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Raise A Little Elf

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Darcy absolutely loves her job, except when stuff like this happens.

"He looks like one of yours," Margene says, hovering by her desk. Margene is the personal assistant of Agent Harver who deals with the more mundane aspects of Homeland Security. Margene has never had to try and figure out how to make form A6-F17 work for giant crabs, sewer bears and doombots.

That had been an eventful Tuesday.

"The guy who appeared in the foyer, despite the twelve security checks you have to go through just to get to the foyer, looks like something I should be dealing with?" Darcy gives Margene her most unimpressed face. She's been practising in the mirror at home because she needs it to fend off the four other PAs on the floor who all think Darcy is the catchall for the weird stuff they don't want to have to deal with. "Really?"

"He's wearing a cape."

"None of my guys wear a ca-" Darcy starts to protest but at Margene's raised eyebrow, she has to backtrack. "Okay, Thor wears a cape but I saw him totally Sailor Moon into that outfit so I'm blaming his satorial choices on Mew-Mew."

Margene looks dubious. "I didn't understand half of what you just said." Darcy translates that into, see what I mean.

Darcy sighs heavily, picks up her tablet. She spots the three other PAs hovering by the snack machine and realizes belatedly that this has been a group effort. They've all decided to lob the administrative grenade this is going to be at her together and Darcy knows it's going to be a grenade. A guy turning up mysteriously, looking like a Lord of the Rings reject will involve late nights, paperwork and explaining to Coulson how it all ended up on his desk.

His unimpressed face is much better than hers.

"I hate you guys," Darcy grumps as she makes her way to the elevators.

*

Darcy heads towards the nervous and loose cluster of security guys and junior agents when she hits the foyer. She elbows her way through and sees a man who is indeed wearing a cape standing in the middle of their rough circle looking unimpressed by their attention. He's also wearing a tunic of some kind of soft fabric and a headband made of what looks like real flowers.

Total grenade.

"Hi, can I help you?" she asks, tries not to grin at the way some of the junior agents jump when she speaks. The guy's focus swings to her and his eyes narrow. He's almost pretty, his features a little too sharp so it's slightly offputting and his ears are honest to god pointy.

"I must speak with Gaylan Windbrow," he says snippily. "It is of great importance."

"Do you have an appointment?" Darcy asks and the man blinks at her.

"An appointment?"

"Y'know, a prearranged time to meet with this person so you don't just show up and scare the bejeesus out of everyone?" Darcy clarifies, smiling sweetly.

"I am a representative of the Three Realms, I do not need to make an appointment," he snaps, sounding downright testy.

"Let me check our employee directory," Darcy offers, clicking on her tablet. Tony has hooked her up so it has access to more SHIELD systems than it probably should have but working for Coulson, it comes in handy. "I don't see anyone by that name. Are you sure you have the right address?"

"I feel his presence in this tower of glass and metal," the man insists. "Do you not have a Sphere of Aul?"

Darcy makes a show of patting herself down and then gives him a disappointed face. "Not on me right now. What is that exactly?"

"It's a... sphere," the man says, finally looking a little flustered. He holds his hands out and cupped, indicating something the size of a grapefruit. "You use it to find denizens of your lands."

"Sounds kind of stalky," Darcy says. She hears a couple of the junior agents giggle. "How about we make an appointment for you with someone from Human Resources, see if we can sort this out."

"I don't-"

"Need an appointment, yes I heard that the first time," Darcy says. "Look, you're not going to make it past this foyer. I know you're probably used to just blipping wherever you need to be but this building has protection against that. We've had trouble with teleporters before."

The man scowls but then digs into his robes. Darcy feels more than sees every single agent and security guard bristle but the man only pulls an envelope out. "I have a missive that needs his attention."

"I can't just take an envelope from a guy in a cape," Darcy says. "We've had problems with that too. You'd be surprised the amount of nastiness that can fit into a tiny space."

"I..." the man casts about for a second before he sighs, drooping. "Can I make an appointment?"

*

"Never heard of him."

Darcy pauses in setting out the packets for the Avengers team meeting and frowns. "Really? I thought he might be some freelancer we have on the downlow."

Phil quits adjusting the ancient projector set up on the table. He prefers it to the swish one that lowers from the roof and is actually connected to everything without the use of the seventeen cables Phil has to lug around. Phil actually has to put a folded piece of paper under the leg of his pet projector to stop it wobbling whenever someone touches the table and Darcy sighs, loud and pointed. "If we had someone on the books on the downlow, I would know," he says.

"I thought so," Darcy says, dropping into the PA chair set against the wall in the room. Tony keeps trying to make her sit at the actual table but Darcy knows if the other PAs find out she's taking liberties then she's going to get epic stink-eyes all around. She sets her tablet on her knee, cues up the Angry Avengers game that Tony created for her in a spare hour.

Because Tony created it, you can never catch Iron Man, but Captain America looks adorably indignant when you pin him with a finger and fling him across the screen.

"I just hope Sylvia in HR doesn't try to kill me or lose my leave requests after she meets with a guy in a floral headband," she muses, looks up at Clint who's appeared beside her, silent as always.

Even if she's watching the door, she still only sees Clint and Natasha actually enter a room maybe half the time. Now though, Clint's certainly made an entrance she notices because he's frozen and Tony's run right into him and sworn colorfully without looking up from his phone.

"What did you say?" Clint asks slowly, sounding strangled.

"I said-"

"None of your concern, Agent Barton," Phil interjects, glares at Clint until he kind of shakes himself and shuffles meekly to his seat.

"Hey," Darcy says, looking between them before she levels an accusing finger at Phil. "Oh my god, you do know something. Wow, your poker face is amazing," she enthuses. "You're lying to my mom next time I talk to her about what I do for a living. She's starting to get suspicious about the number of times my phone drops out when she asks."

"Stark phones don't drop out," Tony huffs, looking scandalized.

"That's what she said," Darcy assures him and Tony looks slightly mollified.

"Darcy," Phil says, puts a hand over his eyes and looks pained. "We'll discuss this later."

"Discuss what?" Tony demands, dropping into his own chair, reaching back and physically dragging Darcy's to the table next to him. She just lifts her feet and rolls her eyes. "I want to know too."

"What's happening?" Natasha asks, having snuck in when Darcy was distracted, dammit. Natasha smirks at her.

"It's noth-" Phil starts to say but then Steve appears, tugging Bruce along in his wake and Tony turns to him and says, "Coulson has a secret that he's not sharing. Make him Steve."

"This is why I always try to hide from you," Bruce complains to Steve and he offers an apologetic shake of the head.

"It's about the mystery visitor," Darcy says. Phil gives her the not helping face and she gives him the not trying to eyebrows back. In return he goes with the I could fire you purse of the lips and she rallies with the you'd be lost without me eyes and chin wobble.

Their non-verbal communication skills are amazing.

"We had a mystery visitor?" Thor is the last to arrive, per usual. To give credit to the guy, he doesn't wear a watch, thinks set times for doing anything is a pretty weird concept anyway and still manages to make it places.

"Popped into the foyer out of nowhere. Said he was from the Three Realms or something. I kind of feel bad for bouncing him because I got the feeling he was just a glorified UPS guy and, y'know, shooting the messenger and all that."

"Sounds intriguing," Thor decides, smacking a hand down on the table.

"He was looking for someone called Gaylord-"

"Gaylan," Clint snaps, then smacks a hand over his face.

"Aha!" Darcy crows.

"Darcy!" Phil yells, and he actually sounds pissed for the first time in...ever. Darcy shrinks back in her chair, wide-eyed as he grates out, "There are some things that are confidential for a reason and I know it's hard to believe but sometimes it's for your own protection!"

"I'm sorry," Darcy says in a small voice.

"Coulson, you monster," Tony grumbles, tugs Darcy's chair closer to him protectively.

"Hey, it's...it's fine," Clint says, sounding resigned. "They should know."

"Barton-"

"No, it's really..." Clint takes a deep breath, takes a moment to look at the assembled group and then says, "Okay, so as it turns out, I'm not technically what you would call one hundred percent human." He breathes deep, bracing himself. "I'm an elf."

There's a moment of shocked silence, right before everyone except Clint and Coulson themselves, dissolves into laughter.

*
"Gaylan Windbrow."

"Can you stop saying it like that?"

"Like what?" Darcy asks, giving Clint her large, innocent-eyed blink. He's hovering around her desk, waiting for Coulson to unlock his office door and poke his head out. Coulson's having a tantrum that they're going to have to wait out.

"You have a tone," Clint says. "A tone of derision." He gives her the side-eye. "Which is rich, coming from you Darcy."

Darcy rolls her eyes, then grins at Clint. He looks nervous. "So," Darcy says, standing and leaning across her desk. She's not even pretending to do work while he's loitering. "Were you born from a tulip?"

"What?"

"Did a flower unfurl and there you were?"

"Oh my god," Clint groans. "This is why I didn't want anyone to know."

"Did a beam of sunlight and a daffodil love each other very much?"

"I'm not a cabbage patch kid," Clint snaps.

"Aw, that was my next guess," Darcy says.

"Elves are... created just like humans. We're born the same way."

"With the blood, the screaming and the poop?" Darcy scoffs. "I don't think so. I bet there were fawns in attendance and you were delivered by a bunny wearing spectacles."

"You're a crazy person," Clint huffs.

"Your diapers made of lily pads were changed by bluebirds and-"

"Are you enjoying this?" Clint asks archly and Darcy nods.

"You let me down you know," she says after a pause. Clint blinks for a moment before he turns to her, looking wary like he's expecting a trap. He doesn't seem able to leave that hanging though because eventually he says, "How?"

"You were the normal one," Darcy says and before Clint's scowl can set more firmly in place she says, "Look, everyone else is... Tony's a genius and Steve got dosed with super juice and Thor's...Thor. You were the one that got to where you are through grit and determination. Y'know, boring hard work."

"That's..." Clint seems at a loss. Darcy knows he's trying to figure out whether he's being insulted or not.

"You were the one I could tell my nephews they could grow up to be like because you're possible. Turns out you're like the rest of them."

"What about Natasha?"

Darcy makes a dismissive noise. "Natasha doesn't count." Clint looks like he's going to argue the point for a second before he shrugs and nods. The intercom on Darcy's desk clicks and Coulson says, "He still out there?"

"Yes boss," Darcy says meekly.

She hears Coulson sigh. "Send him in, then go buy yourself something fun with my corporate card before your sad little voice makes me want to kill myself."

"Yes boss," she agrees, much more chipper.

*
"I can get either a really great jacket or a new pair of boots," Darcy says, fanning herself with Coulson's corporate card. She can't go too crazy because he has a limit and if she tries to go over it he gets called to authorize. She's taken Tony and Steve with her to shop because Tony has awesome taste and Steve is generally bored enough to agree to any outing when he's not hitting stuff with his shield.

"Shoes, definitely." Steve surprises them with an opinion. When both Tony and Darcy stare at him he says, "I love women's shoes." When they continue to stare he kind of hunches his shoulders and says, "What?"

"So, what do you guys think of the Clint-elf thing?" Darcy prods when she has five pairs of boots and six pairs of shoes that look like they'll cripple her but in a fabulous way lined up to try on. Steve keeps disappearing and coming back with, these, definitely try these, and he's a bit too enthusiastic about it for Darcy to deny him.

"I dunno," Steve says, rubs idly at his nose. "I mean, he's the same guy so..." he half-shrugs, always diplomatic.

"I don't know about that," Tony muses. "We don't even know what he really looks like."

"We don't?" Darcy pauses in zipping up a pair of butter-soft black boots.

Steve's nodding. "We've seen the security footage of the messenger. Clint doesn't look like that but it stands to reason that he probably actually does."

"But he..." Darcy can't really explain the wash of disappointment that flows through her. She tries to tell herself that it's just because she's gotten used to Clint's face.

That's not it at all though.

She's more than gotten used to his face. She's grown to have great affection for it in a pathetic, crush kind of way. She remembers the messenger, how alien and austere he'd looked and she can't imagine Clint like that.

"Probably magic," Tony says with a sour look on his face. Tony has a thing about magic. "Loki can change what he looks like."

"He's not Loki," Darcy protests.

*
Shopping turns into chinese takeout and a zombie movie marathon back at the mansion. Darcy likes staying over at Tony's place because it's the closest she'll get to staying in a six star hotel on her current income. She also likes rambling to JARVIS when she brushes her teeth.

He's a good listener.

She's not really expecting to be alone in the kitchen the next morning when Clint stumbles in looking bleary and sleep-rumpled and human. She totally blames being taken by surprise for blurting, "How can you not look like that?"

Clint just rubs the heel of one hand into his eye for a moment before he says, "Sorry, was I asleep for the beginning of this conversation?" He hunts through the cupboards until he comes up with an oversized box of Frosted Flakes.

"Tony thinks we don't really know what you look like," Darcy says, hates that there is a pout in her voice. She wanted to come off as flippant about it, get Clint to confirm or deny and not know that it affected her either way.

She's failed at it dismally if the amused affection on his face is anything to go by.

"I look like this," he says, waves the hand not holding his cereal box to indicate himself. "To you anyway, and that's all that matters, right?"

"What does that mean?" Darcy asks, not reassured in the least.

Clint pauses in his quest for a bowl and puts both hands on the kitchen counter, gives her a steady look. He tilts his chin up a little so Darcy's gaze is drawn to his neck, to the thin piece of leather he wears as a necklace. "That's a glamor knot," he says. "It makes people see me the way they're expecting to see me. Y'know, round ears, imperfections, human."

"I see you with a lumpy nose because of that?" Darcy asks, intrigued despite herself.

"You see me with a lumpy nose?" Clint asks, frowning.

"No, it's... I think it's cute," Darcy's quick to say, then feels her cheeks heat when Clint grins and ducks his face, looking pleased. "What happens when you take it off?"

"Nothing happens," Clint says. "Elf magic is a little hard to explain, but this is the way you're always going to see me, glamor knot or no."

"Oh, okay," Darcy says, drops her eyes back to her toast.

"Do I need to buy you stuff to stop you looking like that too?" Clint asks. He's rounded the kitchen counter to where she's sitting, stealthy like always. He taps her chin with a finger, gets her to look up.

"It was funny at first but now..." Darcy can't really explain what she's feeling, other than completely inadequate. She didn't like Clint just because he was human, but it made it easier to daydream about... other stuff.

She figures she looks as weird to him as their unexpected guest looked to her and the idea of that depresses her.

She decides to let idle fantasies go because there's no use dwelling. Darcy takes a bite of her toast and then reaches a hand out to nudge her palm tablet closer to her with her knuckles, mindful of buttery fingers and what Coulson would say if she needed to get yet another replacement due to food-related mishandling. "You have your meeting with... the other elf today right?"

Clint blinks and steps away, looking puzzled. "Yeah, how did you know?"

"I organize Coulson to within an inch of his life. He's sitting in so I have it in his calendar."

"I'm not really sure what he wants," Clint says, troubled. "I gave up all claim to my titles when I left and I have forty three siblings between me and any official duty anyway."

Darcy's mouth drops open. She thought she had it hard with three sisters.

*
Darcy drops hints about sitting in on the meeting. When that doesn't work she resorts to bribery and finally just to asking repeatedly.

Coulson's response is a flat out no every time. She paces outside the meeting room, thinks she might spot Natasha out of the corner of her eye once or twice doing the same but every time she actually looks the woman has disappeared.

Darcy needs lessons on being that sneaky.

She scurries back to her desk before the meeting's finished so she isn't caught hovering but Coulson is annoyingly close-lipped when he returns and Clint's nowhere to be seen. Darcy understands she doesn't have any right to demand to know what happened but she feels like doing it anyway. She sits at her desk and bites her nails, drums her feet and eventually Coulson emerges again.

"I can hear you stewing from my office," he says but he doesn't sound angry, just kind of indulgent.

"What did the guy want?" Darcy blurts immediately, can't really help herself. She grimaces and says, "Um, I mean, did you need anything, boss?"

"He delivered his missive, Clint read it, that was it. It wasn't very eventful and now you know as much as I do so you can stop looking at me like I'm single-handedly ruining your life."

"I don't really mean to be doing that," Darcy says, resigned. "I'm just worried."

"I imagine this is what it feels like to be the parent of a teenager," Coulson grumbles and retreats back into his office.

"I'm twenty-three," Darcy calls after him, lets out a little squeal of surprise when she turns back and Clint's standing in front of her.

"Sorry," he says, not looking it at all.

"At least Tony and Thor have the decency to announce their presence, Tony with cheerleaders and a marching band sometimes."

"I need a leave form," Clint says and Darcy automatically reaches behind her before she turns back around slowly.

"You're going somewhere?"

"Yeah, I have to go home," Clint says.

"Home as in...?"

"Where there are fawns and bunnies in spectacles apparently," Clint says. He's smiling but the expression looks tight, like he's only wearing it for her benefit. Darcy spins around in her chair, plucks the purple folder from the stack that has leave forms in it.

When she spins back, Natasha is standing at Clint's shoulder like she was there all along.

Honestly.

"I'm going to need one of those too," she says.

"Tash-" Clint starts to protest but then Steve appears, towing Tony along by a sleeve much like he dragged Bruce to their last meeting. Thor's bringing up the rear. Bruce is nowhere to be seen, obviously having found a better hiding spot.

"Same here," Steve says, jostles Tony until he rolls his eyes, sighs dramatically and then holds up a me too finger. "We're a team. We're here for you pal."

"That makes me feel... kind of uncomfortable actually," Clint says, looking hunted.

"Why do they have to be there for you?" Darcy demands, feeling left out of the loop. She knows she's not an Avenger per se but she's always involved in Martguerita Mondays so she's practically on the team.

"You know how I said I had forty three siblings?" When Darcy nods, he shrugs, a disheartened up-down of his shoulders. "Not so much anymore."

"Oh I'm sorry," Darcy says, feeling a lump form in her throat.

"It's not... it's okay. I was the youngest by about fifty years. I hardly knew most of them. We don't really... grow up together like humans do. Most of them were on the Front before I was even born."

"I have heard of the Three Realms but I have never seen them. It will be a great adventure to travel there," Thor says, clapping Clint on the shoulder.

"It's not a vacation, okay?"

"We know that," Steve says gently.

"I just have to go, do whatever I need to officially so they can continue to fight amongst themselves like they've been doing for three thousand years."

Darcy reaches across her desk, circles Clint's wrist with her fingers. She thinks at first he's trying to snatch his hand back when he turns it in her grip but instead he ends up clutching her fingers, lacing them with his own. "You should take them with you. I'd feel better knowing you were safe," she says.

"Alright, fine," Clint huffs and Darcy smiles at him, relieved. She knows wanting the others to go with Clint is partly selfish, she knows he's going to be protected but with the others with him, he's also going to come back.

"Why would we not be taking Darcy and Jane with us?" Thor says and she could really just kiss him.

"No way," Clint says flatly. "My home is a war zone."

"Do you trust them to be safe here, without us?" Thor asks and she feels flattered that Thor's protectiveness about Jane seems to encompass her. "My brother is still at large and he may seize the opportunity our absence represents."

"This is a rock and a hard place kind of situation," Clint gripes.

*
"It's an elevator." Darcy steps forward, puts a palm against the side and then steps back. "It's a bling-y, disco elevator in the middle of a parking garage that doesn't seemed to be attached to anything, but it's still an elevator."

"We can't all travel by rainbow bridge," Clint says and Tony snorts behind them. "It's a portal. There are a bunch of them over the city, they move around and they never look the same twice."

"How'd you find it then?" Steve asks, intrigued.

"We can just sort of... feel them," Clint explains, waggling his fingers.

Darcy squeezes the strap of her shoulder bag. She hadn't been sure what the pack but then Clint had made fun of her for packing anything, saying that they wouldn't be there long enough to necessitate so much as a change of clothes. He'd stopped teasing when Tony turned up with his suitcase armor and another two large cases on trundle wheels.

Darcy is fully expecting one of them to turn out to be a mini bar.

Clint pushes the only button on the panel beside the elevator. There's a pause and then the doors slide open, silent. Thor strides in first, herding Jane with him, never shy about new experience. He turns to wait patiently for the rest of them who edge in a little more hesitantly. Just before Clint steps in, he reaches up and snags the leather cord around his neck. He takes a moment to meet Darcy's eyes, offers her a reassuring grin and then he tugs sharply, the leather snapping off and coming away.

Darcy didn't realize she'd closed her eyes until she feels a brush of fingers on her cheek. She cracks open one eye, but then has to open the other one when Clint's only a blurry shape at first. He smiles, lumpy nose and smile lines dug deep around his mouth intact. "See, still me right?"

Darcy nods, takes a shaky breath and lets Clint grip her hand before she steps into the elevator.

*
Darcy's maybe expecting something like Lothlórien, all tree canopies and prettily drifting people in flowy robes. Instead the elevator opens out onto what looks like a cobbled street, tall gray buildings huddled together in the distance.

Clint notices her expression as the others file out, tugs her forward with their still linked hands that Tony had only raised his eyebrow at but hadn't commented on. "It used to be... I wish you'd seen it before the war," Clint says, wistful. "It's become more utilitarian out of necessity."

"I heard you were coming back but I wasn't going to believe it till I saw for myself," a voice issues from above and they all look up to see someone crouched on the top of a nearby squat little building. The guy looks like the messenger, but toned down and no cape or floral headband in sight. He has a bow slung across his back and he swings down to join them.

Clint lets out a delighted-sounding laugh, darts forward to envelope the guy in a tight hug. Darcy glances back at Tony to see him lean into Steve, say, "So the perching isn't just Clint."

"Guys, this is Mayae. We trained together," Clint says.

"You mean I watched out for your scrawny ass for four hundred years while you figured out which end of the arrow was the pointy one?" Mayae says, chuckling and Darcy's honestly surprised. She was expecting Clint's people to speak more like Thor but he sounds just like Clint.

Darcy supposes maybe the crassness wasn't learned, that Clint was already like that.

"Is anyone else weirded out that Midgardians and now these guys speak english?" Jane asks.

"Your language became the fashion here after our people started travelling between the worlds. Your language has... much less dancing involved than our native tongue," Mayae says.

"Oh my god, you have to teach me the swear words in a language with dance moves," Darcy enthuses, clinging to Clint's bicep in her glee.

"Me too," Tony says, darting forward so he can bounce around with Darcy and make Clint's expression go even more pained. "I bet fuck you is a real showstopper."

"Don't make me leave you guys here and only take Thor and Natasha with me," Clint warns.

"What did I do?" Steve protests because he's adorable like that.

"I wouldn't trust Tony to stay put without you sitting on him," Clint says and Steve makes a fair enough noise. While he's talking, Mayae sidles up to Natasha.

"So, that's an interesting outfit," he says.

"Oh my god," Clint groans, smacking a hand over his eyes.

*
"The letter was from my mother," Clint explains as they walk. The elves don't really have public transport as such, they tend to walk absolutely everywhere. Tony makes to put on his armor so he can fly but Jane blocks him, says he doesn't get out of walking if they all don't.

She gets Thor to take the suitcase armor away from Tony just so he's not tempted and he's pouting about it mightily.

"I was surprised actually, she's been angry at me for a long time."

"How come?" Darcy asks. She's walking in between Mayae and Clint who take turns in helping her over obstacles. There is a road, but it's pitted and scarred, damaged from battle. Jane smirks at Tony whenever Thor flies her over the worst of it, smirks harder when they come to a wide crevasse Steve just tosses Tony over his shoulder and jumps the gap.

"She had to Renounce when I was born," he says. "She had me out of Union and it's against the law. Either I lost all claim or she did."

"She's angry because you left anyway?" Darcy guesses.

"She's angry because I tossed away what she sacrificed for me," he says. Darcy hugs his arm and he smiles down at her.

"Hey, if I go to the Outer Lands do I get one of those too?" Mayae asks, raising his eyebrows.

"There's only one Darcy," Clint says and she would normally roll her eyes at something so mushy, but she appreciates the sentiment considering the situation has made her feel a little delicate. She presses her face to his bicep for a second. Mayae just shrugs and angles back towards Natasha.

Clint waits for Darcy to look back up at him before he drops a quick kiss on her mouth. Darcy hardly hears the obnoxious cheering Tony starts up that quickly gets throttled silent by Steve through the rushing noise in her ears.

*
Darcy's unnerved by the city. It looks normal except that there are no people, no cars. It reminds her uncomfortably of every zombie movie she's ever seen in an urban setting.

There's a distant low boom noise and an accompanying tremor under their feet just as they reach the city limits. Darcy feels Jane tuck a small hand into the crook of her elbow, Thor bracketing her on the other side. No matter what world you're in, that kind of sound is never a good thing.

Thor passes Tony back the suitcase armor without a word.

They come to a larger building in what looks like the city center and Mayae leads them inside. It resembles City Council offices, elves that resemble Mayae lining the walls with either long spears, swords or ornate bows held at the ready. Some with robes and adornments closer to what the messenger wore drift by, not paying them any attention.

A tall elf wearing a mixture of armor and silk and with hair closer to yellow than blonde approaches them. Clint, ahead of them all, ducks his head and looks instantly sheepish. "Gaylan, it's good to see you again. I wish the circumstances were better," the elf says.

"Farer, it's been a long time."

"And a hard road, by the look of you," Farer says. His features are so sharp it looks like someone could cut a finger on them. Darcy senses more than sees Natasha and Steve crowd closer to her and Jane, completing a protective triangle with Thor at the point.

"Do you know where my mother is?" Clint asks, abandoning the pretense of small talk.

"She's in the war room. I can take you if you don't remember the way," Farer offers and even though his tone sounds mild enough, she knows enough stoic men to pick up on the intentional jab.

"It's fine," Clint says, motions for everyone to follow but Farer shakes his head.

"Your companions must stay here," he says and Clint looks like he's going to argue for a moment, steals a glance back at Darcy. Natasha moves closer still, gives Clint the barest of nods and he deflates.

"I won't be long," he promises and Darcy tries not to think famous last words. Before he disappears he turns back and calls out, "Steve's in charge!"

*
After an hour of standing around in a glorified foyer, even Steve is starting to look antsy. Mayae appears, tells them that Clint will be longer than he thought and takes them to rooms to wait.

Darcy's steered into a room on her own, is by herself for about thirty seconds before there's a gentle tap on the door. She's relieved to find Natasha on the other side, tugging Jane behind her. "I wasn't about to make a scene and demand we were all put together but Clint and Thor would most likely have a fit if I let anything happen to either of you," she says, steering Jane to a low couch and perching herself on a delicate looking chair.

"I know I'm supposed to say something tough about not needing your protection but oh my god, don't leave us," Jane says. "I was totally creeped out being by myself in this place."

Tony appears only a few minutes after that, shrugs and says, "I have a knack for finding girls' slumber parties." Thor's next, looking adorably thrilled to find Jane in one piece.

"You have to go get Steve or he'll feel left out," Darcy orders and even though Tony rolls his eyes, he goes and dutifully fetches.

Steve produces a deck of cards from somewhere when he arrives, shrugs and says, "Force of habit," when everyone blinks in surprise. They all hunker down on the floor and Steve deals a hand for Go Fish. Darcy spends more time glancing at the door then she does at her cards so she loses pretty spectacularly because Jane is blatantly cheating off her but she can't help it.

Natasha squeezes her knee, offers a smile but despite Natasha's usually unreadable face, Darcy can tell she's worried too.

*
Darcy wakes to gentle fingers on her temple. "I miss all the fun team building activities," Clint says, eying the way Darcy's head is pillowed on Steve's leg and her own legs are thrown over Natasha. Tony is face down on the floor and Thor and Jane are curled up in the weird elf-equivalent of a beanbag chair.

"Hey, you okay?" she asks, easing gently off Steve and Natasha and letting Clint help her up.

"Yeah, it's just..." Clint looks troubled. "I thought when I was coming here that my grandfather was still okay."

"But he's not?"

"What's going on?" Tony asks, tilting upright and rubbing fists into his eyes like a kid. Steve and Natasha stir, Thor and Jane still out for the count.

"I might have to be here longer than I was expecting," Clint says. "You guys should head back."

"We will stay with you, my friend," Thor says, finally rousing. Jane looks disgruntled at being woken, curls more firmly into Thor and tries to tug his arm around her like a displaced blanket.

"Thor buddy, you were the one that said Loki can be opportunistic. He might not have noticed us gone for a day but he's going to notice if we're MIA longer than that. Loki's not the only bad guy either. I know you wanted to protect the girls but maybe we should be worried about protecting the city."

Thor's wearing a rare frown. "I don't wish to leave you undefended."

"Natasha and I can stay," Steve offers. "You, Tony and the girls can head back. You guys can hold down the fort."

"I want to stay," Darcy disagrees.

"Darcy-" Clint starts to protest but Natasha taps a gentle fist on Darcy's shoulder, says, "She can stay if she wants to." Darcy circles her arms around Natasha's waist and squeezes, grateful.

*
"Tell me about this place," Darcy says. Her head's on Clint's thigh and he's twining strands of her hair around his fingers restlessly. He's still not happy about her staying but Tony, Thor and Jane are long gone, Steve and Natasha playing guard dogs outside the room.

"What do you want to know?" Clint asks, untangling his fingers and digging them into her scalp in a way that sends tingles down to Darcy's toes.

"Just give me the For Dummies version," Darcy decides. She settles more when Clint's face grows thoughtful. Clint had always been fairly laconic, this last few weeks the most she's ever heard his voice and she likes it.

"Okay," Clint says. "The Three Realms are actually pretty much big islands floating on the Violet Sea. They're connected by slim land bridges, Du'aleth in the middle, with Ira and M'Phi on either side." Clint picks up one of her hands and curls her fingers into a fist, sets his fists on either side of it to demonstrate.

"What is it about you guys and names I can't pronounce?" Darcy complains. "Thor still frowns at me everytime I call his hammer Mew Mew but I swear that's what I hear whenever he says it."

"M'Phi's not that hard," Clint says but his eyes are gleaming, amused.

"Just so you know, I'm going to end up calling it magpie to the wrong person and there'll be a diplomatic incident I'll have to fill out the forms for."

"I'm duly warned," Clint says. "Now shut up, I'm telling you a story."

"Yes sir," Darcy says, uses her free hand to sketch a little salute.

"The Three Realms were ruled by the Elder Kings for six thousand years of peace. They were brothers, with Terses sitting the throne of Ira, Carth on M'Phi and Var on Du'aleth's. We're pretty long-lived, but accidents happen. Terses was killed while he was hunting by a great Baer."

"A bear?" Darcy asks, dubious.

"A baer," Clint corrects even though again, she can't really hear the difference between what she said and he did. She supposes maybe the words lost a little in the translation.

"Terses' Blood Heir was his eldest son, Raed, but Raed was known to be greedy and jealous and Terses feared what would happen to Ira with Raed ruling. Terses had announced that Raed was to be Passed Over for the next in line, his daughter Leese. She was smart and had a good heart but she was killed three days after Terses was."

"That's not suspicious at all," Darcy says. She's a little amazed Clint's actually talking about his relatives, that all this happened and isn't just part of some story.

"No one could prove that either death occurred by Raed's hand and as Terses hadn't announced a successor to Leese, the throne reverted to Raed."

"That's just poor planning."

"Hon, my people live for thousands of years, possibly forever if we don't fall off a cliff or run into a sword. No one expected Leese to pass so soon after her father. She didn't make it to the Naming where she would have announced her own."

"You're going to live forever?" Darcy asks, thrown. It had been an abstract concept, Clint and his friend referring to hundreds of years, Clint's stories spanning thousands. She's not sure why it took Clint actually spelling it out for it to really hit home.

Clint rubs knuckles on her temple. "My people need to protect themselves when travelling to the Outerlands. I didn't so I started aging like a human as soon as I crossed over," he says. He rubs at the laugh lines around his eyes. "Mayae thinks it's hilarious."

"Wow, bummer," Darcy says, scoots down and turns over on her stomach so she can look at Clint right side up. "Hey, can we come back and live here before I hit thirty?"

"Doesn't work that way," Clint says. "Sucks to be you."

"Ugh," Darcy grunts, gets up and flops back down with her legs over Clint's.

"Are you going to keep interrupting with DVD commentary?"

"I'm listening," Darcy says, mimes zipping her lip, locking it and throwing away the key. Clint darts out a hand to catch the imaginary key and makes a show of pocketing it, smirking.

"Turns out Terses had good reason to worry. Ira is cold and mountainous, the people struggle. Raed had always envied M'Phi with its warmer climate and grass plains. He wanted to take M'Phi for his own, march an army through Du'aleth to do it."

"Didn't-" Darcy grimaces when she can't help herself but Clint just gives her a fondly exasperated look and a go on wave of his hand. "Didn't anyone think about knocking Raed off?"

"Raed's charismatic. He had his population convinced they wanted to go to war, that it was the only way." Darcy sighs when Clint digs talented fingers into her aching insteps. "Carth heard about Raed's plans, feared for his people. They had always concentrated on magics and learning. They didn't have much of an army, nothing like Ira's. He sent Weavers to the land bridge between here and M'Phi with plans to destroy it and stop Raed in his tracks."

"What are Weavers?" Darcy asks.

"Um, sorcerers I guess is the closest to describing them? People that devote themselves to magic above all else."

"Can everyone do magic?" Darcy feels silly asking such mundane questions but she remembers the glamor knot Clint wore, wonders what else he can do.

"It's a learned skill like anything else. Can you play an instrument the first time you pick it up?"

"Oh," Darcy says.

"The problem is, magic on that scale isn't easy to control. Small bursts of it can be harnessed but you let something that destructive and that large out and it can spread like it's got a mind of it's own, pretty much like trying to control a fire. The Weavers ended up laying waste to Du'aleth's coastal towns, killed more people in an hour than had probably died in our whole history at one time."

"That's terrible," Darcy breathes.

"Var was enraged. Carth hadn't come to him for help, he'd done that instead, knowing the devastating consequences it could have. Var didn't want to risk Raed marching across his lands, pillaging and slaying his people as he went and he didn't want Carth taking matters into his own hands again. He declared our borders closed and was suddenly faced with war on two fronts."

"That seemed to spiral out of control really fast," Darcy says.

"There was a lot of other stuff that happened but you asked for the Dummies version," he reminds her and she rolls her eyes.

"Okay, fine. So, something happened to Var?"

"Something happens to our magic when it's used for violence. My grandfather was infected with a shadow, a creeping sickness that's magic in origin that wiped his mind clean. He lives but he's just a shell now. Everyone else was lost defending the borders."

"There's no one else?"

"There is," Clint says, looks stricken. "There's Raed."

"He's just going to inherit?" Darcy gasps. "After all this?"

"He's the next one in our bloodline. A lot of people are so sick of the war that they think maybe it would be a good thing, that he'll unite the realms. If he controls Du'aleth then M'Phi really won't be able to stand against him." Clint huffs a gentle laugh, smooths a thumb over the frown line on Darcy's forehead. "Don't worry, I just have to go through a ceremony to take up my inheritance and then I can abdicate and name someone else."

"You don't want to stay?" Darcy asks carefully. She doesn't want to give him any ideas but she's pretty sure he's weighed all his options and staying would have been one of them.

"I can't even if I wanted to," Clint says. "Running away was a one-way ticket. I'm not just going to magically stop aging because I'm here."

"Why not?" Darcy demands. "You magically started."

"Some things done cannot be undone," Clint says, pulls a face. "That's what my mom always said."

"Am I ever going to meet her?" Darcy asks. She doesn't want to be precious about it but she's starting to feel like Clint's hiding her away.

"She's a little... angry," Clint finally settles on. "She's not quite ready to meet my... to meet you."

"Why did you leave? You don't strike me as the abandon-post sort."

"It wasn't because of the war," Clint says. "I made some bad decisions after I lost someone."

"I'm sorry," Darcy says gently.

"I just needed to... eternity seemed too long without her." Darcy feels her heart clench. "Anyway, the ceremony's tomorrow so we should be out of here soon."

*
Darcy's left to her own devices the next morning, Clint having to retreat to deal with ceremonial stuff and Steve going with him. Natasha's smiling and asking Darcy if she wants anything to eat when she goes stiff and then collapses.

"Oh crap, Natasha!" Darcy exclaims, darting over to her. Before she can reach her, something grabs her, lifts her off the floor. Darcy screams, panicked and then she hears sleep whispered into her ear and she's out.

*
Darcy wakes up in a different room with someone she recognizes, which she wasn't expecting. "Oh, hi, thank god," she says, as Farer turns to her, hands tucked into the sleeves of his robes. "Listen, what just-"

"Silent and still," Farer says and Darcy's mouth closes so fast she almost bites her tongue. She stares at him with wide eyes, confused. "You will only speak when I ask you a direct question," he adds. Darcy's not sure if he's expecting a response, she's too busy trying not to completely freak out when she finds she can't open her mouth at all.

"Is Gaylan planning to abdicate?" Farer asks and instead of flipping him off like she wants to, Darcy nods. She doesn't even mean to do it, and if this is what magic can do, she's firmly shifting to the Tony Stark I don't trust it camp. "I suspected as much. Do you know who he's planning to Name?" Darcy shakes her head.

"It matters little," he seems to decide, shrewd. "He seems strangely enamored with you. If your life is the balance, he will Name who I wish."

Darcy really wants to tell the guy to go screw himself but she can't, struck mute and unmoving as she is. He seems to read it in her eyes though because he chuckles and shakes his head. "I must admit, you do resemble Klina somewhat."

"Farer!" Someone else is suddenly in the room. Darcy didn't see her enter, and from the way Farer jerked, he wasn't expecting company. Darcy tries to plead for assistance with just her eyes but the woman doesn't so much as glance her way. She looks familiar and it takes Darcy a moment to realize why.

Clint has this woman's features. She's looking at Clint's mother.

"Sael, what are you-?" he starts to ask but she flicks a hand and he's struck as silent as Darcy. His eyes are filled with animal panic and Darcy feels thrilled because any momentary fear that perhaps Clint's mother was behind her kidnapping is squashed by the abject terror on Farer's face.

"Long have I wondered what poisonous gartek was in our midst. I cannot say I am surprised to find it is you." Her attention does shift to Darcy then and she says, "Are you well?" as she does something intricate with her fingers and Darcy finds herself released.

"Oh, hey, Clint's mom, thank god, I really thought I was toast there for a minute," Darcy babbles immediately, then claps a hand over her mouth. "Um, sorry, just... relieved." For a moment Sael just stares at Darcy, but then her stony countenance breaks and she's smiling.

"Darcy is it?" When Darcy just nods, she offers a hand. "It's nice to meet you."

"You seem way nice-" Darcy bites her lip. "Er, I mean, you seem a lot less... mad than I was lead to believe."

"My son has always misunderstood my grievance with him," Sael says, shaking her head and folding Darcy's hand into her elbow. Darcy watches wide-eyed as guards pour into the room and make quick work of binding Farer and escorting him out. "I was not angry with him for throwing away opportunity but his life." She ducks her face but Darcy still catches a glimpse of the sadness on it. "I will outlive the last of my children. That is never an easy prospect."

"He was grieving, wasn't he?"

"Rash decisions are made when the heart is hurt," Sael says, leading Darcy to the door. "He was young and impulsive, did not take the precautions our people need to when traveling to your world and so he was infected with the quickening."

"It's not such a bad place," Darcy offers.

"You must understand, your entire lifespan is but the blink of an eye to us," Sael says, shaking her head. Her sadness softens her features, makes Darcy see even more of Clint in them.

"We'll just have to pack a lot into a blink then," Darcy says firmly and Sael gets a calculating look on her face.

"Well, if you were to have children of course-"

Darcy's saved from having to respond to that by someone barking her name down the hallway Sael has brought her out in. Sael pats Darcy's arm and then urges her forward with a gentle hand at the small of her back, saying, "He was quite stricken to find you taken. I haven't seen such passion in him in a long time."

Darcy manages to get out a, "Oh hey, look, I'm really fi-" when Clint reaches her, snatching her up and squeezing her so hard she has trouble breathing. When the lack of oxygen becomes a real issue, Darcy punches him wherever she can reach until he lets her go. He still keeps a hand bunched in her shirt, like if he doesn't have her tethered she'll disappear again.

"I thought... I thought I'd..." He's absolutely distraught and Darcy flings her own arms around his neck this time, repeats over and over nonsense assurances and noise until he stops gripping her quite so hard and she can feel his muscles relax.

Darcy spots Natasha over his shoulder when he finally lets her step away. "Oh my god, are you okay?" Darcy demands, darting over to her and hugging her. Natasha seems more startled by the embrace than anything else that's happened so far, but she returns it, even if extremely briefly.

"Just a headache and an urge to kick someone repeatedly," she grumbles. Steve's behind her, looking sheepish. Darcy smiles and hugs him to, can hear him let go a pleased huff when she does.

They all tumble into the nearest room which fortunately looks to be a sitting room and not someone's private quarters. Sael follows them in, much more sedate. Clint twines his fingers with Darcy's, tugs her over to Sael. "I should formally-"

"It's fine, we've met," Darcy interjects, flushes when Sael and Clint just blink at her. "Oh, um, sure, formal away."

Clint just shakes his head, chuckling as Sael inclines her head. "Well met formally Darcy," she says with a sparkle in her eye. She turns her attention back to Clint and says, "Now, far be it for me to rush your decision since the longer you delay the longer you are here, but you must Name. Farer is not the only spy in our land. Were you thinking of Mayae? It would be a great blow to-"

"It'll stay in blood," Clint says. His mother blinks at him for a second before she pales.

"But... Raed? You cannot-"

"I'm Naming Sael Windbrow if you must know," Clint says with a dramatic eye roll and a put-upon sigh before he grins at her.

"What? But that is not possible," Sael breathes.

"It's not only possible, it's done," Clint says, looking smug. "I was seeing the Klen before I found out Darcy was missing." Clint steps forward, takes his mother's hands. "They agreed to... bend the rules a little in a time of war and upheaval. I couldn't trust anyone else."

Sael excuses herself, drifts away in a kind of shocked haze. Darcy pinches Clint in the side. "Hey, ow! What?"

"Did you have to give her a heart attack before you got around to being sweet?"

"I couldn't help it," Clint says, smirking.

*
"Stop it."

"Stop what?"

"Just stop it."

"I'm not doing anything."

"You're trying to see the pointy ears."

"How did you know that?"

"You've been staring at the side of my head for twenty minutes. I'm trying to sleep and I can't because you're staring so hard I can feel it- hey, ow, those don't come off you know."

"You're no fun."