Chapter 1: It's Okay to Have Relationships Outside of Work
The following shares continuity with "Sleep of the Just", though you don't need to have read that to understand this one. It is a non-explicit sort-of romantic story that shouldn't bother any fanficcer. But if you're interested:
- some minor swearing;
- friendly stalking;
- discussion of sexual orientation, preferences, and masturbation;
- mention of a character having erotic dreams.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It's Okay to Have Relationships Outside of Work
"But would I have to, like, have a stash of amnesia pills or be prepared to shoot them if I said too much, or..."
"I assure you, Lewis," says Coulson, "It is 'okay' to have relationships outside of work. Don't talk shop, tell them your work is confidential for a bank, and buy them icecream when they're good. You'll be golden."
Darcy hesitates, "What flavour?"
The senior agent just looks at her, his face mild with the patination of his years. Then he smiles, and says, "I trust your judgement, Lewis. Go have fun. Shoo." He packs up the last of the folders on his desk into a briefcase and levers himself out of his office chair with a knobbled black walking stick.
"If only I could," mutters Darcy, watching him leave. SHIELD is still killing her social life. She seems to have gotten over some kind of hump in the extensive physical training regime they make her do or, to put it another way, went from bone-aching exhaustion to jumping out of her skin overnight - but the hours, the hours! Her supervisor might be getting off work early (the sly dog), but Darcy started her shift around sunset, and by the time she gets away the social scene will be reduced to people vomiting pathetically in alleys, pretty much. And Mrs Lewis's little girl has some kind of standards. Still has some standards.
Well. Had standards. The newfound energy welling inside with not enough to dip from it is pushing at those standards just a little bit right now. Man, Darcy hasn't had a good dipping in over a year.
She snugs down in her corner desk and tries to get interested in the personal phone traffic of Latverian dictators' personal assistants' assistants' best friends' aunties.
A while later, Senior Agent Hill (tall, elegant Agent Hill, with eyebrows like black wings - agh!) pokes her head in the door and says, "Coulson's already gone? I need him to sign off on these." She shoves some files in Darcy's general direction.
She looks at Darcy consideringly, then says, "Take your time. The courier doesn't leave until three."
Darcy stops her foot from vibrating discreetly under the desk, salutes Senior Agent Hill, and packs up for another round of Crosstown Confidential Document Gallop.
Half an hour later, Darcy has departed the small and bland building which houses SHIELD in New York City, laundered her route and shaken at least a few hypothetical tails, and remembered why CCD Gallop is so much more fun on a summer's afternoon. She's glad she has her grandma's cunning woollen hat. She's clumping glumly along the icy street when, from what she thought was just a shadow on the wall, hands grab her collar and haul her into an obscured nook.
Darcy is quick, that quickness has been honed in many gruelling training sessions, and alarm gets her taser out of her leg-holster very quickly indeed - but her assailant grips her weapon hand and twists, and she ends up pinned. The taser drops, the cunning hat knocked from her head is swept out of sight, and the man holding her pats at her shoulder and hisses, "Shhsh, hush, hushup Lewis, it's me, Barton. Now shush, she's coming."
Barton is short for a man, but even so, he has a good head of height on Darcy. She stands on tippy-toe to peer over his shoulder and eye up the woman approaching Coulson's apartment building. She is tall, walks with a graceful sway, and is clad in soft clothes of many bright colours. Darcy feels a brief, savage twinge of height envy. "That's an awfully big instrument case she's carrying," she breathes.
"Does it have, like, awfully big weaponry inside?" He shrugs, non-committally. Darcy pauses for a moment to savour the smell of wool and leather, and the heat radiating off him, even through the coat.
"Is she going to kill him? Is Coulson in trouble?"
"No," says Barton seriously, gazing intently out into the street. "He has a date."
"When you said, 'has a date,' I thought you meant some kind of SHIELD jargon for meeting a contact or something." Darcy looks down from the mezzanine of the family restaurant to the main floor where Coulson is chatting amiably with the woman at a table for two. "Instead, you really meant he has a date."
"Yeah," answers Barton. He proffers a wad of cash at a passing waitress and asks her to shift some of the ornamental trees (sightlines), and get some of those little candles in dishes for Coulson's table (so cute!). "What else would it be?"
Down on the floor, Coulson gently touches the woman's hand where it rests on the table. He's wearing a suit, but it's different from work (there's an elaborate code to his suit-wearage which Darcy has yet to master). The couple laugh gently together.
Murmuring in her ear, Barton explains: "Coulson always goes for musicians. Nobody understands a professional obsessive like a clasically trained muso."
Darcy recalls gossip of the salacious and entertaining kind, from her early days with the Avengers - "Barton," she says with gentleness, "do you want to be down there?"
"Hmm?" He shifts his focus from the couple on the floor to look at her gestures with bemusement. "That'd cramp the date a bit, don't you think?"
"But do you want to...?" Darcy tries to make her gestures more explicit. Or obscene.
"Oh, do I want to fuck Coulson? Hell no, that'd be weird." He goes back to his vigilance, adding a venomous glance to the noisy family party near the romantic couple.
"Uh, sorry." Darcy takes another sip from her glass.
He adds, holding up an explanatory finger, "Plus, when I play with myself, I think of women. With really -" His hands move to describe.
Darcy thinks, with longing, of the time when she was the one who made people splutter with just a little too much information. When did I get old? she wonders, sorrowfully.
"You two are both very stupid," says Natasha severely. Darcy jumps and wonders how long the red-headed spy lady had been sitting comfortably in the booth with them.
Natasha is wearing a soft white dress with red flowers printed on it that flutters softly as she takes the documents case and walks graciously down the stairs to the main floor. Darcy takes a moment to meditate again on the mystery of Natasha's Stealth Perfume, which only becomes apparent after she's gone, and tonight breathes of wine and strawberries.
Natasha looks impossibly young and demure as she approaches Coulson and his date. She gets him to sign the paperwork, talks a little with the pair of them, and then kisses the woman lightly on the cheek.
"Theodora Ramotswe," she says baldly when she returns. "On loan from the Cairo Philharmonic."
"On it," says Barton, tapping furiously at his dedicated Shield phone.
Natasha hands Darcy a little plastic baggy with a long, dark, springy hair inside. "Could you be a sweet and run this through the lab when you get back to headquarters? Standard tox screen, and get the dna on file. Thanks."
She turns to Barton: "Another cellist?"
"Bassoon," he replies.
"Good wind," she says approvingly, "I like that in a woman." Darcy pours her a margarita from the jug, and Natasha explains, "Coulson always goes for musicians: nobody understands 'married to your workmates' like an old orchestra hand."
Natasha seizes the phone and peers at the screen. "Initial background check looks good," she says doubtfully.
"They always do - at first," replies Barton sepulchurally.
"Remember Munich?" Natasha asks fondly.
"I don't remember doing this in Munich," says Barton. He frowns, "I had a date, though. She stood me up." His eyebrows scrunch together a little more. "... Natasha? What happened to Elise?"
"She went to live on a farm and is very happy," Natasha says mechanically.
"Seriously. Lots of cows and grass and fresh air. Some kind of machinery her cousin repaired." Natasha's dark eyes narrow. "It was suggested that her stash of rohypnol would be less troublesome, there."
The corners of Barton's mouth sag. "Oh well," he sighs, and holds out his glass to Darcy. "Another margarita?"
It's late, now, and Darcy is feeling a warm glow she probably shouldn't in what is still, technically, working hours. Across the table Barton has rigged a catapult out of spoons and string and is using it to toss ice chips in a high parabola to land in the collar of a woman with offensively strong perfume. Natasha gazes through green leaves at the happy couple with the inscrutability of a cat.
Darcy says, "So, super spy seduction secrets, huh?" and feels proud for managing all the sibilants in that sentence.
"No," says Natasha, "those techniques are more, 'whatever it takes to get the job done'." Her eyelids dip briefly. "It can be hard to gear down, to only... invite intimacy, instead of kidnapping it. Coulson's good," she says, with simple respect.
"Nat," interrupts Barton, "they're skipping dessert and going straight to coffee."
"Skipping the sweets? Ooh, he really likes her. Bags point!" she says, disappearing in another flutter of perfume.
Later, as she and the sniper follow Coulson and the woman discreetly down the street, Darcy realises, with a little horror, what being let into this friendly stalking party really means - because, face it, Natasha and Barton are both very pretty people and Darcy, as a healthy young woman, has had thoughts. And more thoughts. And some pleasant, if crowded, dreams. But no, they had to turn her into a buddy. Darcy's a buddy, now. And it looks like, in this crowd, buddies aren't getting -
"Grargh," she says, in lieu of bashing her head against the wall.
Barton puts a companionable hand on her shoulder as they walk. "So, Darce," he says, "any young man caught your eye? Or lady? Person of indeterminate gender...?"
"Grargh," she says, eloquently.
It's okay to have relationships outside of work. (Work has you covered.)
"Coulson, Coulson, Coulson," says Darcy, dangling a box of donuts just out of her supervisor's reach, "Why do you really go for musicians?"
"Attention to detail, good rhythm, and very strong hands," he says, lunging and plucking the box away from her with unexpected vim. "Mmm, strawberry frosting..."
I borrowed Theodora's last name from the heroine of the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency books - I think Phil and Precious Ramotswe would get along quite well, so we'll call Theodora a cousin, hey?
"Natasha gazes through green leaves..." - Actually, cats can be open books once you get to know them, but this was an inscrutable cat.
There are a lot of really great shipping stories with Coulson, Barton, and Natasha in varying combinations. But I wanted to explore a relationship where there's a lot of trust and emotional intensity, but the sexuality is turned elsewhere. So yeah.
Chapter 2: Paperwork May Be Redacted, But Gossip Is Eternal
Chapter Two: Paperwork May Be Redacted, But Gossip Is Eternal.
"I know they're a bit weird about romance," says Senior Agent Hill over a late night glass of beer, "but it's understandable when you think about it. Natasha uses her sexuality as a tool and a weapon; Coulson was almost disembowelled by his ex-wife; and Barton's well, Barton. Almost all SHIELD agents are nowhere near that paranoid." She smiles reassuringly.
"Yeah, turns out she was a double. We didn't have a clue 'til half his guts were on the floor. The sheer tradecraft on that woman," Maria whistles appreciatively.
"Yes, it was only half of his large intestine and it's all sewed back inside now. Some of it's plastic - don't tell Coulson I told you, he's a bit weird about the plastic thing."
"Anyway, funny story, a month later we found out she was actually a little green alien with shapeshifter-like abilities - the mothership grounded and we found Rose all curled up in a pod with some other folks. But as you can see, this all put some strain on the marriage."
Darcy is pretty sure, by now, that Maria is engaging in the time-honoured practice of hazing the newbie. But the beer is good - some kind of microbrew with a dark flavour and notes of walnut - and, frankly, she wants to know just how far Maria will go. She nods along.
"And then it got a whole lot more complicated because the little green alien wanted to defect - said it was really sorry about the attempted disembowelling and that stomach wounds are non-lethal all the time among its people and anyhow, it missed potatoes.
"So Coulson talked to Fury and, long story short, we gave it a job down in Tech. Name of Clive. Tell him I said hello next time you're down there."
Maria gestures to the bartender for refills and then leans forward, resting two fingers on the back of Darcy's wrist. "But I bet you're wondering, Trainee Agent Lewis, why I called you out here."
Maria has good hands, Darcy notes - long and strong, a little battered around the nails, but neat, and warm on Darcy's skin. She wonders, with a brief flare of hope, if she's about to be taken advantage of - in a sexual way - by a superior officer.
"There's something I need to know," breathes Maria, her eyes dark and intense.
"Yes?" Darcy says, in her best frightened-bunny voice.
"I heard, from a pal down in Ops, who heard from - well, it doesn't matter now - that you were on the support team for the Scott Base shindig last week."
"Uh, most of that's classified..." Darcy says uneasily.
Maria waves her free hand negligently. "Facts and figures I have already. But there was a whiff, just a scent, of something that didn't make it into the paperwork."
"Ohhh, you mean the camel."
"Yes," Maria breathes. "Tell me about the camel, the astrobaric device, and Tony Stark."
"... I have pictures."
I'm not saying that Maria's little green alien story is true in all its particulars, but if it were there would definitely not have been a conversation between Mr and Mrs Coulson along the lines of "There were less arguments when you were Clive." Because they were mature and rational people who didn't need to state the obvious.
Chapter 3: SHIELD Agents Do Not Keep Pets (1)
"Oh no, I'm sorry but that's a terrible idea," says Agent Coulson. "Sure, Lewis, your life seems stable now with regular trips to the office and coffee on demand, and donuts, but in this job it's never quite certain when you might be called out to an undisclosed location in Europe and come back three months later to find that your third fern in a row has withered and died."
He leans forward over his desk and fixes Darcy with his sad, dark eyes. "Save yourself the heartbreak, Lewis. That fern had a name," he adds, then holds up an apologetic hand as his desk phone rings and the person on the other end squawks in a long diatribe of frustration.
"No, Jasper," he says presently into the old-fashioned bakelite receiver, "you need to think cat wrangling. Don't crowd him or he'll skitter off any direction but where you want him. Look away. Dangle a piece of string. Don't notice him following you. You'll get Stark filling the order in no time."
Business over, he rests his elbows on the desk and steeples his fingers. "Lewis," he says earnestly, "have you considered getting a Roomba?"
A roomba is a little robotic vacuum cleaner.
Any votes on the name of Coulson's late, lamented fern?
Chapter 4: Sometimes It's Just Another Day At the Office
"Sometimes It's Just Another Day At the Office"
There's a room in the A Tower. One end is a kitchen and it morphs by casual degrees into scruffy, comfortable furniture that gives Mr Stark's interior designer fits. It started as an unofficial break room for the workmen rebuilding after the Battle of New York and, as the Avengers trickled back in, they never quite let it get remodelled.
Darcy cannot confirm or deny the reports of armed stand-offs against successive squads of wallpaper hangers. Well. She can, she just doesn't choose to. Two of her unofficial jobs when she was just a SHIELD paperwork bunny were to a) keep the kitchen stocked with five kinds of cereal and b) stick newspaper clippings of the Avengers onto the fridge with cheerful white-and-yellow daisy magnets.
These days, having been sucked into the upside down vortex of ever-increasing doom which SHIELD likes to call its promotional ladder, Darcy is almost too busy for that. Also, tonight she is on break, dammit.
"Oh, those two are so boning," says Jane.
Darcy picks up her bottle of nail polish, 'Death By Pinkness', and cocks an eyebrow.
Her former boss nods across the room to the lounging area, where Natasha and Barton are settled, watching a show on pottery. Natasha, through some strange and eternal alchemy of style, is making cut-off denim shorts and a plain black singlet look chic. She sits cross-legged on the battered couch, taking notes in a hard-bound notebook balanced on her thigh. Barton is on the floor below, leaning with his back against the couch, jeans-clad legs splayed. As Jane and Darcy watch, Natasha uncurls one leg and drops it over Barton's shoulder. Without looking away from the lecture on imari-ware he starts to rub the instep and bridge of her foot.
"I cannot confirm or deny," says Darcy.
"That's the third time you've said that this evening," Jane observes. "C'mon kiddo, you're letting me down here. It's been too long - gossip! Gossip!"
Darcy strives hard to keep her shrug to herself. Jane and Thor have the kind of relationship where one or both of them disappears into a lab or an extra-planar location, or Norway, for weeks at a time and when they get back together they coo at each other and there are flowers and Thor carries Jane around everywhere and they coo some more and disappear to quarters for days at a time. It seems to keep the pair of them happy but, Darcy feels it's not entirely her fault that she hasn't seen Jane in a while.
"But 'cannot confirm or deny' is funny," she protests instead, pouting and tugging at one of Jane's braids.
Jane tweaks her eyebrows together and says, more low, "I'm worried about how you keep disappearing and coming back with bandages. Are those government spooks... making you do things?"
"Honestly," says Darcy, "today was just another day at the office..."
The morning was just a little training and some paperwork.
"Really, Coulson? Really?" Darcy rolls her eyes upward, but she still can't see the heavy book he is balancing on her head.
"You'll thank me for it one day, Lewis," he says, carefully letting go of the book and hobbling with the help of his cane back to his desk. "Back like a string of pearls, now."
Darcy sighs, and then has to catch the book - Seven Pillars of Wisdom, apparently - and manoeuvre it gingerly back on her head. "Bet you five dollars?" she asks. Then, "TrustmeCaptainAmericathisisn'tnearlyaskinkyasitlooks," as Steve Rogers pokes his head through the office doorway with a case of papers under one arm.
He blinks at her. "Huh."
"I didn't know girls still did that," Steve says. "Peggy used to complain about having to do it in finishing school. Oh," he addresses Coulson, "I mean Peggy Carter - she was a dame I worked with a lot in the SSR. But then you've probably read about her in my file. So, uh -"
"I know about Peggy Carter," says Coulson, a faint, sweet smile wreathing his face. "How can I help you, Captain Rogers?"
Then I delivered some paperwork and shuffled stuff around the offices.
There's something in the ducts.
Darcy is ten floors underneath SHIELD's New York headquarters past lasers and retinal scanners and armed guards and there's something in the ducts. She draws her taser (a Stark Special #3) from its holster on her thigh and pads along the dreary gray hall with her weapon at the ready. Having lightning at her beck and call is fun, but in this situation she's going to have to wait until whatever it is moves out from cover. Darcy kinda wishes, right now, that she had a dirty inelegant slug-thrower on her, however much Coulson crinkles his eyes when the subject comes.
So. Thing. Ducts. Darcy. She tracks it by sound, up and to the left, and over. Then another pit-a-pat comes from the right. And then behind.
There is a brief, exciting tussle, and then Darcy lands hard on the floor without ever seeing what the thing was. Dammit.
The floor is cold against her back, and pressure on her chest makes it hard to breathe. There's no pain, though, so Darcy risks blinking her eyes open. The weight on her chest is a large catlike thing, its rangy body covered with coarse grey fur striped with red. There's a metal spider caught in its mouth, metal limbs twitching feebly. The Cat Thing stares at her with curious yellow eyes and works its jaws around the spider. Metal parts sprinkle down and bounce off her chest.
"Uh, hey, Cat Thing, I, uh come in peace?" Is that smoke drifting out its nose? There is a metal collar around its neck, and a tag which reads "TECH 10.101." Oh great, an escaped experiment. "Nice Cat Thing," she says, and eases herself awkwardly out from under and rescues her document folder. Near death experiences or no, the paperwork must get through!
... and I made a new friend!
The guy in Tech is short, and keeps his hair in an assertive side parting. There's a badge cheerfully proclaiming "Hi! My name is CLIVE" clipped to his checked shirt. His dark liquid eyes don't blink as he, in unison with the Cat Thing, stares silently at Darcy.
"Oh, you're Clive," says Darcy. "Agent Hill said to say 'Hi' if I ever saw you."
Clive closes his eyes slowly, and then opens them. "Hill," he says. He shuts his eyes and opens them again. "I have something for Hill."
"Riiight," says Darcy. "Welp, here are your blueprints and I'll just head off and let you and your pet get some quality time..."
"Richard isn't a pet," Clive says, his voice filled with gloom. "Vermin control is very serious business down here. There was trouble with miniaturised Von Neumann bots just yesterday." He strokes Richard the Cat Thing's forehead and coos, "And you crunched those nasty metal things all up, champ." Richard swells a little at his touch, and makes a little creaky noise in its throat.
Oh, I stopped to get a haircut on my lunchbreak.
Darcy ducks around the corner, her taser out for the second time that day. "I'm all for freedom of expression in the privacy of one's home," she says to the suit-and-sunglasses guy next to her, "but isn't there a rule about flamethrowers in the hallways?"
"No, but it would probably be covered by the General Horseplay and Rowdy Behaviour clause in the employees' handbook, Section 36, paragraph (c)," he replies, lifting his gun. "On three?"
"I don't count," says Darcy. Then she calls around the corner, "Hey, Extra Planar Inferno Guy! I liked my hair! There was special shampoo and everything! Do you know how much work it is to get hair that attractively tousled? And now it's up in smoke! What do you have to say to that, huh?"
From around the corner, over the crackling of the flames, she hears a mournful "Soooorrryyyy..."
"So we're gonna talk this out and you're going to pay to have my coiffure neatened up and then we'll send you back to Pyro Dimension. Okay?"
Darcy corks the polish bottle, and inspects her nails. The blindingly pink polish is still shining and wet, so she puts her hands flat on the table, fingers spread wide. "You next?" she inquires.
Jane, who is not a polish kind of a girl, pulls her hands back defensively and fists them in the sleeves of her shirt. It's way too big for Jane, woven of linen and embroidered at the cuff and throat with fine red wool. Darcy has a brief flash of estimating the thread count of the linen, and what that might imply for Asgardian weaving techniques, but blinks it away.
"So that was my morning," she says. "Very lackadaisacal. What do you think of the new 'do?"
"It's very cute," says Ms Potts, pulling out a chair and sitting down with her ankles elegantly crossed. "I like the curly bits at the bottom."
Then there was the weekly cultural briefing with Captain America, which is terribly important...
Darcy thumps the battered cardboard box on the table in the SHIELD canteen and pulls out paperbacks. "Now everyone keeps telling me I have to get you reading Harry Potter," she says, "but I thought some Tom Clancy might be good for decompressing. And, Steve, I am so sorry for making you read two le Carre books in a row. That was inconsiderate, badly calculated, and a 'dick move'. Only one le Carre a year now, I promise."
Instead, Steve Rogers snags a slim volume with a missing spine and a picture of a highwayman on the cover. "Hey, The Black Moth," he says. "They still publish that?"
"Oh, that was, uh mine, for private reading." Darcy snatches it back. "Hang on. You've read Georgette Heyer?"
Steve doesn't even have the grace to blush, and with his fair skin that would have been awe-inspiring. "My mom liked them. And I spent a lot of time in bed with nothing to do but read or draw. That book about the Battle of Waterloo she did in the thirties - that was swell."
"Gotta say, Darcy, I could do with a few more conflicts where the bad guy says, "OK you win, I'm off to bed, dinner's on the table..."
And I manned the phones for the rest of the day.
Bing. "Hi, Dispatch, Agent Smith here, ID 451, I need a where-at on Beetle Squad."
taptaptap "Agent Smith, as of last communique Beetle Squad was over the Antarctic, verbal report 'breaking out the Hawaiian shirts'. Co-ordinates to follow..."
Bing. "Dispatch, this is Agent Smythe, ID 314, preliminary report on Operation: Dumbo. The elephant has dropped the feather. Repeat, the elephant has dropped the feather.
"Understood, Agent Smythe, and godspeed."
Bing. "Agent Smitty calling, ID 1618 in Zone Purple. I need a trace on the Destroyer of Worlds, Name Him Not Yet He Shall Come."
taptaptap "New Jersey Destroyer of Worlds, Name Him Not Yet He Shall Come or San Francisco Destroyer of Worlds, Name Him Not Yet He Shall Come?"
"Last seen near Boston?"
taptaptap "Perhaps you mean Nameless Destiny of Worlds? We resettled that guy in Massachusetts last year."
"Yeah, my bad, slip of the tongue there..."
Bing. "Ma'am, your son set himself on fire? Ohhh, he's enjoying it. Yes, this was the right number to call. Get him to stand on tile or concrete if you can, we're sending a response team. In the meantime, can we talk to you again about that boarding school in Westchester? There's a new one-semester enrollment package so you wouldn't have to lose him for long..."
Bing. "Delivery from Argyle's Pizza waiting in reception, for an Agent Smith."
"Sending a pickup now."
Bing. "Hey there beautiful I'm sure you're beautiful calling from a payphone here lost our comms, they're bombing us from the air, and I'm down to my last dime."
taptaptap "Tracing your location from the phone now." taptaptap "Exfil is on its way. What's your name, sweetheart?"
"ID 111, Agent Papadoupo-"
"So yeah," says Darcy, flicking her eyes down to her hands, "just another day at the office."
Jane is stirring a silver spoon in another mug of tea, the steam from it veiling her face. Pepper works at her nails with an emory stick that, Darcy's pretty sure, cost a week of Darcy's salary.
"Well," says Jane, "so long as it's okay. But if you ever need busting out, I know a guy. And, hey, the Power of Science. Thingy. I'm here if you need help."
Darcy forces a grin. "Got it Jane-boss. But me, I'm like an ant - lift ten times my weight and work well with others. It's all cool."
Over at the couch part of the break room, Barton sits with Natasha's legs draped over his shoulders, his head tipped back, eyes closed. Natasha rubs one finger gently between his eyebrows.
Darcy observes his bare toes, so naked and... vulnerable. She picks up the little bottle of nail polish and tosses it in her hand. "Jane, Pepper, are you thinking what I'm thinking...?"
"Hey," reproves Natasha.
Darcy pouts. "Sorry."
"There's sparkly polish in my bag."
"Should I be worried?" says Barton, eyes still closed.
"Pish, Agent of SHIELD here. You should always worry."
(Agent Papadoupolis is fine - the payphone ran out of money and Darcy called him back and they talked until the evac came. Just so you know.)
imari-ware - once upon a time, there was a town in Japan which didn't make a particular kind of porcelain (that was Arita), but it did export the stuff in bulk to the Western World, and gave that porcelain its name. It gets complicated after that, not least because western pottery makers started imitating the style. Anyway, think lots of blue and red and gold. It's v. pretty.
von Neumann bots - von Neumann theorised that space probes programmed to build copies of themselves might be an effective way to explore space. I'm using the term simply for self-replicating robots. And the thought of them gives me the willies.
"On three?" "I don't count." - Lifted in slightly altered form from the episode "Boorland Day" of The Unusuals
The Black Moth was published in 1921, An Infamous Army in 1937, '38 in the States, well within Steve's pre-freeze timeframe. For people who aren't familiar with Heyer, she made her name in Regency romances, painstakingly researched and generally quite sweet, and also wrote a handful of whodunnits and army books. An Infamous Army is both a romance and a painfully thoroughly researched account of the Battle of Waterloo.
Chapter 5: SHIELD Agents Look Out For Each Other's Families
Severely limited ability to write proper operational comm chatter. Sorry about that.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"No, Mom, I like working in a bank. It's very fulfilling. And I'm glad that Stacey got that internship. Really, it's nice to see my former classmates doing well. Really. Sorry, Mom, but I'm going to have to put you on hold."
Darcy clips the phone onto her belt, grabs a heavy-duty field laptop from its docking unit in the Mobile Operations Van, and exits the van at a rapid clip. Agent Velasquez dives after her with an armful of comm equipment and, as the incoming missile detonates and the van explodes, makes a beautiful dark silhouette against the blossoming flames.
They dive around a mural-painted wall and into a damp and quiet park and Darcy pats Velasquez's hand as she takes an earpiece. He looks a little wild eyed. "The first explosion is always the worst. No actually it's the second that's worst. Never mind, you're doing good - Mom, hey, didn't realise the phone was back off hold. No, that wasn't phone sex on the other line. Yes, I would tell you if I was in a relationship. Were in a relationship, yes grammar is very important. Hang on."
The park is still quiet, all oak trees and metal benches, with none of the high-pitched whine that cued Velasquez into the incoming strike. Darcy keys into the group channel. "Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, and Mr Stark. The sky is grey, the birds are coughing, ground team is fine though now, sadly, on foot. We're having trouble picking up bogeys on our systems. Hawkeye, do you have a visual?"
"Coming back your way, ground team," the archer rasps cheerfully. "Slowing 'em down now, but beat feet, yeah?" Ah, there's the whine. Darcy and Velasquez run again, skittering to the side as the little malevolent robots in hotrod red planes swarm back, flowing around the leaders that get downed by Hawkeye's arrows. Those planes are fast, but they don't turn well, so Darcy figures they have a couple of minutes. They scramble up a fire escape to the top of a nearby building's flat roof and take shelter behind a barbecue and some potted trees. Darcy takes stock of their gear, and realises with horror that she's lost her phone - and her Mom is still on hold...
"All quiet on our end," reports Captain Rogers.
"Nobody loves us," says Iron Man, "and I have this wonderful booby trap set up and-"
"Hi, Mrs Lewis?" It's Natasha, cooing in a voice sweet as honey bubbling from the rock. Darcy risks a look at the park, and sees the Black Widow in her cat-suited glory, talking cheerfully on Darcy's lost phone as she lines up shots on the returning flyers with her little guns. "This is Natalie - I sit next to Darcy in our office. I'm sorry, but she's been called away to a meeting. Oh no, nothing bad." Natasha voice drops. "Between you and me, little Darcy is in line for a citation and a pay increase. But I'm not supposed to know, so you didn't hear it from me. Eat hot death, Робот захватчиков."
Darcy's breath seizes in her throat, but she drags her attention back to skimming scanning frequencies so the blasted little things will come up on the laptop's mapping systems
"Hey," said Stark over the comms. "Hey. Since when was I the one telling the highly trained SHIELD operatives to focus on the job, huh? You're ruining my simple childhood beliefs here. Next you'll tell me there's a Santa Claus."
"Surely, you mean the other way around, Tony" Rogers sounds amused.
"An entity that squats in the arctic, spies on prepubescents everywhere, and warps the laws of physics to break into their houses on the darkest night of the year? Stuff of nightmares. Lewis, I have a first name, birth certificate and everything, keep up keep up."
"Black Widow, I need a sitrep on my Mom."
"Oh, I threw her in the air."
Darcy and Velasquez finally, finally, gets the little flying things to come up on her screen. The little dots are gathering in on Natasha, who seems to be enjoying herself, but she still doesn't specialise in heavy artillery...
She hears on the comms: "Hiya Mrs Lewis, it's Bert from IT. Natalie had to take a customer's call. Oh yes, they're the best of friends. Say, Mrs Lewis, perhaps you could help me? See, I'm supposed to be fixing Darcy's computer but I don't know when she'll get back to unlock the security." His voice grows gloomy. "I've got a list of jobs on my docket as long as my arm, and if I don't get it done now then I don't know - Yeah, exactly."
Barton appears on the roof opposite, a blissful expression on his face. He's hooked Darcy's poor abused phone to a hands-free setup which doesn't interfere with his archery.
"So, the first question is, 'mother's maiden name' ...? Ooh, that's lovely, very dignified. Name of childhood pet? Huh. Dress size? ... It's what the security question says, Ma'am. Non-standard dress sizing. I see."
Barton pauses his conversation to give Darcy a thumbs-up from across the void between buildings. Darcy tries to manifest spontaneous mutant powers and burn him to death with her eyes, but it appears that he is immune, because he grins toothily and sends an arrow into the exhaust pipe of a screaming microjet, which obediently goes into a tailspin, and then explodes.
"Yes, I think she's really cute just the way she is, too... You made her prom dress? How many layers of chiffon? Awww. She must have looked so adorable... Why, Mrs Lewis, I would love to see a picture. Hey, maybe I can swap you a picture of her new haircut? Muffins? For me? Oh boy!"
"Barton I am going to disembowel you with a spoon."
"But I know for a fact that she's coming home for Thanksgiving this year. She was telling the whole office about how much she was looking forward to surprising you..."
"A very small spoon, so it will take longer."
Natasha chips in with, "Does your mother let you bring guests, Lewis? And be straight with us, how's the cranberry sauce?"
"Lonely," Stark sings, "so lonely..."
Darcy glances at Velasquez. He looks pretty horrified, but his hands don't shake as he holds up their scanning dish and aerial. The dots on the screen are reforming, this time on Hawkeye's location. Huh? "Oh, shit, they're tracking my phone frequency," she says aloud.
"Come again?" asks Rogers, but Tony Stark interrupts: "JARVIS, see to it."
"At once, sir" the AI answers, "Agent Lewis's phone has been successfully cloned."
"Mrs Lewis!" says Tony Stark, his voice dropping into the melodious drawl he charms politicians, children, and nuns with, "Tony Stark here..."
Already, the alien craft are moving towards the carefully staged trap Stark and Rogers are manning. "What are you wearing, Mrs Lewis?" Stark says.
The Russian is actually pretty innocuous. I tried putting in proper Russian swear words, but I got three white hairs just looking through the list. Feel free to substitute something sufficiently pungent in your heart.
Chapter 6: SHIELD Agents Kinda Have A Thing For Captain America
Heya, much of this chapter contains things like discussion of prophylactics, sexual hygiene, feminine hygiene, and sexual harassment. If that isn't your thing, feel free to just skip the chapter. It's cool.
One day I will manage a chapter that isn't packed with dubious humour. But this is not that day.
I apologise for the great delay in writing this - there was another, very large, project that ate my brain for months. (It went very well, though.) Also, sorry for the false update last week - saving a draft does funny things to the file.
Thank you Daisy Ninja Girl for beta-ing this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
SHIELD Agents kinda have a thing for Captain America. They do. Even the agents whose recruitment stories run on the lines of nervous coughs and statements of "It's complicated," "I was... wild... in those days," or, "This or the firing squad, Darce, are you going to bet or are we taking up knitting now?"
Those last guys can be the funniest because when they're new they'll interrupt rants about the shadowy military-industrial complex, indentured servitude, and what they'll do when they get the tracking anklet off* with - "But that Steve Rogers, he's a good guy." And then six months later they're giving the Don't try to be a perfect soldier; be a good man/woman/synthetic or otherwise genderless entity speech with the rest of the excitable chicks brooding under SHIELD's great and downy breast.
Darcy has heard the Don't try to be a perfect soldier speech twelve times, once in Hungarian, and she is aware of the service-wide indignation when it was found out just what Fury did to Coulson's near mint vintage Captain America trading cards.
She knows, with no regret, that she hasn't quite been absorbed into the SHIELD groupthink, because while she has a Thing, it isn't that Thing.
Darcy's Thing is that she wants to see Captain America blush. She's heard it's awe-inspiring.
"Now this," says Darcy, spinning the tiny plastic packet across the table, "is a condom."
Steve Rogers picks up the colourful packet, tiny in his fingers, and fiddles with it. He almost drops the packet, but eventually tears it open, and hangs the rolled up rubber on one finger. He sniffs it experimentally, his nose wrinkling at the smell, and then unrolls it to test the texture and flexibility along his fingertips. "They were larger in my day," he says eventually.
"When giant lizards stalked the earth?" Darcy drawls.
(It's only sensible to make absolutely certain Steve has had the safer sex talk. Nobody wants a national icon getting VD. It's practically a civic duty, right?)
Steve goes on. "When I was a kid, they'd get flushed down the toilets but, rubber, you know? So they'd end up at the bottom of the river. Bucky used to dive for them. He wouldn't let me swim, not after the pneumonia, so I did the after care. Dry them out, stretch 'em back to shape on a form, a coat of oil, and they were good for resale.
"Okaaaay... We have issues about Reduce, Reuse, Recycle not applying in this particular case."
Steve adds, "Are you going to give me the feminine hygiene lecture now? Phil told me about that one." His eyes are clear, and innocent, and blue, and guileless, and Darcy knows, she knows, that he's onto her.
"It was the only time I ever saw that man look queasy," continues Steve, his eyes misting in remembered awe.
Darcy narrows her eyes and considers. He hasn't said "Yellow light" at all...
Well then, Rogers, Darcy thinks, Too-much-information Chicken it is.
"It's a cultural treasure," Darcy says, putting the Flashdance disc into the conference room player.
"Welders in Pittsburgh," says Steve. "Okay." Then, when the welding in protective gear stops and the stripped down and energetic dance training starts, "Oh."
To Darcy's disgust he doesn't blush then, either, and blinks and breathes at the same rate as when he watches documentaries, because apparently he has nerves of steel, godammit.
But then they get to the end, when the plucky underprivileged kid gives her all in the audition and goes onto her dream job - Steve's eyes get all wet and he hugs Darcy which she is totally okay with because a) Who doesn't want to hug Captain America? and b) Steve's pectoral muscles have properties of spiritual healing.
Hearing Captain America sing "What a Feeling" the next time he smites orange mutated giant frogs is also... kinda awesome.
Not everyone agrees - Mr Stark looks at her with sad, reproachful puppy eyes after that, and Senior Agent Hill won't take her out for beer for a whole month. But Barton hums along quite happily in his tuneful gravel and, since Natasha has long refused to acknowledge that any American music of the last fifty years has artistic merit anyway, the red-headed agent continues to stare at Darcy in that impassive way that means either she trusts Darcy enough to forget about company manners or she's planning on killing Darcy and eating her entrails. (Same old, same old.)
She does have a vague and half-formed plan for letting the front zipper on her jumpsuit accidentally kind of break next time she scores some training time with the Captain. But then Tuesday happens, which starts with boomerang butterflies**, zig-zags through several swift costume changes and a death threat from an aquatic guy wearing a green scaly speedo, and ends with Steve in all his plaid-shirted, grandpa-pants glory falling through the roof of a (fairly classy) strip joint. By the time the SHIELD support van, plus Darcy, catches up, the Steve has already swept up most of the glass, retrieved his shoulder bag, and is chatting amiably with a flurry of cheerful girls wearing nothing more than g-strings and a little artistic paint. And he hasn't turned a hair. He looks them in the eyes and everything. Bah.
It's time to call Uncle.
She does ask him about it on the way home, though.
Steve tells her, "I rode in a bus with a troupe of chorus girls for six months. If a fella sits quiet, he will get an eyeful. And an earful. Darcy, you haven't lived 'til you hear Agnes D talking about her aunty's prolapsed uterus..."
"So how come, and I ask this purely out of academic curiosity, you were so bad at being flirted with by a pretty girl that it has become proverbial in the hallowed halls of our institution?"
He shrugs, a little uncomfortably, and looks out the van window. "I was their dumb kid brother. They patted me on the head, showed me how to find my mark on the stage, and ran interference when someone from the audience wanted to stick a hand down my pants. I appreciated it, but the flirting happened to other people. Half of them had fellas and whatnot anyway.
"And before the serum and the show-biz and everything, well, being short really meant something -"
"It still does," mutters Darcy darkly.
"- and I didn't get any chance to practice when someone was actually... interested. Whoah, butterfly!"
Darcy swerves rapidly to the left, skids over a patch of oil, and curses the high centre-mass and balky steering of the van as it turns into a gentle 360 degree spin in heavy traffic.*** She lumbers the thing to a stop at the side of the road and shakes for a bit as the five o'clock traffic zips by and the boomerang butterfly flutters away in a jeering and provocative manner.
Steve reaches out a gentle hand, cups her shoulder, and tugs her towards him. Darcy leans into his side and sighs. Steve really does give the best hugs.
Eventually she says, "I'm good." She sits upright and, as she reaches for the wheel, dislodges Steve's messenger bag. A sketch book tumbles out and lands half open by the pedals.
"Hey, is that Mr Stark?"
Steve grabs for the sketchbook but Darcy gets there first. It is Stark, half-naked and lying on a table on his belly. His head is lifted and craning around to look at Bruce, as the doctor taps long metal acupuncture needles into the muscles of his back. The lines of the sketch are rough and quick, but in them she can see Stark's vitality and incessant curiosity, the blank glint of Bruce's glasses and the sureness of his fingers.
She turns the page. There is a whole series of hand studies here - mostly Bruce's heavy fingers, but a few others also, some with nicks and burns from a machine shop, or heavy callouses in the crook of the first two fingers. There is a portrait of Thor looking very noble. Somehow he got Natasha to sit for him - the wild fire of the assassin's hair is wrapped out of sight with a scarf and instead the drawing explores the subtle curve of her spine and the grace of her posture.
Darcy turns a page and finds herself there, dark hair blowing in the wind, atop a pile of elephant-sized goons. There is a fey twinkle in her eyes and lightning rises from her hands. Darcy was never that pretty. But it's nice, and she blinks hard for a bit, and swallows.
"Um, thanks," she says.
"Uh, you're welcome?" says Steve, unexpectedly awkward. Darcy looks up and she sees it.
Steve's blush is high on his cheeks, pink and delicate against his pale skin, the kind of blush that makes you want to pinch his cheek.
"Oh sweet mother of god where's my camera?"
"No! Back I say! Red light! Red light!!"
* Darcy knows, because Coulson works a lot of personnel files, that what they'll do when they get the tracking anklet off is get a couple of months off their work-release contract, a small raise, and a better tracking anklet. SHIELD believes in rewarding skill. And has somewhat unusual hiring practices, but that's another story.
** No boomerang butterflies were harmed in the making of this chapter.
*** I've been in one of those spins, though I wasn't driving. Still remember the eerie calm of it.
The condoms in the river story I read in... some historical book, somewhere? The funky pills story was in War Stories Your Mother Never Told You which is about New Zealand wartime experiences, but I figure soldiers are soldiers wherever they go.