A week after the Battle of Greenwich, a battered letter in a S.H.I.E.L.D. watermarked envelope, addressed to Ms Darcy Lewis, flopped through the letterbox of the house she and Jane ‘rented’ from Jane’s mum. Inside, a letter dated some months earlier invited her to a speculative interview - her owning of the hapless agents in Tromso had filtered back, and combined with her thesis on the rise of Right-wing domestic terrorism through the internet, someone had been impressed. Darcy had burst into tears when she read it; it was a perfect career opportunity and she had lost it to constantly moving house. Call them Jane had said, explain, the door might still be open. So, a day later when time-zones lined up, and with shaking fingers, Darcy had made the call.
Three days later, there had been tearful goodbyes at Heathrow airport, embraces and I’ll miss yous and call me’s and be careful’s. I’ll be back in a week, Darcy had told Jane, when they change their minds. There were awkward goodbyes with Ian; she was fond of him, sure, but after the immediate gratitude had worn off she’d known there was no future in it. Make sure Jane eats, she told him, and then made Thor promise to look after her Janey or else.
And so one grey, damp capital was swapped for another, and began seemingly interminable rounds of interviews, skills tests, psychometric tests, physical tests, then jubilant phone calls that made her grandmother weep with joy, and then more inductions, introductions, lectures about security and endless paperwork, before finally…
Finally, she was being shown to a suite of offices marked “Surveillance & Counter-Terrorist Intel” by a short, bald-headed, bespectacled man whose name she’d already forgotten and for all the world reminded her of Penfold from the Dangermouse cartoons Jane had shown her on those Saturday mornings in London.
“So, Ms Lewis, you’ve got your security pass?” asked Penfold (Darcy nodded), “and your passwords, and your floorplan so you can find the bathrooms and the canteen?”
Darcy nodded again, wondering where her words had gone.
“In that case,” said Penfold, swiping his card to open the office door, “I’ll leave you in the capable hands of your new line manager, Wentworth, and wish you luck.”
He all but shoved her through the door into the bustling office, and disappeared back down the corridor. ‘Wentworth’ was nowhere to be seen. Clutching her bag for dear life, Darcy stood dumbly by the door for a minute, unsure of how to proceed.
“Um… Hi!” she ventured to no one in particular, “I’m Darcy, I’m new.”
A few people looked up at her from their desks. She gave them a cheery wave; then returned to their work, unmoved.
“So… any of you Wentworth?” (she wasn’t even sure what gender ‘Wentworth’ was), “‘cus apparently that’s my line manager?”
A tall young woman with a pretty, heart shaped face, long brown hair pulled back into a high ponytail, and a natty peter-pan collar necklace stood up with a dramatic sigh and roll of her eyes, and marched over to Darcy. Oh god thought Darcy, I’m out on my ear already. Seeing the look of terror on Darcy’s face, the woman’s expression softened as she approached, and she offered a handshake.
“Hey, I’m Jemma,” she smiled, “Chill, I’m not mad at you, I just can’t believe that fuck-knuckle Jeff would disappear when we’ve got new team arriving, ‘cus I’m pretty sure Sitwell would have told him to expect you.” She frowned. “Actually, I can entirely believe that of Jeff, because he fucks off with tedious regularity, so never mind. I’m sorry about Jeff.”
“He’s not gonna win boss of the year then, huh?” winced Darcy, as Jemma ushered her to an empty desk.
“Well, when he’s done a vanishing act at least it means he’s not giving us shit,” said Jemma, conspiratorially, “so here’s the desk you’ve been assigned… I’m, um, sorry about that too… so you get yourself settled in… Darcy? It is Darcy, right?.... good, I’m kinda in the middle of something but a bunch of us go for coffee at fifteen hundred, so I’ll come grab you in an a couple of hours.”
With an encouraging pat on the shoulder, Jemma bustled off. Feeling slightly dazed, Darcy plopped down at her desk, and rummaged in her bag for the folder that had her start-up passwords in it. On the top sheet of the legal pad in front of her, someone had written We’re sorry about this idiot, with a large arrow pointing towards the vacant desk opposite her. This seemed to be an office full of idiots; she would either fit right in, or be on homicide charges by the end of the month, she decided.
Time passed, and Darcy was bored. There was only so much tinkering one could do to set up a work station. She’d even changed her desktop picture to one of her and Jane doing velociraptor impressions next to a skeleton in the Natural History Museum. She pushed up her glasses and rubbed her eyes with the balls of her palms, suppressing a yawn. There was a soft thump on the desk that made Darcy look up.
“Sleeping on the job already, Miss Lewis?” asked the thin, middle-aged man in a somewhat shiny blue suit, who was perched on her desk and blatantly looking down her top. Darcy presumed him to be the elusive Wentworth.
“In the absence of any assignment or orientation from my line manager, a strategic catnap seemed an efficient use of time. Sir.” Darcy stood up, hoping that bringing herself to eye-level might put him off ogling, but nope, his eyes remained transfixed on her cleavage. Presumably-Wentworth gave a humourless bark of a laugh.
“Assertive. I like that.” he offered what Darcy thought was the limpest handshake she’d ever encountered, “Jefferson Wentworth, as I imagine you’ve already gathered.”
“Ms Darcy Lewis, as I believe Sitwell has told you.”
“Ok, mizzzz Darcy Lewis, given your background in neo-fascists and Norse deities, I want you to start digging on the Norse Paganists, see if they’ve got any splinter cells or collaborators Stateside, any funding backchannels, the usual.” he hands her a dossier, “this should get you started, ‘m sure a bright girl like you will have them in no time. Any questions?”
“Yeah, a couple,” said Darcy sardonically, “do you have an issue with eye-contact, and have you read the company Equality and Diversity policy?”
Now Wentworth looked her in the eye, his head snapping up and his mouth open in flustered surprise. There was a mock-polite cough from behind him.
“You done harassing the new girl, Jeff?” asked an annoyed looking Jemma. Wentworth said nothing, and Jemma shoo’d him away from the desk. “Coffee?” she said brightly to Darcy.
Out in the hallway, a small cluster of people waited for them.
“Thanks for the cavalry,” said Darcy to Jemma, “much more of that and I’d have given him both barrels, and I’d rather not be fired on my first day.”
Jemma snorted “Wentworth is a dick and a coward. Stand up to him and he’ll pretty much leave you alone. The only person who gets any real grief is poor Jensen, but that’s ‘cus he runs his mouth and leaves himself open to it. Anyway, this is Yoko,” (Jemma gestured to a tiny Japanese woman with severe bangs), “Neeks,” (a plump, cheerful looking Asian woman), “and Mitch.” (a gangly Goth guy with designer stubble) “Everyone, this is Darcy. Darcy, everyone.”
Yoko handed Darcy a card with her grinning and throwing a peace sign over an alternating pink and green radiating background, “It’s my 40th at the weekend, I’m throwing a costume party. Please come.”
Darcy turned the card over. There was the address of a downtown bar, 8pm 30th November, and the theme. She laughed, “Internet memes? That’s either pure genius or pure evil! I’ll totally be there, thank you.”
Yoko gave a mischievous little smirk “The correct answer, I think you’ll find, is pure evil.”
When Darcy returned to her office half an hour later, ‘this idiot’ was still absent. Curiosity got the better of her, and before she sat down she went to have a little nose at the opposite desk. It was pretty chaotic, covered in piles of notes and dossiers, the legal pad a mass of doodles and cartoons. A device made of Lego that appeared to fire Nerf-darts sat next to the monitor, a Bluetooth receiver blinking steadily on the base. Stuck to the monitor frame were three photographs: a little blonde girl with pigtails in a pink soccer uniform; a strip of photo-booth images of two men, one with blond, spiky hair, a goatee, and Lennon-specs, the other a dark long-haired Latino with a beard and a black cowboy hat, doing Calvin and Hobbes impressions; and a group shot with Calvin (in a pink t-shirt with Go Petunias! on it), Hobbes, a woman who looked like a young Eartha Kitt, a baby-faced Black dude, and an older, White guy in a black suit, stood across the street from a square, redbrick building, squinting into the sun, and “The Losers Do Dallas” written in Sharpie across the bottom.
“Looking for something, mizzz Lewis?” oozed Wentworth, behind her.
Darcy jumped a little guiltily, “Just curious about my absent desk-mate, is all.” she said, trying to sound casual. Wentworth waved a hand dismissively.
“Oh, he’ll be back on Monday. Giving evidence at an enquiry, bit of a fuckup with one of our units almost blowing up a wedding near the Turkish border. They say they got bad intel, we say we have no idea what they’re talking about, he’s taken it a bit personally because his boyfriend’s unit got involved and prevented it turning into a diplomatic incident. Enjoy the quiet, he never shuts up.”
As Wentworth wandered off, Darcy returned to her seat. She cracked her knuckles, mentally girded her loins, and took stock: two and a half hours left of today to start poking fascists, 48 hours to find a party costume, and a couple of work-days before the return of her chatty, and apparently gay, desk mate. She was going to take a punt on it being Calvin. He looked like a nerd. At least he wouldn’t try and look down her shirt.
In which there is a costume party.
Darcy was fixing herself some lunch when her phone rang, the chugging opening chords of ‘London Calling’ telling her it was Jane; she answered it before Joe Strummer’s rasping vocals could kick in.
“Hey lady-bro.” she grinned. She’d missed Jane, and while they’d emailed, they’d not spoken since Darcy had left.
“Hey Darce, guess where I am?” said Jane, her excitement audible.
Darcy looked at her watch. It was just past 1pm; doing the math, that would make it around 8am in London… weird, Jane was terrible at mornings.
“Well, either you’ve been replaced by an evil clone who’s chipper before noon on a Saturday, or you’re back Stateside?” she ventured.
“Cheers babe.” laughed Jane, “No evil clone here, I’m in New York.”
“Ooh, exciting… you come back early for Christmas or something?”
“Yeah, well, it looks like Christmas might be coming early if Monday goes my way. Stark Industries have taken an interest in my research and are looking to either give me a big fat grant to keep working at Culver, or take me on directly if Culver are determined to maintain the rod up their ass about this.”
Darcy whistled, impressed.
“It’s take it’s sweet time, but 2013 is finally starting to not blow in spectacular ways.”
“I know, right? Thor has got his fingers crossed that we wind up in New York so he can hang out with his super-buddies. But anyway, how the devil are you, lady? I’ve not heard a peep since you emailed me the good news. How’s life as a spook?”
Darcy looked around the bare little serviced apartment that S.H.I.E.L.D. was paying for for the next three months as part of her relocation, and her heart sunk a bit. Her first, honest, response was lonely.
“Spooky,” she said, “seriously, though, I’ve only been doing the job a couple of days, it’s been wall-to-wall bureaucracy for weeks. I already hate my boss though. You were best boss.”
“You made any friends?” Jane sounded concerned
“Not had time. I’ve kinda started hanging out with some people from the office at break-time though. I tell ya, it’s like being in highschool again, everyone’s got their little cliques. But there’s a costume party tonight for someone’s birthday, so that’ll be a good chance to mingle.”
She scrunched up her nose at the word ‘mingle’. It sounded so grown-up, small talk for people with their own lives and no room for anyone new.
“What’s the theme?
“Ha! That’s brilliant. Or terrible. Did you think of it?”
“Nooo! But the fact someone else in the office did bodes well for me not being the weirdest person there.”
“Whatcha going as?”
“Weeeelll, I found the best ugly poncho in a thrift store this morning, it’s baby pink and fuchsia, and I seem to have accidentally inherited your froggy hat, so I’m going for Vile Bachelorette Frog.”
There was silence on the other end of the line.
“Is that really the image you want to project to your new colleagues?” asked Jane, eventually.
“I’m hoping it’ll dissuade any amorous intentions. Office romances are the worst idea. It probably won’t put off Lecherous Jeff though.” She paused, thinking, “Hey Jane, if I took a period pad, and put some red glitter on it, and sewed it to the back of the poncho at ass height, would that be going too far?”
“Almost certainly. Doooo eeeeeet.”
“So explain to me why you need to borrow eyeliner from my wife, Jensen?” said Pooch, ushering his friend from front door to kitchen.
“Costume party tonight. I need to draw on my face, can’t be bothered to buy face-paint, and I’m not using a Sharpie again.”
Pooch sighed and shook his head at ‘again’, as he reached into the fridge for a couple of beers. Popping the caps off, he handed one to Jensen.
“Go on, what’s your costume? I’m gonna put money on it being tasteless.”
Jensen squinted into the middle distance for a second, trying to decide if it was tasteless.
“Ok, so the theme is internet memes…”
Pooch rolled his eyes, “Did you think of that?”, he interrupted.
“No, but I can see why you’d think that. Anyway, do you remember that “Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me” song, from, like, ten years ago? With the cartoon bunnies in the video?”
“You’re going as the Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me bunny?”
“Yeah! Cheap white t-shirt, draw a bit number 1 on it, made some ears with a wire coat hanger and a pair of socks… Don’t give me that face, they were new… and then draw on a nose and whiskers…”
Pooch was looking at him with a bemused smile. “Is that really the image you want to project to your colleagues, Jay?”
“Ah,” said Jensen, looking strangely proud of himself and pointing a finger in Pooch’s direction, “it’s reverse psychology. Subconsciously, chicks’ll want to up my score.”
“So you’re going for the pity-fuck approach, then?”
Jensen dropped his hand, deflated, “Well, if you put it like that…”
Pooch suppressed a chuckle and waved the subject away, “Anyway, how was the enquiry?”
Jensen took a swig of beer, then started picking at the bottle label, the mood in the room suddenly grown serious.
“Unpleasantly deja vu,” said Jensen, “Fisher’s unit nearly rolled a Kurdish wedding in a camp near the border, claimed they’d got intell that it was an Islamist rallying point. No one knows where they got this intell from, it sure as hell wasn’t us. It’s happy coincidence that our guys were in the vicinity on recon and Clay managed to shout Fisher down.”
“See, this is what happens when we take our eyes off him for five minutes.” mused Pooch
“At least you get to go back in the field,” said Jensen, sadly, “How is Jolene doing anyway?”
“Due any day now. She’s taken Mikey out on a play date, she’s sick of being cooped up. Anyway, enquiry.”
“So the good news is that Clay’s actions were considered entirely justified. The bad is that the whole thing is being handwaved away as a ‘miscommunication’. It’s weird.” Jensen scowled at the memory, “One of Fisher’s idiots tried to claim that they’d got super secret intel from Commander Rogers, which went down about as well with the Cap as you’d imagine, so he got involved and came firmly down on Clay’s side. You’d think that kind of bullshit would be taken pretty seriously, right? But no one seems to care. I’m gonna have a dig on that guy, see what I can find.”
Pooch’s phone chirruped with an arriving text. He peered at it and put his beer down on the counter suddenly.
“Awww shit, it’s showtime!” he said, fear and excitement in his eyes, “lemme go find you that eyeliner quickly, then I’ve gotta run and collect Jolene and Mikey.”
To her surprise, Darcy was having fun. Once the initial nerves had worn off, she began to realise that her new co-workers were not the sensible, staid, professional adults she’d feared they’d be, especially once they’d got a few cocktails down them. Well, not the ones that thought going to a meme-themed birthday party was their idea of a good time, anyway. Jemma was dressed as lolcat, with kitty ears and a t-shirt with a picture of a cheeseburger. Neeks (Aneeka, it turned out) hadn’t had time to make a costume because her son had been ill, but did lead a mass rendition of the Single Ladies dance. Mitch had knocked it out the park with a Slenderman costume, and although the mask made drinking a pain, he was getting a lot of glee out of sneaking up on people and looming. Yoko had made an elaborate Nyan Cat costume, and the large cardboard poptart got Darcy started on Thor stories, her impressions of his archaic use of English going down a storm.
Jensen had been late. He’d got distracted working on a drone he’d been modding, and it was gone 10pm by the time he’d arrived. There’d also been a minor panic with his ‘costume’ - the sizing on the package had lied, and what should have been an XL was an M at best. It was snug to say the least, and a little short, and under the bar’s mood lights, it turned out also a little see-through. The party had been in full swing when he’d got there, and despite his attempts to turn on the patter and perform, he was struggling to make an in. He perched on a bar stool and people watched for a while. It was frustrating, he used to be good at this, but since the showdown with Max, loud parties were just hard work; he couldn’t stand for long, and although he’d always been good at lip reading, following conversations with this background noise was tricky. He pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger, hoping he’d not just smudged his whiskers. When he looked up, he saw an incredibly pretty girl in a hideous poncho staring over her shoulder at him. He smiled and gestured a toast with his beer. What that a glittery sanitary pad stuck to her ass?
Shit, thought Darcy, rumbled, as ‘Calvin’ smirked and raised his drink in her direction. She hadn’t meant to stare, but holy cats that shirt didn’t leave a lot to the imagination. ‘Calvin’, it turned out, was kinda hot, the tight white t-shirt showing off an impressive set of pecs, the twin ridges of a six-pack, and biceps she was pretty sure were bigger than her head. Ah well, best go say hello. As she walked over, she repeated a mantra in her head: probably gay, probably gay, probably gay. No point getting over excited if he was batting for the other team. That said, as she got close, she noticed his eyes flick down to her chest. Despite the high neckline, the bulk of the poncho only seem to enhance the prominence of her bust, much to her annoyance.
“I swear I wasn’t just looking at your boobs.” he said, with an embarrassed smile and eyes definitely back on her face.
“‘S ok, I was staring at yours just now.”
“Heh, yeah, one day I’ll find a shirt that fits me in the chest and doesn’t double as camping equipment.” he crossed an arm over his chest, uncomfortably aware that she could probably see his nipples.
“I know dem feels.” sighed Darcy.
“I’d like to say the costume reference is a humblebrag, but I’d be lying…”
There was an awkward silence, before he continued “I’m Jensen, by the way… um, Jake… you friends with Yoko?
“Um, kinda… I just started working in your office. I’m Darcy, and I’ve got the desk opposite you.”
Jensen grinned, delighted, “Which you figured out from the photos, right? Spying on the spies already… you’ll go far, kiddo.”
As he was speaking, it dawned on Darcy that although Jensen was looking at her face, he wasn’t actually making eye-contact. Rather, he’d been watching her lips. And now she came to notice it, the thing in his right ear wasn’t a Bluetooth widget. He must have noticed her looking, because his hand flew up to that ear self-consciously.
“It’s a hearing aid,” he said, oddly apologetic, “lost most of the hearing in this ear in an explosion. Other side’s fine, but in a noisy environment like this…” he gestured out into the room, “I need to lip-read. See, I was Special Forces before I wound up…” Jensen was cut short by a drunken Wentworth careening into him.
“Whassup Jay, how’s the boyfriend?” drawled Wentworth, leaning on Jensen’s shoulder, “Mizzz Lewis.” he leered at Darcy.
“Sergeant Alvarez is just fine, as is the rest of the unit, and they’ll be home tomorrow, sir.” said Jensen frostily.
“Sergeant Alvarez,” snorted Wentworth, “what’s his nickname again? Cougar? Now tell me Mizzz Lewis,” he addressed Darcy, but gave Jensen a slap on the chest, “is that the name of a straight man?”
Before Darcy could respond, Jake had put his drink down, and drawn himself up to full height, getting in Wentworths space.
“Now Jeff,” said Jensen, sweetly, but with a malicious smirk, “we’ve been over this before. Much as I love Cougs, he ain’t my boyfriend. I’m a single man, sweetcheeks, and you’ve got my number.”
Wentworth’s face dropped and he started to back away; Jensen followed.
Darcy felt a tug on her elbow; it was Jemma, who beckoned her away.
“There’s no use in hanging around when those two start taking potshots at each other.” she sighed
Darcy watched Wentworth flee, pursued by Jensen proclaiming his love, and peals of laughter from the crowd.
“So I’ve got a question,” said Darcy to her friend, “is Jensen actually gay, or is this all an elaborate running gag?”
Jemma pulled a face, “Too be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself,” she said, a little conspiratorially, “Him and his roommate are obviously very close, I mean, they’re way more touchy-feely intimate with each other than most normal guys are, but you get that with Forces who’ve been living in each other’s pockets for a long time,” she paused, the innuendo hanging between them, “you know what I mean. He’s never confirmed one way or the other, and y’know, until he decides to it’s not really any of our business.”
There was a cry of “Time at the bar!”
After Wentworth had fled, Jensen had felt a gentle poke in his side, and found Yoko stood next to him.
“Sorry about that,” she said, “I promise I didn’t invite him.”
Jensen gave her a little one-armed hug around the shoulders, “Not your fault, Morita, that shitweasel has a talent for turning up where he’s not wanted. Hope he didn’t spoil your birthday.”Glancing back in the direction he’d come from, Darcy was arm in arm with Jemma, who was probably explaining what all that had been about. His heart sank a little. The phone in his pocket buzzed; it was a text from Pooch.
Baby girl, 6lb 8oz. Baby doing well, mother busting my ass already.
There was a cry of “Time at the bar!”
In which Jensen is crap at girls
Sometime around 2pm on Monday afternoon, the industrious quiet of the office was broken by a cheery “Hey Wentworth, whaddaya get if you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?”, as Jensen ambled in. Darcy groaned quietly to herself.
“That,” she said, as Jensen plonked himself down at the desk opposite, “was terrible.”
Jensen grinned, looking pleased with himself, “Yeah, but you liked it.”
Darcy opened her mouth to rebuke the accusation, but closed it again with a huff as she reconsidered. “It’s a fair cop. I will be stealing it to annoy my friends and family,” she sighed, “both of them.”
Jensen chuckled and Darcy went back to the IP address she was tracing.
After a few minutes, Jensen leant forward, peering around his monitor.
“You a gambling woman, Lewis?” he asked, mischieviously, “How long d’we think it’ll take Wentworth to cotton on?”
Wentworth was currently stood over by Jemma’s desk, in hushed conversation. Although she couldn’t hear what was being said, Jemma’s slow blink of despair and then murderous glare at Jensen suggested that he hadn’t yet.
“Until someone nice, like Neeks, explains it to him slowly and patiently, I suspect.” said Darcy. She huffed a little laugh, “At my last job, took my intern about three and a half minutes to clock the time I sent him to my boss to ask for the long stand in the corner. Bounced off like an eager puppy, then there was an anguished wail from down the corridor. Golden. I’m surprised he stuck around.”
Jensen gave her an appraising look, and leant back in his chair, idly raising his hands behind his head to rest it on them, “I can think of a reason or two… So this was when you were working for Jane Foster on the Einstein-Rosen bridge research project?”
Darcy’s head snapped up to look at him, “How did you… have you been checking up on me?!”, she blurted out in surprise.
Jensen just shrugged, “Well I wasn’t doing anything else useful on Sunday afternoon,” he said, “And like you’ve never google-stalked someone you met at a party.”
Darcy wanted to be angry about this, she really did, but the sonofabitch had a point, and if she’d had better wifi in her apartment she’d probably have done exactly the same to him. It didn’t help that right now he was giving her his best innocent face, that while far from innocent, was pretty damn adorable, all big blue puppy-eyes, and pouty bottom lip. And holy cats, those arms… So, she settled for annoyed, and with a grumble got back to work.
Well, shit, thought Jensen, smooth, Jay, real smooth. ‘Google stalking’, for fucksake, way to look like a massive creeper. God he was an idiot sometimes. He’d been genuinely excited to see that she’d worked with Dr Foster, and had hoped to ask about that research. I mean, how often do you get to talk to someone who’s been on the cutting edge of astrophysics? Hell, how often did he get hang with someone who was a) probably smarter than he was, b) stunningly beautiful, and c) had a sense of humour? Well, ok, there was Aisha, but then she had regular sense of humour failures where he was involved, usually deserved. Work was unappealing, tracing bank accounts for laundered drug money which was probably funding yet another Al Qaeda spin off. Or the CIA. Or both. Again. For fuck’s sake. In any case, it was far too easy to to let his attention drift to the woman opposite him. A tendril of dark hair had escaped the loose bun tied at the base of her neck, and curled down her pale throat, across a collar bone, and drew the eye unavoidably down to… Jensen forced his attention back to the screen in front of him. Firstly, get a grip man, you’ve seen breasts before, he thought, secondly, you will not be That Guy. We’ve got an office full of That Guys already. Thirdly, the hell she’d be interested in a loser like you. Ok, he’d not seen breasts up close and personal for a while, and Darcy’s jersey wrap dress certainly accentuated her figure, and he wasn’t just objectifying her, he was genuinely interested in getting to know her, and… After a scant half hour of sneaking glances and pretending to work, he caved.
“Hey Lewis, what’s your favourite Christmas song?” Jensen cringed internally as soon as the question was out of his mouth. Darcy looked up at him, quizzically. He shrugged “It’s December, I’m an overgrown kid… and you can’t say ‘Fairy Tale of New York, everyone says that”
Darcy grinned, white teeth behind red lips, “Ok, I’ll bite, lemme think.” She chewed idley on the end of a pen for a moment, which did not help Jensen keep his imagination in check, “Ok,” she said at last, “I don’t know if was ever much of a thing over here, but when I was in the UK, there was this one ‘Don’t Let The Bells End’, that was like this perfect hommage 80s hair metal ballads.”
Jensen’s eyes lit up “Oh, shit, yeah, I know that one! We were stationed on a British base out in… the Yemen, I think it was the Yemen… somewhere ‘round there… one year. Good times, British squaddies seem to be consistently nuts in a good way. There was a lot of air guitar going on.”
“Exactly, you can air-guitar to it, there’s a sing-a-long refrain that mostly involves shouting ‘bell-end’ in your best falsetto…”
“And you’ve got to be able to sing along… there was this one time we were in Mexico, near the border, driving along, car full of tough guy Special Forces, and y’know that Maria Carey ‘All I Want For Christmas’, it comes on the radio, and everyone was joining in… well, ok, Cougar wasn’t singing but he was gettin’ into it… and, well, Roque wasn’t either, got kinda pissy and said it was like being trapped with gay Wayne’s World…” Jensen paused abruptly, frowning slightly, “but then Roque always was an asshole.” he waved his hand vaguely in front of his face, as if to swat away the bad memory, “but anyway, yeah, the Brits do seem to have a precedent for nuts Christmas songs, maybe it’s ‘cus as a nation they seem to be perpetually drunk…”
Darcy half listened to Jensen rambling while she focused on her work. He was pretty funny, but she could see why she’d got the warning about him never shutting up. His stream of consciousness being replaced by a happy purring made her look up; Jensen had slumped forwards, forehead resting on his arms on the desk, while ‘Hobbes’ stood behind him, scritching the back of Jensen’s head and neck. ‘Hobbes’ winked at Darcy.
“Off switch.” he said, nodding solemnly.
“I’m a highly trained killing machine.” Jensen protested, feebly. With an affectionate chuckle and hair-ruffle,‘Hobbes’ stopped scritching, and Jensen sat up, blinking owlishly.
“Coffee?” said ‘Hobbes’.
“Yeah, ‘course, the gang’s back in town then?” said Jensen, standing up with a little help from his friend, “Oh, also, Darcy, Cougar… Cougar, Darcy.” He gestured between the two; Cougar gave Darcy a little salute, then placed a hand on the small of Jensen’s back and escorted him out the office. Watching them leave, Darcy noticed two things: firstly, Jensen walked with a limp, favouring his right side; secondly, that was one hell of a shoulder to waist ratio.
In the elevator down to the canteen floor, Jensen was despairing, “Gay Wayne’s World! Why did I even mention that?” he covered his face with his hands, rubbing his eyes under his glasses, “Why am I so bad at girls, Cougs?”
Cougar shrugged, “Years of practice?” he suggested, with a wry smile.
“Thanks, bro.” grumbled Jensen, irritably shoving his hands in his pockets.
Realising he’d hit a bit of a nerve, Cougar gave Jensen a conciliatory pat on the shoulder “Sorry. But you need to chill.” and that, tangentially, reminded him, “Brought you a souvenir, by the way. Moroccan. Seized it comin’ outa Syria.”
“Thanks, man, I owe ya.”
“De nada. Just don’t like to see you in pain.”
The sound of Aisha practically crying with laughter met Jensen and Cougar as they got to the canteen, which was disconcerting. At a corner table with an enormous box of Turkish delight on it, their three friends sat, Pooch in a similar state of hysterics to Aisha, and an indignant Clay. Seeing their bewilderment as they sat down, Clay gave a martyred sigh, “These losers seem to find the fact that Commander Rogers is a gentleman and enquired after us just now strangely hilarious.”
This only served to make Aisha and Pooch laugh harder. Aisha caught her breath, “We ain’t laughin’ at the Cap, Clay,” she gasped, “we’re laughin’ at you being a godawful fanboy.”
“I was just showing respect for…”
“The hell you were,” wheezed Pooch, cutting Clay off, “Heart-eyes, motherfucker.”
Clay started to bluster, but Aisha talked over him “Oooh Commander Rogers, ahm your biggest fan, you’re so heroic…”
“I did not say that!”
“Can you sign my ass, Cap? I luuurrrve yooooou!” she dissolved into laughter again.
Clay stared at her a moment, shaking his head, “I hate you sometimes, you bitch.”
“Aww, I hate you too, asshole.” purred Aisha, fluttering her eyelashes at Clay.
Jensen and Cougar exchanged glances across the table. “I know, right?” mused Jensen, “and yet it’s always us who get mistaken for the couple.” And then he yelped as Aisha beat him upside the head with the lid of the sweet box.
Back in the office, Darcy had to admit to herself that it was a little boring and quiet this afternoon without Jensen’s background noise, and that she was kinda glad when he reappeared.
“Honestly, rocking up mid afternoon, then indulging your drug habit on the job, the hell kind of operation is this?” she said, mock-stern, before he’d sat down. Jensen looked a little panicked. “Oh god, I was joking! I’ve had late shifts explained to me…” she bit her lip, apologetic, “but you do have suspect white powder on your shirt.”
He looked down at himself, “Huh? Oh, that’s cornflour,” he said brushing at his shoulder, “the gang brought lokum back from Turkey, and, um, Aisha got violent with the packaging.”
Darcy gave him her best big, sad eyes, “Aww, and you didn’t bring me any?”.
Jensen’s response surprised her, as he held up his two index fingers - hold that though - and took off. A couple of minutes later he returned, limp more pronounced, and offered her a box with a single cube of Turkish Delight in it.
The following evening, as Darcy was leaving to go home, Jensen had tagged along with her on his way to kick a server and/or a sysadmin. An out-of-order elevator forced them to go the long way around, and passing down a corridor lined with briefing rooms, they met Cougar coming the other way. Cougar pointed at Jensen, “Tomorrow, 1830.”
“I’m yours whenever you want me.” grinned Jensen
Cougar rolled his eyes, and offered up a high-five. As the two men passed, the high-five was followed with them slapping each other soundly on the ass, and Darcy had to suppress a laugh.
“Pretty sure that’s not how they did it in Top Gun.” she said.
“Yeah, it started out as trying to do that, but we kept missing, so it became a thing.” shrugged Jensen. He gave her a quizzical look, “D’you know how to use a sidearm, Lewis?”
“No, why?” she asked, confused as to where that had come from.
Jensen sighed, sounding annoyed, “See, I don’t get that, you’d have thought that in an organisation like this, y’know, where we’re dealing with national security and fucking up some particularly unpleasant people, they’d want everyone to be defence competent.” Darcy tensed. “Nonono, it’s not your fault, I’m not sayin’ you’re not up to the job,” Jensen continued, “I mean like I don’t get why they only see fit to train field agents in firearms and hand to hand. What if we got infiltrated, or someone tried to kidnap you to interrogate, or something? Everyone should be getting basic training as standard, not optional if-you-can-be-assed courses, is all I’m saying. So the next question is, do you want to know how to use a sidearm?”
“Um, yes? Now you’ve mentioned the whole kidnapping thing.”
“Great!” beamed Jensen, “so come down to the range on -2 tomorrow at 1830… that’s what that was all about, Cougs likes to make sure I’m keeping my hand in,” he pointed a thumb back in the direction Cougar had gone, “which I do, incidentally, and we’ll…”
“Whoa whoa, hang on, I thought you meant like do one of the official courses?” said Darcy abruptly, stopping and crossing her arms, feeling like she’d missed an important part of this conversation.”
“Or that… but, well, I could teach you,” Jensen thrust his hands in his pockets and gave her a puppy-dog grin, “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
Darcy had to agree, it did kinda sound fun.
The next evening, in the elevator down to the bowels of the Triskelion, Darcy felt unexpectedly nervous, and she couldn’t put a finger on why. It felt a little transgressive, somehow, going to learn how to use a gun, which was ridiculous. She worked in law enforcement now, and Jensen was right, even though she wasn’t a front line agent she should know how to defend herself. Plus, when the chips were down, she’d had no compunction about tasering someone, and that was before she’d known he was a virtually indestructible demigod. Then again, the whole point about a taser was that it was, in theory at least, non-lethal, and Darcy had been brought up to believe that outside of an actual war-zone a gun would always be excessive force. Nana would be horrified.
But that wasn’t it, that wasn’t what was causing the strange little flutter in her stomach. Maybe it was knowing Cougar would be joining them. Jensen talked about Cougar a lot, usually in stories about their Special Forces days that started so, funny story and ended with multiple casualties. She’d assumed that Jensen’s enthusiasm descriptions of his friend’s skill as a sniper was largely hyperbole, but Mitch had confirmed that reputation had it that Agent Alvarez could hold his own against the likes of Barton and Romanoff. That wasn’t it though, either; from what little interaction she’d had with Cougar, he really didn’t seem like the type to mock her for being a noob. Probably wouldn’t even notice she was there. Apart from that first meeting, he hadn’t on the occasions he’d drifted into the office, being far more interested on sneaking up on Jensen and scritching or otherwise bothering him.
As the elevator door pinged, Darcy took a deep breath and tried to shoo the butterflies in her stomach away, and hoped that there’d be more than three of them on the range. Pushing open the door, she realised she was shit outta luck there. In the relative gloom of gallery, Jensen, it’s sole occupant, fidgeted from foot to foot, turning a pistol over in his hands. Seeing her, he carefully placed the pistol on the table in front of the target lane.
“Oops, teaching you bad habits already,” he said with a sheepish smile. Darcy cocked her head, unsure of what he meant. “Zeroeth rule, these are not toys. You don’t fiddle with firearms. Well, I do, because I’m an idiot with no survival instinct, but I’d just taken that one one apart and put it back together, so I was absolutely sure it wasn’t loaded. However, bad habits.” He beckoned Darcy over from where she’d been loitering in the doorway.
“So what am I looking at here?” she asked, looking at the table full of serious looking weaponry.
“Eh, most of that is Cougar’s toys… sorry, equipment…” he shot her a wry grin, and picked up the pistol again, “but this is what I thought you could start with. Glock 26, the kind of standard law enforcement, open carry kind of thing, a bit up from entry level but what you’ll probably get issued with if you go for a licence. Which you should.” He put the pistol back down and raised his hands, palms out, fingers spread, “So, um, I might have gotten a little ahead of myself last night, see I can teach you how to shoot safely and well, but…”
“But you can’t issue me with a licence. I figured.” smiled Darcy, gently pulling his hands down from their defensive position, “And I signed up to the official course this morning. But like you said, this’ll be fun, right?” Jensen relaxed a little, and Darcy wondered when he’d become the nervous on in this conversation. Then she realised that her fingers were still intertwined with his, and that he was looking at their hands like he was trying to work out how to politely extricate himself, and with an embarrassed little cough she broke contact. Jeez, awkward Darc, dude’s socially awkward enough as it is without your help she thought, noticing the blush that had turned the tips of his ears pink.
“So, yeah, Glock 26…” said Jensen, rubbing the back of his neck, “so you’ve never fired a gun before, correct?”
“Correct, but I’m kinda handy with a taser.” Darcy tried not to look too proud of herself at that memory, but failed.
“Ooh, sounds like there’s a story there… Yeah, that might be relevant, we’ll see. But first, when you’re on the range, you’ve gotta use protection, as it were.” he tossed her a pair of ear-protectors.
“You gonna be able to hear me with those on?” she asked, turning them over in her hands. Jensen winced and looked away, and Darcy’s heart sank a little bit, “Sorry, that was a dumb question, you’d have said if it was a problem…” she trailed off, feeling awkward.
Jensen gave a little sigh and met her eyes, “No, sorry, I… It’s a perfectly reasonable question, hell, I was having trouble hearing you in the bar the other night, and yeah, I’ll be able to hear you well enough if I keep my good ear nearest you. It’s just that… well, I appreciate you taking things into account, but please don’t feel sorry for me, ok? The hearing thing, that’s an inconvenience that can be adjusted for, just like being short-sighted, and no one makes a big deal out of wearing glasses, right?”
“Got it.” said Darcy, “and call me out if I’m a dick about it again.” She put her ear defenders and safety glasses on.
Jensen talked her through the basic safety checks, then showed her how to load a bullet clip, first a couple of times slowly, then, not being able to resist showing off a bit, in a swift, fluid motion that came from years of practice. Darcy wished she wasn’t quite so impressed by the display, but there was an elegance that came with mastery that was captivating. She had a go, clumsily fumbling the unfamiliar mechanism while Jensen reassured her that she was doing fine, that the clip was in straight and the right way around. The gun loaded, he turned her to face down the target lane.
“Ok, Lewis, keep your finger off the trigger and show me how you’d aim your taser.”
Darcy squared herself to the target, feet planted shoulder apart, both hands on the gun, arms raised to shoulder height, “How d’I look?”
Jensen paced around her, looking her up and down, “Not bad at all,” he said, ( Jeez, understatement of the week , he thought), “a little stiff though.” he stood behind her, feet outside of hers, “you’ll get more recoil with this than the taser, so if your joints are locked out you’ll get jerked backwards,” moulding his posture around her, he wrapped his hands over the top of hers on the gun, “and holy shit you’re tiny!”
Stood close for the first time, the size difference between them was stark; a head shorter, Darcy would fit comfortably under his chin if he’d been stood straight, and although he couldn’t be literally twice as broad as her, the way his shoulders and arms enveloped her stood like this, it sure felt like it.
Darcy scrunched her nose up at the apparent non-sequitur, “I’m not that short, pretty sure I’m above average, just ‘cus you’re a lanky…”
“Hey, chill,” laughed Jensen, letting go of her hands to raise his in surrender, and stepping back, “I didn’t mean you were short, it’s just that I usually see you sat at a desk, so we’re on a level, and I only see you from the waist up, so I guess my mental image of you was just… larger.”
“Oh, so short and fat now?” there was humour in Darcy’s voice, and as spoke, she began to turn to face him, and relaxing her elbows, started to raise the muzzle of her gun.
“Whoa, whoa, shit!” Jensen, alarmed, darted forward and dropped a palm on top of the gun, pushing it back down. Darcy gasped in surprise at the sudden movement. “Sorry,” he grinned, “but if you shoot out the lights they’ll bill us for the bulbs. Also, that’s a good way to accidentally shoot yourself in the face, and that’s no fun at all. If you need to relax or stand down, lower your weapon to point at the floor.”
“So the movies lie they, huh?”
“See also, unless you’re very practised, don’t shoot one-handed, your aim will be shit, and don’t turn the gun on it’s side. Not only will your aim be shit, but the firing mechanism will probably jam, and you’ll look like a total douche.”
“Noted,” said Darcy with a laugh, “and I was just yankin’ your chain there, I know you weren’t being rude, I am kinda tiny.” she got into firing position again, “so, where were we?”
Jensen wrapped himself around her again, and holy hell that was distracting. Through her blouse and his t-shirt, his chest was warm against her back, and unexpectedly soft. Thor, when she’d hugged him, was solid, no give at all, but although Jensen was clearly stacked, and likely strong, he was yielding. His hands on hers were calloused and dry, but his fingers were long and elegant, and his wrists seemed almost incongruously delicate. And the sonofabitch had to smell good, too, didn’t he? Not the Axe and sweaty nerd she’d been half expecting, no, rather clean laundry and soap, sweet and slightly musky. This was not conducive for focussing on the task in hand.
“Ok,” his voice was muffled through the ear protectors, and she tried not to think about the way his full, pink lips were practically touching her, “so, bend your elbows and knees a little bit,” he used his weight to get her to drop her centre of gravity, “and shift your feet out a smidge.” He moved his right foot inside hers to nudge hers outwards, and that went straight to Darcy’s crotch. She bit her lip, praying to any deity listening (not Thor, he’d flip his shit) that it looked like she was concentrating.
Jensen was having similar difficulties keeping on task. Darcy’s curvaceous rear was dangerously close to his groin; he shifted his hips back, to be sure they were weren’t touching. The last thing he needed right now was for her to feel something twitch, she’d never speak to him again. He took a deep breath, which didn’t help in the slightest because his face was practically in her hair, and god she smelled good: coconut shampoo and a soft, spicy scent which he guessed must be her, she didn’t seem to be wearing perfume. It would be so easy to just turn his face and nuzzle into that soft, dark… Oh, there we go, good job he’d shifted. He cleared his throat, and hoped to hell she’d not noticed that he had a rampant semi going on right now.
“Ok, so, right index finger on the trigger, cup your hand under,” his voice felt thick and husky, “left hand under right, and extend your index finger to steady yourself. Now, you’ll feel the trigger has two bite points, first to prime, that’s it, look down the barrel to the target, now squeeze…”
There was a loud crack, and Darcy squeaked as the recoil pushed her back into him. There was a hole in the throat of the target silhouette. Darcy lowered the gun slowly, and Jensen shifted his hands to her shoulders. She started giggling; it was infectious and soon Jensen was laughing too.
“Not bad for a first timer.” he grinned.
“Advantage of having an experienced partner.” she smirked
There was a polite cough from the doorway, “You two need a minute?”
Fucking Cougar, lounging against the door, smirking. How long had he even been there? thought Jensen as he let go of Darcy’s shoulders and stepped away, “Can’t you just make a noise like a normal person, Cougar?”. Looking around, Darcy noticed Jensen had been blushing furiously when they’d moved apart, neck, ears and cheeks stained pink, no doubt at embarrassed at what looked like a compromising situation. Cougar didn’t answer, he just sauntered over to them, as Darcy, looking guilty, carefully replaced the pistol on the table. When he got close, he casually ran a hand through the space between Jensen and Darcy’s heads, freeing the few stray hairs of hers that had tangled in his beard.
“Velcro face.” he said, earnestly.
“Thanks, bro.” said Jensen through gritted teeth, side-eyeing his friend.
“Any time, cariño.” said Cougar, cupping Jensen’s cheek before giving him a gentle little slap, and draping the other arm over his shoulder. Eyeing the array of firearms on the tables in front of them, “So, where we at?”.
Despite the two men’s protests, well, mostly Jensen’s, that she was not intruding, Darcy couldn’t help but feel like she was. There was an intimacy between the two men in the way they moved around each other, touching frequently as Cougar would adjust Jensen’s stance, or shifting each other out the way, or affectionate pats of congratulation if one or the other got off a particularly nice shot. They seemed to communicate telepathically, Cougar barely saying a word, and Jensen interpreting his expressions and gestures to continue a comically one-sided conversation, translating for Darcy when needed. Still, she decided to stay and make the best of the opportunity, and with help from Jensen, and then better tuition from Cougar when he got annoyed with his friend’s bad habits, she began to make progress. Not every shot was on target, but the few that missed where by fractions of an inch. Got a good eye there , Cougar had said with an approving nod.
The whole range set up was no challenge for Cougar, an exercise in box-ticking for his handlers at best, but it let him check up on Jensen, and now they had a guest, to show off. Turning on the moving target lane - ten paper targets suspended from a twisting, moving belt on the ceiling -, with five different handguns and rifles in front of it, he gestured to Darcy to time him, and got Jensen to spin him around. When Jensen shouted “Go!”, Darcy started the counter, and Cougar in a fluid movement stepped forward, picked up the handgun on the table and began to shoot. Darcy felt herself gawking, she couldn’t quite see how he was getting one shot off bore dropping the weapon and moving on to the next. Nine shots fired, Cougar says “done”; 22 seconds, that couldn’t be humanly possible.
Jensen began to protest, “Hey, what about the last one… oh!” and beamed, “very nice!”
In nine of the targets, there were neat holes in the foreheads of the silhouettes - in the tenth, a throwing knife pierced it between where eyes should be. Darcy was definitely stareing now.
“How did you… Where did that even come from?”
Cougar flashed her a smile, winked and pointed to his ponytail. Jensen took her phone off her to check Cougar’s time, and swore.
“Eight o’clock, sorry guys, I gotta go and do some work.” he handed her the phone back, “and you, Lewis, need to go and not be at work. I’ll see you tomorrow. It’s been fun.”
In which maturity is overrated.
It was gone midnight by the time Jensen got home. Unlocking the door as quietly as he could, he slipped into his apartment, closing the door gently behind him without switching on the light. As he locked it, there was a sharp pain in the back of his neck, and he yelped, spinning around to face the direction of the projectile. In the low light of a standard lamp, Cougar sprawled on the sofa, book in one hand, smirking; a hair tie lay on the floor at Jensen’s feet. Cougar gave him a cheery little wave. Jensen flipped him the bird and blew a raspberry. He picked a beanbag off the floor, dropped it next to the sofa, and lowered himself on to it, his right leg stiff and awkward. Leaning his head against Cougar’s hip, he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“So, why are you still up?”
“Wasn’t sure if I’d catch you in the morning. Losers are shipping out tomorrow PM, didn’t wanna just vanish.”
Cougar huffed a laugh, “Caribbean. Gangsters got hold of gear from New York. Easy job, back by Christmas.”
Jensen nodded, “Sweet, I’m jealous. I could do with some winter sun. Takin’ the Pooch?”
Cougar shook his head, “Daddy desk duty.”
They fell quiet, Cougar idly combing his fingers through Jensen’s short, spiky hair. Unusually, it was him that broke the silence.
Jensen groaned, and tilted his head back to look his friend in the face, “What about Darcy?”
Cougar quirked an eyebrow.
“Yeah, of course I like her. She’s smart. She’s funny. She takes no shit. She tolerates my jokes. She’s hotter than the sun...”
Cougar looked at him expectantly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Workplace romances are always a bad plan. Also, like I say, she tolerates me, which makes her pretty much the only person in that office who still does. I want to maintain that. Creeping on her would not help.”
Cougar rolled his eyes.
“Come on, man, you know my track record with women. I get nervous, say something weird, and blow it. You end up bailing me out half the time. Plus, y’know, my personality being an effective method of birth control aside, I’m not exactly prime estate either…” he waved vaguely at his leg, gracelessly stuck out in front of him.
Cougar frowned sadly, “Hey, no puttin’ yourself down, man. No one talks shit about my best buddy like that, ‘specially not you. She likes you, Jay.”
Jensen snorted derisively, “Really?”
“Really. Trust me on this one. Just don’t do anything stupid while I’m away, yeah?”
The weekend came around bitterly cold and threatening snow. Which, predictably, meant the mall had it’s heating turned up high, and Darcy found herself sweating and uncomfortable in her grey, wool coat. Carrying it was potentially worse, in the crowded aisles of the toy store, she’d managed to knock over a display of weird anthropomorphic critters, and set off a whole shelf of yapping plush dogs. The draw of trolling Jane, or Thor, or both, with Heroes of New York merch was losing it’s appeal. Struggling through the throngs of Christmas shoppers, she pushed through to the cluster of stands topped with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Captain America. Most of the merchandise was Cap themed, or Iron Man, the known quantities who already had an active public persona, but Thor seemed to be reasonably represented. The action figure was kinda creepy, the face taken from footage of the battle, so looking mostly like but not quite her friend. The scaled-down, plastic Mew-mew that lit up and emitted tinny, zappy sound effects when you swung it, was very tempting (and rather satisfying to swing), but at $80 not that funny. And then she saw it, the perfect gag gift for her sister-from-another-mister. Hung on the end of the row were a set of covered hot water bottles, each of the Heroes rendered disturbingly in plush, bodies flattened and stumpy limbs sprouting from the seams, round heads perched necklessly, with gormless, big-eyed expressions on their faces. Darcy picked up a Thor, and squeaked with glee when she saw he even had a little cape. Fifteen bucks, it was too perfect: a little Thor to keep Jane warm at night when big Thor was away. Looking around to find the nearest till, she spotted a familiar figure over by a display of My Neighbour Totoro toys. It took her a second to recognise Jensen, peaked cap pulled low, and bulky army parka covering his shape, but he turned slightly and those round glasses and that ridiculous beard couldn’t be anyone else. Darcy couldn’t help it, with a mischievous little smile she grabbed a scowling Hulk mask from the stand, and crept towards him as stealthily as she could.
Getting close, she bent down behind a set of shelves, put on the mask, and prepared to pounce.
“Nice try, Lewis. I might be half blind and half deaf, but I’m was still special forces and you are terrible at sneaking.”
Darcy pulled off the mask and emerged, crest-fallen. Jensen grinned, pleased with himself.
“So… you a Thor fan, then? I’dda pegged you more as Team Iron Man.” he pointed to the hot water bottle she was still clutching. Darcy deposited the Hulk mask on the nearest shelf, and held up little Thor.
“This? Nah, it’s for a friend. Kind of a running joke… well… me and Jane were like the first people to meet him when he first touched down in New Mexico. Y’know, when that ‘freak storm’ hit Puento Antiguo…”
“Oh my god, you were in Puento Antiguo?”, gasped Jensen, before slapping himself on the forehead with his palm, “No, of course you were, that’s when Foster’s first Einstein-Rosen bridge papers started coming out, how did I not put that one together? Talk about small world though. Cougar’s mom runs the dinner there. Isabel Alvarez? No one would believe her that there were space Vikings running about, until last year when homeboy there showed up.”
Darcy’s face lit up in a fond grin, “Yeah, I know Isabel, me’n’Jane were in her dinner aaaalll the time. Uh… how’s she doing these days?”
“She’s fine, basically took the insurance money from the dinner, and retired to a life of leisure and sending Cougs ugly home-made knitwear. So, anyway, you met Thor…”
“Jane hit him with her car, I tazed him, Jane hit him with her car again and for some weird reason he’s still talking to us. The rest is kinda history, Greenwich and stuff...” she tailed off vaguely.
“You tazered the god of thunder? So that’s what you meant the other day. Classy. I like it.”
There was an awkward silence. Darcy didn’t really want to discuss Thor, nor Jane, any further. It wasn’t her story to tell; Jane was an intensely private person, and the last two years of waiting for Thor to come back had been so painful, that to gossip about it to someone she barely knew felt cheap and invasive. She looked up at the wall of ginning Totoros.
“So, um, you an anime fan, then?” she ventured. Jensen laughed.
“No… well, I mean, they’re cute film ‘n’all, but no… I’ve got a niece, Beth, she’s eleven and just nuts for Studio Ghibli at the moment. Like, her room is a shrine. I was looking for a present for her to add to… hang on, let me show you…”
As he fished about in his pocket, Darcy noticed that Jensen was not, as she’d first thought, slouching, but in fact leaning on a scuffed, black-painted, metal cane. As Jensen pulled out his phone, he saw Darcy looking at the cane, winced, and looked down, rubbing the back of his neck with the hand his phone was in.
“Look… ah… so I was in an accident just before I joined the company, m’leg got smashed up pretty badly, it’s still healing. It’s no big deal, usually I can manage it with exercise and stuff, but when the weather turns like this and I’m walkin’ a lot… it gets kinda sore…”, he looked up at Darcy, a sad, pleading look on his face. She opened her mouth to say, something, anything about how she wasn’t judging him, she’d just not noticed before, when he straightened himself, thumbed through his phone, and presented her with the screen.
“So anyway, I was sayin’, I made these for Beth. They’re pretty cute, no?”
Darcy gasped and had to cover her mouth with her hand to stop herself squeaking with delight at the photo of half a dozen tiny, art clay, Totoro Christmas tree decorations, adorned with Santa hats, candy canes, and scarves.
“You made these?”, she asked, astonished.
“Mmhmm” Jensen hummed affirmative, practically glowing with pride.
“That’s impressive. Like, seriously,” she smiled, handing back the phone, “It also reminds me that the reason I decided to brave consumerist Hell was to get some decks for my apartment. It’s kinda depressing at the moment.”
“Mind if I join you?” asked Jensen, pocketing his phone.
Not that Darcy would admit it, but she kinda loved the little pop-up Christmas shops that appeared in empty mall units. They were little Aladdin’s caves of kitsch. As a kid, her parents had gone all out with the decorations, but her step-mom put a stop to that with her obsession with things being ‘tasteful’ and ‘modest’. Thankfully, her Nana was of the opinion that ‘tasteful’ was code for ‘dead inside’, and picking out the tackiest ornaments had been one of their little acts of rebellion. She picked up a glittery but sinister looking Santa statuette, that was holding a sign that said ‘Naughty or Nice?’, and contemplated buying it for her.
“You’re not seriously buying that, are you?”
She looked up. Jensen was wearing a set of felt antlers on headband over his cap, and was rearranging a display of initialled stockings to spell ‘TITTIES’. Darcy snorted with laughter,
“I’m glad I’m not the only who does that,” she smiled.
Jensen nodded sagely, “Maturity is overrated.”
“But no, this is another running joke, with my Nana. I was thinking about getting it for her.” she put the Santa down, then looked at her glitter-coated fingers and pulled a disgusted face, “Eww, now I’m all covered in festive herpes.” She wiped her hands on Jensen’s sleeve.
“Argh, get off, I don’t want your herpes!” he yelled, pulling away, laughing. He stopped suddenly, looking her in the eye, and biting his lip to suppress a giggle, “I said that really loudly in public, didn’t I?”
“Oops” he smirked, not apologetic in the slightest, and then neither of them could keep the giggles in any more.
Darcy found a black Santa hat with ‘Bah Humbug’ embroidered in gothic font on the trim. She put it on, declaring she was buying it for work. Jensen threw a string of tinsel around his neck like a feather boa, pouting and striking a pose; Darcy followed suite. Jensen put a pair of ‘Happy 2014’ comedy glasses over his own, Darcy supplemented her hat with penguin deely-boppers. Rows of dancing elves were set off, tableaux of humping reindeer decorations were arranged. The discovery that some enterprising individual had, in the centre-piece display of the store, managed to rearrange the six-inch high, ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ building blocks to read ‘MERRY SHITSCRAM’ had them laughing until it was hard to breath, although neither could explain why it was quite so funny. As Jensen was chasing Darcy with a particularly glitter covered snowman, she backed into an artificial tree; they both yelped with surprise as it opened giant muppet eyes, and a massive flapping mouth, and began to sing. Shock soon turned to more laughter.
“Ok, we’ve totally got to get a picture with this thing,” said Jensen, trying to get his breath back.
“Wait a minute,” said Darcy, darting off to retrieve sinister Santa. The tree was still singing when she returned. Jensen was waiting for her, phone camera at the ready. They pressed in close, either side of the tree, Darcy holding up Santa like an award, and Jensen framed them on the phone’s screen.
In the line to pay, dressing up returned, and a dozen strings of tinsel and a wreath picked up, Darcy noticed she could hear a kid crying. Jensen, playing on his phone, seemed oblivious. The crying wasn’t your normal tantrum, it sounded genuinely distressed. Darcy tried to peer out the front of the store, and spotted a little black boy, no more that two or three years old, and wearing an Iron Man t-shirt, sat sobbing in the middle of the walkway. The predominantly white shoppers pointedly ignored him, good as stepping over him. The line shuffled her to the front, she paid up, the kid was still there.
“Hey,” she tugged Jensen’s sleeve, “I’m just gonna check on that lost kid out there, take him to…”
Jensen looked up and cut her off, “Shit! Mikey!”, and hobbled off at speed. Darcy followed, bewildered.
Jensen knelt down carefully next to the little boy, laying his cane on the floor.
“Hey there, Mikey, whatcha done with your daddy?”
Mikey launched himself, flinging his arms around Jensen’s neck with a wail of “Nuncle Jake!”, and continued sobbing.
“Sssh there little dude, ‘s gonna be alright.” Scooping Mikey onto his left hip, Jensen winced as he used his cane to lever himself to standing.
“I lost my mommy…” whimpered Mikey into his coat.
“It’s ok, lil’ man, we’ll just give daddy Pooch a call and he’ll come find us. I’ve got ya now, you’re safe,” he looked at the little boy in his left arm, and the cane in his right hand, and sighed, “Uh, Darcy? I know I don’t know you that well and all, but could you get my phone out my pocket for me please?”
“Sure?” said Darcy, hesitantly, and gingerly reached into his left jean pocket, finding the glassy surface of the phone almost instantly.
“That’s not my phone,” said Jensen with a cheeky grin and a quirk of an eyebrow.
“Yes it is, jerk,” she retorted, pulling it from his pocket.
“Ok, the number to unlock it is 2654, I’ll change it when you give me it back, could you look up Pooch Portious, please? It’s just a standard Starkphone…”
She showed him the screen when she found the number.
“Great, now could you hit dial and hold it up for me?”
Instinctively, she held it up to his free ear, away from Mikey’s head.
Darcy winced, embarrassed, and moved the phone over to Jensen’s left ear, starting to mouth an apology, but he shook his head, no big deal . Pooch picked up.
“Hey man,” grinned Jensen, “I’ve found something of yours in the mall.”
There was a muffled sound of elated shouting on the other end of the line.
“Uh-huh… he’s shaken but basically fine. We’re on the third floor, where are you?... Ok, then I’m gonna take young Michael to the food court to fill him full of sugar… You know the rules, man, lost children get a triple espresso and a puppy...”
Leaving Jensen and Mikey at a table, Darcy went to the counter to get a couple of coffees and a chocolate milk. While she waited for the coffee to be made, the waitress at the till kept giving her, and the two behind her, the stink-eye.
“What? My friend knows his parents, we’re looking after him while they do some shopping,” she said, feeling defensive. The waitress scoffed and gave her the bill. Darcy scowled, paid up, and took the drinks back to the table. Some people, really , she thought, angrily. Mikey was playing at being Iron Man, shooting Jensen with his palm booster, and Jensen, gamely, clutched his chest and pretended to die dramatically. It was too adorable, and lifted her mood right away. As she put the tray down, a couple approached from the other side of the table; the baby faced guy from the team photo, and a regal-looking woman pushing a stroller. They both looked enormously relieved.
“So I see the puppy, but I’m gonna assume that the milk is for Mikey,” said the guy, bumping fists with Jensen, “who’s your friend?”
“Oh, Pooch, Jolene, this is Darcy, we work together,” said Jensen, gesturing between them all, “Darcy, Pooch, Jolene.”
Jolene was rocking the stroller with one hand, and petting the now calm Mikey’s hair with the other, “Y’know, Jake, I’m sure the reason you get on so well with kids is ‘cus you’re just a big one yourself.” she smiled.
“S’true. I’m not an adult, I’m just an abnormally tall and hairy eight year old.”
“You’re eight ?” gasped Mikey, wide eyed with astonishment.
Jensen took a deep breath, composed himself on how best to explain, “No, Mikey, I’m not eight, it was a joke…”
“You told a liiiiee?” asked Mikey, looking horrified.
“No, see, sometimes that’s what a joke is, when you say something so obviously not true it’s fu…”
“LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE!” shrieked Mikey, gigging wildly, and pointing an accusing finger.
Jensen dropped his head into his hands and sighed. Darcy bit her knuckle to stop herself from laughing.
“Never believe a word your Uncle Jake says, Mikey,” sniggered Pooch.
“Yeah, well, never believe a word your daddy says, either, especially about me.” Jensen shot back, leaning back in his chair. Mikey stopped giggling and looked between them, confused and increasingly wild eyed. Sensing an imminent toddler melt-down, Jolene cut in.
“Right, well before you two break my baby boy’s brain any further, we should go. Thank you for looking after him. Jake, come over tomorrow, you ain’t been introduced yet”, she pointed to the sleeping baby in the stroller, smiling proudly, “And nice to meet you, Darcy.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you,” echoed Pooch, “be careful, though, Cougar’s the jealous type.” He winked at Jensen, who replied with a withering glare. Pooch scooped up Mikey with one arm, picked up the chocolate milk in the other hand, and off the family went. Jensen watched them go, and the two fell silent for a while over their coffee. Darcy fidgeted, “So, if I give you my number, will you send me that photo?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, um…” Jensen seemed taken aback by question.
“You don’t have too, y’know.”
“Nonono, that would be fine. Great. I just… uh… people don’t give me their number when I ask nicely, let alone straight up offer it.” he gave her lopsided grin, “But yeah, I’ll send you it… lemme add you in…”
Later that evening, Jensen was regretting all the walking and lifting of small children. Even with wearing the supportive brace, and using his cane, his injured leg was painful, unstable, and resisting bending or straightening fully. Lowering himself carefully into the steaming bathtub, he groaned as the hot water began to relax the tired, spasming muscles around the knee joint. The relief was brief, though, as shooting, bone-deep, pains through his shin and thigh made him inhale sharply and grip the tub’s rim. Screwing up his eyes, he fought to breathe deeply, waiting for the pain to pass. This was what he hated most - the deafness, the impaired mobility, they were inconveniences he could find ways around, but the pain made him feel so tired and angry and helpless . As the pains lessened, he allowed himself to relax again, sinking to his chest in the water. One of the major selling points of this apartment had been the bathroom; a decent shower unit and a bathtub that was long enough for him to mostly lie back in. It mostly made up for the poky bedrooms and the limited natural light. Checking his hands weren’t wet, he reached for the joint in the ashtray on the stool next to the tub, and lit it up. Inhaling deeply, he let the smoke swirl around his slack mouth for a moment, anticipating the drugs effects, before letting it go. Thanks Cougar, I owe you somewhat more than a cold one . He at once hated and was profoundly grateful for the risks his friend took procuring weed for him. He tried to use it sparingly, eking out supplies as long as he could, only for when the pain got too much to handle. Sure, there were the opiate painkillers the S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors prescribed him, but they didn’t so much take the pain away as make him care about it less, and left him feeling hungover when they wore off. The relaxant effects of hash actually seemed to help with the physical cause of the pain, plus making him not care about it, and he was pretty sure it was less addictive and harder to OD on.
He picked up his phone to put some music on, flicking through the home-made app that controlled the equally self-built media centre, but nothing really fitted his mood right not. Without any particular conscious intention, he found himself opening the photo gallery and looking at the ridiculous selfie with Darcy from earlier. That girl was getting under his skin and he honestly didn’t know what to make of it. He took another toke, gazing at the photo like he could find a straight answer in it. And then a very silly, and only tangentially related thought bubbled up, making him giggle. Pulling up text messages, he wrote Hey Darcy, does Father Shitscram sneak down chimneys on Christmas Eve and over-cook the vegetables? J , and hit send. A couple of minutes later, the phone pinged with a reply.
What? Are you high?
Jensen squinted at the screen for a moment, wondering when she got such an accurate handle on him. Then, holding the screen at arm’s length and grinning like an idiot, he snapped a selfie, checked there was nothing incriminating in it (or the joint), and sent it. It seemed funny at the time, but almost as soon as it was too late, he realised that was probably the ‘stupid’ Cougar had sworn him off. The text alert pinged again.
Ima take that as a yes :) Today was fun, btw.
Jensen gave a little fist-pump of victory. A smiley and she’d enjoyed his company.
Everyone needs a hobby , he replied, So, you up to much this evening?
And he waited. And waited. His phone remained resolutely silent. The quiet became oppressive, he put some music on, the thrumming baseline of the XX resonating off the bathroom walls. Still nothing. He sighed; god he was stupid sometimes.
In which Darcy gets the grand tour, and foot-in-mouth disease is epidemic.
Everyone needs a hobby. So, you up to much this evening?
Darcy chuckled at this last text, clearly having less fun than you, she thought. Not that she was not having fun, exactly; she’d hung the decorations she’d bought earlier that day, and was a couple of glasses of wine down, but 9 o’clock had rolled around and she’d been wondering what to do with herself when Jensen had texted. She studied the selfie he’d sent as she debated whether to admit as much, or to enable the Father Shitscram nonsense. Jensen was a strange boy. He was also hilarious, creative, a total sweetie, and undeniably, frustratingly good looking, despite the questionable facial hair and the college student dress sense. Sending her a picture like that was straight up unfair, showing just enough to pique her imagination; muscular, well defined shoulders, broad chest softened by a dusting of dark hair, and some intriguing tattoos, curling script beneath his left clavicle, and an old fashioned swallow under the right. She caught herself tilting the screen down, as if somehow that would let her see more, but the image remained stubbornly cut off just South of the script tattoo. Darcy shook her head and sighed, trying to clear the giddy feeling that had bubbled up when he’d first texted her. She was being weird about a guy, and she didn’t like it. Especially as the guy in question appeared to be spoken for, and riding the other bus.
Darcy jumped as her phone buzzed and burst into music, and the picture of Jensen was replaced by an image of Jane pulling a monkey face. She swiped the screen to answer the call.
“The hell have you been? I’ve texted you at least three times this week, I was starting to think you’d fallen down another interdimensional hole.”, Darcy tried to sound annoyed, but the fact she was grinning probably made it thoroughly unconvincing.
“I’m soooorry,” whined Jane, equally unconvincingly apologetically, “I wanted to call you sooner, but we’ve been in negotiations all week, I shouldn’t even be telling you now, we don’t even sign the contracts until Monday.”
“Tell me what? You’ve got to spill it now.”
“Stark Industries, in association with the Asgardian embassy to Earth, are funding the development of trans-wormhole communication technology, under my leadership.”
Darcy shrieked with joy and bounced around her small living room. “Oh my god, Jane, that’s awesome! That’s… wait…” she stopped bouncing, bewildered, “Why don’t the Asgardians already have a trans-wormhole communication thingy already? I mean, they have the whole Bifrost thing going on…”
“I have no idea. Thor has no idea. If they want to send a message to another realm on the Yggdrasil, they literally have to open up Bifrost and send a guy to deliver it. He doesn’t want to ask his dad, it’s embarrassing.”
“I love it that you already think of Odin freakin’ Allfather as ‘my boyfriend’s grouchy dad’” snickered Darcy, “it’s crazy. So, what are you doing with the boys?”
“Well, Erik is going back to Culver, he didn’t want to stick around,” sighed Jane, sadly, “which is totally understandable given what was going on for him last time he was in New York. I think he wants a nice, quiet professorship and then to be allowed to retire and tinker. But! We’ve secured Ian a work visa, so he’s going to be my chief lab assistant, and we’re going to see if UCL will work with us to accredit a doctorate for him.”
Darcy whistled, impressed, “Sounds like you’ve got it all sewn up there. Nicely done.”
“Touch wood, yeah. Dumb as it sounds, I just feel so relieved that someone is finally taking this seriously.” Jane paused, “Anyway, what about you, lady? Was your party good? Meet any cute guys?”
Darcy laughed at the sudden change of subject. One thing she’d noticed about Jane, way back when they’d started working together, was the someone, probably at a young age, must have told her it was rude to talk about oneself; as a result if Jane got on a bit of a ramble about something she was excited about, she would abruptly switch the conversation to the other person. It was a somewhat annoying habit, but Darcy knew from experience there was no point trying to switch the topic back until Jane felt satisfied that she had Taken An Interest in you.
“The party was way more fun than I expected, which was nice. As for cute guys…” Darcy took a deep breath, collecting her thoughts.
“Yes but he’s married?” interrupted Jane,
“Not quite… well… I think he might have a boyfriend, but I’m not sure.”
There was a silence on the other end of the phone, and Darcy was pretty sure that had Jane been there in person, she’d have been giving her A Look.
“Ok, so, everyone keeps kinda hinting that this guy… Jake… that his room-mate is his boyfriend. And they’re pretty, uh, affectionate, like more than most guys are with their bros. But he hasn’t confirmed or denied it either way, so I dunno. Which really sucks, because I really like him, and I don’t want to end up barking up totally the wrong tree.”
“Have you tried… I dunno… asking him?”, asked Jane, a slight mocking tone to her voice.
“What, hi, so are you actually batting for the other team, ‘cus if not I’d like to jump your bones?” said Darcy with a sceptical snort, “No of course I haven’t asked him.” She could practically hear Jane roll her eyes.
“I know tact and subtlety aren’t your strong points, Darce,” she laughed, “but seriously, like if you don’t want to straight up ask if he’s banging his roomie, maybe ask him if he’s seeing anyone, y’know, like casual small talk.” there was a loaded pause, “Wait, am I giving you advice about guys? Holy shit!”
On Monday, the snow made the commute in slow and frustrating for everyone. Jensen hobbled in half an hour late, leaning heavily on his stick, looking tired, pale, and pinched. Wentworth had, for a moment, looked like he was going to make a point about timekeeping, but he backed down at the truly venomous glare he got when he opened his mouth. The morning dragged. Around eleven, Wentworth strode into the middle of the room, stood on a chair, and clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.
“Ok people, I’ve just had a call from Aneeka, she went over in the snow this morning and has done her ankle, so we’ll need someone to cover her late shifts this week. Any volunteers?” There was a resounding silence. “Anyone?... Bueller?” Still no response, “Ok, in that case… Lewis, you’re it.”, and with that, Wentworth retreated back to his office.
“Can he just do that?!” asked Darcy, incredulously.
“‘Fraid so,” replied Jemma, from a couple of desks over, “curse of being the newbie, I suppose. God, I hope Neeks is better soon, she always takes the Christmas day shift, and I don’t want to be lumbered with it.”
“Ugh, me neither” grumbled Darcy.
Jemma looked at her quizzically, “How’d you manage to get leave for it? You didn’t join until after the leave request cut off date.”
“They must have told you. We don’t automatically get any public holidays. International terrorists don’t tend to honour them either, see? If you’ve got flights booked, you might be able to wangle it with HR, but they’re assholes, so don’t count on it.”
Darcy groaned, and dropped her head into her arms on the desk, “I don’t even know where HR is,” she grumbled.
At nine o’clock at night, the Triskelion was eerily quiet. The droves of administrative staff had departed for the day, the teams of agents waiting to be deployed sent home for some R’n’R. There were still people about, in Surveillance and Comms, but they were a handful of skeleton crews, quietly minding their tasks and trying to stave off sleep. Occasionally security personnel would pass by, but they mostly kept themselves to the lower floors, content in the assumption that no intruder would make it past the fifth floor undetected. Darcy was bored; the late shift mostly involved monitoring, and her four co-lateshifters seemed more interested in reading the Register or, apparently, playing Flash sims of old fashioned arcade games. This was her fourth night of nothing happening, and she wondered how much trouble she’d get into if she did route around the blocks on every single social media site. The office door clicked open, she glanced around instinctively but without interest, it was probably just security on their rounds. To her surprise, Jensen stuck his head around the door and stage-whispered “Psst, Lewis, c’mere.”, and she followed him out into the hall.
“What’re you still doing here?” she asked, a little defensively, as she shut the office door behind her. There was a twinkle in Jensen’s eye and a schoolboy cheekiness in his smile that told her he was up to something.
“Weeelll, I had physio after work, then hit the gym for a bit, time just got away from me…” he trailed off, waving the details away, “anyway, as I happened to be in the neighbourhood, and I figured you were probably bored out of your mind by now, I thought I’d come distract you.” He was bouncing slightly on his toes, well, on his good leg at least; definitely up to mischief.
“Mmmhmm, just happened to be in the neighbourhood,” Darcy tried to sound sceptical, doing air-quotes as she repeated his words back, but she couldn’t help but smile. She could do with some mischief right now.
“I mean, if you’re busy I can go away again,” he stopped bouncing and ducked his head, self-consciously rubbing the back of his neck, “but I thought, y’know, you said the other day you’d not really been shown the place, you might want the grand tour. Now’s as good a time as any.”
“Oh god, no, don’t go!” exclaimed Darcy, clutching his arm in mock desperation, “I was losing the will to lose the will back there!”. Laughing, she let him go, “lead on, McFly.”
Some of the tour is entirely practical: the server rooms, and lair of the sysadmin; accounts and HR, on conveniently low floors; the extensive occupational health department. There’s a surprising number of cafés, canteens (which, Darcy notes, Jensen calls messes, and that’s strangely adorable), and even what’s trying to be an upmarket restaurant. For the top brass, says Jensen dismissively, apparently it ain’t that great. Then there’s the entire floor dedicated to physical fitness, with every kind of activity from boxing to basketball to weight training catered for. Rumour had it that Commander Rogers has own, personal, work-out space elsewhere in the building, ostensibly to allow for the more heavy-duty equipment required by a man who can lift a car without breaking a sweat, but more likely so he doesn’t spend the whole time getting ogled. There are more briefing rooms than anyone could care about, and the offices that serve as administrative bases for the numerous units of field agents. Peering through the small windows in the office doors, Darcy could see that most are spartan, a handful of tidy desks and a large screen on one wall for mission planning. A few had a trace of personalisation, or at least, some woeful cliché had hung an American flag in a prominent place. At the end of a corridor, seemingly away from the rest, Jensen swipes his ID pass over the office’s maglock sensor, clicking the door open with a cheery “Tah-dah!”, holding it to let Darcy in, “Casa del Losers!”. Darcy couldn’t help but laugh at the contrast between this office and the spare, professionalism of the other teams’; it was a mess, souvenirs everywhere and sarcastic demotivational posters on the walls, no doubt an in-joke behind each one. On the back of the computer on the desk facing the door hung a sign that simpy said NO., and Clay’s chair do not steal (or else) written in sharpie on the the ratty grey chair behind it. Pasted on the side of a filing cabinet was a page of flip-chart paper titled House Rules, starting with 0 - Thou shalt not be on fire, in red, and clearly added later. What really caught Darcy’s attention, though, was the wall opposite the large screen, which was covered in a large map, well annotated, with strings linking pins to photographs and documents crowded around the edge. She traced a string with a fingertip, fascinated.
“I thought people only did this in the movies,” she mused.
Behind her, Jensen snorted with laughter, “Yeah, Clay’s a determined Luddite like that. I’m surprised he can even turn his computer on without me on the team.” Through the surface humour, Darcy heard a sadness in the last sentence, and she turned to look at him. Jensen perched on the edge of a desk, idly toying with the bobbing head of a nodding Chihuahua toy. “So, yeah, this is the nuthouse I choose to associate with,” he smiled, wistfully, “so I get it if you want to bug out now.”
“Nah, looks like fun,” shrugged Darcy, finding a perch opposite him, “you miss being part of all the gang, huh?”
Jensen looked away, crossing his arms defensively, and shrugged, “Well, yeah, of course I do. When we were on the… before we ended up with S.H.I.E.L.D., we’d all got so tight, like family, y’know?”, he shook his head, “ And now I’m on the outside again. Not that they’ve ditched me or anything, I mean hell, me an’ Cougs are practically married, but yeah, I’m acutely aware that I can’t keep up anymore, and that sucks.”
“It’s a temporary setback, though, right?”, Darcy reached out, gently laying a hand on his forearm, “I mean, it’s not like you’re missing bits…” and she smiled, finding his eyes, and hoping to hell that didn’t sound patronising. Jensen held her gaze for a moment, smiling back.
“Ok, that’ll do of the maudlin,” he grinned, standing up and clapping her on the shoulder, “I still haven’t shown you the really cool bit.”
“You mean it get’s better than your buddies’ crap filled office?” she teased, following him out into the corridor.
The route they took was different to the one they’d come in to, and the elevator Jensen lead them too was definitely not the one they’d come up in. Glancing around to make sure there was no one else about, he pulled pale blue RFID card from his back pocket, and swiped it over the elevator’s sensor. The door opened, and he pulled Darcy inside, pushing the solitary ‘up’ button.
“Ok,” said Darcy, puzzled, “firstly we’re clearly not supposed to be in here, and secondly, was that a fuckin’ Oyster card, because this is not the London Underground?”
“Technically, no we’re not, but I figure this is an organisation dedicated to watching people, so they know I got bored and spoofed the access code. If they cared, they’d have pulled me up on it. If they don’t know…” he looked pleased with himself, “more fool them and they need better security. And yeah, it is an Oyster card, they’re easy to reprogramme, and cheaper than blank RFID cards. Anyway, look…” and he took her shoulders and turned her around. The elevator walls were glass, and looked out over the city, lights sparkling in the darkness. Darcy gawped, it was one hell of a view. The only thing distracting from it was the sight of her own reflection on the glass, with Jensen stood behind her, his hands still on her shoulders. It was like the firearms range all over again, only now she could see just how much bigger than her he was, and how she kinda liked that. Their eyes met in the reflection, and it seemed like he hadn’t been looking out at all, he’d been looking at her the whole time. The elevator felt very small and very warm, all of a suddenly. She dragged her attention back to the city scape, trying to spot landmarks.
“Wait, we’re not about to break into Director Fury’s suite, are we?” she joked, trying to cut the tension.
“Aw hell no,” he laughed, “I may be crazy but I’m not suicidal. Also, Fury’s floor is biometric protected, there’s no clean way of spoofing that. Which is a shame, ‘cus never mind the boss’s office, I want to know what’s in the sub-basements under the river…”
The elevator reentered a shaft, and then slid to a halt, the doors opening with a soft ping. An icy wind blew in, and Jensen lead Darcy out into the dark, “Hope you’re not scared of hights.”
Topping the Triskellion’s three towers was a vast landing pad, deserted in the bitter December night. Stood at the railing at the edge, Darcy the lights of Washington spread out like jewels in black velvet. Below them, the Potomac was inky darkness, and to the North, Rock Creek Park was a void in the busy mesh of streetlights. Spotlights lit up the National Mall vivid green, with the Capitol and the White House like glowing wedding cakes. They fell silent, watching the lights flash in the streets below, the muted sounds of traffic and sirens and booming snatches of bass-lines drifting up. Darcy had never been good at silence.
“There’s something kinda magical about being high above cities after dark,” she mused, “like, they become kinda abstract and peaceful. You know there’s all this human drama going on, but everything looks so still.”
“I know what you mean, I’ve always loved watching out the window when you’re flying over somewhere. It all just becomes patterns of light.”, he’s stood close to her now, leaned on the railings beside her, their shoulders just touching.
“Flying into London is my favourite to date. You can see the way the river cuts the city in two, and you can spot landmarks like the Eye and the Millennium Dome.”, she shifts slightly, increasing contact between them, drawn to his warmth.
“Hmmm,” hummed Jensen, thoughtfully, rubbing his beard, “Rio de Janeiro is incredible, it just goes on forever. I mean, if you think LA is sprawling, it’s got nothing on Rio. And all those artificial islands off the coast of Dubai are fun ‘cus they’re all in the the shape of trees and stuff, so it’s like Christmas lights. But…,” he laughed and scratched the back of his neck, “Ok, this is sappy as hell, but I’ve gotta say the most beautiful sight like that was flying back into Boston to finally go home and see my family after I’d been officially KIA for the longest two years of my life.”
“KIA?” Darcy frowned up at him, not immediately recognising the acronym.
“Killed in action… it’s a long story, I’ll tell you the bits that aren’t massively classified some day,” the sadness had crept back into his voice, “But how ‘bout you? Where your people at?”
Darcy looked away; now it was her turn to feel melancholy. Family was a touchy subject. “I don’t really have much in the way of ‘people’.” she stretched her forearms out, letting her hands dangle over the edge, “There’s Jane, she’s in New York now. My Nana lives in Portland, Oregon, she basically raised me. My parents… we don’t talk anymore, and that’s best for everyone.”
Jensen reached out and took her hand, “That must kinda suck though?”
Darcy didn’t pull away, instead turning to face him more, “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you sometime. It ain’t classified, but it’s one hell of a downer.”
“Hey, if you need someone to listen… well, half listen…” he smiled awkwardly, ““wow, you hands are freezing. Also tiny.” It was far too easy and natural to let their hands spread, palm to palm, her finger-tips only just reaching past the middle joints of his.
“Yeah, well, I have tiny everything. With a coupla notable exceptions.” she grinned, glancing down at her cleavage. Jensen cleared his throat, embarrassed, and even in the low light she thought he might be blushing again.
“So, ah, there’s no sensible answer to that,” he said, but he didn’t pull away, instead resting his free hand on her waist, “You like it up here then?”
“It’s amazing,” she grinned, “Thank you so much for bringing me up here.” She let her hand run up his arm, knowing that she was too close, too damn close, feeling the warmth that radiated off him in the cold night air. Reflections on his glasses obscured his eyes, and her gaze shifted about his face, settling on his lips, trying to read his expression, because goddammit, boyfriend or no, if he didn’t register protest right now she was going to have to kiss him.
And then Jensen broke the moment, “Wow, you look frozen, let’s get you back inside.”, and drawing arm that had been around her waist to her shoulders, he walked her back to the elevator.
They were quiet on the way down. Jensen’s mind was racing, unsure of what exactly he should do next. Had he blown it already? That was some serious bottling. Wow you look frozen indeed, he thought, the hell did I say that for? Although, to be fair, she had looked pretty damn cold. He still had his arm around her shoulder, and she hadn’t pulled away, exactly. Rather, she was half facing him, and looking at him kinda strangely, like she was deep in thought. If this were a movie, this would be where he kissed her, or at least asked her out, he told himself. He could feel the heat rising on the back of his neck. Man up, Jake, just ask her if she wants to go for a beer or something, stop being such a pussy.Ok, this is it, do or die. He took a deep breath, “Soooo…” he brushed a loose strand of hair out of her face. Darcy looked up, meeting his eyes.
“Sooo…,” she bit her lip, “Question…”
Or I could let her get there first… he thought.
“You and Cougar… is he your boyfriend, ‘cus...”
In Jensen’s mind, there was an alarmingly real sound effect of a record player needle slipping off the end of the disk, and his stomach dropped. “What?!”, he interrupted. Not this shit again, not now, not by someone he was really quite invested in recognising that he was both heterosexual and available. Humiliation congealed in his guts, and a burning anger sprang up at all the ridiculous, macho, alpha-male bullshit that permeated this damn place. He’d thought he’d had a chance with Darcy, now thanks to the gossips, it turned out that she saw him as a non-threatening, token, gay friend.
Darcy took a step back, looking startled, “Well, I… I really like you, but if you’re seeing someone…”
“And what the hell makes you think that someone is Cougar, of all people?”
Now Darcy just looked cross, folding her arms and setting her jaw, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe the way you two are all over each other, and the fact every one else seems pretty sure you’re together, and the fact that not half an hour ago you described yourself as practically married!”
“That was a joke!” Jensen threw up his hand in dismay. The elevator jolted to a standstill, and the doors opened to the barely lit corridor. He pinched the bridge of his nose under his glasses in frustration, then gestured to her to keep quiet. Making sure there was no one about, he all but dragged her by the wrist around the corner away from the restricted elevator. When they stopped, she looked furious, yanking her hand away.
“Ok, look,” he hissed, “I get that in-joke become rumours, and then idiots with something to prove insist on perpetuating them, but no, Cougar is not my boyfriend.” Darcy opened her mouth to say something, but he cut her off, “Yes, we are very close, he’s my fucking best friend in the whole world. And yes, I guess we are more touchy feely than most guys, because we’re secure in our goddam masculinity, all right? You try living in someone’s pocket for the best part of six years without getting a bit laissez faire about personal space. And here’s the thing, if we were two women who were cohabiting BFFs, we could act exactly the same and no one would assume anything about it. Seriously, I have a sister, I know women cuddle up to their gal pals, I know you have silly little pet names for each other, this isn’t some figment of my over-excited imagination, it’s pretty normal. But two guys do it, and oh! must be gay. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with being gay, it’s just that I’m...”
“Fine,” snarled Darcy, still looking furious, “he’s not your boyfriend, I get it. You didn’t have to yell at me. I’m so sorry I tried to be sensitive and make sure you were actually single before I told you I really liked you.”
“Wait, what…?”, now this was awkward.
“But forget it.” Darcy turned on her heels and strode away, “If you’re gonna be a jerk about it. I can find my own way out.”
Jensen watched her go, slack jawed with shock and embarrassment. He flopped back against a wall, covered his face with his hands, and groaned. He was so very, very, painfully, stupid sometimes.