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Operation Cupcake

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It was a point of both pride and resignation that when SHIELD collapsed, Darcy Lewis was the one to get it trending.

Technically, this wasn’t entirely true. Exactly. Only mostly. Like, 98.5% of the credit was hers undeniably. The other 1.5% had everything to do with JARVIS the magical robot butler, who had only been keeping an eye out for that sort of thing at her request. (He probably would have done it anyway, because he always managed to know everything before anyone else ever did, but she’d asked him to, so there.)

The fact remained that she had been the one JARVIS had contacted when Black Widow’s infobomb had dropped on Tony’s head (of course Natasha Romanoff would send the download link to Tony Stark first), she had been the one to post the download link to Twitter, and she had been the one who had had the bright idea to use @therealtonystark to do it. It helped that @therealtonystark was, well, Tony Stark’s Twitter. He’d given her dispensation to play with it when she and Jane had first come to Malibu; he barely used it anyway, he needed the internet presence, and Pepper didn’t have time to run it for him, so it had fallen, for some reason, to Darcy. She suspected it had more to do with her ability to snark than her actual qualifications, but she wasn’t about to complain. Besides, Stark had sent her a cackling smiley on the StarkPhone that she’d been equipped with when she’d made her first dick joke on Twitter, so she assumed he approved.

Added bonus: anything tweeted by @therealtonystark automatically trended. She wasn’t sure if it was because of JARVIS hacking the system or if Tony was just that popular, but either way, SHIELD’s dirty secrets were now everywhere, and it was all thanks to her. She owned the internet.

Boo-yah.

“Pardon me, Miss Lewis, but if I may make an observation, getting one topic trending on Twitter does not mean you officially take possession of the internet. Not to mention that the internet itself is—”

“Don’t kill the mood, JARVIS.” She’d made sure when Pepper had been asking about outfitting Jane’s office five months ago that they’d get spinny office chairs. A day without spinning-induced nausea was a day wasted. Darcy tucked her feet up under her, watching the download icon ticking through percentages. Even with the Stark intranet being about a billion times faster than plain old regular WiFi, she was still waiting an indecent amount of time to get her hands on the things. And for once, she thought, rolling her lollipop from one cheek to the other, that wasn’t even a metaphor. She was opening files. Holographic ones. With her hands.

She really, really loved Malibu.

“How’s Jane doing?” she asked through a mouthful of cherry lollipop. Considering it was almost one o’clock—the holographic (holographic!) clock on the wall read 1249—she would have expected Foster the Physicist to be awake by now. Then again, considering she’d had to physically dismantle and carry away the coffee machine yesterday because Jane had been using it as an excuse not to sleep for three days, she really shouldn’t be complaining.

JARVIS made a prissy little sound—if AIs could make prissy little sounds instead of technological beeps. “She has not yet awakened, Miss Lewis.”

Darcy grunted, and spun her chair again. If there was one thing that was starting to bother her about working out of Malibu, it was the dress code. Darcy Lewis and high heels did not mix. Darcy Lewis and combat boots, or Converse, or really cute flats, sure. Darcy Lewis and plain work heels? Acid on tinfoil. She compensated for it by wearing baggier sweaters than she should have, and sticking with her hats, but there was only so much she could do when she worked in a freaking office building. “What about Pepper?”

“Miss Potts is still in a meeting.” There was a pause, where a human being would have hummed. With JARVIS, it probably meant he was collating video feeds together, in case she asked something really stupid, like if Tony was back from the asscrack of the Midwest yet. “She will not be finished with it for some time.”

“Did she have the dart board taken out of Board Room Alpha yet?” According to Tony Stark, there was no point in a board room without a dart board. Even if it was hidden behind a secret panel in the south wall. There were few things that were good about getting your house blown up, but Tony Stark had managed to figure out a few things that he’d never had time to install in his old home. And plus, since he’d been living out of the business office for the past who knew how many weeks while the new place was being built, all the genius party!Tony ideas were being implemented at Stark Industries.

God, Darcy loved her job.

“That was done within twenty minutes of her discovering it, Miss Lewis.”

She bit the inside of her cheek, and leaned back in her spinny chair. She’d never quite realized, while Jane was awake, how much of her time was taken up by science. Not just science, but Science!, with all the requisite euphoria of discovery attached. Though the happiness was mostly on Jane’s part, and there was a point where happiness turned into mania, and it was Darcy’s job to keep happiness from turning into mania. Since Jane tended to pull anything from three- to eighteen-hour days depending on how close she was to cracking whatever super-astrophysicist code she’d been working with lately, manic!Jane was showing up way more often than chill!Jane. If chill!Jane even really existed anymore.

It had been Pepper Potts’ idea to bring Jane Foster into Stark Industries. There wasn’t much at SI for astrophysicists to do, but after Tony Stark managed to throw himself into another dimension, or the other end of space, or wherever he’d ended up back in 2012, he’d “picked up an interest.” (That was Tony-speak, she’d learned, for “all-consuming passion, at least until the Red Bull runs out.”) London hadn’t really helped matters. Learning that he was now not the only human being on the planet known to have crossed through interdimensional portals, the campaign to get Jane Foster into Stark Industries to launch their new space program had ratcheted up from Pepper-level polite to Tony-level forceful. Eventually Jane had given in, mostly because she trusted Iron Man a little more than she trusted SHIELD, and now they had a condo in Malibu, offices and labs in Stark industries, and Darcy had a job other than astrophysicist-wrangler. After three years, “intern” had become “assistant,” and it tasted oh-so-sweet.

She’d only figured out two months after she’d been hired that her actual title was Executive Assistant of the Astronomy, Spectroscopy, Statistics, Heliology, Astrophysics and Technology Division. (All her business cards said ASSHAT on them. She was going to kill Tony Stark.) Jane was the head of the department (another reason why she’d decided to move them all out to Malibu), but since Jane spent more time working on dismantling and recreating Asgardian tech than actually running the department, Darcy did what she was good at, and cleaned up other people’s messes. So she wrote emails and kept track of the budget. She also made sure Jane and the four other astrophysicists Tony had pulled out of the woodwork had food, water, sunlight, showers, and sleep at appropriate times (which occasionally involved sedatives). She met with Pepper Potts once a month to go over the books (and had a panic attack every time); kept in contact with Erik’s psychiatrist to make sure he was still cleared to be working on Science! after the latest nudity incident (this time on El Matador Beach in front of a group of elementary schoolers); and ran Tony Stark’s Twitter account (because no one else would do it). She’d been around Jane and Erik long enough that some of the geekspeak was finally starting to sink in, and when it didn’t, Dr. Banner picked up the slack. (He came in and out when Jane was working with radiation, which was more and more often these days, and since his office and Jane’s were side by side, she saw him more often than her own boss sometimes. At least he seemed to eat regularly, unlike the other eureka people.)

She’d taken to getting on the bus after work and stopping at the Science and Engineering Library at the UCLA to read every book on astrophysics she could get her hands on, just so she could keep up with Jane’s ramblings. It wasn’t any more or any less snore-inducing than Karl Marx, anyway.

Today, though, was different. Jane was still asleep, she’d finished all her phone calls and emails for the day, and she’d gone through the filing assignments that Pepper usually left for her in the morning. To make things worse, Dr. Banner wasn’t here spreading his papers everywhere. Not that he ever did, but she filed his crap anyway, just because she could get really, really bored around here when Jane was out. (Plus he told cool stories when she finally managed to get him to talk.)

She threw the lollipop stick into the garbage can, and ignored the little flare of smoke and flame from inside the metallic canister. Instant trash disposal. “So,” she said, and flicked her fingers inside the holographic computer screen. “Solitaire or Words With Friends?”

“It is now 1300 hours, Miss Lewis, and as you requested, I am reminding you to begin work on the—” if an AI could sound disapproving, JARVIS was it—“the stupid-ass money-sucking admissions paperwork.”

Words With Friends wasn’t going to cut it. She spun the computer array. “Shields,” she said, and the glass walls of her office tinted to gray. She loved Stark Industries. “Can’t you just do my graduate school applications for me, JARVIS?”

“That would be unethical, Miss Lewis, not to mention illegal.”

She turned up the volume with a quick twiddle of her fingers. All of the offices at Stark Industries were soundproofed, so there was no way she was going to bother anyone by blasting music loud enough to make her ribcage rattle. She had a feeling it was how Dr. Banner dealt with things, sometimes. He spent more time locked in his office with shields up than other people did. “Just because my mother wants me to go to Stanford doesn’t mean I’m going to get in. My grades are crap.”

“Your grades are not unremarkable, Miss Lewis.”

“Aw, you’re cute when you’re doing the sympathy thing.” She flung the download icon for SHIELD to the left wall, so she could watch it tick through the fifty-percent range, before tapping Dance It Out. “But dude, I’m twenty-seven and I’m still working as a babysitter. A babysitter for really smart people, sure, but a babysitter. Pretty sure graduate school isn’t gonna be my thing.” She wasn’t even sure if she wanted it to be her thing. Academia was and had always been her mother’s dream, never Darcy’s.

“There are significant statistics for the United States which indicate that more and more people are returning to educational institutions later on in life and becoming individually successful, Miss Lewis.”

She sighed, and scrolled through the available songs. “I’ll keep that in mind, JARVIS. Could you let me know when Jane wakes up? And set the room for color-coded knocks.” She wouldn’t be able to hear once she started the dance game, and seeing the wall reverberate with ripples of color was considerably less startling than having someone open the door on her.

“As you say, miss.”

And with that, JARVIS vanished. She was pretty sure he was still keeping an eye on the video feeds in her office (because everywhere in Stark Industries had cameras, thanks to Happy) but he wasn’t going to nag her, and she appreciated that. Her mother would have nagged.

She thought of the six unopened voicemail on her phone, and made a mental note to delete them all. Her mother did nag. Darcy had learned from the best.

She wasn’t going to lie. She’d never really been all that interested in going to graduate school, even when she’d been in the post-graduation high the year before London. (She flicked through the songs. The SHIELD files were 67% downloaded.) She’d promised her mother she’d apply to at least three grad schools, though, and she’d picked three that were within driving distance of Jane’s office, because as much as Jane made her mad sometimes, Darcy was pretty damn sure that at this point, wild horses couldn’t drag her away from this work. Plus, if she left, there would be no one to get Jane or Erik to eat.

She’d graduated from Culver with a 3.49 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in political science, plus a minor in computer science. Her GED instructor had tried to get her to just major in computer science, but that had been a no-go; if she’d majored in it, she’d have hated it as much as she kind of hated political science now. Nothing could kill a good hobby like academia. (Spanish hip-hop thrummed through her whole body. Darcy wished she’d remembered to wear a sports bra. Dancing did not do wonders for her back, especially when she was wearing a strapless bra.)

UCLA offered a good MA program for political scientists, and she was pretty sure she could get in with honors guaranteed if she submitted a recommendation letter from not only Pepper Potts and Tony Stark, but also Jane Foster and Erik Selvig, despite the field difference. She could, she realized, be the one polisci masters student who could get an interview with an alien and members of SHIELD in regards to the new extraterrestrial rights brouhaha that had been popping up around college campuses worldwide.

But the fact remained that she just…wasn’t all that good at the school thing. She hadn’t been good at it in high school, when she’d skived off too many classes to actually graduate, and she definitely hadn’t been good at it when she’d finally gone to college at the ripe old age of twenty-two and realized that a) everybody was looking at her funny, even at a huge place like Culver; b) she didn’t get along with most of her professors; and c) she spent most of her time getting exceptionally irritated with the narrow-minded stupidity of academics. If she had a dollar for every time someone had pulled her aside to tell her how inspirational it was to the younger students that she was coming back to education after she’d dealt with her “problem,” she wouldn’t have had to pay back student loans.

Speaking of, she thought, panting and scrolling through the songlist (because she would be damned if she danced to Ke$ha again), if she went back to school, she’d have to pay for it. Even though she now worked for one of the preeminent companies in the United States, instead of a divey nightclub in Richmond, she simply couldn’t afford it. Not without scholarships and more loans and applying for forestallment on the loans she was still paying back, and that meant way more paperwork than she was willing to deal with.

Besides, she had a job, and it was a job that she probably wasn’t going to lose in the near future considering she was the only one who could, reliably, get both Jane and Erik to eat on a regular basis. And now apparently she was a ghostwriter for Tony Stark’s Twitter account. She could probably start a PR blog for them in what little free time she had while not slaving over ASSHAT. Snarkin’ with the Stark, or something. Everyone wanted to know how Tony Stark worked, especially after the whole thing with the Mandarin and his exploding house and crap. She’d probably get half a million hits plus in the first week.

She’d been dancing for about forty minutes and through twelve five-star difficulty songs by the time the wall went off, the file icon blaring 100% -- Download complete. Darcy keyed off Dance It Out, pulled her hair back up out of her face (there was a reason she had a barrel of hair ties on her desk) and took a long pull from her water bottle. “JARVIS,” she said, and pushed her desk back against the wall. “Can it be visualized?”

“Of course, Miss Lewis. All offices in this wing of Stark Industries are capable of holographic reconstructions of computer files and programs. As you know,” he added, and there was the slightest bit of an edge to his voice. Darcy waved a hand at the security camera in the upper left-hand corner of her office.

“I know that. I was wondering if we actually had enough room in here to visualize them all.”

JARVIS didn’t even bother to answer that one. There was a soft electrical pinging, a smooth ripple, and then a small box appeared in front of her. Nothing more than that. It was about the size of a shoebox, each side emblazoned with the SHIELD logo, and it was closed. Darcy reached forward, and keyed it open.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. An explosion of documents, maybe. Instead it was a neat, orderly row. Six across, seven down. She pinched, and pulled, and suddenly it was as though she was flying down a digital aisle, and each file she passed was getting older and older, back and back and back. It was like she’d been tossed into a hurricane. Or a galaxy. Thousands upon thousands of files; they brushed against her skin in little tickles of electricity, and she swiped at one that was getting indecently close to her cleavage. SHIELD. the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. A spy network decades old and billions of dollars in the making, and it was all laid out here, the holograms of each document, mp3, video, PDF, excel file, JPEG, PNG, and a thousand other kinds of intel. They were hanging in the air like stars. Or Christmas ornaments.

“Holy shit,” she said. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, put her glasses back on, and said it again. “Holy shit, JARVIS. How many times has this been downloaded?”

“We are the third downloader to be able to open the files, Miss Lewis. Most who have attempted it so far have not yet had enough data storage space to be able to complete the download.”

Her mind reeled. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a file marked 9/11, and her stomach began to churn. “How many—”

“There is currently an excess of thirty-two thousand terabytes of information currently stored on our servers, Miss Lewis.”

“That’s—” She reached out, opening one of the files marked genetic incidents. There was a video file of a girl with insect wings, her arms spread wide. “How many gigabytes is that?”

“Thirty-three million, five-hundred fifty-four thousand, four-hundred thirty two, Miss Lewis. Roughly estimating.”

“And how many of my four-gig USB sticks would that take up?”

“Approximately eight million.”

Darcy fell back into her spinny chair. “Holy fucking shit, JARVIS.”

“Your expletives are noted and being recorded for Sir’s perusal, Miss Lewis.”

She didn’t care about that. “Is all of this documents?”

“The documents are the least of it, miss. There is a fairly impressive amount of audio-visual material, but the main core of the information is built around self-defense measures. Many of the files continue to be protected by programs which, while quite effective, are easily breakable with enough time.” He paused. “There is a significant amount of interrogation videos, Miss Lewis.”

“Jesus,” she said, and ran her shaking hands over her face. “Jesus. JARVIS, that one’s labeled POTUS. They have files on the president.

“If it helps, Miss Lewis, a preemptive scan of the file cluster you have found indicates that there is nothing overly worrying about Matthew Ellis.”

Darcy made a high-pitched whining sound and covered her face with her hands. “Am I fainting? I think I might be fainting.”

“Heart rate and blood pressure register within normal levels, Miss Lewis, though it seems you are dangerously close to hyperventilation. I would suggest taking deep breaths, if it is so possible.”

Not fucking possible,” she whimpered, and tried anyway.

“If you are interested, there are also file clusters which have been collected under acronyms which imply similar documentation on nearly every major political leader on the planet.”

 “Jesus Christ, JARVIS.” She took off her glasses, and rubbed at her eyes with shaking hands. “Okay. Okay. I’m breathing.” Now what, was the question. “It’s going to take years of work and hundreds of people to go through all of these. For now…um.” She drew a breath. “Highlight all files that involve Stark Industries, the Avengers Initiative, AIM, Asgard, the Aether, the Tesseract, Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, and…and Darcy Lewis.”

Files dissolved. She was left with a few hundred, easily, but even then, at least she wasn’t drowning. She could work with a few hundred files. Darcy pulled her shoes back on, rolled her hair into a bun behind her head, and fixed it with a sharp pencil.

“Do me a favor, JARVIS, babe,” she said, “and forward this to Tony and Pepper. And then get Coffee Guy to bring me a mocha. I’m gonna be up all night.”


Jane didn’t wake up until three pm, and when she did, Darcy informed her curtly over the phone that today was a day off, and that she had to go to the mall to buy underwear. “Not cotton panties either, but nice ones,” said Darcy. “Maybe Thor won’t tear these ones off you if you tell him they’re expensive.” She could hear Jane’s blush over the phone, and her boss was sputtering and huffing when Darcy hung up, but within an hour she was getting pictures on her phone of two kinds of lacy panty with a question mark from Jane, so at least there was no scientist-wrangling to be done today.

She called Coffee Guy in again with another mocha at about eight o’clock, blacking out all of the holoscreens and silencing the mp3 reports of one Phil Coulson, iPod thief, on the subject of the Tesseract. There were audio files by Erik, too, but she set those aside. She wasn’t quite sure she was up to listening to Erik when Erik wasn’t into the no-pants no-sanity thing. It might make her teary, and she hadn’t worn the non-smear mascara today. She wasn’t quite sure what Coffee Guy’s actual name was; he was one of those people who was the assistant of an assistant of a vice-president of Tony’s hooker fund or something, and wore a blank nametag in an attempt to make himself mysterious. Or because he kept losing his actual nametag. Or both. Everyone just called him Coffee Guy, and he didn’t seem to mind it, because he never actually introduced himself.

“Miss Potts is out of her meeting, Miss Lewis,” he said, handing her not only a new mug of mocha, but a plate of madeleines. She only realized she hadn’t eaten since 9am when she stuffed one into her mouth whole. “She asked me to tell you she’d like to see you as soon as you have an opportunity.”

“Sure.”

“Miss Lewis?” She blinked, slowly, halfway through inhaling another madeleine. “Have you seen the news?”

“What news?”

“SHIELD. It’s gone. All the files were released and it’s fallen apart. There was some kind of accident out in DC, and now the Director’s dead and there was some kind of revolt. A lot of people are dead.”

Darcy flung herself across the desk and seized her cell phone (which she had turned on silent since Jane had left Victoria’s Secret). Coffee Guy slipped out of the room without another word as she started scrolling. Seven missed calls. Message from Pepper: I’ll take a look. And another: Answer your phone!! Message from Jane: I don’t know, red seems kinda cliché. What about the— Message from Tony, sent to her, to Pepper, to Jane, to Bruce, to anyone with anything to do with the Avengers: check news.

“JARVIS.” Her voice was not squeaking. Her voice was not squeaking. She’d swear it on the Bible. “Key up the news channels, please.”

“Which one, Miss Lewis?”

“Anything that’s talking about DC right now. Just…just key up the news.”

“—tain America’s body has not yet been recovered from the wreckage. Early reports indicate that it was a clash of internal factions within this private intelligence agency which have played a major part in the destruction wreaked across DC over the past few days. According to spokeswoman Maria Hill, the death toll is currently in the hundreds, and new bodies are being discovered hourly. No list of victims has been released as of yet. The reasoning behind this attack on the Triskelion remains unknown.”

Darcy sank to the floor. DC was three hours ahead of LA this time of year, so if it had been dark here in Malibu for an hour or so, it had to be nearly midnight at the capitol. Lights were blaring all over the Triskelion Building. Fires had been extinguished. The picture was so crisp she could see soot streaking the concrete banks. Her mouth went dry; she licked her lips. “Is there any news on anyone we know?”

“Not as of yet, Miss Lewis.” JARVIS paused. “Captain America seems to have gone missing in the wreckage, and they have not yet located him. As indicated by her method of contact, Miss Maria Hill seems to be alive and somewhat functional. There is no news on the Black Widow. Would you like me to search for anyone in particular?”

“Anyone we know.” She chewed her thumbnail. “Is Tony still in the Midwest?”

“Sir boarded a plane for Washington, DC at the request of Maria Hill precisely two-point-seven hours ago, Miss Lewis.” She checked her phone. Tony’s text was from an hour ago. Of course StarkTech could work on planes. “Miss Potts will be flying out to join him within the next hour. She has left several urgent messages for you on the intranet server, but as you requested that you not be disturbed unless it was by Dr. Foster—”

“Does Jane know?”

There was a moment of crackling silence. Then JARVIS said, “She is not using her StarkPhone, and as she has no other instrument of technology on her person, I cannot establish the answer to your question.”

She pulled the pencil out of her hair, and started chewing on the eraser. Darcy put her shoes back on. “JARVIS, do me a solid, and keep an eye on the SHIELD documents. Keep them behind Stark firewalls. If someone tries to get at them, let me know. Black Widow sent them to Tony first for a reason. The government might come sniffing.” Her heart was pounding in her chest. If someone’s attacking SHIELD, maybe they’re going after all of their known affiliates. “If you can, start going through them. I want to see if SHIELD can tell us what made them collapse.”

“Projected time to completion approximately forty-nine hours, twenty-nine minutes. Sir requested I do the same thing within ten minutes of the story breaking.”

“’course he did.” You knew people in that building. Idiot. All the asshats from Puente Antiguo, and the people who ferried you to Tromso, and the freaking Avengers ohmygod the Avengers what’s gonna happen now holy fuck “If he’s not gonna play favorites, can you let me know what you find? As soon as you find it.”

“Yes, Miss Lewis.”

“And, um, key unlocking those documents to my voice. Or Tony’s, or Pepper’s. Just the three of us. I don’t…I don’t want interns sniffing around in them.” Or Jane. Or, god forbid, Erik. Oh shit oh shit oh shit.

“Yes, Miss Lewis.”

She called Jane on her way into the elevator, and nearly dropped the phone when Thor picked up. She’d known he was supposed to pop back into Midgard in the next few weeks, but she hadn’t expected him to show up this early. Then she had a flash of destruction behind her eyes again, smoke and blood on concrete, and her mouth went tacky. “Hey. Is Jane there?”

“Jane is currently indisposed, Lady Darcy. She has heard of the disaster in your American capitol, and is attempting to reach her sister, who, she informs me, lives within that selfsame district.” Darcy jammed the button for the top floor. Ever since the whole incident with AIM and the Mandarin, Pepper had insisted on being in the highest possible office in Stark Industries. She had the impression that Tony didn’t like it, but even Tony Stark knew better than to argue with Pepper Potts. About anything.

“Is her sister all right?”

“Jane’s telephone has not yet made the necessary connection,” said Thor sadly. “She is very concerned.”

“Yeah.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. There were twenty-four floors between her and Pepper Potts, and the elevator seemed to be taking a decade. “Listen, do me a favor? You’re probably already on it and everything but…keep an eye on Jane for me, ‘kay, big guy? With what happened to SHIELD…”

“I thank you for your concern, Lady Darcy, and I comprehend your meaning perfectly. Believe me when I say that I have been doing as you ask since I first heard the news about my brother-in-arms.”

Something inside her unwound. Five floors away now. “Thanks, Thor.”

His voice thrummed a little with pleasure. “You are welcome, Lady Darcy.”

“You know you don’t have to call me that anymore.”

He laughed, and hung up on her. Darcy blinked at her phone—did a god just hang up on me?—and then smoothed the wrinkles out of her heavy wool sweater. The top floor was all Pepper’s: there was an office, and three meeting rooms, a guest room for if she worked all night, a kitchen, and a closet, because she couldn’t always drive home to get a change of clothes. Basically it was like a penthouse suite, only more Pepper, because all of it was about as professional as an Armani suit.

Pepper was packing. She lifted her head when the elevator door opened, dumping another three shirts into the suitcase she had open on the guest room bed (there was a mishmash of Tony’s clothes in there too, Darcy noticed) and some of the tension melted out of her shoulders. “You heard,” she said, and then tossed two pairs of heels that cost more than Darcy’s entire (failed) high-school education into the suitcase too. “Jane’s okay?”

“Jane’s fine. Thor’s with her.” Darcy waited until Pepper had turned away and then pulled all of the clothes out of the suitcase and began to fold them. She didn’t know her boss very well, but she knew enough to realize that if Pepper walked into DC with wrinkled shirts and skirts, she might just have an apoplectic fit. “Have you heard from anyone?”

“Tony says they still haven’t found Steve. That’s why he’s heading out there, they need Starktech to track him down. We’re the only company in the nation that knows vibranium as well as Howard Stark.” Pepper’s voice was smooth and her hands were steady as she set three more skirts and two more shirts onto the pile of clothes that Darcy was currently fixing up. “It’s been nearly seven hours now, so if we haven’t found him, he might be…well. In more trouble than we know. Even with the serum, he can’t heal all on his own.” Pepper paused. “He survived seventy years on ice. He can survive a crashing helicarrier.”

It was a crashing airplane that nearly took him down last time, thought Darcy, but she held her tongue. She hadn’t met Captain America yet, and probably never would; she wasn’t exactly the type to hobnob with legends, even if she was currently folding Pepper Potts’ laundry. Besides, she didn’t exactly mean to leave Malibu at any point in the next three years.

Pepper rocked back on her heels, and swept one last look around the room before turning to help Darcy with the shirts. “I heard from JARVIS you’re looking into the link that Natasha sent.”

“There are thousands of terabytes of information.” Darcy tucked the soft violet skirt into the suitcase, and smoothed her hands over her sweater again. “I was looking through the stuff on what happened in New York when Coffee Guy told me about the attack.”

“Do me a favor and keep looking, all right? We might be able to find something.” Pepper folded a scarf over her arm, then changed her mind and hung it around her neck. “I’m sending an email out to all of the subdivision heads that business needs to go on as usual. This is an Avengers matter, because it’s SHIELD, and so it might be a few days before Tony and I come back. Maybe a week or two. With Phil…gone, and now Nick…” Her voice cracked a little. She shook herself. “I’ll plan for a week. Will you be okay on your own for that long?”

“I can manage a bunch of persnickety scientists in my sleep, Miss Potts, don’t worry about me.” Darcy pushed her glasses up her nose. “Besides, I haven’t even met most of the Avengers.”

Pepper gave her a look that was just on the right side of understanding, and shut her suitcase. “Well, the Astronomy Division is in your hands, Miss Lewis. I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ve been quite successful the past few months, after all.”

Darcy couldn’t help it. She preened a little. Pepper grabbed a jacket off the back of the nearest chair and slung it over her shoulder as she made for the elevator doors. At the very last minute, she turned, and caught Darcy’s eye again. “I need you to understand: you, me, and Drs. Banner, Foster, and Selvig are the only people in this state that have any real connection with the Avengers Initiative. It’s almost a certainty that someone from—what’s left of SHIELD will be calling for assistance in the investigation of what happened. I don’t think I have to tell you that they might be a little irritated to find out that Tony tweeted all their secrets.”

Darcy flushed a little. Was she imagining it, or was the corner of Pepper’s mouth twitching?

“Don’t tell them what you know,” she said. “There was a clause in your employment contract with us that says if you reveal any information about current projects, I can terminate your job and sue you in the bargain. The investigation and collation of the SHIELD archives is now, officially, a current project, which you will work on only with the assistance of those who have been cleared to so. Is that understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Darcy hesitated. “Um. Who has clearance?”

“Tony,” said Pepper, and stepped into the elevator. “And me. Keep looking. I want to know anything you uncover.”

“Yes, ma’am. JARVIS?”

“I will keep Miss Potts apprised of all advancements made in the SHIELD project.”

“Uh.” Darcy glanced up at the ceiling. “Can we call it the cupcake plan? Because that sounds better than the SHIELD project. Also less…um, illegal.”

“Operation Cupcake, then,” said JARVIS placidly. “Fly safely, Miss Potts.”

“Thank you, JARVIS. I’ll contact you with any news, Darcy.”

“I’ll let you know if I find anything,” said Darcy, but the elevator doors had already slid shut. She had been left alone in Pepper Potts’ guest bedroom. It smelled, she realized, of perfume and champagne.

It was only then she realized she was trembling.

Chapter Text

He is standing in a room. Chairs, a table. A propped-open door. He can hear water running. There is an ache in his arm and a funny foggy chill to his bones that he doesn’t understand. The window is open. He can hear birds chirping. Dawn is only just fringing over the horizon. A car horn goes off. For some reason that surprises him. Inside the bathroom someone is muttering; the language is familiar, but not. Czech, he thinks. He doesn’t know how he recognizes it, or how he understands it. He just does.

Footsteps. Toes on carpet. He lets out a sighing breath. His arm hurts. There is another heartbeat in this room, another set of lungs. The man comes into the room, wearing striped pajamas and carrying a towel. He himself is wearing something else that feels familiar, but isn’t, a suit that stinks of government. Gloves, too, and a hat in one hand. The man in pajamas looks at him, eyes flicking from his hair to his feet and then back to his face. There is wariness in that ovular face. He says something in Czech. Kdo jste? Who are you?

He doesn’t speak. He moves forward. The man in striped pajamas frowns. He seizes the man by the collar of his pajamas and shoves him back into the wall, not hard enough to fracture the plaster, enough to knock the breath out of him. When he reaches forward and digs his fingers into the man’s throat, he is cold. Fingernails scrabble against his sleeve. There’s a gargling noise over the running water in the sink. The man in striped pajamas is gulping out words. Help, he says. The man is speaking in broken Russian. He doesn’t care. The bathroom window is propped open. He pushes, pushes, pushes. The man in striped pajamas reaches out, catches the windowsill, legs thrashing as he dangles. He speaks again. No, he says. No, please, don’t do this.

He pushes.

There is the sound of a bag of meat hitting concrete. Cracking. When he looks out from behind the shadow of the curtain, he can see blood. There are little scraped marks in the windowsill, barely enough to be a scratch. Not enough to look human. He closes the window, locks it, and tugs the curtains. He turns off the sink with his metal hand. His hat is on the hallway floor where he dropped it. He collects it, settles it back on his head.

His arm hurts.


They found Captain Rogers about two hours before Pepper landed in DC. Reporters seemed about ready to cream themselves when they learned that the man had survived falling out of an exploding SHIELD helicarrier with a gunshot wound to the gut, dragged himself ashore, and then lay there bleeding for seven-plus hours, all while…well. Keeping up the breathing thing.

She’d only managed to make her way through about a third of the Puente Antiguo incident (and wishing she could delete some of the shitty-ass creeper-cam photos of her and Jane through lab windows) when her phone went off to let her know of Captain America’s continuing personhood. Not gonna lie, when that news came through she kind of sat down on the floor and cried for a little bit. Maybe. It wasn’t as though she’d ever met Captain America, but come on, it was Captain America. And he was alive. By that time she and JARVIS had already had to fight off three hacking attempts from the FBI, the CIA, and some dude from Helsinki (JARVIS told her after the CIA attack that Stark Industries was the only group to still have any sort of access to the SHIELD intel, because JARVIS and only JARVIS had been able to disable the insidious trojan programs that SHIELD had tagged all its files with, and deleted them from cyberspace). Learning that Captain America was going to live was pretty much the high point of her night.

She switched from Puente Antiguo after that. JARVIS had quietly pulled up a series of files labeled Operation Insight, and requested that she direct her attention to them as soon as possible, and since it was JARVIS, who didn’t blow whistles easily, she did it. She read them, and then she read them again. As she went through the names that had been spit up by their analysis program she found her own nestled between Lewis, Daniel from Oklahoma and Lewis, Mari in Baltimore. Then she had to go throw up. Like a lot. More than she’d thrown up at one time since she’d been sixteen and experimenting with bulimia before she realized how much she actually really hated puking.

It was only once she’d flushed the toilet, set down the lid, and leaned back against the door of the bathroom stall that she realized she was shaking like a leaf, and it wasn’t because she was scared.

She was pissed.

“JARVIS.” Darcy closed her hands into fists against the fabric of her skirt. “How much longer do you need to complete the overhaul on Operation Cupcake?”

“Approximately twenty-six hours, thirty-four minutes, Miss Lewis. Even after the trojan programs were disabled, there are still a number of security measures that have been making things difficult. Not to mention the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency continues to attempt to hack into our files.”

She pushed herself to her feet, and unlocked the stall door. “How much of your programming is devoted to it?”

“Energy-wise, Miss Lewis? Thirty-two point six percent.” He paused. “If you require, I can provide an additional seventeen percent without experiencing loss of power in any other sector within my control. I estimate it would cut down the previous processing time by forty-six percent.”

Any other sector meant every bit of Stark Industries here, the Avengers Tower, Tony and Pepper’s cell phones, all the Iron Man suits….she bit her tongue and turned on the nearest sink, as hot as she could stand. “Can you do all of that without going offline?”

“Of course, Miss Lewis.”

She looked at herself in the mirror. Smeared makeup. Red eyes. Even her lipstick was mussed. She wet down a towel and then wiped her face, scrubbing until her skin was pink and all her mascara was gone. She tore out a few eyelashes in the process, but she did it anyway. “Then do it. And if you find anything you calculate to be an immediate or semi-immediate emergency, or a danger to anyone we know, you tell Tony immediately.”

“Not you, Miss Lewis?”

“Me after. Tony and Pepper first. They can do more than me.”

“Shall I inform Dr. Banner as well?”

She took a breath and let it out. “If Tony says to. Not otherwise.” No matter how in control Dr. Banner was, there was no point poking the bear if there wasn’t anything to poke it with. “I have to go check on the scientists.”  

“Yes, Miss Lewis.”

Silence. She dropped the towel into the incineration chute, and wished she’d thought to bring her makeup bag in. She didn’t particularly like going without it. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Miss Lewis?”

She drew a breath. “Who was on the list for Project Insight? Other than me. That we know. Like, personally.”

A pause. “That list of names is not insignificant, Miss Lewis.”

“Read them to me.” She pulled her StarkPhone from her pocket, and plugged in her earbuds. “Privately. I just…I want to hear them.”

JARVIS sounded a little tinny through her crappy earbuds, but there was no static. “Is there any particular order you would like them in?”

Bless JARVIS for not questioning her. “The level of threat they were registered under. By SHIELD.”

Another pause. “Rogers,” said JARVIS, “Steven Grant. Stark, Anthony Edward. Romanova, Natalia Alianovna. Banner, Bruce. Barton, Clinton Francis. Hill, Maria Catherine. Foster, Jane Louise. Selvig, Erik. Potts, Virginia Marie…”

Darcy collected her coat, locked down her files and her office door, and then left Stark Industries.

The apartment she shared with Jane (thanks, again, to lead asshat Tony Stark,) was only three blocks away from the office. She tucked her hands deep into her pockets, pressing her arms close to her sides, and watched as a cop car did a circle around the block before stepping out onto the pavement. Her taser was, technically, illegal, but it made her feel safer; besides, she was in one of the few areas of LA that actually had hourly police drive-bys, and no ‘banger with any sense in their heads would hang around Stark Industries because of that. JARVIS kept up the low monotone list as she stepped off the curb and jaywalked down to Orchard, turning right next to the pizza parlor.

The apartment building was swipe-in only, and the front desk always had a bodyguard on hand. Tonight it was Charley; he was in his forties, still fit, with a metric fuckton of freckles and a wide crooked smile that reminded her of her Uncle Freddie. She was pretty sure he was from Stark Industries’ security, but she’d never asked, and he’d never said anything.

“Hey,” he said, and closed his paper. “You’re back late. I thought you were upstairs with the doc already.”

“Work went long.” She pulled one earbud out and leaned on the counter. (“Rhodes, James Cornelius,” said JARVIS in her ear.) “Anything happen on the news?”

It was what she remembered people asking during and after 9/11, and after the Battle of New York. You didn’t have to clarify what you were asking about. You just wanted to know if some fresh hell had rained down.

Charley shook his head. “They found Cap. Other than that they just keep repeating themselves. There’s supposed to be a press conference with someone from SHIELD in a few hours.” (“Ellis, Mathew Jonathan,” said JARVIS. “Carter, Sharon Margaret.”) “President’s gonna make a speech in twenty minutes. You wanna stick around to watch?”

“I have to go upstairs. Jane’s sister’s in DC.”

Charley made a face. “I’m sorry, kid.”

“Quit it with the kid, I’m only ten years younger than you.” She patted his hand anyway, and smacked the elevator button. “I’ll tell her you said hey.”

“Hay is for horses. Tell her I said hello.”

“God, you’re such a farmboy,” she said, and he grinned at her as the elevator doors slid shut.

The condo was on the twentieth floor, and the elevator was criminally slow. Darcy bounced on the balls of her feet, and focused on the names again. May, Melinda Qiaolian. Each floor was a full condo, so all she had to do when the elevator finally ground to a halt was play with her keys. The living room was dark, the kitchen barely lit with the over-the-stove lamp, but the curtains hadn’t been pulled over the French doors, so she could see LA in all its sparkling glory. Jane and Thor were conspicuously absent. She went to flick on a light, and found the bulb had burned out.

“Goddammit, Jane.” She kicked off her shoes, and peeled off the stupid little sock things that you had to wear with high heels unless you wanted feet that smelled like moose. Today was just not a good day.

Something hard poked her in the small of the back the same instant a hand closed around her wrist, twisting her arm painfully high behind her back. “Don’t move.”

Darcy squealed. Then she tried to stomp on his instep. The man—whoever he was—had expected it, probably; the world spun, and suddenly she was making intimate friends with the wall. Something caught in her hair and tugged. When she tried to throw him off, he just stood, an implacable statue. The gun drove harder into her back. “I said don’t move.”

Darcy went icy still. “Jesus Christ.”

Think, woman. Think think think. Holy shit. She couldn’t tell how tall he was. He was strong, though. His hands were big. Probably tall. He didn’t have an accent. What else was she supposed to consider? Cologne, but he wasn’t wearing any. Her throat closed up a little; her eyes burned. Dammit, nobody’s supposed to be able to get into my fucking house! Darcy whimpered a little. The man leaned forward, and she felt hot breath against the back of her ear.

“If I shoot you, the bullet will perforate your spinal column, liver and your small intestine before going out the other side and decorating the wall.” Long pause. “Please don’t make me shoot you.”

Please? Would a burglar-rapist-home-invader-dude really say please? “Christ,” she said again. Her taser was in her pocket, knocking hard against her hip, so, so close and yet a million miles away. JARVIS had stopped reciting. “Fucking shit—dude, take whatever you want, seriously, I don’t need a flatscreen TV, that was Jane’s idea, for Thor, she thought he’d like seeing things high-def—”

“Thor?” the voice said, suddenly confused, and then, miracle of miracles, she was free. Darcy didn’t do the brave-but-stupid thing, which would have been to whip out her taser and kick ass. Instead she bolted out of reach. In the hallway, the lights flicked on, and Thor came out, shirtless and glorious, Mjolnir clasped in one hand. Darcy lunged for him—even a shirtless Thor was better than having some dude have a gun in her back—and nearly tripped over her own shoes before she could get over the couch. It was only once she’d made the leap (landing rather gracefully on both feet, thank you) that she realized Thor was buckass naked, and hastily averted her eyes rather than endure death by Jane.

(Well. Not hastily.)

The man by the door was older than he’d sounded and shorter than his hands had implied, with close-cropped brown hair and startling blue eyes. In one hand he had a gun. Darcy cared about the gun. Thor seemed to care about the man.

“Barton,” he said, and set Mew-Mew back on its hook. (They’d installed one in every room of the condo, except for Darcy’s bedroom, because otherwise Thor just had a tendency to drop it without thinking and nobody wanted to stumble over a bigass hammer in the middle of the night.) “You’re alive.”

Why are you putting the hammer down,” said Darcy very fast, and took two steps closer to Thor, two further away from Home Invader Dude. Her heart was thundering in her chest, and every hair on her body was prickling. She hadn’t been this pumped with adrenalin since her first performance at the Top Hat. (Or maybe since Puente Antiguo.) (Hell, London kind of blew everything else out of the water.) (Okay, so maybe adrenalin was more of her best friend than Jane was, but that was beside the point.) Thor raised his eyebrows at her as down the hall, the door creaked open, and Jane emerged, wearing nothing but a sheet wrapped around her like a toga. Her hair was all mussed.

“Lady Darcy, do you not recognize Hawkeye? This man is one of my shieldbrothers, and the most capable marksman I have seen in all of the realms. He will not harm you.”

“Hawkeye?” she repeated, and squinted at Home Invader Dude. He didn’t look much like the guy she’d seen in the Youtube videos. Then again, Hawkeye and Black Widow were experts at avoiding cameras. Even in the press photographs, they were mostly absent. Hawkeye could have been anyone.

He squinted right back at her, and then looked at Thor. “What’s she doing here?” he asked, and Darcy bristled.

She is gonna rip your guts out through your fucking throat if you ever try something like that again,” she said, but her voice broke on the last word, so it didn’t come off nearly as intimidating as she wanted it to. Jane made a noise like a kitten being trod on, and came to stand next to Darcy, rubbing her back with one short-nailed hand. Darcy leaned into her without thinking about it, trying to remember how lungs worked. Then she remembered: this guy—Barton, Hakweye, whoever he was—he’d been voodooed by Loki along with Erik.

Maybe he has a reason for being a little trigger happy, she thought. Then she squashed it. There was a difference between Erik’s trigger happy (which usually involved spontaneous nudity) and Home Invader Dude, who’d threatened to rupture her spine. There was a difference.

“The lady with impressive vocabulary is the Lady Darcy, Jane’s assistant and housemate.” Thor rolled the word housemate around on his tongue like some sort of exotic spice.

“I know who she is,” said Home Invader Dude. “I just want to know what she’s doing here.”

“She’s my friend,” said Jane sharply, before anyone else could speak. Her fingers clenched against Darcy’s back. “Isn’t that enough?”

“She also works at Stark Industries,” Thor added. “She is trustworthy.”

Home Invader Dude gave her a considering look, from the top of her head down to her bare feet. Darcy drew herself up to her full height, and glared back at him, closing her hands into fists to hide how her fingers were shaking. Slowly, her brain started working on higher functioning again. Sure, this guy could be anyone, but Thor—Thor wasn’t. Thor was Thor. And Thor, despite all rumors to the contrary, was actually really fucking smart. So she forced her hand away from her taser pocket, and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“You gonna poke me with a pistol again?” she asked. Home Invader Dude—Hawkeye—blinked at her once. Then he seemed to realize he was still holding onto his gun—a big black thing with a very scary silencer—and he stowed it away behind his back somewhere. 

“Sorry,” he said, but he didn’t sound very sorry. He sounded exhausted. Hawkeye gave her another flicking once-over, as if measuring how dangerous she was, and then looked at Thor again. “I was in the Sandbox,” he said, and then shook his head once at Thor’s blank look. “A SHIELD facility. HYDRA hit it. Things’re tense. Malibu was closer than DC.” He glanced at Jane, then, and for the first time he looked slightly ashamed. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to disturb anyone. I can go to Stark’s.”

“You’re not,” said Jane firmly, and gave Darcy a look that shut her up before she could even open her mouth. “Stay for as long as you need, Clint. The couch folds out. Besides, Tony’s house is…well, it’s kind of hypothetical right now.” She pulled the sheet tighter around her shoulders. “I’ll just…um, change. And then I can help you set up.”

“No,” said Hawkeye and Darcy together. Darcy gave him a sidelong look, but he refused to meet her eyes. “It’s all right,” he said. “I can figure things out. Don’t trouble yourself.”

“I will assist,” said Thor. “The bedding is still in the hall closet?”

Darcy shook herself once, and then did what she was good at. She took charge. “Dude,” she said, “no. You have one job, and that is pants. Because in Midgard, we wear pants. Or kilts, like Erik. But usually pants. Both of you,” she added, but she patted Jane on the shoulder to let her know she was teasing. “As much as I like getting eyefuls at whatever the hell time it is, I don’t think McStabsaLot likes it all that much.”

Jane squeaked, and flushed bright red. Thor barked out a laugh. “My apologies, Lady Darcy. I leave Barton in your capable hands.” He looked over at Hawkeye, and pointed at him with one enormous finger. “You,” he said. “Stay. I will be back momentarily.”

“With pants,” Darcy said loudly.

Go,” said Jane, and shoved at him. Jane Foster trying to physically move an Asgardian was rather like a beetle trying to push over a brick wall, but Thor let her rock him off balance. Barton muttered something under his breath that sounded distinctly like What am I, a dog? Darcy waited until Jane’s bedroom door snicked shut before letting out a breath, and turning on the standing lamp in the corner. Then she realized that JARVIS was still waiting on her StarkPhone, and she put her earbuds back in. “Hey, J. We’re good.”

“I had ascertained as much,” said JARVIS. “I have let Sir know that Agent Barton is well. Sir is relieved, and wishes you to inform Agent Barton that he is, quote, ‘Glad you’re back, Merida,’ unquote. Is there anything else you require, Miss Lewis?”

A superhero-proof condo, she thought, but she kept her mouth shut. “No. We’re fine. Thanks, though.”

“Signing off,” said JARVIS, and then the app shut down. She tugged her earbuds out again. Hawkeye—Agent Barton—was watching her carefully, his icy eyes reflecting light like glass. He had an expression on his face that reminded her of how Thor had looked, back in Puente Antiguo, facing down the Destroyer. Not Donald Blake anymore, but Thor, demigod and professional badass. Agent Barton looked like he was ready to kill her with a pen.

“Do you always greet people you don’t know with a pistol to the spine?” she asked, and went to the hall closet to get at the sheets. She’d just done laundry the other day—yet another thing on the ever-growing list of Things Jane Forgets To Do—and they still smelled of the detergent. Barton bent down—he was standing protectively over a duffel bag, like it held diamonds—and then heaved it up with a clink of metal, setting it at the end of the couch. “Or am I just special?”

“Long day,” he said, a mathematician’s answer. She dropped the sheets on the coffee table, and went to drag it out of the way. Barton beat her to it, and pushed the table back into the corner without a word. Darcy started pulling pillows off the couch instead. “You did good, though. If it had been someone other than me, you’d’ve broken my foot.”

“Classy,” she said, and pulled the fold-away free. It creaked. She wished him back problems. “Nice to know that all of my self-defense classes were totally wasted because of superhero do-gooders.” Damn, she needed coffee. Or chocolate. Or both. She wondered if Jane would be mad at her for rebuilding the coffee machine to make a mocha. “There,” she said, once the couchbed was prepped. “I’m not nice enough to help you with the sheets. And since you’re not the first person who’s tried to kill me today—”

What?” said a newly pants-wearing Thor from the hallway, his eyebrows snapping together and his mouth twisting into the I Am A God Tell Me Your Meaning This Instant shape. Darcy could have kicked herself. Barton, too, looked instantly shifty; his whole aura went sharp, and he rubbed his index finger and thumb together, like he was searching for something. “What happened, Lady Darcy?”

“Jesus,” she said, and flung her hands in the air. “Coffee. I need coffee. You need coffee? I need coffee.”

Thor opened his mouth.

Coffee first. Then talking. Because clearly, I’m not sleeping tonight, either.”

Apparently, in her absence, Thor had put the coffee machine back together. It was hard to get out from under the watchful eye of not one, but two Avengers long enough to change out of her work clothes, but once she threatened to strip in front of them—after all, it wouldn’t have been her first time stripping—they let her go. By the time she came back, in her ragged elephant pajama pants and the bulkiest hoodie she owned, the coffee was done, and Thor had already prepped hers for her, smothering it in chocolate syrup and setting it on an end table like an offering. She curled around it and into one of the armchairs, tucking her feet up under her. It was only once she’d explained about what Natasha had sent to Tony (the wrinkles in Barton’s forehead smoothed a little at the mention that the Black Widow was probably alive) and about Project Insight that Thor finally sat back, and let out a breath. Jane had come out around the same time as Darcy, and perched on the edge of Darcy’s armchair, making soft noises of protest at some of the names on the list JARVIS had found. By the time she was done, Jane was somehow halfway into the armchair with Darcy, her arm around Darcy’s shoulders and her forehead pressed to Darcy’s temple. Darcy wondered when she’d started trembling again. It didn’t bear thinking about. So when she was done, she leaned into Jane (because Jane was a damn good cuddler, if Darcy could say so) and let her boss stroke her hair. Fight or flight always took a while to wear off. Darcy wondered if they’d stare at her if she leaped for the fire escape.

“I don’t understand,” Jane said finally. “Why would SHIELD start something like Project Insight in the first place? As bad as SHIELD could be, I didn’t think they’d actually try to commit mass murder.”

“They wouldn’t have,” said Barton. He was using one of Thor’s mungo-mugs, one that was about the size of a regular person’s face; he’d already downed half of it. Black coffee, one sugar. She hated herself for paying attention. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Not on a scale like that. The project itself isn’t…I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear about it, but Fury wouldn’t let something like that just happen. He’s better than that.”

“Fury’s dead,” said Darcy, and Barton twitched, eyes blowing wide, like he’d just been slapped. “Pepper told me. She said he’d been killed in the attack on the Triskelion, or something. I didn’t see the news report.”

“Before the Triskelion,” said Jane. “They released the time of death as two days ago.”

“Two days,” said Barton. He stood, and turned away from all of them, stalking to the balcony doors. Thor watched him go. Darcy stared into her coffee mug. Someone swore, softly, viciously. She thought it might have been Jane. Darcy wondered how her timeline had grown so sloppy. She was usually so good at remembering things.

“Barton?” said Thor, and Hawkeye turned just slightly, his profile illuminated by the lamplight.

“I was in deep cover when they called me back to the Sandbox,” said Barton. Each word seemed to be torn from him with a pair of pliers. “The…team…that met me at the site tried to shoot me in the back. Last one called for HYDRA.” He cracked his knuckles. “I thought it was a splinter faction until I broke into the facility and found the whole place crawling with HYDRA men.”

“HYDRA.” Thor cocked his head, just slightly. “The men the Captain fought against. They still exist in Midgard?”

“Apparently.” Barton scoffed. “They must have been deep. Must have been indoctrinating new recruits in the Academy.” He swiped a hand over his jaw. “Shit. SHIELD might not have been up for killing swaths of innocents, but HYDRA...that stinks of HYDRA. Nat wouldn’t have released all of SHIELD’s intel unless she thought she had no other choice.”

Jane knocked her forehead against Darcy’s temple, and said nothing.

“I should be doing something,” said Hawkeye. “There have to be parts of SHIELD that are still honest. There have to be. I should—”

“Sleep,” Thor rumbled. “You have the look of one who has not slept in too long, my friend. Before we go anywhere, you must rest.”

Barton scoffed. “I’m not about to just—”

“Barton,” said Thor, and he put a heavy hand on Barton’s shoulder, pinning him down with the I Am Sorry But I Am Going To Have To Force You If You Don’t Say Yes look. (Thor had a lot of looks. Darcy wondered just when she’d catalogued them all, or if she ever would.) “Rest. We rise early tomorrow, and there will be much that needs doing.”

Barton cast a longing look towards the fire escape. Then he met Thor’s eyes, and nodded. Thor clapped him hard on the back, and Barton’s eyes bulged a little.

“Good man,” said Thor. “Sleep as much as you can. I feel that we’ll have few chances later.” He looked over at Darcy and Jane, the lines of his face softening ever so slightly when Jane smiled at him. Darcy fought the urge to gag. Please god don’t make me suffer through the Power Couple this early in the morning. “Good night, Lady Darcy.”

“Stop calling me that,” Darcy mumbled, and stuck her nose into her coffee mug. Jane squeezed her shoulder, and disentangled herself from Darcy’s armchair. She paused by Barton, touching his shoulder lightly.

“It’ll be all right, Clint,” she said, and then she followed Thor down the hall. There was a click, and then their door had shut.

Darcy had a sneaking suspicion that Thor had brewed decaf; every part of her body felt like it was carved out of stone. She swirled the coffee in her mug, and peeked at Barton through the curtain of her hair. He was still staring out the French doors towards LA, eyebrows stuck together, lines deep around his mouth. Considering he’d tried to kill her less than thirty minutes ago, she shouldn’t actually feel bad for him. But since she was stupid, she did.

“If you want,” she said, and unfolded from the chair, “you can come with me to Stark Industries tomorrow. I can show you all the files. You’ll probably understand them better than I do, anyway. Lots of acronyms, not enough handbooks.”

Barton blinked at her. Darcy had the funny feeling that for the first time since she’d come back to the condo, Barton was actually seeing her, instead of looking through her. Then the moment was gone. He dropped onto the end of the couchbed, and began undoing his shoelaces. “That’d be helpful,” he said, without meeting her eyes. “I’d appreciate it.”

Darcy didn’t quite know what else to do. She wavered for a second, said, “Well, good night, then,” and darted into her room, careful to shut the door very quietly behind her. On the bed, Jane’s enormous Maine Coone cat, Bruiser, lifted his head from her pillow and gave a low rumbling growl, and she nearly tossed something at him.

“Some bodyguard you are,” she told him, and then peeled off her sweater, undid her bra, and curled around the cat on the bed. Bruiser grumbled something in catspeak, and then draped himself halfway over her stomach. When she scratched his ears, he started to purr, a slow scratchy thing that sounded like an old engine starting. It vibrated through her ribs.

She stared at the ceiling for a long time before she could get to sleep.


When her alarm went off the next morning, Darcy rolled over and called the local gym to cancel her pole dancing class. Considering everything, she really didn’t think she’d be able to handle (or even be able to meet up with) spoiled bitchy housewives who wanted to keep their surgically trim waists trimmer through a sport with daringly sexual implications. Then she flopped onto her back (and Bruiser’s tail) and listened to Thor and Barton in the kitchen. They were talking, but it was soft enough she couldn’t only make out the rhythms of their voices, not any actual words. The clock read 05:47.

He said early, Darcy thought, and next to her, Bruiser mowled. Goddamn early.

She hadn’t slept all that well. She’d woken up three or four times, not because Barton made any noise—the dude was a superspy, he probably could have come into her room and not woken her—but because her brain had been moving too fast for her to actually hit REM. Maybe Thor hadn’t tricked her into decaf after all, she thought, scratching Bruiser behind the ears. Or maybe learning that you’d nearly died via helicarrier in the past twenty-four hours didn’t do much for sleep. Either way, she’d need a caffeine drip to get through the day. She was certain of it.

The cat nudged her cheekbone hard, and made a sound that approximated a deflating tire. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. I’ll feed you. Jesus.”

Dr. Banner was sitting in her kitchen. Darcy stopped dead at the end of the hallway, and wrapped her jacket tighter around herself. She threw Dr. Banner a salute, and crouched at Bruiser’s bowls, grunting when Thor gave her a cheery good morning, whipping pancake mix into a froth. “What time is it?”

“Almost six,” said Dr. Banner. He had a travel mug of tea with him. “You’re up early.”

“Mmphrgl,” said Darcy, and let Bruiser trip her in his stampede to get at his refilled food bowl. Barton was perched on one of their three-legged stools at the kitchen counter, curled around a mug of coffee. He’d shaved—Thor’s doing, probably—but otherwise he looked just the shitty as he had last night. He’d taken off the hoodie, though, and he was showing off some impressive arms. Hawkeye, she thought. The bowman. It definitely showed. “What are you doing here, Dr. Banner?”

“Clint let me know he was in town.” Dr. Banner dimpled a little. Darcy couldn’t help smiling back. She was stuck in the awkward stage of semi-permanently wanting to hug Bruce Banner, but being too worried about what his reaction would be if she actually attempted it. Not that he would Hulk Out or anything, just that he didn’t seem all that touchy. She wasn’t sure if that was thanks to his big green friend, or just a Bruce Banner thing. Either way, she contented herself with patting the back of his shoulder, and leaning past him to get at the cereal boxes. “How are you, Darcy?”

“Shitty,” she said. She gave Barton a look. “’bout as shitty as he looks but without the whole tortured spy thing. Did you eat all my bagels?”

Thor put his hands up and scooted out of her way. Her bagels were untouched. It was only once she’d put one in the toaster and boosted herself up onto the kitchen counter, a cup of Thor-made coffee in her hands (he was getting really good at it; he’d make a good barista) that she started to feel a little better. Barton was watching Jane’s cat like it was a bomb.

“Where’s Dr. Foster?” asked Dr. Banner. Thor rubbed a hand over his face. Now that she was paying attention, she could see little rings under his eyes. Not anything like you could see on a “regular mortal,” but enough that it made her wonder.

“She has not yet heard from her sister.” Darcy hid her face behind her hair. I totally forgot to ask. Some friend she was. “She only fell asleep just before dawn. I would not wake her.”

Bruiser, having apparently finished eating for the moment, jumped up onto the counter next to her and knocked the hand that held her coffee with his head. She lifted her mug, and let him crawl forward onto her lap, his claws pricking into her thigh. Across the counter, Dr. Banner frowned. “What about Tony?

“Still in DC,” said Barton. He was still staring at Bruiser. After flicking his eyes up at Darcy—for permission?—he reached forward with his left hand and brushed his forefinger over Bruiser’s head. Bruiser closed his eyes and made a noise like a rusty saw, so Barton scratched the back of the cat’s ears. In daylight—or, well, dawn’s light—Barton seemed more human. (Screw you. You’re not supposed to have nice arms, or be good with animals. You’re supposed to be all threatening and spy-ish.) “He’ll be there for a while. Politicians are crawling all over him. He’s keeping an eye on Nat to make sure she doesn’t kill herself. Or wind up killed.” His mouth twisted. “Not like anyone in this hemisphere could take her down all that easy, but with all of the attacks on SHIELD I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came after her. She’s the one who let down all of SHIELD’s firewalls; that painted a target on her better than anything else.”

Dr. Banner hissed a little. Thor flipped a pancake. Darcy petted Bruiser, and wondered if they’d forgotten she was there at all. She felt like she was intruding in Big Important Avenger Business, but if she stood, she’d draw attention to herself. So instead she pet the cat and kept her head down. Thor sighed. “We ought to begin making our way to DC soon. I will be accompanying Jane; she wishes to search for her sister. This means that I will be fairly…entangled in the search and rescue process.” He cocked his head to the side. “I believe that it was your intention to go after SHIELD bases, Barton.”

“Someone has to find the good agents and get them out alive.” Barton took a swallow of coffee. “Could use some help, Doc.”

“I think I’ll be better suited as far away from this whole kerfuffle as possible. Not that I don’t want to help,” Dr. Banner added, waving his hands, “but simultaneously I don’t think the…Hulk appearing in a battle between SHIELD and HYDRA would have the best effect on your mission, Clint. If the press managed to get wind of it, it could blow your cover, and the Other Guy isn’t…exactly quiet most of the time.”

Thor rubbed his jaw like he was remembering something painful. “As excellent a warrior as Dr. Banner is, he would be more suited to the medical operations in the capitol. If that satisfies you, Barton.”

Barton swirled his coffee in the mug. “Yeah. Sure.”

Darcy curled her toes, and then shoved Bruiser off her lap and onto the floor. He landed on all fours, gave her a betrayed look, and flounced off to crawl into bed with Jane. Thor flipped another pancake, and gave it to Dr. Banner. A stiff silence fell over them. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

“I’m gonna shower,” said Darcy, and slid off the counter. “Lemme know when you want to go look at the SHIELD documents.”

“Oh.” Barton blinked at her. “Soon.”

“Soon,” she repeated. “Fine. We’ll go after I shower. You two coming too?”

“I will remain with Jane until she awakens,” said Thor. Dr. Banner looked at his travel mug, and then nodded.

“I think I’d like to see exactly what SHIELD’s been hiding all these years.”

“You and me both, Banner,” said Barton.

Darcy left the room.

Even at just past six AM, Stark Industries was buzzing with humanity. Coffee Guy showed up at her office less than thirty seconds after she’d keyed the lock open, with another mug of tea for Dr. Banner and coffee for her. He watched Agent Barton with big eyes before scuttling back down the hall again, probably to start a rumor about pre-dawn threesomes in the ASSHAT department. Stark Industries had the biggest rumor mill of any place she’d ever worked at in her life, and Darcy had been employed at both fast food services and stripclubs. JARVIS shielded the room without her having to ask. “Good morning, Miss Lewis, Dr. Banner, Agent Barton. You will be pleased to note that the overhaul of the SHIELD documents Sir requested has been completed approximately twelve hours earlier than expected.”

Darcy dropped into her spinny chair, and activated the holographic imaging system. The shoebox that was SHIELD glimmered into life, casting strange shadows over the crags and lines in Barton’s face. He looked suddenly, indescribably old. “What do you have for us, J?”

“Operating off of intelligence I have received from Sir and Agent Romanoff, HYDRA has been infiltrating SHIELD since its inception in 1948.” The shoebox opened, and as JARVIS herded them through the digital library, images spun past in a dizzying rainbow. “Beginning with Operation Paperclip in the 1950s, members of HYDRA have been increasingly involved within SHIELD hierarchy. According to Agent Romanoff, Alexander Pierce was the current leader of HYDRA’s forces within SHIELD, until he was killed in action at the Triskelion. It is impossible to estimate how many elements within SHIELD are affiliated with HYDRA, though tentative projections put the number at somewhere around forty-three percent.”

Barton sat down hard, and put his head in his hands. Darcy felt sick. The men who had taken her and Jane to Tromso, the men at Puente Antiguo—hell, even Phil Coulson—who knew whether they could be trusted? How could you know?

“Hail HYDRA,” said Dr. Banner grimly, and lifted his face towards the ceiling. “JARVIS, what else have you found?”

“Alexander Pierce left a network of information brokers across the world. Upon learning of his demise, they are sure to be scrambling.” There was a pause that made her think JARVIS was frowning. Then she smacked herself, because JARVIS was a machine. “Without a more thorough examination, it is impossible to tell which members of SHIELD are HYDRA, and which are not. Judging by Director Fury’s demise, it is possible to ascertain that he was not. Nor, obviously, is Agent Romanoff.”

Barton grunted, but said nothing.

“So basically what we know is that SHIELD is now bad news and there’s no way to tell who’s good and who’s bad without cutting them open to see if they bleed HYDRA?” said Darcy.

“A rather unsettling image, Miss Lewis, but that is an excellent summation of our current predicament.” JARVIS paused. “The most critical operation that I have information on, aside from Project Insight, is a file entitled Tahiti. I would suggest perusal at the first possible opportunity. It has…disconcerting implications.”

“Like what?” said Dr. Banner.

“Wait a second, JARVIS,” said Barton. “You have a list of all known SHIELD facilities?”

“I can print one immediately, if you so wish it, Agent Barton.”

“Do it.” Barton stood. “I’ll start with the closest. Work my way across the US. There have to be some that aren’t all HYDRA.”

“Agent Barton,” said JARVIS, as in the corner, Darcy’s printer whirred. “Agent Romanoff has a message for you. I am afraid I do not fully understand it. She says that you must remember Sisyphus.”

Barton looked as though he’d been gutted. His mouth twisted, and he clenched his hands into fists. “No,” he said. “Tell her no.”

There was a pause. “Agent Romanoff asks me to remind you of Montenegro,” said JARVIS, slowly, as if he was trying to work out all the implications. “She seems quite focused.”

Barton swore under his breath. “I’m not about to stand by and do nothing!”   

“She says please, Agent Barton.”

Barton went very still. His eyes were wide. As she watched, he slowly relaxed his hands, finger by finger, until they hung by his sides like useless spades. Then he let out a breath. “Fine,” he said. “I understand.”

JARVIS went silent. Darcy caught Dr. Banner’s eye, but he shrugged. He had no idea what Sisyphus meant, either. Barton stared hard at the wall, through a photograph of Peggy Carter and Howard Stark at the beginning of SHIELD. He seemed to hunch in on himself; then he cleared his throat. “Lewis,” he said, and in spite of all her instincts, Darcy snapped to attention. “You mind if I go through these files?”

Darcy shrugged. “Why are you asking me?”

For the first time since she’d met him, Barton’s lips quirked up into a bit of a smile. “I guess ‘cause you’re the one that’s the head of the project.”

“Oh.” She was, wasn’t she? Darcy chewed her lip. “I mean, sure. You’d need me to open all the files. I was gonna spend most of the day analyzing them anyway. You’d…you’d help.”

“Appreciate it,” he said, and then he walked out of the room. Dr. Banner cast one glance back at Darcy, and then followed him. Darcy looked up at the ceiling, a habit she’d picked up from Pepper, who always did it when she spoke to JARVIS.

“J,” she said. “Tell me what you have on Project Tahiti.”

Chapter Text

“I distinctly remember telling you that clearance to Operation Cupcake was restricted to you, me, and Tony,” said Pepper.

Darcy leaned back against the door to her office, and wondered if she could possibly melt through the floor. Her stomach churned. They’d been researching for nineteen hours, she’d been awake for twenty-four or so, and when she’d answered her phone to find Pepper Fucking Potts on the other end of the line, she’d nearly choked on her own spit. Not only that, but Pepper’s tone was making her want to drop everything and sprint to an emergency exit. No wonder she’s CEO.

“Um. Hold on a second.” She turned, and walked out of hearing range of her office before sticking her finger in her free ear. Wherever Pepper was, there was a lot of background noise. People were shouting. Maybe a rally? “I—I apologize, ma’am. I can get them out as soon as I—”

“Darcy,” said Pepper. “I’m teasing.”

Darcy let out a whoosh of air that probably could have powered a small ship and sagged against the wall. With a jolt, she realized her hands were shaking. “Holy crap,” she said, and then when Pepper laughed, she stared at the floor. “Sorry. I just—sorry.”

“Well,” Pepper added after a moment, “only partly. They wouldn’t have been able to even see the documents if Tony hadn’t given them clearance the same night you downloaded the files. All Avengers have full access to Stark Industries files, at least, until Tony and Steve squabble again and he revokes all privileges.” Until I browbeat him out of it went unspoken. “Besides, if you’d told them no, they’d probably have managed to get in anyway. At least this way you can monitor what they’re looking at.”

Darcy hadn’t considered this. “Oh.”

“It’s understandable. You’re not off the hook, but it’s understandable. Besides, if you’d tried to tell Clint he couldn’t see them I’m pretty sure he would have…” Pepper trailed off. “Actually, I don’t know what he would have done, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been good. Bruce is usually more reasonable, but I hesitate to imagine what Thor would come up with.”

There was a sticky pause in which Darcy could only see Mew-Mew, glinting with electricity, and the disappearance of JARVIS forever into a digital graveyard.

“I’m sorry,” Darcy said miserably, and twisted her free hand into her hair. “I still should have remembered. I just…” what excuse could she give that didn’t sound like BS? “I don’t know. I haven’t…slept much, since I started working on it. Some of what I’ve been reading is…”

There was no word for it. TAHITI leaned over her shoulder like a wraith.

“I believe the words Miss Lewis is searching for is ‘disturbing,’” said JARVIS suddenly. Not in her phone, but in the general hallway. Darcy looked up at the ceiling and slashed a hand across her throat—after all, Coffee Guy would be coming back soon—but JARVIS said nothing more. Pepper sighed.

“Tony, I’ve told you before, you’re not allowed to have JARVIS bug my cell phone. Or tape my conversations. Or whatever it is you’re having him do. I don’t care how worried you get, it’s a million kinds of not okay.”

There was a buzz of speech from the background of the phone that Darcy assumed was Tony Stark. Probably covering his ass. That, or defending his decision to be a creepy stalker. She heard “—not like I listen to them, your conversations are boring. Unless they’re with me. But mostly they’re boring—” and then Pepper was back. “Considering this a verbal warning, Darcy,” said Pepper, but she sounded more exasperated than angry, so Darcy counted her chickens. “Have you found anything more out about Project TAHITI?”

“No,” said Darcy. “Well, yes. But also no. I mean, it’s pretty encrypted. Even JARVIS is having trouble with it. And, I mean, it’s…it’s weird. It’s really fuck—freaking creepy, actually.” She thought of Phil Coulson’s face in those videos, the lines that were slowly carved into his face from the depths of the project. “There’s evidence that—that there was a successful subject, but I haven’t been able to find a name yet. I’ve been trying. Whatever happened, they really wanted to bury it.”

Pepper sighed. “Does Clint know you’re working on this?”

Darcy held her breath. “Um. Does it matter if he does?”

“Phil was…Phil was his handler,” said Pepper, and something under Darcy’s ribs clenched. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t tell him. Just…I don’t know.”

Darcy said nothing.

“Darcy,” said Pepper.

“I might have already told him,” Darcy said, and waited for the explosion. There was a moment of long grim silence from the phone. “I was watching the videos while he was in the room, he saw that it was Agent iPod Thief and asked. I didn’t see a reason not to tell him.”

“What did he say?”

Darcy scratched the back of her neck. “He…he didn’t really say anything, actually. He just looked at me and then had JARVIS print a bunch of deceased employee records. I think—I think he wants to know who the successful subject was. The vids didn’t say anything, and J and I have only managed to unlock about a third of the documents; we can’t even find out if the person they brought back even survived past the end of the process, let alone their name, or even if they were male or female.” She glanced around. No one was in the area. If there had been someone, JARVIS would have told her by now. “Not to mention what actually even happened. I mean, how could you bring someone back from the dead? It’s—it’s never been done for a reason. I mean, dead is dead.”

“Get the job done before thinking about that, Darcy,” said Pepper. “Do you have anything else for me?”

“Dr. Banner was in here until a few hours ago, going over some of the science programs they had. Not TAHITI, though. He focused on other things.” Like all the alien tech SHIELD had picked up after the Battle of New York. “Then he had to go do sciency things.”

“And Clint?”

“He’s already identified at least seventeen people as HYDRA.” Considering how many people worked for SHIELD, though, that wasn’t even a quarter of a percent of the number they had to go through. “At least, I think that’s what the two separate piles mean. One of them’s a lot bigger than the other, that’s all I know.”

“He hasn’t said anything?”

“No.” It was kind of creeping her out, actually. He hadn’t said a word since she’d shown him the video with Phil Coulson and the TAHITI project. He’d been staring at his papers and making marks with a red pen, moving like he was stabbing every HYDRA mole in the face. (Darcy had been tempted to put up a print-out of the HYDRA logo for Barton to shoot at, if only so she could see someone nail a target in the eye. Also, Barton’s arms in action? Hell yes. It would mean holes in her office walls, but Stark could afford it.) “But I mean, he’s an assassin, right? He’s supposed to be freakishly quiet before he stabs you in the back.”

Pepper made a noise that was almost contemplative. “Have JARVIS tell me everything you find, all right?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said, and then cleared her throat. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good,” said Pepper. “Oh, tell Clint and Bruce that they’re weaning Steve off of the sedatives. Or, actually, JARVIS, you tell them. He should be awake in the next couple hours, and then we’ll—no, Tony, give me my phone back—”

Something clattered. She heard someone say something, but Stark must have been covering the audio intake in the phone, because it was as garbled as grown-up speak in Peanuts. Then there was a click. “Hey, double-decker. Did you say hi to Katniss for me?”

“Don’t remember.” Darcy turned, and rested her forehead against the cool wallpaper. “Did you pay me for it?”

“I sign your paychecks. They’re very large. Criminally. Pepper, why are Fitzwilliam’s paychecks so large?”

“Because she deals with you on a regular basis,” said Pepper, her voice somewhat distant. “If you don’t give me my phone back—”

“I cite abuse,” said Stark. “There are hotlines for this. I will call a hotline and then I will blame you for it. Anyway, wanted to ask—any of those files you’re rolling in happen to mention a soldier?”

Darcy knocked her head against the wall. “Yeah, loads. And no, none of them were in porn. Which is sad because SHIELD had some hella sexy operatives.”

“TMI. TMI. Pepper, she’s telling me about her sex life. I think that qualifies as harassment.” There was another burst of sound from the other end of the line, and then Tony said, “Look, if you see anything about a—a winter soldier, specifically, can you let JARVIS know?”

“Why? You have the documents, don’t you?” And JARVIS, she added silently.

“This is what I pay you for, Lewis,” said Tony, and then he made a noise that might have been a yelp, if it hadn’t been so stuck-pig-like.

“What Tony is trying to say is that things are so hectic here we haven’t had a second to look at any of the documents.” It was Pepper again. Somehow she’d managed to get the phone back. Darcy wondered if she’d pinched him. “Judging from what JARVIS has told us, there are too many for us to go through individually. He already has an eye out for anything to do with a winter soldier, but…it would be a huge favor if you could look as well.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Sure. I can do that. No prob.”

“Other than that, everything else is going all right? No incidents? No explosions?”

She bit her lip. Darcy wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be asking this—after all, this definitely edged into not-a-workplace-matter territory—but at the same time Jane had stormed in about twelve hours ago with smeared makeup and a hiss like a cat, and she was too fucking exhausted to have a decent filter anymore. Not that she actually had one when she wasn’t exhausted, but it was the principle, not the reality. “Um, if you—Jane’s sister Liz still hasn’t contacted her. She worked…not in the Triskelion, but nearby I think. Jane’s been trying to get into contact but it’s been days and she hasn’t responded, and…I don’t know.”

“Oh,” said Pepper. Then again, “Oh,” in a much softer voice. “Yes. Of course. What’s her name?”

“Liz Harper. She’s…a biochemist, I think.” Darcy bit her lip. “I never met her. It’s just…Jane’s worried.”

“Of course,” said Pepper. “There are a lot of people in hospitals around here. More than you’d think, considering the helicarriers only went down over SHIELD headquarters. There was a—” Her voice broke. “There was an elementary school tour going through the main floor of the building. We—we’re not telling Steve.”

Darcy squeezed her eyes shut, and leaned back against the wall again. “Thank you. I—I owe you. Jane’s been panicking.”

“You don’t owe me anything, Darcy,” said Pepper. “I’ll let you know if I find anything. All right?”

“Yeah,” said Darcy, but Pepper had already hung up. Darcy stared at her phone for a second or two before shoving it back into her pocket, and frowning at nothing. (Across the hall, one of the multitudinous lab assistants looked intimidated and scuttled in the opposite direction. Darcy didn’t notice.) Jane must be here trying to work herself into an unthinking mess; there was no other reason one of her baby assistants would be wandering around at like…three in the morning, she realized, looking at her phone for the first time in six hours.

“Hey,” she said, and the baby assistant turned to look at her with big eyes. “Go home, man.”

The kid blinked at her, and his lips parted. “But Dr. Foster—”

“I’ll hander Foster the Physicist. You go home.”

“Miss Lewis—”

“I said go home, dude,” said Darcy, and she must have looked ready to commit violence, because the kid bolted. In Jane’s office, something sparked and fizzed. Darcy drew a breath, let it out, and swanned into the lab. “Hey, boss-lady. I thought Thor would’ve carted you home in a box by now.”

“Thor’s at the apartment.” said Jane in a clipped voice. She tightened a rivet on her machine thingy. Darcy wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to do, but it was taller than Jane by at least three feet and at least seven times as broad, packed full with Asgardian thingamajigs that Thor brought every time he went back to visit. Jane was halfway inside it, her feet dangling a few inches from the floor as she leaned back and played with her wrench. “I think he left about an hour ago.”

“Which means he went home at sunset and is giving you space because you threatened to brain him with a wrench?” Jane scowled at her, but looked back up into her machine again, and knocked the end of the wrench inside of her brainchild. “Thought so.”

“How’s Clint?” said Jane. Darcy blew hair out of her face.

“Why is everyone asking me that?”

“Because his whole world just came down and his partner just told him the only thing he can do to help is sit and watch?”

And that’s not projection at all, Darcy thought. She chewed her lip, though, and thought of Barton’s expression when JARVIS had when he’d delivered the Black Widow’s message. Somehow, though, it had been worse to watch him watching the vid report from Coulson on the TAHITI project, because then he hadn’t reacted at all. He had just stared, and then gone back to his papers like it was nothing. Maybe, compared to everything else that had happened over the past few days, it had been. “Oh, right,” she said, and when Jane stuck her hand out, she put a screwdriver into it. “Captain America’s waking up soon probably. They’re taking him off the sleepy drugs, and since he’s, y’know, Captain America, it shouldn’t take too long.”

Jane sighed, and caught a screw before it fell into her lap. “Good.”

“Jane,” said Darcy. Jane didn’t look at her. “I asked Pepper to look into where your sister is. She should be able to get things done pretty fast, with JARVIS there. You’ll know soon.”

“Maybe I don’t want to,” said Jane. “Maybe I don’t want to know here she is. Maybe I don’t want to know if she’s dead, or if she’s alive and she just hasn’t—hasn’t thought to contact me or—or let our mom know she’s okay. And I’m stuck here because even though I can afford the damn plane ticket Thor freaking told me to stay put because of the whole SHIELD thing and I can’t stand it when that man tells me what to do!”

She flung the screwdriver. Darcy ducked. It rebounded off of the bulletproof glass and landed with a skittering noise in the corner. “Wow,” said Darcy. “Okay. Haven’t seen you do that in a while.”

Jane made a noise somewhere between a snarl and a shriek and crawled deeper into her moded Asgardian tech. Darcy collected the screwdriver and put it back into Jane’s toolkit before hoisting herself up into the tech-bubble after her. There was barely enough room for Jane, so spurs of metal and twists of wire kept poking her in the boobs, but she didn’t really care. Jane glared at her for a few seconds, and then she blinked, and the anger was gone. “I hate it when people tell me what to do,” she said. Darcy tugged Jane’s feet into her lap and squeezed her ankles.

“I know.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do if something’s happened to Liz.” Jane chewed on her bottom lip and didn’t meet Darcy’s eyes. “We’re only twenty-two months apart, you know? She was my best friend for years. The last time I saw her we argued because of—” she made a vague gesture at the tech around them which Darcy assumed meant Asgard or Thor or SHIELD or any of the above. “She could be dead, and I’m worried that the last conversation I had with my sister was a freaking argument.”

“Hey,” said Darcy. “You can drop an F-bomb now and again, Janester. I won’t judge.”

Jane laughed. Wetly, but it was a laugh. Darcy squished her ankles. “You love your sister,” she said to Jane. “I’m sure Liz knows that. You’re such a sappy dork, I don’t know how she couldn’t.”

“Bitch,” sniffed Jane.

“You love me.” Jane dug her heel into Darcy’s thigh just hard enough to hurt. “Ow. And I mean, you and Thor have the worst case of culture clash, like, ever. He’s from another fucking planet. For the most part that makes him way superior to the typical foot-in-mouth earthman, but I mean, come on. He’s also from another fucking planet. And he loves you like Erik loves kilts, but with more orgasms.” She paused. “Ew, gross image. Anyway, just sleep on my office couch tonight. I’m gonna be here for the rest of the night anyway. When you get home in the morning, just slap him upside the head and he’ll go all whipped puppy and never tell you what to do again.”

“It’s not that easy, Darcy.”

“Hell it isn’t. You’re good at slapping him, if I remember right. London was a moment of beauty. I should’ve filmed it.” She tickled the bottom of Jane’s feet, and endured the squeal that made her eardrums ring. “Come on. I can’t offer alcohol, but I have ice cream in the staff room freezer. Eat that and then go to sleep. I can kick Barton off the couch for a little bit.” She made to spit in her palm, and stopped when Jane’s face twisted in disgust. She stuck out her hand. “Deal?”

“You’re gross,” said Jane.

“Come on, Foster, don’t leave me hangin’.” Darcy put her pinky out instead. Jane gave her a considering look, and then hooked her pinky around Darcy’s. They shook.

“Deal.”


Jane fell asleep halfway through the pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Even the clatter of her spoon falling to the floor didn’t wake her up. Darcy glanced up at her boss over her shoulder (she’d been sitting on the floor, and her butt was asleep) and then heaved herself up to get the throw blanket from the bottom right-hand drawer of her desk. Barton hadn’t moved since before she’d gone out to speak with Pepper, but as Darcy yanked the blanket (old, ratty, and purple) out of her drawer, he ran his hands through his hair, leaned back, and said, “What time is it?”

She’d turned off her holographic clock after watching Barton flinch one too many times at the tick of a minute passing buy. It wasn’t like she didn’t have like four other world clocks on her person anyway. She glanced at her watch. “Four. Ish.”

He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “Dawn soon.”

“Probably.” Darcy tucked the blanket around Jane, and then smoothed her hands over her sweater. She’d manage to dribble ice cream on it. Of course. “You can go back to the apartment, if you want. I can spot you a key.”

Barton shrugged. “Not gonna sleep anyway. Might as well be here.” He eyed her. “I would’ve thought you’d have left by now, though.”

“And let Janey-Jane blow us all up? No.” She patted Jane’s shoulder—once Jane fell asleep, basically nothing short of a hurricane or an Einstein-Rosen Bridge could wake her—and then clasped her hands and twisted, trying to get her back to pop. It finally did with a crackle that made her knees quake. “God. I’ve been sitting still too long. ‘sides, when Foster the Physicist gets her head into an equation she can go for day without sleeping. I have practice.”

He hummed, and looked back at Jane again.

“Don’t worry about her. Something could blow up in here and she wouldn’t wake up. If she hears the coffee machine go off, though, she’ll be up like a shot, so don’t hit the button until she’s awake.” She frowned. “I think there’s a Dunkin Donuts down the street if you want something, though.”

“’m good,” he said, and waggled a mug she didn’t recognize at her. It said Never trust an atom; they make up everything. She thought it might have been something Tony forced on Dr. Banner. Darcy dropped back into her spinny chair, and twirled. Barton looked less intimidating when he went blurry. “How do you do that and not get sick?”

“Decades of practice. Also, I made a deal with Satan.” She caught herself against the desk. “So what’s your deal, anyway, dude? Are you the strange and unexpected offspring of a bird and a human being, or…?”

He wrinkled his nose. It was unexpectedly adorable. “No. That sounds uncomfortable.”

“Also you’d have feathers everywhere,” said Darcy sagely. “Well, probably. And talons.” She peered at him. “And probably no teeth. Or, hey, maybe you’d be a turian. All birdish, but in a scaly dinosaur-type way.” She deepened her voice as best she could. “I snipe for Shepard. And for Palaven.”

Barton stared at her for a long moment. “Are you drunk?”

Darcy huffed a little. “No. But you are definitely not the first person to ask. I think it’s because I learned how to talk from my mom, and she’s always drunk, so it rubbed off.” She swung her feet. “I get worse when I’m drunk. But I’m adorable, so it all works out.”

He snorted. He actually legit snorted, not like he didn’t believe her, but like he actually thought she was funny. She wondered if his secret-SHIELD-agent programming had a glitch in it somewhere. She’d spent hours—quite literally hours, mostly to do with her attempting to get her iPod backtrying to trick an expression out of the Tromso agents, and no dice, and this guy just gives her a laugh with one quip?

She wasn’t sure what that said about her game.

He noticed her staring. “What?”

“Nothing.” She spun again. “I think it’s the first time you’ve actually laughed since you showed up. After, you know. Trying to kill me and everything. Startled me, I guess.”

“Oh.” The lines around his mouth tightened. For a spy, he really didn’t hide his expressions all that well. Then he rocked back in his seat. “Sorry. I mean it. I should’ve recognized you.” He lifted one shoulder. “I just…don’t do well when people open doors behind me.”

 “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, and smiled a little. She was too tired to do much more. She stuck her headphones back in. “I’mma nap. Don’t wake me unless Jane gets up.”

Barton’s reply was lost in the chaos of her white noise playlist. Darcy pillowed her head on her arms and promptly passed out.

The next morning was more of the same. Coffee, food, TAHITI, more coffee (her sweat was going to turn brown soon), gagging over SHIELD intel, watching Barton out of the corner of her eye, and then coffee again. At about noon, Pepper called again to let them know that Steve was fully conscious and asking about what had happened. Darcy thought of what Pepper had told her about the elementary schoolers, and hoped that Tony Stark had the sense to keep his mouth shut.

It was nearly noon when Coffee Guy rapped on the door (his eyebrows waggled at her when he saw Barton still in her office) and said there was someone waiting for her in Board Room Epsilon. “Looks kinda Bourne-ish,” he added, and glanced at Barton, as if comparing the two. “Though you have that covered.”

“Zip it, espresso-meister.” She smacked him with the nearest folder, marked Jasper Sitwell. Barton had made an X next to his name. “Who is it?”

“Didn’t give his card. He flashed a wicked badge at security, though. Said he was CIA.”

Barton went still. Darcy looked at him, but he was staring steadfastly at his files again, so she glanced at Coffee Guy. “Fine. I’ll be there in a minute.”

As soon as Coffee Guy shut the door, JARVIS said, “The Central Intelligence Agency has most likely grown aggravated at their inability to hack our systems. Sir will be pleased.”

Well, that threw a wrench into her afternoon plans. A big, nerve-fueled wrench. Her palms were sweaty. Barton glanced at her.  “You knew they were coming?”

“No,” said Darcy, and her voice went all squeaky. “Do I look like someone on the CIA watchlist?”

Barton shrugged. “You work for Stark. You’re on their watchlist, believe me.”

Spots popped behind her eyes. Being on SHIELD’s watchlist had never bothered her, mostly because SHIELD, in her head, was Phil Coulson—suits and flat sarcasm. The CIA was—was freaking Sydney Bristow. Or Jack Bristow. The man downstairs could probably kill her with his pinky. Well, so could Barton, probably, but at least she knew that Barton wouldn’t.  

“I have alerted our legal department of the current state of affairs, Miss Lewis,” said JARVIS. “It would be wise for us to attend to the matter quickly. The Agency does not enjoy being ignored.”

“They don’t enjoy having their systems filled with binary fluff, either,” said Darcy, but it wasn’t nearly up to her usual standard. On the couch, Jane hummed, and curled deeper into the blanket. “Board Room Epsilon.”

“Yes, Miss Lewis.” JARVIS paused. “Will Agent Barton be accompanying you?”

Barton looked at her. Darcy shrugged. “Why does that matter, J?”

“If Agent Barton attends the meeting, I can ensure that the information downloaded from SHIELD is inaccessible to all. Currently, there is a minor opening in the firewalls due to your access. If the system is closed down, then the CIA cannot touch it.”

“Shut it down, JARVIS,” said Barton, before she could. He turned to her. “You mind if I tag along?”

“I’d feel better knowing there’s someone else in the room who could slit my throat with a ballpoint pen.”

“It’s actually simpler to use the femoral artery,” said Barton with a straight face. “So if he’s not a paperpusher, then he’ll be going for your leg.”

She tapped her foot. Then: “I’m taking the chair, ‘kay?”

Barton snorted again.

The woman from legal was tall and svelte, almost Thor-like, with white-blonde hair pulled back into a no-nonsense knot and a bigass diamond glittering on her ring finger. She inclined her head as Darcy entered the room, and gave Barton one sweeping top-to-toe glance before returning to her papers. “Is there anything I should know, Miss Lewis, before going into this meeting? JARVIS has apprised me of most details.”

“Uh…” Darcy looked up. “J?”

“I have confirmed with Miss Potts that Miss Lancaster is trustworthy, Miss Lewis. She knows the bare bones of the issue.”

Barton let out a breath. “Makes it harder to keep things quiet.”

“The CIA doesn’t take kindly to having its toys stolen, Agent Barton,” said Miss Lancaster. “A certain amount of information was necessary for me to be able to shoo him off.”

Barton crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing.

“The gentleman waiting outside is named Stephan Gertham.” Miss Lancaster looked at Darcy again. “I ask again, is there anything in particular I should know about the circumstance, Miss Lewis?”

“Um.” Darcy swallowed. “I mean, it’s a Stark project. Classified to me, Dr. Banner, and Agent Barton, outside of the highest levels.” Which meant Pepper Potts and Tony Stark. “She wanted it to be kept under lock and key.” She fiddled with the hem of her hoodie. “Not much else.”

“All right.” Miss Lancaster leaned forward, and closed her file. “Let him in, JARVIS.”

 Stephan Gertham was basically Jason Bourne. Or Bond. Tall, well-muscled under his suit. He had green eyes and close-cropped dark hair, and he kept his hands locked behind his back. As soon as he came in, his eyes jumped to Barton, and gave him a long, level look before staring at Darcy.

“Darcy Lewis,” he said, and Darcy clenched her hands into fists under the table, hoping she was covering the femoral artery thing. He looked at Barton again, and then back at her. Miss Lancaster was completely ignored. “I’m here to take you into custody on suspicion of information trafficking. If you could please stand.”

“Trafficking?” said Miss Lancaster in a smooth, don’t-fuck-with-me kiddo sort of voice, the one teachers used on recalcitrant middle schoolers. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Miss Lewis has been operating under the direction of her immediate supervisor, the CEO of our company, on an Avengers matter. And I believe she would have had to receive pay in order for it to become a charge of trafficking.”

“The information was obtained through illegal means. Natasha Romanoff was not authorized to release the records she did; in fact, due to certain security measures SHIELD had in place, she would have been unable to post what she did without acts of espionage. She will be dealt with.” Super Secret Agent Man sniffed a little. Darcy couldn’t help but wonder if he was supposed to be telling them all this stuff. He seemed kind of like a shitty agent, to be honest. “Through publicizing it, Lewis has become an accessory. Your legal machinations are useless, Miss…?”

“Lancaster,” said Miss Lancaster with a sweet smile. “Grace Lancaster. And you know as well as I do that that’s a crock of bullshit, Agent Gertham.” She gestured to the other side of the table. “Will you sit?”

Darcy looked at Barton. He had taken the chair next to her, and was staring at Super Secret Agent Man like he was contemplating the best way to snap his neck. Gertham did not sit down.

“The consequences of withholding surreptitiously garnered intelligence from the United States government is treason, Miss Lewis. Do you understand that?”

Darcy opened her mouth. Super-Lawyer Lancaster cut her off. “SHIELD was an international agency run by the World Defense Council, Agent Gertham. The United States government does not have sole claim to the information it accumulated, regardless of the word homeland in its official title. Besides, SHIELD itself has fallen, and every enemy it ever made is picking over its carcass. Does the CIA really have time to be sniffing after Stark Industries, a known and trusted ally of that organization, when there are a number of terrorist groups that have already launched several attacks on SHIELD offices on American soil?”

Agent Gertham twitched. His mouth went thin. He said nothing.

“The information was released,” said Darcy. Miss Lancaster went to hush her, but she shook her head a little and went on. “By an agent of SHIELD. It was made public, and I wasn’t the one who did it. You can’t arrest me for analyzing it any more than you can arrest someone who read the files Edward Snowden dropped. Besides,” she added, crossing her arms over her chest and jerking her head back at Barton. “There’s an Avenger here. Do you really think that he’d let me do anything naughty?”

Barton muttered something under his breath that sounded distinctly like “Maybe if it was funny” but everyone ignored him. The lines between Super Secret Agent Man’s eyebrows deepened.

“Clint Barton is a member of SHIELD and could have been compromised from its collapse.” Instead of getting all huffy at the accusation, Barton just cocked an eyebrow at Super Secret Agent Man, and then cracked his knuckles. It might not have been intended to intimidate, but Super Secret Agent Man swallowed, and glanced back at Darcy gain. “And so far as I’m aware, the US government doesn’t take moral guarantees from ex-assassins who wear spandex.”

“Excuse you,” said Darcy. “Kevlar.”

“Technically,” said Barton in a very dry voice, “some of it’s spandex.”

“For shame. People will be thinking you work with Spiderman, now.”

“Watch it.”

“This is not a joke,” said Super Secret Agent Man, and slammed his hand onto the table. Darcy and Barton both looked at him, and then back at each other. To her surprise, there was a flicker of humor in the corner of his mouth. “I demand that you turn over the confidential files you possess immediately. Otherwise I will have no choice but to take you into custody, Miss Lewis.”

Super-Lawyer collected her files, checked her nails, and stood. “Thank you for your time today, Agent Gertham. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to ask you to get a warrant.” She opened the door, looked at him pointedly, and waited. “Have a nice day from all of us here at Stark Industries.”

“Iron Man loves you,” said Darcy.

Agent Gertham marched out the door like a man on his way to execute political prisoners. Super-Lawyer  Lancaster gave Darcy a look that spoke volumes, and then followed after him. There was a moment of sticky silence.

“So,” Darcy said. “Booze?”

“Oh, god, yes,” said Barton, and lunged up out of his seat.


She was pretty sure that if she asked, Tony Stark would install a full-fledged bar in the last boardroom. She was also pretty sure that if she tried, Pepper would kill them both, so Darcy satisfied herself with the bar at the end of the street. The Pelican was much schmancier than any nightclub she had ever worked in; it certainly wasn’t the kind of bar where you hung out and watched sports matches. It was the sort of bar in which business deals went down that decided the fate of third world countries. Or media companies. Which in essence were the same thing. Darcy wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and ignored some of the weird looks she was getting for coming in in a T-shirt that read Laura Palmer Is Not Dead, taking a seat at the end of the bar. Barton trailed after her, somehow blending even in a hoodie and jeans. He had that super-spy thing of “I can vanish anywhere just watch me” down pat.

“Whiskey,” she told the bartender. “Neat, please.” She looked at Barton, and then shrugged, and gestured to the stool next to her. If he thought her order was too masculine, he didn’t say anything about it. Not that she would have cared in the first place; she’d spent too much time in shitty bars to be able to deal with girly drinks anymore. Besides, she just wanted to get good and smashed in the shortest amount of time possible.

“What are you gonna do?” she asked, once Barton had his drink and was swirling the ice cubes in it, staring into the cup as if it would open a path to Nirvana. “Now that you have some idea of what’s going on, I mean.”

He shrugged, and knocked back half his tumbler in one shot. She wondered why that kind of offended her. Was she not trustworthy enough to get an answer? She gulped at her whiskey and then put the crystal tumbler down very, very carefully, to make the least amount of noise possible.

“I mean, Cap’s okay.” She swung her legs. “Well, mostly. But, you know. Cap. Pepper says he has good vitals. And…well. I mean. People are alive, right?”

“SHIELD is falling apart all around the world,” Barton said. “I should be helping the loyalists out, not be stuck here like some kid with a headcold.”

“Would it help if I said that it’s helping Jane to know you’re here?” she said. When the lines around his mouth tightened, she scoffed. “God. Sorry. Just trying to help.”

“You’re not SHIELD,” he said, looking at her. Darcy took another sip of whiskey, and focused on the burn in her gut for a second or two. “Why do you even care about what’s happening? You could have been long gone by now. I remember you from Puente Antiguo, I would have expected you’d be gone in a New York minute after what happened there.”

“A New York minute, huh,” she mused. Darcy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I mean, I thought about it. But Jane’s the only boss I’ve ever had that I actually liked, you know? And there’s not much you can, you know, do once you learn that We Are Not Alone. It kind of changes everything.” She took another sip of whiskey. “So I decided to stick it out, because Jane needed me, and because I wanted to see if I could do better than just be a poli-sci student at Culver. And now I’m here drinking with an Avenger, so there you go. I’ve only managed to go up in the world.”

Barton frowned, but not at her. He stared into his cup. Then he shrugged, and knocked the rest of his drink back, tapping the counter for a new one. “It’s stupid,” he said. “I don’t like hiding.”

“You’re not hiding,” said Darcy, reasonably. When the hell had this turned into a counseling session? Also, did she have something like Will Listen To All Of Your Problems tattooed on her face? Because she couldn’t think why Barton was telling her this otherwise. Except maybe if he couldn’t hold his booze, like, at all. “You’re regrouping. There’s a difference. Besides, it’s not as if you’re out of the game. Come on. Buck up, buttercup.”

He snorted into his drink. Then he leaned back, staring up at the mood lighting over the bar. “I didn’t know Stark had a place like this down the street.”

Darcy blinked. “This belongs to Stark?”

He jerked his head. Up above the counter, there was a photograph of Tony Stark and the bartender, shaking hands. It was signed. Darcy snarled. “Son of a fucking bitch lied to me.”

“He does that,” said Barton. Then he went stiff as a board. Darcy was about to ask him what was wrong when he leaned a little closer to her, like he was going to whisper in her ear.

“Don’t panic,” he said. “We have incoming.”

“Incoming?” She squeaked. “Incoming what, seagulls?”

“Laugh,” he said. “Tilt your head back and laugh. You’ll see one of them by the door. Big man. Suit. Finger to his ear.”

Darcy obeyed. Her hair slipped back off of her neck. How the fuck Barton had managed to spot the guy when he was directly behind them would always be a mystery, but he was right; there was a very large man in a suit, his pocket bulging, his finger to his ear like he was in a spy movie. Barton smiled at her, but it was thin and impossibly sharp.

“And another behind you,” he said. “Don’t turn around. There are more. Five, maybe six. In thirty seconds, you get behind the bar. Keep your head down. Understand?”

“What?” She kept the smile pasted on her face, because she couldn’t think of what else to do. “You’re kidding.”

“You either keep your head down, or you get shot, so if I were you, I’d hide.” He rolled the ice around in his glass, eyes on the mirror. “Fifteen seconds.”

“Jesus, you’re serious.” She glanced at the mirror, and saw that the big man in the suit was making his way closer to them, slowly, as if he was hunting a cat. “You’re seriously going to—”

“They’re gonna kill us if I don’t,” Barton snapped, his voice low. “Ten seconds.”

Ten. Darcy started counting to herself. Nine. Barton finished his drink, and set it down again. Eight. She dipped her hand into her coat pocket, pulled out her taser, and rested it in her lap. Seven. At the other end of the bar, a pair of men shook hands and stood. Six. Her heart was going to burst out of her throat. Five. In the mirror, she saw another man stand, suited, and draw something out of the back of his waistband. Four. Barton rolled one shoulder, and cracked his knuckles. Three. Her hands were shaking. She wanted to run. Two. The first man drew his gun.

One.

Darcy flung herself off her stool and onto the bar, rolling until she hit the ground. In the same instant, Barton pulled a gun—where the hell had he been keeping that? It wasn’t the same pistol he’d threatened her with last night—and shot the big man in the head without blinking. The man dropped like a stone. Darcy screamed and shoved herself up under the bar as the bartender squealed, and dropped his hand to an alarm button. Then he reached for a gun that he’d kept under the bar. Darcy squeezed her eyes shut and jammed her taser into his calf, pushing the button. There was an electronic sizzle, the smell of burnt leg hair, and then the bartender fell to the ground, twitching. On the other side of the bar, someone shouted, “Fuck, it’s Barton!” and opened fire with a machine gun. The mirror shattered, and shards of glass pelted her, sticking in her hair, her clothes. She yelped, and covered her eyes. Another stream of gunshots made her ears ring. She flicked the button on her Stark-modified taser and held it tight in both hands. With a crunch of breaking glass, Barton landed next to her; he racked his gun. “You okay?” he asked, and then he peered over the top of the bar and let two shots fly. Someone squealed.

No I am not fucking okay!” she hissed at him, and squeezed the taser so hard the plastic casing creaked. To her surprise, Barton grinned at her. It transformed his whole face; he wasn’t the formidable, grumpy old spy anymore, but something younger, brighter. Her guts turned over at the sight of it. Well, she thought. Fuck.

“C’mon, Lewis,” he said. “What happened to the woman who tried to break my foot?”

She gaped at him. Barton ignored it; he seized the shotgun the bartender had kept behind the counter, and then opened fire. Three shots, three thuds. Darcy licked her lips. In her hands, her taser chimed. It was fully recharged.

“Stay here,” Barton said, and then, keeping low, he left her there, sidling through the side door of the bar. On the other side of the counter, someone stepped on a shard of broken glass. Darcy clenched her hands around her taser.

Come on, she thought. Come on. You ran through London setting up science things when elves from another freaking dimension were crushing the Painted Hall. You can do this. You can do this. On three.

She lunged on one. The prods of her taser hit the last man in the back of the neck, and before she could second-guess herself, she pushed the button down as hard as he could. He jerked, twitching, a marionette gone mad, and then Barton had disarmed him, and he was on the floor. Darcy stood there, panting, her hair full of glass. It took her a long moment to remember to lower her arms to her sides.

“That,” she said, “is what happened.”

Barton smirked. “Come on,” he said. “We should go before the cops get here.”

“What about them?” She frowned. “Wait, they can’t arrest you. You’re SHIELD. Don’t you outrank them or something?”

“SHIELD’s gone, remember?” he said, and he grabbed her wrist. “Come on, Lewis. We have to move.”

“I take it back,” she said. “Meeting the Avengers? Definitely not a step up in the world.”

Barton laughed.

Chapter Text

There were a thousand better things she could be doing. Skye didn’t particularly care. She curled against the window—the only real window in the base, the only one that looked out into the world—and she drew her knees up against her chest and she waited.

At this point, the day after the death of the Clairvoyant, the day after she’d walked into a hospital room and found Fitz hooked up to a million machines, breathing through a machine, the day after Mike Peterson had turned away from his son and vanished to do who knew what, she was just tired. She was done with waiting, but it seemed like it was all she could do. She ought to be doing something, she thought. Cleaning up the wreck that was her new room, the one that Koenig had marched her into and beamed so widely about that she hadn’t had the heart to mention it smelled like mothballs. Sitting with Jemma, watching Fitz breathe, wondering if he was going to wake up. Trying to hack into the Stark mainframe again. It had been a long time since someone had been able to knock her away from their firewalls, but if anyone would have been able to do it, it was Tony Stark. Her pride wasn’t dinged. (Much.)

Instead she just sat, because suddenly she felt like that girl who had snuck into SHIELD with such high-blown pretentions all those months ago, scared and desperate for answers.

“Hey.”

It was Trip. Skye glanced over at him—he was in gym clothes, so he must have just come from the basement—and jerked her head at him in a funny little hello before curving towards the window again. It wasn’t much of a window—only about the size of a cinderblock, all told, and it just barely peeped into ground level—but it reminded her that there was a world bigger than code and TBIs and bruises, so she stuck by it anyway. The glass was cold against her cheek. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Trip’s eyebrows go up, but he set his duffel bag down on the linoleum and boosted himself up onto the standing bar. He was so tall his feet almost touched the floor anyway. Trip snatched an apple from the fruit bowl (something that Koenig insisted on) and sliced off a bit with a knife he produced from nowhere. “Something interesting happening out there?”

“Not really.” She tapped her fingers against her shin in a random pattern. (No pattern’s random, her mind reminded her. There’s always a sequence.) “A baby deer went by earlier. No mom. I think it might have been Bambi.”

“Pretty sure baby deer are called ‘fawns,’” said Trip, and pulled the stem out of his apple, flinging it backwards without looking. It hit the garbage can and disappeared. She made a face at him. Trip smirked back.

“It was a Bambi,” she said. “It had spots and everything.”

“Fawn.” Trip frowned at his apple, and then started peeling it, hands constantly moving, thumb flicking against the blade of the knife. The apple skin began to spiral free in one unbroken strand. “When was that?”

“I don’t know. An hour ago, maybe.” She knocked her head against the glass of the window. “How was your workout?”

“Fine. They have a good setup down there. I think you’d like it. Full shooting range and everything.” He shrugged. “Nice.”

“They?”

Trip collected his apple peel in one hand, and leaned over the back of the counter to drop it into the bin. Apparently, peels were less aerodynamic than stems. “Sure. I mean, this place is better than a motel, but…”

“But,” she repeated, and nodded. The Playground was big, and secluded, and fully weaponized, and actually pretty damn awesome, but it wasn’t the Bus. The dynamic had changed. They were sedentary, grounded. It was really weird how a place three times the size of their plane, easily, could feel so freaking small. “The nuns used to tell me that ‘but’ was a word the Devil used to trick you with.”

His nose wrinkled. “What kind of nuns did you meet when you were a kid? The ones I knew just dimpled and made cake logs for church bake sales.”

“Oh, god, don’t mention cake.” She set her forehead against the glass of the window and closed her eyes. “I’d kill for a cake right now. A four-layered one. Chocolate and red velvet, with cream cheese icing because fuck you, Trip, cream cheese icing is the stuff of gods. And it would be all for me.”

“So this is what you two talk about when the rest of us aren’t around,” said Jemma. For once, she wasn’t in her lab coat; she was wearing a soft gray cashmere thing that looked sinfully squishy, and she was carrying six books. There were deep rings under her eyes, and she was moving like her shoulders and wrists still hurt from her case of the bends. Skye wondered if she’d slept last night. Trip jumped off the counter and went to take some from her. “Cake.”

“Also Bambi,” said Skye. She heaved herself out of the windowseat, ignoring the tingling in her ankles—she hadn’t moved in three hours or so—and came to join them at the table, wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans. “Don’t forget Bambi.”

Jemma wrinkled her nose. “Oh, god, that book was awful. I cried three times.”

“Pretty sure you mean movie,” said Skye, and reached out to steal a piece of Trip’s apple while he wasn’t looking. He pulled the apple back out of her reach, and waggled the knife at her like some kind of messed up ah-ah-ah. Jemma sniffed.

“It was a book first. It was very sad.” She pawed through her stack of textbooks. “I took all my father’s guns and buried them in the hayfield after I read it.”

“How old were you?”

“Twelve.” Jemma fell back into her chair with a thunk and pulled Gray’s Anatomy closer. It was filled with little colored tabs. “My father was very put out with me. I wouldn’t tell him where I’d buried them.” She gave Skye a smug little smile, the first since they’d arrived at the Playground. Skye couldn’t help but smile back. “He had to buy new ones.”

“You rebel.” Skye studied the books. Bend and Break: the Physiological Effects of Diving; The Prognosis of Medical Coma; and a binder that was scribbled on all over with Simmon’s tight, loopy handwriting. The front covers aid A Study in TBIs by Dr. S. V. Strange. Her heart gave a painful squeeze. She looked away before Simmons noticed. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Agent Koenig—” her mouth twisted a little at the name, not in disgust, but almost in confusion; Simmons had a theory that Billy Koenig was a clone, not a twin, and was dead set on proving it somehow “—is in his office, monitoring all of us. May is meditating in her room, I think. The door’s shut.” Jemma shot Trip a look, and then said, “And Coulson’s in with Fitz.”

Skye sucked in a sharp breath. No wonder Jemma had left Fitz’s bedside for the first time in—well, days. She wouldn’t have for anything less. She clenched her hands under the table. Then she forced a smile onto her face, one that was brittle and entirely, obviously fake. “At least someone will be with him when he wakes up.”

Jemma bit down on her lower lip, and said nothing. Trip set a tentative hand against the back of her shoulder. Skye couldn’t bear it. She stood up, muttered something about the gym, or the weapons room, or maybe the comm room—anywhere other than here—and then left the kitchen at a trot.

She hated this. She hated this. They had a plan now. Coulson had a job for them, just like always. They were rebuilding SHIELD, beginning from the ground up, washing it of all of its evil, all of its double-agents. Every single snake in the grass would be trapped and tossed. It was more of a focus than they’d had for a long time, even when they’d actually been working for the first SHIELD, because they made their own missions, scripted their own timeline. They had goals. Goals that were as lofty and unreachable as the stratosphere, but goals nonetheless. Right now, though—right now every bit of it seemed absolutely fucking impossible. Like they’d been set adrift with no rudder to steer them.

She should have known that her feet would take her there. Skye paused at the half-open doors to the medical bay, shoving her hands deep into her jeans pockets. She hadn’t been in to see Fitz since that first day. Granted, that was only a grand total of thirty-six hours ago—it killed her, how quick things seemed to change around here, how minutes and seconds could become decades and eons—but still. She felt like an ass, because Fitz was her friend. Her adorably Scottish, monkey-obsessed technogeek of a friend. Her stupid, lovesick, noble friend who had decided that of course Simmons would live, and live happily, if he died.“Idiot,” she said to herself, under her breath. Simmons hadn’t said anything about what had happened during their time on the ocean floor, but all you had to do was look at her face to get the idea. “Stupid noble idiot.”

“Skye?”

Skye looked up from her ratty sneakers and nearly kicked herself. Coulson was blinking at her through the gap in the door, sitting in the shitty chair that Koenig had produced from somewhere no one else knew about, the one that Simmons had stationed by Fitz’s bedside and had probably slept in for the past two nights. (“Many patients who have been in comatose states have claimed that they had some minor level of awareness of their surroundings,” Simmons had said that first night, buzzing on six cups of coffee, leftover adrenalin, and the fogginess of the bends. “I think if I talk to him he’ll know he’s all right and it’s safe to wake up, don’t you think? He falls asleep in the lab all the time, you know, when we’re working on something important, and he always says it’s better to wake up with someone there than not. Even if you feel like an idiot after, you at least know someone’s there to catch you if you fall off the lab stool, or something.”) He was in uniform, suit and tie as always, and for some reason it was a little reassuring. Skye wondered if she would always be able to tell the state of the world from how Coulson dressed. Then she snorted a little, because even if the world was ending, Phil Coulson would not be parted from his suits. She pushed the door open with her hip, and leaned against the frame.

“Hey, A.C.,” she said, and then corrected herself. “Sorry. D.C., now. Right?” Then, because she couldn’t help herself, she hummed the chorus from Highway to Hell. The corner of Coulson’s mouth quirked a little. He looked back at Fitz, and said nothing. She kind of wanted to go and stand next to him, but that would mean seeing Fitz up close, the lines around his mouth and the hideous paleness to his skin and the fucking face mask, because his lungs weren’t working well enough for him to breathe solo, and she wasn’t sure if she could handle that. But after a few seconds she licked her lips and asked, “How’s he doing?”

Coulson shrugged a little, and clasped his hands between his knees. “Heart rate’s steady,” he said. “Minor brain activity. Better than other coma patients I’ve seen. I’m not a doctor, though. I can’t tell you any more than that.”

Skye tugged at the sleeve of her button-down. Underneath it, her tank top felt itchy against her skin. “Did those other patients wake up?”

“Some of them,” said Coulson. “Some of them are still in hospice. Some aren’t.”

Someone pulled the plug, she thought, and then felt sick. Fitz was right there. Coulson did the Coulson-version of shaking himself—he straightened a little, and put his shoulders back—and then he stood and came to meet her at the door.

“Find anything with Stark?” he asked. Skye yanked on her sleeve again.

“Their firewalls are hella high-tech. And someone keeps pushing me back. I don’t know if it’s the AI you mentioned or not, but it’s gonna be harder next time. They keep upping the ante.” She fiddled with a spare button. “I was just taking a break. I don’t know.”

“It’s been pretty high-speed lately,” said Coulson in his understanding voice. Skye kind of wanted to hiss at it. “It’s okay to take some downtime.”

“But we need that info. You said that Stark hacked the helicarrier back at the Battle of New York, but I mean…” Skye pulled harder on her sleeve. “I’d’ve thought it’d be easy getting all of SHIELD’s old files—I mean, we’re here, they should all be backed up somewhere—but Romanoff was really freaking thorough. No stone left unturned, y’know? And so all of it was dumped on the internet, and then CIA flipped their shit and tried hunting it all down. There’s so much that not a lot of people have been able to download all of it, so I’ve collected bits and pieces from random servers, about…forty-five percent, I think, but Stark has the last fifty-five percent, and we kind of need it. Like, a lot. And the freaking AI won’t give me the freaking data. And it’s not like we can really do much without that data, even with Koenig keeping an eye on all the old SHIELD frequencies for HYDRA activity. We’re just dead in the water and I can’t fix it.”

He gave her the laser-eyes. “You’re frustrated.”

“No,” she said, and deflated in a rush. “Or…yeah. I don’t know. I’m tired, I guess. I can only bounce my IP address so many times before the AI finally tracks us down here, and since we’re in a secret base, I kinda want to keep that…well, secret. And if Koenig tries to get me to take his super-secret-special spy test again I’m gonna break all his polygraphs.”

“I think Agent Romanoff kind of killed the idea of secret anything already, Skye,” said Coulson, smiling a little. There were lines around his eyes that she didn’t recognize. “For a good reason. Something Stark mentioned once—an intelligence organization that winds up afraid of its own intelligence never really ends well.”

“I know that. It’s just irritating that I can’t crack a crummy AI.” She paused. “Whoa, that sentence should not have just come out of my mouth. When Stark’s AI becomes our new overlord, I’ll get punished for that one.”

Coulson gave her a smile, and Skye went back into thought. Considering the AI was Stark’s, she was probably in good company with hundreds of other hackers around the world. Everyone she knew had tried to hit up Stark Industries one time or another. It was like the holy grail of superhero junkie hackers. She couldn’t remember anyone actually ever getting in. She felt slightly mollified. She hooked a curl behind her ear. “I’m gonna go try again. Nose to the grindstone and everything. Y’know? Even Stark can’t hide behind his anti-malware forever.”

“Skye,” said Coulson, and Skye blinked at him. “I think I asked before, but…you okay? Like I said, things have been…fast, lately.”

Ward, she thought. He meant Ward. Something in her stung, an ache that was raw as a sunburn, but deeper, somehow. Like someone had left her organs out to dry in the desert. Skye put on an unsure-but-game smile. “Sure, A.C. Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

She was pretty sure he saw straight through her bullshit. But he wasn’t going to ask. That was the great thing about Coulson. Even if you were bullshitting, he always waited for the opportune moment to interrogate you. This wasn’t it. He frowned at her, but he nodded, and said, “All right,” without much fuss. He’d regroup and come at her later with a less-than-direct tactic, but Skye was a hacker. She lived in the murky world of less-than-direct. She’d be fine.

She was always fine, eventually.


Barton was freaking her out.

It wasn’t that he’d just executed, like, five guys in less than a minute. (Though that was kind of a huge part of it because holy shit she was never going to forget the smell, or the sound of bullets in flesh and bone. Never. Ever. Ad infinitum.) He just kept staring. It was a different sort of staring than when he’d threatened to plaster her spinal fluid all over her entry hall. That look had been purely evaluatory. Who is this chick and is she going to turn on me rather than There is something wrong with you and I can’t figure out what it is. He kind of looked constipated. Or like he was thinking about shoving his fingers into her brain in order to uncover all of her secrets.

…maybe she’d been watching too many Heroes reruns again.

“Dude,” she said. “Usually if people stare at me like that for that long I charge for it.” Then she flinched. “Ow.”

“Sorry,” said Dr. Banner. He dabbed the cotton ball against her face again. “It’s harder to do when you’re moving.”

“Then tell Junior Bird Man to quit staring at me because it’s hella distracting.” Barton ignored her. Darcy muttered uncomplimentary things under her breath, and whined when her cheek stung. “What’d you put on that cotton ball anyway, acid?”

“Isopropyl alcohol.” Dr. Banner checked the cut one last time and then nodded, digging through the first aid kit. “Which you’ll appreciate when the cut doesn’t go septic and weep green. You might still get a scar, though.”

“Chicks dig scars. I’ll live.” There was a tight knot under her breastbone, and her guts were churning; every muscle in her body felt trembly, overcharged. She felt breakable. “Um. I think I’m gonna have another panic attack, okay?”

“Go right ahead,” said Dr. Banner, and peeled open a bandaid. Apparently, when the mirror behind the bar had gone boom, a piece of glass had cut her cheek. She hadn’t even felt it. “This is a no-judgment zone.”

She couldn’t help it. She grinned at him, just a bit, and then her eyes watered, because ow.

“You’re sure you didn’t recognize any of those men,” said Barton. It was the first time he’d spoken since they’d returned to Stark Industries and holed up in Dr. Banner’s office. (Jane was still asleep in Darcy’s.) She scowled. Dr. Banner patted the underside of her jaw, and she let her face go slack again so he could press the bigass bandaid over the cut. It would hurt like hell when she peeled it off, but it was better than nothing.

“Ow. No. I would’ve thought the panic attack would’ve told you that much.”

Barton gave her that “can’t figure you out” look again. “Doesn’t mean much. They were probably just hired muscle. Not particularly good, either. They were relying on surprise, didn’t care about being seen.” He paused. “Which means they were either very, very bad at assassination, or very, very confident in kidnapping. And if they were kidnapping someone, they definitely weren’t there for me.”

”Well, who else would they have been there for? It’s not as though I’m a big enough threat to need five burly dudes to take me down.”

“I don’t think they were there to take anyone out. Like I said, they were sloppy. Weren’t expecting resistance. They would have been going for capture, not kill. Something quiet. They weren’t trained well enough to handle someone fighting back.” The twist to his mouth deepened. “Let alone someone like me.”

Darcy hopped off the table and grabbed her coat. There were still glass shards caught in the folds. She went to shake it over the sink as Dr. Banner said, “What does that mean, then?”

“They weren’t there for me,” said Barton. “They were there for Lewis.”

She laughed. She actually couldn’t help it. It burbled out of her before she realized it wasn’t a scream. “You’re joking,” she said, and stared at him. “You’re actually joking. What would they want with me? I’m nobody.”

“Darcy,” said Dr. Banner, in a sad sort of way. Darcy waved him off.

“It’s true. I’m a PA, not an astrophysicist or a billionaire or an assassin or a supergenius. I clean up coffee spills and make sure Jane and Erik don’t kill themselves through overwork. It’s what I’ve always done. Which is why,” she added, looking at Barton, “they couldn’t have been there for me. Because I’m replaceable. They can’t use me to get to anyone.”

“Thor,” supplied Dr. Banner. “Tony. Pepper. Jane.”

“You’re sweet,” said Darcy, and patted his cheek. “But For Thor, they’d take Jane. She’s, like, the only person on this planet that matters to him. So that one’s obvious. Same with Tony and Pepper. Pepper is basically the only person that Tony gives a damn about. Well, aside from you,” she added to Dr. Banner, “but someone would have to be really, really stupid to try and do anything to you. For Pepper, they’d take Tony, but I mean, nobody’s gonna mess with Iron Man. And for Jane, she has a mom and a sister and, like, a million other people she cares about. Like Erik. I’m just her assistant. NBD. No big deal,” she added, when Dr. Banner looked confused. “I’m not important.”

“Darcy,” said Dr. Banner, looking unhappy. “You have to know that’s not true.”

Darcy shrugged. To be perfectly honest, she kind of liked not being all that important. It meant that people didn’t expect anything of her. They didn’t overestimate her, or care about her much at all. It was safe. It was anonymity. “It is what it is, Dr. Banner. Which is why they can’t possibly have been after me. There has to be some kind of mistake.”

“Maybe that was the case before, but now you’re the lead on a project with international geopolitical consequences.” Darcy blinked. Barton rolled his eyes. “SHIELD, Lewis. You’re analyzing SHIELD intel.”

Something in her twisted, like that insignia on some of the Asgardian tech. An ouroboros. Her guts were swallowing themselves away. Darcy sat down hard. “But—I mean—how would they even know?”

“CIA chatter?” Barton shrugged. “News like that travels fast.”

“But that’s—” Logical. It made a sick kind of sense. Her heart skipped into six-eight time. “This isn’t Chuck. It’s not like it’s all just…in my head. Why would they even—”

“Convenience,” said Dr. Banner. “Desperation. They might have already tried to hack Tony’s mainframe and figured getting a hold of you would be easier than fighting with JARVIS.”

“There have been a total of 137 attempts to break into the system since we completed the download of SHIELD data,” said JARVIS. “Some are repeat offenders.”

Black swarmed the edges of her vision. Dr. Banner put a hand on the back of her neck and pushed her forward until her head was between her knees. Slowly, her breath came back. She still felt like she might faint if she left her seat, but consciousness was a plus. Well, sort of.

“They wouldn’t have tried it if Stark was here.” He was thinking aloud, probably. He wasn’t looking at either of them, anyway. “People know better than to tangle with Iron Man on his own turf. And since Banner’s here under an assumed name—” this was news to Darcy, who blinked at Dr. Banner; he shrugged helplessly “—they wouldn’t have thought you’d have someone backing you up. They didn’t bargain on someone else being there. Doesn’t mean they won’t try again.”

Darcy felt dizzy. She put her head between her knees. Next to her, Dr. Banner shifted, and then patted her back in a shy sort of way.

“We’re going to have to move you,” said Barton, through the high-pitched whimper that was her brain. Oh my god oh my god oh my god I’m the fucking target oh my god WHY DID I OPEN THAT GODDAMN FILE? “Or keep a guard on you. Stark Industries and the apartment could both be compromised. Unlikely, but it’s possible.”

She thought of Charley the security guard, and choked back the very un-girly screech that was building in her guts. “Where were they even from, those men? How did they know that I—”

“SHIELD was fairly disliked by a lot of people, Lewis. As for you, someone could have been watching the CIA; that, or the man who came in earlier was a subtler attempt to kidnap you. Could be anything, really.”

“That’s reassuring,” said Darcy in a high-pitched voice, who was now wondering if she ought to buy a bullet proof vest. Dr. Banner patted her again, and then moved away towards the Asgardian files he’d printed out.

“If they are after her because of something in these files, it’s because it’s something they don’t want anybody to see. It’s unfortunate you couldn’t get a name for any of them. We could have searched the database.”

Barton shrugged.

“If I might interject,” said JARVIS, “the establishment in question is owned by Sir; I have primary access to their surveillance footage of the incident. Using the facetrace technology I have acquired from SHIELD’s files, I may be able to identify them.”

Darcy wasn’t really listening. She was still kind of stuck on the “people want to kidnap and/or kill me” part. She dug her nails into her palms. “Uh, can we go back to the putting me into hiding thing? I kind of have a job. And a condo. And a housemate that’ll, you know, starve without me, because she doesn’t know how to cook anything other than pasta. I have to set an alarm for every six hours in order to force something down her throat, or she wouldn’t eat at all. No one else can convince her to do it but me. And—and I have work. I crush Erik’s new meds and put them into smoothies for him because he won’t take them otherwise.” Barton went stiff at the mention of Erik. She pretended not to notice. “And I manage budgets, and coordinate with other departments, and...and a lot of stuff. It’s not like I save the world or anything because all I am is a PA, and it’s not like it’s glamorous, but I enjoy it, and I’m good at it, and without me they’d all drive into a ditch or something. Except for you, Dr. Banner. But I can’t just leave.”

“Darcy,” said Dr. Banner. “In all likelihood, it would only be for a few days, until we sort it out. And I seriously doubt that Tony would let Dr. Foster starve—”

“Are you kidding? You say that like I don’t have an alarm set for him so I can force-feed him trail mix.”

Dr. Banner didn’t have a response for this.

“Lewis,” said Barton. Darcy bit her tongue. “You’re right. It could be nothing. Could be something, too. Either way, these sorts of people don’t stop. Banner knows that better than anyone.”

Dr. Banner made an odd little movement, like a flinch, but reversed. He licked his lips. “At this point I think it ought to be said that those men were too shoddy and unprepared to be government. So you can strike a few institutions off your list, JARVIS,” he added. “But I…understand what you’re trying to say, Clint. And I agree with you. But it’s Darcy’s call.”

“I don’t,” said Darcy. “I don’t understand. I can’t just leave.”

“Lemme put it this way,” said Barton. “At this point, you have two options. You either leave, and go into hiding, and let someone figure out who they are, why they want you so badly, and how to get them to stop doing this, or in all likelihood you will end up strapped to a table while someone tortures you for the information.”

Darcy moaned, and hid her face in her hands. After a moment, Barton sighed.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was harsh. But seriously—”

“We weren’t being serious before? Because holy shit, dude!”

“It’ll be safer for everyone if you go into hiding for a few days. You know that as well as I do, Lewis.”

“Darcy,” said Darcy, because she couldn’t think of what else to say. Barton’s mouth softened.

“Darcy,” he said, and he reached out, putting a hand on her shoulder. It was probably meant to be comforting. In fact, it kind of was. Even though he’d, you know, just killed like five people. Darcy let out a little breath and blinked at him through the stupid blur of tears. “Call me Clint, okay?” When she nodded, he squeezed her shoulder. He had very strong hands. “We’re going to figure this out, all right? I need you to breathe, and I need you stable. Can you do that for me?”

She had the distinct impression he was just telling her this so he wouldn’t have to knock her out, toss her over his shoulder like a caveman, and carry her to whatever hiding place he had for situations like this, but it helped anyway. She took a few deep breaths, blinked the tears away, and nodded.

“All right,” Clint said, and he let go of her shoulder. “None of the old SHIELD safehouses I would have used before are workable anymore, thanks to everything that’s happened, but there’s somewhere else we can go. I have to get some fake IDs for us, because if these people have enough clout to imitate the CIA, they’re probably watching all of the airports and bus stations around here for your name. Are you okay waiting here with Banner for a few hours while I get that done?”

“Of course,” she said. Darcy sniffed, and wiped her nose. “I shouldn’t’ve thrown those fake IDs away once I turned twenty-one, huh?”

Clint blinked at her, and then he grinned a little. “Probably not. Never know when those come in handy, y’know?”

“Yeah, because I really thought I’d need to go on the run from terrorists,” she said, and hiccupped. Darcy scowled. “Go away. Do your spy thing. I’ll be here when you get back.”

“Good woman,” he said, and she blinked, because who said shit like that? But he had already turned on his heel, pulled up his hood, and vanished out of Dr. Banner’s lab. She turned and blinked at Dr. Banner instead, like an owl. A very snotty, tearstained, kind of still hyperventilating owl, but an owl nonetheless. Dr. Banner sighed.

“Come on. We’d better come up with a cover story in case Dr. Foster asks where you’re going.”


Jane curled around her herbal tea, and frowned. “Why are you visiting this aunt, again?”

“Great-aunt,” said Darcy, zipping up her backpack. She’d never thought, the first time she’d walked out of Tony Stark’s lab covered in engine oil and suit grease, that her habit of keeping clothes at the office would ever actually had a further use. Now, at least, she didn’t have to go back to her apartment to pack, because she was pretty sure that would send Barton—Clint—into a super-secret-spy panic attack. “Aunty Bee was in a car accident late last night, and she’s only a few hours away. I’m closest out of everyone in the family, and I’ve told you how the Lewis Clan is, right? We’re like the Tullys of Midgard. Family, Duty, Cable.

“I thought it was Family, Duty, Honor.”

Darcy flapped a hand, and forced the zipper closed. “She’s in the hospital, and she needs someone to take care of her pets, and since Aunty Bee is a die-hard McCarthyist and thinks that everyone is a Communist out to get her, it has to be me.” Her laptop was in her messenger bag, and her backpack was full. Darcy yanked her phone charger out of the wall of her office and stowed that in her messenger bag. “I’m gonna be gone for a couple of days probably, since she’s all laid up in the hospital and they’re not letting her out until they’re absolutely certain she has no brain damage—which was debatable even before the car accident—I’m stuck with her fifty billion cats and taking in her mail.”

Jane made the Pouty Face. “Oh.”

“Don’t look like that. I’ve asked Intern Ivan to come in and check on you every few hours to make sure you eat something. Something other than Pop-Tarts,” she added, when Jane opened her mouth. “And Dr. Banner’s here for you to bounce ideas off of, and Erik’s doing well, so there’s absolutely nothing for you to worry about. I’m fine, Jane.”

Jane gave her a searching look. The corners of her mouth tightened. “Darcy, what happened to your face?”

“Huh?” She put a hand to her cheek, and faked a gasp. “Oh my god what happened!”

“Darcy.”

“Seriously, Jane, I keep telling you your cat’s a vampire, now we have to add opposable thumbs to the equation, that dastardly villain put a bandaid on me and thought I wouldn’t notice!”

Darcy,” said Jane, and Darcy shut up. “You’re sure everything’s all right?”

“Janey-Jane-Jane-Jane, everything’s on the up and up. I get to hang out with my best buddies Netflix and Jack Daniels in the middle of the work week; ‘sfar as I’m concerned, that’s a bonus. And if we’re gonna be totally honest here, I kind of tripped into a window on my way out to get coffee. It’s a miracle I don’t have other cuts.”

“Oh my god, Darcy, seriously?”

“Ear infections,” said Darcy sagely. “People underestimate them, but get too many and they kill you years later. They totally fuck with your balance. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. Do science. Do Thor! I’ll be back in a couple of days. Call me as soon as you hear something about your sister, all right? And tell Thunderhead that he is not allowed to watch the next Game of Thrones without me, and we will have to be texting buddies tomorrow night. Understand?”

Jane’s lip quivered. Then, in an unexpected burst of effusion, she flung her arms around Darcy and squeezed tight. Darcy yelped, and dropped her backpack on her foot. Jane just held on. To her horror, Darcy realized Jane’s hands were shaking.

“You be safe,” she said into Darcy’s hair. “You hear me? You be safe, you brat. I’m not gonna forgive you if you get into trouble.”

“Jane, I’m gonna be sitting with cats for two days and watch TiVo, there’s not much trouble I can get into.” The lie tasted like pus in her mouth. Darcy closed her eyes for a moment, and hugged Jane hard. “I’ll be fine. I promise.”

Her phone went off. Jane pulled back, wiping her eyes (and since when did Jane get teary?) as Darcy dug through her messenger bag hunting for the damn thing. The text was crisp and to the point. done. back in ten minutes. be ready to leave ASAP. –cb Darcy blinked furiously (her stupid tear glands were acting up again) and put on an unsure-but-game smile. “That’s my ride. I have to go get some of my papers from Erik’s office, and then I’m off, okay? Don’t blow anything up while I’m gone.”

Jane nodded. If Darcy stayed any longer, she was going to break like a twelve-year-old. She heaved her backpack on, grabbed her messenger bag, bussed Jane’s cheek, and left her office.

Erik went through weird work phases. Ever since the whole thing with the Tesseract (and the whole thing with Greenwich) he kind of cycled through three settings—sane and focused, insane and focused, and pantsless and completely focused on everything but work. She was pretty sure he was in the middle of phase two right now, considering how he jumped when she knocked on the door of his whiteboard room. He softened at the sight of her, though. She had been the one to buy him his first kilt, remembering the whole pants negate intelligence argument from London. She’d also punched the first intern to insult him for it in the face. People forgot that as much as Jane mattered to her, Erik was definitely just as much of a bro as Jane Foster had ever been.

“Erik,” she said, and smiled. “My main Swedish squeeze. ‘supwichu?”

“I keep telling you that style of speech is completely incomprehensible,” said Erik, but he capped his pen anyway. He had another dry erase marker behind his ear, and it was leaving green streaks in his hair. Darcy unloaded her messenger bag onto the only clean space in the room (Erik’s desk) and plucked the marker off his head. He blinked at it, confused. “I’d wondered where that went.”

“’swhat I’m here for, E,” she said, and put the marker back where it belonged. “Also for papers. My aunt managed to get into a car accident so I have to go look after her house for a few days. Did I leave those files Jane asked me to collate like three weeks ago in here?”

Erik’s organizational system would never actually make sense to her, but he knew exactly what she was talking about. He hummed under his breath, and went to the pile of papers in the corner, digging through it. Darcy glanced around. It looked like (and this was speaking more from the tidbits of information Jane gave her about work, rather than any actual knowhow) that Erik was working on interdimensional physics again. Wormholes, specifically. All the math was gobbledygook, but she could recognize the throat of a wormhole as well as anyone else who had seen Pacific Rim. “How’s the work going, Erik? You haven’t been around the last few days.”

“I was thinking,” said Erik, his voice somewhat muffled by the rustle of papers. “I had to go walking. I’ve been making breakthroughs in the development of interdimensional portal development, thanks to some of the materials Thor brought back from Asgard. Much of what they call magic is far beyond our typical understanding of science, but I’m absolutely certain that their methods of traveling through space and dimensions is intimately linked with what we are currently calling string theory, which—you’ve heard of string theory?”

Darcy shrugged. “I watched Nova.”

Erik took this to be a yes, and kept going. “It implies that the rainbow bridge is in actuality the reaction when multiple dimensions come into contact with one another, and the vibration produces the color which we perceive to be an Einstein-Rosen bridge.” He yanked the paperwork out of the pile, and offered it to Darcy. She made a face, and shoved it into her messenger bag before dropping down behind Erik’s desk and loading up Spotify. Music always helped Erik think better, and it sounded like he was going into Major Thought Mode; it demanded some Beats Antique. “I’m developing an experiment to be able to test—”

Someone knocked. Darcy looked up, and bit her tongue. Clint was back. He’d changed clothes, from the hoodie and jeans to a plain T-shirt that looked like something out of Tony Stark’s closet (who else still had vintage Black Sabbath shirts?) and a different, non-bloody, non-torn pair of jeans. He was also carrying a bow in one hand, and the duffel bag that he’d brought into the condo. Maybe the arrows were in there, she thought, and cursed herself for not realizing it earlier. Of course it was his bow and arrows. He was fucking Hawkeye. She should have remembered his Robin Hood fetish sooner.

“Wheels up, Lewis,” he said, and then he realized Erik was there, and his mouth went tight.

“Barton,” said Erik, and he went skittery. That was what Jane called it when his eyes darted back and forth like that, like he was searching for the nearest exit and the only one available was probably a fifth-story window. Darcy clenched her hands tighter in her lap, looking from Clint to Erik and back again, wondering if she was going to have to taze her second-favorite astrophysicist on the planet.

“Dr. Selvig,” said Clint. He came in, and set his bow onto Erik’s desk, slowly. He stepped away from it. Erik’s eyes darted to it, and then to the duffel bag—yards away, still by the door—before he returned to staring at his data.  “Been a while.”

“Yes,” said Erik, and began to tap his finger against his thigh. “Well, more than a while.” He laughed a little. Darcy thought it probably rated a panicked on the scale of mild to hysteria. He looked at Clint’s bow again. Darcy waited until Clint had moved away, and then she took the bow (which had snapped into portable-mode) and stowed it in her lap. She almost expected Clint to snap around and hiss at her for touching it, but he didn’t look away from Erik. She didn’t know what that said about Clint, or what it said about what he thought of her ability to defend herself if he tried to get his bow back. Either way, Erik relaxed a little when the weapon was out of immediate sight.  

“A lifetime,” Erik said, and something tensed in Clint’s shoulders.

“Yeah,” Clint said. “Pretty much.”

They looked at each other. Erik shifted from skitter to fidget, and began to bounce on the balls of his feet. “Um,” said Darcy. Erik jumped, and looked at her as if it was the first time he’d noticed her presence. “I’m…gonnna go get the last of my stuff, if you want to…come, Clint. Hawkeye.”

“No,” said Erik, and at the same moment, Clint boosted himself up onto the desk and said, “I’ll stick around here, Lewis. Everything’s good here. Right, Doctor?” he added, and Erik, who was still bouncing, glanced at Darcy once before nodding agreement.

“Yes,” he said. “We’re…good.”

Darcy looked at Erik. Erik looked at Clint. Clint, to her surprise, looked at her. His eyes seemed almost gray in some lights, she realized. Then she pinched the inside of her wrist, and shrugged. “Cool,” she said. “I hafta pee. Be back in a few.” She pulled her earbuds out of the computer before either of them could contradict her—music always made Erik feel calmer, for some reason—and then darted out of the office with Hawkeye’s bow still in one hand.

She did, actually, have to pee. It felt weird to bring Clint’s bow with her (where was she supposed to put it? On the counter? On the back of the toilet?) but she did, because she wans’t about to let it out of her sight. She was holding an actual Avenger’s weapon, she realized, and as soon as she was in the bathroom, out of line of sight, she kind of had a fangirl moment. She saw Mjolnir all the time, but this was different. She was extra careful hanging it on the little hook that was on the back of the stall door before doing her business, and washing her hands. Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror. She kind of looked like shit; there was a bruise peeping out from under the bandaid on her cheek, her hair was dirty, her make-up clumped. She tugged on her Laura Palmer T-shirt (that, at least, had suffered no glass cuts) and fluffed her hair once or twice before collecting the bow and leaving the bathroom again. She’d left her coat in Dr. Banner’s laboratory, so she collected that with a small salute, and turned back towards Erik’s office.

They were talking. She slowed just by the door, her ears pricking up in spite of her better instincts. Let it never be said that Lewises did not eavesdrop. She squeezed the bow (it was heavier than she’d expected it to be) and leaned closer to the half-open door, unable to help herself.

It was Erik. His voice was low, lower than she could remember it being in a long time. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “Loki made it hell. But working with the Tesseract…” Erik hesitated. “That was—that was pure. Pure thought. Pure reasoning. It was knowledge. I’d….” there was a long pause. “Some nights I’d give anything to have that back.”

Darcy leaned back against the wall and held her breath. Her eyes stung. Erik. Oh, Erik.

“That…” Clint paused.  “I’m no scientist, doc. It was…What Loki did, it took everything away from me. Everything.” There was a moment when she thought his voice was going to crack. “But he took away the guilt, too. For a few days I didn’t have guilt. I didn’t have nightmares. And that…”

He didn’t finish. There was no platitudes. No ‘it’ll get betters.’ No ‘I understand’ from either of them. Just silence. Darcy took a deep breath, wiped her eyes again, and knocked on the door once before coming back in.

“Done,” she said, and Clint snapped to attention. “We ready to go, Barton?”

Erik looked from Clint to Darcy and back again. “Where are you two going?”

“I have a train to catch, Erik. To my aunt’s, remember? Clint’s driving me since I’m too much of a cheapskate to get a taxi.” She went up on tiptoe, and kissed Erik on the cheek. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and so he was all scruffy and scratchy, but she did it anyway, and hooked an arm around his waist, squeezing tight. Erik floundered a bit before patting her head and stepping back out of reach. “I’ll be back in a couple days. Watch out for Jane for me.”

Erik gave her the strangest look. It was the same expression he’d had when he’d been reading those Norse myths, back in Puente Antiguo—the beginning of knowledge, an inkling of the truth, but the unwillingness to believe. Finally, he nodded. “All right.”

“I’ll be back!” Darcy caroled, and then she left the office without looking back. Clint had to jog to catch up to her, hands in his pockets. She checked out of Stark Industries without a hitch, waved a goodbye at the cameras (JARVIS was always watching. Always.) and when Clint turned right, she followed him. He’d managed to get his hands on a car in the hour and a half he’d been gone, a nondescript white fifth generation Tercel that he unlocked without hesitation. Darcy threw her shit into the backseat and buckled up, slamming the door. She absolutely did not watch Stark Industries vanish in the rear view mirror. Instead, she made a promise to herself: Whoever was tearing her away from these people was going to get her booted foot straight up their ass.

“So,” she said, once they were out of sight. “Where am I even going?”

“Safest place I can think of,” said Clint, and hit the blinker. “We’re going to New York.”

Chapter Text

If he was going to be totally honest with himself, Lewis was taking this whole thing much better than he had anticipated. (And no, she wasn’t HYDRA. He’d gone over her file with a fine-tooth comb. Besides, moles tended to have a certain smell to them. Lewis didn’t. She smelled of strawberry shampoo and insanity.) When he handed her her new ID (and passport; his contacts hadn’t skimmed off the top this time) she’d sat and looked at them for a moment. She didn’t even ask who the hell he knew that could get him official (forged) USA passports in less than two hours. They were nearly at LAX before she finally said, “Well, at least you didn’t give me a stripper name,” and stowed her old cards in the lining of her purse.

She also memorized her new name really fucking fast, because four spaces behind her in line, he overheard her nonchalantly introducing herself as Tamsin Goodwin to an overly nosy TSA agent that basically had his head in her cleavage. If Clint hadn’t known better (fine-tooth comb, remember) he would have sworn she had some kind of training. That, or a degree in theatre. Possibly both.

Their flight didn’t leave until 6pm, so they had three hours of time to kill in the airport. He chose two seats at the gate that were against the wall, and had a clear view of all nearby exits. Lewis followed him without a word, chewing her thumbnail with the same fervid focus as a beaver jumped up on espresso. She twitched every time an announcement played over the intercom. Finally, Clint looked at her over the pair of reading glasses he’d bought in one of the terminal bookshops and said, “Lewis. You look like you’re having a seizure.”

“Darcy,” she corrected him automatically, but her leg stopped bouncing. “Sorry. Just nervous.”

“It’s a direct flight from LAX to La Guardia, and Stark will pick us up. Or send someone to pick us up.” He looked down at his book again. He’d grabbed it off the shelf randomly, a thriller that was on the bestseller list, something that an end-of-his-thirties white male would read on a plane. He’d already found three glaring plot holes and five terminology mix-ups. Clint turned the page. “If they were quick enough to scramble a surveillance team, they’ll know you have someone watching your back, now. They’ll be more cautious.”

“Is that what it is?” she said, and laughed. It cracked at the end. “You’re watching my back?”

“’swhat I’m here for.” He turned the page without seeing it. He hated commercial flights. He’d had to pack his bow. Even if he’d flashed his fake Air Marshal ID, so he could, technically, carry it on board, he wouldn’t have the time to unhook it from its little briefcase in order to use it. Even though he knew, logically, there was little chance they would try anything on the plane (too many witnesses, nowhere to run) he still felt like he’d cut off his arm. “Well,” he added, when Lew—Darcy gave him a questioning look, “that and lurking. I’m a very good lurker.”

She seemed to smile in spite of herself, her lips twitching. “That I’m sure of.”  Darcy watched a group of stewardesses walk by, chatting over their Starbucks cups, and then blurted, “How many times have you done this?”

“Done what?” Clint turned a page again. “Escorted college students across America?”

“Kinda. Been a bodyguard, I mean. Is that what you’re doing? It’s what it feels like you’re doing. Unless, you know, it’s not what you’re doing, in which case, hah, I’m a dumbass that talks too much when she’s freaked out, and I kind of really need coffee, can we go get coffee in a minute? Though that might be a bad idea because I’ll probably be super-hyper on the plane and I might throw up because I always throw up if I have too much coffee without food but there’ll be nothing here that’s cheap and I don’t really have a lot of money right now—”

There was another panic attack coming. He could hear it in her voice, see it in the way her leg was bouncing again. Clint turned and put his hand on her elbow. “Darcy,” he said. Her eyes snapped to his hand, and then to his face, but she didn’t have the same sort of horrified expression that he remembered from the Pelican. Just curiosity. “Breathe.”

“I’m breathing, dude. Believe me. It’s one of the very few things that I am extraordinary at.”

“As for your question, yes, acting as a bodyguard is not something I’m unfamiliar with, though I didn’t get guarding jobs as often as I would have liked, and yes, it is what I’m doing now.” He picked up his book again, and stowed it in the small backpack he’d grabbed out of one of his storage units, which had been his second stop after the impound lot. Normally, he would have said no, but he hadn’t spotted any tails yet, LAX was fairly quiet (by LAX standards, anyway) and he had three guns on him right now. Besides, Darcy was a bundle of nervous energy, and if she had a cup of coffee in her hands, people might mistake it for caffeine poisoning instead of realizing it was a mix of exhaustion, adrenalin overload, and sheer panic. “There’s a Starbucks about five hundred yards back if you’re up for walking.”

She was on her feet before he finished his sentence.

The Starbucks was a little overcrowded, considering it was late afternoon, but the baristas were fast, and no one put anything questionable into his coffee, so he was all right with it. Darcy ordered something that was mostly made-up words and whipped cream, then bounced on the balls of her feet until she had the takeaway cup between her palms. She did seem to settle a little once she’d drunk about half of it, though. Maybe the bearded lady had been right, and hot drinks always did soothe the soul. He’d never experienced that himself, but then again, Clint wasn’t exactly sure the words had been meant for him.

They wandered back and forth between the gate and the souvenir stores, Darcy because she couldn’t not move, Clint because he was keeping an eye on her six. (Also, the book was boring him.) Darcy kept giving him weird little glances, always when she thought he was focused on something else. It wasn’t a horrified look (he’d had plenty of those). Actually, in a weird, really unsettling way, it kind of reminded him of Natasha when she was trying to figure something out. He wasn’t sure what that said about Darcy Lewis.

“So,” she said finally, when she’d seized a sweatshirt that read Los Angeles and held it up against her chest, checking sleeve length. “Um, what’s the plan?”

Clint glanced at her once, and then said, “What plan?”

“You know. The ‘rescue Darcy from evil terrorist kidnappers’ plan. There is a plan, right? Because dude, if there isn’t a plan we are seriously screwed—”

“Get to New York.”

“Okay, and beyond that? I mean, is there a—a Plan B, or Operation Take Down HYDRA, or something? I assume you kind of have some thoughts about, you know, stuff.” She gave him a gimlet-eyed look. “Or is this one of those classified things that I’m allowed to know the name of because I am one of zero-point-zero-zero-one percent of the population in regards to the Initiative but not a certain SHIELD level? Which is bull, because dude, information is for the people, and if you think it isn’t then you’re Stasi and I’d like to take a different flight please and thank you—”

His lips twitched. He smoothed his face over. “Generally in these sorts of situations it’s difficult to plan further ahead than a few hours. At this point, the primary objective is to get you out of the line of fire. Once that’s done, we’ll figure something out.”

“We being…” She looked around, and then gave him an upside-down victory V with her opposite index finger flashed across it, to make an A. She made a face when he cocked an eyebrow at her. “I was going to make a gang sign but I ended up not having time with the whole take-care-of-baby-scientists thing going on.”

“Yes, we being that.” He rifled through a rack of bad T-shirts. “After I drop you off, I’ll probably meet up with Stark and Natasha. Go over what Steve knows.” Clint pressed his lips together. “We should have some information about who’s trying to grab you by the time we land in New York, but if we don’t, that’ll be the first thing we’ll be looking into.”

Darcy digested that. “What happens if we can’t figure it out? Who they are, I mean.”

We,” Clint said, giving her a look over the top of his fake glasses, “will have names by the end of the week. You will be doing precisely what you told Jane you would be doing, which is watching TiVo and taking care of cats.” He paused. “There aren’t any cats at the tower, but we can probably get a hold of some for texts to Jane.”

She seized the nearest thing that came to hand—a grotesquely pink hoodie that read Los Angeles across the front in curly script—and took it over to the counter. It was obnoxiously priced, but she bought it anyway, along with a bag of pretzels. She yanked it over her head, and then pushed her glasses up her nose. “Dude,” she said, “if you think I’m just going to sit around like I did at Tromso when someone’s trying to kidnap me, you have another thing coming.”

Behind her, the cashier goggled. Clint counted backwards from five, and then said, “Better enunciation that time, but if you want the director to like you, you have to actually look like you’re mad. Try the line again.” And he took her by the elbow and pulled her away from the souvenir stand, before she could put her foot in her mouth again. It was only once they’d found a relatively quiet pillar that he let her go. Darcy opened her mouth to snap, but he covered it with his hand. She made a little noise, like she was more insulted than anything, and glared at him over the tops of her glasses. “Listen to me. What exactly are you supposed to be able to do? You’re the target, Lewis. You haven’t been trained, you don’t know the stakes, and if you don’t get out of the way you could get a lot of people into some really bad situations, including yourself. Do you understand me? The priority right now is keeping you safe, and keeping you protected, not letting you go running all over Manhattan pretending to be Nancy Drew. I can’t guarantee there’ll be a Ned around to save you if you try it.”  

She blinked at him once, but she didn’t stop glaring. He uncovered her mouth and stepped back. Darcy wiped her lips with the back of her hand, smearing her lipstick. “What the hell am I supposed to do, then? Just hang around and wait for them to try and get me? That’s fucking stupid, Barton. I’m not an idiot, I can help. I might not be super-secret-badass-soldier-dude like you are but I can at least think. And I’m not about to let you and the rest of the Aven—the Initiative throw me in a fucking Rapunzel tower because it’s easier for you.” She put her hands flat on his chest and shoved him back a few inches. “Let me help¸ youasshole.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. Darcy was panting. Clint wondered if the tickle at the back of his throat was a snarl, or a laugh. Then he sighed, and put one hand on his hip. “What you can do for now is go over what you have,” he said. “The documents on your computer, what JARVIS has found. Whatever they’re after, it’s in there. It’s why they’re going after you. If we have an idea for the why, we might have a better chance of tracking down the who. But you are not going out into the field, Lewis. You have no training, you have no weapons, and you are a target, and until you get that, we’re not moving from this pillar. You understand?”

She swore under her breath, and kicked the pillar. Then she shoved her hands deep into the kangaroo pocket of her obnoxiously pink sweatshirt. “Fine,” she spat. “Fine. I understand. Fucking tyrannical prick,” she added under her breath. “Can we go back to the gate now? I think people are gonna start staring if we shout at each other for much longer.”

Clint bit back the impulse to say that neither of them had snarled above a whisper, because she was right. He fought the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Yeah,” he said. “And look, Lewis—”

Darcy.”

“Darcy.” She peeked at him from under her bangs. “I know you’re frustrated right now, all right? And I know you’re probably terrified, and you want to do something. But they’re targeting you. Until we know it’s safer, you need to stay out of sight. And I’d be saying that,” he added, over her squawk, “if you were Darcy Lewis, or if you were Captain America. Targets are targets. First rule of thumb is that if you are one, stay as far out of sight as you can until you’re not again.”

Darcy puffed up like a chicken, and then abruptly deflated. She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I get that, okay? That wasn’t—it doesn’t matter.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her.

“I just—” Darcy scoffed. “I fucking hate being useless, okay? That’s all.”

Clint didn’t quite know what to say to that, so he just nodded. She studied him for a moment, and then to his surprise, her lips curled up. “So,” she said. “You’ve read Nancy Drew?”

“Where did that come from?”

“Dude, you said there wasn’t gonna be a Ned around to get me out of trouble. People don’t know about Ned if they haven’t read the books.” She reached up and patted his cheek. He had to fight off the instinct to grab her wrist and break it. “Don’t worry, superspy. Your secret’s safe with me. Come on, we’d better go. Plane leaves in forty minutes.”

With that, she swanned off. Clint blinked a few times, and then caught up with her. It was only once they’d reached the gate, and joined the line for boarding, that Darcy turned to him again.

“Is now too late for me to tell you that I have a pathological phobia of air travel?”

 


 

Despite everything, she ended up sleeping through most of their flight to Manhattan. It wasn’t just that she’d managed to get a hold of good sleepy drugs on her way out of Stark Industries (because she had; always come prepared); she hadn’t really slept all that much since the SHIELD filedrop, and a direct flight from LAX to La Guardia was actually precisely what the doctor ordered. When the plane touched down she jerked awake and kicked the dude sitting next to her in the shin, hard enough to make him yelp. Clint was four rows ahead of her, and two seats to the left, but of course he turned around at the shriek of pain. She flashed him a peace sign (fighting the urge to turn it into an “I’m watching you” finger flick) and apologized three times to the angry businessman sitting next to her before pulling her hood back up over her head and watching the runway lights flash by her window.

Clint was waiting for her at the end of the jetway, hovering by her chair as she heaved her backpack back on and hooked her messenger bag over her shoulder. She’d been in La Guardia twice before, but never on a red-eye, and their footsteps echoed weirdly against the linoleum. There was barely anyone here, by La Guardia’s standards, and it made her nervous. Still, the sleep had settled her, even if it was only a little bit.

She kept her phone turned off. If Jane was texting her, she didn’t want to text back without a cat in her arms to kind of confirm the whole McCarthyist great-aunt story.

Damn him, she thought, glaring at Clint’s back. She understood why he was being such a bozo, she really did, but that didn’t change the fact that he was being a gigantic dictatorial autocratic cockface. She heaved her messenger bag higher up her shoulder and swore under her breath. I’m not the fucking damsel in distress. I’m just…A target for kidnapping by intelligence organizations unknown. What was the definition of a damsel in distress, again?

I’m pretty sure damsels are supposed to be virgins, so that kinda knocks me out of the running there.

Darcy let out a huffing breath, and Clint turned to look at her over his shoulder. “You all right?”

“Fine.” Her voice was tight. If he noticed, he didn’t mention it. “Just, you know. Existential crisis.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up. He seemed to be in a semi-constant state of laughing at her. She wasn’t quite sure she liked it. “I hear those come along with attempted kidnappings.”

“What else am I supposed to do, hide in a corner and hyperventilate until it stops? Don’t you say anything,” she added, because he’d opened his mouth with a look on his face that could only be called devious.

“I was only gonna point out that’d make things easier—”

Shut your face.”

They passed baggage claim by entirely. After all, Clint had his little briefcase that was full of pointy death, and everything Darcy had brought with her was on her back. It was only once they’d left the airport proper that Clint pulled his phone out of his pocket, hit a key, and waited.

“Who’re you calling?”

“Our ride.” He drummed his fingers against the handle of his briefcase. After a moment, he turned away from her and said, “Ready for extraction.”

“Wait, seriously, you guys say that stuff?”

He held up a hand, and listened intently to the other end of the phone before hanging up and collecting his briefcase again. “Come on,” he said, and led the way down a side corridor. Darcy sighed and trotted after him.

After a cramped elevator ride (because apparently even at ass o’clock in the morning La Guardia elevators sucked) and a weird conversation with a security guard on the way into one of the parking garages, they stopped. Six rows away, a Prius flickered its lights, and Clint nodded. “That one,” he said, and Darcy, who was getting kind of really fucking weirded out by now, licked her lips.

“You sure that isn’t the crazy ax-murderer car?”

“No promises, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an ax-murderer,” he said, and took her messenger bag from her. Darcy yelped, but he just put it into the back seat of the car before stepping aside and holding the door open for her.

Wherever my laptop goes, there too shall I, she thought, grit her teeth, and crawled into the backseat. It was only once Clint had slammed the door shut behind her and climbed into the passenger seat that the car started. It pulled out of the parking place before she’d even managed to get her seatbelt buckled.

“Hawkeye,” said the woman in the front seat. She had dark hair and a sharp nose, and her clothes were both fairly nondescript and very, very expensive. “Good to see you in the land of the living. It’s been an interesting few days.”

“Hill,” said Clint, and leaned his elbow against the base of the passenger’s side window. “Stark said he’d be sending a friend, but I didn’t think you’d be able to get out of DC for another month, at least.”

“Please,” said the woman named Hill. “They all wanted me out of there as soon as possible. Besides, I’m not completely inept.” No, Darcy thought. If there was one word she was going to apply to this woman, it wouldn’t be inept. Scary, maybe. Or really fucking hot. But not inept. She paid the fee at the gate to the parking garage, and pulled out into the road. “Heard you had an interesting few days in Malibu.”

“Not how I would put it, exactly.” Clint turned a little, and caught Darcy’s eye. “Darcy, this is Maria Hill. Hill, this is Darcy Lewis. I don’t know if Stark mentioned anything.”

“You know Stark,” said Hill, but her eyes flickered up to the rear view mirror to give Darcy a considering look. “He gets away with giving people the least amount of information possible, but for some reason we all snap to anyway. If you’re keeping an eye on her, though, I’m going to assume there’s a reason.” She hit the blinker. “Lewis—from New Mexico, right?”

“Yeah,” said Darcy, and then bit her tongue. “Um, yes. Ma’am. Sir. That’d be me.” She fought the urge to snap a salute.

Maria Hill paused. “The one Thor calls little lightning sister?”

She flushed. “Kinda. Maybe? Yes. He calls me Lady Darcy mostly. I don’t want him to, but I can’t get him to stop. I like little lightning sister better but he doesn’t use it unless I have my taser with me.” Which, until today, had been always. But she had been pretty sure airport security wouldn’t let her take her trusty baby through customs, so she’d left it behind in her desk. She’d have to get a new one. She felt like she’d painted a target on her back by leaving it behind. No, you just did that through opening a goddamn file. “Nice to meet you, ma’am,” she added after a moment, and then blushed harder when she heard Clint snort.

“Hill’s fine,” said Hill. “Not really the ‘ma’am’ type.”

“Yes, ma—okay.” She licked her lips. “Hill, then.”

Hill nodded, and turned to Clint again. “So. Mexico City?”

“Emergency call-back,” said Clint, and leaned back into his seat. “Or so I thought at the time. Went to the Sandbox and it was crawling with HYDRA. Made my way to Malibu. After thirty-six hours or so, unknown parties expressed an intense interest in Lewis’s presence. Thought it’d be better to get her out of the limelight for a little while.”

“Probably a good choice,” said Hill. “Considering everything. The Tower, then?”

“Unless you have a better place.”

“Not particularly. The Tower has JARVIS.” She made a face. “One thing we really do have to thank Stark for. Damn AI is a godsend.”

“Don’t tell Stark that.”

“Believe me, I don’t mean to. Darcy?”

Darcy jumped to attention. “Yeah?”

“Sorry about this,” said Hill. “It’s hard, the first time. We’re going to try and make this as easy as possible for you, but I’m not going to lie, some of it will be tricky. And frustrating.”

“I—I know.” Or she could guess. Darcy blushed harder. Why does she have to be so fucking pretty? One hell of a time for her hormones to be cropping back up. First Barton, now Hill. Was every ex-SHIELD agent she met going to turn her into a shivering blob of lust? It was going to kill her dead. But oh, it’d be the best possible way to die. “I mean, I can guess.”

“Here’s how we’re going to play this. You’re going to be confined to the Avengers Tower, for the most part. If at any point you leave, you will be accompanied by at least one SHIELD—” she hesitated. “At least one guard on the Initiative’s payroll. Thankfully the Avengers have been separated from SHIELD since shortly after the Battle of New York. Captain Rogers, Stark, and the others don’t take kindly to being instructed what to do in regards to their own affairs, and besides, it wasn’t politically applicable to put SHIELD in charge of intergalactic diplomats.”

It took Darcy a second to realize that Hill meant Thor.

“Most likely, that individual will be me or Agent Barton, as we will both—” and here she gave Clint a look that could have scoured steel “—be assigned to the Tower until further notice. Captain Rogers will be remaining in DC, as will Agent Romanoff. On occasion I will also have to report back for…legal purposes.”

“Understood,” said Clint, but he didn’t sound particularly happy about it.

“Darcy, I expect that you have your own assignments from Pepper. The best option would be for you to continue working as you were before. You will have full access to what floors of the Tower will best assist you in your investigations. Depending on how long it takes to wrap this up, you may be heading home at the end of the week.”

Somehow, Darcy didn’t think that was going to happen, but she nodded anyway. “Okay.”

“Where’s Stark?”

“Still in DC, along with Pepper and Falcon.”

“Falcon?”

“New kid on the block,” said Hill. “Name’s Sam Wilson. Big player in the Triskelion affair.” She merged onto the freeway. “What do you have on HYDRA moles?”

Clint reeled off a list of names. Darcy recognized none of them, but each one made Hill twitch as though bugs were smacking her windshield. She added a few of her own to the mix—Grant Ward, John Garrett—and Clint hissed through his teeth. They were arguing in low voices by the time Darcy stuck her earbuds back in and turned on Cake as loud as she possibly could.

The Avengers Tower had been completely rebuilt from the wreckage left behind by Loki’s Dumbass Insanity-Induced Invasion of Stupid. The parking garage was guarded by a locked gate and three security goons, and Maria had to swipe a card, show ID, and speak her name into a little microphone before they would let her pass. (There was also apparently a DNA scanner, if the way a green light flickered over the car was any indication. Darcy wondered why she passed it.) There were only a few other cars in this part of the garage, though there was a secondary door off to the east. “Stark’s car collection,” said Clint, when he caught her looking at it. “He thought it’d probably be safer here than in Malibu, considering what happened with the Mandarin.”

“Welcome back to the Tower, Agent Hill, Agent Barton,” said JARVIS’s voice, and Darcy glanced up at the ceiling. Something in her unwound. If JARVIS was here, she really was somewhere safe. “And if I may be so bold, welcome, Miss Lewis. We will endeavor to make your stay here as comfortable as possible, considering the situation.”

She felt a little teary. “Thanks, J.”

“JARVIS, where are we on the face-match?”

“I have identified four of the five assailants, Agent Barton. All are general mercenaries for hire. I have forwarded their files to your private account.”

Hill smacked the elevator button, and said, “Five, Barton?”

“I may owe Stark a new skeezy bar.”

“Great,” said Hill under her breath, but her lips were twitching. “Oh, right—we have another guest. Name’s Parker. Be nice, Barton.”

“Parker? Parker’s here.”

“He’s been having a hard time lately. Let him be.”

“Um,” said Darcy. “Who’s Parker?”

“Mr. Parker is a guest of Sir,” said JARVIS. “First name Peter. Was scouted by SHIELD in the weeks before the HYDRA collapse. Currently under voluntary observation.”

“He’s a high school student. Or he was. He is—was—a SHIELD asset.” Hill clasped her hands behind her back and watched the screen above the elevator door. 21, 22, 23, 24. “He’s staying in one of the guest rooms on the forty-second floor.”

The meaning of life, the universe, and everything? Darcy bit back a semi-hysterical snicker, and cleared her throat. “Um. Am I…?”

“You’re on the sixtieth floor,” said Hill, before she could ask. “Communal area for the Avengers Initiative. If you want to go down and talk to him, you can. Everyone in the building has been vetted by SHI—by the Initiative, and no civilians are allowed into the building. The…previous employees have for the most part been scrapped.”

“For the most part?” said Clint, in a dangerous sort of voice.

“All employees not intimately associated with Sir have been expunged from the system, Agent Barton,” said JARVIS primly. “At this point, there are only nine residents in the Tower, including yourself, Agent Hill, Mr. Parker, and Miss Lewis.”

“Who are the other five?”

“Security, hired by Agent Hill personally. None have shown any connection with HYDRA.”

Clint relaxed infinitesimally. The elevator slowed to a stop, and beeped. Hill pressed her palm print to a scanner that presented itself, and with a buzz, the elevator started upwards again. 45, 46, 47, 48. Darcy chewed the inside of her cheek, and then gave in to temptation, and put an earbud back in. Her shuffle tossed up Rebel Girl by Bikini Kill. She wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be the universe being ironic, or what.

“Oh,” she said, just as the elevator pinged, and opened on the sixtieth floor. “I kind of need a cat. Or four.”

“A cat?” said Hill.

“Clint can explain,” she said, and then darted out of the elevator before the doors slid closed again. Clint gave her a look that promised swift and painful retribution, but she just waggled her fingers at him until the doors snapped back closed.

The lights were off. Furniture skulked in corners like dead bodies. Darcy let out a sigh, and dumped her backpack onto what she assumed was the kitchen counter (the kitchen itself was a terror of shiny steel) and perched on the edge of a bar stool. Because it was the Avengers Tower, and because it had been a Stark Tower, there was a digital screen inlaid into the counter. “Hey, J,” she said, “can you forward me those files? On the mercenaries? Or am I not on that clearance level?”

“I have already forwarded them to you, Miss Lewis,” said JARVIS. “There are several messages waiting for you from Dr. Foster, if you would like to peruse them.”

“No,” said Darcy, too fast. “I mean—I’ll text her back in a minute. It’s past midnight there, I’m not gonna wake her up.” She slid off the stool, and went to the window, throwing back the curtains. At least I’m not scared of heights. Only Stark would have floor-to-ceiling bullet-proof glass on the sixtieth floor. The view was gorgeous though. Dawn was just starting to creep between the high-rises. Darcy closed her hands tight around the curtains. “How many floors does this place have?”

“Eighty-two, Miss Lewis.”

“Eighty-two.” And she was on the sixtieth floor. Damn. “Hey, J?”

“Yes, Miss Lewis?”

“Can you start the Rebellion playlist? At full volume, please.” It wasn’t like she was going to wake anyone up, anyway. “You have access to my iTunes here, right?”

“Of course, Miss Lewis. If I may ask why?”

“Dance party,” she said, and shoved the coffee table up against the wall. “It’s that or have a psychotic break, J. Gimme a while, okay?”

“Yes, Miss Lewis.”

There were some things, she reasoned, that didn’t really need explaining. Darcy danced until her knees were shaking, and she couldn’t catch a full breath. She refused to think that she might be crying.

 


 

In a lot of ways, Avengers Tower was actually one of the most kickass places she’d ever stayed in in her life. Stark had a shitton of stock in basically every electronics company on the planet, which meant he had all the new gaming systems just kind of propped up in the glass cabinet next to the huge (seriously fucking huge) TV, plus a shitton of video games. She played Assassin’s Creed for a while before the faces of the Templars started looking like the people who had died in the Pelican, and then played the first Mass Effect instead. Rachni didn’t look all that much like humans no matter which way you sliced it, and outside of dancing, shooter games were about the only thing she could use to douse her temper unless she wanted to kill someone. The furniture was more expensive than every house she’d ever lived in since she was about five years old put together, and the kitchen, despite its Star Trek-y vibe, was fully stocked. She made coffee (how could she not make coffee?) and hunted through the back rooms. Six bedrooms. Hill had called this the communal floor; did that mean there were other floors that were more specialized?

“Each member of the Avengers team has a floor to themselves,” JARVIS said, when she asked. “The rooms here are for civilian members of the Initiative. I have assigned your name to room 6021, Miss Lewis.”

Room 6021 turned out to be purple. Darcy wondered if JARVIS had been hunting through her old Myspace accounts. Every single one of them had had a royal purple theme. She didn’t ask. She just dumped her clothes on the bed and changed, from the obnoxious pink hoodie to her even more obnoxious tie-dye hoodie she’d snagged at Burning Man one year, and into yoga pants. No point not being comfortable, if she was going to be stuck in here twenty-four-seven.  

At about ten, the elevator buzzed, and JARVIS let in Maria Hill, who, to Darcy’s shock, was trundling in her cats. "They’re rescues from the shelter,” Hill told her, as Darcy let them out of the crates, one at a time, so they could poke around the room. There were four of them, all of them more than a couple of years old, cats that were rarely adopted and (in the case of the big tabby) looked as if they’d been through the wars. “I don’t know what Stark’ll think of cat fur on his furniture, but he barely ever comes to this floor anyway, and if they’re temporary—”

Darcy, who was cuddling the smallest one, made a noise that could have been called a whimper.

“If they’re temporary,” said Hill, who looked as if she was holding back a smile, “then he won’t give a damn. If they’re not, well, you can be the one who fights with him about that.”

“To the death, my love,” said Darcy, and twirled with the cat in her arms. The cat—Howl, she decided; he looked like a Miyazaki lover—dug his claws into her sleeve, but otherwise did nothing. Besides, he had black fur and blue eyes—who was she to go against fate? Hill smirked a little.

“Barton’s downstairs testing out the new archery range,” said Hill. “Parker’s awake. I’ve told him you’re here.” She gestured towards the elevator. “It’d be better to introduce yourself now. He’s out of research, for once, so you can count on him to remember your name.”

“Oh.” Darcy buried her face in Howl’s fur, and wondered if Parker and Jane were related, in some long-distance fifth-cousin-once-removed kind of way. “Is he allergic to cats?”

Hill blinked. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“Cool, because I need cuddles.” And she tucked Howl under her arm, leading the way into the elevator. Howl, to his credit, did not complain about this. He nudged his head up under Darcy’s chin, and clawed his way up onto her shoulder to perch with his nails digging into her sweatshirt. She put up a hand to help him keep his balance, and Hill gave her a raised-eyebrow look.

“They called him ‘Parrot-Cat’ at the shelter,” said Hill. “That explains a few things.”

“Best parrot-cat ever,” said Darcy, and scratched Howl’s ears. Hill hit the button for the forty-second floor, and the elevator doors closed. She looked like hell, Darcy realized, catching her reflection in the shiny metal. She’d fixed her lipstick after she’d managed to wipe most of it off, back in LAX, but there were rings under her eyes, and the gauze on her cheek was kind of dirty-looking. A smear of blood had made its way through to the surface. She would have to change it, she realized, and she bit her tongue. Gross. Hill locked her hands behind her back again, and said nothing. In proper lighting, Darcy realized that Hill looked just as tired as she did, if not more so; there were deep circles under her eyes, and she was moving as if certain muscles in her arms and shoulders ached. The elevator buzzed to a stop again, and JARVIS said, “Mr. Parker is currently in the kitchen, Agent Hill. Shall I let him know you’ve arrived?”

“Yeah,” said Hill. Darcy put a hand up to Howl, and glanced at Hill out of the corner of her eye again.

“Was it bad?” she asked, as they waited for the door to open. “DC. I mean, I heard—you were the SHIELD spokesperson after everything, so you were there, right?”

Hill said nothing.

“Sorry,” said Darcy. “I’m kinda bad about asking weird questions. Of course it would’ve sucked. Forget I said anything, okay?”

“It was…” Hill pursed her lips, searching for a word. “Intense.”

Darcy nodded, and glanced back at the wall again. “Lewis,” said Hill, and Darcy looked up. Hill reached out, and took Darcy’s chin in her fingers, turning her face from one side to the other. Her eyes lingered on the bandaged cut, which had been steadily stinging since she’d first boarded the airplane. Then she let go, and Darcy backed up out of reach again, wondering what exactly that had been about. “From the bar?”

Darcy nodded.

“You’ll be fine,” said Hill abruptly, and straightened, putting her shoulders back. “Don’t worry overly much.”

“Hey,” said Darcy. “I tasered a god. A few kidnappers ain’t gonna get me down.”

There was a ding. The elevator doors opened. Hill stepped aside, and gestured Darcy forward. “After you, Lewis.”

Darcy peeled Howl off her shoulder again (or tried to; he stuck there like a burr) and crept onto the forty-second floor.

It looked a lot like the sixtieth floor, aside from a few minor differences. There weren’t as many video game systems here. Someone had thrown a sheet over the TV. Hill studied that carefully, and then stalked into the main room. On her shoulder, Howl made a little noise that could have been a mew, if it hadn’t been so birdlike. Darcy decided not to let him onto the floor. If she gave him a leather couch, then his claws would ruin it, and if she knew Tony Stark, Darcy would be the one held liable for that. At least the furniture on the sixtieth floor was more cloth than expense.

“Parker!” Hill shouted, and settled herself on the arm of one of the leather couches. Darcy jumped. Down the hall, there was a muffled swearword, and a crash. “JARVIS said you were awake.”

“I’m up.” The voice was young, boyish. Darcy chewed the inside of her cheek, and then perched on one of the three-legged stools at the kitchen counter. There was a touchscreen here too, and an actual keyboard. Someone had been looking at tower diagnostics. Down the hall, a door slammed, and then a teenager—he didn’t look much older than eighteen—slunk into the main room, shoving a pair of heavy glasses up his nose. He had fluffy brown hair and a long, gangly body that reminded her of a track runner. One of his eyes was black. “Hey, Maria. Hill,” he corrected himself quickly. “Hill, sorry. Agent Hill.”

“Maria’s fine,” said Hill. Darcy couldn’t work out whether she was talking so stiffly because she was pissed, or because she was holding back laughter. “Parker, this is Darcy Lewis. I told you yesterday that we’d have a new visitor. She’ll be staying here for a few days, at least, until certain people have been pushed off the trail. She’s a few floors above you. Darcy, this is Peter Parker.”

“Hey,” said Peter Parker. His eyes widened when he saw the cat. Darcy peeled Howl off her shoulder, finally, and held him close to her chest.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m a cat person. You’re not allergic, are you?”

“No,” said Parker. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “I mean, my dad was, but I’m not.”

Darcy nodded. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of a teenager being in the Tower. Clearly, Peter Parker wasn’t quite sure what to make of her—he kept glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, and then looking at Hill as if she was going to offer an explanation. Finally, Darcy hooked a curl behind her ear, and said, “Hey, fellow inmates should at least know each other’s names, right?”

Parker jumped, and studied her. Then he smiled, just a little, and padded closer. He was barefoot. “I guess,” he said. Howl jumped out of her lap onto the counter, and Peter reached out so the cat could sniff his fingers. “What happened to your face?”

“Bar fight,” said Darcy airily. “What happened to yours?”

The smile deepened. “Bar fight.”

“Bullshit. I’ll eat my shoes if you’re twenty-one.”

He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I didn’t say I was inside the bar.”

“No, just on Magrathea,” said Darcy, and Peter Parker’s eyes lit up.

“I’m not Deep Thought, though.”

“You have passed, young one,” Darcy intoned, and leaned over to scruff a hand through his hair, because it was fluffy, and she wanted to. He flinched a little, but let her do it. He was kind of like a mini-Dr. Banner, she decided. Kinda dorky and shy. She knew how to deal with kinda dorky and shy.  Hill nodded, as if she’d done her civic duty, and checked her StarkPhone.

“I have to go to a meeting,” Hill said. “Darcy, you have your assignment. Peter, you have yours. Don’t blow up the building while I’m gone, or I shall be very, very unhappy.” Darcy wondered if Maria Hill being unhappy resulted in small countries being detonated into annihilation. “I’ll be back in sixteen hours. Barton’s downstairs if you need him.”

“Barton?” said Peter, and kind of retreated into himself again. “Oh. You haven't told him I'm here, have you?”

"He knows," said Hill. Peter winced.

"Great. I'm gonna die."

“Please, Barton’s a pussycat,” said Darcy, and heaved Howl back into her lap. “I can teach you. You just have to make enough Robin Hood jokes and he rolls over and plays dead.”

No, she definitely wasn’t imagining it. Hill’s lips twitched. “I wouldn’t advise that, Lewis. He’s experimenting with trick arrows right now, and he might just glue you to the floor.” She made a note on her phone. “If you have any questions, I’ve texted you my cell number. Just ask.”

“Okay.” Darcy wondered if she ought to tweet a picture with the cats, just so Jane would stop worrying. “What if—”

An atonal siren went off. In her arms, Howl went promptly ballistic, and Darcy yelped and let him go. Peter clapped his hands over his ears. Over the racket, JARVIS said, “It appears that someone has broken through our fourth firewall, Agent Hill.”

“Shit,” said Darcy, and smacked the screen laid into the kitchen counter. It went blank, and then flickered back to life. Code pooled on the screen like scales. Bless you, J. “Where is it coming from, JARVIS?”

“The location has been bounced a handful of times, but I have an approximate location in Montana, Agent Hill.”

Shit,” said Hill, and marched out of the room, snarling into her StarkPhone.

“What do we have, J?” said Darcy, ignoring Peter. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him watching the screen, his eyes darting back and forth. She really, really hoped he didn’t have an eidetic memory or something, because if Tony Stark learned she’d exposed the secrets of his firewalls to some high school student, her ass was grass.

“Multiple worms,” said JARVIS. She hit the enter button, and a makeshift blast wall erected itself behind one of the broken firewalls. “Previous incarnations of this program have been implemented against Stark Industries before, but not quite at this level. The hacker,” he said, “has found a hole in our defenses.”

If JARVIS could be grumpy about something, this would be the moment. Darcy ignored the firewalls for now, building a shield around the Operation Cupcake files. It wasn’t nearly as classy as anything Tony Stark had written, but it would do for now, and if this person was after what she thought they were after, the rest of Stark Industries wasn’t at stake anyway. It was the SHIELD files. Once the first shield was done, she made a second one, and then a third, encasing it all in an encryption program she’d written alongside one of her MIT friends. Thankfully, she didn’t have to rewrite the damn thing; she’d hooked her laptop up to the Tower network almost as soon as she’d unpacked, and she could just copy and paste it into the appropriate boxes, tweaking it. As soon as it was up, JARVIS took over, making further amendments, moving through the code so fast that her eyes buzzed inside her skull.

“Jesus, J,” she said, as whoever-it-was broke through her blast walls. “Who the fuck is this?”

At her shoulder, Peter twitched a little. Please. Like this is the first time you’ve heard a girl say ‘fuck.’

“Currently unknown, Miss Lewis. The IP address has made previous attempts upon our intranet, but not with such success previously. Evidence indicates it is not related to the Central Intelligence Agency.”

“Evidence?”

“The individual has too much digital flair for a government employee,” said JARVIS, and in spite of herself, Darcy snickered. She locked the system down, and then sent out a dummy program, a fake SHIELD filedump laced with a handful of Trojans. Someone, probably JARVIS, had shut off the stupid alarm. Her temples were pounding. “Certain code strings indicate a correlation with a Rising Tide identity known colloquially as Skye.”

“Skye,” said Darcy, and hit the enter button. The worm tunneled right into her Trojans. Bless. Hackers might be smart, but worms were usually really fucking stupid. “JARVIS, can we use their laptop camera?”

“I see, Miss Lewis,” said JARVIS. There was a fizz across the screen, and then JARVIS had remotely activated Skye of the Rising Tide’s laptop video screen.

Young, Darcy realized. Maybe not too much younger than Darcy was. Long dark hair. She was swearing under her breath, and the click of keys rattled through the audio intake on the tablet screen. She didn’t seem to have noticed that Darcy could see her. “Capture the image, J,” said Darcy.

“Already done, Miss Lewis.”

“On my mark,” she said, and hit a few more keys, activating the volume on Skye’s laptop. After a second or two, Darcy cleared her throat.

“I really think,” she said, “that you should know better by now than to play with Tony Stark’s toys.”

Skye of the Rising Tide jerked as if she’d been hit with a cattle prod, and stared at the computer screen. Her hands went still. “JARVIS,” said Darcy, and JARVIS smashed into Skye’s computer with all the force of a freight train. The image flickered and vanished as Skye’s Montana IP address shut down. Darcy didn’t have the heart to ask what JARVIS had done to this Skye girl’s computer. If she knew JARVIS at all, he would have wiped it clean, at the very least. No OS left to hunt with.

“Damn,” said Peter, and Darcy jumped. He was hovering behind her shoulder, eyes shining. If anything, he looked gleeful. “Is that what your job usually is?”

Darcy took a breath, and realized her heart was pounding. Shit. Not even the CIA hits were that stressful. She made herself smile. “Nah. Usually I get coffee and Pop Tarts for persnickety scientists. This is just a hobby.” She hit a few keys on the tablet, and the screen went dark as JARVIS wiped the history. Then she leaned back.

“So,” she said. “Wanna play Mario Kart?”

Chapter Text

He first hears of SHIELD in 1952.

He stands in the anteroom of a Moscow flat. The Handler is seated in an armchair, watching him. Blood runs down through his hair. Drips fall from his bangs to his arm. It’s in good shape, considering. Only a few scratches. The arm is the most important part of him. He must keep it safe.

He has not failed. The target is dead. It was the closest that he has come to death himself—but in how long? He does not know.

He is starting to think that something is wrong with the fact he cannot remember.

“Mission report,” says the Handler. He speaks in Russian. He is tall, with a widow’s peak and slicked-back hair. The Asset goes to speak, but then his tongue twists. When he finally manages it, it’s not Russian that comes out of his mouth, but English. He cannot remember ever learning English. Come to think of it, he cannot ever remember learning Russian, either.

“What the hell is going on?”

The Handler’s mouth twists. He takes a breath, and lets it out. Behind him, the Asset hears a silenced gun go off. Something sprouts in the back of his neck. A dart, he realizes, as he wrenches it free of his skin and crushes it in his metal fingers. His hand comes away smeared with his own blood.

The Asset lunges for the Handler, but his body will not obey him. He crumples to the carpet. He stains it. Maybe he is the stain. He takes a breath. It rattles like bones.

“It’s wearing off,” says the Handler. “Get him back to the machine.”

The last thing he hears before he blacks out is “I want that whore Carter and her SHIELD lackeys out of my city in seventy-two hours. Find me a way.


“Skye?”

Skye stared blankly at her computer screen. At her fizzing computer screen. The bitch snow-crashed me. Just like in that book by Neal Stephenson, the one she’d stolen from one of her first foster homes and kept in her backpack ever since. The pixels of her screen were flipping their heads, flashing black and white and black again, like an old-fashioned TV that had gone on the fritz.

“Skye?” Jemma reached out and touched her shoulder. “Are you all right? You’re sheet-white.”

“Shit,” said Skye.

Jemma blinked at her. “Did something happen?”

There was a high-pitched buzzing in her ears that reminded her of wasps. “Shit,” she said again, and slammed her laptop shut. “Shit. Shit! Jemma, they fucking made me!”

“I don’t—” Jemma looked lost. “What are you talking about, Skye?”

“I was trying to hack Stark’s system again and some woman managed to knock out my OS!” And done who knew what before that. Track her location. Skye swore again. “Motherfucker!”

Jemma’s eyebrows snapped together. “I don’t know if it warrants that sort of language.”

“It does if they managed to triangulate the Playground!” She pushed her laptop onto the couch and stood. All her muscles seemed to have gone into hypertension. She crossed her arms tight over her chest and began to pace. “Shit. Shit. Fuck.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

Skye bit down hard on her thumbnail, and tasted blood. She’d caught some of her fingertip in with it. “Shit.” She ran her hand through her hair. They couldn’t just leave. Fitz was here. If they moved Fitz now, who knew if he’d be able to wake up? Or breathe? Or—“Shit fuck shit.”

“Skye?” said Coulson, and Skye whipped around. May and Coulson were paused on the threshold of the kitchen, as if waiting to see whether or not a nuclear warhead was going to go off. Coulson cocked an eyebrow at her. May, of course, just stood there with her arms across her chest, waiting for an explanation. Skye licked her lips.

“Oh,” she said, and made herself smile a little. “Hey, boss. May,” she added, and May inclined her head. “Long time no see. Didn’t know you were coming out of your room today.”

“Skye,” said Coulson again, this time in his You will explain yourself now voice. “What happened?”

“I—” She glanced back at her computer screen again. She’d never had a laptop come back from a snow-crash, because usually the people who made it snow-crash decimated the OS so thoroughly the computer didn’t have a clue what else to do other than turn into static. “I was trying to get into Stark’s mainframe again and his AI may have wrecked my laptop.” She took a breath. “And I don’t know if they triangulated our position before it did it.”

May let out a hissing breath. It was the closest she could get to a pissy face. Next to her, Coulson just tilted his head a little. “They?”

Skye flapped a hand. “There was a woman working with it, I think. More than one person. If AIs are people. Which, you know, depends on how much Isaac Asimov you’ve read—which doesn’t matter, because we might have to leave, and I don’t know if—”

“Skye,” said Coulson a third time, “breathe.”

Without even thinking about it, Skye closed her eyes, and gulped air. She felt kind of dizzy. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had managed to do such a number on her—well, no, that was a lie, because, you know, as good a hacker as she was, she had started somewhere and she’d managed to really get her ass kicked, especially in her first few months of being a part of the Rising Tide. But it had definitely been a while. Note to self: never underestimate Tony Stark’s AI systems ever, ever again. She heard Jemma shift anxiously over by the table, where she’d been reading Stephen Strange’s study in TBIs again.

“Report,” Coulson said. “From the beginning, please.”

Skye did. She felt more and more like curling into the floor as she told the whole of it, but she did it anyway, because damn it, she was SHIELD, even if SHIELD was kind of torn into a million pieces right now, and she would do her damn duty. Coulson’s lips pressed tighter together as she wrapped up, but other than that, his expression didn’t change all that much. Finally, she peeked at him and May through her eyelashes. They seemed to be doing that thing where they spoke without words again, a silent language of old comrades. Finally, Coulson tucked his hands behind his back.

“Do you know if they’re certain as to what you were after?”

“Probably?” Skye lifted her hands in half a shrug. “Whoever was working with the AI sent out a dummy data packet that my worms fell for, one labeled with all the SHIELD intel we’ve been looking for. So, ninety-nine percent sure that she knew, whoever she was.” And even without the AI as a handicap, she’d been a semi-decent coder, too. Coming from Skye, that was saying a lot. “She said—she said that I should have known better than to mess around with Stark’s things. I kind of want to punch her in the face.” She paused. “Actually I really want to punch her in the face.”

“We’ll remain in the Playground for now,” he said. “It’s a defensible location. I highly doubt that Stark will send fighter jets after us—he has half a dozen half-bit hackers trying to take down his firewalls every hour. If they do send someone, then the Playground is about as thoroughly concealed as SHIELD could make it; virtually undetectable, even for someone with Stark’s background. We can’t confirm or deny that they know our position until someone shows up. If they do, then we’ll deal with it.” He nodded to May, and May slunk out of the room again, a panther on the hunt. “Simmons, go check on Fitz, please. Skye, if you could wait here for a minute, I want to talk to you.”

Skye flinched.

Jemma looked from Coulson to Skye and back again. She pressed her lips together. Then she gathered up her papers, patted Skye on the back, and vanished down the hall towards the medical wing. As soon as she was out of earshot, Skye said, “You know, it took me two hours to get her out of there this morning. I’m gonna have to drag her out kicking and screaming this time.”

“Simmons will survive.” Coulson collected Skye’s computer, setting it with utmost delicacy on the kitchen bar. He brushed his fingers over the keys, watching the screen snow. Skye bit her lip, and rocked on her feet for a moment. Then she broke.

“I’m sorry. I should’ve—I found a hole and I took it, and I underestimated the AI and I shouldn’t have—”

“Skye.”

“And now we might have to jump ship and it’s all my fault, I screwed up, because I was too fucking cocky to remember—”

Skye.

She shut up. He was smiling a little, the everything’s gonna be okay smile, like she hadn’t just blown their cover to a million tiny bloody pieces. Skye looked down and away, chewing the inside of her cheek. “Trust me,” he said, “this isn’t the first time Stark and his multitude of inventions have thrown a wrench into SHIELD’s plans. Nor are you the first person he’s managed to put one over on. The man’s a super-genius, Skye. He specializes in pissing people off.”

“That doesn’t exactly make me feel better. If he sends someone—”

“Skye. Stop.” Coulson set his hand on the counter-top, and she found herself staring at his fingers. No, I’m not a coward. Not at all. She just felt eleven years old again, like she was back in St. Agnes and she’d been caught shoplifting. Again. Except it was worse, because it was Coulson, and she didn’t want to feel like a kid again. Not with him. “Breathe. Think. You’re not the only person who’s been trying to hack Stark’s servers. If he does come after you, which is unlikely, then we’ll handle it. And if he doesn’t, well, then the most that’s happened is that you’ve given coordinates to the new headquarters of SHIELD to an Avenger. All in all, not the worst person to have the information.”

“But—”

“Skye, you made Stark’s AI uncomfortable enough to crash your entire system. That’s an achievement, even if nothing else is.” Skye couldn’t help it; she relaxed, just a bit. Something fizzed inside her. It might have been pleasure. It had been a long time, she thought, since she’d been complimented for monumentally fucking up. Coulson closed her laptop. “It’s unlikely that someone will be sent to investigate, at least on Stark’s end. I get the feeling he has more pressing problems at the moment.”

His voice shifted a little as he said it. It didn’t—tighten, exactly, but there was a shift. Skye frowned, studying his face. Coulson just gave her that sage look again. “You said there was a woman?”

“Hm? Yeah.” She hooked her thumbs into her beltloops. “Youngish. She didn’t sound like a teenager, but she didn’t sound old, either. Twenties to forties. American. Didn’t really have a regional accent. She was—” a condescending bitch “—pretty good at CS. Not excellent, but she could hold her own.”

“She was defending the SHIELD files?”

“Like a fucking mama bear,” she said, and then winced. “Sorry, AC.”

Coulson waved that off without comment. “She was working in conjunction with JARVIS. That puts her in one of Stark’s buildings, unless she’s high-up enough to have remote access. That in addition to her capabilities with a computer makes the list of possibilities very, very small.” He paused. “Get Koenig to get you a new laptop. I have to make a few calls.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to contact the Avengers?”

His eyes creased. “I’m not. I’m going to go talk to their manager.”

“Wait,” she said, “their what?”

Coulson gave her a mysterious smile, and was gone. Skye stood there for a long moment. Then she seized her computer, and went off to the firing range. She could get a new computer later. Right now, she really needed to shoot something.


“What are you even photographing me for?”

“Evidence.” Darcy snapped a picture and frowned. “Nah, that sucked. Again.”

Peter gave her an odd half-smile that looked more like a strangled frown. “You’re weird.”

You’re weird.” She took another photo. “Dude, you just aren’t that photogenic.”

“That’s why I’m usually behind the camera,” he said, and then he took her phone from her. Darcy squawked, and lunged for it, but he stood and held it high over his head.

“Unfair! Tall person advantage!” She whacked at his chest. Hm. Surprisingly toned for a skinny dweeb. “Gimme my phone back.”

“Not until you promise not to take any more pictures of me.”

“What the hell is wrong with a few candid camera moments?” She scowled. “Jane gets fussy too. It’s stupid.”

“I don’t like having my picture taken, okay?” he said, and his voice tightened. Darcy froze, and blinked at him. “Can you just—stop?”

“Okay,” she said. She lowered her hands. “Okay. I’ll stop.”

Peter searched her face. Then he slapped her phone back into her palm. Darcy shoved it into her pocket, and clambered back up onto Tony Stark’s schmancy leather couch. Howl, she had learned, was declawed (blasphemy) so he couldn’t actually really mess anything up. Peter wasn’t allowed up to the sixtieth floor anyway. Because Avengers reasons. It was only after she’d erased one of the two photos (hey, everyone needed a record for posterity) and took a selfie of her with the cat that she finally said, “Sorry, bro.”

“It’s okay.” He pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes, like they ached. “So what are you even doing in the Tower, again?”

“Cracked some high-security intel with the help of my main man J. People turned kinda nasty over it. Then other people started trying to toss me over their shoulders like cavemen and get me to talk about it. Like, a lot.” She spread Howl’s toes. He gave her a filthy look, but allowed it. “So the tattered remnants of SHIELD, international iPod thieves, decided putting me here was the safest place. What about you? Are you one of the SHIELD uber-children that they’ve sworn not to tell anyone about?”

“Would you believe me if I said I was a very creative hobo?”

“No, that’s Tony Stark, so unless you’re his random lovechild—”

Somehow he managed to pull off looking totally offended and totally overjoyed at the thought, all at once. “No,” he said. “No, I—I’m not Tony Stark’s lovechild. I don’t think he’s the kind of person to have a lovechild.”

“Hm. You’re right, probably. Random bastards, sure, but I think he went and had a vasectomy in, like, the eighties, so unless you’re like thirty you wouldn’t be the product of his now long-dead swimmers.” She scratched Howl under the chin. “Which…doesn’t really answer my question.”

“Right.” He whacked the back of his head against the arm of his chair. “SHIELD wanted to borrow me for a week. They had some—assignment, they wanted me to do. And it’s, y’know, spring break. So I said I would. It, uh, kinda went a little longer than expected. Because of the whole Triskelion thing. And ‘cause I kinda pissed some people off.”

Darcy digested that for a long moment. “Like a gang, or something? SHIELD’s not really into babysitting so it’d have to be a gang or the Mafia or—wait, are you a HYDRA mole, or something? Wait, why the hell would a HYDRA mole be a teenager unless—you are part of SHIELD’s super-secret division of uber-children that they keep hidden from the general public and I have access to all your files, dude, don’t think you can pull one over on me—”

Peter’s eyes were getting bigger and bigger behind his glasses. “Slow down, Speedy Gonzalez. Or Lightning McQueen, but you don’t look like the hotrod type. And—and I’m not part of SHIELD, okay, I have way too much class to be a, a suit, or an agent, or whatever. No, I just, uh, ran into them while I was—outside a bar. And they decided to help. Now they like having me look at their machines sometimes. And, you know, fix things. If I can.”

“They decided to help,” she repeated.

Peter shrugged weakly. “It was their official Be A Good Samaritan day at the office?”

“I think if they had one of those Barton would actually have a hernia,” said Darcy, and Peter snorted. “Which reminds me, how do you know Barton and why does he want to kill you?”

“Who says—who says he wants to kill me? Why do you say that?”

“Uh, dude, you did. Like, two hours ago. Before you trounced me at Mario Kart because you’re on some kind of Luigi-patented steroids, I will get back at you one day. I’m like the queen of Mortal Kombat, I will trounce you. But yeah, how’d you get Katniss the Scottish Mirkwood elf all pissed at you?” She paused. “And I am so the hotrod type. You wanna quiz me about cars? I know my automobiles, mister. Don’t underestimate me because my bra’s a double D, or…whatever it is lately. I prefer not to remember. It’s a different size at every lingerie store I go to, it sucks.”

Peter choked, turned red, leaned back in his chair, and looked like he wanted to cry. Seriously, he was so much like Dr. Banner it was making her die a little inside. “Uh.” He coughed. “I, uh, think you…mixed some metaphors, there.”

“Answer the question, senor. I get impatient when I haven’t eaten.” Darcy heaved herself to her feet, and knocked Howl to the floor. “Wait, do you have food?”

“Yeah. Go ahead.” She was already on her way over to the fridge. Peter coughed, once. “We, uh. Met. Like, six months ago. At a bar. Outside a bar,” he added hastily, when she cocked her eyebrows in his direction. “Near Times Square, kinda. He shot some arrows at me ‘cause I called him Tweety Bird.”

Darcy, who had been drinking orange juice straight from the carton, choked and dribbled it all down the front of her sweater.

“He missed,” Peter added. “Intentionally. The arrows would’ve been harder to dodge if he’d been trying to hit me. I’ve actually been designing new ones for him. Maria gave me the assignment, she said Stark’s too busy. Don’t tell Barton.” Darcy was still choking. Peter sproinged to his feet—he was shaped exactly like a pipe cleaner, thin and bendy and sharp at the corners—but she waved him off.

“Jesus,” she said, once she could finally take a full breath. Her face really hurt. “If you made my cheek break open I’m gonna be mad.”

Peter kind of hunched into his shoulders a little bit, and scuffed his foot along the floor before taking the orange juice back from her and eyeing the smear of lipstick she’d left behind. “If you bled in my juice I’m never letting you onto my floor again.”

“Oh no, girl cooties. Careful, you might get infected.” She peered into the fridge again. There were a few boxes of pizza, a lot of apples, leftover meatloaf, three full jars of peanut butter and one jar that had maybe an inch at the bottom, four different kinds of milk, apple juice, cranberry juice, and a forest of take-away cartons from Chinese restaurants that looked as if they’d been organized by meat type. “Dude, are you feeding an army?”

“Kinda.” He shrugged and took a swallow of the orange juice, straight from the bottle. She didn’t have the heart to tell him he now had some of her lipstick smeared just to the right of his mouth. He needed colors that were more purple, she decided, eyeing it absently as she picked out a carton of barely-touched beef-and-broccoli. He could definitely rock some darker lipsticks than she could. “You tell JARVIS what you want and he has it ordered up. It’s actually kind of great.”

“You asked JARVIS for meatloaf?”

“Stop judging my food choices, freeloader.” He capped off the orange juice and put it back in the fridge before removing one of the peanut butter jars and three apples. “My aunt makes it a lot. I dunno.”  

“Ah.” She dug through the drawer for chopsticks. “So, the Tweety Bird thing—was what when SHIELD helped you out of the goodness of their heart?”

“Good Samaritan Day,” said Peter. “Yeah. I think. Yeah, it was. There’ve been a lot of, uh, things that have happened since then. Outside of bars, I mean.”

She eyed the bruise. “For someone who looks about twelve you sure seem to spend a lot of time hanging around outside bars.”

“Hey.” He spread his arms wide. “I live in Queens. Bars’re where the cool kids hang out.”

She grinned into her beef-and-broccoli.

“Miss Lewis,” said JARVIS. They both glanced up at the ceiling automatically. “Agent Hill and Agent Barton have requested your presence in the conference room on the sixty-eighth floor. I have also finished certain diagnostics on Operation Cupcake that I have been instructed to make you aware of.”

“Welp. That’s my cue.” Darcy dug her phone out of her pants pocket again, uploaded her photo of herself and Howl to Twitter (@darcethefarce: I am the actual queen of cats. Peter has nothing to do with it.) and then said, “Nice to meet a fellow inmate. I’ll tell Tweety you said hi.”

His lips twitched a little. “So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh.”

She snapped a cheery little salute. “I promise that when you die, I will avenge you in a spectacular fashion.”

“Thanks. I’d appreciate it.”

Darcy collected Howl, who had managed to cram himself in between the wall and the fridge. On the threshold of the elevator, she turned. “Parker,” she said. “If you don’t wipe off that lipstick before you Skype that really hot blonde you have as the background on your phone, she might get jealous.”

Peter dropped his apple and then caught it again. Darcy cackled as the elevator doors slid shut.

 She stopped on her own floor to change the bandages on her cheek (she tore the scab, but thankfully it wasn’t green or pussing, so she slapped some Neosporin and new gauze on it and called it a day) and put on a hat (to cover the snarls in her hair) and a non-orange-juice-covered sweater (for obvious reasons) before heading up to the sixty-eighth floor. She was pretty sure that this had been an R&D floor, back before Loki had gone apeshit and set a bunch of Star Wars extras on Manhattan; there were nooks and crannies in here that looked like they’d been meant for lab tables, and a lot of offices. JARVIS, bless his little binary soul, directed her to one of the conference rooms on the eastern side of the building, one that still smelled of fresh paint and industrial-strength plastic tarp. Still, there were two coffee machines set up at the far end of the room, and she scooted by Clint (who was nursing a mug of his own) to collect one of the cups labeled STARK INDUSTRIES and pretend that she hasn’t had six cups of coffee in just as many hours. Hill was at the head of the table, talking with someone on her Bluetooth in what sounded like either Korean or Vietnamese. Darcy hadn’t binged on enough K-dramas to be able to tell the two apart yet. She glanced from one end of the table to the other, and then dropped down into the spinny chair next to Clint.

“’sup.”

Clint eyed her over the rim of his mug, and then set it down. “There’s blood on your jaw.”

Darcy blinked at him, and put a hand up to her face. Her fingertips came away red. “Wait, really? Shit.”

At the other end of the table, Hill looked up, jerked her head at Clint, and then dove back to her conversation in Vietnamese.

“Shit,” Darcy said again, and started to stand, but Clint had already put down his coffee cup and gone to the table against the wall. He came back with a handful of napkins, one of which had been soaked in the pitcher of water someone very nice had set up next to the coffee machine.

“Sit,” he said, and Darcy blinked at him twice before she sat down again. Clint met her eyes, almost as if he was asking for permission, and then he reached up and peeled the fresh bandage off her cheek. His mouth twisted a little. “Looks worse than it did before.”

Darcy shrugged a little, because she hadn’t seen it before Dr. Banner had stuck a big Band-Aid over it. She didn’t really have any image for comparison. “Is it infected?”

“No.” He dabbed at the streaks of blood with the wet napkin, and then balled it up and tossed it onto the table. “You broke the scab.”

“Well, yeah, it was kind of stuck to the gauze ow-ow-ow-ow!”

“Sorry,” said Clint, not sounding sorry in the slightest, and set down the napkin that he’d just used to scrape all the Neosporin off her cheek onto the table too. She glared at him.

“You’re supposed to make it stop bleeding, not make it bleed more! Why are you taking out the Neosporin?”

“Because I have liquid stitches that’ll work better,” he said, and gave her cheek a considering look before heading over to a small bag she hadn’t noticed before and digging through it. Darcy was too stuck on the idea that Clint Barton just carried liquid stitches with him everywhere to really take in the fact that he was bending at the waist to get at it. (Except she really did notice because dat ass.) When he turned back to her, he arched an eyebrow. “What?”

“You’re weird,” she said. “I feel like this should be more unsettling than it is.”

“I’d say that about you, but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t care.” He took her face in his left hand and uncapped the liquid stitch thingy with his teeth, clenching his jaw a little to keep the lid from falling. “Hold still.”

The liquid stitches had some sort of antiseptic in them that made her want to cry. She kept absolutely still, ignoring the way her eyes were tearing up, and stared at Clint instead, because his face was like right there holy crap. She could make out the bump on the bridge of his nose where it’d been broken, his eyelashes were stupidly long—like, stupidly long—and his eyes had little flecks of gold and black in them that she could only see from this close. It was the strangest mixture of beautiful and not, and it made her guts twist. Okay, yes. SHIELD is completely out to kill me via sex-appeal induced heart-attacks.

“There,” Clint said after a moment, and let go of her. Darcy leaned as far back into her chair as she could without being obvious about it as he capped off the liquid stitches and gave the gauze an evaluatory look. “Wait until those dry a little bit before putting that back on, otherwise it’ll smear and you’ll hate life later.”

Darcy nodded. She couldn’t quite trust her voice at the moment. Her brain was still stuck on Clint Barton’s eyelashes. Hill said something, and then pressed her fingers to her Bluetooth, and unfolded from her chair, tapping the desktop twice. It flickered and turned transparent, blue light bubbling up from beneath the glass. “Lewis,” she said after a moment, flicking her fingers over the glass to open up something-or-other.

Darcy cleared her throat. “Uh, hi. JARVIS said y’all wanted me.”

Hill tapped her fingers on the table a few times, and then pinched the corners of a mugshot and pulled before flicking the zoomed-in photo to the center of the holotable. “Do you recognize this man?”

Darcy glanced at Clint—he was staring quite determinedly at the ceiling again, as if he could make out constellations—and then tugged the photo closer to herself. It was one of the men from the Pelican, the large one, the one that had tipped off Clint in the first place. She nodded. “Yeah. He was in the bar. Wait, you identified them all?”

“They were all in Interpol’s database.” Hill tapped the computer again. “That’s Ferdinand Lopez, a tech specialist in a merc band affiliated with a group known in the underground as Batroc’s Band. Lopez, though, worked in an offshoot group run by a man named Arthur Parks.”

Clint went very still.

Darcy cocked her head a little. “Wait, am I supposed to know who—I mean, who any of those people are? Seriously.”

“Georges Batroc is an Algerian who was recently hired by Nick Fury to expose HYDRA within the ranks of SHIELD,” Hill said in a clipped voice. “Arthur Parks, on the other hand, is an American. He was a captain in the US Marines until his dishonorable discharge in 2007 after serving in Afghanistan.” Photos of Parks in military fatigues outside of a big building covered in graffiti done in Arabic script. There were other pictures too, when she tapped at it—Kabul, Karachi, different parts of Syria, even a picture of him in Baghdad. “Then he went off the grid for three years. When he turned up again, he was a part of AIM’s security forces for one of their outposts in Argentina. He broke with them about two years ago, at which point he joined Batroc and his crew and was made a lieutenant in Batroc’s organization. He and his companions work out of Johannesburg, South Africa. The number of people in the group fluctuates depending on the reports, but it’s usually anywhere from six to twelve. There’re some big names, apparently.” She scrolled down the list. “Jacob Pollock, rogue general from Operation Desert Storm.  Alexander Gentry. Maximillian Zaran is a known terrorist from the UK, likes to work hand-to-hand. He does a lot of wetwork. Jacques Duquesne—”

“He likes cutting off fingers,” Clint added lightly, without looking away from the ceiling. Darcy stared very hard at her hands and ignored the way her belly churned.

Hill snapped to attention. “You know him?”

“We have a passing acquaintance,” said Clint, and cracked his knuckles.

Darcy wondered if Hill was actually going to pick up a knife and throw it at Clint. Then she shook herself a little, and continued. “Park’s been arrested four times in the six collective months he’s spent in the US since 2001, for everything from stalking to physical assault, so he usually keeps his head down and his nose clean while he’s on US soil. JARVIS tracked down a Swiss bank account affiliated with Parks and found a deposit of fifty-thousand dollars that had been routed through seventeen separate fictitious accounts about ten hours before Parks and company arrived in Malibu.”

Darcy wondered if the way her knees were quaking was normal. “Fifty—” her voice cracked. “Fifty thousand?”

“Just for Parks. We haven’t found any accounts associated with the others yet. It’s possible that he was supposed to distribute the fee amongst his gang once he managed to get his hands on the package, but unlikely.”

“So they have money to burn,” said Clint, as Darcy tightened her hands in her lap and tried to ignore the way her guts were churning. “Fifty thousand to one guy, that’s two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars just for the ones we took out in Malibu. Not a bad chunk of change.”

“Hey,” said Darcy in a shaky voice. She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “I’m worth at least three times that.”

The corners of Hill’s mouth turned up. She swiped her fingers across the screen, and a new bio appeared. “Unfortunately, most of our previous access to airport cameras, digital devices, et cetera, all of it’s been censored by the US government. I’ve been getting what I can by hacking into satellite imaging and our older face-recognition programs, the ones that the CIA stole, but it’s taking more time than I’d like.” She made a face, like it was a personal affront that the computers were being anything less than lightning-fast. “We should have more data on who Parks’ current teammates are and where they are in the next three hours.”

“If I might interrupt, Agent Hill,” said JARVIS, and as one, the three of them glanced up at the ceiling. She hadn’t met a single person, aside from Tony Stark, who didn’t do that where JARVIS was concerned. “I have been authorized by Sir to assist you in any way that I can. If you wish, I can expedite that search greatly.”

“Wait,” said Clint. “Stark told you to help us?”

“When I requested his opinion on the best course of action, Sir simply stated that I ‘do whatever,’ Agent Barton,” said JARVIS. “It is against my protocols to do anything other than take him at his word.”

Darcy let out a choking snort, and clapped a hand over her mouth. Clint grinned, and hid it behind his coffee mug again. Even Maria Hill looked like she wanted to laugh, but she quickly smoothed the expression out again, and glanced over at Darcy. “Parks and his team are famous for taking anonymous jobs. It’s more than likely that they themselves don’t even know who they’re working for. Until we track one of them down and confirm, you’re going to have to stay in the Tower.”

“I told Jane I’d be back in two days,” Darcy said, but Hill was already shaking her head.

“Best case scenario? Until the end of the week. Worst case, you could be here a while.” She paused. “Maybe your great-aunt could go into cardiac arrest and you have to deal with her estate.”

Darcy yelped. “You’re not killing my totally fictional great-aunt! Well, she’s not completely fictional, she’s just dead already and actually lived in Wichita, now that I think about it. But no. No killing of the fake Great-Aunt Bee. Not happening.”

Clint was definitely laughing. He was just doing it in a way that sounded more like a sneeze. Maria Hill pursed her lips.

“Fine. We’ll come up with something.” She narrowed her eyes a little. “I’m glad you find this amusing, Agent Barton, considering that as long as she’s here, you’re on guard duty.”

Clint stopped laughing. “You’re grounding me?”

“HYDRA still doesn’t seem to know you’re alive, I’d like to keep that information pretty strictly on a need-to-know basis until we have a better idea of what they’re doing. And don’t even start,” she added, before Clint could do more than open his mouth. “Technically, yes, SHIELD is dead, which means technically, yes, I am not your superior anymore, but I can still put you on your ass, and don’t think I won’t if you try to sneak out. You might not remember most of Budapest, but I do, and I know exactly where to jab you to make you numb for days.”

Clint closed his mouth again, slowly. Darcy licked her lips, and said, “Uh, Hill, don’t take this the wrong way, but I kind of just fell in love with you right there.”

Hill blinked twice, and then leaned back in her chair. “It’s been known to happen,” she said, very dryly. “Where are you in your reading, Lewis? I assume that you haven’t spent the past few hours just chatting with Parker.”

“Uh.” She scratched her cheek, and then yelped when she nearly caught the liquid stitches. “Well, yeah, kinda. But I was looking at a lot of it all last night, and to be honest, it’s kind of a piece of hay in a stack full of needles situation. You know? I don’t—I don’t think I’m gonna be able to figure out what they actually want until we have a better idea of, y’know, who they are and why they want to chain me up and beat me with wet noodles until I cry like a baby and give it all up.” She paused. “They’re not gonna chain me up, are they? Or cut off my fingers?”

“Not if we can help it,” Hill intoned, sounding remarkably Thor-like for some reason. “Stay on track, Lewis.”

“But tracks are dumb.”

Hill looked as though she wanted to roll her eyes but didn’t want to exert the effort. “Speaking of work—JARVIS, do we have an ID on the girl who broke through Stark’s protocols yet?”

There was a long moment of silence. Then JARVIS made a noise that was remarkably similar to someone clearing their throat.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “despite intensive searching, I still have no new information.”

Darcy blinked.

“What?” Hill frowned. “Not even SHIELD has anything on her?”

“No, Agent Hill.”

“What?” Darcy looked from Clint to Hill and back again. Clint wasn’t looking at the ceiling anymore—he and Hill were staring at each other like they were talking with their eyebrows, or something, because there seemed to be a whole conversation going on without either of them saying anything. Maybe it came with the territory of spydom. “But you guys are basically Big Brother. You have files on everyone. I’ve been crawling through them for days.”

“Exactly,” said Clint, when Hill rubbed her jaw and said nothing. “This is…kind of statistically impossible.”

“Would you like me to develop a statistical analysis of the matter, Agent Barton?”

Clint looked like he’d just swallowed a peach pit and shook his head wordlessly.

“I have been scanning all available audiovisual documentation, but have come up with nothing,” said JARVIS. “She quite clearly exists, but I can find no identification for her in any known government index. Nor can I find any documentation for her in regards to taxes, insurance, banks, registration (either voting, vehicular, or firearms). There are no birth certificates associated with her. I believe the colloquial phrase is that she is a ghost.”

“So she’s what, wiped herself from the world?” Darcy whistled. “That’s…pretty impressive. NGL.”

Hill made a very odd face. “What was her name?”

“According to her coding—”

“Skye,” said Darcy, talking over JARVIS. “J said her name was Skye.”

Hill’s lips parted. Then she went totally blank, like ceramic. Really hot ceramic, but still ceramic, nonetheless. Her lips were pursed. Darcy could practically see gears whirring behind her eyes. Judging by the way Clint suddenly shifted, putting himself into hunter mode, he could too. “Hill?” he asked, and cocked his head. “You wanna elaborate?”

“Can’t,” said Hill in a clipped voice, and shot to her feet. “Belay the investigation of Skye, JARVIS. She’s irrelevant.”

“She broke through Sir’s protocols,” said JARVIS. “According to my programming, I am required to do all that is possible to—”

Darcy squawked. “What do you mean she’s irrelevant? She’s—”

Not relevant at the current time,” said Hill, in the same way someone would say I am going to scalp you and pin it to my wall as a trophy. “I have to make a phone call.”

And with that, she shot out of her chair and left the room. Darcy caught Clint’s eye, and cocked an eyebrow in a question. He shrugged. “Rule one,” he said, levering himself out of the chair and seizing his mug of coffee. “Never question why Maria Hill does anything. Natasha taught her how to strangle people with her thighs.”

He saluted her with his mug and left the conference room, shutting the door quietly behind him. Darcy stared at the door, and then looked down at the holotable again. She drummed her fingers against the glass.

“So,” she said. “Open sesame, J. Let’s see what else you’ve managed to unlock.”


It was nearly ten PM and she’d just left her (totally orgasmic) guest-room shower when her phone went off. Darcy, who was standing stark nude in front of the body-length mirror (shallow much, Stark?) and towel-drying her hair, checked the Caller ID before she hit the accept call button. “I hope you know this can be constituted as sexual harassment. I am naked and in the bathroom right now.”

“You wouldn’t have answered if you didn’t want to talk to me, so shut up,” said Jane, but she let out a little sigh that might have been relief. “How was your trip?”

“Long and gross. The guy next to me was totally getting a boner by watching Orange is the New Black. I mean, I get a lady-boner watching that show, but whatever, at least it doesn’t tent my pants.” She bent forward so she could get at the little snarls at the nape of her neck with her fingers. “How’re things in Jane-land? I didn’t think you’d remember to call me until I was on my train back. Kinda touched, all things told.”

“Oh, shut up.” Jane pouted. “Intern Ivan is a spineless dweeb who doesn’t know a socket wrench from a screwdriver. You should come back. Your aunt’ll be out of the hospital soon, right?”

“Hopefully. Doctors said there might be complications though, and if there are, I’ll have to stick around, for the cats, if nothing else.” She wrapped her hair up in the towel again and straightened, seizing a second (enormous, purple, fluffy bathtowel) to wrap around the rest of her. “Her apartment’s a lot cooler than I remember. The IT guy next door set Aunty Bee up with WiFi and everything, so I get to surf the net and watch Netflix and do whatever. And she has a great collection of booze. How’s your sister, have they found her yet?”

Jane went quiet for a moment, and then said, “No. But I mean, there’re a lot of people being kept unconscious in the hospital, for, you know, head injuries—” her voice broke a little “—and things, and she never remembers her ID, so it’ll take a while. I can’t believe you asked Pepper Potts to track down my stupid sister.”

“Pepper Potts rules the world, Jane. If anyone’s going to be able to find your sister, it’s her.” She folded her towel firmly against her chest and marched down the hall, nearly tripping over one of the tabbies on her way out of the bathroom. “Jesus fuck, Dum. Don’t try to kill me.”

“Who?”

“Oh. Uh. My aunt has four cats? There’s Howl, and then Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, they’re tabbies. And then there’s Muta, she found him in a shelter or something and he won’t respond to anything else.” More like Darcy had a huge obsession with Studio Ghibli and stop judging. “He’s fucking enormous, he takes up more than half the bed. I think he’s part Maine Coone. I actually legit can’t tell if he’s heavier than Bruiser or not.”

“Jesus.” She heard a low rumble of Thor on the other end of the line. There was a muffled “Stop doing that!” from Jane, and then laughter. Darcy made a face.

“If he’s licking your neck or something right now, hang up. Jesus. I haven’t managed to get laid in months, Jane, you’re just torturing me.”

“He’s handing me a wrench, thank you very much,” said Jane grumpily. “Mind out of the gutter, please.”

“But the gutter is where I live, Jane.” She hit the speaker button on her phone and then tossed it on the bed, unzipping her backpack. All of her clothes were wrinkled, but no one here was actually going to give a fuck. Maybe she’d be able to order new ones or something? Peter had said something about JARVIS being willing to get basically anything.

“So that’s why you always smell like old bananas,” said Jane, and Darcy, who was halfway through hooking her bra together, squawked.

“Bitch. What have you eaten today?”

“Tacos,” said Jane automatically. “And some trail mix. And pretzels. And Thor made something Asgardian, I don’t remember what, but it was really good. I am eating, Darcy, I’m not as helpless as you seem to think I am.”

“When you’re being a rational human being, you can feed and dress and wash yourself a good sixty percent of the time, yes,” said Darcy, and fixed her bra before tugging her Brown Bird concert T-shirt over her head. “How’s Erik?”

“Fine,” said Jane, too quickly. “I mean, he’s been taking his pills. I think. And he hasn’t had another incident.”

“Has he come out of his office since I left?”

Jane was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Actually, I don’t know.”

And this is why A.S.S.H.A.T. has an executive assistant. “Jane, I need you to hang up on me and call him, and if he doesn’t pick up, you’re going to call the Stark Industries front desk and you’re going to get them to send Intern Todd up to Erik’s office to make sure he hasn’t built himself a chrysalis out of old academic papers, because I don’t actually know what kind of butterfly he’ll turn out to be.”

Jane blew a raspberry. “Erik isn’t that bad, Darcy.”

“Not until Loki McPsychopath fucked with his head, no,” said Darcy. “Now he’s like a million times worse than you, and that’s saying something.”

Jane grunted. Darcy pulled on a pair of pajama pants patterned with little arc reactors (she’d worn them around the office for three straight days during the first few months she and Jane had been in Malibu, because Tony Stark made a face that was half delighted, half constipated at the sight of them. Pepper loved them so much that she’d been able to ignore Darcy wearing PJs in an office building. For seventy-two hours, at least.) and said, “Jane, seriously. He’s your mentor-slash-father-figure, not mine. I shouldn’t be managing him, you should be.”

“I’m trying,” said Jane in a low voice. “You know I’m trying.”

“Yeah, I know.” She picked up the phone again, and took it off speaker, flopping back onto the bed. “So has anything blown up since I left?”

“Not really. I think there was a fire in the spectroscopy lab yesterday, but Intern Ivan took care of it.” There was the click of a keyboard. Jane must have left her Asgardian whatchamawhosit project in favor of internet junkyism. “Who’s Peter?”

“Neighbor.” Kind of. “He lives a few doors down. We ran into each other when I was—” hacking “—doing laundry in the basement. He’s a dork.”

“Oh?” Jane sounded sly. “How old is he?”

“Jane. He’s like, barely eighteen.”

“Cradle-robber.”

Ew.” She scratched Muta under his chin, and hissed when he tried to bite her. “You little fuck.”

“What?”

“Damn cat.” She rapped Muta hard on the top of the head, and he spat at her and wobbled out of her bedroom. Darcy lay flat on her back, and stuck her legs straight up into the air, spreading her toes wide. Her toenail polish was chipping. “Nearly bit me. Aunty Bee hasn’t worked with these little bastards at all.”

“I thought you couldn’t train cats.”

“Did I say train? I meant create a peace treaty with.” She sighed. “Seriously, Jane, call Erik for me. Please? And I’m not saying that just because of El Matador beach, okay? Erik was doing really well after London, and then he kind of regressed and it’s making me feel stupid things like concern and shit and it’s melting my image of iron, so check. Okay?”

Jane sighed. “Darcy Lewis,” she said, “you’re a marshmallow.”

“Thanks, Weevil. I gathered that on my own.” She made kissy noises at Dee. “Who’s a pretty kitty? Oh, hey, I have to go get the mail anyway. I’ll talk to you later, all right? Satisfied that I’m alive and still in possession of all of my limbs, et cetera?”

“Vaguely reassured, yes.” Jane hesitated. “I’ll call you later, okay?”

“’kay.” Darcy pursed her lips. “Lay one on Cut McBlondey for me, yeah? Have to get my kicks somehow.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Jane, and hung up on her. Darcy stared at her phone for a second or two before setting it on the bedside table (it was to the right of the bed, not the left, which she would have to fix) and staring at the ceiling.

“JARVIS, do you have eyes on Erik Selvig right now?”

“He’s currently in his office, Miss Lewis,” said JARVIS. “Would you like me to contact him for you?”

“Nah, it’s okay. I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t streaking on Hollywood Ave or something.” She rolled onto her side. “Anyone else around?”

“Agent Barton is downstairs in the shooting range, miss. Mr. Parker is currently in one of the forty-third floor laboratories. Agent Hill is on a Skype call with several individuals who appear to be Washington-based reporters. Was there anyone in particular you’d like to contact?”

“You don’t have to call them, or anything.” Darcy sat up. “Which floor is the shooting range on?”

“Sub-level four, Miss Lewis. As you have full access to the entirety of the building, your fingerprint scans will take you there.”

“Cool.”

Sub-level four had to be underneath the parking garage, and at least half-again its size. And it wasn’t just a shooting range, she realized—there was a gym, too, and a mat for gymnastics (or martial arts). There was even a ballet bar, off in a separate room, the wood polished so fine that the whole place smelled of lemons. The shooting range was at the far end, behind two closed doors, and when she finally set her palm against the little scanner and the lock clicked, she was wondering if she really ought to just go back upstairs and bother Peter.

Then she caught sight of the room, and her lips parted.

It was like—she wasn’t quite sure what it was like. Platforms of all heights and types, some sticking just straight out of the walls like little rimless balconies, others formed like staircases for giants, all of them painted in different shades of green and brown. Earthy tones, she realized. Like camo fatigues. There was a small screen laid into the wall by the door into the shooting range which was set to hostiles, and on the other side of the glass (there was a little glass room on the other side of the door, like a decontamination chamber) she could see holograms hiding behind strategically placed blockades, which lifted and fell from the floor like mechanical rocks. As she watched, an arrow whizzed through the head of a golden hologram to stick in the floor, and it exploded in a shattering of light.

It was only after the holograms had all been decimated that the lock on the second door buzzed, and let her through. Probably because of arrows, she reasoned. She hadn’t quite picked out where Clint actually was, even after he’d shot like thirteen holos. He kept shifting position, and it had been just dark enough inside the range that she hadn’t been able to make out real, human movement.

Now, of course, the walls and floors had retracted into themselves again. It was just a big, empty room, no platforms, no cover, and no holograms. Clint was going around to collect his arrows, tugging them from the floor or the walls without a word. “Yo,” she said. “Tweety.”

He said nothing.

Darcy blinked, and shifted closer. Maybe he had headphones on or something? She’d heard snipers did that sometimes, listened to music, just because it kept their minds settled and their limbs still. She jogged over to the only bit of furniture that was still standing (a bench, where Clint had left his quiver) and tapped his shoulder with two fingers. “Hey, Tweety Bird—”

There was an arrowhead in her face before she could finish the sentence. Darcy scrambled backward, tripped over her own feet, and landed on her ass. “Son of a bitch! What the fuck, Barton!”

“Darcy,” Clint said, and swore under his breath, setting his bow and the arrow down on the bench. “Jesus. Sorry. You startled me.”

“I called your name for like five minutes!” Okay, more like thirty seconds, but whatever. Darcy rubbed her hip—she’d whacked it on the bench on the way down and it was throbbing. “Ow. Did you seriously not hear me? What kind of messed-up chill pill did you take to make your Zen mode that good?”

He reached up to his ears, and pressed something she couldn’t see. Tiny earbuds, maybe. Super-spy earbuds. “I was listening to music.”

So she’d been right. “Loud music.”

“Jesus,” said Clint again, and then he put his hand down. He was wearing a forearm guard—to keep the bowstring from tearing off skin?—but other than that his arm was bare. Darcy looked up at him for a moment, and then caught his hand. His palm was callused, and there was a bruise on the inside of his upper arm about the size of her whole hand. Before she could do more than shift her weight, he’d pulled her to her feet and let go.

“What’s the bruise from?” she asked. Clint shrugged.

“One of the guys at the Pelican managed to whack me. Doesn’t matter.” It does matter, she thought, because that bruise was the size of her fucking face—wait, the hand with fingers spread was the same size as a face, right?—but when she opened her mouth to comment, he said, “What’re you doing down here? Did you find something?”

Oh. Right. Excuses. “Did you have any idea how much shady stuff SHIELD was involved in? Who the fuck knows what these people want me for. I mean, take your pick—you have all of those Level Ten files—well, probably not those, since more than half of those are sealed so tight even JARVIS can’t get into them, and the rest are kept explicitly analog so no one can access them digitally—you have the Initiative, you have a bunch of things labeled 084 which I still haven’t found a definition for but I assume means something super-powerful or super-bad or both—”

“084 is the classification for objects not of this earth,” Clint said absently, dropping down onto the bench and propping his chin in one hand. Darcy pushed her glasses up her nose.

“What, like—UFOs?”

“We’ve never found an intact UFO so far as I’m aware.” He paused. “Thor’s hammer was an 084, if that helps.”

The world went a bit fuzzy around the edges, but she kept her balance. Maybe she was getting better at this whole the universe is bigger than you know thing. “Okay then, Mulder. Anyway, we have those, we have like a million files on basically every major political leader in the last ever—some super interesting stuff on Putin and his utter lack of human rights by the way, some of that should probably be brought to the attention of the media—and then obviously we have TAHITI, which apparently brings the dead back to life—I mean, take your pick. They could want anything.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “And according to JARVIS nobody’s been able to track down who hired the Pelican goons yet, so we don’t have any leads to figure any of that out.”

Clint rocked his chin in his hand. Darcy hesitated, and then took the spot next to him on the bench, close enough that their shoulders brushed, far enough away that it was always accidentally. The range was empty except for the two of them (and JARVIS, but JARVIS was basically Big Brother. Well, the nice Big Brother, not the creepy 1984 Big Brother) and her every movement seemed to echo, like they were sitting in a canyon. “So,” she said, after a moment. “This is me, hoping you have some information to give me. Otherwise I’m just sitting on a bunch of landmines. Or…something equally unsettling.”

“Corpses,” Clint said, after a moment.

“Wait, what?”

“Something equally unsettling,” he said. “Corpses. Or live wires.” He paused. “Maybe hot coals.”

Darcy wrinkled her nose. “Venomous snakes. Adders, or something. Like how Cleopatra offed it. Or funnel web spiders.”

Clint’s eyes narrowed. Darcy drew one knee up to her chest, and narrowed her eyes right back. That’s right, dude, she thought. This is on like Donkey Kong.

“Severed limbs,” he said.

“Rotten Big Macs.”

“C4.”

“Blood.”

“Syringes.”

Used syringes.”

“Hitler’s brains.”

“Hulk Hogan. Jerking off.”

His lips twitched. “Used condoms. Ones that haven’t been tied off.”

“Fresh animal skin.”

“Tony Stark. While naked.”

Darcy sniffed, and said, “Lap of a porno Santa.”

Clint’s forehead wrinkled. He leaned back, and looked at her down his nose. “That,” he said, “is actually horrific, Lewis.”

She grinned at him, and waggled her eyebrows. “Dude, I was a den mother to a bunch of teenage boys when I was in high school. Well, what should’ve been high school. This shit is my jam.”

“You are actually six years old.”

“Hey, you started it. That makes you the six-year-old.” She tucked her hair behind her ears. “Welcome to first grade, Barton.”

“I remember first grade being a lot more harassment-free than this.”

“What kind of elementary school did you go to? Was it part of the Shangri-La school district or something? Because I remember all my fellow first graders being shits of the highest order.” She rested her chin on her knee, and closed her eyes. Her glasses were pushing hard into the bridge of her nose. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Is it about elementary school?”

“Har-de-har.” Next to her, he shifted, and then rolled to his feet again. She could hear his boots scuffing against the floor. “What were you doing in Mexico City?”

He went still for a moment. Then there was a tinny sound, metal on concrete. “You could just look it up,” he said. “It’s probably in my personnel file. You have access to that if you want.”

She felt herself flush. “Well,” she said. “Yeah. But—but that’s private, y’know? Everyone has the right to secrets. Especially super-spies.” When she opened her eyes, Clint was watching her. His eyebrows had snapped together. Darcy lifted both eyebrows. “Besides,” she added. “You can kill me with a ballpoint pen. Femoral artery, remember?”

He barked out a laugh, and slid an arrow home in the quiver on his back. The bruise on his arm stood out like purple paint. After a moment, he said, “Deep cover op. Infiltrating a drug cartel that was secretly funding experimentation with recreating the super soldier serum. Run by a man named Phillip Merritt.” He paused. “They were conducting human testing.”

Darcy folded her hands between her thigh and her gut. Her stomach hurt, for some reason. “Oh,” she said, and even when they’d been in the Pelican and he’d shot five people, her voice had never been quite so small. “Were you—were you there to get them out?”

After an even longer pause, Clint said, “Primary objective was ending the research. Secondary was eliminating Merritt and, if possible, the cartel. Helping the hostages was tertiary.”

She wanted to choke. “But you did, right?”

He rolled an arrow shaft between his fingers without looking at her. “I would have,” he said. “If I hadn’t been pulled out early.”

So that meant they were still there. Darcy clenched her hands into fists and squeezed her eyes shut again. “Oh,” she said. She couldn’t quite think of anything else she could say. She felt kind of numb, all things considered. “Okay.”

There was a sudden huffing breath from a few feet away from her. Then she heard his bootsteps coming closer, and a hand landed hard on her shoulder. “Lewis,” he said. “I didn’t tell you to send you into a depressive episode.”

“I’m not depressed,” she snapped back. His palm was heavy and warm on her shoulder. “It’s just—HYDRA fucked up a lot. Like my life. And your op. And—a lot. They’re a big bag of dicks. That’s all.”

His fingers tightened. Then he patted her back, awkwardly, and pulled away. “Hey,” he said. “You know how to shoot a gun?”

Darcy lifted her head from her knee and blinked at him, owlishly. “Not—really? I mean, I shot a rifle once, when I was in New Mexico, before all you pendejos showed up. But other than that—where are you going?”

“To get you a gun,” he called, lifting a hand without looking back. “If you’re gonna be stuck in the Tower, you should at least know how to shoot.”

“What about your bow?” she shouted back.

Clint glanced at her over his shoulder, and fucking winked. “Sweetheart,” he said, “you’re about ten years too young to even touch this bow.”

She gaped. Her mouth opened, and closed. Then it opened again. “I’m twenty-seven, you dick!”

He flicked her a two finger salute as the elevator doors slid shut.

Chapter Text

For the next three days, things settled into a routine.

Well, routine was pushing it a bit, Darcy thought, only half paying attention to the TV screen as Peter snarled under his breath at Raz. It was more a vague approximation of a schedule that had more to do with the sheer incapability of all those who lived in the tower to keep regular sleeping habits. College and old jobs had trained Darcy into staying up to all hours of the night even when she could sleep, Peter didn’t seem to sleep more than a few hours at a time, Hill was barely ever in the tower for more than five minutes at once, and Clint…well, who knew about Clint. Considering the amount of coffee the dude seemed to go through, she was favoring the insomniac-and-loving-it theory.

Anyway, since none of them actually slept, Darcy had worked out a system. Midnight breakfast on Peter’s floor (because while the rest of them could use the communal kitchen, Peter was stuck on Floor 42), which involved every breakfast food that she could possibly come up with and then some. She taught herself how to make beignets and waffles from scratch instead of just Eggos out of a freezer, and some sort of omelet thing that Peter barely even seemed to taste because he ate them so fast. Clint showed up on the second night, and was called Tweety Bird 94 times for his trouble.

(He also showed up the next night, so it probably hadn’t bothered him too much, but he’d still been very vehement about challenging Peter to an arm-wrestling match. Peter had refused, on account of “dude, you’ll—you’ll break my arm off, no, I won’t do that” and Clint for some reason had said “Please, I’d have better luck bending an iron rod” and Peter had said “actually no you will break my arm off because your bicep is like three times the size of mine.” Clint had had an obnoxious grin on his face for the rest of the night that Darcy had had to avoid looking at because bitch, please, I only have so much self-control.)

Midnight breakfast was followed shooting practice, because by that time Darcy had had some coffee in her and could be trusted not to misfire and hit herself in the foot. In spite of all expectations, Clint Barton was actually more than a half-decent teacher. He griped about her deficiencies, but he did it in a nice way, and he talked just as much shit about himself, so it made her feel better. (Even if she did have the song Hot for Teacher playing in the back of her head most of the time because her brain was capital-S stupid.) It turned out that she wasn’t actually that bad of a shot, even if she was having trouble remembering to breathe out just before pulling the trigger. Clint had already mentioned graduating her to a sniper rifle at some point in the distant future, if she could hit center mass six times in a row, and though to be frank Darcy wasn’t quite sure how she felt about learning to use a weapon that had been explicitly designed for long-distance murder (handguns could be rationalized as self-defense, obviously) she took the compliment.

At least, she thought it was a compliment.

After at least three hours of target practice, they went back upstairs, and Clint would vanish. It wasn’t that he didn’t say bye, because he did; he just gave her another one of those dumb salutes and then would disappear until midnight breakfast again. Maria hadn’t called them to a meeting since that first, so she usually didn’t see him for the rest of the day.

This did not bother her. At all. Really.

At that point, it was about six AM, so Darcy would call upon her knight in coded armor and they would go crawling through the SHIELD files again. JARVIS had a now very impressive list of those who could have been and probably were affiliated with HYDRA, especially considering the number of MIA SHIELD agents who hadn’t reported in after the collapse of the Triskelion. Darcy let out a breath when the name Melinda Qiaolian May cropped up on the cleared list—May had been her favorite agent to annoy in Tromso, and she honestly couldn’t imagine the woman being anything other than absolutely loyal to SHIELD, in her own juggernautian way. The universe seemed to have smelled weakness, though, because within the hour four more names she recognized (people who had given her NDAs, chatted with her in a New Mexico café, ferried her and Jane to Tromso, brought her back into the US) came up on the list of the guilty.

They weren’t just ferreting out HYDRA agents, though. JARVIS had developed a program that would search through SHIELD files for keywords and phrases that could be labeled as dangerous, or those that had affiliations with mercenary groups, and kept sending them her way to see if they could be any use. The search for TAHITI, too, was building speed. The only thing that had been mentioned about the subject of the experiment was that he was male, and between forty-five and fifty-five years of age. It still meant they had hundreds of profiles to work with, but hundreds was better than thousands.

In spite of what Hill had said, she spent at least twenty minutes a day looking into the conundrum that was Skye of the Rising Tide. She’d found at least thirteen traffic cam shots of the woman all over the world, living in a style that was far beyond anyone who at last glance had been a bit hacker who had been uploading scrambled webcasts to people on gray-hat messageboards. Not only that, but a few of the people she’d been photographed with were…not exactly hackers. The only one she’d managed to get a clear shot of was a SHIELD agent named Leo Fitz, a Scot who had graduated the science academy with flying colors and was posted full-time on a moving base called 616. The rest of his file was classified at Fury’s level of encryption, and though JARVIS was doing a damn good job of rewriting all the protocols, it still wasn’t going as quickly as Darcy would have liked. Especially considering she now had evidence of a SHIELD agent working with a known hacker, and that screamed HYDRA to her even more than Jasper Sitwell’s lunch dates with Senator Stern.

Seriously, if you were going to fraternize with the enemy, don’t bring your lunch checks back to the SHIELD financial offices to be written up into an expense report. It was just sloppy.

At this point, Darcy would crash on the enormous bed in the purple guest room. If she did fall asleep, she’d wake up at about noon. If she didn’t, then she’d drag herself out of the guest room again, make more coffee, and shower until her skin stung from the hot water before calling Jane. There was still no news about Jane’s sister, from either Jane’s end or Pepper’s (she would ask JARVIS, who would ask Pepper, because she was still too fucking intimidated by Pepper Potts to feel comfortable calling her up out of the blue to ask about her ex-boss’s missing sister). At that point, she’d get an update on Captain America (healing quickly, thanks to his super-soldier thing) and other news from both Malibu and DC before settling herself in for another six hours of work, this time on Batroc’s Band. She’d already compiled three complete profiles for the men who were known to be working with Georges Batroc (ones that Clint hadn’t already killed because as much as they needed to know the contents of those bank accounts, she’d rather not look at pictures of men who’d been shot right in front of her) and had forwarded them to Hill.

She’d also looked up Jacques Duquesne, AKA the Swordsman, and had spent more time than she’d wanted to admit considering how a guy like this could possibly be connected to an Avenger.

Then, of course, there was hanging out with Peter (who was getting better about asking her down to the forty-second floor; she had the feeling that he was lonelier than he wanted to admit, both in the Tower and out of it) which usually involved shouting at bad movies or swearing at video games.

Case in point.

“Dude,” she said, jumping back into herself at the same moment that Peter’s on-screen incarnation was knocked out of the street by a rampaging bull. “You jump. You’re not supposed to go in the street, the bull will get you.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Peter said, but he sounded more amused than anything. She’d downloaded Psychonauts on the PS3 her first sleepless night, and had regarded it as her solemn duty to make sure that Peter Parker had been introduced to the wonders of it before he left the Tower. At this point, his departure had not yet been mentioned, but his spring break was probably way over by now. He couldn’t exactly hang around the Tower forever, no matter what sort of trouble he’d managed to get himself into. Darcy made a face at him, set her bare foot against the back of his shoulder, and shoved.

“Ow.”

“I hope you’ve learned your lesson here today, young man,” she said, sniffing, and Peter grinned at her.

“Yes, I have. Shooting things is fun and useful.”

She shoved him again, but she laughed anyway. Peter checked his phone (Gwen had texted again; her picture flared up on screen whenever she sent him a message) and he usually took a long-ass time picking out whatever he wanted to say back, so Darcy leaned down and stole the controller from him, piloting Raz through the cyclical road and up onto a balcony so that he couldn’t be blasted into the sky by a rabid bull. Peter flapped a hand at her without looking up from his phone, humming under his breath. His black eye had healed almost completely by now; there was a slight rim of yellow around the socket, but she could only see it if she searched for it. Her cheek, though, was not nearly so lucky. The liquid stitches had helped a lot, but it still looked like hell, and Dr. Banner was right—she was going to get one hell of a badass scar out of it. Her mother would kill her if she ever saw it.

“So I heard Captain America’s getting better,” he said after he’d sent off the text. He didn’t ask for the controller back, so Darcy just kept playing.

“Yeah. I mean, that’s what JARVIS says. All his bullet wounds have sealed up and everything. He’s gonna be released soon, once the bones set.” She paused, and looked at him. “Wait, why are you asking me?”

He shrugged. “You showed up with an Avenger. I figured you’d know. And—” Unexpectedly, he flushed a little. “Uh. Never mind.”

“What?” She poked him with her toe again, and Peter rocked away into her foot automatically, like he was used to being shoved around. Darcy tucked her foot under her ass again, feeling abruptly guilty. “Come on, spill. Do you have a crush on him or something?”

“No.” He flushed even redder. “God. I mean—not—not that that’s a bad thing, or something, but—I mean—I just…I grew up in Queens, okay? It’s not Brooklyn or anything, but there are a lot of Captain America statues in the area, and when I was a kid I was…kinda scrawny and little. So…um.”

“He’s your hero.” Darcy fought off the urge to pinch his cheek, because that was both rude and kind of super-condescending. She grinned instead. “That’s so cute, Parker. Did you have Captain America action figures when you were little?”

He sputtered. Then he pressed his lips tight together, and said, “Maybe.”

“Oh my god you did.”

“Maybe.”

“Did you get the whole Howling Commando set?” He hunched down deeper into his shoulders, and she pushed harder. “Did you have Captain America bedsheets?”

“I refuse to respond to that,” he said, and took the controller back from her before unbending. “Move over. The floor is cold.”

“The couch is yours,” she said, and clambered over the back of it. “I need to pee.”

“Thanks for that bit of info.”

“You’re so welcome, munchkin,” she said, and Peter flipped her off before diving back into Black Velvetopia.

Darcy shut the bathroom door behind her, and let out a shuddering breath before knocking her head against the wall. She had never really been one to leave the house, even before she’d gone to college, but this was different. There was a difference, she told herself, between staying inside because of a Netflix marathon and staying inside because she might be kidnapped if she left the building. Even if her search had turned up absolutely no evidence of Batroc’s Band anywhere within a hundred miles of Manhattan, there was no way for any of them to tell whether or not other groups had been contracted. There was only so much JARVIS could do, and they’d been folding the law into origami for days now without success. There were only so many CCTV camera archives they could hack into without the CIA or the FBI noticing something, after all, even if the CIA and the FBI were way behind the ball, covert intelligence-wise.

Stupid government. Stupid SHIELD. Stupid HYDRA. Stupid world, she thought, sourly, and kicked the wall.

Okay. In the privacy of the bathroom, she could admit it. Darcy was kickass at a lot of things (research, crisis management, strip poker) but the whole track-a-mercenary-gang-down-before-they-find-you thing? Totally not on her list of pre-graduation accomplishments. She rubbed her hands up into her hair, twisting it up into a bun and sticking the pencil behind her ear into the knot to hold it up before washing her face. Surprisingly, considering the whole minor thing, Peter was pretty good at keeping clean towels by the bathroom sink. She peed, washed her hands, and then stared at her face in the mirror, pinching her cheeks a little in an attempt to offset the thick black circles under her eyes. She was a fucking raccoon. She hadn’t looked this bad since the night before her senior thesis was due.

“Get a grip, Darcy Anne Lewis,” she told her reflection. “You survived living next door to a crack house for six months. You can handle this.”

Her reflection looked singularly unimpressed.

There was a ping from the ceiling, a soft electrical trill that JARVIS liked to use so he didn’t startle people. Darcy sighed, and pulled her hair out of the bun again. “What, J?”

“Agent Barton is asking for you, Miss Lewis,” he said, and Darcy blinked and glanced up at the ceiling. “Mr. Parker has met him at the door.”

In a singularly teenage moment, her guts twisted uncomfortably. Darcy gave her stomach a stern look, and then glanced at the ceiling again. “Did he say what he wanted?”

“He has not indicated one way or another his purpose here,” said JARVIS.

Darcy glanced at her reflection one last her time (still raccoon-eyed, still zombie-pale, still gross) and sighed. She unlocked the door.

For once, Peter and Clint actually looked like they were getting along. Well, they didn’t look like they were snarking at each other, anyway. They were talking in low voices, and shut up the instant she opened the bathroom door. She lifted both eyebrows, and came to join them.

“Talking secrets, boys? Not fair. If we’re starting a Gossip Girl page I call dibs on the paparazzi pics.”

To her surprise, it was Clint, and not Peter, who snorted at that one. His amusement faded quickly, though. He looked like hell too, she realized—his hair was scruffier than usual, and he hadn’t shaved yet today. Usually he at least made an effort to not look like he’d rolled out of an alleyway garbage bag. “Lewis,” he said, and she blinked again, because since when had he stopped calling her Darcy? “You heard from Stark about the whole winter soldier thing, right?”

“I’ve been looking in SHIELD files for mentions of him, but he only crops up in really old case files.” Well, aside from one incident report filed by the Black Widow, but he’d mostly been stowed in files dated before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. (SHIELD had pulled a lot of shit in the Cold War. There was a tickling notion in the back of her mind that maybe she could use all this for a Ph.D. dissertation on surveillance ethics.) “Other than that, not really. Why?”

“I just heard from Nat,” he said, in a low voice. Peter looked from Darcy to Clint and back again, chewing his lower lip. “Apparently we have an identity for the soldier.”

“Uh.” Peter shifted up onto the balls of his feet. “Maybe—maybe I should be somewhere…else. For this conversation.”

Clint turned to look him.

“Maybe?” Peter repeated weakly.

“No,” said Clint. “You stay here.”

Darcy blinked. “Clint,” she said, and Clint jerked his head into a no.

“It’s fine,” he said. “He can hear it.” He met Darcy’s eyes again. “The Winter Soldier—” and she could hear the capitalizations now, Winter Soldier instead of winter soldier “—is Bucky Barnes.”

It doesn’t click, for a moment. Then she gets an image, very suddenly, from her high school history textbook. They’d started a section on World War Two the week before she’d dropped out and run away to Atlanta, and the very first page of the chapter on WWII had been a rare image of Steve Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes in uniform, grinning into the camera like there was nothing to be scared of. Bucky Barnes had been her history crush when she’d been a kid, all dark hair and piercing eyes and that excellent, excellent jaw. The idea that he was—was alive, first of all, and secondarily an assassin that was practically mythological, simply did not compute. She stared Clint for a second, and then licked her lips. “Bullshit.”

“Not bullshit,” Clint replied. “Nat saw his face. Rogers saw his face. Rogers said it was Bucky, and if anyone’s going to be right about it, it’s going to be Rogers.”

“Um,” said Peter, but they both ignored him.

“Shit.” Darcy pinched the bridge of her nose. “I mean, I’ve never met Steve—Rogers—Captain America, I guess. But shit.”

Clint grunted, and scowled at Peter. “You have coffee?”

“Oh. Uh.” Peter gestured towards the kitchen. “I—I think? I mean, I don’t drink coffee all that often, so I don’t actually know, but I smell it, so—”

“We have coffee,” said Darcy, and turned on her heel to march into the kitchen. “But if you try to drink it straight out of the pot again, Barton, your kitchen privileges are revoked.”

Clint didn’t seem to hear her. He trailed after her, and settled on one of the barstools by the kitchen counter as she smacked a mug down for both of them. Peter perched on the other end of the counter, pushing his glasses up his nose nervously, not saying a word. Abruptly, she wished that the forty-second floor had booze. “Jesus,” she said under her breath, and Clint grunted.

She’d drained her mug and poured herself another one before she finally spoke again. “Why’d you tell me? You could have just asked JARVIS to mention it.”

“Made me think,” said Clint after a moment. He eyed the coffeepot, and then grabbed a sugar packet off of the little bowl on the table and started playing with it, waggling it between his first and middle fingers. Darcy stared at his hand for a moment, and then realized she was thinking about what it would feel like on her hip, and fought off the urge to smack herself. “Maybe we can get you out of here earlier than Hill expects.”

“Really?” Darcy frowned. “But I thought—we haven’t really found anything on the others. And we found the depositing account, but it was a dummy name, not even JARVIS was able to track it down. What does the Winter Soldier—” she bit her lip. “What does Bucky Barnes—”

“HYDRA was in the shadows until Rogers started messing in their playground,” said Clint. “It’s why they called the Winter Soldier in in the first place. Rogers and Fury—” his lips pressed into a thin line “—found out something that they weren’t supposed to, and they had to be dealt with. Sound familiar?”

Darcy closed her hands tight around her coffee mug, and glanced once at Peter. “That’s so reassuring.”

“Obviously it didn’t work out too well for HYDRA,” Clint continued. “Kinda tends to happen that way when you go up against Captain America. But they didn’t really fail until they overstretched themselves, tried to take an opportunity that they didn’t actually have.”

A deeply unsettled feeling was building in Darcy’s guts. It felt like oh hell no and oh Jesus I’m gonna die and what the fuck Barton all mixed together. She swallowed hard. “You’re saying we should give them a fake opportunity.”

“I’m saying that we’re not getting anywhere with them underground like this, and that we should…give them an incentive.”

“I thought you were the one who was intent on getting me out of the line of fire.”

“Well,” he said. “I haven’t changed my mind about that. But I’m also not willing to sit around and wait for them to sniff at the door. And you’re not either.”

Darcy sipped at her coffee. “I’m not?”

“You’re not.” He paused. “And we all know it.”

Darcy stared at him. Clint stared back. Then she sighed, deeply, and rested her hips against the counter. “Okay,” she said. “What’s the plan?”

“We draw their attention,” he said. “Post some photos on Facebook, get your name out in public. I’ve already told some buddies of mine that I’m heading to Monaco tomorrow, so they’ll think I’m out of the way and you’ve messed up.” Clint scratched at the underside of his jaw. “They might not be stupid enough to fall for it, but I doubt it. They were sloppy once. They’ll be sloppy again.”

“So I assume you’re…not going to Monaco.”

“No, I’ll be tailing you. You’ll be monitored the whole time. By both of us,” he added, casting a sideways glance at Peter, who flinched like he’d just been stuck with a cattle prod. Darcy looked from one of them to the other, frowning.

“Care to explain?”

“Parker here’s a mutant,” said Clint, jerking his thumb at Peter. “He can take care of himself.”

“I—” Peter started, and then shut his mouth tight, giving Clint a look that Darcy couldn’t translate. He glanced uneasily at Darcy. “Yeah. That’s me. X-gene, entirely present and accounted for. Sorry I didn’t say anything.”

She shook her head. “Frankly, mutant bombs are by far the lowest item on my list of things to be shocked about right now. Way to out him, bee-tee-dubs,” she added to Clint. “Some people like to be private about that stuff.”

“It’s okay,” said Peter, before Clint could say anything. “I should have, you know, explained. Earlier. Maybe.” He gave Clint another glance—a warning, maybe? A question?—and then he draped his arms and shoulders on the kitchen counter, knocking his forehead against the tile. “Don’t like talking about it, that’s all.”

“’scool, dude,” said Darcy, and patted his hand consolingly. “My mom didn’t take it too well when I told her I was bi, but I’m guessing the whole mutant thing is way worse, ‘rents-wise.”

Both Clint and Peter goggled at her. Then Peter grinned, ducking his head a little, and said, “Gwen would really like you.”

“I’ll friend her on Facebook,” said Darcy, and looked back at Clint. He was blinking at her with a wide-eyed, owlish look, as if he’d just been smacked over the head with a crowbar. Her eyes narrowed. “Barton? You a hundred percent there?”

“What?” He stared at her for a moment, and then shook himself. “Yeah. I’m fine. Sorry. Anyway,” he added, returning to whatever GI Joe mood that seemed to have caught him by the balls, “it’s a calculated risk. If we show off where you are—out of range of Dr. Foster, obviously, since she’s been kept in the dark so far—Batroc and his group might come knocking.”

“I can block her and Thor from the Facebook post, that’s no problem. But—”Her brow furrowed. “I thought that Batroc was in prison.”

“Escaped. During the HYDRA uprising.” Clint lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “We think he went back to Algeria, but no dice in trying to locate him. He’s gone ghost.”

Peter started humming the Danny Phantom theme under his breath.

“So, what happens if the Facebook thing doesn’t work? Do we put up a billboard? Darcy Lewis is on this floor of the Avengers Tower, have at me, cowards?

“Nothing quite that obvious, but sure, if that floats your boat.” Clint smirked at her over the rim of his coffee mug, and she fought off the urge to kick him. “Nah, I figured I’d call in a few favors. If you get seen around the city, word will trickle back to Batroc’s Band, and someone will have to come up here sniffing. JARVIS’s willing to keep an eye on all the airports and train stations, aren’t you, J?”

“As far as is ethical, Agent Barton,” said JARVIS. “The use of SHIELD protocols in our search is already stretching very thin at my integrities programming.”

“And you say you’re a child of Tony Stark,” said Darcy.

JARVIS made a noise that could have been a huff. “I am the product of Sir’s mind, not of his genetic material. I have not inherited his unfortunate tendency to break rules simply for the fun of it.” He paused. “I merely bend them.”

Clint snorted.

“Okay, one thing I have a problem with.” Darcy jerked her head at Peter. “He’s hiding out here too, isn’t he? I’m not getting him involved in this. I can wander around on my own once or twice. I can defend myself, and I can get a new taser from JARVIS—you can do that, right, J?”

“Taser?” said Peter, perking up a bit. “Wait, what kind?”

“You will have one by tomorrow at nine, Miss Lewis, though I feel obliged to remind you that they are prohibited by law in the state of New York.”

“Fuck that, I’m a government asset.”

“Do you have a product preference, Miss Lewis, or will I order the model you had previously?”

“That’d be great, J, thanks.”

“In answer to your question, Mr. Parker, we will be obtaining the Taser C2 CEW, which is remarkably compact and has the ability to take down an aggressor from fifteen feet away.”

Peter’s eyes glowed. “Can I play with it?”

Since when was she a den mother again? “Not if you’re going to electrocute yourself, you can’t.”

“I can mod it, maybe.” Peter gave her a pouty look. “Please? I’ve never messed around with the insides of a taser before, and I’ve worked with way weirder things.”

She thought of the Stark modified taser she’d had to leave behind in Malibu, and sighed. “Yeah, sure. Go for it. You get first dibs.”

Peter cheered.

She glanced at Clint. “Maybe you can wander around with me? Instead of getting Peter in trouble?”

“Parker can handle it,” said Clint placidly. “Besides, these people know my face by now. Parker’s an unknown, for the most part, and he looks like he keeps his nose clean. He’s not an obvious bodyguard. Suits us.”

“Is that what I’m gonna be?” said Peter. “A bodyguard?”

“Bodyguard, watchdog, playdate.” Clint set his mug down. “Fisk still on the lookout for you?”

Peter’s eyes flicked to Darcy again, but she just blinked at him. The name meant nothing to her, after all. After a breath or two, Peter sighed. “Dunno. I think so. He probably won’t think that I’d be so ballsy, though. So, uh…yeah. Um.” He looked at Darcy. “Can I be your bodyguard?”

“Only if you promise to stay out of bars.”

Peter fluttered his eyelashes at her.

“You’re ridiculous,” she told him, and downed the rest of her coffee. Her palms were all sweaty from nerves. “Okay, boys. Lay it on me. What merry hell do we raise?”


Apparently, Clint Barton had a very different definition of ‘merry hell’ than she did.

“I feel like I should be hiding in the penguin enclosure lamenting my newfound identity as the Princess of Genovia,” said Darcy, watching the fossas play. Altogether much more interesting than the hissing cockroaches, but at the same time, this was not what she’d been thinking about when Clint had proposed the whole “draw the mercenaries out” idea. “Maybe I should LARP it. You know where I can get a pair of combat boots?”

“That one you can do solo, Thermopolis,” said Peter, and stuck his spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. “I have tasers to play with.”

“You have not read The Princess Diaries,” said Darcy, ignoring the way her ice cream cone was now dribbling over her fingers. Peter just gave her a raised eyebrow look, and leaned forward to stare at the fossas.

“These things eat lemurs, you know,” he said. In the enclosure, one of the fossas leapt from the ground to a tree branch. They smelled kind of odd, Darcy thought. Musky, almost. “Goodbye, King Julien.”  

Darcy licked the melted ice cream off her fingers, watching the fossa pensively. She was pretty sure that Clint had just come into the observation room behind them, but she didn’t want to turn around and blow his cover. In three breaths, he was gone again. She leaned against the railing next to Peter, facing the crowd of people watching the fossas play. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet watching them, and kept checking his phone as if it was burning a hole in his back pocket. She wondered if this was the first time he’d been out of the Tower since…whatever it had been had happened to stick him in there in the first place.

“So what’s she like?” she said after a moment, and Peter jumped and blinked at her. “Gwen. She sounds like a badass from what you’ve said about her.”

“She is,” said Peter. “She’s way smarter than me. She’s gonna be valedictorian,” he said after a moment, and grinned like a lovestruck loon. Which, she realized, he basically was. Darcy grinned back at him, nudging him with her shoulder.

“You looooove her.”

“Yeah,” said Peter, simply. Darcy nudged him again, harder this time.

“God, you make it so hard to tease you when you’re so fucking earnest about everything,” she said, and two people away, a mother squawked in indignation and covered her precious baby’s ears. Fuck you, lady, it’s Manhattan, I can promise you he’s heard a lot worse than that. “So she’s smart, what does she want to do?”

“Biochemistry with a focus in genetics.”

Darcy hummed appreciatively under her breath. “I’m all for more ladies in STEM work.”

“She’s really good at it. She’s been interning for Oscorp since freshman year, and she already has an analyst job lined up for after we graduate.” She could hear the pride in his voice, and it made her want to snuggle someone. Peter was genuinely one of the sweetest kids she’d ever met in her life, and that included Jane Foster. Plus the fact that what he loved most about his girlfriend was her brain?

Bless this child.

Speaking of…

“Does she care about astrophysics at all?” He blinked at her. Darcy shrugged. “Only I worked for Jane Foster in college and, I mean, if she wants to meet Janey-Jane I can totally hook her up.”

Peter rose so far up onto his toes that he practically levitated off the ground. “Are you serious?”

Darcy laughed. “Is that a yes?”

“She’ll freak out when I tell her that oh my god—” He bounced on the balls of his feet. “I’m gonna call her—you don’t mind, right? I just—she’ll really want to hear this, she has all the interviews Dr. Foster ever did with Scientific American taped to her wall and everything—”

“Have at it, sporto.” She took a tremendous bite of her ice cream. “I dunno when Jane’ll be in Manhattan next, but I can talk her into it. She loves meeting fellow nerds. I might even be able to get a hold of Erik Selvig, but he’s…he’s tired, lately, and doesn’t hold meetings much, so I don’t know—”

Peter hugged her—actually honest to god hugged her—and then hopped away like a rabbit on speed to catch her ice cream. He’d knocked it out of her hand. He offered it to her again, looking sheepish, and Darcy sputtered out a laugh. “Wow,” she said. “Okay, I’ll take that as a yes, then—”

“I’m calling Gwen,” he said, and he bounced off to stand near the lemur enclosure. Darcy picked a bench that hadn’t been smeared by some toddler on a sugar-high, and watched the people pass.

She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised by the sheer number of kids here. Even if it was a weekday, parents took their children on hooky all the time—besides, a lot of these kids were too young to be in anything more than preschool, and some of them didn’t even hit that. A toddler with cornrow braids and her mouth stained blue by a Popsicle shrieked past her, dragging a very worn toy giraffe along behind her. Her mom came rushing by a few minutes later, a black woman in a hijab and shouting in French. Way different from Malibu. Darcy nibbled on the edge of her ice cream cone, and leaned back into the bench. It was one of those double-sided things, so that people could back to back. One end was facing into the lemur enclosure. One lemur was throwing poop at another, which had stolen its toy.

Know that feel, bro. She was pretty sure that she’d done that as an infant. Her mother had not been pleased.

“So,” said a voice from behind her, and Darcy jumped so violently she spilled melted ice cream onto her miniskirt. “What’s put ants in Parker’s pants?”

“Jesus,” she said, and swiped at the drops of vanilla with her thumb. “I’m gonna hang a bell around your neck if you plan on doing that again. Jesus, Barton.”

Clint snickered a little, and leaned his head back against the bench. She could see him smirking if she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was a little shit, she told herself, wiping more ice cream off her skirt. A little shit. Cocky and smug and—and—

And kind of fucking hot in that shirt, actually. Damn.

“I told him that I could introduce his girlfriend to Jane Foster,” she said, once she’d managed to get her skirt kind of clean. Stupid ninja assassins. Stupid stealthiness. “And Erik, if he feels up to it. I have no idea when they’ll be back in Manhattan, but I mean, it won’t be that hard to wrangle a dinner date. Jane loves talking to students, anyway.”

Clint hummed. She wasn’t sure if it was in agreement or if he just had a song stuck in his head, so she went back to her ice cream. “You sure that’s a good idea? Thought you were trying to keep Foster out of this.”

“I am,” Darcy said, sharper than she’d meant to. “I mean, I want to. I don’t want her to worry.” And if the people coming after her (which, despite everything, she was still having trouble really believing) thought that she’d told Jane something—anything—they’d be after Jane, too, and woe betide any who came after the lady who ruled Thor’s heart. Plus, Jane had a fairly surprising talent for making explosive devices out of wristwatches. They’d rue the day they ever stole Jane Foster. “Doesn’t mean I can’t set them up on a Skype date, or something.” She paused. “Could we get Peter’s girlfriend a pass into the Tower?”

“She’d have to be vetted by Hill,” said Clint, thankfully not even blinking at this change of subject. “You startin’ a tutoring group?”

“Please. Those two crazy kids could tutor me. I’m soft science, not hard science.”

Clint snorted. When she glanced at him, he blinked at her innocently, and said, “Hard science” in a way that meant anything but science. She snorted back.

“Honey, you haven’t met hard science until you have a four hour discussion on the ethics of wiretapping with a lawyer from the Pentagon.” She flipped her hair. “Hard science looks at political science and cries.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said, and she grinned into her ice cream cone. Then she flushed blotchy red, and could have kicked herself. Where had this mood come from? No. Flirty!Darcy had to go back in the box and stay there. Flirty!Darcy was not allowed to play right now. She bit the inside of her lip, and then started playing Fruit Ninja on her phone. Clint sat there for a few minutes longer, and then stood and wandered off into the crowd, vanishing without effort in the direction of the jungle exhibit. She absolutely did not watch his ass as he went.

“Hey,” said Peter, reappearing. She blinked at him, wide-eyed. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, and stood. “Where next?”

“One last exhibit maybe, and then go back?” He shrugged. “I’m for hanging out a while longer though. Rather not go back to the Tower until I absolutely have to.”

“You’ve been there like…three times as long as I have. I don’t blame you.” She looked up at the sky. “Maybe we can stop at a Starbucks or something? Stark’s coffee machines may be awesome, but they scare me. They’re like little robots.”

“Coffee, sure,” said Peter, “but no Starbucks. You don’t go to Starbucks when you can get to Harlem.”

They clambered aboard the Bx12-SBS to West 207th Street, and then took the One from there. Darcy, who had really appreciated public transit in Atlanta, was in raptures over subways, even if they were totally sketchy and there was a drunk hobo sitting in the corner staring at her boobs. It took about an hour, all told, but the Chipped Cup had fucking excellent coffee and an outdoor patio to drink it in, so Darcy was content. She didn’t see Clint the whole trip over, but when she asked, Peter shrugged once and said that Barton never lost a tail, so he must have been around somewhere. Possibly in a tree. Who actually knew.

Darcy was halfway through her latte when across the bench, Peter went stiff as a board, and set his hands flat against the tabletop. His eyes flicked up over her shoulder, rested on something behind her, and then skittered on. She frowned, and leaned forward. “Parker?”

“Someone’s watching,” he said.

Wait. They’d found her that fucking quickly? Maybe Batroc and his crew hadn’t been so clueless about her leaving Malibu as they’d anticipated. Peter pulled his camera off his neck (he’d brought a camera to the zoo, a honking fancy thing that she’d seen only in photography classes at Culver) and faked taking a picture of her before handing her the thing and flipping to the most recent shot. “There,” he said, pointing. A guy sitting at a table about twenty feet away, alone, most certainly watching her and not being shy about it. Not in an “I like how you look” way, either. She fingered the Star of David hanging at her collarbone (a gift from her mother for her twelfth birthday, and one of the only things she’d actually kept after dropping out of high school) and squinted at the face. She didn’t recognize this guy, not really—he wasn’t affiliated with Batroc, anyway. At least, he wasn’t attached to any of the names that JARVIS had pulled up for her to search. Late twenties, early thirties, maybe. Black. He was wearing sunglasses, and was very cut. Darcy glanced up at Peter, and then down at the camera again, frowning.

“Do you know him?” Peter asked in a very low voice, swirling his coffee in the mug.

“Nope,” said Darcy. “Not at all.”

“All righty, then,” said Peter, and stood. Darcy swung her legs out from under the bench, giving her half-finished coffee a sad look, and while Peter hovered, she pressed number four on speed dial and waited for Barton to pick up.

“I see him,” Clint said, before Darcy had even said more than hello. “Go out of the café and take a left. Let’s see if he follows.”

“You’re seriously making me walk all that way?” she said, and gestured to Peter, who hooked his arm through hers without a qualm. “You suck, dude. I’m in heels.”

She was, actually. JARVIS’ idea of footwear veered more towards the Pepper Potts end of things, and not the Darcy Lewis. These were at least wedge heels, so she probably wasn’t going to fall over—probably—but she wished she’d been warned before JARVIS had dropped a new wardrobe on her head. Apparently, he’d been talking with Hill about something, and that something meant snazzy clothes. Oy vey.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the guy stand and pay for his coffee.

“Considering the sort of women you’ve surrounded yourself with, Lewis, I don’t think that’s much of an argument.”

“Like you’ve ever run in heels,” she grumbled under her breath, and wiped her sweaty palms on her miniskirt.

“I have actually,” said Clint, and she nearly dropped the phone. Peter glanced at her, and she steered them left, out the door of The Chipped Cup.

“He’s following,” said Peter in a low voice. She wondered if Clint could hear it, and switched her phone from one ear to the other, so Peter could report. “About ten yards back.”

“Good,” said Clint, and hung up. Darcy stared at her phone for a moment, and then shoved it back into her pocket. Her fingers grazed over the handle of her taser. Peter disentangled his arm from hers, and shoved his hands into his pockets; they were curled into fists.

“Speeding up,” he said under his breath, and sure enough, a few seconds later, she heard quickened footsteps behind them. “Darcy, in three seconds, duck.”

Darcy counted to three, drew a breath, and then flung herself forward into an aikido roll that about broke her back. Hello, New York pavement. You smell of pee and broken dreams.Hey,” someone shouted, and then there was a rush of fabric, and Peter had grabbed a lightpost and literally swung himself around to drive both of his feet into this dude’s shoulder. The black guy went flying, and, unfortunately, landed in the front window of a Laundromat. Darcy shrieked, and then covered her mouth with both hands as the window shattered, and Peter landed on his feet without stumbling. The black guy wasn’t so lucky. He rolled through the glass (he was in a leather jacket, though, so it didn’t cut him much) and into one of the coin-operated washing machines with a thump, and Peter was already moving again, vaulting through the broken window to stand over him as he lay there. Something brushed her back, and she suddenly realized Clint was standing there, an arrow nocked and drawn back to his cheek. There was something very cold in his eyes.

“You wanna identify yourself?” he said, and the guy on the floor of the Laundromat groaned. Peter hopped from one foot to the other, packed with restless energy. “He went easy on you. It can go harder.”

“Dude,” said the black guy, and heaved himself up on one elbow. His sunglasses had fallen off. Oh no, thought Darcy. Bad guys shouldn’t be hot. He looked at Peter, and then at Clint’s bow, and held up his hands slowly. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Can we all just—breathe, for a second. You know. Breathing? That thing that calm people do?”

“Seriously, man, there’re some things you just don’t do. If the girl says no, she means no, man.” Peter rocked back onto his heels. “You saw that catcalling graffiti that lady’s doin’, right? You don’t just say stuff like that, man.”

Suddenly, Darcy realized that there was a crowd around them now, whispering behind their hands. Some of them were filming. Shit. Well, if Batroc’s Band was really looking for her, they’d definitely find her now. At least Peter had a beanie tugged down over his head. Hopefully whoever was searching for him would be unsuccessful.

He’d also given them an excuse, she realized, and she tucked both her hands into the crook of Peter’s arm again, Scarlett O’Hara in distress. He patted her wrist consolingly, but he looked like he was fighting back laughter. “’sokay, sis,” he said, and she really had to bite her fist to keep from laughing at that one. “The cop’ll deal with it.”

“I’m gonna punch him in the nuts,” she said, catching on to Peter’s Queens accent, and he pinched her hard in the ribs in an effort to shut her up.

Clint caught on damn fast, too. “Police business,” he said. There was a rush of whispering from around them, and Darcy bent her head so her hair dangled in front of her face. “You all need to back up now.”

“You’re not an cop,” said some random Harlemite. “And cops don’t carry sticks.”

“First of all, it’s a weapon from the Paleolithic era. And secondly—” Clint turned. “—you need to back up.”   

Maybe it was the fact that the arrow was now suddenly angled in another direction. Maybe it was the look on Clint’s face. People backed the fuck up. After a moment, Clint relaxed the bowstring, and clambered over the low wall of the Laundromat to crouch next to the guy on the ground. He was out of arm’s reach, at least, but Darcy still made a nervous noise and stood behind him to help. Just in case.

The guy on the ground glanced at Darcy, and then back at Clint and the now loose arrow. He licked his lips. “I’m gonna sit up, if that’s all right.”

“Take your time,” said Clint lightly, but his hand tightened on the bow. “Don’t make a stupid decision.”

“Seems like my whole life is made of stupid decisions,” said the man, but he sat up anyway, and leaned against the now-dented washing machine. The owner of the Laundromat—at least, the person Darcy assumed was the owner of the Laundromat—was swearing in Italian and flinging his hands around, looking ready to kill someone. The guy on the floor closed his eyes and let out a breath.

“Yeah,” he said after a moment. “This is really not my week.”

 “Okay,” he said. “Up.”

“Okay, seriously, I have to talk to you,” said the dude on the ground, but Clint had already seized him by the elbow and wrenched him to his feet. They were almost exactly the same height. “It’s not what you think—”

“You can talk in private,” said Clint, and jerked his head at Darcy and Peter. “You two, come with me. And you,” he added to Bad Guy, “don’t even think about it.”

Bad Guy froze with one hand about six inches away from his pocket, and Darcy had to fight down a burst of hysterical laughter.

They walked quickly and quietly for three blocks, and people scrambled the fuck out of the way. Clint still had his bow and arrow out, and it was, Darcy thought, super-intimidating in its own way. She stayed far out of reach of Bad Guy, sticking between Peter and the road about six feet back. When they turned into an alley, she glanced around before following, and pulled shut the iron gate behind them. It was a back entrance to an apartment complex, and she’d probably just broken like six rules, but whatever, it was New York. It was only once they were out of sight of the world that Clint let the guy go, and shoved him up against the wall.

“You wanna explain what you’re doing here, man.” said Clint. Peter twisted his wrists anxiously. Whether the anxiety was from being worried or something else, she wasn’t sure. “And you really want to make it good.”

“They said you had a better sense of humor than this,” said the guy. A fleck of glass had caught him just under the eye. Clint’s mouth tightened.

“My sense of humor kind of goes to shit when I haven’t slept in four days.” He fingered the bowstring again. “What’s your name?”

“Sam,” said Bad Guy. “My name’s Sam Wilson. Maria Hill sent me to find you. She said you had access to SHIELD intel that we need.”

“Who’s we?” said Peter, as Clint swore under his breath and slid his arrow back into the quiver on his back. (It hadn’t been there at the zoo. Darcy refused to wonder where he’d been hiding it.)

“Me and Cap,” said Sam. “There’s someone we need to find.”

No one said anything for a long moment. Then Darcy threw her hands up in the air, and said, “Okay. I give up. This is merry hell.”

Chapter Text

“Well, that settles it, then,” said Darcy. “Literally everyone wants a piece of me.”

Sam snorted. Unfortunately, he was the only one. Bad form, Darce, she thought, glancing first at Peter—whose lips had twitched, but not much else—and then at Clint, who was systematically fletching arrows. Note to self: do not make stupid jokes when HYDRA is in the mix.

“Cap’d just appreciate the information,” Sam said, and she snapped a look at him. His eyes were twinkling, and his mouth pursed like he was trying to hold back laughter. He looked altogether too entertained by the look on Clint’s face, which was a violent and horrific cross between Thorin Oakenshield being told no and Severus Snape being confronted by first-year Hufflepuffs. In other words, not very friendly. “Anything about the Winter Soldier that you can find in SHIELD’s old files. Hill said something about no one but you being able to access them?”

“Technically,” said JARVIS, “that is not entirely true, as all Avengers have extensive, albeit still semi-limited, access. However, considering the material requested, the principle of the visit was and remains logically sound.”

“So I didn’t have to grab an emergency flight to the city?” Sam huffed, and winked at her. “Too bad, so sad. I think Hill was trying to get me out from underfoot anyway. Pretty sure she wanted to ream out Steve in peace.”

That sounded more like Hill. For a split second, Darcy imagined Maria Hill in a room with Captain America, steadily eviscerating him with the power of her stare. She’d never seen Steve Rogers in the flesh, but there had been some interviews after New York (which she may or may not have ripped off of Youtube to watch over and over again) that had revealed the glory of Captain America’s puppy-dog face. Which is stronger: Maria Hill’s ‘are you shitting me’ face, or Steve Rogers’ ‘please don’t hurt me, I am a patriot’ face? Important questions.

“Anyway.” She jumped. Next to her, Peter frowned. Sam graciously ignored it. “I have a flight back to DC tomorrow, so if all goes well I can just hop back on with the relevant files we need on disk or something. With any luck, I might even be able to upgrade my flight to tonight instead. Then I can be out of your hair forever.”

She opened her mouth to say, But I can promise it’s nice hair, and then realized that would be weird. Also, it would constitute as sexual harassment. Darcy shut her mouth again. Sam veered deeper into the Land of Smirk.

“Sounds fine to me,” she said instead, shoving her glasses up her nose. “I mean, Captain America needs my help. How do you even say no to that?”

“You don’t,” said Sam, and grimaced. “Personal experience.”

“So.” She swiveled in her chair to look at Clint, who had not lifted his gaze from his pile of feathers. “The reason you’re angry isn’t because Captain America is asking for my help in finding his Soviet zombie broski—” Sam choked at this, and turned his face quickly away to mask it as a cough “—but because Sam turned out to not be a bad guy? Which I’m relieved about, by the way,” she added to Sam. “Don’t ever be a bad guy. You’re too pretty. Even with your face kinda smashed.”

Peter choked that time.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Sam said. “Don’t think it’ll effect my plans for world domination, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

“See that you do.”

Clint shaved a bit of wood off of the arrow shaft, and sighted down it before setting it aside. “I’m not angry.”

“You’re doing an excellent job at pretending, then, Grumpy Dwarf.”

He gave her a look from under his eyelashes that made her think of a weasel peering out from under a rock. “I am not angry.”

“Suit yourself.” She wasn’t going to be his fucking therapist. Whatever his problem was, he could deal with it or get out. She glanced at Peter. “What about you, why are you scowly?”

“Huh?” He rearranged his face. “Sorry. I was just thinking—this kind of blew our cover a bit, y’know? There’s not much we can do if they find the video online, and I don’t have the element of surprise anymore. And that Agent Barton is, uh, actually in the US still. And stuff.”

Well. Yes. There was that. Sam grimaced. “Sorry.”

“I’m still confused as to why you didn’t just drop by the Tower and say hi,” said Darcy. Clint swore when his knife sank too deep into the shaft of his arrow, and chopped it in half. “Instead of following us around like a creepy creeper. Or a SHIELD agent.”

“Hey,” said Clint, but he sounded a bit better.

“We weren’t sure if the Tower was compromised,” said Sam, with a sorry-not-sorry look at both Clint and Peter. “Even with Hill vouching for all of you, it’s been a hard few days. You know what they say about times and measures.”

“I feel like I should be making a sex joke here.”

“Decent excuse,” said Clint, “but no dice, bud. How about the real reason?”

Wow. Okay. “I don’t know if it’s just—”

“Buckbeak here scared off three tails in the course of twenty minutes.” Clint snapped his knife closed, and dipped his sliced feather into the pot of glue. “I think we merit more than a half-assed excuse about being nervous about people vetted by Maria Hill, Steve Rogers, and Tony Stark.”

“And JARVIS,” Peter said suddenly, and above them, JARVIS made a preening sound.

Sam held up both hands. “There were three of them? I only saw the one.”

“Because you’re a soldier, Wilson, not a spy.” Clint sighted down this arrow, too, and then set it aside to dry. “What were you trying to do, tail at a distance?”

“I thought you’d like backup, considering you were being followed.”

“If we need help, we’ll ask for it.”

“Like Sam,” Darcy said, setting her foot on top of Clint’s and shoving down hard underneath the table, “is asking us for help now. What files do you need, dude?”

Sam looked at Peter, then back at Clint. Clint was superbly uncaring of whatever protect-the-mutant-teenager instinct had cropped up in the back of Sam’s head. Sam blinked at Darcy, and then sighed. “Rather not talk about it right now.”

“I can go,” Peter said, getting up. “I need to fix the tasers. And I need to let Gwen know we’re okay.”

“What’d she say about Jane?” Darcy leaned her chair back, tipping until it was only on two legs. “If these really are desperate times then I can just give her Jane’s email address or something. It’d probably be easier.”

“Actually—” Peter darted a look at Clint, and then scuffed one foot along the floor. “She kind of wanted to meet you first. If we can, you know. Actually manage that. I thought it’d be fine but then all this sh—stuff happened, and I’m not sure—”

“She’s been under observation for weeks. If she actually does anything, we’ll be able to handle it,” said Clint without looking up. He set another feather in glue. “I’ll escort her in tomorrow.”

Peter blanched. “You really don’t have to—”

“She’s a civilian and a liability.” Whoa, okay. SHIELD agent mode, activated. “I’ll escort her in.”

Peter and Clint stared at each other. Then Peter ducked his head, the way a dog would bare its throat. “I’ll text her.”

Clint grunted. Darcy tugged her phone out of her pocket, and swiped it open. “Sounds good to me. Let me know when she’s here, okay? I really do want to meet her, I’m not shitting you.”

“No, she wants to meet you too.” He blew a strand of hair out of his eyes. “Yeah. I’ll just. Uh. Go. Away from here. …yeah.”

He vanished down the hall. Darcy waited until she heard a door shut behind him, and music start up, before she frowned at Clint.

“You didn’t have to be a cockface about it.”

Clint said nothing. He snapped another arrow shaft in two.

“…well, then,” said Sam. “Uh. There’s something going on in the air in here that makes it feel like I can actually cut it, so I’ll just change the subject. I need everything you have on the Winter Soldier—”

“That’s what I figured—”

“—and as much as you can find about anyone who’s been identified as a member of HYDRA.”

Darcy frowned. (@darcethefarce: If you want people to like you, stop being an asshole to their friends.) “I would’ve thought Tony could have told you stuff about that.”

“Stark—” Sam paused, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he could call a multi-billionaire by name. Even if it was the surname. “Stark said to ask you.”

“Ugh, of course he did. Big baby. Next time I see him I’ll be sure to duct-tape him to a chair and make him watch videos about how to interact with human beings.” She propped her chin in her hand, and tapped the top of the glass table. Thankfully, there was a screen set up inside this one, too. “Hey, J, what sort of data storage units are we looking at for Mr. Wilson here?”

“I believe we have a five-hundred terabyte hard-drive in one of the storage closets on the twenty-seventh floor.” JARVIS made a humming sound. Darcy wondered if she was talking to JARVIS too much. If he adopted too many human mannerisms, she’d forget that he was an AI at all. “We may need two.”

“And I can take those through security, no questions asked?”

“Hill wouldn’t have sent you here if you couldn’t,” said Clint, and stood sharply. “I’m going shooting. Back in a few hours.”

He was gone before either of them could say anything. Darcy hooked her hair behind her ears, picking at the still-smeared vanilla ice cream stain on her miniskirt. Then she caught Sam’s eye, and shrugged. “I don’t make excuses,” she said. “I just live here.”

“Don’t envy you that.”

“They’re usually nicer.” She tapped a few keys on the tabletop. “Wow, okay, that sounded like an excuse. It wasn’t. Clint was being a cockface. But yeah, they’re usually nicer than that.” Darcy sighed. “I dunno why he was being so shitty.”

Sam shrugged. “I used to work in triage. That wasn’t shitty, that was mildly pissed off.”

She blinked, and glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Sam Wilson had the same sort of interesting face that Clint Barton did; traditionally pretty in some ways, traditionally not in others. He had a goose-egg on his forehead, a cut on his cheek from the fall through the laundromat window, and a lip split in three places. She collected a few more files, and dropped them into an FTP drive. “All of those from HYDRA?”

He blinked at her, and then touched his cheek. His grin looked a bit painful. “Most of it. What about you, was that HYDRA?”

“This was a bar mirror blowing up thanks to dipshits who want to get their hands on my bounteous assets.” She smirked. “Meaning, obviously, my information.”

“Obviously.”

Oh, good. She hadn’t had someone to playflirt with in a long time. Darcy dropped her last few files into the FTP drive (it was full to bursting now, and she really didn’t want to overpack it) and then scooted back from the table. Her tights were torn in three places thanks to her impromptu face-plant, and there was a scab on her knee that hadn’t been there before. She scowled. “These were new.”

“Sorry,” said Sam.

“Psh, not your fault.” She paused. “No, actually. Was your fault. Identify yourself next time.”

“Can do.” Sam stood too, and tucked his hands into his pockets. “I should call Cap, let him know that I’ve made contact. Also I kind of want to pick the glass out of my open wounds.”

“And I should load those documents onto the drives for you.” She waved her hand at the kitchen. “I’mma shower and then rip Clint a new asshole while that all transfers over, so help yourself to whatever. Peter’ll come back out eventually, once he’s drowned his sorrows in Metallica and Mumford & Sons. Get him to play Mario Kart or something. He’ll kick your ass, and it’ll make him feel better.”

“Can do, boss-lady.” 

“Cool.” She shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Sam.”

Sam’s grin widened. “I have a feeling it’s gonna be my pleasure, Miss Lewis.”

.

.

.

No matter how obnoxiously long she stood under the showerhead, there was absolutely no way the file transfer was going to be done by the time she finished. Darcy checked the progress (29% in nearly a full hour; oy vey) and then went on the hunt for Clint. It took another hour of searching before she finally womaned up and asked JARVIS where he was, only to hear that he’d left the Tower within minutes of departing from the sixtieth floor, and hadn’t taken his StarkPhone with him. Clint’s a big boy, she told the knot of worry in her stomach. He can handle himself. And she refused to be concerned about him right now. Not over this.

It was nearly five in the morning and both Peter and Sam had gone to sleep (Sam on the end of the couch, head rolling as he snored) by the time Clint re-emerged from whatever tempestuous hole he’d dug himself. Darcy looked up once from her screen, and then back down at it again. She was getting closer to finding Skye of the Rising Tide, and she didn’t need the distraction of his dumb hangdog face. “You gonna be nice, now?” she said, when Clint sat down opposite her at the kitchen counter and snagged the coffee press. “I think you actually hurt his feelings.”

Clint didn’t say anything, just stole her empty mug. She eyed him over the tops of her glasses. Then she actually straight-on looked at him, her heart dropping down into her stomach. He looked like he’d had the shit kicked out of him. She thought his nose might actually be broken. “Jesus, Barton, what did you do to yourself?”

“Tracksuit Russians,” he said, through a split lip. “Picked a fight.”

“Did you pick the fight or did they pick the fight?” She kept her voice low, so she wouldn’t wake Sam, and slid off her stool to grab the first aid kit. “Because you were definitely in a fight-picking mood when you left earlier.”

“They picked the fight.” He winced when his lip split again. Blood cracked on his chin. “Threw a dog in the road. So I finished it.”

“Jesus.” She cracked open the kit. This is not the first time you’ve patched up someone who’s had the crap beat out of them. Stop shaking. “What happened to the dog?”

“Took him to surgery.” Clint’s eyes were dark, shadowed almost. She turned the light on the kitchen counter up to thirty percent, just enough to see the damage, but not enough to wake Sam. “He’s in recovery. They think he’ll live.”

“So of course you had to go beat the shit out of the Russians in tracksuits that started it.” This made a disturbing amount of sense to her. Clearly, she’d been spending too much time with superheroes. Darcy frowned at the cut on his cheekbone, and then collected the hydrogen peroxide. “This is gonna sting.”

Clint remained absolutely still as she dabbed at the cut on his face, on his lip. He just watched her. It took Darcy a full five minutes to realize that she hadn’t actually asked if he’d needed help, and that he hadn’t asked for her to fuss over him. Still, he didn’t seem to be complaining. “You,” she told him, “are a Class A Dumbass.”

“That’s what Nat says.”

“Stop talking. I’ll want to hit you less.” To her surprise, he shut up. He kept watching her, but he shut up. She dabbed at the cut again with the cotton ball. “Just so you know, I don’t actually know any first aid. So if I fuck you up, remember that you subjected yourself willingly.”

He shrugged, and then winced again. Darcy made a mental note to not let him sneak away without checking on his ribs. People could tell if ribs were broken by touching torsos, right? Maybe she could google it. “I was gonna call Dr. Banner in the morning,” she said. “I dunno if he’s in DC or not yet, but I wanted to ask if he thought it was possible to bring someone back to life. You know. A professional opinion.”

“Banner’s more of a physics kind of guy than a biology one.”

“I know, but his file says he double-majored in biology in undergrad, and you need at least an advanced understanding of biochem to try and recreate the super-serum.” It had been required reading when Tony had first brought Dr. Banner into ASSHAT. As the Executive Assistant, she needed to know precisely what everyone as capable of, scientifically as well as rage-monster-wise. “I think he still pays attention to that sort of thing in magazines and stuff, so he has a better idea than I would. I’d ask Peter, but I don’t want him in on TAHITI.”

Clint nodded. Then he made a grabby-hand motion. “Kleenex.”

She only had toilet paper, but that worked too. Clint blew a truly horrifying amount of clotted blood out of his nose, and then folded it up and threw the evidence into the trash. Darcy ignored the way her stomach was rolling, and went back to wiping more blood off his face. “Y’know, my grandfather was Russian,” she said after a moment. “I learned Spanish in high school—well, what little high school I actually, you know, was there for—because of my dad. He was from Guatemala, or something. My mom never said.” She threw another cotton ball in the trash. “But yeah. Granddad snuck out of Russia during World War Two, married my gran a few years after it ended. When I was a kid I’d sneak to Gran and Granddad's house when my mom was too drunk or whatever, and he'd teach me Russian. And Yiddish swearwords. I used to be pretty fluent, but I don’t really remember any of it now. He died when I was five, so.”

His nose wasn’t broken. It just looked like he’d been punched in the face with a semi. She put some tape over it anyway, just to hold it in place. There was another cut through his eyebrow that she hadn’t managed to work on yet. Darcy folded some gauze in half, and handed it to Clint. “Put that under your nose,” she said. “Before you leak all over Tony’s nice counter.”

Clint scoffed, but obeyed. It was only once she’d finished with the eyebrow cut and moved on to the goose egg on his temple (not bleeding, just bloody) that he cleared his throat. “Sorry for being a shit.”

“Accepted.” She crumpled the toilet paper and threw it away. “Does this mean the next time you act like an asshole I get to punch you?”

“Not until you can beat me in a fair fight, you can’t.”

“Bless your heart,” said Darcy sourly. “I’d thank you, but I’m pretty sure I was just insulted, so there goes all your goodwill.”

“It wasn’t an insult.” Clint shook his head, and his eyelashes scuffed against the heel of her hand. So did the bandages, but for some reason she could feel the eyelashes more than the gauze. “You could be a good fighter, if you wanted to learn. You have good balance, and quick reflexes.”

“That’s what pole-dancing gets you.” She picked one last Band-Aid out of the kit, and settled it on his forehead. “There. Done, mostly. Try not to fall on your face, you might drive cartilage and bone up into your brain and I can’t fix that.”

“He probably could,” said Clint, tilting his head towards Sam; he was still snoring softly against the pillows. “I checked up on him. Graduated with honors from USUHS.”

“You say that like I know what that means.”

“Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.”

“Oh,” said Darcy. Then: “You should probably say sorry to him and Peter, too.”

Clint made a face, and shrugged again. Darcy frowned at his ribs. “I should check to see if you’ve cracked anything.”

“Two on the right, one on the left.” He bared bloody teeth at her in a rictus facsimile of a smile. “I’ve had enough broken ribs by this point to know when they happen.”

“Jesus.” She stared at his chest. “What do I do?”

“I can wrap them myself.”

“Not without cracking them worse, you can’t.”

“Jesus, Lewis.”

“Jesus, Barton,” she sniped. “Let me help you, you dick.”

“That’s what she said.”

“I swear to god I’m going to break your face. More than it’s already been broken. Because you’re an asshole.” A witty asshole who was somehow still pretty even when he’d had his face rearranged, but still an asshole. “Take off your shirt.”

“If you wanted me naked, Lewis, you could have just asked.”

“Honey, if I ever want to see you naked, I’ll be sure to.” She grabbed the rest of the bandages out of the industrial-sized first aid kit. “Shirt. Off. It’s torn and smeared with guttershit.”

“You sound like my sergeant major,” Clint complained, but he peeled his shirt off anyway. For a second, all she could really focus on was that this was Clint Barton shirtless in her temporary kitchen, and holy mama, abs. Then the light changed a little, and she caught sight of the bruises. They were shaped like boot heels. There were more cuts, too, where the skin had split.

“Did your tracksuit Russians wear combat boots or steel-toed?”

“Steel-toed, I think.” He gave her an appraising look. “Why?”

“Because I can see the dents they left, that’s why.” Her voice cracked a little. “I swear to god, Clint, you need healthier ways to process your Grumpy Dwarf moments. You should probably go to the hospital or something. Or, you know, we could wake up Sam. He’d do a better job.”

“Wilson needs the sleep. I heard from Hill he’s been working non-stop at the local hospitals in DC, trying to help.” Darcy glanced over at the couch again. “And before that there was the Triskelion. He probably needs more sleep than the rest of us combined.”

“And we’re all chronic insomniacs.”

“Among other things.”

Darcy hesitated. Then she swore at herself for hesitating, and set her palm flat against Clint’s ribs. He hissed and sucked in a sharp breath as she dabbed with the hydrogen peroxide. She sighed, and rested the length of her middle finger beside one of the worst cuts. “This one’s gonna need stitches, probably, and I draw the line at poking a needle into your flesh.”

“Liquid stitches in my jacket pocket,” he said. She glanced up at him through her eyelashes. He was staring at the wall, unblinking, his jaw clenched. Darcy huffed, but collected the liquid stitches. The theory was pretty simple, she thought. Pinch torn skin together without damaging anything else, and set to with the little tube.

“I don’t know if there’s enough in this one to actually seal it all the way.”

“There’ll be another in the kit, I think.”

“Well, okay, then.” She gave him a wan smile. “Sorry if I puke on you.”

“You’re doing fine.” Clint reached out with one hand—his knuckles were split and terrible looking—and set his palm against the back of her neck. He shook her just a bit, the way a cat would a kitten. It was unexpectedly soothing. Then he let go, and she had to fight the urge to close her eyes, trying to chase the feel of his calluses against her spine. “Tell me more about your grandfather.”

She heaved a breath. “You trying to distract me?”

“I’d rather my nurse not faint into my lap while stitching up my side.”

“Oh, har-har.” She blew her bangs out of her face. “There’s not really that much to tell, I guess. He was a lawyer, left Russia in the middle of the war and snuck into western Europe. I think he earned refugee status somehow, but I have no idea what he did. Changed his name from Lewinsky. Married my grandmother after the war was over, while she was on vacation in France. Whirlwind romance, apparently.” Darcy rested her palm against his ribs, pressing the two sides of the cut together as best she could without hurting him. She’d cracked the scab, though. Blood leaked out, warm and tacky against her palm. “Um. Yeah. I remember he always used to know if you were hurting somewhere, because he could pat your back and hit a bruise every time. He and my mother couldn’t stand each other, especially after Mom dropped out of high school to have me. My mom, uh. She actually changed her name to Lewis, because like...until my grandfather died they couldn't actually be in the same room anymore. We moved in with my gran while I was really little, because my mom's...kind of incapable of living on her own, but like. As soon as I turned about twelve we moved to Georgia and that's a wrap. Most of my aunts and uncles don't speak to either of us because of how bad the last fight was, still, even though it's been like...nearly fifteen years now." "Sounds like a shit deal for you." "I mean, I grew up without them, so who knows, really." She shrugs. "But yeah, uh. My grandfather used to call my dad this horrible name in Russian, су́кин сын, and my gran picked it up.”

“су́кин сын,” Clint repeated, sounding remarkably steady considering she was pinching his skin together. “Soo-kin seen?

“Son of a bitch,” Darcy translated, and uncapped the liquid stitches with her teeth. “Among other things. But if something went wrong Gran would always say, Ach, Darcy, must be that су́кин сын father of yours cursing us again, just like your granddad said he would. They really didn’t like my dad.”

“What about you?”

“My dad? I dunno, I never met him. He fucked off before I was even born. Turned my mom into this massive bitch in doing it, too.” She’d squirted too much liquid stitch onto the start of the cut. Darcy set down the tube, and smeared it along with her index finger, trying to keep her hands from shaking. “I think Mom said his name was Juan or Enrico or something, she never gave me the same answer every time. I had this weird idea when I was a teenager that if I went to Guatemala or Venezuela or whenever he’d immigrated from, I’d be able to find him and punch him in the face, but then I dropped out of school and forgot about it.”

She’d finished the stitches. Darcy leaned back and let out a trembling breath, her eyes fixed to the sheen of blood and smeared stitch stuff against Clint’s ribs. She wondered if she’d whacked his fractures. None of the other cuts were nearly so bad, she thought. Thankfully.

“Why’d you drop out of school?” Clint asked, as if she was still stitching him up. Darcy grabbed the thicker gauze from the kit, and Clint held his arms up.

“I was mad, I guess. And bored. My mom was pissing me off. I didn’t think college was for me. The teachers were shitty. Any number of reasons.” She pressed the end of the bandage against his chest, and then began to wrap. “I went and stayed with some friends in Atlanta for a while, and then started working full-time. I scored a scholarship to Culver when I was twenty-one, so I moved, worked part time. But I needed some science credits, so I went looking around. Then I met Jane at a job fair and came out to New Mexico with her, and there you go, story over.” She leaned back, and pinned the bandage in place, unable to resist patting his chest once. Clint winced. “Sorry.” She stretched. “I should probably go sleep. And so should you, dog-rescuer. That’s enough of a tragic backstory for you.”

Clint hummed. “Would it help if I said I’d heard worse?”

Darcy’s lips parted. Then she choked, and turned her face away. Laughter bubbled up her throat. “Jesus, Clint, don’t kill me.”

“It’s true.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “In a scale of one-to-ten, your tragic backstory is very much a negative two.”

“Oh, thanks, that makes me feel better.” It did, somehow. She shoved her glasses up her forehead and wiped her eyes. “Go to sleep, you asshole.”

“Adrenalin. Won’t happen for a while.” He closed the kit and then set his hand on the counter, his fingers close to hers. “You should, though. You look like hell.”

“Way to win a girl’s heart.” She framed a headline in the air. “Dear Darcy: you look like shit, and I was the one who had the crap kicked out of me in the past four hours.”

“Shut up.”

She grinned at him. Then, slowly, she couldn’t find the energy to hold it up anymore. Darcy slid her hand across the counter, just a little, until her fingertips brushed against his thumb. “We’ll get them eventually,” she said to him. “I know we will.”

His eyebrows lifted. “Really.”

“Damn straight.” Darcy tossed her hair back over her shoulder. “Because we are made of awesome.”

“You two are made of loud,” said Sam in a cracking voice, and they both turned to stare at him. He’d heaved himself up higher on the couch and was watching them through half-open eyes, a smile tugging on the edges of his lips. “Go the fuck to sleep.”

“Ugh, you sound like Fury.” Clint slid off his stool, and cupped the back of Darcy’s neck again, doing that weird kitten-shake thing. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. “You. Sleep. And you,” he added to Sam, as if daring him to contradict him. “There’s a bed in the back room. Sleep there like a normal person.”

“If you go and rip any of those stitches I will track you down and give you new ones,” Darcy told him.

“I’m shaking in my boots,” said Clint dryly, and shoved his hands into his pockets as he disappeared into the elevator. Darcy glanced at Sam, and lifted her eyebrows as if to say, What?

“Nothing,” said Sam. He heaved himself up off the couch. “Show me to this magnificent mattress Tweety Bird was talking about.”

“I heard that,” Clint said, and the elevator doors slid shut. 

.

.

.

When she woke up the next morning, she still had some of Clint’s blood under her fingernails.

It was weird, she thought, as she scraped her nails clean and washed her hands for the millionth time. If not for the blood, she might have doubted that last night had even happened. It had this weird, dreamlike quality to it that made her want to question her own memories. Which, in and of itself, was ridiculous: she could be an idiot, but she’d never hallucinated in her life, and she’d never mistaken a dream for reality. Her job was remembering things for other people; she was physically incapable of doubting her own memory banks.

Which meant—Darcy tipped her head back under the spray of the showerhead—that she had actually patched Clint Barton up after a fight with tracksuit Russians (which, what the fuck, why Russians in tracksuits) and she had told him almost every sketchy, depressing thing from her childhood, including her stellar decision to become a high school dropout.

She’d also mentioned pole dancing, so if he’d been paying attention he might have already put one and one together and come up with oh yeah, Darcy Lewis was a stripper for four years.

It wasn’t like she was ashamed of it. There was absolutely no way she could regret her job at the Top Hat, since she’d met some truly awesome people, scored some excellent booze, and been able to feed herself with money leftover because of it. (Plus, you know, great ass.) But she never really knew how people were going to react to the news that she used to take her clothes off and flash her boobs for a living, and that worried her more than she actually wanted to admit.

She blew dry her hair, tugged on a bra, and padded out into the main room to find Sam Wilson and Peter Parker locked in a staring contest over the last cinnamon roll.

“Uh-uh.” She snatched it away. “Mine. I get at least two rolls per batch. House rules.”

“Since when?”

“Since you decided to eat a whole box of them without me, you assholes.” She let Howl lick some of the icing off her finger. “Where’s the Grumpy Dwarf?”

“He went to get Gwen.” Peter bounced on the balls of his feet. The clock on the microwave read 12:46; she’d meant to get up an hour and a half ago. Oops. “He looked terrible. Did you beat him up?”

“Jesus. No. Am I a ninja?” Darcy rolled her eyes, and swallowed her bite of cinnamon roll. “He managed to get into it with a bunch of Russians or something, because he’s a dumbass.”

Peter’s hands went still. His eyes changed, somehow. He stared at her. “Russians,” he repeated. “In Hell’s Kitchen?”

Darcy frowned. “You okay there, dude?”

“I’m fine. Just—Hell’s Kitchen Russians or Elsewhere Russians?”

“Tracksuit Russians,” Darcy said, and Peter relaxed, fragment by fragment, muscle by muscle, until he almost looked like Peter again. Almost. Darcy caught Sam’s eye, and raised an eyebrow. “What does Hell’s Kitchen have to do with anything? I thought you lived in Queens.”

“Bad gangs in Hell’s Kitchen, that’s all.” Peter scraped his fork along the edge of his plate. “I don’t know. It’s been pretty terrible in the city since the incident. ‘bangers everywhere and stuff. I was just—I don’t know.”

He was, she thought, an exceptionally bad liar. Still; Darcy went back to her cinnamon roll, and said nothing. She didn’t have enough energy to pick Peter’s brain, not without at least three more cups of coffee in her.

The traffic must have been shitty, or Clint had taken a detour somewhere to give Gwen Stacy the shovel talk, because it was nearly two o’clock before JARVIS announced that “Agent Barton has just entered the lobby, miss.”

“Don’t you have a flight?” Darcy said to Sam. He shrugged.

“Red-eye. Don’t have to be there until nine.”

“Awesomesauce. Can you cook?”

Sam blinked. “My mother wouldn’t let any of her kids out the door to live on their own if they didn’t know how to at least baste a turkey.”

“Cool, because I’m sick of takeout and cooking for these two asshats.” She hooked an arm around Peter’s neck and kissed the top of his head. For once, he didn’t flinch. “I mean that in only a loving way.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He prodded at her forearm. “You’re getting cinnamon bun on me, let go.”

“Big baby.” She kissed his head again, because her mouth was smeared with icing and now he could whine about shit in his hair, before collecting Howl and settling in on the next bar stool. The elevator pinged, and Peter was out of his seat and bouncing by the doors before she’d even really noticed him move. Sam raised his eyebrows.

“Girlfriend,” said Darcy, and Sam said, “Ah.”

Gwen Stacy was the slim sort of gorgeous that would have given Darcy serious issues in high school simply through existing. Kudos to them, Peter and Gwen didn’t do the teenage lovebird thing of hanging off each other for every moment; after a hug that extended perhaps a bit longer than it should have in semi-polite, semi-mature company, Gwen hooked her hand into Peter’s and said, in a surprisingly husky voice, “You must be Darcy.”

“Yup.” Darcy kicked the cat off her lap, and stood, because it felt like a standing situation. Also, because Howl kept digging his claws into her bare thighs. She wiped her hand clean of frosting and held it out. Gwen took it, and they shook. “Was Clint nice to you on the way in? If he was an ass then I can teach you how to reset him to happy kitty-cat. He’s not that bad most of the time.”

“I feel like you’re destroying my image,” said Clint, his head already in the fridge. “I did have an image, a week ago. I seem to remember you called me a badass secret agent.”

“No, I called you an asshole, because you shoved a gun into my back and threatened to shoot me, and not in the sexy way.” Clint rolled his eyes, and grabbed the carton of orange juice that Darcy had labeled with his name two nights before after finding him drinking straight out of it, because for some reason men couldn’t use glasses like normal people. “But you can be a badass secret agent in your downtime, Barton. We won’t judge.”

Gwen laughed. She had freckles, Darcy noted, and a lovely smile. “No, Agent—Agent Barton was nice.” Awwww, they repeated words in the same way. She was either going to be sick or die from all the cute. “Thanks for looking after the knucklehead.”

“He’s been helping me with some stuff, so he’s been the one looking after me most of the time, but yeah.” Darcy shoved her hands into her pockets. “You’re welcome. Want food?”

“God, yes. I skipped school for this. You hear that?” She prodded Peter in the ribs. “I skipped school for you. I must like you, or something.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Darcy caught Clint’s eye, and cocked a brow. They hadn’t really talked about what they were allowed to discuss while Gwen was present, which, in hindsight, had been a fuck-up of spectacular proportions. To be fair, though, she thought, as Clint shrugged and opened his orange juice, there had definitely been some extenuating circumstances.

The cuts and bruises looked worse in daylight. Something in her guts clenched uncomfortably at the sight of them. It was a wonder Gwen hadn’t run screaming when he’d picked her up.

“So,” said Gwen, after a moment. “Obviously there’s some stuff I’m not—really supposed to know, so, you know, if you need me gone just say the word, but. Uh.” She pinked up. “I mean, Peter didn’t tell me anything, but I can read between the lines. He said some people are after you?”

Darcy cocked an eyebrow at Peter this time. He shrugged. “Valedictorian.”

“And I aced every AP logic class I ever took.” Gwen hummed. “A plus B equals C. Yeah? I don’t think the people who are after you are the same ones that are after Peter, because he’s an idiot—” she prodded Peter hard in the side “—and managed to stick his nose into something that he probably shouldn’t have, but they’re pretty strong-bad nasty, so, y’know. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know. It’s probably not the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”

That settled it. Darcy wanted to adopt both of these kids, and keep them forever, because they were just too goddamn nice. Nice kids were a necessity in the world. She cleared her throat. “Um. Yeah. I—thank you. I don’t know what there is to do, really, but—but that means a lot. So thank you.”

Gwen dimpled at her.

“Let me know when you’re done with the science brigade.” Clint touched the back of her shoulder-blade as he passed, and it made her skin prickle. Okay, when did he start getting touchy? “Wilson and I are going to spar.”

“We are?” said Sam, looking unnerved.

“Damn straight we are.” Clint bared his teeth. “I’ll go easy on you.”

“Which means I’ll only be about fifty percent dead when we’re done. Cool. I think I can handle fifty percent.”

“Nat would leave you at ninety percent, so yeah, you’d better be able to handle fifty percent.”

Sam made a face that Darcy classified in her head as both scared and turned on, and then followed Clint out of the room, muttering. It was only once the elevator doors had slid shut again and Howl had leaped up onto the counter to lick cinnamon bun icing off her plate that she said, “So, uh. We can Mario Kart, or we can…I dunno. Talk about illegal things.”

“Mario Kart,” said Gwen. “I think we can save the illegal things until the second date.”

Yeah. She was definitely adopting Gwen Stacy.

After about an hour of getting her ass royally handed to her in video game form (because even if Peter was freakishly coordinated with hella reflexes, Gwen Stacy was a sadist who had a streak of blue shells every single time) Darcy settled with a notebook in her lap and a cat on her feet, alternating between watching Gwen and Peter race (a thing of beauty if there ever was one) and marking off all the things that she needed to get done today. She’d already finished the terabyte drives for Sam, and those were waiting on her bedside table, zippered up into protective cases and everything. Skye of the Rising Tide—well, they were doing what they could with that, her and JARVIS. She had a feeling they were getting closer. There were only so many SHIELD stations that moved, and only so many ways they could define a moving station. Either a helicarrier—which, considering the rest of the passenger list, she doubted—or a plane or helicopter or even a caravan of some sort, but it was the only things she could come up with. For some reason, she was leaning towards plane. Considering the number of people on 616—she hadn’t found all the names yet, but so far she’d uncovered four, one of them HYDRA—it would make sense. (She marked that as 65% on her list, and moved on down the line.) The analysis of the SHIELD documents were going to take the rest of her life, if she was going to be completely honest with herself, but at least they were making a little bit of headway.

Which left the men in black who were coming after her. She’d already labeled Super Secret Agent Man as a mercenary, instead of a CIA agent or whatever his cover had been. It made sense, considering the CIA hadn’t actually issued a warrant in her name, according to JARVIS. Also, that the CIA didn’t actually work on American soil, which should have stuck out to her big time. FBI, not CIA, she thought. So much for her badass GPA. And if fifty thousand dollars had been the base sum for one mercenary, then whoever wanted to grab her had a lot of money to toss around.

Of course, there were hundreds of people, both on SHIELD’s watchlist and off, that that could apply to. She crossed out that line, and moved on to the next one.

Her email to Dr. Banner hadn’t been read yet, according to JARVIS, so there was no way she could keep working on TAHITI today. Not with Gwen here, and not without confirmation that it could actually happen. She didn’t want to work on it today. The thought that someone had been brought back from the dead was unsettling on the best of days, and considering she’d been stitching up a SHIELD agent last night, today was not one of the best of days.

So. That left the waiting game. Again.

Her phone buzzed. One new message from: Pepper Potts. Darcy swiped it open.

JARVIS mentioned you’ve been working with Parker. He’s on the approved list.

Darcy blinked. Then she blinked again. Clearly, she thought, something more was going on with Peter Parker than just a teenage science genius who managed to get himself into too much trouble. She glanced at the back of Peter’s head, and then swiped, Why?

Pepper replied almost instantly. If he hasn’t told you himself, then it’s not my business, but in the interest of full exposure I will direct your attention to this.

There was a Youtube link attached. Darcy turned her volume all the way down, and then hit the link. It was a grainy cell-phone video, barely up to the digital quality of her StarkPhone, even with all its enhancements. But.

She glanced at the back of Peter’s head, and then down at the video labeled Spider-Man sighting, Hell’s Kitchen, April 21.

Oh, she thought. Mutant. Lamp-post. Oh.

“Holy shit,” she said aloud. Gwen looked around, and blinked at her.

“Darcy?”

“Nothing.” She turned her screen off. “Uh. Nothing. Doesn’t matter.”

Peter looked around this time. “You sound weird.”

“It’s fine!” Her voice was squeaking. How was it that after everything she had seen in the past few years—aliens, space elves, her boss sucked to the other end of space, Clint Barton wrecking one of Tony Stark’s bars—that this was what was giving her an anxiety attack? He’s too young, she thought, staring at him. Too goddamn young for this. “I’m fine. Nothing. I just—Pepper texted me. Uh. It’s Stark Industries stuff.”

Peter’s eyes narrowed, but then Gwen threw a blue shell while he wasn’t looking, and he looked away from her again. Darcy opened her phone back up.

SOME WARNING ABOUT THE SPIDER BOY WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE, HILL, she texted, and then went back to Pepper. Any news about Liz?

We have a few candidates. I think we’re nearly there.

Darcy waffled for a moment. Then she said to Pepper, You may not hear this much, but you’re actually evil.

Thank you for the compliment. ;)

Okay. She was done for the day, because Pepper Potts had just sent her a winky face. Pepper Potts was officially spending too much time with Tony Fucking Stark.

Her phone buzzed again. It took you this long to work it out? Foster would be ashamed. -mh

“My life is insane,” she said, and pressed her face into the nearest pillow.

Gwen patted her hair. “Tell me about it.”

.

.

.

@darcethefarce: When did my life become this?

@drfosterj: @darcethefarce ???

@darcethefarce: @drfosterj MY LIFE BECAME THIS BECAUSE OF YOU, JANE. THIS IS YOUR FAULT.

@drfosterj: @darcethefarce STOP YELLING AT ME I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S EVEN HAPPENING RIGHT NOW

@drfosterj: @darcethefarce WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME

@darcethefarce: @drfosterj BECAUSE I WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO SIGN ALL THAT SHIT IF YOU HADN’T BEEN BADASS SCIENCE GIRL

@drfosterj: @darcethefarce I’m going to take that as a compliment.

@drfosterj: @darcethefarce BUT I STILL DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON

@darcethefarce: @drfosterj I’M HAVING A CRISIS OKAY I’M ALLOWED

@gwenstacemaker: @darcethefarce I feel like I should apologize even though I don’t actually know what’s going on.

@darcethefarce has followed @gwenstacemaker!

@gwenstacemaker has followed @darcethefarce!

@darcethefarce: @gwenstacemaker I just have a lot of balls in the air right now. But none in my hands.

@gwenstacemaker: @darcethefarce I’ll just take that like it sounds and move on with my life.

.

.

.

Aside from the whole “Peter Parker is actually Spiderman” dealio, the rest of the afternoon didn’t go too badly. (She couldn’t help but think that it explained a lot. Like how Clint and Peter would have met. And why SHIELD would be interested in keeping him safe if someone really nasty was after him. And why he was allowed to make trick arrows for Hawkeye, because you’re an idiot, Lewis, they wouldn’t just pick a random science fair winner for shit like that! But anyway.) Clint and Sam reemerged at about five o’clock in much better moods, and joined the Mario Kart tournament for an hour or two before they all switched over to Mortal Kombat.

It was, of course, right when Darcy’s Sonya Blade was beating Sam as Batman into the ground when JARVIS cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Miss Lewis, Agent Barton? I apologize for interrupting you, but—”

“What, JARVIS?” Darcy mashed buttons, and then whooped. “Motherfucking fatality! Eat me, Wilson! Sorry, J.”

“No apology necessary, Miss.” JARVIS paused. “I believe Jacob Pollock has just arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport.”

Well, that was a mood killer.

“Jacob Pollock.” Sam’s eyebrows snapped together. “Who’s Jacob Pollock?”

“Mercenary.” Clint glanced at Darcy, then at the Wonder Twins (Peter had a look on his face that meant trouble. Gwen just looked confused.) and then back to Sam. “Why the interest, Wilson?”

“You guys have been cool.” Sam shrugged. “Thought—well. Clearly Pollock means something. That’s all.”

“I have no idea what’s going on,” said Gwen.

“Pollock is basically one of the strong-bads,” said Darcy.

“That makes more sense.”

Clint was still stuck on Sam. Darcy looked from one of them to the other. Can I ship this? “Thought you were heading out, Falcon. Don’t you have some information to get back to the good captain?”

Sam made a face, and rolled his shoulder. It popped. He winced. “Ah. Well, that’s the thing. Cap could use a few days to rest up, more than he’s going to give himself. And—uh.” He ducked his head. “Not gonna lie, you guys are in an interesting situation. Maybe you could use some help?”

For a second, she thought Clint was going to say no. Then he tilted his head, just slightly. “Your wings are out of commission.”

“Doesn’t seem like a job where you’d need wings.” Sam shrugged. “Bag and tag, more like. You need someone who hasn’t been seen with Miss Lewis here.”

“You were dragged off by the three of us in broad daylight with people taking cell phone footage,” said Peter, and Gwen whacked him. (“I didn’t hear about this.” “Sorry, I was going to tell you.” “Yeah, sure, Parker.”) “Seems like a bit of a stretch.”

Sam grimaced. “Duly noted.”

“Still.” Clint tipped his head to the other side, like a hawk eyeing a mouse. “The video footage doesn’t show your face. Or yours,” he added to Peter, who blinked and looked pleased. “Just Lewis’s.”

“What about you?”

“Even if it had shown my face I’d say the weaponry kind of outs me, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well done, Sagittarius.”

“There’s one person you’re all overlooking,” said Gwen, and together they turned and stared. “Darcy can wander around with a bunch of big, burly guys all she likes, and the likelihood of anyone biting the hook is pretty slender. Two women dress-shopping, though…”

“No,” said Peter, without hesitation.

Sam pinched his lower lip. Clint looked thoughtful.

No,” said Peter again. “That’s—that’s reckless as hell. There’s no way that’s—no.”

“I’d say it’s my decision, Peter,” said Gwen, a strand of ice in her voice. “Like everything else has been. And besides, I’ve always wanted to invert the Damsel in Distress trope. Seems like a good time to try it.”

“We can get you a taser too,” said Darcy, when Peter shifted from foot to foot. “I think JARVIS ordered a few extras in case I broke mine. Didn’t you, J?”

“I did, Miss Lewis. I apologize for the presumption.”

“Nah, ‘scool.” She rubbed her jaw. “I don’t want to get you in trouble, Gwen. It could be—it could get nasty.”

“I’ve seen nasty.” Gwen pressed her lips tight together. “Actually, I’m sick of seeing nasty. If I can stop nasty, I want to help. And I will,” she added to Peter, when he looked like he was about to say something. “Because I can make my own decisions. We talked about this.”

“Not about this, specifically—there’s a difference, Gwen—”

“Really? I don’t see one.” Gwen put her controller down, and stood. She offered her hand to Darcy. “Hi, I’m Gwen Stacy, and I’m here to help.”

Darcy looked at Peter. Then she looked at Clint. Finally, she looked at Gwen again, and took her hand. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Darcy Lewis. Let’s get you a taser.”

Gwen smiled.