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Flight Ready

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 Flight Ready Book Cover

As dawn broke on the frosty Winter Solstice morning, a middle-aged magician chanted to her goddess, pleading for a sign of her life partner, and if there was none to be had, that she might have a sign for that too.   

Freya of Asgard listened.

She’d heard this refrain before, from the young wishing to discover a perfect mate and a perfect love.  In truth, perfection does not exist.  Most found love from circumstance and a willingness to be compassionate toward another.

But there were those with fractured hearts who might not find love, whether that of friendship or romance, without encouragement to trust another.

For them, Freya had pity.  

She cast her spell across Midgard, that the names might be known and written on the skin of the lifebonded to appear by the third decade of life, as the Midgardians kept time.

Loki smiled whimsically when the magic left Freya’s fingertips.  He tugged at the green strands, twisting them so that, instead of names, only the first words spoken by the lifebonded pair were written upon the flesh instead.  

Furious at the interference, Freya added another powerful layer to her magic, one that would encourage the lifebonded to gravitate through time and space toward one another.  

Loki pouted, but he and Freya spent many days with Heimdall, curious as to what their magic had wrought.  

At first, the Midgardians failed to understand the meaning of the words some of the inhabitants found on their skin.  But in time, stories were told, knowledge passed down, and the lifebonded unconsciously sought out their matches, often before their marks appeared.  

 

Chapter Text

With Sally-the-Elephant picking up stray bits of straw and cramming them in her mouth, Clint sat in the corner of her trailer to peer at the words that had darkened again overnight. He rubbed his hand in the dust of the trailer and wiped it over the short phrase on his hip. If he kept dirt on it and was careful when he changed and showered, maybe no one would see.

It was bad enough he had wings and Barney didn’t, now he had a soulmark too. Barney was sure to hate him for that. Clint tried not to make his brother mad, but he seemed to do it anyway.  

Clint made a lot of people mad.  He tried to be good, but nothing could hide the wings on his back. His brother had kicked him out of their shared trailer, tired of the feathers Clint was shedding all the time now.   

Even as a small child, he tried to tuck his wings close so his dad wouldn’t see them. When he did---Clint shook his head to clear the memory.  (There was guilt for being happy when his dad had wrapped his car around a tree in a drunken fit.  He sort of missed his Ma, but she was so timid, Clint didn’t remember her much.)

No foster family would take a freak with wings, and the orphanage had been hell with other kids picking on him and trying to pluck out his feathers. He hated other people touching them, but had to put up with one of the acrobats painting the feathers Clint couldn’t reach on his own. The acrobat had a Winged cousin and, though he didn’t know much, showed Clint how to make his own tunics.  One of the animal trainers had a pet parrot. She taught Clint how to take care of his feathers as much as she could, but there were some things about Winged Ones that the flyers simply didn’t share. It was awkward, and Clint felt out of place.

But no matter how mad Clint got at his brother, Barney had been the one to get him out of the children’s home and into the circus, where Old Man Carson was willing to take in a couple of scroungy boys.  He thought Clint would make a good sideshow if they dyed his wings a dozen different shades.  His first job had been to wave them about and hand out free tickets to every kid he saw.  

Clint still missed his dark purple feathers, but Barney had insisted they color them right off the bat.  Old Man Carson wasn’t happy, ‘cause purple would have been a great draw, being so strange and all, but he’d had a couple of the clowns work up some paint, and Clint had been added to their ranks.  

Well, until he’d picked up a bow and taken to it like a duck to water. Trickshot had damned near beaten him senseless for touching the recurve until the Bearded Lady pointed out that Clint had managed to hit the inner rings of the target without an ounce of training.  

His feathers were gold and black now to match his costume, with sequins dotting the leading edge of his wings. He thought he looked ridiculous, but the crowds loved the flash and sparkle. Half the circus folk called him “Hawk” now after his stage name, “The Amazing Hawkeye.”  Few people used real names here, except for Barney and a handful of others. Then again, he didn’t have an act.  He just worked whatever jobs needed doing that day.

Clint glanced at his hip again, terrified Trickshot would notice when they met up tonight for another round of “training.” Clint’s middle still ached from the “lesson” he’d gotten after the last show.  His aim had been almost perfect. Almost wasn’t good enough for Trickshot.

The trailer bumped along to a halt.  A loud horn announced they’d arrived at their next stop. With a pat to Sally's trunk, Clint scrambled out to start unloading.  The cars in the lot next door had Kansas plates on them, so they must have changed states during the night.  

He was sweating from the summer heat when Barney poked him in the shoulder as they pulled out boxes from one of the panel trucks. “Where y’ been?”

“Laying out ropes, same as usual.”  

“You gonna fly one up to the top of the pole?” his brother sneered.  

“Like I can fly with all this paint on me.  Told you it makes the feathers stick together all wrong,” Clint grumbled.

“Carson wants you in the air. Trickshot does too.” Barney chuckled at Clint’s flinch and wandered off with his load of tent stakes.

If Clint had bruises on his knees that evening when he pulled his costume on, no one commented.  His aim was perfect, even though his whole upper half ached from trying to fly with a too small body and wings that didn’t work quite right.  

 

*****

 

At three years of age, Darcy adored anything and everything avian.  She carried a stuffed flamingo with her everywhere. The crest of pink fluff was made of real feathers from the downy breast of some unfortunate bird.

She squeaked with happiness at the pictures of the Amazing Hawkeye holding a bow and arrow when the posters went up around town.  

“Mama, I see wings! I want to GO!”

Her parents agreed to take her to the afternoon show.  Darcy shrieked with glee when a young performer with yellow hair and black wings glided from platform to platform, loosing flaming arrows into targets on both ends of the circus tent. She giggled at the elephant, waved at the horses, and hid from the clowns.  

When she and her parents walked the grounds after the show, she scampered about, picking up rocks, pretty leaves, and more treasures to tuck into the bright purple purse that she’d insisted on carrying that day.  

She got to ride Sally-the-Elephant, gave the donkey a carrot, and laughed at the miniature goats.  Darcy looked everywhere for the Winged One and cried when he couldn’t be found. Her parents took her home for an overdue nap, where she curled up on her bed with a single, sticky black feather she’d found. There was a sequin glued in the middle.  

Darcy tucked the plume into her special box the next day.  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

3/Silence is the Hardest Word

 

The bright summer sun with its hearty breeze coaxed Darcy out of the house.  School had been out for a whole week and she was already bored.  

Her chores--the never-ending work of the family farm--were done, more or less.  (A little less than more, but they’d be there tomorrow too.) Mama promised Darcy could set up a berry stand on the side of the road.  Dad had built a little structure at the end of their driveway last year and painted it bright green.  Darcy used it to play with her dolls or cars, or to sit alongside Mama as she sold the extra veggies and fruits from the garden.

This year, Mama promised that if Darcy picked the fruit and worked the stand, she could keep half the money.  They had a bumper crop of strawberries coming, if Darcy could pick them faster than the birds would eat them. They had figs, too, though Darcy tended to snack on them the moment they ripened.

Darcy was smart.  She could add lots of numbers in her head without trying very hard. Mama said she was real good at bargaining with the shoppers. Mama made a stand-up sign and sprayed it with chalkboard paint so they could write prices on it. Darcy carried it carefully toward the fruit stand.  

On such a bright morning, the swarm of flies got her attention.  Black clouds of them hovered over a spot on the grass nearest the road. It was probably a dead coyote or something, but even though she wrinkled her nose, she didn’t smell anything gross. Darcy set her sign against the stand and went for a good look.  

It wasn’t a coyote, it was the Winged One from the circus.  One black wing, lined with sequins, lay at a strange angle, and the archer--a teen-ager--was all sprawled out on the ground.  His face was bloody and bruised, and there was more blood all over his shirt. His arm was bent in a place it shouldn’t.

Scared, Darcy spun on her heel and ran toward the house, screaming for her Mama.

Mama and Dad made her sit on the front porch.   Dad talked to the boy as he carefully straightened his wings while Mama wiped his face with a clean, wet cloth.  An ambulance came, and the boy was taken away.  

Dad shook his head, looking sad as he went back to the tractor to finish his chores.  Mama came to Darcy and herded her into the house.  “You did good, baby doll.  That boy was hurt real bad.”

“Mama? Was he from the circus?  He looked like the Winged One we saw with the arrows. Who would hurt him?”

“Maybe he is,” Mama agreed.  “With all those sparkles, I’d guess you’re right.  We don’t know any other Winged Ones, do we? And I don’t know who would hurt him.”

Darcy shook her head sadly. “What’s gonna happen to him?”

“They’ll find his family, honey. He was a sweet boy, even tried to thank us just for bein’ decent folk and helpin’ him out. Somebody’s gonna miss him.”  

Darcy didn’t set up the berry stand that day, but she did the next.  And as Darcy made the back-and-forth trips to get her sign, her berries, her pitcher of lemonade, and her book out to the stand, she detoured to where the boy had been lying.  

As she turned over the black feather she found, the underside shone a dark, shimmery purple. Her Mama would call it iridescent, and Darcy would learn a new word. The purple-black feather went into her special box.  

When the circus came through the next summer, and the summer after that, it didn’t have a winged archer.  Darcy didn’t go.  

 

*****

 

Clint figured he’d have no more than one night left in the hospital before he’d be released. The social worker had been in twice since he’d been awake.  They weren't convinced he was eighteen yet, and they’d be right. He was a weedy sixteen and wasn’t even shaving yet.

And he was on his own.  

The circus had been packing up after a good run this weekend in some forgotten town in the middle of Kansas where it was worth the drive for a little entertainment.  

But when Clint went to the trailer he shared with his brother and mentor, most of their stuff was gone. Not only that, someone had rifled through it and stolen most of the spare cash Clint had squirreled away in hidey holes.  With a sick feeling in his stomach, he’d searched for Barney. Clint had found him with Trickshot, stealing the weekend’s take from the circus while everyone else was packing up to leave.

But Carson had taken in the Barton boys six or seven years back, and Clint couldn’t see repaying the favor with theft. He had a job, something to eat most days, and a place to sleep most nights, even if he had to duck the occasional flying fist.

Clint’d tried to block his brother as they made for Trickshot’s car.  They’d argued until Trickshot’d had enough and laid a good one on Clint, stretching him out on the dirt. Barney--aw, hell--Barney had helped, and the pair of them had kicked and punched Clint until he couldn’t breathe and his insides were on fire.  Barney’d told him he was stupid, that in this world, you take what you can get, and he was tired of having a shit for a brother dragging him down.

They’d dumped him in the backseat, driven to the edge of town, and shoved him out of the car.  The last thing he remembered was Barney calling him a “dumbass” as he coughed up blood.

A concussion, a broken arm and wing bone, two broken ribs, a swollen jaw, and some internal bleeding had landed him in surgery, and then the ICU for the better part of a week. After that, he was moved to a regular room, where he’d been now for half a month.  The food was shitty, but it was three squares, and Clint couldn’t remember the last time that had been an option.

He thought--hoped--somebody from the circus would come looking for him. Then again, if they thought he was in on the theft, they’d wish him good riddance with a kick in the ass for his troubles.

Clint was on borrowed time.  One of the nurses--who thought she was being real nice--assured him that CPS would find him a good place to stay.  But Clint and Barney had been bounced around foster care long enough to know it was bullshit.  The circus had been a better gig.

Late last night, he’d taken inventory of what he had--an empty wallet and a pair of bloody, dirty tennis shoes.  His clothes had been cut away in the emergency room and trashed.  He waved at the night nurse as he complained about needing to stretch his legs.  She waved at him, and Clint walked the halls--dragging the IV pole with him--as he cased the joint. The little community hospital didn’t have much security, especially not in the middle of the week, so it’d been easy to jimmy the lockers in the doctor’s lounge.  Jackpot. He’d tamped down the guilt as he’d picked out a couple of sets of scrubs, an ID for someone who sort of looked like him, and fifty-six dollars in assorted bills. Then he’d swiped a couple of puddings from a fridge, and the night nurse just grinned at the extra food as he trundled past her, completely missing the clothing stuffed under his gown. She’d brought him a snack later too. He’d spent the rest of the night fixing the shirt to lay right over his wings.

With his belly full from an early breakfast, a good shower, and fresh clothes, Clint unhooked himself from the IV and skittered out of the hospital when the nurses changed shifts.  

He sauntered through the old town, staying off the streets and in the shadows as he walked through six or seven neighborhoods of old, small houses--most of them painted white with front porches and laundry hanging on the line in the yard.  The houses petered out into small farms as he traipsed down a winding lane. Every nerve twanged as he walked. He didn’t want to be recognized. With his clothes over his wings like this, he couldn’t fly, but in any case, that wasn’t really an option with a broken radius.

As the sun rose, his middle ached.  He was hungry, thirsty, and exhausted.  He kept his eyes peeled for a handy barn.  When he passed a bright green fruit stand, he stopped abruptly, recognizing the place where his brother and Trickshot had dumped him. Sure enough, there was dark blood still in the dirt, and Clint got a stupid lump in his throat.

The people who lived here had been nice. Strangers were never nice to Clint unless they wanted to touch his wings. He’d gotten laid that way a couple of times, until he decided it wasn’t worth the price.

But the old man had been gentle as he set the wing, and his old lady had cleaned his face as she fussed over him.  Clint blinked as he choked up with tears--from exhaustion, from his brother’s betrayal.  

Ain’t nobody ever fussed over Clinton Francis Barton.

His feet took him to the outskirts of the property.  As luck would have it, they had a barn.  Chickens. A couple of cows. A goat. Clint wedged himself into a dark corner of an unused stall, falling asleep with the image of kind eyes and the ghost touch of calming pats on the shoulder.  

 

 

The goat found him first, bleating at him until he moved, then she scampered away in annoyance when he sat up.  Clint squinted at the setting sun, realizing he’d slept the day away.  That was okay.  He needed to keep moving, and his night vision was better than anyone’s.

A stack of plastic containers rested just inside the stall door. Aw, hell. Somebody knew he was here.  

He peeked inside and his mouth watered.  Sandwiches, thick ones, with homemade bread. Strawberries. Two figs. Fresh oatmeal cookies. He inhaled it all. After dark, he crept up to the back porch and left the stack on the steps.  

As he slinked away, a low voice called out, “Son, there’s an army duffel bag there by the tree. Some clothes. A few things to get you by.”

Astonished, Clint couldn’t stop himself from asking, “Why?”

“Know something ‘bout needing to be somewhere else.  Don’t mind you staying a few more days to heal up right, but figure you ain’t likely to do that. ‘Specially if the wrong folk come lookin’ for ya.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Got my girl to thank.  She’s the one who found you. Thinks your wings are real pretty.  Been going to the show just to see you, I think.”

“Thank her for me then, sir.”    

“Take care, son, and don’t forget that pack.”  

Clint walked until the full moon came up, giving him enough light to see what was in the pack.  Clothes--all fixed up like the tunics meant for Winged Ones.  Four peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A couple of fresh cucumbers. A bunch of oatmeal cookies.  A whole bag of strawberries.  An envelope of money, with a map to the nearest bus station sketched out.  There was a name written in shaky pencil on the envelope, along with a Chicago address.  

He took the bus to Chicago, but he stuffed the envelope in his backpack.  He spent the trip peeling sequins off his wings.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

4/If a feather is supposed to be good luck, I’ve got ten thousand reasons to call that a lie.

 

Clint circled his target from a good thousand feet up, waiting for the parents to load the kids and granny into the car.  With the way they’d packed, he figured they’d be gone for a good week.  He flew lazily in a nearby thermal, taking his time to make sure they were gone.  His stomach growled, but he told it to shut it. All he needed was a few more minutes.

The gold was gone, his hair matched the black dye of his feathers, and he’d dressed in black from head to fingertips and toes, even covering his face with a warm ski mask.  It made him impossible to see in the night sky. But Clint was at home up here.  He’d always known his sight was better than most.  Between his feathers and his eyes, he could detect wind currents, air pressure, and he could see in the dark like someone had stuck a black light over the whole city.  He missed his bow though.  Missed weaving an arrow through the air to strike a target without fail.  

He tracked the car as it left the city.  He trusted his instincts to know when it was time to move. Folding his wings, he dove headfirst toward the apartment building, then snapped them open at the last moment, breaking his fall only enough to catch the window casing on the top floor with his fingertips. He set his feet on the ledge. It was second nature to pull his wings in tight to his body and split his tail feathers so they hugged his legs.  Anyone looking up into the darkness would only see a shadow of a normal human.  Clint had dodged the cops more than once that way.

With his knife, he teased the window catch open and slipped inside. He hit the kitchen first, made himself a ham sandwich, and scarfed down two of the bananas on the counter that were turning brown at the edges. Nobody would miss them.

Belly filled, he prowled around the house. With gold prices what they were, even the smallest ring or earring was worth his while.  He found two in the jewelry box in the main bedroom, nothing big, but enough to feed him for a week or so. Clint tucked both into his vest pocket, looking around for anything else that might need a new home.  When his search came up empty, he slipped out of the window, teasing the catch shut again. He climbed up the wall and rolled onto the roof.  From there, it was an easy launch straight up into the sky.  

The rings got him a couple of hundred bucks and dinner. Clint called it a win.  

Well, until he smarted off to the pawn shop owner later that summer (the man was tryin’ to cheat him out of a fair price for a necklace. Said the diamonds weren’t real. Clint knew better). The bastard rolled over on him, and two cops dogged Clint for a solid month ‘cause they didn’t have anything better to do than hassle a street rat tryin’ to stay fed.

It was time to get out of this end of the city. 

He set up shop in the Little Village when he met a guy willing to trade tips on good swag for some extra protection. All it took was an dart in the thigh of a thug hassling his snitch, and suddenly Clint got decent info and a handy excuse for circling over the streets at night. He holed up in a shitty, abandoned apartment on the top floor of a building that had seen better days half a century ago.

Clint wasn’t stupid. He didn’t interfere with the drug dealers or the mafia, but he did get a rep for watching out for the kids.  There was a four-by-four block where a fifteen-year-old girl could come and go without being hassled much. The neighborhood knew that if they stepped over the line, they’d get a nasty sharp object in a place that would be hell to explain to the docs and the cops.  It kept Clint entertained.

He also learned to run his mouth. False bravado got him a lot farther than polite conversation.

For a while, he even got a girl of his own. That lasted ‘til she saw his soulmark when he forgot to cover it with concealer, and then she abandoned him.  Seems girls weren’t too happy to discover they might not be his one and only. 

Clint wondered about his soulmate. He didn’t know much about marks, but the movies made a big deal out of ‘em being the be-all and end-all of love. Clint didn’t really believe that. He’d overheard a couple of girls in the McDonald’s two blocks over talking about some soulmarks being just friends. Clint thought that might be a good thing. Nobody in their right mind would want to be stuck with him.  But maybe he could help his soulmate out if they were in a jam or something. He was good at that.  

In any case, his current gig only lasted until Clint’s snitch told him the cops were on his heels again.  He stuffed everything he owned into his duffel bag, trying to decide where he’d go next. When he pushed a shirt toward the bottom, he felt the crumpled envelope.  The address was still clear enough.

Turned out, it belonged to a car repair shop--something Clint didn’t know anything about. But he handed the envelope to a big man named Logan, who puffed on his cigar and leveled a dark look at Clint.  

Using the cigar to point, Logan grumbled, “Keep this place clean.  Sofa's in the office. Showers in the back. Ya steal a penny from me, yer out on the street. Payday’s Friday. Anyone lookin’ for ya?”

Clint shrugged, and Logan, honest-to-god, growled at him.

Hastily, Clint changed his tune. “Yes, sir. Cops.”

Logan looked over his wings.  “Prolly should change the color. Hair, too. What’s your name?”

“Hawkeye’ll do.”

“Good enough. Get to work.”

 

Clint spent his first day sweeping and getting the lay of the land. Logan plunked a bag of food in front of him once the shop was closed and before locking up the place. The prerequisite burger was in there, but there were apples, too, and a whole box of graham crackers. Clint eyed the soda machine, knowing damned well he could jimmy the lock, but he played it safe and stuck with a washed out coffee mug of water.

He spent the rest of the night scrubbing the hell out of the shop floor, so much that the painted concrete was glossy in places. Then he took the longest shower he’d had in probably ever.  As he dried with a threadbare towel, in the stained mirror, Clint could see how much the black had faded from his feathers--his purple was beginning to show.

In the morning, he figured out it had all been a test when Logan eyeballed the floor as he popped the vending machine open to reload it before the customers arrived.  He counted the change and the drinks, then--with a faint look of satisfaction--jerked his chin at Clint.  “Go make coffee,” he ordered.  

Clint fell a little in love that morning. Whatever coffee Logan bought was several whole floors up from whatever piss the circus had, and when his boss dumped a generous portion of real cream in the cup, Clint moaned at the taste.

Logan rolled his eyes.  “Get the hell out of my office.  And when you empty the pot, make more, or I’ll have to kill you.”

Clint wasn’t sure the grizzled man was kidding. He mumbled assent and went to go find a mop, but he took his mug of coffee with him to the warehouse where all the spare parts and tires were stored. The shelves were dusty, though the parts were neatly lined up and labeled.  He stayed out of the way of the mechanics who worked there, even ducking behind the tire racks so that they wouldn’t notice his wings. 

At mid-day, Logan brought him a sandwich and a big box of wing dye. “Shop’s closed for lunch. Go make yourself pretty.”

“I’m always pretty,” Clint retorted. That elicited another snort as Logan turned away, and Clint spent the next hour painting his hair and wings a light brown. The dye made such a mess of the bathroom that Clint spent the rest of the afternoon scrubbing it clean too.  

After that, Logan introduced him as ‘Hawk’ to the others.  Nobody asked Clint any questions, and he learned to bitch with the mechanics about the Cubs and Bears with equal fervor. He kept his wings tucked close, and after a while, the others ignored them.

He got bored in a week and quietly asked Logan to teach him a few things about cars.  A month in, he had enough to buy a bow.  He still cleaned the place, still crashed on the crappy sofa in Logan's office at night, and when he asked if he could practice after closing, Logan didn’t give a shit--well, maybe a little.

“Just don’t miss, fucker,” Logan grouched.

“I don’t miss,” Clint said easily.

Logan chewed on his unlit cigar thoughtfully, shrugged in that quixotic way he had, and went home to who knew where.   

Each night when his work was done, well after dark, Clint flew, desperate to stretch out his wings after keeping them hidden all day. The wind called to him, and he flew high above the city lights to see the Milky Way in all her shining glory.

There might have been an incident with a couple of assholes catcalling a young woman until she recoiled in fear.  The rocks dropped on their heads might have knocked them silly, and the woman snickered as she waved to the sky. There might have been another one where a young boy was carrying groceries home. The thug with the knife discovered what it was like to have a full-grown Winged One slam into him from ten stories up.

And it could have been coincidence that an Army recruiter brought his car into the shop for a brake job. The big man leaned against the door of the garage, watching Clint work. The comment about Clint’s youth and strength could have been just the usual schtick for enticing a new guy on board.  But when the conversation turned to unique weaponry, Clint shot a dirty look at Logan, who grinned around his cigar.  

His time was up, apparently.

Clint’s lack of schooling, birth certificate, and social security number were problems that miraculously vanished when the powers-that-be discovered his skill with a bow. They handed him a sniper rifle and damned near shit themselves as he landed shot after shot. He didn’t understand why it was a big deal until a senior marksman broke down the math and told him he was gifted.  

Between his wings, his mark, and his talent, Clint sure as hell had a lot of “gifts” he'd like to give back. Well, maybe not his wings. And he did like to shoot his bow.

Nevertheless, he shipped off to boot camp, recruitment bonus and brand new recurve in hand. He was given a tutor, who discovered Clint absorbed facts and details like breathing. The day he became eligible, Cpl. Clinton F. Barton volunteered for Ranger School.

The agility and balance he’d learned in the circus paid him back in hand-to-hand combat training, and Clint never met a knife he didn’t appreciate.  His mouth landed him on KP often enough to figure out who made the coffee, but he toed the line just enough to stay out of the brig. Four years later, he reupped, though he made a stop in Chicago first to see a man named Logan.  

He still had that old envelope.  He wrote out a note, set a stack of bills inside, and folded it up.

Sir,

The feather is for your girl, the money’s for you and your wife, what I owe you and then some.  Thank you.

The Amazing Hawkeye

Clint laughed at his own pretension, scrawled handwriting and all, but he still wouldn’t put his name out there for anyone to see. He raked through the soft, downy feathers just under his arm, coming up with a fluffy dark purple one that had grown out since the last time he’d dumped brown dye on his plumage. He tucked it into the envelope with the cash and note.  Logan promised it would get to the right people and shook his hand when he turned to leave.

He didn’t ask their names or why his old boss owed them a favor. Clint figured it wasn’t his business, and whatever it was, they were square.

 

*****

 

By the end of fifth grade, Darcy had her first bra.  She learned the word “slut” and discovered that the t-shirts she wore at the beginning of the school year were “distracting” now, and her principal “encouraged” her to wear an extra-large cardigan in class, no matter the weather. The other girls made fun of her. The boys leered at her, pointing at her breasts.

Three weeks before the end of eighth grade, a faint scrawl of words appeared across her right shoulder blade. By mid-summer, they’d darkened enough to know that the handwriting was a match to the letter Dad got from the circus archer.

“Dad?”

Her gentle father, William (“Call me ‘Bill’”) offered, “He stayed in our barn. Your Mama fed him. I gave him a few bucks to get by. Seems he’s paid me back and sent you this.”  He handed her a brilliant purple feather that had been tucked into the envelope.  “Takes guts to do that.”

“You think he knows I’m his soulmate?” Darcy asked her mama later as she twirled the fluffy plume--she’d looked it up in one of her dozens of bird books and found it was a down feather that would keep her archer’s wings warm.

“I’d like to think so, honey, but probably not.  He’s got to find his own path, just like you do. But he’s got your words, and that’s enough for now.” And since Charlene Lewis wasn’t an idiot, she cautioned, “Now don’t go showin’ off your soulmark. You know how folks are ‘bout things like that.”

The truth hurt, ‘cause Darcy wanted to believe he was out there looking for her, but the older she got, the more she appreciated her mom’s honesty.  Soulmarks were unusual enough to be eyed with suspicion in her hometown. Those who had them generally fled to bigger cities as soon as they could.  Winged Ones were rarer still, and everyone “knew” that the wings needed an extraordinary amount of care. Those soulbonded to the Winged Ones were pitied--at least in her town.  She'd heard some ladies talking in the grocery store line about how they'd be slaves to their mates.

"Winged Ones ought to stick with other Winged Ones; it's just not right to mix things up," the woman had said.  Her two friends clucked assent, while Darcy gave her mom a curious look.  But Mama just hugged Darcy and said nothing. 

She didn't understand. Her parents were good at doing different things and considered themselves partners. If her mate had wings, why would Darcy mind brushing them anymore than Mama minded brushing Darcy's hair?  Dad and Mama agreed with Darcy, but cautioned her to keep her ideas to herself. Darcy began to notice her parents stayed quiet on lots of subjects around their neighbors.

By the time she reached high school, Darcy lived in sweaters and jeans, taking care not to draw attention to herself in any way. She got tired of being called a nerd and four-eyes, but they didn't have money for contacts, and she sure didn't want to be stupid.  Having brains didn’t stop some boys from “accidentally” grazing her boobs in the hallways, either. She learned to detour around the library, risking being late to class, but when she murmured something about avoiding "traffic" to a couple of her teachers, she got sympathetic looks instead of dirty ones when she slid in her seat just as the bell rang.  Teachers didn't really give a crap what she did; straight A's tended to buy a lot of goodwill. 

She went to work in the town’s only computer repair shop on weekends and learned how to hack just about anything, starting with the school’s discussion board whenever her name came up. The Internet became her new best friend. Darcy had her horizons broadened as she read news from other cities and around the world.

By age sixteen, the slanted, loose script scrawled across her right shoulder blade in two straight lines was clear and dark. She kept it covered. The last thing she needed was to add “feather slut” and “wing whore” to the list of names she’d been called since her chest popped out and demanded more than a B cup.

There were four of them, a boy and two other girls, who kept company with Darcy in the lunchroom. All of them were determined to get the hell out of Channing and didn’t mind studying on the occasional Friday night to prove it.

On this Friday night though, Darcy sat by herself in the top row of bleachers, where she could hear the band and the cheering. She liked football. She didn't like the gossip.  Most of girls at Channing High just didn't understand her, and Darcy grew tired of hearing the gossip about dating, sex, and who would be engaged by graduation. They weren't particularly mean about it, they just didn't get that Darcy's world didn't dance around some boy, getting married, and getting pregnant before she could legally drink. Most of the kids here would work the family farm and didn't see any need for college or for waiting for marriage. 

Darcy had always known she felt different.  Maybe it was the way Mama and Dad raised her, but even if she helped on the farm, they reminded her that this was their dream, not hers, and if she wanted to share, that was fine, but she needed to go out in the world and see, just like they did. 

Dad had been in the Army reserves when he'd met Mama at a bar in Chicago. They'd dated and married soon after.  (Darcy'd was thirteen when she figured out she wasn't two months "premature," having been born just seven months after the wedding. Her Mama had laughed when Darcy asked outright, and said, "Healthiest little premature kid ever born. Full set of lungs and everything." Then she sat down and explained the birds and bees all over again just to make sure Darcy knew.) But she'd been a toddler when Dad was called up for Desert Storm.  He'd come home when it was over, scooped up Mama out of the apartment where she and Darcy'd been holding down the home fort, and promised he was gonna grow things, not kill things, from then on out. The farm was in Darcy's blood. She loved every square inch of it. Channing, Kansas? Not so much.

The quarterback threw a short pass to the left, and Darcy wrinkled her nose when the opposing team tackled the receiver without gaining so much as a yard.  But they won in the end, and Darcy waited until most of the crowd cleared the stands before making her way out to the car.  A couple of the teachers waved at her, and the security guard out front kept an eye on her as she got into her car for the drive home.  

She passed the Sonic, where most of her classmates were draped over tables or hanging out of their cars.  On the dark road headed home, Darcy glanced up at the stars, wondering where her soulmate had ended up.  She hoped he was safe and happy, wherever he was.  

The screen door slapped hard against the casing when she got home.  Her parents were working a puzzle in the living room with Neil Diamond singing on the new CD player Darcy'd bought them for Christmas last year. Darcy pulled out another chair and began flipping through the pieces.  

"Did they win?" her dad asked.

"It was ugly, but yes." 

"Still counts." 

"Yes, yes, it does.  Hey, pass me that piece under your elbow."

Dad sniffed as he handed it over. "I was saving that."  

"Sure you were."

"There's an envelope on the counter. Came in the mail today."  

Darcy sucked in her breath as Mama reached behind her and fished it off the bartop to hand it over.  Yes, it was from Culver.  Darcy'd already been accepted into Kansas State and the University of Texas, but she this was her stretch school--the one she wanted so badly she could taste it.  

She hummed as she read.  "I got in," she said in disbelief.  "Early acceptance. I got into Culver. With money. There's a scholarship. Four years, tuition, room, and board. And a stipend. Oh, holy shitballs." 

"Darcy Ann Lewis!" Mama admonished, though with a smile on her face. 

But Darcy jumped up out of her chair and twirled around. "I got in!"  

Her dad grinned as he hugged her hard, and Mama had wet eyes behind her glasses when she pulled Darcy close.  "We're so proud of you!" Mama brought a pie she'd made, either to celebrate or commiserate--a fact Darcy would tease her mother about for years. 

And if Darcy didn't make any more friends in Channing or raise her hand much at school, she wrote detailed political analyses for her history and government classes. She spent the rest of her senior year calculating how to rank number three in her class, instead of number one, just so she wouldn’t have to give a speech. She succeeded, graduating without even her scant few friends knowing she had a soulmate, much less a Winged One.  

The day she packed her little Mercury for the long drive to Virginia, Dad gave her a long hug, and then tucked her inside the car with a firm slam of the door.  "Fly high, Darcy. Don't let anyone pull you down." 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

5/ Patience doesn’t mean a thing

 

Nock the arrow. Sight the target. Draw.

Clint stilled, waiting for the silence between heartbeats as he saw the atmospheric pressures and wind currents--a gift to all Winged Ones, but Clint’s perception was off the charts, even for them.  With instinct and intellect, he calculated the trajectory for his weapon of choice.    

Breathe out.  Loose the arrow.

With a soft smile only for himself, Clint climbed the branches of the tree where he’d camped out for the better part of a day to make the shot.  The darkness gave him cover as he launched into the air with wings beating hard to get him to a safe altitude before the enemy discovered their now-dead leader.  

Though he could fly in relative quiet, it was nothing like what the owl-winged flyers could do.  They made the best assassins in the business, with nary a sound to disclose their presence.  But Clint, with his hawk wings, could fly with the best of them. Agile and powerful, he held his own.  And his aim was second to none.

The cool air up here dried the sweat from the scorching desert heat.  Clint pumped his wings to gain speed.  He had miles to cover before he reached the safety of his team’s forward operating base.

He’d found his place in the desert as a Ranger. The sandbox was as much a home as Sally-the-Elephant’s trailer had been, though sometimes he missed her more than the snarky assholes who’d become his teammates and friends out here.  She sure smelled better.  

His buddies were strategically placed along his route to give him backup when or wherever needed.  It was a heady feeling, to know somebody was out there. And he could give them ariel coverage too. When he flew over his team, he dropped a short black arrow in their vicinity. It wasn’t long before a truck trundled through the desert, gathering up the other soldiers as Clint flew to safety.

When the last of his crew was on board, Clint folded his wings, diving in to get a lift home for the last twenty miles.  They’d give him hell for being lazy, but he didn’t mind that either.  He pulled up, flaring his wings to touch one foot to the cab of the truck.  The truck hit a bump, and Clint heard the tale-tale click .

It was already too late.

He fought for breath, gasping as he lay in the desert sand.  His ears throbbed from the pipe bomb’s concussion wave.  The truck his team had been riding in was flipped on its side, tires shredded.  With fingers he couldn’t quite feel, he tried to tap his comms to radio for help.  Unable to hear, he tapped out a Morse code message and hoped it made sense.  

He blacked out, not knowing a rescue was on the way.

 

Hands on his wings shocked him awake. Instinctively, he tried to roll, lashing out with fists and feet as he battered his attacker.  And then he choked back a scream as pain lanced through his wings.   Shut up, stay quiet, be silent, no matter the pain, his mind chanted. He fell backward, stilling as he rolled onto his quiver that was still strapped to his back, readying for the fight. Don’t move, don’t look. There’s no one here. He forced himself to think past the agony as various parts of his body screamed out.   It’s just pain. It’sjustpainit’sjustpain.

A man framed Clint’s face to get his attention, and the shock of the gentle touch startled him out of his fighting stance.  The airman tapped his uniform so Clint would see the PJ designation.  The parajumper twitched his own wings (black and silver, falcon), and Clint blew out his breath. Another Winged One wouldn’t fuck with his feathers.

The airman didn’t. First, he unbuckled the harness that held the quiver to Clint’s back and set it aside so Clint could lie flat on the ground. Then, steady hands bandaged up holes in Clint’s thigh and arm that he hadn’t noticed.  And his left wing was splinted, folded, and taped down so he couldn’t hurt himself.  The restraint fucked with Clint’s head, and he shivered as he tried to ignore the feeling of helplessness.  

The PJ tapped Clint’s shoulder, miming a needle in the arm and going to sleep.  Then he pointed at the descending helicopter Clint couldn’t hear, but felt through the change in air pressure as it dropped down.  

Dazed, Clint turned his head to look for his team--and saw carnage he wished he hadn’t. That was Carleton in a pool of blood. Karposky--

The airman put a hand on Clint’s cheek again, forcing him to meet sympathetic deep brown eyes.  The PJ held up four fingers and shook his head, then held up eight fingers and pointed to the helicopter, where a couple of his teammates were being loaded up. Four dead. Eight alive. For now.

The kind parajumper pressed a needle in Clint’s forearm as he wondered which asshole friends he’d lost this day.  

 

When he woke again, they told him via written signs that he’d been patched up and flown to Germany for surgery on his wing.  He’d lost most of his hearing and would be transported to the States to be discharged and rehabilitated.  Half his team was in the same hospital.  The other half went home in boxes.

Three weeks later, still nursing two broken ribs, a broken wrist, and the remains of a nasty concussion, he signed his papers and caught a cargo jet to DC. They’d promised him assistance, but Clint didn't really believe in it. The army was done with him, and he sure as hell wasn’t interested in spending his days at the VA. DC didn’t mean a thing, other than a place to land, but he got a cheap apartment anyway and swept the cockroaches out the door.

Rehabilitation meant a pair of hearing aids that made his ears ache, rudimentary sign language lessons, and links to websites where he could get assistive devices for his apartment.

He spent his afternoons at the archery range and evenings drinking until the images of his teammates scattered in pieces across the sand blurred so he could sleep.  

When that failed, he hooked up with a girl at his chosen bar.  She was nice enough, but wanted to play with his feathers.  The second girl kept her hands on his skin, but made it clear she only wanted a one-night stand with a soul-marked.

And so Clint went back to flying over the streets at night.  At twenty-six, his eyesight was even better than at seventeen. In the army he’d learned to fight on foot and on wing, and Clint discovered he didn’t give a shit anymore about taking down a drug dealer or a pimp. The mafia stayed the hell away from him.

Although, he did get his ass kicked once when he couldn’t hear someone sneaking up behind him.  Only his ability to fly saved him.  He’d gone to the range after that nasty fight, ignoring the bruise on his knee and the cut across the bridge of his nose as he practiced.  When he finished, a big man with an eyepatch, a black leather tunic that reached down to his ankles, and a set of black-on-black wings of a raven waited for him outside the archery range. The man unfolded his arms, handing over a business card.  

Nicholas J Fury,  Director of Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division

On the back of the card, in a neat, blocky text, the man had written, “Need a specialist with your skills.”

Clint frowned.  He fumbled for a hearing aid out of his pocket to set it in place, wincing as he adjusted the volume for the street noise. “This a problem?” he asked, tapping the device.

“Nope. There’s a diner next block over with shitty coffee.  I’ll buy you a cup if you’ll hear what I have to say.”

“It would be my genuine pleasure, Sir,” Clint snarked.

Fury rolled his eyes.  “You’re gonna fit right in.”  

The coffee was a step down from shitty and a step up from the circus, but the diner had stools instead of chairs to accommodate tail feathers, so Clint drank it anyway as Fury laid out a file.  The first page was a yellowed flyer from his youth.   Come see the Amazing Hawkeye!

“Been a fan of yours for a while, Hawk. Army was good to you. Needed some polishing and you got it.”

A little confused, because he didn’t think anyone was interested in his circus past, he prompted, “Sir?”

“I got a call a few years back about this kid in a circus who seemed to be a step or two above the usual carnie.  Problem was, the kid disappeared on me. Got a bump on my radar two states over with a couple of police reports about a Winged One pegging assholes with pellets and a slingshot. Then you disappeared again.  And that really pissed me off.  Because I need people who can sight a prick at a thousand yards and bean him in the ass with a pebble.” Fury drank his coffee and frowned at it. “That is really shitty coffee.”  

“So how’d you find me, Sir?”

“Got a friend named Logan who seems to be a mutual acquaintance of ours. He helps me out on occasion. Freelancer when he gets a burr up his ass about something. Told me about this kid sleeping on his office couch with an eye for a target. He wasn’t wrong.  You broke all the Army’s records, you know.”

Suddenly, Clint felt a thousand times better about the offer in front of him.  Logan hadn’t screwed him over, and if Logan vouched for this guy, maybe he could find a place to land.  “Yes, sir,” he said with a touch of arrogance.  

Fury wasn’t impressed. “Uh huh.  You still interested in taking out the bad guys?”

“What’s S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

“Special Ops for the really weird shit.”

“Weird? Like what?”

“That’s above your pay grade, soldier,” Fury shot back.  Then he pointed to his own ear.  “I have a bigger budget than the VA, if you want better tech.”

“That apply to this?” Clint tapped on his bow case.

“What do you think?”

Clint let out his  first grin since that day in the desert.

 

S.H.I.E.L.D. dumped him in the hands of one Phillip J. Coulson, a former asset who’d been promoted to a handler a good decade back.  Coulson ran Clint through a whole series of assessments, and by the middle of the second day, Clint decided he liked the handler’s dry sense of humor.  

On the fourth afternoon, in between stints in the weapons range, it didn’t surprise Clint in the slightest to learn that Coulson had served in the Rangers with Fury.  

“Is that why I was accepted into the Rangers?” Clint demanded, hating the idea of not getting in on his own merit.

Coulson scoffed, “You volunteered for that gig. It’s not our fault S.H.I.E.L.D. attracts a certain type.”

That drew a reluctant smile out of Clint.  “Is that why there are so many Winged Ones?”  

“Of course.” Coulson tilted his head, giving Clint a thoughtful look that set him on edge.  

“What?”

“There are cultural differences with Winged Ones; little things you might not know.”

Clint deliberately looked behind Coulson, pointing out the lack of wings.  “And you do?”

“I do.”

The simple affirmation made Clint want to disappear somewhere. As it was, he had to concentrate not to duck away and hunch his shoulders. Instead, he picked up a bow off the table of prototypes, nocked it, and loosed another arrow, deliberately veering away from the conversation.  

“I can’t tell if you’re compensating for the bow, or if the bow isn’t getting in the way of your aim,” Coulson remarked, changing subjects as if the earlier one hadn’t bothered Clint in the slightest.

Startled, Clint glanced down at recurve in his hand. He liked it better than the other two he’d tried, though he struck center with all three.  “Both, but this one less so.”

“Try the last two, and we’ll come back to that one.”

By the end of the session, Clint had a definite preference for the third bow, and some ideas for improvement.  Afterward, Coulson escorted him to Medical to be fitted with improved hearing aids.  

Carefully, Coulson made a series of signs at Clint, who squinted as he tried to remember what he’d learned.  Something about classes tomorrow.  “You’re taking ASL with me?” Clint blurted as he figured it out.

“It could come in handy in the field.” Coulson pivoted to exit Medical.

Stunned, Clint couldn’t remember the last time somebody had done anything for him--just to make his life easier.  

“Sir?”

Coulson stopped, glancing over his shoulder.  

Clint stuffed his hands in his pockets, his feathers ruffling.  “The culture thing. I’d--I’d like the help.” It was the closest he’d come to admitting he had no idea how to be with his own kind.

“Of course. Have a good evening, Barton.”

 

Clint held himself aloft as he prepared to make the next obstacle course run.  Unlike the Army, who would take whatever he could give them, S.H.I.E.L.D. had a history of working with Winged Ones and knew how to push them to their limits.  

And so he was here, circling the course, looking for an entry point.  Coulson spoke to him through a special com in his left ear that functioned as both an aid and as a regular communications device. The aid for the right ear was a regular piece, so Clint had a fair amount of his hearing back.  The aids still made his ears ache after long stints in them, and Clint was grateful Coulson insisted on ASL.   Surgery was still on the table, but Clint wasn’t ready for that yet.  Apparently, someone named Stark--the same guy making Clint’s bows and arrows--had some ideas once he learned about Clint’s issues.  Coulson mentioned it might be worth seeing what the man could invent.

In any case, Coulson had perfected “competent agent in charge” in his voice, and Clint didn’t mind having him in his ear.  As he debated which of the two entry points he’d narrowed his choice down to, a flyer with a blonde ponytail and grey plumage cut him off in the air, forcing him to arc hard left and up to keep from colliding with her.

She laughed, spreading her wings as she flew away from the training grounds, but she pulled up just enough to glance back at Clint, smiling wide.

Coulson offered, “Agent Barbara Morse. Goes by ‘Bobbi.’ a.k.a. Mockingbird, due to the marks on her wings.” There was a long pause, then,  “That was flirting, by the way.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Clint retorted, appreciating his handler’s dry-as-fuck sense of humor.  

“Just checking. It’s a priority of mine to ensure my assets are in good health, mentally and physically.”

“Are you saying I need a girlfriend?”

“Or a boyfriend.  Doesn’t really matter.  Make friends, Barton.  This is a good place to land. Now, are you going to stay up there all day, or are you going to impress the audience hovering over your head?”

With lazy ease, Clint twisted his wings into slow barrel roll before diving backward into a spiral that ended with him flying through a narrow window. Speed was his friend, but without space to fly, he touched down in a full-out run, nocking a short crossbow for a wicked, close range weapon. He dodged lasers, walls, agents playing hostiles, and a dozen different traps.  

Coulson waited on the other side with a timer, clicking it as Clint stumbled out, panting hard.  “Your entrance was better, but Morse beat you by a full five seconds on her last go round.”

“She’s been an agent for how long?”

“Two years.”

“Fuck.”

“Go get something to eat. Preferably not on base. You have the night off.  I’ll see you at oh-seven-hundred in the tactics lab.”  Coulson dismissed him with a wave.  

 

There was a bar close by, full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and yes, Morse was one of them.  Clint woke up with a bed full of purple and grey down and Bobbi’s laughing smile.  The sex had been hard, fast, and she kept her hands off his wings.  In short, it was perfect.

Bobbi lazily rolled over in bed, picked up one of the tufts of purple, and blew on it.  “A feather’s supposed to be good luck, you know.”

“Is it?” Clint babbled, not knowing what else to say.  She utterly dazzled him. He could only watch in a daze as she slipped out of his room, knowing damned well he was hopelessly out of her league.  He found out later that day she’d been called out on a mission.

More than a year later, after the first op they ran together, they tumbled into bed again--well, they made it to the bedroom anyway.  After that, Mockingbird and Hawkeye gained a reputation as a take-no-prisoners duo who got the job done.  They played fast and loose with the rules, fought hard--both with the target and with each other--and pushed themselves to the limits of what their bodies could do.

Phil had his hands full; hard-pressed to keep them in line. Fury yanked Hawkeye’s chain from time to time, but not hard enough to do real damage.

Bobbi--or Birdie, as he nicknamed her--taught Clint what it meant to be a Winged One, to fly high and free.  To make love on the wing, to live life fast and wild, knowing one had a skill set that couldn’t be matched.  They married between missions on a cool night in Vegas on a whim fueled by tequila.

Clint knew exactly jack shit about marriage, but if Bobbi wanted him, well, that was a first. She even knew about his soulmark and gave it a passing shrug. Mostly.  

It was heady, and they rode the waves as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s darlings until the day Clint was sent on a solo mission to take out the most unlikely quarry: The Black Widow.  When he got a good look at the woman’s weary face, at the resignation of what was to come, he made a different call.  She was barely twenty-five.  She looked sixteen, and her eyes could pass for forty.

Coulson assigned her to Barton.  That was the first wedge in his relationship with Bobbi--ignoring the fact they fought over just about everything, from living quarters to where to eat on Friday nights.  

When Clint crawled out of bed to go to work, Bobbi sat up.  “It’s six in the morning, what the hell?”

“I’m supposed to look in on Romanoff.”

“Now?”

“She’s not allowed to go anywhere without an escort.” Clint yawned as he fumbled for a shirt. “That’s me.  Coulson--” he yawned again, “said. Doesn’t trust any junior agents to keep her contained, and most of the senior agents want to put a bullet in her head.”

“With good reason,” Bobbi agreed. “So what are you, a junior or senior agent?” Bobbi was a senior agent now and loved to tease Clint about their respective ranks.

“Specialist,” he retorted. Then Clint sighed, knowing that Mockingbird had gone up against the Widow and lost. She sulked a little, and Clint crawled back on the bed to kiss her one last time.  But he had a job to do, and if the Widow didn’t assimilate into S.H.I.E.L.D., it would be on him for the failure.  

He detoured to the coffee maker--automatic, thank god, and drank most of it straight from the pot.

“You’d better fucking rinse that out,” Bobbi shouted, and he winced.  It was too early for that kind of noise.  But he did wash the pot out and set it up for another round for when she got out of the shower.  

For whatever Birdie might give him, his wife was an agent first. She came out of the bedroom and pressed her face into his neck, sliding her hand under the feathers at his shoulder blade--and it was everything he could do not to wince at her touch on his wings.

Still, she felt the tremor, and he couldn’t miss the note of sadness in her eyes.  He tried to tell her it was him, not her, but the words wouldn’t come.  Instead, he pressed a kiss to her lips, teasing, “Bye bye, Birdie.”  

She rolled her eyes as he left.  

 

It didn’t get any better.  

“Again?” Bobbi crossed her arms, pissed at taking a back seat to the Widow yet again.  

Clint shoved his bow into his duffel bag, flicking Birdie a dark look.  “Job, remember?”

“You like her.”

Shrugging once, he answered, “She’s got gumption.”

“Are you fucking her?”

Now that stung.  “Will you believe me if I say ‘No?’”

“Probably not.”

“Then the truth doesn’t matter.” He stalked out the door, slamming it on his way out.  

He wasn’t sleeping with Romanoff, but there wasn’t a single soul in S.H.I.E.L.D. who would lay money on that--except maybe Coulson, and he wasn’t placing bets.  That was half the problem with Birdie. The late nights with Romanoff, her reputation, the sheer amount of time he spent with the new agent had stacked the deck against him. The other half was the fact Clint didn’t know how to tell her that yes, he liked Romanoff--but that was all.

Bobbi didn’t believe him.  Maybe she didn’t want to believe him.  Their marriage was falling apart in the wake of too many ops, too many missed connections, and Clint didn’t really know how to get to the other side.  

It didn’t help when, two months later, Coulson sent them on separate missions because he was tired of the squabbling.

Birdy’s next op was a clusterfuck, and she blamed it on the lack of backup.  S.H.I.E.L.D. faulted the analyst, but a stack of divorce papers appeared on Clint’s bunk on the brand-new helicarrier.  He stuffed them in his duffle bag and pretended they didn’t exist.

He played the avoidance game by trying to figure out the chameleon that was Natasha Romanoff.  She changed personalities the way Clint selected the right arrow for the job.  Then again, Clint figured no one had stuck around long enough to see the Red Room assassin flit between personas.  He liked her, even if she was baffled by the idea that Clint didn’t want to fuck her.  When he reminded her that he was married, she shrugged, rather bemused by the whole concept.

Clint sparred with Natasha, discovering in the process that he had a lot to learn if he was going to hold his own in hand-to-hand combat with her.  She found his weakness. He couldn’t quite admit that he still flinched when anyone touched his wings.  Natasha forced him to learn how to fight in spite of it, but she never, ever casually brushed against his feathers.

If their friendship had any foundation, it was an unspoken agreement about boundaries.  It was an uneasy time while Natasha found her footing at S.H.I.E.L.D., and Clint became her one and only safe haven.  He wasn’t sure if he was the right man for that, but he had a job to do and did it anyway.

Clint did a damned good job of avoiding the dissolution of his marriage, mostly by making sure he stayed as far away from the helicarrier and DC as he could.  Still, the first time Coulson assigned Romanoff and Barton to an op of their own, Bobbi put in transfer papers to the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in California and sent dirty notes to Clint, insisting he sign the divorce papers.  They turned up in his duffle bag, and Clint wasn’t entirely sure Nat wasn’t behind that one.  

He dug them out in Budapest.  Natasha helped him drain a bottle of vodka as he wrote his signature half a dozen times.

After the papers were signed, Natasha leaned into kiss him.  Clint shook his head, and Nat’s faint, slightly-awed smile cemented their friendship for good.   

Strike Team Delta was born on that mission.  Coulson told them that “Delta,” in a mathematical formula, meant “change.”  And so, with Coulson at the helm, the unholy trio began methodically taking down the Black Widow’s former employers with stunning accuracy.  

Change indeed.

 

 

Chapter Text

6/Look Up

 

Darcy made the drive to Culver in three days and change, stopping overnight in St Louis so she could climb the Gateway Arch the next morning. She did a little sightseeing in Louisville, KY that evening, and stayed in a nice hostel outside Richmond the next night before making the final leg of her journey to Willowsdale, Virginia to check into her dorm.  

She’d seen more of the country in four days than she’d seen her whole life. The changing landscape had fascinated her, and there were times she could hardly keep her eyes on the road. Willowsdale barely qualified as a medium-sized town, and yet Darcy was agog at the variety of shops and businesses.

She’d made sure to arrive on the first day of check-in, needing the extra time to figure out the dorm, her classes, the money-side of all of it--yay, stipends! --and just to drive around her new home.  

Her three roommates arrived over the next few days. One hailed from New York, one from San Diego, and one from Tampa. When the girls unanimously lamented the lack of big city niceties-- movie theaters, outdoor shopping malls, and a Starbucks on every corner, Darcy felt like the biggest dolt that ever lived.   She’d been thrilled that the town had a real bookstore just two blocks from campus.

It was tricky, having roommates when one had a secret soulmark, Darcy decided.  But when she discovered everyone wore robes to the communal bathroom at the end of the hall, she bought one too, happily keeping her mark covered.  

The night before classes started, Darcy made one more lap around campus to make sure she knew where she was going. When she came home, she found her roommates had posted a giant sign over her bed: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” She laughed until she gasped for breath on her twin bed, and her new friends called her “Kansas” for the rest of her college career. The ice was broken, and Darcy had no qualms about peppering them with a million questions.

New York spent the first two days rearranging her half of one closet get her clothes to fit. Darcy had never seen so many shoes for just one person. San Diego was the utter opposite. She wore t-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes everywhere. Tampa was somewhere in the middle, with her cute capris and crop tops.  

Tampa was the most adventurous of the four of them. She could talk to anyone as long as they were breathing. By the end of the week, she had a whole list of places to try. Darcy tagged along. New York and San Diego popped in from time to time, but they were engineering majors, while Tampa was History. Darcy and Tampa usually found a lot to debate.  

Darcy decided she liked all of them, even if she had no idea what they were talking about half the time. Pop culture had eluded her in Channing, and was it weird that she bought a People magazine and an Entertainment News just so she’d have some idea of what people were talking about? Every radio station that reached her little town had been classic rock or country.  

Culver was like coming home. The small university only had about twenty-five hundred undergraduates, but they were brains culled from all over the country, and they all shared one trait--an insatiable desire to seek answers to the hard questions.  Hailing from both the hard and soft science disciplines, the student population boasted both the soulmarked and a double handful of Winged Ones.

As Darcy debated politics, equality, and ethics with her classmates, she was in heaven. On campus, no one cared what she looked like, and if she had big breasts, no one was stupid enough to leer outright at her.

Darcy met a bonded pair, a boy and girls in her dorm who’d met in grade school. They were best friends, not lovers, unlike the other two couples she would meet in the weeks to come. The soulmarked had their own pocket of society at Culver--for both staff and students--and that’s where Darcy finally revealed she had a mark of her own, though she was told it was tradition to keep the mark covered until after her Match was made.  

One of the soulmarked turned out to be a professor of Darcy’s this semester. Dr. Trina willingly spent the better part of an evening answering Darcy’s questions.

Darcy knew that only three percent of the world population had soulmarks, but Dr. Trina told her that platonic bonds were as likely as romantic ones. “There’s no shame in being friends,” the professor said.  “The soulmark isn’t about forcing you to love someone, it’s about that person being someone you need in your life--and it might be for a minute or lifetime. Have you Registered yet?

Turned up her hands, Darcy shook her head. “I have no idea what that means.”

Dr. Trina pulled out a pad and wrote down a website. “You have rights that come with being soulmarked. It’s kind of a safety net for us. There are three possible entries: the first is Unmatched. For that, you just simply list your name, contact information, and the location of your soulmark--but not your words. You’ll want to let Culver know that you’re on the register too. You do have rights if you make your Match, up to and including making accommodations for living arrangements and class schedules.”

“Why?” Darcy asked, curious.

The professor smiled. “History has shown that Matches do much better in close proximity to one another. Usually that means living together, but it’s up to you.”

Darcy was a little overwhelmed at that idea, but Dr. Trina continued, “Once you make your Match, you’ll put your words on the Rights Register, along with the name, contact information, and the words of your soulmate. It’s kind of like an ‘in case of emergency’ contact. A hospital or police can use it to find either of you. Remember, not all Matches end in marriage, and in certain cases, a soulmate can make medical decisions for a Match, so this protects your rights.”

Dr Trina hesitated, then continued, “There are instances where you meet your Match and you’re separated or you lose touch before you can give each other contact information. The Register lets you put in your words, their words, the date and time of the Match, and your contact info.  In that case, there’s a third party who mediates to confirm the Match is valid, and you can reconnect.”

“Does that happen?”

“Often enough to have a safeguard built in. Any other questions?”

“What’s the deal with the handwriting websites?”

Dr. Trina laughed. “Don’t bother with those. In theory, you submit your handwriting sample and you can look through all the samples on the website to find yours. But it’s mostly a sham. There’s something in the way soulmarks work that encourages you to cross paths with your Match. As hard as it is, you have to trust that it works.”  

“I’ve met mine,” Darcy admitted. “We didn’t speak.” With the professor’s encouragement, Darcy told what she knew about her circus archer.  Dr Trina’s eyes grew troubled, and Darcy faltered.

The professor was kind as she offered, “Darcy, you’re at Culver, where there are both soulmarked and Winged Ones.  But Matches between Winged Ones and non-winged people are extraordinarily rare and almost certain to be platonic.”

Darcy lifted a shoulder. “I guess I knew that. I can deal.”  

“Good.” Dr Trina smiled. “There are several Winged Ones on Culver’s staff if you need a mentor in that department. Let me know if you want an introduction.”

But Darcy just smiled. “My advisor is one. He’s pretty cool.”

 

Armed with new information, Darcy spent time in Culver’s library. There, she found that if soulmates were less common, Winged Ones were even rarer, with less than one-half of one percent of the population having wings.  Wings were a function of a rare recessive gene, and over time, most Winged families had migrated to the few larger cities. New York City had a large cluster of them. So did Los Angeles and Miami.  

Dr. Trina had been right, Winged Ones rarely matched outside their own kind.

Tampa wanted all of them to go to one of the four bars that Willowsdale boasted--two that doubled as makeshift dance clubs, one country and one--well, not country--and the other two were little more than dive bars with TVs jammed over the bars.  She dug through New York’s closet and held out a little strapless dress to Darcy.  

“Uh, nope.”

Tampa scowled. “Seriously? Do you know how pretty you are?”

Taking a deep breath, Darcy replied, “I have a platonic soulmark, but I haven’t met my match. So, I’m totally cool with a dress, but I’m keeping my back covered.” She held her breath, hoping they wouldn’t ask for more specifics.  She didn’t want them to know her soul mate was a Winged One. Her roommates were great, but she’d only known them for a few weeks.

With a grin, New York dove into her closet and came up with a black cardigan with lace at the edges of the sleeves. “Wear this over it. It will look fabulous, and you can tell us what it’s like to have a soulmark.”

Taking the clothes, Darcy rolled her eyes. “It suck balls, people.”

Her roommates screamed with laughter.  

They picked the bar with not-country dancing. Darcy was surprised to discover she knew some of the dances, and she learned the rest in short order. But when the first guy came up behind her to dance, pulling her in hip to hip, she ducked away, uncomfortable with the intimacy. He rolled his eyes at her and went to another girl, who was perfectly willing to snuggle up ass-to-groin.

Darcy returned to the table to play with her new phone, tucking her hair behind her ear as she watched her friends dance. New York didn’t seem to have a problem with that kind of dancing. San Diego came off the floor to sit with Darcy, and Tampa had two guys, one in front and one in back, wiggling happily to the beat between them.  

San Diego rolled her eyes. “Next time, we’ll go country dancing for you, Kansas. Your partner will keep his hands above the waist.”

“I don’t know how to dance country.”

“Pretty sure we can figure it out.”   

The country bar was better. She liked the dancing, but her jeans-and-boots outfit paled in comparison to the skin tight shirts and jeans the other girls wore, reminding her of the kinds of clothes some of the girls wore back home.  

Then the boyfriend of one of their dorm neighbors invited them to a frat party. New York did Darcy’s makeup, and Tampa loaned her a summer dress that flattered every curve she had.  And she had a lot of them.

“You look like a pin-up, Kansas,” her roommate told her. “The guys are gonna be falling all over you.”

Darcy bit her lip as she stepped into the ballet flats San Diego dug out of her closet. “Is it weird that, on one hand, I want to be able to wear whatever I want. I know this looks good. I can see it. But on the other hand, I know it’s going to attract the same kind of attention I’ve been avoiding since I was eleven?”

New York shrugged. “It’s your litmus test. It’s okay if he looks, right? But if he thinks you’re a buffet, move on. And you don’t have to wear this. Stick to your sweaters. But Darcy, your body is a gift. Own it. Protect it. Don’t let anybody fuck with you.”

Tampa giggled. “That’s such a New York attitude. She’s right, but see, in the South, we’d tell you to smile big, flirt, and have a little Steel Magnolia in you.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, we are so watching that movie. Southern boys mind their mamas real well. You tap into that, and expect them to have good manners. They get out of line, you pull them up short, real quick.”

“Does that work?” San Diego asked.

“Mostly. Just don’t let them get away with patting you on the cheek and tellin’ you to let the men handle it. Unless it’s something you want them to do, of course.”

Darcy barked out a slightly horrified laugh. “How often do you do that?”

Tampa wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. “Probably more than I should.”


The frat party was, well, educational. The kegs were full of shitty beer, the food consisted of chips and store bought dip, and most everyone was standing around with a red Solo cup.  

Darcy found an giant old speaker in the corner pumping out a bass line. She perched on it, holding her Solo cup like a lifeline as she watched the rest of the partygoers.  San Diego hovered near Darcy, equally uncomfortable with the scene. They’d promised to watch each other’s back.  

New York and Tampa threaded through the crowd, making friends easily.  This was their scene, and they knew how to navigate the party.  

There were three guys in the corner that kept eyeballing Darcy.  Eventually, one of them crossed the room, carrying his cup.  He looked her over from head to toe, then gave her a big grin.  “Freshman?” he asked.  

“Asshole?” Darcy shot back with a wide, fake smile.

To her utter shock, the guy threw his head back, laughing.  “I probably deserved that.”

“Yes, yes, you did,” she agreed.

“Want another drink?”

She stared into her cup. It was gross and the cup was still mostly full. “Got anything a step up from this crap?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I’ll bring you one.” The guy rounded up his friends and brought out bottles that he shared with Darcy and her roommates, who reappeared when the guys did.  The chatter turned to teachers and classes, and Darcy found the conversation surprisingly helpful.  

By the end of the night New York got a phone number out of it; so did Darcy. Darcy wasn’t really buzzed--the alcohol hadn’t been that good--and the four of them worked their way to the front of the house, winding between dancers, drinkers, and people kissing with sloppy technique.  

Darcy had managed to forget all about high school until a drunken jerk reached out to squeeze her boob.  She slapped his hand away. “Not yours.”

“Bitch,” he yelled, sounding offended. But he backed off.  Still, at least two other people catcalled her as she fled out the door.  

Darcy flushed as San Diego tugged her out of the house and into their car.  “Let’s go home,” San Diego coaxed.

New York and Tampa were close behind, and New York just shook her head. “Assholes.”

San Diego drove them back to their dorm while Darcy crossed her arms over her chest. “Sometimes, it’s just not worth it,” she complained.

New York leaned around to look at Darcy in the backseat.  “Oh hell no.  Kansas, you are not letting those assholes stop you from having a good time.”

“Then what? I deal with at least one stupid prick every time I want to wear something pretty?”

“Yeah. ‘Til you figure out it all out.”  

“I’ll Taser their ass if anyone tries anything stupid,” Darcy muttered.  

“I’m in,” San Diego agreed.  

And so all four of them bought Tasers the next weekend and signed up for self-defense classes.  It wasn’t a perfect solution, but Darcy slowly gained confidence in her looks and attitude. The frat boys with the decent beer turned up wherever the girls were more often than not, and with a big group of people to hang out with, Darcy eased into the social scene. Word got around that she had a platonic soul mark, and suddenly, everyone wanted to be Darcy’s friend. It was a heady feeling to be liked. The boys came around more often. Darcy learned to flirt.

But she also discovered that without the farm to keep her occupied, she needed something to do with her hands.  A craft store yielded knitting needles and pretty yarn. A week or so later, all her roommates got new hats for the winter, and Darcy kept her fingers busy as she studied.

Mid-way through her sophomore year, she set a box full of knitted gloves, scarves, and hats outside her door (“free to good home”), and a shy Chemistry major dug up the nerve to ask nicely--with a vote of confidence from Tampa and New York--and got a date with Darcy.  He was nice, the kissing was acceptable, and a month later, she discovered what sex was all about. He knew she had a soulmark and didn’t question why she wore her bra and shirt to bed.  But he didn’t claim her heart and after a couple of months, they settled for being friends instead.  

Two partners and three scarves later, Darcy decided she definitely liked sex. Figuring out which of her classmates were decent in the sack was the  subject of much discussion in the dorm, and Darcy didn’t mind sampling--for research purposes, of course.

The simple explanation that she was marked and wasn’t looking for long term went a long way toward filling her Saturday nights. Number three had asked if she could lose the bra and keep the shirt-- and whoa, okay. Darcy, for the win. That boy definitely had a boob thing and that was fine by her.

She learned to wear the right shirt with just the right amount of cleavage. She wore bright red lipstick and dark eyeliner to make her blue-green eyes pop.  A convenient tuck of hair behind her ear got the attention she wanted.  She tried not to think of the guys she took home as targets, but really, that’s what they were, and if pressed, she might admit that half the fun was figuring out who to take home and how to get him there.

This time, toward the end of the school year, when one of girls in the dorm, Katelyn, called Darcy a slut for sleeping with her boyfriend, Darcy just lifted her chin, retorting, “He was at Rockets last Saturday, and he’s the prick for sleeping around on you, but you don’t want to hear that, do you?”

“You’re such a bitch, Darcy,” Katelyn said. “Everyone says so.”

“Thank god. I’d hate to think I’d let a boy get away with fucking around on me.”

“So you’re fucking all of them until your soulmate turns up?”

“I’m not waiting for a soulmate. I’m not wasting my life waiting for someone who might not show up until I’m ninety,” Darcy snapped. “And if you don’t like me, give me back my fucking hat.”

Katelyn snatched the knitted cap off her head and threw it on the ground.


Yay for nobody being in her room when she got home, because words do hurt sometimes, and Darcy was reminded all over again that nobody really wanted her --certainly not all of her: mark, brains, boobs and everything.  She cried into her pillow until San Diego was supposed to get out of class, and then she took a shower to wash the puffiness out of her eyes.  Fresh makeup, concealer, and lip gloss covered up her crying jag.

And then she decided she was being a drama queen.  She didn’t exist just for her archer, or anyone at all, and she sure as hell wasn’t pinning all her hopes and dreams on a soulmark.  Admitting that a tiny part of her was still holding out for the grand romance just sucked.

That summer, Darcy strolled into Channing with a fuck-it-all attitude and, courtesy of a shopping trip with New York, the shoes to match.  She got an iPod from her parents for her birthday and spent the days working the farm with Adele, Katy Perry, and a healthy dose of Lady Gaga keeping her company as she repainted the barn and set up a wi-fi network in the house.

But all that that didn’t mean she gave up taking a blanket and a book to the retention pond so she could listen to the ducks.  There were times that only the wind and chirping of the birds in the nearby trees settled her brain.

Here, safe at home, Darcy set out the old letter and pulled up the photo of her soulmark on her back. This wasn’t the first time she’d compared the two, but this phone took better pictures than her old one.  It was clear that the handwriting was a match from the o’s and s’s alone but it was also clear that the words on her shoulder were in a neater hand, which made sense as Darcy’d calculated the letter must have been written when her soulmate was in his early twenties. He’d be almost thirty now, and they still hadn’t met. But the scrawl wasn’t shaky with age either.  

Mama found her comparing the two.  “Don’t fuss over it, sweetie.  It’ll happen when it does.”

“Everyone tells me it will be a platonic bond,” Darcy admitted.  

“And that bothers you?” Charlene asked.

“Maybe.” Darcy got a little lump in her throat. “I guess I just don’t feel it’s supposed to be that way.”

“That’s wishful thinking, honey. I know you don’t date much, but you can’t hold your heart out for a ‘what if’ that might be not more than a passing moment.”

“I date.”  Darcy tried to keep a straight face, but she could never keep secrets from her mom.  Especially not when Mama asked point blank questions.  

Charlene snorted. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”

“If I go back for seconds, does that count?”

“Not in the slightest,” she chided.  



Darcy didn’t have much time for boys her junior year. (Except for the one guy with the biceps that wouldn’t quit. Yum.) At her last conference, she’d noticed her advisor idly stroking one of his feathers, flicking a thumbnail through the barbules to reconnect them, and it reminded her that she still didn’t know much about Winged Ones.

Between the library and the internet, she learned quite a bit.  Some of the stories were true: wings did require specialized care, and it was much easier for a partner to assist than to do it alone.  But it wasn’t impossible and not every Winged One had a mate.  Over time, Darcy built a fat three-ring binder full of anatomy lessons, care, and  healing techniques. She created a tool kit with aromatic oils, cleansers, tweezers, special brushes and combs, and medical supplies for repairing everything from cuts to broken bones.

But she didn’t really get to know a Winged One until her senior year.  She had a thesis to write and still needed another history class, six science credits, six upper level political science credits, a quantitative methods course, and her capstone class that she couldn’t take until spring.

“Take a science internship this fall, and use the time to work on your thesis,” her advisor recommended.   “There’s a grad student who has had a little trouble finding anyone willing to go to New Mexico, but I think you’ll like it,” he told Darcy.  “You’re from a small town. I’ll bet you’ll find the political differences something worth exploring.”

“How long is the internship? Six weeks?” She liked her advisor. In spite of his gruff demeanor, he always had good ideas and seemed to be interested in her thoughts.

“Six months.” Darcy’s face fell in dismay, but her advisor just shrugged. “Look, you’ll have time to get your thesis completely done before your capstone class, and you can load up on the rest in the spring.” He tapped his pen on her file.  “And there’s another thing.”

“What’s that?” Darcy asked.  

“Your file says you’re bonded to a Winged One.”  

“Yes,” she said reluctantly, though she knew it was on record.

Her advisor ruffled his own wings, giving Darcy a pleased smile.  “I think you’ll find this internship quite informative.”

And so, Darcy wandered through the Physics department until she found a tiny cubicle with Jane Foster written in Sharpie on a piece of masking tape stuck to the outside wall.  The floor was littered with as many feathers as there were papers on the desk. With a smile, Darcy cleared the chair of both and set her application in the middle of the seat. With a warm cookie on top.

She got an email in the middle of the night informing her that she got the internship.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

7/ And If I Belong To You

 

In some ways, Puente Antiguo, New Mexico, and Channing, Kansas, weren’t all that different. Both small towns sported a diner, a bar, an insurance agency, a bridal shop, and a Wal-Mart at the edge of town.  

Darcy wasn’t so sure about the old car dealership that Jane had leased for a lab. They’d spent the first few weeks constructing the lab to Jane’s specifications. But Darcy was handy with computers and didn’t mind a little dirty work.  She also learned to drive a Pinzgauer ATV without batting an eye and felt like a bad ass as she trundled across the desert with her new iPod blasting music wherever she went.

There was a trailer for living quarters, but Darcy rummaged up a sofa that she stuck in an old office inside the dealership and pretty much just used the trailer’s shower.  With Jane’s wingspan, it was cramped quarters, though Jane seemed willing to share.  

The lack of humidity made the late summer days hot and the nights cool. She’d been there two days before the friendly waitress at the diner told her that the laundromat lady sold Mary Kay Lip Protector in packs of two and five. When Darcy went back to the diner the next morning, lips happily not-chapped, she tipped a whole ten dollars just for a cup of coffee and some pancakes.

Darcy discovered Jane to be wickedly sharp and incredibly smart, both awesome traits as far as Darcy was concerned. Not only that, her mentor’s wings were beautiful.  Shaped and patterned after a peregrine falcon, Jane’s coloring ranged from the deepest chocolate near her back to the palest of pinks at the tips of her primaries and tail feathers. Darcy had to sit on her hands more than once to keep from touching.  

Jane was perfectly capable of taking care of her own plumage, thank you.

She used a variety of extension tools and brushes to reach all parts of her wings. She also had a fair hand with a needle, occasionally adding wing-slits, zippers, or buttons to store-bought clothing, though she mostly ordered what she needed from websites who specialized in fitting Winged Ones.  Jane wore a lot of tunics that reminded Darcy of the Tusken Raiders in Star Wars, but with a lot more color.   

Sometimes, Darcy sat on the roof while Jane flew overhead, stretching her wings, then diving from impossible heights and arcing into flight just yards from the ground. Over data analysis and lonely weeks in the desert, they built a friendship. The weather softened, turning cooler in the fall.  Then, and only then, did the subject of Jane’s wings come up for discussion.

One late afternoon, while they shared a plate of enchiladas and enjoyed the New Mexico sun before it set to leave the desert cold and dark, Jane waved her fork. “So, why are you one of the three non-winged people on this planet who actually thinks wings are cool?  Most people act like we’re invalids.”  Before Darcy could answer, she added, “Sure, it’s nice to have help sometimes, but it’s not an imperative. I’ve managed just fine.”

For weeks, Darcy wondered how she would answer Jane.  The grad student was well on her way to becoming Darcy’s best friend, and it was blunt conversations like these that were getting them there.  And so, with a leap of faith, Darcy blurted, “My soulmate has wings.”  She  held her breath, hoping Jane wouldn’t shut her out.  

But Jane only lit up with curiosity.  “Seriously? That doesn’t happen. Out of seven billion people on the planet, and one point three percent of those have wings, there’s only thirty thousand Winged Ones with soulmarks, with a little over a thousand in the U.S. The subset of that population who bond with a non-Winged One has to be stupidly low--”

Darcy started giggling in relief, and Jane rolled her eyes.  “Totally did my research on my own kind, Darcy Lewis. Most Winged Ones go military, courier, or performance because we tend to be risk-takers.  Even I’m at the edge of my field. So--spill. How do you know your soulbonded is a Winged One?”

Wiggling around in her seat, Darcy pulled down the neckline of her shirt so that Jane could see the words on her shoulder blade.  “He has purple wings, too.”  

“How do you know?”

“We’ve met. Sort of. He doesn’t know me.  It’s totally weird.” Darcy waved her fork around as she laid out the whole, convoluted story, starting with the sequined feather she’d found as a toddler.

“Seriously?” Jane said. “Talk about coincidence.”  She squinted, looking Darcy over.  “Where is your feather then?”

“I keep them in a box in my messenger bag.”

“Show me after lunch,” Jane insisted.  

Darcy dug out the box, setting out the three feathers she’d collected over the years--the black one with a sequin still stuck to it, the black one with the purple iridescent underside, and the all-purple feather that wasn’t quite the length of her hand. In the meantime, Jane disappeared into her office to bring out a delicate clasp.  

Jane picked up the last feather and hooked the clasp onto its shaft. She clipped it just behind Darcy’s ear.  “Soulbond or not,” she said, “This is how Winged Ones claim their partners. There’s no shame in a platonic bond either.”

It took some experimenting, but Darcy made it work. With her dark hair, it took a careful eye to notice the feather tucked into the long locks.  And it made her feel a little closer to her soulmate.



On another night, while they were drinking coffee and killing time as they waited for the Earth and stars to align, Jane told her about molting as a kid.  “It was awful. It’s bad enough to get boobs and periods without having feathers falling out everywhere . Boys are worse. They get smelly with puberty.  Now imagine that with oil glands,” she groaned.  

Darcy snickered, but her curiosity spiked because it wasn’t something she’d read much about. “Do you still molt? Is that too personal of a question to ask?”

“No, it’s not too personal, because we’re friends.” Jane brought her wing forward, spreading out the primaries so Darcy could see that one feather was noticeably shorter than the others. The ones above it seemed to be proportionally longer, but the one below it seemed to be getting too long.  “Every few weeks, I’ll drop a pair of flight feathers somewhere--tail, primary, secondary, or tertiary--but only one pair at at time. It takes three or four years to completely replace my plumage.  The covert feathers are different.  I’ll lose about a quarter of them every spring, and,” she ruffled her wings comically, “they itch like crazy.”   

“Are all Winged Ones on the same cycle?”

Jane waggled her hand. “It’s kind of like a period. Yes, the basics are the same for everyone, but there’s a lot of ‘normal.’ Not to mention, stress can weird out a molt like nobody’s business.”

“Huh, well that makes sense.  Why couldn’t I find this on the Internet?” Darcy complained.  

“Sometimes it’s such a part of who we are, we forget that others don’t know. And mostly, we hang out with each other.  It’s easier,” she admitted. “I can’t describe what it is to fly.  I just want to share that with someone.”

“I’ve heard,” Darcy agreed, as she got a lump in her throat at the reminder that her soulmate might not want a non-winged partner.  

Chagrined, Jane patted Darcy’s hand. “I can’t imagine it’s easy having a winged soulmark.”

“Nope.” Darcy firmly squashed her sadness as she asked cheekily, “But, like, how far can I push our friendship, and is it rude to ask if I can touch your feathers?”

Jane tilted her head, considering.  “It’s not rude if you ask, and preening is part of what we do. It’s a bonding thing?” She shrugged. “If you like, I’ll teach you.”

“That would be seriously cool,” Darcy said, squealing a little and making Jane snicker. “I’ve got a kit, but I don’t know what’s good in it.  Some of it smells really yummy.”

They spread out the contents of Darcy’s kit across the kitchen table in the lab, and Jane sniffed every container.  Darcy had stocked it with some amazingly aromatic oils that Jane instantly adored. “This one.” She held up a yellow pot of oil that smelled like honeysuckles.  

It became a habit then, after dinner and before the stars shifted into position, for Darcy to cue up a movie on the laptop while Jane sprawled out on the floor with her research. Mostly, Darcy would hunt for loose feathers and shafts with her fingers. They laughed at the mess it made, and Darcy learned to keep a little vacuum close by to suck up the dust and chaff.

Sometimes she would bring out her jars to paint Jane’s feathers with a special brush to work the oils into each shaft.  Winged Ones had natural oil glands at the base of the spine, just under the tail feathers. The oil was used to coat the feathers to make them waterproof, and it was an incredibly intimate kind of touch to get the oil to express, one usually reserved for mates.  Darcy stuck to her little pots and brushes, though she saw Jane occasionally press her own hands over the glands and work the oil into particular feathers.  

Darcy found the process soothing, like knitting a blanket on a cold day.  She didn’t miss her knitting, for sure. (She had enough hats for a decade. Maybe two.)

Jane was appreciative of the attention, bringing Darcy tea or coffee in the mornings.  Sometimes she left small trinkets--a bracelet, a book, a piece of chocolate--on Darcy’s bed.  Courtesy of a bit of Internet research, Darcy found the little gifts were a polite ‘thank you’ for a preening and were associated with the nesting instincts Winged Ones sometimes had.  By the time Jane decided they needed backup for her studies, in the form of a senior astrophysicist named Erik Selvig, Darcy had a nice little hoard of goodies.  

It worked for both of them.  Darcy had something to do with her hands while learning about Winged Ones and their culture.  Jane--having never had a partner--luxuriated in having someone to cull through every last feather.  From the outside, Darcy understood why others might think she was at Jane’s beck and call-- especially when Darcy inevitably found tufts of feathers clinging to her clothes. But from the inside, Darcy had a new calm that gave her a leg up on her schoolwork and processing Jane’s data.  The sessions left both of them relaxed and solidified their friendship.

That solace served her well when the sky opened up to a god and his hammer.  The event brought in a secret government agency, jack-booted thugs, and a whole new understanding of the universe. Darcy was there with Jane as a front-row witness to it all.  

A man cried out the loss of his wings. When he staggered toward them--as if drunk--Darcy tased him.  Jane and Erik looked the man over, but there was no sign of the man ever having the ability to fly.

It was late that night when Jane beat frantically on the door of the office Darcy slept in to show her the words that had appeared on her forearm. “What is this?” Jane blurted.

“That’s a soulmark,” Darcy answered after she fumbled to put her glasses on.

“No, seriously, that’s what it says, ‘What is this?’ I know it’s a soulmark. But nobody gets soulmarks at my age.”

Darcy shrugged, happy for her friend. “You do like to be different.”

It wasn’t until they retrieved Thor the next day that Jane heard him speak to her for the first time, as she blushed when he held out the t-shirt with an ex-boyfriend’s name tag still on it.  Jane told Darcy later that Thor showed her the words written across his calf in Jane’s cramped printing, “Do me a favor, don’t be dead.”

Thor told her a story about his brother, their friend Freya, and the magic they’d cast upon Midgard. Then he told Jane that he’d carried her words since that fateful day, some four centuries ago. There was no missing the spark between Jane and Thor.  And when he redeemed himself in his father’s eyes after selflessly defending Midgard, his enormous red and black wings appeared.

“He’s got golden eagle wings,” Jane murmured when they appeared.  Darcy hugged herself, happy for her friend as she and Thor managed one brief flight before Thor disappeared into the heavens, promising to return.

Jane, Erik, and Darcy spent the rest of the day clearing rubble from the streets.  Darcy noticed the jack-booted thugs, also known as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, helping with the clean up.  

That night, Darcy tucked her heartbroken friend into bed.  “Hey, he said he’d come back,” she reassured Jane.  

Jane just shook her head sadly. “I’ve wings of a peregrine falcon, Darcy.  I’m faster than most anyone out there.  I always figured I’d have to slow down to fly with a mate.  But Thor, he’s a golden eagle. He can go anywhere I go.  I never thought I’d find someone to fly with me,” she said. “He has to come back,” she added plaintively as she knuckled away a tear, sniffling wetly.

“He said he waited four centuries for you, right?” Darcy insisted. “Pretty sure he’s not going to just up and disappear for good.”  Darcy stayed with Jane until her friend fell into an unhappy sleep, then took herself out into the tiny town to wander the streets alone.  

She needed the time to work through her envy. In a handful of days, Jane had gone from single and unmarked to soulbonded, even if Thor had bolted for parts unknown. It wasn’t Jane’s fault.  Sometimes the universe just worked in weird ways.  

Long used to the quiet nightlife of the tiny town, where only the bar stayed open past nine, Darcy was surprised to see the diner still open. It was clearly filled with men and women who didn’t quite fit in with the folk who lived here.  S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, likely, though none of them had any insignia to flaunt their affiliation.

Across the street, the poor excuse for a bar had far too many people leaning against the wall outside.  Thumping country music spilled out the door, and Darcy decided that was as good of a destination as any.  A couple of the locals waved to her, including the sturdy red-faced farmer she’d spent a few hours with two weeks ago when she’d been desperate for sexytimes. He’d been polite, had a sense of humor, and was randy enough to satisfy her for a spell.

She thought about joining him, but when she ordered her beer, a dark spot in the corner caught her attention.  If she wasn’t so familiar with the way Jane’s wings moved, she would have missed the small motion of feathers settling in place as a man shifted.

He was, she noticed, a seriously gorgeous blond specimen, even if he was shabby with the desert dust.  The scruff of a beard and a variety of nicks and scrapes here and there didn’t detract from his good looks and told of a long day cleaning up the little town.  He nursed his beer as he tapped at his cell phone.  

He looked a little familiar, if older, and Darcy’s heart skipped a beat.  

A country song that bordered on pop music started up and the single panel of dancing lights over the floor began to flash.  A stray white beam landed on the man. His dark feathers gleamed with a  purple shine.

Darcy picked up her bottle from the bar and had a short, vicious debate with herself as to whether or not she should approach the man.  The chances were slim that this was her soulmate, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to find out if she didn’t try.  She plastered on a smile and worked her way through the tables, keeping an eye on him all the while.  

He never looked up.

It was stupid, but Darcy didn’t have any better opening lines.  She leaned on his table, unhooking the feather from her hair and twirling it a little in front of him as she spoke. “I think you lost a feather.”

The man glanced at her hand and snarled, “If a feather is supposed to be good luck, I’ve got ten thousand reasons to call that a lie.”  He didn’t even look at her, just took another long swig of his beer and went back to tapping at his cell phone.  

Darcy’s mouth fell open in astonishment at his rudeness.

And then her soulmate used his left hand to scrape through his hair, and she saw the unmistakable golden wedding band resting on his third finger.  

She spun on her heel, dropping the bottle of beer on a table on her way out the door. It was only when she got home that she realized she still had his feather in her hand. She stuffed it in the side pocket of her purse and curled up on her makeshift bed to cry.

 

*****

 

With aching bones, itchy wings, a long bruise that stretched from thigh to rib, and a broken heart, Clint sucked down the better part of another beer that was about two past when he should have stopped.  The bar was blurry, in any case, but Sitwell had taken a stool on the far side, and Clint didn’t give a shit about anything at all. The world could burn down, and he’d still put an arrow wherever it needed to be.

His phone lit up with Nat’s latest rant over Stark, and hell, he owed it to her to listen. She’d put up with him all the way through the spiraling dissolution of his marriage.  Clint wondered if Natasha had ever ranted to anyone about anything before.  Probably not.  It was a first for them, and he was damned grateful for the distraction.  

Coulson had intercepted the finalized divorce decree three days ago--it wasn’t uncommon for handlers to hold back back news during a mission. He had delivered it this morning with a bottle of Jack and a promise to help kill it when Nat finished her op in a few days.  

Clint fiddled with his wedding ring.  He didn’t wear his ring on his missions, but he’d put it on this morning -- maybe out of habit; maybe out of desperate hope that Bobbi would magically change her mind. It didn’t matter now, did it?

The barmaid dropped off his bill on the next round, and he took that as a sign she was cutting him off.  Or Sitwell was. As she waited for the cash he dug out of his wallet, he remembered someone else standing near him--an hour ago? He couldn’t remember.  It didn’t matter. If they had spoken, he would have missed it. His hearing aids had taken a beating with all the dust in the air. With the noise in the bar and enough agents hanging around to have his back, he’d pulled them out on the first drink and stuffed them into his shirt pocket.

If the first few beers had been in homage to Bobbi, at least one had to do with one of the assets they’d been ordered to look after.  When they’d arrived in Puente Antiguo, Clint discovered the assets consisted of Foster, an astrophysicist with the wings of a falcon, and her assistant Lewis, a damned pretty brunette with a smart mouth. Lewis’s eyes were the color of a stormy sea, and even now, he could recall them with perfect clarity.  

On any given day, he would have sidled up to Lewis in a bar to do his fair share of looking. She had a way of sassing the higher ups that tickled his funny bone. But Clint had held out the vague hope of finding his match in Foster.  But beyond the fact the Winged One was hopelessly out of Clint’s league, no one could possibly miss Foster and Thor’s fascination with each other.  

With the gut punch from this morning, Clint wasn’t in the mood to take anyone home, not even for an easy fuck. He had a soulmate out there somewhere. At thirty-one years and a loose bit of change, he figured meeting them simply wasn’t going to happen.  

Bobbi hadn’t agreed.  She was jealous enough of Clint and Nat’s relationship and decided she couldn’t be married to someone with an unmatched soulmark. In truth, that was only a convenient excuse and they both knew it. There hadn’t been much more to their relationship than insanely great sex and a tendency to bar crawl whenever they were together. The fights had been less about their relationship and more about finding a way out than anything, but that didn’t mean Clint’s heart wasn’t fucking twisted up and stomped on.  

S.H.I.E.L.D. was the only home he had, and Natasha his best friend in every way that counted. Anyone who couldn’t deal with that didn’t have any business being with him.

He stood up, drained his beer, and shuffled to the motel where he was staying.  Coulson intercepted him just outside his door. “Need to you keep an eye on Foster and Lewis in the morning,” Coulson ordered. “Foster’s still annoyed at me, and Lewis didn’t seem to be in a good mood when she left the bar. We need those assets on our side before we finish cleaning up this mess.”

“Lewis was in the bar?”  

“According to Sitwell.  But Sitwell said he got distracted by, hmmm, some local scenery and didn’t notice when and why she left.  As no one was assigned to follow Lewis this evening, I don’t have better answers.”

“Somebody keeping an eye on them tonight?”

“Petrowski and McCord.” Coulson squinted at Clint. “Drink some water, Barton.  The hangover in the morning’s going to be hell.”

“Yes, sir.”

Just inside the door, Clint twisted off his wedding ring and stuffed it into his pocket.  He didn’t bother with a shower, just fell on the bed into a hard sleep full of strange dreams.

“They say a feather’s supposed to be good luck," Bobbi said with a teasing smile.

Bitterly, Clint answered, “If a feather’s supposed to be good luck, I’ve got ten thousand reasons to call that a lie.”

Foster and Thor took to the air. From the ground, Lewis followed their flight until they were too far away to see.  She glanced away, her eyes--the color of twilight--connecting with Clint’s by accident.  “I think you lost a feather,” she told him. And then she turned away altogether. Bobbi stood off to the side, arms crossed, expecting Clint to prove himself loyal to her yet again.  Natasha waited for Clint to pack his things.

When Clint woke in the morning with the prerequisite headache and foul taste in his mouth, it took him a good half hour to get his crap together.  The dream, half memory, half fanciful imaginings, bothered him more than he’d like to admit. Lewis said his words in the dream.  It unsettled him enough that he looked for her that morning.

He found her with Foster, and they were busy unloading the S.H.I.E.L.D. truck with Foster’s stuff, cramming whatever would fit into the Pinzgauer and stuffing the rest into the trailer.  As they worked, Coulson desperately tried to negotiate with both Foster and Selvig, walking, talking, and occasionally carrying something heavy when Lewis dumped something in his arms.  

Lewis didn’t seem to recognize Clint when he picked up one of the boxes to help.  She wouldn’t, of course. They hadn’t met yet.

Coulson failed miserably with Foster, and the two women trundled out of the desert well before noon. McCord and Petrowski followed at a discreet distance, but it was impossible not to be noticed on a hundred miles of nothing else on the road.  Selvig side-eyed Coulson, exchanging a ride to the airport for a promise to listen to Coulson’s offer.  

Clint got the job of driving Selvig to the airport.  That was fine; the long miles of empty desert echoed the hollow ache in his heart.

 

 

Chapter Text

8/Courage Happens Only in the Presence of Fear

 

Darcy had a long drive, first to Virginia to unload Jane’s equipment, and then to Kansas to go home for the winter break. She pulled up to her parents’ house, the gravel road crunching under her tires--and was startled to realize she thought of Culver as “home” now. Mama pushed open the screen door as Darcy shifted the car into park.  Dad was right behind Mama, his eyes sad even if his mouth stretched into a smile.

Darcy turned the car off, scrambling out of the car and into her parents’ arms.   She held on, one tight arm around each of them, hating herself for the hoping, for the jealousy that Jane had found a mate she wasn’t even looking for, for wanting where she had no right.  

“Come on, sweetie,” her dad coaxed. “Go with your Ma, and I’ll get your bags.”

 

The holidays passed quietly, with the three of them--as it always did. Darcy hadn’t known how isolated her little family was on their farm. Oh, they had people stop by the vegetable stand now and again during the day, and Darcy was happy to chat them up.  They sold jarred pickles, extra eggs, and honey in the winter.  Mama was pretty good at talking up the winter squash, too.  Dad was content to work the farm with a couple of hired hands who changed out now and again.  He only went to town when some part for the tractor was needed from the feed store, or for the occasional night out to movies with Mama.  

Agent Coulson sent Darcy and Jane identical emails with a short list of therapists recommended by S.H.I.E.L.D. who had clearance levels high enough not to be shocked by the events in New Mexico.  Evidently, this wasn’t the strangest thing S.H.I.E.L.D. had encountered, and that was enough to unsettle Darcy.  

She talked to one counselor, but quickly realized that she was far more upset by the encounter with her soulmate than the Destroyer. Thor seemed to have that one in hand, so Darcy wasn’t going to fret about it.  It was easier to focus on her jealousy toward Jane and put that to rest.  Though the therapist seemed willing to talk about anything under the sun, Darcy wasn’t ready to disclose her own Match and stopped after the second session.

She’d save that for Mama.  

Then again,  two days into the New Year, Mama’d had enough of Darcy’s sulking.

“Darcy Lewis, get out of bed, get dressed, and get downstairs. You missed breakfast, and I need help taking the tree down before you go back to school.”

Groaning, Darcy rolled over.  Her mama had an exasperated look on her face, one that rarely boded well for the other Lewises in the household. “Okay,” she grumbled.   

Dad had already carried all the storage boxes over from the garage. It was Darcy’s and Mama’s chore to put everything into them, then he’d set them up on the shelves again.  

“You’re staring,” Darcy chided her Mama.

“Wondering what’s on your mind. You’re never this quiet.”

Darcy’d had plenty of time to rage over her thoughtless soulmate. But she’d also had a lot of time to simmer down and think. “Do you think maybe that was it?” she wondered.  “That whatever we were supposed to get from having a soulmark has already happened?”

Charlene tilted her head, considering.  “Maybe. What did you learn?”

“I don’t know.  I sure don’t have the illusion of the One True Love like in the movies,” Darcy said quietly.

“Did you really expect that?” her mom asked.

“If I’m being brutally honest? Maybe.”  Darcy opened one of the empty boxes.  “I know the odds of that are practically nil--Jane was pretty straight with me about that. Winged Ones just don’t take mates who can’t fly.  But I thought we’d be friends.”  

Charlene hummed as she opened her own set of boxes.  “What do you want from your soulmate?” she asked.

Darcy picked up an ornament and tucked it into the box before she answered.  “I don’t know. Legend has it that the souls are cracked somehow.  The psychologists say that the people who are bound by the marks need something that they won’t find on their own.  Research shows that those who are Matched are happier and live longer than the Unmatched, but it’s never a guarantee.”

“So which are you now?”

“According to my advisor, I’m technically Matched.  He told me to put whatever I knew about my soulmate on the Rights Register. That way, if there’s ever a reason for someone to need verification, they’ll know what I know. Plus, if he ever figures out he was a jerk, he could--in theory--find me. Our words are officially linked, in any case.”

“How does that work?”  

“Kind of like an ‘in case of emergency’ contact.  Since I have words, the police or hospital can use them to find my soulmate. In certain cases, a soulmate can make medical decisions for a Match.”

Charlene wrinkled her nose. “Sounds like someone poking their nose in where they shouldn’t.”

But Darcy waggled her hand.  “The people who run the registry are all soulmarked, and the government honors the data.  I can always remove the information, but it’s a safe clearing house if my soulmate wants to get in touch with me. They’ll verify his claim against what I have on file before we meet again. And if he dies, someone will let me know.” Darcy picked up another swirled ball, one that she’d painted haphazardly when she was nine.  “The last part is why I signed up.”  

“It’s your mark, honey. But it doesn’t have to define you.”  

“No, I think my boobs give me more trouble.”

Charlene rolled her eyes. “I think you’ll figure those out eventually.”

Darcy glanced down at her DD cup breasts, wishing she was built a little more like Jane.  “Maybe.”

Mama tipped Darcy’s chin up.  “And?”

“So now we’ve met and Matched.  I guess I’m done.” Darcy threw up her hands. “Okay, enough.  Moving on. Where’s my iPod?”



When Darcy returned to Culver, she threw herself into her last semester, keeping herself distracted as she finished her schooling and interviewed for jobs after graduation.  Her roommates had moved into an off-campus apartment while Darcy had been in New Mexico, so she wedged another bed into New York’s bedroom. New York had a boyfriend, though, so Darcy spent a lot of nights sleeping on the couch or catching zzz’s in Culver’s library.

In March, S.H.I.E.L.D. offered her a position as an analyst. Erik, after hefty negotiations, had gone to work for them in January--somewhere California-ish was all she knew--but he was in the States, according to Jane. Darcy wasn’t sure she wanted to work for jack-booted thugs, but she didn’t throw the offer away either. Then again, no one in DC had any idea that one Darcy Lewis had anything to do with the “incident” in New Mexico.  With all the NDA’s she’d had to sign, she couldn’t even list it on her resume’.  

Darcy Lewis

Intern July 2011 to December 2011

Job duties include: assisting primary researcher with a broken heart.  Knows people who cannot be named.  Hacked DMV database and sort of got away with it.  Rescues dogs.  Also knocked out a political science thesis while babysitting complex astrophysical calculations.

Nope. That wasn’t going to fly.  

She and Jane exchanged a slew of texts, keeping each other appraised of their respective semesters, until just after spring break, when said primary researcher invited Darcy to dinner. Jane bought margaritas and nachos, though she lamented the quality of both in Virginia.

With a smirk, Darcy raised an eyebrow at the spread.  “You’re bribing me.”

“Uh huh,” Jane agreed as she scooped up a good portion of queso and beans on a chip.  “I got that grant you wrote up for me.”

“And?”

“I want you to work with me on a permanent basis.  It’s still grant money, so I’ll get a stipend that we can split.  Housing is covered.”  

“You want me to take another unpaid internship?” Darcy would prefer a regular paycheck, but hey, front row seats to intergalactic communications? The political scientist in her jumped for joy.  And maybe even squealed a little.

“It’s not an internship,” Jane countered.  “You’ll be my assistant to interplanetary transportation research.”  

“Without a paycheck.” Darcy jabbed a nacho in Jane’s direction.

“Well, yes. Sort of.”

Darcy pretended nonchalance as she waved the chip around before eating it.  “Internship,” she declared. “Okay, I’ll do it for a year. After that, I need real money.”  S.H.I.E.L.D. could totally keep.  They wouldn’t care if she got a little more experience with the new preeminent astrophysicist who would have her doctorate in another month.

“Deal.” Jane’s eyes positively sparkled.  “I work better when you’re around. You keep me organized.”

“Get a secretary.”  

“I don’t need a secretary.  I need someone who can translate what I do into highly persuasive English that explains the scientific and political advantages of continued research so I can get big grants, open a wormhole, and scare the crap out of the Earthlings.”

That I can do.”  

“I know.” Jane smirked.

Darcy grinned. She’d missed her friend.  “I love you too.  When do I start?”

“When’s graduation?”



The day after Darcy’s and Jane’s respective graduations, Jane got a call for a short stint in Tromsø, Norway.  A guest lecturer was needed for a summer program as the regular professor had a sudden emergency.  It was a prestigious position, came with a real paycheck, and Jane would be stupid to pass it up.

“There’s an allowance for staff,” Jane cajoled when Darcy complained about not getting paid.

“So I’m staff, now?” Darcy teased.  “That’s a full step up from intern.”

“Don’t let it get to your head. Are you in? They’re sending a private plane, and I’ll need to be ready to present by Tuesday.”

“I’m in.”

They spent the flight working up Jane’s lecture series.

Only twenty-four hours later, it was clear why Jane was in Norway.  Aliens--the kind from Independence Day, not Asgard --  dropped out of the sky over New York.  Darcy and Jane, like the rest of the department, huddled up around the one big TV, their cell phones, and their laptops.

“That’s Thor!” Jane hissed as her blond soulmate streaked into view with outstretched black, red, and gold wings.  “He came back,” she breathed.

“Maybe he knows the aliens?” Darcy quipped.  “And ten bucks says S.H.I.E.L.D. is behind your new job.”

Jane gave her a dark look.  “Seriously?”

“I didn’t say to give the money back,” Darcy retorted.  But she sat straight up when a dark-winged, blond flyer with a quiver on his back and a bow in his hands appeared on screen.  He banked once, wings arching to slow his speed, enough for her to  catch a flash of brilliant violet.  He had the same slightly scruffy look she remembered.  She wished she could see his eyes.

The long string of swear words that fell out of Darcy’s mouth made Jane’s eyes pop wide, though she only spared Darcy a tiny glance.

“Your soulmate?” Jane guessed. “You didn’t tell me he was a hawk.”  

“The Amazing Hawkeye was his stage name.” Inexplicably, she wanted to cry.  “Who else would have purple wings and carry a bow?” Her heart ached.  She pressed a hand to the middle of her chest.  

Jane looped her arm around Darcy’s, though neither of them dared take their eyes away from the television.  “You weren’t kidding about the color. You okay? I know people who can hit really hard.” She scowled at Thor on the television.  “At least I think I do,” she grumbled.

But Darcy shook her head to clear it.  “I’ve had seven months to deal. Not everyone wants a soulmate. I get that. If I could fly, I wouldn’t want somebody who’d keep me grounded.”  

Though Jane darted an apologetic look at her, Darcy deflected by pointing to the TV screen. “Hey, is that Tony Stark?” The notoriously brilliant genius made no secret about wishing he had wings.  He still didn’t have them, but he could fly now, courtesy of his Iron Man suit.  

“Think so,” Jane muttered.  “Where’s Thor?” She flipped TV channels, hoping to get a different angle on the battle. “Oh, there he is.” Thor seemed to be paired off with a blue-winged soldier. Back-to-back, they fought at street level, using their powerful wings as weapons as much as for flight. Thor seemed to have metal tips fastened to his primaries and made no bones about snapping them across the face of an enemy.  The man in blue bludgeoned an alien with the back of a wing, then smashed a recognizable shield into the middle of the alien’s head.

“Wow, that dude thinks he’s Captain America.” Darcy squinted at the screen. She flipped to Twitter on her laptop.  The news came faster and pictures were already popping up on her feed.  

“From the way he’s kicking ass, I think he IS Captain America,” Jane countered.

“You are such a nerd. I’ll bet you read all of the comics when you were a kid.”

“Who said I ever quit?” Jane retorted. “But Bucky Barnes was sexier.”

Studying the shield, Darcy decided her friend might be right about the Captain.  Then her soulmate came into view from a different camera angle, sending an arrow into a green-clad dude with a cape and a horned helmet. “Oh look, the villain of the day.” Silently cheering her archer, she added, “Bet that one hurt.”  

Her soulmate skimmed through the air with the grace of an acrobat, primary feathers flaring as he spiraled on a wingtip to loose an arrow at the aliens.  She couldn’t imagine how much strength it took to pull back the string on the recurve bow in flight, and she marveled that he could hit anything at all, much less with unerring accuracy.

There were others fighting alongside the three Winged Ones: Stark, the giant green Hulk that no one had seen since the disaster in Harlem (sheesh, did New York City have a target on it or something?), and a red-head woman wearing all black who apparently didn’t need wings to fight like an absolute badass.  

“I wanna be her when I grow up,” Darcy insisted. Jane didn’t reply, too busy flipping through the feeds to get better angles on Thor. Another camera on the TV zoomed out to show Iron Man going into the wormhole--and then it closed and the battle was over.  

Jane dug up Coulson’s number at S.H.I.E.L.D. to find out about Thor while Darcy sorted through dozens of phone videos that went up on YouTube and Twitter.  She was smart enough to download the interesting bits, because somebody--probably S.H.I.E.L.D.--blocked content as fast as they could find it.  It was a hacking contest, and Darcy wasn’t losing.   

By nightfall, she yanked her laptop off line and collated a fair amount of the fight--enough to satisfy Jane’s thirst for information on Thor.  Darcy got a couple of close up shots of her soulmate.  The tops of his wings were nearly black, but the undersides were brilliantly purple.  Darcy wondered if it was the dust from the battle, a trick of the light, or if it was all real.  He had that slightly scruffy bad boy look, with biceps and an ass that deserved to be appreciated purely on their own merits.  Older, with a few faint lines on his face, there was no doubt this was her archer from the circus.

Darcy firmly stepped on those thoughts.  He was married and definitely wasn’t interested in a wingless mate. Although, if she was being square with herself, she felt a tiny bit better knowing that the man was a soldier of some kind. He was good and maybe dedicated to the job.  Maybe she needed to be content with the fact he’d helped save the world.   Yeah, she could do that. He might not want a soulmate, but Darcy decided that there would be at least one person besides his spouse who cared whether he lived or died.

She unwrapped the feather from the silk scarf that protected it, dug in her cosmetics bag, and came up with the hair clip.  Once again, Darcy braided the short purple feather into her thick hair, just at the nape of her neck so that no one would see. It brought her a ridiculous amount of comfort to know it was there, and she was damned careful not to look too hard at the why of it all.

 

*****

 

“You have heart.  And I see you carry the mark of Freya.”

In that moment, Clint knew everything there was to know about soulmarks--a reminder that he was worthy of love.  Relief washed through him--

--only for Loki’s next words to take it away.  “It is a sad thing, I think, that you have met your soulmate and scorned her. But it is nothing. You are mine now.”

Any heartbreak washed away under the power of Loki’s scepter.  

 

Tilting his head against the tile wall, Clint let the shower rain down on his wings so the water would carry away the grit of the fight.  His head hurt, and he still imagined a blue tinge everywhere he looked.

Natasha sat on the bathroom counter, drying her hair, a Glock 26 resting by her knee.  This was part of their routine.  Cleaning up, patching up, and watching each other’s six until the adrenaline crash that was soon to come.  

This time though, Clint didn’t have the luxury of giving in to the fall.  He had thirty minutes to get cleaned up, and then the agents outside would escort him, first to Agent Hill, and then to Psych for a debrief that was sure to take days. Was it strange that he looked forward to it, needing to know that Loki was out of his head for good?

With an aching head--inside and out--Clint stood in front the warm blower, letting his feathers dry.  Down drifted all over the bathroom, swirling toward the vacuum in the floor.  He studied the broken primary on his left side.  He would have to imp a new feather in since that particular one wasn’t due to molt for another six months or so.  He could compensate in flight, but Clint didn’t stay fighting on wing that way.  

Then again, he might be grounded for good, and none of it would matter.  

As he dried off his body, he remembered every shot, every arrow he’d loosed. The strike team he’d led to take down the helicarrier.  The shots he’d fired at Fury himself.  And he tried to take Nat down.  Glancing at her, he knew the sheer amount of intel he’d disclosed was grounds enough to have him locked away for life.  His throat thickened as he wondered if this was his last moment under his own command.  He deserved whatever they did to him.

The urge to flee thrummed under his skin, and his wings shivered with the need to fly high and hard.   “I drew a knife on you. And Coulson--” he clamped down on the sob that threatened to escape.  He breathed hard, nostrils flaring with the effort to lock it all down.  “It was nice knowing you, Nat.”

Don’t ,” Natasha warned, her voice husky from the ash and dirt of the fight.  “Phil’s in surgery.  He’s going to pull through.  They won’t lock you up.”

“They will.”

She tilted her head, smiling whimsically--at odds with the horrors of the day. She did that sometimes just to fuck with him.  “You think I can’t get you out?”

He flicked her an annoyed look as he threw his towel in the basket and drew on fresh tac pants and a S.H.I.E.L.D. tunic shirt.  

Natasha wasn’t one for coddling, but she assured him, “Fury isn’t stupid.  This was nothing we ever trained for, Barton.” She lift a shoulder, teasing, “Besides, I got to hit you really hard a couple of times.  We’re good.”

When he opened his arms, she came easily, and maybe hugs were something they did now, because he needed to know she was there.  Not for the first time, he was glad his soulmate wasn’t dragged down by his crap. No one deserved it. He glanced in the mirror, as if he could see the writing on his hip through the fabric.   I think you lost a feather.  

That wasn’t all he’d lost.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

9/I’ve Got a Friend in You

 

The debrief with Hill and Fury made every other clusterfuck of an op look like a walk in the park.  Step by step, they took him from his first interaction with Loki until the moment Natasha hit him upside the head.  Clint knew the lives lost in Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S in New Mexico, in Stuttgart, and on the helicarrier were his fault.  Loki wouldn’t have succeeded without Clint’s intel.

But Fury leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed when they finished. “I’m gonna say this once, Barton. I trusted you with Selvig and to keep an eye on the Tesseract. You did that. You also understood that it was a doorway to space.  I missed that memo.  What stepped through that door was not on you .” Fury jabbed a finger in Clint’s direction. “That’s on me .”

Fury tapped the papers on his desk. “I wasn’t the one who returned fire when Loki shot at me, and I was there when Loki was on you before you could escape or counter his attack.  Even after he took control of you, you aimed for the Kevlar on my vest when I know damned well you would have made a headshot on anyone else. You stayed with the Tesseract throughout the mission. You missed Hill twice before the car chase, and then you made only one lousy shot on the wrong side of her windshield.  I’ve seen stormtroopers with better aim, Barton.”

Hill snorted in amusement as Fury continued. “You gave Loki intel on Romanoff on a cover she hasn’t used since it was blown in Munich five years ago. Then, you gathered a team of our enemies to attack the helicarrier.  Not S.H.I.E.L.D. agents for Loki to turn, but pretty much everyone on our shitlist with less than half a brain.  You could have put four arrows, one in each engine, to bring down the helicarrier. You used one, and you put it somewhere it could be fixed while we were still in the goddamned air . Last, you took a whole seven dumbass enemies of S.H.I.E.L.D., who had only a basic layout of the helicarrier to go on, split them up on two levels, and sent them against the best of us.  They were sitting ducks.

“You gave Loki just enough information for him to feel he had leverage over us. He underestimated what we could do at every turn. That’s on you , Barton.”

“I took out the second engine, too,” Barton reminded him.  

“Okay, now that one pissed me off. I lost a few good airplanes in that.” Fury sighed.  “Look, Barton, you did what you could under the influence of a god, just as Selvig did. As of right now, I’m classifying you as undercover for the duration of this op.  There won’t be any repercussions. Now, go see Coulson and get your head on straight with the shrinks.”

Dismissed, Clint wound through the hallways of the New York S.H.I.E.L.D. office, making his way to the hospital wing where Coulson was recovering.   Clint had trusted Fury so far, and damned if he got why the director wasn’t ready to roast him over a slow fire.  

In spite of the fact they were in the middle of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s New York headquarters, two guards were planted outside Coulson’s room, as if Natasha sitting in the chair beside his bed wasn’t enough.  She didn’t even bother to hide the Glock sitting next to her.

Coulson was awake, and apparently had been debriefed, because when Clint apologized, Coulson gave him a dirty look, a neat trick for a guy with a hole in his chest and the really good drugs.  

Natasha kicked Clint in the ass.  “Your turn to keep an eye on the boss. I need sleep. Can I borrow your bunk?” That was a joke that made Coulson’s eyes dance.  Whenever both Nat and Clint were in town, they split shift on a single bunk, neither of them interested in sharing with anyone else in the tight barracks.

“Don’t leave any knives in the sheets,” Clint told her. She holstered her weapon and strutted out the door with only a roll of her eyes.  

Coulson fell asleep again as Clint settled into the visitor’s chair with his feet propped up on the bed frame.

 

Clint would have spent his days helping his handler-turned-friend with his PT and recovery-- even as his own attempts to sleep were punctuated by blue-tinted nightmares-- but Stark decided his Manhattan skyscraper needed remodeling and insisted the “Avengers” needed to move in. He bandied about words like “team-bonding” and “security.” Clint didn’t really see how the latter applied, and sure as hell didn’t understand why he was invited, given that he’d only fought beside the man for half a day.  

But when Fury ordered both Widow and Hawkeye to keep an eye on the erratic billionaire with a penchant for getting himself in trouble, Clint wasn’t going to argue, especially when half of S.H.I.E.L.D. still couldn’t decide if he was a hero or a traitor to the cause.

Natasha bolted the moment Coulson was moved to rehab somewhere “not New York.” Clint took the time to clear out his storage locker.  He packed his bow case and two duffel bags, then caught a taxi for the short trip. Though he could fly for miles, he couldn’t haul more than a hundred pounds or so, and not for very long.  

The security team at the front desk of Stark Tower directed him to a hidden bank of elevators. There, the guards showed him the two private entrances that Stark himself used, and then they stepped out of his way.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Barton,” a British voice in the elevator announced. “I am JARVIS, the artificial intelligence who runs this building. I am responsible for the security and comfort of the residents.”

Clint nodded, not bothering to look around for cameras as the car zipped upward, but he itched knowing he was under surveillance.  How was he supposed to live like this? But he didn’t have time to get too anxious, because the elevator stopped, opening the doors to reveal a living space like nothing he’d seen before.

“Welcome to the Aerie, Mr. Barton,” JARVIS said.

Clint had seen luxury, even slept in it a time or two. But his mouth fell open as he took in the the Aerie at the top of Stark Tower.  Ten floors, all windows, the length and width of a whole city block, with apartments lining one side, each with a wide landing.  An enormous “tree” stretched up one corner, the branches holding platforms with sofas and nooks.  A waterfall trickled down the length of the Aerie, splashing into a pool below.  Clint would be able to stretch his wings--safe from storms and enemies--whenever he wanted.  There were junctions in the tree branches where he could hole up and watch the entire Aerie.

The kid who’d slept on bunks and couches and in elephant trailers for his entire life spun on his heel to leave.  He had one foot in the elevator when Natasha appeared. She ducked under his arm to block his path and nudged him back onto the floor.  He tightened his fist around his bow case, hitching the strap higher on his shoulder.  “I can’t live here, Nat.”

She picked up one of the duffle bags and started walking.  “That’s too bad, because I’m staying in your apartment. It’s nice. You should see it.”

Knowing Nat would abscond with anything she liked in his luggage if he didn’t tag along, Clint stayed close.  “Didn’t Stark offer you your own floor?”

She lifted a shoulder. “I like your view better.”

“How do you know? Stark hasn’t even told me which one is mine?”

“Top floor, of course.”

“Not Captain America?”

“Steve didn’t want it; he took the one under yours. Thor’s not around to argue. Bruce wanted the ground floor.  Stark’s got his own penthouse already, so I called dibs for both of us. Stark complained, because he likes the symmetry of six Avengers and six floors, but he’ll deal.” She pointed to the elevator on the far side.  

The doors opened into a tiny foyer that led to a second set of doors--creating a space where Stark’s people could deliver food or packages without having to go inside the apartment. It was a little claustrophobic, but JARVIS opened the doors for entry without being prompted.  

“Is that safe?” he asked Natasha.  “I kind of like locking my own doors.”  

“It’s JARVIS. You’ll get used to him.”  

He forgot his question when he got a good look at his new apartment.  Clint had seen Japanese-style homes with low furniture and screens that could be pulled here and there to create privacy as needed. In this case, thick, frosted glass panels slid on overhead tracks. For now, they nominally delineated a pair of bedrooms, an eating area with a table and stools designed for Winged Ones, and a couple of living areas.  There were two en suite bathrooms, a half bath for guests, and a full kitchen.  Bamboo floors cushioned his footsteps.  Leather furniture meant his feathers wouldn’t stick.  Nat pointed out small suction vents tucked into the baseboards that would inhale the inevitable detritus that all Winged Ones shed.  

One bank of windows overlooked Manhattan; the other into the Aerie.  Clint fell a little in love with the space and had to swallow down his enthusiasm, reminding himself it was only temporary. “Don’t think I’ve ever had a kitchen of my own before,” he mused to Nat. He liked to cook. He wasn’t good at it, but there was something about assembling something to eat that had an appeal.  

“Barton, everything you own fits in those duffel bags,” Nat quipped.  Natasha, on the other hand, could whip up a souffle that never fell--and she despised the kitchen.  Just one more thing the Red Room had fucked up for her.  She’d eat whatever Clint made though, even if she had to pick out crunchy eggshells.

She dropped his duffle bag in the middle of the floor.  “My bedroom is the one on the right. Oh, and be nice to JARVIS. He runs the place.”  

“Do I need to be worried?”

“JARVIS has more sense than Stark.”

“Huh.” Clint unpacked his few things into the other bedroom, though he kept a bug out bag handy by the door.

Over the next few days, he learned his way around the Aerie and the facilities Stark built for the Avengers.  Captain Rogers moved in. Banner seemed like he’d been here for ages.   They all made good use of the fitness facility and the firing range. By the end of the first week, though, Rogers had a list of modifications for equipment upgrades, and Stark happily flitted around the Tower making changes.  

Clint took his turn in both, figured out how to stock groceries, and admittedly spent a fair amount of time in the tree, watching the others come and go.

It was the closest to true peace he’d ever had, and he would treasure it, for however long it lasted.  

Banner spent the morning on the Aerie terrace meditating.  It wasn’t unusual for him to make sun-tea that he left in the communal kitchen before going to Stark’s lab.  Natasha split her time between the gym and the squishiest sofa in the living room she shared with Clint. He could see her ballet dancing in there sometimes, if he sat in just the right place on the highest branch of the tree.  She knew he was there, but he’d stay put until she was done.  

For all that Captain America had a larger than life persona, Steve Rogers either holed up in his apartment or wandered about New York alone with his sketchpad in hand.  The man was a ghost in his own skin.  He didn’t talk much to anyone at all, but Clint recognized grief when he saw it--though whether Rogers was mourning a person or a whole life was anyone’s guess.

Stark had an annoying tendency to round everyone up for impromptu parties or movie nights or dinner.  It was at one of the dinners that Clint met Pepper Potts. Barring Natasha, Pepper was the most politically savvy person he’d met.  He wouldn’t admit to being intimidated by her competence in damned near everything--tech, people, managing Tony. The Avengers didn’t scare her in the slightest.  Clint knew Natasha liked the woman, but it was easy to see Pepper liked Natasha as well. The two women settled into a tight friendship, and damned if Clint wasn’t a little green-eyed in envy.

Natasha picked up on it, of course. and after yet another night where Clint paced the floors after a bad dream, she shuffled into his bedroom, wearing her pink pajamas that covered her from ankle to elbow.

“Get in bed,” she ordered.  

He plopped on the edge.  

“Scoot.” She wiggled her fingers so that Clint moved to the left side of the bed.  Natasha crawled under the covers, mumbling to JARVIS about turning off the light.  Clint stretched out on his stomach, tucking his wings firmly against his back.  They both knew the drill.  They didn’t cuddle, but it was a comfort hearing each other breathe.

It was easier to talk in the dark.  “He said I’ve already met and scorned my match, Natasha.”

“Loki’s an ass.”

“He showed me how the magic works.  That it came from Asgard.  What if--”

“Don’t.” Nat pressed a hand to his wrist. “Loki knows how to get in your head.  They don’t call him the ‘Trickster God’ for nothing. You have a soulmark for a reason.”  

“Don’t need it,” he complained.  “We’re weapons.  You’ve always said ‘love is for children.’ I think you’re right.”

Natasha didn’t say anything to that, but she shifted her hand to cover his.  Clint slept through the night, and all the other nights his friend graced his bed.  

 

 

There were other benefits to living in the Tower.  Stark dragged Barton’s ass out at oh-dark-fuck on a Tuesday, insisting Clint bring his cache of weapons. With coffee in one hand, he shuffled into Stark’s lab.  Banner was there, poking at a variety of screens as Clint set down his bow case and one duffel.  

Stark rubbed his hands and wiggled his fingers.  “Come on, Cupid. Bring me your favorite bow.”

“No,” Clint grumbled.  

As if he hadn't heard, Tony continued. “I want to scan it. See why you like it so much. Then we’re gonna make it perfect."

"I never miss.”

With an annoyed frown, the mechanic rolled his eyes.  “Coulson told me once that your aim is only impeded by your equipment. If I know how and why your bow works, I can make arrows to work with it." 

Huh.  “Okay. Don’t fuck it up though. I've made a lot of modifications to it.”

“JARVIS, bring up visual for the garage in Malibu.” A panoramic image appeared with all of Stark’s cars lined up, each one as glossy and shiny as the next. Stark dropped his chin to glare at Barton.  “I fuck up your bow, you get to pick which car you want to break. And I really like my cars.”

Clint sucked at his coffee, laying his bow down in front of Stark without a word.  It was a fair trade.

 

Fury gave them a month to settle in, but not a day more.  As Clint saddled up for his next mission, with Rogers in on this one, Clint decided that if he had problems with an alien god invading his brain, his newly defrosted teammate made him look well-adjusted. Once Rogers discovered Peggy Carter was a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D., he’d signed up. According to Fury, Cap would be a commander, pulling in the people he needed for a job, though Fury said he’d be working with Rumlow and the S.T.R.I.K.E. team for the most part.  Clint didn’t like Rumlow, but the man did his job.

Given Rogers’ well-documented temper, Clint and Nat made private bets on how long it would be before Rogers clocked Rumlow.  

The mission went off without a hitch.  Afterward, Rogers tapped in both Barton and Romanoff on a regular basis, Stark on occasion, Banner only rarely,  and Clint began to appreciate the Captain as a team lead.  The man was brilliant in his planning, didn’t waste talents, and best yet, didn’t question Hawkeye’s abilities. When Clint said he could make a shot, Rogers would lay a crisp twenty on it.

It was almost as good as having Coulson in his ear.  

Rogers warmed up to Barton once they compared Army notes, but Rogers still tended to be a loner off op. Nat did a better job of getting the man to come out of his shell. She had a sly sense of humor that only came out around those she liked--and apparently Rogers had joined that select group.

But Natasha made no bones about the fact she only trusted Clint on her six, whether in the field or a safe house.  During an op in Mexico, Clint found a pretty necklace with an arrow on it. He left it on Nat’s bed, figuring it would never see the light of day.  She rarely took it off, and this time, if the rumor flew about their relationship, he decided he didn’t give a damn.  Natasha was his safe haven.  

Whenever Clint was off op, he crashed at the Tower.  It still wasn’t home, but it wasn’t a bad place to land either.

 

*****

 

Darcy sat on the back of the sofa in Ian’s apartment as they rummaged through the remains of their relationship.  There wasn’t much left.  In the wake of the Convergence, Darcy had tried to distract herself with an honest run at a something that was more than a hookup. The fact that Thor was here to stay had everything to do with both the relationship and the split.

Jane and her Asgardian soulmate made a ridiculously romantic couple. She split her time between analyzing data and flying with Thor on the outskirts of London.  

The moment Darcy left the lab each day, she’d done her best to make herself scarce and to find a new hobby.   Ian had been the answer.  They’d had fun exploring London and each other, and if they shared the occasional nightmare about the Dark Elves, at least they had company.

Three months in though, it was apparent that whatever they had wasn’t for the long haul, and when Jane asked Darcy to move to New York with her, there was relief on both sides.  

But endings still sucked.  

Ian reached under Darcy’s hair to flip out the feather she still wore. He knew the story. “I wish you luck,” he told her.  

“Just be glad you don’t have a mark. One less complication,” she said as she rose to her feet.  Following impulse, she gave him one last kiss on the lips.  “Thank you.  Maybe this didn’t work, but if you’re in New York, I’ll buy you coffee.”  

“Fair enough.”  Her ex-boyfriend raised his hand in a wave good-bye as she slipped out the front door.

Darcy left Ian’s feeling lighter than she had since New Mexico.  

 

She spent two weeks with her parents before setting up shop in New York.  Jane met her in the lobby of Stark Tower and took her upstairs to the residential quarters--not the part where the Avengers lived, but there was a portion of the upper floors set aside for some of the VPs and researchers.  Darcy got one of those apartments.  

“Jane? I know you promised me housing if I kept working for you, and this pretty much makes up for living at your mom’s in London, but how did you manage this ?”

With a snort, Jane set her hand on the the biometric keypad to open the door. “Each lab comes with a residence. I’m moving in with Thor, hence an empty apartment.  Ergo, yours. But JARVIS will give you access to the Aerie anytime you want. Put your hand on the pad so JARVIS can scan it.”

Darcy did, the pad blinked happily, and a moment later, they stepped into Darcy’s new digs. Fully furnished, with million-thread- count sheets, heated towel racks, and, holy shitballs, it was all hers.  Two small bedrooms, a living area, a kitchen and breakfast area, and an office. For Manhattan--or London, for that matter--it was positively huge.  Or maybe it was just the prospect of living alone that made her giggle.   Darcy was all agog as she peered out the window to see Manhattan.  “Who is JARVIS and what’s the Aerie?”

Jane pulled Darcy into a quick hug.  “Later. Get settled in. One of Pepper’s PAs will come get you at six for the party at Tony and Pepper’s place. If  you need anything at all, just tell the PA.”

The PA was prompt. Darcy was introduced to JARVIS, the security AI, and found herself in Stark’s penthouse. Feeling like the country girl dazed by the big city lights, Darcy couldn’t decide whether to press her nose to the windows or wander around trying not to touch all the pretties.   

The penthouse glittered with shiny glass and stone that shone in the low lights. There were interesting sculptures and bold paintings for color, and low slung leather sofas that beckoned one to curl up with a good book. A small team of discreet staff circled among the guests with food and drink, ready to serve every need.

Jane and Thor welcomed her with kisses and hugs.  By the time Thor let Darcy come up for air, Tony Stark had appeared to one side.

“Tony.” He stuck out his hand, flashing a professional smile when she took it. “You’re Darcy Lewis. Foster’s Minion.” That wasn’t a question.   

Darcy started to argue, then shrugged. She turned to her friend. “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”

“Same thing we do every night, Pinky,” Jane replied solemnly, tucking her hands behind her back. “Try to take over the world.”

Startled, Tony barked a laugh, echoed by Thor, who’d seen their schtick before.  “You know, that’s perfect,” Stark said. “I like you. You can stay. I’m stealing her, Foster.  You might not get her back.”

To Jane’s sharp, “Hey!” he tucked Darcy’s arm into his elbow and began introducing her to the other guests. First up, CEO Pepper Potts.  

“Hello, Miss Lewis. How are you finding New York?” Pepper was pretty much everything Darcy wanted to be when she grew up, and damned if she wasn’t absolutely intimidated.  

But Darcy gave Pepper a warm smile as she took Pepper’s proffered hand. “Give me a day or two and I’ll get back to you. But I’m a fan of the new accommodations.” She dropped a quick look to Pepper’s feet. “I have instant shoe envy, and I’d love to pick your brain about the political ramifications of having a woman in charge of the top clean energy development company in the world as direct competition to the male-dominated oil, coal, and gas sector which believes this earth should be exploited for our own use. There’s a subsection in there about entitlement versus endowment and the ability of women to discern the difference, much in the way the Native Americans view the conservation of resources for the next seven generations.”

Pepper let a tiny smile out, her eyes positively twinkling.  “Keep that up and I’ll put you in our PR department.”

But Darcy shook her head.  “I just defended my Masters, and I’ll start Columbia in January for my PhD. My dissertation focuses on intergalactic business opportunities and what we have to do to prepare to trade on a galactic scale, given the cultural and physical barriers we’ll have to overcome.”

Tony and Pepper exchanged an interested look, and Stark huffed. “First dibs, kid, when you graduate. Anything S.H.I.E.L.D. offers, I’ll double it.” He herded her toward another scientist named Bruce Banner, introducing him as a fellow Culver alumni.  Darcy promptly dragged him over to meet Jane. It only took a couple of minutes for the two doctors to begin comparing notes on projects and cooing over people they knew.

Amused by her candor, Tony led Darcy around to the others-- next up, his best friend Colonel James Rhodes, who’d been swapping stories with Thor. Rhodes had a suit like Tony’s.  

“Hello, Miss Lewis.”

“Darcy.  And apparently I need to take notes. I understand you’re an expert at wrangling mad scientists?”

Rhodes grinned.  “That I am.”  

“Excellent. I have one who dodges my best efforts on occasion.”  

“That comes with the territory, I think, but I can show you a few pointers.”  

“Ah, no,” Tony pouted, steering her into another introduction.  “Rhodey does not need collaborators.”

This time, Darcy discovered she was heading toward none other than Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.  She couldn’t take her eyes off his wings as they drew closer.  

Stark noticed. “Got a wing fetish?” he needled. “Or is it a fascination for the captain?”

“My soulmate is a Winged One. Don’t ask; didn’t work,” Darcy retorted. “But it’s hard not to appreciate a nice set of feathers.”

Tony chortled. “She says to the man who wanted to fly so much he built a suit.”

“I want to talk to you about that,” she drawled. With another laugh, her host walked her to the bar where the Captain was stirring a short glass of something amber and ice.

Good grief, the Captain’s plumage was gorgeous.  Deep azure alternated with beryl blue, and yet… sheesh, he needed a pampering. Little feathers stuck out everywhere--all of them needing a good oiling.  Her fingers twitched to touch, but she only held out her hand.  

Tony made the introductions as Steve took it.  “Captain, this is Darcy Lewis, Dr. Foster’s assistant. Darcy, Captain Steve Rogers.”  

She threw the Captain a saucy grin and a wink. He ducked his head, giving her a smile that wavered between USO and resigned--though the last part appeared to be directed at Stark.  “Steve, please.”

“I’m off. You two have fun.” Flicking a pair of fingers at Darcy, Tony said over his shoulder to Rogers, “Warning: she flirts.”

“Worse than you?” Steve quipped dryly.  

“Not possible.” Tony kissed Darcy on the cheek and wandered off, to Pepper, if Darcy wasn’t mistaken.  

“So, Captain, what do I need to know?” Darcy had a hard time looking him in the eye.  She was distracted. Utterly.

“Steve,” he insisted again as he raised an eyebrow, noting where her gaze went.  “Guess wings don’t bother you.”  

“Only if you don’t let me play with them,” she said lightly.  “Now that Thor’s around, Jane’s busy. If you want a good oiling, I’m free.”  

The offer took the man by surprise.  “I don’t … I don’t know. I didn’t think anyone would notice.” The super soldier’s faltering tone and unhappy flutter of his wings told her so much. She’d put money that Rogers had a partner at one time and didn’t quite know how to function without one.

“Friends only,” she held her hands out and open.  “I’ve got a winged soulmate.”

The relief in his expression was immediate, the tips of his wings flaring. “Oh?”

Darcy lifted a shoulder with nonchalance.  “Didn’t work. Doesn’t mean I don’t like being around Winged Ones. I’ve had a lot of practice with Jane.”  

Steve tilted his head, considering. “And now that Thor’s here, you don’t want Jane to know how much you miss her feathers.”

Smart guy. “Got it in one,” Darcy agreed.  “So, the offer is there if you don’t have anyone better on hand.”  Deliberately veering the conversation in another direction, she prompted, “What’s good to eat in this place?”

“I’d tell you if I could recognize any of it,” Steve said drily.  “Did I mention I’m craving a burger?”

“If you’ll leave me a couple of cheese fries, I’m in.”  

A shy smile lit up Steve’s face. “Cheese fries are on my list of swell things about this century,” he said, with a touch of Brooklyn in his words.  

“You know a good place?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m from the boroughs, doll. Of course, I know a place.”

Darcy just laughed as she picked through the offerings on the table. Over canapes and Tony Stark’s bar, Steve Rogers and Darcy Lewis took their first steps to becoming friends.  She found his humor to be wickedly sharp, his flirting needed work, and she was reasonably sure they were doomed to be excellent BFFs. Her heart simply didn’t go pitty-pat when he flashed that gorgeous smile at her.

At one point, Darcy pulled Steve into a conversation with Jane, who had yet to let go of Thor’s hand.  Jane’s feathers rippled in greeting, and Steve echoed her movement, though with less finesse--as if the courtesy was either newly learned or forgotten somehow.  The three Winged Ones didn’t need long to fall into a detailed discussion about the air currents of London vs Manhattan, and how both had changed since the 1940’s.

Darcy listened, fascinated by details of flight that she didn’t know before.  Stark sidled up to her, drawing her a short distance away for a private conversation.  “How long have you and Foster been friends?”

“Two years.”

“Long enough to learn how to read the body language of a Winged One,” he mused. “I’ve known Rogers for half that.  Never seen him relax. But you did it in ten minutes.  How?”

She arched a curious eyebrow. “Why ask? You’ll just watch the videos later.”

“Not enough intel,” he retorted.

She didn’t quite understand how anyone could miss the fact that the Captain was still grieving his mate. Then again, she’d seen how Jane reacted to her missing soulmate.  But it wasn’t her place to share if others couldn’t figure it out. So she winked instead. “My secret.” Darcy rested her hand on Tony’s arm though, leaning close enough to say softly, “I can tell you he needs friends.”

Satisfied, Tony patted her hand. “I like you, Lewis.”

“It’s a good thing, since I’m squatting in Jane’s apartment while she shacks up with Thor.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed.  

 

When JARVIS admitted Darcy to the Aerie the next morning to meet Jane for breakfast, it was Steve who handed her a cup of truly excellent coffee and showed her around. (The text and apologies from Jane came later, but Darcy hadn’t really expected her friend to come up for air too early.)

“This is, like, totally banana balls, Rogers,” she breathed. The top ten floors of the Tower were fully encased in glass. One enormous tree (real? fake? she couldn’t tell) twisted up through one side, lending shade throughout the structure. Landing pads--perches, really--dotted the tree at various levels.

Steve looked up, as if seeing it all for the first time. “Yeah, it’s enough to get me dizzy.” He glanced at her slyly, to see if she caught the vernacular.

She sniffed. “Point, Darcy, Point, Steve.  First one to trip up the other on slang wins. Loser buys cheese fries.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal, lady.” They shook on it, and Steve gave her another one of those shy, but oh-so-real smiles that she would bet he didn’t share with just anyone. He held out his arm, and Darcy took it so that he could give her the rest of the tour.

There was room enough for even Steve to stretch his wings.  He told her that on pretty days, JARVIS would rotate the enormous, vertical glass windows to open the Aerie for flight. Steve’s wings were broad enough he had to fly in sideways, but he didn’t mind.

“Which one is yours?” she asked, admiring the waterfall that streamed down the full length of the Aerie to drain into a series of bathing pools.  Jane was going to love those, and there was nothing funnier than seeing a soaking wet Winged One.  Sort of like a wet cat on a good day.  

“I’m up on the left, second from the top. Thor and Jane are just below me,” he answered as he led Darcy to the enormous rocks that dotted the edges of the pools. Sunlight streamed in, lighting up the grotto.

Darcy squinted to see past the rays of sunlight as she tilted her head back. The living quarters were cleverly tucked into one side of the Aerie to maximize flight space. Another apartment ran along the ceiling above Steve’s, and Darcy wondered if it belonged to her soulmate.  But she didn’t know how to ask without having to spill her secrets. She wasn’t ready for that yet, but she wondered.

She realized something else as she walked. “Why is the floor squishy?” She bounced on it a couple of times.

“It’s made of recycled tires,” Steve told her. “The give is easier for landing.  The rocks on the pool are made out of the same stuff. It’s comfortable, waterproof if it rains, and according to JARVIS, easy to clean.”

“JARVIS? I thought he was security?”

“JARVIS is the building’s AI. Kind of like a concierge, an alarm clock, and a meddling uncle all-in-one.”

“I resemble that remark,” a disembodied voice answered.  “Welcome to Stark Tower, Ms Lewis. When you return to your quarters, we will become better acquainted.”

“Sure thing, J.” Tickled by the prospect of making friends with an AI, Darcy parked herself on one of the rocks to kick off her shoes. She dunked her feet into the water, finding it cool enough to be refreshing.  “So, Captain, do you shower here often, and when is the next show?” she teased. “I want to pencil it into my appointment book.”

Steve laughed. “I do sometimes. The waterfall is great.”  He stuck his hands in his pockets, giving her a boyish shrug. “Guess I’ll have to learn to share now that Thor and Jane are here.”  

“Or enjoy the view,” she retorted.  

“Or that,” he agreed, as pink touched his handsome cheeks.  She laughed at her new friend, and Steve ran his fingers through his hair with a bashful grin.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

10/A Touch of Heart

 

Over the next few weeks, Jane and Darcy set up the lab the way they wanted, all while Darcy finished making arrangements to attend Columbia after the holidays.  Steve played escort as she trekked to and from the university. This time, he insisted they don sunglasses, jackets, and hats for the trip.  

She eyed his leather coat. It was cut to camouflage his wings, something she didn’t even know was possible. The duster compressed his plumage against his back, and his primaries fit along the line of the leather around his long legs. Only someone paying attention would notice the feathers poking out at his ankles.

She didn’t mind the discretion, but she was curious. “I get why you don’t want to be noticed, but why me?”

“Your job. Where you live. It all makes you a target. A fairly low-level one, no offense, but we don’t want the paparazzi figuring out your class schedule,” Steve said as he fitted a Mets ballcap to his head. He hadn’t bothered shaving this morning either, and the little bit of scruff was sexy as hell. “You know, Stark will provide a car and driver,” he mused.

But Darcy put her foot down. “Low-key lackey, remember? No. It’s a thirty minute walk, not a cross-country trek.”

Captain America crossed his arms, aiming a hard look at her with those sharp blue eyes. “Then you get a bodyguard.”  

Um, yup. The history boosks totally got the part right about Cap’s determination. She wasn’t going to win this one.  “Okay, hat, sunglasses, hunky bodyguard, done. But I’m not getting delivered to school three times a week by a car service.” Darcy paused, adding, “Unless it’s raining. I’m not taking the subway when it’s raining.”

“Deal. Ready to go?”

Darcy eyed him suspiciously. “You threw out the Stark car thing so I’d settle for a guard.”

“Uh huh.” He grinned, and just like that, Steve was back to the guy from Brooklyn.  

It was clear he was a native New Yorker, no matter the decade, as he skirted and flowed with the masses of people. After the second time she’d gotten trapped in a crowd and gone the wrong way, he firmly clamped a hand to hers, keeping her in his wake as he navigated. When he delivered her successfully to the admissions office, she let out a whoop that made him roll his eyes, but he happily devoured the cheese fries she bought him later in gratitude.  

Jane, Thor, Steve, and Darcy became a fast foursome, and if the tabloids linked Darcy and Steve together, neither of them cared.  Jane and Darcy had far too much fun introducing the guys to Modern Midgard, as they called it.  Thor could ask whatever questions he wanted, and Steve reminisced about his home time without censure. Darcy had fun comparing the old with the new, while Jane laid out the practical aspects of various tech and how it came to be.

On their walks about the city, Darcy heard a lot about Steve’s best friend, Bucky.  It wasn’t hard to draw a conclusion or two about their relationship, though nothing was ever said for certain, and Darcy didn’t press.

 

In spite of the easy friendship they developed, Steve didn’t take Darcy up on her offer for a good while.  It was only after Thor took a short stint to Asgard that Steve understood what Darcy offered was a no-strings-attached preening.

Jane stress-molted practically the moment Thor left. It was one of the rare times she outright pleaded Darcy for help.  

Stark had set up a space for this--of course--not too far from the lowest bathing pool on the ground floor. The whole Aerie was equipped with its own HVAC system to capture the feather dust and down, and there was an area tucked under the “tree” with a top-shelf entertainment system, a full kitchen, several leather chairs and sofas of various styles for the winged and non-winged, along with a whole cabinet full of the latest feather care products. Darcy promptly dubbed it “the Nest,” and the name stuck, even after Stark pointed out that “aerie” and “nest” mean the same thing.  (“You have yours; I have mine,” she quipped.)

But even though the Nest was fully stocked, Darcy brought her own kit while Jane stretched out on her stomach.

As the movie played--Men in Black--Darcy was conscious of Steve watching her while she worked through Jane’s plumage. If the pained longing in Steve’s eyes didn’t give him away, the droop of his wings did.  

Darcy was methodical, taking her time to seek out loose feathers and shafts in Jane’s plumage to gently work them free. Whenever she ran across a dry one, she’d dip a brush into a pot of rose-scented oil to work it into the feather.  Darcy didn’t need a lot of tools for this, just her fingers, the brush, and a lot of patience.  

Jane sighed happily when she finished. “I don’t feel like one giant mosquito bite now.”

“I got the dry ones. Want me to oil the rest?”

“No. I think I can last until Thor gets back,” Jane decided. “But I will take a quick dip in the pool.”

A couple of small robots trundled through the space, vacuuming up feathers and dust as they went.  Darcy was charmed as she packed up her kit. “Oh, perfect. No wonder the Aerie is so clean.”

“Stark’s more like his dad than he’d like. He thinks of everything.” Steve offered, pinking as Jane shed clothing as she walked to the waterfall. “Want to round up snacks with me?” he asked in a slightly choked voice.

Darcy groaned. “I don’t wanna walk that far.” (The communal kitchen was a whole ten feet away.)

“Come with me. I’ve got popcorn, and we can give Jane privacy.” He flushed darker at that, and Darcy concealed her wayward grin at his discomfort.  Jane didn’t give a flip about nudity. Darcy wondered what would happen the first time Steve stumbled across Thor and Jane in the pool--then again, maybe he already had.

Darcy headed toward the elevator, but Steve stopped her with a hand on her wrist and a hint of daring. “Want a ride?” He jerked a chin upward, challenging her to say no.  

“Seriously?” she laughed.  “Duh. How do we do this?”

“Put your arms around my neck.” Darcy did, and Steve scooped her up bridal style.  He flapped his broad eagle wings a few times to get them off the ground, then made hard downsweeps to push them into the air.  She laughed as he flew them to the top of the Aerie before gliding in to land on his balcony below.  He touched down as if taking one last step, and let her down softly.  

“Okay, it’s official, you rock, Rogers!” 

Steve brightened, and for a few moments, his eyes weren’t haunted at all.  

His apartment was neat but spare, as if he’d been afraid to put a personal touch to the place.  A handful of framed drawings hung here and there.

Darcy totally got that part, but given that she’d lived in dorm rooms, she was an expert at transforming a blank space into her own.  She picked up a drawing off a bookshelf. “Is this your mom?”

“Yes.” Steve flicked a glance at the picture as he rummaged for a grocery sack.  

“She’s beautiful. You look like her.”

“You should have seen me before the serum.”

“Got a picture of that?”

Setting a bag on the counter, Steve retrieved another portrait from his bedroom and handed over. Two boys smiled for the … artist? camera?” Darcy didn’t know.  

“Bucky and I had photos taken at Coney Island. Don’t have ‘em anymore, but--”

“You have an eidetic memory,” Darcy recalled. “So you drew it.”

“I drew it,” he agreed. He pulled a loaf of bread out of the bread box, carefully not looking at the sketch. “There’s cheese and fruit in the icebox.”

Darcy wanted to ask if Bucky was his mate, but remembered that same-sex pairings hadn’t always been accepted. In any case, Steve clearly didn’t want to talk about it.  “You’re right. You do look like your mom. Good thing she was pretty,” she said instead.

That got a chuckle, and together, they loaded up snacks and drinks in a pair of canvas bags. Darcy strapped one to each shoulder. Steve picked up her and the bags all at once. He spiraled down the Aerie, landing with a light touch and instantly relieving her of their goodies. They found Jane with damp feathers, happily sprawled out--dressed!--and waiting so they could finish the movie.

As weird as it sounded, Darcy loved the smell of freshly washed feathers. Slightly musky, as if someone overloaded on the vanilla and sandalwood. That and the rose oil Jane had picked made the Nest as fragrant as a garden. Steve spent the rest of the movie picking through the oils in Darcy’s kit, smelling each one. He set one that had woody notes to the side.

Jane left Darcy a basket of exotic teas the next morning.

Not two days later, Steve approached Darcy, and she had to firmly stomp on a giggle when he shyly asked for help with hands jammed in his pockets. It was hard as hell for him to ask, but really, all he had to do was scuff his shoe to complete the picture. If he had, Darcy would have laughed and spoiled the moment, but he didn’t, and she agreed with a straight face.

With his nerves in mind, Darcy fired up The Mummy on the big screen.  One of her favorites; she could pay attention to both the movie and Steve. Since it was set in 1925, it would make for plenty of conversation starters and lots to chuckle over.  She’d changed into her usual dry fit tank top and yoga pants so his feathers wouldn’t stick too much.

When Steve arrived, she patted the floor.  “Get comfortable.  Stop me if anything gets too weird.”

He snorted.  “I think ‘weird’ covers pretty much anything I do these days.” But he took a deep breath as he sat down next to her, flicking his bangs to the side out of nerves.

“Let’s start with the underside.  That way you can watch what I’m doing.”

Steve shot her a grateful look as he stretched out one wing.  “How did you know?”

Darcy lifted a shoulder.  “If I had a stranger touching me, I’d be watching too.”

“You aren’t a stranger,” he insisted.

“And this isn’t easy for you,” she countered. The flash of grief in his eyes broke her heart, but she pretended not to see it. She got comfortable where she could work and watch the movie at the same time.

The first few minutes of finger-combing Steve’s feathers made a mess, and she asked JARVIS to send in the vacuum robots to clean up the feathers. After that, she would periodically tell Steve to shake his wings, and they would laugh at the dust storm he stirred up.

Without thinking, she commented, “Gees, Rogers, isn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. good for anything? Figured they’d have a staff just for you.”

But Steve shook his head, sadness in every line of his face and feathers. “I have--had--a winged soul mate. Didn’t used to be a problem.”

“I guess it’s hard having someone else around your feathers,” Darcy finished for him. “Because you miss your mate.”

He nodded. “Jane has taught me a lot of tricks, but it’s not the same.”

“No,” Darcy agreed.  “But maybe I can keep you from itching, anyway,” she added lightly.

Steve’s wings took several sessions before the feathers were glossy and neat.  After that, the Captain did a much better job of maintaining them himself, but he still came to Darcy on occasion.  He brought her lattes in the afternoons whenever he was in the Tower and left candies from his youth on her doorstep.

 

Both sides of the Aerie opened to wide terraces perfect for sunning. The one facing Central Park was her favorite, and sometimes she came here with her laptop to work and enjoy the view. Her phone buzzed with a text, and she was happy to see Steve was home from his mission.  He followed with a picture of the fanned out primaries on his left wing, with their broken pinions.   “Can you help?” he asked.

Knowing him as she did, she texted back , “Has medical cleared you yet?”

“Just.”

“Come find me in the Nest.”

Steve had more than his usual bruises and scrapes.  One whole arm was scraped raw, and he limped on that side. His left wing was ragged where the feathers were torn, a thin trail of blood coming from the damaged feathers.  “You know how to do this?” he asked again.

Darcy nodded. “Thor’s taught me some of the more advanced techniques. He let me practice on him and a few spare feathers he brought from Asgard. We won’t talk about my first attempt,” she teased.

Relieved, Steve settled by the pool and stretched out his wing so Darcy could peer at the tattered shafts up close. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” she offered as she rinsed out the dried blood. “I think I’ll have to pull just the one shaft since it’s split all the way down the middle.  I can shear the broken parts off the other two and imp in replacements.” She popped her head up. “You have some from your last molt, right?”

With a groan, Steve shook his head. “No. I haven’t shed those since I woke up. Maybe Thor or Barton have some I can borrow. Our feathers are fairly close in size and shape.”

“Barton?” she asked, wondering who that might be.

“Hawkeye? Purple wings? Bow and arrow? Hard to miss,” he snorted. Then he gave her a quizzical look.  “How have you still not met Natasha and Clint?  I know they’ve been on a lot of missions with S.H.I.E.L.D., but they do live here.  Sometimes.” He scowled. “Come to think of it, they haven’t been here since you moved in.”

Darcy thought she did a good job of covering her reaction, but Steve put a hand on her wrist.  “Darcy?” he coaxed gently.

“I didn’t know his name,” she said, swallowing the sudden lump in her throat.  

Steve arched an eyebrow.  With a gentle touch, he dipped his hand under her hair to draw out the feather she’d braided inside a thick plait.  She should have known the Captain’s sharp eyes hadn’t missed it.  He turned the feather over so that the light caught on the violet. “I’d wondered.”

“I know he’s married and loyal to his spouse.  That means a lot.  And I know he’s an Avenger, so he’s damned good at saving the world.  I’d hoped we could have a platonic match at least, but he wasn’t interested.  I try not to let it bother me.  But it does. Sometimes.”

Seeing the way she choked up, Steve drew her in a tight hug. “Barton’s a good guy, Darcy, he’s only an asshole when he hasn’t had his coffee.” 

That elicited a half-hearted giggle out of her.  “Look, I can deal. Okay? And don’t say anything about me being here.  I’ll stay out of his way. The last thing I want to do is cause problems.”

“If you say so, Darcy. I’ll tell Thor to do the same."

She decided that she’d gotten two good friendships out of her soulmark anyway, and maybe that was the purpose all along. “Enough,” she insisted. “Let’s fix your feathers.”

Steve sighed as he stretched out on the floor. “I hate having feathers pulled.”

Darcy patted him on cheek. “It’ll only hurt for a minute.”

“That’s what they always say,” he grumbled.

She poked him with a local anesthetic before taking hold of the shaft with a pair of pliers, yanking it out with a single, hard pull. She pressed a styptic pencil to the bleeding hole and waited for the oozing to stop.  Steve’s natural healing ability took care of any infection, so it was only a few minutes before she sponged the mess clean. “How long until you grow a replacement?” she asked.

“For this one? Probably four or five months. It used to take forever before the serum,” he mused as he inspected the pulled feather. “If you think I looked shabby when you got here, you should have seen my wings back then. Bucky had a hell of a time because I was always knocking around pin feathers and making them bleed. Never really had a good set of wings until the serum. Had these little stubs and couldn’t fly any better than a chicken on a rainy day.”

“Bet your first flight after the serum was something else.”

Steve shrugged. “The whole time I was with the USO, I molted. It was a mess.  They didn’t ship me overseas until I had a full set of feathers . My first real flight?” he paused, giving Darcy an odd look of wonder and sadness. “It was to find Bucky, and he was too tattered to fly back to camp, so we walked back with the rest of the 107th.  We didn’t get to fly together until a full month after that.”

“And how was that?” she prompted.

There came a smile of remembered delight even as a shadow of grief appeared in his eyes when he said, “Unforgettable.”

Since Steve still wasn’t quite ‘fessing up to Bucky being his soulmate, she didn’t press, rummaging in her tool kit for her clippers instead. Stark had taken one look at her kit when she’d first arrived and promptly upgraded her tools. The best was the tiny, tight beam laser that could make a clean cut through even the thickest feather shaft. 

Darcy held out one of the two broken feathers and sheared it off just under the split in the shaft.  She set that feather aside and repeated the action on the other feather, leaving Steve with a bare patch of flight feathers.

Steve nodded. “Nice work. I couldn’t have done it that cleanly myself.”

She glowed under his compliment.  “We just need to glue in a couple of feathers to bracket the new pin feather as it grows in and you’ll be good to go.” 

“Ms Lewis, Captain Rogers, my apologies for the interruption,” JARVIS said, “but I believe Sir may have some of your feathers that Mr. Stark might have saved during the war.  While I do not have a catalog of the contents of this box in storage, I do have a manifest which indicates ‘Steve Rogers’ feathers.’”

Darcy shrugged at Steve. “Guess we can go see if seventy-year old feathers still look good.”

Steve rolled to his feet and gave her a hand with cleaning up. “You know, I really hate asking Stark for anything.”

“It feeds his ego,” she agreed. 

 

It took a couple of days for Tony to locate the box at Stark Mansion and bring it to the Tower. Steve texted Darcy that Tony had not only brought over one box, he’d dumped a whole stack of them in Steve’s apartment, telling him, “It’s like having kids who don’t pick up their stuff when they move out.  Only you moved in.  Not cool, Rogers. If you move out, you’re taking your crap with you this time.”

She giggled as she texted back.   “I’ll finish work in an hour.  Let me know when you want to be very, very still while I glue you back together.” Her phone stayed silent after that, and Darcy figured Steve had to be digging through the boxes.

But she found him leaning next to her apartment door when she arrived home.  His eyes were closed as he stroked a long primary in his hands--a lovely thing of cerulean blue and jet black.

“Steve?” She touched his wrist and opened her door at the same time, drawing him in.

Steve sat down on her sofa, gingerly, as if he moved too much he would shatter.  “Howard’s box had my feathers in it.  But,” he turned the feather over in his hands, “It had Bucky’s too.”

Darcy sat down next to him, opened her arms, and Steve collapsed into them. “Bucky,” he keened.

She shed her own tears at her friend’s anguish and held him while his shoulders jerked with great sobs. When those subsided, she got him to talk about his mate.  She stroked his feathers as he talked, coaxing the story out bit by bit.  What she heard was worthy of any Nicholas Sparks tragedy--a romance of towering proportions and a heartbreak for the ages.

He fell into an exhausted sleep hours later. Darcy covered him up with a blanket and went to bed, shuddering with his pain.  She woke up to bacon, eggs, and toast, all kept warm under a plate, a note expressing his thanks, all sitting along with a pair of tickets to the Met.

Steve’s eyes were still red when he came to her apartment that afternoon, bringing her two of his old feathers that Howard had boxed up for her to implant. He closed his eyes as she attached them to the sheared off shafts with a strip of bamboo and Stark- approved glue.

“Steve?” she asked softly.

“Yeah, Darce?”

“Are we using each other?”

Those red-rimmed blue eyes opened. “Maybe.  Some,” he answered honestly.  “Are you okay with that?”

“Yeah, I really am,” she answered.

“Good. ‘Cause I like knowing you’re in the Tower.”  Steve closed his eyes as Darcy held the feather steady.  

 

Two missions later, Steve took Darcy on a stroll through Central Park. He clearly had something on his mind. Darcy was content to let him figure it out.  In the end, he stopped on a little bridge and stuck his hands in his pockets as he fumbled for the words. “Darcy?” he started.  

“Yes,” she drawled as she leaned against the railing, tilting her face up to catch the autumn sun.

“I know  ... some things … about your soulmate that you don’t. They gave me dossiers on the team.” He took a deep breath, clearly uncomfortable.  “I can’t tell you what’s in them.”

“Of course not,” Darcy assured him, though now she was insanely curious.

He yanked his hands out of his pockets, setting fists on his hips in frustration. “Damn, this is hard. Look, you’re my friend. Clint and Natasha are my teammates. And I’ve never seen him wear a wedding ring. But she wears an arrow necklace. All the time. And they keep an apartment together.”

That was an interesting string of factual observations. Darcy frowned. “You’re saying they’re in a relationship?”

Steve took Darcy’s hand, tucking it in his arm again as he led her off the bridge. “So, what movie are we going to watch tonight?”

Shit. Looks like she would have to think about that. Steve was too honest to cross certain lines, but clearly wanted to help. Which he wasn’t. 

“You’re not helping,” she complained.  Then she huffed a long sigh. “I guess I’ll do a little reconnaissance if they ever get back to the Aerie.”

Relieved, Steve patted Darcy’s hand. “That’s the ticket, doll.”

“Yeah, well, let’s see if you say that when we watch Apollo 13, and I stop it a million times to explain stuff to you.”

“If it makes you happy, I’m game.”

“Do you always think in baseball metaphors?”

“Only during the playoffs.”

She let him watch the game, and he let her curl up against his side, one hand buried in his feathers.  

 

*****

 

With three alien incidents on record, S.H.I.E.L.D. had its hands full chasing after alien tech --some of which was real and some just rumored. Sometimes though, they were still called in for the weird stuff manufactured right here on Terra Firma.

“Why is it always bio-weapons, Nat? Why can’t we just have a good old-fashioned drug runner?” Hawkeye complained as he vaulted over the security guard’s desk. “Or an arms dealer? I’d take an arms dealer any day. People that glow in the dark are just so … yesterday.”

“You do know I’m trying to sneak into the lab at the moment, right?” she growled through the com.

“Yeah, yeah. A mafia don would be good too.  Gimme a second on the relays,” Clint told her as he coded in the overrides. “I’ll have the door open in five … four … threetwoone … you’re in.”  One of the security guards moaned from where he was on the floor. Clint yanked out his Glock to fire another ICER into the goon’s head. He didn’t bother looking where he aimed. Like Natasha, his situational awareness was light years beyond the norm--the kind born from growing up terrified of everyone and everything.

It was his luck that he got to combine it with his sight and marksmanship for something extraordinary. He was good at this. It was too bad he sucked at everything else.  

He leaned against the desk, pulled an arrow out of his quiver, and used the tip to clean the underside of his nails, keeping one eye on the monitors. He waited until Nat set the serum into a protective Thermos before asking, “You done yet? I’m hungry. What are we thinking, pizza or Italian?”

“Hawkeye,” she warned as she disappeared from the screens.  

“Yeah, I’m kind of not in the mood for meatballs. Reminds me too much of these idiots.” He toed one of the goons out of the way, slipped out the side exit, and shot a grappling hook to the room five stories up. “Better hurry up, your ride’s here.”

Natasha never ran when walking would do, and he grinned when she sauntered out the door with a backpack strapped on.  She took the zip line he handed her and let it yank her up. Clint leaped in the air. With a hard downbeat of his wings, he flew ahead of her just enough to pull her over the edge when she reached the top. They touched down running and dashed into the waiting Quinjet. 

Clint flipped switches to close the gangplank, fired up the thrusters, and maneuvered the plane into the air.  This one was equipped with sound dampeners and stereo amplifiers. It didn’t hide the fact there was an aircraft nearby, but it distorted the sound to imitate a helicopter.  One vertical ascent later, Clint flipped the turbines ninety degrees and headed for the helicarrier hovering a couple of hundred miles off the west coast of Australia.

“So, pizza?” he asked Natasha.

She kicked him in the thigh as she took the co-pilot’s chair.

 

With Director Fury in DC, Maria Hill took the helm of the helicarrier.  She seemed pleased when Nat dropped the backpack on her desk. “In and out, no alarms tripped. No video. The newspapers report it as a highly talented break-in and since nothing’s popped on the black market, speculation lays odds on an inside job.  Kettering Industries is having a conniption,” Hill reported.  “Excellent work, you two.”

Natasha plopped down in the chair across from Hill. She loved playing the bratty teen around the AD, sometimes going as far as popping gum during briefings--but only in private. The rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. still quaked in their boots when the Black Widow crossed their paths.  Clint’d figured out long ago that Hill considered Nat’s shenanigans a mark of respect.

She wasn’t wrong. Clint took his customary spot, leaning against Hill’s filing cabinet. “What’s next?”

“You need a break?”

Neither of them had injuries, and the op had been a simple B&E.  But they’d been busy for the past three months.  Still, Nat looked over her shoulder at Clint and shrugged.  He thought about the Tower and the luxuries he didn’t think he’d earned. “Nope. I’m good for one or two more.”

When Nat nodded in agreement, Hill handed each of them a tablet. “Rogers has requested both of you for a mission.  Looks like he has a lead on a HYDRA base in Belize. Now that Thor’s back, he’s in on this one too.”

“Is this the kind where we have to be nice and not make the government look bad?” Clint asked.

Hill shook her head.  “Belize sent Fury a request for assistance.  I don’t believe there will be any issues getting a permit to land.”

Natasha was definitely flirting by the way she gave Hill a smoldering look over her shoulder.  “My favorite kind,” she said.

“Can I get a slice of pizza first?” he whined, scratching the back of his head.

“Stand down until oh-six-hundred.  You’ll have time for dinner and a nap,” Maria quipped.

“Deal.” Clint pushed off the filing cabinet and went in search of dinner.   He knew Natasha and Maria had a fling thing going on, and he didn’t want to know any more than that.

He found Jasper Sitwell and Jimmy Woo in the cafeteria. They’d both been in the S.H.I.E.L.D. class before Clint, and he liked their company.  The three of them moved into the lounge next door that was officially named “The Putting Green” but everyone called “Ten-Forward,” even though it wasn’t anywhere near deck ten and utterly on the wrong end of the carrier.

Here, in the company of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Clint didn’t worry about the third or fourth round of drinks.  And he certainly didn’t mind when Martinez, a lovely agent who’d shared his bed a time or two in the past, enticed him to her bunk for a quick fuck.  She knew not to touch his wings. That was fine, he didn’t mess with the scar on her bicep.  When they were sweaty and sated, he pressed a kiss to her cheek, thanked her, and found his clothes again.  

Natasha was already in their bunk, her hair slightly damp from her shower. Clint took his turn sluicing off in the narrow box. Water was rationed on the helicarrier, so he kept it short and his wings out of the way.  Besides, Nat didn’t like damp feathers, and Clint was tired enough not to want to dry them.

“Feel like sleeping on your back?” she asked.

Clint paused as he dried his hair with the towel.  That was code for cuddling in Nat-speak, and something they rarely did.  And so, when he got in bed, he stretched out his wings so Nat could lay her head on his shoulder and throw a leg across his.  It was nice.

“Maria show you a good time?” he murmured.

“Shut up, birdbrain.”

With a smile, he pressed a kiss into Natasha’s hair.

 

Dawn found both of them in the range, limbering up for the op.  Expertise didn’t come without practice, and neither of them minded the other agents peeking in as Widow and Hawkeye spent arrows and bullets into target after target. This course wasn’t nearly as challenging as the one Stark had in the Tower, and for the first time, Clint had a stray itch to be there.

Strike Team Delta, minus Coulson, packed up their gear and headed for the flight deck. When the Avengers jet landed, Steve poked his head out the side door.

“Anyone need the bathroom before we go?”

Nat shoved her duffel at him. “You’re such an asshole, Rogers.”

“Takes one to know one,” he retorted with all the belligerence of an eight-year-old as he took her bag.

Climbing aboard, Clint asked, “Did you just call Romanoff an asshole?” He glanced over his shoulder, noting the way Rogers’ feathers shimmered with health.  Clint looked positively shabby by comparison. 

“Nope. She’s a beautiful thorn in a garden of roses,” Rogers replied cheekily.

“It’s gonna be that kind of mission,” Nat groaned.

Thor greeted the pair of them with wrist clasps. “It is good to see you, Barton, Romanoff.  The Captain speaks well of your time in my absence.”

“He’s lying,” Clint quipped.

“You know, they say Cap can’t lie,” Rogers said blandly as he took the pilot’s chair.

Clint strapped himself just behind Cap. “Is it just me, or is Captain America kind of like a happy puppy with a new toy?”

“I think he’s excited to go break another HYDRA base,” Natasha agreed. “His tail feathers are wagging.”

Rogers flashed a grin over his shoulder. “Well, as Stark says, you aren’t wrong.”

Clint exchanged a look with Natasha. Cap was in an awfully good mood. He wondered who was keeping company with their teammate. He signed just that to Nat, who shrugged and shook her head.

Thor squinted as he studied their hands. He’d picked up some ASL already-- evidently enough to follow along.  He signed back, //Made new friend.//

“Strap in, it’s going to be a quick flight,” Rogers warned.  And then they turned their attention to the mission briefing that Thor handed them.

 

 

There was something utterly kick-ass about flying in formation with Captain America and the God of Thunder.  The trio, a hawk and two eagles, flew under the radar, hugging the treeline until they reached an old Mayan city where HYDRA dared make a base.  Natasha rode Steve’s back with ease now.

Though it wasn’t uncommon for Winged Ones to take their young children on short flights--usually in special packs strapped to their chests and legs, only Rogers and Thor could carry a full grown adult any kind of distance--and they could do it for miles. Natasha and Steve had worked out how to fly together. She stretched out on his back, legs wrapped around his waist.  She had the strength to ride with him, to balance and shift to accommodate his wings, using a pair of leather straps to tie her to him and keep her seat.

Clint had tried it with her and couldn’t do more than glide to a hard landing. They practiced from time to time, though, because anything came in handy in a battle.

But right now, it meant the four of them could drop in unnoticed on the base.  As they closed in, Clint veered off to the right, pulling an arrow from his quiver.   Nock, draw, loose.  Nock, draw, loose.   The sentries dropped one by one in quick succession.  

Rogers landed in the clearing and threw an EMP through a doorway, followed by a smoke bomb. Nat freed herself and strapped a breathing mask to her face.  “Nice pitch.”

“I wanted to play baseball ‘til they moved the Dodgers,” he admitted.

Natasha patted him on the shoulder. “Bitter?”

“A little. Thor? You ready?”

“Aye. The Hawk is with me.”

“On three--two--one.” 

The skirmish was messy but short and with minimal damage to the Mayan temple.  Rogers called in the Belize military after the four of hem sorted through the makeshift labs and offices for anything interesting. That stuff was loaded on the Quinjet. They would make a detour to the Triskelion to drop it off and debrief. Then, yes, Clint was ready to go ...well, home.

 

Later at Stark Tower

 

On a rare sunny day at the end of fall, Darcy spent her lunch camped out on the terrace with a new book and her a iPod. The Avengers Quinjet dropped onto the landing pad down below, off Stark’s penthouse. Thor strolled out of the aircraft, taking to the air long enough to stretch his enormous wings. He waved at Darcy as he flew by.

Steve alit from the aircraft. Yay, he was back, safe and sound. He noticed Darcy two floors above, giving her a half salute. A small red-headed woman followed.  Darcy easily identified her as the Black Widow.  A black-winged flyer trailed after them, carrying a bow.

Though his wings were the wrong color, there was no mistaking the cut of the man’s jaw and his blond hair. Steve gave Darcy a little nod, and her heart skipped a beat.

Clint Barton was in the Tower.

Closing her book, she gathered up her blanket to return to Jane’s lab. “Thor’s home,” she announced.

That got her friend’s attention, and Jane dropped her sensor thingy and a screwdriver on the desk, coming up with a bright smile.  “Okay, folks, you’re on your own,” she told the two interns.  “The boyfriend is back.” But it only took one look at Darcy’s face for Jane to drag her into the private office in the corner that no one bothered using.  “What’s wrong? Is somebody hurt?”  

“No. Everyone’s fine. More than fine.” Darcy crossed her arms in front of her boobs. “He’s here, Jane.” Darcy had told Jane everything Steve mentioned, right down to Barton’s love affair with coffee.  

“Your soulmate?”

“Yeah.”  

“I know people who hit really hard, and I can put my hands on him this time.” Jane pulled Darcy into a hug.  “Just say the word.”

“Okay.”  Knowing Jane and Thor hadn’t seen each other in days, Darcy let go. “Scoot. Go sex up your boyfriend and please don’t tell me about it this time. I’m in a dry spell, you know.”

“No one would believe you with that blond bombshell you hang out with.”

“Yeah, well, it’s hell on my sex life.” Darcy wiggled her fingers at Jane.  “Shoo. Call me when you come up for air so we can kill a bottle of wine.” 

“Done.” Jane zipped out of the lab, leaving Darcy with the interns.

She made the rounds before settling at her desk.  She had work to do. People to avoid. That kind of thing.


 

Chapter Text

11/Ready or Not

 

With his drawing arm held up by a sling, Clint shoved the door to his room open with his toe. He would have skipped medical all together, except Rogers got a bug up his ass after the last time they ran an op and Clint came up with a sprained ankle that he’d treated himself. 

How was he supposed to get Cap to understand that injuries didn’t stop carnies from performing? If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. It was that simple. And he hated medical anyway.  Always poking him with sharp stuff and worrying about the silliest bumps and bruises. 

At least the nurse practitioner who was stationed at the Tower had the sense to patiently explain to Clint why it was in his best interests to do as she said.  She made a deal with him that she would ignore the little stuff, if he would let her look him over whenever a mission finished up at the Tower. It sounded suspiciously similar to the medical staff at S.H.I.E.L.D., but then again, the NP had served in the sandbox, so she was used to dumb asses who thought they were heroes.

Clint hung his bow on the wall of the living room to keep it safe. Then he dumped every last item of clothing into the laundry chute before heading the bathroom.  Nat’s bedroom door was already closed, and he figured she wasn’t coming out anytime soon. She’d muttered all the way home about bathtubs and fizzy salts. He wasn’t in any better shape. Even though the op was an unqualified success, he still had his fair share of bruises.  The arm had been a result of catching a HYDRA goon at the wrong angle as she ran out a side door. 

Scratching his itchy hair, Clint asked JARVIS, “Hey, um, I’m kind of punchy, and I want to take my hearing aids out. Can you flash lights at me or something if Nat or anyone else comes in?”

“Yes, of course. Would you prefer a text assist as well?”

“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” appeared in bright green writing on the wall closest to him. With a groan of relief, he pulled the aids from his ears and dropped them on the marble countertop.

“Thanks, J.”  The lights dimmed briefly in response and, not for the first time, Clint was grateful to have the AI around.

He was more than ready to get the dye out of his feathers.  If there was one thing he liked about living in the Tower and being an Avenger, it was that he could strip away the false color from the undercover mission with Nat and let his plumage shine true. Even if the wing dye was a far cry from the paint they’d dumped on his feathers in the circus, he still imagined his flight was compromised by the extra weight. It wasn’t true, of course, but he felt it all the same.

Getting the dye out worked best with help, but Natasha despised the mess and Coulson couldn’t drop his new team just to scrub a few feathers.  So Clint filled his tub up with warm water and the cleansing agent, determined to soak the dark color out as much as he could.

“JARVIS, wake me in an hour if I fall asleep. Keep the water temp at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The lights lowered and brightened again in acknowledgement.

When it was time, JARVIS let the tub water cool off just enough to wake Clint.  He winced at the dark water and bits of feathers swirling into the drain, but JARVIS had told him when he first moved in that the plumbing was made to handle it.

Clint moved to the shower, letting the hot spray rinse his wings until the water ran clear around his ankles. He inspected one wingtip up close, peering at the barbs. The worst of the black was gone, but he would need another soak and a good preening afterward to get it all out.

He glanced down at his hip where the cleanser had stripped off the concealer he used on missions to cover his soulmark.He wondered if he’d be able to tolerate his soulmate touching his wings.  He could deal with Nat or Phil these days, but only just.

Eying the full-body dryer, Clint considered the angle of the sun on the south terrace. Good enough, he decided, even though the wind would be sure to be on the cool side in spite of the pretty day.  He pulled on a pair of sweats and the sling for his strained bicep, didn’t bother with a shirt, and spiraled down the Aerie to the sunny patio that overlooked Manhattan. Once situated, with two of Stark’s cleaning ‘bots fussing in the wake of his dripping feathers, Clint sprawled out face-down on a lounger and stretched out his wings to dry. He dozed, only to wake later when someone lightly kicked the metal leg of his lounger.

“Turn over, you’ll burn,” the Captain chided when Clint opened his eyes. Discreetly, JARVIS printed the same words on the wall in Clint’s sight line. Clint did, rearranging his wings so the underside would dry too.  He flexed his bicep, carefully stretching out the muscles so they wouldn’t cramp, and tucked his arm back into the sling.

“You look better,” Rogers commented, as he flicked one of the purple-black feathers sticking up so that a little tuft of down blew away.

It was everything Clint could do not to flinch.  He knew this was part of being a Winged One. He’d seen Bobbi and her friends idly straightening barbs or plucking out loose feathers without really thinking about it.  She'd showed Clint how to express the oil in her tail feather glands, turning it into something erotic that he still thought about every so often. She’d tried to do the same for him, but Clint hadn’t been raised with Winged Ones, and every damned time someone went near his wings or back, it was a coin toss as to whether or not it turned into a shit show.

Then again, Rogers was a Winged One and a veteran. He jerked his hand back, flushing a dark red as he stepped backward. “Damn, Barton. I know better. My apologies.”

Clint shrugged it off, as he always did.  Wasn’t everyone else’s problem, it was his. “Need to soak a couple more times before my color’s back,” he grouched instead. Without his aids, the sound of his voice was muffled, but he’d learned how to modulate his speaking into normal tones. “I like my purple.”

“Huh. Never dyed my feathers, so I wouldn’t know. Don’t think I’ve seen your color before.”

Picking up most of that from lip reading, it only took a glance at the accompanying caption JARVIS provided for Clint to answer. “As far as I know, I’m one of a kind,” he agreed.  With a squinty eye, he tried to figure out why Cap was being so friendly.  They’d run a dozen ops or more together, but that didn’t always make for best friends. On the other hand, he supposed Cap didn’t have many people to hang with, much less Winged Ones, and it wasn’t a secret around S.H.I.E.L.D.  that Cap wasn’t exactly drinking buddies with the S.T.R.I.K.E. team.  Nat liked Rogers though, so Clint played nice. (She’d also won the bet. Rumlow had sported a split lip for a solid week after Rogers “slipped” while they were sparring. Nobody knew what Rumlow did to annoy the Captain, but conversations were decidedly cool after that, and Rumlow toed the line.)

Rogers eyed the writing on Clint’s torso. “I’d hate to see what kind of reply you came up with to that.”  

“Hasn’t happened yet,” he retorted, deliberately ignoring what Loki had said. “Figure at this rate, it won’t. They say it happens by your third decade. I’m a good five years past that.”

“You haven’t met your soulmate?” Rogers asked curiously, with a touch of … something.  

Shit. Now Clint wished he had his hearing aids in, so he could catch the nuance of that. He dug one out of his pocket and slipped it in, lazily flapped his wings to let the breeze fluff his feathers as he did. “Nope. Probably a good thing. Can you imagine a soulmate dealing with me after Loki’s shit? Kind of glad I didn’t have to drag someone else through that.” Nat understood, and he’d been damned grateful for her in those first few weeks.

Thoroughly distracted, Steve beetled his brows. “I didn’t know you took them out,” he said, referring to the aids.

“Ears get sore when I wear them for too long. Stark’s done everything he can to fix that, but it’s still a thing.”

From the way Rogers’ face fell as he looked over Clint’s soulmark again, it wasn’t hard to see what he was thinking.

“Yeah. Could’ve missed something important along the way. If I couldn’t hear, I wouldn’t know.” Clint shrugged it off, even though he hated the ache that came from knowing he hadn’t made his match. “Still think he or she is  better off without me. Makes dating a bitch though.”

“Why?”

“Been married, dated around. None of ‘em could get past the idea that I might have a soulmate somewhere.”

“Could be platonic,” Steve countered as he sat in the lounger next to Clint.

“Might not,” Clint shot back. “Easier to stick to the occasional hook-up.” With narrowed eyes, he asked, “Do you have a soul mark?”

“Soulmate,” Steve confirmed with a faint hitch in his voice. “Before.”  From the frank grief in that answer, there was no doubt Rogers had lost someone he’d loved. That information sure as hell wasn’t in Cap’s dossier.

“Aw, fuck.” No wonder the guy was moody.

“Yeah. I say that a lot.” The young captain leaned back into his chair and closed his eyes.

Clint studied the man--younger by experience, older by decades. For sure, Rogers’d had an agenda with that conversation, but for all that Clint was a professional fucking spy, he had no idea what it was. He wondered if Nat could figure it out.

The wind shifted to the north. “Storm’s coming in,” he murmured as the clouds began to darken.

“Gonna fly in it?” Rogers asked

“Hell, yeah, Cap. You won’t?”

“My name is Steve. And I guess you’re gonna have to find out when that outflow boundary gets here.”

With a snort, Clint leaned back to let the last bits of sun warm his now-dry feathers. It had been a while since he’d played in the winds.

 

*****

 

Darcy dismissed the interns for the day and packed up her messenger bag. She stuffed her laptop and her water bottle inside, then looked around for her iPod.  Already cranky from anticipation and fear, when she remembered she left it on the terrace, she lost it--just a little--yelling, “Holy shitballs!” into the empty lab.  She muttered curses under her breath as she detoured to her apartment to dump off her stuff, then took the elevator to the Aerie.

“JARVIS? Tell me the coast is clear.”

“The coast is clear, Ms. Lewis.”

With a wary eye focused overhead, she dashed across the Aerie, utterly missing that the terrace itself was occupied. She stumbled to a halt three steps in.

Oh, damn it, damn it, damn it. It was bad enough that Steve was gorgeously stretched out catching some sun. Yup, zero luck there. The benefits portion of that friendship did not include sexytimes.  What left her a gaping idiot was the sight of her own words scrawled in her crappy handwriting on a tawny hip attached to a Winged One with violently purple feathers.  

He’d sprawled out on a chaise, one hand behind his head, the other in a sling. And he was all half-naked and chesty and muscle-y and perfectly ...with those arms and those shoulders and a half dozen little cuts and a big bruise on his forearm, and he was so damned gorgeous and he was married, and this was the moment she wasn’t ready for, and it wasn’t fair, and-- “Fuck me sideways,” she blurted in frustration.

He angled his head to get a better look at her, and it was the first time she saw his eyes up close.  Aquamarine, or maybe hazel, or maybe it depended on the hour, and then it was all arrogant charm as he leaned up on an elbow to drawl, “Give me a minute to limber up, darling, and I’m willing to give it a shot.”

Mortified, she scrunched her face up, closing her eyes. “Oh my god. Um, okay.” She sidled across the terrace to where Steve solemnly held up her iPod.  She clutched it in desperation as she scooted toward the door again. “I’m gonna take this back to my place, and yeah, sorry about the descriptor there.”

But her soulmate sat up, folding his (gorgeous, stunning, oh god she wanted to touch) wings behind him. There was genuine amusement this time when he said, “You’re Darcy Lewis. Foster’s friend. I didn’t know you were in the Tower.”

Okay, Darcy was totally confused. He seemed … happy? “You know me?”

“Aw, manners,” he scolded himself. Adorably. (Nope, scratch that, Lewis. Reread section one, part A on “married,” part B on “maybe married,” and part C on “living with a woman who can dispose of your body and pin it on anyone she likes.) He gave her a little wave. “Clint Barton. Hawkeye. I was on your detail in New Mexico. Shared orders to keep eyes on you and Foster for a whole week. Helped you pack up, but you won’t remember that. You two were pretty pissed at my boss.” Clint grinned, running a hand through his spiky hair. “Watching Foster take Coulson down a notch was a thing of beauty. Nat was sad she missed it.”

“Nat?”

“Natasha. Natasha Romanoff. She’ll be around when she quits drowning herself in the Jacuzzi.”

Darcy felt like a dolt standing there with her mouth open. He remembered her?  

With a shrug, Clint flirted. “Yeah, I remember you. Hard to forget your sass, and nobody has eyes like yours.” The little smile playing around on his lips did all sorts of stupid things to her brain. None of which brought it fully back online.

“My sass? My eyes? Are you serious?” she demanded, all astonished. And totally confused. And maybe slightly terrified.

Clint strolled to the edge of the terrace, throwing a sly look over his shoulder as he dropped the sling on the ground and retied the waistband of his sweats. He thumbed toward the darkening skies in the north. “Color of a storm on the horizon.” He stepped up to the railing and vaulted over, snapping out his wings to let the wind catch him on the other side. With a couple of flips and twists, he kited off to play in the oncoming squall.

“Show off,” Steve muttered as he got to his feet.  “So uh, that’s Barton. He remembered you,” he said with no little satisfaction.

“My eyes? That’s a line, right?” she pleaded.

“Not since you’re standing in the shadows.”

Darcy tilted her head back to see, and yes, she was. She hadn’t noticed. Digging up a coherent sentence from somewhere, she stalked toward the doorway. “And on that note, I’m going back to my apartment to find a really big bottle of wine,” she announced.

“Don’t get drunk,” Steve admonished. “I’m ordering pizza for everyone tonight.”

“Seriously?” she whined. “Isn’t this enough embarrassment in one day?”

“I’m hungry, and I like the company,” Steve insisted with hands on his hips. “It’ll be a clam bake.”

“Party on, Garth,” she countered, making damned sure he didn’t get a slang point when she was irritated. “You’re doing this on purpose.”

“They call me the man with the plan,” he acknowledged as he nudged her into the Aerie.

“I can’t do this,” she said quietly.

With a hand on her shoulder, Steve assured her, “You can. Bonds work best in close quarters. You’re both here now. There has to be a reason.”

“Stop being sensible.”

“I think you’re the first person in history to call me that,” he said drily. “I’ll see you at eight.” Steve pivoted, took two running steps, and snapped his wings out to follow Clint into the rising winds.

Darcy pressed her nose to the glass of the Aerie to watch. This was no different than a bunch of surfers catching the waves before a hurricane. Thor and Jane sailed over Darcy’s head to join them, and then the Winged Ones were flying tip-to-tip, ducking over and under clouds, making loops and spirals. The weather called out to other Winged Ones, and soon, bright splotches dotted the skies over the City, as the others curvetted along the winds.

If Steve and Thor were more powerful, Jane was faster. Clint was the acrobat, twisting and slip-sliding through the others, messing up their flight path just because he could.  But he held his own when the four of them veered upward in a hard climb, staying just off Steve’s wing to take advantage of the draft the Captain generated. And Darcy held her breath when they were mere pinpricks in the sky--and they streaked toward the Earth in a steep dive, only to pull up mere feet above the building one street over.

Unsure if she was angry, hurt, or dazzled, she fled to her apartment.  Shoving the door open, she remembered, “JARVIS, seriously, I told you to tell me if the coast was clear.”

“Your instruction was to tell you, ‘The coast is clear.’ I followed it to the letter,” the AI countered.  

Darcy rummaged through her fridge, coming up with a chilled bottle of wine. “You knew what I meant.”

JARVIS seemed contrite when he answered, “Perhaps I misunderstood.”

“Or you’re matchmaking.”

“Or that,” he agreed.

She worked the cork off the bottle and took a long swig off of it, wagging her finger at the ceiling. “You and Steve need to back off.  This is hard enough.”

“Of course, Ms. Lewis. My apologies.”

Darcy couldn’t quite believe she was admonishing an artificial intelligence about staying out of her personal life, but hey, Stark Tower. “Accepted.”

“Shall I pass on the message to the Captain?” JARVIS asked.

“Nope. I’ll do it myself.” 

With Darcy’s first choice of friends to call while in emotional distress out playing in the skies, she poured up the wine, found her cell phone and called her mom.  

“Hi, honey. What’s up?”

“Okay, so you know how I told you I’m working with Jane in Stark Tower, right?”

“Yes.”

“And we’ve totally talked about how that one Avenger looks kind of like my soulmate?”

“Yes,” Mama drawled in curiosity. “There’s no kind of about it.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I found out when I moved here that my soulmate has an apartment not too far from Jane.  Like a couple of doors up. And I found out his name. But he’s been traveling, and I kind of made up my mind that I’d do my thing, and I’d never see him, and it’s not going to be a big deal because we’ve already met, Matched, and we’re done, right?”

“We’ll talk later about not sharing important details, but I see your point. Let me guess, he’s home.”  

“He’s home.”

“Is he nice?”

“He remembered me from New Mexico.  Not from the bar, but from around town.  He said he couldn’t forget my eyes.”

“That’s a line if I ever heard one.”

“Okay, let me rephrase, he said it’s ‘hard to forget your sass, and nobody has eyes like yours.’ Then he told me they were the ‘color of a storm on the horizon.’  Mom, I had my glasses on and I was standing in a shadow.”   

“Oh.”

Darcy took a big drink of her wine. “Yeah, oh. Who says shit like that?”

“Sounds promising.”

“Mama, he’s got a lady living with him who could kick my ass with her pinky. Just, no. There is nothing about this scenario that has a good ending for me.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t do anything rash. Sleep on it, and we’ll talk about it this weekend.”

“Thanks, Mama.”

“Thank me when you come home for Turkey Day and help me pickle all these damned beets.”

“Send me a box of them, and I’ll do them here if you get desperate.”

“I might just do that. Need jars?”

“Stuff like that is ridiculously expensive here. You’ve got my credit card number.”

“Darcy--”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mama. I’m a big girl and can pay my own way.” Neither of them mentioned the money Darcy sent back home on a regular basis. The farm was self-sustaining, but left little room for small luxuries, so Darcy did what she could.

“If you insist.”

“I do. Now, I’ve got an apartment to clean so I can finish getting my head on straight. Love you and I’ll call you this weekend. Tell Dad I miss him.”

“Love you, too, and I will.”

She poured herself a second glass of wine, hooked up her iPod to her speakers, cranked it up to the max, and got busy.  Two hours later, her apartment was squeaky clean, the bottle was empty, and settling in with a good book was looking like a much better idea than dealing with a flirtatious soulmate who’d rejected her once already.

Four pages in, she set the book down, unable to concentrate.  She wondered how long she could put off running into Clint Barton again.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

12/It Wasn’t What I Thought at All

 

The answer? Not long.

All set to skip pizza night and spend the evening in with a lovely wine-daze, Darcy already had on her favorite jammies when Steve knocked on her door a full half hour before the festivities.  She told JARVIS to let him in, and the Captain propped himself against the door when he closed it, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised.

“Nope.  Not going,” she insisted.

“Cluck, cluck.”

She glared at him.  

He gave her the patented Captain America Raised Eyebrow of Disappointment.

“Oh, you are such a fucking jerk, Rogers.” She rolled off the sofa to her feet, and Steve put a hand on her waist to keep her from toppling over.

“Did you drink that whole bottle, and are you wearing that getup?”

She held her arms out to catch her balance, giving Steve a smug look when she got it. “Who said I was going? And what do you know about fashion, mister I-forgot-my- pants-in-1941?” She waved at his khaki slacks. “Yes, on the bottle, nope, not drunk. I still have all my faculties, but I’ve got a very nice buzz going on and so the Darcy-filter has officially been disengaged. Hence, why I should stay home.”

“I like my pants.  You’re going, filter or no filter.  And I know enough about fashion that if you show up in pajamas to spend an evening in the company of your soulmate, you’re going to regret it.  Go find that green sweater, your black leggings, and those green fuzzy socks.  You’ll be a dish and comfortable at the same time.”  

“You’re totally off my BFF list,” she retorted, even as she flounced off to the bedroom to change and to do something with her hair.  A little water and spray-on gel got it to behave. A black knit cap finished off the outfit.  

“Better,” Steve told her when she came back out.  He passed over a big cup of water.  “Lipstick? Or that gloss stuff?”

“Who gave you lessons?” she mumbled into the cup as she drank.

“I traveled with the USO. And Peggy wouldn’t dare go without her lipstick.”

Darcy tilted her head in curiousity.  “How does Peggy figure into this thing you have with Bucky?”

Steve shook his head.  “She’s my friend.  It was a different time, Darcy.  I could have loved her more, I think. I do love her.”

“But not like Bucky.”

“Bucky’s my anchor and my wings. We weren’t always mated, but we’ve always been friends.” Solemnly, he stroked her cheek with his knuckles. “Don’t be afraid of your bond, Darce.”  

“Oh fuck you for being so fucking perceptive.  When did you become a spy?” She spun away, dropping her cup in the sink.

Steve followed. “I’m taking lessons.  Otherwise, I kind of suck at it.”

The self-deprecation made her laugh. It was impossible to stay mad in the face of such sincerity, even if she was reasonably sure he was just messing with her. “Ooh, look, Captain Rogers used twentieth century slang.”

With a smirk that only confirmed her suspicions, he offered his arm.  “Come on, dollface, it’s time to face the music.”

Darcy tucked her hand in his elbow as he held her apartment door open.  “For the record, this is really, really dumb idea,” she told him.

Steve chuckled. “You know, I’ve heard that one before.”

 

*****

 

Clint waited on his balcony until the others had picked out their pizza and found seats. It was easier to suss out the dynamics of the newcomers and how they’d integrated into the Tower if he got to see who buddied up.  Thor had mentioned he was sharing a place with Foster.  Given the care Coulson had taken last year to get her out of the way of … Thor’s brother ... that wasn’t surprising.

And on that note, how in the hell was Clint supposed to console his teammate for the loss of a sibling when all he wanted to do was dance a jig that Loki was dead? Then again, he knew something about asswipes for brothers and maybe they could bond over that.

Now, if Clint was to be honest with himself, he was more than intrigued by the appearance of Darcy Lewis. She was older now than in New Mexico, and a little maturity looked damned good on her.  Recalling that she wasn’t against taking a local home on occasion back then, he wondered if she was still interested in the occasional hook-up.

He’d thought of her over the years, mostly because she tended to pop up in his dreams--and the occasional fantasy, if he was being honest again. He’d been given the detail to bug the old car dealership and the trailer in New Mexico.  It wasn’t hard when the ladies would head out every night to look at the stars.  Bugging the ATV had been a little trickier.  He’d waited until they came in at dawn, and he had to dodge the town’s early risers. Later, he’d listened to Jane and Darcy snark at each other. Jane had a drier sense of humor, whereas Darcy was quicker on the draw. They cracked at least one Pinky and the Brain joke a day.

Wincing a little at his embarrassing-if-brief crush on Foster, Clint eyed Darcy as Steve escorted her into the Aerie.  She was even prettier than when he’d seen her this afternoon--all done up in black and green. Her wavy hair lay over her shoulders, and her glossy lips widened into a smile when Thor picked her up for a long hug. He could hear Darcy laugh as she poked him in the shoulder.  Jane looked on fondly at the pair, clearly not jealous at all. 

But then he chuckled to himself.  In two years, he’d gained a dozen new scars, the occasional paparazzi desperate to catch a photo of his purple feathers, and a whole new batch of PTSD. He wasn’t anyone’s catch. At her age, Darcy had a hell of a lot more options than a cranky, glorified mercenary.

He leaned against the railing, resting his chin on a hand.  Jane and Thor took one cushy chair, Nat sat in the one opposite them, while Steve and Bruce split the sectional in the middle.  That left a chaise lounge between Bruce and Nat, but Darcy didn’t take it, opting to sit on the floor near Jane instead. Huh. That screamed insecurity--a trait at odds to his previous observations and the dossier he’d seen in New Mexico.

Steve introduced Nat to the ladies, and it wasn’t hard to see they were a little wary of the Widow. It would have been nice if Pepper was here to ease the tension, but she was in Malibu with Tony, working on plans to rebuild the house out there.

That left just Clint to join the party.  He stepped off the balcony, spiraling down the Aerie to land just outside the “Nest,” as Steve called it. He supposed that was a good enough name. Less boring than calling it ‘the ground floor.’ His teammates noted his entrance first: Nat and Thor, then Steve only a heartbeat later. Banner was last with a faint smile.

Jane ruffled her feathers in greeting. Clint echoed the movement as he gave Darcy a one-handed wave. The astrophysicist was definitely on the flinty side as Thor reintroduced them. With Darcy stroking the tip of one of Jane’s secondary feathers, clearly for comfort, Clint chalked it up to their experience with S.H.I.E.L.D..

He plucked up a box of pepperoni and moved it to the other end of the coffee table. Plopping down on the floor between Darcy and Nat, he fished out his first slice.  As he did, he noted Steve keeping an eye on Darcy. Darcy ignored him and tried not to look at Natasha or Clint, even though it was clear she was curious about both of them.

Clint jumped right into the conversation, hoping to set the ladies at ease. He’d be a poor spy if he couldn’t integrate himself with the newest residents. “Nat, remember me telling you about New Mexico?” He folded his pizza in half and stuffed most of it in his mouth.

Nat picked up the cue easily, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Ah, yes, I believe I was babysitting Stark,” she said drily, clearly playing the overworked professional.

That earned a snicker from Darcy, and Clint flashed a grin in her direction. “Did you ever see the report of Foster turning down Coulson’s offer?” he asked Nat. “That just doesn’t happen.”

“I read it,” Nat confirmed with a small laugh. “He deserved it. Selvig muttered ‘jack-booted thug’ at every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent he ran across for months.”

Of course, Natasha struck exactly the right note, and Jane softened immediately, saying, "Erik's protective." Her feathers flattened as she settled.

“He’s a good man,” Thor agreed.  

“I like him,” Nat said as she reached into a pizza box. She jerked a chin at Darcy. “So, what brings you to Stark Tower?”

With a slightly forced smile, Darcy dug in the box in front of her for another slice. “Jane keeps offering me crappy internships. No paycheck, but I get housing.” She elbowed Jane’s leg. “Gotta say, this is an upgrade from her mom’s place in London.”

“Do you know how expensive apartments are in London?” Jane protested.  

“Repeat after me: unpaid internship,” Darcy said, waving her pizza at Jane. “And that was two years ago. Didn’t I tell you I needed a paycheck at some point, or I’d take Coulson up on his offer?”

Huh? That got his attention. And Nat’s. Steve seemed annoyed at the idea. Protective maybe?

“You didn’t tell me that,” Steve said with a grimace.

Damn. Judging by the way Darcy stuck her tongue out at Steve while toying with Jane’s feathers, Clint just figured out who was taking care of Cap’s wings. He’d assume they were dating--nice taste, Rogers--except, well, if Steve and Darcy were together, the whole conversation on the terrace didn’t make any sense. Not with Rogers still torn up over his soulmate.  

Darcy didn’t seem to notice Clint’s confusion as she waved off Steve’s protests. “I forgot,” she said. “He wants me to be an analyst.  But Jane keeps me busy and the whole Columbia thing’s been kind of big. Oh!” She turned around to Thor. “I need time to interview you about Asgardian trade regulations.  Don’t run home until we get it on tape.”

‘Aye. That we can do.” The demigod seemed pleased by the idea.

Natasha raised an eyebrow.  “Columbia?”

“I’m starting my doctorate in January.  I want to write my dissertation on the implications of galactic trading.  I’m totally taking advantage of my convenient access to my best friend’s boyfriend who is the crown prince of Asgard.  Midgard is nowhere near ready to trade, but it’s going to be nice to be the expert in something for about five minutes after I’m published and degreed.”

“Midgard?” Clint asked.

“Earth, to us Earthlings. Midgard to the rest of the Nine Realms,” Darcy finished.

Just like that, Clint felt stupid all over again. His G.E.D. didn’t hold a candle to a bunch of college degrees. “Bet Stark can’t wait to get his hands on you after you finish,” he said.  

Darcy blinked in surprise. “Um, yeah, he and Pepper said something to that effect.”

There was a tiny part of Clint that jumped for joy knowing Darcy would be in New York for the foreseeable future, and he didn’t know why it mattered--especially as he’d only thought of her in passing for the last couple of years. On occasion. When he didn’t dream about her holding a feather to him and saying his words.  But they didn’t Match this afternoon, and Clint still didn’t know who his soulmate was. He was disappointed, and wasn’t that a hell of a thing?

Her accent prompted a memory. “Kansas?” he asked.

She lit up, and, wow, Darcy with a shy smile that went all the way to her eyes was a hell of thing. “How’d you know?” she asked.

Yeah, probably not a good idea to mention he’d read her file. “I’m from Iowa,” he told her instead. “I know the accent. And the kindest people I’ve ever met were from a little farm in Kansas.”

Now why did that statement make Darcy clutch Jane’s feathers? But she only said, “I grew up on a farm.  Wait until you taste my pickles.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” he teased with a wink.

Steve snorted, Nat kicked Clint in the knee, and Darcy barked out a laugh, some of the tension draining out of her frame. “Alright, Iowa, maybe Jane and I will forgive you for taking her stuff in New Mexico, but only because you saved the world. Next time, you’re going to have to protect the whole galaxy.”

Iowa. Wasn’t that a hell of a nickname, after all these years. “It’s a tall order, miss,” he drawled. “But I’ll do my best to stay away from Foster’s toys.”

“You do that.”

Flirting with Darcy over dinner was easy, even if they both kept it light.  When the movie started, he leaned against Nat’s chair, alternating between watching the show and Darcy.  

When the movie was over, Nat shoved a sleepy Clint into the elevator and poked her finger into his chest. “What are  you doing, Barton?”

“I like her.  Liked her in New Mexico.”  

Natasha shook her head.  “Don’t do this, Clint. Darcy’s not one of us.”

“Coulson wants her. That makes her ours,” he insisted.

“Don’t think I’m not going to grill him on that tomorrow,” Nat told him. “Just--take it slow, Barton.”

“Kay,” he muttered, somewhat unhappily, as he shuffled off to his bedroom. Nat wasn’t wrong. Darcy was way out of his league and growing up on a farm somewhere with a real family was a far cry from a scrappy circus brat.

His feathers itched. He should have taken the time to oil them after his bath. For now, as he lay on his side, he rubbed his hands on the glands under his tail feathers, pressing so the oil would seep through the skin onto his fingers. Clint got the worse of the itches to settle down by stroking his forefinger and thumb along the base of the dry shafts. He fell asleep before he finished, dreaming about storm-dark eyes. I think you lost a feather.

When everything went blue, he woke with a shout.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

13/Only Fools

 

Clint needed two days to restock his bug out bag, get with Stark on new arrows to replace the broken ones, and meet with Fury about a laundry list of missions that needed someone with his skillset.  Whenever Rogers didn’t need him, Fury could usually find something for him to do.  Clint didn’t do so well with too much downtime. There was a reason he’d gained a reputation as a flirt. He and Nat had an unspoken agreement that the apartment was a no-fly zone for flings, so he kept that kind of thing to the S.H.I.E.L.D. barracks, wherever they were stationed.

On the job, he bounced between sniper and spy, preferring the former, though he wasn’t too bad at the latter.  He’d learned to be a charming showman in the circus ring, a pickpocket in the crowds, and a grateful bootlicker in the trailers. Natasha had taught him how to be everything else, from a bored college kid to a slick businessman on the hunt for his next deal.  And lately, Fury had been using him in other ways.

The director handed Clint a dossier on a tablet. “You’re sitting out the next mission with Rogers on account of medical, but I could use you on the comms for a situation in Algeria since you speak French and Arabic. I don’t have any handlers available who can do both.  Gregorovich will be running the op. She’s fluent in Arabic, but has concerns about the French influence on the local dialect and wants a second set of ears.  Our field agent has a meet with an informant this week, so this is a low-level op.”

Grateful to have something to keep him from getting bored, Clint nodded. “I’m in.”

“Good. I’ll let Gregorovich know. There’s a full briefing at fourteen-thirty tomorrow here at HQ, and the meet is scheduled for oh-nine-hundred Zulu. Gregorovich will send you the details.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Pay attention. She’s not Coulson or Rogers, but she’s a damned good handler for this kind of thing.  You might learn something.”

“Are you saying my skills are lacking somehow?” Clint needled.  

“Did I say that?” Fury retorted. “Get out of my office.”

Clint held up a hand. “Can I get an update?” Nick scowled, knowing exactly what he was talking about. The director dug out a paper file from the cabinet behind him.  

Talking to Darcy the other night reminded Clint that he needed to check up on the Kansas family who’d been kind enough to help him.  A conversation with Logan a ways back turned up the intel that the money Clint had returned to the family had been sorely needed at the time. Without a second thought, Clint had pulled five g’s from the bank and gave it Logan to pass along.

On a hot summer day, some fifteen years back, he’d been dazed, dehydrated, and in terrible pain.  Clint still remembered how the woman had stroked his face, soothing him with soft words while shading him from the hot sun with her own body. And the way the man had untangled his wings, easing the hurt with gentle hands. Later, feeding him and giving him a way out to a better kind of life with no expectation of repayment.

Clint thought about them frequently. It made his job easier when he remembered why he did what he did, and when Clint signed on with S.H.I.E.L.D., he’d asked Nick to keep an eye on the family.  The director wouldn’t give him names, but Coulson mentioned a few weeks later that he’d visited with them and let them know that when strange hunks of cash turned up in their savings account, it was legitimate, and given in thanks. He’d also given them a phone number to call for emergencies.  

They’d never used it.

Coulson had kept tabs on their savings account, and when it dipped below a certain level, he’d let Clint know. It was easy enough to drop a few grand in there. Nick did that now, to Clint’s gratitude.

Farm life was hard, and with the drought in its third year, Clint was sure they were going to need help.  He looked over the redacted bank statement -- no account numbers or names, but sure enough, they were scraping hard at the bottom and the crops had to have already been sold for the season. The occasional income that he knew came from the couple’s daughter was sporadic and usually deposited in lump sums three or four times a year. This year, it was a smaller amount than usual too.  

Nick had a wire transfer form ready. Clint filled in his account information, a dollar amount, then signed it. “Thanks,” he told the director, handing the file over.  

“Why are you still doing this?” the director asked, as he scrawled in an account number from memory on the other side of the form. “Haven’t you done enough?”

Clint tapped the paper. “Coulson did his homework. The money I give them? Sure, they use what they need and put some by for emergencies, but Coulson told me they pass the rest along. They’re good people, Nick, and they do a lot of good by their neighbors.”

“Still not your problem.”

“And I wasn’t their problem either.  But it didn’t stop them from helping me.”

“It’s your business.” But the director seemed pleased.  “Now get out and let me get back to my real work.”

“Yes, sir.”

Psych had not, surprisingly enough, had an issue with Clint’s private enterprise. He didn’t place any demands on the couple, nor did he ask for an accounting. It was simply something he could do with the life they gave him. (He knew where they lived, of course. It was impossible for him to forget.) Sometimes he wondered if they’d ever connected the circus brat with the Avengers. If they did, they hadn’t place any demands on him either.

In any case, as he climbed the stairs to the roof of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, he was grateful to Fury for the op to keep him distracted from his injury. Rogers wasn’t wrong for benching him, but still, as he launched himself toward Stark Tower, he mumbled his annoyance the entire flight. He didn’t bother with a sling. “I’m not a broken down carnie who can’t make a shot with a little thing like a sore arm,” he complained to himself as he took two steps to leap into the air, clearing the roof with a single, hard downstroke. The movement was instinctive now, but he still remembered the days of learning to fly without help.  

Running gave him his best chance to get in the air, but more than a few of the carnies thought it was funny to trip him up. They thought it was even funnier to pelt him with rocks as he tried to get aloft. But once Clint figured it out, it wasn’t long before the skies became his new home. And then Trickshot discovered a new way to keep Clint in line--

Deliberately shutting down those memories, Clint focused on the short flight from headquarters to home. It took less than fifteen minutes, even with circling the Tower a couple of times just to because he liked to fly. He banked to clear the vertical space of one of the Aerie’s open windows, taking the flight line straight to his balcony.

Faint noise from the Nest caught his attention. He glanced down to find Darcy in the kitchen with Nat wielding a knife on some hapless vegetables. Huh. Knowing how much Nat hated cooking was enough for Clint to change course.  He spiraled downward, angling so that the flare of his wings would catch their attention as he landed.

Nat spared him a single, withering glance, and he flicked at a lock of her hair in retaliation. She used her knife to send a purple slice of vegetable in his direction. Had he not caught it an inch from his forehead, it would have been embarrassing.

“Hey, I love beets,” he chided as he popped the piece into his mouth.

“You would,” Nat complained as he hooked an ankle around a bar stool.

Darcy held out a knife to Clint as he sat on the short end of the island.  “If you want to watch, you have to help.”

“Done.” Especially if it meant getting to look at her.  The t-shirt she wore was an old one, stained here and there, and it clung to her curves. She leaned down to pluck a cutting board out of a cabinet, and the curve of her butt was a thing of beauty.  He took the board easily when she held it out.  Plucking another beet out of the bowl, he winked at Nat as he made his own set of thin slices. “Do I get to eat too?” he asked, setting one of the pieces on his tongue. Damn, it was good. Fresh.  He hadn’t had raw beets since--

“Kursk,” Nat said.  

“Yeah, the old lady with the basket. Didn’t she throw it at me?”

“She thought you were a bill collector.”

“That’s right.”

Darcy seemed to enjoy their little volley as she washed her hands and dried them on a towel she’d tossed over one shoulder. “We had a bumper crop this year. I’ve got some roasting in the oven, too,” she offered. “Maybe another half hour.”

“These are homegrown? No wonder they’re good. Gonna pickle any?” he asked.

She thumbed toward the stove. “The rest of them are boiling.”

He was so damned happy at the prospect of a rare childhood treat that he missed his next slice and sent the beet rolling haphazardly across the island to fall on the floor on the other side.  “Aw, beet, no,” he mourned. Then promptly reddened when he realized what he’d said aloud.

Darcy burst out laughing--holy hell, she was beautiful--as she retrieved it and washed it off again. “You can eat the rest of that one.”

Doing his best to pretend nonchalance, he took it from her. He finished slicing it and happily munched on his prize.

 

*****

 

To Darcy’s surprise, she enjoyed the afternoon far more than she expected.  She couldn’t resist using Stark’s kitchen in the Nest for her pickling project--the six burner stove called her name.  Though, she did wonder if JARVIS had ordered canning supplies to make up for his gaffe the other day.  She’d planned to use deep pots with the jars and spices her mom had sent, but discovered a whole canning kit in the appliance pantry.  She asked, but JARVIS demurred, saying no kitchen was complete without proper equipment.

When Natasha and Bruce came through looking for tea, they shared a cup with her and happily talked gardening and cooking until Bruce needed to return to the lab he shared with Stark these days.  He carried a sandwich with him, promising to come back later to try Darcy’s creations.

Natasha seemed to be fascinated with the pickling process, though Darcy wondered whether the spy was simply hanging out to get to know Darcy better or if she genuinely enjoyed the conversation. In any case, Darcy had prepped a batch of beets to roast in the oven while they talked. She’d have them later with goat cheese and a vinaigrette of her mom’s recipe in a salad.

When Clint arrived, it was everything Darcy could do not to stare.  She wanted to see her soulmate, to ask why he’d point-blank rejected her two years ago, and why he was being so nice to her now.  Did he have regrets? Did he even know?  And why did she find him so damned cute?

If Steve was a slick city boy from Brooklyn, Clint was all mid-west with the scruff of beard he hadn’t shaved off this morning, faint lines around his eyes from the sun, and spiky hair. And if he wasn’t quite built like Steve, the long-sleeve black shirt Clint wore was pushed up to the elbows, showing off powerful forearms corded with thick veins as he wielded the chef’s knife. Flush against his back, Clint’s wings were black as a raven’s, but whenever he flared out his feathers, the purple glowed as the light caught on the barbs. She wanted to touch.

But she only glanced at him to smile a welcome, making sure she split her attention equally between him and Natasha. For Darcy, it was easy to see the love and friendship the couple had, and there was no way she would do anything to interfere.  Steve was right, of course. Natasha wore an arrow necklace, Clint didn’t wear a ring, and they definitely lived together.  That was enough for Darcy to keep her curiosity contained. Soulmark or not, Clint wasn’t hers.

Friends would have to be enough. 

So she concentrated on her project, letting Clint and Nat carry the conversation. When the beets finished boiling, she ran cold water over them and peeled the skins off.  Without asking, Clint reached over and started slicing the cooked ones.  His fingers promptly turned purple, and he wiggled them at Nat.

“Touch me with those and I’ll put sugar in your bed sheets,” Nat threatened.

Darcy let out a choked laugh. Like discovering Steve’s wry wit, she was sure not many people got to see this side of the Avengers. It wasn’t far off from the constant teasing and being up in each other’s business like she had with her roommates at Culver. Or maybe that was just a function of any closely knit group. She had to remind herself that in spite of Natasha and Clint’s absence, it was she and Jane who were new to the Tower.  She’d definitely missed this kind of cameraderie.  Working with Jane could be a lonely job sometimes, but the Nest usually had somebody passing through, even if it was just for a cup of coffee.

Clint waved a hand in front of her face. Darcy startled, not realizing how deep in thought she’d been. “I’ll finish the beets if you want to get started on the pickling solution,” he told her.

She felt her cheeks heat up. “Ah, sure.” As she stirred the ingredients she’d laid out earlier into another pot on the stove, she asked, “Do either of you cook?”

“No.”

“I try.”

Darcy gave Natasha skeptical look. Her pile of beets had been expertly sliced, even for someone comfortable with a knife for entirely different reasons. Clint’s were even enough. He’d used proper technique and everything, but they didn’t have the uniformity of Natasha’s pile. Still, it wasn’t Darcy’s place to argue the point.

She stirred the pot instead as Clint told a story about one of his disasters while pulling KP in the army. She hadn’t known about his service, though now that she did, it was impossible for her not to see the signs. Steve had them too. An awareness. A way of throwing the shoulders back and holding the chin up.  Natasha didn’t have that at all; she was lithe and sinuous, as if she could slip through the cracks like a cat sidling along an old fence.

When the solution was ready, Darcy worked quickly, loading the hot jars with beets and topping each one with the liquid. She ran a knife in each jar to let the air bubbles out, then wiped the rims clean and capped them with a warmed canning lid. The jars went into the canner with more hot water, she brought the temperature up to a boil and covered it, then turned around to clean up her mess--

--only to find Clint wiping down perfectly spotless counters.  Natasha had vanished, leaving Darcy alone with her soulmate.

“I figured if I cleaned up, I’d get a taste of the stuff you’ve got in the oven,” he told her. His smile should have been classified as a weapon all on its own. A little crooked, a little wry, and enough charm to wade through with hip boots.

“Do you get everything you want?” she asked, flustered by the way her heart thumped.

With a sharp laugh, he shook his head.  “Have you met Nat?  No.”

“How about on the job?” Darcy countered lightly as she pulled out the pan of roasted veggies and set it on the stove to cool.

The smile changed from charm to lazy arrogance. “I’m good at what I do.”

Darcy transferred the cooked beets into a bowl, drizzled a vinaigrette over them. As she picked it up to move it to the fridge to cool,  Clint plucked out a small chunk and popped it into his mouth.  His eyes widened. “Damn, Kansas,” he said after he’d swallowed. “That’s good.”

She didn’t mean to flirt, but she never backed down from a challenge, and the words tumbled out of her mouth without any interference at all from her brain. “I’m good at what I do, too, Iowa.”

He scratched his beard--just where his jaw curved down to his throat, a smug gleam in his eyes. He opened his mouth to retort, and Darcy had never been quite so happy to see Steve stroll through the Nest.

“Hey, Rogers,” she called out, deliberately cutting off Clint’s retort.

“There you are,” Steve answered. “Ah, the pickling project. How’s it going?”

“Just has to boil, and then I’m done.”

“I can’t wait. I haven’t had good pickled beets in a while.”

Darcy laughed. “Your definition of ‘a while’ has a whole different meaning,” she teased as Steve leaned against the counter with a hip. “Were you looking for me?”

“Uh huh.  I’m leaving tonight, so I’m gonna miss our date.”

“Damn it. You know I expect you to rearrange your Captain America duties around movie night.”

“I know. I tried.”  

She made a circling motion with her hand. “Turn around and let me look.” Steve did, and Darcy looked over his wings with an expert eye.  PShe smoothed a couple of feathers he couldn’t reach, scraping a thumbnail along the barbs so they’d hook together properly.  P“You look good.”

“Thanks, Darce.”

“Don’t break any feathers. You know that pisses me off.”

“I know, doll.”

“Go be a bad ass superhero.”

“Will do.” Steve hugged her, pressing a tiny down feather into her hand as he did. “I’ll come back for that.”

“I know you will,” she admonished lightly as she tucked it into her back pocket. Steve nodded to Clint and headed out, presumably to get ready for the mission.

“How long have you two been dating?” Clint asked.

The question elicited a snort from Darcy. “I’m not Steve’s type.”

Clearly, her answer hadn’t been the one he’d been expecting.  Those aqua-maybe-hazel eyes swept down her body.  “Don’t see why not.”

She debated how to answer, and finally she went with, “Sometimes, Iowa, it’s better to be friends.” The sharp look he gave her set her on edge, so she deflected. “Jane didn’t always have a mate, and I get bored when I don’t have something to do with my hands. When Thor showed up, I missed preening her feathers.  Steve … doesn’t exactly trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D..”

Darcy got the feeling Clint didn’t miss much. Nothing about this conversation felt right, but she didn’t know what else to say.  It’s not like there was a handbook for this kind of thing, and she didn’t know how much Clint knew about Steve’s mate.

Eventually though, Clint nodded. “All right. I’ll buy that. And on that note, I’m off to practice. If JARVIS asks, I’ll be back for dinner.”

“Bring a meat and two vegetables,” she quipped. “And wasn’t your arm in a sling yesterday?”

“That was yesterday.” Clint winked and left, presumably to go to the shooting range.

Darcy leaned against the counter, utterly confused. She liked him.  Natasha too.  But they were spies of the highest caliber. They could sell her any persona they liked. But hey, she’d had a whole conversation with her soulmate and hadn’t dissolved into a blubbering mess, so that was something.  



She took two cooled jars of beets to Jane’s apartment that afternoon.  “You talked to him,” Jane stated as she set them in the well-stocked pantry.

“I did.”

“He seemed nice last night.”

Darcy toyed with the ends of her hair.  “Yeah, he did.”

“Thor likes him, if that means anything.”

“So does Steve.”

Jane pulled Darcy into a hug.  “It’s going to be okay.”

“Yeah? I just don’t think I can do the whole ‘get-my-heart-stomped-on’ thing again, Jane. But I’m seriously beginning to wonder if he even knows we’re soulmates.”

“Did you notice the hearing aids?” Jane asked quietly.

“Yeah.”

“Thor’s been learning ASL.”

“Really?”

Thor strode through the apartment just then, apparently looking for Mjolnir.  (There had been stern words from Jane about unnecessarily calling the hammer.  Destruction tended to happen when Thor did that, and Jane liked their new home.)

“A deaf archer as an Avenger? How does that happen?” Darcy demanded of Thor.

“Because he’s very good. He will do well by you, Darcy Lewis.”  

Darcy shot a dirty look at Jane. “You told him.”

“I did not!”

Thor agreed. “She did not.  But is he not your soulmate? I recognized your handwriting upon his flesh in one of our sparring sessions.”

Throwing her hands in the air, she stalked away, only to come right back.  “He doesn’t act like he knows,” she told Thor.  

“So tell him.”

“And what, mess up his relationship with Natasha? Yeah, no, I’d like my bones to stay intact.”

Thor pursed his lips, bowing his head in a little nod. “It is your choice, of course.”

“But you don’t agree.”

“You must follow your heart, good friend. And now, I must join our captain.”  He kissed Jane good-bye and waved at Darcy as he left.  

More confused than ever, Darcy turned to Jane. “Now what?”

Jane only shrugged. “You said something about dinner?”

 

******

 

Suited up for battle, Rogers stopped in the range before departing.

Clint had come here to clear his head.  In spite of Nat’s warning, he’d been dazzled by Lewis today.  

The way she’d handled raw ingredients, turning them into something special. She’d been sweating and rosy-cheeked from the heat of the stove, but didn’t seem to mind it as she worked. Nat, with her usual finesse, asked all the right questions, and Darcy was happy to explain what she was doing.  Nat had a good time too, and that was rare enough for Clint to hope she could make a new friend.

He’d always been fascinated by farms and the way they could make food happen from nothing.  At each town the circus had stopped in, the cook would buy up whatever was local--fresh, canned, or pickled.  Eggs were nearly always available.  More than one farmer learned to show up early in the morning when the circus was in town to sell their wares.  

Nock, draw, loose. Nock, draw, loose.  

And Darcy herself was a mess of contradictions.  Flirty and confident one moment, withdrawn the next, and her eyes had tracked back to him time and again, though she was careful not to linger too long. He wanted to cup her neck and rub his lips along hers.  

Nock, draw, loose. Nock, draw, loose.  

He flicked a look at the Captain. Rogers seemed uncomfortable when he started, Darcy doesn’t have any problem with a hook-up, Barton, but maybe steer clear of that, okay?”

Clint was disappointed, to say the least.  “Didn’t think being Avenger meant monitoring my sex life.”

Steve gave Clint a hard look. “I’m not telling you to stay away from her. It’s easy to see that there’s something there on both sides.  I’m telling you to be careful, because you could do real damage. She’s been through enough.”  

Aw, Darcy, no.

But-- “She said something to you?” Clint asked, trying not to sound too hopeful as he landed another arrow in the spiral pattern he was making on his target.

All at once, Steve relaxed.  With a snort of amusement, he retorted, “Am I passing notes in class now?”

“Didn’t really go to school. I wouldn’t know,” Clint deflected. “Look, she’s nice enough, but if you want to warn me off, consider it done.” He heart clenched up as he said it, and damned if he knew why.

But Steve only rolled his eyes. “I didn’t say that .” He scratched the back of his head as he turned to leave. “Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”  

Barton lowered his bow again, utterly confused. Then he yelled to his departing teammate, “Did you just quote Star Wars at me?”

At Steve’s answering laugh, Clint’s mouth fell open a little.  Fuck.  He took aim again.  

Nock, draw, loose. Nock, draw, loose.    



 

Dinner that night was awkward at best.  Bruce, Darcy, and Jane all came to the Nest for dinner.  When the conversation veered toward Culver--and Clint hadn’t realized that all three of them had gone to the same school--he was left out.  It was Darcy who noticed, and asked Clint where he’d served in the Army. But it was too late, and Clint felt like a dolt.  

“Grunts go to the Sandbox,” he retorted.  “Didn’t exactly have time for college.”

Darcy tapped her fingers in annoyance as she got up to clear her plate.  Quietly, she told him, “You know, the whole reason I’m studying political science is because I hate what war does to people.” She glanced at Jane and Bruce, and came back to look at Clint with those beautiful eyes. “And I’m terrified to think about where we would be if you weren’t here.”  She dropped her plate into the dishwasher and left.

Shooting a dirty look at Clint, Jane went after her.  

“Darcy’s dad served in Iraq,” Banner said softly, toying around with the rhubarb pie he’d made for all of them. “I think she knows all about the Sandbox.”

Clint closed his eyes. Sometimes, he really was a dumbass. 

He insisted on cleaning up the kitchen, and afterward, headed down to the range for the second time that day, ignoring the growing pain in his bicep.

Nock, draw, loose. Nock, draw, loose.    

 

 

Chapter Text

14/One Star in a Wide Open Sky

 

The morning after that uncomfortable dinner, Clint apologized with an honest-to-god real bouquet of fat sunflowers that reminded Darcy of home, and a short, scrawled “I’m sorry,” on the card tucked inside. She put them on her nightstand so she could see them when she woke, and she’d be lying through her teeth if she said she wasn’t charmed by them.

The card, with Clint’s unmistakable handwriting, went into the box with his old letter and the feathers she’d collected over the years, including the one she’d been wearing. (If he or Natasha noticed, it would be weird. Not going there.)

He apologized again the first time they bumped into each other. He seemed genuinely contrite and kind of cute as he scratched the side of his head in embarrassment, making a point to ask about her dad.

It was impossible for her to stay mad at him.

Then there was the morning where she’d been in the Nest drinking coffee and trying to make sense of Jane’s newest draft for one of her science-y publications. Clint ambled through for a cup, and Darcy ranted to him for a solid twenty minutes about Jane’s inability to write a complete sentence. He found a bagel in the refrigerator, smeared it with cream cheese, then leaned against the counter, listening and making all the appropriate nods and grunts of agreement as he drank his coffee.

When she ran out of complaints, feeling a zillion times better and ready to tackle the English language all over again, she discovered Clint had this really amazing smile.

“Better?” he asked.

“Much.” She pushed her glasses up her nose to cover the heat in her cheeks. “And I’m guessing you weren’t planning on breakfast with a drive-by tirade this morning.”

He flashed her a grin that did swirly things to her brain. “I like this Darcy Lewis. Reminds me of New Mexico.” Clint crammed the rest of the bagel into his mouth as he ambled off. Not fair. His butt was a thing of beauty all in itself, even in cargo pants.

It definitely wasn’t the last interaction they had before Darcy went home for Thanksgiving, and by the time she left, she was utterly conflicted by her growing feelings for her soulmate and the sure knowledge that he was in a relationship.

Traffic sucked, the airports were jammed, and when Darcy arrived in Kansas City, she still had a two hour drive home in a dinky rental. Her credit card had taken a hard hit with the trip. She was sure she’d regret it later, but right now, she was more than a little homesick and just wanted to be with her mom. The stars had already come out en masse when she pulled up to the house, but that didn’t stop her from recognizing the antique bike parked out front.

Sure enough, a big man in an old leather motorcycle jacket rounded the corner of the house, smoking a stinky cigar Mama still wouldn’t let him bring inside. He set it on the railing as she hopped out of the car.

“Uncle Logan!” she squealed, going in for a long hug. She hadn’t seen her dad’s old Army buddy since before New Mexico, but he’d been a regular visitor over the years, staying anywhere from dinner to a few weeks at a time. Even as a little girl, his gruffness never bothered her, especially not when he’d set her on his shoulders and carry her for what seemed like miles back then.

“Hey, Darcy-darling,” Logan growled out, squinting as he looked her over. “When did you get all grown up?”

“When you weren’t looking,” she sassed.

“Guess you’re right.” He slung an arm over her shoulders as they walked into the house. “Look what the cat dragged in,” he called out.

Darcy rolled her eyes as she went straight to her mom for another long hug, and then into her dad’s arms and stayed there, soaking up safety and home. As always, Dad just held her. “It’s like a battery. Gotta get a recharge every so often,” she told him, as she did every time.

“I’m always here,” he agreed, with a kiss on her forehead. “Come on. Let’s get your things.”

 

Darcy was glad she’d come early in the week. After dinner, she would have fallen asleep on the couch downstairs, except her mom herded her to bed, where she crashed for ten straight. Breakfast was fresh eggs and toast while Mama gave her the rundown on the menu for Thanksgiving Dinner. It hadn’t changed since Darcy was little, but that was fine. Holidays were always more fun when Logan popped in. He ate enough for three people, and the leftovers rarely lasted long.

Logan usually gave Bill a hand on the farm whenever he showed up, and this time was no different. Today, Logan was replacing the timing belt on the old blue farm truck. He always seemed happiest when covered in grease, fixing something that should have been towed off to the junkyard a quarter-century ago.

Darcy sat with her mom on the front porch, cracking pecans for the pie they would make tomorrow. With the two men out of earshot, Charlene promptly asked, “So tell me what’s going on with your soulmate.”

“His name is Clint Barton. He has a nice laugh, a great sense of humor, a butt that belongs on a Greek statue, flirts with anything that moves, and has a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth when he gets flustered.”

Her ma snickered. “How did he take it when you told him you were soulmates?”

“I haven’t,” Darcy confessed. “He’s married, Mama. And he has a really important job to do. And he seems really happy with his wife. I’m not gonna mess all that up for him.” Somehow, telling her mom about it helped clarify the whole situation. “It’s supposed to be a platonic bond, right? So I’m just gonna be his friend. If there’s ever a reason to tell him we’re Matched, I’ll do it then.”

“But you like him.”

“Yes, I really do.” Darcy sighed. “You know Steve and I are friends now.”

Charlene chuckled. “Still weird that you’re friends with Captain America. You'll need to bring him here sometime.”

“He’s nice. The kind of nice you really, really don’t want to piss off. Ma, Clint told Steve he’s never Matched, so either he didn’t hear me or he’s pretending he didn’t. If it’s the first, then I don’t want to mess up his life now; if it’s the second, he definitely doesn’t want me messing up his life.”

They shucked pecans for a few minutes as they listened to the birds chirp. Finally, her mom said, “You registered the Match, right?”

“Yeah. I haven’t updated it though, now that I know his name. With all the stuff he does, if someone hacked the Registry, it could make me a bigger target than I already am.” She smiled at Logan as he clomped up the steps.

“A target?” he growled. “You?”

“You know I work with Jane Foster, right?”

Logan crossed his arms. “Who’s that?”

“Um, okay, you know the whole aliens-in-New-York thing? And Thor? And his brother Loki?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been working with Jane Foster since New Mexico. Thor is Jane’s boyfriend. Apparently, I’ve been seen with them often enough that I’m considered a ‘viable target’ for anyone interested in Jane’s research or wanting to get to Thor for some dumb reason.”

Logan dug around in his jacket for his cigar. He didn’t light it, but chewed thoughtfully on it for a minute. “S.H.I.E.L.D. got anything to do with this?”

Darcy sat up straight. “How do you know about S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

“Classified.”

“Holy shit,” she said in wonder. “What’s your code name?”

“You’re too smart for your own good,” he warned. “So what are we doing about your security?”

“I live in Stark Tower, so I'm pretty sure I'm covered there.  When I go to Columbia University in January, Steve said he's made arrangements with S.H.I.E.L.D. to escort me to classes.”

Logan arched a brow. It was rather impressive the way he did that--as if he had lots of practice. “You talkin’ about Rogers?”

“Don't know any other Steves living in Stark Tower." Darcy copied his eyebrow.  "You know him too?”

He snorted. “Heard rumors.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you have,” she snarked.

“You got my number, right?”

She rattled it off. “Memorized, not written down or saved in my phone, like I promised.”

“Good girl. Gods and monsters don’t scare me.” Logan went back to fixing the blue truck, and whatever he said to Bill, her dad gave her a long, thoughtful look before hunkering down on the other side of the engine.

“What have you gotten yourself into, Darcy Lewis?” Charlene asked softly.

“I don’t know, Mama. But it’s bigger than all of us. I’m just trying to understand it.”

 

*****

 

Clint limped off the Quinjet. He had bruises from ankle to elbow, and at least one cracked rib from a mission that was supposed to be a clean one and done and turned into a bar brawl instead. His right wing ached where someone had grabbed a handful of his feathers and yanked.

Natasha was limping too. A civilian got in the way, and Nat had intercepted a kick meant for the terrified older woman.

“JARVIS? Quinjet’s all yours.”

“Thank you, Agent Barton. I’ll make sure she is stored properly. Shall I send the medical staff to your quarters?”

Nat shook her head, and Clint answered, “Nope. We’re pretty good at patching ourselves up.”

“I’ve taken the liberty of increasing the temperature in the Aerie’s pools, if you would like to soak. Miss Lewis is in the Nest’s kitchen and has offered to make sandwiches if you are hungry, or I can order dinner after you have rested.”

Clint smiled at the passive-aggressive admonishment to take care of himself. He figured the AI must get plenty of practice with Stark.

Natasha changed her trajectory, heading straight for the pool. “Sandwiches, please, JARVIS,” she answered. “Tell her we appreciate it.” She stacked her weapons to one side and stripped down to the thin black briefs and the bra she wore under her suit and dropped into the water.

It took Clint a little longer to get out of his uniform, but when he did, he ducked under the waterfall to soak the dust out of his wings. The hot water felt great on his swollen muscles and when he sank down, the water took the weight of his wings off his rib, allowing him to take his first good breath since the fight. “Damn, that feels good.”  He forgot about his bruises when he caught sight of Darcy. She was barefoot, wearing jean shorts, a pink undershirt and a plaid buttondown. Her hair tumbled down her shoulders, and she shook it out of the way as she carried a tray piled with sandwiches, fruit, and chips. She set it down beside the pool on one of the conveniently flat “rocks.”

“I brought orange juice and water. I don’t know what you like to drink after a mission,” she told them.

Natasha let out a low chuckle as she selected what looked like a turkey sandwich. “Orange juice to vodka is a pretty good range.” She took her first bite, adding, “This is good. Thank you.”

Clint drifted to that side of the pool. He devoured the first sandwich in three bites, and picked out his second while he was still chewing.

“Yeah, we’re always starving after a long day on the farm,” Darcy said as she moved to the pool next to Natasha and dunked her feet in. “I wish we had a hot tub like this.”

“Get in,” Natasha suggested.

Darcy started to protest, then shrugged. “Okay.” She went in, fully clothed.

Clint wondered why she didn’t at least take off the overshirt. Then again, she tended to wear layered clothes everywhere--and that wasn't what he remembered from the last time he was in the midwest. It was two years ago, and most of the woman wore tight-fitting tops and short-shorts that barely covered their asses.

Then again, judging by the way the wet cloth stuck to Darcy’s curves, Clint had his answer. “Thank you, Darcy. I think we each got a protein bar this morning, and I’m pretty sure we burned through that.”

She lifted a shoulder. “You guys save the world; I figure I can feed you on occasion.”

Natasha picked up one of the cookies off the tray. When she bit into it, she let out a moan that made Clint’s eyes pop open. He snatched one up and stuffed it in his mouth. The pumpkin confection practically melted on his tongue, and he eyeballed Natasha, wondering how hard he was going to have to fight her for another one. Natasha glared at him as she got another one and ate the whole thing in one go.

He got a second one. “Damn, Kansas, that’s incredible.”

“Thanks. It’s my mom’s secret recipe.”

“Thank your mom for me.”

“I will.” Darcy seemed to enjoy drifting in the current the waterfall created, but now that Clint’s stomach was sated (for the moment, he’d be hungry again in an hour), the ache in his wing made itself known.

He couldn’t quite reach where it was hurting.  When Nat saw him struggling, she shoved him toward the edge of the pool. “Let me take a look,” she ordered. It took both hands planted on the rocks and a long string of deep breaths to hold still while Natasha lifted the tertial feathers.

“Darcy?” Natasha called out. “Come take a look. You know more than I do, I think.”

Clint couldn’t stop the shiver that ran through him as Darcy drifted closer.  But she kept her hands in his sight line, lightly tapping his arm until he released the rock. She picked up his hand and closed his fingers around her wrist so that he had a solid grip on it. “I won’t touch,” she promised him. “Not without permission. Jane taught me that.”

Wondering where in the hell she’d learned that trick, Clint held on while she leaned over his wing to look where Natasha was holding his feathers up.

Darcy came back to say, “You’ll need to ice the bruising. The pool will take care of the bent shafts, and you’ll need to preen that area to fix the rest of the damage. But nothing is cracked or broken.” When Clint let go of her wrist, she moved back to the other side of the pool, staying in Clint’s line of sight the whole time.  It was reassuring, and damned strange that she was so careful of him. He didn't think he'd telegraphed his issues.  Darcy seemed to sense his unease, and before long, went home to dry off.  

Clint moved to a lounger on the terrace to dry his feathers. It was chilly enough that he would need to finish drying them in the apartment, but he was irritated with Natasha and didn’t want to talk to her just yet. 

Natasha found him instead. “Lewis takes care of Rogers’ feathers,” she started. “If I’m not here, you can trust her.”

Clint grimaced. “You could have said something to me first.”

“Sometimes you go with what’s at hand. You were there, she was there, and now you know how she’ll be with you. She’s a better alternative than having Thor or Rogers hold you down while someone from flight medical tries to help.”

That elicited a full body shake, and he cursed at Natasha. She knelt in front of him, resting her hands on his knees. “Clint, you and I both know something doesn’t feel right at S.H.I.E.L.D.. Coulson’s on the West Coast. You and I only run about half our missions together. Steve’s getting stuck with the S.T.R.I.K.E. team, and I don’t trust Rumlow to drink from a sippy cup without spilling. I’m covering Steve’s back, but I don’t like the way this feels.”

Clint looked his friend over, and yes, she was sincere. “Your instincts are always on the mark,” he agreed.

“And so are yours. What do you think about Lewis?”

"How did she know I don't like to be touched on the wings, Nat?" 

"She always makes noise when she comes in a room." 

He frowned at Natasha, thinking back.  And yes, Darcy often knocked on a doorway, or spoke the moment she was in a room, even if was just to say, "Hi." She never, ever got close enough to startle one of the Avengers. "Oh. Her dad served. PTSD?"

Natasha lifted a shoulder. "That would be my guess. She doesn't think about it. It's too ingrained." She added, “Both Steve and Thor agree that she can probably handle most field medicine on any Winged One, and certainly daily care. That’s a skill set we don’t have on the Avengers team.”

Damn Natasha for being right. "I guess if Foster and Rogers trust her, I can too.”

She stood up, taking his hands as she did. “Come on. Let’s go get your feathers dry.”

Under the warm dryer, Natasha straightened the barbs of the battered plumes. It didn’t take long, and then they took the couch. Clint found a National Geographic special on whales, and Natasha stretched out beside him, making sure to take the side without the busted rib.

There were blue-tinged dreams, and Darcy telling him once again, I think you lost a feather.

 

 

Chapter Text

15/Adumbration

 

Between holiday galas and missions, the Avengers stayed busy during the month of December.  Clint kept the flirting to acceptable levels, and as Natasha never seemed to mind, Darcy decided it was just his nature and did her best to make friends with both of them.  

She spent those weeks training Jane’s new assistants, and when Darcy returned from winter break at the farm--her last good vacation before her PhD got underway--she put the finishing touches in place, making sure the team would handle the details the way her friend wanted them. Now that Jane was funded by Stark money, grants weren’t necessary, and Darcy was more or less out of a job, except as a proofreader for Jane’s publications.

When Darcy's classes started a week later, Steve escorted her each morning on his way to headquarters, and a rotating roster of junior S.H.I.E.L.D. agents escorted her home at whatever time she finished up for the day. Darcy spent the rest of her day studying--either in her room or in the Nest. Free time became non-existent.

Her thirty minute walks with Steve became the highlight of her morning, and dinner in the Nest made the long evenings bearable.

Darcy discovered that the Avengers all had entirely different perspectives on politics. Dinners became lively affairs as whoever was there that night debated laws and policies. In addition, Jane, Bruce and Tony had waded through similar statistics courses for their own doctorates, and Darcy found an outlet to vent her frustration with people who understood. It all made for interesting conversations whenever they got together for dinner, and JARVIS happily provided recordings of the relevant discussions for Darcy to dissect for her own research.

On mornings when sleep eluded Darcy, she headed up to the Nest where JARVIS would have coffee made by the time she arrived. She’d settle in at the kitchen table to do homework or research. It was easier than being distracted by the loneliness of her apartment. This was the first time she didn’t have any roommates, and she liked it a lot less than she’d envisioned.

It was on a Monday morning, with pre-dawn light filtering through the Aerie windows, that someone landed behind her as she was pouring up a cup of coffee. She’d grown used to the way the air stirred as the Winged Ones flew about the Aerie, along the soft double-tap of feet on the carpet.

She wasn’t expecting what came next.

Without a word, Clint shuffled up from behind to bracket her body against the counter -- not quite touching, though she could feel the heat of him against her back. One of his hands slid under hers to relieve her of the coffee pot, the other landed on her hip to hold her still while he drank from it.

Darcy waited, afraid to move, afraid to open her mouth, because if she said a single word, her growing feelings for Clint would come tumbling out.

The pot went into the sink, and Clint patted her hip as he shuffled backward to scrub at his face. “M’ sorry. Needed coffee,” he mumbled.

Clutching her cup like a lifeline, she turned around. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. Again. This time, she noticed faded white scars marking his skin, overlaid here and there with newer red ones. But none of that compared to the broad chest and well-defined shoulders that were almost in touching distance.

She sipped her coffee, unable to look at anything but the deliciousness in front of her.

He was ridiculously adorable. With eyes squished shut, he pulled a zippered hoodie over his wings so the feathers only poked out the bottom of it. His hair stuck straight up, he had sneakers on, and he rubbed one eye with the heel of his other hand.  “Ready for class?” he asked, stifling a yawn.

“Steve--” she started.

“Got called out. Asked if I’d walk you.”

“Oh. Um. I don’t have to leave for a half hour yet. I usually read when I can’t sleep.”

“‘Kay. Wake me when you’re ready to go.” Clint dropped onto a chair at the table and cradled his head on his arms. In less than a minute, he was breathing far too evenly to be faking.

Darcy couldn’t concentrate on anything but where his hands had been, on the remembered heat of him at her back, and the musky morning scent of feathers and sleep that all added up to one Clint Barton.

It was probably wrong on every level, but Darcy silently took a picture of him, saving it on her phone. She told herself that she would send it to Natasha, or maybe to Stark as a joke, but she knew she wouldn’t. It was impossible for her to do anything but look at Clint and wonder what it would be like to bury her hands in his feathers. To touch the hard muscle of his bicep, and trace the veins of his forearms. To kiss---she jerked herself out of the fantasy and made herself pretend to read the article she’d pulled up on her laptop.

When it was time to go, Darcy packed her stuff and called out, “Hey, Iowa, wake up.”

He peeled his eyes open. When she set a tumbler of coffee on the table in front of him, he murmured, “You’re an angel.”

Trying not to flush at the compliment, she gathered up her messenger bag and draped the strap over her neck for the morning trip to class.  Unlike Steve, who tended to be a chatterbox in the morning, Clint didn’t say much at all as they descended to the street level. And whereas Darcy kept a hand around Steve’s arm as they walked, Clint took her hand as they exited the Tower.

She pulled away at first, but Clint just drank his coffee, keeping one eye on her with a hand held out. Finally, she took it again. “Guess Steve told you about my inability to navigate the morning crowds.” 

“Something like that,” he muttered as he guided them into the thick of one.

Whatever answer she might have had was lost in the noise of the taxicab honking on the street next to her. She flinched, and Clint tightened his hand on hers, changing his grip so that his forefinger tucked between her pinkie and ring finger, and his other three digits wrapped around the side of her hand.

There were calluses on his thumb where it crossed under hers. She found herself rubbing the roughened skin as they walked. It was heady and distracting, and when Clint walked her to the door of Kent Hall, he squeezed her hand once before he let go. Then he smiled, and it was soft and sweet, his eyes crinkling at the corners. They were green today, her brain noted, with little flecks of brown.

Clint nudged her toward the door. Darcy hadn’t even realized he’d opened it. Mortified, she garbled out a thank you and fled to the classroom.

The scene repeated three more times that week, minus getting trapped against the counter, but Darcy was reasonably sure that was because she put a big mug of coffee directly in his line of sight each morning. Her libido did not need to suffer from that much temptation.

And then it was Friday, where class didn’t start until ten, which meant Clint was wide awake and had a million questions for her as they walked. Since the crowds weren't quite so bad, they walked side-by-side, though Clint didn't dare relinquish his grip. (Never mind the hundred conflicting feelings of holding his hand.)

“If you aren’t dating, why does Rogers give you a feather?”

“Because it reminds him that somebody gives a shit about him, and not because he’s Captain America.”

“What classes are you taking?”

“Two in statistical analysis and two in political science theory.”

“Sounds dry.”

“It’s worse than it sounds,” she agreed. “The fun stuff won’t start ‘til the fall. I’ll TA this summer and start outlining my thesis. I’ve got two more statistics classes to get through too.”

Clint had a way of scoping out their surroundings, and Darcy got a little breathless with the way the morning light illuminated his face when he looked up, the blue of the sky reflected in his eyes as he scoped out the buildings around them.  If he noticed her reaction, he didn’t say anything about it, asking instead, “Why do you get lost in crowds?”

“Because the only things I had to navigate in high school were three cows, a dirt road, and twenty-five trucks in the school parking lot. But I totally rock at driving, even in London.”

He grinned at her answer. “That’s a good skill to have. I have a Challenger in Stark’s garage. Don’t get it out as much as I’d like, but she’s a beauty when I do. What’s your favorite color?”

“Maroon.”

“Explains the hat. Do you knit them?”

“Yes, I do,” she said proudly.

“Will you make me one in purple?” Startled that he would want anything she made, she missed a step. Clint neatly pivoted, stepping in front of her to keep her from falling, his hands shifting to her waist. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she lied, panting a little from his warmth and the hard anchor of his chest where her hands had landed. And then he turned around again and they were off. “Purple hat?” he asked again, slanting a look her way, this time with unabashed hope and pleading eyes.

She laughed. “If you let me drive.”

With a comical wince, he grouched, “You drive a hard bargain. I’ve only had her for a few months. Do you like to travel?”

“Yes, I--,” she skirted around scaffolding on the sidewalk that she was sure wasn’t there yesterday, “it’s silly, but I like to find some little thing that you can only find in that place. Not a mug or a t-shirt, but, you know, those trivets made of Mount St Helen’s ashes, or an antique teapot from England. I got the best jalapeno jelly in New Mexico,” she remembered.

“Do you miss the farm?”

Unconsciously, she relaxed as she thought of her home. She flexed her hand in Clint’s, holding it a little tighter. “All the time. I love the noise and craziness of the big cities, and god, you can find practically anything, but I miss my home. It’s a different kind of life. Slower. Quieter. Money’s always tight, so you focus on what you really need, not just the latest toy you think you have to have. It’s … more real, in a way.”

She darted a quick look at Clint, who only held her hand a little tighter too as they dodged a couple of cars while crossing the street to the university. She glanced over her shoulder to watch the traffic.

“Do you like me?”

“Duh,” she retorted without thinking. Then she blushed bright pink, slapping her hand over her mouth, eyes going wide. “Let’s pretend I didn’t say that, okay? Natasha’s going to leave me in little pieces in the East River.”

With beetled brows, Clint asked, “Nat? Why would she--”

Darcy pulled her hand out of his and practically ran the last few steps to Kent Hall, her heart pounding. “Gotta go. Thanks for the escort. Later.” She slipped inside to press against the cool stone wall of the old building.

spyspyspyspyspy, she reminded herself. She’d read about interrogation techniques, and damned if she didn’t fall for this one. He got her relaxed enough to answer a bunch of questions and slipped in the one he really wanted to know.

Clint liked her, that was clear as a bell. And what did that mean for his relationship with Nat? Was he thinking of cheating on his wife? Did they have an open relationship? With the kind of work they did, the latter certain made a kind of sense--maybe. But Darcy wasn’t sure she could be a part of something like that. She had enough self-esteem issues without competing with someone of the Black Widow’s caliber. That had therapy written all over it.

With so many unknowns, Darcy had a low level of panic the entire day. She couldn’t stop thinking about holding Clint’s hand and felt like she was in middle school all over again. When Steve texted that he was back in town and would she please look over his feathers during the team movie night, gratefully she sent him a smiley face and a thumbs up.

But when her classes were done, her jitters spiked, and she dragged that afternoon’s hapless S.H.I.E.L.D. agent through the grocery store. She could have ordered groceries in, but hey, she liked to pick her own produce. Plus, she was stalling like a champ to avoid going home.

Eventually, she had to set the poor agent free. Setting her groceries on the counter, she kicked off her shoes and let her bag fall to the floor. As she slotted the last of the foodstuffs into the pantry, JARVIS announced, “Ms Romanoff is at your door. Shall I let her in?”

“Holy shitballs,” she swore, trying not to freak out as the butterflies in her stomach turning into bumblebees. Yeah, definitely not what she needed right now. “It’s okay, I’ll do it,” she told the AI.

Knowing Natasha liked tea, Darcy filled up the flowered pot and set it on the stove to warm before answering the door. Nat had a faint bruise on her cheekbone, but otherwise, no one would know she was an assassin, not with her Converse sneakers, jeans, and a Hawkeye t-shirt in purple and pink. (There was a declaration of ownership if Darcy ever saw one. She was fucked.)

“I’m bored. Can I come in?” Nat asked, friendly as she could be.

Darcy didn’t believe her for a second, but she gave Natasha a welcoming smile. “Sure. I just got back from the grocery store. You want tea? I’ve got cookies too.”

“Your cookies? Yes.”

Darcy bustled around the kitchen, setting out the box of teas she’d accumulated from Jane. Nat sat at the table and flipped through them, selecting a chai. “Cream? Sugar?” Darcy asked.

“No, thank you, I’m good. What kind of cookies do you have?”

“Those are lemon,” Darcy indicated the ones with yellow flecks, “and these are chocolate chip.”

Natasha made a happy noise, taking one of each. “Did you make these?”

“Yeah, a couple of days ago. Steve hasn’t found them yet, or they’d already be gone.”

Humming as she finished her bite of lemon cookie, Nat prompted, “You two are awfully close.”

Disappointed by the direction the conversation had taken, Darcy grimaced. “Gonna warn me off?”

“No. Steve needs friends.” There was a slight emphasis on the last word. “It’s good he lets you take care of his feathers.”

Darcy’s annoyance at the whole clusterfuck of everything bubbled out. “It’s something I can do,” she said curtly. “I’m not looking for a fuckbuddy, if that’s what you’re worried about. I can pick up one of those any night of the week.”

Natasha hummed again with a faint smile. “Clint likes you.”

Laying her metaphorical cards on the table, Darcy went straight for honesty. “I’ve known since New Mexico that Clint is married. It’s easy to like him, but I’m not a homewrecker. And you have to know he’s loyal to you. He made that clear straight off.”

Natasha tilted her head, eyes narrowing. “Clint and Bobbi divorced years ago.”

Confused, Darcy asked, “Who’s Bobbi?”

“Barbara Morse. They were married for three or four years. The divorce went through about the time Thor dropped in. And how did you know Clint was married? He never wore his ring on missions.”

Darcy’s mouth dropped open, utterly confused. “Back up. Clint’s not married to you?”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Why does everyone think that?”

“Maybe because no one in their right mind can imagine either of you settling for someone outside your talent level, and oh, you know, you live with him and wear an arrow necklace.”

“We’re partners. Best friends.” Natasha flashed Darcy a small smile. “Kind of like you and Steve.”

“Still not sleeping with Steve,” Darcy reminded the spy.

“Who said I was fucking Clint?”

“Why wouldn’t you be fucking Clint? He’s nice, he’s gorgeous, he’s funny--” and holy shitballs, Darcy said way too much, judging by Natasha’s sparkling eyes. “And you think of him as your brother. Which means cuddling, maybe crashing together so you can watch each other’s back, living together, but sex--ew.”

“Clint’s not the only one who can hit a bullseye.” Natasha picked out a second cookie, chocolate chip this time. “You know, I shoved him out of bed on Monday and told him to go find coffee somewhere else. He hasn’t shut up since then about the way your hair smells in the mornings.”

Even as relief swept through Darcy--Clint wasn’t cheating on anyone; he just straight up liked her--the tiny sound of terror that popped out of her was not a squeak. Nope. Not at all. Darcy had to find a chair just then, because her legs were not going to hold her up. “You set me up,” she accused, covering her face. “This isn’t happening.”

Natasha tapped Darcy’s fingers so she’d pull them down. “Clint’s a good judge of people, and he knows how to recognize when someone is attracted to him. He hasn’t been able to figure out why you’re keeping him at bay. Now that you know he’s free and clear, are you interested?”

“For what, a relationship or an easy fuck?”

Natasha shrugged.

Glaring at the cup of tea she’d poured for herself, Darcy insisted, “I’m going to need something stronger than this.” She jumped up and dug in the cabinet over the fridge, behind the plant, and under the decorative tray she had thought looked cute up there. She came up with a box of Godiva chocolates and dropped them on the table.

Natasha grinned as she picked out a truffle. “I like how you think, Darcy.”

But Darcy wasn’t ready to let everything just spill out. She nibbled on a piece instead. “I’ve seen Clint’s words.”

“He hasn’t Matched, and he’s past thirty. It’s highly unlikely he’ll find him or her. And the older he gets, the more likely it is to be platonic.”

Darcy frowned at that last piece of information. “I didn’t know that.”

“I was curious and looked it up. I’ve got a vested interest in Barton’s well-being.”

Well, that, at least, made sense. “I get that. I really do. But--Bobbi -- was -- is she a Winged One?”

“Yeah, she is. Another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.” Natasha almost seemed reluctant to confirm that fact. “A good one.”

If Darcy had any doubts about the road she was taking, that cemented it. She finished the chocolate, nodding. “And I’ve done enough hookups to know when the water’s too deep.”

“I think you’re selling Barton short.”

Oh boy. That meant Clint liked her more than just a little, but it still didn’t change the fact that Winged Ones didn’t take mates outside their own kind. Picking out her words carefully, Darcy told Natasha, “I have a mark. To a Winged One. That’s why I know so much about feathers. I’ve never expected anything other than a platonic bond since nearly every Winged One I’ve met has warned me off. But the Match didn’t .. wasn’t ... let’s just say it didn’t go so well. Definitely not like the movies.”

Instead of latching on to Darcy’s revelation, Nat asked, “Nearly every Winged One?”

Darcy retorted, “Thor’s not from around here; he doesn’t count.”

“But he knows about your soulmark.” The spy snapped on that piece of intel. Darcy inwardly winced, knowing she’d made a mistake somewhere in there, even if she didn’t know what it was.

Instead of confirming it though, Darcy selected another piece of chocolate before saying, “I like Clint. Enough that I don’t think casual is going to cut it. I think I could find myself awfully lonely when he finds another Winged One to fly with.” There. That felt intelligent and mature, and Darcy sat up a little straighter in her chair.

“I don’t have wings, and it didn’t bother you to think he was with me.”

Darcy waved her hand at Natasha. “You’re … you.”

“Clint’s not looking for someone like me.”

“And you’re saying Bobbi wasn’t a bad-ass S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who could probably fly circles around him?”

Natasha frowned. “She wasn’t what he needed. I think you are.”

Frazzled by the entire conversation, Darcy complained, “How can you be so chill about all this?”

Picking up her cup, Natasha sipped her tea. “I’m tired of all the pining. He gets grumpy. But he’ll have to deal with it. If you’re not interested, you’re not interested. He’ll get over it.”

Darcy’s mouth opened and closed like a fish a few times until she grumbled, “I wouldn’t say that.” She closed her eyes, already feeling the ache in her heart. She couldn’t turn away from her soulmate without knowing more, but the hurt was real, even if he didn’t know he’d caused it. “It’s got to be friends for a while, okay?”

Natasha settled back into her chair, looking like a cat in the cream.

 

****

 

She liked him.

Darcy Lewis liked Clint Barton, and that alone was worth finding a place to perch on the Aerie’s tree to think about for a while.

After his stupid move on Monday, he’d backed off to the barest minimum of friendly flirting. And that one was all because he’d been hard asleep from a straight thirty-odd hours awake to track and take down a target. The two hour nap he’d had before debrief and returning to the Tower didn't do a thing for his exhaustion. He wasn’t the only one, either. Natasha hadn’t even managed to dry her hair before shoving him over in the bed and passing out beside him. Clint sure as hell didn’t know how Rogers managed to get back in the air; he’d been on the same op.

Both Nat and Clint snapped awake at the cell phone’s ring tone, and Clint rolled up to an elbow to check the time. Oh-four-hundred … fuck it was early.

“Barton,” he answered.

“Clint, I need to ask a favor. The S.T.R.I.K.E. team needs an assist. I’m on it, but I don’t have time to arrange for an agent to escort Darcy this morning. Can you walk her to class? Or get with Sitwell?”

Rogers sounded like shit, and damned if Clint wasn’t grateful not to be him at the moment. “Yeah, I can do that. Time?”

“She needs to leave at oh-seven-twenty. And keep a hand on her. She gets lost in the crowds.”

“Copy that, Cap.”

“Thanks, Barton. I owe you one.”

“I’ll collect.” Clint disconnected the call and was out in seconds.

Three hours later, JARVIS woke him. Natasha wasn’t pleased at all when she grumbled, “Get your coffee in the Nest. It’s too noisy up here.” She promptly rolled over to the other side of the bed.

Desperate for coffee, he’d aimed straight for the pot without thinking about who might be in the way.

He’d been halfway to Columbia with Darcy in tow before he remembered that his room was soundproof, and there was no way in hell Natasha could hear the coffee maker brewing in the apartment kitchen. She’d been entirely too smug when he’d babbled about his bumbling move when he got home. But such was life with Nat. Whatever sneaky plan she had in play was probably several levels above his head.

None of it changed the fact that he was rattled by the way Darcy smelled like summer strawberries, and he could still feel the curve of her hip under his hand. And maybe he wasn’t the only one. All week, Darcy couldn’t hold his hand without brushing her thumb across his skin.

It was distracting as hell, and unless he was training or working, his thoughts weren’t far from her at all.

And oh, how she’d smiled today when he’d asked about her home. Even the way she held his hand changed, her fingertips dancing lightly on skin. He reminded himself that he was a full adult, a fucking Avenger, for chrissake, he didn’t need to get all flustered over holding a girl’s hand, even if he’d grinned like an idiot all the way to the Aerie.

He didn’t peg her for shy, not now and not in New Mexico. But something had clearly happened to make her skittish around him--and Natasha, for that matter--but not the other Avengers.

If she liked him, it made all the sense in the world.

Then again, Nat accused him of falling too hard, too fast, and Clint was certainly guilty of that in the past. Maybe to a fault. He blew out his breath in frustration. He’d already screwed up once with Darcy, and it had taken flowers and an apology to fix it.

She was the first person outside S.H.I.E.L.D. to hold his interest since he’d joined. Civilians simply didn’t understand the kind of world he lived in. The occasional hook-up didn’t matter, but anyone he’d been with for any length of time had come from S.H.I.E.L.D.. They understood the crazy schedules, the inevitable post-mission crash, and the potentially deadly hair-triggers. Neither Foster nor Lewis seemed to have any issues with the Avengers, though. Though insanity swirled around the two women, they didn’t seem to mind as they did their own thing in the middle of it.

Clint wondered what it would be like to be with Darcy, who came with family and a real home. Who had parents and maybe a dog on the farm, and had to get up early to take care of the animals, and to nail the barn door back in place, and to plow the field in the right season.

It wasn’t sitting on a roof waiting for a mark, or pretending to be a jaded drug-dealer. She’d want to know when he was coming home, and maybe he could tell her, and maybe he’d be so deep undercover he didn’t know when he could check in with his team, much less Darcy. And maybe Clint could have a dog, but he’d probably be a shitty father, and if Darcy wanted kids, he wasn’t sure he’d be worth keeping around.

By the time dinner rolled around, he was half afraid to talk to her, but from the garlic and ricotta scents wafting upward, he’d bet on lasagna or something else Italian. His stomach growled, demanding to be fed. From their shared balcony, Nat jerked a chin toward the elevator.

Clint was last to arrive, though judging by the number of dishes set out on the table, there was still plenty to go around.  A couple of chairs were still open--one next to Thor, and another beside Darcy. Nat glared at Clint until he took the latter. Darcy flashed Clint a warm smile as she scooted over to make room--but her shoulders tensed at the same time, and damn it, there were all those mixed signals again.

To get through the meal, Clint pretended he was on an undercover op and his job was to make nice with the locals. He joked with his teammates easily enough, using his good manners and slipping just enough to keep things casual.

Tony and Bruce were happy to keep the table occupied with their latest inventions. Jane and Thor talked about their short trip to Asgard. Darcy teased her friend about finding a whole new way to ‘get out of Dodge.’

Jane needled Darcy right back about not being able to walk in New York without ending up five blocks over from wherever she needed to be. Darcy took it in stride, explaining how it took two Avengers and a whole squad of agents to get her to and from class.

“The question I have,” she stated, “is who is paying for all this? Bodyguards aren’t cheap, and my cookies aren’t THAT good.”

“It’s a good training exercise for S.H.I.E.L.D. agents,” Steve said. “Low-level op, local, and backup is only a few blocks away. Plus, you make good cookies.”

“Fury bought that?”

“Sitwell did.” Steve shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt that S.H.I.E.L.D. still wants you.”

Clint’s first reaction was to flare his feathers protectively in Darcy’s direction, and it was a good thing he’d learned long ago to stifle those kinds of movements. He didn’t want her with the agency. She’d grown up with real parents, was smart and kind, had a solid chance at a real life. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents didn’t get to have those.

Darcy obviously caught the faint twitch of his primaries where they lay only an inch or so from her shoulder. She didn’t say anything, though she gave him a speculative look.

From the other end of the table, Tony insisted, “I called ‘dibs’. You guys can’t have her.”

“Let’s see if I can write the thesis before you guys have to fight it out,” Darcy retorted. “Talk about getting the cart in front of the horse.”

Clint drummed his fingers. “I didn’t get the memo about cookies. You holding out on me, Rogers?”

Natasha butted in. “There were lemon ones and some chocolate chip. Darcy is an excellent baker.”

He squinted at his friend. “When did you get some?”

“Darcy and I had a nice visit this afternoon while you were in the tree. You missed out.”

Oh fuck. See? Natasha had an agenda, and it definitely involved him and Darcy. Which he didn’t mind. Maybe. But it was safer to shovel a big hunk of lasagna in his mouth so he didn’t have to say anything incriminating.

 

Since Stark had licensed the Nest as a real movie theater, they had their pick of whatever was showing without having to leave the Tower. Pepper chose a comedy, but Clint didn’t really pay attention to it.

He couldn’t stop watching as Darcy combed through Steve’s feathers. Steve took up half the floor space with his wingspan and had draped one wing over Darcy’s legs like a blanket. He stretched out on the floor, face pillowed on his arms while Darcy gently checked each shaft to see if it was loose, or dry, or if the barbs were out of place. One of Stark’s vacuums hovered nearby with a quiet hum, waiting to waft up any chaff.

Darcy paid more attention to the screen than she did Steve, but she never missed a single plume, Clint was sure of that. Occasionally, she took the brush from the pot of oil next to her and dabbed it at the base of a feather, then worked the oil over the shaft.

This wasn’t anything like the casual preening that Bobbi and her friends did. Darcy was deliberate, her hands sliding from one feather to the next, stroking, running her thumb along the barbs, flicking loose feathers toward the vacuum, and moving on to the next. Clint was mesmerized, and for the first time, wondered if this was how it was supposed to be.

He wondered what Darcy got out of this.

Halfway through the movie, she stopped to flex her hands, stretching them to keep from cramping. She’d made her way through Steve’s right wing and had a good start on the left. Jane peeked at Steve’s face. She held a finger to her lips, indicating Steve was sound asleep.

Darcy ran a hand soothingly along the long radius bone at the top of Steve’s wing as she scooted down and settled in again to finish the job. He never woke, not even when Darcy ran careful hands along his tail feathers. She didn’t touch his glands though--that would have been too intimate for this kind of setting, and probably even for friends.

Though Clint didn’t know everything about Winged One niceties, he got that much, at least.

When Natasha leaned onto Clint, she squeezed his arm to let him know how tense he’d become, watching Darcy work through the delicate area. It was hard to watch, and harder not to remember.

“One feather for every miss.” Trickshot was resolute as he administered the punishment. Clint could feel the weight of a knee on his back, and the sharp pain as his mentor plucked out one of his tail feathers--

Nat drummed on Clint’s forearm to pull him out of his old memories. Unable to watch Darcy any longer, he used the back of the sofa to make his escape to the terrace. He had to fly, now, to remind himself that he could.  He launched into the night air, letting the sharp breeze whisk him upward. It took two hours of hard flying to shake the sick feeling in his stomach.

He didn’t know if he could be with someone who had to touch his wings, but when he dreamed that night, it was of sturdy, slender fingers drawing through long feathers.  

 

By mid-afternoon the next day, Stark and Thor had joined ranks with Steve, warning Clint to take it slow. Stark even sent him a picture of Darcy with a message, “Handle With Care.”

Clint stormed into his apartment, ignoring Nat, who was half-heartedly poking at a bowl of Lucky Charms as she watched a video on her cell phone. “Flirt with the wrong girl, and the gossip in here is worse than S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he growled.

But Nat just smiled, putting her fingers to her lips. She turned the volume up on her phone, and Clint could see that it was a video feed from somewhere in the Tower. Darcy had cornered Rogers and Thor both, and she seemed to have Stark on video phone.

“Steven Grant Rogers, Thor Odinson, and Anthony Edward Stark, I happen to know all three of your mothers would be twisting your ears right now. Do I look like I’m incapable of handling my love life?”

“Darce--” Steve started.

Darcy held up a finger. “Nope. You’re done. My life; my choices.”

She turned to Thor, who turned his hands up in apology. “I’ve only concern for your well-being,” he offered. “I have consideration for any of my friends.”

Stark babbled, “Yeah, um, Pepper’s already read me the riot act, and said I owe you a weekend at the house in the Hamptons, whenever you want it. Just, please don’t let this stop you from wanting to work with me, us … um, Stark Industries after you graduate, because Pepper’s really going to be mad and that never bodes well for my sex life.”

“I don’t hear an apology,” Darcy insisted.

“My bad. I’m sorry.”

She fisted her hands on her hips. “All of you are assholes. Steve, Thor, stop pushing. Stark, you’re not helping. When any of this is your business, I’ll let you know.” She stormed out of the room.

As JARVIS cut the feed, Clint rubbed his neck. That was the Darcy he remembered from New Mexico. The take-no-shit kind of gal who pushed back hard. “We're don't get to be happy in our line of work," he told Nat. "I think that's in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s training manual."

"I know that." She rolled her eyes. “But the pining is getting out of hand, Barton. Even Stark noticed,” she scoffed. “Ask her out.”

Considering, Clint shook his head. “She’s not my soulmate, Nat. I don’t know if I can do that to her. I like her. A lot. What if I hurt her? You know I suck at this stuff.” Natasha bopped him on the back of the head--hard enough to sting. “What the fu--”

“She gets to decide that part,” she reminded him. “Are you going to wait your whole life to be happy?”

Clint scowled at her. And then -- “Wait, what did she say?” he asked. “Pushing? Steve and Thor want her to go out with me?”

Natasha pushed her chair back, tucking her phone in her pocket as she did.  She walked away without another word.  

Damn it.  Clint was terrible at this kind of stuff.  

 

And Clint underestimated Darcy Lewis. She banged on his apartment door that evening. He opened the door to find her in slicked-on black jeans, a pair of alligator boots, and dark green t-shirt that hugged her curves.

“I’m going out,” she stated. “There will be lots of alcohol involved.”

Startled, he asked, “Do you want me to go with you?”

The look of resignation and disbelief she gave him confused him. “I’m planning to get laid. You gonna be my wingman?” The sharp sarcasm threw him, for Darcy was rarely unkind, but there was no mistaking the fury in her voice.

The spike of jealousy curling through his gut wasn’t a newsflash either, but it pinched all the same. He deliberately leaned against the door frame and gave her a lazy smirk. “I’m game for a night with you, if you want. It’ll be fun, I guarantee it.”

She closed the distance between them, resting her hand over his heart. “What are we?”

“Darcy--” he said, panicking a little. “I don’t--this--fuck”

“Are you married? On the other side of the Kinsey scale? Did Natasha threaten you along with the rest of the team?” she snapped.

“I was, probably somewhere in the middle, and only because I’m stupid.”

“You were married?” she breathed.

Clint raked his hand through the spiky hair on his forehead. “Bobbi. Mockingbird. She doesn’t have a mark, and I didn’t care. But we weren’t enough. Neither of us could get past the idea that someone else might come along for me, and that’d be it for us. Fought all the time trying to figure out what would make us break. We found out.”

“So it’s your soulmate’s fault?”

“No. If we’d had a little more trust, a soulmark wouldn’t matter. Maybe. I think.” Clint raised a hand to Darcy’s cheek, curving his hand to match the shape of her. “You don’t want me,” he said wearily. “You gotta be a little off to do what we do, and people like us don’t last long.”

Darcy squinted. “Somebody did a number on you, and gee whiz, you really bought into that crap.” She waved a hand in the air. “Sheesh, Iowa, that’s what shrinks are for.” From somewhere behind him, Natasha snorted in agreement.

Clint grumbled. “I don’t want to talk to a psych doc again.”

Rolling her eyes, Darcy said, “Aw. Grow up. You’re worth more than letting them win. And Clint? When you do? I’ll sleep with you. Now get dressed. Stark’s trying to get me back into his good graces, and he’s taking us country dancing.”

Clint tilted his head, letting his voice take on the flat midwest accent of his growing up years. “Ain’t no way you’re getting laid in a country western dance club in New York. They’re all gay bars.”

She snickered. “I know. I wanted to see your reaction. Nat?” she called out, “Want to see how many phone numbers Steve can get by the end of the night?”

Natasha eeled under Clint’s arm. “How’d you talk him into that?”

“The list of people who pissed me off this afternoon had a number of entries,” Darcy retorted.

“Should I ask?” Clint winced as he said it, mostly because Nat elbowed him hard in the ribs.

“Not unless you want to get on the list,” Darcy replied, a little too sweetly. “Be downstairs in an hour.” He kept his mouth firmly shut as Natasha shoved him toward his closet.

 

Darcy talked Clint, Steve, Natasha, Jane, and Thor into eyeliner and boots. How she managed that, he would never know, but they damned sure didn’t look like Avengers as they slid into the waiting limo.

Stark and Potts did their thing, because the bouncer waved all of them through the velvet rope. Clint had forgotten was it was like to dance until dawn, with sweat dripping and feet aching. It was fantastic to let loose and just be in the moment. He danced close enough to smell Darcy’s perfume. She rested her hand on his bicep as they moved together--sometimes in circles on the dance floor, sometimes ass to groin. Clint swallowed hard, looking to Steve for reassurance, who glared back as he fended off yet another prospective fuck.

Darcy laughed and pecked Clint on the cheek, then moved off to dance with Jane and Thor. Somewhere in there, Maria appeared at the club, and Natasha didn’t leave her side. Clint wondered if he wasn’t the only one who had a heart on the line.

They did a walk of shame at the crack of dawn that involved glitter, sequins, smudged eyes, several cups of coffee, and a whole box of pastries from the bakery down the street. There were snickers from Stark as they traipsed into the shared kitchen.

Steve, predictably, won the evening with the most digits. Somewhat mortified, he handed his phone to Darcy, who deleted them with practiced taps to the screen while she traded quips with Stark. Her face still glowed, even though her hair hung in tangled waves on her shoulders.  She still wore her boots--though by daylight Clint could see they’d been broken in, polished to a high-shine, and the heels worn from more than just one night on the dance floor.

Clint was reasonably sure that was the moment he fell in love.

 

 

Chapter Text

16/Trinkets

 

A single bead of sweat worked its way along Barton’s spine, taking the long way, and he was sure he could feel it slide around every vertebrae until it stopped on a tail feather. He ignored it, keeping his focus on the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the ground. They’d tracked their mark to an enormous mansion in Paraguay. It was tucked along the Paraguay River, just north of Asuncion.

Luna called the op, relying on Barton to be his eyes up high. Two years of work were about to pay off. Two years of infiltrations, bribes, and eliciting information from the right sources. Two years of steadily working up the ladder to find the leaders of a prostitution ring that spanned three continents and too many government agencies to keep secrets from. This was the kind of op that the World Security Council loved giving to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Which was fine. The agency did good work and only had to answer to the authorities when it was done.

Barton’s job was to make sure nobody left this end of the grounds. There were two other snipers flanking the area, and all three of them could serve as backup if it got down to hand-to-hand combat.

The field agents did a damned good job that day, and Barton only loosed three arrows. When the dust settled, he dropped down to the street to retrieve them and to check the bodies. Two were still breathing, the other … not.

“Got a couple of bad guys here who need medical and a set of handcuffs,” he radioed. “Got another one in need of a body bag.”

“Copy that, Hawkeye,” Luna said. A few minutes later, the medic and a couple of agents took over the goons, hoisting them to stretchers where they would start the long process of recovery, questioning, and most likely, a very long time in jail. The body was tagged and covered for the clean up crew to pick up.

Now came the fun part. Barton took a squad of agents through the property, checking each outbuilding for the handful of strays who’d preferred to duck and cover rather than shoot it out in the name of the bossman. Once they had time to think, it was 50/50 whether the strays would opt for jail and whatever lightened sentence they could get in exchange for rolling on their boss or if they were hell bent on staying out of prison.  

Oops, there’s one. It was easy enough to catch the guy’s gun-hand wrist in the doorway and force it down, but the goon had good reflexes too, rolling forward to take Barton with him. The goon’s henchman fired from the cover of their shed, nicking one of the agents. From this short distance, Barton used his sidearm to return fire. The skirmish ended as fast as it started, with no survivors on the goon side. Guess these strays weren’t keen on a little jail time. Barton and the squad finished clearing the property with no other action.

The death toll on the op was uglier than usual, and Barton found one of the junior agents throwing up in the bushes. But all Clint had to do was think about the people who’d been destroyed by these assholes. He’d read the dossiers, with pictures and statements from the victims and their families. That’s when he’d been in danger of losing his lunch, and it had been more than enough to give him a steely resolve to take these bastards down.

Once the cleanup and evidence crews arrived, Luna dismissed the operatives and the specialists, though he ordered them to stay close for half a day to make sure nothing else popped before returning to headquarters. Clint used one of the showers at the motel where they’d set up operations, changed into something appropriately American tourist (cargo shorts, ball cap, bright red Nascar t-shirt--nobody would remember his face), then slipped into Asuncion and headed toward the Plaza, determined to get a bowl of pira caldo before he left.

Mercados lined the sidewalks of the downtown buildings, with interesting restaurants and street vendors tucked here and there. Experience had taught Clint that the best foods were always local, hot, and fresh.

Coulson had introduced Clint to the soup made of fish native to the Paraguay River, and Clint kept an eye out as he wandered through an open market where lush fruits and vegetables filled the tables. Behind the stalls, he found a tiny restaurant that was little more than a window and a bright yellow painted sign. Clint stood on the sidewalk to inhale a big bowl of piro caldo . It was as good as he remembered. He went back for seconds, this time purchasing a half loaf of chipa for the trip home.

With time yet to look around, Clint wandered along the sidewalk, stepping around little families making woven rugs as he dodged the real tourists bargaining in dubious Spanish. The native Paraguayans were easy to spot as they unerringly sauntered to their destinations. Now that the offices had closed for the day, the bars opened, and any number of workers stopped in for a drink on their way home. On another day, the thumping music might have drawn Clint in, but for now, he had something else in mind.

In spite of Nat’s warning, Clint couldn’t stop thinking about Darcy.  It was true that he had a type, and Darcy had enough confidence and competence to land right in the middle. But behind the bright, wide smile, flirty winks and sassy quips, there was woman who worked hard, appreciated what she had, and didn’t expect any special concessions just because of her connections. As a professional spy, Clint knew how to look for hidden motives. Darcy didn’t have any.

Oh, she had her secrets, that was easy to see, but she wasn’t manipulative. Whatever she was hiding wasn’t something she would wield as weapon. No wonder she and Steve had become fast friends. Like the Captain, Darcy wasn’t above teasing or trolling her friends, but when push came to shove, she'd be in their corner with both fists up.

Thor had mentioned that Jane and Darcy were as close as sisters, and the only time Jane had been truly cross with him had been when he’d dared intervene in Darcy’s love life. Clint knew Darcy was equally protective and still checked on Jane at various points of the day to make sure she was in this realm and not somewhere in the Aether.

Darcy had confessed to that on one of their morning walks, when Clint had overheard her asking JARVIS for a Jane-update.  When he’d asked what that was, she’d quietly told him about Jane’s disappearance. She and Jane had a system now, a simple ping and response, so Darcy would know her friend was okay. JARVIS was helping wean Darcy off the need to check on her friend quite as often.

It was through the lens of Jane and Darcy’s relationship that Clint fully understood the one he had with Natasha.

Clint liked walking Darcy to class. It seemed … normal, and normal hadn’t ever been part of his existence.  She didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t a morning person. If he asked a question, she was willing to talk about most anything and everything with him. With her experiences, he often forget she was nearly a decade his junior.

And then there was the Saturday where Clint had made Darcy work on an escape route back to the Tower. Steve had practiced with her a couple of times, but she was due for a refresher. For someone like Darcy, who wasn’t a native New Yorker and still didn’t quite get the subway system, it was paramount that she have a plan in place.

They had entirely too much fun that day. Darcy rolled her eyes and scoffed when Clint pointed out places with double entrances, or where to catch the subway at a different stop, and how to hide in a crowd. They squabbled when she stopped for a hot dog in the middle of the street, reasoning that bad guys couldn’t pass up a geniune New York specialty, and she might as well have some lunch while she was at it.

But when Clint quizzed her a week later, Darcy recited almost everything he’d taught her as she pointed out all the ways she could get back to the Tower. The sarcasm, he discovered, had been to cover how scared she was that she might actually have to use the information.  

Darcy fascinated him, and he didn’t have any idea how to be with a woman like her.   Dating wasn’t something he’d ever done. But she liked him, and he sure as hell liked her. Probably, if he was to be honest, he was few steps past like by now--though he wasn’t sure he’d call it love. Infatuated? Dazzled? He didn’t know. But he knew wanted to snuggle up on the sofa with her, wanted to make love to her until she was exhausted, and wanted to hold her through the night.  

But he had no idea how to get from Point A to Point B, and for now, he had something else in mind. Most of the souvenirs in the stalls were the usual jewelry or leather wallets, but when he stumbled across something different--it was perfect, really--he had to conceal a gleeful smile. After a little negotiation, the seller was happy to accept the American twenty dollar bill Clint had in his pocket.

A taxi got him to the edge of the city, where he only needed to make a short flight to reach the private airstrip where S.H.I.E.L.D. had parked the A400M--a medium weight cargo jet that Clint had been cleared to fly just six months back. The setting sun over the river made a stunning picture, and if he were a photographer, he’d have been entranced.

But he was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and agents didn’t do things like take pictures of places where bad guys had been displaced just hours back. He tapped his earpiece. “Control, Delta-Hotel-zero- four- niner requests for active,” he announced.

A bored voice on the coms answered, “Active at one nine five.”

Clint banked right, lining up so that Control could get eyes on him. S.H.I.E.L.D. had developed a pretty good system for identifying friendly Winged Ones entering secured airspace. Once he checked in, he was free to drop in practically on top of the cargo jet, if he wanted. As it was, he landed on the deck with minutes to spare, his prize tucked under his shirt.

“Thought you were going to have to flap your way back to New York, Hawkeye,” Luna snarked.

“And how was your dinner?” Clint shot back.

Luna scowled. “Probably not as good as whatever you sucked down. How do you know these things?”

“Coulson.”

“Shit.” Luna drummed his fingers.

With a smirk, Clint crossed his arms and kicked back into his seat for a little shut eye. He’d have to let Coulson know his legendary reputation just got another boost.

Clint wondered what Coulson would make of him buying gifts again. The handler had clued him on what it meant when he itched to give things to people. There weren’t many. But Coulson got neck ties, Nat never ran out of delicate French bon bons, and a tiny statue of an elephant that looked a lot like Sally had mysteriously ended up in Fury’s office.

Nope. There weren’t many at all.

 

*****

 

“I’m going to miss you,” Darcy told Steve. “I know it’s stupid. I’ve been here for all of five months, but you and Jane are totally my BFFS.”

With those earnest blue eyes, Steve rested his hands on his hips. “If it makes you feel better, Stark’s giving me hell, too. He likes having all of us in one place.”

“It doesn’t. Just invite me for a weekend or something. When are you leaving?”

“My apartment will be ready on Saturday.”

“Two days?” Yeah, there was a whine in there. Steve held his arms out, and Darcy went for the hug. “This totally sucks. But I get it. Gotta go where the work is.”

“I’ll stop in when I can. It only takes me an hour if I fly, and it will be good to stretch my wings.”

“Is that safe?”

Steve grinned. “I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.”


Darcy tried to mope about Steve’s transfer to DC, but honestly, she had a shit ton of reading to do, two papers to write, and she needed to make tracks on her term projects.

A knock on the door roused her from her books. “Come in,” she yelled, blinking to refocus as she looked up. Oh crap. Her apartment looked like Bruce had turned green and stormed through about a week ago. There were coffee cups and cereal boxes scattered all over the place, and she’d left empty yogurt cups stacked on every available surface.

With Jane and Thor somewhere in Europe and Bruce gone to Malibu with Stark, Darcy had buried herself in her studies, completely losing track of what day it was. She remembered going to class that morning, escorted by a junior S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with a distinct lack of a sense of humor.

As the door opened, she squinted at her laptop clock, frowning when she realized it was already late afternoon.

She should have noticed his eyes first, but really, Clint’s shoulders stretched out his sleeveless black shirt in truly magnificent ways, and those cargo pants highlighted everything that was gorgeous and fuckable about her soulmate. He flexed those incredibly sexy biceps when he caught her looking, and yeah, she noticed that too. Damn it, the gods weren’t playing fair today. She pushed her glasses up for better look as she set her laptop aside and tried to extricate herself from the mess.

Yeah, okay, she got around to noticing his eyes were on the blue end of the spectrum today, and that his dirty blond hair was carelessly spiked. But really, her hormones just couldn’t take this soulmark thing platonically after a solid four-month drought in the sex department and discovering one Clint Barton was very much available. Maybe she lingered looking at his bottom lip where it curved into an half-smile, but some part of her brain kicked in, and she managed a greeting of sorts.

“Hey, you’re back.”

Clint shrugged as he took a step inside, where he immediately halted. His mouth dropped open in awe at the disaster zone. “Did a tornado come through here, Kansas?”

He put a hand out as Darcy tried to step over a stack of periodicals. She took it, and no, she didn’t want to let go when she was safely in a small clearing. But she did, and her fingers tingled where they’d touched. “My place doesn’t exactly come with housekeeping,” she apologized, looking around. Flushing a little as she scraped back her hair with one hand, she admitted, “My mama would have a fit if she saw this.”

“Want help?”

Her mouth fell open. “Seriously? You did not come here for that.”

Almost shyly, Clint offered, “Plenty of time to clean the barracks in the Army. Besides, JARVIS promised pizza for dinner.” He gave her place a long look. “If I don’t lend a hand, I’m not sure you’ll make it out,” he added.

Darcy couldn’t remember the last decent meal she’d eaten. It had to have been in the Nest because her grocery money was running thin, and that had been … hmm … Sunday? Monday? When did everyone leave? She wrapped her arms around her waist as exhaustion and worry swept over her. She’d been trying to keep it all at bay, but she was overwhelmed by her classes, missing Jane, missng Steve, and this whole thing with Clint all had her reeling in confusion. Not to mention, now that Clint had pointed it out, she was starving. “What day is it?” Darcy asked him.

“Friday.” Clint cupped her face with both hands, real concern in his eyes (faded blue denim, with little flecks of gold, she noted). “Darcy?”

She leaned into his touch--oh holy shitballs that felt nice--and the callused tips of his fingers warmed her cheeks. “This week’s kind of sucked,” she admitted.

“Looks like it.” Clint shifted one, then two steps closer. Slowly, gently, he closed his arms around her, giving her plenty of time to duck away.  Instead, she pressed her head to his shoulder, a little unsure of what to do with her hands. After a moment, she set them on the waistband of his pants--that was safe enough--where the tips of his covert feathers brushed her knuckles. When she inhaled, Clint was all sage and mint. Darcy found it ridiculously soothing, like a good warm tea on a miserable day.

But when he drew those fingertips along the line of her spine, she tried not to gasp at the electric sensations ripping through her. It was totally a miss, and Clint huffed at the sound she emitted.

He waited, letting her take the lead. It could have turned into sexytimes with a turn of the head and a meeting of the lips. But Darcy was maybe a little in love already because the idea scared the crap out of her.  Instead, she held on until the hug threatened to become awkward, and maybe it already was, because she really wanted to put her nose in that warm skin where his throat met his collarbone.

She dug up a bright smile and let go, letting her fingers drag along his waist--and maybe Clint wasn’t unaffected, because it took a deep breath and a scrape of fingers through short blond hair for him to smile again. “Last chance to take it back before I take you up on it,” she warned.

“Bring it on, Kansas.” Clint laced his fingers and turned them out, pretending to crack his knuckles in preparation. (The muscles rippled along his arms, not fair.) Of course, the first thing he picked up was a teal green bra sitting on the edge of her couch. “Nice,” he complimented with a salacious wink.

Darcy cracked up laughing as she snatched it out of his hand. “There’s more where that came from,” she teased. “And I’ve made the executive decision that you get the kitchen. I’ll be in charge of laundry.”

Clint grinned. “Is that a permanent chore list?” He picked up a couple of empty cereal boxes and broke them down for the recycling bin.

Darcy found her laundry bag under the end table and stuffed the bra in, along with a variety of socks, two more bras--sue her, they got uncomfortable--and a blanket that probably needed to be washed too. “I don’t know. How long are you planning to stick, Iowa?”

“As long as you want me.”

Aaaaaand, that’s when Darcy discovered she was in a whole ‘nother league in the flirting game. That statement was loaded with more layers of meaning than she could to delve into right now. But she wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. She stuck her hands on her hips. “Guess we’ll see how well you can clean the kitchen.”

Clint winked and got down to business. As he dug through her cabinets for cleaning supplies, he began to sing--at first under his breath, then, when he discovered Darcy humming along, loud enough for her to get a better appreciation for his voice. It was nice, and he started with Ed Sheeran’s latest, slid into Jason Aldean for a couple of songs, then moved onto classic Billy Joel. Later, he threw in some Sinatra and Eric Clapton just for fun, but Darcy had been raised with a couple of parents who had eclectics tastes, and she knew all the words to those too.

It was clear to her how well their musical tastes meshed, and maybe there was more to this soulmark thing than Darcy expected. Not only that, it didn’t take them much more than an hour to muck out her place entirely, and that included Darcy shoving most of her things into the washing machine.

Clint stopped singing at one point, frowning at the state of her pantry and fridge. “You have JARVIS in here, right?”

“I do.”

“Then why don’t you have him deliver groceries? You can’t live on cereal and yogurt.”

Holy shitballs. Spies again. They notice things. “JARVIS knows I like going to the grocery store myself.”

“All right.” Clint tipped his head back, mashing his lips together while thinking. “I’m supposed to be at HQ tomorrow at ten. I’ll be back around one. We can drive out to the Bronx and stock up.”

Darcy looked up from where she was straightening the pictures on her fake fireplace mantle. “Pretty sure that’s not on the list of things Avengers have to do.”

Clint leveled a hard look at her. “And who went with you before? Steve?”

She closed her eyes, heat rising in her cheeks, feeling stupid for not realizing. “He always asked to go with me on my errands. I thought he wanted to go out into the City for a while.” She swallowed hard over the lump on disappointment. “I didn’t know he was playing bodyguard.”

A dish towel smacked her lightly in the chest. “Hey,” Clint chided as he walked toward her. “Steve’s your friend. Is there any reason he couldn’t do both?” He raised his eyebrows. “Is there any reason I can’t do both?”

“Seems like a lot of trouble for someone who was in the right place at the wrong time.” She tried to be flippant, but ended up sounding bitter.

“Selvig’s got a detail on him too,” Clint told her. “Got an agent set up as one of his T.A’s. Selvig’s distance from Foster and Thor make him less desirable as a target, but he still warrants extra protection.”

Incredulous, and maybe feeling a tiny bit better, Darcy asked, “How’d you manage that?”

Clint leaned on her front door, crossing his arms. (Don’t get distracted by the gun show, Darcy.) “S.H.I.E.L.D. has all kinds. Wasn’t hard to find someone who wanted to clock a few more hours for their degree. Selvig knows and gives us a tidbit of data every now and again in return.”

“That’s nice of him.”

“It is, isn’t it?’ Clint looked around. “We done here?”

“Yes.” Darcy crossed the living room and leaned up to kiss his cheek. “Thank you.”

He nodded once, lighting up at the soft touch. “You coming for pizza?” It was impossible not to hear the wistful hope in his question.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” she promised.

“I’ll hold you to it,” he said as he slipped out the door.


When she’d showered, dressed, and was heading out, she spied a little round object on her much, much cleaner kitchen island.

“JARVIS? What is this?” she asked, picking it up. It was a ceramic ball, hollow, with white markings and several holes in various places.

“That is an ocarina, a classification of musical instruments dating back more than ten thousand years. There are a number of variations in the design, depending on the continent and culture of origin. The one you are holding is considered the Peruvian type, and is occasionally sold as a souvenir. The markings indicate it likely comes from the central regions of South America.”

Darcy blew into it, covering various holes to make different sounds. “Um, did Clint sneak back in, or was it here when he left?”

“The latter, Ms Lewis. You have not changed your security protocols to allow Agent Barton entry without your permission, nor did he attempt otherwise.”

As she cradled the small gift, she decided it was a sweet gesture, and meant that he remembered how much she like the weird and cool from other places. She turned the instrument over in her hands, wondering what Clint meant by it. Since she hadn’t done more than look at his feathers weeks ago, it couldn’t be for that.

But like today, Clint seemed to appear wherever she was. He walked her to class when he was off-mission. If she took a break in the Nest or the terrace, he inevitably found an excuse to come around--sometimes it was to get something to eat, or drink coffee, or even just to sun his feathers.

This was the first time he’d come to her apartment, though. For sure though, she’d been holed up all week and hadn’t known he’d returned home. Curious, she asked JARVIS, “When did Clint get back?”

“Agent Barton has been in residence since two fourteen this afternoon.” The AI added, “It appears he took time to refresh himself from his mission before coming to visit you.”

“Are you matchmaking again?” Darcy asked suspiciously. She really didn’t need the fantasy of Clint in the shower, all naked and dripping wet, but hey, there it was.

“Merely providing relevant information to the situation. Sir appreciates such diligence.”

She rolled her eyes. “Sure. We’ll call it that.” On impulse, she set the ocarina down and retrieved her knitting needles and a ball of purple yarn from the bag in her bedroom where she’d stashed them. She took them with her to the Nest.

It was just Clint, Natasha, and Darcy for dinner that night. They demolished the pizza and agreed on a heist movie. Darcy got a kick out of watching that kind of thing with professional spies as they picked apart the details. Clint and Nat huddled up on one end of the sectional; Darcy took the other. When she picked up her needles, Clint ducked his head--yes, there was that shyness again--as he realized what she was doing.

Throughout the movie, he alternated between watching the show and watching her knit. By the end, she’d finished a simple beanie for Clint. (It was pure coincidence that the purple exactly matched his feathers. Really.) She tied it off and lobbed it into his lap.

Natasha leaned over Clint to finger the yarn. “What is it? It’s soft.”

“Alpaca wool,” Darcy answered.

“What do I have to do to get one?”

Darcy laughed at Natasha’s bratty demand. “I love knitting. It’s relaxing, and I can’t possibly use all the stuff I can knit. Just tell me what color you want.”

“Black, of course.”

But there was something in the way that Natasha answered -- as if she’d given the expected answer, not the one she wanted. “What color are your favorite pajamas?” Darcy prompted.

Clint chuckled. “Pink. Baby pink. Ballet pink. Pink like tiny princesses with tutus.”

Nat rolled her eyes, though she didn’t deny it. “I can’t wear a pink beanie at S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Setting his hat on his head, Clint patted it all over to check the fit, saying to Natasha. “If you showed up in a pink beanie, all of the junior agents and most of the senior agents would go into lockdown. Half of them would be afraid to say anything to you about it; the other half would be afraid NOT to say anything.” Clint gave Darcy a pleading look. “ Please knit her a pink hat. I want to watch, and Fury will want to start a betting pool.”

With ideas dancing in her head, Darcy lifted a shoulder. “I’ll see what I can do.” She gathered up her needles and yarn. “I’m off to bed, guys. I’ve got a paper to knock out in the morning.” Per tradition, she fist-bumped both of them as she passed by, though Clint tilted his head to watch her leave.

She glanced back to find Clint still looking her way. Shit. Yeah, she was already in love. Now, she just wondered how long it would last.

As Darcy moved the ocarina to the shelf above her bed, she wondered exactly why Clint had given it to her.


At one o’clock sharp the next day, Clint rapped on her apartment door. “Coming, coming,” Darcy yelled as she gathered up her grocery sacks and her purse. She glanced in the mirror, making sure she didn’t look like death warmed over. Hair was still bouncy. Eyeshadow still properly smudged. Nose still powdered. Excellent. Still good.

Clint wore the cap she’d knitted, with a white t-shirt with a purple target bullseye on it, a dark leather zipper jacket, jeans, and purple converse sneakers. He looked nothing like an Avenger, and damn but she wanted to run her knuckles along the shadow of a beard that had grown in overnight.

The tips of his primaries flared as she waved hello. “Ready?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

The drive to someplace bigger than the delis and bogatas surrounding Stark Tower was fun. They took Clint’s Challenger. Darcy had been expecting an older model for some reason, but it looked brand new.

Clint lifted a shoulder when she asked. “I like to dink around on cars, do my own brakes and oil changes, that kind of thing. But a whole rebuild? I don’t have that kind of time.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Maybe if get a place where I can set up a real garage,” he mused.

“I sold my car when I moved to London,” Darcy admitted. “I miss driving, but it’s just not worth the trouble in the big cities. Jane had this awesome ATV in New Mexico.”

“I forgot you drove that thing.”

“Not a big boost from a farm truck to an ATV.”

“True.”

“What was your first car?” Darcy asked.

Clint chuckled. “You’re sitting in it.”

Darcy grinned. “Okay, what was the first car you drove ?”

“Trucks in the circus. Trucks in the Army. And I fly or drive anything I can get my hands on at S.H.I.E.L.D.”

In the time Darcy had known Clint, he hadn’t mentioned the circus at all. She hadn’t known how to bring it up--or even if she should. But with that kind of opening, Darcy recited the opening words she remembered from so long ago, “Now introducing the one, the only, the Amazing Hawkeye. Come see the World’s Greatest Marksman. He never misses!”

With a pained wince and a sharp glace, Clint asked, “How did you know about that?”

Whoops. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything. But she answered, “I’ve seen you perform. Flaming arrows and all.”

As a car left a street parking slot, Clint whipped the Challenger into it with practiced ease. “We’ll have to walk the rest of the block,” he told her as they got out. Darcy strapped her purse across her body as her roommate New York had taught her back in college.

Clint seemed uneasy, keeping his plumage firmly clamped against his body, his eyes flickering to the buildings and street surrounding them. He reached for Darcy’s hand. She took it without hesitation, and there was no mistaking the way some of the tension eased in Clint’s shoulders as she did. “When --when did you see me?” he asked.

Darcy pushed her glasses up her nose with her free hand. No, this wasn’t the time to admit she’d seen him at the end of his run with the circus. Instead, she went for the truth on the other side of the timeline. “I was three and had a fascination with anything with feathers. I begged my parents to go. You should have seen the poor pink stuffed flamingo I carried around everywhere.” She hesitated, then added, “You had black feathers back then. I think I still have one of them at home.”

They made it into the grocery store, where Darcy dropped a quarter into the cart rental slot. She had a list and squinted as she got oriented in the store.

Clint took the basket and pushed it as she walked beside him. “You really like feathers.”

“Yeah, I do,” she answered as she set apples and oranges into the cart. It was freakin’ domestic shopping with Clint. Then again, she never got farther than the corner markets with Steve around. He had a nose for which one had a particular ingredient on the shelf and liked exploring. This was more like home, and Clint seemed perfectly comfortable leaning on the basket.

“Is it about flying?”

“Not really.” Darcy stopped long enough to pull a box of pasta off the shelf. She was so making her Mama’s meat sauce by the vat. She could eat for weeks -- or, you know, one good meal with the Avengers. And whoa, talk about not wanting to have this particular conversation right this minute. “You know me. I like having something to do with my hands. I can only knit so much.”

“Hey, I like my purple.” Clint touched his new hat.

“You won’t say that when you have matching blankets, socks, sweaters, scarves, and gloves.”

“Can you make fingerless gloves?”

“Yeah.”

“I want some of those.”

“Purple?”

“How’d you guess?” he teased.

“Dumb luck.”

Clint grinned at her cheeky reply. As she located the rest of the items on her list, he asked, “Why don’t you let JARVIS order for you? Seems like it would be easier with your schedule.”

“Because JARVIS doesn’t let me pay for anything. It’s bad enough I use the Nest as much as I do, considering I’m not an Avenger, but I’m trying not to sponge off Stark. I don’t want to feel obligated to work for him when I graduate. I don’t feel quite so guilty about the apartment. It’s technically Jane’s, and she owes me.”

That earned her a look of respect. “What else do you need? Cereal? Pop Tarts?”

“Ugh,” she groaned. “I had enough Pop Tarts in New Mexico. I think the convenience store had nothing but preservatives.” Darcy tugged the end of the basket toward the checkout stand. Taking the hint, Clint steered in that direction. She added, “We ended up with a whole box that neither of us would touch and gave it to Thor ‘cause he was starving after Jane hit him a couple of times. And they didn’t exactly feed him at the hospital. He ate every last one.” Darcy snickered. “In London, Jane offered to get him some. He told us that he didn’t want to be rude at the kind gesture, but he thinks they’re totally gross. He even used those words, I think.”

Clint laughed, and holy cow, he was beautiful like that, with eyes crinkled in happiness. “That sounds like Thor,” he said. He scratched his jaw, and Darcy almost tripped over another shopper because she couldn’t stop staring at the way his pecs flexed under his thin t-shirt. Her soulmate leaned on the basket, a mischievous smile playing around on his lips. “Gonna pay, darling?”

(Damn it, Darcy, get your head in the game.) “Sue me. I like looking at you,” she challenged.

That got his attention. “I like looking at you too.”

Darcy flashed him a smile as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Didn’t notice.” She darted to the checkout stand. She paid for her groceries while Clint stacked them in the sacks she’d brought along. She’d checked her funds this morning and decided this trip was going on her credit card. She’d have to cross her fingers and hope her summer stipend would get here before the bill did.

They split the four bags between them for the trip to the car. Clint kept an eye on the people around them and on the buildings above.

“Do you see something?” she asked.

“No. Habit, I guess.”

“It’s been twenty-five years, and my dad still does it,” Darcy agreed. “Sometimes, I wish I was more like that. I’m oblivious half the time.”

“Don’t think that,” Clint told her as he unlocked the car. “There are some things that only come the hard way. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” There was no mistaking the edge to his tone, and when they were en route to the Tower, he changed the subject, asking her about her hometown.

Darcy alternated between telling Clint all the things she loved about it (fishing, walks in the snow, feeding the chickens, making most everything from scratch), and the stuff she hated (crappy wi-fi, neighbors who had never been past the state line, having to scrounge up every last dollar, and anytime the animals were sick). She wasn’t sure, but it seemed like he latched onto every story with rapt attention. Then again, she knew just enough about his growing up years to know they weren’t exactly stable, and she wouldn’t dare ask what happened to him that he’d landed on her parents’ farm in such an awful state.

“Would you move back?” he asked.

“That’s a big question, and I don’t know. I love it, but I don’t know if I love it enough to make it my life. Plus, with the drought still going on, Mama and Dad are barely hanging on to it as it is. Frankly, I don’t have any better ideas for turning a profit on it. That’s a full-time job all by itself, and my parents have pretty much kicked me out of the house until I figure out what I want to do when I grow up.”

That got her a confused glance. “I thought you wanted to be an intergalactic political science guru for Stark Industries.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Darcy glanced up at the increasingly tall buildings as Clint drove into Midtown.

“You don’t?”

“I guess I thought I’d end up working on Capitol Hill, or maybe in one of the state legislatures, trying to make a difference in our political systems. This whole galactic thing scares the daylights out of me. Honestly? I want to go back to the farm and pretend none of it ever happened. Thor? Love him to death; I’ll take ten Asgardians just like him, please. But Loki, the Chitauri, and the Dark Elves? And who knows what else is lurking out there. By my count, the odds are kind of ugly.”

Clint--for lack of a better term--shivered all over at the mention of Loki. Darcy reached out to take his hand. He clutched at her fingers, holding them tightly.

“Do you know what Loki did? To me?”

Darcy sighed as she pressed a kiss to the back of Clint’s hand, offering comfort where she could. “Erik’s a good friend. I can’t imagine you had it any easier than he did. He still gets angry at his part in opening the wormhole, and I know you were caught up in that too. Steve wouldn’t tell me much, only that you did what you could to contain the damage.” She chided, “I’ll tell you the same thing I tell Erik every single time I see him: Loki had magic and powers we don’t even begin to understand. You and Erik, along with all the other people Loki entrapped, are victims as much as those who were in the path of the Chitauri.”

“Still my hands, Kansas,” Clint said sharply, as he pulled into the parking space under Stark Tower.

Darcy retorted, “Still not on you, Iowa.”

He shifted the Challenger into park, then plucked two bags out the back seat and carried them into the elevator. Darcy followed, wondering how badly she’d misstepped. Clint didn’t say a word on the ride to her floor, nor on the short walk to her apartment, his face blank, giving nothing away. They unloaded the groceries on the kitchen counter, and it only took Darcy a few minutes to put everything up. By the time she was done, she had a knot in her stomach. She wished she hadn’t mentioned Loki at all.

Clint touched her wrist. Startled, she spun around and he caught her at the waist. He curved his wings, not quite touching her, but clearly making a conciliatory gesture. “I should have known that you’d get it.”

Darcy laid her hands on his arms, on the bare skin just above his elbows. “I try.”

He shook his head, giving her a bewildered smile. “Tell me if I’m out of line,” he insisted, tugging her closer.

“Didn’t think you know how to be in the lines in the first place,” Darcy quipped. But she caught the heat in Clint’s eyes (blue, fading into green, with golden rings around edges). She let him pull her close and leaned in before she could change her mind. “Kiss me, Iowa,” she murmured, brushing her lips against his.

And holy hell, he did.

It started slow and soft, in the wake of a warm exhale. Clint trailed two fingers from her temple to her cheek, then slid his hand into her hair as he lipped at her mouth. Darcy ran her hands up his arms, under his sleeves, to clutch at hard muscle that bunched up under her touch. She tasted, wanting to learn Clint’s flavor, mint and green that washed over her. He darted his tongue out. She caught it, chased it, craving more.

A simple movement and they were connected, thigh to chest. Her nipples tightened at the contact, and she only had to twist her hip to feel the solid line of Clint’s cock through his jeans. The low growl she elicited from him with that trick made her smile against his mouth.

He pulled back just enough to say, “Damn, Kansas.” The admiration in his voice was all that she needed to kiss him again, scraping her nails over his shoulders as she did. He retaliated by kissing a line along her jaw until he reached the pulse point on her neck. He sucked on it, and maybe she dug her nails in by accident when she closed her eyes, because, holy shit, that felt good .

A faint brush of a feather got her attention long enough to drag her eyes open again, and wow. Clint’s wings-- that always, always stayed sealed to his body when not in flight--were loosely curved around them, not touching, but framing their bodies. The purple shone bright, and up close, Darcy could see the subtle patterns of tone on tone color.

When Darcy stilled, Clint looked up. “Oh.” He gave Darcy a wry grin. “They do that.”

“You’re beautiful,” she blurted. She dropped her hands to Clint’s waist again, this time stuffing her thumbs through his belt loops so that she wouldn’t be tempted to touch.

“Not as beautiful as you,” he countered, as he nuzzled Darcy’s mouth once more.

An alarm sounded on Clint’s phone. He fumbled for it out of his back pocket and lifted it to his ear, just barely breaking the kiss to answer, “Barton.” He listened then answered, “Copy that. I need fifteen to get my gear.” He clicked the phone off and stuffed it into his pocket again. “I’ve got to go to work, Kansas.” His reluctance echoed in both his words and the disappointed grimace.

Darcy shook herself, scraping her hair back with one hand. “It’s what you do. I hear you’re good at it.”

For a moment, pure frustration flashed across Clint’s face. “Fuck.” He tucked his wings back in place, glancing at them to make sure they were put away. “We’re not done yet,” he insisted.

“No,” she agreed.

He pressed one last kiss to her lips, with those callused fingertips sliding along her collarbone, and bolted out the door.

Darcy sagged against the counter, frustrated, confused, and so damned in love that she could practically see the hearts dancing in the air around her head. A feather tuft floated down to land next to her boot. She picked it up and dropped it in her shirt pocket, a new talisman to keep until Clint Barton came home.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

17/Trust Fall

 

Clint got one of his wishes with Darcy, though not exactly how he’d wanted.  

There was a building, a grappling hook, and a large pane of glass involved.  Now he was covered in scrapes, had wrenched a wing, and had a fractured nose that hurt like a bitch when he forgot and scratched it.

The debrief had been mercifully short. (Bad guy brought friends to the party; bad guy eliminated; friends ambushed Widow; Hawkeye provided cover while she kicked their ass. Bad guys in lock up and interrogation. Barton had a blank version of that report on hand so all he had to do was fill in names, locations, times, and date. It was easier.)

As soon as they got home, Natasha shoved him into the shower to wash the blood and debris from his feathers. (Medical didn’t even try these days.) He picked out as much of the glass as he could reach without moving too much, dressed in loose sweats, and stood in front of the dryer long enough that he dozed off leaning against the wall.

Nat threw a pair of socks at him to wake him up and shuffled into the bathroom to cull out the rest of the glass. Only her reflexes kept her from being smacked with a face full of feathers when she pulled the biggest chunk out. She pressed a hand to his spine, waiting for him to stop flinching.  

“Want me to stop?” she asked.

Ashamed by his reaction, Clint dug up better control and shook his head. He could hear the exhaustion in her voice, and knew she was functioning several hours past whatever reserves she had. She’d been undercover on this op for a couple of weeks, and she was sporting her own set of pulled muscles and deep bruises from the back end of it.

That got him to hold still long enough for her to finish, then he hunted up the liniment and slathered it all over Natasha.  It was a testament to how much she ached that she let him do it without protest.

He figured they would crash on his bed after scraping together some kind of dinner, and the latter was optional at this point of exhaustion. He wanted to see Darcy, but, hell, it was one thing to know your boyfriend went off to war; it was another to see the results. (Were they dating? Maybe not. He thought of her as his girlfriend though. Had maybe referred to her as such at S.H.I.E.L.D. to ward off a hook-up or two.)

But Natasha threw a shirt at him.  “You’re going to Darcy’s,” she ordered. “I’ve already let her know we’re coming. Get your shoes.”

“Why?” She gave him a look that he was too tired to comprehend.  He shuffled along in her wake down to Darcy’s apartment. When the door opened and Nat shoved him through, Darcy got that same look of exasperation he’d seen on Pepper’s face when Tony came home looking like an alley cat on the wrong end of a fight.

“He’s stubborn, sore, cranky, needs food, a nap, and to get his hearing aids out,” Nat instructed. “I need eight straight before I leave again in the morning.  He’s got to be in Istanbul on Friday. ‘Til then, he’s all yours.”  Clint made a noise of half-hearted protest, but both ladies ignored him.

Darcy handed Natasha a beanie that was black on the outside and a soft pink on the inside.  “Got it. Any more instructions for the babysitter?”  The hat startled Nat into a weary half-smile, something Clint filed away to razz her about later.

“His wings hurt. He probably won’t let you touch them, but I don’t trust anyone else except Coulson and you.” She stuck the hat on her head, pink side out, and pulled the door shut behind her.  

Clint felt like the biggest dolt, but he was too tired to understand why Natasha wouldn’t just go to bed with him.  He yawned, then flinched when the muscle connecting his wing to his sternum seized up. “Aw, chest, no,” he complained as he rubbed the strained area.  

“Come on,” Darcy coaxed. She took his hand and led him toward the sofa.  He barely got the pillow under his head before she covered him up. He was stupidly disappointed when she didn’t kiss him, but then again, he didn’t stay awake long enough to really know whether she did or not.

He only dozed until his ears ached enough to wake him.  He didn’t have to move to know how much everything was going to hurt when he did.  For now, he was warm and content to listen to the quiet clicks of the keyboard as Darcy worked from her kitchen table.  

But it was second nature to pretend he was fine as he sat up--at least until Darcy appeared with with an ice pack.  “Your face is swelling,” she told him.  There was an amused sympathy there, and Clint didn’t quite know what to make of it. He took it with a grunt of thanks and rested it on the side of his nose.  

Darcy set down a sandwich, a big glass of milk, and a mug of potato soup.  The next grunt was more pleasure than pain because the bread was homemade, thick, and slathered with mayonnaise to cushion the ham and cheese between the slices. As he ate, Darcy went back to her research, and when Clint finished, he picked up his empty dishes, carrying them to the sink to wash.   

“Hey, Iowa?” Darcy said, eyeballing his feathers over her laptop.  “You’ve got glass in your secondaries on the left side--” she counted, “--three in.”

Twice, he tried to stretch out his wing to reach it, but the strain on his sternum was too much, making him pant through the sudden pain.  Fuck. He rubbed his chest in frustration.  He tried to make himself ask for help with his feathers, but damn it all to hell, he couldn’t do it.  So he did the next best thing.  “Will you … not my feathers--” he swallowed hard, as he tapped his chest.  

She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Counterpressure?” she offered.

“Yeah.”

Darcy stood in front of him, setting her hands over his heart. Her dark hair was a mess, hanging in loose curls over her shoulders. One lock was tucked behind her ear.   Beautiful , he thought.  She leaned in, smelling like strawberries again and giving his muscle support as he brought his wing close enough to pluck out the glass.  When he got it tucked away again, he pressed his lips to her temple.  “Thanks.”

Holding her seemed like the natural thing thing to do. He ran one hand behind her shoulders and curled the other around her waist.  Darcy rested her head against his chest.

“I like this,” she told him. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me, too.” He stayed right there in a small circle of heaven until he had to stifle another yawn.

Darcy promptly let go, and he immediately missed her touch. “You need sleep,” she chided.

“I’ll go home,” he said instead, trying not to let on how much he didn’t want to be alone right now. Now that he could think again, he suspected Nat had dumped him on Darcy so she could be with Maria. If it was, it would be the first time Natasha stayed the whole night with her girlfriend. That was a milestone of its own, and he didn’t want to fuck it up for her.  

Setting her hands on her hips, Darcy asked, “Are you going to sleep better on my couch, my bed, or in your own place with Natasha nowhere to be found?”

“How’d you know?”

“She texted me; asked if you could stay.” Darcy gave him a whimsical smile. “Said something about you only being able to sleep with someone on watch.  I can do that. JARVIS can too, if you want, but Natasha didn’t think that would be enough tonight.”

Damn Nat for being so perceptive. Then again, it was nice not having to explain things to Darcy. “Sofa’s good.” The bed was too tempting, and he was too exhausted to do any kind of lovemaking justice.  

Darcy made up the couch with a pillow and spare sheets while Clint found the bathroom.  When he came out, he found he was looking right into Darcy’s bedroom.  The ocarina was all alone on the shelf above her headboard. Clint shoved his hands in his pockets, happy to see it, yet nervous that she seemed to appreciate it so much.

“Sorry for crashing in the middle of everything,” he said as he picked up the blanket and shook it out.

“I can study anywhere,” she said as she turned the lights down in the living room. Clint lay down on his right side so that his wing wouldn’t be crushed and fumbled to pull out his hearing aids. He set them on the side table. Darcy trailed her fingers over his cheek, and then let him be.

In the absolute silence of the apartment, if Clint turned his head just a little, he could hear the occasional click of her keyboard as she worked.  

Not for the first time, he wished Darcy was his soulmate. There was a peace he found with her that he’d never known with anyone.  It wasn’t about having to protect her, or needing to be cosseted--though he couldn’t prove that at the moment--but it was, he thought, an acceptance. Of her. Of him.  

He fell asleep to the scent of strawberries on the pillow and the sure knowledge that Darcy was only a few steps away.

 

 

The predawn light through the narrow window in the living room was just enough to wake Clint.

Well, that and the fantasy of crawling into Darcy’s bed and what he might do when he got there.  His dick twitched agreeably, and after he scolded it (“Aw, dick, no”) for getting too eager, he chuckled at himself. Clint’s modus operandi for sex generally included a reasonable indication of consent and the nearest flat surface.  It wasn’t his dick’s fault he wanted more than that with Darcy.  

The solid night’s sleep did him a world of good.  He stretched out the soreness from his muscles as he sat up. Even his sternum felt better; he was able to flex his wing when he stood up. He tucked the aids into the pocket of his sweats since he wasn’t quite ready to put them in yet. For all that he was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, ever on the alert for danger, he liked the rare times he could leave them out and focus on his other senses.

Remembering, for once, not to touch his nose, he shuffled into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.  He also remembered to find a mug that he had no compunction about stealing from Darcy.  She wasn’t keen on him drinking from the carafe. He’d blame it on a girl-thing, except Coulson scolded him for that too, so maybe it was just another fucked up habit of Clint Barton.

He saw the air currents shift a fraction of a moment before he felt the soft change against his forearms. Turning, Clint found Darcy standing in her bedroom doorway, dressed and ready for class, with her backpack slung over her shoulders.  The shadows under her eyes told him she hadn’t had much sleep of her own. Her lips moved, but he didn’t hear what she said over the hiss of the coffee pot.  Apologetically, he shrugged, tapping his ear.  

Darcy nodded in understanding.  She held out her hands. //Hello,// she signed.  

It wasn’t often Clint was startled and delighted all at once, but he was now, and of course, it was because of Darcy.  //Morning,// he signed back.  

//Walk class?// Darcy’s signs were clear, if lacking confidence.

He scratched his head, nervous again, but smiled to let her know it was okay.  He made a fist and shook it downward. //Yes.//  Then he added, with a circling motion of his fist and tap of his index finger to his thumb. //Coffee, first.//

Darcy furrowed her brow as she tried to understand. Clint slowed down the circling motion. //Coffee.// The he picked up his mug so Darcy would get the meaning.  “Coffee,” he said aloud, the sound of his own voice muffled as he spoke.  He tapped his index finger to his thumb again. “First,” he added. Darcy wiggled her fingers, laughing at him as she caught on.  She copied his movement, and he saluted her with his mug when she did it right.

She rubbed her eyes under her glasses, trying not to yawn.

//You sleep?”// he wondered.  

She shook her head, started to sign, then fingerspelled, //P-A-P-E-R-D-U-E-T-O-D-A-Y.// Perfectly acquainted with all-nighters, though for wholly different reasons, Clint added the creamer Darcy liked to a travel mug of coffee and handed it to her with a smile of sympathy.  //Thanks,// she signed with one hand, as she took a long drink.

Clint stuffed his feet into his sneakers, and snatched his aids off the coffee table.  He passed his mug to Darcy as he set them in place while the elevator carried them to the ground floor.  Not even being in the Avengers’ company could entice him into leaving them out outside the Tower.  Darcy looked on in curiosity.  He hummed a little to make sure they were on the right setting.

Darcy smiled when he did that. “Can you hear me now?” she asked, handing his mug back.

He laughed. “Yeah, I can hear you.  When did you start learning ASL?”

She flushed, biting her lip. “When I saw you wearing hearing aids. Thor pointed me to some sites he’s using. I’m not learning as fast as I’d like. I need to practice.”

Clint’s heart did a little flutter--just as it had when Coulson and Nat had made a point to learn his language. “We can do that,” he promised, signing with one hand and his mug as an occasional prop. “It’s good knowing there’s someone else who knows ASL besides Nat and Steve.”  

“Steve?”

Clint lifted a shoulder, still signing while talking aloud, “You know he used to be deaf? He’s a damned good lip reader ‘cause I guess that’s what they taught back then, but he knew a little ASL and picked it up in nothing flat. I think it’s the serum; eidetic memory and all that.”

Darcy squinted at his hands. “How do you do that at the same time? English and ASL have different grammar.”

He smirked. “Practice.”

She rolled her eyes at him, and Clint followed along as she darted across the road.  He caught up to her and captured her hand, rubbing his lips against her knuckles.  

And damn it, he almost spilled his coffee when she ducked behind him to give his ass a long look, licking those pink-slicked lips until they shined.  At her slow wink of approval, Clint’s dick twitched again, and really, he couldn’t fault it this time.

Then again, in the rising sun, it was impossible not to see the fatigue in Darcy’s face and body.  He squinted, studying the way she carried her shoulders.  

//Headache?// When she frowned in confusion, he fingerspelled the word and repeated the sign.

//Can manage.//

//Okay.//

They worked on simple conversations all the way to Columbia, Clint alternated speaking aloud and fingerspelling. He’d taught Natasha the same way; it was familiar and fun. Somehow, it seemed even more appropriate as they crossed campus to Darcy’s class.

When they reached the tall columns in front of Kent Hall, Clint handed Darcy his mug and pressed his hands to her face, curving his fingers to graze the soft skin behind her ears.  Wide, clear grey eyes searched his face, her lips parting in challenge--and anticipation.

The kiss should have been soft and sweet and a hint of other things to come.  Instead, Darcy held him captive, chasing his taste, tilting her head under his hands to get a better angle. He was the one who had break it off to catch his breath, stunned by the groan of pure want that bubbled up his throat.

With a smirk of satisfaction, Darcy handed him the mug, signing, //see you later,// with one hand./p>

She blew him a kiss as she walked away, eyes flickering back in time to see him reply, //Yes.//

Clint might have walked to the nearby park. He flew the length of it and skipped over to Central Park too, climbing the skies to do a few loops around the Tower just out of sheer, stupid happiness.

 

 

Barton spent the morning at S.H.I.E.L.D. lifting weights, then sparring with whomever was available in the gym. After lunch, he checked out the mission files and locked himself into a vacant office to read them over. He had a flight to Istanbul to catch mid-day tomorrow. The team would have a final briefing in-flight, but he preferred to look over the maps and photos again on his own.  S.H.I.E.L.D. was setting up a meet. Since this one was high-level enough to involve the CEO of a local cybertech firm, who’d been coerced into leaving backdoors into the firewalls his company had built for the Turkish government, Barton would provide cover. S.H.I.EL.D. had been brought in by the WSC to negotiate with the CEO. The goal was to give him protection by allowing a couple of agents to infiltrate his organization in key positions, and in return, obtain enough intel to go after the people blackmailing him.

There was a good chance that the op would turn into an extraction, depending on what the intel revealed. Barton was well-versed in both infil and extract; which meant he might be gone a month or more, depending on how the cards fell. He finished with plenty of time to get to Columbia and popped his head in Cortez’ office, one of Sitwell’s junior handlers, to let her know he would take Darcy’s escort duty for the afternoon.

Cortez acknowledged him, her eyes glinting with amusement. Clint figured it wasn’t long before his fascination became water cooler talk. He didn’t mind. He’d made a career of providing fodder for bored agents.

Given the steady rain, Clint figured it was worth the splurge to get a S.H.I.E.L.D. driver for the trip. He texted Darcy when they pulled up, and she stumbled across the sidewalk bleary-eyed and with lines in her forehead that meant the headache never went away. Clint got out of the passenger seat to open the rear door for her, crawling in afterward to sit by her side. Darcy pulled her glasses off, letting them land in her lap, and fell asleep with her head on his shoulder before the driver got clear of campus. With the rain and traffic, it took almost an hour to reach the Tower.

“Wake up, Kansas,” he coaxed, stroking her hair to wake her.

She wrinkled her nose, blinking as she woke. “Hey, Iowa.” Her eyes dropped to his lips as she fumbled for her glasses. She shoved them into place, giving him a shy smile as she poked his bicep. “You make a pretty good pillow.”

“Been called a lot of things, darling. That’s a new one,” he said as he set a hand to the back of her neck.  With one thumb, he found the tension from too many hours hunched over a desk, and Darcy let out a moan of approval that he discovered he needed to hear again and often. “Come on. Let’s get something to eat, and I’ll work your shoulders over so you can sleep.”

“‘kay.” But she blinked in confusion as he nudged her out of the car and to the elevator.  They ditched her bag in her apartment and headed for the Nest. The whole time, Darcy stayed close enough to touch--a clear departure from even the day before.  

Had they crossed a bridge he didn’t know was there? For certain, Clint not only realized that Darcy had protective walls he didn’t know existed, but that they were down at the moment. Don’t fuck this up, Barton. He had a history of being careless at the worst time, and it would be just like him to stumble where he shouldn’t.

For all that Clint was a hell of a spy and could peg motivations, reactions, and targets from a good mile away, he sucked at relationships--always anticipating the worst and missing the obvious. He and Nat got each other like that. Somewhere along the way, they’d learned to look past the awkward words and missteps to simply accept that the other wasn’t going to turn traitor and bolt.

Keeping all that in mind, Clint kept his mouth shut and didn’t let go of Darcy’s hand.

Afterward, he coaxed Darcy into letting him watch TV at her place.  She changed into an old Culver t-shirt and pajama pants and settled on the sofa where Clint could work the tension out of her shoulders. 

Massages were a regular part of Clint’s routine to prevent or heal strained muscles. He and Nat had spent enough time in PT to pick up the basics to use on each other. Now, he worked his hands down Darcy’s spine, learning the feel of her back and hunting up the places holding too much tension.

“Oh holy crap, Iowa. I will trade you cookies any day of the week for this.”

“I can eat a lot of cookies.”

“Done.”

At first, Clint stayed focused on the knots he kept finding under his thumbs, but when Darcy leaned into his hands, humming under her breath as she unwound, he changed to long strokes across Darcy’s shoulders and arms, a touch that was meant to warm and soothe.

His achy cock, who’d been requiring daily attention to behave himself in Darcy’s company, wondered if sex was on his agenda tonight and twitched to ask the question. Clint schooled it with a stern warning, a discussion about appropriate timing, and images of the last time he’d eaten in the S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria. In truth, it would have been easy enough to find a spare bunk and a willing partner at HQ today, but Clint wasn’t interested in anyone but Darcy.

Darcy stretched her arms overhead, shaking out the last of the strain, with a sweet smile and a thank you.  Then she crawled into his lap to straddle his hips and put her hands on his shoulders.  “Can I be here?”

He licked his lips as he wrapped an arm around her waist so that he could shift his wings out of the way. “Only if I can kiss you.”

“Deal.” From the flushed cheeks and storm-dark eyes as they kissed, it was clear Darcy had a thing for him too. But Clint had spent too much time getting her relaxed from the hard week, and he didn’t want their first time with Darcy exhausted from it.

When her hands trailed down to dip under his shirt, he let out a groan of complaint.

Darcy sat up in understanding. “I know. I want a whole night, Iowa. Not five minutes between papers,” she admitted.

Clint drew a thumb across her cheek. “One night’s not going to be enough with you.”

A smile blossomed on her face. “Same goes.” But she eased off him to plop on the sofa with a little bounce.

He shifted so that he could face her.  “Think you’re up to learning two new signs?”

“Sure.” 

“This is my name.”  He made a “C” with a short flick of the hand, like shooting a dart.  She copied it, grinning when she figured it out.  “And this is yours.”  He signed a “D” with a flip of the hand to show her the back of it.  Darcy was always doing something with her hands, and he couldn’t resist naming her for it.

“D plus ‘hand’ is me?”

“Feathers, knitting, typing, cooking.  You’re always creating something.  It’s how I think of you,” he admitted. “I’ve known your name sign for a while.” He rose from the couch.  “When you’re done with finals, Darcy, we’ll see, okay? I’ll be back around the same time.”

//Okay, Clint// she signed as she walked him to the door. Then, with a flash of heat in her eyes, she pressed herself to him for a scorching kind of kiss, angling her body so that he could feel every one of her soft curves against him. He couldn’t--didn’t--resist the urge to nuzzle the curve of her neck and lightly grazed the tip of one breast--just catching the peak of a nipple with the backs of his fingers.

She let out that moan again, and holy hell, he was fucked. She caught herself and peeled off him, panting just a little. “Give me a weekend, and we’ll figure this out,” she promised.

“I’ll be due some downtime.  It’s all yours, Kansas.”

He whistled all the way to the range and spent a couple of hours putting arrows in improbable places from impossible angles.

 

*****

 

A bottle of water, no bigger than her thumb, had arrived this morning via Natasha, and Darcy promptly called Jane to show her the latest gift Clint had sent to her.  

Other trinkets had joined the ocarina on Darcy’s headboard while Clint was away: a packet of saffron threads, an embroidered monkey, and a wooden box carved out of juniper. One of the morning S.H.I.E.L.D. agents gave her a hand-painted tile of blue that made Darcy think of the kaleidoscope she had when she was a kid.  She put the newest gift in place while Jane opened the other package Natasha had given to Darcy.

Jane arched a brow at the collection.  “Clint’s got  you pegged, that’s for sure. They all look like something you’d pick out for yourself. The monkey is perfect.”

“Probably. It’s totally weird though. I'm not sure we're dating yet.”  

“You think he does this with every girl he likes?”

“According to Nat? No.  She delivered the bottle and the box with strong undertones of ‘don’t screw with him’ attached to it. I’m a little afraid for my knees, to be honest. But, Jane, I really don’t know what all this means.”

Jane rolled her eyes. “Darcy, Clint is clearly not a morning person, and yet, without fail, he walks you to class whenever he’s in town. Anyone who gets up on their day off to deal with New York City at eight a.m. deserves a medal. And you know what he’s like because you hang out in the Nest all the time. I don’t think Donald and I ever spent as much time together as you two do in the Tower, and we dated for a whole year.”

“Donald was an asshole.”

“Yeah, he was.  All it took was one weekend in New Mexico, and you had him pegged.” Jane pulled three bottles out of the box.  “Soulmark concealer?”

“From Natasha.”  Darcy stripped off her shirt. “She knows I have a soulmark. I think this is a strongly implied hint to cover it up and get a move on with Clint.”

“She’s is a smart lady. Sit.  I’ll put it on you.”  

Darcy read through the directions.  “Concealer to cover, finishing spray to set it, then the cleansing oil to get it off.”

Jane dabbed the concealer in place. “It’s covering up nicely.” When Jane finished, she snapped a picture of Darcy's shoulder on her phone and handed it over.  “It looks good. You have to really look, and it could be to cover a scar or tattoo.”

With a wistful sigh, Darcy admitted, “It will be nice to go swimming without a shirt over my suit. I haven’t done that since the last time I went in the pond at home.”

“Still think you need to tell him.”

“And then what? Hey Clint, I’ve got your soulmark, and I’m totally not over you dissing me in New Mexico, but I kind of want to fuck you, and I’m pretty sure you’re gonna move on in about six months when the whole not-flying thing bores you stupid, but hey I just wanted you to know.”

Irritated with her snark, Jane poked Darcy in the arm, waving at the shelves. “You do realize that this is Nesting behavior, right?”

“Like the stuff you give me when I preen your wings, yeah, I got that. Steve gives me candy and oranges.”

But her friend put a hand on Darcy’s wrist. “This is different. The gifts we give for preening are temporary--food or anything that’s meant to be enjoyed right away.  For close friends, it might be a bigger gift on occasion, like a book.  But for courting? It’s this.” She waved her hand at the shelf over the bed. “Finding little things for your intended that are meant to be kept. I’ll bet he doesn’t give them to you personally either.”

“No,” Darcy admitted. “He sneaks them in my apartment when I’m not paying attention. Nat brought me the bottle. The monkey looked exactly like an Amazon delivery, but it was from him, and I have no idea how he pulled that off.”

“How many things have you knitted for him?” Jane asked shrewdly.

“A beanie. A pair of fingerless gloves.” Darcy blew out her breath, admitting, “I started a scarf for him last week when I got the wooden box.”

“He’s courting you, and when you give him something back, it means the door is still open. All you have to do is return the stuff if you change your mind.”

Darcy fell back on her bed, utterly confused. “But why is he doing this? Either he doesn’t know we’re soulmates, or he’s doing a damned good job of pretending he doesn’t know.”

“Maybe he’s waiting for you to say something, and maybe it has nothing to do with your soulmark and he just likes you, and maybe the universe knew what it was doing when it linked you two up. However, you might try TELLING him you’re soulmates,” Jane insisted.  

“I don’t like Fate. It’s Wyrd,” Darcy protested. “And don’t you dare bring logic into this conversation.” She sighed.  “Look, I’ll tell him when I’m sure this isn’t just a fling.”

“You haven’t even slept with him yet.”

Darcy leveled a disgusted look at her best friend. “You know I haven’t seen him since the beginning of March. I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to figure a relationship out when one of you is off the grid.”

Jane snickered. “Uh huh.” She rolled off the bed. “I’ll be on Asgard for the next couple of weeks.  You sure you don’t want to come with me?”

Darcy sighed as she followed Jane to the front door. “Not this time.  I’ve got to meet with my advisor about the summer T.A. job, plus she had some ideas for a job on campus with a little extra cash. Some tutoring, I think.”

“I didn’t know you were that short on money,” Jane said. “Do you even have time to tutor with your class load?”

“The drought did a number on the crops last year, and my folks had to buy a lot of replacement seed this spring.  I sent them most of my stipend to cover the cost and put the rest on my credit card. If I work over the summer, I can get most of it paid off.”  

“I can loan--”

“--Nope,” Darcy interrupted.  “Free apartment and utilities, remember? And my summer stipend will be here next week.”

“Is that why you’ve holed up so much this spring?”

“Sort of,” Darcy confessed. “The course load is real, no doubt, but I’ve been doing a lot of my preliminary research and outlining ideas for publications. Things tend to get weird around the people I hang with these days, and I never know when I’ll be drastically short on time.  The lack of beer money means taking advantage of whatever is going on in the Nest instead of going out. I’m a college student; free-loading is just what we do.”

“And you’re going to do this for the next three and a half years?”

With a groan, Darcy covered her face. “Don’t remind me. It makes S.H.I.E.L.D.’s offer that much more tempting.”

“I didn’t know that one was still on the table.”

“They drop me an email every few weeks. At the moment, they are salivating at the idea of another agent in Stark Tower. They keep upping the perks.”

“And Tony?”

“Doubles anything S.H.I.E.L.D. throws out, but with the caveat I have to finish school.”

“Formidable incentive.” Jane arched a brow as she opened the door.

“Keeps me entertained on the weekends.  Take pictures of Asgard for me.”

“I will.”

Darcy shut the door after her friend.  With Jane leaving, she’d be alone in the Tower once again. Tony had talked Bruce into going with him and Pepper to California to work on the new lab for the summer.  Nat and Clint were still at work, and Steve was firmly ensconced in DC. She got texts from him whenever he was stateside, but it had been a couple of days since their last exchange. 

 

 

Days later, Darcy’s last class was wrapping up when she got a cryptic message from a phone number she didn’t recognize. S.H.I.E.L.D. compromised. Use ONLY this phone. Contact Stark. Be smart and stay safe.

She stuffed her notes into her backpack and headed out the opposite door of the building.  She stayed with a crowd of students as they worked their way to the edge of campus. 

Since she’d worn a light jacket to class that morning, that went it into her backpack too to change her look, trading for the extra bright blue scarf she kept handy. She draped it around her neck as she walked to the end of the block.  As soon as she turned the corner, she pocketed the scarf and walked with the crowd to the end of the next block. She turned the corner and ducked into a cafe’, deliberately taking the line the farthest from the window.  

With heart thumping and nervous sweat making her shiver, she searched out a television. Oh. The scroll across the bottom of the news … The hunt for Captain America. Steve Rogers suspected of killing S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury. Last whereabouts unknown. If seen, report to 1-800-555-6844. The U.S. Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce was holding a press conference, urging Steve to turn himself in. 

That explained the text, and, holy shitballs, she wanted to get back to the safety of the Tower. Darcy paid cash for a coffee and eased back out into the crowd.  There was a trio of people passing by, obviously friends.  Darcy lingered to the side of them as if she was part of the group, until she reached the stairs leading to the subway that would take her to Grand Central Station. From there, it would be easy enough to climb the stairs to Stark Tower.

But as soon as she exited the train, she recognized at least one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Mindful of the text, she ducked her head, stood behind the tallest person she could find, and shuffled with the crowd into the terminal.  

She really wanted to check her Twitter feed, but was too scared not to keep a careful eye on the people around her. Her phone rang, and a quick glance told her it was … wow .. JARVIS himself.

“‘Sup?”

“Ms Lewis,” JARVIS said. “I am aware of your need to return discreetly to the Tower. Please take the left stairwell to the Lower Concourse, turn right at the bottom of the stairs and walk into the steakhouse on the left hand side.”

A little freaked that JARVIS already had eyes on her, but relieved at the same time, she said, “Okay.”

“Pretend to recognize someone at the rear of the restaurant and walk straight inside.”

Darcy smiled at the hostess and walked right past her, flashing a smile to the back of the room. She even managed a little wave.

“Turn right at the kitchen and walk past the restrooms.  There is a short hallway to your right and a door that says ‘elevator maintenance access only.’ Place your hand on the handle and wait for me to scan it.”

Darcy almost cried out in relief when it unlocked. She slipped inside the dark space and was relieved when the lock clicked behind her.

“Excellent, Ms Lewis,” JARVIS told her. “Shall I show you the way home?”

“Please,” she begged. “What’s happening?”

“I am not certain, but Sir will speak with you once you have reached the security of the Tower.” JARVIS led her past a set of offices, through another unmarked and locked door, down a spiral staircase, and through a long hall where a thin layer of dust had settled.  Darcy wondered how long it had been since anyone had come this way.  She went up another spiral staircase, through two more doors, and stepped out into a small office, complete with a computer, desk, chairs, and a small stack of papers on the file cabinet.

“Welcome to Stark Tower, Ms Lewis. Officer Declan will escort you the Avengers elevator. Please go to the war room on the 81st floor, where Sir has secured communications established.”

Now Darcy tapped into her Twitter feed, but it was clear Steve was still dodging the authorities. When she arrived in the war room, JARVIS had a dozen news stations pulled up on video, along with Twitter and YouTube.

Tony waved from one of the videos. “Darcy.”

“Mr Stark.”

“Tony. Mr. Stark is still my dad.  So, uh, how do you feel about being the official Avengers liaison during a crisis? DC’s on a full ground stop. Nobody is answering my calls. Anyone with connections to Rogers is under suspicion at the moment--nice dodge, by the way--I think the last time anyone used the secret tunnel was me when I was spectacularly drunk on my sixteenth birthday and needed to duck the transit authorities. Does it need to be dusted yet?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Don’t tell anyone. There are, like, two people who need to know about that secret door, and neither of them work for the MTA.”

“I won’t. How many more ways are there into the Tower?”

Tony smirked, not answering. Then his face grew somber. “So, liason?”

Darcy hunched her shoulders.  “Where is everyone?”

“Bruce and Pepper are with me.  Thor’s on Asgard. Rogers and Romanoff sent the self-destruct code on their cell phones--both of which are still in their lockers at S.H.I.E.L.D. Barton still has his, as far as I know, but his last ping was in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy an hour ago and JARVIS hasn’t been able to ping him since. I’m guessing he’s gone to ground to get the hell out of Russia.”

“Where?”

“It’s a Russian island off the Bering Sea. So that puts Rogers and Romanoff on the run. Barton? Maybe he’s just covering his tracks. You probably know better than I do.  I’ll tell you as soon as I know more,” Tony told her.  “This isn’t over.  For Romanoff, Rogers, and Barton to burn bridges with S.H.I.E.L.D., something big’s going down.  Stay in the Tower, keep your phone on, and don’t forget, JARVIS is there to help.”

She didn’t sleep that night, staying glued to the images and feeds JARVIS projected into the war room. But she cried the next day when images of Steve and Natasha being arrested were all over the news.  Tony burned up the phone lines trying to figure out where they were being held, and a glimmer of hope appeared when he decided they’d slipped S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody.  

That meant another sleepless night worrying about her friends.

Tony was right, and all hell broke loose in DC the next day.  As the Triskelion fell with the helicarriers, and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets were dumped on the internet, along with Secretary Pierce’s involvement with HYDRA, it was clear that the national government was in shock, as was the media as they tried to respond to the crisis.

The hospitals were flooded with victims, and Tony arrived in his Iron Man suit to conduct his own search and rescue, finding Steve on an isolated riverbank, not far from the remains of S.H.I.E.L.D..  

Natasha was the first to contact Darcy from yet another unidentified phone number. “Have you heard from Barton?” she snapped.

“No. Nothing.”  

“He was undercover in Russia.” Nat swore softly. “I gave him as much time as I could, but when I dumped S.H.I.E.L.D.’s intel on the internet, it blew everyone’s cover--and I mean everyone’s.  We’ve got hundreds of agents and informants who have been exposed. I can’t go after him yet. If you hear anything, or get in touch with Coulson, let me know.”

“How do I know who to trust?”

Natasha growled, “Hill, Coulson, Stark, Banner, Barton, Rogers. Thor. That’s my list. There’s a new guy, Wilson. Keep an eye out for him. He’ll help.  Make room in the Tower. He’s gonna need a place in the Aerie.”

“Okay.”

“And get JARVIS hunting up clues on a Winged One by the name of James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Steve’s--”

“Yeah,” Natasha let out a weary huff. “That one.”

“Holy shitballs, Natasha.”

“That’s an excellent summation of the last three days.”

“How’s Steve?”

“He’ll be in the hospital for a few days. Even with the serum, he’s in rough shape. But Tony’s making a nuisance of himself and making sure Steve’s getting the care he needs.”

“What else can I do?”

“Just … be there, Darcy. With S.H.I.E.L.D. gone, we don’t have any other place to call home. If I hear from Barton, I’ll keep you in the loop too.” Nat disconnected the line.  

Darcy put her head down. She wouldn't cry. Wouldn't think about the last time a friend of hers went missing. Taking a deep breath, she got to work. With JARVIS’ help, just maybe she could track down a couple of missing soulmates for her and Steve.  It was something to do anyway.

 

 

Chapter Text

18/In the Wake of Disaster

 

This was Anna Kozlova’s third mission.  The new agent played the sidepiece to Barton’s wealthy Russian businessman only interested in the finer things in life--especially the kind of things that couldn’t be acquired by the usual means.  They’d arrived a week ago. Kozlova took a crash course in the local social scene while Barton followed up on a lead regarding a major smuggling operation S.H.I.E.L.D. had been investigating for months. The ringleader had been identified, but the agency didn’t have enough intel to begin placing a mole into the organization.

The goal of this mission was to figure out just where and when a mole could be placed.  Kozlova was to meet with another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Grigory Vasily, in the hotel bar downstairs in an hour and flirt long enough for Barton to notice and have a public forum to break things off with Kozlova. Alone in a luxury Russian spa town in the Bering Sea, Kozlova would be the perfect bait for one of the major smugglers operating out of this hotel. Vasily would stay on as her backup until she needed extraction, while Barton exited the scene. For a new field agent, it was a good op to get her real experience while under the watchful eye of a seasoned operative.

But Barton had been out planting trackers on a number of cars and one interesting yacht in the wee hours of the morning when he got a text from an unknown number. Pierce, Sitwell, S.T.R.I.K.E. are HYDRA. Fury’s dead. -N

By the time Barton got back to his hotel room, the hunt for Rogers was all over the news.  He threw his golf club bag on the bed. Stark had designed the duffel to conceal Barton’s bow and a dozen arrows nicely. Repacking it only with essentials, Barton sent JARVIS the code to wipe his Stark phone and tucked it into the bag for disposal. He couldn’t take the chance the phone had been tracked or tapped, even if JARVIS had unparalleled security. If there was ever a moment for the AI to be tested, this would be it.  

He called the hotel concierge to rebook his flight for the first thing in the morning, and then headed down to Kozlova’s room to make up a story about them being recalled. There was a muffled thump against the wall inside the room, and--not taking any chances--Barton kicked the door in.  Vasily brought a knife around, aiming for Kozlova’s throat. She was faster, throwing herself backward, and Barton followed up with his own blade to Vasily’s heart.  It was fast and ugly, but Kozlova had the wit to kick the door shut with a Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the outside knob.

“Did I miss a memo?” she asked in a slightly wobbly voice. “Vasily said something about coming out of the dark and into the light.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D.’s been compromised by HYDRA,” Barton told her. “Let’s get your room cleaned up, and we’ll figure out an extraction plan.”

“Who is HYDRA?”

“I’ll explain later.”

 

Getting out of Russia was the hardest part. They needed their cover identities to match their exit visas.  Without the agency as backup, they might not get the right papers or bribe the right personnel.  Nat had a safe house in St. Petersburg, but it would take too long to get there, and Clint didn’t have covers for Kozlova that would get her out of the country.  She was shaky, and Barton didn’t want to part ways with her until she was in a less volatile region.

They put up with a four hour layover in Vladivostok and made a connecting flight to Seoul. Barton figured the hotel would stumble across Vasily’s body any time now, and the faster they ditched their covers now, the better.

In the Seoul airport, Kozlova discreetly lost the blonde wig, then pulled out her American passport and booked a flight to New York.  While she was at the counter, Barton stopped into one of the gift shops.

As Koslova waited to board her flight, Barton held up the silk-wrapped wooden chopsticks-and-spoon set. “You take this,” he pressed into her hand, “to Stark Tower.” She did a hell of a job concealing her fear, her hands trembling only a little. “Give this to Darcy Lewis. No one else,” he warned. “I can’t vouch for anyone other than the Avengers.”

Anna nodded. “You’re not going?”

“It’s best if we don’t stay together.”

Clint waited until her flight departed, then took his first easy breath.  A taxi got him to a questionable hotel of the hourly kind where he did nothing more than dye his hair and wings brown. Another taxi got him to a FedEx Office where he mailed the “golf clubs” to Stark Tower. It was a big box, but once he secured it shut, no one would be the wiser.  Scans would only show what he’d reported. Sometimes, he thought, hiding a bow and a dozen arrows was more trouble than it was worth.  

Another taxi got him to one of his and Nat’s safe houses. They had a variety of passports and papers that no one else knew about stashed in the wall safe. While Clint burned his S.H.I.E.L.D. identity in a ceramic bowl on the stove, he sorted through his options and settled on the German book collector. It gave him a reason to poke through local shops in any number of countries for a few days at a time.

Given that the search for Captain America was still the top news item, it would be better to crash here for a couple of nights, but then he needed to get out of South Korea under a new name and look. Winged Ones were rare enough to attract attention if he stayed too long.

When he woke, he used a little putty to work up a scar on his cheek, and found dark brown contacts to change up his look to match his new passport. A little more putty and some make up changed his nose just enough to fool a facial recognition scanner.  That was all he needed to make the next leg of his trip.  Needing to rest and regroup, he rented an apartment for a week in Manila.  He watched when the news broke about S.H.I.E.L.D., and everything Clint Barton had counted on for the last fifteen years turned to ash.

He purchased a burner phone and dialed from memory the only number he was sure hadn’t been compromised--a voice mail box that only he and Nat knew about.  He keyed in the passcode to retrieve the two messages that had been left there.  The first was just a phone number. The second was a plea from Nat--and Natasha never sounded rattled, but she did now.  

Please be safe. Call me as soon as you can.

Clint dialed, and the phone didn’t even get through one full ring. “I leave the house for five minutes, and the whole thing burns down,” he said.  “So … Fury?”

Natasha answered drily, “There was a funeral yesterday.”

Huh. She wasn’t grieving. At all. “Anyone I know in the casket?”

“Probably not.”

“I can’t tell if that pisses you off or not.”

“I’m having trust issues.”

Clint grunted in agreement. “Yeah. Can’t imagine where that comes from. How much can you tell me?”

“Well,” she started. “I dumped the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. database on the internet. Compromised a bunch of people.  Nobody’s really happy about it. I’ll be speaking with Congress in a couple of days.”

“So, what you’re telling me is that you’re going into a room full of politicians, and they now have the full story of how much of a badass you really are?”

“Something like that.”

“Wear those really clicky heels.”  

His cheeky comment made her laugh, a soft thing that sounded a little like relief.  “I blew your cover,” she confessed.

“Any good agent has a backup plan. Vasily was HYDRA and won’t be a problem. Is anyone trying to track the others?”

“Not yet.”

Clint scratched his neck, thinking about who else might not be compromised. “Coulson?”

“No one’s heard from him, but Lewis can do it," Natasha insisted.

“Ah, she’s not S.H.I.E.L.D. yet.” He didn’t want her involved. No, he wanted her safe and away from this mess. Maybe she could go home for a while.

“She’s smart, has a very expensive AI at her fingertips, and a healthy interest in tracking down a few people.”

“You’ve already asked.”

“Sort of. Stark’s made her the Avengers Tower liaison for now. She’s fielding calls. Stark’s doing a press conference tonight.”

“I sent Koslova to her.”

“Seems like we’re thinking along the same lines.” 

“What happens to S.H.I.E.L.D. now?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know who could be trusted to run it. Maria, of course, but she’s playing her cards close to the vest. Fury’s off the grid for now. When are you coming home?”

“Well, my cover gets me to Munich. Fletcher and Milano were running an op with Poltosky there. I thought I’d see what I could do to clean up. After that, I can go wherever.”

Natasha drummed her fingers. “I’ll keep that in mind. Be smart.”

“Sure thing. Same time next week?”

“Two days.” As usual, Natasha clicked off without so much as a good-bye.

Clint flipped on the television, and for the first time since Nat’s midnight text, let himself wonder what Darcy was doing now.

 

******

 

JARVIS and Darcy had put together a full list of S.H.I.E.L.D. employees from Natasha’s data dump, from agents to janitors. As they hunted up evidence for anyone “HYDRA” or clearly “S.H.I.E.L.D.," they flagged the files red or blue. When Tony saw what they were doing, he added names to both sides--information he’d obtained at the hospital where Steve was recovering.

Darcy fielded the media calls wanting to know the Avenger’s stance on the HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D. debacle and shunted them to a PR assistant on loan from Pepper, but she was also getting calls from lost S.H.I.E.L.D. agents looking for some kind of leadership. With Fury out of the picture--and Darcy couldn’t get a straight answer about that beyond a few hints here and there--the agency was in shambles.

JARVIS and Darcy set up a third list of agents whose affiliation was unknown but tried to check in with anyone who looked like they might be in charge. That prompted Stark to reach out to Maria Hill.  Together they set up a protocol for dealing with the former S.H.I.E.L.D. staff.

With dozens of alphabet agencies salivating at the newly unemployed, Darcy freely handed out phone numbers for the unvetted agents. But Maria had other instructions for the rest when she hand-delivered new names for both rosters. She tapped the HYDRA list. “If any of these people call, get as much contact information as you can, give them the standard answers, and forward it to General Talbot. He’s the head of the U.S. task force assigned to tracking down HYDRA.  And as much as I dislike Talbot, he’s not HYDRA, even if he’s not a friend to S.H.I.E.L.D. and never has been.”

Maria looked over the known S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists. “Expect Coulson to reach out to you soon. He’s going to need personnel willing to relocate to the west coast,” Maria told Darcy.

Darcy shivered as she looked over the lists. “Why are you trusting me with this information?”  

“Natasha vouches for you,” Maria stated evenly.

Well that was scary as fuck.  “You’re rebuilding the agency?”

Maria just smiled, neither confirming or denying. “I have an interview with Stark Industries later today. Perhaps I’ll see you in the Tower.”



Phil Coulson sounded frustrated and weary, but grateful that Darcy had a few referrals to send his way.  “I’ve got an agent who will stop by in the next couple of days,” he told her. “She’ll swap lists with you so we’re all on the same page.”

“Can you give me a name?” Darcy asked, not really expecting one. Because, hey, spy-people.

“I’d rather not. I still don’t trust the phone lines, even if JARVIS is manning them. But you’ll know of her; I’m sure of that.”

“Yes, sir,” Darcy replied cheekily.

“I’ve apologized for the iPod thing and Foster’s research, right?”

“A couple of times. We’ll call it good.”

“Whew. I was worried.”

“Stay safe, Mr. Coulson.”

“You too, Miss Lewis.”

 

And with that, Darcy was left to fill the time between phone calls with studying. Hill assigned a permanent bodyguard to Darcy’s detail, and she went back to class the next day.  She had three weeks left until finals and didn’t quite know how she was supposed to juggle secret agent stuff with studying, but then again, she couldn’t really say “no” when all her friends were sacrificing life and limb.  She kept her cell phone close and let JARVIS filter the calls, which she returned between classes.

Oh, how she missed her friends, and though Natasha assured her Clint was well, Darcy worried all the same.

“Ms Lewis,” JARVIS called, rousing Darcy from the case study she was reading for class.

“What’s up?”

“I have an Anna Koslovo in the Tower Lobby. Security has informed me that she asked for you by name. Per the information Ms Romanov released, it appears that Ms Koslovo served her last S.H.I.E.L.D. mission with Mr. Barton.”

Darcy shoved her stuff to the side and dove for her shoes.  An hour later, she had a gift from Clint in hand, had introduced Ms Koslovo to Maria Hill,  and they had a new name for the “loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. list.”  



But Darcy’s world was rocked the next morning when Coulson’s representative arrived.

She was tall, thirty-ish, with honey blonde hair, had a body like Lady Sif’s and the wings to match. And damn it, Darcy fell in love with her knee high boots and the shiny mahogany messenger bag she carried before she got all the way in the door.

“Bobbi Morse,” the woman introduced herself. “Codename: Mockingbird.”

Holy fucking shitballs. Clint’s wife. Clint’s ex-wife. She had to be a hell of an agent, because Coulson had put her on the “loyal” list right off the bat.  “Darcy Lewis,” she managed, feeling too young, too inadequate, and totally in the wrong line of business.

But Bobbi didn’t bat an eyelash at Darcy’s discomfort as she took a stool at the conference table. “Good to meet you. Coulson told me to mention that your iPod is safe from me.”

Oh no, no, no, no, no.  Great. Nothing like cementing her rep as the shallow, naive college student with a top rated agent.  “I locked it up, just in case,” she quipped.  

The exchange of names didn’t take long at all.  Coulson’s list was far more extensive on the HYDRA side.  Darcy recognized a few names here and there, and it really sucked balls.

“If there is a good part, it seems that low and mid-level HYDRA agents came out of hiding with this, so we’ve been getting good intel on them,” Bobbi told her.  “You can pass that on to Hill.”

“Will do.”

Giving Darcy a speculative look, Bobbi added, “I’ve been told that you might be getting a call from Barton soon. He’s the only Avenger who hasn’t checked in, but he was also the only Avenger undercover at the time of the fall.”

“Natasha informed me he was clear.”  Uh oh. Yeah, that was a twitch around the mouth, and if Darcy had to guess, Bobbi didn’t like the Widow at all.  

“Good.” Bobbi’s tone was curt.  “Coulson has a list of people we think are still loyal who had their covers blown.  Someone like Barton could get them back.”

Darcy nodded. “I… understand he is heading to Munich to follow up on an op there.” She rattled off the agents involved, and this time, there was no mistaking the relief in the field agent.

Bobbi’s face softened, just a little, around the eyes. “When he’s finished, Coulson wants him to check out these others.” She handed Darcy a file folder from her bag with six, no, seven different ops. “Tell him to do what he can, but that he’s on his own for a while.”

That made Darcy blink. “No. Stark’s got his back. With the suit, if necessary.”

“We weren’t sure about Stark’s stance,” Bobbi admitted.

“He’s not happy, but he likes Coulson.”

“Even better.”  Bobbi put her set of papers into her bag. And seriously?  It wasn’t hard at all to imagine Clint with a stunning woman like this. Bobbi had BAMF written all over her. Darcy had discovered enough about Clint’s ex to know she was a PhD in biology, a top notch S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and damn it, she had wings. (Yeah, she’d looked. JARVIS helped.)

As it did on occasion in times of personal stress, Darcy’s mouth failed to consult with her brain about her next words.  “Why isn’t Clint bonded to you ?”

Bobbi stopped what she was doing, giving Darcy a long, long look.  “Coulson was right,” she said at last. “You are with Clint. And you did your homework on me. Which is why you accepted me at face value.”

“I don’t know if we’re together. Maybe. I don’t--it’s weird, okay?” Darcy insisted.

“That sounds like Barton,” Bobbi said with a sigh. “Look. Just don’t touch his feathers and don’t try to come between him and Romanoff.”

Berating herself for being rude, Darcy apologized. “I’m sorry.  Clint still speaks highly of you, and when I saw you, you look like everything he could possibly want in a bonded mate. You’re Winged, you’re smart, you’re loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D., and you’re beautiful.” Darcy pulled at her own sweater, embarrassed. “But maybe this wasn’t about what Clint needed. Maybe it was about what you needed. And either way, it’s not my business. So I apologize for being rude.” Deliberately aiming for professional again, Darcy stood and held out her hand. “Agent Morse, it’s been an honor to meet you.”  

Bobbi stood, shaking her wings out a little as she did, and took Darcy’s hand.  A slow smile worked across her face. “You’re his soulmate. I’ll be damned.”

Darcy bit her lip, knowing it wouldn’t do any good to lie about it now. “He doesn’t know. Our match … wasn’t … he doesn’t remember.”

“Oh, Clint,” Bobbi muttered. “You know, spies are lousy with relationships.”

“I’m gathering that,” Darcy said drily.

Bobbi let out a small snicker.  “Look, Clint’s got a good heart. One of the best.” She turned up a hand. “He’s just lousy at knowing what to do with it.  I wish you luck.”  

“You too.”

As Darcy uploaded the new information to JARVIS’ lists, she berated herself for being the idiot around Clint’s ex.  And Bobbi had been far more gracious than Darcy would have been in her shoes.  Boots.  Really badass boots, too.

None of it helped the fact that Darcy really missed Clint and spent more time that she would admit checking the burner phone Natasha (Only a dozen times an hour). But the spy had cautioned her not to call.  Clint had to do that, from somewhere he felt safe.  Darcy could compromise him with a simple text.

To distract herself, Darcy pulled out her homework and studied until dawn, refusing to think about any of it at all. As she loaded her backpack for class the next morning, the cell phone rang.

“Hello?” she answered, crossing her fingers for luck as she did.

“Hi, Kansas.”

 

Chapter Text

19/Bridges

________________________________________________________

“Iowa?” Darcy’s voice cracked as she spoke, clutching the phone hard in her hand.

“What happened?” Clint demanded, and oh holy shitballs, his voice sounded so good.

“What happened is JARVIS couldn’t find you,” she choked out. “Steve just got out of the hospital. Everything’s broken. Nat’s been giving Congress hell, and now she’s gone who knows where. Tony’s doing press conferences every five minutes to keep everyone’s attention on him. Thor and Jane are still on Asgard, and nobody knew where you were. Even Coulson couldn’t track you down.” She sniffled, got annoyed, and swiped at her box of tissue to mop her face.

“Uh, it wasn’t on purpose.”

His contrition pulled her up short. “Oh, fuck. I’m sorry. It’s not on you. I know that.” She held onto the phone, falling silent.

“Darcy?”

She took a ragged breath, asking, “Why do I miss you so damned much?”

“Probably for the same reason I miss you.”

“Oh.”

When the silence stretched out again, Clint stuttered, “Uh--”

To which Darcy rushed out, “I didn’t know you felt the same.” Fuck. Talk about awkward conversations. She wasn’t doing a good job of holding up her end.

“I do. At least, I think I do,” Clint confessed. “I couldn’t think about you while I was on the mission. I can’t do that. It’s too distracting. But I am now. Thinking of you, that is.”

Darcy listened, wishing she was with Clint and could see his face. She forgot to talk, and Clint sighed. “Am I screwing this up again?”   

She got out soft laugh. “Not at all. I’m scared for you, I miss you, and if I can do anything at all for you, I will.”

“Have you been talking to Nat?” he demanded suspiciously. “Because that sounds a lot like what she said.”

“She loves you. I’m pretty sure blowing your cover was one of the things on her list of stuff you might not forgive her for. She slept in my apartment, you know, for a couple of nights. Guess my sofa’s comfortable.”

“I didn’t know. She slept on your sofa?”

“You didn’t know that she loves you?” Darcy frowned.

“I, uh, have been told I’m bad at relationships, friendship or otherwise.”

“And I was told you had a good heart,” she shot back. “Yes, Natasha loves you. And right now, you’re the only one who hasn’t broken her trust.”

“I called her as soon as I could.”

“I know. She knows. She got your call, came and told me, then crashed for almost a full day.”

“Nat slept on your couch?” he asked again.

“She did. Yes, it was weird, but only because I wasn’t expecting it. No, I didn’t mind. I like her.”

“That’s a first,” Clint muttered.

“I gather Bobbi didn’t get along with her,” she said drily.

“Or Jessica. Or Cherry. Or Sheila,” he grumbled.

Darcy snorted at his irritation, rather inelegantly. “Did any of them believe you when you told them you weren’t sleeping with her?”

“Not a one.”

“That’s disappointing, but,” Darcy admitted, “I was no different until Natasha set me straight.”

“What have you done to Nat?” Clint demanded. “The Widow doesn’t tell anyone anything if they are fool enough to believe only what they see.”

“Am I a fool then?” she asked quietly. “I knew of your marriage. I saw Natasha’s necklace. You live together. It’s not a hard conclusion to draw.”

“You aren’t a professional spy, Kansas. And how did you know I was married?”

“You wore a wedding ring in New Mexico.”

“I don’t wear personal jewelry on ops. We were doing clean up, and I think I put it on. Coulson gave me the final divorce papers. I didn’t wear it after that. You remember?”

“You made an impression.” It was the closest she’d come to talking about their Match.

Clint chuckled. “Well, so did you. I’ll chalk that one up to bad timing. I remember getting plastered in a bar that night with Sitwell watching my six since my hearing aids were fucked.” He growled, “Fucking Sitwell. I liked that asshole.”

Darcy fumbled for another tissue as tears welled up. She swallowed hard so her throat wouldn’t swell. Before she could talk, Clint said, with no little irritation, “Shit. I’ve got to go. Stay safe, honey. I’ll call you when I can.”

 

_________________________________________________________

Darcy tripped over the pile of books as she dove for the cell phone. She’d gone weeks without a word from Clint. Only the stray agent who showed up a few days ago with a wooden Tiki no longer than her finger gave her any kind of reassurance.

“Hello?” She rolled her eyes at her own greeting--as if anyone else would be using this phone.

“Hey, Kansas. What’s cooking?”

Clint’s easy tone blew a fresh breeze through Darcy, wiping away her worries for the moment. She fumbled to match it, but she managed. “My brain. I have finals next week, and I’m seriously questioning my choices in life.”

“That’s what you said last semester.”

“Here’s some free intel: I say it every semester, and you know what? I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. What hemisphere are you in?”

“Not yours.”

Darcy laughed at deflection. “You know, I met your ex-wife.”

She heard Clint spit out his coffee and started to laugh again, only to stop abruptly when he said, “Are you breaking up with me? Because that’s what usually happens next.”

Caught by surprise, Darcy could only answer, “No, I’m not breaking up with you.” This, she decided, probably wasn’t the time to admit she hadn’t realized they were an official thing. And damn it, now she had sweaty palms and a racing heart.

“Oh. Yeah. Okay,” he said sheepishly. “And uh, how did that go?”

“You know how you start a video game and you have shit gear, shit skills, and like, three shitty weapons in your bag of holding? That’s me. And at the end of the game when you’ve got this badass character who can pretty much defeat the zombie just by looking at it? That’s Bobbi.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed. “Aw, mouth, no. Darcy, I didn’t mean that. Not like that. I mean you’re you. The cleric thing that throws books and stuff at the zombies. I’m shutting up now before you change your mind about ditching me.”

Darcy let out a bark of laughter. Clint really wasn’t good at this, and Darcy adored seeing this side of him. But Bobbi was right; he had a good heart, and Darcy fell just a little more in love with him. “I’m the one who said it first. If I got mad at you for agreeing with me, than that’s some next level passive aggressive bullshit right there.”

Utterly confused, Clint asked, “You aren’t mad?”

“If you agreed and I got mad, then I’m fishing for compliments that I’m more of a badass than Bobbi, which I’m not and never will be. If you didn’t agree, then either you’re bullshitting me with compliments I don’t deserve, or you’re being an asshole.”

“So I did okay?”

She chuckled, assuring him, “You did good, Iowa.”

“Uh, why’d you meet Bobbi?” he asked.

“She gave me some mission files to pass on to you. Coulson wants you to track down a few other teams if you’re inclined.”

“Bobbi’s working with Coulson?”

“Seems like it.”

“Huh. She’s S.H.I.E.L.D. through and through. Yeah, I can do that. Give me the rundown.”

“Okay.”

 

_________________________________________________________

“What’s the next mission?” Clint asked.

Darcy smiled to hear his voice again, even if his teeth were chattering. “You’re gonna love this.”

“Anywhere but Finland. My fingers need to defrost.”

“How does Italy sound?”

“I’m hungry already. Tell me what’s going on while I warm my toes.”

“Steve’s been in and out of the Tower. He brought a new guy, Sam Wilson. He’s taking the second floor, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to want his wings.”

“I like my wings.”

“What if you could strap a power pack to them for a serious boost?”

“Okay, that got my attention. What’s his specialty?”

“He’s a paratrooper who thinks he patched you up in the Sandbox.”

“Falcon wings?”

“Yep.”

“That’s when I lost my hearing and half my team. PJ’s are badasses; about the only air force guys I can stomach. So he’s on board?”

“Apparently. He and Steve are following leads on Steve’s BFF. Thor’s back, and he’s been digging through S.H.I.E.L.D. files. He thinks he has a lead on Loki’s scepter. S.H.I.E.L.D. had it, now Hydra has it, and Thor wants it in Asgard’s vault for safekeeping. Pretty sure they both want you in on that.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Darcy chuckled. “That’s what Nat said. By the way, your BFF left plastic spiders all over my apartment. I also discovered that screaming scares JARVIS, who alerts the Avengers. Tony, Bruce, Jane, Thor, Steve, Sam and Natasha all came running down my hallway--I think it was Steve who broke the door down. Nat confessed, and now she owes Tony a new door. Now I’m trying to decide if the momentary satisfaction of retaliation is worth the risk of getting into a prank war with the Black Widow.”

“Holy hell, Kansas, Nat really does like you.” There was no mistaking the wonder in his voice. “Uh, is she still, uh, friendly with…” he trailed off.

Darcy smirked. “Maria? Yep. They totally play up the whole intimidation thing too, stalking around the Tower and giving each other all these glaring looks. Then you catch them on the sofa in the Nest, all cuddled up under a blanket as they watch the goriest Halloween slasher movies, eating popcorn and giggling. It ought to be embarrassing, but really, I don’t get the feeling Natasha ever got the chance to just …. I don’t know, to just be . It’s fun to watch.”

Clint let out a low whistle. “You amaze me. No one gets her. Not all of her.”

“She lets me in, I think, because of you,” Darcy admitted.

“You made her a beanie.”

“Socks, too. Pink ones. Now Maria wants a pair.”

“What color?”

“Black, of course.”

 

_________________________________________________________

“I like the lace. Schoenberger, not so much.”

“He’s loyal though. Let Hill deal with him.”

“Already did."

 

_________________________________________________________

“Need a distraction, Kansas. Got a little issue here I need to fix.”

There was no mistaking the pain in Clint’s voice, and Darcy shoved her laptop away to focus on her boyfriend. “What can I do?”

“Just talk to me, darling. Caught a blade on my hip. Need to close it up. I could do with a little distraction while I sew it up.” He hissed, then swore under his breath.

Picking topics at random, she blurted, “Do you want the recap of the last episode of the Big Bang Theory, Stark’s latest dust up with the press, or the incredibly boring statistical analysis I have to do for my poli sci class.”

“Tell me about the farm,” he grunted.

It wasn’t hard for her to imagine a needle going through his skin, and Darcy shivered with worry. “When it snows, it turns into a dreamland,” she started, her voice softening with the memory. “I love to walk to the pond. It’s not far from the house and freezes most winters. I like to lay in the middle and look up into the sky. In the daytime, the sky is pure blue and so clear you look for the edge of the atmosphere, thinking if you just focused a little harder, you’d see it. At night, the Milky Way fills up the sky. And it’s cold and still. The water can’t lap at the edges of the pond, but you can hear the creaks and bubbles as the air tries to escape. It’s a good place to be alone with the universe.”

“Keep going,” he growled, his breath catching.

“I love the farmhouse. Somebody built it in the twenties and it came with the farm. It’s creaky, and nobody can sneak up on anybody because the floors squeak and pop when you walk on them. But it’s sturdy. Warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And it’s got these little nooks in the hallways and rooms that you just don’t see in modern houses. Mama changes up what’s in them every so often, but she always has something pretty--a picture, a sculpture, a piece of glass. Books. We have a zillion books.”

“What’s your favorite room?” Clint asked, his voice still harsh with his efforts. “I’m almost done; need gauze and tape.”

“My bedroom. The house is really too big for just the three of us. There’s two whole rooms upstairs that nobody uses, and the attic could be converted to an artist’s garret or an office, or even two or three more bedrooms. The house is huge, but I can sit in the window seat in my bedroom and see all the animals that come to the pond.”

“You like the water,” Clint said, sounding more like himself now.

“I love to swim. I do like the waterfall in the Aerie. We don’t have anything like it back home.” For a moment, there was only breathing for Darcy to hear. “Are you done?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

She shuddered. “Good,” she said. “Are you safe?”

“Yeah, for now.”

“Will you rest?”

“Not yet, too much adrenaline right now. I need to shower and eat. Then maybe I can sleep.”

“Call me back if you can’t.”

“Will do, Kansas.” He hesitated, then added, “Thank you, darling.”

Darcy wiped the tears from her eyes, trying hard not to let him hear how much she’d been affected. “You’re welcome, Iowa.”

 

*****

 

Clint leaned against the guardrail of the cargo ship. New York was a faint smudge on the horizon, and it was time to go home. After months of chasing lost agents, he was more than ready to stand down.

Coulson had a couple of teams out and about now, and word had spread that Stark Tower was a safe point of contact. A lot of S.H.I.E.L.D. employees were gone for good: to HYDRA, to another agency, or off the radar entirely. Four of the former agents Clint had helped had gone that route, settling for quiet jobs as shopkeepers or tech employees in whatever city they’d landed in, or maybe where they had a family connection. But there were enough still loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. to make it worth the risk of getting them back to some kind of base of operation.

With the ease that came from fending for himself from an early age, Clint had worked his way across Europe, establishing cover identities and bolt holes in his wake. He moved a couple of safe houses too, just in case. Nat caught up with him a couple of times on this trip, once to heal from a nasty fight, another to sleep for nearly a week straight. She’d done her own fair share of creating new covers as she hunted up clues for Steve and his new friend, Sam, to follow.

Natasha left Clint behind in Minsk. When he was done, he made his way to Stockholm, where he booked a cabin on a cargo ship headed to New York. It was a slow ride, but he needed to stretch his wings. Undercover work meant dyes and cloaks. Eastern Europe and the Middle East were too dangerous to fly much, and so Clint had dealt with aching muscles that needed to be exercised for more than a stolen hour at midnight.

He flew longer and higher each day of the trip, skirting the waves and spiraling high up into the clouds until he had worked all the knots out and strengthened his flight muscles once again.

Now, with New York on the horizon, Clint gathered up his duffel and strapped it over his wings. He still couldn’t carry much, but then again, he didn’t have much more than a couple of ceramic knives, a change of clothes, a painted silk scarf for Darcy he’d picked up in Minsk, along with a hand-carved Dala horse from Sweden for her too. He passed the rest of his clothing off to the ship’s crew, lightening his load even more.

He climbed the ship’s bridge, waved to the captain, and launched into the air. Clint caught the sea breeze--it was strong this time of year, with a crisp dose of fall to make him appreciate being home before the first snow. Clint angled his wings to coax a little more speed out of them, eager to get … well, home.

If they had talked about this, Clint was sure Nat would have roundly scolded him again for his infatuation with Darcy. But Natasha didn’t bring it up, and Clint didn’t say anything about the phone calls or the string of gifts he’d sent home with wayward agents.

He’d made sure to call after her classes were over for the day, and Darcy hadn’t missed any of them, even the one in the middle of the night where he’d so badly needed to hear her voice after he’d discovered three agents dead at the hands of their Hydra counterparts. One of them had left a message scraped in blood in the dirt of the safehouse.

She’d talked to him about the farm, her parents, and the small town where she’d gone to school until her throat was scratchy. He’d listened, wishing he could have known her then, but grateful he knew her now.

As Clint approached New York’s airspace, he radioed LaGuardia airport on the channel for Winged Ones. “Hawkeye inbound, zero-niner-four.” Winged Ones didn’t necessarily have to check in, not at their speed and usual altitudes, but it made the air traffic controllers happy, and Clint was coming from off-shore, which was odd enough to catch their attention. The Avengers played nice where they could, and it wasn’t any secret who was living in the Stark Tower.

Since JARVIS monitored that frequency, he welcomed Clint home and had the windows open to their fullest extent, so all Clint had to do was tilt a few degrees to the left to soar into the Aerie.

He stripped his duffel off and dropped it on the floor of his apartment. “Who else is in the Aerie, JARVIS?”

“At the moment, the Tower is quite vacant. Perhaps though, you would appreciate knowing Ms. Lewis is on her way back from class and noted your arrival. She called me, inquiring as to your good health. How shall I answer?”

“No more scrapes than the usual,” he said with a grin.

“Of course, Mr. Barton.”

Clint showered and shaved, having just finished the latter when JARVIS announced, “Mr. Barton, Ms Lewis is at the door, requesting permission to enter. Shall I admit her?”

“I’ll do it.” Clint was so happy to see Darcy that he forgot he was wearing nothing more than a towel around his waist. He opened the door, and Darcy’s eyes popped wide as she scraped a look from his head to his toes. She had a couple of pizza boxes in hand, but she dropped them on the side table and threw herself against him.

“Holy shitballs, Iowa, I was worried about you,” she said, sniffling a little as he caught her around the waist so she wouldn’t bounce off.

Clint tried to remember if anyone had ever hugged him like this--without reservation, without ulterior motive. Darcy clung to him, apparently not giving a shit that he’d forgotten clothes before answering the door. Her hands went behind his shoulders to hold him close, and she leaned a cheek against his collarbone.

Was it wrong to tuck a hand under her hair, to hold her so she wouldn’t pull away too soon? Maybe, but she didn’t seem to mind. Easing back some, Clint found that Darcy’s grey eyes, with their swirls of blue and purple, were watery as she wiped tears away with the back of her hand. She didn’t let go just yet.

No, she damned near crawled her way up to his mouth and devoured it. A simmering want that had accompanied him from one side of the globe to the other flared into white hot heat, and he crushed her to him, taking what she gave him and returning it.

Her fingernails raked down the curve of his biceps, and-- “Say, ‘no,’ Kansas,” he murmured. “‘Cause if you don’t, the pizza’s gonna have to get cold.”

“You have a microwave, right?” she teased, nipping at his earlobe, then sucking on it so that his knees damned near buckled.

“Uh huh.”

“Condom’s in my pocket,” she assured him.

Startled, he barked a laugh and pulled her along into his bedroom, where she stripped off her shirt and shorts.

His brain shorted out at the purple bra and panties. Lace, satin, he really didn’t know. “Aw, Darcy, yes,” he groaned.

Darcy hooked a finger into his towel, grinning when it fell away. Seconds later, he landed on his ass on the bed, bouncing a little as she crawled over him. He stretched his wings out so he could lie on his back and--

“You’re gorgeous,” she blurted, staring at him--all of him, not just his feathers. She drew her hands back, as if she wasn’t allowed to touch.

But he only leaned up to press his mouth to her throat, nibbling and sucking there until she swallowed. He nudged one strap off her shoulder, needing to taste her skin there. “Touch me. Anywhere ‘cept m’ wings, Kansas. Please.” The last skated past pleading and landed squarely on begging.

One hand went to the back of his head to clutch at his damp hair, another found the pebble of his nipple. Her mouth fastened onto his again, and she settled fully against him, hip to hip, so his cock was squarely nestled into her heat with only a thin layer of fabric between them. He rocked up instinctively, and Darcy let out a breathy moan that turned his insides to mush.

“Where--” he started to say.

“Anywhere.”

He got lost in her. Honey and strawberries and heat, and she was the hot, summer day where the air barely stirred and the sun was so bright he could only close his eyes and drown in her taste and scent. He mouthed at the lace over her breast until the tip was peaked and wet, and then he dragged the whole contraption off her chest so that he could circle the bare tip with his tongue.

She stiffened, rocking into his cock so hard that her slick juices soaked through.

“Hey, I found something you like,” he quipped, shaking his hand free of the bra and claiming a quivering peak with his thumb.

Darcy flushed dark pink as she agreed with an mmmmm. Her lashes lifted, and those grey eyes were dazed now, until she jerked backward--off and away from him.

“No, no, no, no, aw, shit, what I’d do?” he whined, reaching for her.

She only laughed and ran a hand along the thin hair on his thigh, sending white heat streaking through his groin. “Condom,” she explained, reaching for her shorts on the floor.

But Clint only caught her by the waist and pulled her back to him. He held up the packets. “These?”

Her mouth fell open. “Clint Barton, did you pick my pocket?”

“Uh huh.” He tore one package open and rolled the latex on his cock in one smooth motion. “You can lose the lace, though,” he said, grinning at her panties.

Darcy slid off the bed, somehow, without putting a stray knee or hand on his feathers. And damned if she didn’t wiggle out of that scrap of fabric with a sly smile that made his knees go weak again. “Like what you see?”

That much sultry belonged in a New Orleans’ brothel. Clint wouldn’t think about why he knew that, only that he was grateful Darcy was here with him. “All of it,” he agreed. She ran one finger down the vein of his cock, and he embarrassed himself with the violent jerk of it against her hand. He was proud of himself, though, for the neat way he tucked her into him and rolled, wings and all, so that he balanced over her on the bed.

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Show-off.”

“Maybe a little. I want you,” he told her. “I’m so gone on you I don’t have it in me to wait. I’m probably going too fast and not saying all the pretty words I should say.”

“Shut up and fuck me, Iowa.” He took ahold of his dick and slid it along her folds until he was squarely at her entrance. Darcy squirmed, admonishing, “I thought you didn’t miss, Hawkeye.”

“Nope.” In one long move, he pressed inside until she gasped, laughing and squirming, and oh hell, she contracted like a vise around him, proving she had learned a thing or two along the way.

“Okay, okay, yeah, that’s a bullseye on the target,” she gasped out.

In the back of his mind, he knew he was supposed to be better at this. He’d prided himself on getting his partners off a couple of times before he’d do the same, but he’d given in to his want for all things Darcy, to smell her, to taste her, to bury himself into her. And it was only a half dozen strokes before he shuddered, emptying himself, wanting to stay with her like this, always.

And maybe it was okay, because Darcy screamed his name--Clint, not Iowa--and she trembled under him, around him, and he was home and never wanted to leave.

 

It wasn’t until he woke, still entwined with Darcy as she slept in his arms, that he discovered he’d tucked his wings around her body. His feathers shifted against her skin with each breath of hers and his. The sensation--not of her skin, but the thousand tiny movements of flesh pressing against the shafts felt like the softest of blankets rubbing his skin, only it was his wings and he didn’t want it to stop.

They hadn’t really separated at all, just rolled to the side and stayed there, with her foot hooked around his leg and his hand cupping her breast. Apparently, his wings needed to get in the game too, and that was new.

Still, self-preservation had him pulling the wing back, and Darcy wrinkled her nose in annoyance. When he laid it across her again, she settled again, pressing her nose into his chest. It was, he thought, kind of nice.

It was sticky and sweaty, and Clint nuzzled Darcy’s lips until she opened them so he could dart his tongue inside. His cock twitched, then filled once more, and when Darcy huffed out a laugh, saying, “Round two, then pizza?” he needed no more invitation to duck his head and fill his mouth with a taut peak that he’d been thumbing while she woke. This time, this time, he promised, she’d get more than a quick fuck and a good nap.

He wondered how long she would stay.

 

 

Chapter Text

20/Where Do I Belong?

 

The brief relationship Darcy’d had with Ian had involved sharing a bed, but Ian wasn’t a cuddler, and Darcy’s other hookups had been just that--moments not nights, so she honestly couldn’t have said what she liked in a sleeping partner.

The heavy arm around her waist solved that mystery.

Given that she could see the morning sun glinting around the edges of the shades drawn over the windows in the unfamiliar bedroom, she had a brief-but-vicious mental debate over coffee versus Clint. He won, of course, simply by being wrapped around her, feathers and all. Aroused by the sensual brush of his downy coverts from ankle to shoulder, she sighed happily and wiggled so that her butt pressed against Clint’s hard, hard dick. Lazy kisses on the back of her neck had her whole body humming by the time she peeled her eyes open.

Wanting to touch, Darcy tried to turn over, but Clint tapped his fingers together in front of her face, //No.// He pressed his hand against the middle of her back, nudging her to lie face down on the bed, sliding his wings out of the way when she did. Calloused fingertips dragged down her spine, and she arched up at the sparks Clint caused. His low chuckle warmed her all the way to her toes.

Any other experience Darcy’d had with sex was a faint shadow of making love with Clint. Yes, it was a fact that there wasn’t an inch of him that wasn’t solid muscle, yes, he was flexible, but it was equally true that she was wholly in love, and his quirky smile made her stomach dance with butterflies.

Then there was last night. Clint had taken out his hearing aids and lain on his back with his eyes closed and wings outstretched, letting Darcy love him with touch alone. It wasn’t a surrender--not by any definition--but a laser focus on the sensations she’d elicited within him. The scars that marked his skin told his story as a fighter, a survivor, and Darcy had pressed awed kisses to each one, loving the noises he made as she lavished attention on them.

She’d half-expected that sex with Clint would be hard and fast, and it was that first time, but only because of desperate need on both their parts. She found that he liked slow; running his hands over her body again and again, reveling in the slide of flesh to flesh to leave her a quivering mess--just like now as his hand swept up the length of her back to land warmly on the nape of her neck. Touch for Clint Barton, Darcy discovered, was everything.

It was that knowledge that had her turning over so she could press her hands to his stubbled jaw and pull him close enough to kiss. She rubbed his calf with her foot, biting her lip when she accidentally brushed the ends of his tail feathers with her toes. It didn’t seem to bother him as he let out a pleased hum, though he twitched them out of the way. Darcy ran one hand into his hair, giggling at the way it stood up after a good night’s sleep.

With his mouth quirked up, he leaned on an elbow to free the other arm. //Hi,// he signed, with a flick of his hand off his forehead. His sleepy eyes were golden, with blues and greens vying for second place. She could probably just stare at them for a while, except his heavy cock nudged her clit, and it was instinctive to part her legs for him to slide in.

Clint hesitated just as she winced in frustration. She tapped her fingers together.  //No,// she told him, then she spelled out, //C-O-N-D-O-M.//

Her boyfriend snickered, wiggling his fingers to laugh at her. He made a pulling motion with the same hand, then pointed at the dresser beside the bed. He leaned over, fished around for a strip of condoms, then sat on his heels to roll one over his cock.

Really, it wasn’t fair at all. Clint took her breath away with his golden skin and dark feathers gleaming purple where the morning sunlight landed. The soulmark just on the bump of his hip was covered, she assumed with the same concealer she used, as the patch of skin there was just a little too-evenly colored.

Oh, and yeah, his cock was gorgeous too. Just long enough, just wide enough, and just curved enough to hit all of Darcy’s buttons. She had yet to get her mouth on it because they’d been occupied with too many other body parts, but it was on the menu for later. 

She looked her fill, only taking in Clint’s bashful smile when she worked her way back up to his face. As she did, she rested her hand on his leg, rubbing lightly across the knee. The feathers on both of his wings fluffed as she stroked, and Darcy grinned at the obvious pleasure Clint got from her touch. She spelled, //L-I-K-E-?//

He made a fist at his mouth and moved it toward her a couple of inches. “A lot,” he said aloud.

She loved this.  He was so patient while she learned ASL, understanding that she truly just wanted to be able to talk to him, whether by signs or with words.

Drumming his fingers on her thigh, Clint asked, “Finished looking yet?” He ran one finger from the hollow of her throat, down her sternum, across her stomach with a little swirl around her belly button, ending with a brush against her clit.

Smiling, she closed her first two fingers and her thumb together again. //No.//

Clint held his hand up in a closed fist, then flattened it out with his knuckles facing Darcy. “Too bad,” he explained.  Then he crawled over her, settling back into place with his cock pressing against her clit again as he touched his lips to hers.  In a slow, maddening pace, Clint flexed his hips, setting up a rhythmic pressure that had Darcy squirming in frustration, all while keeping her distracted with his mouth. She chased his flavor, not wanting to break this kiss in the slightest, but she dug a heel into the mattress, trying to draw Clint inside.

Instead, he nibbled along her neck as her clit began to throb. “Clint,” she groaned, “Come on.”

“What’s the hurry? You got me twice last night. I’m no teen-ager,” he teased. “Maybe I’m too worn out?”

“Your dick obviously doesn’t agree.”

He laughed, his eyes crinkling with merriment. But he flexed his hips and let his cock slide from her clit to her vulva. Slow and steady, he pressed into her center--and then Darcy didn’t quite know what to do with her feet so that she didn’t rest them on his tail feathers. Last night, Clint had damned near folded her in half, and if she’d accidentally touched them, she didn’t remember. She wasn’t quite sure how he noticed her predicament, but Clint lifted his wings and used one hand to set her ankle firmly on his hip. His feathers brushed her toes when he settled his pinions against his back once more.

Darcy forgot to worry when Clint stroked long and deep inside her. His eyes changed from gold to blue as he moved, and then he captured her mouth for a desperate kiss that ended in a groan as his cock flexed in her vagina, signaling he was close--and Darcy, with Clint’s hard body catching her clit on the upstroke, filling her until she gasped, with purple feathers skimming her legs and arms -- and holy shit, she was gone, crying out as her body contracted again and again.

She pulled Clint along so that he made a quiet litany of her name as he came too. He held her, clutching her to him, burying his face in her hair as they shuddered in the wake of their lovemaking.

Clint rolled to his side, folding his wings so that she could sprawl against his chest, with her head pillowed on his shoulder, all while they breathed in tandem. She dozed, only to wake later to discover she was covered ankle to shoulder in feathers once again. 

“You’re better than a blanket,” she mumbled, appreciating the warmth.

He startled, jerking his wing backward. “Sorry,” he muttered. He rubbed his face and sat up on the side of the bed, settling his wings so tight against his body that the individual feathers were almost indiscernible.

Darcy frowned. “I didn’t mind.”

A full minute passed, and Darcy decided Clint must not have heard her.  She touched his shoulder, and he looked up in consternation.  //I like you wings. Warm-Beautiful-You.// She got a little frustrated not knowing the right signs, but added, //Okay-you-touch-me- when-you-want.//

“I almost brained Nat the last time she preened my feathers. It’s reflex,” he said unhappily. He reached for one of his hearing aids. “Fresh off an op, I’m punchy,” he apologized.  

Darcy moved around him so that she could straddle his lap.  His hands went on her hips to balance her, and she wiggled her fingers at his wings. “I like you. All of you,” she repeated. “And I’ve already promised I won’t touch without permission.” She brushed a kiss against his forehead. “Look, all I’m saying is that if I wake up with a mouth full of feathers because you’ve stuck a wing in my face, I’m not going to freak out or anything like that.” She ran her fingers through his hair again and was gratified when he leaned into her hand. “It’s nice.”  

Clint quirked up his mouth and ran his knuckles over the soft skin of her right breast. “Okay.”

Darcy brushed a kiss across his cheek. “Okay.”

He scrunched up his face. “I gotta--” he thumbed toward the bathroom door. “You … stay. I’ll make breakfast.”



Clint made the best French toast. Wearing nothing more than a pair of grey sweats that barely clung to his hips --for which Darcy would be eternally grateful--he moved about the kitchen with--well, she could only call it a clumsy determination.  

He still wasn’t a morning person, even after sex that left Darcy bouncing out of the bed with energy to burn. He’d given her a sleepy smile, plucked up the sweatpants, set his other hearing aid in place, and shuffled into the kitchen. While the coffee pot filled, he pulled a loaf of Hawaiian bread, eggs, butter, and milk out of the refrigerator. He missed the counter with the bread the first time, picking it up off the floor with a muffled curse.

The coffee finished percolating while he rummaged through the spice rack for cinnamon. It took him three spins of the shelf and a long slurp from the carafe to find it. The skillet came next, and Clint knocked over two sauce pans as he dragged it out of the cabinet, wincing from the clatter. 

Darcy stole a cup of coffee from his carafe while he picked them up. A small bowl of freshly whipped cream landed in front of her, along with a spoon to scoop it out. “Iowa, this is some good stuff,” she marveled after her first taste. He gave her a shy smile, then scratched the back of his head and got to work assembling breakfast.

Morning Clint was non-verbal Clint, something she remembered from their first days together.  In spite of the hearing aids, until he had a healthy dose of coffee he preferred ASL over speaking, signing, //More?// when her cup got low.

This time, she answered, //Yes, please,// and //Thank you,// and was rewarded with a grateful smile.

He occasionally stretched a wing while he mixed up the batter, and Darcy smiled at the way his feathers fluffed up as he settled it back in place. When an errant bit of down drifted too close to his bowl, Clint irritably waved it away. Darcy concealed a smile as she sipped her coffee. Living with Jane had meant the occasional stray tuft in her cereal, and Darcy’d decided back then that things like that just weren’t going to bother her.

As Clint moved, she could see a dozen or so barbs that were out of place and that he really needed a good oiling from back to wingtip.  She studied his gorgeous the subtle patterning, wondering, not for the first time, if it was childhood trauma or something from his days as an agent or soldier that made him so protective of his wings.

They hadn’t progressed far enough in their relationship to share those kinds of details--or, at least, Clint hadn’t. Barring her soulmark and their first meeting on her parents’ farm, she was pretty much an open book. Then again, their awkward Match and the Dark Elves in London vied for the two things that bothered her the most.  She was avoiding the first, but they’d talked about the Dark Elves one long night while Clint was in Paris.

A plate of fat French toast drew her out of her musings, and she was sure she got just a little wet between the legs at the first bite. “Iowa,” she moaned as she swallowed, “I’m keeping you.” That caused a full-on blush and a happy flare of feathers  as Clint gave her a red-faced, delighted grin, teeth and all. She poked her fork in his direction. “You owe me, like, forty breakfasts for all the cookies I’ve made you.”

//Okay.// Clint leaned against the counter to eat his own breakfast. The carafe of coffee was still his preferred mug, though he grimaced a little when Darcy held out her cup for a refill. //Sorry.//

She rolled her eyes as he poured. “I don’t mind sharing. I’m pretty sure I had my mouth on yours last night. I haven’t even blown you yet,” she quipped.

Startled, Clint jerked and some of the coffee splashed out onto the counter. “Aw, coffee, no.”

Darcy set her cup down and burst out laughing as she picked up a towel to wipe up the mess. It was a simple thing to slide in beside him to clean up, pressing a kiss to his bicep as she did. Clint seemed baffled that she was right there, but he set a hand to her waist anyway, gingerly, as if he expected her to bolt.  

When she didn’t, he tugged her plate to this side of the kitchen island, and they finished eating side-by-side.  When they finished, Clint drew her to him for a long, maple-flavored kiss that had her thinking about whether or not he’d be available for that promised blow job. But when they parted, Darcy didn’t miss the brief glance he shot at his bow hanging on the wall of his living room--the same one he’d mailed to her and she’d passed off to Natasha.

She wiggled her fingers at him. “It’s been months since you’ve been in the range. I’ll clean up. You go shoot.”

His eyes lit up. “You don’t mind?”

“No. Can I watch? I’ve got some research to look over, but I could bring it with me.”

Clint shot her a showman’s smile. “Want to see the Amazing Hawkeye again?”

“Only if I get another feather,” she retorted.

Clint blinked, then pulled her in for a slow, sweet kiss that had her standing on tiptoe to chase his taste a little more.  “I can do that,” he promised.



The range wasn’t anything like the shooting gallery she expected. No, this was more like an obstacle course, wide and tall enough for flight too. Clint was off to one side, looking over his equipment, dressed in a black, skin-tight uniform that ran from neck to wrist to ankle. He winked as Darcy climbed the stairs to the observation deck, safely behind protective glass.  He had his recurve in hand with a quiver slung over his shoulders and a pile of arrows stacked on the table beside him.

She got nothing done, and really, who could blame her. She’d only seen her soulmate … Clint … her boyfriend … whatever …  in action in brief televised snippets of the Battle of New York, nearly two years ago except in reruns on cable.

Darcy figured Clint would need a little time to work up to his usual skill, considering how long he’d been gone, but ten arrows perfectly centered on their targets proved her wrong. After that, Clint moved from mark to mark, loosing shafts as he first walked, then ran from one side of the range to the other.

When Clint reset the range for moving targets, Darcy realized that whole demonstration had just been his warm up. The room changed entirely, with the floor rising up in sections to form staircases or obstacles. As the lighting changed, she noticed the rafters and the ropes hanging from them. Narrow walkways lined the room and the lights dimmed and flickered.

Holographic bad guys began to pour in. Clint fired arrow after arrow from his chosen corner. When the arrows “struck” a hologram, the bad guy reacted according to the hit, but the actual arrow clattered against the back wall of the range. Darcy could see an “exit” highlighted on the opposite side, and it wasn’t difficult to figure out that Clint’s objective was to make it to the far side without getting struck. It was hard to see, harder to navigate, and when one of the hologram bad guys landed a “hit” on Clint, his black uniform lit up in a green stripe across his bicep.

“That’s gonna piss him off.”

Darcy jolted at Steve’s voice. She’d been so mesmerized by Clint she hadn’t noticed the captain coming in. She hadn’t seen him in weeks, but his search for his mate had come up dry, and now he was back while the team regrouped for their push to go after HYDRA and Loki’s scepter. “You’re home,” she breathed.

Steve scooped her up into a big hug while Sam grinned from behind him.

“The lady with the awesome cookies,” he exclaimed.

Over Steve’s shoulder, Darcy flashed a smile at Sam. “That’s me, and don’t forget it.”

Steve set her down, flicking a glance at Clint as the archer leaped into the air to catch a rope and pull up to avoid a trio of holograms. “You two get things worked out?” he asked.

Darcy lifted a shoulder. “Mostly. It’s new.”

“You told him?”

“Nope. It didn’t come up between him coming home yesterday, sex, more sex, sleep, morning sex, and breakfast.”

With hands on his hips, Steve admonished, “Darcy--”

“I know. It’s on my agenda.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” he warned, though he squeezed her shoulder to take the sting out of his words.

She smiled brightly at Sam. “Hey, how are you, can we talk about anything else?” Darcy was convinced that anyone who didn’t like Sam had to be the epitome of evil. She’d bribed him with cookies when he first arrived just so she could see his silver and black falcon wings. Like Jane’s, his feathers were narrower than Thor and Steve’s eagle wings, or Clint’s hawk wings. With wings of a gyrfalcon, Sam was nearly as fast as Thor and Jane, but with his newly Stark-designed jet pack, he could keep up with even Steve at his serum-boosted speeds.

Sam chuckled. “How about your friend’s tendency to break things when he’s irritated?”

“Steve has a temper?” She facepalmed in pretend astonishment.

With a straight face, Steve replied, “Only when the situation calls for it.” He gave Darcy another quick hug, then strolled onto the range to clasp hands with Clint, who’d tapped the exit “door.” The archer’s uniform had a second mark on it, and it wasn’t long before Steve and Clint rewound the fight via JARVIS to see what went wrong.  

Darcy muttered, “You know, I don’t even think he was showing off.”

Sam shrugged. “Hawkeye? I wouldn’t know. Steve was up for the meet and greet, but I wanted to see the lady with the cookies first. Gotta have my priority straight, you know?”

“I left some in the Nest yesterday.  Get them before Steve does.”

“Shit.  That’s what that asshole was scarfing down this morning. He said it was a store bought muffin. What do I have to do to get dibs on the next batch?”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “You do know you live in a Tower with geniuses, spies, gods, and supersoldiers. JARVIS gives me a fifteen minute window to get from my apartment to the Nest with goodies in hand without showing up on the Tower security.  After that, all bets are off.”

“What if I come visit you?” he pleaded.

She eyed him up and down. “You’re a PJ. What can you teach me about wings?”

Sam gave her broad grin.  “Cap told me he doesn’t trust many with his feathers. You’re one of them.” He held out a hand. “Deal.”

She shook it, and then they got distracted by the range changing yet again to a flat expanse. Clint disappeared, returning sans black suit in favor of combat boots, cargo pants, and a sleeveless tunic. She said a quick word of thanks to Mother Nature for such pretty genes, and if she sighed a little over his ass and arms, Sam only smirked in understanding.

Clint and Steve began to spar in violent bursts of energy that left Darcy startled by the intensity.  Though she’d been front and center in both New Mexico and London, it was different seeing hand-to-hand combat up close.  

Sam flared his wings, catching her attention. “I heard Tony’s throwing a party tonight. You coming?”

“Sure. You bringing anyone?”

He winked. “Stark Tower has all kinds of interesting people.”

With a laugh, Darcy admonished, “I don’t think you’re supposed to use the company directory as your little black book.”

“It’s either that or my Mama sets me up on blind dates.”

Darcy studied her fingernails. “I heard you’re dating a social worker you met through the VA.”

Sam frowned. “Where did you hear that?”

“When the Firebird and the Falcon go out on a date, it shows up on Twitter, even if the public doesn’t know you’re an Avenger. Plus, she’s been known to lend Fury a hand on occasion.”

“You really are in the loop,” he marveled. “But no. She’s still in DC.”

Darcy sighed theatrically. “It’s boring when you guys aren’t home.”

She didn’t mention that Bonita Juarez had shown up on Coulson’s list of S.H.I.E.L.D. friendlies, and it was JARVIS who had discovered the connection when security feeds outside the VA had revealed the pair standing a little too close for just a friendly relationship.  Plus, Tony himself had done a thorough security check on Samuel Thomas Wilson and hadn’t been shy about digging into anything and everything about the paratrooper.  

Darcy wiggled her fingers at him. “Go say hi to Clint. He remembers you, by the way, from A-stan.”

“He does?” Sam lit up and waved to her with one hand over his head as he dropped down to the range. Clint and Sam did the wrist-clasp, chest-bump, one-arm-hug thing, and the trio settled down to some serious sparring.

Darcy pulled her laptop out, determined to get something done this morning.  Maybe watching Clint wasn’t her brightest idea, because all she really wanted to do was watch, and wasn’t that awfully high school girlfriend of her?  Still, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings by leaving too soon--and she wasn’t even sure if he’d be bothered by it or not.  

This relationship stuff was hard. She didn’t really know how to be a girlfriend, and Clint wasn’t giving her many cues, other than the fact he’d stayed in touch all through the summer and fall.  There were moments where she thought he genuinely needed her , but she wasn’t sure. For certain, he’d seemed worried when he thought she would break things off--even though she hadn’t known they were dating until that moment.

The sex had been amazing. Ten of ten, can she have some more please, and truly, they hadn’t done much more than insert tab A into slot B.  Just Clint’s hand on her skin lit a bonfire of need. If she thought about it too hard, she could probably get wet again just thinking about his mouth on her--

She glanced up to see Clint darting through the air with Steve on his heels, doing his best to evade being tagged. He spun in tight ball to change direction, ducking under Steve’s wing to maneuver up and over the Captain, where Clint latched onto his neck and produced a knife. One tap of the flat of his blade and Steve spiraled down in defeat. Clint landed next to him, sheathing his knife and personally checking his friend’s neck to make sure he hadn’t nicked the flesh.  

Darcy couldn’t hear them, but she could see Steve’s pride in Clint’s abilities, and soon, both Steve and Sam were in the air attempting to duplicate the feat.  She smiled at their antics, set her worries aside, and got down to studying.  




The party was Tony’s usual kind of bash, with a DJ and dance floor, free-flowing alcohol, and plenty of food.  Coulson’s team dropped in, and it was nice having a few more people closer to Darcy’s age to hang with. Clint seemed to be content to hover on the edges of wherever she was. If she danced with Fitzsimmons, Skye, or Tripp, he’d visit with Thor and Jane. If she collapsed on the nearest couch, he’d sit with her and talk to Bruce, passing her water to stay hydrated.  If she wandered over to the bar or buffet, he’d have a hand at the small of her back.

To her surprise, Clint only nursed the occasional beer, pacing himself as the night wore on. Though she wasn’t one to get plastered at things like this, it was enough to check her own consumption.  At first, she wondered if it was an Avenger thing--not wanting to compromise situational awareness. None of the Avengers had drank much the night they’d all gone dancing. But Steve and Thor traded a flask in one corner, and they were both rosy-cheeked enough to be fuzzy at the edges. Rhodey and Sam matched Tony and Happy drink for drink. Maria, Phil, and Melinda were sharing a bottle of scotch at a bar top.  Lance and Bobbi had identical beers at another, with Mack keeping them company.  So, it wasn’t that at all, though Darcy did notice that some of the other guests stuck to soft drinks and water.

Natasha arrived late, rolled her eyes at Tony as she passed him by, and pulled out a chair to sit between Maria and Phil.  

“Coulson’s got cojones the size of New Mexico,” Clint muttered in Darcy’s ear.  “Those three women together? Even I’m intimidated, and I’m all the way over here.”

“You’re Hawkeye,” Darcy scolded.

“And I know when I’m outmatched. I can hold my own against one of them on a good day.”

Darcy eyed his beer. “Okay, I’m gonna bite. You’re in the safest room on the planet right now, but you’re only on your second drink.  Since we haven’t been dating long enough to know these things, I’m gonna ask why? Don’t like the taste, don’t like the calories, what?”

His jaw flexed as he stared at his bottle.  “I like the occasional beer, but my dad drank all the time. Stank of it. Used to beat the shit out of me and my brother. And my ma.” He held up his forearm to reveal a thin, white line that ran from one side to the other. “He gave me that when he threw me into a mirror. I think I was five. Couple years later, he put his car into a tree. Killed him and my ma, too.  Can’t say I haven’t been wasted, especially not after a bad op. But I’m an asshole, or so Nat tells me.”  Clint looked away in shame. “Last time I got good and trashed was New Mexico.”

Reeling from that revelation, Darcy babbled, “Not … New York?” She stumbled as she swapped names at the last minute. He still flinched when anyone said “Loki.”

Clint shook his head. “Had enough crap going on in my head that I didn’t need to add to it.” He shifted his bottle over a couple of inches to run a finger through the condensation on the table.  “I’m shit at relationships, Kansas.”  

“And I’m the expert?” she retorted. “I’ve had one relationship that lasted three whole months before you.”

“Your parents---” he started.

“Aren’t perfect. Mom’s stubborn as a mule, and Dad would hole up in the house forever if it was up to him. But they love each other, fight about the things that are important, and ignore the little stuff. It sounds a lot easier than it is.” Darcy took Clint’s hand and kissed his knuckles. “It’s work. Shitty work sometimes. But I like you more than anyone I’ve been with, and you’re you--you’re an Avenger, and why you’re with me is something I don’t really get at all.”

Clint searched her face. For what, she didn’t know, but shifted his grip so that his fingers were entwined with hers.  “You’re not afraid of anything, are you?”

Darcy’d had just enough alcohol to let the truth stumble out.  “Sure I am. I don’t have wings.”

He looked like she’d smacked him in the face with a board. “Uh--” he started. But they were interrupted by none other than Bobbi Morse, who introduced her ex-husband, Lance Hunter--though it was obvious they were dating again. Lance seemed distinctly uncomfortable with Clint, shaking his hand with reluctance.

“Let’s get all the awkwardness out of the way,” Bobbi insisted. “Clint,” she said, “Don’t fuck this one up.  Darcy’s the real thing.  Talk to her. Tell her all the shit you wouldn’t tell me. She’s good for it.” She turned to Lance.  “Talk to Clint, be nice, and don’t play darts with him. You’ll lose.” Lance protested as Clint snickered.  

Then Bobbi drew Darcy away from the two men. “Does he know yet?”

“He just got back yesterday,” Darcy replied. “I wasn’t going to spring it on him out of the blue.”

“Don’t wait,” Bobbi ordered.

Anger flared, and Darcy snapped out, “What gives you the right to tell me what to do? I spent years knowing who he was to me, and I’m still not over how our Match went.  Maybe that was supposed to be all it was. I don’t have wings, Bobbi.  Clint deserves more than that.”  

“Wings aren’t everything.”

Darcy snorted. “And if Lance didn’t have wings, you’d still want to be with him?”

Bobby crossed her arms, clearly frustrated.  “What do you want?”

To try.   But Darcy only answered, “Well, that didn’t happen, did it?”

“I thought this was a party?” Natasha’s silky voice interjected as she wound a protective arm around Darcy’s waist.  

Bobbi glared a little at Natasha, who returned an innocent smile. Darcy exhaled, reminding herself that Bobbi only had Clint’s best interests at heart and Natasha was being a damned good friend in the moment.  She smiled at both ladies. “I assume you two know each other?”

“Romanoff.”

“Morse.”

“Excellent. Now who’s up for Jell-O shots? Because I have finals in two weeks, and this hasn’t been the most conducive environment for stress-free studying,” Darcy insisted.  

The shots were limited to two before somebody made noises about the waterfall, and there was a small stampede as the party moved from Tony’s penthouse to the bubbling pool in the Aerie.  The Winged Ones stripped to skivvies, leaving a trail of clothing in their wake. Jane, Thor, and Stark didn’t even bother with those, dropping naked into the heated water.  Steve didn’t exactly blush, but he did keep his eyes averted until everyone was safely under the waterline.

Darcy wasn’t used to going out in public without something covering her shoulders, much less stripping to bra and underwear--even if it was with friends, but since Pepper, Natasha, and Maria didn’t seem to have a problem with it, she did the same. Coulson’s crew followed suit, and by the time Darcy waded in, the pool was crammed with scantily clad people.  There were times, she thought, that she could make a killing selling pictures if she was a little less scrupulous.  Oh well. She’d just have to appreciate the view for the rest of America.

With all the hard bodies and solid muscle packed into the small space, she stuck her foot in beside Clint, trying to be discreet.

But Tony blinked twice, perusing Darcy from head to toe. “Damn, Lewis,” he said with admiration as he saluted her with his drink. “That’s what’s called packing heat.”  And then he went back to talking to Pepper.  No declaration of possession, no orders to smile or to show off; it was just a simple, genuine compliment, just like any of her roommates in college might have made.

It felt good. She exchanged a shocked smile with Jane, who mouthed, Told you.  Darcy wrinkled her nose at her friend.

Clint held out his hand. “Mind sitting with me?” he asked as Darcy stepped into the water.  She’d been so distracted, she hadn’t noticed that most of the couples had doubled up to save space in the pool. Even Maria had picked a spot where Natasha could lean against her.  

When she nodded, Clint pulled her down into his lap in one smooth move, where it seemed perfectly natural to lean against his chest so he could wrap an arm around her middle. “Tony’s right, you know,” he said in her ear, “You’re beautiful.” She was grateful no one could tell the difference between a blush and the heat in her face from the hot water.

Skye and Tripp traded stories about the Bus to entertain their half of the pool, while Sam told tales about his adventures with Steve that kept the other half in stitches.

“Do I have clearance for this?” Darcy whispered to Clint, after she’d laughed herself silly at Tripp’s description of Phil digging through Gabe Jones’ old suitcase of SSR toys.

“You’re a level five; pretty sure you’re covered.”

She craned around to look at him. “Seriously?”

“Mm hmm. Gotta be at least a five to see those mission reports you read off to me,” he told her. The bubbling water and low lights surrounding the area gave Darcy and Clint an unexpected intimacy given all the people in close quarters--enough that when he dropped a kiss on the curve of her neck, she smiled and retaliated by lightly raking her nails over the forearm holding her to him.

“Oh, you like that?” he asked.

“Uh huh,” she agreed.

He set his callused thumb to her shoulder to make shivery trails up and over it.  Between the heat of the water and Clint being right here , she shifted in his lap, unable to conceal her rising desire. But when his thumb grazed across her hidden soulmark, she shivered instead.

“Is this covering a Mark, a scar, or a bad tattoo?” he said in a low voice that wouldn’t be overheard.

Holy hell, she wasn’t ready for this. Not now, not here. But she didn’t want to lie either. “A Mark,” she answered, fully aware that she’d stiffened up.

Without taking his thumb away from her shoulder, he quietly asked, “Matched?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Now I know why you get it.”  Clint pressed a kiss to her temple and went back to mesmerizing her with his fingers, shifting so that his arm was tucked around her a little more.  “Stay with me tonight.”  

“I will.”

Clint didn’t tease her after that, but his hands made long slow strokes over her arms they enjoyed the party.  At one point, he rested his chin on her shoulder, with both arms wrapped around her middle.  

People came and went, alternating lounging beside the pool and soaking in the heat. JARVIS played DJ, keeping the beat lively, and Stark had his team bring up the food from his place.

But eventually, Jane sent her a wink across the pool, and then she and Thor lifted themselves out of the pool, water streaming off their plumage as they wrapped up in tunics. They walked off to the side, and with a blur of motion, shook their feathers dry enough that both of them took to the air moments later.  

Darcy loved seeing her friend fly, even if it was just the short distance to her balcony. She tried to calculate what time it was, and in the end, examined her fingers to see how wrinkled the tips were.  

“You done?” Clint asked, just as Darcy stifled a yawn.

“I am.”  She shifted off his lap, and he neatly rolled out of the pool, holding out his hand to help her out.  While Darcy dried off, Clint kissed her cheek, then strolled out the balcony, shook of his feathers, and made a short flight around the Tower to finish getting the water out of his wings. He came back in time to catch her hand.  

Clint and Nat had a wordless exchange of smirks and eyebrows that ended with him turning to Darcy.  “Your place?” he asked.  



Darcy kept waiting for Clint to ask about her Match, but he didn’t that night, nor did he the next day.  Or the next.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

21/Boundaries

 

Clint really didn’t understand why Darcy was still with him, but they were bumbling along in some kind of relationship that evaded his comprehension. At least now he got why she didn’t seem to care about his soulmark. She had one too, and from her body language, it had been a shit thing. Was it wrong to be happy about that? ‘Cause he wanted to keep doing this with Darcy.  He liked having her in his space--and that was saying something, because only he’d only ever been comfortable with Bobbi, Nat, and Phil knowing his business.

Like the others, Darcy didn’t seem to mind the fact he, well, killed people for a living, among other things. And it took a while, but Clint figured out that he clicked with her because she wasn’t a Winged One, nor had she been raised with them, so he didn’t have to try to fit in, but she had a thorough understanding of his wings and was neither afraid nor bedazzled by them.  

She made him cookies--jelly thumbprints that he didn’t have to share with anyone but Nat, and only if Nat caught him with them, which was only about a third of the time.  

It was Darcy’s thing with Nat that really threw him for a loop. Though they’d spent his first night in Clint’s bed, Darcy seemed to understand he’d rather do the sex thing at her place when Nat was home and didn’t act like she was jealous or put out. When he’d asked, she’d pushed her glasses up on her face and answered, “Nat’s family, Iowa.”

When Nat had a nasty undercover op that had left her off-balance, he figured this would be the thing that pushed Darcy to the limit.

Clint had come home from a short op with Coulson’s team to find his girlfriend had been holed up for days with little more than coffee and yogurt to get her through finals week.  JARVIS tattled almost the moment Clint’s boots hit the deck. He found a sticky note on his balcony window from Jane, politely ordering him to keep an eye on Darcy as she had a conference in Antwerp.

So Clint pried Darcy out and installed her in his apartment so that he could feed her lunch.  Afterward, she’d spread out her books across the dining table, oblivious to his puttering. He cleaned his weapons, dumped his uniform in the bucket for housekeeping to pick up, and started a load of laundry.  Then he crashed on the sofa with Netflix on mute and closed captions to keep him company. He couldn’t see Darcy, but he left his hearing aids in so he’d know if she stirred.

He woke when he heard Natasha’s voice. The strain in it was unmistakeable. He kept his head down out of dumb curiosity--but hey, spy, so he’d be forgiven. Maybe.

“Hey, Natasha,” Darcy murmured. “Glad you’re back.”

“It’s after midnight,” Nat chided. “Don’t you have a test tomorrow?”

“Uh huh. Got a little more to review.”

“Have you eaten anything?”

“Clint made me, um, something with chicken. It was good,” she mumbled. Clint figured she was still knee deep in her review.

“When?”

“No idea.”

“You staying tonight?” Nat asked.

There was a hesitation, then, “Oh shit, Natasha. I’m sorry.  I’ll go back to my place.” There was the sound of sliding paper as Darcy, presumably, gathered up her stuff.

“Don’t go,” Natasha chided. “The bed is better up here.”

“That’s ‘cause Clint’s in it.” Yes, there was definitely a weary blur in her voice, and Clint figured he missed the mark on getting her to bed at a reasonable time.

“I know.”  

Clint blinked, sure that he missed several layers of meaning in that.

“I need water,” Darcy blurted.

“Yes, you do.”

“Why’re you not staying with Maria?”

“Because I need to be here.”

“Oh. ‘Cause you’ve been gone and you miss Clint and you haven’t really seen him since that time in Minsk, and that wasn’t home, it’s just a safehouse and now you need to be with him ‘cause he’s family and it’s ‘cause you need everything to be okay.”

Natasha let out a low chuckle. “You’re pretty good at that.”

“Jus’ drop me on the sofa an’ you an’ Clint--holy shitballs, he’s pretty--can sleep in the bed.  It’s a nice bed.  ‘Specially with feathers.  Does Clint let you sleep on his feathers?”

“Sometimes.”

Clint could hear Natasha padding to the kitchen, opening the cabinet, and turning on the water. Filling up a glass of water, he assumed. Then the water shut off and she padded back to the table.

“Oh good. ‘Cause you should get to do that.”

“Drink that. Then I’m going to make you an omelette and put you to bed.”

There were noises in the kitchen, and Clint sat up. Nat didn’t cook. Ever. He scrubbed his face, scratched a wing where a trio of covert feathers had loosened. One of them floated to the sofa.  Clint picked it up, then went to find Nat.

“Did you cook?” he asked as Natasha breezed by him with a fluffy yellow omelette.

“It’s too pretty to eat,” Darcy complained as Nat set it on the table with a napkin wrapped around a knife and fork.

“It’s meant for eating. And if you don’t, Barton’s going to do it for you.”

Darcy huddled protectively around her plate, poking a fork into her first bite. Half an omelette later, she came up for air. “Holy crap, Nat, who said you could cook?”

“I don’t like cooking. Remember that.” Nat looked Darcy over with a satisfied smile, then told Clint, “She’s all yours.”

“Got it,” he agreed.

Clint pushed Darcy toward his bed, where she was asleep in seconds. Natasha cuddled with Clint on the couch for a while, then sauntered off to her own bed.  Which didn’t seem right. Nights like these, she always stayed with him.  

But Darcy was here, and Nat was trying to give them space.  Shit.  Clint scratched his head, trying not to fuck up the two most important relationships in his life with a bad decision. In the end though, since Nat closed her bedroom door, he crawled under the covers with Darcy.  

Maybe an hour later, he woke when Darcy eased out of bed and peered into the living room.  She exited, coming back with Nat in tow and gently shoving her toward the bed. “You need to be here tonight,” Darcy whispered, leaning over and kissing Clint on the cheek. “I’m going home. Natasha needs you.”

But as Nat sat on the bed, she grabbed Darcy’s wrist. “Stay,” she paused, adding, “If you want.”

Darcy yawned, covering her mouth with a fist.  “How’s that gonna work for Clint?”

Natasha flicked a quick glance over Clint’s wings, and he kept his mouth firmly closed so as not to say anything stupid. Then she jerked her chin at Darcy. “You take the middle.”

And so Clint cuddled with Darcy while Nat took the other half of the bed.   He only dozed that night, waking frequently to check on them. When Natasha jerked with a nightmare, it was Darcy who stroked her hair until she went back to sleep.  

At dawn, Darcy went home to shower and change clothes for her classes, and Clint found Natasha sipping tea in the kitchen.  Thinking she was upset, he pulled her to him. “We’ll find another way,” he promised.  

But Nat shook her head. “I … slept in a dormitory growing up. It’s nice. Like sisters.”

“Seriously?” Clint raised his eyebrows, knowing damned well Nat’s upbringing involved killing more than one of the young girls she’d been raised with.

Natasha lifted a shoulder in a bratty shrug. “Sort of?”

“Sort of the way you imagined it should be?”

“Shut up, Barton.  I don’t like people knowing my secrets.” She kept her arms around him, though, and Clint felt better about the whole thing.  

“You like Darcy.”

Nat leaned back so she could look at him.  “Yeah, I do.”

“You don’t like anyone ‘cept me and Phil.”

“Well,” she started as she moved back to the table where her tea rested, “I’m getting used to these guys.”

He chuckled as he started a pot of coffee.  “Even Stark?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

Clint only snickered. Later that night, when Darcy collapsed on the short sofa after her exams, Natasha took the other end.  Clint was banished to the floor, which was fine, he wanted to stretch his wings anyway.  But he noticed that Natasha rested her feet against Darcy’s shins, and Darcy parked her hand on Nat’s toes.  He stayed out of it and said nothing at all. It was safer that way.

Darcy spent the better part of the following day in the Nest preening Steve’s plumage with delicate care.  Clint made himself stick around as long as he could stand it, flew around Central Park for a while, then came back and filched one of her pots of oil. He sat beside them while he worked the goop into his feathers.  Darcy gave Clint a startled smile that did funny things to his stomach. Or was that his heart?

 

 

One of Nat’s contacts sent her a lead on the Winter Soldier, one that was hot enough that Rogers, Wilson, and Romanoff skipped off a week before the Avengers’ planned raid on a HYDRA base to follow up on it.  Stark and Banner scooted off to Malibu to escape the nasty weather moving into the Tower. They could do surveillance from California as easily as New York, so long as JARVIS was involved.  Thor and Jane holed up in their place, leaving Darcy and Clint a rare evening alone.  JARVIS had warned them about the oncoming storm, closing the Aerie’s windows in preparation.

Not that either of them would notice.  Clint had Darcy on the edge of the bed, he was on his knees, and he was busy licking up into her sweet heat, learning all the little places that made her squeal. She liked it when he drew a tongue along one fold to suck on her bud for a second or two, alternating sides as the tension in her body ratcheted upward.

“Iowa,” she extorted. “Either let me come or fuck me.”  One of her hands landed on his head, and she petted his hair, fondling the short strands.

“I thought you wanted both,” he said, letting his breath caress her clit.  He darted a tongue out to lick it, lapping at Darcy while she cursed him.

She arched against the bed, her legs spreading wider. Clint laughed, curling one hand around her thigh and using the other to spread her labia so that he could poke his tongue into her vag.  She slammed a foot against the bed, her hand clenching in his hair. “Holy fuckballs, Clint Barton, get your ass up here and fuck me.”

“Nope. You’ve gotta come first, Kansas. You know what they say back home. Ladies first.”

He went back to licking her clit and was gratified when she bucked up into his mouth, hissing clintclintclint as she came apart. He grinned when Darcy yanked at his head.  “More,” she demanded.  It only took an encouraging nudge to have her rolling over, though she did need a little help crawling further up on the bed so that he could slide into her.  

Shitshitshitshitshit, he had no control.  Biting his own lip to keep from blowing his load, he sat back on his heels, bringing Darcy upright with him.  It took balance, but he had that in spades, and this way, he could cup her pretty boobs, and maybe play with them a little. His thumb grazed a nipple.  

“Iowa,” she warned with mixture of exasperation and adoration that he was a sucker for.  “Fuck. Me.”

“Okay.”  He snapped his hips forward, driving into her heat so that her muscles clenched around his cock.  “Any other orders, ma’am?” he choked out.

Darcy’s laugh turned into a moan as she clutched at his hands. Clint couldn’t help stroking the soft flesh under his fingers. He loved Darcy’s skin, and wondered if his rough fingers would snag it like satin, but she didn’t seem to mind.  

“Don’t let go.”

Clint blinked, not sure he heard her right, but he answered anyway, “I won’t.”  

Darcy pulled off his cock to flip over to her back. She tugged him down, slotting him neatly in place.  With his mouth on hers, her hands in his hair, and her scorching heat pulling him in, he couldn’t last more than a few thrusts before he was jerking, pumping into her as she came too.

This, he decided, was really nice, where everything was warm and a little fuzzy. His hands drifted until he found her fingers and brought them to his lips to kiss.  Darcy was strawberries and satin, and he really didn’t want to move.

She poked his shoulder. “Up. You’re heavy.”

“I like this,” he mumbled.

“I’m sticky.”

“Shower.”

“I’m hungry.”

“JARVIS can order pizza. I’m not moving.”

Darcy ran one nail right up under his armpit, and, damn it, he was ticklish there. He flinched. She giggled.  “Up,” she demanded. He did a push up as he kissed her, then flipped over one hand to land on his feet beside the bed.  Darcy laughed.  “That’s what I get for falling in love with a circus performer.”

In love?  Clint tried not to fall on his ass, but his brain short-circuited and he stumbled backward into the dresser.

Darcy’s eyes popped wide. “Um, okay. Yeah. Premature kind of thing,” she babbled. “Or maybe a never kind of thing if that’s not what we’re going to do. I can’t say I didn’t mean it, I’d be lying, and Mama would wash my mouth out with soap, but you’re so … so everything that I sort of forgot to not say anything.”  

She turned pale enough that Clint stuttered as his brain came back online. “No, it’s good. I’m in. I’m .. too.  You … yes.” He sighed at his own incoherence and pulled her up the bed so that he could wrap his arms around her. “Let’s try this.”

“Mr Barton, Ms Lewis,” JARVIS interrupted.

“Now?” Clint complained.

“I believe someone is attempting to breach the Tower.”

Just like that, Clint changed from flustered boyfriend to Hawkeye. This, at least, he knew how to do. “Get dressed,” he snapped to Darcy. “JARVIS, I need a sitrep.” His girlfriend didn’t hesitate as she dove for her clothes.

“You may be able to see from your balcony. It appears that James Buchanan Barnes has gained access to the Chrysler Building and is preparing to fly to Stark Tower.  Captain Rogers has granted permission for Sergeant Barnes to access the Aerie and his quarters, but I find I have reservations about the current situation.”

“I would too, pal.” Clint zipped up his pants as he squinted to get his first look at Steve’s soulmate, making full use of his excellent eyesight. The skies were darkening and the winds picking up.  Clint walked to the edge of the balcony, aware that Darcy stood by his side.

The Winter Soldier spread his wings, ragged as they were, and Clint swore long and loud as he fetched the leather harness he kept around for Natasha.  “JARVIS, open all the south facing windows.”

“You’re going to let him in?” Darcy asked, surprised.

“Barnes is in bad shape. I don’t know if he has enough feathers intact to get here. My guess is he’s trying to use the storm to keep him in the air long enough get inside. It’s barely a mile, but that’s a long way to fly when you’re not at your best.

“Can he make it?”

“Maybe,” Clint said. “But he’s only gonna get one chance at this, and the odds are not on his side.” He quirked a smile at Darcy as he buckled the waist strap of the harness under his wings, then pulled the main strap over the middle of his back so that where it split, each side could lie over his shoulders and buckle into the waist again.  “One thing’s for sure, Rogers’ll owe me for this one. Assuming Barnes doesn’t kill me, I’m going to bring him in.”

As Darcy smoothed the second buckle over his chest flat and made sure it was tight, Clint brushed a kiss over her cheek. “See if you can wake up Thor, I could use his help on the landing.”

With a bright smile that Clint finally cataloged as Darcy pretending not to be scared, she wiggled her fingers at his feet. “Shoes?”

“They’ll only be in the way.” He flapped his wings a couple of times to make sure the harness didn’t shift.  He gave Darcy a peck on the lips and launched off his balcony and into the awakening storm.

Clint rowed hard against the rising winds, working his way towards Barnes. It was too much to hope that the other man would wait and let Clint make contact.  Even from this distance, it was clear Barnes was armed and prepared to fight his way to get to the Aerie.  Clint held his hands open, hoping like hell Barnes would get the message that he was a friend.  Instead, the Winter Soldier angled his wings and stepped off the gilded arches of the Chrysler Building.

Shit.  

Barnes promptly dropped, though he fought for altitude, frantically pumping his wings, but his feathers were too damaged to keep him aloft. Clint flared his wings ten feet out, coming to a full stop mid-air, then folded over so that he slid right under Barnes, lending him support from below.

For one, two, three breaths, nothing happened, and Clint half-expected a shiv to the kidney.  And then, he felt tugs on the harness as Barnes grabbed on with first one hand, then the other.   

“You’re an idiot,” he muttered into Clint’s ear.  

“That’s what they tell me.”  

Barnes’ wingspan overshot Clint’s by a good couple of feet on either side, and it took a minute or so to get their flapping in sync, but Barnes had a death grip on the leather, so the two men were chest to back, flying in tandem.  Clint’s back muscles burned with the effort of keeping them both aloft.  At the next strong gust of wind, Clint pointed upward, and they went vertical together, regaining the lost altitude. They did it twice more to climb high above the Tower, and then it was only a matter of getting the angle on the Aerie windows and landing.  

Shit.  This was gonna hurt.  

Clint pointed to where Thor waited in the tree. “There’s an eagle Winged One big enough to catch you.  Aim for the second window on the left.  If we miss, go for the third and try not to fall off the terrace. You copy?”

The acknowledgment Barnes gave was in Russian, but that was fine. Nat lapsed into her native language on occasion too. They banked hard right, letting the winds carry them into the Tower, though a strong gust threatened to shove them against the glass as they flew through.

Clint unbuckled the harness as they cleared the windows. As soon as the pressure released, Clint folded his wings to drop out of the way.  Thor launched in time to meet Barnes mid-flight, catching him from above. Barnes relaxed his wings, letting Thor slow his momentum with a spiral around the tree so they landed without incident--though Barnes scrambled to stand near the terrace to get a read on the situation.

Too busy watching, Clint missed his landing and tripped on one of the rocks near the pool, landing flat on this face. “Aw, toes, no.” He rolled over to find Darcy peering at him.

“Anything broken?” she asked.

“No?”

Sheesh, she was pretty, all grey -eyed and her cheeks still flushed from their lovemaking. She kissed his cheek, though she darted a look toward Barnes.

Jane shooed Darcy out of the way. “Go check James. I’ll keep an eye on Clint until he quits whining.”

Clint groaned. “Did I not just save the Captain’s mate from falling to his death on the streets of New York?”

“Yes, and you did it beautifully.  What would you like in reward?” Jane teased. “A cookie?”

Clint thought about it as he poked at his ribs to make sure they were all intact.  “Yeah. That’ll do.”

Jane offered him a hand up so that he could limp over to where Thor was waiting to see what Barnes would do.  From a nearby speaker, JARVIS indicated the storm was upon them and could he please close the windows?

Still with his hands up, Clint waved upward. “The windows are closing because of the storm, not because of you. If you need to get out, the terrace doors are unlocked on both sides. There’s also two exits, there and there,” Clint indicated.  

Barnes swayed, from injuries or exhaustion was anyone’s guess, but given his pasty complexion, Clint was gonna go with the latter. Though they all knew about the metal arm, it was different seeing it up close. There was no doubt it was a powerful weapon in itself--but from the way Barnes flexed his left hand and shoulder, making the plates resettle, Clint wondered if it was working the way it should. He didn’t know, but he was grateful the soldier hadn’t knocked him out of the air with it.  

Darcy brought out a water bottle and a couple of protein bars from the kitchen. She held them out as she approached the soldier. “I’m Darcy. That’s Clint, Jane, and Thor,” she introduced, pointing at each of them.

“Where’s Steve?” Bucky snarled.

“He’s not here. I’ll call him. Or you can call him.” She set the water, the bars, and her cell phone a few feet in front of the soldier. “All you have to do is touch--”

Barnes was incredibly fast--one moment, he was warily eyeballing Darcy as she approached. The next, he was on top of her with a hand to her throat--though not the metal one, which Clint thought was curious. One knee dug into her hip and tears sprang to her eyes. Her hands went around his wrist as she tried to pull him away and to buck him off with a twist of her hips.  

Clint, like all the other Avengers, had weapons stashed all over the Tower. He retrieved his bow and a quiver from the tree as Thor called Mjolnir. Steve’s soulmate or not, Clint fired a killing shot at the Winter Soldier.  

Barnes’ mouth flattened, and he barely glanced up to bat the arrow out of the air. “Stand down, archer,” he commanded, pressing a hand tighter to Darcy’s throat. Cold grey eyes bored into hers. “Did you fuck him?” he growled.

Oh. As Clint made noises of protest, Darcy tried to shake her head. “No. We’re friends. It’s not like that.” She pulled at his wrist again, but Bucky pressed a thumb against her carotid artery--not enough to do anything, but enough to scare the crap out of her. “I promise, Bucky.”

That got him to loosen his grip a notch. “You know who I am?”

With that slightly lost tone Darcy found courage to breathe out--to think, instead of react--and Clint was damned proud of her.  She licked her dry lips. “I--yes,” she stuttered. Then she found her voice. “Steve found one of your feathers in a box. I held him while he cried. He didn’t need someone to fuck. He needed a friend.”

“Call your archer off,” Barnes said, his hand lifting ever so slightly off her throat. He shifted just a little to the right, enough that she could see Clint standing under tree, nocked arrow at the ready.

Darcy let go of the soldier’s wrist. “Clint--” she called out. But he was absolutely stone-faced, his eyes never wavering from his target. He waited until Barnes eased his knee off her hip, pulling Darcy up to be his shield as they stood. In one smooth motion, Clint dropped the bow and came up with a short tube and a feathered dart.

“Well, shit,” Bucky swore. “Your archer’s a damned good shot, doll.”  He dropped to a knee, then collapsed in a pile of tattered feathers behind her with a low moan.

Horrified, Darcy touched his face. “Bucky--what do you want?”

“Steve. Only Steve, doll.” His eyes closed, and Darcy began to shake.

“What did you do?” she cried out to Clint as he dropped down beside her.

With a flash of irritation, he muttered, “Tranq’d him.” Thor knelt down to turn Bucky onto his back, and Clint squatted beside them, searching through Bucky’s feathers until he found the tiny blow dart. “Ought to keep him down for a half hour or so.” He glared at Darcy. “Why are you pissed at me ? I’m not the one with a hand to your throat.”

Flustered, she blurted, “I’m not mad at you.”

Clint frowned at her. “JARVIS, give Stark an update and let him know we’re handling it for now.”

“Of course.”

“And scan Barnes. Tell me if there’s anything wrong with him. This doesn’t look right.”

“It appears the fifth and sixth rib on the right side are broken, the seventh is fractured, and on his right wing the main tendon is badly stretched.  Several ligaments are torn around both ends of the radius on the right wing as well.”  

Darcy didn’t miss Clint’s wince.  “Guess that hurts?”

“I’ve flown a time or two in that condition,” he said flatly. Up close, it was impossible to miss that Barnes’ plumage was in terrible shape. All of his feathers had ragged ends, half the shafts were cracked or split and dozens were squared off at the tips.

“He has been clipped and caged,” Thor noted, fingering one of the primaries. “My ire with this HYDRA grows stronger with each passing moment.”

But Darcy shook her head. “Caged? Clipped?” She looked up at Clint in horror.

“Like a fucking parrot,” he agreed, swallowing hard at the nausea that rose in his throat from the memories.  

Trickshot had locked him in the tiger cage for the whole weekend. Clint had tried not to sleep, tried to keep his feathers pulled safe inside the bars.  But exhaustion from his last beating won over, and Clint woke to find his primaries cut in half.  At best, he could glide. Flying would be out of the question for months. Tears slid down his cheeks, and he buried his face into Juma’s fur. The old tiger purred, putting one paw on Clint’s forearm.  

All because Barney was jealous that Clint could fly ….

Darcy laid a hand on Clint’s arm--the same place where Juma’s paw used to rest.  “Clint?”

He shook his head to clear the memories, grateful for Darcy’s concern. He patted her hand. “I’m good. Let’s get the boyfriend on the line.”

She pulled out her cell phone and ended up leaving a message. “Hey there, handsome. You coming home anytime soon? Amazon just delivered a package here I’m pretty sure you want. Later, dude.”

“Not bad,” Clint said when she disconnected. She didn’t leave anything incriminating on the voice mail, and it was innocuous enough that even if someone was listening in, they wouldn’t be able to make much of it.

“I learned from you,” she said simply. Clint glowed with pride at her intelligence.  

Darcy touched Bucky’s sallow face. “He’s cold. He can’t be cold if he’s like Steve.” She drew a hand through his feathers. “He’s soaking wet too.”  

“Can we get him in the sauna?” Jane asked. “We can regulate the heat and if we bump up the humidity to thirty percent, it will give him a chance to warm up and dry out without making his feathers brittle.”

The sauna was on the same level as the fitness center and wasn’t used by the Winged Ones--they all preferred to air dry on the terrace after a soak in the pools.  It fit five or six non-winged humans just fine, but Clint wasn’t sure how it would work for Barnes.  It was the best option though, and Thor carried Bucky down to the sauna. As the Asgardian lowered him to the floor, Darcy was the only one who could fit into the room to lay out the soldier’s wings.

Darcy tapped her lips with a finger. “If he’ll let me, I can set his bones, then try to do what I can for his feathers.”

“Armed guard, or you don’t stay,” Clint warned.

“Hey, I wasn’t going to die on Thor’s weird shit, I’m definitely not going to do it for Bucky’s,” she replied cheekily, flashing a smile at Thor, who nodded regally in return.

With a chuckle, Clint agreed. “What do you need?”

“Ten minutes to change and get my kit, if I can have Jane.”

“Done, then.”

 

Darcy came back wearing green and black bike shorts and a matching sports bra, with her hair braided off her face into a single, long tail that trailed down her back. Jane brought food for all of them, setting it out on a handy table in the hallway outside meant just for that. Darcy drank a full bottle of water before going in, and Bucky stirred once as she set out her kit. Clint kept his blow darts and both ICERs handy.  For now, Thor was stationed on the opposite side of the sauna, his wings hanging out the doorway, waiting for Bucky to wake up.  With the soldier’s wings spread out on the floor to their full extent, Clint wanted to puke again. Molten metal had been poured over the primaries at some point. Some of it was still there, but the weight--or maybe it was fighting--had cracked the shafts. The base of the feathers were inflamed and likely infected.  Not only that, the barbs on the feathers weren’t grown in properly at all, with dips and flares that wouldn’t hook together, something that only happened with years of neglect.

Darcy peered at them, then asked Thor, “You wear metal on your feathers, right?”

“Aye, but they are sheaths precisely forged and fitted to each shaft; it is nothing like this crude application,” Thor noted in disgust. “I have never seen such damage in all my years.  This warrior will be a long time in recovering.”

Clint mentally agreed, remembering how long it had taken to molt all the damaged feathers.  

When Barnes came awake, it was abrupt, and Thor set one firm hand on the soldier’s metal shoulder, holding Mjolnir just above Bucky’s chest before he could do any damage. “Be still, my friend. You are ill and injured.  May we offer you rest and healing?”

Panting, Bucky went limp.  “Steve. Just tell me where he is,” he pleaded.

“I got a message to him,” Darcy promised.  “He’ll call.  But we want to help you.”

“Help me?”

“If you’re like Steve, your ribs need to be wrapped while they heal,” Clint said. “Probably another half hour in here and you’ll stop shivering.  Jane has food. Are you hungry?”

Bucky noted the darts Clint was holding and gave them all a slow nod. “Yeah. You’re not going to turn me in?”

“And have Steve Rogers on our asses for all eternity?” Darcy retorted. “I thought you said you knew him.”

“I … do.”

“Then you know that if we hand you over to Steve in anything less than the best of care, he’s going to kick us over the terrace. Friends we might be, but we don’t hold a candle to Steve’s soulmate,” she insisted.  

Bucky looked at Clint, who shrugged in agreement.  “I… could eat.”

“Excellent,” Thor told him as he set a plate down. “Darcy makes the best cookies on all Midgard.”

Baffled, Bucky leaned up on one elbow.  “Cookies?”

The soldier was wary enough to only allow Darcy to get close once Thor backed off, correctly identifying Darcy as the least threat to his person. Clint made a point of eating half of whatever Jane had prepared, and the soldier gladly scarfed down enough food to satisfy even Steve’s appetite after a day-long battle.  Under Clint’s direction--because he’d lost count of how many broken and fractured ribs he had over the years--Darcy wrapped Bucky’s middle so that he could heal properly.  Once that was done, she stuffed pillows behind him and the injured wing so that he could sit up a little without straining.

Bucky let Darcy press her fingers to his cheek and wrist. “You’re warmer, but not as warm as Steve usually is,” she said.  “How do you feel?”

“Cold.”

Darcy’s phone rang, and she answered it with alacrity. “Yo.” She hummed. “Yup.  … Yup … Yup  …. Want to talk to him? … Got it.”  She tapped her phone and handed it to Bucky, who put it to his ear.  

“Steve?” Bucky seemed to crumple in on himself as he listened. “What--what do I do?” Then, with a nod, “Okay.”  

He handed the phone back to Darcy, who listened to a long set of instructions before she disconnected. She gave Clint a relieved smile.  “Steve’s rounding up the crew. He’ll be home tomorrow night. Our marching orders are to make you comfortable,” she told Bucky. “So, Steve’s apartment has a huge bed, a big private bathtub, and we can get you anything you want to eat because you’re in Stark Tower.”

“Steve said you’re the only one he’ll let near my wings,” Bucky grumbled. “Never heard of a non-winged healer.”

“Yeah, well, I have a Winged Soulmate,” she said curtly.

Aw, Darcy, no.  Clint winced internally, having the sudden urge to find the asshole and introduce them to the pointy end of an arrow. No wonder she was so comfortable around wings.

“Makes sense,” Bucky drawled, his eyes tracking from Darcy to Clint and back again. Oh, fuck. That notion was going to have to be disabused, but this wasn’t the time.  

Now that the threat seemed to be diminished, Thor took Jane back to their apartment, with a promise to return if needed.

Darcy handed Bucky her kit. “Pick out an oil. I’ll paint your feathers with a brush just so you’ll dry out properly and won’t itch.  We can deal with the rest after you’re warm and have a chance to sleep.”

“I don’t sleep.”

“You can take that up with Steve when he gets home.”

 

 

Darcy meticulously oiled each feather--first with a brush, then, when Bucky acquiesced, with her fingers to get the oil all the way down to his skin. “You really need your own gland oil for this,” Darcy muttered. “But that’s for Steve, not me.”

“It’ll do, doll. Feels better. Not so itchy. Forgot that it wasn’t supposed to be itchy.”

Clint remembered those days too, and it was strange discovering he had something else in common with the Winter Soldier. Both snipers, both used against their will, both subject to the kinds of abuse only read about in police reports. For that reason alone, Clint pocketed the darts.  

When she finished, it took both of them to get Bucky into the elevator and to Steve’s apartment.  

“It’s monitored,” she told Bucky.  “Say, hello, JARVIS.”

“Hello, Sergeant Barnes. I am programmed to monitor your well-being and to assist you however suits your convenience.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Stark,” he muttered. “Just like his dad.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Clint warned. “That man has daddy issues like you read about.”

“Why does that not surprise me.” Bucky staggered to the bedroom, his injured wing drooping, but he wouldn’t let either of them help. But he gave Darcy a pathetic frown. “Can .. can I talk to Steve?”

“JARVIS? Get Steve on the line and give them a visual feed.”  

“Of course. If you’ll make yourself comfortable, Sergeant, I will bring up visuals where it will be convenient for your viewing.”

As Darcy and Clint closed the door, they could hear Steve’s happy greeting. “Bucky?”

 

It was well past midnight, and Darcy was clearly exhausted. With on hand on her back, he pushed her into the elevator to his floor.  She rubbed her swollen hands and her hair was damp with sweat from the sauna.

“Speaking of itchy, I need a shower.”  She reached back to scratch her shoulder -- and Clint’s eyes widened when the concealer rubbed away from her soulmark, leaving shimmering oil in the gaps.  

 

                                              to be go

                                           asons to ca

 

It shouldn’t have mattered. At all. Except that “g” looked awfully familiar, and Clint recognized his own characteristic “c.”





Chapter Text

22/More Than Words

 

“Darcy?” Clint fully intended to ask about her soulmark, but when she turned around in the elevator, he discovered her face wet with tears, and her hands were curled up--swollen and cramping from the hours she’d spent oiling Barnes’ feathers. “Aw, Kansas, no,” he said instead, holding her close and resting his chin on her head. JARVIS helpfully slowed down the car to give them a little longer to hug on the short trip, and Darcy sniffled into his shoulder when it came to a stop.

Clint led her into the bathroom. “I can help you rinse off in the shower, then I’ll treat your hands.”

With wide eyes that were purple-blue and a little shocky, Darcy nodded. She hooked her thumbs on her shorts to get them off, but Clint had to drag the sports top over her head when she couldn’t catch the edges of the fabric. He plucked at the strings of his sweatpants so they dropped in a heap at his feet. His hearing aids went on the counter.

They hadn’t showered together yet. Sharing one wasn’t something Clint did much, unless it was Nat, and that wasn’t sexy at all because one of them was usually bleeding when that happened. And this was sort of like that because Darcy was hurting and crashing from the adrenaline that had kept her going through the long night.

But none of that stopped Clint from thinking she looked like a water goddess under the spray, with drops clinging to her curves. He lathered up the soap in his hands to glide them along her neck and shoulders, and then along the lines of her arms, ending at her fingertips where he gently stretched her hands open and dropped a kiss in the center of her palm.

Darcy’s pupils contracted, softening her eyes to their usual dark blue-grey. She took a shuddering breath as he ran his soap-slicked hands along her spine, then swept them down over her collarbones, over her breasts, under them, and to her waist, where his hands skidded to a stop as the soap washed away.

It really wasn’t his fault his cock took an interest in what was going on. Darcy flicked a look at it, and as he soaped up his hands again, he muttered, “Ignore him. He’ll get over it.”

Darcy spoke, but he couldn’t hear her over the water. He tapped his ear as a reminder.

She held up her hands to sign a circle over her heart //please//, she pulled her curled up hands toward her, //want//, and she made a gesture toward Clint because she couldn’t point, but he interpreted as //you.//

Clint signed, //yes,// and Darcy’s hungry kiss made up for the fact she couldn’t really touch him at all. The last of the soap washed away as Clint slapped at the controls to turn the water off. This time, when Clint set a hand to her full breast, she lightly bit his lip and leaned into his touch. She was so damned sensitive there. The lightest graze made her nipples peak, and then he just had to lick at them because he liked the way she wiggled when he did it.

He groaned when she drew the inside of her wrist along the length of his dick, the sensitive skin of both racking up the heat between them. Clint traced a thumb along her slit, finding her wet enough to slick his thumb. He brought it up to taste, and Darcy’s mouth broke into a smile.

That must have been all she needed, because she hitched a leg around his hip to get his cock where she wanted it. Clint spread his legs just enough to get him at the right height, and slid all the way home in one slick move, feeling Darcy’s moan through his hands on her rib cage.

Darcy hooked her wrists around Clint’s neck, holding on with something like desperation as he stroked inside her. He closed his eyes to savor her scent and touch, reveling in the way she moved with him, trying to hold his dick in, then releasing to ease the way out and back again. Her ass tightened when he set his hands under the curve of it to give him better leverage, and she pressed closer, twitching just at the edge of her orgasm. It was something to see Darcy all flushed and biting her lip, wrists pressing against his neck as he stroked long and deep, opening and letting him all the way in. They were so close as to be a single unit when she unraveled, the clenching of her body tipping him over the edge, and he came with a shout, holding her so tight he was helpless to do anything but drive into her body again and again until he was spent and holding her until the last of the shudders stopped wracking her body.

Darcy leaned in to kiss Clint with heat and want that only made his cock twitch--it was still happily nestled in her warmth. His thumb on her clit dragged one more little orgasm out of her, wringing out the last of the tension in both of them, and they staggered out of the shower together.

She tried to sign as Clint turned the dryer on to blow the water off his feathers, but he caught her hands so she wouldn’t have to deal with the pain. He set a hearing aid in place, adjusting the sound for the low hum of the blower. “There. What did you want to tell me?”

“You were magnificent out there. It was hard and weird and I wasn’t scared because you were there. And you’re, like, a total badass with that whole catching Barnes in mid-air thing. I’ll bet JARVIS has it on video.” She cupped his jaw with both hands. “I see all these pieces of you, the archer in the circus, the guy who walks me to class,” she paused, adding, “the Avenger.” She tilted her head as she gave him a whimsical smile. “You’re something else.”

He winced. He’d heard something like this before. “Too much?”

“Nuh uh,” she disagreed as a yawn caught her by surprise.  She hid it behind the back of her hand.

Clint wanted to ask about the soulmark, but Darcy was exhausted and sore; now probably wasn’t the best time. So instead, he turned off the blower and rummaged through the cabinet for a numbing cream. Taking Darcy’s hand, he squirted some onto her palm, and with gentle strokes, he massaged it into the sore muscles. As he did, he discovered the backs of her fingers were covered in little nicks--they had to be from the damaged barbs on Barnes’ feathers.

When he was done, Darcy flexed her hands, trying to work the cramps out. //Thank you,// she signed.

//Happy help-you, // he responded with both hands. Then he motioned to her and slipped his first two fingers under the flat of his other hand. //Come--Go sleep//

She struggled to make the “OK” sign, but she managed and followed Clint to bed. He held her until she fell asleep and shifted to give him a little bit of space.

That was all he needed to get out of bed, dress in the darkness, and take to the skies. The storm had died down, though lightning flashed on the far horizon. Cool air remained in its wake, and Clint’s shoulders ached with the strain from taking Barnes’ weight earlier. But the breeze was stiff and steady enough to make flight easy. He spiraled out over the ocean to enjoy the salty air, and then he zipped through Manhattan, boosted by the offshore winds.

He landed on the Chrysler building, curious as to how Barnes had made his way through the security there. An sleek black cloak with a badge clipped to it lying on the rooftop answered that question. Barnes had probably blended in with the professionals, nicked an ID, and simply walked wherever he wanted to go. Sometimes the simplest of infiltrations worked best. Clint folded up the cloak. It was nice enough that Barnes might want it back.

Clint flew upward a couple of stories to balance on one of the curves of building’s iconic arches. He wished he had his bow and an excuse for a target as he considered Darcy’s soulmark. He hopped from arch to arch instead, then flipped off backward into the air and headed home.

Unable to stop thinking about Darcy’s soulmark, Clint used his other skill set to resolve that mystery. He and Nat had turned one of the bedrooms into an office of sorts--mostly it had a decent stool for him, a chair for her and a desk for them to spread out mission files, if necessary.

He tapped into the now-leaked S.H.I.E.L.D. reports from Puente Antiguo. Coulson wrote the official version, but the appendices contained every report submitted for that operation. Several had been tagged with cross-references to Darcy Lewis’ S.H.I.E.L.D. file. Sitwell’s report indicated she’d been in the bar with Clint. Petrowski and McCord’s reports made it clear she’d had no other destination that night and had left the bar in distress.

One of the appendices contained Darcy’s debrief and the NDA’s she’d signed. Clint snapped a photo of his own soulmark to compare the two. I think you lost a feather and Darcy A Lewis were unmistakably in the same neat, loopy handwriting.

Darcy’s original S.H.I.E.L.D. file indicated she’d signed up with the Rights Register as an unmatched soulmarked. A subsequent update after the London incident noted that she’d Matched during the New Mexico operation, but it was listed as “Confidential” with a phone number to call for further information.

One call later, after a live video feed of Clint writing out a standard paragraph for a handwriting comparison and displaying his own soulmark, he got a copy of Darcy’s statement of their Match words, location, date, and time. If a feather’s supposed to be good luck, I’ve got ten thousand reasons to call that a lie.

Clint winced as he read. Aw, mouth, no, he thought. He only had a vague memory of that night--hazy memories had tangled together with dreams of Darcy and their words often enough that he’d decided it was a figment of his imagination. Nat was right. He was an asshole when he drank, just like his dad. Hell, Loki had been right. Clint had brushed Darcy off without a thought. No wonder she was skittish about their Match.

Needing coffee as buffer against those memories, Clint carried the laptop with him into the kitchen and pushed buttons on the coffee maker until a satisfying drip steadily filled up the carafe.

He remembered his disappointment all those months ago when they didn’t Match at the Tower. Then again, he was used to rejection. Phil and Nat had only ever been the ones to stick.

At least now he understood why he was dazzled by Darcy. Just last night, he’d awakened when she’d curled her fingers into the soft coverts at the base of his primaries, idly stroking them in her sleep. The shiver of want had terrified him--wanting her to touch his feathers, to preen them like he’d seen her with Steve and Jane. Even now, he could feel the swollen oil glands under his tail feathers, eager for the press of her hands against them. All that didn’t stop him from flinching when Darcy got too close, though she was as careful as she could be.

As Clint sucked down a healthy portion of coffee, a shifting of air currents told him Darcy was awake. She shuffled to his side and pressed a kiss against his cheek, signing, //Good morning// with hands that must still be sore, given the way she couldn’t straighten her fingers.

But the moment Darcy saw Clint’s laptop with the Rights Register website still open, she stiffened, but didn’t--or couldn’t, he wasn’t sure--say a thing.

Finally, he prompted, “Were you ever going to tell me?”

“I don’t know.”

White hot anger flared--along a desperate need to push her away before she could cause him any more hurt. He stepped aside, putting a fair amount of distance between them. “You know, I can deal with my exes not wanting to be with me because I have a soulmark. I never figured on my soulmate not wanting me as anything more than a fuckboy,” he spat out.

“That’s not--,” Darcy protested, her eyes wide--with shock, he was sure, but he was too hurt not to let the insult fly. He needed to get away.

“Is it?” Clint snapped. “How long have you known? Is a circus carnie not good enough for you?”

“Clint--”

“You’re wearin’ m’ name out,” he needled.

Darcy lost her temper. “Oh fuck you,” she snapped. “Go ahead and make all the stupid assumptions you want. I’ve had to live with the fact you didn’t want me for three fucking years. I’ve always known we were supposed to have a platonic bond because Winged Ones don’t take mates outside their own kind. And then I screwed it all up and fell in love with you anyway.”

“Good thing I didn’t,” he shot back, though he knew it to be a lie even as he said it.

That arrow hit its mark, and Darcy let out a small gasp. He dodged around her and stepped off the balcony, determined to get to the range--to get away from the betrayal and the lies. Which was ironic, because he made his living as a liar. Maybe Darcy knew that too.

As he stepped into the range, he sent Nat a two word text, “Charlie Quebec,” a bastardized version of an old radio signal that--to them--was an SOS of the non-emergency kind. They’d developed the shorthand after the Battle of New York, and it simply meant Clint was fucked in the head.

He yanked out his hearing aids, needing the silence. He set the arrow against the bow. Nock. He drew the string back, savoring the pull in his arms and through his core. Draw. The arrow released with a vibration in the string that rippled through his whole body. Loose.

Nock. Draw. Loose. Nock. Draw. Loose.

It was the only place he’d ever found absolution.

 

*****

 

Darcy lost track of time standing in the kitchen, shivering in the wake of Clint’s quiet fury, knowing she’d earned every bit of it. She’d been blindsided by the conversation, not awake enough to be anything but straight-up honest. She’d gone up against Hawkeye--spy, assassin, and Avenger--and didn’t even know she’d stepped into the ring.

For a spy, he’d done a lousy job of hiding how much he hurt--the dull eyes and feathers slicked down flat as he said didn’t love her gave it away. Fifteen minutes ago, she would have bet money that he did.  Maybe it didn’t matter. Her heart cracked, and she hated herself for believing they could be anything but friends.

It took JARVIS gently nudging her home to get her to the elevator, where he assured her there was no one in the hallway. She made it all the way to her sofa before she began to shake. Jane appeared at JARVIS’ behest. She didn’t say anything as she sat with Darcy. Gentle hands stroked her hair while she stared blindly, thinking about all the ways she’d screwed up.

By the time Steve texted--asking her to check on Bucky--she’d worked her way around to pissed, muttering all the things she wished she’d said to Clint as she scraped herself together enough to shower and dress properly.

Jane escorted her to Steve’s place, but didn’t try to go in. As Darcy stepped inside, she could see clear across the balcony to where Thor was relaxing in the tree, keeping an eye on Bucky. He winked as he sharpened a knife with a whetstone, and Darcy felt a little better knowing he was there.

To her surprise, Bucky was cooking eggs over the stove and jerked a thumb toward the table. She squinted as she took a seat. “You’ve made yourself at home.”

Bucky scowled. “Food was in the icebox. I was hungry.”

She flushed, knowing she’d said the wrong thing--again. It took everything she had to shake it off. “Steve’s gonna be thrilled to have you home.”

Ice blue eyes narrowed. “You were on the terrace two days ago, preening Steve’s wings. Not the first time, either.”

Still raw from the fight with Clint, Darcy promptly got up from the table--and Bucky took two steps to the right to keep it between them. Tired of losing battles with assassins, she blurted out, “I don’t want Steve. Steve’s my friend and nothing more. I have my own stupid soulmate, thank you, and I’m just trying to make sure you’re still in one piece when Steve gets here in ten hours. He’s been a wreck looking for you. And it turns out, you’ve been here all along.”

“Mostly,” he agreed. He turned back to the stove, frowning when he knocked a wing against the cabinet and two of his feathers began to bleed at the base of their shafts. He flicked a glance at her and went back to scrambling eggs.

Reminding herself that Steve was her friend and the man in front of her was the love of his life, Darcy swallowed her irritation as she sat back down. “I can help with that. Your feathers, I mean. Or you can wait for Steve.”

“I’ll wait,” he said, curtly. He dropped a plate of eggs in front of her. “Eat.”

She picked up a forkful. Huh. Not too bad. She told him that too. “So how long were you spying on the Tower?” she asked.

“A while. Long enough to know that Steve doesn’t let anyone but you fuss with his wings.” Bucky eyeballed her as he picked up his own plate. “Why do your soulmate’s feathers look like shit?”

“Because he can’t stand to have me touching them.” She glared at Bucky. “And they don’t look like shit. They’re fine. Just … messy.” She stabbed her eggs and poked them in her mouth, willing herself not to cry. “These are really fucking good.”

“So were your cookies,” he countered.

Darcy gave him a half a smile--about all she could manage--as she got up from the table. “Thanks for lunch. I’ll let Steve know you’ll make it until he gets here.”

“Thank you,” Bucky called out as she opened the door. She looked back, and he gave her little duck of the head, “For taking care of him.”

“It was a mutual aid agreement,” she replied as she walked out.

Once in the elevator, she texted Steve. “He’s eating your eggs. He’s fine.”

“What about you?” he texted back.

Ugh. The Avengers grapevine was a pain in the ass sometimes. “Not so much.”


By nightfall, Darcy got another visit and a dozen texts from Jane. The visit involved food Darcy didn’t want, and the texts got half-hearted replies while she wallowed in misery on the couch.

A call to her mom got her a gentle “I told you so” that Darcy wasn’t ready to hear, and an invite to come home early for the holidays that sounded like a fantastic idea. She’d planned to borrow a car from Stark and go home when the Avengers left on their next mission in a few days. Clint had mentioned it was going to be a long haul kind of thing--weeks stretching into months with only short breaks in between. Jane thought it had to do with Loki’s scepter and HYDRA, and she wasn’t looking forward to the long separation from Thor.

JARVIS let her know when Nat, Sam, and Steve arrived. Bruce, Tony, and Pepper flew in from Malibu about the same time. The Tower was full up with Avengers to prep for their upcoming missions, and Darcy was sure they had their hands full with Bucky’s return too. Or Steve did. She hoped Jane and Thor had soundproofed ceilings.

When another day passed without a word from Clint, and Darcy had baked enough cookies to last for weeks in an effort to keep herself distracted, she made an executive decision to get the hell out of New York for a while. After three straight semesters, she could afford to take the spring to work on her research before finishing her last set of classes. She notified Columbia to that effect, and told Jane, who promptly showed up to help her pack.

“You’re coming back though, right?” Jane wanted to know.

“I’ll finish my classes over the summer. After that, I’ll figure out where I need to be to do my thesis,” Darcy assured her.

“And Clint?”

“And Clint, what? It’s over. He knows he’s matched with someone who can’t fly. I’d be disappointed too.”

Jane sighed as she folded jeans and packed them into Darcy’s suitcase. “I don’t think that’s it. Have you tried talking to him?”

“He walked away, not me,” Darcy said with a mutinous pout.

“You still owe him an apology.”

Darcy dropped a pile of sweaters on the bed to be packed. “I know.”

With the tiniest of satisfied smiles, Jane changed the subject. “Are you leaving tonight or in the morning?”

“It’s easier to get out of Manhattan at three a.m. and I like driving in the dark.”

“Then let’s get the car packed up, and I’ll take you to dinner so you can take a nap.”

“Deal.”

Jane loaded up all the perishables from Darcy’s kitchen and called Thor to come get them. It was just enough that it took the pair to cart them off to the communal kitchen. Most of cookies went with them.

“Ms Lewis?” JARVIS queried.

“Hey, J.”

“The Captain has asked if you can come to his apartment. It appears to be rather urgent.”

“Sure thing.”

 

She crossed the Aerie, waving to Jane and Thor as she headed for the elevator. It was second nature to glance up, but Clint’s balcony was empty.

Steve and Bucky had on identical glares when Darcy stepped into the living room after JARVIS opened the door. She held up her hands, pretending to wave a white flag. “Uh, hey guys. You rang?”

Bucky rolled his eyes at Steve, but pushed off the counter to greet Darcy with an old-fashioned kiss to her hand. “Thank you, Miss Lewis, for helpin’ me the other night. Sorry for bein’ a jerk. Seems I’ve lost my manners along with m’ mind.”

She blinked, startled by the transformation from asshole to charmer. “You’re welcome?” Having followed his mate, Steve gave him a rough pat on the back of the head, and then pulled Darcy into the awesomest hug, where she promptly gave up and started bawling--real tears this time, with stupid sobs that made her sound like she was five. Given the fact Steve had a handkerchief handy that he pressed into her hand, he must have been expecting it.

“If it makes you feel better, Clint’s being an ass to everyone. He’s miserable without you,” Steve told her as he patted her back.

Darcy peered suspiciously at him. “It kind of does.” She wiped her face with the hankie. “It’s not his fault though,” she admitted.

“You didn’t tell him.” His face fell and, oh fuck, there was nothing like a disappointed Captain America.  Darcy wanted to crawl under her bed and hide. Crap. Even her metaphors sounded like a five year old.

From the other side of the room, Bucky squinted at Steve. “Oh, no, you don’t get to pull that shit. Go find someone who has real wings, Buck,” he imitated, “ Ain’t neva gonna be able t’ fly wi’ ya, ya know? Ain’t yer soulmate.”

Steve shrugged at Darcy, admitting. “Been there, done that. Kinda sucks.”

She widened her eyes as big as she could make them. “No foolin’?” she said as sincerely as she could.

“Knew I couldn’t slip one past you,” Steve teased, referring to their slang game. “But Buck’s right. I hid my mark for months until he damned near stripped me raw lookin’ for it.”

“I don’t want to know where it is,” Darcy insisted.

“No, you don’t.” Steve and Bucky exchanged a heated look, and Darcy winced at the reminder of what she’d lost.

“You guys know I’m leaving tonight, right?” she said in exasperation. “Do we have a point for the royal summons?”

Steve and Bucky swapped looks again, only this time, Bucky gave a little nod. Steve crossed his arms out of pure nerves. He flicked his bangs too. “Can Bucky go home with you?”

“Yeah, if he’ll keep his hands off the radio. Mom and Dad won’t mind. Why?”

“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and--” Steve glanced at Bucky.  “You’ve told me about your farm, and the pond. Maybe it will be a good place to heal?”

Darcy tried not to screw this up too. “Yeah, it is, city slicker. But why?”

With hands on hips, Steve admitted, “I don’t trust anyone else to help him with his wings--they’re a mess--and I don’t want Bucky alone in the Tower. JARVIS tells me your place--your town even--is remote enough that he’ll be safe. Nat agrees.”

Eyeballing Bucky, Darcy asked, “You okay with this? If you stayed, there’s a better chance to see your boyfriend between ops.”

Steve and Bucky both shook their heads, and Bucky added, “I need to get in the air. Can’t stand being grounded now that I’m in my own head again.”

““Bring coffee and meet me in the garage at three a.m.,” she told him.  Then she held out the handkerchief to Steve. “Trade you for a feather.”

Steve felt around his wing until he found a loose secondary to hand over. “I’ll watch over Barton, doll.”

“I know. Go save the world. Don’t be a dick about it.”

“I’ll leave that to Stark,” he replied, as Bucky let out a snort.



Darcy had dinner with Jane, but didn’t sleep afterward. Instead, she spent the better part of two hours writing and rewriting a letter to Clint.  When she finished, she  wrapped up the three feathers she’d gathered up from Clint over the years, tucked all of it into a manila envelope, and had just signed Clint’s name to it when JARVIS announced Natasha was at her door.

Taking full advantage of Clint’s BFF and the fact she was here, Darcy held out the envelope. “I’m so sorry,” she babbled. “I fucked this up. I’ve got a letter I was going to leave him. Read it. If you think it’s horrible, I’ll throw it away.”

Without a sound, without expression, the Black Widow opened the envelope and read. Darcy stuffed the last of her research materials in her messenger bag and waited for the verdict. “Did you leave anything out?” Natasha asked when she finished.

“No. That’s everything.”

“Would you take him back?”

“In a heartbeat.”

Natasha hummed as she tucked the letter back into the envelope. “Consider it delivered.” She leaned into give Darcy a kiss on each cheek, three in turn, in the manner of the Russians. “My courier services are very expensive, Miss Lewis, but for my friend--for both of my friends--I would do nothing less.”

“What about you?” Darcy asked. “I--I’ve messed things up with you too.”

“So you have. But not forever. I do expect cookies.”

Darcy promptly held out a box of lemon tarts and jelly thumbprints. “Is it weird that I totally think of you as the big sister who went off to college while I was still in grade school, and I want to hang with you and hug you because I think you’re the coolest, but I’m pretty sure I’m the dorky squirt you don’t want around?”

A slow smile worked its way over Nat’s mouth, first one side of her lips tilted up, then the middle, and then all the way until she had a full-blown grin on her face as she cradled the package of sweets. “You’re really not any better at this than Barton is, are you?”

“Nope. I suck at relationships,” Darcy admitted. “Clint’s my first real boyfriend, you know, the kind that you start thinking about waking up with instead of sneaking out on. Ian didn't really count; we both knew it was a temporary gig.”

Natasha narrowed her eyes, and Darcy had the uncomfortable feeling of having her motives dissected at a subatomic level. “Are you going to leave your mark uncovered when you go home?”

Oh. That was the real reason Natasha was here.

“What are the risks to Clint if I do? I’ve kept his identity concealed on the Rights Register because he was an agent.”

Looking pleased at Darcy’s answer, Nat shrugged. “Not much different than if you’re in a long term relationship.” She leaned in to give Darcy a quick hug. “Take someone with you wherever you go. Pepper does.”

“Does Bucky count?”

Natasha laughed easily.  “Yeah, you’ll be fine.”

 

******

 

Clint sat on the terrace to watch Darcy ease the borrowed Land Rover into New York traffic for the long drive to Kansas.

“For a spy, you’re terrible at this,” Natasha chided as she leaned against the glass, eating an apple.

Clint didn’t need Nat to tell him what he already knew. “Loki told me I’d scorned her. His words, not mine.”

That got him a thump on the back of the head. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“I was hoping he was wrong.”

“When?”

“New Mexico.” Clint groaned as he sagged on the lounger with his head in his hands. “I got drunk. Got papers from Bobbi. Sort of remember someone coming up to me. Sure as hell don’t remember what I said, but Darcy’s got permanent proof I’m an asshole.”

“And she still slept with you? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Natasha handed over a manila envelope with Darcy’s handwriting on the front. “Maybe this will help.”



Chapter Text

23/The Only Safe Place I Know

 

I saw you when I was three years old, a flying archer of sparkling gold and black.  I have one of your feathers--a painted one with a sequin stuck to it.  Every spring I went back to see you. Just you. Well, maybe the elephant too.

What you didn’t know is that I’ve known your face since I was seven, when I found you near to the roadside vegetable stand on our farm, beaten so badly it was a wonder you survived. My parents took care of you until the ambulance arrived.  The hospital wouldn’t tell them much, only that you were there--and it was weeks before you left.  My dad tells me he helped you along to Chicago. You got there-- eventually-- and my dad’s friend, Logan, gave you a job.  You left a feather in the dust next to the stand.  It’s purple and black.

You paid my parents back when I was fourteen.  What you didn’t know is that was the day I knew you were my soulmate.  The handwriting on the letter matched my mark.  Dad gave me the letter and the bright purple feather you sent with it.  

The handful of people who knew I had a Winged Soulmate told me we would have a platonic bond, that Winged Ones don’t take non-winged mates.  Because of that, not even Jane could get me to admit that I fell in love with that carnie when I was three.  Call it a fantasy, an infatuation, a figment of my imagination, but I wanted you, and it was no different than Jane falling for her soulmate after a handful of hours in his company.

You didn’t know me the day we Matched.  We were both heartbroken, for entirely different reasons that I understand now. I grieved because I thought that was it, that there was some lesson I was supposed to take from our marks, but I didn’t know what it was.  I was angry because I didn’t get the chance to know you.  I honestly thought we wouldn’t cross paths again.  

But I saw you again, a flying archer taking on aliens and gods.  I could only be proud of you--for you are extraordinary--and I discovered it was a privilege to wear your Mark.

When we moved into the Tower, you didn’t know that I was terrified of meeting you, of disappointing you, of letting even a hint of my anger out into the world and ruining whatever we could save.

Whatever might have been a figment of my imagination paled in comparison to getting to know you, to being your friend, to loving the real you.  I am terrified of losing you to a Winged One, and yet, I cannot see another path. I cannot fly, and I would not hold you back.  

I’ve kept these secrets, of who you are to me and how closely our lives have been entwined for two reasons. For one, a soulmark shouldn’t bind you to a life against your will.

And yet, they say our souls are fractured. I wouldn’t know about that. My soul has always had you.

This then, this second reason, is what I regret and apologize for with everything I have. I should have told you the moment we met again, to give you a fair chance of walking away before we fell in love. Yes, I know that was a lie you told me, and I cannot throw stones when I have been guilty of doing far worse to protect myself. I should have given you the knowledge to make your own choices. As you would put it, faulty intel only increases the chances of a shitty outcome.

I’m going home to figure out the next step while you work. I’ll be back in June to finish my classes.  When the summer ends, if I haven’t heard from you, I’ll understand and do my best to move on.  

It’s not what I want.  

I want, as I always have, to be with you: mind, body, and soul.

Darcy

 

 

 

Chapter Text

24/By the Light of Day

 

With shaking hands, Clint set the letter down on the chaise and laid out the three feathers in his palm--the last braided in leather strips and attached to a hair clip.

“Steve says Darcy wore your feather--discreetly, mind you--from the time she moved in until we came home,” Nat said in a low voice.

“Who else knew?” he demanded.

“Thor and Jane, of course. JARVIS knew. Stark suspected. Banner figured it out.”

“You?”

“Darcy told me she had a Winged Soulmate.” Natasha crossed the terrace to sit on the chair across from him. “I didn’t know for sure. I’m only ever compromised when it comes to you.” She paused, admitting, “I’d hoped.”

Clint scratched the back of his neck, utterly at a loss for his next move. The hurt that had welled up when he discovered Darcy’s soulmark had drained away as he read the letter, leaving only the hard ache of loneliness. He wanted to go to her, even as he knew the timing was all wrong. He fumbled for his phone, wondering what kind of text could convey all that.

But a rap on the window got his attention. Steve gave him a little wave, and Clint jerked his chin to let him know he could join them. Steve took one of the narrow-backed chairs with room for his wings. He stretched out his long legs under Natasha’s seat, settling his wings in place so that the primaries dragged the ground. “Darcy told me about the letter. You okay?” he asked.

“You being Cap?” Clint needled.

With a roll of the eyes, Steve answered, “You’re a professional. You’ll have your shit together when we step on the Quinjet tomorrow. I’m asking as a friend.”

That was interesting. Clint figured Steve would be squarely on Darcy’s side in all this and had been avoiding any sort of confrontation. This didn’t seem to be that at all. Squinting, Clint wondered, “How much of sending Bucky with Darcy was for her sake, and how much was for his?”

“Caught that, did you?”

“Spy,” Clint shot back.

“Yeah, well, I figure it can’t hurt for her to talk with someone who had a stubborn-ass soulmate who was convinced he wasn’t worth the effort,” Steve said.

Nat’s sharp look at Steve made Clint snap his mouth shut at his first retort. It had simply never occurred to him that Darcy could be the one with those kinds of doubts. “You aren’t talking about me, are you?” Clint ventured.

“Darcy’s soulmate is an Avenger who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. She’s a college student from a backwoods town in Kansas who was in the wrong place at the right time who happens to share a soulmark with him,” Steve replied evenly.

A hundred images flickered through Clint’s mind. Darcy studying, making delicate cookies, kneeling on the floor as she repaired a broken feather for Steve, working oil into Bucky’s wings until her hands were so swollen she could hardly move them. Her dark hair and silky skin that Clint couldn’t stop touching, the way she ran her fingers over his face, her husky voice over the phone keeping him sane in those long nights when he was on the run. The way she talked to him about her studies as if he could keep up with whatever she was working on. Darcy lighting up as they walked about town. She never made him feel stupid, even when he stumbled over his own brain.

“She’s so much more than that,” Clint replied as he turned the three feathers over in his palm. She’d taken care of them, and if he didn’t already know better, it was impossible to tell that the smallest was two decades old.

With a smile, Steve shrugged. “Takes a while to get that through sometimes, and Bucky’s got a lot of experience at it. It helps that she’s got the patience to deal with his wings.”

“Why not Wilson?”

“Wilson’s selling his house and moving to New York. The VA is going to transfer him, but he took all the leave he had looking for Bucky. Sam likes to remind me that he has a real job, unlike the rest of us idiots.” With a bright shimmer in his eyes, Steve leaned in, resting his forearms on his knees. “You brought Bucky in. JARVIS showed me the footage from the Tower cams. That was some of the slickest flying I’ve ever seen. I didn’t even know what you did could be done.”

“We have to try, right?” Clint said, shrugging off the compliment. Natasha snorted at him, and he rolled his eyes at her.

Not seeing the exchange, Steve agreed, “Yeah,” as he flicked away the dampness on his lashes. He pointed to the feathers in Clint’s hand. “You know that Darcy gave those to you only as proof of what she wrote, right?”

“Is this another one of those Winged One things I’m supposed to know about?” Clint asked in frustration.

“Not really. If she’d given back all the gifts you’ve left for her, that would be a clear sign for you to go away. Same thing as if you gave her a primary, and she returned it.”

“You only give primaries when you marry, right? Coulson told me that.”

“When you take a permanent mate. Winged Ones tend not to care about the legalities of what the local government allows. Exchanging primaries is the equivalent of a wedding. Giving them back is a divorce. Either can be as public or private as you want.”

“When--” Clint started, but slapped his hand over his mouth. Some things just weren’t his business.

But with an easy smile that only highlighted how much Steve had been grieving before, the captain answered, “We argue over which one of us was the prettier war-bride. Ask Bucky. He tells it better. Now, what are you going to do about Darcy?”

That was the Captain, no matter what Steve said about it. Clint considered his options. “If I were looking at this like a mission--” he began, working his way through his thoughts, “--and Darcy was my target, I’d be looking for motives, skills, flaws, and opportunities for infiltration.”

Natasha raised an approving eyebrow. “And?”

“She’s laid out her motives, I think. I know her skills.” He slanted a look at Steve. “I think you get her flaws. Everyone doubts themselves. I didn’t see how destructive it was in her.”

“She’s good at hiding it,” Steve offered. “Not like Stark, who waves it around like a red flag. So where are your opportunities for infil?”

Clint narrowed his eyes, thinking. “I have to convince her I want a long-term relationship.”

“And how will you do that,” Natasha asked.

Suppressing a shiver, he ducked his head. “Gotta let her in. Let her touch my wings. Show her I trust her. I have to do more than live day to day. Got to make plans with her.” He toyed with the feathers still in his hand. “Gotta tell her she’s not the only one with dreams. Mine just happen to be about home and families.” Families. Oh. Shit. He automatically glanced at Natasha, who sat up, subtly shifting into alert mode at his expression. Without looking away from her, he asked, “Hey Rogers, did you give Barnes any money?”

“Cash. He’ll square with Darcy’s parents for room and board. Why?”

Natasha gave Clint an odd smile. “I forgot,” she admitted, turning to Steve to explain, “Barton has this thing about taking care of the people who kept him from dying when he got out of the circus. Set up a deal with Coulson and Fury to send them money when things got tight.” She winced in guilt. “I guess that was another thing that got lost with S.H.I.E.L.D.--”

“Nope,” Clint interrupted. “Fury handled it for me, and he’s off the grid.”

“You’ve been sending money to Darcy’s family,” Steve inferred. He closed his eyes. “Shit.”

Nat chuckled. “Only Barton can make a good thing complicated.”

“But now that you know--” Steve started.

“Hacking her family’s finances probably isn’t a good way to rebuild trust,” she said drily.

Steve rolled his eyes at her. “Romanoff--”

Clint chuckled, feeling better even though the whole situation was still a clusterfuck and he hadn’t solved a damned thing. “I need to add that to the list of things I need to talk to Kansas about.”

Nat curled up in her chair with satisfaction. “So where do you start?”

That one was easy. “Think I’ll call Logan, ask him for a favor.”

Steve beetled his brows. “Logan?”

“Fury said he was S.H.I.EL.D. consultant sometimes; mostly with the X-Men when he could be bothered to be on a team. But Darcy’s pop gave me his address. Logan took me and gave me a job when I was a punk-ass teen-ager, then got me hooked up with an Army recruiter. I always figured he and Darcy’s dad served together somewhere.”

“Any chance he’s got a real bad attitude and a cigar?” Steve queried with a raised eyebrow.

Clint chuckled. “You know him?”

With a dry snort, Steve pulled his feet out from under Nat’s chair. “He also helped the Howling Commandos out a time or two. That man really didn’t like Nazis.”

Huh? “You’re shitting me. Logan’s, like, forty, forty-five at the most.”

“Yeah?” Steve said, rising and shaking out his wings. “Well, most people think I’m in my twenties and Wolverine had a reputation long before me.” Cap added in a quiet voice, “Do what you need to do. Mission departure is at oh-five-thirty tomorrow. Stark’s going over the Quinjet later today, but I know you like to do your own pre-flight.”

“Copy that. I’ll get on it.” Having a job to do chased away some of Clint’s heartache. Darcy had done what she could to salvage their connection and left the door wide open. The next move was on him, and he was determined not to fuck it up.

Nat shoved him toward the apartment, where they slept pressed shoulder-to-shoulder for a few short hours. By dawn, he was up, making preparations and texting Rogers and Coulson about … well … things he didn’t want to think too hard about.

At noon, he dropped a box on the island in the Nest, and JARVIS promised to arrange for shipping. Clint spent the rest of the day on mission prep. He got a sketchy night’s sleep dreaming about feathers, elephants, grocery stores, and Darcy, and at oh-five-thirty, Hawkeye eased the Quinjet into the air, satisfied that he’d done what he could do for now. The rest would have to wait.

 

*****

 

Twenty-six hours in the car, and Darcy wasn’t sure if Barnes was her new best friend or a complete asshole. For someone who grew up as an only child, having another big brother to join the two she’d already adopted was turning out to be a gigantic pain in the butt. Thor and Steve had enough sense to back off when Darcy got that twitch in her eyebrow. Barnes, on the other hand, seem to take it as a personal challenge.  

She drove, slapping at his hand when he played with the radio and bitched about the music on every single channel. She plugged in the iPod, which Barnes promptly seized, scrolling through her playlists to choose songs at random. They argued about her taste in music, at least until Bucky discovered soundtracks and their soaring themes. He settled after that, though he occasionally skipped a song, muttering something Russian-sounding as he did.

Darcy introduced him to McDonald’s, and Barnes couldn’t decide if he was horrified or not as he ate a Big Mac. The fries and shakes were a winner though, and he made her stop twice more for them.

Though she usually crashed at a cheap motel somewhere along the way, given how antsy Barnes was, they traded driving instead. As they made the final turn to reach her parents’ farm, Barnes got a text from his bonded that they were going dark. Darcy pretended that it didn’t hurt that Clint didn’t do the same for her.

She yawned as she shuffled into the house and hugged both of her parents. “Mom, Dad, this is Bucky. Bucky, the ‘rents, Bill and Charlene Lewis. Be nice. Use your manners. Don’t sneak up on Dad,” she chided.

The shy smile on Bucky’s face was totally worth it as he held out his hand, taking Dad’s in a good, solid shake, and kissing Mama’s knuckles. “Sir, Ma’am. Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Any friend of our daughter’s is welcome here,” Charlene replied, pinking a little. “Food or rest first?”

Darcy wiggled her fingers at Bucky. “Bottomless pit here is starving. We had McDonald’s pancakes an hour ago, and he’s already making those hungry faces.”

“Am not,” Bucky grumbled.

“You are, too,” She waited to the count of five, then --”See? There it is.”

Mama laughed. “Go unload the car and get settled. I’ll do up some eggs and ham.”

Bucky told Darcy to stay. “It’s not much; I’ve got it.”

As Bucky retrieved the luggage--mostly hers, but he had a duffel courtesy of Steve--Dad got that concerned look on his face. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Probably. He’s fresh home, so he’s a little punchy for Stark’s antics.”

Bill blinked. “When you say fresh home--”

“Don’t believe the charm. He’s adorable, but it’s a total front. He’s twitchy as hell, and probably has enough weaponry to defend the whole damned farm. When he takes off his cloak, you’ll see his wings are a mess.” Darcy took her dad’s hand. “I figured you’d understand.” She held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t be too mad.

She’d always known something horrible happened in Iraq. When she was younger, she’d chalked it up to the perils of being a soldier. But that had only been part of the answer. When Darcy sorted through the lists for Coulson, Logan’s name had come up--and Darcy was curious enough to chase it for a while. What she’d learned had made her ill, even more so when she discovered her dad had intervened to keep Wolverine from making a terrible mistake. There were redacted details in those files, classified by some other organization than S.H.I.E.L.D., but whatever they’d done in the end, it was enough for Bill to hide on his farm for most of her life, and for Logan to drop in twice a year like clockwork.

Her dad kissed her forehead. “We’ll do right by him.”

Charlene shook her head in sympathy. “How’d you end up bringing him here?”

“Steve asked,” Darcy said simply, relieved by her parents’ reactions. “Steve can’t stay home right now to help him. This is a good place for him to fly under the radar and finish healing. He spent six months getting his head on straight before he came in from the cold. He needs to be around people now.” She shrugged. “Plus he can keep an eye on me. The Avengers tend to fret.”

Her parents exchanged worried looks, but nodded. “Well, it’s not like we don’t know anything about what your friend has been through,” Charlene added.

Darcy gave each of them another quick hug. “Thank you.”

Bucky rapped on the door frame before stepping inside the living room again, the screen door slapping against the frame in his wake. “Where do you want this, doll?” he asked, holding up the bags.

“Come on. I’ll show you upstairs.” Darcy took her own suitcase and hauled it up the narrow steps.


After breakfast, Darcy gave Bucky a tour of the homestead, introducing him to the cows, the chickens, the goat, and the pair of horses all holed up in the barn. To Darcy’s surprise, her dad coaxed Barnes onto the bigger of the two--a gelding of indiscriminate heritage but surely with draft horse in his gene pool and sturdy enough to carry Barnes. Bill mounted the other--a lively Arabian/Thoroughbred mix with enough sass to make Darcy grin.

They’d always had horses, sometimes one, mostly two, and Darcy itched to go riding again. This pair was new--rescues that Charlene had brought home after their last old mare had passed on. Darcy snickered as she adjusted one of the stirrups for Bucky and settled his cloak so that it wouldn’t startle the horse.

“Don’t want you falling off,” she teased. Bucky didn’t quite glare at her, but the sentiment was there as he found his balance. Bill clicked at the horses, and both of them moved out in unison.

Darcy opted for a long nap. As she fell asleep, she decided her dad was sneakier than she thought. He’d given Barnes the perfect excuse for riding the perimeter and getting the lay of the land.

 

They’d been there for two full days when Darcy’d had it with Barnes twitching every time he brushed a wing against anything at all. In anyone else, it would have been accompanied by a complaint or grunt, but he was far too well-trained to respond to something as mundane as pain.

“Come on,” she ordered. “Let’s go by the pond. The sun is out, and we can spread a tarp and blankets out to enjoy the warmth.”

Bucky reluctantly put his book down and took the blankets and bucket she handed him. Darcy picked up a pair of fishing rods in one hand and her kit in the other.

The pond sparkled in the winter sunlight, and Darcy got Bucky settled with a fishing rod.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he grumbled.

“Figure out what we’re having for dinner,” she said as she baited his hook. “And while you fish, I want to look at your wings. You’re not healing right.”

His adam’s apple bobbed as he considered her request. “All right, doll.” He shrugged the cloak off, and Darcy could see where blood had congealed here and there on his wings.

Like she had with Steve, she sat in front of his wing so that he could see what she was doing and started with primaries. In the five days since Bucky had arrived at the Tower, there were too many places where broken and split shafts were irritating his wings, leaving them bleeding and swollen.

Darcy inspected his feathers one by one, painting the ones that needed help with oil so she could find them again. “Some of these need to come out. If I pull them, they’ll have time to heal before the new pinfeathers come in. I think I can be strategic so the pinfeathers will be protected on either side, but the secondaries on your left are shredded.”

She sat back on her heels. “What do you want to do? And ‘nothing’ is a legit option, except I think you’ll be in pain, and it’s going to take months to molt the broken shafts. If we pull these, you’ll grow new feathers right away. If Steve’s anyone to go by, I think we can get you in the air in a couple of months. It won’t be pretty, but with food, rest, and recuperation, I think you’ll molt entirely this spring, and by summer, you’ll have all new plumage.” She nudged a damaged feather, and it came loose without any effort on her part. “Your wings are trying to repair themselves, but you’ve got enough infections that any new feathers will be damaged as they come in if we don’t do something about it.”

Darcy folded her hands in her lap while Bucky toyed with his fishing rod. “Are there any fish in here?” he complained.

“They’ll be at the bottom this time of year. You’re fishing too close to the surface to catch anything.”

With a sigh, Bucky reeled in his line and flicked it into the water again. “Do what you need to do.”

He braced himself for the sharp pain to come, and was startled when Darcy used a tiny needle with a good numbing agent first. “I’m not HYDRA,” she insisted.

“Guess not.”

Still, Bucky had to be sore by the time she was done. Steve had told her getting a feather out was like getting a big splinter pulled. It hurt before, hurt during, but after was more tender than painful.

He rode out with her dad that evening. The excuse was to give the horses some exercise, but Darcy figured he needed a little distance from her. Her mom set her to peeling carrots. Darcy didn’t mind the prep, though her hands were sore from pulling feathers.

“Have you heard from Clint?” her mama asked.

“Nope.” It was hard not to be bitter. Darcy had laid her heart out in the letter. She didn’t particularly expect him to come running back into her arms, but she didn’t figure on radio silence either. Darcy peered at her mom, only now noticing that she was nervous---and Charlene Lewis was never nervous. “What’s going on?”

“With all the secrets that are out, there’s something I need to tell you. We didn’t want you to know because we didn’t want to create an obligation on your part. What happened with your soulbonded needed to not be influenced by this.”

Darcy picked up another carrot. “Go on.”

“Your bonded seems to think he owes us for helping him. He paid us back, you knew that. But we haven’t told you that every so often, money shows up in our bank account. Your friend, Agent Coulson, stopped by after Clint joined S.H.I.E.L.D. and told us about the arrangement so we wouldn’t wonder where the money came from. We tried to refuse, but the agent wouldn’t hear of it. He said it wasn’t his call, that Clint appreciated the good turn we’d done for him--both in getting him to the hospital and in getting him to a new life. The money was something he could do for us.” She lifted her hands helplessly. “We tried to use the money on things for you or the house. Your car. Fixing the roof. Your broken wrist. We used only what we really needed and tried to pass the rest on. But honestly, we would have lost the farm last drought if it wasn’t for what he’s done.” Charlene pressed her lips together in a tight line.

Darcy dropped the paring knife on the table to lean against her mom in a reassuring hug. “I’m not mad. Really, it’s just typical Clint. He’s the kindest man I know, even after all he’s been through.” She leaned back against the table, wide-eyed. “Oh. I guess he just figured out he’s been helping his soulmate’s family. Yeah, that’ll throw him for a loop,” she decided. “Talk about a tangled mess.”

She went back to peeling carrots. By the time she and her mom had fried up a platter full of pork chops, Bill and Bucky returned from their ride. Darcy leaned toward the kitchen window to get a better look as Bucky flared his wings to dismount--a first for him.

“His wings--Darcy, they look terrible.”’

“I know, Mama. But he’s safe now, and we’re gonna take care of him until Steve gets home.”

 

The next morning, before Darcy could pour up a cup of coffee, Bucky kissed Darcy’s hand in greeting and shyly opened a wing to show her that the wounded parts had healed over during the night. Now that they weren’t being irritated, the serum could do its work.

“Does anything hurt?” she asked, stroking his wings as Jane had taught--a sort of greeting between Winged Ones that meant safe-glad-friend-welcome.

Bucky fluffed his feathers in a happy reply, then looked astonished that he’d done such a thing. “Just the tendons. Be another day or two, but I can deal. So what’s next to fix m’ feathers?”

“I’ll sheer off the ones that are split or too broken to save, and let’s see what I can imp in. Steve gave me all your old feathers.”

Bucky shook his head. “No, no imping. No point if I can’t fly, and I don’t have enough feathers to waste on that.”

But Darcy crossed her arms. “Nuh uh. I need to protect some of the places where pin feathers will be coming in.”

“Then do those, but that’s all,” Bucky said as he poured both of them a mug of coffee and added a generous dollop of fresh cream.

“Deal.” Darcy said as she sipped.  

Leaning against the battered, blue-dotted white Formica counter in the kitchen, Darcy was on her second cup of coffee when Bucky laid a hand on the sidearm he had at his thigh. He stilled, listening. It was only a moment before Darcy heard the truck coming up the unpaved driveway that connected the road to the house. Bucky eased to the side, out of the direct view of the window and where he could see the oncoming threat.

When the beat-up blue and white pickup that had seen its better days a good fifty years ago rolled up, Darcy whooped. She ran out the front door as Uncle Logan parked and bounced into his embrace as he stepped out of the truck.

As always, he had an unlit cigar hanging out of his mouth, and he plucked it out to rumble, “How’s m’girl?”

“Perfect, as always. Hungry? I can do eggs.”

“Nope. Just coffee, sweetheart.” He leaned back into his truck cab, coming out with a box that he tucked under his arm as he shut the door with shoulder. “Heard you’ve got company.”

“Oh my god, who have you been talking to?” And then she blanched. “Clint?”

Uncle Logan grinned. “Always knew you were bright. I’m still pissed about the hole he put in my wall at the shop.”

“That’s bullshit,” Darcy retorted. “He doesn’t miss.”

“Good girl,” he agreed as he followed her up the porch steps and into the kitchen. “What’d you bring this fucker home for?” he said as he caught sight of Bucky.

To her utter shock, Bucky broke into a wide grin and clapped Logan on the shoulder. “I’ll be damned,” he breathed. “I’d say it’s not possible, but I’m standing here and ain’t that a hell of a thing.”

“You two know each other too?” Darcy demanded.

Bucky marveled, “Yeah, Steve too. Fought with this son-of-a-bitch overseas on a couple of ops.”

Darcy dumped coffee into a cup and handed it to Logan, who accepted it with a gruff thanks. “I didn’t figure you’d come for another week. You that tired of your own cooking?” she teased.

But Logan only shoved the package under his arm at her. “Your boy asked me to bring this to you.”

She crossed her arms instead of taking it, taking full advantage of someone coming down the stairs. “Mama?” she called out hopefully.

Charlene greeted Logan with a warm smile and a long hug. “Hey, stranger.”

“Hey there,” he replied. “Your girl’s not cooperating.”

“She’s her Mama’s girl. What’s she doing now?”

Logan pointed at the box. “Barton’s trying to fix things too. She won’t look at what he sent her.”

Darcy huffed. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t open it. I’m just … nervous.” But she picked at the tape until Barnes got annoyed, pulled a knife out of somewhere and slit the edges.

He peered at his blade. “Shit. Now I’m going to have to hone that edge again. Paper’s hell on knives.”

She ignored him while she dug into the package, coming up with a short, handmade wooden arrow with purple fletching. A single secondary feather with a hair clip was attached just under the arrowhead. The arrow poked through a piece of paper.  

If feather’s supposed to be good luck, I’ve got ten thousand reasons to know it’s true,  because they all brought me you. --Iowa

Darcy read it, read it again, and then she let out a relieved chuckle that turned into an outright laugh at Clint’s note. It was just like him to be so dorky and adorable, and so totally sincere that she couldn’t be anything but ridiculously happy.

Bucky lightly kicked her toe to get her attention. “Hey--what?” she said as her mom leaned over to read the note, snorting a laugh as she did.

“Oh, dear,” Charlene said with a fond smile. “I like him already.”  

“You know what the feather means, right?” Bucky asked.

“Well, he didn’t ask me to marry him. I know that much. It’s a secondary, not a primary.”

“It’s a declaration of intent,” the soldier stated with firm conviction.

She glanced at Logan, who ducked his head in agreement. “Barton called me the morning you left,” her uncle admitted, “Half out of his mind with tryin’ to fix things with you before his mission. You did good with your letter, girl. Hell of an apology.”

Darcy looked away, then-- “Did you know he was my soulmate before all this?”

Logan shrugged and chewed on his cigar. “Maybe.”

She turned over the arrow and the feather. “So now what?”

Charlene unclipped the feather and fastened it into Darcy’s hair. “So now you wait until Clint comes home, and then you talk. But until then, you know he’s just as serious as you are about making this work.”

Darcy flicked the purple feather. “All right. On that note, who’s going with me to the grocery store?”

Logan crossed his arms. “Ain’t me.”

Bucky got that blank look, and Darcy tossed up her hands, knowing she was on her own. “Yeah, I thought so. But you two have to help Mama get the Christmas stuff from the attic, and the tractor needs a tuneup. Snow’s falling tomorrow, so somebody needs to check the roof for leaks again, and the whole house needs winterizing. Basement needs a good going over while it’s empty to make sure it’s watertight.”

She gave her mom a bright smile. “Isn’t it nice to have minions?”

With a wince Logan muttered, “Should have gone to the grocery store.”

“Your loss,” she caroled, as she plucked the list off the refrigerator door, then went to find her dad to accompany her on the long drive to the neighboring town.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

25/Thus We Are in Love

 

January

Darcy made over the attic space into an office so that she could spread out her research. Dad installed a couple of new lights in the ceiling; the dormer windows and two spare bulbs weren’t enough. Bucky helped her shift all the boxes to one corner, and Mama rearranged the spare bed and dresser to make its own little room. Really, all it needed was a bathroom, and it would practically be its own apartment--which gave Darcy a whole new set of ideas to consider.

She really needed to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She loved New York, and if Clint had to be there with his team, she was game. (She missed him. The occasional texts they exchanged now were awkward --neither of them wanted to misstep, but it might be months before they saw each other again.)

But this? The farm was home, and Darcy loved being back more than she expected. Taking care of the animals in the mornings while she drank her coffee gave her a reason to get out of bed. After breakfast, she’d settle in to work on her thesis until mid-afternoon if one of the horses needed exercise, or until dinner if someone else went riding. With four people in the house, the horses loved the extra attention.

Bucky thrived as he did little projects all over the farm. The fences were mended and the shed roof had been fixed so it didn’t leak in one corner. He and Dad were eyeing the barn now, and Darcy was sure it was about to be overhauled on the inside with ideas Dad had wanted to implement for years. On the days it snowed, Bucky brought a book and one of Mama’s quilts from the living room to read while she studied, keeping himself distracted from the mess of feathers he continuously shed as he molted. Stark had sent Darcy one of his vacuums at her request. This one could climb stairs and happily sucked up chaff wherever it went.

With so many pin feathers growing in and not enough good feathers to protect them, Bucky had to take care not to knock them about. Being outside was easier, and riding where he could spread his wings a little was even better, even though he was nowhere near flying yet.

It was on one of his more miserable days, when he’d lost his patience a half-dozen times already, that he came to Darcy’s bedroom late one evening to stand awkwardly in the doorway.

“I, uh, could you … could you come to my room?” he stammered. Whatever it was, Bucky was embarrassed, given the red tint on his cheeks.

“Of course.” Darcy concealed a smile. Bucky still had old-fashioned ideas about boys and girls and bedrooms. She suspected it had more to do with him thinking of her as a sister than a woman, but he stayed out of her space. She followed suit, not going into his room unless he invited her.

Nine months out of HYDRA’s control wasn’t enough time for Bucky to shake his conditioning. Though his innate charm and humor popped out here and there, wary apprehension was the hallmark of his behavior. And so he stilled in the middle of his room, working up the ability to ask for what he needed.

“You’re not with them, Bucky Barnes,” she reminded him. “You won’t be punished, and you aren’t alone.”

He took a deep breath and nodded. “I need help with my oil glands.” He held up the metal hand. “Organic oils are too thick and gum up the works. If I wear a glove, I can’t get enough of the oil out from my glands to keep them from getting infected.”

“Let me guess, you’re about a week past that.”

That got her a weary smile. “Something like that, doll.”

“How does this work? I haven’t done it before.”

Bucky frowned. “Barton--”

“Still doesn’t let me touch his feathers. And maybe he would now, but it’s not like we’re in the same zip code at the moment,” she retorted.

In the end, it was easier to get the oil to express than it was to make Bucky comfortable with the process. He leaned against the doorframe with his tail feathers lifted while she rolled the heel of her hand across the swollen bumps at the base of his spine. A warm, musky scent filled the air--the same one Darcy’d always associated with Winged Ones.

For all that Bucky was damned gorgeous stretched out like this, all Darcy could think of was Clint lying on his bed, his whole back exposed--the sinuous length of his spine framed by purple feathers on either side narrowing to a point low on his waist where his tail feathers flared out. Damn it, she missed him so much that her chest ached. A package had arrived from Stark Tower yesterday. As usual, there wasn’t a note, but the antique book of Russian poetry contained a fresh blue cornflower cushioned by tissues where it had been pressed between the pages.

She blinked away the sudden damp in her eyes and focused on the oil oozing from Bucky’s skin, coating her hand. “What should I do with this stuff?”

“Use it on the pin feathers. Helps them grow right and not dry out too soon.”

As she transferred the oil to Bucky’s feathers, working her fingers deep into his plumage, she muttered, “Oh. Those fucking assholes.”

Bucky glanced over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised.

“HYDRA didn’t do this, didn’t let you take care of your wings, and that’s why your feathers didn’t grow right,” she complained.

“Got in one, doll.”

“Fucking assholes,” she said again.

It was easy to see how this could turn into an erotic kind of thing, especially when Bucky leaned his head on the casing, groaning softly in relief. The oil was thicker than what Darcy had in her kits and stayed on her fingers as she worked them into Bucky’s feathers. She discovered which feathers were too dry by the rate they absorbed the oil.

The first of Bucky’s new pin feathers would be ready to open up any day now, and Darcy couldn’t wait to see his colors. She’d been checking daily to see which sheaths had developed splits as they dried. All Winged Ones had to crack the protective keratin from new feathers, but for those too hard to reach, they either relied on a friend or used special tools that gently pulled away the white coating.

When the last of the oil stopped seeping out Bucky’s glands, he turned around, somewhat dazed as he ran a hand through his hair. It was probably an old habit, for it didn’t seem to have a purpose. Some of the stress lines had faded from his eyes, and he was drowsy enough that Darcy shoved him toward his bed.

She found a chain of paper snowflakes hanging over her door the next morning.

 

February

Nock. Draw. Loose. Hawkeye sent the last arrow into a HYDRA operative as they cleared out another nest in the Avengers’ quest to retrieve Loki’s staff. HYDRA had holed up in every seemingly-abandoned vintage castle from Finland to Turkey. Each raid led to another location in a never-ending string.

The team swept the premises, looking for hidden passages, data, and the occasional prisoner. This one had more of the latter than the first two, and it was a cramped ride in the Quinjet to drop the newly-freed into Coulson’s hands for a debrief and reorientation into regular life, if that was even possible.

At least the drop off point with S.H.I.E.L.D. gave the team a chance to return to the Tower for a few days. Clint divided the first day between his bed and medical. He called Darcy on the second, eager--if terrified--to hear her voice after weeks of only texts between them.

“Um, hi, Kansas.”

“Iowa.”

The nicknames had so much more meaning, now that Clint knew the relationship between Darcy and the folks who’d rescued him all those years back.

“I, uh, had a break. We’re at the Tower.”

“I know. Natasha texted me yesterday.”

“Since when do you text Nat?”

“Since she started sending me awful knock-knock jokes and the occasional picture of you. How long are you going to be home?”

Clint shrugged, forgetting Darcy couldn’t see him. “Um, not long enough to come see you.”

“Crud.”

Yeah, his sentiments exactly.

“Hey, wanna Skype? We can practice ASL, and you can get your aids out for a while.”

He winced. “Dunno if that’s a good idea, darling. I broke my nose last week, and I don’t look so good.”

“I can deal. I really want to see you.” JARVIS transferred the call from audio to video, and Darcy’s face popped up over the kitchen table on a hologram. She peered into the screen. “Yeah, you did a good job on your face. You’re still beautiful, though.”

Clint hardly heard her, transfixed as he was by the feathers she had clipped to her hair. He touched his temple, waving his fingers.

Perplexed at first, Darcy laughed when she realized what he meant. “Yes, I wear your feathers. Every day.”

“Why?”

“Because I love you.” Her declaration was simple and genuine.

He closed his eyes as a lump rose in his throat. He couldn’t talk, but he could sign. //ILY//



March

Though Steve swore that Natasha had established a solid cover for him, it took weeks for Bucky to work up the nerve to go into Channing. But now that his new feathers shone in brilliant blacks and blues, and he’d taken to making short flights over flower-dotted fields to build up his wing strength, Darcy figured having the ability to escape went a long way into giving him the courage to interact with people again.

He hadn’t been the only one reluctant to go to town. Now that Darcy wore Clint’s feathers for anyone to see, she’d received comments ranging from admiration to confusion. She didn’t volunteer they belonged to her soulmate, and it was a fifty-fifty split on whether the feathers were assumed to be Native American or a lame attempt at fashion. She’d dodged the worst of the gossip that way.

As an adult, it was easier to find the nice folks who minded their own business and didn’t worry about people who were different. They were the quiet ones, the kind people who smiled and asked about Darcy’s parents, and what was she up to now, and how long was she going to visit this time?

Darcy was happy to share baking ideas, and to talk about New York and London, and yes, college was a lot of fun; she’d met some nice boys there. Yes, she had a boyfriend back East working overseas this spring. She missed him and looked forward to seeing him again in the summer. Nope. No engagement ring, it was too soon for that.

By the time Bucky was ready to venture into Channing, Darcy’d run into half the town one way or the other.

“Bucky, get up,” she entreated, as she banged on his bedroom door. “We need to get to the grocery store and back before Mama needs the car.” A thump of something soft and heavy--probably a pillow--hitting the door was enough acknowledgment for her. Still, she sing-songed with a delighted grin, “Mama, Bucky won’t get out of bed.”

“Tell him I’m pouring out the last of the coffee if he doesn’t get up,” Charlene called back, happy to encourage the game.

Repartee brought out Bucky’s signature charm and wit, even if it was still layered with wary apprehension. Darcy gently teased Bucky to keep him focused on healing--both in mind and body. He had a tendency to brood in between phone calls with Steve--something Darcy understood far too well.

Poking at Bucky gave her something to do to keep her mind off Clint. “Mama says get your lazy butt downstairs for coffee or she’s washing out the pot and you have to pay five bucks a cup when we get to town,” Darcy said through the door. Then she held her phone up, waiting.

A scowly, bed-headed, scruffy-faced Bucky Barnes opened the door with a grunt, and Darcy snapped his picture, texting it to Steve as she fled the scene.

“Brat,” he complained as she darted down the stairs with a giggle. Charlene’s eyes twinkled at their bickering as she poured up a full tumbler of coffee, adding a generous dollop of cream before she capped it.

Bucky’s army roots showed as he appeared ten minutes later, shaved and showered. Charlene handed him the cup and shooed him to the truck. He only grunted a thanks as he fastened a glove over his left hand and took the coffee.

Darcy didn’t have much company on the drive, but that was fine, she didn’t mind. Bucky pulled a Blue Jays cap he’d borrowed from her dad low on his forehead, his long hair making him look like a local. Well, as much like a local as he could with a set of feathers.

When they’d first arrived, at Charlene’s insistence Steve had put her in touch with the nutritionist at Stark Tower to work out meal plans that worked for both the soldier and her family. Bill had looked at some of the new foods askance, but he was game. The local grocery store had been more than happy to order in the required foods, and someone in the family had to retrieve them once a week to restock.

Darcy usually made the weekly run with her dad, but since Bucky was on board with seeing how he did in public, they’d come early, less because her mama needed the car, and more because the store wouldn’t have too many patrons.

If Darcy thought she’d dodged the gossip, she hadn’t. When they walked into the grocery store and the cashier squinted--first at the clip, and then at Bucky--there was no way Darcy’s feathers would be mistaken for anything but a Winged One’s.

The other employee chirped hello, her gaze zeroing in both of them too. Darcy echoed the greeting as she retrieved a cart and turned into the first aisle. The store was small, no more than five aisles, a check stand, the produce section, and a butcher’s case that also handled the special orders. It was impossible not to overhear the two employees.

“She’s been wearing them all along,” the first one said. “Thought she was just being weird, but I guess she’s hooking up with Feathers.”

The second employee added, “He’s cute, even if he has wings. Oh god, do you think we’re going to have to clean up after him? They make such a mess.”

Pissed, Darcy pivoted to march back and give them a piece of her mind, but Bucky laid a hand on her arm.

“Don’t,” he pleaded in a low voice. “It’s not worth it.”

The sadness in his eyes damned near killed her, and she glared for a long moment before conceding, “This time.”

By the time they worked their way through the store to the butcher’s case to pick up the order, Darcy was ready to scream from the side-long looks they were getting.

The store manager greeted her from the butcher’s counter with a sly wink and nod. “You brought your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Darcy said, attempting to be polite. “James, this is Brad Hightower. We went to school together.”

Fortunately, Brad was behind the counter, so there was no need for handshakes. The man nodded at Bucky. “So you’re the reason for all the special food? Must be a tricky thing, feeding a Winged One.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “I got spoiled in New York. I like the variety,” she countered as she took the ticket for the order.

“You sure as hell didn’t stick around here, that’s for damned sure. Why’d you come back home?” Brad asked. “Job didn’t work out?”

The unsubtle digs were annoying, and though Darcy rarely told anyone anything about her real life, the assumption that she’d failed pissed her off. “Semester break before I go back to finish my doctorate at Columbia. James wanted to ride a horse. We happen to have a couple.” The mix of truth and humor had always been her front line of defense, one that Clint, at least, appreciated. From Bucky’s faint snort behind her, he did too.

“Must be hell on your parents, still supporting you.”

“It would be hell, if they did,” Darcy said. Brad frowned a little, having lost track of the conversation, mostly because his gaze had dropped to her boobs and lingered there, prompting her to ask, “How’s Sherry?”

His eyes snapped up. “Divorced. Six months,” he added, his sly smile returning as his gaze dipped again.

“Whoops. My bad,” Darcy said, turning her back on Brad and not feeling a lick of apology for it. “Got everything?” she asked Bucky.

Brad interjected, “You know where to pull up behind the store after you check out?”

Annoyed because she’d been in the store hundreds of times growing up, Darcy ignored him as she and Bucky walked away. .

With a little huff of amusement, Bucky asked, “Does he think he’s got a chance with a dame like you?”

“Brad has a steady job, doesn’t live with his parents, and was a varsity running back on the football team. He’s probably never been turned down for a date,” Darcy replied. “He’s also an asshole when he doesn’t get what he wants, which is why Sherry left him.”

“You knew he was divorced?”

“Mama gave me the rundown when we got home. It’s easier to navigate this mess when you have decent intel.”

“You’ve been listening to Barton.”

With a soft smile, she nodded. “He’s a good teacher.”

“You really are gone on him.”

“Like you aren’t head over heels for Steve.”

“Guess Barton and I have something in common,” Bucky mused. “We both have a thing for mouthy brats who don’t know when to give up.”

Darcy squinted as she worked the cart around a display of green hats and plastic lucky clovers. “Why bother?” That came out more acidic than she’d intended, but Bucky only smiled.

“Love like that doesn’t quit when sh--stuff gets hard.”

God, she wished she could take a picture of the conviction in the war-weary soldier’s shining eyes so she could send it to Steve. She’d tell him about it later, though. He deserved that. They both did.

Bucky paid for the groceries with cash from his wallet, handing over a couple of hundred-dollar bills to the cashier, who was pleasant enough, if a little suspicious. After he and Darcy loaded the groceries, he navigated the truck around the building to the loading dock where Brad had stacked the boxes. When Bucky stepped out of the truck, the morning breeze lifted his feathers enough to draw attention. Darcy smiled without thinking. Bucky looked so different from when he’d first come to the Tower--healthy and healed. Steve was going to be astonished when he saw his mate.

Brad slid a look to Darcy, his eyes raking over her face and down her body. “Regular guys not good enough for you? I’ve heard Winged Ones aren’t so picky about marriage. But I don’t mind that kind of thing if you don’t.” As if attending the same high school gave them a familiarity he hadn’t earned, Brad reached out to flick the purple feather she wore. Darcy flinched, stepping backward to dodge his reach.

Bucky’s right hand snapped out to catch Brad’s wrist. “Didn’t your mama teach you not to touch a lady without permission?” he said in a cold voice.

“Darcy and I go way back. She knows I don’t mean anything by it,” Brad said with annoyance.

“Then I’ll educate you. The feather belongs to her bondmate. Touching it or her without her permission is offensive.” Bucky let go of the man’s wrist.

Brad scowled. “It’s just a hair clip.”

Bucky lifted up the three boxes and set them in the back of the truck while Darcy climbed in the passenger side. As Bucky reached for the door to climb in, he gave Brad a hard look. “When you meet her bondmate, I wouldn’t go with that excuse.”

Darcy didn’t say much on the ride home, ignoring the worried looks Bucky darted at her. She helped unload the groceries, did what chores had to be done that day, then spread out her research on her floor and bed. As she worked through a long-winded article that seemed to support her thesis, she pretended her heart didn’t ache so badly that her chest hurt from missing her soulmate.

The gossip flew about Channing, and no less than three neighbors “dropped in” on Darcy’s mama that week, bringing cakes for “James--you know--the one with wings,” all hoping to catch a glimpse of their guest. Charlene and Bill handled the visitors, not minding that Darcy and Bucky either stayed holed up in their rooms or went out for long rides rather than providing more fodder for gossip.

Darcy figured it would all blow over, and really, it did in a way. Just not the way she expected.

The four of them took advantage of the weather and ventured out for lunch at the burger place in the middle of town. Darcy wore a purple sleeveless top where the last lines of her soulmark poked out over her shoulder.

The restaurant owner was an old friend of her parents, and welcomed them with bright smiles and wide eyes at Bucky’s wings, though he wasn’t rude at all. He brought out a stool for Bucky and carried it all the way out to the patio so they could sit in the sun. It was honestly the nicest gesture from a stranger Bucky had encountered since ‘42, he’d whispered to Darcy.

A trio of bikers one table over who’d been cruising through town and stopped for a bite caught Bucky admiring their cycles. That was enough for them to bond over horsepower and suspensions, in between devouring burgers and onion rings on both tables.

But when another patron two tables over made a rude complaint about Winged Ones, Darcy leaped to Bucky’s defense. She stormed to the man’s table, demanding, “Just what branch of the military were you in?”

“What? Not me,” the man answered. He glared at her and her whole family.

Darcy scolded, “Then you’ve got nothing on him. He’s retired Special Forces, protecting your dumb ass so you can live a country with free speech and say whatever shit you want. You want to fuck with him? Let me give you a hint. Don’t. Because even if he doesn’t want to bother with your shit, you really don’t want to piss off his friends.”

“What, is Captain America gonna come after me?” the man sneered, elbowing his buddy, who only have a half-hearted laugh. “Get it? Captain has wings too.”

Darcy let out a bark of laughter that made the man scowl, then leaned over the table to say in a low voice, “Oh, you have no fucking idea. Now, unless you’re going to be respectful, I’d suggest you keep your mouth stapled shut.”

“Bitch,” he called after her as she walked away.

With a glance over her shoulder, Darcy nodded. “You know it.”

In spite of the short altercation, Darcy was still shocked when an older couple abruptly stood up with their drinks. The woman spat out, “Wing slut. You should be ashamed,” as she and her husband stalked inside the restaurant.

The bikers stood up and glared at the handful of other people on the patio. “Anyone else want to be an asshole?” the tiny purple-haired woman in black leather asked. “Yeah, didn’t think so.” She looked at Darcy. “Finish your dinner and don’t let that shit bother you. They don’t know what it means to have a soulbond or a Wing-mate. It’s a privilege from the gods, and they weren’t worthy.” The woman tucked her hair behind her ear, showing off the short red feather clipped there.

Bucky gave the woman a grateful, weary smile and held out his arm to escort Darcy out of the restaurant with heads high, her parents hovering protectively on either side.

But when she got home, Darcy escaped outside to pet the goats. Her dad followed, bringing along carrots and apples in his pockets to share.

“It’s a good thing you did there. Means a lot to your friend,” he said.

Darcy took an apple and broke it into pieces. “He doesn’t deserve anything shitty to be said about him.”

“Neither do you.” Bill scritched the base of one of the goat’s horns while it crossed its eyes in bliss. “It’s none of their business what you do. Doesn’t matter if you’re soulbonded to a Winged One or want to live in the suburbs with two kids and a minivan.”

“I know. I just wish--” Darcy started to say, then changed her mind. “Fuck that, I don’t need people who are mean to like me.”

Bill nodded. “You’ve always been different, honey. We raised you to think and ask questions, to know that there’s no one truth for anyone to stand on, except maybe love. Can’t do much wrong with love, unless you don’t love yourself enough. After New Mexico, I figured that’s why you had a mark. With the kinds of things you’ve seen and done, sometimes we need something bigger than us to cling to. For some, it’s God, or family, or church, or maybe just a principle to live by. Don’t know if any of that’s enough when a Norse god is your friend, your girlfriend is opening doorways to other worlds, and people come back from the dead.” Bill reached into his pocket to pass the goat a carrot. “I think you needed something closer to your heart so you could love yourself no matter what happened around you.”

“You think it’s the same for Clint?” she wondered.

“No, honey, I think he needed a mark so he’d know he had love to give.”

Oh. That explained Clint and Natasha’s relationship in a nutshell. As her mind whirled with confusion, Darcy blurted, “Then what do we need each other for if it’s just having a mark that does all the work?”

Her dad smiled. “Didn’t say that. There’s no one truth with soulmarks, either. I think your man loves you as much as you love him.”

Darcy complained, “It’s been months since we’ve seen each other. But I know you and Mama did this when you served.”

“And it was your Mama who got me home when things got hard,” Bill reminded Darcy. “Your soulmate’s got the kind of job nobody should have to do. Takes a special kind of partner to be with someone like that.” Her dad tapped her on the nose, making Darcy wrinkle it as he added, “Doesn’t mean that’s a one-way street. He has to be the partner you need too.”



April

 

With the team decimated by the Enhanced teens and the Hulk incident in South Africa, Clint had spent most of the night flying to the only place he knew that might give them all a little bit of rest. As they flew, he used a fake identifier with the aircraft control towers and made damned sure to say in the clouds so no one could get a visual.

None of them could sleep, not with the kind of nightmares the Maximoff girl pulled out of their heads. They couldn’t go back to the Tower, not yet. And Ultron was on the loose. The team badly needed some place to regroup for the next battle.

As the sky lightened with the morning sun, Steve made his way into the cockpit, leaning over the back of Clint’s chair. “Where did you say we were going?” he murmured, his eyes red with exhaustion.

Clint usually tried not to mess with his aids, but he turned the volume down when even Cap’s low voice made his ears throb. “Safe house. Pretty sure we can hole up for a night or two. Maybe get some pancakes or something.”

“Sounds good. How long?”

“Not long. We’re almost there.”

“Good job, Barton. Think you’re the only one who isn’t a little messed up in the head. None of us are thinking straight right now.”

“Already had my turn at that, Rogers. Figured I’d paid my dues,” Clint joked as he checked the time to landing again. “Buckle up, team,” he called out. “We’re coming in fast.” Steve moved to the back to strap in with the others while Clint double-checked that the cloaking mechanisms and sound dampeners were engaged.

He shoved the aircraft into a steep dive out of the clouds, then pulled hard up on the yoke, leveling off just above the treeline. He grinned as he spied the dark green fruit stand. Right on target. He set the jet down beside the pond Darcy swore was the prettiest pond ever. She was right, of course.

Steve squinted at the rolling farmland as the ramp lowered to let them out. “Where are we?”

“Kansas.”

Cap darted a look to Clint that flickered between hope and fear. “You sure about this?”

Scratching the back of his neck, the archer shrugged. “I’m sure.” The farmhouse seemed too big for just Darcy and her parents, but it was sturdy, and the green roof blended with the gently sloping landscape. The team followed Clint to the porch, where he knocked and patiently waited for an answer.

Darcy’s parents answered the door, with the woman smiling broadly and Darcy’s dad hovering over her shoulder.

“Clint Barton, ma’am, sir. I don’t know if you remember me, but--”

The woman pulled Clint into a hug that seemed more natural than weird. “I remember you,” she said with a breathy sob. “We saw the news. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

There was a happy shriek, followed by Darcy squeezing between her parents and climbing right into Clint’s arms. He flared his wings to keep his balance, and it still took a steady hand from Thor to keep him from toppling off the porch.

“Oh my god, you’re here. You’re safe. You’re okay,” she chanted as she ran her hands over his middle, then peered into his eyes as he set her on her feet again. “You’re really okay.”

“Yeah. Told you Dr. Cho set me up.”

“Where’s everyone--” she spun around to find the rest of the Avengers giving little awkward waves to her and her parents. “Oh. Um, hey, everyone, this is my mom, Charlene, and my dad, Bill.”

Charlene gave them a crinkly-eyed smile. “I know all your names. Come on in.”

But they got distracted when Bucky flew in over the roof, plunging so that he wheeled around just inches from the ground, showing off his gorgeous new plumage as he climbed swiftly into the air. Laughing with abandon, Steve leaped off the porch, sweeping his wings downward to take flight, hot on his bonded’s heels. Two streaks of blue were lost in the clouds moments later.

Thor approached Darcy, his expression drawn with worry. “I must not stay. I need answers, and I will not find them here.” He bowed to her, then launched into the sky in the opposite direction, getting a boost from Mjolnir.

Darcy dragged Clint over to Nat, Bruce, and Tony so she could give each of them a hug without letting go of his hand. “If you hurry, you get cookies before Steve and Bucky get back,” she told them. Brightening, Tony was the first to follow Charlene into the house.

As if a bunch of superheros were an everyday occurrence, Bill started in on breakfast while the team played rock-paper-scissors to figure out who got the bathroom first.

They ate and showered in turns, with Charlene directing them up the stairs to rest afterward.

Natasha got the spare room on the second floor. Bucky and Steve immediately disappeared into Bucky’s room, and Clint really didn’t want to know exactly what they were doing in there. Bruce and Tony took the attic, where the sound of an air mattress being inflated echoed down the stairs.

Darcy’s bedroom had none of the childhood crap he’d half-expected. The lavender walls contrasted with the white and purple quilt on the bed. The rest of the room was almost bereft of decoration, with the sole exception of an old circus poster. Carson Carnival of Traveling Wonders. Come see the Amazing Hawkeye!

He dragged a fingertip along the edge of the paper. A paper clip zinged next to him. Clint spun around to find Darcy signing, //Hi. Don’t want startle you.// She nodded at the poster. //First saw you,// She used the wrong sign for “first,” but that was okay, Clint figured out what she meant. Then she pointed to the bed and wiggled her fingers at him, pulling the covers back with her other hand. //Sleep,// she ordered with stern look.

//Come?// he pleaded.

//OK,// she answered with a happy smile.

He stretched out his wings to lie on his back, tugging Darcy down so that she’d be next to him. Delighted by the change, she lay on his wings, taking care not to ruffle his feathers.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy at all not to flinch, not to jerk against the touch. But when Darcy rested her head on his shoulder, Clint figured he’d learn to deal. Because this was better than any terrible memory he had.

 

 

Chapter Text

26/Wishes

 

Darcy stayed with Clint until he fell asleep. He was so exhausted that he wasn’t aware of how much he twitched every time she moved.  He’d asked her to lay on his wings--and oh god, his feathers felt wonderful against her skin--but he needed his rest. As she eased out of his embrace, her heart ached. He was trying so damned hard to let her in.  

He needed his sleep, though, and so she closed the bedroom door behind her as she tiptoed out of the room.

The house was quiet, with only the occasional sound of creaking floors as somebody shifted on a bed. Darcy made a circuit of the bathrooms, picking up towels to take downstairs to the laundry room. That load went into the wash, and then she headed back upstairs to wipe down the shower.

As she passed through the hallway, she noticed the door to Natasha’s room was open a few inches. That was unusual enough that Darcy paused just outside the threshold, tapping the door frame with her fingernails. “Nat? Is everything good?”

“Come in.”

Darcy pushed the door open to find Natasha--with shadowed smudges under her eyes and pasty skin from too little sleep--sitting cross-legged on the bed, a faint smile on her lips.  

“You did this for me,” the assassin said, looking around the room with weary astonishment.  Like Darcy’s, it had a white bedspread and wooden floors, but where Darcy’s walls were purple, Nat’s had been tinted the palest of pinks, with black and white photographs of dancers of every type in a neat line around the room.  A knitted pink blanket with black zig zags lay across the bed.  

“So, like, Mama and I painted, Bucky picked out the art and cut the tree back from the house,” Darcy admitted. “And Dad fixed up the window and door so both lock from the inside. The floor board outside your bedroom door squeaks really loudly, just so you know. And the stairs are pretty damned noisy, but Dad likes it that way.” She sat on the edge of Nat’s bed, taking care not to muss the coverlet. “Clint’s always asking about the farm, and once he meets the horses, he might throw both of us over unless we give him a place to stay.  I was thinking he and I can take over the attic; maybe make it into an apartment.  The bed’s big enough up there if you don’t want to sleep alone, but you have a room right here.” She winked at Natasha. “You can bring company, if you want.”

“How do your parents feel about all this?”

“They’re keeping Bucky,” Darcy answered drily.  “They’ve always wanted a big family.”

Natasha leaned onto her elbow, stretching out on the bed. “And the Avengers are the answer to that?”

Darcy reached for Nat’s foot, unlacing the boot and setting it aside on the floor before reaching for the other foot to do the same.  “It’s a good place to rest, anyway.” She pulled the blanket over Natasha. “I think I’ll make cookies while you sleep.”

Nat shifted so that her head was on the pillow, and she quirked her lips as she closed her eyes. “Not many people surprise me. It’s nice when it happens.”

With a lighter heart, Darcy closed Nat’s door, too, and wandered downstairs to make a triple-batch of snicker doodles.

 

****

 

Climbing back into the Quinjet was the hardest thing Clint had ever done--and that included justifying his reasons for not killing the Black Widow to an enraged Fury and an equally pissed off Coulson.

Clint worked through his pre-flight check while the others settled in. Now that the team had an idea of what Ultron might be doing, they couldn’t stay. Duty called, and whatever was on the agenda promised to be as horrible as the Chitauri.  There were a couple of Enhanced kids out there, a crazy robot and no telling what else.

Clint would rather crawl back in Darcy’s bed, preferably with Darcy in it.  He wanted to know how it would feel to have her hands buried in the downy coverts along his back, or to stroke along his spine.

He’d overheard Barnes explaining to Rogers all the ways Darcy’d helped him with his wings, and damned if Clint wasn’t a little green-eyed with jealousy.

Not only that, Clint wanted to explore every inch of the farm. In his mind’s eye, he’d already laid out a long range for target practice in the rolling hills, and he’d only had a few minutes to greet all the animals with the carrots he’d filched from the garden.  Holding hands as they walked to the barn, Darcy had introduced him to the horses. Clint fell a little in love right there, nuzzling the bigger one nose-to-nose until it nickered. The little one bumped his hand, settling for a good ear scratch.  

And he wanted to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee to ask Bill and Charlene why they bothered with a broken carnie laid out in the dirt. They’d been damned nice in spite of the party crashing on their doorstep.

Natasha interrupted his musings by strapping herself in behind the pilot’s seat. “The farm, it’s a nice place,” she offered. “Darcy likes purple. I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah. She likes her secrets.” Clint felt the air pressure change as the doors shut. “Saw your room,” he quipped.

“It’s nice, too.”

Anyone else would only have heard the dry retort, but Clint didn’t miss the faint wistful thread. “Bet you didn’t expect that.”

“I never expect things, Barton, you know that.”

“It’s easier,” Clint agreed as Rogers called out the All-Clear to let him know everyone was secure.

“You want to come back,” Natasha noted as he pulled back on the throttle to get them in the air.

Flashes of Darcy and the farm and her parents rippled through his mind.  His words on her skin. Clint shuddered.

He shook his head hard.  “I can’t think about that right now. I’ve got a job to do.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

27/Groundwork

 

Darcy got two texts from Clint:   dog vet   and sorry.    

Clint’s soft spot for animals wasn’t news to anyone, but if it wasn’t for Natasha’s phone call and the string of texts that Steve sent to Bucky, Darcy would have lost her mind wondering where they were.

According to Nat, they’d been no more than fifteen minutes from the farm when Clint jerked the car to a stop for a dog lying in the road, apparently too injured to get out of the way. Clint had made Nat drive back into town while he fussed over the poor thing all the way to the veterinarian's office. They’d stayed through the two hour surgery, but afterward, the vet shooed them away after assuring Clint that he was planning to take the dog home for the first few days to recover.

Darcy paced on the front porch, alternating between playing games on her phone and tracking the latest news on the internet to keep herself distracted. In the wake of the disaster at Sokovia--where Bucky had huddled with Darcy as they stayed glued to the television until Maria called with the news that the team was okay--the Avengers were caught in a media shitstorm. Between the Hulk and the word getting out that Stark might be responsible for Ultron, it was in their best interests to stay out of the limelight.

The late night phone call from Clint had been hard enough when he said that Bruce was off the grid and nowhere to be found, mortified by his own actions.  It got harder when Clint told Darcy about the Twins and how the young man, Pietro Maximoff, had sacrificed his life to save Clint’s and the child’s he was holding.  Darcy had gripped the phone until her knuckles were white, heartbroken for her soulmate and horrified that she might have lost him altogether.

They’d exchanged a lot of texts until Medical cleared Clint for the road trip yesterday morning.  Since they’d planned for him to stay with Darcy until she headed back to school in a few weeks, she wasn’t surprised in the least that Steve and Nat were tagging along. Though, if it wasn’t for Bucky being in Kansas, too, there wasn’t a soul who could have pried Steve out of the new Avengers facility. It wasn’t in his nature to run away from a fight.  

But Maria had insisted, even personally calling Darcy’s parents to ensure they were okay with the trio landing on their doorstep again.  It was bad enough they were harboring Bucky, much less half the Avengers who were more or less on the lam from the media.  

If Darcy’d been startled to discover the assistant director had been in touch with them all spring, Bucky had been wholly unsurprised. “Come on, sweetheart, you had to know they wouldn’t let you drag me off into the wilderness without somebody knowing where to lay hands on me.” The shadows in his eyes told her that the soldier didn’t have any illusions that this idyll couldn’t end at any moment.

 

The whole nightmare had shaken her soulmate to the core.  He told her his doubts about staying with the team after this, even if Stark willingly took the hit for his part of the tragedy in front of God and Country. That conversation wasn’t over by a long shot, and Darcy was sure Natasha would weigh in on it.

Though she knew Clint was a fighter, it was different hearing how close he’d come to dying. Darcy shamelessly curled up with her dad that night in the living room, wiping away tears off and on for the better part of the night.

That was the day before yesterday, and now Darcy paced impatiently, a stark contrast to Barnes as he leaned against the porch rail with nonchalance. And yet, though not a single feather twitched, there was a thrum of anticipation that she could sense, and it made her smile every time she glanced over to check on him.

She heard the faint crackle of tires on gravel from the other side of the tree line. “That’s them,” she caroled with glee, darting down the steps as the purple Challenger rolled into view and stopped in front of the house in a puff of dust.

Natasha climbed out of the driver’s side first, graceful in spite of her weariness. She stepped easily into a long hug with Darcy, and then let Charlene and Bill coax her into the house with kisses and warm handshakes as she climbed the steps.

Steve stretched his wings to their fullest extent once he climbed out of the passenger seat. Bucky leaped over the porch rail and sauntered off toward the pond, laughing when Steve caught up to him and pulled him in for a quick hug.  The two men fell in step, and Darcy figured there would be a long flight in store for them.  

Clint was the last to get out of the car. His bullseye t-shirt had blood and dirt ground into it.  There were scratch marks on his forearms and his jeans had a hole in the thigh.  Darcy smiled at his scruffy blond hair sticking out every which way, his handsome face not impaired in the least by the bandage plastered across his nose.  The way he breathed told her there were bruised ribs in there somewhere--likely left over from Sokovia. He was a mess. He was perfect.  And he was so damned beautiful that Darcy was in his arms before he shut the car door.

“Aw, Kansas, no, I’m gonna get you dirty,” he protested, though it didn’t stop him from holding her close. He smelled like sunshine, mint, and wet dog.

Darcy wiped the tears off her cheeks. “Shut up, Iowa. Shut up and kiss me.”  

Oh, and how he did.  With hungry need, Clint kissed her hard, his lips moving over hers to find her flavor, to suck on her tongue, to work her bottom lip until it was swollen.  Darcy pressed back, wanting so much more, though she took care not to clutch him too hard until she knew what hurt.

Clint chuckled.  “Miss me?”

“Like a hole in my sock.”

“Hey--” Clint protested, though with a sparkle in his eyes (green-blue today, with flecks of gold).

Darcy tipped her head back and laughed. For this one shining moment, all was perfect in her world.

 

The seven of them clustered in the living room that night after they decimated a good-sized roast and enough sides to fill a holiday buffet. Living with Bucky had given them a head start on knowing how to cook for the Avengers, and the extra volunteers in the kitchen had made it fun --all the way from from slicing tomatoes for an appetizer to drying and putting away the last of the dishes.  Darcy dropped the last dishcloth on the stove handle to dry and curled up against Clint’s side as Natasha stretched out on the same sofa with them and put her feet against his thigh.

Bill and Charlene took the smaller of the two couches, while Bucky and Steve sprawled out on the floor. Bucky worked his way through Steve’s feathers, examining every last barb for minute gaps that he rectified with a long stroke of his thumbnail. Clint’s feathers needed the same attention, but he seemed content to keep them tucked away while Monty Python elicited the occasional snicker from the tired group.  But Darcy noted Clint’s attention kept straying to the pair.  

Natasha disappeared upstairs after a series of texts, though not before she tilted the phone just enough for Darcy and Clint to see that she’d been exchanging notes with her girlfriend, not Fury’s right hand.

Clint brightened as she left. “Nat’s never had anyone stick,” he muttered in wonder.

“She can come here, you know,” Darcy advised.

“Oh. Your folks won’t mind?”

“Mom? Dad?” Darcy called out, just to be a brat. “Can Nat bring her girlfriend for a weekend?”

Charlene arched an eyebrow. “I don’t know. Can she?”

Rolling her eyes, Darcy changed her question. “ May Natasha bring her girlfriend for a weekend?”

“Sure.” Charlene elbowed Bill. “Honey, we really need to think about that third bathroom if Darcy’s going to keep dragging all her friends back home.  Jane and Thor haven’t even dropped in to visit, and they are overdue.”  

Clint scrunched up his eyebrows. “Thor’s been to visit?”

“A couple of times,” Darcy answered. “Now hush. The Knights Who Say Ni are the best part of the whole movie.” She leaned up to kiss Clint’s cheek and honestly got distracted by the low hum he let out in response. He pressed his lips to her forehead and cuddled her a little closer.  

Natasha rejoined them after a while, tucking her feet under Clint’s thigh again. But--if Darcy wasn’t misreading her friend--Nat seemed pleased about something.  She and Clint exchanged a look, and Clint dropped his hand to her ankle to pat it.  Then they turned their attention to the movie without a word.

Content that whatever happened must have been a good thing, Darcy rubbed her cheek against Clint’s arm as she giggled when the Knights Who Say Ni came on screen.

 

That night though, with Clint lighting a fire under her skin just by running his hands over her legs as she stripped out of the jeans and t-shirt she’d worn that day, he seemed confused when she hesitated to return his gentle caresses.

Not wanting him to get the wrong idea, she admitted, “This isn’t Stark Tower.  This house doesn’t have an ounce of sound-proofing.”

Clint blinked twice, then let out a low chuckle that did all sorts of interesting things to her insides. Clad only in her bra and panties, Darcy reminded herself to breathe when his hands drifted over her thighs. He tugged her close enough to stand between his legs, then stripped off his own shirt. Her mouth dried up at his broad shoulders.  

With one finger, she traced the bruises from the last battle. Clint held her gaze, gathering up her fingers to press to his lips. And then his eyes gleamed as he freed each of his hearing aids from his ears and set them on the night table beside her bed.  

He pressed a finger to his lips. //Quiet.//  With one hand, he unsnapped her bra and tossed it so that it landed on the chair.

Darcy hooked her fingers under her panties and drew them down, enjoying the way Clint’s gaze sharpened.

Then he pointed to the bed, circling his finger to indicate she should lay on her stomach. She crossed her arms and arched a brow at his jeans.

He grinned, pulling them off, and oh holy shitballs, he was muscle-y and yummy and Darcy just had to run her finger along the line of his hip. There was a bruise there too, and she leaned down to kiss it.  

Her lover’s swift inhalation made her grin up at him, and he motioned again for her to lie down.

And so she did.

He braced himself so that he could stroke along her spine, sending shivers down through her toes until they curled up with anticipation. That same hand lifted the hair off her neck, and Clint mouthed the tender flesh there until she wiggled, loving what he was doing to her.  When he shifted on the bed so that he could rain kisses along the curve of her neck, the other hand went back to sliding from nape to ass until she was twitching and wanting more.  

The absolute last thing she expected was the brush of a feather. Darcy dug her fingers into her bed sheets to stay quiet as he touched her with gentle strokes, though she craned her head around, needing to see Clint’s face.

There was determination there, but Clint just pressed a kiss to Darcy’s shoulder as he dragged the edge of a primary down her spine.  She let out a gasp, and Clint waggled a finger, admonishing her to stay silent.

She couldn’t stop twitching though. The light flicks either tickled or sent zings of heat rippling through her, and she bit her lip when her clit started throbbing with need.

Clint must have noticed, because he set his hand on her ass, dipping a finger low enough to brush her soaked clit.  He circled it, and Darcy sucked in her breath to keep from making any noise. He didn’t stop, and it was only moments later that lightning cracked through her, leaving her panting as she came in a flood of heat.  

With a grin, she came up on her hands and knees to climb right on Clint’s lap.  He caught her easily, resettling his weight on the bed so neither of them would fall off.  Darcy licked her lips as she straddled his cock and sank down, steadily taking him in one slow inch at a time.  

This time it was Clint taking slow, even breaths--keeping his eyes on hers they fused together. His wings curved around their bodies in a protective shell while Darcy pressed her hands down on his shoulders for leverage.

And then, with his hands clutching her hips, she rode him.  

Making love in absolute silence drove home for Darcy just how much Clint relied on his hands and eyes--not only in this moment, but in every moment.  With sharp jerks of her hips, she rose and fell on his hard, hard cock, and Clint’s eyes shimmered with gold as he started to pant. He shifted his grip so that his hands spanned her rib cage, and he picked up the rhythm she’d set so they slammed together hard enough that she had to bite her lips to keep from hissing out from the sharp pleasure.  

Darcy leaned in, covering his mouth with hers as the tension built, and Clint’s hands went everywhere as he unraveled, clutching her middle, her head, her ass seemingly all at once as he spilled into her.  She bit her lip not to cry out as Clint used the last of his orgasm to coax another one out of Darcy, with a thumb tapping on her clit so that she fell over the edge.

Clint tilted backward, bringing Darcy with him so that she was sprawled out on his chest, still connected as the two of the panted in tandem.  He ran a thumb across her lip, and she kissed it, still stunned by the way they’d come together--lovemaking made erotic by the silence itself. Clint nuzzled her hair with his lips, his hands sweeping along her back as their breathing slowed.  

In the aftermath, there was a trip to the bathroom for each of them, a t-shirt for Darcy, boxers for Clint, and then they crawled in bed together.  Not wanting to presume, Darcy curled up facing away from her soulmate, with her head on a pillow. But Clint shifted so that he could rest his arm around her waist, and he pressed a line of kisses along the words written on her shoulder.

Grateful that Clint was home, safe and sound, Darcy snuggled backward until he chuckled. Then she tapped his wrist to get his attention.

When he raised his head, she signed, //I love you,// with one hand.

“I love you too, Kansas,” he whispered. The last thing she knew was the soft weight of feathers settling into place along her arm and hip.

It was a good start.  

 

*****

 

With seven people occupying a hundred-year-old wooden house, it was entirely possible to track the comings and goings of the occupants just by listening.  One could discern who was on what floor, if they were on the bed or had moved to a chair, who needed the bathroom, and if one listened closely, whole conversations could be eavesdropped upon.  

For a spy, it was a fabulous way to live.  For privacy, it sucked, though Clint grinned when music trickled out of Bucky’s room in an effort to cover hoarse moans and the occasional thump of the bed against the wall.  The circus hadn’t had much of that particular issue; not with the carnies living in separate trailers.

Clint escaped downstairs to find Darcy drinking a late afternoon coffee with her parents in the kitchen. Nat had opted for tea. Country music played from the radio atop the refrigerator, and Nat noted the way his eyes had tracked to the sound and back to the table where Natasha was filling in Bill and Charlene on the upgrades Stark wanted to make to the security system at the farm.

Barnes had taken on the massive project of cleaning up the fence line over the spring--conveniently installing a whole perimeter net in the process.  At the moment, the system only detected intruders, though Stark had promised to send along additions in a week or two.  For now, FRIDAY kept the property discreetly monitored, just as she did the Avengers’ facility and Stark Tower.  

All that translated into Barnes being comfortable enough to fuck his boyfriend with the radio on.

Clint flipped a chair around to sit with his chin on the back of it while he listened, idly stretching his wings out one at a time.  Darcy licked her lips as she followed the movement, and her fingers twitched, just a little.


When Rogers and Barnes deigned to join them for pancakes, Darcy commandeered the horses before Barnes could. He pouted all the way through breakfast until Rogers whispered something in Barnes’ ear that made him smirk.

Darcy gave Clint the nickel tour of the whole farm on horseback that morning, showing off the orchard, greenhouses, and gardens that kept the family fed, along with the chickens and goats.  They only had the one cow to keep the horses company. 

“So what keeps the farm afloat?” he wondered. “It can’t be just the farmers market on weekends.”

Darcy looked away. “We grow hay.”  She led him around a copse of trees and up a small hill.  On the other side were flat fields of waving grass.

Clint couldn’t exactly stop being a spy, so his soulmate’s chagrin read like a Vegas billboard. “What’s wrong with hay?”

“In a good year, hay makes enough to keep the farm afloat.  The other seventy percent of the time, well--” she sighed. “We would have lost the farm years ago if it wasn’t for the money you’ve been sending.”

That wasn’t particularly a revelation--Clint had seen the bank statements--but hearing it from Darcy’s lips brought home how much the farm had struggled.  “So why not plant something else?”

“Hay doesn’t require a lot of equipment, so it was an easy place to start. My parents weren’t looking to make a lot of money; they just wanted the farm to be enough to take care of the family. The hay was supposed be enough to pay for the stuff we couldn’t make or grow. It worked from time-to-time, but never for long enough to plant something better,” she said flippantly. “Hey, pull up.  There’s a good honeybee nest in that tree. You don’t want to bother them.”

Clint stilled his horse, listening.  There was a distinctive hum in the air.  “That’s … wow. Ever thought about harvesting the honey?”

“Sure. And that means more money and equipment. That’s the perennial problem. What we do isn’t enough; to make a change means a string of good haying years, and well, you know what the droughts have done to the hay crop.” Darcy’s shoulders drooped.

“Why didn’t your parents use the money I gave them to do that?”

Darcy turned the horse away from the field as she answered, “They felt it wasn’t fair to use your money that way.”

“But that’s ridiculous!” Clint blurted as he followed, nudging the horse with his heel to catch up to Darcy. “What’s wrong with that?”

“They tell me that the farm is their dream, not mine,” Darcy answered. “I guess it’s one thing to keep a roof over your soulmate’s head, but another thing entirely to invest it in the farm itself.”

“And what do you think about that?”

“I love this place.”

And she did, Clint could see it in the lines of her body.  There was more, though. “But,” he prompted, using one of his favorite techniques for drawing information out of a target.

“But there’s work to do with Asgard, and it’s so big and different, and so few people realize what it all means. Even fewer have the opportunity to do something about it.”  Darcy tilted her head back to look up at the sky.  “There isn’t anyone on this planet doing what I am doing right now.  Thor doesn’t trust many people with information about Asgard, and all of the others are focused on politics, not trade.”

With a smile, Clint offered, “So you’re saying you’ve got a unique skillset, and you sort of feel obligated to use it for the public good.”

“Well, yeah,” she agreed.  Then she chuckled as she realized he could have been describing himself. “I guess you understand.”

“A little bit.”

As Darcy fell silent, Clint admired her profile and the way her dark hair fell in waves down her back. The straw hat shaded her eyes, but not so much that he missed the worry in them.  They rode on, and Clint memorized the lay of the land with the experience born of a need to survive. By the time they closed in on the farm house, he had a mental map of the property.  

He’d have to talk to Barnes about the makeshift range the soldier had set up on the back side of the hay fields.  It could use an archery target or two.

 

It was Barnes who suggested they go to a local bar that night while they were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner.  “Pool, darts, an excuse of a dance floor. Not a bad place to pass the evening.”

Nat arched a brow. “Not exactly low profile.”

“Nope.”

“And that helps our cause, how?”

“It’s not for you.” Barnes slanted an opaque look at Clint.

“What? For Darcy?” Clint asked sharply.

Barnes neatly flipped his towel to hang it on its hook. “Your dame’s been writin’ a lot of checks to cover your ass. Time for you to make ‘em good.”


Chapter Text

28/Stepping Up

 

When Natasha appeared in the hallway with blonde hair, tight jeans, and a bright green western shirt that showed off every curve she owned, Clint whistled long and low from the bathroom where he was spiking his hair.   

From the doorway of her bedroom, where she’d been admiring the cut of boyfriend’s biceps in the  black short sleeve tunic with silver trim he’d chosen, Darcy called out, “Nat knows where you sleep, Iowa!”

His laughter bounced off the hallway walls, prompting Steve and Bucky to open their own door out of curiosity.  They, too, were dressed to blend with the locals in boots, Wranglers, and simple tunics in a western cut. Steve wore dark blue, and Bucky, a pale gray.  Their feathers shone with health. Bucky ruffled his wings happily as Steve spun in a circle for his mate.

Natasha reached into the bathroom to flick at Clint’s ear, eliciting a squawk that made the rest of them laugh. She winked at Darcy and headed downstairs.

In the face of four stunning persons, Darcy retreated to her bedroom to stare critically in the mirror.  The purple and white halter dress she’d chosen had a jagged hemline that flirted with the tops of her boots.  She ran her hands down her waist, wondering if it was too thick, though she liked the way the dress flared over her hips. Darcy had never looked like the other girls in high school with flat hair and blonde highlights. Her lips were too full, her mouth too wide, and her hair would never be anything but thick and wavy.

Mostly, she liked the way she looked. New York styles flattered her, and the other students at Columbia didn’t blink twice at the way she dressed.  Here, things were different. Or they were.  Now that she was older, Darcy wondered--if she’d been a little more confident and not so wary of being different--could she have found a way to make friends here as she had in college.  

With that in mind, she pursed her lips and fluffed her hair one more time before reaching for Clint’s feather to clip in place.  It wasn’t a primary--she wasn’t ready for that yet. Or maybe she was and didn’t want to admit that either.

“Whoa, Kansas.” The admiration in Clint’s voice washed over Darcy, chasing away the lingering doubts as he slid one forearm around her waist. He had that soft smile--almost shy-- as he trailed one finger over the secondary feather in her hair. “Never figured I’d be lucky enough to be with someone like you.”

She bit her lip against the smile that bloomed on her, happiness suffusing through her--well, except for the tiny, annoying part still asking if Clint wanted her more for her farm and family than, well, her.  It probably wasn’t a fair question because it really was a package deal. Still.

But Clint cupped her face.  “Aw, sweetheart, no. Whatever you’re thinking, just … no.”  

Well, shit. “Spy, right?” she joked.  

“Among other things. Carnie, mostly, I think. You’re slumming, Kansas.”

“I’m not slumming. What’s the difference between a spy and a carnie?”

“Carnie’s just tryin’ to make a living ‘til something better comes along.”

“And a spy?”

“Sometimes you gotta do what’s right.”

“Thought that’s what made you an Avenger.”

Clint laughed as he mimed drawing a bow. “That’s the Avenger part.”

With a frown, Darcy noted, “But Hawkeye can’t be an Avenger without the spy and the carnie.”

“And now you know me, Kansas.” He ran a knuckle under her chin and ducked down to press a kiss to her lips, taking care not to smudge her lipstick.

“Yeah,” she agreed. She held her hand against her heart, signing, //ILY// She squinted, chiding aloud, “No freaking out this time.”

Now it was Clint who turned pink. His hands went to her shoulders. “Wow. Whoa. Right here. You said it.  I love you,” he agreed, a little startled. “I love you” he said again. “No freaking out this time.”

“Better,” she agreed, leaning up to kiss him his cheek. His arms closed around her shoulder and waist, and he held her, just breathing--though she could feel the way he clutched his hands to her, flexing them a little.  

He swallowed, his adam’s apple bobbing.  “I love you,” he stated for the third time, with quiet conviction. The flare of his feathers echoed his emotion.

Darcy pulled back, studying his green and gold eyes with wonder. “Okay.”

“You believe me?”

“Yeah, I do,” she answered firmly.  And she did.  After all the years of wondering, anger, and wanting, they were here.  “Gonna show me a good time?” She flicked at the silver trim of his tunic, then trailed a finger over the line of muscle on his arm.

With another laugh, Clint stepped back, capturing her left hand to expertly twirl her into a little spin. “It’s time I did that.”



The bar wasn’t much more than two pool tables, a dart board, a scrap of space cleared for a dance floor, and a couple dozen table tops all stretched out along an enormous polished wood bar that must have dated back to the mid-1800’s.  But it was stuffed full on a Friday night, and the bartenders were quick to pull a beer or pop a top to keep the patrons happy. Darcy recognized one of them as the younger sister of a classmate. The other was the owner, who occasionally went fishing with her dad. She lifted a hand to wave at John, and he jerked a chin and a grin in her direction.

There was another a trio of classmates Darcy remembered. They frowned in her direction, along with a couple of others from town--damn it, including Brad from the grocery store. After the feather incident, Bucky glowered threateningly every time they shopped, and Brad had mostly left them alone.  But gossip had spread, and Darcy had run into the occasional dirty look and somebody loudly muttering about Winged Ones.

A pair of fingertips pressed on Darcy’s hip, and Clint gave her a bright, almost glittering smile. “Want to play a game with us?”

His excitement was infectious. “Of course.”

“Got any cousins?”

“Uh, no.”

“Good.” Clint tapped Nat on the shoulder. She gave him a sly smile. “Meet your cousin, Ali,” he told Darcy. “Mom’s side, twice-removed. Been living in Dallas, but passing through to a new job in LA and wanted to say hi. Ya’ll haven’t seen each other since grade school, except for Christmas cards, right?”

‘Ali’ let out a bark of laughter that caught the attention of everyone in the place, along with some interesting looks. Clint had his wings clamped firmly to his back, but Darcy heard “Winged One” in more than a few conversations as they worked their way to the bar.  Bucky and Steve melted into the dim edges to claim a table at the back near the pool players. Steve hadn’t been recognized yet, though it wouldn’t take long once somebody got a good look at him. It never did.

Clint shadowed Darcy and Nat, striking up a conversation with the hairy dude on the nearest stool as they waited for their drinks. When it was time to pay, Clint dropped a black American Express card on the countertop. “Start a tab.”

The young bartender had probably never seen a black AmEx and probably had no idea what it meant as she handed it to her boss for safekeeping.  But John did, and he looked it over, eyebrows flying up as he read the name on the card.  Clint helpfully flared his feathers, though the purple was hard to see in this light, and then scraped his hand through his blond hair, showing off arms and shoulders without making a big deal of it.   

Only a moment later, John’s eyes tracked to the table at the back, and yes, there was faint astonishment as he recognized Captain America.  He slid the card back to Clint. “Drinks are on the house.” He nodded to Darcy. “Guess you met a few new people in New York?”

The sly remark made her smirk. “You could say that.”

“Heard you got a soulmate.” John’s eyes stopped on her feather.

“I do.” The glance at Clint was involuntary, but the lingering look wasn’t. Seriously, her boyfriend was yummy enough to take home and tip into bed for a while. Yeah.  She could do that that.

“Go on, Miss Lewis. Brooke will bring you another round in a while,” John said, making Darcy blush at being caught staring.

She smiled gratefully at her dad’s friend, took the drinks he slid across the bar, and followed Natasha. “Ali” made a show of winding through the tables, and Darcy followed her lead with swaying hips and a two-step that attracted attention to them.  Clint followed, the dancing lights from the mirrored disco ball skittering across his plumage as they skirted the dance floor to the table where Bucky and Steve were sitting an inch too close to be only friends.  Bucky had an arm across the back of Steve’s chair--conveniently concealing his metal hand between his hulking soulmate and the wall without being obvious about it.

The thumping music made Darcy think about her friends from college, and she got a pang of nostalgia for those days, when life wasn’t about gods and monsters. New York was in Berlin, Tampa went back home to take care of her mom, and San Diego had moved to Sao Paulo with her girlfriend.  Darcy hadn’t told them about Clint yet, though they all knew she’d met her soulmate in one of their email exchanges.  But it was Jane she really missed.  Her BFF had a way of putting life into perspective.

Darcy slicked up her lips with the tip of her tongue as she dropped into the chair Clint pulled out for her. “Manners, Iowa? I’m shocked.”

“Barnes gets twitchy if I forget,” Clint admitted. Sure enough, Bucky had a brotherly glare aimed at her soulmate.

Darcy squinted at him, knowing damned well she’d had a number of long conversations with Bucky about gender expectations and equality.  “Seriously?”

One shoulder went up in a lazy shrug. “A mate needs to be appreciated,” he noted. “Been awhile since I got to do nice things for the punk.”

Well, crap.  Perspective indeed.

Darcy hadn’t seen Clint and Nat in action. It was one thing to know they were spies; it was another to see them skillfully take control of the bar.  Clint slipped into his midwest accent as if he’d never lost it to charm not only John-the-bartender, but the four ranchers who’d been sitting one table over every Friday night for two decades.  He traded circus stories one-for-one about farm life, cheerfully admitting he didn’t know a damned thing about crops, but he’d better learn because, you know, Darcy.  

“Ali” pushed Darcy onto the dance floor, where they practiced the line dancing skills they’d learned in New York (for Nat) and Culver (for Darcy)--while loudly announcing that Darcy had no reason to be shy around her cousin.  Darcy’s mouth fell open when a couple of the frowny classmates joined them on the dance floor, insisting that if they’d known Darcy was so shy, they would have done this years ago.  

“You were so smart, we all knew you wouldn’t stick around,” one of them--Angela-- mentioned during one of the breaks.

“I just didn’t want to get married right away,” Darcy admitted.  “I knew I had a winged soulmate, and clearly they weren’t in Channing, Kansas.”

Angela pressed her lips together, in a scowl that made her look a decade older. “Like I said, you were smarter than the rest of us.  Half our class is divorced already, and we haven’t even had our ten year reunion.” Darcy blanched a little at the idea of a reunion, but gave Angela an appropriately disappointed nod anyway.

“Ali” drew Darcy out to the dance floor again to save her from further conversation, giggling as if she had a healthy buzz on, though Darcy knew for a fact that Nat had swapped her full pint of beer for Steve’s empty glass when Brooke came around with a pitcher for refills.

Clint slipped in behind Darcy for a couple of line dances, then two-stepped with her during one of the slower songs while Ali flirted with the ranchers long enough to talk one of them out to the dance floor.  Darcy grinned.  Eli’s wife had passed five years ago, but the old man still had moves.

“Having fun?” Clint asked Darcy. His shy smile was back, and it felt amazing to be held so close as they danced.

“Yes. So why is your BFF ‘Ali’ tonight?”

“It’s a habit to make a name and face for yourself wherever you go. I’d do it too, but this is real life, right?” He did a slow turn with her, keeping a firm hand on her upper back.

Darcy concentrated on putting her feet in the right place. “That’s not the only reason.”

“Aw, Kansas, it’s like you know us.”

She rolled her eyes at her boyfriend.  “Spill.”

“I’ll tell you later if you don’t figure it out.” He dropped a kiss on her lips and took her around the dance floor one more time, lacing his fingers with hers to pull her in so they were dancing forehead to forehead. The intimacy was unexpected, and Clint whispered, “This is real, honey.  Don’t let what we do mess with your head.  I love you.”

Hearing him say it yet again sent shivers along Darcy’s spine.  “Okay.”

Clint quirked his lips up into a smile and spun her around one more time.  



Halfway through the evening, one of the patrons--who was drunk enough to be wavering on his feet--stared at Steve until he announced, “Holy shit, you’re Captain America!” loudly enough that the whole place looked over in unison.  “And you’re the arrow dude!” he yelled at Clint.

Steve stood and held up his pint in a salute. Clint joined him--conveniently blocking everyone’s view of Bucky while making sure the whole place got a good look at Hawkeye and Cap.  

Natasha leaned in toward Darcy, separating herself from them.  “Watch,” she ordered. Darcy noticed the looks she was getting now: surprise, wonder, even admiration for the company she was keeping.  But her friends weren’t done yet.  Nat nodded at Clint. “Talk him into throwing darts.”

And so Darcy made a show of coaxing her boyfriend to the dartboard, fully aware that the attitude of the small crowd was changing before her eyes.

With Nat in the house, the timing couldn’t have been coincidence, given that Brad had landed his last dart into the outer band of the board.  Darcy held out her hand, giving him a smile that dared him to refuse her. He just scowled and plucked the darts out to drop them in her hand.

She grinned. “Clint, meet Brad Hightower, grocery store owner. Brad, meet my boyfriend, Clint Barton. He’s an Avenger.” Brad’s eyes widened. His eyes zipped from Clint to Darcy to her feather to Clint again.

Bucky must have filled Clint in, because the archer’s eyes got all flinty, even as he gave the other man a winning smile and a firm clap on the shoulder. “Good to meet the neighbors.” Brad gave him a tight smile and backed away, not being the type to poke a stick at something dangerous.

Then, with all the flourish of a professional circus showman, Clint charmed the crowd as he flicked the darts in various patterns on the board. He started with a cross, made a circle, and then a star, backing up across the room by five feet each time.  Finally, he let the patrons call out the board placement and where he had to stand. He climbed a chair, a table, and even stood on the bar. There was applause as he took a deep bow after the last one, and then he swept up Darcy for a celebratory kiss that prompted wolf-whistles from the little crowd.  

To no one’s surprise, Bucky slipped out during the commotion, leaving Steve to work the room on his way out, shaking hands and exchanging the occasional salute.  Natasha stayed with Darcy as they followed in his wake.

Once outside, Steve launched into the sky, surely to join Bucky for the flight home.  Clint, on the other hand, slid into the truck with Darcy and Natasha, folding his wings so that he’d fit in the cab too. One Eli’s buddies, Dylan, rapped his knuckles on the window, prompting Clint to roll it down.  

“Hey, uh, heard you found the MacKinzie’s yellow lab? Doc Peterson’s been tryin’ to figure out who he belonged to. I seen that ol’ dog going ‘round MacKinzie’s place ‘til a few weeks back.”

Darcy leaned over Clint to ask, “Didn’t Mac have a stroke a couple months back?”

“Yes, ma’am, he did. His daughter’s gotta sell the farm to pay for his care. Old Mac’s not coming out of the hospital, I don’t think.  I figure the dog’s been running loose since. Anyhow, I told all that to Doc this afternoon when he gave my calves their shots. Dog was damned lucky you found him, Barton. Most people wouldn’t have bothered.” Dylan wandered away, presumably back to his friends.

Silence reigned while Nat put the truck in gear and aimed it toward the two-lane road that would get them home.  

Darcy rolled her eyes.  “Ask Mom and Dad if you can have a dog, Iowa.”

Clint exhaled with gusto. “Aw, man. Okay. Good. I mean, yeah, I will.”

“You’re letting him have a dog?” Natasha asked in exasperation.

“It’s either that or he’s going to smuggle him onto the farm,” Darcy answered.  

“True.”



Waking up with tufts of feathers stuck to Darcy’s skin was a new sensation, but not particularly a bothersome one, though Clint seemed embarrassed, signing, //Sorry,// as he stirred beside her with a scrape of his fingers through his hair. She’d fallen asleep last night on his wings, a bed of the finest of down.

Darcy waggled her finger at him as she sat up, chiding him with a roll of her eyes before countering, //You me soulmates.  I love you.  I love feathers.// She pursed her lips in frustration, not knowing how to convey what else she wanted to say.  //Soulmate you me,// she signed again.  Then she added, //Mine,// double-tapping her chest with emphasis and a firm nod.

Clint plucked another bit of fluff from her hair then trailed his fingers down a long lock, the chagrin replaced by appreciation as he tugged the covers down and helped Darcy shove the t-shirt she’d worn to bed over her head.  Down drifted on the air currents the ceiling fan stirred up, making a wonderland out of the setting.  Darcy smiled as she flicked one into the air again and it spiraled down to land on her breast.  Clint blew it out of the way so he could nuzzle at the tip.  He spread his hand over the peak, dragging the calloused pad of his thumb over it, and Darcy arched up into his touch, loving the sparks that danced under her skin wherever his fingers landed.

She curled her hands into his biceps--hard muscles that flexed as he shifted his weight to get at her other nipple to suck and lick at it until she squirmed with a laugh. “Oh shit, Iowa, right there.”

He snickered. “I always hit my target, Kansas.”

“Oh yeah, well, aim a little lower then,” she teased, signing //down// and //more.//

//No// he waggled his finger. //You come first//.  Then he went back to suckling until her brains leaked out from pure sensation.  

The orgasm shook her from head to toe. Clint didn’t miss a beat, dropping his hand from her breast to her clit. He plunged two fingers into her slick heat as he rubbing his thumb over her sensitive knot, shocking a low cry out of her that he swallowed as he covered her mouth with his in a swift, startling kiss.  

And then he held still, fingers grazing her g-spot while she rode the wave of the second orgasm that came hard on the heels of the first.

Panting, she muttered, “Holy shitballs, Iowa. You’re good at that.”

Clint only ducked his head to kiss her again, and Darcy forgot to think as his fingers started moving She hissed as she edged close to yet a third wave.  “Clint, I want you,” she demanded.   

“You’ve got me,” he gently teased as he eased his fingers out in a slow drag that only highlighted how she’d drenched his hand in her juices.

“More,” she insisted, signing //more// with insistence.

To her shock, circled the pucker of her ass with a fingertip. “Like this?”

Her nipples tightened with excitement, and Darcy dove her fingers in to Clint’s short hair, kissing him with abandon. But as much as she wanted to play, she wanted Clint’s dick and told him just that.  

The confident smirk dissolved into genuine joy as he rose over her, his cock at her slit as she hooked a knee over his forearm.  They took it slow, Clint pressing in, and Darcy absorbing his full length in one unfaltering slide.

Her hands drifted, finding the lines on his back where his wings began. Without thinking, she dragged her fingertips along the length of both sides, and Clint shivered from her touch, his cock perceptibly hardening.  “Again,” he pleaded.

With delight, she did, loving the pure pleasure that she evoked in her soulmate. She started from the top of his shoulder blades and drew her fingers along the sensitive skin where wing and back muscle connected, just under the first line of feather shafts. Clint pressed his mouth into a hard line to keep from crying out, but he flexed his hip, driving into Darcy without much control at all.  

Out of curiousity, Darcy tilted her fingertip, grazing a nail along the flesh.  That elicited a sharp inhalation, and Clint came hard in rapid series of short thrusts that took Darcy right over the edge with him. He pressed a kiss to her neck, and then buried his face there, breathing hard as they shuddered as one.

Darcy pressed her cheek to his shoulder, happy at the way things had turned out this morning, and loving the feel of him--the weight of him--against her. She closed her eyes and set her hands on his waist, letting her thumbs slide to and fro there.

As Clint relaxed into her touch, his weight shifted as he let his wings down, letting them fall until the tips rested on the floor on either side of the bed.  His feathers pressed against her knees and hands.  Darcy didn’t move, except to continue tracing patterns on his skin.

A faint tremor went through him.

“Aw, wings, no,” he murmured as he shoved off the bed.  With a grimace, he fumbled for the sweatpants and t-shirt he’d left on the floor last night. Darcy sat up, frustrated for both of them. //Clint,// she signed.

But he wouldn’t meet her eyes as he shoved both hands through his hair.  //Sorry,// he told her, his fingers sharp with annoyance. And then he was gone. Probably to get in the air as fast as he could.

Darcy took her time getting dressed, knowing it would be awhile before he came back.

Nat and Bucky were giving each other suspicious looks over coffee on the opposite sides of the kitchen.  “No fighting in the kitchen,” Darcy told them as she poured up her own cup. “Dad’s rule. And the kitchen knives are off limits. Those are Mama’s, and she’s as protective of them as you two are with yours.”

Out of the corner of Darcy’s eye, she saw Nat’s lips curve into a smile.  “Sounds reasonable.”

“What ruffled Barton’s feathers this morning?” Bucky grumbled. “I wanted to see if he’s as good as he says he is. Got the range set up and everything.”

Darcy tried not to sigh, but it was impossible for her to cover up the dejection-- even with her back to the two assassins. She turned around to find both of them studying her--Natasha with understanding and Bucky with concern.  

“He’s trying,” she told them wearily as she shoved off and headed for the porch. There, she leaned on the railing while Clint darted about in the morning light. Steve was up there too, flapping his way around the perimeter of the farm.

Bucky shuffled sleepily down the stairs to launch himself with a couple of downstrokes that turned into powerful wingbeats as he rowed into the sky to join his mate.

“Bucky has the prettiest set of feathers I’ve seen,” Natasha commented as she joined Darcy at the rail. “Wilson told me he didn’t think Bucky would ever fly properly again.”

Darcy snorted. “The only person in the world more stubborn than Steve Rogers is James Barnes. If it meant plucking out every damned feather he had and starting over, he would have done it to get back in the air.”

“But he didn’t have to.”

“No,” Darcy agreed. “But Bucky had a life before the nightmares. He has a goal in mind that has nothing to do with fighting corruption and taking down governments. That’s what makes him different from you and Clint. From the Avengers, really.”

Natasha tilted her head, seemingly amused, though the emotion didn’t quite fit her next words. “I don’t think I put that together. That’s novel.”

“Bucky’s going to have them in a house with the dog, a full set of china, and handmade doilies before Steve can blink.”

With a wry smile, Natasha chuckled. “Probably not in Stark Tower, I’d guess.”

“Bucky still speaks Brooklyn when he’s pissed. But he likes the freedom to fly here.”

“You know, Lewis, this will be entertaining.”

“Yes, yes, it will,” Darcy mused, following Clint’s flightline as he shot overhead and zipped through a couple of barrel rolls before curvetting upward once more. “I just wish---” Darcy let the thought die away and shook her head to clear it. Nat didn’t ask. She already knew.

 

*****

 

For the last twenty years, Clint had a created a fantasy around this farm and the man and woman who lived here.  He’d imagined parents who hugged him when he came home, good food on the table, animals that needed caring for, and a whole host of chores that would keep him busy from sunrise to sundown.  Idleness for one Clint Barton had never been a good idea; his curiosity inevitably got the best of him, and he counted on his charm, reflexes, wits to get him out of trouble--and he didn’t always succeed.  

Reality was better.

Seeing Darcy here was a revelation all its own.  Though he’d seen her knit and bake with ease, he hadn’t truly understood that she had an entire skill set that had nothing to do with studying for her doctorate or keeping Clint sane on the phone when his whole world was caving in.

Practical, competent, there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do--from giving the animals their spring shots while Clint sweet-talked them into keeping still to replacing the pipe under the bathroom sink when it started leaking.  She got that surprised smile every time Clint pitched in--and oh, how he wanted to prove he could belong.

Darcy’s parents seemed happy to take him--and the rest of the team--under their wings. Charlene handed out hugs and chores with equal aplomb.  Bill took advantage of the extra hands and rounded up the men for the heavier jobs. Steve and Bucky lent a hand where they could, but it was clear the reunited mates were preoccupied. Bill made sure the pair knew where they could have the privacy to work through… well, whatever they had to work through when they weren’t fucking like bunnies.

That left Clint to accompany Bill, who made a point of carefully explaining to him the hows and whys as he went about his daily business.  Clint listened with intense concentration, locking way the information into his memory banks.  Darcy’s dad wasn’t one to talk about the past much, which was fine by Clint, though there were some questions about Winged Ones in general and some rather pointed ones about Clint’s ex-wife in particular.  The archer had the odd feeling that Bill had simply been waiting for Clint to come home and now it was time for him to learn the ins and outs of the family business.  

It made him uneasy; Darcy still had her degree to finish, and hell, both of them were stationed out of New York for the foreseeable future.  And though Darcy slipped into farm life as easily as Clint drew his bow, that didn’t mean she wanted to make a future of it.

There was Nat to consider, too. She seemed amused by the menagerie of personalities clustered in the old house.  She wasn’t enamored with country life, seeing as she wasn’t the kind for long, quiet spells, but when Clint nudged Natasha to dig into the family finances, she attached herself to Charlene, and the pair of them seem to bond over bookeeping and the inevitable errands that piled up.  

Nat noted that Bucky’s rent had gone a long way toward spring improvements, and she made discreet suggestions to both Clint and Steve about what sort of contribution from them would cover their expenses and future upgrades. She studied up on crop futures and hobby farms while Charlene paid the bills. On the first trip to the tractor supply, “Ali” acquired a pair of Levi’s and sturdy boots. She handed Clint a straw cowboy hat that he proudly wore low on his brow.

Clint already hated the idea of leaving, though it was inevitable with his job and Darcy’s studies.  



“Hello, beautiful,” Clint crooned to the fiery horse who surely had some Arabian in him--and who had pranced around the pen for a good twenty minutes before sidling over to see what sort of treats Clint might be carrying. “Are you miserable here? Nobody rides you, nobody appreciates you. Nobody brings you goodies for being sweet.”  

The horse whickered, as if laughing with Clint, then slurped up the apple bits from his hand before whiffing Clint’s hair. That earned the horse a pat and scratch along the jaw.  

A shift in the air pressure to Clint’s left warned him someone was coming, and Bucky leaned against the railing to happily scratch the horse’s nose.  “Hey, Max,” he greeted.  

At the sound of his voice, the other big gelding came trotting over, nudging his nose under Bucky’s hand for attention.  “JJ, you ready to stretch your legs?”  JJ twitched his ears forward at that. “You want bareback or saddle?” Bucky asked Clint.

“Saddle’s easier on the horse for long rides,” Clint demurred, though he preferred to go without.

“True.  But we’ll get a boost to the range and then we’ll turn them loose.  Grab the hackamores from the stable. They’re on the wall to the right.”

The ride was long enough to satisfy Clint. Once the hackamore was off, he made sure to give Max the slightly squashed plum he had stuffed into his pocket before giving him a friendly slap on the withers to urge him toward home.  The horse had other ideas as he meandered to the edge of the clearing and kept one eye on the action.

The two men settled in on a ridge, where they took turns sinking ammunition into the targets Bucky had set up more than a mile away. When they’d sufficiently impressed each other, Clint pulled out his bow. (Nock, Draw, Loose) He laughed as Bucky bitched about the draw weight and having to use his right hand instead of his left, as the metal was too slippery on the string. But Bucky took to the weapon easily enough for Clint to nod in respect.

Then again, the archer might have been showing off when he kicked off his boots and stood on Max’s back to loose a half dozen arrows into the targets.   (Nock, Draw, Loose.)   The horse only rolled his eyes and nickered, as if it to say, “Is that all?”

When Bucky and Clint traded complaints as they trekked to the targets to retrieve the arrows, Max followed along.  They were halfway back when Bucky bluntly asked, “What’s the thing with your feathers, Barton? Never met a Winged One who couldn’t stand to be preened.”

Though the question pissed him off, Clint only shifted his quiver higher on his shoulder. Barnes had a protective streak for Darcy, something that Clint appreciated enough that he answered, “Not everyone grows up in a Nest, asshole.”

Bucky snorted. “Guess I earned that. Shit. Sorry. Question still stands though.”

Clint scraped his fingers over the back of his neck. “In the army, they’d have to sedate me to fuck with my wings. My handler at S.H.I.E.L.D. --Coulson--was the first person to teach me how to be a Winged One. Broke his wrist once, by accident, when he was trying to help. Nat’s faster.”

“You think you’ll hurt Darcy?”

Instead of answering, Clint deflected. “I had a wife. Bobbi. Mockingbird. Amazing in the air. Hell of an agent. Taught me to fly in ways I never knew.  But she’d try to touch, to preen, you know? Normal stuff. For Winged Ones.” He flinched just thinking about it.  “She never hurt me. Didn’t matter, though.”

“You preened Bobbi’s feathers, though?”

“Not really.” Clint looked away, still ashamed, his fingers itching to pull the string of his bow. “Only when she asked. She liked it. I didn’t.”  They walked along the treeline until they could see the clearing where they’d set up.  “S.H.I.E.L.D. had a whole Nest, but I couldn’t make myself stay there.  When Bobbi and I split, there was Nat. We watch each other’s backs.”

Bucky flared his wings, stretching them over his head to their full extent--they shone with the health and care, a far cry from when Clint had rescued him mid-flight.  He held one wing out, abruptly offering, “Can’t remember a time when Steven didn’t have his hands in m’ feathers. Couldn’t stop thinking about it when I wanted to come in. Wanted to touch him. Needed to touch. Needed to be touched.” He pursed his lips. “Your bonded’s got good hands. She doesn’t--it’s not a chore to her.”

Try as he might, Clint couldn’t see it, and he raked his free hand through his hair in frustration as he dropped his bow case and quiver in the clearing. Bucky squatted, setting his backpack to the ground to fish out a couple of water bottles, passing one over. Clint sucked down every last drop, tilting his face up to the sky. The clear blue beckoned, and he itched to fly, to get free.  “I’m trying. Let her touch this morning.  Flipped out and now I’m here.” Clint reached into his quiver for an arrow. He ran a finger over the point and down the shaft--the slide of the carbon steel against his fingertip calming him.  

“Do you want it for her? Or for you?” Bucky needled.

Though Clint gave him a sharp look, he didn’t get a chance to answer. His cell phone let out a sharp alarm. He glanced at the message from Steve.   Gulf of Mexico. Oil derrick on fire.  Hulk is on-site. Coast Guard’s called us in. Quinjet in twenty. “Fuck.” He dropped the arrow into his quiver and slipped it into the harness he wore, along with his bow.  Bucky snatched up his own backpack and the pair climbed into the air.

 

 

Chapter Text

29/Spiral

 

Clint angled the wings of the jet to circle the tilting oil platform, allowing them to get eyes on the target. The Coast Guard had completed the evacuation of the platform, and the EPA was already investigating. One of the big ballasts that kept the rig afloat had failed, causing it to shift position that the pipe connected to the seafloor cracked, spilling oil into the ocean. Speculation was sabotage, but that might be nothing more than a rumor. The iridescent sheen of oil riding the ocean waves was as pretty as it was deadly. In the distance, Clint could see the clean up ships heading their way to contain the damage.

In any case, the Avengers wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their green friend appearing at the site this morning. There was a standing rule among the armed forces to not mess with the Hulk under any circumstances, and so the Coast Guard had contacted the Avengers.

Rogers leaned into the cockpit. “There’s Banner, at the base of the northwest leg. What’s he doing?”

Stark tapped on his tablet and zoomed in with one of the exterior cameras. “You know Banner. He’s not keen on people messing with the planet. Given the way he’s diving under the water, I’d guess he’s trying to shut down the leaky pipe.”

“Can he do that?”

“With the proper application of force in the right location? Sure,” Stark answered. “You know, I think I can help with that. Hey Thor?”

“Aye?”

“Bring the hammer.”

Thor grinned and dug out a breathing apparatus from one of the cabinets. He pulled it over his head as Stark lowered the gang plank and suited up. They spiraled down into the water--seemingly oblivious to the oil as they slipped under the waves. The Hulk broke out in a toothy smile and dove in after them.

“Thor’s gonna have fun getting that out of his feathers,” Steve quipped.

“Uh huh,” Clint agreed. Though Winged Ones were great swimmers with their powerful wings, he suppressed a shiver. The paint the circus used had been oil-based: heavy and guaranteed not to come off in the rain. “So what’s the plan, Captain?” he asked, mostly to distract himself from those memories.

“Romanoff needs to lullaby Banner if we’re going to get him on board.”

With a huff of disbelief, Clint wondered, “Think he’ll trust her after she shoved him off a cliff?”

Steve rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “Yes?”

Clint snorted. “What’s the backup plan?”

“Whatever you come up with if that doesn’t work,” Steve retorted.

“Yeah, I got nothing,” Clint mused as he kept an eye on the water below.

Stark’s voice came across the comm system. “Looks like the Hulk’s been squashing pipe with his bare hands. The good news is that it’s slowed down the leak. The bad news is that we have to seal it at the base if we really want it to work.”

“Why is that bad news?” the captain asked.

“One, because the oil is seeping into the suit and gumming up the mechanics. Deep water oil is sticky. The suit doesn’t like that. Two, Thor’s convinced he can swim that deep without a submersible. Which is nuts. Three, Hulk thinks he can free dive that deep, which is likely, but stupid. And that’s saying something coming from me.”

Steve prompted, “Thor? What kind of range do you have with Mjolnir underwater?”

A low boom came through the comms, then Stark came on the line. “Yep, that’ll do. Thor’s going to slag the pipe as far down as he can. Hulk will hitch a ride with me and we’ll seal it at the base. Hulk, go breathe first.”

The Hulk burst through the waves, taking several deep breaths before diving under again.

While they listened to Stark’s running commentary about the ocean life as they descended, Natasha leaned in to peer out the cockpit window. “Feel like making a pit stop?”

Clint rolled his eyes. “You need to use the bathroom?”

“Maybe. But the Environmental Protection Agency has a spotter who wants another eyeball on the underside of the platform. Their drone is malfunctioning.”

“Are they thinking the problem with the rig was intentional?” Rogers crossed his arms, frowning.

“Ballasts don’t fail all by themselves, according to the investigative engineers,” she responded.

“They on site already?” Clint angled the jet to circle the platform.

“Been there since yesterday morning.”

“Cap? It’s your call,” Clint said, as he glanced over his shoulder at Rogers. “You said it before, this isn’t an op.”

Rogers rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re giving a friend a lift. But it’d be a neighborly gesture to take a look right? Maybe put us in their good graces?”

“We could use all of that we can get, Captain,” Natasha agreed in a rather silky tone.

“All right. Hawkeye, can you get us a look?’

“Heading that way, Captain.” Clint scanned the girders as he maneuvered around the pylons. “Friday? Got anything?” he asked Stark’s AI.

“I am not detecting any abnormalities, Mr. Barton.”

“I’ll take another pass and let you have another look.”

“Of course.”

But two more passes didn’t reveal anything odd, and Natasha radioed the EPA engineer with the information.

“Cap, we’ve got the base of the pipe sealed. Hulk seems happy.”

“Excellent, Stark. That’s good to hear.”

“There’s a teeny little problem.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m deadweight. Hulk’s dragging me back to the surface, and I’m gonna need a lift to get back on board.”

“Where will you surface?”

“The southeast pylon looks good.”

“I copy. I’ll give you a lift.”

“Copy that, Cap.”

Natasha drew on a pair of gloves and looped a rescue tube and its towline over her shoulder. “Can I get one too?”

Hulk, Thor, and Stark broke the surface together. Rogers dropped Nat on one of the crossbeams of the massive leg of the platform, and then retrieved Stark.

Clint sidled as close to the pylons as he could. Thor got himself on board with the help of Mjolnir and settled to the floor, exhausted from his underwater efforts and the deadweight of his sodden wings. Steve dropped Stark on deck with a clunk, flapped a couple of times to realign himself to the aircraft, and then touched down himself, panting hard.

While Stark stripped out of his suit, Thor complained about the oil on his feathers. “I’ve not seen the like.”

Tony chuckled. “Friday? Order up a few gallons of Dawn for the Aerie. Thor needs a bath.”

“Dawn?” the Asgardian rumbled as he peered at the black goop in his feathers.

“It’s a dish soap that’s remarkably good at getting crude oil off of seabirds. Earth found that one out the hard way,” Stark quipped.

“Aye. It’s appears I am in need of it.”

Clint kept an eye on Natasha as she spoke to Banner. The Hulk calmed as he listened, and then all at once, he shrank into an exhausted human being with just enough energy to put a hand on the metal girder to keep from drifting away. Natasha dropped the rescue tube on top of him, waited for him to drag it over his head, then looped the towline over the girder to keep him from drifting off. She tilted her head up, looking for the Quinjet.

“I’ve got him.”

“Captain’s on his way,” Barton radioed.

“Barton? You might want to call that engineer back.”

Clint peered through the cockpit window. “Why?”

“Because I can see C-4 packed into the support beam about three feet above my head.”

“Do you have eyes on a detonator?”

“No.”

“All right, we’ll get you out of there.” Barton yelled for Stark, “Take the stick. Nat’s found explosives on the structure. Let the EPA know this was definitely sabotage and we’re pulling out.”

“Will do.” Tony slid into the seat Clint vacated. Clint was hot on Steve’s tail with a harness, an arrow, and his bow in hand as they launched out of the rear of the aircraft. Thor didn’t have quite enough maneuvering ability with Mjolnir for this kind of op, but Clint and Nat had long perfected their technique for quick escapes. Stark had seen them in action and upgraded their equipment, making it lighter and stronger than what S.H.I.E.L.D. had developed for them.

While Steve loaded Banner on his back for the short flight, Clint hovered near Natasha. He shot an arrow with a powerful magnet and a thin trailing line toward the open bay of the quinjet. It stuck with a thunk. Thor fed the line into a reel at the top of the cargo bay door frame, while Natasha clipped the other end into the harness she now wore. As soon as she let go, Thor began to reel her in. Stark eased the Quinjet away from the massive platform, following Rogers toward land. While Clint couldn’t carry Nat, he certainly could keep her from blowing about in the wind so that the ascent was steady and quick.

It would have worked.

The explosion on the pylon on the far side gave them barely enough warning for Natasha to whip out a knife and cut the line.

“Go, Stark,” Barton ordered. “I’ve got Nat.”

Stark jerked the Quinjet into a vertical climb to get clear. At the edge of his vision, Clint saw Steve fold his wings and drop feet first into the ocean. With both arms wrapped around Natasha, Clint did the same--just as the southwest pylon ignited.

From thirty feet below the surface, the concussion of the shock wave ripped through the water. Salt water stung his eyes as Clint hovered under the orange glow, reminding himself not to breathe in spite of the adrenaline dancing through him. Nat dug her fingers into his arm to keep herself from floating upward just yet. But she pointed at a clearing in the water behind him. With long sweeps of his wings, he propelled them through the raining debris.

His lungs ached as they surfaced. He coughed violently as Nat took great gasps of air. One look at her moving lips told him his hearing aids were shot. He tapped his ear and shook his head. A flash of frustration came and went in Nat’s eyes as she panted.

Flamelets danced here and there on the oil smeared across water. Clint reeled a wing inward to avoid one, sending him and Nat into a slow spin. At the rate the flames moved closer with the rocking of the waves, they’d have to find a new place to hang out ‘til Stark came to get them.

It was probably no more than an hour before Stark retrieved Banner and Rogers and came their way, but in the setting sun as he and Nat darted from clearing to clearing to avoid the drifting fire, it seemed far longer.

Wings clipped, painted, and with three missing tail feathers--for the three targets he’d missed yesterday--all meant he couldn’t fly. He’d be grounded for months until Trickshot decided the boy had “learned his lesson.” His only escape was in the dawn of the morning, when his mentor was sleeping long after the show was over. First, he remade all his arrows again and again, learning what fletching and weight he liked best. When he was satisfied with those, he carved a new bow and called her Betty when he was finished. He polished her to a high shine. A full year passed before his feathers were whole again, before he’d gone months without missing a single target, before he’d become the Hawkeye they’d named him, heart, body, and soul. Every sunrise saw him in the field, no matter the weather, landing arrow after arrow, until the day he found his brother and Trickshot stealing from the circus.

“Clint!” Natasha broke through his reverie. “Don’t go to sleep on me.”

He shook his head to snap awake, hating the drag of the oily water into his feathers. “M’awake.”

The quinjet hovered, dropping as low to the water as it could get without the oil splashing up on the underside. Thor and Steve reached for Natasha first, then Clint to haul them on board in a slick, squishy mess. Stark raised the gangplank and turned toward land.

“The Coast Guard has offered medical facilities for our use,” Tony said.

Clint winced as he sat on the floor, wanting nothing more than a shower and the range. “Or?”

“Or you stay sticky and gross until I can get us back to the Tower.”

“Deal.”

Steve shot him a curious look, tinged with disappointment. Thankfully though, he said nothing.

It didn’t matter. Clint already knew Darcy would be hurt. But the fallout from today already had the hallmarks of a shitshow, and he wasn’t going to subject her to that.

He closed his eyes. With skin that burned, aching lungs, and heavy wings that made his shoulders ache, he spiraled into a miasma of black.

 

*****

 

Darcy and Bucky crossed seven state lines in the SUV she’d borrowed from Tony in January, trading off driving so they didn’t have to stop, and squabbled the entire distance for no other reason than to keep them occupied.

At least Bucky’s bonded had sense enough to call. Darcy had traded messages with Nat, but it was clear that Nat was in no shape to put up with Clint’s mess.

As for Darcy, she hadn’t heard a peep out of her soulmate in the twenty-two hours since Steve gave them a rundown. Perhaps it was a sign of how much she’d grown up in the last couple of years, or maybe it was the subtle prompting by Natasha, but Darcy wasn’t taking the silence personally. Clint was grounded and needed her to preen his feathers. The first probably terrified him enough that he was pushing everyone away, the second meant trusting his soulmate wholeheartedly. They’d been sidling up to that kind of touching, but they were out of time, and Darcy was damned sure that she wasn’t going to let him suffer alone.

 

Sam met them in the garage to give them a hand with all the crap she and Clint had left at the farm. Well, it was mostly hers. She was due back next week anyway for the summer semester, and there was no sense in not packing it all up.

“You look like hell,” Darcy told him.

“Let’s just say I’m glad you two showed up. Bucky, your boyfriend’s in the Aerie. He and Thor are taking turns in the tub Stark set up for them to soak the oil out. He could use another good scrub. Banner and I have been taking turns, but this shit’s a bitch to get out.”

“Where’s Clint?”

With a sigh, Sam told her, “Yours is in the range and has been since we landed. He’s gonna crash hard, and it’s gonna be ugly. If you can get him in the Aerie, we’ve got dinner on the way and we’ve set up a soaking tub just for him. Go. I’ve got your stuff.”

“Where’s Natasha?”

“She gave up and went to Maria’s when you called a couple hours back. She’ll crash for a while and come back if you can get anywhere with Barton.”

Darcy gave Sam a quick hug and a whispered thanks, then darted off to the range.

Clint was there, as promised, exhaustion in every line of his body. His bicep jumped and jittered as he nocked the arrow, drew it back, and loosed it into the target. He must have showered, because his uniform was nowhere to be found, but the loose sweats and t-shirt did nothing to hide the irritation from the crude oil where it had coated his skin. He reached for another arrow and set it to the bow.

His wings--oh shitballs--Clint’s wings were a sticky mess of black tar. His red-rimmed eyes could hardly focus on anything at all.

Darcy licked her lips and--trusting her own instincts--ducked under Clint’s draw arm to hug him hard.

“Don’t--” he started.

“Shut up,” she retorted, making sure to keep her face where he could read her lips. She dug her fingers into the backs of his shoulder blades to pull him closer. “Range time is over.”

“But I--”

Darcy was having none of his nonsense. “--gotta rest. And eat. And let me put some aloe on your burns. You need to close your eyes and let them heal.”

He tried again. “You don’t want--”

“--you to fall over. You’re heavy and I don’t want to drag your ass to the elevator. Come on.” She led him to the locker where he racked his bow.

“Arrows.”

“I’ll send DUM-E down to get them. Come on,” she ordered. Darcy herded Clint into the elevator, not letting go of his hand as they walked--or shuffled, really. The crap in Clint’s wings must have been heavy, because he kept dragging them on the floor, leaving smears on the Aerie floor in his wake.

He flat out refused to go up to his apartment after Darcy coaxed him into eating a good bowl of hearty soup.

“Don’t want to mess it up,” he said sadly, slurring his words a little. So she commandeered one of the tarps that Steve had been sitting on and sacrificed a pillow to the cause.

“Fine,” she insisted. “You can sleep on the floor tonight. But only tonight. We’ll figure everything else out tomorrow.”

Sprawled out on the floor, Clint laced his fingers in hers and was out in between heartbeats.

Sam brought Darcy a blanket and pillow as she examined Clint’s blistered and bleeding fingertips. Together, they wrapped up his hand, and then Darcy smoothed aloe wherever his skin had burned from the chemicals.

“How are the others?” Darcy asked softly. As the team paramedic, Sam would know better than anyone.

“Sensible about getting a little medical help. Bucky’s giving Steve a good scrub. Jane’s almost finished with Thor. They’ll both need a good oiling afterward and rest. They’ll be fine. Bruce and Natasha both have the same burns, but we’ve kept them covered in a good salve. Stark will have new aids for Clint in the morning, but it might be best to wait a couple of days before he wears them. His ear canals might be irritated from the oil.”

“Hey, Friday?”

“Yes, Ms Lewis?”

“Use Clint’s protocols in the Aerie. Flashing lights, closed captions on walls, that kind of thing.”

“Protocols initiated until further instruction.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, of course.”

Darcy eyeballed Sam. “I’ll bet you’ve been up since they got here yesterday. Go get some sleep. These idiots all have soulmates for a reason. It’s our turn to take up some of the slack.”

Sam flashed her a quick grin. “You do that. If I get eight straight, I’ll even bring donuts.”

“Deal.”

At Darcy’s request, Friday lowered the lights in their corner of the Aerie. Darcy curled up on the pillow to watch Clint through the long, long night ahead.

 

 

Chapter Text

Ch 30/Wingover

 

Ten hours in, Clint hadn’t awakened, and Darcy hadn’t managed more than a sketchy kind of sleep by his side. She’d passed exhaustion somewhere in Ohio, hit giddy at the New York state line, and adrenaline fueled by fretting kept her from catching anything more than a catnap.   

Though the rest of their friends had retreated to their own apartments, Bucky and Steve had stayed close. As punchy as Clint was, Darcy figured it wasn’t a bad idea. Though Clint hadn’t pulled his hand out of hers, it was going to take a small miracle to get through cleaning his wings with minimal fallout. She could only hope he woke in a better headspace.

The problem with the Avengers was that to make them who they were, they had to go through some awful shit. It’s always the bad stuff that stretches a person’s abilities beyond what they thought they could handle, and the Avengers all had had some boss-level crap to beat just to survive.

The flip side of that coin is that the ability to deal with boss-levels of crap frequently comes with some interesting coping strategies that aren’t always conducive to functioning in regular society. Hence, Clint zoning out at the range with filthy wings until his fingers bled.

Ugh. And thinking about that got her to roll over to peer at him. Clint had balled up on his side, his wings flat against his back.  Little flecks of dried oil dotted the tarp they’d slept on, and when Darcy picked one up, it mushed into a little ball, sort of  like clay, but only if it left gross black marks all over her fingers. It was easy to see the dull coating on Clint’s black and purple feathers.

Sam squatted next to her, setting down wipes and salve, then holding out a fresh old-fashioned donut with lemon icing. “As promised,” he told her with a smile.

Darcy cleaned her fingers with the wipe, then crammed the donut in her mouth with one hand and  popped the top on the salve with the other.  It took some dexterity to spread the stuff around without contaminating the donut, but Darcy managed with all the expertise of anyone who’d ever written a major essay the night before it was due.

Sam chuckled. “That was impressive, Ms. Lewis.”

“Like you can’t strip a rifle and eat a cookie without missing a beat,” she retorted around a mouthful.

“True. How was the night?”

“Clint slept. I dozed. Steve and Bucky split watch.”

“Long night.”

“You’re telling me,” Darcy grumbled.    

“Got plans for the day?”

Darcy eyeballed the temporary tub that had been set up for Thor and Steve. “You know Clint’s not going anywhere near that thing, right?”

“No soaking? Why not?”

“Too exposed.”

Sam’s eyebrows flew up.  “You’re sure? He slept here.”

“He collapsed here, that’s different. Do we have an ETA on Natasha?”

“Friday tattled that you were awake, so Natasha will be here in an hour for breakfast with Maria.  Pepper ordered a spread.”

Darcy’s stomach grumbled at the thought of something other than drive-through McDonalds. “Then I’d better get moving.”

While Steve and Bucky settled on either side of Clint, Darcy darted down to her abandoned apartment for a quick wash up. She debated what to wear, and settled on a sports bra with a t-shirt and running shorts. If she could coax Clint into the water, she could join him without stripping naked. That would put a whole different kind of pressure on the both of them, and they didn’t need that right now.

As she dressed, she chided herself about thinking too hard about all this. If she did, she’d get all freaked out and that wouldn’t do anybody any good. It was easier when a knock on the door proved to be Jane bearing a giant latte from the coffee shop downstairs.

“I love you,” Darcy moaned as she made grabby fingers toward the cup.

Jane fluffed her feathers as she laughed. “Is that to me or the coffee?”

“Both, I think.” Sipping her coffee first, Darcy set it down and held her arms open. Jane didn’t hesitate, and the hug was everything Darcy needed it to be. “I missed you,” she mumbled against her friend’s shoulder.

“Missed you, too.” Jane held her as long as she needed, and if Darcy leaked a couple of tears, her best friend didn’t seem to mind.

She sniffed them back and wiped her face, grateful that she hadn’t bothered with makeup. “So how did you get this stuff off Thor again?”

“Olive oil, Dawn, and enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And Clint’s going to be twice as difficult, because he’s waited so long.” Jane pressed her lips into an unhappy frown. “I don’t understand why he didn’t go straight into the shower. It’s not natural for a Winged One to want to be filthy like that.”

“There’s nothing natural about the way Clint was raised,” Darcy chided.

“Oh, damn it. I know that,” Jane said by way of apology. “Thor’s worried enough that he and Steve have a backup plan to tranq Clint if necessary. Given what you’ve told me, I think that’s a really bad idea.”

“Yeah, like no. Clint’s got enough issues with trust. He won’t be able to deal with his teammates ganging up on him. Natasha’s going to be here shortly. I’ll let her handle Thor and Steve. She’ll read them chapter and verse on why tranq’ing Clint is a bad idea.”

“I might want to watch that,” Jane said with a snicker.

“Worth seeing what tips you pick up.”

Jane laughed, then sobered as she asked, “You, uh, know that the oils in your kit won’t be enough, right? You’ll have to express his natural oils and coat each feather to get them waterproofed.”

Darcy nodded. “Bucky mentioned it on the drive here.”

“Do you know how to do that?”

“Bucky showed me.”

Jane’s mouth fell open a little. “He let you do that?”

“He didn’t really have a choice.” Darcy wiggled her left fingers to indicate the problem. “It was all very brotherly-sisterly, and Bucky was sort of embarrassed the whole time.”

“Oh. Um, okay. So you know how.” Jane’s cheeks turned rosy. “I wouldn’t do it front of company.”

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Okay.”

“It’s like a totally awesome massage. The kind that leads to other stuff, and, well, some people think the gland oil tastes good.”

Darcy had read that a time or two on those tumblr blogs a zillion years ago in college, but the reminder was nice. “Built in lubrication?”

“It’s a perk,” Jane said with a wink.

Darcy chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Do. Now come on. Let’s see what we can do to help.” With that, Jane settled her feathers and led the way back the Aerie.

Clint was still cold, and Darcy settled in next to him.  When Natasha arrived, an idea began to take shape in Darcy’s brain. The problem was trust. For most people, trust was an all-encompassing thing. One either trusted another person or they didn’t.

But Clint was different.  He trusted Darcy with his heart, of that she had no doubt.  His mind? Probably not.  His body? Well, there was only one person Clint blindly trusted with that.

Yeah, Darcy decided as she studied the assassin. It just might work.

With a faint speculative glance at Darcy, Natasha agreed with no more than a quirk of the lip upward.

Trust, indeed.

 

*****

 

His feathers cracked under the weight of the glitter and paint. Two of them needed to be pulled out; one had split all the way down to the base of the shaft, irritating his skin enough that it was getting infected.

Or maybe this was the time in Budapest when he’d fallen through a window and broken a trio of primaries. Coulson had been the one to slice through each shaft and imp new ones in. Clint drank himself insensible afterward to stop his hands from shaking.

Bobbi had tried once, twice, a dozen times to lightly stroke his feathers. He’d tolerated it because he loved her. She stopped because he still flinched.

Darcy reached for him--

Clint startled awake, wings flailing as he rolled to his feet. Bleary-eyed, feeling wrong with heavy, unresponsive feathers, he stumbled backward into another set of wings. Bucky caught him, setting a hand to the back of Clint’s neck and not seeming to mind the face full of feathers he was getting. Steve simply spread his wings in front of the archer, so that Clint fluttered between the two Winged Ones without injuring himself--or anyone else. Mortified, Clint dropped to a knee, folding his filthy wings tightly to his back. He thought of his bow, the silken surface as it fit into his hand.  As always, it calmed him.  He raised his eyes to find Darcy sitting calmly on the tarp where he’d been sleeping.

Clint rubbed his neck in embarrassment. Sorry, he mouthed, signing at the same time.

“Seriously, Iowa?” Darcy complained, rolling her eyes. She held up a mug. “Coffee?” Then, remembering he didn’t have his aids in, she signed one-handed, //Coffee?//

Clint blinked, his mouth dropping open a little at her utter lack of concern over his flailing. //Okay.// He took the cup, sipped from it, and sipped again. //Darcy,// he started to explain.

//Food first,// she insisted. //Second, you shower. Third, we nap.//

Unease zipped down his spine. //Wait--//

//No nap?// Darcy signed, pouting as she did, though her eyes were anything but sulky.

The corner of Clint’s mouth turned up. Darcy was so damned sweet and affectionate that he sometimes forgot she could out-stubborn Steve on any given day. “I’m not going to win this one, am I?” he rasped, his throat still scratchy from the dip in the ocean.

Darcy shook her head as she drained her coffee cup.

He ruffled his feathers, frowning again at the way they moved. //Okay.//

Someone, probably Pepper, had ordered catering to set up a full breakfast in the Aerie’s kitchen. Given the way the starving team cleaned out the chafing dishes, it was a good idea. When Clint refused to move from the tarp, Darcy loaded up two good plates. Natasha and Maria joined them, and Clint found he could hold up some kind of conversation, mostly signed as his ears and throat still weren’t cooperating. Maria stared hard at their fingers and interjected her own hesitant conversation. She’d added ASL to her list of “things she needed to know,” and that was fine by Clint. Having one more person who understood him always made things easier.

He relaxed as he ate, especially with Darcy’s knee bumping his. It was a reminder that a full belly, a well-placed arrow, and a safe place to sleep usually fixed most of his problems.

But when breakfast was over, the anticipation of Darcy fucking with his wings ratcheted up the stress again. The Avengers’ doctor arrived to look over her charges. Dr. Helen Cho was a Winged One who had specialized in both Winged and Flightless medicine, a necessity when dealing with the team. Wilson kept her company as they looked over Banner, Thor, and Rogers. Even Stark let Dr. Cho poke and prod his bruises.

Natasha kissed her girlfriend goodbye, and Maria slipped out while the others were distracted.

Darcy ran her fingers down Clint’s forearm, capturing his hand to bring it up to her lips for a kiss. He let out his breath, only now realizing he’d been holding it.

//Come,// Darcy signed. //Clean wings.// She glanced over her shoulder. // Natasha come too.//

The sparkle of merriment in her eyes as she made Nat’s name sign never failed to make Clint grin. Darcy had laughed outright when he showed her the “N” with the motion of shooing a flying bug away, hence his persistence in calling his BFF “Nat.” Natasha always got that faint look of annoyance, but had never asked him to change it, so he’d figured it was perfect.

Dr. Cho took advantage of the moment to look him over. She examined his still-reddened skin, looked at his throat, and peeked in his ears. Friday helpfully printed out what she was saying in mid-air. Use this cream on the burns. Stay hydrated. Over-the-ear hearing aids are fine, but stop if they hurt. Don’t talk much. Eat. Sleep. Stay warm. Let your soulmate preen your wings. Doctor’s orders. Dr. Cho waited for Clint to acknowledge her.

//Okay,// he signed with a nod.

After Dr. Cho left, Darcy handed Clint a bottle of water. She started to sign, then shook her head and spoke instead while Friday printed her words on the wall beside her head.   Iowa, I’m sorry for not using ASL. I’m not good enough to make sure I say this right. Darcy took his fingers in hers. We have to soften the tar from your feathers. It’s too hard to wash out right now without pulling at the shafts. Jane and Sam tell me warmed olive oil will do the trick. We’ll leave it on for thirty minutes, keeping you wrapped up in a towel to stay warm. After that, we’ll wash it off with a diluted dish soap. It’s going to take a lot of washing and rinsing, so we’ll be in the shower for a while. It’s important that you don’t get cold, so we’ll keep the heater on, and you need to stay hydrated while we do this.  

//What else?// he signed.

Your feathers will be clean, but stripped of their natural oil. We have to replace that oil from your glands. It’s easy for Winged Ones to take a chill when your feathers aren’t waterproofed, so we have to be careful until you’re oiled up again.

Clint sort of knew all that, but having Darcy lay it out in clinical terms helped him to wrap his head around it in. He cased the room, noting that Steve, Bucky, and Thor had all found reasons to stay close enough to react if Clint fucked up.

But Darcy didn’t seem concerned and pointed to the bathroom. //Shower,// she told him.

When she didn’t follow right away, figured she mean for him to wash up the best he could. Clint ducked under the water. He spent the first ten minutes trying not to vomit at the idea of hands on his feathers, even if they belonged to Darcy. But that passed as he scrubbed the best he could. Nat had wiped the sticky petroleum off his arms and face at one point, but it took two passes with the soap and a washcloth to feel clean again. His hair still felt oily, though, and he wondered if he should just shave it all off. He’d done that before.

Darcy bustled in and out of the room, setting out a variety of supplies--spray bottles, towels, and her kit. He picked up the bottles to sniff at them when she’d left again.

A waft of cool air announced Darcy one more time, but it was Nat breezing in afterward, clad in a simple black maillot and carrying an extra stool, that confounded him.

Clint scratched the back of his head, flustered as he wrapped a towel around his waist.  //Why?//  

Darcy kissed him on the cheek. She pointed to Nat, then signed, //Help// and pointed to Clint, adding, //You trust her.//

//I-T-R-U-S-T-Y-O-U,// he spelled out for emphasis.

But Darcy only kissed him on the lips as she stripped down to her bra and underwear. Natasha took the shower seat and arranged the stool  in the center for Clint to sit on. The big space seemed crowded when Darcy stepped into the shower, though it really wasn’t. She pressed a kiss on the back of Clint’s neck before starting.

The first spray bottle turned out to be just warmed olive oil. Darcy worked fast, saturating both wings front and back before draping a warmed towel over each one. Heavily wrapped, Clint struggled to keep his head in the right place, but got worse when Darcy knelt in front of him to peel back a small section of towel. He shuddered at her first gentle tug on his secondary feathers as she attempted to work the oil into the worst bits.

Nat shifted her weight, ready to react and--oh--his eyes widened at her resolve. She would keep him safe--even from his own soulmate, if necessary.  

Aw, Darcy, no.  How was it that she would have the courage to kneel here, where a brilliant assassin could snap her neck in a heartbeat, all to give Clint the assurance that he wouldn’t be hurt by her hands? Astounded, Clint brushed his fingers against Darcy’s cheek. Her lashes lifted along with the corners of her lips, though she kept right on working.

Eventually, Clint decided this part wasn’t so bad. When the half hour passed, Darcy turned on the water and squirted him down with dish soap for a first, quick pass to break up the olive oil. He stiffened as the water soaked through his feathers, weighing him down so much that his shoulders ached with the effort of holding them up. But when Darcy lathered up the soap and scrubbed each feather thoroughly with her bare hands, he shivered--his mind turning back to other hands, other terrible memories.

It was Natasha who pulled him off the stool when he flared his heavy wings in protest, forcing his face against her stomach so she could hold him while Darcy rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed again and again. He lost track of time as his mind veered from now to then and back again, all the while knowing there was something terribly fucked up about this whole set up.

He’d never really believed Bobbi wouldn’t eventually harm his wings. He’d sold her short, never even gave her a chance to prove him wrong. Coulson had been the first to get through Clint’s hard head during a series of ops where he’d damned near pinned Clint to the wall to get him the proper care. Coulson took care of his assets; that was something everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. agreed on.

Nat was the first person who’d needed him . Their weird dependency had caused them grief with their respective love lives--hell, with most of their friendships too. But Maria and Darcy didn’t seem to find it strange.

And fuck it all, Darcy wasn’t even hurting him; it was the weight of the water and the constant tugging as she combed through his feathers that kept sending him back in time.

Somewhere in there, as Nat tapped Morse code reassurances against his skin, he became aware that now was a different kind of reality, one that though he was still at someone else’s mercy, it wasn’t a bad thing at all.

Darcy worked her way through his wings twice over with methodical patience. She had to be miserable, soaked as she was. Nat reached over to pull Darcy’s hair off her face from time to time. They’d talk, or sign, but Clint was too busy holding on to Nat to follow along.

Once the water stopped, Nat nudged him upright. Darcy passed around towels, wrapping one around herself as she stepped out of the shower.  Nat did the same as she carried the stool to the drying bay.

Clint’s saturated feathers dragged along the floor, and the weight of them pulled at his back and shoulders as he shuffled to the dryer. Nat handed out water bottles and bananas. Darcy indicated he should sit on the stool to let the floor take some of the weight of his wings as she turned the dryer on.

He missed what Nat said to Darcy, but since his soulmate sucked at concealing emotions, it was easy to see her exhaustion and doubt. He slid a hand along Darcy’s waist. She heaved a sigh as she turned and brushed noses with him.  Then she went back to work, kneeling at his feet once more, this time to squeeze the water out of the primaries.

Clint pulled his left wing into his lap, knowing he’d screwed up with her again. No soulmate should have to put up with his bag of shit.

The moment he was dry enough to fly, he thanked Nat and Darcy with a kiss to each of their cheeks, and darted out. He intercepted a sandwich from Steve on his way to the terrace. Four bites later, he was in the air, taking advantage of the late afternoon breeze. The lack of oil on his feathers slowed him down, though not enough to keep him from flying.

He stayed aloft, just to prove he could, until the sun began its final descent. He swooped into the Aerie as Friday began closing the windows for the night, and landed in his favorite nest in the tree.  The itch of dry feathers set in, and he reached under his tail feathers for a little oil to spread on the spot or two bugging him the most. His stomach grumbled, and he rummaged around his nest for the protein bars and water bottles he kept stashed here.

From below, Steve climbed upward from limb to limb, sometimes using his wings for balance, other times relying on pure strength to get him where he wanted to go. Which was Clint’s nest, apparently.  

The young captain stretched out on a branch, crossing his feet just inches from Clint’s knee.  He tossed a packet to Clint, then tucked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.  

The packet contained a new set of Stark’s hearing aids. They were purple, as always, and this set was an over-the-ear model since his ear canals were still too sore for anything else. As it was, anything over the lowest setting made his ear drums throb.

“You with me?” Steve asked.

“Yeah.”

“Finished hiding?”

“Nope.”

“Want some advice from someone who’s been in your shoes?” Those sincere blue eyes bored right into Clint.

With a snort, he retorted, “You’ve been soulbonded since you were, like, five, Cap. I already know I’m all wrong for Darcy.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You and I-- we get it all backwards. We’re so damned busy runnin’, fightin’, and thinkin’ that we’re not worth much, that we forget that we’re soulbonded for a reason.”

Clint narrowed his eyes, waiting for the punchline.

“What do Darcy and Bucky have in common?” Steve continued.

“They put up with a lot of shit.”

“Why do you think they do that?” Steve queried.

“Because we’re soul-bonded and they don’t have a choice.”

“Why do you put up with Darcy? She doesn’t even have wings,” Steve said with just enough scorn that Clint flared his primaries protectively, even though he was being played and he knew it.

“Fuck you, Rogers.”

“Buck’s already got that covered,” Steve retorted. “Go to your soulmate, Barton. Romanoff’s got your back, but this isn’t her battle.”

“Nat? What’s Nat doing?”

Steve rolled off the branch, spread his wings as he fell, and spiraled up to land on his balcony instead of answering.

“Shit.” Clint scrambled out of his nest and flapped like a ungainly chicken down to the ground, taking the stairs to Darcy’s apartment at a run.

He found Darcy sound asleep on the couch with her head in Nat’s lap. His BFF glared daggers at him.

Aw, Nat, no.  

She signed with rapid, annoyed gestures, mostly giving him hell for flaking out for half a day.  

Clint ignored her rant. //I promise nap,// he signed instead. He picked up Darcy from the couch and carried her to the bedroom.  

 

 

Chapter Text

31/Ascent

 

Darcy startled awake, limbs flailing and a sob still caught in her throat from crying in Natasha’s lap.

Arms tightened to keep her from falling. “Stay with me, Kansas.” Clint’s husky voice calmed her, and she discovered he’d been carrying her to the bedroom in her apartment.

//Nat?// Darcy signed one-handed.

Clint jerked a chin toward the living room. He eased Darcy down so that she could stand.

Natasha, looking weary in a way Darcy’d never seen before, stepped into the doorway.  “I’m here.”  She passed Darcy’s cell phone over. “Jane texted.”

Status report? was all the message said.

“Vertical. Safe. Tired. Thank you,” she texted back. Yeah, tonight hadn’t been Darcy’s finest moment.

Jane had caught the leading edge of Darcy’s freakout after Clint flapped away. Armed with Godiva chocolate and banana malts, Jane listened while Darcy ranted for a solid half hour about trust issues, oil companies, and anyone who’d ever mistreated her soulmate. Darcy’d barely noticed Sam examining her hands, though when her fingers turned up wrapped in bandages, she’d shot a glare at Wilson’s retreating backside, loudly insisting there would be no cookies for months.

After that, Jane dragged Darcy home and threw a set of pajamas at her. They’d been huddled up on the sofa when Natasha knocked. All it took was a hug for Darcy to start crying. Somewhere in there, Jane had slipped out to let Nat deal with the rest of Darcy’s mess. Undoubtedly, that’s where Clint had found her.

Oh, her soulmate’s disappearing act hadn’t particularly been a problem. That Darcy had expected. Really, she’d figured he’d be gone for days, not hours, so the fact he was here now was an improvement.

No, the part that messed up Darcy’s brain had everything to do with kneeling at the feet of a world-renowned assassin.  It was about Darcy knowing she was nothing more than a means to an end, and Nat was there to ensure her compliance--no matter how voluntary it had been on both their parts. Natasha had been equally affected--so much that she’d whispered apologies to Darcy while they clung together on the sofa.

Clint darted a look between them. “What’d I miss?”

Natasha’s fist lashed out. Clint stepped back reflexively, but not so much that she didn’t snap his head around with the force of the strike. “Don’t ever do that to us again,” she growled.   

“Aw, Nat, no.” He reached for her.

To Darcy’s surprise, Natasha went into his embrace easily, holding him hard.

“She’s your soulmate, Clint,” Nat told him. “There’s nothing that would break her faster than hurting you.” Red hair pressed against his shoulder. “Don’t make me stand between you again,” she grumbled.

“I won’t.”

“Pinky swear.”

Clint held out his little finger so Natasha could twine hers with it.  “Pinky swear.”

Nat peered up at him suspiciously. “No Charlie Quebec?”

Darcy wondered what that meant, moreso when Clint gave Natasha a solemn acknowledgement. “No Charlie Quebec. I’ve got this.”

With that, Natasha pressed a kiss to his cheek, then pivoted to give Darcy a hug and three kisses on her cheeks. “Get some rest,” she ordered.

But Darcy touched Nat lightly on the waist. “I don’t want you alone.”

Natasha gave Darcy a whimsical smile.  “Clint’s stuck here tonight. Maria’s staying with me.”

“Is that enough?”

“I know where to find you.”

Clint walked Natasha to the door while Darcy splashed cold water on her face to chase away the last evidence of her crying jag.

In spite of her exhaustion, Darcy couldn’t stop thinking about how upset Natasha had been.  She whirled around when Clint reappeared in her bedroom, blurting, “Nat made up a cousin for me so she’d have an excuse to be family. If this was just about being a spy, she would have pretended to be a college friend or a coworker.”

He touched his finger to his nose with an appreciative, if weary, smile. “Got it in one, Kansas.” He reached out, a broad hand beckoning. Darcy clung to him with fingers digging into his shoulder blades. She was beyond tired--so much that stray tear welled up to land on Clint’s shirt where her cheek pressed into the cotton. It had been a horrible few days.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “We could both use some sleep.” He pulled back the covers with one hand, and Darcy passed out almost the moment her head touched the pillow.

Sometime in the night, cold air on Darcy’s forearm roused her only enough for her to search out the blanket that had slipped to her waist. In the dark, she fumbled for it, missed, and then the blanket moved of its own accord to cover her from neck to knee. The softest of downy feathers brushed her bare elbow. Darcy slit one eye open to find Clint sealed to her left side, sound asleep with a wing lying heavily over her body. Drowsy, warm, and with not even a glimmer of light peeking through the drapes, it was easy to sleep once more.

When sunlight brightened her room enough to wake her for real, Darcy discovered Clint hadn’t moved at all, unless she counted his hand curling around her waist instead of her hip. He radiated heat--heat that got trapped by the down of his wings. Which was nice, until she realized she was sweaty wherever his plumage covered her, and freezing everywhere else.

She tried to squint at the clock, but it was a useless effort without her glasses. They were MIA, along with her phone. Probably on the other side of her boyfriend, if she had to guess.

She tried to be still so as not to wake Clint. Her nose itched, of course. Darcy jammed her eyes shut and told herself to go back to sleep. Without moving. Ugh. Her elbow twitched where a feather lightly danced on her skin. A bead of sweat rolled down her stomach, a rude reminder that she was still hot underneath Clint’s wing.  Aware that she’d stiffened up, Darcy tried to relax her shoulders as she peeked at Clint.

But it was too late. His gold-tipped lashes swept up (his eyes were blue with brown flecks today). He rolled up on an elbow, though he kept his wing anchored in place. With a soft smile, he touched his forehead with his free hand and flicked a little salute. //Hi.//

Utterly confused, Darcy wondered why her soulmate was being so free with his feathers. She started to bring her hands out from under Clint’s plumage to sign, but remembered they were covered in gauze, and mouthed, “Hi,” instead.  She didn’t want him to feel guilty about what she considered minor injuries.

Alas, Clint was a spy and could read her like a book. Lifting his wings to look, he asked, //Hands hurt?//

//No.// But she curled them up, as if she could hide the damage

Sweeping his wings behind him, Clint sat up, ignoring her glare as he pulled her up with him. He peeled the gauze and tape away from her hands to examine the swollen knuckles and split fingertips. Her left thumb had a scabbed-over slice at the base. But really, it wasn’t that bad. A day or two would set them right. Without a word, Clint got up to rummage around in her bathroom.

Darcy took advantage of his absence to locate her glasses, sliding them up her nose as Clint returned with a little first aid kit. When he crawled on the bed to sit in front of Darcy, Clint let his wings rest loose against the covers so his primaries brushed her thighs. It was oddly intimate to sit cross-legged, knees touching and surrounded by feathers.

With aching tenderness, Clint rewrapped each of her fingers, kissing the tips when he was done. Then he studied her eyes, cradling her chin in his hand, and--oh--Darcy got it. He was checking her over to make sure she was okay--really okay, not just faking for the cameras.

Just like he did with Natasha after missions.

Darcy formed a half-assed, //I okay,// with her wrapped fingers. //Not broken,// she insisted.

He nodded, though she wasn’t sure if he was accepting or agreeing with what she said. Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she squinted as she looked him over too.

Clint had a faint sheen of sweat at his temples. With the back of her hand, she tested the temperature on his forehead. “Fever?”

He shrugged, ruffling his feathers as if that explained everything.

Groaning in frustration at this latest development, Darcy called out, “Friday? Would you let Sam know we have a sick Avenger on our hands?” Friday agreed and passed along the message that Sam would be along shortly.

Clint scowled, but let Darcy drag him into the kitchen, where she settled him at the table with a mug of tea and a bowl of microwaved chicken soup.

She dug a bag of snickerdoodles out of the freezer and laid them on the counter to thaw.  “Eat your soup, and you get a cookie.”

He inhaled the first bowl quickly enough that Darcy poured up a second before she dug into her Lucky Charms. Whenever she passed by him, he stretched out a feather to brush her skin. The fourth time it happened, she glanced up in time to find him studying his soup with a faint satisfaction that had nothing to do with the food in his bowl.

Hope bloomed in Darcy as Clint stretched out his wings, then shook them in a blur before settling them against his back once again. Tufts of down drifted. Absently, Clint blew one away from his soup.  “Aw, feather, no,” he muttered.

Darcy plucked it out of the air. “Wonder how many of these I need to make a down blanket?”

“I’m not warm enough?”

Though his whine made her smile, it faltered when she countered quietly, “Is getting to sleep under your wings a thing now?”

Clint shrugged. “Yeah.” He seemed pleased with himself over that admission, flicking a look her direction.  Though the fever made his eyes bright, there was real happiness there.

Whatever response she might have had was lost when Sam knocked just then. He seemed pleased to find both of them in close quarters, and happily looked over Clint in exchange for a handful of snickerdoodles.

Darcy stuffed her own hands under her armpits, reminding Sam that she’d cut off his cookie supply if he clucked over them again.

He grinned and kept his examination limited to her boyfriend.

With his easy manner and ready smile, it was easy to forget Sam was a badass paratrooper with enough certifications and experience to go toe-to-toe with any of the Avengers. Seeing him professionally assess Clint with questions, careful observations, and gentle prodding reminded Darcy that he ranked with the best--no matter what list he was on.

//Thank you,// she signed, before adding aloud, “Clint doesn’t get sick.”

//Not sick,// Clint insisted, all evidence to the contrary.

Sam flashed Darcy a smile as he bit into another cookie, though he spoke to Clint. “I’d say a dunk in cold sea water, too much range time, not enough food, and flying without properly oiled wings did a number on your immune system. You need food, rest, and to stay warm, Barton.” Sam waggled a finger at Darcy. “You, too. Before you come down with the virus he’s got.”

After the last few days, nobody had to convince her to stay in her jammies. “Deal.”

Sam stuffed the last of the cookie in his mouth as he draped his stethoscope around his neck. “Let me know if you need a babysitter, Lewis.”

“You volunteering?”

“Hell, no. I’ll send Rogers and Barnes.” Darcy snickered as she walked Sam to the door, giving him a quick hug before he left.

When she returned to the kitchen, Clint had already washed up the dishes. //Nat?// he pleaded after wiping his hands dry.

That worked for Darcy. Friday relayed the message, and it wasn’t but a few minutes before Nat breezed in, walking straight into Clint’s embrace. Maria hesitantly poked her head through the doorway.

“Come in and close the door, or you’ll let the flies in,” Darcy chided.

Maria rolled her eyes as she stepped inside. “We’re eighty floors up.”

“Hey, it got you in.” Darcy patted the sofa. “Grab a seat. They’re going to be a while.”

But Nat stepped back from Clint. “No, we won’t. Maria and I have more interesting things to do than watch you two lay around the Tower.”

“I’m not sick,” Darcy protested as Nat pulled her into a hug.

“Wilson said you needed to rest.” Natasha leaned back to give Darcy one of those soul-searching looks to see if she telling tales.

“Seriously? I need, like, a nap, a marathon cookie-baking session, and some of my mom’s chicken spaghetti, and I’ll be fine.”

Nat laughed, relieved, as she took Maria’s hand. “Call us when dinner’s ready. We’ll bring wine.”

“Deal.”

 

 

The short visit drained the last of Clint’s energy, and he flopped onto the sofa with a groan. Darcy checked his forehead again. Sam had decided that Clint would be better off letting the fever burn out whatever bug he’d caught, rather than treating it with meds. Which was fine, it’s not like Clint would take them anyway.

He arranged his wings to keep him warm, though he lifted one in invitation and cocked an eyebrow in Darcy’s direction.

//Short nap,// she told him. //Make cookies later.//

//Okay.//

Though Clint didn’t need any time at all to fall asleep, he radiated so much heat that Darcy only managed a scant twenty minutes before waking up sweaty again. A quick shower fixed that.

With Friday’s assurances that she would alert Darcy if Clint so much as twitched, Darcy borrowed the ingredients for her mom’s chicken spaghetti and a couple different kinds of cookies from the Nest’s kitchen. Sam and Bruce shared a grin when she liberated apricot jam out of the pantry.

If Banner carried her groceries for her, he was polite enough not to beg for a cookie when they were done.

While Clint slept, Darcy spent the better part of the day in the kitchen. So much had happened that having the time to think it all through while she created was a blessing. Last night’s crying jag had been a good release of all the tension. Today, it was easier to have perspective, especially now that she’d seen both Nat and Clint were on the level.

The apricot thumbprints cooled on the rack as she put the last of the double-chocolate chunk cookies in the oven. That done, she sprinkled shredded cheddar cheese over the tetrazzini. It would go into the refrigerator so she only had to pop it in the oven later to warm.

A big hand closed around her hip, and Darcy flinched with a shriek. “Friday!”

“Shhh--shhh, it’s okay, it’s me,” Clint soothed. He ran a hand up and down her arm and slid the other around her waist, pulling her back against his chest with his wings curved protectively around her.

“Gah,” was all Darcy could babble out with her heart still racing.

“Maybe I should be insulted that you called for an AI instead of an Avenger?”

“You were supposed to be asleep!” she protested.

“I was. Until I wasn’t,” he said, brushing her hair aside so that he could nuzzle the back of her neck. Little shivers danced down her spine.

She turned in his arms to check his temperature. He was distinctly cooler, though his skin was damp again. She noted he wore his hearing aids too. “Your fever broke?”

“Uh huh. How long until the cookies are done?”

“Six minutes.”

“Then I can do this.” He cupped her face to kiss her, tucking his wings behind her to cuddle her close with them. Downy feathers clung to her from neck to knee, and oh, Darcy trembled--wanting this but not wanting to scare her soulmate by making the wrong move. Surrounded by his sage-and-mint scent, Darcy closed her eyes as she sank into the kiss. Her fingers curled into his t-shirt.

Clint dragged his hands from her face to her neck, clutching and caressing, and Darcy found herself savagely kissing her boyfriend with urgent need.

The ding of the timer jolted both of them, and Clint opened the oven so she could deal with the cookies. Poking a finger in the tetrazzini still sitting on the counter, he hummed appreciatively as he licked off the sauce. “Tell me that’s dinner.”

“That’s dinner.”

“How long?”

“Forty-five minutes from whenever we get hungry.” Darcy moved the dish into the refrigerator.

“Got anything else to do?”

“Just wash dishes.”

“I’ll do them later. I want a shower with you.”

“I already had one.”

Clint pressed his lips together in frustration. “I want one with you. The right way. Not--”

Oh. “Okay.”

Once in the shower, Clint kept his wings out of the spray and soaped up his hands to run them over Darcy’s skin. “You’re such a badass, Kansas. You don’t flinch, you don’t back down. You do whatever you have to do.” His hands glided over her breasts, making her breath hitch as his thumbs circled her nipples.

But she managed to roll her eyes at him. “What else is there to do?” she countered.

“For you? That’s the only answer.” He pressed his forehead to hers. “Thank you.”

“Anytime, Iowa.” Her voice was husky when she spoke, her throat thick with emotion.

Clint peeled the bandages off her fingers again, only this time, he guided her hands to press them to his glands. Musk and sage permeated the shower, and Clint coated Darcy’s hands with the rich oil. With a gentle touch, he massaged it into her skin.

Remembering what Jane said, Darcy brought Clint’s hand up to suck the oil off his thumb. She grinned at his shock.

“Kansa--”

“Shut up and kiss me, Iowa.”

“You know, I’ve heard that before.”

“Not enough,” she breathed.

His oil-slick hands went to her ass, his cock jerking up to press hard against her pelvis. “Touch me,” he groaned.

“I am.” Her hand curved around his cock.

Hoarsely, he demanded instead, “Touch my wings.”

Darcy ran the back of her knuckles along a tertiary shaft. Without a wince or a shiver, Clint simply held her, steady and strong. If he didn’t shake, she did, from emotions stripped raw--for at the core of it, she’d been terrified that she wouldn’t be enough to help him.

She searched his face, looking for signs of distress, as she combed through the downy feathers. But there was none.  “You’re okay.”

His lips curved upward. “When your hands heal, would you oil my feathers?”

With a huff of disbelief, she said, “Yeah. But my hands are fine. They don’t hurt.”

Clint deliberately ran a thumbnail along the tip of her index finger, raising an eyebrow when she didn’t flinch. She took one of his hands, instead, and ran a nail over a callused fingertip that had torn open during his hours on the range. “Does that stop you?” she challenged.

“Point made.”

“Wash up, flyboy. You’re the one who wanted a shower. Get clean and I’ll slick you up.”

With an unholy gleam in his eyes, Clint ran one oily finger tip down between her breasts, and down a line along her torso. “Now that gives me ideas.”

Darcy sucked in her stomach at the sizzling touch. He didn’t stop there either. His finger circled her clit. It was all she could do not to climb him like a tree, though she did yank him in for a hard kiss. The heat simmering between them flared into something bright. Clint fucked her with his fingers, stroking over her sensitive knot with his thumb, until she came apart chanting his name.

She slapped at the buttons on the shower, turning it off. “Damn it, Iowa, now I’ve got to have you. You were sick this morning.”

“That was this morning. I’m fine now.”

“Show me,” she demanded.

With arms flexing, Clint grinned. “I’ll show you a neat trick.” He scooped her up and curved his wings so that the downy plumage cushioned her back from the tile. With his hands on her ass again, he lowered her onto his cock.

Darcy had heard about being fucked against a wall. It didn’t sound particularly comfortable, so she’d been loathe to try it--not that she’d slept with anyone who’d been capable of lifting her in the first place. As Clint fucked into her slick heat, she decided wall sex was going into regular rotation.

The scratches she left on his arms made a seismic map of the tremors he caused in her. She shouted when she came again, even as he whispered her name as he followed with sharp thrusts and a hard grip on her butt cheek.

“Pretty sure that’s on the list of requirements for fucking an Avenger,” she quipped after he helped her stand up again.

Clint laughed. “Glad to check that one off.” He put a hand to his back and groaned comically. “I’m too old for that, I think.”

“Sure you are. So old you let a ninety-eight year old kick your ass on the mats.”

He snorted as he handed her a towel. But his eyes were bright with merriment as he followed her into the bedroom.

When Darcy reached for an extra blanket to catch the excess oil, Clint stopped her with a hand to her wrist. “You sure about this?”

“Are you?” she challenged.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I’m sure.”

“Then let me work my magic on your feathers. You don’t have any idea what you’re missing.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

32/What You Missed Along the Way

 

“Then let me work my magic on your feathers. You don’t have any idea what you’re missing.”

Clint flashed Darcy a grin at her cheeky retort. Though his soulmate had a closet full of insecurities, she didn’t have a single one about fucking with his wings.

It was a mark of his trust in his team, the security in the Tower, Nat, and Darcy herself that he’d allowed himself to break. In those hours on the range, he’d let blind fear take over. He’d let himself get lost in old memories and fears. He had a vague impression of Nat covering his back until she’d learned Darcy had arrived in the City. Exhausted, she’d gone off with Maria to deal with her own set of issues. Clint had fucked up there, just a little, though Natasha had scolded him this morning for worrying about her. She was pleased he’d asked about her headspace, though, and that made everything okay.

Darcy, with her casual confidence and ruthless determination, had coaxed him through the rest of this mess. And this moment--if Clint didn’t fuck that up too--was the payoff for both of them.

For once, he was determined to pay attention.

He hadn’t given Bobbi a glimmer of a chance. She’d reached out, but he’d rebuffed every effort, and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents generally knew a lost cause when they saw one.

Nat had let him carve out a space for himself near her. She’d made one too. A decade of unwavering friendship and loyalty had eroded the sharp edges, and if there was a wall between them, it was low and wide enough for both of them to park their butts on it. Or nap on it. Clint liked that imagery and snorted to himself.

Darcy, still flushed and bright-eyed from their shower hookup, caught his amusement and reflected it in her own tilted up lips. Since Clint hadn’t bothered with clothes, Darcy didn’t either, and damned if he wasn’t distracted by her pretty boobs swaying as she moved, the dark pink areolas still taut from the attention he’d given them in the shower.

She’d plucked a spare blanket from the closet and spread it over the bed to catch the chaff. One of Stark’s robot vacuums trundled into the room, making a quiet hiss as Darcy nudged it in place with a foot. Clint reached for the coverlet to tweak it smooth. His cock twitched, and he grimaced as he crawled on the bed. He didn’t particularly think of himself as body shy--he’d stripped for any number of teammates, lovers, even enemies--but there was a touch of heat to his face as he adjusted his dick so that it wouldn’t end up being too uncomfortable with a warm, naked Darcy in the vicinity.

Yeah, right.

Still, he scolded his dick to behave. It would take a dumber man than Clint Barton to not realize what a gem he had in a soulmate, and he was determined to do the right thing here.

After setting her iPod to play something country, she asked, point blank, “Ready?” It was easy to see the mix of anticipation and nerves in the way she fussed with the blanket. But there wasn’t an ounce of fear.

“Sure.” He pillowed his head on his arms, stretching out his wings. Darcy rested a hand on his ankle, waiting for him to get comfortable. His lower back ached from the swollen glands, but he wasn’t the type to fuss about how much they needed to be expressed. He was used to the pain.

Darcy knelt on his left, smoothing a hand along his back before laying a hand on his tail feathers, just over the glands they covered. Instead of flipping out over where her hands were, his mind zipped right to the shower with Darcy sucking his thumb, and shit, there went his dick trying to get his attention again.

He smiled. Damn, his soulmate was clever. It was harder to think about years-old crap when his brain fuzzed out with instant thoughts about sex. Still--“Kansas, that’s not exactly what I had in mind,” he complained. She let out a sultry laugh, and Clint wondered how long he’d hold out before coaxing Darcy into letting him fuck her again.

With a deft touch, she slid her right hand under the tail feathers to rest on his glands, while she set the nails of her left in the back of his neck. With maddening patience, she lightly scraped them between his wings, along the bare strip of spine from nape to tail feathers and back again.

Clint shivered all over, his brain fritzing out as the fear of being touched on his back warred with the sensations she elicited everywhere else. Darcy kept up the scritching and pressure until he swore under his breath, unnerved by both the conflicting reactions and way he’d tensed up all over. He had to make himself unwind under her hands. If he didn’t, she’d stop, and he didn’t want her to stop. It felt too damned good.

He groaned, giving himself over to her ministrations. Now or never, Barton , he chided himself. He narrowed his concentration to Darcy’s touch, to the heat of her palm resting against his glands, letting everything else go with a sniper’s focus. When he calmed, she increased the pressure there, taking advantage of the liquid that seeped out of his skin to slide her hand in mesmerizing circles at the top of his ass. It still hurt, but in an achy, stretch-out-the-sore-muscle kind of way that he could tolerate, at least.

Shit. She was schooling him with nothing more than her hands. He was a spy and wasn’t supposed to fall for that kind of thing--even if it felt amazing. “I’m not a horse,” he complained.

“Yeah, well, it works. Horses will do anything for sweet treats and scratches. Apparently, you do, too.”

Huffing in agreement, he pretended to grumble as he turned his head to the other side. When he’d settled, Darcy set one hand on the scapular feathers behind his left shoulder. With quick, sure movements, she shook out the dry chaff and flicked away loose feathers. Then she worked her other hand under his tail feathers to press the heel against the gland to release the oils, going back to his wing to work the oil from the base of each shaft to the tip. Last, she ran a nail along the barbs to straighten them so they’d be perfectly aligned.

Clint didn’t have to see to know what she was doing. He could feel the movement of each shaft as she lifted each feather away from his skin and hear the little zip of her thumbnail along the vane. She found a cadence, shifting her weight to and fro as she expressed the oil to work it into his plumage.

While Darcy hummed along to the music, he drifted into a light doze where he listened and tracked her progress through his tertiaries, secondaries, coverts, and primaries. He roused to turn his head when she changed sides and started all over with the scapular feathers on his right wing. He counted those too.

But when she stopped, he snapped fully awake, combat-still as he assessed the problem.

“How was your nap?” Darcy asked, raking her fingers through the short hair at the back of Clint’s neck.

He arched into her touch, grumbling agreeably as he tried to remember if she’d finished or not. “Wasn’t sleeping.”

“You were not-sleeping for an hour and a half. That’s kind of impressive. But then again, you’re an Avenger, and Avengers do all the cool stuff,” Darcy teased.

Losing track of that much time tripped him out. Maybe Darcy knew that, because she kept stroking his neck and spine to ground him, and she’d pointed it out right off the bat rather than waiting for him to figure it out for himself.

“You done?” he asked, desperately needing a few minutes to get his shit together.

“Mostly. Need to do your axillaries and underwing coverts, but those won’t take long. It’s easier to do those standing up. After that, it’s just your tail feathers.” Darcy slid off the bed to give him room.

Long used to suppressing any outward reaction to bad news, Clint concentrated on breathing evenly as he worked up a smile. “Sounds like a plan.” He rolled off the bed to stand, ruffling his wings before settling them against his back.

Darcy wrinkled her nose, poking him lightly in the bicep. “Stop that. If you can’t deal with me touching your tail feathers today, then we don’t.”

Reminding himself to pay attention, Clint wrapped his arms around her. “It’s not that, honey. I fell asleep.” He nuzzled her hair so she wouldn’t see the chagrin in his expression.

Darcy rubbed her hands along his arms, comforting him. “Clint, Steve sleeps hard when I’m doing his feathers. And he has less reason to trust me than you.”

It didn’t really make him feel better. “Bet Barnes doesn’t,” he complained.

“Bucky does when Steve has his hands on him. I know because I asked. He told me it’s a combination of having someone he trusts awake and at his six and the sheer fucking bliss of a good preening.” Darcy smirked. “His words, not mine.” She shrugged as she slid her hands down his arms to lace her fingers with his. “Pretty sure you get a pass on this one, Iowa.”

Huh. He hadn’t thought about that. Not one to argue when all of his arguments had been neatly countered, he murmured, “Okay,” as he raised their clasped hands to kiss her knuckles.

She eyed him suspiciously, asking, “You want to eat? I can put the tetrazzini in the oven to warm.”

His stomach grumbled in response, making Darcy snort. “Can it cook while you finish?”

“Sure.”

“Then let’s do that.” He followed her progress from bedroom to kitchen, hips swaying and long locks bouncing against Clint’s own handwriting on her back. He glanced down at Darcy’s words on his hip before handing her the casserole dish out of the fridge. As he poured up two glasses of water for them and placed them on the counter, she set the timer, then tucked her hair behind her ear as she turned around. Damn, he loved her eyes, all storm-grey with their purples and blues. “You’re beautiful, Kansas,” he murmured, the water forgotten.

Her chin lifted. “So are you.” Her gaze flickered downward, lingering on his dick and his arms.

He might have flexed, just a little. He definitely smirked. She stood on her toes to press a kiss to his lips, and it was natural enough to wrap one arm around her waist to keep her there. His cock chubbed up, declaring its interest in the situation. “Will you finish my wings?” he asked instead.

“Sure.” The astonished delight in her smile went straight to Clint’s gut. His soulmate put up with so much crap from him, and he still wasn’t quite sure why she bothered. He hooked a bar stool with his foot and straddled it, then raised his folded wings so Darcy could reach the feathers there.

She worked her hand under his tail feathers once again, and he lifted them to give her room to work. Now that she’d expressed most of the oil, the soreness was gone. But as she coaxed more oil to ooze from his skin, there was a different kind of ache--one that went straight to his dick.

No matter which side she was on, one breast teased his bicep as she worked the oil into the axillaries at the base of his wings. Clint sniffed her hair as she coated the tufts of down, his cock hardening nicely at her touch.

When she finished, he captured her hands as he kissed her again. Darcy let him massage them for a minute or two before freeing one hand to stroke his dick from root to tip. His cock jumped in anticipation, making Darcy laugh as she shoved Clint in the direction of the bed.

He went backward, and Darcy climbed on top, fitting him neatly along her wet slit. He grasped her hips for leverage, letting one thumb snake inward to find her clit knotted up and oh-so-sensitive as he circled it with a callused thumb.

“Not yet,” she told him in breathy tones. “I want to finish your tail feathers first. I want to make it good for you.”

Clint had no idea how she could make it better than this, but he drew on his patience to let her go. “There’s a name for girls like you,” he muttered as he rolled to his stomach once more. His dick complained bitterly about the lack of warmth even as his belly twisted with the idea of hands on his tail feathers.

Darcy leaned to his ear. “Oh, Hawkeye ,” she teased as she straddled his legs. “I just can’t believe a big, bad Avenger wants to sleep with me . I’m a good girl, and I don’t do that kind of stuff.”

With a chuckle at her antics, Clint played along in his mid-west drawl. “Darling, I’m not the kind to pick up just any sweet thing who comes along. Even one as pretty as you.”

She leaned down to kiss his spine. “Well then, I suppose I could do this .”

Her hands went under his feathers and over his ass to his glands. They weren’t achy now, he discovered. This time when she pressed, a slow wave of pure pleasure rolled through him. He surprised himself with a low moan of bliss. A second stroke only heightened the sensation. “Holy fuck, Kansas,” he breathed as he arched under her hands, wanting more.

“You didn’t know,” she said with sadness.

“I--no. It usually hurts.” He thought about it. “It always hurts,” he corrected. “Not terrible, just, you know, it’s like being sore after a hard mission. Figured it was from being plucked as a kid. I’m used to it.”

Darcy growled as she caressed his glands again, eliciting another flurry of wonder. “There’s nothing wrong with you, Clinton Francis Barton. Being a Winged One isn’t for the faint of heart, but damn it, you get a few perks besides flying,” she insisted.

Ah. Oh. Yeah. He clenched his ass as his balls drew up tight. If Darcy didn’t get to it, he was going to make a mess of her blanket. She dragged one thumb along the crease of his ass to toy with his hole while she picked up the tail feather on the far left. It took three full passes to spread the oil from the base to the tip lying against his ankle. But he couldn’t think too hard about that when her thumb circled and dipped, and his cock bitterly griped about being trapped between the blanket and his stomach.

As she coated each of his tail feathers with one hand, he forgot about all the terrible memories in favor of the sheer ecstasy she elicited with the other. The one time he flinched ( Trickshot’s favorite to yank--) , Darcy pressed kisses under his feathers, licking and sucking at his glands until he came all over the sheets with a shout. He floated along, blissed-out and incoherent, until she finished with a hum of satisfaction.

In a flurry of wings and limbs, he rolled them so she lay on her back. “Oh thank fuck, Iowa,” she breathed. “Two hours of my hands all over you.” He hitched her legs over his shoulders and licked her pretty cunt until her eyes glazed, and she cussed him through her orgasm.

“Didn’t know petting wings turns you on, honey,” he said with a laugh as she panted.

“Petting wings doesn’t. Having my hands in your wings does.”

Clint filed away that information for later, though he was certain his cock would remind him. “Good to know.” He crawled up her body, so that his reawakened cock lay warm against her folds. He flexed his hips, holding Darcy steady so he could make a long stroke in and out of her slick heat.

She dug her fingers into his flesh, then took over the rhythm with one ankle high on his shoulder, working him hard and fast as she took what she wanted. God knows, he was happy to give it to her. His balls drew up high and tight as he held off his orgasm long enough to tip her over the edge again. When her slick vagina contracted hard around his dick, he let go, shuddering and jerking wildly as he came. He held her after, with fingers laced and his nose tucked into her neck. She smelled like strawberries, and Clint was home.

 

*****

 

Darcy laughed as Clint stretched his wings on the terrace. He’d been antsy all through dinner with Maria and Natasha, until the three women ganged up to shove him outside to play.

His eyes glowed gold, reflecting the setting sun, but that’s not what mesmerized Darcy. Clint’s violet plumage shimmered with health. Not a single feather strayed out of place as he twisted and folded his wings to examine Darcy’s work. He’d tried this in her apartment, but it was too small for him to get a good look at anything but his primaries.

After splashing in the Aerie’s pool, just long enough to prove to Sam that Darcy had thoroughly waterproofed his feathers, Clint shook out his wings in a blur of motion.

The breeze dried his wings in minutes, and now he posed happily as Nat made snarky comments about smelly wet pigeons. Sam and Maria crossed their arms as they mock-scowled at Clint’s pretended indignation that only lasted a moment before he snickered.

The other Winged Ones drifted out at the sound of their laughter. Thor and Jane landed lightly beside Darcy. Steve and Bucky appeared moments later. Darcy snapped a picture of Clint with her phone and sent it to Mama, who sent a happy face emoticon in reply.

When Clint launched into the sky to do happy spirals over the tower, Darcy wiped away tears from her cheeks. The other Avengers followed with friendly jibes, and it wasn’t long before they disappeared into the clouds.

Nat gave Darcy a grateful nod, and then she and Maria left--probably to go watch one of their horror flicks they’d talked about at dinner. That left Jane and Darcy standing wing-to-shoulder on the terrace.

“Are you okay?” Jane asked in a quiet voice.

With an ache in her chest, she gave her best friend a wry smile. “This is what I wanted, right?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

33/Snapshots

 

 

*****

 

Darcy loved waking up with downy bits clinging to her skin. Clint kept her warm, and they quickly discovered they both slept better when he tucked her under an arm and a wing. He whined, though, about her freezing cold feet. For that reason alone, they had a sheet and a quilt on the bed for her to jam her toes under.

 

******

 

Though Clint could wake fighting ready, he still wasn’t a morning person and preferred to lazily nuzzle Darcy’s neck until it was time to get up.  

After her shower, she’d find him half asleep at the table with a hot plate waiting for her and the carafe of coffee under his nose. He mostly scrambled eggs, but sometimes there were scones from the bakery in the Tower.

 

*****

 

Steve grounded the Avengers for a solid week to recover from the dunk in the ocean.  In theory, it was a great idea. In reality, by day three, he called in Maria to stop Nat from pranking the Tower, Pepper to haul Stark and Banner to Malibu to keep them from retaliating, and Darcy collaborated with him to separate the snipers who now competed over everything from flicking paper footballs to Nerf gun battles in the Aerie on wing and foot.

It helped that Darcy needed to prepare for the semester. Campus was, fortunately, far enough from the Tower that Clint stayed close by until she finished. She met with her advisers and bought books, the latter of which she happily stuffed into Clint’s backpack to haul home. The walks were nice. He held her hand.

 

*****

 

Darcy figured out where Clint had been while she was on campus when bobble-head elves appeared at breakfast, one or two each morning. By the time Steve called the Avengers to assemble, she had a whole row of elven characters from movies to comics over her headboard, with Legolas Greenleaf front and center.

 

*****

 

Clint spent part of each day in the range or sparring with his teammates. He would shower, then appear on Darcy’s doorstep to ask her to look over his feathers. They shined in a brilliant royal purple underneath, while the topsides glimmered in their iridescent purple-black patterns.

He molted a pair of secondaries that week. One of them he banded to the arrow he’d made her. He wrapped the shaft of the other with a narrow leather strip.  

With nimble fingers, he braided it into her hair. Darcy clutched his hand when he finished, unsettled by the raw tenderness.

 

*****

 

How she missed the envelope sitting square on her kitchen counter under an “I <Heart> NY” mug after he left was a mystery. When she found five grand inside in twenties and hundreds, along with a black AmEx card in her name, she swore a blue streak for ten solid minutes.

Her soulmate didn’t reply to THAT text, though Nat insisted he got it.

In light of that, she shouldn’t have been surprised when enough groceries to last her a week appeared the day before classes started. Clint pretended he didn’t know anything about it when he made his daily phone call to her after dinner.

Darcy started a list on whiteboard over her desk of things she and Clint needed to talk about.

 

*****

 

“Be safe,” she chided, clutching the phone to her ear.

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

****

 

 

Chapter Text

34/Venture Forth

 

Darcy dumped her backpack on the couch in her apartment and flopped down beside it, grateful the school week was over. Most of her classes this semester were fine, but she was already annoyed at one of her professors who clearly had no interest in teaching the subject.

A desperate text to Jane got her BFF to promise to look over Darcy’s notes, and Friday dug up a similar course taught at Culver with a professor who helpfully posted lectures on YouTube.

So much for her weekend. With her first round of oral and written exams coming up at the end of summer, Darcy couldn’t afford to fall behind now. Though she’d been granted a leave of absence this spring, she would have double the workload with both classes this summer and preparing for her comprehensive exams in August.

And even though she missed Clint something awful, she needed the extra time to get a head start on her essays and research papers for the semester. She’d holed up every night this week in her apartment to study, not chancing the distraction of the Nest right now.

She glanced longingly at the television, knowing she still had to review today’s lecture. “Friday? Will you check to see if Jane is free yet?”

“Yes, Ms. Lewis,” Friday agreed. After a moment, the AI added, “Dr. Foster has one more simulation to load, but will be free for movie night. Also, Ms. Potts has asked if you prefer Thai or Italian this evening.”

“Italian. Manicotti,” Darcy answered. Her stomach growled in anticipation. She’d barely had time for lunch.

“Very good, ma’am. Dinner will be ready at seven in the Nest.”

“Thanks, Friday.”

Darcy tipped her head back onto the cushions, trying not to miss Clint so damned much. He’d been gone for two weeks already, hadn’t called in five days, and the two short texts yesterday--a meme of a snoring sheepdog and an “ILY”--hadn’t been nearly enough to satisfy her worries about him. She groaned, annoyed with herself. Anyone who survived Loki and Ultron didn’t need a fretting girlfriend.

Deciding that dinner was too far away, Darcy wrinkled her nose and rolled off the couch. There were Lucky Charms in the pantry, courtesy of Clint’s sweet tooth and another round of surprise groceries. Nobody needed to know that she’d eaten half the box last night. She pulled out a bowl, filling it up with brightly colored cereal and a splash of milk.  Turning on the TV chased away the silence, and Darcy skimmed the headlines on CNN’s news ticker. Closed captions popped up. She left them on, having grown used to them.

She’d managed a decent amount of research this past spring, some of it dating back as far as the fifteen hundreds when the Spanish first made contact with the Incas. That one didn’t end too well for the Incas, and Darcy planned to create protocols for contact and trade that would prevent Earth’s colorful history from ending up as a couple of paragraphs in an alien culture’s history text. Unlike the Incas, Earth had Asgard to help-- if the idiot Earthlings had a notion to listen. Darcy listened to the latest squabble in Congress and wondered if that was a lost cause altogether.

The TV anchors changed topics, laying out the latest debate about the Accords. Post-Sokovia, dozens of countries were hammering out an agreement regarding powered people. None of the Avengers liked it; Tony and Steve had more than one argument about it. Even Clint and Nat seemed to be on opposite sides, something that made both of them unhappy.

In any case, Darcy tuned in long enough to make sure there wasn’t anything about the Avengers’ latest mission. No news was good news these days.

Her phone beeped. She breathed a sigh of relief as she read the email from her advisor. The undergrad class she was assigned to teach was an easy one. She’d have to keep office hours, but that wasn’t a problem. The extra money would be nice and go a long way in to paying down her credit card bill from last fall.

Darcy darted a glance at the envelope of cash Clint had left. This was the same man who’d sent a cashier’s check to her parents before he left, as if the cash Bucky had paid them for half a year’s “rent” hadn’t been enough to see them through the next year with room to spare.

Darcy growled in frustration as she set her phone down, hating the idea of being dependent on anyone, even her soulmate who’d been keeping her folks afloat for years. Or maybe especially her soulmate, and wasn’t that a weird thought?

Although, it was equally weird not fretting about every single penny since there’d been no need to send her stipend home.

Yesterday, she’d spied bright blue winter boots in the window of the resale shop near campus. Bucky--who had taken over escort duties without an eyeblink--had successfully talked her into laying out the cash. They weren’t terribly expensive, but felt like a luxury when she was reasonably sure she could make the ones she had last one more winter. Bucky’d snorted at her reluctance, reminding her no one could pinch pennies tighter than two boys from Brooklyn and hadn’t she worn a hole in the toe of the last pair?

She sighed, glancing at her phone just to make sure Clint hadn’t sent a text in the last thirty seconds.

Nope.

Disappointed--and then annoyed at herself for being disappointed when her boyfriend was out saving the world--Darcy dragged her notebook and pen out of her backpack. “Friday, bring up the lecture from Dr. Sydney’s class on Tuesday. Start from the beginning, and ping me in a couple of hours so I don’t miss movie night.”

“Of course, Ms. Lewis.”

As the video began to play, Darcy picked up her pen and began to take notes.

When Friday gently reminded her that the two hours were up, Darcy groaned as she stretched. Grateful for the interruption, she cleaned up her homework and wandered down to the Nest.

They’d invited Bucky, but he’d had a shitty day and wasn’t sure if movie night was his thing.

Not that it was really movie night: Jane brought her laptop, and Pepper her tablet. After a chatty sort of dinner, the trio settled into the couches. Darcy reviewed her notes on statistical analysis, occasionally asking Jane to clarify a point, then moved onto the stack of journals she needed to skim. In any case, it was the company that was important, and the three of them worked, trading quips at the silly rom com playing while they finished their respective projects for the evening.

The movie was nearly over when Pepper clicked off her tablet and set it aside. “Enough,” she decided. “Friday, pause the movie. I need a drink.”

Jane typed up another line, and then she, too, closed her laptop. “Yeah, the rest of this can wait. I could stand to eat again, too. I skipped lunch.”

Darcy scribbled out a comment on a sticky note and bookmarked the journal she was reading. Her eyes had blurred trying to make sense of it. She rubbed them under her glasses and blinked a lot to focus once more. “I could make nachos.”

“You do nachos, I’ll make up the margaritas,” Jane offered.

“Deal.”

Pepper chuckled. “It’s been ages since I’ve had a good margarita.”

“Jane’s ‘ritas are lethal.”

“Sounds perfect. What can I do?”

“Want to juice the lemons and limes?”

The movie was forgotten as the three of them gathered around the island in the Nest. Jane blended up margaritas. Darcy pulled out a plate for the rock salt, and Pepper expertly rimmed the edges of the wide margarita glasses with a lime, dipping them upside down in the salt. The frozen concoction went into a pitcher that made for easy refills.

They lost track of how many nachos Darcy loaded up, half with beans and cheese, the other half with a smooth guacamole she’d whipped up on the spot. Things got fuzzy after the third tray and second pitcher, but oh, how she needed this night.

There was bitching about the demands of their respective jobs and school work, various complaints about their boyfriends and their jobs, and lots of wishful dreaming about vacations--though Jane set the bar pretty damned high with Asgard.

Somewhere in there was a heartfelt plea from Pepper asking Darcy to come to work for Stark Industries--mostly because of her field of study, but also so Pepper would have moral support in the Avenger-as-a-boyfriend department. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have much of a budget for analysts anymore, Darcy might have agreed to that one--though as she was three margaritas in, the details were a little fuzzy.

When they’d decimated the nachos, Jane made up a new pitcher and the three of them weaved their way out to the terrace to collapse on the chairs under the moonlight. Bucky was out there, perched on the corner of the railing. He stayed in his corner with a watchful eye.

Out of habit, Jane dropped down on the chaise in front of Darcy, who immediately began combing through her feathers.

Pepper studied them for a while as she sipped her drink. “No matter how much he wants them, it’s probably a good thing Tony doesn’t have wings. He doesn’t have that much patience to sit still.”

Jane laughed. “I’ve got an aunt who is like that. My uncle gets about five minutes of preening in, and then she’s off doing whatever. He catches her when she’s sleeping sometimes.”

“How does that work for your uncle’s wings?” Darcy wondered.

“He’s got robin wings,” Jane answered, “so he’s only got about a third of the feathers Clint or I have, plus they are short. You’ve never seen someone zip through a thorough preening like my aunt can. That woman wastes no time.”

“Family trait,” Darcy muttered.

“Ha. I can sit still. Better than you can.”

“That’s … probably true.”

Jane twisted around. “Have you had enough to drink yet to tell me why you’re freaked out this semester? You totally got the lecture today. Your notes are flawless.”

Darcy slid a look to Pepper. “I don’t know if I should say anything, on the grounds I might incriminate myself.”

Pepper drily countered, “I believe we declared this terrace a no-judgment zone two movie nights ago.”

“What she said,” Jane confirmed. “So is this about school, your soulmate, or what?”

Darcy idly picked out a bit of loose fluff from one of Jane’s primaries. “Have you talked to Thor?”

“About?”

“Me. And Asgard.”

Jane flared her feathers in curiosity as Pepper leaned forward in her chair. “Not yet,” Jane said.

Darcy lifted a shoulder. “You know those two papers I published this spring?”

“The ones detailing Asgard’s role in the Nine Realms,” Jane affirmed. She nodded to Pepper.  “One was about the political structure and the other explained trade relationships.”

“I read them,” Pepper replied. “Salient to my industry. I do keep up. So what does Thor think?”

Startled at the CEO’s admission, Darcy replied, “Thor’s invited me to Asgard to do in-depth research.”

“Are you thinking about refusing it?” Pepper asked.

“Not at all.” Darcy tugged a loose feather out of Jane’s plumage, keeping it so that she could play with the barbs. “I already told him I would go after my comprehensive exams. The only reason Columbia let me take a leave of absence this spring was because I’ve taken an extra class every semester I’ve been here. I really only have one class I have to take this summer to stay on track. Publishing this spring was a bonus, but now that my advisors have seen my proposal for my dissertation, the bigwigs at Columbia are leaning on me to produce it practically yesterday.”

“What does that mean for you?” Jane wondered.

“I’m taking a full load this summer so I can focus on my dissertation when I get back from Asgard. They would love for me to get it written before the next alien invasion,” Darcy quipped.

Pepper sat up. “I’ll fund a fellowship so you don’t have to worry about money while you’re doing your research.”

“I think you already did,” Darcy countered wryly. “My advisors had me fill out the paperwork. I just got approved for it.”

Jane squinted with that look she got when all the answers came together. “Oh.”

“Oh, what?” Darcy like that look directed at her.

“You don’t like fate; it’s wyrd.” Jane grinned as she repeated one of Darcy’s favorite phrases.

Darcy groaned, flopping backward on the chaise to cover her face with her elbow. “It’s like the universe has a list with little ticky boxes and my name is at the top of it. Doesn’t matter what I want; I just have to check the list.”

Pepper chuckled, a low, throaty thing that was much too elegant for margaritas on the terrace. “Seems like your soulmark has been instrumental in getting you to the right place at the right time. Are you happy?”

Scowling, Darcy peeked out from under her elbow. “Am I what?”

“Are you happy?” Pepper repeated.

“I’m terrified.”

“We all are. But peel that away and what are you then?”

Darcy had to think with a brain that was still loose and fuzzy from the alcohol, but she wasn’t so far gone that Pepper’s question didn’t make a scary kind of sense. “Yes,” she decided, “I’m happy. I’ve got friends here. My soulmate’s kind of hot. My parents are doing okay. I’ve got a sketchy plan for the future.”

“But--”

“But what if my instruction manual for galactic trade ends up being comic relief for the rest of the aliens when they raid us for cheap labor?”

Jane scoffed at that. “You do realize that your dissertation is based on research and science, not speculation and hopes? And if your advisory committee wants this paper, they’ve got a vested interest in timely feedback.”

“Too bad Erik’s not on Columbia’s payroll. I’d love to have him as an advisor,” Darcy muttered. Jane was right. Half of Jane’s battle in getting her PhD had been finding a committee to approve her proposed thesis in the first place. Erik had been the one willing to sign off on it and bully a couple of others into agreeing with him. By contrast, the ink was hardly dry on Darcy’s proposal and she already had her advisors chomping at the bit for her submission.

“You’ll be fine,” Jane assured her. “Now pass me the pitcher. Pepper and I need refills.”




The summer flashed by with Darcy buried in classwork and the Avengers hopscotching across the globe in low-level, highly-visual ops designed to ease them back into the public’s favor after Sokovia. Clint bitched about the dog-and-pony show in a never-ending string of texts, but Darcy didn’t mind them. He was safe enough, and she could concentrate on her school work.  

Never mind the full-scale meltdown on her part a bare four days before her exams.  She’d been mind-numb with exhaustion, her stomach had a permanent knot of anxiety, and her head hadn’t stopped hurting for days.  

To her shock, Clint didn’t blink twice at begging off the next mission. With Wilson, Wanda, Vision, and Rhodes part of the team now, there were plenty of replacements for Stark, Banner, and Hawkeye, he’d told her. And instead, he listened as she bitched and worried. He cleaned her apartment from top to bottom, even managing to get the pile of laundry in her bedroom to vanish during her oral exams.

She passed with accolades, and Clint surprised her by flying her parents into the City for the weekend.

Two days after they left, Clint pressed a woven leather bracelet into her hand as she stepped on the platform for the BiFrost to open.  He took to the air, and his violet wings were the last she saw of Earth.

 

******

 

Plucking the arrows out of his practice target, Clint dropped them in his quiver before gliding back to the short rise where Barnes had sprawled out on his belly with a rifle, a scope, and a stack of ammo boxes. With Darcy on Asgard and Rogers training up new Avengers, the snipers had decamped with him to the Avengers facility in an effort not to burn Stark Tower down out of sheer boredom.

Nat had come along, pretending she wasn’t thrilled to be in close proximity to Hill and Barton all at once. In spite of their arguments over the provisions of the Accords that were being debated in every country, Nat curled up with him most nights, and Clint wouldn’t dare admit to how much he needed her close. When she wasn’t there, he gave up sleeping, preferring to spend the time in the range or on the mats instead.

He ran into Barnes more often than not.

Barnes wasn’t comfortable at all in the military base, but in New York, he was even less comfortable being away from Rogers and had holed up in their quarters.

Nat had attempted to coax him out, but had been met with steadfast refusal. Clint succeeded today only because he’d swiped a new scope from Stark’s lab and waggled it at Barnes. They’d flown to the far side of the compound where an outdoor long range had been set up.

Clint found his balance, brought his bow to the ready. He felt, more than heard, the slick slide of carbon steel as he drew the arrow from the quiver.

Nock.

Breathe between heartbeats.

Draw.

Still the mind. Read the air currents. Calculate the trajectory.

Loose.

What was he doing wrong with Darcy?

He’d been a good boyfriend this time, he was sure of that. There were gifts and dates whenever they were both in town. He couldn’t keep his hands off her and thought she felt the same--she certainly pounced on him the moment she saw him. Really, he spent more time looking at her than necessary, mostly because he liked the way she moved.

To his everlasting shock, he liked having his wings preened. They looked a little messy now, something he’d ignored before, but now he missed Darcy idly combing through his feathers while she read or watched TV.

He missed her .  Asgard mean no texts or phone calls at all. Hell, he’d even take her yelling at him for leaving the toilet seat up or drinking from the coffee pot before she’d had a cup. Not that they really squabbled.

Oh, he’d squawked when he tripped over the knee deep pile of clothes she’d left in the bathroom. There was the money thing, too, but he had some and wasn’t going to let his soulmate live on crackers and yogurt. Who else was he supposed to share it with? She didn’t really have an answer. Clint thought maybe they’d found a truce when she didn’t fuss about the groceries, and he didn’t say anything about the untouched credit card and envelope of cash on her kitchen counter.

But damned if his radar wasn’t wildly pinging that he’d missed something important. (He’d been known to ignore that pinging in the past, but he was still determined not to fuck this up.)

“Target ain’t gonna get holes by itself, Barton,” Barnes sneered.

Asshole. Clint darted a flat glare at the sniper, until he discovered he’d been holding his bow and a newly drawn arrow at the ready. He sighed, drew it back until his bicep had a comfortable pull, and loosed it for a satisfying thunk in the wood that he only saw, not heard.

He dropped two more arrows into the target in quick succession.

Barnes grunted as he stripped his rifle, laying it out on its own cloth to clean it before packing it away. “What bug crawled up your ass? You weren’t this nervy last couple of times your girl stepped off-world.”

Clint loosed another arrow before answering, “You know that feeling when an op is fucked and you know there isn’t jack shit you can do about it?”

“You know I grew up with Steve, right? That’s called ‘every time the punk stepped outta th’ house.’”

“What’d you do?”

Barnes squatted on his heels as he packed his weapon away. “Just don’t quit, Barton. It’s what she’s waiting for.”

Clint scratched the back of his neck, thinking of the way she sometimes looked at him with a mixture of joy and mourning. As if she was incredibly happy, but was terrified for the ending that hadn’t come.

Aw, Darcy, no.

“How long’s it gonna take for her to know I’m gonna stick?”

That got a shrug as Barnes stood, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. “She’s a little brighter than the punk,” he replied with a faint smirk as he scratched his jaw. “That’s something, right?”

 

 

Chapter Text

35/The Only Thing That Matters

 

Darcy stripped off the trappings of Asgard, exchanging the cloak, shirt, and breeches she’d preferred there for the hoodie, t-shirt, and jeans of home. The BiFrost was sure to be cold. New York, on the other hand, wasn’t, not at the edge of summer.

She checked her backpack--a gift from Clint at Christmas--one last time to make sure she had packed all of her thumb drives with her laptop. Asgard had been firm about only allowing her to bring the bare minimum, promising to provide whatever she needed for the duration of her stay.

Her poor laptop had been hard used--not only for research, but as her only link to home while she was here. No cameras were allowed, no phones--not that there was any point to that, and no purse or anything that might get lost. She’d left all that in her apartment in the Tower.

Not only that, she could only take home her personal gear and the research itself. Tony had been miffed; he’d wanted an Asgardian ball ever since Jane had described one.

Thor had cautioned that she wouldn’t be able to come and go as she pleased--the BiFrost was for emergencies, not weekends--but he’d made sure she caught a ride with him at the holidays for a month-long break. She’d split time between Kansas and New York. Clint accompanied her both places, except for the short mission the Avengers had just after New Year’s Day.

The half-year since had been excruciatingly long. No one should have to miss BFFs, soulmates, and pizza quite that much.

Darcy had finished her research more than three weeks ago. Since then, she’d waited for an opportune time to go home. After working at a breakneck pace from the moment she’d set foot in this realm, boredom and loneliness had set in.

Darcy had built relationships with the historians where she’d studied, but with the constant fear of saying the wrong thing, she hadn’t indulged in the kind of friendships that allowed her to relax in their company. It didn’t help knowing that the Asgardians were thousands of years older and light years ahead in technology and political machinations. More often than not, she got looks of weary indulgence regarding the rather childish questions Midgard posed.

She’d found a friend in Heimdall though, as Jane promised she would. The Guardian didn’t seem to mind her millions of questions and occasional crying jag when homesickness got to be too much. In any case, Darcy was grateful she was done, and she didn’t envy the pair of ambassadors who would eventually be assigned to the realm.

But the waiting was driving her bananas, enough that she’d sent a missive to Thor two days ago, via Heimdall, begging permission to go home. He’d granted it, and it was Lady Sif who collected Darcy for the trip.

Leaving the borrowed clothing on the bed, Darcy hefted the backpack over her shoulder. “Ready,” she announced.

Sif skimmed the room with a practiced glance to ensure it had been left in order. “Very good.”

The ride to the Observatory where Heimdall waited took longer than would the actual trip on the BiFrost, but it gave time for Darcy to soak in her last images of the beautiful realm. It was unlikely that she’d have the opportunity to come here again.

Darcy gave both Lady Sif and Heimdall a proper bow after thanking the horse for the ride with a pat on the nose.

“Be well, my good friend,” Heimdall said as he lowered the sword into the lock that opened the BiFrost. “Safe journey.”

“Thank you, Lord Heimdall. I’ll wave at you when I get there.”

“Do. I’ll be watching.”

Sif waited at the edge of the BiFrost when it opened. “Please give my regards to Phillip Coulson. He has been a friend to Asgard. Be well, Darcy Lewis.”

“I will, Lady Sif. And thank you.” Darcy raised her hand in goodbye as she stepped into the whirling lights.

As she zipped across the universe, she reached out to touch the myriad colors rolling by. “Seriously,” she giggled to herself, “Gotta be the most psychedelic trip ever.” Her heart thumped in excitement at the fantastical journey--though she was dancing with happiness over seeing Jane and Clint. And Nat. And Steve and Bucky. And Sam--

There was a moment, when the ride seemed too long and the lights stretched out in dizzying patterns, that she thought she might be lost. Half a heartbeat later, she was on Terra Firma, stumbling to stay on her feet as the ground glowed bright from the burn of the BiFrost in the dark night.

As it faded to embers, someone snapped, “Don’t move!” There was the unmistakable snick of weapons being cocked. Four, if she counted right, squinting as her eyes began to adjust to the darkness. She didn’t move beyond curling her fingers over the straps of her backpack.

A glance to the left told her that Heimdall had deposited her at the Avengers Facility--she hadn’t been here before, but Tony had a thing about plastering giant ‘A’s everywhere, even if they made for highly visible targets. She grinned in relief. Clint had mentioned at the holidays that he’d been hanging out here with Bucky.

“I’m Darcy Lewis,” she caroled. “I was doing my grad work on Asgard, remember? Sorry I couldn’t call to let anyone know I was on my way. I guess Thor was kind of busy. Doing the prince of the universe thing, I think,” she rambled on, wincing as she did. “Is Clint out there?”

“Miss Lewis, we have orders to detain you.”

“Seriously?” she protested, more than a little shocked. “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have broken any laws considering I wasn’t even on the planet .” When the heat from the ground penetrated her sneakers, she pointed. “Can I at least get off the hot dirt so my shoes don’t melt?”

A flashlight popped on, motioning her to one side. She walked, squinting as she tried to figure out who was giving the orders.

“Stop,” the voice ordered.

“Would somebody mind telling me what is going on?” Darcy demanded, even as she followed the curt instruction.

“Things have changed, Miss Lewis.” That was Maria Hill stepping out of the darkness, and Darcy let out a sigh of relief. “Stand down, agents.” She flicked a look at Darcy. “Your ride will be here in ten.”

“Awesome. I’m ready for some superhero snuggles and, oh god, I need pizza.”

“Unfortunately, you won’t be staying here.”

“Where am I going?”

“That’s up to you. I don’t recommend New York.”

Stunned, Darcy hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder. “But I live in the Tower,” she protested. “My stuff is there.”

“Not right now you don’t.” Hill jerked her chin at the Avengers building. “It’s complicated.”

“Clint?”

“Isn’t in New York.”

“Nat?”Darcy searched Maria’s face, wondering if the pair had split up.

“Is busy.”

Unable to understand why Maria was being so cold, Darcy asked softly, “Can I at least talk to Steve?”

“Rogers is no longer a part of the Avengers Initiative.”

The gasp of shock from Darcy was real, but the hard line of Maria’s mouth and her quick glance at the guards had Darcy snapping her mouth shut. What in the hell had happened since January?

An SUV and a sporty purple car pulled up alongside Maria and Darcy, separating them from the four guards. An agent stepped out of the car, leaving it running as she climbed into the back seat of the SUV.

Maria motioned for Darcy to get inside. Darcy threw her backpack across to the passenger side, then plopped down into the driver’s seat. “If Clint’s not here, why am I driving Clint’s car?” she asked.

“It was cluttering up our storage unit,” Maria answered drily, pressing the button to lower the glass window. She shut the door with a firm thunk . “Go home, Darcy,” Maria ordered, loud enough for the guards to hear. “You’ll be escorted to town. After that, you’re on your own.”

Confused and more than a little frightened, Darcy buckled in. “You just said to get out of New York. I’m pretty sure my license and cell phone are still at my apartment.”

“Go home ,” Maria insisted, this time letting Darcy see the strain on her face.

Oh. Home meant Kansas. “Okay.”

“And call your uncle,” Maria added, sotto voce , as she signaled the lead car to move out.

Darcy shifted the car into gear, wondering exactly how she was going to do that without a cell phone.

Two hours later, with the needle on the gas gauge dipping uncomfortably low, Darcy flashed her lights at the SUV that was still leading her on a dizzying maze of unlit back roads. A quarter-mile later, the SUV made a left, and then a right, and then Darcy was across a major road with a tattered, but well-lit convenience store on the other side.

Desperate to pee, Darcy snatched up her backpack--because science!-- after she parked in front of the gas pumps and darted inside the store. Much relieved by the break, she peeked at a local map that proved she was still in upstate New York and the road was I-87. Happy that she had her bearings, she returned to the parking lot, only to find the SUV was long gone.

Fuck.

For two long breaths, panic crawled up her throat before she battled it down. “Alright, Darcy,” she muttered. “Get your head in the game.”

Maria had to have given her Clint’s car for a reason. Darcy searched the car first, hoping to find her cell phone or wallet somewhere inside.

The glove box held insurance and registration papers for the car, along with a driver's license for Clint in a name Darcy didn’t recognize. The hidden compartment under one of the floor mats in the back seat--she would bet THAT wasn’t a standard feature on this model--had a couple of good throwing knives, a stash of protein bars, and two bottles of water. She tucked one of the knives in her hoodie pocket and left the rest alone.

The trunk held an emergency roadside kit and duffel bag. It wasn’t a true bug-out bag since all it had was peanut butter crackers and clothing that would fit anyone ranging from Clint to Nat’s size, but wouldn’t raise any red flags if the car was searched either. Neither would the kit, even if it had triple the usual number of flares and batteries. The flashlight came in handy, and Darcy used it to examine the trunk and backseat once more to make sure she hadn’t missed anything important.

Darcy wanted to keep searching, sure she would find cash stashed somewhere on the car, but it was awkward digging through the backseat at two a.m. where the cashier kept giving her weird looks through the window.

Frustrated, she slid back into the driver’s seat, plucking at the straps of her backpack before ruthlessly yanking the whole thing into her lap. Was it weird that she hugged the purple suede and leather bag close, since Clint was the one to give it to her and she really, really missed his resourcefulness right now?

She slumped against the seat, wondering how in the nine hells she was supposed to call Uncle Logan if she didn’t even have a quarter for a pay phone. Assuming she could find one before she ran out of gas anyway.

Firmly squashing the imminent tears, she rubbed her cheek along the soft fabric material of the backpack. She hugged it a little closer, feeling the laptop’s hard edges through the suede.

And then she rolled her eyes. Aw, Darcy, no, she scolded herself.

She emptied the backpack into the passenger seat to examine the inside with the flashlight. Sure enough, one edge of the fabric covering the hard backing designed to protect the laptop had a row of neat stitches from top to bottom. Darcy made short work of them with the knife she’d stashed in her pocket. The hard backing turned out to be a thin, sturdy plastic folder lined with cash and two fake passports, all neatly stacked and banded to be perfectly flat.

“I really, really love you, Clint Barton,” she breathed, one tear dancing down her cheek. Grateful for her boyfriend’s foresight, she peeled off four one-hundred dollar bills and tucked them into her pocket. She stuffed another five in her shoe, returned the rest to their hiding place, and reloaded the backpack.

With cash in hand and some sort of identity, Darcy waltzed into the convenience store to pay for gas, a big bottle of water, and a bag of peanut M&Ms that would tide her over until she found something resembling dinner.

“Do you carry any cell phones?” she asked the cashier.

A thumbed gesture sent Darcy one aisle over where she found a decent cell phone with a sim card and prepaid minutes, along with a charging port and an earpiece that probably wasn’t the best quality, but would let her keep two hands on the steering wheel. She paid for all of it with one of the bills, doing her best not to be impatient while the cashier checked to make sure it wasn’t a forgery. Satisfied, the cashier handed over Darcy’s change without further issue.

While she filled the gas tank, she activated the phone and stuck both it and the earpiece on the charging port.

By the time she found a McDonald’s, Darcy was starving and dawn edged the sky. Grateful for coffee and breakfast, she settled into a booth to fire up her now-charged phone. While she devoured a couple of breakfast biscuits and sucked down a whole cup of coffee, she activated the cell phone.

She only had a handful of numbers memorized these days: the farm, Mama, Jane, Uncle Logan, and the voice mail number Clint and Nat had insisted she memorize.

Darcy called that one first. “Hey, Iowa. I, uh, I’m home. Or I’m here. I’m going home. I’m, uh, a little confused. And worried. And I miss you. And Nat, if you’re listening. I hope you’re both okay.” She rattled off the new phone number, said a short good-bye, and hung up as she blinked back more tears.

Her next call was to Jane, but it went to voicemail too, and Darcy was too nervous to leave a message or text when she wasn’t sure what was going on.

Mama’s phone was disconnected, and the phone at the farm rang, and rang, and rang. On the tenth ring, she gave up, yanking out a napkin to blot back the damp from her face. That killed the rest of her appetite, so she dumped her trash and headed back to the car.

There, she fitted the earpiece in place and made the last phone call on her short list.

Four rings, five. Then--

“What the fuck do you want?” a familiar voice growled.

“Oh thank fuck, Uncle Logan. What the hell is going on?”

“Where are you?” he demanded.

“The Avengers kicked me out of the house. Or--well, they didn’t even let me in. They threw Clint’s car at me and shoved me off the compound. I’m on 87 heading south.”

“Good. You going home through Chicago or Columbus?“

“Does it matter?” She asked as she backed the car out of the parking lot and navigated back to the freeway.

“Construction’s a bitch through Columbus.”

“Then I’ll do Chicago. What happened?”

“Barnes got accused for some shit he didn’t do. Stark got pissed over some shit he did do, even if it was ancient history. Rogers told the Avengers and the Sokovia Accords to fuck off. Wilson went with him. So did the girl and the ant guy.”

“Natasha? And who’s the ant guy?”

“No. Maximoff and Lang. Think Lang went home anyway.”

“Clint?”

“Refused to sign. Official line is he retired.”

Holy shitballs. Darcy’s heart ached for Nat. No wonder Maria was curt. “Where is he?”

“Darcy-darling, you gotta get home. Barton’s there.”

Relief rushed through her, enough that she got a chill from the adrenaline. Still, there was something in Logan’s voice. “What else?”

Logan’s usual gruff voice softened. “Your dad took a bad fall. Had a couple of surgeries on his knee so far. Barton’s a good kid. Didn’t think twice about heading to Kansas when I told ‘im.”

Darcy’s heart fell out. “Mama called you? Her phone is disconnected.”

“‘Course she did. And Barton would have made her change it since that’s how S.H.I.E.L.D. stayed in touch. Now, you coming through Chicago?”

She blinked, wondering if that’s why Jane’s rolled to voice mail too. “Yeah.”

“Be there around noon, right?”

“I think so.”

“You can crash at the shop ‘til the guys go home. I’ll let ‘em know you’re coming.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m busy. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”

“Okay.” The phone clicked off, leaving Darcy to dab at her eyes in silence while she drove.

She held it together for the trip. She cranked up the radio whenever she could find a decent station. Fuck, she missed her iPod. But there wasn’t anything to do about that, except drive. The guys at Logan’s automotive shop showed her where the couch was, and she crashed for a couple of hours in the early afternoon before getting back on the road to home.

The last lonely mile home was accompanied by a star-filled night sky and the smudge of headlights on the road as she navigated the narrow roads. When she turned onto the gravel drive, the house blazed bright with lights in the windows and on the porch.

She stopped, shifting the car into park.

A dog barked as she climbed the three steps to the front door. When Darcy pushed open the front door, Clint’s tattered-looking retriever wagged his tail at her, barking happily as he tracked water across the living room.

“Hey, Lucky,” she greeted with a pat to his head. Her parents had brought home the dog just before Christmas, and when Clint had come with Darcy to visit, there was no doubt that he was Clint’s dog, through and through. Lucky followed Clint everywhere, even when Clint took flight, happy to amble along on the ground.

Dog toys dotted the entry way. There was a muddy shoe print on the rug, and the kitchen table was loaded with groceries that hadn’t been put away yet. Patches of water dotted the wood floor.

She followed the mess and discovered Clint lying under the kitchen sink with a wrench, a flashlight, and a thin trail of water dripping from the cabinet. Lucky bumped his nose against Clint’s knees, letting out a low woof .

Clint eased out from under the sink, keeping his wings clamped firmly to his back. When he caught sight of Darcy, his face fell. He swept a look around the kitchen. “Okay, this looks bad,” he said in chagrin.

She dropped the backpack on the table with the groceries, walking straight to him as he scrambled to his feet and caught her in a hard hug. “No,” she told him as she broke down in tears. “It really doesn’t.”

 

 

Chapter Text

36/Begin As You Mean To Go On

 

Clint held Darcy, and yeah, maybe he was feeling a little protective, considering the way he’d instinctively mantled his wings around her. But she felt good pressed against his chest with her fingers curled into his coverts. Adrenaline flushed his system. It was a conscious effort not to shudder from it, but he wouldn’t be Hawkeye if he didn’t know how to control his physical reactions.

He’d missed her something awful. Living with her parents and sleeping in her bed had been a daily reminder that she wasn’t here .

Darcy wiped her face dry on the sleeve of her hoodie. His hoodie. Shit. His favorite purple one, too. “You swiped my hoodie,” he complained good-naturedly.

She sniffed, tilting her head back. “Finders keepers, Iowa.”

Her glossy eyes were blue and green today with a little bit of grey smudged in them. Clint dropped a kiss on her upturned lips. “I’ll remember that. I missed you, Kansas.”

Another tear spilled over her lashes. “I missed you. I missed this. And I need to know what happened because I don’t know anything and--”

He pressed another kiss to her lips, sucking a little on the bottom one before murmuring, “It’s all okay, honey.” Clint tilted his forehead to press against Darcy’s. “I’m gonna fix this mess in the kitchen while you call your mom. After that,  I’ll fill you in on the gossip while you take a shower, then we’re gonna get some sleep and go see your dad in the morning.”

Darcy searched his face before nodding once, wiping her face with her sleeve. His sleeve. Eh. Probably hers now.  Her arms went around his middle again, and this time he hissed when she hit a tender spot.

That earned him a scowl as Darcy flipped up his t-shirt to study the yellowing bruises. “Does this have anything to do with Steve and Tony’s crap?”

He scratched the back of his neck. “Not really?” To distract her, he plucked his cell phone off the table, pressing his thumb to the screen to make a call before handing it over.

Scowl number two faded into relief as she glanced at the name before holding the phone to her ear. “Hi, Mom.” Her voice was still gravelly from her crying jag, and it only got thicker as she talked to her mom. Absently, she opened the pantry and began putting away the groceries Clint had dumped on the table.

Knowing that Charlene would give Darcy the rundown on her dad--there was a goat, a chewed up shed door, and a short ladder involved in that story-- Clint went back to cleaning up the water under the sink.

Darcy’s mom had warned him that potato peels couldn’t go through the ancient garbage disposal. Judging by the amount of water he’d found when he came home from the grocery store, it must have been leaking since lunch.

Which, not coincidentally, was when Clint had been stuffing potato peels down the sink.

Courtesy of a long phone call to Bill, who was still resting in the hospital after his latest knee surgery, Clint got the disposal cleaned out and reinstalled. He might have also ordered a new one guaranteed to handle potato peels, but it wouldn’t be here for another week.

As he finished his mop up, Lucky stuck his nose in the cabinet. A scratch behind his ear settled him enough that the dog was content to flop down on the floor, angling his head to keep his one good eye on both humans.

Clint gave Lucky one more scratch over the ears, grateful that the dog had recovered in spite of the loss of an eye and a hunk of his left ear. Charlene and Bill hadn’t thought twice about picking the poor guy up from the vet where he’d been recovering, but from the moment Clint stepped foot on the farm last summer, Lucky made it clear where his loyalties lay.  

Clint’d never had a dog before. All things considered, it was pretty awesome.  

Darcy clicked off the phone call as she stuffed the last bag of flour in the pantry, then sagged against the wall, exhaustion in every line of her body as she eyed the bananas on the table.

“Wanna give me a sitrep?” he asked as he got to his feet to pluck one from the bowl. He peeled it open, handing it to her in chunks. “Logan didn’t give me a lot of intel, other than that you were on your way.”

“I’m probably lucky he called at all. That man does not like cell phones,” she replied after she ate the first bite. “When did he call you?”

“Uh, about the time I figured out the sink was leaking?”

“That asshole,” Darcy grumbled as she took another hunk of banana from Clint. “I called him this morning before the sun came up.”  She ate the bite she had, then plucked the rest of the fruit out of his hand.

“I might give him a pass, Kansas. The X-Men were in Latveria. Dr. Doom’s making snarky noises again, and fuck if I’m glad I’m not in on that one.”

Darcy stuffed the rest of the banana in her mouth and tugged his shirt up, eyeing his bruises again. “What were you doing then?” she demanded when she swallowed.

“I’ll let Steve explain.”

“Fuck.”

With a chuckle, Clint agreed, pulling Darcy into his arms again. She rested her head on his shoulder. “Sitrep?” he prompted.

“I want a shower,” she protested.  “I still have Asgard on my boots.”

“Can we do both?”

At her nod, Clint nudged her up the stairs, with Lucky trotting at their heels. Darcy gave him a quick rundown about her encounter with Maria Hill and the sketchy details from Logan while she washed up. He leaned against the counter to listen, fiddling with his hearing aid so it didn’t pick up the the sound of the water. He caught the gist, even if he missed a few details. (Asgard, Thor, Heimdall, Sif. Maria being all cold-shouldered, and Darcy freaking the fuck out.) He missed the next part, but that had nothing to do with his ears and everything to do with the way she leaned over to run a razor over her shins and calves, giving him a nice view of her pert ass.

Darcy shut the water off in time for him to hear, “--guess I can’t be mad about the backpack or the cash, since you got me home.”

Oh. That. “You found it?”

“Well, you didn’t hide a cell phone or cash in the car. I looked.”

Actually, neither was true. He’d have to show her the hiding place in the emergency kit in the trunk where he’d stashed both. He fiddled with his hearing aid again.

Darcy toweled off her hair.  “Probably best that I got here first. You didn’t need me blubbering all over you while trying to drive. So … your turn for a sitrep. You can start with January.”

Clint handed her a t-shirt she liked to sleep in and tried not to ogle as Darcy stretched it over her head, without much luck. At the close up view of a pair of truly beautiful boobs that he hadn’t laid eyes on in a solid six months, his cock twitched with more than a little interest. He schooled himself, yanking his eyes back to Darcy’s face as she tugged the shirt down. She smirked at his dismay, proving he hadn’t gotten away with that one at all.

“So, uh, Logan called me in February?” he babbled. “And you know there’s all the stuff about the Accords. I’m not a fan, so really, it sorta all made sense for me to be here. I mean, it’s coming on spring and the fields need to be prepped, and your parents could use another hand around the place with your dad laid up. Couple of the older hands are all right, but the young ones have all the sense of junior S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.  And hell, I’ve done enough PT that the physical therapist didn’t have to show me much about what all your dad’s gotta do.”

“Thank you,” Darcy interrupted. “It means a lot that you’re here.” She fiddled with her toothbrush.

Clint shrugged. “It’s something I can do.” When the edict had come down to either sign the Sokovia Accords or give up being an Avenger, Clint didn’t think twice about retiring. He’d been debating where to go when Logan called about Bill. Coulson happened to be at the Avengers compound. Clint caught a ride, and Melinda May hardly slowed the plane for him to launch off the cargo deck. That had been a wild flight. He scratched his nose, wondering exactly how he was going to tell Darcy about that one, then decided maybe she didn’t need to know all the details.

“Anyway, so Bill had his first surgery in March, and yeah, couple weeks later, Crossbones showed up in Nigeria and Wanda tried to contain a bomb blast he set off. She nearly did, too, but the energy slipped out of her grasp and smashed into a building. Wasn’t her fault, but seems like nobody gets that. And then there was another bomb at the UN where the Accords were supposed to be signed. The Wakandan king was murdered, and they tried to pin it on Bucky.”

“Where was he?”

“In the Avengers compound with Steve, so that was pretty easily debunked, but I guess somebody’s got a thing out for Barnes, ‘cause some old Hydra video was sent to Tony.” Clint hesitated. “Seems Barnes took out Stark’s parents on Hydra’s orders.”

“No.” Darcy winced.

“Yeah, and I guess Rogers knew and didn’t say anything to Stark. He got Barnes the hell out of there while Nat and Maria were clearing his name. Wilson went with him.” Clint swallowed hard. “And then that turned into a shitty confrontation, ‘cause Stark kind of went bonkers. He put Wanda under house arrest at the Avengers Facility, with Vision as the gatekeeper, ‘cause he was all scared of another thing like Laos, even though none of it was her fault. That kind of pissed me off when Wanda told me, so after I got the spring crew organized, I busted her out of there.”

He winced. “I was gonna bring her back, but it turned out the new Wakandan King, T’Challa, didn’t know the bomber wasn’t Bucky yet, and so he was all for going after Barnes with Stark. Nat tagged along with them because she wasn’t sure what Stark was going to do, and they chased Rogers and Barnes all the way to Berlin.

“Rogers called me needing back up, so I picked up a guy named Lang out west to help us. It got ugly, and we got into a pissy little squabble on this airport tarmac we won’t talk about--Stark’s totally paying for that one, by the way. In any case, we got Steve and Bucky clear to go into hiding.”

Darcy’s mouth fell open, and he placed a swift kiss on her temple as he continued, “Nat kinda helped on that last part, and she told Stark she knew about his parents too. Guess she found out when Rogers did. She’s knocked a little sense into Stark. He’s still a grumbly asshole, but he’s getting past it, according to her.”

“Where’s Wanda now?” Darcy asked as she tugged her sweats into place.

“She and Sam are killing time in San Francisco with Lang. I think she likes it out there.”

“Steve and Bucky? Jane? Nat?”

“When Rogers and Barnes got clear, the fight went out of everyone. Once Nat gave T’Challa the evidence clearing Bucky, the king refused to fight anymore, and the rest of us got the hell out of there before anyone could park us in an underwater prison for violating the Accords.” Clint scratched the back of his head. “Jane’s in Chile playing with the big telescopes. Cell phones are glitchy down there, but she’s been checking in a couple times a week to see if you’re back yet. And, uh, you know the McKenzie place?”

Darcy’s mouth widened into a real smile. “I’m guessing he found a buyer?”

“Uh, well, I got your ma got in touch with Pepper and these attorneys, Murdock and Nelson, got it all fixed up. There’s a shell corp now, and your parents are the shareholders, and um, they’re leasing it to a couple of city boys who don’t know jack about farming but have enough cash to park in a trust for a fifty year lease.”

“Where’d the money come from?”

“A private investor willing to front the cash in return for regular payments to another shell corp based in the Grand Caymans.”

Darcy laughed. “So let me get this straight. Steve and Bucky pay my parents, who pay you for fronting the money in the first place?”

“Hell, no. Logan ponied up the cash. Wanted something to hold over the heads of a couple of idiot Howling Commandos. The money your folks are sending along is to a whole different cover Logan set up for just that thing.”

With a suspicious glare, Darcy wondered, “Why get Logan involved at all?”

I’m not asking him. You ask him. I’m just a carnie. I don’t know this stuff.”

“That’s a load of crap. You and Nat have enough covers and property to land on every continent three times over under a different name.”

Clint squinted, pretending to think. “Yeah, pretty close.”

She chuckled, then yawned behind her hand. “Bed?”

“You go. I want to stretch m’ wings some.” He figured it wasn’t the time to mention the cramp in his wing from wedging himself under the sink.

But when her face fell, Clint changed his mind with a mock- groan that made her laugh. Once under the sheets, she latched onto him like a koala and fell hard asleep, probably before Lucky lurched onto the foot of the bed to make himself comfortable.

Clint dozed only until he could slip away without waking her. Lucky glared at him, clearly content to stay in bed, but shifted his legs with a yawn, as if to get up.

//Stay// he signed. Lucky blinked, then put his head back down, rolling a little to press up against Darcy’s leg.

Clint left his aids tucked in his pocket for his evening flight around the perimeter of the farm. The wind generally made the regular ones useless, and coms would have been overkill for a routine flight that was more about needing to be in the air than worrying about a perimeter breach. They had Friday for that now, both here and at the McKenzie place, and Clint wore a Stark version of a smartwatch that vibrated with messages and alerts whenever he had his aids out.

A half-mile off the ground, the night air cooled enough that the breeze gave him a boost of energy, and he veered upward for a couple of barrel rolls as he came down again, then dove backward until his toes dragged the treetops and he zipped upward again. This was the best part about the farm: the freedom to fly whenever and however he wanted.

On the far side of the farm, a pair of Winged Ones lazily cruised in circles until they veered to join him. They slotted neatly off his wingtips, with Steve giving Clint a little salute and Bucky ducking his head in a nod of acknowledgment.

The three of them traced the edges of the property until they landed at the farm house. Bucky and Steve exchanged a grin at the purple Challenger parked out front. //Darcy home?// Steve signed with bright smile.

//Yes,// Clint confirmed.

Bucky shifted from foot to foot. //Cookies?// he asked hopefully.

 

*****

 

Early the next morning, Darcy woke with both hands buried in feathers and a raging need to get her hands all over her boyfriend.  She might have “accidentally” stripped her shirt off and pressed against his back, one leg slung over his hip--and oh, holy fucking shitballs, his feathers on her nipples made her wet without even trying. He stretched, lifting his tail feathers as he did. The long shafts grazed the inside of her leg. She let out a squeak when the soft barbs brushed against her clit. Shit. It wouldn’t take much at all to come from THAT.

Still, though Clint hadn’t moved away from her touch, she only held him around the waist, hoping this wasn’t too much for him.

To her delight, he rolled over with a sweet groan and a hard, hard cock. She swept a thumb across the tip. He grunted as she found the slick there and used it to dampen the foreskin.

With a hard swallow and a lazy smile, Clint signed, //Hold bed.// As he knelt between her legs, Darcy reached for the low headboard to clutch the wooden edge. His broad, powerful hands glided along her skin as if it were the finest of silks when he lay down to lick her slit.  The delicate touch of the tip of his tongue flickered over her clit, and Darcy twisted her hips, wanting more.  

But Clint only laughed, his breath caressing her mons as he held her hips still. Then he flared his primaries, and drew a single feather across her nipple, just as he sucked her clit into his mouth.  

Darcy’s mind short-circuited as she arched against the sheets. This was a first, and oh, god, the individual barbs scraped across her nipple, sending sparks all the way to her core. Two fingers slid into her heat, and Clint grinned as the orgasm flashed over her. She soaked his hand while he brushed the feather across the taut peak of her breast in rhythmic sweeps.  

“Clinton Francis Barton--”

His hands, mouth, and feathers pulled away, and Darcy growled in frustration. Apparently speaking was cheating this morning, even if Clint could read lips. She lifted her hands long enough to fingerspell //C-L-I-N-T-O-N-F-R-A-N-C-I-S-B-A-R-T-O-N.//

He shook one hand in laughter and went back to lapping at her clit while flicking the tips of his feathers across her nipple as he held her hips in place. With all the sensations--hard thumbs digging into the hollow of her pelvis, the scrape of the short barbs on her increasingly sensitive breasts, his mouth sucking on her clit--she tried to widen her legs to coax him to get with the program, but he only eased off her clit until she hovered on the edge, though his feathers never stopped.

Clint licked once, then sucked hard on her clit. She came. With the first hard contraction, he rose over her with nimble grace to slide hilt-deep in one powerful movement. Suddenly filled, she could only hold on as he plunged into her with sharp jerks of his hips. And then, it was as if her whole body took over the motion, clutching his cock to drag it deeper until he jerked uncontrollably as he came in the midst of her orgasm. They rode the waves until they eased into stillness, and Clint pressed his face into her neck, his wings collapsing around them. Darcy curled her hands around his biceps, keeping him close as they caught their breath.

It wasn’t until Clint shifted to let one trapped breast resettle more comfortably between them that Darcy’s brain came fully online.

Yesterday had to count in the top five most terrifying for Darcy (London and Malekith still won that one by a wide margin).

She hadn’t really questioned Clint and home being the same goal until she’d walked into the kitchen, and now maybe she understood how he made it through the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. with little more than his wits and the knowledge Darcy was on his side.

She tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. At his sleepy blink, revealing eyes of gold with a smattering of blue when he managed to keep them open, she smiled, signing, /ILY./

He rolled off to the side, though no farther than a breath away, so that he could sign back, /ILY./

 

 

Chapter Text

37/Snapshots from the Family Album

 

Darcy skipped down the stairs, determined to whip up a batch of cookies to take to her dad this morning. She sniffed the air, wondering who had started coffee and bacon.

Clint shuffled along in her wake, making grumpy noises about perky morning people. He’d left his aids on the bedside table, so Darcy only signed, //Coffee first// and blew him a kiss. He pretended to scowl, but his eyes lit up with mischief. She felt a million times better this morning, even if she had a whole list of worries to resolve.

She checked three items off that list when she rounded the corner to the kitchen.

Steve manned the stove while Bucky poured up coffee, wingtips entangled as they worked. Natasha sipped from Clint’s favorite mug at the dining table with Lucky sprawled under her chair. Letting out a whoop, Darcy breezed over to steal a hug from Nat before getting one each from the boys.

Clint swiped the carafe of coffee on his way to collapse face down at the other end of the table. Bucky scowled as he rummaged through the pantry for a spare. Steve slid plates in front of the ladies, and Clint promptly stole a piece of bacon off Nat’s without opening his eyes.

Bucky bopped the back of Clint’s head. //Manners, asshole,// he signed when Clint popped his head up.

//Bacon// Clint signed back, his motions sharp with emphasis.

Scowling, Bucky blocked Steve from setting another plate in front of Clint. //Try again?//

//Asshole,// Clint complained, though to Nat, he signed, //Sorry.//

She shrugged. //You stop?//

Clint grinned. //No.//

//I know.//

Darcy laughed at their teasing, then realized she’d followed the whole conversation without missing a single word. Bucky noticed her astonishment and sent her a wink of understanding, his primaries twitching with happiness.

When Steve and Bucky took their seats at the table, Darcy didn’t mince words. “Are you and Tony still pouting in opposite corners?” she asked Steve. “Because I have a dissertation on the line and apparently a lack of housing courtesy of your squabbles.”

“Maybe.” Steve pinked as Bucky slicked his feathers down unhappily.

Natasha threw him a frosty glare. “My girlfriend’s unhappy with you too.” Nat turned to Darcy. “Jane packed up all your stuff, but Pepper says you can move back in whenever you want. Apparently, room and board is included in your fellowship, which has been renewed for another year so you can write your thesis. And you’re not the only one bitching. Wilson liked the Aerie, too.”

Steve leaned back in his chair, rubbing the back of his neck in chagrin. “Anyone know where I can send an overnight FedEx?”

Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. “My mom has some boxes here so she could send me stuff. I’ll get you one and drop it off on the way to the hospital.”

 

*****

 

Still giggling at Steve’s handwriting--it really did look like “Tony Stank” on the box--Darcy zipped through the hospital. Clint held her hand, and they ignored the occasional titters as they navigated the corridors.

Charlene greeted Darcy with happy tears and a long hug. Bill did the same, grumbling a little as he tried to balance on one foot. Clint slid an arm under Bill’s shoulder to lend support, and Darcy smiled at the way her dad clasped Clint’s forearm in thanks -- no words, just a short, appreciative nod that made her boyfriend light up at the approval.

When Bill signed the last of the papers so he could go home, Charlene fussed over him as she packed up the flowers and books scattered all over the room. Darcy positioned the wheelchair for easy access. Clint assisted her dad from bed to chair, then did his own bit of fussing as he rolled Bill down the hall to the elevator.

Later that night, she marveled at the way Clint and Lucky slotted neatly into her family, taking on farm chores with aplomb. Natasha didn’t quite mesh with the same ease, like the elegant black kitten who had taken to stalking the spy as she walked the perimeter of the yard. The cat seemed to think she belonged wherever Nat went, camping out on the porch whenever she ventured inside.

 

*****

 

Jane checked in, squealing when she heard Darcy’s voice. With Darcy due to meet with her advisors, Jane promised to be in New York for the week. Nat kept Darcy company on that trip, insisting that they stay in the Aerie’s apartment. It occurred to Darcy that Nat missed her--though like Liho-the-cat who stalked off the moment someone tried to get close, Nat stayed busy with Avengers business and her girlfriend while Darcy was in town.

 

*****

 

Darcy and Clint spied from the barn while Tony and Steve used the farm as neutral ground to work out their issues. Bucky sat on the front porch while the two men grumbled about shitty situations and things they couldn’t control. Tony still couldn’t quite meet Bucky’s eyes when he held out his hand, not until he discovered Bucky’s hand trembling. And then Tony swore a blue streak, admitting his dad had been fucking with the wrong things, and if Howard paid the price for his own hubris, then surely Tony had done the same, and Bucky wasn’t at fault for any of it.

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose as he fought for composure.

 

*****

 

Clint and Darcy reined in near a creek that ran along the back of the property. There was a little clearing where they loosed the horses to graze, and then Darcy spread a blanket on the ground for the picnic lunch she’d packed for the two of them. She loosened her shirt, tying up the ends under her breasts in a knot that left her torso bare. Clint relaxed his wings while he dug into the sandwiches. Half a wing landed on Darcy’s lap, making her twitch as it tickled her thigh, but she didn’t mind at all.

“I love this spot,” she admitted. “I don’t get out here often enough.”

“Please tell me this isn’t the spot Barnes and Rogers use for their trysts,” Clint drawled.

Darcy laughed. “It totally is. But I threatened them with stable duty if they showed up anywhere near here.”

Clint winced as he sprawled out on the blanket and toed off his boots and socks, shifting so that he could stretch his wings out on the ground to soak up the sun. “I don’t think I needed to know that.”

She scooted over next to him, taking care to avoid his feathers. “I don’t have to ask if you like it here,” she offered from where she knelt by his hip.

He laced his fingers behind his head. “Nope.” He grimaced though, drawing his brows together. “What’s it gonna be like when we go back?”

“Pretty sure I’ll be writing, and you’ll be sneaking out to save the world,” Darcy said with a wry smile. With the mounting pressure to publish the ground-breaking information, Columbia had given her a tiny office not far from her advisors to work.

Then again, as she licked a finger and dragged it across the strip of skin showing where Clint’s t-shirt had pulled up, her boyfriend was a gorgeous distraction, so maybe it wasn’t a bad idea.

He grinned, flopping over on his back. “Will you--” He lifted his wing a little.

Darcy did a lousy job of hiding her shock, but she managed to sign //Okay,// anyway. With one hand on his chest, she set the other down on the covert feathers in the center of his right wing. She worked her fingers to where the feathers were clustered the thickest and delicately worked them out again, coming away with a tuft of down that fluttered away on the light breeze.

He kept his eyes on her face as she combed through his feathers. Every few seconds, she darted another look at him to make sure he was okay. And he was. Darcy gave him a slowly widening smile. “Wow,” she breathed.

Clint cradled his head on his elbow and closed his eyes. “Yeah. Wow.”

She freed most of the loose feathers before Clint got twitchy from boredom. He tugged her to her feet and boosted her onto Max’s back.

They rode side-by-side on horseback toward the hayfield, passing the shooting range Bucky and Clint had set up on the little hill that wasn’t so good for farming. As they rode down the slope, Darcy could see the hay crop was growing nicely--except for a patch on the far side. Darcy angled that way to look at the problem.

The problem wasn’t the hay crop. The problem was a neat row of tiny trees, not even tall enough to poke over the top of the grasses nearby. The crisp snap of fir and pine drifted on the wind.

“Christmas trees?” Darcy asked in astonishment, urging Max to a stop.

Clint laughed as he reined in. “I wanted to surprise you. We’ve planted three different kinds of trees on this field: Austrian Pine, Frasier Firs, and Douglas Firs. Bill’s experimenting with a few other varieties on that last row.”

“Why Christmas trees?”

“Nat’s idea. For one, it’s a good fit for a small farm. We can still turn a good profit, and believe it or not, one of us can do most of the work during the year. At the holidays, it’s easy enough to find teenagers and farmhands looking to pick up a few extra bucks.”

“And the other?”

“Christmas trees, Darcy,” Clint said earnestly.

Darcy chortled in glee.

 

*****

Jane and Thor complained about the Aerie being far too empty these days, though with the rift repaired between Steve and Tony, the Avengers plus a few newcomers flitted in and out of the Tower on a regular basis. Darcy made daily trips to Columbia to work on her thesis. She had one more round of edits to go, and then she would be done.

Knowing Clint was due back any time now, Darcy closed up her laptop to head for home. He, along with Scott, Sam, and Wanda, had sneaked into a Guatemalan smuggler’s house to retrieve a thumb drive the Avengers needed for a mission in Panama. Darcy was pretty sure Clint was just happy to shoot his exploding arrows.

She breezed into Nat and Clint’s Aerie’s apartment to discover he was home. (Though she’d been staying there exclusively, she still thought of it as theirs, not hers.)  He’d showered, changed, and someone had managed to wrap a bandage around his bicep and knuckles. With damp hair and sparkling eyes, he sauntered through the apartment to lay a kiss on her lips that threatened to melt her panties off. “Missed you, Kansas,” he murmured as he pulled her into his embrace.

Aw, damn it. Darcy had to have her hands on him. And oh, the freedom to run her hands through his feathers without a single flinch! He only leaned into the kiss as she buried her fingers into the downy coverts on the leading edge of his wing. “You’re okay,” she affirmed, pulling back to study his eyes (green battled with blue today). They were clear, and his warm, neat feathers whispered health and strength to her practiced fingertips.

“Uh huh. Starving too,” he agreed.

“What are you hungry for?”

“Pizza?” he pleaded.

“In or out?”

“In.”

“Here or the Nest.”

“Here. Nat’s in DC with Hill.”

Darcy squinted. “Good op?”

He nodded. “She’s okay. Think she and Maria want to go scare the shit out of some Senators. There’s a shindig on Capitol Hill. Maria’s got an invite with a plus one.”

“That was a mistake,” Darcy noted with glee. “I’d love to be in on that.”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “Do you need to be? I’ve got connections.”

Darcy started to laugh it off, then snapped her mouth shut, thinking about her research. “Ah, maybe? If you’re serious.”

“You’re going to need company, right?” Clint noted, with bright eyes. “A professional spy to pick up gossip and a personal bodyguard for protection.”

“Pretty sure Nat would take you whenever you wanted, Iowa,” she teased.

“Yeah, but that would be official Avengers business. Tagging along in a political entourage would be way more fun.” Clint ducked his head thoughtfully, letting his fingers trail over the bare skin between her shirt and shorts. “If you wanted me there.”

Darcy snorted. “Like I know anything about politics.” She shrugged. “I mean, I get it on paper. I can write a brief. I can make a killer presentation. But selling the concept to the right people at the right time to really get things done? That’s a whole different ball game.”

“I can help with that. It’s what I do,” Clint said simply, tucking his fingers into the waistband of her shorts.

“Huh?”

“I sell people the story they want. If I’m good at it, I get the information I need.”

She had to pause to think about that, frowning as she sucked on her bottom lip. She’d seen him do it back home, charming the whole bar. “Have--” she started, though she really didn’t know if she should ask. Or if she wanted to know.

“Have I done it to you?” he asked, with a touch of bitterness. “Of course I have. Got you to warm up to me right off the bat over pizza in the Nest.”

Darcy frowned. That wasn’t the answer she was expecting.

Clint sighed. “Still want to be with a spy?”

But she could only think about the dozens of phone calls while Clint was on the run after Hydra came to light, and the way he fought to let her preen his feathers. “Absolutely,” she promised. “Still want to date a slightly broke graduate student who lives with her parents on occasion?”

He cupped her cheek. “I do.”

“Then we don’t have a problem, unless you don’t help me pick out a dress.”

 

*****

 

Not only was her dissertation published, the news media latched onto it, and Darcy was in demand for a speaking circuit that included everything from Oxford College to 60 Minutes to The View.

Clint kept to the sidelines, most people never recognizing the Avenger in their midst unless he had a reason to flare his purple wings. He didn’t quite hide, but he stayed in Darcy’s shadow, quietly helping her navigate this new political arena.

Thor appeared now and again for her interviews, lending her an unparalleled credibility to even the most disbelieving of audiences.

 

*****

 

Clint and Darcy converted the attic into a real living space. They spent one whole week prying up the wood floor so they could soundproof the whole attic before re-laying the planks and refinishing them to a glossy shine. Bucky helped with the framing, Steve did the painting, and on Logan’s next visit, they plumbed a new bathroom with Bill giving advice from the sidelines.

Darcy hung a pair of shelves over the headboard and placed all the gifts Clint had given her on it. The next day, she discovered a third shelf with a whole host of new additions that he’d collected while she was on Asgard.

Charlene went with Darcy to Kansas City where they bought a new mattress set and all new linens for the king-sized bed frame Bill and Clint built for the new room.

When Natasha came home for a last minute visit, she crawled in the middle for four nights running, until Maria stole a quinjet to apologize in person.

 

*****

 

Darcy flashed a smile at Nat. “Want to go riding?”

Natasha shook herself out of her blanket, as Liho yawned in annoyance. The cat followed the pair to the barn. Once Nat saddled Max, Liho leaped to his back, then waited while Nat mounted the horse to park her rump on the leather.

Whenever Bill grumbled about kids bringing home strays, Darcy was never sure if he was talking about her or the pets Clint and Nat had adopted.

After a good circuit of the farm to exercise the horses, the two women brushed them down and turned them loose for the afternoon.

Darcy was distracted walking back to the house, entirely because Bill had corralled his extra help to finish cleaning up the tractor barn. Clint had stripped off his tunic to work. His dusty jeans and boots contrasted with the shiny skin and work gloves. From time to time, as he dragged a piece of wood or metal into a new pile, he flared his wings for balance.

Clint caught her staring and blew her a kiss. She was sure she turned beet red from the heat in her cheeks, but she “caught” the kiss and pressed it to her lips anyway.

“Ya’ll are adorable,” Natasha drawled in a perfect Texas accent.

“Oh, shut up,” Darcy scolded.

 

******

 

With Clint sneaking around with Steve and Sam, Darcy camped out in the new attic office space to work up a proposal for Pepper. Stark Industries had a team on board now that focused solely on galactic trade opportunities. Darcy’s observations from her time on Asgard garnered her a hefty consulting fee, and Pepper had been glad to pay it.

It also gave her a good distraction from thinking about Clint, Steve, and the op they were on. Charlene knocked on her door after two days to insist that she eat something other than yogurt.

That got her to come up for air, but her fingers itched to do something since she didn’t have Clint’s wings to preen, and Bucky was too skittish today to let her play with his feathers.

But he flopped down on the sofa next to Darcy, eying the knitting project she’d started, a silver glove for his right hand.

“Not exactly hiding anything, doll,” he quipped.

Darcy looped the metallic yarn around her needle. “You’ll match, anyway. I needed a challenge.”

He kept her company through the quiet evening of television with Charlene and Bill. As it grew late, Charlene brought over a bundle of blankets and set them down next to Bucky.

“It’s cold. You take those home tonight.” She tilted her head, considering. “You sure you want to go back home tonight? With the boys gone, I’m not so sure you should be by yourself. Besides, it’s snowing.”

Bucky glanced at Darcy, his feathers slicking down--a clear sign of his unhappiness. Darcy nodded encouragingly, and he turned back to Charlene. “If you don’t mind, I’ll stay here, ma’am.”

“I’ll just put these blankets on your bed, then.”

 

*****

 

“You’re gonna wear a hole in the porch, doll,” Bucky quipped, his metal fingers scratching Lucky’s head while the dog’s eyelid closed in bliss.

Darcy scowled at him as she checked her phone for the third time that minute. “You know, you could be helpful and do a fly-over to see where they are.”

He leaned on the railing, flaring his wings a little to catch the breeze. “Nah. They’ll be here in good time. Want to go for a ride?”

 

*****

 

“Need a few things done before the kids get back from exercising the horses,” Bill told Steve and Clint. “Take the truck if you need it. Keys are on the visor. Be back before dinner.” With that, he shut the front door, leaving Steve gaping like a fish on the porch.

Clint was sure he didn’t look much better. He glared at the list in his hand. “Guess we’re going to the grocery store for milk and bread. Feed store for chicken feed, and the hardware store for a couple extra pairs of gloves.” He rubbed his tired eyes, chuckling a little. “The diner’s got a charity fund going for a family who lost their house in a fire. We’re supposed to do something about that too.”

Steve grimaced. “I don’t think this is what Maria meant by keeping our heads down.”

“Nat will scrub the social media if it’s a problem,” Clint reminded him.

They were fifteen minutes down the road before Clint clued in that he and Steve weren’t in good graces with Darcy’s parents. He said as much aloud.

“Ya think?” Steve shot back, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Ma used to do the same thing; load me down with chores whenever I was in trouble.”

Clint tried to remember what he might have done to piss Bill off as he scratched his nose under the bandage strapped across it. Wincing because it hurt, he bitched, “Aw, nose, no.” Then he took good look at the dark bruise on Steve’s cheek and his spiky, tattered blue feathers. “Oh.”

“Yeah, Buck’s gonna have a field day with me,” Steve muttered. “Jerk’s been after me since we were in short pants about getting knocked around.”

“Think Darcy’s gonna have words?”

Steve just arched a brow. “Pretty sure CNN got that little skirmish on live TV.”

“Shit.”



*****

 

Bucky bopped his mate on the back of the head when Steve tried to pull away too soon.

“Ow.”

“Don’t you ‘ow’ me, punk. Be still, and I won’t hurt you. Not my fault you had to be the hero and take a dive into the drink. I’ll oil your damned wings, and you can go out and save the world again, but be still so I can do it right.”

Clint chuckled while he snuggled with Darcy on the sofa. She toyed with his primaries, sliding a thumbnail along the barbs to assure herself he’d come back in one piece.

He wondered how she’d look wearing his primary. He wondered if that was even a thing she’d do.

 

*****

 

A trip back to the Tower for a Stark Industries meeting ended up with most of the Avengers in house for the weekend.

It was Jane who made the suggestion, and Clint practically bounced through the Aerie in happiness.

Darcy eyed Thor with trepidation. “You swear you won’t drop my ass when I get snarky because I’m nervous.”

“Of course not. My Jane would be quite disappointed with me,” he promised with dancing blue eyes.

Still hyper from excitement, Clint teased Nat mercilessly until she threatened to put spiders in his bug out bag. Real ones, not the plastic kind she’d left in Darcy’s apartment ages ago. And maybe they were all a little silly, but they were here and alive and needed the laugh to know that everyone was okay.

Darcy appreciated Maria’s deadpan humor as she separated the two, and the slick way she relieved Clint of the cookies he’d palmed off the snack table.

Natasha strapped the harness to Darcy and showed her the best way to feel secure, even though there was no danger of her falling off Thor at all.

Clint bounced up and down on his heels like an excited puppy, and it was Bucky who set a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.

And so it became a family outing, of sorts, with Natasha harnessed to Steve and Darcy to Thor while her best friend looked on. Jane adjusted the straps one last time on her mate, while Sam fussed over the knit caps Nat and Darcy wore. He’d opted for the jet pack this time, and given the way he and Bucky eyeballed each other, Darcy was sure there would be a little not-so-friendly competition going on.

The moment Steve gave him the all-clear, Clint leapt into the air with a powerful downsweep that shot him vertical. Sam and Bucky followed, staying on his wingtips. Jane pressed a kiss to Thor’s mouth and dove off the edge of the landing platform, popping up seconds later in a race to catch up.

Thor spread his wings to catch the breeze as Darcy curled her hands around the leather straps that ran along his spine. His tail feathers shifted underneath her as he flared them out, and then they were aloft as Thor veered into the winds. He took them up and away from Stark Tower, his great black and red wings flexing in long sweeps.

Darcy’s stomach dipped and swirled as they flew, and she didn’t know where to look--down at the shrinking buildings, up at Clint where he made a purple smudge against the sky. If there was such a thing as sky-dancing, he was doing it, with flips and twirls.

She laughed as Thor flew, loving every second of this. And when Clint dropped down to fly wingtip- to- wingtip with Thor, he had that soft, shocked smile on his face.

Darcy held up one hand to sign. //ILY.//

Clint winked, then rolled over on his back to show off his acrobatic prowess a little more.

Chapter Text

38/Epilogue--I Think You Lost a Feather Redux

 

The bad thing about small towns was the lack of contact with much of the outside world. Life swirled around saying grace at the table, going to church on Sunday, working hard during the week, and playing even harder on Saturday nights. The locals tended to poke their noses in everybody’s business out of pure boredom, and the smallest speculation spread like a wildfire in a wheat field.

The good thing about small towns was that they protect their own. Once word got around that all the Winged Ones were veterans, drove trucks, and came into town for their supplies instead of shipping them in from Amazon, the gossip stopped swirling around the differences and moved on to wondering when Darcy would start having babies, and if her boyfriend wasn’t quite a natural farmhand, he was damned sure a hard worker and that was rare enough these days that he was held up as an example to the younger set.

Clint scratched his head a lot when big city sensibilities ran into small town conventions. He and Bill shared a glass or two on occasion at the bar and sometimes riled up the others with sharp-witted insight on the latest political debate. But no matter the outcome, the little town proudly turned out whenever Darcy was on television. Charlene got a lot of visitors on those days, in spite of the fact that the locals rarely got to see the Avengers up close.

Steve tended to stay out of sight, and Bucky had been around long enough for most people to forget his connections. Civilians tended to give veterans a wide, respectful berth, and the other former soldiers recognized PTSD well enough not to push if a soul wasn’t interested in sharing war stories.

None of that kept the Lewis Farm from becoming a retreat of sorts for the Avengers.

On this pretty summer day, the weather cooperated, and if one forgot about the trio of cloaked quinjets parked by the pond, it could be just another barbeque.

For certain, Steve’s plaid shirt, Nat’s white denim shorts, and Clint’s straw hat all blended in, even if Tony’s boots were a little too pricey to be worn in the backyard dirt where the grills were set up and Bill had a good brisket going on the smoker.  Lucky barked happily beside him, but kept his butt firmly planted in the hopes of a fallen tidbit.

Darcy had stolen Clint’s hat to shade her eyes while she and her mom spread out purple-checked cloths on the folding tables Bucky had set up outside. Her red and white polka-dotted sun dress pulled Clint’s attention as he watched Sam and Jane helpfully anchor the flapping fabric down with plates and forks, all  while Thor and Rhodey fought with a pop-up canopy to give them shade. Pepper and Steve, followed by Wanda and Vision, carried out dish after dish of food and set them on a row of tables lined up to hold the weight of all the goodies. Phil and Mack carried coolers, while Melinda and Daisy followed with more ice to fill them. The rest of Phil’s crew, along with Maria and some of the newer Avengers, made themselves comfortable on hay bales and blankets on the grass.

The Lewis Farm had a full house.

Clint sat on the roof of the farmhouse,  just out of sight of the party, bow balanced on his knees. He inspected the hand-carved arrow one more time, fletched with his own secondaries, ready to polish out any microscopic flaw. Finding none, he flicked a thumb through the barbs to ensure the arrow would fly true. He looked over the line he’d tied to the shaft just above the fletching. He’d beaded and wrapped a newly-shed primary to a hair clip, fastened it to a Byzantine gold ring that Nat helped him find in an Athens flea market, and then looped the line into a sturdy knot around the clip. Though it was guaranteed not to come apart in flight, Darcy would only need to shake it loose.

If she wanted it.

The fact that he intended to give her a feather today had guaranteed maximum attendance at the barbeque--Thor had inadvertently spilled the beans in New York to Scott Lang after he and Wanda returned to the Avengers facility. But as far as Clint knew, not a soul, including Jane, had said a word to Darcy.

Clint took a long, slow breath, nervous in a way he hadn’t been since he’d been a young, barely-flying teen on a highwire, shooting flaming arrows into dampened targets.

He stilled, then rolled over the roof line to balance on the shingles on the other side. The movement caught the crowd’s attention below, but he waited until Darcy looked up, one hand blocking the sun.

She was perfect. Wide lips slicked with rose lipstick, a simple dress showing off the curves he loved so well. Aw, Darcy.  How in the hell had he gotten so lucky?

In truth, Clint was enough of a showman to want to do this in a public kind of setting -- something Darcy would always remember fondly. She deserved it. Winged Ones shared secondaries as quasi-engagement  promises, and Darcy had been wearing his for months. If she accepted his primary feather, they would be married by Winged One standards. He would hedge his bets with the ring, though, and if she needed vows in front of a judge, he’d do that too.

He hoped, lifting his bow.

Nock.

Draw.

Loose.

The arrow landed between her feet, fletching vibrating in the air with the primary and accompanying ring dangling from its short lead.

It was to her credit that she didn’t flinch. Instead, Darcy licked her lips and jammed her fingertips into her pockets. That didn’t stop him from noticing how her hands shook as she slid them in. Or how she fastened her eyes on him as he leapt off the roof and spiraled down to kneel at her feet.

But there was a hint of an impatient smirk. “I think you lost a feather, Iowa” she teased, her breath hitching on the words he’d waited so long to hear.

Clint’s heart thumped loud enough that it was a wonder no one else could hear it. He reached for the clip, loosed the ring and feather, then held both up to Darcy. He’d tried out a hundred different things to say, but they’d all sounded silly and stupid when he’d practiced in the mirror. He answered her question instead. “Not lost. Yours, Kansas.” He swallowed hard enough that his throat clicked. “If you want it.  Them. Both of them. The ring. The feather. They’re both for you,” he babbled.

Mortification made his face heat up. “Aw, Barton, no,” he groaned, closing his eyes in embarrassment.

Darcy touched his cheek so he’d look at her. //Aw, Clint, yes ,// she signed, fingerspelling the first word, signing his name with a “C” and a “throwing a dart” motion, and then waving her fist up and down with a bright smile that lit up her storm-grey eyes for emphasis.