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Code Name Darcy

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It's 12:57 p.m. on a Tuesday. Darcy picks half-heartedly at her salad and wishes she'd brought what she really wanted -- cheetos and a packet of ramen -- instead. Her inbox chimes, warning her that the latest Robot Incident Report forms are overdue. Yawn. Nobody had warned her that working for SHIELD could be just as boring as any other office job.

Of course, SHIELD is like office jobs in other important ways too. Like you can fuck around on the internet so long as nobody can see you. She stands up and peeks over the edge of her cubicle. Zelena, the resident busybody, is still out to lunch. Alfredo, who has the cubicle across the way, has bright purple Beatz clamped over his ears.

“Skype it is,” Darcy mutters to herself. Two seconds later, she’s connected with Jane in Norway.

Jane wastes absolutely zero time on pleasantries. “You. Dr. Banner. Tell me what’s going on. Now.”

Darcy shrugs. “Well, I thought he had a nice butt, so I asked him out,” she says.

“As one does,” Jane says, nodding approvingly. “But that was three months ago.”

“Yeah, it just kinda...stuck,” Darcy says. Their relationship is not easy to explain to outsiders, but in Darcy’s head it goes like this: Bruce needs to have fun, and Darcy needs to date someone who’s mature enough to wash his dishes and pay his bills.

Jane, predictably, is not satisfied with Darcy’s very limited explanation. “So is it serious?” she asks.

Darcy shrugs. “Neither of us are seeing anyone else, but neither of us are looking for some huge commitment either.”

“Because you talked about things? Like adults?” Jane asks, looking skeptical. “Or because you just assumed you’re on the same page?”

“This is so not like Bjorn the Norwegian exchange student who thought I was going to marry him. You need to quit holding that over my head,” Darcy says. She takes a moment of silence to remember Bjorn, who’d disappeared abruptly once he’d realized they weren’t going to tie the knot. Maybe she should have married him. He had such nice abs. On the other hand, she’d only been a junior in college, so maybe not. She takes a grudging sip of the weird Kombucha shit that Romanov had sworn would do miracles for her digestive tract. “We really did talk about it. We sat down over a cup of tea and explained how we’re both looking for a stable relationship with no deep expectation of future commitment. Because we are adults, thank you very much.”

Jane beams. “Maybe dating someone twenty years older was a good relationship decision. Who knew?”

Darcy glares. “Just to be clear, is Thor a thousand years older than you, or just five hundred? Or is it more like he’s been around since time immemorial?”

That is so the wrong question to ask an astrophysicist. Jane launches into a long explanation of how time moves differently across different planes of the universe, and Darcy rolls her chair back to look out the window. Huh. Weird. There’s a helicopter hovering just outside the window.

“Hey,” she says. Jane keeps talking. “Hey,” she says again, louder this time. “I think News 9 is trying to spy on us again. I’ve gotta go call security.”

She shuts down Skype and reaches for the phone, but by then she’s realized there’s no news logo on this chopper. That’s weird. And another helicopter is flying toward them.

Darcy cranes her neck to look out in the hallway. It looks like a bunch of people are marching toward them with their hands on their heads, escorted by armed agents. Ugh. Hadn't they just
had an invasion drill last week? Darcy sighs and tosses her keys into her purse. If she'd known, she would have at least worn sensible shoes, not these high heels of doom Romanov had let her steal from the femme fatale prop closet.

Bruce rounds the corner suddenly, panting, his face dripping with sweat.

"You don't look so good, buddy," Darcy says, wincing as she stands in the too-tall shoes. "Did something happen in the lab?"

"No time." Bruce is tugging on her hand. "We have to get out of here."

"Wait just a second," Darcy says, tearing her hand free. She reaches into her bottom desk drawer and tosses a couple grenades into her purse just in case. Bruce raises his eyebrows, his look at once admiring and disturbed. Actually, he looks at her that way a lot of the time. It's the last close to normal moment Darcy has for a long time.

***

Darcy stops suddenly when they get outside. SHIELD's gleaming glass tower looks tranquil as ever, and the crowds flow down the streets, oblivious to the two choppers overhead. Bruce tugs on her hand, and they melt into the New York City streets, walking slowly and keeping their heads down. She doesn't dare breathe until they've walked all the way down to the Flatiron building, leaving midtown's skyscrapers behind.

Suddenly Bruce jerks her into an alleyway, and she shrieks a little with surprise.

"What the fuck?" she snaps. "I thought we were safe." And then, for the first time in their flight from SHIELD, she looks at Bruce. Sweat is running down his face. His hands are clenched so tightly she can see the muscles shaking in his arms. He leans against a brick wall, eyes squeezed shut, his breath coming in ragged gasps. "Uh-oh," she breathes.

Bruce opens his eyes slowly. "Darcy...Darcy I need help." His voice is soft, but his whole body ripples suddenly, as if he had flexed every muscle at once. "I trusted them. I trusted them and I gave them my research, and they did this. They tried to take me, lock me up, experiment because they were rotten. Rotten from the inside, rotten to the core, HYDRA all along." His voice is louder with every word, and his eyes are wide with panic. "Darcy, please. Help me."

Darcy can feel her legs shaking. Somehow she'd forgotten this could happen. Somewhere between Friday night movies and Saturday morning orgasms, she'd forgotten she was dating the Hulk and started to believe she was dating an absent-minded professor whose poor self esteem convinced him he was a hazard to the world. And now, the city of New York is depending on her to say the right thing at the right time to save them from a rampaging monster. So basically, they're all going to get smashed to death.

"You know what they do when chemists die? They barium." Her voice is unnaturally high pitched. She chuckles weakly. "Get it? Bury 'em, like in the ground, and barium the element? I have more! If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate!"

She hazards a glance at Bruce. His eyes still look wild, but overall, he looks about ninety-nine percent less likely to smash her into a pulp.

"Did you just tell me terrible science puns to stop me from destroying the city?" he asks.

Darcy forces a chuckle. "Yup. Bet no one's tried that before. Hey, you look less rage-y."

"You should go," Bruce says.

"No."

"Darcy. You promised. I think the exact words were that you didn't care about anyone more than you care about being alive, and if I ever became a danger to you, I wouldn't have to tell you to go."

"Well...you know how sometimes your friend is drunk and barfing everywhere and she's really kind of a pain? And you'd kind of like to leave her on the street, puking on her shoes, but you can't because that would be wrong?" Darcy asks, but Bruce looks at her blankly because he was some child genius freak who never did irresponsible things or had irresponsible friends. She sighs. "Well, you're the drunk friend right now. It's not responsible to leave you alone."

"Great," Bruce says with a familiar bitter tone in his voice that she completely hates. "I'm your friend who vomits on shoes."

"Deal with it, big guy." Darcy shrugs. "Anyway, even though I didn't totally understand your weird alley rant, I kinda don't want to go home, because I think you said there's an evil secret organization taking over SHIELD, and I don't want to know what they do to runaway SHIELD staff. So...do you have a plan?"

***

Bruce does have a plan. It involves a sewer. At first, it seems cool and awesome, like an episode of Angel or Batman, but sewers smell like shit. Lots of shit. Entire rivers of shit.
Darcy tries putting a hand over her nose, but it's not enough, so she mushes her nose against the crook of her elbow.

"You have secret lairs all over the city?" she asks. Her voice comes out all weird and muffled.

"No, just this one," Bruce says. He doesn't seem bothered by the smell, and Darcy wonders if sewer running was some strange hobby he never told her about.

"That's kind of crazy," Darcy says.

Bruce snorts. "Yeah, well, you get held hostage and experimented on enough, you get paranoid."

He leads them into an alcove and up a short ladder to a rusted iron door. The wheel on the outside turns with a groan, and they step into a small, spare room. There's a bed, a couple of chairs, and a coffee table in the main room and a tiny kitchen with a stove and a pantry. So basically, it's the same as Bruce's apartment, except in a sewer.

"What is this place?" Darcy asks.

"Some paranoid millionaire's fallout shelter."

"Howard Stark's?" Darcy guesses.

Bruce gives her a half smile. "He built a bunch of these for his family during the Cold War. Now they're mine."

"So Tony knows we're here?" Darcy asks. Help from Iron Man sounds promising.

Bruce snorts. "I doubt it. Tony never shared my interest in dusty old files. And I think he took Pepper to the South Pacific yesterday."

Right. So she's trapped in here with her boyfriend the rage monster, no one knows where they are, and apparently an evil organization is pursuing them. Which all sounds very bad, but on a scale of one to Loki's about to cause the apocalypse, this is probably a seven. Maybe only a six. In other words, it's manageable. She kicks off her shoes and settles on the floor in front of the coffee table with her purse in front of her.

"Okay," she says. "Time for inventory."

She dumps the contents of her purse onto the coffee table and begins to sort through it. Hairbrush, lipstick, toothbrush, birth control, and underwear -- one overnight-at-the-boyfriend's-house kit, check. She swipes a hairball under the table before Bruce notices. She really ought to clean out the hairbrush more often.

Bruce snatches a little square of cardboard before she can stop him.

"Is this the business card of an Israeli prostitute?" he asks, squinting at it in the dim light.

"Yeah." Darcy shrugs. "I picked it up. It was interesting."

Bruce is staring at her, like he's never found a picture of a naked hooker and picked it up off the street.

"What? I didn't hire her or anything. I just called to talk. For future reference, prostitutes don't like that."

"Uh, thanks," Bruce says vaguely, and Darcy retrieves the business card from his hand and slides it toward a corner of the table she's calling miscellaneous junk.

"Okay, so weapons," she says. "I've got two grenades and --"

"Why do you have those?"

"Because tasers and pepper spray only work at close range. Duh." She slides those toward the weapon corner of the table too.

"But where did you get them?"

Darcy shrugs again. "Supply closet. I steal things whenever I go in there. It's a matter of principle." She fishes a packet of binder clips out from under the pile of crap on the table. "Hey, can you MacGuyver something cool out of paperclips and fruit roll-ups? Because the office supply cart went by today, and I swiped a bunch of stuff."

"You keep fruit roll-ups in your purse?" Bruce asks. They have conversations like this a lot, actually: Darcy, why are you weird? I don't know Bruce, why are you weird?. It should be reassuring, but it's hard to feel normal when Bruce is pacing like a caged animal and won't look her in the eye.

"Can you tell me what's going on? I mean, more than your rant in the alleyway?" Darcy asks.

Bruce picks up a pen from her stash on the coffee table and twirls it around. She's never seen him like this before - full of restless, manic energy. "I was presenting research in the lab and I saw someone's text message alert. It was an APB for Steve Rogers."

"Whoa," Darcy breathes.

"Yeah, it didn't seem right to me either. Then I got a text from Romanov. She wanted to know where I was. I said SHIELD, and she said run. I got enough of a head start to get away."

"And they're HYDRA? The renegade Nazi research division?" Darcy had spent most of SHIELD orientation playing Candy Crush, but the identity of HYDRA was SHIELD 101. Even the mailroom staff knew who they were.

Bruce nods. "One and the same. I saw the logo on their helmets."

"And you didn't turn," Darcy says. "That pretty amazing."

Bruce snorts. "I would have, back there. If you hadn't been there." He looks at her for the first time since the alleyway. "What you did...it's a lot to ask of anyone, Darcy, much less..."

Bruce's voice trails off, and Darcy finishes the sentence for him. "Somebody you've been casually dating and fucking for three months?" So like Bruce, not to say the truth if it sounds crass.

"I wasn't going to say it like that," Bruce says, looking sheepish. "But yeah, it's more than I have any right to ask of you."

"You really oughta ask Jane about unreasonable favors sometime," Darcy says. She looks down at her hands. The next part of what she has to say is real, and in general, Darcy tries to avoid real conversations and real feelings with men. Her mom is on husband number five now, and Darcy's learned a thing or two about not getting too attached to relationships. "You deserve to have someone standing behind you, Bruce. You're a good person."

"Am I?" Bruce asks, his voice tired.

Time for the biweekly talk about how Bruce Banner is not evil, Darcy thinks, but she manages not to roll her eyes. This is maybe not the time to antagonize Bruce by arguing with his man pain.

"You remember that night we saw A Clockwork Orange at the Angelica and then you went off on that big rant about what makes somebody good, right?” Darcy asks, and Bruce nods. Darcy hadn’t ever thought she could enjoy a date like that, but it had been good. Actually, it had been great. “And you know how we decided that the whole point of the movie is that people have to be good because they choose to be, not because something makes them? Well, you’re like that. You have nothing to fear from anyone. Like, literally, no other human being could harm you. And you still choose to be good to the furthest extent of your ability. That's the definition of a good person."

"I don't feel good right now," Bruce says.

"Then how do you feel?"

"Angry."

"Well, you keep that shit under control, mister," Darcy says, and goes back to rummaging in her purse. Bruce looks like he's about to argue, but she shoots him a look and shakes her head.

"You have officially reached your monthly quota for angst-filled conversations about how you will inevitably destroy the world," she says. "You made it this far, you're going to get through the next hour. Meditate, masturbate, whatever, but leave me out of your man pain."

Bruce blinks a few times and sits down on the bed.

***

The twin bed is too small for the two of them, but they sleep in it together anyway. Actually, Darcy doesn't mind; it gives her a reason to press against him without acting too much like a scared little girl.

"Bruce," she whispers. He doesn't move. The man might be a giant ball of anger and angst, but put him in a bed -- or a chair, or on any reasonably soft surface -- and he can sleep.

"Bruce," she says again. This time, she pokes him in the chest, and he opens his eyes. "I can't sleep."

He mutters something incoherent, and Darcy pokes him again. Uh-uh, buddy, she thinks. I dealt with your shit all day. Now you're going to deal with mine.

"'S matter?" he asks. It barely sounds like human speech, but he props himself up on one elbow so he's leaning over her, and he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear -- and that's it, she's done, her eyes are filling up with tears and it's not fair. If she has to have stupid emotions, she at least shouldn't have to show them.

"I'm scared," she says. Not of Bruce, exactly; she's not any more fucked in here with him than outside with HYDRA and whatever they do with people who requisition sensitive materials for SHIELD and date the Hulk.

Thankfully, Bruce seems to get that. He doesn't get the wounded puppy look in his eyes like he does when he's accepting for the eleven thousandth time that he's a danger to humanity -- and that's a good thing, because Darcy doesn't think she could handle that conversation again today.

"What are you afraid of?" he asks, and Darcy loses herself in the sound of his voice. It's soft and familiar and a little ragged, like an old t-shirt. Not like his eyes, which don't really look like Bruce yet.

"I dunno. It's complicated." She's faced fire-breathing robots from Asgard, and helped stave off the destruction of the Earth, but this is scarier. "Bad things happened before, but they were all otherworldly and kind of cool when you thought about it. This is different. The bad guys are us."

Bruce keeps running his fingers through her hair without saying anything, which is sweet and kind and deeply unfair, because it makes her keep talking until she admits the worst thing of all.

"If it had been a choice between collaborating with HYDRA and letting them kill me, I would've joined." She would have tattooed a fucking octopus on her ass if that meant she wouldn't get tortured to death.

“I think a lot of people would have done that in your position,” Bruce says slowly.

“Yeah, but what kind of person does that make me?” Darcy asks.

“A survivor,” Bruce says. “You would have found a way out eventually.”

“You seem awfully flip about that,” Darcy says. She’s thinking of all the concentration camp guards who claimed they who claimed they were just following orders.

Bruce smiles wryly. “I think you underestimate yourself, Darcy. Anyway, I’m not in any position to judge anyone for the less than ideal aspects of their character today.” He traces his thumb over her cheek, and she snuggles against his chest. “Do you feel better?”

“Kind of.” Maybe talking about feelings isn’t so awful after all. She looks up at Bruce through her eyelashes, even though it’s really kind of ridiculous to act seductive in this situation. “Will you keep playing with my hair?”

“Anything you need,” he says, and holds her close until they fall asleep.

***

In the end, toilet paper is their undoing.

Darcy gets up for her morning pee, and the toilet paper holder is empty. She opens the tiny cabinet under the sink. It's stocked with an assortment of bathroom cleaners, but no TP. With her underwear still around her ankles, Darcy stands and twists to open the little cabinet above the toilet -- which is always where dudes stock the TP. Nope, empty.

"Hey Bruce!" she yells. "Where are you hiding the toilet paper?"

Bruce responds with something that sounds like "nnngh" -- he's never much good in the morning -- and then Darcy hears every cabinet in the apartment opening and closing. There's some rustling, possibly a swear word or two, and then Bruce hands a travel-sized pack of tissues through the door.

"I, uh, might have forgotten a few things," he says when she comes out.

"That's okay," Darcy says. If she'd planned a secret sewer lair, she would have forgotten a few things too. "I mean, we can just put some napkins or paper towels in the bathroom, right?"

Bruce shifts awkwardly. "Well, the thing is, I was looking for more...reusable solutions." He holds up a package of kitchen towels, and a neat little stack of hankies that could have come from 1953.

Bruce looks sheepish, and Darcy shakes her head. "It's alright," she says. "I mean, it makes sense. It really does. You had to save space. And anyway, on a scale of zero to being tortured by HYDRA, going without TP for awhile isn't so bad."

So they make do. Bruce tells her that in many parts of the world, people clean themselves with a bottle of water, so they do too. Really, it would be foolish of her to complain. They have enough ramen and Spaghetti-Os to last fifty years. There's soap and vitamins and laundry detergent, and even an industrial supply of Nyquil and Pepto-Bismol in case they get sick. Sure, they had to smash their cell phones in case HYDRA could track them, and yes, they have to take a long walk through the sewer before they can get a radio signal. But it's not all bad. At least they have plenty of time to fuck.

On day seven of their captivity, Darcy slumps against the dining table, her head bowed in defeat.

"I, Darcy Lewis, solemnly swear that I will never take a roll of Charmin for granted again." How could it be possible to miss something so simple so much? She wants toilet paper more than she wants Instagram, more than she wants Netflix, more than she a cheeseburger. She would sell her soul to the devil for a single, white puffy square.

Bruce sighs. "I miss lettuce."

They contemplate each other across the table. Neither of them have touched their ramen. They're both thinking the same thing.

"You know, from a purely practical perspective, we're going to have to leave soon," Darcy says. "I'm gonna need some tampons sometime, and I think I read somewhere that being locked in a tiny room in the sewer makes you go insane."

Bruce nods. "There's a Food Emporium down the street. We could get a few supplies and come back."

The trouble is, they've both underestimated exactly how much HYDRA wants a Hulk for their very own. Neither of them realize what good facial recognition software HYDRA has, and they can't know HYDRA's hacked the security feed of every drug store and supermarket in the tri-state area on the assumption that Bruce Banner, will, at some point need toilet paper and salad dressing.

The first tranquilizer dart hits Bruce's shoulder. Darcy turns just in time to see him fall. Then there's a sting in her neck, and she collapses in a heap outside the Food Emporium with a grocery bag still clutched in her hand.

***

They tie Darcy up in the fourth floor break room, and then they forget about her. At first, she thinks it’s a plan to torment her -- make her worry about food, wish she could go to the bathroom, contemplate what awful torture they have in store for her. But it only takes a couple hours for the truth to become clear: HYDRA has organization problems. People in black uniforms keep running up and down the hall, arms loaded with guns, electronic equipment, and unruly stacks of paper.

Darcy hears little snatches of conversation, like “where did you put the --” and “is there a form for --”

Through the crack in the door, she can even see a couple HYDRA minions in the copy room. One of them is kicking the copy machine.

“Hey!” she yells. “Don’t hurt Bessie!”

One of the minions turns. He looks twelve, except for the unfortunate mustache.

“You got a better idea?” he snaps.

“Load the paper in tray one. Tray two makes paper jams,” Darcy says. Duh. She’d figured that out on her first day.

Darcy hears the paper tray opening and closing. Bessie hums and makes a few more copies, and then she hears the unmistakable grating of a paper jam.

The minion pokes his head in the door again. “Not working. What do I do?”

Darcy sighs. “There’s a diagram on the display? Check it? Or better yet, untie me and let me fix it.”

“I- I- I can’t do that,” the minion says, his whole face flushing red. He’s starting to look familiar, and Darcy racks her brain, trying to think where she’s seen him before. The name is on the tip of her tongue, but he retreats to the copy room before Darcy gets a chance to retrieve it.

A muffled conversation drifts across the corridor.

“--worked for SHIELD...could be a specialist--”

“--but Davis might actually kill us if we don’t get--”

“Photocopies? Surely he wouldn’t…”

“Well, tell that to Oswald. He got shot for less…”

The minion reappears at the door of the break room, and suddenly Darcy remembers where she’d seen him before. He hadn’t had the mustache then.

“Fred, right? You worked in the mailroom before?” Darcy says, offering him a bright smile.

He smiles back before he remembers himself and crosses his arms over his chest. “Just because I worked in the mailroom doesn’t mean I’m stupid. You’re trying to double cross me.”

“No, I’m trying to make a deal,” Darcy says. “I really need to pee, and you really need some photocopies. You take me to the bathroom, and then I’ll sit right back down and let you tie me up.”

“All right,” Fred says, “But don’t try anything funny. We’ll kill you.”

The other minion actually holds her at gunpoint while she pulls scraps of shredded papers from Bessie’s innards, which takes longer than it should because her hands are shaking so badly. Apparently, having a gun pointed at you is terrifying, even if you’re ninety-nine percent sure the man behind the barrel is an incompetent buffoon. When they order her to put her hands above her head, she does, and they walk her to the bathroom -- Fred with a boxcutter, and his minion friend with a gun.

Darcy makes herself turn to look at them. “Do you need to come inside with me?” she asks. She doesn’t have to pretend to be scared.

Fred and the minion look at each other. Their faces turn red, and they shake their heads simultaneously.

As soon as the bathroom door shuts, Darcy leans against the wall. Her whole body is shaking; her legs will barely hold her up. She can think of ten ways to get out of here. She could pretend to be sick, or climb into the ventilation shafts like Barton does. Flooding the toilet could be a good distraction, or she could jam a piece of metal into a power outlet and hope for a fire. The problem is, Bruce will still be here, trapped and alone. If she escaped, maybe she could find help. But where? SHIELD is gone. Romanov is in hiding, Captain America has disappeared, and rumor has it that Stark Tower is on the mother of all lockdowns. And who's to say that Tony Stark would believe her, even if she could reach him? Darcy's no hero, but she's all Bruce has.

She marches out of the bathroom with her hands in the air, and she lets them tie her up again.

***

The most frightening thing about the man standing over her with a wrench is that he looks completely normal. His brown hair is receding, and light glints off his wide forehead. He could have come from a bank or a Republican fundraiser.

“Do you know what my biggest problem is, Ms. Lewis?” he asks, tapping the wrench against the palm of his hand. It clinks against a gold wedding ring. “I’ve been given the Hulk, and I have no idea how to use him.”

“That’s not your biggest problem, dude,” Darcy says. She hopes her voice stays level; it’s hard to be sure of things like that when your mind is filled with terror.

Republican banker dude leans in close, and Darcy flinches from his garlic breath. “And what, pray tell, do you think is my biggest problem?” he roars.

“Employee retention,” she says matter-of-factly.

Mr. Banker brandishes the wrench high over Darcy’s head.

“Wait, wait, hear me out!” Darcy doesn’t like the desperate squeal in her voice, but it really can’t be avoided. “You work for a multi-national organization whose goal is world domination, right? Don’t tell me that isn’t stressful. You have agents in the field to move, requisition forms to file, mysterious artifacts to catalog. That is way too much work for you and your henchmen to accomplish alone.”

Mr. Banker’s eyes narrow. The wrench drops a fraction of the inch.

“You deserve to spend your time thinking about the big picture -- turning ordinary men into super-soldiers, decrypting government data, making plans to take over the world. Those goals can’t be accomplished without the help of a highly trained and loyal secretarial pool. I can help you get that.”

Mr. Banker raises the wrench again. “The SHIELD administrators will do what they are told, if they value their lives.”

“And you’re going to spend valuable resources monitoring their every move? A disgruntled administrative assistant can fuck up your shit, and you know it. Don’t tell me it hasn’t happened already.” The banker winces, and the henchmen behind him exchange a meaningful glance. Darcy presses her advantage. “You need loyalty, and the best way to get it is to buy it. HYDRA’s all about getting people to voluntarily surrender their freedom, right? Well, people do that every day for a decent health plan.”

“And you can help me?” Mr. Banker asks, wrench dangling limply from his side.

“Absolutely,” Darcy says. “But not from this chair.”

Dear Diary, she writes that night, today I had the weirdest job interview ever.

***

It takes less than seventy-two hours to gain the trust of the evil banker man -- whose name is actually Mr. Davis -- and his minions. All it takes is a decent pot of coffee, a semi-organized filing system, and a few tidbits about heavy metals she'd ordered for SHIELD a few weeks ago. Romanov would be proud, if she still existed. And if Darcy actually had some super secret spy plan. The truth is, it's hard to tell whether she's collaborating or resisting. Judging by the way some of the former SHIELD staff are treating her, "collaborating" is the better word.

At night, she keeps writing in the notebook she'd filched from the breakroom. It's a green spiral, kind of like the ones she'd bought and never opened back in high school. Guess what, diary? she writes. The Department of Homeland Security is Hydra. Not infiltrated by Hydra. Created by Hydra. They told the NYPD and the FBI they'd swept this building and left behind a skeleton crew to sort through all the files.

And now SHIELD is the East Coast base of operations for an evil neo-Nazi intelligence group with long-range plans for regime change, which is disturbing, but way beyond the scope of Darcy's concerns. What she needs is an outdoor access pass. Hydra's not really into letting people out of the building if they can help it. At most, twenty people have the yellow badges that say they can get out of the building. And if Darcy wants to help Bruce, she's going to have to get one.

At night, she hems and haws over how to steal one, but the solution turns out to be way easier than she expected.

"Hey, Mr. Davis, did you know Starbucks starts selling pumpkin spice lattes on October 1?" she says.

She gets an outdoor access pass the next day.

***

Darcy isn’t supposed to know where they’re keeping the Hulk, but it’s not hard to follow the howls down to the third sub-basement. With every level she descends, she expects to find shadowy stone corridors lit by flickering torches, but that’s the movies. In real life, sub-basement C has the same gleaming white corridors and fluorescent lights as the rest of the building.

Down here, the walls and floors vibrate with the force of the Hulk’s attempts to escape. There aren’t any cracks in the walls or floors though, which is a good sign for everyone in this building who wants to stay alive. She stops in front of the door where the vibration is loudest and presses the intercom.

“Who is this?” The woman’s voice sounds tired and harried. “I left specific orders not to be disturbed. If Mr. Davis doesn’t see results--”

“Actually, Mr. Davis sent me,” Darcy says, deciding to take a risk. “I just, um, wondered if you would like something from Starbucks? I’m going out, and...Well, it’s stupid. I shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Wait.” The door slides open on pneumatic hinges. Darcy isn’t sure what kind of person she was expecting to see, but the woman in the lab isn’t it. She’s plump and gray-haired, wearing a t-shirt with a picture of two smiling kids who are probably her grandchildren. The woman -- Dr. Waldenstein, her name tag says -- frowns at Darcy. “You say Mr. Davis sent you? To get my Starbuck’s order?”

“Well, yeah.” Darcy offers what she hopes is a confident smile. “I’m in charge of employee loyalty initiatives, and outside goods and services were identified as an employee need. How long have you been in this lab, Dr. Waldenstein? Your work is important to HYDRA, and we’d like to offer you...well, a treat.”

"Really?" Waldenstein huffs. "Davis wants to offer me a treat? Just yesterday he was down here screaming about how he'd blow my head off if I couldn't get results."

Darcy nods sympathetically. "I know. So awful when he's hangry. Believe it or not, he was super guilty this morning. Of course, he'd deny it if you said it to his face. But at least have a coffee on the house."

"Well, it has been a long time since I've had a macchiato," Waldenstein says, her face softening. She pats Darcy on the shoulder. "Working for that man all day, poor dear. Listen, I am dying for a smoke. You can watch the Hulk for a minute, right? Just press the big red button if anything bad happens."

Darcy steps into the lab, listening to the doctor's footsteps retreat down the hallway. It's quiet now; the Hulk is gone, and Bruce is lying naked on the floor of an enormous, clear-walled cage. His body is sweaty and his breath is shallow, and Darcy knows that he would never, ever want her -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to see him this way, so she turns her eyes to the control panel that runs along the edge of the cage.

There's a big red button, just like Waldenstein had described. Next to it is a big red lever, and Darcy stares. Could it really be that simple? Pull a lever, let Bruce free, and run? She takes a step toward it, her mouth going dry. Tapping on the wall of the cage stops her. She looks up to see Bruce shaking his head. He looks at the lever, then back at her.

"Don't let me out. I'm too angry."

***

When she comes back to the office, Davis is on the phone with whoever is in charge of HYDRA.

"Listen," he's saying, "There's two people in the world with an MD-PhD and an advanced understanding of particle physics. One of them's Banner, and the other is Waldenstein. If we're going to the control the Hulk -- much less replicate him -- she's the only person who can do it."

Interesting, Darcy thinks. The next day, she puts Ex-Lax in the macchiato.

Inventing disruptions is easy. The hard part is making sure she doesn't do it too often. When she sees a giant DO NOT FLUSH ANYTHING BUT TOILET PAPER sign in the lab's bathroom, she flushes a tampon and a giant wad of TP just for good measure. Then she joins Dr. Waldenstein in running from the oncoming flood of sewage.

Later, Waldenstein lets slip that the smell of oranges gives her migranes. Darcy swaps the custodian's Pine-sol for orange-scented cleanser instead. In between her carefully orchestrated disruptions, Darcy visits the lab as often as possible. It's easy: she prints random forms to be signed, delivers Starbucks, and brings the weekly requisition of office supplies on the pretext that the lab is too sensitive for junior employees to visit. Nobody seems to notice -- or at least, Darcy doesn't think they do.

Fall is turning to winter, and Bruce is looking pale and wan, but his howls no longer echo through the hallways. Waldenstein is looking pretty rough too, and Darcy's feeling a little smug that her tiny disruptions have managed to derail the research so far. She puts a macchiato on the lab console, contemplating her next trick, when Dr. Waldenstein's thin fingers close around her wrist.

"I know why you've been coming down here, you know," the doctor says.

A nervous chuckle escapes Darcy's throat. "You do?" she asks, her voice a little too high. Bruce is sitting in the corner of his cage, facing away from them, but Darcy can see his muscles tense and knows he's paying attention.

"You still have feelings for him," Waldenstein says matter-of-factly. She shakes her head, cutting off Darcy's sad attempt at a response. "Oh, don't deny it. I know an old lady like me doesn't merit hand delivered coffee and ink pens. You're here for one reason only: him." She pats the stool beside her, looking grandmotherly and kind. "Please, dear, sit down."

Darcy slides onto the stool, clenching her hands to hide how badly they're shaking. "Are you -- are you going to report me?" she asks.

"Good heavens, no, dear," Waldenstein says, shaking her head. "If young women were tortured and executed just for having feelings for an unsuitable man...well, I suppose there wouldn't be many of us left. But I do worry about you. You seem like a nice young lady, and I hate to see you make the same mistakes I did."

"Uh, really?" Darcy manages. It's lame, but she can't think of anything else to say.

"It took me years to see my ex husband for what he was: an addict and an abuser. I wasted my youth on that man, and you are about to do the same thing. Look at him, Darcy," Waldenstein says, pointing to where Bruce is hunched in the cage. "He's not a man, he's a beast. A monster controlled by anger, marked by outbursts of murderous rage. You could have a very successful career at HYDRA, Darcy. Everyone speaks so highly of you. But you are wasting it on that."

"I am?" Darcy asks, hating herself for not having a better reply.

"Oh, don't be disingenuous. You're not good at it. It took me longer to connect the dots than it should have, but every disruption in our research can be traced to you. Of course, they were trifling, childish things. Nothing that could jeopardize the long-term success of our mission -- otherwise, make no mistake, I would have reported you." Her hand tightens around Darcy's. "I like your vision for HYDRA. We can be a positive working environment while working toward world domination. But I would like to be clear: if you do anything else to get in the way of our mission, no matter how small, I will use you for medical research."

***

Mr. Davis is lounging in a shadowy corner of her office when Darcy comes upstairs, and in spite of her extremely valiant resolve to pretend that nothing is wrong, she does actually scream a little bit.

"Ms. Lewis," Mr. Davis says, standing up and looking chagrined. "I didn't mean to startle you."

Darcy chuckles weakly. "Well, it is kind of startling when you lurk in dark corners."

Mr. Davis nods as if she's given him valuable professional feedback. Maybe she has. Maybe 'lurking in dark areas may frighten your minions' is the kind of management tip HYDRA should put in its employee handbook.

Mr. Davis extends a hand toward Darcy, and she sees a flash of gold. "A gold star. For you, Ms. Lewis."

What the actual fuck is happening? Darcy wonders as she takes the sticker from Mr. Davis' outstretched hand.

Some of her uncertainty must have shown on her face, because Davis shifts awkwardly and clears his throat. "Surely you remember? These were your idea."

And suddenly Darcy does remember. The idea was from her early days at HYDRA, back when she was terrified of being tortured, interrogated, and beaten to death with a rusty pipe.

Davis had looked across the conference table at her, furrowing his brow. "Are you certain adults want to receive gold stars?"

Darcy had nodded, gesturing with as much enthusiasm as she could while handcuffed. "Absolutely. No one wants to feel that they work for a soulless, unappreciative organization. A reward system like this costs you absolutely nothing while giving you a clear means to identify your best employees."

And now that Darcy thinks about it, she has seen little gold stars in some of the personnel files on her desk, and Manny the night janitor has three of them on his broom.

Mr. Davis smiles at her expectantly. "Go ahead, Ms. Lewis, put it on your lanyard. HYDRA thanks you for your outstanding performance." He pats Darcy awkwardly on the shoulder and retreats back to his office.

Dear Diary, Darcy writes that night, am I evil? She'd only collaborated so she could help Bruce, but along the way, she'd become a model HYDRA employee. Had she really had to become the kind of office assistant who got gold stars from aspiring overlords? More importantly, now that she'd lost her access to Bruce, shouldn't she be running away?

Crouching on the bathroom floor, Darcy rolls the new pages of her diary into an empty tampon applicator. She has Orange is the New Black to thank for that trick. She leans her head against the bathroom cabinet and sighs. The fact is, she isn't going to run away from HYDRA. Maybe being the best employee she can be will give her another way to help Bruce. And if not? Well, she can't help it; she'd rather be a live collaborator than a dead hero.

***

Darcy’s trying to add precisely half a teaspoon of cinnamon to Davis’ hot chocolate when another girl bumps into her at the counter.

"Hey! Watch it!" she snaps, and the other girl winces.

"Sorry! You have no idea what my boss is like when she doesn't get her afternoon latte. It's all 'if you were my agent, you would have gotten it here in negative twelve seconds,'" she says, making her voice into an exaggerated whine.

"Yeah, tell me about it," Darcy says, not even bothering to look at the girl. She's fixated on three cups in the girl's cardboard holder. One says Tony, another says Maria, and the third says Pepper. "Yesterday my boss sent me back because I put three-eighths of a teaspoon of cinnamon in his drink. Bet you can't top that."

"Oh yes I can," the girl says. Words tumble out of her mouth at warp speed, and Darcy makes sympathetic noises while she fumbles in her purse for a pen. She grabs one of the wooden swizzle sticks and writes HYDRA HAS THE HULK on the back of it. She slips it into the cardboard cuff around Maria's drink just as the girl exclaims, "Oh shit! How can it be 2:12 already?" She runs out the door without giving Darcy a second glance.

***

Darcy’s standing in the corner of Starbuck’s, waiting for the day’s assortment of macchiatos and lattes, when a low voice says, “Don’t look at me. You’re going to tell them they fucked up your order, and then you’re going to come right back here.”

Darcy fishes her phone out of her purse and pretends to check her text messages because it seems like the kind of thing a spy lady would do. “Took you long enough,” she says. It had been a week; she had started to think that she and Bruce were really, truly alone.

“I had to make sure you weren’t being followed and you weren’t a HYDRA plant.”

Hey,” Darcy says. She angles the selfie cam on her phone to get a good look at the person she’s talking to. It really is Maria Hill, which is good news, because a HYDRA spy would probably have had her executed..

“You’ve done well in your job there,” Hill says, and Darcy winces. She was surviving, right? And getting help for Bruce. Wanting to stay alive wasn’t exactly the same thing as collaborating, was it?

“So, what, were you planning to execute me for collaborating with the enemy?”

“No.” Hill says levelly. “I was going to interrogate you. But since that won’t be necessary, I’ll just ask that you keep doing your job well, and tell me everything you know about Dr. Banner’s confinement.”

***

Darcy hasn’t seen Maria in a week when a thief snatches her bag on the way to Starbucks.

“Motherfucker!” she yells. “My boss is going to kill me!” Literally, actually kill her. Probably slowly and painfully. She has HYDRA intel in that bag. After a quick look to ascertain that no gallant passers-by want to help a woman in distress, she kicks off her heels, tries not to think about the filth on New York sidewalks, and starts running.

The thief leads her around six or seven turns, mysteriously slowing down every time Darcy thinks she can’t keep up. In retrospect, that should have been a clue. When she rounds a corner into a gray alleyway, the thief is gone and a hand clamps over her mouth. Another strong arm snakes around her waist, lifting her off the ground. Without thinking, Darcy bites down hard on the hand covering her mouth. She tastes blood and hears a muffled groan behind her, and then she and her attacker are falling backwards through a wall.

Fuck,” says a familiar voice behind her. “Do you think you could get off me?”

Darcy rolls over to find Maria Hill inspecting bright red tooth marks on the heel of her hand. “You’re not much of a damsel in distress, are you?”

Darcy shrugs. “Once I tazed Thor.” She studies her surroundings, not that there’s much to see -- just beige walls and fluorescent lights. “Uh, what’s going on?”

“We needed to arrange a more protracted interview.” She touches her earpiece and says, “Coast is clear, Pepper.”

Pepper Potts is really pretty awesome to behold in person -- tailored suit, sky-high Louboutins, one curl escaped from her bun like she totally meant for it to. Somehow she exudes power and warmth all at once, a combination Darcy hadn't known was possible. Then again, she had worked at SHIELD. Ninety-nine percent of the people there were assholes.

"You're hot," Darcy says, which is technically not appropriate, but how often does a girl get to meet her idol in person?

Pepper's brow furrows. There's a momentary pause, and then she says, "Thank you, Ms. Lewis."

Darcy giggles. It comes out weird and high-pitched, and she tries to hide it with a cough. "Darcy," she says. "You should just call me Darcy." CEOs of Fortune 500 companies definitely get to call her by her first name.

"Well, Darcy, thank you for the risks you've undertaken to protect Bruce. He's been a very good friend to Tony, and to me." Pepper pauses for a moment and swallows. "Obviously, we at Stark Industries don't allow our friends to be abducted and tortured, so we've developed an extraction plan."

Darcy waits for Tony Stark to leap out from behind a wall. It doesn't happen.

"So, uh, you and me and...Iron Man?" she asks. She had really been banking on Iron Man.

Pepper purses her lips. "Unfortunately, Mr. Stark recently learned one 'Winter Soldier' was responsible for his parents' murder. Against his advisors' urging, he chose to pursue this Winter Soldier on his own and is now incapacitated."

Hill clears her throat. "And while we're talking about disregarding the advice of a trusted security team--"

Pepper shoots her a look. "Fortunately, Tony is no longer the only person at Stark Industries with super powers."

"Extremis?" Darcy squeals. "You kept Extremis? I mean, I knew you would. I hoped you would. This is so amazing."

"You knew about Extremis?" Hill says sharply, and Darcy forces herself to turn and look at her. SHIELD doesn't exist anymore; Hill can't get her in trouble, she reminds herself sternly.

"Yeah. Um, you know Stan in data encryption? Well, I kinda showed him my boobs. I mean, I didn't actually flash him. Just, you know, undid a few extra buttons and wore my pencil skirt. Sometimes he told me things."

Pepper sighs. "Maria, please arrange for our data encryption specialists to be tempted, and fire anyone who leaks." She turns to Darcy. "Yes, Tony and Bruce were able to stabilize the Extremis in my system, and I intend to use it to get Bruce back."

Pepper actually looks terrified, which Darcy can't actually blame her for. She's terrified of HYDRA too.

"Okay," Darcy says. "So we've got one terrified tech CEO with superpowers, one terrified twenty-something whose superpowers are confined to office skills, and a really disapproving security advisor. How does that add up to a plan?"

"Well, that was a frank assessment," Hill says, shooting Pepper a meaningful glance. Pepper shows no sign of budging, so Hill sighs and hands Darcy what looks like a thin square of plastic film. "I need you to get them to open Bruce's cage. And when they do, you need to put this on the doorframe."

"I don't even know where to begin telling you all the things that are fucked up about that statement," Darcy says.

Hill seizes the opportunity. In a low voice, she says, "Pepper, I am not telling you to leave Bruce Banner to rot in a cage. I am telling you that a week is not long enough to construct a reliable plan. Let Tony recover so we can have some back up. Let Ms. Lewis steal some maps and diagrams so we're not relying on my memory. This isn't some mad scientist who somehow took Bruce hostage. We're up against a seventy-year-old criminal organization that penetrated the highest levels of SHIELD."

Darcy takes a step forward. "We can't wait. Some files came across my desk a couple days ago...Bruce hasn't eaten anything in a week. Yesterday he started refusing water." It's not hard for her to imagine Bruce's logic. He had at last found a way to prevent himself from turning -- and after that, he'd decided it was better to forever remove the possibility that Hydra could use him as a weapon.

Pepper gives Hill a cursory nod: I've heard you, and I've made my final decision. Then she points at the plastic square in Darcy's hand. "This is graphene. It's one atom thick, bendable, practically unbreakable, and --"

"Impregnated with explosives," Darcy finishes, holding the graphene up to the light so she can see the faint honeycomb pattern imprinted on the surface.

Pepper nods approvingly. "If you can get it into place, we can let Bruce out."

"How are you going to get the detonator in?" Darcy asks. "Hydra searches my bag every time I come inside."

Pepper takes a deep breath. "We don't need one. The detonator is me."

The rest of the plan is this: Darcy chases the "purse thief" -- who is actually a former SHIELD specialist -- somewhere with a security camera, manages to get back her bag, and makes a panicked call to Hydra that someone tried to steal her shit. They take the "thief" back to headquarters with them, and voila, now there's back-up for the rescue plan.

Of course, all of this means Darcy has to let the specialist hit her a few times for authenticity's sake. The first punch sends her reeling, and the second one slams her into a brick wall.

"Really?" Darcy mutters, tasting blood in her mouth. Then her self defense training course kicks in. The heel to the instep takes the guy by surprise, and Darcy manages to knee him in the groin and jab him in the solar plexus at the same time. Then it's his turn to look up at her in surprise, and Darcy snatches the taser out of his holster and shocks him till he falls on the ground -- all according to plan, of course.

***

Darcy's insides go cold when Davis' personal car pulls up to the mouth of the alleyway.

"Sir," she says, smoothing the wrinkles in her shirt. "I didn't expect you to come personally."

He rushes out of the car toward Darcy, touching her bruised face with delicate fingers. "How could I not? You must be terrified."

Darcy bows her head, hoping to conceal the lack of tears in her eyes. "I couldn't let him -- well, there's Hydra property in my bag. I couldn't let an outsider steal it."

"You did a good job, Lewis," he says. "Hydra commends you." He looks at the driver and nods toward the specialist sprawled on the street. "Put that in the trunk and make sure he understands he's never to touch my secretary again."

"Administrative professional," Darcy corrects, the words slurred by her fat lip.

"Of course, Ms. Lewis." He looks back at the driver. "Make sure he understands not to touch my administrative professional." He guides her toward the car with a gentle hand on her back. "My apologies, Ms. Lewis. How terribly dated of me."

***

Darcy taps her pencil on the edge of her desk, contemplating Davis' actions. She can come up with a few viable scenarios:

1. Davis has the hots for her (ick)
2. Davis thinks she is his property (also ick)
3. Davis finds her to be a useful tool and didn't want random hoodlums to break her (acceptable, but also, given the nature of HYDRA, least likely).

Unfortunately, none of those three scenarios lead to him letting her into Bruce's cage. So what's left? Send Dr. Waldenstein another diarrhea drink and open Bruce's cage herself? Not unless she wanted to be executed by a HYDRA firing squad. Find a way to let the specialist out and let him take care of business? More viable, but an escaped prisoner would put the whole building on high alert, which isn't exactly ideal for a covert rescue op tonight. No, big surprise, she has to do what Maria Hill, intelligence agent extraordinaire, said to do: convince HYDRA to let her into Bruce's cage and back out again.

Just then, Davis opens the door to his office. "Ms. Lewis, I need you to go inside Banner's cage."

"Wha--" Darcy says, dropping her pencil on the floor. She hadn't seen any stray memos about thought-reading devices, but then...

Davis sighs. "I know. It's well outside the scope of your duties, but you'll be compensated fairly." He gestures inside the office, where Dr. Waldenstein is sitting awkwardly at the meeting table.

Davis sits at the head of the table, bolt upright and equally awkward. Suddenly Darcy understands why he'd come to rescue her himself: the HYDRA chain of command is pissed that he doesn't have results, and he thinks Darcy is his only hope to get them.

"You are aware, no doubt, that Dr. Banner has refused to eat for some time,” Waldenstein says. “It seems that the Hulk requires a certain amount of physical energy to transform, so our research has come to a standstill. And now that he's refusing water, we're concerned he intends to die of thirst in order to end the experimentation. We need you to convince him to stop this.”

They sound nervous, and Darcy realizes he's afraid she'll refuse. They need more than obedience through fear; they needs her to do the job, and do it well.

"Can't you just hook him up to an IV or something?" Darcy asks. They expect her to resist; she can't look too eager.

Davis glares at Dr. Waldenstein, who blushes. "Our medical staff have barricaded themselves into a supply closet with a previously undiscovered cache of SHIELD weapons," Davis says. "They are unwilling to -- and I quote -- 'go near the Hulk and poke him with a needle.' Normally, I'd have them executed for disobedience, but we need them."

Darcy fidgets, doing her best impression of a scared little girl who's nonetheless eager to please. "What should I say to him, sir?"

Davis looks thoughtful. "Tell him...tell him that he's a brilliant man, and Hydra has employment opportunities for someone like him if he cooperates. Show him your HR handbook." Davis frowns, then shakes his head. "No, tell him that you've been in touch with the remnants of SHIELD and a rescue team is coming for him soon. A little hope should do the trick."

Darcy inhales so sharply it sounds like a little squeak, which she tries to cover with a sudden fit of coughing. She glances at Davis to see if he noticed, but he's staring at a stack of papers on the table, twirling his pen between his fingers. But Dr. Waldenstein is looking at her shrewdly.

"I think Ms. Lewis should tell him the truth: that if Dr. Banner can't bring himself to eat and drink, we'll torture her in front of his cage until he does," she says.

Davis beams. It's exactly the same smile he gets when he plays a perfect game on his putting machine. "I like it, Doctor. Iron first in a velvet glove." He turns to Darcy. "Ms. Lewis, you are a valuable administrative professional. We would hate to lose you. So you do your best to get Dr. Banner eating again."

***

Darcy isn't prepared for the sight of Bruce sprawled on the floor of the cage, his pants baggy and his bloodshot eyes framed with dark circles.

"Whoa," she breathes. "You look rough."

"I won't look at it," Bruce says. His voice is flat. "I finally find a way to keep the Hulk in, and they send you to bring him out."

"I'll hide the food," Darcy says. She settles on the floor near Bruce's hip and slides the cafeteria tray behind her back. She tries to ignore the sound of his stomach growling. "Will you look at me at least?"

Bruce doesn't look. "What are you doing still doing here, Darcy?"

"What I said I'd do back in the shelter. Staying alive."

"Good." Bruce snorts. "One of us should."

"They probably shouldn't have taken you off the antidepressants," Darcy says. As a joke, it falls flat, but hey, nobody ever accused her of thinking before speaking. She tugs on Bruce's hand. "Look, can you sit up? I need to talk to you."

Bruce sits up slowly. It looks like it costs him more effort than Darcy wants to admit.

"It's good to see you, Darcy," he says. He brushes a strand of hair off her forehead and Darcy closes her eyes.

"It's pretty awful to see you like this," she says. Her voice cracks. She hasn't cried since Hydra took them, but she doesn't think she can hold back now. "Please don't do this, Bruce. You’re the kindest person I know, and I don’t want you to die. And, um, also they said they’ll torture me in front of your cage until you eat something, and I don’t really want to know if they mean it or not."

The intercom clicks, and Davis leans toward the microphone. “We mean it!” he says, giving her a thumbs up.

Darcy twists around and grabs the salad off the cafeteria tray. "I made them go to the Union Square green market and get your favorite heirloom tomatoes," she says, pressing a fork into his hand. "Please, trust me on this. You need to eat."

Bruce takes the salad out of her hand, but he only stares at it. "Can I trust you, Darcy? Rumor has it you're a model Hydra employee."

Darcy swallows. She doesn't blame Bruce for asking, especially since she'd stopped coming down here, stopped sabotaging the experiments. "I'm doing what we talked about in the shelter," she says. "All of it." She hopes Bruce understands that she means the part about collaborating, and the part about finding a way out.

Bruce shoves the fork into the salad bowl with such force Darcy can't decide if he's angry or just that hungry -- or both. A buzzer rings, and Darcy looks back at the door of the cage. Davis is waiting.

"I have to go now," she says. "Please finish the salad."

She looks at him hard and hopes he takes her meaning. There's a note at the bottom of the bowl, hopefully not totally covered with salad dressing.

It says, Pepper and Maria Hill and I are going to get you out of here.
P.S. Tony would come too but he can't because he did something stupid while you were gone (he needs you).
P.P.S. You should probably eat this note. Sorry.

On her way out, she leans against the doorway. It's a ridiculous approximation of a sexy pose, but it gives her a chance to stick the piece of graphene on the door frame, just like Pepper had asked. Then she turns and leaves without looking back.

***

Darcy ought to feel triumphant: she'd gotten Bruce to eat, and she'd smuggled the graphene into Bruce's cell. But she can't settle down. When she sits at her desk, she fidgets. When she files paperwork, she forgets the alphabet. When she types, her sentences make no sense. Every time her mind wanders, she thinks of how Dr. Waldenstein had looked at her this afternoon.

She almost jumps out of her skin when the intercom buzzes.

"Yes, Mr. Davis?" she asks. She hopes her voice stays steady.

He's still reciting a list of files he needs when Dr. Waldenstein and Mr. Olaweye, the Security Director, walk through her reception area and straight into Davis' office without so much as glancing at her.

Davis, as usual, forgets to switch off the intercom.

"We need the girl." Waldenstein's voice is tinny and muffled through the tiny phone speaker. "A salad a day isn't going to rebuild Banner's strength. We need to make him angry. Now."

Darcy is rooted to her chair, her heart pounding in her chest. Davis' voice comes on the line, and he sounds angry. Darcy breathes a little easier.

"Listen here, Doctor. We told Ms. Lewis to get Banner to eat, and she did her job. The girl is a valuable employee. If you haven't noticed, things didn't go very well for Hydra when we came out of the dark. How are we supposed to rebuild our organization if we don't invest in our people?"

"I know you have a soft spot for the girl, but we've all made sacrifices. Now it's your turn."

Olawaye's silken voice interrupts. "There's more. The thief we picked up with the girl has special operations training. I'm guessing SHIELD...'

Darcy doesn't wait to hear the rest. She snatches a stack of files from her desk. Beneath the manila folders, she cradles the taser she'd taken from the Hill's purse thief this morning. No one had noticed she'd kept it.

Walking slowly to the door is the hardest thing she's ever done. I am a secretary making copies. I am a secretary making copies, she chants in her head. But where does she really need to go? The exits are guarded, the elevators can be overridden, her keycard is probably going to stop working...

The fourth floor, she thinks. The security cameras are down; she'd filled out a work order herself this morning. Her high heels are too loud in the stairwell, so she takes them off and carries them in her hand. Just another secretary, she tells herself, tired at the end of the day. She takes the stairs two by two, as fast as she can without falling down them in her stocking feet. The taser, the folders, and her high heels are an awkward burden, but she doesn't dare set them down. She doesn't want to leave a trail for Hydra to follow. She strains her ears as hard as she can, but the only sound is her heart beating in her ears.

She eases open the fourth floor doorway. It's dark and quiet. This floor hadn't been renovated since the eighties, and it had been sparsely populated with junior SHIELD clerks. Now that HYDRA owns the building, it's empty. But hadn't someone liked to hang out down here? The break room had been their exclusive property. And now that she thinks about it, the security cameras were always going out, even under SHIELD.

Darcy slips into the break room. It's dark, like the rest of the floor, and the smell emanating from the fridge indicates that no one from HYDRA has been here in a long time. The window looks out onto another building, so the light is dim, but Darcy can make out a jar of Cheez Whiz on the round plastic table. Then she remembers: this was Hawkeye's break room. And he must have had something here, right? Something worth frightening away the junior staff and shorting out the cameras every two or three weeks?

Hardly daring to hope, Darcy rifles through the cabinets and comes up with nothing more than the usual assortment of napkins, swizzle sticks, and powdered creamer. She eyes the fridge with trepidation. What if that had been part of Barton's spy plan -- hide something important amid a stench so foul no one would ever come near it? She stares at the fridge a little longer and decides to leave it for last. The stench inside might knock her out.

Half an hour later, she's rifled through every cabinet in the lady's room and the men's, and she's about to give up in despair when she looks up at the bathroom ceiling. The vent cover is huge -- way bigger than the ones in the renovated sections of the building -- and one of the screws is loose.

Climbing into ductwork is harder than Darcy ever imagined. The toilet is kinda sorta under the vent, but not really, and panty hose and pencil skirts are so not made for climbing. Also, she does not have Hawkeye's fabulous arm muscles, and hauling herself into a smooth metal enclosure with no hand holds apparently requires a lot of upper body strength.

Note to self, Darcy thinks, when working for secret intelligence organization, do not ignore complimentary gym membership. You never know when you'll need to escape from criminal overlords who want to torture and interrogate you.

A hysterical giggle escapes as her fingers scramble against the duct work, and then -- for the sixth time -- she lands in a heap on the floor. Tears prick at the corner of her eyes because how is this her life? All she'd wanted was to earn a steady paycheck doing something not terribly boring, and fuck her hot older boyfriend on the weekends. And now she's lying on the bathroom floor, surrounded by the stench of decaying food, waiting for HYDRA minions to drag her into the dungeon.

Breathe, Lewis, she tells herself sternly. She doesn't hear anyone coming, so that means she has time to try again. Pushing the thought of silent HYDRA ninjas out of her head, she climbs onto the toilet tank one more time. This time, when she hoists herself into the vent, her fingers wrap around a thin cable. The metal cuts into her flesh, but it gives her just enough leverage to lift the rest of her body inside.

She shouldn't be surprised that the inside of the duct is pitch black. At first, she waits for her eyes to adjust. When nothing happens, she realizes that's because there's no light. She's resigned herself to crawling forward through the darkness when her hand brushes against a thick strip of fabric. Thirty seconds of awkward groping later, she figures out it's a headlamp. Right. Because even Hawkeye can't see in the dark.

As Darcy crawls, she finds more of Hawkeye's debris: a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Several alarmingly long strings of beef jerky. A dime store novel whose yellow pages nearly disintegrated under her touch. But the best things are the weapons. Around a bend she finds a couple flash grenades duct taped to the wall. A little further on, she finds a knife, and then a nifty-looking arrow that she has to leave behind because (a) inconvenient to carry (b) it definitely explodes, but it's hard to say exactly what makes it go off.

And every few hundred feet, there's a cable like the one she used to hoist herself inside the vent. At first, she ignores them, but then her foot catches on one and she hears a distant alarm ringing. She clutches her knife, breathing hard, and waits for the HYDRA strike team to come. But would Hawkeye really go to the trouble of hiding food and weapons in the ductwork, only to let someone fill it with booby traps? No, definitely not. These must be his booby traps, rigged to set off distant alarms -- as if he had known that one day he would need to escape the building.

Every time Darcy finds one of the trip wires, she pulls it. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes she hears a siren or a shriek, and once there's a muffled explosion. And it's obvious now that she's crawling downward. This has to lead outside -- she's sure of it. Pretty soon, she can see a grate. On the other side, the sun is shining. The grate gives way easily when Darcy kicks it. She slides onto the sidewalk, blinking in the sunlight.

She hears a footstep behind her, and she spins around, but it's too late. She doesn't see the taser, but she feels electricity prickling across her skin like thousands of tiny needles. Her vision is sharp and clear enough to see pedestrians fifty feet away, but when she tells her mouth to open, nothing happens. Her whole body is rigid and she feels a rush of wind on her skin as she falls face forward onto the sidewalk.

"Fred?" she asks. "From the mailroom?"

"Fred from the mailroom?" Fred repeats in a sing-song voice. "I knew they shouldn't trust you. And now that I've caught you, I get a promotion. And a $52 gift card to the Olive Garden."

"You're giving me to HYDRA for Zuppa Toscana?" Darcy asks. Her voice is muffled against her arm. Above her, she can see glass from her shattered headlamp and a thin trickle of blood where she'd hit her head on the sidewalk.

"Did you really think you were going to get away?" Fred asks. He's standing above her, but she can't turn her head to look at him.

"Um, yeah. That's kinda why I ran." Oh wait, Darcy thinks, this is the part where I try to keep the villain talking. "I mean, how did you catch me? I mean, aside from being all brilliant and stuff?"

Fred kneels beside her and shoots her a withering look. "I called for backup as soon as I tased you. Don't get any ideas."

"Okay, but I still wanna know how you caught me. If I'm gonna die for endless breadsticks and a promotion to senior mailroom clerk, I wanna know how."

"Fine. Clint Barton is a fucking asshole, you know that? Always jumping out of the ceiling and scaring people, and then being all stay out of my break room like he was so much better than us. Excuse me, where were we supposed to eat lunch? So I started following him. It wasn't hard, since he thought I didn't matter. While everyone else was freaking out about your alarms, I just waited for you down here."

"And now you get fifty-two bucks to spend at a really shitty restaurant," Darcy says. Sensation is coming back to her fingers and she flexes them experimentally. Men in black are running toward the alleyway. Summoning all her will, Darcy drags her right hand toward her pocket and yanks out a flash grenade. She throws it toward the men. Fred yelps. She hauls herself to her feet and throws another grenade at Fred. There's a cab at the edge of the sidewalk, and Darcy runs toward it, not daring to look behind her. The driver reaches back and opens the passenger door for her -- the last good man in New York, Darcy thinks -- and she slides inside. The driver takes one look at her and floors the accelerator without waiting for her to close the door. Darcy can imagine how she must look: dirty from crawling through the vents, her face bruised, her lip swollen, men in black running after her.

"Where you wanna go?" the driver asks. "Police? Hospital?"

"Stark Tower," Darcy says. "I have the code to the security entrance in the back."

***

Half an hour later, Darcy is sitting on a couch in Maria Hill's office, holding a bag of frozen peas over her busted lip. Pepper had closed the cut on her forehead with superglue, a skill she'd apparently honed through many long years of being Tony Stark's personal assistant. Now she and Maria are bustling around, preparing things, which mostly seems to involve collecting weapons and wearing skin tight black clothing.

"Hey, are you going to give me one of those?" Darcy asks as Hill stuffs a fifth gun into a holster hidden on her catsuit. One day she really needs to ask about that - how can someone hide gun holsters in a skintight suit?

Hill looks at her coolly. "You know how to shoot?"

"Duh. I'm from Oklahoma."

Hill doesn't look impressed by that explanation, so Darcy sighs and explains. "My third stepdad, Vernon, used to take us out to the shooting range on Sundays. And I was all, death to the NRA and he was all guns don't kill people, people kill people and then my mom was all Darcy Renee Lewis, this is a family outing and you will shoot guns and enjoy it." She shrugs. "So yeah, I know how to shoot."

Hill hands her a gun, and Darcy reaches out to take it, but Hill doesn't let go. "You may have to shoot to kill. Are you ready for that?"

Darcy swallows. She thinks of Dr. Waldenstein and her grandkids, and how most people at HYDRA seem more misguided than evil. Then she looks at Pepper, who looks completely terrified but still plans to rescue Bruce. And Bruce, who's willing to die before HYDRA makes him kill anyone. She closes her hand more tightly around the butt of the gun.

"If I have to, I will." She checks the safety carefully and lets the gun dangle at her side, trying not to let on how weird it feels to hold a deadly weapon in her hand.

"So, what's the plan?" she asks. It seems like the kind of thing someone should ask before a super secret rescue mission.

Hill doesn't look up from the dart gun she's assembling. "We go in through the front door. A few of the booby traps you set off were big enough to make the neighbors call 911. Now the place is crawling with emergency response personnel." She looks up at Darcy for the first time tonight and gives her a small nod. "You did a good job in there, by the way."

Darcy smiles for, like, one-twelfth of a second before she remembers they’re about to lead a three-woman assault on an impregnable fortress. “What do we do next?”

"We get down to sub-basement C by whatever means necessary," Pepper says. She looks wan but determined. "Hill will take out whatever security personnel she can, and anyone who's leftover..."

"Gets a dose of Extremis?" Darcy asks hopefully. She shouldn't think that's cool; "getting a dose of Extremis" is probably the same thing as "dying horribly."

Pepper looks frightened, but she nods resolutely. "Something like that."

Hill looks over at her, but Pepper shoots a sharp look back. Clearly, they're finished talking about whether to do this; now the only question is when and how.

Hill reaches into the back of a closet and pulls out three police uniforms. "Here," she says. "Put these on, and make sure you remember the name on the badge. It ought to be enough to get us through the door."

Pepper's and Hill's fit perfectly; Darcy's was plainly made for someone less curvy, and the fabric pulls tightly over her chest and ass.

"I look like a police stripper," she says, and Hill glares sharply enough that Darcy blanches. Wardrobe complaints are clearly not part of the battle plan.

Together, they climb into an NYPD cruiser and drive toward SHIELD's old headquarters. I’m not scared, Darcy tells herself fiercely, clenching her hands into balls so tight her fingernails dig into her palms. Hill’s face is impassive, and Pepper looks like she might barf. Darcy had been scared plenty of times at Hydra too, but this is different. Before, she’d found herself in danger and had to deal with it, but this is the first time she’s ever chosen to go do something that could get her killed. And she has no chocolate and no one to quip with, which seems like a gross misjudgment on her part.

As they draw near SHIELD Tower, the streets are clogged with firetrucks, police, and news crews. Darcy wonders how they’ll get through the blockade, but Hill waves an ID card and a junior lieutenant waves them through.

Darcy listens to snippets of the news as they drive past cameras and reporters.

“A tragedy tonight for Homeland Security agents diligently working to examine the headquarters of the terrorist organization SHIELD --”

“Agents triggered a series of booby traps --”

“Three have been transported to the hospital, and two fatalities have been confirmed.”

Darcy sucks in a breath, and Pepper lays a hand on her knee. Hill meets her eyes in the rearview mirror.

“You did what you had to. Now we think about the mission.”

Darcy nods, but her head is swimming. How could she not have realized that pulling random trip wires would kill people? And probably not the people who were looking for her. Probably people just like her, people who were sitting at their desks and minding their business and trying to get out of Hydra alive.

Hill parks the car next to the curb behind a firetruck.

Hey,” she says sharply, and Darcy’s head snaps up. “You can cry over whatever you want when we’re done with this. Now you’re either here with us, or you’re getting out of the car and making your own way home. Understood?”

Darcy nods dumbly, and Maria frowns.

“I asked you a question, Lewis. Are we clear?”

“Clear,” Darcy says, and Hill nods.

“We have to assume that some of the police in the building are HYDRA. We’re taking the quickest route to the basement -- enter the west side of the building, immediately take the stairs to the left. Anyone crosses our path -- anyone at all -- we take them out.”

“Except police and firefighters, right?” Darcy asks.

Hill shakes her head. “If I didn’t think the US government would like a Hulk of their very own, I’d be excited for the help. As it is, we can’t afford the risk, but we’ll aim to incapacitate, not to kill.”

With that, Hill steps out of the car, and Darcy follows along, trying very very hard not to throw up.

***

Walking into the lobby of SHIELD makes Darcy feel like she's fallen backward into a time before Hydra existed. Under Hydra, the lobby had been eerily silent. The lights were dim, and the only human presence had been two hulking guards at the door. Now the lights are bright again, and the entranceway is filled with bustling emergency workers and employees in black suits.

Davis is standing in the center, talking to a police officer, and dabbing his shiny forehead with a handkerchief. Darcy gasps and freezes, and Hill pulls her back into the shadows.

"Walk slowly and look straight ahead," Hill murmurs in her ear.

Pepper walks ahead of them, looking serene, but Darcy can see that her hands are shaking. When they reach the stairwell, Hill jerks the door open and Darcy turns toward her, surprised.

"As soon as the fire alarms go off, the stairwells unlock," Hill says. "No keycard needed. It's the law."

The lights are out in the stairwell, and Hill clicks on a flashlight. Their journey downward is uneventful. No alarms are ringing down here, and that means the police and fire crews swarming the building aren't interested. Darcy's just starting to think they've won some kind of lottery and they'll get to rescue Bruce without a fight when Hill opens the door to sub-basement C and all hell breaks loose.

The truth is, Darcy has no idea what the fuck is happening. One minute they're in a dark stairwell, and the next, Hillis tackling some guy with a machine gun while bullets are flying around them. Darcy flings herself into a corner, which is probably cowardly and not very safe, but she's not trained for this and her legs are shaking and -- fuck, someone is shrieking in the stairwell, and it sounds like Pepper.

The gunshots have stopped, probably because nobody can shoot Hill while she's in the middle of a swarm of Hydra agents, but Darcy's too scared to look. Instead she forces herself onto her feet and ducks back into the stairwell, where Pepper is pinned in the corner by a truly enormous man.

And fuck, what is Darcy supposed to do about that? She has her gun, but she can't shoot the guy without shooting Pepper, and she'd dropped her taser when the shooting started, and she is so, so not a ninja. Somehow she and Pepper make eye contact over the guy's shoulder, and Pepper's eyes are wide and pleading. She's counting on Darcy, so Darcy does the only thing she can think of: she flings herself onto the guy's back with a yelp and sinks her teeth into his neck. It's gross and insane, but it works. He shouts and tries to smush her against the wall, and Pepper kicks him in the nads, at which point he crumples to the floor and actually vomits.

"Whoa," Darcy says.

"Extremis," Pepper says. Her voice is shakey. She turns to Darcy. "What- what are we going to do with him? Maria said to kill them, but I can't. I just can't."

Darcy shakes her head. She'd promised Hill that she'd shoot if she had to, but there's no way in hell she's getting out her gun and shooting a guy who's rolling on the floor clutching his manhood.

"We should knock him out," she says levelly.

Pepper nods, looking relieved. "You do it. I'll kill him by accident."

"With what?" Darcy asks, her panic returning. All she's got is her gun, and she doesn't like the idea of getting close to him with it. What if he snatches it out of her hand?

Pepper looks around the stairwell, but it's dark and empty. Fuck, Darcy thinks. This is how the comic relief dies in horror movies, standing over the body of a killer, dithering over what to do.

"Here, hit him with my flashlight," Pepper says, pressing it into Darcy's hand.

"Okay," Darcy says, nodding. "Okay, I can do this."

The truth is, hitting a guy with a flashlight is kind of awful. There's a dull thud when it collides with his skull, and Darcy feels sick when he goes still. What if she'd really hurt him? What if she'd killed him?

"You did it!" Pepper exclaims behind her. Darcy hands back the flashlight, and they both stand and admire their handiwork, like knocking out this one guy was all they had to do.

Commotion in the corridor snaps them back to reality. There's a series of bangs, and then Hill is shouting, "A little help out here, please!"

Looking back, Darcy can't really say what happened in the corridor. Pepper is beside her, and then suddenly she isn't. Hill flings her backward into the staircase and hisses, "Cover your ears." Darcy does, but the explosion is still too loud -- a grenade, maybe -- and her ears are ringing when Hill pulls the fire extinguisher off the wall and steps back into the corridor.

Darcy thinks she'll remember the sight of Pepper walking unscathed from the fire forever.

***

The lab, when they finally reach it, is oddly dark and quiet. Bruce’s cage looms in the middle, illuminated in silver light.

Hill tucks herself against the doorframe. “I’ll stand guard. Lewis, you cover Ms. Potts. Pepper, get Bruce. Now.”

“Roger that,” Darcy says. It comes out sounding slightly hysterical. Because apparently she’s not a superhero or commando or any of the things you need to be to lay siege to a building held by a hostile terrorist organization.

Pepper smiles at her encouragingly. “We can do this,” she says.

Behind them, Hill sighs. “You two are incompetent,” she says. She seizes Darcy’s arm and shoves her against the doorframe. “You be the lookout, I’ll be the cover. If you see someone coming, the best thing is to shoot them, but if you can’t manage that, scream.”

This time, Darcy manages a terse nod. She keeps her eyes on the corridor outside, which is encouragingly deserted. Behind her, she hears a bang and the sound of shattering glass. Then Pepper says, “Bruce Banner, get off the floor of the cage immediately. You are not the only person in this room with unwanted and extremely destructive superpowers, and we are going to learn how to deal with this together.”

The next thing Darcy hears is a gunshot, and a muffled grunt from Hill.

Darcy spins around, and Hill is lying on the floor, pressing a hand to her shoulder. Her gun has skittered across the floor behind her.

“Get down!” Hill hisses, followed by something that sounds suspiciously like you are a fucking idiot.

And, okay, yeah, getting down on the floor is probably covered in Gunfighting 101 - the kind of thing Darcy ought to have absorbed just from watching movies. Before she can comply, another shot rings out and grazes the wall right next to her head. Without thinking, Darcy fires back. There’s a yelp, and then Dr. Waldenstein steps out of the shadows. A red spot is blooming across the sleeve of her kitten t-shirt, but her gun is steady in her hands.

“Put that down, child,” she says. “We both know you’re not made for killing.”

Darcy shakes her head slowly. She has no fucking clue what to do next, but she is absolutely certain that putting down the gun is not on the list.

Hill is crawling toward her gun, and Waldenstein shakes her head. “You move, your cute little friend dies,” she says. “You know, I’d really almost given up. But now I have two subjects with...what was it you said, Ms. Potts? Unwanted and extremely destructive superpowers? Very eloquent, and very promising for my research. Hydra will be very grateful.” She gives Hill a small, thin smile. “And the only one of you who has the guts to shoot me is lying wounded on the floor. A very good day indeed.”

Darcy closes her eyes and squeezes the trigger. There’s a gunshot and scream, and when she opens her eyes again, Hill is shoving Waldenstein into a doorway labeled SECONDARY CONTAINMENT FACILITY.

“She’s not dead,” Hill mutters. “You did good, Lewis. Now come on.”

Escaping from the building is a lot like fighting their way inside. What happens is a blur of smoke and gunshots, and Pepper saying, “I really hate violence” before she throws herself into the fray.

***

Tony Stark is the first thing Darcy sees when they enter Stark Tower. The sight would not be especially surprising, except he has a black eye and he’s wearing a dented Iron Man suit while a computerized voice is saying, “Sir, I do not believe it is advisable to use the suit with a broken arm.”

Steve Rogers and Clint Barton are standing behind him, and Darcy looks back and forth at them, trying to decide whose arms are more splendid. Would it be really inappropriate to ask to touch them? Probably. Could claim trauma and get away with it? Probably not, but it might be worth the risk…

Pepper’s voice snaps her back to reality.

“Tony! What on earth are you doing?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” he snaps.

Clint Barton takes a couple steps back and whispers to Steve Rogers, “This is going to be good. Do you have any popcorn?”

“Oh,” Pepper says boredly. “Is it upsetting when someone disappears and leaves you a note saying they went to do something incredibly dangerous without consulting you?”

“Twenty bucks says Pepper wins,” Clint mutters to Steve.

“Don’t worry about my gunshot wound,” Maria Hill pipes up from the back of the room. “I’m sure it’s not life threatening.”

Natasha Romanov appears next, takes one look at their ragtag gathering, and swears at them in Russian.

Jarvis helpfully informs them that Romanov wants to know what’s wrong with all of them.

“Jarvis, call Mr. Stark’s personal physician immediately. Clint, get me first aid kit. Right now,” Romanov commands.

The room dissolves into another flurry of activity. Steve makes Tony go back to bed. Natasha sets to work on Maria’s shoulder, and Clint quietly convinces Bruce that he could use a doctor visit too. Then a swarm of paramedics arrive -- apparently the Avengers have a whole medical team on call -- and suddenly Darcy is standing alone with Pepper, who presses a glass of whiskey in her hand.

“Does this help?” Darcy asks, looking down at the glass. The sprawling leather couch is empty now, and Darcy sinks down on it gratefully.

Pepper settles down next to her, still managing to look gracefully even though she’s clearly exhausted.

“I have no idea,” Pepper says. “But it’s what Tony does everytime he comes back from avenging, so I thought we might give it try.” She takes a drink of her whiskey and grimaces. “It’s a little strong for my taste, but it didn’t seem like the night for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape.”

“Violence really sucks,” Darcy says. It’s sort of a cover for not knowing what Chateauneuf-du-Pape is, but mostly, she’s saying it because it’s true and a tower full of superheroes isn’t really going to understand her viewpoint. It wasn’t like a movie. She didn’t feel brave or heroic or tough. She felt like shit for hurting people and she felt dumb for doing it incompetently.

Pepper sighs deeply. “Tell me about it.” She manages a small smile. “Thank you, Darcy. For your help in the stairwell, and especially for helping us save Bruce. He’s very important to me and to Tony. And to you as well, I know.”

Darcy tosses back her whiskey like it’s a shot of cheap vodka. It’s probably the most expensive thing she’s ever consumed, but the burn feels good, and Pepper refills her glass without batting an eye.

“I kinda collaborated with Hydra,” she says. “Do you think I did the right thing?”

“Was it the best thing you could think to do?” Pepper asks.

Darcy nods. Maybe someone like Natasha Romanov could have found a better way of doing things -- but Darcy’s not a spy. She’s just a normal girl who’d gotten a weird job that turned out to be more dangerous than she thought it was.

Pepper gives her another small smile. “If it was your best, then you did the right thing. Is there anything you need, Darcy?”

Darcy snorts. “Probably a therapist and a pretty serious relationship talk,” she says.

Pepper takes a long drink of her whiskey and nods. “You know, I think I need both of those things too. But maybe not tonight.”

“Definitely not tonight,” Darcy says. She eyes the bottle on the coffee table. “I say we finish this bad boy and then sleep all day.”

Pepper nods and refills both their glasses.

“To doing the best we can,” Darcy says, raising her glass.

Pepper smiles. “I’ll drink to that.”