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Talking Trash and Wasting Time

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If Darcy had to guess, she'd say it started with Thor. For all that he treats Jane like a delicate princess, he's always treated her more like the Lady Sif. Maybe he remembers that she tasered him. Maybe he thinks of her as a little sister, or maybe he respects that out of everyone he's met so far, she's the one who lasts longest once the tequila comes out. (That changes, of course, when he meets Tony, who probably has tequila flowing through his veins; Natasha, who drinks vodka like it's water; and Steve, who can't get drunk.)

Whatever the reason, when they first arrive at the SHIELD complex in New York, he tracks her down at the end of the day and says, "Friend Darcy, we are going to quaff many beers and perhaps engage in fisticuffs with the locals. Will you join us?"

"Jane?"

"Is working on the tesseract," Natasha says.

Darcy shrugs and shuts down her computer. "If you're buying, I'm drinking."

"You have the spirit of an Asgardian," Thor says, clapping her on the shoulder.

"Thanks," she says, rubbing the stinging spot, wondering if it's going to bruise.

By the time Colonel Fury has convinced Captain America to join the Initiative, Thursday night drunk is as close to a tradition as something that's only six weeks old can be. Thor is especially pleased by this, and tells everyone they meet that the day is named in his honor. Darcy, Natasha, Agent Barton ("Call me Clint," he says when they meet and shoots finger guns at her; she rolls her eyes but secretly thinks he's adorable), and Thor are the regulars. Jane joins them when Thor is able to cajole her away from her work, and Tony Stark hangs out when he's in New York. Darcy's torn about that, because on the one hand, they have to run a gauntlet of paparazzi no matter where they go, but on the other, it means she never has to buy a round, and drinking with Asgardians gets expensive. Free drinks outweigh any inconvenience in her book, especially when he brings Pepper, who's become Darcy's actual hero in terms of getting the team organized without getting lost in SHIELD's endless bureaucratic red tape.

It's always the most fun when Sif and the Warriors Three join them, but that doesn't happen all that often. Luckily, on the rare occasions it does, most tourists take them for escapees from Medieval Times rather than god-like beings from another planet. (They invite Bruce but he never comes; Darcy feels guilty that she doesn't feel bad about that.)

Clint follows her to the jukebox and critiques her musical choices, but he always gives her money when she holds out her hand.

"You gotta play some Skynyrd."

She gives him an incredulous look. "The worst part is I can't decide whether it's more disturbing if you're being ironic than if you're not."

"Why would I be ironic?" he asks, but there's a curl to his mouth that makes her think he totally is. "Shit, there's Natasha. Pretend you're into me."

"What?"

"We used to date."

"No way you dated her," Darcy says, because Natasha is smoking hot. Of course, so is Clint, but she can't tell him that now.

"Well, more like fought a lot and then had a lot of makeup sex," he says, leaning in close, still smirking. His breath smells like the peppermint schnapps they'd done shots of earlier. "It didn't end well."

"Gee, I wonder why?"

"Woman's got issues."

She puts her palm flat on his chest and shoves him lightly. He rocks back on his heels but doesn't move out of her space, which is kind of all right. "Okay, seriously, we are not having this conversation." She doesn't even know what buttons she's pushing on the jukebox, but she totally blames Clint when, after twenty minutes of excellent music, Rush comes on. He doesn't seem to think it's a problem.

That sets the pattern for their interaction afterwards.

It takes a few weeks to convince Captain Rogers to join them.

"I'm starting to think he doesn't like us," Tony says. "And I'm beginning to take it personally."

"Speak for yourself," Darcy replies in between sips of her whiskey sour. "He likes me and Pepper just fine."

Tony frowns at that. So, interestingly enough, does Clint.

"The Captain is mourning lost friends," Thor says. "We should respect that." Then he waves the bartender over. "Boilermakers for everyone, my good man!"

The next Wednesday, Clint comes down to her cube and leans a hip against her desk. "So there's this new bar that just opened in the neighborhood."

Darcy looks up at him, grateful to rest her eyes on something pretty after a morning of scheduling, rescheduling, and re-rescheduling Agent Coulson's various meetings. "It's Times Square. There's always a new bar opening."

"Sure, but I've got coupons for free drinks and wings," he says.

"It's not a titty bar, is it?"

His gaze dips down to her chest and then up to her face again. "No. Not that that should stop us."

She ignores that last bit. "Or a chain restaurant?"

"No. Though I don't know what your beef with chain restaurants is. There's nothing wrong with Friday's." He sounds a little sulky. "Thor liked it just fine."

"Thor thought it was named after his mom."

Clint snickers. "Okay, point. It is neither a strip club nor a chain restaurant. It is," he pulls out his phone and reads the email to her, "'the Crossroads Pub, featuring craft beers, top shelf liquor, including single malts and select tequilas, California wines, lunch, brunch, and dinner.' Does that meet with your exacting standards, Ms. Lewis?"

"I'll round up the troops, Agent Barton."

He opens his mouth and closes it again. He's gone by the time she's done calling everyone with the plan.

She sits down next to Captain Rogers at the afternoon briefing. "We're going to the bar tonight," she says.

He gives her a small smile. "I thought that usually happened on Thursdays."

"It does, but Clint's got a Groupon or something."

He gives her an adorably confused look. "He's got a fish?"

"I think that's a grouper. A Groupon is a coupon for a group."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"I think it'd be really good for you to come out with us. I know we've been working you pretty hard with the introduction to the twenty-first century stuff. Think of this as a hands-on lesson."

His mouth quirks up in a half-grin. "Hands-on, huh?"

She grins back. "Only if you ask nicely."

"Well, that sounds like the kind of offer a fella can't refuse. I can't get drunk, though. Just so you know."

"You think that now, but trust me, you haven't been drinking until you've been drinking with Thor."

He laughs, which makes her feel a little warmth in her chest. "Okay."

"Really?"

"Yeah, sure. Why not?"

"Be at my desk at five, then." She grins at him. "Don't worry. It'll be fun."

At 4:55, she gets stuck on hold with one of Coulson's buddies at the Pentagon, but Steve shows up right at five and waits quietly for her to finish. It's only two blocks to the bar, and he tells her about what he remembers from Times Square back in the day while she steers him around tourists and commuters.

"Look who finally decided to show up," Tony says.

Darcy makes a note to ask Pepper why he's so belligerent, but otherwise ignores him. Sometimes, it's the only way to handle him.

"Let us drink together as brothers," Thor says, frowning down at Tony before he smiles at the rest of them.

Clint just knocks back his shot of tequila and signals the bartender for another.

"I can't get drunk," Steve tells them.

"You haven't been drinking with Thor," Natasha says before taking a sip of her vodka tonic.

"That's what I said," Darcy says. She hops up on the bar stool Clint vacates for her and orders a Tanqueray and tonic. She nods her chin at Steve. "He'll have the same."

The night fades into a haze of laughter and alcohol and Darcy thinks about how she'd thought her life would go and how it's actually turning out, and who knew that reality would be so much better than her teenage fantasies? Pepper arrives with Jane to keep Tony and Thor out of trouble, and Natasha matches Sif shot for shot before all of their phones go off and they have to rush out the door to save the world.

"I hope all that adrenaline has a sobering effect," Jane says to Pepper, who masks her worried look with a tight smile.

"They'll be fine," Darcy says, but she goes back to the office with them, just in case, the gin sitting sour in her belly.

They are fine, overall--a little battered and singed, but fine. Thor insists they go out again on Thursday to finish what they started, but Darcy finds it a little harder to get into the mood when she sees Clint's arm in a sling.

Then again, it might be the only time she'll ever beat him at darts, so she takes advantage.

He presses up behind her, his fingers warm and callused over hers, and whispers in her ear about blocking everything out and focusing on the target, which is completely impossible in this situation, but when they let the dart go, it hits just outside the bullseye, and she whoops.

"They don't call me Hawkeye for nothing," he says, smug, and takes another sip of his beer.

"I thought it was because you liked MASH," she answers, and enjoys the way he rolls his eyes in response. She picks up another dart. "Now I want to try by myself."

She homes in on the dartboard and tries to concentrate, but she's had two beers and she's just a little tipsy, and some random guy walks past at the wrong moment and it's not like she actually hits him.

"Well, okay," she admits to Clint before he gets sucked into the brawl defending her honor, "maybe I grazed him a little, but what kind of moron walks in front of a dartboard in the middle of a bar full of drunk people?"

Later, as they straggle out of the bar and into cabs to go home, Tony slings his arms around Steve and Clint's shoulders (he can't comfortably reach Thor's, and Darcy feels his pain), and recites the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V while Thor cheers him on.

For the first time, they seem like as much of a team when they're not fighting evil as when they are.

Darcy, of course, takes full credit when Coulson asks her the next morning, in his mildest, most dangerous voice, "What the hell happened?"

She smiles brightly despite the hangover headache throbbing behind her left eye and says, "It was a team-building exercise."

He goes back into his office muttering, and she pumps a fist in the air. "Coulson: one million," she murmurs, "Darcy: one."

They don't do a lot of team-building for the next few weeks--Dr. Doom tries to encase Manhattan in amber, there's a thing with Magneto and the Statue of Liberty, and then it's Thanksgiving.

The week after Thanksgiving, though, Darcy totally sends out a Thursday night drunk email, with the promise of extra Asgardians ("You know you love Volstagg, Tony!") and a link to Trailer Park Lounge, with the promise of margaritas and tater tots.

The place is kitschy and cute and there's not a dartboard in sight.

They settle in with a few pitchers of frozen margaritas (the Asgardians seem to think each plastic pitcher is actually a mug for their personal use), and for once, Clint actually contributes a good idea at the jukebox when he says, "Play some Ol' Blue Eyes for Steve." She picks "This Town," and it's only later that Natasha tells her it wasn't recorded until 1968.

"It's the thought that counts," Steve says, clinking his glass with hers. "I like this place."

Darcy, who by this point has had at least two frozen margaritas too many, grins goofily and gives him a peck on the cheek, which makes him blush. Thor slips into the spot on her other side, where Clint had been a warm presence all night, and rests his head on her shoulder.

"Your womanly assets are quite formidable from this angle," he says, which makes her laugh.

"You could just dive right in, get a little motorboat action going," Tony says from where he's lounging on the other side of the booth. "None of us would blame you. In fact, I know some people who'd pay to watch."

"Dude," Darcy says, straightening up out of her drunken slump and pointing a finger at him, "dude!" She's laughing too hard to say anything else.

At the same time, Thor says, "What? Is this motorboat action something you'd enjoy, Darcy? Should we pick up Jane and go for a boat ride? I did not know you were a sailor!" Which just makes her laugh more, and miss whatever he's saying about the Staten Island ferry.

Clint's not seeing the humor, though. "Hey, now," he says, "there's no call for that."

"I seem to recall you were a breast man, Clint," Natasha says, smirking around the rim of her glass. Darcy wonders how her lipstick seems to stay perfect no matter how much she drinks.

"Don't you start," Clint snaps.

Steve glances between Tony and Clint, obviously confused, and says, "I'm sure Tony didn't mean anything by it."

"Whatever," Darcy says, waving a hand dismissively. "Bygones."

"Stay classy, Stark," Clint mutters and Tony flips him off in response.

"Play nice," Darcy says, sharp this time, and they both sort of deflate, like naughty schoolboys who've been sent to the principal's office. She signals the waitress for the check. Best to get out before any real damage is done. She likes this place and doesn't want to get banned. Not to mention having the team camaraderie she's worked so hard to build go up in flames because Clint feels the need to get into a pissing contest with Tony. "Men," she mutters.

"If you'd like to ride on the ferry," Thor says, "I would be more than happy to accompany you. Clint can join us if he likes."

She smiles up at him and pats his arm reassuringly, suddenly exhausted. "I know," she says. "It's okay, Thor. Clint's just a jerk sometimes." She glances over at him, needing some reassurance herself. He rolls his eyes and shrugs. "We love him anyway."

Tony doesn't apologize (as far as she's concerned, he has nothing to apologize for), but on Monday morning, she finds a new, specially modified iPod on her desk. It has triple the hard drive space and double the amount of music as her old one, along with a note that actually looks like he signed it himself. So even though she doesn't think it's necessary, she's not going to say no to a new iPod.

At the moment, though, he takes Thor and the Asgardians in his car with him, all of them chattering about some after hours club they've found in Soho.

Clint hails a cab and looks a little nonplussed when Natasha shoves him into it, a serious "we need to talk" look on her face. They drive off and leave Darcy on the sidewalk with Steve.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"I'm good," she says around a yawn that feels like it's going to break her jaw wide open. "Just a little sleepy."

"Come on, drunky. Let's get you back to someplace you can sack out and sleep it off."

Saying, "I'm Darcy, not drunky," is the last thing she remembers, and even that's a little fuzzy.

She wakes up the next morning fully clothed and on top of the covers in a small unfamiliar room, the smell of coffee in the air. She heaves herself upright and her stomach heaves with her. She stumbles out of the room, hand clapped over her mouth, and Steve is standing at the stove in a small kitchen area. He points her in the direction of another doorway and she gets the lid up just in time.

When she's done, she roots around in her backpack for her toothbrush and after brushing her teeth, washing her face, and pulling her hair back into a loose ponytail, she goes back into the kitchen and announces, "I feel almost human."

Steve hands her a bottle of Advil and a mug of coffee. "Glad to hear it."

She glances over to the couch; there are two pillows and a neatly folded blanket sitting on one cushion. "I would have taken the couch," she says, embarrassed and a little touched.

He shrugs. "I get up early. This way you could sleep in." He shovels some scrambled eggs onto a plate and offers them to her, but her gorge rises and she shakes her head, swallowing hard.

"No, thanks," she says when she's sure she won't spew again. "What time is it?"

"Eight twenty."

"Crap. I need to be at work in, like, ten minutes."

"Don't worry, Coulson's office is just a few floors down."

"Huh. I thought it was just crazy talk that you lived here." She gulps down some more coffee. "Don't you have an apartment in Brooklyn or something?"

He shrugs. "Yeah." He starts eating his eggs, so clearly that part of the conversation is over. "There's toast if you want."

"I'm just gonna run out and grab a bagel. I'll see you at the nine am briefing." She brushes a hand over her black turtleneck and gives herself a surreptitious sniff test before she heads for the door. "Thanks again."

"You're welcome. Listen, Darcy." Something in his voice makes her stop in the doorway. "Maybe we could ease up a little on the Thursday night team-building?"

"Yeah," she says, nodding, "okay. That shouldn't be a problem."

Coulson's lips purse when he sees her at her desk ten minutes later, one half of a poppy seed bagel hanging out of her mouth, but he doesn't say anything besides, "Good morning," on his way back into his office.

"Morning," she mumbles through a mouthful of bagel and cream cheese, spraying poppy seeds everywhere.

Later, she hears that Tony and Clint went at each other during their morning spar, but when she gets hold of the footage, she can't really hear much of what they're saying over the blaring sounds of cock rock.

After Robert Plant is done telling them to squeeze his lemon till the juice runs down his leg, Tony says, "It's not middle school, Barton. You can't just call dibs," but the opening riffs of "You Shook Me All Night Long" drown out Clint's response.

"I totally need to learn how to read lips," she tells Jane, who stops by to ask if she wants to go to lunch.

Jane laughs, and she listens when Darcy tells her what happened, though Darcy's sure she's already heard it from Thor. When Darcy finishes with, "So I don't know what Clint's deal is, but he needs to chill."

"I think he likes you," Jane says.

Darcy chokes on her chicken salad. "Yeah, no," she says when she can speak again. Jane raises her eyebrows. "We hang out, and I'm not saying I wouldn't be on him like a cheap suit on a used car salesman." She can feel herself blushing but she forces her tone to stay casual and can't quite manage it. "But I'm pretty sure he and Natasha are doing it on the down low."

"I don't think so," Jane says, shaking her head.

"They went home together."

"And you went home with Steve. So unless something happened--and if it did, I totally want details--I don't see how who went home with who is relevant."

Darcy stops for a moment to think about that. Well, mostly to think about what sex with Steve might be like (she's willing to bet it would be hot), but also to take in what Jane's saying. "Okay, see, you're using that logic thing again. I don't know if you've met him, but Clint? Not exactly Mr. Spock."

Jane laughs. "True, but trust me on this one."

And Darcy really would like to, but she's pretty sure that Clint, like Thor and Tony and Steve, sees her as some kind of kid sister or mascot. She's okay with that--she figures it's what she gets for working with people who are all older than she is.

A couple of weeks pass quietly, but Thursday always rolls around again, and this week, Clint comes by her desk after lunch. He puts his hands on her shoulders and squeezes. He's got really strong hands. He starts giving her a completely workplace inappropriate and yet completely awesome chair massage and she makes this low purring noise that would be embarrassing if she cared about stuff like that. Coulson's off with Fury anyway, so he's not around to witness it.

Clint's mouth is right by her ear when he asks, "What's on for tonight?" so she can't be blamed for shivering.

She twists to face him. "Nothing." She frowns. "Steve asked me to cool it with Thursday night drunk." She hasn't told anybody else; she was just going to let it die a quiet death.

"Oh. I--Are you and he--You know what, forget that. We should just hang out, have dinner or something."

Darcy blinks and wills herself to stay cool. "Are you asking me out on a date, Agent Barton?"

And that's when the klaxons go off. Darcy's phone lights up and Clint's starts buzzing and he takes off to go be a hero before he can answer or she can take it back. Even with everything that happens in the next few days, she feels that question hanging over her; she talks to him in her head, tells him he better come back in one piece so she can pretend she was joking.

Coulson confirms that the Avengers are fighting actual aliens, and not like Thor is an alien, but insect-like aliens that speak via mandibular clicks and clacks. The pictures he shows her give her nightmares for a month, and not just because she's afraid the roaches hiding in her apartment will mutate into something similar while she's working eighteen hour days.

Luckily, it turns out that they're not so much invading as fleeing some interstellar vacation hot spot that their version of Priceline hooked them up with, but which is apparently not what it looked like on the brochure.

"Picture this whole clan of cranky folks who got lost on the way to Disney World, including grandma and grandpa, a caravan of aunts and uncles, and a whole passel of kids," Clint tells her when she visits him in the infirmary, disbelief clear in his voice. "And then when they finally arrived, they found out that they were staying at the nearest no-tell motel instead of one of the nice hotels, so the papa bug turned that spaceship around. Loki thought it was hilarious, so he helped out, translated for both sides. Hopefully, we'll never see those guys again."

"I guess some things really are universal," she says, her smile a little wobbly and her hands curled up tightly in her lap, since he'd said, "It's just a concussion," when she fussed over him, and she doesn't know what else to do.

They let him out in the morning so he stops by her desk, but she's been reconsidering the whole thing about possibly dating a guy who is part of the Avengers, a guy who gets called out to fight aliens when they attack (or get lost, but whatever, she didn't know that when he'd taken off and she hadn't known if she'd ever see him again), so she smiles brightly and says, "Things are kind of crazy with the aliens and the holidays, and on top of that, my mom is freaking out because she wants me to come home, but at this point, I can't afford a flight to New Mexico, so I have to figure out how I'm getting there. So now isn't really a good time."

He cocks his head and blinks at her, like she's someone he's never seen before, and then he says, "Yeah, sure, of course. I should've thought--No problem, Darcy. I won't bother you again."

And he doesn't. And it sucks.

"Oh, Darcy," Jane says when Darcy tells her after moping around for a week, and they go to the movies and eat popcorn with way too much fake butter; Darcy wants to puke but she can't and that just makes it worse.

"It's different for you," Darcy says once they've left the theater and are settled in at the diner down the block. "Thor is, well, he's Thor. He's the freaking god of thunder, right? I mean, you know he's going to come home and he's not going to be banged up or broken. Clint is--he's not a mutant or a god or a super soldier. He doesn't have a big titanium alloy suit that flies. He's just a guy with really good aim."

"Who hasn't gotten himself killed yet." Jane uses the straw from her Coke to emphasize her point. "Listen, if you take away all the fancy gear and the super-secret government funding and the aliens, he's a soldier. It's who he's chosen to be. And the fact that he's just a guy with really good aim that both Fury and Coulson have chosen to be on a team with all their super-powered guys, that should tell you how good he is at what he does." She reaches over, squeezes Darcy's arm, and then gets up to go to the ladies room. "Just think about it."

Darcy does, that day and the next, and the whole time she's waiting at LaGuardia to try to get on a flight to Albuquerque to see her mom for Christmas, and again when she's suddenly being escorted through the airport to the Stark Industries corporate jet by Happy Hogan.

Pepper's on the plane, her laptop open in front of her and papers spread on the seat around her.

"Tony said you could use a lift," she says, smiling, "and I was just finishing up some things with the shareholders before heading back to LA, so I can drop you off."

"I--Wow. I don't know what to say, except thank you. Thank Tony for me, too, please."

"I will." Pepper gestures to her paperwork. "I have some things I need to take care of, but there are movies and books and games available. Though," she hesitates, flushing a little, "if you decide to watch the porn, please use your headphones."

"Oh my god, of course this is the porno plane. Now I totally have to check out what skin flicks Tony Stark feels the need to have on cross-country flights."

She flips through the titles just to satisfy her curiosity, but the most scandalous thing she finds is the one where the porn-Avengers have a big orgy, and she was the one who sent that link around in the first place.

She's watching Finding Nemo when Pepper joins her.

"Everything okay?"

"Excellent, dude," Darcy answers, gesturing at the screen, where Crush is leading Marlin and Dory to the East Australian Current.

Pepper smiles. "Good."

They watch the movie for a while, and then Pepper says, "It's none of my business, but if you ever need to talk." She stops and cocks her head like she's thinking. "It's hard to be left behind when they go out out on missions. You never know what shape they're going to be in when they come back."

Darcy thinks of the hours she's spent wondering if Clint was even alive. "Or if they're going to come back at all."

Pepper nods. "Or that."

"How do you do it?"

"As the CEO of Stark Industries, I do everything I can to make sure that Tony--that all of them--are as safe as they can possibly be. The best equipment, the best training, the best intel, the best support staff--that's where you come in--and the best medical care when they do need it. And it's still totally out of my control. I've learned to breathe through the panic."

"Breathe? That's your advice?"

Pepper shrugs, looking a little sheepish. "Would it have been better if I'd said, 'just keep swimming'?"

Darcy laughs, tension suddenly dissipating. "Maybe."

They land in Albuquerque a little while later, and Pepper hugs her and gives her a gift. "Don't open it until Christmas," she says, but screw that, Darcy is tearing the paper off in the cab on the way to her mom's. It's a pair of beautiful red suede boots with black buttons curving up the side. She takes a picture and posts it to Facebook, because holy shit, they are beautiful boots, and way out of Darcy's price range.

Christmas with her mother is a low-key affair; she spends most of it explaining that while other people do exciting things for SHIELD, she's there to answer phones, type reports, and schedule Coulson to within an inch of his life.

"I don't have much clearance for the secret stuff," she says around a mouthful of cherry pie, which isn't exactly the truth but is easier than admitting she does have clearance and isn't going to say anything that might have Nick Fury and his black helicopters showing up on her mother's doorstep in the middle of the night.

She's as glued to her phone as she ever is, but she only gets a few emails from Coulson; apparently, even he takes Christmas off.

It's nice, being back home, curled up on the couch in her ratty old sweats, drinking hot chocolate and marathoning Christmas specials with her mom.

She talks about the Avengers like they're her co-workers, which in a sense, they are, and her mother gives her a sly grin after the story about the brawl and says, "Are you smitten, Darcy? Am I going to get to meet this one?"

Darcy can feel herself blushing, because she hadn't thought she was that obvious, but looking back over the conversation, she realizes she talked about Clint more than anyone. "I guess I am. And I don't know." Her mother is cool, but Clint is a good ten or twelve years older than Darcy, so bringing him home could get dicey. If she even decides she wants to go out with him. If he even likes her.

She's sorry she even brought it up. The whole thing is really harshing her Christmas mellow.

"Well, if he's not smart enough to snap you right up, then he's not smart enough to be your boyfriend. Hmph." Her mother punctuates that with a firm nod and a long sip of hot chocolate. Darcy leans over and hugs her, breathing in the scent of home and comfort, and she dozes through the rest of It's a Wonderful Life with her mom gently stroking her hair.

But the day after Christmas, she gets on a plane (the e-ticket had appeared in her inbox shortly after she arrived home, a direct flight into LaGuardia, arranged by Pepper; organizing things is Pepper's mutant superpower) and heads back to New York.

Her apartment is small and dark, but at least it doesn't, as far as she know, have twenty-four hour surveillance, like the suites at the SHIELD tower that they were all offered when Jane's project got co-opted by the government. She collapses into bed without checking her email and wakes up earlier than usual. She gets a seat on the subway, and arrives at the office in a good mood.

She's in before Coulson for once, and she has time to sort through the mail that's piled up in her inbox and process some expense reports before he shows up. He puts a small, neatly wrapped box on her desk as he walks by but doesn't wait for her to open it. He'd been unprepared for the half dozen red velvet cupcakes she'd brought him before she left, and she'd mentally updated the scoreboard: Coulson: one million one hundred sixty-nine, Darcy: two. She opens the paper carefully, and finds an envelope folded inside the tissue paper in the box. Inside the envelope are two orchestra tickets to The Book of Mormon. She blinks, surprised and pleased.

She waits until he's off the phone to go into to his office. "Thanks," she says, waving the envelope at him.

"Merry Christmas, Darcy." He gives her a small but genuine smile, which she returns. "I hope you enjoy the show."

She holds onto that surprised, pleased feeling for another half hour or so, and then she gets back from the copy machine to find Natasha sitting in her visitor's chair.

"He's on the phone," Darcy says, dropping the copies in the file marked Expenses and then bumping the drawer closed with her hip, "but if you wait, he'll be done in about five minutes."

"I'm here to see you, not Coulson."

Darcy raises her eyebrows. "Okay."

"Clint and I were on duty together over the holiday," Natasha says, and Darcy has a horrifying vision of being told to step off by the Black Widow. Somehow, she doesn't think her taser would be much use against the woman, who is scarier than the rest of the Avengers combined. Including the Hulk. "He was rather morose for unspecified but obvious reasons." She rolls the matchbox Batmobile Darcy keeps on her desk over the mousepad and parks it next to the mouse. "For all that he can be an asshole, he's a good man."

It's so much not what Darcy's expecting to hear that it takes her a few seconds to process it. "What?"

"Clint's a good guy. And he's been hitting on you since he met you."

Darcy blinks, and suddenly, all those times he's dropped by her desk to chat or to organize what she thought were group outings take on a different slant. "Well, he's really bad at it. And anyway, I thought he was hooking up with you."

"We were involved a few years ago, but it ended then and hasn't begun again. I admit, it wasn't the smartest move either of us ever made. But the awkwardness is long past." Natasha laughs. "He hides it well when he's with you, but Clint is a professional, and whatever you decide, he won't make working here difficult for you."

"It's not--God, I didn't even think of that. I just--You get to go with them. You're one of them. I have to sit here and coordinate conference calls and stonewall reporters and type up reports after the fact. I--I don't know if I can do it. It's hard enough just being a friend."

Natasha nods. "It's difficult for all of us, even with training. But it's worth it, I think." She stands up and smoothes her hands down her thighs, though Darcy thinks she probably has the ability to glare wrinkles out of her clothes.

She's two steps out of the cubicle when Darcy says, "Natasha, thanks."

Natasha leans back around the cubicle wall. "If you tell him I said that, I will make you wish you hadn't."

Darcy laughs nervously, ninety-eight percent sure she's joking.

The rest of the day is quietly busy with things that keep Darcy's hands occupied but free her mind to wander.

She goes to the cafeteria for lunch and Steve slides into the seat next to her, his eyes wide and pleading.

"You have to convince Thor not to go to New Year's Eve in Times Square," he says. "It won't end well."

She takes a minute to think about the tightly packed crowd of drunks and the havoc Thor and the other Asgardians could wreak and a chill runs down her spine. "I'll talk to Jane," she promises.

Which is how Tony and Pepper end up hosting a New Year's Eve party in their Fifth Avenue penthouse. Darcy buys a new black dress and wears her new red boots and spends the first part of the night helping Tony's friend Rhodey figure out how to kiss Natasha at midnight.

"He has no idea what he's in for," Clint says from behind her as she watches Rhodey approach Natasha with two glasses of champagne.

"Hey, it's his life. He can risk it however he likes," she answers. "I think they'd be a cute couple."

"And it would make Tony crazy."

"Always a bonus." Darcy grins up at him and clinks her glass against his. "Do you have similar plans?" she asks, and then wants to kick herself. She settles for finishing the last of her vodka tonic.

He gives her a lingering once-over that makes her skin feel like it's too tight, smirks and says, "Nice boots. They fit all right?"

"Thanks, yeah."

"Good." His smirk widens into a smug, shit-eating grin. "I knew they would."

"You knew--The boots were from you?"

He gives a little half-shrug and grabs her hand. "I saw them and thought of you."

"I--Wow. I didn't know." Now her skin is heating up; she hopes it's not visible in the mood lighting Tony's got going on. "Thank you." She starts walking through the apartment, heading for the bar; Clint doesn't let go of her hand, and she doesn't pull away, so he trails after her. She wonders if that's an answer to her question. "I need another drink." And maybe a shot to go with it, she thinks, but doesn't say.

Thor and Jane are there with Sif and the Warriors Three. "Now we shall sing yuletide carols," Thor is saying, and Jane grabs Darcy's hand before she can escape.

Darcy doesn't remember much after that. There's a lot of loud singing about Valkyries, and a lot of toasting to various people whose names have more consonants than vowels, and at one point she's pretty sure Clint wraps his arms around her waist and rests his head on her shoulder, but she thinks that's only because he can't stand upright anymore.

Midnight brings more cheering and toasting and kissing, though Clint only rubs his cheek against hers and she doesn't try to turn it into anything more. Most of the attention is on Sif, who grabs Steve and plants one on him, to loud applause from everyone. And then everybody hugs everybody else, lots of friendly pecks on the cheek (though Volstagg totally slaps her ass when he hugs her) and fist-bumping.

The Asgardians keep drinking, and everyone else sort of winds down around them. Pepper leads Darcy to a guest bedroom, and Steve helps them get Clint situated. He's still mumble-singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and he gives her a wide, goofy grin when she unlaces his boots and gets him under the covers.

"Happy New Year, Darcy!"

She smiles at him. "Happy New Year, Clint."

Steve and Pepper exchange glances. "Are you going to be okay in here?" Pepper asks. "There are other rooms."

"No," Darcy says. "This is fine." She takes a deep breath. "See? Breathing."

Pepper squeezes her shoulder on her way out, and Steve gives her another hug. "Have a good night, Darcy. Happy New Year."

"You, too. You give the best hugs," she calls after him and then closes the door quietly.

Unlike some people, Darcy knows how to prepare for a drunk New Year's Eve sleepover, so she shimmies out of her dress and into the oversized t-shirt she'd shoved into her bag. She sits on the edge of the bed to take off her boots and has to stop and think about them for a while, the way the suede is soft under her fingers and the fact that Clint is the one who bought them for her. She smiles sappily for a while before she remembers she's supposed to be getting ready for bed. There's an ensuite bathroom so she's able to brush her teeth and drink a couple of glasses of water and take some Advil before she crawls into bed next to Clint. He's sprawled out on his belly now, face mashed against the pillow, snoring softly. She forces herself to breathe through the tightness in her chest, that warm combination of affection (she's not nearly ready to start thinking of it in terms of love) and fear that he evokes so easily. And then she slides beneath the covers, tucks herself under his arm, and goes to sleep.

She wakes up to the soft light of midmorning filtering through the curtains and the sound of Clint retching in the bathroom. Lovely.

"You okay?" she says. Her voice is whiskey-rough, but she feels pretty good, all things considered. Of course, she hasn't moved yet.

"Been worse," is the reply. "Course, I've been better, too."

She swings her legs out of bed and pads over to the bathroom to find him kneeling in front of the toilet, his forehead pressed to his hand, which is clutching the porcelain for dear life.

"Drink some water and brush your teeth," she says, and turns and walks back into the bedroom. She can feel his gaze on her ass, her bare legs, and it sets heat blooming under her skin. It's enough to offset the slight headache she has and the little bit of queasiness in her belly.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," he murmurs, and swings the door shut behind her.

It takes a little while, but soon, they're both presentable enough to go on the hunt for coffee, Clint in his black button-down shirt and black jeans from the night before, and Darcy in the jeans and sweater she'd packed.

"Wait," she says, putting her hand flat on his chest. She can feel his heartbeat against her palm as she reaches up to fix his collar, which is all twisted under. He brings a hand up to cup her face, his fingers rough and callused, but gentle.

"Darcy."

She gives him a tiny, pleased smile before she leans up and kisses him. His other arm wraps around her and he kisses her back, his lips warm and soft as they shape themselves to hers, and there's a spark of electricity down her spine when she touches her tongue to his.

They're both breathless when they pull apart, and his smile is wide and genuine and lights up his whole face. "We should do that again," he murmurs into her hair.

"We should. We will. But coffee first."

"Mmm, okay." But he kisses her again and she presses herself up against the solid wall of his body, the firm heat of his skin so good beneath her fingertips when she shoves her hand up underneath his shirt.

"Coffee," she says, her mouth against his cheek, and this time they actually make it out of the room and to the kitchen, where the others are sitting, having breakfast.

"Darcy," Thor booms, "have you finally bedded Clint? He seems a lusty man. I hope he was able to satisfy your womanly needs."

"Oh my god," Clint mutters into the back of her neck.

"Thor, please, not so loud," Jane says, wincing and pinching the bridge of her nose.

"There has been no bedding yet," Darcy says, "but I have a feeling there will be in the near future." She goes to the coffee maker and stares at the empty pot. "But right now I need coffee more than I need sex." She turns to look at the assembled Avengers and shakes the empty coffeepot at them. "Why is there no more coffee?"

Pepper comes to her rescue, pouring her a mug from a silver carafe.

"Oh, thank you, sweet Jebus," Darcy says after the first sip.

Coulson shows up then with bagels still warm from the oven.

Tony says, "Who let him in?"

Pepper smacks his arm lightly. "I did." She gives Coulson a hug, which seems to fluster him a little (something Darcy never thought she'd see) and annoy Tony. "Happy New Year, Phil."

Clint sits down and pulls Darcy into his lap. She lets him, enjoys the feeling of his arm around her while she spreads cream cheese on her bagel and sips her coffee.

Coulson glances over at them and says, "Since I won the pool, I believe you all owe me fifty dollars."

"There was a pool and I didn't know about it?" Darcy says, a little louder than necessary in a room full of hungover people, and straightens up. "Sorry, that was a little shrill."

"Of course there was a pool," Tony says, giving her a withering look.

Coulson gives her his smug son of a bitch expression and says, "Coulson: one million one hundred seventy. Darcy: two."

"I demand half the winnings, since nobody informed me that this was happening," she says. They all laugh at her, but she's not joking.

"We can discuss it," Coulson says cautiously.

Darcy smiles, because she knows exactly how to get her way, and she has a hot new boyfriend so she doesn't care that much (still, two hundred bucks is nothing to sneeze at). "Coulson: one million one hundred seventy. Darcy: three."

It's going to be a good year.

end