Soulmates, soul marks, and all the rest of that business were never things that Clint Barton worried about. He had more pressing issues on his mind: namely, survival. For the first few years of his life, it was about surviving the violence of the home of his birth; once that danger was past, it was about surviving the violence and treachery of what passed for a foster care system in Iowa.
It was in the orphanage that soul marks were first really brought to his attention. He'd seen the one on Barney's stomach - it read, Hi Barney, I'm Joanne - but he'd never really thought anything of it, because it had always been there. It wasn't until one of the other boys discovered that he'd gotten a soul mark in the night that Clint really gave the matter any thought.
The boy in question was Jake Warren. He slept on the bunk above Clint, who was nine at the time. His whoops of excitement woke the whole room on the morning it happened, and he bounced out of bed, nearly falling down the ladder in his haste. “Look, everybody!” he shouted. “Look!” And he whipped his shirt off, showing off his skinny right arm. Beginning at the shoulder and running all the way down to Jake's hand were the words Oh gosh, I'm so sorry! Did I hurt you? I'm such a klutz!
There had been a great deal of back slapping and congratulations, high fiving and exclamations of glee. Clint had waited until everything died down to ask Jake about it.
Jake blinked at him. “Gosh, don't you know anything?”
Clint shrugged. “Not really,” he admitted. “So what is it?”
“It's a soul mark,” Jake explained. “It tells you the first words your soul mate's ever gonna say to you. So that's how you know when you found 'em.”
Clint blinked. “Oh,” he said softly. “Barney's got one on his stomach.”
“Yeah, I seen it. Lucky guy, it even tells him what her name's gonna be.”
“He's always had it, though,” Clint said. “How come you just got yours?”
And Jake got kind of a goofy grin on his face. “Means she was just born last night,” he explained. “When your soul mate gets born, you get their words.”
“So what about her?” Clint asked. “When does she get hers?”
“Oh, she's born with 'em,” Jake said. “That's how it works.”
“Huh.” Clint sat for a moment, absorbing the information. Then he nodded. “Cool. Hey, congrats?”
And Jake's goofy grin got even broader. “Thanks, man,” he said. He rubbed at his arm. “Man, I can't wait to meet her. You know? Somebody that'll love you forever, no matter what? That's gotta be just, like, the best thing ever.”
“Yeah,” Clint murmured, looking down at his own blank arms. “I bet.”
After that incident, Clint started noticing people's soul marks - the ones that were visible, anyway. He and Barney talked, sometimes, about Joanne - what she might be like, how Barney thought he might meet her - but once they left the orphanage and joined up with the circus, Barney didn't want to talk so much about Joanne any more, and so Clint left the subject alone.
Instead, he talked to other people. He talked to the strongman about how he'd met the fortune teller; he talked to the acrobats about how they'd gotten together. He talked to the lion tamer, once, about a handsome young Marine who'd died in Vietnam. He came to learn how the marks worked; in addition to what Jake had told him, he learned that sometimes people could have more than one soul mark, and therefore more than one soul mate; he learned that the death of a soul mate caused the mark to fade into outlines.
He learned from one of the contortionists that finding one's soul mate didn't always lead to happily-ever-after; she told him about her soul mark, showing him the elegant Cyrillic script wrapped around her ankle, and about the man who'd spoken those words to her when she was still a teenager in Lithuania. He'd been abusive, she explained, and after a few years of trying desperately to achieve the happy ending all the stories promised, she'd escaped on a stolen railway pass.
He learned from the contortionist's husband, whose soul mate had died before they met, that it was possible to find love without the mark. He learned from a couple of the roustabouts that it was possible to have a platonic soul mate.
And on a sunny afternoon in June when he was fifteen years old, he learned that his own soulmate's first words to him would be Oh, it's you. I've been waiting for you forever.
Some girls got romantic soul marks. Some of them got silly ones. Most got bland ones - hello or some other form of introductory phrase. Only Darcy, weird and freaky Darcy with her huge glasses and frizzy hair and braces, only Darcy would ever have Yes, it's me. Please don't shoot me.
She spent most of her life being made fun of for those words, which had been printed on her spine since the day she was born. Like they were something she could help. If she could have taken them off, she would have, but everyone knew that there was no way to remove a soul mark. So she gritted her teeth and she kept a shirt on at all times and she got a reputation for being willing to fight anyone who made fun of her mark, and once she started winning those fights, the jokes died off.
Still, it was a relief to get out of her stupid little Midwestern hometown, to go off to college where nobody knew her, and nobody knew what her weird soul mark was. She thought about getting a “hello” tattooed on her shoulder or something, but that was just stupid; besides, she didn't want to have to start fending off every idiot who ever said hello to her in hopes that he'd be the soul mate of her ginormous rack.
Jane Foster was the first person Darcy ever met who had a soul mark as weird as her own. I am well enough, read the words that covered her entire left thigh, though weary of this gown. Where might I procure garments suitable to my station and position?
“Maybe,” Darcy said, very early one morning after a science-and-tequila bender, “he's one of those cosplayers. Like at a Renaissance faire!”
“That's just what I need,” Jane replied, staring up at the New Mexico sky. “A nerd.”
“Well, Jane,” Darcy said, “you kind of are a nerd yourself, so it would make sense.”
“No,” Jane replied. “I am a scientist. There's a difference.”
“If you say so,” Darcy replied.
Of course, then it turned out that he wasn't a nerd at all; he was actually an alien prince from another planet who'd been kicked out by his dad. And he had Do me a favor and don't be dead tucked neatly under the line of one well-defined pectoral muscle. So that was interesting.
Then it turned out that he had a brother who was crazycakes and that a secret government agency seemed to think it had the right to steal all their stuff, so that was interesting, too.
And then the secret government agency brought all their stuff back - which was even more interesting, because Darcy was pretty sure that kind of thing almost never happened - but Darcy's iPod was not accounted for. That really pissed her off - and it pissed her off even more that everyone seemed to think that it wasn't important. She was an undergrad living off scholarships and loans; it wasn't like she had an extra three hundred bucks just lying around to go buy a new one.
So she made it her mission to get her iPod back. The asshat in the black suit had left Jane his card; she started calling him every two hours asking about her iPod. Literally every two hours. At four in the morning, he finally gave up. “Miss Lewis,” he said, “if you will stop calling, I will personally make sure that you have your iPod back within the next twenty-four hours.”
“Deal,” she replied. “But if I don't have it back in twenty-four hours, I'm stepping up the frequency of calls.”
“I assure you, if that happens, I'll buy you a brand new one myself.”
She slept late that morning, staggering into the lab around noon, and made up for it by working late into the evening, collating data while Jane got some rest. Just after ten o'clock, she decided to take a break for something to eat, so she grabbed her bag, locked up the lab, and started up the block to the all-night diner. Halfway there, someone reached out of the dark and grabbed her by the shoulder.
With a shout, she spun, her Taser already in her hand, aimed directly at the groin of a man she vaguely recognized as being one of Agent Coulson's jackbooted thugs. He was holding one hand up in the classic I'm unarmed pose; the other one was extended toward her, and her iPod was in it.
“Oh,” she said without relaxing her stance. “It's you.” She made a sound of disgust. “I've been waiting for you for. ever.”
A funny look crossed his face. “Yes, it's me,” he replied. “Please don't shoot me.”
She felt herself simultaneously freeze and melt at the sound of those words. Her mouth worked soundlessly, her arm going limp at her side. “Oh,” she managed, staring up into his eyes.
He quirked a smile at her. “Hey,” he said softly. They stood there for a minute, staring at each other, before he finally cleared his throat. “You, um... wanna get a cup of coffee?”
“Sure,” she managed. “Coffee sounds great.”
They got to know each other over coffee and pancakes and bacon. He told her about his parents and the orphanage, the circus and the Army, and getting recruited for SHIELD. She told him about being raised by a single father after her mother took off with a co-worker and how her father had pinched pennies and worked overtime her entire life to make sure that she would be able to go to college.
He told her more than he probably should have about his job, and about being a sniper, and about how that meant that he was constantly putting himself in danger and he might be gone for weeks at a time without word on top-secret missions and that he had blood on his hands. She asked him if he was doing what he thought was right.
He thought about that for a long time, and he finally said, “Yes.”
And she said, “Then that's good enough for me.”
They left the diner around one o'clock in the morning, and as they were crossing the parking lot, Clint's cell phone rang. He touched her arm, then stopped and pulled it out of his pocket. “Yeah, Boss.”
Darcy didn't listen; that would be rude. Instead, she pulled her iPod out of her pocket and checked its charge. Nearly dead, of course, but that was all right. She'd just plug it in once she got back to her little studio apartment. She heard Clint say, “No, Boss, I'm still in town. … No, sir. … No, I'm... I'm with Darcy Lewis, sir.” She turned and glanced at him, and he gave her a helplessly awkward expression. She grinned broadly at that. He was adorable, with his smushed up face and his amazing arms and his wicked, subtle sense of humor.
“Do you know when you'll be back at base, Barton?” Coulson demanded.
Clint bit back a sigh. “No, sir, I don't know when I'm going to get back. I thought you said I was off-duty after I handed over the iPod anyway.”
“You are,” Coulson replied. “But I'd like you back on base anyway. Foster and Lewis are officially off limits. You cannot get involved.”
Clint felt his eyes narrow. “I'm actually pretty sure there's nothing in the regs that says I can't, sir, and if you try to enforce that, I will fight you.”
“This is a special case,” Coulson replied. “And really, Barton, is a one-night stand, or even a summer fling, with a pretty undergrad really the place where you want to draw your line in the sand with me?”
“No,” Clint drawled, “but that's not what this is, and I've got the mark to prove it. So like I said, if you think you can enforce that order, you're welcome to try. I'll fight you all the way up to Fury's office if I have to.”
There was a very long silence before Coulson heaved a sigh. “If I thought it would give me any kind of satisfaction at all,” he said, “I would drop both of them down the deepest, darkest hole I could find, and you with them.”
The line disconnected, and Clint grinned at Darcy. “Sorry about that,” he said. “My boss is kind of a douchebag sometimes.”
“I got that impression,” Darcy replied. “Let me guess, you're under orders not to get involved?”
“Yep,” Clint replied. He stuffed his phone back into his pocket and stepped toward her, right into her space. She didn't move as he crowded her, instead tipping her head back to look up at him. “Too bad for him,” he continued, taking her chin between his thumb and his forefinger, “it's already too late for that.” And he leaned down, watching her eyes flutter closed as he captured her lips with his.
Her mouth tasted like maple syrup.
A short time later, he discovered that her sweat-slicked skin tasted like salt and sin, and her voice whispering broken pleas into his ear in the dark of her studio apartment was the sweetest music he could ever have imagined.