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you need a rock not a rolling stone

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The first time Darcy gets kidnapped by a mad scientist, it is not her fault.


She isn't even working with Jane at that point—she's planning on going back, but her mom had been stroking out about her not finishing school and it'd turned into this whole big thing, so Darcy re-enrolled and is currently working her ass off to finish up early, thanks very much, which means the only thing in her brain is an analysis of the internationalization of public policy as it applies to transnational groups, and it's not like she ever actually understood the stuff Jane did—but crazy people who want to take over the world are not known for their logic and reasoning. Darcy ends up in a room with no windows, which is very, very, very not cool. She tries to stay chill about it all—she's pretty sure Thor will come for her, if only because he hates it when Jane cries and Darcy's almost certain Jane isn't carrying a grudge about being left without an assistant, and even if she is, she won't take to the extreme of not caring if Darcy gets mind-wiped or dropped off a cliff or whatever—but the whole damsel-in-distress thing is totally not her style and completely stress-inducing, too.

They take her phone away from her, of course, but they let her keep her messenger bag. The day they yanked her off the quad (in the middle of campus, in broad daylight, and when (not if) she gets out of this she is going to raise holy hell about security, see if she doesn't) had been her grandmother's birthday, so Darcy had pinned her old watch to her bag in a fit of nostalgia. It's tiny and dainty and totally not Darcy's style, but it still works, so at least she has some idea of what time it is. She's a little shaky on how many days it's been, but having some way of judging time is way more comforting than she would have believed.

She starts to get discouraged on the fourth day—or maybe it's the fifth. Crazy!Brains isn't listening when she tells him she doesn't know anything. He thinks she's just not "properly motivated" to solve the equations he's throwing at her, and Darcy really, seriously does not want to know what he thinks might be motivating. Even if they do only feed her disgusting protein drinks, the ones with algae or kelp or whatever, Darcy is fond of eating and would like to keep doing so no matter how many times in the recent past she's eyed her waist with less than perfect acceptance. Nobody seems to be coming for her, and she's not sure how much longer she can keep up the brave front. She wants to go home, back to her crappy off-campus apartment with the leaky faucets and the beige everything. She wants to get out of bed in the middle of the night and go eat Sugar Pops if she feels like it, and ohmygod, she wants to take a shower.

She lets herself wallow for fifteen minutes, but then she sits up and resolutely pulls out her bag. She'd been on her way home from the library when they'd grabbed her; there's nothing remotely useful for breaking out of super-secret hideaways in it (her taser had served honorably, but there'd been a lot of guys grabbing her and it had gone down fighting) but all her notes for her independent study thesis are still there. She can't believe she's turned into the kind of nerd who studies no matter what, but maybe some of Jane's crazy rubbed off on her. Even if they don't come for her in time, they might find her stuff one day and if she can get far enough along in the actual writing of the paper, they could grant her a degree for trying. It could totally happen, Darcy tells herself, and even if she's not around to see it, it would make her mom proud.

She sits on the floor and starts laying out her notes. She never writes a paper this way—seriously, who has the time?—but it's kind of soothing. She reads through everything she has with her and focuses on all the stuff she remembers from the source material and starts filling in her outline. She thinks and writes, and goes and hunts down a couple of quote cards and writes some more. She wishes like hell she had her computer, but what she's got written by hand is good; it makes sense in her head and it's translating well to paper. She is definitely not thinking about how she's finally got this shit figured out and no one is probably ever going to know when there are these odd whistle-thwap sounds outside the door, followed by something heavy hitting the floor--several somethings hitting the floor--and she looks up just in time to see the door being kicked open and a guy in all black standing there.

"Darcy Lewis?" Mr. Basic Black says it with great shades of doubt, as though he thought he was looking for Cinder-fucking-Ella or something, not an undergrad in the mad dash toward the end of the semester.

"Depends on who's asking." Darcy can do doubtful just as well as annoyingly attractive dudes who appear out of nowhere, thanks.

"I'm from SHIELD, so if you can come--"

"Right, and I'm just going to believe you," Darcy snaps, because seriously? She'd mastered the whole 'Do not go anywhere with a stranger' thing when she was five.

"Dr. Foster said to tell you that grape and watermelon Slurpees are still disgusting but the next round is on her." His mouth twitches like he's trying not to smile. "Does that help?"

"Yes," Darcy says, shoving everything back in her bag. "Thank you. Though--it could just mean you've kidnapped Jane and got her to tell you that somehow--" Something entirely too close blows up; Darcy can feel the shock waves and it is not as cool as it looks in blow-them-up movies.

"Yeah, because your favorite Slurpee flavor is exactly what I'd want to know from the woman who figured out the physics of inter-dimensional travel," the guy says, a little snarky now. If Darcy wasn't in the middle of being kidnapped, she'd appreciate how it made him that much more attractive. Also, she'd probably have something good to say about his arms and how well sleeveless Kevlar worked with them, but her life isn't running that smoothly now. "If you'd like to get the hell out of here before the next round of charges go off, now would not be the time to be having trust issues." He gives her this impatient c'mon, c'mon gesture, and Darcy, telling herself that a real bad guy would either be dragging her out or sweet-talking her to try to keep her quiet, not rolling his eyes at her, loops her bag across her body and follows him. He turns around and looks both ways before he heads back out into the hall and Darcy notices two things.

One: Nice ass.

Two: He's got a serious bow slung across his back, and arrows, too--which is, y'know, not exactly standard weaponry--but yeah. Really nice ass.

She manages not to say that out loud, which is possibly a sign of maturity, and one she'd like a little credit for--like maybe as a sign of respect, the universe might not let her die--but she's not entirely optimistic about her chances.

The goons who are always lurking around whenever Darcy has to go talk to the crazy guy in charge are on the floor, not moving, and when Darcy looks closer she can see arrows, and--

"Oh my god, did you shoot that guy in the throat?" Darcy should look away, she knows she should, and she should be moving, too, but she's stuck right there and suddenly not feeling so good. She makes herself turn her head, but that's not any better because the other goon has an arrow in his eye, and she realizes she heard that, those were the noises from earlier and she is going to be sick, she can't help it--

"Hey. Darcy." There's a warm hand on her arm, shaking her gently. "Look at me, okay?" She closes her eyes and fights down the nausea and when she opens them again, she does what he asked and looks at him, not at anything else, only him, because for all that he was the one who had to have done the bit with the arrows, he's also the only one who hasn't actually been threatening her lately. "It's okay; I know." He has nice eyes, Darcy thinks, and not in the flip way she'd assessed his arms or his ass. They're quiet and calm and not at all impatient, and something in them tells her he does know how horrible it feels to see people dead on the ground, even people who kidnapped her. "We're going to walk, and all you have to do is look at me, okay? I'll get you out of here, I promise." Darcy nods blindly and moves when he does. He keeps talking to her while they move, and she can tell without looking that he's steering her around the bodies, making sure she doesn't have to touch... anything. There's noise like big guns from somewhere that sounds close, but he doesn't rush her, just keeps up with the steady, even pace until they're outside and she doesn't care if there's smoke blowing around, she's gulping down air like there hadn't been any oxygen inside the building.

"Okay?" He's still got his arm around her, easy like he doesn't have anything better to do than hold up girls having panic attacks, but even in the middle of said attack Darcy can tell it'd probably be better for both of them if he had both hands free so he could, you know, use the bow. Just in case.

"Yeah," Darcy says, taking one more deep breath and nodding. "I'm good." He looks down at her, again with the doubting, and okay, fine, she's still a little shivery, but she can manage to stand by herself, so she nods once more, as firmly as she can, and he lets go, pulling his bow up off his back in the same smooth motion.

"Widow, this is Hawkeye," he says, and Darcy's kind of proud that she figures out right away that he's got some kind of radio or something. Her brain must be coming back to life. It's not much, but at least she's not standing there trying to figure out why the hell he's suddenly calling her a widow. "We are clear and ready for extraction, Drop Site 1."

Something else blows up, really close this time, so the noise and shock wave hit her all at once, but aside from a little squeak--totally one of surprise--she manages not to freak out, which is good, because things start happening pretty fast. Three guys come around the far corner of the building, yelling and pointing, and Darcy has just figured out that they have guns when the first arrow goes past her the other way. Two more arrows follow before she can duck back into the doorway.

"Do me a favor and watch my back, okay?" He spares her one fast look, and he might just be giving her something to do so she doesn't totally flip out on him, but it doesn't sound like a bad idea regardless, so she nods and then pokes her head around the edge of the recessed doorway and looks for anything that's not good, while he goes back to the shooting thing.

Darcy's just about to ask what she should do if she sees something when a woman drops down from somewhere, landing lightly for all that she probably came from the roof, and saying, "Three more on the way around the building." She doesn't seem too concerned about it, but Darcy is beginning to wonder what they do when her very own personal Rescue Ranger runs out of arrows. Of course, the new lady has, wow, five knives on her, and those are only the ones Darcy can actually see, so maybe she likes it when there aren't any arrows left. Before Darcy can put this theory to the test, which she really does not want to do, there's a helicopter flying right toward them.

"About fucking time," her guy says, which Darcy takes to mean it's the good guys for all that he's still not moving from where he's sending arrows flying off in every direction. "I vote for you talking to them--with the way they fucked up this intel, I'm not in any mood to be polite."

"Always so impatient." Knife Lady looks like she wants to pat him on the head, but she yanks a flare off her utility belt and lights it. "Mobile One, this is Black Widow. Three for extraction, popping green smoke." She throws the flare out a little ways from the building and gestures for Darcy to get ready to move.

The noise from the helicopter is pretty unbelievable, plus the blades are whipping the air around so even when she can see past the smoke, which really is green, Darcy's effectively blinded by her hair, but it's pretty hard to miss the rope ladders that come flying down from the open doors. Darcy tries plenty hard, but nope, there's definitely no missing them or how the lady with the knives is halfway up one already and looking back impatiently for her to follow. Darcy would almost rather take her chances with the goons, but she tells herself to deal and makes her feet go toward the ladder. It's moving around, though, and it takes her three tries just to grab it. She's got no idea how she's going to actually climb it, but then her guy backs up to her and hooks an arm around one of the rungs.

"I'll hold it steady," he yells to Darcy. "You just climb." Darcy starts to argue because even she can see how holding her ladder steady means he can't really shoot, or get out himself, but he shakes his head at her. "Not up for discussion, sweetheart. Go."

"Jeez," Darcy mutters. "Hero-complex much?" Her righteous indignation gets her up onto the ladder, but then a gust of wind catches her messenger bag and knocks her off balance, and he's reaching up and dragging it over her head. She clutches at it instinctively. "Wait, wait, that's my thesis," she yells at him, and it's stupid, she knows it is--it's just paper and they're talking about not only her life here--but it's the final straw or something, and her eyes are blurry and hot even as she lets go and lets him have it.

"I got it," he says, and jerks his head toward the helicopter. "Look up," he tells her. "It's easier that way." It's the same tone that told her to just keep walking, so she does: keeps her eyes on where the ladder disappears into the open door and climbs.

One more, she tells herself. One more. Black Widow is already there, leaning back out to grab onto Darcy, and there are other guys in black there, too, all of them with guns, big long rifles with scopes, which would seem to be a much more sensible option than bows and arrows. Darcy plans on telling that to her guy, but as soon as she's inside the helicopter, sprawling out onto the floor with absolutely zero grace or coordination, which would be humiliating on any other day, the helicopter starts moving, gaining altitude and curving around back toward where it had come from.

"Wait," Darcy yells, scrambling up onto her knees and reaching to catch the attention of Black Widow, who just holds up one hand and goes back to talking rapid-fire--and not in English, Darcy doesn't think--into a headset microphone. Darcy looks around, and okay, so maybe she's freaking out a little--yes, again--but the only guy she even halfway trusts just got left behind and it's probably her fault because she was too much of a wimp to climb without him holding things steady for her, and it's been a really bad week, okay? Freaking out probably won't help, but at this point, she doesn't see how it can hurt.

Nobody else seems to care that they're missing someone, and they're sure as hell not paying attention to her even before there's another explosion back where they'd just been, a big one. Two big ones, and it's against her moral code and she'll probably have to apologize to her mom (if she ever sees her again) for going against everything she was taught growing up, but she can feel herself teetering on the edge of giving up. It's not in the Lewis women's DNA, though, so she's still balanced on that edge when Black Widow hooks her foot into the netting by the door and leans down and out so far Darcy half-expects her to fall. She doesn't, though, thanks to leg muscles like Darcy can only dream of, and she's not just suicidally crazy or thrill-seeking, because when she comes back up, Darcy's guy comes up with her, the two of them moving like it's an everyday thing, and Darcy should have known he could climb the dumb ladder with the helicopter moving. She feels totally stupid for even worrying, much less almost breaking the Lewis Creed. She sits back down on the floor of the helicopter and hugs her knees up close to her body so she can put her head down on them and will her heart to stop pounding, not looking up until her messenger bag hits the floor next to her.

"Special delivery," her guy yells over the noise of the rotors, and ordinarily Darcy would at least have a decent comeback, but it's been a long couple of days and that was before she climbed up a rope ladder into a helicopter with shit blowing up around her, so she just clutches the stupid bag and nods. "Come on," he says, gesturing toward one of the few seats. "Belt in; I don't want to lose you after getting you this far."

Darcy makes it up into the seat without looking like too much of a freak, and he makes sure she's got the harness buckled before he turns away to put on a set of headphones and confer with Black Widow and one of the other guys. They're all just standing around now, a couple of them sitting with one leg dangling out the open door like it's no big deal. Nobody's saying anything, but Darcy kind of takes it from their body language that it's all good. The helicopter is noisy as hell and not what you might call a smooth ride, but Darcy is suddenly so tired she can barely stay upright, all the adrenaline draining out of her system and taking her energy with it, too. She doesn't quite fall asleep, but she's in that weird zone of total exhaustion, so when the helicopter flies up and over Manhattan she can't really tell if she's dreaming or not. It's dusk and the city lights are on and it's all totally surreal, especially when they drop down to land on the roof of a skyscraper and a boatload of people come flooding out to meet them.

Darcy has never been the huggy type, but when Jane appears out of the crowd, grabbing her almost before Darcy can get down out of the helicopter, it's not all that hard to make an exception. She doesn't even mind when she gets passed over to Thor, because he, no duh, gives really freaking awesome hugs. Life-affirming ones even, which is pretty much exactly Darcy's mood. It gets a little much when Sif and the boys join in, but being somewhere that is not the hideout of CrazyForBrains is worth celebrating. The only bad thing is that the helicopter is taking back off before she can get herself free, and she realizes she never actually thanked anyone for coming and finding her, much less not slapping her out of her hysterics.

It's almost dark now, but she turns and waves up at the helicopter as it moves off, and there's just enough light from the building across from where she's standing that she can see someone waving back. She decides she's pretending it's her guy, and then lets Jane steer her inside and straight toward a giant, beautiful, amazing, fabulous shower, from which she does not plan to emerge for the next three days, except that the really special thing about being kidnapped by mad scientists is that it's the gift that keeps right on giving. They do let her stay in the shower for a while, and there's a pretty awesome chef around somewhere who makes good food appear like magic, but Darcy still finds herself sitting with Jane for moral support in a badass-looking office long before she is ready to deal with shit.

She doesn't have much choice, though, so she sits there and listens with what her mother would characterize as a completely bitchtastic attitude as the owner of said badass office, one Colonel Nick Fury, and their old buddy, Agent-Fascist-Coulson, give her the rundown on how she's been identified as potential leverage and there is significant personal risk, and blahblahfuckingblah they can't let her leave just yet.

"This is such bullshit," Darcy says. Coulson raises an eyebrow at her, a show of emotion that is kind of exciting in its own pathetic way; she almost hates to burst his bubble and add, "I mean, not that you're doing your protection thing--I'm not a total idiot, thanks--just that these people think I'm worth their time." She flops back in her chair, chewing her bottom lip. "What about my stuff? Clothes, books, music--" She glares at Coulson for old times' sake; Jane had somehow managed to finagle some kind of reimbursement account for the late, lamented iPod and all its music, but that doesn't mean Darcy's forgiven Coulson and his goons.

Fury has some answer about them keeping an eye on her place, but they're apparently serious enough about the whole protection thing that Coulson has an account set up for her with a spending limit that makes her eyes pop. He hands over a phone--untraceable--and a laptop (also secure) and goes off about how she still shouldn't log into her Facebook or anything. Darcy's annoyed enough at the condescension that she can't decide if she should start googling for boy porn immediately, just to make somebody's head explode, or if she should work up to it gradually and see how long she can entertain herself that way. Her mom is in the loop--apparently, Fury talked to her personally, which has every single one of Coulson's drones almost stuttering in surprise--so that only leaves school as a major stumbling block.

"My last semester," she says, but Fury is shaking his head. "It's not even two weeks."

"We can't keep you safe," he says. She'll give him points for the regretful tone--and Coulson actually looks a little pained. It's too bad Darcy can't enjoy it properly. "Not to mention the potential for collateral damage and civilian casualties--"

"Seriously?" Darcy snaps. "You don't have one geek on staff who can anonymize a connection so I can at least beg for a little mercy from my profs?"

Jane has that steely-eyed look. "I'm sure we could get Tony to knock something off in his spare time."

That gets everybody's attention, and there's some intense non-verbal communication going on between Fury and Coulson before Coulson finally sighs, "Fine, I'll set something up in the morning."

Jane smiles with a satisfaction that tells Darcy she's still harboring more than a little irritation about losing her research in New Mexico, even if she's working for The Man now. Fury sees it, too, but he just stands up and clearly the meeting is done, which is fine by Darcy anyway, but doubly so now because she is dying to know how to punch a few buttons like that. "Tony?" she hisses at Jane on their way out of the office. "Who the hell is Tony?"

"Stark," Jane grins back at her, and Darcy has another one of those surreal flashes, because seriously, how is this her life with Tony Stark being used for blackmail purposes?

There's an SUV--black, with tinted windows, how surprising-- waiting to take them to the mansion. Darcy thinks she should be capitalizing that even in her thoughts, but she's going to hold out against the Borg for as long as she can. The house itself is ridiculous, like something out of a documentary on how to spend your merchant-of-death profits for maximum style value, but at least Jane sort of lives there when Thor's around, so Darcy has somebody to hang with while her life is turned upside down.

"It explains a lot about Tony," Jane murmurs as they make their way up stairs and down hallways and through one gallery after another. Darcy loses count of the recognizable paintings they're passing by before they get off the first floor. The actual residential floors are less over the top--still nicer than Darcy's ever seen, but less like a museum.

Coulson comes through with whatever it is so no one can ever trace the person emailing as Darcy Lewis to this place in Manhattan, and Darcy starts in on wringing a concession or two out of her profs without being able to say anything to anyone about what's really going on. Family emergency is always reasonable, and she's in good enough with most of them that they're okay with her turning in stuff without actually being there. Her independent study advisor, though, is a complete ass. He and Darcy have never had what you might call a mutually supportive and collaborative relationship, and Darcy isn't actually surprised when he refuses to grant her an extension. She'd been counting on that, and has been writing her ass off practically since she walked out of Fury's office, so she's not in too bad of shape, but there's supposed to be a personal interview that goes along with it, and he's being an extra asshat about that.

Once she gets everything sent off, she doesn't have much to do, which would ordinarily make her crazy, but her body has this hey-we-got-kidnapped-can-we-have-a-break reaction going and not having to hustle for a job or worry about making rent means she can indulge herself for once. Between the stress of the end of the semester, and the nights when her subconscious decides it needs to exorcise another demon or two in the form of a nice, Technicolor recreation of getting snatched, her sleep cycle is kind of fucked up, but nobody cares if she's wandering around the residential floors half the night. Dr. Banner offers to teach her the basics of meditation, which turns out to be not so bad, though she thinks he gets more out of it than she does; and when she takes it into her head to recreate her grandmother's latkes at two in the morning, not only does nobody care, Jarvis-the-not-actually-real-person who runs the place gets everything she needs delivered in, like, ten minutes. She thinks he might have made some kind of announcement, too, because she ends up with all kinds of people joining her. That's actually a good thing because her Nana only knew how to cook for a cast of thousands and Darcy ends up with a truly ridiculous number of latkes.

At some point in the madness she looks up and realizes she just smacked Tony Stark's hand for trying to steal a pancake out of turn, but whatever. If there's one thing the Lewis women know how to do it's to go with the flow, especially when the flow is good. Getting to the point where Captain America is just Steve and the best potato-grater ever (Nana always insisted the potatoes be hand-grated and he doesn't care if he skins his knuckles because they heal so fast), or getting to try on a pair of Jimmy Choos because Pepper had kicked them off at some point and Darcy had tripped over them, or, y'know, actually getting a name for her guy, one that she can say without snickering, because Hawkeye is too weird to even think in her own head, but Clint works fine for casual conversation and Barton is perfect for when he starts throwing snark her way...

Yeah, all of that is really freaking good flow.

* * *

"Come on, jerk," Darcy mutters as she clicks the mouse on Send/Receive a little more violently than necessary. It's been almost two weeks and her email remains stubbornly empty. "Power trip, much?"

"Still no word?"

Darcy looks over her shoulder and shrugs at Clint, who looks to be it for her middle-of-the-night kitchen companions tonight. Jane's been in some kind of a research blitz; Darcy assumes Thor is sitting patiently in one of her labs, being all supportive--he's very good about that. Sometimes Tony shows up, too, but that's way more random, and Steve generally keeps hours that skew entirely too heavily toward the very early mornings.

"Nada," Darcy says, a little more shortly than necessary, and then sighs and waves a non-verbal apology. It's not Clint's fault--all he did was come find her and get her out of CrazyForBrains’ hands with the least amount of trauma possible. Darcy's spent more than a few minutes contemplating her fate had it been Natasha finding her, and while she's getting to the point where Natasha doesn't scare the crap out of her (mostly due to Latke Night--she'd had no idea Natasha was a fan, but she'd out-eaten everyone but Volstagg and Steve and had hung around to help wash up) Darcy thinks she probably would have been rendered unconscious for the trip out.

"Sorry," Darcy says. "I think he's just fucking with me now, dragging it out to watch me squirm. It's starting to drive me crazy."

"Sweetheart." Clint smirks at her and arches an eyebrow. "I hate to break the news to you, but it's not a drive. It's more like a short putt."

Darcy closes her eyes in pain. "Oh, my god," she sighs. "You did not just make a golf pun at me."

"That's what you took from that?" Clint laughs at her, but it's an easy kind of a laugh, and even as Darcy's laughing with him, she doesn't miss how smooth he is at getting her out of her craptastic mood.

"Where is everybody?" It strikes her that maybe it's not just that Thor is with Jane, and Tony and Steve are off doing their own thing. She isn't supposed to know about super-hero emergencies--technically, she's not supposed to know anything about anything--but it's pretty hard to miss when things get tense, and maybe there's a not-good explanation for her solo companion tonight. "Nobody's hurt or anything--?"

"Nah, we're good," Clint says. "Just another day at the office, yeah?"

He's got that nothing-to-see-here-move-along expression in his eyes, the one she's figured out he gets when everything is just that much suckier than usual but he thinks he's covering it. Darcy's tempted to tell him that his Jedi mind tricks aren't working on her, but she figures she should probably save that revelation for a more critical need, so she just nods and traces patterns on the tabletop.

"So, can I ask you something?" Darcy's actually a little surprised to hear the words coming out of her mouth. Her basic strategy for getting through this whole SHIELD thing has been to indulge herself with the superficial, because there is way too much shit going on that's entirely beyond her paygrade. Clint plays along with that like it's his guiding mission in life, which Darcy guesses is as good of a coping strategy as any and probably better than some she could name. The thing is, she's getting sucked in like there's some kind of force field that won't let her keep it light. Not all the time, anyway.

Clint catches her mood and hesitates for a second before he nods. She still could pull out, wave it off as some middle-of-the-night maudlin attack; she knows he'd go right along with it, but... it's just the two of them, and she really wants to know.

"What do you do?" she asks quietly. "After a bad one." Clint looks at her for a long couple of seconds, like he's trying to decide if she's serious, and she adds, "Tony disappears into his shop. Steve has a sketchbook glued to him. Dr. Banner meditates. I'm not sure I want to know what Natasha does, but she does something, because when she comes back she doesn't have that freaky Natural Born Killers look in her eyes." She shrugs. "I just can't figure out what you do."

He's quiet for a little while longer, and then he says, "Tasha has a studio in the south wing. Ballet. If she's at the barre, no music--keep walking."

"Okay," Darcy says slowly, as she turns that bit of information over in her mind. "That's actually--yeah, that fits." She arches an eyebrow at him. "It was also a very smooth sidestep, so I'll drop my question."

"Maybe I just come hang out here with you," Clint says with that trademark deadpan. Darcy rolls her eyes at him, but then he shocks the hell out of her by answering for real. "Mostly, I go harass Phil."

"Coulson?" She keeps it light because he's avoiding her eyes like he's just confessed to having a security blanket or something. She guesses secret-agent snipers aren't supposed to admit to needing some way to decompress, which is idiotic if you ask her, but nobody ever seems to do that. It's too damn bad. "Really?"

"He's a good guy," Clint says, shrugging. "We go back pretty far."

"Yeah? We have a beautiful relationship built on mutually annoying the shit out of each other, but I'll take your word for it."

"Well, that's not all that far off from how we are," Clint says, grinning at her, and the smile makes her feel like she's accomplished something halfway decent here. "He was my handler, back in the day. The only one I couldn't run off. Of course, he was the only one who ever bothered to call me by my name, so I wasn't trying as hard."

"Classy," Darcy says. She's figured out that Clint and Natasha came from some secret branch of the government that the CIA doesn't even want to know about, but she hasn't really thought about what that means.

"Oh, yeah," Clint says. "You get called 'the asset' to your face one too many times and it starts to piss you off."

"I repeat: classy," Darcy says. "I hereby swear to give Coulson a break the next time he's giving me the government-mind-wipe look. At least a whole nanosecond of one."

"I'm sure he'll be thrilled," Clint says, right as Tony comes wandering into the kitchen in a wifebeater and a pair of khakis, both of them more or less covered in oil and grease stains, which pretty much confirms Darcy's guess that whatever the last hush-hush thing was, it was one in the Bad Mojo column. Before she can ask, though, her inbox pings and she goes diving for her laptop. She doesn't even have to open the email to know it's not good news. The REQUEST DENIED in the Subject line is a pretty good tip-off. Inside, there's some BS about how Darcy hasn't presented a compelling reason to flout the rules and-- Darcy stops reading at that point, before she does something like throw the computer through a window.

"Darce?" Clint has that voice again, like he can just walk her around all the bad shit and it'll be okay, which is nice of him, but isn't going to cut it here.

"He said no," Darcy says, and at least she sounds calm. A little flat, but hey, you can't have everything. Obviously. "Can't graduate without it, so. I guess my schedule just opened up for the middle of May."

"Take an Incomplete and finish it next semester?" Tony asks.

"That would work except for the part where I don't have the money, and neither does my mother, and--" Darcy bites off the rest of it, about all the goddamned sacrifices her mother's made to get Darcy this far, and how much it's taken away from every other part of their lives, because she is not getting into money with Tony Fucking Stark, of all people. She closes the laptop carefully and slides off the stool. The guys are standing around radiating that here-we-are-to-save-the-day hero thing, but again: not gonna cut it his time. "I'm gonna go--" she waves toward her room and gets herself the hell out of there before she loses it.

Her room, for all its size and excessive niceness, starts closing in on her, but there's nowhere else she can go, so she just paces and rants a little and maybe throws a book or two against the wall. She half-expects Jarvis to fuss at her about that, but it's all quiet. Jane comes and scratches on her door after a little while.

"Did Clint tell you?" Darcy lets her in, because as uptight as Jane is, she's somehow become the kind of friend who shows up with a fifth of tequila and an armload of Chunky Monkey. Darcy knows Jarvis probably got it all for her, but Jane knew what to ask for and that counts for a lot, on top of the part where she got herself out of the lab. That, Darcy knows, is the truest sign of friendship ever.

"Actually, Tony," Jane says. "Which is too weird to contemplate, so let's just crack the tequila."

"Excellent plan," Darcy says.

Thor comes to get Jane a couple of hours later, but by then they're pretty far gone and somehow--Darcy is not at all sure how--he ends up staying, too. There might be some hugging, but the rest of it is strictly platonic, because Darcy doesn't care how crazed she might be, if there's some hot Asgardian three-way action to be had, she is so going to be conscious for it. The next morning, when Thor carries Jane out of her room, Darcy can tell nobody else believes it, though, at least not until Thor starts throwing around a little righteous indignation at the thought that he might have taken unfair advantage of anyone "under his protection," as he puts it. There's nothing like an offended Thunder God to shut people up, Darcy thinks as she staggers back to her bed. Also, who knew the Avengers gossiped like her Nana's stitch-and-bitch group?

It's well after noon when she decides her head won't explode if she moves, and an hour or so later before she feels it's okay to risk a shower. Whatever other faults SHIELD as an organization might have, they have excellent infrastructure, right down to an endless supply of hot water. Darcy uses an ocean or two of it, and brushes her teeth a dozen times and, moving as few body parts as possible, eases out to find some coffee and maybe something that won't make her heave. Jarvis has her covered, right down to the whole-grain bread, lightly toasted and buttered, and dusted with cinnamon sugar.

"Might I suggest Mr. Stark's tried-and-true recipe for afternoons such as this?" Jarvis apparently has a super-low volume setting that Darcy's never heard before. Clearly, he--it? whatever--has had experience with tequila aftermaths. He starts to list the ingredients, but Darcy is waving him off after the first two are seaweed and raw eggs.

"Oh, god, no," Darcy moans. "I mean, I'm sure Mr. Stark has researched it extensively, but--"

"Field-tested it, too, sugar," Tony says, coming around the corner with Steve. Both of them eye her critically. "Nothing better."

"I'll just sit here and not throw up, thanks," Darcy says, looking them over just as closely. She might feel like shit--and probably looks like it, too--but neither of them are looking all that hot themselves. Steve still looks gorgeous, of course, but the lines around his eyes are deeper, and Tony... Well. She'd take any bet that he hasn't showered since whatever op blew up in their face, and he's still wearing the same clothes he'd had on the night before, only they're even more messed up now.

"What?" Tony asks.

"Nothing, you just look like a grease monkey," Darcy says before she can rein in her mouth. "Not, you know, a genius, billionaire philanthropist."

Steve chokes on his coffee, and Darcy automatically smacks him on the back. It's like hitting a wall or something.

"Jesus," Tony says. "That's never going to go away, is it?"

"Thor thought it was funny." Darcy shrugs. "So, no. You'll be lucky if he doesn't have some Asgardian bard-type person immortalize it in song."

Tony grunts in annoyance but Darcy figures it can't be even close to the most irritating thing anyone's ever done when confronted with the Stark brand of ego. They let her eat her cinnamon toast in peace, and she lets them finish off the rest of the coffee, and it's--okay. Weird, but nice, and given all the alternatives, Darcy will take it. She's just about to go see what she can find for an afternoon marathon of mindless TV--she's giving herself a day to wallow before she starts in on a plan for the rest of her life--when Jarvis pipes up again.

"Ms. Lewis, would you like the video feed set up in your personal quarters or would you rather I put you in one of the spare conference rooms?"

"I'm sorry, what?" Darcy shakes her head, which is really ill-advised. "Video feed, what?"

"I have a request from Agent Coulson's office; I suspect it is tied to the email you received earlier," Jarvis says. He adds, almost primly, which is too freaky when Darcy remembers he's an it, and even freakier when she adds in that it was Tony who'd programmed him that way, "Of course, I wouldn't know for certain, as that would be a violation of your privacy."

Darcy stares at Tony, because there's no actual Jarvis she can stare at, and seriously, what? She's stuttering in her head, but, okay, email, she can handle that, even with a monster hangover. Tony and Steve follow her--of course, because Tony has zero concept of personal space when it doesn't belong to him, and Steve is along for the ride--but at least that means she has somebody to smack when she gets said email and realizes Asshat has reversed his position and the video conference Jarvis is babbling about is her personal interview.

"Ow," Tony says on the second smack. "Seriously, ow." He shoves Steve into the line of fire. "Hit the genetically enhanced guy, okay?"

"Oh, my god, oh my god, ohmyfuckinggod," Darcy sputters, pointing at the email and trying to get her act together. "He fucking changed his fucking mind--" She launches herself at Steve who, thankfully, catches her and doesn't flip when she lays a kiss on him. He does blush, but Darcy thinks it might be as much because of her language as the kiss. She lets go of him, though, just in case. No need to completely embarrass the guy. Besides, she really needs to stop and think and be ready to kick a little academic ass, because she can't imagine any reason for this to be happening other than that they think she's going to choke.

"What's the best backdrop I can have for this?" she asks. "And by 'best' I mean 'don't even think of fucking me over, jerk,'" she adds, and Tony laughs.

"Jarvis?" he says. "Get her set up in the room Pepper uses to put the fear of God into the board."

* * *

Darcy doesn't need to see the evals to know she nailed the whole thing. Jarvis assures her that he has recorded the entire session and will be happy to make the files available should any need arise. The look on Asshat's face at that is the cherry on the whole fucking thing. Tequila two nights in row is never a good idea, but a) some things just can't be helped; and b) mead is way worse.

"Okay, okay," Darcy says, after the third--or maybe the fourth--round. "Seriously, he did not want to be there, like, it was killing him, so why did he cave?"

Since it's mostly the Asgardians clustered around the table--trust them to show when there's a party to be had--Darcy mostly expects an opinion to come from Jane's direction, but Sif slams down her shot glass and says, "Answer me this: he had full power over your studies, and he chose at first to hold that over you, did he not?" Darcy parses the Asgardian and nods, and Sif goes on, "Then, he was induced to change his mind, through means of reward or intimidation."

"Or both," Tony says. Everybody swivels around to stare at him. "I'm just sayin'."

"Tony--" Steve starts, but Darcy has the same thought and cuts him off.

"Dude," she says to Tony. "Did you do this?"

"No," Tony says, thoughtfully. "But Pepper might have." He pulls his phone out of his pocket. "Pep? Hey, it's me."

"Yes, Tony," Pepper says, so dryly the phone's speaker probably should have cracked. "Who else would be calling me in the middle of a dinner with the board of directors?"

"Oh, yeah, right--how's that going?" He takes the phone off speaker, and makes a couple of no-really-I'm-listening-and-I'm-fascinated noises. Darcy figures it must be love--normally, Tony doesn't give a fuck who knows he's bored, but he's faking interest here pretty well. "Yeah, no, I actually did have a reason for calling you--did you put the thumbscrews on the dickhead who was jerking Foster's intern around? Oh? Yeah, yeah--" He walks off then, just to piss Darcy off, she's sure, but hey, it's been a good day; he can have his fun, too. She lets Sif make a toast and drinks another shot with everyone. Jane is going to be in another world of hurt in the morning, but it's always fun when she gets drunk. Besides, she has Thor to watch out for her now. Darcy is happy for her. Really.

"So, you're going to love this," Tony says when he comes back. Everybody looks up at that, which is exactly what he wants, attention whore that he is. Darcy kind of likes that about him. Plus, it makes for great drama, so at least it's never boring when he's around. "Pepper did not make any calls to anyone--she said she'd have been happy to, but Coulson beat her to it."

"Coulson?" Darcy barely manages to keep her jaw off the ground. "Why the hell would he do that?"

"See, that's where it gets interesting," Tony says, with a smirk. "He did it because his favorite sniper pitched--and I do quote Ms. Potts here, who is not given to hyperbole--a shit-fit about it--"

There's more, but Darcy is already out of the kitchen and heading toward the stairs, working up a pretty good head of steam on the way. "Jarvis?"

"Agent Barton is currently sparring with Agent Romanov in the upper gymnasium," Jarvis says.

"Seriously? I thought he left that to Steve these days," Darcy takes the steps two at a time.

"Judging from the progression of the session, I would venture to say he will do so in the future."

Darcy laughs, but doesn't really have the breath to answer. Only Tony's father would have decided to put a gym on the top floor, so he could look out and lord it over the rest of the rich, she guesses. Now, they use it to all beat the shit out of each other on a daily basis. Training, they call it. Raging subtext rapidly becoming not so sub is Darcy's opinion, but again, nobody ever listens to her.

Natasha and Clint don't fool around when they spar, and they've been working together so long they can practically read each other's minds. Darcy stops outside and watches long enough to see Clint hit the ground, hard, as Natasha sweeps his legs. He rolls through it, though, and goes for her with what even Darcy can tell is a lack of tactical thinking, even if it's all-out. Natasha takes him down again, but only barely, and they both end up on the mats, flat on their backs and breathing hard, and Darcy is pretty damn sure ballet and hassling Coulson have a second, more physical, back-up plan.

Natasha sees Darcy standing there and does some kind of ridiculously slick move that flips her up to her feet like an acrobat. She prods at Clint with one foot, saying something in Russian that has him flipping her off, but when she passes Darcy she smiles, sincerely. Darcy doesn't think it's the tequila that makes her sense a little solidarity in it, but that is way too freaky of a thought to deal with now.

Darcy walks over and drops down on the mat next to Clint. "I didn't know you spoke Russian," she says, which is such a fucking cop-out, but okay, maybe she hasn't exactly thought this through. What is she supposed to say in this situation? She's not entirely clear on the etiquette of 'okay, so rescuing me was just part of the job, and I'm good with that, but I'm a little fuzzy where hassling your boss into making a black-ops call on my behalf falls.'

"Only enough for Tasha to insult me in it," Clint answers. Darcy might have known he'd be totally on-board with the avoidance strategy.

"Yeah? What'd she say?"

"A less polite version of 'man the fuck up,'" Clint mutters, which is, y'know, not bad advice for her own situation, Darcy thinks. Before she can over-analyze, she takes a deep breath and goes for it.

"So, Tony says Pepper says Coulson says you were why he made the call and pushed them about the interview," Darcy says in a single long rush of words.

"Yeah," Clint sighs.

"Why?" It comes out sharper than Darcy means for it to. " I mean, thanks and all, but--it doesn't really seem to be your style."

"The first time I saw you, that's what you were working on, right?"

Darcy nods and, in a show of patience the likes of which would previously have been believed impossible, makes herself wait for whatever is going on behind his eyes.

"I don't know--I get a little tired of watching people get jerked around and not being able to help."

"Because the big heroic stuff isn't enough?" Darcy says. She thinks about the video somebody got (that Coulson totally confiscated as soon as it hit YouTube and they could backtrace the upload) from when they raided CrazyForBrains' compound (finding her there was a bonus, she knows; the real point was getting rid of him), all blurry and grainy from being shot on a phone, but clear enough that you can see the ladder hanging from the helicopter and make out the figure on it, climbing and shooting even though the helicopter is moving (when Darcy asked Steve, he told her cruising speed was 173 miles per hour, which was enough to make her have to sit down and breathe slowly for a bit.)

"Yeah, well," Clint says. "I'm real good at killing things. Technically, I'm helping, but it can get a little old sometimes."

"Okay," Darcy says, slowly. "So you got all righteous on my behalf and then came up here so Natasha could beat the crap out of you? How is that logical?"

Clint shrugs. "It makes her happy." Darcy rolls her eyes at that.

"This is me, noticing how that didn't actually answer my question." She exercises a little bit more patience--seriously, no one who knows her is ever going to believe she's kept her mouth shut as much as she has in this conversation--and waits him out, which she definitely deserves some kudos for, what with him and the sniper training and all.

"I figured you didn't need anybody else around while you did the interview." That's still not really it, she can tell, but there's enough of the truth there--and she's not sure she's on the inside enough to keep pushing--that she lets it slide.

"Which I killed, by the way."

"Yeah?" Clint finally looks at her, and when she nods, he smiles at her--a full-on grin, no snark, no attitude--and, oh, Jesus, Darcy is so screwed. "Outstanding."

"It felt really good to shove it in his face that I knew what I was talking about," Darcy admits. "Way more than just passing and, ohmygod, graduating." She lets herself fall backward onto the mat and laughs, just because.

Clint starts giving her grief about leaving the ivory tower and getting a real job, and she answers in kind, one crack after another about people who play with bows and arrows for a living not throwing stones, but she's thinking about stuff, too, about being 'the asset' and the stuff Steve's told her about how snipers operate, the isolation and secrecy, so when they finally drag their asses up to go see how the party is progressing without them (Clint is all about the mead, which Darcy should have known without having to be told), at least one more thing has bubbled up through her subconscious.

"Thank you," Darcy says. It's ridiculously inadequate, and the easiest thing in the world to put out there, but she somehow doesn't think it gets said enough anyway.

"You already said that," Clint answers, turning to go, and Darcy puts one hand on his arm to slow him down.

"No," she says. "That was a transition between talking points."

He looks at her like she's a little bit crazy, but when she leans up, he doesn't dodge her or stop her, just lets her kiss him. For all that it's hardly more than a press of her mouth against his, feather-light and careful, Darcy is a little breathless when she eases back.

"Thank you," Darcy says again. Her hand is still on his arm, and she's acutely conscious of how still he is against her, as though he's afraid she'll spook if he moves.

"You're welcome," Clint finally says, and when she goes up on her toes to kiss him again he meets her halfway, and she's very happy to note she isn't the only one who's breathless when they break apart.