Tahoe was gorgeous, no question, and Clint had way overspent in Darcy's estimation, on a little one-bedroom cabin that was all quaint and rustic and warm and ridiculous. They'd spent the first day boarding, which was pretty great, because the powder was fresh and totally great to cut on. Darcy had made a few runs she was particularly proud of. The second day, though, she caved and let Clint give her skiing lessons.
"I just, I don't understand why it's so much harder," she said from her back at the bottom of the bunny hill.
Clint frowned down at her and hauled her up by the arm, handing her back the pole she'd lost. "You keep panicking when you get to the bottom and then you wipe out."
"I don't understand how stopping works. Or ski poles. What is the point of ski poles, wouldn't this be easier without them?"
"We might need to try that out," said Clint, brushing snow off her back and ass for her as she straightened herself out and got her skis pointed in the same direction.
A trip back to the lodge for some Irish coffee was sounding more appealing by the second. She squinted up at him in the late afternoon sun. "So I think maybe tomorrow you should go solo on the black diam--"
Clint's ringtone cut her off.
"Sorry," he said, ripping off a mitten and unzipping his coat pocket, "that's work. If I don't answer it snipers will come after me."
Darcy looked down at her skis, flexing her knees experimentally as he answered.
"Barton. Yes, sir." He paused, and when she looked up he was glaring off at the trees. "I'm on vacation--No. No, sir. Yes, national security is more important to me than my mental health or personal relationships. Yes."
Darcy rolled her eyes hard; he shrugged down at her helplessly.
"What, now?" He looked around them. "I--yeah, still in Tahoe. Yeah, she's here. I don't know, she probably... yes. Twenty? I need an hour. I'm literally wearing skis right now, sir. No, I don't think that would be tactically sound. Yes, sir."
Darcy sighed, fixing her mittens and rearranging her ski poles.
Clint hung up and looked at her.
"Duty calls," they said in unison, and Clint blinked.
"Yeah," he said. "Uh. The helicopter's coming in like forty-five minutes."
"We're not renting a car and going to my mom's like we were supposed to, are we," said Darcy flatly.
"There's a... I think Fury called it a chimera."
Darcy pointed herself toward the ski rental place and let him catch up. "What's the plan, then?"
"I'd argue for dropping you at your mom's for that visit, even if I can't come, but I don't know how you'll get back home."
"So I have to ride in the helicopter or remain stranded here on the ski hill until I die?"
"We'll drop you back in Puente," said Clint. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," said Darcy. "You have to go shoot things for America. Shit happens."
They were almost back to the rental place when something occurred to her and she almost fell over again. "Wait. Wait. Back up. I have to get on the helicopter. The helicopter the other Avengers are on?"
"Yeah. Um, I don't think you're going to make it back to Puente until after we go to the AO. I mean, where the chimera thing is."
Oh, god. One stress attack at a time. "So the other Avengers and your boss with the scary eyepatch know that you and I are here in Tahoe on vacation right now."
"They know where I am at all times," said Clint, still not helping.
"So all of your coworkers and your boss know we are dating," said Darcy.
"They've known pretty much from the start, yeah," said Clint. "There was a form I had to sign."
Darcy drifted to a stop and Clint got a few yards past her before noticing and turning around. "What's wrong?"
"I just realized I'm in an office relationship that's an open secret," said Darcy.
"I'll let you have the 'secret' part because you're based like a thousand miles from everybody else."
"Fuck! They're all going to be like, staring at me. I can't deal with this," she realized out loud.
Clint looked at his phone. "You have thirty-five minutes to come to terms with it. Thirty-four. Come on," he said, beckoning until she caught up to him.
"Good runs today?" the rental hippie asked.
"The best," said Darcy tonelessly, bending down to unbuckle.
The helicopter was so loud that Darcy thought her brain was screaming but she couldn't hear it clearly enough to be sure. By the time she finally got all her hair out of her mouth and nose, the big side door had slid open and Clint's hand was on her back, pressing her forward. Nick Fury grabbed her arm to haul her up inside, where it was a tiny bit quieter. Coulson was piloting and Fury, Black Widow, Bruce Banner and another lady in black with a high, tight ponytail were already in the rear compartment. Everyone was looking at her except Coulson, and she tried to brace herself for awkwardness like she'd never felt before.
She was directed to a bench seat across from Black Widow, who smiled as Clint slid in next to Darcy. "How was Tahoe?" she shouted over the noise of takeoff.
Darcy forgot language for a second while trying to reassess. "It was pretty nice?" she managed finally.
"I've never been there!" Black Widow shouted back.
"Take a goddamn vacation and then you can!" said Clint.
Black Widow gave him the finger.
Darcy decided she liked this woman.
The atmosphere wasn't really right for more small talk, so for the next twenty minutes Darcy attempted to relax against the hard, poky bench seat while the helicopter thumped its way through the sky. Black Widow leaned over to Ponytail and they had a conversation against each others' eardrums. Clint leaned closer to Darcy.
"You know Fury and Bruce. That's Maria," he indicated Ponytail, "and Natasha."
"Should I introduce myself?" Darcy asked belatedly.
"They know your name."
Darcy gave him a suspicious look and he suddenly found some stuffed cargo nets on the other side of the helicopter really interesting. She settled for texting her mom.
Have to cancel the visit, something came up.
Her mom replied a few minutes later. Excuses. Be safe. Grandma wants to know how the taser's holding up
Darcy smiled fondly. Still works great.
Suddenly Fury stood up, bracing himself against the ceiling. "We're here, boys and girls. Get ready to drop."
"Drop?" Darcy echoed, and then everyone but her was pulling on backpacks that seemed to be parachutes. Banner's looked like it was designed for a four-hundred pound man as it sagged off him, and it took a minute to realize why; of course he was going to be Hulk as soon as he jumped out of the helicopter. Or maybe was pushed, because Dr. Banner didn't look like the kind of person who jumped out of helicopters.
"I'll call you later," said Clint as Fury hauled the side door open and Maria ran out into the air like a crazy person.
"I? What? Okay?" said Darcy, and then he was laying one on her with tongue in front of everybody. When he let her go with a shit-eating grin, she dropped back into her seat dazedly and then before she knew it he wasn't in the helicopter anymore, and neither was Dr. Banner.
Natasha gave her a slightly manic grin. "Safe trip home," she shouted before launching herself out the door. Fury dragged it shut behind her. "Off to our next stop," he said into his headset, and Coulson gave him a thumbs-up from the front seat.
Darcy and Fury stared at each other across the helicopter. Finally, she pointed vaguely outwards. "Where did they.... why...."
"Past your pay grade, Ms. Lewis," Fury rumbled.
"Okay," Darcy conceded, and then she folded her hands in her lap sheepishly. They landed on the outskirts of Puente Antiguo half an hour later; Fury gave her a little wave as she climbed out of the helicopter.
It was just possible that she was never going anywhere with Clint again that she couldn't walk home from.
Clint did actually call her later, but he didn't have time to come out and visit or pick up the vacation where they'd left off. Not that Darcy really noticed, because a lot of things happened pretty much at once.
First, Darcy heard that they'd found and thawed out Captain America like six months previously, and the rumour mill had finally overtaken the restraint of top-secret clearance. Pepper Potts showed up in New Mexico to discuss some things with Jane that Stark Industries was providing her, and over the top of her Blackberry she told Darcy all about it.
"He's like six feet of aw-shucks American beefcake, it's precious," Pepper told a rapturous Darcy (so maybe she'd had a Captain America bedspread from the cartoons when she was six, what about it). "Tony's having a lot of feelings about it that he can't deal with. There's family history, don't even ask. Is there any decent coffee in this town?"
"No, not even Starbucks," said Darcy absently, her brain stuck on Tony Stark's feelings as she wandered over to the coffee maker to make Pepper a fresh pot. "Does he look like he did in those old movies?" she asked.
"It's even better in real life," said Pepper. "Hang on, I think I have a picture of him looking at a StarkPad like it's the monolith."
And then a week after that, Jane stood up from her desk so abruptly that her chair fell over (which she appeared not to notice), stalked over to one of her whiteboards and stared at it for ten minutes. Darcy watched from safety behind her computer monitor and just as she was wondering whether to take some kind of action, Jane smiled, sudden and wide. She was on the phone with Erik in New York in under five minutes.
Darcy went to lunch and when she came back, Jane was perched on the end of her desk looking smug.
"We're going to New York," Darcy guessed, dropping her bag on the back of her chair.
"In the morning," said Jane. "Pack for a week."
Darcy whipped around to stare at her. "A week? Is this super serious business?"
"The most serious of business."
Darcy studied the degree of smugness and felt her own face open up with excitement. "Did you solve the mystery? Oh my god. Oh my god,"
"I think I did," said Jane, and then she said, "Oh my god!" and they ran at each other for an epic, bouncy hug.
"Oh my god oh my god I get to hang out with Thor again!" Darcy squealed into Jane's shoulder. "And you get to make out with him!" she amended after a moment.
Jane broke down laughing and they fell into Darcy's desk.
Jane had pretty much gnawed her fingernails down to painful stubs within ten minutes of their arrival in the SHIELD lab where scientists were trying to make the magic happen. Darcy tried pulling both of her hands away from her mouth and clutching them between her own, which held Jane still for about two minutes until she found someone to run off and yell at about how they were handling the equipment. When Jane posted herself across the room to supervise some kind of calibration and destroy what was left of her thumbnail, Darcy gave up and found a bare section of railing near the door to slouch over. Clint appeared beside her after a minute, mirroring her stance.
"Who let you in here?" she said with a grin.
"Most of the riffraff are penned together up there to watch," he said, pointing up at a sort of viewing gallery behind glass where she could see some of his teammates, "but since I have connections, they let me down here if I behave myself."
"Who's your connections?" Darcy asked idly, back to watching Jane.
"Dr. Foster's chief lab assistant. I think you've met her," he said with an elbow in her side.
Of course. "Lucky you. You get front row seats to all this majesty," Darcy grinned, making a sweeping gesture at the nerdy chaos.
"I think I felt safer behind the glass. Wanna come back with me?"
"I need to stay here," she said. "I'm first response."
"For Dr. Foster?"
"Emergency Pop Tarts are on standby," she said, reaching down to pat her messenger bag. Her concerns were real; Jane hadn't eaten in six hours unless she'd been sneaky about it.
"Fair enough," said Clint, not moving. Darcy leaned her shoulder into his as some SHIELD agents carried in a black container the size of a camping cooler and Jane directed a scientist in some kind of hazmat gear to open it and reach inside with giant tongs. A blue cube came out, glowing in a way that made Darcy's eyes water, and Jane hovered like its mother while the scientist motored over to a giant computer with the cube held out before him in the tongs, nestling it into the guts and slamming the case shut on it.
"We all good? Now," Jane directed, pointing at Erik, who flipped a bank of switches. All of the overhead lights dimmed for a second as the computer booted up, and Darcy couldn't help it, she was holding her breath.
"What the hell is that whooshing sound?" Clint asked after a moment, raising his voice over the noise.
"The cooling fans," Darcy shouted back, unwilling to take her eyes off the scene.
"How's the connection coming?" Jane demanded as the fans toned it down a little.
"It's at 72 percent," said a lady standing in front of a monitor. "Eighty."
"How does this work, exactly?" Clint asked.
"Haven't dared ask," said Darcy.
"We're connected," said the lady at the monitor, and then a booming voice echoed through the room; Darcy looked around wildly before realizing it was coming from speakers.
"Midgardians!" it said. "I congratulate you!"
Jane waved and made grabby hands at one of her minions until he brought her a headset to put on. "Is this Heimdall?" she asked.
"It is, Dr. Foster. This is excellent work you have done in such a short time," boomed Heimdall the disembodied voice.
Jane allowed herself a grin. "Thanks. Did it work properly?"
"I believe I am able to convey Thor to you, if that is your aim."
"Is he there?" Jane asked hopefully.
"He is standing beside me, looking quite impatient. I summoned him when I witnessed the activation of your own Bifrost. Ours is reconstructed enough to complete the connection."
"If you're so fancy, why isn't it done yet?" Darcy muttered, only loud enough for Clint to hear her.
"Fair Darcy," rumbled Heimdall, scaring the shit out of her, "if we must rebuild the Bifrost, then we intend to make improvements on the technology."
Every single person in the room turned to look up at Darcy and Clint clapped a hand over his mouth, presumably to keep from braying like a donkey.
"Oh," said Darcy, louder. "Fair enough, I guess."
And then one of the techs said, "Ready," and Heimdall said, "We will speak again," and there was kind of a wrinkle in the air and then Thor was standing there, hammer in hand, looking around the room with interest as two computers erupted in smoke.
Jane threw the headset away and launched herself at him, and Thor spun her around twice before putting her down and then kissing the hell out of her.
"Wow," said Clint, "he's huger than I remember."
"It's the armour," said Darcy, wiping away a tear.
In a turn of events that should not, in retrospect, have been at all surprising, a week in New York turned, after four days, into Jane announcing that they were moving there. She did this, probably by accident, while drunk off her ass after they'd both spent a night carousing with Thor.
"'M gonna miss that tourist centre thing," said Jane through the hand she'd mashed against her own face. "All the windows."
"What?" asked Darcy, squinting at her. Either she was super trashed or she needed new glasses. Hopefully trashed.
"Not enough windows in N'York. Or space. All those... people." Jane waved vaguely, her bangs slipping from behind her ear to cover one eye.
"But we're going back on Sunday," said Darcy, high-pitched and confused.
Jane frowned. "Oh fuck," she said suddenly. "Didn't tell you yet."
"Tell me what?"
Jane threw her arms wide. "We're movin'! Pack your bags! Someone's gonna. Prob'ly not you. Sorry."
Darcy thought hard about this. "We're moving here?"
"All done in Pen. Poo. Puente. Now that Thor's here. Gotta move to th' city. New York state of mind, baby!" She shouted at the ceiling of their hotel room.
"I hate that song," said Darcy, vowing to remember this later when she could actually think.
The hangover brought with it mixed feelings about the news-bomb that had been dropped on Darcy. New York was awesome, but overpriced. Puente Antiguo was Puente Antiguo and had no Starbucks, but all of her shit was there. It was generally warmer there. She could see the horizon there. She liked the windows, too. But at least she still had a job, she guessed. And SHIELD was apparently paying all of her moving expenses.
"Can I have a raise?" Darcy asked Jane from the lab bench where she was googling apartment rentals on her laptop.
Jane looked up from her own computer. "I have fifty cents in my pocket," she offered.
"All these rentals are expensive," Darcy whined. "The worst broom cupboard shitholes in Brooklyn are like six hundred a month."
"There's base housing included," Jane pointed out for about the third time.
"Those are like prison cells. I hear they don't have windows."
"If you want windows, marry into money," Jane dismissed.
"Ugh," said Darcy, leaving the lab for more coffee and maybe lunch in the cafeteria. She ran into Clint in one of the halls, who changed direction abruptly to walk with her.
"You look terrible," he observed.
"Thor said you drank with great honour on Midgard's behalf last night. Does your hangover have a hangover?"
"Yes," said Darcy tiredly. "I've named them both. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Shut the Fuck Up."
He wordlessly laid a hand on the back of her neck and started gently massaging the muscles there. It felt so much better that Darcy forgot how to walk and just stood there with her eyes closed, enjoying it.
"Let me buy you lunch," said Clint. "If you're not going to barf it up."
"How's the relocation going?" he asked as they started walking again.
Darcy made a disgusted noise. "Why can't SHIELD be somewhere affordable, like Dallas or something?"
"Evil never attacks Dallas. I think maybe it comes from there, but we like to be where the action is."
"Living as far away as possible from here is still expensive, the housing they're offering me is like jail, and Jane's going to go shack up with Thor, which I am not getting within a mile of for all the cheese in Switzerland," Darcy bitched.
"Can't blame you there," said Clint, either to the jail comment or not wanting to invade the Thunder God Lovenest or maybe both. Then he said, offhandedly, "You can come stay with me."
Darcy let that sink in as she walked into the cafeteria, and then she stopped, turned, and looked up at him. He was trying for nonchalant. Clint was physically incapable of looking nonchalant. Darcy stood there in the SHIELD headquarters cafeteria, with agents and personnel milling around, and looked up through her hangover at her boyfriend who'd just asked her to move in with him, and was somewhere between throwing up and climbing him like a tree.
He was waiting for some kind of answer, and a nice, stalling 'I'll think about it' was on the tip of her tongue but when she opened her mouth, what came out was, "Thank you, but I need my own space."
"Oh," he said, deflating a little.
God, she'd known him like, a year and everything but how much time had she actually spent with him? Plus she could picture his bachelor pad and it was probably terrible, especially now that she understood the cost of living around here. Maybe it would happen someday, but today was not that day.
"I haven't even seen where you live yet, anyway," said Darcy. "Don't get your hopes up."
He smirked, and then reached behind her to grab a pair of bright red food trays. "I'll give you my spare key," he said, handing her a tray. "I just have to steal it back from Natasha."
"Why does Natasha have your keys?" she asked, trying not to sound in any way jealous.
"In case I lock myself out. It happens about once a month."
"I see how it is. You offer cohabitation but what you get is security when your doorman won't let you in."
"Relationships are complicated," Clint agreed.
Darcy narrowly avoided having to live in the SHIELD employee jail when she found a one-bedroom in Bedford-Stuyvesant with rent that didn't entirely give her a heart attack. The cockroaches seemed friendly and she could fit a queen bed in there, so whatever. Just being in walking distance of the subway, four coffee shops, like sixteen bodegas and a McDonald's made it all work out in her mind.
Working at SHIELD headquarters was the big adjustment. As the only lab tech in New Mexico, Darcy's workday had been nicely segmented into Morning Drudgery, Facebook Time, Lunch, Actual Productivity Hour and Late-Day Wind-Down Fuckery and as long as she wasn't being obvious about slacking, Jane didn't say anything (probably because she didn't notice). Upon her permanent arrival in the basement labyrinth of SHIELD--which she still kind of hated after that whole thing with Dr. Banner and Mr. Hulk on her first official visit--Darcy discovered that not only did Jane have a lot of satellite minions already under her direct command there, they actually did shit all day. They worked in their own sections of the lab on different things with mysterious relationships to each other, they could compile and mostly edit their own reports, they understood all the big fancy science words they used, and there was no Facebook Time.
"Where do I fit into this greased science machine?" Darcy asked Jane over a Starbucks break in the first week.
Jane was flicking the edge of her coffee lid with her nail in that annoying way she did when she was thinking about other things. "You're my chief lab assistant," she said like it was obvious.
Darcy did think she liked the sound of the 'chief' part, although it might come with a shocking number of new responsibilities in this hive of productivity. "What does that mean?"
"It means you're basically my personal assistant. You're not going to do anything you haven't already done. Maybe less Facebook during work time," she amended.
Darcy tried to look like she hadn't heard that part. "Do I get to boss around the other peons?"
"Darce, this is a lab. The alpha dog is the person with the most degrees and the grant money. That is me. I get to boss around the peons. You get to collate data. But I'll assign two of the interns to you if you want some helpers," she relented. "They're still in school, they're not paid and they'll do almost anything for a government job, but don't like, emotionally abuse them or anything. Promise me."
"I promise," said Darcy, mentally slotting Facebook Time back into her day.
Van Ha and Clarine, Darcy's personal minions, were both PhD candidates in some kind of physics and thought Jane walked on water. By extension, as Jane's assistant and friend, they instantly had close to the same opinion of Darcy. She liked them immediately.
It took until halfway through their second day working with her, when Clarine answered Darcy's directions to generate some graphs of star data with a, "Yes, Dr. Lewis," to understand that they thought Darcy also outranked them in nerdiness and education. Darcy froze for half a second, unsure how to react: she recognized that telling them she had three-quarters of a Bachelor's in Political Science was not the right move to keep their respect shining brightly but if they called her a doctor in front of someone who knew better, things would go really wrong. In her mind she was pretty sure it'd be Clint and then she'd be hearing about it until one of them died.
"I prefer to be called Darcy," she said, trying to keep her voice even.
"Okay, Darcy," said Clarine brightly, and then she went off to do science to things.
Darcy took a moment to feel relieved and then turned around to see Van Ha leaning on a lab bench, watching her expectantly.
"When did Dr. Foster last eat?" Darcy asked.
Van Ha answered without pause. "I saw her eat a granola bar at 9:30."
"Your mission," said Darcy, moving to a drawer and pulling out a box of frosted strawberry Pop Tarts, "is to get her to eat one of these." She handed a foil packet to Van Ha, who looked at it dubiously. Thor was a good influence on Jane's eating habits, as he had a strong belief in large, regular meals taken with other people, but if Jane didn't stay carb-loaded at work she started doing things like losing her glasses on top of her head.
"And then what?" said Van Ha.
"And then it'll probably be time for you to take a late lunch."
"But it's not even noon now."
"And it's going to take you half an hour to get her to eat that," said Darcy. "If you can do it in less, I'll make sure you get a recommendation letter when you leave here. Godspeed."
Van Ha looked down at the Pop Tart package again and then saluted Darcy before marching off to corral Jane. Darcy decided to go proofread a paper, confident in the knowledge that her minions would leave SHIELD with life skills.
It was about two weeks later when Darcy got back from a lunch with Clint (who was actually in the building for a change, talk about a job with travel) to find an enormous man in an enormous black suit and sunglasses standing beside her work area. She stopped dead in her tracks.
"Darcy Lewis?" he asked.
"Do you understand how the internal phone system works?"
"You can use Microsoft Office?"
"Yes." Darcy was starting to wish she was allowed to bring her taser into work. She might have used it on herself right now, just to escape whatever this was.
"Come with me," said the large man, starting to head for the lab door.
Jane appeared suddenly.
"What the hell is going on? Agent?" she demanded.
"Agent Jones. Coulson sent me down here, Dr. Foster," he said. "Personnel reallocation."
Jane threw herself in front of Darcy. "You can't have her!"
Darcy, who was just starting to realize what was going down, peered over Jane's shoulder. Most of the lab was watching the scene, including Van Ha, who was sitting behind her laptop. Clarine was still at lunch.
Jones nodded, apparently accepting that this wasn't going to go smoothly. "Dr. Foster, Coulson instructed me if you put up a fight to remind you that he pays all of your employees and can move them wherever he wants. SHIELD has determined that there is a surplus of bodies in your lab and a deficit elsewhere. Come on, Ms. Lewis."
"Where are you taking her?" Jane demanded, as though Darcy was being taken as a prisoner of war. Darcy was beginning to wonder if she wasn't after all.
Jones sighed a little. "Coulson's PA quit. Available relief staff with clearance begins and ends with Ms. Lewis here."
"So I get her back when he hires a replacement?"
"Sure," said Jones, beckoning Darcy.
There didn't seem to be an alternative; Darcy crept around Jane, watching for any hands that might dart out to grab her (Jane had a death grip) and going with Agent Jones. She stopped at the door. "Don't worry," she said. "The minions are fully automated. You'll be fine." Then she shot Van Ha a thumbs-up which was returned.
"Is this really temporary?" Darcy asked Jones as they got in the elevator down the hall.
Jones shrugged. "That's for Dr. Foster to fight out with Coulson." He paused. "Is she always that crazy?"
"Oh, no," said Darcy, looking up at the ceiling panels. "That was relatively sane for her."
Jones took Darcy up to the tenth floor of the office tower and left her in a room full of windows with a closed door at one end, in front of a desk piled high with crap and a ringing phone. She stared at the phone and turned around to ask Jones what she was supposed to do, but he was already gone.
Darcy hated SHIELD agents.
The phone was still fucking ringing. She picked it up. "Coulson's... office?" she said, wincing.
"This is Gina from HR. Who's this?"
"Ah. Is he busy?"
Darcy shot a look at the closed door. "Yes," she decided. "Can I take a message?"
"Just tell him I still need Lisa's termination stuff," said Gina as Darcy searched the desk frantically for post-it notes or something.
"Great," said Darcy. "I will... do that."
There was a click. She hung up the phone gingerly and sank into the surprisingly comfy chair. The surface of the desk was covered in forms. She found the post-it pad peeking out from under one pile and pulled it out, writing Gina's message on the top sheet and then sticking it to the top of her computer monitor.
The form on top of the nearest pile was called a C-154-X and seemed to be an equipment request for kevlar vests. The filled signature blank at the bottom had an F and a Y that she could make out, and the other one was empty, probably waiting for Coulson's signature. She guessed. She put it back on the pile where she'd found it.
Coulson's door burst open and she absolutely did not jump several inches off of her chair at the noise.
"Good, you're here," he said, coming over to her desk. He glanced at the pile with the C-154-X form at the top and picked up the whole thing (which was two inches thick). He pointed at the phone. "Answer that. Tell them I'm busy and take a message." He pointed at the computer. "The password, I believe, is 'kittens'," he said, as if the word tasted bad in his mouth. "Change it, please. To an actual password. My schedule is on there. Maintain it for me." He glanced at the post-it she'd just stuck to the monitor, peeled it off, crumpled it and tossed it in her trash can. "Thanks for this." And then he disappeared back into his office with the pile of forms, shutting the door behind him.
Darcy looked after him, wondering whether to get up and go ask questions, but then the phone started ringing again.
Clint showed up at quarter to five. Darcy blinked up at him as he leaned against the one clear space on the edge of her desk.
"So I went to the lab to steal you for dinner," he said, "and asked where you were, and Jane threw a stapler at my head."
Darcy winced. "Did she miss?"
"Only because I dodged. One of your lackeys finally told me you'd been moved up here." He looked around the office. "How is it?"
"So far I've changed the computer password and answered the phone fifty times."
Coulson's door opened again. "I'm leaving. Are there any messages that say the building is burning down?"
"Nope," said Darcy.
"The rest of them can wait till tomorrow, then. Do me a favour, and if you ever get pregnant, don't quit on the spot."
Just as Darcy was picturing with horror getting knocked up, Coulson looked up and noticed Clint. "Oh, right," he said, and then took in Darcy's look of horror. "I don't blame you, Ms. Lewis. Barton, get out of my office. Goodnight."
They looked at each other as Coulson left. "Do you come here a lot?" she asked.
"Using pick-up lines on me now?" Clint asked, waggling his eyebrows.
Darcy rolled her eyes and stood up, stabbing buttons on her phone until the answering machine turned on. "He seems to know you really well."
"I only come into this office when something's wrong." He laid a hand in the small of her back as she grabbed her bag and headed for the door.
This explained so, so much. "And now, to cruise me."
"Did I ever mention I have a secretary fantasy?" Clint asked, automatically dodging the elbow she jabbed at his stomach.
On Darcy's third day in Coulson's office, someone else's PA (she thought Fury's but wasn't clear on that) came to actually train her. There were literally fifty different forms that could cross her desk on any given day and require some kind of specific action be taken on them. And another twenty she was told she shouldn't see but would end up there by accident anyway and need rerouting to wherever the hell they were supposed to go in the first place.
By the end of the first week, Darcy thought she had the hang of it. It wasn't rocket science, and she said this as someone who'd technically done rocket science. That was also the day that Jane finally triumphed over Coulson in their behind-the-scenes battle of wills, according to the text she sent Darcy in the afternoon.
glory to valhalla you are mine again. well sort of.
As if on cue, Coulson emerged from his office, leaning against his doorframe.
"So you still work for me," he said, "most of the time. But if Dr. Foster puts in a special request for your assistance then you're down in the labs for the duration of her need for you. At the end of which," he said emphatically, "you return to your duties here."
Darcy saluted him. "Proud to serve my country, sir!"
He pinched the bridge of his nose and retreated behind his door again. So maybe Darcy held grudges. She'd missed her iPod while it had been in his clutches.
Working for Coulson wasn't so bad. Darcy had won the fight over dress code ("I don't own any 'professional clothes' and you don't pay me enough to buy any. And let's be honest, dressing me up won't magically make me act any more professional than I already am. This is what you get. I was raised by wolves with PhDs. I'm the same amount of professional in a suit or my jeans and awesome Star Wars t-shirts and I'm comfier in my jeans. Haven't you heard that clothes don't make the man?" She'd thought that was a strong finish; Coulson had just thrown his hands in the air and left the room), there was no one else to sneak up behind her while she was Facebooking instead of working, she was well away from Bruce Banner whenever he lost his temper, and she saw more interesting people.
In particular, she saw Maria Hill and Natasha a lot, because they were almost the only two agents who Coulson could tolerate speaking to without wanting to shoot somebody. He never told Darcy as much but she could tell; whenever Clint showed up to say hi to her or bitch at him, a vein would start to show in his temple. Tony Stark was outright banned.
"Hey, Darcy," said Natasha one Wednesday, as she usually did while sailing past into Coulson's office with only a cursory knock. But for the first time, Natasha didn't sail past; she stopped and leaned on her hands on the edge of the (now much cleaner) desk.
"Hi," said Darcy belatedly, blinking up at her.
"Clint's out of town," said Natasha.
"Somewhere," Darcy agreed. He was on another mission with Bruce or something, from what she'd heard.
"You know Maria," Natasha went on.
"Yep." Maria, from all observations, was the second most together person alive (after Pepper Potts) and had asked her in the first week or so how the job change was going. She'd laughed all the way into Coulson's office at the face Darcy had made.
"We have a weekly ritual," said Natasha, "usually involving Pepper but she's in LA this week."
Darcy felt unaccountably nervous.
"It's lame with only two people, so if you're not busy tonight I think you should come to karaoke with us."
It took a moment to filter through her brain. "Karaoke?" she asked finally. "You go to karaoke bars?" She tried to picture Natasha standing on a stage singing Britney Spears or something and her brain shut down a little.
"There's this great place in Korea Town, just off Herald Square."
"Oh," said Darcy slowly as it dawned on her. "Like with the little rooms?"
"Fuck yes," said Natasha. "So are you in?"
Darcy's friends in New York were Jane, Thor, Clint and the girl who lived in the apartment next to hers (if saying hello in the hallway a lot and Darcy watering her plants while she'd just been out of town for two weeks counted as friendship). She hadn't really gone out much. "Yeah, I'm in," she said, quelling the excitement in her chest.
"Meet us out front when you're done work, we'll get dinner first." Natasha shot her a huge grin and then traipsed over to Coulson's door. "Tony's an asshole," she announced as she walked inside, shutting the door behind her.
Maria and Natasha met Darcy out front of the building at five; both had changed into street clothes that Darcy assumed they kept on hand to keep from ever being seen going to Whole Foods in a catsuit.
"You made it!" Maria cried.
"Let's do this bitch," said Natasha, leading the way to the sidewalk.
Dinner was a Cuban place where the server just kept bringing them beer, and if Darcy wasn't already getting kind of drunk by the time the food came and having the best time she could remember, she might have been alarmed at where this indicated the night was heading.
"Oh my god," said Natasha after her fourth beer, "have I remembered to give you my condolences yet for dating Barton?"
Darcy's forkful of beans stopped halfway to her mouth. "Don't think so," she managed.
Maria started laughing into her napkin.
"Well, you clearly have the patience of a saint, because you've lasted way longer than I did with his dumb ass."
What. "How long ago was this?" Darcy aimed for casual, taking a swig of her fresh beer.
"God, like, years ago. When we met. In Lebanon."
"What did that last, like two weeks?" Maria grinned.
"Three," Natasha corrected. "Then I told him to fuck off and we're just friends now." She sobered a little. "You two seem like a better fit, don't worry, Darce."
"Thanks?" Darcy decided to relax. "Maybe it helps that I don't see him much, even though we live in the same city now."
"Probably," snorted Maria.
"No," said Natasha vaguely. "He's different with you. I've seen it. I think you're just more his type."
"What, stacked and nerdy?" Darcy joked.
Natasha winked. "Something like that."
"He snores so goddamn loud though," said Darcy without thinking, "I just want to smother him with a pillow sometimes."
"I tried once. Didn't help," said Natasha, and Darcy started laughing so hard she slid down in her chair a little.
They killed another six-pack worth of beer before leaving the restaurant and then paraded up 5th Avenue to the karaoke place, where Natasha led into their evening with a blood-on-the-microphone rendition of Hotel California. "It reminds me of home country," she said in a thick Russian accent, and Darcy was pretty sure that still wouldn't have made any sense if she were sober.
"Give me the microphone, you KGB honey trap," Maria demanded. "Darcy, do you know that song from Dirty Dancing?"
"You insult me by suggesting I might not," Darcy shot back, grabbing the other microphone off the coffee table of their karaoke booth and almost knocking over Natasha's martini in the process.
"You're coming again next week," declared Natasha several hours later, as they wandered toward Penn Station like a six-legged monster. "Pepper's going to be in town, it'll be fucking awesome." Her accent was permanently stuck on Russian by this point.
"Oh, I don't wanna intrude," said Darcy, concentrating on walking.
"Pepper thinks you're cool, don't make excuses," Natasha insisted. "Oh shit, stairs."
"Pepper thinks I'm cool?" Darcy asked faintly. It was too bad she probably wouldn't remember this in the morning. God, she had work in the morning. Coulson was going to either laugh himself to death or fire her.
"Here we go," said Maria, and they shoved Darcy gently in the direction of the A train.
Darcy still had a job the next day, but the two glasses of water she'd remembered to drink before falling into bed the night before had clearly done nothing. Maria showed up late in the morning, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and looking like she'd gone to bed early instead of doing shots with Natasha.
"How do you do that?" Darcy demanded.
Darcy waved at her disgusting put-togetherness vaguely. "That."
Maria grinned. "Practice. Is the grumpy old man in?"
"He's at a meeting with the joint chiefs until two."
Maria glanced at her watch. She was so groomed that she still wore a watch, in 2012. Darcy wanted to steal her brain or wear her skin or something. Darcy wanted a Tylenol.
"Feel like getting lunch, then?" Maria asked. "My morning's shot if he's out."
Darcy looked at the Payroll forms she was doing. They could wait until the afternoon. "Sure."
"Let me borrow your phone," said Maria, moving to the desk. She dialled an internal line and said, "Agent Romanova, I've got a 502 I need you to look over." She nodded after a second and hung up.
"What the hell was that?" Darcy asked as she picked up her bag. There was no such form as a 502 that she was aware of.
"That was a code," said Maria as she punched the button on the elevator. "'Blow off whatever you're doing and meet me for lunch.' She said yes."
Darcy wondered if all of SHIELD slacked off while still looking responsibly hardworking, or if it was just the spies who were good at it.
Natasha met them in the cafeteria. "Nothing looks good today but the Cobb salad," she said in lieu of greeting. "Oh, Darcy, Clint texted me. He said he's coming home tomorrow."
"He didn't text me," Darcy said, slightly hurt.
"I think he had plans to surprise you," she said, heading for the food line. "I personally hate surprises and refuse to have any part in them. But he probably didn't think I'd tell you because I didn't tell him we got drunk last night."
"She likes to bide her time when it comes to playing on his paranoia," said Maria over the top of her phone.
"It's an art form." Natasha took a bowl of salad.
"Alrighty then," said Darcy.
"God, I love when the cafeteria's empty," Natasha declared as they breezed through the line to the till.
"I know, right?" said Maria, taking a ham sandwich and a grapefruit juice.
Darcy contemplated the chili before getting a sandwich, too. "I normally can't get down here this early now that I'm upstairs," she said. "Coulson gives me the fish-eye."
"You must be settled in by now," said Maria as they picked a table. "Do you like it?"
Darcy picked up her sandwich and then put it down again. "Define 'like'."
"You hate it?" Natasha asked around a bite of salad. "Are you quitting?" It sounded more like 'arr oo itting'. Natasha was only classy when it suited her.
"I don't know. If I quit I'll have to leave the city." And quitting SHIELD would probably kill her relationship with Clint, which she kind of liked and wanted to keep up as long as possible. "But I didn't go to A&M because I wanted to answer someone else's phone all day, you know?" She glossed over the part where she'd basically quit school, completely irrelevant. "I get stolen back to Jane's lab sometimes but I'm not doing anything groundbreaking." Mostly she just went down there on crunch days and followed Jane around with food and water when her minions were too busy doing everything else Darcy used to do; she was somewhere between proud and annoyed that two people with more education than her apparently couldn't even keep up with the shit she used to do herself.
"So use the benefit of internal hiring," said Maria with a shrug. "Switch fields."
Natasha started grinning down at her salad while Maria took a sip of her juice. "Become an agent," said Maria finally.
"That's funny, I could have sworn you just said 'become an agent'," Darcy laughed.
"You'll definitely pass the hearing test," said Maria.
"I can't be an agent. Have you met me?" Darcy's voice sounded kind of strangled to her own ears.
"Yes you can; you'll fit right in. Everyone's heard about your taser. And there's a training program. It's like six months."
Natasha was still smirking silently into her lunch.
"But I'll die horribly if I work for SHIELD!"
"So join the FBI or something when you're done," said Maria far too reasonably. "You train with us, we put in a good word for you, you can get a job at any agency you feel like. Coulson will cry, but he'll cry anyway if you're going to quit your admin job so whatever."
"He won't cry. Crying is a weakness. He had his tear ducts surgically removed," Darcy insisted.
"Coulson is a curmudgeon who feels very deeply and at a clearance level none of us can ever attain," said Natasha, picking out bits of ham from her salad.
"How would they ever let me into agent training?" Darcy demanded. "I haven't exercised since I got to stop taking Gym in eleventh grade."
"You'll get there. Natasha and I will work with you. She's your best option for learning hand-to-hand and how to use a gun."
"I feel like Clint wouldn't want to hear this." This was the kind of thing that would send him into an epic pout.
"I'll break it to him gently," Natasha piped up. "You don't want him teaching you anything. He's the best at his job but he's the worst teacher ever, trust me."
"Oh my god," Maria broke in, "did you hear him trying to explain HBO to Steve last week?"
Natasha started laughing hysterically.
"Okay, but," said Darcy, trying to keep them on task before they decided she'd agreed with their shenanigans, "I'm pretty sure you need an actual complete degree to work for SHIELD or the FBI or any of those acronyms. I have a whole year left to go."
"You're in fucking New York, Darce," said Maria, rolling her eyes. "Where do you want to go? Columbia? New School? NYU? My sister's on the admissions board at New School but we can also get you into Columbia no problem if you want."
Darcy started sputtering.
"Part-time while she works and trains," Natasha offered, and Maria nodded and where had this conversation gone off the rails? "You'll be a busy girl." Natasha pointed at Darcy with her fork.
"Any more excuses for me to poke holes in?" Maria asked lightly. "Or are you done?"
"I," said Darcy. "I-- You--"
Maria bundled up all of her garbage and got to her feet. "All right, when you get your big girl panties on and figure out what you want to be when you grow up, you come find me." Her phone went off and she turned on her Bluetooth as she sauntered away from flipping Darcy's life upside down. "Agent Hill. Tony, how did you get this number? You know what, don't even answer that."
Fall came crisp and sweet and Darcy was ready for it, ready for anything. Almost anything. She was marginally ready in some senses of the word, but not in the sense that when Clint said, "Want to stay over Sunday night?" and she responded, "Can't. Early day Monday, classes are starting," and Clint's eyebrows went up and he answered, "Classes?" that Darcy actually had a ready response. She'd caved in late July and told Maria she wanted to be a field agent and Maria had colluded with Coulson and Natasha and possibly Pepper and gotten the ball rolling for her with a transfer to Columbia, but now it was the beginning of September and she realized with a guilty start that she hadn't said shit to Clint.
In her defense, he'd been gone half of August and that had made it really easy to avoid the topic.
"Darcy?" he said, sounding a little like her dad used to when she was seven and trying to lie, and Darcy nearly ran away.
"Classes," she said. "Yeah. Um. I'm finishing my degree part-time. Pepper and Maria got me into Columbia."
"Good deal," he said, sounding like he wasn't entirely sure if it was a good deal or not. "Except I thought you gave up on the degree. What changed your mind?"
Darcy found a very interesting spot on the wall of Clint's kitchen to stare at. "You need a degree to get into the FBI."
"The--you want to be a suit?"
"Maybe?" she hedged. "I don't know. I mean, I have a year or so to make up my mind where to go. Maybe longer, apparently field agent training takes six months minimum and I probably don't qualify for 'minimum'."
"Field agent? Are you serious? Where the hell did this come from? Jesus Christ, are you taking the SHIELD course? No, of course you are." He dug a hand through his hair and started pacing.
This could be going better, Darcy reflected.
"Did Natasha put you up to this?" he demanded finally.
"Well," she said thoughtfully, "it was more Maria but I think they were in cahoots or something."
He made a strangled noise and that was when she lost her temper. "Okay, take it down a fucking notch, no one held a gun to my head! It just sounded like a good idea!"
"I'll kill them both," he said. "Don't do this."
"Oh my god," she said, and grabbed her bag. "Good night."
She stomped out into the corridor and stabbed at the elevator button. It took a few minutes to arrive but Clint didn't appear in that time; Darcy wiped angrily at her cheek as she got inside and the door shut in front of her.
She knew for sure it wasn't going to blow over when they passed each other at the entrance to one of the shooting ranges a week later, and he gave her only a look on the way past. Natasha was waiting inside the range for her and Darcy hoped she hadn't noticed the cold shouldering.
"What the fuck was that all about?" Natasha asked casually as Darcy set down her bag.
"He didn't talk to you about it?" Darcy asked tiredly.
"He was pretty quiet while he was in here. But he normally is." Her face was concerned. "Something wrong? You want to talk about it?"
"I really don't," said Darcy, taking the Beretta that Natasha held out for her.
"Okay. Did you two break up?"
Darcy chewed the inside of her cheek. "I think so."
"But you're not sure."
"It was a pretty bad fight." Darcy moved to one of the cubbies with a fresh paper target and picked up the ear protectors sitting there.
"Hmm," said Natasha, and then Darcy put on the ear protectors and a pair of safety glasses, and the conversation was over if she couldn't hear what Natasha was saying, right? Right.
Being single again was fine. Darcy didn't exactly have time to sit at home and feel sorry for herself: she had three classes and work, and on top of that most of her free hours were spent in the gym working out with Maria or learning to hit people with Natasha. God help her, one of these days she was going to have to add classroom work for the field agent training into the mix. Darcy wasn't going to sleep again until she was thirty.
So it was fine. She didn't really think about it. She wrote papers into the night and hit the punching bag until her arms were limp and emptied clip after clip into paper targets at the shooting range and dropped fifteen pounds (some of it off of her chest), which was an interesting bonus.
Soon it was almost Christmas and the city was getting glittered up and her mom was emailing her about an overdue visit and her sister was pregnant and due in the spring and she was wondering where the time went, and at ten o'clock one night Clint called her out of the blue.
She stared at the caller ID for a long time before answering it.
"Are you busy right now?" he asked, skipping all the pleasantries, if they merited any.
She quickly muted the Venture Bros. episode playing on the TV. "Yes, why?"
There was a pause. "I'm locked out of my fucking apartment. And my doorman hates my guts."
Darcy looked over at the kitchen, where the junk drawer contained, among other things, the extra keys to Clint's apartment. The side-effect of breaking up more or less by just not seeing each other anymore was that there had been no official exchange of stuff, like keys.
"Darcy?" he said, startling her back into the present.
"I'll be there in half an hour," she said, and hung up.
He was standing out front of his building with his hands crammed in his coat pockets (it was murderously cold out, how was he not even dead yet) when she walked up.
"Hi," he said.
Darcy fished his keys out of her pocket, fumbling them with her mittens. "Here," she said.
"Wait," he said when she turned to walk away again. "You came a long way. Let me get you a coffee." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Starbucks on the corner.
"Fine," she said, following him down the sidewalk.
The Starbucks felt like a warm hug after being outside; Darcy sighed happily as she peeled off her mittens and unwound her scarf.
He went for a table after they got their drinks, and since he paid she decided she could sit in front of him and drink it for a while.
"How's... everything?" he asked lamely.
"Busy," she said. "You? Fight anything mythical lately?"
"God, don't ask."
They sat in silence for a while.
"I'm sorry," he said finally. "I have no right to tell you what to do with your life."
"You sure don't," she agreed. "I don't remember ever giving you epic shit about the dangerous crap you do for a living."
"I said I was sorry."
Darcy took a deep breath and let it go.
"Natasha said your training's going well."
She shrugged. It was good to hear that if it wasn't lies, because Darcy was pretty sure she was about as competent as a baby deer on ice.
"I realize I was a dick," he said, "and that I've kept that up for like four months now. I admit this. I'm like that sometimes. And I need to be told that I'm being a dick or I don't stop."
"Uh huh," she said.
"But I miss you," said Clint.
She looked up at him. He was staring down at his coffee cup.
"Maybe I was kind of a dick too," she said.
He looked up at her in surprise.
"Not as much as you," she amended, "but I could have handled that better than I did."
A smile played at the corners of Clint's mouth and he stood up suddenly.
Darcy followed him, stuffing her mittens back onto her hands. "Where?"
"My place," he said. "I have to give you back the keys after I let myself in and find mine."
He took her hand as they headed outside. "Yeah, I do."
She ended up leaving after twenty minutes of searching didn't turn up his other set of keys, but she was grinning when she did.
She was doing a desk shift at the office the next day when Natasha appeared.
"Am I missing from the gym?" Darcy asked. This had maybe possibly happened a few times before. Scheduling wasn't her strong point. Not her own life, anyway.
"Nope," said Natasha, and then tossed a set of keys on the desk in front of her. "I just wanted to give you these for the next time you see Dumbass."
Darcy looked at Clint's keys. "Where'd you find those?"
"I saw him yesterday morning and they somehow were in my possession after we were done talking." Natasha looked like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. "It was really weird. So did you see him yesterday?"
"Well, I do have his spare keys now," said Darcy, leaning back in her chair.
"So you do," said Natasha, drifting out of the room again.
"Look, you just pull it straight back like this," Clint said, demonstrating for the fiftieth time.
Darcy gamely tried again and watched as the arrow once more sproinged off in a sad downward direction. "Fuck's sake," she said.
"Oh my god. Again!"
"Natasha was right. You are a bullshit teacher."
"I can't even tell you how much I regret that you two are friends," said Clint, pressing up behind her to arrange her like a marionette around the bow in her hands.
Natasha had been right about more than one thing: stoking Clint's paranoia was an art form.
"Okay, so I draw it back like this and--" she let it go and the arrow went a whole ten feet before skidding into the floor again. "Hey! Progress!" she said.
"I'm personally firing you now before you ever become a SHIELD agent."
"You wish," said Darcy, grinning. "Natasha taught me a pressure point that'll make you unable to speak for like ten minutes."
"Fuck, no, I hate when she does that to me."
"She said that when she taught me how to do it," said Darcy.