“Feew,” Sam says plaintively, just like the dozens of other times he's said it over the last three days.
“Soon, buddy,” Clint says, attempting to sneak mushy peas and carrots into Sam's mouth while it's open. Sam obligingly spits most of it out down the front of his shirt. He should be wearing a bib, but Clint's washing machine broke yesterday and all the bibs in the universe seem to have vanished or developed crusty, funky-smelling spatter marks in rejected food.
“Feew,” Sam insists thickly, through the vegetable paste on his tongue. He looks pissed, and Clint's finding it hard to blame him.
“Just a while longer. Until then, you're stuck with me,” Clint placates.
“No!” Sam shrieks, looking murderous, before beaning Clint right in the eye with his teething ring. Clint only just got it out of the freezer, so it's hard, and it hurts.
“Fff...futz,” Clint hisses, hand clapped to his throbbing face. He's smeared himself all over with vegetable gunk, and Sam is grinning at him with intense satisfaction.
“Weo futter,” Sam pronounces smugly.
Phil is Feew and Unkafeew and, amusingly, Booie-wing, because those first few desperate days apparently made a lasting impression.
Clint is mostly No, with a healthy dose of toppit. Sam saves weo futter for special occasions, these days, and Clint would have thought he'd be used to it by now, but every time, it makes him want to go out and shoot something.
“He used to say it because it was all he knew,” Phil rumbles, half-asleep and resting against Clint's chest one late night. “Now he's saying it to test his limits. He's waiting to see if you turn into Barney, to see if you hurt him for it. The less you react, the more secure he'll feel, and the more likely it is that he's going to start to use the rest of his vocabulary.”
“I know,” Clint says, but it's still fucked-up, and it still hurts. Phil pets at him, gentle and clumsy, until they both drift off.
“Clint,” Clint says, holding up a morsel of chocolate doughnut. “Clint.”
“Toppit,” Sam says, reaching for the treat. Clint gives it to him, because he's not an asshole like his deadbeat dead brother who thought smacking his baby around was appropriate parenting technique.
“Say Clint,” Clint tries again, with a bigger piece. Sam's eyes go wide.
“Chocca pees,” Sam says instead and gets rewarded for it, because Phil is trying to teach their baby manners. Clint thinks it's a little early, since, right now, a day at the park where said baby doesn't call a fellow playmate or a playmate's parent a weo futter is a good day.
“Never too early,” Phil says.
What Sam has actually taken from manners coaching is that random things need pees or fank tacked on, which has led to creative and confusing outbursts such as no fank (meaning yes) and toppit pees (meaning he wants Clint to read a story again).
“Uncle Clint,” Clint tries one last time, holding up the remaining half doughnut that he'd been saving for himself.
“Unka tuttup,” Sam declares, snatching the doughnut and attempting to stuff it into his mouth whole.
“Right,” Clint sighs, and goes to make himself a coffee.
The diaper rash clears up eventually, as does the snotty nose, but less than a week later Sam starts shaking his head like a dog with an itch, and scratching behind his ear. Clint wonders if maybe Sam's picked up nits from some kid at the park and writes 'nit shampoo' on the shopping list that's ten times as long as it ever was when he lived alone.
Then Sam wakes up at three am screaming like an air raid siren, and doesn't stop.
One miserable cab ride later, and they're sitting in urgent care. Sam is hot and restless in Clint's arms while Clint tries to fill out a form on a clipboard with information he just doesn't know. Former admissions? Not a clue. Vaccinations? He seriously doubts it. Insurance? That he knows off by heart, he realises with relief, and starts laboriously filling in his policy details.
There's a shadow over his page and a strong aroma of alcohol and vomit. Clint looks up into the battered face of the beat-up drunk towering over them.
“Can't you just shut that fucking kid up?” the man yells.
It's instinct want to stand up, to face off with this guy who's obviously spoiling for another fight, but Clint doesn't miss Sam's exaggerated startle response, and the way he hiccups and holds his breath for two or three seconds when he buries his face into Clint's ratty old sweatshirt, like he's doing his best to make himself as small and quiet as he can stand to when he's hysterical with pain and fever.
“No,” Clint says, wrapping his arms as firmly as he dares around Sam, trying to be comforting without being confining, sheltering without being a cage. Sam curls in deeper, as if he's attempting to burrow into Clint's clothing, his voice muffled but increasing in pitch again. Clint turns his attention back to the clipboard, and waits the interminable seconds before the drunk gets distracted and stumbles away.
Twenty minutes before sunrise, Sam's crying tapers off abruptly, and he drops like a stone into an exhausted sleep. That's when Clint sees the blood.
“Eardrum burst,” the admission nurse reassures him, matter-of factly. “Shouldn't be long now. Let him rest.”
They meander back home on the bus, Clint's pockets full of antibiotics, eardrops and baby pain relief, surrounded by people in business suits poking at their smartphones. Clint stands the whole way, one hand wound around the bar, the other cradling Sam's limp body. Sam doesn't even stir when Clint lays him down in his cot.
I miss you so fucking much, Clint texts Phil, even though he knows Phil won't see it until he's back from his assignment.
Then he shuts himself in the bathroom, slides down to sit on the cold tile, and cries in huge, gasping, painful, silent sobs until he's wrung out enough to sleep.
“Feeew!” Sam shrieks in delight, attempting to throw himself out of Clint's arms and in the general direction of Phil, who is standing in the hallway looking tired and happy and a little bit beat-up. Rather than reaching out and taking Sam, Phil crowds in close and wraps his arms around them both, leaning in and kissing Sam's forehead and Clint's lips, quick and chaste.
“He's warm,” Phil remarks, his brow wrinkling up in a frown.
“It's covered. He's on antibiotics and he's due pain relief in twenty minutes,” Clint replies.
It makes Clint glow kind of warm inside that Phil doesn't immediately demand all the details, just nods slightly in satisfaction and turns again to Sam to kiss along the curve of his tiny skull. “Did you have an ouch, Sam?” he asks, his words blurred by baby hair.
“Outs!” Sam announces proudly, then reaches out a chubby hand to pet at the corner of Phil's mouth, where it's healing and freckled with tiny flakes of dried blood.
“Yes, I have one, too,” Phil says, holding himself still from flinching away at Sam's clumsy exploration. “Speaking of,” he adds, raising a hand to ghost fingertips, feather-light, over the purpling bruise on Clint's cheekbone.
“I couldn't produce you on demand. He's got the Barton aim and the Barton temper,” Clint says. “I thought you were meant to be in the van.”
“Hulks and Doombots aren't big adherers to containment lines,” Phil says with a wry little smile. “Well, aren't we a bunch. I don't suppose there's anything in the way of leftovers?”
“Haven't eaten yet,” Clint says, and Phil's eyebrows rise. “We slept half the day away, after our hospital adventure last night. According to us, it's about four in the afternoon. I'm thinking pizza. Can he have pizza?”
“Pizza works,” Phil says, taking Sam fully into his arms. “We'll cut it up small and he can feed himself.”
Clint calls in the order, then wanders back out to the living room to find Phil sitting cross-legged on the floor, still in his dusty suit, reading Dr. Seuss.
“That's not too old for him?” Clint asks, after a moment.
“Kids are never too young for reading, but no. With books like this, it's more the rhythm of the language and the rhyming that's important than the plot. It's nonsense, so he won't be frustrated by not understanding it. Plus, it's got his name in it. Everyone likes books with their names in them.”
“Yam, yam, yam,” Sam says, patting the pages, obviously annoyed that the reading has stopped.
“Okay, sorry,” Phil says with a laugh. “But when I'm finished, you've got to let Uncle Clint take over, because I really need a shower. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”
They're overfull and contented and sprawled out in front of Dog Cops, pizzas demolished and Sam conked out for at least the next few hours thanks to food and medication. He's got pizza sauce in a broad streak across his jawline, but it isn't worth waking him for a bath, so Clint is using the edge of his t-shirt dampened with a little of his own spit to loosen and remove it. It's not exactly hygienic, but it works.
“You're getting good at that,” Phil says.
Clint hums non-committally, thinking of mistaking an ear infection for nits, thinking of crying on the bathroom floor and questioning whether his genes on the most basic level make him utterly incompetent at even beginning to parent a child.
“You are,” Phil insists, and Clint shrugs, because Phil expects some kind of response.
“He still doesn't like me,” Clint hears himself say.
“Of course, he does,” Phil says, and Clint doesn't say anything to that, because he doesn't think it's true, and he can't lie well enough to fake it.
Phil sleeps well into late morning, but Sam is up at seven and therefore, so is Clint. Clint knows, logically, that Sam is still sick, but to see him crawling and careening around the flat, you wouldn't know it. They eat a quick, moderately messy breakfast, then Clint shoves all the dirty bibs, towels, and baby clothes that he can fit in a big sack. He somehow wrangles Sam into his harness that fits on Clint a little like a backpack or a parachute but back-to-front, and then they're off to the laundromat.
Clint is only thinking of Phil's sleep, and the complete lack of anything clean to wear or use in the entire apartment. He's not thinking of entertaining Sam, at least, not past wondering what he'll do to keep Sam from whining or tantruming while the wash and dry cycles run their course.
Sam adores the laundromat.
“Wound 'n wound 'n WOUND 'N WOUND!” Sam is still enthusing when they get home an hour or so later with their sack of clean stuff.
“Shhh, shhh,” Clint attempts, but there is no dampening Sam's excitement.
“Successful operation?” Phil asks. He's blinking sleepily, his hair all smooshed up on the right-hand side.
“And how,” Clint says, dumping the sack in the hallway. “I don't even know why they bother making kids tv.”
“Unkafeew, wound 'n wound,” Sam exclaims earnestly, his hands flapping and splaying out in glee. “Unka no, wound 'n wound, tankoo pees.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Clint agrees, because he knows there is plenty of dirty laundry still scattered from one end of the apartment to the other.
Phil steps forward, effortlessly unbuckles a strap of the harness that Clint was struggling with, and swings Sam into his own arms. “Diaper time, I think,” he says with a sniff.
“Forgot to take one with me,” Clint agrees. “Forgot everything, just had to get out of the house.”
“Diaper, then lunch,” Phil decides, then looks Clint up and down with an assessing eye. “I meant to tell you last night, but I fell asleep first. I'm on a week's worth of leave, starting twelve hours ago. As of today, you're back on call, if that's all right with you.”
“Yes,” Clint says instantly, because the only answer is yes, fuck yes, and he can't say that last part in front of Sam.
“Have lunch with us, then go to the range. You need it.”
The Sam System, as Phil had dubbed it, has taken longer to set up than either of them would have liked. SHIELD has a perfectly adequate daycare, naturally, but it's really only for staff on-base, with regular hours, not Avengers. Stark Industries has awesome daycare, twenty-four hours a day, but it's all the way across town. They can't hire a regular baby sitter because of security concerns, and Phil doesn't really want most of the SHIELD personnel trying their hand at babysitting because, primarily, their skill bases lie in assassination, espionage and armoured response, not Sesame Street and teething.
In the interim, they're alternating weeks, but it's far from ideal and it means they never seem to see each other for longer than a day or two at a time when an op or Avengering takes them outside of New York.
“What we really need is some kind of nanny-cum-bodyguard with SHIELD clearance so they know about all the weird stuff and we don't have to try and manufacture cover stories,” Phil sighs. “They're a bit thin on the ground, I'm afraid.”
“They also need torture training to put up with the current quality of children's television,” Clint gripes.
“Couldn't hurt,” Phil agrees.
“Unka no, toppit pees,” Sam says, almost politely, holding out his favourite book of the moment.
Clint is aching in a dozen places, holding an ice pack to the stitched-up part of his scalp, and fighting the urge to hurl.
But Phil is sitting right next to him. Phil, who is always Sam's first port of call for stories and feeding and diaper changes and kissing better of bumps and bruises. Clint has long since resigned himself to being second best, but right now, his kid is shoving the book insistently at him, not Phil, and it's enough to make his breath catch.
“Uncle Clint has an ouch,” Phil says gently, obviously mistaking Clint's gasp for one of pain. He holds out his hand for the book, and Sam pouts.
“No, it's okay, it's fine,” Clint says, taking the book and lifting Sam up on to his lap, positioning him so he's pressing on the least number of bruises. “A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood. A fox saw the mouse, and the mouse looked good.”
Since the ear infection, Sam's vocabulary has exploded. He's saying new things every day, and even if some of the things are unintelligible slurs of vowels and consonants, he's trying, at least. He's demanding chocca omee (chocolate oatmeal) and toaz (toast) and Coogie Monsa (Cookie Monster) on a daily basis, saying nigh-nigh and bye-bye and hey vere consistently, if sometimes in the wrong context.
“Could be he'd had the infection for a long time, and had some hearing loss because of it,” Phil muses. “They were distracted by the bruises and the diaper rash, which, frankly, is pretty understandable. The snotty nose seemed pretty minor in comparison, rather than a sign of something else. Hearing impairment could have contributed to his language delay.”
He's still dropping the occasional toppit and tuttup, but weo futter is almost a thing of the past (meeting Tony Stark proving, hilariously, to be an exception). No hasn't disappeared or diminished, but from what Clint understands, that's pretty much normal, and half the time Sam's obviously using it in place of Clint's name, so Clint is learning to make his peace with it and accept that Unka No is who he is. The sting isn't drawn but it's most of the way out, and Clint can live with that.
The day when it changes, Clint climbs slowly out of a fog of drugs to a deep, profound hurt that means he's broken something. Again. Oops.
“Unka outs,” Clint hears Sam say emphatically.
“Yes, Uncle Clint has an ouch,” Phil agrees.
“Unka sweepin,” Sam elaborates.
“That's right, Uncle Clint is sleeping, so we're being quiet,” Phil attempts, valiantly.
“Hey,” Clint rasps, forcing his eyes to crack open and show him a sliver of the room. Phil looks like hell, and if it wasn't so hard to speak, he'd tell him so.
“Hey,” Phil replies, tightly.
“'m I in trouble?” Clint mumbles.
“There aren't words for the kind of trouble you're in,” Phil says calmly, and yeah, that's bad.
“Fight later?” Clint asks.
“Yeah,” Phil agrees.
“Your left ankle and right wrist are the worst,” Phil says. “You've very neatly put yourself out of action until I can find a babysitter. Please don't tell me that was your intention when you jumped off that roof.”
“I jumped?” Clint asks. He can't really remember, it's all a bit foggy.
“Of course you jumped. You always jump,” Phil sighs deeply.
“But fight later?” Clint clarifies.
“Yes,” Phil says, and slides his hand into Clint's undamaged one.
“Hey, buddy,” Clint says to Sam, who has been watching him with wide eyes.
“Outs,” Sam repeats.
“Yeah, little guy, big outs,” Clint agrees.
“Unka Hawgguy big outs,” Sam states solemnly, and pats Clint's arm with his palm, clumsily.
It's the drugs, it's got to be the drugs, but what Sam says takes a little while to filter through.
“Did he just say...?” Clint asks, his heart doing a little jump in his chest. He's got to be hearing things.
“That's the other thing,” Phil says, finally cracking the ghost of a smile. “We may have caught the coverage on CNN.”
“Unka Hawgguy, weo futter,” Sam pronounces, then crawls up from Phil's lap to drape himself across Clint's chest with an epically big sigh. For the first time, it doesn't hurt at all to hear.
“Yeah, baby, you're probably right about that one,” Clint agrees, sliding his and Phil's joined hands up to lay across Sam's back.
“I may have said as much when you jumped off a building on live tv,” Phil admits.
“Sleeps now, fights later,” Clint says, squeezing Phil's hand tightly. He waits for Phil to nod, then lets his heavy eyes sink shut again.