Wow, this chapter actually had me tearing. That NEVER happens. I don't mean to sound pretentious about my own abilities, but it might be a good idea to have tissues ready.
"Last rundown before show time," Steven announced, spreading his fingers over the table as he did a quick scan of those present. None of them were surprised about the time table, but they had still assembled on short notice. Apparently, when the Avengers slept, they slept hard. Self included.
Bruce was sitting against the bulkhead, facing the group with a placid expression, his appearance having taken on a feeling of permanently rumpled. Sloppy was better than the alternative. Tony was also sitting, across the cabin from Bruce, playing with his tablet doing only God knew what. Steve had experienced his attentiveness, and knew that he was still listening, but heaven help all if it was not bothersome to feel like he was being ignored. The man had never been military, more than that his definition of respect was something Steve had yet to grasp.
Thor was the most energetic of them. He was twitching, pacing back in forth in front of the holo-projection that Steve had tried to direct all of them to look at. The prince's eyes remained fixed on the layout before him, focused and hard, even as he continued stalking.
What had once been a heavy cargo plane had been stripped to its shell and refitted with modern technology, but using 'modern technology' around Tony Stark was like saying The Hulk was inherently 'angry.' Inside, the plane was virtually silent, insulated well against the noise of the wind buffeting against them. The first part of their trip had been spent sleeping, resting, whatever the others had done during the flight over the Atlantic, in actual beds. Steve did not like to use the word 'magic' describing all of the evidence of scientific progress that surrounded him, but even the map in front of him was not toy models on a Cartesian plane.
At the outset, Tony had jokingly called the get up Avengers Force One. Then had followed before anyone could answer with a, "No, don't use that, it sounds ridiculous."
"Hey quick question. Why do we need the whole team for a rescue?" the same man asked in the present, before Steve could continue with the briefing.
"It's not just a rescue," was his answer.
It had started out that way. The briefing from Colonel Fury had taken place while Dr. Jane Foster had paced outside of his office, watching the muted conference with a quick eye and trying her damnedest to lip read.
Darcy Lewis, former assistant to Dr. Foster, and extremely brief SHIELD employee, had been missing for a few weeks. She had been kidnapped near her apartment at dusk by black-suited brigands, his word not the Colonel's, without so much as a peep about either ransom or credit for her disappearance. She was not an intellectual asset to SHIELD, but she was important to Dr. Foster, Dr. Selvig, and, most importantly to SHIELD, Thor.
Fury had impressed on him how much man power it had taken to find her, how quickly they had managed to do so, mostly because of their diversion of resources from the rebuilding and security efforts in New York to finding her. It was not a point on which the Colonel initially had been particularly pleased, though he never seemed very happy, but had relented when Thor had reinforced Jane's request.
The secondary part of their mission had been given after Thor and Foster had been reassured that the entire rescue was a go. Because Miss Lewis was being held at a Hydra facility, one that was just starting to spread its wings in an influential way, the Avengers were being tasked to personally intervene. Take what they could for intel and destroy the rest, but Darcy Lewis was their priority. If she was still alive. If not, they had the go ahead to destroy the base at their earliest convenience.
He frowned in concentration while continuing to explain, "Because the base has been regionally active for a year and continentally for a few months they are part of our secondary directive." Part of him had wondered since waking, since that moment he had defeated Red Skull, if Hydra would resurface. Apparently, this was his answer.
"So we need to nip operations in the bud," Bruce added, managing to vacillate the sentence between a question and a statement. The scientist's expression remained strained, like he was always about the say the wrong thing, but could not stop himself. Despite knowing the reason for his discomfort, Steve smiled in a way he hoped was bolstering.
"Whatever scavenging machinations SHIELD has are of secondary importance to Darcy's safety," Thor interrupted, dropping his crossed arms to place his hands on the table as well. Steve stood up straight and nodded, agreeing with the reaffirmation, even if their objectives had been stated slightly differently.
"Let's stay focused," he commanded and turned to the projection again. "Black Widow and Hawkeye have been staking out the compound for two days now to transmit the information you see here. From what they've been able to gather, our intel is pretty good as far as its structure goes."
"Is 'pretty good' going to be sufficient?" Bruce interjected.
"It's what we have." Steve did not shrug as he wished to. The detail he was looking at was enough for him. "I've worked with less before, as I know all of you have." The three nodded sporadically until Steve continued. "They say that the internal computer systems have been encrypted beyond the means of the equipment they were able to carry, but they've still done a thorough job of cataloging server types. So that's a start, right?" The last was directed to Tony who had set his tablet down and nodded.
"It'll be easy enough to break through any firewalls or protection with JARVIS. Might take a minute or two, depending on the level of security we're looking at, but I figure we'll be busy while that's going on, anyway, so no problem."
"The facility is under medium guard, mostly foot patrol, with no heavy artillery seen. So we should be in for a pretty easy fight, even head on."
"Wherefore do we not attempt such?" Thor asked, tone measured. Steve watched him, aware of the control he was exerting, given that his friend was in danger. He parsed through the archaic vernacular.
"Because we want to salvage what we can of the, uh…"
"Hardware," Tony prompted.
"Right. It's going to be easy getting in, but that doesn't mean we have to tear the place apart to do so." Steve hesitated as Thor began shaking his head. But when the prince did not speak right away, he continued, "If Hydra has resurfaced this way, it won't be any good for the rest of the world. The fact that Darcy is in there gives us the perfect motivation to intervene."
Thor grunted a noise of frustration so loud that Steve paused. The displeasure on his face was something he had only seen at their first meeting. Tension had been running high as heaven. It was now, that despite his power and position, people were the most important thing to the Asgardian. Steve felt his respect for the man deepen, even as Thor shook his head with disapproval.
"This fervor to scavenge is shameful, and it should not be given precedence over the one who has inspired our effort."
"I agree with Bon Jovi," Tony interrupted, standing as he tossed the tablet carelessly onto the leather seat. "Whatever Hydra has, I can do better." When no one was quick enough to interrupt him, he rolled on, "Obviously, or they'd have already gotten the Tesseract. I say we jump in, get the girl, and get out in time to make it home for Glee. …Or whatever the kids are watching these days. Spongebob?" He committed a short spin to see the blank faces of his colleagues and quirked his brow before heading to the wet bar.
Steve rolled his eyes and pressed forward before either of the fellows could derail him again, "When we land, it's a twenty-two mile drive to the base, then a two mile hike. Our eyes and ears are going to rendezvous with us at the two mile mark and escort us to the base. From there, they will lead infiltration and bread crumb to proper extraction points. Thor, Hawkeye will lead you to Darcy." He glanced at the tall man who nodded. Before their plan had formed, before he had made apparent where his priority lay, he had announced that he would be present at Darcy's extraction. Steve was glad he was disciplined enough to cooperate within the team. He would not be the one to deny him access to his friend when it did not matter who filled the support role.
"Tony, Black Widow's trail will lead you to the hardware site for your software deciphering task."
"Decryption," he corrected.
"At the same time, she will have set charges in non-essential locations to distract and draw away personnel from Darcy's location, as it appears the hardware depot is separate from prisoners' cells. Hawkeye will be secure Darcy's location in the event of tightened security around her cell."
At this point, Bruce and Tony approached, standing at the empty sides of the table to review the holo-projection as well. Steve pointed out the supposed locations of the hardware depot and prisoner cells for them so that both men confirmed their understanding.
"Once the charges are detonated, Thor and I will engage for support." He was good at breaking defense with defense and Thor would not leave Darcy's safety to anyone else. "Iron Man will give aerial support in Black Widow's area until the threats have been neutralized, during which time you'll be attempting decryption and extraction."
"Good," Tony replied with a tone more solemn than anything he had used the rest of the evening. None of the others conspicuously looked at him, but at that moment Steve could not help but wonder if, for him, he had not been quiet for the better part of their trip. It was only recently revealed to him that Tony had spent his own stint as a prisoner, during which he had engineered his own escape. Though he was not chatty on the subject, he had never tried to keep his experience secret, either.
Many of Steve's friends had been kept as prisoner for some length of time, and though they had handled the stress well… For his part, he did not want Tony to handle Darcy's rescue because he worked best when he was focused and not volatile.
"And what will I be doing during this time?" Bruce asked, looking up from the projection that continued to circle between the four of them.
"Sitting this one out unless things go pear-shaped," Steve replied with a small smile. The scientist looked content enough with that notion. He returned to his seat, plugged in his earphones and began blasting Enya.
She was counting the scrawls again, the beautifully pale marks that shone out to her even in the darkness. One hundred and three, she counted, then started over from the beginning, running her finger over the short length of each shallow depression. "One," her lips moved silently. The numbers were in her head, whole and unstrained.
A dull boom rocked her from her thoughts, dislodging dust and pebbles from the ceiling in a discomforting way. Darcy stared up for a moment, rubbed at her polluted eyes, and then, as another closer explosion echoed the first, instinctively crouched, attempting to curl in on herself for several long breaths. There was no pain, though. Her door still stood, and the walls and ceiling were still unharmed. Fingers tightened down on her treasure, as she turned and stared at the door, the shaft of light beneath it.
Over the sound of distant humming of alarms, she could hear the other doors opening. Her eyes cut to the side, as if she could see into her sister cells through the rock and concrete. Were the other prisoners being released? Being killed? She had never seen anyone in the other rooms, but then she had never seen the other doors open. She heard, now, though, their rusty bolts opening under force, and she bowed her head. First… Second… Third… Whoever was opening them was getting closer, throwing the doors open, but not closing them. Their motions were fast.
Her eyes turned to her own door, and she watched as the shaft of white light beneath the door was broken by two feet. Her body instinctively crawled away from the exit until her back could go no farther. The shriek of metal cried out as her door was unlocked, then squealed as it opened…
She clasped her treasure more tightly, looping her finger through the coiled handle. It was no longer capable of stabbing or poking. The spoon's bowl, though, through one hundred and three tallies had developed an edge.
It was a new shadow that stood in the doorway, neither the big man nor the kind woman. This one was too compact, too angular. They entered swiftly, wasting no time on the stare down that was usually conducted. Too fast, too close. Darcy scooted away, scrabbling backward as she felt her treasure catch against the floor.
One hundred and four.
But someone new? Instinct was for rebellion, safety. There was nothing anymore new. Everything ended in questions, pain, misery. God, she did not want it anymore. No more!
"Are you Darcy Lewis?" an unfamiliar voice asked, but she did not answer. She barely heard the question over the panic that swelled in her head.
She pulled away, holding her treasure close as she thought repeatedly, "I am right. I am right!" in preparation for whatever was about to come.
"Miss Lewis," the hard voice added, "It's time to go," and grasped her fingers roughly. She tensed in panic. This was it. This was the end. A new body and new words were only a trick to cart her to her death. She had been wrong. There were no more questions. Oxford man had no more purpose for her. He had realized she was as worthless as she had tried to tell him, and now she would die.
She screamed, and she screamed, railed against the inevitability.
"NO!" Her arms thrashed against the newcomer. Her motions were stilted, and her limbs felt clumsy from lack of use. She could not catch her breath, but she did not want it to end this way. Other things she had wanted to do seemed clearer now than they had in days. "EGYPT," she screamed, sang the word in her bones. "EGYPT," the shriek came. Her attacker shouted back, orders she did not understand, but she was lost in fear. She could not understand, did not want to understand.
Darcy remembered the treasure, remembered that it could wound, as it had wounded rock, and tried to bash him with the small head. His speed was supernatural, though, avoiding her arms and her weapon. He did not immediately hurt her, though, and the restraint emboldened her. She was sure she had landed at least one strike when a loud, too loud voice, thundered out.
"DARCY. BE CALM."
The authority behind that voice, the warm volume, first stilled her. Familiarity came second as she froze in her captor's grip. She could see, in the doorway, the largest of the shadows she had seen since she had arrived, the halo of light around a blond head.
"Thor," her mouth shaped soundlessly, and this fear was the worst she had ever faced. Her face contorted beyond her control. She was terrified, and heartsick that this was the real ruse. They would throw her completely off kilter, and then… this.
She did not realize when she had sunk to her knees, but a moment later she was floating off of the floor in a motion that was too decisive and easy to be conducted by anyone else she might know than the demigod. It was gentle, easy, warm. It was so, so warm. She drew into herself as the hallway light shone down into her eyes. She had not realized they were moving. Placing both hands against her chest, she clenched her fingers, and shrieked automatically when she did not feel the returning metal bite of her small weapon.
"Wait," she wanted to shout, but the sound came out unintelligibly. She was reaching, grasping for it. They could not leave it. THEY COULDN'T LEAVE IT.
An unfamiliar man appeared with the trinket grasped in his fingers and quickly pressed into her outstretched hand before she could guess that he might do otherwise..
"Let's go," he said flatly, and she blinked at him, his hazy and unfamiliar features. It was the same man from her cell, the same man she had tried to fight. He was… helping?
Thor smiled at her, and she sighed, tightening her hold on the treasure.
Eastern Austria, Clint could readily admit, was beautiful country. It probably would have been better if he had not had to worry for a few days about neo-Hydra fanatics trying to kill him, but such was his lot with most of his travel for the past several years. All in all, it was not a bad trade; he was more hands-on approach than tourist, anyway. Regardless, he was not allowing himself to worry much about what might or might not happen in the next hour. For two days he had been scoping the site with Natasha, and they had done well in avoiding notice. He would not allow himself to become complacent, but no longer was he spending time worrying, either. When he did allow emotion to color his focus for a moment, it was gratitude that he felt.
He was in the field again, and he was alive.
With the final ski buckle snapped into place, he slung his collapsed bow into its rest at his shoulder. The compound was just below the hill on which they were perched, covered by the forest around them. Behind him, Natasha finished speaking to the others in low tones. His gear was ready. He was ready.
She nodded at his side a moment later, and he pushed off with his poles. Under the cover of night, the two blended almost perfectly into the snowy forested backdrop. In white outer gear, and with a white bow for him. Even had they been in full day light they would have had a few extra moments of camouflage before being detected.
Minutes later they hit the outer wall. For just a minute and a half their resting point was a blind spot to both CCTV and the rotation of guards walking the perimeter. They had timed both, the number of guards and the circuit of the cameras on the angle of the building. Neither faltered as they tucked their skis under the snow and stripped out of the whites to uncover the black gear beneath, the same cut and style as their opponents within.
Clint pulled the last of the white material over his boots and handed it off to Natasha as he knelt in the snow. Once she had climbed onto his shoulders, he stood, putting her within reach of the window they stood beneath. She pressed the white cloth against the window, swiftly binding it at the inner corners of the frame with a small adhesive before leaping off of his shoulders.
Without another look back, they fell into step side by side and began a march around the perimeter, perfectly in sync with the other pairs on duty in both speed and attitude. It took several minutes to make the full circuit around, during which Clint warmed himself with the idea of Tony Stark freezing his ass off in an iron suit on a hill full of snow just a few hundred yards away. By the time they made it back around, no alarm had sounded, but the window had melted without smoke, light, or sound into a dusting of ash as fine as the snow that circled around them. Clint hoisted Natasha up again, and then he followed up with the thin rope she supplied a minute later.
They were in.
The room they had chosen for infiltration had been mostly dark, regardless of time of day, during their stake out. He could see now why. It was a storage space, a few cardboard boxes and crates lining the wall just beyond them.
It was still dark, and he took a few moments to readjust his gear, check his bow's tether, before reaching into the snapped pocket where the multitude of sensors were waiting to be activated. Bread crumbs, they had been denoted; clear chips chemically designed to stick to anything if given the proper suggestive force, except for themselves. In his hand they shifted like a fist full of small price tags. When he set the first against the concrete door frame, it stuck as if magnetized, and the metal filament inside silently sent its signal.
The door opened into an empty hallway, and Clint spotted the vent he that would give him access to the rest of the building. He spared a quick glance at the keypad on the outside of the large closet. They would not be going out the same way, but at least the others knew they were in.
"See you, Gretl," he quipped and, ignoring his partner's eye roll, made for the vent.
The hallways were warm compared to outside, which he knew was completely relative, given that the base had been carved into the side of a mountain. By further contrast, the air vent was almost like an oven. It was a dry heat, though, and he was grateful that the combination of cold and heat had not given way to mold in his aerial tunnel. Not only was it disgusting, but he had had trouble in the past maintaining his grip in slimy situations.
It still took time, even with better range of motion returning to his joints and the fact that he could maintain a silent hold in the vents. There was a watch on his wrist, but he did not look at it. His internal clock was good enough to tell him when two, five, ten minutes had passed. Still, it was his information, his and his partner's that had given the Avengers the layout of the place. He knew it almost as well as any bow, and eventually he rounded on the series of cells they had been searching for.
Hopefully, Darcy Lewis was in one of them.
The ventilation shaft did not connect to any of them, instead lining the hallway just outside. He frowned to himself with the realization. The cells were the closest to the mountain, perhaps cut directly into the bedrock. The mountain's natural insulation would mean they were kept cold regardless of how hot it might be outside.
He lifted his hands toward the edges of the grate, ignoring the dust and other bits of dirt on them. He was starting to sweat from the heat blowing around his face.
"Hawkeye, please relate your status," Thor's voice resonated in his ear, and Clint scowled heavily. They were under radio silence. They knew to maintain silence until the charges went off, and then there would be no point for it. He did not lose his grip on the grating, but neither did he respond. The first latch came up silently. The second followed. He stopped short of removing the metal piece as the first enemy agent he had seen inside the compound passed beneath him.
"Clint Barton, please make reply or I will be forced to enter the premises prematurely," Thor boomed, and Clint froze. For the present, the need for silence was paramount because now the fucking whoever was lifting his eyes toward the ceiling wondering why a tinny echo was resonating down into an empty hallway. He did not breathe, did not attempt to silence the radio in his ear, which was now ringing with the force of Thor's threat.
Instead, he was preparing to crash down through the grate feet first and fight his way out of the building, one Darcy Lewis in tow. The motions were already in his mind. He could take the man head on, literally, before he alerted too many people, hopefully, but it would not be a silent altercation.
His fingers latched onto the edge of the grate, and then Natasha's charges detonated.
The boom nearly startled him out of his breath-holding, and it certainly startled the man beneath him. Clint watched as the agent took off running in what, he assumed, was the fastest route back toward the source of the blast. He pulled the grate off and dropped down into the hallway in a silent crouch. A quick glance back and he darted to the door closest to him.
He had expected something more techy to hold prisoners. They had used a ten-keypad on the storage closet for God's sake, but for the prisoner's a metal bar of the same substance as the door was sufficient. Each door was solid iron from the looks of it, no windows or vents. There was no way to see outside out into the hallway much less angle to reach the bolts holding them closed. Whoever was inside was very much trapped.
For the first cell, the bolt was so stiff he should have realized no one would be inside. The space was completely dark and looked like it had not seen light in months, perhaps years. He moved on, not interested in the scan of an empty room. If he had extra time, maybe he could have gleaned something from its implications, but if their intel was right, Miss Lewis had waited long enough, and time was of the essence.
The next two cells were empty as well, though one of the doors had been operated more frequently than the first door he had attempted. Both were just as dark, neither holding even a light fixture, and were empty of furnishings as well. It was the fourth cell where, as the door's bolt screeched louder than all the others, he finally broke through.
The smell hit him before he saw anything. Where the other rooms had been musty from disuse, this hit him like a tangible force that invaded his mouth and nose, cold air against his face. For a moment he staggered under the strength of the smell of urine and feces and human; only for a moment, though. He breathed through his mouth, and pushed forward to the creature huddled against the back wall of the room.
She moved as he moved, more slowly, but attempting to keep space between them. Her dark hair covered most of her face, knotted and dirty. Her arms were thin, pale, one wrapped around her ribs, the other hand instinctively held out against him, but looking more like it was stroking the air, for all the strength she could maintain. Her clothes still held color, but looked like she had worn them for weeks already, dirtied with mountain and blood.
He took two quick steps toward her, mindful of time, and frowned as her entire body seized up in fear.
"Are you Darcy Lewis?" he asked gently, but firmly. He had seen her in the photos Dr. Foster had been able to supply them, but the woman in those pictures had been whole, undamaged, and smiled like she was waiting to share secrets.
Before him, the young woman tilted her head toward him, and her outstretched hand brushed downward in her curiosity. Taking that as an affirmative, he reached forward with an, "It's time to go," and grabbed the extended hand. He could still hear the alarm klaxons from the other side of the base, and he trusted Iron Man and Black Widow to do their jobs. It was an easy motion to hoist her onto his shoulders and finalize the extraction, but the moment he clasped her fingers was when she decided to erupt.
It was screaming at first, screams that drowned out the not-so-far-away alarms, but he did not let go of her hand. "We're on the same side!" he interjected as he ducked her searching fists. The longer he dodged her flailing free arm, the more persistent she became. Clint scowled, frustrated and angry. Hydra had done this to her, traumatized her to this level of fear and resistance. He did not want to hurt her further, but time was against them.
"Miss Lewis," he called as she began to pull away from him. "Miss Lewis! Darcy!" he shouted, but she could not hear him over her own screaming. He lifted his right arm to block her flailing limb just as she hit his face with something harder than skin and bone. He paused for just a moment, feeling the cool tingle of broken skin and blood against his cheekbone.
There was a shadow behind him that suddenly blocked most of the cell's light, and Clint's adrenaline spiked as Lewis kept on screaming in his hold. A glance back told him that it was Thor, and not one of their enemies, but the tall man was frozen in place, blocking both entrance and exit. His eyes were locked on the thrashing young woman with an expression that belonged on no warrior's face. Horror, anger, terrible sadness. They had time for none of it.
Clint's own feelings lashed out, and he shouted, "Hold it together, Thor!" while he continued to struggle without harming his charge. Thor did as commanded, snapping out of his thoughts as he rushed forward.
"Darcy, be calm!" he boomed, projecting in a way that resonated through the small space and wrapped around all of them. She stilled, as did Clint. It was easy to forget the strength and force of will his teammate could wield now that they were on the same side. Both humans turned to the demigod with wide eyes, Darcy's partially hidden beneath grimy hair. She slumped to the floor in Clint's hold.
Thor no longer hesitated and was there to scoop her up in a smooth motion the moment she stilled. She seemed pale against his bare arms, at once pale and dark given the dirt in her clothes, her hair. Clint knew instinctively that the horror he felt at the sight of her had been buried for the present, and he wondered briefly how many rescue missions the Asgardian had undertaken aside from the rest of his glorious adventures.
There was no glory in this.
"Let us away," the large man growled and departed from the cell into the bright, bright hallway. Clint palmed his cheek and took a final glance around the room.
The floor was bare, kept relatively clean by use of Darcy's wallowing. There was a pail in one corner, from which most of the smell seemed to be radiating. Opposite the door there was a piece of metal coiled in on itself and resting against the floor. He took a step toward it just as Darcy began screeching in the hallway again. It was only guessing when the Hydra agents would be on them now and luck that they had not been attacked yet. There was no more time. Swallowing his frustration against the sound of her shouting, and steeping himself in urgency, Clint swiped the metal up and rushed after the departing pair.
Darcy's eyes were rolling back and forth in search of something as she thrashed her limbs to be released from Thor's hold. There was purpose to her motions, Clint could see, and it was on instinct that he forced the hard metal object into her grasping hand. She stilled as soon as she saw it, then tucked it close to her bosom, her own body rolling back against Thor's chest. Clint stared at her for a moment longer watching as her eyes settled into something hollow. Whatever emotion she had rallied to rail against them was buried again.
The sound of approaching, rushed footsteps brought both men back into focus. Extraction was not successful until they were secure.
"Let's go," Clint repeated to Thor, echoing his teammate's earlier words.
The feet came from their escape route, where Thor was taking point with Darcy as Clint covered their escape, and it was only moments later they met their second impediment. Clint counted Darcy herself as the first.
He was a big man who studied them for a scant moment before his eyes dropped to Darcy. He eyed her pitilessly before turning back to her protectors. Clint saw Thor having trouble reaching his big-assed hammer while holding the girl, but he had already nocked an arrow into place. Thor took a single step back, pulling Darcy out of the line of whatever the man was about to fire. Clint pulled the bowstring back to his cheek in a swift motion and loosed the projectile, reaching for another arrow as the first buried itself in his eye. He was not taking any chances.
Balance kept their opponent dead on his feet for a moment longer before he fell backward with a loud thud. The sound of his fall was echoed by an even louder crack in the hallway, and a split second later Clint stumbled forward under the force of a gun shot. Tightening his core, he twisted into the fall, and loosed his second arrow against a snarling old woman with a handgun.
The rage on her face continued even as the gun fell from her fingers, and both men instinctively curled away from an accidental discharge. Nothing happened as it landed, though. It remained where it lay as she backed away from both of them into the wall, her fingers gripping the arrow shaft. Clint grimaced as she gave it a gentle tug in an attempt to wrest it out of her lung. He did not need to explain that it would not come out that way. There were too many barbs and grips in its head. Decided, and merciful, he prepped and loosed a third arrow in the same manner he had finished the large man; a quick death over a slow and pained one. She slumped to the floor with the same scowl on her face and Clint turned back to Thor, who was already moving again.
His shoulder was aching as they reached the dark, snowy grounds again. This time they exited through the main door. Thor's confidence, plus the damage around them that Clint noted, were clear signs that the prince had entered this same way.
His longer legs gave him an easier time in the snow, nearly calf-deep on Clint, and the archer found himself grateful he was not having to climb and carry their charge as well. As they worked their way back to the tree line, the archer kept another arrow prepped, but the Captain's plan was thus far a success. Natasha's diversion had worked just as it was supposed to. Save the big man and old woman, they had not encountered any other Hydra agents. As he backed up the hill, he could see smoke and fire near the opposite wing of the compound. Darting in and out of the light show was Iron Man, randomly igniting his repulsors at targets beneath him.
Under cover, both men made their way back to where Bruce was holding down the fort. The Cap and Natasha had already returned, both looking whole and entirely unharmed. Natasha nodded to Clint as he pulled up the rear.
He returned the gesture as Tony's voice resonated into the area through their radios, "Two more minutes tops, people. Start packing up." At Steve's signal, they did so, returning to the truck that had transported them from the plane. There would be no way to hide their tracks, but they had all agreed from the beginning that there was no point to try. The only connection Darcy had to any covert agency like SHIELD was SHIELD. Hydra would have no problems figuring out who had come knocking.
Clint fell into step with Natasha, but his eyes were focused on Thor just in front of them, on Lewis's dangling feet. Just ahead of them, Bruce led the way back to the vehicle. Clint could still smell the unpleasant aroma wafting from the rescued young woman. Though Thor's face was hidden, his arms were tensed and his shoulders almost hunched, he acknowledged nothing but her state of mind. It was a state that Clint had not yet allowed himself to ponder. It hit too close to home since the mission was still active.
"Dr. Banner, your assistance for Hawkeye's shoulder, please," Thor announced quietly, the first time he had acknowledged anyone since their regrouping.
Clint did not bother arguing, but stripped his jacket and gear down to his base layer as they reached the truck. With such snowy conditions there was a half hour of driving ahead of them, probably more. There was time to do this now and then, perhaps, sleep on the flight back. He inspected his vest and removed the slug that had buried itself just at the acromial process before passing the article of clothing to Natasha, who inspected it in turn and then gave him a questioning glance.
"Some crazy old woman shot me while we were escaping." The statement was given as a matter of fact, and not as a particular point of embarrassment at his attacker's age or emotional state. When at the mercy of a shooter with intent, there was no room for embarrassment, or in the case of his teammates, amusement.
"And what about your face?" Bruce asked mildly in response. "Did the same woman do that?"
"No," he said firmly, "she did." He jerked a nod at Darcy, still hanging in Thor's arms. He was not sure if Darcy was unwilling, or unable to stand, or if Thor just did not wish to let her. Either way, both seemed inclined to let the situation continue.
"She is without her spectacles," Thor explained, though Clint's comment had not been directed at him, nor was the prince standing particularly close to their group. Clint knew, regardless, that she had not cared who it was in the cell with her. In the moment of danger and panic, she had tried to defend herself. He was not going to hold it against her, and he was not going to argue an unimportant point.
Thor continued to murmur to his charge and for a moment, Darcy seemed to respond. She spoke something so softly that it did not carry to his ears. At his side, Natasha shifted slightly, and Clint glanced over to see her staring at the isolated pair with curious, hard eyes. "Yes, Darcy, you are all right," Thor murmured back to her. "All will be well now. You are all right."
His thoughts on the subject were interrupted with Iron Man's return. The hollow voice projected out from the machine sounded, "Job's done. Hydra's software is, amazingly, crap."
She wondered that it was not colder, standing in the snow this way. It had been spring in Virginia. Was it winter now? Her clothes were not made for winter, but she was not cold. The way Thor held her aloft, his arms encircling her well enough to almost ensconce her from sight, worked very well against the chill. Even with his arms bared to the snow and wind, he radiated heat like a horse.
Her body was exhausted. She was bone weary and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but the world remained. The fat snow flakes that fell around them continued dropping down. She was aware of them landing on her knees and shins no matter how long she kept her eyes closed.
Thor kept saying things to her that she could not understand. She heard them well enough, but they did not register. Her ears felt as tired as the rest of her. She took a slow breath that did not fill her lungs.
"I am right," she murmured to herself, and found truer comfort than she had in days and days. "Jane is right. Erik is right. Thor is right. I am right," she continued.
"Yes, Darcy," he spoke lowly, the words breaking through the cloud surrounding her mind. She slowly glanced up at him, allowing him to pull hair from her eyes. He smiled at her, full of a sadness she could not understand, and he said, "You are all right. All will be well now. You are all right."
Some short time later they entered a jet, a nice one, given the amount of times she had flown coach, and never once first class. Thor was still carrying her, crouched and moving awkwardly through the small cabin. After navigating a few hallways, he set her down in a creamy leather seat beneath warm lights.
It was golden, the light that spotlighted them, floating from small rounds above her head, but filling the cabin, not isolating her in its glow. There were others moving around, and though most of them glanced at her, they did not speak, did not try to touch her. She was so absorbed with the light that she did not notice Thor's departure until he returned with a case in his hand.
"Jane and Erik retrieved these from your dwelling." Slowly, she grabbed the small case that she knew to hold her spare pair of glasses. It was a comfortable weight in her hand, smooth and warm from the ambient heat in the plane. She opened it carefully and removed the plastic glasses before sliding them onto her face. She blinked as everything came into harsh focus, feeling that she had never seen this well before in her life.
It was a beautiful cabin they sat in, not just nice, but beautifully tasteful and very much a private transport. She glanced at the tall man next to her to see that it was indeed Thor, and she inhaled deeply unable to express the emotion that filled her at just the visual confirmation of his presence. She had seen him, been wrapped up in the presence that he radiated, and even heard his voice. But seeing him. Well, seeing was believing.
He took the open seat next to her and took to the task of buckling her own belt for her. Oh, right…
Over his focused head she saw another man take a seat across from her, dark hair and coloring, and impeccably groomed. If he had not had such a strong jaw she would have thought him pretty. As it was he was still incredibly handsome. He returned her stare, giving her an easy, sincere smile, and that was when she recognized him.
The plane took off, dropping her stomach somewhere into her feet, and she took several minutes to breathe deeply. No one said anything about what sounded like gasping to her ears, but Thor held her hand, and that helped.
All along, their third party member held her eyes, that same free smile on his face. She could not help but stare back, and did not have the presence of mind to realize that was entirely the point.
Once the plane evened out, the pilot announced they had reached cruising altitude. Darcy's eyes followed to the speaker overhead, and she sank fully into her seat. Cool air began to circulate through the cabin, keeping the air moving. She blinked slowly, savoring the simple feeling of air moving pleasantly over her face and neck.
She released Thor's hand with a worried smile that he attempted to do away with a more radiant expression of his own. Then she turned her attention back to man across from her who was pretending to read a tablet.
"Hi, I'm Tony Stark," he said, in a voice made familiar by news and youtube. "You're currently sitting in my jet and are a most welcome guest." A cough from across the aisle interrupted him. Darcy glanced to see the man from her cell staring at him. His eyes cut to her for a moment, then back to Tony, who did not so much as acknowledge him. He shrugged at Darcy and said, "Technically it's SHIELD property, but it's mostly my design and definitely my decorating. I stand by my original statement that you are very welcome to be here." She stared, but he continued on as if it was natural to cart just-rescued young women around in a million dollar G6, or whatever they were riding in.
His eyes turned serious for a moment, and Darcy's own dropped, as he spoke in a softer tone. "Miss Lewis, Darcy, you are free here. You can go where you want, when you want, as frequently as you want. Hell, you can even go to the cockpit." It was similar to the voice she had heard in press conferences in months gone by- to the point, upbeat. It was also softer than anything she had imagined from the billionaire.
Mr. Stark's words were interrupted as a new body filled the aisle. She, Thor, and Stark glanced up to a bespectacled man, graying at his temples. He smiled uneasily and passed a snack cup of vanilla pudding as well as a spoon to Thor, who passed them to her as soon as he lifted her seat's tray.
She stared at the American brand dessert, snack, whatever it had once been labeled in a safer space. The longer she stared at it, the less she knew what to do. She knew what she wanted to do, and Tony's words moments before were still with her, but she could not bring herself to move her fingers and take what was offered.
It was Thor who took over the task of opening it. His hands dwarfed the small cup, completely hid the plastic spoon. She heard the sound of the top being peeled back like thunder on the plains. Then he set the spoon in reach of her hand, but it was Stark who rescued her.
"Darcy," he said softly. "Look at me." She did so, feeling acutely embarrassed but mostly relieved. The expression he leveled at her was so serious that she could not look away. "Do you want to eat?" he asked. She nodded slowly. He returned the nod. "Then eat a bite, please." He cast his glance toward the man still standing in the aisle, then looked back to her, but her eyes did not leave his face. "We'll see how you do with this much."
He spoke as she ate. God, had pudding always been this sweet? She winced at it, but could not stop eating. No one tried to stop her, either, and it was less than a minute later when she set the licked-clean cup back down on her tray. Tony smiled at her again and she had enough presence of mind to realize she had just scraped a pudding cup clean with her finger. Embarrassed again, she wiped her mouth furiously with the edge of her sleeve, but he shook his head. "Bill Cosby knew what he was talking about," he said with a shrug.
"Nothing says you shouldn't," she rattled back to him instinctively. Then she started at the words that had rasped from her throat while he smirked. At her side, Thor grinned down at her. Her heart was racing, suddenly, and she could not make it stop.
Tony blinked at her and quickly and quickly began to speak, "We're currently leaving Europe. We should be back in the States in about… six hours," he said, with a glance toward his bare wrist. "This plane, though technically SHIELD property, was originally designed by my father back in the 1940s. I don't know if you're one of those people who believes all the best stuff was made decades ago. Total crap, by the way, but in this case it might be comforting to know that the plane was designed by a genius."
She eased into her seat, feeling overfull from the pudding and yet not regretting it in the slightest. Her eyes scanned for another cup, but she settled in after a moment, watching Tony's mouth, his nice jaw, as he continued to speak at the speed of their flight. "We're going to be touching down in New York and we'll probably stay there for a while. Dr. Foster is super duper excited to see you, as well as Dr. Selvig. They'd both probably come after us if we went anywhere else. New York is not exactly my scene. I'm more west coast, myself, but I'd rather not have to fight off one of SHIELD's princesses. Or Dr. Foster. Unless," he said with another direct stare at her, "you'd rather hit up someplace else?"
"New York's fine," she rasped.
Tony Stark kept talking, chatting about things she had never heard of. He was not current on popular television, but promised that once they returned she could watch all of the Spongebob she wanted. At her wince, he suggested Glee, and she chuckled as she curled against the bulkhead. Some minutes later, his gibberish died down, and she opened both eyes.
He was still watching her in the silence, gave her an upturn of the corner of his mouth, a not-quite smile that she returned. Had he been honest? Could she do whatever she wanted? The test was immediate.
"Would you please keep talking?" she whispered.
"I'm sorry?" he asked, cocking his head. But before she could explain away her request, he shook his head, "I don't think I've ever heard those words before in my life."
In the hours that followed, Darcy heard all about Stark Industries, the unflappable Pepper Potts, what had been happening in the past few weeks- only weeks, he mentioned. Most of the words passed over her head in a rhythmic undulation of droning.
They were halfway over the Atlantic when she fell asleep.
Thanks to my reviewers: Pegasus63, Enchanting Imagination, Suzy87, oUo, Starshinedown, shadowstarxy, LilMissM, Fernanda, flamingmarsh, and Susan M. M, and to the anonymous as well :)
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