New Mexico was perhaps more accurately described as the sixth circle of hell: its board of tourism would tell you about the sweeping vistas and natural wonders, the petrified forest (better than the one in Arizona!), and the surprise! mountain ranges in the middle of the state. They would not breathe a word about the hundred plus degree days, thin air and sun that burned through SPF fifty, the shitty cell reception, and how 84% of the state was fly-over country with no radio stations.
Or that the other 16% was composed of artisinal chili farm, cactus, and top-secret government facilities.
Darcy turned down the internship at her dad's law firm in New Jersey because taking it meant two things: working
with for her father, moving back to New Jersey, and also probably going through the motions of applying to law school.
Letting Dad edit her admittance essays.
And her personal statements.
Letting Dad quietly judge her over the dinner table when she said that she applied to Stanford as well as his personal shortlist of pre-approved, acceptable, Northeastern schools.
It meant weighing the potential damage throwing the thick envelope from NYU away would do to their relationship against what accepting the admission would do to her soul. Sitting on the sofa in the living room with her laptop warming her legs, watching the look on Dad's face when she brought up the possibility of Georgetown, blesséd Georgetown, five blesséd hours' drive away from home in blesséd Washington, DC.
It meant moving home.
And explaining to her mother that she would really like the princess mural in her room to go away, please. And to sleep in a full-sized bed without a pink Battenberg lace canopy.
It meant Mom.
It meant Dad.
It meant tracking down her brother somewhere in the wilds of Northern California, so that she could hit him in the face with a shovel for abandoning her to grow weed with his friends there.
Her brother. The one who got away, the one she sometimes still secretly wished she could grow up to be.
Jane didn't ask her to come back as assistant until Darcy's security clearance had been processed and accepted, pending signature, and she thought that was a little evil, but.
She couldn't say "No." to a beautiful out like that one, with a salary and insurance and hazard pay.
She got hazard pay.
(Mom. And. Dad.)
It didn't mean New Mexico blew any less, though.
Didn't mean working as Jane's assistant through the SHIELD Admin Corps, with a whole other set of responsibilities and duties from the SHIELD Box of Misc was any less weird and counter-intuitive.
Didn't mean she was even close to entertaining the idea of breaking up with her job for law school, two months in.
Somehow getting from her car in the parking lot to the SHIELD facility door, swiping her access card and getting inside left her hair, her face, and every layer of clothing she was wearing soaked through with sweat, her throat dry and her cheeks flushed from moving.
Puente Antigua hadn't been this hot, but then, Puente Antigua had been in the high desert, at least, that's what they all said.
"Hundred and seven out," Cecelia, who was in charge of rangling all of the SHIELD office minions, said. Darcy waved and turned around when she passed her in the hall.
"I hate you," Darcy replied affably. "It's eight in the morning!"
"Ten 'til," Cecelia corrected. "Tomrrow's one o' clock got pushed to today at three — only time we could get all the warm bodies we need together at the same time."
"It's supposed to hit one twenty and not get cooler than ninety tonight!" Darcy called after her.
"That's my girl!" Cecelia's voice echoed from down the hallway.
Versus soul-consuming government agency.
Not much difference between the two of them, when you took a knife across the center and both looked like the star inside an apple. Complete with trace amounts of cyanide.
Darcy's morning went like this: She chased Jane down, made sure she'd eaten breakfast so no one had to face her in the throes of "hangry", poked her about the stack of articles she hadn't peer-reviewed; read four of said articles, marked one as "interesting" and give it back with annotations, question-marks, and tiny little mushroom clouds doodled in the margins.
She tracked down Erik, make sure he made the acquaintance of a breakfast burrito. Shuffled Erik off to the noon Project Progress meeting; realized Jane had sneaked back to the lab, ran back to retrieve her. Played hostess for the meeting attendents and took notes for all and sundry but mostly Jane, cleaned them up and emailed them off to relevant parties. Grabbed a sandwich from the tray herself and headed out to Cecelia's task re-delegation session since Jonas, who had been a minion all the way back to the SSR days of SHIELD, was retiring. She then volunteered to sit with him and figure out what the hell he actually did because it hovered somewhere in the venn diagram between "every vital task in the universe" and "sit in the breakroom whittling wooden conductor whistles for his grandkids."
She spent half an hour disentangling herself from Jonas' clutches (emailed Cecelia: he is doing the work of four people and has nine tons of institutional knowledge that lives inside his head and nowhere else, what are we doing to fix this?), emailed Jane (fixing the server that is now down is not a you thing anymore, it is an IT thing, please let Ed and Becca do their jobs.), emailed Cooper, who was theoretically somewhere on the facility food chain but she wasn't entirely sure how (all the lightbulbs are burnt out in Elevator 9H, thought you'd wanna know.), emailed Cecelia (Or we could clone him; are clearances still a Coulson thing? Is there less paperwork for requisitioning a cloning ray? ).
And then she realized she hadn't sat down since she walked in the door and that heels on poured concrete flooring was the most stupidass of all possible ideas, to paraphrase a particular mode of expression favored by their director.
She looked up at the flat screen display in the hallway, which declared the inside temperature 78 degrees/15% humidity and the outside temperature 119 degrees/0% humidity.
Darcy considered getting a nosebleed just thinking about walking outside.
She missed the beach for one teensy inexplicable minute.
At her dad's firm back home, there were no outside gardens, no hidden courtyards, no secret verandas. There was a conference room with a glass wall and a fantastic view of the New York skyline. It was the Good Conference Room, where they showed off to clients, and it was open knowledge that everyone from the lowliest intern to full partners were allowed to hide there for five minutes to recollect themselves if they needed to.
It was one of the perks of working there.
The New Mexico facility had a mostly unused storage room, and she had access to it. She made it there in three minutes flat, swiped in, and breathed until she could feel the oxygen crossing her blood-brain barrier.
The lights were soft, energy-conserving LEDs. Bankers' boxes full of paperwork lined steel shelves, some of it going back fifty, seventy years. Some of it was labeled with a department subheading and a directory path on the servers where the useful digital copies lived. Some was labeled "To Scan And File," which was theoretically part of Darcy's job description in her copious free time. Filler task.
She would think about filler tasks when she had gotten Jonas fully retired and —
(Into her work phone, she typed a note for her to-do list, draft addendum to JR's job description vs actual tasks owned list — #wednesdayPM.)
Darcy leaned against a shelf. When it didn't fall over she sat down on the ground and tipped her head back against a taped closed box from the 70s, sealed need-to-know stuff, and figured that if no one had needed it in forty years it must not be very important.
She heard a voice far enough off that its owner must have missed her presence, and strained to hear, because she couldn't not.
"— because he's doing it on purpose. Every time I've tried to bring the subject up, he's deflected, he's obfuscted, he's turned the conversation around to be about something else — "
"It is not a logical career progression. Ingoring the fact that this is the last place on Earth I would choose — "
"— Point taken, but the only reason Halifax wins here is because of the four days in the hold of a scallop boat. Tokelau wasn't even close; Tokelau was less boring."
"Only because you think you're immortal and that sunscreen is not for such asccended beings as yourself. I was fine."
"And you can't use S.I.; I wasn't there with you."
"Actually, I'm going to refrain from watching you. Already did that. I got to do the review on the security footage, remember?"
"Okay. Don't piss off the Serbian mafia. Or do, it might give me the chance for a field trip."
"I won't shoot him."
The phone beeped that the connection was closed.
Darcy recognized the voice: it belonged to the Chief of Security; she remembered him from Puente Antiguo, but the more solid connection was of dogging him with a tablet and a stylus whenever Cecelia needed a Security Department Head signature and he thought he had better things to do.
She counted footsteps and held her badge up from the lanyard aroud her neck when she got to five. Four more and they stopped; she could hear him breathing, the beginning of a question, and the thought of opening her eyes was just too much to deal with right then.
"I'm allowed to be in here," she said, "Otherwise the door wouldn't have let me swipe in."
"You're allowed to be in here, supervised," the Chief of Security's disembodied voice said.
Apparently he'd swiped in, too, looking for a little privacy, and if he didn't know how much of the conversation she'd overheard, Darcy wasn't about to enlighten him.
Darcy shrugged. Her eyes were still closed. She still had twenty minutes of break left before she faced the rest of the day. And Cecelia, and talking Cecelia into talking to Agent Hill, who despite understanding things like: we need a certain amount of leeway to keep this facility from imploding, always, always prioritized mission and project goals over dealing with the administrativa that only she was authorized to deal with.
Hill needed a weekly sit-down with an authorized minion, so she could delegate.
Darcy was not about to volunteer to become that minion.
The voice's booted toe touched Darcy's calf; she opened one eye.
"Get up," he said, "C'mon."
"Sit down," she replied, "Supervise. I'm not going anywhere — " Once her glasses were back on her face, instead of nestled in her hair, she didn't have to squint at his nametag. "— Agent Barton. I've found half an hour and a place where I don't have to be around people. I am holding onto it with my teeth."
She opened her other eye and raised both eyebrows in the most accurate Agent Hill impression she had.
Barton sat down; she wasn't expecting that.
"Hi," Darcy said.
Barton closed his eyes and raised one hand in a half-hearted wave.
"So, what, I don't count as 'people'?" he said.
She recognized the shift in demeanor: he'd been unguarded on the phone, but here he was on, he was deliberately loose and easy. He was acting, which, as a former (recovering) theater nerd (high school): she knew a dress-rehearsal when she saw one.
Darcy tapped the side of his leg with the toe of her shoe, mirroring his tap from earlier on purpose. Barton opened one eye, then the other, then folded both his arms over his chest.
"You're the dude from the Carson City Bar," she said, naming the one place with a liquor license in all of Puente Antigua.
"I can neither confirm nor deny that I am 'the dude from the Carson City Bar'," he replied.
"Like hell you can't — you owe me twenty bucks."
"I tend to remember the people I owe money to," he replied.
"I beat you at pool the night after the flamey mecha they're taking apart upstairs — are you allowed to know about the flamey mecha?"
"Are you allowed to know we're taking it apart upstairs?"
Darcy shrugged. "I brought the R&D guys a pizza that one time, because apparently no one in this facility cares if our carefully recruited scientists fall over from malnutrition. Have you eaten food today? Because I'll chase after you with a banana if you make me. Don't think I won't."
"Don't worry, I had breakfast."
"Sugary cereal and cafeteria bacon doesn't count."
"Any compelling reason why not?"
"Because bacon shouldn't say 'gobble gobble'."
Barton cracked a smile at that, and then covered it up.
A couple of minutes passed in silence, now a lot less awkward, or at least Darcy felt like it was a lot less awkward, enough that she could close her eyes without concern for being dragged out the door.
After a while, he said, "You're really going to make me sit in here for another ten minutes."
"You can leave if you want."
"Nope, it'll read as an incursion — there'll be a team summoned, it'll require a report, and at least you're amusing when you try to talk my head off."
"Hey, of the two of us, I'm the one who's trying to power-nap here."
"So that's a no."
"That is the hardest no you will ever encounter from a minion of my status."
Darcy's phone alarm beeped what felt like thirty second later, and she was halfway to levering herself up from the ground when Barton's hand was extended down in front of her. A true fan of never doing all the work yourself when someone else was around to help out, she let him get her verticle again, then nodded and said her thanks.
She preceeded toward the door, one step at a time, her brain already kicking into gear: the list that lived behind her eyeballs cycling through now/end of day/tomorrow/end of week/next week/this month, when she looked up.
"Ladies first," he said.
"Minions first," Darcy corrected.
He locked up and headed down the hallway in the direction opposite the one Darcy was going. Their exit did not read as an incursion.
Darcy's afternoon/evening looked like this: She emailed Cecelia (We need to get Agent Hill an admin assistant who isn't me becasuse she is frightening and Jane would wither. It'll make all our lives easier.) Headed down to Jane's lab with a protein bar and a bottle of orange juice, made her eat food, settled into the workstation and took four hours' worth of dictated notes in two because fed-Jane thought and talked faster than a fidgety chipmunk. Then she slipped out of the lab, chased after Jonas and just missed him on his way home.
Darcy thought about heading back inside, and wound up calling Cecelia instead. Left her a voicemail.
"I don't know how I've been here for almost eleven hours already, but I am going home while while I still have a chance to leave. See ya tomorrow, Boss."
She waved at the security guy at the gate as her car's air conditioning kicked in, then pulled over and dug out her phone. Emailed Barton (If you ever want a few plausiby deniable minutes to just ... chill, I'm supposed to be digitizing the boxes from 1987-1992. Y'know. Working on the assumption that it's gonna take minimum six months to get my clearance adjusted.).
She got an email back ten minutes later:
1430, standing plans?
New Mexico was sucking less by the minute.