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My Heart In Hiding: Book I

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“I don’t know, Tash,” Clint said, looking dubiously at the piles of flimsies that surrounded him. “Are you sure this is our best option?”

“Nothing in this world is certain, ptichka.”

He plucked a grape out of the fruit bowl next to him and flicked it at his companion. It hit her nail file squarely, bouncing off and splashing into the dish of hot, soapy water she’d been soaking her fingertips in. She arched an unimpressed brow.

“Wasting food now, Clint? How unlike you.”

“Sorry,” Clint muttered. Fruit was expensive in Washington-York.

“You can make it up to me by taking this seriously,” Natasha said. “We can’t put it off any longer.”

“You keep saying that, but I don’t understand why!” Clint said, the words spilling out despite his previous resolutions. “I’ve been here for seven years, Tasha, and nobody has ever looked at me twice. What’s so different this time that I have to leave the goddamn planet?”

She sighed, setting the file down and lacing her fingers together. Leaning against the arm of the velvet sofa, with her bare feet tucked up beside her and her hair loose and gleaming in the lamplight, she looked like an old painting. “Are you sure you want to know?” she said. “Some things, you can never un-learn.”

“It can’t be worse than the stuff I’m imagining,” Clint protested. He scrubbed one hand through his hair, making it stand on end. The old brocade armchair creaked at his jerky movement.

Natasha met his eyes levelly, and he braced himself. “Your brother is deeply in debt to the Bratva,” she said.

“Aw, Barney, no,” Clint said. The first thing a person learned, living on the Ground, was never to borrow money from any of the syndicates. “How bad?”

“By now? Somewhere around half a million.”

Clint felt the color drain from his face. “How… what would he even do with that much money?”

Natasha scoffed. “You know how this works, Clint. It starts out with a little bit, just enough for some scheme that you’re convinced will make money, and then things don’t go as well as planned, but all you need is a little more to make it all come right. And then you can’t pay, so there are fees, and interest, and the due date comes and goes…”

He slumped in his seat, letting his head fall back against the tall wings of the chair. “No, you’re right, I know, I know. So, what, they’re looking to collect from me?”

“Worse,” she said. “Apparently, your brother tried to strike a deal. Wipe out his debt: in exchange, the services of his brother, the world’s greatest marksman.”

What?” Clint leapt from his seat, starting to pace; he felt suddenly cold, even though Nat always kept her little suite just this side of stuffy. Natasha's cozy sitting room, usually such a refuge, felt like a cell, the walls too close. “He can’t… can he do that?”

“Legally? Of course not. Actually?” the muscle in the corner of her jaw flexed. “It happens all the time. Anyone can be convinced. It’s just a matter of finding the right leverage. If you won’t do it to pay your brother’s debt, maybe you’ll do it to save your brother’s life, or to keep him from being tortured, and if that isn’t enough, they’re patient enough to keep trying until they find out what is. You know how these things go.”

Clint knew. He’d seen it happen, over and over, before the circus, in the circus, on the Ground; you got in bad with one of the syndicates, and they’d wait until you were desperate and offer you a deal—just this one thing, and the debt will be paid. Only once they had the proof that you’d done just that one thing, they could force you to do another thing, and another, until the only option you had left was to work with them forever, because the only thing worse than working for the syndicates was working in a prison camp. The only way to be safe was never to do anything to make the syndicates think they needed you. Bile rose in the back of his throat.

“But… they can’t get to you, right?” he said, hating how high and thin his voice had gone. “They won’t challenge the Red Room. They won’t fuck with the Black Widow.”

“No,” she said, and her voice was terribly gentle. “They won’t. But, Clint, you are neither of those things.”

“But I’m with you.”

“With me. But not with the Red Room. They have been content to let you stay here, ptichka, when you were just the Widow’s pet in their eyes. But if they are to challenge the Bratva for your sake, they will expect more. They will wish for you to work.”

“I’ve been working,” Clint whispered. “I’ve been helping you, Tasha.”

She caught his hand as he paced by her, pulling him down to perch next to her hip on the sofa, as he’d done many times before. “You’ve worked for me,” she said, her voice firm and sure, the only solid thing in the world. “You’ve done everything I’ve ever asked, and done it well. But, Clint, to work for the Red Room, they will want for only two kinds of work: to fuck people, or to kill them.”

“I…” Clint trailed off. He wanted to say that he could do it, that he could do anything if he could only stay with her, but he wasn’t sure that it was true. “I don’t want to leave you.”

She traced over his cheekbone with a fingertip, outlining the little dent where he'd taken a blow aimed at her the night they met. “I want better than this life for you, Clint,” Natasha said. “This much, at least, I can do. You haven’t gotten trapped here yet. I’m asking you. Please. Let me find you a way out.”

Her green eyes were steady, but her lips were pale and trembled a little. He wanted to bury his face in her lap and bawl, like he’d done years ago when he’d been a terrified kid and she’d taken him in, but he wasn’t a kid anymore.

“Okay,” he said. “At least for a little while. Until the Bratva stop looking. Okay.”

She gave him a fleeting smile. “Thank you,” she said. She scrubbed through his short hair affectionately, the way she’d always done. “Now go get those flimsies and we’ll go through them together.”

He gathered the stacks while she cleared her manicure supplies off the low table in front of her sofa.

“What did you pull?” she asked, sitting up and clearing a spot for him where her feet had been.

“Everything I fit the description for,” Clint said.

“Tch,” Natasha said. “Too much.” She picked up the first stack, shuffling through it with quick, knowing fingers, tossing flimsies into piles. “You don’t want any contracts with groups, nothing with heavy security, nothing with associated penalties,” she explained. “You need to be off-planet, but nothing too close to Earth or to planets the Red Room or the Bratva have a heavy presence on.” She finished the first stack and moved to the second. “Nothing permanent, nothing too visible, no exhibitionists, no contracts that are primarily sexual.” She finished her sorting, and looked at the results in satisfaction. “Those are no good,” she said, indicating the first, largest stack. “The others have potential.”

He picked up the first flimsy, reading it over. “This is gibberish,” he complained. “I don’t even know what half this stuff means!”

“Do you never pay attention when I’m negotiating contracts?” she asked, taking it from him.

“I pay attention to whether the other person is going to try to kill you, not to what a ‘MA-ST-REN’ is.”

“Marriage contract, short-term, renewable,” Natasha said, scanning the cover sheet. “This one’s an elderly woman who lives on a colony where women aren’t allowed to travel without an escort from a male relative. She wants a young man who can do light bodyguard and errand work and escort her on holiday. She likes attention, but won’t require sex. She’s been through several contracts with us and the worst she’s done is get a little handsy when she drinks. She gives a pretty generous allowance and her security staff is good; you could do worse.”

Clint swallowed. “And this one?”

“Similar, but on a longer timeframe,” Natasha said. “This one’s younger, but she’s on one of those neo-con planets. She needs to be married—to a man, which is the issue for her—to collect an inheritance. She’s asking for five years, and then you have an amiable divorce and a nice settlement.” She picked up the last in the stack. “This one’s a combination contract; short term, escort, sex optional, and light security. Client’s a socialite, moderately rich but nothing spectacular. He wants to feel more important than he is and have a pretty boy to hang off his arm and protect him from imaginary enemies.”

Clint laughed, a little shakily. “How will I ever choose?” he said. “They all sound so great.”

She looked at him for a long moment, and he dropped his eyes. She sighed. “Oh, ptichka, she said. “You can’t let it touch you that way.”

“I’m not,” Clint protested.

“It is an eternal mystery how you survived this long, living here with your soul open wide for the world to see,” she said, poking his arm.

“I can do it, Tasha,” he said. “I just… have to get used to the idea.”

“What did you think the contracts would be like?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, his face hot. “I just… not like that. Not all cold like that.”

He felt her hand on his head again, brushing through his hair. “No, you wouldn’t, would you?” she said, as though to herself. “I was looking for things you could get out of easily, but maybe that’s not what you want.” There was something in her voice. Clint felt a little spark of hope.

“Tash?”

“I do have another contract,” she said, slowly. “This one came to me though… unofficial channels.”

“A favor?”

“A debt.”

Clint nodded. He knew how seriously she regarded debts.

“I didn’t show you before,” she said. “This isn’t like the others, with a time limit built in. The person who sent the request… she has a friend. A man with two small children, whose wife has died. He is looking for something permanent.” She rose, and crossed to the small desk in the corner, pulling out a tablet. She unlocked it with her thumbprint, and brought it back over to him, handing it to him without a word. He blinked in surprise at the top image.

“Is that—did he write that by hand?” Nobody wrote letters by hand anymore, especially if they were just going to scan the message for transmission.

“Apparently he’s a little old-fashioned,” Natasha said, shrugging elegant shoulders. “It’s affected, but harmless.”

“I think it’s kind of cool,” Clint said. “I mean, if you’re looking for somebody to marry you, it’s nice to put a little effort in.”

“I suppose you could look at it that way,” Natasha said, sounding amused, but Clint had already started reading the letter. If he zoomed in on the image, he could actually see indentations on the paper where the writer’s pen had pressed down.

There wasn’t any sort of greeting; the message just started.

My name is Phillip Coulson, Clint read, and I am looking for someone to marry.

He laughed a little under his breath, but he appreciated the lack of bullshit. The rest of the letter was similarly direct, but it sounded like it had been written by a person, not a computer (or a lawyer.) There were little turns of phrase that struck Clint as dryly funny, even as Phillip Coulson outlined in plain terms what he was looking for in a—what would you even call it, an arranged marriage?

I am thirty-two years old, Phillip Coulson wrote, and would prefer a spouse within ten years of my age, although some leeway on either side is acceptable. Fine, then; at twenty-five, Clint wouldn’t even need the leeway. Phillip Coulson spent a bit of time discussing his reasoning for trying to find a spouse this way (As you may know, the population of Stark’s World is small, and most people move here in family units; I have already met every unattached person of appropriate age in permanent residence and have not found anyone suitable) the legalities of the potential match (a suitable prenuptial agreement should be put in place for our mutual protection (sample attached), though terms would of course be negotiable) his requirements (while a sexual relationship between us would not be required, I do want my spouse to live in my home, which I hope you will find sufficient to your needs) and logistics (should you find this proposal worthy of consideration, we can arrange for a three-month visit to my home on Stark’s World to evaluate whether we will suit each other.) It all seemed fair and reasonable, if not terribly compelling.

Then Phillip Coulson started to talk about his kids, and Clint found himself double-checking the image to make sure it was the same handwriting, because it was like a different person had picked up in the middle of the letter. Katie, my oldest, is seven, but sometimes it seems like she’s thirty, he wrote. She’ll open her mouth and say something so wise it stops me in my tracks, and then the next minute she’s running off shrieking because her sister took one of her toys out of her room. She’s sneaky, too, and smart; she’s already figuring out how to enlist the baby in her schemes. She wanted to write you a letter, too, which I have enclosed.

Skye is about to turn three, the letter continued, and the older she gets the bigger her personality grows. She’s always been a happy, curious baby, which as I’m sure you can imagine made me very thankful for computerized childproofing systems when she started crawling. She adores her sister and would follow her everywhere if she could. Fortunately, Katie takes her job as big sister seriously and will usually include Skye in whatever she’s doing, though I have from time to time come into the playroom to see her ordering her sister to pick up their toys; it was explained to me that they were playing princess, and that Katie was the princess and Skye was her lady in waiting. I have attempted to convince Katie that ladies in waiting are not required to do all the princess’ chores, but I fear it is a losing battle.

Clint smiled to himself. The girls actually sounded pretty awesome, and their father obviously loved them without being deluded into thinking they were perfect, so hopefully they wouldn’t be too spoiled. The letter went on in the same vein for a while, telling a few little stories about the girls and their lives, and then turned serious.

I would never say that anything relating to losing my wife was lucky, it said. But it does seem that being so young when she died has softened the loss to some degree for the girls. I fear that the same would not be true if anything were to happen to me. My job does place me in some danger from time to time, and we do not have any close relatives who could care for my children were anything untoward to happen. While I do have many good friends who would not abandon them, I want very much to be able to give them a second living parent, someone who could live with them and watch them as they grow and who, I have no doubt, would come to love them as much as I do.

If, after reading this letter, you feel that we might be well suited to one another, please reply to this message at the enclosed sat-comm coordinates, and I will be glad to discuss the possibility further. The letter ends there, signed simply, “Phillip J. Coulson.”

The next thing in the packet is the letter from Katie, which was also hand-written and scanned, this one obviously by Katie herself, in purple marker on pink paper, childish letters carefully formed but the lines wandering up and down the page. Hello, it said, my name is Katie. I live in a big yellow house with brown shutters. There are a lot of trees at my house. They are good for climbing but Daddy says not to cause one time I fell out and broke my arm. Do you like to climb trees? Maybe if you do we could climb together and my Daddy would let me. What is your favorite color? Do you like horses? I like horses. well you can write me back if you want. best wishes from Katie.

“You’re grinning like a fool,” Natasha said. “You’re going to do this, aren’t you.”

“It’s funny,” he protested. “The kid sent a letter too. The older one, Katie.”

“You know their names,” Natasha pointed out.

“I just finished reading about them, I’m not stupid,” Clint said, defensive.

Natasha sighed. “Pass it over when you’re finished, then, I want to look at the contract paperwork.”

“In a second,” Clint said, flipping to the next image, which appeared to be a picture of Phillip J. Coulson. He looked more or less like Clint might have expected from the beginning of the letter; old-fashioned but well-cut business suit, hair starting to recede, bland, slightly pinched expression on his face. He had nice eyes, though, Clint thought, and he wasn’t bad looking, even if he looked old for thirty-two and there was something sad about his expression. Understandable, given his situation, but still.

The next picture was obviously a candid, and Clint would almost have believed it was a different guy altogether. Phillip was wearing casual clothes, jeans and a soft-looking sweater. He was walking down a path, one little brown-haired girl balanced on his hip, an older one holding his hand. He was looking down at the older girl,—Katie, Clint thought— apparently listening to something she was telling him. Her little face was bright and happy, and Phillip looked a good ten years younger than in the previous image, smiling at her with obvious affection, his face open and relaxed, his eyes crinkled at the corners, tender and kind.

“He can’t be that good-looking,” Natasha said, “or he wouldn’t need a marriage broker, kids or no kids. Give that here, Clint, let me make sure he isn’t going to murder you.”

"He's not going to murder me, Tash. Look at that face! Does that look like a murder face to you?"

"Every face is a murder face, you know that." She took the tablet, studying the picture for a moment. "Not bad," she declared. "And at least he had the sense to send in a natural-looking picture. Most of them send something ten years old or so retouched it could be anyone." She flipped past the photos. Clint craned his neck and saw a densely packed page of text that could only be the sample prenup. He found himself hoping that Nat would think it was okay; he wasn't at all convinced that he was going to pursue this, Natasha's eye rolls aside, but he didn't want that kind-looking guy in the picture to be planning to screw over whoever did.

Natasha reached the end of the document, made a little "humph," noise, and went back to the top to read it again. This was either a very bad sign, he thought, or a very good one. Clint tried not to fidget, though by the time she looked up he felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin.

“Well?” he said.

“It’s better than I expected,” she said, flipping through the pages with sharp little flicks of her finger. “He obviously had legal advice drawing it up, but it’s very fair. You’d get a generous spending allowance, you’re not required to have sex with him… he even gives any children of the marriage equal standing in his estate with his existing children—that’s far from common in this sort of arrangement.”

“I’m hardly worried about that, Tash,” Clint protested. “He’s not exactly going to knock me up.”

“At the rate they’re coming out with new Enhancements, you never know,” she said, teasing. “You hear all kinds of rumors about Stark’s World. Plus,” she continued, more serious, “he includes children you might adopt together, not just biological children. And you’d get a share of the estate that increased with every year of marital cohabitation; stay married for ten years and you’d split the money with the kids.”

“You make it sound like Id murder him,” Clint said, upset. “This isn’t a joke, Natasha, I wouldn’t go out there just to screw over some guy who just wants to take care of his kids.”

She sighed, setting the tablet down. “I know, I know,” she said. “I’m sorry, ptichka, I know you wouldn’t. Come here.” She wrapped an arm around his shoulder and tugged, pulling him down to rest his head in her lap. He buried his face in her silk-clad stomach; he felt unsettled and defensive. Her fingers tugged through his short hair, familiar and soothing.

“If this is really what you want, Clint, then you should try it,” she said at last. “The only thing I have against it is my desire to keep you all to myself.”

“But you said I have to go,” Clint said, muffled against her.

“I said it, and it’s true,” Natasha said. “But that doesn’t mean I like it, you going so far away, somewhere I have no influence. But it is as it is; the Bratva has no influence there either, and so, my little bird, you shall fly away to a new nest and make a new life for yourself.”

“You could take it,” Clint said. “He’d probably rather have you than me anyway. He’d probably think he was having a wet dream if you showed up.”

She snorted, hard enough to jiggle Clint’s head where it rested on her. “Yes, because the Black Widow is so maternal.”

“You could be, if you wanted,” Clint said.

“But I don’t,” she said. “That kind of life, it’s not for people like me. It’s for people like you, with hearts bigger than your heads. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the way you feed that street dog. You’d want to take this deal even if it didn’t give you the chance to hide from the Bratva on the most secure colony in the galactic congress. You want a family, Clint."

"I have a family," he whispered. "I have you."

"And you will have me still, should you marry a hundred people with a thousand children," she said.

He tightened his arms around her waist, and she gave him a tiny squeeze in return. She would only let him do that here, and only because they were behind four guarded doors in the heart of the Red Room's primary ops complex. Even with that, she could lay hands on at least four deadly weapons without getting up, and those were just the ones Clint knew about.

He thought about living in a place where all the weapons were locked up so the children wouldn't hurt themselves. He wondered if he could get used to it.

"Well," he said at last, "it wouldn't hurt just to answer the letter. I'm probably not what he wants anyway."

"If not, then he is a fool," she said. "I'll get you some paper."

It wasn't as easy as all that; Clint hadn't written by hand in years, and he wasn't sure what he wanted to say, but finally, after several drafts and three attempts to write it out properly, he had a reply for Phillip, outlining the basic facts of his public life (that he was an orphan, that he'd been in the circus, that he loved children, that he'd always wanted to leave Earth) and explaining his willingness to explore the possibility of the arrangement. The reply for Katie was much easier.

Hi Katie, my name is Clint Barton, he wrote. I got your letter. I live on Earth, with my best friend Natasha. I am lucky she shares her home with me. There aren't very many trees on Earth anymore, and the ones that are here are kept in special parks to protect them, so I don’t know if I like climbing trees or not. I do like to climb other things, though. When I was younger I was in a circus, and I climbed lots of things there. If I come to visit, I could show you how to climb things safely if your Dad says it's OK.

I also learned to ride horses in the circus. Our circus had one horse. She was black with white socks and her name was Shadowglade, but we all called her Shady. I used to ride Shady around in a circle and shoot arrows into a target. I am not in the circus anymore, but I still practice shooting my arrows. Learning to shoot arrows is called archery. It is one of my favorite things. Besides horses and climbing trees, do you have any other favorite things? I would like to hear about them. Your friend, Clint. P.S. My favorite color is purple.

While Clint had been writing his letters, Natasha had been pulling together the rest of the response packet. The format was standard for all contracts of that type, and she'd gathered the basics already, with a sanitized background check (carefully not indicating any of the less than perfectly legal activities Clint had been involved with through association with her or with his indifferent guardians from the circus) and a medical report, as well as an assortment of artistically lit photographs of Clint looking various shades of sultry and pouty. He hated them, but had been forced to admit that all the Red Room's response packets included photos like that. Before he would let her send the packet off, though, he insisted on her taking and including a few more ordinary candid photos "for truth in advertising."

The three days after they sent the packet passed excruciatingly slowly. Clint, who was inclined to take a dim view of his own chances, had half convinced himself to start a response packet for the second-best contract (the five-year marriage of convenience) when Natasha interrupted him on the makeshift archery range he'd put together in one of the less-used warehouses.

"Come with me, ptichka," she said. "We have business to attend."

He held back his raging curiosity and nerves, managing to trail her nonchalantly until they were safely ensconced in her sitting room again and the privacy screens active.

"Well?" he demanded, hope and dread mingling in his gut.

"I've had a message from Stark's World," she said. "Apparently you sound like a promising potential match for Mr. Phillip J. Coulson, and they request that the broker facilitate an in-person visit."

Clint exhaled in a great gust, and let himself drop into his favorite chair, legs splaying out in front of him as he rested his cheek on the soft purple upholstery. "Good, that's... that's good, then," he said. "So when do I leave?"

"Not for several weeks, I'm afraid," Natasha said. “They’ve got to get you a visa, plus you’ll have to get some additional medical tests and a series of vaccinations. Stark's World is extremely serious about infectious disease prevention. They're very stringent about biological imports too; apparently they work out a lot of their terraforming tech in that system. Of course, rumor says they're doing Enhancement research there, and there's concern that too many foreign microorganisms could contaminate their results. Nobody knows for sure.” She shot him a shrewd look. "It's probably for the best, though," she said. "It'll give you some time to shop."

"What for?" Clint asked. "My clothes are fine." For a few years in his late teens, Natasha had been forced to re-outfit him several times a year, but he’d stopped adding height nearly two years ago.

"They're fine for living here and working with me," she said, "but they aren't at all suited for colony life. You'd stick out badly on Stark's World in the kind of clothes you wear now, and that's the opposite of what we want. We need you to look less like a bodyguard and more like a client."

Clint swallowed hard. Clothes were expensive enough; he couldn't imagine what the sort of specialty outfitting Natasha was talking about would cost, not to mention the expense of the medical tests and vaccinations.

"Fortunately," she continued, "in addition to making arrangements for paying for your additional medical expenses, Mr. Coulson has paid a competitive broker's fee for arranging the introduction. It should get you everything that you need to travel, plus some extra to keep in reserve for emergencies, and since this was privately arranged, the Red Room won't take a cut." She was flicking through screens on her tablet as she spoke, but looked up when Clint made a strangled sort of noise. She smirked at him.

"Oh, don't worry, Clint," she said. "I'll take care of everything. It will be a pleasure, getting to set you up properly with someone else's money, without having to worry about the syndicates sticking their fingers into any pies." She tapped her fingertip decisively on the tablet screen. "You've got an appointment with the tailor in two hours; he owes me a favor. Your first session with the doctor will be tomorrow morning. If all goes well, you should be able to leave by the middle of February and get to Stark's World the second or third week in March."

"March?" Clint thought he must have heard wrong. He'd never heard of an interstellar route taking that long to run.

"Why do you think Stark's World is so secure?" Natasha asked. "It's a good three week's jump flight clear on the other side of the nearest primary trade route, and there's nothing else even close. Any traffic out there is either going to Stark's World or trying to make trouble, and Stark has the entire system so full of satellites and security systems they'd know you were there before you got anywhere near the planet.”

“Wow,” Clint said. “Forget the contract, are they even going to let me on the planet?”

“They’ll let you in,” Natasha said, steady and sure. “And they’ll keep the Bratva out. It’s perfect for you, ptichka.” She crossed the room, ruffling his hair on her way past. “Now go get cleaned up, we need to get underway if we’re to make your appointment at the tailor.”

One of the best things about living with Natasha was that her quarters, and therefore Clint, had a generous water ration. Proper showers had been rare in the circus and nonexistent during the months he’d been fending for himself on the Ground, so he’d never quite gotten over seeing them as a luxury. Unlike the food and the clothes and the equipment, though, Natasha got the same water allowance for her quarters regardless of how many people were using it, so he didn’t feel so bad about indulging himself; unless they’d had a particularly bad mission, Natasha bathed with near-military efficiency.

As Clint stood under the steam, he wondered if they had water rationing on Stark’s World. He’d have to study up on it; it sounded like he’d have plenty of time on the trip out. He was pretty sure Natasha already had some sort of dossier prepared.

When he emerged from the shower, pink and wrinkly, Natasha had laid out clothes for him in the little cubbyhole where he slept. They were loose and light, a far cry from the reinforced work clothes or heavy body armor he usually favored.

“You’ll thank me when you start trying things on,” Natasha called from the sitting room. He still had no idea how she always seemed to know what he was thinking.

“Fine, then you can jump in front of the shot when one of your enemies finds us,” he shot back. She laughed.

“Just get dressed, Clint. Sasha will stick you full of pins if we’re late,” she said, and he obeyed.

Once they started their journey, he saw why she hadn’t been overly worried about protection. Instead of going down to the bowels of the building to slip out onto the Ground, they went up a few flights from Natasha’s quarters and out onto the wide, railed walkway that connected to the air-tram station in the next building over. The tailor’s shop was deep in Red Room territory and in the mid-sixties, a comfortable distance from the Ground and conveniently accessible via a short air-tram ride. A computerized voice welcomed them to the shop when they stepped inside. The room was tiny and cramped, a plain bench and a counter the only furnishings, but before they’d been there a minute the door in the back wall was flung open and Natasha was being enthusiastically greeted by a handsome man in his fifties. Clint, who’d been expecting someone more along stooped-and-white-haired lines, glowered distrustfully at his crisp dark hair and golden-toffee complexion.

“Sasha, this is Clint,” Natasha said, narrowing her eyes at him in warning: behave. “Clint’s going to the colonies, and needs an entirely new wardrobe.”

“Hmm, indeed,” Sasha said, sweeping Clint from top to toe with an assessing look. “But which colonies, Natalia? Are we outfitting for Bekenstein, or Horizon?”

“More like Eden Prime,” Natasha said. “More leisure than work clothes, and a good part of time in town, but only a few occasions for formal dress.”

“Natural fibers, then,” Sasha said, nodding. “Versatile but elegant. He’s a bit square but we can do a lot with those muscles. We won’t have to hide anything, just sculpt a little.”

“Um,” Clint said. “I just need a few things? I’m sure I can get more once I get there.”

“Hush,” Natasha said, brisk. “I’m not sending you off looking like a Ground urchin. Go with Sasha and get fitted.”

He sighed in resignation—there was no denying Natasha in this sort of mood—and followed Sasha back through the door. The room beyond was vast, and old-fashioned in the way that Natasha liked, full of actual old things, not new ones made to look old. There was an old woman at a sewing machine in one corner, a teenage boy cutting through fabric on a tall table against one wall. Clint wondered if they were all related to Sasha.

“Take off your outer clothes, please, and we’ll get your measurements” Sasha said, and motioned Clint to a tall screen in one corner. He briefly considered asking if everyone else had to be in the room, too, but caught Natasha’s amused eyebrow and thought better of it. He threw his clothes over the screen and emerged in just his shorts, doing his best not to look embarrassed at the attention.

“I can work with this,” Sasha declared, looking approving. He motioned Clint to a scanning alcove built into the wall, the newest-looking thing in the room. “Up here, please.”

Clint stepped into the alcove, fitting his feet into the outlines on the floor, and stood straight, squaring his shoulders. He’d been scanned before, when Natasha had ordered his body armor; a good fit was important, there, to allow for mobility without compromising protection. The scanning heads whirred to life, traveling around him. Sasha took a series of scans; standing, crouching, bent; with arms at his sides, outstretched, above his head; even, at Natasha’s murmured request, posed as if holding his bow at full draw. When the scanning was done, he was allowed to re-dress, and then stood on a pedestal while Sasha and Natasha held different fabrics up against him and looked at pictures of clothes, bickering companionably over which ones would look best. Eventually, Natasha took pity on his fidgets and waved him off as they continued to plan Clint’s new wardrobe, and he wandered around the room, finally ending up next to the old woman at the sewing machine. She was doing something intricate with a pile of stiffened acid-green synthsilk that looked like it was destined to become some sort of cocktail dress, one of those sculpted ones. On a shelf behind her, though, was a row of colorful stuffed toys; baby dolls in elaborate gowns, little animals with big eyes and soft fur.

“Those are really great,” Clint said, nodding at the shelf.

She smiled at him, eyes bright. “I make them for my grandchildren,” she said. “From the scraps.”

“The place where I’m going,” Clint said, slowly. “My… host, he has two little girls. I was thinking, maybe I could bring them something, a present. But you know, the way people talk about the colonies, I didn’t know if there was anything I could bring from here that they couldn’t get better there, you know? But something like this, that somebody made… you can’t get these anywhere but here. So, um… could I maybe add something from you to my order?”

“You’re a kind boy, to think of something like that,” she said, approvingly. “How old are the little girls?”

“Seven and three,” Clint said, eager. “Well, nearly three. I don’t know about the little one, but the older one likes horses, so I was thinking, maybe a toy horse? I was telling her about a horse I knew when I was younger who was black with white feet, I thought maybe she could have one like that?”

“I can do that,” she said. “And for the younger one, perhaps a doll? Soft, lots of texture; the little ones like that.”

“That sounds amazing,” Clint said. “Thank you so much.”

They chatted for a while longer, looking at fabric swatches and discussing colors and textures, until Natasha called him back over to bid Sasha goodbye.

“We’ll come back for a fitting next week,” she told him, steering him back out the door.

He kept to himself that night, feeling territorial and defensive, and Natasha let him be, smiling at him from across the room every now and then in that smug way she had that said that she knew all your secrets and was amused by them. That was just Natasha, though, and he could never stay annoyed with her for long, so when she finally approached him the next morning, he ducked into her shoulder like a child and let her ruffle her clever fingers through his hair.

“Ready for your appointment?” she asked.

“As I ever will be, I guess,” Clint said. At least she’d let him wear his normal clothes for this one, and it was easy to tell why; the clinic was in Terra Firma territory, and they’d be leaving and returning to the compound via one of Natasha’s secluded paths on the Ground. Clint supposed it made sense; apparently the medical requirements for Stark’s World were pretty unique, so they couldn’t risk having him treated at a clinic controlled by Bratva or Red Room-aligned interests.

Thing were pretty quiet, as was usual at that hour; people who worked late were in and people who worked early were gone, and there wasn’t enough foot traffic to draw beggars or prostitutes yet. There was never any sunlight on the Ground; even when the constant haze thinned enough to let some through, the tangle of skyscrapers and connecting walkways and bridges blocked so much light that everything below the mid-twenties existed in perpetual gloom. Dressed in shades of grey, with a scarf drawn over her hair, Natasha slipped through the shadowed alleys like a stalking cat, Clint trying his best to pace her unobtrusively while keeping an eye out for trouble. Once they were well inside Terra Firma’s Ground, they hacked into one of the more accessible buildings and worked their way up to a high enough level that they could join the regular stream of pedestrians on the skybridges.

The travel clinic was worn but clean, and full of anxious-looking people waiting their turn. Natasha let herself stoop a little, cling to Clint’s arm, and suddenly they were one more couple with a labor contract, preparing to trade a few years mining or farming or terraforming for a ticket off-planet and a fresh start.

Things usually didn’t go so well, with those contracts. Natasha would generally say that at least in the contracts the Red Room brokered, they spelled out ahead of time how you were going to get fucked over.

When they finally got called back, it was as Mr. and Mrs. DeLuca, one of their less-used covers, but Clint figured Natasha would slip someone a bribe to make the paperwork show the right name for Stark’s World. The doctor certainly seemed to know what was required of her, asking no questions and talking to them as little as possible as she gave Clint a series of microinjections and took what seemed like a few quarts of blood and scrapings of most of his orifices before sending him off to piss in a jar.

The doctor was already getting ready to leave when he returned, and handed him a stack of flimsies. “There are a few prescriptions you’ll need to take, start one week before your departure,” she said. “I’ll have the results sent as agreed.” Natasha nodded at her, and she slipped out of the room looking more relieved than a woman holding a jar of piss ever should.

“Favor?” he asked Natasha.

“Debt,” she said.

“Ah. That explains why she’s so jumpy, I guess.”

Natasha shrugged, gathering up her jacket as Clint got dressed.

They worked their way back the way they had come until they were back on Red Room-controlled Ground, then started working their way around the district to check in with Natasha’s informants, the ostensible reason for their outing. Nobody had much to report; a few turf skirmishes on the territory borders, a few low-level affiliates skimming the take. Nothing that required immediate action.

When they got close to the compound, in the warren of alleys that was as much a security feature as the scanners or the electronic locks, they heard a scuffle followed by an excited bark.

“It’s okay!” Clint moved in front of Natasha, blocking the path of any thrown weapons she might care to use. “It’s just Lucky.” He crouched to greet the big yellow dog, ruffling his lopsided ears and slipping him some food pellets that he’d taken from the store the Red Room kept for the security dogs.

“I’m not going to shoot your pitiful dog, Clint,” Natasha said.

“He’s not mine,” Clint said. “I just feed him sometimes.”

“Feed him. Sneak him clean water. Spend a year’s wages fixing him when he gets in the middle of a fight…”

“He was trying to save me,” Clint said, refusing to meet her eyes. “I owed him that.” He scratched in between Lucky’s ears, in the thick fur at the back of his neck. Lucky’s single eye was nearly closed, slit with doggy joy, his ragged tail wagging so hard his whole back end swayed on its single hind leg. Natasha sighed.

“You know you can’t take him to Stark’s World,” she said, not unkindly. “It takes months to get an import permit for an animal, and the money from the contract won’t stretch to those fees too.”

Clint swallowed hard. “I know,” he said. “He… he took care of himself before. He’ll probably be fine, right?”

Natasha muttered something that Clint didn’t quite catch. From the delivery, it was probably in Russian. “Anatoly will take him,” she said.

“What?”

“Anatoly, the butcher in the twenties. He likes animals, and he owes me a favor. He’ll take care of your hideous dog until you’re in a position to claim him again.”

Clint’s knees felt weak, a sudden rush of relief. “Tasha,” he whispered.

She clicked her tongue at him, annoyed but fond. “You should know me better, ptichka.”

“You’ve done so much already,” Clint said. Lucky took that moment to lick his face, a big slobbery slurp. “Ew, dog, no,” he complained, and Natasha laughed.

“I can’t do much for you, once you’ve gone,” she said. “At least I can see to your avatar.”

“I wish you could come with me,” he said. The thought of being without her loomed over him like the skyscrapers loomed over the Ground. “I don’t like thinking of you here without anyone to watch your back.”

She laughed at him again, but gently. “Clint, I’ve been looking after myself for longer than you’ve been alive.”

He flushed. “I know, but—”

“I don’t like it either,” she said quietly, “but we must do as we must, Clint, and safety is more important than comfort.”

The next few weeks were odd. Each day seemed to drag on and on, but the weeks flew by, a blur of feigned normality punctuated by a series of errands. He had fittings, and his new clothes were delivered; his medical results arrived; Natasha booked his ticket; they collected Lucky and walked him up to Anatoly’s reassuringly delighted small daughter; Clint started taking the prescription, tiny red pills that made him sweat. Finally, the night before he was to leave, as they lingered over a dinner that Natasha was pretending was only his favorite through coincidence, she pushed a small, flat box across the table to him.

“What’s this?” he asked, taking it.

“It won’t be safe for you to comm me here,” she said. “Or at any of our standard drops. If the Bratva get close enough to tie you to me, we can’t give them any way to find you.” She nodded at the box. “That’s a QS-4500 security bridge. I’ve programmed it with secure comms lines for me. Only use that to contact me. Video would have to go on a delay, but static messages will have a high enough priority to get out of system fast.”

He stared at the unobtrusive little gadget. He’d never even seen one better than the 1750 model, and that had been expensive and difficult to get, only worthwhile for the most sensitive of ops.

“I expect regular reports,” Natasha said. “You’ll need someone with sense to talk to while you’re out in the far end of nowhere.”

“It’ll never leave my side,” Clint promised, and she wrinkled her nose at him.

“Considering what you’re going out there to do, you’d better leave it sometimes,” she said. “I don’t mind hearing the summary but I don’t need an erotic play-by-play.”

“Tash,” he protested, “that’s not— I mean, I won’t—”

“You don’t have to,” she said, ducking her head to meet his eyes, intent. “You don’t have to do anything, but you don’t have to deny yourself either. Just remember that.”

“I… okay,” he managed. His ears were burning, and he didn’t want to think too hard about why. “Okay.”

She cuffed him affectionately, ruffling his hair. “Go to sleep, ptichka,” she said. “Tomorrow, you start packing.”

She’d somehow managed to find him a set of luggage along with everything else she’d procured for the trip. It was old, sturdy stuff, reproductions of twentieth-century pieces that had been made after the first big colonial land rush, when the first wave of settlers and terraformers had finished building and the wealthy had started leaving Earth in droves. A set of hand luggage, reinforced, EM-shielded electronics cases, even an actual trunk, leather or really high-quality synth, bound in brass with a shiny new biometric lock and a titanium-laced lining. Left to himself, Clint was more of a shove-everything-into-a-duffel person, but Natasha was determined to make him at least appear to be classy, and he loved her for it even while spending hours cursing as he attempted to figure out how everything should be folded and stored, what should go in the hand luggage for the journey, what to do with the tissue-thin pressed cedar sheets that she’d given him a stack of. At least it gave him something to think about besides leaving. On reflection, that was probably the point; Natasha never did anything for only one reason.

The morning of his departure dawned unusually pleasant, pale beams of sunlight breaking through the pink and green haze that hung around the tops of the buildings. They were actually going to the spaceport openly; Natasha had scheduled a business trip to Elysium. The plan was for them to leave together, and travel together as far as Shanxi, where Clint would transfer to the deep space liner bound for Stark’s World. It was almost harder that way, Clint thought; it stretched the departure out. Instead of one leavetaking, he had a series of them; saying goodbye to Lucky, to his friends on Earth, to Earth itself, to the life he’d known, to Natasha.

“Promise me you’ll be careful,” he whispered in the departures lounge on Shanxi two days later, clenching his hands into fists to keep from latching on to her and never letting go.

“You’re stealing my lines again, ptichka,” she said, and leaned forward, pressing her lips to his forehead for a long moment. “But I promise, as long as you will do the same.”

“I will,” he said. “I will. And then when everything blows over, you’ll tell me, and I’ll—”

“Don’t tell me you’ll come back,” she interrupted, sharp as a blade. “You’ll be well away and stay that way.”

“Then you’ll come to me,” he said. “Something. Promise I’ll hear from you.”

“You’ve got the bridge, don’t you? You’ll hear from me. Too much, probably, you’ll be rolling your eyes in embarrassment at the acquaintances of your reprobate youth.” She rubbed at the spot where she had kissed him, though Natasha’s lipstick never dared to smudge unless she wanted it to.

“Tasha,” Clint whispered, and she sighed.

“Yes, then,” she said. “I promise. Yes.” And then she left in a swirl of her long traveling coat, the luggage cart bobbing along in her wake, leaving Clint in front of his own heap of luggage, more alone than he’d been since he was sixteen.

He sighed, and scrubbed his hand over his stinging eyes, and made his way to his departure gate.

He’d been more than half expecting to be the only passenger, but he was boarding with a large party, apparently some sort of investors in Stark Galactic traveling there on business. A few of them tried to strike up conversation, but Clint had little to say about investment portfolios and less about interstellar travel, so by the time a crew member arrived at the gate to lead them on board, they’d given up and were leaving him to himself.

The ship wasn’t ultra-luxurious like the one Natasha was taking to Elysium, but it was built for long deep-space travel, and was nicer than most of the places Clint had lived in his life. He had a private cabin, and he actually grew quite fond of it over the course of the journey; everything was neat and self-contained, the bed was comfortable, and he had enough good blankets to deal with the chill that apparently, if the chatter he heard in the common areas was true, you could never quite get rid of in space. Water for bathing was strictly limited and rationed, but his cabin had a tiny private bathroom and sonic shower, so he didn’t miss it much. The ship had several cargo decks that had been converted to passenger facilities, so whenever he got stir-crazy he was able to exercise, or watch vids, or sit in the observation lounge and watch the stars go by.

The ship had a resident doctor, too, and all the passengers had to go for checkups twice a week; apparently, the voyage served as a sort of quarantine period, and none of them would be allowed to land on Stark’s World if anyone on board was actively ill. Some of the other passengers complained pretty loudly about it, but Clint just shrugged; it wasn’t as though he had any other pressing appointments. He filled the rest of his time the best he could; he wrote a lot of long letters to Natasha, most of which he didn’t send because they were whiny and embarrassing. He read things that might come in handy—books on colony life and gardening and making a good impression on people and taking care of children and (just in case) making your stepchildren not hate you. He tried to resist the temptation to read over Phillip and Katie’s letters more than once a day.

Once or twice. Maybe three times, maximum.

By the time they entered the solar system, he’d worked himself into a frenzy and stayed there long enough to calm back down out of sheer emotional exhaustion. The passengers were all called to a meeting in the lounge for a briefing on their arrival procedures, where they learned that while it would only take a few hours to reach Stark’s World from the edges of the system at normal speed, they were required to pass through a series of decontamination and security checkpoints on the way in, some with mandatory waiting periods, so they wouldn’t get near the planet for another day and a half. When they got there, they’d be landing on the moon, where they’d transfer to the spaceport arrivals facility for personal decontamination and a final medical screening, followed by an overnight observation period. The next day, they would take a Stark Galactic shuttle to the spaceport planetside, and from there could take ground transportation to their destinations.

Clint’s neighbor rolled her eyes. “You know, there are dozens of other colonies, and none of them put you through this rigmarole,” she said. “It’s all just theater to assuage Stark’s paranoia.”

Clint shrugged. “His planet, his rules, I guess,” he said. “Besides, we’ve come this far. What are we going to do, turn around and go back where we came from?”

There was a lot more grumbling as they went through the checkpoints and arrived on the moon, but Clint actually didn’t mind it; it gave him something new to look at, at least, and kept him distracted from worrying about the prospect of meeting Phillip and the girls. Clint had met several people in his life who would eventually change everything—Trickshot, the Swordsman, Natasha—but he’d never known it was going to happen so far in advance, and he was possibly a little fucked up about it.

When they finally got to the arrival facility on the moon, it was actually pretty interesting. The moon was in the middle of being terraformed, so there was enough atmosphere to keep your skin from splitting open but not enough to breathe, and you had to wear a breathing mask to go outside of the main dome. The medical check was actually a pass through a complicated-looking scanner; it successfully picked up the bruise Clint had given himself banging his shin into a chair two days ago. The decontamination was just standing still in a room and holding his arms and legs certain directions for several minutes while he was zapped with some kind of energy beams that would probably make him shoot lasers out of his nipples or something. After that, though, the facility was basically just a nice hotel with slightly-creepy surveillance sensors in all the rooms. Clint barely stayed awake long enough to send Phillip a message confirming that he’d arrived and would be taking the shuttle down to the planet the next morning, as scheduled, before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.

He woke early the next day and used his entire water allotment trying to scrub the recycled-air smell off himself. As he was hovering, pink and damp, over two of his new shirts, trying to decide which one would make the better first impression, his tablet pinged with a new message.

It was from Phillip. He hesitated before opening it, long enough to be embarrassing, but finally worked up the courage.

Mr. Barton,

I’m glad to hear that your journey went well. The girls and I traveled to the spaceport yesterday and will meet your shuttle when it arrives. We are very much looking forward to meeting you! Katie has talked of little else ever since your letter arrived; I think she hopes to find a fellow equestrian.

The girls are up and demanding breakfast, so I should go. After all, we’ll have plenty of time to talk on the ride back to Mariana.

See you soon,

Phillip Coulson