“I would like to once again register my objections to this,” Phil Coulson said to the room at large. He let his eyes play off of every person in the room. “I do not think you're taking this with the proper amount of seriousness, and amusing ourselves by poking a beehive with a fully loaded and malfunctioning rifle is a very poor choice. The BEST thing that will happen in this situation is that we end up running through the city screaming, 'bees, bees, so many bees.' The worst thing that will happen is the rifle will go off and we'll end up losing a hand. Or an arm.”
He paused. “Or a head.”
Nick Fury gave Phil a pitying look. “It's an exercise, Phil.”
“It's madness, sir.”
“SHIELD,” Natasha said, her chin resting lightly on her fist, “often has trouble telling the difference.”
“That would explain why we keep you on the payroll, Agent Romanov.”
“Wait, in this analogy, am I the rifle, or the bees nest?” Tony asked, arching an eyebrow. He looked bored. It was a rather thin facade. Phil knew just what that muscle jumping beside his eye meant, and he wasn't looking forward to it. To any of it.
Tony Stark was in a seriously bad mood.
“Things have been a little too quiet,” Fury said, rolling a pen between his fingertips. He had an amused smirk on his face, and Coulson wanted to throw something at his boss' head. It was an impulse that he was careful to control, because it came around every so often.
More often since the Avengers Initiative had been put into effect.
“We need action,” Fury continued, sounding insufferably smug. “A little controllable situation for training purposes. We have a plan for if you go rogue, Stark.”
“See, I don't think this will be controllable,” Phil said, and no one paid any attention to him. Clint gave him a commiserating smile, which was nice, but it didn't really help.
“You mean, if I follow my inevitable path to supervillainy?” Tony asked, a tight, sharp smile on his face. “Have I mentioned how much I love that there is a certain assumption that I will turn to evil at some point, and that everyone just accepts that this is something that has to be planned for.” His fingers beat a rapid fire, rolling tattoo on the front of the arc reactor. “Of course, I'm doubly annoyed by the fact that you think this is something that you can plan for. That you consider me to be that-” He paused, and spat out the word, “Predictable.” There was enough venom in his voice to take down an elephant. “You've been teasing this little thing for months, and I'm getting a little sick of it.”
“Tony,” Steve started, and then seemed to have no where to go with it. He sat back in his chair, sighing. There was a pinched tightness around his eyes, thin lines bracketing his mouth as he tried to broker peace. It wasn't going to happen, everyone in the room knew it wasn't going to happen, but Steve was going to try. “We've done these kind of exercises before.”
“Oh, no, Cap,” Tony said. “We have not done this exercise before. Trust me. I would've remembered doing this exercise before.
Clint and Natasha exchanged a look, and then Natasha went back to studying her fingernails and Clint went back to calculating ricochet angles in his head, because that was what he did when he was trying not to kill someone. If his breathing slowed to a certain point, Coulson was going to have to find a deserted office.
Sometimes, sacrifices had to be made.
“To be fair, friend Tony, you do often speak of such plans, when you have imbibed too deeply,” Thor said, grinning at Tony. “There are few here who have not heard of your intentions.”
“Yeah, you can't just go around explaining about your supervillain name and not expect some people to panic,” Clint said, his lips twitching just a bit. “I mean, people without balls who don't know what you're like when tequila is involved, but still. Panic.”
“It doesn't help that your supervillain name does not inspire confidence,” Natasha commented, one eyebrow arched.
“Dr. Mildly Overcast is a perfectly good supervillain name,” Tony said, grinning. “Long history of evil scientists.”
“Not so many evil meteorologists,” Fury said. “You're starting your own genre or some shit.”
“I've always been interested in the possibilities inherent in weather control,” Tony said, shrugging. “It's under represented, considering the damage that could be done in a relatively short period of time and a relatively small control area. Effectively, it has a high ratio of bang for the buck.”
“You see? It's discussions like this that make people worry that you will, in fact, decide to attempt world domination,” Natasha told him.
“That sounds like responsibility, and I really despise responsibility,” Tony said.
“Okay,” Steve said, his lips curling up, “It's discussions like this that make people worry that you will conquer the world and then make Pepper run it.”
Tony pointed a finger in his direction. “That, Cap, is far more likely.” He paused. “She'd kill me. That's not an exaggeration. That's a statement of fact. If I tried it, she would kill me with a shoe or something.”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” Steve said, amused as ever by Tony's rambling run of words.
“She's a determined woman.”
“No, I mean, we can lend her a gun.”
Tony glared at him. “You. You are out of the will.”
“Imagine my disappointment.” Steve leaned his chin on one fist.
Fury rapped his knuckles against the table. “It's clear that you are just spoiling for a fight, Stark,” he said, leaning forward. “So why not give us a workout?”
Phil bit back a sigh. Under the table, Clint's foot bumped against his.
Tony's head rolled in Nick's direction. “Because I don't think you'll survive it, and the only thing I want less than being in charge of the world? Is being in charge of SHIELD,” he said, his voice silken.
“I think the uniform would suit you well,” Thor told him.
“You think so?” Tony asked, immediately distracted. “I think the catsuits are a bit over the top, but you know, I've worn worse.”
Fury stood up, bracing his fingers on the tabletop. “Put your money where your mouth is, Stark.”
“And get myself a SHIELD catsuit?” Tony asked.
“And get with the program.”
“What's the program, exactly? Let my own team try to take me down?” Tony gave him a look. “I know a sucker bet when I see one, and I haven't been drinking nearly enough to take it.”
“It's nothing like that,” Fury said. “Just a simple-”
“Training exercise,” Tony said, his eyes flicking towards the ceiling. “Nick. Buddy. Truth time.” He leaned forward. “Do you really think that there is an exercise in the world that can help prepare you for how to handle me if I really decide I'm after your job, let alone your head?”
Fury's teeth flashed in a feral sort of grin. “What's the matter, Stark? Don't wanna show us what you've got?”
Tony glanced at the others. “Well?” he asked.
Thor shrugged. “Things have been quiet, as of late,” he said. He sounded disappointed by that. “I would enjoy a chance for a battle, even one such as this.”
Clint leaned back in his chair. “Don't look at us, Stark, we're used to running training ops when the real thing isn't on offer.”
“Part of SHIELD,” Natasha agreed. Not her favorite part, but she was just as brutally efficient during training as she was in the field.
Tony looked at Steve. Steve folded his hands on the table. “Do you not want to do this?” he asked.
“I don't think you want to do this,” Tony told him.
Steve's eyes narrowed, his lashes dipping low. “I think that it's an exercise that we're going to end up running eventually,” he said at last. “For each of us, honestly.” He gave Tony a half-smile. “Want me to go first?”
“Not at all,” Tony told him.
“It's just paintball,” Fury said. “Low level loads.” His eyebrows arched. “Red and gold for you and anyone on your side, and blue and black for he SHIELD teams.” He grinned, wide and amused. “We've got the supplies all set and ready to go.”
“Oh, I'm well aware of your little stockpile.” Tony shook his head. “In fact, I rather suspected this was going to be your play today, since Bruce wasn't part of this little meeting. So even you realize that putting the Hulk in the line of fire is a bad idea.” He reached for his coffee cup. “You do realize that doing this in your headquarters is going to lead to a hell of a mess?”
“Controlled mess,” Fury said. “I've got a crew on call, they'll handle it.”
Tony sighed. “Fine, since everyone here seems to think it's a great idea to have a fight in SHIELD headquarters with paint pellets, let's clarify the terms. You win by taking me down. How do I win?”
“Get to my office and get the name plate off of my desk,” Fury said. He spread his hands. “Easy as that.”
“We're stipulating full combat situation? Bruce is not part of this? All 'painted' parties are immediately out of the game? And you want to know how your adorable little cub scouts would handle me if I really went rogue?” Tony glanced at Fury. “Is that all correct?”
Tony stood up and leaned forward to put a hand on Phil's shoulder. “Stop this,” he said.
“I wish I could,” Coulson said, rubbing his forehead.
“It's a training op,” Fury said, and he sounded amused, and Coulson wanted to kick him in the shins, because this was not going to end well, he could tell already that it wasn't going to end well, but Fury was a little too smug sometimes. And his grudge match with Tony Stark was going to end up having a hell of a lot of collateral damage.
“Fine. I tried to warn you.” Tony's hand flicked out, and Phil had an instant to recognize that there was a gun in his face and then there was a sharp, hard impact in the middle of his forehead. Two pops, and Phil was knocked back in his chair, his weight dragging it backwards. He heard Clint yell, and tried to grab the table, but it was too little, too late. Phil crashed to the floor in an unfortunate sprawl of limbs.
Even as he was going down, Tony caught his briefcase with his foot and kicked it up. He spun it onto the table and it hit with a thump. “Bomb,” he announced, his voice calm, and then he was sprinting away from the table. Everything seemed to go into slow motion.
Natasha had been in the act of lunging for him, and Steve grabbed her around the waist, pulling her back, his free hand snagging his shield and swinging it up in front of both of them. Thor jumped over the table, and Clint was down on one knee, staring down at Phil when Tony brought up one repulsor-covered hand, blew out the window and simply hit the shattering glass at a dead run.
He was out the window and gone when the briefcase popped open, throwing red and gold ink in all directions.
There was a moment of stillness, and then Natasha said something amazingly filthy in Russian.
Phil sighed from the floor. “This was the worst idea you've ever had, sir,” he said. He struggled up into a sitting position, and let Clint check his forehead. “It's fine. Low power rounds. He knew he had to be at point blank range to get me before any of you could take him out, so it barely stung.” He reached up to touch his forehead; his fingers came away stained with gold ink. “Lovely.”
Thor stood over the table, his blinking eyes the only part of him not covered in paint. “What has occurred here?” he asked.
Steve released Natasha and lowered his shield. “Oh, this is going to go poorly,” he sighed, glancing around. Other than a bit of red in his hair, they were clean.
There was a faint crackle, and a voice came from the ruined remains of the briefcase. “Just to review,” Tony said smoothly, “Steve rescued Natasha, and Clint went for Coulson, so they were unaffected. And because I wouldn't have put enough of a charge to bring down the building, I'm not a MONSTER, Thor will survive that direct hit. He will, however, be out of commission for at least an hour. I think we can agree that is fair. Fury, you were likely clipped down the right side, but let's pretend that you survived, because, honestly, I want you to suffer. There are not words for how I want you to suffer, so get a sling, soldier.
“Phil, buddy, sorry. But you've gotta be taken out first. There's no other way this works. I go the villain route, and I put a bullet in you. Step one of any evil plot: kill Coulson.”
“I'm flattered,” Coulson said, getting to his feet. “Thank you for sparing the suit.”
“That's what friends are for. Oh, and by the way? Jarvis, initiate Operation Crop Duster. Ciao, darlings.”
Fury stood there, paint dripping down his right arm. “I really, really hate that man.”
Iron Man appeared in the broken window. “I hate you, too.” With a blast of the repulsors, he was gone.
“HILL!” Fury roared, stomping for the door. “We need troops mobilized NOW.”
“The son-of-a-bitch planned this,” Clint said, shaking his head. “Of course he did.” His phone rang in his pocket and he pulled it out.
“Fury's been making noises about it for far too long,” Natasha pointed out, her voice pitched low. “Tony's had plenty of time to plan.”
“How far reaching are his plans?” Phil asked, rubbing the sore spot on his forehead.
“Pretty far,” Clint said. He held up his phone. “It's Logan. Apparently? A paint bomb just went off in Forge's workshop out at Xavier's.” His eyebrows arched. “Wanna bet a similar package was sitting in Reed's shop and Mr. Stretchpants is also sporting a tie-dyed uniform right about now?”
Steve was leaning out the window, the shield still held securely in one hand. “I think the odds are pretty good. I cannot believe he went out the window.”
“I can,” Clint said. “I would've gone out the window, too.”
“At least he has the armor to catch him,” Natasha said, staring down at the remains of the briefcase.
Suddenly, Thor started to laugh. “Oh, this is going to be a mighty battle,” he said, chortling.
“This,” Coulson said, staring at nothing in particular, “is going to go so badly. Thank God it's no longer my problem.”
“This job is worth it for no other reason than this cafeteria. I am not kidding. I would do unreasonable things for this organization if the agreed to continue feeding me.” Drew hunched over his bowl of miso soup, his eyes at half mast, his cheeks flushed. “Unreasonable, possibly illegal things.”
Darcy settled into her chair, setting her tray down in front of her. “We all have our breaking point,” she said. “And yours is pathetically low.”
“Says the woman who flirts with the sushi chef to get the good stuff,” Drew said. He moved his chair to the side, giving Shawn space to set his own tray down. Shawn was always late to lunch, and usually had a file folder or two under his arm. Today, he was balancing his lunch on top of a couple of binders, and it took effort for him to get everything onto the table without losing half of his soup.
“I work with what I have.” Darcy separated her chopsticks with a snap. “And what I have is fantastic.”
“What am I doing here?” Harris asked. He seemed uninterested in the answer; his focus was entirely on his sandwich. “Actually, I was here first. What are all of you doing here?”
“You, sir, are the token straight person at this table,” Drew said. He grinned at Harris. “We have to keep one around or the establishment will figure out our cunning plan.”
“We have a cunning plan?” Shawn asked. He was happily dumping chili oil into his bowl of noodles. “When do I get to find out what it is?”
“Never. You'll break under questioning.”
“Hey,” Shawn said, his brow crinkling. “I will not.”
Drew's look held a lot of pity. “Honey, all they would have to do was get your mother to ask the questions and you'd be telling them everything in, like, five minutes or less. You'd crack like an egg in a vise.”
“Well, yeah,” Shawn said. “But my mother would be a double agent, so I'm not sure-”
“Hey, wait, if Harris is the token straight, what am I? Chopped liver?” Darcy asked. She applied soy sauce with a liberal hand.
“Oh, please, you're bi if you're anything,” Drew told her. He reached across the table and snatched a piece of perfectly formed salmon sushi. He popped it in his mouth with a smirk.
“True,” Darcy said, slapping at his hand when he tried for another piece. “Try and steal my food, and I will stab you to death with your own chopstick, baby.”
“Are you really?” Shawn asked.
“Yeah,” Darcy said. She grinned around her chopsticks. “I mean, I lust after boys more, but all of my, like, long term relationships? Girls. Always girls. From the time I was in high school.” She shrugged. “It's a thing. I don't really question it any more.”
“Any prospects?” Drew asked.
“Nah, Harris won't put out,” Darcy said, because she loved the look that Harris always gave her when she said these things. It was the best mix of 'please don't involve me,' and 'you're nuts,' that she'd ever seen on a human being's face. Darcy grinned at him, unconcerned. “What? You won't. I've been working some of my best material here, and nothing. It's starting to wear on my self-esteem.”
“It's not that I don't like you,” Harris said, his lips twitching, just a tiny bit, “It's just that I suspect that if I give in to you, it will only end with me in jail, or in a mental institution, or fleeing across Antarctica pursued by rabid badgers or something,” Harris said Darcy. He turned to Drew and Shawn. “It will not end well. Please see to it that she is arrested.”
“We'll avenge you,” Drew agreed.
“Harris! I'm hurt. I am so hurt right now. You? Me? This thing between us? Over forever,” she said, one hand pressed against her chest, her most practiced sad puppy look on her face. “You are no gentleman.”
Harris wasn't impressed. “Or maybe,” he said, “you're just too much of a lady for me.”
“Oh, nice. Fine. I accept your apology.”
“And half of your chips. Y' know, as a court ordered settlement for emotional damages.” She reached for the bag, and, laughing, Harris pushed them in her direction. She took one, crunching it with gusto, and licked the salt from her fingertips. “So, anyone want to see a movie this weekend?”
“Are you inviting yourself along on our date?” Drew asked her.
“I'll bring Harris,” she said. “C'mon, he's adorable.”
“He's really not,” Harris said.
“Actually, you are.” Drew tapped a finger against his pursed lips, pretending to consider it. “Fine, I accept your offering of a cute boy.”
“I'm right here,” Shawn said, trying not to laugh. “You helpless flirt, I am RIGHT HERE.”
“What? You're invited, too,” Drew said, patting him on the shoulder.
“Imagine my relief,” Shawn said.
Darcy waited for Harris to object, but he wasn't paying attention. His head was craned up and to the side, his eyes narrowed. “Have you ever seen this many of the Roombas in one place before?” he asked.
Darcy followed his gaze. “Uh, probably?” she said, considering the little robotic vacuum cleaner as it floated past. “Oh, it's Bob! Stark must be rotating them out from the tower, I know that one.”
“You 'know' that one?” Shawn asked her. “How- What does that mean?”
“Some of them have names,” Darcy explained. Life in the Tower was weird. But mostly awesome. “And, it's hard to explain, but they've got personalities, you get used to it if you are around them enough.” She went back to her sushi. “There's a ton of them, Harris. Like, fifty of them.”
“Yeah, but I've never seen more than two or three at a time,” Harris said. He stood up, slowly, his chair scraping against the floor. “And there must be...” His head turned, and his body followed it, doing a full circle as he looked around the room. “There must be a couple of dozen in here. Why are there so many Roombas in here right now?”
Darcy glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see a couple of field agents duck out of the way of a Roomba. They sidestepped another, their conversation never even skipping a beat. “Dunno,” she said, before popping another piece of sushi into her mouth. The burn of wasabi brought tears to her eyes, and she fanned her fingers in front of her mouth. “Maybe they're interested in the daily special.”
“The thing is,” Harris said, his voice distant, as if he wasn't really talking to them any more, “their network doesn't need proximity to function, and the building's so big that they end up pretty spread out, by necessity. They don't show up in numbers and yet they are, right now there are way too many Roombas in this room, and they are forming a grid.”
“What?” Shawn asked.
Harris twisted around. “They're forming a grid. Get down.”
“What?” Drew said.
“GET UNDER COVER RIGHT NOW,” Harris yelled at the top of his lungs and everyone in the crowded cafeteria came to a dead stop, heads swiveling in his direction.
Darcy stared at him, her mouth hanging open, a piece of California roll slipping from between her chopsticks. “Have you completely lost it?” she asked, just a moment before Harris wrapped an arm around her shoulders and dragged her off of her chair. She managed a choked off shriek of shock, and then she was flat on her back on the floor, under the table, Harris's body leaning over her.
There was a moment of silence, a single beat and Darcy used it to come up with ten thousand ways that she would kill Harris and make it painful, and then someone was laughing. It wasn't much, a little giggle, but it was like being in High School all over again, and Darcy had HATED high school, really. She hated high school, she hated this, and at that moment, she hated Harris, his hand holding something over her mouth and nose with a firm hand. It was a shirt, she realized, it was his shirt, and it smelled really good. She struggled, trying to kick him or punch him or do anything, and there was a strange, sustained 'pfffffffft' noise.
Then the screaming started.
Darcy froze, and Harris hunched over her, holding her still. Next to her, she realized that Drew and Shawn were under the table, too. “Holy fuck,” Drew said.
“Cover your mouth,” Harris snapped, and Shawn dragged Drew's shirt up over the lower part of his face.
It was over almost as soon as it began, and outside of the table, there was chaos, but Harris pushed away from Darcy, slipping towards the edge of the table. Darcy turned her head, and all she could see were tumbled chairs and legs splattered with red. She made a desperate grab for Harris. “Oh my God,” she choked out. “Oh, my God, oh my GOD.”
His hand covered hers, his fingers squeezing. “It's not blood,” he said. “If it was blood, we'd be able to smell it.”
“NOT HELPING,” Shawn said, and Harris gave them all a reassuring sort of smile.
“Just... Give me a second.” He reached out, his fingers slipping through the shiny red substance that covered the floor. His fingers rubbed together. “It's... Paint.”
With that, he scrambled out from under the cafeteria table. Darcy was right on his heels, her fingers and her knees slipping on the tacky substance that was now on everything. It covered chairs and tables and and the floors and walls and the CEILINGS. SHIELD agents were standing around, coated in red and gold splotches of ink, blinking owlishly and stupidly through their brand new paint jobs.
A Roomba buzzed past, and Darcy choked on a scream.
“Holy fuck,” Drew said, and Darcy glanced back to find him peering over the edge of the table, his eyes huge. For some reason, the view of his wide, shocked eyes and flame tipped, spiked hair peeping over the red-stained tabletop struck her as incredibly funny.
Judging by the look that Harris gave her, her giggling might have sounded hysterical.
“What just happened?” Drew asked.
“I have no idea,” Harris said, and the words were barely out of his mouth before an alarm started going off.
“All personnel, this is a containment drill.” Assistant Director Hill's voice was clipped and calm over the speaker system. “Target is Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. Repeat, this is a drill, only a drill, use of force is not approved. Report to emergency stations for further instructions and to be issued non-lethal weaponry.”
“Well, fuck,” Harris said as the cafeteria doors opened and a few agents came hustling in.
“Do we have emergency stations?” Darcy asked. “Aren't our 'emergency stations' somewhere outside of this building, like as far away from this building as we can get?”
“I think we're supposed to evacuate, yes,” Shawn said.
“Let's do that. Let's do that, right now,” Harris said.
“You four!” Agent Sitwell cut through the crowd, heading straight for them. “You clean?” he asked, eyes darting over each of them in turn.
“Depends on who you ask,” Drew said.
“Yes,” Harris said before Drew could get another word out. “We didn't get hit.”
Sitwell frowned at them, but he pointed at the far door. “That way. You're still in play, we need all the hands we can get at this point.”
“What does that mean?” Darcy asked, even as they started moving.
“The paint,” he told her. “Everyone that was hit is out of the training exercise.”
“Who gets the dry cleaning bill?” Darcy asked. “Because I don't know if you noticed, but, wow. This is going to be a hell of a cleaning bill.”
“We're sending that to Stark.” Sitwell was moving fast now, eyes narrowed. “The Roombas hit three places. Cafeteria, the gun range, and the gym. Since it was lunchtime, almost everyone was hit at the same time.” He sounded like he was grinding his teeth down to nothing. “Stark took out about two thirds of active duty SHIELD personnel in a matter of minutes.”
“So we're fucked,” Darcy said.
“Not quite yet, Ms. Lewis.” At the door, Sitwell put his hand on the panel, keeping them there. “How did you avoid getting hit?”
“We went under the table,” Drew said.
There was a moment of silence. “Why.”
“Harris' fault,” Darcy said, pointing at him. Sitwell turned his basilisk gaze on Harris.
“Listen, Coulson said two things at our hiring,” Harris said. “One, not to order the egg salad. Two, not to trust the Roombas.” He paused, pursed his lips. “I did not listen to him about the egg salad. That, that was a mistake. Huge mistake right there. I regretted that.” His shoulders rose and fell in a half shrug. “So, I figured if he was right about that, he was probably right about the Roombas, too.”
Sitwell stared at him. “Okay,” he said at last. “Upstairs. Now.”
“I would like to opt out of this particular exercise, in that Tony will somehow make me regret being in this building at some point, and it will probably be sooner rather than later-” Harris started, but the agent was already gone, halfway across the room, clearing out the people who were still lingering. “I hate everything,” he said, resigned, and shoved through the door.
“Did you really think the Roombas were going to KILL us?” Shawn asked, close on his heels.
Harris' cheeks were flushed as he shoved a hand through his hair. “Look, you spend eighteen months being an involuntary evil minion, you kind of develop reflexes. It's a side effect of the fact that your employers are, in fact, open to the possibility of killing you.”
“Sad, but true,” Drew said.
Harris' eyebrows arched. “Why did you listen to me?”
“I thought you were nuts and was dragged under the table by this one,” Drew said. He tipped his head in Shawn's direction, his eyelashes fluttering. “My hero.”
“So why did you listen to him?” Darcy asked Shawn.
“I'm of a nervous disposition,” Shawn said. “And when someone starts screaming that I should get to cover, I tend to do it.” He gave Harris a faint smile. “A side effect of being gay and, well, not white, I guess.”
“And that fucking sucks,” Harris said.
“It really does,” Shawn agreed.
As they started up the emergency stairs, Darcy grabbed Harris' arm. “How, exactly, did you end up in a Hydra facility in the back end of no where?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.
Harris considered that. “Bad choices, bad luck, and a really bad job market,” he said at last, a faint smile creasing his lips. He shrugged again. “It's complicated?”
Darcy stared at him. “I will break you one of these days, Harrison MacIntyre. I will crack you like a delicate little egg.”
“It's comments like that that make me wary about your intentions, you realize that, right?”
“It's totally fine, we can have sex first.”
“What is WRONG with you, Darcy?” he asked, but he was laughing, so Darcy just put her hands on the small of his back and pushed him up the stairs.
“Wanna find out? Buy me dinner first.”
“I'd offer lunch but our cafeteria has apparently been transformed into a biohazard, so...”
“That's okay, I'm flexible. We can wait until they evacuate the 'bodies.'”
“This is going to end so, so badly.”
"This exercise, or this relationship?"
"We don't have a relationship."
"Whose fault is that?"
"So, so badly."
“Take a pistol,” Clint said. “We need shooters.”
“That's a really bad idea,” Darcy told him. “Honestly. I am the usually the first one to be eager for action, Barton, you know this. But honestly. Bad idea.”
“Oh, think I'm not aware of that?” Clint asked, and he pointed across the range. “Get a rifle, Andy Oakley, you can actually shoot.”
Drew snapped a salute, his eyes dancing. “I do so love shooting things,” he chirped, before bouncing away, humming.
“Was that 'Can't Get a Man With a Gun?'” Darcy asked Shawn.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it was.”
“Somehow not surprised.”
Harris took the paintball pistol that Clint handed him, his expression resigned. “I'm guessing you're rather short on manpower,” he said, and Clint's look could've stripped paint from metal.
“I am giving Darcy a weapon. Voluntarially,” he pointed out. He shifted his weight, his quiver bumping against his hip. “I am giving Darcy a weapon in a game that I'm participating in. That should give you a hint as to just how desperate we are right now.”
“Screw you, birdbrain,” Darcy said, her eyes narrowed. “I- Screw you.”
Clint grinned at her. “We need cannon fodder.” His hand clapped on her shoulder. “And despite the stupid shit you've pulled, Stark has proven resistant to having you killed.”
“He threatens. A lot,” Darcy pointed out. Clint handed a pistol to Shawn, who immediately started checking it over, his dark brows drawn down over his eyes.
“And he hasn't followed through!” Clint spread his hands. “You stand an excellent chance of making it through this!”
Darcy snatched the pistol out of his hand. “I hate you.”
“Love you, too, Darce. Try not to shoot yourself in the foot.”
“Very helpful,” Natasha said, walking up behind him. “Do not shoot Clint, Darcy.”
“Why not?” Darcy asked, her eyes still narrowed.
“Because we need him.”
“Feeling the love here, Romanov,” Clint told her.
“What about when we don't need him any more? Then can I shoot him?” Darcy asked.
“The thing about Clint,” Natasha said, “is that just when you think he's outlived his usefulness, he finds some new way to amuse you.”
“I am good like that,” Clint agreed. He gave Natasha a smarmy grin. “You love me.”
Natasha gave him a look. “Not at all.”
“Okay, ladies and gents,” Hill said as she swept into the room, “we don't have much time. Gather around for a thirty second briefing, because Stark is moving through the building, and he's moving fast. We've called in all off-duty personnel, but we need boots on the floor, now.”
Darcy let Shawn nudge her forward. “We are going to get shot,” she said in an undertone.
“Probably.” He grinned, his face open and cheerful. “Maybe it'll be soon and we can take the rest of the day off.”
“Maybe it'll be soon and we'll spend the rest of the day scrubbing fish oil based paints off of every wall in this building,” Harris said.
“Ray of sunshine, aren't you?” Darcy grumbled under her breath.
“Realist,” he said. Darcy opened her mouth to say something else, and she didn't even know what, but Harris glanced at her. “But our best best is to actually listen to this.”
“You just have to get the last word, don't you?”
“I honestly think I'll leave that for Agent Hill.”
“So this is the best plan that SHIELD could come up with?” Darcy whispered.
“Apparently so.” Harris paused at the corner, his back up against the wall, his weapon at the ready.
“No, seriously, this is the best they can come up with?” Darcy asked. “We have one of the smartest men in the world flying around this building, picking people off at will, and their plan is, use the interns as bait to draw him out.”
“Well, they need data on where he is, and it's not like they could use the actual plan.”
“Is there an actual plan?”
“I'm told there is,” Harris said. He crouched down, staying low as he looked around the corner. “But I don't know what it is. They think I'll tell Tony.”
Darcy frowned. “Would you?”
Harris glanced at her. “Do you really think that if Stark turns on this place, than being with SHIELD is the winning side? Really?”
She paused. “No. Not at all.”
“Yeah. That's why I can't see the plan.” Harris straightened up. “And that's why we're the bait.”
Darcy's earpiece chirped, and Hill's voice came through. “We have movement on the thirty-second floor, please-” The words died out in a burst of static, making Darcy jump.
“What the fuck?” She pulled it out, and gave it a shake. “What was that all about?”
“I think that our communications being jammed,” Harris said, already moving. “Go left, stay low, be careful, he's somewhere here!”
“Wait, I don't-”
But Harris was already gone. Darcy's mouth hung over. “The bastard ditched me,” she muttered, jamming her earpiece back in. “Also, he can move fast when he wants to. I mean, I figured that he could-”
“Coming through, Lewis, get out of the way, would you? That's a girl.”
Iron Man shot around the corner with a sudden roar of repulsors, and Darcy bit back a shriek, her teeth clamping down on the sound as he shot past, so close that her vision was red and gold for a second, the glint of metal flashing past, and then he was gone again. Darcy's finger tightened on the trigger, and the paintball thudded harmlessly into the far wall.
“Lewis?” Hill's voice in her earpiece made her jump. “Report.”
Darcy stared at the blue bloom of paint, and cleared her throat. “Just missed him,” she said, and hey, her voice barely shook at all, that was probably a good sign. Also she wasn't screaming, that was an excellent sign. Her eyes slid from one side to the other, and the hallway was empty. She brought the pistol up and shot the SHIELD logo at the end of the hall.
She scored a direct hit on the eagle's head, and immediately felt better.
She shrieked and managed not to drop her gun or shoot herself in the face. She whirled around and aimed a punch at Clint's shoulder. “What is wrong with you?” she said. “What is- I could've SHOT you!”
“I was six inches away, I'm pretty sure you would've missed, if you'd tried,” Clint said, and she hit him again, just because he was a jerk. He didn't seem to notice.
“I will have you know that I'm very effective in certain situations,” she said.
“I'm sure. Moving in,” he said, his fingers against the earpiece. He glanced at Darcy. “Did he hit you?”
Clint shook his head. “Did you get hit?”
“Oh! No. He didn't even shoot at me.” Which she kind of resented. It's not that she wanted to be shot. That stuff smelled horrible. And she was pretty sure that getting hit with a paint ball hurt, and she was not a fan of pain. But still. Seemed like she wasn't being taken seriously, and if there was anything that pissed Darcy off, it was not being taken seriously.
Except, of course, when she could make that work in her favor.
Clint appeared at the far end of the hallway, his eyes cutting in their direction for a split second. “Let's go, he's moving fast.” Without waiting for them to respond to that, Clint headed up the hall, moving in the same direction that Tony had. He had his bow on one shoulder and his quiver against his hip.
Darcy, hustling to keep up with Clint's longer strides, glanced at it. The neat, precise rows of arrows didn't look like paint loads. “Uh, is that weapon approved for this particular scuffle?” she asked.
“Keep both hands on your weapon, and if you shoot me in the back, I will never let you live it down,” Clint said. “And if Tony thinks I am going to use a paintball gun, he's crazy.” He drew an arrow, the movement smooth and fluid, the muscles in his shoulders and arms flexing as he set it to the bowstring. Darcy enjoyed the show, smiling to herself. Clint's feet slid over the floor, light and soundless. “Both hands. Pistol.”
“I am, I am,” Darcy said, and yes. She was. Now.
“Right,” Clint said. He sounded amused. “Let's go. They're closing off his lines of retreat, and they think that he's making a play for Fury's office. Let's go greet him, shall we?”
“Oh, this is going to go well,” Darcy said, on a faint sigh.
“This is not going to work,” Drew said.
“It could,” Darcy hissed. “It could work. I mean, I think it would have a better chance of working if Thor or Cap were here, but we've got Nat and Clint, and I need you to stop being so damn pessimistic, Drew. In that it is seriously freaking me out.”
He gave her a look. “It is not going to work,” he told her, but he moved forward anyway when the SHIELD squadron leader gestured. His posture was better than most people's, but most of the people in their group were support staffers.
Darcy was really disliking the phrase 'cannon fodder' right about now.
The massive hallway, the last, imposing space en route to Nick Fury's office was now lined with most of SHIELD's remaining agents, taking what cover they could construct and hold, and Darcy hated being in the middle of the damn room, clutching a little paint ball pistol, because she was pretty sure that she wasn't going to die here but if she did she was going to haunt someone forever. Probably Clint.
“Hold your positions,” Hill's voice came over the earpiece. “He's heading straight for you.”
“Goody,” Darcy said, and then twitched as the floor shook under her feet. “I think he's coming through the walls, did they consider that?”
“I think he just took out a door or something,” Shawn said. He gave Drew a tight smile before adjusting his head gear. “And you're supposed to be with the shooters.”
“I don't trust them. Gonna stay here and die a hero's death.” Drew set his rifle against his shoulder. “Time to hold the line, I guess.”
“You guess, that's what you-” Darcy stopped, her head going around. “Hey, wait, where's-”
Then the doors at the end of the hallway blew off, and Iron Man came in, so hard and so fast that Darcy was actually lifted off her feet, landing hard on her ass as he buzzed past them.
The arrow arched, a perfect shot that caught Tony on the side of the throat and exploded with a crackling whine. For an instant, Tony seemed to hang in mid-air, momentum carrying him forward as the repulsors sorted out, and legs flailing, he crashed to the ground. The EMP was still sparking as he hit, but the armor was a dead weight now. It rolled down the hall, tearing a massive furrow in the carpet before crashing into the wall.
He hit so hard that the floor seemed to shake under Darcy's butt. “Holy shit,” she said, and luckily, everyone else was moving forward, charging forward, shooting as they went. Darcy watched, her mouth hanging open, as the agents moved in a tightly controlled phalanx, almost shoulder to shoulder as they advanced. The armor was almost completely obscured by blue and black paint in a matter of seconds.
And then everyone stopped, just stopped, and for an instant, there was stillness.
Natasha's voice snapped over the earpiece, making Darcy jump. “No!” she yelled, just as the chestplate popped open.
Paint sprayed in all directions, sending SHIELD agents stumbling back into the walls and crashing to the floor. The whole thing was over so fast that Darcy didn't even have time to move. In a matter of seconds, every SHIELD agent who'd charged the suit was splattered in paint.
Because there was no one inside that chestplate.
“Is it empty?” Darcy asked, to no one in particular. “Is that armor fucking empty? Have we been chasing an empty suit of armor around the building like a bunch of idiots?”
“It would appear so,” Natasha said, striding in, Clint right on her heels. She sounded amused by that. Darcy resisted the urge to scream.
“What was that?” Shawn said from behind her, and Darcy was going to put bells on all of her friends, she was, she was going to put little collars on them, and little bells, and then they would stop sneaking up on her.
“I have no idea,” she gritted out, pushing herself up. Shawn held out a hand and she took it. “Except, you know, looks like he's not in the armor. Which is a problem. Because why wasn't he in the damn armor?” Her voice had risen to a dangerous pitch. “And where is he?”
“That would be the million dollar question, isn't it?” Tony's voice, from the armor's speakers, was amused. “Think of it like a shell game. There's... Huh. Six suits of armor flying around in there now.”
“No, there aren't,” Natasha said.
“Well, there WASN'T, Agent Know-It-All. Until you dropped this one. Now? There most certainly are.”
Natasha's eyes squeezed shut. “Hill?” she asked.
“Multiple target signatures, half just entered the building from outside, and half were in the building when they entered the grid.” Hill sounded so mad that the words were just hisses of air in Darcy's ear. She flinched.
“Time to play 'Guess which suit I'm wearing now,'” Tony said. “Jarvis, let's give them some ponderin' music.”
The Jeopardy! Theme music came booming over the building's loudspeakers, and Darcy wondered if this was what hell was like. She was pretty sure it was.
“Great,” Clint muttered. “He's got these things on remote control now.” He leaned over and wrenched his arrow free of the armor's plating.
It came free with a screech of metal on metal, and the visor popped open. The spray of paint was almost anti-climactic.
“See, here's the thing,” Tony's breezy voice said. “You're really predictable, Clint. You can't leave your ammunition behind. You just can't do it. You always retrieve every single one of those shafts. And Nat is always right behind you, watching your back.”
Clint blinked, his eyes white in the spray of gold paint. Behind him, Natasha heaved a sigh, slipping her pistols back into their holsters. Her black uniform was dotted with gold paint, glittering like sequins in the office lights. “You son-of-a-bitch,” she said, without any heat. There was the faintest smile playing around her mouth, a faint echo of amusement.
Clint started swearing in languages that Darcy couldn't even identify, but she knew swear words when she heard them. And those were some pretty awesome swear words.
The speaker in the armor laughed. “And then there were two.”
Nat and Clint exchanged glances. Without even looking, Clint pulled an arrow from his quiver and shot it, point blank range, into the suit. The EMP pulse made the armor twitch, death throes that rattled the arms and legs against the carpet.
“I really, really hate that guy,” Clint said, scraping paint off of his face.
“I don't know,” Natasha said. A flicker of red paint traced the curve of her cheek, and she grinned, a macabre flash of teeth. “I'm gaining a new appreciation for his tactics.” She turned on her heel, heading up the hallway. “I think I'm going to enjoy watching this.”
“Question,” Darcy said, drawing everyone's attention. She raised a hand. “Has anyone seen Harris?”