Peace With a Faulty Heart




By profession, I am a soldier and take pride in that fact. But I am prouder, infinitely prouder, to be a father. - General Douglas MacArthur

Now: New York, 2011

Darcy was a neon sign for grief. Exiting the cab, struggling with her wheeled carry-on, she couldn't be anything but sorrowful in the most literal of definitions. Clint fidgeted in place until the doorman made some motion to help her but no, that was Clint's job. He jogged across the apartment lobby to meet her as she stormed through. Her sunnies covered half her face but not the raw pink of her nose or the hunch in her shoulders as she studied the weave of her shoes. Her dad went on ahead to talk with reception but Clint didn't care about him.

"Hey, baby-girl," he said as soon as he reached her side.

She looked up. He didn't see the punch coming-- good for her!-- and it rocked him back on his heels. "You sagging sack of slime dick!" Darcy hissed. "You promised!"

Clint tongued the cut in his cheek as he watched her walk away.

Then: Seattle, 2004

Clint hitched his kit higher on his shoulder, resisting the urge to shake the rain off his longer-than-regulation hair. Waxy gel trickled down his nape. Shoot, he hadn't had gel-- or whatever passed for gel these days-- in his hair since he skipped out on his last set of foster parents. Between living on the streets and joining the army to straighten himself out, he'd gotten used to shaving his hair off all the time. He had orders to blend in since joining SHIELD. Blending in apparently meant hair gel.

He looked up and down the street. The neighbourhood's grid layout would make sighting suspicious activity easy but at the same time, his targets could easily gun a getaway. The trees provided lots of cover for himself but also possible targets. Late model SUVs waited sedately in their respective driveways, empty winter flower beds waited for spring pristine rows, and thirty yards east, a leaf blower sputtered like muffled gunfire. Mothers in color-coordinated raincoats quick-marched plastic-covered strollers while the kids inside them played with smartphones. They wove around him, hiding suspicious smiles behind their lattes to-go. This place was so beyond anything Clint had ever experienced. He just wasn't trained for suburbia.

Not for the first time, he wondered if this was some kind of punishment. He trusted Coulson more than any of his previous handlers but Clint had fucked up pretty badly. Maybe this was Coulson's version of KP duty. The man did have to talk to Fury himself to keep Clint active.

He approached the address, casing all the way, stepping over a skateboard on the veranda before ringing the doorbell.

"Coming!" a young girl yelled from the bowels of the house. Clint tried not to roll his eyes at the complete lack of self-preservation. She was rich teenager. She had no reason to be afraid of people ringing the doorbell of her house. At least as far as she knew. Clint heard her undo a deadbolt and a chain lock then the door swung wide open. "HihowcanIhelpyou?"

Clint blinked. "Darcy Lewis? I'm, ah, your dad sent me."

Her forehead wrinkled. "Are you one of his students?"

"I meant your other dad. Coulson. Phil Coulson."

The girl's smile twisted into something that might have been a sneer on someone less-- Clint hated to use the word-- cute. "A new 'tenant,' huh? Can I see some ID?"

Clint produced his driver's license. "My passwords are jabberwocky, Vienna, and radish."

Darcy gave his license back. "My non-absentee dad isn't home from work yet but do you want to come in for drinks or something? I do the Dew, Pepsi Max, maybe some of Tateh's ridiculous teas which are, FYI, completely gross, but if you can wait a few minutes, I make a wicked French press coffee."

"You always let strangers in without adults home?" he asked.

"You knew the passwords. And technically, you're an adult. Have you killed anyone?"

The question made him freeze, one foot in the foyer. "What?"

Darcy looked at him over her shoulder. He had the impression of being weighed which was ridiculous. She was sixteen years old. "You work for Dad. Have you killed anyone?"

"That's classified."

"Classified means yes. It's like 'no comment.' I guess that's good if you have to hang around. I can show you your apartment. Do you have, like, twenty-five different weapons in that bag? Or are you wearing them? I bet you can kill me with this." She held up an eraser shaped like a strawberry.

Clint said, "Yes," and nothing else.

After a few minutes, Darcy said, "Oookay, so you're one of the stoic, silent ninja G-men. Gotcha. This is going to be the best semester except not."

Now: New York, 2011

Darcy stood in the bareness of her father's living room. She had unpacked her clothes in five minutes; her suitcase was still full of Dad's letters. Tateh was in the bathroom, running the water because he thought Darcy couldn't hear him crying through the door. A good daughter would get him tea or something. She went through the pantry and found some tea bags, filled and plugged in an electric kettle, and waited.

Phil Coulson's apartment wasn't lived in. She knew it was a fake address, something for bills, junkmail, and whatever other trash was needed to make the general public believe Phillip J. Coulson was a civil servant in a job so boring even he didn't want to talk about it instead of the truth: that he was--


Darcy didn't know. Her dad went out of his way to make sure she didn't know anything except what he wrote for her.

Then: Seattle, 2004

"This is for you." The new bodyguard hucked a manila envelope on the dining room table, an inch thick, slightly wrinkled from being stuffed in his duffel.

"Yay, it's the quarterly nothing report." Darcy slid it away in favour of more interesting things, namely catching up on The Osbornes.

The bodyguard-- Chris? Cole?-- fidgeted for two whole minutes before saying, "You're not going to read it?"

"No," said Darcy, "'Cause I know exactly what it's going to be. An inventory of food he's eaten maybe with a little something about how he changed the portion of oregano versus basil in his marinara recipe and at least half a dozen age-appropriate articles. I just turned sixteen so I'm guessing it's about birth control or safe driving, God knows, it's nothing as interesting as safe birth control while driving. Exciting stuff. My breath, it is abated." She returned to the awe-inspiring mumblings of Ozzie.

She listened to him fidget and breathe heavily for another five minutes-- honestly, did she have to show him the bathroom again or was he an especially effectively brainwashed jarhead?-- before he spoke up again.

"Do you mind if I see?"

"Knock yourself out." She threw a couch pillow back. "That's for when you pass out from the boringness."

She honestly forgot about him until the end of the Osborne credits when she needed a lot more Mountain Dew. She vaulted over the couch then almost broke both her legs when she saw-- Clark? Clyde?-- snickering as he leafed through her dad's letters.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

He pointed at the middle of the paper, tucked his face into his elbow, and almost choked on his laughter. Darcy went to read over his shoulder on the off chance her dad actually wrote something worth reading. But she was highly disappointed: it was only more food talk. Darcy highly suspected this semester's bodyguard had probably been shelled in the head.

"I can h-hear him--" He honest to fucking God collapsed on the table giggling-- "hear him talking-- Christ! He writes like he talks."

"What do you mean?"

"It's just... he talks like this." The bodyguard flapped a hand at the paper. "Y'know, saying something completely normal, but you know on the inside he's making faces at you."

"I don't know," said Darcy. "I haven't seen him since I was eight."

That made him stop. "No shit?"

"Lots of shit." She licked her lips. "What kind of things does he say?"

"Well... he gives orders and... and he does a lot of the briefings? I don't know how to explain it. He's, y'know, Coulson. Coulson."

Definitely shelled in the head. Probably had razzleberry Jell-o filling the rest of his brainpan. Darcy rolled her eyes and made to stand up but the bodyguard dude-- she really had to figure out what his name was-- grabbed her arm.

"You're really important to him," he said.

"Did he cover that in his briefings?"

He poked at the middle of the letters. "He handwrote all of this. He has to do a shitload of paperwork but somehow, he's managed to hand-copy this thing on how driving tired is as bad as driving drunk. It's five pages long, back and front."

"So the man has no life."

"No, look." He flattened her hand on the paper. "You can feel him."

Darcy was pretty damn ready to press the panic button on her cellphone when the guy dragged her hand across the foolscap. The paper bumped and dipped minutely under her fingertips, crackling ever so quietly, her dad's perfect sans serif printing contradicted as she felt the emotions embedded by the press of his pen. An inkblot stained her thumb. She couldn't keep her eyes off it.

Now: New York, 2011

Coulson's post-mortem instructions had been simple: cremation immediately after autopsy, scatter his ashes in four different places, inform his family. Fury had all but licked the stamp before Clint and Natasha managed to convince him to fly his family in.

"You want me to go against what Coulson specifically said he wanted?"

"He didn't really mean it," said Clint.

"And how do you know that, Agent Barton?"

"When does Coulson ever do anything he wants to do versus what needs to be done?"

Natasha went with Clint to deliver Coulson's ashes to Dave and Darcy. Her composure steadied him. He almost felt human as he pressed the intercom code to return to the apartment.

"Come on up," Darcy said before he introduced himself.

"What are they like?" Natasha asked as they rode the elevator up.

"They're perfect for Phil," said Clint.

Then: Seattle, 2004

Without quite knowing how, on Day 8 of the op he'd mentally renamed: Operation: De-clusterfuck, Clint found himself on the floor of the Lewis living room, letting a teenaged girl in a pink mud mask apply dark blue nail polish on his toes.

"So I'm, like, really, that's how Kelly wants to remember punching her v-card? In a hotel room across from her parents with everyone at school knowing on Monday that they did the dirrrty and she's like 'At least it's not the limo' and I'm like what the actual fuck? When I first sleep with a guy, I'm sure as heck not going to practically announce it over the PA system and also, I won't get getting my dad to pay for the bed because, yuck, I don't know who'll be more traumatised. I told Ryan that and he's like 'So what kind of hotel do you want, boo?' Ugh, really, high school, y'know?"

"Not really," said Clint. "I dropped out when I was fifteen."

"Oh. Before or after homecoming?"


"Okay, that answers that question." Darcy poked the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she began the second coat on his pinkie toe. "Is that why you're not freaking out at getting your nails painted by a gay guy's kid?"

"I'm definitely freaking out about the nail polish," said Clint. "Blue's not my colour."

"Don't make me laugh; I'll mess up your-- shoot. Hold still I can fix that. What's your colour?"


"Really? You fave weapon is a bow and arrow, and your favourite colour is green? Did your parents keep you away from Robin Hood when you were little or something?"

"Don't know about my real parents but most of my foster ones couldn't give a shit what I read. They were just happy I could read. And that I wasn't stealing their shit."

Darcy sat back, returning the nail polish brush to its bottle. "And ka-blooey, there's strike number kafrillion against me whenever I talk about you. I'm going to keep blowing out of my ass for the rest of the night, amirite?"

"Pretty much." But Clint didn't mind. His life story was fucked up, he knew it, and it really didn't matter to him anymore. He had a good thing going now. He focused on it. "I thought people drank at slumber parties."

"Is this what this is?"

"We're baring our souls and painting our nails. I think what comes after this is pillow fights and breaking into Dave's liquor cabinet for a game of Never Have I Ever." Clint didn't tell her his knowledge came from porn. One of her dads was in the room next door. He was also pretty sure if Coulson found out he discussed porn with Darcy, he, Clint, would find himself assigned to Antarctica for an unspecified amount of time.

Shrieking with laughter, Darcy said, "Oh, I am absolutely going to play Never Have I Ever with you! I’m gonna pick the weirdest things and I bet you'd have to drink. Let's go get alcohol now."

"Darcy!" came from Dave's music. "No alcohol until you're twenty-one or in Canada."

Darcy winked then yelled. "But Tat, Clint's had a deprived childhood! I have to teach him normal rebellious teenager stuff."

"As opposed to my abnormal teenage rebellion?" asked Clint

"Dude, you blushed when you admitted joining the Army was your idea not, like, some court-mandated punishment for dealing drugs. Wait, did you deal drugs?"

"Weed," he admitted.

She waved the admission away. "Pfft, this is Seattle. That's a garden shrub, not a drug."

"Darcy, dear, please don't give the nice military agent the wrong idea," Dave called out from the study again. This time, he even stopped playing the cello for half a minute.

"Fine, we'll play with soda. What's your caloric poison?" She jumped up to go to the fridge. When he would have gone up to help her, he wagged her hand at him. "You'll wreck your pedi. Stay put. Name your flavour."

Inexplicably he did. Clint's life since the Black Widow op had been nothing but inexplicable.

"Water's fine."

"Water's boring. You're getting Sprite." She pulled out an entire six pack of Sprite and another of Mountain Dew. "You know how to shotgun drinks, right?"

"Yeah," said Clint. "How do you know about shotgunning, baby-girl?"

"You are so innocent in the ways of high school. It's kawaii, truly." Darcy handed him his share of soda as she laid out the rules of the game. "Just to warm up, I'll ask first: Never have I ever been naked in public for longer than five minutes."

Clint stared at the Sprite, sighed, and pulled out one of the cans out much to Darcy's amusement. What the hell, right? If he let her get a few innocent truths out of him, she wouldn't poke too much when he lied about other things. Something about her and Dave and this while damn place made Clint's paranoia ease far too much for his paranoia.

Now: New York, 2011

Darcy laid out tea, crackers, cheese, and grapes for their only visitors so far. The apartment may have been a cover but it was stocked well which was probably the whole point. Her dad didn't seem like the type of person who'd overlook details like that. She set them on the table, very carefully not looking at the big brass urn Clint was holding because that was just everything that was wrong. The urn was too smooth, too blank, too... too... Goddammit if she was going to talk her dad again after fifteen years of nothing but letters, it was not going to be through a freaking oversized vase with less personality than a toilet!

"Let me help you with that." The woman who introduced herself as Natasha took the second plate of finger food to the coffee table. Darcy had no idea how she looked so fantastic but so honestly sad. She was even more perfect than Clint described.

"You guarded Tat?" Darcy asked.

"Yes. Spring 2005. I did your detail fall of 2008."

"I knew I had a tail in college! I could never spot you guys though."

"Of course not. Coulson only picked his best and most trusted agents to do guard your family."

Then: Seattle, 2004

Darcy always snuck up to the rental unit because why the hell not? They were master spies; if they couldn't hear a teenager running up the stairs, they were the wrong people for the job. She was doing the country a favour, weeding out the unworthy. Plus she could tell a lot about the bodyguards from their rooms, or heck, if they even let her into the room. As far as she could remember, the best bodyguards had been the ones who a) let her in, b) told her flat out if they didn't want to answer her questions instead of lying, and c) didn't fondle their weapons.

The new guy definitely had something unhealthy going on with his weapons rack, especially his--

"Is that the bow you've been going on and on about?" Darcy asked.

Clint didn't look up. He was rubbing something-- lube? massage oil? edible chocolate?-- on the strings of his super fancy slingshot. "Yup."

"Can I touch it?"



"Fuck no."

"You're saying 'fuck no' after I said 'please?'"

"Fuck yeah."

"Come on!"

"Just walk away, baby-girl."

Darcy made a face. "That's kind of a creepy nickname and also, I'm sixteen. You can't be older than, what, thirty?"

"Twenty-eight. No, you can't touch any of the other weapons either."

"Oh, come on! You're no fun. The other guys let me touch their guns."

Smirking, Clint said, "You do realise what 'gun' means in the military, right?"

"I do now and also ew! You're all way too old for me."


Darcy flung herself on the floor beside the coffee table. "Why do you like your relic weapon so much?"

"It's quiet."

"Oooh, burn!"

That made him finally look up. A hint of a smile threatened to break his great stone face.

Encouraged, Darcy scooted closer. "So, inquiring minds-- meaning me-- want to know: What did you do to pull babysitter duty?"

"That's classified."

"Make something up!"

Putting away the string and the bow-- she didn't know bows could fold like that-- Clint asked, "What does it matter? I'm here. You're protected."

"I just want to know. Curiosity's a mark of intelligence, y'know."

Sighing, he said, "I don't know why I got picked. I just got called into his office for what I thought was a reaming out for... something I hadn't done that I was supposed to do. He told me this was my next op. I followed orders."

"So this is a punishment."

"Fuck if I know. No, wait, if Coulson wanted to punish me, I'd know. I think it's more of a vacation." Clint spat out the last word like it was a rotten piece of licorice.

"So this is a reward."

"Baby-girl, my reward for a job well done would involve someone at least five years older and two cups bigger with a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a half-raw steak in the other."

Darcy gasped. "You cannot possibly want someone more stacked than me. That's major overkill and they'd be totally gross-looking! I mean, check it." Throwing her shoulders back and pursing her lips, she crossed her arms under her breasts so they nearly crept over the gathered neckline of her shirt.

Clint's reaction was immediate and violent. Covering his eyes with one hand, he flipped backwards over the chair, and rolled into a ball beside his bed in earthquake-drill position. "Never ever do that!" he yelled. "That is... those are illegal tits! I don't want to see illegal tits! I don't want to see my boss' daughter's illegal tits!"

She laughed.

"He's going to kill me," he continued to mutter into the floor. "Worse. I'm getting assigned to Antarctica. Or Grand Forks. Shit! Can I even say 'tits' in front of you? Breasts. Upper torso."

"I'm just playin' with you, Legolas. Get up."

"I don't like this game. This is a bad, bad game. This game will get me killed three times over."

"You're supposed to be a super ninja soldier! Like Captain America and the Ninja Turtles combined. And you're scared of me?"

"You haven't met my boss."

Her smile stayed on but just barely. "Not for a while but, hey, whatever, his loss, right? So, which one of these weapons do you use to shoot gum off the Space Needle? I bet it's this one with all the accessories." She lifted... a tube-thing and peered into it, seeing all the other gun components laid out on the table, a little blurry but still visible through that tiny opening until something covered the other end.

Clint gently took the tube-thing away and laid it down on the edge of the coffee table. "Do you know how to shoot a gun?"

She blinked up at him. "No."

"Will Dave let you learn?"

"Yeah, that's a major huge no."

"Do you know any kind of self defense?"

"My gym teacher says if anyone tries anything, I should throat-punch them and run away."

Clint looked up at the ceiling, his lips moving like he was counting to ten or maybe praying to the gods of old but sexy assassins of great justice, and when he finally looked back at her, he said, "Three times a week. I don't care what time. We're going over basic self-defense with and without weapons, a running regime, and archery."

"One of those things is not like the other," Darcy pointed out.

"You don't respect Jessica enough."

"Jessica is?"

He lifted his bow.

"Dude, you need a girlfriend."

Now: New York, 2011

Clint found himself in the bedroom with Dave, sorting through personal items. Anything they didn't want to keep would be donated to various charities in the five boroughs. Dave didn't even touch the clothes; he picked half-heartedly through the nightstand and bookshelves. So far, he had a book.

"Find anything in the bathroom?" asked Clint.

"Nothing that wouldn't be depressingly weird," said Dave. "I have to draw the line at sniffing a half-used deodorant stick. He's used the same damn brand since we were in high school. Nothing else here is really sticking out. This one--" he held up the book spine out-- "is one of his favourites. I swear he can quote from it verbatim."

The Star-Spangled Man: unravelling the history from the myth. Clint had to stop himself from laughing hysterically.

"Sorry," he said instead, "We weren't allowed to take anything off base."

Dave waved the apology away. "That's okay. Bringing his ashes home is more than I hoped for. Thank you, by the way, for doing this."

Clint shrugged, uncomfortable with that sort of praise.

Then: Seattle, 2004

Of course Clint knew what Thanksgiving was. He hadn't been raised in barn (at least not one that hadn't been renovated into living space). He just didn't make a big deal out of it considering he had no family to visit and he had yet to eat mashed potatoes that didn't taste like grainy glue. When he declined Dave and Darcy's invitation to Thanksgiving dinner using those excuses, he might as well have told them that he'd gotten beats for Christmas (he'd only gotten those once from Barney and his brother had been kidding at the time).

Darcy tugged on her dad's sleeve. "He's so adorable and lost, Tateh, can we keep him, please?"

"Can you peel potatoes?" Dave asked.

"Yessir," said Clint because he hadn't known any better.

While Clint peeled and grated fifteen pounds of potatoes for latkes, Darcy violated a turkey with oranges and herbs, and Dave created a pumpkin pie. His pies were a national treasure. After Clint's first taste of Dave's apple pie with shortbread crumble topping, he'd gone down on one knee to propose.

Family streamed in steadily from about three in the afternoon onward, all lugging food: nachos, flavoured popcorn, fruit platters, brussel sprouts, candied yams, two types of pasta salad, three types of leafy salad, wonton soup ("It's a long story," said Darcy), meatless meatloaf, rice pilaf, rice pudding, chocolate pudding, ambrosia. Every available surface had food and five coolers kept beers , sodas, and wine cold. Clint's last head count was sixty-two. A few braver family members inquired about Dave's new boyfriend. Couple definitely drunk ones outright gave their approval of Dave's "sweet young thing." A grandma patted Clint on the arm and said, "You are very handsome. Can do better than an old man."

"Stop it all of you, you're going to scare my mortgage payment away," Dave said, patting Clint's back. "For the last time, Clint's our tenant and I invited him because he can't go home for Thanksgiving. Clint, I'm sorry my family is crazy."

"It's all right. I kind of got the hint with her." Clint jerked his thumb at Darcy who screeched, laughed, and launched herself into his arms for a hug. He'd never been touched so much in his life, not even in the circus when everyone practically slept on top of each other.

He found himself seated at the "kid's table," meaning Darcy and her cousins, which was really the living room sectional, a coffee table, and some TV trays. Darcy came by her chattiness honestly; they all talked over each other, the conversation increasing in volume as more people spoke at the same time, vying to lead the conversation. Clint watched as he ate, amused.

"Some chairs freed up in the dining room if the kids are too noisy," said Dave. "I think there's a football game on in the garage."

"I'm good," he said. "I'll sort of wander. Check the perimeter." He glanced back over his shoulder. Darcy and her cousins had hauled out something called DDR and were dancing. Maybe dancing. It was hard to tell with all the flailing.

"I'm pretty sure the assignment allows for a break once in a while," Dave said.

"As soon as I get your pie in my belly, I won't be able to move.That'll be my break."

Snorting, Dave said, "I'll believe that when I see it. I married your type. Or rather, I'm the hot thing on the side of your type. He's married to his job."

Clint didn't know what to say to that. He thought maybe he should cough like some fucking boot but Dave only laughed and slapped him on the back.

"Don't get your jockeys in a twist trying to make me feel better. I wouldn't've have fallen for Phil if he wasn't the man he was. He's got a calling; he's good at it. At least I'm competing against the safety of the whole world not just another man."

"Agent Coulson was the first CO I respected," Clint found himself blurting out.

Dave smiled. "Yeah. He's like that."

Now: New York, 2011

Darcy leaned around the corner of the bedroom door and said, "Tat, I'm having a bit of an attack of the feels. I'm gonna just go out for a sec, 'kay?"

"Sure thing, dear," Dave said. He opened his arms. Darcy dove into them, solid, strong, cable-knit-covered. The calluses on his fingers scritched her scalp and she planted her face in his chest to soak up any tears he might have squeezed out. "Go with Clint. I'd feel better if you aren't wandering the concrete wilds of Manhattan by yourself."

She slid her face away and, of all the dumb luck, she caught Clint's eye at that exact moment. He was frozen in the middle of folding Charcoal Suit No. Umpteen into a cardboard box, exactly like a racoon caught at going through a garbage can and at any other time, Darcy would have laughed at the mental simile but her skin fizzled with emotions, many of them still caught up in SHIELD and, ipso facto, Clint.

Natasha appeared at the door. "I'll help Dave clean up. Get us come coffee maybe. There's a good cafe down the street."

Clint raised his eyebrows because Natasha had to have seen Darcy deck him downstairs but whatever, Darcy's wearing her big girl Pull-Ups today.

"Sure. Let me get my purse."

Then: Seattle, 2004

Darcy pounded up the stairs to Clint's apartment over the garage. She slammed the door open-- funny how he never locked it but she guessed if she knew a squillion different ways to kill people with a wad of toilet paper and half an egg shell, she wouldn't worry too much about door locks either-- and found him reading a health magazine on the over-stuffed La-Z Boy that came with the place, his feet up on the coffee table, the guts of his specialcakes quiver on the same coffee table.

"I know you did it and I don't know if I should strangle you or kiss you," she said.

"Both equal jail time," said Clint. "Do you have an option three?"

"So you admit it!"

"Baby-girl, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Ugh, you know I only let you call me that 'cause you're, like, stupid scary, and also because you intro'd me to the awesome that is Chris Cornell's tortured soul and I know you know what I'm talking about because I just totally told you all about it after prom."

"Prom, prom, prom." Clint put down his magazine and tapped his chin. "Right, that was the night you swore you didn't care about even though you were only one of five sophomores who got invites but put down almost a thousand bucks for the whole outfit then I had to pick you up in secret-- you might have mentioned it being a secret a few times-- from a Denny's bathroom where you were drunk on cheap tequila and crying because your ex-boyfriend was a dick? That night?"

"Shut up, it was just three nights ago."

"Of course it was. I can still smell the puke in my car."

"That's not puke, that's the essence of your guilty soul."

"I didn't pay a thousand bucks for my guilt."

"It was $871.50 including hair, make-up, photos which I will burn as soon as I get my hands on them, and my share of the limo rental, shut up, and don't try to distract me! You wrecked Ryan's car!"

Clint raised his eyebrows to his hairline. "The douchbag's tires were slashed? How unfortunate."

Darcy pointed right at his nose, close enough to pick his nose even. "Someone who cannot be spotted in broad daylight in one of the busiest neighbourhoods in the Seattle Greater Metropolitan Area managed to slash the tires on a canary yellow, fully-refurbished Trans Am parked in the middle a school campus-- population too damn fucking many-- in the middle of the basketball finals which means the school was extra busy. Coincidentally, the owner of said mutilated Trans Am was suddenly struck by a weird combination of hives and diarrhoea so when he came out with his band for the big half-time show, he sharted-- "

Clint had started chuckling but that was okay, 'cause Darcy could barely keep her face straight either.

"-- all over his utility kilt so the only thing the audience watched was a l-l-line of b-brown leaking down h-his leg." Darcy collapsed, holding her stomach and giggling, near Clint's chair. "They had to cancel the show to disinfect the gym floor. Oh my god, it was like... I don't know what it was like. It's beyond anything I could ever hope to describe using English. It needs interpretive dance."

By now, Clint didn't bother to hide the shit-eating aspect of his grin. "I guess what goes around, comes around."

"It wasn't karma and you know it, you evil, awesome, freaky Power Ranger," said Darcy. "You know you're supposed to protect me against Dad's bad guys, not the local problems."

"Me? My specialty is sharpshooting. If I was going to do anything to the toothpick dick who made you cry, I'd've used my toy." He pointed at the table and disassembled pieces of his said toy.

"Shut up. You're awesome. Just take it." She wiggled into the big old La-Z Boy beside him and looped her arms around his shoulders, resting her face on his chest. After a few minutes, he put one of his arms around her, too, lightly, barely touching her shoulder. "Do you know when you're leaving?"

"Nah. I'll have seven days to wrap things up once I get notice."

"Then you're off to save the world."

"Something like that."

"Think you can spare some of that Mr. Smith action and make sure Dad's okay?"

His hand squeezed her shoulder so quickly it might've been a muscle spasm. "He'd kick my ass for even trying. Besides, I thought you didn't give that big a shit."

"I don't," said Darcy but she didn't really mean it.

Clint must've aced his superspy telepathy training because he muscle-spasmed her shoulder again. "I promise I'll always have his back."

Now: New York, 2011

On the way to the cafe, at some point between the first and second block, Darcy had grabbed Clint's hand to keep from getting swallowed up in the crowd 'cause NYC peeps were legit crazed Velma-walkers who did not give an actual fuck about stupid things like oncoming pedestrian traffic. It was like the first person to give way were branded pussies for life. She held his hand still because Agent Romanov's "few blocks" meant ten. He wasn't squeezing her fingers as tightly as she squeezed his but now and again, he'd rubbed his thumb callus in the middle of her palm and glance over his shoulder at her, like he was checking if she'd break down again.

New Yorkers didn't appreciate coffee the way Seattlites did-- heathens, all of them!-- seeing the drink as fuel instead of an art form so Darcy asked to make hers a little more interesting with a splash of rum instead of her usual double shot Americano with two pumps of coconut milk and one pump butterscotch. Clint got a large black coffees. Darcy didn't dare get Tateh anything that would offend his particular tea tastes. She didn't feel like going back to the apartment yet either so they chose a spy-friendly booth in the back of the cafe.

"I was working in New Mexico when you were," he said.

"No shit! Why didn't you drop in?" Darcy asked.

"I'm not actually supposed to know you," he said.

"Oh. Right."

"I'm glad you didn't get hurt."

"Yeah. We had a, um, some friends help us out."

"Good." He took a gulp of his coffee, she took a sip of hers, and they were all awkward silence for the longest minute ever.

"So," said Darcy, "Are you allowed to tell me yet why you got sent up to us for six months?"

He smiled, making the corners of his eyes wrinkle and his smashed-in face weirdly hot. "Fell in love and didn't finish the job."

"Ooooh, ungood."

"Naw, we hired her instead. Best damn recruitment in our organization's history."

Darcy thought back to Agent Romanov and how she looked like she could take out an entire Ancient Roman legion for shits with a side of giggles, and still have salon perfect hair. Pretty good odds she was the one Clint fell in love with. Not that Darcy could blame him; Agent Awesome could make Darcy think about switching teams.

"Hey, that's a step up from sleeping with your bow," she said.

"Even after our lessons, you never developed respect for Jessica."

"Look it was weird handling your bow, okay? I felt like I was having a torrid affair." She took another sip of her liquid courage-infused coffee. "Sorry I hit you."

He shook his head and swept the apology away.

"No, really," she continued. "It wasn't fair of me to blame you or hold you to a promise you made to a scared, stupid teenager. You guys do dangerous shit to save the world. The only person to blame is the one who actually did the job."

Clint's face went a pretty gross shade of grey. He looked away. Darcy grabbed his hand.

"It's not your fault," she said. And just because he looked so fucking sad, she kissed his knuckles and repeated herself. "It's not your fault, Clint."

He clenched his eyes shut. His throat visibly bobbed as he went back to some bad place that Darcy wished to hell she could kick away. Only when he dragged her hands across the table to return the knuckle kiss did he open his eyes again. Their coffees cooled as they held each other up.

Now: New York, 2011

They wove their way back to Coulson's apartment. Instead of going up right away, Darcy took a left into a little park behind the building. Clint followed. It wasn't much: a couple rows of grass, some flower bushes fighting for space against dandelions, a fountain spitting brackish water. Nothing like the deep expanses of green on the west coast. She sat on an iron bench off to one side, her hands in her pockets, worrying her lower lip.

Clint eased himself beside her and stared at the fountain. They sat, not speaking, for who the fuck knew how long. Anyone who knew Darcy knew her silence was a worrying sign. She couldn't not talk.

"I don't know him!" she finally-- thank fuck!-- blurted out. "I thought if I went to his place, I'd know a bit more but it's, like, a movie set for someone playing who he thinks Dad's supposed to be. Or maybe that really is him and I'm just disappointed because he's not this guy I made up in my head from his letters and things I pick up from you and the other detail guys or maybe emotional history doesn't really stick to inanimate objects the way everyone thinks it does and I'm still pathetically trying to lick up any crumb about him that I can even when it's the wrong crumb and--"

"He stayed at base most of the time," interrupted Clint. "We have rooms there but he just used it to sleep. I think he slept. If he wasn't on the field, he was in his office. His office is really... alphabetised."

Darcy laughed. It was a little hysterical. "I alphabetise. I approve."

"I know." Clint dared to look at her. She had her glasses in one hand while she scrubbed the tears off her cheeks with the other. He should hold her hand or something, right? That was what you did when someone cried. "Baby-girl, this is going to sound fucked up but you have to trust me on this because we have fucked up jobs. The best, most loving thing Phil ever did for you and Dave was to leave you and pretend you didn't exist. In our line of work, we go up against people who--" His brain threw up recent memories he thought he'd successfully repressed with a fuckton of bourbon from Stark's top shelf-- "people who wouldn't hesitate to hurt the people we love to get what they want. I know what you think of your dad but please believe me when I say that if anyone had gotten to either of you, he would have burned the world to save you, and to hell with the mission."

Darcy snorted and Clint couldn't stand it anymore. He cupped her chin, made her look him in the eye.

"He would have burned the world. And I would've handed him the lighter."

Soon: Portland, 2014

Pine boughs scented the living room. The fireplace crackled, the fire within a much better view than any TV show. Dave stretched out on the living room couch, cupping his chilled hands around his mug of vanilla chai rooibos. His boyfriend came out with his usual crap black coffee, sat beside him, and pulled the yawn-and-stretch. Dave elbowed him playfully but he only smiled.

"I thought you said she'd be here by now," he said.

"Darcy's categorically incapable of being on time when on vacation," said Dave.

"You've shared so much about her; I can't wait for the full experience."

"Be careful what you wish for."

"Believe me I know." He squeezed Dave's hand. "What about you? Regretting what you wished for yet?"

"You think pretty highly of yourself, honey. I could've wished for Shemar Moore on a silver platter for all you know."

His boyfriend grinned, soft around the corners, crows' feet around the eyes, as he ran his hand through his wavy silver-blond hair. "I think if pushed, we could've done Shemar. Would you still know it was me if I was half a foot taller, darker, and practically Photoshopped?"

Dave kissed him because he could. "You could wear a paper bag over your head and I'd still know it was you."

"I love you," he said and returned the kiss. This one was a little hotter. Hurrah! But because he'd always be a bit of a killjoy, he said, "I hope she likes me."

"Honey, she'll love you. I know it."

Elephantine footsteps pounded on the porch.

"Speak of the devil," Dave muttered.

"Tateh! I'm here! Release the marching band!" Darcy yelled out.

Dave jumped-- okay, maybe it was more of an enthusiastic upward movement because getting old was horrible-- up from the couch to greet her. His better half got up more slowly. Dave spread his arms wide and his little girl-- she'd always be his little girl-- snuggled right into them as she always had ever since he and Phil brought her home from the hospital. "Darcy, my darling! I've missed you so much. How's life in the barbaric bowels of the East Coast?"

"I think I might actually like it there," said Darcy.

"Oh dear, they've brainwashed you already. Are those heels?"

Darcy twirled. "Yes, and I regret nothing. I look sexy in them."

"Lies, all lies. You're sweet, virginal, and pure as freshly fallen snow in the Alps circa 2000 A.D."

"Hoo-boy, we're going to be in trouble then 'cause I brought someone over for Christmas." She pushed the door open again in time to receive Agent Barton who was struggling with his duffel and several shopping bags.

"Baby, there's a lake in your dad's driveway," he said.

"That's a moat to keep the unwanted away," said Darcy. She grabbed half of the shopping bags but held onto the agent's free hand. "Tat, you remember Clint, right?"

Dave's right eyebrow arched. "I do indeed. How are you, Agent Barton?"

The agent coughed. "Good, sir. I told Darcy I could get a hotel but she insisted you could put me up for a few days. I think I can still make some calls--"

"Tat, can we keep him? He's so lost and adorable," said Darcy. Clint looked like he was about to give her a kiss but he remembered Dave at the last minute and froze in mid-lean.

"I peel potatoes like a motherfu-- um... really well," said Clint. Darcy smacked his arm and grinned like a fourteen-year-old at a Bay City Rollers concert as she did so.

"I suppose I can stand your boyfriend being here for Christmas if you can stand mine," Dave said.

Darcy clapped. "Ooooh, I've been wanting to meet Fred since forever! Is he here now? Should I get some props? I'm sure Clint has a gun I can fondle while I give him The Talk."

"He's in the living room. He's wanted to see you for a long time, too, Darcy, dear."

Fred-- AKA the love of his life, the cream in his coffee, the Antonio to his Stradivarius-- stepped out from behind the couch. His folded his hands in front of him, at ease. "Hello."

Darcy cocked her head to one side, lips pursed as she took in Fred's cardigan, neatly pressed slacks, worn loafers, his brushed-back waves of hair, his glasses. He wasn't devastatingly handsome by conventional standards but Dave thought he was sexy as hell. He always had.

"Hey there, Fred," said Darcy. "What are your intentions towards my Tat?"

Fred smiled, just little up-turnings of his lips. Dave caught Clint's eyes narrow at the expression then he shook his head in a self-deprecating manner.

"I want to make Dave happy," said Fred. "That's all I ever wanted."

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