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returns with love and time

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Every footstep that I take
Completes the circle my life makes
Every living thing has ties that bind
What I lost returns with love and time

~I Had Something, Lucy Kaplansky

Clint doesn’t crack a smile when he sees Thor pull Director Fury and Hill aside before he leaves to collect his brother. He’s not sure what to make of Thor, only has the blue-soaked memories from Loki in his head and its hard to shake them when he looks at the massive man. On the other hand, what a massive man he is, and he’s more than plenty to work with in a fight. He’s not quite up to trusting Thor (or really anyone but Natasha) with his back, but he’s already checking the box marked friendly in his head.

“I do not know when I will be able to return,” Thor is saying, “the Bifrost is still mending and the power required to send me here is not readily accessible.”

“We understand, of course, and will welcome you back when you are able,” Fury responds, his voice thick with attention.

“I would ask a favor of you. You have seen fit to have Jane removed from harm during this crisis, and I would have you continue this, for her and the others I consider friends.”

“We will do our best to keep them all safe.” Fury reassures him.

 

Later, Thor leaves with Loki in chains, and Natasha makes him smile.  His life seems to be coming back into order in bits and pieces, but this is a very big piece. After that it’s a month of downtime and testing and making sure that there’s no lingering evil.

“Nothing left other than what was already there,” he tells Natasha. Stark has somehow conned them all into being roommates in the world’s most expensive group home. Somehow he has a private range on his floor and a leather couch that is perfect for stretching out on. He stretches and fills all the space. “But I’ll be reinstated soon and things will be normal again.”

“Says the man with the bow and arrow as his primary weapon,” she replies evenly, picking up his feet and shoving them into his face so she can sit.

“Someone has to provide the ranged attacks for our little coterie of insanity.” Clint lofts and lowers his legs back down over Natasha’s. He’s really enjoying this newfound life of ease. Natasha looks at him, pinning him with an incredulous glare. “What, I know big words too.”

“I am more thinking that we need to take away your access to video games, Clint. It’s good that you will be able to get back to work, you have far too much time on your hands.”

It’s true, his ranger assassin in Skyrim is starting to hit a little too close to home for his liking.

                                                                


 

Hill has to work on executing Thor’s favor for months before any progress is made. She initially assigns Sitwell to deal with Dr Foster, but it quickly escalates into needing her authority. Dr Foster is shrewdly aware of SHIELD and according to Sitwell, hesitant would be a kind word to use to describe her feelings towards SHIELD. Disdainful would be more accurate but not anything near approaching the venom that she tossed their way.

When she finally cedes to their negotiations, she’s accepted SHIELD’s funding and not their authority. She has lab and connected living space in Stark’s tower. Stark has a floor for Thor too but Jane, according to Sitwell, had adamantly opposed taking up in his space. Sitwell has a wonderful falsetto when he affects her voice, “I am not a kept woman, and I will not take up his space until I actually see him in the flesh!”

The other reason for separate living space becomes abundantly clear when she shows up not just with all of her makeshift equipment held together with cardboard and duct tape but Dr Selvig, and that jumps starts a wariness in Clint, and Darcy Lewis, who he remembers from the research file as a lab assistant.

Stark, of course, sees their arrival as an opportunity to throw a party. Nothing extravagant, of course, not by his standards. Clint never knows what to make of Stark’s parties, and he’s shown up to some in a suit just to play video games with Steve all night. Steve refuses to play a single war game, and that is fine by Clint, because really, who would want to go up against Captain America in player versus player? He gets beat up enough by him in the gym. And sometimes he shows up in scrubby jeans and a t-shirt to find a formal dinner party in progress.

This time, he splits the difference with a button down and his scrubby jeans. And it’s about right for an Avengers party where it’s mostly beer, wine and awkward greetings.  Jane turns out to be a remarkably petite woman, which provides an amusing mental picture of Thor having to hold himself back just hugging her, because she’s liable to snap in half otherwise.  After she makes the initial round of introductions, she’s whisked into a cornered conversation with Stark and Bruce, and that’s more than okay. Jane delightfully holds her own with large gestures and she actually pokes Tony in the forehead more than once to get a point across. He looks around for a moment for Selvig; he’s going to have to talk to him eventually, but he’s nowhere in sight. Tonight will not be that night, and that is a relief.

He likes to watch at parties, try to calculate a few steps ahead of what’s going to happen, and he watches the trio in the corner closely. He’s pretty sure that eventually something is going to blow up.

“Is Jane plotting scientific domination over there?” Clint doesn’t startle out of his watchful glare, because that would be unbecoming of somebody trained for clandestine espionage, but it’s a very near thing. “I’m Darcy,” Darcy says, amused. She’s holding a glass of water in one hand and the other is wrapped over her waist.

“Clint, and I’m not sure. Do her plans often involve the laws of robotics?” Clint snorts.

“Yeah, but only when she doesn’t mean it, so we’re probably safe for now.” She narrows her eyes. “Except she is standing there with Tony Stark, so we might want to be on alert.”

Both Darcy and Jane look like they just woke up to go to a lumberjack competition and the sheer amount of plaid between them looks like they hijacked a Goodwill and took it hostage to bring grunge back, though, and he has the sudden realization that Darcy probably wouldn’t remember the 90’s like he does. Her shirt is loose and the sleeves fall over her palms, her hair is loose and falls over her shoulders, and her glasses are thick-framed. She’s really lovely, and he’s thankful to have learned to check women out from the corner of his eyes.

“I can never follow about two-thirds of what Tony says, well, except for the sarcasm. I speak fluent sarcasm,” he jokes, and she has a killer smile.

“Hey, how about that, so do I. That whole thing. The not understanding and the fluency.” She pauses, tilting her head towards Jane. “Her sarcasm tends to fail. She’s more for deadpan delivery.”

He takes a step closer. “Well, if you ever need to practice, you know where I live. Hey, I know where Stark keeps the good beer, can I get you one?”

Darcy steps back, slumping her shoulders slightly before straightening herself out. “Uh, no thanks. I don’t drink. But, uh, I’ll think about the practicing thing next time I need to take an exam. I’m just going to...” She points towards the door, taking small steps backwards. “So…yeah.”

He watches her go, confused, because that was an enjoyable little moment there. He’s sure of it.

“I’m fairly sure, that as the only person who could possibly be considered your bro, I should let you drown your sorrows.” Natasha says, appearing out of wherever it is she stands to witness him failing. “Like, bro, that was harsh.” She exaggerates and draws out the vowels and guides him over to the bar.

“I am not going to try to out drink, Natasha, I learned my lesson about after the first dozen or so times.” But he takes the show she hands him and downs it in a fluid motion.

                                                                


 

It doesn’t usually work to dwell on women who don’t respond well to the flirting, but he can’t help but keep that moment where she started her retreat on replay in his mind. The more he looks at it, the more her shoulders fall in on herself and her face flashes vulnerable, not annoyed. It’s not enough to try to press his luck again, that was a pretty clear no thank you to him, and he’s not that sort of person.

He sees her next when he’s passing through one of the lab spaces. One of the Stark guys in R & D likes his trick arrows to an absurd degree, and he feels pretty confident about letting the guys who used to develop weapons take a look at his designs before he takes them over to SHIELD for final mock-ups and testing.

He’s arguing with Pieters about new fletching materials when he sees her, lost in her own discussion with the lab’s manager, Staci something or another. Staci is generally exuberant and spacious when she talks. She’s chattering with Darcy, who is taking notes and smiling. Every time Staci takes a step forward towards her, she takes one back or to the side.

He keeps up with Pieters until he sees Darcy leave, and makes his goodbye quick. He doesn’t run through the hallway, because he is not a small child.

“Hey! Hold the elevator!” he says.

“Elevator hasn’t even arrived.” She points out. “That makes it a little hard to hold open. I don’t make a habit of prying open doors. I might break a nail.”

“I’m starting to think that you might also be fluent in deadpan.” He mumbles and she leans in enough to hear and smile. The doors open and he gestures to let her go first, like the gentleman he fucking is, damnit.

They push their buttons. She’s heading back to her labs; he’s got some new thoughts to work out from his work with Pieters.

“I, uh, wanted to say sorry for the other night, I…” he’s not really sure where he’s going with this, but it seems important. He doesn’t want her to think he’s a cad or anything.

“Don’t. I’m going to let it be bygones.” Darcy interrupts, and he’s thankful. She lives and works in the same building; he doesn’t want it to be awkward or anything. “I wasn’t at my best that night. I’d just gotten in and new places…” She trails off too, but it feels like the air has at least been cleared.

They get to her floor first. “I’ll see you around Clint.” And her smile is still killer.

“Yeah, you too.” And he has to work on clearing his own smile from his face from the lightness in her voice. Oh crap, this is not what he expected at all. All he wanted to do was be decent, and here he is, more charmed than ever.

                                                       


 

The thing is, Clint knows how to push that want and desire deep, let it fuel something else. He goes on an op outside of Pretoria, buries a few arrows in the kneecaps to break up a human trafficking ring, real meaningful work. Natasha is probably right though, he should lay off the video games, because arrow to the knee jokes are funnier than ever. He turns his crush into focus and patience on rooftops, into awareness as his body moves in a fight.

When he’s home, he doesn’t get much more than a glance at Darcy, or really at any of them. They’ve pulled each other close together and stick to themselves.  He is, however, a spy sometimes, and knows how to listen to Tower gossip. It’s just like the SHIELD office or Helicarrier gossip with the exception that most of the time, it’s not just between people with complementary security clearances.

Jane Foster is a dyed in the wool academic, distrustful of such things as ‘practical applications’ and corporate think tanks. SHIELD falls into a category she was already disinclined to want to work with and their initial meeting cemented her feelings right into the ground. It’s only because they invoked the name of Thor (and ain’t that a magic spell) that she’s agreed to set up shop anywhere in their vicinity, and it’s probably only on Stark's reputation of supporting theoretical work that she’s here and happy about it.

 Selvig’s little experience in the Dark Matter lab didn’t help either. He’s taken a position at one of the universities (Clint doesn’t remember which one. Empire maybe?) and is teaching part-time.

“He says it calms his nerves,” Darcy says when he comes to their lab to speak to Selvig. Of course, he knows that this is when Selvig has office hours. “Personally, college was always sort of nerve-racking for me. But maybe it’s different when you are the one writing the tests.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Clint says as he watches Darcy at her laptop, typing away at requisition forms. “You’re…uh, filling that out wrong.”

She narrows her eyes and scowls, “I am not.”

“Yeah, you are. I’ve filled out enough of them. They’ll fix it for you the first couple of times and not tell you, but then they just start denying your requests.”  He moves over to her table and leans over, “I know from experience until Coulson set me straight.”

Darcy lifts the laptop up so he can grab it, leaning away from him, the movement almost too natural to actually be natural. It’s learned instinct

“Yeah, see, you’ve got to bring box 12c down to line 15 and initial in the boxes.” Clint fixes the error, taking a step back himself. Obviously bygones weren’t bygones and she’s still wary of him being a forward guy.

“What was I doing?”

“Box 12e. Same thing I did. I keep telling the quartermasters that they really should change the typeface.” He puts the laptop down back in front of her, “I’ll see if I can catch Dr. Selvig some other time.”

“Thanks Barton.” She gives him a look. “Yes, I learned your last name. Everyone calls you that instead of Clint. You want me to tell Erik you were here?”

“I don’t know why I bother even telling people my first name. Nah, I’m good. It’s nothing pressing.” It’s mostly just a ruse to come in and see Darcy, because like hell he’s going to let a good crush go easily. And even if this never goes anywhere, he likes a good puzzle.

                                                                         


 

Clint manages to just miss Selvig a few more times before his bad luck catches up on him and Erik is actually there. Darcy just blinks, “Yeah, he canceled his office hours today. He’s got his door closed but I can go check and see if he’s up for company.”

“Your rooms are in the back of the lab?” Clint says, trying to distract her from actually going to get Selvig. He does want to talk to the guy, that’s not a lie, it’s just that he doesn’t actually want to talk. Telepathy should be a bigger thing, he can think what he wants to say. But getting it through his vocal cords, that’s a lot harder.

“Yeah? I mean, the lab takes up most of the room here, but my bedroom is bigger than my freshman dorm, or even my…” she swallows a word, “well, it’s a nice space and we have our own bathrooms. Big improvement.” Darcy knits her eyebrows, “Did you want me to get Selvig? Or did you want to discuss interior decorating?”

This has to be a test. She’s testing him, because while the words were said with lightness, her posture betrays her. Darcy is hunched over, wariness in the curve of her spine, waiting for him to make the joke, think they are closer than they are, so she can push him away.

“Sure, see if Selvig’s free.” Clint says, watching as she rolls her shoulders back and pick up her chin. He’s won this test.

Of course, this now means he actually has to talk to Selvig. Crap. Darcy types on her laptop, “Yeah, he is. But give him a moment.” She perks an eyebrow at him and a silly little smile that really mixes up his heart and brain, “He is a firm believer in pants-free personal space. I don’t walk in there, no one wants to see that.” Her phone buzzes, “Oh, email!”

                                                                


 

Selvig closes the door behind him, “I’ve heard you wanted to see me?” he says in an amused voice. He looks tired, more tired than a part time teaching load should be.

“Yeah, I…” think, Barton think, be believable, “After everything, I wanted to see how you were getting on.”

“And it took you several months to do so?” he puts out a hand, pointing to a couple of chairs.

Clint rubs the back of his neck; as much as he didn’t actually want to talk maybe this will work out, “Yeah, well, it’s been a little rough for me too. I haven’t been thinking too much or too hard about it.”

Selvig, to his credit, can tell that he’s lying. Can tell that Clint hasn’t neatly compartmentalized his latest trauma yet. He’s usually so good at it too. But the blue sunk into his eyes and farther beneath, a chill into his chest.

But Selvig only eyes him a little as they sit, “I was thinking too much so I decided that undergrads were a welcome distraction. They never have been before. Welcome, that is. They’ve always been a distraction from actual work.” He laughs anxiously, and then something clears in the way he holds himself, “It’s a relief, actually.  All that single-minded focus for those days.”

Erik drops his head, and it’s uncomfortable; this thing they share is so different for each of them. Selvig orchestrated the tesseract, and opening the rift, but for him it did not just come all at once. He’d been under the influence or at least the observation of Loki for weeks, if not months. The scepter was only the tipping point for him, and the work had been joyful.

It wasn’t for Clint. It was work, single-minded and all the world narrowed to the objective. And it didn’t matter who got in the way.

This thing they share is uncomfortable and both of them know it.

He looks up, takes a deep breath and tilts his head, “But you didn’t actually come here to see me, did you?”

Clint manages to look like he feels, sheepish. And his hand goes back to his neck, caught between feelings and well, feelings. “I think what’s worse is all the people I recruited and how easily they believed that I would betray SHIELD.”

He can compartmentalize the killing. He’s done that most of his adult life, mostly enemies, but a few friendly fires in ops gone wrong. But recruiting from the bad guy phone back was easy enough. Does everyone believe he’s that prone to defection?

They hear a crash, and they both look towards the door with concern. The crashing noise turns into blaring music. Selvig collapses in amusement, loud chuckles turning into wave of laughter.

“They would do this back in New Mexico. She can be quite something else. They both can.” Selvig stands back up, “Look, I’m not pretending nothing happened, that’s why I’m teaching, Barton. My head is filled up enough with students and grading that I can work out what’s real in my head on my own time.”

“I hope it works.”

The door opens before either of them can reach for it, and there’s Darcy, mouthing the words to Pink’s So What and holding a hand out to Selvig, and while she looks at Clint, there’s not a hand to match the other.

“Agent Barton, if there is one thing I have learned, is if Darcy Lewis wants to take your hand, you take it.” So, of course, Erik accepts it and is dragged into the main lab area where Jane and Darcy are bopping and dancing around, and Erik twirls Darcy in a quick circle. Clint can’t quite bring himself to join in, but he watches with laughter pouring out of him, rich and heartfelt. He’s never seen Jane like this, unfocused and fundamentally young. She’s such a small woman in size, but she always seems larger because the strength of her intellect and ambition just dwarfs her. Dr Foster is at least seven feet tall in his head and he likes that in women. It’s very rare, he believes, to find a woman that isn’t at least taller than he is.

Darcy’s dancing and singing, and at one point rolls across the lab in a chair. As happy as she looks, her eyes are red-rimmed and drawn. He can’t claim to be able to read people at a moment’s notice, he’s not Natasha or Fury. His skills tend to work more toward seeing what others don’t though, and something isn’t right at all.

                                                                


 

 Now that he’s actually talked to Selvig, he has to figure out another excuse to visit the labs. After a couple of false starts (dropping off paperwork, asking stupid questions that has Jane and Darcy sputtering, and Jane does actually push him out with a chuckle. His savior comes in the form of Bruce Banner, whom escapes to their lab whenever Stark just will not leave him alone.

“It’s not that I’m afraid of going over to the other guy,” Bruce says, “It’s just that Stark is very hands on. And sometimes that gets to be too much.” This is, well, this is very true. Tony is a startling good guy, once you get past the fact that he’s a privileged asshole, but sometimes even that goodness can get to be too much. “And Jane has made it clear that he is not allowed here unless invited. And he hasn’t been invited yet. He’d spook Darcy too much.”

That brings Clint’s full attention to the conversation, “Spook her?”

“You didn’t notice? She doesn’t like to be touched at all.” But no, that can’t be true, Clint watched her a week ago pull Jane out while she was on a creeper underneath some equipment. And she reached out for Selvig’s hand to have him join them when dancing. And he says as much, and a sly smile slowly pulls along Bruce’s face. “You like her.” It’s a statement of fact and not a question.

“I do.” And that is also a factual assertion.

“All those times? That’s her touching someone else.” It’s very easy to underestimate Bruce’s powers of observation. He doesn’t miss much, but he also doesn’t make a show of it, nor does he catalog every reaction for future misdirection and manipulation like others will, it’s just knowledge he possesses that’s folded into his understanding of the world.

Clint thinks back to what Erik said about Darcy holding her hand out and taking it, lets that roll around in his head, another piece of the puzzle that is Darcy Lewis fall into place.

“Bruce!” Jane calls over, “Bruce, can you do me a favor?” Jane looks harried and disheveled, so she looks much as she normally does, and she spares a grateful look at Clint when she notices he’s there too, “Package delivery and the guy is refusing to bring it up, because apparently they don’t offer ‘white glove’ service or whatever that is. I can’t leave, can you go down and pick it up?”

 

“Did she buy the entirety of American Science and Surplus?” Bruce grunts, trying to heft one of the boxes while Clint reminds him to lift with his knees. “Because I’m laying claim to a balloonocopter.”

Clint starts to ask what the hell that is, but figures his imagination is good enough. Balloon. Helicopter. Sure, that works, “If there’s two, we can race them.” He struggles with his own box as they make their way into the elevator. They should have grabbed a dolly, but manly pride got in their way. It’s something they aren’t going to speak about.

“So where do these go?” Bruce asks, two steps ahead of him by the time they reach the lab and the door opens for them.

She points to a corner and lets Bruce pass by with a quick thank you, grabbing a tablet to start inventory. When he passes though, she stops for just a few moments, and he has eyes and he knows she’s watching him struggle with the weight of the package. It’s not a quick look, but her eyes follow the curve and angle of his arm, and she bites her bottom lip before shaking her head and saying something under her breath before returning to her tablet.

Before they leave, she thanks them both again, but she gives smiles so shy and just a bit in hesitation to Clint, and he knows, knows that he has another shot. Out of all of the ones he’s made before, this is one he truly can’t afford to miss. He’ll never get another chance.

                                                                


 

“Hey, haven’t seen you in a few days.” They are far more comfortable in the elevator now that Clint’s learned to keep a step away, his hands to himself and he can lean against the wall in peace.

“We had a thing.” He responds, twisting his voice up in the end. Just how do you describe an attack on St Louis by what appeared to be acid spitting monkeys? “It was a thing.”

“Oh right, the monkeys.” She grins brightly. “Dr Banner explained. I think. Did you ever think growing up that you’d be living in a science fiction novel?”

“I was more trying to figure out how not to get my ass knocked to the ground by my dad, but hey, you’re the one that ended up in a Classics textbook.” He says without thinking and Darcy snaps her head over and looks at him, her face unreadable. He’s not sure what’s passing between them, he’s not even sure why he said that. It’s not a huge secret that the Tower is possibly dwarfed by the sheer height of the daddy issues that the permanent inhabitants possess, but no one ever says it so plain or so out loud.

“Mythology.” She says when the doors open to her floor, “Classics is just like Greek and Rome, ya get?

“I get.” He says, ducking his head as she leaves.

 

A SHIELD building runner gets on a couple of floors later. “Shit, man, is this elevator going up? Damn it.” He leans against the rails, settling in for a longer ride.

“Who you need?” Clint chuckles.

“Foster Labs.” He groans, “Fresh from HQ, and I get on the wrong elevator and I’ve got three more packets to deliver in a very short amount of time.”

Clint makes up his mind right there and takes the excuse the universe has offered him. “I can take them, I’m heading there in a few minutes anyways.” He lies.

“You sure, Agent Barton? This is way below your pay grade.” But he hands off the packet quickly, shuffling the others around in his hands, “All the instructions are in there. Just hand them off to Miss Lewis.”

 

“Agent Barton!” Jane exclaims when he walks in, “You couldn’t wait like, one more day. I had tomorrow down for your next visit to our humble space.” Fall gave way to god damn it’s cold a while back, and the fabric content of the lab has exploded. Their lumberjack specials have sprouted chunky sweaters and jackets.

“You guys take bets on when I show up to bug you?” That’s either hilarious or worrisome, and he’s going towards hilarious.

“Only recently.”  She turns back to a laptop and it’s instant, she’s engulfed into her work.

“Oh hey, “ Darcy says, walking in from her own room, “Hey, is that the paperwork that SHIELD was sending over?” Her sweater looks soft and warm, and is about two sizes too big, and falls to halfway down the thighs of her jeans. “If you wait a few minutes, I can hand it right back.”

The women he’s known in his life wear their layers, and some are more literal than others. Natasha uses her words like fabric, folds and tucks them into a complex origami to invent facades. Darcy’s clothes are charming in the face of all that artifice.

He slides it over to her desk and doesn’t leave while she’s looking over it. Banner’s off in a corner and he pesters him for a while while Darcy works and he gathers his courage a little more. Darcy works through the paperwork at a lightning pace, muttering to herself. She’s got a pile of tabs and a blue pen, and she works efficiently through the stack.

Soon enough, she’s poking at Jane, several times until Jane jumps up and startles. “Sign these at the red arrow tabs.” She insists as she pulls Jane out of the scientific fugue state and waits almost patiently for Jane to sign a few pages. Jane barely registers the paperwork, trusting that Darcy isn’t selling the rights to her soul or anything.

Darcy walks back the paperwork, putting it back into the package it came in and hands it back to Clint, her hands perilously close to his own. He ducks his head and still manages to look up at her and says,  “Hey Darcy,” just loud enough that Jane can hear him. Her head perks up but doesn’t turn around, “You want to get lunch sometime?”

There’s a lump of terror that forms her throat, the kind that he knows doesn’t ever go away for some people. But Darcy swallows it down and can’t quite meet his eyes, “Like, in the cafeteria today?”

The cafeteria is very loud, very populated and people keep an eye on each other there. The SHIELD staff in the building goes nowhere near it, and they like Stark security, and refer to the rest of SHIELD as thugs and goons. Not him, not Natasha, but the rest of them. “If that’s what you’d like.”

There’s still a wild unsurity that surrounds Darcy like an aura, but her lips curve upwards, her lashes flutter. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Jane does look over now, and gives him a slow satisfied nod before turning back to her computer. That probably was also a test that he passed.

“I’ll come back around after I drop these off.”

                                    


 

“No, I’m telling you, there’s nothing on TV I really watch anymore.” Darcy says, dipping a french fry into a giant glob of ketchup.

“What, not even Dog Cops?” he teases because shut up, that show is great. Everyone watches it. Pepper watches it, as a guilty pleasure and she’ll talk to Clint about in hushed undertones, hoping that no one posh and fancy is listening to their weekly phone conversations.

“It’s alright, but it’s always on when Jane has me doing work. And don’t get me started on Big Bang Theory. I loved it when I was in the dorms and I could pick it up no problem, but then I started working for Jane and it just hit far too close to home and I had to stop watching. What do you watch when you aren’t protecting the world? Besides the obvious.”

“I am single-handedly the reason that the History Channel no longer airs anything that actually directly related to history,” Clint says with a primness that doesn’t become him, he knows, but Darcy starts cracking up, “No, no, seriously. If there’s a Pawn Stars marathon, the only thing that can drag me away from the screen is an assemble call.”

“I should have known you would have the worst taste in the world,” Darcy says, twirling another french fry, and it’s great. He can’t seem to stop smiling, the muscles almost aching from the constant use, but he’s finally got Darcy as alone as he can get her for a longer time than the elevator ride. It’s better than anything in the world, the way she laughs at him and they way he’ll keep putting himself down just to hear that laugh.

“I like your sweater,” He says. “The llama’s are very becoming on you.”

“That only affirms that you have no taste. I have a thing about sweaters, and this one, it’s actually made of llamas by the way, and I like them ugly. I have a cousin, about the only good bit of family I’ve got, she travels a lot. She gets me the best sweaters. She’s even started to send me extra for Jane.”

It’s strange how she lights up in a way that she can’t seem to when around Drs Foster and Selvig and finally talking about herself. She’s not shy like he thought she would be, he was worried that being overt would send her back into retreat but he’s misjudged her. In the best way, because she’s vibrant under the cafeteria lights and determined to be comfortable with him.

 

It’s not like all the tenseness has gone away as their lunches continue. A few times a week, he shows up and shows her a great time in the cafeteria, and once, a hot dog vendor. He’s moved from sitting across from her to next to Darcy, she’s able to look him in the eye all the time. She doesn’t believe him when he says that actually has some engineering chops, and he has to pull out the plans for the original set of trick arrows that he designed.

“Just because you have the plans doesn’t mean you did them,” she singsongs to him. “I have the designs for all of Jane’s equipment and the modifications for the Pinzgauer. That doesn’t mean I even know which way is up on any of them.”

“My name is on them,” He points out. “And my signature, look, right there. Also, I don’t know why I find it sexy that you guys have a first generation Pinzgauer and then you modded it out to give it the functionality of the later models?”

“That was all Jane. I just drove the thing,” Darcy admits.

“As I said, sexy.” He can get away with a comic leer and waggle to his eyebrows as she asks a question about one of the arrows, and she has to repeat herself because she’s laughing through her words.

“Really, Barton? A suction-tip arrow? I think my mom bought those for me before she left us when I was five.”

Clint doesn’t think, really, impulse is his worst vice and he slides his arm next to hers as he explains that, shut up, suction cups are fantastic. But impulse fades, but the contact doesn’t and while her arm tenses next to his, just a for a moment, she doesn’t move it back.

Just a few months ago, if asked about his fantasies about this woman, he’d paint pictures of filthy and depraved things, promises he’s made and kept over the years. But now, it’s brushing back thick brown hair, rubbing his thumb over Darcy’s cheekbones and pulling her in for a kiss, her body so close to his that he can hear her heart beating. It’s the first time he has let infatuation move on into something greater without sex, without even much physicality, and it’s not he worst thing that’s ever happened. His infatuation with Natasha gave way after the oh-god-ill-advised-but-great-sex to a deep-seated loyalty and Bobbi gave way to disaster.

But she doesn’t move her arm away, and even with the layers of fabric between them, it feels like progress.

                                                                                           


 

Clint doesn’t ask and she doesn’t say much. He’s smart and knows damage and trauma, can see the fault lines in her and where she’s been stitching herself back together. He doesn’t ask, and she doesn’t say. It’s working pretty well for them.

He brings Jane coffee on a day where Darcy is running errands. She takes her coffee any which way, but she loves it sweet and with whipped cream on top if it’s from anything outside the tower, and it’s winter and he’s heard the women go crazy over pumpkin flavored coffee.

Jane however, sees right through him. “Wow Clint, a bribe, how thoughtful. How’s your assassin in Skyrim going?”

“I think I liked you better when you didn’t occasionally speak to Natasha.” He says, taking a seat.

“Darcy isn’t here.”  Her chair has wheels, his doesn’t and she launches herself over to him.

“I know.”

“Neither is Bruce or Erik.”

“I know.”

“So I can only assume, by the process of elimination, that you want to talk to me.”

“It’s astounding the leaps of logic you people with multiple degrees can take,” He chides. “I have a question.”

“If that question is ‘What’s the deal with Darcy?’  I have very limited information.” She turns her head to the side, looks him straight in the eye, her elbows on her knees. “And I’m hesitant to just tell you.”

There’s no reason to lie here. “Jane, you realize I’m trained in information gathering? That my job isn’t just shooting things? I’m pretty skilled at these things. If I just wanted to find out her secrets without caring about her, I could do so easily.” He takes a breath and drops his voice, “But I don’t want to do that.”

Jane regards him coolly at she savors a gulp of coffee (he should introduce this lab to drinking from the pot rather than from the glass, it’ll save them dishes). “Why not?”

He shrugs, smiling mostly to himself. “I think it’s going somewhere and I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want to step on something raw inside her because I say the wrong thing, and coming right out and asking is going to send her into retreat, and then where will I be?  And I think, if its something you know or have gathered, it’s less invasive than creating a dossier.”

“SHIELD doesn’t have one on her already?”

He pauses, “Of course we do. I…I haven’t read it.”

She takes another drink. “I don’t really know all that much, Clint. She’s never said anything right out to me.” She blinks, thinking through something, “I think she may have said more outright to you than to me. But…” she trails off, looking down, “I lied to her, you know?”

That’s an unexpected shock, “About what?”

“She wasn’t my only applicant. There were a few others, but when I received her application, it came with a note from someone I went to grad school with, and a phone call from her. All she said is that Darcy is a special girl and if she’s at all qualified, she could use the break.”  She trails off. “I’ve hated lying to her about it, but she didn’t seem the sort that would understand that that’s how jobs and internships really happen, phone calls at 2 am while waiting for something to compile or render.”

She’s still holding back and she’s not entirely comfortable saying all of this out loud. “What else?”

“You know I’m telling Darcy we had this conversation.” She throws right back at him.

“I wouldn’t expect any less of you. If she thinks it’s too much, she can tell me to fuck off, and I screwed up again.”

“She didn’t go back to school, either. She got the six credits but stayed on with me. I couldn’t pay her much, but she kept working with me. She talks to the same guy on the phone a few times a week, sometimes for hours, phone records to prove it. I know there’s an asshole ex-boyfriend who tries to get hold of her despite a restraining order, but he calls or tracks down an email address she uses — she has dozens of throw away email accounts, and when that happens she’ll cry underneath her desk unless I can distract her.”

“The dance party a few weeks ago?” he says after a moment.

“Yeah.” She confirms and her face goes through a series of complex emotions in seconds, “She really likes you, you know.”

Aww man, he knows his grin is the dopiest thing ever, he can’t help it. He’s forever fifteen with a crush on the trapeze artist.

“I’m still telling her.” Jane repeats, kinder and gentler than before, like she can see something in him that he can’t.

“I want you too.” Because he wants to know where he stands before he just jumps off a cliff like that for her, because sooner or later, his heart is just going to completely fall in love.

 

It’s the end of the week before she texts him, just a simple “come to the lab ☺,” and he lets go of a breath he didn’t know he was even holding.

The lab is a mess. Tables and equipment is pushed to the side, and a white sheets been hung up over one otherwise bare wall. A few couches have been pushed into the room from their private areas and a small table with a projector has been set up.

“We needed a break,” Darcy says, pointing towards the two scientists.  “So, we are having movie night.”

“We?” Clint asks playfully, leaning on the back of one of the couches.

“Us.” she circles her finger. “Banner. You?” she asks, the first time she’s asked him to do something.

He lets his grin spread wide on his face, “Yeah, me.”

“Good. Seven. We’re watching Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, what kind of pizza do you like?”

                                                                                           


 

He’s not paying attention to the movie, not at all, because Darcy is right there next to him, and the lights are low. Selvig is an old man who sits on the far end of the other couch and falls asleep as soon as the lights are out. Jane and Bruce watch with amusement and the random idea or comment, when the science fiction gets too fictiony for their tastes.  He gets to sit next to Darcy on a dingy couch, close enough that some of her hair has tumbled over his shoulder, and she’s wearing a sweet perfume, one he’s never noticed, hasn’t gotten this close.

It’s a marvel then, when he’s reveling in just the proximity, he almost misses it when she slips her hand with his, intertwining their fingers. When he looks at her, she’s keeping her breath even and controlled, a vulnerable expression on her face. He mouths a “yeah?” and she nods and her thumb moves rubbing circles against his wrist, and he can’t help sigh in the luxury of her touch and her permission, her exploration.

He’s really not paying attention to the movie anymore.  Her hand is soft and she’s beginning to inch even closer to him. He takes her hand and drapes his arm around her shoulder and pulls her in, taking the chance over and over again.

                                                                                          


 

It’s near the end of the year, and he misses New Years because the Avengers have been going all around the US as an increasingly large amount of what can only be described as monsters of the week keep popping up and dropping down. There’s no rhyme or reason to them and everyone is kept distracted. None of the team has spent much time at home.

Intermittent text messages and phone calls are crap, but it’s what he has right now. Three days after Christmas, he falls asleep while they watch a movie with whoever is around, his head in her lap and while they haven’t had an ounce of alone time, they’ll get there. If he weren’t so busy, he’d be frustrated with the pace but right now after a week in podunksville tracking down what might have been gnomes, it just feels good to touch and revel in that.

He spends New Year’s in Texas, chasing down something else that doesn’t shouldn’t exist in reality and he really doesn’t care to know its name. But at midnight, his time at midnight, a phone rings. He’s not supposed to have a personal phone on ops, and that he’s pretty sure he didn’t put it in his go bag.

“So did you con Natasha into sneaking this into my bag or did you do it yourself?”

Darcy snorts. “How’d you guess it was me? I didn’t program my name into the phone”

“Do I really need to answer that question?”

“Hey, you’ve got a lot of static, you okay?” she asks.

“I’m on a roof. It’s really more wind than static. Listen, I’m not going to back for awhile.”

She’s quiet for a moment. “I miss you.”

“I do too, babe,” he says, letting that just slip out nice and warm. “How’s things at home?”

“Hey, I think I like hearing you say that.” The wind whips through the cell phone and the phone is cheap, the connection is crap but he can hear her smile, “I registered for classes last night. Just a couple that meet at the same time Dr. Selvig is on campus. I just need to see if I can get back in the swing of things.”

The connection really starts going in and out, “That’s, that’s really great Darcy, really — you’re going to do just fine. I’ll be back as soon as I can and we can talk more, I promise. But you can’t call me, it’s not secure.”

“I just, I missed you.” Her voice is growing sad, “I missed you, that’s all. Needed to know you were out there.”

“I appreciate that, oh babe, I really do. It doesn’t make it safe for me. But thank Natasha for getting the phone in my bag, okay?” she agrees with a soft noise. “If I’m not back before you start, you kick ass at school.” The line is silent for too long and he looks down at the burner phone’s screen, connection was cut.

He sighs and drops it off the building. He’s sent home a week later. There’s no belated New Years kiss, like he had hoped, but she holds him close in the lab and doesn’t let go of his hand for what seems like the whole day.

                                                                                           


 

She does do well at school, and really, how could Darcy not do well? Erik and her go together and she waits for him to finish before she comes back, but she’s doing well. There’s something about college that makes her nervous, he gets that, because she runs errands all across Manhattan, Jersey, even, without a thought, But one step onto a college campus and she’s a little bit of a wreck. More things to fall into place.

He’s getting a broad picture of what drives her, the pieces she’s picked up and stitching back together. It’s coming easier to her, he thinks. Clint wishes it had something to do with him, but he knows that it is just wishful thinking, that it has far more to about feeling safe. Darcy has a job that makes her feel confident, she has Erik and Jane, two people she cares about, surrounded by people that want to see them succeed, the heroes of New York City living above them.

Sometimes, he can’t see past his own nose, he swears, because Darcy loves old man Selvig, in a very real way. And watching him recover is helping her as well.

He sees the broad strokes, bad family life, something he can relate to, and a joy in learning that gave way to something bad that caused her to drop out rather than go back after the internship ended. He hated being pushed to say more than he ever wanted, he won’t do that to her.

“Did you have to find the most crowded place in New York City?” she says, finally sitting down from grabbing a pop from a fridge.

“It’s got the closest thing to a real Italian beef outside of Chicago,” he is going to defend the Midwest from these people who believe it is part of flyover country. “You’ll love it, I’m sure.”

She smiles slyly, “You can’t tell me what to like, Barton.”

“No, but trust me, you will. I was, sixteen? Seventeen? Something like that when we toured through Illinois. I think I ate it for three weeks straight.”

“And it doesn’t seem to have done you any harm.” She takes a sip of her drink. “It’s weird to think of you touring and performing at that age.”

“It’s a living. Also, it wasn’t entirely legal. What were you doing?”

“Clint Barton: It wasn’t entirely legal. That should totally be your catchphrase.” He glares at her, but you know, it is sort of true, “Fine, fine. I was on the debate team.” That’s a thing? Competitive arguing? Darcy sees the confused look he has, because something like that is completely outside his frame of reference.  “You get a topic, argue the pro’s and cons, and get points. That sort of thing. I was okay at it, but my history teacher got me into it. Said it would keep me out of trouble.”

“Did it?” he asks.

Darcy takes a moment to consider. “I’m still here, aren’t I? I wasn’t in a good place before I had a class with Mr Miller. He was the first person that seemed to really…” She clears her throat, and he finds her hand, stroking her palm before he wraps them together. “My dad didn’t care about me, he pretty much only cared about getting drunk, didn’t notice when my water bottle wasn’t filled with just lemonade. Miller did.”

The waitress shows up with their food, and he’s not Natasha, he doesn’t know how to press forward with this without pushing too far. He’s always been the direct one, “You still in touch?” he asks quietly, because he wants to know that whoever this teacher is, this person that pulled Darcy away from her shit life and gave her hope and direction is still around.

“Yeah, we call and check in with each other.” Her hair falls around her face as she looks at the sandwich, debating how to approach it. Thank goodness he didn’t convince her to get hers dipped. He leads the conversation away, talks about the circus a little more and only the good parts.

                                                                                           


 

Empire finally figures out that while Selvig is a hotshot in his own right, he works with the real deal and invites Jane to give a guest lecture on wormhole theory and do a meet-and-greet at a reception.

“You need to go.” Natasha wipes the blood off his forehead. It isn’t his; it might be hers, actually. That happens distressingly often. He’s not too roughed up from the fight, he was mostly up high and directing, but he and Natasha had been side by side for a few moments.

“Gotta debrief, the party will be over by the time I get there,” he objects. If going to a Stark party is overwhelming, going to a party at a university is even moreso. He’s been to receptions before, but always with a target, a piece of information to get, some sort of objective. He doesn’t know how to function without that.

“I’ll cover for you.” the bloods given way to dirt. “You’ll debrief in the morning. Go take a shower, steal one of Stark’s cars and go to Empire.” She looks him over. “And before you ask, button down dress shirt and slacks. I can’t believe you still can’t dress yourself Barton, it’s embarrassing.”

It’s distressing just how well Natasha knows him. Maybe Natasha should just run his relationships for him, he’s probably have more success than him by himself. That’s also a bit distressing. “Any opinions on which car I should take?”

“If you don’t leave now, Sitwell will get here and won’t let you leave for hours, and you’ll have a sad girlfriend. You don’t want to make Darcy sad, do you?”

She had invited him, he had said yes, but would she expect him right after a crisis? Clint admits the answer is probably no, that she’d understand that he had to debrief, had to go through procedures and check-ins, and she probably wouldn’t actually be sad.

But then it comes to him, a simple realization that she’d understand it because her entire life she has been surrounded by people that have repeatedly let her down, down so much that she doesn’t have high expectations at all. It’s something he should have figured out long before this moment, but then, he’s always figured he’s disposable to most people.

Natasha knows him far too well, “Idiot boy,” she says with endearment. “Go.”

He does. Clint knows what’s good for him.

                                                                                  

There’s more women than he’d thought would be here, although they are still vastly outnumbered by men, and he only manages to see Darcy and wave as she heads towards the bar before Jane is grabbing him, begging for him to stand and be slightly menacing. The hairs on the back of his neck perk up at this, and there’s this little irrational voice that’s telling to get his quiver, someone is bugging Jane. It’s what Thor would want him to do after all.

“Oh don’t give that look, I’m fine. That...biologist over there keeps trying to talk about life on other planets and while everyone knows aliens exist, I’ve had a little too much of the wine to not talk about making out with one.”

Jane works out a signal with him for when he should look menacing and when he should loosen up as people keep coming up and talking to or at her, about this research and her research or how his research is obviously more accurate. Between them, they sort out the other attendees wanting to speak to her to the ones actually worth her time; mostly students, Clint figures out. Most of the other scientists don’t seem to actually want to talk science, but gossip, it’s the kids that want to pick apart her theories to see how they work.

Darcy hasn’t come back yet, and he checks with Jane. “I just asked her to grab me another drink and Selvig wanted a beer. She shouldn’t be taking this long.”

That tingle on the back of his neck is back as he looks towards the bar. Darcy is having a conversation at the bar with a guy much closer to her age, so hey, let her enjoy herself. She lives and works with people older than her, dating someone with a decade on her, she probably knows the kid from class, he tells himself, at least until the kid leans in and Darcy shifts to an uneasy posture and takes a step back.

He’s almost behind her by the time she’s telling him, “I don’t drink,” and she raises her hand to try to get some space between the her and the creep. It’s his first chance to get a look at the kid, who is tall and broad shouldered, but doesn’t look like he has the rest of the muscle that goes along with that, just the weight.

The Creep misreads, or just outright ignores Darcy’s gesture, and doesn’t walk away like a normal rejected guy, the way the Clint did just a few months ago. Instead, he pulls at Darcy’s hand and arm, trying to pull her in and puts his other arm on her hip, his fingers gripping tight into her dress.

Clint reels and then pulls himself back away from livid and channels his inner secret agent. Create the illusion of the capacity for violence without ever needing to hurt. Darcy shakes and her voice shakes, and it’s almost like the room shakes with her as she says clearly, “I really need you to get your hands off of me now,” and she slaps hard at his hand.

Creeps hand moves from her hip but still holds on to her wrist and trying to get a firmer grasp. There’s a type of man who looks for damage, seeing the women with it as easy pickings, easy to use up again and cast aside. Not as survivors and not as people.

“Oh come on, what, didn’t your daddy hug you enough as a kid?” he sneers, “I just want to get to know you.”

“You really need to get your hand off of her now,” Clint keeps his voice wide and low, careful that while he is close to Darcy and reaching over her shoulder to grip at the boy’s own wrist, he doesn’t touch her. Her shaking is barely noticeable to anyone else, but her appearance is deceiving, her jaw is set so tight he’s afraid she might chip a tooth with a single wrong move.

The boy’s bravado starts to wear down and his hand releases Darcy slowly, too slowly for his comfort but he won’t push it, they are in a place after all. He’s being terribly adult about all of this and not breaking fingers.

“Whatever man, she’s not worth that much trouble.”

“Fuck you, I’m worth all sorts of trouble.” Darcy forgets to be mindful of her voice and yells, and the attention of the room focuses on her. Suddenly, he’s got an arms worth of curvy brunette and he can finally see what she’s wearing, a black dress that’s slim cut, and while it’s long sleeved, it sort of scoops in the front, he doesn’t know the technical term, that’s Nat’s job, and bright blue tights. And shoes, there’s shoes too, but really the pretty girl struggling to catch her breath in his arms and curled into his chest, takes up most of his concentration.

“You want to get out of here, Darce?” She nods and steadies herself as he starts walking her out through the crowd of people, only stopping at Jane’s concern and reassuring her that he’ll take care of everything.

 

“Penny for your thoughts?” He tries. Conversation is supposed to be good right now, right? Try to keep her out of her head and in the present, but Darcy keeps her forehead against the passenger side window, her lips moving in an inaudible litany, not answering at all until he’s pulled up into the garage of the tower and he realizes she’s not let go of his hand for the entire drive back.

“I’m sorry,” she says, just barely above a whisper. “I should have known better than to put myself in a situation like that, not when I can’t, can’t control how other people are going to react to me.”

Oh crap, conversation is supposed to be good, right? But he’s crap at this, crap at comforting, at knowing how to make things better and right with words. Or actions. Or you know, with anything. “Darcy, babe, you did great. Did you hear yourself? You weren’t half as rough and confident when you were turning me down. Progress!” He tries.

It gets a rough laugh from Darcy. “Look how well that ended for you.” There’s a sickness to her voice, sharp and not her own. “Look what you won with persistence, was it even worth it?”

“Yes.” There’s not much more that needs to be said about that, because yes, of course it has been. “Darcy, you -you’re wonderful. You laugh at my horrible jokes and you make horrible ones of your own. I can’t get over how smart you are, even amongst all the scientists and asshole geniuses there are here, because you can manage them and understand how they work, and you started watching Dog Cops with me. I didn’t win you, because you aren’t a prize to be won.” And she screws her face up as he says that. “Not to say you aren’t a prize, because you, I mean, you’re beautiful, crap, I can’t say anything right, Darce. I just, I’m lucky, and you’re worth all the persistence and the waiting. I’ve been so proud of you.”

Darcy closes her eyes and bites her lips, catching her teeth on the rough and chapped layers of skin and pulling, and she doesn’t answer, just pulses his hand a couple of times before she gets out of the car.

Clint doesn’t know what she needs, doesn’t know what to other than follow her lead and it’s killing him. He knows what helped him, or you know, how he’s compartmentalized all of his shit so that he never has to deal with it outright, and he’s pretty sure that hours on a range hitting targets until he breaks a bowstring, pulling his body and his mind into focus with each other, is ever going to be something that works for her. He just keeps her close, because she seems to be okay with the contact and it’s the longest elevator trip ever, him spilling his heart out like that leaves him feeling a little hollow and he needs the reassurance of her hand, and the promise of softness from her as she rests her head against his shoulder.

“Did you want me to stay?” he asks, rubbing his neck uncertainly, “I can, but only if you want. It’s your…I don’t want to pressure, but if you don’t want to be alone.”

“It’ll be okay Clint,” She says with a sad smile.

“You have someone you can talk to at least?”  He lets the ‘someone who knows and cares?’ go unsaid.

“Yeah, you know how I said I keep in contact with Miller? I keep in touch with him a lot, and he, he helps me deal with things.” She goes serious for a moment. “This isn’t me pushing you away.” and that’s actually assuring, she looks straight at him right in the eyes and something opens inside of her and she lifts her head up and kisses him, just a bare touch to his lips. Her lips are cracked from where she’s picked at them, and any lipstick she had been wearing is long gone, but it’s the sweetest thing he can imagine.

Everything he does is about taking chances that no one else would ever want to calculate the odds of, because they are so astronomical that it might as well be failure. He puts his free hand to her cheek, rubs his thumb against her bottom lip and leans down. He’s not that tall, and she’s not that short, but he wants to give her any chance to say no before he kisses her again, still without the sheerest glimmer of force and rests his forehead against hers when he breaks it off.

“So, that’s not me pushing you away,” Darcy continues, almost like nothing happened, except that’s a lie, because her eyes are brighter now, “That’s just I need to talk with him because, it’s…it’s a history thing.”

Just like he has Natasha, and whatever he hasn’t told her, she’s probably figured out for himself, because she has no qualms about spying on loved ones, Darcy has this teacher of hers. He can’t deny that it hurts a small amount that he’s not let in yet, but its better that she have someone than no one at all.

“I’m here when you’re ready.”

“I know you are.” and she smiles again, genuine or a close approximation of it. “Just not tonight, handsome.”

                                                                                  


 

He thinks it’s something that he has to accept. That anytime anything heavy happens, Darcy just seems to go underground, and he lets her. He doesn’t visit the lab, doesn’t text or call, and neither does she. Maybe she needs the time the regroup or something. So when she knocks on his door and he answers, he’s not expecting her to look heartbroken and confused.

“I said, I wasn’t pushing you away and you what, try to push me away?”

“I uh, no that’s not what I was doing, I was, wait, no.” Words are not his strong point, really not, so he flings the door open and gestures, “Darcy, please come in.” She looks so small and unsure as she enters wearing her customary jeans and boots and his favorite llama sweater. He has a favorite llama sweater, this means she has more than one, and he prefers one of them. He blurts this out, “My favorite sweater.”

“Excuse me?” Darcy is completely thrown by this announcement of his, “You have a favorite sweater?”

“To be fair, I have horrible taste in clothes.” He admits.

“I guessed that when I first realized that everything you own is purple.” She shrugs. “Or carefully curated by Natasha.” She bites her lip again, a tell he’s learning she does whenever she’s nervous. “I’m still not pushing you away, Clint, but that was a bad night.”

“That’s why I was waiting for you to come to me, Darcy.” There’s no point in trying to play it cool, he realizes, and lets his nerves show through too. Darcy seems to relax at that though.

“Well, you’re allowed to come to see me then. That’s cleared up then.”  Darcy cracks her knuckles, taking a seat on the couch, “This is hard, because I want to say stuff to you, I mean, and we’re getting close, right? I’m not imagining this? I don’t think we’ve said anything like, official….”

“Darcy,” Clint says, hopping over the back up the couch to land next to her, and taking her widely waving hands, “You aren’t here to try to do a relationship talk, I know that. We’re together, I like you, I care for you, and I’m here, so why don’t you.” Darcy starts cracking up. “Are you laughing at me?”

“Serious isn’t that good of a look on you. But I needed to know, because I don’t think it’s fair for us to be, um, us,” she indicated the space between them, swinging their joined hands, “when I feel like you have to walk like eggshells around me. I’ve had to do that, and it wasn’t good. And you’ve been so good. How’d do you manage to not completely mess up?”

“I honestly have no idea, I usually screw things up within like minutes. Are you trying to derail your own conversation?”

“Um…” Darcy bites her lip again, and he remembers how they felt against his own, wonders if the indents and scrapes from her teeth ever go away, “Yeah, I kind of am. I really don’t know how to start this.”

“The beginning?” he says, trying for humor, but Darcy just gives him a thoughtful look, before closing her eyes and pressing back into the couch.

“I think,” she starts, “I think there isn’t really a beginning. I’ve been told to make it into a story, yay misguided therapists, but honestly? If I try to construct a narrative, it doesn’t feel like what actually happened to me. It feels like it’s just a story to tell myself to make me feel better about being shit. The past isn’t a story, its just disjointed memories.”

“So then just start where you think it’s most important, the biggest thing I should know.”

“No, let’s do this opposite. What do you think you know?” Darcy opens an eye and looks at him. “I know you well enough to know that you at least have theories. You work for SHIELD after all.”

Unlike Darcy, Clint feels better with a foundation. “When the guy said that your daddy didn’t hug you enough, it set you off. I figured you had a crap dad, but I don’t think we had the same type. Mine knocked me around when he was pissed off, yours?”

“I think the term is neglectful, emotionally distant, that sort of crap, and a drunk who barely remembered to buy bread at the store but the bar was always stocked and then he never noticed when I was drinking from it. I was drinking myself to sleep before high school.” She pulls their hands apart, and the sudden disconnect is shocking, and Clint expects her to start walking out, the way she keeps swallowing down, but she just crosses her arms over her chest and tucks her feet under her, becoming smaller but more comfortable on the couch. “What else.”

“This teacher of yours was a good guy, reached out to you, got you involved in school and uh, debate club, right?” She nods once. “And I think after that, things were okay. They weren’t great by any means, but for a couple of years you were fairly happy.”

Darcy touches her nose, “Ten points for you Barton, you might make something of this information business yet.”

“I’ll add ferreting out the secrets of Darcy Lewis to my resume. Who knows, maybe Fury will give me a medal.” Clint smirks. “Something shiny for my chest, maybe a parade.”

“Oh shut up.” She smiles back, looking more at ease again. She’s teetering back and forth, not entirely comfortable but also determined. Clint reaches out again for her hands, but she surprises him, and uses the leverage to settle herself against him.

The thing about Darcy is that after so long a drought of touch, she can be amazingly tactile, or maybe it’s just the contrast and the way she throws herself headlong into each contact. He thinks of Natasha and the way she laughs and outright giggles when she’s in free-fall in the moments before a parachute opens. Darcy is falling by inches into every offer of skin he gives. It’s hard not to offer up everything to her and ruin whatever is going to happen from here.

“What I can’t figure out,” he says into her hair, letting her guide his hands, settling around her stomach, her soft llama sweater that makes him smile even as he continues. “is what happened when you got to college? It sounds like in high school you were on the way to be almost well-adjusted after the fact, so what happened?”

“You don’t pull punches, do you?”

“Never made a habit of it before, not going to stop just cause I like you. I really don’t pull punches with the women I like.” And yeah, he hears Nat’s laughter in his head, laughing through the fall and at him.

Darcy drums his fingers against his, dancing patterns against the tops of his hands. “This is actually the hard part, this is the part that feels disjointed and a mess. Can I just….” She turns and buries her face into his chest and he tightens his hold around her, listening to her breathe unsteadily, “I got there and it was good for a little while, but I didn’t really make friends,” She starts muffled before lifting her head back up. “There was just so much going on that it was just overwhelming, and I didn’t go out to parties because everyone drank and I wasn’t that strong yet to not be surrounded by it and say no. My first year, I was doing well at the school part but becoming slowly miserable. I met a guy in one of my summer classes, because hell no, I was not going back home.”

She’s quiet again. “I don’t know how to be in a good relationship. Only one person in my life paid me any sort of positive attention and he was a teacher, and there was none of that sort of thing going on. You’re my first good relationship and I’m terrified of screwing it up, that somehow I’m going to…” her voice speeds up, whipping out words as quick as she can. “That I’ll do something wrong and things will be the way they were before I left him.”

She never dignifies the man she dated with a name, and he doesn’t think it’s by accident. She doesn’t want Clint to try to find him, and he won’t, because the asshole sounds like the kind of man that has either moved on to other prey or will eventually try to find her. And he’ll be surprised enough at the kind of attention an abuser receives via the Avengers.

“It started okay, we dated for a year without, without it feeling weird at all. He bitched about my clothes, but I figured all guys wanted to see their girls in something low-cut, even I preferred this, so I relented when we were together. And it went on like that, I didn’t know, and I didn’t understand that even if one of the things he’d do was okay, the pile together really wasn’t. I ran out of housing funding junior year and he said I could move in with him. And it was good for awhile, I was doing really well at the school stuff and so was he, but he’d start saying and doing things that didn’t sit right, wouldn’t touch me unless we were having sex because why would he bother otherwise, and he made me put him on my bank account to pay the bills but he’d take more money than that…there were so many little things I should have noticed, but he never….” She wavers and drops her head, like she has something to be ashamed about.

“He never hit you. So it couldn’t possibly be abuse.” But it’s not like that, it really isn’t. Just because someone doesn’t hurt you doesn’t means it’s right or that it doesn’t hurt. He wants her to keep going, it’s her story, he only needed to get her going so she can tell it.

“Won’t make that mistake again. It wasn’t until I stayed up late one night, going through my photos from high school and telling stories and three days later he got pissed off at me for something, and I woke up before I could smell him burning my photographs.” Darcy turns and looks at him. “That’s all I had of being happy and I just, I just woke up. I did what I could to finish out the semester, played along, and then I did the only thing I knew I could count on. I called Mr Miller. He came and got me, moved me out, put me up and then two weeks later put me on a plane to New Mexico.”

And the way her face brightens is amazing, something real and unguarded, and he can see the woman she has the potential to be, “And here I am, Clint. Here I am.”

It’s a great afternoon, the sun pours in through the windows, filling the room with light and he can pretend that it’s warm outside (it isn’t. It really isn’t) and even though his plans were to spend some quality time with his X-Box, spending it with Darcy laying against him is a pretty good substitute. He murmurs into her hair about how she’s wonderful, how he’s so proud of her, and thanking her for trusting him.

He doesn’t need to ask, and she tells him anyways. It’s working for them.