen. Hill’s third slide was a photo of Brock getting lightly kissed on the cheek by a very large, very fuzzy white llama.

“Commander Rumlow?” Hill said. “What is that?”

“A llama? She gave kisses. Her name was Snowball,” Brock said calmly.The agents all looked at each other. Salinas was openly laughing. Hill cleared her throat.

“Moving on--” she said swiftly. Natasha smirked behind her hand.

 

When the meeting ended, Hill was going to call Rumlow over and demand he rein in these stunts with Darcy, whatever they were. Weird foreplay, Maria thought. She’d finished, was packing her tablet, and was answering a question from one of the STRIKE agents when a glimmer of movement in the door’s window caught her eye.

Darcy Lewis was standing in the hallway, holding a large sock monkey. She waved at Brock and he stood up to open the door. Her voice drifted into the room. “Babe, look, I got Teddy and Milkshake a friend--” she was saying.

“Who are Teddy and Milkshake?” Hill asked. She’d accidentally wondered it out loud. Jack shrugged.

“No bloody idea,” he said. “Something mad.”

“I believe they are stuffed animals,” Natasha said. In his seat further from the door, Salinas leaned to the side to see.

“Are they, uh, um?” he said.

“Sticking their tongues down each others’ throats in a federal workplace? Yes,” Hill said, sighing. “This place,” she muttered.