"You know, I wouldn't think Howard would want to go to Coney Island," Jan said in the car that morning. It was one of a pair of cars traveling to the beach; Jarvis was in the lead car with Howard, Maria, and Tony, who was sulking about having to ride with his parents, while the following car held Steve, Sam, Jan, and Natasha, with Bucky at the wheel.
"He doesn't seem the type," Sam agreed.
"I don't know, he liked a good time every now and then when I knew him," Steve said, still looking out the window. If Steve was in a car, you could pretty much guarantee you didn't have his full attention; he spent most of his time looking at the world, drinking it in. Bucky could tell he was trying to settle this new world over his own memories. It was something Bucky'd had to do too, when he was coming back from the Soldier, though not to the same extent.
"Yeah, but not a boardwalk," Jan said. "And anyway when you knew him he was...well, Dad says he was sowing a lot of wild oats."
"He could have run a farm," Bucky confirmed, and Sam laughed. "No, he -- it seems weird, sure," he said, "but he likes the arcade."
"They still have arcades?" Steve asked, voice turning hopeful.
"Sure," Bucky said. "Where'd you think they'd go?"
"Oh, I don't know, everything's so different...I thought what with television and all, people might not want to play games anymore," Steve said.
"Way to bring down the mood," Sam said, after a few seconds of silence. Bucky caught Steve looking hangdog in the mirror, but then Sam grabbed him with an arm around his neck and grinned. "I'll get you a roll of quarters for the games."
"Howard'll probably go through a few," Bucky said. "He plays 'em all and then usually sweet-talks whoever's working the arcade into letting him have a look at the busted ones."
"Well, Howard always was a curious fella," Steve said. "Do they still have the roller coasters?"
"Sure," Jan said. She glanced at Natasha, who was keeping quiet but clearly not missing a second. "You ever seen a roller coaster?"
Natasha nodded. "In film strips. We learned everything about American culture."
"Why?" Sam asked.
"In case we were assigned here," Natasha said, as if that made perfect sense. "I'm probably not the only Red Room agent in New York, you know."
"Ex-Red Room," Jan corrected. Natasha gave her a small, almost shy smile as they bumped into a parking lot. The roar of the roller-coaster swooped overhead, and the smell of frying food was strong in the air.
Tony bounded back to the car before they were even out, banging on the roof and calling "Come on, we're burning daylight!"
"No surprise what other Starks love Coney Island," Steve said with a dry grin, nudging Tony backwards with the door. He climbed out and leaned back in to offer a hand to help Jan out. Sam tried to do the same for Natasha, but she was out smoothly before he could complete the gesture. She looked at him, blinked, and then took his hand anyway.
"Now, children," Maria said, resplendent in a white sundress and huge sunglasses, makeup impeccable. "We expect you all to comport yourselves with a reasonable amount of dignity, but I doubt very much any society photographers will bother with any of you, so don't be too well-behaved," she said, with an indulgent smile. She handed Tony a fold of cash from her pocketbook and adjusted her extravagant sun-hat delicately. "Anthony, your father will be disassembling things in the arcade, I'm sure."
"I'll bring you lunch," Howard said, bending over her shoulder to kiss her on the cheek before hurrying off. Maria made a long-suffering face, then patted Tony on the cheek.
"I'm off to find a beach chair and look fabulous. Do check in after lunch. Jan, Sam, I expect you to look after Natasha. Tony, Bucky -- "
"Cap duty," Tony said with a grin. "Go, Mom, we'll be fine. I think if he handled Nazi Germany he can handle a Saturday at Coney Island."
"Excellent. Jarvis?" Maria said, and let Jarvis guide her off towards the beach.
"Okay," Tony said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. "Comrade, I owe you a hot dog, you want it for breakfast?"
"No," Natasha said, looking appalled.
"Fine, your loss. Fairway games, roller coasters, sunbathing, or should we just walk down the promenade and look beautiful?" Tony asked. "No, you're right, we can do that regardless."
"Roller coasters," Steve said softly, looking up at them with a hand shading his eyes. "The Cyclone," he added reverently.
Bucky gave Tony a grin. "Captain's choice. You three coming?" he asked Jan.
"I think it would do Natasha a world of good," Jan said firmly.
"I remember coming here with you as kids," Bucky said, a few hours later, as they were being gently but firmly escorted away from the midway games. "I don't remember you being a damn menace, Steve."
"I've always been a menace," Steve said serenely. He was carrying an enormous stuffed robot made of silver fabric and sequins. "I just never had the muscle to back it up before."
"You destroyed those games," Tony said cheerfully. "Super reflexes! You promised I can have the robot," he reminded him. Steve rolled his eyes, shifting the robot to one shoulder.
After they'd ridden the Cyclone half a dozen times ("Is this what roller coasters are SUPPOSED to feel like?" Steve had demanded) they'd tried their luck at the games, and while Natasha was winning on accuracy -- apparently throwing baseballs was easier than knives -- Steve was undoubtedly winning on pure smartassery. Tony had never seen anyone hustle a carnie like Steve Rogers. It was giving him a whole new point of view on Captain America. And had caused the game-tents management to ask him to leave before he broke them.
Natasha adjusted the fancy hat she'd won throwing baseballs at tin cups. "That hot dog," she reminded Tony. "I would like to collect now."
"Your wish, hot stuff," Tony agreed, stepping up to a hot dog stand. He looked back at the others -- two super-soldiers, Sam the ex-Paratrooper, Jan (who he knew from personal experience could eat like a professional glutton), and Natasha, who had never known the delights of a hot dog -- and turned back to the vendor.
"Better make it a dozen," he said.
"A dozen...?" the man asked.
"Hot dogs. And one of those popcorn buckets, only fill it with chips," Tony said. He held up a fifty dollar bill.
"For that kind of green, you got it, buddy," the man said.
The first hot dog went to Natasha, who ate it with the air of an anthropologist tasting native food for the first time -- a mixture of wariness, pleasure, and intense concentration.
"Well?" Tony asked, as he began distributing the rest. Steve rolled his eyes in pleasure like he hadn't eaten in weeks, and Bucky elbowed him, swiping up mustard where it was spilling out of the bun.
"I...don't think I've had anything like this," she said.
"But do you like it?"
"I'm not sure. It's...sort of horrible. But good," she admitted, taking another bite. "I don't understand."
"She's hooked. Defected for a hot dog, how sad," Tony teased, and Natasha took his hot dog out of his hand. "Hey!"
"Here, let her have it," Bucky said, handing Tony one of his. "Let's go look at the sideshow acts."
Most of the acts on Coney Island on a Saturday were pretty good -- there were magicians and fire-swallowers, a couple of performing-animal acts, bearded ladies and tattooed ones. They ate and walked, Jan gaily sandwiched between Tony and Bucky while Natasha and Sam trailed behind, holding hands, and Steve forged ahead, always more interested in the next act than the one they were watching.
"That's how he always was," Bucky said to Tony, who kept craning his neck to make sure Steve stayed in view.
"Look, if I lose Captain America at Coney Island two weeks after digging him out of Greenland, Dad'll have my head," Tony said.
"I think he can handle Coney Island," Jan reminded Tony, in a dead-on impression of what he'd told his father earlier. "Nazis, America, yarr!"
"I'm always telling Dad things I don't really believe," Tony said, unruffled. "It's good for him to be confused by me."
"Are you sure you wanna come back to New York and see him eight hours a day, every day?" Bucky asked. Tony grinned.
"I'll handle him. Good practice for dealing with the board of directors. Consider this my last gasp of freedom before adulthood," Tony said, licking traces of hot dog from his fingers.
"Hey, come look at this!" Steve called, waving an arm to draw them over. "Watch this fella!"
Tony drew close, intrigued; the stage was raised and longer than most, and at the foot of the stage was a banner reading THE AMAZING HAWKEYE! covered in artistically rendered targets.
"THAT'S RIGHT," the barker at the corner of the stage called. "STEP UP AND WATCH THE HAWK-BOY HIT ANY TARGET!"
Standing on the stage was a young man, not any older than Tony, probably a good deal younger; he wore a purple mask, and a black jacket over a vivid purple tunic that fell to his knees, slitted up the sides to reveal darker purple tights and black boots with turn-downs -- a lot like Captain America's old boots from the comics. He was juggling apples, five at a time, hardly paying attention as he flirted with the crowd.
"Fifty cents to throw for the Hawkeyed Hawkeye!" the barker continued, and Tony saw Natasha and Sam pushing through the crowd to the front, until Natasha had her elbows resting on the stage, staring up in fascination. The Amazing Hawkeye glanced down at her and winked. Then he looked at Sam, smirked, and winked at him too.
"Oh, he's good," Tony said admiringly.
"One dollar gets you on-stage!" the barker yelled. "One dollar for the thrill of a lifetime as the best shot in the world shoots an apple right -- pfft! -- off your head!"
Natasha leaned over to whisper in Sam's ear, and saw him nod, laughing; he held up a dollar and waved it, and the barker strolled over.
"That's it, little lady, a brave little lady down here folks!" he announced, helping her onto the stage. "Witness the exceptional concentration, the total focus, the sheer majesty of this sharp shooting boy! Here you are, my dear," he said, plucking one of the apples out of Hawkeye's hands and offering it to her. "Now you stand over there, just up against that board."
Hawkeye caught three of the apples in his hands and the fourth in his mouth, taking a bite before shoving them into the loose pockets of the tunic and picking up a bow. He joined Natasha at the edge of the stage and placed the apple on her head carefully, making a show of measuring her height and considering the wind, licking his finger and holding it up, squinting at a windsock flying over the back of the stage.
"Figures she'd like this kind of fun," Bucky said, grinning.
"How's that?" Steve asked.
"A hundred pounds of death-defying. She'll never be happy unless her life's in some kind of danger. I remember the type," he added, with a pointed look at Steve.
"As long as she's having fun," Tony said. "How old do you think that kid is?"
"He's too cocky to be any older than twenty," Bucky said, giving Tony a pointed look. Tony rolled his eyes.
"I'm not cocky, I'm confident," he said, as Hawkeye jogged to the other end of the stage and shed the jacket. The tunic under the jacket was sleeveless, and his biceps and shoulders bulged with muscle. Jan let out a low whistle.
"If I knew we were paying a dollar for a gun show I'd have paid a dollar myself," she said.
Hawkeye bowed to the rapt audience, drew an arrow, and sighted along it slowly, carefully. He adjusted his stance and his draw (clearly meant to show off the muscles) while the barker extolled his perfect aim, his perfect arms, and his overall Amazing Hawkeyeness.
Tony realized he was holding his breath, and let it out just as Hawkeye released his arrow. Every head in the audience turned in unison, following its flight, and a gasp rippled through the audience.
Natasha was standing against the board, one arm upraised. She'd caught the arrow half an inch from the apple.
Tony looked back at Hawkeye. His jaw had dropped and his bow hung by his side, showmanship forgotten. The barker looked confused.
Applause burst out of the audience, roaring and enthusiastic.
"She musta been a plant," someone in the audience said. Natasha was smiling at all the attention, and she turned to salute the audience. Sam was going nuts in the front row, whistling and clapping.
Natasha turned back to Hawkeye with a graceful twist, and produced two of the apples Hawkeye been juggling. She threw them into the air, out over the crowd; without missing a beat, even through his astonishment, he drew and fired two arrows, one after the other, and both apples fell into the audience with arrows straight through them.
Steve reached out and caught one, studying it with interest. Tony watched as Hawkeye ran across the stage and met Natasha halfway, bowing deeply to her. She bowed back and patted his head, amused, then walked to the edge of the stage and dropped easily into Sam's waiting arms, laughing.
Bucky casually wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulders and leaned into his ear.
"What are you thinking, with that look on your face?" he asked, curious.
"I'm thinking a kid like that shouldn't be dancing around for tourists on the midway, when Dad was just whining about not having snipers on hand to test our new rifles," Tony said. "And also how pants-wettingly terrified of Natasha I am right now."
"Maybe recruiting for SHIELD?" Bucky asked, amusement in his voice.
"Mm," Tony said, as Natasha and Sam rejoined them. "Nice work, Comrade."
"Madeline, you'll have to teach me that trick," Bucky said.
"I like Coney Island," Natasha declared. Jan giggled and hugged her.
"It likes you too," she said, and turned to Tony. "Come on, we can't top that. Let's go find your Mom and haul Howard out of the arcade."
"Suits me," Tony said, letting Jan go ahead with Steve and Bucky while he hung back. "Natasha, I think I have a little job for you..."
It had been a long day onstage, by the time darkness fell and Clint's show would be less effective. He was working with some ideas for fireworks to incorporate into the act, but the honest truth was that nobody wanted to see an archer fire an arrow after dark. Still, it wasn't so bad; the late-night drunks tipped better but they got more aggressive, harder to handle. And there were other pastimes for an innocent-looking, quick-fingered young man trapped at Coney Island until it shut down for the night and the barker could take him back to the boardinghouse.
He sluiced the grit from the day off his face and shoulders with a quick rinse in a basin of water behind the stage, then shed the hated tights in favor of some dungarees. He hung up the tunic with more care -- it was the only one he had and he'd already had to mend it a couple of times -- and pulled on a t-shirt, rolling a couple of cigarettes into the sleeve. He didn't care for them himself, but they were useful for flirting.
"Nice work today, Barton," the barker said, handing him his cut of the cash. It was pathetically small. "How about that lady -- "
"She caught one of my arrows," Clint said, wide-eyed at the memory. "I mean I know I was slow-stringing it, it wasn't like I was pulling half what I can, but I've never seen someone catch it like that before."
"We should talk to the magician's girl, there's ways to fake that. Might be a good addition to the act. Half the audience thought that one was a plant anyway."
"Sure, maybe," Clint said. "I get bored knocking a little fear into fifty tourists a day."
"Beats hustlin'," the barker said, which was true. And a kid on his own had to look out for himself. Maybe if he had another few weeks like this one, he'd have enough saved for a bus to Florida for the winter. New York was no place to spend the winter when you lived so close to the edge, and he still wasn't desperate enough to take Barney up on his offer of a share in the bank robberies. "You had dinner?"
"You were onstage with me all day, you think I had dinner?" Clint asked sourly.
"Well, bring me back -- "
"Go get your own dinner, I'm not a waiter," Clint snapped, then ducked out of the curtained-off backstage before he could get a slap upside the head.
Once he was out in the comforting warm darkness of the sunset midway, he ambled along slowly, just a kid taking in the sights.
He'd lifted three wallets and gotten pretty much jack -- everyone had already spent their cash, he supposed, though usually he got at least one ten-spot -- when he went for a tempting pocketbook sticking out of a purse and found his wrist caught in a vise-like grip.
He'd thought he was targeting some rich tourist, what with the expensive purse and the careless pocketbook and the fancy hat, but when he looked up from where a dainty hand was holding his wrist, he looked right into the eyes of the gorgeous redhead from the lunch show.
"Hello, Hawkeye," she said, and he twisted to get away but she twisted with him and hauled him back between two booths like he weighed nothing at all. He bumped into a solid wall of muscle that turned out to be one of her pals, holding one of his arrows.
"Told you it would work," she said to the wall of muscle, who smiled benevolently down on Clint.
"I stand corrected," he said easily. "Hi there, Hawkeye. My name's Steve, this is Natasha."
"But we call her Madeline," said another voice, and oh shit, this looked bad. There was the guy who'd paid for Natasha's turn on stage, and these two giants, one of whom had a metal hand, and a short guy and another woman with him who both reeked of money.
"Hey, look, guys, this is a mistake," he said. "Her wallet was about to fall out of her purse, I was just -- "
"What's your real name, boyo?" the short guy asked. "I mean, Hawkeye's catchy but I doubt your mother hated you that much."
Clint blinked at him. "You ain't met my ma," he said, without thinking about it, because he was pretty sure that was the guy in all the papers, Tony Stark, which meant the benevolent wall of muscle was --
"Nuts, I got busted pickpocketing by Captain America," he groaned. The wall laughed.
"I'm not a policeman," he said, twirling the arrow between his fingers and offering it, point first. Clint took it cautiously. "We just wanted a word. Well. Natasha likes your style and Tony here wanted a word."
"I swear to God, I don't normally do this, just when the business is bad," Clint said, because he didn't quite believe six people would gang up on him behind the midway to give him his arrow back.
"Seriously, nobody cares about the pickpocketing," Stark said.
"It's probably a point in your favor," said the guy who'd paid for Natasha. "I'm Sam," he added, with a little wave.
Clint began backing slowly towards the midway, because if he could stab one of them with the arrow and bolt, he'd probably get away. Though he'd have to pack in the Coney Island show, which would be a shame. He was just getting his feet under him after they kicked him and Barney out of the circus.
"Why don't you tell us your name?" Natasha said in his ear. He'd almost forgotten she was there, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Clint," he said warily. "Clint Barton. Listen, people know where I am, they're gonna come looking for me if I disappear."
"I think that's probably an untruth, which is just as well for me," Stark said, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Clint Barton, huh? Where you from? Not around here."
"Iowa," Clint said.
"How old are you, Clint?" Steve the wall asked, oddly gentle.
"Twenty-one," Clint said. Tony snorted. "Eighteen."
Natasha rested a hand on his shoulder.
"Sixteen," he admitted. "And a half."
"Little young to be handling arms for a sideshow," the guy with the metal hand said.
"You're so right, I'll just go report to a social worker, that'll go better for me, I'm sure," Clint snapped. "The hell are you guys, the Children's Aid Association of Coney Island?"
"Someone oughta be," Sam said, frowning.
"You're a great shot," Stark interrupted. "And a pretty good pickpocket. Now I, or rather my family business, is in need of a sharpshooter with his wits about him, and you seem to be in need of more occupation than this place is giving you."
It occurred to Clint, suddenly, what exactly was happening here, and he burst out laughing, nervous and tense.
"Are you offering me a job, million dollar man?" he asked, voice rising in disbelief.
"Well, it seems to me that a young man like yourself could benefit from some structure," Tony said. "And I work in weapons. You familiar with firearms at all, or just sticks and string?"
"If it shoots, I can hit a target with it," Clint said, because he had yet to meet a weapon he couldn't make work with a little practice, and it was one of the few aspects of his life he was proud of. "Once I run out of ammo I can throw pretty well too."
"How'd you like to be my guinea pig?" Stark asked. Clint narrowed his eyes. "Stark Industries could use a few sharpshooters, and so could SHIELD."
"SHIELD?" Clint asked.
"Yeah, that's gonna have to wait a few years," Stark said, as the man with the metal arm poked him, looking annoyed. "But SI could use you. And we could pay you. Probably better than you're making getting a farmer's tan for the tourists all day."
Clint looked around. "Is this the kind of thing where I say no and disappear?"
"Jesus, what have you been into?" the other lady blurted. "No! If you say no Tony will leave you alone, won't you, Tony?"
"Murder's not really my thing," Stark agreed. "You say no, I'll just leave you my business card and walk away. You'd be an idiot to say no, but..."
"You have business cards?" Steve asked him.
"Of course I have business cards, I'm not a savage."
Clint saw an opportunity and tried to bolt, because this was getting way too weird, but Natasha caught him around the waist before he got three steps.
"Can I have a few minutes alone with Clint?" she asked the others. Stark rolled his eyes, but he pushed past them back onto the promenade, and the others followed. Steve clapped him on the shoulder as he passed, which felt a little like getting punched by a bear.
"Someone put a lot of fear into you," Natasha said when they were gone, releasing him.
"It's not fear," Clint said. "It's a healthy self-interest. You people are weirdos and weirdo usually means trouble. I ain't got this far with all my fingers intact by following trouble."
She cocked her head. "And yet you got onstage at Coney Island, which doesn't happen to cowards. You must work hard. I bet you never even rode the roller-coasters, did you?"
"Sister, my life's roller-coaster enough, thanks," Clint said.
"I know a thing or two about being so serious so young," she said. "I never rode a roller-coaster before today. They're...fun. Tough to get used to fun, for people like us."
"I have plenty of fun," he protested.
She gave him a smile that said she knew that wasn't true.
"I haven't known the Starks very long," she said. "But I'm Russian."
"Sure you are," he scoffed. She spat something in what he had to assume was Russian, which wasn't intelligible but was convincing.
"I defected not long ago, on the word of Tony Stark," she said.
"Yeah, how's that going for you?"
"Well, he bought me a hot dog. And I had a good time with the apples today," she added, and he did grin at that, because if nothing else, Clint Barton knew how to show a rube a good time.
And he suspected she was much more than a rube.
"So you think I should just bail out on Coney Island and what, follow Tony Stark home?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Gimme one good reason."
"Well, Jan thinks you're cute," she said.
"Jan, that's the other lady?" he asked, hiding his eagerness. She was pretty.
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Boys are so easy," she sighed.
"Hey, I'm not saying I'd break camp for a woman," he said. "But she seemed nice."
"They're all nice. And interesting, which is more important," she said. "You're a child, doing a man's job. Why not get a man's respect for it? Come with us and Tony Stark will put the best gun you've ever seen in your hands before lunchtime."
That was a more enticing prospect. "Yeah?"
"And then he'll feed you lunch," she said. "Tell you what..."
She reached into the pocketbook, which he saw now was monogrammed MCS, probably not even hers, and took out a ten dollar bill.
"You keep this. You don't like the new job, catch a cab back here. Or blow it on candy. You look like you might need a few extra meals."
Clint took the ten dollar bill, looking down at it thoughtfully.
"Where'd you learn to catch arrows like that?" he asked.
"And you gave that up for Stark?"
"Well, he's part of it," she said.
Clint nodded. "I gotta get my bow," he said.
"Good evening, children!" Maria called from a picnic bench, where Jarvis was incongruously serving her and Howard dinner on real china, with fancy wine glasses he'd procured from somewhere. It was made stranger by the fact that dinner was french fries and what looked like barbecue ribs from some nearby food stand. "How did your little special operation go?"
"Baby's first black ops," Howard said, licking barbecue sauce off his fingers. "Wait till Peggy hears."
"Triumph," Tony said, returning Maria's pocketbook and purse. She checked it and gave him an eyebrow. "Yeah, so I owe you ten dollars, but this," he said, with a wave and a flourish, "is that new sharpshooter you were looking for, Dad."
Howard gave Clint Barton, The Amazing Hawkeye, an unimpressed look. "Tony, you can't kidnap someone's kid."
Clint, without missing a beat, tossed a nickel. It landed in Howard's wineglass. Howard's mustache twitched.
"Natasha will vouch for him, and Steve says he's the best he's seen outside of Bucky, who no, you cannot have, he's my bodyguard," Tony said.
"I don't hafta take this," Clint said, and Natasha stepped on his foot.
"Is he eighteen?" Howard asked.
"As far as you know," Clint retorted.
"Oh my God, Tony..."
"I think he's darling," Maria said suddenly. Both Stark men looked at her. "Come here, sweetheart, sit by me and have a french fry."
Clint looked at Tony, who made a defeated gesture.
"Mom has spoken. The Maria Stark Home for Wayward Orphans is expanding," he sighed.
"Well, dear, what's one more? It's not like we're going to run out of money feeding them," Maria said, as Clint very warily seated himself next to her. She held out her hand and Jarvis put a third plate into it. "Here. Eat. Don't talk. Let Tony and Howard do that, you'll find that's how these things work anyway," she said, dishing food onto his plate.
Natasha sat down across from Clint, Sam joining her, and the others arranged themselves at the end of the table. Jarvis served, but he let Tony pour the wine.
"How was shopping, Mom?" Tony asked.
"Oh, it went fine. I always like to come home with something I didn't have when I went out. Especially pleasing if it's useful," she said, and Tony tensed as she ruffled Clint's hair. The kid looked a little feral, but he allowed it. "And now we have another one to add to our little shopping party when Jan and I take Natasha out this week. So!" she said brightly. "Everyone, tell me about your day, I'm dying to hear what all of you did other than recruiting new talent for Stark Industries."