Natasha Romanova crouched on the crossbar of the 'I' in the SMITH sign and observed the two figures on the rooftop below. Officially the SHIELD operative had come to New Mexico to evaluate the status of Project Lightning Rod and the well-being of one Doctor Jane Foster. No one wanted the good doctor upset; it could adversely affect relations with the being known as Thor. He had been adamant in his requirements for an alliance. It would not be optimal for him to return and find they had reneged on their part of the bargain.
Privately, Natasha wished she could have seen the incident. Anyone who managed to impress both her unflappable boss and her usually disinterested partner was probably worth seeing.
Unofficially, however, she planned to meet, and possibly interrogate, the doctor's intern, Darcy Lewis. Natasha's eyes focused on the young brunette. This was the person who had managed to catch his attention. Her partner, Clint Barton, had never been a monk, but no woman had ever gotten under his skin…except maybe Natasha herself. At least, no one had, until he met this girl. This new dynamic concerned her.
Few agents ever learned to balance their job with a stable home life. Too many faced death on a regular basis. Rather, they leaned towards one-night stands with no expectations. Clint was the same way. He looked for mature, independent women who wanted nothing more than a fun night. Something changed while he was here. Within two months of his arrival to handle security, a fresh-faced college girl had him all but tied up and celibate. Natasha wanted to assess the girl's worth. She focused on the conversation below.
"So, how is he?" Dr. Foster was asking.
The girl rolled her eyes. "Clint's fine; that's all he ever says. He'd probably say 'fine' if he was bleeding to death." She shrugged, a fond, if exasperated smile on her face. "He says he had to assign one of the…what did he call them…oh, yeah, one of the 'baby' agents to make sure Erik takes breaks, you know, for eating and sleeping." She paused and gave the doctor a direct look. "Gee, that sounds familiar." When the woman just shrugged, the girl continued. "He's a bit bored. Apparently there aren't enough distractions at the new place." She shook her head. "Because there were so many here?"
"He had you here," Dr. Foster commented, poking the girl in the ribs. "He didn't need anything else."
The girl's lips curled briefly before falling into more somber lines. "Right."
"No, really," the girl interrupted. "I mean, yes, I suppose I'm a good distraction, but what's a guy like that going to want with someone like me?" She waved a hand as the doctor tried to speak. "Okay, I'm pretty enough, and I've got great assets." She smirked for a moment. "But I'm a college kid with nine-tenths of a poli-sci degree. I'm from the middle of nowhere and just happened to be in the right place at the right time for some fabulous alien-slash-god incident to take place." She threw her hands up. "I'm pretty sure 'diversion' is all I am."
Natasha's eyes narrowed. Barton seemed to have gotten under the girl's skin as well.
Doctor Foster stood up, looming over the girl and shaking a finger at her. "Now you listen to me, Darcy Lewis! You are a fantastic person. Yes, you've got an overly smart mouth at times as well as an often insane attitude, but you're the first intern who has managed to last more than ninety days with me. You want to know what's so wonderful about you?" The doctor planted her hands on her hips, eyes snapping. "You see things. You see the stuff everyone else misses. Like that day in June, remember?"
Natasha froze. June…damn. Clint had been on his own when that day came around. Her hands clenched around the pole beside her as she looked back to the doctor.
"He came in surly and quiet. You were the only one who noticed he needed human contact. Everyone else figured he needed space and stayed away. Not you; you crowded him, talking to him, touching his hands or arms. No matter how much he sniped and snapped, you wouldn't leave him alone."
Natasha stirred slightly, a frown flickering over her face.
Dr. Foster continued. "The next morning he came in with your favorite coffee and Danish. He thanked you! You knew he needed someone." Now the doctor threw up her hands. "You do the same stuff with me and my moods. I don't get why you can't see how fantastic you are!"
The girl blinked back a shimmer of tears before standing and throwing her arms around Dr. Foster. "I thought I made you crazy?"
The doctor smiled and hugged her. "You do…but I need someone like you. I need someone who won't lose themselves in work like Erik does, but who's not afraid of me either." She sniffed. "I think there's a warning out about me now. That's why you were the only applicant."
Natasha remained still as the two separated and descended into the building itself. She needed to contemplate the information she had gathered. She had read the file on the girl, but it was remarkably slim, even for someone just on the edges of a SHIELD operation.
Darcy Lewis: 23 year old senior at the University of Texas working on the completion of a degree in political science. She was in New Mexico to get her final credits in science, the only thing she lacked to graduate. The file included reports from her professors, as well as copies of her records, grades, and various papers. Only three facts really stood out; her IQ level scored as highly gifted, her grades did not reflect that, and every one of her professors gave her a good recommendation but included a qualification.
She only applies herself if she sees the necessity. She settles for being mediocre when she could be outstanding. She is consistently the second or third in her class and could be first.
Natasha shifted her shoulders as a star shot across the sky. The girl deliberately chose to mislead others about her potential. The question remained – why? Natasha's replayed her last conversation with Clint in her mind.
She slipped in behind the three agents preparing to board a transport. "Why am I going to New Mexico?" Her brow lifted slightly as two of the agents gave violent starts. The third just tossed a smirk over his shoulder.
"Quit scaring the kids, Tasha." Clint nodded at the others and they scurried onto the transport.
Natasha stared after them. "They should not be so easy to frighten." She moved her gaze back to her partner. "Why am I going to New Mexico?"
The smirk did not fade from his face, but his eyes turned serious. "I need you to check on someone for me." His shoulders twitched.
"No," he replied with a slight headshake.
"Then why are you worried?"
His smirk fell away. "I'm not…well, I'm not so much worried as…" Her stare stepped up to a slight glare and his jaws snapped close. He sighed, "All right, so I'm a little worried, but it's for her not because of her."
Natasha's eyes flickered. "She's…important?" Her voice hesitated over the question. He had asked her to check on people before, but never on their well-being.
"Yeah," Clint answered quietly, his gaze turning inward. "She is." Silence stretched between them for a long moment. She waited patiently until his attention returned to her. "Her name is Darcy, Darcy Lewis. She's Doc Foster's assistant. She's…she's different." He paused for a moment. "Tash-"
"Barton!" The voice of their boss, Nick Fury, echoed in the bay as he growled over the comm system. "Get your ass in gear!"
Clint aimed a sloppy salute at the closest camera before turning to her once more. "Tasha, I need you to like her." He gave her one last, long look. She watched as he jogged over and boarded the transport.
She mulled over his final sentence. I need you to like her. He said 'like', not 'accept', not 'tolerate', but like. Who the hell was this girl? She pondered deep into the night.
The next morning, Natasha waited across the dusty street until she saw movement within the building. She strode through the door, cool and professional. The girl looked up, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Hey, who are you?"
Natasha raised an eyebrow as she pulled out her identification. "I am Agent Romanoff. I am here to check on Dr. Foster. Is she available, Miss Lewis?"
"Just call me Darcy." Natasha nodded, but before she could speak, the door flew open and Doctor Foster strode past, her eyes fixed on the papers in her hand. Darcy rolled her eyes. "Jane! New SHIELD guest!" The scientist gave a vague sort of wave over one shoulder, but she never bothered to turn around. Darcy turned back to Natasha with something between a sigh and a shrug. "Apparently Mr. Hyde is in today. You still want to talk to her, or you want to wait until the caffeine and sugar concoction kick in?" She grabbed a mug from the wall that stated I think of space not as the final frontier but as the next frontier. Not as something to be conquered but to be explored. She filled it with coffee before reaching for a package of Pop-Tarts. "If you wait, its possible Dr. Jekyll might make an appearance. And believe me, that'd be a much easier persona to talk to…especially if you want real, intelligible, understandable conversation."
Natasha's lips twitched, almost smiling. Darcy did not notice as her attention had focused on trying to get Doctor Foster to accept the food and coffee. "Come on, Jane! You haven't eaten since lunch yesterday!"
"Had dinner," Doctor Foster mumbled distractedly.
"No," Darcy drawled. "You had three Oreos and a cup of milk. This is not dinner. Dinner consists of at least two, preferably three of the basic food groups. I'll settle for you getting a Pop-Tart into your system right now. Lunch can be healthier."
"Don't care, boss. You don't eat this and I'm going to get Ms. SHIELD over here to help me lock up your stuff long enough for an IV."
"I figured out two variables which have to be adjusted for the planetary alignment to counteract the magnetic pulls of the orbits of three planets. The arithmetic has to be precise or we run the risk of collapse…"
Darcy interrupted. "Right now, you run the risk of collapse if you don't eat. If you don't eat, you are going to collapse, and there won't be a damn bridge. Now, here's a strawberry Pop-Tart."
Doctor Foster shook her head. "Just some coffee right now."
"Uh, uh," Darcy replied, shaking her head. "Not until you eat. Then you can have the caffeine."
Natasha watched in fascination as the two women performed a completely unscripted but totally balanced dance. Advance, retreat, circle, center…their rhythms never faltered despite their opposing viewpoints. It took Darcy a good half hour in order to get Doctor Foster to eat the Pop-Tart, but she never gave up or gave in. She did not appear to become exasperated or angry. She simply remained persistent, gently, slowly wearing down her friend's resistance.
"Finally!" Darcy dropped into the chair next to Natasha. "Some days her head gets so filled with science that she loses all track of reality."
"You appear used to this behavior," Natasha noted.
"Yeah, well, I've been her intern for a while now. Jane's absolutely brilliant, but she's got the common sense of a moth."
Natasha tilted her head. "A moth?"
"Yep," Darcy answered. "Always drawn to the pretty light, practically asking to get zapped. It's even worse now she's got a concrete goal in mind. Before, it was always about the science." She gave a quick grin. "Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the high-minded, ivory tower idea of pure science is a fabulous thing, but it's got nothing on the Big Guy." A wicked gleam of light entered her blue eyes. "Thor's her new goal."
"Do you think she will succeed?" Natasha asked curiously.
"Honestly?" Darcy asked, and at Natasha's nod, she continued, "yes, I think she will. She's got the brains and the determination. She'll either discover the law of physics that lets it happen, or she'll create it. She's going to ram straight through anything trying to block her."
Darcy curled over laughing. "Oh man! You have no idea! She takes it to a whole new level!" After a few minutes of laughter, she brought herself under control. "You want some coffee?" At Natasha's nod, she moved away to the small kitchenette area. Instead of going to the mugs on the wall, she pulled one out of the cupboard. "How do you take it?"
"Black." Natasha rose and joined her. Darcy handed her the coffee and then reached for another mug, this one from the wall. It said I'm multi-talented: I can talk and piss you off at the same time. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Nope," Darcy answered, eyes widening in curiosity.
"Why did you get my cup from the cupboard, but take both yours and Doctor Foster's off the wall?"
Darcy blinked and then grinned. "Looked weird, huh?" Natasha shrugged and the younger woman continued. "Well, those are the inner circle mugs."
"Family?" She shrugged. "Basically those are mugs for the important people around here." As Natasha's eyebrow climbed towards her hairline, Darcy coughed. "Sorry, sorry, the brain-to-mouth filter still needs to kick-start. I mean, they're us - the ones working here, or really being part of the support." She shook her head. "And I don't mean just financially. I mean the people who will sit and let Jane ramble about astrophysics even if they have no idea what she's talking about. They're the ones who will get up at three in the morning to make coffee because Jane's had an epiphany in her dream and I haven't had sleep in forty-eight hours. They get sarcastic with me, help keep Jane fed and caffeinated, and make midnight runs to the only all-night gas station because God forbid we run out of Pop-Tarts." She smiled. "So, you know, family."
Natasha gave a long, slow nod as she looked back to the wall. Three mugs remained. "Five mugs?"
Darcy grinned. "Yep! The blue one is Erik's and it says Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing."
"What about the white one?"
"Oh, that's Phil's."
Natasha turned her head sharply. "Phil?"
"Phil Coulson?" Darcy frowned at her in confusion. "One of your bosses?"
"He has a mug here?"
"Sure; he earned it when he brought my iPod back and played hangman with me while Jane and Erik had an argument over some conflicting theories."
"What does his say?"
Now Darcy smiled. "It has a yellow face, but instead of smiling, the mouth is just a straight line. Underneath that it says I am smiling."
Natasha let that filter through her mind for a moment as she considered the mugs. "What about the last one?"
"That's Clint's." Natasha looked around abruptly, but Darcy did not notice, her eyes fixed on the mug. "It should have an archery quote, and I'm combing the internet for a good one. Right now it's more generic." She sighed. "He said it was fitting though."
"Oh?" Every iota of Natasha's senses focused on the woman across from her.
"It says Fast is fine but accuracy is final. You need to learn to be slow in a hurry"
Natasha gave her a small smile. "It sounds like him."
"You know him?" Darcy asked before rolling her eyes. "Stupid question – of course you know him. You're in the same business."
"That does not automatically include a familiarity with one another," Natasha noted. "Barton and I, however, are partners." Something flickered in Darcy's eyes, a shadow of fear, possibly despair. Natasha shook her head. "We are not lovers. Partners, yes, friends even, but not lovers."
"Why not?" Darcy clapped a hand over her mouth with a wince. "Never mind! Sorry! None of my business-"
"He asked me to check on you."
Darcy's eyes widened and she fell silent. Natasha watched carefully as emotions chased one another across her expressive face. Pleasure, surprise, and a deep joy all appeared, but she could find no trace of calculation or greed. She felt a knot of tension unwind in her chest. Her lips curved slightly as she focused on his mug once more.
He would be happy anyway; Natasha did like her.