“Miss Lewis, are you paying attention?”
“Sorry, my mind…wandered.” Darcy straightened up a little and tried to look like she was listening. “It’s been a long day…”
“Moreso for certain other individuals than for you,” the other woman told her, in what was probably supposed to be a stern, disapproving tone. But since Allison Clarke, SHIELD’s HR director, was blonde and blue-eyed and had a voice somewhere between a Disney princess and a Chatty Cathy doll, the effect was more like being scolded by a talking Barbie. “Miss Lewis, this latest incident report seems to indicate a pattern of behavior that SHIELD can no longer overlook.” One perfectly manicured fingernail tapped the thick folder in front of her. “You have barely been here a year, and already you have had more incidents than some agents who have been here for a decade. Your explanation of ‘he startled me’ or ‘I didn’t see him’ is no longer sufficient.”
Darcy didn’t really have an answer for that. “It’s just…a reaction! Like a martial artist would kick someone if they startled him, I tase people when they startle me.”
Allison didn’t seem to be buying it. “You tase men, Miss Lewis, let us be clear about that; not a single incident report has involved a female other than yourself.” Darcy just blinked at her, and she rolled her eyes. “Well, as you do not seem to be able to control yourself, I have attempted to find someone to retrain your…reaction.” The word all but dripped Disney shave ice onto the dark maroon carpet – the HR office was the only place Darcy had ever seen in SHIELD headquarters that actually had carpet, real carpet, instead of concrete or tile or grayish blocks of industrial floor covering. “Most of the agents I approached refused, and several claimed to have heretofore undiagnosed heart conditions which made being in close proximity to you a threat to their health and well-being. And when I spoke to Agent Romanov, she volunteered to teach you techniques for disabling opponents which did not require the use of a taser, which I believe would be counterproductive – the point is to teach you not to react with violence in non-threat situations, not to teach you to react more creatively.” She gestured to the small collection of tasers laid out neatly on the side of her desk. “I believe the fact that you have color-coordinated your weapon of choice to your wardrobe says enough about your creativity.”
Darcy frowned at the tasers. “I am going to get those back someday, right?”
“That depends.” Allison folded her hands together on top of the folder, looking stern. “I did finally find someone willing to attempt to retrain you; he is on his way here as we speak. This is your last chance, Miss Lewis. Learn to conduct yourself like a reasonable, civilized person, and to make appropriate non-gender-based threat assessments, or I will be forced to take drastic measures.”
There was a polite knock on the office door, and then it opened and Steve Rogers stuck his head in. “Allison…oh, she’s already here.” He stepped inside when Allison told him to come in, closing the door behind him and giving Darcy a reassuring smile. “Hi, Miss Lewis. I guess we’re going to be buddies for the next few weeks while I teach you how to do an accurate threat assessment.”
Darcy forced her dropped-open mouth to close with an effort. Of course the only person they could find willing to help would be Captain America – Steve Rogers had probably never given up on another human being in his entire twenty-six years of active life. “You can just call me Darcy, Captain. And yeah, I’ve been told I have a little…problem with that.”
“I have already discussed the issue at hand with Captain Rogers,” Allison informed her. “He is well aware of your ‘reaction’ to ‘people who startle you’.”
The sarcasm either went right over Steve’s head or he was just so used to getting it from Tony Stark that he ignored it out of habit. “Call me Steve, Darcy. And that happens to a lot of soldiers, too,” he assured her earnestly. “Don’t worry, we can work on it. I’m sure you don’t want to hurt innocent people.”
Darcy hadn’t considered any of the people – all right, the men – she’d tased to be innocent, exactly, but she nodded anyway. Her agreement must have lacked something, however, because Allison switched tracks with the speed of a striking snake. “Captain, while you’re here, could you do me a favor?” she asked sweetly. “I need something sensitive delivered to Director Fury immediately, and the person I would usually send is out of the office at the moment. Would you…?”
“Sure, Allison, that’s not a problem – I know exactly where he’s at, too.” Steve took the sealed envelope when she handed it to him. “I’ll be right back,” he told Darcy, and then he was back out the door.
As ploys went to get someone out of earshot, it was one of the most transparent ones Darcy had ever seen. She had just enough time to wonder if Steve had actually fallen for it or if he was just playing along – she suspected the former, honestly – when Allison cleared her throat. The woman’s eyes had narrowed, and her expression was kind of scary. Her next carefully enunciated words confirmed it. “Captain Rogers is well-liked and appreciated by everyone in this department, Miss Lewis,” she warned. “If you harm him in any fashion which does not involve a mutually agreed-upon sparring session, I will see to it that you are forced to retake every training class SHIELD has ever required of its employees. Is that understood?”
Darcy was, surprisingly, startled. “Did you just threaten me?”
Allison leaned forward, just a little. “Yes. Now answer my question: Is that understood?”
“Um, yeah, I get it.” Darcy didn’t realize she’d sort of frozen until Allison leaned back again and she suddenly realized she could breathe. She considered mentioning making a complaint about the threat, but something made her decide against it. Something more animal than rational inside of her that was cringing away from this seemingly innocuous, funny-voiced woman for no good reason whatsoever. “I…should I wait for St…for Captain Rogers here, or outside?”
“Outside,” Allison told her…and held out her hand. “After you’ve handed over the taser you’re still carrying, of course.”
Darcy lasted two weeks and half a day; the afternoon of that day saw she and Steve back in the HR office. Steve was sitting on a chair by the door, his head in his hands; he’d been in that position ever since they’d come in. Darcy was back in her seat in front of the desk, being temporarily ignored by Allison and trying not to cringe thinking about what was going to happen next. Because she’d carefully, cautiously milked the gossip mill over the past two weeks, and even if she dismissed half of what she’d heard the rest was more than enough to convince her that she had made a really terrible, possibly unrecoverable mistake.
Before they’d moved to their Times Square office, SHIELD’s previous headquarters had been, well, invaded. Armed assailants had tried to take the place in force, and it had been a hard fight. And when that fight was over, the only department still fully standing had been HR – Allison and her three assistants had not only defended their territory, they’d killed or incapacitated every assailant on their floor and then taken back control of the fire stairs. And apparently even Nick Fury himself was never anything but polite to Allison, whose little cadre of pastel-wearing happy people was rumored to have been a top-tier extraction team before they’d ‘retired’ by taking over their current department during a purge – not by asking to take it over, oh no, they’d apparently just moved into the office and said they were the new HR staff. Nobody had dared to contradict them.
And now Darcy had broken Captain America – who was apparently the HR department’s favoritest person on the entire SHIELD payroll – after Allison had specifically warned her not to. She was so very, very screwed.
For the moment, Allison was ignoring her. The woman had gently and patiently questioned Steve about the details she needed to confirm for the incident report in front of her, drawing the story out of him until he got to the end and practically broke down in tears. “I just can’t…I can’t believe she did that,” he’d all but whispered. “I thought she was getting better…”
“It’s going to be all right, Captain,” Allison assured him. And then she hit the intercom button on her desk. “Rhonda, I need you go come get Captain Rogers. And tell everyone we’re closing up for the day, this is an ice cream emergency.” Willowy brown-haired Rhonda came all but flying out of the back office door seconds later and immediately took charge of the traumatized supersoldier, leading him out of the room through the same door she’d just used. Before that door closed behind them, Darcy saw Todji, the tiny Asian and really hilariously gay male member of the department, pop out from behind his desk to hug Steve, demanding to know what had happened. The door closed on his outraged shriek of, “She did what?!” and Darcy actually flinched, only partially because a shriek from Todji was like nails on a chalkboard as performed by Freddy Kreuger. The other part may have had something to do with knowing that she’d just given way-too-gay Todji the chance to hug and cuddle male pinnacle of perfection Steve Rogers for probably the entire afternoon along with Rhonda and the other HR person, Amanda, while Allison plied him with ice cream and used her hypnotic Barbie voice to make him forget what Darcy had done to a supposedly innocent SHIELD agent right in front of him earlier that day.
When the door closed, Darcy dragged her attention back to the desk and found Allison looking at her. She tried to compose herself and waited. Allison didn’t say anything. She squirmed in her seat. Still nothing. Finally, however, Allison shook her head and pushed the incident report across the desk. “You know the drill, Miss Lewis. Initial each section to verify that it is factually correct, note any discrepancies in the proper places and initial those, and then sign and date at the bottom.”
Darcy pulled the sheet over very carefully, feeling like she was in the presence of a very deadly snake that could strike at any second. She read through the sections, initialing as she went and didn’t make a single addition – honestly, she didn’t dare, although she’d added copious comments and corrections to previous incident reports. And then she signed and dated the bottom and just as cautiously pushed the paper back across the desk. Allison took it, looked at it, and then slipped it into the folder and stood up. “All right, then. I will email you your new schedule over the weekend, Miss Lewis, as I have more important things to attend to at the moment. I certainly hope you did not have any plans for, oh, the rest of the year, because you’re going to be very busy – we have to have these things done before year-end, you know.” Darcy didn’t move, and Allison’s perfect eyebrows drew together. “You are dismissed, Miss Lewis.”
Darcy got up, feeling like it couldn’t be that simple or that painless, but the moment she was out the door she heard it lock and the sign beside it changed to Out of Office. She scurried away as fast as her feet could carry her at that point, eventually ending up spilling the whole story to Natasha Romanov – she’d actually run into Clint Barton first, but he’d just given her a horrified look and run off in the other direction, apparently having already heard what had happened to the other agent earlier. Natasha had even winced when she’d heard the full story, but then she’d offered to teach Darcy some equally effective but less damaging defensive techniques. Unfortunately, she’d also confirmed the rumors Darcy had heard about Allison. “Even Tony does not shoot off his mouth to her, and that is not only because she is friendly with Pepper,” the Russian assassin had said. “She is dangerous, and they know everything that goes on in this building – and then some. Do not expect many people to be very friendly with you in the coming weeks.”
Darcy, being a social person, might have been bothered by that idea if her new schedule hadn’t been so tight that she barely had wiggle-room in it to eat lunch, much less to pal around with anybody. As it was, her first ‘class’ was with Fury, in his office, first thing on Monday morning, and much to her surprise he didn’t yell or lecture or even scold. He just shook his head and rolled his eye and muttered something that sounded like better you than me under his breath, then put her in a chair in the corner for the next few hours with a really stupidly boring manual to read while he did paperwork and ignored her. And Darcy, not wanting to be called on HR’s plush maroon carpet ever again, read the manual cover to cover and even took notes.