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"I'm hoping that you just called my parents hippies and not criminals," Darcy says through gritted teeth. She's glaring across the table at the seventh, yes, seventh suited automaton she's had to talk to that day and not one of them has had the foresight to bring her a coffee.

Darcy's about to smack someone, preferably someone holding a coffee so she can steal it.

"I don't really see a difference," Seven says. Darcy is about one point zero three seconds from launching herself across the table and strangling Seven with his Walmart tie when the door to the interview room opens and another man slides through.

He's looking a fascinating mix of apologetic and pained and Darcy decides that eight might be her lucky number.

"Agent Warnes, I'll take it from here," he says, glaring when Warnes doesn't move quick enough. The new guy has a Starbucks cup in hand that he sets it down in front of her.

"Oh sweet Elmo, thank you," Darcy groans, snatching the cup off the table.

"Miss Lewis, I'm Agent Coulson. I'm sorry to have-"

"Don't apologize," Darcy says but before he can misinterpret that for forgiveness about her current situation, Darcy narrows her eyes. "Really, don't. I don't want the first thing out of you to be an empty platitude. You'll lose the points you got from the coffee and the tailored suit."

Coulson looks down at himself, looks back up at Darcy. "Right, of course," he says crisply.

"All I want out of you is why I'm here and how I can get un-here," Darcy says around the lip of the cup. "There didn't happen to be a muffin to go with this coffee did there?"

"Are you hungry?" Coulson asks, winces ever so slightly when Darcy raises an eyebrow at him. "No platitudes and no stupid questions, right."

"Them's the rules," Darcy agrees. "Is this all because I failed the PCR test?"

"You didn't... there's no failing a PCR test," Coulson says. "There's a positive and negative result."

"Mine was positive."

"Yes."

"Then I failed."

"Some would see it as a great opportunity," Coulson says, but he says it in a way that sounds like a company line he doesn't quite buy. Darcy thinks that maybe, outside of this interview setting, she might like the guy.

"Great, how about you get one of those people to take my place and leave me the hell alone."

*

Agent Phil Coulson, it turns out, is someone Darcy does get to like, even if it's grudgingly. He's the sane buoy on the ocean of crazy her life has become, his office one she can flounce into if it's otherwise unoccupied and Stacy, Phil's tiny but terrifying personal assistant, gives her the nod.

Darcy's pretty sure Stacy's trained in ways to kill a person with office supplies.

Darcy's in Phil's office now because it's been a month of waiting which is a month too long. She's been given a hotel room which is nice because she's seen the monk-like accommodations the onsite agents and riders have to use, but even limitless room service loses its appeal eventually.

Darcy is sick of massages. She didn't even know that was possible.

Darcy's waiting for a Hatching and she knows logically that Phil has absolutely no power to hurry it along, but he has the power to be present when she complains bitterly about that fact which is all she needs. "I've been the wallflower at three of these things already. Do I really have to go to a fourth to prove that the dragons just aren't into me?"

"I'm suspecting there was more than one pop culture reference that I missed in what you just said," Phil says, not looking up from the open folder in his hands. Phil's like the big brother Darcy kinda wishes she'd had. She has to fight the urge daily to muss his hair just because he always looks perfect but she's pretty sure Stacy would ninja chop her into next week. "Four is the best indicator that we're not going to match you."

"Are you going to tell me it's changed to five when I've done the fourth?" Darcy asks.

"No, four is the magic number. You don't spike at four, you're released on your own recognizance." Phil looks up at her with a patient smile, mild as ever.

"Do I smell or something?"

"If you did that would be a good thing. Dragons are mostly pheromone driven."

"I'm just starting to take it personally is all," Darcy says when Phil frowns at the way she's kicking at his feet under his desk.

"I can't imagine anyone finding your company less than sparkling," he says drily.

"Oh har, har."

"It's nothing you're doing," Phil says, setting his paperwork aside finally and steepling his fingers.

"Just-"

"Darcy, you don't want to spike, do you?" he asks, a touch puzzled.

Darcy opens her mouth, closes it again. If Phil had asked her that a month ago she would've been sure of her answer. Now though, having been exposed to SHIELDD, Darcy's starting to wonder what she was so excited to get back to in her normal life.

Her parents had been less than thrilled that she'd been picked up during a routine PCR screening. She'd been tested back in Iowa during high school but the labs there had been using a previous protocol, less sensitive than the government re-screen she'd taken that was required to graduate. Her results had come back positive for the mutation that allowed people to bond and control a dragon.

This didn't mean she would end up becoming a career rider necessarily, because the dragons still had a little say in the matter, contrary reptiles.

This is what Darcy has been waiting for the last month. She's attended the supervised dragon egg hatchings at SHIELDD and a corresponding elevation in hers and a dragon's vitals means that they are compatible and can begin training. Everyone testing positive is required by law to attend a minimum of four hatchings to rule them out as viable riders.

"No," Darcy finally decides on, even though she isn't sure that's true anymore.

*

At the fourth hatching, there's only one surviving egg which Darcy can tell is a devastating blow to the SHIELDD lab technicians. There are six other candidates in her group that she exchanges polite smiles with as she's hooked up to monitors, knowing that with only one egg, the chances that she's going to spike are pretty slim.

This of course, means that she does and Darcy meets Brian for the first time, a dragon who's going to end up changing her life in ways she's not sure she's prepared for.

One of which is that she has to move out of the nice hotel and into SHIELDD proper, worse luck.

*

"He'll grow to full size in nineteen days which won't give you a lot of time to... are you listening?"

Darcy startles, guilty. Rider Hill is the first career rider Darcy's met and she should be more excited, more full of questions, but instead she's watching Brian chew her hair and thinking about how adorable he is and that she needs to film it to put on YouTube because it would kick sneezing baby panda video ass.

Darcy thinks Rider Hill is going to yell at her, but instead the other woman's face softens. "I remember when I spiked with Trese. I couldn't concentrate on anything else. If you like, we can give you the day."

"That would be awesome," Darcy enthuses but before she can heap more praise on Hill's generosity and kindness, Hill hands a huge book to her and pats it.

"During that day you can read the Rider Manual yourself," Hill says and all traces of understanding and softness have deserted her face, leaving an expression that Darcy is both terrified and impressed by. "There'll be a quiz."

*

"You look lost."

Darcy turns at the sound of the voice behind her. She's been loitering outside the rider eating hall for about twenty minutes, trying to get up the nerve to enter. Hill's her only basis for comparison when it comes to riders and Hill scares the beejezus out of her so Darcy's not really sure she wants to meet the others.

At least until training requires her to.

"Um," Darcy manages intelligently because the guy standing behind her is in the black leather rider uniform, sleeves cut off to emphasise impossibly lovely biceps. Barton is stitched in Avenger red across the right side of his chest. Hill had indeed subjected Darcy to a quiz and one of the questions was about each squadron's color.

Red was Avengers which was the first and scariest squadron because Captain Steve Rogers rode a red dragon, largest and most feared of them all. Darcy had heard all kinds of crazy stories growing up just like everyone did about how Rogers and his Red had been buried in ice together, hibernating through the years only to be discovered when the world needed them most.

Barton is watching her with an amused expression, scritching Brian who is draped over her shoulder under the neck frill with blunt, calloused fingers. Brian is purring like a contented cat because he's a complete hussy and Darcy angles herself away so that Brian is out of Barton's reach. Hill had been very pointed about dragon protocol and touching another rider's dragon was definitely on the big no-no list.

This only makes Barton's amusement increase.

"Um," Darcy says again because it obviously bears repeating. "I have to... go?"

"You don't sound sure."

"I'm pretty sure," Darcy says, drawing herself up and jutting her chin out. Her mother always said, fake it till they lose interest which wasn't as catchy as the way the saying was supposed to go but Lenore Lewis was always an original. "I just-"

"Got your swipe card?" Barton asks, and actually darts out a hand, impossibly quick and nimble and snags it from her belt. "Welcome to the jungle," he says as he swipes her card and nudges her inside the food hall.

Darcy falters when she's only a few steps past the doorway because the place is practically empty, only a few chairs taken. There's a woman with red hair balancing a really large knife on the tip of her finger by the blade and two other men who are watching, bemused, one dark haired and the other fair.

"Clint, settle an argument for us!" the dark haired man calls, his hand wave faltering as he notices Darcy. "Why hello there."

"Stark," the woman snaps and Tony Stark grins at her.

"What? I said hello."

"That's...uh... Steve Rogers and, um, Tony Stark and I think... Natasha Romanov?" Darcy gets out on a near-breathless wheeze. Brian rumbles a little in distress, feeling Darcy's own and tucks his head under her chin.

"Hey now sweetheart, it's okay," Barton, who would be Clint Barton, says behind her. He gets warm, dry palms on her shoulders and starts propelling her across the room.

"No, wait!" Darcy squeaks because she is not ready to meet The Avengers. There are comic books, action figures, lunch boxes made of these people and their dragons. She was never allowed any of the merchandise but other kids at school had them.

Clint ignores her, steers her to the table the others are sitting at and pushes down when she's close enough to a seat. Darcy grabs for Brian's tail anxiously and it twists around her fingers in agitation.

"Clint you dumbass, you've scared the poor girl half to death," Steve says, frowning.

"Not scared, just very, very startled," Darcy finally gets out and the others all take a moment to just blink at her before they're laughing, even Steve although at the same time his eyes are kind.

"Darcy Lewis, right?" Tony says and Darcy nods in confirmation. "Yeah, I'd heard we'd finally gotten a black."

"Lemme see," Natasha demands, making grabby hands at Brian and Darcy plucks him off her shoulder to hug against her chest protectively.

"I thought there was no touching," she says.

"When they're full grown, sure," Tony says. "When they're babies everyone will want a cuddle. It's sickening really."

"Oh, okay. I guess if he doesn't mind?" Darcy says, holds Brian out to Natasha, gives him the opportunity to scuttle back into her arms but instead he sniffs delicately at Natasha's fingers before allowing her to gently ease him off Darcy's hands and into her lap. "Why is it important when they're full grown? Are they dangerous?"

"Not really to us," Steve says, grinning in a completely adorable way that endears him to Darcy immediately when Brian snuffles at him then climbs from Natasha's lap and into his. "You'll get a stronger bond the older he is, until you can partly feel what he does. Then there's the danger of bonding with another."

"That can happen?"

"You wanna bump uglies with someone, you better hope your dragons get along. Otherwise it's pretty impossible," Tony says. "Unless you want to date someone outside which, who has time for that really?"

"I don't think that was covered in the manual," Darcy says and Clint snorts beside her.

"There's a lot of stuff that isn't covered in the manual, sweetheart," Tony says, finally relenting and snatching Brian from Steve. He holds the little dragon aloft, chuckles when Brian's paws bat the air.

*

Three days later, Darcy has to watch Brian being moved into the pen in the dragon stables that will become his permanent home. He's now the size of a small horse so it's not really practical for him to still be in her room, but Darcy's having trouble leaving him alone, especially when he's giving her the big, sad dragon eyes.

"They grow up so fast."

Darcy turns to see Tony Stark standing behind her. He's not exactly looking sympathetic but he's smirking less than usual so Darcy figures that's Tony making an effort. "I can't believe how quickly I got used to the big lug sleeping on my feet. It's going to be weird without him."

"I've got something that'll take your mind off it," Tony says, holds out a hand that Darcy takes warily.

Tony leads her deeper into the stables, down past other squadron's sections until they're entering a corridor marked with a red banner. Tony leads her up a winding staircase and at the top Darcy sees that it's a viewing platform. "Look over the edge," Tony invites and Darcy does, her mouth dropping open.

Below her is a mass of scale and claw and color. It's hard to differentiate one dragon from the other, wrapped so tightly together. "I didn't know they all sleep in one space."

"It's pretty common amongst squadrons," Tony explains. "Helps to stop them fighting each other."

"Does that mean you all...?" Darcy raises her eyebrows, waggles them and Tony snorts.

"If only," Tony sighs, sounding hilariously disappointed. "I'm not saying it doesn't happen because it's pretty hard for riders to ignore when their dragons are all content and snuggly and we're certainly close, but none of them bond-bite each other. We make sure of it because that way lies real awkwardness."

"Wait," Darcy says, frowning at the pile below. "I don't see Clint's Black."

Tony's face freezes and his eyes flick away. "Yeah there was... Clint rides the Silver now. Lucy."

"You can change-"

"Listen," Tony interrupts. "Just letting you know that as soon as Brian's full grown and you've mastered the art of not falling off him, I'm calling dibs."

"On what?" Darcy asks.

"On you, little duckling. We've been without a firebreather for six months and that isn't acceptable."

"Wait, an Avenger?" Darcy snorts, sure that Tony's joking but he's just watching her, patented public grin back in place. "No, that's... I'm going to get guard duty, something like that, right?"

"Normally, yes. However, we tend to get what we want and we want you, kiddo," Tony says, reaching out a hand to grasp Darcy's and then spinning her like they're dancing. Darcy's laughing too much to really freak out or call Tony on his quick subject change.

*

The Red dragon is the biggest of them all by a fair way. Next is the Gold which Tony rides and then Silver, Blue, Green and finally Black which, about the size of a sedan, is relatively miniscule compared to the others.

Darcy's pretty grateful that the Black is what she spiked with, but also uneasy because as Tony had said, the Black had a little something extra to make up for his size.

"Try not to burn down the building," Hill instructs, always helpful. "Your goal is to pin your target, not roast them."

Darcy kicks ass at the dragon theory but the practical side is where she's left flailing. Brian's obviously trying to help her out but ultimately, she's the one in control because of the way the bond works and they've already accidentally immolated three practice drones and very nearly Hill herself.

The neck harness Darcy's using means that Brian responds to her movements and it's pretty hard not to jerk just at the worst time and send Brian careening in the wrong direction. They haven't even started flight training yet, mostly because Darcy crashes into things on the ground.

"She's never going to learn with you just barking at her." Clint appears at one end of the practice arena, out of the rider uniform for once but equally distracting in jeans and a Pixies t-shirt. Darcy totally blames him for Brian crashing head first into a water trough.

"If you've got a better idea, by all means go ahead," Hill says, throwing her arms up and stomping out of the arena.

"Great, thanks. She's going to fail me," Darcy grumbles as Brian backs out of the water and shakes his head, making an equally unhappy grumbling noise.

"You can't fail," Clint huffs, approaching. "You can be sent to New Mexico to guard a level one tear but you can't fail."

"That's reassuring," Darcy huffs.

"Look, just... trust me okay?" Clint urges but before Darcy can decide if she does or not, he's gripping onto Brian's eyebrow ridge and using it to lever himself up and over Brian's head. Clint drops down in front of Darcy, reaches back to grab her knees and tug her so she's pressed against his back with her legs bracketing his. "You ever ride a motorbike?"

"Yeah, so?" Darcy says, relieved that her voice comes out level instead of a high-pitched squeak. She flails for a moment, unsure where to put her arms but Clint takes the decision away from her, gripping her wrists to wrap her arms around his torso.

"Brian will move with you. As soon as you stop being so tense and thinking you're going to do the wrong thing it'll start happening."

Clint leans left and because of the way Darcy's wrapped around him, she does too. Brian's head dips the same way, then his body follows, slow and measured. "Lean forward," Clint instructs, tugging Darcy with him and Brian breaks into a trot. "You'll need to lay down along his neck when you want him to really accelerate and when you want to take off."

"Don't you dare," Darcy snaps when Clint goes to do just that and she can see a smirk on his profile right before Clint drops flat and his legs kick out sideways, forcing her heels up and underneath Brian's wings which spread automatically. Brian leaps forward, a pleased burring sound vibrating through both their bodies and then he's up, wings beating and angling towards the practice arena's open roof.

"I'm not ready for this!" Darcy yells, horrified as Brian's climb grows steeper and then he's out into the blinding sunlight, wind whipping Darcy's hair back and squeezing tears out of her eyes.

"Of course you are," Clint calls. "You were born ready for this, you just didn't know it."

*

Clint gives her a funny look when Darcy bumps into him while she's leaving Phil's office and he's entering. Ever since the impromptu Avengers meet and greet, Darcy has been eating lunch there. Phil's been very patient about her using his office to hide in and he actually stops working to eat with her present so Stacy is all about her being there.

"Are you in trouble?" Clint asks, casting looks between her and Phil's door.

"No?" Darcy says, not sounding sure even to her own ears because frankly, she never is. Rider Hill is always mad at her about something.

"Why were you called to Coulson's office, then?"

"I wasn't called," Darcy snorts and this makes Clint look even more confused. "I arrived, bearing sandwiches." Darcy throws a grin at Stacy who smiles back. "Phil-"

"Phil?" Clint says, sounding thrown and Darcy frowns at him.

"Yeah, Phil's like a tree in the forest. He doesn't eat if there isn't anyone around to witness it."

"I have to..." Clint gestures behind himself, then actually scurries away, leaving both Darcy and Stacy blinking at his disappearing form.

"Didn't I just hear Barton out here?" Phil asks, appearing behind Darcy's shoulder.

"You heard him being a weirdo," Darcy says and she just stares at Stacy when the woman snorts and rolls her eyes. "What?"

"When you figure it out, let me know. There's a betting pool," Stacy says cryptically, then pushes back from her desk and clicks away on heels that Darcy knows she would break her ankle in.

"Do you know-?"

"No idea," Phil says, shrugging.

*

Darcy's on her way to her next Flight prac when klaxons start going off. Before she can ask what's going on, she feels a flash of pain at the nape of her neck and then everything goes kind of warm and tingly.

Darcy's legs go out from underneath her and the last thing she hears is Stacy calling her name.

*

When Darcy swims back to the land of the conscious, it's to yelling.

It takes her a moment to figure out that no one is yelling at her specifically, but there is a lot of yelling around her. She's lying prone on a bed in what must be the medical wing if everything being white and her being attached to an IV is anything to go by.

Clint and Hill are having a very heated screaming match over her with Tony trying to intervene and not doing very well at it.

Clint notices she's awake and breaks off in the middle of a sentence, still fuming. Hill looks down at her too but her regular scowl has been replaced with a worried expression. Tony's sitting on the end of her bed and he taps her ankle to get her attention. "How you feeling?"

"Was there some kind of attack?" Darcy asks, smiles at Tony when he offers her a juice box with a bendy straw when her voice comes out sounding scraped raw. Darcy remembers alarms and passing out which are not two things you want to coincide with each other.

"Naw, that's just the-"

"One of the Avenger squadron dragons broke through to another area," Hill grits out between clenched teeth.

"I'm assuming that's bad?"

"Darcy, Lucy broke through to Brian's stall."

"Oh my god, is he alright?" Darcy demands, shoving the blanket off her legs and sitting up. Her brain does this worrying zinging thing inside her skull but Darcy resists the urge to lie back down. Except then she doesn't really have a choice because Clint has a hold of her shoulders and is urging her to settle again. As soon as he touches her she gets that flood of warmth through her again that she'd felt before she passed out and something must register in her face because Clint snatches his hands away and winces.

"He's okay," Clint says, but there's something they're definitely not telling her. Clint's gaze cuts away from her, an embarrassed red high on his cheekbones. Darcy decides to cut to the chase and turns her focus on Hill. The woman is blunt and Darcy kind of needs blunt right now.

"Lucy bond bit Brian," Hill says and while Clint looks absolutely mortified, Tony just smacks a hand to his mouth and looks like he's trying not to laugh.

"Oh, that's...I'm not sure what that means?" Darcy says.

"You can feel what your dragon feels to some degree, the longer you're together," Hill explains, looking exasperated about being the one to do it. "The link works both ways. Dragons can also feel what their rider feels but they interpret a little... differently. At a more organic level."

"You're doing a really good job of talking around a point," Darcy complains.

"Clint has a crush on you dear, and Lucy thought he was moving too slow," Tony says and now Clint's blush has gone all the way down his neck. "She took matters into her own claws."

"Oh," Darcy says, small-voiced. She knows that riders in a relationship often have bonded dragons but she hasn't heard of dragons bonding off their own bat.

"I'm really sorry, I had no idea this would happen," Clint says, dry washing his face with both hands.

"What do we-?"

"We've moved Lucy into isolation," Hill says crisply. "We don't really have a precedent for this and we're not sure what an unfulfilled bond will mean for the dragons."

Clint swallows hard and Tony reaches out but before he can connect, Clint turns on his heel and retreats. Darcy watches him, then Hill leave the room, worrying at her bottom lip. Steve appears in the doorway, looking pensive.

"Hey, hi, how are you doing?" he asks, only entering when Darcy waves him in because he's insanely polite in the oddest ways.

"Very confused," Darcy admits. "I don't want anything to happen to Lucy."

"No, we don't either," Steve says, lowering himself into the chair set by Darcy's bed. "Not after-" He pulls a face when Tony glances at him quickly.

"Not after what?" Darcy prompts. She knows something happened to Clint's first dragon but she can't seem to get a straight answer from anyone about it.

"Have you heard of Thor?" Steve asks, settling back into the chair and crossing one knee over the other.

"Are we really going to-?" Tony asks, flails his hands a little.

"She deserves to know why this is an issue," Steve says and Tony raises his eyebrows, then shrugs.

"There are tears in the fabric of reality, thin places where living things can cross from one world to the next. A lot of the time we get monsters, cosmic detritus looking to cause trouble and the dragons are the best line of defense against this type of thing. Every now and again, we get something good, like Thor.

"Thor was a leader of his people, helped fight back an invading force from another world. He was able to return home but his affection for this world irked his brother, Loki, who was not such a good guy."

"Loki was what happened to New York, right?" Darcy asks. She remembers the events from two years ago, how central New York was ravaged by a mysterious man with devastating powers. Like everything to do with the dragons and the reality tears, any news was heavily sanitised but Darcy got the impression at the time that something unusually bad had happened because of Loki, something that SHIELDD took a while to recover from.

"We lose dragons and riders to the fight, it happens. What happened because of Loki though..." Steve's hands, resting on his crossed knees, curl into fists. "Clint had his Black, Naomi and Loki had this staff. He only touched Naomi and she turned, started attacking everyone, the dragons, the riders, everyone. Clint was damn lucky to be able to jump clear."

"Did you have to kill her?" Darcy asks, feeling a cold curl of dread in the pit of her stomach at the prospect.

"None of us... despite what she was doing none of us could bring ourselves to hurt her. In the end, Clint had to."

"Now this, with Lucy?" Tony says, blows out a mournful breath.

"Is it really so bad?" Darcy asks.

"If Brian isn't receptive, we're not sure-" Steve starts to say, but Tony is looking at her, a smile curling the edges of his mouth because Darcy is pretty sure now she's blushing. "Oh, um."

"I... um, Brian is all kinds of receptive. He's in receptive town, population him," Darcy says.

Tony jumps up from the bed, claps his hands like a kid with obvious glee. "We're getting a black!" he crows. "They have to give you to us now."

"Are you sure?" Steve says, suddenly looking concerned. "The bond bite intensifies-"

"Oh, I'm pretty damn sure. I think I... and again I mean Brian was pretty sure the minute he saw Lucy," Darcy says.

*

Darcy wheedles her way out of medical. She's still feeling a little woozy but she's pretty sure that will pass and she's got more important things to do, like track down Clint and make sure he isn't disappearing into a guilt-ridden hole somewhere.

She finds him at the archery range, mystified as to how he manages to shoot worth a damn off the back of a dragon but she's glad he's that predictable. Clint kind of hunches into himself when he sees her. No one's around so he looks a little hunted.

"Look, I don't know what to say-" he starts and that's when Darcy knocks aside the bow in his hands and grabs the front of his practice vest, tugging him into her. "Um, hi?"

"I'm taking Lucy's hint, how about you?" Darcy asks, nudging up against Clint's jaw and he groans into her, dropping his equipment and fisting two hands in her air.

"Lucy is much smarter than me," he says and Darcy can feel Clint grinning as he mouths across her temple and down until he's pulling her lower lip into his mouth. There's the distant sound of a dragon's roar and Darcy's not sure if she's imagining things, but it sounds smug.