Chapter 1: Prologue
"It's Agent Barton. He took out all our systems. He's headed for the detention level. Does anybody copy?"
There were two things she hated about enhanced lockdown procedures: computer tracking at every checkpoint, and the difficulty of bypassing checkpoints when she was carrying an unconscious Clint Barton. Junction callouts were a joke. She announced them anyway, but it wasn't until she hit Medical's outer ward that anyone holstered a weapon to help.
She didn't let go of Clint until she caught the eyes of Aria Sharden - green, not blue - and they shoved him into an isolation chamber. Natasha hesitated in the doorway, which no one would thank her for, but Aria wasn't stupid enough to trust Clint and the place was buzzing. She wasn't locking herself in a room until she knew who was out there.
Fury. The swirl of black couldn't mean anything good, but he was on his feet and shouting orders into his comm as he strode beside the stretcher instead of on it. An occupied stretcher. He wasn't hurt; he was with someone.
She put a hand to her own earpiece but it was dead. No click, no hum… Clint's first arrow had been a short-range EMP. Damn it.
There was only one person Fury would come to Medical for at a time like this.
Natasha lifted her chin when his eye swept over her. "He dead?"
Fury's hand went to his earpiece before he snapped, "Not yet." Glancing past her, he added, "Him?"
She didn't smile. "Not yet."
"Good." Fury's free hand tossed something at her, and he was lucky she didn't shoot him for it. She knew what it was before the chain made it halfway through the intervening space. "Pass it on," he said.
Her fingers closed around tiny clinking metal, circles and smooth edges biting into her palm. Fury was already gone. He made it as far as critical care before someone blocked his path, and she heard him say, "Report any changes to Romanoff."
She stepped back into isolation just as Aria was coming out. She didn't bother touching her, just said, "I need a new comm."
"Ten minutes," Aria said. "Medical report's in the system; update it if you can."
The door closed between them and Natasha turned around.
Aria didn't play games. Clint was as restrained as he could be short of a straitjacket and a rubber room. He also looked like he'd gone without sleep for several days, without food for longer, and he probably needed an IV.
No one gave a compromised assassin a needle. Which meant he needed to wake up, and soon, or every minute he laid there would only make him worse.
She drew in a breath, her hand tightening around the metal chain with its single ID tag. One of the tags would have stayed with Phil, of course. But she'd seen the blood, the chest tube, she knew where he'd been hit. They would have removed anything that could possibly get in the way.
Fury had given her the primary chain. Not just a tag, it held Phil's wedding ring beside it, and he wasn't going to be happy when he woke up. On the other hand, the ring wouldn't get lost or buried in the shuffle, so maybe he would thank them.
She didn't dare "pass it on." Not yet. Not until she was sure Clint was himself again.
"Clint," she murmured, hovering as close as possible. Out of direct reach, restraints or no, the ring in her hand like a promise. "You're okay.
"You need to wake up now."
Chapter 2: Assemble 2012
There were three things Clint took for granted about being undercover: bad food, no arrows, and Natasha could always find him. Being bundled off to Maine with his husband after the Chitauri invasion threw two of those assumptions right out the window. Because Phil could cook, and he'd ordered Clint to go shoot. Daily.
Natasha still found them, obviously. It took her twelve hours to show up on their doorstep. She maintained that she'd located them after two, but traffic was bad and she'd thought Clint would want his car unharmed.
"Traditionally," Phi said as Clint let her in, "the point of a covert operation is to remain covert. I challenge anyone to avoid attracting attention in that car."
"Excuse me," Clint said. "I've seen what you take on the road."
"The point of this operation," Natasha said, "is to give Clint an excuse to babysit you while you recover. He'll do it better with his own car."
"Assuming no one recognizes it." Phil didn't bother to hide the fact that he was sliding a gun back under the living room table, and Clint didn't have to be his husband to recognize the signs of fatigue.
"Assuming everyone recognizes it," Natasha countered. "Stark put a tracking bug in it. I give us ten minutes."
Clint frowned at her. "What'd you invite Stark for?"
"The shawarma discussion?" she said. "No fife and drums? Ringing any bells?"
He didn't know why he looked at Phil; it wasn't like he'd been there. "I had a head injury, Nat. I barely remember eating shawarma."
Actually what he remembered was standing outside Loki's magically fortified cell and being hungry. If he didn't get to shoot anyone, he should at least get to eat. He was pretty sure Natasha had backed him up. It had been Stark who pushed the shawarma thing, and no one had tried to stop them.
It was kind of a blur after that. Thor had asked about Phil, Steve and Tony had gotten weird - like anyone cared about their problems - and Clint had let Natasha pat his leg while she told them what she knew. Bruce had inhaled an unreasonable amount of food. That part was clear in his memory.
"Your official mission here is to babysit Phil," Natasha said. "That doesn't strike you as strange?"
"I can't raise my arms higher than my shoulders," Phil said. "I'm not supposed to lift anything heavier than a loaf of bread, and my physical therapy is deep breathing. Having a babysitter strikes me as completely necessary."
"You'd be better protected back at base," Natasha said bluntly. She tipped her head at Clint. "No offense."
He held up his hands, because hey: none taken.
"There's work back at base," Phil said. "They've been trying to make me take a vacation for months."
More like a year. They'd been trying to make Phil take a vacation since the last one, when Clint may or may not have gotten them both involved in a drug-smuggling operation during their week off. But come on, what else was there to do in New Mexico after the alien objects were gone?
"There are Avengers back at base," Natasha said. "Stark and Bruce got to Steve, and all three of them are pretty cool towards SHIELD right now. The only reason they haven't split is because of you."
"Me?" Phil repeated. He looked genuinely surprised, but Clint got it. Phil packed a punch and he looked like the man, but he was a walking encyclopedia and he knew how to make a call. If anyone could make a guy believe in SHIELD, it was Phil Coulson.
"Ask him," Natasha said, nodding to Clint.
"You're their rallying point," Clint said. He was talking to Phil, but he was watching Natasha. Her lack of reaction would tell him how much he got right. "You took a knife for them; they're not ready to write you off. Fury doesn't know whose side you'll land on, so he's keeping us apart on purpose."
Phil didn't wait for Natasha to confirm his speculation. "I'm an agent of SHIELD," he said. "My loyalties aren't divided."
"Clint's an Avenger," Natasha said. "And he's Tony's type."
Clint raised his eyebrows at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that Fury doesn't trust anyone's loyalty." Natasha's gaze flicked to Phil. "Not even yours. In his mind, it's a short step from Tony befriending Clint to Clint convincing you the Avengers don't need SHIELD at all."
Clint folded his arms and leaned back against the kitchen counter. "Any team that has Tony Stark and Captain America probably doesn't need SHIELD," he pointed out.
Natasha tilted her head in wry agreement. "That's not lost on Fury."
"So we get to disappear," Clint finished for her.
"He didn't give you search and rescue after the desert evac," Natasha said, looking at Phil. "And he didn't send you off with Clint because you needed a vacation."
Phil snorted. "No one goes anywhere with Clint because they need a vacation."
"You asked for search and rescue?" Clint blurted out. No way had it been offered to him. He was too valuable.
"I watched the base implode with you still underground," Phil said mildly. "Of course I asked to go back in."
"Seven minutes," Natasha said. "Stark will have radioed his lab buddy, but unless he flew both of them - which he didn't - they won't be here until tomorrow. Or late tonight, if he managed to convince them to behave like crazy obsessed stalkers."
"If he managed to?" Clint asked. He gave her a pointed look instead of staring at Phil until everything he wanted to say was too much to keep in. Staring at Phil did that to him. It was a problem.
"I haven't spoken to any of them since you left," Natasha replied.
Yet she knew Tony was tracking his car. She knew Tony was in the suit right now, the rest of the crazy train not far behind. She probably even knew why they were so intent on getting here in the first place.
"Just out of curiosity," Phil said. "Why is everyone so determined to be here?"
"Checked your mail lately?" Natasha asked.
"This is a covert operation," Clint informed her. "We don't get mail."
"You get this mail," Natasha said. She tossed a postcard on the counter beside Clint. It was addressed to Current Resident, but there was no mistaking the black wing insignia in the bottom left corner.
"SHIELD sending us fan mail?" Clint flipped the card over and sure enough, there was the shot that had made every news outlet in New York within minutes. The six of them, back to back to back on the street, with the city burning around them.
Clint didn't find it very inspiring, but the words ASSEMBLE 2012 had been scrawled across the image. Complete with dates, no less. Three days from now.
"The first annual Avengers convention," Phil said from the couch, and of course he knew about it. He'd probably organized it himself. "The division is looking for some good press."
"You knew about this?" Clint asked, just to be sure. Phil could fake it with the best of them. And he did. Routinely.
"Since when does SHIELD care?" Natasha wanted to know. "What happened to the 'secret' part of 'secret intelligence operation'?"
"You happened," Phil said. "The Avengers answer to SHIELD or they answer to no one. Law enforcement isn't keen on vigilantes.
"Yes," he added, looking at Clint. "I knew they'd ask you. I don't know what they'll say if you don't agree."
"Agree to what?" Clint turned the card over again, but there wasn't any more information than there'd been before. "They want us to make an appearance or something?"
"They want us to do Q & A," Natasha said.
"On stage," she said. "Individually."
He raised his eyebrows at her, and she gave him that flat look that meant: yeah, see? He was pretty sure Bruce wouldn't go for that. He couldn't really picture SHIELD endorsing it, if it came to that.
They were field agents. They weren't supposed to be on camera.
"The press won't be allowed to ask questions," Phil said. "It's just fans."
"Fans?" Clint repeated.
"The people who live in the city you saved?" Phil hadn't moved from his position on the couch. "It turns out they're appreciative."
His tone added, for you morons, god knows why, and Clint smiled involuntarily. Phil didn't really sound like that, but in Clint's head, he did. The translation had become second nature.
"You like this idea," Natasha said.
"It's a fundraiser," Phil said. "For the reconstruction effort. It falls under the umbrella of the 'Get the Lights Back On' project. SHIELD feels that anything the Avengers do to clean up the city weighs in their favor against the destruction caused by the Chitauri battle."
"Doing a publicity appearance counts as helping clean up the city?" Clint asked.
"Doing a publicity appearance makes you more accessible," Phil said. "The World Security Council can bully SHIELD because no one knows who they are. If the Avengers are going to have leverage, you'll need to do things like this. Conventions. Question and answer sessions. Rescue kittens from trees, if that's what it takes.
"I'd say you should endorse a merchandise line," he added, "but Stark's already done that and it's the stuff of nightmares."
"You think so?" Clint couldn't resist. "I like those glowy hand things."
"I'm probably not the target audience," Phil said.
"Four minutes," Natasha said.
"Okay," Clint said.
They were both looking at him, so he clarified, "Okay, let's do it. This weekend?"
"Just like that," Natahsa said. Her skepticism was flat and unmistakable.
"You're scheduled for Friday," Phil told him. "Afternoon. Along with Natasha."
"Come on," Clint said. "This is your kind of thing, Nat. Hiding in plain sight, manipulating government organizations, empowering little girls. Will there be girls there?"
"Given the overwhelmingly male composition of the Avengers Initiative," Phil said, "it's reasonable to assume that women will comprise a large percentage of the audience."
"Girls," Clint said. "Little kids. Will there be kids there?"
"They didn't send me a guest list," Phil said.
"But you have one anyway," Clint said. He didn't push it, though; if Phil wasn't giving them details about the audience there was probably a reason. "Short notice, isn't it? Why the heads-up now?"
"They didn't want to give Stark a chance to retool the event," Phil said.
"I hardly think three days will be a challenge for him," Natasha said.
Clint could hear the smile that didn't show on Phil's face. "He'd have to be interested," Phil said. "The invitation was designed to attract just enough of his attention."
"He's on his way here," Clint pointed out. "I think you may have overshot."
"The convention is an excuse," Natasha said. "He's coming to see Phil. So are the others."
"I would have been a captive audience under medical observation," Phil reminded her. "Why now?"
"Because there aren't any cameras here," Natasha said. "Because Clint is right about you. And because Stark wants to know where you stand before he agrees to do any more publicity for SHIELD."
It was pretty clear that Phil didn't know what to do with that information. So Clint asked, "What does he think Phil's gonna do? Quit?"
Natasha tipped her head.
"Oh," Clint said.
"I'm not quitting," Phil said.
"Stark wants you in charge of the Initiative," Natasha said.
"The Avengers Initiative?" Phil repeated.
She gave him a look like, No, the other Initiative. The one no one cares about.
"That's Fury's project," Phil said.
"Stark's not happy with Fury right now," Natasha told him. "Clint was screening your visitors in Medical, but their merry trio is pissed. Apparently Fury let Steve and Stark think you died for them until after the invasion was over."
Clint held up his hands when Phil glanced at him. "Didn't know," he said. "Haven't asked. Not a day I wanted to relive. There hasn't been time to catch them alone anyway." He didn't have to add, without cameras.
"Okay," Phil said. He didn't have to say it. He didn't add, Not blaming you, but Clint heard it anyway and he tried to relax. He was still waiting for Phil to realize just how little Clint had done after the invasion and be... not angry, but "disappointed."
Natasha looked from Phil to him and raised an eyebrow. "He knows, Clint. You weren't exactly subtle. Does it look like he cares?"
Clint glared at her. "What are you, psychic now?"
Natasha just looked back at him. Fine, whatever, everyone knew Clint had been Phil's one 24-hour visitor, a second person allowed only during designated visiting hours and never unsupervised. These were the people who'd let Phil be stabbed; he wasn't above a little childish distrust.
"I'm not," Phil remarked, when neither of them said anything.
"Clint thinks you won't appreciate the fact that he sat by your bedside the entire time you were in Medical," Natasha said.
Clint folded his arms. There was no way to shut Natasha up; he'd stopped trying a long time ago.
"Of course I appreciate it," Phil said. "You kept everyone else out. That right there was worth the constant twang and the country music."
"My bow doesn't twang," Clint told him.
"I wasn't talking about the bow," Phil said.
"You have an entire covert operation to do this," Natasha said. "We have a minute and a half before Stark arrives, and I'd like to know if you're going to bat for them or not. So I can get my stories straight before it hits the fan."
So I can choose my side, she didn't say. She didn't have to.
"For them?" Phil repeated.
"Are you taking over the Avengers," Natasha said. Instead of a question, it sounded like two foregone conclusions: two paths that had already been decided, and all Phil had to do was tell them which one they were on.
"I'm not sure what it is about recent events," Phil said, "that makes Tony Stark think SHIELD will do anything he wants."
"He's convinced Steve," Natasha said simply.
As the only one of them who actually followed orders, Steve's conviction would factor more heavily. Phil just looked at her, though, and finally he shifted his gaze to Clint. "What about you?" he asked. "What do you want?"
Clint understood the question. He didn't see why that should affect his answer. "You," he said.
"You," Natasha agreed.
"I see." Phil considered that for a long moment, then nodded. "In that case, if responsibility for the Avengers is offered to me, I'll accept it."
"That won't be enough for Stark," Natasha said.
"What is?" Phil replied. "And why are you referring to the Avengers as 'them'?"
"I'm not," Natasha said. "I'm referring to Stark, Steve, and Bruce as 'them,' because for all that he's a god, Thor doesn't cause half as much trouble. You and Clint I consider part of 'us' as long as you're not actively shooting at me.
"That only sometimes includes using an F-22 to bomb the building I'm in," she added.
Clint frowned at her, and she shrugged. "That's how he got my attention after Loki took you."
"That's not true," Phil said. "The F-22 was merely a threat. If I recall, I got your attention by telling you that Loki had taken Clint."
Clint smiled at the way she didn't react. "You softie."
The phone rang.
"Stark's running early," Natasha said.
"He's probably calling ahead," Phil said. "I don't think 'early' is a term he's well-acquainted with."
Clint picked up the phone because no one else was going to. "Yeah," he said, not bothering to ask.
"Is this the super secret undercover residence of Mr. and Mr. Coulson?" Tony's voice said. "Because if it isn't, then you, my friend, have a stolen car in your driveway."
There was only one way to get rid of Tony quickly: give him what he wanted. Clint was happy to do it over the phone if it kept Phil from drawing on another visitor. Which, hey, Clint wasn't blaming him for, but his subtlety was shot to hell.
"No," Clint told the phone. "He's not quitting, and yes, he'll take responsibility for the Avengers if you guys can convince Fury."
He heard a sound that might have been Tony whistling. "She doesn't mess around, does she. All right, understood, square deal. Cap's on it. Enjoy your vacation."
Clint raised his eyebrows when the phone went dead, but he set it down without complaint. "He says Steve's on it," he announced. Then, seeing their stares, he added, "What?"
Natasha just shrugged, but when Phil muttered, "Definitely his type," the corners of her mouth quirked up.
Clint pointed at him. "You need food. And sleep. Nat, you staying? We're ordering Chinese, and there's a spare room upstairs."
Her gaze flickered from one of them to the other. "You mind?"
He wouldn't have offered if they minded, but he let Phil say, "Not at all," and Natasha nodded once. That was the end of the discussion.
It wasn't until he was crawling into bed that night, too exhausted from days of dubious sleep to care how early it was, that he heard Phil say, "I really do appreciate it, you know."
Clint buried his face in the pillow, the near total darkness not enough to hide his doubt. He didn't want to question forgiveness like that, but he couldn't help it. "Thought you'd be pissed I didn't fix anything."
Phil sounded amused. "I can't actually hear you when you talk to the pillow like that."
He shifted, turning his head so that he at least faced Phil. "I didn't fix anything," he repeated.
"You fixed you," Phil said quietly.
He huffed, something that could have been a snort if he'd had more energy. Or breath. Phil was the one who was supposed to be breathless, but he still felt like he was barely above the ice. "Nat did that," he said.
"She interrupted the link," Phil said. "You got your head back. Not everyone managed to."
Him. Selvig. Johnson hadn't been so lucky, and if Clint thought about it too much it brought the cold feeling creeping back, so he tried not to.
"I don't actually care how it happened," Phil said mildly. "My point is, we spent three days searching for you, with no idea what we'd find at the end of it. You kept yourself alive. We can deal with the rest of it later."
It was the one argument he couldn't counter, because look who was beside him. He wasn't sure his voice would work, but he managed to mutter, "Likewise."
The room was quiet for several long minutes. Just the sound of breathing and the occasional shift of sheets as Phil tried to get more comfortable. It ached, he said. It just ached sometimes, more than anything, and the still-healing scars itched.
It was odd, then, that hearing him move made Clint relax. He was aware of his own chest, how simple breathing was for him, and the tightness there eased a little as Phil sighed. No rasp, no strain, just a dip in the mattress as he moved until their arms brushed against each other.
"First you save yourself," Phil whispered.
Clint smiled, because hey, look at that. Phil had been listening when he passed the time in Medical by singing. He edged closer, pressing his face to the nearest shoulder so that Phil could feel his expression.
Then you save the world.
He couldn't tell if Phil had moved at all by morning. Clint just lay there looking at him in the barely lightening dawn, because this hadn't been allowed on the Helicarrier. Medical had an annoying and possibly justified rule about one patient to a bed, Barton. His argument that he'd taken enough of a beating to be considered a patient himself, so really, they were conserving resources, hadn't swayed anyone.
Phil looked okay. He looked almost normal, even, in a way that no one did on a hospital bed. Like he was just sleeping, not collapsed from exhaustion or laid low by injury or lack of care.
Like he'd be all right if Clint looked away for a moment.
He nudged Phil's arm, gently, just enough to warn him if he wasn't awake already. Phil hummed without opening his eyes, so Clint kissed his shoulder and slid out from under the sheets carefully. It was a better start to the day than he'd had in weeks.
Natasha was downstairs, doing some kind of complicated yoga that he might have asked to learn if he didn't have his orders. Phil had told him to find something to shoot at. Every day. With Natasha here, this was the safest time to leave Phil alone. Clint figured they'd have to work up to longer separations again.
When she caught his eye, he held up his bow. He hesitated, even though he knew she got it, and jerked his head at the stairs. Natasha nodded.
She'd stay, then. At least until he got back.
What he came back to, of course, wasn't anything like what he'd left. Natasha was dressed in civvies and perched on a counter in the kitchen like her bare feet weren't a health hazard. Her hair was still wet, so maybe they weren't.
Phil, on the other hand, was wearing a suit, and Clint couldn't help being disappointed. And puzzled. Sure, their "covert operation" was an excuse, but it was the "operation" that was the front. Not the "covert" part. They were supposed to be undercover, and granted, neither of them spent a lot of time trying to be normal, but who wore a jacket and tie to make pancakes?
"Hey," Clint said. "You're making pancakes."
"That's why we call you Hawkeye," Phil agreed.
"What's up with the suit?" Clint asked, then realized exactly how much batter he was looking at. "You're expecting company."
There were five plates pushed to the back of the counter by the stove. Phil was holding a sixth, and he scooped two pancakes onto it and actually carried it over to Natasha. Clint was tempted to steal the remaining pancakes from the pan, but Phil still had the spatula.
"Tony Stark never goes away for long," Phil said, picking up another plate on his return trip. "And a Dr. Bruce Banner checked into a very pricey Portland hotel last night. Pancakes?"
He offered the other two pancakes to Clint, glancing at the refrigerator as he did so. "Natasha's got the butter, and there's syrup in the fridge."
"Thanks," Clint said. He set the pancakes next to each other and went to liberate the butter. "So we're assuming Steve's at the same hotel?"
"Bruce has two rooms," Natasha said. "I'm guessing the other one is Steve's. Both paid for by Stark."
"Who's staying where?" Clint flipped one buttered pancake onto a new plate, grabbed an extra fork, and set it down next to Phil at the stove. "Syrup?"
Phil already had four more perfectly round circles of batter bubbling on the pan. "Yes, thank you."
"Somewhere even more expensive," Natasha said. "Who cares? He probably flew back to New York overnight."
"To avoid drawing attention to us?" Clint poured syrup on his own pancake, then left the bottle next to Phil's plate. "The guy does get around."
The doorbell rang, and Clint looked at Natasha. She raised her eyebrows. Someone has to answer it. It was clear from her determined enjoyment of Phil's pancakes that it wasn't going to be her.
"It's open!" Clint yelled instead. At least one of them had super hearing, right? Steve could let them in.
Of course it was Tony's voice they heard first. "-and they said we could come in, what do you think, it's booby-trapped? In which case you should go first, just for the record. I mean, Bruce could take it, but the driveway might not survive. And it's a decent driveway, just look at that surface, professional grade. You could land small motorized flying things on that. Very small."
"And that's why I didn't make coffee," Phil said. He was turning the proto-pancakes over, apparently paying no attention to the three men looking for traps on their way through the front door.
"I thought SHIELD agents got up too early for coffee," Tony said. "You're all disgustingly awake; I bet you actually slept last night instead of having a 'hey, Phil's alive!' orgy. Which, if you decide to do that, I know some people who'd be interested."
"Do you have to talk all the time?" Steve asked.
"I'm filling a conversational void," Tony said. "It's a burden I bear for the sake of disguising how sublimely uncreative the rest of you are."
"Good morning, Bruce," Natasha said from her place on the counter. Clint had heard about the damage Bruce's 'other guy' had done to the Helicarrier in pursuit of her, but Natasha claimed they were on good terms now.
If that was true, Bruce was only the fifth person who'd won even conditional devotion from her and Clint would love to know how he'd done it.
"Good morning, Natasha," Bruce replied with a faint smile. "Clint... Agent Coulson. Sorry to barge in like this."
"Don't be sorry," Tony said. "We're here to plan a strategy. Coulson lives for meetings like this. Are those pancakes?"
Clint frowned at him, an expression Tony shouldn't have noticed given his typically hyper-caffeinated state. But Tony caught his eye immediately and said, "Too soon? He loves meetings like this, how's that? That's true, isn't it? He's making us pancakes."
"He's making us pancakes," Natasha said. "You just happen to be here."
"We could come back later," Steve offered awkwardly. "Really, we didn't mean -"
"We don't need to come back later," Tony said. "We're here now. And everyone wants to talk about the publicity we're not doing for SHIELD.
"PS," he added, and now he was definitely looking at Phil, "Fury says to call him back. Well, not really, because he doesn't say things like that as a rule, so I'm saying it for him. He won't put you in charge of the Avengers until he talks to you, and he's still pretending no one knows where you are. So. Inconvenience all around."
"You talked to Fury already?" Clint tried to decide whether he was impressed or not.
Phil dropped another pancake on his plate, which was charming enough that Clint ignored the way it messed up his syrup to pancake ratio. Phil made a little assembly line of plate-fork-pancake for the other three and slid them across the counter on the far side of the stove. Then he started pouring more batter.
"Of course I talked to Fury, Fury loves me," Tony was saying. He took one of the plates without asking. "For definitions of the word 'love' that include 'is occasionally able to be in the same room with.' Anyway, it's not important, the thing is, he's totally going to give you the Avengers."
"If you're willing to take over," Steve said, eyeing Tony's pancake.
"Tony's not just being a jerk," Clint said. "Those actually are for you."
"Help yourself," Phil agreed, and that seemed to be all Steve needed. He handed Bruce a plate, then took the last one for himself and ate his pancake in four bites. He was done before Clint could offer him the syrup. It was kind of amazing.
"What does this have to do with publicity for SHIELD?" Phil asked. He was, to all outward appearances, watching the pan.
"Still holding the personality analysis against them," Tony said. "The whole reason I wasn't invited to join the team in the first place is because I don't take orders; I don't see that changing any time soon."
"That wasn't the whole reason," Phil said.
"Whatever," Tony said. "I'm not quite self-absorbed enough that I can't see the benefits of a SHIELD alliance - although honestly it's a close call - but me and Fury are done. And if you had anything to do with Phase 2 you probably shouldn't tell Cap here, because he's about ready to write off the whole organization."
"I won't be part of a force that defends itself through preemptive military strikes," Steve said. "There has to be something that distinguishes us from HYDRA."
Clint exchanged glances with Natasha, and he wasn't entirely surprised when Phil didn't answer. Normally he would just lie: of course, Captain, perfectly understandable. But he was standing in a kitchen with Clint and Natasha, and he'd been a SHIELD agent for a long time.
And he was talking to Captain America.
Clint decided to make it easy for him. Raising his hand, he said, "Hi. I'm Clint Barton, professional assassin. There's a reason Loki thought I'd be useful."
Natasha was right there with him. She flicked her fingers instead of raising her hand. "Natasha Romanoff," she said. "Technically a spy, but I've been known to strike preemptively."
"SHIELD isn't a neutral organization, Captain." Phil was testing the edge of a pancake with his spatula. "Nor is it a bloodless one. The Avengers Initiative was meant to have a certain amount of autonomy, but if you're going to cut out the liars and the killers you won't be working with the three of us."
Steve didn't flinch. "We're all killers," he said. He said it the way someone else might say, we've all gotten parking tickets. "I don't have a problem with anyone on this team."
"Except me," Tony said. "Right? You should have a problem with me, because otherwise I've fallen off your radar in a frankly unflattering way."
"Just once," Steve said, "can something not be about you?"
Tony frowned. "I don't see how that helps things."
Clint looked at Natasha, because Tony might have just diverted attention from them on purpose. She raised an eyebrow in agreement. He didn't bother looking at Phil, since Phil was still pretending to be just a guy making pancakes.
"If I have a choice," Bruce said, "I prefer not to work for… uh, SHIELD. Either."
"Of course you have a choice, we all have a choice," Tony said. "And right now, our choice is to stick together. All seven of us. Well, counting Thor, who doesn't know we're making the decision for him but he will. I assume this convention thing, what's it called? I assume they found a way to send him a postcard on Asgard.
"That has a nice ring to it, don't you think?" Tony continued. "Postcard, Asgard, maybe they thought of that. Also, we should open a science division of the Avengers. I don't want SHIELD scooping up Betty and, who's Thor's girl again? Jane? Using them as leverage, that would be bad."
All seven of them. This time Clint did look at Phil, who had paused just long enough to show his surprise. Which was to say, not long enough for a normal human being to notice even if they were looking for it.
None of them were normal human beings.
"Yeah, that's another thing," Tony said, and Steve looked two seconds from rolling his eyes.
"You don't think that's enough?" Steve asked. "Really?"
"No, because if I thought it was enough I would stop talking," Tony told him. "The other thing is this: Coulson lied to my fiancee. Who does that? Other than me? I find that highly inappropriate."
And they were back to the lying. Phil seemed to recognize this one, though, and Steve looked more curious than angry. "I didn't lie to Pepper," Phil said, turning the pancakes over again. He cut his gaze sideways and added, "Captain?"
"You told her there was a cellist," Tony said.
Steve finally seemed to get that Phil was offering him more pancakes. He held out his plate while Tony peered around like he'd suddenly realized where they were. "In Portland," Tony said. "Here?"
"I play a lot of stringed instruments," Clint informed him.
Steve got two of the pancakes. The other two landed on Clint's plate, and a twitch of Phil's expression indicated that one of them was for Natasha. Clint pushed away from his place by the stove and carried them over to her, giving her the top one farthest from the syrup.
"This is actually Clint's house," Phil said. "Albeit maintained under a cover identity, as per SHIELD protocol."
Tony pointed a fork at him. "You called the cellist a she."
"Being gay makes you memorable," Phil replied. "I try not to be."
"Memorable," Clint clarified. "The gay part is good."
"So, what," Tony said. "Dating? Friends with benefits? Going steady, married, planning a family?"
"Legally married last year," Clint said. "SHIELD upped my security clearance and everything."
"I was his best man," Natasha added.
"Yeah, who was Coulson's?" Tony asked.
"Classified," Phil said. "Is there a reason for your presence here, beyond passing made-up messages from Director Fury?"
"The pleasure of your cooking?" Tony suggested.
"Tony wants to attend the convention," Steve said. "He doesn't want to give SHIELD the satisfaction of doing it because they said so. He's hoping you'll convince him, so he can tell them no and then show up anyway."
"Mr. Stark is at least nominally an adult," Phil said, eyeing the next batch of pancakes. "He doesn't need me to justify his life choices, questionable as they may be."
"Will you be attending?" Steve asked.
"Yes," Phil told the pan.
"Good enough for me," Tony declared. "Let's celebrate! Sit down, Coulson, you haven't even eaten anything."
"That's unlikely to change with you at the stove," Phil said.
"Oh, I'm not cooking," Tony said. "Cap will, though. Isn't that right, Big Man? I bet you wield a mean spatula."
The thing about Tony, Clint thought, watching Phil trade places with Steve, was that what he wanted wasn't always bad. That was how he got you in the end. When he said "Cap will cook" and "Bruce and I are going sightseeing" and "Romanoff, let me know if you're gonna blow something up so I can get good seats, okay? Okay," it was hard to argue with him.
So Steve finished breakfast, and no one was surprised when he stayed to clean up afterwards. Clint insisted on helping, if only to keep Phil from looking pained that Captain America was washing dishes by himself. Then Natasha offered to show Steve around, and Steve invited both of them, and Clint figured that was the end of their quiet day together.
Except that Phil just shook his head. "Thank you, but no," he said. "I have a lot to catch up on here."
"I'm pretty sure even SHIELD agents get days off," Steve said. "Especially after involuntary medical leave."
"It's not work-related," Phil said.
The song mentioned in this chapter is "Save Yourself" by Greg Johnson.
Chapter 4: Welcoming Ceremonies
Natasha came back the next morning, and the morning after that, just as Clint took his bow and disappeared for a while. She guarded the house until he got back, and Phil didn't say a word. Clint came home to breakfast for three each day while the rest of the team mostly didn't make news elsewhere, so he didn't question it.
On Thursday, Tony e-mailed them a private departure time from the Portland Jetport. On Friday, Natasha brought a backpack to breakfast and didn't leave afterwards. Clint held up a printout with the stylized "A" on it, and she nodded. So they'd all gotten a copy of the schedule.
"Stark design the logo?" Natasha asked.
"He's trademarking it," Phil said. "He gave the convention organizers free reign to use it however they want. With the understanding that if he doesn't like it, they'll never hear from him again."
His tone said that he'd consider misusing the logo for that consequence alone.
They met Bruce and Steve at the Jetport. Tony didn't join them, but his charter got them back to the city in less than an hour and it included free coffee. When Tony was on board, it probably also included free alcohol.
Phil would say that without Tony it didn't need to.
There was a limo waiting to pick them up. "Don't think that SHIELD is paying for any of this," Phil said, holding the door for them.
"Stark will just tack it on to his consulting fee," Natasha said. She slid over to make room for Bruce, and Clint climbed in after them. The limo had neon floor lighting.
"Oh, there's the alcohol," Bruce said. "That's how you can tell Tony's paying."
"Isn't it a little early for drinks?" Steve asked. He swung straight across the middle, leaving the seat beside Clint open for Phil. Not for the first time, Clint thought that just telling people made their lives so much easier.
"Tony doesn't always… sleep," Bruce said.
"This is like ten o'clock at night for him." Phil had finally stopped doing the driver's job, joining them inside with a nod that probably meant, You may close the door now that I've scanned the entire car and surrounding blocks for unacceptable levels of risk.
Clint caught his hand before he could do more than lean in the general direction of their bags. "Hey, hey, you're not even supposed to be lifting that. Tell me what you want."
"My wallet." Phil's fingers clenched warningly on his, and Clint heard the carefully suppressed, Is that all right with you? "Someone has to tip the driver."
Clint glanced at Natasha, and she reached behind her to tap on the window. It didn't move, but the driver's voice came over the speaker clearly. "Yes, ma'am?"
Natasha found the right button and asked, "Can you bill Stark for a tip from us?"
"Of course, ma'am."
Natasha pushed the button again. "Make it a big one," she said.
"Still a vacation," Clint told Phil. "You don't have to come if you don't want to."
"Oh, I have to," Phil said, but he'd settled back in his seat and didn't look much the worse for wear. "I can imagine what you'd get up to without me."
They were dropped off right in front of the door. Clint pushed Phil out in front of him and kept him moving so they wouldn't go through the "who's allowed to lift bags" game again. They made it five and six steps, respectively, when Clint heard a familiar voice yell, "Hey, Barton!"
His hand went to Phil's back, physical reassurance in the face of stiffness that Phil wasn't hiding nearly as well as he thought he was. He didn't like being vulnerable. Which Clint got, he really did, but Phil wasn't vulnerable. Not with him around.
Clint didn't have to turn to know that Darcy Lewis was bearing down on them, two friendly groupies in tow, and at least one of them was a junior SHIELD agent. He turned anyway. The only thing Phil hated more than being weak was having someone call attention to it.
"Lewis," he said, grinning at her saunter. And her lackeys. "Don't tell me you got assigned to this too."
"Hell no," Darcy retorted. "I volunteered. You think I'm gonna miss the chance to have an all-access pass at a ritzy place like this? People would kill for this job.
"Sorry," she added, lifting her chin in Phil's direction. "Glad the reports were exaggerated, or whatever."
"They weren't," Phil told her.
"Hi Darcy," Natasha said, appearing at Clint's shoulder with her backpack and his. She stood at an angle, covering his blind spot and leaving enough room for him to pull back his left arm. "You our convention handler?"
"You better believe it," Darcy agreed. "And I have minions, maybe you know Lin and Chantal? SHIELD thinks regular con organizers won't be able to keep up with you."
Clint knew a polite you'll scare the crap out of them when he heard it.
Natasha nodded. "Nice to meet you," she told them, which Clint never heard her say outside of work. "I'm Natasha. This is Steve, and that's Bruce."
"Clint," he added, since he'd only ever seen Darcy's agent friends from a distance.
He looked at Phil, who let the silence linger long enough to make it clear that whatever buddy-buddy system they were playing at wouldn't work on him. "I'm not here," he said. "I have performance reviews to write."
He probably didn't, but the message was clear. Piss him off and they'd all be reassigned. The threat should have been laughable, but Darcy's minions had yet to speak and they looked uncomfortable in their civilian clothes.
Darcy just rolled her eyes. "Okay, rule number one?" she said. "Don't act like this is a chore. This is a party, and more importantly, it's a money-making event. People are paying a lot to be here. So if you're going to be cranky, here's your room key. Have a nice weekend."
Phil held out his hand, palm up, and Darcy slapped a plastic card into it. "Anyone else?" she asked. Before they could answer, she eyed Steve and Bruce and added, "They weren't actually expecting you today. There's only three rooms, although to be fair, they're gigantic. Tony upgraded you; he says the food's on him too but you're on your own for drinks."
"Oh," Bruce said, like there'd been a hilarious misunderstanding. "I'm not staying."
"I just wanted to see what it's like," Steve agreed. "I've never been to something like this before. I don't expect anyone to put me up."
"You're adorable," Darcy said, and with her it was impossible to tell which of them she meant. "I'll tell Tony; he'll figure something out."
"Uh, hey," Clint said. Tony had gotten them three rooms; that was… unexpectedly not obnoxious of him. It made Clint want to offer, but everyone except Phil was looking at him and he chickened out.
"Nat and I can share," he said instead. "Right?"
She gave him a look that said, plain as day, Really? This is where you draw the line? But when she opened her mouth what came out was, "We only need two rooms. Bruce and Steve can have the other one."
"Wait," Steve said, frowning at Clint. "Won't you -"
"Hey, do you think we should go inside?" Bruce interrupted. "We're drawing kind of a lot of attention out here."
"Well, yeah," Darcy said. "You guys are the Avengers, that's the whole point."
"Not for me," Bruce said.
Darcy considered him for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, okay, your call. We checked you in and we'll show you upstairs, but fair warning: we don't carry things and we're not armed. So if anything goes down, we're totally hiding behind you guys."
"How likely is it that something will… go down?" Bruce looked somewhere between amused and concerned. Either one was funny given what they'd been through.
"Well, all of you are here," Darcy said bluntly. "So, historically? Pretty likely."
Steve was carrying Phil's bag, Clint noticed as they followed her into the lobby. Darcy was pointing out swirls of people that resolved into semi-coherent patterns as she named them. "That's the hotel check-in line - you're welcome - and that's con registration over there. They provide maps."
Phil looked at him, just a quick glance, and Clint relaxed before he even realized he'd been waiting for it. It was a searching look despite its speed, and Clint read the question loud and clear: Okay?
Clint frowned briefly, knowing Phil would catch whatever response he made. He meant it to be I guess, but Phil probably read it as not really.
"Most people aren't staying here," Darcy was saying. "Too expensive and there aren't that many rooms, so keep in mind that pretty much everyone you see this weekend will be running on too little sleep and nowhere near enough food."
"Have you done this before?" Natasha asked. She sounded interested but not surprised. Natasha was never surprised.
Darcy waved her hand dismissively. "Poly Sci major," she said. "They don't even let you graduate without taking Fan Con 101: Anarchy or Asylum. It's like emergent government in a petri dish.
"Elevators," she added, pointing out another crowd of people. "Not worth it, and you probably don't want to get trapped in one anyway, so. The stairs are open, access to every level except the roof. Not that I think that will stop anyone."
"Hey," Clint said. "Check out that sweatshirt."
"What sweatshirt?" Darcy asked. In the same tone of voice she might have used to say, What imaginary friend?
"That one," Clint said. "The one with the arrows." It was a hooded sweatshirt with a picture of a quiver on the back, the illusion marred by the fact that the hood was down and obscuring part of the image.
"Those arrows look familiar," Natasha remarked. She sounded amused. On the other hand, in a sea of red and gold and bright patriotic patterns, she'd picked out the arrows instantly.
"Don't they," Clint agreed. "I want one of those. Phil, can I have a sweatshirt with arrows on the back?"
"Ask Stark." Phil was pretending not to look, which meant he'd already seen the Hawkeye fan and hadn't pointed her out, which was just mean. "He probably knows how to get them."
"Um, there's a vendors' room," Darcy said. "I mean, I haven't checked it out, and no guarantees, but it could be cool. Or creepy. Hard to say, really."
"Oh, look," Phil said pointedly. "Stairs."
Darcy had them get out on the third floor. Her minions both led and trailed - one at each end - and Clint wondered how long they'd been at the convention center before the limo arrived.
Darcy pointed out doors and room numbers, but she held up the remaining key cards like a bribe. "This way first," she said. She stuck a key in the nearest door and pushed it open. "Everyone inside, it'll only take a minute."
Bruce went in first, and Steve made it clear he was waiting, so Clint pushed his way in and scanned for cameras. Well, weapons, then cameras, but one was more ingrained than the other, to the point where he barely even thought about it anymore. Neither was immediately obvious.
It was definitely a guest suite, so Clint dropped his bag just inside the door. Natasha threw hers down there too. Bruce, and then finally Steve, followed suit. Clint didn't know if that made it more or less awkward, but he wasn't going to bring up the room issue again.
"Okay," Darcy said, closing the door behind them. "Rule number one."
"Act like you're having fun," Steve said.
Darcy paused. "Right," she said. "Okay, so. Rule number two."
"You don't carry things," Clint said.
Darcy raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you guys actually listening to me? That's awesome. Was there a rule number three?"
"Uh, we protect you if anything goes wrong?" Bruce offered.
"Sweet!" She grinned at them. "You guys are great; you'll be fine. Oh, except one thing: the con's selling your autographs and, you know, pictures with you, so probably better not to do that for free if someone comes up to you and asks.
"Other than that?" She eyed them approvingly. "You're all good. Me and Lin or Chantal will be around all the time, so let us know if you need anything. Actually, we should give you phone numbers. Just in case."
Clint and Natasha looked at each other. Steve was the only one who moved, going for the desk to pick up the pad of hotel paper and a free pen. "Shoot," he said.
Darcy gave him an incredulous look. "Don't you have a phone?" she asked.
Steve shrugged in a way that apparently convinced people who'd never met him. "What do I need a phone for? I don't know anyone."
"Okay, that's really sad," Darcy informed him. "What about the rest of you? Bruce?"
"I don't really like being… interrupted," Bruce said carefully. "Without warning."
"Right," Darcy said. She raised her eyebrows at Clint, Natasha, and Phil.
Clint shook his head. "If I carry a phone, people call me. It's annoying."
"I have three phones," Natasha said. "All for work, none of them on me." Right, because she was a spy; that was a good one. The trick to lying was not to say too much. Natasha was a master at it.
"I'm not here," Phil reminded Darcy. "I won't be calling you."
"Okay," she said. "You are the most technologically backward superheroes I have ever met. Give me that paper."
She took the pen, too, and as she scribbled numbers she added, "I mean, you guys can use phones, right? You know how buttons work and all that?"
"We had phones in the forties," Steve told her.
"So not what I asked," Darcy muttered.
"Uh," Bruce said. "I have a question?"
"Does it involve how to work a cell phone?" Darcy asked, handing the paper and pen back to Steve. "Because I'm sure there are tutorials or something."
Clint couldn't tell if she was being extra sarcastic because she didn't realize they were lying to her and she thought they were stupid, or because she knew perfectly well they were lying and she thought their excuses were lame. Obviously they all carried phones. Equally obviously, they couldn't compromise the damn things, because switching numbers all the time was not fun.
"No," Bruce was saying. "It's more of a… team question, I think."
"Like a team-only question?" Darcy said. "Because we can wait in the hall."
"Oh, you don't have to wait," Bruce said. "Do you, uh, need them for something?"
Darcy pointed at Clint. "He's on stage in two hours. The Presidential Ballroom. If you can remember and find it on your own, I don't have to wait."
But she would anyway. He knew telling her, "I'll be there," wasn't the end of it, but he did because Bruce was waiting for them to leave.
It might have worked, except that when Darcy opened the door she stopped where she was. "Clint," she called over her shoulder. "You have a stalker."
She picked something up off the hallway floor, tossed it to him, and said, "So long, suckers. Try not to take over Manhattan while we're getting lunch."
The sweatshirt Darcy had collected for him was a larger, black-on-red version of the decorative arrows he'd seen in the lobby. Clint shook it out, grinning at the amused look Natasha was giving him. "I'm so wearing this," he told her.
"So, this is none of my business," Bruce said. "But… are you and Phil a secret?"
"No," Phil said.
Clint looked at him, because what? Since when?
Phil was looking back. "No one asked me about you," he said. "While you were gone."
His voice was steady, but Clint knew when to keep his mouth shut. For once, so did everyone else. Probably lucky Tony wasn't there, he thought.
"I want the right to worry," Phil said evenly. "I want to be stupid and snap at people and not have to apologize, because everyone knows the guy who's MIA is my husband."
The quiet stretched thin, and Clint heard himself say, "You never apologize anyway."
Phil smiled. It was distant and fake. An acknowledgment of the words, nothing more. And Clint was staring at him, which was bad, because he couldn't keep himself from talking when he looked at Phil too long.
"Yeah," he was saying. "Yeah, me too. I get that, right? But you gotta know what it's like. I mean, look at Pepper."
Which was a dumb thing to say, he didn't even know where it had come from, except that Phil's fake smile had faded and he didn't look so far away.
"Really," Clint said, encouraged. "She's a super-powered executive type, biggest name in clean energy, and what does CNN ask her? 'What's it like to be engaged to the leader of the Avengers!'"
He glanced at Steve as soon as the words were out, because at least he heard what he was saying. "No offense."
Steve just shrugged. "I asked her that too," he said. Which was a whole other issue that Clint didn't care about right now.
"It was questionably appropriate," Phil said. It was hard to know which part he meant until he continued, "Not the news agency's finest moment, but not unexpected either."
"I'm about to get on a stage in front of who knows how many people," Clint said. "What if they ask if I'm single?"
"They will," Natasha said.
"You're not," Phil added.
"What am I supposed to do?" Clint demanded. "Point to you?"
Phil smiled again, a warmer look that lightened his face without actually curving his lips. "I'll be there." An offer, maybe. Or a suggestion. Not a statement of fact unless Clint wanted it to be.
He wanted it. Sure he wanted it, but he'd always known what Phil did. "You'll be memorable," Clint warned. "You won't be able to go undercover anymore."
"No," Phil agreed. He looked calm, unmoved by Clint's realization that he was serious. "The Avengers are a game changer. We knew there would be trade-offs."
He said the words like he'd thought about them. Like he'd been thinking about them all morning - like he'd planned this. Which of course he had, because he was Phil Coulson. And Clint finally understood what he was doing.
Phil was joining the team.
Natasha took the room next to them. Bruce and Steve dropped their bags in the room on the other side of hers - not so much because they planned to stay, Clint thought, but just to get their stuff out of way. Steve really was that polite, and Bruce probably didn't want more people between him and a quick getaway than absolutely necessary.
Since Darcy wasn't waiting in the hall after all, Phil suggested they disappear. The two of them, pretending to get lunch, leaving the hotel to discuss what exactly Clint was allowed to say. Because this was a mission now: something that Phil could plot out and plan contingencies for, something he could control.
Clint let him enjoy the illusion for as long as it lasted. Which turned out to be about two hours and eight minutes from the time the decision was made. Time to get back to the convention center, ask a staff member where the ballroom was, and descend into chaos.
Or, okay, a mostly darkened room filled with chairs and giant screens flashing Avengers footage while the speakers blared, "We are undefeated and we're still believing in the one thing that has gotten us this far…"
It was like chaos, Clint decided, but cleverly disguised by the lack of shooting, looting, and blood. He leaned in close to Phil at the back of the room and asked, "Wasn't this supposed to be a question and answer session?"
Phil shrugged. "You're not on stage yet," he pointed out.
The lyrics over the electric guitar made him grin. It was like a music video or something. He wondered how many hours of news they'd had to record to get those pictures. "Are we fighting back with love?"
"They're probably playing this because you're late," Phil said.
"It's one fifty-seven," Clint informed him. "I am amazingly on time. They're probably playing it because I'm awesome."
Phil made a show of consulting his watch. "You have two minutes and 36 seconds to get to the stage. If you're not up there when this is over, I'll bet you dinner they play another one."
Clint grinned. "You're on. Let's go."
He could see two important things on the left side of the front row. One, the back of a head that looked familiar, and two, an empty seat on the aisle. He slid into that seat as the music video was winding down, aware of Phil hovering conspicuously behind him.
"Hey," Clint said.
"Oh, hey," Caroline said, glancing away from the screen long enough to say, "someone's sitting - "
She did a double take. "Oh my god, Clint? I mean... Clint? What are you doing here!"
"What are you doing here?" he countered with a grin. "You never bring me pie anymore."
"You're never home anymore!" she exclaimed. "You joked that you were a secret agent; I didn't think you were actually a - superhero!"
"Oh, yeah," he said, because he could feel Phil glaring at him without turning around. "Don't tell anyone about the secret agent thing, okay? That part was true. I wasn't supposed to say anything."
"Oh, um." Her gaze flicked over his shoulder, and he knew Phil was making an impression. She'd never officially met him, but she'd been his neighbor for three years. It wasn't like she'd never seen Phil. "Well, we, uh - didn't believe you?"
"That's my seat," a young woman's voice informed him. Clint looked up into the face of Caroline's teenage daughter, and her eyes widened. "Ohmygod," she said. "Clint?!"
"Hey, Nevaeh." He grinned at her. "My seat's on stage. You want to trade?"
With all the audacity of a 15-year-old - was she fifteen now? He was pretty sure - she turned and pushed herself up on the front of the stage before anyone could stop her. She sat there, right on the edge, crossing her ankles comfortably and pointing at him when someone in a volunteer t-shirt closed in.
Clint stood up, putting a hand on Phil's shoulder. "Sit down," he said. "You know Caroline. Caroline, Phil."
That was all he had time for, because apparently the stage was a secure area or something. Darcy hadn't said anything about security. They were the Avengers; how much crowd control did they need?
Shooting civilians would probably be frowned on, but the threat was usually enough to make people keep a safe distance.
"Is she - " The volunteer looked worried enough that he figured Darcy was right, and hey, there was Darcy.
"She's a friend of mine," Clint said. He waved to Darcy, who was coming around the other end of the stage with a microphone in her hand. "Can I have her up on stage?"
"Yeah," the volunteer said. "Of course. Whatever you want. Does she want a drink?"
Clint raised his eyebrows. "I don't know," he said. "Nevaeh, do you want a drink?"
"Yes," she said confidently. "Soda, please."
"Okay, there's a backstage entrance," Darcy told them. She held out the microphone, twitching it back when he reached for it. "Wireless, thumb switch on the side. Up is on, down is off. You need anything?"
"Oh, you're not going anywhere," Clint said. "Come with me." He took the microphone, braced his left arm and swung up onto the stage. He held out a hand to Darcy, grinning at the ragged applause from the audience. "Want a lift?"
She folded her arms and glared up at him as the clapping grew louder. "I'm wearing heels," she said, loudly enough that he could hear her over the crowd. "You are not pulling me up the side of the stage like a monkey."
"Nevaeh," Clint said, crouching down beside her. "Hold this, would you?" He gave her the microphone and offered both hands to Darcy. "You trust me?"
She didn't move. "There are stairs, you know."
"They're not as cool as I am," Clint said. He slid his hands under her arms and scooped her up, appreciative of the fact that she didn't so much as flinch. He set her next to him carefully. When Nevaeh held the microphone up for him, he flicked it on and said, "Hey, everyone, let's hear it for Darcy!"
The crowd noise got louder, and he grinned. He got a stage. And a microphone. This was going to be fun.
He held out a hand for Nevaeh, too, and she took it but she scrambled to her feet mostly on her own. "All right," he said. "Let's hear it for Nevaeh!" The audience was surprisingly happy to make noise with no warm-up.
"And I'm Hawkeye," he continued, "but you don't have to cheer for me - " They did anyway, of course, so he raised his voice: "Because I'm not as pretty as they are!"
Clint heard a couple of screams and a whistle, and wow, they were really into this. He knew audiences, and this one was on. Like they'd come prepared for the best show ever, willing to love even the opening act. Steve was going to bring down the house on Sunday.
"Hey, hey," he said, catching Darcy trying to sneak away. He didn't bother to lower the microphone as he asked, "Where do you think you're going? You have to stay and tell me what to do."
The crowd settled a little when he started talking again, and he put an arm around Nevaeh's shoulders. "You're not gonna leave us here all alone, are you? We'll have to start inviting people from the audience up to help us."
Darcy said something, but she was far enough away that he had to try and read her lips: You're already doing that, was his best guess.
"Can't hear you," he told his microphone. "You'll have to come back. Actually, can we get another microphone?"
Darcy rolled her eyes, but she was crossing the stage again and reaching for his mic. He tried to give it to her, but she just held onto his hand and leaned into it. "If you'd gotten up on stage the normal way, you might have noticed all the people waiting in line to ask you a question."
Clint put his head next to hers so they could share the mic. "What people?" he asked, because it was funny to see her flip her hair and sigh.
Darcy let go of his hand and pressed against his shoulder to make him turn. He had to turn Nevaeh with him, but she seemed fine with it. "Those people," Darcy said, pointing around his arm.
The mic wasn't close enough to pick up her voice anymore, and she added, "There's a mic on both sides of the stage; people can line up there with questions. Usually you take a question from one side, then the other, so everyone gets a turn."
"That sounds boring," Clint said, and his microphone caught the edge of it. He lifted it higher and said, "Darcy says I'm just supposed to answer whatever you ask. But you want me to be interesting, right?"
He heard a few people yell, "Yeah!" One person called, "No!" And there was scattered applause for, "You can just look pretty if you want!"
He tried not to laugh, because Natasha would probably smack him, but he couldn't help it. "Who said that?" Clint asked, squinting into the audience through the lights. It was almost impossible to get a good look with the stage lighting trying to blind him, and he didn't like that but he could at least see the front row. Where Phil was.
"Seriously," he added, "whoever said 'look pretty,' come up here. In the meantime, I think you should be interesting. Nevaeh, you want to help me?"
He felt her nod against his shoulder, so he patted her arm. A volunteer was coming across the stage toward them, soda in one hand and an extra mic in the other. "Oh, hey," Clint said, impressed. "Your soda. How come I don't get a soda?"
"You didn't ask for one," Darcy said. "You have water; it's over there."
Clint let go of Nevaeh and swung around. Huh. The water was for him; that made sense. "Okay," he said, aware that the audience still couldn't hear Darcy. "I have water. That's cool. I guess it's too early for beer.
"Am I allowed to say that?" he added, as the volunteer handed Darcy the other mic. "How old are you guys? Do you drink beer?"
There was some cheering, especially from the front of the room, and he heard a faint hum as Darcy turned her mic on. "You gave - " She lifted the mic higher until it whined, then eased off.
"You gave me a mic," she said again. "I think I have to watch my mouth more than you do."
Clint grinned at her. "We definitely haven't spent enough time together."
"Does this mean I get to answer questions too?" Darcy asked. "Here, I'll pretend to be you. You, what's your question?"
"No, wait," Clint said. "We have to make sure they're interesting questions first. Nevaeh's going to screen them for me.
"Can you do that?" he added, holding the mic out to Nevaeh. "You want to ask the first person in each line what their question is? Tell us what the interesting ones are, and me and Darcy will answer them."
"Um, what counts as interesting?" Nevaeh asked.
Clint held the mic a little higher. "What was that?"
She put her hand on his, the way Darcy had done, and leaned in enough that the mic picked up her voice faintly. "What counts as an interesting question?"
"I don't know," Clint said. "You pick. Whatever you want to know."
"I have a question," Darcy said. "Why are the Avengers totally PR-challenged? I mean, you're frighteningly photogenic, and you obviously know how to talk to people. How come we don't see you doing interviews or whatever?"
"Good question," Clint told her, while Nevaeh made her way over to the side of the stage and down the stairs. "Probably because we don't have a press agent. You interested?"
"Are you kidding?" Darcy said. "Hell yeah I'm interested. Oh, geez, I'm probably not supposed to swear. Sorry."
"I mentioned beer," Clint reminded her. "You said 'hell.' We're even."
"We're keeping score?" Darcy's mouth curved at the corners. "That's gonna go well."
There was a new volunteer watching him from the floor in front of the stage. He'd already dismissed her as not a threat, but she seemed to be waiting for something. He caught her eye and raised his eyebrows.
The volunteer pointed to the young woman standing next to her.
Clint shook his head, not understanding, and the woman called, "I said you could look pretty!"
Darcy laughed, unexpectedly, tipping her mic away from her face as she said, "You told her to come up to the stage. The person who yelled that you could just stand here and look pretty; you told her to come up."
"Oh, yeah," Clint said, waving to her. "Come on up here!"
The volunteer pointed the woman toward the far end of the stage. Nevaeh was coming back now, heading for the same side. "Nevaeh, was it a good question?" Clint asked his microphone.
She nodded emphatically, so he turned to the side of the stage she'd just come from. "Okay, whoever's first in line, you can ask your question."
"Hi," a young woman said. She was a little too far from the microphone, but he could hear her ask, "I was just wondering, do you have a girlfriend?"
Clint grinned. Nevaeh was right: today, that was his favorite question. "I don't have a girlfriend," Clint told her. "I'm actually married, but thanks for asking. Are you looking for someone?"
"Yes," she said, closer to the microphone this time.
"Great," Clint said. "Come on up here. You and - " He turned to see the woman who had shouted the "look pretty" remark hovering at the edge of the stage. "What's your name?"
"Calia?" she called back.
He waved for her to come closer. "Calia," he said. "Come over here. You too," he said, looking back the other way. "First question, c'mere. What's your name?"
She said something too quietly for him to hear, so he waved her closer and put the microphone in front of her. "What was that again?"
"Persy," she repeated.
"Okay," Clint said. "Everyone, this is Persy and her new friend Calia. They're both looking for dates." He looked at Calia. "Wait, are you looking for a date? Or do you just like to look at pretty people?"
"Both," she said.
"Both," he repeated. "They're both looking for dates, so if you're the kind of person who can come up to the stage and ask someone out in front of the entire auditorium, you might be perfect for each other. You have - " He looked around for a clock and didn't find one. "Darcy, what time is it?"
She had her arms folded, her mic resting against her shoulder, but she looked at her watch when he asked and said, "Two twelve."
"Forty-eight minutes," Clint finished. "You have forty-eight minutes to come up here and ask these audacious young women to go out with you, and after that, I'm setting them up with each other.
"Is that okay?" he asked them. "You want to just skip to that part? I think you have a lot in common."
"I'm okay with that," Calia agreed. Clint held the mic out to her and she leaned into it to say, "That's fine."
He offered the mic to Persy too, but she just shook her head. "That's not okay with you?" Clint asked.
She ducked her head, and he added, "Persy, have I embarrassed you so much you'll never speak to me again?"
This time when he offered her the mic, she said, "No."
"You want a drink?" he offered. "It's early for alcohol, but we might be able to make an exception. Who was getting us drinks before?"
"Ashani," Darcy said. "That's probably my job, though. We didn't know you'd be hosting a party on stage. Answer some questions; I'll get more drinks."
"Questions," Clint said. "Right. You'd be a great PR person. I'm gonna talk to Steve about that."
She must have turned her mic off, because she had to look at it before she lifted it again. "I'm holding you to that," she said. "With everyone in here as my witness."
He pointed at her, then turned to the other side of the stage. "Nevaeh? What's the verdict?"
Nevaeh was standing at the top of the stairs, and she gave him a thumbs-up.
"Okay," he repeated. "Next question."
"Hello," another woman said. "Is your wife an Avenger too?"
"My - " He stopped, because she didn't mean what he thought she meant. "No," he said. "I don't have a wife."
The room was very quiet while it processed that, and then he caught up. "Wait," Clint said. "Did you just ask if I'm married to Natasha?"
The woman at the microphone hadn't stepped away. "Um, maybe?" she said. She sounded coy about it.
"No," Clint said. "I'm not married to Natasha. She's here, though. Somewhere. You can ask her yourself."
"Is your husband an Avenger?" someone asked from behind him.
He turned around to see Calia smiling innocently in exactly the place he'd left her. One of the volunteers was coming up on stage with another chair. "Oh, what is this," Clint said. "You get to ask extra questions just because I embarrassed you?"
"Yes?" Calia said. "That seems fair?"
"It does, doesn't it." Clint grinned at her. "Too bad. You get a chair instead. Persy, you can have mine.
"Thanks, by the way," he told the volunteer. It was the same woman who'd let Nevaeh up on stage and brought her a soda. "Are you Ashani?"
"Yes," she said. "Do you want, um, chairs for everyone?"
"Is that okay?" he asked. "I don't want to make them stand around for an hour just 'cause I got lonely up here."
"No, that's fine," she assured him. "I'll be back in a minute."
"Thanks," he said again. He looked around for Nevaeh, but she was still on the far side of the stage. "Nevaeh, are you playing favorites with that side of the stage?"
She nodded, pointing at the young man standing by the microphone.
"Okay," Clint said. "Nevaeh thinks your question is interesting, so. Go for it."
The man leaned in close to the microphone and asked, very clearly, "Is your husband an Avenger?"
Clint laughed when Calia called, "Thank you!"
The man waved, leaning down to the microphone again to say, "Follow up question: Is Calia free for dinner?"
"Yes!" Calia said. Clint walked over and handed her his microphone. "Yes," she said into it. "I'm totally free for dinner."
Clint wrapped his hand around hers and lifted the microphone higher. "This is the best question and answer session I've ever been in," he told them.
Calia tugged on the microphone, so he let it go. "Me too," she said, before she gave it back to him.
"Yes," Clint added. He got out of Darcy's way as she returned with a couple more bottles of water and a can of soda, and he told the crowd, "My husband is an Avenger."
The room went crazy.
The song mentioned in this chapter is "Undefeated" by Audio Adrenaline.
Chapter 6: Photo Op
Darcy was frowning ferociously at him. He almost asked her what he'd done when he remembered: she hadn't known that. She'd left the room for Bruce's "team question," and he hadn't seen her since. Alone, anyway.
Clint let his microphone fall, making sure hers was too far away to pick him up. "Sorry," he said. "Should have warned you."
"It's Mr. I'm Not Here," she said. "Isn't it."
"Did he know you were going to announce it to the entire convention?" Darcy asked. The noise was dropping off as the audience realized they were talking and no one could hear them.
"It was his idea," Clint told her.
She gave him a skeptical look. "On a scale of one to ten," she said. "Your credibility rating is like, negative three right now."
Clint lifted his microphone again, grinning at her. "Darcy doesn't believe that my husband knew I was going to out him," he said. "I think she should ask him herself."
Turning to face the rest of the room, he added, "What do you guys think?"
Unsurprisingly, the audience thought this was a great idea. Clint pressed his shoulder against Darcy's and pointed, picking out Phil for her on the right-side aisle. "See him there?"
"The one who looks like he could make all my credit cards disappear?" Darcy countered. "Yeah. We've met."
The entire auditorium was shifting, people in the back actually standing up in an effort to see who they were talking about. No one near Phil had their cameras up yet, but it was just a matter of time. He was weirdly anonymous when he wanted to be.
"He's not allowed to crush you in front of witnesses," Clint told her. "It's against his personal code."
"Not enough of a challenge," Darcy said.
"Right," Clint agreed. "You're perfectly safe."
"Oh no," Darcy said. "You're perfectly safe. I'm shark food. Give it up, Clint, I've already mouthed off to your husband once today. I have a quota."
"Can I ask him?" Nevaeh wanted to know. She'd paused next to them in her trek across the stage, and Darcy put up her hands in defeat.
"Sure," Clint said, handing her his microphone.
"Um, hi." Nevaeh didn't move, and not for the first time Clint thought he should have introduced them before. "Did you know Clint…" She trailed off, frowning at him instead. "Sorry? Hawkeye?"
"Either's fine," Clint told her. "And you should take him the mic. So he can yell at me if I'm lying."
Nevaeh didn't hesitate. She walked straight over to the edge of the stage and sat down, sliding off like it was just the shortest distance between two points. Which it was. Unless you had a -
Clint concentrated on Phil. No tesseracts here. No ice. Just a room full of people who were willing to like him for as long as the show lasted.
Bright lights and loud music. Sometimes it still felt like home.
"Hi," Nevaeh was saying. "I'm Nevaeh." She stood directly in front of Phil, and she held the microphone out to make it clear he was supposed to reciprocate.
He leaned forward just enough to be heard. "I'm Phil."
Nevaeh took the microphone back. "I didn't know you were an Avenger," she said, then tipped the mic toward him again.
Phil didn't blink. "I'm adopted," he told the microphone.
There was scattered laughter for this, and Clint smiled. Darcy tapped his arm, and he took the water she offered him without looking. "Thanks," he said, still watching Nevaeh and Phil.
"Are you going to come up on stage?" she was asking.
Phil waited until she offered him the microphone again. "Do you want me to come up on stage?"
She moved a little, and Clint thought she said yes, but she didn't say it to the microphone and probably no one else heard. He reached out and pulled Darcy's mic toward him. "What do you say?" he asked the audience. "You want Phil on stage?"
There was more clapping than cheering, but he heard a few people yell "yes!" and this time when he lifted Darcy's mic she let go of it entirely. "Phil," he said, thanking her with a wink. "You didn't get a single 'no.' I think I'm jealous."
Someone in the crowd shouted, “I want to be Phil!” and Clint pointed in their direction. Right at them, probably, despite the fact that he couldn’t see past the lights. He didn’t really have to.
“Did you hear that?” he asked the mic. “Someone wants to be you!”
“We have something in common,” Phil said. He was holding the microphone Clint had given Nevaeh as the two of them made their way around the near end of the stage. “That’s the real reason I married you, of course. To get ahead of your groupies.”
It wasn’t the first time Phil had joked about marrying him. It might be the first time he’d done it around anyone who didn’t already know. It was definitely the first time Clint could remember being speechless in front of a crowd.
“Wow,” he said, mostly to make up for it. “Sorry, we’re – this is still kind of new. Obviously he’s adjusting better than I am.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Phil was coming up the stairs at the same pace as Nevaeh, and she was wearing flip-flops. Maybe he was just being polite and maybe he wasn’t, but it made Clint flick his microphone off and turn to Darcy.
“Hey,” he said quietly. As soon as she looked at him he leaned closer, angling away from the audience. “He’s still injured; don’t hand him anything, don’t make him go up and down the stairs a lot, okay?”
“Sure,” Darcy said, just as soft. “No problem.”
“They’re distracted,” Phil was saying. “I think you can ask whatever you want.”
Then it was Nevaeh with the microphone again, asking, “When did you guys get married?”
Cameras were flashing everywhere. Clint could see them even through the stage lights, palm-sized digital things that probably had a flash range of six feet. He was tempted to take out his own phone and take a picture of them in return, but that would mean admitting he had a phone and Darcy would glare at him again.
“We couldn’t do it legally until last year,” Phil said, and that was it. That was Phil standing up on stage with him, talking politics and marriage and how he liked Clint more than any groupies ever would. That was how awesome his life was right now.
Clint pulled out his phone and took a picture.
“You have a phone,” Darcy said.
“Yeah,” Clint agreed, taking another picture of Phil with the microphone. “Sorry.” He turned and took a picture of the audience, too, then one of Darcy for good measure. She was glaring at him.
“What?” he said. “I’m having a good day. Smile.”
He heard Phil say, “I think we’ve lost Clint,” and it was funny. It was a joke, it didn’t mean anything, and this really was the best day ever. He took another picture.
Darcy took the microphone away from him and announced, “As your soon-to-be public relations manager, I think I’m allowed to ask: is Clint always this distractible?”
“Hey,” Clint protested.
“No,” Phil said. “Do you have any background in public relations?”
“Is that your job,” Darcy countered, “vetting the new hires?”
“My job is everything they don’t do,” Phil told her. “Which covers quite a lot of territory.”
Clint looked around. They were monopolizing the microphones and he wasn’t sure he dared interrupt either of them. On the other hand, the audience wasn’t complaining. They also weren’t the only ones who could ask a question.
“You know what else covers a lot of territory?” Darcy was asking. “Tromso. It’s cold there. And you still owe me thirty bucks.”
“I think you’ll find I don’t,” Phil said. “Dr. Foster’s consultant fee included an intern stipend.”
“Yeah, because she was – ” Darcy paused. “Oh, you think of everything, don’t you.”
“May I?” Clint stood on the floor with the rest of the line, pointing at the stage microphone. When the woman who was next in line stepped back, waving wildly at him, he leaned in and said, “Excuse me.”
Phil didn’t move, but Darcy turned around to see where he’d gone. He lifted a hand to catch her eye. “My question is for Agent Coulson,” he told the microphone.
Phil tipped his own mic back toward him. “Yes, audience member Number Four?”
Clint couldn’t resist. “Uh, yes, Agent,” he said. “Is it true that Hawkeye is your favorite Avenger?”
He knew he was setting himself up; Phil always had some clever reply. Usually along the lines of, well, Captain America was the first, or, Black Widow knows how to maintain radio silence. But the crowd would like it, and they deserved a laugh for putting up with both of them.
“Yes,” Phil said simply. “Next question?”
Clint just stared at him.
“Um, you can have my microphone,” Darcy said. “I’m not technically supposed to be on stage at all.”
“Sorry,” Clint said, not moving. He was still bent over the stage mic, ignoring the whispering and giggles going on in line behind him. “I’m just having a fan moment here. He’s never actually said that before, if anyone was wondering.”
“You never asked me in front of this many cameras before,” Phil replied. He sounded exactly as calm as always. “I don’t want people getting the wrong idea.”
“Wait,” Darcy said. “Does that mean you usually say someone else?
“Wait, wait,” she repeated, turning back to Clint. “You’ve asked this before? He married you, dumbass, obviously you’re his favorite.”
“I think you decided swearing is prohibited,” Phil said.
“Yeah, I’m totally ahead of you now,” Clint agreed. “Also, I just took this young woman’s question, so she should probably get to ask her own.”
He stepped out of the way of the mic and extended a hand, gesturing her forward. It took her a second to move, but she only said, “Oh, thank you!” before she remembered to talk to the microphone. “Um, hi,” she said, beaming at him and trying not to turn her head too far from the mic’s range at the same time. “Could you tell us what it’s like to be on a team with Tony Stark?”
“Annoying,” Phil replied.
“Really?” Darcy said. “He seems like he knows how to have a good time.”
“Yes,” the woman at the stage mic said breathlessly. “Yes, he does.”
“Right?” Darcy agreed. “I mean, aside from the whole secretly married thing, which these guys have in the bag, there’s not much you can’t say about him.”
“That being most of the problem,” Phil told his microphone.
Clint crowded the stage mic again to say, “I can’t believe we’re talking about him and he hasn’t shown up. He usually has a sixth sense about these things.”
“I don’t think blanket surveillance counts as a sixth sense,” Phil said.
“Seriously,” Darcy said. “Clint, come up here and take your microphone before Tony calls me and makes me read a statement or something. He has a phone,” she added pointedly.
Clint was already on his way up. Four more chairs had materialized on stage, although Persy and Calia were the only ones sitting down. Nevaeh looked like she was thinking about it. Darcy handed him the mic as soon as he got close enough, and he said, “I think we have a panel here; we should do a poll. Anyone have a question that would make a good poll?”
When neither of the lines volunteered, he looked to the one he hadn’t been in. “What about you? What’s your question?”
“Um, it’s not really a poll?” the woman said.
“That’s okay,” Clint told her. He saw Darcy offering Phil her water, saw Phil wave it away politely. “We’ll make it one.”
“Uh, well, I was going to ask… what’s the most romantic thing your husband has done?” she asked in a rush.
“You were going to ask that?” Clint said with a grin. “Did you get in line to ask that question? Before you knew we were married?”
“Um, no, I was going to ask if there’s any significance to the purple in your costume,” she said. “You can answer that if the other one’s too personal.”
“Oh, no, I like the other one!” Clint declared. “But we’re totally making it a poll question, so panel?” He swept a finger down the row of chairs that now contained Nevaeh, Persy, and Calia. “All of you think about the most romantic thing someone has done for you. I’ll come back to you.
“Purple,” he added, pointing at the woman who’d asked the question. “Purple is a great color; I like it. The end. Do you like it?”
“Yes,” she said, then leaned closer to the mic and repeated, “Yes, I like it.”
“Good,” he said. “So we agree. Okay, the most romantic thing someone has done for me. That’s…”
That was easy, really. The question was whether he could share any of it without compromising everyone involved.
“Well, here,” Clint said at last. “I met this woman, right? A while ago. Phil and I were together, but we weren’t married yet. And he, uh… he came home, and – she was in my bed. Our bed.”
They’d been living together in all but name at that point. He looked over at Phil, who was listening with an expression of tolerant amusement. “Just to be clear,” Clint added, “she’d crashed there because she needed to, and I wasn’t in much better shape. So I basically had no chance to explain.
“And you know what Phil did?” He couldn’t help smiling. Somehow it was funny, now, that Phil had been armed to the teeth and Clint had thought they were both going to die. Or maybe it was funny that he was trying to tell the story while leaving that part out.
Maybe it was just funny that this was, hands-down, his favorite memory of Phil.
“He looked around,” Clint told the microphone, “and he said –”
“I’m going to the drugstore,” Phil said, their voices overlapping on the speakers. “Do you need anything?”
Clint had teased him with that question so many times since, but it still made him happy that Phil remembered. It was just what Phil did: he assessed the situation and he made a call. That day the call had been bandages and painkillers. But the call could have gone – maybe should have gone – very differently, and every word was etched in Clint’s memory.
“I already knew he liked me,” Clint said, not taking his eyes off of Phil. “But that was when I knew he trusted me.”
The room was as quiet as an amphitheater full of people could be. He thought maybe it was too serious a story for a crowd like this. He thought maybe he’d made it too vague to really mean anything to them. But then Phil said, “It’s just like you to pick the day we didn’t break up as your most romantic moment.”
The audience shifted perceptibly and the stillness was broken. It was like everyone let out a breath they’d been holding. Clint knew that feeling: when the tightrope walker didn’t fall, when the lion rolled over, when the clown caught the last juggling pin after all.
When he didn’t need the net, because someone was there to hold him up.
“I like to set the bar high,” Clint said, and Phil smiled like he heard all the rest of it too.
“What about you?” Clint added, turning to Darcy partly because she was between him and the chairs, but mostly because she knew how to defuse a situation. “This is a poll, so. What’s your most romantic moment?”
He passed her his microphone and she didn’t miss a beat. “I’m gonna go with, not getting smote by the god of thunder. Which is a more frequent threat than you might imagine. But he’s in love with my boss, so he has to be nice to me. Does it count if it’s not my romance I’m talking about?”
There was a shortage of microphones on stage, so Clint took the excuse to lean into Phil. “Anything goes,” he told Phil’s mic. “What about you, Calia? Favorite romantic moment?”
Darcy handed off the mic to Calia, who said, “Getting asked out at an Avengers convention.”
Calia went to pass the mic on, but Persy just pulled back in her chair and shook her head. Calia looked over at him, and Clint leaned on Phil’s shoulder again. “Persy, do you hate me?” he asked the microphone.
She shook her head again.
“Okay, good,” Clint told the microphone. Then he straightened up, because yeah, he’d totally freaked her out by making her sit on stage and he hadn’t even realized. Shrugging his sweatshirt off, he went over and stood directly in front of her, blocking the view of the rest of the room. “You want to stand up for a second?” Clint asked.
Calia offered him the microphone, and he shook his head. Persy slid out of her chair, face bright red, and at least that was a sign she probably wouldn’t pass out. “Sorry,” she murmured.
“Don’t apologize,” Clint said, swinging his sweatshirt over her shoulders. “Do you like my sweatshirt? It’s got a quiver on the back; I think it’s great.”
“Yeah.” Persy caught the zippered edges instinctively, crossing her arms over her chest like she was cold.
“You should keep it,” Clint told her. “Looks better on you anyway. You gonna be okay?”
“Okay,” he said. “Can you have sugar? Darcy can get you a candy bar. Probably. I haven’t asked, but she seems to get everything else.”
“I’m fine,” Persy said, her voice a little stronger now. “Really, it’s fine. Thank you.”
“Okay, let me know,” he said. “Or Darcy. She’s faster.”
Calia had tipped her mic away from them, and Clint held out his hand to get it back. “Thanks,” he said with a grin. She beamed back at him as Persy arranged herself in her chair again.
“Hey,” Clint said, turning to face the audience again. “I just want to say thanks to whoever’s got these great sweatshirts. You know, with the arrows on the back. I like those a lot. I’d make Persy stand up and model it for you, but she’s plotting my demise, so.”
“No I’m not,” Persy protested from behind him. It was the most she’d said voluntarily since she’d asked him if he had a girlfriend, so he got out of the way and grinned at her. She slid off her chair again and took a single step forward, holding up her arms and turning around so everyone could see the sweatshirt.
“All right!” Clint exclaimed. “Let’s hear it for Persy, everyone!”
She slunk back to her chair when they started clapping, but she was smiling, so he added, “And the sweatshirt! Round of applause for whoever’s making the awesome Hawkeye clothing! So much cooler than your Iron Mans, or your Captain Americas. Very fresh. Very hip!”
“You wouldn’t know hip if it bodychecked you,” Darcy remarked. It was her bad luck that she didn’t have a mic and only the people on stage with them laughed. Clint smirked at her.
“Do I get to be in the poll?” Nevaeh asked, and he turned back to her.
“Yeah, sorry, the poll,” Clint said. “Nevaeh’s turn: most romantic moment?” He offered her the microphone.
She took it and said, “It might not be a moment, but it’s a… cool thing. Remember two years ago, when I was – um, mad about something, and it was Valentine’s Day? You gave me an arrow.”
“I did,” Clint agreed, when Phil held his microphone out. He’d forgotten about that until now. “Don’t tell Phil,” he added. “I probably wasn’t supposed to do that.”
“I’m sure it was a recreational arrow,” Phil said dryly. “Not work-related at all.”
“No,” Clint said. “I have a lot of recreational arrows lying around. Well, one less, now.”
“I still have it,” Nevaeh said. “I know it was just a… thing, but it made me feel better. So. I wanted to thank you for that.”
“Arrows are never just a thing,” Clint told her. “They’re like the follow-through on a promise, right? They’re action taken toward a goal. If you have an arrow, you always have a way forward.”
Nevaeh was staring at him, which probably meant he’d said something that didn’t mean anything again. Oh well. Half of talking to an audience was making sense, and the other half was just filling the space.
He nudged Phil’s arm gently. “What about you?” he asked. “You gonna share a romantic moment, or should we take more questions?”
“Take more questions,” Phil said.
The audience actually booed him, and Clint grinned. “What,” he said into Phil’s mic. “He’s a private person! He doesn’t have to share his romantic feelings if he doesn’t want to!”
This only increased the sounds of protest, and Clint heard someone yell, “Yes he does!”
“No he doesn’t,” Clint said. “Has anyone here seen Eddie Izzard?” This was met with scattered cheers, so he added, “He can kill you with a tray! He can kill you without a tray; he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to!”
“He wants to!” someone else shouted.
Phil’s hand curled around his to hold the microphone steady. “This is a lot like mission debrief,” he remarked. “And I see one common factor.”
“You can’t blame me for their insubordination,” Clint told him.
“I can blame you for the fact that they think they’ll get away with it,” Phil said.
Clint tipped his head. “I concede that point,” he said.
Phil didn’t move, but Clint was suddenly very aware of how close they were standing to share a microphone. Then Phil said, “You sometimes let me win.”
Clint looked at him in surprise.
“That’s my romantic gesture,” Phil clarified. “The thing you do that I remember. Sometimes, you let me win.”
Because it didn’t matter who was right if no one had to be wrong. It was something Phil had tried to teach him and Natasha, and it must have stuck because here he was, thinking of it now. He almost said it out loud, except he was sure he’d mess it up somehow, so he just smiled.
“Funny,” Clint said instead. “I thought it was the other way around.”
Chapter 7: Husband Banter
Natasha caught up with them outside the theater. Or at least, Natasha showed her face outside the theater while Darcy was semi-politely herding him and Phil toward a room with a photographer in it. Natasha had probably been there all along.
“They thought you and I were married,” Clint told her. If she hadn’t been there, she’d want to know.
Natasha didn’t nod, but she didn’t seem surprised either. “Makes sense,” she said.
“No it doesn’t,” Phil said without looking up from his phone.
“Why are you working?” Clint asked him. “I thought you were on vacation.”
Phil passed him the phone without a word, which was… not unheard of, but certainly not typical. There was a single text message on the screen: from Maria. Phil’s partner in crime, not that he would admit it.
I hope you know what you’re doing, the message said.
“You’re both undercover operatives,” Phil said. “Or you were. Obviously we’ll have to reassess in light of recent publicity.”
“Oh, please,” Natasha said. “My identity hasn’t been a secret for years. I don’t rely on Stark levels of ignorance to do my job.”
Phil didn’t seem to be looking for his phone, so Clint typed, he always does -cb, before handing it back.
“My point is,” Phil said, “training dictates that the only people you trust less than yourselves is each other.” He looked at his phone. “Are you texting Maria for me?”
“Were you just explaining why it doesn’t make sense for Natasha and I to be married?” Clint replied. “Because that argument applies to you and me just as much.”
“I didn’t say we made sense.” Phil put his phone away, ignoring the look Clint gave him.
Darcy didn’t. “No arguing in the hallways,” she said. “You boys are gonna be on next year’s con postcard at this rate. Make sure it’s for the right reason, is all I’m saying.”
“What are all these people in line for?” Clint asked, because it was safer than looking at Phil.
“Pictures,” Darcy said succinctly. “With you.”
Phil already had his phone out again. Clint saw him grimace out of the corner of his eye. He held it out without a word, and Clint took it without turning. “How come you’re sharing your phone all of a sudden?” he wanted to know.
Maria’s return text said, I assume he knows about your Hawkeye-shaped blind spot.
“My phone is your phone,” Phil remarked.
Clint scoffed. “Last I checked, all our phones were your phones.”
“In the state of New York,” Phil said, “that makes them half yours.”
Clint tried not to smile as he tapped out a reply to Maria. “You’ve just been saving up the marriage jokes, haven’t you.” He sent the message and handed the phone back to Phil.
“Do I want to know what you told her?” Phil asked.
“Most attractive blind spot ever,” Clint told him. “She started it,” he added, when Phil rolled his eyes.
“Pictures,” Darcy repeated, waving a hand in front of his face. They’d stopped at one end of the line, outside a door, and Natasha was gone again. “You can do your cute husband banter the whole time if you want to ignore your fans. Up to you.”
“We like cute husband banter,” someone in line said.
“She likes us,” Clint told Darcy. “Can Phil be in her picture?”
“Ask Amaranth,” Darcy said. “She’s the queen of the camera room. There’s rules about where you can stand and who you can talk to and how loud the music can be.”
“There’s music?” Clint looked down when Phil held out his phone again. “Is it good?”
“Did you sign the last one?” Phil asked. “She’s not even talking to me anymore.”
The message on the screen said, Does he know you stole his phone?
“Go in and find out,” Darcy said. “I could tell Amaranth to come out here, but she’d just get mad at me and frankly, she’s scarier than you are.”
“Really?” Clint sent yeah back to Maria before he pocketed Phil’s phone. “She sounds fun.” He pushed the double doors open before either of them could yell at him, scanned the mostly empty room, and then stepped back to wave Phil in.
Phil walked past him without a word. He was slower with every step, and it wasn’t because he was sweeping the room with his eyes. The fact that anyone could see him doing it, even Clint, said something about how tired he was. Alerting Darcy would alert Phil, not to mention everyone outside the door, so he pulled out Phil’s phone again.
There weren’t any new messages from Maria, so he replied to the last one she’d sent. he’s tired, he typed. tell steve to come to picture room and rescue him.
“The longer you drag this out,” Darcy said, “the more people are gonna be pissed at you for making them miss Natasha’s panel. Just saying.”
“When’s Natasha’s panel?” Clint asked without looking up. He should have just sent a message to Steve directly. see if there’s a back way, he typed, assuming Maria would have gotten to him by the time he read it. Steve was on Phil’s contact list as “Steve Rogers,” and Clint didn’t know why he thought that was funny.
“Forty minutes,” Darcy said. “The camera’s over there, by the way.”
He put Phil’s phone away and looked where she was pointing. There were tables lining the walls of what he assumed was a conference room of some kind, except for the back wall, which had been draped with cloth. There was a camera setup in front of it, tape on the floor, and a woman he didn’t recognize chatting with Phil.
“That Amaranth?” Clint asked, and she turned around just as Darcy nodded.
“Hi.” The woman looked him over, then turned back to Phil and smiled. “Clint, I assume?”
“Clever,” Clint said. He wasn’t trying to be rude; he’d just figured he shouldn’t interrupt. Phil tended to yell at him for that. In a quiet, non-verbal Phil sort of way. “I see what you did there.”
She looked at him again. “Nice to meet you.”
He held out his hand. “Likewise.”
Amaranth took his hand, cool but not obviously irritated with him. “Thanks for agreeing to do photos. Can I walk you through my usual drill, then let you make whatever changes you need?”
“Sure, yeah.” The phone in his pocket vibrated, and he reached for it. “Sorry. Just a second.”
Amaranth conveyed her displeasure by raising an eyebrow at him, and Darcy sighed. The text from Maria said, He’s on his way, and one from Steve came in while he was reading it. Sure thing.
“Okay,” Clint said, handing the phone back to Phil. “I’m listening.”
Phil frowned down at his phone, and Clint figured he had maybe ten seconds before Phil figured out what he’d done. If he was lucky, the presence of witnesses would keep Phil from glaring at him. Much.
“There’s an X on the floor,” Amaranth said. “Stand next to it. Line comes in through that door, everyone puts down whatever they’re carrying on the table in the middle of the room. Line stops over there, Matt sends them to you one at a time. They stand on the X, I take a picture. Line exits that way.”
“Efficient,” Clint said. Matt had to be the guy lurking by the doors. Lin was standing next to the other set – also closed – looking for all the world like she wasn’t paying attention. Nice act. Unless it wasn’t an act, in which case she was terrible at her job. “Is there any talking? Introductions, whatever?”
“Everyone knows who you are,” Darcy interrupted. “You can meet them at the party tonight.”
“It’s up to you,” Amaranth said, when he looked back at her.
“She means no,” Darcy said. “Seriously, Clint, we have like half an hour. Tell them hi, you’re glad to meet them, whatever. Don’t say anything you don’t want them to remind you of in front of a reporter.”
He risked a look at Phil, who just looked amused. His phone was nowhere to be seen.
“Okay,” Clint said. “Sounds good.”
Darcy stared at him for a second, then shook her head. “It does? You’re fine with that?”
“Yeah,” Clint said. “Can we have cheerier music, though?”
Darcy looked at Amaranth, who was doing something to her camera. “Rock?” she asked without looking up.
“This is rock,” Clint said. It didn’t drown out conversation, obviously, but it was loud enough to be noticeable and he wouldn’t mind something less distracting. “Can we do something more upbeat?”
“Do you have any 80s power ballads?” Phil asked.
Darcy gave him a skeptical look, but Phil didn’t blink. Amaranth just took him at his word, stepping away from the camera and doing something to the iPod plugged in on a table up against a wall. The music went silent for a moment, and that was when Clint heard the noise in the hall. They hadn’t been in here that long, had they?
“Ms. Lewis,” Phil said. “Would you mind letting in our guest?”
Darcy frowned at him, but Clint got it. “Steve’s here,” he said, suddenly understanding why the crowd outside was so rowdy. “Might want to let him in before they swarm him.”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Phil said.
“Are you serious?” Darcy was already on her way to the door Amaranth had designated as the exit. “What’s he doing here?”
“Rescuing me,” Phil said, before Clint could reply. “Unnecessarily, I might add.”
“Hey, Darcy,” Clint called. “You remember the person who said they liked cute husband banter?”
Darcy paused at the door. “Yeah?”
“You want to grab her too? Tell her to come in, get her picture early.”
“Uh-huh.” Darcy made some kind of sound that was probably positive, even if it was mostly swallowed by the opening door. “Steve!” she yelled, stepping forward without quite leaving the room. “Come be my bodyguard!”
There was a brief moment before she let go of the door and disappeared into the hall.
“She’s fine,” Clint told Phil. “Steve can probably hear us talking.”
“I don’t need to be rescued,” Phil repeated
“Maybe he does,” Clint said. “He said it himself; he’s never been to one of these things before.”
“Neither have you,” Phil said.
“I’m pretty familiar with crowds of screaming people,” Clint reminded him.
“He’s Captain America,” Phil countered. “He’s pretty familiar with crowds of screaming people.”
“Fans are a lot crazier these days,” Clint said, and then the entrance door was opening and Darcy and Steve and the woman who had spoken up in the hall were coming in on a wave of sound. “See?”
“More relevant to your personality than theirs,” Phil said.
“Hi,” Clint said, waving Darcy’s friend over. “Phil’s about to leave; I wanted to make sure you got your picture.”
“Are you serious?” The woman from the hall looked around like she might be in trouble if she got any closer to him, but when he waved again she practically ran over. “Oh my gosh, thank you! Thank you so much!”
“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Clint said with a grin. “C’mon Phil. Stand on the other side of the X.”
No sooner had Phil stepped in and Clint looked up than the flash went off. “All set,” Amaranth said, into the brief pause where Clint tried to figure out whether they were done or not.
“Wow,” Clint said. “You are efficient.”
“We have a lot of pictures to take,” Amaranth said.
“Okay, thank you so much,” the woman whose name he didn’t know said. “Um, it was so good to meet you. You guys are amazing!”
“Yeah, you too,” Clint said, smiling as she backed away. “Have a good day.”
“Thank you!” she repeated. “You too! I mean, you have a good day too! Both of you!”
“So, are we ready?” Darcy interrupted. “Can we start having people come in now?”
“Phil’s leaving,” Clint said.
“I am?” Phil gave him a curious look, which he probably deserved, insincere as it was.
“To rescue Steve,” Clint said.
“I’m lost without you,” Steve agreed dryly, and that was enough. Phil would probably follow him anywhere. Clint had no idea when Steve had gotten that smooth, but he consoled himself with the thought that anything Steve said would work on Phil.
“Great,” Darcy was saying. “Go, be rescued. We actually have a schedule here.”
Lin said something to Phil – or maybe Steve – on their way out, but Clint didn’t catch it because Darcy was opening the other doors at the same time. Matt was suddenly a lot closer than he’d been before, and Clint saw him exchange looks with Amaranth. They’d worked together before, then.
“Okay, stop,” Darcy said. Matt glanced sharply in her direction, but she was just holding up the line after the first ten or so people. The group looked small in the large room, and Darcy was directing them between the tables. “Bags on the left,” she told them. “Line up to your right, wait for Matt to take your ticket.”
Matt caught the first person at the end of the tables, smiled the way a soldier would, and Clint saw him scanning them while he asked for their “ticket.” Receipt, Clint wondered? Darcy had said people were paying. Just like at the circus, he supposed.
“Okay, you’re all set,” Matt was telling the woman at the front of the line. “Go ahead.”
The first woman was more shy than Persy, and Clint finally got that the music wasn’t for him. It was to keep the room from being awkward when people totally failed to make conversation. He stood next to her and smiled at Amaranth, and the woman mumbled something he didn’t hear. She didn’t manage to make eye contact at all before she hurried toward the far doors.
Lin caught her before she could exit, Clint noticed out of the corner of his eye. She picked up a bag from the table and then slipped out. He would have felt bad, except that the next woman was just as speechless but beamed at him happily when he smiled. She scrunched up against his shoulder, so he put an arm around her and grinned at the camera.
This one managed to say, “Thank you!” before she hurried off.
He couldn’t not say hi to them, even if they weren’t going to talk to him, and the third person actually said “hi” back. She leaned against him too, and he put his arm around her before Amaranth took the picture. “Thank you,” she said quickly afterwards. “Really, thank you so much. I’m a huge fan.”
“Yeah, hey, you’re welcome,” Clint said.
“This way,” Lin called, and Clint remembered not to shake his head just in time. They all totally knew what they were doing; he should just let them do it. So he turned and smiled for the next person in line, and Darcy ushered more people into the room, and he wondered if Phil and Steve had made it out of the hallway yet.
The line got more chatty as it progressed. Not all of them, but most of them managed to say “hi.” A lot of them got out “It’s nice to meet you,” or “I’m a big fan.” One of them said, “I like your husband,” which made him laugh.
“Yeah,” Clint told her. “Me too.”
The next one asked if she could have a hug, and he said sure, and he saw the flash go off while he had his arms around her. “Wait,” he said, “I wasn’t looking at the camera. Can you do it again?”
That was the beginning of the hugging line: every single woman who came into the room after that wanted a hug, and he started just holding out his arms so they could run into them. Until the next guy came along, and Clint smiled but didn’t try to hug him. There was a guy in line right after him, though, and he said, “Can I have a hug too?”
So Clint went back to hugging, and it was actually a pretty good way to spend half an hour. Weird, frequently awkward, and occasionally hilarious, but good. One of the women had brought a bow and asked if she could pose with it, and another asked if he could stand behind her and put his arms over her shoulders like a prom picture. One of the guys gave him a teddy bear to hold, and when he tried to give it back afterwards they told him to keep it.
Two little girls came through and asked if they could be in a picture with him together, and when he said yes the older one asked if he could pick her friend up. “I can pick you both up if you want,” he said, grinning at her wide-eyed expression.
He did, and they shrieked with what he could only hope was laughter. The next woman who came through thanked him so profusely that he asked, “Are they yours?” The little girls were waiting with Lin by the door.
“Yes,” she said. “They’re taking archery lessons. They think you’re the best thing since Superman.”
“Glad they’ve raised their standards,” Clint said, putting an arm around her and smiling for the camera. She thanked him again before she left. She was the first person who also thanked Amaranth, and Clint gave her a thumbs-up.
Several more people thanked Amaranth after that.
It went faster than he expected. He ended up kneeling down next to someone in a wheelchair, getting ignored by someone else’s service dog, and giving three people in a row pretend piggyback rides while Amaranth took their pictures. He counted six arrow sweatshirts – two of them in purple – and eight Black Widow t-shirts. He didn’t bother keeping track of the Iron Mans and Captain Americas, but when someone came through in a Hulk shirt Clint asked if he could take their picture too.
“Um, sure?” The teenager in the green shirt looked like she couldn’t believe he was speaking to her, but at least he could hear her reply so that was something. He took out his phone and stepped back, making sure the shirt was in focus.
“There,” Clint said, holding it out to her so she could see. “Thanks. I want to show it to my friend.”
“Your friend?” she repeated softly.
“My angry friend,” Clint said. “He’s gonna love that t-shirt.”
She smiled shyly at him, and she let him hug her for her picture, so he figured they were okay.
When Darcy closed the door on the end of the line, Clint asked her what time it was. “Four oh eight,” she said. “How come?”
“I don’t want to miss Natasha’s panel,” he said.
He had his phone out, a little disappointed to find no sarcastic messages from Phil. done with pictures, he sent to Phil’s phone, hoping he wasn’t on the bad list for implying that Phil couldn’t take care of himself. Phil himself had admitted he needed a babysitter, but hearing someone else say it wasn’t the same thing.
“Okay, why’d you say you don’t have phones?” Darcy wanted to know.
“’Cause we’re liars,” Clint said. “Do you really think Nat’s gonna stand up on stage and answer questions for an hour?”
Darcy shrugged. “She said she would.”
“Are you sure?” He couldn’t imagine it. “Did you get it in writing?”
“Yes,” Darcy said. “Do you need anything else? Because I’m supposed to be in the ballroom already.”
“Great,” Clint said, putting his phone away. “I’ll come with you.
“Thanks,” he added, lifting a hand in Amaranth’s direction.
“Thank you,” she said. She didn’t sound quite as cool toward him now. He thought she might actually be smiling. “You were a good sport.”
“It was fun,” he said. “Thanks, Matt. Lin, you coming?”
“We’re meeting Chantal,” Darcy said, which Clint took to mean “no.” She put a hand on his arm to steer him and added, “Come on. Unlike you, I think Natasha can find the right door, which means she’s probably backstage terrifying volunteers as we speak.”
“Are you kidding?” Clint scoffed. “It’s Natasha. They’ll think she’s their best friend before we even get there.”
“She’s terrifying,” Darcy said firmly.
“Yeah,” Clint agreed. “That’s what I said.”
The backstage door to the ballroom was exactly like all the other doors to the ballroom, except that it was closed. It opened into the area behind the raised platform they had serving as a stage: screened off from audience by black curtains and actual projector screens. Clint could see more mirrored team footage on the screens now – it was backwards from behind – and the music wasn’t quite as loud when the speakers blared in the opposite direction.
“We will not walk away!” He thought he’d heard this somewhere before, but he couldn’t place it. “Tear down the walls that will surround –”
“Late again,” Darcy grumbled, but it was Natasha who caught his eye.
Natasha, who was sitting at a long table with Chantal and two people in volunteer t-shirts. Ashani, Clint remembered from his own time on stage. The other volunteer he didn’t recognize. He was pretty sure Natasha was painting Ashani’s nails.
“Hey,” Clint said, swinging a chair around backwards and sitting down beside them. “Me too?”
“No time,” Natasha told him without looking up. “Get here early next time.”
“I was doing pictures,” Clint reminded her.
“Yeah, where’s Coulson? Did you two pose together?” Natasha asked like she didn’t know, like she didn’t have spies everywhere.
“Steve kidnapped him,” Clint said. “Darcy says you’re actually gonna do a Q&A.”
“You said it was my kind of thing,” Natasha replied. She put the brush back in the nail polish bottle and screwed the cap on just as Darcy snapped her fingers at them.
“Your intro’s on,” Darcy said. The music was fading, and Clint could hear applause growing over the retreating sound of the lyrics: “If we stand together we will be unbroken…”
“I think you got a cooler song than I did,” he told Natasha. He held out his hand for the nail polish, even as the lights brightened and a woman’s voice took over from the music.
“Thank you,” the voice said. “Thanks for being here. Our next guest is someone you may have seen more than you know, because despite her striking appearance, her secret is anonymity. Let’s hear it for Natasha Romanoff, also known as the Black Widow!”
Clint stared up at her as she stood up. “How come you get an intro?”
“They didn’t know you were here,” Darcy interrupted. “Are you crashing her panel? ’Cause I can get more microphones this time.”
Clint looked at Natasha. Her expression didn’t change, but she tilted her head in obvious invitation, and he grinned. “Yeah,” he said, getting up to follow her. “Yeah, I am.”
Natasha went out through the curtains between the stage and the screen, and Clint ducked out after her. The volunteers had dispersed, one to either end of the backstage area, while Darcy conferred with Chantal. The stage lights obscured most of the view when Clint followed Natasha up the stairs, applause swelling again as the audience caught sight of them.
The woman with the microphone passed them on her way down, handing the mic off to Natasha with something that looked like, “Thanks, glad to have you,” but was buried under the sound of the crowd. The woman didn’t give him a second look, just smiled at him and clapped him on the shoulder when she went by. He should probably ask Darcy who she was.
Natasha stopped in the middle of the stage, looking out at the room. She lifted the mic, and it was definitely on but all she said was, “Hello.”
The applause continued, and Clint saw Ashani and the second volunteer standing just this side of the blackout curtains by either wall. It wasn’t just clapping anymore; there was a lot of cheering. People yelling things that he could only sometimes make out. Natasha got more whistles than he had.
When the cheering had died down some, Natasha lifted her microphone again and said, “I’m Agent Romanoff.” This started the cheering and the whistles again, and Clint had to laugh. He clapped for her too, because she was giving them a perfect demonstration of what she did.
Natasha wasn’t good because she made people do what she wanted them to. She was good because she made them do what they wanted to. And there was nothing more telling than what a person wanted.
“Most of you know Agent Barton,” she added, turning to one side with a nod in his direction.
He waved, and they applauded for him too. He heard someone yell, “Yeah Hawkeye!” and he grinned. Probably a good thing he didn’t have a mic, or he would have yelled back at them.
“We work for SHIELD,” Natasha said. Like it was something the general public heard every day. “But we’re here on behalf of the Avengers.” And okay, yeah, that was probably less common.
The audience was quieting down. She waited for them to go completely silent before she said, “I understand you have some questions.”
Clint smiled, turning to follow her lead when she looked to the left. There was a young woman standing there, wearing a “Black Pride” t-shirt and speaking loudly enough that they could actually hear her without the audience mic. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Marissa.”
When she paused, Natasha lifted her mic and said, “Nice to meet you.”
Two, Clint thought. Not that he was counting or anything.
“Um, yeah,” Marissa said, like she realized how awkward that was after the fact but wasn’t going to admit it. “You too. I was just wondering, what’s it like to be the only woman on the Avengers?”
It didn’t look like she thought about it at all. Natasha just said, “Come up on stage for a moment.”
Marissa did it, no questions, and Clint wondered if she’d been here when he’d been on stage earlier. They were conditioning the audience to do whatever they were told. He grinned. That could be handy.
She stopped a good distance away, so Natasha walked over to her. “How does it feel to be the only non-Avenger on stage right now?” she asked.
She held the mic out to Marissa, who leaned in without hesitation and said, “Scary.”
Natasha just nodded once, turning toward the other end of the stage. “Clint, could you ask whoever’s first in line on that side to come up here?”
Clint stepped back, raising his eyebrows at the line on the right. The man on that side stepped aside, shaking his head, and Clint asked, “Does it have to be the first person in line?”
“No,” Natasha said.
“Second person,” Clint called.
The second person in line pointed to himself, and Clint waved him up. Darcy was right behind him, carrying a second mic, and the three of them ended up in a knot at the top of the stairs as she handed it over. Clint flipped it on and announced, “Cool.” When it didn’t buzz, he added, “I have a microphone now.”
“Good,” Natasha told her own microphone. “Ask the person you just invited up how it feels to be the only person on the stage wearing a gray shirt.”
Clint offered the man next to him his microphone without a word.
“Uh, fine, I guess?” The man didn’t seem sure.
“Clint,” Natasha said. “How does it feel to be the best archer on the stage?”
He took the microphone back. “Awesome,” he said with a grin.
“We’re all different,” Natasha said, turning back to the woman beside her. “Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s awesome, and sometimes we don’t really notice. Being a woman on the Avengers can be all of those things. So can being an alien from another planet. Or a supersoldier from the past.
“The best thing you can do when you’re different is to be different,” Natasha told her. “If you try to be like someone else, you won’t be as good at it as they are. And the team won’t get you – they’ll just get a bad copy of something they already have.”
She offered the mic to Marissa again, but Marissa just leaned forward and said, “Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Natasha said.
Clint lifted his microphone and added, “Thanks for the mic, Darcy.”
She wasn’t on stage anymore, but he heard a voice from behind the curtain call, “You’re welcome!”
Marissa was going back down the stairs by now. Natasha stepped forward so she could see the man still standing next to Clint. “Do you have a question?” she asked.
Clint tipped the microphone in his direction, but the man was just staring at Natasha. When the mic moved he started, but he leaned into it gamely. “I really don’t remember,” he admitted.
It made Natasha smile, just a little.
“He was second,” Clint offered. “You skipped the front of the line.”
“You skipped the front of the line,” she said, but she leaned forward to address the second audience microphone. “Do you have a question?”
“Uh, yes.” The man at the bottom of the stairs must have found his nerve, or maybe he was just more comfortable talking when he wasn’t being threatened with a stage presence. “Could you tell us something about your training?”
Natasha looked out at the audience, then shook her head once. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” she said.
Clint lifted his mic. “I could tell you something about her training,” he said with a grin. “It involves beating me up a lot.”
“You should have better hand-to-hand skills,” she told him.
“I think you should have better distance skills,” Clint said.
“Do you ever, you know, cross train?” the man at the mic asked.
“You mean can I use a bow?” Natasha said. “Yes.”
“Can you use the bow to shoot arrows,” Clint corrected. “Not, can you use a bow; you can use anything. Mostly as a club.”
“I can shoot arrows,” Natasha said.
Clint snorted. “Not well.”
“No one shoots well compared to you,” she told him.
“That’s true,” Clint agreed. The man with the gray shirt was trying to subtly sneak back into line, so Clint said, “Hey, he just left the stage without asking his question.”
“He couldn’t remember what it was,” Natasha said.
“You have to ask the other side of the stage anyway,” Clint told her. “It’s polite.”
“SHIELD is known for its politeness,” Natasha agreed, turning away. “Yes?”
There was a woman at the far microphone, and she started with, “Hi. So, first off, thank you for coming, because we’re all really excited to have you here. I mean, here in New York, but just here at this convention too.”
Clint might have snuck in a hey, glad to be here, while she was pausing or something. Partly to calm her down, partly to keep control of the crowd. But Natasha was different, and she just waited.
“So, sticking with the theme of what we were all asking Hawkeye earlier,” the woman continued, “can you tell us if you’re, um, involved with anyone right now? I mean… romantically?”
“No,” Natasha replied. “No, I’m not.”
Clint’s head came up, and he was looking at Natasha’s back but he really didn’t need to see her face. Natasha didn’t repeat herself. She’d just said “no” twice in a row.
“You’re not?” Clint asked her back. He couldn’t resist giving her a hard time.
“You heard me.” She sounded perfectly calm. She’d turned a little so it didn’t look like she was talking to the woman at the microphone, but she wasn’t quite looking at him either.
“Yeah,” Clint said with a grin. “I heard you, all right.”
It had to be a new thing if he hadn’t noticed until now. She’d been undercover until recently, and Natasha didn’t do stupid things undercover. Well, she did stupid things all the time, but she didn’t do compromising things. Not undercover. Romance was definitely compromising, which meant it was someone in her limited civilian life, someone on base, or – and this was the most entertaining possibility – someone on the team.
“Were you and Hawkeye ever together?” the woman at the microphone asked.
“Oh, what is this,” Clint interrupted. “Everyone gets a second question? Who started this?”
“Mr. Front of the Line,” Natasha said, without looking at the other side of the stage.
“Next question,” Clint declared.
It was the man in the gray shirt, and he asked Natasha about her weaponry like the dating questions had never happened. The next three questions were about her actual job – or what they thought her actual job was – and what she did on the Avengers. Which was to say, they asked if she ever worked in an office (yes), if she was always armed (yes), and if she felt intimidated next to the superheroes on the team (yes, to Clint’s surprise).
“Really?” The woman who had asked about intimidation seemed surprised too.
“Intimidation is the fear that you won’t measure up,” Natasha said. “There’s only fear where there’s a question. And if there’s a question, the answer could be yes as easily as it could be no. We’re only intimidated by people who are like us.”
It was a good answer, even if Clint didn’t really get it. He could come up with plenty of people who weren’t like him who intimidated the hell out of him. He figured it wasn’t his question, though, and the woman who’d asked seem satisfied, so Clint settled for putting the nail polish Natasha had given him on the table that held her water and taking a seat.
She didn’t pay any attention to him. The questions went on while he uncapped the bottle and started carefully applying dark red color to his nails. He used to be better at this, but maybe the hotel had a spa that could fix whatever he got wrong. Or he could chip it off himself and pretend it was supposed to look like that.
His phone vibrated the moment he started on his left hand. Of course. Nail polish on both hands was going to make it harder to get anything out of his pockets, so he ignored it and kept going. Anyone who really needed him would know to call Phil or Natasha, anyway.
That was when Natasha paused between questions to take out one of her phones. Text message, he figured, when he saw her look at it for longer than it would take to identify a caller. Then she turned to him.
“Clint,” she said into the microphone. “Inquiring minds want to know why you’re putting on nail polish.”
He managed to flip the “on” switch for the microphone, careful of his nails as he lifted it off the table. “Whose inquiring minds?” he countered.
She held up her phone. “Coulson says Stark asked him,” she said, and he wondered if they would all get the last-name treatment on stage. The bigger her audience was, the less familiar she became.
“Tell Phil to ask Steve if he’s ever worn nail polish,” Clint said. Not because it mattered, but because it didn’t. The best way to make Tony entertain you was to ignore him, and the best way to distract Phil was to ask him about Steve. He was pretty sure Natasha didn’t care one way or the other.
“Hi,” Natasha said to the left-hand side of the stage. “Sorry to interrupt. Do you mind if I make a personal call?”
The man at the microphone shook his head, like he thought she might be joking but he didn’t want to look like a jerk if she was waiting for an answer. “No, no, of course not.”
“Thank you,” Natasha said. She kept the microphone up while she lifted her phone with the other hand. “Can you hear this at all?”
The ringing of the phone was faintly audible over the mic, so Clint called, “Yes!”
The call connected before she could answer, and he heard Phil say, “Coulson.”
“It’s me,” Natasha said, to what seemed to be the vast amusement of the audience. There were rustles and the occasional giggle, but they were obviously trying to be quiet enough to hear. “You’re on speaker. Clint has a question for you.”
There was a pause, and then Phil’s voice said, “No backsies.”
Clint grinned, but Natasha turned to relay the message faithfully. “He says ‘no backsies’,” she told him.
“Does that mean he’s putting on nail polish too?” Clint wanted to know.
“Are you putting on nail polish too?” Natasha asked her phone.
There was another pause, accompanied by a mumbling sound that Clint thought was probably Phil talking to someone else. He saw Natasha smile, so she must be able to hear it. Finally he heard, “You’ll be glad to know that Captain America agrees that question is different enough not to count.”
“But you’re not going to answer it,” Natasha said.
“No,” Phil’s voice agreed. “Was that his question?”
“No,” Clint said into his microphone. “I want to know what’s for dinner.”
“I’m not asking what’s for dinner,” Natasha said, without lowering either the phone or the microphone. “Because if he tells you, everyone in the audience is going to want it.”
“Aren’t you the ones who are supposed to be answering questions?” Phil’s voice asked.
“Tell Stark if he has a question, he needs to get in line,” Natasha said.
“He’ll do it,” Clint warned.
“He hasn’t so far,” Natasha replied. “Thanks, Coulson.”
Clint could just hear Phil say, “My pleasure,” before Natasha lowered the phone. He studied his nails, trying to guess the odds of Phil actually finding some nail polish of his own just to mess with him. Low, really, which was the only reason it was a possibility at all. Phil got an unholy amount of glee out of surprising people.
The stage was still silent, and when Clint looked up he found Natasha staring at him. Waiting. He shrugged. “If it’s good enough for your volunteers,” he said.
She smiled again, which he counted as a win. He was mostly here to be a distraction. If he could entertain her at the same time, he was way ahead.
It only took two more questions before someone asked Natasha, “Do you think if I asked nicely, Agent Barton would paint my nails too?”
He ended up with three groupies sitting on the edge of the stage with him, hands draped over each other, blowing on each other’s fingers while Natasha answered more and less serious questions. Clint passed his microphone to whoever wasn’t having their nails painted at the moment, telling them what to say whenever there was a pause. Mostly they laughed instead of getting it right, or the timing was off, but it interrupted whatever was going on and kept things light.
“It’s Black Russian,” Natasha said, when Darcy came up to collect her for pictures at the end of her hour. “The nail polish that Clint’s using. Thank you all; you’ve been very kind.”
“Yeah, hey,” Clint said, scrambling for the microphone. “You want this back?”
Natasha had to flip her microphone back on. “I’m sure you’ll find something to do with it,” she said.
He waved, holding his own microphone out to Ashani when she passed. “Do you want this?” he asked the girls with him on the stage. Two girls and one woman of indeterminate age. “I bet Natasha can get more if you use it all by the end of the weekend.”
“Yes,” said the girl on his right. He’d done two sets of nails, then she’d painted her friend’s nails when he couldn’t reach. “We’ll keep it! Thanks!”
Clint grinned, patting her knee before jumping down. “Have a good weekend,” he said, and all three of them waved and called after him.
He went around the back of the stage, through the curtains, and the volunteer whose name he didn’t know was there with Lin. He stopped with his phone out, about to text Natasha to see if she wanted them to hold dinner for her. “Hey,” he said, when both of them seemed to expect him to say something. “We done for the day?”
Lin nodded once. “Except for Agent Romanoff’s photo op,” she said. “That’s the end of your scheduled appearances.”
He heard what she didn’t say. “For the rest of the weekend?” Clint asked, just to be sure. “Can we show up anyway?”
“Oh, of course!” She didn’t quite manage to make it sound casual, and he could tell she knew it. “I mean, you can stay as long as you want. Obviously. If you need anything, um, just let us know?”
He even terrified Darcy’s minions. That was interesting. He wondered if they’d been assigned to her, or if she’d chosen them somehow. She shouldn’t have any authority with SHIELD, but Clint wouldn’t put it past her to have bullied her way into the selection process.
“Great,” he said. “Will do. Do you get time off to eat, or whatever?”
“We’ll eat later,” Lin said. “Darcy made a schedule.”
“Oh, Darcy made a schedule,” Clint repeated, even more amused. “I guess I should talk to her about takeout, then.”
“I can do that for you,” Lin said quickly.
That wasn’t exactly what he’d meant, but he wasn’t going to turn it down, either. “Yeah?” he said. “All right. You got a few minutes? We’ll get an order together.”
The song mentioned in this chapter is "Unbroken" by Black Veil Brides.
They managed to convince Darcy and her junior agents to join them for dinner. Or at least, Steve did, by insisting they order something for the person getting the food. That meant Lin got her share of takeout, and Clint figured they’d better get something for Darcy in case she came back with Natasha. No one knew where Chantal had gone, but Bruce had made himself scarce too and they ordered for him just in case.
After that it didn’t make sense to leave Chantal out, even if they had no idea what she ate. Lin must have worked with her before, because she offered “vegetarian” when they quizzed her, but that was it. Clint told Phil he was falling behind in his workplace stalking if he couldn’t at least name documented food allergies, and Phil told Clint he should be able to do it since he spent enough time in the cafeteria.
That was actually fair. Clint missed a lot of tactical information while he was on missions – lesser strategists called it gossip – and catching up on everyone individually took too much time. Everyone on base came through the cafeteria sooner or later, though. It was a matter of efficiency, he said, which made Phil point out that it clearly wasn’t working.
“Hello,” Steve interrupted. “Chantal, this is Steve Rogers.”
Clint turned to stare at him. He wasn’t the only one. Clint, Phil, and Lin all watched Steve talk to his phone: polite, friendly, and apparently perfectly at ease. He explained the takeout situation in a way that didn’t make them all sound incompetent, and when he hung up he had an order from Chantal and a promise that she would join them.
“That was embarrassing,” Clint remarked. He knew Phil wouldn’t agree with anything that sounded even remotely like a slight to Steve, but Lin looked as impressed as he felt.
Natasha arrived right after Lin left. She had Darcy with her, and when Lin returned she had Chantal helping to carry the food. Bruce never did join them. Clint knew he got texts from every team member present, but he also knew Bruce wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t like to be interrupted.
They sent most of the leftovers back with Steve, anyway, so it probably worked out all right.
“All right,” Darcy said, clapping her hands together. “Do you guys need anything else? Because Lin and Chantal have to clock out at some point, and I’m going to the party, so. Speak now.”
“Party?” Clint repeated. “What party?”
“The party,” Darcy said, as Phil gestured to Chantal. “The Friday night party. The one that’s on your schedule, saying ‘attendance optional’?”
Clint kept an eye on Phil while he asked for reports he shouldn’t have. “Yeah,” Clint said, “I figured Tony would have messed up the schedule six or seven times by now, so I didn’t pay much attention.”
“He left today alone,” Darcy said. “Probably because he knew your incredibly scary husband would be here. The party’s in the ballroom downstairs. Dancing, drinks… possibly karaoke, I wasn’t clear on that part.”
Clint raised his eyebrows at Natasha. She shook her head once, and he looked over at Phil. Still explaining something to Chantal. Lin had left with Steve, not that Clint would trust her with a target like Phil. They weren’t even nominally undercover here: everyone knew exactly who he was and where to find him.
“I’ll stay,” Natasha murmured in his ear.
He turned just enough that she could see his expression. Yeah?
This time she nodded, and when he looked over at Phil, he saw Phil looking back. “Nat’s got some work to do too,” Clint offered, for the sake of saving face. “You mind company?”
All Phil said was, “I assume you’re going to the party. Try not to do anything that requires high-level authorization to cover up.”
Clint grinned, and if they were alone he would have said, yeah, I love you too. They weren’t, and they’d talked about what he was allowed to say about them to an audience, but he had no idea what he was allowed to say to Phil in front of other people. He went with, “You’ll know when I do, boss.”
Natasha didn’t bat an eye, but Phil gave him a look like, you’ll be hearing about that later. Which was good, really, because if they didn’t talk about it he was just going to keep guessing. He hadn’t guessed right so far.
“You want an escort?” Darcy asked.
“Funny,” Clint said, looking back at her. “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”
“It’s a perfect match,” Darcy said. “You buy me a drink, and I’ll scare people into leaving you alone.”
“Deal,” Clint agreed. He held out his arm and she took it, so he assumed that what they were wearing was good enough. They left Phil with Natsha and Chantal and headed downstairs.
The ballroom was… not as chaotic as it could have been. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it actually seemed less out-of-control than the music videos they’d been showing earlier in the day. The lights were low and the music was loud, but the screens were dark and most of the chairs were empty.
The chairs that were still set up, anyway. The front half of the room had been completely cleared, and almost everyone was up there: milling, dancing, waving and yelling back and forth. He could see glow-in-the-dark bracelets, light-up props, and a couple of shiny capes from where he was. He wondered if they’d fit the entire audience into half the space by compacting them to standing room only.
“Drink,” Darcy said in his ear, pushing against his shoulder to steer him toward the back of the room. There was, as promised, an impromptu bar set up on the wall opposite the stage. It wasn’t any better lit than the rest of the room, but the service was fast and they carded Darcy, so Clint figured they knew what they were doing.
He didn’t see any point to pushing into the milling throng on the other side of the room, but there was someone on stage singing. He could barely hear her. He nudged Darcy, careful to hit the arm that wasn’t holding her drink. “Hey, you think I could sing?”
She didn’t even look at him, eyes moving over the crowd like she was looking for someone. “Clint, I think you would earn the undying adoration of everyone in this room if you sang. Even if you suck at it, which, do you suck at it?”
“I’m okay,” he told her, and that made her look.
“You’re okay,” she repeated flatly. Darcy narrowed her eyes as she studied him. “You’re awesome, aren’t you. I know that look. Okay, come with me.”
Drink in one hand, Darcy took hold of his hand with the other and pulled him around the edge of the room toward the stage. There were people in volunteer shirts at the bottom of the stairs, but they were carrying radios and he didn’t have to look behind the curtains to know there were more people back there. Security, probably.
Darcy pointed at him and one of the volunteers waved them up. Clint shook his head, pointing to the woman already on stage. Darcy rolled her eyes, but she waited, and the people gathered in front of the stage were starting to notice him. He heard several people yell his name, and he bent down to listen when someone tugged on his arm.
“Are you going to sing?” they shouted in his ear.
He nodded, turning his head to yell back, “Yeah, you want to help?”
It was hard to hear anything this close to the stage, but they looked pretty enthusiastic about the idea to him, so he turned to Darcy. “Yeah, I know,” she said, and it was easy enough to read her lips when he knew what she was going to say. “More microphones.”
She disappeared behind the curtain, and Clint finally recognized the song they were in the middle of. The singer’s voice was being buried by the dance beat, but this close he could at least catch the chorus: “we will never be, never be anything but loud and nitty gritty, dirty little freaks…”
The women next to him were singing along, so Clint joined in. What the hell, right? Even Nat liked P!nk. “Won’t you come on and come on and raise your glass –”
Then Darcy was thrusting a mic into his hand, and he flicked it on without thinking about it. “Just come on and come on and raise your glass –” That was his voice on the speakers, and wow, that was probably really rude, so he tilted the mic toward the woman next to him.
She sang, and her friend leaned in, and the singer on stage finally noticed that she wasn’t alone but she couldn’t seem to figure out where they were. Clint waved when she wheeled in their direction, and it took a few seconds for her gaze to settle on him. She gave up singing at all, then, hand over her mouth, and that was totally his fault.
He jogged up on stage with her, microphone in hand, and said, “No, keep going.”
She just shook her head, backing up, and the music kept going so he picked it up again. “So if you’re too school for cool, and you’re treated like a fool –”
She was laughing now, behind her hand, or maybe crying but he hoped he didn’t have that bad an effect on people. She had her mic back up, so he waved for her to go on. She managed to get it together enough for, “We can always, we can always party on our own,” but then she dissolved into laughter again and he couldn’t not grin.
Turning back to the audience, he lifted his free hand in a mock toast and they definitely weren’t the only ones singing anymore: “Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways!”
The original singer finally came back, and he put an arm around her shoulders while they shouted their way through the end of the song together. There were cameras flashing in the audience, so he put his other arm around her and switched his mic to the other hand. “Here,” he said in her ear. “Sing into this.”
Clint pulled her mic toward him, and somehow she got it, leaving him with a hand free to pull out his phone. “Ready?” he asked, and the whole audience could hear him but it didn’t really matter. “Smile!”
He took their picture, and then he turned the camera around and took a picture of the audience, too. The woman with him fidgeted, and he almost let go of her before he realized she had a phone too. She was holding hers up the same way he had, so he said, “No wait, turn around.”
Clint dragged her around with him, shuffling so that their backs were to the rest of the room, and said, “Okay, go!” Her picture of them had the entire audience behind them.
The music was fading out, so he let go of his singer-in-arms and turned around again. “Welcome to the party,” Clint said into his microphone. “Thanks for letting me crash; sorry to interrupt in the middle. What’s your name?”
The woman he’d been singing with lifted her microphone and said, “Kanya.”
“Hi, Kanya,” Clint said. “Nice song.”
“Thank you,” she told her microphone.
“Darcy, do you have another microphone?” he asked, looking back toward the stairs. “Who was in line next? I was talking to someone who was going to –”
The woman he'd been talking to was waving from the bottom of the stairs, so he waved back. “Yeah, get Darcy to give you a microphone,” he called. Darcy was already talking to her, so he turned back to Kanya. “You want to help us with the next one?”
“Um, sure,” she said. Still barely audible, even with the mic. “What is it?”
“Hold it closer to your face,” Clint said, demonstrating with his own mic. “Seriously, like you’re kissing it. Oh, what song is it? No clue. Who’s our DJ?”
The man behind the speakers raised his hand to wave, and Clint went over to him. “Hey, man,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Clint. Thanks for doing this.”
The man said something, and Clint leaned in closer. “Didn’t get that.”
“Dominique,” the man repeated. “You want a song?”
“What’s up next?” Clint asked.
“Glad You Came,” the man replied.
Clint gave him a thumbs-up, backing off to call into his mic, “Who’s doing ‘Glad You Came’? Other than me and Kanya?”
“Me!” The woman who’d gotten a mic from Darcy was on stage now, and she’d brought a friend with her. “That’s us; we picked that.”
“Good,” Clint said. The karaoke screen was directed at the stage, so he had no idea how they were figuring out who was next, but they must have been in line at the bottom of the stairs when he busted in. “That’s convenient. Kanya, you good?”
She nodded, and the song was starting, and it was some kind of dance remix but it worked just fine. It mostly covered up the fact that they all had awful timing. Clint stopped trying not to laugh when he messed up an entrance, too, and the light might be low but the camera flashes were something else. Cameras had gotten better since the last time he’d been in front of them.
He would have stayed on stage anyway, but he’d never heard of the next song on the screen and he figured he shouldn’t stick around to mess up. So he called for whoever was singing “Anthem” to come up and he set his mic down next to the screen.
Kanya put hers down next to his, so when he passed the women who’d picked the last song he pointed them toward the stairs. There were three more women on their way up – he thought they were all coming up; it was a little hard to tell – so he had his group hand off their remaining mic to the new one.
“More microphones by the screen,” he told them, and one of them said “thank you” while the other one said something that sounded like “oh my gosh you’re such a good singer!”
Clint grinned at them, but it was clear he wasn’t getting through the group without pushing, so he swung over the edge of the stage and jumped down. “Hi Clint!” someone yelled in his ear, and when he turned around, he was standing right next to Nevaeh.
“Hi!” he yelled back. “How’d you get such a good view?”
“I’m really pushy!” she shouted. “You have a nice voice!”
“Thanks!” The next song was just as loud as the ones before it, so he pointed toward the side of the room and said, “I’m gonna get something to drink!”
“Can we come?”
He was pretty sure Darcy wouldn’t be mad if he abandoned her, and he thought Caroline might actually appreciate him keeping an eye on her daughter. So he said, “Yeah!” without even checking to see who “we” was. He took Nevaeh’s hand, and she must have grabbed someone else, because when he made it out of the crowd he had two teenage girls in tow.
“Do we get water at the bar?” he asked them.
“No, there’s water in the hall,” Nevaeh said, still holding his hand. “Here, it’s out this way.”
She took both of them out a different set of doors than the one he’d come in, and sure enough, there was a table set up against the wall. It was lined with upside down glasses, and there was a big cooler of something – presumably water – standing up in the middle with a push-button spout hanging over the edge.
“Great,” Clint said, letting go of her hand. “You thirsty?”
“Yes, please,” Nevaeh said. He poured a glass of water and handed it off to her, but her friend hadn’t answered so he raised his eyebrows at her. “Do you want water?” Nevaeh asked, lifting her own glass.
“Yes,” the other girl said. The word was very precise, and the way she followed it up was just as clear. “Thank you.”
Clint nodded automatically, but he studied her as he handed the glass over. She was stiff but not shy, confident without looking comfortable. He was sure he’d never seen her face before, but something about her looked very familiar.
“This is Maribel,” Nevaeh offered, looking from one of them to the other. “She’s a friend of mine from school. Clint’s my neighbor,” she added, clearly talking to Maribel now.
“Hi,” Clint said, just as it clicked. “Not human, right?”
Maribel paused for a moment, but only a moment. “Not entirely,” she said. “No.” Then she took a sip of water like it was nothing, and Nevaeh stopped staring at her to stare at Clint.
“How did you know?” Nevaeh demanded. “I knew her for two months before I was sure!”
“Sorry,” Clint said, getting his own water. “Probably rude to call people out on that, right? Thor’s trying to train us, but he’s a terrible role model for interspecies relations.”
“The question was unexpected,” Maribel said. “I’m not supposed to tell people.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Clint said again. She really did act just like Thor, except calmer and with less smiling. Like her behavior was conditioned by years of non-human interaction, and she knew it wasn’t right for the situation but she didn’t want to stand out more by trying to fake it and failing. “My bad.”
“Tell me,” Nevaeh insisted, poking his arm.
“Yeah, when we’re not standing in a hotel hallway,” he told her. “Where’s your mom?”
Nevaeh sighed. “In our room,” she said. “Gloating over her action figures.”
“Action figures?” Clint repeated.
“Have you seen the vendors’ room?” she asked.
He vaguely remembered Darcy mentioning something about it. “No,” he said. “Is it cool?”
“That’s where people are getting the sweatshirts,” she said. “You know, with the arrows on them. “It’s closed for the night; you should check it out tomorrow.”
“Hi Clint!” someone called from across the hall, and when he glanced over he recognized her nail polish but not her face. “Thanks for the nail polish!”
“You weren’t on stage with me,” he called back.
“My friend was,” she said. “We’re painting everyone’s nails.” One of the young women with her held up her hands, and then so did the other one, and they both had black polish that sparkled red in the light.
“I didn’t get any,” Nevaeh said, sighing again.
“I still have it!” Someone in the other group was fumbling for her purse, and she added, “Do you want some?”
Nevaeh brightened immediately. “Yes!”
So Clint ended up in yet another nail polish circle, which wasn’t exactly what he’d been planning but seemed to work out all right. They could hear all the music from the hallway, no one yelled at them for sitting on the floor, and they gained a sizable audience by the time Nevaeh and Maribel had both had their nails painted. When Clint went to take a picture for Natasha, he realized he had messages.
You’re on youtube already, the one from Phil said.
Natasha’s message said, I am not internet stalking you.
Clint sent the picture to Natasha, read Phil’s message aloud to everyone, and then texted back, Doing what? and Phil, are you internet stalking me?
Two more people were sitting down to use the nail polish, and half of their audience had their phones out. The best part was, Clint couldn’t tell whether they were looking him up on youtube or recording what he was doing now to put on youtube themselves. He couldn’t even get back at them, since abstaining from social media was part of his contract with SHIELD.
He wondered how being the subject of social media would figure into that clause.
No, Phil’s reply said. It’s all Natasha. The videos are of you singing. Why, is there something else we should be looking for?
“Phil says he’s not on youtube,” Clint announced. “He says someone else told him about the videos.”
“Liar,” Nevaeh said.
“Tell him we said hi,” someone behind him said.
No, Clint typed. My friends say hi.
Another message from Natasha arrived, and it said, Someone is recording you texting with Phil.
“Wow,” Clint said aloud. “Natasha says someone’s phone is sending our nail polish party to youtube right now. Anyone want to admit that?”
Another message from Natasha arrived. It’s the woman in the purple shirt right in front of you, she said. Blonde hair, two o’clock.
Clint looked up, and the woman’s eyes widened when he lifted his phone in her direction. He flipped his camera to “video” and pushed the button. “Smile,” he said. “You’re going to be on the internet.”
It was remarkably effective and surprisingly popular: the woman in question ducked and tried to hide behind the person next to her, while everyone around her laughed and tried to wave at Clint’s phone. “What’s your name?” Clint called.
The woman in the purple shirt had turned away, but someone next to her said, “Julia. That’s Julia.”
So Clint said, “Julia likes our nail polish group so much that she decided to record it live for youtube. Wasn’t that nice of her?”
Most of the group agreed, loudly and laughingly, that it was, but poor Julia wouldn’t even look at him. He figured that was fair, so he stopped recording when a text message from Phil popped up. Uploading anything to youtube from your phone will violate SHIELD code of conduct.
“Oh, it’s your lucky day,” Clint said. “Phil says I’m not allowed to upload things to youtube.”
“I can,” Nevaeh offered.
“You’re not allowed either,” Clint told her. “Your nail polish isn’t even dry yet.”
“Hawkeye, are you coming to the concert tomorrow night?”
He didn’t know who asked, so he kept texting Natasha while he replied, “Maybe, is it gonna be cool?”
A different voice answered, “It will be if you’re there!”
“True,” Clint agreed. The message he sent to Natasha said, Does threatening a fan with youtube count as cyberbullying?
“So, you should come,” Nevaeh said. “Are you going to be here all weekend?”
“Maybe,” Clint repeated. “Darcy’s in charge of that stuff. Hey, should we call Natasha and tell her how much we like her nail polish?”
He had a new message from Natasha on his phone that read, Don’t chase her or say anything mean and you’re probably fine.
The group with him was cheering, presumably for Natasha. He called her and switched the phone to speaker while it rang. He hadn’t scared off Julia in the purple shirt completely because he could see her lingering in the back. Embarrassed, yes. Hostile, probably not.
He mostly remembered the publicity and liability lectures from years ago, and he thought he was doing all right so far. Anyone could make him look like the bad guy if they wanted to, but he actually was the bad guy sometimes, so that was the luck of the draw. As long as he had Phil and Natasha at his back, he thought they’d be okay.
Songs referenced in this chapter include “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk, “Glad You Came” by The Wanted, and “Anthem” by Superchick.
Chapter 10: Whatever You Want
“Hey,” Clint said, letting himself into the room on the wrong side of midnight. “You still up?”
“No,” Natasha’s voice replied from the direction of the bed. “We sleep with the lights on.”
“Yeah, that’s safer,” Clint agreed. He stuck his head around the corner and smiled at the two of them, small on the giant king-sized bed. “You okay?”
“Tired,” Phil said. “You?”
“I could sleep,” Clint said. “Nat, you want to stay? Hotel security’s awful. We’re better off together anyway.”
“You wanted to ask about what you can say.” Natasha was still staring at the TV, looking for all the world like she was watching whatever they had playing on there instead of reading his mind. “To Phil, in front of other people. I’m guessing you don’t want to do that in front of other people.”
“Hotel security’s still crap,” he said, but he looked at Phil and found him looking back. “Give us half an hour?”
Her gaze flicked to him. “Sure,” she said, rolling off the bed with a lack of grace that would have been laughable if she couldn’t have come up shooting. She picked up her shoes and padded around the corner without another word.
He heard the door close behind her, and Phil was still watching him. “How was the party?” he asked. The remote was lying in the middle of the bed, but he didn’t make any effort to turn the volume down.
“Crowded.” Clint kicked off his shoes and crawled onto the bed, picking up the remote and flopping down where it had been. He had to pull over one of Natasha’s pillows to see the screen. “What are you watching?”
“Merlin marathon.” Phil’s gaze had gone back to the TV when Clint laid down beside him, but Clint could see him smiling out of the corner of his eye. “Natasha vetoed ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ after the second episode.”
Clint was pretty sure “after the second episode” meant “after turning on the TV during the transition from one episode to the next.” He’d developed a tolerance, but even he could only take so much crying. Phil claimed it was a good exercise in social norms and behavioral studies. Clint thought social norms were overrated.
He was trying to remember what he knew about “Merlin” when Phil said, “You think he’s still out there?”
The person on the screen was swinging a sword, so Clint asked, “Who, King Arthur?”
“I was thinking of Merlin,” Phil said. “But I guess if you find one, you find the other.”
Clint stole another pillow, lifting his head to stuff it on top of the other one. “What do you want Merlin for?” he asked. “Some kind of magic Thor can’t handle?”
“It never hurts to have a list of potential allies,” Phil replied.
Of course it did. If one of your allies turned dark-side and handed it over to the enemy. But Phil didn’t want to hear that, and Clint didn’t want to talk about it, so it was a good thing that Natasha had vanished to her own room where she couldn’t psychically guess what he was thinking.
“Right,” Clint said instead. “Merlin. I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
Phil reached out and took the remote away from him. He pointed it at the TV, muting it, and then he put the remote down on the bedside table. Out of Clint’s reach.
“You called me ‘boss,’” Phil said into the sudden quiet.
“I always call you ‘boss.’” Clint folded his hands on his chest, watching the characters on the TV screen. “Don’t redraw the line, Phil. It’s fuzzy enough already.”
For a moment, neither of them said anything. “Is it?” Phil asked at last. “Is it too fuzzy, I mean?”
Yes, Clint wanted to say. The fact that it existed at all made it too… something. He hated the line, but he could live with it because that was the deal. He’d learned not to think about it.
“You know, I can’t actually hear what you say in your head,” Phil remarked.
“Tell me what I’m supposed to do and I’ll do it,” Clint blurted out. “You know that.”
There was another long pause, and he thought that might have been too harsh. Phil was tougher than he looked. If Clint needed to apologize, Phil would let him know.
“I’d appreciate it if you would look at me,” Phil said.
He scoffed, keeping his eyes on the TV. “I say stupid things when I look at you. You know that too.”
“Yes,” Phil said mildly. “That’s kind of my goal.”
He turned his head to the side, staring at Phil’s profile until Phil turned to look back at him. “You look tired,” Clint said. Because he had to say something, and that was safe.
“You don’t look tired enough,” Phil replied.
Clint shrugged a little. “It’s the adrenaline,” he said. Phil was used to it. “It’ll wear off.”
“We don’t have to act any different,” Phil said. “If you don’t want to.”
“I want to.” His fists didn’t clench, because his muscles were better trained than that. But he stared at Phil and willed him to understand when he said, “I want to a lot.”
“Okay,” Phil said.
They lay there staring at each other for too long, because Clint heard himself say, “Can we go to the Christmas party together?”
Phil raised his eyebrows in the way that meant he was trying not to smile. “SHIELD doesn’t have a Christmas party.”
“The holiday party,” Clint said. “It bugged me that we didn’t go together last year.” The first one since they’d been married, and they’d left in separate cars. It was stupid and it didn’t fool anyone.
“It’s June,” Phil said. “That was six months ago.”
“It bugged me a lot,” Clint told him.
“We’ll go together this year,” Phil said.
“Good.” Clint transferred his gaze back to the ceiling, because he was about to say I love you and maybe can I kiss you in front of them and neither one was really appropriate.
“Can I kiss you in front of our friends?” Phil asked abruptly.
Clint stared at the ceiling, because he couldn’t have just heard that. If he hadn’t really heard it, he shouldn’t respond too quickly because then Phil would know something was up. If on the outside chance he had heard it, he shouldn’t say “yes” right away because then Phil might think he was being unprofessional and start in with the conditions.
“I mean, not at work,” Phil said. “Just… tonight. When you left for the party, I wanted to kiss you. Except there were a lot of people here, and maybe even if it is okay you wouldn’t want that. I don’t – we don’t really know much about how private we are, do we. Just how private we’ve had to be. That makes it harder.”
Clint turned to look at him again. “Are you babbling?” he asked.
“No,” Phil said.
“You’re nervous,” Clint said, staring at him. “That makes me feel better.”
“Glad I could help,” Phil said dryly.
Clint smiled. “You can kiss me anywhere,” he said. “Anytime. In front of anyone.”
“Really?” Phil resettled his head on the pillow before adding, “I’d roll onto my side, but I’m very comfortable right now and I don’t want to risk moving.”
“I can get closer.” Clint rolled onto his shoulder and edged over as much as he could without actually touching Phil. “Better?”
“Not much.” Phil was looking at his mouth now, and he could take a hint. He leaned in for a kiss, slow and mindful of the fact that Phil wanted to stay where he was. They hadn’t been able to do this in Medical either, and their trip to Portland had been cut short.
Very short, Clint thought, kissing the side of Phil’s mouth and then his jaw before settling on the pillow next to him. Phil’s hand fumbled for his, tangling their arms together while Clint pressed his face into Phil’s shoulder. He could feel Phil’s cheek against the top of his head.
“We should be professional,” Phil said quietly. “When we’re working.”
And there were the conditions. Like he didn’t know what Phil’s job meant to him. Like SHIELD wasn’t important to Clint at all. But Phil expected him to protest, so he mumbled, “Professional’s not my strong suit.”
There was a long moment where Phil’s thumb stroked the side of his hand, and Clint wondered what his expression looked like. He wondered what time it was. He hadn’t checked when Natasha left, but her thirty minutes would be exact.
“We’re soldiers,” Phil said at last. It wasn’t what Clint had expected him to say at all, especially when he added, “Surviving is professional.”
Clint lifted his head, but Phil was staring at the ceiling and there wasn’t enough room for them to look at each other anyway. He wanted to ask, what does that mean? but he wasn’t sure it would come out the way he meant it. He wasn’t even sure how he meant it.
“I’m not gonna mess you up in the field,” Clint told him.
“Clint,” Phil said, and he turned his head a little. They were too close, and Clint wasn’t moving, but the gesture was a serious one. “You are more important to me than any op. You know that. Don’t you?”
It might not have been a question. Clint definitely didn’t know how to answer.
“You stay alive,” Phil said, more softly, “and you can do whatever you want.”
Clint tried to smile, to play it off, because no way was that true. “Really?” he teased. “Anything at all?”
“Yes,” Phil said.
His smile disappeared, and Clint had to pull his hand back to push himself up on one elbow. The movement jostled Phil, who let his arm fall free without protest. “Why would you say that?” Clint asked, frowning down at him.
Phil made no effort to sit up. “Because I trust you,” he said simply.
Clint let out a breath, and it came out a little shakier than he’d been expecting.
“I trust you,” Phil repeated, staring up at him.
A shiver wracked his body, and damn it, he was not allowed to do that. He couldn’t just shake for no reason; it was dangerous and stupid besides. He shouldn’t be cold. He knew that. The room was fine, the temperature was normal, and the shivers weren’t coming from outside.
“Cold?” Phil asked softly. He didn’t try to pull Clint in, didn’t try to cover him up. He just asked, and if the answer was yes, it was up to Clint to tell him what to do.
Clint let his head fall, careful when he pressed his forehead to Phil’s shoulder. “Getting warmer,” he muttered. Everything hurt more as the numbness let go. Those were just the consequences of thawing.
He felt Phil’s hand come up and hold onto his arm, running up and down it gently while he let himself breathe. He wanted to crush Phil against him. He wanted to hold on so hard that they could never end up on opposite sides again. But he wasn’t the only one still healing, and he wouldn’t do it if it hurt Phil.
Even if Phil would let him.
He heard Phil whisper, “I want to hold you,” and he swallowed hard.
He lifted his head to breathe in Phil’s ear, “I want to climb on top of you. I want to press you into the mattress and keep you here until I’m sure I’ll never lose you. Which would probably be forever, but Natasha’s going to come back and I know she’ll yell at me for compressing a chest injury.”
Phil’s fingers tightened on his wrist. “I can protect you from Natasha,” he said, and his voice was rougher than it had been before.
Clint huffed out a breath that could have been a laugh. “No one can protect us from Natasha,” he muttered, and he kissed Phil’s neck. He kissed the pulse point beneath his skin. He pressed his mouth to the line of Phil’s jaw, and he felt the hand on his arm sliding up to squeeze his shoulder.
He took a deep breath, pulling away. Phil’s grip loosened as he rolled onto his back. Clint swung his legs across the bed and laid his head on Phil’s chest. It wasn’t as warm but it felt safer, somehow. Like the cold might melt without burning away. He didn’t think he could handle fire yet.
Phil rested his free arm on Clint’s chest – gently, like he was the one with a massive scar across his heart – and Clint could feel the other arm shifting underneath him. He arched his back enough that Phil could pull his hand free, draping it across Clint’s chest from the other side. Clint closed his eyes, putting his hands over Phil’s, and neither one of them said anything for a long time.
They hadn’t moved when a soft knock at the door interrupted the silence. Clint supposed one of them would have to get up, but he should have known better. There was a beep, the sound of a latch releasing, and then nothing. He didn’t ask whether Natasha had bothered to use a key.
“Hello,” her voice said a moment later. “Everything all right?”
Clint knew what she meant. He gave her a thumbs-up.
Phil’s chest hummed under his head when he replied, “We’re good.”
Natasha’s voice was closer when she asked, “Are you sleeping in your clothes?”
Clint opened his eyes, and sure enough, she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants. “We’re watching TV,” he said, closing his eyes again. “It’s your show; lie down.”
“I’ll just have to move when you get up,” she said.
“So turn out the lights first,” Clint said.
He felt the chest under his head rise and fall in a silent sigh. “I have to get up,” Phil murmured. “I’ll change.”
Clint sighed too, and he didn’t bother to be quiet. But he did sit up, glaring at Natasha when she just stood there watching them. “Don’t steal all the pillows,” he warned her.
She widened her eyes like such a thought had never occurred to her, and he snorted. “I’ll look for extras in the closet,” he grumbled.
“And an extra blanket,” Natasha called after him.
“You’re ready for bed,” he called back. “You look.”
He didn’t think she would, but after he and Phil had changed and shared the bathroom, the top shelf of the closet was empty. They found Natasha in the middle of the bed, surrounded by more pillows and blankets than they’d left her with. The volume on the TV was turned down low.
“I want the middle,” Clint told her in no uncertain terms.
Natasha didn’t look away from the TV screen. “Phil’s recovering,” she said. “He gets to pick.”
“I sleep on the right side,” Phil reminded her.
She pushed a pillow out of her way and scooted left, shoving the blankets over as she went. She didn’t take her eyes off of the TV. Clint climbed into bed after her. She didn’t look around, so he pushed her pillows away from the headboard and stretched his legs out behind her.
Phil didn’t say anything, but Clint saw the faint smile on his face before he turned off the lights. He got in on his usual side and pulled a blanket up to his waist, a single pillow behind his head and one arm stretched up to the headboard. It wrapped around Clint again when he laid down, his head on Phil’s chest while the light from the TV made colored shadows on the ceiling.
Natasha finally turned around to look at them. Clint figured the marathon had gone to commercial, but he didn’t feel like moving enough to check. All Natasha said was, “I hope you’re volunteering to be my pillow.”
“Gimme a blanket and you’re on,” Clint told her.
She spread the spare blanket over his legs before she pushed her pillow nest up against his chest and leaned back. “Okay?” she asked in the flickering light of the TV.
When Clint turned his head, he saw that it was definitely a commercial. Unless they’d had scrubbing bubbles in the age of Arthurian legend. “Yeah,” he said. “Phil?”
Phil already sounded sleepy when he murmured, “Fine.”
Clint laid his arms over Phil’s and turned his head the other way, so that he could see Phil’s chin before he closed his eyes. He could hear Phil’s heartbeat beneath his ear. Natasha’s warmth was solid and real through the pillows, and the whispers of their breath mingled in the air around him.
He felt a little more of the ice loosen and let go.
He didn’t wake up when Natasha turned the TV off, but the screen was dark when he opened his eyes. The room was dark too, but the curtains had been closed since they arrived. He didn’t have to see the sun on the other side to know it was there.
Clint didn’t lift his head. He stretched his fingers, though, and he felt Phil’s curl under his own. He tapped Phil’s hand, and Phil sighed soundlessly. Awake enough to know who it was. Clint didn’t feel Natasha’s weight against him, so he turned his head carefully in the other direction.
Her pillows were still there. There was a lump on the other side of them that had to be her, curled under the blankets and deliberately ignoring him. He didn’t have to get up, and for a few minutes he lay there without thinking. Just feeling. Just being where he was welcome.
In the end, though, it was still morning, and he was still awake. Phil had told him he had to shoot every day, and it wasn’t because he might lose his edge. It was because he wouldn’t. Nothing calmed Clint down like the focus of a target site.
He closed his hands around Phil’s, gently disentangling himself, and he sat up as carefully as he could. Natasha was watching him when he looked back at her. He felt her gaze without really seeing it, and he whispered, “Staying?”
The tiny rustle of blankets was her nodding.
“Thanks,” Clint murmured.
He slid off of the bed and headed around the corner, grabbing his bag and taking it into the bathroom with him. Only after the door was shut did he turn on the light. His morning routine included studying the mirror to make sure his eyes weren’t too blue. Phil had said that was normal the first time he caught him at it, so by now it was pretty far down the list of things Clint worried about.
He had his bow case over his shoulder when he went out the door. He’d put on a hooded sweatshirt first, and he took his sunglasses, but he had to assume the case made him recognizable no matter how inconspicuous he tried to look. He was counting on the early hour to keep the questions down.
He was only a little surprised that the first person he saw in the hallway was Bruce. In sneakers and a sweaty t-shirt, the look of a runner clung to him and he looked unassuming without even trying. He caught Clint’s eye and Clint nodded to him in passing.
“Doctor,” he said, and he was more surprised that Bruce slowed, turning like he had something to say.
“There’s a registration line in the lobby,” Bruce murmured. “Might want to go out the back.”
“They get up early,” Clint said, lowering his voice in return.
Bruce smiled but didn’t say anything.
Clint tipped his head. “Point taken,” he said, sliding his sunglasses on.
Bruce lifted two fingers in a half-wave.
“See you around, Doc,” Clint said, heading for the stairwell.
He could see why Bruce and Natasha got along. He briefly entertained the idea that the good doctor was Natasha’s “no, no I’m not,” but if Tony was worried about SHIELD kidnapping Betty then they probably weren’t over yet. Natasha only did threesomes when asked, and it was hard to picture Bruce asking.
His imagination distracted him enough that he was already on the stairs before he realized where the music was coming from. He leaned over the railing, picking out a blonde head and two dark ones, a flash of red two floors down, and he didn’t know what Caroline and the girls were doing in the stairwell but at least he didn’t have a reason to avoid them. Even if he could smell the nail polish from here.
That nail polish was really getting around, Clint thought.
He didn’t recognize the red-haired teen, but Maribel was the first to notice him. She was clearly aware of him before she looked up. The gesture made Caroline look as well, and she smiled over Nevaeh’s head. Her daughter was bent over the other girl’s nails while someone’s phone played Toby Keith on the landing next to them.
“Did you find Natasha’s supplier?” Clint asked, dropping down the last few stairs to land beside them. “Or is that really the same bottle of nail polish you started with?”
“Clint!” Nevaeh exclaimed, looking up without letting go of her friend’s hand. “Are you going out? You look like you’re going to shoot something.”
“Nevaeh,” Caroline said. “Let the man use the stairs without interrogating him.”
“He started it,” Nevaeh protested.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Clint agreed, sitting down beside her. Her red-haired friend was staring at him in shock. “I’m gonna shoot; conditions of living with Phil. He makes sure I go out once a day whenever we’re together.”
“Why?” Nevaeh wanted to know. She was bent over her friend’s hand again, and he saw Caroline mouth sorry at him. Clint waved it off.
“Helps me focus,” Clint said. “Why are you painting your nails in the stairwell?”
“Mom doesn’t like the smell,” Nevaeh said.
Clint raised his eyebrows at Caroline, who obviously had recently-painted nails of her own. She shifted uncomfortably. “I didn’t want the smell in the room,” she admitted. “I didn’t think hotel staff would be too happy about us sitting in the hall, and our room is right around the corner from the stairs, so.”
“Then Jess came by and asked what we were doing,” Nevaeh added.
“Hi,” the red-haired girl said quickly. She lifted the hand Nevaeh wasn’t holding and waved a little. “I, um, like your nail polish?”
“I’ll tell Natasha,” Clint said with a grin. “Hey, Maribel. How’s it going?”
“Hello,” Maribel replied. “It’s going well. And yourself?”
“Good,” Clint said. “I’m cool. I’m gonna go; you guys here all weekend?”
“Yes,” Nevaeh said. “There’s breakfast downstairs if you want. They’re doing music videos in the ballroom.”
“Already?” Clint glanced at Caroline, and she rolled her eyes like, I know. “Wow, they do start early. I thought registration was still going on.”
“The breakfast is just for people who are here all weekend,” Caroline said.
“Right.” Clint wondered if he could sneak past the registration line and get food without anyone in the ballroom seeing him. The odds were probably against him, which made it worth trying. “Well, have fun. Nice to meet you, Jess.”
“Bye Clint!” Nevaeh yelled after him.
He heard Jess squeak, “Um, thanks?” and he grinned to himself as he leapt down the rest of the stairs. Breakfast was going to be fun.
He made it past the registration line by pretending he was no one. Oldest trick in the book: walk like you’re supposed to be there. Even with the bow, no one gave him a second look, and he was willing to admit that being at an Avengers convention helped. He wasn’t the only one with a bow here.
Breakfast was harder, because people slowed down and paid more attention when there was food involved. On the plus side, the volunteers let him into the line as soon as they recognized him, and he pretended he wasn’t headed into the ballroom at all. So people talked to him, he said hi, and he kept walking.
Then he circled the ballroom and went through the backstage doors. He’d half-expected them to be locked, but maybe the ballroom didn’t lock. There wasn’t anyone behind the screens, and the images were pretty much the same in reverse. The music was quieter this early in the morning.
He took a seat at the guest table and watched music videos while he ate breakfast. He thought Phil would appreciate the fact that their theme song was apparently “I Dare You.” He knew Natasha would like having pictures of her set to “Guardian.” He decided not to tell Tony that someone had used archival footage of him to create a Dar Williams montage that was actually kind of touching, and he laughed out loud when they made a Captain America video out of “Welcome to the Future.”
It was the laughing that got him in trouble, of course. He was terrible at radio silence. So when someone who wasn’t wearing a volunteer t-shirt poked their head between the curtains, staring at him like they’d won a scavenger hunt, he waved and made a quick exit.
He left his dishes behind, but he’d ask Darcy who to make that up to later.
Clint made it out of the hotel and into Queens without stopping. He texted Phil to let him know about breakfast, and he texted Natasha to tell her about the video. Neither of them texted back, which was good because he didn’t want to leave them alone all morning but if they were still sleeping it didn’t seem so bad.
Bruce replied when he sent the picture of the teenager in the Hulk t-shirt, though: Clever disguise. I should try that.
He spent an hour shooting before he headed back. It wasn’t much, it didn’t feel like anything, but Phil insisted that it made him easier to live with. Phil would know, and it wasn’t like it was hard. If this was the thing Phil asked of him, he wasn’t going to say no.
Natasha’s text got to him just as he stepped through the door of their empty room.
In Steve’s room, it said. We have food.
They also had the internet. Clint found them clustered around Phil’s laptop in the front room of the suite Steve shared with Bruce. Bruce was nowhere to be seen, but there was plenty of food so Clint helped himself. Steve had clearly gotten the hang of room service.
“What are we watching?” he asked, squeezing himself onto the sofa next to Natasha. Phil was guarding the laptop, the screen mostly facing him, and Steve was leaning against the arm of the sofa while he watched over Phil’s shoulder.
“The science panel.” Natasha moved over for him, giving Phil a push that he ignored. “It started ten minutes ago and it’s already on youtube.”
“The science panel?” Clint repeated. “Who’s the science panel?”
“Betty, Bruce, and Jane,” Natasha said. Her eyes were still fixed on the screen. “Stark set it up.”
“Oh, hey, his science division?” Clint considered the shaky image of three people in chairs on a distant stage. Some publicity seemed like a good idea to him, but he was late to the party. “Do we like this? Phil?”
“It could be worse,” Phil said. He glanced across Natasha to catch Clint’s eye when he added, “He could have put Darcy up there.”
“Hey,” Clint objected. “Don’t hate. Darcy’s awesome.”
“I’m aware of your opinion,” Phil said, looking back at the screen. He looked like he wanted to smile, though, so Clint let him off.
“Where is she, anyway?” Clint didn’t bother to look around the room again; he would have seen signs of her if she’d been there. “Is she backstage? Or did she get the morning off?”
“She dropped off photos for you to sign,” Natasha said.
At the same time Phil said, “She’s been reassigned,” and Clint didn’t know who to look at first.
He looked at both of them, but Natasha wasn’t paying any attention to him and Phil was only pretending not to pay attention to him. So he asked, “Reassigned to what? SHIELD baiting?”
“Thor duty,” Phil said.
Clint looked at the screen again: the angle was odd and the resolution was bad, but he was pretty sure Thor wasn’t in the shot. “Thor’s here? Sweet. Why aren’t we seeing him?”
“He wanted to go undercover,” Steve said. “He said he wanted to hear Jane talk without other people asking him questions. Darcy went with him.”
Clint folded his arms and leaned back against the sofa, keeping one eye on the youtube video titled Avenger Con Science 1. It was seven minutes long, and he wondered if whoever had the camera was documenting every second. He wondered if anyone had warned Jane and Betty about the cameras.
“I’m trying to picture Thor in disguise,” Clint remarked. “Does he have a camouflage cape that he wears when he wants to blend in? Or is it a neutral color? Also, has anyone told them they’re being recorded?”
“I texted Bruce as soon as we found it,” Steve said. Clint took a moment to appreciate the fact that Captain America not only knew how to text, but also knew how to use the word “text” as a verb.
“He’s not wearing a cape,” Phil said.
“He showed up in flannel,” Natasha added. “Surprisingly flattering on him.”
Clint vaguely remembered that. He wondered if Thor had his own clothes this time, or if he was still wearing the ones Jane’s ex-boyfriend had left behind. He wondered if the ex would see Thor on TV and recognize his shirt. Probably no easy way to ask for it back at this point.
“How do you know what he’s wearing?” Clint asked suddenly. “Did he stop by, or what?”
Natasha produced a phone from somewhere, tapped it a couple of times, and handed it over. There was a picture of Thor on the screen, in profile, an arm around someone who was probably Jane as he beamed at something off-camera. He was in fact wearing flannel.
“You realize this doesn’t answer my question,” Clint said, handing the phone back.
“I saw him,” Natasha said. “Hence the picture.”
“You see everything,” he said. It was a literal answer, and if she didn’t feel like elaborating then he didn’t feel like playing. “Are we gonna watch this whole thing from our rooms?”
“Unless you want to be the subject of more youtube videos,” Phil said, “we’re not watching it from the theater.”
“Why not?” Clint wanted to know. “Thor’s there. I don’t see any video of him.”
“We’re not going to make it through this entire panel without someone posting footage of Thor,” Natasha said.
“He’s in disguise,” Clint reminded her.
“As a god in a flannel shirt,” she countered. “He can’t keep his mouth shut. Ten buck says he yells something to or about Jane in the next fifteen minutes.”
“You’re on,” Clint said. “He’s a king. Statesmen have to be diplomatic.”
She snorted. “Asgardian diplomacy is more about the exchange of ceremonial weapons than the laying down of arms.”
“That’s true,” Steve offered. “At least as far as I can tell.”
“Thor can contain himself,” Phil said. “I’m not so sure about Ms. Lewis.”
Clint eyed him sideways as the youtube video ended and Phil started scrolling through the related links in the sidebar. “What do you have against Darcy all of a sudden? She didn’t do anything to you.”
“She’s spending a lot of time with you,” Phil replied, staring at the screen like he was actually reading all those titles.
“Oh,” Clint said. “Wait, this is you being jealous, right? I just want to be sure, because I definitely remember swearing to love you best forever. Multiple times.
“You were there,” he added, poking Natasha. “At least one of those times. Right?”
“I don’t get involved in your domestic disputes,” she said, lifting her hands just enough to make it clear she was out. “Those are the rules.”
“I’m not jealous,” Phil said. “I’m just keenly aware of her presence.”
One of the reasons he and Phil had hit it off right away was that Phil told him what he needed to know. Sure, that was his job. But as with so many things, it wasn’t what he did. It was how he did it.
“Right,” Clint said out loud. “Today’s mission is to make you less aware of Darcy’s presence. You can give me a report on how I do at the end of the day.”
“So far, not so well,” Phil remarked, but he was smiling.
“We’ll see,” Clint said. Steve actually looked worried, like he thought maybe this wasn’t normal for them, so Clint changed the subject. “Hey, is it fifteen minutes in real time, or fifteen minutes of whatever video we watch next?”
“Real time,” Natasha said without hesitation.
“Confident, aren’t you.” Like that was a surprise. He tried to decide whether or not there was a way to get amateur videos to sync up, figured that if there was it probably wasn’t worth the trouble, and checked the clock. “I’m texting Bruce in fifteen minutes.”
Phil cleared his throat. “Do we think that youtube uploaders know how to use apostrophes?”
“No,” Natasha said.
“Yes,” Clint countered.
“You’ve just voted against yourselves,” Phil told them. On the screen in front of him was a video titled, Avenger Con Science: Thor’s Question, and Clint sighed. Typos weren’t gonna make him any less wrong.
“All right,” he said aloud. “Let’s see it.”
This video was shot from the same angle, which was probably to be expected given the similarity of the titles, and Clint wondered who was uploading stuff so fast. Didn’t the hotel network have some kind of data limit? Were they even using the hotel network? Maybe they had an unlimited data plan on their phone.
“He’s not on stage,” Clint said, studying the image while someone asked Betty if the military had ever asked her to censor results. “Is that good or bad?”
“Classify,” Phil muttered. “It’s not censorship; it’s redaction.”
“It’s not like he needs a microphone,” Natasha said.
“To redact is to edit for use,” Steve said unexpectedly. “To classify is to remove from use, at least for certain populations.”
“In the case of a potential threat to national security,” Phil said.
“In selective cases of potential threat,” Steve countered.
So, Clint thought. Steve hadn’t been kidding with that whole HYDRA comparison. He was pissed, and he wasn’t going to let any of them forget it.
“If he had a microphone, we’d be able to hear him from up here,” Clint said. He wasn’t going to argue with either of them and Natasha seemed like the safest way out. “Hey, did you see this somewhere before we made our bet?”
“There’s nothing I could have seen that you wouldn’t have seen first,” Natasha reminded him.
Now someone was asking the whole panel if they’d ever wished they could be on the front lines with the Avengers. To a person they shook their heads, telling their microphones “no,” looking at each other and laughing when they all spoke at the same time. It was the most relaxed they’d looked since Clint had started watching.
They were very convincing for people who ended up on the front lines all the time, he thought. They looked the most comfortable when they were lying. He would wonder what that said about the team and its associations, but he already knew. He just hadn’t realized how many people they’d pulled into it with them.
“Did Tony ask them if they wanted to do this before he shoehorned them into the schedule?” Steve asked.
No one answered until Natasha said, “Relevant experience with Stark suggests no.”
There was a shuffling sound coming from the right side of the theater, not on screen but within audio pickup of the camera. Then someone in the camera’s line of sight with the stage turned, and someone else, and distantly there was a familiar voice. The camera turned a second later, but all it caught was the sides of people’s heads.
Phil cranked the speakers the rest of the way. Clint could just decipher the words, “That is the purpose of this gathering, is it not?” Definitely Thor. With or without Darcy; it was hard to tell exactly who he was talking to.
Then Thor raised his voice even further, and he still sounded like he was sitting around a breakfast table. He must use supernatural powers to project his voice. Right?
“I would like to ask a question,” he called from somewhere in the audience. The camera still hadn’t found him, thought not for lack of trying. They should put stabilizers in those things.
“Jane Foster,” Thor was saying. “How do you feel about the Midgardian belief that any sufficiently advanced science will appear as magic to the common observer?”
The camera angle turned down as whoever was holding it lifted it up above their head. They hadn’t said anything, Clint noted, and he wondered if their amateur videographer was alone or if they just didn’t want to give away more identifying information than they had to. The angle was enough to catch Darcy in the audience, across the aisle from the camera, and there was Thor next to her.
The audio pickup was enough to catch Jane’s reply, although it was hard to say whether or not anyone was paying attention at this point. “It’s not magic to the scientists responsible for it,” she said. The camera did catch Thor’s wide grin before someone jostled it and the picture cut out.
“Okay,” Clint said into the abrupt silence. “He’s totally blown our cover. Can we go downstairs and watch now?”
“That might be for the best,” Phil said.
Clint passed Natasha a ten dollar bill on their way downstairs, which she took without comment. A volunteer at one of the rear doors stood up to stop them before she realized who they were, and Clint tried to decide if their “security” was even worth commenting on. They did get several double takes as they invaded the back of the auditorium, slinking into the sparsely populated back rows.
They were the complete opposite of Tony, who had appeared on stage sometime between the video they had seen and now, and was lounging onstage in a chair beside Bruce. Thor had also joined them at the front of the theater, but he was walking down one of the mic lines to pull people’s questions out of order. He was also, Clint quickly realized, rephrasing everyone’s question after they asked it.
“You!” Thor was saying, in a way that would make any timid fan flinch. “Tell me your question!”
He wasn’t carrying a microphone. The rephrasing wasn’t intentional, then, because no one could hear what anyone else said without one. The person Thor had singled out managed to say something – maybe clearly, maybe not – and Thor turned back to the stage with a flourish. “This man’s question is for the accomplished Bruce Banner!” he declared. “He wishes to know whether you are more intelligent than Tony Stark!”
The commotion in line probably meant that the question had been phrased a little differently, but Thor did have a way of getting to the point. Clint didn’t even realize he was grinning until he felt Natasha nudge his arm. “What?” he whispered. “It’s a good question!”
“Uh, hi, yes.” Tony was holding Bruce’s mic toward him so he could speak into it. “I’m Tony Stark, and I think I can answer that question.” Bruce let go of the microphone altogether, but Tony kept it between them while Bruce took something out of his pocket.
“Yes,” Tony continued. “Bruce is more intelligent than I am. You’re welcome. Anything else?”
Bruce tipped his phone toward Tony, and Tony glanced at it before he lifted his gaze to stare straight out at the audience. “No, Pepper, I’m not bothering him. Thanks for being concerned, though; you’re a peach.”
Bruce reached for the microphone then, and Tony actually let him have it. “Tony and I work in different fields,” Bruce said, looking toward the line where Thor stood. “We’re both very knowledgeable in our areas of study.”
“Wow,” Clint said under his breath. “Who would have thought he’d be the diplomatic one?”
On either side of him, Natasha and Phil raised their hands slightly. Not past shoulder height, just enough to agree, and when he glanced at Steve he saw someone’s camera flash. Steve was raising his hand too, so Clint ignored the camera. “Okay, fine,” he whispered. “Everyone.”
“It’s not Bruce,” Natasha murmured. “It’s the fact that the other choice is Stark.”
“And what is your question?” Thor demanded, from the front of the theater.
Darcy’s voice came over a microphone, even though she wasn’t anywhere on stage. “Thor, you’re supposed to let the other side of the room have a turn.”
“Ah,” Thor said. “Very well. Excuse me, I shall return to your question in a moment.”
“Hey, Darcy,” Tony said, speaking into Bruce’s microphone. “Can I get my own microphone, here?”
Darcy still didn’t appear, but her answer was unmistakable. “No, you can’t. And don’t take Bruce’s, either.”
Another camera flashed toward the back of the room, and Clint put a finger to his lips. Just in case people who would listen were watching. Their disturbance didn’t seem to have spread past the last few rows, and hey, people in the back should have a chance to take pictures too.
“You,” Thor’s voice said. “What is your question?”
This one spoke loud enough that they could hear her, but not quite clearly enough to make out the words. The lines at the front of the room had started to curve, Clint noticed. They were still single-file, mostly, but they weren’t paying as much attention to the microphones as they were to Thor’s presence. Tony must not really want one, or he’d just take an audience mic.
“This woman would like to know if warriors ever steal your glory,” Thor announced, and the rustle down the line looked more amused than flustered this time.
Jane laughed too, but she lifted her microphone and asked, “Who are you asking?”
There was a brief pause, and then Thor said, “She requests an answer from all of you!”
“No,” Betty said, when Jane turned her head to smile at her. “They’re not really stealing the spotlight, they’re just protecting us. That’s what they do.”
“We need both,” Jane said when Betty paused. “Science isn’t about the spotlight; it’s about the quest for knowledge. Sometimes that quest leads us to dangerous places. Places we wouldn’t be able to go without warriors to protect us. But warriors wouldn’t be able to do what they do without knowledge, either. So… we need both.”
Tony sat up, leaning forward to pull Bruce’s microphone toward him again. “I’m stealing the spotlight,” he said. “If that was a question. That’s what I do. Bruce?”
Bruce smiled when Tony let go of the microphone. “I think that people who know science give more weight to the words of scientists,” he said. “And people who know war give more weight to the words of warriors.
“It’s too bad that people have to know so much about war these days,” Bruce added. “It really is. But I hope that won’t keep anyone from learning about science, too.”
Betty lifted her microphone long enough to say, “Here, here,” and Tony started clapping. Jane and Betty both pretended to clap around their microphones, and Bruce looked embarrassed as the audience responded with scattered applause of its own.
Next to Clint, Phil folded his arms. “It’s possible this isn’t going to be an unmitigated disaster,” he said, and Clint had to laugh.
“You must be feeling better,” he said. “That was almost optimistic.” The thought crossed his mind, he dismissed it, and then he reconsidered. Heart skipping, he leaned over and kissed Phil’s cheek.
He saw Phil smile as he pulled away. Relieved, Clint slouched down in his chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. Definitely not a disaster.
Songs referenced in this chapter include “Made in America” by Toby Keith (the song in the stairwell), “I Dare You” by Shinedown, “Guardian” by Alanis Morisette, “This Earth” by Dar Williams, and “Welcome to the Future” by Brad Paisley (the breakfast music videos).
It turned out that however many people wanted to ask the scientists a question, even more people wanted to hear Thor’s interpretation of their question. He actually made his way through all of the people who had been in line when Clint and Phil had arrived, but the hour ran out before he could ask the recent additions what their question was. Clint wondered how many people noticed how carefully he’d kept track of who was who.
“I think that’s our cue to leave,” Phil said quietly, under cover of a voice announcing the end of the panel.
“Who’s she?” Clint asked, but he was already getting up and he was still behind Natasha. “She introduced Nat, too. Is she running this thing?”
“Patricia Darby,” Phil said. “She’s the only one of the con organizers that Stark likes, so yes. She’s running it.”
“Thor will be back this afternoon,” she was telling the audience. “He’ll be on stage at two, so bring your questions and we’ll give him a big welcome back to New York City!”
“Bring food as well!” Thor called. He really didn’t need any kind of microphone at all; it was amazing. In front of a quiet audience was one thing, but people were already shuffling around, gathering their things and getting up. Thor’s voice carried better than the organizer with the mic.
“Yes, bring food,” Patricia agreed, though she couldn’t possibly know why she was saying it. Clint could see why Tony liked her.
“I will answer your questions,” Thor added, as the rest of the science panel was slipping off the stage, “but only if you provide me with food. The quality of my answer will be directly related to the quality of your food.”
Clint laughed. “That’s inspired,” he said. “I should have thought of that.”
They were almost out the door, but Jane had clearly retaken a microphone because they could all hear her say, “He likes Pop Tarts. You don’t have to break the bank.”
“Your vending machines provide excellent fare,” Thor agreed, and then they were outside the ballroom and Clint could hear Patricia thanking everyone again as music drifted out after them.
“Should we meet them somewhere?” Steve asked.
“They’ll be around back,” Natasha said, leading the way down the hall. People were emerging from every door, some of them with cameras, some calling hi when they caught sight of Natasha and Steve. All of them letting their group pass.
“This one goes out to the one who mines for miracles…” He knew it as soon as he heard it, although it took him a minute to come up with the title. Clint wondered what kind of footage they had for the scientists’ music video. “This one goes out to the ones in need, this one goes out to the sinner and cynical, this ain’t about no apology –”
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite spider.” Tony greeted them at the back door, stepping out of the way to wave them into the curtained off area. Natasha ignored him, Clint nodded at him, and Tony closed the door behind Phil and Steve.
“Friends!” Thor exclaimed. “I saw you in the audience, but you did not join us in front of it!”
“Wait, they were in the audience?” Tony peered at them suspiciously, and Steve clapped him on the back in a sorry, you tried gesture that made Clint smirk.
“Thanks for not calling us out,” Clint said. “We were trying to be inconspicuous.”
Jane laughed at that, but Thor nodded like he understood. “Indeed, there is value in observing while unobserved.”
“There’s value in not being on a stage,” Jane added, and her smile might have been an apology for the laugh. They’d met a couple of times since Darcy relocated to New York, and her first reaction was always an honest one. It was what Clint liked best about her.
“It was good that we were up there, though,” Betty said. Her smile was for Tony, but it was more polite than it was friendly. “Thank you for setting that up.”
When Clint glanced at Tony again, there was a star exploding behind his head. The scientists got the cool footage, then. “Believe that the sun will shine tomorrow and that your saints and sinners bleed, we weren’t born to follow…”
“It was for Bruce,” Tony said dismissively.
“Don’t listen to him,” Bruce said. “He’s trying to raise your profile to make it harder for SHIELD to absorb you.”
Betty gave Tony a sideways look this time. She was clearly talking to Bruce when she said, “I thought you were nominally answerable to SHIELD.”
“Key word being ‘nominally,’” Tony said.
Phil folded his hands in front of him, and Clint exchanged glances with Natasha.
“So,” Tony continued. “Who wants lunch?”
“We just ate,” Natasha told him.
“I’ve been hearing a lot about this vendors room,” Clint offered.
“I too have heard of this room,” Thor declared. “I would like to see it!”
“Great, good, we’re going,” Tony said. “You,” he added, pointing at Thor. “Stay away from the weapons.”
“Will the room contain armament?” Thor looked like he was paying closer attention now. “Your weapons are of interest to me.”
Phil looked over just as Clint looked at him, and his raised eyebrow said clearly, This should go well.
“Should we really go together?” Betty was asking. “Maybe it’s better if we split up.”
“Trust me,” Jane said. “It’s not.”
“We’ll draw more attention in a group,” Bruce said. He didn’t sound like he considered this a good thing, and he wouldn’t. Bruce’s default setting was alone and invisible.
“The group draws attention,” Clint told him. “The members of the group are unmemorable.” He totally understood alone and invisible, but he’d learned early on that the best way to avoid talking was to stick with people who did it for you.
“The louder the group, the quieter the individual,” Steve added.
Tony scoffed. “Well, aren’t you a bunch of loners and malcontents. I shouldn’t be seen with any of you.”
“I’ve already seen the vendors room,” Bruce said.
Betty agreed. “I’d just as soon have lunch,” she said, and Clint wondered if they’d been angling for that all along but were too polite to say so. “But I’m sure we’ll see you all later?”
“Call me,” Jane said quickly. “We have to talk trucks.”
“I will,” Betty said with a smile.
“Thanks,” Bruce told Tony. It took Clint a few seconds to realize that it was probably Tony’s rescue of the panel that he was being thanked for, rather than setting it up in the first place. Tony waved it off regardless.
“Whatever,” he said, which was at least more acknowledgement than he’d given Betty. “Be at my party later. Come on, suckers, let’s go buy things.”
Darcy reappeared before everyone made it out of the ballroom, but all she did was bounce along between Thor and Jane, so Clint assumed no one was supposed to be having their picture taken. The hall was more crowded than it had been before, and Tony cleared the way with a steady stream of chatter: greetings, invitations to his party, calls for the rest of them to hurry up while he just kept moving. It was obviously a practiced routine.
“Does he know where we’re going?” Clint asked Phil. “And what’s this party he’s talking about?”
“He’s probably taken over tonight’s concert,” Phil said. “Or maybe it’s his panel; I don’t know. If I don’t ask I can claim plausible deniability later.”
Wise, Clint decided. Uncharacteristic but wise. Maybe vacation was good for Phil after all.
The vendors room was actually less crowded than the theater had been. Darcy said no one got up before noon on Saturday, to which Jane added, “Thank god,” without any apparent irony and Tony added, “They’ll find out what they missed soon enough.”
So did everyone else, because Tony bought one of everything he saw. Sometimes more than one. Steve tried to make up for his weirdness by talking to everyone, which Clint and Darcy both found hilarious and Phil seemed to think was appropriate. Jane must have given up on apologizing for Thor, because she and Natasha followed him around with a sort of terrible glee and accepted anything people tried to give him as a gift.
Clint did manage to find the team selling the sweatshirts. He tried to buy a purple one, but they wouldn’t take his money either. Which was interesting, since as far as he could tell everyone was willing to let Tony pay. Tony was a different breed of obnoxious, though, so throwing money at them was probably the least he could do.
Darcy okayed a picture with the sweatshirt creators, so Clint put it on and posed with them instead of paying. They seemed happy, and he wore it the rest of the day, so maybe that was advertising or something. When Clint put the hood up he looked like any other convention goer, and he took advantage of the anonymity to watch everyone else.
Tony was having a great time with t-shirts that showed the arc reactor design on his chest. He pulled them on and off until he found one that lined up exactly, his own reactor glowing around the edges of the shirt’s design. He only bought the one, but he signed every one he tried on. Sadly, Clint thought, that was probably more than enough compensation.
Natasha found bracelets at one of the tables. Thin leather stamped with letters, and the one she gave Clint said, an arrow is the follow-through on a promise. She wore one that said, doubt means the answer could be yes. Clint snapped his onto his wrist before changing his mind and offering it to Phil.
Phil held out his arm without even looking at it. Only after Clint fastened it did Phil read what it said. A smile slipped through, but all he said was, “They must be making these here.”
“Somewhere in this hotel, there’s a craft production line,” Clint agreed.
“And bakery,” Phil said, offering him a cookie. In loopy letters the frosting read, glad you came.
Clint grinned. “Imagine if we could harness this energy. We could have a citizens’ defense network on the street in days.”
Phil paused in the act of lifting a cookie to his mouth, and they exchanged glances. He noted absently that Phil’s cookie read, raise your glass. “We could have a citizens’ defense network on the street,” Clint repeated.
“Web-based reporting of found technology,” Phil said.
“Aliens sightings,” Clint added. “Anomalous damage.”
“Spotter training to guard against future infiltration attempts,” Phil said.
They stared at each for a long moment, until Clint remarked, “I’m still missing some arrows.”
Phil’s concentration lightened, even if he didn’t quite smile. “I don’t think you’ll be getting those back.”
“We should ask Natasha what she thinks,” Clint said.
Phil’s expression didn’t change. “About the arrows, or the network?”
Clint tried not to smile. Natasha could probably track them down if he gave her the original vectors. “The network.”
“We should ask the whole team,” Phil replied. “If we come up with a proposal I can present to Fury, it’ll have more weight if it has the support of all the Avengers.”
“We should run it,” Clint said. “Steve and Tony won’t want civilians reporting to SHIELD.”
Phil raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure I want civilians reporting to SHIELD.”
“Careful, boss.” Clint didn’t bother to hide his smile this time. “You’re going native.”
Phil lowered his voice but didn’t look away. “Old news,” he said, and Clint winked at him.
“Clint,” Natasha’s voice said. She was standing at his shoulder, and there was no way she hadn’t overheard their entire conversation. “Did you promise these young women that I would replace my own nail polish if they used it up?”
Clint glanced at the young women in question, none of whom looked familiar. “I might have said something like that,” he agreed. “Why, don’t you want any more?”
“They want more,” Natasha said, holding up an empty bottle.
Clint tried to remember exactly what he’d said. “Oh,” he said then. “Yeah, that is kind of what it sounded like. Tell you what,” he added. “More nail polish is on me. Where’d you get it?”
“I’ll get it,” Natasha said. “You can pay me back.”
“Oh no,” Clint told her. “I know what happens when you charge things to me. Twenty dollar limit or it doesn’t happen.”
“Deal,” Natasha agreed.
Two of the people with her waved as they walked away, and the third called “Thank you!”
Clint waved back. “Why am I always giving her money?” he asked Phil.
“Poor judgement,” Phil replied.
“Fuck you,” Clint said.
They looked at each other and smirked at the same moment. The day just kept getting better. It was always more fun to be immature when Phil was doing it with him.
The vendors room got more crowded the longer they stayed, and eventually even Tony got bored with the attention. It seemed safest to leave the convention center for lunch, so they did. Thor was the only one who had to be back by two, but Jane and Darcy went with him and Tony dragged Steve off on a mission for charity. Clint wondered how long Tony had been waiting to spring that one, and whether the rest of them should be worried.
“I have work to do,” Natasha remarked, when the three of them were alone again. They were still sitting around their long lunch table, clustered together at the end, and she didn’t try to ease the transition. “You need anything before I go?”
Clint glanced at Phil, who shook his head.
“Nah,” Clint said, looking back at her. “We’re good. Let us know if you want help.”
He had no idea what she was working on now, but she smiled anyway. “Remember to not work,” she said, standing up. “For at least some of the weekend.”
He tossed off a salute, and she lifted her fingers in a tiny wave as she turned away. He and Phil sat at the table a few minutes longer, not saying anything. Remember to not work, she’d said. He wondered if Phil was bored with vacationing yet.
“Hey,” Clint said aloud. “You bored with not working yet?”
He saw Phil move out of the corner of his eye, and he didn’t have to turn to know the answer was no. Well, that made a nice change. “Really?” Clint asked, just to make sure. “It’s been a while.”
“I was bored in Medical,” Phil said. “I’m not bored here, with you.”
It was the last two words that made it, and Clint closed his mouth before he could ruin the moment. Maybe he should stop trying to keep Phil busy when they had time off. He was mostly trying to keep Phil from doing work he didn’t have to, but maybe he shouldn’t. He hadn’t tested Phil’s workaholic baseline for months.
“So,” Clint said carefully. No matter how casual he tried to sound, Phil would recognize the difference. The best he could do was put all his cards on the table at once. “If you could do anything you want this afternoon, what would it be?”
Phil was quiet for a moment. “Is there a right answer?” he asked at last.
Clint looked at him, but Phil looked perfectly serious. “No,” he admitted. “There’s only a wrong answer. But if you want to work, I won’t stop you. For an hour or so.”
That made Phil smile. “I don’t want to work,” he said. “There’s a museum, though. They have a new exhibit. Or they will,” he added. “I’d like to see it.”
“Really?” Clint eyed him suspiciously. “Like, a tourist museum?”
“The Intrepid,” Phil said. “It’s an aircraft carrier.”
“Yeah, Pier 86,” Clint said. “The Sea, Air, and – wait, is that where the Enterprise is?”
Phil smiled again, looking down at the table like he didn’t want anyone else to notice. “It’s a historic vessel,” he said.
The first ever space shuttle had flown into New York City two months ago, and someone in SHIELD had snuck a photo into the default desktop background file. The file had promptly been hacked, the shuttle photo replaced by a 747 carrying the starship Enterprise. Clint had kept it on his laptop for two weeks.
“No argument here,” he said, putting his napkin on the table. “The Intrepid it is.”
They walked, because it was that kind of day and Phil insisted that he wasn’t actually an invalid. But they walked slowly. The Intrepid was outside the perimeter Steve had set up, so many days and what felt like a lifetime ago now. It had sustained minimal damage during the invasion, and the only scratches on the Enterprise were from its windy trip downriver.
Phil was right that the exhibit hadn’t opened yet. He was also right that they were allowed in anyway. Clint took pictures while Phil listened to the audio tour. Apparently the NASA information wasn’t up-to-date. Phil didn’t correct it.
They wandered around the rest of the museum before they left, and Clint convinced Phil to watch one of the movies. Mostly so they could sit down for a while, and from the look Phil gave him, he knew exactly what Clint was doing. As long as it worked, Clint didn’t really care. He was fine with being Phil’s excuse to take it easy.
By the time they got back to the convention center, Phil had two texts from Maria and Clint had three from Natasha. Phil’s said, Stark is a menace, and I kind of admire that about him. Natasha’s said, Don’t worry about dinner; Darcy left stuff from Thor’s panel in your room. The next one said, Stark just took over the convention, and finally, Keep your head down if you go back. Everyone else is already on youtube.
Clint assumed “everyone else” didn’t include Natasha, given that she wasn’t even there, but they went in through the outside stairwell anyway. They agreed that no one was getting a text back until the messages started to include exclamation points. And then, for a change, Clint worked while Phil watched television.
Well, Clint signed con photos and Phil called out baseball stats to him during the commercials. Natasha was right that there was plenty of food, though how Thor had ended up with chicken wings, cake, and gourmet applesauce was beyond Clint. He wondered if they had divided up the food evenly afterwards, or if it was all being stored in their room for some unknown reason.
It didn’t involve exclamation points, so Clint didn’t bother asking anyone.
When he was done autographing he climbed into bed beside Phil and tried to guess how much Phil cared about the game. Not a lot, usually, but sometimes there was a particular team or player that Clint didn’t get the significance of. Woe to he who interrupted the important game.
Tonight Phil offered him the remote. “You want to see this?”
“It’s fine,” Clint said, slouching down beside him.
“Because I’d rather look at you,” Phil continued. “But if you’re going to sleep, I won’t distract you.”
Clint turned his head, unable to suppress a smile. “I’d rather have the distraction.”
Phi turned the TV off, and the lights followed soon after.
The song mentioned in this chapter is "We Weren't Born To Follow" by Bon Jovi.
Phil hadn’t always disliked vacations. In retrospect, he could isolate the approximate start of that idiosyncrasy, and its overlap with the beginning of Clint’s tenure with SHIELD was telling. Coordinating time off with other agents was challenging even with full disclosure and a dedicated effort, and it was years before either of them admitted they were trying.
He’d associated vacations with separation for a long time, and it was a hard habit to break.
Waking up beside Clint for a week running helped. Keeping him for breakfast, with the promise of an early departure so Clint could shoot that afternoon, eased the memories a little more. But so far his greatest accomplishment was the fact that he hadn’t seen Clint shiver in more than 24 hours.
“Natasha’s going to save us seats,” Clint was saying, his voice muffled by the half-closed bathroom door. “I didn’t ask how.”
“Probably for the best,” Phil agreed. He pressed the sweatshirt into Clint’s bag, neatly folded with sleeves and hood on the inside. He let his hand linger for a moment, but he wasn’t going to be seen wearing someone else’s clothes.
If he happened to confuse it with his own while they were watching TV at home, of course, then that was a different thing entirely.
“I know what you’re doing,” Clint said, hanging on the bathroom door. He looked happy, comfortable, unworried. Not like someone who was checking his eyes and layering to keep out the summer cold. “You’re plotting to steal my sweatshirt. I’m gonna buy another one so I have something to wear when that one disappears.”
“Making it disappear wouldn’t really be my goal,” Phil said. When he was with Clint, he didn’t feel like someone who’d been run through with a spear. So they were probably even.
Clint smiled at him from the door. “Which is?”
“For you to see me wearing it.”
“That would do it,” Clint agreed. “You’re forgiven for stealing my sweatshirt if you’re wearing it when I find out.”
“Noted,” Phil said. “The paper under the door is for you, by the way.”
Clint glanced into the living area, frowning at the note face-down on the floor. “Isn’t that our bill?”
“The room’s on Stark,” Phil said. “That’s from your next-door neighbor.”
Clint gave him an amused look. “You know that, but you left it on the floor?”
Phil shrugged. “I didn’t want to take away the thrill of discovery.”
It was a track listing for what Nevaeh called “the convention fanmix.” Apparently she was aware of Clint’s musical bent and was keeping him updated on music video titles and artists. Thor’s video had been set to “In This Together,” which Phil wanted to think was a reference to relations with Earth, but he had a sinking suspicion it was actually about Loki. Stark had gotten “Shake the Ground” by Cherri Bomb, which was more surprising until Phil realized Stark had probably chosen it himself.
He realized this when he heard Steve apologize for his own video in the theater half an hour later. “One of my teammates thought it would be fun to swap it out,” Steve told the audience. “Darcy promised me the original video will play when I leave.”
The first question he got was, “Which teammate?”
“I’m not going to point fingers,” Steve told the fan who’d asked. “But it was Tony Stark, and I can give you his address.”
That was the calmest Steve’s Q & A session got. It escalated into something more like a carnival very quickly. Steve seemed to enjoy it. Phil supposed it wasn’t unlike having hundreds of jeering military personnel calling for you to show off “the girls” more. Steve was a model of crowd control, and Phil wondered if they could have him run some sort of class or press training for SHIELD operatives. He was a pleasure to watch.
Clint, though, hummed. Remarkably, impressively as usual, and almost absently. Phil heard it for the rest of the day, and it ensured that what he remembered most about Steve’s panel was that Tony had successfully replaced “If Everyone Cared” with “I’m Alive.”
What he remembered most about the day as a whole was Clint himself. Beside him at the end of the it the same way he had been at the beginning. Fury had turned over liaison duties to Phil, Thor pledged his allegiance to the Avengers, and somehow Darcy talked a good enough game to secure a probationary role as their PR agent.
It was still Clint sitting next to him on the sofa that night that meant the most.
“Hey,” Phil murmured, when Downton Abbey was over and neither of them had bothered to find the remote yet. “Clint. If I haven’t said it enough… thanks for waking up.”
He felt Clint squeeze the cuff of his sweatshirt over his wrist. All he said was, “Same to you.”
Songs referenced in this chapter include “In This Together” by Apoptema Berzerk, “Shake the Ground” by Cherri Bomb, “I’m Alive” by Shinedown, and “If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback.