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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.

Seriously.

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.

Chapter Text

The second time Darcy gets kidnapped by a mad scientist, it's still not her fault--victim-blaming is entirely lame--but she's willing to admit that if she hadn't been so.fucking.pissed at Clint, she probably wouldn't have given CrazyForBrains!Jr. a second glance. She is, though: angry and--fine--hurt, and really tired of it all.

CFB!Jr. is not completely whacked on the surface--Darcy does have standards, thanks--and he's mostly polite, enough that talking to him while Clint's pretending to extricate himself from some Avenger-groupie isn't a completely excruciating process. And hey, it's not like she and Clint are at the bar on a date or anything, because he'd made it pretty damn clear how bad an idea he thought the two of them would be. She's supposed to be there with Steve, who's been awesome about stuff, everything from being genuinely happy to be introduced to Darcy's mom to playing along with Darcy's no-really-I'm-fine-about-Barton-and-his-issues act, but who'd gotten a late-afternoon request to go be Captain America for some sick kids. Darcy is not enough of a bitch to make him feel guilty about having to cancel, but he'd been all 'No, no, you haven't been out in weeks, Clint can make sure you're okay, you'll be fine with him.' Since Darcy's singular motivation in life lately has been not to let Barton know how much he'd gotten to her, she'd smiled and nodded and now here she is.

It's not the end of the world, at least not until CFB!Jr.'s babblings about how The World Is Too Messed Up To Take Care Of Itself But I Know Exactly How To Fix It shift into specifics and timetables, and Darcy finally pings to how not-normal he is right about the time he realizes exactly how much he's told her and it all goes to hell. Given how weird her life has gotten in the last year, Darcy seriously should have known better than to assume that anybody taking an interest in her is not suffering from some kind of mental issue. And hell yes, she's counting Barton in that tally.

She wakes up on what is probably the most comfortable couch she's ever slept on--seriously, it's huge and squashy and covered in the kind of velvety material that's a bitch to keep clean but is like heaven against your skin. It's unfortunate that her head hurts so bad she thinks it might have already exploded and her mouth and throat are dry enough that swallowing makes her want to cry. Everything else seems okay, though, and there's even a fuzzy blanket over her.

She must make some kind of pathetic noise, because CFB!Jr. sits down on the floor in front of her, babbling apologies and rationalizations and generally being even less impressive than she'd originally thought and, no shit, the bar hadn't been set all that high to begin with. Back at the club, she'd felt a little bad that she couldn't remember the poor dweeby guy's name, but now she's seriously happy that she hadn't wasted the brain cells.

He offers to get her a glass of water, and then stumbles around another apology when she shoots him an Are you shitting me? look, as if he seriously hadn't thought about why she might not want to take anything from him. She pushes herself upright slowly, which is a head-spinning exercise of complete suckitude, but she makes it without throwing up--go her--and then almost falls back over when she realizes her purse is still looped over her shoulder. More importantly, from the weight of it, it still has everything in it.

"I wouldn't go into your purse," the idiot tells her earnestly. "That would be such a personal invasion--" He gulps and sputters when she shoots him another disbelieving look even as she tells herself to stop engaging with him. "I'm really sorry," he adds. "I didn't mean to hurt you--"

She'd like to make a clever remark, but her head is killing her and her throat is waiting in the wings in case her head doesn't finish her off, so she just hits him with her taser and doesn't bother with the style points. He falls over with a high-pitched squeal that is immensely satisfying to hear. She doesn't zap him again right away because he really doesn't look so good, but she keeps one eye on him while she scrabbles in her purse again, this time for her phone.

As soon as she gets it turned on it tells her she has 37 missed calls, all from Clint, which at least means she can just hit call back and not have to find his number.

"Barton," he snaps on the first ring, and Darcy fucking hates how much tension drains out of her just from hearing his voice.

"I want you to know you're still the last goddamn person I want to talk to, but I think I'm in your kind of shit." Even knowing how bad her throat hurts, Darcy's still a little surprised at how shredded she sounds.

"Darcy?" His voice doesn't quite crack, but it's close, and for the first time, Darcy loses the tight grip she's been keeping on the whole not-crying thing. There's a flurry of activity in the background; Darcy guesses she's on speaker with all of SHIELD listening in, so she sucks it up and gets herself under control. Clint's doing the same--he's pretty much back to baseline deadpan when he says, "If it's my kind of shit, I'm gonna need you to walk through a challenge and response with me."

"Okay," Darcy sighs, leaning her head back against the couch. When they'd eased up on her having to keep so close to the mansion or SHIELD, Coulson had gotten her to come up with super-secret passwords to use for emergencies, and she guesses this definitely qualifies. Everyone on the team uses them; Jane has her own set, too, and Pepper probably has ten different ones, which at least means Darcy isn't the only freak in her circle of friends.

"Right, so my challenge is..." Clint's voice trails off while he goes through the security protocol to access her file. Darcy hears clicking and the little beep that says the retinal scan is good, so yay, she really is talking to Clint, and then he says, in a beautifully disbelieving tone, "Someday my prince will come?"

"I picked that so I could hear Coulson say it," Darcy says. "Just so you know."

"Darce--"

"Yeah, I know. My response is 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'." The deal is that if she says anything else, they play along like it's okay but whoever has the line tells the team to go in hot, that she's under duress. Words cannot convey how unexcited Darcy is that her life includes all this shit, but it is what it is.

"A team scrambled as soon as you turned your phone on and we could get a GPS lock," Clint says, and he sounds like he's moving himself, not quite breathless but definitely not sitting in front of the computer. "I'm on my way, but they'll get there first. Stay on the line with me."

"Okay," Darcy says again. "My head hurts. He stuck me with something."

"Who--the dork you were talking to? He's my problem?"

"Don't fucking start with me, Barton." There's a lot more Darcy wants to say, about people who can't look away from cleavage even if it's obviously faker than 7-Eleven nacho cheese, but it's not worth tearing her throat up over.

"The team that's on the way--they'll have a full field med kit," Clint says, quietly. "Let them do whatever they can, okay?" He waits until Darcy makes an affirmative noise, and then goes on, "Not hassling you, I just need to know if that was the guy?"

"It was," Darcy says. "I tased him."

"Good job," Clint says, and Darcy knows that before, he'd have said something more like That's my girl, but that's so not true it's funny, in the way that makes her want to scream. They go through the whole night, everything she remembers, Clint babying her voice along when he can and relaying info to the rest of the team when he thinks it's necessary. He keeps it short and businesslike, no personal commentary, and Darcy tells herself she shouldn't miss the snark, it's better this way, but she's not being very convincing.

The SHIELD team arrives with the usual show of force, but it's all focused on the moron who's still twitching on the floor. Darcy is pretty okay with that. She's not so okay with the dickhead agent who pricks her finger and then won't tell her what the blood screen says, but it turns out that kind of shit pisses Agent Hill off, too, and she's the one leading the team, so Darcy doesn't even have to stress her throat out for him to get that message.

Clint shows up right about the time she's actively resisting the idea that she has to go to the hospital. She expects him to take their side, but he gets them to admit that the only reason she'd be there would be for observation and maybe a little fluid replacement.

"Jarvis can do that," he says, staring down Hill and the medical guy before he turns to Darcy. "I don't know that your medical records getting sucked into Stark's databanks is much better, but it's your call."

"Mansion," Darcy rasps, and the medical guy mutters something about her mental processes that sounds pretty unflattering, but he at least gives her something for her head and throat and stops poking at her. It's unfortunate that he also takes it to mean she's good with Clint, because that means she gets to ride all the way back to Fifth Avenue in the back of an SUV with him, which is really the craptastic end to a craptastic night.

Whatever the med jackass gave her is pretty good, though, so before they even get out of Brooklyn she's all floaty and, well, not exactly mellow, but not nearly as rage-filled as she has potential for, enough that there is no way she's not winning the first-one-to-talk-loses thing she and Clint have going on. Normally, that'd be a solid W in his column, but, whooo, baby, not tonight, Darcy thinks.

He starts to say something twice, but then pulls back--such a shock--and waits until they're only a couple of blocks away before he says, "I'm sorry--"

"Nice timing," Darcy says, not bothering to open her eyes. "You can drop that sincere apology and be out of the car and away from me before I can really answer and things get out of hand." Sure enough, the car's turning off Fifth to go around to the back entrance. His timing really is almost perfect. Hers is better, though. "You know, I made it through four years of undergrad at a party-hearty state school without getting roofied. It figures my first time is out on an I'm-just-her-protection-detail not-date with you."

It's dead quiet in the car after that, the driver and the other agent in the front seat clearly not wanting to miss a second of the drama. Clint's in total sniper mode next to her, the thing he does where he can consciously control his heart-rate and breathing, so that it sounds three times as loud as usual when Darcy sighs, "Fuck. That came out way nastier than I meant it to."

"It's still the truth," Clint says evenly, and goddammit, there's one more thing between them. Darcy isn't sure how everything fell apart so fast, but here they are, barely speaking and when they do, it's just to rip at each other a little more. The car pulls up through the back-gate security; as soon as they stop, Clint nods to the driver and the second agent to take off, like they haven't already heard enough to light up the goddamned SHIELD gossip line, and then comes around to open Darcy's door. She slides out easily enough, but it turns out that her knees aren't speaking to her brain and they pretty much miss the standing now message.

Of course, of course, Clint grabs her before she face-plants, picking her up like she's helpless and useless and everything else not capable of taking care of itself. The fact that she isn't capable, not right now, does nothing for her mood.

"Seriously, Barton, I can--"

"No," he says. "You can't--or, okay, fine, you can, but I can get you up to your room and be gone in a tenth of the time."

"Well, if you put it that way," Darcy mutters.

"Yeah, I thought you'd like that,"Clint says, shifting her around so he can hold her easier. Darcy sighs and loops an arm around his neck. An agent opens the door for them, and another one is holding the elevator, but thankfully nobody comes with them. Clearly, they've been clued in as to the potential for bloodshed. Wimps.

It's quiet in the elevator, even more strained than it was in the car. Since the night is already shot to hell, Darcy decides she's high enough on the pain meds to say, "You could have just said something, you know. Before. I'm a big girl; I can deal."

"Darce--" Clint sighs.

"It was a couple of kisses, Barton," Darcy says, and she is not going to get all emotional about this. Not now. "My sixth-grade crush got more tongue than you did--was that really enough to spook you so bad?"

He's not looking at her, but his jaw is so tight she bets he gives himself a migraine. She wishes that thought made her happier than it does, but this whole thing is so stupid. The elevator door opens on the third floor and they make the last part of the trip in oh-so-familiar silence. She manages to find her key and get the door open with only a little fumbling, and she's never been so happy to see her bed.

Jarvis comes online and Clint relays all the medical crap, which is, like Clint said, completely do-able from Jarvis's point of view. Darcy just burrows under the covers and says a little thank you for the Maria Stark Foundation and enough money for the housekeepers to buy amazingly-high-thread-count linens. It's going to suck when she has to go back to the real world and discount-store markdowns. She opens her eyes to see Clint watching her, not exactly smiling, but not the full-bore no-expression expression either, and she figures it's as good a time as any to go for broke. She can always blame it on the drugs.

"Clint." Darcy reaches out and snags his wrist before he can totally bail. "What I said in the car--"

"Was the truth," Clint says, and his arm might as well have been stone for all it gives under her hand.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Barton--"

"What part of 'You got taken on my watch' isn't getting through to you?"

"The part where I've been taking care of myself all my life and I did it again tonight. Thanks for the pick-up, but I could have called a cab at that point," Darcy snaps, and wow, they really are Olympic gold at managing to never talk about what's actually going on. "Shut the fuck up and let me apologize for being a bitch, okay?" He doesn't say anything, but he doesn't walk out, which is at least something. "Right, so that was totally out of line, and I'm sorry, especially saying it in front of the drones, and double especially--" He's got that look on his face like he's going to start in on her again, so Darcy raises her voice and talks faster because she is getting this all out, dammit. "Double-especially because that's not even close to the real issue and I'm so fucking tired of this, this, whatever this is we've got working."

She stops for a second, almost daring him to jump in with an evade-and-avoid verbal diversion, but maybe he's tired of it, too, because he doesn't even try for a weak one, just leaves the ball in Darcy's court, which is fine by Darcy.

"It's not even the damn groupies," Darcy says. Clint slants her a look at that, one that dares her to keep going. "Not in the overall scheme of things, Barton," she snaps.

"Then what is it?" Clint bites out, and Darcy doesn't know that she's ever seen him on this tight of a leash, but at least he's not playing like he's not invested in this.

"It's... Even if we aren't...whatever--" Darcy waves her hand to signify the vast unknown of their interpersonal relationship, or lack thereof. "Even if you didn't want to be anything more than friends, you still could have come to my graduation." She's really happy that her voice stays steady, and that any roughness is easily alibied by her throat still hurting.

"It was better I didn't come--"

"Fuck, Clint, Tony came but you couldn't be bothered?" There was some marginal SHIELD excuse, but she's pretty damn sure Clint could have gotten out of it with no trouble. She knows Tony only came because Steve dragged him along--Steve is really big on celebrating the good moments, and he's still in the pre-GI Bill mindset where college is a Big Fucking Deal--but it's the principle of the thing.

"It's--better this way," Clint finally says, and Darcy wishes she could call bullshit but she can tell he seriously believes that. He shoves his hands in his pockets, and Darcy knows he's gone. If she's being honest, she's surprised he lasted as long as he did. "If you need anything, have Jarvis track me down. I'll be--around."

"Clint," Darcy says, and he pauses with one hand on the door. "Thanks for coming for me." He nods once and closes the door quietly behind him.

For whatever it's worth, Darcy at least feels better for actually talking about it, not just pretending she's cool and throwing out nonstop bitchy comments. It's too bad nothing technically came out of it, but it's maybe a step in the right direction. Still, when Jarvis says, very tactfully, "Might I suggest some tea? Ms. Potts has a custom blend created for her more... fraught moments with Mr. Stark," Darcy gets kind of choked up. "I am quite certain she would recommend it in this situation," Jarvis goes on. "And proper hydration is very important."

Darcy manages to nod, which is apparently enough for Jarvis to fully engage mother-hen mode. He sends a plate of cookies up along with the tea, and cues her up a Thin Man marathon so her dreams are about martinis and banter, and however odd it is to be taken care of by a computer, given the night she's had, Darcy is not looking that gift horse in the mouth at all.

* * *

It's kind of surprising, given how much like hammered shit Darcy feels when she falls asleep, but twelve hours of natural rest and a swim in the small lake masquerading as the bathtub in her suite work a miracle on her outlook the next day. Meeting up with Steve on the way to breakfast, letting him fuss over her and generally be the sweet guy he is while downing pancakes and eggs and sausage and bacon and strawberries and melon and oatmeal and whatever else Steve normally eats in the morning is even more helpful. (Not only is Steve super-nice and very restful to be around emotionally, when the kitchen knows he's ready to eat, they send up massive quantities of everything and keep sending it until his super-soldier metabolism waves the white flag. Darcy thinks the staff has a competition going to see who can get him to eat more, which means normal people can just slide around the edges and not feel guilty about making more work for the kitchen when they eat two bites of ten different things. It makes her grazing soul very happy.)

Not even Jarvis relaying that Agent Coulson would like to see Darcy in his office if she feels up to it really brings her down. She knows she's gonna get yelled at at some point for the stupidity last night; she might as well get it over with. Steve is going over to the SHIELD offices, too, so Darcy laces up her Chucks and takes his spare helmet and hitches a ride with him, because Captain America and a motorcycle on a sunny summer day? So much better than the standard SUV and driver-drone it's not even in the same galaxy.

She hits her first snag when the security guys tell her Coulson is waiting for her in Fury's office, but Steve rides up with her for moral support. Again, really sweet of him, but when they step off the elevator and nobody looks at her like she's never going to be seen again, she sends him off to go test new body armor or whatever excuse they're using for playing with guns and knives today, because Captain America doesn't need to be a babysitter. She checks out the view from the penthouse suite until Fury's assistant tells her, "They're ready for you, Ms. Lewis."

Ms. Lewis is ready for them, too, Darcy tells herself, as she pushes open the door. The office is still bad-ass, and there's a brief second when Darcy wishes she hadn't let Steve go, but it's not just Fury and Coulson waiting for her. Pepper's there, too, and she smiles like she knows what Darcy's thinking and she's got her back, and it's okay again.

"I'm sorry to drag you up here today," Pepper says. "It's my fault--I'm only on the East Coast this afternoon and I wanted this meeting to happen in person."

"No problem," Darcy says, as though she has any clue what's going on, and takes the chair next to her, trying not to think too hard about the contrast they must present. Don't get her wrong, she dresses exactly the way she likes to look, but normally she's not sitting next to sleek perfection in four-inch heels. Pepper nods once at Darcy, like she approves, and then turns expectantly toward Coulson, who--no shit--smiles back at her.

Darcy's so flipping shocked to see an actual human expression on Coulson's face--and it's a nice smile, it makes him look twenty years younger and like he would be a ton of fun to hang out with--she completely misses what he's saying and has to ask him to repeat himself.

"I asked if you had settled on any post-graduate plans," Coulson says, back to the usual no-expression, except Darcy's on to him now and she can see that glimmer of humanity in his eyes. She remembers what Clint said about him, and how he's the one that Clint still trusts even now, and doesn't just throw a smart-ass answer out there.

"Not settled," Darcy says. "It's pretty hard to do that when I'm... here." She tries to say it as neutrally as she can, because 'here' is a hell of a lot better than some of the alternatives, but it's still a little too weird that the only way she went to her own graduation was with a team of undercover agents surrounding her.

"We may be able to help with that," Pepper says, which is when Coulson tries to make Darcy's head explode by offering her a job.

He takes advantage of her being rendered speechless--and he knows what he's doing; she can almost see the unholy glee in his eyes, the devious bastard--to add, "Not an agent, you understand, but on our strategic side--it would be contingent on your completing an advanced degree in public policy, but that would seem to fit with your academic goals. The tuition would also be reimbursable."

Everybody looks at Darcy, and the only thing she can think of is, "You're going to have to give me a minute here--I thought I was coming up here to get yelled at for last night," which is really not the best way to affirm they've made a good choice in offering her anything, much less grad school on a platter, but holy shit, Coulson just offered her grad school on a platter.

"If you'd like, I could strongly request that you keep your phone turned on so we can track its location if necessary," Fury says, in a your-ass-is-so-mine voice. It’s very effective--Darcy is certain he’d be totally unimpressed with her if-Barton-needs-to-tell-me-anything-he-can-damn-well-say-it-to-my-face reason for turning it off in the first place. "It was a long ninety-four minutes last night, and not just for Agent Barton." He flicks his gaze toward Coulson, who doesn't react, but Darcy knows Fury doesn't just say stuff, which is not helping with keeping her head from exploding. "Apart from that, you managed to expose a rather annoying little group of megalomaniacs, which was helpful, so I'll refrain from any further commentary."

Darcy nods because, well, because she's not exactly sure what to do with that non-verbal part about Coulson and it's probably best if she just doesn't open her mouth for a couple more seconds.

"I will add," Fury says, in a more normal tone--which: still pretty damn scary, but at least not quite heart-attack-inducing--"that, academic achievements aside--" Darcy allows herself a microsecond of righteous satisfaction about pulling out the summa cum laude after all-- "you're in a unique position, one that addresses one of our most common problems in recruiting personnel to work with the Avenger Initiative: you already see our people as people, not as infallible heroes, nor as unkillable mutants. One perception leads to unchecked mayhem; the other leads to unwinnable strategies and kamikaze missions. Neither is acceptable."

Darcy nods again, but more thoughtfully this time; she can see where both of those scenarios are entirely possible. It goes without saying, she thinks, how not-good they'd be for the team, let alone the people she does know comprise that team.

"Questions?" Coulson asks. "Concerns?" He gives her one of those almost-expressions, and damn if she is going to end up having to let go of her general annoyance with him. "Opinions?"

Darcy snorts, because, oh yeah, he's got her pegged, but since he asked so nicely and all, she says, "What happens if I have one of those and it doesn't agree with yours?"

"’If’?" Coulson asks with a beautifully arched eyebrow, and Darcy can't help it; she has to return it.

"Not to be argumentative, but talk is cheap," Darcy counters. "Grad school really, really isn't."

Coulson leans back and nods to Fury, who says, "That would actually be the reason we're doing this in my office: to assure you that we expect our analysts to analyze, to assess and to make their case as objectively as possible. That's in writing, in every contract, but Agent Coulson and I felt--your situation being what it is--we needed to make it crystal clear that there is no expectation of anything else here."

"I'm not interested in buying a yes-woman," Coulson adds. "I can find those on every floor right now."

"Cool," Darcy says, because, hey, free rein to argue. That could be sweet.

"And the reason I'm here is to make sure you understand this isn't all or nothing," Pepper says. "As a board member of the Maria Stark Foundation... if you feel Agent Coulson's offer is not the direction you'd like your life to go, we have several year-long internship opportunities with the Foundation for which I can recommend you, for many of the same reasons."

Again, everybody's back to staring at Darcy, and it's not that they're impatient or anything, but jesusfuck, she's got the CEO of Stark Industries and the director of an entire government agency cooling their jets while her brain is doing its best impression of a hamster on speed, so she gives herself a mental thwap or two and comes up with something that is not 'Are you sure you have the right Darcy Lewis' and they all adjourn to let her "weigh her options," as Pepper phrases it. Darcy manages not to blurt out any kind of disbelief that she has options, so score one for her.

In the elevator down, Pepper offers her a ride, which prompts Coulson to, jesuschristonastick, make a joke about Pepper trying to unduly influence Darcy's decision, and when Pepper replies, "Of course," he laughs, and Darcy has not had enough coffee for this. There probably isn't enough coffee in the world for this.

Coulson walks them across the lobby and Darcy pulls her act together long enough to exchange eyebrow twitches with him before she follows Pepper out, trailing along behind the crisp crack-crack-crack of her heels on the polished floor. Tony's driver is waiting outside, so they're in the car and moving in no time flat.

"I had some of your tea last night," Darcy blurts out, and so much for maintaining an aura of competence. Of course, maybe Pepper wants to fill her internship with a babbling idiot. It might seem like a refreshing change... which is kind of a stretch, but hey, a girl can hope, right? Darcy sighs. "Sorry, that was, like, totally random but, yeah, Jarvis offered. Your custom blend."

"I hope it helped," Pepper says, smiling, and that's the thing about Pepper: no matter that she's wearing Chanel and Louboutin, and has legs that go on forever, and probably spends more on her manicures than Darcy did on her entire college career, the thing that absolutely blows Darcy's mind is that she deals with Tony Stark on a hourly basis and, hideously expensive special tea blends aside, doesn't seem to have resorted to any unhealthy means of coping with that insanity.

"It was nice," Darcy says, which is so banal as to be cringe-worthy, but true, too. 'Nice' is becoming an ever-rarer commodity in Darcy's life because even the good things are taking on an edge of insanity, and she thinks Pepper might understand that. "What do you have for rage-induced blackouts?"

"A standing reservation at a Trappist monastery outside of San Francisco," Pepper says dryly. "They have a beautiful guesthouse for retreats, but the best part is their vow of silence--it is the most exquisite relief."

"I'll keep that in mind," Darcy says, a little doubtfully. She can see where quiet would be good sometimes, but vows of silence probably won't play well with her mouth.

"Whatever works." Pepper smiles like Darcy's a member of the club now, and Darcy's always liked her, but now she really, really likes her. The rest of the trip is taken up with Pepper shamelessly recruiting Darcy for the Maria Stark Foundation, because she says it's hard to compete with a job that has the unofficial motto of We save the world--what do *you* do? going for it. Darcy thinks that anything with the Stark name attached to it might give it a run for its money, but she's happy to be wooed. It's a nice feeling.

It's quiet at the mansion; Darcy figures everyone's off being their bad-ass selves--or, in the case of Dr. Banner, she hopes, achieving Zen and peace and happiness--so she assembles herself a little brainstorming and decision-making microclimate right there in a corner of the kitchen, complete with snacks in her favorite 60/40 sweet-to-salty ratio, legal pads, and a rocking pack of Pantone markers. Seventy-two colors is probably more than she'll need for organizing purposes, but it never hurts to be prepared. She triumphs over the insane coffeemaker Tony insists on, and thus fortified with nearly pure caffeine, sits down to figure out what the fuck to do with her life.

It's like her own personal coffee shop, with people coming and going, making a little background noise so Darcy doesn't feel totally isolated, but not anyone she knows well enough to stop and chat and break her concentration--not until Steve comes wandering in and starts stealing her snacks while he waits for actual real food to stoke the never-ending metabolism.

"It'd be harsh to get mad at America's hero," Darcy says, without looking up from her Analysts: Stuffed Shirts or Okay Dudes Who I Wouldn't Mind Hanging With 80 Hours A Week? list. "But if you take my last Nutter Butter, I will be annoyed with you."

"Um," Steve says, through a mouthful. "Sorry?"

"No, no," Darcy sighs, because Steve is too much fun to guilt. "It's my honor to give up my cookies to Captain America. Please, take my Oreos, too."

"Thank you!" Steve says, with a shit-eating grin that tells Darcy he's been hanging out with certain archers entirely too much. He shares his burger with her, though, and since the kitchen is exerting their usual over-the-top effort for him, it has bacon and blue cheese and mushrooms on it. Darcy could have told them that was a little too exotic for their Cap, but since she's happy to help him, it all works out for the best, especially since she thinks they used an ice-cream scoop to portion out the cheese, guh.

Clint walks in right as Steve's telling her that he likes women who enjoy their food, like Peggy always had. He's not maudlin about it or anything, but Darcy's not made of stone--of course she's leaning in close and there might have been some shoulder-patting happening, but hey, friends don't let friends walk down memory lane all alone.

She arches one eyebrow at Clint and his stoic face of it's-better-this-way, but it's not like it was last night, if only because she's not stoned. Even so, she thinks his game face might be slipping, and now that she a) actually has an operational brain, and b) isn't running around pretending she doesn't care, she thinks she's probably ready to push the issue and see if there’s anything left to salvage. Of course, by the time she works that out Clint is gone again, but it's not like she doesn't know where he lives. Or that he sleeps like crap and is almost always somewhere not his suite during the night.

In the end, she stays more or less right where she is, and it's not much past one in the morning when Clint comes ghosting through again. He never walks into or out of a room without at least basic recon, which means he knows she's there, but he's probably counting on her still being pissed and not wanting to engage. To be fair, that's how it's been for a month, so tactically speaking, it's a safe bet. It's still wrong, though.

"Why is it better this way?" Darcy supposes she could have started with something a little more innocuous, but this is what she should have said last night, so it's more like a continuation of that conversation and not a new one. "You can make me a list if you want."

She pushes the paper and pens in his direction, half joking, half not. She wishes her hands weren't suddenly shaking--she knows he's not going to miss that--but she's not letting this go and she hopes he's gotten that message. In case he hasn't, she says, very quietly, "You're gonna have to spell it out for me, Barton."

Clint looks at her for what feels like an eternity, then takes one of the straight-backed chairs and turns it around to straddle it. The breath Darcy hadn't realized she'd been holding finally eases out of her lungs, and she drops her head so she can hide behind her hair for a second and maybe get a little equilibrium. When she flips her hair back, Clint's still watching her.

"Hit me with your best shot," Darcy says. As banter goes, it's pathetically lame, but these are stressful times and you just have to work with what you have.

"I'm too old for you," Clint says, which is so much better than the Darcy, sweetheart, you're terrific but you're not my type Darcy's been expecting that her brain kicks into high gear and, as usual, her mouth follows right along.

"See, now, that's interesting," Darcy answers. "It's not that I'm too young for you, it's that you're too old for me, which is--"

"Darcy, come on--I'm doing good not to have a kid out there that's your age," Clint interrupts.

"You started that early, huh?"

"Your family--"

"It's just my mom and me," Darcy says. It's always been like that; Darcy was practically in junior high before she realized some people thought she'd been missing out on something, but they'd never met her mom. "My grandmother died a couple of years ago, so it's only the two of us."

"And she wouldn't care?"

"She'd think you were hot." Truthfully speaking, her mom wouldn't just think Clint was hot, she'd want to sculpt him, which would probably lead to requests to strip down, but Darcy is sure Clint's not ready for the full Lewis Experience just yet, so she doesn't mention that. "If you'd come to my graduation, you'd know that already."

Clint's eyeing her like he's looking for the bullshit meter--which is a sign that not mentioning her mom's artistic sensibilities was probably a good move--so Darcy smiles at him, even though she isn't really feeling it. If nothing else, it'll keep him off balance, because she can tell he's way over-thought this whole thing.

"Look, if you thought I was too young for you, that'd be one thing, but you thinking I should think you're too old is something different. That's leading the witness and I move to strike. So. Next?"

Clint looks at her for a long time, like he can't quite believe she's still there, but she stares back at him and waits him out.

"You don't need to be spending half your life wondering if I'm coming back," Clint says, finally. "It's no way to live--"

"Okay, again? Quit telling me what I should be worried about."

"Somebody needs to be thinking about it, because goddamn if I think you are," Clint snaps. "And if you think I'm making this shit up, we have a serious problem." His eyes are dark and resolute, and Darcy can read the truth in them.

"Okay," Darcy says, with a sigh. "Seriously, I don't care about the age difference. And I--I'm not blowing off the fact that you do crazy shit on a regular basis, but that's all me and I'm asking you about you. So far, nothing you've said is about you, so let's try this again. Next?"

His jaw is set and is mouth is back to being a tight, hard line, but seriously, he's known her long enough that he should have figured out she doesn't give up on things she cares about. Hell, she's been reliably informed that it only takes a day for people to figure that out; Clint's got no excuse.

"Next?" Clint grits out, and this is it, Darcy can tell, and as much as she's been pushing for it, the look in his eyes is enough to make it hard to keep a even keel. "Next... is that I really don't do this, for good reason. When it blows up--and it will--everything in the blast radius gets fucked over; you, me--"

"That doesn't mean it would happen like that now," Darcy says.

"Yeah, but if it did... it wouldn't just be you I'd be fucking over," Clint says. "I can't--" He stops for a second before he goes on, very quietly. "This team--it was too hard to put it together. We almost didn't make it more times than I can count. I--" He stops again, and Darcy makes herself sit and listen and wait, even if she can tell how much she doesn't want to hear what he's going to say. "I should have remembered this up front. They have to be my focus, no matter how much I might want anything else."

The stubborn part of Darcy, the part that never ever gives up on anything, wants to take that last part and run with it, but the rest of her insists that all she can really do is stow it carefully away so she can hold on to it for as long as possible while she figures out how to deal with the first part. Before she can do either, his phone buzzes, and Darcy doesn't even have to hear him say Rolling, Cap to know it's one of those kinds of calls.

Natasha blows into the room, game face already on, saying, "Wheels up in five, Hawk. We're briefing and arming on the jets." Her gaze flickers between Darcy and Clint, and when it comes back to rest on Darcy, there's a clear and unmistakable Do not fuck my partner up in it. Darcy keeps her own eyes as steady and sure as she knows how, until Natasha nods once in acknowledgement and heads for the stairs.

"Darcy--" Clint starts, as though Darcy didn't just have this conversation with Natasha. Okay, it was wordless and all, but a lot got said. You'd think he'd have noticed.

"I'm good," she says. "I--get it." She leaves off the part where she disagrees, because she is so not what he needs to be thinking about right now. "Wheels up in five, right? I know you're in great shape, but you're going to have to sprint to make it up there that fast." They hangar the Quinjets on the top floor, all the way on the back side of the mansion; it really is a hike. It's also a plausible enough excuse to cut him off before he says anything irrevocable, all without being too blatant of a dodge. He knows that's what she's doing, of course, but he lets it go, hesitating for a second before leaning down and brushing a kiss across Darcy's cheek before heading out, already at a jog before he even gets through the door.

"Be safe," Darcy says, but she's not sure he hears her.

* * *

With Jane off doing research in unspecified, we-can-neither-confirm-nor-deny locations--which, please, Darcy knows that means Asgard; you'd think somebody might remember that Darcy's been around long enough to have tased Thor and watched a town get torched by his crazy little not-brother--and everybody else off being, well, themselves, Darcy is stuck for companions. She definitely isn't wild about the prospect of sitting in her room all night, pacing and biting her nails. For one thing, she spent time earlier with Ms. Practically Perfect Potts and her mani-pedi of doom; Darcy's not likely to match those standards, like, ever (rumor has it that Pepper rode out the first Iron Man deathmatch in Prada and Gucci), but she can at least try not to destroy her nails down to the quick. Baby steps, right?

It turns out that the kitchen extends its awesome hanging-out vibe all the way through the night and into the morning. The crew that does the baking starts rolling in around three AM, and Darcy's barely managed to even get to the point where she can sit by then. There's no place to sleep, but that isn't going to happen regardless, and the smell of bread baking and the quiet chatter of the staff is very soothing. At eight, she puts aside her lists and goes up to her room to shower and give herself a pep talk because whichever option she goes with, SHIELD or the Foundation, she's going to have to deal with Avengers assembling and all that entails for a while. Hell, even if she just sits around and does nothing, she's going to have to deal, so she might as well start as she means to go on, as her Nana always said.

At ten, she calls her mom for an attitude adjustment. People always think that means her mom is good at kicking ass, but that′s not how it works at all. Her mom is just the one person Darcy knows who always lives a real life even when that life doesn't go according to any plan. Darcy herself is proof of that; having a baby at sixteen is never a picnic, especially when you have to do the hard work of raising her without a partner, but Darcy never had a clue that life was anything but amazing as she was growing up.

One complete brain dump--minus pertinent and ultimately insignificant classified details--later, Darcy feels a million times better. Her mom never gives advice, of course--that would mean she'd be defining how Darcy's life should go and that's not how she rolls at all--but she's an incredible listener, completely non-judgmental. Darcy always forgets how much of a relief it is to just get everything out of her head. She knows it intellectually, but then the words come rushing out and out and out and when she's done, it's like there's nothing she can't do.

After that, she gives in to Jarvis and his mother-hen tendencies and eats a disgustingly healthy lunch, followed by the most decadent chocolate mousse ever, and goes up onto the roof to watch the world go by. She's pretty sure she knows what she's going to do about SHIELD and the Stark Foundation, but she doesn't see a need to call it, at least not for a little while. Somewhere around dusk, not having slept the night before catches up with her and she stumbles back down to her suite. Jarvis promises to wake her if there's any news, so she lets herself fall asleep.

Jarvis keeps his word, waking her just past dawn to tell her everyone is back, or at least at SHIELD doing debriefing. "It's my understanding that there are no serious injuries," he adds.

"Or at least none that I'm cleared to know about," Darcy mutters.

"No medical staff have been paged," Jarvis says, a little stiffly. Darcy refuses to feel bad about snapping at an AI, especially one that puts up with Tony Stark, but she does sort of wave an apology for being a sulky bitch at it. Sounding somewhat mollified, Jarvis adds, "Shall I alert you when specific personnel are released from debriefing?"

Even half-asleep, Darcy can admire the delicate phrasing: 'specific personnel' is so much more tactful than 'the sniper you're flipping your shit over'.

"No," she says. "Thank you, though." Getting all up in Clint's face isn't going to help anything; whatever else she does or doesn't agree with, that much she knows for sure. It's still good to know he's okay--everybody else, too--enough that she relaxes enough to crash again, sleeping herself out until it's almost noon. While she's in the shower, she nudges a little at the proto-decision in the back of her head, and yep, it's still there, and it still feels right. She'll give it a little more time before she makes it official, but she thinks she's solid.

By the time she gets out of the shower, she's starving; hungry enough that she just throws on the first clean t-shirt and skirt she finds and twists her hair up into a messy knot and goes to find food... forgetting the first law of relationships, because of course the first person she runs into, before she even gets off the third floor, is Clint.

Even better, 'runs into' isn't just a euphemism for 'sees.' It's the literal truth, as they crash together coming around a corner. Darcy staggers back, all the air knocked out of her by the impact. Clint grabs for her before she goes down, and there's a split second where she forgets she's not supposed to be grabbing back, but then he sets her on her feet and she remembers and it's all back to fucked-up normal between them.

Clint's clearly just in, not even showered or changed, but down to the sleeveless UnderArmour he wears as his base layer and trailing a gaggle of white-coated SHIELD science-types who are passing around the Kevlar and clucking to each other, not even noticing Darcy. To be fair, she doesn't think they're noticing Clint either, which at least means they're not already updating the gossip lines. Small mercies.

"Jarvis says the world is saved again," Darcy says, keeping it light and stepping to one side so they can all get past. Good intentions aside, she and Clint don't have the track record that says chance encounters will remain boring and non-gossip-worthy, and she'd really like not to be the topic of the drone smoke breaks for at least a week. "Avengers rule?"

"You know it," Clint smirks. It's not really up to his usual standards, but it's credible enough that Darcy is willing to let it slide until one of the geeks asks him some incomprehensible question about ordnance and ballistics and instead of turning his head to answer he turns his whole body, moving with visible effort, the way you do when everything hurts.

"What happened?" Darcy says. It comes out a little on the sharp side, on the borderline of shrill, but she stops worrying that she's overreacting when Clint starts to shrug at her but stops with a hiss.

"I'm fine," he says, right as one of the geeks says, "The prototype worked perfectly; it stopped not only the AK-47 but also the plasma--"

"Stop," Darcy says to the geek, glaring at him until he shuts his mouth with a gulp--because Jesus Christ, she does not need to hear details that include the words 'not only the AK-47'--and then turning to Clint. "If you're so fucking fine, why can't you move?"

"Because," Clint sighs, "not even Stark's super-juiced Kevlar can dissipate that much force without a little collateral damage."

Darcy's moving before she even thinks about it, though she does make herself stop before she actually yanks Clint's shirt up, her hand hovering at the hem while she looks at him for permission. He looks back at her for a long second before he nods. He looks like he's braced for all hell to break loose, which at least gives Darcy a heads-up not to completely lose it. She tugs his shirt up as easily as possible and then bites down on everything that wants to come flying out of her at the sight of his back. At first it looks like one huge bruise, but then it resolves into overlapping circles of red and blue and purple so dark it looks black and Darcy realizes each circle is centered around a bullet hit.

"Fuck, Clint," Darcy whispers.

"It could have been worse," he says, with a little twist of his lips that she thinks is supposed to be a half-smile. "The Kevlar held, but..."

"All that force had to go somewhere," she murmurs. She touches the center part of one of the bruises very, very gently. Clint is absolutely still, but she almost winces at the heat coming off his skin. "You should ice this," she says, smoothing his shirt back down. "You should have been doing that already."

"Adrenaline is a beautiful thing," Clint says, this time with an actual smile. "I didn't really notice until I stiffened up during the ride over here. Getting that damn Kevlar off was the icing on the cake."

"Yeah, well, I already knew you have that hero-thing going, the one where you forget about the tiny details like this--seriously, you could have just let me fall on my ass right now--but you'd think at least one of the geniuses might have noticed their lab rat was not in the greatest shape, even if it was just so they could figure out what else could be improved." Darcy goes back to glaring at the geeks. "I'm going down to the kitchen to get you some ice, because clearly, clearly multiple PhDs mean nothing in terms of common sense."

"Darce, you don't have--"

"Shut up," Darcy hisses. "Just because we're not fucking doesn't mean I should go skipping off and pretend nothing's wrong. It's ice-ice, not a goddamned diamond."

She glares at Clint, and okay, she might be losing it a little, but she really fucking does not care at the moment.

"I was just going to say that they keep chemical ice packs in all the suites--you don't have to go down to the kitchen."

"Oh." Darcy reverses her righteous storming off and heads for her suite instead. "Then I'll get the ones from my room, because you're going to need a truckload of them. While I do that, why don't you finish this goddamned debriefing somewhere it won't matter if you fall over."

To his credit, Clint doesn't look like he's laughing at her, and the SHIELD geeks all have the same deer-in-the-headlights expression as they scuttle back out of her way. Given how pissed she is at them for not noticing, it's probably for the best, because even if she doesn't lose it any more, she can just imagine how this is going to sound by tomorrow morning.

Then again? she thinks as she stalks back toward Clint's room. Not really giving much of a flying fuck.

"Darcy, wait." Steve catches up with her and her armful of ice packs right outside Clint's door, and it's not that Darcy ever forgets he's Captain America, but it's usually just there in the background, unlike now where it's more like a force of nature. It's not even the uniform he's still wearing so much as how he just radiates it, like an aura. Darcy's kind of surprised he isn't throwing red, white, and blue shadows.

"I can take those for you; I think they're still debriefing," he says, gently but firmly, and yeah, she's not getting past that. "It's important that they know as much as possible about the performance of his body armor."

"No, I know," Darcy says. "But you have to make sure he uses these." She hands over all the ice packs, from both her suite and Jane's. It's stupid--she knows the staff can have as many of the things as Clint might need delivered to his room in no time, but that hadn't stopped her from needing to bring as many as she could herself. "Seriously, Cap. Don't let them get sidetracked with geeky joy or whatever. I mean, obviously, I'm really fucking glad their baby worked, because otherwise he'd be-- he'd be--"

"Not here." His voice is sober and serious and Darcy knows he's lost a lot of people, but she hears it in a whole new way.

"His back is a mess," Darcy says, and her throat is so tight and dry she can barely get the words out. "It needs to be taken care of."

"I was on my way to make sure of just that." He smiles a familiar smile at her, but--nope. Still Cap, not Steve. It's weird to see him like that, but it actually helps her feel a little bit better; if you can't trust Captain America to take care of things for you, who can you trust? "I'll keep an eye on him. Both eyes, even."

It's really sweet of him, trying to cheer her out of her mood. Darcy finds a smile somewhere; it's pretty weak, but she knows he won't hold it against her.

"And you're okay, too?" Darcy asks. "Not to be all up in your face or anything, but I'm beginning to wonder if anybody actually asks."

"I'm fine, honey," he says, as he opens the door. "Thank you for asking."

Darcy goes back to her suite and sits and shakes for a little while, until she gets most of it out of her system, and then finds the card Coulson had given her, the one with his direct number on it but not his name.

"Were you serious when you said you didn't want a yes-woman?" she asks as soon as he picks up. "Because I have some major issues with how your department operates."

"I don't say things I don't mean," Coulson answers. "I have a few issues of my own."

"Then I accept." It's what she's been thinking all along, but seeing Fury's scenarios playing out in front of her eyes definitely made her decision for her.

"Welcome to SHIELD," Coulson says, as though he never had any doubts. There's more, mundane things like HR and proper forms of identification, but yeah, that's about it. Darcy hangs up, but before she can start hunting down the pertinent numbers, a text comes through from Pepper.

Phil called to gloat, it reads. FWIW, I think you made an excellent choice. Best of luck; monastery on standby if needed, VP.

Darcy reads it about fifty times, savoring the 'Welcome to the Madness' glow, before she manages to text back, and for whatever reason, that makes it all official. Once Jane gets her ass back from frolicking with the Norse gods, they can have a party, but for now, Darcy goes to find something to eat and then tries to figure out if she owns a single piece of clothing that might qualify as even business casual. She doesn't, but she's sure Coulson knows that already, and then it turns out not to matter at all, because once she gets through all the bureaucratic BS that will ensure she actually gets paid for her grief, Coulson hands her a folder of graduate programs in public policy and tells her to start pulling applications together.

"It's a little early to start applying for next year, don't you think?" Darcy tries not to let her eyes bug out, but yow: Harvard, Columbia, GW, Northwestern... These are not programs for wimps.

"Who said anything about next year?"

"The whole part where it's months after deadline for this year?"

"Not an issue." Coulson gives her one of those inscrutable looks. "We have arrangements with all the top schools."

"You guys are seriously scary." Darcy already knew that, but it bears repeating, she thinks.

"I can't get you in, but if you meet acceptance criteria, there will be a spot for you." Coulson smiles. Darcy thinks she might like the bland, no-expression look better. "Any school in the folder. Also, you're one of us now, so welcome to the scary."

Darcy rolls her eyes at him and, since they haven't gotten around to getting her a desk yet, goes back to her corner in the kitchen. It takes her two days just to go through all the schools, which is a little much, she realizes, but... Okay, honestly? She's a little giddy, because even if she could have gotten into the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, there was no way she could have ever come up with the cash for it, and now it's just one of her options and--

She sets the timer on her phone to remind her to take a break and stop with the hyperventilating.

Jane finally blows back in from points unnamed; from the manic excitement in her eyes, Darcy thinks Asgard might only have been the way station between even weirder places. Still, she snaps out of it and is properly appreciative of Darcy's news, even calling Thor to come down and join in the celebration.

Thor is always going to be ready for a party, but Darcy can tell he's a little mystified by the reason for it.

"More schooling?" he says, in a tone that suggests Darcy is volunteering for torture. "You are certain this is the path you wish for your life?" He leans close and speaks in what she knows he thinks is a confidential tone. It's still like thunder rumbling in a summer night. "You must not feel obligated to them--my mother would offer you sanctuary should you choose."

Darcy actually gets a little choked up at the big lug and can't answer for a second, which works out well with how Jane's making kissy-faces at him, but when the lovebirds come up for air she says, "Can I take you up on that offer later, like maybe for spring break?"

"Any time, little sister," Thor says, and they all have a moment of the warm fuzzies before Darcy smacks her hand down on the table and says, "Okay, enough with the mush. I held off on the celebratory martinis until you got back but there's a limit to my patience."

It turns out that Thor has yet to be introduced to the joys of pomegranate martinis, and for all that he's not at all impressed by the size of the glasses, he pronounces them "like to candy," and downs them by the pitcherful. Jane is more circumspect, and Darcy isn't at all surprised; the last double tequila night is still a very fresh memory. Darcy is right there with her.

Of course, once Natasha arrives and, sniffing disdainfully at their girly drinks, produces some kind of fucking lighter fluid in a vodka bottle, things get out of hand anyway, but what's a little alcohol poisoning between friends?

The next morning isn't a total loss--Natasha and Thor had hogged most of the really brutal stuff--but Darcy is still seriously glad she isn't expected at SHIELD. Getting out of bed is challenge enough; making it down for breakfast is a total triumph. Jane's there, too, staring vaguely at her coffee. With Jane, that might just mean she's in the throes of a new discovery, but when she looks up at Darcy and mutters something unflattering about Russian assassins, it's pretty clear her brain is not operating at discovery-frequency. Darcy wants to commiserate, but she’s derailed by a sudden shaky memory of having a heart-to-heart with Natasha, during which she might have gotten the Black Widow Seal of Approval with respect to Clint.

"I think?" Darcy pokes disinterestedly at her eggs. "Maybe?"

"You still have all your body parts, right?" Jane says. Darcy nods. "Point in your favor." Darcy can't argue with that logic.

Of course, Clint himself still isn't with the program, so Darcy doesn't exactly know how much good Natasha being okay with her is going to do, but like Jane says, no missing body parts is a good thing.

Since the proper celebrations have taken place, Darcy holes up in her room for a couple of days and works on pulling together kick-ass application packets, writing and revising furiously until her eyes start crossing, and then moving it all down to the kitchens and going through it again. She's on her fourth time through her statement of purpose when she suddenly realizes she has no idea how any of this is going to work. She's stuck here, and, granted, here, Tony Stark's childhood home, is a pretty sweet place to be stuck, but it's not any of the places that correspond to the files she has open on her laptop.

It's absurd that she hasn't thought of any of this yet, but it is what it is. It's also probably an appropriate reason to test out the interoffice VPN and instant messaging. Coulson seems to agree, or at least he doesn't glare at her over said IM (if anyone can glare over a text-based messaging system, Darcy is sure it’s Coulson), only answering full protection detail wherever. Even if it's not the answer she wants to hear--that would be no need for extra security, go wherever--it's more or less the answer Darcy expects, which doesn't do anything to explain why she ends up on the roof, hanging onto the side of the morning-glory trellis with her heart going a hundred miles an hour and her lungs burning.

Fifth Avenue runs right past the mansion, but the rooftop garden is far enough toward the back of the building that the lushly landscaped grounds mute the overall traffic and city noises; it's easy enough to hear the attic door opening even over the blood pounding in her ears.

"Hey," Clint says quietly, staying over by the door until she manages a weak hey in return. "You blew past us like a bat out of hell; I figured I'd make sure everything's okay."

This is where Darcy is supposed to crack back with something fast and clever--and maybe even dismissive--but all she can come up with is a shaky-sounding, "Shit, please tell me I didn't just lose it in front of Fury."

"Nah, it was just me and Cap and Banner." Clint crosses over to where she's still clutching the trellis and holds out a bottle of water. "Come on," he says, gesturing toward one of the benches. "Sit down before you fall down."

Darcy takes the bottle and even manages to get the top off on her own. Not a particularly impressive accomplishment, but she is so taking whatever wins she can right this second. Clint doesn't hassle her, just sits down next to her and lets her drink her water and pull herself together.

"I just--couldn't breathe," Darcy says after a little while. She doesn't know how much Clint has heard about her deal, but he doesn't seem surprised at the details, and when she gets to the part about Coulson's message, he nods. "It's not exactly news, but... I don't know. The walls started closing in on me, and here I am." She takes a couple of slow, deep breaths and lets them trickle out. "Pretty crazy, yeah?"

"It's a pretty crazy set-up to start with," Clint says easily. "If you ask me, that makes it a double negative, so..."

"Not so crazy," Darcy says, something in her chest loosening up.

"Right," Clint says. "Either that or, y'know, we've already covered you and relative distances to crazy, so it could be this was the short putt."

"Oh my god," Darcy says, sputtering with laughter after a split-second of disbelief. "You're such a jerk, Barton."

"Hole in one?" he asks, with a smirk.

"Jerk," Darcy tells him. "Jerk, jerk, jerk."

"Hey, I'm just offering the options--you pick the reality." He leans back and lets the smirk soften into an actual smile, and fine, whatever, she can't resist the real smiles--and she really can't bring herself to care that she can't--so she sits there with him until it doesn't feel like she's going to suffocate when she goes back inside.

* * *

HIgh summer is apparently the off-season for the really whacked super-villains; maybe they summer in the Hamptons, too. At this point, Darcy is willing to believe many things she previously would have laughed herself sick over. Whatever the reason, it gets boring enough that people start standing down a little. Dr. Banner disappears into the wild to do some hardcore meditation practice, SHIELD handler in tow, just in case they have to bring him in again. Tony heads back to the West Coast to harass Colonel Rhodes and, he says, refabricate his suit, which Darcy mentally translates into seeing how much more bling he can throw at it; while Jane lets Thor talk her into taking an actual vacation, one that has nothing to do with research, rainbow bridges, or reality-altering equations. Darcy even spots some seriously slinky lingerie getting tossed into Jane's bag, which is lovely for them. Really.

Darcy catches Steve watching a Dodgers game on TV with a mournful expression on his face, and is at a loss on how to counteract it until Natasha shows up and takes him off on a club crawl of epic proportions. Word gets out that Captain America is on the dance floor--seriously, the first shaky phone video hits YouTube not an hour after they leave--and they're one step ahead of the paparazzi all night long. Darcy makes a point of going to the SHIELD offices the next morning, just so she can watch the rumors fly. It's vastly entertaining, but then Fury puts an end to any more nights like that by way of a spectacularly aggravated email, fueled in part, Darcy is certain, by Stark blasting everybody with suggestions for where they really should have gone and insisting somebody give him a couple of hours worth of a heads-up the next time so he can jet in from LA. Natasha rolls her eyes at all of it--like there's any way she'd be caught dead at a club with Tony--but Darcy thinks Steve might be a little relieved at the prohibition. Not that he didn't have a pretty awesome time, to judge from the blushing going on, but he agrees to stay in at the Mansion and watch movies with a suspect ease.

They start off with your basic geekfest, but--to Clint's utter horror--it turns out Steve is a sucker for costume dramas. Natasha is bored out of her mind and gone in no time, but Darcy ignores Clint's moaning and groaning and gleefully cues up one after another. She does relent and let him critique any and all archers that show up, mostly because it's too hilarious how he gets so torqued about shit Darcy doesn't see even when makes her go frame by frame and points to the bad things. They watch two or three every night, except for the night they catch Gone With The Wind, which Steve had actually seen in a movie theater before the war, on a double date. He doesn't say who he'd been with, but he doesn't have to. They switch over to poker after that, to let the memories fade. Steve pretty much sucks at bluffing, no surprise there, which probably has a lot to do with him insisting they get back on track the next night. Darcy goes for broke and pulls out The Princess Bride, which isn't strictly a costume drama, but which Steve loves and Clint somehow does not hate on sight, and tries not to think about how she's gotten herself into this low-grade, extended torture session where she's sitting on a couch next to, as Jarvis continues to call him, 'specific personnel' while Buttercup and Westley find true love.

Popcorn, it turns out, provides an excellent diversion. Who knew?

At the very least, Darcy reminds herself, they're not bitching at each other nonstop, and she'd said she was a big girl, she could deal if they weren't together, so that's what she's going to do. Deal. Even if it fucking kills her.

The dry spell lasts almost ten days, and then weirdness returns in the form of a blast from the past, somebody who makes Natasha's eyes go so cold Darcy's hair stands on end just looking at her. She and Clint throw down in as nasty of a fight as Darcy's ever seen without actual bloodshed, but when Black Widow leaves, Hawkeye goes with her. So, to Darcy's probably not-so-secret relief, does Captain America, and seriously, Darcy wishes like hell the SHIELD investigators would get with the program and get her clearances set, because it is beyond old to not know what the fuck is going on. Again.

At least she has a desk now, and a computer, and limited access to the SHIELD files. She can't find out anything going on in the present, but there's lots of history to read up on, and while that sounds boring in the abstract, some seriously weird shit has gone on in the past. The words "soap opera" come to mind, and that doesn't even begin to cover the Starks.

Plus, while she's waiting around for full clearance, she's working this idea that she's 90% sure will make Coulson's eyebrow twitch, if only because she's planning on putting in for 300 copies of The Checklist Manifesto so everyone will have their own copy when she goes live with it all. She's pretty sure that exceeds her requisition level, which means he has to sign off on it. Writing and rewriting her justification so he'll agree keeps her distracted enough that she's not spending every waking minute trying to figure out which of the baddies from Natasha's past is out there now. The list is long and varied, and from some of the mission reports, it's really no wonder Natasha gets that look in her eyes. And, not that Darcy's counting, but Clint shows up around the edges an awful lot, which is a solid foundation for his middle-of-the-night ramblings, too.

The first two nights, Darcy makes herself lay down in her bed--sleeping isn't really much of a possibility, but she catches a couple of hours both nights--but by the third, she gives up the pretense and stays on the couch so she doesn't miss anything. It's pretty hard to keep Captain America on the down-low, but nothing is showing up in the regular media. It's more than a little freaky, but Darcy maintains until the fourth day, when she gets to SHIELD and Coulson is gone and the rumors are flying that Fury's out, too.

It's a little harder then, but Darcy keeps on keeping on, based mostly on the fact that they haven't called in Iron Man yet (Tony is very clearly raising hell in his own persona in LA) and Jane and Thor are still off having wild, thunder-god sex (at least Darcy hopes Jane is getting some. One of them needs to be; the world cannot be that unfair.)

She still sleeps out on the couch that night, though.

It's dark outside when she wakes up, no sign of lightening toward dawn in the sky. The house isn't totally quiet, though, faint murmurs of activity filtering through the halls. A couple of doors slam across the gallery; Darcy's pretty sure that's what woke her.

"Hey," Clint says quietly, and Darcy leans up onto one elbow far enough to see him sitting on the floor with his back against the couch. He's showered and changed into a t-shirt and track pants, and he's finishing up a giant glass of something green and disgusting-looking, one of Tony's energy concoctions, so there's at least a tiny bit of care-taking happening.

"Hey," Darcy says back. She pushes her hair back off her face and eyes him critically. "Are you okay?" He has a small cut along one cheekbone, the edges held together with a butterfly and the start of bruising around it, but that's all she can see.

"Just got this," Clint says, touching the cut. "And the new bow beat the hell out of my arm." He shows her the bruising on the inside of his forearm even where she knows his shield covers. "Fucking awesome range, though."

"Yay for technology," Darcy says. "And not that I'm complaining, but you don't even have any stitches--that seems pretty low-key for four days out."

"Cap and I didn't do much," Clint says. "This one was Natasha's, beginning to end." He sounds ten times more serious than he ever does. "You saw her--she barely let us come out with her."

"But she's okay, too, right?"

"Physically, she's banged up pretty good, but yeah, she's okay." Clint slouches down so he can lean his head against the couch. Darcy wouldn't have to reach far to be able to touch him; her fingers almost twitch at the thought, but she makes them be still. "Mentally... I don't know. It was a bad one, and she... finished it herself."

"I'm guessing I don't want to know how, even if I got the clearance," Darcy says.

"No," Clint says, his voice very quiet. He turns his head so he can meet her eyes. "You really don't." He's still for a couple of seconds. "Fury's got her, though."

"There's an irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object scenario if ever I heard one," Darcy says.

"Yeah," Clint snorts. "Phil's probably cleared a city-block radius around them to try to cut down on the collateral damage."

"So, you're okay, she's... in the best possible hands, and I'm guessing Steve's good, too?" Darcy pauses to let him nod. "So why are you sitting on the floor instead of tucked up in your bed with visions of compound bows dancing in your head like a good little Avenger?"

"Waiting for you to wake up," Clint says, and Darcy can't not touch him. His hair is still a little damp from his shower and it's soft and silky for all that he keeps it short. Her fingers trace down from his temple along his jaw; he shivers once against her and she forces herself to stop, to move her hand and break the physical connection.

"What are we doing?" Darcy wishes her voice sounded stronger, but she wants so badly.

"What you said before--about us," Clint says, and his voice isn't all that much louder than hers. "Do you--Is that still true?"

"Yes," Darcy whispers, and gives in to the screaming need to touch him again: the cut on his cheekbone, the curve of his jaw. He turns his face to her, brushes his mouth across the tips of her fingers and it's her turn to shiver. This isn't just about her, though, and she curls her fingers away from him. "But you--what you said in the end..."

"Yeah," Clint says. "I--"

"Please be sure," Darcy says. "Whatever you're going to say--I can't--bounce back and forth, and what you said before, if you really think that--"

"Darce, hey, ease off for a second, okay?" He edges his hand under hers until she uncurls it and lets him run his thumb back and forth across her knuckles. "That's--yeah, not just something I threw out there--I've fucked up a lot of things in the past. Too many."

He gets quiet again, but doesn't let go of her hand, and sooner than Darcy expects, he's looking up at her with a half-smile and saying, "But I just spent four days sitting around with Captain America, and... some things got said."

"Okay," Darcy says. "There's definitely a joke in there--or maybe a hundred--about Cap and the birds and the bees and who said what to whom, but... I can't--""

"Yeah, I'm not trying to jerk you around," Clint says. "Or, well, not any more than I already have--I just--he said..."

"Good things," Darcy guesses. Clint nods, his eyes on where his thumb is still stroking gently over her knuckles.

"He said he didn't think I'd need it, but he'd be there to make sure the team didn't get screwed."

"Ohhh," Darcy says, finally starting to understand. She definitely owes Steve big time for this. Even if things don't ever really work between her and Clint, she still owes Steve for knowing what to say. "Captain America things. He's good at that."

"Yeah," Clint says, almost inaudibly. "He is."

"For the record, I don't think you'll need it either," Darcy says, sitting up all the way. Clint still has her hand, like he thinks she might take off if he lets go, which is idiotic, but it's not like Darcy is going to complain about skin-to-skin contact, however tame it might be. She tugs him closer, watching how he moves, just in case he's 'forgetting' about any extraneous bruises or contusions or, y'know, arterial wounds, but he slides over easily. "I never did."

"I appreciate the vote of confidence, but you're not exactly an impartial observer." For all the negativity--which Darcy does not approve of, but might be starting to understand--he's still relaxed. "You really don't care about everything else?"

"No." Darcy slides off the couch to sit next to him on the floor, twisting around so she doesn't have to let go of his hand. She doesn't care if that makes her a sap. "I really don't. I mean, I'm not exactly excited when you go out, but I have personal history that tells me you know what you're doing. The rest of it is--not an issue. Swear."

He nods but doesn't say anything, and Darcy thinks it might take forever to untangle all the things she's seeing in his eyes.

"Am I really that scary, Barton?" Darcy likes that it comes out lightly, but there's way more under it than she's comfortable admitting.

"Oh, sweetheart," Clint says, leaning closer and smiling when she moves to meet him halfway. He kisses her, long and slow and unhurried, and all the tension and worry and uncertainty drain out of her. "You terrify me." He kisses her again, more fiercely this time, his mouth hard against hers, and Darcy wants to tell him he scares the shit out of her, too, in all the best ways, but then he gets a hand up into her hair, threading it around his fingers, and there are so many more important things to pay attention to, like how carefully he's still holding her hand, and how easily his other hand is cradling her head, and most importantly, the quiet, almost soundless groan that vibrates through him when she gets her mouth on his throat.

Clint tips his head back in an invitation, one she takes gladly, crawling into his lap and pressing close, searching out the exact right spot--there, at the pulse under his jaw--to bite down. He hisses and tightens the hand he still has tangled in her hair, a quick, bright sting that shocks across nerve endings that all but stand up and scream for more, flipping switches she never knew she had. Darcy gets in one more bite, sharper than she intends, but that's all there's time for before Clint is kissing her again, rough and demanding, and Darcy loses herself in the rush of his mouth on hers, his hands sliding up under her shirt. It'd be too much except he's right there, lost with her, and that's what makes it really fucking close to perfect.

"Fuck," Darcy gasps when they finally have to stop to breathe. She rests her forehead against his and shivers as his fingers trace swirls and dips low on her back, the calluses from his bow scraping delicately over her skin.

"Are we past sixth grade now?" Clint's lazy smirk would be totally annoying, except for how he's as out of breath as she is and isn't bothering to hide it.

"Oh, yeah," Darcy murmurs. "Want to go for prom?" She drops kisses along a path from his temple down to his jaw, and then over and back to his ear. "Because I totally scored that night." She mouths along the lobe, smiling as he goes still against her and filing away another bullet-proof spot. She has a very definite feeling she's going to need every advantage she can find and more. "Bases-loaded, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth, walk-off grand-slam score."

"Is that a dare, sweetheart?"

"Totally," Darcy answers with a smirk of her own, one that's lost in the hiss she can't hold back when he rolls his hips up into her.

"Are we doing this here?" Clint murmurs, his hands sliding up her back, a long slow sweep that she's aching to arch into even as she narrows her eyes at him. He's teasing, she knows, because his eyes are saying there's no way they're doing this for the first time out where anyone could come across them, but she's almost tempted to see how far they could take it and still stop.

"No," Darcy says, finally. "We have rooms--with beds and everything--" She breaks off with another gasp when he rolls up into her again, already hard, and she's grinding down onto him before she can even think. "Barton," she warns through gritted teeth, despite having no idea how she might finish the implied threat. He grins at her, though, and lets her pull away from him and stand up. She catches his hands in hers and doesn't bother hiding how much she appreciates the smooth bunch and flex of muscle as he rolls to his feet, especially not once a very possessive little voice in the back of her head whispers that she's got a claim on all that. She does manage to keep from purring at the thought, but only because she needs to hold something back for Round Two.

"Come on," Darcy says, feeling a tiny bit less out of control now that she's got some distance between them, even if she is backing toward her room as fast as she can and towing him with her.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," Clint drawls, and she rolls her eyes at him before she turns and walks the normal way, still holding onto him. For all that it's taken for-fucking-ever to get here, she can't say that she isn't stupidly happy that the snark hasn't stopped flying. When she sneaks a look back over her shoulder, though, he's watching her with an expression that's way less a smirk than usual.

"What's that for?" Darcy has to let go of him to deal with the door to her room, but he steps up close behind her and pushes her hair over one shoulder so he can get his mouth on the back of her neck, which is fucking awesome as far as feeling good goes--seriously, she could stand here like this all night--except for the part where she has many more plans than this. Her hands and brain can't quite seem to cooperate, though.

"I was just trying to picture you in one of those dresses," Clint murmurs, lips still against her skin like the fucking tease that he is. His hands slide around her waist to pull her back against him, and Darcy loses at least a million more brain cells to feeling him press close.

Focus, she tells herself sternly, which is just ridiculous what with how she's practically writhing against him.

"Aren't they fluffy and boring?" Clint finally eases off her neck, but since he trades off in favor of tracing his tongue along her ear Darcy isn't gaining much there. "Not your normal style."

"Oh, I was rocking a retro vibe," Darcy laughs, finally getting the stupid door open and stumbling into the welcoming mess of her room. "All Stevie Nicks leather and lace and my knee-high Docs."

Clint makes a low, rough sound into where her neck curves to her shoulder and there's a crazy few seconds--minutes?--where his hands are everywhere and the low-key kisses he's been mouthing over her skin turn into a whole lot of quick, sharp little bites.

"The dress is gone," Darcy says breathlessly. "No, that's a good thing; it was a totally unfortunate lapse of judgement. But I still have the boots--play your cards right, superhero, and I'll see what I can do about a private modeling session."

She turns her head and smiles at him, and for having just practically fucked her with their clothes still on, he brushes a surprisingly sweet kiss across her mouth.

"I fucking love how your brain works," he says, kissing her again and again, light and teasing, and though they've been living in each other's back pockets for months, Darcy doesn't know that she's ever seen him quite as open.

"I'm totally never letting you forget you said that," Darcy tells him, managing about two words per kiss.

"Sometimes," he amends, turning her around so he can kiss her properly, still open and free somehow, but gradually replacing everything else with a focus that's laser-sharp and all on Darcy. She almost shivers at the intensity. "Let's see if I can make that modeling session worth your while."

"Okay," Darcy says, or tries to say, because it turns out the intensity was just a preview of the real thing, and Darcy needs every last bit of oxygen in her lungs just to stay upright. She holds on to him desperately, gulping in air when he moves his kisses away from her mouth, breathing him in when he doesn't. Her t-shirt is gone somehow, and then the thin cotton sleep pants she'd pulled on an eternity ago, before she'd known he was safe, before she had any idea the night might go like this, her in nothing but a little wisp of silk, her hands wrapped hard around his biceps, the echo of his mouth everywhere: her hair and neck, across the tops of her breasts, along the curve, too, down past her navel and along her hips, all the places he's touched in turn. Her nipples are swollen and hard, achingly sensitive, so she can barely breathe when he brushes them with the slightest of touches, the backs of his fingers trailing back and forth between her breasts, circling each one lightly. She shakes and whimpers when he rolls them between his thumb and forefinger, and cries out, telling him not to stop when he teases at them with blunt nails, a perfect wavering balance between too much and not nearly enough.

Impatiently, she pulls at his shirt, muttering, "Off, off," until he stops and yanks it up over his head. She takes advantage of the few seconds’ respite to take care of his pants and boxers, so she can touch as much skin as possible: shoulders and arms, back and ass and thighs, all for her, so when they finally crash down onto the bed, she's mapped and marked and tasted him, too.

"So gorgeous," Clint says, leaning over her braced on one arm, three fingers sliding up into her and his thumb riding hard against her clitoris. She almost loses it right then, arching up into him wildly. "Let me see you, sweetheart," he coaxes. "Please?"

It's maybe the first thing he's ever asked her for; however hard it is, Darcy drags her eyes open and keeps them that way, throwing everything he's giving her right back at him. She reaches up and touches his face--his mouth, the short, soft hair at his temples, the bruise on his cheekbone--and then digs her hand in hard on his shoulder, holding on as he picks up the pace.

Beautiful, he says, fucking deep into her, curving his fingers exactly right, and Darcy almost comes off the bed at how good he's making her feel. Beautiful and amazing and all Darcy can answer with is his name, gasping it out with every breath, saying it over and over, so he knows she's there with him, until everything stutter-stop-stutters and it's all she can do to keep breathing. He fucks her through it, easy, smooth strokes that bring her back a little at a time, until she can let go of the death grip she's dug into his shoulder and slide her hand up to cup his jaw.

"My turn," she says, getting herself up on one elbow so she can kiss him, lightly at first, and then a little more, licking into his mouth and pushing at him until he eases onto his back and lets her roll up against him. The spot under his jaw she knows about already, and the one behind his ear. There's another place that he loves at the base of his throat, along his collarbone; that one makes him sigh out and relax a little bit more against her. There are scars, too: ones that look like gashes from a knife along his ribs, a round indentation that's clearly a bullet on the front of his shoulder; she makes sure not to avoid them, not to pretend the part of him he thinks she shouldn't want doesn't exist. He doesn't rush her or push her, and she takes her time, indulging herself with all the places she's wanted to touch for longer than she's admitted even to herself.

He's quiet until she finally smooths her hand over his hip, stroking the tips of her fingers along the line of muscle and down to his thigh, and then he gasps out, "God, please," and there's no way Darcy is not going to give him what he wants. She wraps her hand around him, stroking him slowly, learning everything she can there, too, until he's shaking against her and she has to stop before everything goes too far and she can't. She crawls up over him, and he breathes out a long, shuddering sigh and pulls her down on top of him.

"What do you want?" Clint murmurs, kissing her throat, her jaw, and her breath catches at everything in his voice.

"You," Darcy whispers, and he rolls them easily, bracing himself over her on strong arms, and dropping more kisses on her face and mouth. "I want you so much, Clint. So much."

"You've got me, sweetheart," he answers. "You had me all along."

She has condoms in her messenger bag, a remnant of her last spectacularly stupid trip down the road to coupledom; this one is already going a million times better, explosions and kidnappings and all. Without moving away from her, he somehow manages to reach where she'd dropped her stuff the night before when she'd known she couldn't spend ten seconds more in her room alone. It seems like forever ago.

"It's the first time out; maybe we should keep it simple?" Darcy says when he asks how she wants to do it. "Just like this."

Clint nods and kisses her, and then he's sliding into her and she can wrap her legs around his waist and pull him even closer. He moves slowly at first, but when she whispers to him how good he feels inside her, how much she wants him to fuck her, how hard she wants it, he pushes into her fast and deep and rough. Darcy arches up to meet him, words spilling out of her mouth without conscious thought, every one jacking both of them higher like some kind of crazy feedback loop sparking wildly between them.

"So close," she grits out. "God, Clint," and then he reaches under her and pulls her up to sit on his lap and she's grinding down on him, perfect angle, perfect depth, so fucking good it slams her over the edge and she's coming again, biting at his shoulder, clawing at his back. He drives up into her twice more, and then again and she can feel him, feel the shock waves shuddering through him even through her own orgasm.

Darcy wraps her arms around him and buries her face in the curve of his neck, holding onto him as he eases them down, not letting him go until she can breathe without sobbing and her heart doesn't feel like it might pound out of her chest. Even then, she keeps a hand on him, traces idle patterns along his spine when he rolls away to deal with the condom.

"You're staying, right?" Darcy murmurs, lazy and content. "You're done with debriefing and nobody should be looking for you?"

"I'm done with debriefing," Clint says, lying on one side and stroking Darcy's hair back off her face with his free hand. "And nobody should be looking for me."

"Mmm," Darcy purrs. "That's nice. You should keep going. And don't think I didn't notice how neatly you avoided the actual question I asked."

"Keeping going," Clint says, doing just that. "I don't know about the actual question."

"I already know you don't sleep worth shit," Darcy says.

"No, sweetheart," Clint sighs. "You know I'm awake half the night. Being around for the not-sleeping part is... different."

"Are you liable to strangle me in my sleep?"

"You mean, more so than when you're awake?"

Darcy feels obliged to flip him off, but secretly she's more than a little happy he's not just shutting her down. After a few more seconds of no actual answers, she catches his hand and presses a kiss across the back of his fingers. "I want you to stay, but not out of obligation, and I swear I won't get my feelings hurt if you don't," she says. It's a little blunt for afterglow, but better that than another month of messed up non-communication.

Clint's mouth twitches in that not-quite smile that means he's considering running for the hills, but he lies down beside her and lets her drape herself over him. She'd feel bad about hassling him about it all except that he's cuddling her back and he's relaxed, and that's worth a lot in her book. "It's not pretty," he says.

"Okay," Darcy says. "I promise I won't flip out on you."

Any romantic notions she might secretly have been harboring about how being with her might hold the dreams at bay get blown to hell four hours later, when he goes from sound asleep to bolt upright and choking for breath in no time flat. Darcy had fortunately rolled away--or he'd eased her away before he'd fallen asleep; she thinks she might have a hazy memory of that--so she's on the other side of the bed when it all goes down, but he hadn't been kidding about it not being pretty. Then again, she hadn't been kidding about not flipping out, so she stays in his direct sight line and makes sure her voice is quiet and calm when she talks to him.

"I can--" Clint waves toward the door, once he's all the way back with her. He's clearly trying to give her the easy out, and it doesn't take much brain power to figure out it's gone that way often enough that leaving is the best of his options. Darcy does not share her express desire to meet whoever convinced him of that so she can slap them into next week, but she doesn't do much to hide it either.

"You have shitty taste in women, Barton," she sighs, shoving pillows at him so he can settle himself against the headboard. It's not the most tactful thing she could have said, but she's maybe a little closer to losing it than she can admit. Nightmares are one thing; not being able to breathe is something else. Watching it is bad enough; Darcy is trying hard not to think about living it or she really will lose it. Moving slowly, so she doesn't trigger some reflexive reaction and undo everything--not to mention she's not keen on getting karate-chopped or whatever--she curls up under his arm. There's a long few seconds when she thinks it could go either way, him staying or going, but then he brings his hand up and slides it into her hair, letting the waves curl around his fingers. It's less how he'd been stroking it back off her face earlier and more like someone playing with worry beads. Darcy isn't sure she's actually worthy of that trust, but she will do just about anything not to fuck it up. She makes double-damn sure none of that shows up in her voice when she finishes, "Present company excepted."

"Present company excepted," Clint agrees, his hand still combing slowly through her hair.

Chapter Text

The third time Darcy gets kidnapped by a mad scientist, it is so totally her fault Clint probably won’t ever walk into the same room with her again.

She only wishes she were kidding about that last part, but, yeah, the look on his face when she’d kissed him and said, “Don’t miss,” and crawled out from where he and Steve had stashed her does not bode well for future conversations, much less anything involving a bed and as few clothes as possible.

Still, she doesn’t see that there’s a better choice. She has eyes; she knows both Cap and Clint think Clint’s their best chance to take the moron out. Cap has his hands full coordinating with the cops who are stuck in here with them, making sure they know their guns are useless and trying to keep civilian casualties down (and not-so-incidentally making sure they know Clint is one of the good guys, so nobody tries to take him out when he goes and does his thing.) Natasha is--at best--pinned down somewhere on the other side of the skating rink where the worst damage from the initial blast had fallen. Darcy is doing mental gymnastics to not think about all the other things that might have happened. Even if she’s fine (which she is, Darcy thinks firmly—she's the Black Widow; people have been trying to kill her for years and a lame Silver Surfer/Green Goblin-wannabe is not going to succeed where Hydra and Bullseye and the Hand failed) nobody’s comms are working, and there’s no way to contact her.

That, in Darcy’s opinion, leaves Darcy. Clint probably--okay, fine, definitely--won’t agree and neither will Steve. Natasha probably will, Darcy thinks, but only because she’s stone-cold at times like this and isn’t likely to be swayed by impractical things like hero-complexes. If they both get through this, Darcy is planning on enlisting her for back-up in the inevitable explosion that will masquerade as a conversation. The utter insanity of using Natalia Romanova as the voice of reason is not lost on Darcy, but hey, like Pepper always says: whatever works.

Speaking of Pepper, Darcy can see the flashes and pops that are Iron Man’s repulsors lighting up on the other side of the weird, shimmery canopy-membrane-pod thingy Wannabe threw over the plaza when he dropped in for a visit. And seriously, Darcy has the worst fucking timing ever to decide that this was a good day to go be tourists and ice skate at Rockefeller Center. Now it’s like being on the inside of an electrified jellyfish, ick. Whatever it is, it totally fucks up radio waves and bullet trajectories, and even messes with random pieces of metal like, say, tire irons, that get thrown. (Darcy isn’t going to lie; seeing Cap sling that thing had been impressive, but it hadn’t gone nearly where he’d aimed) and it looks like the same thing is happening on the outside, which means they really are on their own.

Wannabe hasn’t actually made any demands, which Darcy knows doesn’t make either Cap or Clint happy; he’s mostly getting his rocks off by buzzing low over all the people he’s trapped inside the electro-jellyfish. He's flying so low that Darcy’s seen a couple people with nasty burns from whatever the surfboard thingie puts out, which is not only totally vile, but irritating in that it makes it hard to see him until he’s practically right on top of you. But. He’s made an exception to the low flying twice. Twice he’s grabbed people off the ground and then, then he likes to take them and show off what the boogie board from hell can do, up high, so everybody can watch. Again with the totally vile.

It’s pathetically easy to attract Wannabe’s attention: all Darcy has to do is time it so she runs from one hiding place to another just a little in front of where he’s zipping around. The first time, he sees her but doesn’t take the bait, but the second time he zooms in to grab her. Darcy plays it like she’s trying to get away, leads him on for as long as she can, but he does finally lean down and drag her up with him. This would be where her plan gets a little shaky, because Darcy is not particularly fond of heights, especially when she is standing on a souped-up piece of fiberglass with nothing but a crazy moron between her and open air. She reminds herself that she did make that climb into the helicopter not six months earlier. All she has to do now is stand here and be as still as possible. She can do this, easy. Especially since she’s supposed to be terrified. That part she’s got covered, no problem.

Wannabe has some serious issues, no doubt about that. He’s cackling and whooping and generally acting like a frat boy on football Saturday, but he’s doing the same thing he’d done before, the thing she needs him to do now: swooping them up higher, up into the clear. Darcy wishes she’d thought to tie her hair back before she laid herself out as bait; it’s flying around like it’s possessed and she hopes like hell it doesn’t mess Clint up but there’s not a lot she can do about it now.

She’s not in love with the crazy swoops, especially not the ones that go up really high at the end, but closing her eyes only makes it worse. She keeps her attitude firmly in the Of The Good camp, because it is good that he’s doing this. It’s rhythmic and repetitive and exactly what he’s done before, which means Clint’s got it cold and can anticipate where they’re going to be next, which is the whole reason Darcy’s in this stupid mess: to get the crazy moron up and in the clear where her unfortunately soon-to-be-ex- (as in probably-as-soon-as-he-sees-her-next) boyfriend can take him out.

Wannabe thinks he’s in the clear; she knows he does. Whatever he’s doing is messing with everything he thinks can be used as a weapon, except she knows Clint has two obsidian-tipped arrows in his bag. (Darcy absolutely takes back the bitchy look she’d given him when she’d seen them before everything had gone to hell. At the time she’d been operating under an It’s supposed to be a *date*, why are there weapons involved? attitude. She’s totally over that now. Really.) The arrows are prototype-y and they’re never going to be his favorites, not by a long shot (that honor would go to the ones that blow up, because, well, he’s a guy and he likes shit that goes boom) but he’d test-fired one down undercover and it had flown straight and true, no interference from the electro-jellyfish. That’s when Darcy had made the executive decision that if somebody needed to get this guy into the clear, better her than some civilian.

Darcy’s hung around the firing range Clint has down on the lower levels of the Mansion enough to know he can shoot anything, anywhere. (So it maybe gets her a little hot sitting around watching his arms while he takes target practice. Like a jury of her peers would convict her of bad taste on that count.) She’s seen him hit superballs thrown by Cap as they ricochet off the walls and floor while the lights strobe on and off; hitting an actual body should be cake, even if it is flying around doing everything but actual flips.

She wishes he’d get on with it already--though she absolutely trusts his timing, she adds, on the off chance that her thinking it rushes him and makes him screw up.

That would be bad.

Of course, it would also be bad if Wannabe gets tired of her and drops her overboard like he’d done with the other two. Cap had caught one, but the first one--Darcy isn’t thinking about him. She’s also not thinking about how she’s starting to get a little airsick from the twists and turns, because she’s pretty sure puking will get her kicked to the curb pretty damn fast, but she would like to note that this suckering-the-bad-guy-in thing is not for wimps.

She’d also like to note that while she’s made some snippy comments in the past about adrenaline junkies and their lack of sanity, she maybe gets it a little better now. She might die, but, wow, the rush she’s getting is a hell of a trade-off. Wannabe starts spiraling them down, tighter and tighter circles as he goes, and Darcy can feel her brain kicking into some hyper-awareness mode where every single thing is sharp and clear and distinct, to the point that she actually sees Cap on the ground under her, sees the arrow Clint’s fired right before it buries itself in Wannabe’s throat, the obsidian so insanely sharp it’s through and out before he can blink.

The controls for the energy field tumble out of his hand as he crumples and falls, and in the crazy seconds that follow, Darcy trying desperately to keep her balance on the careening board, she wills the damn membrane to come down, because she would really like to see Iron Man in front of her rightthefucknow. She makes it through three of the crazy spirals before she staggers too far back and slips off the board, and holy Jesus, if she thought she was tripping on adrenaline before, the rush that slams through her at feeling nothing under her foot lets her know she wasn’t even close. She makes a desperate grab for the board, fingers scrabbling at the edge, breaking her fall just enough to tease her before it flips on its edge and sends her flailing back into nothing.

Oh, shit, Darcy thinks, but before she can form the hope that Cap will get her, something hits her and lifts her up in an arc. A voice she doesn’t know says, “Hellllo, gorgeous, sorry to drop in and then run, but… Hey, Cap, catch!” and she’s falling again, only this time Cap is definitely there under her and there is a happy ending to her adventure after all. Judging from the look on Cap’s face, there’s going to be some yelling in her happy ending, but hi, anything that doesn’t include Darcy as a pancake on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center is happy-happy-joy-joy by her.

Cap sets her on her feet, giving her a good shake and a quick once-over. “Are you--?” he starts, his voice concerned, before there’s a shout and he turns away to catch another something that Darcy realizes is the the sled/board/thingie all wrapped up in a web, which would make the guy who’d snatched her out of mid-air--yep, Spiderman. He does a flashy little flip and lands next to Cap with a flourish. “Did he--?” Cap turns back to Darcy.

“I’m fine,” Darcy says, and the lines around Cap’s eyes ease off, and really, Darcy thinks, that’s so Cap. She’ll be lucky if Clint doesn’t kill her where she stands, but Cap is worried about her. She looks up and sees sky, and realizes the barrier is down right about the same time that Iron Man comes screaming up, dropping down to land next to them with a thud that betrays his agitation—normally, he lands as lightly as a feather—and pushes his face plate up.

“I told you this place would be lousy with tourists,” he says to Cap, in an offhand voice that belies the intensity in his eyes.

“We’re good,” Cap says and hands over the boogie board, which, predictably enough, sets off the ooo, shiny new tech alert. Possibly literally, as Darcy wouldn’t put it past Tony to have actually programmed a little ping for moments such as this.

“Another OSCORP knock-off--why am I not surprised this guy is one of your special friends?” he says to Spiderman.

Darcy loses whatever the answer is in the craziness that’s the leading edge of the SHIELD team and what looks like half of NYPD getting to them, the usual complement of SUVs and dark suits, with the added bonus of Colonel Fury striding around. Somebody drops a blanket over her shoulders, which she kind of huddles under, not because she’s all that cold--her heart rate is still screaming along and she might not come down from the rush, like, ever--but more so she can blend in with all the other civilians. Rush or not, she’d rather not have to talk to Fury about this--well, ever would be best, but that’s not likely, so putting it off as long as possible would be nice. Totally.

She’s not doing too badly at the staying-on-the-downlow plan, but then the minor riot in the background resolves itself into Clint and Natasha ignoring the crime-scene tape NYPD has strung up and pushing through the line of agents.

“One goddamned minute,” Clint’s snarling at the guy who’s babbling at him about debriefing as he scans the group around Cap. He zeroes right in on Darcy and veers off toward her, and it takes Darcy less than a second to forget about how much she doesn’t want to be noticed and how they’d agreed to keep them low-key and quiet and how mad she’s sure Clint’s going to be. She bolts for him at a dead run, not slowing down until she crashes into him.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Darcy,” Clint says, kissing her hard and desperate, and all the crazy energy that’s been ricocheting through Darcy’s blood shimmers and sharpens and focuses the feel of him against her. She’s digging her hands so hard into him--his arms, his shoulders, his back--that she has to be leaving bruises but he doesn’t seem to notice, much less care.

“What the hell was that stunt?” Clint sounds furious but he keeps right on kissing her, which is, no duh, the most important part, the part Darcy isn’t about to ignore to answer, not until her head is spinning and she has to break away to gasp in air. And even then she’s still got her mouth on his skin.

“I don’t,” Clint says, sounding as breathless as she feels, “I don’t know whether I’m about to fuck you into next week or put you over my knee and spank some sense into you.”

The world kind of goes away for a couple of seconds, or Darcy’s brain shorts out, or something, because about all she can do is stand there and stare at him, but then things more or less go back to normal and she thinks, Why is that an either/or proposition?

Clint’s hands tighten on her shoulders and there’s a choking sound behind her. Darcy sighs. “Fuck, I said that out loud, didn’t I?”

She really doesn’t want to look, but it’s like a trainwreck--impossible not to turn her head and metaphorically peek through her fingers. Tony smirks at her, looking her up and down with a cheerfully obscene glint in his eyes while--oh, jeez, Darcy thinks--Captain America is fifteen shades of red.

“Not one word,” Clint bites out as Tony opens his mouth, which of course is only going to egg Tony on. Darcy knows that; to judge from the resigned look Steve’s giving him, Steve knows it, too. Hell, Darcy knows Clint knows better, but if she needed any proof that he’s not thinking, she just got it. “No shit, Sta--”

“Debrief?” Coulson says from the other side, and Darcy has never been happier to see the array of drones behind him, enough that there’s a team for everyone, no waiting.

“You got it,” Clint snaps, not looking away from the stare-down he’s got going with Tony. He’s still got one hand wrapped around Darcy’s wrist; he doesn’t let go when he starts toward the row of SUVs and clearly, neither of the two agents shadowing him have the nerve to bring it up. Coulson arches an eyebrow at him, but doesn’t push it when Clint keeps moving, Darcy scrambling along and keeping up with him despite how her entire brain is focused on her wrist and his hand.

“Do the group interviews first,” Coulson says, waving Steve and Natasha along with them, and points Tony over to where Spiderman is doing his best hey-I’m-the-independent-contractor-in-this-scenario-why-do-I-have-to-talk-to-anyone act. “Find out who the hell this guy is so we can start figuring out what he did to our tech.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I’d like to know that, too.”

“The director gets very twitchy when we have to rely on volcanic glass to resolve the situation, no matter how tight the shot was,” Coulson says, to no one in particular.

“Thanks, Phil,” Clint mutters as they go past. “I owe you.”

“We’ll be discussing repayment extensively in the next few days, Agent Barton,” Coulson answers, his perfect deadpan marred only by how his mouth twitches toward a smile when Clint rolls his eyes. “Ms. Lewis--I'm especially looking forward to your portion of the mission report.” Darcy shrugs at him and kind of returns the almost-smile, but Clint isn’t slowing down and she sure as shit isn’t interested in stopping him, so there’s no time for anything more.

They debrief in one of the SHIELD vans, full recording in process as they go rapid-fire through every minute, from before the explosion that kicked off the “incident” all the way through the rest of the team gaining access to the area once the membrane was down. Darcy expects to be shunted aside, but the agent in charge not only doesn’t blink at having her there, but she clearly expects Darcy’s full participation. And--the thing is, if someone had told Darcy she’d be in with the drones and actually fascinated by the experience, she’d have demanded some of whatever they were on at the time. It’s true, though: watching them shepherd the other three in a runthrough of the afternoon’s events is mindblowing. Natasha knows the time, down to tens of seconds at some points (like how long it took Wannabe to make one of his swoops); Cap can lay out the entire scene, including crowd densities, without so much as taking a breath; and Clint’s level of detail about the light and air movement variations getting through the membrane is, frankly, kind of scary. It all works together, and they have some kind of shorthand, especially Natasha and Clint. Natasha’s eyebrow alone says more than any ten soliloquies, and Clint not only translates it, but expands on it without so much as a second to think.

So, yeah, fascinating, and Darcy is saying that even with Clint’s thumb stroking gently along the inside of her wrist and the last thing he said to her pretty much on a constant loop in the back of her brain. And yay for her, she manages decent answers and observations when they get to her own part in the whole stupid mess. She had no idea she had such multitasking capabilities.

They lose the debriefing team at SHIELD, plus Natasha and Cap: Natasha because she was apparently unconscious for a while (less than two minutes by her count, but she does grudgingly admit to losing time) and it’s SOP to get checked out for that, and Cap because Natasha doesn’t give a flying fuck about procedures, standard or otherwise, and he doesn’t trust her not to bypass the medical wing entirely. He doesn’t say that, of course, but he doesn’t bother trying to come up with a cover story either, just gets out of the van and shadows Natasha into the building. Darcy might be hallucinating, but she thinks he may have a hand on the small of her back as they disappear through the door.

It’s quiet in the van, and dark, the sun hidden behind clouds and nearly gone for the day in the first place. Clint leans forward to talk with the agent driving them, filling in the gaps of what had been happening on the outside. Darcy tucks herself into a corner and listens, letting the quiet voices wash over her, losing a little time of her own until they’re turning in at the Mansion.

Clint and the driver go through some complicated fist-bumping, hand-slapping ritual as they get out of the car, about which Darcy can only roll her eyes. The driver is apparently somewhat new and, to Darcy’s thinking, a little giddy at having had half the team in his van in his first week at being fully Avenger-qualified, even if he spent most of the drive behind the security shield. He extends that giddiness to her, too, which is nice of him considering she’s mostly nothing more than a semi-innocent bystander in all the heroics, so she gives him a little wave as he drives off.

For all his seeming to have chilled out, Clint still hasn’t let go of her yet, though he’s down to only having his fingers tangled up in hers. Darcy isn’t complaining, mind you, but now that they’re alone, she’s starting to figure out that he’s mellow less because he’s actually calmed down and more because he’s in that zone he goes when he’s shooting, where he’s all focus and Zen, no matter what hell is raining down on him. While she’s happy enough not to have had a screaming fight in front of everyone, she’d just as soon not be hanging out with a bot version of her boyfriend, so she waves off all the well-meaning inquiries from the staff and gets them up to her room as fast as possible.

“Okay,” she says, locking the door behind them and leaning up to press a kiss against his mouth, quick and mostly chaste, so she at least has that to remember. “Come back from wherever good snipers go to make the shot and have at it.”

Clint tilts his head at her, and she’s ready, she truly is, for everything she’s known would be coming from the second she decided she was the one who was going, but he doesn’t say anything, only leans in and kisses her. The first one is careful, almost hesitant; when she sighs into it, the next ones press her back against the door, each one slow and thorough, one after another after another.

“Clint,” she says when he lets her up for air, her voice gone soft. She intends to tell him it’s okay if he’s mad, to go ahead and get it over with, but it’s only his name that she sighs.

“Shh,” he murmurs against her jaw, her temple, the corner of her eye. “Shh.” He kisses her mouth again, quick and light, ending with a tiny bite on her lower lip that’s just hard enough to make her jump. “Okay?” he breathes.

So okay.” Darcy’s a little amazed she can answer; that bite woke up everything that’s been simmering along since they’d shoved it on the back burner and played nice with the drones. She meets him head-on for the next kiss, and decides it’s possible that ‘woke up’ is not exactly right. ‘Threw gasoline onto coals hot enough that the vapor ignited and blew the actual liquid up,’ might be better, because it isn’t like Clint normally treats her like she’s made of spun glass--or at least he doesn’t treat her that way all the time--but this is way the hell the other side of that coin.

It’s hard to tell whether he’s kissing Darcy or Darcy’s kissing him, not that it matters, not that anything matters but his mouth on hers, his tongue pushing into her mouth with a fast, rough rhythm that she knows he’ll echo when he’s actually fucking her, which is going to be sooner rather than later to judge from how he’s sliding her up the wall, grinding into her and bunching her skirt up as she goes. Darcy gets her legs wrapped around his waist and takes over keeping herself in place, the wall at her back and Clint, all of him, every goddamn inch of him hard against her in front. She spares a thought for her bed, not ten steps away, but then he’s shoving her underwear out of the way and everything that’s not him pushing up into her is gone.

“Okay?” Clint grits out, holding himself still until Darcy finds the brain power to gasp, “Move,” and he takes her at her word, going in hard and deep and letting her twist until she’s got the angle she needs, so every thrust gets her just right, one after another, so good, so fucking perfect she’s coming before she even knows it. He fucks her through it, not slowing down or changing anything and she never comes down from the first time before she’s there again, biting and clawing at his shoulders, his back, grinding down on his cock until he’s coming with her, his arms hard around her and his face buried into the curve of her neck and shoulder.

*

Darcy jolts herself awake from dreams of windows and the helicarrier and falling and falling--yow, her subconscious is so unsubtle, not that this is any kind of a newsflash--and lies in bed until her heart stops racing. Clint is, surprisingly enough, dead to the world on the other side of the mattress. He still doesn’t like to sleep close to her in case it turns out to be one of those nights, which she gets but remains deeply not-wild about the reasons for--but at least that means her stupid brain hasn’t screwed up a semi-normal night of sleep for him, too. They’ve progressed to the point where he’ll throw an arm out and keep a hand on her arm or shoulder or hip; Darcy is a little surprised how much she likes having that little bit of contact. Give them another couple of years and who knows, Darcy thinks. There could be middle-of-the-night cuddling.

For something she never thought she cared much about, she is a little too invested in the possibility of it happening.

“Chill, girl,” she murmurs, sliding carefully out from under the comforter and surveying the scene. Their clothes are scattered along where they’d stumbled from the door to the bed; she picks everything up and smooths it out as best she can, all except the hopeless bits (his button-down, her underwear).

Darcy’s standing there staring thoughtfully at the shirt when Clint rolls up on one elbow--because of course he can’t sleep through someone moving around, not even if he’s behind fifteen levels of security. Darcy gets that, too, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t ache a little for him. “Hey,” he says, his voice sleep-rough and low. It does a number on Darcy’s insides, but that’s not anything new.

“Hey,” Darcy says back, which is just the height of snappy dialog, but it’s the middle of the night and it’s been a long day. Plus, she’s kinda had her brains fucked out. And not to be blowing her own horn, but so has he, so she doesn’t think he’ll give her any grief.

“Do I even want to know what that shirt did to deserve that look?”

“I’m trying to decide how tacky it’d be to save it.” Darcy slides her arms into the sleeves and gets the one remaining button closed. (For the record, it’s his fault the buttons are gone--once the whatever-the-hell-that-had-been had gotten its edge taken off by the fucking against the door and they were stumbling/staggering toward the bed, she’d been trying to get the stupid shirt off of him the socially acceptable way, but he’d gotten impatient.)

“Today rates a souvenir?”

“More like a trophy,” Darcy says, crawling back into bed. Clint shifts over and makes space for her, and she fits herself against him. “Possibly a Mine-Mine-All-Mine declaration, but I’m not admitting to anything.”

“There goes that brain again,” Clint says, his arm heavy and warm across her waist and hip.

“The part you like?”

Clint laughs, a low, soft rumble, and his fingers dig into the spot on her side that makes her squirm, which is a pain but also means there’s extra skin-to-skin contact. Aggravating, but ultimately worth it. There’s a metaphor in there, Darcy’s sure, but there are other, more important things to deal with, like getting a little of her own back (one properly timed, barely there brush of her fingertips along the inside of his arm can make him jump) and then getting them both resettled before she adds, “Unlike earlier.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, and oh, yeah, there’s everything she’s been bracing for. He doesn’t move, though, or try to shift her away from him. “Yeah, that part is not my favorite right now.”

“It was better it was me,” Darcy says. “Better than somebody who had no idea what was going on or that you were going to take him out or—“

“Darcy--”

“Or even if they did know,” Darcy says, a little bit louder and a lot faster, because she’s probably only going to get one shot at this and she didn’t expect to get this far, and she is so not letting some lame supervillain wannabe screw this thing with Clint up, not without a fight. “Even if they did see Cap and recognize him and know things might turn out okay, they probably saw him not be able to take that creep out with the tire iron. They wouldn’t know you, either of you, and I do, and okay, fine, I was scared, but... I knew you guys had it figured out.”

“Sweetheart,” Clint sighs, and hey, at least she’s still that. “We had a thought, not a plan.”

“I have clearances now,” Darcy says. “I know how many times you haven’t even had a thought, so I’m not seeing where this is all that big of a deal.”

“You hadn’t thrown yourself out there any of those times,” Clint says. “I know that’s not supposed to make a difference, but it does.” There isn’t really anything Darcy can say except that she’s really, seriously happy to be here, and she’s pretty sure if she says that, she’ll cry and that’ll make things ten times more awkward, so she just burrows closer. If neither one of them sleeps much the rest of the night, being wrapped around each other for hours and hours is not a trade-off Darcy’s going to regret.

* * *

Darcy doesn’t have anywhere to be the next morning, so when Clint leaves to go talk to the weapons guys about their funky little experimental arrowhead and how it saved the world--hey, geeks deserve strokes, too--she takes a sinfully long shower and then takes her super-special Stark e-reader off to the greenhouse to get a start on plowing through the last however many thousand pages of assigned reading. Grad school, whoo.

The sun is struggling to break through the clouds when Steve finds her, and she’s been braced for Clint’s anger and Coulson’s sarcasm and possibly even Fury’s wrath, but all of that evaporates in the face of Captain America. He never raises his voice, but he doesn’t have to; he just starts with how he’s grateful that she’s okay, but disappointed that she chose to put herself--and the rest of the team--at risk, and never looks back.

There are a couple of sections in the middle where Darcy feels like she could make a point or two in her favor, but then Cap finishes up with, “The worst thing I ever have to do is send a team member into a situation where we’re not sure we can get them out. But it’s nearly as bad when I have to tell someone to take the shot no matter who’s in the line of fire. Sometimes I don’t have a choice, and that’s one thing, but it’s something very different when my hand is forced,” and she’s toast.

She manages to keep it together long enough for him to make his way back out of the greenhouse, but not even Natasha coming in as he goes out is enough to keep Darcy from putting her head down on the table in front of her.

“Oh, my God, that sucked.” Darcy keeps her head down, but when it’s apparent that Natasha isn’t taking the hint and moving on, she wills back all the tears and looks up. Natasha’s standing there, eyeing Darcy speculatively and while she isn’t exactly radiating sympathy and compassion, neither does she look like she’s about to pile on and add to the list of all the ways Darcy’s screwed up. “Why is it worse when he doesn’t yell than when Clint does?”

“It’s the sincere face,” Natasha says, with a certain edge. “He uses it very effectively.”

“Understatement of the year,” Darcy mutters. She sits up a little more and sighs. “Aren’t you supposed to be at Medical, letting them monitor you?”

“It was... tedious,” Natasha answers, and if Darcy didn’t know better she’d say that Black Widow was sulking. Just a bit. “Under ordinary circumstances...” She waves her hand and Darcy nods, as she’s read enough--and gotten Clint to confirm the really entertaining shit--to know that a bored Natasha is not someone you can really contain. “But... there was that face, and we compromised,” she says, almost spitting the word out. “He stayed with me for a few hours, but enough is enough. It’s not as though I’ve never been unconscious before.”

“But you’re here now,” Darcy says quickly, which turns out to really not be a good thing to say, because apparently, somehow Natasha had also agreed to keep close to the Mansion and--oh, god, no wonder she’s sulking--take it easy. Darcy is starting to seriously wonder about Cap, because powers of persuasion that strong could tempt even someone with his admirable moral code into less-than-honorable actions.

“Clint should be back pretty soon,” Darcy offers. “You know, unless the geeks have something new for him to try--” Too late, Darcy realizes her mistake and closes her mouth so fast her teeth click together. “Or, you could, I don’t know, hit the rock-climbing wall? Or is that too strenuous--” Darcy’s babbling, but the look on Natasha’s face at the prospect of somebody who is not her getting new toys is a little unnerving. Or possibly the stuff of nightmares; it’s getting hard to judge these days.

“I’m sure some people would object,” Natasha mutters darkly. “But since you’re here, I have a proposition for you.”

Darcy’s fairly certain she’s going to regret it, but since this is the only real, non-drunk conversation she’s ever had with Natasha, who is, as far as Darcy can tell, one of possibly three people in the world Clint will listen to, she says, “I’m listening.”

“You need to learn how to fight,” Natasha says, and, okay, that’s not at all what Darcy’s expecting, especially when Natasha adds, “I’ll teach you.”

“Did Clint put you up to this?”

“No,” Natasha says slowly. “No, he hasn’t gotten past all the things he... The things he can’t bring himself to think about yet. I can, though. That’s what partners are for.”

“So, when you say I need to learn how to fight, you mean like you?” Darcy’s not running herself down, but there is just no way that’s ever going to happen.

“No, not like me.” Natasha smiles at the thought, but not unkindly. “I mean down and dirty, with whatever you can find, never giving up, no matter what, because lasting even fifteen seconds more can be enough to let someone--” She doesn’t say Clint, but she means it and Darcy knows it-- “get to you in time. It won’t be pretty, or easy, or have a trendy name, but it will be effective.”

“Okay,” Darcy says, and it’s her turn to smile. Natasha clearly expected her to be more of a hard sell. “I don’t like giving up, not one bit. And I’m getting really tired of not being able to go anywhere without the drones.”

“Good,” Natasha says briskly. “Upper gymnasium, five minutes. Wear something you can move around in.”

Darcy starts to ask if that might violate the taking-it-easy clause in Natasha’s compromise, but then thinks about how easily Natasha can take down basically everybody except Cap and the Asgardians (and even then they have to work for it) and manages not to make an idiot of herself as she goes to change so she can get her ass righteously kicked.

* * *

Clint comes and finds her, or what’s left of her, in the whirlpool spa in the changing rooms. Darcy kind of whimpers at him, because, ohmygod, even her jaw hurts. Words are way too complicated.

“Tasha swore you were alive when she left,” Clint says, lounging against the door frame. “I might have to call bullshit on that, though.”

“Today was just learning how to fall,” Darcy moans. “I may not make it when there’s actual hitting involved.”

Clint laughs and reaches for one of the enormous, fluffy robes they keep on hooks by the spa and the sauna and steam room. Once again: excellent infrastructure. “Come on, before you drown.” He reaches down and gives her an arm up, and wraps her in the soft cotton, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. “You want me to carry you?”

“No,” Darcy sighs. “Let’s save that for, y’know, when I’ve actually done something more than fall down for a couple of hours.” She leans up and kisses him. “Thank you, though.” She doesn’t add that he’s her knight in shining armor, because he’d never let her live it down (seriously, she must be half-delirious; she might never let herself live it down) but she totally thinks it.

It takes forever to get back to her room, but that’s what happens when your top speed could be beaten by a slug. Clint makes her drink a bottle of water on the way because (he says) it’ll flush the lactic acid out of her muscles and make her less sore in the morning. Darcy suspects he does it more to make her have to pee and thus motivate her to get to her suite faster.

“Jesus, you’re actually serious about that,” Clint says as she limps into the bathroom. “How does your brain come up with this stuff?”

“It’s a gift,” Darcy informs him.

“It’s something, all right.” There’s a little bit of an edge still under the easy teasing, but it’s more resigned than unforgiving, and it’s not like Darcy hasn’t given him a variation on the same attitude herself after one or another of the more insane mission reports she’s read.

On her way back out of the bathroom, she snags his shirt from the night before off the counter next to the sink. It was a good decision to keep it, she decides. The declaration of mine-mine-all-mine clearly trumps the lack of style, even if they’re the only two who see it. He holds it for her while she tries to make her arm muscles work so she can get them into the sleeves. Definitely a good decision, she thinks as he smooths the cotton down over her hips, his hand sliding easily inside where there aren’t any buttons left.

“I would totally be dragging you off to have my wicked way with you right now,” Darcy says. “Except I’m probably going to be unconscious before we can get going with anything really fun. I had no idea falling down took so much energy.”

“Tasha is... thorough,” Clint says with a grin.

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘ruthless,’” Darcy says, crawling into her bed with a sigh. It can’t be all that late, but Clint settles in next to her.

“That means she likes you,” Clint says. Darcy thinks it means she doesn’t think Darcy’s out to fuck Clint over and is tolerating her for him, but she’ll leave that topic for another day. Instead, she eases herself over until she can curl around Clint, because in the middle of all the up and down in the gym, Natasha had said more than a few interesting things, the most important of which (in Darcy’s mind) was that Clint was bracing for Darcy to not be able to deal with the realities of him being Hawkeye.

Darcy’s already figured out that words don’t mean a lot to Clint: he’ll listen, but he won’t hear, much less believe, not until actions back everything up. Since Darcy has always been a fan of putting her money where her mouth is, this is not a huge problem. It’s like an extra-special bonus offering: the more she drapes herself over him, the more she makes it so she can do it again. Total win-win scenario.

*

Life goes on, complete with the usual superhero emergencies and the mundane issues of life at the Mansion. Tony has a small setback with... something, who really knows what, except that it kind of blows up the lab, and sends him storming off to California to see if he can blow up the lab there, too. Steve goes with him, and Darcy both misses knowing he’s around and is relieved that they don’t have to make awkward conversation until they get past how “disappointed” he is with her. Right in the middle of stressing about finals--yes, Darcy kicked ass as an undergrad, but that wasn’t Columbia, where everything and everyone is amped to the max--Coulson finally manages to render her speechless (with horror, Darcy would like to note) when he tells her that not only does SHIELD have a holiday party, she’s required to be there.

Well, okay, he doesn’t say ‘required,’ he just gives her hastily assembled ‘but, but--finals!’ excuse a deeply unimpressed shrug and says, “We’ve found that it’s excellent for morale, so long as there isn’t a situation in progress. Bring a date.”

Darcy goes home and throws herself on a random couch and broods. It’s hardly a secret that she and Clint are--together. Dating. Whatever. But there’s a difference between that being sort of random gossip (even gossip fueled by shaky phone video of the two of them after the ‘situation’ at Rockefeller Center) and it being officially official like showing up at an office party together (seriously, what is Fury thinking? An office party? With the drones? What was she thinking, to be working there?).

Clint arrives before she can talk herself into a massive flounce and going back to be Jane’s Pop-Tart assistant, but when she says, “Office party. You. Me. Shit, I forgot to ask if it’s black tie,” he sighs like it’s this giant imposition and she maybe kind of loses it. There is some shrillness involved on her part and increasingly monosyllabic responses on his, and it’s like aliens have taken over her brain (which, given all the other weird shit that’s happened, might not be all that unlikely) when she hears herself snap, “I realize I’m not really your type, but if being seen in public with me is going to be that difficult, say the word and I’ll get someone who won’t find it such a burden.”

“You know what, let’s play this one by ear,” Clint says through gritted teeth. He turns and stalks off and Darcy knows, absolutely knows his deal has nothing to do with her. It’s the same damn issue she has herself, the whole trying to put together something that feels increasingly real in the middle of this fucking Avenger/SHIELD circus. She has no idea where all that crap that came flying out of her mouth came from. Worse, she has no time to go fix it, not with her first final in the morning and a paper due the day after that. She tries, but when she goes by his suite later that night, Jarvis tells her he’s off-site.

“Is there a--you know?” She’s fairly certain nothing official’s come up, but she has to ask.

“Nothing of which I have been made aware,” Jarvis answers promptly. “I believe it is a personal trip.”

They’ve already talked about sleeping separately during her finals--Clint’s idea, because she doesn’t need (he says) to be dealing with extra sleep challenges--and how it’s probably not a bad time for him to go run carrier quals. Darcy doesn’t think she actually agreed to the stupid plan, but apparently it’s in process.

“Son of a bitch,” Darcy mutters, because her timing seriously is for shit these days. There’s a second or two of frozen silence, so she adds, “Not you, of course, J.”

“Of course,” Jarvis echoes, and Darcy throws up her hands (literally as well as figuratively) and goes back to her room alone. She slides into Clint’s shirt and thinks about texting him a picture of it, kind of a preliminary peace offering or maybe just keeping the lines of communication open, but the potential for Stark-related account hacking is high and Darcy so does not need anything like that floating around cyberspace.

The final happens, and the paper, too, though by the time she gets to the final polish there’s a dull pounding at the base of her skull and she’s ready to gouge her own eyes out. The drone that gets her back to campus is the guy who’d driven them home after the Rockefeller Center fiasco. He’s a lot less giddy to be on what’s basically a babysitting run, for which Darcy doesn’t blame him in the least, but he’s still nice and this time Darcy gets a name (Joe, after his dad and granddad, who’d actually seen Captain America and the Howling Commandos during the war. It’s killing Darcy’s Joe not to be able to share any of the details of his job but he still says he knows his granddad is proud. Darcy may have to re-think the less-giddy assessment.)

Joe walks her up to the classroom and does the required recon before he lets her in and says he’ll wait for her right outside. Darcy means to be in and out; she’s already annoyed as fuck that this professor insists on paper copies, hand-delivered rather than taking an email, but it doesn’t end there. No, the good doctor wants to chat with her about her ‘unique position with respect to one of the more fascinating federal shadow agencies.’

Darcy manages not to roll her eyes; it doesn’t take a Stark-level IQ to recognize the smoothly-worded BS for what it is: unbridled fanboy cover. Briefly, she wonders what he’d think if she told him that in the last month alone, she’s gotten yelled at by Captain America, leered at by Iron Man (it’s Tony’s default, not something Darcy takes personally--though he’d really liked the spanking slip-up), smacked around by Black Widow, and been a bitch to Hawkeye. All she needs is a Hulk-Smash and she’ll have a matched set.

Instead, Darcy can’t help but think about Joe, who’s not only doing his job with a kick-ass attitude, boring parts and all, but who also isn’t telling the one person in the world who’d be most excited to hear Avenger-related details, because security really is that damn important. She looks at her prof steadily, and with as much of a Bitch, please attitude as she can find, until he flushes and mutters something about how he knows she can’t say anything. The more she thinks about it, the more it pisses her off that he assumes she’ll just chatter away, so she gets herself out of the room before she says anything that’ll mess up her grade. With the mood she’s in, she’s not going to be remotely tactful. She makes a mental note to tell Coulson that this guy is an idiot; she hopes they don’t rely on his “expert” assessments for anything too important. All of which is to say, she’s in one mother of a mood when she comes into the hall and finds Clint waiting for her, shoulders propped against the wall like he’s there for the duration.

“Where’s Joe?”

“With the car.” Clint’s voice is as quiet as Darcy’s. “Didn’t figure we’d need an audience for this.”

“No, and speaking of, walk, because my professor would stroke out if he saw you here. He’s definitely the type who could ID you even without the uniform.”

Clint rolls off the wall without comment and follows her down the side staircase and out the door. It’s cold and the wind is sharp, but it smells like snow and that inexplicably cheers Darcy. Either that, or it’s Clint, but she’s going to pretend she has some self-control and let it be the weather change.

“I don’t know what you think my type is, but I’m pretty much right where I want to be,” Clint says with one quick glance at her before he goes back on threat-assessment detail.

“Yeah,” Darcy sighs. “It’s--I kind of lost it there for a while, sorry. I’m blaming Coulson and his ‘Bring a date’ edict.”

“I’m always up for blaming Phil,” Clint says, and if he’s not quite giving her his usual smirk, it’s close enough that Darcy doesn’t hesitate to reach over and link her arm around his for the rest of the walk over to where Joe’s waiting with the car.

“I’m pretty much right where I want to be, too,” Darcy says, because it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t put a lot of faith into words; she’s never going to think it’s a bad idea to use them as often as possible. As he opens the door for her, he gives her a little half-smile, one of the ones that he usually saves for when he’s made sure everybody is clear and safe and coming home, one of the ones Darcy isn’t even sure he knows he’s smiling. She smiles back regardless, because there aren’t words for how much she likes being that deep into his world.

Chapter Text

“Okay, Barton,” Darcy says as she comes out to where he’s waiting with the the car. “Let’s do this thing.”

Clint looks her over with a slow smile, one that she returns in kind as she spins around so he can get the full effect of her dress: short and flippy, with cocktail-party-appropriate cleavage, basic black totally amped with the attitude from her cleaned and shined and still fabulous knee-high Docs. Darcy hadn’t ever doubted that a personal shopper/stylist recommended by Pepper Potts would be anything other than outstanding at his job, but they’d been a little short on time, not to mention that Darcy’s clothing budget is anemic compared to what he usually works with. The look in Clint’s eyes as he takes it all in--hot, bothered, and downright dirty--says it’d been worth every single second of the mad scramble it had taken to get everything pulled together in less than a day.

“I like the boots,” Clint says, with a smirk that clearly communicates how much of an understatement it is. He opens the passenger-side door on one of Tony’s sleeker sports cars, offered up for their use, Darcy’s sure, at Pepper’s insistence. “And not to be an asshole about it, but I’m pretty sure the deal was for a private modeling session. And I know I held up my end of it.”

“I have two words for you,” Darcy says, sliding into the car. “After. Party.”

“Good to know,” Clint says, in an ever-so-slightly-strangled tone. Darcy smiles up at him innocently, as though she has no idea how the neckline on her dress combines with the angle he’s getting as he looks down at her. “How long do we have to stay again?”

“I don’t know,” Darcy says, a little breathless at how successful the outfit is ending up being. There’s a second or two where she thinks they might not make it, Coulson’s edicts be damned, but Clint gets a grip and manages to get himself behind the steering wheel. “But I’ll bet you can hassle Coulson enough that he’ll throw us out early,” she adds.

“I can do that,” Clint says, pulling her across the gearshift and kissing her hard enough that there’s emergency hair and makeup repair required on the drive. It’s an excellent distraction, enough that she barely has time to stress before they’re there and walking in. The ripple effect of people pretending not to look sucks about as much as she expected, but Coulson, of all people, rescues them from the general awkwardness of finding an unclaimed table and takes them to meet his wife, who is gorgeous and tiny and has an even better deadpan than Coulson does. Darcy’s world might be a little askew.

“Holy shit, you could have warned me,” Darcy hisses when it’s clear Clint’s met her before, thus proving he knew of her existence and could have saved Darcy the small stress headache induced by the effort it takes to not make a complete idiot of herself. Clint just laughs at her and goes off to get them drinks.

The night settles down after that. Darcy’s surprised at how many people she recognizes; she hasn’t spent a ton of time at SHIELD, with school and everything, but it’s not just the agents who’ve been on her detail who look familiar. She and Clint even lose the Most Gossip-worthy title when Agent Carter walks in with Steve. People don’t even try to be subtle; Darcy feels for her, enough that she sends Clint over to tell them they can have custody of the table while she gets Clint out on the dance floor.

Unlike Coulson and his wife, who have moves that are blowing Darcy’s mind, dancing is mostly theoretical with Clint. Darcy’s fine with that; it’s not like it’s a hardship to basically get some low-key cuddles and make him laugh when she sings made-up lyrics to the sappy love songs. Darcy’s about to suggest they go find something to eat, as she’s planning on a lengthy and involved after-party for which carb-loading would not be unwise, when there’s another swirl of not-subtle gawking as Carter and Steve join them on the dance floor. Darcy is not going to be a part of the sudden trajectory-changes, so she wraps her arms around Clint’s neck and settles in for a couple more songs.

“You should talk to him,” Clint says unexpectedly. “Cap. I appreciate the two of you keeping me out of the middle of whatever it was that went down, so I’m just making the observation that it’s probably been long enough that you can stop pretending everything’s fine and make a decision one way or another and get on with it.”

Darcy thinks about it for a little bit and admits Clint probably has a point. She misses hanging out with Steve, a lot. “Okay,” she sighs. “Dance us over and cut in on him and Sharon.”

“Now?” Clint says, sounding only a little alarmed. He’s clearly getting used to how Darcy’s mind works, which can only be a good thing.

“Carpe diem,” Darcy says resolutely. Clint shakes his head and might be laughing at her, but he does as she asks and manages to get them across the small dance floor without too much trauma to her feet. Of course, she’s wearing boots that might as well have steel toes, so that helps.

They make the switch with a minimum of fuss, and Darcy’s quiet for the first few minutes. Steve’s wearing his Class A’s, and her eyes are on a level with all the ribbons he’s won, each tiny bar of color marking another impossible situation he’s made it through. She finally looks up (way up, because even with her heels, he’s still a bazillion times taller than she is) and realizes he’s counting steps off under his breath, and he’s not Captain America any more, or even Captain Rogers; he’s Steve and he’s her friend that she needs to fix things with if she can.

“Don’t worry,” Darcy says as he looks down at her. “If Barton's moves on the dance floor couldn’t kill my feet, I think you’re in the clear.”

“Those are some pretty impressive boots,” Steve says with a smile and they both relax and dance a little more.

“So,” Darcy finally says. “That day, if I’d told you I could be bait instead of just running off and doing it, what would you have said?”

Steve’s quiet for a few more bars of the song, then sighs and says, “I honestly don’t know. I--it’s not in me to like sending someone like you out, but I don’t know that we would have had much of a choice.” He looks down at Darcy and there’s a lot of really deep, untouchable sadness in his eyes. “But,” he adds, “we would have taken the time to set things up as much as we could, and I would have known you had an idea of what mitigating actions you could have taken.”

“Okay,” Darcy says. “I promise that the next time we’re stuck with a crazy mad scientist and I think I can help, I’ll tell you first.”

“Thank you,” Steve says with more dryness than Darcy is used to hearing from him. He must be hanging out with Coulson a lot these days.

Darcy’s about to suggest they go find their dates--she still has carb-loading to accomplish--when there’s an even bigger ripple, one that actually ends in a split second of utter silence, and they look up to see Colonel Fury and Natasha cutting through the crowd like one of Natasha’s better knives.

“Wow,” Darcy says as she gets a good look at Natasha’s dress. What with the strapless and the cut-outs and the slits, she has no idea how it’s staying on, but, yeah, wow. People are practically breaking their necks trying to look without looking like they’re looking, because nobody wants to be caught out by either of them, but all attention is now firmly not on Darcy or Steve or their dates. Darcy could practically kiss Natasha.

Steve has them dancing along the fringes, avoiding the worst of the craziness; Darcy catches sight of Joe, and she has to stop. His nice-guy factor goes way up, because he actually looks at Darcy and tells her it’s nice to see her, though it’s ridiculously clear he’s about to die of joy at being introduced to Steve.

“Oh, tell him about your granddad,” Darcy tells Joe, and Steve, bless him, is almost as excited to hear that Joe the First served in one of the units the Howling Commandos fought alongside as Darcy’s Joe is to tell him. She leaves them working out a time for Steve to meet Joe’s family (if Joe doesn’t stroke out right there in the corner of the room) and goes to find Clint so they can start Operation We’re Officially Done With This. He’s not by the bar, which is her first guess, but as she spins around, she sees him off talking to Fury, serious and intent, and if there’s a “situation” that he has to go deal with, Darcy doesn’t care how bad of a person it makes her, she is going to root for utter annihilation of whatever jerk is messing with SHIELD, and the faster the better. Clint sees her coming and smiles, though, and comes to meet her.

“Free and clear, sweetheart,” he murmurs, his hand settling low on her back and steering her toward the door.

“Wow, you didn’t just piss Coulson off, you went right for Fury?”

“Oh, I did,” Clint says with a laugh. “I don’t think anyone’s going to argue with that assessment.”

“I think I’m touched,” Darcy says. The plan is to keep up with the banter, because what are they without a snappy comeback or two, but his hand is right at the top of her ass, warm and solid, and his fingers are stroking lightly along an invisible line, everything perfectly appropriate, not even remotely groping, and Darcy can’t breathe for how much more she wants.

Maybe Clint’s in the same place; he doesn’t say anything as they wait for the car or once they’re in it and moving. Darcy makes up for losing his touch on her back by tangling their fingers together on the gear shift, absently stroking the tips of her fingers over his, making patterns that skim along and over his calluses. It’s quiet and... not dreamy, but like they’re in their own private world.

He leans over and kisses her at the first light, and at the second, and by the third she’s whispering all the things she wants, everything she wants him to do to her, all the ways she wants him. By the fourth, he’s sliding his hand over her mouth because he says he can’t listen and drive. She smiles against his palm, and when he lets his hand slip down to trace along the edge of her neckline, she says, “Okay, but I’m still thinking it.”

He swears at her then, and for the rest of the (thankfully, almost finished) trip back to the Mansion, blowing through security with barely a nod for the agents on duty and not bothering to wait for the elevator. Her dress is off almost before his bedroom door closes behind them, but it’s nearly dawn before she loses the boots.

* * *

Clint has the most godawful ringtone, a loud, blaring klaxon that Darcy’s sure can wake the dead, which is basically the point, as it makes it impossible to accidentally sleep through an emergency call of the Avengers Assemble type. She almost levitates off the mattress when it goes off the next morning (or really, later that same morning, because as far as she can tell, they’ve been asleep for maybe two hours). Clint claws for it, slapping it on and snarling into it. Darcy hopes it’s Coulson or, well, anybody but Steve, because, wow, there’s some impressive vocabulary being employed. She knows Steve has to have heard it all before no matter that he still blushes sometimes, but honestly, she had no idea it was possible to work seven variations on ‘fuck’ into a two-second greeting. She pulls a pillow over her head. Clint will fill her in if he can; otherwise, she’ll get her ass up and get to a SHIELD network and read about it there. Either way, she might get another three minutes of sleep and that’s not something she’s prepared to give up this morning.

“Hell.” Clint drops back down next to her with a thud.

“Go-fight-team?” Darcy mumbles.

“Jesus, I wish,” Clint groans. Darcy peers out from under the pillow at him, waving at him impatiently because Godalmighty, he needs to get on with it so she can either go back to sleep or drag her ass into a shower. He finally takes the hint and says, “You know how I pissed Fury off last night and we got to leave early?”

Darcy mmms in agreement, because yes, she does indeed remember. She might have to ask Tony what kind of advances they’ve made on transferring memories to an AI because she’d like to keep this one forever.

“Yeah,” Clint says. “I might have managed that by asking him what his intentions were toward Natasha.”

“Oh, you did not,” Darcy says, sitting up and staring at him.

“Oh, I did,” Clint answers.

“So, are you transferred to Alaska? Or, no--”

“Nah, actually, Fury just told me he appreciated my concern for my teammate but to get the fuck out of his face, which is as good as telling us we could go--”

“Oh, god,” Darcy says, laughing so hard she has to lie back down. “That was Natasha, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Clint sighs. “Actually, that was my new hand-to-hand training coordinator. Who’s waiting for me in the gym. Now.” Darcy tries really hard to get herself under control but it’s pretty much hopeless. “I am so fucked.”

“Wow, so, good move going for Round Three before we quit,” Darcy says. “You’re going to be lucky if you can walk by tonight. I can’t believe she let you get away this long.”

“I told you she likes you.” Clint sighs again and rolls out of bed. This, happily enough, puts his ass at eye level, so Darcy gets (very, very, very) nice scenery while he hunts down some clothes.

“No, you idiot, she likes you.” Darcy reaches out and snags his arm, tugging him until he sits down on the edge of the bed. “Why’d you go have The Talk with Fury?” She knows why but she thinks maybe he needs to say it out loud.

“What?” Clint says. “Just because it’s Fury I’m supposed to lay low and not have her back?” He sits there in nothing but his boxers and righteous indignation, hair mashed up in fifteen different directions, and Darcy is in so far over her head she doesn’t have a prayer of finding her way back to anything that’s not tangled up with him. She is completely okay with that, though.

“No,” Darcy says, yawning. “Just tell her that, and y’know, try not to be a jerk about it and maybe she won’t cripple you too bad.”

“The level of sympathy and compassion in this room is overwhelming,” Clint mutters.

Darcy sits up and cups his jaw with one hand, drawing him in so she can kiss his mouth, until he relaxes and kisses her back. “I promise to kiss all your owies better,” she says. “Okay?”

“Swear?” Clint says, his eyes serious for all the ridiculousness of the conversation.

“Pinkie swear,” Darcy says, looping her little finger through his and dropping a kiss on them both. She’s just as serious, and after a couple of seconds, he nods and brushes a kiss of his own on the same spot. “You’re a good guy, Barton.”

Clint kisses her again, a proper one with enough teeth and tongue to make her shiver. He still looks at her like he’s expecting her to bail at any second, though.

“Go,” Darcy says, rolling over and getting comfortable. If she’s flashing a little--okay, a lot--of skin in the process, it’s entirely incidental. Kinda. “Go let Natasha kick your ass so she knows you love her. We can spend the whole day in bed after that if you want, and I promise not to laugh at you even once.”

“I’m holding you to that,” Clint says, and Darcy smiles, because win-win scenarios are the best.