A/N: One of the best parts about being in fandom is the people you meet – the ones who reassure you that you're not as much of a head case as you're afraid you may be, given how much time you spend obsessing about fictional characters.
Some you get to know and become close to in real life, others you may never meet face-to-face. But the friendships you build are real, and they matter. So someone has a birthday' another leaves a prompt; a third just needs cheering up – and stories happen as a result. Little stories, meant to show that just for a moment, you connected through something you both love to do.
This is a mixed collection of ficlets that includes an A/U and, in this first installment, a couple of Agents-of-SHIELD(ish) pieces. All are rated T, except the very last one. I'll be posting them in two lots, to spare the inboxes of those of you who get notifications.
The first piece was written for Shenshen77 on her birthday, and is a toast to fresh starts.
Natasha eyes the package suspiciously. It looks as if someone had taken an old shoebox, sat on it, and then wrapped most of a roll of toilet paper around it to keep the sides from splitting open.
"It's a present," Barton says. "Well, not exactly. But I wrapped it myself."
"I would never have guessed," she says. "What is it?"
She is still fathoming the man's capacity for obstinacy, but this answer is something she should have expected: "Why don't you open it and find out?"
Natasha holds the thing up against her ear and shakes it a little. It doesn't tick, or rattle; no, it sounds … fluffy, like there's something soft inside, barely moving.
"Don't tell me you actually bought that black velvet wall hanging you saw in the market in Lisbon?" she demands. Their first mission together had almost ended in tragedy, when she had found that his tastes ran to cheap bars and tacky souvenirs.
"Please," Barton is offended. "Give me some credit. Those can only be truly awesome when they involve Elvis in his fat period."
She gives him a measuring look and weighs the parcel carefully in her hand. It's actually pretty light, and once you subtract the packaging, there isn't much left for anything except …
"Anthrax powder?" she asks, frowning.
"You spend entirely too much time thinking about death, Romanoff," Barton informs her. Before she can even interject a Yes, so? That's my job, he continues, "… and not enough time considering the other side of the coin. Birth. Or rebirth, for that matter. Beginnings. Turning over a new leaf, that sort of thing."
Natasha ignores the last bits; Barton getting metaphorical is not an appealing concept, especially after what he just said about Elvis Presley and black velvet. She dials her glare up to Medusa, without noticeable impact. Instead, he rolls his eyes and huffs impatiently.
"As in birthday."
Natasha suddenly feels as if someone was sitting on her chest. There had been records within the Red Room, of course, but any data in them was only as reliable as the motives of those who had entered them. In an agency that specialized in inventing identities, planting memories and concealing tracks, reliable was a death sentence.
"It's not my birthday," she says, extending the hand with the parcel in his direction as if to hand it back to him.
Barton won't take no for an answer.
"It is now," he says, and there's a slight edge to his voice. "Open the damn thing. I'll stay close, so if it's booby-trapped we go down together."
She rips into the parcel easily, given the improvised nature of its wrapping. Lifting the slightly dented lid, she finds …
"More toilet paper? Taken off the roll, too, and all balled up, ready for use? Oh, Hawkeye, you shouldn't have."
"Hey!" Barton takes a step towards her. "Careful. You don't want to tear it. Some day, this will have sentimental value to you. Like Scrooge McDuck's first self-earned dime."
Natasha snorts, even as she is beginning to suspect that maybe there is actually something vaguely important in the box. She fishes gingerly around in the wads of tissue (three-ply - he went all out, or else he snagged a roll from Fury's private bathroom), only to find more paper at the bottom. She takes it out and unfolds it, trying to ignore Barton whose expression has suddenly gone unreadable.
It's an envelope, addressed to her, with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on the back. She rips it open and takes out the single half-sheet. The paper is covered in numbers and incomprehensible acronyms, with her name at the top.
And yes, it bears today's date.
"What is this?" she says, and doesn't bother to hide her confusion. "It looks like a ledger of some sort."
"It is," Clint says, and the oddest smile crosses his face. "Of sorts. But it isn't red. It's your first official pay slip. Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Romanoff."
This one was written for Anuna_81's birthday – in February. After Cap2 and Episodes 17 and 18 of Agents of SHIELD, alas, it took on a whole different meaning (awww, Skye …).
2. Chai Latte
Sometimes, Skye really doesn't know what to make of Ward - it's like he's half a dozen different people, taking off one skin and putting on another, just like that. Maybe it's that whole being a covert agent thing?
Sometimes, it would be nice for the real Grant Ward to stand up.
She wraps her hands around her chai latte and frowns, trying to puzzle him out as he grins at her from across the table. He salutes her with his Bold Americano, probably wondering what idiotic scheme she's hatching now to get them all killed.
So here's the deal.
One moment he's like a Father Confessor, patiently letting her rant about why compartmentalization totally sucks as the theological basis for an organizational flow chart. Seriously, why shouldn't Coulson be able to tell her stuff he knows but she doesn't and wants to, just because she supposedly doesn't need to know it?
Who says what she might need to know tomorrow, when it'll be too late? What kind of working environment does that make for? Lack of trust much? How can you have cross-fertilization of ideas and lateral thinking in a world made up of steel silos of excellence and impenetrable levels of classification?
So when that happens, Father Confessor Ward listens and nods politely, doesn't agree or argue at all until she shuts up - at which point he either grants absolution or makes her feel guilty about her whinge binge, all with a few choice words that aren't even all that different from one time to the next. Annoying, mostly, but she also usually feels a bit better for having dumped. Funny, that.
Other times, he's totally hot, like when he's teaching her in the sparring room where to kick a guy and how hard, to disable him but still leave some breath in for interrogation purposes. Holding her by the waist with those big hands of his, helping her shift her balance and breathing down her neck, and the way that t-shirt clings to his abs? Holy shit.
And she finds herself wondering, are there actual pheromones flying, or does her nose just have a particularly fine imagination? (And dammit, there should be a law against parading an ass like that around in public.)
But then he turns on the annoying big brother routine, not that she knows what that feels like, never having had one, but she's read about them in books. Surely, throwing a sweaty towel at a girl's face isn't something anyone but an annoying big brother would do, right?
Then again sometimes she sees him wander over to May, and whatever those two have between them it's different, and not something Skye can totally relate to or be a part of - something old, worn and a bit frayed around the edges. Like they're comparing battle scars and old stories around a campfire and getting comfort from a silent nod, and Skye just knows that she doesn't have enough scars and stories yet to be in that particular club, even though the door isn't closed.
Romanoff and Barton, they were like that too, that time they stopped by on the plane after the Manila op, to use the medical bay and hang with Coulson and May and Ward for a bit. They sat up way late, the five of them, passing some bottles around, and sometimes there was a gale of laughter coming from the lounge and sometimes there were long silences before the voices would be back.
Theirs is a trust and comfort shaped by sharing horrendous losses, incandescent victories and everything in between - distilled into some kind of air that allows them to breathe easier in each other's company than in anyone else's. It's a wordless ease of being with one another that's been earned the hard way, and Skye isn't there yet; she knows it and she really doesn't mind. It will come, that ease, and that's something to be hoped and feared in equal measure.
So, yeah. Different Wards, for different occasions.
But then he turns up from his recce – the one that Coulson said she couldn't go on because there aren't that many young women with curly light hair in Muscat, and we don't want to be too memorable, not yet anyway. He turns up with a Tazo chai latte for her, still warm - not hot, but that's what microwaves are for, or that heat-ray thingy FitzSimmons are experimenting with in the back - and who knew there was a Starbucks in Oman? But he has a nose for them, does Ward, and he always remembers what she likes, even when she's not there to remind him.
"You done staring into that cup yet?" he asks, finally.
And yes – yes, she is.
Because it's just hit her: What she's been doing is like trying to sort out all the different spices that go into a decent chai, when it's always really the blend that matters.
And there's one thing that all those different Wards are when you throw them all together, and for a moment it almost makes her all dizzy and blubbery, because it's not something she ever had before – not really, anyway. She grabs her cardboard cup and takes a quick swallow, to stop herself from having a serious snot moment.
Grant Ward is a friend.
This piece was the result of a LiveJournal/tumblr meme, in which Ericadawn16 picked the prompt stuck-in-an-airport-because-the-flights-were-SO-VERY-delayed-and-it's-like-two-am AU, with characters Elliot Randolph and Darcy Lewis. (Huh? Challenge much?). I wrote it in the course of a thirteen-hour flight to Japan, which involved one missed connection and an unplanned change of airport. Go figure. (But lest you think there's any attitudinal meta hidden in my pseud, that's got something to do with my other fandom, Star Trek Voyager, not my travelling habits.)
I have taken liberties with the flight times between Tromsø and Oslo, and when Darcy would have to be leaving town to make a connection to LaGuardia. But if you believe in Asgard and flying demi-gods to begin with, I suppose I can get away with it.
3: The Joys of Flying
The man sitting across from Darcy looks up briefly, but instead of making some sort of sympathetic noise, he turns his attention back to his notebook. It's not even a real notebook, but one of those spiral-bound manual things, and his eyebrows are pulled over his eyes like a curtain, presumably so he can pretend he doesn't see Darcy, and her attempts for find a conversation.
She lets out a sigh and tries again.
"I mean, seriously. This has got to be the world's suckiest airport, and I've been to LaGuardia. At least LaGuardia didn't smell of smoked fish."
The man continues to ignore her, which would be bad enough but he's the closest life form around and Darcy is just so freakin' tired of sitting here and not talking to anyone and just waiting. And waiting. She hated Tromsø the first time and really should have known better than go back there. (The things you do for science and a teeny share of Jane's latest research grant.)
Darcy bounces her heel against the leg of her chair. (Are they chairs when they're all nailed together like that, or is that a bench?) Ouch, that hurt.
If at least Jane was still here. Jane isn't the world's chattiest person, but she would probably at least say something like, so sorry Darcy, and doesn't air travel suck the big one? And then they could roll their eyes at each other and maybe trash Tromsø for a bit. With words, of course, not for real – Darcy has enough of that kind of trashing to last her a lifetime. She wouldn't do that, not even to Tromsø.
But now she doesn't even have Jane for company anymore. Jane's going home via some stupid conference in Helsinki, the one Darcy had decided would kill her of boredom if she went, but which is beginning to look pretty good all things considered. At least there'd be booze (assuming there's a reception), not just a pathetic duty-free that closes at eleven.
Of course, the Helsinki plane got away hours ago, right on schedule, with Jane on it. Bye-bye, company.
The Oslo plane, the one Darcy was supposed to get on, that's the one that broke or died or got eaten by Dark Elves or whatever. And what's worse, by the time she'll get to Oslo, her connection to the good old U.S. of A. and a Starbucks on every corner will be long gone.
To top it all off, her iPhone death-beeped just after that last plaintive text to Jane, and the charger is in her suitcase which the troll at the check-in won't let her have back 'for security reasons'. Security reasons? Seriously, when has Darcy Lewis ever been a threat to anyone, except maybe with a Taser, which they won't let you bring on airplanes anyway?
She tries again.
"I think they should just bring us a new plane rather than try and fix the old one, don't you? I mean, isn't that what they do when one breaks? Bring a new plane?"
The man looks up briefly.
"I'm sure they're working on it," he says. "We just have to be patient. A few hours are nothing in the face of eternity."
Oh, hello, it talks. Intellectualizes, even.
Darcy decides to go for it. She crosses the aisle, plunks herself down beside the man and looks over his shoulder.
"You a philosopher, or something?" she asks, because asking people about what they do makes them feel good about themselves, and is usually a good conversation starter. (PoliSci student, dontcha know.) It always works with Jane, except more often than not you end up wishing you hadn't asked. But Jane's not here, so where's the harm? "Whatcher working on?"
The man gives her a sideways look, but he doesn't make a move to cover up his paper. Instead, he looks just a bit contemptuously, like he's convinced Darcy wouldn't have a clue what she's looking at.
"I doubt you would understand."
Prick. Except – ha! - she does. The stuff on the page? Looks totally familiar. Runes. Like the way Thor explained the BiFrost thing to Jane: Norse for Einstein-Rosen.
For a moment a small chill creeps down Darcy's spine. Seriously, what are the odds? What sort of karma must be sticking to her that she keeps attracting this Asgardian stuff? But if there's one thing she's learned from hanging around Jane Foster and S.H.I.E.L.D. is that when you see a mystery, you better go shine a flashlight at it right away, or else it comes back and bites you in places you'd rather it didn't.
"Those scribbles," she says, stubbing her finger on the man's note pad with just the right amount of accusation in her voice. "They look like those little pictures Thor keeps drawing for Jane, the ones that he says are writing of some sort and she thinks are, like, the formula to open a door to the universe or some such thing. Not that we need another door to the universe, I mean really? Century 21 in Manhattan is still closed from the last one, which really sucks because they had the best sales. So, what are you using those for?"
The man stares at her like he's seen a ghost, but that doesn't translate into an actual answer. He asks her a question instead.
"You know Thor?"
Is that what he got from her question? Maybe she should take interrogation lessons from those S.H.I.E.L.D. guys, like that Coulson dude, the one who still owes her an iPod? Anyway.
The guy sounds a little strange when he asks his question - actually a lot strange, but at least he's looking at her now and seems ready for some information-gathering. Of course, there's a little alarm bell going off, in Darcy's head, because hello, stranger, so she decides to be diffident.
"Yes, of course I know Thor. I mean, doesn't everybody? He's been all over TV, saving the world twice now – or is it three times? Not sure that robot thing counts, does it? Punta-whatsit was way to small for world threatening. New York and London, well, that would have been awkward if they'd gone down. Anyway, he's, like, a public figure."
Apparently the guy doesn't buy diffident.
"You recognized runic writing," he says. "They have never shown that on TV in connection with Thor."
Shit. Time to be brave, and counter-attack.
"So why do you have it, then?" Darcy challenges. He doesn't look particularly threatening - balding, some fuzz left (thank goodness no comb-over) - out of shape, pudgy. Like a professor-type, or maybe an accountant.
The man gives her a calculating look. He has obviously figured out that she's not going to divulge anything more without at least a formal introduction, so that's something.
"Elliot Randolph," he says, extending his hand. Darcy takes it cautiously; it's warm and firm, not clammy. (Not obviously evil, then. Those Death Head elves? Cold, like fish that's been in the fridge too long.) "Professor of Norse Mythology at the University of Oslo."
"Norse mythology? That's, like, the study of Thor and that horrible no-good brother of his? And I don't care what Jane says about him having redeemed himself a bit, he's still a total shit and almost got us all killed in New Mexico. Not to mention what he did to Manhattan." Darcy fixes Randolph with her best stare. "Why would anyone here want to study Thor and his family?"
He cocks his head a little, and goes all sincere and official.
"The historical influence of Asgard on this world is fascinating to many," he says. "Especially now that people know it's real, not myth. I am trying to bring the two worlds together, reduce misconceptions through learning and understanding."
"You mean, like, Earth-Asgard relations? Because, you know, those could really use some improving after what Loki did. Thor keeps having to explain how he's adopted."
Darcy can't help herself. Politics is her field, a lot more than that door into other universes stuff, although she's getting pretty good at that, too. She hasn't really thought that those things might go together, so, like, fascinating. Future job opportunities?
"In a way, yes," Randolph says, and for a moment there's something sad in his voice. Probably because whatever he's been teaching for the last few years must be getting jossed on a daily basis now, what with actual Asgardians and other Nine Realm types turning up basically in droves. He's probably just making it up as he goes along now. But he's definitely interested in what she's got to say now, and Darcy isn't quite sure whether she should fret about that, or preen. "I do hope to meet Thor one day. The future King of Asgard. You do know him, don't you, Miss …?"
"Lewis. Darcy Lewis."
Great. Now why did she give him her name? Not a spy, is Darcy Lewis. But polite.
"Miss Lewis." Randolph smiles encouragingly. Oh, now it becomes clear. He's a Thor fan boy, and she's the closest he's ever come to the object of his worship. "So what's he like?"
Darcy s spared the need for an immediate answer by a public announcement in Norwegian. Of course she doesn't understand a word, but it says Oslo in there somewhere, so maybe it's about their flight? She holds up her hand and waits for the lispy English version.
"To the passengers for Scandinavian Flight 4591 to Oslo, we apologize for the delay. A new aircraft is on its way and is expected shortly. We will transfer your luggage and expect to be able to board at approximately one thirty a.m. All passengers who had connecting flights in Oslo will be asked to report to customer service on the ground upon arrival, where you will be given options for your onward journey, and hotel vouchers for the night. Again, we apologize for the inconvenience."
Great. Darcy looks at her watch. Another hour and a half without food, caffeine or access to the internet. And that flight to LaGuardia is definitely toast.
She tosses Randolph a calculating look. He seems harmless, and interested, so.
"Thor's a nice guy. Bit like a great, big teddy bear when he's not out smashing things up with that hammer or closing up holes in the universe. Also, built? I mean, you should see him in a t-shirt, not with the cape and chain mail. The guy's got man boobs of solid steel. I'm actually a bit scared for Jane, because, you know, that whole fragile Earth flower thing? But she seems to be okay with it. Me, I like my guys a bit smaller. Muscly, but not totally bulked up. Like that one S.H.I.E.L.D. guy that used to hang around the pub Punta Antigua, the one with the dartboard? Oh, and he likes pop tarts and beer. Thor, that is. Not that other guy."
There's a sudden commotion in the hall, shouting, which sounds pretty much like Norwegian for "hold it right there" and "where the fuck do you think you're going?" Darcy looks over and …
"Well, looky here, speak of the Devil! I mean, speak of the God." She snorts a little at her own wit.
Thor comes striding through the waiting area like he owns the place – which he totally could, because he's carrying Mew-mew and has that flowing red cape and, let's face it, because – and he's heading straight for Darcy with a big smile on his face.
"Darcy," he booms. "My Lady Jane says your transport has been delayed, and you are anxious to return home. May I render assistance and take you to your next destination?"
Darcy can't believe her ears. Thor is a good guy, and helpful around the house, but this?
"You're offering me airlift to Oslo?"
She absolutely tries not to squeak, but she probably does, because flying with Thor? At least it's not raining and the midnight sun is a bonus, and so she decides to be more excited than panicky.
"If you wish."
Thor waits for her to nod, and turns imperiously to the gaggle of people in uniform who have come running when he crashed through security, as if they could actually do something about it.
"Guards. Ensure that the Lady Darcy's belongings are sent to New York."
The security dudes kind of mill around a little projecting cluelessness, so Darcy hands them her boarding card.
"You heard the man," she says, happy to notice that the squeak is gone and she manages to sound almost imperious.
But then she remembers Elliot Randolph, who has gone very, very quiet and looks a little seasick.
"Professor," Darcy says airily. "Meet Thor. Thor, meet Professor Randolph. He studies Asgardian stuff and has been dying to meet you."
"My Prince," Randolph stammers. "It is an honour beyond my station, and my wildest dreams to meet you here, in Midgard."
Thor frowns, and that whole jovial look drains from his face. He grips his hammer a little differently and it's like there is a sudden chill in the air. Thor does menace as well as he does affable.
"You," he growls. "You are of Asgard?"
Holy shit. Darcy swallows. Not another one …? Darcy Lewis, alien magnet. Her mother would be so proud.
Randolph answers in a language Darcy doesn't understand, but it's pretty clear that Thor isn't particularly pleased by this latest development; he looks pretty put out actually. And who could blame him, really, what with the havoc that everyone from Asgard who isn't him seems to be wreaking as soon as they come to Earth.
But then Darcy hears the name Coulson coming from Randolph and Thor looks thunderstruck (Ha! Must remember that one) and he exclaims, in English, "The Son of Coul lives?"
The conversation gets a lot more animated and friendly after that, which is funny, because why wouldn't Coulson be alive? He certainly was the last time she saw him, in New Mexico.
They seem to have reached some kind of understanding, and Thor reaches out to clasp Randolph's arm with his huge hand in some form of Asgardian secret shake, turns to Darcy and everything after that is pretty much a blur, because flying without a plane is really kind of nerve-wrecking, especially holding on to your hand luggage so it doesn't brain someone on the ground.
Darcy makes her connection in Oslo, and yes, her hair needs some serious work. But all things considered, she sure isn't bored anymore, and that's a total win.
End Note: Before you ask, yes, "jossed" is a perfectly legitimate verb:
joss, v., tr.: to discard, in whole or in part, expectations and preconceived notions as to how a particular universe (* see 'verse, n.) should unravel, often through deployment of red herrings or lethal violence, and with the utmost disregard for the affectionate attachments of other fictional characters or audiences. Etymologically traceable to the verbs "toss" and "jinx", the expression gained currency during the early years of the third Millennium, and is prevalent in cyber-discussion fora such as tumblr and LiveJournal, among aficionados of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and certain early 21st century television shows.