Chapter 22: Clearance
"So what does this button do?"
"Don't touch that button, Darcy!" Jane warned, swiping her hand away.
"What? I was just asking."
Jane bent her head back over her calculations and silence fell in the lab again. Darcy pushed her chair away from the machine she'd been poking at and wheeled back over to her laptop. She was bored. Tony's fancy equipment replaced most of the need for her presence in the lab, bar getting snacks and coffee, and the building was rigged so she didn't even have to do that half the time. If she tried talking to people she felt like she was distracting them, they were so buried in their work, and even when they did strike up a conversation she couldn't follow a tenth of what they were saying. Finally building a working Bifrost was supposed to be way more fun than this—she'd expected frantic excitement, maybe a few explosions—and instead she was busy trolling the depths of the internet for lolcats.
Vacation had only been over for three days, and she was ready for another one.
The lab doors pffffed open and she was the only one to notice Natasha stride in, followed by the mother of all badasses. She recognised Director Fury from TV—not that he ever gave interviews, but after the invasion of New York he'd become a much talked about figure. Now he was acting King of the World while the UN got back on its feet, so she felt like she ought to be saluting or something. Everyone else ignored the newcomers and continued to work.
Darcy glanced around, wondering if she should be pretending to work too, but Natasha caught her eye and nodded for her attention. Fury cleared his throat and the scientists gradually stopped what they were doing. Jane turned around and blinked at him like an owl dragged into sunlight.
"Stark, put the spanner down."
Tony ignored the order. "Talk, I can keep working. Time is of the essence and all."
"We need to take this to a meeting room. I know you wouldn't appreciate me bringing the Secretary of Defense into your inner sanctum."
Tony threw the spanner down. "JARVIS, facilities required in Conference Suite A. Plus coffee, cookies and milk."
Everyone rose from their desks to follow Fury, although Jane took her notebook with her and kept scribbling as she walked. She wasn't the only one.
As Fury passed Darcy he paused, his gaze flicking to the name badge she wore. Only then did recognition filter into his expression. "You can stay here."
Natasha interrupted. "She should come."
"She doesn't have clearance."
"It's being processed. In the meantime, she's earned the right." Natasha's crossed arms and level stare made it clear she wasn't backing down. Fury didn't back down but he did consider her argument.
"Fine. On your head be it, Romanoff."
He stalked away and Natasha stayed at the back of the group, so Darcy dropped back to walk beside her.
"You're welcome. I meant it when you said you'd earned your place."
"So what's this about?"
Romanoff gave a blank smile. "Not until we're in the conference room and we can control the eyes and ears involved."
The meeting room was on the same floor, and the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a decent view until they were dimmed to black, a map of the stars projected onto them. The tables were set in a horseshoe facing the front of the room and there was a definite hierarchy to seating, which left Darcy over in the farthest corner from Fury and a couple of men that practically smelled like politicians.
Tony made a big show of striding over and shaking the hand of one of them. "So you're the new Secretary of Defense. I've been so busy that election must have passed me right by."
The Secretary frowned and Fury squared up to Tony. "These are not ordinary times, Stark. We can only put the world back to how it's meant to be if there's still a world left. If you sit down and give us a chance you might actually realize we're trying to ensure that."
Tony slumped down into a seat and waved a hand to say "go ahead". Everyone else stared at Fury.
"Time is running out," announced Fury, turning to face the room, hands behind his back. "Those of you who don't know officially have already guessed what's going down. War is coming our way, and it's bigger than anything we've faced before. It'll make the Battle of Manhattan look like a skirmish, and we already lost one of our best assets. The Tesseract is gone and so is our chance to build weapons that can match the Chitauri's technology."
"That's why we're working on the bridge," said Jane. "Once we've got contact with Asgard, we can ask for it back—"
"It'll be too damn late. What we need from Asgard is back up. The Tesseract caused this mess in the first place—Loki didn't tell me much when he was in charge, but he did say this army will tear Earth apart looking for it. They don't know we don't have it anymore and they aren't going to take our word for it when we say it's gone."
"But we're only weeks—maybe days—away from a working bridge."
"And we're only weeks away from an invasion."
Gasps rang around the table, stunned faces gaping at Fury.
"That soon?" asked the Secretary.
"That soon," Fury confirmed. "We've got every suitable satellite monitoring the skies. That army is moving fast, using bridges of their own from what I've been told." Behind him, lights flickered on the star map, dates scrolling across the top as one cluster of dots shifted, from the outer edge inward. "Loki made preparations. There are stockpiles of supplies and defense points across the globe." A spinning globe appeared on another wall, tiny flags showing the locations he spoke about as it span. "But they won't be enough. We are going to be outnumbered. Even if we arm every man, woman and child on Earth, we believe there will be more Chitauri."
"Have you spoken to him?" Darcy asked, then flinched when everyone turned to look at her. "He's the only person who's had real contact with whoever's behind this. He knows why they want the Tesseract and he might know their weaknesses."
"He's not feeling particularly chatty right now, and I always got the impression he'd been kept in the dark. He was a pawn—they made him a deal and he didn't care about the endgame. He just wanted his throne. Now they'll be coming for him too."
"Don't tell me SHIELD never did a little research on the leftover critters," said Tony.
"We recovered all the ones we could, and yes, we've been conducting research on some of them. Kept the rest on ice. That's where you come in. We need you to take that research and use it to build a weapon that will work against them. If we're going to send our soldiers up against them, we need to arm them with something that will actually work. I can have every manufacturing facility on this planet ready to go in 72 hours."
"No pressure or anything."
"If I didn't think you could do it, I wouldn't be asking."
"Technically you didn't ask, but since that's the closest you've ever gotten to a compliment I'll take it. What about the bridge?"
"Doctors Foster, Selvig and Banner will continue overseeing that project. If you need anything, tell me. If there's anyone you know of who should be on this team, tell me. We need that bridge working." Jane nodded and shared a glance with the rest of the team. They were so close, but time could run out on them. Worse, they could make a mistake that destroy the planet or kill anyone trying to cross the bridge. "As for the rest of our strategy, we've got a World Security Council meeting in an hour. We're going to build on the plans Loki already set in motion. Soldiers in every nation will be mobilized."
Silence fell as Fury eyeballed them all.
"I don't have to tell you that what you just heard does not leave this room. The last thing we need is global panic. If I hear even the sniff of a rumor and can trace it back to someone who was in this meeting, you will form part of the Chitauri greeting party."
Darcy was rescued from the tedium of another afternoon by an appointment with Dr. Wilson. Oh, the world was about to end, but that didn't mean she had anything more to do in the lab, and she'd have lost her mind if she'd been left to fester in her own worry.
"You've been quiet today," Dr. Wilson commented towards the end of the session.
"Tired, I guess." Truth was, she felt awful for keeping quiet about the impending invasion, but if Darcy couldn't keep her mouth shut then what was to say the doctor could? Fury would be good on his word in tracking down the leak.
"But your sleep has been improving."
"It has." Though her nightmares hadn't stopped, they were less vivid, and the doctor was teaching her grounding techniques to help her calm herself in the small hours. She was also writing about her experiences on Dr. Wilson's suggestion, scribbling the dreams down when she woke from one. The notebook was kept in a locked safe in her suite, only taken out when she was going to and from her appointments, which were still held in the guest quarters of Stark Tower—neutral ground. "I'm kind of bored during the day. Guess I need to ask to be reassigned."
"Taking charge will help. Any small measure of control will."
Jane was waiting outside her room when she arrived back, fidgeting with nervous energy. "I can't concentrate—no one can. We're having dinner up in the penthouse to try and figure out what we're doing." She guided Darcy away from the door, oblivious of the glances Darcy cast back. The notebook was still in her bag, with a three page account of her night with Loki in it, and she wanted it back in the safe.
"I just need to—"
"Besides, we need a break from the inside of the lab and I'm hoping Thor will come. I haven't seen him since they captured Loki."
Never mind. No one knew about the notebook anyway. It was safe in her purse—demanding to drop it off in her room would only draw suspicion. "You miss him, huh?"
"I'm worried about him. He's been through a ton of stuff and I don't think he's had anyone to turn to, but I'm cooped up in the lab all the time and he's determined to guard Loki."
When the elevator opened on the penthouse they found a buffet had been set up, sampling cuisine from all over the world, while a long table dominated the room. The Avengers and the Asgardian warriors were already seated, plates piled high, but there was no sign of Thor. Jane's face fell.
"It's still early," Darcy murmured. "Maybe you could ask Fandral or Sif to swap places with him to give him the night off."
"That's not a bad idea." Jane grabbed a plate and Darcy grabbed them seats at the end of the table, next to the Asgardians. Sif was sniffing at a mound of chilli dubiously, while Volstagg was mopping up the last of some curry with naan bread.
"This is the quietest feast I've ever been to," said Fandral in greeting.
"I don't think this is supposed to be a proper feast," Darcy replied. "And we all found out we're facing annihilation today."
"Nonsense. We've been in tighter spots. Remember when we faced the Muspell hoard?"
When the warriors had finished telling the story, Steve was prodded into explaining how he'd wiped out a Nazi facility, and Tony told them about his time in Afghanistan. The mood was lighter when they realized how much they'd all faced so far and survived.
Darcy excused herself to refill her plate and when she returned Jane's seat was empty, but Natasha was sat opposite.
"She went to the bathroom," she said, ripping into a chicken wing.
It took ten minutes for Jane to return and when she did, she dropped Darcy's purse into her lap, sliding back into her seat without meeting her eye. Darcy froze, dropping her poppadom.
"I needed a tampon," Jane whispered. But Darcy could tell by the way she was gripping her fork that wasn't all she'd found.
"We should get some of the nachos before they all go," she said, guiding Jane up by the elbow and over to the buffet table, just out of earshot. Everyone was still too involved in war stories to listen to what they were saying.
"You read it, didn't you?" Darcy asked. She sounded calm to her own ears. She felt calm, apart from the urge to vomit, but it wouldn't last long.
"I didn't mean to." Jane didn't meet her eye, dumping a spoonful of guacamole onto a clean plate. "I really was looking for a tampon, and it fell out. I saw his name when I picked it up—"
"You had no right to!" She forced herself to whisper, because Natasha was paying attention even if no one was else was. "Those were my private thoughts."
"I get that, okay? I just wanted to know what was going on in your head, because you don't talk about it. Any of it. You were gone for months and brush it off as no big deal. But I can't believe you kept me out of this. The mirror? That is huge, and you never thought to share that with me?"
"I was trying to get my head around it, and trust me, it was better that you didn't know that stuff. How do you think people would react if they found out I slept with Loki?"
"You slept with Loki?" asked Jane, her question ringing across the room.
Shit. She hadn't read that part. Every person at the table dropped their cutlery and gaped at Darcy.
"So you were his mistress," said Sif, pushing herself to her feet. She reached for a sword that wasn't there—Fandral had already removed it, while Volstagg restrained her with an outstretched arm.
"No, I wasn't! It was a one night thing. If I hadn't done it, you wouldn't have the casket, and Loki would still be in power." It wasn't the whole truth, not by a mile, but it was the truth she needed to wield.
Jane turned on Natasha. "This is your fault! You made her do this, made her think she had to lower herself to that so she could be the hero—"
"—I'm not a kid!"
"I didn't make her do anything," Natasha replied quietly. "You're making this into a bigger thing than it is. She slept with a man—that's her choice."
"She slept with an enemy!" said Sif.
"He's done less to harm her than you have."
"So that makes it okay?" yelled Jane. "She's not you! She's not a spy! You can't just manipulate people into doing fucked-up stuff—"
"Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome," Erik remarked.
"Maybe it's not, because I have zero sympathy for the guy. And don't talk about me like I'm not here! This was my choice. I wanted to sleep with Loki, not just because it would help save the freaking world from him, but because I wanted to know what it was like. There. Happy now?"
Only Jane very obviously wasn't happy—Jane was looking at her like she'd grown another head.
"I can't believe you just said that."
"What's so hard to believe?"
"It's Loki," said Sif, her words dripping with disgust.
"That's rich," muttered Fandral.
"That was years ago, before we all learned what he truly was." For a moment everyone stared at Sif like she'd grown an extra set of appendages too, but Jane was quick to draw their attention back to Darcy.
"You know what he is and what he's done. To Thor. To Erik. To all those people he killed."
"I'm not saying he's a good guy. I'm not even saying I like him. I spent one night in his bed, and you all get to judge me like I killed someone?"
"This isn't just a bad one night stand, Darcy. This is Loki."
"Please tell me I am not hearing what I think I'm hearing."
Darcy spun to face Fury, who was stood only a few paces behind her. Jane backed away from her and no one else said a word. "I haven't done anything wrong," she said, and it was the truth, but she knew it didn't matter.
"We'll see about that. Romanoff, I want you in my office. This is definitely on your head. Rodriguez, Brown, take Ms Lewis to the secure holding area. She has questions to answer."
Thanks to Jen, Twiggy, Rhi and Lindsey for their beta skills.