“The things I’ll do for money,” Clint grumbled as the last of the electrodes were attached to his skin. “This glue is going to be hell to get out of my hair.”
“You’re the one who insists on ordering pizza once a week,” Natasha told him. “I can eat ramen every day.”
“Ha.” Clint shrugged on his grey henley, tucking the leads through a loop to connect them to the small transmitter on his belt. “You’d live on Diet Coke and cigarettes if it would keep you in shape.”
“True.” The redhead smiled; one of the best dancers in the fine arts program, she had a will of iron when it came to her diet and exercise regime. Her petite figure was testament to that. “But I need new toe shoes, so here I am.”
Here was a lab in the Howard Stark Technology Building on the NYU campus; crammed full of computers and equipment, the space looked more like a storage room than one of the most advanced workspaces in the country. Between the hanging extension cords and the bins of mismatched parts, a white sphere, a giant white bubble, sat in the center. Clint could see his reflection, distorted and reversed, in the shiny curve; he stepped gingerly over the metal framework that served as a base and peeked through the rectangular opening. The inside was as smooth as the outside, a similar colored bench with dips for seats easy to miss against the unrelenting blankness.
“Hey, you came!” Steve Rogers appeared from behind a data farm tower. Tall, ruggedly handsome, and the nicest guy Clint knew, Steve had told Clint how to make money by volunteering to be lab rats. “This is so cool; you’re going to love it.”
“Ah, there you are. Welcome to party central.” Tony Stark wore sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants. In one hand was a green protein shake, and in the other he held a tablet. “Wow, serious biceps, dude. You must be Clint. And that would make you the ballerina. Perfect; we’re just about ready to start today’s testing. Let’s give you the grand tour!”
Clint glanced at Steve who shrugged; working with Tony for a few months now, Steve hadn’t shut up talking about the guy. There had to be more to the Stark heir than his playboy reputation if Steve was interested. Not that Steve would ever make a move; one of the reasons Natasha agreed to help out was to nudge Steve along. No one wanted a mopey Steve Rogers pining around the studios again.
“What you see before you is the first Alcubierre inertial confinement fusion micro-unit. We used the Helm’s theory of magnetic higher fields to stabilize the slipstream bubble …” Stark walked them around the white sphere, stepping over thick cords on the floor and conduits hanging from the ceiling. “Finally figured out the coefficient drag problem and the binary bounce for the …”
“You have to excuse, Tony. He forgets there’s a whole world outside these walls.” A dark haired guy pushed his glasses up his nose and then offered his hand. “Bruce Banner. And that’s Hank, and Janet, the rest of the crew.” Tall and skinny, Hank raised a hand; spinning in an office chair, Janet smiled, a petite black haired woman; she’d been the one hooking up the monitor leads.
“Clint.” He shook Bruce’s hand and came away with grease marks on his palm. “And this is Natasha.”
“Yeah, Steve’s told us all about you two.” Bruce grinned, his dark eyes lighting up. “Said you play down at Jeremiah’s on the weekends? Can’t believe I’ve never seen you.”
“I’m in the upstairs martini bar. Easy to miss if you come in the main entrance.” Clint enjoyed the small intimate space, just enough room for a stool and his guitar. Most of the patrons were older, business people who came after work to have a couple drinks. The tips were a lot better than working the downstairs where the college students hung out.
“They make a good dirty one,” Tony said, nudging Bruce with his shoulder. “Brucie here prefers umbrellas in his drinks.”
“Are we going to do some testing today or are we going to talk about where to find the best martinis?” Jan shouted across the equipment. “Because that’s fine with me. I’m getting paid either way for all these intern hours.”
“Remind me to take you to The RipTide. You’ll love their chocolate pretzel bourbon shot,” Tony shouted back. “But right now we’re going to deep fry some twinkies. Fire up the system.”
“Um, so …” Clint started to get a word in edgewise, but Tony waved him off.
“Faster than Light speed travel. This baby is the first FTL ship. One of a kind, nothing like it anywhere else.” Tony preened a little as he patted the side of the craft. “Slip right into a hyperspace bubble and BAM there you are!”
“Wait, wait. Hyperspace? Like ‘Chewie make the jump to hyperspace?’ hyperspace?” Clint asked.
He loved a good science fiction movie, but to actually travel that fast? “Are we talking wormhole or folding space or skipping or …”
“Slipstream.” Tony beamed. “Bruce is a genius with hypothetical abstract math; he worked out all the knots. Slip in and out as easy as one, two, three.”
“But …” So sue him, but Clint was a geek at heart and not too much of a slouch when it came to vectors and physics either. “The energy required to do that … the engines would have to be huge …”
“Exactly! That’s why no one else has done it.” Tony clapped Clint on the back. “But we’ve got Hank, king of miniaturization. And, voila!”
“And you want us to get in that thing? Is that what we’re here for?” Natasha’s disbelief dripped off her words. “I assume you’ve already done animal trials.”
“Oh, we are much farther than that. We’ve all taken a trip, even Steve. Tell them about it, Rogero.” Tony’s shades didn’t hide the way his eyes flicked over to where Steve was leaning against a concrete pillar; Tony waited, falling silent for the first time.
“Five times now,” Steve said. “It’s really nothing. Get in, sit down, count to fifteen and then get out.” He shrugged. “Aside from the time thing, it’s a pretty tame ride.”
“Time thing?” Clint could barely process all the information flying at him. All he wanted, damn it, was to make a few extra bucks to for beer, not get his atoms tossed across time and space. “What time thing?”
“Well, we spend 15 seconds in the pod and 10 minutes pass for everyone else,” Steve explained.
“Nine minutes and 37 seconds to be exact,” Bruce added. “It’s basic science. Einstein posited …”
“The theory of relativity. Faster than light travel could cause time to warp and fold.” Natasha glared back at the stares. “I took physics; passed with an A, I’ll have you know. So, basically, this is a time machine.”
“With only one direction, forward. No going back to punch HItler in the face, sorry;doesn’t work that way” Tony sat his drink on a pile of wooden crates. “And, technically it doesn’t go anywhere. Not yet. It will one day.”
“What does it do?” Clint asked.
“Hovers,” Bruce replied. “Just getting a vehicle into hyperspace is a major breakthrough. The rest will come later. Right now we need to know how much weight it can take and the effects of multiple trips on a variety of body types. Thus the electrodes and data sensors. Fifteen seconds of action and then it has to recharge.”
“Sounds like my sex life,” Natasha murmured in Clint’s ear.
“I heard that.” Tony lowered his glasses and winked at her..“Trust me, darlin’, I can go more than fifteen seconds.”
“Tony, remember that sexual harassment workshop they made us all attend?” Bruce asked. “We can’t afford to have any more complaints …”
“Aw, fuck Justin Hammer. He’s the one who keeps bitching to the Dean.” Tony’s face changed. “He’s a no talent hack, that’s his problem. Natalie here …”
“Natasha,” she corrected.
“Natasha knows I’m joking, am I right?”
“It would take a lot more than that lame attempt at humor to annoy me,” she replied.
“See? I like her already.”
Hank spoke for the first time. “If we want to get three trials in before six, we need to get going.”
“Six?” Tony asked, turning towards Hank. “Damn, is that meeting tonight? I thought it was next week?”
“This is next week,” Jan shot back. “And you can’t afford to miss this one.”
“Honey, I can afford anything I want,” Tony drawled. “But you’re right about getting this ball rolling. Steve, show the newbies to the capsule?”
Steve motioned and they followed him to the craft; ducking his head, Steve climbed in, but Clint hesitated, half expecting someone to jump out and yell “Surprise!” and tell him this was all a practical joke. Time travel? Hyperspace? Yeah, if Stark really had made a ship that could do those things, everyone would have heard about it. He’d have his face on the cover of Discover, Time, Newsweek , all those magazines. Again. Stark’s reputation preceded him; boy genius who could build anything and seduce anyone. So why wasn’t this timey-wimey bubble ball all over the 24-hour news channels?
“Don’t be a wuss.” Natasha nudged him. “You’re embarrassing enough as it is.”
“Good thing I know you love me,” Clint said, grabbing the sides of the door and swinging up and in. “Or I’d think you didn’t like me.”
“You think everyone likes you,” she replied, picking a seat opposite him. “That’s one of your best qualities.”
“Everyone’s ass in their seats?” Tony’s head appeared in the doorway. “Be sure and buckle up and keep all arms and legs in the ride at all times.”
“Seat? These ares more like ass depressions,” Clint muttered, circling his hips and sliding around on whatever the material was. “Asspressions? Assions? Assdeps?”
“Butt bumps.” Steve showed them how to take the belt out of its compartment and secure it. “Buttumps.”
“Cheek dips,” Natasha offered. “Cheeips”
“Rumrounds.” Tony grinned. “That’s going to be the official name on the patent.”
The door shut and the light inside dimmed, the space lit by blue lights under the bench. For a second, Clint felt a bubble of anxiety rise up his throat; closed areas weren’t his favorite. Fingertips brushed his knee, Natasha offering her support. He tossed her a grin and tamped down the feeling. He could manage this, just like he managed everything else.
“You need to get out?” Steve asked. Far more intuitive than people gave him credit for, Steve caught the interchange. “I’ll rap on the door and get them to open it …”
“Nah, I’m fine. Plenty of room in here.” To prove it, he stretched his feet out and tucked them under the opposite bench.
“Wait, there’s no way to open the hatch from in here?” Natasha’s eyes narrowed in on the now seamless wall. “Who designs a ship without a way out?”
“Okay, Thunderbirds, we’re a go.” Tony’s voice came from a display that appeared on the wall, a rectangular picture of his face along with scrolling data that morphed into numbers. “In ten, nine, eight ...”
“Why isn’t there a way to open the door from inside?” Natasha asked, a touch of fire in her voice. “What if something happens?”
“It’s a safety measure.” Bruce’s face came into focus behind Tony’s. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Three, two …” Tony continued.
“You agree with me, right?” Natasha turned to Clint. “I mean, what if there’s a fire? Is there air circulated in here? What if the thing explodes?”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Steve assured her.
“Besides, you could hotwire your way out of here in a second,” Clint told her.
“True, but it’s the principle of the thing. There should always be a way out,” she shot back. “And do we know what’s out there in this ‘hyperspace’? Honestly, why am I the one who always has to ask the questions?”
“Because you’re good at it. Me, I just lay back and go with the flow.” Clint grinned at her, used to the way she surveyed every situation looking for exits and possible dangers. A song lyric popped in his head and he hummed a few bars before singing, “These are the days of our lives. The bad things in life are so few …”
“You two should take this show on the road,” Steve said. He rolled his shoulders and sighed. “Yin and Yang, that would be a good name.”
With a hydraulic hiss, the door opened and Tony stuck his head in. “So, how was it?”
“How was what?” Clint asked. “We’re still waiting for the ride to start.”
Steve laughed as he unbuckled his belt, slapping Clint on the shoulder. “That was it,” he teased, exciting as Tony stepped back. “You missed it.”
“Nothing happened,” Natasha complained, climbing out. “We just sat there.”
“You didn’t feel anything? Not even a vibration?” Hank asked, his long fingers taking the tiny card out of their monitors. “That’s great!”
“Okay, this is a joke. If we’d been in hyperspace then my watch should be …” Clint looked down at his wrist then up to the clock on the wall. Down again and back up. “Well, shit. It’s ten minutes later.”
It's not Tony's fault. Honestly. No one could have foreseen the one tiny little bump that started the snowball rolling down the hill into Hell. All Clint can do is sit down and hold on.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The garlic smelled divine; Clint grabbed a slice of the warm pizza, scooping up the gooey cheese with his finger and popping it in his mouth. It burned the top of his mouth and he grabbed his beer, drinking a large swallow. Natasha laughed at him as she forked up a bite of her salad; how she ate that rabbit food and enjoyed it as much as she did, Clint would never understand. There was nothing better than mozzarella, white sauce, tomatoes, and garlic over a thick crust.
“Ahhh, I haven’t had a Shorty’s special in a long time.” Clint savored the next bite. “Stark springs for the good stuff.”
“He certainly doesn’t have qualms about spending money,” Steve agreed, cramming half a slice in his mouth, chewing, then talking with his mouthful. “I haven’t eaten this well in a long time.”
Being a music major meant Clint was up to his eyeballs in debt just to pay for classes. Throw in the expenses not covered by his archery scholarship, and he was looking at writing huge checks to payback all the loans once he graduated … assuming he ever got a real, paying job. Steve understood completely; as an art major, he could barely afford to pay for supplies much less kick in for the rent on the house they shared with six other people. Thank God that Sam Wilson had a job and Thor’s parents were loaded; without those two incomes and Jane’s grad school pay, they’d be stuck in a crappy hole-in-the-wall, rat-infested shoe box somewhere.
“We should weigh you in after you eat,” Tony groused as he managed to get the last piece of garbage pizza. “You guys are bottomless pits.”
“You know what they say about college students,” Clint joked, whipping an extra large mushroom and pancetta pizza from behind the ratty old sofa. “Offer us free pizza and we’ll do anything.”
The lights flickered, a dash of blackness interspersed with the bright light. Machines beeped and clocks reset.
“Fucking hell.” Tony dropped the half eaten slice on a paper plate. “Justin better get his act together or I’m going to … “
Steve grabbed Tony’s wrist before he could dash out of the lab. “Going down there is just going to make things worse,” he said. “He already has the IRB on his side; you don’t need to give him any more ammunition. Besides, he has to stop by six p.m., right? That’s the compromise he agreed to.”
“It’s six oh two,” Bruce spoke up. “That’s probably him powering down. There’s always a surge just before he shuts off his machine.”
“Machine. That jumble of bolts and circuits doesn’t deserve to be called a machine. It’s a … mess, that’s what it is.” Tony huffed, but backed off. “Robotic soldier, my ass. More likely a robot stripper. That’s Hammer’s speed, not to mention the only way he’d get laid.”
The ongoing feud had been funny at first, but now Clint was getting tired of the constant bickering. Justin Hammer had a hard on for destroying Tony’s reputation as much as Tony hated the annoying little turd. Only Hammer’s father’s money, judiciously donated to the engineering department, kept Justin from being kicked out of the program. So far, he’d blown up over three thousand dollars worth of equipment, started two fires, and embarrassed the Dean with a miniature fly camera that caught the Dean in flagrante delicto with his secretary. Nobody liked Justin, except for that strange Victor guy who thought he could shoot lightning from his fingers. And Clint thought the Fine Arts students were unique; the science halls were filled with unique and special individuals.
“Well, I’m not going to let him ruin tonight,” Jan declared. “He’s a little pecker who just wants attention. Ignore him.”
She should know better than most; Jan had originally been assigned to work with Justin on a project for her Energy Conversion class. After he ‘forgot’ to put in her overtime hours for pay, had hit on her when she’d complained, and assigned her to get everyone coffee, she went the Dean. The fact that Hammer had to go though the sexual harassment seminar with Tony was just one more reason for Justin to be mean to Jan. In fact, Tony had hired Jan on the spot after Justin said some very unflattering things about her; he still hadn’t told Jan exactly what was said, a move that made Clint realize Tony was much more socially aware than he let on.
“True. This is the first thirty second jump,” Natasha agreed, dusting crumbs from her hands. “I, for one, am excited to be part of this historic event.”
Clint raised his eyebrow. “Excited to be … what was in that salad, Nat? You feeling okay?”
“Shut up,” she said, lightly whacking him on the back of the head. “I’m being positive, remember? My psych project?”
“Oh, right.” He actually didn’t remember, but what the hey. “Positive.”
“Alright, alright, alright.” Tony turned on a dime, his enthusiasm winning over frustration. “Brucie baby, wire us up and let’s put this baby into warp!”
By the time they were all prepped and ready to get in the pod, an hour had passed; Tony was vibrating with anticipation as they packed inside. Bruce shrank in on himself, taking up the least amount of space; Hank had insisted that Bruce take the fifth seat despite Bruce’s reluctance. It wasn’t the tiny area or the bulk of Steve’s shoulders and Clint’s biceps, but having to leave the flow of numbers across his computer’s display that made him hesitate. No one had been surprised when Tony claimed the right to take the longer hop; both Hank and Jan graciously bowed out, happy to take the second trip.
“I can’t wait to find out if the extension of length is additive or exponential,” Bruce was saying as the door slid shut. “The equation was ambiguous about the effect.”
“We’ll know in half a minute,” Tony said, giving the monitor a thumbs up when Hank’s face appeared. Above it, a newly installed LED read out flashed the number ten and began counting down. On the other side was an emergency release, put in place specifically at Natasha’s request. “Five, four, three …”
Clint had taken the fifteen second ride thirty-two times over the last month. Before each one, Tony had bounced with energy, never flagging in his optimism for the project. Now, Stark’s legs jiggled, his heels off the floor and his hand rubbing along his thigh, his eyes glued to the counter. Head leaned back and eyes closed, Steve nudged his knee against Tony’s, a gentle reminder that he was shaking the whole pod.
“We’re off!” Tony announced as if everyone couldn’t see the number flicker to one and start rising.
Breathing in for four counts, back out for four, Clint settled his hands on his knees and relaxed, content to watch Bruce draw equations on his jeans with his fingertips and Natasha roll her shoulders and stretch her neck. At ten seconds, he began compiling a set list for Friday’s gig, shuffling old favorites in with some new songs he’d been working on. By twenty, the opening three were set and a change of key was in order for the next batch.
“Seventeen,” Bruce muttered under his breath. “A factor of helions to radium ratio …”
The lights flickered and the LED flashed.
“What the …” Tony started to ask.
The lights shimmered brighter for one count and then the capsule plunged into darkness, rocking to one side before rebounding to the other. Clint slid to the left as they began to roll, slowly at first, then faster. Sparks danced along the white surface, crackling and dancing between watches and glasses frames and jewelry. The static discharged as his fingers closed around Natasha’s wrist, a flash of miniature lightning illuminating her wide eyes as he drew her closer, wrapping arms around her and holding on. Her hair slithered over his face as they turned upside down; keys jingled as they slipped from pockets and hit the roof that was now the floor. Again, they flipped, and Clint buried his nose into Natasha’s neck, squeezing his eyes shut and taking deep breaths to stop his stomach contents from following his car keys.
As abruptly as it began, the pod righted itself, rocking subsiding until they were back upright. The counter flickered on, the glaring blue of 12:37 changing to 12:38 as it resumed. Someone moaned; Bruce rubbed the back of his head with the heel of his hand.
“Jesus Christ,” Bruce muttered. “And I hate rollercoasters too.”
“Got to be a power surge.” Tony unbuckled and headed for the panel by the door. “How much you want to bet Justin’s behind it? I’m going to fry his ass and get him kicked out for this.”
“Are we still in the bubble?” Bruce rose and stared over Tony’s shoulder. “‘Cause that would be close to … 85 minutes external time?”
“An hour and a half?” Steve asked, craning his neck to get a look at the numbers scrolling across the tiny screen in front of Tony. “That’s a long time.”
“Assuming the same multiplication factor holds,” Bruce explained. “That’s what this test was for, to see what happens over longer increments. If we go with Einstein’s theory of relativity, we should maintain the same displacement, but if we add in a fixed Planck’s length …”
“It could be a hell of a lot more.” Tony sighed and smacked the wall. “From what I can tell, the surge knocked us off the rails, so to speak; not out of the bubble, but enough to cause all the shaking and baking. Fortunately, equilibrium eventually pulled us back. Question is, how long will it take Hank and Janet to stop the program.”
“Basically, you’re saying we just have to wait,” Natasha said. “Great. Did anybody bring a deck of cards?”
“Barton can lead a sing-a-long,” Tony tossed back. “Just don’t do ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall. That’ll make me thirsty.”
The floor trembled beneath Clint’s feet; he looked at Steve who nodded back.
“Why don’t you guys sit down?” Steve suggested. “Just in case.”
“Don’t worry,” Tony insisted, using his pocketknife to unscrew the panel. “We’ll be fine. We’re in the approach vector, five by five. Nothing’s going to …”
A shudder ran through the pod; Bruce plopped back down and grabbed for the ends of his seatbelt. Bracing one hand on the wall, Tony kept working, pulling out a twisted bouquet of colored wires.
“Tony, I think you should …” Bruce began.
All the breath was forced out of Clint’s lungs as he was pressed backwards, an invisible weight slamming into his chest as the capsule accelerated. Tony lurched, his fingers scrabbling on the smooth wall.
“Damn it, it’s not supposed to do that!” Tony shouted, banging a fist into the curve. “Speed is derived from momentum and that should be dwindling not …”
Clint’s body left his seat, rising up as the pod bounced then falling as it came back down. Hanging onto Bruce’s shoulder, Tony’s knees folded and he barely avoided faceplanting into Steve’s lap.
“Houston, we have a problem,” Tony muttered.
“For God’s sake, sit down,” Steve told him.
“Yeah, yeah, I can do that.” He hauled himself over Bruce’s knees, reaching for Steve’s hand when the centripetal force grew stronger. With a heave, Tony made it, buckling in as the vibrations began to shake Clint down to the bone. “Do you think this is …”
“...slingshot effect?” Bruce continued. “Hypothetically, it was always possible …”
“... but not feasible,” Tony finished. “Well, now we know.”
“Slingshot, like in Star Trek 4? We’re still in the lab though, right?” Clint asked.
“Ah, the whales! I love that flick.” Tony held on tight as the pod shimmied harder. “Actually, there’s a theory about …”
The bright flash of light cut through the pod, a vivid yellow that shifted to orange then red. A wave of heat followed; beads of sweat instantly ran down his forehead, skin turning red as he tried to drag in a breath. Hot air burned down his throat; nausea rolling his stomach, he clutched his gut as it cramped hard and fast. A roar filled his ears; a sharp pain lanced into his head, driving from the temple to the base of his neck.
Someone was screaming, but Clint couldn’t focus past the pounding of his heart that reverberated in his ears. A band tightened around his chest, his fingers trembled, his muscles clenched and released in waves. Words came out of Natasha’s mouth, but the sounds splintered and broke into syllables, each one hitting his skin like a rain of bullets. Hands cradled his head, green eyes staring at him; he could only groan as another round of cramps threatened to drag him under.
“Clint,” Natasha begged. “Look at me. Please, look at me.”
Turn around ...
The music bounced between his ears and behind his eyes, songs mixing together, the beat the pounding pain. He cracked his eyelids; in the emergency lighting, Natasha’s face was a pallet of shadows, half hidden and half revealed.
“Stay with me, okay?” she said.
Cause you’re all I need
Whimpering, he was whimpering, low in the back of his throat, a steady hum that was strangely in major and 7th chords. Bruce, on the other hand, was rocking and keening, his knuckles white as he held on, muscles so tense they were trembling.
I’m spinning round, round, round, round
Smoke glass stain bright color
“We’ve got to stop this!” Steve shouted. If it’s the last thing we ever do. “Tony can’t take much more.”
Twitching and jerking, Tony’s body was seizing, his eyes rolled back and his hands limp.
You have to let it in, as much as it's upsetting
To wake up with bruises you don't remember getting
With a 360° roll and a final jolt, the pod shuddered, rocking back and forth until it wobbled to a halt. The panel hung cockeyed, the counter nothing but eights, every slot filled. A loud click and the door sprang open an inch, flickering light slanting across them all.
“I’ve got to get out,” Bruce said, eyes wide and face pale. “Too small, too tight, I need to …”
It’s the terror of knowing what the world’s all about …
“Bruce, wait. We should …” Natasha tried to warn him, but Bruce was pushing the door and stumbling out.
“I’m getting Tony out of here,” Steve said, gently lifting the now unconscious Stark. “He needs medical help.”
“Aw, hell, come on.” Natasha caught Clint under his arm and helped him up. The world spun, his knees quivered but he managed to stand. His stomach rebelled as he clamped his hand on the doorframe and eased out, blinking to clear his eyes and focus. The smell of smoke and sweat and dog made him sicker, the air thick with unknown aromas.
The loud command vibrated inside Clint’s head, sending pain rippling.
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
“What the hell?” Steve stepped back as the tip of a sword pointed at his throat. “Who are you?”
“Sê ðâ ðe weorðscipe?” Tall and imposing, the man looked to be the one in charge from the way the others took his orders. “ðider ârfæstnes êow æthebban?”
I’m trouble ya’ll, I got trouble in my town. 
“Look, can you help us? We need …” Steve started, but the men closed in, swords surrounding them.
“Onfôn ðâs into cweartern,” the man commanded.
Rough and dirty hands reached for them; Clint tried to fight, but vertigo overcame him, sending the room spinning into darkness.
Hey, hey, hey. Where will you be waking up tomorrow morning?
He swore he heard music just before he went unconscious.
 “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Bonnie Tyler
 “Stay with Me” Sam Smith
 “Tin Man” America
 “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” The Animals
 “Seizure” Watsky
 “Under Pressure” Queen
 “Pressure” Billy Joel
 “Trouble” Pink
 “Miss Jackson” Panic! At The Disco
I used music in the Medieval Cakeverse as well. Hold on, you'll understand what's going on in this universe soon. :)))
Waking up in a dungeon sentenced to death was not on Clint's to-do list. Neither is trusting a mysterious prisoner who's altogether too interested in flirting with Natasha. Maybe if he could turn off the jukebox playing in his head, Clint might be able to handle it all.
“Aw, hell.” Clint pushed himself upright and ran a hand through his hair. “Where are we?”
He’d come to on a cold concrete floor, his head still aching. A slit of light filtered in through what passed as a window, high up by the ceiling and only a foot in depth. Once his eyes adjusted, he checked on the others; Natasha and Bruce were huddled by Tony who was shivering, sweating in the cool room. Steve was nowhere to be seen
And a girl in the corner said boy, I want to warn you …
A jumble of songs competed for his attention, each a rubber bullet battering his consciousness.
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees 
Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveler of both time and space
You better promise me I’ll be back in time
Using Natasha as his focus, he slowed his breathing like he did before a shot, pushing the music back until it was no more than a muted roar that matched his headache.
“From what we can tell, this is the equipment storage room in the building’s basement,” Bruce answered, pitching his voice low. “I had a comp class down here at the other end of the hall. Half underground and dungeon like. Only now it looks like it really is a dungeon.”
“Now? That’s the question, isn’t?” Clint paused. “Same bat place, but different bat time.”
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future
“I can’t figure it out.” Bruce’s eyes opened; dark circles curved beneath them, mottled bruises of purple and green. “I don’t have the right variables. All our watches stopped working; I need more data before I can solve the equation. Tony would be able to do it.”
“How’s he doing?” Clint scooted closer. “Any idea why we got so sick?”
“He’s in and out of consciousness,” Natasha replied. “I’m really worried. He’s running a fever and his breathing’s shallow.”
I think I’m capsizin’, the waves are rising and rising 
“Tony got the worst of it, but you were hit pretty hard. How are you feeling?” She turned concerned eyes Clint’s way.
“Like there’s a hair band playing in my skull, but better now,” he honestly replied.
“Has to have something to do with the flash and heat,” Bruce suggested. “It was like a full blown panic attack for me; I hate losing control.”
“Felt like someone was pulling my brain out through my ears and my belly button,” Clint admitted. “Did you …”
“Motion sickness,” Natasha replied. “A bad bout but nothing major.”
Let's slip right off these tracks; We'll fly or we might crash 
A bang echoed in the hall, then approaching footsteps. The door opened and two men dragged Steve in. Bruises marred his cheeks and jaws, a gash above his right temple. They tossed him down by Tony and growled something low and menacing. Behind them, a woman in a brown dress deposited an earthenware ewer with rough cups and a bowl of what might be bread on the floor, darting out before the men closed the door and locked it.
“Steve?” Clint scooted over, brushed back the hank of hair hanging over Steve’s forehead, and surveyed the damage. “Are you okay?”
“I couldn’t even understand the questions.” Steve rolled his shoulder, wincing at the motion. “I have no clue what they wanted. They just kept hitting me.”
A shadow in the far corner moved, resolving into a man dressed all in black, hood drawn over his dark hair. Lips compressed into a scowl, but his crystal blue eyes sweep over all of them as picked up the pitcher. He poured liquid into a cup, paused, and held it out.
“Wæter?” he asked. “Fylstan êower fréond.”
“Water?” Natasha stood. “Friend?”
“êower fréond,” the man repeated, motioning towards Steve.
“For my friend. Yes, I would like some.” She nodded and, making no sudden moves, took the cup. “Thank you.”
“Wilcumian.” He poured himself a cup.
Clint was singing before he realized he’d opened his mouth, a quiet murmur that echoed the words in his head.
Talk in song from tongues of lilting grace
Sounds caress my ear
And not a word I heard could I relate
The story was quite clear
The man’s head snapped around, and he stared at Clint, intense and unwavering.
“êow dômweorðung bâm æfensceop?” Two steps and he loomed over Clint. “M¯ærnes êow into ðone as gild?”
“I don’t …” The songs in his head swirled, and he couldn’t think through all the noise. Words wanted out, notes demanding to be sung. “I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.”
“Did Fury send you?” the man asked, lowering his voice. “Or are you working with the Free Bards?”
“Fury? Bards? Look, dude, I haven’t got a clue …” Clint stopped, his eyes widening. “You can speak English? Why the hell didn’t you say so! This is all a case of mistaken identity …”
“The guards must have hit your head hard,” he said, cutting off Clint’s ramble. “Rattled your brain; you’re only half making sense.”
“Wait, wait.” Clint turned to Natasha. “You hear him, right? You know what he’s saying?”
“It’s still gibberish.” She wet the edge of Steve’s shirt, lifting it to blot away the blood. “You’re not telling me everything; how badly hurt are you?”
Steve pushed her fingers away. “I’m fine; had worse on the practice field.”
“It’s only you,” the man told Clint. “How is it that you do not know the most basic apprentice level spell works?”
“Spell? I didn’t, I don’t …” Clint closed his eyes and willed the music volume down.
I'm floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different today
“Oh, what the hell.” Clint stood up and held out his hand. “I’m Clint Barton, and my friends and I are in a really big mess of trouble that we don’t understand.”
“I’m James Barnes, but most people call me Bucky, and I’m right in that mess with you.” Lips quirked up in a crooked grin, and his gloved hand slipped into Clint’s squeezing his firmly before letting go. “I take it whatever extraction plan you had didn’t go so well since you’re in Lord Pierce’s dungeon just like me.”
“Extraction plan. Um, yeah. Didn’t have much of an emergency plan at all, come to think of it.” Clint shrugged. “Anyway, that’s Bruce over there with the glasses, Steve’s the blonde martyr, and Natasha’s next to him. We’re all worried about Tony; he needs medical help. Do you think you can ask the guard to call a doctor?”
No pill’s gonna cure my ill, I’ve got a ...
Bucky’s eyes narrowed. “Pierce isn’t going to waste a healer’s time on condemned spies. You’re all going to hang in the morning just like me.”
“Hang? As in ‘by the neck until dead’ type of hang?” Clint’s voice squeaked on the word ‘dead.’ “Maybe he meant we’re all hung? ‘Cause I don’t know about the others but I’m definitely above average in that department.”
Bucky’s laugh filled the room. “No, I’m afraid it’s not what’s hanging between your legs, although I appreciate the humor.”
You’re mother cried, said she told you so, but you touched the devil and couldn’t let go ... 
“Hanging?” Steve asked, his eyes flickering up.
“Seems they think we’re spies and they’re going to kill us in the morning.” Clint was surprised at how calmly he stated it; everything seemed so surreal that he wasn’t sure if he was awake or still unconscious. Maybe he’d open his eyes in his room and realize it was all a dream.
Tomorrow the good Lord will take you away.
“Yeah, well, they were none too happy with me,” Steve said. “I can believe that.”
“Good night, Wesley, sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning,” Tony mumbled. His eyelids fluttered open and he groaned. “Who let me drink absinthe again? The little green fairy is sprinkling fairy dust in my hair. And why is Barton talking all funny? Mick, Mick, speak English! My head’s already hurting enough.”
A flicker caught the corner of Clint’s eye, like a heat ripple off hot asphalt, and he felt a thrum in his inner ear.
Never thought I’d live to see the day when everybody’s words got in the way. 
“Ow, that hurts.” Tony tried to sit up but he flopped back down on the floor. “Where are we? Who’s that? What’s going on? When are we? Why is the room spinning?”
“Long story.” Steve took a mug. “Drink some water first.”
“He’ll need time to recover; those who come into their gifts later in life are hit the hardest with the sickness,” Bucky said. “A mug of ale and some hearty stew would go a long way towards replenishing his energy.”
“Make it a glass of whiskey and you’ve got a deal.” Tony’s eyes drifted closed. “Just might euthanize the hippo tap dancing in my brain pan.”
“Can we get back to the ‘dying in the morning’ thing?” Natasha interrupted. “Because that seemed to important to let go.”
“Guess there’s no phone call or anything,” Clint muttered. “Doesn’t feel like a place with due process.”
The change of a season is enough of a reason to want to get away 
“Pierce isn’t merciful; the sword falls first, the answers come later,” Bucky agreed.
“Isn’t anyone going to mention that this guy is speaking English now?” Bruce asked. “One minute he’s speaking gibberish and now he’s not?”
“Yeah,” Steve stood, facing Bucky, drawing himself up to his full height. “Who are you and why are you jerking us around?”
“You truly don’t know, do you?” Bucky pulled his hood down and ran a hand through his long, unruly black hair. The fading light laid the planes of his face bare, the line of nose and rough growth of bread. “How can you not? A translatio spell as wide as the one he cast calls for a high level mage. You must have had training.”
“Did he just call me a mage?” Tony rolled onto his side, sighed, and let Bruce help him sit up. “You know what that means?” He paused before grinning wide. “I’m a wizard, Harry!”
The bell that rings inside your mind is challenging the doors of time 
“Really?” Natasha shook her head. “We’re trapped in the future, locked in a dungeon, sentenced to death, and you go for Harry Potter jokes?”
“What should I do? Panic? Not going to help is it?” Tony replied. “I’m more of a roll with the punches kind of guy; granted this is one hell of a haymaker, but, hey, it’s probably just a bad trip and I’ll wake up in the lab, drooling on some blueprints.”
“You don’t do drugs,” Bruce reminded him. “It throws off your mojo.”
“Shhhh.” Tony put a finger to his lips. “Don’t spill all my secrets.”
Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall. 
“You are very strange,” Bucky said, tilting his head and raising an eyebrow. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope. And we’re not staying long either.” Natasha pushed up; even standing, she only came up to Bucky’s shoulder. “Let’s see the belts, boys. I need a thin piece of metal.”
Used to Natasha’s odd requests, Clint raised his grey henley and showed her his empty belt loops. Steve did the same, his belt buckle too thick to be of use. Slipping a hand into his button-up oxford, Bruce took a mechanical pencil out of his t-shirt pocket and offered it to her.
“Will this do?” he asked.
“Perfect.” She broke off the pocket clip and held it up to the light. “Now, if I remember right there are still some of those old egress tunnels under this end of the building, the ones they built in case of an attack in retaliation for the school’s part in the Manhattan Project. Either of the science bros know where to access them? I know where the entrance near the Student Center is, but I’ve never come this far up the hill.”
“So that’s how you stole Tri-Delt’s crown.” Clint grinned at the memory of the founder’s statue in the quad decked out in princess finery. “You never told me.”
“Girl’s gotta have some mystery.” She batted her eyelashes at him as she knelt down by the door and examined the lock. “This thing is half rust; it’s probably going to fall apart before I can open it.”
She can wait if she wants; she's ahead of her time.
“In the body bank, back left corner. They keep some storage racks that hide it from view. I’ve only used it to go to Ayers Hall, so I don’t know if it connects anywhere else,” Tony answered.
“What are the odds they’re still intact?” Steve asked, sliding his arm under Tony’s and helping him up. “After … whatever happened happened?”
“Those puppies are built to withstand Cold War era bombing.” Natasha shrugged. “At least we won’t be here waiting for the hangman.” With a click and a rain of red dust, Natasha unlocked the door. “I’m willing to take the chance.”
“You can unlock a wikse bolt and know a secret exit from Pierce’s keep?” Bucky looked at Natasha; a smile curled across his lips. “I think I love you.”
“I know. Happens a lot.” She smiled back.
You completely stole my heart, and now you won't let go. I never even had a chance you know? 
“You do know you’re humming all the time, right?” Tony asked. “That’s a little weirder than usual for you.”
“Says the man who just cast a spell,” Clint shot back.
“Touche.” Tony grinned. “Okay, Marines, we are leaving. Take a left and then another left then straight on until morning.”
Natasha turned the battered knob, looking left and right before she opened the door all the way. As quietly as possible, they slipped into the hallway, Clint maneuvering himself to be the last to leave. Not that he didn’t trust this Bucky character -- yeah, no, he didn’t trust him. Right now, the only people he was sure would have his back were Natasha and Steve. Tony and Bruce were good guys, but he’d only known them for a few weeks. LIfe had taught Clint to keep a weather eye out in every situation, and this one was fucked up enough to need both eyes and a couple ears.
Now that Clint looked, he could see little bits of the building he knew from the odd floor patch to the holes in the ceiling for electric lights. Their footsteps were too loud, echoing off the partial concrete, partial rock walls. He winced when Tony coughed, the sound carrying too far for their safety.
No sound at all, we never speak a word. A fly’s foot-fall would be distinctly heard.
He bit back the snort of humor; one season of musical theater, and he could still remember all the lyrics. At least they seemed to have gotten quieter as they moved, unlike the bumbling pirates of the operette the song came from. No one noticed as they made their way through a doorway and down a set of stairs. The ground became packed dirt, and cobwebs floated their phantom touch across Clint’s face before they arrived at a door without a lock, just a bar across it and a musty smell.
A lone torch burned by the doorframe; Bucky lifted it and motioned Natasha to lead the way inside.
“Thank God, there’s no bodies,” Bruce mumbled as they wound through shelves and tables filled with wooden boxes and crates, all stacked haphazardly. Piles of broken pots and shards of glass, metal pieces, plastic melted and twisted competed for space. A cracked screen, two student desk chairs, rusted and unsafe to sit in. Torn and half-burned books. Even a woven basket filled with the shells of old electronics, iphones, tablets, and ipods, battered, singed, and all drained.
None of them spoke, walking through the remains of their world, the all too real evidence of devastation. Clint dragged a finger along the spoke of a bike wheel, just the rim left. Steve’s eyes kept darting from item to item as if they’d offer up answers. Just as they got to the back corner, Bruce gasped and moved a dusty box aside, dragging out a pouch that looked like it had once been red.
“A Tac Med kit,” he explained. “No telling what’s still good in it, but it’s sealed. Could be handy.”
“If it has some aspirin in it, I’ll carry it myself,” Tony replied. “Hey, there’s the door!”
Three big crates hid most of the frame, but Clint could see the edge of metal. It took Steve, Bucky and Clint to move the biggest of the blockage, opening just enough space to crack the door. Darkness greeted their eyes, the light of the torch swallowed quickly down the throat of the tunnel. Rubble strewn stairs descended to a speckled tile; a tilted sign on the wall pointed towards Hammer Hall.
“Oh, hell no.” Tony glared at the name. “Tell me Justin didn’t get a building named after him.”
“If it’s any consolation,” Natasha said, “I imagine he gave a great eulogy at your funeral service. After we were all declared dead, of course.”
Clint heard voices, more than one. “I think we need to finish this conversation once we’re in the tunnel,” he said. “Or we’ll be declared dead here too.”
“Better have had a free bar,” Tony groused as they squeezed through.
Slipping his left arm through the crack, Bucky pulled the crates with just one hand until they fully hid the tunnel access . He shrugged at Clint’s look, shot the door, and followed the others into the darkness.
 “Ballroom Blitz” The Sweet
 “Back on the Chain Gang” The Pretenders
 “Kashmir” Led Zeppelin
 “Back in Time” Huey Lewis & the News
 “Fly like an Eagle” Steve Miller Band
 “Sexual Healing” Marvin Gaye
 “Give me Novacaine” Green Day
 “Rollercoaster” Bon Jovi
 “Kashmir” Led Zeppelin
 “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” The Animals
 “A Space Oddity” David Bowe
 “Bad Case of Lovin’ You” Robert Palmer
 “Outlaw Blues” Pat Benatar
 “Dream On” Aerosmith
 “Everybody Talks” Neon Trees
 “Fly By Night” Rush
 “It’s a Kind of Magic” Queen
 “White Rabbit” Jefferson Starship
 “She’s Always a Woman” Billy Joel
 “You Had Me From Hello” Kenny Chesney
 “With Cat Like Tread” The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan
On the run in the future with no money and no idea of where they're going, Clint and company have to find food and a place to rest. Clint thinks he's come up with a solution to part of their problem, but he may just be running headlong into a new one.
I may have gotten a little overzealous and made a spotify playlist for this fic. If you want to listen along, it's here: https://open.spotify.com/user/cakeisnotpie/playlist/2vUSDlxTqFi2J5XGTSfFR8
I'm going to update it as chapters come out.
This chapter has the beginning of the scene that made me want to write this fic. I hope you enjoy it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Are we sure about this?” Clint eyed the people in the inn’s yard..
“Asks the guy who backpacked across Europe.” Natasha nudged his shoulder. “We need to eat and Tony needs rest.”
That was true: Clint’s stomach rumbled at the thought of food. In the last day … well, Clint didn’t really know how long since they’d gotten out of the capsule because his watch wasn’t working … he’d been running on empty. What should have been a twenty minute walk through the tunnel took over an hour because of rock slides and tumbled walls. Twice they had to find ways around a blockage only to see the hallway collapsed just before the Campus Center exit. They had to retrace their steps and take another tunnel; Natasha’s sense of direction brought them out at the bottom of the hill, near where the old gym was or used to be.
Tony’s energy flagged early, but he’d powered on, refusing to slow them down. By the time, Natasha and James reconnoitered and came back to tell them where they were, Tony had dozed off, sitting on a stair and leaning against the wall, and Clint’s ass was dragging, his headache over taking the constant stream of lyrics. Still, stopping wasn’t an option, not with the sun already set and the morning all too close. Steve boosted Tony onto his back, and they wove through the shadowy hulks of what were left of the buildings, tall trees growing out of roofs and branches reaching out of empty windows. The slivers of moonlight pooled on circular path that wound around the ruins of the Communication building and down towards the river. Even that had changed, the banks overhanging with shrubs and overgrown grass, the flow of water narrower and interrupted by rocky outcrops.
Bucky took them along the river’s edge, crossing once in a shallow spot to a longer island and then back to the shore across a network of fallen branches. Clint kept going as long as he could, digging in his memory for marches by Sousa to hum then songs on his workout playlist. Anything to keep putting one foot in front of the other. By sunrise, Natasha had found a boat, a flat bottomed shell that reeked of fish but felt like heaven when Clint sprawled flat on the weathered wood, a net for a pillow, already two-thirds asleep. When he woke, the afternoon was mostly gone; they beached the boat and hoped they’d gotten far enough away to risk going into a small town.
“I’m still unclear on how we’re going to pay for this,” Steve said. “My wallet’s on the floor of the pod and I doubt they’d take a debit card anyway.”.
He at least was dressed for the part, his dark green pants and battered boots a better fit than Clint’s black jeans and tennis shoes. Natasha, in her usual black yoga pants and simple black tee, looked like a ninja more than one of the women strolling around with skirts and aprons. Thank God some females wore pants or Nat would stick out like a sore thumb. And then there were the weapons belted on almost every hip, full length broadswords as prevalent as smaller knives; what kind of dangers necessitated always being armed?
“I’m going to see what I can get for these,” Natasha replied, holding three pennies, a nickel and a quarter in her hand. “Bucky says people dig up change all the time; the better the condition, the more money they can get. Good thing Tony’s pants were so tight they didn’t fall out.”
“We’ll hit the town square,” Clint told Steve. “See what they have and what price things are going for, just like the Saturday farmer’s market. Then we’ll meet the others in the tavern.”
The analogy was apt; stalls lined the central square in the middle of town, a large well at the heart of what was clearly a farming community. Most of the foodstuff Clint recognized from corn to potatoes and berries; a large woman selling warm pasties was doing a brisk business and Clint’s mouth watered at the aroma of garlic and fresh bread. There was also a blacksmith with an array of weapons alongside spoons and cook utensils, a leather merchant, a spice display, and a wagon with big wooden kegs of beer.
“Hey, you really need your belt?” Clint asked Steve, his eye on the leather stall.
The strip of leather got him a handful of copper and a couple silver coins. The buckle sold to the blacksmith whose eyes lit up as he tapped it on his anvil. With a little change in their pockets, Clint negotiated them a pasty apiece and a mug of beer to wash it down. The beef … at least Clint hoped it was beef, and he didn’t really think about it … was tender as he chewed, his stomach giving a happy gurgle at being filled. By the time Natasha joined them, they’d scoped out a used clothing booth manned by a father and daughter and picked some simple vests to slip on over their shirts that went a long way to making them look like they fit in.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
“You do realize you’re humming again?” Natasha asked. “Been doing that a lot.”
“You know I am 90% song lyrics, Nat,” he replied with a shrug and started another song.
She moved through the Fair and fondly I watched her move here and move there.
Then Clint saw the arrows and he had to stop. Spread across the open side of a wagon, a dozen or so wooden shafts were on display, colorful fletching and sharpen metal points calling to him. He slipped around the side and picked up one with vivid blue feathers, weighing it in his hand and sighting down the shaft.
“That’s the lowest I can go,” a man in a leather apron was saying. “These are wood that comes from the trees in Southern Forest and are nigh on unbreakable.”
“I don’t know.” A boy, no more than fourteen, turned the arrow over he held in his hand. “ That’s a lot of silver for one arrow.”
Sometimes you lose and sometimes your shooting broken arrows in the dark 
“What are you going to do with it?” Clint asked.
Startled, the boy turned dark brown eyes his way. “Practice,” he replied. “I’m going to be a ranger.”
“Well, then you need some river reed or bamboo shafts. Cheap and flexible, easier to learn with.” He searched the selection, picked up one, put it down, then found the one he wanted. “You can buy a lot more of these and maybe even a simple quiver for the price of that one.” He looked over at the fletcher. “What’s the price on say half-dozen reeds and that fabric quiver up there?”
The seller looked Clint up and down, took in his biceps, then grinned. “Oh, I think we can make a deal.”
After a bout of haggling, the boy left with his purchase, a big smile on his face, and the fletcher was happy, having made money on the sale.
“If you’re interested,” the fletcher said, “I have some nice bows for someone who knows how to handle ‘em. I’d name you a good price.”
“Thanks but I’m a little light in the pockets right now,” Clint said, going with the explanation they’d agreed on beforehand. “Ran into some trouble on the road and lost most of my gear and money.”
“Damn brigands.” The man spit in the dirt. “Lord Kennedy doesn’t send patrols out this far and Lord Pierce encourages the chaos. Damn Lords sitting in their castles, not caring about the people who work the land. Did you know that Kennedy has declared even more of the forest his? No hunting, no cutting trees … how does he think we’re supposed to survive without meat and wood?”
Somethings, it seemed, never changed. “They don’t think about it,” Clint replied, all to used to governments that screwed him over. “They only think of themselves.”
“And you’d be right about that,” he agreed.
“Fletch! How are you today?” The man who joined them was big and burly, a grease stained vest stretched across his wide shoulders. “Have you heard the news? Donovan has cancelled; Landry’s beside himself. No music means a lower revenue for the night.”
“Ah, damn. I was looking forward to it; Landry’s stew and a song or two to unwind,” Fletch replied.
“Excuse me, who is Landry?” Clint asked, butting into the conversation.
“The innkeeper,” Fletch told him. “He always has music on market day.”
“Thanks.” Clint scanned the crowd, finding Nat’s red hair at the baker’s. “Maybe I’ll see you later.”
Sing for your supper, and you'll get breakfast; songbirds always eat if their song is sweet to hear.
The strings of the old guitar were thin and barely held their tune; Clint carefully finessed the knob, easing them into something close to harmony, ignoring the tap room that was slowly filling to capacity. He could hear the news circling from table to table, eyes darting his way to check out the new guy who was stepping in. Boyd, the owner of the Jig and Reel, had given him the speech about living up to Donovan’s reputation and had set about lowering expectations by embellishing the tale of the original singer’s cancellation and Clint’s ‘life saving’ offer to take his place.
Despite the different clothing, the number of sword hilts peaking above leather belts, and the smoky lamp light, Clint felt comfortable in the tavern portion of the inn. The clink of mugs, the heady smell of whiskey and cigar smoke, and the chatter of the patrons was more than familiar to him, it was like home. As he worked on the guitar, Clint took stock of the feeling of the crowd; a tension vibrated underneath the laughter and smiles. Ready to enjoy the evening but ready for a quick reversal, fingers not far from weapons even as they ate the hearty stew Boyd was serving along with thick honey ale.
The hair on the back of his neck tingled; Clint reached for his own mug, casually turning and surveying the bar behind him. The man made no bones about his gaze, intent blue eyes never leaving Clint. Leaving on his elbows, back to the bartender, he was about Clint’s height and dressed in travel worn clothes, a grey cloak clasped at his throat and battered boots crossed one over the other. Leather pants fit every inch of his legs, defining slim but muscular thighs that disappeared under the edge of his long vest. A peak of brown curls showed in the open vee of his collar, and Clint swallowed as his face heated, a rush of blood to his cheeks at the blatant once over he was getting. One eyebrow raised, and the man’s lips curled up, a satisfied smile that went right to Clint’s libido; he had a thing for older men, especially confident, competent types who could handle themselves and this guy checked every box on his list. Mentally, Clint cursed; he had the worst timing when it came to these things; now wasn’t the time for a hook up no matter how sexy the guy in question might seem.
“Are you ready?” Boyd asked. A sliver of a man, Boyd smelled like smoke and sweat and honey, not an altogether bad combination. Most bar owners reeked of cigarettes; at least Boyd smelled of the cedar he used to stoke the fire. “You can start anytime. I’ll have Ella keep your mug filled.”
“Thanks.” Clint put the guy at the bar out of his mind, settling into his performance space in his head. Boyd really had been damn generous, giving them dinner and offering them the hayloft above the stable for the night. Nodding to where Natasha leaned her chair against a wall, Steve, Tony, and Bruce at the same table, he made his way to the seat in the corner by the heart.
Rather than introduce himself, Clint started plucking at the strings, rearranging the pillow and getting comfortable before he fell into the first song, one designed to lift spirits and mellow people out, assure them he could sing and they were going to be entertained.
“I like the way your sparkling earrings lay against your skin so brown. And I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight with a billion stars all around.” 
See, he thought, I’m not that bad. We’re going to have a nice time together, you and me. Sing a few songs, drink a lot of Boyd’s beer and whiskey, eat some of his food, and head home feeling relaxed.
“I found out a long time ago what a woman can do to your soul. Ah, but she can’t take you anyway you don’t already know how to go.”
A few heads began to nod in time to the beat, a woman in the back smiled at the man beside her. Shoulders slumped, people leaned back and took long swigs of their mugs.
“I get this feeling I may know you, as a lover and a friend. This voice keeps whispering in my other ear saying I may never see you again.”
He made eye contact with the guy at the bar, held his gaze just long enough, and then moved on, sure he’d made his point. Yeah, you’re cute, but I’ve got to go. Then he turned his attention back to the strings beneath his fingertips, coaxing the best sound he could. Without really thinking about it, he transitioned to another song, not the one he’d planned, but one that seemed to fit.
“Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man. Trying to make a living and doing the best I can. When it comes to leavin’, I hope you’ll understand. I was born a ramblin’ man.”
He had to switch out a few words … a Greyhound bus wouldn’t mean much … but the idea fit. We’re just passing through. Nothing to see here. You probably won’t even remember me at all.
As he sang the last words, he wished he had an electric guitar to do the music justice, but he dropped into a acoustic version instead, pulling out the high notes with a vibration and using the rhythm of fingers tapping the wood to add another layer. The music pulled at him, dragging him into the flow; his hands moved without forethought, the echo of the original playing in his head as he finished with a D7 resolving into a major chord.
The applause caught him by surprise; he’d lost track of where he was, so far gone into the song. Smiles greeted him, happy patrons waving for another round as he paused to take a swallow of his own, gathering his thoughts. The music was coming easily to him tonight, shifts in keys and syncopated runs going without hesitation. He trusted his gut and went with a story song next, an old country song his mother used to love. Plucking the first notes, he dropped his voice until a bit of gravel snuck into his normal tenor range.
“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with a gambler, we were both too tired to sleep.”
He remembered her smile, the sound of her voice as she hummed the song while cooking, the sadness in her eyes as she looked at him. The old ache in his heart thrummed, dimmed by time and lessons learned, the truth behind the words that helped him understand.
“There’ll be time enough for dealing with the dealing’s done.”
A few sniffles were loud enough to carry over the music; the bar maid wiped the back of her hand across her eyes after delivering another tray of drinks. Good country people, that’s who they were; they worked hard, they loved the land, and they dealt with all that life threw at them. At the last strum of an E chord, he progressed up to an A to start the next.
“LIfe is old there, older than the trees. Younger than the mountain, blowing in the breeze.” 
The pace picked up and he smiled as he saw feet tapping and smiles returning. A comfortable blanket on a cool night, the song captured the emotion in the room, the contentment of a day that ended well and the possibilities of tomorrow. As he surveyed the crowd, he saw the man at the bar tilt his head, his eyes narrowed as he listened. The intensity of his gaze should have rattled Clint, but instead it fed into his growing sense of rightness, how much he loved music, loved entertaining people.
The clapping started before the last note faded away; off script now, Clint’s first thought was of dancing, so he started a faster beat, a four/four march that had them stamping their feet in no time.
“When I wake up, well I know I’m gonna be, I know I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you.”
When he hit the echos, he waved to Natasha to join in and soon the whole room was singing along. He winked at a young couple cozied up together, smiled at Fletch sitting on his own, and stopped playing as the call and echo shook the walls. Four times through the chorus he led them and then ended with a flourish.
“Another!” someone called out, and Clint obliged, swinging into “Walking on Sunshine;” it didn’t take long for the crowd to join into the chorus. Keeping things simple was working, so Clint added one more fast song, rolling out an early Beatles favorite.
“I don’t care too much for money ‘cause money can’t buy me love.”
He couldn’t help but glance at the hot guy; now, he was standing up straight, his shoulders back and body still as he listened. Strange, Clint thought, the more he played, the more the guy fixated on him. Finishing up, the crowd’s response was enthusiastic stomping of feet and clapping, but the guy didn’t move, his attention never wavering. Clint took a long drink, shifted in his seat, and got ready for his last song of this set.
“Thank you,” he said when the applause settled down. “I appreciate Boyd giving me the chance to play for you tonight. As you may have heard, I ran into a little trouble on the road, and I’m really grateful for the town’s hospitality. I’m going to take a little break after this to wet my whistle; I’ll be back, so stick around and order another drink.”
As he spoke, his fingers moved, a haunting melody emerging and floating into the room. He’d never tried an acoustic version of this song, even though he’d heard it done on an electric guitar. With no plan, he gave himself over to the music, the long introduction setting the tone. A breeze stirred his hair; he closed his eyes and pictured it. A desert highway, smell of flowers, a light in the distance. Silence descended in the room as he sang.
“There she stood in the doorway, I heard the mission bell. I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell.”
The heat from the fire receded and lamps dimmed. The breeze kicked up, flittering the edge of the curtains.
“She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends. Held a dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat.”
HIs eyelids drifted open, the image stark before his vision. Another guitar player, a drummer driving the pace. People shifted closer together as the temperature in the room dropped a few more degrees.
“He said, we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969. And still those voices are calling from far away.”
- What year was it now? In their headlong rush to escape, they’d answered no questions. How they got here. Where here was. Could they go home?
“Last thing I remember, I was running for the door. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.”
The fire guttered, lamps sputtering out, leaving darkness in their wake.
“Relax, said the nightman, we are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
The inn door blew open; wind whipped around the room, tearing at clothing and bringing a shroud of darkness. People stood, others cowered; through it all Clint kept playing, fingers flying through the runs, an echo of reverb at the top as he spiraled on. The storm centered in on him, whirling around like a tornado, guitar sound fading until nothing was left.
In a blink, the room changed. Lights flared, the fire burned steadily. For a heartbeat, the crowd stared at each other, at the stool where Clint had been, then they erupted, stomping and pounding their hands on table tops as they cheered.
“Well, that went well,” Clint said.
Bruce and Tony startled, whipping their heads around and staring at him. Half-rising from his chair, Steve stared at where Clint lounged against the wall. Only Natasha was unfazed by his appearance.
“How did you …” Tony laughed. “Stage magic, right?”
“All part of the show.” Clint lightly touched Natasha’s arm. “I’ll be right back. Got to see a man about a horse.”
He was riding high on the accolades, the usual rush after a good set; he was of half-a-mind to throw caution to the wind and buy the guy at the bar a drink. Only problem? The guy was gone, his place taken by a woman in a plaid skirt. Ah well, probably for the best.
“Friend Barton!” Boyd pulled him into the kitchen. “You honor us with your performance tonight. Why did you not tell me of your skill? No, nevermind. I know better than to question a harper.” He chuckled. “I’ve had the third floor suite made up for you and your party, no charge.”
“You don’t have to …” Clint tried to protest.
“No, no, it’s the least I can do,” Boyd insisted.
“Ah, thanks.” Clint didn’t know what to do but accept. “A bed would be nice.”
Clint escaped out the back door, the female cook giving him a wink. The outhouse was just beyond the stables; as far as restrooms when it was clean and smelled of lime and the sawdust stored in a bucket on the ground. A pump was on the wall of the stable; he wondered what they did for soap as he rinsed his hands. Shaking off the excess drops, he turned to head back inside.
A hand grabbed him; his back hit the wall as a forearm bore down on his windpipe, almost cutting off his flow of air. A hand anchored his hip as a knee slid between his legs, the threat obvious. Blue eyes stared at him, hard and angry.
“Who the hell are you and what do you think you’re doing?”
 “Scarborough Fair” Simon & Garfunkel
 “She Moved Through the Fair” Traditional Irish Folk Song
 “Broken Arrows” Avicii
 “Sing for your Supper” The Mommas & the Pappas
 “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” Eagles
 “Ramblin’ Man” The Allman Brothers
 “The Gambler” Kenny Rogers
 “Take Me Home Country Roads” John Denver
 “I Gonna Be” The Pretenders
 “Hotel California” Eagles
Yes, yes, Harpers = bards. I'm a big Anne McCaffrey fan, so I'm stealing that term.
As per usual, Clint's rushing without thinking has gotten him into trouble ... or maybe this time, something good comes from his headlong rush.
Or Coulson's a badass, there's lots of flirting, a challenge, and Clint may have just gotten a promotion.
If you want to listen along, here's the spotify playlist of all the songs: https://open.spotify.com/user/cakeisnotpie/playlist/2vUSDlxTqFi2J5XGTSfFR8
“Who the hell are you and what do you think you’re doing?”
Blue eyes stared at Clint, peeling back the layers of his bravado and laying him bare. He struggled but the grip only got tighter. Gasps dragged in only a little air, his throat constricted and spots floating behind his eyes.
“Let … me … go…” he managed to eek out.
“I know every harper in this region and I’ve never seen you before.” The man from the bar leaned in harder. “What’s your name?”
A whisper of music tickled Clint’s ears; he opened his mouth to comply but the lyrics in his head were stronger.
“I’m just a poor boy,” rasped out of his mouth.
“You’re not strong enough. Be a good boy and tell me what I want and I’ll let you go.”
God, he wanted to do it, to go limp and let every detail roll off his tongue, but anger mixed with fear in the pit of his stomach and he drew on it to push back against the man’s chest.
“Easy come, easy go.” He exhaled the words then drew in a breath as the pressure lessened on his throat. “Let me go, let me go, let me GO!” A blast of wind drove the man back two steps as Clint broke his hold. “Beelzebub is a friend, dude, so don’t mess with me.”
Shock colored the blue eyes. “How did you … it’s not possible. How could we have missed you?”
“Look, I don’t know what your problem is, but we’re done here.” Clint started to leave but the guy grabbed his arm.
“Wait,” he said, his voice softer. “Your talent. It’s the strongest I’ve ever seen. When did it emerge? It can’t have been recently, not at that level.”
“Coulson.” Bucky came out of the shadows, lowering his sword and sheathing it as he spoke. “I thought I saw you in the crowd earlier.”
“Barnes.” Coulson paused. He nodded towards Clint. “You know him?”
“Met in Pierce’s dungeon,” Bucky replied.
Coulson thought about that then let go of Clint. “I heard rumors; something about a magical orb and an incursion in the castle.” He looked Clint over again, a slow perusal that heated Clint’s skin. “So you’re the ones who upset Pierce’s order.”
“Wasn’t exactly our plan,” Clint replied. “Trouble just seems to find me.”
“Indeed?” Phil raised an eyebrow.
Clint shrugged and winked; his life might be out-of-control but he could still flirt.
A group entered the courtyard, chatting as they went inside. Bucky shifted away from the light, letting shadows cover his face. “I enjoyed your music,” he said in Clint’s direction.
“Um, thanks,” Clint answered.
With a nod of his head, Bucky disappeared around the back of the stables; falling in beside Clint, Coulson started walking back to the inn.
“So, what are your plans for the next set? Going to play some new pieces you learned in your travels?” he asked.
The swift change of topic confused Clint for a moment; right now, the only thing Clint was sure of was that Bucky knew Coulson, trusted him. To be honest, Clint’s mind was reeling from how fast everything was happening since the door to the pod had opened, he’d had little time to think about where he was or where they were going. Running, that’s what they were doing, even if they didn’t know where they were running to.
“Master Coulson,” Boyd called as they entered the common room. “Ah, now I understand. Will you be joining Journeyman Barton for this set? I know people would love to hear your fiddle.”
“That’s kind …” Coulson said, stepping around the bar. “
“Of course he is.” Clint decided to take control of the situation or at least pretend to. “Nothing better than a duet.”
“This is your show,” Coulson came back with. “Whatever you want.”
“Everyone loved him,” Boyd cut in, wringing his bar towel. “Don’t be hard on him; he’s the best we’ve had in years.”
“Have I been too hard on you?” Coulson’s eyes glittered as he leaned against the bar.
“Nah,” Clint replied. “Sometimes I need a firm hand. Helps me get where I need to go. And speaking of which, I’m going to tune up; why don’t you sit with the others and I’ll let you know when I’m ready for you.”
Coulson’s eyebrows rose at every innuendo. “You do that. Be sure and limber up; I’m going for a fast pace.”
“Just like I like it,” he replied.
As much as he’d like to know how the others reacted to Coulson’s sudden appearance, Clint left the man to fend on his own, choosing instead to sit in a quiet corner and think through a set list as he worked on the guitar. The crowd had grown, more locals coming in, fitting seats in every open space. Clint wished he knew more country songs, but was glad that he’d had that year-long stent with an Irish band to draw from . A nice mix of ballads and uptempo songs would do, nothing too involved. He’d proven himself earlier; now he could entertain.
When he was ready, he got back on his stool, strummed a few chords and let his fingers lead the way into a happy melody whose notes bounced along the floor as they fell from the strings. “I'm not surprised, not everything lasts. I've broken my heart so many times I stopped keeping track. Talk myself in, I talk myself out, I get all worked up then I let myself down.”
He couldn’t stop himself from looking at Coulson as he hit the chorus. “You'll make me work so we can work to work it out, and I promise you that I'll give so much more than I get. I just haven't met you yet.”
Keeping the mood light, he shifted into a drinking song, pausing after the second verse about his short Uncle Nort taking a long pull of his moonshine. He had to play the chorus three extra times until everyone’s mug was full for the final verse and finale. Then, just for the hell of it, he launched into Tubthumping because, why not? The people certainly understood the concept of getting knocked down and getting back up again, and they knew the traditional Danny Boy refrain in the middle.
Slowing things down, he’d planned to play a love song, but the music had a mind of it’s own; the opening chords of Long Black Veil brought sighs from the filled room. By the time he sang of her crying over his bones, there was open weeping and more than one comforting arm slipped around shoulders. It seemed only fair to balance it out with a song of a tragic female and her pony named Wildfire.
“We’re honored tonight to have a master of the fiddle present,” Clint announced. “Let’s see if we can get him to join me for a song or two. Coulson?”
With a lot of clapping and cajoling, Coulson came up to join him, standing just to Clint’s left, his fiddle at the ready. Taking the initiative, Clint plucked the opening notes to Dueling Banjos; for a second, silence fell and Clint’s gut clinched thinking he’d made a mistake. Then gasps erupted from the audience and Coulson’s smile widened.
“Challenge accepted,” Coulson said, playing an echo of the phrase. “See if you can keep up, boy.”
Something flared in Clint’s chest, a sense of rightness; with each call and reply, he felt doubt peeling away, the surety of the music carrying him forward. As they joined together for the first refrain, Clint merged his tune with Coulson’s fiddle, keeping them even and in harmony. On the second pass, speed increasing, he played with Coulson at first, then dropped back, letting the fiddle take center stage. When Coulson did the same the next time through, Clint improvised, adding some Spanish guitar flourish. Whatever Clint did, Coulson followed. A change of keys; Clint hit the three chord opening and people slammed their beer mugs on the table as he launched into the first line.
“The Devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ‘cause he was way behind and he was willing to make a deal.” 
Coulson took his cue and jumped in, his voice a smooth baritone that sent a shiver down Clint’s spine. “He came across a young man playing a guitar and playing it hot. So the Devil jumped up on a hickory stump and said, Boy, let me tell you what.”
And they were off, Clint playing the part of the young Johnny, Coulson’s gravely answer as the devil. When they came to the Devil’s solo, Coulson made the fiddle hiss, scraping his bow across the string then launching into a run that sounded like demon voices ringing from the strings. He was good, no better than good, the best damn fiddle player Clint had ever heard.
Coulson dragged a long note from octave to octave, ending with a flourish, and it was Clint’s turn. Normally, right about now, he’d be feeling like he wasn’t good enough, probably trip over his fingers and ruin the whole song. Instead, he rode high on confidence, sure he could do even better.
“Sit down in that chair right there and let me show you how it’s done,” Clint bragged. He sank into the notes, picking out staccato runs, a blur of fast changes as he played. Stamping feet keep time, Clint tossed echoes of other songs, wound them all together and brought them to a crescendo.
A few seconds of silence was enough time for Clint to look up as he strummed the simple three chords once then twice. Coulson winked, bowed his head ever so slightly, and then took up the refrain, joining him as they brought the song to a thunderous end. Applause shook the rafters as Coulson laid his fiddle on the floor.
“Never let it be said I don’t lose gracefully,” he announced. “You stand as my witnesses. Challenge issued and won.”
“Hard to follow that,” Clint said as Coulson made his way back to the table. “So I’ll end on a positive note.”
As he began to sing, the lyrics settled in his head, and he began to truly listen to what he was saying.
“The meanings get lost
And the teachings get tossed
And you don't know what
You're going to do next
You wait for the sun
But it never quite comes
Some kind of message
Comes through to you
Some kind of message comes through
And it says to you. . .
Love when you can
Cry when you have to
Be who you must
That's a part of the plan
Await your arrival
With simple survival
And one day we'll all understand.”
After all the back slapping, hand shaking, and other congratulations, Coulson pushed a parchment across the table, his named signed at the bottom in black ink: Philip Coulson, Master Harper. “Here,” he said, handing Clint a quill. “Your name goes here. Boyd will sign and it’s all official.”
Making out the scrawled letters was difficult and with all the eyes watching him, he gave up and put his signature in the empty space. Probably selling his soul to the devil, considering Clint’s bad luck. Still, everyone else seemed happy about it, Boyd grinning the widest of all as he talked about mounting a plaque by the fireplace with today’s date.
“What is …” Clint tried to ask, but there was too much commotion.
“Later,” Coulson replied. “Have a beer.”
He took the mug and slid into his seat by Natasha. Before he could blink, the barmaid put a bowl in front of him and a plate with warm bread and butter. One whiff of the beefy aroma and Clint realized he was hungry.
“Found a new friend, didn’t you, Clint?” Tony said.
“Yeah, um.” Clint swallowed a bite of potato. “He’s more of a friend of a friend?”
“A friend of … ah,” Bruce nodded. “I see.”
“You were really good tonight,” Steve said. “Like, the best I’ve ever seen good. I mean, you’re always good, don’t got me wrong but this was …”
“Some Jimi Hendrix level shit,” Tony finished. “Dude, you were shredding it.”
“Yeah, it was surreal, you know? I got into the groove and it was easy.” Clint shrugged and spooned up the last piece of beef. “God, I’m hungry. I could eat another …” A full bowl replaced the empty one. “Thanks.”
The inn cleared out as he ate; Steve and Bruce talked Tony into heading to the room. Natasha stayed beside him, not saying a word which meant she was pissed. Clint couldn’t blame her; he’d jumped in without thinking, just like he always did. He grew more depressed with each bite, exhausting crawling into his limbs; when he pushed up from the bench, he wavered, his knees threatening to give way and his head swimming. Notching her hand under his arm, Natasha helped him stay upright.
“Ran yourself ragged,” she murmured. “I know you mean well, but you have to take better care of yourself.”
“‘m fine,” Clint mumbled. “Just tired.”
Just then, Boyd caught his elbow and put a heavy leather pouch in his hand. “Your portion of the take,” the barman said. “We sold three times more than we usually do.”
“I thought … the room upstairs?” Clint shook his head and his mind cleared.
“Standard contract wage.” Boyd dismissed him with a wave. “I had to give you a journeyman’s level since that’s what you were when we made the deal, but it’s still a goodly sum.”
“Thank you,” was all Clint could think to say. “You’ve been more than kind.”
“Just tell others about my inn. Good way stop for those heading North from the Faire.” He patted Clint on the shoulder. “Get some rest before you burn out completely.”
Passing the pouch to Natasha -- who always took care of the money side of things and did a bang up job at it -- Clint slowly climbed the first flight of stairs and ran into Fletch on the landing.
“Ah, good, I thought I’d missed you. I want to give you this,” he said. In his hands was a beautiful yew bow, wood polished to a high gloss. “A gift.”
Clint turned it over, running his fingers along the smooth arc. He used a compound bow for competition, but he’d always had a soft spot for a well-made recurve, and this one was a work of art.
“I can’t accept this,” he protested. “It’s too much.”
“I’ve been looking for a new owner for it for some time now; the old man who sold it to me told me I’d know the right person when I met them. Honestly didn’t believe his talk, but then I heard you sing and I understood.” Fletch turned the bow over and pointed to an inscription near the bottom. “See?”
Carved into the wood were the words, “half timing, half luck.” Clint traced them with his finger and then laughed.
“Well, that is the formula for survival after all,” he said. “But you have to let me pay you for it.”
“No, no, it has to be a gift. That’s what makes the magic work.” Fletch pressed the bow into Clint’s hands. “You’ve got me half-believing again; I’m not going to jinx it.”
“You’ll need some arrows and a quiver,” Natasha interjected before Clint could protest again. “We’re leaving early in the morning; maybe we could pay now and he could send them up to the room?”
“Yes, right.” Clint nodded. “A mixture of shafts would be nice with a leather quiver?”
Fletch smiled. “I’ll make you a good deal on two dozen.”
Natasha was a shrewd negotiator, so Clint let her haggle until everyone was satisfied. He was finding it difficult to keep his brain focused, waves of fatigue nearly swamping him. Next thing he knew, he was falling backwards on a bed, Natasha removing his boots and voices chattering around him. Rolling over, he buried his face into a down pillow and was dragged under before he could make sense of what was being said. Even the music in his head went quiet as he fell deeply asleep.
 “Bohemian Rhapsody” Queen
 “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” Michael Buble
 “Good Old Mountain Dew”
 “Tubthumping” Chumbawumba
 “Long Black Veil” The Chieftains and Mick Jagger
 “Wildfire” Michael Murphy
 “Dueling Banjos”
 “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” Charlie Daniels Band
 “Part of the Plan” Dan Fogelberg
Time for some answers. Clint gets to use his new bow, Bucky flirts awkwardly with Natasha, and Steve has a crisis of conscience. Oh, and Steve gets a job offer, Karren Murphy style. He'll figure it out eventually.
Checkout the playlist for all the music over at spotify!
“I’d sell my left nut for a cup of coffee,” Tony groaned, eyes half-closed as he stumbled along the trail. “Where’s a Starbuck’s when you need one?”
“I’m going through caffeine withdrawal,” Clint complained. “Two days without a soda or a cup of java. I’m going to die.”
“Yeah, if we’re going to get up before the ass crack of dawn, I’m going to need something to get my brain going.” Tony paused. “Hey, do you even have coffee? Tell me it exists somewhere.”
“Yes, we have coffee.” Bucky was bringing up the rear, keeping a weather eye out for anyone following. “You act as if you know nothing.”
“Well,” Tony shrugged. “It’s sort of true. I mean, take this whole magic brouhaha. Clint’s song makes a whirlwind, and I do the universal translator thing. See, the rub of it is, magic doesn’t exist, at least, not where we’re from.”
“And where is that?” Coulson, leading the way with Steve right behind him, glanced back. “I’d be interested in knowing the answer to that mystery.”
“As much as I want to know why you’re helping us and what plans you have,” Steve returned. “Seems it’s time for some truth on both sides.”
“I agree.” Coulson brushed aside a low-hanging limb. “Who starts?”
“What year is it?” Bruce piped up. “Let’s start with that.”
Coulson hesitated, glanced over his shoulder, then kept walking. “It’s 824.”
“A.D.? Amino Domino? The Christian Era?” Bruce asked.
“Amino Megiddo,” was Coulson reply. “After …”
“Mageddon. As in Armageddon.” Natasha supplied the rest of the answer. “824 years ago, we blew the world to hell, didn’t we?”
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
Coulson stopped; Steve almost plowed into him. “How can you not know that?” He gazed at each of them, staring at their faces as if the answer was there.
“How did it happen? Nuclear war? Global Warming?” Bruce ignored the question and posited his own. “Asteroid?”
“Alien invasion? I’ve always believed we weren’t alone in the universe,” Tony tossed in.
“Every child is taught the learning songs. That’s one of the duties of a harper; to educate the young.” Coulson shook his head. “It was so long ago that we only know the barest outlines. That there were cities with buildings that scraped the sky and people could fly and healers performed miracles. As the story goes, just one mistake and the world paid the price. Fire rained down, the skies turned grey, and the seas boiled. There are still places where no one can go, the ground blighted and the air hot with death.”
Everybody’s got a bomb. We could all die here today.
“A mistake. Damn it, that’s vague. Could have been anything, a misfire of a missile, miscommunication …” Bruce trailed off, his eyes growing sad. “The flash of light and heat. We passed through it. The radiation was what made you both so ill.”
“The sickness.” Bucky spoke up. “After, those who didn’t die right away but were exposed began to change. Those first generations gave birth to all sorts of gifts, some useful, others painful. Magic took many forms as did decay and disease.”
“Radiation There are theories that the aftereffects could cause changes down at the genomic level,” Bruce said. “What we caught were just the ripples; genetic darwinism would breed out the worst of the effects and smooth the others.:
Phil started walking again. “Some are even disappearing; it’s rare to find berserkers anymore; few of the original ones had children and those who are born have more control over their anger.”
I'm waking up to ash and dust; I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust; I'm breathing in the chemicals.
“So we know Coulson here is a Harper,” Natasha spoke, turning green eyes towards Bucky. “What about you, Barnes?”
“I’m good at infiltrating places and taking out a target, stopping wars before they start.” He didn’t flinch from Natasha’s look.
“Obviously not good enough to avoid getting thrown in Lord Pierce’s dungeon,” Natasha remarked. “He was your mark, wasn’t he?”
“Wait, tall, dark and handsome here is an assassin? Oh tell me there’s an assassin guild. I want to meet Connor,” Tony said.
“Pierce threatens the safety of the MidStates,” Bucky explained. “He’s already taken three fiefdoms by force and has troops ready to invade two more. He’s ambitious and greedy; we suspect he has bigger plans than just the MidStates.””
“He’s not working alone,” Coulson added. “He has people everywhere, working under our noses. The other Lords are running scared. We need to find out where he’s getting his information and who’s supplying him.”
“No wonder the dude freaked out when we popped into his hall. Probably thought we were some kind of magical A-Team or something.” Clint caught up to Steve and slapped him on the shoulder. “Can you imagine it? Steve as some kind of avenging Knight come to take him down.”
“Exactly how did you get in Pierce’s keep?” Coulson asked. “Rumor is you literally just appeared.”
A gathering of angels appeared above my head ...
“Yeah, well, that’s a long story and you’re probably not going to believe it.” Clint sighed. “But we’re from a different time, as in not this one. I mean, like, hundreds of years, maybe more.”
“You’re from the future?” Coulson’s forehead crinkled as he frowned. “That would be some complicated magic to transfer five bodies through time.”
“Not the future, the past. Before Armageddon,” Clint corrected. “And we didn’t get here by magic but with science. We… damn it, how do I explain hyperspace and the theory of relativity?”
“We were in a place where time moves quicker than in … this world,” Bruce offered. “Think of it as if you’re standing on a bank and watching someone on a fast moving river.”
“There are places where time is distorted.” Bucky pushed his hair back from his face. “A day spent there can be a week to others.”
“But that still doesn’t explain how you got inside Pierce’s keep,” Coulson protested. “A boat has to be pulled up to the shore.”
“We were tethered to one place, anchored if you will; we exited hyperspace at the same physical place we went into it,” Bruce replied.
“In our time, it was a science building at our university. That’s what we are, students. Tony and Bruce are scientists, Natasha’s in dance, Steve’s an art major, and I study music.” Clint could see that Coulson wasn’t buying it. “I play gigs on the weekend to afford to pay my tuition.”
“That’s too fantastic a tale to believe.” Coulson sighed, his shoulders slumping. “But it would explain why you know the songs of power so well in their original forms. Only the archivists have access to the oldest scrolls and even those are written down from memory.”
“That’s me, song master.” Clint gave a hollow laugh and then started singing “Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words …”
“No.” Coulson’s hand clamped over Clint’s mouth, cutting off the next line. “You and I are going to have a talk about engaging your brain before you open your mouth. No more singing … or humming for that matter … without taking into account the consequences. Nod if you understand.”
He nodded; maybe a song about killing someone wasn’t the best choice. Coulson had a point.
“Good. For you, words and notes hold power. Remember that.” Coulson removed his hand. “The second item on our agenda is to present you to the Harper’s Guild. You’ll need training to learn how to control your gift. Same with the mage; he can stop at the Magic Collegium while we’re at the Guild.”
“What’s the first?” Steve prompted.
“We’re taking you to see the Spy Master. He knows everything that happens in the MidStates; he might know how to help you,” Bucky said.
“Or at least pick our brains for what else we know about tunnels and secret entrances.” Steve got that look in his eyes, the one where he was about to dig in his heels. “You know, just because Pierce is a bastard doesn’t mean you’re the good guys.”
“I like you, Stevie.” Bucky smiled. “You’re a man after my own heart. Trust no one.”
Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.
Clint opened his mouth then snapped it closed again at a look from Coulson.
“Guess we’ll have to go with the old “the enemy of my enemy” idea,” he said instead.
“You’re starting to sound like me,” Natasha said with a wink.
“Now that scares me,” he replied.
“It will take a day and a half to get where we’re going; at any point, you’re welcome to go your own way. Be aware, however, that the Guild keeps tabs on untrained gifts, for the public’s safety as well as your own.” Coulson led them down a short incline to where a fallen tree lay across a small creek. “If you want to keep playing, you’ll need a busker license at least.”
“Death and taxes, the only two constants,” Natasha grumbled. “I don’t suppose there’s any dance troops hiring?”
“Depends upon the type of dancing.” Bucky winked at her; she tossed her hair and ignored him. “Actually, the Entertainer’s Guild requires registration to work; you might get by for awhile, but they have a long reach.”
“What about universities? Surely some libraries remain?” Bruce asked.
“The biggest is west of here, a good week’s ride. But there are few books left from before. Paper burns easily.” Coulson crossed the log with ease.
“With your understanding of radiation,” Steve began then stopped, his head coming up. “Did anyone hear that?”
“Get down!” Bucky dived forward, taking Bruce and Tony down to the ground as arrows whizzed through the space where their heads had just been.
Clint dropped onto the creek bank, hunkering down by Natasha; stringing his bow and notching an arrow, he drew a bead on the direction of the shooter, waiting for the next volley. He’d never shot at a person, but he’d been in dangerous situations before and knew that hesitation could mean his life. As soon as he saw leaves move and another arrow fly, he aimed and shot, ducking back down while his string still vibrated. A cry and then a thump told him he’d hit something.
“What the hell?!” Steve scooped up a thick branch and charged up the hill, swinging at the two figures that rushed out of the tree line. Beyond him, Coulson had drawn a pair of knives and blocked the first strike of another.
An arrowhead burrowed into the wood not three inches from Clint’s head; scrabbling to the other side of the log, Clint took a second shot. A man dressed in browns and greens tumbled out of a tree, slamming hard into the ground and not moving.
More bandits appeared; Bucky guarded the rear, a wicked looking knife in his right hand; Bruce was behind him, Tony by his side, both of them dodging attackers.
“Do some magic!” Bruce shouted to Tony as he bent down and grabbed a handful of rocks and dirt from the trail, flinging it into the eyes of the man harrying him.
“What do you want me to do, use harsh language?!” Tony replied, ducking under a deadly swing of a sword. “I’m making this up as I go along.”
“Well, make it up fast,” Bruce shot back.
“Right.” Tony held out his hand. “Avada Kedavra!”
“The bell that rings inside your mind is challenging the doors of time,” Clint sang, firing off another arrow at an attacker, aiming for the middle of the body. “It’s a kind of magic.”
“Damn straight,” Tony muttered. This time him mimed swinging a sword and shouted, “There can be only one!”
A blast of air knocked two of the brigands over; the ground shuddered and thunder sounded in the distance.
“Take that!” Tony crowed as he aimed and tried again.
“Clint!” Steve’s call made Clint’s head whip around; a misshapen man charged his way, a wooden club held ready. Scrabbling on the wet grass of the creek bank, he backed out of the first swing’s arc; last thing he wanted to do was drop his bow, so he ran towards Steve, pivoting and spinning out of another bandit’s reach until he saw a low hanging tree branch. Looping the bow around his shoulder, he planted his feet and sprung, palms closing around the rough wood. He felt the pull of muscles as he swung out of the way of an attacker’s rush, climbing out of reach. Back against the trunk, he planted a foot on one limb, leaned on the next, lined up a shot and saw his target fall. Then he began to sing.
“You are a brick tied to me that’s dragging me down.”
The words wouldn’t stay in his mouth, demanding to be loosed; Clint didn’t fight it. He took his time, sighted another attacker, and took him down.
“Strike a match and I’ll burn you to the ground.”
A brigand evaded Bucky and rushed Bruce; Natasha slipped behind and slammed a rock down on the man’s head just as Clint’s arrow hit.
“We are the jack-o-lanterns in July,.setting fire to the sky.”
“Take out the mage!” one of them shouted.
Five of them zeroed in on Tony, closing around him in a circle.
“I came to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all of bubble gum!” Tony blasted two before they closed but he was cut off quickly.
“Here, here comes this rising tide so come on.”
“Tony!” Steve shouted. In one swift move, his branch connected with an attacker’s head, he scooped the man’s sword before it hit the ground, spun on his heel, and crossed the log bridge in two running steps.
“Put on your war paint.”
A sharp edge cut into Tony’s arm; he reeled back just as another man lunged at his back. With one bound, Steve was there, sword ablaze with blue light, curving in a smooth arc, slicing through one man’s neck before stabbing into a second one. Whole body aglow, Steve put himself between Bruce and two assailants, standing back-to-back with Bucky as they took the men on.
Two more arrows and Clint knocked out the men attacking Natasha; just like that, the fighting ended as fast as it began. Coulson stopped under the branch, a splatter of red across his shirt and looked up.
“So you can shoot,” he said as Clint climbed down. “As well as sing.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I couldn’t seem to stop ..” Clint’s feet hit the ground and his legs gave way, wobbling like jello as he tried to stand. Warm hands grabbed his hips; instead of face planting on the ground, he ended up with his forehead on Coulson’s shoulder and his fingers clutching defined biceps.
“Be careful; you used a lot of energy during the fight. Exercising your magic drains you fast,” Coulson said. Basically hugging him, Clint could feel his heartbeat through his skin and hear the vibrations of his voice. “Take a moment to catch your breath.”
When Clint looked up, Coulson’s eyes were so close he could see the crenellations in the bright blue. “I know, I wasn’t supposed to sing, but I couldn’t help myself. The lyrics batter against my lips and I can’t seem to stop them.”
Coulson’s gaze flicked down to the lips in question and darkened. “Aye, that’s the way of it when the harper is highly gifted. Thus why you need training. But you did well; you aided Stark in his magic and raised morale; that’s a harper’s advantage in battle.”
“We need to get moving.” Bucky watched the treeline. “The fight will stir other creatures that live in these woods. Best be gone before something worse than a band of brigands finds us. Natasha, gather up their weapons and wrap them up. Clint, gather your arrows then help me take the body out of the creek; we don’t want to foul the water in case there are villages downstream.”
Clint pushed away from Coulson and saw the wince on his face. “You’re wounded,” Clint said.
“It’s nothing,” Coulson responded. “Just a prick.”
“Yeah, I know all about infected wounds.” Clint saw red on the edge of Coulson’s shirt hem and lifted it up. The entry point was about an inch wide; blood oozed out of it, bright red staining Coulson’s skin. “Bruce, does that pack you found have neosporin and a couple butterfly bandages? That should work.”
“Come sit by Tony,” Bruce said, patting the end of the fallen tree. “I’ll fix both of you.”
Dragging the body wasn’t hard; they flipped it over and Clint got a good look at it. Humanoid in height, it was bulky across its uneven shoulders with a wide waist and an oversized head. A snout and pointed ears gave it a piglike look while the prominent forehead reminded Clint of a cro magnon man he’d seen in a museum.
“What is it?” Clint asked, unsure if the figure was even male or female.
“Erk,” Bucky answered while making short work of emptying its pouch and pockets. “Nasty creatures. My Da always said Erknas were filled with piss and vinegar and lived on hatred.”
“Erk, as in Orcneas.” Bruce swiped Tony’s arm with an alcohol swab. “A simple vowel shift of a long O to long E. Makes sense. Did the Erknas evolve after the radiation?”
“They are one of the new races, yes,” Bucky said. “Along with Warfs and Awblins.”
“Orcs? Like ‘Where there’s a whip, there’s a way’?” Tony chuckled. “Nice to see people remember the classics.”
“Here.” Natasha handed Clint a sheathed knife. “You need more than the bow for close quarters.” Leaning closer, she murmured. “Talk to Steve.”
Standing alone, staring at one of the bodies, Steve shifted his weight from foot-to-foot, sword pointed down, blood dripping off the tip. Shoulders tense, muscles bunched, his chest rose and fell quickly in short breaths.
“Steve?” Clint stepped next to his friend. “You okay?”
“I did this.” Steve turned his head, his eyes bleak. “It’s not right.”
“He was going to kill me.” Tony joined them; he placed a hand on Steve’s arm. “You saved my life.”
Steve looked down; blood dotted his hand and up his arm. “I’ve never … I don’t know how I ... “
“I know. I’ve never and don’t know how either,” Clint admitted. “Once we get somewhere safe … or safer … I’m going to drink a shit ton of whiskey and have a meltdown. We all will.”
“We’ll make this Fury guy foot the bill,” Tony added. “We’ll get shitfaced together. I’ve never seen you drunk. I bet you’re even cuter.”
With a shake of his head, Steve sighed, pulled himself up and gave Tony a tiny smile. “I don’t get drunk,” he said, tremor in his voice subsiding. “And I’m sure you’re a cuddly drunk.”
“Octopus arms, that’s me.” Tony wobbled a little as he took a step; Steve caught his elbow to keep him upright. “And I call bullshit on this not getting drunk shit. You just haven’t kept up with me.”
“We’ll see.” Steve glanced around at the others. “Let’s get on the trail and put some distance behind us before we crash. You ready, Buck?”
“Yeah,” he tossed a leather belt and scabbard to Steve. “Clean that thing before you put it up. Way it lit up, it’s yours now.”
“Fuck.” Steve looked at the bloody sword. “Okay, how do I do that?”
 “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” R.E.M.
 “1999” Prince
 “Radioactive” Imagine Dragons
 “Come Sail Away” Styx
 “Killing Me Softly” Fugees
 “Every Breath” Police
 “A Kind of Magic” Queen
 “The Phoenix” Fall Out Boy
Clint has some theories. They meet some important people. Tony and Clint have a discussion about sausages and an old friend sends a message.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“So, did I sign my soul away last night?”
Clint looked out into the dark forest, his eyes adjusted enough to see the wind fluttering the leaves. Just below, nestled into an overhang, the others slept, huddled together for warmth without a fire. They’d pushed themselves to get this far, into the foothills, where the path wound through the slopes that grew higher as they passed. When they’d finally stopped, Bucky and Bruce had stayed awake first, leaving Steve and Natasha for the middle watch. Despite his objections, Tony needed sleep the most, so Clint had volunteered to sit with Coulson.
“You think I’m the devil?” Coulson leaned back against a tree; from Clint’s position, he could only see the outline of the harper’s body. “Most people think I’m the least dangerous person in the room.”
“Honestly? I don’t have a clue what’s going on.” Clint’s words fell into the night. “I mean, is this even real? Far as I can tell, there’s two basic options. First, this is some sort of dream. Maybe it’s a Lost thing and we died in the capsule and this is purgatory. Can’t be hell ‘cause there’s too many good things, which means it could be all a dream. I’m in a coma from the accident and my brain is protecting me or some such shit. A place where musicians are powerful and respected and I’m really good? Where Steve glows like a pure virgin and Tony’s Mr. Wizard and Nat’s all sulky, lock-picking thiefy type? Hell, I threw in a boyfriend for Nat and put Tony and Steve together. Plus, there’s you, mister quietly badass older dude with fighting skills. Yeah, this is probably a dream, so I’m just going to wait for the other shoe to drop where you become a raging demon and everything goes South to become a nightmare.”
“And if it’s not a dream?” Coulson said into the silence that fell between them.
“Ah, then I have to face the fact that we’re never going home.” He felt the weight settle on his shoulders. “From the moment we’re born, there’s only one direction and the only marker is time; we just skipped forward on the record a bit.” Faces of his friends flitted before him. “It means everyone we knew is dead, hopefully before everything blew to hell. That I’ll never see Sam or Thor or my brother again. Not that Barney and I were going to have a happy reunion -- that would be a cold day in hell -- but now there’s not even the vaguest of chances.”
“I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered.”
“So much lost … Tony, man, he’s a genius. Probably would have solved world hunger or global warming or built the first warp engines. Steve, damn, he could have been a major artist, the kind with big gallery shows where people drop thousands for one canvas. Bruce? He might have come up with a treatment for radiation poisoning that would have helped survivors. And Natasha? She’d might have danced Swan Lake to high acclaim.”
“Started humming a song from 1962.”
“Might have, probably, could have …” Coulson’s voice seemed faint against the music swelling in Clint’s ears. “What about you?”
“Ain't it funny how the night moves.” Clint murmured the words then pressed his lips closed. Running his fingers along the curve of his bow, Clint thought about the question. “Might have medaled if I made it to the Olympics. After that, well, couldn’t make a living as an archer, so maybe a coach who sings on the side.” He huffed. “Or crawled into a bottle and drank myself into a stupor. Six of one, half-dozen of the other.”
Quiet fell again, the music in his head shifting. “Find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take. When people run in circles it's a very, very mad world.” His head grew heavy, and his sight darkened. Tiredness weighed him down; his fingers stilled.
“I’m not the devil, by the way.” Coulson’s voice broke the silence. “Although I have been called other names; I’m as stubborn as a mule and I usually get what I want. But I can be a gracious loser, especially when I’m beaten by someone with your talent.”
Struggling to surface, Clint shook off the innue. “The challenge part I got, but why was it such a big deal that it needed documentations and witnesses?”
“There are two ways to join the Harper’s Guild. For centuries, potentials have been put through a rigorous set of trials and tests twice a year, once at the Fall Festival and the other at the Spring Faire. It’s a prestigious appointment to be chosen by the Masters as a novice; the Guild provides food, clothing, a warm place to sleep, and a small stipend along with extensive schooling. Not just in music, mind you, but in history and math and sciences. Harpers have to have a broad base of knowledge; you never know what you might encounter on the road, plus the fact that we are the only teachers some areas ever see.”
Coulson’s words buoyed Clint up, stirring his interest. “Sounds like a good deal.”
“Very much so; two years ago, over 500 potentials showed up at the Faire. Quite a production to get them all through the process, not to mention a lot of unhappy people when their child wasn’t picked,” Coulson continued. “So many with good voices and playing skills, but we’re looking for the spark of magic; that’s rare and getting moreso every year. Time was, the Guild would take in 50 - 60 novices at each testing; last year, we had seven total.”
“That’s a big drop.”
“Indeed. The mages and healers are seeing the same; the last druid was over ten years ago and we haven’t seen a Paladin Knight in over fifty years. There are those who say we’re intermarrying too much with other people; they blame the dilution of our blood for the disappearance of magic.” Coulson stepped from under the branches; the moon highlighted his face, casting shadows that pooled around his eyes.
“And what do you think is happening?” Clint rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms.
“That they are short sighted bigots who can’t see the bigger picture. We have less of the middling talents, true, and yet the gifts that manifest are much stronger. I think that, for most, talents are fading as the generations pass. But for a few, the chance grows exponentially that a child will be more powerful than the parents.” Coulson paused. “But I transgress. We were talking about your challenge; in the Guild, there is a second way to prove your ability. If you challenge a guild member and best them before witnesses, you earn a Guild badge of their level.”
“If I beat a novice, I become a novice?” Clint rolled the idea around in his head. “And since you’re a master and I won the challenge …”
“You are now a Master Harper. Doesn’t mean you don’t need training and coursework, but you have the rank and all its privileges,” Coulson explained. “A very rare thing it is; in fact, I believe only one other Harper ever challenged a master and won. Peggy went on to become the Grandmaster and changed a number of the Guild’s archaic practices.”
“Wow. Okay. Now I really think this is a fever dream. Me, a Master Harper? Hell, I don’t even know which way is up most of the time.” The absurdity of the situation was almost too much.
“There may be some resistance,” Coulson admitted. “But I made sure Boyd registered the challenge with the magistrate first thing in the morning, so there can be no contesting the outcome.”
“Not big on some jumped up little shit skipping all the steps and going right to the top? That’s the story of my whole life. You can’t do that Clint. Got to follow the rules, pay your dues, show your work.” He snorted a half-laugh then softly sang, “So I turned myself to face me, but I've never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker. I'm much too fast to take that test.”
“I don’t know that one. We’ve lost so much over the centuries, so many songs gone from general knowledge and the ones we do have changed. Different words and meanings; it dilutes the magic of the original.”
“Well, if anyone was going to write magic into their songs, I’d go with Bowie … and Jagger and Dylan.” He finished off the end of the chorus. “Ch-ch-changes. Just gonna have to be a different man. Time may change me, but I can't trace time.”
“Seems like you’re a good man already, Clint.”
“Why Master Harper Coulson, was that a compliment?”
“Indeed … and the name’s Phil.”
“Just who does this guy think he is to keep us cooling our heels this long?” Tony spun on his heel as he gave voice to what they all were thinking. Sitting in an antechamber with no view of the town outside and just one doorway that remained stubbornly closed, Clint was beginning to feel the walls close in as they waited for Phil or Bucky to come back.
They’d arrived in town a little after noon; winding through the bustling streets, Bucky had led them to what looked like a simple two story building, unmarked by any signs. Inside, hallways wound through what had to be a whole city block, turning back again on themselves and criss-crossing until Clint wasn’t sure where the exit was anymore. Dumping them in this room, the others had gone off to find the elusive Spy Master Nick Fury. At least a nice woman had brought cider and a plate of little pastries for them; it had to be past dinner time by now.
“Phil said it might take a while,” Clint said. “A Spy Master is a busy guy, it turns out.”
“Phil is it? When did it go from Coulson to Phil?” Natasha raised an eyebrow.
“Is that his first name? I thought it was Harper,” Tony tossed out. “Did you and Harper get better … acquainted … this morning?”
“Yes, Tony, we had wild monkey sex for two hours; I’m surprised you slept through all the screaming and moaning. Oh, Clint, there, Clint, harder, Clint, you’re amazing, Clint.” He rolled his eyes. “No lube, no protection, just barebacking like animals.”
“Baby I’m preying on you tonight, hunt you down, eat you alive.”
“And the conversation devolves,” Steve murmured, his eyes closed as he leaned back against the wall..
“Do they have condoms here? Lube can be made from natural ingredients but obviously there’s no latex,” Tony mused out loud.
“The Chinese used linen soaked in chemicals as early as the 1400s,” Bruce explained. “Some even say the Egyptians had condoms to prevent disease. People also used animal intestines.”
“Like sausage?” Tony grinned. “Oh, that’s a great metaphor. Don’t worry, honeybear, I’m as safe as a kielbasa!”
“You wish you were the size of polish sausage,” Clint shot back. “More like a breakfast link.”
“There it is.” Steve sighed and cracked his eyelids open. “I’m trying to sleep over here, boys.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got …” Tony started.
Bucky stood in the open doorway; he’d changed from the dirty clothes he’d been in to a soft black shirt and a pair of leather pants. “Supper is ready,” he said. “I’ll take you to wash up.”
Hanging back besides Natasha, Clint let Tony and Steve toss out questions, all of which went unanswered. He’d had too much time to think while he waited; his internal jukebox was stuck on an endless parade of depressing songs. Not that he had much of a life to want to go back to … hell, Nat was his best friend and she was here with him so that made things bearable … but the sense of helplessness, of being lost, weighed on him. He’d never liked turning his fate over to someone else; past experience had been a harsh teacher in that regard.
“There’s clean clothes and water in the ewer.” Bucky led them into a salon with a big fireplace windows that overlooked a small garden. Smaller rooms opened off the main area, two beds in each. “Help yourselves.”
Clint picked out a linen shirt, dyed purple and frayed around the cuffs; the leather pants laced up and were smooth with wear. He was surprised to find linen underwear, simple boxers that fit close to his skin. Shrugging on a matching black vest, he tugged the belt tight and tucked his knife in its sheath. His hair was greasy; there was nothing to do but slick it back with the ivory comb.
“These pants are tight.” Steve hooked his thumbs in the waistband and wiggled. The brown leather hugged his ass and thighs, supple the way only a well-used pair could be.
“Umm, you're packed and you're stacked 'specially in the back; brother, wanna thank your mother for a butt like that.” 
“At least the shirt is short sleeved.” Clint hid his grin as Steve’s shoulders flexed under the material. “Have you gotten bigger? I don’t remember you being that large.”
“I don’t think so … why would I?” Steve craned his head around and yanked the hem of the blue shirt down. “It’s it too small?”
“Damn, Rogers.” Tony whistled from the doorway. “You’ve been hiding your assets.”
With a shake of his head, Steve pushed past Tony without a word.
“Good job, Stark” Clint said, following Steve’s path. “Way to alienate a guy.”
“I didn’t … I wasn’t …” Tony stumbled after them, barely noticing Natasha when she joined them, her red hair pulled back by a leather thong. “Damn it, I was just joking.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think it’s a joking matter,” Steve retorted when they caught up. “I’ve got no freakin’ idea what’s going on with me, with any of this, and all you guys can do is make sophomoric sex jokes. Do we even know what we’re walking into? There could be a dozen men waiting to take us captive, toss us in a cell or kill us on the spot.”
“Nobody’s going to harm you here.” Bucky met them at the corner. “I give you my word; you saved my life. Nothing’s going to happen to you while I’m around.”
“I appreciate that.” Steve nodded. “But the truth is, we’re out of our element here and wandering in the dark.”
“Hey.” Tony put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I’m just as worried as you; when I get wound up, my mouth runs without any filter. Last thing I want to do is upset you.”
A blush crept up Steve’s cheeks. “Thanks, Tony. Guess it’s finally getting to me. Don’t mean to be so sharp.”
“Wise men say, only fools rush in.” 
“Dude, we all need a good night’s sleep,” Clint said. “And a hot shower. In reverse order.”
Bucky paused at a set of wooden double doors. “I should warn you; Fury’s a force to be reckoned with. Part of its bluster, but he didn’t get where he is by being easy. He has the good of the people at heart, though.”
With those words, he ushered them into a larger room with a soaring ceiling. A walkway ran along three walls, doors entered from the next floor. The other wall was a massive fireplace; chairs and a bench were arrayed around it. A rectangular table dominated the middle of the space, and a man in black turned from his conversation with Coulson as they entered, his long coat flapping around his legs. Taller than Steve, his dark skin gleamed in the candlelight, the smooth skin of bald held crossed by the leather tie of his eye patch.
“Come in, come in.” He moved with a confident stride, hands clasped behind his back. “The others will join us shortly.”
“Nick Fury, let me introduce everyone.” Phil stepped up beside him. “The lady is Natasha Romanova, an excellent thief. Bruce Banner, who knows more about gifts than Master McCoy. Anthony Stark, powerful mage and scientist. Steve Rogers, Paladin Knight. Clint Barton, archer and Master Harper.”
A shiver ran down Clint’s spine; such plain terms, tacked on so simply, made him realize this was real. He caught his breath when Phil’s eyes landed on him; the slightest softening around the edges and Clint knew he understood. To name something was to give it power.
“Please allow me to introduce myself …. Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.” 
“Anyone who gives Alexander Pierce fits is welcome at my table,” Fury said, offering his hand to each in turn. “And I hear we have a lot to talk about.”
Before anyone could answer, two men came through the doorway; the tall one wore a long red cape that snapped and swayed as if it had a life of its own. Dark hair was cut short, his hands long and delicate, his blue eyes sharp and focused. The second was much shorter, his brown hair longer, shirt rumpled and eyes magnified by glass lens. His smile was engaging and his fingertips stained with black ink.
“Well, Nick, you’ve managed to drag me away from the most fascinating scroll on the metaphysics of magic,” the tall one said, “so I hope this is as important as you said.”
“May I introduce Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of both the MidStates and the NorStates,” Fury said. “He’s an arrogant asshole most of the time, but he knows more about magic and alternate worlds than anyone else.”
“As smartass as always,” Strange remarked before he inclined his head in their direction.”Fury says he has a surprise for me, something I’ve never seen before. Of course, I had to come to prove him wrong.”
“Don’t mind them,” the shorter man said. “They always start with a pissing match before we get to the meat of the issue. I’m Charles Xavier, and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Xavier didn’t hold out his hand, only smiled at them.
“Charles is the foremost scholar on gifts and the change in the world,” Fury interjected. “The strongest mind mage of the age.”
“Mind mage?” Bruce asked. “Sorcerer? I take it there’s more than one type of magical gift?”
“Indeed.” Xavier answered. “ I theorize magic is actually a trait that is passed from parent to child to varying degrees of efficiency. Harpers, healers, thieves, knights … variations on the basic theme.”
“Genetic markers. Radiation affected everyone in those first generations, but now you see permanent mutation in certain DNA strains. I’d imagine you’re seeing a drop off in the milder talents and emerge of stronger ones with familial ties,” Bruce replied. “Mind magic, for example. We were already studying ESP, telepathy, telekinesis; those probably emerged first. Other gifts will take more time to fully develop.”
“If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell. Just like an old time movie bout a ghost from a wishing well.”
“Exactly!” When Xavier smiled, his whole face lit up. “Erik and I have argued that point to no avail; the idea that gifts are fading away is too tightly entrenched. At best, people ignore the gifted when they look normal, but when they don’t? Well, that’s why I have a big house, so they have a place to go.” He paused then tentatively held out his hand. “Would you mind? I do tend to pick up on surface thoughts, but I won’t go deeper.”
“For a fellow scholar, sure.” Bruce took Xavier’s hand.
Xavier closed his eyes; Clint wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting but nothing happened. Then the man’s eyes flew open and he gasped.
“Oh. That’s … You’re from the past, before … some sort of stream you entered and there was …” Xavier stopped; he squeezed Bruce’s fingers. “This must all be so confusing. You, Stark, and … wait. Banner. Stark.” He looked at the others. “Romanova. Barton. Rogers.” He pulled out a chair from the table and sank down. “It’s for you. All these years and all the theories and it’s for you.”
Bruce looked at the others. “What are you talking about?”
“Stephen, can you teleport a book from my study? I’ll have Jean lay it out.” Xavier had a finger to his temple, a look of deep concentration. “Can you see it?”
“Yes.” Strange waved a hand and a large leather bound book appeared on the table, clattering on an empty platter. “Here it is.”
“Ah, give me a moment.” Xavier began flipping through the pages, heedless of the pewter mug he knocked over. “It’s somewhere in here; I know I saw it.”
“Do you know what he’s looking for?” Clint whispered to Phil.
“Charles knows more than I do on a good day,” Phil whispered back.
“Here it is!” He spun the book around as Natasha grabbed a tittering crystal goblet. “Of course, it’s only a rendering; the real stone was destroyed centuries ago when the keep was rebuilt. Fortunately, someone thought to save it this way.”
Clint peered over Tony’s shoulder at the words drawn on the page.
BANNER. BARTON. ROGERS. ROMANOVA. STARK
- THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS =
“Hank Pym, you old dog.” Tony ran his fingers over the numbers. “Looks like he never stopped working on the problem.”
“What does it all mean?” Steve asked.
“This first part is a revision of the basic mechanics of faster than light speed travel,” Bruce explained, “and the last bit has some relativity theory mixed with … I’m not sure, but I think it’s that one guy’s wormhole equation?”
“Hank loved that cartoon. You know the one with the scientists and the chalkboard?” Tony laughed. “That’s as good as scrawling his name across this; he couldn’t get it to work, but he left us what he had.”
“And what did he have?” Clint nudged Tony.
“A way for us to get home.”
 “Night Moves” Bob Seger
 “Mad World” Jasmine Thompson
 “Changes” David Bowie
 “Animals” Maroon 5
 “Shoop” Salt-n-Pepa
 “Can’t Help Falling in Love” Elvis Presley
 “Sympathy for the Devil” The Rolling Stones
 “If I Could Read Your Mind” Gordon Lightfoot
The equations above are pretty theoretical. The second is the Reichard's theory of time travel. The first is the Dirac distribution of field theory. Pretty heady stuff that I don't understand, thus the "and a miracle happens" phrase.
If you've never see the cartoon referred to ... https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/d6/e7/54/d6e754d24aaef324c1595e68583ace7a.jpg
The interrogation is over and the gang gets to sleep. Then the testing starts and Clint puts his musical skills to the test. :)
Sorry to be a day late on posting this. I was visiting family and writing just wasn't happening. Fortunately, I got on a roll once I got back home. :)
A ton of songs in this chapter ... you'll see why. All the way from Mozart to Adele! :)
These chapters just keep getting longer. Ya'll are indulging me and letting me play with this world. I love it so much!!!
“Fury’s not telling us something,” Steve said as they entered their room.
“Just one thing? That man’s secrets probably have secrets.” Natasha turned towards Bucky.
“Don’t look at me; I don’t ask and Fury doesn’t tell,” he said. “I just do what I’m told.”
“Somehow I doubt that.” Natasha’s mouth curled up in a smile.
“Oh, I can be good,” he replied with a wink.
“Did you notice how Charles reacted when you explained the hyperspace bubble?” Bruce sat down and took off his shoes. “They know more than they let on.”
Hanging back by the door, Clint saw Phil hesitate in the hallway, pause as he overheard the conversation.
“A walker of worlds, my ass.” Tony plopped down in a chair and kicked his feet up on a low table. “He’s talking about M theory; I bet the radiation weakened the walls between parallel universes …”
Clint had had enough science and magic talk for one evening; they’d spent the last few hours talking in circles, trying to explain hyperspace to people who didn’t understand electricity and understanding the intricacies of spellwork when four days ago they’d believed magic wasn’t real. Sure, they’d eaten a lovely meal of roast beef and yeasty rolls, potatoes and asparagus, and even apple pie for dessert but they were interrogated the whole time. Oh, the questions appeared casual, but between Fury, Strange and Xavier, they dragged out every bit of information they wanted.
Pointed and suspicious, Fury grilled them for details on Pierce’s keep, both as they’d just seen it or as it had been in their time; he had Bucky drawing tunnel diagrams and taking notes. Strange’s questions lasered in on the pod and hyperspace; he spoke Tony and Bruce’s language. At one point, their three heads bent over a piece of parchment as Tony spun possible connections between the inscribed equations. That left Xavier as the good cop, interested in chasing down the specifics of their gifts, talking of training and offering to help. When the meal ended, Clint only knew two things for sure: If Alexander Pierce had done half of what these men claimed he was bad news, and magic was as complex as quantum physics, which, he thought, might be the same thing.
Because he opted out of the ongoing argument, he saw Phil take a step back and start to turn. Letting the door close behind him, Clint caught Phil’s arm.
“You leaving?” The question sounded way too whiny for his comfort. “I mean, I thought we had to do the whole challenge thing, get some training, you know, watch me kick some other harper’s asses for fun.”
“I’m not …” Phil put his hand over Clint’s, his palm warm. “I’ve got quarters at the local guild office. I’ll be back tomorrow; I’m as interested to find out what Nick has planned as you are.”
“Oh.” Clint felt his cheeks heat up. “I thought … yeah, I’m an idiot.”
“Oh no, I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.”
“You know Fury, right? Do you trust him?” Clint blurted out the question.
“With my life, and I have on many occasions,” Phil said. “Look, I don’t know a third of the pots Nick has stirring … and I don’t want to … but his first priority is always the welfare of the people of the MidStates. Keep that in mind and you’ll get along fine.”
“Yeah, I’m just uneasy and I don’t know why.” He shrugged, a helpless rise and fall of his shoulders. “I’ve got that Bruce Springsteen song floating around in my head and I can shake the question if it’s Fury I don’t trust cause I damn sure don't trust myself.”
“A good night’s sleep usually helps me see things more clearly,” Phil offered. “Been a long few days for you.”
“Yeah, if I can get to sleep. Damn music’s like a jukebox on endless plays.” Clint drew himself up short; last thing he wanted to do was keep complaining. “You’re right; I’ll probably forget it all in the morning.”
“I didn’t say that; you should listen to your instincts; the songs aren’t random, you know. You have control over them; sing yourself to sleep. I do it all the time.” Phil’s eyes grew softer. “Keep it simple and think about the words before you start. Slow tempo, hum if the words don’t fit.”
“You lay in bed and sing a lullaby for yourself?” Clint had a flash of Phil, stretched out, his shirt off, eyes closed, humming. “That’s … “
“Stay with me, lay with me, holding me, loving me, baby. Here with me, near with me, feeling you close to me, baby.”
“Silly, yeah, but it works.”
“I was going to say hot, actually. Sounds very intimate.” His mouth went dry as Phil’s eyes darted to his lips, a quick flick down and back.
“It can be with the right person.” His lower lip puckered where his teeth bit down.
“I know a lot of songs about …”
The door opened; Bucky exited. He paused, eyed them both, then grinned. “Just heading to my room, don’t mind me.”
“Nah, we’re just talking.” Clint stepped back from Phil, hoping his face wasn’t bright red. “About sleeping. Getting to sleep. How it’s going to be hard. To sleep, that is.”
Bucky’s mouth quirked up on one side. “And I thought I was the only one who had hoof-in-mouth-disease.”
“I’ll walk with you to the foyer.” Phil didn’t hide his amusement. “We all need some sleep. Have a good night, Clint.”
Watching them go, Clint mentally kicked himself. Inside, Bruce and Tony were still gnawing on the equation; Natasha’s door was already closed. Clint crossed the space without so much as a notice from the dark haired heads bent over their numbers; sitting on the bed, Steve was half undressed, his hair mussed and his eyes half closed.
“They’ll be at it all night.” Steve tossed his shirt onto the small chair where he’d hung his sword.
“Yeah, well, I’m about to drop.” Clint undressed, flopping down on the single bed with creaks and groans from the rope frame underneath. “This boy needs sleep. Here’s hoping we can get some.”
Steve blew out the candle, his own bed protesting the added weight as he stretched out. “I keep thinking every time I close my eyes, maybe I’ll wake up back in my bed with Thor clattering down the stairs, and Sam letting the door bang as he leaves for his morning run.”
“Could be worse.” Clint shifted to get comfortable, the rushes in the mattress moving beneath him. “You could wake up in a shower and come out Bobby Ewing.” 
“It was all a dream, Pam!” Steve chuckled. “Or is that Wizard of Oz? And you were there, and you were there …”
“If you’re wearing ruby slippers, that’ll be the dead giveaway.” Clint stared up at the ceiling, exhaustion dragging him down but anxiety’s tenterhooks pulling him back.
He worried about what Fury was hiding, Steve and that glowing sword, Natasha’s flirting with a guy who, despite seeming nice, was an assassin, Tony and Steve’s inability to get their act together, Bruce being all alone, Xavier reading his mind, Phil taking him to the Guild, singing for the Guild, doing damage because he didn’t know how to do this magic thing, his attraction to Phil and how easily distracted he could be by a nice ass and good sex, or what he hoped would be good sex.
“You know what scares me?” In the semi-darkness, it was easier to say it out loud. “What if I like here better?”
Steve exhaled slowly before he answered. “That makes you human, Clint. When given what we want, it’s our nature to want to keep it.”
The ceiling held no answers, so Clint rolled towards the wall and kicked the blanket off, already too hot.
“Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to be used by you.”
No, that one wouldn’t do; he didn’t want to dwell on what might be. Pushing it aside, he tried to relax, flexing his fingers and his toes.
“Sing with me, just for today, maybe tomorrow the good Lord will take you away.” 
Nothing about dying; that subject was definitely out. What he needed was something soft and slow, something that would lull his brain into submission.
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion …”
“Hell, no.” The words burst from Clint’s lips. “Not that one.”
“Not what?” Steve’s sleep drenched voice asked.
“Nothing. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Keep humming. I like it.”
“Once there was a way …”
That song might do; he ran the lyrics in his head. A bit maudlin, but then they were all feeling it anyway.
“Once there was a way, to get back homewards.” Each word was no more than a breath, quiet enough he could still hear Tony and Bruce’s murmuring. “Once there was a way to get back home. Sleep pretty darlin’, do not cry. And I will sing a lullaby.”
Steve rolled over, his eyelids cracked open a tiny slit.
“Golden slumbers fill your eyes. Smiles await you when you rise. Sleep pretty darlin’, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby.”
His arms grew heavy, his legs not moving. Like a warm blanket, the song settled over them.
“Sleep pretty darlin’, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby.”
The voices in the outer room sputtered and petered out.
“Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight. Carry that weight a long time.”
A door opened then closed; occasional words came from next door. Floating in the melody, Clint’s eyes drifted shut.
“Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight. Carry that weight a long time.”
Steve’s breathing grew deep and even.
“Golden slumbers fill your eyes.”
An image of Phil in bed drifting into Clint’s mind; he hoped Phil was able to rest.
“Smiles await you when you rise.”
Natasha, tucked under her covers, red curls spilling over her pillow, fast asleep.
“Sleep pretty darlin’, do not cry.”
In his last thought before he was gone, Clint remembered the song didn’t have a beginning or an end, part of an endless flow from one to the next.
“And I will sing a lulla …”
“Welcome to my home.” Charles Xavier greeted them in a grand entrance hall that soared three stories to an arched ceiling. A wide wooden staircase curved upwards, splitting and turning back on itself, a rose stained glass window centered in the stone wall.
“Well, I was right. We just stepped through a portal into Narnia.” Tony turned around to stare at the open doorway; Fury’s garden was framed by glowing red lines. “Instantaneous travel. Damn.”
“Magic has its perks, it seems,” Bruce agreed.
“So these are your new strays? At least they have a sense of humor.” Tall, whipcord slim, and dressed in leathers, the man leaned against the bannister, piercing blue eyes surveying each of them in turn.
“Ignore Erik,” Charles said. “His bark is worse than his bite.”
“Oh, and here I thought you liked my bite.” Erik’s gaze raked Xavier from head to toe, a smirk forming on his lips. “At least that’s what you said last …”
“Ah, here’s Jean now.” Charles’ fair skin flushed; Erik smile widened. “This is Jean Grey, our chatelaine; we’d be lost without her.”
Like Natasha, Jean wore pants and a long vest over a linen shirt. Her flame red hair was piled upon her head, an emerald green ribbon tied at the nape of her neck.
“We’re all ready for everyone,” Jean said. “ The younger ones are in the west wing with Ororo; Scott’s putting the rest through their paces on the practice field.”
“Excellent,” Charles replied. “The plan is to spend today testing the extent of your abilities. Bruce, you’ll work with me and Hank, Healer McCoy in my study; there’s so much to talk about and learn from your knowledge. Barnes, Phil, Jean will show you, Romanova, and Barton to your respective rooms; we’ve cleared out the lower gym and the music room for you.”
“The southwest field for me?” A dark haired woman stepped through the magical portal; her simple leather armor was worn and fitted, her body muscular and compact. “I’ll need the room for warm ups and sword play.”
“Ah, Maria Hill, Master of the Citadel’s Guard and Knight Errant.” Charles introduced the newcomer. “She’s here for not only Rogers, but to help all of you with basic fighting skills.”
“Whip your ass in shape, that’s what I’ll do,” she replied with a smile, her hand on her sword hilt. “Find your strengths and learn how to use them to stay alive.”
“Who do you have waiting in the wings for me? Merlin or Dumbledore?” Tony asked.
“Seems I’m the only one available.” Erik pushed away from the bannister. “Don’t worry; I won’t let you blow up the place. Just yourself.”
“Oh good. Clint gets to oogle Harper Harper and I get glowery Blue Eyes. Hurrah.”
“Some days the musician wins,” Clint shot back.
They followed Jean up the stairs, Clint lagging in the back, distracted by the details around him. Walls covered by paintings and tapestries, ancestors and battles on display. An endless array of ceramic vases, some glass pieces, and wooden sculptures. Doors that opened on small bedrooms, classrooms, and salons. Turning east, Jean took them along a gallery with windows that looked out upon the vista of hills that melted into a plain then down a smaller staircase that curved and emptied into a corridor without much decoration. There, she motioned Bucky and Natasha through an open set of doors into a wide room with an array of weaponry as well as padded mats to work with. One wall was covered in mirrors; Natasha exclaimed delightedly when she saw the barre, running a hand over the smooth wood.
“We have practice clothes in the cupboard; the women’s sizes are on the left. You should be able to find something that fits,” Jean explained. “Luncheon will be brought here; we’ll take our late meal together in the main dining room. I’ll send someone to collect you in time to clean up. There’s a servant’s bell by the door; if you need anything, ring.”
Then she circled back; they climbed three flights to the top; when she opened a room at the end of the hall, Clint froze as he looked inside. Instruments were grouped by type, strings on the right most wall, everything from a simple six string guitar to a cello. Percussion took the most space in the back corner, the winds neatly stacked on shelves across from the kettle drums. The brass were housed in velvet lined cases, the largest hung on pegs.
But it was the exquiste harpsichord, glossy sides stenciled with an elaborate pattern that made Clint stop and catch his breath. Placed beside a baby grand and an upright piano, it fairly glowed in the light that streamed through the windows.
“Oh, yes, it is quite beautiful, isn’t it?” Jean said. “Erik found it and had it restored virtually from the strings out as an anniversary present for Charles.”
“Now that’s a gift.” Clint’s fingers hovered over the keys, white ivory polished to a shine.
“Charles would love to hear a harper play,” Jean told him. “The walls have a dampening spell; you don’t have to worry about the effects going any further.”
He hesitated; Phil nodded. For once, his mind was blank, an eerie silence after the endless flow of music. Something suited for this instrument, positive and uplifting, a good start for new possibilities. Classical but not too complex. Well-known, a piece that had a chance of surviving in memories.
Curled fingers settled into place; the first note was quiet, melody from his left hand, his right rolling a chord that established the pattern for the whole composition. Four bars in and Clint slid into the music, the main melody repeating in new variations. Quarter notes turned into eighth and then sixteenths, runs in the higher octaves. Then the song reversed, dropping back to the simple first melody; only when his fingers stilled on the last note did he look up.
“Oh.” Jean’s eyes were closed. “Oh. That …” A wistful smile flitted across her lips. “Sublime.”
“We’ll never find a Keys Master to teach you,” Phil said. “You’re better than the best we have at the Guild.”
“I hope you’ll play for all of us one night while you’re here.” Jean brushed her hands along her vest. “You too Phil.”
“We’d be honored,” Phil agreed.
“Good. I’ll make arrangements.” With a dip of her chin, she turned and left them.
“Alright, let’s start with the other strings then we’ll work our way through the rest of the instruments. A Harper has to have a primary and a secondary proficiency, but we encourage you to know more. How are you with a bow?” Phil moved towards the violins and violas.
“I never miss.” Clint couldn’t resist winking.
Phil rolled his eyes. “You’re going to push the boundaries at every step, aren’t you?”
“And you like it.” Taking a cello, he leaned it against his shoulder and began to pick out an opening rift. “You've been hit by, you've been hit by a smooth criminal,” he sang.
“Jazz is a yes, violin a no then.”
“That would be a good duet,” Clint said as he put the cello back on its stand. “I could teach you the melody for the fiddle.”
“Perhaps. Let’s move on to percussion.”
Clint found a snare and bass drum, a steady march and four-four beat easy to play, a quick drum solo missing a couple of cymbals. He was better on the wooden xylophone, mallets ringing out the opening to Khachaturian's “Sabre Dance.” For the tube bells, he picked Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition” and, of course, “Mr. Tamborine Man” for the tambourine and various handheld bells. He had to sing “La Bamba” for the maracas and was quite pleased with Phil’s response to the perfect Spanish.
With each one, Phil made him run scales, pick out rhythms and play major and minor chords. Once he’d finished with the instruments he knew, Phil took him back through the rest, insisting he try each one in turn. To his surprise, he remembered the basics of the brass mouthpiece, managing a high G despite not picking up a trumpet for years. Woodwinds were a bust; the clarinet squeaked and squealed, but he got a few notes out of a flute and a piccolo. The violin would need a lot of practice, but anything plucked came naturally to him from the dulcimer to the zither.
“We should do a duet with fiddle and mandolin,” he said, strumming the metal strings with a wooden pick. “A little Flatt & Scruggs would be good.” He played the opening at a faster tempo than he normally would, each note distinct and clear. “You know this one?” Tapping his toe, he dove into the song, twisting the fiddle part into a descant and flying through the middle bars.
“Clint.” Phil’s soft voice broke through the wall of sound he was weaving. “Look.”
Outside, clouds rolled along the side of the mountain, shrouding the trees and trailing along the ridge. The cottony white, blown by a southerly wind, cascaded towards the practice field below; when Clint stopped playing, it broke up and began to blow away.
“Foggy mountain indeed,” Clint said with a laugh.
A light lunch of cheese, fruit, sausage, and soda bread arrived along with a pitcher of cold cider. They ate near the windows; Phil told the funniest story about his training involving a carrot, a bottle of ink, and the Grand Master’s favorite horse. Clint found himself relating how he met Natasha, complete with the chase around Budapest and a really good bowl of borscht.
“Guess I can’t carry around a piano.” Clint ran his hand along the edge of the baby grand. “Much as I love the guitar, this is my favorite.”
“This one is supposed to be magical,” Phil told him. “The incantation is on the inside here but we can’t figure out what it means.”
Bending over, Clint saw letters burned into the wood. “Whistle Dixie then thank the 3 Bs to grow. To reverse, Doodle macaroni and thank the 3 Bs again.”
“It’s a mystery,” Phil was saying. “Dixie was an old name for the South, but the rest …”
Grinning, Clint stepped back and whistled the first bar of Dixie then said “Thank you Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms.”
The piano shrank with a pop; about the size of a Monopoly piece, Clint picked up both instrument and stool, balancing it in the center of his palm.
“That’s the answer? Beethoven, Bach and Brahms?” Phil started to laugh. “Simple after all. Okay, how do you doodle macaroni?”
Placing it on the floor, Clint sang, “Yankee Doodle went to London, riding on a pony. Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” before he thanked the three composers. In between breaths, the piano was full size again.
“So much we’ve lost,” Phil sighed then he opened his case and took out his fiddle. “Let’s work on emotions and versatility. Start with a song that you would play for a queen and her ladies in their solarium.”
Clint imagined a sunny room filled with plants and bouquets of flowers, ladies in beautiful dresses, the rise and fall of feminine voices. Something with no words, nothing trite like a love song … Mozart, of course. He’d limit himself to the allegro of sonata 16, a crisp tune with a series of high octave runs that flowed into each movement.
Phil joined in at the 34th measure, picking out harmony notes until he had the chord sequence. The music soared around the room, a river of sound washing Clint away into a sea of confidence. At Phil’s request, he began to transpose as he played, turning C major into C minor; the shift was a riptide that dragged him into self-doubt, examining his stupid choices in minute detail. He rode the feeling, stepping the key down to A minor, runs rolling up the keyboard and back down until the song changed to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” and they were off again.
“The Queen requests a sad song, but you know she needs comfort not tears,” Phil interjected. “Don’t stop; merge into it.”
He stayed in the the key of A, cascading fingers taking him back to the major, avoiding the ending chord by switching to a rolling bassline. It was the height of hubris to pick this song -- the one rule of American Idol was not to cover Adele -- but he thought he could pull it off.
“I heard that you settled down, that you’d found a guy and you’re married now.”
The song called for broad emotion, a big voice that inhabited the words, but Clint turned it around, not sadness but a sense of hope, the knowledge that he was ready to move on. Accepting that love can cause pain but it won’t last.
“Sometimes it lasts in love and sometimes it hurts instead.”
Phil clapped his hands, a big smile on his face. “You’ll have the ladies-in-waiting falling over each other to get in your bed.”
“They can chase me, but they don’t have the right equipment to catch me.”
“Straight to the point as always.” Phil ginned. “A little mystery can be helpful for a harper.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I know how to play the game,” Clint assured him.
The afternoon passed as Phil challenged Clint; from the piano to the guitar, he picked songs for situations and emotions, transposed keys, melted melodies, and improvised based upon a theme. Stirring anger, boosting morale, encouraging the guilty to confess -- the bubbling pot in his head kept offering up possibilities for every occasion. Sometimes Phil joined him with the fiddle or a small harp, blending in or leading to see if Clint could follow. Clint couldn’t remember the last time he enjoyed playing so much, the freedom of interpretation welcome. He’d always had so many ideas; now Phil was opening the door to let that creativity out.
“Last one,” Phil finally declared. “Melancholy plus the another emotion of your choice. Wind us down.”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Clint shifted the bench and cracked his fingers. “Barry already did it with Chopin’s Prelude.”
The chords called for more than an octave reach, the slow progression striking a solemn and measured beginning. A short composition, he held the last notes for a heartbeat and then slid into the rolling line of the romantic pop song.
“Spirits move me, every time I'm near you, whirling like a cyclone in my mind.”
He looked up and caught Phil eyes, letting the meaning of the words fall between them.
“Baby I want you come, come, come into my arms, let me feel the wonder of all of you. Could it be magic now, now, now and hold on fast, could this be the magic at last?”
The lust had never gone away, he’d just tucked it away while they worked together. With the smallest of widening of Phil’s eyes, the desire came back. He knew it felt like to be in Phil’s arms; what would a kiss be like? Would he be as single minded about that as he was about music?
“I could love you, yeah build my world around you, never leave you 'til my life is done.”
Relationships weren’t Clint’s strong suit, not because he didn’t want to have someone in his life, but because he’d never found the right person who wanted to put up with his shit. That would be a miracle.
“Baby I want you, now, now, oh now,oh now and hold on fast. Could this be the magic at last?”
Phil stepped closer, leaning on his elbows. His eyes darkened as his gaze flicked from Clint’s fingers to his face and back again.
“Could this be the magic at last?”
Back to the chords, Clint repeated the Chopin, never looking at his hands, unable to tear himself away from Phil’s intensity. As the last notes faded, time suspended and Clint forgot to breathe.
“Be careful when you tease an audience,” Phil warned, ducking his head closer.
“Who said I was teasing?” Clint closed the distance, brushing his lips across Phil’s.
Wrapping a hand around Clint’s neck, Phil ran his thumb along Clint’s jaw. “Yes, it is magic.”
The second kiss carried a hint of heat; the third pulled Clint up from the bench so he could wrap his hands around Phil’s arms. He leaned in for the fourth, gave himself up to the urge to taste more and slid his tongue along the seam of Phil’s lips during the fifth.
Then Phil’s lips were gone and Clint opened his eyes.
“Is this the part where you tell me this is a bad idea, that you’re my teacher, mentor, whatever, and there are rules against getting involved?” Clint asked when Phil didn’t speak.
“Hell no.” Phil dragged his thumb along the contours of Clint’s lips. “Many Masters and Journeymen sleep together. No, I like buildup, the touching and kissing and exploration. Thinking about what it will be like. Taking my time. Like a good composition, I start with a simple theme and raise the tension until the crescendo.”
“Ah,” Clint’s brain short circuited as the soft paid of Phil’s fingers tugged his lower lip.
“That way,” Phil continued, “when I do get you naked beneath me, we’ll both be more than ready.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt.” Jean stood in the doorway. “Supper will be in an hour; if you wish to clean up and change, I can show you to your rooms. Charles’ table is informal; you need not dress formally.” She coughed. “I’ll post the do not enter ward after you leave; I wouldn’t want one of the younger students to wander in here until the magic dissipates.”
Ducking his head, Clint closed the lid over the keys and picked up the guitar he’d been using. “Sorry about that; I hope we didn’t bother anyone.”
“The protections might need a recasting.” Phil returned the instruments he’d been using. “The fog this morning wasn’t natural.”
“I wondered.” She shut the doors as they left the room, finger skating over an ornate curleque in the wood. It flared red and glowed. “I’ll put it on the list of things to do.”
As Clint followed the red-haired woman down the corridor, a lyric kept playing in his head.
“Just a shot in the dark that you just might be the one I've been waiting for my whole life. So baby I'm alright, with just a kiss goodnight.”
 “Losing My Religion” REM
 “Brilliant Disguise” Bruce Springsteen
 “Kiss You All Over” Exile
 “Sweet Dreams Are Made of These” Eurythmics
 “Dream On” Aerosmith
 “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” The Tokens
 “Golden Slumbers” The Beatles
 “Canon in C Major” Pachelbel
 “Smooth Criminal” Michael Jackson, arrangement by 2 Cellos
 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” Flatt & Scruggs
 “Piano Sonata in D Major, No. 16, K545, I. Allegro” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
 “Someone Like You” Adele
 “Could it be the Magic” Barry Manilow (I know, but it’s a damn good song)
 “Just a Kiss” Lady Antebellum
Training continues. Everyone's tired, on edge and circling around each other. Tony and Bruce are working on getting them back home and Clint's beginning to wonder if that's what he wants.
Always wanted to try writing a montage ... the lyrics of Watsky's "Moral of the Story" signal jumps in action throughout this chapter. Lots of ground to cover before the gang head for the Faire. They're going to need all the preparation they can get for what they find there.
Check the updated playlist at: https://open.spotify.com/user/cakeisnotpie/playlist/2vUSDlxTqFi2J5XGTSfFR8
'Till your arms fall off
'Till your abs get hard
And your bone's all soft
“Alright, time to see how much you know about sword work.” Maria Hill, a petite package of muscle and stamina, stood in the center of the practice field. She’d already run them through a series of stretches and warm up exercises; now they all had a length of sharpened metal in their hands. “We’ll start with basic forms.”
“I don’t see why I need to do this,” Tony muttered to Clint. “I’ll just blast ‘em with magic.”
Dark circles marred the skin under Tony’s eyes; so busy working on Hank’s formula in every free moment, Tony hadn’t slept more than a handful of minutes since they arrived at Xavier’s home. Coffee and adrenaline kept him going, but he was going to crash soon.
“Mage or not, you can die on the end of a sword just as easily as anyone.” Hill rolled her eyes at Tony’s answering sigh. “So glad you volunteered to go first; get your ass up here, Stark.”
She didn’t play around, putting her full weight in her slashes as she showed Tony defensive stances, knocking him back a few steps each time. Tony sputtered, got angry and leaned into the blows, using the leverage of his height to press her back.
“Good.” Hill nodded to the others. “Okay, let’s get rolling. Partner up and we’ll learn the patterns.”
The moves weren’t too difficult; Clint had no trouble picking up the fundamentals, but he didn’t like the length of the sword. A short knife fit his hand and his style better. Natasha was the same; she wove through the exercises with a dancer’s grace, far outstripping everyone else with her small dagger and earning a well done from Hill. Steve took to the sword like he was born to it, sparring with Maria until they were both sweating.
“Okay,” Hill called after two solid hours. “Time to move on to distance weapons. Barton, I hear you’re the archer; you’re up first.”
Come on let's go, kids
Everybody get together with a study buddy
And I'll talk about the fuck that I don't give
“Why didn’t you say something?” Phil asked, pressing Clint’s fingers deeper into the sudsy solution. Cooling aloe and a bit of sting from the witch hazel reduced the pain of plucking too many strings.
“I didn’t think it was that bad.” Clint was embarrassed to admit he didn’t have the callouses needed to protect the sensitive skin. “I play all the time and I’ve been using a pick.”
“You forgot to add in the blisters from sword hilts and bow strings.” Phil lightly smacked Clint on the side of his head. “Rule number one for harpers; take care of yourself and stay alive.”
“You could kiss it and make it better,” Clint suggested, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Or I could play while you sing so we can run through the teaching songs, see what wording you know.” Phil picked up a mug and filled it with a light brown liquid. “Now drink this honey mead to coat your throat and we’ll start with alphabet mnemonics.”
“AB-C-DEF-GHI-J-KL-M-NOP-QR-STUV-WX-YZ is the most remarkable word I've ever seen.” 
“Maybe not that one,” Phil laughed. “Is that the whole alphabet as one word?”
Don't be so pissed
Just be focused
On your own shit
Cause we super-cali-fornia-listic sexy and we knows it
“Good afternoon. My name is Kurt and I’m going to help you with flexibility.”
The young man ducked his head, hunched his shoulders, and spoke barely loud enough to be heard in the vast gymnasium. His skin was blue, black hair coarse and curly. Then there was the prehensile tail that he used like another hand.
“Part of defending yourself is to avoid being where the blow lands; quick movements and some simple rolls can help extricate you from any situation.”
“Well if you want flexibility, Natasha should be the queen of the gym,” Steve joked. “When she does a split, my legs hurt.”
“Oh, no, when it comes to somersaults and gymnastics, that title goes to Clint.” Natasha smiled. “He was a headliner at a circus after all.”
“What?” Tony leaned forward and stared around Bruce. “Ringling Brothers? Cirque du Soleil?”
“A small family owned company that traveled the Southern circuit.” Clint didn’t usually talk about his colorful history. “That’s where I learned archery and worked while I got my GED.”
“A traveling show?” Kurt’s head came up, and he offered Clint an honest-to-goodness smile. “I too was a performer. People will pay money to see a real life monkey boy.”
“The bearded lady taught me how to make a mean bowl of oxtail stew; she was married to the strong man who made the best baklava, all honey sweet and nutty,” Clint replied. He knew all too well the ways customers could dehumanize those who were different, turning them into sideshow attractions. “I was the Amazing Hawkeye, and I had an act where I shot from horseback.”
“You did tumbling? Wire walking? Trapeze?” Kurt moved to the balance beam, jumping up. “Clown work?”
“Yes to all.” He might be out-of-practice, but his muscles remembered. With a running start, he hit the edge of a mat and did a series of hand flips that ended with a back flip. “Knife throwing too.”
“Excellent!” Kurt executed three flips, a forward roll, then a tail stand.
“I hope you don’t expect us to do any of that?” Bruce eyed the two. “I’ve got two left feet and can’t dance.”
“Oh of course not!” Kurt, all smiles as he flipped off the beam and rolled across the floor. “For a healer like you, I will show you how to not get hit by a swordsman. That is the most important, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I like this plan,” Bruce agreed.
I'm a rottweiler
Pop my collar when I pop my fur
You're on my nerves, but mark my words,
Got to put a leg up and I'll mark my turf
“Magic is a matter of mental will,” Erik was saying, walking around the workroom. “We all draw on the same pool of untapped power, but what we do with it varies based upon your gifts. While mages can manipulate the energy into various spells, healers create potions and mend bones. Harpers raise morale and stir emotion. Thieves slip into silence and melt into darkness. Paladins weld their belief as well as their sword.”
“Use the Force, Luke,” Tony whispered to Clint, twisting blue energy between his fingers.
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster by your side.” Clint wasn’t completely comfortable with the whole idea that Steve’s morals were magic; it was one thing to cause a wind to blow, but being so good you were super strong?
“Gentlemen?” Erik raised an eyebrow, pausing to stare at them.
“The Force.” Clint was tired of this guy’s turned up nose and silent judgments. “An energy field that connects us all, binds us all together. Those with a high enough level of midi-somethings …”
“Chlorians. Midi-chlorians,” Bruce supplied.
“Mid-chlorians can manipulate the force. The force equals magic, so we’re Jedi Knights.”
“From my studies, I thought magic did not exist before Mageddon.” Erik stroked his chin. “It would go against all the lore, but would make a fine paper for the symposium. How did this force work?”
“Clint.” Steve sounded as tired as Clint felt.
“It’s intuitive. You close your eyes, clear your mind, and allow the force to flow through you. Trust it to guide your hand.” Actually, maybe the Jedis had it right after all. “Calm is best; drawing on the Force in anger leads to the dark side.” He began to sing, “So I used the Force. I picked up a box. I lifted some rocks while I stood on my head …”
Stopping at the end of the table where Clint leaned on his elbows, Erik tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “I may have known you for only three days, but I’m sure this Force of yours is a fabrication, some story you’re spinning to avoid practicing. Thing is, you’re not far off. Clearing your mind and focusing on your intention is very important, as is the idea of magic flowing through you. You’re the channel that shapes it; one of the most common errors is to allow your personal biases to get in the way. Anger, however, can be a useful tool; strong emotions magnify the power; even those with the tiniest of gifts can do great thing when pressed. Now, I want you all to continue working on the same abilities as yesterday. To master the larger magics, you must control the small. Barton, why don’t you start off by lighting the third lamp from the righ.”
“Right.” Clint sighed and slipped off his stool. “‘Cause it went so well the first time.”
Maybe he wouldn’t set fire to the practice room like yesterday.
Work until I'm black and yellow
Black and yellow, worker bee
I'll just work until I'm black and blue and burgundy
“Dude!” Tony stared at Bucky’s arm, the mechanism revealed in his dark tank top. “That is cool!”
Bucky’s eyes darted to the side, and he ducked his head. “It’s nothing,” he mumbled.
Tony immediately rushed forward, picking at the metal fingers and poking at the cogs and gears of the elbow. “I didn’t realize they had anything mechanical this advanced. Serious steampunk shit right here. Magical connection, I bet. Have to have some way to keep it from rusting; no aluminum alloy.” He didn’t wait for any response, pushing back the fabric to see how it was attached. “I could make this so much better. Ball bearing joints, cleaner connections. You’ve got to let me get you in the lab.”
“Yeah, no.” Bucky pulled away, his eyes gone flat and his voice hard. “I’m not your project.”
Raising his hands, Tony stepped back. “Hey, no offense. Just want to help, okay? I could look at just the arm without you there. I can see some wear and tear on the finger soldering that could be redone.”
“That’s not why we’re here, Stark.” Bucky’s response brooked no argument. “We’re working on woodland skills; today we’re going to learn how to tell direction and read maps so you don’t get lost if you get separated.”
“Looks like it’s going to rain.” Bruce scanned the darkening horizon. “Maybe tomorrow would be better …”
“On the trail, you deal with the weather,” Bucky said, cutting him off. “In the packs I’ve prepared, you’ll find all you need to get back to the keep; it should only take about an hour.”
Hoisting the small bag, Clint began compiling as many songs about home as he could think of, starting with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” as the first drops of rain fell.
Work until I earn that rich mahogany
Can't you tell I'm working bitch don't bother me
Show some modesty
Mud and dirt swirled away as the water poured over the edge into a drain. Washing the suds from his hair for the third time, Clint had scraped his skin almost raw with the loofah. At least he wasn’t covered in poison ivy welts like Natasha; she’d sat down on the wrong log and was cursing at the storm by the time they got back to the keep. Sliding down a muddy hillside seemed more like an amusement park ride in comparison.
Stepping out of the water, Clint climbed the two steps to the rinsing level, a smaller basin chipped out of natural rock where water fell in a curtain. Standing under it, Clint let the warmth of the hot springs pound along his shoulders that ached from drawing a bow and onto the spots in his back that hurt from hunching over a guitar or a keyboard. The bathing room was ingenious really; the upper soaking pool was the hottest and the cleanest. Tonight, with the chill of the rain all the way to his bones, he was looking forward to a long stay, working out the kinks and finally being warm again.
Grabbing a towel, he wrapped it around his waist, took the steps up, then paused at the sight before him. Arms extended along the edge, shoulders just barely above the water, Phil’s eyes lighted upon him. Clear enough to see the pebbles on the bottom, nothing was hidden from Clint’s view; strong thighs, muscular chest covered with curling dark hairs that matched the thatch between his legs … with a quirk of his head and the tiniest curl of a smile, Phil made no move to cover himself.
Secrets I have held in my heart are harder to hide than I thought. Maybe I just wanna be yours.
“Fuck it,” Clint muttered to himself. Foreplay or torture, he didn’t know which, but it was working for him. He turned, hung the towel on a provided hook, then eased in, letting his body get used to the temperature. All the way across the pool, Phil looked his fill, eyes languidly taking in every detail. When he finally looked back up, the blue depths flashed hotter than the springs and Clint flushed even more, taking a seat on the man made ledge next to Phil.
“Heard you got back first,” Phil drawled, his fingers settling on Clint’s shoulder and rubbing in tiny circles. “Congratulations.”
“The power of song, I guess.” Clint lay his head back in the groove someone had so conveniently carved. “That and blind dumb luck I didn’t kill myself sliding down a vertical slope.”
A knee bumped against his then a foot rubbed along his arch. “Something you learned in the circus?”
Clint cracked open an eyelid -- when had he closed them? -- and grinned. “Hardly. Horseback riding, knife throwing, hawking midway games, cheating at cards, even how to handle a big cat … Nah, the Greens, my last foster family, liked camping; Harvey would take me hiking and tell me the name of all the trees. He was an environmental scientist; Gale was a piano teacher. They were the ones who helped me get into college. Nice people.”
“Foster parents?” Phil slid closer, his hand slipping under Clint’s neck and massaging the pressure points.
“Yeah. Parents died when I was little. Barney and I were put in the system … orphanages ‘til we ran away and joined the circus. Then it was foster care for a while after … “ Clint stopped talking. Feeling like he was floating, his body was as light as the water around him.
“Orphans here are taken into the guilds, trained and raised to do various jobs. We can always use scribes and tuners and instrument makers. The mages need assistants, the militias need someone to take care of the horses, mend armor. The laws are very strict about their treatment; they must be fed, kept healthy and, after a length of training, paid for their work.” Phil’s voice was so very soothing; watching his lips move was almost hypnotic. “You would have been snapped up as a potential candidate right away; the Guild would have been your home.”
“Ummm.” Heat lulled his thoughts, only one desire left to focus on. “Are you going to kiss me? We’ve plenty of time before dinner.”
“I might.” Beads of sweat ran down Phil’s face as he leaned over; Clint turned his head to meet him.
Salty and slick, their lips found each other, and Clint sighed into the slow kiss. Seconds or minutes, Clint lost track. Phil’s arm was beneath his neck, cradling his head. A hand stroked his thigh, and his fingers traced the long scar on Phil’s back. Taking a breath, Clint laid his head on Phil’s arm and softly sang, his heavy lids sagging low.
“There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don't know how because maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me.”
A kiss on his forehead was followed by a soft response.
“I’ll take you into my arms. Kiss you under the light of a glowing star. Put your head near my pounding heart.” Phil sang into his ear. Then he whispered, “Go to sleep, I’ll be here.”
Maybe we found love right where we are. Clint drifted off, lyrics fading away.
But if you're blocking me,
I will soon defeat you
I will build a bridge above you or I'll tunnel underneath you
Numbers filled the slate board, cramped together to cover every inch, circling around each other as Tony erased and rewrote parts of the equations. Fingers stained from graphite and ink, streaks of it on his face and pants, Bruce could barely be seen behind a stack of parchment and books. In the corner of a classroom they’d taken as their own, the two had worked through the night, candles in tin lanterns casting barely enough light until the first rays of morning peeked over the mountains.
“... doesn’t work. We’ll have to adjust the coefficient drag variable outside the acceptable limits …” Tony took a swig from a mug, grimaced, then drank more. “... not to mention that will decrease the force.”
“Maybe the tether elasticity could be tweaked?” Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I can’t see any other option unless we can bend time further …”
“And here I thought time was wibbly, wobbly.” Clint, up early to grab an hour on the archery range before breakfast, leaned against the door frame. “Steve was looking for you last night, Tony. Something about owing you a shoulder massage?”
“Honestly, I was floored to find out he’d never been a boy scout.” Tony raised his head and blinked twice before he focused on Clint. “He was even worse out there than I was. I had to help him figure out which way was north; probably still be wandering around in circles.”
“Yeah, you’re missing the point.” Clint enunciated carefully. Sleep deprivation was worse than being drunk, he knew from experience. “Massage. Steve. Together. Clothes off. Oil.”
Another slow blink. “Oh. Oh.” Tony’s eyes widened. “Well, damn it.”
“Maybe we should take a night off,” Bruce suggested, wobbling as he stood. “Everything is starting to jumble together; I don’t want to make another mistake.”
“But we’re so close!” Tony waved at the board. “Going home’s my top priority, not riding a horse or swinging a sword. I want an espresso and to sleep in my own bed and eat sushi.”
“Killing yourself to make it happen won’t help.” Clint’s temper rose, his own constant exhaustion making him as edgy as Tony. “And you might be missing out on something really good with Steve if you …”
“Oh, don’t throw that up to me. You’re perfectly happy fucking one of the locals, going native on us. Steve understands what I’m doing,” Tony shot back.
There ain't no motive for this crime; Jenny was a friend of mine. Oh come on, oh come on, oh come on
Clint squeezed his hands into fists and clamped his mouth shut to keep the words from flying free. It was the pressure talking; he was exhausted too.
“Jesus, Tony, you don’t know when to stop do you?” Bruce dropped his chalk in the holder and brushed his hands clean. “Clint’s got every right to find whatever happiness he can; maybe you ought to follow his example.”
“Et tu, Bruce?” Tony rounded on him. “I thought I could count on you, my science brother-from-another-mother.”
“You know you can.” Bruce put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I know how much you hate the thought of Hammer getting a building named after him, and how much you want to set the record straight. I’m so angry, I dream about different ways I could kill him; my personal favorite so far involves a glass of sherry, crayons, and a feather tickler. But don’t take it out on Clint; he’s just trying to get you to take care of yourself.”
Like a three day old balloon, Tony slowly deflated. “If I let go, even for a second, I might never get there,” he said. “I’ve got fucking magic to use and still can’t solve this. What kind of engineer or mage am I if I can’t do it?”
“You’re still a playboy,” Bruce told him.
“Unless you settle down with Steve and have paladin babies,” Clint tossed in.
“They’d be the cutest babies in any time.” Tony nodded.
“You’re still a good guy who helps others,” Bruce went on.
“For some reason, the kids here like you more than me. Can’t imagine a reason for it, but there you go.”
“I am really nice underneath all the banter.”
“And you’re a loyal friend.”
“Exhibit A: you paid me and feed me pizza and took me along on the trip of a lifetime or three.”
“Yeah, you’re a real prize, Barton.” Tony gave him a half-hearted smile. “But you are still here even after I insulted you. Bruce is right; you can fuck Harper Harper all you want, just not where I can see or hear because, ick.”
“Come on,” Bruce took Tony’s elbow. “If we hurry we can have a bath before breakfast, that way we can hit the hay immediately after dinner.”
I put in hour after hour
Let's be crystal clear
I'm gonna get there if it takes a day or fifty years
“Oh, um, yeah, I’ll come back later. Sorry.” Bucky backed out of the room, nearly spilling the bowl of soup on the tray he carried.
“James! Wait.” Natasha pushed up on her elbows, batting Clint’s hands away from her upper thighs. “Did you bring me lunch?”
“It’s sweet and sour beef, one of the cook’s best.” Bucky kept his eyes averted from the bare curve of Natasha’s ass; if he didn’t have such a hangdog look, Clint would have laughed. “Thought since you weren’t at the table …”
“That’s so sweet.” Natasha honest-to-God batted her eyes; Clint scooped a glob of pea green salve and smeared it over the red rash around her knees. She jumped and shot an evil look over her shoulder. “Leave it to me to find the worst place to get poison ivy; I blackmailed Clint into changing the dressing. Jean said it would be gone by tomorrow.”
Understanding dawned and Bucky came in, placing the tray on the small table. “Is that her jewelweed and echinacea clay? I keep some in my pack all the time. Works for any itchy rash.”
“Plus, the lavender is a nice smell,” Clint add, applying the last bit and tugging Nat’s shirt down as low as it would go after he washed his hands.
“Still want to scratch,” she complained.
“You dance with bleeding feet without a peep but a little poison ivy gets to you?” Clint laid a damp cheesecloth over the salve to keep it moist. “There, all plastered up; you need me to come back after dinner?”
“Would you mind putting the bowl over here?” She smiled at Bucky, ignoring Clint completely. “Some intelligent conversation would be nice.”
“Hey!” Clint pulled up the sheet and gently covered her legs. “I know when I’m not wanted.”
He hummed as he closed the door behind him.
We're all sensitive people with so much to give. Understand me, sugar, since we've got to be here, let's live.
I'll finger-bang my fears
I'll fucking punch a dragon
Even with the Himalayas in my way it's gonna happen
“Tony!” Steve jumped up from the chair he’d slouched into after Maria Hill’s evening torture session. “I thought you were working again tonight.”
Mouth opening and closing twice, Tony’s gaze was riveted on Steve’s bare chest, muscles sweaty and pronounced from his workout. “Yeah … I … tired. I’m taking a night off. Think better after I’ve had some sleep or rest or something relaxing. Like a massage. Which you still owe me.”
A blush rose in Steve’s cheeks, but his eyes stayed steady on Tony. “Yes, I do. You’ve been favoring your left side in practice; let’s see what’s going on to cause it.”
“I sleep on my left side, usually, but lately it makes my shoulder hurt.” Tony winked at Clint as he turned towards the door of his sleeping chamber. “You’re welcome to go as deep as you want with your fingers.”
“Here, you might need this.” Clint handed the half empty bottle of red wine to Steve.
“So this Paladin deal? Does that mean you have to abstain from sinful things? ‘Cause I saw you drink a glass of that at dinner,” Tony asked. “Man, I couldn’t live like a monk, no way. No booze, no parties, no gambling, no weed, no sex ….”
“Nah, it’s nothing like that.” Steve followed Tony into the other room. “More a certainty of motive, you know, a strong moral compass, or so Maria ….”
The door shut and Clint pushed his aching body up from the chair; with Bucky taking care of Natasha’s needs … he chuckled at his own pun … and Steve ‘massaging’ Tony, he was on his own for the night. Phil had gone to the Guild to lay the groundwork for Clint’s status validation and Bruce was already in bed. A nice long sleep sounded indulgent; kicking off his boots and stripping down to his underwear, Clint collapsed onto his own mattress, throwing out his arms and burrowing his head into the down pillow. Then he let the music send him off.
Do you feel cold and lost in desperation? You build up hope but failure's all you've known.m Remember all the sadness and frustration and let it go.
Cause waiting doesn't work
and praying may not come through
and hoping doesn't work
so I will be the one to work
And the moral of the story is
 “Moral of the Story” Watsky (used through the chapter)
 “ABC-DE-FGH” Big Bird, Sesame Street (if you’ve never heard this version, he makes the alphabet one big word).
 “Yoda” Weird Al Yankovic
 “I Wanna Be Yours” Arctic Monkeys
 “Wonderwall” Oasis
 “Thinking Out Loud” Ed Sheeran
 “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine” The Killers
 “Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gaye
 “Iridescent” Linkin Park
Off to the Faire! Clint's heading to the Harper's Guild for his testing and finding that this time might not be all that bed ... I mean bad.
“I could get used to traveling like that.” Tony wove his way through a group of pilgrims dressed in brown robes and walking barefoot. “If it didn’t take so much power, I’d just gate everywhere.”
“Might not be a good idea. We don’t know how much the membrane between dimensions has been disrupted by all the radiation.” Bruce side stepped a young paige in red and black livery. “Charles and I discussed the possible ramifications …”
Clint tuned them out; his nerves jangled below his skin, anxiety spiking the further they traversed the main thoroughfare towards the spire of the Guild Hall. All around them, tents were erected, wagons made into shop fronts, wooden stalls with canvas sides lined the tamped down earthen avenues, a bright kaleidoscope of colors and banners advertising all manner of goods and services. Like spokes on a wheel, the avenues angled from the outer rings to the center where a wooden palisade divided the buildings that comprised the permanent part of the faire.
“I imagine this is what it would look like if Glastonbury and Festival in Rio had a baby with Burning Man.” Natasha bumped into a man in an expensive velvet lined vest over a crisp linen shirt. A few steps later, she unrolled a scroll and perused the map. “There’s an apothecary avenue and a whole section on the western edge for blacksmiths.”
“Nice.” Tony snatched the parchment from her hands. “Look, Bruce, there’s a row of alchemists not far from the scrap metal dealers. Bet we can find some components there.”
“We need to be careful,” Steve warned. “Remember not to draw attention to yourselves; we’re just another group of tourists.”
With a huff of laughter, Clint glanced at his friends; a few days short of a month of being in this time, and they already looking nothing like the sick and dazed college students who tumbled out of the pod. Steve had let his beard grow, trimming it neatly, and his hair had darkened to his natural color, the blonde highlights fading. His blue shirt and leather pants peeked out from under the chainmail shirt he’d acquired from Maria’s armory. The sword rode easily on his hip as if it had always been there.
Bruce’s beard wasn’t cut as close as Steve’s, and it matched the curls that grew longer with each passing day. Simple brown was his choice, weathered leather that offered protection from sword blows without limiting his movement. His pack was bigger than the others, bursting with a mixture of first aid kit and science filled notebooks.
Sporting a dark VanDyke, Tony’s hair was messy yet somehow stylish; Clint wasn’t sure where Tony had found mousse or gel, but he sported a model’s hairdo, all artfully tousled. Steve had given him grief about his tight fitted red shirt and black leather pants, saying Tony looked like a pirate which, of course, had only made Tony smile all the wider. But he’d turned down the offer of a hooded cape, declaring that if Edna Mon said no, who was he to go against her.
Of all of them, Natasha looked the most like her old self, albeit in supple leather rather than yoga pants. She’d taken Jean up on a simple drape of dark red fabric that, when pushed back over her shoulders, just brushed the curve of her ass, the hood hidden in the coils of material. Sure, her hair was longer, pulled back except for two stray curls around her face, but her petite frame hadn’t suddenly grown taller. Still, there was a swagger in her walk, an alertness in her eyes that was new; men parted around her as she strolled through the crowd, hardly even aware they were giving her wide berth.
For himself, Clint kept his jaw shaven, leaving a small amount of dark blonde hair on his chin and just below his lip to match his moustache. Long bangs flopped over his eyes -- he needed to cut them soon -- and the back brushed the color of his purple shirt that he’d left untied just to see that look in Phil’s eyes. The vest was low cut and wrapped around his waist; along with his pack, he had a guitar and a mandolin slung over his shoulders, leaving no mistake what his trade was.
“There’s a lot of places to buy musical instruments,” Steve said, stepping up beside Clint and pointing to location on the map. “We should plan a shopping trip once we all get registered and make some money.”
They had a broken keyboard, I bought a broken keyboard. I bought a skeet blanket, then I bought a kneeboard. Hello, hello, my ace man, my mellow, John Wayne ain’t got nothing on my fringe game, hell no.
The subject of much debate, Steve had insisted that they earn their way honestly; he turned a blind eye to little thefts like the map, but he counted the money and clothes and weapons Charles had given them as loans to be paid back. With a stern look at both Natasha and Bucky, Steven had declared stolen money to be off limits.
“I don’t know how much time I’ll have once the process starts.” Clint had already expressed his opinion about everyone coming along on this trip, arguing that, at the least, Tony and Bruce could continue their studies at Xavier’s house. But Tony had put a kibosh on that idea, declaring he’d never miss a party and Natasha had glared at him until he agreed it was best if they all stayed together. “After I get settled in, I’ll come find you when I can.”
Steve and Natasha shared a look, one Clint knew all too well. They had their own plan and Clint’s didn’t matter.
N-now th-that that don't kill me can only make me stronger. I need you to hurry up now 'Cause I can't wait much longer.
Clint jumped as Bucky spoke from beside him; as usual, he hadn’t heard him approach. “Damn it, stop doing that,” he complained. “I’m freaked out enough already.”
“Sorry.” Bucky shrugged. “Got a meeting with Master Drew tomorrow for Nat; Erik’s letter’s delivered to the mage guild, so’s Hank’s to the collegium. Should pave the way for everyone.”
The wall of lashed stakes loomed before them, a double thick barrier that funneled traffic through one of four gates. Guards peered down from the walkway above, more in the stone houses on either side of the road. The flow of people dwindled, many turning onto the inner most ring where a sizeable number of inns and accommodations huddled up to the wall; the closer to the city they came, the pricier it was to stay.
“Barnes.” One of the guards nodded their way. “Heard you were up north.”
“Got too cold for me,” he replied, never pausing. “Not enough action.”
“That’s true,” the guard said with a laugh.
Inside the streets became cobbled with small rocks, gutters running along either side, buildings closer together. The road curved past stables then inns before they came to a square with a fountain in the middle that supplied fresh water.
“The inn is this way,” Bucky said, nodding towards the left. “Two rights then up the hill for a bit. You can’t miss it. The sign’s a woman with red petticoats.”
“I’ll find it,” Clint replied, his own way straight ahead. “I can go the rest of the way myself.”
“Meet us for supper,” Steve told him, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Sixish. We’ll wait on you.”
“I don’t know if I …” Clint stopped because the others walked off, leaving him in the center of the intersection.
“We’ll make it,” Natasha said. “Now let’s get a move on. Aren’t you supposed to meet Phil soon?”
“Oh, no. This wasn’t the deal.” Clint planted himself in front of Natasha.
“Like I’m going to sleep with that bunch? I’ll let Bruce put up with Tony and Steve’s eyefucking.” She simply walked around him. “Seems Master Harpers have quarters, complete with a sitting room and a study. I can sleep on the couch because I’m your sister.”
He had to run to catch up with her. “Nat …”
“Steve’s got one thing right; as much as I may like Coulson, we need to stay together. There’s too much we don’t know. You’re my best friend, Clint. I’m going with you,” she said.
“I love you, you know.” Clint nudged her shoulder. “But you don’t have to ride herd on me all the time.”
“Don’t worry, I promise not to be a third wheel if you want time alone to finally get in Phil’s pants.”
“Who says I haven’t already?” Clint followed the curve of the road after they passed under another gate.
“Yeah, no, not buying it. Your white count is so high I can see it in your eyes.” She had to turn sideways to avoid a cart filled with barrels.
“Phil’s a big believer in foreplay.” Clint gave a little laugh. “Can’t believe it’s been a whole month of practically living on top of each other. Longest I’ve ever gone just hanging with someone.”
“Maybe that’s because he’s important.” Her green eyes flicked up, a softness she reserved only for him. “Worth waiting for.”
“Is that why you and Bucky haven’t …”
“Wow, look at that line!” Natasha skirted around an even bigger square where an obelisk speared towards the sky, ornate carvings filling its six sides. All around, the stone of the street was covered by bodies, sitting and standing; some groups had erected tents, others spread blankets on the ground, their belongings and packs neatly stacked. Families, for the most part, some with grandparents and others with multiple kids, but all with at least one youth. Occasionally, a single filled in space, most in their late teens or early twenties like Clint and Natasha.
“Holy cow.” Clint tried to see where the line ended but it snaked out of sight down a side street. “Phil said there’d be potentials lined up already but this is crazy.”
As they picked their way along the edge, Clint felt the weight of calculating gazes follow them. The trials started at noon tomorrow, the first day of the faire, and these were the folks who’d gotten there early in hopes of being able to get in first. With his guitar and mandolin, Clint was clearly marked as a harper and, as he quickly discovered, stage mothers were the same in any time.
“Excuse me, but can you tell listen to my Robbie and see if his song choice is good enough?” The first woman who spoke to him tugged on his sleeve.
“Should Betsy put her hair up or leave it down? I know there’s still bias against girls being harpers,” a father asked.
“Will they bring water out for us? It’s hot out here,” another parent inquired.
“Sorry, I have to …” Clint found himself ringed with concerned families, all talking at the same time. The more he tried to distance himself, the tighter the ring of bodies became.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
Drawing in a breath, he pushed up from his diaphragm and pitched his voice loud enough to be heard. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Please.”
They fell back a step, startled by the power behind the words.
“I appreciate your concern; you’ve traveled long and waiting is difficult. Everyone will be seen in good time, in an orderly fashion.” As he spoke, he pushed through the crowd. “As to advice, well, I can speak only to those who follow the path of music.” He jumped up on a stone block next to a basin of water. “Trust your instincts. Don’t let others, no matter how well-meaning, make the choices for you. You know the melody in your head; it’s your song. Sing it.”
While the crowd chewed on that bit of bullshit, Clint caught up with Natasha and ducked into the small side arch to the left of the main gate.
“There’s one born every minute,” Natasha said with a laugh.
“Long as it sounds good.”
The guard was a small woman, brown hair cut short, intelligent eyes following their every move. Clint pulled out the letter Phil had given him and passed it over.
“I’m meeting Master Coulson,” he said. As the woman perused the ink scrawls, Clint’s nerves came back in spades, his stomach churning. “I’m …”
“Clint Barton!” A dark skinned man waved as he trotted across the courtyard. “Thought it would take longer for you to get through the crowd. They’re getting as skittish as a colt out there.”
“Master Barton?” The woman handed him back the letter and held out her hand. “Nice to meet you; everyone’s excited to finally get to hear you play. Anyone who can best Phil with his fiddle is welcome here.”
“With a guitar that wasn’t his, no less. Antoine Triplett, but my friends call me Trip.” The man’s hand was next; Clint took his firm grip and shook. “Garrett’s going to be a bear if you become the guitar master, not that the students will mind.”
“Yeah, well, guitar’s not my main instrument, so he doesn’t have to worry. I hear you don’t have a piano person, and that’s my favorite,” Clint said.
Trip whooped, slapping the woman on the shoulder. “Did you hear that, Piper? Guitar’s not his primary! And piano, no less. Boy, you’re going to shake things up around here and it’s about time. Come on, let’s get you to your rooms; Mel gave you a place on the same floor as Phil and it’s got a great view of the faire.”
The crossed the open ground to the main stairs; the Guild Hall towered above them, different sections at different heights. Through the reinforced stone foundations, Clint glimpsed brick, an older structure underneath a newer one. Windows arched, some with balconies; the main entrance was a gothic set of doors that led into a flagstone covered foyer with a wooden wall separating the stairs on either side from the long expanse of hall before them. At the far end, a circular stained glass window spun the afternoon light into a pattern of color on the floor.
Stopped into a church I found along the way. I got down on my knees and began to pray. The preacher lit the coals; he knows I’m gonna stay.
“A rose window.” Natasha glanced at him. “Raised dias, flying buttress beams …”
“Church,” Clint murmured. “Maybe a cathedral.”
“Guild’s built on so much this is pretty much the only original part left,” Trip supplied, directing them towards a small side door. “We hold concerts, large gatherings, advancement ceremonies in here. Tomorrow when we open the doors, this place will be crawling with potentials and their families; the Masters will test them through that right hand door, take them back to the solo chambers. It will be chaos and mostly tears.”
A plain hallway took them through another doorway, into a section made of what looked like river rock and heavy chinking. Faces peeked out of the small rooms as they passed, a trail of whispers left in their wake.
“Does everyone know about me?” Clint asked after a man stepped into their path, looked him up and down, then retreated back into a classroom.
“From the second the archivist got your certification. Harpers feed on gossip; it’s our bread and butter.” Trip took them up a set of stairs that curved around the wall of a tower and past a lounge with a big fireplace. “You’re big news; half the masters are eager to meet you and the other half ready to hate you on sight.”
“Sounds like situation normal, then.” Clint knew all about professors who didn’t like upstart, self-taught young musicians; stodginess seemed to be a prerequisite for the job. “I bet they think anything written in the last hundred years aren’t worth learning.”
“Tell me about it; I’m a jazz man and I spend more time defending the walking bass than I do playing it.” Tripp laughed. “Phil says you play upright bass; you ever improvise with others?”
“Been in a few jam sessions.” Clint said; open and friendly, Trip was easy to warm to. “Much call for jazz at the faire?”
“Thursday night in the artisan quarter. Anyone can sit in; lots of people around who play but aren’t harpers. Piper down at the gate’s an alto and Benji in the stables plays trombone. Apprentice, Journeyman, Master, we don’t care.” Trip stopped in front a door with an empty nameplate. “Here we are. Phil’s two doors down; he said he’d stop by as soon as he was out of his meeting.”
The door opened onto a parlor; a fireplace centered in the opposite wall, windows on either sides with their shutters thrown open to catch the breeze. Overstuffed chairs flanked a small table in the middle of a woven rug that covered the stone floor. Bookshelves filled the spaces between two doors on the other walls, empty and waiting to be used.
“This is one of the smaller suites; once you’re confirmed you can have your pick of what’s available. Most of the Masters keep a residence here.” Trip continued, seemingly unaware of the silent conversation Clint was having with Natasha. This room alone was bigger than his shared bedroom back on campus. “Got all the conveniences including a rainshower and a water closet.” He opened a door on the right; inside was a wooden toilet, a basin with a bowl and mirror, a spout from the ceiling at one end, plus metal pipes that fed water to all three. “Cisterns on the roof gather rain; you just pull the handle. If you prefer bathing with heat, there’s pools downstairs. Good for a soak after a long journey.”
The second door opened into a small room with a twin bed, a nightstand and small dresser. A single window looked out over the town, a decent view, more than Clint had expected. He started to sling his pack onto the floor when Natasha beat him to it, dropping hers on the bed.
“This is nice,” she said to Trip.
“It will be a bit before he gets an apprentice,” Trip replied. “When he does, you’re welcome to guest quarters. A little more space but you don’t get the bathing facilities.”
“Apprentice?” The word tripped over his tongue. “I mean, I thought they’d stay in a dorm or something.”
“Most do, but Masters have one assigned assistant who runs errands and does other chores. Copying, filing, research … it’s a badge of honor to be chosen. I was Phil’s assistant before Fitz.” Trip grinned. “Ward was so angry when he got passed over. Come on, let me show you the rest.”
On the other side of the parlor was a small study with writing tables and room to store various instruments. But the biggest surprise was a corner bedroom with a spread of windows and a big four poster bed. Gauzy curtains hung from the corners, fluttering in the wind that blew across the sheets. Clint took one look at the deep mattress, dropped his pack and flopped onto his face into the softness.
But if I ever had to make a choice I guess it oughta be said that I'd trade them all plus the gal down the road for grandma's feather bed.
“It’s feathers,” he mumbled. “I’m going to stay right here for awhile.”
Trip’s laughter rang out. “You have been traveling, haven’t you? I’ll send someone up with a tray in case you’re hungry; you just missed lunch.”
“Thank you,” Clint turned his head enough to see with one eye.
“No problem,” Trip replied.
“You really going to lay there all afternoon?” Natasha asked after Trip had left. “I was thinking of exploring, getting a lay of the building.”
“Yeah, you go do that. I’m fine right here.” Clint rolled over onto his back and spread his arms. “Remember that bed at the Hard Rock Hotel? The one I was in love with?”
“This one is even better AND I don’t have avoid Thor’s brother’s grabby hands.”
He closed his eyes as the breeze ruffled his hair; a nap sounded great, but his brain was too busy running possible scenarios to let him sleep. While at Xavier’s, Clint had gained a measure of control over the music, enough to keep it to a dull roar and decide when to open his mouth. Meditation techniques he’d learned for targeting helped; he slowed his breathing and filtered through the songs that floated to the surface.
In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double.
That one made him smile; he hummed to himself, swishing his foot to the silent beat. Life had been a lot worse, he reminded himself; at least he had somewhere soft to sleep for the night and friends nearby. Make the best of it, that’s what he had to do; he needed songs to play for the Masters, to prove he deserved the title. It would help if he believed he was.
He could do this. Trust his instincts, sing what he knew. All the bouncing around he’d done gave him wide knowledge of different cultures, unique pieces he could pull out. Maybe that was the tact he’d take, surprise them with a Russian folksong or an African drum tale.
Thing was, Phil would be there just like he’d been for the last weeks. Clint was getting used to the man’s presence, his the calming force. Falling asleep with his head on Phil’s shoulder, sweating on the practice field, Phil was the constant in this world of change.
I'm tellin' you, no, no, no, no, you're the only one standing in your way. Just take a breath, relax … 
That’s what he needed to do. Relax.
“Have you noticed that you're breathing? Look around and count your blessings.
So when you're sick of all this stressin' and guessin' I'm suggestin' you turn this up and let them hear you sing it.”
He sang quietly, the music doing its work.
“Why? Please tell me why do we worry? Why? Why do we worry at all?”
“Good questions.” Phil stood in the doorway. “Worry does little good, but we all do it.”
“Don't worry, be happy baby. Stand up, life is too damn short, that clock is ticking. Man up, if ya feel me, everybody sing it.”
Phil chuckled as Clint waved a hand in his direction. “You may be from a different time, but I know what you’re planning. We’ve got thirty minutes before you go before the Masters, not enough time to for what you’ve got in mind.”
“Aw, Phil.” Clint pushed himself upright, struggling to get out of the soft mattress. “Okay, we go do this then after we eat supper in bed?”
“I can’t. I promised Jasper I’d help him with venue scheduling; we’ve had more buskers apply for permits than ever before.” Phil caught Clint’s hand this time and helped pulled him up. “We’ve got to find locations for all of them as well as performance slots for the journeymen.”
Clint tilted his head and stared at Phil.
“I’d much rather spend the evening with you, trust me.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“The Faire’s the busiest time of the year. Everything will break up on Sunday, I promise.”
“Ummmmm.” Clint stroked his chin. “I see. Nat? Do those sound like excuses to you?”
“Sounds like you decided on a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. Unlike you.”
“Hey, I’m very serious when I want to be,” Clint shouted back.
She didn’t bother to answer.
“Oh, I see.” Phil grabbed Clint’s belt and reeled him in, bumping their hips together. “You need some attention?”
“I am a performer at heart, and you know how needy we can be.” Clint wrapped his arms around Phil’s waist. “Leave me alone and I’ll get in all sorts of trouble.”
“Of that, I have no doubt.”
A soft kiss led to another then another. With a sigh, Clint nuzzled against Phil’s neck then pulled back to look at him.
“Okay. Let’s do this thing.”
 “Thrift Shop” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
 “Stronger” Kanye West
 “Let’s Go Crazy” Prince
 “California Dreamin’.” Mamas and the Papas
 “Grandma’s Feather Bed” John Denver
 “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Bobby McFarrin
 “Why Worry?” Set It Off
Clint gets tested by the Masters ... and finds that he knows more than he thought he did.
This is a super indulgent chapter where I wrote what I wanted to see happen. I hope you enjoy it and the music choices. Sexy times are on the way along with some fun at the Faire ... along with some danger ahead.
Don't forget to check out the playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/user/cakeisnotpie/playlist/2vUSDlxTqFi2J5XGTSfFR8
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Clint had expected a concert room where he’d be on display to be picked apart. That’s how his audition went for college; every keystroke was analyzed and his fate decided on the ear cuff he’d worn. After hearing all the stories about how brutal it could be, Clint hadn’t eaten for twenty four hours before and threw up immediately afterwards.
But Phil led him into a comfortable parlor with chairs and tables arranged among the music stands and stools. A teacher’s lounge, Clint thought, complete with a bar filled with liquor decanters, and a table with some pastries and cookies on a platter. Nine people were scattered around the room; they all turned as Clint entered.
“Well, Phil, you didn’t say he was a young devil.” The man held out his hand; going grey at the temples, laugh lines were etched around his smile. “John Garrett. I play the guitar and so, I hear, do you.”
“John’s the guitar master,” Phil supplied, “and the worst cheater at cards you’ll ever meet.”
“Hey, now,” John said. “Once and Jasper deserved it.”
“The fact you lose all the time isn’t a reason to cheat.” Bald and slim, another man held out his hand. “Jasper Sitwell, percussion and composition.”
“And this is Felix Blake, reeds.” Phil led Clint to a salt and pepper grey haired man. “Best dresser on the Council.”
“Nothing wrong with the finer things.” Felix’s blue eyes scanned Clint, took in his borrowed clothes and scuffed, ill-fitting boots.
“Not all of us come from noble families.” A lovely woman with long brown hair stepped up. “Aubrey Nathan, strings. I’m looking forward to hearing you play for us. We could use some new songs.”
“The classics are the classics,” another woman, a streak of red in her hair, said. “But world music is always welcome.”
“Victoria Hand,” Phil introduced her. “Grand Master of the Guild and woodwinds.”
“Now, Victoria, don’t go frightening Barton off. Popular music is what the people want nowadays.” Petite with long black hair, the woman nodded to Phil. “Melinda May, brass.”
“Melinda’s also in charge of the Guild headquarters; she runs a tight ship,” Phil explained. “Mack here is the tinkerer who keeps updating the building; he’s our lead vocal coach.”
“Nice to meet you.” A big man, he dwarfed Melinda in size, but his open smile came across as genuine.
“Thought you liked ‘em a little older than this, Coulson.” Greying hair and bloodshot eyes surveyed Clint; he crossed his arms across his chest. “And here you raised such a fuss over Mage Nemo’s acolyte.”
“Ross.” Phil’s voice was hard and icy. “How’s the arthritis?”
“Please” Victoria interjected. “Be civil.”
“Clint, this is Thaddeus Ross. Tuned percussion.” Phil bit out each word.
“While Thaddeus can work wonders with mallets, he has terminal hoof-in-mouth-disease.” Ebony skin contrasted with long white hair, tied back from her face. “I’m Ororo Munroe. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Thank you.” Clint nodded in response. “I’ve heard you can calm a storm with your harp.”
“Hardly,” she said with a laugh. “But I have soothed a few beasts.”
“Since we have a quorum, we can get started; the others can hear Barton perform during the Faire if they’re around.” Victoria waved the others to their chairs, motioning Clint to a stool in front of the empty fireplace. Phil poured him a mug of honey mead, sat it on a nearby table, then retreated to stand by the door. “We’ll start with questions; we’re all very interested in your training.”
“Well, I want to know how he avoided the Guild all these years. Talent big enough to beat a Master should have been found long before this,” Ross practically growled.
“Thaddeus.” Victoria merely raised an eyebrow to silence him. “We’re not accusing you of hiding, but we are interested in how we missed you. It’s one of our missions to foster the gift in the Mideast.”
He and Phil had expected the question; the best lie was to tell the truth. Or at least most of it with a few minor changes.
“I wasn’t born in the Mideast,” Clint answered. “My hometown is a tiny little speck in the West called Waverly. Mostly corn farmers, a church, and a tavern. My parents died when I was young, and I bounced around, fostered by different families until I ran away and joined the circus.”
Eyes widened and some sat straight up. “Circus? With lions and all that?” Aubrey asked. “I remember one of those coming through town when I was young.”
“No lions, more of a traveling show. Midway games, trapeze, tumblers, clowns, sharpshooters … we had musical acts too.” Clint could almost hear the organ music. “We traveled the west and did a few circuits of the deep south. Of course, it was nothing like I expected, but I learned invaluable skills.”
“I’ve heard some really good travelers play,” Mack said. “You were a headliner, I bet.”
“Yeah, but not as a musician. The Amazing Hawkeye, he never misses!.” Harpers boasted or so Phil had told him. “Shot a bow and arrow from horseback and other trick positions. Even did some knife throwing.”
Ross’s scoff was loud enough to hear, but Jasper’s laugh drowned it out. “Circus folk, eh? I learned sword swallowing from a guy during Carnival one year. Takes practice and some talent to entertain crowds like that.”
“So who did you study under? You had to have some training on your instruments.” Felix leaned forward in his chair. “And your gift. Who helped you control it?”
Another avenue Phil had told him would be explored; a number of the Masters put store in the names of mentors. “There was a piano teacher in the small town we wintered in; she and her husband took me under their wing. I’d do odd jobs for them and she taught me how to play. He was a carpenter, built and rigged out wagons for us. They were the ones who encouraged my music, talked me into striking out to find my own way in the world. They told stories of harpers they’d known and, occasionally, one would wander into town. I was that obnoxious kid who badgered them with questions and asked for obscure songs.”
His eyes grew misty thinking about the family that had taken him in, had pushed him to go to college, had told him he was talented. They were good people.
“I never had a guitar instructor; I learned bits and pieces from anyone I could, but most of it was trial and error,” he admitted. “Watching others play, reworking songs to fit my strengths. I don’t know many classical pieces, but I know a hell of a lot of tunes that make people want to dance and drink and spend money.”
“There’s a place for those, for sure,” Garrett said. “If you’re singing for your supper, a repertoire of popular music will suffice; however, here you’ll need to learn more.”
“You have any experience working with kids?” Melinda asked. “A big part of our job is teaching.”
How exactly could he explain Vacation Bible School and Summer Band Camps? “In the South, churches offer day programs for children meant to teach them about their beliefs; I worked a number of them, leading the music.” He searched for the right words. “Also some workshops for different instruments meant to encourage kids to pursue music. Need a ton of patience to put up with the repetition of simple songs.”
“Ring around the Rosebush does get old after a few dozen versions,” Melinda agreed. “So you don’t mind a children’s concert now and again?”
“Now and again,” Clint reiterated. “Wouldn’t want to do it every day, but I can manage.”
“What do you see yourself doing? Teaching? Traveling? Mentoring?” Aubrey asked.
“I love performing; maybe at some point I’ll decide to get off the circuit and settle, but right now I still want to see the world.” Clint had thought about his future, just not this far ahead.
“Tell me, what do you think the purpose of music is?” Ororo spoke up. “What do you see as a harper’s role?”
“Oh.” The question rocked him back a little; he’d been ready for the details but hadn’t expected the big picture query. “I guess … the purpose of music … yeah, honestly, I think music is what makes life beautiful; it’s emotions captured in sounds, a way for the listener and the player to share in the moment and find a cathartic release of so many burdens. Break up with a lover and music is a way to deal with the heartache, to move on. Treated unjustly? Music is a rallying cry for freedom and unity. Lonely? Music is a friend. It makes us human.” He paused, collected his thoughts. “A harper doesn’t have just one role; we are what the audience needs us to be. We aren’t above the people, we live among them. Teacher, knowledge keeper, wise sage, drinking buddy, best friend … we stir and soothe and share.” He stopped, words too muddled to continue. “Is that what you’re asking?”
“Indeed.” Ororo smiled at him. From his place in the back, Phil’s grin was wide enough to crinkle the skin around his eyes. “Perhaps you can share with us now; which instrument would you prefer to start with?”
“Perhaps the guitar would be best,” Victoria said. “We’ll have to move to a practice room for the piano. We have a number to choose from; help yourself.”
This was part of the interview as well; the kind of instrument he chose would say a world about him as a musician. Clint had always used hand me downs, guitars that had quirks and characters all of their own, the kind you had to respect as a partner not treat as a piece of chattel. Of the guitars in the room, two were far too new, one without a single scratch in the varnish, wood too green to house a deep sound. Another had loose pins and wouldn’t hold tune. That left three with the right amount of wear; one had intricate designs carved into the wood, a classical body with small scale acoustics. The second was a dreadnought with a rounded body and a cherry sunburst finish. The third, and the one Clint immediately gravitated towards, was the classic hourglass of the auditorium body with a simple mahogany finish. A few nicks marred the curves, but it was a sturdy guitar that would take a beating and keep playing.
“What would you like to hear?” Clint asked once he was back on his stool; he checked each string and tuned them by memory. “Any style in particular?”
“No singing on this one,” John called out. “Something that shows your fingering skills with some rapid key changes.”
For the last few weeks, Clint had constantly thought of songs he could use. Late at night, he’d compose setlists to impress, the kinds of songs his professors would have wanted him to play. But now, in the moment, Clint decided to toss out all the planning and go with songs that felt right.
“Alright, this is a song I learned at a little bar near the coast. It was originally composed for the piano, but a guy by the name of Williams shifted it to the guitar. If I remember right, the style is called ragtime because of its syncopated or ragged rhythm. Fittingly, it’s called The Entertainer.”
He started the opening run, the refrain familiar from the Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie. He loved the flick, always identifying with the young Johnny Hooker who learns the tricks of the confidence game trade, how Henry Gondorff took him under his wing and they became partners-in-crime. Clint couldn’t help but smile, remembering his attraction to Paul Newman, and how the movie had made him realize he was gay. His fingers plucked the strings, sharp little notes in speedy succession, each one an assertion that he could play, that he was more than the sum of his parts, that his past didn’t write him into a corner. Like Robert Redford who went from cheap suits to tuxedos, from crappy rentals to fancy hotel rooms, Clint was changing, thanks to Phil’s support and tutelage.
When he finished, he kept his head down for a long second, the showman in him drawing it out.
“Interesting technique.” John was the first to respond. “The way you hold the guitar … are you left handed?”
“I can play with both,” Clint answered, switching and strumming a few chords. “But for intricate fingering I prefer the right.”
“I’ve heard that song but I believe it was called Ragtime,” Felix said. “Along with Maple Leaves.”
Clint picked out the opening of Maple Leaf Rag. “The rhythms are so upbeat, and yet you can make them melancholy,wistful if you play it right.” He slowed down for the next few measures, highlighted the seventh chord and thought about never going home again.
“I see.” Felix had closed his eyes while he listened. “Yes, like a memory that’s happy but fading with time.”
“Would sound fuller on a spinet, but it’s a difficult enough tune,” Ross grudgingly agreed. “Now sing for us, boy. You said you like to perform.”
Tension crawled up the back of Clint’s neck at the unspoken challenge. Starting the song, he channeled that frustration into the lyrics, turning electric guitar riffs into acoustic runs.
“I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps.
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps.
I don't know how nobody told you how to unfold your love.
I don't know how someone controlled you.
They bought and sold you.
I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps.
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps.”
The bass line he plucked out with his left hand, his right making notes vibrate with an anger that had been building inside him since they’d arrived. At Justin Hammer, the rich entitled son-of-a-bitch who’d played games and gotten them lost in time. At Tony, unjustified Clint knew, but still there, the man who’d given the go ahead to start the pod. At Pierce, his dungeon and kill order. At this world, not his own. At idiots like Ross who were the same anywhere he went, judgemental assholes who looked down on guys like Clint. Why had nothing changed?
He glanced up and saw Phil; caught in his anxieties, Clint had forgotten the good. Natasha’s friendship. Steve’s loyalty. Tony and Bruce’s creativity. Bucky’s protection. And Phil. He wasn’t sure where this thing was going, but he wanted to find out. He repeated, “I look at you and see the love there that’s sleeping,” rolling through keys and into D minor. The song turned, anger giving way to questions of love and trust.
What'll I do when I get lonely?
And nobody's waiting by my side?
I've been running and hiding much too long.
I know it's just my foolish pride.
You've got me on my knees, Layla.
I'm begging, darling please, Layla.
Darling won't you ease my worried mind.”
From minor to sharp to major and back, the song challenged him; the original called for an orchestra and even when playing acoustic Clapton had backup musicians. With the one guitar, he had to weave different melodies at different tempos, transposing on the fly.
“Let's make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane.
Please don't say, we'll never find a way
And tell me all my love's in vain.”
Yearning for more filled his voice, desire for someone to share his burdens. From weeping strings to begging melody, he poured confusion and longing into every note. Adding riffs that meshed the two songs, tying them together in both words and music until he ended with a single chord that faded away.
“You told him to sing, Ross,” Mack said. “And sing he did.”
“Gift that strong, you’ll need lots of practice to control it,” Melinda added. “I suddenly feel the need to talk to my mother, and I’m happy only seeing her once a year.”
“I was wondering how long it had been since I told T’Challa how I feel,” Ororo admitted. “And I know it was magic at work.”
“With power like that, seems we should have heard about you performing; people like to talk, especially about someone new.” Felix shifted in his seat. “How did you get to that inn where you found Phil? Without an instrument to your name?”
“I hadn’t been performing.” Clint put the guitar back and took a long swallow from his mug. “We were bumming around, looking for work, when we were attacked by a band of Erks. I lost my guitar in the melee; had to use it to smack one upside of the head. That’s why I took the job at the inn; to make some money so we could replenish our supplies.”
“And you just happened to decide to issue the challenge?” Ross sneered.
“Actually, I figured I’d get a better cut of the take, to be honest. Didn’t expect to win.” He shrugged then grinned. “Plus, Coulson’s sexy and has a nice ass.”
John laughed out loud. “I like him, Phil. He’s got a mouth on him. Hit an Erk with a guitar.”
“An adventurer.” Ross sighed. “Just what we need.”
“What we need,” Victoria turned a frosty glance at Ross, “is to continue. Ororo, if you’d reinforce the wards on the practice room with the baby grand, we’ll move there.”
“We can stay here.” Clint pulled the small token from his pocket. “If you don’t moving the table, that is.”
“Is that …” Victoria held out her hand, and Clint put the tiny piano in her palm. “Where did you get this? I’d thought all of Pires were accounted for.”
“It’s a loan from a friend; he couldn’t figure out how to trigger the magic.” He picked up the end of the table; Mack took the other. Once the space was cleared, Clint took the piano back, whistling and calling the three names after he placed it on the floor. “Best part is that it’s always in tune.”
A few gasps mixed with ahs as the piano grew to full size. Ross jumped out of his chair, held out a hand, but hesitated, glancing at Clint. With a nod, Clint gave him permission; running his fingers along the polished wood on the side, Ross caressed a few notes then played a chord.
“This is quite an instrument,” he murmured, stroking the ivories gently. “I saw a Pires once in the Far West; it’s too bad we’ve lost the magic to make more like them. Such a beautiful sound.”
“It belongs to Xavier,” Phil said. “He was more than happy to lend it to Clint after he heard him play.”
“Impressive.” Ross curled his fingers and pulled himself away.
“If you’d like to try it later …” Clint offered.
“Yes, I would, very much.” A glint of excitement flashed in Ross’ eyes. “First, though, I’d like to hear a classic, something suited for such a grand work of art.”
“Agreed.” Felix got up and began passing around the tray of goodies. “Tamp back on the magic; I’d like to know your skill level without it.” He brought the food to Clint. “But eat and drink something first; sugar will help replenish the spent energy.”
He took a tiny cherry tart and what looked like a brownie. The cherries were just sour enough to provide bite and the chocolate square dense and chewy. After a long drink, he used the bowl of water Melinda sat out for him to wash his fingers and dried his hands on the provided towel. In that time, he’d decided on the piece to play not only because it was written for piano and would test his abilities, but also because it was the inspiration for him learning to play.
“First time I heard this rhapsody was to entertain children; the musician told the story of a cat virtuoso who was playing for an important audience. Unbeknownst to him, a mouse had taken up residence under the strings. The lassan comes first, a very formal section that fits well with the anxious cat worrying about his performance. Then comes the friska, which starts slow then becomes a back and forth between the dominant and the tonal, the mouse being the tonal runs that constantly interrupt and speed up. Perhaps the most interesting part is the ad lib; Liszt invites pianists to add their own credenzas just before the end; the musician added a lively run of both themes that sounded exactly like a cat trying to catch a mouse.”
Clint sat down on the bench and cracked his knuckles.
“That interpretation of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is what made me decide to learn how to play.”
He hit the first C-sharp major chords then shifted into C-minor. A smile flitted across Felix’s face; Victoria nodded. With his back straight, in perfect position, Clint played the lassan like the nervous applicant he was. Rather than heighten the melancholy inherent in the key, he went for a growing anxiousness that would be familiar to anyone who’d ever stepped on a stage, hesitantly slowing until he shifted back to C-sharp major and picked up speed.
Picturing the cartoon in his mind, he played Tom’s part with increasing heaviness, cat chasing the mouse up and down the keyboard. Jerry’s was more playful, sliding from note to note, jumping over the bottom hand and back. He was grinning as he hit the calm before the credenza then he was off, adding other cartoon echoes before racing through the crescendo of octaves that came to a crashing end.
This time, applause erupted; Mack clapped him on the back.
“Excellent! Add a storyteller and kids will love it. Mix it in with the animal fables,” he exclaimed.
“I’ve not heard piano played that well since Dugan passed away,” John said. “Sorry, Phil, but you’d have no chance if Clint had a piano. None of us would.”
“Speak for yourself,” Felix groused. “Apples and oranges, John. Apples and oranges.”
“He is accomplished,” Aubrey said. “You have to admit that, Thaddeus.”
“I know a good musician when I hear one,” Ross agreed.
Melinda raised a hand and caught everyone’s attention. “I, for one, would like to hear something that would please a crowd, say in Banker’s Square or Drover’s Quarter. So far, your picks have been on the quiet side.”
“Well …” Clint’s gut reaction to the request probably wasn’t suitable. “Dance music? A song that rocks? Something to soothe drunks?”
“Whatever you want,” Victoria said. “No music is off-limits.”
And that was waving a red flag in front of Clint. The feel of the keys beneath his fingertips and the rush of magic made the decision for him. For one brief second, he caught Phil’s eye then he kicked back the bench and pounded out the triplet and opening chord.
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, but what a thrill
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.”
Cutting loose felt good; what did it matter in the end? They would accept him or they wouldn’t, and did he really want to squash the fun side of himself? People were people, now or back in his time. They loved sexually charged songs, loud piano, and a larger-than-life performance.
“I laughed at love 'cause I thought it was funny
You came along and moved me honey
I've changed my mind, your love is fine
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.”
He didn’t go as far as banging the high notes out with his heel, but he put on a show, emphasizing the glissandos and keeping the song moving.
“Kiss me baby, woo feels good
Hold me baby, well I want to love you like a lover should
You're fine, so kind
I want to tell the world that you're mine, mine, mine, mine”
Flashing a lascivious grin at Phil, Clint repeated the bridge, growling out the words and hitting the keys in a syncopated rhythm. Felix and Victoria were sitting still as statues; Mack was grinning, head bopping in time to the music. Ross looked like he’d swallowed a lemon; John tapped his foot and slapped a hand against his thigh.
“I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs
I'm real nervous, but it sure is fun
Come on baby, drive me crazy
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!!”
The end came in a crash of chords; he fought the urge to jump up on the stool and do a backflip off. There was pushing the boundaries and insanity; Natasha was always telling him he crossed it far too often.
“That was quite … loud.” Under Victoria’s watchful gaze, Clint pulled the stool back in place. “But it will be popular for late evenings at the Faire.”
“They’ll demand you play it over and over again,” Melinda agreed. “Certainly leaves one in a good mood.”
“Is that what you call it?” John asked, wiggling his eyebrows. “I would say it puts me in the mood.”
“Must everything be about sex?” Ororo sighed. “The song was clearly about being excited by your beloved.”
“Excited.” John nodded. “That’s the word.”
“Love, sex, the interpretation is up to the listener, isn’t it?” Jasper said. “Can we stop arguing and see what Barton can do when unfettered? Find out just how strong he is?”
Clint started. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“The room is protected; there are ten of us here with enough experience to contain any effects,” Victoria said. “We need to know where your gift lies. Choose a song and let go.”
“I can’t …” Clint looked to Phil for help.
“The Grand Master is right; this is the safest venue for the final test.” Phil’s smile filled Clint with comfort. “Clear your mind and trust the force.”
He closed his eyes; background noise faded, his awareness narrowed, and in the quiet a song rose to his mind. He almost laughed at the simplicity of it, a common request from bar patrons; he did shake his head and reach into his small pack. When he’d been preparing, he’d tossed in a few things just in case; the harmonica and holder slipped around his neck with ease.
“You asked me about the role of a harper earlier. This song captures what I see as our job; I’ve sung it a lot during performances.”
Jazzing up the opening, Clint added some trills and a retard before he put mouth to the harmonica and launched into the walking ¾ waltz baseline and the familiar bars.
“It's nine o'clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There's an old man sitting next to me
Makin' love to his tonic and gin.”
In his mind’s eye, he pictured bars he’d played in, the people who wandered in, the regulars, the wait staff and bartenders. He thought of groups of teenagers at the university’s summer camps, little kids sitting in circles in church halls, men in tuxedos and women in pearls, hot stage lights and folding chairs. Eyes alight with excitement, sagging in boredom, glazed with tears, fuzzy from alcohol.
“He says, "Son, can you play me a memory
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes."
Everyone wanting, everyone needing, everyone hoping for something more. Memories or prophecies, past or future, they came to hear him play, to open themselves up to the music he offered.
“Sing us a song you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling alright.”
With each phrase, he sank deeper into the magic, reaching out his senses to feel the reactions of those in the room. Surprise rippled around him, familiarity with the tune but confusion at the words.
“Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he's quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there's someplace that he'd rather be.”
The emotions separated into distinct units; someone was missing home, feeling alone and isolated. To them, Clint sent a pulse of understanding, channeling his own unease with this world.
“He says, "Bill, I believe this is killing me."
As a smile ran away from his face
"Well, I'm sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place."
Delight with the music -- someone was happy to hear Clint play. For her, he added an extra measure of harmonic and piano echoes. Another reserved judgement, past experiences making edges sharp; like the softest of sandpaper, Clint’s song brushed over and in, smoothing the way.
“Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he's talking with Davy, who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life.”
Anger, so much anger, a constant boil of past hurts and seeming injustices. In the face of such raw hate, Clint soothed, a balm of words and music for a momentary respite. A busy mind, shuffling to-do lists and thinking far ahead; be still, the keys whispered, and let me take you away.
“And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes they're sharing a drink they call "Loneliness"
But it's better than drinking alone.”
Loss, the ache of an old unhealed pain; all Clint could offer was companionship, drinking together so he didn’t suffer alone. Curiosity tinged with the slightest hint of jealousy, not malicious, more a longing. To him, Clint sang his own doubts, his fears he wasn’t good enough.
“Sing us a song you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling alright.”
Desire, deep and pure, thoughts of Clint’s hands, his fingers, his arms -- smiling, Clint sent each one back double fold, laying bare his feelings about Phil in return.
“It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been coming to see
To forget about life for a while.”
A prickle of cold, something dark, covered quickly, masked by congeniality; Clint drew back, unwilling to press too closely to the unnerving sensation. Instead, he turned outward, flying through the walls and skimming over the city, rushing out through the faire grounds.
“And the piano it sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, "Man, what are you doing here?"
So much emotion washed over him, hurting and pain balanced by love and kindness. Bright flames of humanity flickered, small pockets of malice hiding in their shadows. Clint sang to them all, a melody of rest and relief, to ease worried minds.
“Sing us a song you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling alright.”
The last note faded; his senses swirled back, collapsing into him, a wave of exhaustion following in their wake. With a long sigh, he dropped his head forward, tired and worn.
“How the hell does he know the old language!” Ross jumped up from his seat, face mottled red.
“Sung it a lot, my ass.” Felix braced his hands on the arms of his chair. “How can some kid from the West know a song of power?”
“That’s a question I’d like answered.” Victoria glared at Clint. “Who coached you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clint had no clue what was going on. “I’ve known that song for years.”
“It’s possible he learned a bastardized version …” Mack began but was cut off by Jasper.
“Even I don’t know the true words to that one.”
“If we can just let Clint explain,” Aubrey tried to interject.
“There was that one harper back in the 300s … I forget her name but she learned the old language from her parents who were archivists or something? Sandra, Cassandra, Andrea, something like that.” John leaned back in his chair. “It’s not unheard of. Travelers have long memories; that Marcy girl knew all sorts of songs the Guild Masters didn’t.”
“Darcy. Her name is Darcy.” Jasper corrected. “And she came to us when she was what, eleven? That’s an entirely different situation.”
Clint’s head began to spin; his fingers were trembling and he couldn’t quite focus. “I don’t understand …”
“What are you accusing him of?” Phil confronted Ross, crossed his arms and stared him down.
“You know what happened with the last unstable talent!” Ross shouted back. “Just because you believe that evolution theory doesn’t mean he’s not a perversion of biology.”
“What it means is you’re a bigoted asshole,” Phil shot back. “Just because he’s more talented to than you …”
“I don’t think your opinion counts since you’re fucking him.” Ross cut in.
“Gentlemen.” Melinda stepped between them. “This is neither the time nor place. It’s clear that Barton doesn’t know what he’s done; if you’d take a moment, you’d feel his confusion through the fading spell.”
“Yes.” Victoria cleared her throat. “You’re right, Mel. We’re letting our emotions get the best of us; it’s a testament to Barton’s abilities how much we’ve all been compromised. I believe we should table the question of Barton’s song and language use to a time when we’ve all had a chance to cool down and genuflect. As to the matter of Barton’s status, there’s no doubt he’s deserving of the title of Master, not after that performance.”
“That’s your opinion,” Ross challenged. “Not mine.”
“True. Let’s put it to a vote. All in favor of certifying Barton’s challenge and status?” She raised her hand, as did everyone else except Ross. “There. Make sure the record shows Thaddeus was the only hold out.”
“You’re going to regret this,” Ross practically growled, stalking to the door. “I predict Barton’s going to bring more trouble than he’s worth. And when he does, don’t come to me to help clean it up.”
“Well, he does have a flare for the dramatic,” Jasper said after Ross had slammed out of the room. “But then he’s a harper.”
That got a round of chuckles and the tension in the room lessened. Pushing up from the bench, Clint’s legs almost gave way; he grabbed the piano to keep from falling.
“Careful there,” Mack said, offering a hand. “You burned through a lot of energy; you need to get some rest and recharge.”
“Yes, in fact, Jasper, would you make sure Clint doesn’t have a set scheduled until Friday? He’ll need a few days to recuperate. Plus, we can advertise his performances; I’m sure the rumor mill is working overtime right now.” Victoria actually smiled, her face lightening. “Enjoy the Faire. Sleep. Eat. We’ll work you hard enough on the weekend. Those are the largest crowds anyway.”
“Thank you?” Clint wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say; too many thoughts were jumbled in his exhausted brain. “I mean, yeah, thanks.”
“Come on,” Phil slipped his arm around Clint.
“I can walk,” Clint insisted once they were in the hall. He took two steps by himself and his knees buckled. “Okay, maybe a little help would be appreciated.”
Mack chuckled. “I’ll leave him in your hands,” he told Phil. “I’m going by the kitchens; I’ll have them send up some dinner. Do you need someone to watch him for mage fever?”
“We’ve got that covered, thanks; she’ll make sure he eats.”
The walk back was jumbled; they turned what seemed like an endless number of corners and then he was falling back into the soft mattress of his bed.
“Going to meet Steve and the others for dinner,” Clint complained as Phil tugged off his boots.
“I’ll send them a message,” Natasha answered, pushing the hair back from his face. “You are staying right here.”
“Bossy,” he mumbled, curling his legs up and tucking a hand beneath his pillow. “Both of you. That’s why I like you.”
“... late before I’m done …”
“.... tomorrow morning not far from here …”
“Phil?” Clint reached out an arm, fingers opening and closing. He caught Phil’s hands and drew him closer. “I understand. Don’t know what I’m going to do either. ‘Bout going back. If Tony figures it out.”
“Shhhhh,” Phil’s lips brushed his forehead.
“Don’t want to hurt you. You’re too good for me.” Clint’s lids were too heavy to lift. “But I want to try.”
“Me too.” Phil promised. “No more waiting; I’m ready.”
Clint slipped into sleep, fingers interlaced with Phil’s.
 “The Entertainer” Scott Joplin, arranged by John Williams
 “The Maple Leaf Rag” Scott Joplin
 “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” George Harrison
 “Layla” Eric Clapton
 “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” Franz Liszt
 “Great Balls of Fire” Jerry Lee Lewis
 “Piano Man” Billy JOel
I actually learned to play Lizst's Hungarian Rhapsody because of that Tom & Jerry cartoon!
No more waiting.
The next chapter might take a little longer; I'm taking my daughter to college and my own classes start next week. We'll see how much I can get done!
Check ou tthe updated playlist here:
Clint woke slowly, floating up from the depths of sleep. A bit at a time, he remembered the day before, playing for the others, falling into bed, being woken by Natasha to eat before he crawled back in. Now, the first light of morning filtered through the bed curtains, a cool breeze ruffled the edges. Warm, he turned towards the heat and snuggled into it.
“I’ve got to get up,” Phil mumbled, nuzzling his nose into the curve of Clint’s neck.
“Ummm.” Clint settled deeper into Phil’s arms. “I’m dreaming.”
Fingertips trailed along his arm, across his shoulder, up his neck and buried themselves in his hair. “I meant what I said about not waiting. After we finished up last night, I didn’t think you’d mind a guest. You waxed poetic about this bed so much I had to try it out.”
Cracking open his eyelids, Clint saw Phil’s face turned towards him with a sleepy smile. “Best way to wake up ever.” He dropped a kiss on his forehead. “So, how much trouble am I in?”
Phil sighed, his thumb running back and forth along Clint’s jaw. “It’s a mess, but it’s the division in the Guild, not so much you. There’s enough Masters stuck in their ways who don’t want to deal with the changing realities. You saw that up close.”
“Ross and his perversion comment; he thinks I’m a danger because I know things he didn’t teach me. It’s about control.” Clint wiggled down until he was face-to-face with Phil. “I’ve run into that type before, the gatekeepers of music. Toss in magic and they’re even more likely to be challenged by new talents.”
“You really do understand.” Phil slipped a knee between Clint’s legs, hooking his ankle over Clint’s. “The songs of power, the old language … I can’t explain you know them because you heard the original.”
“True.” Clint’s hand rested easily on Phil’s waist. “I didn’t even realize I’d switched to English; the translation spell should have taken care of it.”
“We told you to open yourself to the full extent of your magic. Anglesh would be the most powerful.”
Wagon wheels clattered on the cobblestones below; the murmurs of the waiting potentials grew louder vendors started selling breakfast.
“I really do have to get going; I traded with Jasper for the first judging shift today so I could have this evening free,” Phil said.
“I bet the first rush is terrible; they’d be the ones who are sure their little Johnny is the most talented ever.” Clint didn’t let go and Phil made no effort to move.
“The worst of the worst. Some of the parents try to force their way into the performance space. Normally I’d do anything to get out of it but,” he tightened his fingers ever so slightly, “I plan on taking you to this lovely little place not far from here with the best food in the city then laying you out on my bed and tasting every inch of you.”
If Clint wasn’t already hard, he certainly would be at that declaration. “Come over here.”
He tugged and tilted his head until their lips fit together like they were meant to. Long and slow, he kissed Phil until the music had to come out.
“All you got is this moment, the twenty-first century's yesterday, you can care all you want. Everybody does yeah that's okay. So slide over here and give me a moment, your moves are so raw, I've got to let you know, you're one of my kind.”
Another kiss, hotter, more demanding, didn’t take the edge off of Clint’s rising need. The sexual tension between them was taut and about to break; there was no mistaking the ridge of Clint’s cock rubbing against Phil’s hip.
In a second, Clint found himself on his back, Phil over him, their bodies aligned. “I can be a little late,” Phil said with a smile. Then he sang, “We wake at dawn when the birds are singing. We could be strangers, but that’s not what we’re thinking. Outside it’s cold, misty and it’s raining but we got each other, so there’s no complaining.”
“Phil.” Clint arched up into Phil. “Yes.”
Hips circled together, friction and release. Phil kicked down the covers, and the slipped out of their underwear so skin could rub against skin. Kissing interspersed with gasps, they settled into a rhythm, Phil’s hand wrapped around them both. Smooth motion stuttered the closer they came, groans and harsh breaths filling the room. Clint tumbled over first then Phil finished himself before he flopped onto his back.
“Well, now you’ve gone and done it,” Clint said. “I feel a hunger, it's a hunger that tries to keep a man awake at night. Are you the answer, I shouldn't wonder, when I feel you whet my appetite.”
“I’ll definitely take you home with me tonight,” Phil promised. “And there will be whiskey because I’m going to need it after today.”
“And you haven’t told Phil?” Steve asked.
They trailed behind the others as they wove their way through the stalls. They all had a bit of money in their pockets, thanks to standard Guild wages and Steve’s new job with the Faire guard. Clint had been surprised by how heavy the leather pouch of gold was that Melinda handed him; she’d laughed and said Masters had expenses.
“Tell him what? That I think one of the masters is hiding something cold and dark while I was using magic.” Clint shook his head. “I could have been imagining it.”
“To be honest, this all seems too easy.” Steve watched Tony as he stopped to look at some red leather. “I keep expecting the other shoe to drop.”
“Yeah.” Clint had felt that same niggle in the back of his neck. “Ross is bad enough, all piss and vinegar and anger, but I can’t help feeling there’s more. Of course, I’m a pessimist, always expecting the worst.”
“Ross?” Tony turned. “We meet a Ross this morning, didn’t we Bruce? Dark hair, glasses, smart, petite … what was her name again?”
“You just want me to say it.” Bruce rolled his eyes. “Her name is Betty Ross, and she’s a Master Healer. Been working on radiation sickness and has some great ideas about mutation lineage.”
“Great ideas.” Tony grinned. “I thought Bruce was going to hyperventilate before he could even say hello. I had to ask her to dinner for him.”
“Well, that makes two of us with dates tonight.” Clint nudged Natasha. “What about you, Nat? You got plans?”
She side-eyed him and kept moving. “I want to head to the metalsmiths,” she said instead. “Get some balanced daggers and shoulder sheaths.”
“I’m with you; need to test some shields.” Steve turned left at the next intersection.
He ended up buying some throwing knives of his own, well-balanced and small enough to tuck into the new boots he ordered, a pair measured and fit to his size. Tony dragged them to a salvage seller where he bought wire and other miscellaneous bits to build magical tasers, one for him and another for Bruce. Even though he’d had lunch at the Guild, Clint managed to find room for a dough puff -- a cross between a funnel cake and a doughnut -- and he tucked a bag of bite sized honey spice cookies into his pouch for later. Then he was off to look at instruments, Natasha wandering along with him, while the others went looking for white willow bark and echinacea, among other natural ingredients.
First he circled the bigger stalls, scoping out the offerings. The largest seller had everything from tubas to tambourines; a line of guitars hung from one of the structural supports. Brand new and flashy, they didn’t hold up to a closer inspection, globs of glue on the joints and cheap wood already bowing in places. Clint crossed off the next place because the two young assistants looked hungry with tired eyes. No amount of bluster about quality could make up for treating workers badly. Of the next three, Clint noted some possibilities, two classicals with Guild labels, a used dreadnought, and a new auditorium, but none of them grabbed him enough to make him take out his money.
Just when he was about to give up for the day, he saw a small opening between booths, just enough for two to walk abreast, and found a series of tiny stalls wedged together. Tuning, restringing, dent repair, reeds … each held a few instruments for sale along with the services offered. But what caught his eye was a flash of a mother-of-pearl. Hanging just inside a stall, the guitar was a deep mahogany, parlor sized, and a work of art. Inlayed in the headstock was a figure in a green hood with a bow over his shoulder; leafy curls ran under the frets, blossoming into full grown trees for a pick guard. Arrows formed the rosette, each perfectly formed in flight.
“Tasha.” Clint could barely breath, the beauty of the piece stealing his voice. Completely impractical, the guitar wasn’t what Clint needed and probably way out of his price range.
“Ah, that’s my mother’s work. She has a deft hand, does she not?” No more than eighteen, the young woman took the guitar down. “Would you like to try it?”
“Oh, I’m not in the market for a decorative guitar.” Clint reached out anyway, his hands operating without his brain’s consent. “I’m looking for something to travel with, small and durable. This is …”
“Studier than it looks.” The girl laughed. “We offer a three year warranty from the time of purchase for any missing pieces no matter the age of the piece. Mom takes older models and updates them. This one,” she pointed to one with a dragon on the headpiece, flames darting down the fret, “was ten-years-old when we started working on it.”
Testing the strings, Clint strummed a chord then plucked a few notes. “It’s beautiful work.”
“Robin has been rebuilt to withstand being slung over a horse and carted around. What else would you expect from an outlaw? Go ahead, give it a try.”
The sound was mellow and true, just the right reverberation in the strings. He couldn’t help himself; with a short intro, he began to sing, “ Robin Hood and Little John walkin' through the forest, laughin' back and forth at what the other has to say. Reminiscin', This-'n'-thattin' havin' such a good time, oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a day.”
“You are such a meatball,” Natasha said. “But it suits you.”
“Oh, I know the way to your heart, darlin’,” he shot back. Changing the key, he into D and started with the second verse:
“He'd a french cocked hat at his forehead
A bunch of lace at his chin
A coat of claret velvet
And breeches of brown doe-skin
They fitted with nary a wrinkle
His boots were up to the thigh
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle
His pistol butts a-twinkle
His rapier hilt a-twinkle
Under the jeweled sky.”
“I should never have told you I like bad boys,” Natasha sighed. “But you’re right. I love that song.”
“Try this one. Give me a drinking song.” Grey hair pulled back in a bun, the elderly woman held out a small body guitar. Just above the sound hole was inlayed two entwined celtic dogs; celtic scrollwork circled in the rosette. “You could hit an erk over the head and this one would survive. ”
“Grandmother!” The girl blushed. “I’m sorry, but Granny thinks she has the sight.”
“I don’t think, Dee, I know.” The woman huffed. “Plus, I keep my ear to the ground for news; this is Master Barton who won the challenge.”
“You mean you gossip with those old biddies over tea,” said another middle age woman who came through the tent flap at the back of the stall. “But she is right about that pairing. The Hound is a loyal instrument; it will do a traveling harper right.”
He switched and took a second to get used to the lighter instrument; the reach was just right, the frets smooth on his callouses, and the body easy to nestle against his leg after he propped up a foot on a small stool. A few bars intro and he launched into one of the most popular drinking songs he knew.
“As I was goin' over
The Cork and Kerry Mountains
I saw Captain Farrell
And his money, he was countin'
I first produced my pistol
And then produced my rapier
I said, "Stand and deliver or the devil he may take ya".”
The grandmother grinned, showing her missing teeth, and began clapping along, singing with the chorus when he got there. Music flowed easily from the strings; Clint had forgotten what playing a fine instrument felt like. Years of second hand and hand-me-downs had been his lot.
He didn’t intend to play the whole thing, but he got caught up in the song and the laughter from the women. Natasha joined in, dancing a little jig with the grandmother, her smile wide as she spun them around.
Applause made him turn his head; an audience had gathered, crushed together in the small avenue. He gave a sketchy bow, glad to see that some of them started looking at the merchandise.
“I’m always right,” the grandmother declared. “He’ll take both of them. One for playing with the masters and the other for the rest of us.”
“Oh, I can’t …” Clint began to object.
“How much?” Natasha said. The grandmother’s eye’s flashed with pleasure as the two got down to haggling. In the end, Clint parted with a lot more of his gold that he’d budgeted but not so much that he couldn’t finish the rest of his shopping list if he cut back a little.
“I didn’t need both of those.” AS much as he complained, he was thrilled to have them. He’d never owned something so beautiful.
“You deserve them. Plus, you could afford it. Let yourself enjoy it.”
“Phil.” The back of the Clint’s head hit the wall as he curled his fingers into Phil’s hair. “Oh, God, that’s so …”
They’d made it only steps into the room before Phil spun him around and dropped to his knees, putting his mouth to work on blowing Clint’s mind.
I wanna lick you from your head to your toes, and I wanna move from the bed down to the down to the floor. Then I wanna … ah ah you make it so good … I don't wanna leave but I gotta know what's your fantasy.
“Oh, fuck …” He tensed and tried to pull back, but Phil held him tight and took him deeper. With a groan and a sigh, he came, eyes drifting closed only for a second. Then he caught Phil under his arms and tugged until he stood up. “Your turn.”
It didn’t take long to bring Phil to the edge; Clint enjoyed the weight of Phil on his tongue, the tiny sounds from deep in Phil’s throat. A long sigh and Phil whispered Clint’s name as he finished.
Phil kissed Clint as soon as he was within reach. “We didn’t make it to the bed.”
“Pour the wine, light the fire, your wish is my command. I submit to your demands; I will do anything you need only ask,” he crooned in Phil’s ear.
“Be careful what you promise. I just might take you up on it.”
“That’s a positive in my book.”
With a finger of whiskey each, they settled on the bed; Clint with his schedule in hand.
“So let me guess, I got all the shit jobs. Low man on the totem pole and all.”
“Totem pole?” Phil cocked his head.
“Native American, carved from wood, heads of various animals sacred to the tribe.” Clint tried. “People who were here before … damn, it’s hard to explain. Each tribe had a name: Cherokee, Pawnee, Nez Perce, Apache …”
“The People. They live primarily in the West, very insular. I’ve heard some of their stories, but never met any.”
“The women who sold me my new guitars were Native American.” Clint leaned back against the headboard, propped up by a pillow. “The grandmother said she had the sight; that I was the right owner for them.”
“There’s a tale of a visionary who foretold the fire that was coming and got all of her tribe to safety in the mountains. The land they left slid into the sea, or so the legend goes; they watched from the peak as the world ended.” Phil slipped his arm around Clint’s shoulders. “Take me to stall tomorrow; I want to meet them.”
“They had a gorgeous fiddle …” Clint grinned. “Made me think of you.”
“I’m on judging duty in the morning and I promised Trip I’d sit in on the jazz session tomorrow night. How about I introduce you to my favorite aire food, buffalo chicken pockets? We can grab a mug of cider and eat along the way.”
“Sounds good. Trip cornered me too; I’m bringing the piano.” Clint yawned. “Bruce even has a date for the evening.”
“And that’s why you need two days to recover.” Phil took Clint’s glass and set it on the table by the bed. “Magical exhaustion takes it out of you.”
“Gotta get ready for these sets. Decide what to play.”
“Friday’s the challenge. Back-to-back two hour stretches. The first is in the Social Quarter, just outside the gates. That one’s just you.”
“What kind of audience?” Clint turned and tucked himself along Phil’s side.
“People waiting for their appointments, choosing their partners for the evening. You’ll be outside in the square where they’ve erected the tents. Mostly keep them in the mood.”
“Partners?” Clint lifted his head. “We’re talking about taverns, right?”
“Social houses. You know, sexual favors.”
“Oh, you mean the Red LIght District?” Clint huffed a laugh. “Let me guess, they have a guild.”
“Of course. Didn’t the courtesans have one in your time?” Phil asked.
“Prostitution was illegal.”
“But … how did they make sure the workers were healthy? That they were treated well by the patrons? That they had training and birth control?” Phil sighed. “Sometimes I think we’re in the right on things now.”
“I agree.” Clint thought of the women who’d worked the carnival, the bruises on their bodies and the constant need for antibiotics “So what kind of houses? Expensive escorts or streetwalkers?”
“As a master, you’re in near the most prestigious establishments.”
“Got it. Upper class sex songs. I can do that.” He winked then sang, “It's a quarter after one, I'm a little drunk, and I need you now. Said I wouldn't call but I lost all control and I need you now.”
“The auctions close at five p.m., so customers will have sold their livestock and have money to burn,” Phil told him. “Maybe something like ‘Strangers tonight, just lonely people. We’re strangers tonight, to the moment we said our first hello.”
“Some good old fashioned rat pack songs. Mix in some Bolero and Liebestod. Oh, and Roxanne as a tango. Easy enough.” Clint’s fingers skated across Phil’s chest, chasing the curls of fine brown hair. “And after that? Nine to eleven on a Friday night? Let me guess. Drinking songs?”
“And dancing. That’s a prime location for revelry. Leo and Jemma are going to back you up, along with Trip and Jasper’s journeyman Alan; they’re all good at picking things up quickly. Trip will arrange a practice time for Friday so you can set a playlist.” Phil absently dragged his neatly trimmed nails across Clint’s back, not hard enough to hurt, just a repetitive motion that soothed Clint’s worries. “On Saturday, the afternoon is children’s time -- you invited that upon yourself by your performance yesterday. You only need about twenty to thirty minutes of music; the rest of the hour is covered by jugglers and dancers from the Entertainer’s Guild. Then there’s the Masters’ Concert that evening; we’re signed up for a piece together, I’m thinking ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and then you get a piano slot all to yourself. We rarely have a keyboard performance and you’re the talk of the faire, so that will be a big draw.”
“Ummm.” Clint kissed a freckle on Phil’s shoulder. “Doesn’t sound that hard.”
“A master will be around for all of them, just in case. It’s standard procedure when a new journeyman or master plays; magic is a fickle thing, as you’ve come to learn.”
Following the trail of brown speckles, Clint kissed his way across Phil’s chest and up his neck. “I just won’t use magic.”
“Said the man who dreams in music.” Phil turned his head and met Clint’s mouth with his own. “I won’t be able to get up again for awhile, you know.”
“Don’t need to.” Clint nuzzled Phil’s ear. “I’m thinking more of exploring with no set goal in mind.”
“Interest … ah.” Phil’s eyes drifted closed as Clint licked the outer cover of his ear.
“You can see it in my eyes, I can feel it in your touch. You don't have to say a thing, just let me show how much.” Clint sang the words against Phil’s skin. “I wanna kiss you all over and over again till the night closes in, till the night closes in.”
 “Need You Tonight” INXS
 “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” Rod Stewart
 “Take Me Home Tonight” Eddie Money
 “Oo-de-lally” Roger Miller (From Disney’s Robin Hood)
 “The Highwayman” Loreena McKennitt
 “Whiskey in a Jar”
 “What’s Your Fantasy?” Ludacris
 “I’ll Make Love to You” Boyz II Men
 “Need You Now” Lady Antebellum
 “STrangers in the Night” Frank Sinatra
 “Bolero” Ravel
 “Isoldes Liebestod” Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt
 “El Tango de Roxanne” Jose Feliciano, from Moulin Rouge
 “Kiss You All Over” Exile
Sex, jazz, good food, and some new friends. So why is Clint worried that something bad might be just around the corner?
You'll notice that the lyrics and names of some of the music performed have been changed. I did that on purpose to hint at the passage of time. It's highly unlikely this many of our popular songs would survive an apocalypse anyway (literary license, am I right?) so by tweaking them, I make myself feel better about glossing over that fact.
Had to get some jazz in here. Playlist link: https://open.spotify.com/user/cakeisnotpie/playlist/2vUSDlxTqFi2J5XGTSfFR8
Cool stone beneath his cheek, Clint groaned with each thrust. Warm water rained down around him, piped from the tank tucked in the fireplace wall. Phil’s fingers bit into his hips, holding him tight as they moved in a simple rhythm. It felt so good, Phil buried inside of him; Clint couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed sex this much, how they fit together so well. He wanted to draw the moment out, but he was too close to the edge. Two strokes of Phil’s hand and he was coming, nothing in his head but the constant stream of music.
Help me tear down my reason, help me, it's your sex I can smell. Help me, you make me perfect. Help me become somebody else.
“Clint.” Phil moaned his name, leaning against Clint’s back, holding him tight. “God, you are …”
You know I want your love, your love was handmade for somebody like me. Come on now, follow my lead, I may be crazy, don't mind me. Say, boy, let's not talk too much; grab on my waist and put that body on me. 
They stayed until the water ran out, kissing slow and easy, time enough to learn the lines of their bodies. Clean and satisfied, Clint grinned and snapped a towel at Phil as he dried off.
“Now that’s how every day should start.” Clint nipped Phil’s neck. “Good sex in a warm shower.”
“It is a good argument to take a posting at the Guild,” Phil agreed. “But then I’d have to put up with Ross all the time.”
“Can’t repress that much anger forever; he’s going to blow one day.” Clint paused, thought about it for a second then decided to go on. “I felt it, when I was singing. His anger, your desire …”
“You touched all of us?” Phil paused, washing his straight razor in the bowl.
“Not just in the room, but the Faire too.” How should he say it? “Phil …”
“You sensed something, didn’t you?” Phil turned. “I’ve had my suspicions for a while now, stirrings of discontent that were too conveniently timed.”
“I’m not sure who it was or even if it was real, to be honest. It was … cold, dark, and it disappeared quickly, like someone closed the curtains. Whoever it was, they’re undercover, deep under.”
“Pierce. He’s got someone in the Guild. I can’t believe it’s someone I know, but it has to be a Master.” Phil sighed. “At least I’ve got corroboration to take to Nick.”
“You trust my gut feeling?” Clint asked. “Hell, I’m not sure I do.”
“You might not know your own power yet, but I’d trust you with my life.” Phil caught his wrist and tugged him closer. “In fact, want to give me a shave?”
“Really?” Clint smiled as warmth bloomed in his chest. “I can do that.”
“I just don’t know what to do.” Steve dropped onto the bench in the practice yard, grabbing a towel to wipe away the sweat he’d worked up. “Tony’s obsessed with the equation; he’s always thinking about it if he’s not working on it. He forgets to eat; Bruce had to drag him out of the inn to go shopping yesterday.” After a long drink of water, Steve continued. “I’m not his keeper and I don’t want to nag him, but he’s making himself sick.”
“He takes it personally.” Clint shuffled the arrows he’d gathered from the targets, checking each one for any nicks or missing feathers. “The whole time travel thing. He got us into this, and he thinks he has to get us out of it.”
“But it’s not his fault. No one could have predicted the energy surge.”
“That’s the thing; Tony isn’t just anyone, he’s the most brilliant scientist of the age … or our age … or whatever.” Clint packed away his gear. “He’s always been under pressure to be better than everyone else. Hell, he was admitted to MIT at fourteen; of course he’s going to believe he should have planned for every contingency. And now he’s going to save us; I bet he hears his father’s voice in his head when another set of numbers don’t work.”
“I mean, I get that he wants to go back. He lost a lot, more than maybe any of us. A future in his family’s company, research, discoveries, inventions … who knows what he could have achieved. How do I tell him maybe I don’t …” Steve sighed. “Yeah, I miss pizza and Sam and the others, but I’d more than likely end up with a job I hated while I painted as a hobby. Here? I’m doing something good, you know?”
“Tell me about it.” Clint plopped down next to Steve. “Music has power and I get paid to play. Kind of my dream job.”
“Plus there’s Phil.” Steve grinned. “You’re happy, I can tell. Never seen you this gone over someone.”
Blushing, Clint balled up his towel and tossed it at Steve. “I get enough ribbing from Nat; don’t you start too.”
“Speaking of our favorite ballerina, Bucky didn’t stay in the room last night.”
“She had the run of my rooms,” Clint admitted. “Pretty sure that’s where he was; she was all smiles this morning at breakfast. Before her coffee.”
“Well, then that settles it; must be love.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.” Clint laughed. “Anyway, my advice, for what it’s worth, is that you’re right on the money about nagging. If you want to be part of his life, you’re going to have to accept him for who he is, obsessive behavior and all. Just be there; hang out in the room, bring him food when you go to get your own, sketch … and be straight with him. If he asks, tell him you’re not sure about going back. Let him know it’s okay if he doesn’t find the answer. Oh, and sex. Pretty sure if you jumped him, he’d be glad to give the numbers a rest for a good blow job.”
It was Steve’s turn to laugh. “Oh, sure. Tony, come with me to get ice cream because it makes me horny.”
“You never know. Might work.” Clint slipped his arms in his vest and began to gather his things.
“Hey, it’s probably nothing, but I heard some of the guards talking this morning. They’re worried about a guy who used to be a knight but got booted out of the guild. He’s been seen hanging around your place; word is he’s got a new boss but no one knows who.” Steve shrugged. “Like I said, could be just talk, but my gut tells me it might not be, and I’m learning to listen to those instincts more.”
“I’ll ask around,” Clint promised.
“Oh, hey, um, hi!” The dark haired man stopped beside Natasha as she looked through a rack brimming with black leather pants. “We met, yesterday, at the Guild, in the anteroom, remember? Scott. Scott Lang. We talked about my daughter’s dance lessons.”
“Cassie, right? That’s her name.” Natasha offered her hand. “Bucky says you can get in anywhere.”
“Oh, I’m sure he had some other words to describe me.” Scott laughed. “Barnes is all serious and surly. I tend to think life’s a big joke.”
“Not a bad philosophy,” Clint remarked. “I’m Clint Barton; nice to meet you.”
“Barton? As in brand-new Master who beat Stone Cold Coulson in a challenge?” Scott skipped the handshake and went in for a big hug. “You’re a celebrity; I can’t wait to hear you play. You are playing the Faire, right? I mean, they’d be crazy not to capitalize on your popularity, but then the Master Harpers can be pretty mean when it comes to upstarts. They put Mack by the drovers’ tents and made him compete with the cattle mooing for two hours. And poor Ororo; she got stuck with down by the practice field. A harp player to entertain the guard.”
“I’m on for the Social district and a late shift at the main party stage tomorrow night.” Clint shrugged. “Children at noon on Saturday and then the Master’s choice. Not all bad.”
“Oh, I’ll have to bring Cassie to the kid’s show. She’ll critique the dancers.” He laughed. “You playing tonight with Mack’s crew? I wouldn’t miss that; it’s half the reason I come to the Faire.”
“See you there then.” Clint watched as the man headed off, stopping to chat at every other stall. “He’s a friendly sort.”
“Bucky says he’s a pain in the ass but he used to be the best thief around. Stopped working regularly when he started raising his daughter full-time.” Natasha pulled out a pair that laced up the sides from heel to toe. “What do you think? These’ll have some give in them.”
“I think Bucky will love them.”
“These are …” Clint talked around the big bite he’d taken, mouth full. “...a-fucking-mazing.”
Shaped like ravioli, the little sandwiches were deep fried to a golden brown and sprinkled with garlic and salt. Inside, chopped chicken mixed onions and peppers, all covered with a spicy red sauce. Tiny new potatoes on the side were crispy and just the right size to pop in his mouth with his fingers.
“I so love hot things,” Phil said, wiping a bit of sauce from the corner of his mouth.
“Which explains why you’re sleeping with me.” Clint winked, chasing the food with a long sip of cold cider. “‘Cause I’m hot, hot damn. Make a dragon wanna retire, man!”
Phil started to laugh, choked, then grabbed his mug. “You’ll be the death of me.”
“But what a way to go!” Clint finished the last one, licking his fingers and watching Phil miss his mouth and drop his last piece on the ground. “Oops.”
“Incorrigible.” Phil picked up their bowls and returned them to the stall. His new fiddle was securely slung over a shoulder, snug in its case. “That’s what you are.”
“Unhuh.” Heading to the left, Clint herded Phil to a small opening behind the food stalls, a small walkway that ducked between the various vendors. Tugging Phil into a dead end, he hustled him up against a poll and kissed him, licking his way into Phil’s mouth to share the spicy aftertaste. “You know, we have time. We could head back to the Guild, spend an hour in bed …”
“Aren’t you supposed to meet with Trip?” Phil shifted to protect the fiddle but made no move to pull away.
“We’re getting together in the morning.” Clint slipped a knee between Phil’s legs and slid it snug against Phil’s crotch. “My motto's always been 'when it's right, it's right', why wait until the middle of a cold dark night when everything's a little clearer in the light of day and we know the night is always gonna be there any way.”
“Well then, why not right here?” Phil cupped Clint’s ass and pulled him closer. “Unless you’re afraid someone will see …”
“Oh.” Clint’s eyes rolled back. “God, Phil, yes.”
The time to hesitate is through; no time to wallow in the mire .... Come on baby, light my fire.
It was down and dirty, muffled groans and fast hands; a shiver ran up Clint’s spine every time he bit on his lip to keep from crying out, the tiny sliver of pain reminding him this was real. He could hear people haggling and smell dough frying in hot oil as Phil’s hand worked them both, flaps of their pants hiding the movement.
“Come for me,” Phil whispered. “Please.”
He couldn’t deny Phil anything … nor did he want to.
“I take it you had a chat with Steve.” Natasha kicked back on the bench she’d commandeered for the evening, running off businessmen and farmers alike with just a glance. “I never thought he’d get Tony out of his room.”
“I may have suggested he promise Tony sex.” Clint’s eyes scanned the crowd. Tony was too wired to sit down; he leaned over the bench, hanging off Clint’s shoulders. “Seems to have worked.”
“I”d buy it.” Bucky nodded.
“Men are so simple, really.” Natasha smiled at Bucky. “And I, for one, am glad you are.”
“Hey.” Bruce stopped in front of them, a black haired woman on his arm. “This is Betty Ross, Master Healer. Betty, this is Natasha, Clint and Bucky.”
“James.” Betty nodded to Bucky. “I heard you were in for the Faire; I’m free tomorrow afternoon if you want me to check your arm. It’s been a while.”
“I’m fine.” Bucky waved her off. “No need.”
“James, darling. If you go …” Natasha whispered in his ear and James coughed, face turning red.
“On second thought, it is rubbing a little. I’ll drop by,” he said.
“Oh, I’m going to like you, aren’t I?” Betty smiled at Natasha. “Yes, we’re going to be good friends.”
“Elizabeth.” Thaddeus Ross stepped up, slipping an arm around Betty, pulling her away from Bruce. “Is this the boy who managed dragged you out of your lab? You haven’t come to hear me play in years.”
“I was at your last concert and you know it.” Betty rolled her eyes; to Clint’s surprise, Ross’ smile was gentle as he looked at her. “Dad, this is Bruce Banner; he’s a healer.”
“Banner.” Ross’s smile turned to a glare. “I hope you realize how special Betty is and treat her accordingly.”
“Oh for Heaven’s sake, he just asked me to hear his friend play,” Betty protested. “And I was curious about the new Master.”
“Barton.” Ross’ eyes pinned Clint. “I see.”
“Actually, Betty’s amazing. Her work with mage fever and mutations is unparallelled. And her understanding of radioactive diseases is ahead of her time. “ Bruce answered. “You should be very proud of her.”
“I am,” Ross said. “Not that I need to be told how great she is.”
“We’re starting in five,” Mack called from the stage. “Everyone get something to drink and settle in.”
They’d set up in one of the squares where paths came together under a canvas awning in the corner, mats covering the tamped down dirt for a stage. Benches were lined up, used during the day for eating and resting in the shade of the large trees. Now they were filled with an overflowing crowd, people standing on the fringes and spilling out into the path.
Behind a bass that was almost as tall as he was, Leo Fitz laughed with Trip, silver saxophone in his hands. With her clarinet, Jemma Simmons leaned against the tent pole, smiling at both men; when Clint had met Jemma and Leo this afternoon, there’d been no confusion about their relationship status. Trip introduced them as Fitzsimmons, and they’d never strayed far from each other.
Standing with his trumpet, Grant Ward’s handsome face was marred by a frown as he listened to John Garrett flirt with Piper and the other brown haired singer who’d shown up with Mack, Daisy Johnson. Ward had only nodded Clint’s way, sticking with his hovering over Daisy. Ross had set up a traveling marimba; he’d brought a journeyman and an acolyte to have their turn playing
Jasper had bongos for himself, his journeyman, Alan, behind the drum set. Lincoln Campbell, a healer, brought his trombone and a number of other people sitting in the audience had instruments.
The piano was in the corner of the stage; Mack had suggested placing it center but Clint had agreed with Ross’ suggestion to leave the spotlight empty so they could all share. Settling onto the bench, Clint gave Phil a wink; he looked so good with his shirt sleeves rolled up.
“We’re going to start off the evening with a classic that lets the instruments shine,” Mack said. He counted off, and the music began. The set list had been shared earlier; Clint recognized the melody of about half the pieces and the others he’d pick up as they played. He’d gotten one pick and had been happy to find out the song had survived, albeit with some differences.
Mack was a good band leader; he nodded to the various players, letting each have a chance to improvise. Clint rifted on the main theme, adding some runs and a glissando before he passed it on to Leo who might look young but dragged out the emotion of every note.
The next song featured Piper on vocals; an alto with natural vibrato, she had the audience right where she wanted them by the end of the first verse of “The Girl from East Panena.”  Grant Ward took lead on “Fly Away So Soon,”  working the crowd in a way that would make the Chairman proud. The man had a bit of swagger; when he put the trumpet to his lips, women and men both sighed.
Ross wowed with his version of “Take the Z Train;” with his journeyman, they had four mallets striking the wooden bells, interweaving melody and harmony. Intense and focused, Ross radiated pleasure as he played, a man in love with music and performing. Clint’s mood lifted along with everyone’s as Ross worked his magic.
Then it was John Garrett’s turn; he pulled up a stool and balanced his guitar on his knee; Jasper took the seat at the drums and Clint pulled out his harmonica. He’d been surprised when John asked him to join him on the song, but Garrett had laughed and slapped him on the back, calling him the newbie and telling him he had to pay his dues. Even 800 years later, people remembered Robert Johnson; the jazz guitarists who, as rumor had it, made a deal with the devil to be the best ever.
Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, ooh
When you knocked upon my door
And I said "hello Satan
I believe it's time to go" 
A feeling rose up in Clint, a whiff of something rotten; it rose up from the ground and permeated the air. Glancing around, Clint tried to find where it was coming from, but it was everywhere. A touch of sulfur mixed with the taste of ash, his eyes began to water.
“It must-a been that old evil spirit so deep down in the ground. You may bury my body down by the highway side,” John sang.
Shadows gathered, obscuring those on the edges of the crowd, slithering between legs, crawling on the ground. People faded into the gloom, torches growing dimmer until they were merely pinpricks in the inky night. As he inhaled through the metal, a bitter tang filled his mouth; he breathed it out in a long slide of notes. Small pockets glowed while others brightened those around them, casting back against the dark.
With a flourish, John brought the song into the closing bars; Clint snapped out of his reverie, slowing then dropping out to let John finish alone. The applause drove the shadows away; the torches burned bright and chatter broke through the ennui that had grabbed him.
Mack waited until the clapping slowed and died; slipping onto the piano bench, Clint focused on the next song, the odd feeling evaporating as Mack began to sing.
“There was a boy. A very strange enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea. A little shy and sad of eye; but very wise was he.”
A chill ran down Clint’s spine; there was a reason Mack was the vocal Master. A smooth baritone with deep resonance, each word dropped with intent, crisp and eloquent. He commanded attention, every eye trained on him.
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn Is just to love and be loved in return"
Melancholic, a song of wonder and wandering, it matched Clint’s mood, the undercurrent of surreal, all music and magic and Phil. To love and be loved in return; he could barely wrap his head around the last two days, the way he and Phil clicked, fit together like they were made to share a bed … and more. His fingers flew over the keys as his eyes found Phil’s, the song winding through the bridge and back to the chorus for one more repetition before Mac brought it to an end.
It was Phil’s turn; he stepped up with his new fiddle, the black onyx flashing in the torch light. Handing his viola off to Trip, Leo picked up his own violin. Alan took over the drums, Jemma joined Piper as backup singers, and Phil counted them off. The simple melody allowed for infinite variations, and Phil let each one of the journeymen have their solo; he and Leo played together, a run of notes that changed rhythm as often as the song changed keys.  Sustained applause followed; as the others left the stage, Clint vamped an introduction, moving slowly into his own piece.
He’d planned to play some ragtime, maybe the Tiger or Pineapple Rag, but this time he let his heart lead, raw emotion flowing into the keys.
“It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside
I'm not one of those who can easily hide,
I don't have much money but boy, if I did
I'd buy a big house where we both could live.”
LIke smooth whiskey, the words poured out; behind him, Alan picked up the beat and added a brush stroke that kept the easy pace. Simple; he kept the flourishes to a minimum, instead playing soft and even , the piano support for his voice.
“And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple but now that it's done
I hope you don't mind
I hope you don't mind
That I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you're in the world.”
He meant it, every heartbeat of truth; Phil might be the one he was singing to, but he could feel echoes in the audience. Tony, science forgotten for the moment, head filled with nothing but Steve. Without any self-doubt, Natasha, laying her head on Bucky’s shoulder. Others, smiling, holding hands, tentatively reaching out. The song was for each of them, all of them, and yet, just for Phil. A validation of how important they were, how central to someone’s life, deserving of their own melody.
Load lightened on his shoulders, Clint came to an end and the audience clapped enthusiastically. Then Mack introduced the last number, Daisy’s turn at the non-existent mic. A powerhouse performer, she anchored the evening, her sultry voice dessert after the rest of the meal. Clint was supposed to play for her, but, as the others arranged themselves on stage, Clint slid off the stool and beckoned Ross with a crooked finger. When the older man hesitated, Clint swept his hands towards the keyboard and inclined his head in invitation. An honest-to-God smile emerged and Ross took Clint’s place, curling his fingers and lightly touching the keys.
As Clint wedged himself in beside Phil on the closest bench, Jasper opened with the bongos, Leo joining in the minor key with his upright bass. The others -- Trip, Grant, Lincoln, Alan and Piper -- snapped their fingers.
“Never know how much I love you, never know how much I care
When you put your arms around me, I get a fever that's so hard to bear”
A sucker punch in his libido, Clint sucked in a breath as the lyrics hit him. Heat flashed across his skin; he dropped his hand on Phil’s knee, sharing the warmth. The brilliance of Daisy’s gift was the way she turned emotion outward, not drawing it to herself. The pull Clint felt was for Phil; Daisy’s voice was the fire, not the focus.
"He gives me fever with his kisses
Fever when he holds me tight
Fever! I'm his always
Baby, better treat him right."
Desire swelled all around him, love and lust and longing; the drums were the heartbeat, the words like blood, feeding the need to touch and be touch. Phil’s hand on the small of his back rubbed circles as Ross riffed on the melody between the chorus and verse. Good thing Mack put Daisy at the end of the evening; Clint already wanted to drag Phil off and have his way with him.
“They give you fever when you kiss them.
Fever if you live and learn
Fever! till you sizzle
What a lovely way to burn.”
Mine. Clint could almost hear the word, the claim of ownership. His eyes darted across the crowd, searching for the origin, but the thoughts shuttered and disappeared. Nothing but fascinated gazes, smiling faces … no, there, in the back, a blurry figure, half-hidden behind a tree, more shadow than man. Anger glowed red hot, passion riddled with the cancer of hate. He … she … Clint wasn’t sure if it was even human … turned it’s head and hooded eyes stared at Clint then, in between blinks, was gone.
“What is it?” Phil whispered.
“Something … “ He saw Natasha turned her head, Bucky’s metal hand clenched in a fist. “I’m not sure. It’s gone now.”
“The danger is getting closer.” Phil grabbed his hand and squeezed. “We’re stronger together.”
“Yeah.” Clint leaned against his shoulder. “We are.”
 “Closer” Nine Inch Nails
 “Shape of You” Ed Sheeran
 “Uptown Funk” Bruno Mars
 “Afternoon Delight” Starland Vocal Band
 “Light My Fire” The Doors
 “Take Five” Dave Brubeck
 “The Girl from Ipanema” Stan Getz
 “Fly Me To The Moon” Frank Sinatra
 “Take the A Train” Duke Ellington
 “Me and the Devil Blues” Robert Johnson
 “Nature Boy” Nat King Cole
 “I’ve Got Rhythm” Oscar Peterson
 “Your Song” Elton John
 “Fever” Peggy Lee
Trouble shows his face and Clint has to push back. Shadows are collecting and the dark is rising.
Some significant lyric changes in this chapter because Clint's singing for a crowd. check out the original songs at the playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/cakeisnotpie/playlist/2vUSDlxTqFi2J5XGTSfFR8
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She shuffled her feet, eyes downcast, long brown hair falling over one eye. In the quiet that descended on the room, her father tapped the count with his boot heel clicking on the stone. Voice wavering, she began to sing.
“Think of me, think of me fondly when we've said goodbye.”
She broke off, coughed, and continued.
“Remember me, once in a while, promise me you'll try.”
Next to Clint, Ross sighed, shifted back in his seat; seemed even in the future, Phantom songs were over done at auditions. Two hours into the time he’d agreed to sit in for the ailing Jasper … who’d eaten some street kabobs late last night and was paying the price … Clint had heard renditions of Adele, Mozart, and the Beatles, none of which had been above average. Sure some of the kids had good voices and could play well … and those they sent through door number two to see about other jobs and training … but Clint hadn’t seen one applicant that had anything approaching a gift. Only eight had been identified so far and Phil was starting to worry.
“When you find that once again you long to take your heart back and be free, if you ever find a moment, spare a thought for me.”
She missed the note on “heart” and slid down; her father’s face grew thunderous, his brows squeezed together as he began to slap a hand on his thigh, increasing the tempo of the ill-suited song. One tear ran down the girl’s cheek; maybe fifteen at the max, she was trembling, fingers twisting the purple silk of her skirt.
“We never said our love was evergreen or as unchanging as the sea, but if you can still remember, stop and think of me.”
Melinda glanced at Ross, tapping her pencil on her pad. This wouldn’t be the first time that they’d cut off an audition that was hopeless; better to send them on their way and break the bad news quickly.
But then a flash of anger filled the girl’s eyes as her father began to hum the melody with her. She didn’t exactly stamp her foot, but she pulled herself up straight and spat the next phrase at him, sharpness changing her whole demeanor. The music crackled around them, her voice harder, deeper, and infinitely more interesting.
“Okay, Kate, right?” Clint interrupted, breaking the tension quickly escalating between the two. “Stop for a second for me, would you?”
Startled, she jerked her eyes back around to the Master’s table, abruptly stopping the song. “Yeah, um, yes. Kate, Kate Bishop.”
“Kate.” He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Let me guess. Dad picked that song for you because it showed your range and was a classic.”
One side of her lips turned up. “My coach said it was overdone, but Da insisted.”
The man in question huffed, opened his mouth to defend himself, but didn’t utter a word after Melinda glared at him.
“For a first soprano, it would work but you’re what? A mezzo or a contralto?” Clint continued, ignoring the man whose face was turning red.
“I can handle both, but I prefer the lower part. It’s … juicier, if that makes sense.” With every word, Kate was gaining confidence. “Soprano arias are so flighty and screechy.”
“They can be when the wrong person sings them.” Clint agreed. “What instrument are you interested in?”
Brown eyes cut to her father before she answered. “I play woodwinds, flute and piccolo.” She paused. “I like piano the best but Da says there’s no money in that since you can’t carry it with you.”
“It’s useless,” the father spit out.
“Speak again and I’ll have you removed.” Ross shut him down without hesitation. “Go on, honey,” he said to Kate. “So happens we have a new piano master.”
“Do you have a song you could play for us? One you want to sing?” Melinda asked, emphasis clear.
“It’s not suitable for the venue.” Kate took a deep breath and kept her eyes forward. “But, yeah, I do. Don’t suppose you have a piano handy?”
With a flourish, Clint pushed his chair back and, with accompanying gasps, made a piano appear. “Will this do, milady?”
The first real smile he’d seen spread across her face. “Yes, that will do nicely.”
“As to the song being suitable,” Melinda said as Clint sat back down. “Every song is suitable depending upon the audience, the location, and the mood. Lesson number one as a harper; music is music and that’s all the answer you need give. Now, let’s hear you perform.”
Clint knew the song after the first full measure; he didn’t need to parse the changed words to understand why Kate’s father wouldn’t want her to sing it.
“This is gospel for the fallen ones, locked down in eternal slumber. Assembling their ideologies from pieces of broken memories.”
Channeling her frustration, she turned the notes into a voice she didn’t have, a way to express her feelings.
“The gnashing teeth and wagging tongues conspire against my odds, but they haven’t seen the best of me yet.”
Power surged as she sang an universal complaint of everyone who’d ever been bullied, told they didn’t matter, had their choices taken away. It rippled out of the room, across those waiting in the old sanctuary; doubts bled away, strength flowed in. Into the square and through the city, far from anyone who could hear her voice, Kate’s magic washed over the Faire, rolling between stalls, a wave of confidence.
“This is gospel for the drifters, wastrels, insufferable bastards, confessing their apostasies, led away by insufferable deceivers.”
She paused for two heartbeats then she gave full volume to her voice.
“If you love me, let me know. Words are knives and often leave scars, I’m falling, falling apart.”
Energy pulsed, pushed against Clint’s emotions, then Kate reined it in, modulating her voice to keep her gift under check. The chords in the bass she framed as the background refrain (the beat of my heart, the beat of my heart) while her top hand soared with the song, full and sure.
“Don’t try to sleep through the end of the world, bury me alive 'cause I won’t give up without a fight.”
The door on Clint’s left cracked open; Mack stepped inside the room, followed by Victoria Hand. Looks were exchanged, decision made long before Kate Bishop wound down to the final note. She hunched over the piano, breathing quickly, fingers trembling on the keys.
“Congratulations, Miss Bishop, and welcome to the Harper’s Guild. If you would follow Master Harper Mackenzie, he’ll get you a place in the dorm and start putting together a training schedule for you.” Melinda nodded towards Mack.
“Wait, what about …” the father surged up and started to interrupt.
“Yes, of course. Lots of paperwork. Grand Master Hand will take care of you, Mr. Bishop.”
With one last glance at her father, Kate reluctantly left the piano and picked up her pack. Dashing over to Clint, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“No problem,” he whispered back.
“Wow, they’re extra rowdy tonight.” Trip finished setting up his music stand, pushing it a little closer to Daisy’s. “Someone bought a couple rounds of the good stuff before we got here.”
Here was the central meeting point of six different avenues, a large circle with a stage that backed against three large food stalls. On one side was a large cleared area, tamped down by years of dancing feet. Everywhere else was crammed with a variety tables and benches, pretty much anything people could find to sit on. Some even perched on tree limbs, feet swinging in the air below. All around them and for a good distance down the aisles was a plethora of things to eat and drink. Everything from whiskey to cucumber water, turkey legs to salads was available. And from the chaotic sound of voices, Clint could tell people were already partially drunk.
“Then we’ll sing ‘em some rowdy songs and get them out on the floor. Nothing like burning off alcohol through dancing,” Clint replied. He mentally rearranged the playlist they’d practiced earlier, jumping ahead a few songs. “Let’s start with ‘Gimme Some Lovin’.”
Without an intro, they swing into the song, Grant leading with his trumpet and Clint doing his best Blues Brother’s impression. Leo played bass guitar, Jemma added her tambourine to Alan’s drums. Daisy took the second verse, singing harmony on the chorus. Their earlier practice made smooth going of the easy tune and kept Clint singing the same words as Daisy.
His set in the Social Quarter had gone off without a hitch; he’d gone with classy choices, all with a hint of sexiness, an upscale coffee house vibe. Well-dressed men and women circulated, more wine filled cups than ale, and Clint had gotten appreciative nods from the owners of the houses. With barely time to grab a slice of chicken and mushroom pie before he’d been due on this stage.
The audience clapped as the song ended; Clint segued right into the next, a country number that he’d had to rewrite the extensive lyrics so a red solo cup became a little brown mug. The crowd caught on quickly, holding up their drinks and joining on the call to have a party. From there, Clint took them into an older song about drinking up and yelling hi-de-ho, a guarantee to get them singing along and refilling their mugs.
“Good evening!” He shouted over the catcalls and general hubbub. “If your mug’s not full, it should be!” A roar went up in response. “We’re glad to be here to get your feet moving and your head spinning tonight. Wet your whistle and get ready to shut up and dance!”
Switching to the piano, Clint played the opening refrain of the pop tune; the lyrics only needed a little tweaking, the refrain simple and straightforward. “Oh don’t you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me. I said, you’re holding back; she said, shut up and dance with me.”
Somewhere he found the energy to bounce as he sang, the catchy beat infectious. Daisy’s constant admonition to shut up and dance caught on and soon the women in the audience were nudging their partners. A few hardy souls took to the floor and then the rest flocked out of their seats, hips moving and arms raised.
The more they moved, the more alcohol they burned off. The mood lifted to match the music, more happy than manic, less morose and more upbeat. As the song ended, Clint nodded to Grant and Trip; as he and the others started clapping out the introduction, Grant picked up his trumpet and Trip his saxophone. Everyone shouted, “Move!” and they went into the next piece.
Clint’s throat was getting dry; he grabbed his drink from the stand while Grant and Trip carried the melody, draining the honey cider in one long gulp. Letting Daisy take the lead on the next one, he focused on the keys, keeping it simple without a lot of flourishes. A crowd favorite, the song Daisy had chosen encouraged pairing off, a good way to ease into an eventually break.
“I've been in love and lost my senses, spinning through the town
Sooner or later, the fever ends and I wind up feeling down
I need a man who'll take a chance on a love that burns hot enough to last
So when the night falls, my lonely heart calls.” 
In the middle of the last chorus, Clint felt it again, the flash of possession, a creepy vibe that almost threw him off. Like the night before, it disappeared as fast as it came, lost amidst the cacophony. He wanted to chase it, but couldn’t risk splitting his attention away from keeping the wash of the crowd’s emotions in check. Still, he made a mental note to tell Phil that someone was far too interested in Daisy.
One more, he judged, and they could safely take five; the audience would swarm the food and alcohol vendors, fueling up for the second half of the performance. So he swung into Taylor Swift … yes, Natasha, Taylor Swift … giving Jemma a chance to shine. Daisy’s range was spectacular; she could handle the vocal antics of Whitney and the sultry tones of Peggy Lee. Jemma was a solid soprano, the girl next door with her hair in a ponytail and her sweet smile, perfectly suited for a fun song about shaking off the bad and dancing the night away. She’d taken to the tune as soon as Clint showed it to her, laughing at the lyrics and wiggling along to the chorus.
“But I keep cruising, can't stop, won't stop moving
It's like I got this music in my mind saying it's gonna be alright.”
When she got to the “fella over there with the hella good hair” line, Fitz stepped up beside her and added an impromptu bass line while he winked at Jemma, the crowd cheering them on. By the end of the song, everyone was shaking their hands in the air, laughing and grinning as the music came to an end.
“We’re going to take a quick break,” Clint announced. “Grab a bite to eat and get another round because we’ll be back for more.”
Amid the stomping and whistles, many scattered, doing exactly what Clint suggested. Taking his mug, Clint went to get a refill for himself.
“Great job,” Aubrey said, patting him on the shoulder. Her cheeks were flushed, a drink in her hand. “This is the rowdiest I’ve ever seen them.”
“More drinking than usual.” Oro glanced at the milling crowd. “Fewer couples. Still, you managed them well.”
“Thanks.” Clint took the paper wrapped bundle Natasha passed him; inside, golden brown dough was still warm from the fryer. “Apple?
”Cherry and cream. Worth the calories,” she said. “Bucky’s already had three.”
“Is that from Barnum’s stand? His are the best.” Aubrey peeked over Clint’s shoulder. “I might have to have one, especially if I plan to dance some more.”
“Bruce is in line getting some for him and Betty,” Natasha told her. “He can get one for you too.”
They walked off together, threading their way through the milling crowd; Clint caught a glimpse of Tony sitting with Betty Ross and her father … now that would be an interesting conversation … Steve off working a guard shift. Back at the Guild, Phil was finishing out his last shift as judge for the potentials. Earlier, Clint had seen Felix and Victoria sharing a large plate of fish and chips; he didn’t doubt they were around, judging his performance.
“How is the evening going?” Oro asked. “Everything normal?”
After he swallowed the bite of gooey cherry filling and sweet pastry, he wiped his lips before answering. “Are you asking if I noticed a creepy stalker vibe when Daisy sings? ‘Cause, yeah. Someone should watch out for an obsessed fan.”
Her eyes widened then she turned her gaze on the bench where Daisy sat with the other journeymen. “No, that’s not what I was referring too, but it’s important to know. We can’t be too careful with a talent like hers. Most see themselves in her lyrics, but an occasional few misunderstand. Pass your concerns on to Mack; he’s very protective of her.”
“Okay.” Clint chewed some more. “So you meant the shadows last night? The strange guy in the back of the crowd?”
“You see much more than people give you credit for.” She stared at him for a moment.
“They don’t call me Hawkeye for no reason.”
“Indeed. Tell me about the shadows and this man.”
As he finished his dessert, Clint filled her in on what he’d seen. None of it surprised her; in fact, she seemed to be expecting it, ready with all sorts of questions to draw out details.
“And nothing tonight?”
“Just an extra dose of energy,” Clint answered. “But it’s early yet.”
“That it is. I think I’ll take a stroll, see who’s who. My weather eye tells me there’s a change coming; let’s hope it’s fair winds,” she said.
“But you don’t think so.” Clint raised an eyebrow. “You and Phil both.”
“I think a storm’s brewing,” she agreed. “But I’ve been wrong before. Let’s hope I am this time.”
As he took his place back on the stage, full mug in place, Clint was sure she was right. The chaotic undertone was back; in the few minutes without music, pockets of anger and frustration had begun to grow, small arguments that could bleed over into the rest of the crowd. What should have been happy exhaustion fermented restlessness instead.
“We need to keep them dancing,” Clint told the others. Fitz, you start us off with your fiddle.”
Like before, they started playing without any introduction. Striking up a familiar dance song, Fitz’s bow flew across the strings before his mellow baritone sang the first words.
“If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe, I'd been married a long time ago
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?”
By the second round of the chorus, the dance lines snaked through the benches, dust rising as people stomped their feet and kicked up their heels. It wasn’t the same steps Clint knew, but the timeless melody did it’s work. People were sweating and laughing by the time they wound to the end; Clint marked the change with a half-wail, half-sung “Well,” passing the singing duties to Trip.
The audience knew this one, tossing their hands up and screaming, “Shout!” at all the right times. They paused when Trip sang, “Wait a minute” and sank down when he dropped the volume, rising up as he got loud again. The mood lifted even more; Clint played the slow intro then vamped as he accelerated the beat while Leo shifted to guitar while Grant and Trip shifted to the front with trumpet and saxophone.
“I got ketchup on my blue jeans, I just burnt my hand.
Lord, it’s hard to be a bachelor man.
I got people that can cook, I got people that can clean,
I got people that can do anything in between.
I got to get ready, make everything right,
'cause all my rowdy friends are coming over tonight.”
They might not know the song, but they caught on to the chorus fast enough, shouting a resounding yes to the question of if they wanted to drink and party. It helped that everyone got a solo; from drums to brass to strings, every musician had a chance to show off. They kept the good time going with a scaled down version of what Clint thought of as a one hit wonder, dropping their instruments to get the crowd clapping and stomping during the second bridge, Fitz making his bow fly through the fiddle solo.
From the first notes of the next song, Clint knew it was a mistake. A standard he always kept on his playlist, he’d been happy when it had come up in its new form; the perfect fit for Grant’s voice, Clint hadn’t hesitated to pop it in the set. But now, as Grant started singing, the song was less about dealing with being cheated on and more about paranoia and jealousy.
“Now they're going to bed and my stomach is sick
And it's all in my head, but she's touching his chest
Now, he takes off her dress, now, let me go. 
Tension grew as the mood turned sour, anger springing back up as the song continued. A scuffle broke out on the left edge of the audience, another on the right. Imagined slights grew to frustrated pains and arguments began. All the while, Alan’s thrumming beat vibrated the ill-will from person-to-person.
Just as Clint was ready to end the song early, he saw a movement to the side of the stage; a man stepped out of the shadows, no more than a few feet away. His eyes blackened by the night, hair just as dark, his face was a roadmap of scars, vicious puckers of white flesh that lifted one side of his lip to reveal his teeth. Fixed points of attention centered on Clint, and he felt the weight of a heavy, malevolent gaze. Darkness rolled around him, creeping under the benches and winding through the legs on the dance floor. He smiled, a macabre slash of mouth that made Clint’s stomach lurch. Next to him, a woman rounded on the man next to her, smacking him hard on the check; the dark haired man didn’t react, just smiled wider, enjoying the mayhem.
The wave of evil made Clint sick at his stomach; his fingers trembled, fumbling through a triplet of keys. Trip glanced his way, forehead creased with worry. The music faltered, just Grant’s voice rising above the increasing din: “Jealousy, turning saints into the sea, swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibi.”
Airway choked off, his chest aching, Clint struggled to fill his lungs; he reached down, found what energy he could and struck a chord, dropping the tempo but staying in D major. Magic rose up in his gut, breaking the shadowy hold, and he was playing the song before he even knew what it was, words rolling up his throat and falling from his lips.
“Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”
He pushed the lyrics out by sheer force of will, a widening circle of calm that swept over the crowd. People settled, faces turned towards the stage, anger subsided. Behind him, Alan slowed the beat, a simple bass and snare 4/4. Daisy picked up a descant, no words, just quiet sounds that supported the main melody. Trip’s sax went from wailing to soft whispers, Fitz’s bass picking out deep chords that formed a solid foundation.
Only Grant resisted; a flash of frustration and … jealousy? As Daisy leaned against the piano, Grant’s eyes met Clint’s, a fiery challenge in their dark depths.
Then the emotion was gone, Grant picking up a tambourine and joining Alan at the back of the stage.
“For like a baby, stillborn, ‘like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me
But I swear by this song and by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee.”
Misty balls of light floated from Aubrey’s hands, dancing over the heads of audience, fireflies with a soothing glow. A breeze swept from Ororo, the perfect touch of cool to overheated bodies, a welcome respite to smooth tempers. By the stage, the man glared at Clint then turned and faded into the shadows behind the nearest stall; a few heartbeats later, Bucky slipped after him, hot on his trail.
“Oh, like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.”
Everyone made mistakes, everyone hurt others, but forgiveness was possible. Clint sang with his senses open, expanding Aubrey’s and Ororo’s magic, twisting together the others’ energy that coursed through their music. Hints of chaos settled, people leaned against each other, some swayed, others reached up to touch the lights, soft smiles on their faces.
With a quiet word to Alan, Clint segyed into the closing song, toning down to an acoustic version that relied on vocal harmony rather than blasting instruments. They’d practiced it livelier, but the beauty of playing with other harpers was the way they all sensed what the audience needed.
“But between the drinks and subtle things
The holes in my apologies, you know
I'm trying hard to take it back
So if by the time the bar closes
And you feel like falling down, I'll carry you home”
Time to go, he sent out, one last drink for the road with friends, those who could be trusted to help you get home. Whatever mistakes made have been forgotten; sleep then morning will come, a chance to start again.
“Tonight, we are young
So let's set the world on fire
We can burn brighter than the sun”
Daisy and Trip took the harmony parts, Jemma and Grant adding their discant as Leo strummed his guitar. The crowd began to sing and sway; arms went around each other, lovers rested their heads on each other’s shoulders.
“So if by the time the bar closes
And you feel like falling down
I'll carry you home tonight.”
The last word lingered as people slowly shook off the music before they picked themselves up and began to filtered out into the Faire. A smaller than usual crowd surrounded the stage, some wanting to chat, others star struck by their favorite performer. Clint dodged around most of them, only recognized by one young man as the new Master, and zeroed on in on Natasha.
“Nothing yet,” she answered the unasked question. “Bucky’s on his tail; just jumped up and went after him.”
“It’s Brock.” Aubrey shivered at the name. “I can’t believe he came back. He and James have bad blood between them.”
“That’s an understatement.” Trip joined the conversation. “Rumlow’s bad news for all of us; he holds grudges and Phil will be squarely in his sights.”
“Phil’s was the one who brought him up on charges; bastard was harassing Jemma.” Grant glared at the spot where Rumlow had been standing. “Should have strung him up in the public square, no matter what he said.”
“No one should head back alone,” Orooro said. “Travel in groups of three or four, preferably with a Master. He’ll come at us sideways, we when least expect it.”
“You think he’ll …” Grant stepped back as Daisy joined the group. “We’ll make sure to watch out for him.”
“Jemma’s pretty upset. I think we should all walk back together,” she said. “Alan and Fitz are going to stay and tear down.”
“I’ll help them,” Orooro said. “Clint and Aubrey, can one of you …”
“I will,” Aubrey offered. “Grant, Trip, let’s gather up the instruments.”
“Clint, you and Natasha need to warn the other Masters. The guard needs to know as well as the Mage Guild. They’ll set a tracker spell to find him if Barnes doesn’t.”
Clint nodded; he stopped only long enough to collect his piano, wrap it up securely, and sling his guitar across his back. Doubt blossomed into full blown worry; the wolf, it seemed, was on the doorstep, and Clint didn’t know what to do.
 “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber
 “This is Gospel” Panic! At the Disco (I’ve put the piano version from youtube on the playlist. It’s more like what Kate would be singing)
 “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” ZZ Top
 “Red Solo Cup” Toby Keith
 “Chug-a-lug” Roger Miller
 “Shut Up and Dance” Walk the Moon
 “Move” St. Motel
 “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” Whitney Houston
 “Shake It Off” Taylor Swift
 “Cotton-Eye Joe” I included a great version by The Chieftains and Ricky Scaggs on the playlist. Lots of celtic fiddling!
 “Shout” Isley Brothers
 “All My Rowdy Friends” Hank Williams Jr.
 “Come On Eileen” Dexy’s Midnight Runners
 “Mr. Brightside” The Killers
 “Bird on a Wire” Leonard Cohen. There’s an interesting story behind this song. When Cohen came onstage at Woodstock, the crowd had been violent all day, throwing things, setting fires, causing fights. He told them to stop it, asked them to light a match and hold it up so he could see each face in the darkness then he played this song, soothing the crowd. The story goes, that’s the origin of holding up lighters at concerts for powerful songs.
 “We are Young” Fun (I linked a good acoustic version on the playlist)
Had to get Kate Bishop in there. :)
If you notice certain songs are missing ... well, I've got to keep somethings for the climax, right?
Clint makes a decision and is a hit with the kids ... but it's time to pay the piper. Rumlow tips his hand.
I can't believe I got this up in a week! My work life has been crazy but this story is my refuge.
Things are picking up speed. Hang on, it's going to be a wild ride to the end.
The playlist is updated with all the songs from this chapter!
Ever so slowly, Clint lowered himself, taking Phil in halfway before rising back up, his thigh muscles straining.
“Plenty good lovin' all through the night and then again and then again when the morning comes.”
“God, you’re going to kill me.” Phil’s head was thrown back, the tendons of his neck taut, his hands wrapped around Clint, fingers pressing into the curve of Clint’s hip. “Please.”
Stopping mid-slide, Clint only smiled and changed his song.
“I'm in the mood, the rhythm is right, move to the music, we can roll all night.”
With each rise and fall, Clint watched the pleasure cross Phil’s face, tension building as he took him to the edge then backed off. The light of a grey morning barely lit the bedroom, the patter of rain a steady rhythm; clenching tight, Clint rolled his hips in a slow figure eight.
“Clint.” Phil’s whispered his name like a prayer. “Clint.”
“Darlin' don't say a word, cause I already heard what your body's sayin' to mine. I'm tired of fast moves, I've got a slow groove on my mind.”
He leaned forward, hands on either side of Phil’s shoulders, dipped his head and sang just for Phil.
“I want a man with a slow hand, I want a lover with an easy touch. I want somebody who will spend some time, not come and go in a heated rush. I want somebody who will understand when it comes to love, I want a slow hand.”
Magic flared and emotions bled between them with every touch of skin. Jolts of pleasure, twists of tension, and little moans merged. Clint’s easy ride faltered; Phil anchored him and began to thrust faster, rocking the bed as Clint matched his intensity, racing towards their climax.
I was willow last night in my dream; I bent down over a clear running stream. I sang you the song that I heard up above and you keep me alive with your sweet flowing love.
Collapsing on top of Phil, Clint closed his eyes and waited for his breaths to slow to normal. Cheek pressed above Phil’s heart, he felt the thump of each beat resonate with his own, a reminder he was safe in Phil’s arms.
They’d gotten to bed late, the Guild abuzz with news of Rumlow’s appearance. Bucky had returned frustrated; he’d lost Rumlow in some shadows, sure magic had played a role. Protective security measures were put in place, acolytes warned not to go out and about alone, but there was only so much they could realistically do until Rumlow made another move. Best course of action, the masters had all agreed, was to go about the regular faire schedule with more caution. The world, it seemed, was bound and determined to interrupt Clint’s streak of good days; he’d been expecting the other shoe to drop and now it had.
“What’s that you’re humming?” Phil asked, sliding a hand along Clint’s arm. “I don’t recognize it.”
He had to think a second before he began to sing. “Take my hand, let's walk through love's door, and be free from the world once more. Here's my arms, we can hide today and love the world away.”
“It’s a nice dream, isn’t it?” Phil ran his fingers along Clint’s spine. “There’s this place out west in the mountains where they build their houses in the trees with views of the ocean. Always wanted to visit.”
“I’ve been to Sierra Nevada; ocean on one side, desert on the other.” Clint sighed. “I could be a mountain man, easy. A little cabin’s all we’d need.”
“Ummmm.” Phil brushed his fingers in Clint’s hair. “You know, when I saw you in that inn, I decided I was going to buy you a drink, see if you were interested, then take you upstairs to my room and have you in my bed all night. I’d slip out the next morning before you were awake and have a good memory. But then you started playing …” His fingers clenched against Clint’s skin. “...and I knew once wouldn’t be enough, not with you.”
“The whole foreplay thing?” Clint tilted his head up so he could see Phil.
“Oh, I do like to drag things out … you’re not the only one who likes it slow … but I wasn’t sure I wanted to start something if I had to let you go,” Phil admitted.
“Had to say I enjoyed the build up.” Clint wound his fingers into the curly black hairs on Phil’s chest. “And I felt the same way. Never been good at endings, so why start at all?”
“Clint.” Phil lifted Clint’s head further with his finger. “Whatever happens, I’m glad we found each other; the last few days have meant everything to me.” Tilting down, Phil brushed a light kiss across Clint’s lips. “I have no regrets.”
“I …” Clint hesitated then plunged ahead. “There’s nothing back there for me. Honestly, Phil, I doubt I’d ever make a living playing music in my time; here I’m a master harper who can make a difference in people’s lives. Nat’s with me, and you …” He dropped a kiss on Phil’s chest. “You’re better than I deserve. Why would I leave?” Saying it out loud made it all sound so simple. “I’m not going back. I’m staying.”
“You don’t have to …”
“I’m staying here.” Like a weight had lifted, Clint rolled over onto his back. “I’m a master motherfucking harper with a badass boyfriend and a scary sneaky best friend and I’m not leaving.”
“Bad ass?” Phil turned on his side and propped himself up with his elbow. “I assume that’s a good thing?”
“Kick ass, bad ass, great ass, all of the above.” Clint grinned. “Tony can go be Mister Science; I’ll take this feather bed shared with you.”
Filled with energy, Clint got up and reached a hand out to Phil. “Shower time then I need to gather up my things for the kid’s concert. Sure you won’t go with? I’d feel better if I could keep my eyes on you, what with this Rumlow character running around.”
“I probably won’t leave the practice room; John and Mack want to work through their songs for tonight. You just need to come back safely for your official cloaking ceremony at two.”
“Aw, Phil, no. Cloaking? Is there a real cloak involved or are we talking capes? Because Edna said, no capes!” Clint said with a laugh.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about half the time,” Phil groused. “But, yeah, a real cloak.”
“Do I need it?”
“I need it.”
“No wonder they said fifteen minutes max,” Clint mumbled to Natasha. On stage, a duo were performing an interpretive dance without any music. An audience filled with kids, babies, and exhausted parents were growing increasingly restless. “That would put even you to sleep.”
“I appreciate the effort,” Natasha whispered back. “But, yeah, not suitable for the age group.”
The children’s concert had started off slowly and gone downhill from there. Honest-to-God, the first person read an epic poem about an ancient battle; so far only the jugglers had engendered the least bit of interest in the group that packed the benches and they were on for only five minutes.
“You should have heard the selections played last year by that dark haired journeyman. Some classical piece that went on for seven minutes and a jazz trumpet solo that sounded like a dying cat.” Scott Lang leaned in closer. “Hey, is it true Rumlow’s back?”
Clint nodded. “He’s probably long gone by now,” he said, repeating the Guild’s explanation.
“Oh, hell no, he’s not. He won't be satisfied until he hurts someone. He likes to cause pain; you best watch out. Brock will come at Phil through the people he cares about,” Scott said. “I think Cassie and I will leave earlier tonight rather than wait until tomorrow.”
Before Clint could respond, the dancers finished; it took a few seconds for the audience to realize they were done and applaud politely. Then it was Clint’s turn; he picked up his instruments and took the stage, Natasha dragging a chair for him to sit on.
“Hey, everybody!” Bright and cheerful, he checked his guitar strings and adjusted them just a bit. “I’m new here at the Faire and it’s nice to see all your smiling faces.”
One kid on the third row waved at Clint; he waved back.
“Now, I’m not a fan of singing by myself, so I’m going to need y'all's help. You think you can do that?” he asked.
A few children nodded, a couple said yes.
“I said, I’m going to need your help. Can you do that?” he repeated.
A little louder, the kids responded.
“Boy, we’re going to have to do better than that. Let’s try one more time. Can you help me?”
“Yes!” The word bubbled out of their mouths, still too hesitant, but Clint planned on doing something about that.
“My name’s Clint and that starts with the letter C, one of my favorite letters of the alphabet. Anyone else have a name that starts with C?”
“Cassie!” Scott’s little girl, brown hair in pigtails, bounced up in her seat. “My name is Cassie!”
“Wow, that’s a lot of you.” Clint started the song, picking the chords on his guitar. “What else starts with the letter C?”
A lot of words were shouted as the kids started to get into it.
“All of those are good words, but you want to know what the best word is that starts with C?”
“Yes!” A louder positive.
“Cookie starts with the letter C,” he replied and launched into the Sesame Street song. Simple with only the one chorus and a short bridge, he sang it through twice before he invited them to join him. Then he had them do their best monster voices because everyone knows that monsters love cookies. The kids were delighted, picking up the tune quickly; their parents perked up too, smiling at the kids antics.
After far too many repeats, Clint picked up the beat and changed the tune.
“A Sultan sat on his oriental mat
In his harem in downtown Persia.
He took a sip of coffee, just a drip,
And he said to his servant Kersia,
"Aw curse ya', curse ya', curse ya',
That's the worst cup of coffee in Persia!" 'cause …”
He paused the song to talk directly to the audience. “Okay, this is the part I want you guys to sing. I’ll do it once then it’ll be up to you.”
The fast chorus, complete with all the words that started with C, tipped easily off his tongue.
“Did you get that?”
The kids giggled; some shouted no.
“Good. Here we go.”
He decided to repeat the chorus between the verses to help them learn the funny phrasing. By the time he got to the part where he sang in “french” -- just a terrible french accent that made everyone laugh -- the audience was ready for him to hit the ending. With each time through the tongue twister, he sped up until he was singing at a breakneck pace, nothing but consonant sounds blending together. The kids roared in approval at the last chord, their parents clapping loudly.
“So many Cs! You know what sounds like a C but doesn’t have that letter in it at all? It’s big with lots of water and people sail boats on it …”
“The sea!” Cassie Lang shouted.
“Very good. This is a song about a creature that lives in the sea and has eight legs. So get your fish faces on and your tentacles ready to wave!”
The Beatles tune was perfect for flapping hands and making glub-glub noises. Laughter floated through the square, parents joining into the silliness. To keep the fun going, Clint stood up and launched into a series of songs to dance to, starting with a heavily edited Miley Cyrus’ song. A party at the faire today had kids raising their hands, nodding their heads and shaking their hips along with Clint. From their place at the back edge of the crowd, both Steve and Natasha shook their heads at the choice.
He followed up with the light hearted “Can’t Stop the Feeling” encouraging them to keep moving. Standing behind the crowd, Melinda May tapped her toes, Felix Blake nodding along beside her.
After a few choruses of “Happy” and he was ready to slow down.
“Dance with me, I want to be your partner. Can’t you see the music is just starting.” 
Scott Lang scooped up his daughter, and they swayed together; Clint grinned and swung his guitar as he made a round of the stage. By the end of the song, some of the littler kids were flagging, leaning against their parents or crawling up on laps. He’d gone way past his original fifteen minutes anyway; returning to his stool, Clint switched his guitar for the smaller ukulele he’d found in the Guild practice hall.
“This is for my best friend, Natasha, who’s the biggest dreamer I know,” he said as he began to strum the opening chords. “I think we’ve finally found our somewhere over the rainbow.”
“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, and the dreams that you dream of once in a lullaby.”
Energy stirred from the first word, rising unbidden in the hopeful song. Children stilled, parents relaxed, and Felix gave Clint an encouraging nod. So many times Clint had wished upon a star, wanting to wake up far away from the orphanage, the circus, the last foster home, but he never thought he actually would.
“Well, I see trees of green and red roses too. I'll watch them bloom for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Bucky appeared behind Natasha; she leaned into his hold as his arms slid around her waist. A soft smile told Clint she’d made up her mind too. This world wasn’t perfect, but it had its benefits.
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.”
Tired kids’ eyelids drifted closed; babies slept peacefully in their parent’s arms. As Clint lifted his fingers from the strings, calm settle on the audience. The applause was subdued; most families gathered up their children and wandered off to find a quiet place to rest. Some came up to Clint and thanked him.
“Wow,.” Scott Lang, one of the last ones to leave, had his daughter on his hip, her head laying on his shoulder. “Now that was a kid’s show.”
“Indeed,” Melinda agreed as she stepped up beside them. “I’d hate to be the harper who performs next year. You set the bar high.”
“It’s not hard, really.” Clint had never been good with compliments. “Just wear them out and don’t talk down to them.”
“Easy to say,” Felix said. “Did you make up the playlist before hand or was some of that impromptu? I keep trying to get the journeymen to understand the importance of spontaneity.”
“Got to go with the flow.” Clint packed up his instruments. “Can’t keep going with something that’s not working.”
“Miley Cyrus? Really?” Steve clapped him on the back. “And Timberlake?”
“Could have gone with Bieber,” Clint joked.
“We’ll have to hurry or you’ll be late for your ceremony,” Natasha said. She ruffled his hair and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks for the song.”
“Anytime, Tasha. Anytime.”
Steve and Bucky didn’t say anything, but they took the points, front and rear, Natasha in the middle by Clint. Neither Felix nor Melinda complained as they fell in as well; Lang made no bones about walking with them into the city, putting Cassie between him and Melinda. Avoiding alleys for main thoroughfares, they made good time; entering the main hall, Clint barely had time to scan the gathered crowd before Tony grabbed him by the arm and spun him around.
“We did it!” Tony crowed. “Once Brucie here figured out it wasn’t about time but folding space, it was simple!”
Planting a sloppy kiss on Clint’s cheek, Tony let him go and moved on to Natasha. Before she could pull away, he squeezed her in a big hug.
“Complete brilliance, that’s what Hank is … was … whatever. We can’t travel backwards so he found a way to anchor to a time rather than a place.” He threw himself at Steve, landing a loud smacking kiss on Steve’s lips. “We’re going home!”
“We are?” Steve asked.
“Tony,” Bruce said. “Too much.”
“Right, yeah, reining it in. We can’t go right this second, no, but we’ve solved the biggest problem.” Tony took a breath, but didn’t let go of Steve. “We’ll need to do a lot of rewiring in the pod’s main circuits to change the program, but it’s doable.”
“The pod that’s in Pierce’s keep?” Natasha raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, small hiccup.” Tony shrugged. “But, hey, it’s possible. This morning we were stuck here permanently.”
“Right. Stuck.” Steve sighed, untangling himself from Tony’s arms. “Congratulations, Tony. That’s great.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Tony practically glowed. “I’ve still got it.”
“Excuse me,” John Garrett interrupted. “Clint, we need you up front.”
“Right! Time to get crowned. Go get ‘em tiger.” Tony gave him a push.
“Your friend seems excited about something,” John said as they made their way to the raised dais. “Good news?”
“Tony gets excited when he solves a problem.” Scanning the room, Clint caught sight of Phil standing with Mack. “Especially if he’s told it’s impossible. He does four impossible things every morning.”
“Sounds like a handy fellow to have around.” John stopped at the stage. “You get on up there; I’ll be right behind you.”
Only a few steps and he was by his chair, the one draped with a purple cape, complete with a golden harp pin on its lapel. He fingered the material, a mix of wool and cotton, supposedly bespelled to keep it clean and repel sharp blades, if that was true. He had wanted to get his diploma, to prove he was more than just an orphan carnie boy, but this swath of material meant even more to him. This was proof of his talent, that music was more than a dream.
Glancing up, he saw Phil coming his way. Happiness tugged at the corners of his lips; with his friends in the audience and Phil by his side, Clint was ready to make a commitment to his future … Master Harper Clint Barton.
Of course, that was when everything went to hell.
His ears popped as the magical doorways opened, one in the back of the room and another just behind the podium. Before anyone moved, armed fighters began to step through, weapons drawn and shields raised. Mack only just dodged a killing blow, the sword slicing a line across his bicep as he spun on his heel. Others weren’t so lucky; Felix took a knife in the back, falling to his knees. He still managed to grab the leg of a wooden chair, whipping it around to block the next blow.
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy, 'cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.
Unarmed except for the small knife on his belt, Clint grabbed the purple cloak, wrapping it around his fists and trapping the oncoming sword in its folds. Twisting away, he yanked it out of the wielder’s arm, scooping it up as it fell. He quit thinking, reacting instead to the music that filled his head; he focused on Phil, used a chair as leverage and flipped over the next guy, elbowing him in the solar plexus before charging across the stage.
The man of the hour, tower of power, I'll devour. I'm gonna tie you up and let you understand that I'm not your average man. 
Skirting around Melinda who was twirling the broken legs of a chair, Clint saw Daisy and Jemma forming a united front with Leo and Trip, the younger kids behind them; Grant put himself in front of the women, but they were having none it, shoving him out of the way.
“To me!” Steve’s voice rang above the clashing sounds. He held his sword aloft, the glow a beacon in the scuffle of audience and attackers. Bucky, Piper, and Natasha formed a triangle, protecting those inside. Using chairs as shields, they forced their way towards the side door.
“Get the kids out of here,” Ross ordered Trip and the others. “We’ll keep these guys busy and not let them into the rest of the keep.”
In the chaos of the room, Clint’s focus on making his way across the stage. To his left Ororo whirled, her braid whipping out behind her as she took on two men by herself, fighting in a style that was a cross between boxing and martial arts. To his right, Tony’s voice rang out, “Say hello to my little friend!” somewhere in the melee, followed by popping sounds as he sent blasts flying from his hands.
“Clint! Behind!” Phil shouted; Clint dived and rolled under Rumlow’s reach, bouncing back up, coming face-to-face to the scarred man.
“Well aren’t you a wily one?” Rumlow’s voice was low and raspy.
“Yeah, you’ll find I’m a lot harder to kill than you thought,” Clint shot back; he planted his feet and blocked the way. “You’ll have to go through me to get to Phil.”
“Don’t need to,” Rumlow shrugged. “Phil’s not my concern.”
In between heartbeats, Rumlow pivoted, his knife flying true and burying itself into Tony’s shoulder. Stumbling with the force of the impact, Tony took two steps forward and was immediately mobbed by four attackers. A shimmer in the air and a doorway appeared; Tony struggled, shouting obscenities, but he couldn’t stop them from dragging him through.
“Tony!” Steve shoved the man in front of him out-of-the-way, shouldering others aside, but the door closed with a pop before he got near it. “No!”
“Son-of-a-bitch.” Clint launched himself at Rumlow; he might not be in the man’s league when it came to swords, but he could fight dirty. He sank his teeth in Rumlow’s forearm and landed a vicious kick in his balls. “Where the hell did they take him? Tell me or I’ll kill you right here.”
Doubled over, Rumlow looked up and grinned, teeth dirty and stained. “Nah, you’ve got a weak spot. You kill me, Phil dies.”
Whipping his head around, Clint saw John Garrett holding a knife to Phil’s throat. “Didn’t see this coming, did you? For all your advanced knowledge, you’re far too trusting.”
“John? Why?” Phil asked. “You’re working with Rumlow?”
“Times are changing, Phil. We can’t stick our heads in the sand any longer. Technology isn’t a bad thing; those with vision will rule the future.” John’s face was flushed as he spoke. “We have to evolve.”
“That sounds like Pierce, not you.” Phil shifted to the side ever so slightly. “Words like that are dangerous,.”
Clint got the message and began to hum, an almost silent vibration.
Strumming my pain with his fingers.
“He’s right, Phil. I wish you’d see, but I know how you are. It’s too bad; we could have made such a difference working together. Now the Guild will have to do without you.”
Singing my life with his words.
John’s hand on the hilt, the muscles in his arms, weakening, tiring, aching to be released.
“Do it, Garrett,” Rumlow said. “We’re out of here.”
Killing me softly with his song.
Exhaustion, confusion … Phil was a friend, Pierce an enemy.
“We were going to be the best harpers ever.” Phil’s voice was quieter. “Strum our lives into our songs.”
Killing me softly with his song.
Trembling and shaking, weak kneed, unable to stand.
“What the fuck? Are you …?” John’s eyes shot to Clint. “You’re doing this. No one can do that without singing.”
Telling my whole life with his words.
Slumping down, relaxing, sliding into unconsciousness. Phil caught John and lowered him to the floor. “Don’t kill him; we need him alive for questioning,” Phil told him.
“I …” Clint clenched his hands, blunt nails biting into his palm. Tremors ran through his body, energy surging and looking for release.
“Where’s Tony?” Steve came charging up on the stage, sword lit from within. Rumlow blocked the thrust. “What did you do with him?”
Without an answer, Rumlow went on the attack, his fighting style all brute strength. Steve, on the other hand, had grown into his magic; he mixed parkour with fencing, broadsword swings with acrobatic flips. With each pass, he glowed brighter, his purpose fixed, gaining ground on Rumlow.
The word was a crack of sound; in the middle of the floor, Clint saw Bruce godown beneath four attackers. He fought them, thrashing his body as they grabbed at his arms. The air shimmered beside them, and Clint’s sight went red. As a magical portal opened, Clint threw open his senses and let the music burst out.
“I chime in with a ‘Haven't you people ever heard of closing a goddamn door?’.” 
The portal shattered into a thousand tiny splinters that showered across the floor. Clint reeled from the recoil as the magic blew through the room, slamming shut every door.
With a guttural roar, Bruce tossed the men off, rage wracking his face. He swung an arm and smacked one halfway across the room before spinning another, using the man’s body as a bludgeon to knock the others down. Out of control, Bruce lashed out at anyone within reach.
“He’s a berserker.” Ross jerked Clint back as a battered attacker fell to the floor. “He has to be calmed before he kills someone. Where’s Aubrey with her harp?”
“Bruce?” Clint stepped forward. “Hey. Anybody in there?”
Bruce seemed bigger, his muscles straining against the linen of his shirt. No recognition registered in his eyes as his head swiveled towards Clint. Absently, Bruce stomped one of the men already laid out on the ground.
“Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?” Clint spoke more than he sang, his voice quiet but filled with power. “Come on now, I hear you're feeling down. Well I can ease your pain, get you on your feet again.”
Another magical doorway opened, startling Bruce; he caught one of the fleeing fighters by the sleeve, spinning him around and launching him into the far wall.
Clint didn’t dare look away, his attention squarely on Bruce. “Relax, I'll need some information first, just the basic facts. Can you show me where it hurts?”
In the time they’d been working in the lab, Clint had come to know Bruce through the songs he’d play when he was working; The Wall was definitely one of Bruce’s favorite albums.
“There is no pain you are receding, a distant ship smoke on the horizon, you are only coming through in waves, your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.”
Shaking his head, Bruce stumbled as he reached for another attacker.
“When I was a child I had a fever my hands felt just like two balloons. Now I've got that feeling once again.”
Bruce’s eyelids drifted closed; the man he had a hold of folded to the floor, asleep before his head hit the stone
“I can't explain you would not understand. This is not how I am. I have become comfortably numb.”
“Clint?” Bruce sank to his knees. “They … took … Tony …”
“I know,” Clint said. “You need to rest so we can find him.”
“We’ll get him back; I promise.” Steve was there, sweating and breathing heavily, a bleeding slash running across the back of his hand. “I won’t let them hurt him.”
Reality crashed down; Clint staggered, his anger as drained as his magic. “Phil?”
“I’m here.” An arm went around Clint’s shoulders. “Sit down before you fall down.”
“What about Rumlow; is he …” Clint glanced around the room, taking in the scene. Felix lay on the stage, face contorted in pain as Ororo bandaged his wound. Trip was bleeding from his scalp, a long cut running along his hairline, but both Jemma and Leo were helping clean his wound. Still unconscious, John’s hands and feet were bound; Bucky had his knee in Rumlow’s back, holding him down with his mechanical hand.
“Where’s Nat?” The familiar red hair was nowhere to be seen.
“She was with Bruce,” Steve said, but he sounded unsure. “Last time I saw her, that’s where she was.”
“Your sister?” Mack limped their way. “She was near that last group who ported out. By the door.”
“You don’t think she ...?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, I do,” Clint replied. “She went through with them.”:
Bucky cursed. “Of course she did.”
 “Close the Door” Teddy Pendergast
 “Slow Ride” Foghat
 “Slow Hand” The Pointer Sisters
 “Crazy on You” Heart
 “Love the World Away” Kenny Rogers
 “C is for Cookie” Cookie Monster, Sesame Street
 “What I Want is a Perfect Cup of Coffee” Trout Fishing in America
 “Octopus’s Garden” Beatles
 “Party in the U. S. A.” Miley Cyrus
 “Can’t Stop The Feeling” Justin Timberlake
 “Happy” Pharrell
 “Dance With Me” Orleans
 “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
 “Street Fighting Man” Rolling Stones
 “Mama Said Knock You Out” LL Cool J
 “Killing Me Softly” Roberta Flack
 “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” Panic! At The Disco
 “Comfortably Numb” Pink Floyd