Chapter 1: Prologue
It is warm and smooth in her hand. Her fingertips skitter over the edge in moments, turning and turning to complete rotations at the speed of thought. Slivered bands of light wrap against its convex side, twisting, lengthening, widening, and then shrinking again as she turns it. It is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. The edges are dull, pinching light and smothering purpose. She loves the edges the same as their fuller brother.
She stares at it for hours, turning it in fingers she can no longer stand to see, fingers that do not exist. The light catches its dull surface, bright and beautiful in her mind. It is a long fixed point of brightness, cutting diamond bright against the dirty silver. Then she turns it, jerky motions, and watches a lonely kaleidescope come alive over the surface.
They shine down the length of its handle, whorls and flowers cut into the length of it. She licks her lips as she runs her finger over the curled stem, more a hook now than a handle. For their protection. For her protection.
There is a screech of metal behind her, the warning bell, and she tucks the bauble back against her wrist, her lap, any place that might hide its light as she sits up. She reflexively pulls away from the door, catching sight of the body there, made dark by contrast. She already knows who it is by the cut of their silhouette, but she still freezes against the back wall.
“Ahh, hello sweetheart. How are we feeling today?”
She says nothing. It is not expected of her.
“It’s beans. Maybe some bread tonight if we’re good.”
She watches her feeder, her old white and blue hands, spotted with dark brown, dirty nails, dirty face. Dark eyes turn toward hers, and she does not breathe.
“It’s all right, now. Eat,” says a kind voice.
She does not move, waits for the fuzzy shadow to retreat, waits for the world to stop shaking, waits.
When there is dark in the room again, light shining beneath the door, she crawls forward, holding to her treasure as she bypasses the pan that has been left for her. To the left of the door are the now familiar scratches she has made. There are over fifty there now. She adds another.
She lays back against the floor again, curling into herself and buffs her treasure with her thumb.
“My name is Darcy Lewis,” she whispers to it. “I am right.”
Chapter 2: Thor's Return
Thor returned only a few weeks after returning Loki and the Tesseract to Asgard. He came alone, without full battle regalia, and wearing a tighter smile than the Midgardians would recognize. Smile he did, though, for his return was not without purpose.
Conference must be attended with the cyclopic Directory Fury, and more dear to his own heart was a sorely needed reunion with Jane. Neither would he be opposed to reunion with his new brothers in arms. Director Fury first, though, for as much as Thor was still imbued with a merry heart, he had embraced duty, if not as his second love then as a necessary obligation.
It was not difficult to gain audience with the man. He had been transported directly to Tony Stark’s new dwelling in the city of New York, the site of their previous battle with Loki. During his latest absence from Midgard, Tony had allowed the introduction of some of the SHIELD company, who had accepted his invitation with great enthusiasm. Many of the mansions were their dwelling now, at least for business they might conduct during daylight hours.
Thor was given this information from Virginia Potts, who was kind enough to dismiss the SHIELD operatives who met his arrival with an authority they respected. Then she guided him to Director Fury, though he was able to intuit the duty was beneath her station. Graciousness was in her nature, though, and she did not leave until she was assured of his comfort.
“Welcome back Mr. Odinsson,” she said with a nod of her head even as she departed.
He was mostly at ease as he waited for the Director. New York City held a splendid charm of its own. Though not as opulent as Agard, he was very glad to see the city recovering. The resilient spirit of Midgardian people did not reside only in its heroes, he could see very easily. It was with this thought in mind that he accepted the hospitality of Nicholas Fury and readily gave the man the information he sought.
The Tesseract was secure in Odin’s vault. Loki had been made secure in the custom of Asgard, and as befitting a prince, even a prince in violation of principle’s and duty.
“What does that mean, exactly?” Fury asked from the seat behind his desk.
“Particular details are not for SHIELD’s knowledge,” Thor said diplomatically, but with finality. Loki was still a son of Odin, for all his indiscretions. Thor could not look at the city, then. He did not want to see her hurts nor think of who had inflicted them. Loki’s punishments would not be made the course of public consumption while Thor could intervene. “It is enough that he is secure, that earth is secure.”
Director Fury was a wise man, as he had been when he had withdrawn intent toward the Tesseract in favor of seeing it returned to Asgard. Thor was glad then, and now, that he had not had to press the point. The City had seen enough force and violence. Even gladder he was that the Director accepted this new information gracefully and without argument. Whatever purpose he had hoped to cull from the cube was gone now, and realizing it made Thor respect him even further. He was a worthy ally.
“There was no way to hide what had happened in May,” the Director informed him as part of their conference. “Mostly things are back to normal. Our personnel have been returned to their previous stations, including one Dr. Foster, who I believe you might be interested in meeting.” Thor was too good natured to be upset by such a joke, but when he laughed his amusement, Fury blinked at him. A solemn thing that, the blink of a one-eyed man.
“How might travel to Puente Antiguo, New Mexico, be established, then?” he queried. He was not sure how far apart the cities were. Though he was confident he could make an extensive journey on horseback, his previous attempt at securing transport had been met with impediment, nor did it seem that many in this realm traveled in such a manner.
“Ah,” the Director interjected in a curious way. “While I’m sure the desert is lovely summer,” he said in a tone that greatly belied his assertion, “Dr. Foster has been permanently reassigned. She’s no longer in New Mexico.” Now, even though the Director’s face was still solemn, Thor had a very strong intuition that he was being laughed at. He resisted the urge to share his impatience.
“Pray, sir, where might I find her, then?”
“Floor twenty-three, with Dr. Selvig. Dr. Banner helps them part time, when he’s feeling up to it.”
The words sailed over him, the secondary commentary as well, and Thor blinked, “Do you mean… this very edifice?”
“I do,” he said easily, stacking a number of sheafs of paper in a rhythm that was very reminiscent of laughter.
Thor maintained his own composure well. Despite a fierce desire to reunite with Jane, to ascertain if her affections were the same as his own, he could not bring himself to move directly.
“Are we to meet with my brothers in arms before retiring, then?” he asked. Obligation before merriment, though to meet with the other ‘Avengers’ would surely be inclusive of both.
“That would be a good idea,” he agreed, folding his hands on top of his stacked papers. “However, given that most of them are on assignment, and many are out of the country, we’ll probably have to postpone the reunion.” Thor stared at him. Fury stared back. “You’ve done more than I asked for,” the man assured him. “As far as I care, you’re free to go. If you have any questions, you know where to find me.”
“Verily. I must away, then, Director Fury.”
“Sure. Do you want an escort?”
“I shall manage,” he affirmed and directed himself out of the office.
Jane was much unchanged from their time apart. She moved with the same frantic energy that she channeled most magnificently. Her hair was perhaps a bit shorter. So focused was she in her task at hand that she did not see him straightaway through the glass door.
The lab space was more open than the similar space in New Mexico, and there was much more equipment than he remembered from their first encounter. When he stepped towards the door, it moved of its own accord, concealing itself within the wall. Erik looked up at his entrance, and though Thor did not remember him to be an easily startled man, he seemed given to dropping his coffee cup, much the same way he had lost control of his hands at the appearance of Sif and the Warriors Three. It landed on the lab counter over which it had been held in that moment,
“My understanding is that such actions are in opposition to your custom, Erik Selvig,” he chided familiarly. Erik grinned at him while Jane continued turning the knob of one of their machines, staring into its small viewing screen. Thor felt some of his hopes falter. Had he been mistaken?
“Ahem, Jane,” Erik called.
“Just a second. I can’t believe this spectrometer is so off calibration. What the-”
“ Jane ,” Erik repeated, and she looked up in slight confusion, asking, ‘What?’ with her eyes before she followed his nod.
Her face slackened. At once, her fingers released the knob, and she stood up straight. Her hands fell to her side, then clasped in front of her, then dropped again. Was she nervous? Anxious? The human woman who had run head first towards the Destroyer? She smiled a sweet, gentle smile.
“Hi,” she breathed, and he grinned, strode toward her, his own concern melting away. She met him halfway, catching her hip on a movable tray and slowing not a whit.
“Jane,” he murmured as he embraced her small form and was not ashamed of the emotion in his voice.
Erik coughed and made himself scarce. It was well that he did for their reunion became much more enthusiastic in privacy, though not so much to bring shame to either of them in front of open windows.
Minutes later, with Erik returned and Thor in much improved spirits, he found himself addressing a point of curiosity, “And what of the Lady Darcy, then? Is not still your…” he did not use the word ‘hand maiden,’ though it was on the tip of his tongue, “assistant?” Jane smiled and nodded, intuiting his grasp for the word.
“I haven’t seen her in a months, actually,” she answered, to his great surprise. Jane’s tone faltered at the expression on his face, “Not, well, since we left New Mexico.”
“Have you not been in communication with her?” he clarified.
“Oh,” Jane said with a wince, “Not really.” Curiosity turned to confusion. Surely this was a Midgardian custom he did not understand. “Her college work with us was over pretty shortly after you went back to Asgard, and SHIELD scooped us up so we could keep working, moved us out of the desert.”
Thor could not hide his disappointment, not with Jane, and he told her so quickly, but added, “It is not my way to cut loose the companions of my adventures.” This was true. Looking back, Darcy had been one of the first Midgardians to help humble him. Truthfully, she was the only human yet to have done so, excluding the Hulk Bruce Banner, who was in quite a different office.
Jane elevated her head in a slow, lengthy nod. Her face was pained, and he knew she understood. “Regardless of reason, we must rectify the situation at once,” he said, clapping his hands to dispel the melancholy that threatened to settle over them.
“You know what, you’re right,” she said, catching his enthusiasm. He grinned at her and did not hesitate to embrace her. Her arms fit quite well over his shoulders, he decided.
“I’ll give her a proper call, then,” Erik announced from the back of the lab.
Thor watched him pull one of the pocket communication devices from his trousers as Jane called out, “It’d be better just to fly her into the city and catch up on everything that’s been going on.”
“Perhaps not everything ,” Erik replied lowly, his hand over the mouthpiece of the device. Jane smiled sadly at him, and Thor knew well to what Erik referred. His actions under the influence of the Tesseract and of Loki, were surely unpleasant memories, if he remembered them at all. It had been distressing enough on the periphery of Loki’s actions, and he was glad all over again that SHIELD had seen to Jane’s safety at once.
“I shall stay long enough to reunite with the lady, then,” Thor agreed, and Jane smiled at him again, pulling him from the lab as Erik called their friend. He could see the happiness in her face but a shade of reluctance as well.
“So it’s a short visit, then?” she asked as they walked arm in arm through the marbled hallway, enjoying a moment of privacy.
He gave a solemn nod before explaining, “Asgard has not been this unsettled in many hundred years. Loki’s punishment has not been decided.” It was a sign of his trust in Jane that he confided in her what he could not in her superior. “I would not rush this time for him. He has been… wounded in ways that I do not fully understand.” He would have to explain the nature of their parting from Asgard, how greatly changed Loki had been after that moment. Even so, Jane stared up at him with such a sympathy that he could not help but smile at her. She shook her head and laid a hand on his arm.
“It’s all right, Thor. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t a little hurt when you were unable to see me, but it was a hellacious time, wasn’t it? And you’re a prince, and more importantly, a brother.” They stopped and he stared down at her, overwhelmed by her understanding. There was nothing of the pretender in her, only sincerity and concern. “You do what has to be done now, OK? And I… Well, just don’t forget me, either.”
He agreed with his arms, with his embrace, scooping her close and holding her closer. She held on to him tightly, and he promised her that he would not.
“Besides,” she assured him, “I’ve been plenty busy as it is. We’re really close to opening the Einstein-Rosen Bridge on our end.” He gaped at her with the wonder of her brilliance and she grinned at him, her happiness bubbling up into laughter as they embraced again. The good news was enough to overshadow
They found out a few minutes later that Darcy had not answered her phone. Not the first time, nor the fourth time Erik called a few hours later.
They arrived in Willowdale, Virginia, the next morning after a hasty retreat from the local municipal airport. Even with Tony Stark’s insistence that Thor could not be subjected to public transit, Jane insisted the man was showing off, and it would have been faster to just drive themselves. Erik drove from their airport while she navigated from the backseat next to Thor and tried to wake up with coffee from Stark’s plane.
Willowdale was exactly as she remembered, but it was not a comforting thought. They had been doing research in New Mexico for a summer before Darcy had arrived. With her they had stayed another semester, making it almost two years since she had been at the university for any respectable length of time. Now she was no longer employed there, despite being the youngest professor in their history to receive tenure.
She could be there now, still researching, still teaching, still keeping an eye on Darcy. The mixed possibilities entered her mind. Objectively, she knew they were impossible. Even before Thor had arrived, her team had been on the verge of something amazing, life-changing. His appearance, surrounded by tragedy, had cinched the understanding of something beautiful. Then they had spent the night on top of the lab discussing Yggdrasil and theory and fantastic ideas that she now believed without having seen any of them. Only, Thor had insisted that she saw them every day. She believed data and facts and strong evidence, and she believed him. Had her belief in these things, her desire to see them up close and personally, compromised Darcy in some way?
Thor’s arm was a reassuring weight around her shoulders, his side close but comfortable. She wished they could have cuddled under more pleasant circumstances, but she was glad he was here. His presence kept her from the distraction of berating herself. Erik could have done the same, but more logically and not so efficiently or effectively.
“She is still much a child,” Thor assured her quietly. “Surely this is a misunderstanding.”
“You’re right,” Jane said with a nervous smile, not fully convinced, but at least staying calm about it all. She grinned at the idea of Darcy’s contained enthusiasm at the sight of Thor, of all of them. “She’s gonna flip her shit.”
“And this is a customary practice in exciting situations?” he asked mildly. Jane stared at him, then laughed politely, holding back in case he found offense with her amusement. “Right,” he amended with a knowing nod. “Metaphor.” She laughed more heartily then, and gave his hand a firm squeeze that he readily returned.
Darcy’s address was available on her heavily neglected Facebook page and it was only half an hour before they were making the rounds through her apartment’s parking lot. Erik stilled the spacious carriage with gentle skill outside of a humble building. It was tall, but looked the exact same as all of its neighbors. Its yard was small, with no wild beauty or much thought given to landscaping.
“Let the shit-flipping commence,” Thor announced loudly as he departed the carriage, Jane’s hand still in his own.
The sun was promising to be bright on the hidden horizon, but the sky was still milky and pale. No one was yet stirring. Jane pointed out the apartment she thought to be Darcy’s and Thor grinned, shouting, “RISE, DARCY! You shall be well met!” as they strode toward the building. His enthusiasm was catching, Jane thought, and much needed, given the worry that had been gnawing at her since the evening before.
“It’s eight in the morning on a Sunday,” Erik chided them at a quieter volume. “Darcy’s probably still sleeping.” He held back, sure in his statement. He had seen a half-conscious Darcy more times than healthy. It was just as well to stick back until Jane and Thor had run interference.
They knocked, loudly and repetitively. Jane called to Darcy through the door, trying to engage her vocally. Thor added his own encouragement, ruining the possibility of a greater surprise. Jane was certain that he was certain that increased volume would encourage Darcy to move faster. It did not. It did incite the neighbors to shouting at them, a warning, “It’s eight on a weekend! Calm down, or we’re calling management!” Chastised, the pair fell entirely silent.
Undeterred, though, Jane began a pat down of Darcy’s shoe rack. She shortly found a key that fit the door and allowed them into the dark apartment.
She surveyed the musty space with wide eyes, noting the drawn curtains and utter lifelessness of it. Whatever pep and reassurance she had conjured at the idea of a reunion fled away immediately. She passed the key off to Thor and strode back toward the back of the apartment while Thor stayed behind. She caught sight of him looking around over her shoulder for just a moment before she darted past an open bathroom and into the back bedroom.
It was spotless, the bed made and no clothes strewn over the floor. That in and of itself would not normally have been a cause for alarm except that Darcy, while not a complete slob, had always clung to what she called ‘healthy clutter.’ It had invaded her workspace in the lab at times, but had also invaded her living space in Puente Antiguo. The level of cleanliness in front of Jane now only further twisted the frustration in her chest.
She returned to the front of the apartment to find Thor standing in the kitchen, where he informed her, “There is a small dead fish near the window as well as a very wilted plant.
“Not like her,” she said and turned into the kitchenette. It was small, but stocked with a stove and a refrigerator. The taller appliance, as it turned out was well-stocked with mostly spoiled foods. It was dark inside the machine, and the flat smell of rotten vegetables hit her nose first, then Thor’s, and she took only one other cursory glance before closing the door firmly.
A click-click behind revealed Thor trying to turn on the overhead lights.
“This task is not beyond me,” he said flatly.
“No, the electricity’s out,” she informed him, thinking of the darkness in the rest of the place. Even Darcy’s room with a power strip along the floor had been as dark as the rest of the place.
A knock at the door let her know Erik had arrived, but when she went to apprise him of the situation, she saw a stranger letting himself into the room. He was a middle-aged man, perhaps near to Erik’s age with an easy, if nervous, smile.
“Sorry to interrupt, ma’am, sir. Y’all wouldn’t happen to be friends of Miss Lewis, would you?” he asked.
“We are. Who are you?” Jane asked pointedly.
“Oh, I’m Mark. Mark Graham. I’m the manager of this complex. The neighbors called over and complained about the noise.” Jane rolled her eyes at the ability of people to completely overreact. The sun was up, and people could get their lazy asses out of bed, she thought uncharitably. “I thought while y’all were here, I might check and see if Darcy was with y’all.”
“She is not. Have you seen her recently?” Thor asked before Jane’s emotions could get the better of her.
“No,” he admitted and then shrugged as he admitted, “And to tell the truth she’s two weeks late on rent. I ain’t wanted to bother her, because this ain’t normally her way seein’ as she’s got automatic bill pay and all, but-” He winced. “Since y’all are friends of hers, she’s missed a couple of other payments this year. And we got a policy about missing rent too many times.” There was a sympathetic shrug to his shoulders, as if the matter was out of his hands, but Jane barely noticed.
Her body had seized tighter with every word until she felt like throwing up. This was not right at all. This was not Darcy at all.
“Jane, your mobile communication device,” Thor said firmly, his voice measured and calm. She handed it to him without hesitation.
Thor took the mobile and returned to their carriage where Erik was waiting, propped against the vehicle. It only took a few seconds, seeing Thor’s expression and the lines of his posture, to realize that something was wrong. “I am calling the Avengers,” he said flatly, and watched Erik’s face only long enough to see his eyes widen almost comically. He could not properly explain what was wrong, though, not while he dialed for the team’s assistance. He said only, “Darcy is missing,” and then returned to his task. Jane appeared then, looking distraught, tears already in her eyes.
“The manager said he hasn’t seen her in ages, and the neighbors haven’t seen her in weeks.” She clasped her hands to her mouth, closing her eyes tightly. Erik went to her while Thor managed the phone, feeling his heart rend at the sight of her distress.
“Hi, you’ve reached Steve. Uh, please- leave a message? Leave a message at the- beep,” was the recorded memory that played against his ear. Thor resisted the urge to growl in frustration. Instead he dialed Tony Stark’s number. He remembered the lengthy combinations they had bestowed on him some weeks ago, thought he would never have need of them, but he was glad he remembered them now.
“Should we be calling the Avengers for one missing girl?” Erik asked, speaking levelly. “Shouldn’t we contact the local authorities first?” Thor frowned, but did not dismiss his wisdom. This was his world.
Therefore, he was carefully respectful when he answered, “Forgive my directness, Erik Selvig. However, the times I have encountered Midgard’s municipal authorities they have accomplished little and strike me as inept.” The phone continued to trilling in his ear. He frowned impatiently. “Were we in Asgard, I would rely on The Warriors Three, Sif, perhaps even guardsmen for assistance. In Midgar, the closest friends I have are the Avengers. Together we will do what we must to find her. There will be no delay.”
Jane nodded her agreement and Erik did as well. The pair sidestepped away from Thor as Tony Stark finally answered his phone. She informed him of the state of Darcy’s apartment, the unlikelihood of her departing to such a degree.
“She’s spontaneous, but not irresponsible. Well, not this irresponsible,” she affirmed, drying her eyes. They were moving. Things were happening. This was good. Erik was silent, holding a hand to her shoulder as they both watched Thor convince Tony of the necessity of his help.
“I- uh…” Jane faltered, and did not look at Erik when he turned to her. “We haven’t spoken since New Mexico.” He frowned, and she pushed on. “I texted her, tried to call, but we never connected. I checked her Twitter every few weeks at first, then every few months, and after a while…” When she did look at him, she was ready for recrimination, but Erik frowned and shook his head.
“She and I did not speak, either, though in much the same manner you describe. I texted her just a few days ago, after the Chitauri attack ended. I wanted to make sure she was all right.” Jane nodded solemnly. She could well understand at least a few layers of what Erik wanted to reaffirm, wanted to clarify for himself, after being under the influence of the Tesseract. She swallowed, while he added, “I should have known when she didn’t respond then that something wasn’t right, but I told myself she was OK. No news was good news.”
“Lady Potts has arranged transporation,” Thor announced with a clear intent to interrupt them. Good, since they were well on their way to losing themselves in guilt. “They will arrive in a few hours. She has offered to contact SHIELD on our behalf, which I have accepted.” He sighed. “Were the Son of Coul still alive…” he lamented, and for a moment the three were very quiet as the sun continued to rise, warming the morning.
It was Jane who broke the silence first. She cleared her throat, wiped at her eyes, and then held her hand out to Thor. He returned her cell with a reluctance born of curiosity. She took the phone and began manipulating it immediately.
“We can’t just wait for SHIELD,” she announced with a steady voice. “I’m going to check Facebook and Twitter and see if I can find anything. If she left on her own, if she did, I’m going to KILL her… then maybe we’ll find a hint of where she is. Erik, call Izzy’s and see if maybe, for some reason, she went back to New Mexico. Spontaneity and all.” She turned away from both of them, but not before Thor saw the hard, purposeful look on her face. She was so determined and focused, despite her distress, that he could not help but love her. It was as he had told her a year ago. She was brave as well as clever.
The scientists continued in the vein of their comfort, researching. Thor, as was his new trial on most days, exercised patience. Despite Jane’s insistence, and her desire to keep herself busy, there was not much they could do without the aid of the others. There were no clues in Darcy’s apartment, no directions for them to go on.
They would have to wait.
Chapter 3: Darcy, Past and Present
Warning in this chapter for torture. If you are not comfortable reading semi-graphic torture scenes, please skip the scenes in present tense. Past tense is safe, however.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The day after Thor returned to Asgard, Darcy assumed they would be spending the rest of the night in the town Bar drowning Jane’s sorrows. The week had been hella strange, to say the absolute least, and Darcy herself was looking forward to a little liquid relaxation. It was Jane, though, who had lost her brand new boyfriend. Erik had already indulged two nights before, before Thor’s RenFair friends and the Destroyer.
But, no. That very day SHIELD had returned all of their equipment, including her iPod, bless ‘em, and the three of them had spent several hours rearranging all of the equipment into their previous positions, double-checking calibrations and informational integrity. Just when Darcy had been about to veto both of the scientists’ actions in favor of burgers and a few shots of Maker’s Mark, Jane had loudly and pointedly directed them to start loading up the van in the manner they had for the past three months.
It was a clear night, and she was not wasting any time on getting back to work. Darcy should have known that something as trivial as a brush with death would not stop the woman. She had been the same person directing Darcy into the eye of the storm (uh, Bifrost) the first night Thor had appeared, after all.
So they loaded the van, she grabbed the SHIELD satellite access codes, and they had been off. Then she had promptly fallen asleep an hour into observation, only a little guilty that she was not more concerned. When Thor returned, she was sure the noise would wake her up. It wasn’t like a tornado dropping on your head was easy to ignore.
Instead she woke to Erik shaking her shoulder so she could take them back to the lab. It was nearly four in the morning, still well before sunrise. Without words, she learned that there had been no sign of Thor, and she had caught sight of Jane staring at her equipment with practically tangible sadness.
Darcy caught a few more hours of sleep upon their return, and as the only one of their group who had slept during observation, was the first to wake. She made the coffee and pop tart run, remembering that it had been Thor who had eaten them all, and she found herself missing him more than she felt she had any right to. It wasn’t like he was her godly boyfriend, or anything. Just, if he said he would come back, why wasn’t he back yet? Was he hurt, she wondered, and resolved not to mention him to Jane unless she brought him up first.
They spoke little of him, though Jane spoke with increasing enthusiasm over the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Something Thor had said to her in the abstract, the night Erik had gotten super hungover, had helped her own theories click. She felt like she could almost pinpoint the time it would take her to open the bridge from their world. To where, she did not specify, but Darcy assumed she meant to wherever Thor was.
Days passed and he did not return. It was easy to see that the disappointment was eating at Jane. Darcy caught her crying a few times when she thought no one was looking. Once, they even hugged long enough for her to get her feelings out. It was kind of weird, but mostly good. The woman who had started out as her adviser and boss had become like a big sister, with the flip flopping dependency roles and all.
Nothing bonded people like almost being blown up by a hollow, fire-breathing metal golem-thing. And Darcy did feel bad for Jane that her space-boyfriend was missing. But Thor was tough, he had proved that before he left, and Darcy was confident he was still alive and well. She just wanted him to show up and prove it with his existence so Jane would stop crying.
A full two week after The Destroyer had ravaged Puente Antiguo, Darcy was stopped one morning on her way out from the lab on the bi-weekly coffee run. One of the Suits from SHIELD, it seemed, was at their door. She hesitated at the approaching woman, turned back inside and called, “Jane, we’ve got company!”
She was about to press on to the market, when Jane called from the depths of the kitchenette, “Can you let her in?”
Intrigued, she did as she was asked, noting the woman’s crisp black suit, Raybans and the Acura parked in their lot. Yep, SHIELD all the way.
“Good morning,” Darcy called as the woman approached. “I’m Darcy Lewis, the help. Won’t you please come in? Mistress Foster awaits in the great hall,” she said with an exaggerated bow. “Hey, isn’t shock and awe more your style?” she asked as Agent Nameless breezed past her into their humble abode. Darcy wondered for a moment if she was from the original group that had raided them before. The woman did not seem familiar. She did not remember any women in the group at all, come to think of it.
“Dr. Foster, Dr. Selvig, good morning. I’m Agent Brown with the Strategic Homeland-
“You’re with SHIELD, we know,” Jane interrupted, mostly pleasant. “I got your call yesterday. Thank you for that, by the way, instead of just dropping in on us.”
“Not at all. I see the town is well under way of getting back to normal.”
“Yep, though, I’m seriously doubting you came here to talk about reconstruction. What’s going on?”
“Agent Coulson did mention he liked you. Now I see why.” Jane and Darcy perked matching suspicious stares at Brown, who smiled at them from her seat, unaffected.
She opened a thin suitcase and pulled from it two matching folders. One she handed to Jane and the other to Erik. Darcy watched as both opened the folders and almost simultaneously stopped to regard each other.
“Hello? Translate for the illiterate, maybe?” Darcy prompted. But whatever they had seen, it was too much for them to answer right away. She looked to Agent Brown who was smiling more genuinely.
“SHIELD has extensive resources. When Agent Coulson encouraged Dr.s Foster and Selvig to continue their research, it was not a vain hope that they would do so. We wish to see them succeed. What the doctors are currently reading is a contract to buy out their tenures from Culver University so they can come under the SHIELD umbrella for the foreseeable future.”
“Whoa,” Darcy breathed, drawing back appreciatively. When she looked at Jane, she was grinning. Erik’s eyes were the widest she had ever seen them. She knew that the academic world was totes competitive, and grant money and research funds were pretty commonly cutthroat, so this was a big deal for them. Part of her could not help but wonder at the strings attached, but Jane looked too thrilled for Darcy to burst her bubble.
“New labs, new equipment, a few more staff members and…” Jane paused in her gushing and looked directly at Agent Brown, “Indefinite funding?” The look on face was incredulous, but her eyes were positively Bambi. The only other times she had been so sparkling was measuring particle data and when Thor kissed her knuckles. Yeah, Darcy had seen it. So had the whole town. “There’s got to be a catch,” Jane insisted.
“Of course,” Agent Brown agreed, so magnanimously that Darcy blinked. This kind of mind-gaming was above her. She was used to bald-faced lying and regular undergrad, sorority drama; not the liars who mixed lies and truth together. “It just depends on whether or not you can live with them.”
Erik whispered a, mostly unnecessary, “Be careful, Jane.”
To which, Brown responded, “Everything we’re asking is there in the paper, in triplicate, for you to have a copy, and for us to have doubles.”
“So, let’s go over the catches, then,” Jane insisted, and Dr. Foster came to the forefront as she took a seat with the woman.
“Our preeminent concern is the curiosity that other parties might present in your research. Our organization can contain much, but there’s no way we can completely hide everything that’s happened here.”
“Ironic,” Darcy interjected, and was shushed by Erik.
Agent Brown cut her eyes toward Darcy for a split second in a way that made her stomach clench and unclench in an unpleasant way. Her glance had barely lasted a moment, but Darcy could not shake the feeling it meant something. The woman had barely spoken to her at all. Probably because she did not have a string of degrees after her name, but whatever.
“To protect your research, to protect you, anything that you might wish to present at conference or for publication will have to be thoroughly vetted. Any specific intellectual property will be patroned by a dummy company, and you won’t be allowed to mention extraterrestrial life forms.”
“That,” Jane said with a scrutinizing expression, “sounds doable. Anything else?” That doe-eyed look was coming onto her face again.
Agent Brown did not glance at Darcy this time, but the hesitation she displayed made her nervous all the same. Then the agent opened her mouth.
What followed was a rather humiliating conversation in which she made it very clear that one of the major stipulations would be cutting Darcy out of any further research. Since Miss Lewis’ “Yeah, way to be patronizing,” time was drawing to a close, “How did you know that?” and she would be returning to Culver U. Soon, “Patriot Act much?” she would need to sign a multitude of binding, non-disclosure agreements. Then she would be required to leave the premises, and preferably, Puente Antiguo. SHIELD was willing to compensate the young woman for her services rendered up until this time, despite this being an unpaid internship, and would in no way compromise her six credits. In fact, they encouraged Dr. Foster to, at the appropriate time, sign off on a satisfactory performance in all applicable fields.
The agent continued to expound on how Darcy was in no way an asset to their program. Though she was an excellent student in her field she did not excel in any hard sciences and never shown an interest in them that could be proved on paper. At this point she was a liability at best.
When the diatribe ended, Darcy stood stock still and tucked her hands into their pockets to hide their shaking. She had never been dressed down so clinically in her entire life.
“You’ve got to be joking.”
She looked up, adjusting her glasses to look at the heated expression on Jane’s face, Dr. Jane Foster’s face. Darcy would never be able to convince Jane of how much those words meant to her in that moment. “How dare you barge in here like this and dictate the importance of my staff, my friend?” Erik drew up straight, his eyes darting between Jane and Agent Brown.
“Darcy might not be a student of measurable sciences,” Darcy winced, “but I assure you she is an asset to this team. Darcy’s the one who keeps us motivated. She buys our food and makes our coffee, keeps the lab clean.”
“Jane,” Darcy groaned. She knew her boss meant well, but that was more embarrassing than helpful.
Agent Brown returned the unconvinced look she had been given minutes earlier. “Oh!” Jane tried again. “Darcy is the one who realized that Thor had come through the first Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Yeah! She’s the one who made the connection.”
“Unfortunately,” Agent Brown responded, still cool dignity, “One connection in three months does not an asset make… My orders were quite clear on this point, Dr. Foster. Either Miss Lewis goes, or you lose the possibility of virtually limitless resources.”
“Well, we did just fine before you,” she said without hesitation, “and we will again.” Darcy’s eyes cut to Jane’s face, but Jane was not looking at her, and neither was Erik, but his face had turned red, ready to abort-abort-abort. “So, if that’s all, I’m sorry you drove all this way, and th-”
The two young women’s glances met, and Darcy slowly shook her head, gnawing on her bottom lip. She was generally optimistic, liked to believe that things would work out for the best, and while Jane had never complained about a lack of funding or availability of research opportunities… this was not just about research any more.
“I don’t think I could forgive myself if I let you do this for me,” she said with a mellow grin, happier than she felt. The young doctor, Darcy’s friend, had made a connection with Thor. More than that, whatever happened with Asgard would, and this was not a possibility but a sure thing, be affecting the whole planet. Sooner, rather than later. Darcy believed that with her whole heart that this kind of connection could not be erased, not even by physics.
“Darcy,” Jane murmured, shaking her head.
“I mean, it totally sucks, and this is the worst kind of jack-booted thuggery ever,” Darcy admitted, still grinning, but this time at Erik. His solemn face was drawn together in a way that Darcy did not like. He was serious much of the time, but readily jovial, too. This look did not suit him. “But Agent Brown’s got a lot of good points. Besides, you’ll come by the university from time to time, right? Gotta support your alma mater, right?”
“I graduated from MIT.”
“Oh hush, you know what I mean.”
Before anyone could argue with her, Darcy took the pen she was offered and signed all of her non-disclosure contracts. She did not need to read them. The worst punishment she could imagine was bad enough- death to her and her loved ones if she shared any information. Death or disappearance. Did SHIELD have any cells in Guantanamo? The thought caused a shudder that she tamped down on by accepting the compensatory check that Brown had also brought. Without looking at it, she stuffed the paper into her pocket.
That was the last day she saw Jane or Erik for quite some time.
“You can’t do this to me!” she screeches, and she hopes it sounds as annoying to her captors as it does to her, like two graters battling it out for metallic supremacy. The cell she is being forced into is darker than her apartment bathroom, neither of which have a window. “I am an American citizen, and I have rights! This is totally against the Fourth Geneva Convention!” she adds.
The words sound as bad as her screeching, except with the added bonus of sounding idiotic. That “American citizen” thing was more for comic relief in movies than any actual bargaining chip. Plus, the Geneva Convention only applies to wartime, and there’s no war if there are no known combatants. Whoever has grabbed her doesn’t care if she could recite all of the Conventions to them (parts, for sure). There are snatches of conversation from time to time. None of them have been English, so she might not even be in America for all of her shouting. So much for war parameters.
The words, the accents, to her slightly trained ears, sound more European, melodious in nature but harsh in practice. Her education in European languages stops at “Bonjour!” and “Donde esta el baño?” the former coming from hundreds of repeats of Beauty and the Beast, the latter from freshmen Spanish.
There is no telling how long she has been out of it, no telling how she was even taken. She remembers getting take out from China House II, deliciously greasy fried noodles, paying for her meal, and then… Nothing.
There is a single shaft of light beneath the door. She can not even catch a reflection on an overhead light, and a quick grope next to the door she has just come through reveals no light switches. Frustration makes her berate herself for even thinking there might be. She can not see, either, since they took her glasses, which was rather cruel, all things considered.
Now that things have quieted, now that she’s no longer being man-handled, she can feel the stiffness and aches in her body that only come from disuse. It affirms, if not confirms, that she has been sleeping for a while and might well be out of the country. Ironic. More unpleasant than the general lethargy in her limbs and brain is the drought in her mouth. Her tongue is dry and uncomfortable to move, more like a foreign object, the insides of her cheeks feel stretched taut.
She makes herself comfortable in a corner and tries to make her brain work. She knows immediately, without much effort, that this, whatever this is, is due to Jane and Erik’s work.
The Einstein-Rosen Bridge.
Nothing in her life has even come close to touching on how big that was. Is. It’s the only reason that someone would want to kidnap her. This is not a comforting thought, though, and she tries to steer away from it. She tries, she does, but in a small, dark cell, it’s the only thing she can think of with little effort.
Someone has probably mistaken her for Jane, is all. They look the same in a general way, petite and brunette. Even she can not deny that the similarities end there, though. She is pin-up where Jane is pixie. Her eyes are blue, and Jane’s are brown, and Jane’s actually more blond than true brunette. A sigh fills the room and is swallowed quickly. It’s a small room.
Erik mentioned trouble in NYC, the first text she had gotten from him in months, only days previous. That should have been a sign. Maybe they thought Jane would be easy to snatch afterward, except- Darcy signs in annoyance, but a big part of her is a glad they did not get Jane. If this has been a big mix up, and she is sure it is, though that does not make her feel much better, there is no reason for them to want her. Not Darcy. Anyone at all involved in the project would know immediately how little she knew about physics of any kind. Unless… Unless maybe they grabbed her to get to Jane? Or Thor?
It would be a strong plan, except that she has not talked to Jane since she left New Mexico, and three random texts from Erik do not a relationship make.
She sits in the cell until her legs grow numb. Then she walks them to stay active, remembering the Count of Monte Cristo and Terminator 2. Her cell, measured with hands and guesses in the dark, is much more Sarah Connor than Edmund Dantes. The walls are rough, maybe concrete, but without seeing there’s no way to tell. When she rubs her fingers together after touching them, they feel dirty. Great.
The space is large enough… She thinks that’s a charitable estimation, but she’s trying to stay positive. If she lies on the floor and, yep, lays in a diagonal, she can completely stretch out. That’s something, right?
After a few hours, despite her situation and that her life may or may not be in real danger, all she can think about is how thirsty she is.
She did stay on one more night in Puente Antiguo, one more night in her hotel room with ridiculous hopes that either Jane or Erik would come and convince her to come back, or at least take her out for a goodbye dinner. She had done the adult thing. She had acted in sincerity, thinking that the best thing for Jane, for Thor and earth, would be for her to get out of the way. Damn, it made her sound important from that angle. Not too shabby.
Maybe she could sneak back by the next morning and make coffee, wait for Jane to pull herself out of whatever morning stupor she lived in between consciousness and caffeine. She would wait for Erik to pull out last night’s readings and then, then she would start to help them pack for their new office.
When she drove by the next morning, the office was empty. Not empty like, ‘Oh hey, we stepped out for breakfast and we’ll be back in twenty.’ No, it was the empty that proclaimed no one had ever lived or worked or cried here, and the space was definitely available for the taking.
It should not have surprised her as much as it did, given how quickly SHIELD had cleaned out their space during the course of breakfast a few weeks prior. Give them a whole night, and they could destroy every last strand of DNA in the place. And probably had.
She waited a few hours, but neither Jane nor Erik showed. They had probably already been taken away to whatever hell hole SHIELD would stuff them into. Darcy hoped it was one with a view, at the very least.
She stayed the rest of the day, and let herself have her own pity party. Touring the city on foot was the best way to say goodbye, stopping outside of the too early to open Bar, the hilarious pet store. Ten minutes later she was sitting in Izzy’s eating the pancake special when she took out the check from Agent Brown.
She rolled her eyes before taking a sip of coffee. SHIELD was a bunch of stingy bastards.
It was easy to deflect questions about Jane and Erik. The three had only breakfasted together a handful of times, mostly when she and Erik had had to bodily drag Jane from her work to force her to eat. Man, those all-nighters had been fun.
After finishing her eggs and a second cup of coffee, Darcy settled in for the drive to Virginia.
It was a three-day journey to Willowdale by herself, and though she tried to make it feel like something of a road trip, she could not stop herself from indulging in thoughts of regret. Besides, cross-country trips for one really sucked being. She wished she had spent a moment to demand gas money from the uppity agent. Her two-door coupe was not a gas guzzler like the van, but driving fifteen hundred miles was not going to be cheap, and the severance check from SHIELD was only going to carry her so far.
In her heart of hearts, she had not really thought about going back to the university. Everything had happened with Thor; they had gone from thinking he was a crazy homeless guy (okay maybe only she had thought that,) to realizing he was actually a super benevolent alien and the whole world had changed. Her whole world had changed.
What did it mean to realize that their were Ren Fair aliens out there with their own agendas and not all Vulcan visitors wanting to elevate mankind to faster than light travel and all? Thor and his buddies did not even see the type to have space ships, come to think of it. They just… walked the stars, or whatever.
After getting hands on experience for what Jane was trying to create, just knowing what was an arm’s reach away from the human race, she had been mostly content to make coffee, compile data, and let Erik and Jane do the mentally heavy lifting. As long as she could be a part of it.
The Texas state line was where she made her first call to the pair. Neither of them answered their phones, though Jane was notorious for it. Both machines went straight to voice mail. They really were in the air, then, already on their way to wherever the new lab would be. She hoped they could see the sky, wherever they ended. She hoped SHIELD did not steal all of their brain power. Then they would really never be able to take her calls, much less return them. Then again, what if that was the point, more than keeping her out of the way, anyway? What if they just wanted to steal all of their brain power? Between the two of them there was a hella heap of it.
What about her own brain power? It was already well into fall semester at Culver University, too late to register, much less enroll in classes. She was supposed to get six credits with Jane and Erik. Six. Two semesters worth of work for one class. She would not be able to pick up her final classes until January, and until then she would have to-
She pulled over south of Oklahoma City, when she could no longer see for the tears blurring her vision. Fortunately there was an abundance of fast food and Dunkin’ Donuts to help her get through the slump.
The water is cold in her ears, against her face and eyes. Her mouth tastes strangely sweet. She has tried once drinking the water her head is dunked in, gulping it as quickly as she can. She was on her third mouthful before they struck her hard enough to momentarily blind her. The dunking session ended after that.
She can feel the trembles in her fingers, and for a moment she concentrates on them. Just movement. Just reflex. The lance of panic that always starts in her sternum returns, though, pulled from the puppeteer movements of her spasming digits, crawling up her chest and into her shoulders. They jerk once, held in place by hands larger and stronger than any momentum she can create to struggling. She jerks again, and then she is gone, lost to the fear and burning in her chest. She struggles anyway, knowing she should try to stay calm, knowing that motion makes the pain worse, the choking worse. There is no way to fight fear when already buried in it.
They pull her out of the bucket, long enough to take a horsey gulp of air before they drop her onto the floor, her body pulling the chair with her. Hair mats on her face and blocks her captors’ identities, but she does not care. All she wants to do is breathe. If she does only one thing ever again, it will be to have her fill of the stale, musty air. Water comes from her lungs sluggishly, too little breath to expel it. Another ragged inhalation.
“Now, Miss Lewis, about the Einstein-Rosen Bridge the professor created,” are the words that scamper over her waterlogged ears. She does not move, does not listen, barely hears, and contents herself to ease the ache in her chest.
She has seen this man many times since she arrived. He’s young, older than her by a few years, but still young. His English is not native, but clear and crisp, intonation his only expression. He does not bother to hide his face, he doesn’t need to. The collared shirt he wears is as crisp as his diction, always white, with a dark blue tie, brunette hair coiffed in a chic style, of which she can see the clean edges. He sounds the same today.
He has never touched her.
After a moment of silence, when it becomes clear that she must answer, she takes a shallow breath and tries, “I don’t- Don’t know.”
“You were there,” is the loudly projected voice, impatient and yet still enunciating with the cleanest diction she had ever heard. “You were present when Thor arrived, when the metal beast appeared.” A sigh follows the declaration. She still has no idea who has taken her. They are closed mouth except during interrogation. Even the old woman, the kind woman, only delivers her food, takes her bucket, then leaves. “You were present when Thor disappeared, and most importantly you were present both times SHIELD acquired the resources belonging to your lab.”
“Not my lab,” she wheezes again, coughing around the words. Even after speaks them, truthful as they are, she feels a spike of fear. Not for Jane. Not for Thor or for SHIELD. They are safe, far away from here wherever they are. She feels fear that her words will be mistaken for sass.
She will be obedient. She will tell them the truth.
She can breathe.
The truth and no more.
The first month back was not the worst. After all, she stayed busy settling back into life, and allowed herself to enjoy cup noodles without Erik lecturing on their abysmal nutritional value. She made herself as busy as she could. There were friends to take her out for drinks when they were not overwhelmed with midterms and finals, and she in turn helped them them find sources for their work. She had to finalize her own registration for the spring semester, though with her science credits, and the glowing recommendations from two formerly tenured professors, all she had left was her thesis to write.
New Mexico, Puente Antiguo, the Destroyer, Thor and the Warriors Three- none of them ever made the news. Not ever, and she had looked for them. Apparently Agent Whats-her-face (Brown, please and thanks) had been telling the truth about the way SHIELD could do cover-ups. Either that or it had all been swallowed up by coverage of the debacle Stark Expo had become when Justin Hammer’s brain had broken and he had tried to kill a lot of people, none of whom had died.
Part of her was glad their adventure remained so secret, if it meant Jane and Erik would be safer, she would be safer. On the other hand, none of her university friends could understand what exactly had been amazing about the desert when she reflexively gushed about her experience. Quoting the same cliche, “Well the colors are awesome,” or, “You can really see the stars,” did not do the experience justice, and seemed contrived when compared to her enthusiasm. Go figure.
After a few weeks back in Willowdale, New Mexico was forcefully rewritten in her mind as a paid internship and little more. She had done some stuff, toured around a little bit, and charmed her professors enough to get bangin’ recs for the future. She cashed the check from SHIELD and spent as much time as she could downtown or in Harrisburg, anywhere with enough light pollution that she could not see the stars and be reminded of what she was no longer a part of.
“Do you think you’ll ever go back?” Rachel from sophomore biology (for non-science majors) asked one day over reunion lunch.
Darcy picked at her salad, willed her hand not to stall over the arugula, and answered with a respectably flippant, “Nah. Too much dirt. Not enough booze.” Then she grinned while Rachel rolled her eyes, and they moved onto topics not involving geography.
“Tell me everything you know about Thor,” oxford man says the next time they meet, and she stares at the blurry cream and brown lump that illustrates his head.
Her face is cold. Her whole body is cold, and her clothes have begun to stick to her body with dirt and over use. She glances down at the front of her sweater, stains from things she would rather not think about it. She does not think about them much anymore, at all, her clothes.
She thinks about Thor. She thinks about his bright blue eyes, the way they smiled that last day he was in town. He had blond hair, too long for her tastes, but well-cared for. She thinks about the matching scruff on his face. She thinks about his determination when he had told them to run. He had shouted in that moment, commanded with an authority to be obeyed. She thinks about the way she thought he was behind them, instead of marching to his death. She remembers that he protected them, and tears make her blurry vision worse.
She thinks about the way he scooped Jane close to him when they were all going to the Bridge site. She thinks about Jane’s grin, happier than she had ever seemed in thinking about science.
She thinks about Jane and Erik and the Warriors Three, what little she saw of them in the drive to the Bridge site, when Erik had driven the van to keep his focus and to keep the surreal at bay. Darcy had embraced it.
She thinks about Thor, but she does not speak of him.
She looks up again and stares at the oxford man. In her mind the mantra is clear, “My name is Darcy Lewis, and I am right.” She smiles at him.
He sighs, elegant impatience, and taps his fingers against the tabletop between them. The staccato belies his slow, easy breath, measured tone. The hand lifts in a gesture to the man behind her.
“Again,” he says.
It was the second month, the third, the fourth that were the worst. She fell into a rhythm of preparing for her final semester by reviewing old class notes, renewing friendships with professors, and doing her best not think about New Mexico. It helped a little that Virginia was nothing like it.
The days passed with lukewarm coffee and precious little to do but think on the future. What had life been about before aliens and before earth became impossibly small? Had she expected to do anything good with a polysci degree? Well, anything that could be considered good now?
It had been easy to keep her feelings casual with Jane and Erik, to stall behind discussions of breakfast cereal and whether a permanent bridge between Midgard and Asgard would increase their sales. Kellogg had become something of an ironic battle cry in that last week.
Two days before her final semester began, she spent four hours searching Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for some sign of Jane. A dummy page showed up, or a page that had not been updated since its original creation- Jane’s hair was, when Darcy had last seen her, paler after months in the desert, and longer. Erik was now thinner than he had been when his pictures were put up. They were even still listed as Culver University faculty. Sloppy.
None of the physics department had heard from either of them in several weeks, about the same amount of time as Darcy herself. All signs of them were gone. It was like they had vanished from the face of the earth. It had to be SHIELD, she knew. Agent Brown had even said there were others interested in the research. Apparently, they were doing whatever necessary to keep them safe. Even from Darcy.
“Well, this is pathetic,” she admitted to her laptop as she closed the browser.
She had ice cream for dinner and Jack for dessert.
The day before her final semester, Darcy spent every spare moment she could researching post-graduation positions. The United Nations, the Carter Center, and even, ugh, Capitol Hill.
She holds the metal in her fingers, warming it to the state that feels best, that feels right. The borrowed heat almost feels independent after a few moments and is comforting, friendly. It’s rested against her mouth, the way that some people tap its head against their lips before taking another bite of food. It was a spoon once. She knows what a spoon looks like, what it is used for, but this ceased being a spoon the minute she stole it for herself. They took her food pan and did not search for its missing utensil.
“My name is Darcy Lewis, and Jane is right,” she murmurs to the air. Condensation against the metal surface evaporates almost as quickly as it appears.
“My name is Darcy Lewis, and Erik is right,” she whispers to the not-spoon, ignoring the creature that stares back at her in the reflection of her treasure.
She hears the words, carves them into her heart.
She has to be right.
The door opens, the same scream of rusted metal that she has heard every day. Familiarity does not breed comfort. She scrambles back from the door. Even though the floor is smooth, cold and hard, her joints ache, the skin feels raw.
Her back is to the wall, and her hair shakes like dried willow branches before her eyes as she stares up at the one entering. The silhouette is different. It’s not the kind woman or the oxford man, but the one who takes her to the oxford man. She knows as soon as his bulky shadow appears that there will be pain.
“My name is Darcy Lewis, and I am right,” she whispers to herself.
Her Peace Corps assignment in Egypt was looming. College was, essentially, over. There were plenty of loans left to repay, and would be for years to come. Her thesis defense was only a few days away, but she was done with finals, and she was infinitely more concerned with the coming move to another continent.
Africa. Awesome. Yes, good choice. Okay, it was daunting as hell, with her final semester behind her but as a hopeful horizon beyond her thesis, she was looking forward to something a little less gauntlet-y. Egypt was actually exciting by contrast, and she tried to hang onto the feeling. There was always the old standby of, ‘I’ve been through worse,’ when assignments and self-appointed tasks seemed overwhelming, too.
While she had been applying for the internship in New Mexico the Arab Spring had been revolting just a third of a way around the world. She had written her application for the New Mexico job side by side BBC coverage, if that wasn’t just the irony to end all ironies. The idea of people standing up for right, for good, even when they had little chance of success, it reminded her- Well, honestly, it reminded her of Thor.
She and the others had been running from the danger. Most of the town had evacuated already, but he had walked into hell, ready to die to stop the fighting. To make things right again. That memory, that day, would stay with her forever. It was a flashbulb memory in her mind, and not a day had passed in the eight months since her return to Virginia that she had not thought of it.
She paused, the book in her hand dropping back into her lap. Fandral had held her back, as if she had had any intention of running toward a fire-breathing monster. No one had held Thor back. Jane had tried to reason with him, but his heart had won out.
She glanced back down into the bound set of paper in front of her. Was she too proud in calling it a book? Did she care? Typed and bound as it was the thing was nearly a hundred pages in length. Comparing colonial spread from 18th century Britain to PRC commercialism in a postmodern world. She had been too bored to think of a catchy title, but her advisor had been happy enough. Mostly politics with a sprinkling of religion. Also, she had no stage fright to speak of so the whole thing would probably go well.
She has not been dunked in several visits. She has not been dunked but she misses water. She misses food.
There are a dozen new score marks behind the door, each a tally mark for a visitor- the oxford man, the big man, the kind woman. She sees their shadows as they pass, hears their footsteps as they shuffle. They visit, but none enter, none speak to her.
The kind woman hesitates the longest, and Darcy can see her flat shoes beneath the bottom of the door as they block the light to her treasure.
“Please, Miss Lewis,” is the raspy whisper on the other side of the door. “Please tell them what you know.”
There is a lengthy pause that might maker her believe the woman is gone except she can still see her shoes. Sometimes she dreams things so vividly they seem real. The shoes might be a dream, a waking dream, something that she cannot escape.
She shifts and rolls onto her belly. Her hip bones hurt when they brush the floor. They are sharper than what memory tells her they should be, but that is a less distressing thought than what the oxford man wants to know from her.
He talks about the ‘Tesseract’ now in addition to the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Darcy has no more answers than she ever has, less now, because the small secrets she plays close to her chest have to exist before she can hold them. She has never heard of a Tesseract and would not know one if she saw it. She has nothing to give to the man except the truth: she does not know.
The dunking stops. The hitting stops.
She has time to be relieved. Maybe that time amounts to a day, but she has no watch, no cell phone, no daylight.
The water stops. The food stops.
She wonders if her friends, her mother, Egypt thinks she is dead.
Sometimes she wishes she was dead.
I'm staying one chapter ahead of updates so I can edit the heck out of the latest posted chapter before I actually post it. So the next chapter is written, but completely unedited, whereas this one has been edited thoroughly. If you see errors, please let me know.
In any case, please leave a comment and let me know what you think. This is not going to be easy to write and I would like to do justice to the characters' feelings and what is happening.
“Last rundown before show time,” Steven announced, spreading his fingers over the table as he did a quick scan of those present. None of them were surprised about the time table, but they had still assembled on short notice. Apparently, when the Avengers slept, they slept hard. Self included.
Bruce was sitting against the bulkhead, facing the group with a placid expression, his appearance having taken on a feeling of permanently rumpled. Sloppy was better than the alternative. Tony was also sitting, across the cabin from Bruce, playing with his tablet doing only God knew what. Steve had experienced his attentiveness, and knew that he was still listening, but heaven help all if it was not bothersome to feel like he was being ignored. The man had never been military, more than that his definition of respect was something Steve had yet to grasp.
Thor was the most energetic of them. He was twitching, pacing back in forth in front of the holo-projection that Steve had tried to direct all of them to look at. The prince’s eyes remained fixed on the layout before him, focused and hard, even as he continued stalking.
What had once been a heavy cargo plane had been stripped to its shell and refitted with modern technology, but using ‘modern technology’ around Tony Stark was like saying The Hulk was inherently ‘angry.’ Inside, the plane was virtually silent, insulated well against the noise of the wind buffeting against them. The first part of their trip had been spent sleeping, resting, whatever the others had done during the flight over the Atlantic, in actual beds. Steve did not like to use the word ‘magic’ describing all of the evidence of scientific progress that surrounded him, but even the map in front of him was not toy models on a Cartesian plane.
At the outset, Tony had jokingly called the get up Avengers Force One. Then had followed before anyone could answer with a, “No, don’t use that, it sounds ridiculous.”
“Hey quick question. Why do we need the whole team for a rescue?” the same man asked in the present, before Steve could continue with the briefing.
“It’s not just a rescue,” was his answer.
It had started out that way. The briefing from Colonel Fury had taken place while Dr. Jane Foster had paced outside of his office, watching the muted conference with a quick eye and trying her damnedest to lip read.
Darcy Lewis, former assistant to Dr. Foster, and extremely brief SHIELD employee, had been missing for a few weeks. She had been kidnapped near her apartment at dusk by black-suited brigands, his word not the Colonel’s, without so much as a peep about either ransom or credit for her disappearance. She was not an intellectual asset to SHIELD, but she was important to Dr. Foster, Dr. Selvig, and, most importantly to SHIELD, Thor.
Fury had impressed on him how much man power it had taken to find her, how quickly they had managed to do so, mostly because of their diversion of resources from the rebuilding and security efforts in New York to finding her. It was not a point on which the Colonel initially had been particularly pleased, though he never seemed very happy, but had relented when Thor had reinforced Jane’s request.
The secondary part of their mission had been given after Thor and Foster had been reassured that the entire rescue was a go. Because Miss Lewis was being held at a Hydra facility, one that was just starting to spread its wings in an influential way, the Avengers were being tasked to personally intervene. Take what they could for intel and destroy the rest, but Darcy Lewis was their priority. If she was still alive. If not, they had the go ahead to destroy the base at their earliest convenience.
He frowned in concentration while continuing to explain, “Because the base has been regionally active for a year and continentally for a few months they are part of our secondary directive.” Part of him had wondered since waking, since that moment he had defeated Red Skull, if Hydra would resurface. Apparently, this was his answer.
“So we need to nip operations in the bud,” Bruce added, managing to vacillate the sentence between a question and a statement. The scientist’s expression remained strained, like he was always about the say the wrong thing, but could not stop himself. Despite knowing the reason for his discomfort, Steve smiled in a way he hoped was bolstering.
“Whatever scavenging machinations SHIELD has are of secondary importance to Darcy’s safety,” Thor interrupted, dropping his crossed arms to place his hands on the table as well. Steve stood up straight and nodded, agreeing with the reaffirmation, even if their objectives had been stated slightly differently.
“Let’s stay focused,” he commanded and turned to the projection again. “Black Widow and Hawkeye have been staking out the compound for two days now to transmit the information you see here. From what they’ve been able to gather, our intel is pretty good as far as its structure goes.”
“Is ‘pretty good’ going to be sufficient?” Bruce interjected.
“It’s what we have.” Steve did not shrug as he wished to. The detail he was looking at was enough for him. “I’ve worked with less before, as I know all of you have.” The three nodded sporadically until Steve continued. “They say that the internal computer systems have been encrypted beyond the means of the equipment they were able to carry, but they’ve still done a thorough job of cataloging server types. So that’s a start, right?” The last was directed to Tony who had set his tablet down and nodded.
“It’ll be easy enough to break through any firewalls or protection with JARVIS. Might take a minute or two, depending on the level of security we’re looking at, but I figure we’ll be busy while that’s going on, anyway, so no problem.”
“The facility is under medium guard, mostly foot patrol, with no heavy artillery seen. So we should be in for a pretty easy fight, even head on.”
“Wherefore do we not attempt such?” Thor asked, tone measured. Steve watched him, aware of the control he was exerting, given that his friend was in danger. He parsed through the archaic vernacular.
“Because we want to salvage what we can of the, uh…”
“Hardware,” Tony prompted.
“Right. It’s going to be easy getting in, but that doesn’t mean we have to tear the place apart to do so.” Steve hesitated as Thor began shaking his head. But when the prince did not speak right away, he continued, “If Hydra has resurfaced this way, it won’t be any good for the rest of the world. The fact that Darcy is in there gives us the perfect motivation to intervene.”
Thor grunted a noise of frustration so loud that Steve paused. The displeasure on his face was something he had only seen at their first meeting. Tension had been running high as heaven. It was now, that despite his power and position, people were the most important thing to the Asgardian. Steve felt his respect for the man deepen, even as Thor shook his head with disapproval.
“This fervor to scavenge is shameful, and it should not be given precedence over the one who has inspired our effort.”
“I agree with Bon Jovi,” Tony interrupted, standing as he tossed the tablet carelessly onto the leather seat. “Whatever Hydra has, I can do better.” When no one was quick enough to interrupt him, he rolled on, “Obviously, or they’d have already gotten the Tesseract. I say we jump in, get the girl, and get out in time to make it home for Glee. …Or whatever the kids are watching these days. Spongebob?” He committed a short spin to see the blank faces of his colleagues and quirked his brow before heading to the wet bar.
Steve rolled his eyes and pressed forward before either of the fellows could derail him again, “When we land, it’s a twenty-two mile drive to the base, then a two mile hike. Our eyes and ears are going to rendezvous with us at the two mile mark and escort us to the base. From there, they will lead infiltration and bread crumb to proper extraction points. Thor, Hawkeye will lead you to Darcy.” He glanced at the tall man who nodded. Before their plan had formed, before he had made apparent where his priority lay, he had announced that he would be present at Darcy’s extraction. Steve was glad he was disciplined enough to cooperate within the team. He would not be the one to deny him access to his friend when it did not matter who filled the support role.
“Tony, Black Widow’s trail will lead you to the hardware site for your software deciphering task.”
“Decryption,” he corrected.
“At the same time, she will have set charges in non-essential locations to distract and draw away personnel from Darcy’s location, as it appears the hardware depot is separate from prisoners’ cells. Hawkeye will be secure Darcy’s location in the event of tightened security around her cell.”
At this point, Bruce and Tony approached, standing at the empty sides of the table to review the holo-projection as well. Steve pointed out the supposed locations of the hardware depot and prisoner cells for them so that both men confirmed their understanding.
“Once the charges are detonated, Thor and I will engage for support.” He was good at breaking defense with defense and Thor would not leave Darcy’s safety to anyone else. “Iron Man will give aerial support in Black Widow’s area until the threats have been neutralized, during which time you’ll be attempting decryption and extraction.”
“Good,” Tony replied with a tone more solemn than anything he had used the rest of the evening. None of the others conspicuously looked at him, but at that moment Steve could not help but wonder if, for him, he had not been quiet for the better part of their trip. It was only recently revealed to him that Tony had spent his own stint as a prisoner, during which he had engineered his own escape. Though he was not chatty on the subject, he had never tried to keep his experience secret, either.
Many of Steve’s friends had been kept as prisoner for some length of time, and though they had handled the stress well… For his part, he did not want Tony to handle Darcy’s rescue because he worked best when he was focused and not volatile.
“And what will I be doing during this time?” Bruce asked, looking up from the projection that continued to circle between the four of them.
“Sitting this one out unless things go pear-shaped,” Steve replied with a small smile. The scientist looked content enough with that notion. He returned to his seat, plugged in his earphones and began blasting Enya.
She was counting the scrawls again, the beautifully pale marks that shone out to her even in the darkness. One hundred and three, she counted, then started over from the beginning, running her finger over the short length of each shallow depression. “One,” her lips moved silently. The numbers were in her head, whole and unstrained.
A dull boom rocked her from her thoughts, dislodging dust and pebbles from the ceiling in a discomforting way. Darcy stared up for a moment, rubbed at her polluted eyes, and then, as another closer explosion echoed the first, instinctively crouched, attempting to curl in on herself for several long breaths. There was no pain, though. Her door still stood, and the walls and ceiling were still unharmed. Fingers tightened down on her treasure, as she turned and stared at the door, the shaft of light beneath it.
Over the sound of distant humming of alarms, she could hear the other doors opening. Her eyes cut to the side, as if she could see into her sister cells through the rock and concrete. Were the other prisoners being released? Being killed? She had never seen anyone in the other rooms, but then she had never seen the other doors open. She heard, now, though, their rusty bolts opening under force, and she bowed her head. First… Second… Third… Whoever was opening them was getting closer, throwing the doors open, but not closing them. Their motions were fast.
Her eyes turned to her own door, and she watched as the shaft of white light beneath the door was broken by two feet. Her body instinctively crawled away from the exit until her back could go no farther. The shriek of metal cried out as her door was unlocked, then squealed as it opened…
She clasped her treasure more tightly, looping her finger through the coiled handle. It was no longer capable of stabbing or poking. The spoon’s bowl, though, through one hundred and three tallies had developed an edge.
It was a new shadow that stood in the doorway, neither the big man nor the kind woman. This one was too compact, too angular. They entered swiftly, wasting no time on the stare down that was usually conducted. Too fast, too close. Darcy scooted away, scrabbling backward as she felt her treasure catch against the floor.
One hundred and four.
But someone new? Instinct was for rebellion, safety. There was nothing anymore new. Everything ended in questions, pain, misery. God, she did not want it anymore. No more!
“Are you Darcy Lewis?” an unfamiliar voice asked, but she did not answer. She barely heard the question over the panic that swelled in her head.
She pulled away, holding her treasure close as she thought repeatedly, “I am right. I am right!” in preparation for whatever was about to come.
“Miss Lewis,” the hard voice added, “It’s time to go,” and grasped her fingers roughly. She tensed in panic. This was it. This was the end. A new body and new words were only a trick to cart her to her death. She had been wrong. There were no more questions. Oxford man had no more purpose for her. He had realized she was as worthless as she had tried to tell him, and now she would die.
She screamed, and she screamed, railed against the inevitability.
“NO!” Her arms thrashed against the newcomer. Her motions were stilted, and her limbs felt clumsy from lack of use. She could not catch her breath, but she did not want it to end this way. Other things she had wanted to do seemed clearer now than they had in days. “EGYPT,” she screamed, sang the word in her bones. “EGYPT,” the shriek came. Her attacker shouted back, orders she did not understand, but she was lost in fear. She could not understand, did not want to understand.
Darcy remembered the treasure, remembered that it could wound, as it had wounded rock, and tried to bash him with the small head. His speed was supernatural, though, avoiding her arms and her weapon. He did not immediately hurt her, though, and the restraint emboldened her. She was sure she had landed at least one strike when a loud, too loud voice, thundered out.
“DARCY. BE CALM.”
The authority behind that voice, the warm volume, first stilled her. Familiarity came second as she froze in her captor’s grip. She could see, in the doorway, the largest of the shadows she had seen since she had arrived, the halo of light around a blond head.
“Thor,” her mouth shaped soundlessly, and this fear was the worst she had ever faced. Her face contorted beyond her control. She was terrified, and heartsick that this was the real ruse. They would throw her completely off kilter, and then… this.
She did not realize when she had sunk to her knees, but a moment later she was floating off of the floor in a motion that was too decisive and easy to be conducted by anyone else she might know than the demigod. It was gentle, easy, warm. It was so, so warm. She drew into herself as the hallway light shone down into her eyes. She had not realized they were moving. Placing both hands against her chest, she clenched her fingers, and shrieked automatically when she did not feel the returning metal bite of her small weapon.
“Wait,” she wanted to shout, but the sound came out unintelligibly. She was reaching, grasping for it. They could not leave it. THEY COULDN’T LEAVE IT.
An unfamiliar man appeared with the trinket grasped in his fingers and quickly pressed into her outstretched hand before she could guess that he might do otherwise..
“Let’s go,” he said flatly, and she blinked at him, his hazy and unfamiliar features. It was the same man from her cell, the same man she had tried to fight. He was… helping?
Thor smiled at her, and she sighed, tightening her hold on the treasure.
Eastern Austria, Clint could readily admit, was beautiful country. It probably would have been better if he had not had to worry for a few days about neo-Hydra fanatics trying to kill him, but such was his lot with most of his travel for the past several years. All in all, it was not a bad trade; he was more hands-on approach than tourist, anyway. Regardless, he was not allowing himself to worry much about what might or might not happen in the next hour. For two days he had been scoping the site with Natasha, and they had done well in avoiding notice. He would not allow himself to become complacent, but no longer was he spending time worrying, either. When he did allow emotion to color his focus for a moment, it was gratitude that he felt.
He was in the field again, and he was alive.
With the final ski buckle snapped into place, he slung his collapsed bow into its rest at his shoulder. The compound was just below the hill on which they were perched, covered by the forest around them. Behind him, Natasha finished speaking to the others in low tones. His gear was ready. He was ready.
She nodded at his side a moment later, and he pushed off with his poles. Under the cover of night, the two blended almost perfectly into the snowy forested backdrop. In white outer gear, and with a white bow for him. Even had they been in full day light they would have had a few extra moments of camouflage before being detected.
Minutes later they hit the outer wall. For just a minute and a half their resting point was a blind spot to both CCTV and the rotation of guards walking the perimeter. They had timed both, the number of guards and the circuit of the cameras on the angle of the building. Neither faltered as they tucked their skis under the snow and stripped out of the whites to uncover the black gear beneath, the same cut and style as their opponents within.
Clint pulled the last of the white material over his boots and handed it off to Natasha as he knelt in the snow. Once she had climbed onto his shoulders, he stood, putting her within reach of the window they stood beneath. She pressed the white cloth against the window, swiftly binding it at the inner corners of the frame with a small adhesive before leaping off of his shoulders.
Without another look back, they fell into step side by side and began a march around the perimeter, perfectly in sync with the other pairs on duty in both speed and attitude. It took several minutes to make the full circuit around, during which Clint warmed himself with the idea of Tony Stark freezing his ass off in an iron suit on a hill full of snow just a few hundred yards away. By the time they made it back around, no alarm had sounded, but the window had melted without smoke, light, or sound into a dusting of ash as fine as the snow that circled around them. Clint hoisted Natasha up again, and then he followed up with the thin rope she supplied a minute later.
They were in.
The room they had chosen for infiltration had been mostly dark, regardless of time of day, during their stake out. He could see now why. It was a storage space, a few cardboard boxes and crates lining the wall just beyond them.
It was still dark, and he took a few moments to readjust his gear, check his bow’s tether, before reaching into the snapped pocket where the multitude of sensors were waiting to be activated. Bread crumbs, they had been denoted; clear chips chemically designed to stick to anything if given the proper suggestive force, except for themselves. In his hand they shifted like a fist full of small price tags. When he set the first against the concrete door frame, it stuck as if magnetized, and the metal filament inside silently sent its signal.
The door opened into an empty hallway, and Clint spotted the vent he that would give him access to the rest of the building. He spared a quick glance at the keypad on the outside of the large closet. They would not be going out the same way, but at least the others knew they were in.
“See you, Gretl,” he quipped and, ignoring his partner’s eye roll, made for the vent.
The hallways were warm compared to outside, which he knew was completely relative, given that the base had been carved into the side of a mountain. By further contrast, the air vent was almost like an oven. It was a dry heat, though, and he was grateful that the combination of cold and heat had not given way to mold in his aerial tunnel. Not only was it disgusting, but he had had trouble in the past maintaining his grip in slimy situations.
It still took time, even with better range of motion returning to his joints and the fact that he could maintain a silent hold in the vents. There was a watch on his wrist, but he did not look at it. His internal clock was good enough to tell him when two, five, ten minutes had passed. Still, it was his information, his and his partner’s that had given the Avengers the layout of the place. He knew it almost as well as any bow, and eventually he rounded on the series of cells they had been searching for.
Hopefully, Darcy Lewis was in one of them.
The ventilation shaft did not connect to any of them, instead lining the hallway just outside. He frowned to himself with the realization. The cells were the closest to the mountain, perhaps cut directly into the bedrock. The mountain’s natural insulation would mean they were kept cold regardless of how hot it might be outside.
He lifted his hands toward the edges of the grate, ignoring the dust and other bits of dirt on them. He was starting to sweat from the heat blowing around his face.
“Hawkeye, please relate your status,” Thor’s voice resonated in his ear, and Clint scowled heavily. They were under radio silence. They knew to maintain silence until the charges went off, and then there would be no point for it. He did not lose his grip on the grating, but neither did he respond. The first latch came up silently. The second followed. He stopped short of removing the metal piece as the first enemy agent he had seen inside the compound passed beneath him.
“Clint Barton, please make reply or I will be forced to enter the premises prematurely,” Thor boomed, and Clint froze. For the present, the need for silence was paramount because now the fucking whoever was lifting his eyes toward the ceiling wondering why a tinny echo was resonating down into an empty hallway. He did not breathe, did not attempt to silence the radio in his ear, which was now ringing with the force of Thor’s threat.
Instead, he was preparing to crash down through the grate feet first and fight his way out of the building, one Darcy Lewis in tow. The motions were already in his mind. He could take the man head on, literally, before he alerted too many people, hopefully, but it would not be a silent altercation.
His fingers latched onto the edge of the grate, and then Natasha’s charges detonated.
The boom nearly startled him out of his breath-holding, and it certainly startled the man beneath him. Clint watched as the agent took off running in what, he assumed, was the fastest route back toward the source of the blast. He pulled the grate off and dropped down into the hallway in a silent crouch. A quick glance back and he darted to the door closest to him.
He had expected something more techy to hold prisoners. They had used a ten-keypad on the storage closet for God’s sake, but for the prisoner’s a metal bar of the same substance as the door was sufficient. Each door was solid iron from the looks of it, no windows or vents. There was no way to see outside out into the hallway much less angle to reach the bolts holding them closed. Whoever was inside was very much trapped.
For the first cell, the bolt was so stiff he should have realized no one would be inside. The space was completely dark and looked like it had not seen light in months, perhaps years. He moved on, not interested in the scan of an empty room. If he had extra time, maybe he could have gleaned something from its implications, but if their intel was right, Miss Lewis had waited long enough, and time was of the essence.
The next two cells were empty as well, though one of the doors had been operated more frequently than the first door he had attempted. Both were just as dark, neither holding even a light fixture, and were empty of furnishings as well. It was the fourth cell where, as the door’s bolt screeched louder than all the others, he finally broke through.
The smell hit him before he saw anything. Where the other rooms had been musty from disuse, this hit him like a tangible force that invaded his mouth and nose, cold air against his face. For a moment he staggered under the strength of the smell of urine and feces and human ; only for a moment, though. He breathed through his mouth, and pushed forward to the creature huddled against the back wall of the room.
She moved as he moved, more slowly, but attempting to keep space between them. Her dark hair covered most of her face, knotted and dirty. Her arms were thin, pale, one wrapped around her ribs, the other hand instinctively held out against him, but looking more like it was stroking the air, for all the strength she could maintain. Her clothes still held color, but looked like she had worn them for weeks already, dirtied with mountain and blood.
He took two quick steps toward her, mindful of time, and frowned as her entire body seized up in fear.
“Are you Darcy Lewis?” he asked gently, but firmly. He had seen her in the photos Dr. Foster had been able to supply them, but the woman in those pictures had been whole, undamaged, and smiled like she was waiting to share secrets.
Before him, the young woman tilted her head toward him, and her outstretched hand brushed downward in her curiosity. Taking that as an affirmative, he reached forward with an, “It’s time to go,” and grabbed the extended hand. He could still hear the alarm klaxons from the other side of the base, and he trusted Iron Man and Black Widow to do their jobs. It was an easy motion to hoist her onto his shoulders and finalize the extraction, but the moment he clasped her fingers was when she decided to erupt.
It was screaming at first, screams that drowned out the not-so-far-away alarms, but he did not let go of her hand. “We’re on the same side!” he interjected as he ducked her searching fists. The longer he dodged her flailing free arm, the more persistent she became. Clint scowled, frustrated and angry. Hydra had done this to her, traumatized her to this level of fear and resistance. He did not want to hurt her further, but time was against them.
“Miss Lewis,” he called as she began to pull away from him. “Miss Lewis! Darcy!” he shouted, but she could not hear him over her own screaming. He lifted his right arm to block her flailing limb just as she hit his face with something harder than skin and bone. He paused for just a moment, feeling the cool tingle of broken skin and blood against his cheekbone.
There was a shadow behind him that suddenly blocked most of the cell’s light, and Clint’s adrenaline spiked as Lewis kept on screaming in his hold. A glance back told him that it was Thor, and not one of their enemies, but the tall man was frozen in place, blocking both entrance and exit. His eyes were locked on the thrashing young woman with an expression that belonged on no warrior’s face. Horror, anger, terrible sadness. They had time for none of it.
Clint’s own feelings lashed out, and he shouted, “Hold it together, Thor!” while he continued to struggle without harming his charge. Thor did as commanded, snapping out of his thoughts as he rushed forward.
“Darcy, be calm!” he boomed, projecting in a way that resonated through the small space and wrapped around all of them. She stilled, as did Clint. It was easy to forget the strength and force of will his teammate could wield now that they were on the same side. Both humans turned to the demigod with wide eyes, Darcy’s partially hidden beneath grimy hair. She slumped to the floor in Clint’s hold.
Thor no longer hesitated and was there to scoop her up in a smooth motion the moment she stilled. She seemed pale against his bare arms, at once pale and dark given the dirt in her clothes, her hair. Clint knew instinctively that the horror he felt at the sight of her had been buried for the present, and he wondered briefly how many rescue missions the Asgardian had undertaken aside from the rest of his glorious adventures.
There was no glory in this.
“Let us away,” the large man growled and departed from the cell into the bright, bright hallway. Clint palmed his cheek and took a final glance around the room.
The floor was bare, kept relatively clean by use of Darcy’s wallowing. There was a pail in one corner, from which most of the smell seemed to be radiating. Opposite the door there was a piece of metal coiled in on itself and resting against the floor. He took a step toward it just as Darcy began screeching in the hallway again. It was only guessing when the Hydra agents would be on them now and luck that they had not been attacked yet. There was no more time. Swallowing his frustration against the sound of her shouting, and steeping himself in urgency, Clint swiped the metal up and rushed after the departing pair.
Darcy’s eyes were rolling back and forth in search of something as she thrashed her limbs to be released from Thor’s hold. There was purpose to her motions, Clint could see, and it was on instinct that he forced the hard metal object into her grasping hand. She stilled as soon as she saw it, then tucked it close to her bosom, her own body rolling back against Thor’s chest. Clint stared at her for a moment longer watching as her eyes settled into something hollow. Whatever emotion she had rallied to rail against them was buried again.
The sound of approaching, rushed footsteps brought both men back into focus. Extraction was not successful until they were secure.
“Let’s go,” Clint repeated to Thor, echoing his teammate’s earlier words.
The feet came from their escape route, where Thor was taking point with Darcy as Clint covered their escape, and it was only moments later they met their second impediment. Clint counted Darcy herself as the first.
He was a big man who studied them for a scant moment before his eyes dropped to Darcy. He eyed her pitilessly before turning back to her protectors. Clint saw Thor having trouble reaching his big-assed hammer while holding the girl, but he had already nocked an arrow into place. Thor took a single step back, pulling Darcy out of the line of whatever the man was about to fire. Clint pulled the bowstring back to his cheek in a swift motion and loosed the projectile, reaching for another arrow as the first buried itself in his eye. He was not taking any chances.
Balance kept their opponent dead on his feet for a moment longer before he fell backward with a loud thud. The sound of his fall was echoed by an even louder crack in the hallway, and a split second later Clint stumbled forward under the force of a gun shot. Tightening his core, he twisted into the fall, and loosed his second arrow against a snarling old woman with a handgun.
The rage on her face continued even as the gun fell from her fingers, and both men instinctively curled away from an accidental discharge. Nothing happened as it landed, though. It remained where it lay as she backed away from both of them into the wall, her fingers gripping the arrow shaft. Clint grimaced as she gave it a gentle tug in an attempt to wrest it out of her lung. He did not need to explain that it would not come out that way. There were too many barbs and grips in its head. Decided, and merciful, he prepped and loosed a third arrow in the same manner he had finished the large man; a quick death over a slow and pained one. She slumped to the floor with the same scowl on her face and Clint turned back to Thor, who was already moving again.
His shoulder was aching as they reached the dark, snowy grounds again. This time they exited through the main door. Thor’s confidence, plus the damage around them that Clint noted, were clear signs that the prince had entered this same way.
His longer legs gave him an easier time in the snow, nearly calf-deep on Clint, and the archer found himself grateful he was not having to climb and carry their charge as well. As they worked their way back to the tree line, the archer kept another arrow prepped, but the Captain’s plan was thus far a success. Natasha’s diversion had worked just as it was supposed to. Save the big man and old woman, they had not encountered any other Hydra agents. As he backed up the hill, he could see smoke and fire near the opposite wing of the compound. Darting in and out of the light show was Iron Man, randomly igniting his repulsors at targets beneath him.
Under cover, both men made their way back to where Bruce was holding down the fort. The Cap and Natasha had already returned, both looking whole and entirely unharmed. Natasha nodded to Clint as he pulled up the rear.
He returned the gesture as Tony’s voice resonated into the area through their radios, “Two more minutes tops, people. Start packing up.” At Steve’s signal, they did so, returning to the truck that had transported them from the plane. There would be no way to hide their tracks, but they had all agreed from the beginning that there was no point to try. The only connection Darcy had to any covert agency like SHIELD was SHIELD. Hydra would have no problems figuring out who had come knocking.
Clint fell into step with Natasha, but his eyes were focused on Thor just in front of them, on Lewis’s dangling feet. Just ahead of them, Bruce led the way back to the vehicle. Clint could still smell the unpleasant aroma wafting from the rescued young woman. Though Thor’s face was hidden, his arms were tensed and his shoulders almost hunched, he acknowledged nothing but her state of mind. It was a state that Clint had not yet allowed himself to ponder. It hit too close to home since the mission was still active.
“Dr. Banner, your assistance for Hawkeye’s shoulder, please,” Thor announced quietly, the first time he had acknowledged anyone since their regrouping.
Clint did not bother arguing, but stripped his jacket and gear down to his base layer as they reached the truck. With such snowy conditions there was a half hour of driving ahead of them, probably more. There was time to do this now and then, perhaps, sleep on the flight back. He inspected his vest and removed the slug that had buried itself just at the acromial process before passing the article of clothing to Natasha, who inspected it in turn and then gave him a questioning glance.
“Some crazy old woman shot me while we were escaping.” The statement was given as a matter of fact, and not as a particular point of embarrassment at his attacker’s age or emotional state. When at the mercy of a shooter with intent, there was no room for embarrassment, or in the case of his teammates, amusement.
“And what about your face?” Bruce asked mildly in response. “Did the same woman do that?”
“No,” he said firmly, “she did.” He jerked a nod at Darcy, still hanging in Thor’s arms. He was not sure if Darcy was unwilling, or unable to stand, or if Thor just did not wish to let her. Either way, both seemed inclined to let the situation continue.
“She is without her spectacles,” Thor explained, though Clint’s comment had not been directed at him, nor was the prince standing particularly close to their group. Clint knew, regardless, that she had not cared who it was in the cell with her. In the moment of danger and panic, she had tried to defend herself. He was not going to hold it against her, and he was not going to argue an unimportant point.
Thor continued to murmur to his charge and for a moment, Darcy seemed to respond. She spoke something so softly that it did not carry to his ears. At his side, Natasha shifted slightly, and Clint glanced over to see her staring at the isolated pair with curious, hard eyes. “Yes, Darcy, you are all right,” Thor murmured back to her. “All will be well now. You are all right.”
His thoughts on the subject were interrupted with Iron Man’s return. The hollow voice projected out from the machine sounded, “Job’s done. Hydra’s software is, amazingly, crap.”
She wondered that it was not colder, standing in the snow this way. It had been spring in Virginia. Was it winter now? Her clothes were not made for winter, but she was not cold. The way Thor held her aloft, his arms encircling her well enough to almost ensconce her from sight, worked very well against the chill. Even with his arms bared to the snow and wind, he radiated heat like a horse.
Her body was exhausted. She was bone weary and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but the world remained. The fat snow flakes that fell around them continued dropping down. She was aware of them landing on her knees and shins no matter how long she kept her eyes closed.
Thor kept saying things to her that she could not understand. She heard them well enough, but they did not register. Her ears felt as tired as the rest of her. She took a slow breath that did not fill her lungs.
“I am right,” she murmured to herself, and found truer comfort than she had in days and days. “Jane is right. Erik is right. Thor is right. I am right,” she continued.
“Yes, Darcy,” he spoke lowly, the words breaking through the cloud surrounding her mind. She slowly glanced up at him, allowing him to pull hair from her eyes. He smiled at her, full of a sadness she could not understand, and he said, “You are all right. All will be well now. You are all right.”
Some short time later they entered a jet, a nice one, given the amount of times she had flown coach, and never once first class. Thor was still carrying her, crouched and moving awkwardly through the small cabin. After navigating a few hallways, he set her down in a creamy leather seat beneath warm lights.
It was golden, the light that spotlighted them, floating from small rounds above her head, but filling the cabin, not isolating her in its glow. There were others moving around, and though most of them glanced at her, they did not speak, did not try to touch her. She was so absorbed with the light that she did not notice Thor’s departure until he returned with a case in his hand.
“Jane and Erik retrieved these from your dwelling.” Slowly, she grabbed the small case that she knew to hold her spare pair of glasses. It was a comfortable weight in her hand, smooth and warm from the ambient heat in the plane. She opened it carefully and removed the plastic glasses before sliding them onto her face. She blinked as everything came into harsh focus, feeling that she had never seen this well before in her life.
It was a beautiful cabin they sat in, not just nice, but beautifully tasteful and very much a private transport. She glanced at the tall man next to her to see that it was indeed Thor, and she inhaled deeply unable to express the emotion that filled her at just the visual confirmation of his presence. She had seen him, been wrapped up in the presence that he radiated, and even heard his voice. But seeing him. Well, seeing was believing.
He took the open seat next to her and took to the task of buckling her own belt for her. Oh, right…
Over his focused head she saw another man take a seat across from her, dark hair and coloring, and impeccably groomed. If he had not had such a strong jaw she would have thought him pretty. As it was he was still incredibly handsome. He returned her stare, giving her an easy, sincere smile, and that was when she recognized him.
The plane took off, dropping her stomach somewhere into her feet, and she took several minutes to breathe deeply. No one said anything about what sounded like gasping to her ears, but Thor held her hand, and that helped.
All along, their third party member held her eyes, that same free smile on his face. She could not help but stare back, and did not have the presence of mind to realize that was entirely the point.
Once the plane evened out, the pilot announced they had reached cruising altitude. Darcy’s eyes followed to the speaker overhead, and she sank fully into her seat. Cool air began to circulate through the cabin, keeping the air moving. She blinked slowly, savoring the simple feeling of air moving pleasantly over her face and neck.
She released Thor’s hand with a worried smile that he attempted to do away with a more radiant expression of his own. Then she turned her attention back to man across from her who was pretending to read a tablet.
“Hi, I’m Tony Stark,” he said, in a voice made familiar by news and youtube. “You’re currently sitting in my jet and are a most welcome guest.” A cough from across the aisle interrupted him. Darcy glanced to see the man from her cell staring at him. His eyes cut to her for a moment, then back to Tony, who did not so much as acknowledge him. He shrugged at Darcy and said, “Technically it’s SHIELD property, but it’s mostly my design and definitely my decorating. I stand by my original statement that you are very welcome to be here.” She stared, but he continued on as if it was natural to cart just-rescued young women around in a million dollar G6, or whatever they were riding in.
His eyes turned serious for a moment, and Darcy’s own dropped, as he spoke in a softer tone. “Miss Lewis, Darcy, you are free here. You can go where you want, when you want, as frequently as you want. Hell, you can even go to the cockpit.” It was similar to the voice she had heard in press conferences in months gone by- to the point, upbeat. It was also softer than anything she had imagined from the billionaire.
Mr. Stark’s words were interrupted as a new body filled the aisle. She, Thor, and Stark glanced up to a bespectacled man, graying at his temples. He smiled uneasily and passed a snack cup of vanilla pudding as well as a spoon to Thor, who passed them to her as soon as he lifted her seat’s tray.
She stared at the American brand dessert, snack, whatever it had once been labeled in a safer space. The longer she stared at it, the less she knew what to do. She knew what she wanted to do, and Tony’s words moments before were still with her, but she could not bring herself to move her fingers and take what was offered.
It was Thor who took over the task of opening it. His hands dwarfed the small cup, completely hid the plastic spoon. She heard the sound of the top being peeled back like thunder on the plains. Then he set the spoon in reach of her hand, but it was Stark who rescued her.
“Darcy,” he said softly. “Look at me.” She did so, feeling acutely embarrassed but mostly relieved. The expression he leveled at her was so serious that she could not look away. “Do you want to eat?” he asked. She nodded slowly. He returned the nod. “Then eat a bite, please.” He cast his glance toward the man still standing in the aisle, then looked back to her, but her eyes did not leave his face. “We’ll see how you do with this much.”
He spoke as she ate. God, had pudding always been this sweet? She winced at it, but could not stop eating. No one tried to stop her, either, and it was less than a minute later when she set the licked-clean cup back down on her tray. Tony smiled at her again and she had enough presence of mind to realize she had just scraped a pudding cup clean with her finger. Embarrassed again, she wiped her mouth furiously with the edge of her sleeve, but he shook his head. “Bill Cosby knew what he was talking about,” he said with a shrug.
“Nothing says you shouldn’t,” she rattled back to him instinctively. Then she started at the words that had rasped from her throat while he smirked. At her side, Thor grinned down at her. Her heart was racing, suddenly, and she could not make it stop.
Tony blinked at her and quickly and quickly began to speak, “We’re currently leaving Europe. We should be back in the States in about… six hours,” he said, with a glance toward his bare wrist. “This plane, though technically SHIELD property, was originally designed by my father back in the 1940s. I don’t know if you’re one of those people who believes all the best stuff was made decades ago. Total crap, by the way, but in this case it might be comforting to know that the plane was designed by a genius.”
She eased into her seat, feeling overfull from the pudding and yet not regretting it in the slightest. Her eyes scanned for another cup, but she settled in after a moment, watching Tony’s mouth, his nice jaw, as he continued to speak at the speed of their flight. “We’re going to be touching down in New York and we’ll probably stay there for a while. Dr. Foster is super duper excited to see you, as well as Dr. Selvig. They’d both probably come after us if we went anywhere else. New York is not exactly my scene. I’m more west coast, myself, but I’d rather not have to fight off one of SHIELD’s princesses. Or Dr. Foster. Unless,” he said with another direct stare at her, “you’d rather hit up someplace else?”
“New York’s fine,” she rasped.
Tony Stark kept talking, chatting about things she had never heard of. He was not current on popular television, but promised that once they returned she could watch all of the Spongebob she wanted. At her wince, he suggested Glee, and she chuckled as she curled against the bulkhead. Some minutes later, his gibberish died down, and she opened both eyes.
He was still watching her in the silence, gave her an upturn of the corner of his mouth, a not-quite smile that she returned. Had he been honest? Could she do whatever she wanted? The test was immediate.
“Would you please keep talking?” she whispered.
“I’m sorry?” he asked, cocking his head. But before she could explain away her request, he shook his head, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard those words before in my life.”
In the hours that followed, Darcy heard all about Stark Industries, the unflappable Pepper Potts, what had been happening in the past few weeks- only weeks , he mentioned. Most of the words passed over her head in a rhythmic undulation of droning.
They were halfway over the Atlantic when she fell asleep.
Writing this chapter had me in tears- "EGYPT." :(
However, editing this chapter, I was nearly falling asleep. Literally, eyes closing, drooping down... so that's something! Hahaha.
Chapter 5: Reception (pt 1)
This chapter has been broken into three parts because as much fun as it is to read 10K word chapters- they are a pain when trying to maintain continuity and still write something meaningful.
But! Faster update!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Thor was on hand when Darcy was transferred from the jet, finally given to exhaustion and so thoroughly asleep that the jostling did not wake her, to a helicopter outside of the the city of New York, and finally back to the half-repaired tower where they had recently done battle against Loki. As it was his tower to which they were returning, Stark had insisted on traveling with them. The other members of the team dispersed in ground vehicles, their tasks in the venture accomplished.
It was worrisome that she did not wake at the machinations of her transfer. The time from the small airport out of the city back to the Tower took as little as it had for them to fully secure their restraints and begin travel. Tony had stopped watching her so conspicuously. Thor, however, felt nothing but relief for his comrade’s concern. Whatever thoughts the Stark had on the matter were kept private, however, and were deflected altogether by his concern over the Tower as they approached for landing.
“It’s a good thing the attack happened when it did, I think. I’d really been wanting to retrofit some buttresses without having to hire demolition contractors.” He smiled a half-smile at Thor who winced, not given over to his manner of jest. He smiled on, undeterred.
It was only with vague details that they had discussed the manner and means of Darcy’s care upon her return to her own nation, though it had been made clear to him that neither the city of New York nor its eponymous state were places she would designate as home. On the first leg of their return trip from the mountains, Steve Rogers had assured him that SHIELD would see to Darcy’s needs for the foreseeable future, primarily as a security measure, but also because of the responsibility they indirectly bore for her kidnapping.
Thor, for his part, had assumed nothing less, and had been less than pleased that the responsibility might beg question. He said nothing. The matter was dealt with, and Darcy’s care ensured. His anger and pride did not need gratification.
They touched down while the blades atop their craft continued whirling, and one by one they dismounted.
He lifted Darcy once more, having grown used to the unpleasant odor clinging to her body after the nature of her imprisonment. They moved over the rooftop toward the elevator that would take them into the building they had stood in only a few days before. In his periphery he could see the open balcony on the floor below them, its protruding catwalk ready to accommodate individual fliers such as the Man of Iron. Its destruction had been mostly cleared. From far distances it appeared so, rather, and Stark had made an offhand comment about the importance of such appearances during their approach. Thor understood the need for the semblance of strength.
The rooftop was not as well as the more aesthetically pleasing floor below. Stark unlocked the passageway’s electronic mechanism then tugged at the heavy door. When it did not give way immediately, he frowned and gave it a more vigorous pull. Its top rail and hinge style screeched as they opened, still suffering damage weeks after the attack, and Darcy jerked awake in his arms. He could feel her chest expansion under the force of her silent breath and gave her a subtle squeeze as they entered the building.
They had eluded sunrise all of the way back to this side of the ocean. The sun was just coming up, and it was much brighter in the elevator than it had been outside. Darcy calmed in the light, able to see both men in her presence, but she did not speak. Neither he nor Tony attempted to engage her.
Thor tried to quell the worry in his heart. It was not Darcy’s way to be so withdrawn. The implications were fearsome things.
After the lift stopped and opened its doors, Tony directed Thor forward, “Down that hall to the right is where you want to go. I’m gonna go get some shut eye.” He was tired, and his fatigue was starting to show. The words rasped from his throat. He had spoken for many hours without break simply for Darcy’s comfort. Apparently, it was enough to tire one even so indefatigable as himself.
Thor departed as instructed. Down the muted hallway he walked and was sure that he had been misdirected until Jane and Erik appeared around a corner. His lover was walking at a pace faster than her legs should have dictated and at the sight of them only sped faster. Erik matched her speed, while in their wake were numerous health stewards, men and women clothed in simply cut, utilitarian robing. Two of them were steering a narrow, wheeled bed and entirely keeping pace with the two scientists. His friends flanked him as he slipped Darcy onto the slimly padded surface.
“Jane,” Darcy called, as her eyes met the familiar faces. “Erik?”
“We’re here,” Jane returned in a shaky voice. She slipped to the far side of the bed and carefully put her hand into Darcy’s, meeting the young woman’s eyes without hesitation. Her own face was a well of emotion and Thor pointedly did not look at her. His body was not physically spent, but his heart was wearied with the events that had transpired for the past week. If he were to look at either Erik’s or Jane’s haggard faces, he would see too well the emotion he himself had been trying to restrain for the past several hours.
“Where are we?” she asked in a surprisingly strong voice. It was soft but did not shake or stutter.
“We’re in New York,” Jane replied. They watched Darcy roll her head in a type of nod, then she fell silent again, eyes closing.
Together the trio followed the stewards back through the maze of hallways into an area of glass walls and beds only slightly stockier than what currently held Darcy. The attendants moved her to one of the glass rooms, a view of the metropolis on one side and glass-walled hallway on the other. As soon as she was on the bed, they began to attend to her.
“Are either of you family?” one of the stewards asked to Jane and Erik, ignoring Thor altogether. He did not take offense, but he did start when Jane drew up her petite height and gave the attendant what he had come to know as her ‘stink eye.’
“You’re kidding, right?” she demanded. “If you try to lock us out of this room, you’re going to have problems.”
“No, ma’am,” the nurse replied, with all of the calm of a harassed SHIELD employee. “We’re hoping one of you might have access to Miss Lewis’ medical records.” Jane deflated immediately.
“The university should have sent her immunization information, which will be start, at least,” Erik interjected and dutifully broke away from them to assist the questioner, while Jane’s embarrassment stagnated.
“Worry not,” Thor absently assured her over the minute gaff, and they themselves relented to duty as the nurses began to swarm in greater numbers.
Some put hands on her legs and others began preparing her arms for services he knew not what. One even pulled her hair out of her face and fastened it to stay. There was no magic to their actions except the efficiency with which they and examined her and anticipated one another, speaking in codes that Thor did not understand but found fascinating. Jane’s worried look did not abate as she turned her face to Thor, gave his hand a squeeze and then entered what had become by default Darcy’s room. She stayed well out of the way of the attendants, but within Darcy’s line of sight.
He could well imagine the thoughts in her head, the worries that had plagued her for over a week. In his own adventures with the Warriors Three, Sif, his brother, they had encountered many adversities. None had come so close to overcoming them as the last- Jotunheim, Midgard, Loki’s encounter with the Chitauri. It was still Thor’s strongly held belief that the aliens had done something to his brother- caused his mind to break in some way. It was a thought he could not escape, even now.
The ache that grasped his chest, for his brother, for the things that would never be the same in Asgard, it was one he felt that Jane might know, might be able to share presently as she watched her former assistant at the mercy of the staff.
Despite the business surrounding her form, the removal of her clothing, the attention to her injuries, and the general rush of bodies around her, Darcy once more succumbed to sleep.
By the time the trio re-entered the room together almost two hours later, the staff had slowed to a trickle and almost completely departed. In the end she had been fed a dual intravenous hydrating solution and liquid antibiotic. Wired to her wrist was a steadily beating heart monitor. Thor noticed a few finely woven bandages supporting her beneath the sheets. What work could be done for her body was. Much of the remainder was Darcy’s burden to bear.
“This is not a burden she will bear alone,” Thor assured the others, who nodded their agreement.
She was cleaner than she had been when the sky had still been purple and pink, but the renewal was a mixed blessing. Her clothes had been cut away, removed from sight and, in Thor’s hope, never to be returned. Naked as she was, though, even the bed clothes could not hide how gaunt her once shapely figure had become. Now with the sky at a full blue, her pale skin had been returned to its milky state, but beneath the white overhead light bruises and injuries were more clearly demarcated than they had been in the hasty retreat.
“Her hair is probably a lost cause,” Jane murmured as she stroked Darcy’s forehead with restrained fingers.
“It will grow back,” Erik added, just as tenderly. He was not as physically demonstrative as Jane, but Thor could see the concern in him, much the same way he saw it in the All-Father.
Darcy slept on.
She continued peacefully for hours, and the hours turned into days. The nurses came to monitor the read out from her machines every hour, adjusting and refilling her medicines. Twice they wheeled the entirety of her machinery from the room. Their aim was to conduct emarais and seetee scans. He did not bother to pretend to understand when Erik and Jane nodded and watched her roll away.
Thor watched Jane and Erik, alternating walks and resting periods between themselves. Neither left the room while the other was away. He had not heard them mention such an agreement, but at this point they knew one another well enough that perhaps it was not necessary.
When Jane slumped into the chair cornered next to Darcy’s bed, Erik took the opportunity to walk from the room. He returned several minutes later with a steaming cup of tea. Jane took a sip and smiled her appreciation. Some time later, Erik was propped against the wall, reading the daily paper. Jane moved to stretch her legs and run for snacks. None of them were particularly hungry, but it did not deter her from securing crackers and even some beef jerky for Thor.
The next two days passed in similar fashion, each of the trio taking turns to support the unconscious young woman should she wake. They broke trend with extended walks in the hallways, though none of them strayed very far from her room. It was a time of strain and anxiety woven through with hope. He did not know where one slept when the other was absent, but he suspected it was in the lab several floors below.
It was a time that Thor learned a greater extent of SHIELD’s preparation. Curiosity carried him from point to point on the yellow and green-painted floor. Nurses, as Erik and Jane continuously referred to them, were working in reduced numbers since their initial reception. It made sense, though, since the only patient on the floor was Darcy herself. It only took one walk through to determine that this, too, was a space purposed for the Avengers.
There were twelve rooms total, but only five were furnished with beds kin to the one they had lain Darcy in. He smiled, mostly ironically, realizing that they had included him in the count for the possibly injured. One of the twelve rooms was completely bare, but taller and wider than the rest. It was similar to the room Loki had tricked him into entering on the helicarrier. Only one person could be meant for that room.
On his return trip, he saw an unfamiliar man standing outside of Darcy’s door. He was bald and bespectacled, possessing the same disciplined calm as the myriad other SHIELD agents Thor had interacted with. At his approach, the man turned and gave him a small smile. It reminded him of Phillip Coulson but lacked the enigmatic charm the warrior had possessed.
Still, Thor returned the gesture as the man introduced himself, “Agent Sitwell, Thor. Pleased to meet you.”
“Well met, sir.”
His speech was measured, fluid and quick, but not choppy. Coulson’s replacement, perhaps?
“I’ve come to bring you up to speed on Miss Lewis’s condition based on the initial reports.”
Thor straightened his shoulders and nodded, glancing briefly to the closed door of Darcy’s room. Jane glanced to him, catching Erik’s attention with the motion, and he shook his head.
The agent Sitwell took a slow, deep breath as his eyes shifted, then he looked directly up at Thor and began to speak.
For twenty-two days she had been in the custody of Hydra agents, who had intentionally starved her from time to time. Not enough to kill her, as was evident, but to weaken her spirit and resolve. Her organs had been under increased stress, especially her heart, hence the MRI, though the damage was expected to heal with time. Thor nodded at the words, clasping his chin as his eyes shifted back to the woman in the bed. He turned back to Sitwell, who did not pause at his discomfort.
“There’s an active case of pneumonia, as well-” Thor’s brows turned down and Sitwell hesitated for a moment before, “It’s an inflammation in the lungs caused by an active infection in the alveoli, brought on in this case specifically by…” He hesitated again and after a moment cleared his throat quietly, “…some other injuries. Because of this-”
“Agent Sitwell,” Thor broke in, “You shall be completely candid with regards to this pneumonia.”
Sitwell nodded, and to his esteem, did not falter and hid no more of the details. “The infection was brought on by a form of water torture. We’re not sure if it was full submersion, but evidence indicates it was more of a bucket-dunking type. There are still traces of fluid in her lungs, some of it is from the infection and some is not.”
The prince felt his eyes beginning to water. He cut his view away from the shorter gentleman, even as the agent continued speaking. His eyes fell on Darcy and Jane, the latter of whom was watching him with sharp eyes. Darcy was on a regimen of antibiotics to suppress the disease enough that her body could and would fight it off. In addition to the medicine, the liquids being siphoned into her arm would also help to nourish and support her body in a way that would enhance the medicine’s capabilities. In this way, too, she was expected to completely recover.
“Besides the obvious, her health is not bad. Her immune system was not compromised, and she has not been infected with any particular diseases that we can tell, but we’re going to keep monitoring her, anyway. Captain Rogers has informed us that we’re to continue treating her as long as need dictates.”
Thor nodded, still staring at the prone young woman. He had thought her shallow breathing at the time of rescue was nerves, fear and appreciation that needed no words. Perhaps that had been part of it, but he knew better now. That explained her breathing, and the starvation inflicted on her was apparent in her hips and knees, but that did not sufficiently explain the various bruises on the rest of her body.
“And of her other injuries?” he asked quietly.
Sitwell mimicked his tone and volume, “There are signs of torture, beatings. No broken bones, not even hairline fractures, which takes more control than it sounds like. There was just enough force to cause pain.” He finished, and Thor inhaled slowly.
As he stared at his friends, the three people who had cared for him at the lowest point in his life, he had only two regrets. The first was that he had not rushed back sooner, made his request to Jane sooner, spared Darcy the misery of her current situation sooner. The second was that he had not spent more time in the compound, bringing justice to every hateful villain in the place.
“Thank you, Agent Sitwell,” Thor said, inclining his head. Sitwell nodded, glanced around Thor’s shoulder and then departed toward the elevator that had originally brought them. Thor turned back to Darcy’s room, as yet unable to enter.
Despite the glass wall in front of him, he felt a moment’s absence longer might do good to compose himself. This trial was among the greatest he had faced, starting from Loki’s reappearance on earth when he had thought his brother dead for a year. He had mourned, as had the rest of the Aesir. Erik had been kidnapped and the rights to his freedom had been abused. He had thoughtlessly submitted to deeds he never would have willingly.
Then in the chaos, Darcy had been taken by unscrupulous profligates, beaten because she had for a brief period stood on the side of the righteous. And for what purpose was her beating? That much was still unknown, and perhaps lost to them forever, if she could not be asked to speak of it.
During her waking hours she had spoken inane, purposeless things. At her most lucid, she had spoken briefly with Tony, enough to eat. He remembered briefly standing in the trees of Austria, staring down at the exploding compound with a comfortable hold on Darcy, and hearing her chant of self-comfort.
“She wasn’t saying ‘I’m all right’,” Natasha spoke from his side, breaking his concentration.
He glanced down to her, opposite from where the agent had stood, and realized for the first time that he had spoken aloud. Her eyes were focused on the hospital room ahead of them. Without her usual intensity, her face was smooth and youthful, but he would never again see her as a normal Midgardian. For a moment he wondered how she would have fared in Darcy’s situation, or perhaps how Darcy would have rallied with a skill set such as Natasha’s, but the assassin’s words were still hanging between them.
“What do you mean?”
Natasha glanced up at him, her hands clasped in front of her, and answered, “In Austria. You thought she was speaking to herself, or perhaps you, but she wasn’t saying, ‘I’m all right.’” He blinked at her, glancing around from where she might have come from and to see if perhaps others had caught him speaking to himself. Natasha ignored his sudden disquiet and pushed on, “She was saying, ‘I’m right,’ not ‘all right’. There’s a difference, which may or may not be significant.”
She stared up at him for a little big longer, not unsettled as Agent Sitwell had been, completely still and at ease with herself. When she turned back to the trio, she asked to him, “Do you need anything?”
Thor shook his head and followed her stare, “I will manage. Darcy, though. I am unsure.”
Natasha nodded once, “Has she been through something like this before?”
Thor started, glancing down at his comrade, who did not move. Her face was harder now than it had been, something about the way her eyes focused even when her mouth did not move.
Her words were unexpected, and in his opinion, unwarranted. It was obvious, even to him, that Darcy had never experienced such a trial as this. Would a separate experience have made her stronger, better able to handle it?
His doubt colored his tone as he answered, “Of course not.”
The glance Natasha pressed on him was purposeful and unsympathetic. “Not that I am aware,” he corrected, feeling a desire to shuffle his feet. Natasha nodded again and began walking away.
“She’ll need to be on suicide watch.”
The comments from the last chapter, everyone, thank you so much. Those were truly some of the best I have ever received as an author. I'm working up to writing original fiction (doing research for a story right now!) and to know that I can have that kind of emotional pull with people is really, really supportive to me.
Also, that so many people are reading and enjoying this whole thing- kyaaaah!!
On the other hand, I'm quite nervous, because after doing something that received such strong reactions so early I don't want to let you guys down!! Also, that level of emotion is not sustainable. So the next few chapters are going to take things down a little bit.
Finally, this story WILL end positively. I mean, I could end things badly, but I won't. I love all of these characters and their flaws too, too much.
Chapter 6: Reception (pt 2)
He had initially thought to keep the darker details of Darcy’s abuse from Jane.
It was instinctive to want to protect the one so dear to him, and there would be no benefit of her knowing. She took so much on herself as it was, but she could not undo what had been done to her friend. He was still reeling from Agent Sitwell’s information, especially after Natasha’s suggestion. How much worse would it be for Jane?
She came to him, still in the hallway. Her wayward glanced said she was looking for the other two figures who had stood outside of Darcy’s room with him. When she did not see them, she turned worried eyes on him and crossed her arms in front of her casually.
“Is everything ok?”
It was too deceptive to pretend otherwise, and Thor shook his head, “The agent, Sitwell, shared with me the information regarding Darcy’s captivity.” Jane’s face shifted into something more focused. The lines around her eyes deepened, and Thor sighed.
“She is… malnourished, and has a lung sickness… But the healers believe, as does Agent Sitwell, that she will make a full recovery.” He finished his words with a small smile, too humble to be anything but hopeful. Jane shifted a half step away from him, eyes narrowing as she began to shake her head.
With a soft sigh she added, “That doesn’t explain the bruising on her… everything. What else was there?”
He shook his head, turning his gaze to the young woman in the bed. It would do no good for her to know. It was enough to know that she had been damaged. So he thought until his love took a hold of his chin and gently pulled his gaze back to her. The pain in her face had been replaced with a calmer, more assured affection. She released her hold to cup the side of his face. “Thor, you and I share a special connection that I’ve never felt with anyone, and I… I know what you’re trying to do right now, but please don’t. I don’t need protection from the truth.” She lowered her hand until he caught it in his own and kissed her knuckles. He took her other hand and did the same, watching a tender expression transform her face into something honest and beautiful. Her eyes did not falter from his.
“Jane, I do not think it would be wise to divulge these details,” he murmured. She squeezed the fingers holding hers.
“Thor. Tell me.” And that, as they said on Midgard, was that.
He did not have any more to share beyond what Sitwell had given him, but it was enough. There was no need to embellish. Vexed as he was by Jane’s insistence he did not want to punish her for it, but neither did he dishonor her by sparing details. Darcy’s pneumonia, news in itself, was caused by a form of water torture. She had been starved at periods during her captivity, and while she had not suffered broken bones, she had been subjected to beatings.
The words came from his mouth tonelessly. Jane’s fingers in his tightened with every sentence. He could see her understanding in her shoulders, in the slackness of her mouth, but where he had teared over the explanation, her eyes remained dry. She gave his hands another squeeze and then released them altogether to look into the room again.
“Natasha Romanov has suggested that Darcy be put under watch.”
“For?” she asked quietly, staring at her former assistant.
“It is her belief,” he said with the same tone and volume, “that Darcy might try to harm herself when she awakens.” Without turning to him, Jane’s shoulders sank. She exhaled a great breath, and then swallowed and shook her head.
“Let’s wait, OK? We’ll see how she acts when she wakes, but I don’t want to crowd her too much when she comes around.”
Thor nodded and looped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. She pulled a hand into his shirt, fisting the cloth there as they continued to watch Erik reading to the prone young woman.
It was always a weird experience to wake in an entirely unrecognizable place. The first time it had happened was after a black out during sophomore year in college. She had gotten too cocky with a group of friends and a quart of Maker’s Mark after winter finals and had woken up in a Waffle House bathroom. The men’s, because she tended not to half-ass things (hell, cross-country physics’ science credits).
The last time she had woken in a strange place it had been in the process of being carried into a cell, in which she had spent what felt like months. That, she had to admit, was also not a half-assed occurrence though she had little to do with the planning or the execution.
Presently she was waking up to a softly lit room walled on one side by stars. A few blinks cleared her eyes and revealed a more urban than celestial sprawl. She instinctively looked side to side for her glasses and found them. With them, she realized not only was the city to her left more metropolis than even urban, but she was not alone in the room.
Erik was drooped in a chair at the foot of her bed, his own feet claiming the end. He was sleeping, despite the uncomfortable set of his body and neck, but his face looked tired, and she did not immediately wake him. There was a television at the far wall of the room, playing muted news coverage. To her right was ostensibly a wall, though it was made of a series of floor-to-ceiling glass panes that made her feet at once liberated and exposed. Through the glass she could see another room similar to the one she was in, though with no occupant.
She took a few deep breaths and then glanced out toward the city again, catching sight of an IV in her arm. Eyes growing, she followed its line up to a double bagging of clear fluids. There was no pain, though, and she calmed as she spied around the room for other new things.
Her plant, the plant from her apartment, was sitting on the same table that had held her glasses. It looked much healthier than it ever had under her care. Someone had given it a booster shot of veggie juice, or something. She smiled as she reached out and touched a thin, papery leaf. It bent beneath the touch, and sprang back when she removed her finger, supple and luscious. Just behind it were two large flower arrangements, one a traditional spread, and one thinner but taller. She stared at the vibrant colors of each, but could not reach the cards attached to their stems.
There was a rolling table between her and the outer windows, which was housing a number of books. Anna Karenina, some scientific journals that she ignored, and even two novels from the Harry Potter series. She smiled her approval.
She looked to the skyline again, but before she could give it her full attention, a more urgent memory took hold. Her glanced around, and behind her but could not see the spoon anywhere. There was nothing metal at all that she could see, actually. Her fingers pressed over the layers of thin blankets fruitlessly. Just when she was about to wake Erik, she chanced a grope beneath her pillow. Her middle finger found the hard, coiled metal, and she deflated. With a sigh, she wrapped her fingers around it, looping her thumb into the too-big grip.
She grinned, comforted, and finally looked out to the city, golden, blue and orange lights sprinkling the landscape like static fireworks. In the not-too-far distance was a body of water that stretched on endlessly with inky broken reflections on its surface, and there plugged in the water was the beautiful, green Statue of Liberty, lit with upturned white lights. Eyes widening again, she eased back into the bed clothes and glanced up at the television, then back to the statue. It was still there.
“Hot damn,” she murmured to herself. Despite all her intentions in undergrad, she had never made it to the city, but from this view it was every bit as beautiful as her classmates had described.
Erik shifted, blinking sleepily. He uncurled his arms as he began to sit up, wincing at the inevitable crick in his neck. His eyes turned to Darcy and he blinked again.
“Hey,” she greeted softly. He blinked again, sitting up straighter, and while she waited for him to speak she gave him a slow, lazy smile. It felt good in her cheeks and lips.
He jumped to his feet, forcing the chair back, and headed for the door. Before she could call for him to return, he disappeared out of her line of sight beyond the glass. She frowned, wondering what she had done wrong, wondering if he had suddenly been overwhelmed with the urge to pee. Some people did that in the middle of the night. What time was it, anyway? She glanced around, unable to find her cell, and finally looked to the news programming just as it slipped to commercial.
With a frustrated sigh she reached for the bed controls to elevate herself to sitting. As the mattress settled into a properly angled position, Jane appeared just on the other side of the glass wall. She looked rumpled, hastily assembled, but wide awake. At the sight of her, Darcy grinned, her heart beating faster. Close behind her were Erik and- Thor?
“Darcy!” Jane nearly shouted as she rounded through the open door. It was clear she was trying for restraint and failing. “Oh my God, Darcy!” she cried and climbed onto the twin-sized bed without hesitation. Darcy was ready for her, opening her arms wide. For a moment it felt as though things were happy and good. She was grinning. She had not seen any of the three in months! Yet the minute Jane embraced her, the memories and the why- why she was in this bed, and why Jane was so emotional, returned to her.
Her face fell and she buried her expression against her friend’s neck and hair, holding tightly to her. Other hands were touching her, Erik at her shoulder and Thor at her crown, but she did not pull away.
“We’ve got you, Darcy. You’re safe,” Jane assured her, and if the hugging and touching had not been about to undo her, the reassurances did.
She felt the tightening in her chest and the heat in her face. Then came the sting in her eyes, but Jane only held her tighter. As they both began to shake, Erik and Thor both sat on opposite sides of the bed and embraced the young women. Just as it was becoming hot and stuffy, the bed groaned ominously, and she allowed a need eruption of laughter, just the other side of sadness, that had been wanting to break out.
“Hell, I think we’re about to break this thing,” she said through her clogged nose and mouth. Jane laughed brilliantly, beautifully, and smoothed some of the stray hairs out of Darcy’s face and up to her forehead where they stayed stuck. The others laughed, too, even Erik, before separating.
Darcy grinned back at her, removed her glasses long enough to wipe them down and then settled them back on her nose. Her hand followed the course Jane’s had, still smiling, but as she touched the crown of her head and then the nape of her neck, her smile faltered. It vanished altogether when she tried to run her fingers through the normally cooperative fibers of her hair. It had been fastened at the back of her head, but otherwise felt like she had tried to start dreads. Had tried and given up half-way through making proper rows so that her hair was just a rat nest of oblivion.
“Well, shit,” she groused in alarm. She turned her eyes back to Jane who was smiling supportively. Erik offered her a tissue from a box that she noticed remained in arm’s reach even after he set it down. After taking a moment to clean her face she released a long, controlled breath. Then she grinned up at Thor and said, “Welcome back, hombre. How long have you been in town?”
The faces watching her all flattened, Thor frowned, and Darcy slowly remembered. She remembered his booming voice, the way it calmed after, and the presence he had emanated. Before he could answer her, she gasped and shook her head, saying, “No, no, I remember. You were there. You were there, and- where was there?” She took another deep breath, feeling her eyes begin to water again. She shook her head, dabbing beneath her glasses with the tissue.
Jane placed a hand on her knee and Darcy shook her head once more, “It’s cool. I’m good. I just- give me a minute.” And they did. Thor chanced taking a seat on the bed opposite and just behind Jane while Erik resumed his seat in the chair, drawing it a bit closer to them.
When her heart had settled once more, she ran her fingers over the needles currently buried at her elbow and took a deep breath. “All right, feel free to take your time, but what happened? What really happened? I mean, I’ve got these thoughts in my head, some pictures and memories, but it’s all kind of jumbled right now.” Her fingers clutched tighter at the spoon, feeling the warm metal edge resist her skin.
The three glanced between one another, and Darcy watched the byplay of emotions on their faces. Jane was, surprisingly, the most hesitant. She had figured Erik would assume that role. He seemed more neutral of the three. It was Thor who spoke.
“I had returned to Midgard, now verging on two weeks ago, and expressed my wish to Jane and Erik to see you- I believe I vouched I would not leave again until I had done so,” he grinned sideways at Jane briefly. Darcy grinned at the idea that someone like Thor- a prince, an alien, a whatever, would come to see her. In the wake of that thought came the realization that Jane and Erik had looked for her, but only after Thor had returned. Her grin faded to a half-smile. She sought out Jane’s severe grimace, Erik’s more reserved frown.
“When we three departed from New York City to find you, we were arrested with great confusion at your disappearance. Neither your cottage neighbors nor Culver University had any signs of your recent presence.” The frown on his face showed his worry, and Darcy shrugged her shoulders blamelessly, deceptively apathetic.
“We were able to trace a number of Midgardian communication device’s information silos-”
“CCTVs,” Erik interjected.
“-to review your… abduction.” The word was stilted, but Darcy nodded firmly, her face unaffected as she listened. Half-wincing, he continued to explain how they traced a number of other sources, travel records for the state of Virginia, cell phone usage and the like, until they had pinpointed her departure. Based on the type of plane she had been sneaked into, there were only a few places she could have been taken. Based on her own identity, only a few of SHIELD’s enemies could have taken her.
She glanced to Erik and Jane, neither of whom interrupted Thor’s monologue on how she had been found. Why had they not contacted her sooner? The question rose to her throat, danced on her tongue, but did not cross her lips. She pushed the words back down, even though the resentment attached to them lingered. Sometime in the future she would need an answer to that question.
He finished, and Darcy nodded, “Okay, got it. That definitely fills in some of the gaps.” She briefly wondered if there was some kind of surcharge for being rescued from an international terrorist group by another, superiorly bad ass NGO.
“Is, uh- Hmmm.” She paused, at the implications of what she wanted to ask, but when Jane gave her knee a gentle squeeze, she found the strength to continue. “Does someone need to hear my side of things?”
“Director Fury,” Thor answered softly while Erik and Jane made themselves comfortable in their seats. Darcy felt a prickle of annoyance. Why was he the only one speaking? Couldn’t Erik or Jane take a turn at explaining themselves? Was Thor not letting them? Her eyes widened.
“He expressed an interest in hearing your tale from your own experience,” Thor explained, but Darcy was consumed with embarrassment at her reaction, her misplaced mistrust. While Thor continued speaking, she tried to tamp down her aggravation. There was no conspiracy, no hidden agenda or motive.
Jane saw her expression and, misreading it, quickly interjected, “Only if you want to tell it, Darcy. No one is going to force you to do anything.”
She blinked in surprise at Jane’s quick response. She appreciated the swooping defense, but she would not mind telling it at some point in the future. She made herself smile. It did feel good to be protected.
Then she frowned, “Who is Director Fury?”
Again, the secret eye communication that was not so secret. This time Erik, and by differentiating speakers he shot down her aggravated conspiracy, explained, “Director Fury is the executive director of SHIELD operations.”
“Ah,” she breathed, blinking at Jane, who looked like she was preparing to swoop again. So, “Maybe tomorrow?” Darcy offered, thinking it definitely did not have to be tonight that she put herself through… whatever wringer this was going to be.
“If you want,” Erik agreed, “or not that soon at all.”
“Only if you want,” Jane affirmed, nodding seriously.
“You’ve been through a very trying time, Darcy.”
She nodded, smiling easily and leaned back into the pillows, crossing her arms over her stomach until the IVed one protested. Grimacing she shook it out slightly and then smiled up at her visitors again. It felt to her like a thin tension had strung itself through the room, attaching invisible strings to each of its occupants.
“So, you’re going to be here for a little while until you’re healed up enough to not need doctor’s supervision. Do you want anything?” Jane offered, and the feeling dispelled itself out of Darcy’s shoulders. Without even having to say anything, which was probably good.
Her anxiety was still settled in her chest, like it might lash out again if provoked. She felt strangely delicate, but did not know how to explain her feelings. Her body felt fine. Her mind was working properly, but it felt like her emotions had been rewired and she had yet to figure them out. To avoid speaking her concern, she directed her attention to the question.
“Yeees,” she moaned, rolling her eyes to Jane. “I want some cheap, cheap, cheap-assed cup noodles. Like, the kind that are fifteen cents for a cup-”
“-that you eat during finals because all the shops are closed?” Jane finished, standing and preparing to head for the door. There was a familiar, pretty smile lighting her face.
“Chicken flavored, s'il vous plait!” Darcy sang.
Erik coughed and crossed his arms in front of him, “Unfortunately, the doctor has you on a restricted diet until you can handle dense solids. Jello and pudding only, for the time being.”
She grimaced, shaking her head in time with his words, “Eff that.” Then with a shallow laugh, she said, “I would really, really appreciate some noodles.”
Erik stared. “Jello and pudding.” Her demeanor slipped into the seriousness that expressed her displeasure, but she withheld a huff.
Turning to Jane, she said flatly, “I want ten different kinds of pudding, then. Not ten cups of pudding, ten different kinds of pudding. No banana. Nothing red. Have I mentioned I hate pudding?” At Thor’s openly curious stare she said, “It’s like, tasteless pasty goo that’s for kids. No jello, though- I have a thing where I can’t eat it without chewing it because it makes me choke, and wouldn’t that just be ironic.”
Three pairs of wide eyes stared at her so quickly that she froze in bed. Jane had paused midway into grabbing her purse. Erik was wrapping a fashionable scarf around his neck. Thor’s eyes dropped.
“Guys, it’s OK to laugh.” They eased, but none followed through with her suggestion. Maybe she wasn’t the only one feeling delicate. The thought did nothing for empathy, only made her feel worse.
“We are going to get you the best pudding that New York has,” Jane assured her as Thor nodded his agreement. She could not help but grin at their enthusiasm and the cute picture they made. Apparently time apart had not dented whatever spark existed between them, and she was glad to see it.
Erik wordlessly settled back into the chair he had been in when she had first woken, and the pair departed to parts unknown. She counted to thirty after they had passed beyond her line of sight. Then she turned to Erik, who was watching her with a smile that faded under her stare.
“Tell me what really happened. Don’t leave anything out this time.”
The pained expression on his face was almost worth her firm tone, confirmation of her suspicion. It reminded her of Puente Antiguo and the fond exasperation he had turned on her and Jane at times. He should have made the pudding run himself, then, or at least known better than to think she would let it go.
The details he added were not many, but she could tell they were all he knew, and they packed a wallop. SHIELD had put together not just any band of independent agents to secure her return. They had been composed of Iron Man, Thor, some guy calling himself Captain America, a green troll, and two assassin people, who collectively called themselves the Avengers. They had rescued her in less than a day, from Thor’s leaving the city to their return with her. She supposed it was cool, but she did not remember any of them, so it kind of lessened the impact.
Apparently she had been sleeping for almost three days, not comatose, just exhausted. She had spoken to the people around her at times, apparently she had been conscious during the rescue, even. She barely remembered any of it. She remembered Thor, and a little bit of snow, but beyond that remembering details was like trying to pinch water.
Less mysteriously cool and more, tree falling in the woods.
“You’ve also been placed on suicide watch.”
Darcy started, turning to him with an expression so surprised that he immediately shrugged. Words would not come to mind to reject the idea, it was so bizarre. It was stupid? It was unnecessary? She could not think of ways to properly express how she felt about that, but the longer she thought about it, she was not even sure what suicide watch would entail.
Finally, she sighed. “That’s ridiculous, but whatever. Just leave me the sheets, if you don’t mind.”
“Not my call, but I’ll do what I can.” When she turned to scowl at him he was smirking at her, and the tension melted away. She grinned and eased into the bed, reaching for the television remote. “Whatever we can do to make you comfortable, Darcy.”
“Ha, except noodles.”
“Come off the noodles!”
So a slightly happier chapter, and some notes on what Darcy's going through. This is not over by a long shot, though. Some day as a writer I probably need to work on the ability to tell succinct, effective short stories, but not today! I want to really explore some of the ideas of how this kind of victimization is not a single-person event. Obviously the victim is at the center of it, but this is definitely a 'takes a village' scenario. So, if you've requested to see other characters, fear not! They WILL appear (though perhaps not as you request. They've gotta be honest, after all.)
I don't know if there will be pairings in this story or not. I'm leaning toward not, because the important part is healing, and I don't want anyone falling in love out of misunderstood sympathy. Ya know?
Lastly, THANK YOU ALL, so much for your very kind reviews thus far. They are seriously motivating, but they are also extremely humbling. Assuming you are all telling the truth (and why would you do otherwise?) I have never had this kind of feedback from an audience before. Thank you for your constructive criticism and praise, but also for the sense of community you have given me. (This kind of thank you should probably be at the end of the story, but life happens sometimes, and I'd rather it be said than not.)
If any of you would be interested in doing collabs in the future, I would be most interested in that as well!
Chapter 7: Reception (pt 3)
She walked through the hallway unbound, listening to the march of soldiers behind her. She led them on, guiding them through the maze of turns and twists through the labyrinthine compound. It was quieter than she ever remembered- even the low creaks and groans of the building were hushed. At one point she stopped, allowing the first regiment to waddle past her.
It was hard to march properly without feet or knees, but the pressed noodles made do. Darcy frowned as the small bits that usually wound up in the bottom of the package chipped off and landed on the concrete floor. At this rate, with this large a party, the hall would be covered in a chalky useless mess.
On they marched at her command, and she watched the perfect turns they made around a series of two corners. Those in the outermost corner fanned wide and increased their pace to bring the group back into formation as they straightened again. It was most impressive, and she would have to inform the queen of their progress.
She glanced back to those picking up the rear. On they marched, proud little soldiers. She grimaced. They would have to overcome the flaking, chipping problem before they presented their marching ability to anyone. When she turned back to those at the head of the parade, they had abandoned formation. They had abandoned the march altogether, and were climbing onto one another to form a wall from the floor to the ceiling.
Forgetting her post, she pressed her hands against the wall, wounded when it stood firm and unyielding. There was no chipping now, no cracking. They were an impenetrable force. She glanced back and saw those at the tail of the column doing the same on the opposite side. Noodle by noodle they boxed her in. Light was swallowed until it broke into pieces around her, slowly devoured up by the compression of a chalky white fortress.
She was back in the cell.
The breath came in sharply, like the final step of a race before the finish line. Above her, the ceiling was sheet rock and plaster, painted an off white that was not unlike dried noodles in color, but the texture was completely wrong. She blinked away the sleep and took a slow, deep breath to slow the fast beat of her heart.
Hovering over her knees was a long, narrow rolling table. It was occupied by a stack of discarded cards between Erik, Jane, and Thor at one end and a graceful tower of pudding cups at the other. She grimaced, thinking that if they had just given her the damned noodles she could have avoided such a dream. Or maybe enhanced it. But really? A prison of noodles?
She looked back to the three. A long glance at the cards in their hands, and those discarded on the low table suggested they were playing Go Fish.
“I do not like the lack of strategy in this game,” Thor muttered as he handed over a face card to Jane.
“It’s got some strategy,” Jane whispered, grinning. “It’s more about honesty, though.”
“Hmm, perhaps it is worthy,” he offered, sounding unconvinced.
She watched them quietly for a time as they requested cards or fished from the untouched stack. The sky was still dark outside, but their was an ever-present glow from the city. Some of the weariness had lifted from their faces. Thor still looked the best of them, but even he did not look unaffected. It did not feel like much time had passed, but there could be no certainty in her estimation. For the moment, though, the three looked less burdened, lighter.
“Hey minions,” she called when she could not stand the quiet any more. All three were surprised into uprightness. What good minions they were, too, reacting so quickly. “I’ll have a pistachio pudding, if you don’t mind.” Her stomach growled its approval and she lifted a hand.
“Hey, you’re awake,” Jane greeted, and Darcy waved muted jazz hands while Thor pulled back the top from the appropriate snack cup. Something about his movements gave her deja v ú , even as he set the spoon in her waiting hand. Before he passed the open cup to her, he regarded the green contents warily, giving them a light squeeze to see them wobble. With a repressed frown, he passed the cup to her, smiling as he met her amused expression.
“I told you,” she said, conducting the spoon at him. Even so, it did not stop her from eating the creamy contents of the unlabeled pack. It was actually… decent. She took another bite, giving Thor a wary glance. He watched her for a moment longer, almost expectant. Before she could ask for clarification, though, he smiled and returned to his card game, sitting down heavily. It was the most relaxed she had ever seen him.
“So do you guys ever work anymore?” she asked between bites. They began to shuffle the cards.
“We’ve been taking-”
“-a little break.”
Darcy glanced from Jane to Erik and took a deep breath, “Trouble in paradise, eh?” Jane shot Erik a look with enough time to roll her eyes at Darcy, who grinned.
“Darcy,” Thor interrupted, and she pulled the spoon from her mouth, careful to remove every line of nutty, creamy okayness. “Do you remember the last conversation we had?”
Her lips turned up, though her eyes remained expressionless, “Yeah. Lots of bad mojo. The Avengers saved the day. Pretty awesome.” Her tone was flippant, but only because she could not hide the emotion in her face.
As soon as she finished the words, her body quivered with unspoken emotion. Thor turned slightly, anticipating trouble. She caught his eyes and shook her head, “I haven’t said ‘thank you’. Not once have I thanked you for getting me out of there.”
He smiled, and Darcy pretended not to notice that Jane was smiling, too. At least Erik was far enough away that she could ignore his presence altogether in the midst of her sudden emotional floundering. Truly, how did you thank someone for saving your life? For treating you as if you had dignity and had not been… what she had.
“Thank you, Thor,” were the words that finally came out. She huffed a small, self-deprecating laugh. As if three words could convey the depth of what she owed him now. This was so much more personal than Puente Antiguo when she had not been at the center of the Destroyer’s debacle, but merely caught up in events. Being rescued from a one-person kidnapping was completely different.
“Nay, Darcy,” he interjected, interrupting her thoughts. “You need not say it. I understand.”
Okay, then. Right. Maybe he did, maybe he really did. He had a way of speaking that made her want to believe him, but her words still felt- were horribly inadequate.
She let the moment of emotion pass, tried not to stare too long at her lap, and spoke before Jane could hug her again, “So, where am I now? I mean, New York, yeah, but where ?”
Jane abandoned the card game and peeled the top off of another cup of pudding that Darcy pointed to as she answered, “This is Stark Tower.”
“As in Anthony Stark?” she clarified, stirring the contents unnecessarily. She remembered being told that it had been the Avengers who had saved her, and in the conversation the night before they had mentioned that Iron Man was now a part of that group. So his presence in everything made sense; in the way that black holes and unicorns made sense, but people did not really think about them on a day to day basis because they did not affect the way they lived their lives.
“His preference is to be addressed as ‘Tony’,” Thor interjected and Darcy nodded agreeably, because of course. Tony. That was the natural conclusion to draw from this line of conversation.
Anyhow, if she was in his private hospital, or whatever, she would call the man Gandhi if he wanted. Given his track record, he’d probably want something holier. But she barely knew him and all, so she’d have to be the judge of that.
Jane grinned, and Darcy felt her own incredulous laughter bubbling up. Thor continued, “This edifice is also meant to house temporary dwellings for the Avengers as well as SHIELD’s administrative efforts to support us.”
“Thor’s a part of the Avengers,” Jane added, yawning around the words.
Darcy sighed, resting the pudding in her lap for a moment before she resumed stirring the contents, “Tony Stark’s hospital house thing…” The world had gotten a little crazier since she had been kidnapped. Or maybe she had just been pulled back from the periphery of things into the center of it. However it was going to be classified and arranged, her world had become a lot more complicated. She did not want it spinning out of control before she could acclimate to it.
“We’re actually in a ward that belongs to SHIELD,” Erik corrected as she finally took a bite.
She frowned around the spoon at his words. SHIELD, SHIELD, SHIELD. Agent Brown in New Mexico had only been too happy to wave around the SHIELD banner and their ambiguous authority, and before her Agent Coulson had nearly wrecked Jane’s life in stealing all of her research. Then Jane and Erik had made nice and disappeared from her life in a big way.
She remembered the questions that had been put to her in the compound- Tell us about Thor. Tell us about the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Tell us about the Tesseract. Those memories were etched into her brain, and would remain there for the rest of her life. Her captors had never directly asked about SHIELD, but it was not until SHIELD had shown up that things had gone definitively shitty.
Now Thor was making nice with the Man, just like Jane and Erik had before him.
“Fucking SHIELD,” she grumbled before she licked the spoon clean.
When she glanced up, Jane was eying her with confusion that quickly shifted into sympathy while Erik stared out at the skyline. His expression was shadowed in the dim lighting. Thor shifted in his seat and took a deep breath. She frowned at their reactions, a little embarrassed, but mostly annoyed. There was the lingering hurt that refused to go away, the injustice of it all that it had to be her to be kidnapped, so disconnected from it all, and so not… Thor. Or Iron Man, or any of the people who might be able to take care of themselves.
“Do you not remember, Darcy, our travel back with Tony Stark and the others?”
She froze in her grumpy eating, feeling some of her anger stutter in confusion, “Should I?” Not all, but some. Enough to fully listen to him.
His smile was sad as he shook his head, “No, I suppose not.”
“Did I- uh, embarrass myself?”
“No,” he said, chuckling and she sighed.
“Guess I’ll have to try harder next time.”
That earned the grin she was hoping for, even though Erik hid his behind a wide yawn. Darcy did not give into the urge. She felt tired, still, but her mind was alert.
“You guys should go. Get some rest,” she urged. They did not seem as exhausted as they had before her nap, but they were still tired, and Go Fish would only keep someone awake for so long. Meaning, not long at all. She did not want to have to task them with sitting in the room while she watched television to occupy herself. To not think about prisons made of noodles… or concrete, for that matter.
“No!” Jane protested, and seemed ready to plant herself on the bed. Her vehemence helped to ease some of Darcy’s inner turmoil, but Darcy shook her head, still.
“Darcy, no, we’re fine. We’re not leaving unless you want us to,” Erik explained, and she chuckled.
“Pretty sure that’s what I just said.”
She watched the struggle on their faces and felt her resentment ease. The conflict there was for her, torn between a feeling of obligation to keep her company or to see to their own needs. That there was conflict at all tugged at her heart. These were her friends. They had found her in her darkest hour and had saved her life. She should not second guess them. Not now.
“Go,” she urged. “I feel like I’ve slept for years, and I have a ton of reality shows to catch up on… Though I kind of have an urge to watch Glee, and that’s weird, plus totally not happening.”
“Yes, you need to rest,” came Thor’s interjection, and Darcy nearly started because he was talking to Jane and Erik, not her, and she had been including him in the dismissal. It wasn’t like the guy never slept. He was watching Jane, who in turn stared at him with a mix of gratitude and affection. “I shall keep vigil with Darcy.”
Darcy herself tried not to roll her eyes at the sudden syrupy turn of their PDA and began scrolling through channels. Vigil with Darcy, though, might make a good drama show someday. Or a band name. Or a novel title. As Thor leaned down to kiss Jane, Erik stepped to Darcy’s side and surprised her by placing a warm kiss on her forehead. She stared at him as he pulled away, touched. Her expression said as much to him, and he smiled.
He said only, “We’ll be back in the morning.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she called. He rolled his eyes and departed the room with a small wave.
Thor settled into the chair that Erik had vacated and helped himself to one of the butterscotch-looking desserts as Darcy flipped through the channels. She peripherally watched his first bite of the dessert, watched him feel the creamy texture as the flavor fully sank into his tongue.
“Volstagg would appreciate these,” was all he said to her curious expression. He took another bite and gestured to the television. “Find us sufficient entertainment, if you please. Though, not of the animated variety. I find the colors garish and the characters lacking good sense.”
Darcy shrugged casually and settled in for midnight run of movies, “Inception it is.” Though which cartoons Thor had been watching, she had to wonder. There were plenty of good ones with sensible characters. Maybe he just didn’t understand Futurama subtlety. Or maybe someone had turned him loose with only Dora to keep him company. “This is a really good movie. It’s got action and suspense and will really make you think.”
She had to give Stark credit, and absolutely none to SHIELD, for all of the premium channels. Either the man had spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, or he had amazing insight as to what was tedious to the patients forced to stay there.
It was more interesting to watch Thor’s reactions to the movie than to consider her own feelings, which, in the quiet, were willing to roar in her mind. She had told her friends that she was not tired, that she had slept enough, but that was not quite true. She was not in pain, but her body felt sluggish and weary in a way that pain killers did not numb. And she could not shake the feeling of fragility that had taken hold in her. She felt like if she looked at the skyline for too long, felt all of its beauty and transience, she might start crying. Or if she took a particularly good bite of the chocolate pudding cup she was eyeballing, it might overwhelm her.
Thor watched the screen with polite attentiveness, then thoughtful focus, and she tried to think about how much television he had been exposed when she was away. Did they have television in Asgard?
“Thor,” she said lowly, feeling a little weird that her friend’s boyfriend was keeping her company. “You don’t have to stay.”
A man’s scream disrupted her thoughts, jerking her eyes to the television. Fischer was being convinced that Brown was being tortured, and her breathing stuttered.
Brown wasn’t, and she knew it, had seen the movie a handful of times already, but the knowledge of its fabrication did not stop her throat from constricting. Thor saw her face and stood immediately. In a few strides he reached for the television, and for a moment she had the hysterical thought that he might do something rash like throw it out of the window or break it with his fist. He did not, but a moment after he reached behind it, the screen went blank.
It was not horrible. It was not going to overcome her. It was just a movie. No one had been tortured. No one had been held underwater or beaten or starved. She took a deep breath, staring straight ahead at the wall in front of her as Thor resumed his seat.
“Darcy.” He hesitated, some new color to his voice that slowly drew her attention. She blinked away the water in her eyes, and took a few more deep, silent breaths. When she looked at him, his face was carefully neutral. “My desire is to stay unless you wish otherwise. I would not see you alone during this time. However, neither do I wish to make you uncomfortable.”
She frowned at him, wondering how they had ever thought he was crazy. Had they done justice to the pain he had been in when he had first come to New Mexico? They had helped him, but they had laughed at him, too. Few people she had met had ever been as straightforward or plain with their thoughts and feelings. The fact that his concern was for her, instead of stoking her emotions helped her to calm.
“You can stay if you want,” she agreed. She smiled. “You don’t look as tired as the others did.”
“Though I still appear tired?”
“A little,” she admitted. “Around the eyes.”
“Perhaps I shall endeavor for the beauty rest whereby Fandral swears.”
“No, I jest.”
Darcy grinned and took another deep breath, feeling the last of the shakes spend themselves through her frame. “We have been very concerned for you, though,” he added, and she forgave him for being a troll. He gestured to the flowers at the corner between them. “Other members of the Avengers had these delivered while you slept… They are charming.” She glanced to the mystery arrangements and nodded her agreement. That solved the question of the senders’ identities.
Without thinking too much about it, she assumed that the motivation behind them was extra civic duty, despite what Thor had said of their concern. They had rescued her, in which case, the Avengers Initiative had her vote of confidence. Sort of. They were still attached to SHIELD, after all. What flowers did not answer was why they had rescued her. That, too, was a question she would want addressed in the near future.
“Thank you, Thor. Thank you for coming to get me.”
“And I say again, there is no need for thanks, Darcy. We are allies as much as friends. To do anything less would have made me unworthy of either title.”
She laid back and stared at the ceiling, reclining the head of the bed. His explanation was a little more diplomatic than any of her other friends would have worded it, but she did not doubt his sincerity. His gestures had always been that way, now that she thought about it. From the first time he had demanded food to the last time he had spoken with Coulson and negotiated Jane’s materials returned. He had a way of wrapping his words in formality that could distance himself from the speaker without hiding the intent.
It reminded her of the royalty here on earth. Not that she had ever met foreign dignitaries, especially of that level- Thor was the only one who qualified, but she had seen enough news coverage and documentaries to know breeding when she saw it. True, and not affected.
Yet, he had the charisma of a natural leader, and the ability to warm those around him. His friends had come all the way from Asgard to save his life, even under pain of exile. The loyalty he inspired in others was something she now understood in a very personal way. No one else she knew had come for her.
“You are troubled, are you not?” he asked quietly, and she shook her head. Then, giving the question thought, she shrugged. “If you wish to unburden yourself, I am willing to listen.”
Just like that, her thoughts flipped. The sympathy was too much. Was it not enough to just sit and be ?
“Thor, have you ever had your head held in a bucket of water?” she asked bluntly. He stared at her, and his silence was answer enough. Though, the idea of anyone trying to hold him under water made her smirk at the impossibility of it. “The first time it happens you freak, you absolutely freak.” He frowned at her tone, but she rolled on, angry and hurt and daring him to try and understand . “The second time it happens, even if you try to stay calm- try to tell yourself that you won’t need the breathe and that you can pretend you’re just in a swimming pool with your friends closing your eyes. But you can’t. You just can’t, ” she shouted. You don’t think about how terrified you already are, how much you already need to breathe, and the people shaking you know exactly what they’re doing. How do they know? Even if you could be calm- what kind of people do this?”
She was not even shouting at him when she finished. Her hands were fisted in the blankets with eyes for the big man from the prison. He had always done what he had been commanded so dispassionately. His hands had always engulfed her entire shoulder, the back of her neck that he could have snapped just like they did in the movies.
“How,” she demanded, “do they know how to give you just enough food to make you feel like you’re always dying? I mean…” She released the blankets and shook her hands, cupping imaginary objects. “I could hear pots and pans like they were inside of my brain. I was so hungry that I could smell melted butter where there wasn't any, and hear bread tearing or the way a draft beer sounds when the tap is running and the head foams over the top of a frosted mug.”
She heaved a sigh and reached for another cup of pudding. “Fucking pudding. This is for babies and old people. I hate it,” she said before she slurped up another cup foregoing the spoon. As it hit her stomach, the organ roiled and grumbled happily. Her palm smeared tears over her face until they were gone.
Thor was watching her with an easy expression. He did not look like he might smile, but neither was he frowning. Darcy grimaced at him. She wanted him to yell, to scream, to do something other than accept her outburst. He was not supposed to sit there with understanding. How could he? Who could hurt Thor in the ways she had been hurt? Her eyes dared him to say the wrong thing.
In the silence, he answered her expression, “I told you, if you wish to unburden yourself, I am here.”
She frowned again, removing her glasses completely as the water began to well in her eyes, “Fuck,” she choked out. The half-empty cup landed next to the others as she dropped it back onto the table. Her companion stood to come nearer, and she held a hand against his approach.
“Don’t,” she said, not sure why he should not. She was only sure that she hurt. Everything hurt in the worst way that did not promise relief with food or air or even time.
“Darcy.” It was a minute after her outburst of her troubles, the things waiting to grab her in her dreams. His voice was so soft that she glanced at him to make sure it was him speaking. “Do you remember on the hill, as we waited in the snow… you said ‘I am right.’”
She did not remember saying it then, but she remembered saying it. She remembered saying it over and over as she furiously etched one hundred and three scrawl marks into the wall next to the door. She had murmured it to herself to hold off the thoughts of her captors, to protect herself from their promises. She nodded, unintentionally diverted.
“Would you explain it to me?”
The memory came to her as easily as any of the other horrors, though not with the sharp clarity of more recent ones, but with the foggy pleasantness of months and years-old remembrances. Before she had met Jane or Erik or even considered moving to New Mexico she had taken a political science course in the ethics of modern warfare. She had been a sophomore then, and so high on life that reading about the real problems others had gone through had been better drama than any episode of Lost.
“There were prisoners who made it through their incarceration without being completely broken,” she whispered. “They thought about the side they were on, the cause they believed in above anything else… And they held onto it.”
And that was what she had attempted to do. Even if she did not know her cause or the reason for her capture. There was nothing in her brain that could have warranted a kidnapping. She was not the level of genius as Erik, much less Jane. She had no secrets, especially the kind that Hydra had been after. Her silence was as much a finger to her captors as it was to protect her friends, even if the gesture lost its meaning quickly.
What could she do for them beside hold their secrets? The only way to hold her own was to convince herself it was the right thing to do. Hydra was wrong. They had been wrong in kidnapping her, in hurting her, in plying her for things that she did not know. Who had been right? Erik, Thor, Jane. They had been foremost in her mind, her pillars of strength against doubt.
“So that’s what I did,” she finished, and replaced her glasses again. She took up the pudding cup.
When she glanced at him, his face was stony, hard and unmoving. There were tears in his eyes.
She smirked. “Don’t you start crying, too,” she requested, not unkindly.
He shook his head, ironically dislodging some of the tears, “I am not sad.” And though the crying belied the statement, his steady voice affirmed it. “I am amazed by your spirit.”
She closed her eyes, and tried to sleep, unsure of what to say and too spent to try.
So, I got it into my head that I should not answer comments because they "inaccurately" drive up the comment count for the story, and somehow we view comment number as a trophy of sorts. But eff it, it's fanfic, and I like to communicate with you guys, so if you comment, I will from here on out be leaving a response, even if it's just a thank you! Haters to the left, si vous plait.
Also, a question for the reader/authors out there who might feel up to answering it. I feel like I might be missing opportunities for some more meaningful introspection in the characters. While I'm not *trying* to avoid those internal monologues, there could be more of them that might enrich the story. Do you think it would strengthen the story overall to see more of this or is it good with the level that already exists, with more of an emphasis on the way a character physically reacts? This is question that would help me in the overall context of writing, and not just for this story. Thank you!
These walls were familiar. They had become as much a part of her as her arms and legs and eyes and mind. Their dark color and texture were visible now. Though still smothered in darkness, she could see them better than she ever had before. The cell had not changed.
She turned toward the open door, heard easy footsteps outside. Her brain sent the signal to her legs to move forward, but they were rejected. Ignored. She could no more step forward than she could breathe. The footsteps grew louder.
Oxford man stepped into the light from the hallway. His shirt was immaculate, buttons from sternum to navel neatly set and his slacks pressed. His face had been airbrushed into a olive-skinned blur. Neither his eyes nor mouth were visible. His nose was a flat expanse of skin between the two features.
He walked toward her, frozen as she was. Her terror was as tangible as the walls on either side of her, but he stepped through it like stepping against a heavy wind. His flat palm was against her forehead. Her brain signaled her legs again to make the motions they knew to make at a time like this. Move backward. Run. Do SOMETHING.
She could feel blood running down her face. Outside of herself she could see it. It emanated from beneath his gently laid palm. She screamed, mouth receptive to brain’s signals.
“Darcy,” he called. “Calm down,” he commanded with no mouth.
“I can’t calm down! My head is split open!” she screamed.
“You’re fine,” he objected, a far away shout, and pulled away from her.
Erik stood over her, hand hovering over her head. She wondered why he had hit her, why he had been wearing the white shirt and charcoal grey slacks. The pain was gone, had never been. She blinked as he dropped his hand to his side, watching her with concern. Daylight backlit his head in a pale yellow halo.
She shook her head, disagreeing with his assessment, and then realized that the damage was a dream. She was not fine, though. She had been in the cell and oxford man was there again. He had come into her cell, which was worse than the big man or the kind woman. When he came into the cell, what did he want? What did it mean? The others were the ones who took care of her, in all senses of the words. He never touched her before her forehead. Had never touched her. He had never touched her. It was just a dream, not a true memory.
“A dream,” she admitted unnecessarily.
Erik snorted and pressed a folded tissue into the crook of her arm, holding it there with two fingers, “A nightmare.” She barely noticed his actions as she tried to bury her face in her fingers and palms.
The correction was factual, the way he had explained the concept of an Einstein-Rosen Bridge after Thor had dropped from the sky. He braced his thumb against the back of her elbow in a firm hold. “Hell of one, too. You dislodged your IV needle.” She looked down at the tissue, grabbing a novel amount of blood from the wound, and then shook her head.
“I’m done with it, anyway.” Then she lied, “It burns my arm,” but did not look at him as he held the tissue steady.
“What was the dream about?” he asked, pulling the tissue back after a moment to check on the blood flow. Dark red began to well from the tiny hole at the crook of her arm. She watched it for a moment, calming, then watched his hands as he took a new tissue and replaced the old.
“The oxford man,” she said softly, watching his hands. Then, realizing he would not know who that person was, “The man in charge of me.” His fingers became so still that after a moment, she looked up into his face. He was watching her carefully, but not delicately. She imagined, for a moment, that the combined scrunching of his eyes, the downturn of his lips, and the wrinkles between his brow said more than words might. He did not need to tell her that she was stronger than she realized. His face said it. In that moment she felt normal, like nothing had ever hurt her.
He moved her fingers to holding the tissue in place and she smirked, feeling rebellious at the early removed needle. “He came into my cell, in the dream, and touched my forehead. But when he did, I started bleeding because of the touch, like right where his fingers were. Even though he didn’t touch hard enough to hurt. It was still… Gross.”
“Sounds like he was trying to take the information he wanted,” Erik explained after a moment’s thought.
“Oh,” she intoned, because it sounded reasonable. “That, or my brain just transposed your hand’s touch into the dream.”
“Sorry,” he said. She shrugged.
It still hurt to sit up by herself, and she did not know if she would ever sleep well again, but after Thor had slipped her a steaming styrofoam cup of noodles, Erik stopped trying to relegate her diet to nothing but baby foods. “ Do what you want! ” Her stomach’s jailer had informed the nurses of the rebellion, or something, and she had begun receiving restaurant quality, if not quantity, meals that both pleased and saddened Thor. He was happy with her progress, but there were never leftovers, and Darcy was not good at sharing these days.
She was finishing off a small plate of crepes and a small bowl of berries both deliciously worthy of Paris, itself, when the doctor arrived. He was different from the nurses who had attended her with metronomical timing and robotic efficiency. This man smiled at her as he entered, and touched none of her equipment. She had never seen him before. Jane looked up from the journal she was reading quietly, silent after the first attempt at sharing its contents, and regarded the man with harmless curiosity.
“Darcy?” he asked, in the way of people who already know the answer. His voice warm enough to take some of the tension out of her. They were in a SHIELD facility. As much as she disliked them, and that was a lot these days, the only fear she had felt since coming to the tower had been self-generated. He eased between her and Jane, and Darcy set her fork down as he extended a hand to her. “I’m Doctor Jones,” he greeted, with a firm shake.
She readily returned it, but narrowed her eyes at him. He stilled as she asked, “And how’s your cousin Doctor Martha?”
“Off traveling with some science geek,” he said without missing a beat. As he removed a pen from his pocket, his volume dropped, “Aunt Francine is not happy about it either.”
Darcy nodded compassionately. Dr. Jones smiled at her, and she grinned.
“I think I’m in love,” she sighed. Jane glanced between the two with some confusion that Darcy did not bother to enlighten.
He grinned and after a quick ask for permission, made himself comfortable on the edge of her bed. She watched as he casually thumbed through the pages on his clipboard.
“I’m just here to do an evaluation with you now that you’re eating better and kind of getting on a normal sleep schedule.” Darcy rolled her eyes at the idea of normal sleep, “If that’s all right.” She nodded silently and Dr. Jones gave a pointed look to Jane, who returned his stare without flinching. Returning his attention to Darcy, he said, “You don’t have to answer any questions that you don’t want to, but some of them might be kind of personal to begin with. You want your friend to stay?”
Darcy glanced at Jane, whose expression softened and she nodded generously. She would stay if Darcy wanted her to, but she would not force herself into the situation. For a moment, Darcy’s chest tightened in that fragile, hot way she had been feeling on and off for days. Jane, who sometimes forgot to eat until her stomach was wrapped around her spine, had more focus than anyone Darcy had ever met. Right now, being the object of that focus was intense, but also pretty much welcome. It did not entirely make up for the past year, but Darcy was glad for the support.
“Yeah,” she returned finally to the doctor, “Jane stays.”
He nodded, and then began the disinterested task of checking her eyes, throat, mouth, and ears. He was not coolly clinical, but his manner stopped just the other side of warm. She was glad for the distance. For all that his Dr. Who references were spot on, she did not want someone making too much of the injuries. It was enough for now to have to live with them.
Again he asked permission, and again it was granted to him, to slowly pull up her shirt and expose the normally pale skin beneath. There was an abstraction of colors over her body, mingling with patches of unharmed skin. Browns, yellows, and a few deeper purple marks patched together over her stomach, and abdomen, riding lower. She knew there were similar marks on her back, her legs. It was the first time Darcy had taken such a thorough look at herself since waking in the hospital.
Her twisted angle of perception did not help to distance her from the strangely empty feeling that took over her. Her body did not hurt enough to house these bruises. It felt like she was looking at someone else.
“Do you know how you got most of these?” he asked, and the straightforward manner of his question was as refreshing as cool water.
“Yeah, most of them were through beatings.”
His eyes held hers for a moment longer, carefully neutral, then he nodded, writing down notes onto the chart. She gave a half-smile to Jane, who was viewing her with something like pride, but Darcy did not want to think about it too much. It reminded her too much of Thor, of the way he had complimented her spirit. The idea of being proud or someone worthy of praise right now was discomforting. There was nothing to be proud about in this.
Instead, she focused on the doctor as he eyed her frankly, and asked with the same intent, “Any of them self-inflicted?”
“Uhh, no,” she said curiously. She gave a firm shake of her head to dispel any doubt to that fact. Since she had been back to the Tower, she had hardly been alone. Not that she wanted to hurt herself, but there would never have been opportunity anyway. She did not share these thoughts openly, thinking the matter was done for. When Jones continued to regard her, though, she floundered. “I mean, not that I know of, right?” She thought briefly of the cell, of the notches in the wall, and glanced at her fingertips. Her nails had been trimmed short, and the skin was a little dry, but mostly unharmed. Nothing like the rest of her, anyway.
He waited, his patience silently pressing her for a more thorough explanation and she sighed, “I mean, there are parts I don’t remember, right? Some parts I wish I could forget, but- no. No, I don’t think I ever hurt myself. I mean, God, I didn’t want to, and I don’t want to now.” The last words she tried to finish with emphasis. It took more than she could admit to say the words, but they sounded feeble to her ears.
As she said them, after she admitted them, she could not bring herself to look at Jane. They had told her it was twenty-two days, just barely over three weeks. She remembered the three people she had seen at various times, and she remembered the ways she had interacted with the three of them, but she could not remember everything. In any other span of three weeks, it would have been normal to forget days and dates, but for those days? It felt ridiculous not to remember every single thing she had gone through, most of which had been sitting in her own filth for hours on end. But there it was. She could not honestly say she remembered.
She took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling, resisting the urge to wipe her eyes.
“You know, it’s OK,” Jones answered, placing a hand on her shoulder. She nodded without looking at him, and he graciously pulled his hand away. “It’s OK not to remember.” She nodded again, not entirely believing him.
Why couldn’t she remember? Was her brain repressing things? She was not even sure she wanted to remember every detail, but they were her memories. Something about not remembering felt wrong in a way she could not fully discern.
Before she could swamp herself in doubt and self-flagellation, he continued, “Darcy, I just need to ask you just two more questions, and we’ll be done.” He took another glance at Jane, then turned back to Darcy.
“Were you sexually assaulted in any way?”
“No, absolutely not,” she answered with certainty, and more than a touch of embarrassment. That kind of harm would have stayed with her. She had been grabbed before, molested by wandering hands at parties when frat boys had had one too many PBRs and thought her chest was free for sampling. Those memories were bad enough, but they had stuck with her. Something as invasive as rape would not have been forgotten, no matter how long she had stayed in the cell.
But he was looking at her with that easy, un-condescending patience again, and the longer he watched her, the more doubt began to worm its way into her certainty. “Not so hard with the staring, ok?” she said, glancing toward the hallway to avoid his eyes, but it was too late. Hadn’t she just thought that she could not remember anything? In her periphery, she saw him look away, and she nearly growled, “Fuck.” She rubbed her eyes aggressively, and said, “There’s nothing to get upset over.”
“Darcy,” Jane murmured, reaching for her, but Darcy was adamant.
“I’m not going to get upset. If there’s no memory, it didn’t happen.” Dr. Jones was looking at her the way that Martha had sometimes looked at The Doctor, and not in the, ‘Hey, I’m in love with you,’ way. Almost immediately, she asked, “I can get a test, right?”
“Absolutely,” he answered, nodding with the most emotion she had seen from him. Darcy mimicked his gesture, as he added, “Whenever you want.”
“Well then, when we’re done with the questions. That’s what I want.” She knew in her head that any chemical evidence of a rape would most certainly be gone by the time they tested her. But there were other things she wanted to know, now needed to know.
“Only one more pertinent question, then,” he assured her, and she held up her hand.
“Jane, do you mind going?” Darcy said without looking at her friend directly. They were getting worse and worse, these questions. She already felt strained, more ashamed than she knew she had any right to feel. But knowing her rights and embracing them was experientially different than intellect allowed. Jane had seen enough of her exposed weepy self than anyone had any right to. She needed a little bit of dignity left in all of this.
“Are you sure?” her friend asked and Darcy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. It felt like they were getting really good at questioning her decisions.
“Yeah, I’ll uh, have one of the nurses page you or something when we’re done,” she promised.
As soon as Jane had disappeared from sight down the glass hallway, she turned to Jones, who gave her a half-smile.
“This last one’s not so bad,” he offered, seeming to read where her thoughts were going. She nodded, unable to find amusement in the novelty, and braced herself anyway.
“I’ve been told you have a security object of sorts… May I see it?”
Darcy only hesitated a moment, letting go of some embarrassment when she realized that the question was, indeed, not as bad as she had thought it would be. She fished the curl of metal from beneath her pillow before passing it over to him. It really did look shabby in daylight, like one of those indie finger rings that had been popular in the last year. There were tiny, stylized flowers and leaves on its ring, and the bowl was barely sharp from her scratching the wall with it.
As he accepted it, ugly as it was, she felt a well of vulnerability open beneath her. Her toes were dangling in it, ready to drop into its depths.
“It’s stupid,” she said flatly, unable to take her eyes off the object.
“It’s nice.” His tone was so sincere that she could not help but jerk her eyes to double-check his expression. He was not looking at her. When he did, he handed the spoon back to her, and she forced herself not to clamp her fingers down on it like a lifeline. The thing that had not abandoned her; the one thing she had stolen away from her captors.
“I’m going to throw it away soon,” she said with unsure intention. It felt like the right thing to say, just like insulting it had felt like the right thing to do.
“Don’t,” Dr. Jones commanded gently, but firmly.
Darcy resisted the urge to shake her head as she stared at him. Was he teasing her? His face was sincere, brown eyes holding hers with enough assurance that she finally nodded. He shook his head to emphasize his own words, and she continued nodding. Her body felt like the chains around her heart had snapped, and she released a shaky breath. The doctor curled his fingers around hers and forced her to hold the spoon more tightly. “Hold onto it, all right? For absolutely as long as you need.”
“Thank you,” she whispered as he pulled his fingers away. She did not trust herself to speak any louder, any further.
He surprised her when he leaned forward and gave her a gentle hug, breeching the distance of his bedside manner. For a moment, she held on, grateful for distance and proximity.
It was a really nice room that they put her in after Jones’ evaluation, like a hotel from Ocean’s Eleven or something. She was not sure what she had said, or done that made the difference, or if she was past some kind of statute of limitations in the infirmary. Maybe the nurses had finally gotten tired of taking care of a civilian, though none of them had ever given her any indication that was the case, and had decided to kick her out. The morning after her encounter with Martha’s cousin, without any warning or prompting, the head nurse had appeared and said she was leaving.
It turned out that Thor had not been exaggerating when he had mentioned the suites for the Avengers. The word ‘suite’ was more of a gross understatement. If the rest had been given the same treatment as Thor then each of the super heroes now had an entire floor of the Tower to conduct whatever business they wanted. The luxury had not turned the Asgardian prince’s head, which was understandable, but neither had it turned Jane’s, who Darcy knew was not accustomed to this kind of swank. Maybe they had acclimated already to their surroundings.
“Darcy, we shall be but a few doors from your chamber,” Thor assured her as she continued her careful study of the room. The entire wall opposite the door was made of floor-to-ceiling glass, which she was already accustomed to from the hospital, and had learned was tinted via some kind of Stark tech that was more than simply light-blocking but less than a force field. It gave privacy and a measure of security, though how much, she was not sure. If Iron Man said it was so, she was inclined to believe him. He had helped save her life, after all. So she had been told.
“OK, Dad,” she teased half-heartedly, smirking at his worried smile. He and Jane were no longer keeping up pretenses, and she vacillated between feeling glad for them and worried that she would have to ask them to keep the noise down. The proximity explained how they had always been so close to her infirmary room. “I’ll come running if I need help with anything. So keep some pants on… but not a shirt. No shirt’s OK.” He laughed, and she grinned again as she closed the door.
She listened for his footsteps to signal his departure. He was heavy enough that she was certain she would hear something, and when she did not, she reopened her door. The hallway to the left and right was empty, and she shrugged. Looked like noise control would be no problem.
She closed the door again, then stared down at its handle. Darcy turned and looked around the room casually. She was completely alone. She took another look at the door, opened it, closed it again, and then made herself step away.
As she slipped back into the room, she sighed, feeling something like relief. Alone for the first time in days. It felt strange, but the gesture of privacy seemed to coincide with her liberation from suicide watch, at least. In her mind, that had never been a problem. Looking back, she could see how they could have been worried, but… As awful as the experience had been, her options for escape had never included taking her own life. They had not included much of anything except patience and a sliver of hope. Both had rewarded her in the end.
Darcy gave up on miserable avenues of thought by further exploring the room. It really was super chic, creamy colors and dark furniture, with warm lighting around the edges of the room and inset lights in the the high ceiling. There was no dust anywhere, but she got the impression that any of the unused rooms would be just as clean. The front room led to a relatively smaller bedroom with a bed that was shit for jumping on, but felt like it would be heaven for sleeping. The bedroom had the same expansive windows.
Attached the bedroom, back toward the interior of the building she found a large bathroom with two doors, connecting to both the main room and the bedroom. It was already fully stocked with soaps and shampoos, a brush. She buried her fingers to the knuckle in the clumped strandsat her scalp as she stared at the water spigot. Nothing had been done about her hair since she had arrived, though Jane had made passing comments about cutting it short and starting over.
For some reason that had pissed Darcy off even more than being denied real food, than when they had tried to keep her in the dark about her own kidnapping. She had said nothing, in either approval or disapproval of the idea, but hell would freeze over before she let Jane make decisions about cutting her hair. About anything.
Without another thought she set the water to running and began to strip. The clothes landed in a heap on the floor, and as she proceeded she began to feel a certain lightness returning to her. Jane and Erik had presented the clothes to her, old things from her apartment. She had been wearing the same set between awkward sponge baths since she had awoken in the room, and while she had not become particularly dirty laying in bed for hours and hours, something about removing the clothes felt like removing confinement.
Standing beneath the shower spray a moment later was even more liberating. The walk-in shower was only slightly smaller than the cell. She bowed her head beneath the downpour of warm water and let her hair take as much as it could. The water sluiced down, cold by the time it reached her feet. She watched it circle down into blurry drain, blinking away the drops that ran into her face until they formed rivulets comfortable with their pathways. Without flinching, she reached down and turned the temperature higher.
She stayed there for a long time, pressing her hands to the cold brick wall, clenching and relaxing her fingers. When she tipped her head back, she held her arm in front of her eyes and watched the steam curl up into the fog thickening around her. The water took its course down her back. She closed her eyes and held her breath, then dropped her hands. Her shoulders rolled pleasantly, aching after just a few rotations. She swung her arms wildly at her sides and took a skipped in the wet space a few times.
Darcy grabbed for the shampoo caddy that had been arranged in the corner. While the downpour continued behind her, she took her time in smelling all of the shampoos and conditioners, finally settling on a fruity-smelling set of bottles that looked expensive.
“ALL THESE THINGS THAT I’VE DONE,” she bellowed as she began to work the knot of tangles into a lather. She danced as boldly as she dared on the wet floor. White slop bombed the floor as she whirled her head round and round and round and round until she was nearly dizzy. “If you can, hold on!” she sang, leaning into the cool wall. The steam parted for her heavy breath. “Hold on,” she sang softly, and then she slid to the warmed floor, letting the spray wash the rest of the dirt and grime away. She took her time, enjoying the freedom of movement. The freedom. The hot water did not run out, and by the time she stepped out of the shower and out of the steamy bathroom her hotly flushed skin enjoyed the cool of the bedroom.
Sitting on the bed in the fluffy golden robe she had found in the bathroom was almost luxurious. The city of New York spread before her in all of its brilliant glory. Circumstances sucked, but she would be forever spoiled for the city, that much was sure. At least, she did not know when she might again see it from this angle and this luxury.
She felt clean in a way that she had not in years. With her glasses on after the shower, she had seen just how much dirt had remained on the shower floor, and she was anticipating more being freed the next time she was able to wash her hair again- hopefully tomorrow, if she had any say in it.
The tips of her hair when pulled over her face, reached just below her chin. It had been much longer than that, she knew, and the rest of the evening she dedicated to restoring it to the way it had been before; abysmally straight, but thick and curl capable. Maybe she would just settle for straight, she decided as she set to work with the simple, complimentary brush and comb set that had been mixed with the towels.
Difficult was not a word she would have ever ascribed to brushing her hair. Her mom had done so countless times when she was younger, and though there had been semi-traumatizing occurences as a very, very young child, the older she got the more soothing it had been. This felt more trying to wrestle a porcupine on her head than do anything remotely grooming-related. “How did Rapunzel manage this shit?” she choked out as the first clump of hair fell into her lap.
Wincing, she pushed on, determined to persevere. Fifteen minutes later when she had barely made a dent in the tangles, she flung the comb across the room and flopped back onto her bed, more angry than sad. Where was the justice in this? Had they managed to take her hair, too? It was not supposed to be so hard . Her hands weren’t supposed to ache with effort like an old woman’s. Her hair was supposed to be attached to her head, not coming out in clumps like a cancer patient’s.
“Ma’am, I have a particular selection of songs compiled by Ms. Potts for just such occasions,” a man’s voice filtered into the room.
Darcy jumped and glanced around quickly, looking for the intruder.
“Who are you?” she asked, climbing to her feet as she wiped at her face. No one revealed themselves, and she heard no breathing or footsteps.
“I am Jarvis,” he answered pleasantly. Darcy’s face scrunched as she cantered into the sitting room. There was no one there, either.
“Where are you?” she demanded. “Stop running away!”
“Forgive my absence,” he offered. “I am the service programmed by Anthony Stark to manage Sir’s day-to-day operations as well other miscellaneous tasks given to me by those in residence.”
Darcy paused, glancing around the room, as she mulled the words over. It was still completely silent. No footsteps, no breathing. If someone was hiding they were doing a damned good job of it. But then again, she was in a building built by Tony Stark. Genius in utero. Iron man; who also happened to have a computer- maintenance program? House keeper? Butler?
“So ‘I’?” she asked rhetorically, emphatically. Sue her if questions of life and personal agency had been on her mind lately. Then, for clarification, “An A.I.?”
“An adept correlation in observations.”
“Wow… So all that genius stuff about Stark isn’t an exaggeration, after all?”
Darcy snorted as the sass. Kind of Fresh Prince of Bel Air Geoffrey sassy.
“Turn the lights off,” she commanded, and waited for proof of Jarvis’ claim.
A moment later the room was still illuminated even though the lamps had been extinguished. New York cast a pleasant orange and yellow glow into the interior of the room that she would have to intentionally avoid to make her room completely dark. But she had grown accustomed to the lamps and not being hidden in darkness, waiting for whatever horrors would come. She liked being able to see what was coming at her.
“Turns the lights back on,” she rushed a moment later, and they came on without hesitation. There was no touch, not even a clap. She sighed, still alone with her anxiety.
So. Tony Stark had an in-house AI capable of controlling a measure of electronics in the house. She wondered what else he- it could do, what other applications a voice-operated program could be capable of. It had mentioned music.
“Nice to meet you, Jarvis. I’m Darcy Lewis. What occasions did you mean?” she asked, circling back toward her bedroom. Her eyes remained open for sight of a body that would be spouting the not unpleasantly English accented words.
“Situations when Ms. Potts has deemed herself in need of relaxation and requested music for assistance.”
“Virginia Potts?” she clarified, thinking it could not be true.
“The same.” The woman had never been anything but poised in front of the camera, the only times that Darcy had ever seen her. She ran a Fortune 100 company, and no one could convince Darcy that Tony Stark could double as Iron Man and not rely on help from anyone, and- suddenly it seemed much more plausible, realistic even, that ‘Ms. Potts’ could indeed have moments of frustration.
“What kind of music?” she asked. Darcy leaned down in the corner where the comb had landed, as Jarvis began to roll through a number of playlists, highlighting some of the artists available on each. She took it up again and began to pull once more at the riddle her hair had become.
“You’re English?” She glanced up at the ceiling as the list of recommendations ceased. Her eyes darted back and forth. She could not even see speakers for where his voice might be coming from. This place really was the shit.
“My vocal capabilities are modeled on that nationality, yes.”
“So shouldn’t you be a little more stiff upper lip and less schmoozy?” She asked as she grinned, imagining a face that began to scowl in the silence.
“Schmoozy does not exist in my vocabulary.”
“Ha. Some computer you are.”
“I was lying, of course, but I refuse to be associated with anything regarded as ‘schmoozy,’” he explained smoothly.
“Keep up the snark and that won’t be a problem.”
“I’ll do my best.”
She smirked and continued to listen to him count the artists available. He was going alphabetically and had only made it to Bird, Andrew, when she broke through the first of the hellacious knots in her hair. She grinned, running her fingers through the fistful of strands. The longer she pulled at them, the grimier they felt, but it was a victory.
“Congratulations, Miss Lewis,” it voiced without a prompt and Darcy instinctively gave a thumbs up, unable to stifle her grin. The longer she sat and listened to him, the less weird it seemed that a computer would notice such a small accomplishment, much less comment on it. The less weird it seemed that there was an omnipresent computer in her room at all. If tomorrow morning she found out that there was secretly some guy named Justin sitting in security somewhere watching her struggle to brush her hair, someone’s balls were going to be vaporized by her fist.
She stared at the strands of hair still left over in the comb and shrugged. Small victories. She could do small victories. Give it, time, and all that. Dropping the comb, she flopped back into bed and crawled under the covers.
“If you are ready for sleep, might I recommend Enya? The Shepherd Moons album in particular, I find very soothing.”
“You may not recommend it. And no Yanni, either, thank you.” She kicked her legs out and pulled the robe off, pushing it to the top of the bed spread. Hell yes, the bed was as comfortable as it had first seemed.
“If you are still inclined to listen to music, perhaps you would be so kind as to make a recommendation,” Jarvis prodded. Darcy smirked. She did not know how Stark had manipulated a voice to sound so human, even down to the nuances of professional sarcasm. The genius was definitely not overrated.
“Uh, I don’t really listen to a ton of New Age, you know? How about something soft, without a lot of grandstanding? A long piece that can loop and not wake me up?” Not that there was a big chance of sleeping through the night, anyway. She had yet to do that since the great Van Winkle Nap of oh-twelve. Oh-Twelve? Twelve? Two-thousand and twelve? She shook her head against the pillow as the soft strains of a low, synthesized hum filled the room. Riding on its heels were soft piano notes that lingered, but came in quick enough succession not to constantly grab her attention. She could hear it and ignore it.
It was absolutely perfect.
She said as much, and waited in the silence for a response. Jarvis was quiet as the notes, raindrops in slow motion, continued to wind around her head.
“Shall I turn the lights down?”
“ No ,” she nearly shouted, coming off of the mattress to her elbows. She winced, sighed, and then slowly lowered herself back down. “No, thank you.”
Darcy eased the grimace off of her face, but it did not soothe the guilt hanging onto her, until she added, “I’m sorry for snapping, Jarvis. Should- should I be apologizing?”
“You should act in accordance with your conscience, Miss Lewis,” he replied without fail, as professional and cool as ever.
She spoke softly, “I’m sorry for snapping, Jarvis, but please don’t turn the lights down.”
“Your preference has been noted. Sleep well, Miss Lewis.”
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
She woke later that night to a dimly lit room, despite her earlier conversation with Jarvis. The lamps were at less than half power, but combined they held more than enough light to illuminate the man standing at the windows. His back was to her, hands clasping his wrists regally as he regarded the city. For a moment she thought he was wearing a bathrobe, which unnerved her more than his presence. When she sat up, though, he turned and she saw that his floor-length clothing was a full coat. It was black in the light, but the buildings’ lights caught the edges of its gold piping.
His pale face regarded hers, while pale eyes watched her dispassionately. He did not move as she put on her glasses.
“You are not the woman I remember catching his amusement,” he spoke in a manner rather like Jarvis. Detached, refined. But the flatness of his tone left her feeling unsettled.
“I don’t remember you either,” she answered, then more directly, “Who are you?” Not that she was completely without a clue. A green cape fluttered down from the man’s shoulders, brushing the floor with graceful motions as he took a single step forward. She had seen only one other person wear a cape unironically, regally.
“A man searching for answers,” he answered, kind of pretentiously in Darcy’s opinion.
“Not a lot of answers here,” she quipped. “Sorry,” she added, not feeling very sorry at all. His expression did not change. Why was there a man standing in her room in the middle of the night? Was he one of the Avengers? Something in her gut told her no.
“He has changed a great deal, has he not?” the man asked as he turned away from her to regard the city once more. He faced her over his shoulder before she could answer, and she knew it was a rhetorical question from the look on his face. He was still studying her. “And not so very much, at all.” Whoever he was, and she had a growing suspicion that she knew, he did not seem as interested in answers as he claimed. At least, not answers she could give.
He approached her swiftly after that, and she did not have the mind or the courage to pull away from him as he reached out to her.
“Sleep, Darcy Lewis,” he commanded, fingers brushing her forehead. “Sleep, and forget.”
Hope you all had a great Fourth of July, if you're an American (and no Steve Rogers in this chapter, unfortunately). If not, I hope your Wednesday was fantastic! I was going to post this chapter yesterday and ended up getting called out doors for fun water activities so no complaints there.
The song that Jarvis plays for Darcy is "1/1" by Brian Eno on his Music for Airports. A beautiful, beautiful song. I highly recommend it if you haven't heard it before.
Oh, and also, Darcy's midnight visitor was exactly who you think. You can't keep him down.
After her initial meeting with JARVIS, Darcy was mostly inclined to embrace his presence, ignoring the applications of an omniscient AI with control over mechanisms of varying importance. As long as they were not in outer space, it was probably OK. He only had to assure her once that he and HAL were of no relation, and even put up with jokes about synthetic reproduction versus organic so of course they weren’t related.
Both Jane and Erik verified the AI’s existence as “Just a Rather Very Intelligent System.” Jarvis continued with music recommendations, more upbeat than the original ones, and more accurate to her tastes than the Music Genome project had ever been. He even offered to read to her the second night, which she found endearing, but a little more condescending than she could tolerate. Yet he spoke whenever she asked a question, performed internet searches for her without a computer, and congratulated her the more and more tangles she managed to overcome in her hair. He did not baby her. Part of her wondered if he even knew how, but the AI’s capabilities surprised her every hour, so she did not put the ability past him.
As close as he got to a real personality, though, it was not quite the same as face-to-face contact with people. Staying in her room for nearly a full day helped his novelty wear off pretty quickly.
When she walked out of her room, the second full day out of the infirmary, it was still early, and the hallway was quiet. She had slept in shifts in the night before, preferring Jarvis’ cool, steady voice to the panic and hyper-concern Jane and Erik had resorted to in the previous days, and she would not be forgetting Thor’s tears for a while. If ever.
The wide sitting room had a couch that reminded her suspiciously of the sixties, its curvature occupying much of a depressed seating area. At the center of the inset, leg-length away from the couch was a gas log fireplace that she thought probably suited Thor’s viking-like culture. She wondered briefly if he had decorated the room or if Tony Stark had. Perhaps SHIELD? It was all kind of weird and opulent, not that she was complaining about being coddled in the lap of luxury. For now. The question remained of how long it would last. How much longer would she stay under the wing of her friends?
“Need to make a list of all of these pertinent questions,” she thought, but then her eyes found the coffee maker and important was forgotten for urgent.
Thor walked into the room as the brew began dripping into the pot, and Darcy smirked at his timing. She was also glad to see he had taken her suggestion to heart, wearing a pair of low slung pajama pants and not much else. Did a smile count? It figured that he was a morning person.
“Ho there,” he mumbled, taking up guard on the other side of the coffee pot. He fished out two mugs, from the copious cabinet storage, saving her the search.
“Morning,” she returned and saluted him with the mug he handed to her. He regarded her, surprised at the clarity of her tone, and she shrugged. “I’ve been awake for a while.”
“I suppose that answers the question of how your sleep fared.”
She shrugged, not wanting to get into the details. The nightmares were bearable. The cell. The people. She woke and maybe cried a little. She breathed through them and slept again. More honestly, she really had no desire to see Thor tearing up again, but saying so would have been meaner to him than he deserved. SHIELD probably had psychiatrists she could talk to. Or would have to talk to. Could they make her? The possibilities rolled across her mind numbly, and she sighed, but she smiled when Thor poured the first cup of coffee into her waiting mug.
“You were most conspicuously absent yesterday. Erik holds that your… mental state… is assuaged by solitude. Is this the case?”
She shrugged and followed his lead with cream and sugar, then as he led them out of the kitchen, “I guess? I just don’t want you guys feel like you have to wait on me hand and foot.”
“Darcy, please do not consign yourself to such thoughts. We are your friends.”
She smiled a little, knowing it to be true. They had been her friends before this, and would be her friends years into the future, she hoped. Supposing she had made it out of the cell, she had no idea what she would be doing right now if not for them. The burden of trying to understand that and make herself grateful was almost as bad as their desire to hover. Was she supposed to let them invade? Was she supposed to resign herself to feeling like an invalid? She could move and think and wanted to do things that did not involve crying and weeping, which already came without thought or invitation.
They sat on the floor at the window, silently staring out at the Atlantic Ocean. For all that she had been bedridden, kind of, for days with nearly nothing to do but stare at the city, she was not yet tired of the view.
Thor opened his mouth to say something, and she quickly cut him off to ask, “So what are you getting up to today?” At his curious glance, she explained, “I mean, if Jane and Erik ever go back to work, what are you going to do? No offense, you and I aren’t quite cut out for theoretical physics… Or I guess, practical physics. Particles and waves intersecting and all that.” She stopped when she realized she was rambling. He smiled, and resumed his thoughtful stare of the city.
“Perhaps I shall attend to Director Fury or Steven Rogers. Both have inquired after your well being.” At the jump of her brow he nodded. “It is so. Your rescue was but our second adventure together. Our fellowship is relatively young.”
“Really?” she asked, feeling suddenly larger a person than she might have any right to. The heavy feeling shuffled and settled itself on her shoulders, hooked into her heart. Thor was looking at the city again, though, and she was glad for his inattention.
He nodded, “Admittedly, your rescue was much easier than our first mission. When the city was attacked by Lo- by my brother, I thought for a time that his cunning was beyond us. A short time, admittedly, but it was as challenging not to lose hope as it was to succeed in the battle.” Darcy listened attentively as she sipped her cooling coffee.
“It was your brother, who attacked everything? Everyone?” she asked, trying not to sound too eager for a shift in the conversation away from her.
“Indeed,” he answered lowly. The details of the attack followed at a low volume, but he did not hesitate to share them. She watched her friend with a knot in her throat. She had no siblings. Thor was a man who loved readily and easily. How difficult must it have been to band together with humans to fight against one he clearly loved? Then again, based on the details she was hearing, she wondered if the Avengers would have won without Thor’s assistance. It was not pride or showmanship on Thor’s part as the storyteller, but Loki’s general badassery that clearly had nearly crippled SHIELD in his gamble for the earth.
Darcy listened attentively to the tale, and because it was Thor delivering the story it was more of a saga than a recounting, and tried to take it all in objectively. Distanced, she could see how easy it would have been to be overlooked. She nodded when he shared that Jane had been sequestered to safety, but stalled altogether when he revealed Erik’s fate in the matter.
“What?” she asked sharply, setting her cup down on the floor. “When? How? He- he never said anything.”
“At the beginning, through Loki’s machinations, to be sure, and I believe Erik held his silence because it was overrun by concern for you.”
She shook her head, could not stop shaking it for a moment. That was not right. No one had told her. That was not right at all. She said as much, but Thor shook his head.
“Darcy, Erik is much improved, and he came to no harm under Loki’s influence.”
She said nothing, could think of no way to voice her feelings without sounding hateful and angry and spiteful and- Erik had been what- brainwashed? Mind-fucked? Made to act in a way that would completely destroy the world as they knew it? No! Erik was a scientist, and he believed in pursuing knowledge for the betterment of mankind, not for power or undue prestige. He had said nothing to her, had, according to Thor, believed her suffering to be above his own? Did that mean it was? Did that mean that he really was OK? She wondered, and rejected those possibilities immediately. Why would he be? How could someone being in your head, making you act against your will ever be remotely OK?
“You are made unwell by this revelation,” Thor said calmly, and Darcy bit her lip to keep from lashing out at the obviousness of his statement. “Perhaps I should have withheld it.” It was his belief that he had her best interests at heart that was the only thing that kept her from shouting at him, and it was an effort in restraint.
She sighed, and shook her head, “Thor, no.” How could she say this? He was watching her carefully, but not fearfully. “We’re really all hurting right now, aren’t we?” It was a sincere question, and he nodded. “God knows I’ve had better days, but keeping things from me is not going to help me.” As upset as she was, lambasting him would not be fair and would help no one. Freakin’ A, maturity. She sighed again, “As long as it’s not a matter of national security, tell me everything, OK?” He hesitated only a moment, but it was enough for her to say more forcefully, “Promise me!”
He sighed, nodded, “You have my word. From this point on, I will withhold nothing from you.”
She patted his knee and made for a refill of coffee, smiling a reassurance that she did not feel but that he deserved. “Come on,” she called. “Let’s get some bacon. Bacon makes everything better.”
He was smiling when they crossed to the kitchen. “Just so.”
He did as he had suggested, spending a few hours with Steve after Darcy had prepared a breakfast for all of them. He had left shortly after Jane had departed for the lab, with a promise to return for lunch. It was the first time he had seen his comrade since the rescue, spending his time as he had with Jane and Erik, and then with Darcy once she had woken. It was not until he was spotting the man’s punching bag that he realized a week had passed since their trip across the sea.
The realization was enough to steal his concentration, and the bag caught him soundly in the chest. Without his armor, he found his breath stolen at the contact. Steve was more alarmed at the injury than Thor, himself, who smiled his disregard. As his tall comrade helped pull him to his feet, he grinned outright. It felt good to smile without reservation or hesitation.
Steve said as much, smiling himself, “Good to see you letting go of what’s been eating you. Sorry it cost you your footing, though.”
“Nay, friend. I am well, though your concern is appreciated.”
Steve nodded and positioned himself to resume beating the bag, when he paused, “You want to take a round?”
It was an appealing offer, beating his frustration out in a way that would not require words, and Steve would be able to hold whatever hits the bag could not take. The more he thought about it, the better the idea sounded. He nodded again, not bothering to bandage his hands before he took to the bag. Steve held up under the burden of holding it in place and Thor began a controlled pace.
“How’s she doing?” Steve asked where Thor could not see his face. One-two, three-four, he hit as he considered the question. He had given much thought to Darcy’s well being in the past weeks. That morning he had seen how unwell she was. To think anything else would have been deluding himself. It had been some months since before his eyes had been opened to the true welfare of others, and it was his intention that they not be closed again.
“She is… improved,” he finally decided. The bag held, even as Steve’s head bobbed into view, nodding his understanding.
“The things that were done to her…” Steve grunted at the force of the hit that followed, and Thor quickly reigned himself in. “Hydra will pay for their deeds. That, I promise you.”
“Some would say they already have,” a new voice prompted. Both men turned at the silent arrival of the petite Natasha Romanov. A towel was slung over her shoulder, a water bottle in her hand. She was gliding toward the barre on the far wall, positioned to look out to the city or face the back mirrors, depending on how she wished to turn.
“Those persons would be wise not to counsel me in this matter,” Thor said evenly, and Natasha shrugged elegantly. Steve dropped his hold on the bag, ready to intervene if necessary.
“People in Austria lost their lives,” Natasha said, taking a quick sip of water before positioning herself to face the city. An arm raised over her head, both feet turned outward. She might have been preparing for a performance for her focus. As she began to move through stretches and positions, she continued speaking. “Miss Lewis is safe, and that is what’s important.” Thor crossed his arms over his chest.
“What we accomplished in Austria was necessary to liberate her, but there is absolutely no justice in allowing them to further roam, harming who they will. The injuries they inflicted upon a maiden are most shameful.”
Natasha glanced over her shoulder, one leg poised completely perpendicular to the rest of her body. The same expression was on her face as back on the Helicarrier when she had drawn attention to the amount of killing Loki had done during his time on earth. Thor had been chastised then, but not so now. He clarified, “It matters not that Darcy is a woman. She is not a warrior.”
She resumed her exercises as Steve began to gather up his gear, “I’ll remind you that several hundred people died in May. More than just one girl who was kidnapped and then rescued, who is still in one piece.” Her tone was unreadable, much as Loki had been in the last days of their acquaintance, as he remained much of the time now in Asgard. That Natasha did not mention Loki as being at fault for the attack did not escape his notice, but the implication was there.
“I understand,” he said finally. He wanted to make her understand that Darcy was not just any person. She was his friend, but after his conversation with the young woman, it was heavy in his mind that Erik was also his friend. Erik had also suffered. Clint Barton had suffered.
“If,” Natasha began with a gentle air of finality, “we attack Hydra without reservation, we expose ourselves to a proliferation of contention.” She glanced back at both of them. “The wars of this world are not generally as you experienced in World War II, Captain. Neither are they what you both saw in May.” She faced the window again. “Everything is done in secret now, but more people will die. Perhaps at your hands, even.”
Thor watched as she carefully raised her leg up next to her face, breathing evenly, then lowered it back to the floor. Her control over her body was as great as the control she commanded over words. Her words were as much warning as hopeful promise.
He nodded to her, though she no longer faced either of them. Steve gave him a smile that Thor returned with another nod.
“How is she?” Natasha’s voice carried from the barre as she leaned backward until she could see herself in the mirror. Both of her feet remained on the floor and Thor tried not to wince.
“She is improved. Out of her hospital room.”
“And still alive,” his female comrade reminded him. He nodded and began to follow Steve’s example of collecting his gear. It was closing in on lunchtime. He hesitated, and then turned to the bar. For all that she did not look at them, Natasha spoke freely, and had not acted in a way that suggested she felt bothered by the interruption.
“Sometimes, I look at her and feel… I feel as though she is lost. I feel lost in not knowing how to further assist her,” he admitted. She paused, carefully lowered her arm and looked at him.
“She needs time, Thor. That’s all you can give her.” Her expression was carefully sympathetic, but knowing her skill set, he did not know her well enough to know if it was a contrived gesture or sincere. It was enough to give him hope that she might have some further insight, though. He had seen her with Clint Barton after his repatriation and the man had seemed leaps and bounds improved.
What she asked, though, was, “How long do you plan on staying here?”
He stared at her for a moment, silently stunned by the misdirection. Her face had become harder in the interim of asking the question and his recovery from it. He smiled a small smile and inclined his head.
“Thank you for being more direct than many Midgardians, who might try to dissemble their feelings.” The irony of who he was addressing was not lost on him. Natasha hesitated a moment, then smiled, and he felt it might be genuine.
“We’re on the same side, Thor. It’s not a battle, just a question.”
“I will try my best to remember it.”
“Still planning on avoiding the question?”
“It is not for you to know my mind at this moment.”
She nodded, smiled again, and this time he knew it was a true gesture. “We’re allies, yes, but good for you. Baby steps, but you’ll play the game, yet.” He frowned at the implication. He knew she referred to subterfuge and the game of words, for which Loki was a much better suited player, but did she mean on Earth? Or in general? He wished he had the wisdom to know now. “We are friends,” she reassured him. “If you have to leave prematurely, I’ll make sure Darcy is looked after.”
And just like that, the tension melted away. For the moment he was not worried about Asgard or Loki or even New York City.
“Thank you, Natasha Romanov.”
He headed towards the door, glad that some of his stressed had been worked out through sparring and physical means. He trusted that either of his teammates would play messenger to Nicholas Fury on his behalf, saving him the time and effort of rehashing his feelings about his friend once more.
He paused at the door, just ahead of Steve and called back to Natasha, “We are to make repast shortly. Should you wish to join us, Natasha, you are most welcome.” He glanced to Steve and extended the invitation to him as well.
“Perhaps another time, thank you,” she projected, not raising her voice as she stepped away from the barre and positioned herself for dance. Thor nodded, uncertain as to whether or not she would see his gesture.
He left, unknowing if they had made progress or not. He thought so, but the woman remained wholly a mystery to him. He was glad for Jane. Despite her brilliance, she could communicate with him. Or perhaps because of it… He shook his head and made for the meal.
Apologies for the long delay in a new post. I got hit with a motivation stall as well as some real life obligations. I'm considering revamping the story to make it shorter. The resolution will not be as grand, but I won't risk facing another stall. Classes start in a few weeks and if the story is not done by then, I'm afraid it won't be for some months. I tend not to write when I have academic obligations because one definitely overpowers the other.
Anyway, hopefully you've enjoyed it.