Bramp. Bramp. Bramp.
“Wha — buh — ‘mup. I’m up!” Darcy swatted at her phone, but the blaring didn’t stop.
Then a vaguely-Welsh voice said, “All personnel please report to emergency stations,” and she woke up for real. That wasn’t her alarm clock, that was the emergency siren. The Tower was under attack. She stumbled to her feet and headed for the door.
After a few steps she paused, looked down, and backtracked to put on a shirt. Then she grabbed her glasses and taser. Then she headed for the door.
It had been made very clear to her on numerous occasions that as a noncombatant, her emergency station was the nearest panic room. She was to go straight there, do not pass Go, do not tase anyone even if they deserve it. Honestly, at this hour of the night she didn’t even want to disobey that order. She lurched down the hall and into the broom closet. Buckets clattered to the ground, and one of the brooms tried to brain her. She gave it a suspicious glare. Broom supervillains were not outside the realm of Weird Shit That Attacks the Avengers.
There was a muffled boom somewhere above her. Thunder, repulsors, or the Hulk merrily a-smashin’? She didn’t know, but it made her forget the broom. She hurried to the back of the closet and punched a code on the keypad hidden behind the roach spray. The light flashed green. After a second, a reinforced titanium door swung open from what looked like an empty wall, and she hustled inside.
And found herself face-to-face with the point of a knife.
She froze, unable to take her eyes off the shiny edge long enough to get a look at the person holding it. Not that it mattered. Could be pretty much anyone around here. As usual when faced with certain death, her mouth went on autopilot. “Um. Hi? Is this panic room full? ‘Cause I really don’t want to go to the one in the men’s bathroom on 43. It’s two floors down and it smells like urinal cakes.”
“Sounds awful,” the person holding the knife said. His voice was unfamiliar: low, a little gravelly, but in a pleasant way. He didn’t sound like he wanted to stab her.
There was another boom. A gentle shower of dust pattered down from the shelves. She winced and tried not to squeak. The guy in front of her sighed, and the knife disappeared. She breathed out, then caught her breath again as something else metal went past her head. The keypad beeped and she heard a hiss as the door sealed itself behind her, locking her in with…
She looked up. Then further up.
Dude was tall, dark-haired, and built like whoa. And Darcy knew what she was talking about: she lived in a Tower full of literal gods and supermen. She’d seen Thor with his shirt off and Captain America in his underoos (some kind of clothes-melting alien slime, don’t ask, it was a weird night). This guy? Easily top five on her list of “Bodies To Die For (Hopefully Not Literally).” Top two if you limited the field to humans.
Although … could you, though? Because he reached up to push a strand of hair out of his eyes, and she realized the metal thing was his hand. He was wearing a black tank top, and she could see that the metal went all the way up to wrap around his shoulder. Were cyborgs fully human?
Was that an offensive question? It felt offensive. She decided not to ask.
He shifted, and the grey sweatpants he was wearing tightened across his thighs. If she looked a little closer, she could probably see … NO.
She bit her lip and jerked her gaze back up to his face, where a pair of ice-blue eyes were watching her with the amused detachment of a cat trying to decide if the small furry thing in front of it was breakfast or a toy. He had a longish, floppy hipster haircut, a dimple in his chin, and a set of cheekbones you could cut yourself on. “Sorry,” he said in that husky voice. “Didn’t mean to scare ya. I just wasn’t expectin’ company.”
“Me either,” Darcy said. She shrugged, and felt a hint of smugness as his eyes traced a similar path to the one hers had taken. Two could play the thin-tank-top game. Especially if those two had both been yanked out of bed at stupid-o’-clock in the morning. “Don’t worry about it,” she added, “if it had been the other way around I’d have tased you, so …”
“ ’Zat so?” His eyes crinkled at the edges like he was trying not to smile.
She made a little face, but nodded. “Kinda notorious for it. I’m Darcy.” She held out a hand.
He flinched back when she moved. It was a tiny motion — if she hadn’t been living around spies and superheroes for so long, she’d wouldn’t have seen it — but it confirmed what she’d already suspected. He wasn’t aggressive, just paranoid.
In her pocket, her other hand relaxed its grip on the taser.
He opened his mouth, then paused for a fraction of a second. Again, not something most people would have caught. “James,” he said firmly, and shook her hand. Lying, her inner Lying Cat reported. Still, so what? He was probably one of Natasha’s spy buddies. Those dudes lied like it was an Olympic sport. Meanwhile, her hand tingled a little when their palms met. She felt a tiny flush creeping up her neck, and his eyes held hers like a searchlight. “ ’S a pleasure,” he purred.
Her stomach lurched. Ooooh, he’s good. Definitely one of Nat’s friends. She shifted her weight onto one hip and crossed her arms under her breasts just to even things out. “So can I come in or what?” she asked as his eyes unfocused.
“Huh — oh.” He coughed a little. “Course.” He stepped aside and she saw with envy that he’d had the presence of mind to grab a blanket and pillow on his way out the door. That was hella smart. The panic room had a kind of padded shelf thingy on one side, but she knew from sad experience that it wasn’t very comfy.
“Welp,” she said, and commandeered one corner of his blanket, which made the eye crinkles appear again. “Looks like we’re stuck here for a while.”
“Looks like,” he agreed, settling at the other end of the blanket. She couldn’t help but notice that put his back to the corner so he could see the whole room. The exciting view included a bunch of bare concrete, a sink, a miserable little toilet cubicle with a broken lock, and her. The pillow was at his end too, but he picked it up and offered it to her.
She took it, feeling weirdly touched, and settled it between her back and the wall. “What a gentleman.”
He looked surprised for a moment, then his mouth curved up into like, five percent of a smile. “Ain’t been called that in a while,” he rumbled.
She bit down on the urge to ask what he had been called. The way he was sitting pulled the tank top tight, and then there were the thighs and … long story short, she could think of a few things. Most of them started with ‘oh.’
“Any chance of you goin’ back to sleep?” he asked, and she forced her mind back out of the gutter.
“I —“ she said, and had to clear her throat. “I don’t think so.” Another boom echoed overhead, and she flinched. It wasn’t the noise, it was the thought of one or more of her friends at the other end of the noise. “Yeah, no, not a chance. I don’t suppose you brought a book to read.”
He shook his head, making his hair flop into his eyes again. “Sorry.” The look he shot her through the strands seemed almost shy. “I got a pack of cards, though. I play — I was gonna play solitaire.”
“James, you are a man of many layers,” she said, waving her arms in an expansive gesture because it was 3 a.m. and she could.
He snorted. “More than you know, doll,” he muttered.
“What?” She’d heard, she just didn’t get what that meant.
“Nothin’.” He pulled a pack of beat-up cards out of what seemed like thin air — maybe the same pocket dimension he was keeping the knife in — and started to shuffle them. She wasn’t sure if the soft whirring noise she heard was the cards, or his hand. “What do you want to play?”
She shrugged and turned to face him, twisting the blanket underneath her. “Poker?”
His eyes had been fixed on his hands, but they flicked up at that. They looked her over from the top of her messy ponytail to the bottom of her bare feet. She became suddenly aware that she was wearing a paper-thin tank top and a pair of My Little Pony sleep shorts, and … that was it. His mouth quirked up, and oh, that wasn’t even a smile, that was a smirk. She felt herself flush. “Strip poker?” he suggested.
“Yeah, right,” she snorted, trying to pretend the idea wasn’t making her pulse pound in very interesting places. “We’re both in pajamas. That’ll be over in like five minutes.”
His eyebrows rose. “And that’s bad because …”
Whoa. Hey. Wow. That was not helping the pulse situation. She wiggled a little, trying to relieve the pressure, then stopped when she realized it was doing the exact opposite. “Look,” she said to herself as much as him, “I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions, and I’m not even including the time I tased Thor or that thing with the alien spaceship and the tequila. But,” she added hastily as she saw his mouth open to ask a question, “my point is, getting naked in a panic room with an armed stranger I just met five minutes ago is not going to be one of them.”
He shrugged. If he was disappointed, she couldn’t tell. “Fair enough.”
“How about Go Fish?” she said, to gloss over the awkwardness and the way her libido was screaming at her. Why was the responsible decision always the one that was no fun…
The smirk flashed again. “Strip Go Fish?” he suggested with a mock-hopeful expression.
She grabbed the pillow and threatened to hit him with it, and he laughed out loud. It was an awesome, husky chuckle that made her want to say Yes, yes, forget the ‘Go Fish’ part, let’s just play ‘strip.’ But instead she swallowed hard and took the cards he dealt her.
“So what do you do around here?” he asked, using his left hand to rearrange the cards in his right.
She was so mesmerized watching the articulation of his fingers that it took her a second to realize he’d been talking. “I — huh?” She blinked, saw his carefully blank expression, and grimaced. “Sorry. My bad. I just think your hand is super neat. I didn’t know we had the technology for that level of articulation. Ton — Iron Man doesn’t have anything even close.” She coughed a little. “I mean, from what I’ve seen. On the news.”
“You think it’s … neat,” he repeated, his voice as blank as his face. Then his eyes crinkled a little and she breathed out. “I didn’t know people used that word anymore.”
She finished arranging her own cards and laid them face-down so she could give him double finger guns. “I’m bringin’ it back.”
The crinkles deepened. Ooh, that was at least 10% of a smile, and they weren’t even talking about getting naked. She felt accomplished. “Sure you are. Got any fives?”
“Go fish,” she said, and stuck her tongue out at him.
The smile went up to 12%, which added a few more crinkles. Mmm, she did love a good eye crinkle. He drew a card, nodded, and laid down a pair of sevens. “You still ain’t answered my question.”
“What was it again?” She blinked and forced herself to focus on his face instead of his hands. Not that that helped much. “Oh — what do I do? Lab assistant. Pretty boring. It’s mostly data entry.” That was about as much as she was cleared to tell, but people didn’t usually ask questions anyway. Especially when she busted out that offhanded, indifferent tone of voice.
“Hmm,” he said, and she thought she caught a sharp glance from those icy eyes. “If you don’t mind me askin’, what’s a lab assistant doin’ here at three in the morning? In …” His eyes traced her body again, and she prepared to smack him down, but all he said was, “…pajamas.”
She flashed him a sharp fuck-off grin. “Either I live here or I’m participating in the weekly Avengers orgy. Take your pick. Got any threes?”
He extended a card, but didn’t let go of it right away when she pulled. “Weekly, huh? Wouldn’ta thought they’d have the time.”
“Everybody makes the time for a good orgy,” she said. This conversational thread was … not helping with the whole ‘keep your mouth off of his mouth’ situation, but at least he wasn’t asking about things she couldn’t talk about. She gave herself a mental high five for applying Natasha’s lessons on deflection.
His expression of amusement was deepening by the second. “Eights?” he said without looking at his hand, then added, “You always wear My Little Pony shorts to an orgy?”
She was not going to blush. Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash were nothing to be ashamed of. “My corset was in the wash,” she deadpanned, and handed him a card.
He dropped his eyes to the blanket as he laid down the pair, then looked up at her through his eyelashes and made a little tsk sound. “My lucky day.”
She blinked, stunned half by the panty-melting look and half by the words. “Sorry, did you say your lucky day?”
He leaned forward slowly, telegraphing his movements so she could easily stop him if she wanted to. When she didn’t, he used his right hand to flick the hem of her shorts. She could tell he was being very careful not to touch her skin. “They’re cute,” he said simply, and went back to his cards while she tried to pick her jaw up off the floor. “Got any fours?”
“Go fish,” she said weakly. “What …” Her voice caught in her throat a little, and she coughed and tried again. He didn’t look at her, but she could see the edge of a smirk hovering around his mouth. “What do you do around here when you’re not hitting on girls in panic rooms?”
“Not much,” he said. His voice was casual — too casual, there was obviously a story there. “You could say I’m on sabbatical.”
She noticed he’d said that she could say that, not that it was true. Also, he didn’t specify what he was on sabbatical from exactly. So it was probably about as true as her saying her job was data entry when she actually kicked it with the Avengers and ran the lab for the future Queen of Asgard. Data entry was involved … sometimes.
Well, that was fair enough. He was probably a SHIELD agent who hadn’t been cleared for active duty yet. Maybe the arm was new and they needed to get him used to it -- although he certainly didn’t act like he needed any practice. He used it as often and with as much precision as the other one.
Not that she was watching how he used his hands. That would be inappropriate -- hot, but inappropriate. It was just that hypothetically, if she had been watching, she might have noticed that he definitely had a lot of ... dexterity. But she hadn't, because she wasn't.
But he did.
“Sabbatical sounds like a blast,” she said in a tone of complete disinterest, because she understood about clearance and secrets. “Got any twos?”
“Go fish,” he said in the same tone.
She did, and laid down a pair of tens. “So … read any good books lately?”
He gave an amused snort. “Really? We’re goin’ from orgy fashion to small talk? Okay, sure. I just reread The Brothers Karamazov. You?”
“Oh my god, why?” she said. “Russian literature for fun, jeez, no wonder you’re all …” She waved a hand at him, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Charming?” he suggested. “Intelligent? Capable of stamina and a long attention span?”
Dammit, she was blushing again. “Gothy and monochrome,” she countered, laughing a little. “You ass. And for your information, the last book I read was Design Patterns in Object-Oriented Software, so there.”
“For real? For fun?” She nodded, and he grinned. “Okay, doll, you win. You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. Got any sixes?”
She dug one out and handed it over. “Got any grapes?” She snickered at her own joke.
He blinked. “What?”
“Oh! You haven’t heard this one?” She dropped her cards and sat up straight, leaning in a little. He did the same. He didn’t even try to hide the glance he shot at her cleavage, and she didn’t try to hide her answering smile. “Up here, buddy, this is a great joke and you don’t want to miss it.”
“Sorry, doll,” he said, eyes wide with what was probably supposed to be penitence. It wasn’t convincing at all, and the little smile playing at the corners of his mouth didn’t help. “I’m listenin’.”
She gave him a raised eyebrow of disbelief, but let it pass. “Okay, so a duck walks into a convenience store and he asks the guy behind the counter, ‘Got any grapes?’ ” She made the duck’s voice nasal and irritating. Kinda like that one grad student of Jane’s. “The guy says ‘No, we don’t sell grapes, now get out of here!’ ”
“Man, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that when I was a kid,” James muttered.
She grinned at him but didn’t let it disrupt her flow. “About an hour later, the duck comes back. ‘Got any grapes?’ And again the guy says ‘No, I already told you, we don’t sell grapes. Get out and don’t come back!’ ” She looked at her audience and grinned even wider. He was hooked, she could tell: leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, chin resting on his metal palm. “But sure enough, an hour later, the duck comes back.”
“Got any grapes?” he said before she could, imitating the tone perfectly.
“Shh, don’t spoil it!” She tapped him lightly with the pillow. He grabbed it and they had a brief tug-of-war. He won, of course, and settled in again clutching it to his chest. “But yes, that’s what he says. And this time the guy’s completely had it, so he says, ‘Listen you little jerk, if you come in here asking for grapes one more time, I’m going to nail your feet to the floor!’ ”
He gasped, hand over his mouth in exaggerated shock.
She nodded. “The duck leaves,” she said gravely. “But an hour later, he’s back. Before the guy can kick him out, he says, ‘Got any nails?’ And the guy loses his mind and yells, ‘No, goddammit, we don’t sell nails either!’ So the duck says …” She turned her head to one side like a bird and leaned in until they were almost nose-to-nose. “Got any grapes?”
James tipped his head back and shouted with laughter. She laughed with him, delighted to get to share her favorite joke with a new victim — uh, audience.
“Got any nails,” he said at last, wiping his eyes. “Oh my god, that sounds just like this pal of mine. Such a pain in the ass, you got no idea.”
“That’s pretty much all of my friends,” she agreed. “And me, not gonna lie.”
“You know, I suspected that about you,” he said, grinning at her. Their eyes caught, and she realized that she was still leaning in just inches away from him. The laughter in his eyes faded into a very different kind of sparkle. “So …” he said, and she was pretty sure his voice had gotten rougher. “What do you want to do now?”
She glanced down at the cards, then back at him, and shrugged. What the hell, he’s smoking hot and I’m bored with cards anyway. “Wanna make out?”
His breath hitched and his eyes dilated, so she was pretty sure the answer was yes, but he didn’t move. “I thought you weren’t gonna get naked with an armed stranger you just met five minutes ago,” he said.
She rolled her eyes and held up one finger. “One, we don’t have to get naked. And two,” a second finger, “it’s totally been at least half an hour.”
His mouth curled into that smirk again. “Oh, well in that case,” he said, tossed the pillow aside, and leaned in the last inch to bring his mouth to hers.
Her last coherent thought was Oh hell yeah.
His lips were soft and warm, the pressure firm, movement just right. She darted out her tongue, and he groaned and opened his mouth. He tasted like cinnamon candies. She made a happy mmm noise and wriggled closer.
There was a whirring sound, and the next thing she knew, she was seated firmly in his lap with his metal arm wrapped around her waist and the fingers of his other hand buried in her hair. She ran her hands up his back and felt him shudder. His fingers slid over the curve of her waist and dug into her hip. She arched back, gasping for air, and gasped again when his mouth found the sensitive spot under her ear.
“Shirt,” she managed to mutter, sliding her hands up under the hem. Her fingers bumped across his abs. He gave a gasp of his own when she scratched lightly with her nails, then leaned back obediently so she could peel it off over his head. She made another of those happy humming sounds, then paused, looking at the scar tissue on his shoulder and chest.
“’S okay,” he muttered, reaching for the shirt again. “You don’t hafta —”
“Don’t you dare,” she said, putting her hand over his. “I was just gonna ask if it’s okay to touch. Is it sensitive?”
For an instant, the look in his eyes was pure awe. “Not, uh … not really?” He reached across and rubbed at it himself. “Not a lot of feeling right there, but it doesn’t hurt or nothin’. You can touch it if …” He swallowed. “If you want to.” The words were casual, but his expression was raw, vulnerable, like nothing she’d ever seen on a spy before. How recent was the surgery? The scars seemed healed and old, but his eyes didn’t.
Had anyone else touched him this way since …?
This was heavy stuff to get into with a stranger, but hey, these things happened at 3 a.m. The sleep deprivation, the tiny room … it was like a little bubble outside of time, where secrets were safe and nothing hurt.
Instead of saying something cheesy and probably ruining the moment, she pressed a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth. Then, without breaking eye contact, she leaned down and kissed just as gently along the seam where the metal met his body.
His other hand moved across his face. She was pretty sure he was wiping away tears, but he didn’t say anything, so neither did she. She just kept going, licking her way across his chest and down his abs until they were both breathing hard again.
She was almost to the top of his sweatpants when he fisted the metal hand in her hair and pulled her back up. She let out a helpless little whimper, because unf, and he grinned. “Oh really?” he said, and tugged a little harder. When she opened her mouth on a gasp, he took it with his.
His hands slid over her, mapping her back, her hips, the curve of her waist. He hadn’t even touched her in any of the fun places — yet — but every nerve in her body felt like it was on fire. When he got to her thigh, he paused and pulled back to give her a quizzical look.
“Is that a taser in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
She snorted. “Oh please, don’t even. I know for a fact you’ve got at least one knife on …” She ran her hands down the outsides of his thighs and felt nothing except a lot of delicious man. “Wait, what? Where did the knife go?”
He smirked. “Trade secret, doll. But feel free to — ah!” She pinched his thigh and he bit his lip. “Feel free to keep lookin’.”
“Maybe I will,” she said, and pushed him. It was like shoving a brick wall, but he humored her and slid down to lay on his back. She laughed, and he blinked, startled. She shrugged. “Nothing’s funny. I’m just a happy-laugher.”
He leaned up to kiss her neck. “So you’re happy?”
“Mmm, hell yeah.” She pressed him back down so she could look at him, all that lovely muscle and skin spread out like a buffet. She even liked the metal arm. It was shiny. “Who wouldn’t be?”
He bit his lip and shook his head, eyelids sweeping down to hide his expression.
Well, that just could not stand. She smoothed her hands across his chest, not pausing on the scars. “Seriously, look at you. You’ve got all this …” she leaned down, her mouth hovering just above his, “… and this …” she kissed her way down his neck while her hands kneaded his thighs, “… and a sense of humor,” she finished, and nipped his collarbone.
He growled and pulled her down hard against him. Her hips dragged across something that was definitely not a taser in his pocket. His head dropped back. “Oh, sweetheart,” he said, his voice wrecked.
Something beeped loudly next to the door.
Before she could even blink, he was on his feet with the knife out, holding her behind him with his metal arm.
“Okay, seriously, where the hell were you keeping that?” She pushed against his arm, but he didn’t humor her this time. It didn’t budge. When he glanced back, the hot blue eyes had gone icy again. “Relax,” she said in a gentler voice. “It’s the intercom. It’s probably one of the Avengers telling us it’s safe to come out.” As she spoke, the sirens stopped. “See? Go answer it. Or let me go and I will.”
His expression didn’t change, but he lowered his arm and let her squeeze past him to the keypad. She hit the button to turn on the microphone.
“City Morgue,” she said, quirking an eyebrow at James’ immobile form. “You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.”
He didn’t laugh. So much for that sense of humor.
Clint, however, did laugh. “Hey, Darce, you bored yet?”
She touched her swollen mouth and tried to pat down her hair, though he couldn’t see her. “Um, not exactly. What’s happening out there, Hawk Guy?”
“Just another robot uprising,” he said cheerfully, “or as I like to call it, Tuesday. Want to let me in so I can walk you home? The door’s sealed and for some reason my override won’t work.”
“Oh, um, hang on one sec.” She muted the intercom and turned to look at James. “Do you want to walk me back? My place is just down the hall, we could …” her voice trailed off. The icy look had melted, but in its place was something that looked a lot like regret. For the first time all night, she felt cold. “No, right, dumb idea. Of course. This was a panic-room-only kind of deal.”
He made the knife disappear again and pulled her over to him with his flesh arm while the metal one reached past her head to the keypad. “Sorry, doll,” he said, and kissed her very gently.
The lights flickered out, and there was a beep and a hiss behind her. She turned to look instinctively.
“Hi, Darce!” Clint said cheerfully from outside, then stopped as she moved forward into the beam of light from the open door. “Whoa, what happened to you?”
She felt herself go beet red, which hopefully at least sort of covered up the beard burn. “What do you think?” she snapped, annoyed with herself and still mad at James. She looked back to glare at him, and did a double take.
The room was empty.
“Hot date tonight, huh?” Clint said. “Good thing he went home before the robots attacked.” He raised his hand.
She high-fived it in a numb haze, thinking, Where the hell …?