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It's a Girl

Chapter Text

Nick Fury reviewed the report from the North Sea. Hints of a strange metallic alloy had started showing up on the very edge of their radar. They wanted to do further research and were requesting authorization. He made a note to sanction the continued exploration as the phone rang.

“Report,” he answered.

“Sir, we found it.”

“Well done, Coulson,” he noted. He pulled up the relevant data. “What can you tell me?”

“It appears to be some kind of hammer.”

“A hammer?” Fury drew in a breath. “I’ve got a full scientific team as well as security heading to New Mexico for a hammer?” He sat back. “What, the space station crew decided they had too many?”

“Actually, sir, it appears to be an ancient form of war hammer,” Coulson replied steadily. “From the size of the crater, it was moving with an extremely high rate of velocity when it hit. Both onsite reports as well as interviews with various locals have confirmed there is no damage to the item, not so much as a scratch.”

“Hmm.” Fury’s eye narrowed in consideration. “Anything else?”

“Yes, sir,” Coulson answered. “It appears immovable.”

“Come again?”

“No one has been able to move the item,” Coulson explained. “The locals have made quite a stir about testing their ability to move it. Attempts to move it have failed, and even caused significant damage to one vehicle.”

“Get the locals away from there,” Fury ordered.

“On it, sir,” Coulson agreed. “The advance team of scientists has put out a story about trace amounts of radiation. The place cleared out fairly quickly.”

“I’ll bet.” A quick grin slid over Fury’s face. “Set up a mobile headquarters and get that place roped off. I want to know what it is, why it’s there, and who’s going to come looking for it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Barton is on his way with a full security complement. Let’s give the locals the assurance that we’re there to keep them safe, but keep the security as nondescript as possible.”

“Sir?”

The faint trace of concern filtering into Coulson’s voice caused a chill to run up Fury’s neck. He slowly straightened in his chair. “I’m not going to like this next bit, am I, Agent Coulson?”

“Possibly not, sir.”

“Spit it out.”

“Darcy’s here, sir,” Coulson replied.

“Darcy,” Fury stated calmly.

“Yes, sir.”

“Darcy,” Fury continued. “As in smart-mouthed, Taser-loving, outlandishly outspoken, gets into trouble at the drop of a hat Darcy?”

“Correct, sir.”

“Darcy,” he repeated. “The girl we have hidden under her great-grandmother’s maiden name. The girl we have buried under so many layers even Romanoff would have trouble navigating them.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Agent Coulson, do you have any idea of the amount of trouble there will be if she has so much as a scratch on her when this is over?” Fury inquired in a steady voice.

“I do, sir.”

“Good. Then I won’t have to remind you of the consequences we will all be facing if she gets hurt.” Fury finally set back once more. “I want security on her at all times. I don’t care how she tries to slip away,” he commanded. “You have backups for the backups if you have to.”

“I’ll put Barton on it,” Coulson replied.

“That’ll work,” Fury agreed. “If he can keep up with Romanoff, he can probably handle Darcy.” Coulson muttered something under his breath. Fury cleared his throat. “What was that, Agent?”

“Sorry, sir,” Coulson responded. “I simply noted her ability to slip almost any leash.”

“I know,” Fury acknowledge with a wry twist of his lips. “I blame her mother.” Coulson stayed quiet. “Never mind that for now. Make sure Barton is aware of the importance of this, understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Fury hung up the phone. He placed his elbows on the top of his desk, laced his fingers together, and rested his forehead on his folded hands. He did not want to make this next phone call. Val would have a conniption. He sighed and reached for the phone.

How the hell did his step-daughter always manage to land in the middle of these things?

Chapter Text

Fury was really beginning to hate telephones. First Coulson’s call, and then his own to Val…he’d be tempted to take the night off, but Hill threatened to resign if he left everything, especially Stark, to her. Now his phone was ringing again.

“Report,” he answered as he stalked down the corridor towards the control room. He hoped like hell it was not yet another problem. Between the shit going down at the Stark Expo and trying to keep track of whatever the hell was going on with Banner and Blonsky, his schedule was full.

“Uncle Phil stole my iPod, and who the heck is the guy following me on the rooftops?”

He shifted direction without missing a beat to head towards Coulson’s empty office since it was closest. “Calm down, Darcy.”

“Calm down?” He winced at the sheer disbelief in her voice. “Are you kidding?” She huffed out a breath. “I’ve got a heart-broken scientist mourning the loss of her equipment and journal. Jane is a mess. The woman can go longer than you can without food or sleep, and holds her tequila better than Aunt Daisy and she is a frickin’ mess right now!”

He sighed, “Darcy-“

“Dad,” she echoed his tone. “What is going on?”

“There’s a new crater outside of town,” he replied. He could just imagine the roll of her eyes during the moment of silence that followed.

“Great,” she drawled out. “So Uncle Phil’s here to look at meteorites and steal our stuff. Wonderful.”

“If everything clears up, you’ll get it back.”

“Yeah, Dad,” she sighed. “Because things with SHIELD just ‘clear up’. We’ll be lucky to see any of the scrap metal.” There was a long pause before she drew another breath. “Look, whatever. Just tell him not to let anything happen to the journal, okay? It’s half science journal, half diary. It’s really, really important, alright?”

“I’ll take care of it.” He would have Coulson glance through it for anything unusual as well.

“Good.” She paused for a beat. “Don’t let him give it to the underlings to read either. He has to read it himself.” He smothered a laugh. Her voice lightened. “So…about the guy on the rooftops?”

He leaned back on Coulson’s desk. “Try not to lose this one, Darcy. His ego might never recover.”

“Why is he following me?”

“Because things with SHIELD don’t just ‘clear up’.” He rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “You know our record.”

“Of things going to hell in a hand-basket no matter how hard Uncle Phil tries to plan for all contingencies?” She laughed. “Is he still sore about Stark’s ‘I am Iron Man’?”

“Funny girl,” he smirked. “And yes, he is. Stark broke his streak of cover stories. He had to start over again.”

“Still aiming at Peggy Carter’s record?”

Fury gave a soft snort. “That woman set a damn high bar.”

“And all the boys get flustered trying to beat it,” she chimed in. They shared a laugh before she grew serious once more. “So I’ve got the shadow just in case?”

“For now,” he agreed. “I know you’ve made a game of slipping your trackers, but could you keep this one? Please?”

A long exasperated sigh flowed over the phone. “Kill my fun.”

“Sorry,” he remarked.

She scoffed back at him. “No, you’re not.”

“I’m not,” he admitted. “And don’t try calling your mother. I already did that.”

“Not fair.”

“Yes, fair.” He shook his head. “Didn’t we get past this argument when you were in junior high?”

“Yeah,” she giggled, “but it’s so much fun to rehash.”

“Just try and stay out of trouble, okay?” he asked. “Val’s already promised all kinds of dire retribution for each scrape.”

“Mom bluffs half of that,” Darcy noted.

“No,” Fury answered slowly. “Your mom bluffs half of that when it deals with anyone else. She’s dead serious when it comes to you.”

Darcy hummed in agreement for a moment. “So, Barton, what’s his story?”

“He’s a damn fine sniper,” he answered. “Don’t ever mention that I said that.”

“Okay, I won’t,” she replied. “Wait,” she exclaimed. “Sniper? Like the guy Uncle Phil calls Hawkeye? That sniper?”

“Yes,” he drew out the word, wondering what the hell Coulson had said.

“Damn it!”

“Language,” he corrected automatically. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s one of your best agents,” she explained. “I’ve never tried to slip on one of your best.”

“Except-“ he started.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she interrupted. “Except Uncle Phil, but come on, dad, that was practically training. It was his turn to homeschool me.” He could visualize her bouncing in place. “This is someone good who has no idea!”

“Darcy Marie,” he thundered.

“I won’t, I won’t,” she grumbled. “I promised.” She paused. “Still, it would be fun.”

“I’ll see about it some other time,” he commented without thinking.

“Really?” The excitement in her voice overruled the concern in his mind.

“Provided your mother is in town to keep track of you,” he amended. “It will be good training for him.” His eye narrowed. “Coulson has to be in town as well.”

“Oh, now you’re just being difficult,” she groused.

“No,” he insisted. “I’m covering my ass.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She laughed. “You’re just worried I’ll break your agents.”

“You break my agents on a regular basis,” he countered.

She giggled. “And it’s fun!” There was a pause. “Look, dad, I’ve got to go. I promise not to damage Agent Barton, and I’ll even be semi-nice to Uncle Phil.”

“Don’t let anyone know-“

“That I know him or who he works for,” she finished in a sing-song tone. “I’m not a rookie.”

“Be careful.”

“Watch yourself,” she popped back. “I’ve heard about Stark and the others. I can’t wait to hear about the North Sea.”

“Darcy!”

She hung up with a laugh.

He stood there for a long moment, shaking his head. The girl was going to be the death of him. He reached up and tapped his headset. “Hill? I just heard from Mockingbird. She’s managed to find another leak.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, we have to go now.”

Darcy shot a look at her shadow. “Yeah, that would be a ‘no’.” She picked up a toddler and passed him to up to where his dad sat in the pickup truck. “We have to get this place evacuated.”

“This is the last truck,” he argued, helping lift an elderly woman into the truck bed. “Town’s evacuated, so you can go.”

“Jane’s here,” she noted as she walked back towards the center of town. “I’m staying.”

“Miss Lewis-“ he started.

“Hey,” she interrupted. “You just helped me get people out of here; I think you can call me Darcy.”

“Clint,” he responded before shaking his head. “Can we go now?”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you? Jane is here. Erik is here. Thor is here.” She turned and gave him an obstinate look. “I’m staying.” She started walking once more.

He trailed after her, and she had to fight a grin as she heard him muttering. “Coulson is going to shoot me.” She had to give him points though; he wanted her to leave, but he wasn’t manhandling her about it. He was kind of like Uncle Phil in that way – trying to talk her into something, but letting her make her own decisions. She wondered if he’d be as bad as Uncle Phil about changing tactics when the danger became acute.

The two of them reached the town center just ahead of Erik, Jane, and Thor. Erik frowned at her companion, and she shrugged. “Jack-booted thug number four seems to be an okay guy under the badge.”

“Hey!” Clint protested.

She looked over her shoulder. “You guys stole our stuff. You should be happy I didn’t get my Taser.”

They watched as Sif and her warrior three got thrown around by the giant metal monstrosity Thor called ‘Destroyer’. One explosion hit too close and shrapnel flew everywhere. Clint grabbed Darcy and spun, tucking her down in front of him, and let his back take the hits from the debris. She didn’t fight him. It stopped and she peered around his shoulder as he turned to look.

Thor walked down the street, looking like a gunfighter heading for a showdown.

“What does he think he’s doing?” she whispered.

Clint kept her close. “He’s giving himself up.”

Darcy met his gaze and saw respect deep within the stoic expression. She recognized the look; her dad wore it whenever he told her about agents and soldiers who went above and beyond the call of duty to help people and get the job done. It was a look of recognition, one warrior to another.

She sighed. He had to stop reminding her of the two top men in her life.

Uncle Phil would lock her up if she fell for one of his agents…and that’s if her dad didn’t kill him first.

They watched Thor’s apparent death, his amazing resuscitation, and his defeat of the Destroyer. When Darcy hopped in the truck to drive into the desert, Clint followed. She frowned at him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Where does it look like?” he asked as he climbed into the passenger seat.

“I should make you ride with Volstagg,” she replied, exasperated. She took off, the rest of them crammed in the back. They reached the site, and she gave him her best ‘Coulson-look’. “Stay with the truck.”

His eyebrows flew up, but he nodded after eyeing the group.

~*~

That night, as Jane sat on the roof staring at the stars and Erik nursed a beer, Darcy hauled a chair out in front of the Smith building and waited. She heard the soft footfalls as he came up behind her. Without opening her eyes, she held out a bottle. “Beer?”

“Thanks,” Clint replied, taking the beer and leaning on the column next to her. He scanned the street before looking down at her. She waited, letting him set the pace of the conversation. Finally, he spoke. “Who are you?” She glanced up at him, a smile hovering on her lips. He frowned. “And don’t tell me you’re just a college kid.”

Her smile stretched into a grin. “Well, I am in college.” He threw her an exasperated look and she laughed. “Let’s just say I’ve got connections.”

“You can’t tell me, can you?” he stated more than asked.

“Not really,” she commiserated. She looked into the night sky for a moment before turning back to him. “Got a phone?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Pass it over.” He stared at her for a moment, caution and curiosity warring in his eyes. She rolled her. “Really, I’m not going to do anything bad. Let me see it.” He slowly handed over the phone. She snatched it from him and programmed in a number. After saving it, she made sure to get his number in return. She handed it back. “Here you go.”

He glanced at his contact list. “Mockingbird?”

“Yep,” she smiled. “It’s a combination of my attitude and my habits.”

“’Mocking’, huh?” He smirked at her.

“That would be the attitude,” she replied as she sat back. “The ‘bird’ part comes from my tendency to ‘fly’ or slip out of my security net.”

His eyes narrowed, and she could almost see him replaying the last day. “You deliberately stayed in sight, didn’t you?”

“I promised not to fly on you,” she agreed, tilting her head back to meet his gaze. Darcy repressed her own smirk at his face as his expression faltered between insulted and intrigued. She gave a tiny shrug. “I did get a promise of a rematch without the stipulation.”

Now intrigue definitely won out, but Clint held himself to a simple remark of “I look forward to it.” They traded challenging smiles before relaxing back to enjoy the silence of the night.

Chapter Text

“Tromso?”

Fury flinched, pulling the phone away from his ear as Darcy’s voice shrieked across the line. He glared at Coulson as the man’s lips twitched.

“Darcy-“ he began.

“Oh, don’t even!” Darcy’s voice hit the perfect pitch of disbelief, annoyance, and anger. “Do you have any idea how frickin’ cold it is here? I’m in three layers and still freezing! Why the hell are we in Norway? Jane could have answered these questions over a damn Skype call. Drag us out of bed at zero-dark-thirty to throw us on a plane for a bunch of airheaded science loons, and for what? Jane’s ready to rip their head guy another one because he’s a chauvinistic twit who thinks women should be support staff. If he gives her one more line about being Erik’s intern, there’s going to be quality homicide over here. And the security team? How much trouble will I be in if I just put them on their asses?”

“Darcy-“ Fury tried again.

“I mean it, Dad! There better be one damn fine reason you’ve planted us here.” Vehemence dripped from her tone. “Trust me, if this is some stupid stunt because of a ‘possible’,” and no voice should be allowed that much sarcasm in one word, “threat, I swear I’m calling Mom right now and telling her about last Christmas.”

“Barton’s been compromised,” he stated.

Silence fell. He could hear her breathing, but nothing else for several long moments. “What happened?” she asked finally.

He explained the situation to her quietly and succinctly. She just listened. “We needed to get Foster somewhere safe because of her connection with Thor,” he finished. “You went with her because it is one of the few safe houses Barton doesn’t know.”

“So now what?” Darcy inquired. His eye narrowed at her subdued attitude. Something was definitely not right here.

“Now,” he replied, still mulling her tone over in his mind, “you and Foster stay low. We’re activating the Initiative to handle the situation.”

“Uncle Phil must be over the moon,” she commented, trying to sound upbeat, but only managing to be half successful.

“Something like that,” he answered. Fury paused considering before delicately probing, “Darcy, do you need to tell me something?”

“Like what?” she popped back, hesitating just a moment too long for his comfort. “Like the security you sent us needs to go back to training? I swear, there are three different holes in their net, and I’m not even trying.” She gave a laugh, but it was her show laugh, her ‘yes, of course I’m happy to see you’ laugh that she saved for social parties. “Oh,” she continued before he could speak. “And tell Uncle Phil he’s going to need a new hire soon. Wandering eyes I can usually ignore, but the dude with the wandering hands is pissing me off.”

“Who the hell?” His voice dropped a register and iced over even as he marked her turning of the conversation. Coulson sat forward, eyes turning intent.

“Like I’m bothering to remember his name?” she replied snippily. “That’d just encourage him. Some idiot with a scar along the left jaw line and an Ohio accent.”

Fury mentally reviewed the files of the agents sent to Tromso. He glanced at Coulson. “Hickson is in deep shit if he makes it back.” Coulson gave a brief nod and Fury turned his attention back to the phone. “Don’t kill him, but I’m not going to fuss about the shape he’s in when we pick him back up.”

“Good,” she stated. “In that case I’m going to be trying out some of my new stuff.”

“Darcy Marie.”

She sighed. “It was worth a shot.”

“Tell me about Barton.”

“He’s got my number, okay?” She gave a small growl. “We’ve talked.”

“Talked,” he repeated in a quiet, calm voice.

“Yeah, Dad,” she grumbled. “Talked.” He could almost hear her shrug. “He’s cool – a lot better than most of the guys you usually have tailing me.”

“Agent Barton is-“

“Older than I am, off-limits, too dangerous…”she let her voice trail away. “Is it one of those? Or should I keep guessing?”

“Any of them will do,” he bit out.

“Dad, I’m not sixteen,” she pointed out. “Besides which, he agrees with you on all of the above apparently, and that’s not even counting what his response will be when he finds out about you and Mom.” Fury stayed quiet and she sighed again. “Would I like to see if it could go somewhere? Yeah. Am I going to be naively stupid about it? No.”

“He’s an agent.”

“Which means at least he could get to meet the family,” she muttered. “It’d be a nice change.”

“Can we not discuss this right now?” Fury rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Please stay put. Please don’t kill the security team, and please keep Foster under control. We’ll discuss this when it’s over.” There was silence on her end of the line. “Darcy?”

“Fine,” she groused. “Conditionally.”

“What?” His voice filled with suspicion.

“We actually will discuss this,” she replied. “You don’t get to relocate him or send him off to Siberia or something to avoid the problem. Mom has to be there for the talk. And you have to listen.”

He growled, but gave in. “I don’t like it.”

A soft amused huff came over the line. “If it was up to you, I’d be in a convent.”

He didn’t try to argue. “Just keep your head down for now.” She drew in a breath, but he spoke first. “And yes, you can put Hickson on his ass whenever necessary. We’ll deal with him later.”

“I say you make him Uncle Phil’s assistant for a month,” she commented.

“I’ll take it under advisement.”

“Bye, Dad,” she said softly.

“Be careful, ladybug.“ He hung up the phone before shooting another glare at Coulson. “Not one word."

Chapter Text

Darcy followed Jane out of the Quinjet, stifling a smile as she listened to her mutter insults in three different languages. Jane understood the need for security, but she was beyond pissed at being shipped off to Norway without being told the truth. Darcy’s amusement grew as the three security agents sidled past her, eyes averted and muted panic in their expressions. It was a fair bet those three would resign before accepting an assignment anywhere near either woman again.

She couldn’t wait to tell Uncle Phil.

He would grumble and grouse of course. He hated it when she broke his agents. Still, it was not all her fault this time. She would totally take the blame for Hickson and Grint, but Hudson was all Jane’s. She huffed out a laugh as she sauntered along behind the scientist. Really, the guy was an idiot. What kind of moron tried to lecture an astrophysicist on astronomy? Darcy rolled her eyes.

She looked over the party waiting to greet them. She blinked. Wow, that was one hell of a welcome committee. Dad, Aunt Maria, and the Avengers – minus Thor, though, which was guaranteed to irritate Jane even further. She didn’t even get to talk to him. Darcy shook her head. Someone couldn’t knock off a Skype before he took off? What kind of…

Darcy’s thoughts faltered. Her steps slowed and then stopped. She ran her eyes back over the group, once, twice, and still a third time. The line-up never changed. The Avengers grew bewildered, and even Jane stopped to look back in confusion, but her dad and aunt’s faces tightened. Darcy’s heart stuttered as her mind began floundering. Something must have shown in her expression because Jane started backtracking immediately.

“Darcy?” Jane touched her arm.

Darcy blinked at her before looking back to her dad. Fury was already striding up to them. He put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “He’s alive.”

Her form shuddered, relief and concern fighting within her. Her gaze met his before glancing over as her aunt stepped up beside them. “Where is he?”

“The infirmary,” Maria told her quietly. “He’s alive, but Loki hurt him pretty badly.”

Darcy’s eyes flashed, but she quickly repressed her anger. “Can I see him?”

“Of course,” Fury agreed immediately. He took a deep breath, casting a glance over his shoulder at the puzzled onlookers. Then he gave a half-shrug. He slid an arm around her shoulders and led her inside without a word to anyone.

Darcy could hear them following, and could even feel a spark of gratitude in a corner of her mind when she heard Clint taking care of Jane, but right now her entire focus was on her missing family member. Uncle Phil was a ninja – ninjas didn’t get hurt.

They reached the infirmary, and Fury stopped her in front of a window. She looked into one of the few private rooms on the helicarrier. She stared at the motionless figure on the hospital bed. Tears pricked her eyes. Fury tightened his arm around her, but didn’t say anything. She bit her lip. “It’s…” She trailed off, before taking a deep breath to try again. “It doesn’t look good, does it?”

“He’s strong,” Maria assured her, reaching up to tuck a lock of hair behind Darcy’s ear. “The coma is medically-induced to let his body rest while it heals.” Her lips twisted. “I won’t lie to you, sweetheart,” she paused as the team behind her shifted and rustled, but continued without comment, “it was a bad wound, but they’re cautiously optimistic.”

Darcy sighed and rested her head on Fury’s shoulder. “Cautiously?”

“Loki’s blade nicked his lung and his heart,” Fury answered. He drew in a deep breath. “They lost him twice, but managed to resuscitate him. Now he seems to be holding his own.”

Grumbling broke out behind them, but Maria sent a sharp look over Darcy’s shoulder and it cut off abruptly. The corner of Darcy’s mouth twitched upwards. “You should probably stop teasing Uncle Phil’s kids, Aunt Maria.”

Maria gave her a sardonic look as everything behind her went still. Maria cocked an eyebrow at her. “They’re lucky they’re not in time-out.”

Darcy gave a soft laugh before her eyes trailed back to the figure in the room, the laughter fading away. “Can I sit with him?”

“After you get some rest,” Fury replied.

“I’m not-“

After,” Fury insisted. “You’ve got deeper shadows than I do. Did you even sleep in Norway?” He turned her away from the window. He ignored the shocked looks on the faces of Jane and the Avengers as he led her out of the infirmary.

Despite her worry, Darcy still had to bite back a snicker when she heard Clint’s voice behind her.

Uncle Phil? Aunt Maria?

Chapter Text

“Really, Uncle Phil, you should have seen their faces,” Darcy chattered, her voice filling the private infirmary room. “I can pretty much guarantee those guys are going to quit before coming anywhere near Jane or I again.” She paused for a moment and then sighed. “I keep leaving these spaces for you to tell me to behave, or just give me one of your pseudo-annoyed glances.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s been weeks. I really need you to wake up. Everybody’s mad at everybody else.”

She bit her lip as she thought of the various episodes she’d seen since arriving on the helicarrier, like her dad acting super guilty while Aunt Maria glowered at him. Then there was the team; they were all still too mad to want to deal with SHIELD at all outside of emergencies. Even the two agents had taken time off to avoid dealing with their bosses. She shook her head.

“You are going to have one hell of a mess to clean up when you decide to quit napping,” she said, looking down at him. “I am seriously not taking charge of this debacle. I don’t know what the hell he told them, but the team is definitely less than impressed right now.” She rested her elbow on the side of the bed and leaned her cheek on it. “By the way, you left out a few details about your favorite agents. You told me they were good at their jobs and maybe a bit paranoid, which I totally get by the way, but you left out the fact that both Clint and Natasha have overprotective, lurking sides that lead them to popping out of nowhere and generally scaring the hell out of the baby agents and support staff.” A slight brush of fabric drew her attention even though she didn’t physically react, instead choosing to raise her voice a trifle. “Neither term applies to me by the way.”

“Didn’t think it did,” Clint answered as he moved around to the other side of the bed. “So, we’re his favorites?”

She tossed him an unimpressed stare. “You figured I was talking about those idiots we had in Tromso?”

“What happened to them anyway?” he smirked, propping his feet up on the end of the bed. “Hickson’s trying to quit, Hudson has asked for leave, and Grint wants to transfer to England.”

“Hey!” She threw up her hands. “I completely accept responsibility for Hickson and Grant, but Hudson is all Jane.” He cocked an eyebrow and she shrugged. “Hickson had a problem understanding simple English and Grint should learn the when and where of complaining about his bosses.”

“You call that ‘detail’?” He asked. She blinked innocently and he snorted. “Don’t even start with me. What ‘simple English’ did Hickson screw up?”

“No,” she answered.

He frowned. “No…what?”

“That’s it,” she replied, her eyes widening in emphasis. “He had trouble with ‘no’.”

There was no movement, nothing physical to hint at his reaction, but Clint’s voice went ice cold. “What did he do?” His empty gaze settled on her face, looking, probing for an answer.

She repressed a shiver. “Slow yourself, big boy. I handled it.”

“I’m sure you did,” he agreed smoothly. “Doesn’t mean he couldn’t use a refresher course on how to behave while on protection detail.” She gave him a narrow-eyed stare, but he remained loose and casual. His eyes never moved from her face, and she could tell he fully intended to wait her out. She frowned and one corner of his mouth lifted in a half smirk. “I’m on vacation,” he noted. “I’ve got all day.”

“As do I.”

Darcy started at the new voice and real amusement crept over Clint’s face. She’d been so focused on him that she missed Natasha walking through the door. She blinked at the newcomer with surprise.

Natasha gave her a small smile before turning to Clint. “Are we staying then?”

“At least until we get some detail on Hickson’s inability to take ‘no’ for an answer,” he responded, flicking a look at his partner before focusing on Darcy once more.

Natasha shifted to rest a hip on the edge of the bed. “What did he do?”

Darcy slumped back with a sigh, covering her face with her hands. “Really, I promise, I handled it!”

“He would like to quit,” Natasha pointed out. “I have no doubt you ‘handled it’.” She lifted one shoulder in a graceful motion. “It would not hurt for us to reinforce the lesson.”

“He got a little handsy,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “I told him to back off, and he tried it again. I put him on his ass and offered to dislocate a shoulder or break an arm if he did it again.” She held up both hands in a warding gesture. “He stayed away, but decided to start running his mouth. I reprogrammed his computer to Mandarin and froze his bank accounts.” She gave them a wide smile. “He’s been mooching from friends or living off SHIELD rations ever since.”

“That’s my girl.”

The soft, scratchy voice redirected everyone’s attention to the bed, and they all came to their feet as they watched a hazy pair of eyes blink open.

Chapter Text

Darcy waited until Maria confirmed Clint and Natasha left the helicarrier before she turned to her uncle. Phil’s calm, if still somewhat hazy gaze remained focused on her. He gave a long, slow blink. “You hustled them out of here faster than I expected,” he told her.

“Not really,” she shook her head. “There’d be hell to pay if Steve or Tony,” she paused as he winced, before continuing with a grin, “or Tony found out you woke up and they didn’t get them immediately. And since none of them are trusting Dad right now, that means those two have to physically go and get them.”

“Not trusting…?” He let his voice trail off on a rising note.

“Yeah,” she drawled out slowly. “That’s part of what I needed to talk to you about.” She bit her lip. “Look, I don’t know what Dad said or did, but they’re all kinds of pissy about it right now. Steve gives him these disappointed looks, Pepper gets all formal, and Clint and Natasha have taken a lot of vacation. If it’s not an emergency? The Avengers are not talking to Dad.” She lifted both hands, palms up. “We’ve got to fix that!”

Phil grimaced. “And you don’t know what he did?”

“Not a clue,” she answered.

“I told them you were dead,” came a voice from the door.

Both faces turned to the doorway. Fury stood there, tense and stoic, leaning on the jamb.

“You what?” Darcy whispered, shock and horror sliding over her face.

Phil nodded however, “I wondered if that was it.”

“What?” Now Darcy turned startled eyes on her uncle.

“They needed the push,” he replied, his eyes steady as they gazed at Fury. “At the rate they were going before the attack, they were going to tear themselves apart and leave everyone else vulnerable.”

Fury’s shoulders twitched. “It worked.”

It worked?” Darcy’s voice rose indignantly. “You…you…” she sputtered before breaking off to mutter under her breath. They waited her out. “It took Jane and me almost five days to get back to New York after the attack.” Her hands shook slightly. “You let them go five days thinking he was dead?”

“We weren’t sure he was going to wake up.”

Fury’s quiet statement silenced the room. Darcy’s energy ran out suddenly and she collapsed back into her chair. “What?”

“The doctors only changed his status to cautiously optimistic an hour or so before you arrived,” Fury explained. “We didn’t tell them sooner…” His voice fell away as Darcy came out of her chair to throw her arms around him.

“I get it,” she choked out, burying her face in his chest. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, rocking her a little like he always did when she was upset. She pulled back to meet his gaze. “You didn’t want to rip the bandages off just to have them bleed out.”

He huffed out a laugh and pulled her to him. “We need to discuss your descriptions one of these days,” he replied, resting his chin on the top of her head. His eye focused on Phil. “They know she’s connected to you and Maria. I’d like to keep the other connections quiet a little longer.”

“Yes, sir,” Phil replied.

“Oh for crying out loud,” Darcy complained, pulling away and wiping her eyes. “Can you wait on the whole ‘sir’ think until they get back?”

“No,” Phil noted with a blink. “I’m still technically drugged. If I don’t stay formal, I’ll slip.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Even drugged you sound more formal than most of the people I know when they’re stone cold sober.” Both men gave her narrow looks. “Please,” she waved them away. “College? Public school babies away from their parents for the first time ever? Experiment city.” Fury cleared his throat and she giggled. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was the designated driver.” The men slumped in relief and she laughed. “If I wanted to drink I’d go visit Mom; she’s got the best stuff.” Fury groaned and Phil shook his head. She just smiled before dropping down in the chair.

Fury sobered as he reached into his pocket. “I’ve…” He cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve got…something to confess.” He pulled out a pack of cards. Darcy lifted up slightly to get a better look. Her jaw dropped as she realized what she was looking at.

“Oh, my God,” she breathed. “You didn’t!” She sat back down, eyes wide and mouth slightly open in surprise. She snapped her mouth closed and turned to look at Phil. “You’re not armed, right?”

“Of course not,” Phil answered, bewildered. “I’m in the infirmary.”

Darcy shrugged that off. “Ninja, Uncle Phil, ninja.” She blinked at him. “You can make a weapon out of a bag of flour. I’m sure you can find something here.”

He frowned in confusion before turning to Fury. “Sir?”

“Here,” Fury replied, handing him the pack of cards with a small but distinct wince.

Phil took the cards, his eyes never leaving Fury’s face. Fury refused to meet his gaze, so Phil looked down. He froze. “What the hell did you do?”

The quiet, but forceful question drew another small grimace. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated, sir?” Phil’s voice remained level, quiet and steady, as he looked up from the cards to pin Fury with a dark stare. “My vintage, difficult to find, near impossible to replace collection of Captain America trading cards are blood-stained and it’s complicated?”

Darcy pulled back into her chair, curling up and trying to become invisible. Really, what had her dad been thinking?

“Visuals work better,” Fury tried to explain.

Phil raised an eyebrow. “So you defaced my cards?”

Darcy decided Uncle Phil’s reasonable tone was a lot scarier than his monotone, and it beat his raised voice all hollow.

“Exactly which part of ‘vintage, difficult to find, near impossible to replace’ did you miss, sir?” Phil asked.

Fury sputtered for a moment before reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Just ‘near impossible’?” Phil just looked at him and Fury bristled. “I’ve got to go make a phone call.” He strode out of the room mumbling. “Val is going to laugh her ass off. Using SHIELD resources to shop for trading cards.”

Phil turned to Darcy. She tossed up her hands. “Wasn’t here! Had nothing to do with it!”

“Oh, I know,” he assured her as he let his eyes drift closed. “Just don’t tell him he tired me out. I want him to stew about it for a bit.”

“You got it,” she said softly. She stood up and drew the blanket up to his shoulders. “You better take a nap though.” His eyes opened just a crack and she smiled. “The team will be here before too long, and they’re nuts.”

His eyes closed and he twitched his nose. “Too used to the family for them to bug me that much.”

“Whatever,” she scoffed. “A super-soldier who might actually live up to his legend, a couple of paranoid master assassins with mother hen complexes, a genius playboy billionaire who wears more weapons than the helicarrier carries, and a brilliant dude with some serious personality swings, and you’re worried about the family?”

“Naturally,” he muttered drowsily. “The team’s dangerous, but the family’s got Nick, who has a file on everyone who is anyone; Val, to whom everyone who is anyone owes a favor; Maria, who stares down nuclear power despots like they were misbehaving toddlers without getting a hair out of place; and you, who hacks the Pentagon for fun while trading quips with Wolverine at the same time she’s shopping with the noblewomen of Wakanda.” He yawned and murmured. “Not to mention, I think you stole my assassins.”

“Ah,” Darcy giggled as she sat down to watch over him. “We can time-share.”

Chapter Text

The alarm shrieked. Clint rolled out of bed, his weapon up and seeking the intruder before he woke up enough to realize it was a wake-up call courtesy of JARVIS. He slumped back to sit on the edge of the bed, dropping the weapon beside him. “J, what the hell?” he grumbled. “I didn’t set an alarm.”

“My apologies, Agent Barton,” JARVIS replied coolly. “The alarm was requested by Agent Mockingbird.” Clint’s head came up, sleepiness gone. “She is waiting to speak with you. Shall I bring the video up?”

“Is it urgent or can I have a minute?” Clint asked.

JARVIS remained silent for a few moments and then spoke once more. “It is not urgent and she will allow you fifteen minutes.”

“Smartass,” Clint muttered as he hurried to the restroom.

Fifteen minutes later, on the dot Clint noticed, the screen lit up. Darcy grinned at him. “Hey, there, Hotshot!”

“Hey, there, yourself,” he glared. “What’s the point of hauling me out of bed at seven o’clock in the morning?”

“Oh, poor baby,” she cooed sarcastically. “Did you not get enough beauty sleep?” A smile lit up her eyes as his glare intensified. “Relax, Hotshot,” she giggled. “I’m calling with a bit of a challenge.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Challenge?”

“Yep,” she replied, leaning on the table in front of her. “Uncle Phil is up and moving, albeit slowly, but enough that he’s been cleared to play nanny.”

“So?”

“Well, I decided it would be way too mundane for you to be assigned as my bodyguard, you know, since you’re one of the big shot Avengers now and all,” she grinned. “So instead of trying to slip you while you’re guarding me, I got the okay to challenge you to a game of hide and seek.” Her eyes glittered in mischief. “My type of hide and seek.”

Clint’s eyes narrowed, his blue-grey gaze locking with her clear green one. A daring glint lurked in the depths of that gaze, promise and enticement flickering within. “Terms?”

Her smile grew. “Simple – I’m hiding, you’re the seeker, and the city is our playground.”

“Unfair advantage,” Clint groaned, but a smile flickered over his face. “The city’s a damn big playground.”

“Don’t be silly,” she laughed. “I want a bit of a challenge.” His smile came out to match hers as she tilted her head. “Still, it’s my game, so I get the advantage.” He rolled his eyes and she continued. “You’ve got until 7:30 this evening to catch me – not just see me, but catch me. Uncle Phil’s downstairs with a couple of things for you, including a watch with an alarm. If you don’t catch me before the alarm goes off, I win.”

“And I can use any resources?” Clint asked.

“You can use any SHIELD resources approved by Uncle Phil,” she nodded. “You can also use anything personal or that Tony will let you use from home.” She shrugged. “If you can’t at least find me in twelve hours with all of that, I’ll be very disappointed.” A smirk slid over her face before she wiped it away. “Also, if you don’t catch me within the time frame, you owe me dinner. If you do catch me, then I owe you dinner. I’ve got reservations at Nick’s.” Darcy looked at her watch. “I’m about to move away and let you see what’s behind me. I’ll be in this location for exactly ten minutes. After that,” she gave him a bright smile, “Mockingbird will have flown.” Flowing to her feet and stepping back, she stretched her arms out wide, palms up, and winked. “Come and get me!”

She strolled out of sight, leaving him with the skyline behind her. He grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. “JARVIS, do a scan and run down that location, would you?”

“Of course, Agent Barton,” the AI agreed quietly.

Clint strode into the lobby, pulling up short at Coulson’s dark look. “Sir?”

“Barton,” Coulson replied. Clint waited and the handler finally spoke once more. “You get the watch and communications with Agent Taylor. Taylor is handling the city surveillance this week. Your target has agreed to restrain herself to SHIELD resources and her own personal hacking ability.” He paused. “I recommend you cut her no slack if you want any chance of winning.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint agreed. He raised an eyebrow as Coulson hesitated. “Sir?”

“You are one of SHIELD’s best agents, Barton, but Mockingbird belongs in a category all her own,” Coulson noted with a steady voice. His eyes remained flat and direct. “You’ll remember Budapest as your favorite vacation if you hurt her.” He turned and strolled away.

“Wonderful,” Clint blinked. “No pressure there.”

“Agent Barton?”

Clint’s hand went to his earpiece. “Yes, JARVIS?”

“I have the location,” the AI answered.

The day passed in a whirlwind of sightings and near misses. It took him an hour or so to spot her the first time, but after that he never went more than twenty minutes without managing to find her. He even came close to catching her a handful of times. She always managed to slide away with a quick grin.

Her smile grew brighter each time they locked gazes. His admiration expanded with every escape.

He said as much to Tasha when she called to figure out where the hell he disappeared to and she laughed. “You sound infatuated.”

“I might be,” he admitted.

Silence greeted his answer. He frowned as he slipped through the crowd moving towards the Wonderland statue. Finally he heard Tasha take a breath. “She’s not the safest interest you’ve ever had.”

“Really, Tasha?” He gave a soft snort. “It’s not like she’s the most dangerous either,” he noted pointedly.

“An entirely different situation,” she replied. “What do you know about this girl?”

He heard the emphasis on her last word and grimaced. “I get the age difference,” he insisted. “I do, but…I don’t know, it seems less and less important every time we deal with her.”

“Okay,” Tasha answered, “so spell it out for me. What do you know about her?”

“She’s smart, funny, sarcastic as hell,” he replied, his eyes scanning the crowd as he leaned against the Mad Hatter. “Hill adores her and Coulson protects her. He’s even threatening me with Budapest.”

She hummed for a moment. “Fury guards her.”

“What?” He noticed a pretty brunette walk near, but his eyes slid past dismissively when as he confirmed she wasn’t his target.

“Watch him next time she comes up in a discussion or walks into the room,” Tasha suggested. “He maneuvers the conversation to avoid revealing anything.”

“And when she walks in the room?” He asked, his gaze narrowing on a new woman sliding past a trio of buskers. “I’ve never noticed him do anything too unusual.”

“It’s in his look,” she sighs. “He doesn’t shift position or anything, but his attention focuses. His eye begins roving the room more often; his hand stays close to his weapon more. He goes into a hyper-alert mode.”

“Great,” he huffed. “What is it with me and dangerous women?” He heard Tasha smother a laugh. “Sure, laugh at me…she calls Maria Hill, of all women, ‘Aunt’! Coulson is tossing out warning speeches, and Fury guards her like an overprotective papa.” Something tickled at the back of his mind. He replayed his words, trying to tease it to the front of his mind. His attention diverted as a pair of green eyes met his across the small clearing before the thought could mature. “Tash, I’ve got to go.”

He hung up the phone even as Darcy blended into the crowd and vanished. “Damn,” he muttered. “I’m running out of time.” His phone beeped with an incoming text.

Having fun, Hotshot?

Clint never did catch her even though he managed to dog her heels the entire day. The watch’s alarm went off as he searched through the Met Museum. “Well, hell.”

“Not bad.”

He started at the voice, spinning to meet Darcy’s brilliant smile. A surprised laugh spilled over. “I didn’t actually catch you,” he pointed out.

“Nope,” she agreed, linking her arm in his, “but you managed to keep up with me. I don’t think I was out of your sight for longer than fifteen minutes, twenty tops, after you first spotted me.” She gave a shrug and a conspiratorial grin. “Even Uncle Phil wasn’t that fast.” A smirk slid over Clint’s face and she shook her head at him. “I wouldn’t say anything.”

“No kidding,” he agreed. “Doesn’t mean I won’t keep it in mind next time debriefing starts going long.”

“So, dinner’s on you,” she giggled as she tightened her hold on him.

He felt a shiver run down his spine as he felt every inch of her curvaceous form press close for a moment. “Then by all means,” he stepped back and swept a mocking little bow, “do let us get you fed.”

“Why thank you sir!” Darcy chirped as she sashayed out the door in front of him, giving him a clear view of the way her jeans hugged the line of her hips.

Clint shook his head to clear it. One thought echoed in his mind as he followed her.

I’m a dead man.

Chapter Text

The sharp ring of the phone interrupted Clint’s target practice. “Barton.”

“The Contessa’s in town,” Tasha informed him.

“At least Fury’ll be in a good mood,” he grinned. “We might even get an extra day off.”

Her next comment wiped the grin like chalk in the rain. “She wants to meet you.”

Clint’s mind tripped over that one. “Say what?”

“I overhead Hill talking with Coulson,” she confirmed. “The Contessa has specifically requested an introduction.”

“What the hell for?” he wondered as he began to put his bow away. “Nothing I do ever crosses into her territory.”

“Are you sure?” she asked with a trace of concern. “Coulson and Hill tiptoe around this woman – they respect her in a way I can’t even begin to fathom.”

He rubbed his forehead with one hand. “Yeah, I’m pretty damn sure I shouldn’t be on her radar.” He headed for his quarters. He wanted a shower if he was going to get called into a meeting…especially that meeting. “She deals with the upper class, the kind of old money that even Stark blinks at.” He scoffed slightly. “Not that it derails him, but he does at least think for a minute.”

“Then why?” she worried. “What does she need you for?”

“You think that’s it?” he asked as his door slid shut behind him. “She needs a sniper for something?”

“I can’t think of any other reason,” she replied. “Coulson stays perfectly steady when dealing with Stark or Hulk, and even Fury barely gets him to crack that stone face. He frowned when Hill told him the woman wanted to meet you.”

“Shit.”

“Hill almost vibrated as she spoke with him,” she continued.

“Because I needed more of a reason to get panicky,” he muttered. “I’m going to grab a shower.”

“I’ll see if I can look around a bit more,” she assured him.

Clint had just finished his shower when the phone rang once more.

“Barton.”

“Report to the helicarrier immediately,” Coulson ordered.

“Yes, sir.” He hung up before drawing in a deep breath. “Damn.”

He forced himself into a working frame of mind, making his body shift into sniper-mode. His face went still as his breathing and heart rate evened out. Every part of him became battle-ready. With no idea what was going on, he wanted to be ready for anything.

The transport landed on the carrier and Tasha met him as the door opened. “They’re in Fury’s private conference room,” she told him.

“Shoot me now,” he murmured even as he began walking towards the elevator.

“Coulson and Hill are with them,” she added.

He let his head fall back against the elevator wall. “Great,” he grumbled. “As though I needed any other reason to feel pressured. I still don’t even know what’s going on, but I get to confront them all at one time.” She rested a hand on his shoulder but remained silent.

He walked with Tasha towards the conference room. She would continue down the hallway when he turned to enter, but for now he welcomed the support.

Both of them looked up as a bright, cheery voice echoed down the corridor.

“Jane, really,” Darcy laughed into her phone. “Of course you’ll figure out how to get him back! You just need a little more time.” Her smile brightened as she spotted the assassins. She gave them a wave before returning to her call. “No, you still can’t kill Tony.” She paused to listen. “I know, he’s a pain in the ass…no, really I know! You and Uncle Phil need to start a club.” She rolled her eyes as she stopped outside the door of the conference room. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours and we can plan some epic prank…I promise.” She winked at Clint. “I bet I can get Clint and Tasha to help us out…oh, yeah, cross my heart. It’ll be epic…okay…okay…right, bye!”

“Epic prank?” Tasha asked, one eyebrow lifting in question.

“Tony stole Jane’s toolbox,” Darcy explained. “Jane is one very unhappy camper.” She gave a small laugh. “He’ll regret it. So,” she tilted her head in question. “What are you doing down here?”

Clint nodded at the door. “I have a meeting,” he answered calmly.

“Really?” Darcy blinked. “Huh.” She gave the door a curious frown. “Me, too.”

They locked eyes, both of them clearly debating what might call for both of them to be present. Tasha shook her head. “Get it over with,” she tossed over her shoulder as she walked away.

“Might as well,” Clint stated. He reached for the doorknob.

“Suddenly I’m very uneasy about this,” Darcy muttered. “Do you know who we’re-“ Her voice broke off.

Four people looked up as they entered. Clint gave the room a quick once over. Hill and Coulson sat on one side of the table, stoic expressions firmly in place, while a grim-faced Fury stood overlooking the room from the head of the table. The woman on the other side of the table drew his eyes as she stood. La Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine was a tall, curvaceous woman with dark eyes, olive skin, and thick black hair highlighted by a white stripe at her widow’s peak. A sense of style, grace, and money came across despite the simple leather uniform. She fixed an aloof, weighing gaze on him that worried him more than the weapons she wore so discreetly. He could almost see his tombstone now.

But even that did not stop his heart the way Darcy’s reaction did.

The brunette stared in surprise for a breath before she threw herself forward with a smile. “Mom!”

Chapter Text

La Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine strode into the control room of the helicarrier. Despite being dressed in a generic SHIELD uniform, most of the people scattered around the room eyed her in consternation before turning to check the reaction of the agent in charge to this unknown woman. Val watched as the silence spread and Agent Maria Hill glanced around to see what was going on. She stiffened slightly before allowing herself one long slow blink of surprise – the only reaction she permitted before turning and walking over.

“Ma’am.”

The room grew still as Hill’s respectful stance registered.

“Agent Hill,” Val gave her a friendly smile. “I presume he’s around somewhere?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hill agreed. “I believe he is currently in his office discussing reassignments.”

“Oh?”

“Apparently three of our agents have requested transfers to any location that will allow them to avoid Dr. Foster and Miss Lewis,” Hill responded gravely.

Several nearby technicians snickered and Val’s lips twitched in response. “Sounds intriguing,” she commented.

“It should make an excellent story,” Hill nodded. “If you will follow me? I’ll escort you down.”

People gaped as the two women swept out of the room. Val chuckled lightly as the doors closed behind them. “I should stop by more often,” she sighed. “I enjoy their expressions, but I am always disappointed when his people have no idea who I am.”

“That would disrupt the current security setup,” Maria replied softly.

“I know,” Val murmured. “Those who need to know me, do, but…” Her voice trailed away.

“You wish you three could be the full-time family you are instead of the independent agents you appear to be?”

“Perfectly put,” Val concurred. “We have our time at the holidays and certain places, but…” Her voice trailed off. “Still,” she gave an elegant shrug, “better to have the long-distance, but deeply beloved bonds than the brittle things I see every day.”

Maria smiled as the two women exited the elevator. Her communicator beeped. She stopped and flicked it on. “Hill.” There was a moment of silence before she replied. “Yes, sir, Agent 14 is with me.” Val lifted an eyebrow in question as Maria’s lips folded in an apparent attempt to restrain a smile. “Shall I inform her of that, sir?” Her shoulders trembled slightly. “No, sir, of course not.” She winced a bit before she turned her communicator off.

Val gave her a direct look. “He hung up rather abruptly did he?”

“He’s…surprised,” Maria commented carefully.

“No,” Val shook her head. “He’s in a tiff because I decided to descend upon you without any warning and probably intend to interfere with whatever thoughts he is already having about the…ah, Avian situation.” Her smile grew mischievous. “Is that not right?”

Maria’s eyes twinkled slightly before she forced herself back to stoic. “That would be a fairly accurate representation of the director’s opinions,” she noted. “Of course, he was a bit more…colorful in his choice of words.”

“Oh, I have no doubt,” Val laughed. She wrinkled her nose in confusion as they turned down an unexpected hallway. “Where are we going?”

“He wants to meet you in his private conference room,” Maria replied.

“Hmm,” Val quietly considered that as they walked. When they entered the room she turned to Maria. “Do me a favor?”

“Of course,” Maria agreed instantly.

“Would you please go tell Phil that I would like to see Agent Barton as soon as possible?”

Maria went still, her eyes widening slightly. “Agent Barton?”

“Yes,” Val laughed. “Agent Barton, Hawkeye, the agent who has managed to both snare my little girl’s attention and keep up with her better than anyone else has ever managed.

“Right,” Maria nodded carefully. “Let me go talk to Coulson.”

“Thank you,” Val said.

Val moved to the window as Maria left the room. She stared unseeing at the clouds rolling by as she considered her daughter’s recent calls and emails.

Nick strode through the door, his scowl firmly in place. “Val, what have we said about dropping in unannounced?”

“Nicholas,” Val greeted him with a flirtatious smile. She put a hand on her arm and pushed herself up to brush her lips across the corner of his mouth. “I’m so happy to see you.”

He sighed. “It’s not that I’m not happy,” he grumbled, pulling her into his arms for a deeper kiss. He pulled back to fix his eye on her. “Just…a little warning? Security-“

“I made it all the way to Maria without any interruptions,” she noted genially as she sat down at the table. “Security was not an issue.” She waved away his retort before he had a chance to speak. “Besides, you had to know I would be coming in. Our little girl going all starry-eyed over one of your agents?” She tilted her head. “One of the Avengers, no less? Clearly I need to be here.”

“Val-“

“Nicholas,” she interrupted gently. “Darcy will need her mother for some girl talk, and you will need me to remind you she’s no longer a baby.” He drew in a breath, but she continued. “Yes, she is still your little girl, but she’s not just your little ladybug anymore.”

“I don’t like it,” he groused, leaning on the window.

“Daddies never do,” she gave a soft smile. “I want to meet this Clint Barton for myself. I have heard from Darcy, from you, and even from Phil. The only negative reports center on his sarcastic, semi-insubordinate attitude and his completely understandable attraction to Darcy.” She pursed her lips. “Personally I don’t find either of those a negative.”

“Of course you don’t,” he rolled his eye. “You’ve got the same damn attitude.”

Her eyebrows flew up in admonition. “I’m sorry, are we under some misconception that mine was the only attitude our little Mockingbird picked up?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered. “We’ve got attitude to go around. He’s too old for her and it’s too dangerous.”

“Darcy only seems immature,” she reminded him. “It’s a mask. The boys her age bore her silly, and so they should. She has seen and experience more in life than they can even dream exists. She needs someone older, someone who is secure enough in themselves to let her be the wonderfully unique person she is while also being strong enough to put their foot down and give her boundaries.”

“And the danger?” he demanded.

“Tell me honestly, Nicholas Fury,” Val demanded. “Do you think you could pry her away from us? From Phil, Maria, Jane Foster? Her life has always been surrounded by danger!”

“So I should just-“

“Do not finish that sentence,” she warned. “Look at this another way,” she coaxed, her voice softening. “She told me about their game of hide-n-seek. He kept up with her. Something no other agent has managed to do, except the four of us who know her best. He did it the first time out.”

He hesitated for a moment before slouching a bit. “And she didn’t go easy on him,” he admitted. “She went all out to evade and escape.”

“We probably should have guessed,” Val pointed out with a laugh. “It would take a bird to catch a bird.”

He nodded unhappily. “Agent Barton is a good man, and he would walk through hell to keep her safe, but…”

“Today’s meeting will tell us if he truly has the fortitude to be worth her,” she commented as he trailed off. “If he can face all of us asking about his intentions, then he might just survive her escapades.” An impish little smile hovered on her lips. “I asked Maria to have Phil call him.”

He gave a soft snort. “This should be interesting.” She cocked a brow at him in question and he elaborated. “I sent for Darcy as soon as I knew you were here.” His lips twitched. “He still has no idea who she is to either one of us.”

She tossed her head back in delighted laughter. “Yes,” she chortled, “this should be lovely. I could almost feel sorry for him.”

“But not quite,” he finished.

“No,” she agreed.

He finally took a good look at her. “Why the uniform?”

“I wanted to avoid unnecessary attention,” she answered with a smile. “The uniform lets me blend into the background.”

A new voice broke into the conversation. “You could never fade into the background, Val,” Phil stated as he strode forward.

“Phil,” Val greeted, lifting her cheek for his kiss. “How lovely to see you.” She ran a quick eye over him. “You are doing better, yes?”

“I’m fine, Val,” he demurred.

She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. “I have seen your ‘fine’ before, Phillip Coulson, and I dislike your definition.”

Phil glanced up, but Nick held up his hands in a universal ‘you’re on your own’ gesture. “Thank you very much, sir,” Phil muttered. Nick’s lips twitched as Phil and Maria sat across from Val. “I’m at eighty, eighty-five percent,” he reassured her.

“I will sic Darcy on you,” she warned.

“I am surrounded by mother hens,” he grumbled. “Darcy has already added me to her watch list,” he informed her before giving her a disgruntled look. “She also subverted my assassins and I have them following me every time I turn around.”

“Good,” Val nodded decisively. “At least I know you are being watched.” He sighed in exasperation, but before he could say anything Maria held up her hand. They gave her expectant looks.

“That was the control room,” she replied. “Barton arrived and was met by Romanoff. They’re headed this way.”

“Darcy?” Val asked.

“She arrived just before Phil and I came in.”

“Let the games begin,” Nick muttered. Val simply smiled.

Silence enveloped the room as they waited, but it wasn’t long before Nick’s security camera showed both parties approaching They met outside the door as Darcy finished up a phone call. Romanoff walked away while the other two exchanged a glance before giving the door matching looks of concern. Val forced her amusement down, focusing on being remote and coolly analytical.

She wanted to make a decisive first impression after all.

The door opened and she heard her daughter speaking.

“Do you know who we’re-“ Darcy’s voice broke off as she spotted her mother.

Val stood up leisurely, aristocratic poise visible in every line and movement. Her dark eyes met Clint Barton’s flat blue gaze as they sized each other up.

Darcy threw herself forward. “Mom!”

Val caught her close in a warm embrace, repressing her amusement at the startled panic suddenly appearing in the sniper’s face. “Hello, mia cara bambina.” She pressed kisses to her daughter’s cheeks. “I am so happy to see you!”

“I can’t believe you’re here!” Darcy practically sparkled as she bounced in place. “When did you get here?”

“Only an hour or so ago,” she answered, watching Clint shift slightly in her peripheral vision. “I surprised your father too.” Now she looked up as the figure at the door jerked as though lightning raced through him. Then he seemed to stop breathing altogether. “We will have to catch up later, mia cara. Right now I think we need to check on your companion.”

“Oh, God,” Darcy’s eyes went wide and she winced before burying her face in her hands. “Oh, my God, I haven’t made that kind of mistake since I was twelve.”

Val kissed her on the forehead. “No,” she agreed, “but that is a plus for him already that he can make you forget if only for a moment.” Val stepped forward and put her hand out. “Val de Fontaine,” she introduced herself.

She watched as he visibly pulled himself together, forcing himself to take a breath before he reached out to shake her hand. “Clint Barton, ma’am.” He paused, his eyes darting from her to Darcy and finally moving to examine his boss’ face. He blew out a breath. “I’m going to die today, aren’t I?”

Val laughed and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm to pull him forward. “One can never be too sure with this family, but Darcy will protect you.”

“God I hope so,” he muttered, eyes fixed on Nick Fury’s unhappy face.

Chapter Text

Nick opened his mouth, but Val waved him off. She directed a charming smile towards Clint and Darcy stiffened slightly, knowing how her mother worked. The older woman patted his arm. “I’m sure you understand, Agent Barton, that I have a few questions? Mothers can be-“

“Mom,” Darcy interrupted, a light kindling in her eyes. She gestured at the room. “This had better not be an interrogation into intentions, plans or anything of the sort.”

“I only have a couple of questions, mia cara bambina,” Val assured her.

“Right,” Darcy drew out disbelievingly. “A ‘couple of questions’ do not require the entire line up. Everybody here knows the answers to all the usual questions.” Her eyes scanned the faces in the room before focusing on her mother once more. “If you haven’t read his entire file on the flight over, I’ll give up mochas for a year.” Val remained silent, one raven eyebrow lifting in amused challenge. Darcy rolled her eyes and Clint shifted slightly. “Oh, please, Mom, give it a rest. I saw the request for the information two days ago.”

“Busted,” Val laughed, snapping her fingers in mock outrage. She turned a softer smile towards Clint. “I would apologize for the violation of privacy, Agent…” Her voice trailed off as he shook his head.

“She’s your daughter,” Clint noted simply. “I get it.”

“So do I,” Darcy commented in a sharper tone, “but let’s not play pretend.”

“Darcy Marie,” Nick’s voice rumbled across the table.

“I’m serious, Dad,” Darcy answered back, meeting her dad’s scowling gaze. She could feel Clint almost flinch beside her as he too looked towards the unhappy director. “I am too old to need a panel review on my choice of dates. I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions and doing my own background checks. As Mockingbird, I’ve got the clearance, and even if I didn’t, I’d ‘find’ the leak anyway.” She felt more than saw Clint’s lips twitch in amusement at that, but kept her voice cold and clear. “Not that I needed any of that this time…you all know who Clint is, what he does, and what kind of guy he is, so step off.”

Val’s laughter rolled through the room in a delighted burst of sound. “There’s my girl,” she crowed happily. Clint frowned in confusion, but Phil and Maria both relaxed back into their chairs. Nick’s face grew petulant, but Val smirked and shrugged. “I suppose that just leaves the warnings then.” Darcy sighed, but sat back and didn’t argue. Clint grew still as four pairs of eyes focused on him.

Val reached out and put one hand under his chin, turning his face so their eyes met. The warm, honeyed voice suddenly cooled by several degrees. “Should there be any doubt, Agent Barton, let me assure you, the four of us can and will be worse than any criminal or villain you have ever met as either an agent or an Avenger. There will be nowhere and no one you can run to if you hurt my daughter. I will go around, over, under, or through anyone who tries to get between us.” Their gazes remained locked. “Am I clear?”

“Crystal, ma’am.”

Darcy watched as Clint’s calm, steady reply was measured and weighed by her mother. Val gave a quick nod and settled back into her seat. Phil and Maria simply gave him their most stoic expressions, and he tilted his head in understanding of the unspoken threats implied by each of them. There would be no second chances on this one.

Only one person in the room had yet to enter the family agreement being hammered out. Nick Fury continued to eye his agent with a harsh and grim visage. No hint of softness seemed to touch him.

“Daddy,” Darcy drew out in a tone that managed to convey both warning and pleading, but before she could say anything more, Clint put a hand on her arm. She glanced up at him and he shook his head. Pursing her lips in annoyance, she settled back.

Nick’s eye flickered from Clint’s hand to Darcy’s face and up to Clint’s. Clint met the look with a stubborn, determined expression of his own, and finally Nick sighed. “This is my daughter, Barton.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint acknowledged, taking in both the warning and acceptance inherent in the statement.

Nick nodded once. “I will kill you,” he stated simply.

“I’ll hand you the gun,” Clint agreed.

Chapter Text

“I guess it’s time to face the music,” Darcy sighed. Clint lifted an eyebrow and she wrinkled her nose at him. “Well,” she explained, “it’s not like I’m going to expect you to keep secrets from Tasha or the team.” A smile touched her lips as understanding lit his face. “Boy I hope Jane’s not too pissed. I actually like working with her.”

“Is she an assignment?” he asked. She watched as his eyes combed the corridors as they moved towards the flight deck.

“Nope,” she shook her head. “The whole being in town in time for Thor to drop in? Totally not Dad’s idea of a good place for me. If he’d thought I’d let him get away with it, Uncle Phil would’ve had me out of there within thirty seconds of finding me.”

Chuckling, he opened a door to bright sunlight and a quick breeze. “Here’s your first chance,” he nudged her, nodding towards the waiting quinjet. Tasha’s red hair stood out against deep gray as she waited for them.

“Oh, goody,” she muttered. Tasha’s opened her mouth, a light of curiosity in her eyes, as they walked up. Darcy held up a hand. “Inside first.”

One eyebrow went up, but Tasha led the way into the small vehicle. Clint slipped into the pilot’s seat and quickly moved through the procedure for takeoff. They shot off towards the city. Darcy leaned between the two of them, the fingers of one hand flying over a small ten-key panel. A low beep sounded and a mechanical voice began to speak, “Password accepted; voice print identification required.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Mockingbird,” she stated, ignoring the direct stare Tasha suddenly gave her. “Authority alpha-one-alpha-alpha-four.”

“Voice print identification authentic,” the mechanical voice announced. “Monitoring suspended. Length of time requested?”

“Fifteen minutes,” she replied after a moment of consideration.

“Affirmative – fifteen minutes commencing now.”

Darcy sat down in the extra seat behind the pilot and met Tasha’s cautious gaze. She gave a cheery smile. “Now we can talk.”

“Mockingbird?”

“Classified.” Tasha gave her an unimpressed stare, and Darcy’s lips twitched in amusement. She actually chuckled as confusion flickered in those green eyes. “Sorry, but it’s not often I actually get to use that word.” Pulling up one of her legs and tucking it underneath her, Darcy shrugged. “Uncle Phil and Aunt Maria,” she started, nodding as Tasha’s eyes sharpened even further. “Obviously there’s no blood relationship there, but I’ve known them for basically forever. You already knew about them, and I’ll bet you tried to check my file.”

Tasha’s lips thinned slightly. “Your file is incomplete.”

“My accessible file is false,” Darcy corrected and then considered. “Well, not so much false as it is a plant to keep people from finding out things they shouldn’t. It doesn’t really have any important information though.” A muffled snort from Clint interrupted her and she flicked the back of his head with a finger. “Shut it you.” Turning back to Tasha, she lifted one corner of her mouth. “What does it say about my parents?”

Tasha’s voice grew thoughtful. “Your mother is listed as Tina Lewis, art instructor specializing in the Italian Renaissance.”

“Okay,” Darcy grinned. “And my dad?”

“Colin Florus, private security advisor.”

“Colin?” Clint began to laugh. “He let them get away with that?”

“Would you think anything of it if you didn’t know the truth?” Darcy shot back.

He just shook his head in amusement as Tasha’s eyes moved between them before settling on the younger woman. “The truth?” she pressed.

A dark humor lit Darcy’s gaze. “At least they stayed closer on Mom’s name. ‘Tina’ is a common diminutive of ‘Valentina’.” She watched at Tasha straightened, eyes carefully going blank. A sigh slipped out. “Relax, Tasha,” she said. “It’s no big deal.”

“No big deal?” Tasha repeated. “The Contessa is your mother?” The red-head raked a reevaluating glance over the brunette before focusing on her face once more. “The woman who is…” She paused for a moment and then continued. “The woman who is rumored to be…in a relationship with the director?”

“Actually they’re married,” Darcy replied calmly.

The jet bobbled slightly as Clint moved to glance around. “Okay, I missed that part,” he said, eyes wide.

“You were too busy freaking out about Dad killing you with a laser glare or something,” Darcy retorted. “Personally you should be more worried about Mom. She’s the type to attract with honey and you’ll never see it coming.” Her phone rang and she grinned. “He’s late.” Running a finger over the screen, she chirped cheerfully. “Hey Dad! Expected you to call ninety seconds ago.”

“Your mother made me wait,” Nick growled at her. “How long are they off?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“More or total?” he demanded.

“Total,” she replied, “but if you’re going to get fussy, I can make it last the entire flight.”

“Don’t even think about it, little girl. You keep it at those fifteen. That should bring them back up around the time you hit city air traffic.”

“Don’t worry so much, Dad,” she soothed. “I’ve got two of your best with me.”

He heaved a sigh. “You sound like your mother,” he muttered. “Alright, ladybug. Just call when you get back to the Tower.”

“Love you,” she said and hung up. She gave Tasha a grin. “Dad’s a worrywart.”

“Fury…” Tasha’s voice trailed off, but then she almost seemed to give herself a shake. “How did they manage to hide this?” Then her gaze shot to Clint. “And how are you still breathing?”

He gave her a disgusted look. “Thanks for the concern.”

A tiny smile curved her lips. “You are the one pursuing the daughter of two such dangerous people.”

“And yet,” he boasted, “not a scratch.”

“Now ask him about the threats,” Darcy suggested, laughing as he twisted to frown at her. She blew a kiss at him before looking back to Tasha. “As far as hiding it? Carefully, very carefully. They’ve got our connections buried under a lot of layers.”

“You don’t really look like them,” Tasha noted, “but there’s something familiar in the lines of your face.”

“Dad’s technically my step-dad,” Darcy replied. “He’s the one who raised me, so as far as I’m concerned, he’s definitely my dad. Mom doesn’t really talk about the bio-father. Just says he was a bad choice on a bad day during a bad job that she wouldn’t change since she got me out of it.” She chewed on a lock of hair. “Dad says he doesn’t know who it was, and I mostly believe him. Mom says she’ll take a moment to say thank you before she shoots him.” Her eyes narrowed. “Though she did say she would just shoot him in the leg, so I kind of think he messed up her job but didn’t actually betray her.”

“Hmm,” Tasha hummed. “Maybe that’s it. If she was on the job, it’s possible I’ve crossed paths with him.”

“That might be cool,” Darcy pursed her lips. “Not that I’d trade Dad for anything, but…well…I’m kind of curious.”

“Who wouldn’t be?”

“Alright, ladies,” Clint broke in. “We’re getting close to the city.” He tilted his head around to address Darcy. “You ready for the others?”

“Not really,” she grumbled, “but better to get it over with all at once.”

Tasha’s fingers tapped on her leg. “Give me ten minutes once we get there,” she told Darcy. “I want to set up a recording so I can catch Stark’s fish impression.”

Clint started laughing and Darcy just grinned. “You’re evil,” she declared, pointing at the red-headed spy. “I like you.”

Chapter Text

Tasha left the roof, but Darcy pulled Clint to a stop. He raised an eyebrow at her and she offered a shaky smile in return. “So,” she stared, one hand going up to brush back her hair as it moved in the wind. “I…uh, I…haven’t really been able to talk to you about…everything.” She bit her lip.

Clint reached out and ran a thumb along her lip, tugging it free with a gentle motion. “It’s been kinda busy,” he allowed.

“Yeah…”

“And it’s…odd.” He stepped up closer, his hand moving cup her cheek.

“That’s one word for it,” Darcy chuckled as she dropped her hand to her side. No fear showed in her stance or her expression, but a hint of caution entered her gaze as the laughter died away. “Too odd?”

“Didn’t say that,” he admonished. Now his fingers moved to her hair, catching a lock and giving it a sharp tug. “No putting words in my mouth or getting ideas in your head without me getting a fair say.” He leveled a sharp look at her. “Got it?”

“Got it.” Relief pushed away the caution in those clear green eyes. “It’s just… Well, I’ve never had a guy actually ‘meet’ my parents before.”

Clint choked off a laugh, his hand sliding to the back of her head and pulling her forward. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. They stood in silence, letting the wind circle them, tugging at hair and clothes. Her eyes slipped shut as he pulled back an inch or so. “Got to admit, I’ve faced maniacs bristling with a full armory that didn’t scare me as much as that meeting,” he told her. “But…I figure you’re worth it.” Her breath rushed out of her and he pressed another kiss to her forehead before stepping away. His hand trailed down her arm to grab her hand. “Come on,” he grinned. “Let’s go tell the others, hmm?”

Laughter spilled out into the night as she let him pull her into the building and out of the wind.

The two of them made their way into the media room to find it full of the in-house Avengers. Clint’s eyes narrowed while Darcy lifted her eyebrows. “What did you do, Tasha?” Darcy shook her head. “Call a meeting?”

“She told us you had something to tell us,” Jane explained from her perch on one of the barstools. “She pulled Bruce and I out of the labs and got Pepper to get JARVIS to kick him out. What’s going on?”

Tasha shrugged as Darcy level a flat stare in her direction. “You would have dithered too much,” the red-head explained. “This way you can tell them all at once and get it over with.” Mischief glittered in her eyes as she glanced around the room. “Besides – I did tell you I wanted to be here and who knows when I might get called away?”

“You are so evil,” Darcy sighed. Clint moved up behind her and she leaned back against him. “Okay, so-.”

“You two crazy kids getting married or something?” Tony interrupted. His own mischievous grin blossomed. “’Cause that’s sure what that scene on the roof looked like.”

“Tony,” Pepper shook her head.

“What?” he demanded with a shrug. “The whole damn place is wired. Everyone knows that.”

“JARVIS,” Darcy bit out.

“Yes, Miss Lewis?”

“You might want to put a leash on Stark’s spying or you’re going to start sounding like Sean Bean,” she informed him. A grin flashed across her face. “Now, me? I’d find that sexy, but something tells me you won’t like it.”

“Hey!” Tony frowned at her. “You’re not allowed to threaten JARVIS!” He glanced at Pepper. “Is she allowed to threaten him? I don’t remember giving her permission to threaten JARVIS.”

“Zip it, Stark!” Jane huffed at him. “No offense, JARVIS,” she glanced around the room before fixing a glare on Tony, “but I should ask her to do that to remind you not to steal other people’s stuff. Not to mention switching out that stuff you call music for elevator music or something.”

Tony’s attention shot to Jane. Bruce rolled his eyes and began to rise.

Darcy pinched her nose and sighed, deciding she better interrupt the incipient breakout of science warfare before someone – read: Jane – went for quality homicide. Yes Tony had survived multiple other attempts, but he’d never, ever dealt with Jane.

Tony’s mouth opened.

“So, anyway,” Darcy announced in her best projecting voice, “I needed to tell all of you that Nick Fury is my dad.”

Glass shattered as Pepper dropped her drink. Jane’s eyes grew wide enough to qualify her as an anime character while Bruce all but collapsed back into his chair. Steve seemed to choke on air, but Tony though… Darcy bit back a laugh at Tony’s reaction.

Tony froze, jaw still hanging open from his attempt to respond to Jane. He managed to close his mouth as he turned, each motion slow and deliberate as if too much speed would overwhelm him. Darcy gave him her brightest smile as his wide, wide eyes locked onto her. The silence in the room seemed to grow as Tony opened his mouth, blinked, and closed it again. Another moment passed and he opened his mouth again. This time he seemed to get enough air through his lungs to manage a one word reply. “Fury?!?”

“Did your voice squeak?” Darcy tilted her head, amusement lacing her tone. She heard Jane give a small shocked giggle, but kept her eyes on Tony.

“What? No!” His voice still sounded a little high. Then he cleared his throat. “No.” A frown crossed his face. “Fury? Nick Fury? One-eyed pirate with control issues Fury?”

“Yes,” she nodded, blinking her eyes into a wide, innocent look. “That Fury.”

“How the hell did that happen?” A wicked twinkle entered Darcy’s expression, but before she could speak Tony threw up a hand and pointed at her. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

She pouted at him, but let it go. “He’s my step-dad, so that particular come back doesn’t quite fit.”

“Step-dad?”

“Yeah, he’s married to my mother,” she replied.

Tony raised a brow. “You have a mother?”

Pepper lifted a hand to her brow as Steve rolled his eyes. Behind them both, Bruce looked at the ceiling, a concentrating expression on his face though his lips twitched. The best reaction belonged to Jane who started cackling, almost falling off of her stool with the force of her laughter. Tasha snagged her, holding her in place as she directed an arch look at the billionaire. “Did you think the director used a test tube?”

“A test tube for what?” Coulson strolled into the room, lifting a brow at the room as he gave a nod to Darcy and Clint.

“Uncle Phil!” Darcy bounced towards him, throwing her arms around him. After a moment she leaned back. “Tony’s surprised I have a mother.”

“Really, Stark?” Coulson’s voice could not have been drier after a week in the Sahara.

“What?” Tony demanded. “Okay, I knew she biologically needed a mother, but she never mentions the woman.”

Darcy scoffed as she moved back to Clint’s side. “And you didn’t hack my file?”

“You were a college intern to Foster,” he shrugged. “JARVIS said you were clear and Pepper’s been lecturing me on that kind of thing.” He frowned. “Apparently I should have reconsidered.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered,” she told him. “The file’s false.”

“I can find the real one,” Tony assured her.

“Tony!”

“Stark…”

“Don’t you damn well dare!”

Reactions from Pepper, Steve, and Jane filled the air, but only Jane’s drew Tony’s attention. He gave her a confused look, but did not get a word out before she hopped off her seat and strode over to him. “You leave her alone,” the petite scientist growled. She poked him in the chest, moving her finger when she hit the arc reactor. “If anyone’s allowed to get grumpy about secrets, it’s me. And I’m not.” Jane tossed a quick smile to Darcy before scowling at Tony again. “I’m surprised and curious and will probably pester her with questions over ice cream, but she’s still my assistant, so you leave her alone.”

“You can’t tell me you’re not-,” Tony started.

Jane interrupted, “I’m a little peeved about SHIELD stealing-.”

“Borrowing,” Coulson put in.

She glared at him. “Stealing our stuff, but other than that I’m fine.”

“For the record,” Darcy piped up, “I did protest.”

“She did,” Coulson acknowledged. “And she made sure I kept your notebook instead of letting our scientists have it.”

A brilliant smile crossed Jane’s face and she turned away from Tony to give Darcy a hug. “See? The best of assistants.”

Darcy’s chin went up even as she returned the hug. “Damn straight.”