Clint could tell that the pretty blonde in a red polka-dot dress was in trouble. She was sunburned, sweating, and had that desperate look in her eyes he’d seen too often. He would probably look the same if he had screaming twin two-year olds refusing to climb into their purple flying elephant.
Although he'd already been relieved of duty, he stepped back into the ride area and crouched down to eye-level with the kids. He gave them his best smile. "Hey, now! Miss Ellie the Princess Elephant wants to take you flying. Do you want to fly with her?"
The little boy and girl cried louder. Their faces were dangerously red, and it was almost a hundred degrees on this Orlando afternoon. He didn't blame them at all for not wanting to go on a giant spinning ride under the sun's full blast.
"We just waited in line for forty minutes," the mom said, her voice clogged and tears beginning to well. Around them, two dozen other riders had already mounted their vehicles and were shifting impatiently. The ride music, which Clint had to listen to for eight hours at a stretch, was absurdly loud and grating.
The girl started crying harder, and the boy kicked Ellie the Princess Elephant. Clint wished he could magically transport himself to one of the nice air-conditioned bars by the lake, drinking something cold and refreshing.
Instead he stood up and focused on the mom. "How about we all take a break in the theater, and I'll get you a return pass for later on? Front of the line privilege."
Mom hesitated, then nodded. Clint escorted them out of the ride area, through the crowds and to the back door of the theater. Inside all was cool and dim, and through the wall came the sounds of the animated film that played in steady rotation. He radioed Natasha, who brought some ice cream treats over from the gift store she managed. Ten seconds of her charm had the kids smiling through tears and the mom looking one hundred percent better.
"Thank you for helping," she said as Clint loaded a return pass on her guest bracelet. "This is our first trip since--well, since their dad died. In the army."
"I'm very sorry," Clint said sincerely. "You deserve a lot more than a pass."
Something in his tone maybe gave him away, because she looked at him in a way that suggested she was looking for his military haircut or an army tattoo.
"How about we sneak in the back and watch the movie?" Natasha suggested with a conspiratorial wink. It never took much to get Natasha to bend a rule or two, but park management loved her for the compliments visitors gave and the consistent profit she turned. As she ushered the little party inside she turned and gave Clint a stern look.
"You look like crap,” she said, “You haven't taken a day off in two weeks.”
"I'm going to," he said, raising his hands in surrender. "Still trying to get the truck fixed."
"The truck." Natasha rolled her eyes. "We'll talk about that heap of rust later."
Clint grinned and ducked back out into the park's glare, noise and heat. Truth be told, he really could use a day off. The headache that had followed him since breakfast was beginning to pulse behind his right eye, and if he didn't eat a real meal soon he was going to throw up on a customer. But bills didn’t pay themselves, and living paycheck to paycheck was a trap he didn’t see himself escaping anytime soon.
He edged past the crowds into Natasha's gift store, slipped past Darcy cheerfully ringing up a purchase, and badged his way past the door to the employee stairs and tunnel. Down below the park it was overall quieter, but constantly humming with the noise of ventilation systems, sewer and waste pipes, and electrical utilities. The wide tunnel lit by industrial fluorescent tubes led past employee break areas, costume return counters, security offices, a first aid office, and storage rooms. Employees came and went through secret entrances, on their way to clean or serve food or entertain kids. Clint stepped aside to let a golf cart pass, gave a nod to Cinderella and Snow White, and then ducked into his assigned locker room to change out of his sweat-stained khaki shorts and soaked polo shirt.
A half hour later he was on the employee bus as it glided past expensive resorts of glass and greenery. The very rich visitors there often spent more money in a day than he made in a year. Usually Clint rode all the way to the employee parking lot, but with his truck in the garage--and it was no heap of rust, despite Nat's opinion--he had to take a poorly ventilated city bus for another half hour and walk the last mile to the run-down apartment complex in Kissimmee he currently called home.
Trudging past grungy gas stations, cheap fast food outlets and a ridiculous number of knock-off gift shops, he tried hard to focus on one foot after the other. By the time he climbed the stairs to the second floor, his headache was a full throttle assault and his spirits depressingly low. The dark apartment was quiet and almost cool, but the air conditioning was never very good and today it was straining under the outdoor inferno. In the bathroom he fumbled aspirin out of the cabinet and cupped water into his mouth until the pill was down and dizziness passed.
Tony wandered by, ears plugged by buds and fingers tapping on his laptop. He stopped and scowled at Clint. "Why didn't you call, idiot?"
"Last time I woke you up, you yelled for an hour," Clint pointed out.
"I forgave you eventually. Did you bring any food?"
"You know how to order delivery."
"Yeah, but I like it when other people do it for me."
Clint maneuvered around Tony to the kitchen. No one had done the dishes lately, which didn't surprise him. The garbage bin needed to be emptied. Clint opened the refrigerator with a small measure of hope, but the contents consisted mostly of old condiments, a wilted salad, and a box of pizza that was older than Clint's last paycheck.
The light from the refrigerator striped its way onto the sofa, where a lump under the blankets moved. Bruce emerged, looking tired and tousled.
"Did you bring any food?" he asked hopefully.
Clint tended to forgive Bruce's absent-minded approach to meals more easily than he did Tony’s, if only because Bruce was dedicated to improving mankind by getting his PhD and Tony's main ambition was to hack the Pentagon, or maybe the Kremlin, or probably both.
"I think it's cheap noodle night again," Clint said, and tried not to be too disappointed.
Tony snagged a beer from the vegetable bin. "I vote no on cheap noodles."
"I vote we have nothing else," Clint said wearily.
"I second that vote," Bruce added.
Footsteps pounded up the staircase and their door swung open under the hand of Thor, their fourth roommate. Although he too had just come off a long shift at one of the parks, he looked as impressively handsome as usual. Clint usually tried not to notice just how big Thor's muscles were under his tight t-shirts, but right now it was impossible to ignore the large paper bags in his hands.
"I’m starving!" Thor said. "Anyone want Chinese food?"
Bruce pulled himself up off the sofa so quickly he nearly tripped, but Tony at least managed to place his laptop safely on the counter.
"Our hero," Tony said, snatching the bags from Thor’s arms. "We love you. I hereby declare tonight movie night."
"You declare every night movie night," Bruce said.
"And yet you all find reasons not to participate," Tony said, but he didn't actually sound like he minded. He and Bruce had known each other since they were undergraduates at the University of Central Florida. Tony's matriculation had ended rather abruptly--Bruce said most students didn't get their own escort out of the campus computer labs--and the two of them had picked up Thor along the way in their online quest for cheap housing. Clint was the outsider that had answered an ad and was trying hard not to inconvenience them into asking him to leave.
His last roommates had been pretty clear that the midnight screaming was a deal-breaker, and Clint couldn't really blame them.
"No movie night," Clint said, clearing junk from the table so they could all sit down. "Eat, shower, bed. That's my plan."
"It's only five o'clock!" Tony squinted at the wall clock and then the blackout curtains that blocked out their view of the parking lot. "Is it morning or night?"
Clint was too busy eating to answer. He was working on his fourth spring roll and a large carton of vegetable foo yung when his cell phone rang. Every fibre of his being told him to ignore it, but Steve was his only friend left from the army and he owed him big-time for getting him this job.
"Feel free to say no," Steve said, his voice tight in a way Clint rarely heard, "but I'm short-staffed and we've got extended hours tonight. Can you come back for the late shift? I promise, I'll get you something inside. And overtime."
Clint closed his eyes. Just the thought of getting back on the city bus and the employee bus and back into the park made him want to bash his head against the wall and go to the emergency room instead.
Then again, he hadn't hiked across deserts and up mountains just to say no now to a few more hours of work in an amusement park, even if it was the largest park on the planet.
Plus, overtime would really help his bank account.
"Bucky's coming in, too," Steve said into Clint's silence. "He can give you a ride. He's fifteen minutes away from you."
"Okay," Clint said. Fifteen minutes would give him enough time to finish his food and take more aspirin before Steve's moody husband showed up. Maybe even take a micro nap, because any sleep was better than none. "Count me in.”
“I knew I could,” Steve said gratefully, and Clint put his head down on the table. It was going to be a long, long night.
end of part 1
Struggling with an overloaded baggage cart at Orlando International Airport while simultaneously trying to keep his elderly parents from wandering off, Phil Coulson was sincerely wishing he had stayed in bed that morning with his cat, Ranger. His very early morning flight from Boston had been delayed at Logan by a mechanical issue, and his parents’ flight from Chicago had been delayed by thunderstorms, and his siblings and their families had arrived on time together from the West Coast only to be delayed on the tarmac by a broken gate ramp. For the last two hours Phil had been juggling texts, apps, and calls, and all the misgivings he’d had about coming on this trip were now magnified a dozen times.
“Mom! Dad!” That was Phil’s sister Skye, dashing through the crowd to throw her arms around Anna and Dave Coulson.
“Careful!” Phil warned, because airport slip and falls were horrendously difficult to litigate and he hated personal injury lawsuits in principle.
Skye was followed by her husband Grant, who clapped a warm hand on Phil’s shoulder and made absolutely no move to help with the luggage. “Good to see you, Philly. It’s been a long time.”
“It feels like yesterday,” Phil said, resisting the urge to punch him in the face. That Skye loved Grant so completely was a mystery of the human heart that Phil had long given up trying to solve. Well, it was more of a love-hate mystery, complete with the occasional flying frying pan, but after six years of marriage and two kids they were still together, and that was a longer relationship than Phil had ever managed.
“Uncle Phil!” came voices at Phil’s waist, and he scooped up his nieces.
“Look how big you are!” he said, squeezing tight.
“We’re tiny,” said Maria, who was six years old and wearing a gold princess gown.
“I’m invisible and tiny!” said Jane, who was four and dressed in pink pajamas. She enthusiastically waived a pink magic wand, and Phil had to turn his head or lose an eye.
“Let me see my grandchildren,” Anna commanded, taking the girls into her arms and squeezing them tight. Beside her, Dave smiled but didn’t speak. Since the stroke he’d made enormous strides in rehabilitating his speech as well as his gait, but Phil knew he was self-conscious about speaking while in public.
A few moments later Pepper and Rhodey appeared, Pepper looking almost as strained as Phil felt and Rhodey joyfully carrying their toddler son Pietro on his shoulders. Pepper’s white travel clothes were impeccable as always, modestly revealing her six-month-along pregnancy.
“Phil!” Pepper kissed his cheek and whispered, “We’re in airport hell, save us.”
“Got it covered,” Phil promised.
They’d long ago missed their bus reservation, and rather than face several more hours of waiting Phil had gone ahead and booked a separate van service. Once they stepped outside the terminal, Phil’s lungs immediately registered their dislike of the smoggy, hot, exhaust-laden Florida air. Luckily their driver was easy to find and very helpful. Traffic from the airport to their lakeside resort, however, was horrendous. Phil tried but failed at keeping work out of his vacation, and ended up answering emails for forty-five minutes. At the resort, they turned all the luggage over to the valets, sent the kids to watch TV while the adults checked in, and walked down winding paths in the searing heat until they reached their waterfront cabin.
“It’s lovely,” Anna said after they toured through the impeccable four bedrooms, three bathrooms, living room and full kitchen. “Thank you to all of you for arranging this.”
Almost as one, Skye and Grant said, “No problem.”
Pepper arched an eyebrow in Phil’s direction. They had paid for most of it, with Skye promising to reimburse them later.
“You deserve it, Mom and Dad,” Pepper said more graciously.
Phil made sure Dave was settled into a rocking chair by the fireplace and carefully put his father’s cane to the side. “It’s the least we could do.”
Dave patted Phil’s hand, and Phil squeezed back in return.
Skye and Grant took their girls to go unpack. Rhodey said Pietro needed to burn off energy and they headed off to the kiddie pool. Phil toured through the cabin again, looking for anything that would require service from the front desk. Overall he approved of the furniture, the theming, and the excellent cleanliness. He did not, however, approve of the kitchen cabinets devoid of food, and instantly turned to his app. Before he could request an update, a door knock announced the arrival of the groceries he’d ordered.
When he presented Pepper with three pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, she almost started crying.
“You are the best baby brother ever!” She fanned her face. “Sorry. Hormones.”
“No, it’s true.” Phil stopped putting groceries away to check a new email. “Best baby brother ever.”
Her long, graceful hand closed over his phone. “If only you can turn off work.”
Phil shrugged. “It’s Nick. You know Nick.”
“I know Nick,” Pepper agreed. “You don’t owe him anything. It’s been, what, three years?”
“Three and a half.” Phil met her gaze, shrugged again, and obligingly put the phone aside. “My heart is healed. But he’s still the senior partner.”
“And you still deserve your own Prince Charming,” Pepper said. “Maybe you’ll meet him at Snow White’s castle.”
The main lodge contained an award-winning restaurant, but the grocery order contained enough sandwich fixings that they decided to skip a sit-down meal. Alone in his room after eating, Phil carefully hung his polo shirts in the closet, ironed his khaki shorts, and tucked away the twelve pairs of white socks he’d packed.
Skye barged in while he was putting the ironing board away, saying, “Come on, we’re going to the parks!”
“What?” Phil looked out at the sky, which was was still bright despite the evening hour. “Now?”
“They’re open until midnight.” She tossed him his slate-gray park bracelet. “You don’t want to disappoint your darling nieces, do you?”
Phil rather though that Maria and Jane would be fine without Uncle Phil along, but Pepper was staying back with their parents and asked him to go keep Rhodey from putting Pietro on too many roller coaster rides. Instead of curling up with a good novel, Phil found himself riding a water taxi across the lake to the park entrance plaza, scanning his bracelet at the turnstile, and walking up a main street that was swarming with sweaty, sunburned, exhausted, and frazzled visitors.
“Happiest place on earth,” Rhodey said, grinning ear to ear. “Pepper says you guys have great memories here from when you were kids.”
“I remember getting sun blisters,” Phil said. “I was only six.”
He had other memories, too, very faint. A stretching room. A dark ride on a boat with pirates. Mostly he knew the stories his parents or Pepper had told over the years, and until high school he’d had a piggy bank in the shape of a large mouse. For this vacation he’d taken one look at the ticket prices and nearly had to reach for his inhaler, but Anna and Dave had wanted to come for their fortieth wedding anniversary and everyone was determined to make sure it happened in high style.
Pepper and Rhodey had arranged all of the ride reservations loaded on their bracelets, and Rhodey had actually memorized them all. Relieved at simply having to follow Rhodey’s lead, Phil concentrated on avoiding collisions with strollers, errant children, and tourists stopping to take pictures at very inconvenient moments. As a family they made the strategic mistake of sticking to the sidewalk that passed shops and food stops, leading the kids to demand balloons, ice cream, popcorn and other treats.
Everywhere they walked, they heard cloying music playing from speakers nestled along the bushes and trees. Phil ignored it as best he could, but decided he’d enjoy the park more if he wore ear plugs tomorrow. He decided he’d also enjoy it more if there ten thousand less people lining up for rides, food, drinks, snacks, souvenirs, and character autographs.
“You look stressed out,” Skye said, dabbing Phil’s nose with blue cotton-candy. “Relax, Phil.”
“Didn’t I read that there’s an adult beverage kiosk?” Grant asked, looking at his map.
By sunset they’d only made it onto one ride, an outdoor kiddie roller coaster that almost made Phil nauseous. After that they survived an indoor boat ride of bright lights, colorful puppets, and more obnoxious music. Grant found the adult beverages, which he and Skye spent an absurd amount of money for. Pietro loved the spinning tea cups but also soiled his pants, which necessitated Rhodey spending an absurd amount of money for emergency clothes in a gift shop.
To Phil’s relief the park did empty a bit after dark, but the distances between rides were making his feet hurt and he could feel himself getting dehydrated in the heat no matter how many overpriced bottles of water he drank. Jane and Pietro fell asleep in the double stroller, and Maria in her dad’s arms. Phil proposed they head back to the resort, but Skye had her heart set on the pirate ride.
Rhodey was doubtful. “We don’t have reservations.”
“It won’t take long.” Grant pressed a sloppy, slightly drunk kiss to Skye’s check. “We came all the way from California, let her have this.”
Phil considered pushing Grant off the bridge beneath them into the artificial riverbed below, but he was curious to see if reality matched his fragmented memories and one last ride wasn’t too much to ask. They joined the queue in a building that resembled an old Carribbean fort and followed ramps down through winding corridors of fake, damp stone. Electric torches flickered on the walls and iron bars blocked jail cells and storage rooms meant to amplify the fort atmosphere.
To Phil’s chagrin the inside lines were much longer than anticipated, and the kids woke up cranky, and all the tourists around them seemed to be grimly resigned to their fate.
“We could try tomorrow,” he proposed.
Skye dug her fingers into a wooden railing. “I’m not leaving.”
Eventually they reached the loading area of boats that bobbed gently on dark water. Employees in pirate crew uniforms helped people in and out. Above them, a dimly lit control room oversaw operations and probably controlled the volume of the annoying pirate music. While getting into their boat Phil noticed that the front bench was damp from the last ride, so he carefully maneuvered to the back. He let Skye and Grant take the front with two strangers.
Stuck in the middle bench, Rhodey kept Pietro from bouncing off into the water while the girls gazed wide-eyed at the dark tunnel ahead. Phil’s phone buzzed, but he ignored it. Their boat pushed off and a recorded pirate’s voice warned them to keep their hands in the boat while remaining seated at all times.
The darkness and cool air were actually refreshing, but Phil was disappointed not to feel more excitement as the boat glided past what was supposed to be a beach adorned with a skeleton. The sound effect of heavy winds picked up, as did distant screams of delight or fear. Lightning flashed overhead. When the boat slid down a ramp into a bay dominated by a pirate ship Phil’s interest picked up, but then his phone went off again and ruined the mood.
He checked. Of course it was Nick. It was always Nick. His thumb hovered over the power button because really, couldn’t he have just one night with his annoying family on an expensive pirate ride without work intruding? Just then a cannon thundered overhead, making Pietro jerk backward in surprise. His little elbow hit Phil’s hand and Phil’s phone went sailing into the water.
Phil didn’t stop to think that his phone was waterproof, or that he had an extra durable waterproof case. He saw his very expensive device plop into the water and his legs moved automatically. He didn’t dive headfirst into the bay--it was obviously not very deep--but he did step over the side and get wet to his knees, and then wade toward the glowing blue light under the surface.
“Uncle Phil!” Pietro yelled.
Rhodey twisted around. “What are you doing?”
Phil got exactly three steps before his right foot came down between two underwater rails and got stuck. He tried to get free while the boat moved on without him. Moments later, an alarm buzzed very loudly and the entire ride stopped. Overhead, the house lights came on so everyone could see Phil’s blunder.
He knew he should have stayed in bed this morning.
An announcement came on. “Ladies and gentlemen, attention. Your ride has been temporarily delayed. Please remain seated with your hands and feet inside the boat at all times. You will be moving again shortly.”
Two park employees emerged from a door that had been hidden behind the big pirate ship. One of them was perhaps the most handsome pretend sailor that Phil had ever seen, with tousled blond hair, shadowed eyes, and whipcord arms under his pirate shirt.
“I’m sorry--” Phil called out. He tugged on his leg. “I’m kind of stuck.”
“Do not move,” the handsome sailor said sternly. He pointed his finger. “Do not do anything stupid.”
“I’m not.” Phil felt his face start to burn. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re fine, sir,” said the second sailor, smiling but oily. “We’ve got you covered.”
“Phil Coulson, you are in such trouble!” Grant called out from their stalled boat.
Mortified, Phil decided nothing he could say would improve the situation. He stayed silent while the handsome employee waded into the water, stuck his hands under the surface, and felt around for the track rail controls. The other one stayed on a narrow ledge by the pirate ship. Phil was acutely aware of three other stalled boats nearby, and passengers with the phones lit up and filming the rescue. He wanted to sink into the water and never come up.
“Try now,” the handsome employee said, and Phil managed to free his foot.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry to cause a problem. I didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, no one ever does,” the employee said, completely ungraceful about it, but he did scoop Phil’s phone up and hand it over. “You have to get off the ride now. Follow me.”
Shamefaced, Phil went as told. The employees took him through the door, down a narrow corridor, and back to the loading zone. Phil expected them to call security, maybe even have him escorted from the park, but they didn’t even lecture him. Maybe it was too late into their shift to even bother. Five minutes later Skye, Grant and Rhodey’s boat returned, and the kids were all giggling that Uncle Phil got into trouble, and Rhodey was smiling but trying not to, and Grant said he’d be happy to show the video he’d shot of Phil’s shame to Anna and Dave in the morning.
“I think that guy was really rude to you,” Skye said, scowling in the direction of the control booth. “He should have been nicer. I’m going to complain.”
“Please don’t,” Phil said. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have stepped off the boat.”
“Just because he’s hot doesn’t mean he can be a jerk,” she insisted.
Grant asked, “You think he’s hot?”
“Let’s just go back to the cabin,” Phil said, pleading.
On their way up the ramp Phil saw the two employees standing in a roped-off area, talking to someone who looked like a manager. The manager did not look happy. Neither did the handsome guy. Phil tried to catch his eye, and thought about going over to thank them for his rescue, but the exit line was moving quickly and he had to catch up to his family or be lost.
That was the night, the magical night, that Phil met Clint Barton.
And though he didn’t know it yet, it was also the night he got Clint fired.
Clint did not sleep well. He should have, because he was exhausted. Every part of him ached with fatigue. He was also slightly drunk, which contrary to popular belief wasn’t helpful at all. His rest was broken and fitful and awful, and for once he couldn’t blame Thor’s snoring from the bed nearby.
He tossed, he turned, he stared at the ceiling, he stared at the curtain that didn’t do much to screen out the parking lot lights outside, he put his face in his pillow, he pulled the pillow over his head, and still he didn’t get much rest. He kept thinking about how he should have let his coworker Brock Rumlow handle the tourist who’d stepped off the pirate boat. Brock was a jerk, but he never lost his temper with guests. Upon reflection, Clint should have never even left the control booth. He definitely shouldn’t have been so curt with the tourist, even if the guy had done something so monumentally stupid.
“You are not sleeping,” Thor eventually said, disapprovingly.
Thor pulled the window cord by his bed. Weak morning sunlight spilled between the slats. Clint rubbed his aching eyes. Creaking springs accompanied Thor as he rolled upright, rubbed both hands against his head and long hair, and gave off a bone-cracking yawn.
“We should go to the gym,” Thor said.
“We should not,” Clint protested.
“It’s good for your spirit.”
“It’s bad for everything else.” Clint dragged himself up against his cheap pillows. “Besides, I have to go clean out my locker.”
Thor’s gaze narrowed. “You predict a problem that might not exist.”
“Oh, it’ll exist.” Clint’s stomach did a long, lazy roll as he reflected on his impending termination. When he’d returned home after midnight with the miserable story, Tony had proposed cheering him up with beer. So much beer.
“They might not fire you,” Thor said.
Clint scoffed. “Steve should be calling by ten o’clock.”
In fact the call came at nine forty-five, just as Clint was watching Chinese food leftovers spin around in the microwave. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t grovel or embarrass himself, but the first thing he said was, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”
“I know it won’t,” Steve replied. He sounded more sad than angry. “Third demerit in twelve months, Clint, and right in front of Alexander Pierce. You know what that means.”
The microwave pinged. Clint stared through the window at the pitiful-looking egg roll and a heap of rice. Of all the jerks in operations, Pierce had to be the one making rounds before closing time to witness Clint’s transgressions.
“I’m sorry I asked you to work last night when you were clearly exhausted,” Steve said, as if it was his fault Clint had been curt and impatient and unprofessional.
Tony wandered into the kitchen clad in his usual boxer shorts and a long dirty bathrobe. “I smell breakfast.”
Clint gave his plate to Tony and turned around. He would have sat on the sofa, but Bruce was as usual sound asleep on it.
“Steve, this is not on you,” Clint said.
Steve sighed. “I’ll make sure your badge works until the end of the day. Pick up your stuff or they’ll mail it to you.”
Clint hung up and breathed through his nose to keep from vomiting.
His mouth full of egg roll, Tony asked, “Who kicked your puppy?”
“I’m going back to bed,” was all Clint could say.
But his sheets smelled sour, and his mattress felt as exactly comfortable as a secondhand mattress would, and after ten minutes with the pillow over his head Clint told himself to stop sulking and do something useful with his life. Bruce was still dead to the world on the couch, Thor had already gone off to the gym, and Tony was in his room either playing computer games or plotting world domination. Clint stripped his bed, grabbed more dirty laundry, and hauled all he could to the laundromat at the corner.
Only when he reached into his pocket for his quarters did he realize he’d left his cell phone at home, and that pretty much seemed to be on par with his luck lately.
After his stuff swirled and swished its way to cleanliness, he loaded it all into a dryer and walked several blocks to the nearest library branch. He hated online job applications. They were all tedious, confusing, and reminded him that the highlight of his career so far has been military service, which ended in reasons he tried to avoid in interviews. Hunting-and-pecking on the keys got him through two long applications, but then his time expired and he had to surrender the station to someone on the wait list. He was pleased to find that no one had stolen his clothes at the laundromat, but less thrilled to find them all jumbled and wrinkled in a cart.
The smoggy, searing hot weather made him glad he wasn’t in the parks today, but embarrassment and grief welled up as he carried his laundry home. He was going to miss seeing Natasha in her store, and helping kids who were afraid of the elephant ride, and even assisting stupid tourists who dropped their phones from pirate boats. The guy last night hadn’t even been especially egregious about it. Yes, it was stupid to get off a moving ride vehicle, but Clint had more than once jumped off a moving tank in the desert, and not always because someone was shooting at him.
His stomach was rumbling at him as he hauled his laundry up the stairs. Skipping both breakfast and lunch was not a good idea. He was fumbling with his key when he became aware of a man standing on the landing nearby.
“Mr. Barton?” the man asked, polite and pleasant.
“He moved,” Clint said, because he didn’t need a debt collector as the cherry on his crappy sundae of a day. “Went to Miami.”
He got himself and his laundry inside the apartment without further conversation. Bruce’s customary spot on the sofa was empty, so Clint dumped the laundry there and went searching for his cell phone. He’d missed three calls from Steve, two from Natasha, and one from the park’s human resource office. Funny how being fired could make a guy popular.
Someone knocked on the door. Clint hoped it wasn’t the landlord.
“Yes?” he asked, swinging the door open impatiently.
“Mr. Barton, I’d like a word.”
It was the same guy as before. Clint squinted at him. Square, pleasant face. Thinning hair. Not a man who spent a lot of time in the sun. His neatly ironed clothes and sensible shoes pegged him as someone who probably worked in an office. He seemed somewhat familiar, but not immediately recognizable.
Clint took a guess. “Since when does Human Resources make house calls?”
The man frowned. “I’m not from--”
“You’re the guy!” Clint exclaimed as recognition washed over him. “On the ride.”
In the bright light of day he seemed less like a helpless tourist and more like any normal person. Well, any normal attractive kind of person who smelled rather nice and dressed rather nicely and had for some bizarre reason stalked Clint to this apartment complex.
Clint looked for a gun in the man’s hand, but it was reassuringly empty except for a park postcard. On the back, scrawled in red marker, was Clint’s address in handwriting that looked a lot like Natasha’s.
“Yes, I’m the guy,” the stalker said. “My name’s Phil Coulson. Can we talk?”
“Um.” Clint had never felt more inarticulate in his entire life. Acutely aware that his clothes were wrinkled and sweat-stained, that he hadn’t shaved, and that he probably smelled like last night’s beer, he wanted to do nothing more than vanish into thin air, never to be seen again.
But Phil Coulson looked so hopeful . . . so pleasant . . . and so completely out of Clint’s league.
“I can’t,” Clint blurted out, and shut the door in Phil’s face.