Hold Me Closer, Kevin Bacon: Let the Mother Burn
October 13, 2016
Darcy had been out and about since eight in the a.m. Equipment components had been inspected at Stark Industries and Jane’s science minion directed to ship them overnight to the New Mexico lab. A new phone had been purchased and activated for Thor; the dude went through them at an alarming rate. Darcy couldn’t figure it out. He had no trouble regulating his strength around Jane or her, but get him excited near a tv or other technology and things seemed to get crushed more often than not. She picked out a ridiculous birthday card for her step mom and mailed it to the set she was filming at for the next few weeks. Sheryl would get a kick out of the smirking Black Widow children’s card which proclaimed birthdays to be ‘worth saving the world for’. Sheryl had a bit of a thing for the Black Widow. Darcy was pretty sure everyone with a pulse had at least a little bit of a thing for the Black Widow.
Errands defeated, she directed the totally sweet ride she had borrowed from Pepper toward Rancho Dominguez. The neighborhood where Maria lived was not the worst in the community, but it wasn’t the best either. It skirted the border between two gang territories, which left it in an interesting no man’s land where there was little organized crime. That did not mean there weren’t any challenges to residents. Especially young girls like Maria, bright, pretty, and with no living relatives except an older sister that was serving time in the State penitentiary. The kid had been passed around distant relatives and neighbors before she entered the system, and her luck there had not been good. By the time Darcy was assigned to mentor Maria, she had changed schools three times in two years and been in four foster homes in fifteen months. Her living situation changed again when Darcy found out the husband of foster family number four had interests in Maria that were disgustingly more personal that the State check she brought in. Darcy had called in a favor from Pepper and kept Maria at the Malibu house on an emergency basis until the man was charged with child endangerment and attempted sexual assault.
Maria’s latest situation consisted of an older woman and her granddaughter who was waiting tables and struggling to find acting work. They were strict, but kept a clean and safe house. Darcy tried to visit at least once a month, sometimes twice, and called to check in with her Little Sister every week. The apartment building was old, but well-maintained and across the street from the best pork chili that Darcy had ever eaten. The owner of the restaurant was always willing to keep an eye on Darcy’s car if she parked out front and tipped well.
He also bought and sold fake IDs for immigrants.
“Carina,” Manuel whistled from his usual spot under the shade of a patio umbrella by the front door. “You have made the neighborhood more beautiful. The car is nice too.”
“Oh, Manny,” she fluttered her eyelashes and slipped out of the Ghia, ignoring the envious looks of a few other neighborhood regulars. The attention was worth it to get Maria excited about her favorite subject: engines. “You flatterer.” He laughed and she grabbed her bag before locking up and approaching him. “Think you could keep an eye on my ride while I grab some food and the munchkin?”
“Another of your boss’ cars?”
“Yeah,” Darcy lied easily. “I swear, I have no idea why anyone would own something they don’t have time to drive. But hey, no complaints from me, right?”
“I’ll make sure all the wheels are still here when you get back – if you can do something for me.”
Darcy took a seat, all business. “The usual?”
“I have some good papers, but they need a bit more…digital reinforcement.”
He pulled a folded paper out of his pocket. “Four, this time. People are getting nervous with the election. Wanting to make sure they will be secure, no matter what happens in Washington.”
“Probably a good call,” Darcy agreed. She took the paper without looking at it. Manny was good people, and the individuals he helped deserved to continue to stay in their homes, with their families, working and paying taxes. “I’ll call by next Sunday – if I don’t swing by on Saturday. These are all California?”
“One California plus Nevada; I put a star by it. The rest only need to be used locally.”
“Okay.” Darcy felt a little flutter of nervous excitement. She had made fake IDs in college for extra cash, and with newer cards that had bar codes it required a little bit of hacking to make them usable. She had done the same thing for Thor when he first landed. Once she became a little more familiar with the world and a little less dependent on illegal activities for income, she had started trading or giving them away for immigrants that were stuck in the often decade-long process of citizenship. Give us your poor, she thought, not for the first time, yearning to be free. As long as they can wait seven to fifteen years and risk deportation. Her work wasn’t perfect, but it would fool local and state systems if not the feds. She slipped the paper into her bag and changed topics, “What’s good today?”
“It is all good, always. Do not insult my mother by thinking she would serve anything less.” He flicked a hand toward the door. “Go, eat. You are too skinny. And make sure little Maria eats too. Hey,” he called out to a teenager sidling closer to the Ghia, “that machine is a lady, pequena mierda. You look at a lady with your eyes, not your little dedos sucios. Is this how your mother taught you manners? No -”
Darcy left Manny expertly dressing down the kid outside. She was confident Pepper’s loaner would be in mint condition when she returned. While she waited for her order – extra pork chili – she worried. Her thesis needed a lot more work, at least another eighty hours. Jane had been grumpier than usual when she left New Mexico. It seemed lately that whenever Thor wasn’t around the scientist fell into a funk. Darcy had been trying new ways to cheer her up, bolster her optimism, but it was an uphill battle. Maria was doing better on the home front, but her grades weren’t awesome. They certainly weren’t what they could be. The kid was incredibly smart – Jane levels of smart – and she should have been skipped more than a few grades. She wasn’t applying herself though, and Darcy needed to find a way to convince her of the value of school. Sheryl was anxious about the lobbying efforts to get her last movie an Academy Award; that combined with her stepmom’s birthday – age undisclosed – was making Sheryl tense. Which made Darcy’s mom tense. She considered sending a chocolate Oscar with the Black Widow card. Her dad was doing well, so he said. ‘Playing the Field’. Darcy tried not to think about what that entailed exactly and instead considered ways to get him to meet someone stable. Someone who didn’t mind using clean laundry out of the basket, who enjoyed craft beer and small town law enforcement.
Manny’s mother came out of the kitchen to personally deliver her order – double extra pork chili in a styrofoam cooler – along with admonishments to eat more, to tell that Maria to find better friends, to study hard, to find a nice young man, and had Darcy met her great-nephew? Darcy smiled, thanked her, and dodged the offer of a blind date. That was the last thing she needed. Her abysmal sex life aside, she had more than enough on her plate without trying to juggle dating someone who didn’t have the security clearance to know her roommate was the God of Thunder.
The woman gave some last advice as Darcy reached for the door, “Abre tus ojos! I will pray to Santa Madre that you meet your match. You will bring your bebes rechonchos to visit me.”
Laughter that was equally amused, endeared, and a little afraid of the power such a devout woman might have in prayer made Darcy turn her head back. She grabbed the door handle and pulled. “Don’t threaten me with fertility! I’ll be too scared to have good sex!” The few patrons crammed into the little restaurant chuckled and Darcy marched outside, her words ringing in the air.
She smacked straight into a solid wall of muscle.
“Ooof.” The air rushed out of her lungs and her glasses smooshed uncomfortably against her face. She nearly dropped the two bottles of soda she was carrying in an effort to save her cooler and the paper bag of food.
One huge hand caught both sodas while another wrapped under her elbow to steady her. “Sorry, ma’am.” The voice was sincere and immediate in the apology. Darcy looked up with an embarrassed smile, ready to take the blame.
She blinked, her mouth still open. In a delicious, but definitely not well-known, Mexican restaurant in a sketchy neighborhood in Los Angles she had literally run into the most famous wanted man in America. Maybe the world. He had a small smile on his face. His skin was much more tanned than in photos she had seen of him, his jaw dusted with dark gold scruff but just as firm. The press releases and media coverage had not done his blue eyes justice.
“Holy shit, I should buy a lotto ticket,” she blurted.
His face immediately tightened, and she felt bad for her comment. The man was being hunted by most of the developed nations and was technically an Enemy of the State. Incognito was probably his main objective. His hand remained on her elbow, making certain she was on steady footing, but he also stepped back from her, separating them with propriety and awkwardness.
“Make certain you don’t use up all your luck,” another voice stated coolly. Darcy glanced past the enormous man in front of her to see a blonde co-ed hefting a backpack. She blinked. Darcy blinked. The Black Widow just threatened me. She was pretty sure she was staring at Natasha Romanoff, although her hair and makeup made her look younger than she was and her expression was bored bordering on insolent. Sheryl is going to be so jealous.
“Dude,” Darcy managed, then winced at the juvenile term. “I do not have time for a police report right now. Or, like, ever.” She held up her bag of food, trying to assure the deadliest woman in existence that she was completely harmless. “These enchiladas aren’t going to eat themselves. And I have to get the car back before Tony comes looking for it.” She gestured to the Ghia with her chin. “That would be a real scene – you know?”
“Ma’am,” the Captain began. He seemed to suddenly remember he was holding on to her arm and quickly withdrew his hand. The weather had been chilly for the time of year, and even through her leather jacket she noticed the loss of warmth.
“Whoa, no worries. Go on about your business. Try the pork chili, it’s-” Whatever stupid ass thing she had been about to say was cut off as an explosion rocked the street. Darcy found herself pressed between the rough stucco of the restaurant and six plus feet of commanding democracy. Later, she would place blame for how long it took her to figure out what had happened on the smell of clean cotton, french fries, and testosterone. “What the fuck?” she breathed out.
“Stay down,” he pushed her firmly against the wall and turned to assess the street. The Widow was crouched on the other side of the door where she had pulled Manny under a patio table. She had a snub nosed pistol in her hand. Peering around America’s most eligible fugitive, Darcy could see the apartment building across the street. People were streaming out the front door; smoke was billowing from the fourth floor windows. That was Maria’s building.
Fuck that noise, she thought. “Fuck that,” she growled out loud, shoving her food at Captain America. His arms came up automatically and Darcy was dashing across the street before he could utter more than a grunt. She had already passed the Ghia when the first shot rang out. Darcy ducked but kept running. If Destroyers and Dark Elves had taught her anything, it was that standing still during a crisis was a terrible idea. Tires squealed as a vehicle rounded the block. From the corner of her eye, she could see a figure leaning out of a car window with a huge gun in hand. Not good, not good. So completely and totally not good.
It occurred to her, as she barreled past a surprised cholo who had dashed out of an alley, that she hadn’t taken Pepper’s admonishments to be careful seriously. Manny always watched the car, she never visited the neighborhood after dark, and Darcy had actually taken one of the self-defense classes her dad pushed on her. That should have been good enough. She was not, however, prepared to be in the middle of a gang war. The pop of another shot echoed on the street, followed by a spray of bullets from the speeding car. Darcy covered her head with one arm and reached her other hand into her bag, searching for her taser. She prayed, silently under her breath, to Thor and Frigga to keep her from getting any new holes in her body. She prayed, out loud and with fervor, to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and a few Hindu gods that she could remember to keep her not dead.
Darcy cleared the apartment building front doors as another car and more shooting joined the street party. Inside, an older man and a pre-teen boy were trying to help a woman who had fallen down the stairs. Her left leg was twisted at a sickening angle and her glasses were broken. Darcy stopped looking for her taser and instead looped her bag across her body.
“Go out the back door,” she ordered the older man, helping them pick up the woman. The boy translated for the two adults. “Do you know what happened?” she asked.
“I think it was a couple floors up,” the kid said, shaking. Darcy could relate. Adrenaline was still rushing through her, but she could feel the crash, the shock, just around the corner – waiting for her to slow down so it could ambush her. “There’s,” he swallowed, his eyes large and flicking around the lobby, “there’s an apartment up on four. Everybody stays away from there. Those guys have guns.”
“Go out the back,” Darcy repeated. She took the stairs two at a time, the pace making her side ache and her legs burn. Maria lived on the third floor, and she was supposed to be waiting there for Darcy to bring lunch. She met two more residents, both hurried past her on their way out. The sound of gunfire was still audible, but muffled by the thick walls of the building. Her burst of energy was starting to wane, until she caught sight of Maria’s door. It had snapped, the cheap, old wood cracking across the center until the top half dangled from one hinge and a chain lock while the lower part lay in the hall. Huge chunks of plaster were missing from the ceiling and the smell of smoke and melted plastic was strong.
“Maria,” Darcy called out. She inhaled a lungful of acrid air and coughed. There was no response. Darcy tried to be careful, but her hair got snagged in the jagged edge of the door and she had to pull it out before she could crawl into the apartment. Most of the ceiling was missing – open to the floor above. Dust and chunks of plaster covered the floor, with more drifting down from above. A small square, a ziplock bag no bigger than a ringbox, fluttered to land at her feet. A black cross was stamped on it. To the right of the door was the bathroom and kitchen. Through the open doorways Darcy could see they were both empty. To left were the bedrooms. Maria shared the first one with the granddaughter waitress/actress. Darcy had to use her shoulder to get the wood to move in the damaged frame, but after a few hits she fell into the room.
“Maria?” There was still no answer. With her heart hammering, Darcy looked under both beds and in the tiny closet. Nothing. A rush of relief filled her. Maria wasn’t great at obeying authority figures, although she had warmed up to Darcy over the last three years. If this was the day she had chosen to be contrary, Darcy would be grateful. She hoped the kid had skipped out on homework and chores to get ice cream far, far away from the neighborhood. With the thoroughness ingrained in her from working with Jane, Darcy moved to the second bedroom.
“Mrs. Soto?” The door opened easily, but Darcy wished it hadn’t. More of the ceiling had fallen in the woman’s room, crushing her where she had lain on the bed. Blood, dusty and clotted with debris, soaked the bedding and puddled on the floor. Darcy only caught a glimpse of the obviously deceased body before she had to turn and throw up. She didn’t take a second look. There would be no saving the woman, and the violence had Darcy vomiting again, until there was nothing left but bile. She had seen bad injuries – even death – before. The Dark Elves had not been gentle with their invasion plans. This was something different. She knew Mrs. Soto, knew the name of her deceased husband – Ernesto. Her no-good son – Miguel. Her good boy who died in Iraq – Augustine. Darcy knew how she liked her coffee, how important hard work was to her, and that her tamales were salty but no one dared say anything. Darcy crawled out of the apartment on her hands and knees, shaking and trying to get a grip on herself.
She wasn’t sure how long she sat in the hallway. It felt like only a moment, it might have been an hour, but was probably a few minutes. A small voice brought her back to attention.
“Miss Lewis?” A girl, the same age as Maria, was stumbling across the worn carpet, a younger boy under her arm. The smoke was much thicker than it had been. How did I not notice? As soon as she did she also realized her eyes were watering and her lungs hurt. “Miss Lewis,” the girl said again, the second time with relief. She fell to her knees beside Darcy. “I can’t find my sister! She went up to the roof with Abe Gomez and Maria, but they wouldn’t let me and Xavier go with. There were men in the hallway outside our apartment! We came down the fire escape, and all the glass was broken in the apartment below us.” She was shaking, not quite pressing up against Darcy, but close. Tears streamed down her face, leaving streaks in the soot and dust on her cheeks. “What’s going on? I need to find my sister, but Xavier-”
“It’s okay-” Darcy coughed again and tried to search her memory for the kid’s name. Her brain wasn’t working properly. Maria had been in the building, was probably still there. And there were people inside. Men with guns. And explosives. “Sweetie, I’m looking for Maria, I’ll find your sister too. Go downstairs, quickly, and then out the back door. Some of your neighbors are there. Stay with them, okay?”
The girl nodded, and Darcy tried to bolster herself with the bravery she displayed in talking to her sobbing, coughing brother and moving them both towards the stairs. It didn’t work. As soon as the children were headed down and Darcy moved to go up, fear hit her all over again. Maria was her responsibility. So alone in the world, and she had had such a hard time. A sucks-ass, blows-hardcore time. She didn’t deserve this, she sure as shit didn’t deserve to have some drug-dealing gang move into her building and hurt the people who cared for her.
Her stomach churned, but she forced herself to keep moving. She couldn’t hear gunshots anymore, but the building trembled with the force of another, smaller explosion. Darcy had to clutch the railing to keep from falling. Dust and hunks of plaster rained down on her. One large piece clipped the back of her head and made her stagger. What’s one building? She tried to tell herself, I’ve survived the destruction of most of a town, one building should be a cakewalk. Hand over hand, she pulled herself up to the fourth floor, pausing outside the door. The lever was hot to the touch. Darcy kept going.
When she finally shoved open the roof access and cool air blew across her face she almost cried out with relief. She did fall to her knees then. It was a blessing. Shots rang out, pinging against the metal door behind her. Darcy threw herself on the loose gravel and hot tar and waited, one hand over her head, the other scrambling for her bag.
“Ngar laat yaar bhaat ngya nyya noutkwalmha pot.” The words sounded Asian, the voice hard and clipped. Gravel crunched under hard shoes until boots stopped in front of her nose. Darcy didn’t wait any longer. She rolled, firing her taser as soon as her body was clear. The probes hit the man in the thigh, and he made a muffled shrieking sound before he fell, collapsing on top of her legs. Darcy kept the presence of mind to let go of the trigger before they touched. She kicked and struggled against his twitching dead weight, and charged the contacts again as soon as she was free. She dumped the cartridge and was pulling a spare out of her bag even as she stumbled away from him.
Maria nearly knocked her over, jumping up and squeezing Darcy until she could barely breathe. The older woman was more grateful than she could say. She hugged back, then pulled away to get a look at the girl.
“Are you okay? Did you get hurt? We have to go, where is-” Another rumble shook the building and glass burst somewhere below them. A huge cloud of dust erupted from the stair access, and part of the roof caved in there.
“Oh, God!” Darcy focused on another girl, older than Maria by a few years and clutching on to a boy who might have been twelve or thirteen. She prayed it was the missing sister. “Oh, God!”
“Callate!” Maria’s sharp order had a catch at the end, but she did not cry. The older girl obeyed, falling silent.
“What’s the sitch, hermana?” Darcy’s voice was a raspy croak, but she forced a grin. This was not a good time to freak out. She could freak out later, when kids were safe and they were no longer trapped on a burning building with a soon-to-be conscious armed bad-guy. Speaking of… Darcy set Maria away from her and listened while she looked over the body for weapons.
“We came up here like an hour ago, Abe had some spray paint-” Darcy threw Maria a look, but kept searching for the gun. Maria had been in some trouble with juvenile court for graffiti. The kid continued, “We heard the explosion, and we were going to go back down, but then these guys busted out. They had guns, and like military shit,”
“Don’t curse, goddamnit,” Darcy said reflexively. Ah, there it is. She found the gun and picked it up, wondering what to do with it. She couldn’t leave it there in case he woke up, and she didn’t want to just throw it away where anybody could find it. She settled for pulling her spare t-shirt from her bag and wrapping it up before pushing it to the bottom under her tablet and other junk.
“Christ, Darcy,” Maria swore. “They used ropes to get over to the next building. But this guy didn’t go, cause you made such a fuc- freaking loud noise getting up here.”
“Well, excuse me, sassy pants, for wanting to make sure you were okay. Stay here, don’t go near that dude. I’ll be right back.” The sound of flames and the smaller explosions of heating glass grew louder. Darcy really hoped the building was all-electric. The last thing they needed was for a gas main to go up. There was a fire escape on the alley side of the building, and Darcy raced to it to look down. It was covered in glass, but looked sturdy. Sturdy-ish. Better than jumping. She waved the kids over and turned her head to glance toward the street. At the mouth of the alley was an unmistakable set of broad shoulders and a much smaller, blonde figure. They stood over a trio of men who were tied up and on their knees.
“Cap!” What Darcy had wanted to yell came out as more of a scratchy hiss. He didn’t turn around. “Fucking A,” she muttered.
“You sound like my mom,” Abe said as the three children leaned over the side of the roof. “She smokes like two packs a day.”
“Real charmer,” Darcy murmured. She waved her arms wide, trying to get the Captain’s attention. The fire escape would have a gap at the bottom, assuming the ladder was even in working condition, and someone should be there to make certain they got down safely.
“What’s his name?” Maria asked, helping the other girl over the lip of the roof.
“Your dude,” she pointed to the Captain. “You need to use a guy’s whole name if you want him to pay attention.”
“Like abuela,” Abe shuddered and nodded with authority. He moved to follow the girl, but Darcy pulled him back, wanting to make sure the rickety structure would hold weight.
“That is so white,” Maria rolled her eyes. Her face was still pale under the dirt, but her voice was stronger. “His whole name, Darce.”
Darcy had to search her memory. She had taken an undergrad course where he and the Howling Commandos featured prominently. “Steven…Steven Grant Rogers,” she rasped.
Maria turned without any preamble and shrieked Captain America’s full name at the top of her lungs like an angry fishwife. His head whipped around, followed by the Black Widow’s gun being aimed their direction. Darcy waved again, then pointed to the kids and the narrow metal stairs that lead to the ground. The older girl, for all her crying, had moved rapidly and was already halfway down. Darcy gave the soldier credit, he caught on quickly. Leaving the bad guys under the Widow’s watchful care, he ran to the fire escape and pulled the last ladder down. He jumped and caught it with his fingers, but as soon as his weight was on the structure it groaned. He immediately let go.
“It won’t hold me!” He called up to her. “Send them down one at a time!”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Darcy muttered. The guy was hot, and had saved the world a couple of times, but she could handle herself too. She sent the boy down as soon as the escape was clear. The railing shuddered, but held. She pointed to her Little Sister. “You’re next.”
“No way,” Maria shook her head. “We’ll go together.”
“It won’t hold us both. Come on, I’ll be right behind you.” The building trembled, and Darcy felt fear working its way past her carefully constructed barrier of shock and denial.
“We’re both small,” Maria insisted, “it will be fine.” The boy was off the ladder, and Cap was making motions for her to send the next person down. He didn’t look worried or anxious. Even from five stories away Darcy could see the calm confidence in his expression. That was what a hero looked like. Darcy grabbed Maria’s shoulders and stared into her eyes.
“You are going to get on this thing without me. You will climb down, you will thank the very nice man for helping us, then you will wait with him until I get there. Now, Maria.”
Maria gulped, but nodded. “You better.”
Darcy held her breath. Fourth floor. Third floor. Fire bloomed out of the roof access, and she flinched and ducked behind the lip of the roof. The building shook again and she heard a scream. Leaning out over the edge, Darcy could see Maria. She was on the second floor landing, clutching the railing, but the metal bracing was pulling away from the building. The Captain was below her, arms outstretched and waiting. He would keep her safe.
“I’ll catch you,” he shouted. “Just let go!”
“Jump!” Darcy tried to yell, but she could barely hear her own voice. She nodded as hard as she could, pointing to the Captain and motioning for Maria to let herself fall. The look on her young face was painful. Frightened, lonely, and so increasingly brave. She put one dirty tennis shoe over the edge and then the other. When her hands let go, Darcy’s heart stopped.
He caught her.
Darcy watched him carry Maria all the way to the alley entrance where her friends were waiting. The Black Widow stood between them and the slumped over forms of the bad guys. Her Little Sister was safe, so that only left Darcy to save herself. Sweet mother of pearl, I hate heights, she muttered to herself as she gently set her feet down on the first rung, holding tight to the ladder. If she never left solid earth again, it would be too soon. She was planning on making Jane run her own errands from then on. She was certain, if she asked nicely enough, Pepper could pull strings and get Maria into a foster family in a nicer neighborhood. Maybe a single-story house. Gingerly, she let go so that her full weight was on the fire escape. Darcy breathed out a sigh of relief when nothing happened.
“Hurry!” Cap’s voice somewhere below made her frown, and she turned to look at him. That was when the entire structure groaned, shrieked, and began to twist. Bolts popped out of old brick and went flying into the neighboring building. Metal tore and broke, years of rust and neglect no match for the heat of the fire and the weight of one graduate student. Darcy lunged for the ladder. She heard the crash and the screams, but didn’t look down until she had heaved herself back onto the ledge of the roof.
The Widow was holding Maria back, who was fighting hard to get closer. Directly below Darcy were the remains of the fire escape. A pile of metal and crushed trash bags was all that was left of her exit strategy.
“Well, that blows,” Darcy whispered. The Captain had moved out of the way of the falling debris, and alternated between watching her with his hands held up in the universal ‘wait’ gesture, and talking to himself – one finger pressed to his ear. Darcy inched her way down the ledge. Hopefully the fire department would show up soon with a ladder, and she wanted to be in a clear spot when that happened.
A groan and scrape behind her, almost hidden by the roar of the fire and the distant wale of sirens, pulled her attention. Her attacker was moving. Darcy had his gun, but she very much doubted he would need it to kill her. She reached into her bag and pulled out the first thing her hands closed around.
Intramural softball paid off when a stick of deodorant smacked into Captain America’s open palm. His head whipped up to look at her. She grinned, hoping she seemed assured and adventurous but feeling nauseated and terrified. Darcy mouthed a single word, then jumped.