Phil raised a hand to his brow to shade his eyes from the bright light. It was early morning, but with the First Sun already high and the Second Sun well over the horizon, the temperature was rising fast. It was going to be another hot day, but that was nothing new: City Of A Thousand Shields was a desert city and used to the blistering heat.
Phil, on the other hand, was not Desert-Born but a Southerner from Sethorp, and even though he had slowly learned to love the wide expanse of shimmering sands, there were days when he longed for cooler times and lusher vegetation.
He wouldn’t say no to a little water every now and then, either.
A drop of sweat traveled along his spine as he climbed the stairway to the wall surrounding Shields. This early in the day he still sweated, but the higher the Suns climbed, the quicker the moisture dried straight off his body — before it had even made it to sweat. After all these years, he still hadn’t quite gotten used to it, and he was always somewhat surprised when his clothes weren’t drenched by noon. It was something Jasper cackled at him on almost daily basis.
The wall was quiet as Shields was slowly waking up to a new day. Phil’s position as the Captain of the Guard meant he didn’t actually have to make rounds first thing in the morning, but he was a man set in his ways. Besides, he frankly enjoyed the relative peace and quiet of the early hours before Shields truly woke up and the cacophony of travelers, vendors, and townspeople filled the air.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he took a cursory glance around, automatically checking his surroundings and called out, ”Everything alright here?” to a Guard leaning on the wall.
Lance, Phil’s Second in Command, was on the early shift and had been stationed on the wall since before the rise of the First Sun. Everyone knew he hated early mornings with passion, which meant he had lost in cards to Mack (again), forcing him to trade his later shift so that Mack would have a lazy morning with Leo. Phil wondered if Lance was just slow to learn or if this was his way to support Mack through his spouse’s slow recovery from a rogue drake accident.
”Yep, boss,” Lance answered with a yawn and a lazy salute.
He seemed to be barely awake, but Phil knew how deceiving his appearance could be and how sharp his eyes were as he scanned the area behind Shields’ walls.
”Day one of the Grand Market,” Phil reminded and walked up to stand beside Lance. ”It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.”
Lance nodded. The bi-annual Grand Market was one of the high events of the season, lasting for two whole weeks and providing Shields and her citizens with extra business and entertainment. It attracted all kinds of people — including the ones Phil would rather keep out of his city.
”Anything special going down? Anything we need to know about?” Lance asked after a moment.
Phil gave him a faint smile. ”So far, nothing out of the ordinary. I’ll let you know if—”
”—If I need to know,” Lance finished.
Lance rolled his eyes. ”Go get something to eat, boss. Nothing to see here.”
Phil clapped Lance once on the shoulder and turned to head to the mess hall.
His breakfast was made of a couple of slices of hard bread, dried meat, fruits and nuts, and a small carafe of caf, the same selection he had every morning regardless of the day or season. Jasper had thrown a fit and almost choked in his meal when he had learned about it, trying to wrap his mind around something as scandalous as a man who didn’t indulge.
There were lots of things Jasper found funny about him.
Thinking about his companion, Phil reached towards the bond he shared with the drake and, unsurprisingly, found it still dormant. Jasper was a creature of comfort, and as formidable as he was in a fight, he usually lazed around as much as possible. He called it ’preserving his energy,’ Phil called him a slug.
Years ago, when Phil had arrived to Shields and to his new position, he and Jasper had been introduced. Everyone had been surprised that they connected so well. Phil was a seasoned soldier, reserved and calm, a stickler for the rules who preferred routines over spontaneity, whereas Jasper was a hedonist to the core. What people failed to see, however, was that Phil preferred efficiency over posturing and Jasper was ruthlessly efficient when he was properly motivated.
Phil was very good in motivating others when needed. Sometimes it required elaborate pep-talk, sometimes brute force, but in Jasper’s case, Phil had won him over by simply out-stubborning him. Also, Phil’s ability to eat a full jar of pickled, fiery peppers had helped Jasper gain a whole new level of respect for him.
Over the years, Phil and Jasper had developed a well-functioning comradeship: Phil took care of things while Jasper mainly concentrated on spoiling himself rotten. However, when his abilities were needed, Jasper donned his harness on and acted on Phil’s orders with single-minded devotion.
In short: they were a good team.
Sparing a small smile for Jasper, Phil finished his breakfast with precise moves and offered short nods and mild smiles at people on his way out. Nowadays, he received much less eyeballing in the mess hall than in his early years, but there were always some newcomers who couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that the Captain ate among his staff instead of demanding to be served in his quarters. Phil had never seen much point in the rigid class hierarchy and, fortunately for him, his employer agreed.
Then again, the rigid class hierarchy would’ve hindered said employer himself on his recurring nightly activities, about which Phil didn’t want to know anything. Knowing about and trying to rein in his daily activities was more than enough, thank you very much.
Phil was halfway across the training field and on his way to finally wake Jasper up when he heard the distinctive sound of a flier from above him. He squinted up to see a drake in the Air Guard harness and frowned. The Air Guards were on their rounds and weren’t scheduled to return yet. As the drake started circling and swooping down, Phil recognized the gray, red, and white pattern of his flight harness, and stepped aside to give Commander Wilson room to land.
The young flier had a magnificent wingspan already, and Phil didn’t think it would fit to land inside Shields after it was fully mature. He landed gracefully, folded his wings, and trained his eyes on Phil, letting out a challenging hiss. It was both a warning and a claim, a clear sign of how young and insecure the drake still was.
Used to dealing with young, recently bonded companions, Phil didn’t bother commenting, just stood his ground, held the eye contact, and waited. A tense moment passed before the flier averted his eyes in recognition of Phil’s rank and superiority, but his neck held a belligerent pose.
Phil’s lips twitched as he suppressed a smile.
”Redwing, behave,” Sam Wilson snapped as he jumped from the harness, flicking the flier on the beak with his flight glove. ”You know perfectly well who my ranking officer is— Yes, he just happens to be your ranking officer too.” Pressing his lips together in a thin line, he crossed his arms over his chest and gave his flier a flat stare.
Curious, Phil observed the interaction between them. As a person, Sam wasn’t very intimidating, but he had a presence the drakes responded well to and combined with his innate ability to steer drakes he wasn’t connected with, it had made Sam the Commander of the Air Guards. His old drake had retired a while ago due to old age, and his new companion was a young male drake who was still only partially trained.
Satisfied with whatever explanation Redwing had offered him, Sam turned around and grinned sheepishly. ”Sorry about that,” he said.
Phil waved his apologies away. ”He saw me as a challenge and acted accordingly,” he said calmly. ”Nothing to apologize for. He’s got spirit.”
He turned towards Redwing who had kept an eye on them and nodded a formal greeting. The drake blinked, narrowed his eyes, and started to fuss with his wings with the air of feigned nonchalance. He reminded Phil vividly of a teenager who didn’t think being pleased about compliments was ’cool.’
Sobering, he said to Sam, ”I assume you have something to tell me. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have landed inside the city walls.”
Sam nodded. ”You have an Incoming,” he said bluntly.
Phil raised a brow. ”Yes, I know. It’s the Grand Market, there’s always incoming.”
Sam shook his head. ”No, I mean ’an Incoming’ as in ’trouble.’ There’s a Black Widow heading this way.”
”Is she’s alone?” Phil asked sharply. Black Widows were loners by nature, but there had been recordings of them occasionally pairing up or forming temporary packs. Having one near Shields was a risk, more would be a catastrophe.
”Yes, but here’s the thing: she has a rider.”
Phil blinked. ”She has a what now?”
”My thoughts exactly,” Sam echoed, disbelief coloring his words. ”She has a harness and everything. She seems to be properly tamed — as unbelievable as it sounds.”
”And you said she’s heading this way?”
Sam nodded. ”Yeah. They’re not very far, but she seems to be traveling a slow but steady pace. It’ll take them at least an hour to get here.”
Phil thought for a moment. He’d need to alert his people without raising too much panic and talk to Stark before the Black Widow and her rider arrived.
”I guess you want me back in the air?” Sam asked, already turning back towards Redwing.
Phil took a couple of steps back, moving away from the wings the drake flapped open. ”Yes. Stay close, but don’t engage. Let’s see if we can play this out without bloodshed.”
Sam nodded once, donned his flight gloves back on, and climbed on the harness. ”I’ll be seeing you,” he hollered as Redwing started beating his massive wings and launched into the air with a hoarse scream.
Frowning, Phil watched them rise up before he took a deep breath and started towards the stables in a brisk walk. He tugged sharply at the bond he shared with Jasper to wake him up, ignoring the flare of irritation he felt back.
He had no time for Jasper’s moods right now.
”Get up,” he called as he entered Jasper’s stall, expertly sidestepping the tail flung his way. ”Stop with the drama, we have a Black Widow coming in.”
Jasper was up and facing him in a flash, eyes narrowed.
//A Black Widow? Are you sure?//
”Sam saw it. Apparently, she has a rider.”
Phil could feel Jasper’s blatant disbelief through their connection. As unbelievable as a tamed Black Widow with a rider sounded to a human, it was even more ludicrous to drakes. The few reference that even mentioned Black Widows told in no uncertain terms that they were a rare, extremely violent, and highly intelligent breed of drakes. They were usually left alone and they left humans alone, as long as nobody bothered them. And since they managed to radiate an unspecified aura of dread around them, humans didn’t normally even try approaching them.
To this day, Phil had never heard of a Black Widow accepting a bond with a human, and those foolish enough to try had usually ended up dead or missing. To meet one with a rider was unheard-of.
//I better suit up, right?// Jasper mused.
Phil didn’t say anything, just lifted Jasper’s armor from the stand in the antechamber and helped him don it. ”Do you want to come with me to tell Stark the news?”
//How about no,// Jasper snorted. He didn’t like Stark and vice versa, but Phil always made sure to ask. It never hurt to be polite. //I’ll head up to the wall and meet you there. Good luck with our magnificent Lord.//
”Thanks,” Phil said dryly and fastened the last buckle of Jasper’s armor with slightly more force than necessary.
Nobody stopped Phil or even raised a brow when he made his way to Stark’s private chambers. It was a widely known truth that Stark listened to only a few people and liked even fewer, and Phil had the questionable honor to belong to both groups. He knew that to outsiders, their relationship was probably baffling, but neither of them really cared. Phil knew that Stark trusted him and Stark knew Phil saw right through him and bought none of his bullshit, which left them on even ground to deal with things and run Shields.
Of course, the fact that Phil had killed the man who had tried to assassinate Stark meant something as well, but neither of them brought up willingly. That particular story was ugly and best left alone.
When Phil knocked his signature knock on the door and waited for a moment before entering, he found Stark lounging on his bed with Miss Virginia snuggled to his side. Seemed like Phil hadn’t interrupted anything of importance — this time.
”Please, come in,” Stark mocked. ”Don’t be shy.”
”Morning, My Lord, Miss Virginia,” Phil answered calmly, ignoring Stark’s sarcastic tone. ”My apologies for interrupting, but we have a situation.”
”Oh, we do?” Stark asked and cocked his head.
Phil narrowed his eyes at Stark’s blithe tone. ”Sam stopped by. There’s a Black Widow heading towards Shield, and she has a rider.”
Stark looked at his nails and said, airily, ”Oh, that situation.”
”You knew,” Phil said flatly, glancing at Jarvis perched on the window sill. The drake fluttered his purple-and-gold wings and stared unblinkingly at Phil.
Phil let out a long-suffering sigh. ”I wish you bothered telling me these things, you know.”
Stark shrugged and closed his eyes. ”I knew you’d handle it anyway. Well, I assume you’ve taken the necessary steps for the first meeting?”
For a moment, Phil just looked at the Steward of Shields. Stark seemed unusually unconcerned about the situation, even to Phil’s trained eye. It was almost as if he had been waiting for something like this to happen, which was surprising. Phil didn’t like being surprised.
”Yes,” he finally answered. ”Jasper is heading to the wall as we speak, and I’ll inform the Guard shortly. I wanted to let you know first, even though I probably should’ve known better.”
”You wound me,” Stark said pressing a hand on his chest.
”No, I don’t,” Phil said flatly.
Stark sat up and gave Phil a worried once-over. ”You are too tense again. When was the last time you got laid, Phil? Last year? The year before? Pepper, we need to do something about that,” Stark said, turning pleading eyes at his consort.
”Leave Phil alone,” Miss Virginia chided before giving Phil an apologetic smile. ”I’m sorry, just ignore him.”
”I’m trying,” Phil said, shook his head, and turned to go.
”We need to figure this out!” he heard Stark calling out behind him. ”Perhaps some nice girl? Or a lad, I forgot you prefer men. Do you like bears or do you fancy your boys clean-shaven? Phil?”
As he firmly shut the door behind him, Phil wondered why he had accepted this job again.
//Are you sure this is wise?//
Clint sighed and rubbed his face. His hood protected his head from the sun, but the sand and heat had chapped his lips bloody. ”We don’t have a choice, and you know it,” he said quietly.
Natasha grumbled something Clint didn’t catch, annoyed at his deflection.
It was an old argument, a question she had repeated from the day they had begun their journey hundreds of miles away. It had started as a worry about their companionship, about Clint’s trustworthiness and honor and whether he would turn coats and kill her anyway. It had taken several heated arguments and Clint almost dying to make her understand Clint genuinely cared about her, and he wasn’t just after a notch in his belt.
Over time, Natasha’s worry had morphed into her contemplating the general sanity of Clint’s decisions. He wasn’t sure if it was an exactly positive development, but now, staring at City of A Thousand Shields looming ahead, Clint started to wonder if Natasha was right after all.
Ever since he had saved Natasha’s life, they had been more or less on the move. Traveling around as a bow-wielding jack-of-all-trades had hardly kept Clint forgettable, but traveling with a Black Widow as a companion tended to make him famous — and a target.
Even though Shields wasn’t among the most sought-after cities, what with it being in the middle of a desert, it was lively enough with ties to other, bigger cities. Bigger cities meant more attention, and now that Clint would’ve liked to go without too much recognition, he was guaranteed to get that.
They didn’t have a choice, though.
They were both starved — Natasha even more than Clint — and tired to the bone. Even with her enhanced healing abilities, the wounds in her stomach were still bothering her and Clint knew her splintered hind leg wasn’t fit to carry her full weight yet, let alone the added weight of a rider. Clint himself was pushing himself as much as he could. He hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in, like, forever, and he was sure he still hadn’t grown back the skin he had shed from his hands when he had dragged Natasha’s bulk on a tarp for those couple of awful days in the beginning. Thank fuck she was back on her feet now, splintered and everything, because otherwise, Clint would’ve left her behind.
As if. He would’ve most likely dragged her for as long as he could and then died right there beside her like the stubborn, sentimental fool he was.
He had never met anyone like Natasha before, neither human nor drake. Clint had been enamored with her the moment he had laid his eyes on her bleeding body, and when he got to know her better, he learned that she was an interesting combination of barely suppressed violence, biting humor, and slicing intellect. She had been exceptionally expressive before they had finally formed a proper bond, and after they connected, she blew his mind away. Sometimes almost literally.
She was like the big sister he never knew he had missed, and she definitely treated him like an annoying little brother who was constantly in trouble.
Natasha interrupted his thoughts with a tense, //What do you think will happen?//
Even though she tried to act relaxed, Clint could feel her body thrumming and twitching with nervous energy. She was good at hiding her feelings, but after everything they’d been through, Clint could read her like a book. Sometimes it was a book with pictures he didn’t get at all, but he could always look and guess, right?
”I have no idea,” he muttered. ”Perhaps we’ll actually get some rest before we’re out of their hair.”
As they drew closer to the city, they gained in on some of the other travelers. Out of wariness, Natasha had kept away from them without Clint asking. Of course, the drakes around them weren’t fooled even if the humans somehow managed to ignore the sense of danger Natasha’s presence caused, and the closer they got to the city, the more they received narrowed stares and nervous prancing.
Had they been in a different situation, Clint could’ve found it amusing: Natasha was terrible if she wanted to be, but ever since Clint had learned to know her, he had found out there was a fiercely loyal heart under her tough-as-nails exterior and the simmering layer of violence that thrummed through her body. She might summon nightmares with her claws and teeth, but to Clint, she was a kitten.
Well, a kitten prone to maim and kill, but a kitten anyway.
Sighing, Clint gazed at the city in front of them and hoped the one in charge would also see her for who she was and not what she was, and let them in.