SUMMARY: Steve has a meet cute; Tony uncovers evidence of a SHIELD mole in their midst.
RATING: PG-13 (for swears)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I'm back finally with a new chapter, a day earlier than promised, even! And hey, look, things seem to have taken a turn for the Steve/Darcy.
“If the material is fluid, the displacement of the plate increases continually with time under a constant shearing force. This means there is no relationship between the displacement, or deformation, and the force.”
Steve glanced nervously around the coffee shop and tugged the brim of his Yankees cap down lower as he waited for his mocha latte. The shop was packed with mid-afternoon coffee-seekers and the TV above the counter was tuned to a 24-hour news channel doing a segment on the Avengers. Or, more specifically, speculating about what had happened to all of the Avengers and whether or not they were ever coming back.
The disappearing act had been Pepper’s idea initially. They needed to lower expectations, she’d advised. Don’t let people get too excited, allow some of the furor to die down. And Director Fury had agreed. It was in everyone’s best interest, he’d suggested rather strenuously, to let the rest of the world—particularly the Council—believe the Avengers were just a one-show engagement. At least until they were a little more organized and ready to make their official debut on their own terms.
Tony hadn’t liked going along with anything Fury recommended—one of his conditions for continuing the Avengers Initiative was that they no longer be affiliated with SHIELD in any way—but even he’d seen the wisdom in keeping a low profile until they’d gotten their act together.
SHIELD’s parting gift had been helping them drop off the radar, orchestrating a campaign of disinformation and providing carefully-constructed false identities for Steve, Bruce, and Thor (in the event of his return) so they could remain incognito. Tony, of course, wasn’t in a position to simply disappear.
Stark Industries had issued a press release stating that for the time being, Tony Stark was one-hundred percent focused on rebuilding efforts in Manhattan, and soundly denying that he had any knowledge of the current whereabouts or intentions of Steve Rogers, Thor, the Hulk, or the government agents code-named Black Widow and Hawkeye. Pepper had even managed to keep Tony on a short leash all summer, limiting his public exposure to a single appearance at a celebrity telethon to raise money for the cleanup of Manhattan.
The TV screen in the coffee shop was currently showing the same overused clip of a tuxedoed Tony Stark smirking on the red carpet. “What do you think Captain America is up to?” asked the reporter, thrusting a microphone into Tony’s face. “Is he ever coming back?” Tony, his eyes shielded by a pair of gaudy sunglasses, offered a convincingly sincere shrug and said: “Beats me, I haven’t heard from the guy in months. Personally, I like to think he’s lying on a beach somewhere, sipping a fruity cocktail out of a coconut while bikini-clad women rub suntan lotion on his chest. After seventy years of service to his country, I think he’s earned a little fun, don’t you?”
Steve cringed and hunched his shoulders, regretting the impulse that had driven him out of Stark Tower in the middle of a workday. Fortunately, none of the other patrons in the coffee shop seemed to be paying much attention to the television, or to him.
“Venti mocha latte,” the woman behind the counter called out.
Steve started to reach for his drink but pulled up short when the young woman next to him reached for it at the same time. “Pardon me,” he said, politely withdrawing his hand.
“Oh, shit, this one’s yours, isn’t it?” The young woman pushed the drink towards him sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“No, please,” Steve said, gesturing that she should take it. “I’ll wait for the next one.”
“Wow, a gentleman,” she said, stuffing a dollar in the tip jar before picking up the cup. “And one with excellent taste in mocha lattes, too. They’re like the best here, aren’t they? And they always make those little pictures in the foam, I totally love that. Look, I got a panda!” She held the cup out so he could see.
Steve leaned in to look, close enough that he could smell her shampoo. It smelled like strawberries. He straightened quickly and sidled back a step, into safer territory.
“They are quite good here,” he agreed, making what he was fairly certain was an unsuccessful attempt to hide his nervousness. He’d never really gotten the hang of talking to women in social situations. As long as he was in a professional setting everything was fine, but outside of work he invariably felt like he was in a leaky boat without a paddle. “I think the ones at the cafe by my apartment in Brooklyn are even better,” he added lamely.
“Brooklyn, huh?” The woman inclined her head and smiled at him. She had a nice smile and if she was aware of his awkwardness she gave no indication. “Well, for now I’m just gonna have to settle for the ones that are walking distance from Stark Tower. A girl needs her mocha latte fix to make it through the workday.”
“You work at Stark?” Steve asked, vaguely alarmed. Because of course the first normal girl he’d tried to talk to in the twenty-first century would turn out to work for Tony.
She gave him a wry grimace. “That’s me: faceless corporate drone extraordinaire. But don’t worry—” She stood on her tiptoes and leaned in so they were nearly cheek to cheek and her lips were right next to his ear; it took nearly all of Steve’s willpower not to jump back in panic. “Your secret’s safe with me, Cap,” she whispered.
He felt himself redden. “Oh,” he stammered, backing away. “That’s… um… okay.” What was taking that mocha latte so long? Were they milking the cow back there?
“It’s cool,” she said conspiratorially. “I mean, if everyone knew, you wouldn’t be able to go out for coffee anymore because there’d be, like, hordes of love-crazed groupies following you around everywhere you went.”
Steve swallowed, his eyes scanning the room for the quickest escape routes. He was prepared to abandon his mocha latte if necessary. “I don’t know about that…”
She shrugged lightly. “It must kind of suck for you. I mean, I’ll bet you’d rather just be treated like a regular dude, am I right?”
“I suppose I would,” he admitted cautiously. “I never really liked it when people made a fuss.”
She nodded, blowing on the top of her latte to cool it off. “I totally get that.”
He cleared his throat, deciding for the time being against making a run for it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name…”
“Darcy,” she told him.
“Another venti mocha latte,” shouted the woman behind the counter.
Finally. Steve turned and retrieved his drink.
“What picture did you get?” Darcy asked.
He held out the cup so she could see. “A heart.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow and cocked her head at the woman behind the counter. “Someone likes you.”
He felt himself blush again. “Well… um…” he started and then trailed off, not really sure what do next.
The man standing behind him sneezed loudly.
“God bless you,” Steve and Darcy automatically said at the same time.
Steve looked Darcy and smiled.
She smiled back.
“Can I walk you back to work, Darcy?” he asked.
“Fuck!” Clint shouted, hopping on one foot. “Ow! Goddammit, Thor, do you have to leave your fucking hammer out all the time? That’s like the third time this week I’ve stubbed my toe!”
Natasha didn’t bother to hide her snicker of amusement.
“My apologies,” Thor said, scooping Mjölnir off the floor and depositing it behind the couch.
“At least keep it out of the pathways,” Clint grumbled, sinking down beside Natasha and rubbing his sore foot.
“Poor baby,” she smirked at him. “Want me to kiss it and make it better?”
“Fuck off,” Clint muttered, the subtle curl of his mouth belying the grouchy tone. Natasha burrowed closer and he draped an arm around her.
“Anyone seen Tony?” Steve asked. It was movie night again and so far their host was a no show.
“If he’s not here, does that mean movie night’s canceled?” Natasha asked hopefully. They were supposed to watch Independence Day this week, a prospect she found almost as enticing as involuntary dental surgery. She’d suggested The Amityville Horror instead, but had been outvoted. Allegedly. Her requests for a recount had been soundly denied.
“No,” Steve said, shooting her a disapproving look. “He’ll be here.”
Bruce wasn’t there either, but that didn’t really surprise Natasha. There was a pretty good chance that one was her fault.
The elevator doors opened and Tony strode in with an annoyed look on his face. “Movie night’s canceled,” he announced.
“What?” Steve said, looking disappointed. “Why?”
“Because instead we’re going to talk about this,” Tony said, tossing something small and electronic onto the coffee table.
Natasha made sure her expression and her body language didn’t change, but her mind began racing through a number of scenarios—all of them bad.
“What is this tiny object?” Thor asked, picking it up and squinting at it.
“It’s an electronic listening device,” Natasha said quietly. “A bug.”
“Gold star for the super spy,” Tony said, swinging around to stare at her, his eyes narrowed.
“Where’d you find that?” Steve asked.
“In my lab,” Tony said. “I found four of them, in fact. One in the gym, one in the kitchen, and one in this very room. Anyone care to guess the provenance of this particular piece of tech?”
Clint stood up and took the bug from Thor. “It’s SHIELD tech,” he said, turning it over in his hand. He glanced at Natasha, frowning.
“SHIELD tech,” Tony repeated, his attention still fixed pointedly on Natasha. “Interesting.”
“SHIELD has been listening to our private conversations?” Thor asked angrily. “Spying on us?” He looked from Tony to Natasha, and then to Clint, the confusion in his expression melting into fury.
“Hang on a fucking minute,” Clint said looking at all the suddenly suspicious faces around him. “You don’t think we had something to do with this?”
“Well, let’s see,” Tony said, his focus never wavering from Natasha. “SHIELD spy tech … SHIELD spies.”
Clint’s voice was low and steely. “We don’t work for SHIELD anymore.”
Tony finally tore his attention away from Natasha in order to eye Clint hostilely. “And we’re just supposed to take your word for that, I suppose? You’re only here because she said you two were a package deal. But what do we really know about you, except that you were willing to betray your own side once before? Not exactly building a case for trust.”
Natasha’s jaw clenched. “That was the Tesseract,” she said. “It could have happened to any one of us. It nearly did happen to Steve in Stuttgart before you showed up.”
“You’re spies,” Tony said coldly. “You stab people in the back for a living.”
Thor took a menacing step towards Clint, fists clenched. “You would betray us?” he demanded.
Natasha didn’t move from her seat on the couch, but she was tensed like a bowstring, her mind cataloguing all the ways she could temporarily incapacitate Thor if necessary.
“Let’s just take a breath,” Steve said, forcing himself between them.
“You take a fucking breath,” Clint snapped. “I should have known this would happen.”
“To be fair, it’s not just you I don’t trust,” Tony said, his gaze sliding back to Natasha. He seemed wholly unaffected by the tension in the room. “Agent Romanoff’s the one going on lunch dates with Fury’s minions, after all.”
It took a considerable effort for Natasha to refrain from launching herself at him and choking him out with her bare hands. “You’ve been keeping tabs on me?” she snarled.
“Spying on the spy?” Tony retorted. “It only seemed prudent.”
“What are you talking about?” Clint demanded. “What lunch date?”
“She met with Maria Hill last week.” Tony said, raising an eyebrow at Clint. “She didn’t tell you? Interesting.”
Clint stared at Natasha, his expression shifting from disbelief to one of utter betrayal. She was going to kill Tony Stark. Slowly and painfully.
“Care to explain yourself?” Steve asked Natasha.
“I don’t owe an explanation to anyone in this room,” she replied icily.
“So, I guess the question is, which one of you is the SHIELD mole?” Tony mused. “Or is it both of you? Are you in on it together or is Fury playing you against one other?”
“If you want me off the team, just say the word,” Clint announced, stone-faced.
“I want you off the team,” Tony replied flatly.
“As do I,” Thor said. “I will not go into battle with a traitor at my back. Not again.”
“Hang on,” Steve interjected. “Before anyone does anything rash, let’s talk about this.”
“If he goes, I go,” Natasha said.
“Don’t do me any more favors,” Clint spat.
“I’m absolutely fine if you’re both gone,” Tony said. “For the record.”
“No one’s leaving the team,” Steve said firmly. “Not until—”
He was interrupted by a loud, rumbling crash that vibrated up through the floor of the tower and rattled all the windows. Natasha was on her feet immediately. “Where’s Banner?” she asked.
“JARVIS,” Tony barked. “What the hell was that? Talk to me.”
There was the briefest of pauses before the genteel voice of Tony’s A.I. answered. “Dr. Banner is still in his lab, sir. The disturbance did not originate in Stark Tower.”
Tony exhaled. “That’s a relief, I guess. Where did it come from?”
“Over there,” Steve said. He was standing at the picture window, pointing down at the city beneath them. They all moved to the window, following the line of his finger to a large cloud of smoke billowing up from the ground a few blocks away. It was large enough and thick enough to obscure several city blocks.
“What is it?” Thor asked. “An explosion?”
Tony frowned. “Could be… but the smoke doesn’t look right.”
“No heat,” Clint said, shaking his head. “Looks more like a debris cloud.”
“Sir, I’m finding reports of a crane collapse at a nearby construction site,” JARVIS interjected.
“Shit,” Tony breathed.
“How bad?” Steve asked.
“Early eyewitness accounts seem to indicate extensive damage to a number of adjacent buildings,” JARVIS answered.
“Get me a video feed,” Tony said. “Satellite, traffic cams, security, ATM, anything you can find in the area, show it to me.”
The TV snapped on. At first the picture on the screen was so hazy it was impossible to make out much of anything. It was a just a nebulous gray blur, like staring through the inside of a cloud. Then the screen divided into four different camera views. Two of the others were just as hazy and useless as the first, but the fourth camera was at a greater distance from the accident, affording a slightly better perspective.
Natasha squinted at it, trying to make some sense of the images she was seeing. As the dust cloud settled somewhat she was able to make out the outline of a building in the background. Or, at least, part of the outline of a building. It had been completely dissected by the fallen crane. One whole side of the building had sheered off, leaving nothing but a giant pile of rubble trapped beneath the twisted metal behemoth that had crushed it.
“That’s bad,” Tony said quietly. “Really, really bad.”
“Let’s go,” Steve said, already moving towards the elevator. “They’re going to need all the help they can get with search and rescue.” He paused, his gaze falling pointedly on Clint and Natasha. “All hands on deck.”
Natasha nodded and started running for the stairwell.