The Ring: Counterpunch
November 21, 2016
Darcy breathed a silent sigh of relief. According to her most recent text, Natasha had confirmed that Tony and Captain Rogers had buried the hatchet – figuratively, thank you. Barnes had reacted surprisingly well to her suggestion that he follow her around and allow Trudeau’s staff to ogle him. All in the name of fostering better international relations. And three different people had complemented her outfit. Considering the way the day could have gone, Darcy was feeling pretty good about herself.
So, of course that is when the other shoe dropped.
A buzz of whispers ran through the cubicle farm outside the closet of an office where Darcy’s primary Canadian contact/gossip worked and she stuck her head out to see what was going on. A sixties-modern glass wall separated the cube monkeys from the corridor and Darcy got a good look at what had started the commotion. No less than six uniformed American soldiers were stationed in the hallway while an older suited gentlemen did his best to loom over a security staffer. To his credit, the Canadian held his ground and the loose half-circle of men and women behind him maintained tight smiles and straight postures. Where the Americans looked like they were eager to start a fight, the Canadians had a very polite fuck you, please attitude. Unfortunately, Darcy doubted that would be enough to stop the dickwad in the suit.
“Christ on a cracker and Loki on the loose,” Darcy muttered. She turned around to close the office door, only to find Barnes right behind her. She pushed on his chest. He didn’t move. “Back up, buddy. You’re making like a doorstop.”
“Ross.” The growl was low and intense. Darcy’s contact stiffened up, the older man slowly scooting as far away from the door – and Barnes – as he could get. She didn’t blame him. Barnes hadn’t said two words since they had arrived, and a quick glance at his face confirmed that he was looking very finger-to-the-throat-means-death and she did not doubt he knew how Ross felt about non-consensual human experimentation and imprisonment without due process.
“Whoa there tiger,” she murmured. “We need to reconnoiter on this before you open up a can of whoop ass and make this into an international incident with, like, the only country that doesn’t outright hate us.” He didn’t look away from Ross, but he hadn’t moved to break through the glass and Ross’ all-American phalanx of duped stooges either. The little bit of tension that had melted away returned to Darcy two fold. She could feel that her shirt was getting damp under the arms. Thank god she had a jacket in her bag to cover up the inevitable stress-induced pit stains.
“I swear to you, if he so much as breathes like he is going to arrest anyone I will personally go all Pucca on him, but until then we need to figure out what the hell is going on. You feel me, Jimmy?” She held her breath for a moment until he relaxed and took one long step backward – enough for her to close the office door most of the way. Darcy immediately whipped out her phone to text Natasha. “Martin,” she said to her contact, who would probably need a nice fruit basket or something in exchange for using his office to spy on a foreign Secretary of Defense, “you might want to call upstairs and let someone know they have an uninvited guest on the way.” Martin looked relieved to have a task, but Darcy didn’t have time for his feelings. Her phone buzzed again and she glanced down and cursed.
Tony was rapid-fire texting her with commentary on his meeting. She judged him to be about five minutes away from offending someone if he wasn’t distracted. Ross would be a distraction – no, bad Darcy. Having Iron Man blast a hole through the Secretary of Dickbags would be a bad idea. Darcy told Tony to pay attention and promised him she would report positively to Pepper about his behavior if he could stay on task. She peeked out of the office to see that Ross had moved on, but two American soldiers had been left stationed awkwardly in the main lobby just a few yards down the corridor.
“Fuck all,” she muttered to herself. Okay. Okay. You can do this, Lewis. You have the brains, the know how, the support of Tony-fucking-Stark. You have tased bigger threats and kicked the balls in on worse assholes. You can do this. She straightened her shoulders and dug out her suit jacket. Thank Dupont for non-wrinkle fabric. As soon as her moist armpit stink was concealed, she pulled out her tablet and brought up the dossier on Ross. It was a combination of Tony’s questionably obtained files, public news clips, and her own observations. Darcy took another deep breath and put her hand on the doorknob.
Worst came to worst, she had a great combination of visual distraction and liberal violence available to her. Barnes might come in handy too. Ha, she forced out a chuckle. Handy. Half-way down the corridor and her phone vibrated with an incoming message.
MatiHari: Playing field relocated. Rival team cooling their heels. Take 20 before discuss reschedule for rain delay.
Darcy stopped and stared for a moment. She hadn’t had a lot of one-on-one dealings with Natasha, but she often had the suspicion that the woman was not-so-subtly fucking with her. “What the hell?”
“Delegates changed meeting rooms.” Barnes was leaning over her shoulder, his sudden close presence startling an undignified squeak out of her as he read her phone. “Ross has been denied access to the meeting, but he is not yet aware of it. She wants you to stall him as long as possible.”
Darcy turned her neck at an uncomfortable angle to glare at him. “One – don’t read other peoples texts. That is super invasive and just rude. B – I’m not a-” she lowered her voice and glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to eavesdrop, “-spy, so stop looking so judgey about my secret decoder ring skills – or whatever. And three –“ she gulped, “ – fuck me.”
Darcy breathed out the last two words. Barnes took up most of her vision, but just past the leather sleeve of his jacket she could make out a small group coming through security in the lobby. Three of them moved off out of sight, escorted by a staffer, but the one who remained behind to make a phone call was all-too familiar.
“Already told you I’m not that easy, doll.”
“Shut the fuck up, Captain Kirk. I have bigger problems to deal with. Actually,” Darcy stepped back quickly and gave him a once over. His hair was not as long as it had been in his America’s Most Wanted mugshot, and he had combed it back neatly, but his jaw was already darkening with the suggestion of stubble. Combined with the black motorcycle jacket over dark gray button up and charcoal slacks and he looked like a slightly saner, better smelling version of the world’s deadliest assassin. “Okay. Okay. I can work with this.” She thrust her tablet under her arm and stood on her tiptoes to mess up his hair. He jerked away, but the reaction was delayed enough that she still achieved her goal.
“All righty. I need to go intimidate the crap out of someone. I need you to lurk quietly in the background and be ready to pull out the big guns if things get out of hand.” She fired off a text message to Friday requesting several files be sent to someone in the building who could print them out and bring them to her.
Barnes frowned, not nearly as into her plan as she would have liked. “I was specifically told not to pull out any guns. And not to engage with anyone here.”
“Dude. The big guns are for me. Remember? I’m Pucca in this scenario?” At his blank look she sighed. All her best, most personally reassuring metaphors were lost on her new companions. “Really?” She muttered as she stepped around him, trying to channel her irritation to push down the real possibility that the actual fate of the world – via the future of the Avengers – was resting on her shoulders. “Thor would have got that one. I am the ninja here. You just need to make sure I don’t literally punch anyone in the balls. Figuratively, yes. Literally, no.” Barnes made a sound between a grunt and a snort, but when she looked up at him his expression was impassive.
“Glad we had this chat. Come on.” She marched across the lobby until she was within arms reach of her target. The poser didn’t look up until she had grabbed his elbow.
“Hey-” Before he could finish that thought, Darcy steered him into a shallow alcove with a water fountain and a bench. “-what are you doing? Darcy? How are you…what the hell?”
“Brenden.” She smiled, widely. Then dialed it back a little. There was such a thing as too much teeth and despite the almost overwhelming urge to deck him, she didn’t want to scare Brenden away. “What a surprise to see you here! How are things? Last I heard you were working on the Williams campaign?”
“Uh, yeah. We won?” He cleared his throat to hide his confusion and Darcy almost rolled her eyes. “She offered me a place on her staff, at the White House.” He was trying so hard not to brag it was painful to watch.
“Yeah, awesome for you. In case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t the White House. So what are you doing here, Brenden?”
“I’m not at liberty to-”
“Brenden.” Darcy leaned in. He was a good four inches taller than her since she was in flats, but she made up for in in sheer glare. “You’re here. Your boss is here. Your boss’ boss is here. What. The fuck. Is the President Elect trying to stick her nose into?”
“Darcy, you know I can’t-”
Darcy used the hard edge of her phone to poke him in the solar plexus, making him let out an oompf. Brenden had been a swimmer in high school and college, but graduate school and working the political circuit and made his thin, wiry frame soft. “You owe me you weaselly little shit.”
“Are you trying to blackmail me?” His eyes narrowed, and she could tell anger was starting to overcome his surprise at seeing her.
“I am reminding you, dingus, that you, and I quote, ‘owe me your life and would give whatever I need, whenever’ end quote. Cough up the info, Brenden.”
“Jesus,” he let out an irritated sigh. “Why the fuck did I ever think this was hot? You’re a goddamn piranha, Darcy.” He ran a hand through his hair and then self-consciously smoothed it back down. “Williams got wind that Trudeau was going to hold a negotiations meeting, to dissolve the Accords. You’ve been following that, right?” His condescension was so thick she could have choked on it. “You know about the Sokovia Accords and-” A sharp release of air behind her cut off Breden and his focus veered over her shoulder. He frowned. Then his eyes widened behind pretentious hipster glasses. “Is that-”
Darcy snapped her fingers. “Over here buddy. I’m on kind of a time crunch. Williams. Accords. Keep going.”
“Um. Yeah. Williams is worried that Ellis might cave and nullify everything before he leaves office. Public support for the Accords is less than twenty-three percent, and polls show that Captain America is getting strong numbers on the west coast and in middle America. Veterans Affairs has seen a tremendous grassroots campaign for him and the Win- ah,” his eyes darted away from her and then back again. “So she wanted her Chief of Staff here to keep an eye on things. Williams made pulling out of UN -backed foreign agreements and government oversight of corporate endeavors huge parts of her campaign platform, and Ellis could really take the wind out of her 100-day plan if anything is signed before the inauguration.”
Darcy’s mind was whirling. It had taken her a month of phone calls, emails, mild bribery, and one very tense and very off-book meeting with President Ellis to get where they were. If Williams started throwing her weight around, and stirring up the public even more than the tight and nasty election had done, then everything could be ruined. The Germans had only agreed to join the talks because Ellis had personally contacted their Prime Minister. The French came because the Brits and the Germans would be there, and god forbid the fucking French ever be left out of anything. The Chinese had sent a representative – but since they hadn’t signed the Accords to begin with their input was more academic. And had significantly more unspoken but obvious military threat behind it. The Japanese were solidly behind dissolution of the Accords – but having Team Cap save thousands of lives during a tsunami earlier in the year had bought a lot of loyalty. Russia was a wild card – but their relationship with Williams was weird as fuck and her entry into discussions would be unpredictable as far as they were concerned.
“Look, Darcy.” Brenden was starting to straighten up as if he had found his c-c-courage somewhere. “I really don’t have time to catch up-”
“Tell the future Chief of Staff that I’d like a word,” she interrupted him. “I have another meeting I need to get to, but I’ll be free after lunch. I would be happy to discuss the future of the Avengers Initiative and any potential for relationship with the new administration once I’m done. Shall we say – an hour? Hour thirty? I’ll have one of the people here direct your group to a meeting room.” She fished in her bag for her business cards and drew out the little gold case that Tony had given her to keep them neat. Engraved in elegant script on the front was, ‘And I’m all out of gum’. Darcy slid out a thick recycled linen blend card and thrust it into Brenden’s face. He took it reflexively.
“I really don’t…Yinsen Foundation? What is this? Darcy, I know I owe you but this is the President we’re-”
“President-Elect,” she stressed. “Go talk to your boss. Make this happen, Brenden. Do something to change the world for the better.” She shoved the card case back in her huge purse and double-checked the time on her phone. Shit. She really needed to check on Ross. “I have to go. Someone will come find you.”
“Darcy.” He reached out for her arm as she turned away and Barnes was suddenly beside her, not touching either of them, but giving off a lethal vibe that couldn’t be missed. Brenden backed off quickly, hands up. “Just…what is this? What are you doing here?”
“Oh. My. God. You’re a millennial, Brenden. Google that Shit.” She pointed at the card and turned away again, before snapping her fingers and spinning back as she remembered something else. “Oh, and you never saw him.” She jerked her thumb at Barnes. Brenden nodded, slowly, and Darcy resigned herself to taking that for understanding. Brenden was an asshole, not an idiot. She had her tablet out again, files for both Ross and Williams pulled up, and was pushing the elevator button when Barnes finally spoke.
“Friend of yours?”
“Eugh. Ex-boyfriend. He had this thing, in undergrad, for online protests to support the removal of classist- you know what? It’s not important. He really does owe me. Not a chance in hell he would have gotten on with Williams’ campaign if I hadn’t known the arresting officer at the time – guy started out as a deputy in my Dad’s county before he joined the force in Culver. It really wasn’t Brenden’s, but he had enough pot on him for intent to distribute. The dummy. In any case. He turned out to be much more interested in playing the power game and working the political hierarchy – via his hand down the pants of the PR Manager to a Senator from Ohio – than he was in me. While I went to New Mexico and made friends of a more – shall we say – monarchical bent? Kind of changes your perspective on political science when you realize there are intergalactic issues out there. We all learned important lessons about career goals and forgiveness – I didn’t have any of that second one and I had to burn my sheets. Asshole did it in my apartment. But I ended up flirting with your bestie and working in Stark’s tower and Brenden ended up drafting about a million Facebook posts so he can work in a cubicle in Washington. Karma can be a real bitch. I like that about her.”
Darcy shoved her tablet into her purse and quickly sent an update to Natasha before slipping her phone into her jacket pocket. She touched up her lipstick as the elevator signaled their arrival.
“What’s my role here?” He spoke quietly, no doubt in deference to the two American soldiers standing guard outside the conference room where the meeting had originally been scheduled and the two Canadian security forces that were watching them. None had noticed the elevator yet, but they would once Darcy stepped out and into their direct line of sight. Barnes didn’t seem to like talking to strangers. Strangely, his nerves, or quirks, or PTSD trauma, or whatever, helped settle her own tension.
“Right. Eye candy for the office drones. Darcy-restrainer with Brenden. How do you feel about looking bored and yet still ready to commit high treason?”
Darcy snorted at his dry delivery. “Dude. You are awesome. Just, for reals, stay in the lobby area until I finish up. I mean, bust in if shooting starts or something, and please don’t let anyone arrest me. We can go grab lunch after I verbally stomp General Dick under my delicate little foot.” Saying it almost made her believe she was capable of it. Darcy Lewis, she tried to psych herself up, I came to kick ass and chew bubblegum.
“I think I might be a little sweet on you, Darcy Lewis.”
She snorted. Unbelievable or not, it was a welcome boost to her confidence. “Get in line, Jim.”
Barnes maintained a blank expression even as Darcy’s meeting dragged out closer to the forty-five minute mark. The soldiers waiting on Ross shifted, and while their poker faces might have fooled a civilian, he could see the tension in them. Good, he thought. You should be worried. He had planned three different ways to incapacitated them both and get Darcy to safety within moments of her stepping out of the elevator. Out of sheer boredom he had spent his time waiting devising another twelve – and sixteen lethal plans as well.
The soldiers couldn’t possibly hear more than a hum of voices through the thick doors of the conference room, but Barnes could make out almost everything. And Darcy Lewis was something else.
They had been met by a staffer carrying a stack of folders when they stepped off the elevator, which Darcy took as if she had expected them. Then she proceeded to bluff her way past the soldiers using big eyes, bigger breasts, and a legitimate visitor badge. He waited outside, making the soldiers, and the rare Canadian passing through, extremely nervous, and listened to her talk circles of bullshit around the Secretary of Defense. She claimed there were forms and agendas that needed his review before the meeting could resume. Then non-disclosure agreements that needed his signature. Then travel itineraries and security concerns. She even brought up formal titles for addressing the other delegates. Then more document review. More signatures, and even more dates and initials. The entire time she kept up a steady stream of inane chatter that made her sound like a slightly ditzy and out-of-depth secretary. Natalia had wanted the woman to stall; she was certainly good at that.
The shuffling of folders caught his attention and he focused harder on Darcy’s voice.
“Well, thank you for your patience, Mr. Secretary. I know this has been trying for you, but I’m sure you’re used to signing papers with no real value or merit.”
Barnes had to bite back a laugh. Ross made a garbled sound that might have been protest, but Darcy continued.
“I really do need to get these filed. And indexed. And cross referenced. And alphabetized. But I’m sure someone will be by to look in on you eventually.” The sound of a chair scraping back drowned out what Ross was trying to say. “I do..that is I first read about you when I was a freshman poly-sci major, and I’ve followed your infamous career ever since.” Ross didn’t object, which made Barnes wonder if he didn’t know the meaning of infamous, if he thought Darcy didn’t, or if she was playing up her more distracting features.
“I just – there is something I’ve always wanted to say to you Secretary. General. Mr. Ross. Thaddeus. Thad. May I call you Thad?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “Thad, I want to let you know, in the deepest, most honest parts of me, deep, deep down inside. You are a huge-”
If Darcy were the type of person that would try to ingratiate herself to someone – for personal or espionage reasons – or the type of person who was concerned with her own well-being, that statement could have been followed by any number of things.
Inspiration for me.
Force to be reckoned with.
Influence on this country.
Impact to politics.
Barnes was rapidly coming to realize Darcy was most assuredly not that type of person.
“–bag of dicks. Okay. So glad I got that off my chest.” The doors opened to the angry spluttering of Ross, both soldiers tensed, but it was only gorgeous Darcy with a wide smile and a stack of papers. They underestimated her. “Have a nice day!” She even gave a saucy wink to the two guards and a nod to the Canadian security posted next to the elevator before practically skipping down a hallway.
Barnes quickly followed her into the first ladies room she found, leaving Ross and his increasing volume behind. The only other occupant made a hasty retreat when he entered. Smart woman. Once he identified the soles of Darcy’s shoes, surrounded by dropped files, and the sound of retching, he locked the door to the hall and prepared a few damp paper towels for her. When she finally came out, her skin was gray and sweaty and her hair needed to be fixed. He waited while she rinsed out her mouth, rooting around in her bag for a travel toothbrush and going to work with that. When she was done he handed her the towels.
“Did I just -” she closed her eyes tightly. “Yep. Yep I did. Wow. Okay. That was way scarier than I thought it would be. And stupid. Dude. That was so stupid.”
Barnes made a sound of agreement and remained silent while she fixed her hair and makeup with shaking hands. It had been stupid. And reckless. And fearless and brave and probably one of the funniest and most honest things he had ever heard.
Why do I attract all the knuckleheads? He sighed in resignation when he couldn’t answer himself. Then smiled. She really was perfect for Steve.