La Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine strode into the control room of the helicarrier. Despite being dressed in a generic SHIELD uniform, most of the people scattered around the room eyed her in consternation before turning to check the reaction of the agent in charge to this unknown woman. Val watched as the silence spread and Agent Maria Hill glanced around to see what was going on. She stiffened slightly before allowing herself one long slow blink of surprise – the only reaction she permitted before turning and walking over.


The room grew still as Hill's respectful stance registered.

"Agent Hill," Val gave her a friendly smile. "I presume he's around somewhere?"

"Yes, ma'am," Hill agreed. "I believe he is currently in his office discussing reassignments."


"Apparently three of our agents have requested transfers to any location that will allow them to avoid Dr. Foster and Miss Lewis," Hill responded gravely.

Several nearby technicians snickered and Val's lips twitched in response. "Sounds intriguing," she commented.

"It should make an excellent story," Hill nodded. "If you will follow me? I'll escort you down."

People gaped as the two women swept out of the room. Val chuckled lightly as the doors closed behind them. "I should stop by more often," she sighed. "I enjoy their expressions, but I am always disappointed when his people have no idea who I am."

"That would disrupt the current security setup," Maria replied softly.

"I know," Val murmured. "Those who need to know me, do, but…" Her voice trailed away.

"You wish you three could be the full-time family you are instead of the independent agents you appear to be?"

"Perfectly put," Val concurred. "We have our time at the holidays and certain places, but…" Her voice trailed off. "Still," she gave an elegant shrug, "better to have the long-distance, but deeply beloved bonds than the brittle things I see every day."

Maria smiled as the two women exited the elevator. Her communicator beeped. She stopped and flicked it on. "Hill." There was a moment of silence before she replied. "Yes, sir, Agent 14 is with me." Val lifted an eyebrow in question as Maria's lips folded in an apparent attempt to restrain a smile. "Shall I inform her of that, sir?" Her shoulders trembled slightly. "No, sir, of course not." She winced a bit before she turned her communicator off.

Val gave her a direct look. "He hung up rather abruptly did he?"

"He's…surprised," Maria commented carefully.

"No," Val shook her head. "He's in a tiff because I decided to descend upon you without any warning and probably intend to interfere with whatever thoughts he is already having about the…ah, Avian situation." Her smile grew mischievous. "Is that not right?"

Maria's eyes twinkled slightly before she forced herself back to stoic. "That would be a fairly accurate representation of the director's opinions," she noted. "Of course, he was a bit more…colorful in his choice of words."

"Oh, I have no doubt," Val laughed. She wrinkled her nose in confusion as they turned down an unexpected hallway. "Where are we going?"

"He wants to meet you in his private conference room," Maria replied.

"Hmm," Val quietly considered that as they walked. When they entered the room she turned to Maria. "Do me a favor?"

"Of course," Maria agreed instantly.

"Would you please go tell Phil that I would like to see Agent Barton as soon as possible?"

Maria went still, her eyes widening slightly. "Agent Barton?"

"Yes," Val laughed. "Agent Barton, Hawkeye, the agent who has managed to both snare my little girl's attention and keep up with her better than anyone else has ever managed.

"Right," Maria nodded carefully. "Let me go talk to Coulson."

"Thank you," Val said.

Val moved to the window as Maria left the room. She stared unseeing at the clouds rolling by as she considered her daughter's recent calls and emails.

Nick strode through the door, his scowl firmly in place. "Val, what have we said about dropping in unannounced?"

"Nicholas," Val greeted him with a flirtatious smile. She put a hand on her arm and pushed herself up to brush her lips across the corner of his mouth. "I'm so happy to see you."

He sighed. "It's not that I'm not happy," he grumbled, pulling her into his arms for a deeper kiss. He pulled back to fix his eye on her. "Just…a little warning? Security-"

"I made it all the way to Maria without any interruptions," she noted genially as she sat down at the table. "Security was not an issue." She waved away his retort before he had a chance to speak. "Besides, you had to know I would be coming in. Our little girl going all starry-eyed over one of your agents?" She tilted her head. "One of the Avengers, no less? Clearly I need to be here."


"Nicholas," she interrupted gently. "Darcy will need her mother for some girl talk, and you will need me to remind you she's no longer a baby." He drew in a breath, but she continued. "Yes, she is still your little girl, but she's not just your little ladybug anymore."

"I don't like it," he groused, leaning on the window.

"Daddies never do," she gave a soft smile. "I want to meet this Clint Barton for myself. I have heard from Darcy, from you, and even from Phil. The only negative reports center on his sarcastic, semi-insubordinate attitude and his completely understandable attraction to Darcy." She pursed her lips. "Personally I don't find either of those a negative."

"Of course you don't," he rolled his eye. "You've got the same damn attitude."

Her eyebrows flew up in admonition. "I'm sorry, are we under some misconception that mine was the only attitude our little Mockingbird picked up?"

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered. "We've got attitude to go around. He's too old for her and it's too dangerous."

"Darcy only seems immature," she reminded him. "It's a mask. The boys her age bore her silly, and so they should. She has seen and experience more in life than they can even dream exists. She needs someone older, someone who is secure enough in themselves to let her be the wonderfully unique person she is while also being strong enough to put their foot down and give her boundaries."

"And the danger?" he demanded.

"Tell me honestly, Nicholas Fury," Val demanded. "Do you think you could pry her away from us? From Phil, Maria, Jane Foster? Her life has always been surrounded by danger!"

"So I should just-"

"Do not finish that sentence," she warned. "Look at this another way," she coaxed, her voice softening. "She told me about their game of hide-n-seek. He kept up with her. Something no other agent has managed to do, except the four of us who know her best. He did it the first time out."

He hesitated for a moment before slouching a bit. "And she didn't go easy on him," he admitted. "She went all out to evade and escape."

"We probably should have guessed," Val pointed out with a laugh. "It would take a bird to catch a bird."

He nodded unhappily. "Agent Barton is a good man, and he would walk through hell to keep her safe, but…"

"Today's meeting will tell us if he truly has the fortitude to be worth her," she commented as he trailed off. "If he can face all of us asking about his intentions, then he might just survive her escapades." An impish little smile hovered on her lips. "I asked Maria to have Phil call him."

He gave a soft snort. "This should be interesting." She cocked a brow at him in question and he elaborated. "I sent for Darcy as soon as I knew you were here." His lips twitched. "He still has no idea who she is to either one of us."

She tossed her head back in delighted laughter. "Yes," she chortled, "this should be lovely. I could almost feel sorry for him."

"But not quite," he finished.

"No," she agreed.

He finally took a good look at her. "Why the uniform?"

"I wanted to avoid unnecessary attention," she answered with a smile. "The uniform lets me blend into the background."

A new voice broke into the conversation. "You could never fade into the background, Val," Phil stated as he strode forward.

"Phil," Val greeted, lifting her cheek for his kiss. "How lovely to see you." She ran a quick eye over him. "You are doing better, yes?"

"I'm fine, Val," he demurred.

She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. "I have seen your 'fine' before, Phillip Coulson, and I dislike your definition."

Phil glanced up, but Nick held up his hands in a universal 'you're on your own' gesture. "Thank you very much, sir," Phil muttered. Nick's lips twitched as Phil and Maria sat across from Val. "I'm at eighty, eighty-five percent," he reassured her.

"I will sic Darcy on you," she warned.

"I am surrounded by mother hens," he grumbled. "Darcy has already added me to her watch list," he informed her before giving her a disgruntled look. "She also subverted my assassins and I have them following me every time I turn around."

"Good," Val nodded decisively. "At least I know you are being watched." He sighed in exasperation, but before he could say anything Maria held up her hand. They gave her expectant looks.

"That was the control room," she replied. "Barton arrived and was met by Romanoff. They're headed this way."

"Darcy?" Val asked.

"She arrived just before Phil and I came in."

"Let the games begin," Nick muttered. Val simply smiled.

Silence enveloped the room as they waited, but it wasn't long before Nick's security camera showed both parties approaching They met outside the door as Darcy finished up a phone call. Romanoff walked away while the other two exchanged a glance before giving the door matching looks of concern. Val forced her amusement down, focusing on being remote and coolly analytical.

She wanted to make a decisive first impression after all.

The door opened and she heard her daughter speaking.

"Do you know who we're-" Darcy's voice broke off as she spotted her mother.

Val stood up leisurely, aristocratic poise visible in every line and movement. Her dark eyes met Clint Barton's flat blue gaze as they sized each other up.

Darcy threw herself forward. "Mom!"

Val caught her close in a warm embrace, repressing her amusement at the startled panic suddenly appearing in the sniper's face. "Hello, mia cara bambina." She pressed kisses to her daughter's cheeks. "I am so happy to see you!"

"I can't believe you're here!" Darcy practically sparkled as she bounced in place. "When did you get here?"

"Only an hour or so ago," she answered, watching Clint shift slightly in her peripheral vision. "I surprised your father too." Now she looked up as the figure at the door jerked as though lightning raced through him. Then he seemed to stop breathing altogether. "We will have to catch up later, mia cara. Right now I think we need to check on your companion."

"Oh, God," Darcy's eyes went wide and she winced before burying her face in her hands. "Oh, my God, I haven't made that kind of mistake since I was twelve."

Val kissed her on the forehead. "No," she agreed, "but that is a plus for him already that he can make you forget if only for a moment." Val stepped forward and put her hand out. "Val de Fontaine," she introduced herself.

She watched as he visibly pulled himself together, forcing himself to take a breath before he reached out to shake her hand. "Clint Barton, ma'am." He paused, his eyes darting from her to Darcy and finally moving to examine his boss' face. He blew out a breath. "I'm going to die today, aren't I?"

Val laughed and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm to pull him forward. "One can never be too sure with this family, but Darcy will protect you."

"God I hope so," he muttered, eyes fixed on Nick Fury's unhappy face.