When asked about it later, Darcy Lewis would always refer to it as the "scrapbook" time. Despite lasting almost a year, she considered it as a single unit of time – a unit made up of snapshots and choices that irrevocably changed her life and its direction. She just did not realize it at the time. Someone asked her if she would change anything. She laughed.
"Nope," she answered. A soft smile lingered on her lips and lightened her eyes. "I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't risk it changing everything."
When she looked back, she could honestly say Thor's appearance might have changed her worldview, but his disappearance is what started the change of her life's direction.
They stared at the slowly clearing sky for several long minutes.
Darcy turned at the soft words. Her boss, Doctor Jane Foster, looked lost. Thor was gone, back to Asgard to deal with his brother and whatever else awaited him. For a brief moment, they had seen a rainbow of lights gleaming high overhead and then it just…shattered. Darcy could not think of any other words for it. She had never seen light break like that – jagged shapes of bleeding colors. Tears pricked at her eyes.
Jane's quiet, broken breath drew Darcy's attention back once more. She turned and started towards the van. She could hear the others following her. As they sat, motionless once more, she looked over at her boss as the astrophysicist flipped through her notebook. "Now what?"
Jane's chin went up and determinate flared in her eyes. "We get him back."
That had been the start alright. The three of them went into overdrive – energy readings, odd light occurrences – anything and everything Jane could lay her hands on or dream up in order to find a way to reconnect with Thor. Then they got the letter from Darcy's school.
Her time on internship was coming to an end. She needed to turn in her paperwork and prepare to graduate. She would no longer have a stipend to live on. It shocked the three of them. They had become so focused on Thor, and completely forgot Darcy's original reason for being there.
Darcy glanced up as the door opened. Dark suit? Check. Stoic expression? Check. Sunglasses at night? Check. She rolled her eyes. "Well, well, look what blew in on the devil's wind." She leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest. "What are you doing out this way, Agent Sneak Thief?"
"Miss Lewis." Agent Sneak Thief, otherwise known as Phil Coulson, gave her a nod. "I am here to discuss security measures with Dr. Foster." He glanced around. "Is she available?"
"That way," Darcy answered, pointing towards the roof. She could not see his eyes behind the shades, but she got the distinct impression he was rolling his eyes. She shrugged. "Her numbers aren't coming out the way she thinks they should. It's been a Mr. Hyde day."
"And Dr. Selvig?"
She grinned. "He's at the bar." He raised his eyebrow and she widened her eyes in response. "What? I told you, it's been a Hyde day. He can get just as lost in the science, but she takes the moodiness to a whole new level of attitude."
"How is her research coming along?"
"Where's my iPod?"
He removed his sunglasses and they stared at each other. He took a deep breath. Darcy felt her lips curve slightly at the edges. "You are very persistent, Miss Lewis."
"Hey, thirty brand new downloads…listened to exactly once!" She pointed at an accusing finger at him. "All of my playlists meticulously gathered and carefully arranged based on need, weather, season, and mood. Not just my moods, mind you; I'm talking about Jane's moods too. Jane asked me to make nice; she didn't tell me I had to be helpful."
One corner of his mouth appeared to quiver. She blinked. His face seemed as still and stoic as ever. She rolled her eyes.
"So, is there anything else you need, Mr. M.I.B.? I'd wait until morning to talk to Jane." She tilted her head in consideration. "Actually, considering her sleep schedule lately, I'd wait until late morning. If you walk through the door before she's had two full cups of coffee, you might face bodily harm."
He frowned. "Has something in particular been happening to set her off?"
"Yeah, kind of," she sighed. "Or rather, it's something on top of everything."
She shrugged. "Thor's disappeared, and she's trying to recreate an Einstein-Rosen bridge she knows will work despite having no firm sure idea of how. Erik is playing devil's advocate, just to keep things realistic he says. To top it all off, my internship is ending in a couple of weeks, and I've got to go home because I won't get the university stipend anymore." Darcy slumped back in her chair. "It's been a pain-in-the-ass week."
He folded his arms across his chest and lowered his chin. After spending several moments in silence, he looked up at her. "SHIELD's agreement with Dr. Foster in regards to her research does include a clause on assisting her with personnel. I believe it was one of the agreements we came to in return for her cooperation in the matter of security and confidentiality."
Darcy felt her jaw drop slightly. "Say what?"
"You'll let me keep her?"
Both of them looked around to find Jane peering in from the roof. She stared down at Coulson, her eyes narrow and filled with suspicion. His mouth gave another tiny twitch. "Dr. Foster."
Silence fell over the lab for a long moment before Jane huffed. "Are you letting me keep Darcy?"
"Provided Miss Lewis signs a few more non-disclosure forms and both of you are willing to cooperate with our security team, SHIELD will agree to provide a small wage to provide for Miss Lewis' continued employment as your assistant."
"Oh my God," Darcy laughed. "Were you born in a suit?"
He spared her a glance before turning back to Jane. "Will that suit you, doctor?"
Jane climbed down the ladder and leaned against a desk. "So, in return for a security team you were going to set up anyway and forms Darcy would probably have to sign regardless, you're going to pay for my assistant?"
Coulson lifted his hands slightly in acknowledgment of her comments. "You need help, doctor. That has been obvious from the beginning. From the reports we have gathered, you have had…" He paused for a moment, searching for the right word. "You have had difficulty finding and keeping any help at all. Miss Lewis is one of the few who has remained with you for any length of time." He glanced at Darcy once more. "She is already involved and seems eager to remain. She has experience in dealing with your style and methods. It would be a waste of resources to change your personnel." He focused on Jane. "If you are willing, of course?"
"Oh, I think we can work with SHIELD on this." Jane smiled and Coulson's face took on a faint look of concern. Darcy just grinned. "Hey, does this mean I get my iPod back now?"
It took another couple of weeks before she got her iPod back. She also decided she would have to like Phil. He brought back her iPod and then spent two hours playing hangman with her while Jane and Erik argued theoretical physics. The new security team arrived the next day.
The sudden influx of SHIELD personnel might have given a boost to the town's economy, but it sure made life more complicated for Darcy and her scientists. Working in the lab and going out to the desert for readings was never an issue, but getting tailed every single time she went to the bar, the movies, or just making a run to the grocery store? It got real old, real fast, but she coped. Darcy had three older brothers – she could handle a bunch of government agents without losing her cool.
And then Agent Drakard got assigned to her.
Darcy slammed through the doors to the SHIELD mobile headquarters. She pinned a furious gaze on the first person she saw. "Who's in charge?"
"Ah, what?" The agent gave her a confused look.
"Who's in charge?" She threw up her hands. "Who is your boss? Who's the one giving orders around here?" When the guy continued to stare at her, she snapped her fingers in his face. "Hey! Snap to it!" She planted her hands on her hips. "Now, who is in charge?"
"That would be me."
She spun to face the voice. A man stood in the doorway, blue-green eyes intent on her face. Unlike the suits she had been dealing with all week, this guy was dressed in some kind of black, sleeveless ensemble. Although he just made average height, he gave off a sense of restrained power, kind of like a coiled spring waiting to be released. His short-cropped dirty blond hair framed a strong face and jaw while his arms and shoulders were definitely drool-worthy. He was not classically handsome, but his features had a rugged timelessness.
Darcy took in everything in one sweeping look before focusing on his face, her anger surging to the forefront once more. "If one of your agents is pissing me off, where do I lodge the official complaint?"
He stepped back and gestured her into his office with little more than the lift of a brow. She threw herself into a chair as he closed the door. He sat next to her rather than across the desk. Her shoulders relaxed slightly at the courtesy.
He focused on her. "What seems to be the problem, Miss Lewis?"
He tilted his chin down slightly, but his eyes never left hers. "You have a complaint against Agent Drakard?"
"Let's see," she drawled sarcastically. "Should I complain about him treating a brilliant astrophysicist like a special needs toddler? Maybe it should be about a lack of respect for said astrophysicist's mentor?" His eyes narrowed and she gave a grim nod. "Oh, I know," she snarled, "how about this one? If he tries to put a hand on my ass one more time, you'll find him unconscious and twitching in the street!"
His eyes, already serious, flickered and settled into glacial. "How long has this been going on?"
"He swears it's an 'accident' each time." Her lips settled in a disgruntled moue.
"How many 'accidents' has he had?"
"Third time's the charm," she quipped. "Once is chance; you might even sell me on twice. I mean, hey, coincidences happen. Three times? That's a frickin' conspiracy."
His lips thinned. "I'll take care of it." She blinked at him, and one side of his mouth twitched down in a frown. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
She gave a small shrug. "I figured you'd do something. I just thought it'd take more to convince you."
"I don't get paid for being unobservant." She must have looked confused because he continued, "I'm an agent for a reason, Miss Lewis. I'm very, very good at seeing what's real versus somebody's act. You're not lying or making trouble. You're legitimately pissed." She laughed and his eyes thawed just a fraction. "I will not have a man like that in my command."
"Cool," she noted with satisfaction. She gave him a long look. "I like you." He blinked and she smirked. "Still, before I tell you to call me Darcy, I'd really like to know one thing."
"Who the heck are you?" Her smirk softened into a smile as he gave a rough chuckle. She lifted one shoulder. "You know who I am, which I admit is part of your job, but still. Plus you're about to fix my major complaint with SHIELD at the moment. I think I should at least know who you are when I say thanks."
Something indefinable entered his gaze, but it disappeared before she could put a name to it. He held out a hand. "Agent Clint Barton; it's nice to meet you officially, Miss Lewis."
She shook his hand. "Well, Agent Barton, call me Darcy." That vague shadow ghosted through his expression once more before his face settled into stoic lines.
"Nice," she grinned. "I'm on a first name basis with two secret agent guys. How cool is that?"
"Two?" he asked.
"Yep." She held up two fingers. "Two; you and Phil."
"Phil?" He blinked. "Phil Coulson?"
"There's another Phil?" She scrunched up her nose. "I don't think the world can handle two Phil's."
A soft snort escaped him. "Hah!" She pointed at him. "Am I right or what? Two Phil's are just unthinkable."
"Nightmare inducing," he agreed. Clint's blue-green eyes examined her. "Is he trying to recruit you?"
"For what?" Her eyebrows climbed towards her hairline when he raised a brow at her. "For SHIELD?" She started laughing. "What would he recruit me for? Flunky of the break room? Assistant to the mailroom clerk? I am so not SHIELD material." She shook her head, giggles still breaking out. "No, he just knows I'm the only one who's ever been able to handle Jane, let alone Jane and Erik." She glanced down at her phone. "Speaking of – I've got to get back."
They moved out of the office, and Darcy headed for the door. She glanced back over her shoulder. "Hey, nice to meet you and thanks." He gave her a nod. As the door swung closed behind her, she could hear him telling the office agent to call in Drakard.
Meeting Clint had been worth the trouble with Agent Dickhead. If she thought about it, Darcy figured meeting Clint actually made all of the SHIELD shenanigans and secrecy worth it. She had to respect any man who could take her attitude and dish out his own. The fact that he kept his word about Drakard did not hurt, nor did his apparent dedication to physical fitness. She could probably write a sonnet on those arms alone.
He started coming by the lab fairly often after her storming of the SHIELD HQ to check on them. Darcy asked him about the extra check-ups, and he told her he wanted to make sure they were not having any more problems with his people. She certainly was not going to complain. He would listen patiently to the scientists as they burbled over with excitement about this reading or that finding – even when it was obvious he had no clue what they were talking about. He helped Darcy move equipment and traded sarcasm when she was in a mood. Within six weeks he had established himself as her best guy friend ever, especially when he took on a couple of the three a.m. Pop-Tart runs because Jane had a new breakthrough and Darcy had to watch for numbers on three different screens.
She wondered sometimes what it said about her when one of her best friends was a Jekyll and Hyde scientist who tended to speak three miles over Darcy's head and her other best friend was a certified government "MIB" secret agent about whom she knew almost nothing. Good thing Mama Lewis raised her little girl to roll with the punches and take on the weird.
This helped even more when her dreams took a left turn into reality.
Darcy jolted upright and smacked her head on the bottom of her desk. "Ow! Damn it!"
Jane hurried around and knelt beside her. "Are you alright?"
"Fine, fine," Darcy muttered, rubbing her head. "Why are you shouting? What time is it?"
"In the morning?" Darcy interrupted. "Jane, we just went to sleep three hours ago!"
"I know, I know!" Jane waved her hands about. "It's just…well, I mean…" Her voice trailed off.
Darcy gave her a narrowed gaze. Jane looked both flustered and…fluttery. Jane never looked fluttery – not even after she kissed Thor. "Hey, boss lady, what happened?"
"I had a dream." Darcy froze as Jane's answer brought her own dream back to the forefront of her mind. Jane eyed her. "You did too, didn't you? You're the one she was talking about."
"Older, regal-looking blonde?" Darcy noted. "Made you automatically think 'I want to look that good with grown kids'?"
"Frigga," Jane nodded. "Thor's mother."
"Oh, yeah, I was there. Though not with you." Darcy frowned.
"She said you had already gone to talk to someone else," Jane replied. "I was given some strange kind of a tour of the Bifrost first."
Darcy held up a hand. "Okay, before we go any further, I need coffee and food. We're obviously not going to sleep again anytime soon."
Omelets made and coffee brewed, the two women sat at the small table. Darcy pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. "Okay, you first."
Jane took a deep breath. "I was flying, and there were ribbons of light everywhere. That was normal; I've had those dreams before, but they suddenly began weaving themselves into patterns, patterns I recognized. They were different types of energy lacing together to form a solid structure. It'll take me awhile to put all of the numbers together, but I think I can recreate it."
"Go, boss!" Darcy crowed with a grin. "Way to drop the time from years to months!"
"I know right?" Jane clasped her hands tightly around her coffee. "As soon as I woke up I wrote down everything so I wouldn't forget."
Darcy scoffed. "Right, like you're going to forget the route to get the big guy back!" She rolled her eyes. "You'll be able to recall it letter-perfect and in order chronologically in twenty years."
"As long as it doesn't take that long," Jane tossed back with a laugh.
"So," Darcy continued after they quit giggling. "What about Thor's mom?"
"Right." Jane took another quick breath to put her thoughts in order. "The energy ribbons disappeared and I found myself in this breathtaking garden."
"Breathtaking is right," Darcy muttered.
"The only think I could think was 'Wow' when I saw it." Jane's eyes went hazy for a moment. "I tried to look around, but as soon as I saw the tree, I was drawn to it. It was…"
"Majestic," Darcy supplied.
Jane blinked at her. "Exactly, I just had to go to see it up close. I turned a corner and there she was, sitting on a bench at the base of the tree. She knew my name." She sounded awestruck.
Darcy smirked. "I don't think any mom, goddess, alien, or whatever, is going to let her son fall in love and not learn the girl's name." Jane rolled her eyes, but nodded. Darcy looked at her notes. "Well, I didn't get to the garden the same way you did, but I did meet…hunh."
"What do we call her?" Darcy asked, her eyebrows scrunching together. "I mean, we have to call her something, but it seems really, really disrespectful to just call her Frigga. Sif was cool and everything, but she was an old friend of Thor's. Same with the three guys. This is his mom!"
Jane sat back and took a sip of her coffee. "Maybe we should stick with 'Lady Frigga'? It shows respect even though we have no idea what title to use."
Darcy nodded. "Good idea. Anyway, I met Lady Frigga the same way." Her eyes sparkled. "She knew my name too."
Both women giggled.
"What did she tell you?" Jane asked. "She told me to remember the lights I had seen, and pointed to where they intersected with the tree. Different combinations of light energy will lead to different worlds. She wanted me to be careful to duplicate the ribbons correctly so the road would open to Asgard." A faint blush rose in the scientist's cheeks. "She said it would distress Thor greatly if something happened to me."
"Boy, is that an understatement," Darcy said. "Thor would go spare." The flush on her friend's cheeks deepened, and she grinned. "She didn't say a lot to me. She asked me a few questions about you." Jane's head shot up and Darcy patted her hand. "Don't worry, boss lady. I told her how fabulous and brilliant you are." Jane ducked in embarrassment and Darcy continued. "She asked me what I wanted to do. When I told her I wanted to keep helping you, she asked me about others that might come my way." She frowned. "I get the feeling she knows something I don't." Jane started laughing. Darcy stared at her for a moment before reviewing what she had said. "Oh, well, I mean other than the obvious."
Jane had to put her coffee down, she was laughing so hard. Darcy just rolled her eyes and waited for the storm to pass. As Jane gathered back her control, Darcy thought about the part of the dream she planned to keep to herself.
"You are very young," Lady Frigga noted, her eyes kind but penetrating. "You may change your mind in the times to come."
"About helping?" Darcy shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I never wanted to be the leader, the starring role. I always wanted to be the zany best friend. She's the one who got to be part of everything without having all of the pressure."
Lady Frigga gave her a gentle smile. "Are we not all the leader in our own story? Even the supporting players are their own stars."
"That's just not me," Darcy insisted. "I'm here to help Jane get Thor back."
"And after that?"
Darcy blinked at her. "I haven't actually thought that far ahead."
"Will you truly be happy to never be anything more than Lady Jane's handmaiden?"
Darcy took a deep breath and looked into the branches over her head. Millions of stars seemed to decorate it like fairy lights from a child's tale. As she watched, they began to flicker. Some grew brighter while others darkened. She was so captivated by the dancing lights that she did not see Lady Frigga move until she touched her shoulder.
Darcy came back with a jolt. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"What did you see?" This time a contemplative gaze accompanied the smile.
"The lights were changing. Some grew bright while others went dark."
"Huh?" Darcy looked up for a moment before turning to her with a confused expression.
Lady Frigga nodded at the tree. "This is Yggdrasil. It is the World Tree, the tree that contains the Nine Realms, including both Asgard and Earth. When a person with the right gifts stands beneath her branches, she will sometimes share wisdom with them."
"I don't understand."
"You will, one day." Lady Frigga reached out and tucked a dark lock of Darcy's hair back. "The wisdom is rarely clear to a new initiate." She glanced up for a moment before meeting Darcy's blue eyes. "She just wanted to remind you how every decision opens some doors while closing others. Were you drawn to any lights in particular?"
Darcy looked up once more. "Yes, there were a bunch."
"Twelve," Lady Frigga corrected.
"How'd you know that?"
"I am no longer an initiate." Lady Frigga placed a hand on the tree. "Yggdrasil shares many secrets with me, and I am not to speak of the majority of them to outsiders…or initiates. I can tell you only this – each of those lights represent a person who will become important in your life if you remain on the path you have chosen. Turn away and you will lose them."
Darcy shivered as she stared at the lights. "I don't want to lose them," she stated softly. "Especially…" She trailed off, a hot blush rising in her face.
"Especially?" The gentle tone held a teasing quality without even a hint of mockery.
"That one," Darcy said as she pointed to a particular light. It gleamed above her, bright and golden with a deep purple thread pulsating through it. Something about it called to her; it pulled at something deep within her soul.
"Ah." Lady Frigga sighed. She stared at the light for a long moment. "That one…that one…I cannot tell you much. Too much and it will change things. I can only tell you this, hold your faith when it seems others are questioning it. That one will need your steadfast belief to once again find its own foundation."
"I can do that," Darcy smiled. "No one can do stubborn like me."
A sparkling laugh echoed through the garden. "I believe you, and it will serve you well in the days to come."
Her head came up sharply to meet Jane's concern gaze. "Oh, sorry. It's just…it just really hit me. You and me, we talked to Thor's mom."
Jane nodded, eyes going hazy again. "Yeah, I know. It's…it's…"
The women exchanged a long look before Jane shook her head. "We have to get Thor back before we tell anyone. They'll never believe us."
Darcy nodded. "I'm not sure I would have believed it if it hadn't been both of us."
"I would have written it off to my subconscious putting clues together," Jane agreed as she started to rise. Suddenly she sat back down. "Wait a minute."
"What?" Darcy frowned.
"Who else did you talk to?" Jane demanded. When Darcy looked confused, Jane said, "Remember? Lady Frigga told me you had gone to talk to someone else."
"Oh!" Darcy's confusion evaporated. "I didn't go so much as get sent, but I got to talk to Heimdall."
"Really?" Jane's eyes went wide. "Asgard's main guardian?"
"And Sif's big brother," Darcy noted with a grin. "He promised to tell her I asked about her."
Jane blinked and giggled. "Searching for the Norse god of thunder. Dreaming and talking to the queen of the gods. Getting the god of light to pass a greeting on to the goddess of war." She clutched her sides even as Darcy began laughing. "When did this become our life?"
Darcy tried to speak, but just kept laughing. After several long moments, she drew in a shaky breath. "Pretty sure it happened when you grazed tall, blond, and cut with the van."
Both women broke down laughing again.
Jane's work kicked into high gear after that early morning conversation, and Darcy found her free time even more curtailed. Both women told Erik and SHIELD the same basic story. Jane woke up one morning with various energy ideas coming together. Darcy snarked to Clint about it later, telling him it proved her point – Jane really needed to learn to sleep on occasion. Clint quipped about missing the half-insane doctor's tantrums if the woman actually got some sleep.
Despite the loss of most of her free time, Darcy could not really complain. Jane's sudden burst of brilliancy had SHIELD even more paranoid about security. With both women camped out in the lab, Clint moved in. Almost. He actually stored some clothes and necessities in a trunk in the lab, but he spent most of his time on the roof keeping watch. He came down for meals, short breaks, and whenever Jane stormed up in a mood, but otherwise Darcy knew where to find him. Other agents were stationed throughout town, in the buildings, on the roofs, and just walking the streets. Coulson dropped in a few times to get updated reports from everyone. On his third visit he made a decided effort to speak to Darcy alone.
Darcy looked up and tried to concentrate on the blurry figure in front of her. Slowly a familiar face came into focus. "Oh, hey, Phil. Good to see you."
"I believe you need some sleep, Miss Lewis." A faint expression of concern settled on his face.
"Oh, come now!" Darcy said, flippantly. "Who needs sleep when there's magic to be done?"
"Science, not magic!"
The shout drew their attention to the other side of the lab. Jane did not turn around. Darcy chuckled and hollered back. "Right, right, its science." She shrugged at Coulson. "It makes as much sense to me as waving a wand while chanting in Latin, but hey!" With another giggle, she waved a hand at him. "What can we do for you, Phil?"
"Take a walk?"
She blinked. "You came to New Mexico to take a walk?" She blinked again. "Something wrong with the weather in your neck of the woods?"
"Just walk with me, Miss Lewis."
He pulled her out of her seat and guided her out the door. She gave him a confused look. "Okay, we're walking. Why are we walking?"
"I need to ask you a question without so many ears," he answered.
She chuffed. "Boy, are you SOL around here. Every car, building, and dark corner has an extra set of ears."
His lips twitched. "They've been ordered away from the café."
"Oh, good then. You can buy me a mocha."
"I don't think you need any more caffeine, Miss Lewis." He held the door open for her. "You need a nap."
"Yeah, about that, have you seen Jane?" Darcy asked. "We're not getting any sleep for another four to six hours."
They each ordered a drink and he waited until they had been served before speaking. "Miss Lewis-"
"Thought I finally got you to call me Darcy," she interrupted.
"I will call you Darcy when I am being unofficial," he answered.
"So much for that idea, then," Darcy muttered to herself. She shook her head. "Alright then, Agent Coulson, what's up?"
She blinked at him, waiting for something else. When it appeared he had nothing more to say, she lifted an eyebrow. "What about him?"
"That's my question."
"You're right, I need a nap. You're making less sense than usual." She rubbed her eyes. "Am I supposed to give a critique or something?"
"Just tell me about him."
"He works for you, right?" she asked. He nodded, but remained silent. She frowned. "He's a nice guy. He takes us seriously, and even manages to sit through Jane's tantrums or explanations without getting impatient. I don't know if he could manage her like I do, but he can handle her in a pinch."
"How is he with Dr. Selvig?"
Darcy chuckled. "Okay, that one's a little weirder. I don't know what happened, but they apparently had some kind of macho, 'man of the house' discussion. They tolerate each other well enough, but Erik keeps looking at Clint like the guy's about to raid the family keep."
Coulson frowned. "And you?"
"How is he with you?"
She sat back, her eyes narrowing. "I'm suddenly getting a strange undercurrent here. It might help if you just ask me what it is you want to know."
"Please just answer the question."
"I'm not saying anything until I know what this is about," she insisted. "I don't want to get him into any kind of trouble."
"Has he done something that would get him into trouble?"
She opened her mouth, but caught herself. Folding her arms over her chest, she waited.
Silence fell over the table as the two opponents eyed one another – his professional experience versus her passionate defiance. It could have continued indefinitely, but after five minutes of silence, he sighed. "Miss Lewis, I have no desire to get Agent Barton into trouble. I need to make sure he is not getting himself into trouble."
"He's been a complete gentleman if that's what you're asking. He dealt with the jerks who weren't."
"Yes," Coulson nodded. "I saw the reports. Those particular agents will likely rue the day they tried anything." She lifted her brows in question, but he shook his head. "I've received other reports noting a particularly…friendly relationship between the two of you."
She scowled. "You've got a bunch of gossips working for you, you know that?" She waved a hand. "Clint talks to me, trades wit. Big deal!"
"Actually, Miss Lewis, it is a big deal." He leaned forward and pinned her with a strong gaze. "Agent Barton is one of the best men in SHIELD's employ. He does his job, quickly, cleanly. However," and now his eyes became cold, "he has very few personal connections. I can think of only two actually – one with his partner and one with his handler. He keeps everyone else at a distance." His lips thinned into a minor scowl. "His apparent connection to you is out of character."
Darcy stared at him, confusion scrawled across her face. "I don't understand."
Coulson's eyes bore into her and the intensity of his gaze nearly stole her breath. He finally blinked. Darcy?" His voice now became soft.
"Sorry?" she asked wariness and confusion warring with each other in her voice.
"I need you to be very careful," he cautioned. "Agent Barton can be quite dangerous-"
"He won't hurt me."
"He won't mean to," Coulson acknowledged. "It would not be deliberate."
"He won't hurt me." Darcy is not sure where the surety was coming from, but she knew, like she knew nothing else, that she was safe with Clint Barton.
Coulson sighed. "And the other way around?"
"I-" she started.
He held up a hand. "Think before you answer."
She frowned at him as her mind percolated the whole conversation. She straightened. "You're his handler!"
"Correct," he replied. "This new dynamic concerns me."
"Why?" she demanded. "Because he's finding a friend outside of SHIELD?"
"Because Clint Barton does not do half measures."
"What does that even mean?"
Coulson took a deep breath. "The last time he formed a personal connection with someone outside of SHIELD, he went off the grid, disobeyed direct orders, and failed to complete his mission." Darcy's eyes grew wide, but she kept quiet as he continued speaking. "When he finally reported back, he brought along an enemy spy he had managed to recruit. Said spy is now his partner."
"Wow," Darcy said quietly. "That's…that's something." She paused and shook her head. "I don't even know what to say to that."
"Just understand how strongly he trusts his instincts, how dearly he holds his loyalties," Coulson warned. "And how rarely he gives his trust."
She stared at him for a long moment. "I'm not going to hurt him."
"Good," he answered. He stood up and walked towards the door. "That's what I needed to hear."
He pushed the door open, but stepped back as someone else stalked in.
Darcy's breath caught as Clint stopped in the doorway. His intense eyes cast a glance at her before raking across his boss' face. Coulson just gave a nod and left. Clint walked over and sat across from her.
"Do I want to know why Coulson cleared the place out?" he asked.
"I'm pretty sure I just got his version of a shovel speech," she replied.
"Okay." He drew the word out in a confused tone. "Shovel speech?"
"Didn't you ever watch Buffy?" she demanded, frowning at him. He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she rolled her eyes. "We are making a new schedule. I can't believe you missed the epicness of the Vampire Slayer." She paused before giving him a horrified look. "Did you at least catch Firefly?"
"Oh my God," she moaned. She buried her face in her hands. "You completely and totally missed out on everything Whedon, didn't you?" Darcy lifted her head and shook a finger at him. "We are going to fix this. It'll take a while, but we'll fit it in there somehow."
"Right," he nodded, obviously humoring her. Then he leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. "You didn't answer my question?"
"Which question was that?" she asked, trying to be unobtrusive about ogling the way his position emphasized his biceps.
"Oh, right," she realized. "It's a warning to not hurt someone."
Clint went still. She blinked and narrowed her gaze on him. "Hey, you okay?" she asked. After a moment, she leaned forward to stare at his chest. "Are you even breathing?"
He gave a small twitch before relaxing. His lips turned up slightly. "Who was he warning you about?"
She paused before tilting her head. "You've got a bunch of chattering squirrels working for you, did you know that?" She waited a moment. "Apparently you taking the time to talk to a research assistant is unusual enough to make some of their reports."
"Should have considered that," he muttered, looking down at his hands. A few breaths later, with his head still tilted down, he peered at her through his lashes. "Should I be worried?"
"No," Darcy answered simply as she held his gaze. His head came up, but his eyes never released hers. A wordless communication seemed to flow between them as all of the comments, innuendos, and small moments of the past several weeks shifted, falling into a new pattern. Her lips curved into a small smile. His eyes warmed into a molten blue.
He took her hand.
That moment changed her life again though she would not realize it for several more months. She had been happy for Jane, but jealous as well. Her boss had a promise waiting beyond the mere science; she had a future and happiness waiting on her. Darcy had never looked for that kind of promise. Suddenly she had…something. It was different from anything she had before.
Her few romances, though attractions might be a better word, tended to be hot and fast. They were fun, but they burned out quickly as the guys proved creepy, grabby, or not exactly committed. This, whatever it was, heated up slowly, the moments moving past like warm honey. Darcy could not remember cultivating anything like this with anyone before. They talked about their pasts and presents and hopes for the future. Well, Darcy did more of the talking since her 'classified' life had just started, but she learned about his life in the circus, his betrayal by his brother, and some funny stories about Clint's time in SHIELD. Phil was not amused when he found out – mostly because Clint really enjoyed poking fun at his handler.
It was a promising beginning, but everything got interrupted when SHIELD shanghaied Erik to do some other research for them. Clint was sent along to see to his security. Darcy had been furious, but Phil had saved the day by setting up some safe lines of communication. They were able to exchange weekly phone calls, and even had a Skype session scheduled.
With Clint off in 'somewhere I can't mention' land, SHIELD sent a new agent to check on things. Darcy got to meet Clint's partner, a gorgeous redhead named Natasha Romanoff. Darcy would admit to a small feeling of fear when she found out. She could not imagine what Clint could see in her with someone like that in his life. Natasha put her fears to rest thought. She gave Darcy her phone number and told her to call if she needed anything. Even stranger, Natasha started calling her out of the blue to check on her, sometimes even to just talk.
Darcy told Jane once that she kept waiting to wake up. It had to be a dream. When Jane questioned her about it, Darcy waved her hands in the air. "I'm a small town girl with a practically finished bachelor's degree in political science. I'm working for a brilliant astrophysicist to bring back an alien/god person. I have dreams of other alien/god people. I am on a first name basis with three secret agents – I even have their private cell phone numbers. I'm kind of, sort of dating one of afore mentioned agents. How is this even real?" Jane had laughed and reminded her that she was 'kind of, sort of' dating that alien/god person. Both women decided to break out the margaritas and take the night off.
Still, all in all, things seemed to be going pretty good when everything went sideways.
The shrill ring woke Darcy from a deep sleep. She rolled over and fumbled for her phone.
"Darcy, wake up!"
Darcy frowned at the phone, blinking sleep out of her eyes. "Natasha?"
"Darcy." A sigh of relief came over the phone. Darcy sat up in bed. This did not sound good.
"Natasha, what's going on?"
"We need to get you somewhere safe."
Darcy threw the covers back. "What-"
"Don't argue," Ice coated Natasha's voice. "I don't have time to explain right now." Darcy started throwing on clothes as the agent continued. "There are agents at the laboratory getting Dr. Foster out. Grab only what you need for a week. There will be a car in front of your apartment building. A man named Sitwell will be waiting. Do exactly what he tells you to. Stay where he puts you. One of us will come get you when it's safe."
Darcy gathered her things, throwing clothes haphazardly into a suitcase. "Is Clint okay?" Her heart stuttered as Natasha paused. "Natasha? Tasha, where is Clint?"
"I don't know."
"Yes." The harsh reply left no room for doubt, so Darcy took a deep breath.
"Okay, okay, I'm headed down now." She locked the door behind her and started down the stairs. "Jane's going somewhere safe?"
"Yes," Natasha answered. "She's going to look at an unexpected energy phenomenon in Norway."
Darcy shook her head as she rushed out the door. "You people can be really scary, you know?"
"We know. I have to go now, we've got people arriving to help and I need to be there." She paused. "I'll find him. I'll bring him back."
Darcy handed her bag over to the agent waiting for her and climbed in the car. "I know. Call me when it's over?"
"You'll be first."
It had been the longest time of her life, sitting and waiting to hear from someone, anyone from SHIELD. There had been years which did not seem as long as the days she spent hiding out in the middle of nowhere. The Tennessee mountain scenery was beautiful, reminding her of home, but she could not enjoy it. Too much of her mind remained wrapped in the fear and worry brought on by Natasha's phone call.
Her dreams gave her the only bright spots during the entire time. She journeyed during her dreams, usually spending time with Lady Frigga beneath the branches of Yggdrasil. She watched her lights as they danced, holding her breath when they sputtered and dimmed. Lady Frigga would comfort her before sending her to speak with Heimdall. The two of them seemed to have adopted her in some way. They went out of their way to encourage her, often talking to her about their tasks and duties as a distraction. She held those dreams close during the long days of waiting with nothing but a handful of books to keep her company.
Natasha finally called, sounding exhausted and sad.
"Tasha!" Darcy's knees went weak. She did not bother moving to the couch. She just slid down the wall to curl up on the floor. She let out a ragged breath. "Are you….? Is he…?"
"I'm fine," came the quick answer. "I found him. He's…doing better."
Darcy hissed. "Better?"
"He wasn't really hurt, mostly bumps and bruises, but he had a tough time. I'll explain when you get here."
"When will the car get here?" Darcy asked as she strode to the bedroom. She had never really unpacked, so she just needed a quick moment to grab a few toiletries.
"Sitwell's going to pick you up in ten minutes or so. It'll be by air, not car. You'll make a stop at Dulles to pick up Jane and then he'll bring you to me."
"You need to see me first," Natasha insisted.
"I need to tell you a couple of things before you see him." She sighed. "Physically he's in pretty good shape. Mentally…he's in a bad place right now. He's going to need you, but you have to know why."
"Okay, okay," Darcy conceded. Her voice did not seem to be working right. She tried clearing her throat. "I'll be there soon, right?"
It would always be the "scrapbook" time because it held the important moments that made all the difference in her life. For good, for bad, her life would never be the same.