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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

Chapter Text

“I wanna wear my riding clothes!”

Phil took a deep breath, reminding himself that his own mood was not sufficient reason to snap at his daughter, no matter how infuriating she was being at the time.

“Riding clothes are for riding lessons, Katie,” he explained, for what felt like the fifth time that day. “They aren’t comfortable for long trips.”

“But, Daddy, I want Mr. Barton to see that I can ride horses too!” she insisted, chin set stubbornly. She’d dragged her little purple suitcase into Skye’s room behind her, arguing all the while.

“He knows that you ride horses, you said so in your letter,” Phil said, taking inventory of the clothes he’d set out to pack for Skye. He wanted to dress them up a little for the first meeting, but they’d have to wear those clothes for the ride back, so they needed to be comfortable. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should try to borrow Steve and Peggy’s skimmer instead of taking the shuttle, but he really did think that the longer trip time would give them some space to talk a little without having to worry about unpacking and settling in and introductions and the like immediately. He told himself that it was a courtesy to Barton, who was after all coming from one of Earth’s megacities and likely would have never seen anything like this amount of open space. In reality, though, it was more for him, a little bit of adjustment time, like passing through an airlock between a ship and a station. Plus, it would be nice not to have to drive.

“I need to show him,” Katie insisted. “So he’ll know it’s true.”

“I’m sure he believes what you told him, honey.” He finally settled on a little ruffly blue dress, one of Darcy’s contributions to Skye’s wardrobe. It was cute, and Skye loved it for the way the skirt fluffed out when she twirled, but it was also soft and comfortable and wrinkle-resistant. Darcy was good at clothes. Phil wasn’t sure where she even found them all, and she refused to tell, claiming that she needed to keep some secrets for job security. This was, of course, absurd—the only way she’d lose that job would be over his dead body or her sincere and implacable request—but she was firm. “We packed your purple skirt and your shirt with the butterflies on it,” he told Katie. “You love that outfit.”

“Daddy. Daddy. Daddy." He felt a tug at his pants leg, and looked down to see Skye, who was clearly tired of the blocks she’d been playing with while he tried to pack. It was getting close to her bedtime, and she tended to get clingy and fractious when her routines were disrupted. “Daddy, pick me up,” she insisted, stretching up with her chubby arms. Sighing, he scooped her up and settled her on his left hip, brushing a kiss into her soft hair. He wondered how many extra changes he should bring for her. It was only an overnight trip, but he’d learned not to underestimate her capability for creating a mess out of seemingly nothing. She sighed and laid her head on his shoulder, warm and sleepy and—was she chewing on something? She was chewing something. He could only see one of her hands, but there wasn’t anything obvious there.

“Are you eating something, sweetheart?” He twisted his head, trying to get a good look.

She shook her head, burrowing into his shoulder. “No,” she insisted, but he could feel her jaw moving.

“Skye, let Daddy see,” he said, nudging her head up. “What do you have?”

“I’ve got jellybeans!” she said triumphantly, opening her mouth and sticking out her tongue to display what appeared to be the mangled remains of a green jellybean. They’d had jellybeans in their Christmas stockings. It was March.

He sighed, and decided to let this one go. Three-month-old jellybeans wouldn’t hurt her. He made a mental note to examine the toy box later, though, to make sure she didn’t have a stash in there.

He heard a scuffling noise, and looked over; Katie had pulled a number of her already-packed garments out of her suitcase and was trying to shove her riding boots inside.

“Katharine Margaret,” he said, warning clear in his tone, and she abruptly burst into tears.

Phil would probably look back on this later and be ashamed of himself, but it took him a few seconds to react; Katie was a sulker, and sometimes a yeller, but she wasn’t usually much of a crier, and the transition from stubbornness to misery was sudden enough to catch him wrong-footed. Skye started squirming in his arms, trying to get down, and it jarred him into action. He let her slip to the floor and crossed the room to Katie, who was a wilted little bundle in the middle of the floor, one boot still in her hand as she wept. He crouched down next to her and laid a hand on her heaving shoulders, rubbing gently.

“Talk to me, sweetheart,” he said.

“I—just—want—him—to—like—me,” she managed, between hiccuping sobs. “People come—to see America—and Billy and Tommy—and Teddy—and Eli—but nobody ever—comes—to see me.

“Oh, Katie,” he said, dropping from his crouch to sit beside her on the floor and pull her into his side. He felt his heart twist with old emotion as she nestled beneath his arm. “Sweetheart, that isn’t because of anything that you did or didn’t do. Nobody has come to visit us on Stark’s World because all the people who love us and want to visit us already live on Stark’s World.” Because, he didn’t say, your father’s family are all dead and your mother’s family are all assholes. “Like your Uncle Steve and Aunt Peggy, and Miss Darcy and Mr. Sam, and Miss Jessica at school, right?”

She shrugged, though her sobs had quieted a little.

“I know you’re nervous about meeting Mr. Barton,” he said. “It can be a little scary when we meet someone new, especially when we hope that they will become our friend.”

She hiccuped. “Are you—scared too, Daddy?”

Absolutely shitless, he didn’t say.

“Yeah, Katie, I’m a little scared too.”

“Cause you hope Mr. Barton will be your friend.”

It was what he’d told her, when he’d offered her the chance to write a letter for the prospectus. I want to make a new friend, he’d said, because how do you explain to a seven-year-old that you’re advertising for a new spouse on the satcomms? Then, later, he’d told her that Mr. Barton would like to get to know them better, and was going to come for a visit. Nothing about possibly staying, nothing about marriage; there was time for that, he’d thought, if the time ever came. But she was a perceptive little soul, and she’d obviously picked up on his fraught emotions about the whole thing.

He kissed the top of her head, tightening his arm around her a little. “That’s right. But whatever happens, Katie, whether we’re happy or sad, it won’t be because you should have done anything differently, okay?”

“Okay,” she whispered, and he held her for a little while longer as her crying tapered off, until Skye came padding across the room to where they were sitting, little face determined.

“Katie, Katie,” Skye said, plopping down in front of her sister and patting at her face anxiously. “Don’t cry, Katie! You can have my jellybeans.” She thrust a hand under Katie’s nose; there were three sad-looking beans on her sticky, green-streaked palm.

Katie sniffed. “Thanks,” she muttered, taking them, then wrinkling her nose as they smeared on her fingers.

“Thank you for sharing with your sister, Skye,” Phil said. He looked at them both, at Katie’s rumpled dark braid, Skye’s snub nose and fat little cheeks. He would do anything for them, he would kill for them, be tortured. He would make plans to marry a stranger so that they could have someone else in the galaxy who would put them above everything.

If it worked out. If he wasn’t crazy for trying this. If it wasn’t the worst idea he’d ever had, even worse than confronting a suspected Chitauri agent alone—and that had gotten him very thoroughly stabbed.

But Barton had written Katie a letter, and none of the other candidates had. It was that fact—and not his photos, whatever Peggy’s knowing looks might imply—that had tipped the balance in his favor. He’d even hand-written it, which only eccentrics really did anymore. Katie had read the letter over so many times that she’d worn out the first printout Phil had made for her and he’d had to print it again.

“Tell you what,” he said, fishing a handkerchief out of his pocket and handing it to her. “Fix your suitcase while I finish packing for Skye, and then we can go make sure Mr. Barton’s room is ready before you go to sleep.”

“Okay,” she said, scrubbing at her face. Phil got up, and re-folded the things he’d scattered in his haste to get to Katie, giving up on choice and just shoving everything into Skye’s suitcase. He was tempted to re-fold Katie’s clothes, too, but refrained; she was doing it herself, and that was more important than making sure they were folded evenly.

Skye was already in her nightgown, so Phil just grabbed some wet wipes to scrub the jellybean residue off her face and hands before tucking her into her low toddler bed. It would be storytime, normally, but the unaccustomed excitement had worn her out and she was nearly asleep already.

“Night night, Daddy,” she said, yawning as she put her arms around his neck when he bent to kiss her goodnight. “Night night, Katie.”

“Night night, Skye,” Katie said, pulling her repacked suitcase behind her as she left.

“Night night, sweetheart,” Phil murmured, brushing another kiss on her soft cheek. She was already asleep by the time he reached the door, where he keyed in the code that would set her lights to their night setting and apply the soundproofing and baby monitor system. Once engaged, noises in the rest of the house wouldn’t wake her, but if she needed him the system would pipe the sound from her room straight to wherever he was.

Katie had parked her suitcase just inside her bedroom door and was hovering next to it. Phil smiled at her.

“Ready to look at Mr. Barton’s room?”

“Yes, please,” she said, and they went together to the bedroom at the corner of the house where Barton would be staying. It had been a spare room, originally, when he and Audrey had first moved into the house, and after Audrey died, Darcy had lived there, helping Phil take care of the girls and reminding him to eat and shower occasionally. But Darcy had moved out six months ago, on the occasion of her long-delayed wedding, and now it would have a new tenant.

The lights came up automatically when Katie pushed open the door. After days with the windows open, the smell of paint had dissipated, and the room smelled like fresh air and clean linen. Barton had told Katie his favorite color was purple, and for his sake Phil hoped it was true, because nothing would do for Katie but that they decorate his room accordingly. Phil had tried to keep the decorations to the more subdued end of the purple spectrum, and at least the furniture—made by a carpenter in Mariana—was plain varnished wood, with clean lines. There were extra linens for the bed on one shelf in the closet, soft cushions on the window seat, and a networked StarkTab waiting on the desk. Next to it was a card that Katie had made this afternoon; it had a picture of her riding a horse through a field of purple flowers and read, “Welcome to Stark’s World Mr. Barton From Katie.”

“Do you think he’ll like it?” she asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Phil said. “It is his favorite color.”

She smiled, and when he suggested that it was time for her to start thinking of bed, she went without much protest. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow,” she said solemnly, in one of her moments of sounding much older than she was.

“It’s good to plan ahead, then, and get some extra rest,” he agreed. “Go get ready for bed, and I’ll come tuck you in.”

He looked around the room for another few moments after she left, rubbing a smudge of dust off the bedside table, straightening the cushions on the window seat. He tried to imagine Barton here, reading by the window, maybe working at the desk. It was hard to picture.

He was being foolish. There was no need to try to picture it; the day after tomorrow, it would be real. He crossed the hall to Katie’s room, and the lights went out behind him.

Katie was in bed already. Her hair was still in its untidy braid, but he didn’t insist that she brush it out; it would keep until the morning. He wasn’t inclined to be too fussy about things like baths and hair when they were just going to spend most of the next day on the road. He sat beside her on the edge of the bed. He wanted to say something reassuring, but he was coming up short, his own conflicted emotions getting in the way.

“So I’ve been thinking, Daddy,” Katie said.

He smiled. “You’re always thinking,” he said, fondly.

She shot him an unimpressed look. “I’ve been thinking,” she repeated, “that maybe Mr. Barton is going to like us. And maybe… maybe he won’t like us.” She paused, biting her lip.

“We might not like him,” Phil said. He didn’t want Katie to feel like she was responsible for making the whole thing work out. “That’s why he’s coming, so we can all see if we like each other.”

She huffed. “But whatever,” she said, setting her pointed chin. “If he likes us, then we’ll have a new friend. And if he doesn’t like us—or we don’t like him,” she said, rolling her eyes, “then we’ll be the same as we are now. So it doesn’t hurt to try.”

“You are absolutely right,” he said, and he bent down to hug her. She clung a little harder than usual—she was getting independent lately—and he held her until she let go. “I’m proud of you, Katie.”

She nestled back into her pillows with a little grin. “Of course you are, I’m awesome,” she said, and he couldn’t help but laugh.

“Well have an awesome sleep, then,” he said. “Goodnight, sweetheart.”

“Goodnight, Daddy,” she said.

Katie’s room had different night settings than Skye’s; she didn’t need the baby monitor anymore, and her night light was just enough to show the outlines of furniture in case she had to get up to go to the bathroom. There was still an emergency alert—if she had a nightmare and cried out, or if there was some other disturbance in the room. The nightmares had gotten better, though, the natural resilience of childhood a mercy.

A mercy to both of them, really. Every time she’d woken up, sobbing “I want my Mommy” as she clung to Phil in a panic, had been worse than being stabbed in the heart. Literally worse—Phil had been stabbed in the heart, and that at least had come with quick and merciful unconsciousness.

“Will you stop that,” Audrey whispered in his memory. “I know you military types think dark humor is a virtue, but I’m not ready to laugh about this. No jokes about being stabbed until you are no longer recovering from being stabbed. That’s the rule.”

“I don’t remember that being a rule,” he’d said, wincing as he’d tried to sit up a little more. “When did that become a rule?”

“Just now when I said so, so don’t test my patience, Coulson,” she’d retorted, her hands so deceptively strong as she’d helped him up, settled him against the pillows.

“Aye aye, ma’am,” he’d said, sketching out a weak little salute with his good arm, and she’d rolled her eyes even as she’d bent to kiss him.

The memories followed him as he went downstairs, closing up the house for the night, making sure that everything was locked and secure. He could see traces of her everywhere in the house. Her house, the last step in a long chain of base housing and shoddy temporary apartments, the one they’d meant to settle in, to raise their children in. They’d planned it together, from the first blueprints to hanging the last picture on the wall.

And now he was planning to bring someone else here in her place.

At first he hadn't wanted anyone to know what he was doing. It was silly–he knew that it was silly, because if he was successful, he would have to get married, and it wasn't like he could hide a brand-new spouse from the town—but there was something humiliating about the whole thing. Correspondence courtships were perfectly accepted in society these days; so many people lived on colony worlds with small populations that it would be difficult for anyone to find a spouse otherwise. He'd thought about going the correspondence route, once he’d decided to look for another spouse, but it seemed pointless; he wasn't looking for himself, he was looking for the girls. Any candidate would have to pass muster with them before marriage could even be thought of, so, he had thought, why waste time? He’d say what he was looking for, and look for people who wanted that. But there was still a persistent idea that people who went straight to a marriage broker were the kind of people who couldn't woo someone on their own merits, and all the pragmatism in the world couldn’t stop him from feeling a little embarrassed at the thought of people finding out that he’d done it.

He’d researched the most reputable brokers, made a preliminary list of his expectations, and visited his attorney to draw up the paperwork. Matt, thankfully, was a consummate professional. Even if he found the request odd or shocking, he hadn't shown it. In fact, he’d given Phil excellent advice on a variety of contingencies that hadn’t yet occurred to him. After that, all that had been left was to send the prospectus off to the requisite agencies and wait for the candidate responses to arrive.

The trouble was, even though he’d made himself quite clear in his prospectus, the replies he had received weren’t at all what he had hoped for. Most of them had gushed at some length about his own desirability (moderate at best—especially in the photo he had sent, which was from his official Stark Galactic bio and had been taken while he was recovering from being stabbed), or professed to have fallen in love with him from his letter (highly unlikely), or provided medical documentation certifying their fertility and ability to give him more children (extremely unsettling.) A few of them had gushed over how adorable his children sounded and how they couldn’t wait to give the poor little dears a new mother (or father) to love them, their tones highly saccharine and insincere.

He’d been minutes away from just giving up the whole thing as a bad job when Peggy had shown up at his office one afternoon.

“Phillip,” she’d said, “come with me. We need to talk.”

He’d gone, of course, because you’d have to be a fool not to do what Peggy told you in very nearly all circumstances, but he’d regretted it pretty quickly; she’d taken him to her office, activated the full privacy screens, and pulled out a non-networked tablet and slid it across her desk at him.

He’d taken one look and felt himself go pale as he saw the first page of his prospectus.

“I can explain,” he’d said weakly.

She’d snorted indelicately. “There’s no need,” she'd said. “It’s pretty self-explanatory.”

He’d opened his mouth to try to explain anyway, but she’d stopped him with a raised hand. “I read your letter,” she’d said, kindly. “I understand what you’re trying to do. But you’ve had this packet active with three different marriage brokers for several months, and I haven’t heard anything about you going on any trips or bringing anybody here, so I assume the responses have been…unsatisfactory?”

“They’ve been terrible,” Phil had admitted, sagging in relief. “I’m about to give up on the whole idea.”

“Mmm, I can imagine,” she’d said. “The problem is, you don’t want an ordinary type of candidate, but you’re working with an ordinary type of broker.”

“Those are the most reputable—” he’d started, but she’d cut him off.

“They’re the most reputable, but they aren’t the best. Not for this. What you need is someone who can find you somebody unusual.”

He’d blinked at her suspiciously; she’d looked awfully smug. “I sense that you have someone in mind.”

“You may recall that, during the Hydra war, I worked intelligence.”

“Everybody knows that, Peggy,” he’d said. “They teach that in schools.”

She’d waved a dismissive hand. “What most people don’t know is that the Red Room approached us at the height of the war and offered us the use of some of their senior assets.”

He’d stared at her. “Are you serious?” The Red Room was a notorious criminal syndicate, not exactly first on the list of military allies.

She’d shrugged. “You must remember, Hydra looked very likely to win, and criminals or not, nobody wanted to end up in one of their experimentation camps. It was an ‘enemy of my enemy’ situation. Anyhow, in the end, their assistance helped to turn the tide. They had resources in places we could never match, and their best agents to go with it. I ended up partnered with a woman known as the Black Widow.”

“The Black Widow’s a myth!”

Her red mouth had quirked. “That’s what she wants people to think.”

He’d blinked. “Forgive me, Peggy, but I’m having trouble making the connection between your intelligence missions with a legendary assassin seventy-five years ago and my current pathetic attempts to find a spouse via satcomm.”

“She’s still around,” Peggy had said simply. “And she owes me a favor.”

And that had been that—albeit after a good bit of discussion, because Phil’d had trouble working his head around the facts that a) the current Black Widow was the same one Peggy had known in the war; b) Peggy was willing to call in such a potentially significant favor to find him a spouse; and c) he could be persuaded to allow her to do so.

“Just trust me, Phillip,” Peggy had said, and of course he had; it was Peggy.

Finally, she’d said, “Just one more question. You state that you’re open on the matter of your spouse’s gender, but I’d hazard a guess you do have a preference. What is it?”

“I…a man,” he’d admitted, because it hadn’t seemed like a good enough reason to narrow his options—he’d dated men and women both before he’d met Audrey—but there was a part of him that felt like marrying a man would feel less like he was cheating on his wife.

“Excellent,” Peggy had said, making a little note to herself. “Now, we just need to add a picture that makes you look like a human being—don’t worry, I’ll handle that part myself—and you’ll be set.”

It had been less than a week later that she’d forwarded him Barton’s candidate packet, and he’d known almost immediately that Peggy had been right. Barton’s letter had been different than the others. He laid out the main facts of his life with brisk and unemotional prose where another might have tried to play on Phil’s sympathies; he expressed a willingness to explore whether the arrangement would work for everyone involved instead of telling Phil that he’d fallen in love with him already; he had a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that came through despite the businesslike tone of the letter; he’d written it by hand. Phil knew that handwriting was uncommon these days, but he’d been taught that it was a sign of respect; he’d stubbornly kept up the habit, the only remnant of his upbringing on Mars.

And Barton had written Katie a letter.

Phil climbed the stairs, still lost in thought, and glanced down the hall at the girls’ doors; a green symbol glowed on each, reassuring. He closed his bedroom door behind him and started to undress. There was a crumpled, sticky green patch on the back of his shirt where Skye had been holding on. He tossed the shirt into the laundry chute with a sigh, shook out his trousers and hung them in the press, and pulled on a worn, soft pair of sleep pants and a t-shirt.

Alone, the girls asleep and the door closed between them, he could stop pushing back the fatigue that had been looming for hours. He’d stayed late at work that day, trying to get things in place for the week of leave he’d taken, forcing himself to smile at all the good-natured ribbing he was getting from just about everyone he spoke with; the Stark Galactic offices were a hive of gossip, and any new arrival was a topic of interest, but Phil and his guest—his guest who was traveling on a fiancé visa, because there was no such thing as a getting to know your potential broker-arranged spouse visa—were apparently the most interesting thing that had happened there in months. He’d been forced to flee to Peggy’s office by lunchtime, where he had wondered aloud what the hell had possessed him to think this was a good idea, and Peggy had unemotionally recounted all the excellent reasons that he’d come up with in the first place.

“You aren’t helping,” he’d said, tart.

She’d given him a not unsympathetic smile. “I haven’t bought you any honeymooner’s gift baskets or asked to see a photo of your fiancé,” she said. “That’s help enough.”

He’d propped his elbows on the edge of her desk, burying his face in his hands. “I didn’t get this many gag gifts of sex aids at my actual bachelor party,” he’d moaned. “And I was in the Galactic Navy. What if they’re like this when Barton gets here? I told him specifically that sex was not required in the contract; he’s going to think I’m some sort of trafficker.”

“First, they won’t, and second, he isn’t,” Peggy had said. “Phillip, people are pleased for you. You’ve had a terrible few years, and they want you to be happy. They won’t sabotage things.” She’d leaned forward, and he’d felt caught in her sharp, knowing gaze. “Just try not to sabotage yourself.”

And that would be the trick; he was self-aware enough to know it. His anxiety about the whole thing wasn’t just because he had invited a stranger into his life, exposing his life and his friends and his children to a man who had been, it was impossible to forget, referred to him by a woman named the Black Widow. If he was honest, he was actually much less worried about that part of it than he probably ought to have been; he trusted Peggy, and if Peggy said Clint Barton was safe, then he was safe. His doubts came from a more prosaic place. Would Barton like it here? Would he like them? Would they like him? Would the whole thing blow up in Phil’s face? Or, even more frightening, would it work out? Phil had managed to sublimate his emotions in logistics for most of the time since having the idea, but there was nothing left to prepare except himself.

He picked up the tablet on his bedside table and sat on the edge of the bed, flipping through Barton’s response packet again. He paused over the photos; Barton wasn’t primped and perfect like most of the other candidates, but there was something compelling about him nonetheless. He was compact, square and strong-looking, face a little more weathered than you’d expect for a man his age. In most of the photos, his expression was forbidding, jaw set and eyes piercing, but there was one, seemingly candid, that showed him smiling, surprisingly open and sweet. Phil wondered which expression was the better representation of the man.

Well. He’d find out, soon enough.

He put the tablet back on his bedside table, and his eyes drifted to the photo frame beside it, currently showing a triumphant four-year-old Katie atop a round grey pony. He picked up the frame and called up the menu with a few swipes. It had been a gift—ostensibly from Katie, but purchased and programmed with significant help from her mother. The program they’d pre-loaded on the frame was called “Cello for Coulsons.” His finger trembled a little as he started it playing.

It was a simple enough slide show of family photos, but the accompaniment made it especially difficult for him to watch. It was Audrey playing, her own arrangement of the lullaby she had always sung to Katie. It had been moving, then. Now, it never failed to make him cry.

The last photo in the set was one that he had taken himself, only a few days before Christmas that year. Audrey was holding Katie’s hand on her belly so she could feel her sister kick. Katie had been enraptured, small face lit with excitement, and Audrey had smiled down on her in that way she’d had that made her look like a painting of the madonna.

The day after tomorrow, Phil would meet the man he might be going to marry. Tonight, he shut his stinging eyes on the image of his wife’s serene face, and wished for nothing else in the world but for her to be with him again.

He woke the next morning with his lights still on, eyes itchy and red, feeling stupid and slightly hung over; not an auspicious beginning to the day. He took the world’s most perfunctory shower and dressed quickly, already a little behind schedule. The girls were both awake already, and Katie, bless her, was reading to Skye out of one of her picture books. Since Darcy moved out, Katie had been obviously trying to do more to take care of her sister, and Phil was thankful and guilty at the same time. He felt a little more comfortable, reminded of all the excellent reasons why he’d gone looking for another spouse in the first place.

He braided Katie’s hair, then dressed Skye while Katie took the suitcases downstairs, bumping them down the stairs one by one. Breakfast was meal bars. He only allowed them on special occasions, as they had to be imported from out of system, but they were quick, nutritionally complete, and didn’t make a mess, so he always kept some around for emergencies. He was just wiping the crumbs off Skye’s face and hands when the house system chimed to notify him that the shuttle had arrived.

The shuttle ran on a regular schedule, from Mariana to Starkville to Port Anthony and back, but if you made a reservation it would pick you up at home. Skye probably would have been all right being left to stay with Steve and Peggy or Darcy and Sam overnight, but Katie had begged to be allowed to go to the port to meet Barton on his arrival, so Phil had booked them a place on the shuttle. Barton was scheduled to arrive the next day, early, so they would stay in Port Anthony that night and take the shuttle back to Mariana the day after. Phil stowed their suitcases and got the girls settled.

“Daddy, can I do it?” Katie begged.

“Go ahead,” he said indulgently.

She straightened up to her full height in her seat. “Shuttle,” she said, enunciating carefully, voice raised and clear.

“Acknowledged,” the AI running the shuttle said.

“We’re ready to go.”

“Reservation for: three. Onboard: three. Journey proceeds,” the AI said, and the repulsors hummed into life, lifting the shuttle gently off the ground, and they pulled away from the drive slowly.

From Mariana to Port Anthony, the shuttle took four hours, and the girls did well on the journey, keeping themselves occupied with the toys and games Phil had packed and occasionally kneeling up on their seats to look out the windows at the gently rolling hills, speckled with red and yellow flowers. He kept himself busy, too, making sure they wouldn’t trip themselves up on the shuttle’s motion, watching for stray toys that might get lost. He had almost entirely managed to distract himself from the reason they were making the journey in the first place by the time they arrived at the main spaceport complex.

After making sure that they still had everything they had started with, he dismissed the shuttle and grabbed one of the luggage carts from the front of the spaceport. He set the cart to follow him and, with Skye on his hip and Katie holding his other hand, made his way to the modest hotel that adjoined the arrivals terminal. After checking in and arranging for their luggage to be delivered to their room, he took the girls to the nearby restaurant for lunch.

Port Anthony was primarily made up of the Stark Galactic security headquarters, the spaceport, and a handful of businesses that provided services to the two. As such, the general atmosphere was busier than the girls were used to, and they were easy to keep entertained. Most of the SG staff in Port Anthony knew Phil, and were happy to show the girls around or let them push harmless buttons or otherwise entertain themselves. By the end of the day, they were both close to nodding off over their suppers, and Phil was able to get them to bed in the hotel without much fuss.

He’d worried that he wouldn’t be able to sleep himself, but apparently he’d spent so much energy worrying over the situation in the last several weeks that he’d temporarily exhausted his ability to fret; he fell asleep only shortly after the girls did, and slept heavily and without dreams straight through till morning. He woke to the sound of Skye telling herself a story and a message from Barton on his tablet, saying that he had arrived safely on the moon and would be taking the shuttle planetside that morning as expected.

“Daddy, I’m hungry,” Skye said, noticing that he was awake. “Me and Katie want breakfast.”

Katie was looking pale and anxious and not particularly like she wanted breakfast. Phil dashed off a quick reply to Barton, letting him know they’d meet him at the port, and turned his attention to the girls. By the time he had them fed and dressed and had re-packed everyone’s suitcases, it was time to check out and go over to the arrivals terminal of the spaceport. Phil left their luggage cart with one of his acquaintances at the port, not wanting to trail it behind them the entire morning, and then there was nothing left to do but go meet the shuttle. Katie stuck tight to his side as they walked over, clinging to his hand, while Skye trotted along beside them, holding Phil’s other hand, keeping a running commentary about the people and the baggage carts and everything else she saw.

“Daddy, look, a spaceship!” she called, pointing upwards. Sure enough, the Stark Galactic shuttle was coming in to land, repulsors flaring bright blue as it slowed its approach. “Is that Mr. Barton on that spaceship?”

He swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat. “Yes, that’s Mr. Barton’s spaceship.”

“Mr. Barton’s coming on the spaceship,” she said happily. “And then he’s coming home with us to our house, right Daddy?”

“That’s right, Skye,” he said. The shuttle was landing, steam curling off its outer skin in the cool morning air. They entered the arrivals terminal. Customs, medical clearance, and other in-processing were done at the arrivals facility on the moon, so the passengers on the shuttle could disembark and go directly about their business. Phil steered the girls to a convenient recess, in sight of the door from the landing pad but out of the direct line of foot traffic, and tried not to look as nervous as he felt.

“Pick me up, Daddy, I can’t see,” Skye said, and he was thankful for the excuse to hide his face in her soft hair for a moment as he settled her on his hip. People had started coming through the door from the shuttle; there were some Stark Galactic board members here for a tech demo next week, and a few high-level shareholders with them. Katie’s fingers were cold in his, and he squeezed her hand reassuringly, looking down to check on her.

“I see him!” Skye squealed. “Daddy, look!” She patted at his face, trying to get his attention, and he turned to look where she was pointing.

The first thing he noticed about Clint Barton was how nervous he looked. It was reassuring, though Phil felt a little guilty for thinking so. He’d obviously seen them, and was threading his way through the crowd toward them with quick, determined steps. He moved with the grace and control of an athlete, and Phil was reminded that this man had once been a circus performer.

Skye started wiggling, trying to get down, but Phil tightened his arm around her; the last thing he needed was her taking off across the terminal floor. Fortunately, before she could protest further, Barton had made it over to them and stood, a little uncertainly, in front of them.

“Hi, Mr. Barton!” Skye piped up. “I’m Skye!”

A grin creased Barton’s face. “Well, hello, Miss Skye,” he said, and bowed in greeting, very properly, as though she were a forty-year-old dignitary. “You can call me Clint.”

She giggled, delighted, and bowed back, nearly toppling out of Phil’s arms in the process. “Cllllllllint,” she said, leaning into the “L” sound. She was having a little trouble with that one, and they’d been working on it.

“And you must be Katie,” he said, crouching down to meet her eyes and then bowing to her in turn. “Thank you for writing to me.”

She let go of Phil’s hand and returned the bow, smiling shyly. “Thank you for writing back, Mr. Barton,” she said.

“You can call me Clint, too,” he said. “I mean—” he waved his hand, indicating the whole group. “All of you can. I probably wouldn’t even know who you meant if you called me Mr. Barton.” He stood, and bowed to Phil in turn, eyes a little uncertain. “Phillip?”

Phil realized with a jolt that he’d been standing there in silence, watching Barton—Clint—interact with the girls. “I’m so sorry,” he said, somehow managing to bow back without dropping Skye. “Phillip Coulson, but please—call me Phil.”

“Phil.” He smiled, still a little nervous. “Most of my stuff’s still being unloaded, but I brought some little toys for the girls from Earth—if that’s okay?” he said, starting to rummage in a bag he had slung over one shoulder.

“Of course,” Phil said, startled and touched. “That’s very kind of you, Clint.”

“It’s not much,” he said, shy. “I didn’t know what kind of things you can get here, so I thought maybe something somebody made would be nice.” He pulled a stuffed horse out of his bag. It was black, with white feet, and a little purple ribbon tied around its tail. “This is for you, Katie,” he said, holding it out.

She gasped in delight, shyness forgotten. “Shady!” she cried. “Daddy, look, it’s Shady, just like in Mr.—in Clint’s letter!” She hugged the toy, brushing her cheek against the fabric. “It’s so soft,” she said. “Thank you, Clint!”

“I didn’t know if you’d remember that,” he said, looking pleased. “You’re welcome, Katie. And this one is for Skye.” He pulled out a rag doll in a patchwork dress, with hair made from a silky-looking yarn and an embroidered face.

“A baby!” Skye exclaimed happily, snatching the doll out of his hands and hugging it to her.

“What do you say, Skye?” Phil prompted.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We’re working on manners,” Phil explained. Clint grinned.

“I know some people who still aren’t that far,” he said. “She’s ahead of the game.”

They went together to the baggage claim, where Clint collected a modest amount of luggage and piled it onto a cart, before picking up Phil’s luggage cart and the lunch he’d ordered and making their way to the shuttle.

They made their way to the shuttle stop, and even with the added luggage, the two of them made quick work of loading. Phil had thought there might be more passengers in addition to their party, but apparently the others from Clint’s shuttle were taking skimmers to Starkville, not willing to spend the extra time. Katie, still a little shy, didn’t ask to activate the shuttle this time, so Phil did it himself, without comment.

“Reservation for: four. Onboard: four. Journey proceeds,” the AI said, and the shuttle rose on its repulsors and started on its way.

Clint looked around, interested. “We’ve got something like this on Earth,” he said, “only they fly.”

“Probably variants on the same design,” Phil said. “They run off solar power, so they’re popular public transit options on a number of worlds.”

Clint nodded. “I guess you’re pretty familiar with Stark stuff, living here.”

“Hard not to be,” Phil said. “Most of our manufactured goods are Stark—we even get things that the company doesn’t sell anywhere else. It’s cost-prohibitive to import most things here because of the distance, so we have to be self-sufficient.”

They had already reached the outskirts of Port Anthony. Clint looked out the window, startled. “Is the spaceport on the far edge of town?”

“It’s right in the center,” Phil said. “It’s just a small town.”

“I read up on Stark’s World on the trip out, but there’s not much publicly available,” Clint said. “I knew it was a lot less populated than Earth, but seeing it is…” he trailed off. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s so…empty.”

Katie had turned to look at them, curiosity overcoming her shy spell. “What is Earth like?” she asked.

Clint took a moment before answering, looking thoughtful. “Well, the part of Earth I live in is called Washington-York, and it’s a huge city that covers hundreds of miles of land,” he said. “Billions and billions of people live on Earth, so the cities ran out of space to build out a long time ago and started building up.”

Katie looked fascinated. “You lived in the sky?”

“Kind of? Most people live in really tall buildings, and the buildings have bridges and walkways connecting them, so it’s really like a bunch of cities on top of one another. Some people live their whole life and never go more than a few levels up or down.”

“That sounds cool,” she said, wide-eyed.

“Well, sometimes,” Clint said. “I like being up high. But there were a lot of things that weren’t very nice about Earth, too.”

“Like what?”

“Katie,” Phil said, hoping that she wasn’t making Clint uncomfortable, “Clint might not want to talk about that.”

Clint rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s fine to ask,” he said, slowly, “but I might not always be able to answer, Katie, okay?”

“Okay,” Katie said.

“But I can tell you a few things. Like, the plants.” He gestured out the window at the rolling hills with their cheerful flowers. “Most of Earth is covered in the cities, and the parts that aren’t, nothing grows there anymore,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere on Earth where plants still just grow outside; the only ones we have are either in preserves, where nobody is allowed to touch them, or they’re grown inside. That’s why I told you I’d never climbed a tree; there just aren’t any.”

“That’s awful,” Katie said. “We have lots of trees on Stark’s World. I have a treehouse that Daddy and Uncle Steve made for me. You can play in my treehouse with me, Clint. I’ll show you how to climb the ladder.”

His mouth twitched. “Thank you,” he said.

“Clint can play with me, Katie,” Skye broke in, looking thunderous. “Me and my baby.”

Clint looked a little startled. “Sure,” he said, sending a questioning look toward Phil.

“Skye isn’t allowed to play in the treehouse yet,” Phil explained. “I’m sure that Clint will have plenty of time to play with both of you,” he said, sending a quelling look to both the girls, “but he has had a very long trip, so we need to give him some time to rest.”

Katie sighed. “We know, Daddy,” she said. “We meant for later, didn’t we, Skye?”

“Yeah,” Skye said, “for later, Daddy.”

There was silence for a moment.

“Is it later?” Skye said. “We can play with my baby.”

Phil bit his lip to keep from laughing. Skye could get very affronted if she thought people were laughing at her. “Does your baby have a name, Skye?”

Skye nodded. “Jenny,” she said, matter-of-fact.

“That’s a nice name,” Phil said. “Why don’t you and Katie play with Jenny and Shady for a little while so Daddy and Clint can talk?”

Katie shot him a knowing look. “Yeah, Skye,” she said. “Let’s go play.” She gathered up the little toy bag they’d brought and took Skye to the other side of the shuttle, leaving the two adults facing each other over the suddenly empty space where they’d been. The various topics of conversation Phil had planned out for the trip evaporated from his head, and he wondered if Clint would take it wrong if he were to pull out his comm and look up his notes.

“So, um,” Clint said. “How long have you lived on Stark’s World?”

“We moved here when Katie was about four,” he said, seizing on the topic gratefully. “I had been serving in the Galactic Navy, and I was injured during the Chitauri Incursion. I’m fine now,” he added hastily, at Clint’s concerned look, “but I had to retire, and Stark offered me a job here. Several of my friends from the service lived here already, plus it seemed like a nice place to raise a family, so it made sense to settle here.”

Clint nodded. “I’ve never been off Earth before,” he offered, “but you knew that.”

“I’ve actually never been to Earth,” Phil said. “I grew up on Mars, and I trained at Luna Base, but I never actually went down to the planet.”

“I’d be more surprised if you had,” Clint said. “I haven’t met a Martian yet that had anything good to say about Earth. Or, I mean, sorry,” he said, dropping his eyes. “You prefer Marser, right? I didn’t mean to be offensive.”

Phil waved a hand. “I haven’t been back there since I was nineteen,” he said. “I don’t much care either way, though there are those who’d throw a punch over it.”

Clint huffed, a dry little almost-chuckle. “I know what that’s like. Back home, there were people who’d start a brawl over the differences between living on the twenty-third level and the twenty-eighth.”

“Things were that segmented?”

“It costs more, the higher up you go. People get more respect when they live higher up. Once you get to the forties, people don’t care as much about a few levels’ difference, but in the lower levels they’ll scrounge for whatever they can get.”

Phil nodded, understanding. “Most of those buildings are probably older than this entire colony,” he said, not wanting the conversation to get too heavy while they were trapped in a moving vehicle.

Clint seemed to appreciate the change of topic. “The Starks did a lot of terraforming here, right?”

“Stark’s World was the first extensively terraformed human colony,” Phil said. “Everything that Stark Galactic sells in that field now was developed or tested here.”

“Was the planet uninhabitable?”

“It was… inhospitable,” Phil said. “It had oceans, and the atmosphere wasn’t poisonous, but it was too thin to hold in heat and not the right mix for breathing. Stark—that’s Howard Stark, not the current one— developed an atmospheric seeding system that altered the oxygen levels and created enough of a greenhouse effect to warm the planet up.”

“If I remember right,” Clint said, slowly, “after the Hydra war there was a land rush on habitable planets, but pretty much anyone who was rich enough could get a claim on one. Was there a reason he went for something remote and uninhabitable instead?”

Phil shrugged. “People speculate, but only the Starks know for sure,” he said. “I do know that Stark Galactic is the only major corporate interest in this sector, and the distance from all their rivals makes for superb protection from corporate espionage.”

“Is it true that Stark owns the entire planet?”

“The company owns most of it,” Phil explained, “but any permanent resident can apply to buy land for their own home or business, so most of the main settlements are held privately. So, for example, In Port Anthony, Stark Galactic owns and runs the spaceport and the security garrison, but May Parker owns the restaurant and the hotel has some sort of employee ownership plan.”

Clint looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who owned their home,” he mused. “Not to speak to, anyway. It’s not common on Earth until you get pretty high up. Until then, the main difference is the quality of your landlord.”

“We’re fortunate in that regard here, even those who don’t buy property. Tony Stark treats this colony as part R&D facility, part employee perk; he doesn’t need to make a profit off the people who live here. Actually, Stark subsidizes a lot of imports and manufactured goods, to keep it from being cost-prohibitive for staff to live here.”

“So is everyone who lives here associated with the company in some way?”

“Not everyone,” Phil said, “but most people are either employees, family or friends of employees, or connected in some way with the Stark family. Anyone can apply for residence, but we don’t get many applicants who don’t have a connection here already. The process is very restrictive due to all the proprietary research that’s done here, and most people looking to settle somewhere prefer worlds that aren’t so remote.”

“I guess you don’t get many people like me here, then,” Clint said, looking out the window. Phil wasn’t sure what he meant—people from Earth? People who used to be in the circus? Brokered spouses? but he didn’t like the tightness in Clint’s shoulders.

“We don’t get lots of newcomers,” he said, trying to be reassuring, “but everyone is very welcoming. New blood is good for the town.”

Clint straightened his back and smiled, but it was a little stiff. “You live in Mariana, right? What’s it like?”

“Technically, we live about fifteen miles outside Mariana,” Phil said, “but it’s an easy trip by skimmer and there are several closer neighbors, so it’s private without being too isolated. Mariana’s a nice size, big enough to have services and infrastructure and to support some businesses, but still small enough that people know each other.” He felt a familiar tug on his sleeve and broke off, looking down at Skye, who had crossed the shuttle and was leaning against his knee.

“Yes, Skye?” he asked.

“Daddy,” she said. “Daddy, I have a question please.”

“Thank you for asking politely,” he told her. “Go ahead, ask your question.”

“When is it lunchtime? I’m sooooooo hungry.” She flung her arms wide, presumably to indicate the extent of her deprivation.

He bit back a smile at her dramatics, and looked at his watch, surprised by how much time had passed. “You’re right, Skye, it is about lunchtime,” he said. He looked over at Clint. “We can actually stop the shuttle for a little while if you’d like a chance to stretch your legs,” he offered. Clint looked uncertain, but then firmed his jaw.

“No time like the present,” he said, and it occurred to Phil, too late, that Clint might find the open expanse unsettling.

“We don’t have to if you’d rather—” he started, but Clint shook his head.

“It’s fine,” he said. “Like I said, I need to adjust sooner or later.”

Phil wanted to tell Clint that he shouldn’t have to force himself to do things that made him uncomfortable, but refrained. It would be a bit hypocritical of him, anyway, given the situation.

He stopped the shuttle and requested an hour-long pause from the automated system. The shuttles transmitted their locations continuously to the central server, and thus had a certain amount of flexibility in their schedules, particularly when, like today, there was only one reservation aboard.

The shuttle slowed and stopped, and then settled onto its parking legs with a gentle thump, each leg independently sprung to allow the vehicle to park levelly on uneven ground. Katie, bless her, had put away the portable game she and Skye had been playing, and was standing well back from the door; Skye had made up a song that consisted mostly of the phrase “lunchtime is yummy time” and was singing it loudly while swinging back and forth on one of the handrails on the side of the shuttle car.

“What are the rules, Skye?” he asked, crouching so that he was closer to eye level.

“Don’t get out until you say,” she said, heaving the sigh of the gravely put-upon.

“That’s right,” he told her approvingly. He noticed Clint looking puzzled, and added to him in a low voice, “there are some wild animals that live in the uninhabited parts of the planet. They don’t usually come this close to town, but it’s best to check, just to be safe.”

“Native to the planet?”

“We think they’re an accidentally introduced pest species, but they’ve proven hard to eliminate entirely,” Phil explained, and Clint nodded his understanding. Phil opened the compartment next to the door and pulled out a handheld scanner. “Would you mind guarding the door while I check?”

“Of course,” Clint said. Phil opened the door and moved a few feet away from the shuttle, activating the scanner’s automated security routine. Clint, Phil noticed, placed himself squarely in the doorway, blocking the opening with his body but poised to move, eyes scanning the horizon.

The scanner’s routine took less than a minute to run, and Phil relaxed when it sounded the all-clear. He’d only encountered the acid wolves without warning once, during an inspection visit to one of SGI’s terraforming outposts, but he never wanted to face them again without a protective suit and a gun. The pack had worked together with swift and deadly purpose, cutting one of their convoy of vehicles off from the others and tearing at its doors with their teeth. By the time the rest of the group managed to drive the pack away, the metal had started to buckle, eaten away by the creatures’ acidic saliva.

He shook off the memory and turned back to Clint. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “There's nothing around that shouldn't be here for fifty miles in any direction.”

Clint nodded in acknowledgement and jumped down from the shuttle, turning to lift down Skye and then give a courtly hand to Katie as she descended the steps. Phil wondered where Clint had picked up the unexpectedly formal manners he sometimes showed; it didn’t sound like he’d been attending many state dinners back on Earth. Phil ducked past him to tuck the scanner back into its port and pull the bag containing their lunch from where he’d left it; Clint smelled like space travel, a whiff of metal and ozone that made Phil homesick for his Navy days. Released from the confines of the shuttle, the girls had gotten a second burst of energy, and were chasing each other around in loose circles, giggling and shrieking in glee.

He looked around at the spot where the shuttle had stopped. Most of the traffic between Mariana and Port Anthony was repulsor-based and didn’t technically need a road, but there were enough forms of ground transport around that SGI had built one. It was made of some sort of material that conducted data as well as protecting the ground from being torn up by wheels, so that the road itself was a combination navigational guide, wireless data antenna, and comm transmitter. The material was light gray, with a dull sheen, and the road coiled over the hills like a silver ribbon.

Directly beside them, the road sloped gently upwards, and at the top of the low hill, a few boulders erupted out of the ground. The grass was lush, but not so tall that Phil was concerned about wildlife; the terraformers were always introducing new species to the planet, working on the ecosystem, so you had to be careful, sometimes.

“Girls,” he said, raising his voice a little so as to be heard over their giggles, “would you like to eat our picnic at the top of that hill?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Katie said, breathlessly. “I’ll help Skye climb!”

“I’ll help Katie climb the hill, Daddy,” Skye insisted.

“You can help each other,” Phil said hastily. “Thank you, girls, for being helpful.” The girls took each other’s hands, and started up the little hill, chattering excitedly. The air was cool, but the sun was warm, and a little breeze came by and stirred their hair.

“You said you liked being up high, so,” Phil said to Clint, awkwardly. Clint looked surprised, then smiled at him, shy but genuine, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Thanks,” he said, voice warm and a little teasing. “I guess you’re helpful too.”

Phil relaxed, finding himself meeting Clint’s smile with one of his own. “Well, they say that kids will do what you do, not what you say.”

Clint’s smile dimmed, and he looked away from Phil, at the girls, hand-in-hand midway up the hill. “I suppose that’s a good thing, when the things you do are good,” he said.

“I—”

“I should follow them,” Clint said. “Don’t want them to get too far ahead,” and he started after the girls, long strides eating the distance between them quickly.

Phil wasn’t sure what was behind Clint’s change of mood, but he didn’t want to pry; they’d only just met, after all. He hoisted the bag over his shoulder and hurried after the others.

The girls reached the top of the hill, and Katie let out a little squeal. It sounded like an excited noise, not a distressed one—after seven years, Phil was familiar with both—but he hurried to catch up to her nonetheless, and he noticed that Clint did too.

“It’s so pretty, Daddy!” she exclaimed, as he came over the crest of the hill.

“There’s lots of flowers down there,” Skye informed him, pointing with a chubby finger.

It was an understatement, if anything; the hill was steeper on the far side, and plunged down into a round little valley full of bell-shaped flowers, white and pink and dusty blue. Beyond, another hill rose, and Phil saw the probable reason for the grass’ moderate length; the puffy white bodies of a flock of sheep, placidly grazing.

Livestock were carefully controlled on Stark's World, for ecological and public health reasons, but the colony needed them in order to be self-sustaining. Phil himself had a row of beehives at the corner of the orchard; Sam Wilson kept horses and ponies; Thor Odinson, the colony's lead atmospheric engineer, had a small flock of dairy goats; Steve and Peggy kept chickens. The sheep belonged to the parents of one of Skye's friends from nursery school, and he’d already had to explain several times that livestock didn’t count as pets. Maybe he’d get lucky, and she wouldn’t notice them.

“Look, Daddy, that's Leo's sheeps over there! Can we go pet them?”

He inwardly cursed the day that the locals had put together a petting zoo for the children. “It’s lunchtime, Skye. We need to eat our lunch now.”

“Oh, yeah! I’m very hungry for lunchtime, Daddy,” she informed him seriously.

“Can I put down the blanket, Daddy?” Katie asked.

“Yes, you may,” Phil said, pulling the picnic blanket (a threadbare plaid thing that he’d dragged with him through nearly a decade of deployments before it was retired to picnic-and-playfort duty) out of the bag and handing it to her.

“Nice diversion,” Clint remarked, moving to stand next to him as the girls spread out the blanket, which mostly consisted of Katie shaking it out into the air and Skye trying to run underneath it before it touched the ground.

“I give fifty-fifty odds she’ll remember before we leave and pick up asking again,” Phil said, “but it was worth a try. Last time, she tried to pull one home by its collar and I had to make up a heart-wrenching story of how lonely it would be without all its friends. God forbid she ever discover the truth behind shepherd’s pie.”

“Wait, you eat them?” Clint said, startled.

“We’re mostly self-sufficient, where food is concerned,” Phil explained. “The ecologists keep a tight lid on what kind of fauna gets imported, but productive species are a priority. Plus, vat-meat production facilities aren’t what you’d call good neighbors. We import a little, but mostly we eat what we can produce on Stark’s World.”

Clint shook his head. “You pretty much have to be rich to eat real meat on Earth, anymore,” he explained. “There’s nowhere to raise the animals, nothing for them to eat. They’ve got to ship it in from places like Elysium and Eden Prime.” His eyes got distant. “Sometimes I’d do security work for Natasha when she went to fancy dinners, and if she could, she’d slip me a bite here and there. I used to tell her that one day I’d make it big and we’d eat real meat every day.” He snorted. “I was a stupid kid.”

Phil remembered the letter he had sent Katie. I live on Earth, with my best friend Natasha. I am lucky she shares her home with me.

“It’s not stupid to want something better for the people we care about,” he said quietly. He wanted to ask about Natasha, but he stayed quiet. Clint could tell him when he decided he wanted him to know.

“Daddy, it’s picnic time,” Skye called. She had plopped herself down square in the middle of the blanket, blue dress fanned out around her in a heap of frills.

“So it is,” Phil agreed. He sat down himself and opened the stasis container from the restaurant, pulling out their lunch; sandwiches and strips of bright cut carrot, tiny hothouse strawberries, bottles of chilled water and oatmeal cookies. Katie and Skye had taken their seats, cross-legged and expectant, but Clint was hovering nearby, looking uncertain.

“Have a seat, Clint,” Phil said, gesturing at the open spot on the blanket next to him.

“You can sit next to me, Clint,” Katie offered, scooting over a little.

“Clint can sit next to me, Katie,” Skye interrupted. Phil sighed. He hoped this wasn’t going to become a pattern.

“How about I sit in between you, and then I’ll be next to you both?” Clint suggested, and the girls moved apart happily, making a space for him, between them and across from Phil, who shot him a relieved look and put some extra strawberries on his plate.

“Thanks,” he told him. “We don’t meet many new people on Stark’s World; they’re a little over-excited.”

Clint nodded an acknowledgement as he took the plate. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s nice to be wanted.” He surveyed the plate, shooting anxious little glances from it to Phil. “Hey, um,” he said. “You don’t have to… I mean, I don’t need anything fancy. I’ll eat anything.”

Phil looked up at him, surprised.

“This isn’t fancy food,” Katie said. “We have stuff like this all the time. Well, maybe not the cookies.”

“You don’t need cookies every day,” Phil said, automatically. This was something of a common topic.

“Oh.” Clint looked embarrassed. “Sorry, I just…” he trailed off, fingers flexing on the edge of his plate. “This is probably another one of those things like the meat, huh? I didn’t think. You’ve got all this—” he waved his free hand at the hills, the flowers, the sheep. “Fruit’s probably pretty cheap here, huh.”

“We grow a lot of produce locally, yes,” Phil said. “We also make cheese, wine, fabric, anything we want that we can produce here, we do. But you’ll notice that things like meal supplement bars—processed things that are common and cheap on the inner band—tend to be expensive here. I know it isn’t the kind of food you’re accustomed to,” he added, “but we can look into importing some things if you want; I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask ahead of time.”

Clint shook his head. “Are you kidding? I’m going to feel like a millionaire, eating like this every day. It’s great.” He smiled at Katie. “If you guys really eat like this all the time, I know a lot of kids on Earth who’d be really jealous of you.”

Katie looked at her carrots with renewed enthusiasm. Phil made a mental note; you could never have too many cards in your hand when you were dealing with kids, and she’d been showing signs of going into a picky phase lately.

There was a lull in the conversation as everyone ate. Phil was pleased to see that Clint was keeping an eye on the girls, even gently redirecting Skye when she started gesturing with a piece of her cut-up sandwich in hand, threatening to send it flying. Phil hadn’t been able to eat so many consecutive bites of his own meal since Darcy had moved out of the house, and he found himself feeling increasingly optimistic about his situation. He also found himself watching Clint with a great deal of enjoyment as he ate; the food might be unusual to Clint, but he was obviously enjoying it, and the expression of surprise and delight on his face when he bit into a ripe strawberry made Phil start plotting out what to feed him next.

Once the food had been consumed and the dishes and blanket re-packed and sticky hands and faces wiped down, Phil suggested that the girls play for a little while before they restarted their journey.

“Did you bring our butterfly, Daddy?” Katie asked.

“I did,” Phil replied, pulling the toy from a pocket on the picnic bag. The “butterfly” was actually the size of a bird, and used a weak repulsor to flutter around erratically and allow itself to be chased and caught. The girls loved it, and it was excellent for tiring them out enough for a quiet afternoon.

“You and Clint should play, too!” Katie said. “It’s more fun the more people you have.”

“I could use a little exercise,” Clint said, “but you’ll have to tell me the rules.”

“Just try to catch the butterfly, but don’t push anyone else down,” Katie said officiously. “If you push, you have to go to time out.”

“I’ll make sure not to,” Clint said, his voice serious, but with an amused glint in his eyes.

“Daddy, you tell us when to go,” Katie said. Phil flipped through the programs on the tiny side panel and selected one; the toy would adjust its height and speed according to the nearest person. It engaged its repulsors with a little hum and rose, hovering over Phil’s palm for a second before darting off to one side.

“Go!” Phil said, and the girls took off after the toy, giggling and shouting in excitement. Whenever the butterfly came close to Phil, he’d run at it, shooing it back toward the girls. Clint hung back, watching the game for a few minutes, but then moved to the other side of the hilltop from Phil, subtly keeping the girls between them and pushing the toy back to the center when it came too close. Katie managed to catch it once, and Clint grabbed it with one hand when it seemed to be making a break for freedom, but Skye was having trouble, and starting to get frustrated.

“Katie, if you move over there,” Clint said, “and act like you’re going to catch it, I think it will run straight for Skye and then she’ll be able to have a turn catching.”

“Okay, Clint,” Katie agreed, and moved over, so that she, Phil, and Clint formed a rough triangle. “Move over there, Skye, and I’ll push it to you so you can catch it!” she called.

“Okay!” Skye said, brightening. “I’ll catch it!”

The strategy worked brilliantly; Clint deflected the butterfly to Katie, who feinted at it, making it change its direction to head right for Skye. With nobody else nearby to react to, it adjusted its path to be lower and slower, and Skye made a great lunge and managed to tackle it, ending up facedown in the grass. Phil started toward her in alarm, but she was giggling, and rolled herself to a seated position, revealing the butterfly held securely in both her arms.

“I caught it!” she crowed.

“Good job, Skye!” Clint said.

“Good job, everyone,” Phil added. He took the butterfly from Skye and turned it off. “We finished just in time; we need to get back in the shuttle now so we can go home.” He crouched down and brushed the worst of the crushed grass and dirt off Skye’s front, then picked her up as he rose. “Clint, would you mind bringing the picnic bag?”

“Sure thing,” Clint said, slinging the bag over one shoulder. He started back down the hill toward the shuttle, Katie sticking close beside him, chattering away about their victory over the butterfly.

“Did you have a nice picnic, Skye?” he asked, as he followed Clint and Katie.

“It was amazing, Daddy!” Skye said, and he chuckled.

“Amazing, huh? That’s a new word. Where did you learn it?”

“From Miss Darcy,” Skye said, yawning in the middle of the sentence.

“You sound a little sleepy,” he said. They had reached the bottom of the hill, and Clint and Katie were already going back into the shuttle. He looked around to make sure nobody had dropped anything, and followed, ducking to make sure Skye’s head didn’t hit the doorway.

“I’m not sleepy, Daddy, I’m wide awake,” Skye said, resting her head on his shoulder. He grinned.

“Well, Daddy is a little tired from all that running around,” he said. “How about you lie down on the seat next to me and keep me company for a little while?”

“Okay,” she said, and nestled down next to him with her head pillowed on his thigh.

“Katie, could you hand me Skye’s blanket, please?” he asked.

“I want my baby Jenny,” Skye said sleepily.

“I’ll bring her, too,” Katie said. She pulled the blanket and doll out of the toy bag and brought them over.

“Thanks, sweetheart,” he said, brushing a kiss on her forehead as he took the blanket and spread it out over Skye.

“Thank you,” Skye mumbled, pulling the doll from her sister’s hands and cuddling it.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Daddy, can I start the shuttle back?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Shuttle,” she said. “We’re ready to go home now.”

“Acknowledged. Reservation for: four. Onboard: four. Journey proceeds.”

As the shuttle started on its way, Katie pulled her current book out of the toy bag and approached Clint. “Can I sit here?” she asked, gesturing at the spot next to him on the cushioned bench seat.

“Sure,” he said, making an expansive gesture at the space beside him. “My seat is your seat.”

“Thank you,” she said primly. She settled beside him, kicking off her shoes and curling her feet up under her as she started to read.

“I think I’ll read for a while too,” Phil said, catching Clint’s eye and looking meaningfully at Skye, who tended to fight off sleep when she thought anything interesting was happening. Clint grinned a little, and nodded. Skye mumbled something into his leg, and he rubbed her back a little through the blanket, soothing. It didn’t take long before she was hard asleep, her breathing deep and even under his hand. He brushed her hair away from her face; she twitched a little, but didn’t rouse. She had her middle two fingers in her mouth and was suckling at them in her sleep, a habit that she was starting to grow out of and that Dr. Banner assured him was both normal and harmless at this age. Truth be told, he wasn’t in a great hurry; she was growing so fast, becoming more and more her own person every day, gregarious and independent. He secretly liked the little habits that tied her to babyhood for just a bit longer, like the way half her Ls and Rs still sounded like Ws.

He realized that he was very likely smiling sappily down at Skye, and glanced up to see if Clint had noticed—not that he was embarrassed, exactly, but Phil liked to be fully in control of the sort of early impressions he made on people—and saw that Clint had fallen asleep too, his head leaning against the window. It made sense, Phil supposed; space travel was exhausting if you weren’t used to it, and that was without having awkward introductions to people you might be going to marry at the other end.

He took advantage of the opportunity to study Clint more closely. In sleep, his face looked younger, but still more weathered than a man of Clint’s age would look on Stark’s World; Phil wondered if it was the polluted environment of Earth or the circumstances of Clint’s life that was responsible for that. He knew the main facts of Clint’s life from his response packet and background check. He’d been orphaned young, he’d worked for a circus, he’d left the circus to take a job in “private security,” which Phil knew from experience could mean anything from mob enforcer to shopping-center guard, for a corporation with an old Russian name. His employer had ties to one of the crime syndicates, but just about every employer on Earth did; companies that tried to maintain their independence didn’t usually last long. The only exceptions were the big intergalactic conglomerates that could afford to leave Earth rather than comply, and most of them preferred to run most of their Earthbound interests from Mars or Titan to avoid exactly that sort of complication. Phil’s own problems seemed trivial by comparison.

Clint didn’t seem to have been embittered by his life, though, at least as far as it’s possible to tell in a few hours. He’d been cautious and a little formal with Phil, but he seemed to be genuinely taken with the girls; he smiled at them readily, watched out for them, engaged with them. And Phil found himself quite touched by the gifts Clint had brought for them, gifts that he had commissioned especially with them in mind. Most toys were handmade on Stark’s World, but Phil knew that wasn’t common in the inner band anymore.

He wondered what had led Clint to signing up with a marriage broker. Phil was by no means an expert on the topic, but the early batch of responses he’d received to his prospectus had been pretty similar to one another. They were generally young people, conventionally beautiful in various ways and sometimes with the help of cosmetic Enhancements, who lived in economically disadvantaged and/or remote areas. Their responses had generally been written with an eye to what (he supposed they thought) would please him, which varied from promises of fertility to distressingly lurid sexual propositions. Earth was certainly economically disadvantaged, at least for those who couldn’t afford its upper tiers, but there the resemblance stopped. Clint was quite good-looking in a rugged sort of way, especially when he smiled, but he didn’t have the soft-focus, satvid beauty that the others had. He seemed to want to make a good impression, but without the gushing excess that had thinly veiled desperation in many of the other responses. He wasn’t overly tall, but he was well-muscled and moved with grace, surprisingly so for a man who had grown up in an environment as notoriously unhealthy as Earth’s. He seemed like a man who should have options, wherever he went, and Phil couldn’t help but wonder what his other options had been, if traveling to the far end of the galaxy to potentially marry a stranger had seemed the best of them.

Something in the window caught his eye, an interruption in the stream of green hills and blue sky, and he turned to see it more clearly; it was the Fitz family’s barn, the first landmark to show that Mariana was approaching. He’d been lost in thought for longer than he realized; even Katie had nodded off over her book, cheek pillowed on one hand. It would still take around half an hour to reach the house, but he could start pulling their things together so they wouldn’t delay the shuttle any more than they already had. He eased a hand under Skye’s head and carefully transferred it from his lap to the seat. She’d slept long enough to be fussy when she woke, and he’d just as soon not deal with that until they were home. She grumbled a little, but settled back down without waking.

Freed, he went around the shuttle as quietly as he could as they passed through Mariana, gathering up stray toys and books and half a cookie that he suspected Skye had tried to keep for later. As the shuttle started down their drive, he reached for Clint’s shoulder to shake him awake, but his hand was stopped inches away by an unyielding grip, and Clint blinked unfocused eyes at him for a moment (his eyes, Phil couldn’t help but notice, were a striking and lovely color) before letting go, looking away sheepishly.

“Sorry,” Phil said, keeping his voice low in deference to the still-sleeping children. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Clint shook his head. “No, I’m sorry,” he said, matching Phil’s tone. “Habit, you know how it is. You have to stay sharp on Earth. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“Not at all,” Phil said. “I just wanted to let you know, well—” the shuttle, with perfect timing, settled to the ground in front of the house with a soft thud. “We’re home.”

Clint looked out at the house, his face still. “Wow,” he said, softly. “That’s…”

“Different?” Phil laid a soft hand on Katie’s shoulder. “Katie, wake up, sweetie. We’re home.” She yawned, blinking awake slowly, and he handed her the shoes he’d picked up from the floor.

“I was going to say, it’s really big,” Clint said. “But also different.” He shook his head, as though to clear it. “Can I help you get the stuff inside?”

“I can take my suitcase, Daddy,” Katie offered, through another yawn.

“That would be very helpful, thank you,” Phil said. “Can you help Mr. Barton unload the bags while I get Skye?”

“Okay,” she agreed. Phil slung the toy bag and the picnic bag over his shoulder and then bent to scoop Skye off the seat, blanket, doll and all. The motion roused her, and he talked soothing nonsense, bouncing her a little as he got them off the shuttle. Katie and Clint, efficient, had managed to unload nearly all the luggage in the meantime, and he ran a practiced eye over the stack of bags, taking inventory.

“Good job, Katie, that’s all of ours,” he said. “Clint, do you have everything?”

“This is the last one,” he said.

Phil nodded, and dismissed the shuttle. He looked over his front yard; two sleepy girls, two stacks of luggage, and Clint.

“Let’s get all this inside,” he said. After a moment of thought, he parked the girls on the porch swing to wake up a bit more while he and Clint took care of the luggage. Phil and the girls’ bags took one trip, to leave each suitcase inside the door of the corresponding bedroom, and then they made two more for Clint’s things; without a cart, it took the both of them to get his trunk up the stairs.

“This will be your room,” Phil said, as he led Clint to the last remaining bedroom. “I mean, obviously, since this is where we’re putting your luggage. Your bathroom’s through there; the other door is your closet. There are some spare towels and sheets in there if you need them. If you need anything else, just let me know, and we can pick it up in Mariana, all right?”

“I—it’s fine,” Clint said. “I’m sure everything’s fine.” He looked tired, red-eyed and a little pale.

“Why don’t I leave you to freshen up,” Phil said. “I’ll get the girls settled and unpacked, and then we can have dinner in an hour or so?”

“Sure,” Clint said. “I mean, thank you, Phil, for all of this.”

Phil tried to look reassuring. “You’re our guest, Clint,” he said. “And… well, possibly more. This is the least we could do.” He smiled at him, hoping it didn’t look too forced, and went downstairs to check on the girls. He hoped he hadn’t made things too awkward, but he was feeling a bit awkward himself; all the preparation for Clint’s arrival had somehow not actually prepared Phil for actually having him around. Phil couldn’t remember the last time he’d met someone new who wasn’t a business connection, and he feared he’d lost the knack of it.

The girls were still a little blinky from their naps, but rousing. Skye was still in the mood to be carried, so he took her upstairs with him, where she perked up considerably at the prospect of introducing her new doll to her other favored toys. He left her on her playmat, activating the monitor to let him know if she left the room, while he and Katie went to Katie’s room to unpack. Phil put away the clean items while Katie put the soiled ones in the laundry chute in the hallway, and he left it to her to put away her own toothbrush while he dealt with Skye’s bag. Those errands done and Katie ensconced with her book again, he went back downstairs to see about dinner.

Crossing into the kitchen, he was surprised and pleased to see the violet-blue glow of a stasis field on the table. The refrigerator’s front panel was flashing a message notification, so he flicked it up on the screen.

Phil,

We thought you’d probably be tired out by the time you got home from the port, so we left you some dinner. Enjoy it in good health, and please bring your guest by to visit when he’s had a chance to settle in a bit; we’re very much looking forward to meeting him.

Best,

Steve and Peggy

Phil smiled, touched by the gesture. Relieved of cooking duty for the moment, he went back upstairs and unpacked his own things, glad of the extra time to process his feelings so that he could avoid making Clint feel any more awkward than he already had. By dinnertime, he was feeling a little more steady, and he stopped by each of his daughters’ rooms to let them know it was time to wash for dinner, then knocked on Clint’s door himself rather than using the automatic house page.

“Clint?” he called. “It’s Phil. We’ll be ready to eat in about five minutes. The kitchen is downstairs and to the right, through the dining room. Would you like me to show you?”

Clint opened the door. He looked a little better than he had, hair damp and combed and wearing a fresh shirt, though his eyes were still red. “I’d appreciate it,” he said. “This place is so big, I feel like I’m going to get lost.” He laughed a little, but he looked uncertain. Phil smiled. “We’ll have to give you the tour tomorrow,” he said. “In the meantime, please feel free to ask me or Katie where anything is.” He paused next to the bathroom, where Katie was helping Skye rinse her hands. He felt a glow of pride, tempered with a little sadness; he worried that losing her mother had made Katie grow up faster than she otherwise would.

“Do you need any help?” he asked.

“We’ve got it, Daddy,” Katie replied.

“We’ll see you downstairs in a minute, then. Uncle Steve and Aunt Peggy left us dinner.” He shook his head at the delight that met his announcement, and started down the stairs, Clint following.

“Steve and Peggy are our nearest neighbors,” he explained. “Steve and I served together in the Navy for a while. I’m afraid they’re better cooks than I am, so please don’t be too disappointed when we’re back to normal rations tomorrow.”

“I probably won’t even know the difference,” Clint said. “I mean, wait. That came out wrong. I just meant that all the food is really different to me, so I don’t know how it’s supposed to…” he trailed off, looking almost comically distressed. “I’m just going to quit while I’m ahead,” he said.

Phil laughed. “I know what you meant,” he assured him. “Don’t worry about it. I haven’t poisoned anyone with my cooking yet, so we’ll at least be ahead of what I ate in the service.”

Clint chuckled, relaxing a little, then drew in a surprised breath as they crossed into the kitchen. “Is the stasis field built into the table?” he asked, moving into the room to inspect it. “I’ve only ever seen it in the dishes before.”

“It was a gift,” Phil explained. “When we first moved here, I was still recovering from my injury and my wife was pregnant with Skye. A lot of kind people made us a lot of meals, that year, and one of my friends who is better with technology than cooking gave us that table to help.” He felt a little awkward, mentioning Audrey, but it wasn’t as though Clint didn’t know he’d been married; even if Phil hadn’t discussed the situation in detail in his prospectus, Clint had spent the day with two very lively pieces of evidence of that fact.

Clint didn’t seem bothered by the reference; he was busy inspecting the table. “I bet that comes in handy with the girls around,” he said.

“More than I ever thought it would at first,” Phil agreed. The girls came into the kitchen hand in hand, and Phil smiled at them while he deactivated the stasis field. The burst of fragrant steam that hit the air when the field dissipated made his mouth water.

“This is your seat, Clint,” Katie said, pointing Clint to the chair at the foot of the table. “Skye sits there, because she needs her booster seat, and I sit here next to you, and Daddy sits at the other end.”

“Thanks,” Clint said. He waited for Phil to settle Skye in her booster and Katie to take her seat before sitting down.

The dinner Steve and Peggy had left them was lovely; roast chicken, mashed potatoes with golden-brown gravy, tiny sweet early peas, a crisp salad, and for dessert, more hothouse strawberries, this time with crumbly slabs of shortbread and fresh whipped cream. Between their appreciation for the food and their tiredness from the day of travel, there wasn’t much conversation over dinner; just occasional requests to pass a dish and the sound of silverware clinking on plates. By the time they were finished, Skye was about to nod off into her last few strawberries, and even Katie, who was normally determined to stay up for every minute of her allotted time (a full half-hour later than Skye, as was due to her advanced and mature age since she had started school the year before), was drooping. Clint didn’t look much better, heavy-eyed and blinking too often.

“Why don’t you go ahead to bed, Clint?” Phil asked. “I know how tiring space travel is; you must be exhausted.”

“I think I will, if you don’t mind,” Clint said, apologetically. “I can’t seem to keep my eyes open.”

The four of them had actually managed to polish off the entire dinner, so Phil only had to put the dishes in the cleaning unit and wipe the table down before he could put the girls to bed. Katie’s normal after-dinner job was keeping her sister entertained so Phil could tidy up; they were playing blocks upstairs in Skye’s room when he came to get them. Skye was sleepy enough that Phil judged it safer to skip bath time this evening, and released Katie to her own bath early while he gave Skye a quick wipe down to get rid of the worst of the crumbs and grass stains and put her in her nightgown. She insisted on taking both “my new baby Jenny” and her previous favorite, Leo the stuffed lamb, to bed with her, and was sound asleep by halfway through her bedtime story, one toy in each arm. Phil kissed her goodnight, set her room for the night, and moved on to Katie, who was already in her pajamas. He sat on the edge of her bed and she stood in front of him, ready for him to braid her hair.

He took his time with it, drawing the brush through her thick hair gently. “You helped me a lot today, Katie,” he said. “I want you to know, I appreciate it, and I’m very proud of you.”

She leaned back against him, sighing happily. “Thank you, Daddy,” she said.

He parted her hair, and started working it into the loose braid she wore for sleeping. “I know things are going to be different while Clint stays at our house,” he said, hesitantly. “I just want to make sure you know that if you need to talk to me about anything, or if anything is making you uncomfortable or sad or scared, you can always talk to me about it and I’ll never be mad at you.”

She huffed an impatient little sigh. “I know that, Daddy,” she said. “You shouldn’t worry so much. Everything’s going to be fine.”

He smiled, and kissed the top of her shining head as he tied off her braid. “Is that so?”

She turned and sat down next to him on the bed, tucking herself under his arm in the way he secretly hoped she never outgrew. “That’s so,” she said. “I think Clint seems nice, don’t you, Daddy? He played with us, and he helped Skye with her strawberries, and he brought Jenny for Skye and Shady for me. I think maybe he will be our friend.”

Phil tightened his arm around her, and leaned down to kiss her head again. She smelled like sweet soap and clean laundry, and his heart clenched with how much he loved her.

“Maybe you’re right, baby,” he said. “Maybe you’re right.”

Chapter Text


Clint woke up slowly the next morning, fuzzing into consciousness in pieces. He was warm and comfortable but not quite at ease, a feeling of something off nagging at the edge of his perception. He kept his eyes shut, pretending to sleep while he took an inventory; what he could hear, what he could smell, the quantity of light shining through his eyelids.There was a sense of space around him, but he felt alone; there was nobody else moving around in the room, no breath, no hum of electronics. It took longer than it should have for the memories to rush back in: Barney, the Bratva, Stark’s World, Phil. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.

The first thing he noticed were the windows, set in two of the walls, open curtains admitting streams of dappled light. He hadn’t noticed them the night before—he’d been so tired he’d barely noticed anything about the room but the bed—but it was hard to believe he’d slept so heavily with so many potential entry points surrounding him. Natasha’s rooms were located in the central part of the complex, defensible and secure, and he’d always slept best with a wall at his back even there. It was going to take some time for Clint to adjust to all this openness and space. He supposed that the advantage of having so much security around the planet was that you didn’t need much once you actually landed.

Once he was able to tear his attention away from the windows, he looked around the rest of the room. The walls were a soft purplish-gray color, the floor gleaming pale wood—real, he thought, though he hadn’t seen enough real wood in his life to be absolutely sure. The furniture was mostly wood, too; there was a desk in one corner, a dresser with a mirror hung above it, a low shelf that looked like it had been stocked with old-fashioned printed books. The only things that weren’t wooden were a squat, overstuffed armchair upholstered in gray, angled invitingly near the bookshelf, and a drift of fat cushions in various shades of purple and blue that were piled on a low seat built into the large window on the wall opposite the bed. On the wall above the desk, there was a painting, done in bright colors, depicting an archer in a forest. He wondered if Phil had somehow procured it especially for his arrival, or if he’d just coincidentally had a picture of an archer already in his house. He hoped it was the latter; between the food and the room—not to mention the money that Phil had paid for Clint’s medical exam and new clothes—he felt anxious and beholden. He’d always been confident when it came to things that he knew he was good at, places where he understood how he fit, but everything here was so far out of his experience that he was starting to question whether he should have even come in the first place.

He got out of bed, distracted by his thoughts, and promptly stubbed his toe hard against the pile of luggage that he’d been too exhausted to unpack the night before. He rubbed at his eyes, which were bothering him a little, and decided that he might as well put things to rights before he ventured downstairs again. The house was quiet, so he figured he probably had a little time before he’d need to do anything else.

He thought about the day before as he unpacked, stowing his new things in a closet that was bigger than the cubby he’d slept in at Natasha’s. He’d liked the girls, and had been touched by how eager they’d seemed to spend time with him and how much they’d seemed to like their presents. He’d always enjoyed kids when he’d had the chance to interact with them; for a while, in the circus, he’d been the favored babysitter for the small horde of children that traveled with the group—the four youngest members of the Flying Zabenskis, the ten-year-old twins who were part of the tightrope act, the little son of the lion tamer, and the ringmaster’s niece. Barney had never understood it, but Clint had liked to feel like he could take care of someone else instead of being the one taken care of. Plus, kids were fun; they weren’t old enough yet to have had the joy wrung out of them by life.

Once he’d left the circ he’d had to leave that part of life behind; there weren’t many kids in the Red Room, and the ones that were there were all either family of operatives and hidden away for security, or were in…training. Clint had only heard rumors about those, and he couldn’t help feeling glad. Natasha had never spoken of it, and had gone silent and still when others did.

Clint forced his thoughts back to yesterday, making himself remember the way the girls had laughed and played amid the flowers. It was like something from a movie, like nothing he’d ever seen before in real life. Skye and Katie were healthy, and happy, and obviously well-cared-for and well-loved. Clint was starting to wonder why Phil even thought he needed another spouse; he’d seemed to have everything well in hand the day before.

Tucking his now-empty luggage away in the closet and hanging his bow case on the back of the door, he moved into the bathroom to get ready for the day. He’d never had his own bathroom before. It was like he’d fallen asleep and woken up in someone else’s life.

As he showered, he thought about Phil. He looked younger in person than he had in his photos. Up close, he still looked kind, and sometimes sad, but he also looked capable and confident and strong; he looked like a man who would take care of his family, who could meet whatever challenges arose head-on. He didn’t seem like he was struggling for help. Clint’s experiences in circus childcare didn’t really seem applicable in this huge, beautiful house. Ordinarily, he’d conclude that Phil was looking for sex, but the contract had explicitly stated that sex was neither required nor expected, so he was at something of a loss. Of course, there were other kinds of companionship; it was possible that Phil just wanted to have someone else in the house who was old enough to use knives and cook, and who could talk about something besides tree houses and horses.

He finished his morning routine and looked himself over in the bathroom mirror. His skin was paler than usual from three weeks on a deep-space cruiser; his eyes were itchy and red. He snorted to himself.

“Quite a catch, Barton,” he told his reflection, and went to get dressed. He wasn’t sure what Phil had planned, so he picked clothes he could move in; loose brown linen pants, a close-fitting sleeveless undershirt, and a lightweight green sweater.

Once clothed, he dashed off a quick note to Natasha letting her know he’d arrived safely. He noticed something colorful on the desk and went to investigate, smiling when he recognized Katie’s writing. He propped the card up beside his bed where he could see it, and made his way downstairs. He had no idea what time it was—he hadn’t had a chance to set up his comm to sync with the satellites on Stark’s World—but he hoped it wasn’t too late. His normally excellent sense of time had deserted him, done in by the journey and the different, shorter days.

When he opened his door, he could hear voices drifting up the stairs; he followed them to find Phil reading to Katie while Skye played on the floor nearby, putting together some kind of block tower. She looked up and saw him, and grinned.

“Clint’s awake now, Daddy!” she shouted, interrupting the story he was reading.

“Skye, remember what we say when we need to interrupt someone?” Phil said, shooting Clint an apologetic look.

“Sorry, Daddy. Excuse me, Daddy, Clint’s awake!” she said.

“Thank you, Skye. Good morning, Clint,” Phil said, smiling.

“Morning.” Clint rubbed at the back of his neck. “You guys haven’t been waiting for me, have you? Am I late?”

“We’ve been up for hours,” Katie said. “Daddy said we shouldn’t wake you up, though, because you were tired from your trip, but you missed breakfast!”

Clint winced. So much for making a good impression. “I’m really sorry,” he said.

“Please, don’t worry about it,” Phil said. “It’s only natural after coming so far. Can I get you something to eat?”

“I’m really not that hungry,” Clint said. He didn’t want Phil to have to make anything especially for him.

“Maybe something light, then,” Phil said. “Some fruit, or a muffin?”

“Whatever you have will be fine,” Clint said.

“If you aren’t going to have breakfast, Clint, Daddy says we can give you a tour of the house,” Katie said, while Phil was in the kitchen.

“We didn’t have much of a chance to show you around yesterday,” Phil said, coming back and handing Clint a muffin.

“That’d be great, thanks,” Clint said. The muffin smelled amazing.

“I can be the tour guide, Daddy!” Katie said. “I can show him everything!”

Phil smiled at her. “In that case, why don’t you show Clint around while I give Skye her bath?”

“Daddy, I don’t want a bath,” Skye said. “I want to play.”

“Last night you wanted to sleep,” Phil said. “And you said you’d take your bath today before we went to Uncle Steve’s house.”

“But now I’m playing,” Skye said. Clint watched, a little nervously, for Phil’s reaction.

“Then I’m afraid the bath monster is going to get you!” Phil declared, and swooped down to scoop her up in his arms, roaring playfully. Skye shrieked and giggled, kicking her little legs in the air as he swung her around, ending with her slung over his shoulder as he started toward the stairs.

“She always does that,” Katie said. “She likes it when Daddy picks her up.”

Clint, feeling oddly relieved, smiled at her and took a bite of his muffin. It was delicious. “So,” he said, once he had swallowed, “how about that tour?”

She beamed at him. “Okay!” she said. “Follow me.”


“This is the living room,” Katie said, waving a careless hand at the room they were standing in. “That part is the dining room, and then the kitchen is through there, you were there last night when we ate supper.” She grabbed the hand that wasn’t holding the muffin, and towed him off down the hall. Apparently, the living room was not considered worthy of much attention.

“This is Daddy’s office,” she said, pushing open a heavy-looking door with some effort. “We aren’t allowed to play there, but you can look in it, because this is the tour.”

Clint felt a little uncomfortable, but followed her in; if Phil didn’t want his daughter including his office in the tour, he reasoned, he’d have used the high-tech lock system Clint could see evidence of. The room had the slightly deadened feel that he associated with top-notch soundproofing, and the big desk, though wood, had what was obviously a sophisticated biometric lock. Phil’s background information showed him working security for Stark Galactic, but his previous career in the Galactic Navy was too highly classified for even Natasha to get to easily. Clint wondered just how retired Phil really was, if he needed a setup like this out here in the middle of nowhere. He shoved the rest of his muffin in his mouth, trying to contain any crumbs with a cupped hand, and scanned the room.

There were a few pictures of the girls scattered around the study, and one on the desk, obviously given pride of place; Clint couldn’t help going closer to see.

“That’s us with Mommy,” Katie said. “Don’t talk to Daddy about it too much, okay Clint? It makes him sad.”

“I won’t,” he promised absently, studying the photo. A brown-haired woman with dark eyes—Skye’s eyes—was propped up in a hospital bed. She looked tired but glowing with happiness, turning to where Phil was holding a blanket-wrapped bundle with a tuft of dark hair so that a much younger Katie could bend to kiss the baby’s head.

According to the records Natasha had pulled, Audrey Coulson had died just a few days after Skye was born. He wondered if this was the only picture Phil had of the four of them together. He wondered who had taken the picture. Some member of the hospital staff? A friend?

His eyes wandered back to Audrey. She was lovely, in that luminous, delicate way that some women had; big eyes, long fingers, elegant features. She and Phil must have been a stunning couple.

He tried not to wonder what on earth Phil was doing negotiating a contract with him, if Audrey was representative of the man’s tastes. It’s for the children, he reminded himself. Sex is neither required nor expected.

“Are you finished yet, Clint? You haven’t seen the upstairs yet.” Katie was practically hopping from one foot to the next, impatient. “I want to show you my room next, okay?”

He smiled at her. “Sure,” he agreed, happy to let his troubling thoughts go for the moment. “Lead on, Madam Tour Guide!”

She giggled and grabbed his hand again, pulling him to the stairs. He’d noticed the girls’ rooms on his way down that morning, obvious from the toys and bright colors, next to one another across from the top of the staircase. Katie headed for the room on the right, where large pictures of horses frolicked across eye-searingly purple walls. On the door, a hand-drawn sign in Katie’s familiar wandering handwriting proclaimed “Katie’s Room Please KNock,” the K in “knock” obviously squeezed in as an afterthought.

“This is my room,” she told him unnecessarily. “It’s purple, see? I picked out the color myself! And Uncle Steve painted the horses on the wall for me. They’re Mr. Sam’s horses that I have riding lessons on!”

“Wow,” Clint said. “That was nice of your uncle.”

“It was for my birthday last year! This one is Spider, and this one is Cap, and this one is Molly, and this one is Rosalie, and this one is Mr. Cheese, and this one is The Colonel, and this one,” she flung an extravagant arm at the depiction of a plump grey pony, “is Arrow! She’s the one I ride, and she’s the best horse for little girls.”

“She looks like a great horse,” Clint said.

Katie beamed. “You can come with me to riding lessons one time and meet all the horses!” she said. “I told Mr. Sam and Miss Darcy about how you used to ride horses in the circus, and Mr. Sam said you could come ride horses with me while you’re staying at my house if you want!”

“Um, thank you?” Clint said. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that, Katie, but it would be nice to at least see some horses again. Shady was the last real horse I’ve been able to spend time with; there aren’t many horses in the cities on Earth.”

“Then we’ll go,” Katie said, nodding her head decisively.

“Katie,” Phil called, his voice coming from down the hall. “Remember what we talked about? A tour is a time for company to see all the rooms, not just yours.”

She heaved a deep, put-upon sigh. “I remember, Daddy,” she said. I was just showing Clint the horses.”

“I’m sure he appreciates it,” Phil said, “but it’s time to move on now.”

“Okay,” she said, with decidedly less enthusiasm. “Come on, Clint, follow me.”

Clint followed her to the next bedroom, grinning to himself.

“This is Skye’s room,” she said. The room had a green rug, cheerful yellow curtains and bedspread, and what looked like a flock of happy, puffy sheep painted on the walls, grazing and playing on green hills under a blue sky.

“Did your uncle paint on Skye’s wall too?” Clint asked.

“Yeah,” Katie said. “Only she wanted boring old sheep, just because her friend Leo has them.”

“What’s wrong with sheep?” Clint teased. “Very useful animals, sheep.”

“All they do is make clothes!” Katie said. “You can’t ride them and they don’t trot or canter or jump or anything.”

“They are much worse at jumping and cantering than horses are,” Clint allowed.

“Anyway,” Katie said, crossing back out into the hall. “That’s our bathroom down there. Daddy and Skye are in there right now, so you can see it later.” The door was mostly shut, but Clint could hear splashing, high-pitched giggles interspersed with a lower murmur of sound as Phil talked to his daughter. “And you know where your room is. Do you like your room, Clint? We painted it special for you. I made Daddy do it purple because that’s your favorite color.”

“It’s a great room,” Clint said, touched. “You didn’t have to go to all that trouble for me, though.”

Katie looked unimpressed. “We did, though, Clint,” she said. “You’re our special guest. It’s important for us to make you feel at home.”

Important for who, Clint wondered. The more he saw of Phil’s life, the more he felt like his being there was some sort of cosmic accident. He’d felt more comfortable on missions, when he actually was an imposter; at least then there was no question about his place. He couldn’t say anything like that to Katie, though, so he fell back on the society mannerisms he’d had to use when Natasha took him to high-level functions.

“Your welcome does me honor,” he told her, throwing in a half-bow for good measure.

Katie giggled. “You’re funny,” she said. “I’m glad you came to stay with us. Anyway, so now we should go see Daddy’s room.”

“You don’t have to show me that,” Clint said hurriedly, glancing over his shoulder towards the bathroom. “That’s, um, private. For your dad.” He rubbed the back of his neck, his ears hot. For some reason, he felt really uncomfortable with the idea of going into Phil’s bedroom.

Katie crossed her arms and sighed, something about her expression transforming her for a moment into a tiny, pigtailed version of her father. “We’ve been over this,” she said, and Clint bit back a laugh at the overly-adult phrasing. “A tour is where you see all the rooms. It’s different from normal times when you have to knock and stuff.”

“It’s all right, Clint.” Phil’s voice came from behind him, and he held back a startled jump with sheer willpower. Phil looked ruffled and damp around the edges, and he was carrying Skye, enveloped in a giant, fluffy towel, only her face and the tips of her toes peeking out. “I really don’t mind. Like Katie said, it’s a tour.”

“Okay,” Clint said, and Katie grabbed his hand again.

“Come on,” she said, and he let himself be towed past the other bedrooms, to a handsome set of double doors across the landing from his own room and down the hall from the girls. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he was a little disappointed when Phil’s room turned out to be pretty much an ordinary room. It was big, probably as big as Natasha’s whole suite on Earth, with a sitting area and a desk at one end, and one wall nearly full of big, bright windows looking out at a view of rolling hills and a field full of trees, their branches covered in silvery-green buds.

“That’s our apple orchard,” Katie said, pointing out the window. “Pretty soon the trees will bloom all white and pink, and then we’ll have apples in the fall. Apple-picking time is fun! Uncle Tony made us a picker robot and we take most of the apples to town to share with everybody, and then we go to Aunt Peggy and Uncle Steve’s house and we all make pie and tarts and applesauce.”

“That does sound fun,” Clint said, though honestly what it sounded was… he didn’t even know. Fictional, maybe. Like something that happened in books or on the satvid, but not like a real thing that real people did.

He’d felt like that a lot since he landed here.

“What are those square things out near the end of the orchard?” he asked, wanting to change the subject away from an apple-picking time he might never see.

“Those are Daddy’s beehives,” Katie said. “The bees eat pollen out of the apple flowers and other plants, and then that helps the plants to grow fruits, and it helps the bees to make honey. Bees are very important for the ecosystem, we learned about it in school.”

“I thought bees were extinct,” Clint said, startled. Everyone knew about the Bee Blight; it was one of the major reasons so few things grew on Earth anymore.

“Not on Stark’s World,” Katie said with a shrug. “If you ask Daddy he’ll take you to see the bees, but don’t go near the hives without him! If you scare the bees they might sting you, and that would hurt you and the bee, and that’s not good for anybody.”

“I won’t,” Clint promised.

“Are you almost done looking? Because we can go outside next.”

“But this is the biggest room so far,” Clint said, teasing. “It should take a long time to see.”

Katie sighed. “Daddy’s room is boring,” she said. “He doesn’t have any toys and his wall is boring old gray.”

Clint looked around again. The walls were indeed gray, a muted color that made him think of fuzzy, fluffy things, Natasha’s silver fur collar or the soft sweater she’d bought him for when the weather on Stark’s World got cold. The room wasn’t overly decorated, but there were groups of pictures on the walls; the girls, mostly, and a few group shots that Clint thought were probably from Phil’s Navy days. No other pictures of Phil’s wife, though, and there were several spaces where photos had apparently been removed. He wondered if Phil had put away most of the photographs of her once he started advertising for another spouse. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, if it was true; on the one hand, it was nice not having to constantly be reminded of everything he was going to try, no doubt without success, to live up to. It also made him feel kind of bad, though, like he was trying to take something that wasn’t his. He wasn’t here to try to replace the girls’ mother, but hopefully to give them something different, something of his own. He hoped that would be enough.

He didn’t wonder if there would ever be pictures of him on these walls.

“Clint, are you done looking now?” Katie asked, fidgeting in her impatience.

“Sure,” Clint said, glad to think about something besides his own inadequacies.

“Yay!” Katie grabbed his hand again and started toward the stairs. “We’re going outside now, Daddy!” she called as they passed Skye’s room.

“No further than the barn, Katie,” Phil said. He was sitting on Skye’s little bed, brushing out her hair; she had on an electric blue poofy skirt and one sock. “Clint doesn’t know the area yet.”

“But what if he wants to see the orchard?”

“I’ll come find you once I get Skye ready,” Phil said. “We can all go to the orchard together.”

“Yeah, Katie, you have to wait for us,” Skye piped up.

“Okay,” Katie said. “Come on, Clint!”

He trailed behind her, down the stairs and out the back door into a sort of room with open walls.

“This is the back porch,” Katie said, not stopping. “Sometimes we sit out here when the weather is nice. There’s a force field you can turn on to keep the bugs out.” She led him out another door and outside, and he had to drop her hand, stop for a minute, and stand with the door at his back. He’d kind of hoped that the sort of open space they’d gone through to get here was just the way things were in between towns, but apart from the house behind him all he could see (and he could see a long way) were trees and plants and rolling hills, punctuated by little clumps of color here and there; flowers, maybe? There had been flowers just growing wherever when they’d stopped for lunch the day before. He kind of wished Natasha could be there to see it; she always had flowers in her rooms. A touch of life, she’d called them when he’d asked. Something to remind her that there was still beauty in the world.

Katie was frowning up at him, a worried crinkle between her eyes. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You stopped kind of fast.”

He swallowed around the lump in his throat, and made himself nod. “Where I’m from, there aren’t any open spaces like this,” he explained. “Everywhere you go, you’re surrounded by buildings and people. Stark’s World is really nice, but I’m not used to all the space. I just needed a minute to get used to it.” He tried to smile at her, and hoped it was reassuring. Fat lot of good he’d be at childcare if he couldn’t leave the house.

Katie picked up his hand again. Her fingers were tiny, but warm and somehow comforting. “Then I’ll stay close by so you’ll have someone around while we’re outside, okay Clint?” She looked up at him, eyes wide. “Will that help you feel better?”

He felt a surge of affection for her, and smoothed over the top of her head with his free hand, giving one of her braids a little tug. “Yeah, thanks,” he said. “I think that will help a lot.” He took a deep breath, and stepped out into the open space.

“This is the backyard,” Katie said. “This space is mainly just for me and Skye to play in. But over there is the kitchen garden, you want to see it?”

“Sure,” Clint said, interested. Some people on Earth were able to grow a little food with special lamps, or even in windowsills on the upper levels, but he’d only ever seen pictures of gardens in history books. As he followed Katie, he looked over his shoulder at the house. It had been dusk when they’d arrived the day before, and he’d been so tired he’d hardly even noticed what it looked like other than big; in the daylight, it was a warm, buttery yellow, nestled in among the trees and green hills like a stone in a nest of velvet. He thought it was made of real wood, just like the floors and furniture inside, and though he knew that natural materials were cheaper on colonies where they could be produced locally, a lifetime on Earth still made him feel like he had somehow ended up living in a mansion. It looked like pictures Clint had seen, of the way houses looked on Earth hundreds of years ago; he wondered how much terraforming the Starks’d had to do to make this planet look so much like humanity’s old home.

“So this is the garden,” Katie said, jerking his attention back. “We mostly just grow enough for us, but if we have extra we swap with the neighbors.”

The garden looked like pictures he’d seen, tiny plants in neat rows. The only thing that reminded him he wasn’t somewhere in Earth’s history was a faint wavering in the air surrounding the garden.

“Is that a force field?” he asked.

“Yeah, it keeps out the bad bugs and animals that want to eat our vegetables,” Katie said. “You can touch it if you want, it doesn’t zap people.” She demonstrated, waving a hand through the field. “We start the seeds inside to give them a head start, and then we move them out after the ground thaws. We just planted these, that’s why they’re so little.”

“You sound like you know a lot about it,” he said.

“Daddy has a robot, but he likes to work in the garden himself too,” Katie explained, “and I help him. Skye’s too little to really help, but she has a shovel and Daddy gives her a spot where she can dig, or sometimes she goes to play with her friends on garden days.”

“Maybe I can help while I’m here,” Clint said.

“That’d be fun,” Katie agreed. “Okay, we should look at my treehouse next, and then we can go see the barn.”

“Lead the way.”

Katie’s treehouse was built about eight feet off the ground, in the low branches of a wide, sturdy-looking tree.

“You can’t get in unless I say,” she told him, then raised her voice. “Treehouse!” she called. “I’ve got company!”

“Who has come to visit, Miss Katie?” the voice was a pleasant, neutral one, sounding kind of like a British butler from an old drama, and Clint was impressed; house AIs were pretty common these days, at least among people who could afford them, but he’d never heard of one being put in a playhouse before.

She poked him. “Say your name!” she hissed.

“Clint Barton,” Clint said, feeling a little silly.

“Guest registered,” the AI said. “How long will Mr. Barton be staying?”

“Forever!” Katie said, and Clint’s stomach swooped.

“Registration complete,” the AI said. “Opening.” A hatch on the bottom of the wall slid open, and a flexible ladder made of metal cables dropped down in front of Katie.

“Come on!” Katie said, and started up the ladder as nimbly as any circus kid. Clint hovered underneath her, ready to catch her if she should fall, but she climbed with the ease of long practice and the fearlessness of childhood, scrambling onto a platform and keying open the door with her palm. She peered down at him over the side of the platform, braids hanging. “Are you coming?”

“Sorry,” Clint said, and climbed up after her. He could have gotten to the house without the ladder, of course, but he didn’t want to encourage Katie to try it, especially since she seemed like the kind of kid who would.

The treehouse was the same yellow as the main house, and seemed built as sturdily as if it were really a place to live. Hell, back home it would have been a nicer house than a lot of people had.

“Isn’t it great?” Katie said. “Uncle Steve and Daddy built it, and Uncle Tony gave me the house system for my birthday. Come on, let’s go inside!”

Inside, the house was a single room, with a toy box against one wall and a low table and chairs in the middle. There were grooves running along the insides of the widows which looked very much like the tracks for security shutters.

“Sometimes when Miss Darcy lived with us, she used to make us a picnic and we’d have a tea party up here,” Katie said. “Can we have a tea party sometime, Clint?”

“I’m not sure I’d be very good at making a picnic,” Clint said, “but I’m sure we can figure something out.”

“Daddy can teach you,” Katie assured him. “He’s excellent at teaching. This year at school I had to start doing times tables and he helped me lots with those.”

“Maybe I’ll ask him, then,” Clint said. He might actually do it, too; surely Phil wouldn’t mind, since taking care of children had to involve feeding them somehow, and Clint wasn’t good with any cooking that didn’t involve ration packs. “So what’s next on the tour?”

“Next is the barn,” Katie said. “I’ll show you, come on!”

The barn was almost as big as the house, and painted to match. Katie scanned her palm and swung open a small door in the side, leaving the large double doors in front shut.

“The bottom floor is where we keep all our machines,” she said. “The robots who help with the orchard and the yard are in the other room, and there’s space for when we harvest the apples and put them up in stasis crates, but I’m not keyed to open that one by myself, so Daddy will have to show you later.”

There were two shapes in the main part of the floor. Clint saw a glint of red in the dim light. “What’s over there?”

“Those are our ground transports.” Katie hit a switch and brought up the interior lights, and Clint fell in love.

“Is that an SI Aerovite 9000?” he breathed. He’d never seen one up close in real life, though he’d collected pictures of them; Natasha had laughed at him, called them his pornography. He walked closer; he couldn’t help it. She was amazing, the most beautiful machine he’d ever seen, cherry red and milk white, spotless and gleaming. Repulsor turboskimmers like this cost a fortune on Earth, and the permits to drive them even more; it took massive skill to pilot them at top speeds without wrecking. He reached out toward the door.

“Don’t touch Lola,” Katie warned solemnly, pulling him back. “Daddy doesn’t like anyone to drive her except him.”

“Sorry! I’m sorry.” Clint pulled his hands back, sticking them in his pockets to avoid temptation. “She’s amazing.”

“Lola’s smaller, so when we all go somewhere we usually use the land car,” Katie said, waving at a decidedly less-exciting wheeled transport next to the skimmer. “Daddy uses Lola when he has to go to Mariana or Port Anthony for work. But he takes us for rides in Lola sometimes if we’re good and wash our hands. I bet he’d take you too if you asked him.”

The last thing Clint wanted was to pester Phil for things, but for a ride in this gorgeous machine, he might make an exception.

“Mr. Sam’s barn is where the horses live,” Katie went on. “We don’t have any horses right now, but I want to get a real horse someday and it can live in the barn then. And upstairs in the barn is just a big empty space, so we don’t have to go see it unless you want to.”

“No, that’s all right,” he said, tearing his eyes away from Lola. They were watering a little, maybe from how awesome it was to see an Aerovite up close. “We can move on. What’s next?”

“There’s just one more part, and then we’ll have to wait for Daddy,” she said, leading him back outside and re-locking the door. They went around to the side of the house, where Clint noticed the only thing he’d seen so far that wasn’t perfectly neat. It was a flower garden, he thought; this early in the year, only a few things were blooming, but he saw tangles of vines growing up over a little arch, green shoots spreading out from beds lined with smooth stones, low seats cradled by tall bushes and little trees. It looked like a place that was built to wander in and sit a while. It also looked like it had received a minimum of cultivation, compared to the kitchen garden’s neat rows or the tidy decorative plants around the house.

“This was my mommy’s flower garden,” Katie said quietly. “We all used to come and sit out here and look at the flowers and listen to the bees buzz. I used to help Mommy with the flowers, but now Daddy doesn’t like to come here anymore. He just lets the robot do everything, but it’s not as good a helper as a person.”

“I bet you are a great helper,” Clint said, not sure what else to do. He felt an impulse to offer to fix the flowers, anything to make Katie not look so sad, but who the hell was he to offer? He was from Earth, for one thing, and knew less than nothing about growing plants; the last thing she needed was some interloper coming to her house and messing with her mother’s flowers and probably ruining them.

He said nothing, instead resting a hand tentatively on her shoulder, ready to snatch it back if she didn’t like it. She sniffled and leaned into him, though, pressing under his arm and into his side, turning his awkward pat into a hug, so he kind of rubbed her shoulder the way that Natasha used to do for him sometimes. He figured he wasn’t magically reassuring like Natasha, but he hoped it at least helped a little.

The moment was broken by Phil’s voice calling Katie from the back porch. She perked up, shaking off her sadness and going back around the house, Clint in tow.

“We’re coming, Daddy!” she called. “Is it time to show Clint the orchard now?”

“Assuming he cares to see it,” Phil said, an amused lilt to his voice. “He might need a rest after all the touring he’s done already.”

“I’d like to see it,” Clint said, then cleared his throat; his voice had come out unexpectedly hoarse.

“Then let’s go,” Phil said. “Katie, Skye, are you ready to take a walk in the orchard?”

“I’m ready!” Katie said. Skye, standing behind Phil, just nodded. She had a tight grip on his pant leg with one hand, the two middle fingers of the other in her mouth. She had the doll Clint had given her tucked under her arm, and he felt happy and warm to see her carrying it around. He waved at her and smiled, trying to make himself look non-threatening, and she buried her face in Phil’s leg. He winced.

“She’s feeling a little shy,” Phil explained, noticing the exchange. “It’s nothing you did, she just gets that way sometimes.”

“It’s because she’s little,” Katie offered, in the tone of one who had seen everything and been surprised by none of it.

“Okay,” he said, relieved. “Well, just let me know if I need to do anything different.”

Phil expertly transferred Skye’s dry hand from his pant leg to his hand, and started walking towards the orchard.

“Pretty much everyone who lives permanently on Stark’s World grows or makes something, in addition to whatever other job they have,” he explained. “It helps the colony be more self-sufficient. The Fitzes raise sheep, the Odinsons have a herd of dairy goats, Sam and Darcy have a blueberry patch in addition to the horses, that kind of thing. We do apples and bees.”

Clint was fascinated by the picture Phil painted. “So do you sell them to each other, or what?”

“Sometimes,” Phil said. “Other times we trade goods directly; a bushel of apples for a wheel of cheese, that sort of thing. There’s a central database to help find who’s got what, and Stark Galactic provides plenty of stasis containers so we can keep the food fresh throughout the year; it’s much cheaper for them than importing enough to feed everyone.”

“I’m surprised people have time to do all that in addition to their jobs,” Clint said. “Obviously I’m not an expert, but doesn’t that take a lot of time?”

“Ordinarily, yes,” Phil said. “But that’s the benefit of living here; SG has a whole line of agricultural robots, and the residents can use them in exchange for being a sort of real-life testing facility. It works out, on the whole.” He glanced over at Clint, looking a little uncertain. “I know this must all seem very backward and strange to you, coming from Earth,” he said. “I hope we’ll be able to make you comfortable here.”

“It’s sure a different way to live,” Clint said, “but it’s… kind of nice? I mean, it’s still weird to have all these plants around just growing everywhere, but I can see the appeal.” They had reached the orchard now, the trees growing in neatly spaced rows, tiny green leaves and silver buds covering the branches.

“It’s not really at its best this time of year,” Phil said. “The trees will be blooming soon, though.”

“Some of them are pink, and some of them are white,” Katie said. “They smell really pretty.”

Clint smiled at her. “We’ll have to come take another walk here when that happens,” he said.

“If you want,” Phil said, hesitant, “we can come down another time without the girls, and I’ll walk you around the beehives. They’re pretty interesting.”

“Thanks,” Clint said. “I’d like that.”

“And then he can take you for a ride in Lola!” Katie said. “Daddy, Clint thinks Lola is the beautifullest skimmer ever, you have to take him for a ride sometime!”

Clint’s ears went hot. “I didn’t—I mean, you don’t have to,” he muttered, scuffing at the ground with his toe. If Natasha were there, she’d have cuffed the back of his head and called him an urchin. He missed her. “I was just—those Aerovites are amazing. I’ve never seen one in person before.”

“She’s an original, from the first run,” Phil said eagerly. “Not one of those anniversary repro jobs. All original parts; I inherited it from my father and a friend of mine helped me source the parts to restore her. If you’d be interested, you’re welcome to come out for a drive some time; I don’t get to take her out nearly as often as I’d like. Really, you’d be doing me a favor.”

Clint grinned at Phil’s enthusiasm. “Well, if you put it that way, how could I refuse?”

“The girls go back to school in a few days; we can go then, on our way into town.” He broke off, looking down. Skye was tugging at the hem of his sweater.

“Daddy, excuse me please,” she said.

“Yes, Skye, what is it?”

“Daddy, I’m bored of the apple trees now. I want to go see Aunt Peggy.”

“Oooh, yes, Daddy, may we please?” Katie agreed. “We can show them Clint!”

“We can certainly introduce them to Clint,” Phil said. “He’s not a toy for you to show off, Katie, he’s our guest.”

“That’s what I meant, though, Daddy,” Katie said, waving an airy hand. “So can we go? Please?”

“Please?” Skye added.

Phil raised an eyebrow at Clint, a silent question. Clint shrugged, swiping again at his itchy eyes. “We’re on your schedule today,” he said. “I’d be happy to meet your… brother? Sister?”

“Friends,” Phil said with a smile. “The ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ are more courtesy titles. We don’t have much extended family, so Katie’s adopted half the town as honorary relatives.”

“Uncle Steve says that family you pick is every bit as good as what you get when you’re born,” Katie announced. “He says what’s important is how you feel in your heart. Don’t you think that’s true, Clint?”

Clint thought of Natasha, of Barney, of the circus in the good times, before things had gone wrong. “Yeah, Katie, I guess I do,” he said.

“Like your bestest friend Natasha, right? The one who you lived in her house on Earth?”

“Katie,” Phil said, shooting a concerned look at Clint. “Don’t be nosy.”

She clicked her tongue, her expression just on the edge of an eye-roll. “It’s not nosiness, Daddy, I’m taking an interest,” she said, and Clint was hard put not to laugh at her officious tone, a middle-aged gossip in a four-foot pigtailed package.

“It’s okay to ask me questions,” he told her, “but remember that I might not always answer them, okay?”

She nodded. “Some things are sad to talk about,” she said. “I understand.”

She probably did, Clint thought, and if the look on Phil’s face was any clue, he knew it too. There was an uncomfortable silence.

“So is your friend Natasha like your family that you picked?” Katie asked again, and Clint let himself laugh at the appalled look on Phil’s face.

“Yeah, Katie,” he said. “She really is.”

“She can be our Aunt Natasha, then,” Katie proclaimed, and then turned smartly on her heel before Clint could manage to scrape the stunned-fish look off his face. “Come on, everybody, let’s go!”

“Let’s go!” Skye echoed, tugging on Phil’s hand.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Phil said, meeting Clint’s eyes. The tips of his ears had gone red, and he looked suddenly a lot less intimidating. “Sometimes Katie isn’t very good with boundaries. I hope she didn’t offend you.”

“She’s just a kid,” Clint said. “She’s trying to figure out where I fit, I’m not mad about it.” He rubbed his nose. “I promise I won’t tell her anything, you know, inappropriate. Where I lived, it wasn’t exactly…” he gestured around them at the house, the trees, the plants. “Well. This.”

“I wasn’t thinking that at all,” Phil said, sounding genuinely surprised. “Of course I trust your discretion, I just didn’t want her pressing you for information you’d rather not share. You’re our guest, not a prisoner brought in for interrogation.”

Daddy,” Skye said again, louder. “Let’s go, Daddy, excuse me. I want to show Aunt Peggy my baby Jenny.”

“I think Katie’s halfway there,” Clint said. She was already at the fence behind the barn, pacing in front of the gate. “Seriously, Phil, don’t worry about it,” he added. “We’re here to get to know each other, right? That goes for Skye and Katie too.”

Phil relaxed and shot him a half smile, the sort of soft, fond look he usually directed at the girls, and Clint’s mouth went dry. He wanted to see Phil look at him like that all the time.

It was possible that Natasha had been a little bit right about Clint’s feelings.

“I appreciate that,” Phil said. “Come on, let’s put this one out of her misery,” and he started walking towards Katie. Skye, still pulling on his hand, overbalanced and sat down hard on the grass, looking startled.

“I think it’s time to go now,” Clint told her, trying to keep his voice serious. “This isn’t the time to sit down and rest!”

“I’m going!” she said, scrambling to her feet. “You should be more careful, Daddy,” she added with a little scowl. “Jenny could get dirty.”

Phil ran his hand through her wispy curls, pulled into a slightly lopsided bunch on the top of her head. “You’re right, sweetheart, I apologize.”

“Okay, Daddy, I forgive you,” she said carefully. “I’m going to see Katie!” She trotted off towards her sister, clinginess apparently forgotten in her excitement for the upcoming visit. The two men followed behind her.

“So, manners, huh?” Clint asked. Phil chuckled.

“She’s still not entirely clear on what to say when, but she makes a good effort,” he said.

“It’s cute,” Clint said. “I think she gets her message across.”

“I don’t want them to grow up spoiled,” Phil said. He looked away, toward the side of the house where the flower garden was. “After their mother died, I’m afraid I got a little overindulgent. They’d lost so much; I wanted to… make up for it, I suppose. Give them other things, since I couldn’t fix the real problem. Skye was too little to notice, mostly, but Katie really struggled for a while, and me caving to her every whim wasn’t helping.” He sighed. “Fortunately, I’ve got some very good friends who helped me realize I was going about things wrong, that they needed boundaries and structure from me to feel safe.”

Clint wasn’t sure what to say, but the sad note in Phil’s voice bothered him way too much for a guy he’d known for less than two days. “They seem good?” he ventured. “I mean, I’ve seen kids who are scared, or who aren’t getting shi—stuff that they need. Your kids aren’t like that. It’s like—” he gestured at the girls, who had met up at the gate and were talking, excited giggles drifting toward them on the cool breeze. “They look to you, but they feel okay doing things for themselves too, you know? You can tell they know you’ll be there, they don’t have to make sure of it all the time.”

Phil blinked at him, eyes bright. “That’s… thank you,” he said. “That means a lot. That they— damn. Sorry.” He looked away, shoulders hunching a little, and took a deep breath. There was a little dampness glinting at the corners of his eyes, and Clint pushed down the urge to wipe it away; it wasn’t his place.

“I’m sorry,” Phil said. “It’s been a little stressful lately. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“Hey, no,” Clint said, and he wasn’t able to stop himself from putting a hand on Phil’s shoulder. “Don’t apologize. I think we’re all a little out of orbit right now. I mean, look at me, I keep getting startled by trees.”

He felt the muscles relax under his hand. There was a lot of lean strength under Phil’s jacket, and he tried not to let himself dwell on it too much. So not the time, Barton.

“Trees can be pretty off-putting,” Phil said, deadpan.

“They’re just there, in the ground. It ain’t natural.” Clint played up his accent a bit, and was rewarded with a little huff of laughter.

“Stay here long enough, we’ll make a farmer of you yet,” Phil said.

Clint deliberately didn’t say anything about what might or might not make him stay that long. “Maybe so,” he said instead. “Stranger things have happened.”

They were coming up on the gate, the girls quivering with impatience as Phil opened the lock and they stepped out onto a neat path.

“Remember the rules,” Phil said. “You can go a little ahead, but not out of sight.”

“Yes, Daddy,” they chorused, and Katie grabbed Skye’s hand.

“Come on, Skye, they’re really slow!” she said, and Skye padded agreeably along as she pulled out in front of them.

Phil set an easy pace, keeping a sharp eye on the girls ahead, seemingly happy to let the conversation lapse. Clint walked beside him, content to give them both some space after the unexpected heavy turn things had taken. The weather was sunny and crisply cool, with gusts of wind making him glad for his sweater. The path they were following was wide and well-tended, actually paved with smooth flat stones; you could get a skimmer or maybe even a small ground transport down it in a pinch. There were more trees, not in neat rows like the apple orchard, but all different kinds, scattered around wherever, their mostly-bare branches painting shadows across the ground. He didn’t see any other buildings, and had to stop himself from drifting closer to Phil, uneasy.

“So they’re your closest neighbors?” he asked. “How close are we talking, exactly?”

“A little over a mile,” Phil said. “The houses are closer together in Mariana proper, but we wanted a little more privacy and space.”

“Where I come from, you walk a mile, you’ve probably spent most of it going up and down and around in hallways to end up two buildings over from where you started,” Clint said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere this empty before.”

Phil looked at him, his gaze sharpening, brows drawing in a bit; Clint could practically feel the attention focusing on him, and wanted to straighten up and duck his head simultaneously. “Does it bother you?” Phil asked. “The emptiness?”

Clint sniffed, only just catching himself before he rubbed at his nose with the sleeve of his new sweater. “I wouldn’t say bother, exactly,” he said, slowly. “It catches me off-guard sometimes.” He tried to smile reassuringly at Phil, but he wasn’t sure how successful he was. “I’m sure I’ll get used to it pretty soon.” He cast around for a subject change, wanting to deflect attention away from his issues. “So,” he said, aggressively chipper in the way that he called “friendly” and Natasha called “manic”, “did you meet your friends because they were your neighbors, or did you guys move next to each other because you were already friends?”

“We were in the service together,” Phil said easily. “We met when Katie was just a baby, and, well. Friendships grow quickly under intense circumstances.” He smiled. “I stood up for them at their wedding. Steve was so nervous he lost the ring three times the morning of the ceremony. Finally Sam and I had to take it away from him for safekeeping.”

“Is that by any chance Mr. Sam, purveyor of riding lessons?”

Phil chuckled. “Now, yeah,” he said, “but back then he was our pilot. Man’s never happy unless he’s risking life and limb on something that goes unnaturally fast.”

“Says the man with a spotless Aerovite 9000 in his barn.”

“Point,” Phil said, a wry tuck in the corner of his mouth. “Anyway, we’d done some work with Tony Stark, and the group had become friends with him after a fashion. He gave Steve and Peggy a house and land as a wedding gift, only of course, being Tony Stark, it was a lot bigger than they needed and also located inconveniently on the planet he’d been trying to get us all to move to for years.”

“So his plan worked?”

“Not right away,” Phil said, his voice a little quieter. “Our group took a lot of damage when the Chitauri Confederacy attacked five years ago. I was actually injured, and took most of a year to recover. After that, well, private sector employment and living in paranoid security in Tony’s backyard didn’t sound like such a bad idea.”

Clint wasn’t sure how to respond, but fortunately was rescued by a plaintive call from Skye, who’d wandered back in their direction.

“Daddy, I’m very tired now,” she said. “Can you carry me and Jenny please?”

Phil swung her up onto his hip without breaking stride, and she cuddled into his shoulder, still clutching her doll, and peeked out at Clint shyly. The morning sun slanting through the trees glances off their heads, revealing tiny freckles on Phil’s cheeks and glints of chestnut in Skye’s dark hair. She still looked mostly like a chubby baby, flushed from the fresh air and exercise and content in her father’s arms, but at certain angles you could catch a glimpse of what she might look like when she was older.

“Come on, Daddy,” Katie called back, looking back over her shoulder. “We’re almost there!” She had Phil’s blue eyes, and Audrey’s delicate cheekbones.

“You’re going to wear yourself out before we even get there,” Phil said mildly. “They’re not going anywhere, sweetheart, we won’t miss them.”

Katie heaved a sigh that seemed to come from the tips of her toes. “Yes, sir,” she said, resignation clear in every line of her posture, and slowed her walk by the barest fraction.

After another minute or two, they came to a low stone wall with another gate set in.

“This is the property marker,” Phil explained. “Not far now. You’ll be able to see the house from the top of the hill.”

The house was an impressive sight, a sprawling building of the same warm gray stone as the wall. It was even bigger than Phil’s place, amazingly, and Clint wondered if living in mansions was common for Stark’s World.

How many people did you say live here?” he blurted.

“Just the two, for now, though I think they hope that will change soon,” Phil said. “Tony Stark doesn’t exactly do moderation.”

“I’d hate to see what he considers over the top,” Clint muttered, and Phil laughed.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said.

A tall, muscular blond man came around the corner of the house, and Katie squealed.

“Uncle Steeeeeeeeve!” she yelled, running pell-mell down the hill to meet him. He lifted his head, a brilliant smile spreading over his face, and met her with a whoop, picking her up into the air and spinning her around while she shrieked in delight.

Clint, meanwhile, had nearly swallowed his tongue, because the man that his potential new husband was best friends with, the man who was currently swinging his possibly-soon-to-be-stepdaughter around, was Steven Rogers, the captain of the lost starship America, one of the greatest heroes of the Hydra War. Captain Steven Rogers, who had miraculously been recovered from a time anomaly five years ago and then seemingly vanished, citing a desire for some private time to adjust to life seventy years in his own future.

Steven Rogers was Clint’s next-door neighbor.

One of Clint’s most prized possessions as a child had been a picture book about the America and its heroic officers, whose amazing feats of daring and courage had earned them the nickname “Howling Commandoes.” Barney had thrown the book into a puddle once, but Clint had fished it back out and dried it off. The pages had been ripply, but you could still read most of it. Clint could probably still recite the book by heart if he tried.

“And this must be Clint,” he heard, and he realized that Steven Rogers (Uncle Steve was Steven Rogers!) was standing in front of him, offering a handshake and a friendly smile as though he wasn’t a fucking superhero returned from the dead. He looked just like the pictures, broad and chiseled and golden, though in the pictures he was never carrying a seven-year-old in one arm. The lines of the book had started to run through Clint’s head (“It can’t be done!” The people cried. “There’s no way to be saved!” But the valiant ship America would shield us to the grave,) and he was terrified he would inadvertently start quoting them.

“Clint Barton,” he managed, taking the offered hand and then snatching it back to cover his face as he sneezed, hard enough to make his eyes water. Great, Barton, way to make a first impression. The captain of the America is going to think you’re a plague carrier. Every tabloid in the galaxy wondering where he went, and he’s going to be your next door neighbor, and you cover him with filthy Earth microbes.

“What’s all this, then?” an amused voice came from the front of the house, and of course, of course Aunt Peggy was Agent Margaret Carter, was Britannia, the legendary strategist and spy whose work had made the America’s guerrilla tactics against Hydra possible.

Natasha thought Britannia was the finest Human Alliance agent of the entire Hydra War. She’d told him stories.

(The bold and lovely Margaret, her heart was strong and true, and with her cleverness and wit, she’d guide her comrades through.)

Phil had brought her over, and somehow Clint found himself shaking her hand and telling her to call him Clint, trying not to breathe too deeply. If he sneezed on Britannia, he thought desperately, Natasha would know and she would come to Stark’s World just to kick his ass.

“I had a book about you,” he blurted, and then felt himself flush, a wave of mortification sweeping over him like he’d been dipped in hot water.

Captain Rogers, to his credit, looked only slightly uncomfortable, while Agent Carter looked amused. “Oh really?” Captain Rogers asked, polite.

“When I was a kid,” Clint mumbled, looking at his feet and wishing he could teleport himself back to the moon or deep space or an asteroid mine or something.

“Was that the one with the little poems?” Phil asked, coming to his rescue like a hero or a knight or, shit, someone who had apparently been in the service with Agent Carter and Captain Rogers somehow, and how the hell was that even possible if Phil was only thirty-two? There hadn’t been a Howling Commando named Phil.

I think I had that one too,” Phil was saying. “We studied you in school, you know.”

Captain Rogers had gone pink. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Shoulda studied Peggy, you’d have learned more.”

“Oh, I studied her in college,” Phil said, and Captain Rogers barked out a laugh, relaxing.

“She’s the advanced level, that’s for sure,” he said, regarding his wife fondly.

Agent Carter laughed, shaking her head. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read,” she said, lightly. “Phillip, I was hoping the four of you would come by today, I’m so pleased to meet Clint at last. You are planning to stay for lunch, I hope?”

“If it isn’t inconvenient,” Phil said.

“Nonsense, you know how Steve loves to cook,” she said. “You’d be doing him a favor, truly.”

“Aunt Peggy,” Skye interrupted. “Look, Aunt Peggy, I have a new baby Jenny that Clint brought me from Earth! Excuse me.”

“You say ‘excuse me’ first, sweetheart,” Phil said.

“But well done you for remembering,” Agent Carter added, somehow jabbing Phil in the side with an elbow while transferring Skye onto her own hip. “Skye, you must introduce me to your new baby! She’s come a very long way to live with you, hasn’t she?”

“Alllllllllllll the way from Earth!” Skye said, flinging her arms wide. Agent Carter somehow managed to avoid getting clonked in the head as she opened the front door, probably because she was a legendary interstellar badass spy.

“Please come in,” she told them, over her shoulder. “We were just about to start working on lunch.”

They followed Agent Carter through a spacious hallway back to a large, airy kitchen, Captain Rogers still carrying Katie, who was swinging her legs with obvious enjoyment. He’d been the first person to receive Enhancements, and apparently the super-human strength they’d given him hadn’t been exaggerated by the history books. (Or the satvids, or the action figures, or the children’s cartoons, or the thinly veiled erotic novels.) Katie wasn’t so big yet that Clint couldn’t carry her easily if needed, of course, but the Captain didn’t even seem to notice her weight.

“Would anyone care for a cup of tea?” Agent Carter asked.

“Yes, please!” Katie said.

“Please, Aunt Peggy, and one for Jenny,” added Skye.

“Gladly,” Phil said, smiling at her.

“None for me, thanks, Peg,” said the Captain, crossing the kitchen and pulling something out of a cabinet.

“Clint?”

“Um,” Clint said, all Natasha’s training deserting him. Was it better to say yes or no? “Maybe later?” he hazarded after an excruciating pause. “Thank you very much, though.”

“Of course,” she said, and busied herself with a kettle and a tea set. This was something that Clint actually had some experience with—Natasha adored tea and insisted it be produced with the appropriate pomp and circumstance whenever possible—and despite his nerves, there was something deeply homey about the hiss of steam and clink of porcelain. Steve and Phil were chatting about the latest message they’d received from someone called Jim (Morita, maybe? Most of the Commandoes had been recovered from the America, so it might be) and the girls were sitting quietly at the table, watching Agent Carter attentively.

When everyone’s drinks had been served (sweet and milky for the girls, sweet for Phil, and black for Agent Carter,) plus a tiny cookie each, shaped like a flower and gleaming with tinted sugar, everyone settled around the big kitchen table. Clint wished he’d said yes to the tea, if only to have something to do with his hands. He felt like a lout, sitting there trying not to look as lost as he felt.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked. “I mean, I’m not much of a cook, but I follow direction well.”

Captain Rogers shot him a kind look. “How are you with a knife? There’s a pile of vegetables to chop.”

“I think I can manage that,” Clint said, deeply relieved, and then concentrated on slicing vegetables without looking too much like he’d learned to use a knife from people called the Swordsman and the Black Widow.

“You’re quick,” Agent Carter said admiringly.

“I was in a knife act when I was younger, in the circus,” Clint said. It was true, as far as it went, and hopefully would have them all thinking about tricks and not, say, stabbings.

“Clint rode horses in the circus, too, and shot arrows!” Katie piped up from the table. “Maybe after lunch can you show me how to do some tricks, please?”

“Nothing dangerous,” Clint said. “But, um, I could probably show you some tumbling, if that’s okay?” He looked at Phil, who nodded.

“I’m sure that would be fine,” Phil said. “As long as you listen to what Clint tells you and mind him so you don’t get hurt.”

“I promise, Daddy!” Katie said. “I promise, Clint, I’ll do whatever you say! Can you teach me to do a cartwheel? My friend America can do a cartwheel but I can’t ever get my legs up high enough.”

“I think we can manage that,” Clint said, and relaxed a bit at her excitement. Now, as long as he didn’t cut his own finger off or sneeze on any other childhood heroes, he might get through this visit intact.

Chapter Text


Steve had made pot roast for lunch, suspiciously big enough for four or five extra people; Phil wondered if it was the girls’ eagerness to show Clint off or his own need for reassurance that Steve had counted on to bring the Coulsons over that day. Clint was subdued and anxious as they ate, scrupulously polite, but constantly watching the others at the table; he never helped himself to anything until it was offered, never started to eat a course before the others had. Phil wished he could say or do something to put him at ease, but he was afraid that would make Clint feel even more self-conscious.

It had surprised Phil, how starstruck Clint had seemed by Peggy and Steve; of course they were celebrities, and the recovery of the America had been galaxy-wide news, but the passage of time and their steadfast refusal to capitalize on their fame, coupled with SHIELD’s best efforts at keeping their ongoing work quiet, had largely toned down the public interest. Phil had grown up hearing stories of them too, of course, but running missions with someone tended to brush off the artificial glamour pretty quickly. They’d been such an important part of his life for so long that he hadn’t even thought about introducing them in any other way but as the girls’ honorary aunt and uncle and Phil’s closest friends. He hoped that Clint didn’t think Phil had deliberately hidden their identity to throw him off-balance. He’d have to apologize later; the last thing he wanted to do was make Clint uncomfortable.

As they were finishing their slices of apple cake, Katie, who’d largely ignored the conversation in favor of her plate (she’d been hungry all the time lately; she was probably getting ready for another growth spurt), put down her fork. “Uncle Steve, did you hear that Clint used to be in the circus?” she said. “He rode horses and shot arrows and did acrobats!”

Clint choked on a bite of cake.

“I think you mean acrobatics, sweetie,” Phil said hastily.

“That’s what I said, Daddy,” Katie said.

“That’s great, Katie,” Steve said. “Are you going to take Clint with you to meet Sam’s horses?”

“Uh huh! And Clint said he’d teach me how to do cartwheels so that I can play with America when she does cartwheels.”

“Wow,” Steve said. “That’s really great. It’s nice of Clint to offer to teach you. I bet you’ll have lots of fun.”

“Clint is the most fun,” Katie informed him. “We went on a tour, and he played with our butterfly, and he’s going to ride with me and teach me cartwheels, and he brought me a new toy of Shady the circus horse!”

The way to Katie’s heart had always been to go along with her whims; Phil was trying to work on getting her to be less bossy, but it was hard to hit the balance between encouraging her to be confident and allowing her to walk all over everyone around her.

“Clint sounds like a great houseguest,” Steve said, shooting a friendly smile Clint’s way. “I wish that when we had company over, they were that fun.”

Clint’s ears were bright red, and he was eating his cake with focused attention. Katie gasped and clasped her hands, and Phil recognized her look of epiphany with a sinking feeling.

“Uncle Steve! I know! Clint can teach me cartwheels now, and that way you can come too and have fun with us!”

“Katie, Captain Rogers might not want to do that,” Clint said, looking at Steve with a worried frown.

“I don’t mind if you don’t,” Steve said. “And please, call me Steve; we don’t stand on formality with our neighbors.”

“Pleeeeeeeeeeease, Clint,” Katie added. “It would be so much fun!”

Phil could see the moment when Clint caved in the face of Katie’s pleading eyes. He’d have to work on that.

If he ended up staying, of course.

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” Clint said, and actually looked shyly pleased at Katie’s shriek of glee.

“Do you want to come, too, Skye?” Clint asked.

Skye looked pensive, then shook her head. “I just wanna watch Katie,” she decided. She had timid moments, especially around new people, and Phil was glad that Clint seemed able to navigate around it without either ignoring her or pushing her to socialize more than she was comfortable.

“We’ll all sit on the porch and watch, how about that?” Peggy suggested. “Then if you want to join in later, you can.”

“After we help clear the dishes,” Phil interjected, and Katie agreed with a minimum of fuss, wise enough to quit while she was ahead.

With so many helping hands, lunch was quickly cleared away, and Katie towed Clint and Steve out into the backyard while Phil and Peggy sat on the porch swing, Skye settling on a sunny spot on the steps, perching her doll beside her.

“How have things been, so far?” Peggy asked.

“There’s hardly been enough time to tell.” In the yard, Clint was leading Steve and Katie through some sort of warm-up routine, face creased with concentration. Phil had never seen anyone take playtime so seriously, and wondered if it was for Steve’s sake or Katie’s.

“Deflection doesn’t work with me, Phillip; I was the one who taught you to do it in the first place.” Her voice was warm, amused. “I do find it very interesting that you feel the need to try. So tell me, is he that bad, or that good?”

“I don’t…” Phil trailed off, frustratingly unable to find words for the mixture of guilt, hope, protectiveness, and apprehension Clint Barton inspired.

“You’re obviously unsettled,” Peggy said, her tone gentling. “You keep rubbing at your scar. It’s been months since I saw you do that.”

He pulled his hand away from his chest. He’d picked up the habit while he was healing, but having a tell like that was terrible for someone in his line of work.

Peggy touched the back of his hand lightly. “If he’s done anything to hurt you, I can have him on the moon in an hour, Black Widow or no Black Widow.”

“What? No!” Phil turned to face her fully, blinking in shock. “No, Peggy, it isn’t like that at all.”

She tilted her head. “I’m listening.”

He sighed, trying to gather his thoughts as he looked out into the yard again. “He’s great with the girls already,” he said slowly. “He takes them so seriously, and they just gravitate to him. Katie especially.” He gestured to where Clint was helping Katie stretch out her shoulder; she was listening intently as he demonstrated the form, small face mirroring his focused expression. Steve was nodding along, approving.

“And what about you?” Peggy said, adept as ever at cutting to the heart of things. “What do you think of him?”

“He’s… not what I expected,” Phil said, “and yes, I am aware that it’s foolish to form expectations about a person based on two short letters and a broker dossier. He seems…” he stopped, mouth tightening in annoyance at his inability to put his vague feelings into words.

“What did you expect?”

“Most people who sign up with the brokers approach the whole thing with a certain pragmatism,” Phil said. “They’re looking for an arrangement that meets their needs, that will improve their lives; a ticket off their home planet, or the opportunity for a more comfortable life. It isn’t like the courtship sites where people are looking for romance.”

“A lot of brokered spouses come from Earth,” Peggy noted. “If you aren’t wealthy and aren’t willing to work for the syndicates, there aren’t many other options.”

“I know,” Phil said. “But Clint just… he doesn’t strike me as the pragmatic type. The way he reacts to things, the way he behaves with the girls… he seems like he’s really hoping to make a connection with us.”

Peggy glanced out into the yard, then raised an eyebrow. “Would a connection with him be so terrible?”

The stretching portion of the lesson was apparently over; Clint had taken off his sweater and shoes and was wearing only his linen trousers and a sleeveless undershirt. As Phil watched, he turned a few cartwheels, then flipped backwards, catching himself upside-down and walking on his hands back and forth as Katie watched, mesmerized. The muscles in his arms flexed hypnotically as he moved, and his undershirt was sliding down towards his head, baring a taut, rippling abdomen. When he finally rolled to his feet with a flourish, his face was flushed, his eyes bright, and he grinned widely at Katie’s enthusiastic applause. When Steve joined in, he seemed to startle as though he’d forgotten the other man’s presence, then ducked his head, flush darkening as he rubbed at the back of his neck.

Phil groaned, and dropped his head into his hands. “I am a filthy old man,” he told Peggy through his fingers.

Peggy laughed. “You may be the only man I’ve ever met who’s upset that his fiancé is attractive,” she said.

“That’s just the thing, though, isn’t it?” Phil said, his voice bitter. “He’s not my fiancé. He’s a man seven years younger than I am who I have paid to travel to the other side of the galaxy from his home so that he can audition for the position of my fiancé. I never had any intention of it being any more than a business relationship. Maybe, if I was lucky, a friendship. And now he’s here and—”

“And you like him, and that terrifies you,” Peggy said.

Phil was silent.

“This can be a good thing for you,” she continued. “It’s healthy to start noticing other people again.”

“It’s only been three years.” He didn’t pretend to misunderstand her.

“And it had been less than two since James died when I married Steve,” Peggy said.

“That was different.”

“Was it? I seem to recall both of us worrying that we were betraying him, and a certain young man of our acquaintance telling us repeatedly that the only thing James would have wanted was for the two of us to be happy and cared for.”

Phil scowled at her. “It’s not fair to use my own words against me.”

“Maybe not, but I’m right,” Peggy said. “From what I’ve seen, Clint seems like a lovely young man, if a bit skittish, and he’s obviously taken with you and with the girls.”

“The girls, I’ll grant you, but I’m not sure where you’re getting the rest of it.”

“I am a trained intelligence agent,” Peggy said, in the crisp tone that made junior agents scatter before her. “I observe.” She held up her hand, ticking points off on her neatly-manicured fingers. “He looks to you frequently when your attention is elsewhere. All throughout lunch, he kept checking to see what you were doing, and he perks up every time you say something even vaguely pleasant to him. Even now, he keeps looking over at us every half-minute or so.” She tilted her head toward the backyard. When Phil looked over, Clint was, indeed, looking their way; when he caught Phil’s eyes he ducked his head, turning back toward Katie and Steve.

“Well, now I feel like an asshole,” Phil muttered.

“The solution to that is to choose not to be one, and give yourself—and Clint—a chance to be happy,” Peggy said. “And no more nonsense about your ages. Honestly, Phillip, that was ridiculous. Seven years is nothing.”

“Sometimes it feels like seven decades,” Phil muttered.

She raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “I might remind you which of us was actually born nearly a hundred years ago,” she said.

Phil winced. “Point.”

“Daddy, Aunt Peggy, look!” Katie’s excited voice interrupted them.

“We’re looking!” Peggy called back, poking him in the side with her elbow until he looked.

Katie glanced nervously back at Clint, who said something quietly and gave her an encouraging smile. She took a few steps back, then launched herself forward into what was indeed a very credible cartwheel. Clint grinned at her, and Steve swooped her into the air in celebration, beaming at them both.

Phil and Peggy applauded. “That was great, sweetheart!” Phil called.

“Bravo!” Peggy added.

“I want to learn another thing, Clint! Please?” Katie said, flinging her arms around Clint’s waist as soon as her feet touched the ground. He looked like he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, finally resting one on her shoulder and tugging on one of her pigtails with the other.

“Can I learn one too, Clint?” Skye added, leaving her perch on the steps and walking towards them. She’d left her own shoes on the step next to her doll, Phil noticed. He supposed he should be grateful she hadn’t taken off her shirt in imitation of Clint.

“How about we do somersaults next?” Clint suggested. “That’s something everyone can learn to do.”

Everyone seemed amenable to somersaults, and Phil and Peggy watched quietly for a while; Steve was pretending to have trouble picking it up and asking Katie for help, which served the double purpose of leaving Clint free to help Skye and making Katie practically glow with pride. Clint seemed to have lost some of his awkwardness around Steve, giving him and Katie instruction and suggestions with easy confidence. It was a little like watching Melinda teach hand-to-hand, actually; now that he was in his element, Clint carried his body with a coiled physicality that Phil was more accustomed to see in fighters than in performers, and he’d known plenty of both. He wondered if the difference between circus and symphony was enough to account for it.

Skye finally managed to flip herself over, landing on her bottom with a plop and looking surprised for a split second before crowing with glee.

“Again!” she demanded, and Clint hovered over her as she tumbled in the soft grass, lending a discreet hand whenever she lacked the momentum to make it over all the way.

“I think there’s more to him being here than just wanting to get off Earth,” Phil said, not looking away from the tableau. “He fell asleep on the shuttle and when I went to wake him up he caught my hand before I even touched him. And you saw his knife work, earlier.”

“Oh, he’s been trained and no mistake,” Peggy said. “I’m not sure that’s necessarily cause for alarm, though. Some might even see it as an advantage; if things go sour, I know I’d feel better if the person helping me care for the children could handle himself in a crisis.”

“I’m not sure that helps, Peggy,” Phil said, still not looking at her. Steve had moved to stand next to Clint, and clapped him on the shoulder when the girls each managed their own somersault without help. He wondered what Steve’s impression of Clint was; he’d have to ask him later.

“Of course we won’t take anything on blind faith,” she said. “But think of it this way. Regardless of the circumstances that gave him his skills, rather than using them to claw his way up some syndicate’s ladder on Earth, he’s chosen to come to one of the most secure and remote places in the galaxy and take his chances with you.” She patted his hand, and he felt comforted in spite of himself. “Also, the Widow guaranteed him. I feel confident that whatever his motives for coming here, whatever it is that he’s running from, it isn’t anything that would make him a danger to you or the girls.”

“You’re sure you can trust the Widow?” Phil pressed. “I mean, not to be rude, but it’s been a long time, Peggy. A lot can change in seventy-five years.”

“I knew her well, once upon a time,” Peggy said. “Of course, things may be different now; I’d be foolish to imagine otherwise. But unless she’s changed beyond all recognition, she has her own sort of honor, and she always pays her debts. I saved her life, once; she considers that a debt owed. The woman I knew would do anything in her power to see that settled.”

“I’m still not overly comfortable trusting her,” Phil said. “But I trust you. If you’re sure, that’s good enough for me.”

“There’s no certainty in this world.” Peggy looked over at Steve, who was saying something to Clint, a grin on his face. Clint smiled back, shy and pleased. “But if it were my children, I would still choose to trust her.”

“Then that’s good enough for me,” Phil said.

“We’ll still keep an eye out for trouble, of course,” she said. “But I have a good feeling about him.”

On the lawn, Steve turned a perfect somersault under Katie’s exacting direction, then let himself be tackled to the ground and tickled by a giggling Skye, who had apparently grown tired of her own lessons.

“I’ve got some lemonade, if you’d care to take a break,” Peggy called, and the little group trooped up the porch steps, flushed and grass-stained and laughing. Steve had Skye slung over his shoulder, Katie was sticking tight to Clint, and the two men seemed to be half-agreeing to some plan of Katie’s whereby they would “do gymnastics together, Uncle Steve, and make towers and I could go on the top of them and then we could walk the tightrope!”

“Maybe a very low tightrope,” Phil said mildly, and Clint shot him a startled look.

“You always start out low,” he said, voice tentative. “Couple inches off the floor until you can be trusted to go higher.”

“Did you do tightrope walking in the circus, too?” Phil tried to keep his tone light; he wanted Clint to feel like he was taking an interest, not like he was interrogating him.

“I did a little bit of everything,” Clint said. “Whatever they needed. My main act was the archery act—trick shooting. But I filled in on tightrope, equestrian, tumbling, even with the clowns.” He shrugged, self-deprecating.

“Sounds like you were a useful man to have around,” Peggy said, handing him a lemonade glass.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, ducking his head.

Phil could see Clint’s ears turning red, and couldn’t help finding it endearing.

“There’s no need to be so formal,” Peggy said. She sat on the step next to Steve, leaning comfortably into his broad shoulder. “As Steve said, we’re all neighbors here; call me Peggy.”

“And I’m Steve.” Steve moved his lemonade into his other hand to wrap an arm around his wife. Skye, clutching her sippy cup of lemonade, sat on the step below, leaning into their legs.

“Come on, Clint,” Katie said, grabbing her own drink in one hand and giving Clint a little push with the other. “Let’s sit on the swing with Daddy.”

Clint’s eyes flicked over to Phil, and he nodded, smiling in a way that he hoped read as welcoming and not, say, skeptical or lecherous.It seemed to go all right; Clint’s shoulders dropped and he took Peggy’s vacated seat, submitting with good grace when Katie handed Phil her glass so she could wedge herself between them, ending up half on Clint’s lap.

“Did you see me, Daddy?” she demanded. “I did so many gymnastics! I did cartwheels and somersaults and handstands!”

“I did see,” Phil assured her. “You did very well; Clint must be a good teacher.”

“He’s really good at explaining,” Katie said, swinging her feet as she gulped her lemonade.

Clint reached up and picked a twig out of her hair, his square, calloused hand so careful that she didn’t even notice the tug. Her braids had loosened—Phil was still attempting to master the art of a braid that was tight enough to stay put all day but loose enough not to be deemed “pinchy”—and little strands of dark hair were clinging to her damp forehead and flushed cheeks. She was obviously, radiantly happy, and Phil’s chest tightened to see it.

“You were a good learner, Katie-Kate,” Clint said. “You paid attention and worked hard, and that’s the most important thing.”

She beamed. “Is that how you learned to do things in the circus?”

“It sure was. Starting when I was about your age, actually. Once I got apprenticed I worked at my chores and practiced nearly all day until I was good enough to be in the shows.”

“When did you go to school?”

“I—” Clint was silent a moment, brow furrowed. “Circus kids didn’t get to go to school,” he said slowly. “We were always moving around, plus there aren’t any schools under the tenth level anyway. The acrobats had a big family, so the older kids would help the parents teach the littler ones about their letters and numbers and things like that, and they didn’t mind if the other kids in the circus came too. So I guess that was what I had for school. Later, though, when I went to live with Natasha, she helped me learn a lot of things that I hadn’t learned before.”

“Circus school sounds pretty fun,” Katie said.

“It was, sometimes,” Clint said, “but sometimes we wished we could go to a normal school like you go to. Everything has good and bad, I guess.”

“I’d like to hear more about your archery, Clint,” Steve said, after a pause. “You said you were a trick shooter?”

Clint perked up at the mention of archery. He and Steve discussed trick shooting for a while, and then Peggy, who had apparently studied archery in school, joined the discussion, and soon Clint had forgotten his shyness and was enthusiastically describing his favored fletching techniques and equipment modifications. By the time they left, Clint had promised to give an archery demonstration at the annual Victory Day picnic. (Steve was on the planning committee and had already wrangled a promise out of Phil to provide honey and mead and apple butter for the refreshments tent; the man was a menace.)

As they gathered up their things, Peggy whispered to Phil, under cover of a hug, “Don’t sabotage yourself, Phillip. You’ve got three months; that’s plenty of time to get to know him and see what happens. Allow yourself to be open to the possibility of happiness.”

Phil forced himself to relax, looking over to where Clint was carefully holding Skye’s doll, telling Katie a story of some circus misadventure that Phil was fairly sure had been sanitized for the audience.

“I’ll try, Peggy,” he said.

“Then you’ll succeed,” she said, smiling. “I know you, Phillip Coulson.”

By the time they were finally on the path homeward, it was after five, and Skye was noticeably drooping. “Up,” she said, tugging on Clint’s pant leg, then lifting her arms.

“Sure,” Clint said, after sending Phil another of those quick glances, like he was checking to make sure he was allowed. He swung Skye into his arms, and she nestled into his broad chest with a happy sigh. Clint wrapped both arms around her. He looked a little more like he was holding a live explosive than a child, but Phil couldn’t help but feel a thrum of warmth; Clint was so obviously making an effort. He wasn’t worried that Clint would drop her, though Clint obviously didn’t share his confidence; Skye clung like a little monkey when she was in this mood and wasn’t easy to set down, let alone drop. She was more than half asleep already, one hand fisted in Clint’s sweater and the other on his neck.

Katie looked tired, too—tired at last, Phil thought, a little uncharitably. She’d been up before dawn, desperately eager to show off to Clint and/or to show Clint off, and only the promise of playing tour guide had calmed her enough to eat her breakfast. Phil had been on his fourth cup of coffee by the time Clint had made it down the stairs, blinky and unsettled but perfectly willing to go along with Katie’s enthusiasm. Katie herself, having run down her supply of energy for the moment, seemed content to trot along a few steps ahead of them, quiet but happy (and, if Phil knew her at all, making plans for how she’d tell the whole story to Sam and Darcy at riding class the next day.) The thought reminded him that he hadn’t told Clint anything about their schedule for the week yet, and he winced. He was obviously going to have to work on child-rearing with a partner again.

“Can we talk a little about logistics?” he asked Clint.

Clint looked over, forehead furrowed, then nodded. “Probably a good idea,” he said. “It’s why I’m here, after all.”

Phil bit back his instinctive denial, but before he could figure out what he wanted to say, Katie chimed in.

“You’re here to see if you want to be friends with us, and so we can see if we want to be friends with you,” she said. “But we’re already friends, right Clint?”

Clint smiled down at her, his whole face softening with it.

“Yeah, Katie, we’re friends,” he said, and she beamed.

“I’m not usually home during the day; I took the week off work to help you get settled in,” Phil said. “But the girls will be spending the day in town tomorrow, so we can go over a few things.”

“We’re going to Mr. Sam and Miss Darcy’s house, to ride horses!” Katie said. “I wanted you to come too, but Daddy says you and him have to talk about grownup stuff tomorrow so you have to come another time.”

“Grownup stuff, huh?” Clint looked over at Phil again, shifting Skye a little tighter in his arms.

Phil gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Nothing too dire, I promise,” he said, but Clint just gave a tight nod.

“Did I tell you about my horse that I ride, Clint?” Katie asked. “Her name is Arrow. Like your bows and arrows from the circus, right?”

Conscious of Clint’s discomfort, and hoping it wasn’t solely from the prospect of one-on-one time with him, Phil let Katie’s chatter fill the rest of the walk home.

“We usually have dinner by five-thirty,” Phil told Clint, when they got back to the house. “It’s a bit early, I know, but it works out for the girls’ schedule. There’s plenty to snack on if you need something else later.”

“Whatever works for you guys,” Clint said. “I’m adaptable.”

“Fortunately, Steve left us a pot pie in the freezer yesterday, so you’re spared my attempts at cooking for another night.” The atmosphere between them had grown uncomfortable, and Phil hated it; he’d built his professional reputation on his ability to blend in and put people at ease, and it was frustrating not to be able to do that with his own possible fiancé in his own home, especially when said fiancé was so much easier when interacting the girls. Phil wasn’t used to being treated with such wariness. He wanted to tell Clint that he wasn’t such an ogre as to need placating, but common sense stopped him; after all, as far as Clint knew, Phil was a rich man who’d paid a great deal of money to basically import him to another planet for the purpose of a brokered marriage. He imagined he’d feel just as wary in Clint’s place. He sighed.

“I’ll put dinner on,” he told him. “Would you mind helping the girls wash up? Katie can show you where things are.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Clint said, in one of his oddly formal moments, and Phil watched for a while as he followed Katie up the stairs, still carrying Skye, who was blinking a bit but not fully awake yet. He was tempted to let her sleep through, but he knew from bitter experience she’d be up in the middle of the night if he did.

When they were out of sight, he went to reheat Steve’s pot pie, and if he also set aside a double portion of the leftover strawberries for Clint, well, that was just hospitality.

Dinner was a quiet meal that night, the girls exhausted and Clint subdued, though he did quirk a smile in Phil’s direction when the strawberries were served. Afterward, with the few dishes tidied away and the leftovers packed (there were always leftovers, because Steve planned meals based on his own Enhanced appetite), Phil eyed the clock.

“You’ve got about an hour before bed,” he told Katie. “Remember, you can play or read until I’m done giving Skye her bath, and then it’ll be your turn.”

“Okay, Daddy,” she said, wandering off in the direction of the stairs.

“And it’s bath time for you,” he told Skye, scooping her up and bouncing her in his arms, making her giggle. He turned to Clint, about to offer to show him how to connect to Phil’s satvid account or something, but paused when Clint spoke.

“Could I—I mean, could you show me how to do that? The bath, I mean.” His voice was hesitant; Phil felt the urge to reassure him. If this man wasn’t sincere, he was disturbingly good at appearing so. “Seems like I’ll probably need to know at some point, right?”

Phil smiled. “You make a good point. Skye, is it okay with you if Clint helps with your bath tonight?”

“Okay,” Skye decided, after a moment of thought. “He can be Mr. Tuggsy.”

Phil bit back a laugh at Clint’s confused expression. “I don’t know if Clint will play boats with you today, sweetheart, but we’ll see.” He started upstairs, motioning Clint to follow with a jerk of his head.

“I don’t know what sort of technology is common on Earth, so I’m just going to assume it’s all new to you,” he said, when they reached the girls’ bathroom. “Just let me know if I’m telling you something you know already.” He set Skye down on the closed toilet lid. “Sit there for a minute,” he told Skye, and opened the door to the narrow linen closet.

“We keep bath supplies in here,” he told Clint. “This crate has soap, shampoo, and bubble bath, and the one on the bottom shelf has the bath toys.” He pulled the two crates out, handing the first to Clint and putting the second on the floor next to the tub, and grabbed a couple of towels for later, leaving them beside the sink.

He crossed to the tub, rolling up his sleeves as he went, and laid his hand on the control panel embedded near the faucet. The tub chimed acknowledgement of his account. “Tomorrow I’ll set you up with a house account,” he said. “Then you can set your preferences for things like water temperature and pressure. The girls have safety limits pre-programmed so they don’t accidentally get scalded; you just have to select who the bath is for.” He showed Clint how to select Skye’s settings, and pushed the button to activate; the water came on automatically.

“I want bubbles, Daddy,” Skye demanded.

“What do we say?”

“Please I want bubbles, Daddy! The blue ones!”

“The bubble bath is the one in the blue bottle,” Phil told Clint, who handed it over.

“The cabinets where we keep medicines and cleaning supplies and things like that are all locked,” Phil explained, opening the bottle. “Once we’ve got your profile set up, you’ll be able to open them.” He added a generous dollop of bubble bath to the water, and Skye clapped her hands in delight as the billowy foam started to grow. She’d wriggled out of her clothes while his back was turned, and was hopping on the bath mat, naked and impatient.

“Is it ready yet?” she said.

He reached a hand in to gauge the water’s depth. “Skye’s bath will only fill the tub with a few inches of water,” he told Clint. “It will shut off automatically when it’s done.” He lifted Skye over the edge of the tub and sat her down in the bubbles, which she immediately started playing with.

“Can I have my toys now? I mean please,” she said.

“You want your boats?”

She nodded. “Mr. Tuggsy and Toot-toot!”

He pulled out the requested toys—a repulsor tugboat with a cheerful smiling cartoon face, and a paddleboat with a functional whistle that he had hoped in vain for months would break, cursing Tony Stark’s name for giving it to her—and handed them to Skye, who had given herself a beard and hat made of bubbles and was pretending to be a sea admiral. (He had no idea where that particular game had come from, but it was a recent favorite.) He straightened up from where he was crouched beside the tub, and went to stand beside Clint, still keeping an eye on his daughter.

“I usually let her play for five or ten minutes before I start the actual bathing,” he told Clint quietly. “Katie can take care of her own bath, you just have to remind her to wash her hair, but you have to watch Skye the whole time.”

Clint nodded, eyes serious and attentive.

“They both use the same soap and shampoo and bubble bath, it’s all in the crate. Skye’s named all her toys, but don’t worry about trying to learn them; you can just let her pick out the ones she wants.” He paused, trying to remember if he’d left out any pertinent details. Skye, who appeared to be staging a grand sea battle between Toot-toot and Mr. Tuggsy, splashed a sweeping wave of water and foam over the edge, spattering the floor.

“Oops,” she said, dropping the boats and looking as innocent as a child can look with the remnants of a bubble beard.

“Skye, remember the rule about splashing,” Phil sighed. He turned to get another towel, but Clint had beaten him to it, handing him two. Phil smiled at him gratefully, noticing that he was keeping an eye on the tub at the same time. “Thanks,” he murmured, then turned back to Skye.

“Splashing means it’s time for the toys to go back in the toy box,” he said, and Skye heaved a sigh but complied, putting her boats in his hands. He put them away and blotted up the spill, tossing the soaked towels in the hamper and replacing them with a dry one. He knelt beside the tub, grabbing a washcloth and the baby soap. He worked up a lather and reached for Skye’s hand, but she pulled back.

“You have to sing the bath song, Daddy,” she said.

“I’d hoped you’d forgotten about that,” Phil said, half under his breath. He glanced over his shoulder at Clint, feeling sheepish. “There’s a… bath song,” he explained, weakly. “She likes it.”

“You may have to write down the lyrics for me,” Clint said, and though his tone was even, Phil thought he saw a glimmer of amusement in his eyes.

Well, then.

“I’ll be sure to do that,” he said, matching Clint’s deadpan.

Daddy,” Skye whined, patting at his washcloth-holding hand impatiently. “Sing the song, please.”

Phil shrugged. Dignity and childrearing were mutually exclusive a lot of the time, anyway.

“This is the way we wash our hands,” he sang, scrubbing Skye’s hands with the cloth, “wash our hands, wash our hands. This is the way we wash our hands…”

“When we take our bath!” Skye finished the line triumphantly. “Arms, Daddy!”

“This is the way we wash our arms…” The bath song was repetitive—most children’s songs were, in his experience—but Skye loved it for some reason, and it at least helped the sleep-deprived parent avoid forgetting to wash any bits of your child. Skye joined in with enthusiasm as he sang, presenting the relevant body parts for washing during their verse and giggling when the washcloth tickled her toes. When she was satisfactorily cleaned from rolling around in the grass all afternoon, he rinsed her off and set the water to drain, bundling her into a large fluffy towel and picking her up to cuddle next to his chest. She’d grown so much taller in the last few months, the towel didn’t dwarf her like it used to; she was starting to look less like a baby and more like a child, and Phil brushed a kiss over her damp hair, feeling a little pang at the thought.

He’d almost forgotten his silent observer, but when he turned, Clint was standing close behind him, a strange, almost stricken look on his face.

“You’re really good at that,” Clint said, voice gruff, looking at the floor.

“Raise two girls, you learn to wield a mean washcloth,” Phil said lightly.

Clint shook his head, eyes darting up to where Skye was peering curiously at him from under her towel. “No, I mean—you’re a good dad. It’s good, for them. A lot of kids don’t get that.”

“I… thank you,” Phil said at last. “That means a lot.”

“Thanks for, you know, showing me the thing,” Clint continued. “I’m going to just—I think I’m spacelagged. Maybe go to sleep early or something.”

“Of course,” Phil said and Clint gave an odd half-wave and vanished down the hall towards his room. Phil was left standing in the bathroom gawping after him, with a damp, squirmy daughter in his arms and a vague, aching conviction that Clint’s knowledge of deprived childhood was more than theoretical.

Chapter Text


Clint kept his head low and his breathing even as he went down the hall to his room, forcing himself to keep a natural pace even though he wanted to run. He couldn’t believe he had gotten all stupid over something that was obviously totally normal and unremarkable to Phil. The look on Phil’s face, before Clint had blurted out some excuse and fled… he’d looked strange, almost pained; he’d opened his mouth, starting to say something, and Clint absolutely could not bear to stand there and listen to whatever kind and pitying thing it was going to be.

The worst part was, he really had just wanted to learn more about what he’d need to do with the kids. Phil’s prospectus had been very clear that he wanted his spouse to be an active partner in their care, and that was one of the things Clint had been looking forward to most; he’d been good with kids his whole life, at least when he was ever around them. He’d figured that the kids would be the easy part, certainly a damn sight more fun than his early days with Trickshot or even with Natasha.

For all that, though, he was pretty sure that the child-rearing techniques he’d picked up in the circus (and from his own family) ranged between “mildly inappropriate” and “fucking horrible,” and if he wanted a real chance of making things work on Stark’s World he’d need to learn how to do things properly and earn his keep. The books he’d read on the flight out helped some, but they disagreed with one another more than Clint was comfortable with. Everyone agreed on the basics, shit like feeding and hugging and medical care, but when it came to things like how to make them eat their peas (apparently on most planets kids had to be made to eat, which was a mindfuck all on its own) or go to bed, or what to do if they had nightmares or wouldn’t mind you, everyone had their own opinion. What Clint needed was to know Phil’s opinion, and unless Phil had written a secret book on child care, the only way to find out was to watch, and ask.

It had been kind of nerve-wracking to ask to help with Skye’s bath, even though he hadn’t thought Phil would mind. Phil had seemed to like him okay so far, and sometimes, like when they’d talked about Lola or Skye’s manners, Clint had thought that Phil seemed to be warming to him. He’d hoped to impress Phil with his eagerness to learn, maybe find some common ground to give them another topic of conversation. It had been going well at first, both of them relaxing as the room grew humid and warm, smelling sweetly of apple-scented soap.

He just hadn’t realized how much it would affect him to watch Phil get absorbed in playing with Skye, washing her and singing that silly song with open love naked on his face for anyone to see. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anything quite like it; on the Ground, even the babies as young as Skye got pinched and mean and wary, and in the circus, or even up in the towers, families—even the ones who loved their kids—were too busy trying to scrape by to lavish that kind of attention on any one child. The kids Clint had known had jobs, usually, or they were trying to learn enough to get a job, or they were begging or scavenging or fighting over territory. Kids where Clint came from didn’t have treehouses or riding lessons or their own rooms, they didn’t take bubble baths or live in wooden houses or eat strawberries every day. They didn’t have parents like Phil, willing to open his life and his home to a stranger for their sake.

What did Clint think he was doing, coming here? How could he ever hope to fit? He wouldn’t be able to fake this forever; he didn’t know what he was doing, and if Phil really had served with Captain Rogers and Agent Carter, he was bound to be sharp enough to get wise to Clint sooner rather than later. Clint would screw things up somehow, let things slip, and then Phil would realize that Clint was the last person who should be let near his precious girls.

And then…

And then Phil would tell Clint it just wasn’t working out. He’d probably be kind about it—already, Clint could tell that he’d be kind—and he’d buy Clint another ticket, and drive him back to Port Anthony—probably even in Lola, he’d promised—and Clint would get on the ship and go to the moon and out of the solar system and out of their lives forever. Phil would find another spouse, and they’d repaint Clint’s—the guest room—and Shady and Jenny would migrate to the bottom of the toy box, and the Coulsons would all forget that they ever knew anyone called Clint Barton. He could see it spiraling out in front of him, disaster on disaster, and he didn’t know what to do. Natasha was the mastermind in their partnership, she was the one who figured out how to salvage the unsalvageable.

Natasha.

Clint’s hands were shaking and his head was throbbing as he fumbled with his duffel bag, finding the hidden pocket and pulling out the comms bridge she had given him, pairing it to the StarkPad on the desk and waiting while it tunneled. When the light lit green, he sent a message.

|CB: help nat i think i fucked things up

It seemed like forever before she replied, but it was only a few seconds—astoundingly fast, considering the distance involved, and he blessed her all over again for finding the bridge.

|NR: How can you possibly have done so in two days?

|CB: you have to ask?? in budapest it only took 2 hrs.

|NR: You surprise me, I did not realize Coulson suffers from a phobia of piglets.

|CB: not funny nat. im serious.

|NR: I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think. Tell me what happened.

Clint could feel himself relaxing, his breathing slowing down. They’d done this so many times, debriefing after missions, dissecting what happened and how they could improve in the future. Natasha would make them little sandwiches and fragrant tea, and they would sit together in her rooms, usually touching somehow, quiet and content in each other’s presence. Denning, Natasha had called it once, and there was certainly something in that; there was a kind of simple, animal comfort to being safe and warm and fed in your own territory with your family by your side.

He wished that she was here, that he could sit at her feet and pour out his troubles, and she would tell him what to do to fix things while she ran her fingers through his hair. But at least they could still talk. He’d bet anything he had that her problem-solving ability was not limited by distance.

He tried to gather his thoughts; she always wanted to hear things from the beginning, and the beginning, in this case, was actually pretty great. In spite of the roiling in his gut, he found himself smiling.

|CB: first off nat holy shit did you know steven rogers and peggy carter live on starks world

|CB: they live next door to phil

|CB: hes friends with them, the girls call them aunt peggy and uncle steve

He typed faster, words tumbling out. He wished he could see Natasha’s face.

|CB: we had lunch at their house today, i ate food the captain of the america made with his own hands

|NR: Did it taste like freedom from alien oppression?

|CB: haha very funny

|CB: …kind of yes though, it was really good

|CB: also i think phil and agent carter are like spy besties or something, apparently he worked with them?? but i have no idea how, was there a secret howling commando or something?? is he secretly really ninety because if so he looks really good for his age

|NR: Wait, you met Britannia?

|CB: i know isnt it amazing

|NR: How was she?

|CB: um, good i think? she and the captain are married now, they seem really happy and shit, it was nice

|NR: You have always been such a romantic about that.

|CB: wait

|CB: you dont sound that surprised, did you know they lived here?

|NR: I knew they lived on Stark’s World. I didn’t realize they were so close to Coulson.

|CB: you should have told me, i was stupid when i met them, it was embarrassing

|NR: You were worrying enough about the people I knew for sure you’d meet. I didn’t want to exacerbate the situation.

|CB: i guess that makes sense, i was pretty freaked out on the way here

|NR: And before you left. And after you arrived. And now.

|CB: :-P

|NR: Really, Barton? You know I’m right.

|CB: yeah yeah

|CB: seriously though do you know when they worked with phil because if he’s really jacques dernier in witness protection or something im gonna lose my shit even more than i already am

|CB: come on i know you checked him out

|NR: I leave that to you.

|CB: NAT

|NR: Like I’m wrong?

|NR: Coulson’s jacket was classified too highly for me to get all his service details without a level of exposure I didn’t want to deal with, but I did confirm the vital statistics documentation. He’s the age he says he is, so logically if he served with any of the America crew it would have been after the ship was recovered.

|NR: Chatter in intelligence circles was that the Captain was leading a new team from the time shortly after his recovery until just after the Chitauri incident. Possibly that’s when he and Coulson intersected.

|NR: Which means very likely your potential husband was pretty high up in NavInt, or possibly seconded to one of the alphabet agencies.

That… made a lot of sense, actually. A lot of little things he’d noticed were slotting into place; Phil’s office, Phil’s neighbors, Phil’s vague job with Stark Galactic. The way he moved, strong and aware. The tracks of security shutters on a child’s treehouse.

|CB: huh. that would explain the security hes got on his office then. top of the line stuff.

|NR: Possibly also the urgency he feels about getting married again. Men like that make enemies that don’t always disappear when they retire.

Clint thought about it. There were a lot of factions that a man like that might have crossed. The syndicates, the Earth-first domestic terror groups, pirates, traffickers in drugs and guns and people, even those whackjobs who liked to start cults worshipping the Chitauri.

He thought about someone coming after Phil, finding the girls, seeing soft targets. Seeing the best way to hurt Phil, his heart and soul wrapped up in two little packages, delicate and portable.

Clint and Natasha had done a few recovery missions. The outcomes had not always been optimal.

The tablet creaked under the sudden clench of his fingers, and he forced himself to let go. It would not happen. Clint wouldn’t let it.

|CB: good thing i brought my bow

|NR: Indeed. If someone did manage to infiltrate Stark’s World, I imagine saving some civilians from the crossfire would only endear you to a man of his type.

That wasn’t what he’d meant, but okay. Close enough. Clint focused on his breathing, making it deep and slow.

|NR: So what happened after lunch?

|CB: i taught the girls some tumbling while phil talked with agent carter, and then we all had lemonade and walked home. i got to carry skye home.

She fell asleep in my arms, he didn’t say. She held onto me like I was someone important. Phil looked at us—at her—and smiled like it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen.

|CB: then we ate, and then phil was going to give skye her bath, and i thought i should learn how to do that so i asked him to show me.

|NR: Sounds like a good approach; let him know you’re serious about helping with the childcare, plus military men generally like it when you let them be the authority on something.

|CB: he’s not one of those assholes, nat. he was really nice about it. and it went ok until the end. and then

|CB: this is gonna sound stupid

|NR: Just tell me.

|CB: i just, he loves his kids so much, nat

|CB: and he got down on the floor and played with her and sang her this song and i just freaked out

|CB: like why is he even looking for someone else when hes all perfect dad? and how did he pick me when ive never

|CB: i mean, my family didnt

|CB: i dont

|NR: Clint. Breathe.

Clint dropped the tablet into his lap and scrubbed his face with his hands. Even with Natasha, he couldn’t find the words for the tangled mess of emotion that had overtaken him as he’d stood in the bathroom watching Phil and Skye.

|CB: How am I supposed to do this??

|NR: That is not the question, ptitchka. The correct question is, do you WANT to do it?

He replied immediately.

|CB: Yes.

When her response came, he could almost hear her voice saying it, strong and sure.

|NR: Then I have every confidence in you. You’ll figure it out.

|CB: But how??? this isnt like other jobs, theres no backup plan if things go south, if i fuck up its over

|NR: I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit here, but fine. Pretend it’s a job and you’re going in undercover. Just be careful neither Coulson nor Carter catches on. People can be so impractical over such matters.

It was so Natasha, and comforting to hear just for that, but it was also, Clint thought, great advice. Clint had always been excellent at jobs, at figuring out what people wanted from him and then doing it, or at least enough of it to get results. If he treated this like a job, he could be the best at it. He could get the girls to like him—not hard; he already liked them and as far as he could tell they were at least halfway there—and impress Phil with how well he fit into his life. The Captain and Agent Carter would need careful handling, as well; Clint wasn’t naïve enough to think that they’d be easy to fool. They seemed predisposed to be welcoming, but Clint knew that would only last as long as he wasn’t seen as a threat—to the Coulsons’ hearts or to their bank accounts.

It wasn’t an easy set of mission parameters, but it wasn’t the worst he’d had, either; he didn’t have to make Phil love him, he just needed to make sure that it was more convenient for Phil to keep him than to start over with someone else. He figured that when the three months were up, as long as Phil didn’t actively dislike him, he’d keep Clint around if he thought it would be best for the girls.

He wondered briefly if he should try a seduction, but Phil had said so clearly in his dossier that sex wasn’t an expectation that Clint was pretty sure he meant it. He had wondered about it at first—most people who used marriage brokers were pretty much the opposite—but now he thought that maybe Phil still wasn’t over his wife, and that he just wanted someone else around to help with the kids and maybe offer some adult conversation every once in a while.

Clint tried not to think of what might happen, in that case, if Phil did marry Clint and then, years later, decided that he was ready to look for another wife; Natasha’s voice talking about years of marital cohabitation and entitlement to a share of marital assets in the event of divorce or separation was a taunting memory in the back of his mind. It was surprising how much the thought hurt; he’d only known the Coulsons for a few days, not enough time for him to feel so desperate over the prospect of losing them.

He didn’t let himself think about how quickly he’d known that Natasha was going to be his family.

Of course, things might not ever come to that. If Clint did his job well enough, it might happen the other way; when Phil decided he was ready to be really married again, he might decide to give his pre-existing spouse a chance. Familiarity and convenience were powerful motivators, and it would be less disruptive for the children.

It could happen. It wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, especially if said pre-existing husband had made himself a friend, a co-parent, a part of the community. Clint might not have ever had much in the way of community ties, but he knew how they worked; he’d had to disrupt or take advantage of them often enough on missions.

It was a nice thought. But it wouldn’t ever happen if Clint didn’t get a hold of himself.

So. The mission was clear. Make friends. Bond with the girls. Gossip with Phil’s friends and get intel on his likes and dislikes. Try to talk to Phil without tripping over his own tongue and sounding like Ground trash. Wind himself up in the web of the Coulsons’ life until they wouldn’t know how to untangle him. And don’t bring sex into it; keep his eyes in his head and his hands to himself, no matter how tempting it was when Phil rolled up his sleeves to give Skye a bath or listened to Katie prattle on as though it were life-shatteringly important. Don’t make Phil uncomfortable. Make it easier for him to keep Clint than to send him away.

Do this, and maybe he’d get to stay.

He looked at his tablet; Natasha was still there, her little blinking connection icon somehow the most reassuring thing in the world.

|CB: i think i can do that

|NR: I know you can.

|NR: So how are things going otherwise? Are the children terrors?

Natasha thought that all children were terrors.

|CB: no theyre great. smart and polite. fun.

|NR: You’re still new enough for them to behave. Give it time. They’re lulling you into a false sense of security.

|CB: even if they get worse it still wont be as bad as that one time with masha

|NR: True. Coulson doesn’t seem the type to start them on knives this early.

|CB: plus what is there for them to fight over? they have a million toys and you wouldnt believe the way they eat, we had strawberries every day so far

|CB: EVERY DAY. and real meat.

|NR: Good. I would be very angry if Coulson wasn’t taking proper care of you. If he can afford the fees he paid to get you there, he can afford to feed you well.

|CB: dont be like that, hes being really nice to me. way more than he has to. i have a huge room and a bathroom all to myself and katie even made him paint it purple

|CB: if this works out you have to come visit, the girls already call you aunt natasha

|NR: What??

Two question marks. That was like all caps and blinky text, in Natasha-speak.

|CB: totally not my fault. katie came up with it on her own.

|NR: Barton. What did you say to them?

|CB: they dont know who you are just that you are my best friend and i lived with you on earth

|NR: Just… be careful. I don’t want to be the thing that ruins this for you. Coulson may be in the business but that doesn’t mean he wants the Black Widow associated with his children.

|CB: hed understand once he got to know you. but if he doesnt want you around his family then i dont want to be a part of it.

She didn’t respond for a long time, only the green light on the comms bridge showing that the connection was still live.

|NR: Clint. I feel the same.

|NR: And maybe you’re right. You’ve met him and I haven’t. Just… let it lie for now, all right? Once things are a little more settled here, we can talk about the future.

|CB: ugh, talking

|CB: thats the other thing, he wants to have a TALK tomorrow

|NR: Oh, Heaven forbid.

|CB: logistics he says

|CB: hes sending the girls off somewhere for the day

|CB: he told them we had to talk about grownup stuff, what does that even mean

|NR: Calm down. He probably wants to discuss business. Remember all the paperwork I went over with you? Your allowance, the prenup, all of that?

|CB: i already signed it though

|CB: what if hes thinking about sending me back? how do i change his mind? should i bring up the girls or what

|NR: After two days? He’s not thinking about sending you back, Clint. For what he paid to bring you there he could have obtained three spouses from one of the standard brokers; he’s not going to give up after two days because you have a few awkward conversations.

It was kind of fucked up, Clint knew, but that point actually helped to calm him down. For all that his lifestyle seemed lavish to Clint, Phil seemed like a fairly cautious person. He probably wouldn’t want to waste all the effort and cost of finding Clint until he’d given Clint a chance to prove himself.

|CB: i guess youre right

|NR: You know I’m right.

|CB: i miss you.

|CB: its really nice here but it isnt the same without you

|CB: and theres flowers all over, like just growing everywhere, youd love it

|NR: Clint.

|CB: i know you cant yet but. just think about it ok

|NR: Business first. Then… I’ll see what I can do.

|CB: good enough for me

|CB: since you can do anything

|NR: Your confidence is heartening, ptichka.

|NR: I have to go.

|NR: You have your mission. I expect soon to hear how you have made Coulson wild for you.

|NR: And do not let the children trample on you. It does no good in the long run. They will appreciate you more if you are firm and fair.

|CB: dunno about wild but hopefully hell like me enough to keep me around.

|CB: go kick ass and get our bratva problem squared away.

|CB: then we can figure the next thing out together.

|NR: Yes.

|NR: I find that I am no longer so accustomed to working alone as I once was. It will be good when we can see each other again.

Clint smiled as the blinking connection light winked out. “I love you too, Nat,” he whispered, and sniffed. He wasn’t tearing up; it was just whatever space plague he was coming down with, acting up again. Maybe once Phil keyed him into the medicine cabinets, he’d be able to find something for his head.

After he’d tucked the comms bridge back into its hiding spot, he got ready for bed. The sleep clothes Natasha had bought him were soft and warm and absurdly comforting, and his big new bed was plush and smelled nice. Once he closed the curtains, he could have almost been back on Earth, at least maybe in one of the fancy guest suites he and Natasha had infiltrated once or twice.

Whatever it was Phil wanted to talk about the next day, Clint could handle it. Natasha was right; he just had to treat it like a mission, and everything would work out.

For all that, though, Clint didn’t sleep well that night.

Chapter Text


Phil had never liked early mornings—not like Steve, who practically bounced out of bed, cheerful and ready for anything and supremely irritating to any sensible person—but military service and parenthood had made them more or less unavoidable for most of his adult life. Over time, he’d developed a coping mechanism that consisted mainly of getting up at least a half-hour before everyone else, so as to have time to reach optimal caffeination levels before he had to talk or be otherwise functional.

The girls wouldn’t be up for at least ten more minutes, so he was sitting in front of the window, nursing his second cup of coffee and idly watching the wind ruffling the tiny young plants in his kitchen garden. He thought he might ask Steve for some strawberry cuttings, maybe start one of those multi-tiered pots on the porch. The girls would like it.

He resolutely didn’t think of Clint, mouth and fingertips stained pink with berry juice, lingering over every bite of fruit with covetous eyes.

He heard a soft cough behind him and turned, very carefully not letting himself look startled. Clint was standing in the doorway, shirtless and barefoot, a thin, soft-looking pair of sleep pants hanging low on his hips. Phil found his gaze tracing the sharp cut of muscle leading down into those pants, and jerked his eyes upward guiltily. Clint was rubbing the back of his neck, looking down at his toes.

“Good morning,” Phil said, trying his best to project friendly welcome and not lecherous ogling.

“Hey.” Clint’s voice was raspy and low; he cleared his throat. “Sorry, I didn’t think anyone was up yet. I didn’t mean to just…” he trailed off, crossing his arms uneasily over his bare chest, which only served to highlight the curves of muscle moving under his skin.

“I was being quiet; I try not to wake the girls any earlier than necessary,” Phil admitted with a wry grin. “Would you like some coffee?”

Coffee,” Clint said, and the avaricious gleam in his eyes was all the answer Phil needed. He rose, and crossed the kitchen to the counter where the coffee machine sat in state.

“Oh hey, no need to get up, I can—”

Phil waved off his protest. “It’s no problem, I needed a refill anyway.” He topped up his own mug (extra large and bearing a reproduction of one of Katie’s preschool artworks) and pulled down another for Clint. “How do you take it?”

Clint chuckled. “Any way it comes,” he said. “I ain’t picky.”

“Man after my own heart,” Phil said, then had to take a sip of his own drink to hide his sudden flush when he realized what he’d said. He handed Clint the mug. “They grow it at one of the research outposts in the southern hemisphere; it’s a little more mellow than the stuff you get elsewhere.”

Clint buried his face in the fragrant steam. “This smells amazing,” he said. “On Earth, we mostly just get synthetic; does the job, but it never smells the same.” He took a big gulp, then winced, sucking air through his teeth. “Ow—hot—ow,” he said, giving his mug a wounded look. “Aw, coffee.”

“Give it a minute,” Phil suggested, valiantly resisting the urge to ruffle Clint’s untidy hair as he passed on his way back to the table. Clint hovered next to the coffee machine, shifting his weight as he glanced to the table and then away.

“You’re welcome to join me,” Phil offered, waving at the empty seat beside him. “Once the girls wake up, quiet time with coffee will be in short supply.”

“Thanks,” Clint said, settling into the chair and hunching over his cup. They were both quiet for a time, during which Clint seemed to be communing with the caffeine gods and Phil tried not to look too obviously at the way the early morning sun gilded the blond stubble along the edge of Clint’s jaw.

When Clint was halfway through his coffee, he cleared his throat. “So, um, I’m sorry I ducked out on you last night,” he said.

“Please, don’t worry about it,” Phil assured him. “Spacelag is awful, especially the first time you have to trek all the way out here. We’ve all been through it.”

“Yeah.” Clint fiddled with his cup. “It’s just, it’s really… different, here. From Earth. I mean, it’s a good different? But still, sometimes…” He trailed off, took another gulp from his coffee, then looked into the empty cup, betrayed expression on his face.

“Would you like some more?” If nothing else, Phil thought, they were obviously compatible in the area of caffeination.

“I can get it.” Clint rose, crossing over to the pot. “Any for you?”

“I think three’s my limit for now,” Phil said, looking sadly at his own half-full cup. “There may have been a slight caffeine toxicity incident when Katie was a baby.” He held up his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, scrunching his face up for effect, and was rewarded with a rusty little chuckle.

“Anyway,” Clint told the coffee pot, “I hope I didn’t offend you last night. Running out on you like that, I mean.”

“Not at all,” Phil said. Even in the disarray of early morning, Clint held himself tense and still, as though poised to flee at any moment. Phil wanted very much to see what he would look like if he were relaxed, comfortable, at home.

“Clint,” he said, trying to keep his voice soft and reassuring. “We know that you have a lot to adjust to. It’s the same for everyone at first. Nobody will hold it against you; it takes as long as it takes to get used to a new place.” He rose, coffee finished, and crossed to the sink to rinse out his mug. Beside him, Clint was watchful. His soldier’s alertness contradicted the boyishness of his rumpled hair and reddened eyes; Phil itched to understand what made him tick. “That said,” he continued, “please do let me know if you need anything, or if you have any questions I can answer.”

“Thanks,” Clint said. Phil thought he relaxed a little, though he couldn’t be certain; it might just be his own confirmation bias.

“The girls will be up soon,” Phil said. “Would you like to help me get them ready for the day?” Clint had seemed more comfortable around them than around Phil so far; maybe if they spent more time caring for them together it would help Clint relax around him.

Clint smiled, tiny and genuine-looking. “Sure, thanks, that’d be great,” he said. He drained his coffee in a series of long gulps—Phil did not watch the way his throat worked as he swallowed—and set his mug in the sink next to Phil’s. “Lead on,” he said, and followed Phil out of the kitchen.

“The house has an artificial sunrise system,” Phil explained as they climbed the stairs. “It starts brightening their rooms a half-hour before they need to be awake; the light helps them rouse more naturally.”

“Are their lights programmed the same way as their baths?” Clint asked.

“The whole house is,” Phil said, pleased that Clint understood. “The stove won’t turn on for them, water won’t heat above a certain temperature, that sort of thing. It isn’t a substitute for supervision, of course, but it at least makes it harder for them to accidentally hurt themselves while your back is turned. I’ll walk you through the whole system later today.”

Clint nodded, eyes intent. Phil was already starting to recognize that look; every time Phil gave him any sort of direction about the house or the girls, Clint paid close, almost unnerving attention. It was the kind of focus Phil was more accustomed to see given to high-risk mission briefings than childcare, but he found it reassuring.

He passed outside Katie’s door and pointed to the indicator light, glowing a steady and reassuring green. “Steady for asleep, blinking for awake. Green means all is well,” he explained. “Yellow means something’s outside parameters, but not critically. Restless sleep, slight fevers, that sort of thing.”

“And red?” Clint was watching him closely, head cocked a little like an attentive bird.

Phil shrugged. “If it was red, the alarm would have already roused all the adults in the house.”

“Good.” Clint looked satisfied, and Phil was glad; some people thought his arrangements were a little… over-cautious.

“If you need a more detailed status, you can pull it up on the panel here, or on your tablet once I’ve added you to the system,” he continued, demonstrating. The display lit up with neat rows of data: sleep phases, heart rate, light and noise levels, air quality. He glanced at Clint, feeling sheepish and a little defensive. The system had drawn unflattering comparisons in the past. (“Goddamn, Phil,” Jasper had said, on seeing the plans spread out on his desk one day, “are you installing a baby monitor or setting up a private prison?”)

Phil opened his mouth, gearing up to deliver his standard speech about the importance of automated safety features, but sputtered to a halt when he really looked at Clint; he was giving Phil the same calm attention he’d given everything else, with no sign of surprise or disdain on his face.

“It keeps me from waking them up, going in to check on them,” he told Clint, moved to unexpected honesty by his serious, accepting demeanor. “I know it’s probably overkill, but—”

But after Audrey died I couldn’t sleep unless they were in the room with me, he didn’t say. I woke up twelve times a night convinced that one of them had stopped breathing. I wandered around like the living dead and it got so bad that Tony Stark, who is practically a professional insomniac, tried to stage some kind of intervention and ended up outfitting my house with the security monitoring system he developed for high-risk abduction targets in hopes of preventing me from accidentally burning down my house from sleep deprivation.

“Hey, no,” Clint said, interrupting his thoughts. “Phil. I understand. You’ve got to keep the important things—people—safe.” He smiled, but it was a crimped little thing this time. “If more parents were like you, galaxy’d be a better place.”

“It’s kind of you to say so,” Phil said. He wanted to say more, to express something of his gratitude for Clint’s acceptance, but feared anything he came up with would make Clint uncomfortable, too intense for the situation. “Thanks.” The light on Katie’s door flashed, and he seized on the distraction in relief. “She’s up,” he said, and opened the door. Katie was sitting up in bed, blinking sleepily, her battered teddy bear still tucked under one arm.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Phil said. He could feel his face go soft at the picture she made, still so little for all her odd moments of maturity.

“Morning, Daddy,” Katie mumbled, rubbing her eyes. “Morning, Clint.”

Clint, standing awkwardly in the doorway behind Phil, gave a little half-wave. “Hey, Katie.”

“Would you like Clint to help you get ready this morning?” Phil asked. He hoped that with the shine the two of them had taken to each other, Clint would find helping Katie easier than he had apparently found helping with Skye the night before.

“Okay,” Katie said. “I just need a little help though, Clint. I can do most of it myself, it’s just the buttons I can’t reach, and braiding my hair.”

Clint grinned, moving further into the room. “That’s lucky, then, because I am great at braids,” he said.

“Seriously?” Phil blurted, then felt like an idiot when Katie and Clint both turned to look at him. “I mean, that’s great, because I’m really not. Good at them.” He stumbled to a halt, his cheeks and ears getting hot.

“Daddy tries hard,” Katie assured Clint. “But he doesn’t have very much hair to practice on.”

“Ah, I see.” The corner of Clint’s mouth was tucked in, and Phil guessed he was biting back a laugh. “That could certainly make it harder to learn,” he said.

“How did you learn?” Katie asked, fully awake now and curious. “Your hair is short.”

“I used to help my friends in the circus who had long hair,” Clint said. “And then, later, I used to help Natasha. She likes really fancy braids, so she taught me how to do them for her.”

“Can you do one for me?” Katie scrambled out of bed, eyes wide. “I’m going riding today and my hair always comes out of my braid and gets all tangled under my helmet!”

“I think I can,” Clint said. “Why don’t you show me what you’re going to wear, maybe we can find a ribbon or something to match it.”

Katie eagerly showed him her riding clothes, jodhpurs and jacket and helmet, and her shiny black riding boots with the purple laces that Phil’d had woven especially for her birthday the year before. Next, she brought over her box of jumbled hair ties and barrettes and ribbons; Phil half suspected them of cloning themselves, since there were far more than Phil remembered ever buying. Clint sorted through the box while Katie got dressed; by the time she approached him with her hairbrush, he’d sorted out a little pile of things.

“You sit there,” Katie ordered, waving him to the side of her bed, “and I’ll stand in front, okay?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Clint said, sounding amused. He pulled the bands off the ends of the rumpled pigtails she’d worn to bed, combing gently through her hair with his fingers before picking up the brush. His hands were deft and quick as he brushed out her hair, starting properly from the ends so as not to pull, and then started to work on the braid. Phil tried to watch; he had some idea of getting pointers, but it fast became evident that Clint’s skill was so far beyond his that it might as well be on a different planet. In less time than it took Phil to do Katie’s normal everyday braids, he’d done something that looked like it could have come from a magazine.

“Is it done?” Katie demanded. “Can I see?”

“Yup,” Clint said, tying off the final ribbon. “Let me know what you think.” He handed her a hand mirror, and she ran over to the dresser to inspect her hair from all angles.

“I hope she likes it,” Clint said quietly. Phil couldn’t help shooting him a disbelieving look, but before he could say anything, Katie squealed in delight.

“It’s so pretty! It’s like magic warrior princess hair!”

Phil could see the comparison, honestly. Her hair was pulled back sleekly where the riding helmet would sit, then into a thick and intricate braid with blue and purple ribbons woven through it. Clint had used the free ends of the ribbon to tuck the end of the braid up under itself, making a neat, secure club of hair that looked like it would stay put through a hurricane.

“What do you say?” he reminded her.

“Thank you, Clint! It’s the best braid ever!” Katie bounded across the room, skidding a little in her socks, and flung her arms around Clint’s waist.

He startled, then smiled, rubbing her shoulder. “I’m glad you like it,” he said. “It should stay pretty well while you’re riding, but if it falls out, we’ll try something different next time.”

“Why don’t you take your boots downstairs and finish getting ready?” Phil suggested. “Once Skye’s dressed, we’ll come down and all have breakfast together.”

“Okay,” Katie agreed. She picked up her boots, then gave Clint another lightning hug before heading downstairs. “Don’t take forever, though!” She called over her shoulder, partway down. “I’m really hungry!”

“It won’t be long,” Phil called after her. He looked over at Clint. “I hope you really don’t mind doing that,” he said. “I don’t think my efforts will be deemed sufficient anymore.”

“I don’t mind,” Clint said. “It’s kind of fun. But, um, I didn’t mean to—I mean, I’m sure Katie just—”

“It’s okay,” Phil said. “I’m not upset that your hair skills are superior. If anything, I’m relieved; Katie’s been very patient with me, but I’m afraid I’ve never been as good at it as—” as Audrey was. “As you obviously are.”

Clint shot him a narrow look, but didn’t remark on Phil’s stumbling. “Well, I’m just glad I have some useful skills,” he said. He looked toward the door. “I’m surprised Skye hasn’t come in here, as loud as we’ve been,” he said.

“The rooms are soundproofed while sleep mode is on,” Phil explained, crossing to Skye’s door. The light was still lit steady green; Skye must have worn herself out the day before. “That way if one of them is up, it doesn’t wake the other one.”

“Handy,” Clint said, watching Phil deactivate the sleep program.

The lights were already up, and the sound of the door opening was enough to rouse Skye; she rolled onto her stomach, burying her face in the pillow. “Too early, Daddy,” she moaned.

“That’s a shame,” Phil said, “because Miss Darcy is going to be here soon to take you and Katie to her house for the day.”

She turned a little, one bright brown eye peeking out from her tangle of curls. “Can I bring Jenny?”

“You may,” Phil promised.

“I guess Miss Darcy would be sad if I didn’t go to her house,” Skye said.

“I’m sure she would be.”

Skye yawned, then wriggled out from under her covers, slipping to the floor. “Okay, then, I’m ready.”

“First you need to get dressed,” Phil said, trying not to laugh at her sleepy little face. “Then we’ll eat breakfast, and then it will be time to go.”

“Oh, right.” She looked down at her nightgown in surprise, then pulled it off, getting her head stuck on the way. “Daddy, help, it’s eating me!”

Clint barked out a laugh, then stopped himself. “Sorry,” he said.

Phil waved him off, moving to untangle Skye. “Honestly, you have to laugh, sometimes,” he said. “Hold still, sweetie, you’re getting your hair caught.” He unwound a curl from where it had snagged on a button. “You wouldn’t know it to look at her now, but Katie went through a phase where she hated clothes,” he told Clint. “The first time she met Tony Stark, I had my eyes off her for maybe fifteen seconds, shaking hands, and by the time I turned back around she’d stripped down to the buff and climbed up the back of a chair.” He pulled the nightgown the rest of the way over Skye’s head. “There you go,” he told her. “All better now?”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said, lolling against his knee. “Can I wear my twirly skirt to Miss Darcy’s house?”

“If it’s clean,” he told her. He crossed to her closet, Clint trailing behind him.

“So what happened?” Clint asked. “With Tony Stark, I mean.”

Phil snorted. “He recognized someone with an equivalent level of maturity and impulse control to himself, and they’ve gotten along famously ever since,” he said, rummaging through Skye’s closet in search of the desired outfit.

“I didn’t realize you guys knew him,” Clint said. “No, wait. ‘Uncle Tony?’”

“I told you they got along,” Phil said. He pulled out a promising-looking garment.

“Daddy, that’s my puffy skirt,” Skye said. “I want my twirly one.”

“So,” Clint said, voice strained. “Do the girls have any other aunts or uncles who are actually galactic celebrities? Just so I can be prepared, you understand.”

Phil turned away from the closet to give Clint his full attention. He looked ill at ease, muscles tight. Phil felt like a heel.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said. “I promise, I didn’t mean to ambush you with Steve and Peggy. Living out here, it’s easy to forget how the rest of the galaxy sees things. Steve and Peggy and Tony are just Steve and Peggy and Tony, you know? But I should have been more considerate. And to answer your question, aside from Tony and Pepper, I don’t think anyone else is a celebrity unless it’s in the scientific world. Stark’s World is no Bekenstein; most of the people who live here are working in either security or R&D.” He paused, thinking. “Captain Rogers’ crew comes to visit occasionally,” he added. “But they don’t live here.”

Clint looked a little better. “Well, just warn a guy next time,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He looked past Phil into Skye’s closet, and his eyes narrowed. “Hey, is this the skirt she wants?” He leaned over—Phil tried not to notice the heat of his skin as he brushed past—and pulled out a yellow puffy skirt that looked pretty much exactly like the blue puffy skirt that Skye had already vetoed.

“Yay!” Skye said. “My twirly skirt!”

Phil blinked. “Are you a sorcerer?” he asked Clint, seriously. Clint’s ears went pink.

“Lucky guess,” he said. “So… how much of this can she do herself and how much do you have to do for her?”

“I can do it myself!” Skye interrupted, tugging on the skirt and succeeding in pulling it off the hanger.

“She can do that one herself,” Phil told Clint in an undertone. “Generally, anything she can pull on is fine, but an adult needs to help with selection.” He showed Clint Skye’s dresser, and pulled out clean underwear, a pair of yellow socks, and three shirts that would match the skirt she was pulling on. He leaned to speak into Clint’s ear while she was distracted. “She’ll always want to choose her own clothes, but she doesn’t know how to match clothes or pick something appropriate to the weather. If you give her a few options that would all work, it helps to keep the peace; also, she’s less likely to get set on something that’s in the laundry and pitch a fit when she can’t wear it.”

“Does she really do that?” Clint looked surprised. “She’s seemed pretty quiet so far.”

Phil laughed. “They’ve both been on their company manners,” he assured him. “I’m sure you’ll be treated to a meltdown sooner or later.” He handed Skye the socks and underwear, and let her pick a shirt. For once she didn’t dawdle getting dressed, motivated either by the day’s plans or by breakfast. While Phil was helping her turn her socks the right way around and tying her shoes, Clint worked his magic again on Skye’s hair, then detoured to his room. He emerged after remarkably little time, wearing slacks and a perfectly respectable chunky knit sweater, which looked warm and fit loosely. Phil determinedly did not consider whether he preferred Clint’s former attire.

Presentable at last, they filed into the kitchen, where Katie was already at her place, swinging her legs under her chair and reading a book. While the girls excitedly compared hairstyles, Phil showed Clint which cabinet he kept drinkware in, and pointed out Skye’s sippy cups and Katie’s shatterproof ones. “If you wouldn’t mind, could you get drinks ready while I get food?” he asked. “They can choose milk, juice, or water; all three are in the fridge.”

“Sure,” Clint said. Phil thought he looked relieved to have a job to do. Phil could sympathize, honestly; he remembered the first time he’d met Audrey’s family, the horrible feeling of waiting while servants brought food, and around the table everyone watched him, silently judging. He hoped he wasn’t making Clint that uncomfortable, but there were distressing parallels.

He pulled a pre-made batch of oatmeal out of the fridge and set it to heat, then pulled out brown sugar, cinnamon, cream, and a jar of caramelized apple slices from last fall’s harvest. He fixed the girls’ oatmeal the way they liked, then handed Clint a large, plain bowlful.

“You can doctor it up however you like,” he said, making his own bowl. He sat down, not wanting to make Clint self-conscious by watching him. When Clint joined them, Phil noted that he seemed to have taken a tiny bit of each topping, giving each of them its own little section of his bowl.

Breakfast was unusually peaceful, both girls having apparently decided to apply themselves wholeheartedly to their food, and other than the sounds of munching and occasional requests to pass something, quiet reigned. Clint worked his way tidily around his bowl, mixing each section one at a time before eating it. Just as they were all finishing up, the door chimed.

“Darcy Lewis,” the security system announced.

“Miss Darcy!” Katie shrieked, and ran for the door, her chair screeching on the floor with the exuberance of her exit.

“Remember the rules, Katie!” Phil called after her. “Don’t open the door!”

“I won’t, Daddy,” she called back.

“Anyone who should be here is keyed to the system and can let themselves in,” Phil explained to Clint. “The girls know not to open it themselves.”

He scooped Skye up onto his hip; her sleepiness had made a reappearance. “I’ve got their bags ready,” he told Clint. “Can you give me a hand?”

“Of course,” Clint said, following him into the hall.

Sending two small girls to spend the day away from home required no less than three big bags, containing such necessities as spare clothing, extra shoes, Skye’s favorite blanket, Katie’s favorite snack, heavier jackets in case the weather turned cold, a bottle of chewable vitamins, extra socks, and some books and toys in case it rained and they didn’t want to play with the ones at Darcy’s place.

How long did you say they would be gone?” Clint asked, blinking at the assorted luggage.

A throaty laugh from the doorway made Clint jump. “He’s got you there, boss.”

“Darcy.” Phil smiled, letting himself and Skye be enveloped in an enthusiastic hug that smelled like vanilla and sugar and somehow ended with Darcy holding Skye and Phil’s shirt rucked sideways. “It’s great to see you.” She looked good, pink-cheeked and smiling, and he felt something within him relax to see it. He was possibly (almost certainly) a bit of a mother hen, but he liked making sure his people were doing well. “Clint Barton, meet Darcy Lewis.”

“I am so excited to meet you!” Darcy said, turning to Clint with a happy grin. “You have no idea, the entire town is dying to see the guy who could pull this one out of his hermit-hole.” She poked Phil companionably in the side. “Peggy’s tight-lipped as ever and Steve doesn’t dare cross her, so all of Mariana is languishing for news.”

“And that’s exactly why they aren’t getting any,” Phil told her. “I’d like him to at least have a chance to catch his breath before the town gossips descend. They’ll scare him away before he’s even settled in properly.”

Clint shot him an odd, considering look, then gave Darcy a little wave. “I’m nothing that special, honest,” he said, “but it’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you; apparently I inherited your old room?”

Darcy beamed, hitching Skye a little higher on her hip. “Yup! I hope they painted it though; I had this mural thing, I don’t think anybody but me would like it.”

“We painted it purple, Miss Darcy!” Katie was hovering behind Darcy like a small beribboned moon. “Purple is Clint’s favorite color, just like me.”

“That’s very convenient,” Darcy told her, and she beamed.

“You know,” Clint said, “if everyone really is that eager to hear about me, you could always have some fun with it.”

“I’ll be the queen bee of the general store until you two drag yourselves into town,” Darcy agreed. “But what kind of fun?”

“Tell everyone something different?” Clint suggested. “Swear them to secrecy, see which rumors spread.”

Darcy giggled. “You sound like a spy,” she said, voice teasing. “You’ll fit right in—everyone on Stark’s World is a little paranoid.”

“Darcy,” Phil said. “For goodness’ sake, he’ll think you’re serious.”

“Security conscious,” Darcy corrected airily, waving her free hand. Clint grinned at her, and Phil relaxed; not everyone took to Darcy’s informality, and he was glad that Clint seemed to like it. Darcy was as much part of the family as Steve and Peggy, and it would have been awkward if she and Clint hadn’t gotten along.

“I should get this show on the road,” Darcy said. “Everyone grab a bag, since Phil’s packed you two up for a simultaneous blizzard and locust plague or whatever.”

Clint, Phil, and Katie each picked up a bag and followed Darcy out to her skimmer. Darcy settled Skye in the child seat while they loaded the bags into the back, then helped Katie buckle in beside her.

“You guys have fun with your grownup talk,” she said, waggling her eyebrows lasciviously at them. “I’ll have the girls back in time for dinner.”

“Tell them I’ve got a metal arm that shoots rockets,” Clint suggested, grinning back at her.

“I like him, boss,” Darcy told Phil, ducking in for another candy-scented hug. “Don’t fuck it up.”

“I’ll try not to,” Phil said, more sincerely than he had intended, and Darcy shot him a sharp look over her glasses before blowing Clint a theatrical kiss and driving away. The yard seemed to ring with the sudden silence.

“So,” Clint said. “That was Darcy.”

“That was Darcy,” Phil said.

“I was expecting a nanny to be more… I dunno. Nannyish,” Clint admitted. “Like, not putting up with any youthful shenanigans.”

“I think Darcy subscribes to the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them school of childcare,” Phil explained.

Clint looked thoughtful. “So, does Stark’s World import a lot of, um, support staff?”

“I wouldn’t say a lot, but certainly a few.” Phil said. “You need a lot more people, and different kinds of people, to sustain a colony than a research facility. As the town grew, there were more visas made available for people who weren’t scientific or technical staff. Of course, many of those positions are filled by family members of Stark employees.”

“So was Darcy a family member?” Clint asked. “Or did she come on one of those support visas?”

“Neither, actually. She was Dr. Foster’s lab assistant when she first joined Stark Galactic, but I poached her to work in my office.” Phil smiled, remembering the first time he’d seen Darcy, going toe to toe with a vendor over an error in Jane’s equipment order and ending up with both an apology and a refund. “You wouldn’t think it when you first meet her, but she can stare down a four-star admiral in a budget meeting and come out with an extra five percent to the bottom line. She was wasted doing data entry and reminding the physicists to feed themselves.”

“Sounds impressive,” Clint said. “Kind of a leap from there to childcare, though; what happened?”

Phil sighed. “When I was injured, she organized my family’s entire move out to Stark’s World,” he said. “Tony made it worth her while to move out with us; she kept my department going while I was recovering. Once I was able to start putting in some hours, she came and worked with me from my office here, and Aud—the whole family came to love her.” He took a deep, unsteady breath at the memory. “After—after Skye was born, she and Tony kept trying to find someone to come help me with the girls, but none of them really worked out. Finally, she decided they were going at it backwards. She talked Tony into hiring an assistant for her, and showed up at the house one day with a suitcase and a mobile workstation and informed me she was moving in for the duration.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t the most traditional arrangement, but Katie was comfortable with her, and I—well. I needed the help.”

“You know, I think I can picture that,” Clint said, eyes twinkling. “She seems like a woman who gets things done. So, what, she moved out when she got married?”

Phil nodded. “That, plus I finally convinced her to take a promotion, so she wasn’t my assistant anymore,” he said. “Darcy’s loyal to a fault, personally and professionally, but I couldn’t stand to see her holding herself back for our sake. She has her own life to live.” He smiled, wistful and proud. “The girls miss her, but I think the appeal of Sam’s horses makes up for a lot.”

Clint chuckled. “In Katie’s opinion, at least,” he said. A gust of wind skittered through the trees, and they both shivered.

“Sorry,” Phil said, and motioned Clint ahead of him back toward the front door. With the girls gone, the house seemed unsettlingly empty, and he found himself strangely glad for Clint’s company.

The first order of business was cleaning up breakfast, and Phil showed Clint where the various condiments went and how to activate the stasis jars on the apples and cream, then how to load the dishwasher and what settings to use. Once everything was tidy and the washer was humming, Clint hovered uncertainly in the middle of the kitchen, twisting a dishtowel between his long, knobbly fingers.

“Why don’t we talk in the study?” Phil suggested. He had his files and notes there; additionally, the coming discussion had the potential to turn uncomfortable, and he didn’t particularly want Clint to have awkward associations around the common living areas of the house.

“Sure,” Clint said, voice suspiciously level.

Phil forced himself not to chatter nervously as he ushered Clint into his study. He’d spent time the night before preparing for this conversation, going over the documents Matt had drawn up for him and making notes on points he wanted to cover, but he drew up short when he realized he hadn’t thought about where they’d sit; he didn’t want to put Clint on the other side of his desk, like a subordinate getting a lecture.

“Sorry, just—” he waved Clint over to one of the leather armchairs in the corner while he gathered up his things from the desk. There was a little table between them, a place to rest a book and a cup of coffee; it would have to do. Phil sat in the other chair, shuffling his stack of papers and tablet. (He liked hard copies for important things, he always had; Tony despaired of it, but he’d always found it reassuring, that certain things weren’t as ephemeral as pixels and electrons.)

He looked over at Clint, sitting stiffly in the chair across from him, and sighed. “I’m doing this wrong,” he said. “I’m sorry, Clint, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but I obviously have.” He looked down at where he’d wrinkled his papers with the force of his hold. “I know we’ve sent documents back and forth, but I wanted us to have a chance to talk about everything in person.” He forced himself to meet Clint’s eyes; it had been a long time since he’d felt this way, awkward and frustrated and without a clear path forward. “I made notes,” he said, “about all the things I wanted to discuss, points I wanted to clarify, but honestly, now we’re here, I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start.”

Clint was silent for a moment, eyes flicking between Phil’s face and his tense hands. Finally, he heaved a deep breath, and something in his body eased.

“Brief it out, then,” he suggested. “What’s the bottom line?”

“I want us to give this a fair chance,” Phil said, the words coming almost without conscious thought. It was like a logjam clearing in his brain, words pouring out almost too fast to say. “I want us both to get the information we need to make a good, informed decision, and I want us to do it without anyone getting hurt or embarrassed along the way.” He made himself stop talking, biting back other things he wanted to say, things like I want you to stop looking like you’re afraid of me or I want the girls to always laugh the way they did while you were playing with them yesterday. “What do you want, Clint?”

Clint was quiet for a moment, brow furrowed, a muscle in his jaw flexing. “I—” he broke off, shaking his head once, sharply, as though to throw off a troubling thought. “The things you said, those all sound good,” he said, drawing his words out slowly. “But also, um.”

Phil wanted to say something encouraging, but managed not to interrupt; Clint had been tentative enough about making requests without Phil trampling him the minute he opened his mouth. He tried to make his face and body language send open, non-judgmental messages. He wasn’t sure how well it worked.

“I just, I could use some warning if—if I start fucking things up.” Clint leaned forward, words coming faster as he spoke, his face open and pleading. “I can change things, whatever you want, but I might not realize what I’ve done wrong, and—do you think you could tell me? If I do?”

“Of course,” Phil said at once, and felt quietly triumphant when he saw Clint’s expression relax. “I promise, if I have a problem with you, I’ll tell you, all right? And you can do the same to me.” A skeptical look flickered over Clint’s face, and Phil pressed on, letting his voice get more insistent. “This isn’t an audition, Clint—or if it is, it’s for me as much as for you. It’s a time for us to see if we could… work together. Be partners. We can only do that successfully if we tell each other what is going well and what could use improvement. Everything else is negotiable.” Phil was aware that he sounded maybe a little more like an after-action report than was recommended in relationship discussions. Clint seemed to be taking it pretty well, though, so he figured he’d stick to what worked.

“So then what’s with all the big mysterious talk that we had to be alone for?” Clint said.

“It’s just like I said,” Phil explained. “Logistics. Things like—well. You heard Darcy. Everyone would be curious about you anyway, just by virtue of your being a new person in town, but add that to my bringing you here on a fiancé visa, and you’re the most interesting thing that’s happened to Mariana since the pigs got into Thor’s mead barrels at the Victory Day picnic. I—” He cleared his throat, embarrassed. “I’m afraid I’ve let everyone assume that we had a correspondence courtship. The general perception of people who use the brokers is…”

“That they’re limp-dicked sleazebags who can’t get anyone to fuck them without paying?” Clint sounded teasing, but Phil couldn’t hold back a flinch; that was what most people thought about people who used brokers; hell, it was basically what Phil had thought about them, before he’d started considering becoming one of them.

“I was going to say ‘less than positive,’” he said, stiffly, “but essentially, yes.”

“Hey,” Clint said, screwing up his face in apparent distress, “Phil, hey, I didn’t mean that I think that. Dammit.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I just meant, I know the kind of things people say. You think it’s any better from my side of things? And sure, sometimes that stuff’s true. But a lot of people who use the brokers are just regular people trying to make the best out of bad situations.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, eyes steady and kind. “I had a whole stack of contracts to choose from, Phil. I picked yours.”

Phil chuckled weakly, resisting the warmth in his chest at Clint’s words. “Wanted to go as far away as possible?”

“Partially that,” Clint said, “and partially because I’ve always liked kids, and because Nat read over the contract and said it was good, but also a lot of the reason was you.”

Phil caught his breath.

“You seemed like you were looking for a person, not just checking off boxes on a form,” Clint continued, “and you sounded like you wanted the best for everyone, not just for yourself. I picked your contract because I thought I could trust you to give me a fair shot.”

“I will,” Phil said, and his tone was a lot more fervent than he’d intended. “You can. I promise.”

“Then that’s all anyone can ask.” Clint sat back up, but this time he let himself sink into the cushioned back of the chair with the air of a man settling in for a long conversation. “So, I take it you’d prefer to stick to the correspondence cover story?”

“If people ask outright, yes,” Phil said, “but I’m hoping it won’t come to that very often. I’ve asked people to just refer to you as a visiting friend, for the girls’ sake.” He was nervous about bringing that point up; he didn’t want to give Clint the impression that Phil was ashamed of him, but he wasn’t willing to raise the possibility of such a big change to the girls until they’d made a decision one way or the other.

Clint was nodding, though. “That makes sense,” he said, and Phil sagged with relief. “Less pressure on them to react to me a certain way if I’m just here for a little while. I end up staying longer, it’s a nice development; I end up leaving when the visa’s up, then it’s just what everyone expected.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I do see a potential problem, though.”

“Yes?”

“We don’t know very much about each other for two guys who are supposed to have been writing back and forth for, what, a couple of months?”

“At least,” Phil agreed. “And you’re right; dossiers can only take you so far. We’ll have to think about ways to address that. Plus,” he added, “getting to know each other is more or less the point of this entire exercise.”

Clint nodded. “So while we’re thinking of how to deal with the backstory issue, what other things do I need to know? What are you thinking I should do all day, once everyone starts back to their normal routines? I’ve got to be honest, I was envisioning fewer robots; I don’t see what there really is for me to help with when nobody’s home.”

Phil blinked. He’d read stories of people who signed broker contracts, only to end up virtually trapped in a stranger’s home, indentured servants without even the slim protection of a legal indenture. Was that was Clint thought Phil was looking for? “Clint,” he said. “When I said I was looking for a partner, I meant a partner, not a servant. Whatever work you do around here will be the same sort of work that I do. I’m not expecting you to, to just wait around the house for someone to need something from you. I want you to take some time on your own to see if Mariana is a place you could see yourself living in, long-term.” He pulled out his tablet and flicked to the packet that Matt had helped him draw up, then pushed it across the little round table to Clint. “Look. I’ve already added you to the house expenses account, so you can buy anything you need for the house or the girls, but there’s also an account for you to use, and you’re the only one with access to that for as long as you’re here. Do you know how to drive?”

Clint stared at him. “Yes?”

“I’ll key you into both vehicles, then, so you can go into town,” Phil said, making a note for himself.

“Are you for real?” Clint kept looking between the tablet and Phil, dumbfounded.

Phil pulled a face. “Consider it a down payment into the ‘not being a limp-dicked sleazebag’ fund,” he offered.

“I think you’ve got that one covered,” Clint said, flicking through the account information. “Phil, this is too much money—you just met me, you shouldn’t give me access to all this! What if I was planning to clean you out?”

“After Peggy Carter ran your background check?” Phil raised an eyebrow. “I think she’d have picked up on any felonious intent. And even if she hadn’t, it’s not like you’d exactly be able to make a clean getaway from here; you’d have half the planet on your back before you got out of Mariana.”

Clint shook his head with a half-voiced little chuckle. “Suppose that’s true,” he said. “Probably no fences down at the general store, either.”

“Just the picket kind,” Phil said, and was rewarded with a groan and a wry grin. “Speaking of town, when would you like to go? Darcy was right; if I don’t introduce you around soon, we’ll have a mutiny on our hands.”

Clint looked down, fidgeting. “Maybe next week sometime?” he suggested. “I know we need to go, but I’d like to give us some time to get our stories straight—how did we meet, how long have we been talking, that sort of thing.”

“Maybe Monday, then,” Phil suggested. “The girls will be going back to school, but I’ll still have a few days before I go back to work, so that will give me some time to take you around.”

Clint’s answering smile was a little wobbly. “Okay, sure,” he agreed. “Monday.”

Phil looked back at his notes, feeling more than a little wobbly himself. The past few days had been a bubble out of time, just him and the people he was closest to and Clint; now, that bubble had an expiration date.

He ran down his neat list of bullet points, checking off “what to tell the girls re: potential marriage,” “Correspondence courtship: OK to encourage assumption?” and “spending account, transportation access for Clint.” Two main sections left on his list were the house logistics and the contract discussion; he was tempted to move straight into the simpler territory of setting Clint up on the house system and showing him how to work the appliances, but it wasn’t fair to either of them to keep putting the more difficult topics off. Phil pulled his hard copy of the contract to the top of his stack of papers.

“I’d like to talk about the contract,” he said.

“Okay?” Clint said, uncertain. “I mean, I signed it before I came, so I’m not sure what there is to talk about.”

“Did you have any questions or concerns?” Phil asked. “I know we both signed the preliminary agreement, but I’m open to re-negotiating if there’s anything you aren’t comfortable with.”

Clint shrugged. “I don’t really know much about legal stuff,” he said. “Natasha read it over and she said it seemed fair—better than usual for a broker contract—so I took her word on it.”

“I see.” Phil paused, considering his words carefully. “I’m sure that Natasha gave you good advice,” he said. “I’d still like for you to have a chance to revisit the terms, now that you’ve met us and gotten a little more idea of what Stark’s World is like. It would be a conflict of interest for my attorney to negotiate on your behalf, but, ah, I took the liberty of retaining another one for you.” He cleared his throat. “Her name is Jennifer Walters; I’ll introduce you when we go into town next week.”

“That’s… kind of weird, Phil, I’m not gonna lie,” Clint said, but there was humor in his tone. “I mean, it’s nice of you? But weird.” He looked searchingly at Phil, head tilted. “Why are you so worried about this?”

Phil sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just—” He dragged his hand down his face, as though he could wipe away his own uncertainties. “Look,” he said at last, looking back down at his papers. “I did a lot of research before I decided to work with a broker, and I read a lot of dossiers. Many of them—not all, like you said, but many—read like a solicitation for either unpaid indentured servitude or prostitution. Both, sometimes. I just want—” he clenched his hands, searching for the words to explain. He could see so many ways this whole thing could fail, but he’d always specialized in making long odds work. If he worked at it—if he mitigated the risks—then maybe things could go right for both of them.

“I’m not like that, Clint, I promise,” he said at last. “I don’t want to make anybody feel that way. While you’re here, I want you to live with us like you’re part of the family, and then if we—if you stay, I would want you to be part of the family. And you came out here, and I paid for it, yes, but I don’t expect that money to buy anything more than your travel expenses so we can give this thing a shot.”

Clint leaned forward, and touched Phil’s hand; just a fleeting brush of rough fingertips, but it jolted Phil out of his embarrassing flood of over-justification. Clint’s skin was hot, and the rest of Phil’s hand felt cool for several seconds after the touch was gone.

“Phil,” Clint said. “Stop. It’s okay.”

Phil looked back. Clint met his eyes, a steady and piercing look, and Phil felt pinned, seen, known. “Is it?”

Clint made a noise that was half chuckle and half sigh. “I grew up on Earth, remember?” he said. “I know how to tell when someone wants to exploit me. I may not know much about plants or farms or robots, but I know that you’re not that guy.”

“I never want to be.” Phil’s voice was quiet.

“And that’s why you won’t.”

It shouldn’t have made such a difference. Clint couldn’t know what Phil might do, but his conviction—his faith, so unexpected and so heartening—took much of the weight off Phil’s mind. “Thanks,” he said, and Clint just nodded.

They sat in silence, for a while, and then Clint spoke. “Can we please be done with the serious talking now?”

Phil had to laugh. “Sure,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve got any more in me right now anyway, and we covered the important points. For the rest of the day I’d thought we could get you set up in the house system, maybe I could show you how to use some of the appliances and things?”

Clint flashed a bright grin. “Start with that coffee machine, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

The control hub for the house system was actually built into one of the study walls, behind a sliding panel. Phil busied himself with the string of fiddly little tasks it took to add someone to the system, taking Clint’s retinal scan and palm print, having him read a few paragraphs aloud so the system could calibrate itself to his voice.

“That should do it,” Phil said, once the profile was complete. “I’ve set you up with parental permissions, so the system won’t limit anything you try to do beyond basic safety parameters, plus you can alter the profiles for the girls if you need to. I’ll send the system manual to your tablet in case you need it later.” He paused, but Clint didn’t reply, staring at the profile on the screen. “Clint?”

“Sorry,” Clint said. “It’s… a lot to take in,” he said. “But thanks for getting me set up. Is the interface all in the door panels?”

“You can access the system through any of the door or wall panels, and I’ve installed the interface app on your tablet as well,” Phil said. “It also recognizes voice commands, but I don’t usually use them.” He cleared his throat, sheepish. “I just couldn’t get used to giving orders into the air. Tony thinks it’s hilarious.”

“Eh, panel interface is enough to learn at once,” Clint said.

Phil went back to his desk, and pulled a manila envelope out of the drawer. “I’ve linked your biometric profile to the bank,” he said. “You can use your prints to make purchases anywhere in town—or online, if you use the house system for verification. I put the bank app on the tablet for you, too, but here are hard copies of the statements if you prefer paper.”

“Sounds like I need to do some serious work on that StarkTab,” Clint said, taking the folder. “I have to admit, so far I haven’t done much with it besides check messages.”

“I could go over it with you, if you want,” Phil offered. “I mean, I’m sure you can figure it out on your own, but it might be quicker if—I mean, if you wanted me to—”

“I’d like it if you showed me,” Clint said, mercifully cutting Phil off. “It’s upstairs, come on.”

Phil followed Clint upstairs and down the hall to his room, hovering just outside the door when Clint went in to retrieve the tablet. Clint, over by the desk, shot him an odd look. “Problem?”

“No, I just—this is your room,” Phil said. “I didn’t want to intrude.”

“Oh.” Clint looked surprised, then smiled, small but bright. “Thanks,” he said. He picked up the tablet, snug in the purple slipcover Katie had insisted they buy. “So come on in and show me how to use this thing to run your robot house.”

The room hadn’t really been furnished with seating for two in mind, so they ended up sitting side-by-side in the wide window seat, trading the tablet back and forth between them as they worked. From that spot, you could see the entire room, plus the drive outside. It felt odd, being in the room again; he’d spent a lot of time in it during the redecoration, of course, but not since, and the marks of Clint’s presence—furniture moved a bit, bedcovers rumpled, this morning’s sleep pants thrown over the foot of the bed—gave it a subtle difference that made Phil oddly nervous, like he was intruding somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.

Despite his unfamiliarity with the system, Clint picked up the interface quickly—more quickly than Phil had himself, to be honest. By the time they’d gone through the major functions, Phil was surprised to realize that it was nearly lunchtime.

“Kitchen next?” he suggested, and Clint grinned.

“Now that’s a lesson I can get behind,” he said.

Phil’s cooking had always been driven by necessity rather than passion, and so his kitchen was set up with the greatest possible number of easy-to-use conveniences. Steve despaired of it—hence his continual attempts to feed Phil and the girls—but Phil managed to keep everyone fed and nutritionally balanced, which was the important thing. Plus, he had a few apple-based recipes that always turned out well, in case of community potluck emergency.

“How much cooking have you done?” he asked Clint, as they reached the kitchen.

Clint waggled his hand back and forth. “Not much of this kind,” he said. “Not a lot of kitchens in the circus, and me and Nat ate a lot of quickmeals and street food. I’m pretty handy with a grill or a stewpot, though.”

“I’ve got a grill stowed in the barn,” Phil said. “If it warms up a few more degrees, maybe we could pull it out next week; the girls love eating outside.”

“Sounds fun,” Clint agreed.

“I’m not much of a cook myself,” Phil admitted. “I’ve got the house system programmed to help out; you tell it what you want to make, and it will project the instructions step-by-step. It even tells you before you start cooking if you’re out of any ingredients, and updates the food order with anything we run out of, though you can always add other things.” He clasped his hands in front of himself, then thought better of it and shoved them in his pockets.

“So, your kitchen is also a robot,” Clint said, eyes twinkling. “Makes sense, I guess. You gonna show me how to use it?”

Phil had a few jars of tomato sauce left from last year’s harvest, so he decided on a simple pasta. He actually didn’t need the system instructions for this, but pulled them up anyway to show Clint how they worked. He talked through what he did as he cooked, and Clint watched attentively as Phil dealt with beef and sauce and water for the noodles. There was a quarter of a baguette in stasis in the bread box, and Phil pulled out a little bowl of garlic butter and set it beside the stove to soften while he sliced the bread.

“Can you spread the butter on these?” he asked, handing Clint the bread board full of slices and setting the butter on the counter beside him.

“Sure,” Clint said. “How much should I use?”

“Whatever looks good to you,” Phil said, covering the simmering meat sauce and dumping the noodles into the boiling water.

They worked side by side, and although they’d never done it before, they managed surprisingly well, each making space for the other, nobody catching stray elbows or stepping on each other’s toes. Phil found himself relaxing, his nerves eased by soft steam and good food smells and Clint’s warm, undemanding presence.

Everything got done at the same time, a minor miracle, and Phil showed Clint where to find plates and silverware and serving bowls. Ordinarily, he’d dish the food out straight from the pots, but Clint’s attention made him reluctant to skip steps. He thought about opening a bottle of wine, but that seemed a little much for a simple lunch on a weekday.

Even without wine, the food was good; the sauce lively, the meat rich, the garlic toast offering a perfect counterpoint of tangy, buttery crunch. They ate largely in silence, save for passing dishes back and forth and a few appreciative noises. It was comfortable—it was comforting—to sit in one’s own kitchen, eating food made by one’s own hands, and not to be alone.

There was a spot of sauce on Clint’s upper lip, and he licked it off as Phil watched. Phil was swept by hope that things would all work out, somehow, and that Clint would become a permanent fixture in his home—in his life.

Settle down, Coulson. One thing at a time.

Eventually, the food was gone—heavy conversations were hungry work—and they did the dishes. Clint remembered enough from breakfast to load and run the washer, and Phil tried not to take his alacrity as a positive referendum on anything but Clint’s ability to pick up technology fast.

Phil had intended to show Clint a few more things—they hadn’t touched the entertainment systems, or any of the outdoor machines—but when Clint turned around from hanging up the dishcloth to dry, he looked exhausted. Of course, Phil thought, it only made sense; Clint had been at least as nervous as Phil himself had, and was still fighting off a wicked case of spacelag to boot. He thought about suggesting they take a break, but worried that Clint wouldn’t take him up on it. Now that Peggy had pointed it out, Phil couldn’t help noticing that Clint was still sneaking those little looks at him, as if checking for signs of disapproval.

“I apologize,” Phil said, “but I’m afraid I need to attend to some business today, so I’m going to have to leave you to your own devices for a few hours this afternoon. The girls won’t be home until dinner, so we’ll still have some time after I’m done to finish up.”

“No problem,” Clint said, and Phil may not have known him long enough to read all his expressions, but he was fairly sure the one he was seeing was relief. “I’m still a little wiped, maybe I’ll get some rest.”

“Rest well, then,” Phil said. “I’ll talk to you in a few hours.”

Clint headed upstairs, tossing a wave over his shoulder to Phil. Phil went back to his study and shut the door, activating the security system that protected his more sensitive communications. He was exhausted himself; he felt like it should be near bedtime, for all it was only early afternoon. He played the morning over in his mind, trying to settle. Clint had been obviously nervous. He always moved with a casual confidence that Phil associated with high-level physical training, but that morning he’d held himself poised, muscles coiled for action, as though preparing to duck or run or fight. He’d gotten better as the day progressed, and sometimes it seemed like he’d forget to be wary, especially when he was absorbed in a task, but that tension came back into his face or his body language with distressing frequency. For all that, though, Clint had been quick to reassure Phil when he’d been making a fool of himself. Phil thought it spoke well of him, that his impulses were to help even when he himself was feeling unsure.

Phil wondered what lay behind Clint’s uncertainty. Was Clint simply nervous about making such a huge—life-changing—decision? Anyone would be; hell, Phil himself had nearly cancelled the whole thing multiple times before even sending out the first communication. But given Clint’s background—

“I lived on Earth,” he remembers. “I know when someone is trying to exploit me—”

Well. Phil couldn’t help wondering if there was more at play than simply a poor man trying to better his chances. The affection and trust with which Clint spoke of Natasha made it evident that he still had ties to Earth; Phil wondered what forces had come into Clint’s life that were strong enough to make him break them. It could be purely financial, he supposed, but something about that didn’t feel right; Clint was lean but strong and healthy, his body speaking of hard work and at least enough nutrition to keep him from burning away muscle. He’d obviously been able to find enough work to live on. Of course, that might be part of the problem; Phil remembered his conversation with Peggy about Clint’s training, and what he’d read about how few jobs there were on Earth that weren’t linked to one or another of the syndicates. Maybe the issue wasn’t finding work, but what kind of work there was to be found? Or maybe it was something a little more ominous. After all, Stark’s World was very far away from Earth and very hard to get to. For more than a few of the permanent residents, including Tony Stark himself, that was more a feature than a bug.

If there was some reason Clint wasn’t safe on Earth—some reason besides the pollution and the corruption and the fact that it was run by criminals, that is—then what might he do to escape?

Phil hadn’t deluded himself that whatever spouse he got through a broker would be coming purely for the joy of his company, two ready-made daughters, and joint ownership of an apple orchard on a galactic backwater. Still, the thought of someone—of Clint—following through on the contract, marrying Phil to, what? To save his life? To save Natasha’s? To avoid an indenture or a sex contract or worse? It fell heavy and sour on his stomach. Impossible, to do that to Clint; impossible, too, to send him back to Earth, back into whatever it was he was trying to escape.

Maybe… maybe there was another way. Like he’d told Clint, Stark Galactic didn’t give many visas to people who were neither employees nor family of employees, but it did give a few, to people who fulfilled necessary roles in the community; after all, it was hard to run a functional town when your population was nearly all scientists and engineers. You needed doctors and lawyers and shopkeepers and restauranteurs, teachers and plumbers and carpenters and civil servants.

Clint was, as far as Phil had been able to tell, bright, eager to please, and ready to work. Surely there was something he could do here to support himself and contribute to the community, something valuable enough to rate a visa. He could settle here, and then whether or not he decided to marry Phil, he could still stay off Earth, safe.

Phil felt a pang at the thought of Clint leaving his cozy purple-walled room and becoming just another neighbor, someone to nod to in town and chat with at the Victory Day picnic, but he ruthlessly suppressed his own feelings on the matter. Phil had always been good at coming up with options and contingency plans; it was only right that he turn those talents to Clint’s benefit.

He turned on his computer and began drafting a message to Matt Murdock.

Chapter Text

 

Climbing the stairs seemed to take at least six times as long as it should have. Clint’s head was swimming under all the new information; between the tech and the cooking lesson and the accounts—holy shit, the accounts—and the surprising revelation that Phil was worried about being some kind of creeper, it was a wonder Clint had managed to hold onto his composure for as long as he had. He thanked whatever kindly powers had arranged for Phil to have to work that afternoon. Truthfully, he suspected he should thank Phil himself, since the first mention of work all day had been conveniently timed for the moment when Clint could feel himself about to lose it. Either way, Clint was thankful for the chance to save face, not to mention the space to pull himself together.

In his current mood, his room was a haven; he shut himself inside and felt the tension in his shoulders start to unknot. The window seat had quickly become his favorite spot in the room (it had the best sightlines, which Clint found reassuring despite knowing he was in no danger on Stark’s World), but after being wedged in it hip-to-hip with Phil earlier, he found the thought of sitting there now a little distracting. He took the squashy armchair by the other window instead. If he was going to run this like a proper operation, it was past time he got his head in the game and evaluated what he had to work with.

This morning had been different than he’d thought it would be. Clint had been expecting to have to convince Phil that things were working out, to highlight the ways that he could help the Coulsons. Instead, Phil seemed to be under the impression that he was the one who had to convince Clint to stay—Clint, who came from Earth, where he had been safe and fed and mostly not a criminal only because he’d had the incredible luck to be more-or-less adopted by the Black Widow. Phil didn’t know the full truth about Clint’s history—at least, Clint didn’t think he did, though who knew what Agent Carter had turned up—but even so, he had to know that Clint’s life hadn’t been pretty. Yet, instead of treating Clint with prudent caution, Phil was giving Clint access to his children, his house, and his money; he was making plans to introduce him to his friends and co-workers, he was saying things like you would be part of the family… and all he was asking in return was for Clint to do a few household chores? It was baffling.

Clint wondered if such absurd generosity was typical of colony folk, or if Phil was just so rich that he had no need to trade in favors, or if, perhaps, he was actually that good a person.

Clint had been mortified that morning; when he stumbled downstairs in desperate search of caffeine, red-eyed and runny-nosed and puffy-faced and barely dressed, he hadn’t been expecting to see Phil at all, let alone sitting peacefully by the window, wrapped in a hazy blue sweater and looking like some sort of high-class home furnishings advertisement. It had been good, even though Clint was self-conscious, to sit with Phil in the sunshine and talk, and he’d been happy to be able to help with the girls later; he felt it had redeemed him a little from his embarrassing display the night before. He’d liked Darcy, too, and he hoped that she’d liked him; he could use as many supporting votes in Phil’s circle as he could get. The talk they’d had, once the girls had left… well. He wouldn’t get far if he spent too long brooding over that. But the takeaway was—the mission parameters were—that Phil wanted Clint to help run the house, to learn to take care of the girls, to befriend Phil’s social circle, and to be Phil’s…

Partner, apparently.

Fortunately, Clint had some experience being someone’s partner, though he wasn’t sure how far the kind of partnership he’d had with Natasha really translated into the kind of partnership Phil was looking for. But he’d give it a shot.

He opened his StarkTab and started making lists; things he needed to learn to do, information he needed to obtain, people he should get to know. His new access let him pull up the house calendar, and he took note of the schedules that Phil had entered in. (Each event was linked to location coordinates and a list of any required clothing or supplies, and Clint blessed whatever personal quirk or holdover navy habit had made Phil so logistically minded.) In the interest of completeness, Clint pulled up the house account statements and studied them as well, jotting down notes; frequency, budget categories, rough amounts. By the time he’d worked his way through everything, he had the bones of an excellent dossier, more background than he and Natasha had often been given for missions.

Most of the information Clint was still missing was about Phil himself. If Clint was going to convince Phil’s friends that they’d been courting via satcomm for months, Clint needed more intel—not only background details, but a better understanding of who Phil was as a person. They’d touched on the issue that morning, but hadn’t decided how to address it; they could debrief each other, Clint supposed, but the thought made him feel ill. He couldn’t imagine sitting down in front of Phil, meeting his calm blue eyes, and telling him about Barney, or his parents, or Trickshot. Even the thought of talking about the good parts of his life made him feel like a snail about to be eaten, pulled out of its shell with its soft bits exposed. And yet surely he’d have to talk about at least some of it, or else why had he even bothered to come? If he’d wanted a contract spouse who wouldn’t want to know any details about him, he should have taken one of the ones from Natasha’s pile. He’d picked Phil because Phil wanted a real person; now Clint was going to have to be a real person with him.

Clint set his tablet aside and started pacing; he always thought better if he could move. No mission prep session had been complete without him getting fed up with stillness and starting to pace. The memory of those days made him smile; long hours spent tucked away in Natasha’s rooms, going over dossiers, doing research, sometimes even—

Sometimes even actually doing whatever it was their covers were supposed to have done. There were cases, Natasha had always said, where you couldn’t fake it, where you had to just spend the prep time and actually read the book or learn the skill or meet the dignitary.

What if he and Phil started corresponding now? They’d have to hurry the pace a little, of course, to be ready for small talk about their relationship when they went to town on Monday, but as a plan, Clint had definitely seen worse. It was workable, as long as Phil was okay with the idea. When he floated the idea, Clint thought, he’d also suggest to Phil that he take over some portion of the household chores. There was a certain security in having ownership over a task; it would give him a way to know for certain that he was at least contributing something.

A few more reads through the dossier, and he went downstairs again; he felt more settled, his tentative plan giving him a sense of direction that he’d sorely missed since his arrival. The door to Phil’s study was ajar and Phil was standing next to the window, looking out, face distant and a little sad. Clint wondered what he was thinking of.

He knocked on the open door, and Phil startled a little, half-turning sharply, hand moving toward his side, before he saw Clint and relaxed. Clint wondered whether Phil still carried the weapon he’d been reaching for, or if it was some holdover habit from his navy days.

“Sorry,” Phil said, with a disarming little half-smile. “I was miles away.”

“Everything all right with work?” Clint asked.

“All taken care of,” Phil said. “I’m at your disposal for the rest of the day.”

“Good, because I have an idea,” Clint said, forcing his nerves down into calm. “I was thinking about our information gap—how we don’t know each other well enough yet to convincingly fake a correspondence courtship? And I have something to run by you.”

“I’m listening,” Phil said, turning to face Clint square on, eyes bright and intent. Clint felt itchy under the focus of his attention.

“At first I thought we could do some sort of catch-up briefing,” he said, forcing himself not to fidget, “only that sounded terrible.”

Phil chuckled, the sound rumbly and warm. “I can’t say I disagree,” he said. “I take it you’ve thought of a better alternative?”

“We’re supposed to have written to each other,” Clint said. “So… we write to each other. Maybe exchange a message every day? I mean, we can still talk in person, obviously, but it feels like maybe it would be easier to put some things in writing. Plus, then if we needed a cheat sheet, we’d have the letters right there to go back to.”

“Huh.” Phil was silent for a moment, considering, and then a smile spread over his face. “I like that,” he said, and Clint tried not to show the way his body wanted to slump in relief.

“You’re right that it sounds less awkward in practice,” Phil continued, “and, well.” He cleared his throat, looking away. “I admit I hate lying to my friends about something like this. At least this way there will be a germ of truth to the story.”

“We’d just be fudging the timeline a bit,” Clint agreed. He couldn’t help finding it endearing that Phil—who, if Natasha was right (and Natasha was always right) was a high-placed intelligence officer before he ended up on Stark’s World, and who counted the Alliance’s best spy as family—was so reluctant to tell such a harmless lie to people he cared for. He drifted further into the room, moving closer to where Phil stood as though being towed along an invisible line; his steps were silent on the thick rug.

“I thought that maybe, if you don’t mind, we could also try to spend some time together one-on-one?” Phil asked. “Maybe in the evenings, after the girls are in bed. We wouldn’t have to do anything in particular, just… see how we get along. We could talk, or watch vids, or anything, really; whatever you want.”

“Sure, we can do that.” Clint nodded as Phil spoke. It was a nice thought, and possibly also a bit flattering, though he knew it was probably only so that they wouldn’t raise suspicion by being too obviously uncomfortable in each others’ presence. Still, his stomach flipped a little at the thought of spending that much time alone with Phil, the only subject of that sharp and knowing gaze. Clint didn’t have a whole lot of practice being known.

Enough. Cross that skyway when you get to the floor, Barton. “There was another thing I wanted to ask,” he said, and Phil nodded, making a little gesture: go on.

“I know you aren’t looking for me to do everything around here,” Clint said, rubbing the back of his neck. “And believe me, I appreciate that. But for my own peace of mind, I need to do something. I’ve never—I’ve always lived in circumstances where everyone knew their place and their jobs, you know?” He caught himself rubbing at one of his bow callouses, and shoved his hands in his pockets. He thought he’d trained himself out of that tell; Nat would smack his hands if she could see him.

“I’m… not unfamiliar with the concept, I think,” Phil said, cautiously. “The Navy’s a lot like that; everyone had very clearly defined duties, and it was easy to tell when you were doing them well. Is that the kind of thing you mean?”

“Pretty much,” Clint said, perking up a little. Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as he’d feared.

“I am fully prepared to declare you the official hair-braider of the household,” Phil said, eyes crinkled with amusement.It was a good look for him, turning him into the soft, approachable man that he was with the girls, rather than the formal, distant one that he fell back on sometimes. “But other than that, well, what sort of tasks did you do at home? Are there any you like more than others?”

Clint only just managed not to choke at the question, because his primary chores besides shooting people and threatening to shoot people had been equipment maintenance-related, and he somehow didn’t think that replying “cleaning guns and sharpening knives” would hit the appropriate tone for the conversation. He racked his brain for a normal-person answer, face heating at the quizzical look on Phil’s face as the pause stretched out. He was a dab hand at mending bullet holes and knife slices in their field gear, and he could get bloodstains out of just about any… he perked up.

“Laundry!” he told Phil triumphantly. “Laundry and mending.”

“If you weren’t already my provisional fiancé, I’d have to propose to you for that alone,” Phil teased, and Clint felt a warm flutter in his belly at Phil’s easy smile. “You have no idea how much laundry those two generate; I’ll be overjoyed to have the help.”

“Sounds like a good first step,” Clint agreed. “And I can keep learning the rest from you, then we can divide the work up however suits us?”

“I like that idea,” Phil told him. He glanced at his watch. “It’s about time to start dinner,” he said. “Would you like to help?”

“Lead on,” Clint said, and followed him out to the kitchen.

“The girls will have worn themselves out at Darcy’s,” Phil said, “so we’re just doing something easy tonight.” He opened a door that Clint hadn’t seen behind yet, to reveal a closet bigger than Natasha’s bathroom, lined with shelves that were completely full of food. Clint knew that his mouth was hanging open like a yokel, but he couldn’t help himself; he’d never seen anything like it in real life. A few shelves held packaged food of the sort he was familiar with from Earth, but the rest were as foreign as the vast empty space outside the window.

There were bins of produce, covered with the dull blue shimmer of stasis fields, the bright colors showing through the tops; there were big wheels of cheese, some coated in wax and some with wizened, dusty rinds; there were rows of glass jars filled with things that Clint couldn’t identify, red and brown and golden and purple and green. On the bottom were more stasis bins, these with little scoops attached, neatly labelled; flour and sugar and rice, dried beans, nuts. At the far end was a chest freezer; Clint had seen those before, but he was pretty sure Phil didn’t have any corpses stashed in his.

“I’ve got some chicken soup in the freezer,” Phil was saying, rummaging around in the freezer. “We can heat it up, and make chicken salad sandwiches with the leftovers from the other day.” He straightened, holding what must be the frozen soup, and nodded at one of the shelves. “Could you grab that jar of pickles, please?” Clint took the indicated jar and followed Phil back out into the kitchen.

“Would you like to take point this time?” Phil asked him. “The chicken salad recipe is in the system.”

“Sure,” Clint said, trying to cover his nerves. “No time like the present.” He went to the wall panel and followed the steps Phil had shown him at lunch, pulling up the recipe and activating the cooking assistant. It was actually pretty easy to use, showing pictures of the ingredients and animated illustrations of cooking techniques. Clint didn’t really need any help chopping up chicken meat—he was plenty good with a knife, thanks—but he could see where it would come in handy later.

“I learned how to cook with a system like this,” Phil said after a while, not looking up from the soup pot. “It probably saved me from ending up with some sort of vitamin deficiency, because I was hopeless.”

“Yeah?” Clint found it hard to believe that Phil had ever been hopeless at anything, but wanted to hear more.

“I’d never lived anywhere without some kind of meal plan,” Phil explained. “But after I got—” he broke off, then started his sentence again. “After I moved into quarters with a kitchen, it seemed like the thing to do.”

“After you got married, you mean?” Clint kept his voice gentle, but Phil still looked startled, then guilty.

“Ah… yes,” he said. “Sorry.”

Clint, who’d moved on to chopping up some sweet pickles, set down his knife and wiped his hands on the dishtowel he’d tucked into his waistband. He crossed the few steps over to the stove, where Phil was regarding the pot of reheating soup like it contained the secret of life. He looked strangely small, at that moment, shoulders curled inward, and Clint had laid a hand on the arm that wasn’t stirring before he even realized what he was about to do. Even through Phil’s sweater, Clint could feel the curve of solid muscle and the heat of skin. Phil drew in a sharp breath, but didn’t speak.

“Look, Phil,” Clint said, trying to choose his words carefully. He was amazed at his own audacity, but he couldn’t stand to watch Phil keep tripping over his words, trying to talk around the fact that he’d been married. “I appreciate that you’re trying to be considerate, here, by not mentioning your wife.” Phil tensed under Clint’s hand, his bicep going hard under his fingers, and he couldn’t stop himself from rubbing Phil’s arm, just a little bit, trying to soothe.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Clint said, “I know we need to focus on talking about you and me right now, and it would be pretty uncomfortable for me to hear a point-by-point comparison between us or anything like that. But she was your wife, and the girls’ mom, and I’d be a pretty shitty person if I tried to make you never mention her to me at all.” He flexed his fingers, giving Phil’s arm a tiny squeeze that he hoped was reassuring, then made himself pull his hand back.

Phil turned to face him, leaving the spoon to clatter against the edge of the soup pot. “I—thank you,” he said. He rubbed at his chest, then crossed his arms. “It’s not just you,” he said at last. He smiled a little, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m afraid I’ve gotten… out of the habit of talking about her much. After she d-died—” he bit his lip, jaw flexing. “Nobody knew how to talk about her anymore. People were—they meant well. But it was hard.”

“Do whatever you need to,” Clint told him. “Just don’t feel like you have to edit yourself for my benefit, okay?” He tried to put as much sincerity as he could into his voice, wanting to banish the haunted look that had crept onto Phil’s face. “That stuff we talked about this morning, how you want us to be a team? It goes for me too. I may not know a lot about families, but I do know partners, and when you’re partners it has to go both ways.”

They were both quiet for a moment, the only sounds in the kitchen the bubbling soup and their soft breathing. “I appreciate that,” Phil finally said, and then he straightened up, turning back to the soup. Clint took the hint and returned to his pickles.

“So,” he said, after a few seconds of silent chopping. “You were telling me about how you were a terrible cook.”

Phil laughed, short and loud, as though it had been surprised out of him. “Yeah,” he said. “Neither of us could cook much, actually. I’d been eating in cafeterias and commissaries for ten years and Au—Audrey,” he stumbled a little over the name, but kept going, “she, um. She was a musician, and she spent a lot of her time on tour, so she was used to mostly restaurants and convenience food.”

“So you bought a computer to teach you how to cook?”

“It was actually a wedding present,” Phil admitted. “Anonymous, if you can believe it—I guess the giver was afraid we’d be offended—but we used it more than just about anything else we got.”

“I believe it,” Clint said. “This thing’s really useful.” He scooped the last ingredients into the bowl and mixed them together. “I’m actually about done, here,” he added. “When will the girls be home?”

“Not for a half hour or so,” Phil said. “Here, let’s set everything out and I’ll show you how to use the stasis table.”

Once the table was set and the field activated, they moved into the living room. Phil sat at one end of the sofa, and Clint hesitated for a moment before taking the chair next to it; close enough for comfortable conversation, but not as presumptuous as sitting next to him would have been.

“What were your favorite foods, on Earth?” Phil asked. “I know our food is really different from what you’re used to, but we do get some imports here; I can try to track something down for you.”

For most of Clint’s life on Earth, his favorite food had been “enough,” but he knew better than to say so to Phil. This wasn’t that sort of conversation. He thought a little, remembering walking through the crowded markets in the thirties with Natasha, buying things from carts.

“Street food, mostly,” he said. “There was this one cart near our place that sold pierogies—have you ever had pierogies?”

“No,” Phil said. “What are they like?”

“They’re these little dumplings,” Clint explained. “They had all kinds, sweet and salty both. My favorites were the potato and the cheese, but they had fruit and meat and who knows what all. They’d fry them and serve them in a paper cone with a drizzle of sauce over the top, and you had to decide whether to eat them right away and maybe burn yourself, or wait until they were cooler but didn’t taste as good.”

“They sound delicious,” Phil said. “Maybe we can find a recipe, and try to make them here sometime?”

Clint smiled. “I’d really like that,” he said. “Thanks, Phil.”

They talked for a while longer, swapping stories of notable food carts they’d encountered, and Clint was actually a little startled when the door chime sounded.

“Darcy Lewis,” the house system announced. “Katie Coulson. Skye Coulson.” The sound was immediately followed by a bang and Katie’s voice, calling, “Daddy, we’re home!”

“I heard that,” Phil called back, leading the way into the hall. “I also heard someone slamming the front door.”

“I didn’t slam it, it got bumped with my bag,” Katie said. She was dragging one of Phil’s giant bags behind her. “This bag is very heavy, Daddy.”

Darcy, who had Skye drowsily cuddled on one shoulder and the other two bags slung over the other, shot Phil a cheeky look. “And not a single catastrophe all day,” she said.

“Except the time Skye fell in the—”

“Like I said,” Darcy said, raising her voice over the end of Katie’s sentence, “nothing at all of note to require a week’s worth of luggage!”

Phil raised an eyebrow at her, but he had a smile tucked in the corners of his mouth. She just grinned.

“You want to take some of this, boss?” she asked. “I’m balanced now, but if I put one thing down it’s all coming down.”

Phil carefully took the bags, extracting the straps from where they’d gotten tangled in Darcy’s hair, then scooped up Katie’s bag as well. “You staying for dinner?” he asked. “Soup and sandwiches, but there’s plenty.”

“Thanks, but no. Sam and I have plans tonight,” she said, waggling her eyebrows, “and I bet you guys probably do, too.”

“What kind of plans do we have, Daddy?” Katie asked, and Phil sighed.

“You’re impossible,” he told Darcy. “Katie, the only plans we have for tonight are sandwich plans and bedtime plans.”

“That’s what I said,” Darcy chimed in, unrepentant. “Plans.”

Phil rolled his eyes, but Clint noticed that the tips of his ears had gone a little pink. He wondered whether it was because he didn’t like the implication and he and Clint had… bedtime plans, or if it was because he did, at least a little? After their conversation earlier, Clint wasn’t sure what lay behind the clauses in their contract that said sex wasn’t required. Of course, it was possible that Phil was just uninterested in sex with Clint. There was a chance, though, that he was interested but worried that Clint would feel exploited. Clint wasn’t sure which scenario he hoped was true. Phil was handsome and funny and kind, and his home and family were amazing; it would be hard enough for Clint to avoid getting hurt without adding sex into the mix.

“Here, take Skye,” Darcy said, right up next to his ear; she’d come close while he was woolgathering. He startled, and she grinned at him and winked. “Interesting thoughts?” she asked, as she transferred Skye into his arms.

He forced himself to keep a straight face. “I really like sandwiches.”

On the other side of the hall, Phil spluttered a laugh, and Clint felt like he’d won a prize. Darcy’s face softened, and she patted his arm where it was wrapped around Skye.

“It’s nice to hear him laughing,” she told Clint softly. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Clint froze, unsure what to say in response, but Darcy just smiled.

“I’m going home now,” she announced. “Would anyone like good-bye kisses?”

“I do,” Skye said sleepily from Clint’s shoulder.

“Me too please, Miss Darcy!” Katie said.

Darcy swooped over to Katie for an enthusiastic goodbye, then flung her arms around Phil, bags and all. He rolled his eyes, but leaned into the embrace, patting her on the back; Clint thought he might even have brushed a kiss over her hair. She came over to Clint and Skye next, ducking in to kiss Skye’s cheek, then darting up to lay a smacking kiss on Clint’s. While he was still blinking, she was back out the door, flinging a last goodbye over her shoulder.

“Well,” Phil said. “I’m going to take the bags upstairs. Clint, would you mind helping the girls wash up for dinner?”

“Sure,” Clint said. He hefted Skye a little higher on his hip, making her giggle, and headed down the hall to the bathroom with Katie close behind. Katie could basically manage on her own, Phil had told him, though she sometimes hurried and missed spots, so he let her busy herself with making mounds of sweet-smelling bubbles in the sink while he worked on Skye, who was remarkably grubby, with dark crescents of dirt smudged in the creases of her fingers and elbows and dirt under her nails.

“What did you do all day?” he asked, lathering up her arms with a soapy cloth.

“I falled in the horse bucket,” she told him solemnly. “It made a lot of mud!”

“It was fine, though,” Katie said. “Miss Darcy washed her clothes so Daddy wouldn’t have to.”

“Well, as the person who’s going to start washing your clothes pretty soon, I should tell Miss Darcy thank you next time I see her,” Clint said.

“Why are you going to wash our clothes now?” Katie asked, pushing her sleeves farther up with a wet hand, then making an annoyed little huff when it fell back down, cuff dipping into the suds.

“It’s going to be one of my chores while I stay with you.” Clint tugged the sleeve up above her elbow, and she grinned up at him.

“But why do you have chores though?” she persisted. “You’re company.”

He finished rinsing Skye’s arms and shut off the water, reaching for one of the plush towels to dry her off. “You know I’m staying for a while, right?”

Katie nodded. “Daddy says, all the way until the summer!”

“Right,” Clint said, relieved that Phil had told the girls he’d be staying for the entire term of the visa. “So, because I’m staying so long, I’ll need to help out around here just like everyone else does.”

“Oh, okay,” Katie said, and Clint was glad she didn’t press the issue further.

He herded the girls into the kitchen, clean and dry, at least from the elbows down. Phil was just turning off the stasis field over the meal they’d set out earlier.

“Good timing,” he said. “Come on, girls, sit down and tell me and Clint about your day.”

The girls were happy to chatter on about their excursion, which had apparently included a riding lesson (Katie), finger-painting (Skye), and cookie-baking (both). Clint made a mental note to ask Phil later whether that was a normal day for them; if so, he’d maybe not needed to worry so much about what he’d do to fill his days, at least when school was out.

Finally, when both the girls and the food were exhausted and the dishes done, Phil looked over at him. “It’s time for Skye’s bath,” he said. “Would you like to take the lead this time? I’ll stick around in case you need anything.”

Clint swallowed hard. He was nervous, but this was a chance to make up for the night before and prove to Phil that he could handle himself. “Sure,” he said, trying hard to make his voice sound unconcerned. “What do you say, Skye, is it okay if I help you with your bath tonight?”

“Okay,” Skye said. “ Can I have bubbles?”

“Skye,” Phil said.

“Please can I have bubbles?”

“I think we can do that,” Clint promised. After Phil reminded Katie of the countdown to her own bedtime, the three of them trooped up the stairs to the bathroom. Skye started wriggling out of her clothes in the hall; Clint darted a look to Phil to see if he should stop her, but Phil just shrugged. Once naked, Skye padded down the hall to the laundry chute and shoved her clothes inside, then headed straight for the bathroom.

“I’ll get the crates,” Phil suggested, “you get the tub?”

Clint nodded, and activated the panel, logging in with his prints. He pulled up Skye’s bath profile, feeling as nervous as if he’d hacked in rather than using his own legitimately given access. Despite Phil’s reassurances, he couldn’t help feeling that he needed to redeem himself from the last time he’d tried this. Once the bubble bath and toys were appropriately deployed, Clint helped Skye climb into the tub, hovering anxiously in case she slipped. They hadn’t had a tub when he was little, just a mildewed and spidery shower that they shared with five other families; he didn’t exactly have experience to fall back on.

“You’re doing fine,” Phil told him encouragingly as they watched Skye play, this time with a bright blue duck and a toy submarine that wound up and propelled itself around the tub.

“Thanks,” Clint said, not taking his eyes off Skye. He knew there were only a few inches of water in the tub, but still. How long did it take to drown? Not long, right? He had to make sure she was okay.

When she’d had her ten minutes of playtime, he pushed up his sleeves and knelt on the thick bathmat, picking up the washcloth Phil had taken out of the linen closet for him. He could feel Phil watching him, like an itch on the back of his neck, and had to force himself not to scratch it.

“Okay, Skye,” he said. His heart was, absurdly, hammering in his chest, but at least his hands were steady. “Scrubbing time.”

She set her toys aside reluctantly and held out an arm. He started working on her hand, but she pulled away. “You have to sing the song,” she said crossly, frowning at him.

“Oh,” Clint said. “Um, I don’t know the song, Skye, I’m sorry.” He cringed. He should have asked Phil if there was a recording he could study.

“Skye, maybe you can help Clint learn the song?” Phil suggested.

She perked up. “Okay, Daddy, I can help,” she said.

“Thank you,” Clint told her, and she giggled. He couldn’t help relaxing a little at the sound, and he could see Phil in the mirror out of the corner of his eye; Phil was smiling at her, his expression openly fond.

“You’re welcome!” she said. “So listen, Clint, I’m going to sing the song, okay? And you can sing it with me.”

“I’m listening,” he promised, and turned his head a little so his good ear was facing her; the implant on the other side got muddy at high frequencies sometimes.

The bath song thing worked out pretty well, on the whole; he pretended not to know where to wash next until she’d sung the next verse, and the song really was easy to memorize. By the end, he felt comfortable adding a few fancy little touches to the melody, and she laughed and told him he was being silly. He rinsed her off and drained the tub and scooped her up in a big bath towel to dry. He’d almost forgotten Phil was there, and jumped when he turned around to find him standing close by, watching them, face oddly blank.

“Phil?” he asked, uncertain what to make of his expression and trying to remember if he’d done anything wrong.

Phil gave him another of his little half smiles, which grew to a full one as he bent over to kiss Skye’s forehead. His soft hair brushed Clint’s cheek as he straightened back up. He smelled nice, like lemon dish soap and a hint of faded cologne. Clint’s arms prickled.

“Well,” Phil said. “I’d say that was a very successful bath, Skye, wouldn’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” Skye said, beaming. “I taught Clint the bath song!”

“You sure did,” Phil said. “Come on, the two of you, let’s get Skye dressed for bed.”

This, as it turned out, was easier said than done; Skye was squirmy, and kept wriggling out of Clint’s grasp for one reason or another. After the third time he lost her—he’d fought professionals less adept at breaking a hold, seriously—Phil came to his rescue, informing her in a solemn tone that she was using up all her story time. She held still, after that, and permitted herself to be dressed and brushed and tucked into bed, a process that Clint watched intently, making mental notes.

“Would you look at that,” Phil said. “It looks like we have time for a story after all, Skye, since you hurried.” He pulled a book (an actual, paper book, neither a flimsy nor a file on a tablet) out from her nightstand, and started flipping through it.

“No, Daddy,” she said, sitting up in bed and tugging at his sleeve. “I want Clint to read my story!”

Clint watched Phil’s face carefully, half-afraid that he’d be angry. He didn’t look upset, though, just a little wistful.

“Ask Clint nicely, please,” was all Phil said.

“Please Clint, will you read me my story?” Skye asked, batting her eyes in what was obviously a practiced move. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from laughing at her.

“Sure,” he said, and accepted the book that Phil handed him.

“Sit here next to me,” Skye said, scooting over in bed and patting the space beside her, “so I can see the pictures, okay?”

Clint glanced at Phil, who nodded slightly. Clint sat in the indicated space, and Skye wormed her way up under his arm, resting her head against his side. She felt tiny and delicate against him, her breath quick and light. He swallowed hard, and made sure that he wasn’t squeezing her as he opened the book to the marked page and started the story. It wasn’t one he was familiar with, but that was all right; Skye knew all the words by heart, and joined in with him at the most exciting places. By the end of the story, though, she was drooping, leaning against him more heavily.

“Night night, Clint,” she said, voice already little and muzzy with sleep. She stretched up and kissed his cheek with a smacking mwah noise that he suspected she’d picked up from Darcy. He rose, helping her settle back down against her pillow.

“Night night, Daddy,” she said, and Phil leaned over to receive his own kiss, bussing her softly on the tip of her nose in return.

“Night night, Skye,” he said, voice warm, and Clint remembered that he was probably supposed to do more with this bedtime ritual than just watch it like a lump.

“Night night,” he said, feeling like a fool, and bent to kiss her hair, figuring that it was the least likely place to contaminate her if it turned out Clint did have the space plague. She murmured something, already most of the way asleep, and he and Phil left the room, closing the door softly and flicking the sleep program on.

“Clint?” Katie was standing in the hall, barefoot and in her nightgown, her dark, wet hair cascading over a towel slung over her shoulders, leaving damp patches. “Will you braid my hair for bed while Daddy reads to me?”

“Of course,” Clint agreed, following her into her room. She had already laid out a drying comb and her box of hair stuff, and pointed him to the side of her bed again as Phil sat in a wooden rocking chair by the window.

“We’re reading Alice in Wonderland,” Katie told Clint. “We’ve just got to the part about the Caterpillar.”

Clint only had the vaguest idea what she was talking about; he’d not been the best reader as a kid, and the only book he’d owned had been the one about Captain Rogers and the America. His father hadn’t been much for books. Natasha had helped a lot, once he’d met her, but since then most of his reading had been more oriented to operations manuals and intelligence.

“Sounds like fun,” he told Katie. She settled in front of him, and Clint started drawing the comb through her hair, the super-absorbent polymer sucking up the water leftover from her bath.

“The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence,” Phil read. “At last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.”

Clint found himself slowing his motions to match the cadence of Phil’s voice; he was throwing himself into the story like a performance, giving the Caterpillar a lazy drawl and Alice a high-pitched, bossy tone that sounded, to Clint’s ears, remarkably like Katie in one of her more headstrong moments. The story was interesting, too, and funny; he caught himself laughing along with Katie when Alice said that three inches was a wretched height and the Caterpillar got offended. As he braided Katie’s hair, he found himself sympathizing with Alice; he might not be changing height every few minutes, but he knew what it was like to find yourself in a place where everything was unfamiliar and the rules you knew didn’t apply. He was a little sorry when the chapter was over.

Katie inspected her hair in the mirror with evident satisfaction, then turned and gave him a hug, burrowing her head into his belly until he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed back.

“Thank you, Clint, you’re the best,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Clint said. He wasn’t sure what to do; was he supposed to let go first or wait for her? “Happy to help.”

She let him go with a little pat—Clint noted the protocol for next time—and gave Phil the same treatment, then got happily into bed and snuggled down into her pillows while Phil pulled the blankets smooth over her and kissed her goodnight. They flipped her room into night mode and left.

“That went very well,” Phil said, turning to him with a small smile. “They’re really warming to you, Clint, and you’ve picked up the house system remarkably fast.”

Clint ducked his head, not sure what to say. He didn’t know why the girls seemed so willing to just accept him the way they had. Of course, they didn’t know that he was a prospective stepparent, so maybe the acting out he’d read about wouldn’t kick in yet? But still, he was a relative stranger, and yet they’d trusted him with their little rituals, their stories and bedtime hugs. His chest felt tight. By the time he’d been Katie’s age, domestic scenes had been a distant memory.

“They’re great kids,” he said at last, realizing his long silence had gotten awkward.

Phil smiled, his whole face going soft with it. “Well, I like to think so,” he said. “Come on, let’s go downstairs and have some hot cocoa.”

The hot cocoa that Clint was used to came in packets, but apparently on Stark’s World (or maybe just at Phil’s house) hot cocoa involved actual cooking with some of the contents of Phil’s vast pantry. Clint leaned against the counter watching as Phil cooked, his steady stirring creating a heady smell of chocolate to fill the kitchen. When Phil was satisfied, he poured the contents of the saucepan into two tall insulated mugs with lids and handed one to Clint.

“Thanks,” Clint said. He took a cautious sip, and then a bigger one, glancing over at Phil in surprise as the taste burst on his tongue, chocolatey and rich. “Wow, this is great,” he said.

“I’m glad you like it,” Phil said. He shifted his weight. “I, ah… sometimes I like to sit on the porch and watch the stars come out,” he said. “Would you be interested? Or we could stay in and watch a vid or something; whatever you’d like.”

So far, Clint hadn’t been the biggest fan of going outside on Stark’s World, with its plants and its space and its giant, empty sky. But if he wanted to live on the planet, he needed to get used to it; hard to make ties in the community if he wouldn’t actually go out into it. Plus, the whole point of he and Phil spending time together was so they could get to know each other, and somehow Clint didn’t see that happening over some vid.

“Sure,” he said, agreeably, and Phil relaxed a little.

They went out the front door onto the porch, and Phil motioned him to the white wooden seat that was suspended from the ceiling. “I rocked Skye to sleep many times on this swing,” he said, as Clint sat, taking the left side so as to leave his dominant hand free. It was probably a silly habit to maintain out here, but at this point it would be harder to break the habit than to keep it. Plus, even here, you never knew when some sort of threat might arise. Phil didn’t say anything, just took the other side of the swing. He sat right in the middle of the available space, not crowding Clint or staying far away, just close enough for their arms to barely brush when one of them moved just so. He nudged the ground with his toes, and started the swing rocking gently.

Clint had been purposefully keeping himself from looking too far out, focusing on the porch, the house, Phil. Once they were settled, though, he no longer had an excuse. He concentrated on the solid press of wood beneath him, the looming presence of the house behind, and looked up.

It took him a moment to even realize what he was seeing, the very shape and scope of it was so foreign to him, and when he did—when he was able to parse the sight before him into sky and moon and stars—his breath caught.

It never really got dark on Earth, or at least not outside- too many people, too many buildings, too many lights. In the cities like Washington-York, the most you got was a sort of murky half-light, painted bright colors by the reflections of billboards and neon signs. On the Ground it got darker, but still never quite dark, and never quite light either; the Ground existed in perpetual dusk. The closest you ever came to true darkness on Earth was inside, in the parts of buildings with no windows, and that darkness was a close and secret thing, not this airy, whispering expanse.

The sky rolled out above them, huge, inky dark shading to deep blue closer to the horizon, and it was filled with lights. Clint picked out the moon easily. He’d seen moons before; the moon on Earth was the only thing you could even find in the sky at night through the haze, and the port on Shanxi where he’d boarded the ship for Stark’s World had offered a lovely view of Shanxi’s three satellites. But this moon wasn’t like any of those; it hung low and huge in the sky, sharp-edged and bright silver-green. All around, everywhere he looked, were the stars; ranging from tiny brilliant pinpricks to fat dots of light, tinted red and blue and white and golden. Once, on a job, Clint had seen a man spill a bag of precious stones out across a velvet tablecloth; this was like that.

“Phil,” he said, his voice hushed. “That’s amazing.”

“Yeah?” Phil’s voice was quiet, inviting Clint to continue.

“Yeah.” He watched a while longer, sipping on his cocoa. “They actually twinkle. I always thought people just said that.”

“I think it’s because of the atmosphere scattering the light,” Phil said.

“Huh,” Clint said. He took another sip of his cocoa, wrestling with himself over how much he should say. He didn’t want everything he said to Phil to sound like some kind of hard-luck story; on the other hand, he had the feeling Phil wouldn’t react well if Clint tried to put up some kind of front.

“You know,” he said at last, starting slow, “the first time I ever saw stars was on the ship to Shanxi? And they don’t twinkle, that way, they just shine. Makes sense, I guess. No atmosphere.” He saw movement in his peripheral vision; Phil turning to look at him, then slowly looking back out to the sky.

“You can’t see stars on Earth?” Phil said.

“Nah. There’s too much light, for one thing,” Clint explained, “but even if there weren’t, the haze is too thick to see through. You do get amazing sunsets, though.”

“I’ve seen pictures.” Phil sounded warm. “You’re right, the colors are beautiful.”

“About the only thing that is, most days.” He dropped his eyes from the sky reluctantly, looking out into the shadowed trees. Now that his eyes were adjusted, the yard didn’t really look that dark, hardly darker than the Ground at night; the moon and stars were casting cool silver light, reflecting in little gleams here and there. “I can’t get over how empty this planet is,” he told Phil. Something in his stillness just made Clint want to talk and talk. “I mean, this house? In a space this size on Earth, you’d have twenty or thirty people, probably. Maybe ten if you were up pretty high, fifty in the lower levels. And the sky—it’s so weird to look up and not see any buildings.” He looked over at Phil, worried that he was making a fool of himself. Phil was looking back; Clint wasn’t sure how to interpret the look on his face, but he didn’t think it was bad.

“It is very empty in some ways,” Phil said, sounding thoughtful. “But it’s full in others. I think most people who come here find it strange, at first. I know I did; it’s completely different from anywhere I ever lived before.”

“You were in the navy, right?” Clint asked, tentative. He didn’t want to pry, but they were supposed to be getting acquainted, right? Surely Phil wouldn’t mind.

“I was,” Phil said. “I spent a lot of time shipboard, obviously, or on the various stations and bases; not a lot of farmland around there. And you already know that I grew up on Mars.”

“What was that like?” Mars was the second-oldest human colony, founded during the initial colonization wave that had also included Luna, Callisto, and Titan. Unlike those founded during the big post-FTL land rush, the in-system colonies had all started out under Earth’s rule; Luna still was, but the vast distances involved had driven the others first to self-sufficiency, and then to independence. Mars had been the first to attempt secession, and the aftermath had been ugly: a cold war between the colonists and Earth’s corrupt government, complicated by a byzantine tangle of interest groups that ran the gamut from “political party” to “terrorist organization.” Even now, decades later, the relationships were still tense, and the two populations rarely mixed. Phil was the first person from Mars that Clint had ever met; once people moved to Mars, they were generally there for good. He wondered why this hadn’t been the case for Phil. Had something happened to drive him away from his home, or was it as simple as meeting a woman and moving to be with her?

“Well, you know Marsers are an opinionated bunch,” Phil said, pulling Clint’s attention back to the present. It was true; “stubborn as a Martian” was still common, if offensive, Earth slang. “We were already well into terraforming when the Stark Process became available, and didn’t want to start over and risk the 5% failure rate, so we kept on doing it the old-fashioned way. We’d been seeding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases for a couple of decades to get the temperature and pressure up, and by the time I was born they were just starting oxygenation. We all still lived in the habitation domes, and the lion’s share of the food was still hydroponic.” He took a sip of his drink, looking out into the sky, eyes distant with memory. “ There’s water on Mars, you know; these huge underground frozen seas, and we thawed it out and pumped it up to sterilize and use. They had created these big ponds on the surface, these reservoirs, and they were full of cyanobacteria to convert the carbon dioxide into oxygen. The water was this deep blue-green color, and the ground was red, so they really stood out, like something out of a painting.”

“So you never got to go outside?” Clint couldn’t imagine it.

“Not often. School trips, mostly, that sort of thing. You could get these tours; they had land vehicles with onboard air scrubbers and oxygen that would go out on the surface so you could see. The people who were working on the terraforming or the colony infrastructure worked outside, but they didn’t invest in personal environment suits for kids, mostly. I got my first suit when I was in high school and got a summer job at one of the algae ponds. First person in my class to get fitted,” he mused, his voice wry. “I was tremendously impressed with myself.”

“So what happened?” Clint asked, fascinated. “You decided the life of an algae farmer wasn’t for you?”

Phil looked away, rubbing his free hand over his face. “Well. Let’s just say that nothing lasts forever. Eventually I decided that I could do Mars a lot more good off it than on, and so to the navy I went.” He drained the rest of his hot cocoa, and Clint took the hint and let the matter drop.

They sat for another few minutes without speaking, the only noise the soft creaking of the swing and the rustle of the night wind in the trees. Clint could feel Phil’s body heat along his side, just inches away, the space seeming full of potential to tip one way or the other, for good or for ill.

A particularly enthusiastic gust of wind swept past, raising goosebumps along the back of Clint’s neck; he shivered, then sneezed. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Phil said. “It’s getting late, and it’s getting cold. Probably time to head in.”

Clint finished his own drink—he’d been making it last, but there were only about two swallows left—and followed Phil back inside. They washed out their mugs (Clint washed, Phil dried) and put them away, then went upstairs; the stairs were wide enough for them to go side-by-side. They paused at the top of the stairs, at the point where Phil’s bedroom was straight ahead and Clint’s around the corner.

“Thanks for all your help today,” Clint said. He knew he sounded stilted, and hated it, but he wasn’t sure what he could do to change at this point.

“I should be thanking you,” Phil said. “You’re worth your weight in gold for hair-braiding expertise alone.” His voice was light, but he still looked distant; Clint wondered if part of his mind was still back on Mars, tending jade-green pools under a red sky.

“Well,” Clint said, awkwardly, “goodnight then.”

“Goodnight, Clint.” Phil made a little, cut-off movement with one arm, like he’d been going to shake Clint’s hand or clap him on the shoulder but thought better of it, then went down the hall to his room.

Clint stood at the head of the stairs until Phil’s door shut behind him, the status light activating, blinking green; then he shook his head like Lucky trying to dislodge a fly and went to his own room.

His eyes were burning again, and he rubbed them irritably before going into the little bathroom to splash his face with water. He got ready for bed—making sure to wear a shirt this time, because damned if he was going to risk a repeat of that morning—and pulled out the comms bridge, hooking it up to the StarkTab and setting it tunneling as he got into bed.

|CB: hey nat you there?

He let the message sit while he poked at his dossier some more. When he hadn’t gotten any response for half an hour, he closed out of the chat program and wrote her a message instead, telling her how the talk had gone, about his dossier, Darcy, Skye’s bath and Katie’s hair and the stars on Stark’s World and Phil’s algae ponds. He’d been going to try to fall asleep after they talked, but he felt restless. Having decided to do the letter-writing thing with Phil, he knew he’d be antsy until he actually put the plan into action, and writing to Natasha had reinforced the impulse. He might as well get the first letter written now, or he’d lie awake all night anyway worrying over it.

He got out of bed with a sigh and went over to the desk. In addition to a docking pad for the tablet, the desk was outfitted with actual writing stuff, pens and thick paper and envelopes. It was probably the same kind of paper Phil had used to write the letter in his prospectus, so it seemed right to use it for this too.

He pulled out a pen, noting with a smile that there were ones with purple ink in addition to the more traditional black and blue: Katie’s influence, probably. He wrote Phil’s name on one of the envelopes, in his neatest writing, and underlined it, then set the envelope aside for later.

Phil, he wrote at the top of the first sheet of paper, then stopped, finding himself unable to think of another word. He’d had some thought of matching Phil’s algae pond story with something similar from his own youth, maybe one of the happier stories from the circus, but it just seemed kind of pointless. Clint knew himself enough to know that he wasn’t good at keeping secrets from people who mattered; if he was going to do this, to work next to Phil and listen to him read stories and hear about his childhood, whether Clint meant to or not he would eventually let something slip about the truth of his own past.

Maybe it would be better if he just… told Phil. Up front. Let him know who Clint Barton really was, and that way—well. Phil would either be okay with it, or he wouldn’t, but at least Clint would know. And maybe if Phil knew and didn’t get rid of Clint immediately, he could help Clint make sure that he wouldn’t fuck up with the girls. Clint was terrified, sometimes, thinking of how much bigger he was than they were, how easily he could hurt them. He never wanted the girls to be afraid like that. He never wanted to be a dark and angry space in their dreams.

There was a blot on the paper right after Phil’s name where Clint had been resting his pen, clutching it with fingers gone icy. He tried to make the mark look like a big comma, but it didn’t really work. Oh, well; if this were anything like the letters he’d written in response to Phil’s prospectus he’d end up needing to copy it over at the end anyway.

He made himself breathe, three big slow breaths the way Natasha had taught him. His stomach was a knot, bile sour in the back of his throat. He started writing.

When I was born, my family lived on the 21st level, but when I was five my father lost his job and we had to move down to the 14th…

                                                                            


                        

Things had been bad since they’d had to move. It wasn’t that they’d been good before, not really, but at least there had been some times that were better than others, like when Poppa was sleeping and Momma got home early from work and made Clint and Barney griddle cakes shaped like hearts and stars and moons, and three whole spoons of syrup each. Momma never had syrup, though; she said she liked her griddle cakes better dry.

Clint didn’t like their new place. It was dark all the time and he could hear things scratching in the walls, and he was afraid that they’d scratch all the way out and eat him up. He asked Momma why they couldn’t move back to their old place, and Momma said that they didn’t have enough money to live on 21 anymore now that Poppa lost his job.

(Momma said that Poppa lost his job because times were tough all over and there just wasn’t enough work to go around, but Barney said it was because Poppa was a rotten drunk. Barney was a big boy, almost ten, and he knew a lot of things, but Clint hoped he was wrong about that. He didn’t want Poppa to be rotten. Sometimes, though, when Poppa came home all mean, he thought maybe Barney was right.)

When they lived on 21, Momma and Poppa had their own room and Clint and Barney slept in the common room, on little cots that folded up under the table during the day. When Poppa had come home mean, Momma would always take him into their bedroom and tell Clint and Barney to be quiet like baby bunnies, and then she’d turn the music on real loud and Barney would whisper stories to Clint, right in his ear, until the music stopped and they could go to sleep. On 14, though, they all just had one room together. Poppa came home mean the very first day, and Momma had pushed Barney and Clint out the door.

“Hide in the place I told you,” she’d told Barney, “and don’t come out till I come for you myself,” and Barney had nodded, and grabbed Clint’s hand, and run, pulling Clint along behind him till Clint tripped on his too-big shoes and fell down, and Barney’d picked him up, even though Clint’s feet dangled down past Barney’s knees, and kept going.

Mama’s hiding place was a closet, little and dark, but there was a spot behind a shelf and an old mop bucket with no mop where they could hunker down on the floor and nobody could see them from the door. It was scary there, but Barney had wrapped his arm around Clint and let Clint hug him as hard as he wanted.

“It ain’t fair,” Barney had said, over and over, right next to Clint’s ear in the dark. “It’s his fault we had to move down here anyway. He ruins everything.”

“Don’t say stuff like that, Barn, he’ll get mad,” Clint had said, keeping his voice really tiny so Poppa wouldn’t hear him.

“Let him,” Barney had said, “I ain’t scared of him,” but he held on to Clint tight as tight, and Clint knew it was a fib. Poppa was scary when he was mean, even for a big boy like Barney.

They’d stayed there a long time, and Clint’s tummy’d started growling, but Momma hadn’t come yet, so they couldn’t stop hiding. Barney had saved half his snack from school, and he’d shared with Clint; one peanut butter cracker each. Clint had taken as long as he could to eat it, in tiny little nibbles like a mouse, holding his hand underneath to catch the crumbs so he could lick them up when he was done. Finally, Clint had fallen asleep, and when he’d woken up he’d been back on his little pallet under the table, and Barney had been at school.

After that, they knew to go to the hiding place any time Poppa came home mean. It used to be just on payday, because Momma said that people worked hard and they needed to let off a little steam. (Barney said that Momma worked hard, too, and she never got to let off steam, but he only said it quiet, where nobody could hear.) After they moved, though, Poppa was mean more and more, until it happened almost every day. Momma started putting dinner in the hiding place for them, and a pillow to sit on, and they’d go ahead and go there before Poppa got home. Barney had a little glow-torch that he’d won at school; it wasn’t enough light to show under the door, but it helped make the dark not quite so scary.

Then one day Poppa found the hiding place.

It had actually been kind of a nice day. Momma had been working cleaning an office, and the office’d had a party and given Momma some leftover food, so she had made Clint and Barney a little picnic in their hiding place, with a whole sandwich each, and a little bunch of real grapes to share, cool and sweet, and even a few cookies, glittering with sugar. They had finished it all and licked their fingers, and were whispering to each other, all cozy on their pillow in the pale light of the glow-torch. Barney was telling Clint about the colonies, how there were people there that had whole houses to themselves, and real fruit and meat to eat every day. Barney was big and strong and good at fixing things; soon enough he’d be old enough to take a labor contract, he said, and he’d make enough money to bring Clint and Momma out too, and they could have their own house together and all have jobs.

“What about Poppa?” Clint asked, breathless. “Won’t he stop us going?”

“He can’t stop us,” Barney said, and he sounded so sure, like a real grownup. “We’ll have a contract, even he has to do what contracts say. If you don’t, the syndicates come after you.”

“Aren’t the syndicates bad, though?” Clint said. When the syndicates got after people, they got hurt sometimes, or sometimes they just went away and never came back.

Barney scoffed. “Like Pop’s any better. Least the syndicates go after people for a reason.” Clint figured that made sense; if you knew what would make a person get scary then you could just not do those things, and then you’d be okay. Sometimes Clint would do something one day and Poppa would laugh and say he was a smart kid and he’d do a good job earning money for the family when he was bigger, but then another day Clint would do the exact same thing and it would make Poppa get mad and yell and whup him. Maybe contracts meant you always knew if something’d get you a whupping or not. Clint figured contracts might be pretty good, if that’s what they meant.

Clint was about to ask Barney to tell him again about Eden Prime, where everybody lived on the Ground and it wasn’t even scary, when Barney went real stiff and clapped his hand over Clint’s mouth, putting out the glow-torch with the other, and then Clint heard it; shouts and crashes, coming down the hall, getting closer and closer to the hiding place.

It was Poppa.

They made themselves as tiny as they could, pushing way back into the corner behind the mop bucket. Clint was so quiet, quieter than a baby bunny, so quiet he was hardly even breathing, holding tight to Barney’s hand. There was a lock on the door to the hiding place, but it was broken; Clint thought maybe Momma had broken it, so he and Barney could get in.

The noise got really loud, and then the door was open, the harsh light from the hall hurting their eyes, and Poppa was there. He yelled at them to come out, and then when they didn’t come, he grabbed Barney’s arm and yanked and twisted and pulled him up and out the door, and there was an awful cracking noise and Barney screamed. Clint had never heard anybody scream like that, and it was awful, and Poppa was still yelling at Barney and saying that Barney ought to be working to put food on the table and not just stealing out of Poppa’s pocket. Clint crept into the doorway, and Poppa was leaning over Barney and yelling and yelling, his face all red, and Barney was crying and his arm was hanging funny. Momma was beside Poppa, pulling on his arm, saying, “No, Harry, please, let’s just go home, I’ll make it up to you, please,” but Poppa wasn’t listening.

“You worthless little fucker,” Poppa yelled at Barney, “think you’re so smart, going to school, think you’re better than your old man, never carrying your own weight,” and then Barney lifted his chin, tears dripping off, and that was how he looked when he said that Poppa was rotten, when he said that they’d get a contract and take Momma away and go live on Eden Prime, and Clint knew, he just knew that something bad was gonna happen.

Barney coughed, and his voice was wobbly with crying, but he still looked Poppa right in the eye, and Clint couldn’t even move at all, he was so scared. “That’s rich, coming from you,” Barney said, and there was blood on his mouth, wet and red. “The only thing you ever carried was a bottle!” Then Poppa made an awful sound, like he was really turning into a monster, and he pulled back the arm that Momma wasn’t holding on to, yelling and yelling. He was going to hit Barney again, he was going to hit him so hard, and then maybe Barney would die and who would sit with Clint in the hiding place then?

“Poppa, no!” Clint yelled, and he tried to pull on Poppa too, and he tried to make him stop and not hit Barney, and then Poppa turned around and Momma said, “Harry, please!” like it hurt her coming out, and Poppa shook Clint and Momma off like they were nothing and he turned on Clint instead.

“You wanna get in the middle, you worthless little shit?” he yelled. He was so big, Clint had to tip his head way back to look him in the eye. Poppa got mad if Clint didn’t look him in the eye, even when Clint couldn’t see because Poppa was too tall. “You wanna take it instead? Fine!” and then he hit Clint hard with his fist, and Clint fell back against the wall, head bouncing, and he bit his tongue and it hurt; everything hurt so bad. Everything looked funny, everything sounded funny, and Clint was crying and crying. He heard more people yelling, and doors slamming, and he didn’t know what was happening until he heard Momma saying, “Now, baby, run!” and then Barney was pulling at him with his good arm and pushing Clint out in front of him, running away from Poppa and Momma and the yelling, into the back stairwell, the scary one that Momma said never to go into.

Clint didn’t know where Barney was taking them; he’d never been on those stairs before, but it seemed like an awful long way. They went as fast as they could, down and down, until finally Barney was pushing him through a crack in a big metal door and behind some crates and into a scrap of alley that wasn’t really inside and it wasn’t really outside, but it was too small for anyone to come in after them.

It was cold, and Clint’s head really hurt, and he had blood all down his front, and his nose was all clogged up from crying but he couldn’t stop. Barney looked at him and sighed, and mopped up his face with the hem of his t-shirt. Barney’s arm still looked funny, and it was turning colors, but Barney held out his good arm and let Clint snuggle up underneath it, and they sat down against the wall to rest.

“What happened, Barn?” Clint asked through his tears. His tongue was big and stiff inside his mouth and it hurt when he talked. “How’d we get away?”

“The old bastard woke up Crusher Creel,” Barney said, and his voice was mad, but kind of happy, too. “Crusher will give him what’s coming to him.”

“But what about Momma?” Clint remembered her there, too, trying to make the yelling and the hitting stop. “Will Crusher hurt Momma?”

Barney sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Clint,” he said. “Momma will be okay. She’ll come find us like always when it’s safe, okay? Just… just try to get some sleep.”

“You were real brave,” Clint told Barney. He was real tired, but he had to make sure Barney knew. “You’re just like Captain Steve fighting on the America.”

Barney laughed a little, then stopped when it jostled his arm. His face was really white. “Maybe if I had Enhancements, it might’ve gone okay,” he said. “Don’t be like me, kid, all I got’s a busted arm for my trouble.”

“You were brave,” Clint insisted. He could hardly even keep his eyes open, and he was starting to feel sick in his tummy, but this was important. “Like a hero.”

Barney sighed. “Okay, fine,” he said. “I’m a stupid hero, so you can go to sleep now, okay? I’ll watch out for us, and I’ll wake you up when Momma comes.”

“Kay,” Clint said, already drifting. He slept, and he woke, and he slept again, and he had to get up and pee in the corner one time, and he was really hungry and really scared, but Momma didn’t come. It got dark and light and dark again, and Momma didn’t come, and Clint was sleeping an awful lot, more than he was awake. Barney kept trying to get him to wake up and talk, but Clint didn’t want to talk, he just wanted to sleep.

And then a lady came, but she wasn’t Momma. She talked, but her voice sounded real funny and far away. She said that there had been an accident, in the apartment, and that it hurt Momma and Poppa real bad, and some other people too. She said that it was a while before anyone remembered the Barton boys, and then they couldn’t find them, and they’d been looking for Clint and Barney for ages.

The lady took them away to the hospital, and Clint fell asleep again on the way, and when he woke up he had bandages wrapped all around his head and he couldn’t understand anybody when they talked at all, it was all just noise, but at least his head had stopped hurting. Barney was there, his arm all wrapped up in a big white bandage and tied up to his chest, and Clint looked around for Momma but he didn’t see her.

“Where’s Momma?” he asked Barney, and his voice felt funny in his chest, like he was talking really loud but he couldn’t hear it hardly at all. Barney just looked at him, and his face crunched up, and Clint was really scared at the way he looked, like more bad things were coming, bad things and bad things forever; and then Barney told him, real loud right in his ear so Clint could understand.

Momma wasn’t coming, ever again.

   


                                                                                                 

After that, we ended up bouncing around the child welfare system, Clint wrote. A lot more happened later, but this is already pretty long and I guess I should save something for the next letter. Anyway I wanted to tell you this stuff first, because you need to know what you’re getting into if you keep me around. I never had a father like you are, and I sure don’t ever want to be a father like mine was, but I don’t always know what to do to be like you instead of like him. I want to, though, so I’d appreciate it if you’d help me out, and tell me if I’m doing something wrong? I don’t ever want to hurt or scare Katie and Skye. If you don’t want to take the chance, though, I understand. Thanks for reading this. I guess just let me know what you decide. —Clint

He set the pen down, stretching out his cramped, aching fingers. He’d been writing for hours; his body was stiff and his head was pounding, like he’d summoned the ghost of his long-ago injury. His eyes felt like they were full of sand. He rubbed his hands across his face, and was distantly surprised when they came away wet.

He hadn’t thought about Barney that way in a long time; after everything that had happened with Duquesne, it had been easy to forget that Barney had once been his protector, his hero. He’d thought Barney was the next thing to grown up, but he’d just been a kid—fuck, when everything had happened, he and Barney had only been two years older than Katie and Skye were now. Babies, hiding in the dark from monsters that were all too real.

His mind threw up an image of Katie and Skye huddled behind the mop bucket in the hiding place, and his stomach turned so violently he gagged, shoving himself back from the desk. Never.

When he got himself back under control, he picked up the letter. It was a mess, full of scribbled-out words and smudges, the handwriting starting out neat and getting progressively worse as it went on. Forget rewriting, though; the content was a lot worse than the messiness, plus Clint felt sick at the thought of reading it all over again. He hadn’t told the story like that in years, not since Natasha, and he felt hollow and light, like he’d purged himself of something but he wasn’t sure yet whether it’d been something he needed to keep.

He folded the letter and shoved it into the envelope, not bothering to seal the flap. He eased his door open and moved down the hall on bare, silent feet. Phil’s door was shut, and a brush of Clint’s fingers brought up the indicator light, steady and green; Phil was asleep.

He pushed the letter under Phil’s door, making sure the side with his name was on top. Once it was through, he felt a jolt of panic; it was done now, no takebacks, no matter what happened. He briefly, wildly considered opening Phil’s door and taking the letter back, but with Clint’s luck Phil would turn out to be one of those hair-trigger light sleepers or have some kind of alarm rigged to the door. The only thing worse than thinking about Phil reading the letter was thinking about Phil catching Clint trying to take the letter back because he was afraid of letting Phil read it.

He went back to his room and curled up in his big soft bed, hugging one of the extra pillows for comfort, and the last jolt of adrenaline had taken the last of his reserves; sleep engulfed him like a smoke grenade, and he didn’t remember his dreams.

Chapter Text

 

Phil woke up before his alarm, even before his lights were all the way bright; despite how tiring the day before had been, he’d slept deeply, and his mind was buzzing even before he made it into the shower. His theoretical concern for a contract spouse had rapidly transmuted into a very specific concern for Clint, and although he tried not to let himself be too influenced by Clint’s good looks or his difficult past or how sweet he was with the girls… well. Those things just reinforced his decision to consult with Matt and Tony over potential options for Clint on Stark’s World. He didn’t want Clint to leave—far from it—but he also didn’t want him to stay because he had no other choice.

He found himself lingering over his closet, and forced himself to put back the luxurious sweater that Darcy assured him brought out his eyes in favor of a tattered Navy hoodie that was infinitely more practical for a Saturday’s chores. Clint was there to see what life in the Coulson house really was, after all; it was better not to dress up.

As he walked toward his door, he noticed something on the floor, half-jammed under the rug, and stooped to retrieve it; an envelope, stuffed full of paper. His name was on the front in a careful handwriting he recognized from Clint’s letters, and the flap was tucked under but not sealed. Apparently Clint had wasted no time in beginning their belated correspondence.

His vague thoughts of coffee vanished like mist. If Clint thought it important enough to write a letter this long and slip it under Phil’s door in the dead of night, the least Phil could do was read it immediately. He took it over to his desk and pulled out the sheaf of paper, smoothing the pages out on the polished wood surface. The writing started out the same painstaking script as the address, but Phil could see it starting to loosen as the letter progressed, getting less tidy, but much more individual.

When I was five, he saw, and he found himself smiling, happy to hear a little about the childhood that Clint hadn’t mentioned so far. His smile soon faded, though; instead of recounting nostalgic anecdotes of Clint as the adorable scapegrace Phil imagined he’d been, Clint’s letter laid out a story of deprivation and abuse. Phil’s body tightened with anger as he read. A man who could treat his family like that—who could treat anyone like that—didn’t deserve a family at all, let alone the gift of two boys as bright and brave and loving as Clint and Barney.

Clint didn’t make a play for sympathy, recounting horrible events in bald, unemotional prose. Phil had already noted Clint’s tendency to understatement when it came to his own needs, though, so when Clint wrote about fear Phil’s brain filled in terror; when he mentioned hunger or pain Phil read starvation and agony. By the time Phil reached the end of the story, his stomach was churning with impotent emotion; he wanted to do something, to somehow go back in time and save them, useless though the impulse was. When he read Clint’s halting last words and realized that Clint was afraid Phil would reject him, would punish him for being terribly betrayed by someone he should have been able to trust…

He was up and moving before he even realized, crossing the hall in long strides without any thought but to go to Clint and fix things somehow. He was all the way to Clint’s door, hand raised to the knob, when he saw the green light and came to his senses.

Clint wasn’t a child on Earth anymore; he was a man, and he was here on Stark’s World, in his own bedroom in Phil’s home, peacefully sleeping, fed, warm, safe. Phil reached for the panel with trembling fingers and pulled up the status screen. Each steady green indicator eased him a little more, until he could make his way quietly back to his own room.

He dropped onto the side of his bed, burying his face in his unsteady hands. Pull yourself together, Coulson. What he’d just learned was horrible, but for Clint it wasn’t a shocking new discovery; it was his own history, long worn-in and known. Phil didn’t imagine Clint would thank him for coming over all overprotective now, not when he was already worried about whether Phil would see him as a good prospective parent for his children.

The thought of the girls made Phil look at the clock, but he relaxed a little when he saw the time; it was still early, and he had most of an hour before even his early bird Katie would be stirring. Clint would probably sleep even longer, his body clock struggling to adjust to their 22-hour day. He’d been looking obviously tired, though he hadn’t complained.

It occurred to Phil that Clint had been trained from a very young age never to complain, and he cursed viciously under his breath. Clint and Barney had only been two years older than Skye and Katie when their father had attacked them; just babies, for all they’d been wary beyond their years. Phil tried to picture his own babies huddled in a closet eating scraps, cringing away from him in dread, and bile rose in the back of his throat.

He heaved a sigh, forcing himself to get up. He had to stop thinking like that or he’d end up upsetting Clint with his reaction. His body was still buzzing with the thwarted desire for action that would be decades too late to help; he knew from past experience that if he didn’t find a productive outlet, he’d keep working himself up until he ended up doing something ill-advised.

Breakfast, he thought. He’d make something Clint would like, something indulgent; he couldn’t feed Clint-then, but Clint-now still needed to eat, and the food Phil had on hand had seemed to please him so far. Maybe those dumplings he’d mentioned?

Thirty minutes later, Phil was in the kitchen, hoodie sleeves pushed up and apron on, already lightly dusted with flour as he carefully worked through the projected instructions for making pierogi dough. He hadn’t even realized he owned a rolling pin, but apparently he did; he suspected either Tony or Steve was to blame.

He couldn’t remember what kind of pierogi Clint preferred, so he’d decided on an assortment based on the suggestions in the recipe: crumbled sausage, mashed potato with onion and cheese, fresh ricotta, some kind of fruit. He was out of strawberries, but had found a jar of blueberry pie filling in the pantry, and he still had some baked cinnamon apples from breakfast the day before.

He was cutting out rounds of dough using the top of a drinking glass when Katie came downstairs, still wearing her nightgown.

“Oooh,” she said, scampering into the kitchen. “Daddy, what are you making? Is it tiny pies?”

“They’re called pierogies,” Phil told her. “They’re a special kind of dumpling from Earth. I thought for Saturday breakfast this week we could make them for Clint, to help him feel more at home.”

“I’ll help,” Katie decided. “So Clint knows I want him to feel at home, too.”

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that,” Phil told her. Wiping the flour off his hands, he grabbed Katie’s smock off the back of the pantry door. “Here, let’s put your apron on.” He helped her into the smock, tying the strings in a neat bow around her waist, then found himself wrapping her up in a hug. He bent to kiss the top of her head, overcome for a moment with guilty relief that she was here, safe, and had never known fear and deprivation like the Barton children had. She and Skye were both so small still, so vulnerable. What would they do if they suddenly found themselves alone? It was hard enough for adults to cope when disaster struck. His arms tightened around Katie a little, as though he could hold back the possibility by force of will. She snuggled into the embrace; after a minute, though, she patted at his hand, her gentle but unmistakeable signal that she was getting antsy.

“Okay, Daddy,” she said. “You can show me how to make Clint’s special breakfast now, okay? I’m hungry.”

He let her go with a last little squeeze, and glanced at the indicator lights that he’d brought up next to the cooking display. Clint and Skye were both still asleep, so there was no need to hurry. He and Katie set up a little assembly line, with Katie spooning out dollops of filling into the middle of the dough rounds and Phil going behind her to fold the pastry over and seal the edge in a neat half-circle. They got through all the sausage and half of the potato by the time Skye’s light started to blink, and Phil left Katie to spoon the rest of the potato out while he ran upstairs to get her. Clint’s panel was still showing deep sleep, so he gave the girls a snack of cheddar and apple slices while he sealed up the last potato pierogies and transferred them to a plate.

Skye wanted to help but didn’t quite have the dexterity yet, so Phil gave her a little ball of dough and let her amuse herself by molding it into shapes while he and Katie worked on the cheese and fruit pierogies, settling on the blueberry over the apple filling “because the blueberries are purple, Daddy, and that’s Clint’s favorite color!” When Clint’s indicator light finally started to blink, Phil turned up the heat on the pot of salted water he had simmering on the stove and sliced up some butter into a frying pan. By the time he had scraped the worst of the flour-and-dough mess off the counter (and the girls), the pot was boiling. The girls helped set the table while he started cooking; the dumplings boiled for a few minutes before being finished in the frying pan, while slices of bacon crisped in the oven. He cooked in batches, one flavor at a time; as each batch came out of the frying pan, golden-brown and glistening with butter, he put them under stasis on the table and moved to the next. The girls supervised the process from a safe distance, seemingly fascinated by the whole thing.

Clint came down the stairs as Phil was putting the last batch (the blueberry) into the pot, slipping them carefully into the water with a slotted spoon. He was carefully dressed, in the soft-looking but well-tailored clothes that seemed to be his trademark, but he somehow gave off an air of being rumpled and tired; it was something in his careful movements, the way he stood with his shoulders hunched a little, the redness in his eyes. Writing that letter couldn’t have been easy for Clint, Phil thought, neither reliving the memories nor confronting his uncertainty over Phil’s reaction.

Phil smiled at Clint, doing his best to keep his body language open and welcoming. He kept a tight hold on his impulse to do something absurd like clasp Clint to his bosom and promise to never let anything bad happen to him again. Such theatricality would be both undignified and certainly unwelcome.

Fortunately, small girls were not prone to worry overmuch about dignity; Katie, being tall enough to see over the kitchen island, caught sight of Clint first, and flung herself at him with a happy squeal.

“Clint!” she said, wrapping her arms around his middle. “Good morning! Me and Daddy made you special Earth breakfast to make you feel at home!”

“I helped too!” Skye said, hugging the leg on Clint’s other side. “I made shapes with my dough!”

“Um, wow,” Clint said. He looked uncertain, but rested a gentle hand on each girl’s back. ““Thank you? You didn’t have to go to all that trouble for—wait, are those pierogies?” His eyes flicked between the table, piled high with golden dumplings, and Phil, who was slicing more pats of butter into the frying pan in preparation for the last batch.

“It turns out the system had a recipe,” Phil told him. “And, well. Like Katie said, we wanted to do something to welcome you into our home. Your home, while you’re here.” Something about the way Clint was looking at him flustered Phil, and he was glad for the steaming pot of water to explain away the color he could feel rising on his face. The timer dinged, and he turned back to the stove, busying himself with the last pierogies while Katie pointed out each flavor on the table. The bacon finished as he was sprinkling the fruit dumplings with a little sugar; those and a jug of cold milk rounded out the meal. Katie had already chivvied Clint and Skye into their seats, eager to try the new dish.

“I want one of each, please, Daddy!” Katie announced. “Then I can pick which one is my favorite.”

“Me too, Daddy, please,” Skye added. “And bacon!”

“I might have gone a little overboard,” Phil admitted to Clint in a low tone, as he fixed Skye’s plate. Clint was helping Katie use the tongs to transfer her own dumplings. “I couldn’t decide which kind to make, so I made them all.”

“Try it with the sour cream,” Clint told Katie. “It’s good that way.” He looked across the heaping table at Phil and grinned a little. “I’m not going to say you’re wrong about the overboard part,” he said, voice wry, “but I’m not going to call it a bad thing either. These smell amazing, Phil.”

“I just hope they taste as good,” Phil said. “I’m not much of a pastry chef, ordinarily.”

Clint looked down, seemingly very occupied with arranging his plate. “Even if they don’t,” he said quietly, “I, uh. It’s.” He cleared his throat. “It’s really nice of you to go to all that trouble.” His eyes flicked up, then away. “Nobody’s done anything like that for me before.”

“Daddy likes to cook for special people,” Katie said, spearing a whole pierogi on the end of her fork and taking a delicate nibble off one end. “Miss Darcy says he tries to feed other people his feelings.” She chewed thoughtfully. “This is yummy, Daddy! We did a good job. How can you eat feelings, though? I asked Uncle Tony but he started laughing too much to tell me.”

Phil opened and shut his mouth, unable to even start to formulate a response; fortunately, Skye chose that moment to bite too enthusiastically on a blueberry pierogi, causing a minor goo explosion that gave him a chance to look away from Clint until his face no longer felt like he’d been dipped in scalding water and Katie had been distracted by taking exactly equal bites from each flavor of dumpling to determine which one she liked best.

“She’s right, you know,” Clint said. “I mean, not about—she’s right that they’re delicious. I think these are even better than the ones I had on Earth.”

“Really?” Phil felt entirely too pleased, and told himself firmly that it was merely gratification over a successful culinary experiment. He cut into a pierogi—potato—dredged it through the sour cream, and took a bite; his eyebrows shot up in surprise, because it actually, legitimately tasted great, the crisp buttery outside giving way to soft, savory filling.

“See?” Clint grinned at him across the table. “If your gig at SG doesn’t pan out, you’ve got a career ahead of you as a food cart vendor, Phil.”

He smiled back, relaxing as he realized that Clint, mercifully, wasn’t going to push the whole eating-feelings issue. For a little while, conversation was abandoned in favor of chewing. Phil noticed that Clint was keeping an eye on the girls, refilling plates and nudging glasses back from the table edge as though he’d been doing it for years. It made something warm rise in his chest that he tried not to pay too much attention.

(There were a lot of things about Clint that Phil was trying not to notice, like the way his shirt clung to his arms and chest and the way his eyes fluttered closed as he ate bites of the food that Phil had made for him. Phil was not noticing, nor was he wondering in what other contexts that look might appear. It was too soon to think that way about Clint, and too dangerous; Phil needed to keep a clear head, not let himself become attached. Not while the situation was still so tentative.)

When everyone had eaten enough, Phil sent the girls to play, giving them a one-time exemption from helping with the dishes. After they had run off (reluctant to stay in the vicinity of chores in case he changed his mind), he looked across the table at Clint. “It’s a good thing that went over well,” he said, waving sheepishly at the piles of dumplings still left over, the platter of bacon only half gone. “I think we may be eating on this for another meal or two.”

“You’ll hear no complaints from me,” Clint said, starting to gather up the dirty dishes. “I’m sorry I was down so late, by the way. I don’t know what it is, I usually don’t have such trouble waking up.”

Phil looked up from where he was packing leftovers; Clint looked genuinely contrite. “Please don’t worry about it,” Phil told him. “It’s the shorter days; everyone has trouble adjusting at first. Give it a few weeks, try to get as much sunlight as you can, and if you’re still having trouble there are treatments. I think Darcy was on light therapy most of her first year.” He covered the dish of bacon, and took a deep breath. “Clint. Thank you for your letter.”

Clint was standing at the sink, washing dishes, but Phil could see tension sweep over his back.

“You, uh. You read it, then?”

“I did.” Phil put down the bacon and crossed the kitchen, stopping a little distance away from Clint, wanting to reassure him without making him feel penned in. “Thank you so much for trusting me with that story.” He spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. “The fact that, after what you endured, you’re still willing to take a chance on us… I’m honored.”

Clint turned to face him, a soapy plate still in one hand. “You aren’t worried? That I’ll, you know. That I’m like my… like that?”

“No, I’m not.”

Clint looked overcome, surprised and a little lost, and Phil reached out, giving his damp forearm a gentle squeeze that he hoped was reassuring. “Clint,” he said. “I have always believed in judging people by their own actions, not what other people did to them or say about them, and your actions have told me that you do everything possible not to be like that. Knowing what you’ve gone through to become who you are only makes me happy to have the chance to be… friends.”

Clint was staring at him, wide-eyed. “You’re absolutely sure? Please don’t say that unless you’re sure. It would be worse if I get—um, if I got settled here, and then you changed your mind.”

“Of course,” Phil said, and he knew he was being too intense, but he couldn’t help himself. “Clint. Of course I’m sure. I won’t throw you out for something that isn’t your fault.” The moment hung for a moment, the air between them charged with some kind of potential; then there was a loud crash from the living room.

“Everything’s okay!” Katie yelled, and Phil noticed that he still had his hand on Clint’s arm.

“I should go—” he started to say, just as Clint was saying “Maybe you should check—”

They both stumbled to a halt, and he made himself take a step back. “I’ll go see what they’re up to,” Phil said, and fled to the living room, where Katie had been trying to build an Earth-style skyscraper out of blocks, and Skye had knocked it over trying to put her doll on the top.

The rest of the morning was, fortunately, busy enough to give them both a needed break from the intensity of their earlier conversation; the girls were going back to school on Monday, and needed clean clothes and bookbags and homework and half a dozen other things to be located and prepared. Eventually, though, everything was done, and Katie managed to convince Clint to give the girls another tumbling lesson in the backyard. Phil took the opportunity to pull out his stationery; it was his turn to write a letter.

Knowing how worried Clint had been about sharing the story of his childhood, Phil was sorry that he hadn’t been more open with him about Mars the night before. He didn’t talk about his childhood much anymore, and almost never spoke of the reasons he’d left home; the last people he’d told the story were Peggy and Steve. Everyone knew about Curiosity Bay, was the thing, and everyone had an opinion. Phil had spent a lot of time in his early career being an object lesson, or an example of overcoming adversity, or the verification of some sort of conspiracy theory. One of the main reasons he’d eventually gone into NavInt was the opportunity to stop being “this fine young officer—a survivor of Curiosity Bay, you know” and become one anonymous operative in the crowd. But Clint wanted to know him, not to score political points, and it would be wrong of Phil—it would be unjust—to repay Clint’s harrowing story with anything less than equal honesty.

As you know, I grew up on Mars, he wrote. My family lived in the capital, Curiosity Bay, and when I was fifteen my sister Jane left home to enlist in the Galactic Alliance Navy. After she finished her training, she came back for a brief visit; her ship was doing exercises nearby, and the crew was being given shore leave on the planet. Of course, this was hardly a coincidence; Earth was about to hand over power to the Marser-elected government, and tensions had been escalating steadily the closer we got to the transition. We could all tell that something had to give, though we had no idea what was going to happen…


 

“Jane, come on,” Phillip said, pounding on the door again. “I need the bathroom!”

“I’ve only been in here five minutes!” his sister yelled back over the sound of running water.

“You said that ten minutes ago!”

“Why do you care anyway, Pip?” she said, which totally meant that Phillip was right and she knew it. “You took your shower last night! I haven’t had more than three minutes of hot water in six months, and my very first day home from the Academy you’re worried about your ration?”

“I’m leading my first field rotation today! I have to do my hair!”

“You’ll be wearing an e-suit,” she retorted. “With a helmet! Nobody will see your hair!”

“They’ll see it when I get there! I have to make a good impression!” Phillip was maybe getting a little shrill, not that he’d admit it, but this was important. Dr. Velasquez was letting him take the two new interns out on a maintenance run by himself, and he’d spent all the last week perfecting his mission plan and contingencies.

The shower shut off, at last, and Jane’s voice came more clearly through the door. “Fine, already, sheesh.” The door opened with a gust of warm, damp air as she emerged, wrapped in her threadbare old bathrobe. She ruffled his hair—making it stand straight up, he could feel it—and dropped a noisy, smacking kiss on the top of his head as she breezed past him like he was still a snotty little kid. (She was tall, okay, she took after their mom that way, but there was no need to rub it in. Phillip just hadn’t got his last growth spurt yet.)

He scowled at himself in the mirror, wetting his comb and trying to make his hair lie down flat. It was all very well for Jane to be dismissive, but she didn’t understand what things were like here anymore; she was too caught up in her shiny new career in space to care what was happening on a single planet. She hadn’t been around the last few years to watch the demonstrations getting worse and worse, the rhetoric more and more bitter, the fringe groups like Terra Firma making vague but terrifying threats. She hadn’t seen Mom getting home later and later at night, her work days stretching out well into the evenings; sure, Mom said it was just administrative stuff, prep and planning for the handover, but Phillip wasn’t a little kid anymore, and he hadn’t seen her worn so thin since just after Dad had died. And that was before you even considered the infrastructure issues, the problems of food imports, the delicate state of the terraforming. Mars needed so much, and there seemingly endless ways for it to all go wrong. But all Jane wanted to talk about was patrolling Alliance space for signs of Hydra ships—Hydra, when they hadn’t sent so much as a scout drone into Alliance space for decades!

When he finally made it downstairs, his mission plan documentation stowed in the leather bag Mom had gotten him for graduation, Jane was already at the table, eating oatmeal.

“I brought you something,” she said, nudging over a plate. On it was a little crinkled packet of donuts, the manufactured kind that had to be imported from the production facilities on Earth or one of the more built-up colonies. They’d always been Phillip’s favorites, despite—or perhaps because of—being hard to come by on Mars, especially lately. He hesitated, torn between thankfulness and a weird guilt; some people said that Marsers shouldn’t consume any Earth imports at all.

“Don’t tell me,” Jane said, the corners of her mouth gone tight. “A proper citizen of this great colony must wean himself from the teat of Earth donuts, too.”

“I never said I wasn’t going to eat them!” Phillip said, stung. “But it’s a good point, you know. We’ll never be properly self-sufficient if we depend on imports all the time, and with the handover coming—”

“Yeah, I know, ‘Mars for Marsers,’ blah blah blah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You never used to be so political, Pip.”

“Stop calling me that,” Phillip said. “Nobody’s ever going to take me seriously if I have the same stupid nickname I had when I was five.”

“I gave you that nickname, thanks a lot,” Jane said, pointing at him with her oatmeal spoon. “And what do you have to be taken so seriously for, anyway? The pond scum doesn’t care.”

“Mars needs people to take things seriously, especially after the handover,” Phillip said. He crossed his arms over his chest, warming to his topic. “We’re preparing to take our rightful role on the galactic stage, free of the burden of a bloated and corrupt Earth-based governing body that fed off our strength like a parasite—”

“Whoa, seriously,” Jane said, frowning, “have you been going to Liberation Alliance meetings or something? Cool your drive core, Pip—okay, Phillip, sorry, enough with the murder face! I don’t care if you’re running for mayor of Curiosity Bay, just put it away before breakfast.”

Phillip sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to yell.”

She gave him a crooked little grin. “It’s good that you care,” she said. “I just don’t understand where this is coming from all of a sudden.”

“You haven’t been here, Janey,” he said, sinking down in the chair next to her and picking up the donut packet, fiddling with the plastic wrapper. “Things have been real tense. There’s rumors going around that Terra Firma’s going to try to stop the handover.”

She scoffed. “That outfit’s all talk. What are they going to do, demonstrate at it?”

“There’s a lot of things they could do! There have been threats!”

She leaned against him, bumping their shoulders together comfortably. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Seriously, you know the Home Guard’s keeping a close eye on things, and the Navy sent my whole ship here; sure, they say it’s for low-g exercises, but you know it’s no coincidence that they just happened to schedule them the week before the handover.”

Phillip didn’t think the Navy really cared about Mars—sure, they talked a good game about being there for the protection of all humanity, but it seemed like humanity got especially protected if it happened to live somewhere that mined or farmed or manufactured starship components, and Mars didn’t have anything the Alliance would want, not yet. He held his tongue, though, not wanting to spark another fight. Jane loved the Navy, and despite everything, Phil didn’t really think she’d love anything that wasn’t worth it.

“I hope you’re right,” he said at last. “I really do.”

“I’m always right,” she said, with an airy wave. “Things’ll be fine, you’ll see. As soon as the handoff is done, all of this will just fizzle out and you and your pond scum will be able to oxygenate in peace, or whatever it is that you’re doing out there.”

“It’s atmospheric conversion,” he told her.

“I know,” she said. “I took the same science classes in school as you did, remember? I’m just messing with you, Pip.” She got up, taking her dirty bowl over to the cleaning unit. “Come on, eat your donuts and I’ll walk with you as far as the shuttle station. I’m meeting up with some of my shipmates in the main dome, giving them the ten-dollar tour.”

“I’m saving them for later,” Phillip said, putting the packet carefully in the pocket of his bag. “I’ll take the company, though.”

By unspoken agreement, they kept the conversation light on the way to the shuttle stop, Phillip getting Jane caught up on local gossip. Before she left him at the gate, she darted in for a quick hug.

“Stop worrying, seriously,” she said. “Things will be fine, you’ll see. And you’ll be great in the field today. Dr. Veracruz won’t know what hit her.”

“Velasquez,” he said. “But thanks. And, um. Thanks for the donuts, okay?”

She grinned. “Anytime,” she said, and then Phillip’s shuttle came, and he waved to her out the window as it pulled away.

She was probably right. Nothing was going to happen.

He pulled out his notes during the shuttle ride, reviewing the field plan for the day. For all Jane’s teasing, Phillip didn’t actually want to go into politics; he privately thought that civil service was a better choice if he wanted to be able to effect lasting change, plus bureaucrats didn’t have things like term limits or constituents getting in their way. But regardless of the direction his eventual career took him, the ongoing terraforming work was by far the most important thing currently happening on Mars; a success there would free them from the domes and the caves, opening up possibilities for a larger population, for agriculture, industry. Even though he wasn’t very important to the lab, Phillip was excited to be able to play a part in Mars’ future. After all, how many people his age got to literally shape history?

The lab was on the outskirts of Curiosity Bay, in one of the satellite domes that was used for research. This was Phillip’s second summer working with Dr. Velasquez, and she’d promoted him from intern to junior assistant, which was great for Phillip’s resume. Today, she was going to let him take the two new interns out in the field to do a maintenance run on some of the ponds. It was a huge honor—usually, you had to be at least a senior research fellow to lead a field team—and Phillip had spend hours going over the field manual, making sure he knew the procedures inside-out.

He ended up getting to the lab a half-hour early. Dr. Velasquez was already there, of course; Phillip sometimes thought she lived in the lab.

“Good morning, Phillip,” she said, glancing up from the microscope. “Ready to take the kids out?”

Phillip bit back a grin, trying not to let on how pleased he was not be lumped in with the “kids” anymore. “Yes, ma’am!” he said, crossing over to the equipment room to check on his kit. He’d set everything up the day before, but you could never be too careful when you were going Outside. Phil had read enough accounts of industrial accidents not to want to take shortcuts. He went back over his checklists, first for the rover and then for his personal kit; equipment, tools, reagents, supplemental oxygen, suit repair materials. It all looked good. He was packing everything back up when Marissa and Jack came in.

“Morning,” he said. “I’m ready to go as soon as you guys finish your checklists.”

“It’s cool, we did the checklists last night,” Jack said.

“You say that like it makes a difference in whether we need to do it today,” Marissa said, rolling her eyes as she pulled her kit off the shelf.

Jack sighed. “Right, because the lab bandits will have come in the night to steal my reagents and poke holes in all my patch seals.”

Phillip winced. Maybe he was being a little pedantic, but he felt strongly that it was important to begin the way you meant to go on, especially for something this important; it wouldn’t be good for anyone if Jack and Marissa learned slipshod field habits. Maybe you didn’t need to check every time if you had your own suit that nobody else ever touched, but there were lots of places where equipment got shared between work shifts, and you couldn’t be sure that someone else hadn’t damaged something important since the last time you’d used it.

“Wow, Jack,” Dr. Velasquez said. “I didn’t realize you were so eager to re-take the field safety training instead of going out with Marissa and Phillip today.”

“No, ma’am,” Jack said hurriedly, going to the equipment room and yanking down his kit. While he went through the checklist, Marissa came to stand next to Phillip, kit bag slung over her shoulder, and handed him her checklist to verify.

“This is so exciting,” she said, bouncing on her toes a little while he looked over the form. “I’ve never gone out in just a suit before. Do you think we’ll be gone long enough to see the blue sunset?”

“Probably not this time,” Phillip said, apologetic, “but if we do well today we’ll eventually get to go out on the longer trips. I got to go on an overnight last year. It’s really great; when you’re that far out, you can’t even see the cities. It feels like you’re really exploring, like you’re somewhere nobody else has ever been.” He ducked his head a little, feeling a little self-conscious; a lot of the older lab staff were blasé about going Outside, but Phil still got excited every time. “There’s this crater a little way off from the ponds where there’s still undisturbed ground. Dr. V let me go leave footprints there. It’s like a lab tradition; making your mark somewhere no human ever has before.”

“That sounds amazing!” she said. “I can’t believe so many people are happy to just live here for years and never even go Outside.” Marissa had grown up on Bekenstein, and still wasn’t used to the constrained life necessary on a colony that wasn’t fully terraformed yet.

“Keep on with us, and you’ll get sick of it before long,” Dr. Velasquez said. She wasn’t the biggest fan of field work; she said the cold made her bones ache.

“Sounds good to me. I’m beginning to feel like some kind of lab animal myself, stuck in caves and domes all the time.” She wandered back over to the equipment room, poking Jack in the side. “Hurry up, Jack, we need to go!”

“I’m coming already,” Jack said, dragging his kit out into the main lab.

Phillip held out a hand for Jack’s checklist, and Jack handed it over with a sigh. Phillip finished the verification quickly; both of the interns’ e-suits were new, so there weren’t any identified repairs to check. He signed the forms and took the stack over to Dr. Velasquez’ inbox. He’d already gone over his plan with her, and gotten her sign-off; all that was left now was to actually do the run. He took a deep breath, only a tiny bit shaky.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s suit up and get going.”

“Have fun,” Dr. Velasquez said. “Remember your check-in windows.”

“We will, Dr. V!” Marissa said. “Come on, guys! I can’t wait to get out of here.”

They took their kit bags to the rover bay. “You two go ahead and suit up while I do the vehicle check,” Phillip told them. Newbies usually took a little longer, the e-suits tricky for the inexperienced. Phillip ran through the safety checks and verified the onboard supplies, grinning when he saw some extra food containers under the seats; Dr. Velasquez made it a tradition to treat her new staff to a picnic lunch the first time they went out in the field. They’d stop to eat in one of the emergency shelters that were spread out every ten miles along the road; they weren’t luxurious, but it was safe to take off your helmet inside them, which meant you could eat real food instead of relying on energy gels.

By the time he finished with the rover, Marissa and Jack had donned the insulated coveralls that would protect them from the cold and were helping each other into their e-suits. As recently as five years ago, you’d needed full pressure suits to go outside, but the atmospheric seeding had built enough of a greenhouse effect to raise the pressure and temperature to human-survivable levels. You still needed protection from the cold and solar radiation, and breathable air, but if you were careful, you weren’t any more at risk for pressure-related ailments than people who lived at high altitudes on Earth.

Phillip got into his own suit with the ease of practice, pretending not to notice the admiring looks the others sent his way; they didn’t need to know that he’d spent hours getting into and out of the suit until it was second nature to him. Undersuit, personal monitors, coveralls, e-suit, radio; he paused before donning the helmet and gloves. They’d be using the open rover for the trip, so they’d be in full gear for the majority of the day.

“Ready?” he asked the others.

“I was born ready,” Jack said. Marissa rolled her eyes again, but nodded at Phillip, her curly dark ponytail bouncing.

“Okay, everyone get your gloves, helmets, and oxygen on, then I’m going to run the tech check, and then we can get out of here,” he said. As the trip lead, he had everyone’s health monitor feed going to his tablet; as they activated their systems, the displays flickered to life on the screen. Phillip grinned a little when he realized that for all his affected nonchalance, Jack’s heart was beating just as fast as Marissa’s.

The tech check complete and everyone’s comm and oxygen systems in the green, they piled into the rover and Phil started the airlock cycle. He felt his ears pop as the rover bay’s pressure equalized to the lower level Outside, and his stomach thrilled with excitement and nerves as the amber light flashed to green and the big bay doors slid open. Outside, the sun was small and bright in the red-brown sky, and the road rolled out in front of them, polished glossy by many passings and outlined by small blue lights that stood out against the dirt, marking the safe route.

“Oh, wow,” Marissa said softly.

“Lady and gentleman,” Phillip said, easing the rover over the threshold of the bay and making sure the close cycle activated, “welcome to Mars.”

“Seriously, Coulson?” Jack said. “You’re only a year older than us, you know.”

“We aren’t going too far for me to make you walk back,” Phillip said, though he never would and he was pretty sure Jack knew it.

“It’s beautiful,” Marissa said. “It looks different, not seeing it from behind a viewport.”

“Yeah,” Phillip agreed. “I think so, too.” He flipped to the lab’s main comm frequency. “Green Cheese to base, over.” The field team with the most junior leader always got the Green Cheese callsign; it was tradition. Embarrassing, stupid tradition, but Phillip had learned to pick his battles, and getting upset over a callsign just meant that you ended up stuck with it forever.

“This is base. We hear you, Green Cheese, over.”

“We are officially off-facility. Mission start time is 0947 hours. Mission personnel Coulson, Ellery and Yang. Estimated mission duration is six hours, over.”

“Acknowledged. Have fun out there, Green Cheese. We’ll see you this afternoon, over.”

“We’ll do our best. Green Cheese out.”

The oxygenation ponds were spaced at even intervals along the road, wide, shallow lagoons colored a brilliant blue-green from the cyanobacteria that were busily converting the CO2 in the atmosphere to oxygen. Each pond was outfitted with a heating and filtration system that kept the water from freezing and the cyanobacteria from dying off, and monitoring equipment that let Dr. Velasquez’s team keep track of oxygenation rates and other key data. Maintenance trips like this one were done when one of the ponds started having trouble; today, they were going to do a flush-and-restart of a clogged filter at one pond, swap out some components in the monitoring hardware of another, and do some tests to make sure the water balance hadn’t been affected either place. It was simple work, making it a good first field expedition for Marissa and Jack, and a good first lead experience for Phillip.

He went over the plan as he drove, making sure that everyone knew their roles. Afterward, they lapsed into silence; Phillip was concentrating on navigation—he would never live it down if he dinged the rover driving through a pothole or something—and the other two seemed content to watch the scenery go by, snapping occasional pictures.

They made it to their destination in good time. The pond was already starting to go off a little, the color dulled in a way that Phillip knew from experience was a symptom of poor water circulation. Marissa, who was on the chemistry track at school, pulled out her test kit and started taking water samples, while Jack helped Phillip lay out the equipment they’d need for the filter work.

Flush-and-restart jobs weren’t difficult, but they were messy, and fiddly to do in an e-suit, even though the components were designed to be handled while wearing gloves. Marissa came to help as soon as her samples were fixed and stowed, but it still took the three of them the better part of an hour to get the filter back in place and the pump working again.

The second pond was a few miles away, on the other side of one of the emergency shelters, and Phil was pondering whether they should stop for an early lunch on the way when his concentration was shattered by a horrible electronic shriek.

His first thought was that someone was playing a joke on him, or that his comm had shorted out, but then he saw Jack’s wide-eyed look and realized what he was hearing, a sound he’d only heard in training; the universal emergency alert signal.

“Attention! Emergency.” a cool, synthesized voice came over their comms. “This is not a test. An emergency is in progress at Government House in Curiosity Bay. Please make your way calmly to the shelter-in-place location nearest you. If you are currently outside, proceed immediately to the nearest emergency field shelter and follow Protocol 17. Please do not attempt to use communication frequencies for personal communication during this time. Message repeats.”

The message played again, but Phillip was hardly listening, his mind racing to all the possible things that could be happening. Government House was at the center of the main dome; every business in Curiosity Bay was within a few hundred feet of it. There was a town hall meeting scheduled for the afternoon, the outgoing Earth reps and the incoming governor were scheduled to speak. His mother was going to be there. And Jane—hadn’t she said she was going sightseeing in the dome?

“Phillip?” Jack’s voice was quiet and shaky. “What—what are we supposed to do?”

He shook his head, trying to pull his thoughts back. He couldn’t freak out right now; he was the team leader, and it was his responsibility to follow Protocol 17, to get the team to safety and report in for further direction.

“Get in the rover,” he said. “Take only what you can carry in one trip and leave the rest.” They stowed their armfuls of equipment in the cargo space and belted themselves in, quick and silent; Jack and Marissa’s faces were tense and frightened behind their visors, and Phillip was afraid to see what his own looked like. He put the rover into gear and took off for the shelter, no longer worrying about potholes. As he started down the road, he got another ping on his comm; his personal code, high-priority. He took the call, though he had to hit the button twice, his shaking hands missing the first time.

“Mom?” he blurted. His voice sounded high and thin and scared in his own ears.

“Pip, it’s me,” Jane said, and Phillip had never been happier to hear anything in his entire life. “Are you Outside yet? Are you safe?”

“I’m in the rover with the team, I’m fine,” he said, words spilling out in a rush. “Janey, are you okay? Where are you? What the hell’s going on down there?” He could hear a lot of noise in the background; shouting, crashes, what sounded like pounding footsteps—was Jane running?

“Somebody set off a bomb at the summit meeting,” she said, her tone grim. “I’m going over there to help.”

Phillip somehow managed not to drive straight off the road. “A—a bomb?” he wheezed. “Are you sure? How do you know? Is—is Mom—”

“I don’t know, Pip,” she said, her voice wavering for a second too. “I’m not even supposed to be on this frequency, but my CO did me a favor—just, stay out there, okay? Get to one of the shelters and stay safe until someone comes for you. Nobody knows what’s happening or if there are more devices somewhere, you’re better off away from the city.”

“We’re on our way to a shelter,” Phillip promised. “Will—please call me when you know something?”

“I promise,” she said. Through the comm, he heard a deep voice yelling, “Coulson! Get a move on!”

“Look, I’ve got to go,” Jane said. “We’re almost there. Be careful, Pip. I love you.”

“I love you too,” Phillip whispered.

“Coulson out,” Jane said, and then there was nothing on the line but static.

“Did—did you say there was a bomb?”Jack said, his voice too loud in Phillip’s ear.

“Yeah,” Phillip said, struggling to keep his voice steady. “At the summit. My sister’s unit was going to respond, but she didn’t know anything else.”

“Half the city was going to be at that summit,” Marissa said.

“Yeah,” Phillip said again.

“Who would do something like that?” Marissa said. “I mean, I know people are upset about the handover, but a bomb?”

“All those people,” Jack whispered.

“I know, all right?” Phillip snapped. “I know, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now!” He cut himself off, trying to calm down. “Sorry,” he said, quieter. “Just—let’s just concentrate on getting to the shelter, okay?”

Marissa sniffed. “Okay,” she said. “Sorry, Phillip.”

“It’s all right.” It wasn’t, but he didn’t know what else to say, and it seemed like the others didn’t either; they all fell silent as Phillip drove on.

The emergency shelter where Phillip had planned to stop for lunch was only two more miles away, but it felt like two hundred, the only sound the crunch of the rover’s tires, the hammer of Phillip’s pulse in his ears, and the rapid, shallow breathing coming over Marissa and Jack’s comms. At last, though, the blue road lights turned white, slowly blinking, and the ping of the shelter beacon, activated by the emergency broadcast, sounded over their comms as the shelter came into view. It was set just off the road, with a smoothed-out space in front, wide enough for a few rovers to park. Phillip pulled into the little alcove and set the brake, but didn’t deactivate the engine.

“You guys stay here,” he said. “I’m going to check the shelter. If anything happens to me, take the rover and go.”

“We’re not going to leave you here,” Marissa protested.

“Hopefully, you won’t need to,” Phillip said. He wasn’t sure what he was even worried about—access to the Outside was strictly regulated, so it wasn’t like whoever had attacked Government House would have been able to sabotage the shelters—but he was tense all over, nearly jumping out of his skin at every flicker of light, and he felt he had to check. He went around to the back of the rover and pulled out the heaviest tool in the kit, a big pipe wrench that they used for filtration work. He held it at the ready, suddenly glad for the rigorous strength training that Marsers did to overcome the effects of living in low-g.

The shelters were designed with rescue in mind, so it was supposed to be impossible to occupy one in secret; once the oxygen scrubbers were activated, a signal light and comm beacon came on as well, and there were control panels throughout the colony that monitored the whole network for field personnel in distress. This shelter was silent, the scuffed pre-fab walls covered in a thick layer of red dust, the space in front of the door undisturbed-looking. Still, Phillip tried to be quiet—or at least as quiet as it was possible to be while wearing a suit made of reflective foil-covered polymer—as he approached the activation panel and turned the systems on.

The front door slid open, revealing a tiny airlock chamber.

“Is it okay?” Jack’s voice was tinny in his ear. “Can we come in yet?”

“Let me check out the inside first,” Phillip said. “I’ll comm you as soon as I’m sure everything’s okay.” He stepped into the airlock and hit the panel, sending the front door sliding shut with a scraping sound, the mechanism gritty with dirt. The audio pickups in his helmet were turned up, and the soft shush as the automated systems pumped out the Martian atmosphere and pumped in breathable air sounded like a tornado in his ears. He held the wrench at the ready—if there was anyone inside, the airlock would guarantee that they’d know someone was coming—and waited.

The door slid open and the lights flickered on, revealing a dusty, battered, windowless room, completely empty except for a row of lockers on one side, a rudimentary bathroom facility in the corner, and an assortment of old crates that seemed to be serving as furniture. Feeling a little paranoid, Phil quickly checked all the corners and the lockers; when he found nothing but emergency supplies and red dust, he felt his shoulders relax a little.

“All clear,” he sent to the team frequency. “You can come on in. Do you remember how to stow the rover?”

“We’ve got it, Phillip,” Marissa said. “We’ll be there in five.”

“Make sure you bring the food,” he said. “We’re probably going to be here a while.” He crossed to the shelter’s comm panel, trying to remember the protocols. Ordinarily, he should have sent an all-clear signal, notifying the system that the shelter was occupied but they didn’t need a rescue crew, and then checked in with the lab. Since they were under Protocol 17, though, he was pretty sure that the comm system was locked and could only be used to contact the emergency dispatcher. He checked his wrist monitor as well as the shelter system; the air had stabilized. He pulled off his helmet and shivered as the dry, cold air blew across his sweaty head.

The comm system had powered on with the lights and the scrubber; all he had to do was flip the switch. “This is shelter number…” he glanced at the number painted on the wall, “…3429, to emergency dispatch, over.”

He waited for long, tense seconds; the line was full of the weird undulating static that long-distance comms always had on Mars—something about the magnetosphere—but no actual reply was coming. Outside, he heard the grinding noise of the outer airlock door. As the air pumps kicked in, he finally heard a human voice.

“3429, this is dispatch. Please identify your crew and status, over.”

“This is crew 89-B from the Curiosity Bay Atmospheric Conversion Lab, callsign Green Cheese,” Phillip said. “Crew status is all clear, over.” Behind him, the inner door of the airlock was opening. He turned, still holding the wrench, just in case.

“Roger that, Green Cheese. We have your mission complement down as three: Coulson, Ellery, and Lang. Can you confirm, over.”

The door made it the rest of the way open, and he saw Marissa and Jack, lugging the big equipment chest between them. “Complement confirmed, over.”

“Good. Continue to observe Protocol 17 until you receive further instructions. Stay off the comms unless your status changes. Dispatch out.”

“Wait, what’s—” Phillip started to say, but the open-channel indicator had gone out. “Shit.” He turned and scowled at the others, who were pulling off their helmets. Had they even checked their wrist monitors first?

“You should have commed before you came in,” he said. “You could have been anyone! I could have hurt you!” he waved the wrench, which he was still holding.

“Who else could we possibly be? There’s nobody out here for miles and miles!” Marissa dropped her side of the chest, which dropped to the concrete floor with a clank.

“I don’t know, maybe the people who just bombed Government House?” Phillip caught himself, and bit back the rant he could feel building. None of this was Marissa or Jack’s fault. They were probably just as freaked out as he was, maybe more; they’d never been in the field before. Plus, at least Phillip knew that Jane was okay; they didn’t even have that.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right, I know you would have commed me if you’d seen anybody else coming.”

“Don’t worry, Coulson, I’m not in a hurry to die,” Jack said, looking uneasily over his shoulder at the airlock door. “If I see anything suspicious, you’ll be the first one to know, and you can… wrench them, or whatever.”

“There probably won’t be anything for a while,” Phillip said with a sigh. “I just got off the comms with dispatch. They wouldn’t even talk to me, just told us to stay put and off comms until we got further instructions.”

“Then there’s no way to find out what’s happening,” Marissa said. “The datanet’s down, personal comms are down, I couldn’t even get through to the lab using the rover’s system. Everything is blacked out.”

“Do you think it’s… whoever set the bomb?” Jack said. “Like, trying to keep us vulnerable?”

Phillip’s stomach was doing flips, but he forced himself to think things through. “We got through to dispatch okay, though,” he pointed out. “And the emergency alert came through fine. I think it’s more likely that the emergency services are taking up all the bandwidth.”

“So we just… wait?” Marissa asked. “For how long?”

“However long it takes, I guess,” Phillip said. “They know who we are and where we are. Eventually they’ll either tell us to go back to base or they’ll come get us. We have plenty of supplies; these things are stocked to last five people a week. But nobody ever has to stay that long,” he hastened to add, seeing her eyes widen. He sighed again; he couldn’t seem to help it.

“So, I know this isn’t exactly the way we’d planned it,” he said, “but we do have a pretty great lunch that Dr. V packed for us.”

Jack smiled weakly. “Is that another Green Cheese tradition?”

“Yeah,” Phillip said. “So we might as well eat it, huh? I’m in no hurry to break out ration packs before we have to.”

“I’d just as soon never have to—” Marissa started, but was cut off by the piercing, unpleasant tone of the emergency alert, sounding at the same time in all their earpieces and the shelter comm unit. They froze, standing in the middle of the room, watching each other with frightened eyes, as they waited for the next announcement.

“Attention! Emergency. This is not a test.” Phillip suddenly, irrationally hated the emergency broadcast voice; it didn’t sound like it cared at all about the horrible things it was saying. “There has been a Class A breach of Curiosity Bay’s main environment dome. Unfiltered atmosphere is entering the dome at multiple points around the city. This is an extreme asphyxiation hazard. All personnel inside the dome should proceed immediately to the nearest emergency oxygen supply. If you cannot reach an emergency oxygen supply, please activate your emergency beacon immediately and move to the highest elevation you can reach. Personnel outside the dome should maintain Protocol 17 until otherwise instructed. Message repeats.”

They stood there while the message played again, staring at each other; Marissa’s dark eyes were welling with tears and Jack looked like he might be sick, his face gone from rich brown to mottled gray. Phillip felt cold and far away from himself, like his hands and feet didn’t belong to him anymore. A dome breach was the worst-case scenario, the thing they studied in disaster preparedness classes, not something that actually happened. The dome was built to withstand the normal debris impacts of space, earthquakes, and construction accidents, and had a compartmentalization system besides; the only way for the dome to be breached in multiple places was deliberate sabotage. Somebody wanted to do it, wanted the Martian atmosphere, heavy with CO2, to drift down from the sky and displace the oxygen, until you could breathe and breathe and still choke, drowning in air in the middle of Main Street. Somebody wanted to kill Curiosity Bay. There were emergency drills, but so many people didn’t take them seriously anymore, didn’t know how to get to the oxygen stations…

Marissa choked on a sob and crumpled to her knees on the floor, burying her face in her hands. It went through Phillip like a static shock; he couldn’t fall apart right now. He was responsible for everyone in this shelter, for keeping them safe, for getting them home. He curled his numb fingers into fists, forcing himself to take deep breaths, letting the oxygen-rich air fill his lungs and clear his head as he shoved his looming panic back, behind a wall in his head. He could deal with that later. Marissa and Jack needed him now. He couldn’t do anything to help Curiosity Bay, but he could do his best for his team in shelter 3429.

He forced his stiff legs to move, and knelt beside Marissa, laying his hand on her shoulder; the outside of her suit was still coated in a thin layer of frost.

“Hey,” he said, fumbling for words. “Marissa. It’ll be okay.”

“My parents were taking my little brother into town today,” she said, her voice thick with tears. “He wanted to see the parade.”

“They probably already evacuated the square when the first bomb went off,” Phillip said. “And you just heard, they’re scrambling the rescue crews right now for everyone else. Plus my sister’s ship is here, and she told me that they were all on standby in case anything happened. I’m sure your family is okay.”

“Y—yeah,” Jack added, in an unsteady voice. “I, um, I lived in Endeavor when that shuttle crash happened, and they got everyone out in just a couple of minutes. Marsers take that kind of thing seriously, we all know what to do. Even if your family didn’t know where to go, people would have helped them.”

“You really think so?” She scrubbed her hands over her face, then seemed to notice that she still had her gloves on and dropped her hands. Phillip patted at her shoulder again.

“Jack’s right,” he said, and he really, really hoped he wasn’t lying. “Everyone’s going to be fine. They’ll catch whoever did this, and everything will get back to normal.”

He felt like he was watching himself from behind a thick pane of glass as he helped Marissa up and gave her an aloe wipe out of the medical kit to wash her face with. He encouraged them to pull out their lunch and eat, using the equipment chest as a table and the empty crates as seats. There was hot soup in an insulated jug, three kinds of sandwiches and two kinds of potato chip, little cups of fruit salad, and several sleeves of cookies. At the bottom, in the cold area and hidden underneath their water rations, were three cans of soda—imported from Luna, an expensive delicacy. Ordinarily, it would have been like a party, but now they ate in silence, ears straining for any sound from the comm. Despite the situation, they finished everything; e-suit work was physically challenging, and you burned up a lot of calories doing it. Phillip didn’t have much appetite, himself, but he choked down his share; he wouldn’t be any good to the team if he didn’t eat.

“So what are we supposed to do now?” Jack asked, once they were finished and had cleaned up the detritus of the meal. Phillip swallowed hard, biting back his instinctive how the hell should I know? and trying to think.

“We should start on our field reports, if we can,” he said, somehow managing to sound like he knew what he was talking about. Behind the glass wall, a part of him was scrabbling, desperate with fear for his mom and Jane, but he couldn’t let it out; he knew that once the wall was down, there’d be no putting it back again. He had to keep it together until they were all safely home.

He didn’t let himself wonder what safe or home would mean, if the dome was gone.

The three of them worked for hours, largely in silence; when they finished their field reports, they each had reading for their summer projects loaded on their tablets to do, and Phillip had copies of the testing manual for the level 2 e-suit certification for after that. Eventually, they got hungry again, and Phillip pulled out some of the better-tasting ration packs for their supper. Through it all, they listened for the comm; through it all, the comm never made any sound.

“What if nobody ever comes?” Jack said, finally. “What if they’ve forgotten about us?”

“They haven’t,” Phillip said, though inside, he was wondering the same thing. “Every field mission is logged with dispatch, and I confirmed we were here when I logged us into the shelter, remember?”

“But what if there’s nobody at dispatch?” Marissa said. “What if they all died or, or got captured or something? What if whoever did this took over Mars?”

“It could all be a distraction,” Jack said slowly. “Get everyone concentrated on the dome, everyone’s attention on the planet, then, then—land a ship or something! They could invade! What if Earth decided it didn’t want to let us go?”

Phillip drew a deep breath. “Guys!” he said, trying to make his voice sound the way his mom’s did when she was fed up with him and Janey fighting. “Nobody’s landing a ship here, we’ve got orbital defense,” he said. “Our team is low priority right now because we’re safe and don’t need any help; we’ve got food and water and heat and air, so nobody needs to contact us right now. It’s a good thing; it means that they’re working on more important stuff.”

Jack looked mutinous. “But—”

“Guys,” Marissa said, and they both turned immediately to look at her, startled by the intensity of her tone. “Look.” She pointed to the wall, where the big blue light was lit; as they watched it blink, the proximity tone started to sound. “Someone’s coming.”

“Good,” Phillip said, though his voice sounded less than convinced, even to him. “That’ll be a rescue team; we can go home.”

“What if it’s not, though? What if it’s one of the bombers or a, a looter or something? We can’t leave,” Jack said. “But we’re sitting ducks in here.”

“What are you suggesting?” Phillip said.

“We could make a trap,” Jack said. “Then if they were—if they weren’t here to help, we could get away.”

“What kind of a trap can we make in here?” Marissa said. “It’s just one room, there isn’t even a wall around the toilet.”

Phillip looked at the layout of the room, his mind racing. “We’d have to use distraction,” he said. “There’s not really any hiding places, but there’s only the one entrance, and we’ll know if someone comes in. Maybe if someone stands over there and, and tries to make a lot of noise? Like, acts like they’re hurt, maybe? And someone else could stand behind the door and attack them if they were a threat.”

“I’m in the drama club,” Jack offered. “I could probably act like I’d broken my leg or something, and Marissa could stand next to me and act worried.”

“And you can stand behind the door, Phillip, and wrench them!” Marissa said.

“We might not need to wrench anybody,” Phillip said. “We probably won’t need to wrench anybody, it’s probably the rescue crew. But, um, I guess it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.” Phillip was a great believer in being prepared. He knew exactly how long the three of them could survive on the rations in a single emergency shelter (11.67 days) and the best routes to take to get to both Curiosity Bay and Endeavor, both in the rover and on foot. He’d been doing calculations all afternoon while the others worked on their homework.

The piled up the equipment chest and the empty crates next to the entrance, giving a little bit of cover for Phillip and his wrench, and then Jack arranged himself artistically on the ground and positioned Marissa standing over him so that her body would block the view of his supposedly injured leg. Phillip’s earpiece crackled with static, and he shushed the others with a sharp gesture.

“—eese, come in Green Cheese. Repeat, this is Home Guard Rescue calling Green Cheese. Come in, Cheese. Over.”

“Are you guys hearing that?” Phillip asked. Marissa and Jack shook their heads. “This isn’t good,” Phillip said. “He’s saying Home Guard, but Home Guard would be calling the shelter, not me personally. Something’s wrong.”

“Should you answer it?” Marissa asked.

“Ignore it,” Jack said. “He won’t be sure we’re here, it will give us the element of surprise.”

The voice on the comm sounded pissed off, if the amount of swearing was any indicator. Phillip wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. “Fuck it, Cheese, don’t even worry about coming in,” the voice said, “because I’m here now, so I’m going to come in there after your ass.”

“He’s coming in,” Phillip told the others, just as they heard the grind of the outer airlock doors.

“Hide!” Marissa hissed, and Phillip hefted his wrench and went to stand behind the crates, guts churning. He wasn’t sure what the three of them could do against some kind of mystery bad guy, but they had to at least try, right? They had to do something.

“Start making noise,” he hissed to Jack. “If he’s got his audio pickups on, he’ll be able to hear you through the door.”

Jack nodded, eyes huge, then let out a theatrical bellow that made Phillip and Marissa both jump. “My leg!” he yelled. “I think it’s broken! Ow, don’t touch it, you’ll only make things worse!”

Marissa made a face, but gamely acted her part. “Oh no!” she said, pitching her voice loud and high. “Jack! What are we going to do?”

The inner door started sliding open, and a dark figure moved through before it was even half open. Phillip’s whole body seemed to leap in horror; this was no Home Guard rescuer in their red and white e-suits; this man was wearing a full armored hardsuit, suitable for hard vacuum combat, charcoal gray with red and white stripes down the arm; there were weapons on his back and hip, and he was moving like he was wearing gym clothes and not a couple hundred pounds of equipment.

Phillip’s wrench was not going to help much.

“There’s so much blood!” Jack shouted.

“Oh God, is that your femur?” Marissa yelled.

The figure moved, starting towards them, and Phillip couldn’t help it, he had to try, that was his team and they were defenseless. He swung the wrench as hard as he could, right at the joint where the man’s air hose met his helmet. It hit with a clang, and as the man turned to face Phillip, he could hear the satisfying hiss of escaping air.

“Wrench him again!” Jack shouted, and Phillip tried—aiming for the faceplate this time—but he found his wrench caught in an implacable armored grip and wrested out of his hands like it weighed nothing.

“Don’t touch them!” Phillip said, shifting his weight to try to tackle the man. He couldn’t really see around him—he was really tall even before the armor—but he thought he saw the others trying to sneak up behind him, so he tried to be distracting. “We’ll fight to the last breath! Mars for Marsers!”

“Yeaaargh!” Marissa shrieked, and somehow managed to jump up on the man’s back, wrapping her arms around his neck. Jack came at him from the side, grabbing onto the hand still holding Phillip’s wrench and pulling at it with all his strength. For a moment, Phillip thought it was actually going to work.

Then the man shook Jack and Marissa off like they were nothing, and Phillip thought that’s it, we’re all going to die here. I’m so sorry.

“Coulson, right?” the man said, and then he laughed. “I should have known.”

“Um, what?” Phillip said.

The man tossed Phillip’s wrench into the corner, and raised his arms; Phillip tensed, but the man was just taking off his helmet. He had dark skin, a shiny bald head, and a no-nonsense expression.

“I’m Commander Nick Fury of the Galactic Alliance Navy,” he said. “Your sister asked me to come pick you up. I should have known you’d have things well in hand.”

“How do I know that’s really who you are?” Phillip said, though his stomach was sinking into his boots. Jane was going to kill him.

“Well, I left my wallet in my other pants,” the man—Commander Fury—said. “So I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it, Pip.

“Shit,” Phillip said, then snapped his mouth back closed. “Um, I mean, I’m sorry, sir. For the, the…”

“The wrenching,” Marissa said.

“That,” Phillip agreed.

“We didn’t know who you were,” Jack said. “We thought you might be one of the people who bombed Curiosity Bay!”

“But you didn’t answer your comm to find out?” Commander Fury asked.

“You said you were Home Guard,” Phillip explained. “But Home Guard would have called the shelter, not my personal line. It was suspicious.” To his surprise, he thought Commander Fury seemed pleased at the explanation.

“So we thought if we didn’t say anything, we’d have the element of surprise,” Jack said.

“Well, thanks to your element of surprise, I have to fix my fucking hose,” Commander Fury said. “So gather up whatever shit you brought with you, and we can leave when I’m done.”

“Um, sir?” Phil said. “I’m sorry, but—what about the city? Did they seal the dome back? Is everyone okay? Who—”

He held up a big hand. “I know you’ve got a lot of questions, but there really isn’t time to go into it all right now,” he said, though his voice was not unkind. “The dome is sealed up and the situation’s under control. I’ll be taking you back to the garrison for now. Once we’re safe, we’ll get you in touch with your families and get you home, okay?”

Phillip sighed. “If that’s all you know, it’s all you know,” he said, moving to help the others disassemble their wrenching blind. “I guess the sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll be able to find out more.”

They worked fast, driven by the desire to be home and, in Phillip’s case, the desire to not be in charge anymore. When they were ready to go, he tried once more to apologize to the commander.

“Are you sure your air supply is okay?” he asked. “Having it exposed like that is really an obvious vulnerability.”

“I wasn’t expected to get ambushed by a wrench-wielding maniac,” Commander Fury said, wry. “But it’s fine. They pop out easy, but they’re easy to fix.” He regarded Phillip steadily, like he was about to grade him on something. “It was a pretty good plan, though. Better than I’d expect from a guy called Green Cheese.”

“Green Cheese is the team name,” Phillip protested, but he felt a little warm glow at the praise.

“Sure it is,” Fury said. “Come on, Cheese, let’s get on the road.”

They crowded into the airlock together, the three of them, Commander Fury, and the equipment chest; there was just enough space. When the outer door finally ground open, the sun was sinking behind the horizon, blazing blue in the tawny sky.

“Hey, Marissa, look,” Phillip said. “You got to see the sunset after all.”

She shot him a watery smile. “Yeah,” she said. “They’re famous, you know. The blue sunsets of Mars.”

They stowed the chest back in their rover, getting ready to go.

“Are you sure you kids are okay to drive?” Commander Fury asked. “There’s room with me, if you need it.”

“I’m fine,” Phillip said, standing up straighter. “We shouldn’t leave the rover; someone might need it.” He thought the Commander looked approving, but it was hard to tell through his visor.

“We’ll ride with Phillip,” Marissa said, and Jack nodded his agreement; Phillip couldn’t help feeling a little proud that they still wanted to stick with him.

Phillip had never been to the garrison before, but he knew where it was; from some of the ponds, it was actually the closest place to go in case of emergency. Even if he hadn’t known, though, it was easy enough to follow Commander Fury. Jack and Marissa chatted on the way, flush with excitement over the rescue and their daring attempt to save Phillip; it was as though, now that Fury was there, they were reassured that everything was going to be fine. The whole afternoon seemed to be already shrinking in their memories, becoming less a harrowing ordeal and more a thrilling story to tell later. But Phillip wasn’t so optimistic. Commander Fury had known who he was, had known Jane’s nickname for him, knew Jane, had said Jane sent him. But if all that was true, why hadn’t Jane come herself? He could feel an inescapable conclusion looming, but he pushed it down with everything he had; they weren’t safe yet.

Phillip drove. Time was strange, on that trip. It took them forever to get to the garrison, but no time at all; Phillip wasn’t sure how long it had really taken, just that it was full dark by the time they arrived. They pulled their rovers into the great cavernous bay, the little vehicles tiny beside the shuttles and troop transports, and crossed to an adjacent locker room to get out of their e-suits and into some sweats that a terrifyingly efficient young lieutenant, with dark hair and a sharp jaw, brought by.

“When you’re done changing, I’ll take you to the mess,” Lt. Hill said, “and then we’ve got spare bunks for you tonight.”

When they emerged from the locker room, Commander Fury was there, too, changed from his hardsuit into his uniform; he had a lot of ribbons on his chest for someone who didn’t look that old. Marissa and Jack followed Lt. Hill, but Phillip hung back with Commander Fury.

“Go ahead and tell me,” Phillip said. He could feel his wall shuddering and cracking. “I know it’s not good news.”

Commander Fury let out a heavy breath, almost a sigh. He looked a lot older, all of a sudden. Tired. “No,” he said. “It’s not.” He started walking, and jerked his head, indicating that Phillip should follow. “Come on.”

He took them to a little room nearby; some kind of briefing room, Phillip thought, with a round table and chairs and a projection screen. He closed the door, but didn’t sit down, so Phillip didn’t either.

“I’m sorry to inform you—” Commander Fury began, and Phillip staggered; this was it, then.

“Janey’s dead, isn’t she,” he said.

“Yeah,” Commander Fury said. “I’m sorry, son.”

“She commed me,” Phillip said. “After the first bomb.”

“I know,” Fury said. “She wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“What—what happened?” He almost didn’t want to know, but he had to. He had to; it was Janey.

“There was a family,” Fury said. “They got trapped by rubble in the second blast. Couldn’t get to the emergency oxygen. She was the smallest in the company, so she volunteered to go through the gaps in the wreckage with some oxygen bottles, but the space wasn’t stable. It fell in; she got stuck, and we couldn’t get any more supplies through. There wasn’t enough oxygen to go around.”

“She gave up her tank, didn’t she?” Phillip whispered, and he didn’t even have to wait for the Commander’s nod to know that it was true.

Phillip took a deep breath. He was shaking; it was surprising he was still upright. “And Mom?” he asked.

“Died in the first blast,” Commander Fury said. “Instantly; she didn’t even know what happened.” He took another deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “It’s a fucking shame.”

“It’s not your fault,” Phillip said, politely, ignoring the way his voice broke over the words. Jane would have wanted him to be polite to Commander Fury. Mom would want—Mom would have wanted—Phillip couldn’t do this.

“I don’t think I’m very hungry. Would you mind showing me to my bunk, please?”

Commander Fury looked concerned, but did as Phillip asked. “Comm me if you need anything,” he told Phillip, leaving him at the door. It was a tiny room, with hardly enough space to turn around, but it was a solo bunk, so Phillip wouldn’t have to share it. That was good; he didn’t think he could stand having to be with people that night. (Had Jane had a room like this or had she shared a bunk? He hadn’t asked. He’d never know.)

Phillip started unpacking his bag with fumbling hands. He felt cold and stiff all over, shaky and sick, but he couldn’t stop moving; there was something howling inside him, and if he stopped it would swallow him whole. He pulled out his tablet, his lab notes, his extra pair of glasses, then his fingers brushed something he didn’t recognize at first: Jane’s donuts, squashed from the bottom of the bag. Of all things, it was the donuts that broke him; he felt everything he’d been pushing away, fear and pain and rage and grief, rush over him in a wave, sucking him under. He curled into a ball around the battered plastic packet and cried until he couldn’t breathe, until his entire torso ached from the force of his sobs, and nobody came to comfort him. There was nobody to come anymore.

Jack and Marissa went home the next day. Their families came to get them, battered and shaken but not seriously hurt; Phillip took deep breaths and tried not to show how he resented them for it (it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair, Jack had four sisters and his grandma and Marissa had both her parents and her little brother and Phillip had nobody.) He was distantly surprised when they both hugged him good-bye.

After they had gone, he split his hand open punching a bulkhead. Nobody said anything. He didn’t think anyone noticed.

Phillip didn’t go home; there wasn’t much point, after all. There was nobody there. For some reason, nobody at the garrison said anything about it to him, and let him just keep staying in the little room and eating—when he did eat—in the mess. Phillip filled out an incident report, and he filed an amended field report, and he packed up the samples they’d taken and labelled them for the lab. He thought maybe he should go back to work, but then he pictured it, taking CO2 samples every day, graphing the conversion rates, watching as the line crept downward toward the point where it wouldn’t have killed his sister. Going into the field with oxygen bottles that would have saved her. Sitting through the asphyxiation hazard refresher trainings, the third Tuesday of every month.

He sent Dr. Velasquez his resignation.

That day, Phillip went to find Commander Fury. He was in a tiny, poky office, glaring at a tablet.

“You said to tell you if I needed anything,” he said.

“I did,” Commander Fury said.

“I need to work,” Phillip said. “Please.”

Commander Fury watched him silently for a minute, then entered some commands into his terminal. He took Phillip’s ID and stuck it into the card reader, then hit a few more buttons, waited a few seconds, then pulled it out and gave it back to Phillip.

“Take this to Lt. Hill,” he said. “She’ll give you something to do.”

“Thank you, sir,” Phillip said, and went to do as he’d been told.

Lt. Hill gave Phillip things to do, little ones at first like cleaning equipment, but then more and more as she saw what he could do, and Phillip worked; it was the only thing that helped. If he worked enough, he could even sleep at night, and not think about the things he couldn’t stand to think about.

One day, he had to go identify their bodies. There was a line at the tiny morgue. Phillip took his place, like a ghost among ghosts; they all stood silent, gray-faced, the only sound the hoarse voice of the morgue attendant: “Next, please. I’m sorry for your loss. Next, please.” Sorry, next, sorry, next, sorry. The man in front of Phillip was visibly shaking as they shuffled forward, step by step; he went into the room, and the attendant shut the door, and then Phillip heard a sharp exclamation from inside and the man ran back out, the door slamming behind him. “It wasn’t her, it wasn’t,” he said, and burst into loud, ugly sobs. Phillip hated him. When it was his turn, he bit his tongue, and clenched his fists. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”

That was the day he decided he was leaving Mars.

He wasn’t sure how Commander Fury found out—he hadn’t told anyone—but in his messages the next morning was a copy of a letter of recommendation Fury had written him, to go to the Naval Academy.

Jane had loved the Navy. She’d believed in it. Mom had been so proud, whenever she came home for holidays, starched and shined in her uniform; she’d said it was an honorable calling.

Phillip read the recruitment materials and recognized phrases that Jane would say. He studied for the entrance exam, and felt close to her. He’d helped her study, when she took it. They’d made flashcards.

He scored very high; he’d always been good at standardized tests.

He knew he’d accept the invitation, when it came. Phillip had always been focused on home, a Marser to the bone; Jane had always wanted to go beyond the domes, beyond the stars. Phillip had wanted to make Mars great; Jane had wanted to save the galaxy.

Jane had died for Mars. Phillip thought maybe the galaxy was owed a Coulson.

A month later, Phillip said goodbye to Lt. Hill and Commander Fury, on his way to the Academy.

“I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again,” Commander Fury said. “Take care, Cheese.”

“Thank you, sir,” Phillip said. He boarded the shuttle, and didn’t look back.

Chapter Text

“Daddy, I forgot my lunch!” Skye’s piercing voice shot through the car, making Clint wince. “I need to eat my lunch at school!”

Clint twisted around to look at her. She was fumbling at the buckles on her booster seat, as though ready to leap out of the moving car and run home after the missing lunch. “Hey, Skye, hang on,” he said, catching her hand gently. “Leave that be, okay? It’s to keep you safe.”

“But my lunch,” Skye protested.

“Your lunch is in your backpack, honey,” Phil said. He didn’t look away from the road, even though there wasn’t anyone else on it as far as Clint could see. “I put it in before we left.”

“Are you sure though?” Skye looked so tragic that Clint felt a pang. Maybe he should double check Skye’s bag? Or would that be too presumptuous, since Phil packed it?

“I’m sure,” Phil said, voice reassuringly certain. “I promise.”

Skye relaxed. “Okay, Daddy,” she said.

“She always does this,” Katie told Clint in a stage whisper. “She forgot one time last year and now she does this every day.”

“No I don’t!” Skye said. Her lip, to Clint’s alarm, was trembling ominously. “I don’t, Katie!”

“Girls,” Phil said, his voice an obvious warning; they subsided, and Clint felt awkwardly like he ought to… do something. Like, tuck his shirt in or something. Phil had a really effective warning voice.

Maybe it was a dad thing, he thought. Well, maybe it was a good dad thing. Not that Clint would know. Most of the parenting books he’d read on the trip out to Stark’s World had talked about discipline, but about the only consensus between them was that slamming your kid’s head into a wall was definitely the wrong approach. Not that Clint was bitter or anything.

It was the girls’ first day back to school since Clint had arrived, and he’d found himself slightly awed by the amount of stuff they seemed to need; he hadn’t spent that much time in school himself, but he didn’t remember having quite so many things, books and worksheets and pencil boxes and snacks and toys to bring for Show and Tell, an event which was apparently of vital social importance.

(While Clint had been braiding her hair that morning, Katie had attempted to convince them to let her bring Clint for Show and Tell. When Phil remained adamant that Show and Tell wasn’t for people, she’d been convinced to bring Shady instead.

“But I can still tell about Clint, right Daddy?” she’d asked. “And then show Shady, because Clint brought her for me from Earth.”

“I think you should ask Clint for his permission to talk about him in class, sweetheart,” Phil had said.

She’d turned to him eagerly, almost tugging the half-finished braid out of his hands. “Clint, can I tell about you to my class for Show and Tell today?”

He hadn’t been entirely sure what she was talking about, but what could it possibly hurt? “Sure,” he’d told her, shrugging. “I don’t mind.”

Of course, when Skye had heard about the plan over breakfast, nothing would do but that she bring her doll Jenny for her own Show and Tell, and Clint had duly granted her permission to talk about him in school as well while Phil had watched the whole thing with twinkling eyes.)

Phil had showed him the night before where all the girls’ school things were kept, and linked his tablet to the checklist and schedules; even so, it seemed to take at least as much effort to get them all out the door on time in the morning as it generally took Clint and Natasha to prep for a moderately complex mission, and there were no explosives involved in getting two small girls to school.

Clint didn’t think there were any explosives involved.

The girls usually took a shuttle to school—the same kind as the one that the four of them had taken home from Port Anthony—but today Phil had elected to drive them all to town together in the ground car; after they dropped the girls off, Phil wanted to show Clint around a little. He’d also made Clint an appointment with a doctor, since his possible space plague (“It’s not space plague, you were vaccinated for that,” Phil had said, the corner of his mouth twitching in a tiny smile) had only gotten worse as time went by. Phil had taken to shooting him these little frowns every time he sneezed or coughed, which was pretty often. Clint was trying not to freak out about the whole thing and pretty much failing completely, because the one thing everybody knew about Stark’s World was how strict they were about quarantine and imported diseases. What if he had already gotten the Coulsons sick? What if he was some kind of, of contagion-bearer—Typhoid Clint—and they put him on quarantine on the moon for the rest of his life?

Yeah, Clint wasn’t looking forward to going into town. What was wrong with just staying ho—at the house? It was nice there, just the four of them and a week’s worth of leftover pierogies. Clint had done his first few loads of laundry on Sunday and Phil had smiled and told him he was a lifesaver. They’d sat on the porch again and watched the stars come out and Phil had made hot apple cider, which might have been even better than the cocoa. (Clint would have to have them both again to make sure. Probably several more times.)

“What are you and Clint going to do in town today, Daddy?” Katie asked. “Don’t do anything fun without us, okay?”

“We need to run some errands,” Phil said. “And Clint’s going to go see Dr. Bruce.”

“Does he have to get shots?” Skye asked, sounding anxious.

“I don’t know,” Phil said. “It depends on what kind of medicine he needs to take.”

Clint felt a tug on his sleeve, and turned in his seat again to look at Skye, who was straining forward in her booster seat to reach him. “If you’re good for Dr. Bruce,” she told him solemnly, “he’ll give you candy, okay Clint? So don’t be scared of the shots.”

Clint felt a little better despite himself. “I’ll remember that,” he told her, trying to match her seriousness. “Thanks, Skye.”

“She had to get a round of vaccinations before she started school this year,” Phil told him, in a low tone. “It made an impression.”

“If it was anything like the round I got before I came out here, I sympathize,” Clint said.

Phil nodded. “It’s quite a batch,” he said, sympathy in his voice. “But better than having some disease go through the colony. There have been some serious incidents on other worlds.”

Clint thought of Earth, the way that sickness ran in the densely-packed lower levels, the way that certain areas would just get sealed off until contagion ran its course and one of the syndicates sent grunts in to burn the bodies. “Yeah,” he said gruffly. “Much better.”

He let his head lean against the car window, watching Phil out of the corner of his eye as the girls chattered to each other in the back seat. Phil’s profile was sharp and austere in the morning light, the slide sideways jog of his nose the only thing keeping him from looking like a statue. Clint wondered if Phil had been injured. It was hard to imagine; he knew Phil had been military, but it was hard to imagine anyone looking at his face and wanting to punch it. Maybe he’d just been born that way. Clint wondered if Phil would tell him if he asked. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to know, but he did; he found himself wanting to know all kinds of things about Phil, and to tell Phil things in return.

It was weird, honestly, and kind of unsettling, but there was something exhilarating about looking at Phil and knowing that Phil knew about Clint’s Pop and he didn’t care—no, that wasn’t it. He cared, but he didn’t blame Clint. He didn’t think it made Clint untrustworthy. He was still willing to give Clint a chance. And he’d even given Clint one of his own secrets in return.

Clint tried to imagine what Phil had looked like then, seventeen and suddenly alone. Lankier, maybe, with less muscle and more hair, but his eyes had probably been just as bright and blue and kind as they were now. Clint had never really been alone the way Phil had; there’d been Barney, at first, and then Natasha. He wondered if anyone had been Natasha for Phil, when he’d gone into the Navy. He hoped so. Phil cared about people so much, his family and friends but also strangers; he’d done so much for Clint, even before they’d met. It made Clint ache to think of Phil with nobody to care about, no-one to care about him.

Phil cleared his throat, and glanced over at Clint. “We’re nearly there,” he said.

Clint nodded, looking out at the low cluster of buildings in the distance.

“I, ah. I don’t really talk much about… Mars,” Phil said, keeping his voice low. “My close friends know, but I don’t really like to bring it up. There’s a lot of rhetoric around the incident. Conspiracy theories, that kind of thing. Sometimes people get so caught up in the topic they tend to forget about the human cost.”

“Hey, no worries,” Clint said. He started to lay a reassuring hand on Phil’s arm, then caught himself and pulled it back. “Your secrets are safe with me, Phil.”

Phil’s shoulders relaxed, and he glanced over at Clint with a grateful smile. “Thanks,” he said, simply.

“It’s my pleasure,” Clint replied. He meant it. Even in the few days he’d known Phil, he could tell that he was a man who carried a lot of shit for other people. He deserved someone who could take on some of the load.

“We’re here!” Skye chirped, and Clint jumped a little, startled out of his reflection, and looked out the window. The road they were on had widened. It was now flanked on either side by a series of buildings two or three stories high, most of which seemed to have businesses on the ground floor. Through the large, sparkling windows Clint could catch glimpses of merchandise: food, clothing, furniture. Where the spaceport on the moon had been the picture of scientific modern efficiency and Port Anthony had been mainly the shuttleport and a few scraggly buildings around it, Mariana was like something out of a vid; everything looked warm in the morning sun, and the people going up and down the wide, tree-lined walks were smiling and greeting one another. Phil had slowed the car when they entered Mariana, and their progress down the street was met with cheerful waves from the passers-by. Phil nodded acknowledgements as he drove, and the girls were waving enthusiastically out the windows.

“Do you know everybody in town?” Clint blurted.

“Pretty much,” Phil shrugged, then turned to smile at Clint, reassuring. “It’s a small town,” he said. “Don’t worry, they’re all going to be excited to meet you.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Clint muttered, then sneezed violently, gaining another concerned look from Phil.

Phil turned a corner and parked along a side street. “All right, girls, what are the rules in town?” he asked.

“Hold a grownup’s hand and don’t run off,” Katie said, already unbuckling herself and reaching over to release her sister.

In less than two minutes, they were ready to go, the girls each wearing their backpacks, Skye holding Phil’s hand and Katie holding Clint’s. The school was a short walk away, easily identifiable by the little groups of children playing and talking in front of it.

As they approached the building, a girl with a long blonde ponytail caught sight of them.

“Katie! Hey everybody, Katie’s back!”

“Cassie!” Katie tried to drop Clint’s hand and run to meet her friend, but he caught her by the strap of her backpack.

“Hey, Katie-Kate, remember the rules,” he said quietly.

She huffed impatiently. “Then come on, Clint, I want to see my friends!”

He allowed himself to be pulled into the schoolyard, where Katie was swarmed by a little group of kids. He looked around for Phil and Skye; they were a little distance away, Phil watching with a soft smile as Skye tried to hug three other children at once.

“Clint!”

“Yeah, Katie?”

“These are my friends.” Katie swept her arm in a circle, pointing each person out as she said their names. “This is Billy and his best friend Teddy, and Billy’s brother Tommy, and this is Cassie, and David, and America, and Eli, and Miles!”

“Pleased to meet you,” Clint said. “I’m Clint Barton.”

“Clint came all the way from Earth to live with us and be our friend!” Katie said. “His favorite color is purple, and he knows how to ride horses and shoot arrows, and he used to be in a circus and he knows gymnastics and he taught me gymnastics, watch!” She backed up, holding herself in the stance Clint had taught her for a cartwheel.

“Katie, you’ve got class in a minute.” Phil’s voice came from right behind him, and he forced himself not to startle. Being on Stark’s World was playing hell with his reflexes. “Why don’t you save the gymnastics demonstrations for later.”

She sighed. “I guess so,” she said, reluctantly.

“Are you really from Earth?” Teddy, the tallest of the kids, asked Clint.

“Sure am.”

“My uncle lives on Earth!” Miles said. “His name is Uncle Aaron, um, Aaron Davis. Do you know him?”

Clint bit back a smile. “I don’t think so, sorry,” he said. “Earth is a lot bigger than Mariana, so it’s impossible to know everyone.”

“Clint!” he felt a tugging at his pant leg, and looked down. Skye looked impatient. “Come meet my friends, Clint!”

“We weren’t done talking, Skye!” Katie scowled. “It isn’t your turn!”

“The bell’s going to ring in a minute, Katie, so we need to take short turns today,” Phil interjected. “You’ll have plenty of more time to talk to Clint later.”

Fortunately for Clint, Skye’s friends—Leo of the “sheeps”, Jemma, Dani, Kamala, and Lincoln—were a bit more shy than the older children, and mainly seemed content to blink up at him with wide eyes while Skye told them about Saturday’s pierogi breakfast; the story was interrupted by a bell ringing, and all the kids started to move indoors.

“Let me introduce you to the girls’ teachers,” Phil said, and led him to the doorway, where a muscular black man and a white woman with long brown hair stood.

“Phil,” the woman said, grinning at them. “How nice to see you. And this must be your… friend.” She waggled her eyebrows lasciviously, and Clint felt his cheeks heat. Beside him, Phil pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing.

“Seriously, Jess?” he said, plaintive. “Are we seriously doing this already?”

“Do you have any idea the kind of Show and Tell deathmatch I’m going to have to referee between your kid and Whitney Frost when Whitney realizes that Katie has someone from another planet living in her house?” Jess demanded. “Don’t deny me the small pleasure of teasing you, that’s the only thing that will make my life worth living for the next two weeks.”

“I wouldn’t let her bring Clint himself,” Phil offered. “If that helps at all?”

She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “Small mercies, Coulson,” she said. “Go on, introduce us.”

“Clint Barton,” Phil said, “Meet Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. Luke teaches Skye’s class and Jessica teaches Katie’s. You just met their daughter, Dani; she’s in the same class as Skye.”

“Pleasure,” Clint said, shaking their hands one after the other.

“Katie was so excited about your visit,” Jessica said. “It was all she talked about for weeks. We’re all very eager to get to know you, Mr. Barton.”

“I, uh, wow,” Clint said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean, thank you? Katie’s really great. I mean, they’re both—and Phil—” he stumbled to a halt, not sure where he was even going with that sentence. To his immense relief, the bell rang again.

“Well, that’s our cue,” Luke said. “We look forward to speaking with you again.”

They went inside the school. As soon as the doors closed behind them, Clint let out a huff of breath. It caught in his throat, sending him into a coughing fit. When he finally finished, red-faced and teary-eyed, Phil was watching him with concern, one hand half-outstretched.

“Come on,” Phil said. “Let’s get you over to Dr. Banner’s office.”

He led Clint down one of the wide streets, in the opposite direction from where they’d entered the town. “I think you’ll like Bruce,” he said. “He’s got a great bedside manner, very calming. He can settle the girls right down.”

“So he sees both kids and adults?”

“He does a little of everything,” Phil explained. “He’s actually a researcher at SG, but he practices in Mariana two days a week. He says he likes the change of pace.”

“So what happens if someone needs a doctor on the days he’s not here?”

“There’s a hospital in Starkville, of course,” Phil said, “and there are several people in town with medic training, plus the emergency response crew has a few medical stasis units they can deploy in a pinch. But for day-to-day stuff, most people in Mariana like to wait for Bruce.”

“He that good, or just familiar?”

“Both,” Phil said. He nudged Clint with his shoulder as they walked. “Seriously, Clint, you’ll be fine. Bruce will fix you up.”

“It would have worked itself out,” Clint said, then immediately sneezed several times in a row. “Aw, nose.”

“It probably would have,” Phil said, handing him a handkerchief. It was big and soft and had Phil’s initials in the corner. “Most things do, eventually. But there’s no need to suffer when help is available.”

Clint sniffled, reluctant to mess up Phil’s hanky with his plague-snot and wishing he’d remembered to bring one of the ones that Natasha had packed for him.

Phil shot him a keen look. “They wash, you know,” he said mildly.

Clint sighed, and blew his nose. The soft fabric was comforting on the chapped skin around his nostrils, and he felt a little better despite himself. Afterward, he tried to wad it up so that the gross part was buried, and shoved it deep into his pocket.

“Phillip! Hey! Phiiiiillip! Phillip Coulson!”

Clint and Phil turned toward the sound, and Phil groaned.

“I am really, really sorry,” he said out of the corner of his mouth, and Clint shot him a startled look. “Whatever he says, I promise I didn’t—” he broke off as the man who had called him drew closer. He was about Clint’s height, stocky and muscular, with untidy short brown hair. His pale skin was crisscrossed with scars everywhere it was visible, but he moved easily. He was grinning at them, practically radiating delight.

“Phillip, my man! I had heard you were back in town!”

Phil sighed. “Hello, Wade,” he said.

“And this must be the new star in your heavens!” Wade walked around them in a full circle, blatantly looking Clint up and down. “Very nice, Phillip.” He somehow managed to complete his circle in between Clint and Phil, and stuck out a hand to Clint. “Wade Wilson at your service, oh pinnacle of human perfection!”

Clint blinked, completely unsure how to respond. Was this some kind of practical joke? New-townsperson hazing ritual?

Over Wade’s shoulder, Phil, looking mortified, was mouthing “So, so sorry!”

Clint shrugged to himself, and decided to just roll with it. “Um, nice to meet you?” He said, shaking Wade’s hand. “I’m Clint Barton.”

Wade held the handshake, gazing intently into Clint’s eyes. “Yes,” he said. “I know. But I just have one question for you, Clint Barton.”

Clint tugged at his hand, but Wade didn’t seem willing to let go. Behind him, Phil looked as though he was about to break into some kind of apologetic pantomime, and Clint forced himself to keep a straight face, starting to get amused at the whole absurd situation. “Yeah?”

“What happened to your robot arm?” Wade demanded, plaintive. “I had it on very good authority that you had a robot arm!”

Clint managed to turn his bark of laughter into a cough just in time. Unfortunately, that triggered a real cough, and he spent the next several seconds trying to get his breathing back under control while Wade patted his back just a bit too hard and Phil hovered anxiously. “Sorry,” he wheezed.

“Phillip,” Wade said, wheeling around and stepping forward into Phil’s personal space, thumping his sternum with a wagging finger. “Why haven’t you taken this man to the doctor? He is obviously suffering!”

“We’re on our way there now, Wade,” Phil said, with the air of someone seeing a last-chance rescue after all hope was lost. “In fact, we should probably be on our way if Clint is going to make his appointment time.”

“Say no more!” Wade said. “I’ll be on my way and we can continue this scintillating little talk later. I’ll make sure to let everyone know that you got rid of your robot arm, Clint.”

“…Thanks?” Clint said, still a little hoarse.

“De nada!” Wade trilled, and then wandered off in the direction he’d come from.

“So, that guy’s… interesting,” Clint said, as soon as he was out of sight.

Phil buried his face in his hands. “I cannot tell you how sorry I am,” he said, voice muffled.

Clint bit his lip. “I have to admit, I’m really curious what kind of visa he’s here on,” he said.

Phil straightened up, sighing. His face was bright pink; it made him look a lot younger. It was actually kind of adorable. “Nobody actually knows,” he said. “Best consensus is that he’s some kind of wildlife biologist who spent too much time in the field and went a little peculiar. He wanders off at random, comes into the settlements at random, and occasionally we see him in the labs in Starkville. Tony won’t say why he’s here—or, rather, he tells everyone who asks something different, so we’ve stopped asking. Wade’s harmless, I promise; he’s just… eccentric.”

“He seems nice enough,” Clint said. “He certainly seems to like you.”

Phil snorted. “It wasn’t me he liked,” he said. “Mr. Robot Arm.”

“I guess when Darcy said she was going to be the queen of the general store, she wasn’t exaggerating,” Clint said, grinning. “I wonder if she told everyone the robot arm story or if she mixed it up.”

Phil groaned. “I’m pretty sure we’ll find out by the end of the day,” he said. “If Wade’s in town and feeling chatty, everyone will know we’re here by lunchtime.”

“Would that be so bad, though?” Clint said. “I mean, we are supposed to be…” he cleared his throat. “I dunno, being seen? Meeting people?”

“I was hoping not to scare you off the first day, though,” Phil said, sighing a little.

Clint elbowed him companionably in the side. “Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “Every town needs someone like him, right? Gives it character. Plus, well. It’s kind of nice, I think.”

“Nice?”

Clint paused, trying to get his vague feeling to make understandable words. “That nobody really knows what he does, but you all let him live here anyway,” he said. “And he’d obviously talked to Darcy, and he knows you, and you were willing to talk to him even though he embarrassed you, so it seems like even though he’s weird, he’s still a part of the town? It’s just, it’s good to know that people can have a chance, here.” He looked at his feet, feeling dumb. “Sorry, it’s stupid. Forget I said anything.”

“Hey, no,” Phil said. “That isn’t stupid at all. You’re right; Wade’s kind of an oddball, but he’s our oddball. It’s insightful of you to see it.”

Clint wasn’t sure what to say; you should thank people for compliments, he knew, but also he didn’t want Phil to think he was full of himself, and he didn’t feel very insightful most of the time. Nat used to like it when he rambled about people, but that was different, somehow. He couldn’t expect other people to think the same way as Nat.

Fortunately, Phil didn’t seem to expect a response, and they walked along pleasantly enough. Phil pointed out various local landmarks as they passed; the town hall, the restaurant, the general store. The buildings looked a lot like Phil’s house, or Steve and Peggy’s, made of natural materials, wood and stone and brick, well-kept and cheerful with flowers planted everywhere they could fit. Clint noticed several people watching them with interest, and many of them nodded or waved as they passed, but Phil’s focused demeanor seemed to be enough to prevent anyone else from interrupting. Clint couldn’t help but be thankful; he felt the need to recover a little before he met any more of Phil’s acquaintances.

The medical center, when they finally reached it, was a long, low building, rusty red brick with flowers planted along the front.

“That’s a lot of space for a guy who’s only there two days a week,” Clint remarked.

“It’s a shared space,” Phil explained. “The population in Mariana isn’t large enough to support all the medical practices we might need, so Stark Galactic hires medical staff to do rotations through the settlements. We’ve got dentists, counselors, physical therapists, pretty much anyone you can think of. They mostly work like Bruce does, a few days each place they’re needed and the rest of the time doing research in Starkville. They share the facility and office staff.”

The front door led to a large waiting room, filled with comfortable-looking if mismatched furniture. An older woman with dark hair and a kind expression on her lined face was sitting in an armchair, knitting something red and blue; in the corner was an area obviously intended for children, with a padded playmat and a box of toys. Behind a desk in the middle of the room, a man was working at a computer terminal. He looked up as the door closed behind them, his round face breaking into a smile.

“Mr. Coulson!” he said. “It’s great to see you, sir!”

“Likewise,” Phil said. “And I’ve told you, Eric, it’s Phil.”

“Not while I’m at work, sir,” Eric protested. “It wouldn’t be professional.”

Phil shook his head, smiling a little. “Well, be that as it may, I’d like to introduce you to someone,” he said. “Clint Barton, meet Eric Koenig. Eric, this is Clint Barton. He’s visiting from Earth.”

Eric’s eyes went wide. “Oh! Your fi—your friend, yes!” He got up from behind the desk and came around, reaching out to shake Clint’s hand and pumping it up and down enthusiastically. “Mr. Barton, it is such an honor to meet you. We think very highly of the Coulsons here in Mariana, you know, and we’re all so excited to meet the man who—”

Phil cleared this throat, shooting Eric a look.

“Well,” Eric said. “That is to say, Mr. Barton, welcome to Mariana Medical! How may I help you?”

“I… have an appointment?” Clint said. Why else would they be there? The lady with the knitting was watching them openly, grinning; he felt like he was making a spectacle of himself, but he wasn’t exactly sure what he could do differently.

“Oh right! Dr. Banner put you on the list this morning. Just let me get the authorization for your EMR transfer and you can go right back.”

One of the requirements for Clint’s visa had been a detailed electronic medical record. Fortunately, Natasha had been able to procure one; the dates were all fudged, but the information was real enough to be useful. Clint scanned both thumbprints on the tablet that Eric handed him, authorizing the clinic to access and use his records. The transfer took a few seconds, during which Clint was irrationally convinced that they would set off some kind of counterfeit-prevention flag, but before he could work himself up too badly, the tablet chimed and Eric looked up with a smile.

“All set, Mr. Barton,” he said. “Just go on through the door on the right; Linda will meet you.”

Phil nodded encouragingly. “I’ll wait here for you,” he said. “When you’re done, we’ll go get something to eat.”

“Okay,” Clint said, trying not to sound nervous, and headed to the door. He almost wished that Phil had offered to come back with him—he somehow made you feel better about things just by being there looking calm—but on the whole, he was relieved that Phil hadn’t; Clint wanted Phil to think of him as trustworthy, someone who could be a help, not someone else who needed looking after.

Linda—who apparently did nursing for many of the doctors who shared the office—was waiting on the other side of the door, and descended on him in a sort of whirlwind of competence. A few minutes later, Clint had gone through the vitals scanner and she had shown him to a small, colorful exam room.

“Go ahead and change into this and have a seat on the biobed,” she said, handing Clint a cloth gown. “Dr. Banner will be by in a few minutes, once he’s looked over your vitals.”

“Thanks,” Clint said softly as she closed the door behind her. He changed quickly, but left his underwear on; medical shit was bad enough without having his ass waving in the breeze. The biobed was cold, and a little too high for his feet to touch the floor when he sat on the side of it; he shivered, wondering what it was about doctors that made them keep everything so uncomfortable. He sneezed, again, and Phil’s handkerchief was in his pants on the other side of the room, so he wiped his nose on the hem of the gown. They’d have to wash it anyway, he figured. Served them right for making him take off his pants.

His head ached. How long could it take to read a vitals scan, anyway? Maybe Clint really did have the space plague. He sniffled wetly and wished that he was ho—back at Phil’s place, in his nice soft bed under his nice warm purple comforter than Katie had picked out for him. Maybe Phil would bring him more cider, made from his own apples and sweetened with honey from his own bees. Maybe the cider was Clint’s favorite after all. It tasted better, somehow, knowing that it was all produced right there, that Phil had grown the trees and de-beed the honey and made it all into a drink for Clint. People didn’t go to that much trouble for him, usually. Not that Phil had done the whole thing with Clint in mind, of course he hadn’t but it still—

A brisk knock interrupted Clint’s musings. Clint expected whoever it was to open the door immediately, but when a few seconds had passed and nothing happened, he cleared his throat.

“Come in?” he said.

The door opened, and a man came in. He had shaggy brown curls and a tanned, weathered face, and was wearing a white coat open over baggy pants and a purple shirt.

“Mr. Barton?” he said. “I’m Bruce Banner.” He held out his hand, and Clint fumbled to shake it; it was warm and roughened, but the doctor’s handshake was gentle.

“Call me Clint.”

“And I’m Bruce.” He smiled. “I’m happy to meet you, though I wish it were under different circumstances. I hear you’re having some respiratory issues?”

Clint opened his mouth to explain and sneezed, just barely getting his arm up to cover his face in time to keep from sneezing on Dr. Ban—Bruce.

Bruce blinked. “I see,” he said. “How long has that been going on?”

“Couple days?” Clint said. “I’m sure it’ll blow over, but Phil thought I should come see you. He didn’t like that it was getting worse.”

“He likes to be proactive about medical care,” Bruce said. “Lie back for me? Thanks. It’s understandable, given everything that’s happened.” He activated the scanners on the bed. “I’m going to take you through some breathing exercises. Feel free to cough or sneeze if you need to, just do your best.”

Clint inhaled and exhaled along with Bruce’s prompts, but he wasn’t really paying much attention beyond that. He’d resisted going to the doctor out of a reluctance to cause Phil trouble; he hadn’t thought that Phil wanted Clint checked out for his own reassurance, and now he felt guilty for putting up a fuss. It’s not like the man’s wife died young or anything, Barton. Be a little more insensitive next time.

“Okay, you can sit up,” Bruce said. “Say ‘ah.’” He checked Clint’s eyes and ears and nose, and swabbed an ear, a nostril, and the back of Clint’s throat. “I think I’ve got what I need,” he said. “These cultures will just take a few minutes; go ahead and get dressed and I’ll come get you when we’ve got an answer, okay?”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Clint said, forcing himself to smile. When the door closed behind Bruce, he dressed quickly, wadding up the dirty gown and shoving it in the basket that a neat sign indicated was for that purpose. Thankfully, he only had to wait another few minutes, which he passed by wondering why there was a poster of a basket of kittens on the ceiling.

“Come in,” he said, as soon as Bruce knocked. Bruce came in, pushing a tray with medical stuff on it, and Clint felt his throat closing in.

“So what’s the verdict, Doc?” he croaked. “You gonna have to quarantine me on the moon?”

Bruce smiled at him, eyes kind. “No, nothing like that,” he said. “You’re not infectious at all, in fact. Congratulations, Mr. Barton, you have allergies.”

Clint blinked at him. “That seems… anticlimactic,” he said, feeling sheepish.

“If it helps, they’re severe allergies,” Bruce said. “Actually, we’d classify you with what the literature calls Earth-Adapted Hyperallergic Response Syndrome. People who grew up on Earth and later move to planets with a lot of plant life develop it pretty often. Basically, Earth’s atmosphere contains next to no pollen these days, so while its inhabitants are adapted to breathing the Haze, their immune systems don’t know what to do with plant material.”

Clint swallowed, a horrible thought striking him. “So, will it level off, or what? I mean, I don’t have to… live somewhere without pollen?”

“Oh no, nothing like that,” Bruce said, and Clint sagged in relief. “It’s actually very good news, Clint. We can treat the hyper-allergic response pretty easily now that we know what it is. You’ll end up with superior lung capacity and endurance to people who were raised here, actually, since you’re adapted to the Haze and you won’t need the extra efficiency just to stay alive anymore.”

“Good,” Clint said. “That’s good. Thank you. So, um, what now?”

“I’m going to start you off with an injection,” Bruce said. “That will kickstart the process, and should help you feel better pretty fast. After that, we’re giving you some drops; you’ll want to take two drops under your tongue every morning for a month, and make sure it’s a Stark’s World month, not an Earth Month; the dosage is precisely calibrated. You may need a booster every now and then, but most people are completely adapted within a year. You’re young and healthy, considering where you’ve been living, so I don’t anticipate that you’ll have much trouble.” He scooted the tray forward, lifting the microinjector. “Tilt your head to the right, please?”

Clint obeyed, and managed not to flinch as Bruce leaned in, fitting the cold metal head of the injector under the curve of his jaw.

“On three,” Bruce said, and then squeezed the trigger on the injector. Clint jumped at the prickly sting.

“Fuck!” He scowled. “That didn’t sound like three.”

“If you’re tense, it hurts more,” Bruce said, an amused rumble in his voice. “Sit here for five minutes so we can make sure you don’t react badly to the meds, and Eric will have your drops at the front when you leave.” He stood. “On a more personal note, welcome to Mariana,” he said. “I’m sorry your first few days were so uncomfortable, but hopefully you’ll have a chance to see more of Stark’s World once your immune system calms down.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Clint said without thinking. “I mean, um. The Coulsons have been very… welcoming.”

“They’re good people,” Bruce said.

“I can tell.” Clint rubbed at the sore spot on his neck. “And even if I couldn’t, everyone seems to want to tell me so.”

“It must be very different from Earth,” Bruce said, “the way we all poke our noses into everyone’s business here. But please believe that it’s kindly meant.” He smiled, turning toward the door. “We’re all hoping things work out for the two of you.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, to the closing door. “Me too.”

Bruce came back to get him when his five minutes were up and he hadn’t turned blue or swelled up or whatever, and walked him back out to the waiting room. Phil was sitting in one of the armchairs, working on his tablet; when the door opened, he jerked his head up, eyes seeking out Clint’s face. Clint grinned at him reassuringly, and he relaxed, tension falling out of his back and shoulders. Clint felt like kind of an asshole again for not realizing that Phil had actually been concerned.

“Good news, Phil,” he said, crossing the room to meet him as he stood. “No space plague, just mutant allergies.”

“That is a relief,” Phil said. His tone was light, but his face was sincere. “Did Bruce get you sorted out?”

“Shot and some drops. Hey,” Clint said, turning back to Bruce. “Skye absolutely promised me that I’d get candy if I had to get a shot.”

Bruce chuckled and pulled a little paper bag out of his pocket. “I’d hate to disappoint Skye,” he said, holding it out to Clint. Inside was an assortment of brightly colored sticks of candy. Clint pulled out one with purple and white stripes and tucked it into the corner of his mouth; it was sweet and vaguely fruity. “Thanks,” he told Bruce, grinning around the candy.

“Thanks for working us in at such short notice,” Phil said, shaking Bruce’s hand.

“Oh, I should be thanking you,” Bruce said, face lighting up. “I’ve never actually seen a case of Earth-Adapted Hyperallergic response before; fascinating phenomenon. Your lungs are really impressive,” he told Clint. “Have you ever tried free-diving?”

Phil cleared his throat.

“Of course, I’m also happy we had the chance to meet, Clint,” Bruce said, sounding a little sheepish.

“Likewise,” Clint told him, smiling. He found himself liking Bruce a lot more now that the pantsless portion of their interaction was over. He collected his prescription from Eric, assuring him that he would indeed consider Mariana Medical for all his routine health-care needs (not like there were many other options), and then he and Phil went back outside into the cool spring air.

“So that was weird, right?” Clint said, as they walked away from the clinic. “That seemed weird.”

“I don’t know,” Phil said, mouth prim but eyes dancing. “You do have very impressive… lungs.”

“They are spectacular,” Clint agreed. He felt almost euphoric, like his chest was full of bubbles; he was going to be fine, he wasn’t going to get kicked off Stark’s World for being a plague carrier, he wasn’t going to infect Phil and the girls. He didn’t even have a headache anymore. Doctors were awesome. “Doc said people on Earth developed extra lung capacity to adapt to the Haze,” he explained. “Apparently once the allergies are dealt with, I’ll have some kind of super-lungs.”

“That could certainly come in useful,” Phil said, “though I’m not sure free-diving is the first place I’d go with it.”

“Hey, pair that with my nonexistent gag reflex and it could be extremely useful,” Clint said.

Beside him, Phil appeared to choke on air, and Clint caught himself.

“Shit, sorry,” Clint said. “I just—um. Sorry. I didn’t mean… well, I did, but I wasn’t trying to…”

Phil waved a hand. “I was in the Navy, Clint, I’ve hardly got delicate ears. You just surprised me.”

They walked along in silence for a minute.

“I have to ask. Gag reflex?” Phil said at last.

“Sword swallowing,” Clint replied.

“Ah.” Phil cleared his throat. It might just have been because they were walking in the sunshine, but Clint was pretty sure Phil’s ears were going pink. Clint wondered if that was a good sign, or a bad one, and then he wondered what a good or bad sign would even be. He glanced at Phil out of the corner of his eye, and caught Phil just turning away from looking at him.

Clint took a deep breath and jammed his hands into his pockets. It was safer, maybe, to cut himself off whenever he started to flirt, to touch Phil or lean into his space. It was easy to stop himself from thinking about a future here, to keep himself held apart just in case. But it wasn’t really him. Nat was the one who looked before she leaped, after all; Clint was more of a jump-in-with-both-feet kind of guy. Really, when you thought about it, the guy Clint had been trying to be, who held back and was careful and protected himself? It wasn’t fair to let Phil make his decisions based on that guy, because Clint couldn’t be him forever. If Phil decided he wanted to keep Clint, he should get a chance to actually meet Clint, right?

Maybe he was just rationalizing what he wanted to do, but… so be it. Clint took another deep, dizzying breath, still reveling in the novelty of being able to do so, and let it out in a long, steady stream, calming himself the way he did before a mission, the way he did before a show.

“You look like you’re deep in thought,” Phil said quietly. “I hope I didn’t offend you, earlier.”

Clint felt a rush of affection, and this time he consciously let himself feel it instead of shoving it aside. He leaned a little closer to Phil and let their shoulders brush as they walked. “Nah, you’re good,” he said, and tried to let his feelings show on his face. “I was just thinking that I like it here.”

Phil beamed at him, looking as pleased as if he’d designed Mariana himself. “I’m very happy to hear it,” he said.

They decided to grab an early lunch at Anna’s Kitchen, the little restaurant that faced the town square. A thin, dignified man with thick silver hair was standing behind the host stand, and smiled widely when he looked up and saw them in the doorway.

“Phillip! Why, this is a pleasure,” the man said, coming forward to shake Phil’s hand.

“Mr. Jarvis,” Phil said, smiling back. “Please allow me to introduce my friend Clint Barton. Clint is visiting from Earth. Clint, this is Edwin Jarvis. He and Peggy worked together during the war.”

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” Clint said, shaking Mr. Jarvis’ offered hand.

“The honor is mine, I assure you,” he said. “Ms. Carter has spoken very highly of you, Mr. Barton; I’m very happy indeed that you’ve come by.” He looked over at Phil. “Will you be dining with us this afternoon, or was this more of a social call?”

“We couldn’t come by and not eat,” Phil said. “Mrs. Jarvis would never forgive us.”

“You are a wise man, indeed,” Mr. Jarvis said, smiling. He led them to a table next to a sunny window with an excellent view of the square.

“So is everyone on Stark’s World retired spies?” Clint asked, when they were alone.

Phil chuckled. “It seems like it sometimes, doesn’t it?” he said. “It’s more a matter of the Starks inviting people they’re personally connected with to settle here. Howard Stark was a scientific consultant to the Alliance during the Hydra War, and Mr. Jarvis worked for him, and then eventually with Peggy. It was only natural for them to move here when the Starks did.”

“It must have been strange for him when the America popped back up,” Clint said. “And for Peggy, too, to see people she knew who’d lived a whole life in what seemed like days to her. I can’t imagine what that must feel like, to think you’ve lost a person for good and then for them to just reappear in your life, but different.”

“I think it’s different for everyone,” Phil said. “Some mourn the time together that they lost, while some regard it as an unexpected gift.”

Mr. Jarvis came back to take their order; Phil asked for the special, so Clint did the same, figuring Phil probably knew what was what.

“So, speaking of the Hydra War, Phil, I have to ask,” Clint said. “How could you possibly have served with Captain Rogers and Britannia? I’m pretty sure I know all the Howling Commandoes, and I don’t think any of them were called Phil.”

Phil chuckled. “It’s no great mystery,” he said. “Right after their ship was found, Steve and Peggy and some of their crew spent some time working with Alliance intelligence. I was with NavInt and got selected to liaise with them, we ended up working well together, and I eventually transferred to work with them full time. The unit was mostly classified because of the press interest; it’s hard to do covert ops with paparazzi following you around everywhere you go.”

Clint grinned. “Well, mystery solved,” he said. “Shame, I was kind of hoping I was provisionally engaged to Jacques Dernier in disguise; I always had a crush on him.”

Phil huffed. “In that case, maybe I’d better keep you away from the Victory Day Picnic after all,” he said. “Most of the Howlies come if they can.”

“You got nothing to worry about, Phil,” Clint said. He winked, and felt quite smug when Phil smiled back and ducked his head, suddenly shy.

The food, when it arrived, was delicious, but the experience turned out to be nerve-wracking; it seemed like every other person that walked through the square saw them through the window and came over to talk. Apparently everyone on the planet knew Phil and couldn’t wait to meet his fiancé. By the end of the meal, Clint had been introduced to eight people, had been checked out with varying degrees of obviousness by four, and received what he was fairly sure were thinly-veiled threats of harm if he broke Phil’s heart by three. Another two had actually seemed to be making heartbreak threats to Phil on Clint’s behalf, which was strange but also kind of nice. Still, it was enough to exhaust the rest of Clint’s good mood at being able to breathe properly at last. Clint’s only consolation (besides the food, which was as amazing as everything else he’d eaten on Stark’s World) was the way Phil was reacting; he’d smiled when people were nice to Clint and frowned at the ones who’d been threatening, and he kept scooting his chair over so that he could angle his body between Clint and the people who came over to talk. Clint didn’t even think he was consciously doing it; he’d looked startled for a second when he reached for his water glass and found it several inches away from where he’d expected it to be.

As they finished up their lunches, Mr. Jarvis came back over, accompanied by a rosy-cheeked, snowy-haired woman who was wrapped in a giant, flour-spattered apron. Phil stood, and Clint scrambled to follow.

“I’ve brought Clint to meet you, Anna,” Phil said, his voice soft and fond, and she smiled.

“And very well done, too,” she said. “Young Darcy’s had her fun, but it’s past time you started sharing him with the rest of us, Phillip.” She pulled up a chair, and motioned to them to sit. “Edwin, would you please bring these boys some coffee? And something sweet; what do you fancy, my dear?” She patted Clint’s hand; he felt suddenly very young and very shy, reminded of nice old Mrs. Mironov, who used to bake pies for the kids at the group home sometimes. The slices were always tiny, but she’d always had a hug for any kid who wanted one.

“I—do you have any pie?” Clint blurted, then wished he could take it back. What if she didn’t have pie? He couldn’t be rude to Mrs. Jarvis. “I mean, it’s fine if you don’t,” he hastened to add. “I’m sure everything you have is delicious.”

She patted his hand again, soothingly. “You’re a pie man, are you? Lovely. Edwin, darling, bring out some of the French silk from last night, please.” She leaned in, lowering her voice a little like they were sharing secrets. “Would you say that you’re a connoisseur of pies, my dear?”

“I… guess?” Clint said. He glanced over at Phil, who had a strange look on his face. “I mean, I like pie?”

“Any particular kind?”

“All kinds?”

“That’s wonderful news,” Mrs. Jarvis said. “We must speak later about the Victory Day picnic; we’re short a judge for pies and tarts.”

“I’m happy to help out any way I can, ma’am,” Clint said. In his peripheral vision, Phil winced, and Clint wondered what was so bad about judging pies. Just then, Mr. Jarvis came back, pushing a wheeled cart laden with coffee service and two enormous pieces of gorgeous chocolate pie, and Clint stopped thinking about anything else but his stomach for a while.

After they finished their coffee and pie and the Jarvises had left their table, Clint was feeling decidedly frazzled. He was used to meeting people, of course, but not as himself, and not people he needed to maintain relationships with long-term.

“You look a little harried,” Phil said, leaning in to speak quietly. “You okay?”

“Not gonna lie, I think I got stared at less when I was in the circus,” Clint said. “And that includes the times they put some fake hair on me and made me sit in for JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy.”

“So if I were to suggest that we go for a drive?”

“As long as we don’t have to stop to chat on the way, I’m in,” Clint told him.

“I was thinking we could go home and get Lola.”

“In that case, I’m definitely in,” Clint promised.

They made their way back to the ground car in good time; Phil’s purposeful stride seemed to keep the curious townsfolk from coming to bother him, and once or twice Phil actually put his hand around Clint’s elbow and hauled him into an alley to avoid someone. It was surprisingly fun, reminding Clint a little of dodging through the tangle of walkways and scaffolds that ran between the buildings in Washington-York. It was also stupidly hot; Clint had long ago come to terms with his enjoyment of a little sexy manhandling every now and then, and Phil’s intent expression made Clint think about seeing it in other, more intimate contexts.

Phil drove a different way out of town, one that didn’t pass nearly as many shops full of curious people, and then drove straight back to the barn.

“It’ll be chilly with the top down,” Phil said, as they climbed out of the car. “Would you rather put it up, or grab some coats?”

“Seems kind of a waste to drive an Aerovite with the top up,” Clint said.

“That’s how I’ve always felt,” Phil admitted, grinning. “Grab something warm and meet me back here?”

“Sure thing.” Clint hurried back to the house, letting himself in with his handprint, and took the stairs two at a time. It was early spring on Stark’s world, cool but not cold, but Natasha had insisted on outfitting him for all seasons; he reached into his closet (he had a closet, and it was full of clothes, which was still a mindfuck sometimes) and pulled out a jacket, not overly heavy but good for cutting the wind. After a moment of thought, he also grabbed a pair of thin leather gloves and a scarf, the bright green of the new leaves on Phil’s apple trees and made of something so soft it was all Clint could do not to pet it constantly. He shrugged on the jacket, stuffed the gloves in one deep pocket and the scarf in the other, and jogged back outside.

Phil already had Lola in the drive, and was leaning hipshot against her glossy side, wearing a battered leather jacket and dark glasses. He looked, in fact, remarkably like the hero of a satvid serial that had been omnipresent when Clint had been fourteen and marinating in hormones. It wasn’t a connection Clint had made before—he’d only seen Phil in soft, sweet dad mode or brisk and businesslike—but now, it was like a revelation, the tilt of Phil’s hips and the sidewise slant of his mouth whispering of potential. Clint’s mouth went dry.

“Ready to go?” Phil asked.

Clint swallowed, trying to make sure his voice wouldn’t croak embarrassingly. “You bet.”

Phil opened the door for him, and Clint slid in, the soft leather seat cradling him as he settled. He fastened the restraints and put his hands on his knees, nervous; everything around him was polished and gleaming, and he was afraid he’d mess it up somehow. Phil got into the driver’s seat, doing up his own harness and running through pre-flight checks with the ease of experience. Clint watched his long, graceful fingers on Lola’s switches, and shivered. He wondered briefly if the shot Bruce had given him maybe had some kind of aphrodisiac side effects. Phil activated the repulsors, and the skimmer rose, hovering smoothly about five feet off the ground.

Phil turned to him, excitement in the line of his shoulders. “How do you feel about speed?”

“Good,” Clint managed. “Fast is good. I can go fast. Um.”

Phil smiled, wide and predatory. “Then hold on tight,” he said, and threw the skimmer into gear, accelerating hard enough to push Clint back into his seat. The front drive was long and gently curved, and Phil slalomed around the tall trees on the borders, then barely slowed as he slewed the skimmer around in a tight curve to follow the main road.

“I want to get a little farther out of town before I really open her up,” Phil said, raising his voice to be heard over the rushing wind.

“Sounds good,” Clint said. If he was a little breathless, he was blaming it on their speed.

They drove in silence for a few minutes, skimming over the gently rolling hills. When they reached a crossroads, Phil pulled the skimmer to a halt. “The road to the right goes to Starkville,” he said, pointing, “and Port Anthony is ahead.”

“And the left?”

“Not much. Some pastureland, a few research outposts. The beach, if you go far enough. But there’s some fun places to drive. Where would you like to go?”

Clint grinned, and jerked his head to the left. “Why don’t you show me if my youthful fantasies about the Aerovite were true,” he suggested. He’d had a lot of fantasies about this particular skimmer. Only some of them were about driving it.

“That,” Phil said, grinning back, “would be my genuine pleasure.”

Clint had thought they’d been going fast before, but that pace was an amble compared to what Phil did next. He was alert in his seat, not tense but every line of him focused, driving with an easy authority that was as impressive as it was—if Clint was honest with himself—sexy. The scenery was a blur of green around them, tall grasses and flowers whipping wildly in their wake.

The navigation system dinged. “Watch this,” Phil yelled, and pulled the wheel hard to the right and back, lifting the skimmer higher into the air and moving off the road. Clint whooped as they picked up even more speed. The wind was forcing tears from his eyes, cutting and cold against his face and hands. His heart was pounding, his breath quick, adrenaline surging through his body. It was the high wire without a net, it was free-climbing a building on the eighty-second floor, it was flying off a trapeze, waiting for your partner to catch you. It was the kind of feeling Clint had always assumed that people with kids and houses and normal lives didn’t have, wouldn’t want.

A wooded area loomed over the horizon, then they were headed straight for it, the trees going from specks to blurs to looming giants ridiculously fast.

“Trees!” Clint hollered, clutching at the door handle.

Phil—cackled, there was no other word for it, and just before Clint was about to close his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see them smash into a million pieces, he turned, limbs straining as he hauled the skimmer into a turn—into the air—upside down, motherfuck—and then into a tight spiral, shedding velocity as he descended, until Lola gave a neat little shimmy and settled back down to normal cruising height, her engine purring somehow sounding just as smug as the grin on her driver’s face.

“Holy shit,” Clint said, panting, “holy shit, Phil.”

Phil pulled off his glasses. He was flushed and bright-eyed, laughing, his hair a mess; Clint’s hands ached to touch. “Did that live up to your fantasies?”

“You have no idea,” Clint said. “I’ve had wet dreams that weren’t that good.”

Phil laughed, open and free. “I think it takes everyone that way,” he said, and Clint couldn’t help it, he couldn’t not shoot a little glance into Phil’s lap when he said that, and oh. Oh, wow. Phil was either really well endowed or really excited or wearing really flattering pants. Or maybe all three. Clint tore his eyes away, hoping that Phil would attribute the blush he could feel burning in his face to the wind. His mouth was watering. He wondered if Phil could concentrate enough to drive the skimmer while someone was sucking his cock.

Aw, brain.

“You want to try?” Phil asked.

“Yes,” Clint said. “I mean, what?” he was pretty sure Phil wasn’t actually inviting him into his pants for a taste. Down, Barton.

Phil looked amused. “Driving.”

“Oh fuck yes,” Clint said.

Phil landed the skimmer, and Clint took the opportunity to zip up his jacket and wind the green scarf around his neck. He rubbed his cold hands together briskly before pulling on the gloves, flexing his hands to make sure he’d still have enough dexterity to drive. Natasha had picked them out, though, so they were great, warm but thin and flexible.

Clint actually had driven a repulsor skimmer before, just not anything near this powerful; he had the basics down, though, so after Phil was satisfied that he knew what he was doing, they took off. Clint went high straight off, pulling Lola up about a hundred feet. The day was beautiful and the sky was clear, and Clint could see for miles.

“Which way’s town?” he asked. There were a few smudges on the horizon, but even Clint’s vision couldn’t tell which settlement was which from this distance.

“Southwest from here,” Phil said, pointing at one of the smudges. “You didn’t get enough of Mariana earlier today?”

“Maybe I want to buzz Wade Wilson,” Clint said, and Phil laughed.

“If you can find him, be my guest.”

This high, there were no obstacles to steer around, and Clint let himself open up the engine and really fly. All too soon, Mariana was coming up beneath them, and Clint did a showy, banking curve over a farm on the outskirts of town. Underneath them, a flock of animals scattered, alarmed bleating drifting up from below.

“I think we scared Thor’s goats,” Phil said, an amused quirk to his lips.

“Ooops,” Clint said. “Sorry, goats!” he called, and laughed when one particular goat bleated again as if in reply. He pulled Lola around and dropped a little lower, cruising over the main street. As they passed, people looked up at them, some of them pointing or waving or gesturing. Clint waved back, showy, like he was riding Shady the horse around a circus ring; Phil, smirking, was slouched back in his seat, one hand resting on the doorframe, dark glasses glinting in the light: the picture of unaffected cool. After they finished passing over the town, Clint took them up again, and started driving around aimlessly, going over to look at anything that seemed interesting. They were cruising around idly, a few hundred feet in the air, when an alert dinged.

“What was that?” Clint asked, tensing.

“The girls’ shuttle home just left the school,” Phil said.

“Time to head back, then,” Clint said. “Um, which way is it? I’m a little turned around. Not much to navigate by up here.”

“Take us home, Lola,” Phil said, and the navigation screen lit with a clear route.

“Handy,” Clint remarked, steering the skimmer around in a gentle curve.

“I admit, I’ve occasionally ended up in the middle of nowhere,” Phil said. “It’s good to have a backup plan.”

They sat in companionable silence as Clint carefully guided Lola along the suggested route, traveling at a good clip but not so fast that it was difficult to control their path. When the big yellow house loomed, Clint felt warm and fizzy inside.

Home, he thought, and this time he didn’t stop himself from thinking it. He feathered the throttle, setting Lola down delicately in the sweep of lane in front of the house, then cutting the engine with a triumphant flourish.

“Ta-da,” he said, turning to Phil.

Phil smiled at him, eyes crinkled at the corners. He looked relaxed; he looked happy. Clint found himself smiling back, joy bubbling in his chest. He wanted to lean in and kiss Phil’s curved lips, he wanted them to sit there forever grinning like fools, he wanted to… he wanted…

Their heads tilted closer together, a thread of connection seeming to hang in the air between them. Phil’s tongue darted out to wet his lips, and Clint felt his own lips parting in response. He looked back and forth from Phil’s mouth to his eyes, the pupils wide, surrounded by a thin ring of blue.

The buzzing hum of the school shuttle coming up the lane jolted him out of his reverie, and he pulled back, looking down at his hands in embarrassment.

“Girls are home,” he muttered, then cleared his throat. “Playtime’s over, I guess.”

Phil laid a hand over his, touch warm through Clint’s thin gloves. “Thanks for coming with me,” he said.

“I should be thanking you,” Clint told him, unable to resist turning his hand over to give Phil’s a quick squeeze.

“Daddy, you went out in Lola! Did you let Clint drive? Is he a good driver? Did you fly? Clint, do you like flying?” Katie was tumbling down the shuttle steps, Skye a few steps behind. She had a giant grass stain on one knee of her school pants.

Clint wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not, but he thought Phil moved reluctantly as he pulled his hand away and got out of the car to greet his daughters.

He was in so much trouble. Or possibly he was really, really lucky.

One of the two.

That night, after the girls had been tucked into bed and he and Phil had spent a comfortable hour discussing potential ways to fine-tune Lola, Clint went back to his desk and pulled out his stationery again. He knew that his future was far from certain, still, but something about the day had filled him with optimism. Now that he’d decided to let himself, he felt content here, connected, safe; it made him think of Natasha. She’d been concerned, he knew, that if Phil found out that Clint was intimately connected to the Black Widow he’d want nothing more to do with him. Now that Clint was getting to know Phil, he didn’t think that would happen; Phil would give anyone a chance, he was almost certain of it. If Phil got to know Natasha, he could come to love her as much as Clint did.

He let himself daydream, a little; maybe someday Clint would live in Phil’s room, and they’d paint the guest room in deep glimmering jewel tones and fill it with cushions and throws, and Natasha would come live there, and be the girls’ Aunt Nat, and she could rest and be safe and know that she had a whole family to watch her back.

Phil needed to know Natasha before he could know about the Black Widow. He needed to understand who she was before he could understand what she had done. Clint picked up his pen.

I’m sure you’ve probably wondered how I first met Natasha…


Clint jerked awake, limbs flailing, and bit back a groan as his aching body protested the movement. The welts on his back had stiffened up in the night, and every little twitch felt like it was ripping him open. He forced himself to breathe steadily, taking an inventory of what he could sense. What had woken him?

It was mostly dark in his hiding spot, the only light coming from a few dim amber indicators on the massive ancient machine in the corner. None of the piles of rubbish that he’d set up as alarms in the pipes leading to his hiding place in the long-abandoned boiler room had been knocked over, and nothing was moving that Clint could see. He got up as quietly as he could, hissing through his teeth when moving pulled on his bruises, and laid his head against one of the pipes that threaded through the space, pressing his good ear to the metal. He could feel the sounds almost as much as he could hear them, rattling through the old pipes; deep voices, angry, shouting; the reverberation of some kind of impact. The building was in Bratva territory; Clint had managed to avoid the enforcers so far, but everyone on the Ground knew what happened when you got on their bad side. He could almost hear Barney: keep your head down, dumbass, don’t draw attention to yourself. Just mind your own business.

Well. Barney wasn’t there, was he? Barney had made his choice.

Clint made sure his knives were in their spots and filled his pockets from the pile of broken bits of stone and brick that he’d been building up. He missed his bow like a limb, but he couldn’t risk it; not with Trickshot probably still looking for him. There were scores of kids living rough in the lower levels, but archers were rare, and he knew Trick’d be looking for any reports of someone using a bow. He wormed his way out of the hole in the boarded-up doorway and scrambled up into the crawl space of the building, following the vibration of the pipes.

He ended up around the seventh level, a big open space that looked like it had probably been a warehouse once, but was now empty of everything but bits of old packing crates and various ugly, ominous stains on the walls and floor. There were catwalks up near the ceiling, covered with the dust of decades, obscured in the shadows of the pipes; he eased himself out, slow and steady, like walking the high wire. There was a little group of people in the middle of the room, all looming around another person, bound to a chair; a small person with bright red hair. Clint moved around to get a better look. If he got close enough, he might be able to tell what they were saying.

The person tied to the chair was a woman, wearing a filmy green dress and sparkly shoes. They had her tied with dirty ropes that left greasy marks around her chest and arms. As Clint watched, the Bratva enforcer—a sneering, muscular man wearing the same ugly rust-brown jumpsuit that the Bratva always wore—shouted something at her and backhanded her across the face, making her head snap back from the force of the blow.

“Please,” he thought she said, tears trickling down her cheek, blood dribbling from a fresh split in her lip. “Please, I don’t know anything!”

One of the other Bratva grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her head back, and the first one pulled a long, wicked-looking knife.

“Maybe my bro here cut you a little, bitch,” Hair-Puller said. Maybe then you know more, hmm? You say who horn in on Alexei’s operation?”

“I don’t know any Alexei!” the woman cried, struggling in vain against the hold. “I only know Nikolai, I swear, only him!”

“Nikolai is nothing,” another Bratva said. “Small bro, think he make it big. You gonna die, bitch, for nobody little pissant like Nikolai? Bad move.” He kicked one of her legs, hard, and she made a broken little sound that Clint could hardly hear. He saw red.

He pulled his broken bricks out of his pockets. One throw, two, three, and the Bratva were toppling over, moaning and clutching their heads. Clint jumped from catwalk to catwalk, finally catching a pipe that led down and skimming down the wall, scrambling to the chair and sawing through the ropes as quickly as he could.

“Run, miss,” he said into her ear, “just as soon as I get you loose, okay? If you go down seven floors you can get out on the Ground. In the building to the right there’s a door that you can jimmy loose, if you go up far enough you can get help. I’ll try to keep them busy.” The last rope parted and fell away, but just as Clint was pulling them off of her, he was hit hard, right on top of the sorest place on his side. His knife clattered to the ground as his fingers spasmed with pain, and he staggered, trying to turn to face his attacker. There’d been another enforcer somewhere; how had he missed him?

He fought hard, but he was already injured, tired, and underfed; the enforcer was twice his weight, and without the element of surprise Clint couldn’t get an advantage. He saw a blur of green out of the corner of his eye and hoped that at least the woman could get away. Even now, he was still pretty agile, but he wasn’t as quick as usual, and he was wearing out fast. Finally, he zigged when he should have zagged, and the bruiser caught him around the neck, his hands digging in until Clint could barely breathe.

“You think you’re funny, bro?” he demanded, foul breath blasting Clint’s face. “We see who’s laughing—” he broke off with a funny choked noise and slumped to the ground, slow, like a load of garbage tipping off a gravcart. The woman was standing behind him, a piece of jagged wood clutched in her hands. There was blood dripping off the pointy end. Clint wasn’t sure, but he thought it might be part of the chair she’d been tied to.

“Sorry about your neck,” she said, and her voice was different than it had been before, when she’d been crying and pleading; low and businesslike and matter-of-fact, even though she seemed to be having a little difficulty enunciating around the split lip. “The first three woke up.”

Clint looked around at the bodies on the floor. He was almost completely sure they were all still alive, but they didn’t look good. The woman stood patiently while he got his bearings, watching him like a schoolteacher waiting for him to answer a question in class. Her pretty dress was torn, streaked with blood and muck, and one of her slim pale ankles was starting to swell up and turn red.

“Well, we’re still alive,” she said, when he looked back at her. “Though I don’t know how long that will last, once the reinforcements come. Wherever you materialized from, you should probably start heading back there.”

“I’m not going to just leave you here!” His voice came out raspy and painful. “They’ll kill you if they catch you!”

“I can handle myself,” she said. “More to the point, what could you possibly do to stop them?”

“I know a way out,” he said. “Secret, too small for them to follow even if they saw us, but you and me could fit. I can get us both clear.”

“You would show me your secret ways?” she asked, tilting her head. “I am a stranger to you. I could be worse than they.”

“You’re not,” Clint said. He wasn’t sure what exactly was going on—if she could fight like that, how had they caught her in the first place?—but he was sure that she wasn’t going to hurt him. “If you were, you’d have run when I cut the ropes, not come back to stop them killing me.”

She looked at him for a moment, searching his face as though trying to uncover his secrets, such as they were. He met her eyes; he had things to hide, but not from her.

On the belt of one of the unconscious Bratva, a comm started to squawk.

“Well, then,” she said. “Lead on, I suppose.”

“We start by going up,” he explained, and led the way to the pipe. He looked doubtfully at her painted nails, her sparkly shoes. “Um, maybe there’s a ladder.”

She clicked her tongue reprovingly. “You must learn not to judge by first appearances,” she said. She backed up a little, then took a few running steps, vaulting up the wall to grab the first handhold, several feet above her head.

Clint was, maybe, just a tiny bit in love.

Once she’d made it onto the catwalk, he climbed up after her. “We’ve got to go through the old crawlspaces,” he said, pointing. “Follow the pipes down.”

She gestured with one arm, courtly and old-fashioned like someone from a vid. “After you.”

“My name’s Clint,” he offered, as he squeezed past her on the narrow platform.

She was silent for several seconds, and Clint was just starting to feel really stupid when she said, “You can call me Talia.”

They were quiet as they made their way back to the boiler room, communicating in little gestures more than sound. Talia was flexible and agile and small, not much larger than Clint, and she could fit through the same spaces he could, make the same climbs. She would have made a great aerialist, Clint thought; silks, maybe, or trapeze. Something graceful. They’d have put her in a gauzy costume, with rhinestones in her hair to sparkle under the lights. Of course, what she was wearing now was probably just as much a costume. He wondered what her regular clothes were like.

When they had squeezed back through the gap in the door, Clint motioned for Talia to stay still while he checked his traps and listened to the pipes. There was some commotion, but it was distant; with any luck the Bratva would be looking for them outside or upstairs, not in a disused boiler room in the sub-basement that wasn’t even on the blueprints anymore.

“We’ll be safe here, long as we don’t make noise near the pipes,” he told her quietly. “They carry sound like nobody’s business, but I think we’re okay to have a little light.”

“Is that what drew you, then?” Talia asked, pulling a tiny pocket torch from somewhere and turning it on low.

“Yeah,” Clint admitted. “I was sleeping with my head near the pipe, the yelling woke me up. I was worried they were gonna kill someone.”

“Save me from well-meaning children,” she muttered. “I was working. I allowed myself to be taken so that I could gain information.”

“But they were hurting you!”

“That was the point.” She looked amused. “Men like that, if they think you’re afraid, they’ll give away everything you need.”

Clint bit his lip. She had a point; he’d known a lot of men who liked to gloat, especially when people were afraid of them. He still hated to think about her letting them hurt her on purpose, but it wasn’t really his business, he knew. “Did—did I fuck up your, um, your mission or whatever? I’m really sorry.”

She made a dismissive little noise. “It is no matter. The Bratva, they will not wish to admit to being beaten by a woman and a little boy, so we will become five, ten men. My cover will be strengthened, and I will be able to learn what I must another way.”

“I’m not a little boy!”

Talia cupped her hand beneath his chin and lifted his face, studying him with sharp green eyes. She ghosted touches over his split lip, his black eye, the hot, throbbing spot on his cheekbone where the bruiser had gotten in a wallop. “No? How old are you, Clint?”

“Nineteen.”

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Try again.”

“Seventeen.”

Her lips quirked. “Well, that’s closer to true.”

Almost seventeen,” Clint admitted.

“A babe in arms,” Talia said, releasing him with an airy wave of her hand.

Clint scoffed. “Not for a long time, lady.”

Her face softened. “Indeed,” she said. She sighed a little. “Nevertheless, it was not my intention to bring trouble to your door.”

“I had enough trouble already,” Clint said. “I doubt a little more’ll make much difference.”

“Oh?”

He paused. Was it safe to tell her? He hadn’t told anyone, afraid of being sold out—he knew Trick would offer rewards for information, even if he’d never pay out. But she seemed too classy for the likes of Trick. He didn’t think she’d fall for his line. And deep down, he didn’t think she’d sell him out, regardless. She’d come back for him, after all. That meant something.

“I was with a circus,” he said at last. “Since I was a kid, me and my brother. But some of the people there, they got mixed up in some stuff, and they pulled Barn—my brother—in with them. And he wanted me to help them, but…” he sighed. “They were hurting people, stealing from folk that couldn’t spare it, you know? I couldn’t help with that. I tried—” his voice caught in his bruised throat, and he coughed a little, painfully. “I thought I could convince ‘em to put the money back,” he said. “But they thought I was gonna report ‘em, and they, uh. Taught me a lesson.”

“Their lesson bruised some ribs, if I’m not mistaken.”

Clint shrugged, then winced. “Bruised something, anyway.”

“So you ran?”

“Staying would’ve been worse.”

“Sometimes you have to cut your losses, it’s true.” She pulled a handkerchief out of the pocket of her skirt; miraculously, it was clean. “Is there any decent water here? We could clean up a little.”

“There’s a cold-water pipe over there,” Clint said, pointing. “I cleaned off the outside and set up a bucket to catch the condensation, it’s pretty good.”

She smiled, approving. “Clever boy,” she said, and Clint preened a little despite himself.

Talia took the empty can that Clint used as a cup, and scooped a little water out of the bucket. “Come here,” she said, and used the damp handkerchief to clean the blood and dirt off Clint’s face and hands. He held still under her ministrations; it hurt, but it was good, too. It had been a long time since anyone had wanted to help Clint take care of himself. When she was done, she rinsed the cloth out in the cup and handed it to him. “Would you mind?”

When he reached to dab at the trail of blood on Talia’s chin, his hand was trembling with nerves. He wiped as gently as he could, trying to get all the dirt off without starting the bleeding up again. She watched him steadily as he worked, as though he were some sort of curiosity that she could not quite make out.

“I’ve got a some ration packs,” Clint offered. “You hungry?”

“It’s nice to see you’re practical about some things,” she said with a smile. “We should both get a little food and drink if we can; it will help us heal.”

Clint limped over to the old metal box where he stashed his food. “I, uh, I’ve only got two left,” he said.

“We can share,” Talia said. “One tonight, and one in the morning. And then we’ll make our way to safer territory, and I’ll replenish your supplies.”

“You don’t have to,” he said, pulling out one of the packs. “I can manage.”

She took the ration pack, activating the heating element and setting it on top of a pipe to get warm. “I’m sure you can,” she said, “but I always pay my debts.”

Clint only had the one spoon, but Talia pulled a little knife out of…somewhere, and ate with it neatly, spearing little chunks of protein with the tip and snapping them off with sharp white teeth. Ration packs all pretty much had the same salty, vaguely meaty flavor, but at least the food was hot and filling. By the time they were finished eating, Clint was starting to get sleepy. Talia had spoken of the morning, so he assumed she was going to stay the night.

“I don’t have much to offer you for sleeping,” he said, apologetically. “I usually use this corner; it’s a little stuffy but it’s warm and dry, and I have an extra shirt you can use for a pillow.”

She came over to stand next to him, looking down at the makeshift pallet he’d made out of a torn piece of tarp. “I’d suggest taking watches, normally, but this place is well-hidden and inaccessible enough that I think we can both sleep the night,” she said. “That is, if you don’t mind sharing?”

Clint gulped. “Um, sure,” he said. His voice squeaked alarmingly, and he hoped Talia would put it down to the whole choking thing.

She toed off her shoes. “We’ll sleep back to back,” she told him. “Easier to fight, if something were to happen. Go on,” she gestured to the tarp.

He eased himself down, trying not to make noise as the motion made his injuries flare with pain, and tucked himself as close to the edge of the tarp as he could, facing the wall. Talia lay down beside him, her back touching his all the way down to her little feet, which she tucked under his calves. The heat of her body started soaking through their clothes almost immediately, and it felt wonderful against Clint’s aching back. He was glad she’d put them back to back; Talia was really pretty and really warm, and sometimes a guy’s body didn’t have the best sense of what was appropriate. He would hate for anything embarrassing to happen, or for Talia to think that he was helping her because he wanted something for it.

He closed his eyes, and let the slight movements of Talia’s breathing against his back follow him down into sleep. He slept longer and deeper than he had since he’d run from the circus. When he finally woke, he was lying on his stomach on the tarp and Talia was sitting cross-legged next to his hip, all of Clint’s weapons spread out in a semi-circle in front of her. He froze; it wasn’t that he thought she was going to kill him—if she’d wanted to do that, he’d never have woken up—but he wasn’t quite sure what to make of what he was seeing.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the way he keeps his equipment,” Talia said, her voice quiet but distinct. She picked up one of his little throwing knives, tilting it to watch the play of the pocket torch’s light on the edge.

“Oh yeah? Learn anything interesting?”

“You respect your tools,” she said. “I approve.”

He felt way more relieved than he probably should have.

“Now that you’re awake, I’ll heat up the other ration pack,” she said. “Once we’ve eaten, we can scout out the building, see if there’s a clear path.”

“If we can make it to fifteen, there’s a hole in the ductwork,” Clint said. “We can get across into the next building from there, and come out somewhere they wouldn’t be looking.”

“Fortunately, we’re on the edge of the Bratva’s territory,” Talia said. “Once we’re a few buildings into Terra Nova’s, we’ll be safe from overt pursuit.”

Clint sat up gingerly. He still ached all over, but a full night’s sleep and a full meal had done him some good.

“Do you need anything else before we go?” he asked Talia. “That ration pack’s the last of my food, but I have half a bottle of pain pills that only expired last month, if you’re hurting.”

“Thank you, but I’m really fine,” she said. “It looked worse than it was.”

When the rations were hot, they shared them, the same way they had before, and then Clint started going through his stash, sorting out what he should take and what he should leave. It wouldn’t hurt to keep the boiler room stocked with a few things, like his tarp and his drinking can and water bucket, but he should take everything that he couldn’t easily replace. He wondered if he should try to make his way out of Washington-York altogether; if you could get across the Appalachian Wasteland, he’d heard there was some good money to be made in New Atlanta. He held up a pair of socks that was mostly holes, wondering if it was worth trying to fix them again.

“You’re funny,” Talia said, watching him fuss with a little half-smile. “Like a half-grown pigeon trying to feather his nest.”

Clint’s face got hot. “Sorry,” he muttered. His stuff probably all looked like trash to her.

“No, you mistake me,” she said, and laid a hand on his head, combing her fingers through his sweaty, dusty hair. “They’re admirable birds, the pigeons. Even though so many other birds have died away, they still find ways to survive. They make their nests where they please, and walk beneath the very feet of their enemies, defiant and bold. They seem unremarkable until they swoop to take what they wish, even the very bread from your mouth.”

Clint stayed still, frozen beneath her petting hand. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched him that way, soft and undemanding.

“Yes,” she mused. “Bold, and defiant, and strong, yet still you have kindness left to give a stranger. I think you shall do very well for me, little bird.”

“I’ll try,” Clint promised. He had no idea what she meant, but he wanted to do well at whatever it was. She had been fighting the Bratva, so it couldn’t be bad, right? She had to be good, if she was fighting bad guys. He wanted her to keep looking at him like he was a person, keep touching his hair all gentle. “Whatever you need, Talia.”

“I am a fool,” she said, as if to herself. “But so be it.”

“Talia?”

She stood, barely wincing when she put weight on her injured leg. “Come along, ptitchka,” she said. “Gather your things. It’s time for us to go home.”

He scrambled to follow her, shoving his odds and ends into his bag. He hardly dared…

“Us?” he said, half in a whisper.

“I find myself in need of an apprentice,” she told him. “I believe you will do.” As he trailed her out the door and into the twilight, she paused, smiling at him a little over her shoulder.

“You may hear me spoken of by many names,” she said. “But you may call me Natasha.”

Chapter Text

 

Phil checked his tie again in the mirror, smoothing the midnight-blue silk to hang a fraction more to the right, then shook his head at his reflection. He was being absurd, he knew, but he couldn’t help it; the thought of going back in to the office that morning had him stupidly antsy. With the girls back in school, Clint would have to spend the day alone. Phil had no reason to think Clint would have trouble—he had adjusted remarkably well to everything so far—but Phil still felt worried and a little guilty at the prospect. Had he shown Clint everything he needed to run the house? Had he given him all the right permissions for the system? Would Clint be bored? Would he get lonely? Would the isolation of being the only person for a mile in each direction disturb him, when he was accustomed to the packed humanity of Earth?

Phil rolled his eyes at himself. Enough. Clint had his direct comm line and was keyed to both the transports; if he needed anything, to talk or to go to town—or, hell, for Phil to come back home—he had the ability to obtain it. He might even be relieved to get some breathing room. Maybe he would discover solitude to be like strawberries: a delicacy to be savored, not something to fear. Very likely he would; he’d certainly shown himself to be flexible and optimistic so far.

Phil gave his cuffs a last twitch and made his way into the hall.

He noted as he passed that the girls were still asleep. Halfway down the stairs, he realized that he could smell coffee brewing; as he rounded the corner into the kitchen, he could see Clint’s broad back flexing as he worked at the stove. He hummed to himself as he scooped something out of a pan. Phil paused in the entryway, entranced by the image.

Clint turned, a platter of bacon in hand, and caught sight of him with a little start and then a slow smile. “Phil, hey,” he said, ducking his head. “Sorry, I was just finishing up. I actually woke up on time for once, and I knew you started back to work today, so I thought I’d try my hand at breakfast.” He waved the bacon plate at the table, where Phil could see a fine spread, eggs and toast and jam and butter and coffee all set out beneath the faint blue shimmer of stasis. It was the first time Clint had tried cooking without Phil’s help, and he looked equal parts nervous and proud.

“Thank you so much,” Phil said, “It looks great.”

“Just some eggs and things,” Clint said, adding the bacon to the table. “But everyone needs a good solid meal before a job, right?”

Phil bit back his instinct to tell Clint that it wasn’t necessary to go to so much trouble. He knew that Clint was trying hard to find a place in the Coulson house, looking for ways to make himself useful; it would be cruel to sound ungrateful. Besides, it had been a long time since someone had gone out of their way to take care of Phil—just him, not the three of them—and there was a little, neglected corner of himself that warmed and stirred.

“Aren’t you going to join me?” he asked, smiling at Clint. “There’s plenty of time before the girls are up. We could steal a little moment with the coffee.”

Clint, looking bashful but pleased, made himself up a plate and sat down across from Phil in what had quickly become his usual place. It was appropriate and practical—putting each of them within reach of both girls when they all ate together—but Phil couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that Clint wasn’t closer to him. After their day in Mariana, and especially after they’d gone flying together, they had been much more comfortable around each other. There were still moments where Phil would look up and do a double-take, seeing a stranger in his house for a split second before he remembered; they were vanishing quickly, though, replaced by moments of relief, or of pleased recognition. Clint’s here.

There were other moments, too, not comfortable but not unpleasant either; moments when the simmering tension that had hung between them in the skimmer flared back to life, when they brushed past each other on the stairs or caught each other’s eyes across a room and Phil’s breath quickened, Clint’s eyes grew hot. Neither of them seemed inclined to push further—they were generally interrupted by one of the girls after a few seconds, anyway—but Phil was fairly certain they were both feeling genuine attraction, or at least some level of physical chemistry. It complicated things. Platonic, businesslike brokered marriage was one thing, but it was quite another to make sexual advances to a man who was literally dependent on you for food, shelter, income, and personal safety. Even if—especially if—there was real desire between them, Phil would not raise the issue; not until Clint was established enough on Stark’s World that he would be allowed to stay regardless of his decision.

Phil started eating, feeling a little jolt of happiness when he saw that Clint had already fixed his coffee. The food smelled amazing, and Phil was extremely relieved to find that it tasted just as good; he’d have praised Clint’s cooking regardless, but it was easier not to have to lie in order to do so. The kitchen was also in much better shape than it had been the first few times that Phil himself had tried to cook, although the sink was mounded with a suspiciously large heap of soap bubbles and he was pretty sure there was a streak of egg yolk in Clint’s hair.

“Are you looking forward to having the house to yourself for the day?” Phil asked, taking a bite of perfectly crisp toast with honey cinnamon butter.

“I don’t know about looking forward,” Clint said, “but I think I’ve got enough to keep me busy. I’ve got some more reading to do, and there’s a load of the girls’ school clothes ready for the laundry. I thought I might also spend time watching some of the garden bots, if that’s okay? I want to start learning what it takes to keep this place running on the outside as well as inside.”

“Of course, Clint, whatever you’d like,” Phil said. “Will you be all right spending that much time outside, though? I know you’re doing much better, but are your lungs up to it?”

Clint smiled. “Bruce’s little drops are magic,” he said. “I haven’t had any trouble in days, even yesterday when I was rolling around in the grass teaching Katie to do backflips. I think I’ll be fine.”

“In that case, enjoy the sunshine,” Phil said, reassured. “The bots all have a tutorial mode; it’s voice-activated, so just ask if you have any questions. We have one for the house gardens and two for the orchard; there’s one for the bees, too, though it isn’t up to any really delicate work. Some things still require a human touch.”

“You’ll have to show me,” Clint said, then blushed, like he’d been dipped in hot water.

“I’ll be happy to,” Phil told him, sincerely. He wondered if Clint was embarrassed because he hadn’t meant to made a double entendre, or because he had and then changed his mind.

Clint cleared his throat. “So, what will you be up to today?”

“Mostly fielding questions about my personal life, if prior experience holds,” Phil said, making sure to keep his tone humorous and light; he didn’t want Clint to feel awkward about Phil’s co-workers’ nosiness. “But I do have a few meetings to work in.”

Clint chuckled, but it sounded a little forced. “Maybe you should do what Darcy did,” he said. “Tell them wild stories and see how far you can push it before they catch on.”

“The gossip’s plenty wild without my help,” Phil said. “I’ve found it’s more fun to subtly encourage different stories with each person. That way, if you’re careful, you can track the way the stories spread and figure out the real backchannels in the office.”

Clint laughed, genuine this time. “You’re a born spy,” he said.

“You’re not the first to say so.” Phil shrugged. “Once NAVINT, always NAVINT, I suppose.”

“I bet you’ve got some great stories,” Clint said.

“They’re mostly classified, but I think there are a few I could share,” Phil told him, surprising himself with how much he meant it.

When the girls woke, the two of them had them up and fed and dressed and out the door with remarkably little trouble. Phil was pleased and more than a little proud, though it was stupid for him to be; it wasn’t like Clint’s talents at hair-braiding and child-wrangling were anything whatever to do with Phil.

“I should get on the road,” Phil said, as he and Clint waved the school shuttle down the drive.

“You want a coffee to take with you?” Clint offered. “I can fix it while you grab your stuff.”

“You are a jewel among men,” Phil told him, helpless to stop himself from grinning absurdly. “That would be great.”

Clint smiled back, eyes crinkling. “Least I can do before I kick back and spend my day reading and enjoying the sunshine,” he said, heading back into the kitchen. Phil went into his study and got his briefcase from the secure cabinet. Clint met him at the door, large travel mug in hand.

“I feel like I should say ‘have a good day at work, dear’ but that feels a little too on-the-nose,” he said, with a wry half-grin.

Phil took the mug from him. Clint’s fingers brushed his, warm from holding the cup. It was such a little thing, domestic and kind but also significant with the knowledge of why Clint was there. Potential hung between them; Phil could almost feel it, like a charge in the air. He found himself wishing that he’d met Clint in the ordinary way, at work perhaps, or at a town hall meeting. That he could be sure that the attraction he felt wasn’t being… exaggerated by circumstance.

“I’ll just thank you for the sentiment, and for the coffee,” Phil said. “And for breakfast. For everything, really.” He started to move, then caught himself, hovering awkwardly a bit too close. He wasn’t sure whether he’d been moving in for a hug, like he would for Darcy, or for a kiss on the cheek like he would for the girls. Or for a kiss on the lips, like he would have with—with a romantic partner.

“You’re welcome,” Clint said, blessedly seeming unaware of Phil’s sudden dilemma, and knocked their shoulders companionably together as he moved past Phil into the house. “I thought I’d try that noodle thing that’s in the favorites list for dinner tonight, would that be okay?”

“Great,” Phil said, somehow managing to make his voice come out more or less normal-sounding. “See you then.”

“See you then,” Clint said, and Phil fled out to the barn to get Lola.

It was a beautiful morning, chilly but sunny, and Phil thought to himself as he drove that Clint had a good day for his planned outdoor activities. He wondered if Clint had noticed the tension between them that morning, or if it was all in Phil’s head. He wondered which he wanted to be true. He worried at the thought all the way to Starkville, but he was no closer to an answer as he pulled up the drive in front of the main lab than he was when he had started.

“Mr. Coulson! Welcome back, sir!” Billy Koenig grinned at him from the reception desk as he scanned his palm print. “I’d ask how your vacation was, but I think I know!” He waggled his eyebrows. “Eric was telling me about your new friend. Does he really have bionic eyes?”

“That’s classified,” Phil said mildly, biting on the inside of his cheek to hold back a smile.

Billy looked delighted. “Hah! I knew it,” he said. “I mean, you let him drive the skimmer, so he must be Enhanced somehow, right?” He waved Phil forward. “Anyway, have a great day, sir!”

“You too, Billy,” Phil said.

He got stopped no fewer than six times on the way to his office on the fifth floor. Apparently, between the school and the medical center and the restaurant, not to mention Wade and Darcy, the whole town really was buzzing with gossip about Clint, and everyone wanted to get a fresh tidbit of news that nobody else had. It was kindly meant but exhausting, and when he saw the seventh person making a beeline for him, he pretended not to see and ducked into his office. He hadn’t even made it to his desk when the comm in his ear buzzed, the staccato tones of a high-priority alert.

“Attention Alpha Team. We have received a priority one incident alert from Symphony Outpost. Proximity sensors indicate that Alpha Pack is approaching the facility with projected contact within the hour. Team deployment will be at 09:30.”

Phil cursed, shoving his briefcase into the secure cabinet and tripping the lock as he rushed out the door, falling into the practiced routine of an incident activation. He had fewer than 15 minutes to be on a quinjet, and there was a lot to do before then. On his way to the locker room, he commed Darcy.

“We’ve got an Alpha activation at Symphony,” he said, as soon as the signal connected. “Can you look on the list and see whose turn it is to take the girls, and call the school for me?” Since Darcy had moved out, she and Sam, Steve and Peggy, the Jarvises, and a few other friends had set up a rotation for taking the girls on days when Phil might not be home in time to meet them after school; it had been easier that way than trying to call around fresh each time.

There was a moment of silence on the line. Phil blinked. “Darcy?”

“Sorry! Of course I’m happy to, Phil, but… isn’t Clint there? Can’t he handle it?”

Phil actually missed a step, then skidded to a stop in the middle of the hall. “Shit, I totally forgot,” he said. “Force of habit, I guess. Of course Clint can watch them, and no need to even call the school, they can just go home on the shuttle like normal.” He felt a knot somewhere deep inside him unwind. “No need to call anyone, then. I’ll just comm Clint and let him know.” He shook his head. “Thanks, Darcy.”

“No problem, Phil,” she said, voice warm. “Now call Clint and get your ass on the quin.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” he teased, ending the call. He started back towards the locker room, feeling more than a little foolish. Of course Clint could watch the girls; that was the whole point of Clint being there. He couldn’t believe that, as much as the whole topic of Clint had been preoccupying him, he still hadn’t updated his standard procedures to take Clint’s presence into account. It had been a deliberate choice at first—he hadn’t known Clint would be Clint, after all, that he’d be trustworthy—but Phil should have done it after he’d met Clint, after he’d started to realize who Clint was.

He reached the locker room. He was the last one there, except for Tony, who would likely stroll onto the quin about 30 seconds before they left. Bruce, already changed, was in the corner poking at a tablet; Mack and Sam were pulling on their field suits; Melinda was checking her gear. Phil palmed his locker open and pulled out his field suit. He needed to call Clint, but found himself oddly reluctant to do it in front of the team. Telling himself firmly that it would be worse if he ducked out looking for privacy—he would never hear the end of it—he sent the connection request to Clint’s personal comm.

Clint picked up immediately. “Hey,” he said. “How’s the first day back going?”

“That’s what I’m calling about,” Phil said. He tried to keep his voice low, but he could hear the noise level in the room drop as he started talking. “I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I’m being called out for an emergency at one of the outposts on the other side of the continent. I’m probably not going to be home until late.”

There was silence on the line for a few seconds, and Phil pulled off his tie with unnecessary roughness as his stomach flipped over. It was, he realized, very important to him that Clint take this well.

“They aren’t screwing around, are they?” Clint said. “Did you even get to drink your coffee before they were pulling you halfway across the planet?”

“I drank it on the way in,” Phil said, sagging a little with relief and hearing a playful note sneak into his voice. “Safer that way.”

“Good,” Clint said. “Is there anything special you need me to do while you’re gone?”

“No, the girls will come home on the shuttle like normal, and everything you need is on the checklists,” Phil said, his voice a little strained as he bent and turned, changing his clothes. “Sorry, I’ve got to be on a transport in…” he glanced at the wall display, “about seven minutes, so I’m multitasking.”

“No problem, I totally understand,” Clint said. “Don’t worry about a thing, Phil. I’ll hold the fort until you get home.”

“You have no idea how glad I am to hear that,” Phil told him, zipping up his suit and starting his equipment check. “Comm Darcy if you run into anything unexpected. And, Clint? Thanks. Seriously.”

“You’re welcome, seriously,” Clint said, his voice light. “I’ll leave some noodles in stasis for you. Be careful out there, okay? We’ll see you when you get home.”

“See you then,” Phil said, and disconnected the call. It felt odd, like he should have said something else, something more. He realized, cinching up his belt, that everyone in the room was either watching him or elaborately not watching him while trying to hear what he was saying.

“Seriously, that was not that interesting,” he said. Melinda smirked at him.

“Sure, Phil,” she said.

Phil huffed an impatient sigh. “Let’s just get on the transport,” he said, resigned. “You can grill me about my personal life on the way to Symphony.”

True to form, Tony made it onto the quinjet with minutes to spare. He flung himself down in the seat next to Phil, doing up the flight restraints with careless fingers. As Melinda took off, he cleared his throat theatrically.

“So, briefing,” he said. “Do your thing, Coulson.”

Phil nodded his thanks and brought up the file on his tablet. “There’s not much more to it than you’ve already heard; Alpha Pack is making a move on Symphony. If they keep to their pattern, we expect that they’ll target the north side of the compound; it’s got the most cover and the fewest turrets. We’re hoping we can keep them from breaching the wall, but all staff are in the security bunker until we send the all-clear. Bruce, what are our primary targets?”

“I need at least two young adults to take back to the lab, preferably one male and one female,” Bruce said. “We’ve managed to get trackers into most of Alpha Pack, but there are a few untagged still; getting the whole pack tagged is high-priority so we don’t get surprised by one of them peeling off for a solo hunt. If we can manage to tranq more than two specimens, we’ll do a neuter and release with the rest.”

“The tagged wolves will register on your HUDs,” Phil reminded them. “Concentrate on tagging and tranqing first, then once we’ve got what we need we can switch gears. Kill them if you can, scare them away from the wall if you can’t.”

“And above all, don’t get drooled on,” Tony said. “Which, speaking of, Phil, now that we’ve attended to business we’ve got plenty of time to discuss your new addition.”

“Yeah, Phil,” Sam chimed in. “How did the grownup talking time go?”

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that anyone has questions about the mission,” Phil said.

“Yep,” Tony said. “Pretty much.”

Phil looked appealingly over at Bruce, who just shrugged. This was the downside of an experienced team; the same camaraderie that helped them work smoothly in the field also made them terrible busybodies.

He sighed, then capitulated to the inevitable. “Things are going well, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from the town gossip by now,” he said. “Clint’s good with the girls, and they’ve really taken a shine to him, Katie especially. We’re all enjoying the chance to get to know each other.”

“Having seen the pictures, I’m sure you’re enjoying getting to know those shoulders,” Tony said.

“Having seen the man, I’m sure he’s enjoying getting to know that lung capacity,” Bruce returned, because he only seemed quiet and unassuming until you got to know him and then he was just as bad as Tony was.

“He’s sure enjoying something,” Mack said, “because he let him joyride in that Aerovite of his. You know they buzzed the Odinsons’ pasture?”

“You’ve never let me drive the Aerovite,” Sam said, “and I saved your life twice.”

“I’ve seen how many times you’ve trashed that wing pack of yours,” Phil said, struggling to keep his voice level and not to dwell on the recurrent daydreams about testing Clint’s lung capacity that he’d been struggling with since Monday. He reminded himself that they didn’t know the nuances of the situation; as far as they knew, he and Clint were romantically involved already, and Clint’s visit was the chance to consummate a long-delayed desire.

“Look,” he said, “I know you don’t mean anything negative by it, but please give it a rest. Clint left everything he knew to come here, and I don’t want him to get the idea that he’s not respected, by me or anyone else.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, the whirr of the quinjet’s engines the only sound.

“Sorry, man,” Mack said. “We won’t do anything to make Clint feel unwelcome.”

Bruce nodded, looking sheepish.

“Yeah, Darcy would have my head if I messed with him,” Sam said. “All joking aside, she likes him, Phil. She thinks he’s good for the three of you. And Katie brought him up about every other sentence when she was at our place last Friday.”

Tony said nothing, but gave Phil a sharp look out of the corners of his eyes. It was a considering sort of look; Phil knew from experience that it would result in an uncomfortable conversation later, once Tony’s quick mind had sorted out all the angles.

“So,” Sam said. “I hear tell from Anna Jarvis that Clint’s going to be our final pie judge at the Victory Day Picnic this year.”

“Don’t even start,” Phil said, holding up his hands defensively. “I am not getting in the middle of this ridiculous pie vendetta you have going on with Steve. Not after what happened the last time.” Next to him, Tony flinched, probably at the memory of the Great Rhubarb Crumble Incident of Ought-Five.

“The stains all came out,” Sam said. “…Eventually.”

“I am completely neutral in this matter,” Phil said. “I am pie Switzerland.”

“That expression doesn’t even make sense anymore,” Bruce pointed out.

“It’s an idiom,” Mack said.

“I know that, I’m just saying—”

“Pie Bekenstein, then,” Phil interrupted. “The important point here is that I am not taking sides, I am not pumping Clint for information about what kind of pie he likes or his opinion on lattice versus streusel, and I still think one or both of you should just move on to cakes or casseroles or quilting and call it a draw.”

“But not brewing, of course,” Mack said gravely, mouth twitching a little.

“Hell no, that category’s crowded enough already,” Phil said. (He had a batch of apple blossom honey mead fermenting in the barn that was going to devastate Thor’s summer wheat ale this year.)

“We’ll be hitting Symphony in ten,” Melinda said over their headsets, “so you may want to wrap this up.”

“Roger that,” Phil said.

“Also,” she said, “and I mean this with the greatest respect: it’s obviously his ass that you’re enjoying getting to know, Phil. The consensus at the general store was clear.”

Phil groaned over the bustle of the team preparing for their final approach. This was just going to get worse once they actually met Clint and saw the person that inhabited the, yes, admittedly amazing body. He just hoped that being the center of attention wouldn’t put Clint off before he had a chance to get to know the town. He pulled up his cowl and snapped his helmet into place. The HUD popped up, tagging the team in vivid blue overlay, green status icons glowing by each name in the corner of Phil’s vision.

They reached the drop zone, and Tony and Sam threw themselves from the jet, letting themselves drop for a few seconds before engaging their flight suits and zipping away toward the outpost, positioning themselves for a pincer movement. They would trap the pack between them and herd them away from Symphony, to where the ground team would be waiting with their tranquilizers and protective exo-suits.

Symphony was one of the many scattered Stark Galactic facilities located away from the main settlements. Some of them were agricultural, growing crops or cultivating animals that didn’t do well in the main temperate band; some were industrial, hosting manufacturing facilities or data centers; others were scientific. Symphony was an ecology lab, located in a cold part of the planet to minimize the possibility of any of the specimens accidentally getting out into the environment. Nothing much grew around Symphony except for hardy evergreen trees, and there was little animal life nearby, which just made it odder that the acid wolves were attacking. In the past, they’d usually gone for places where there was food available. Phil wasn’t sure what this attack meant, but he didn’t like it.

Melinda set the quinjet down in the landing pad near Symphony. “Scans show the pack concentrated to the north,” she said over the comm.

“Ground team will deploy the skimmers,” Phil said. “Air team, keep an eye out and let us know if they start heading our way.”

“Roger,” Sam said.

Tony had developed small, well-armored, maneuverable two-man skimmers for the team’s use. They could handle any terrain including open water, and their materials were specially designed to resist the wolves’ acidic saliva as well as their teeth. They were an odd, curvy shape, difficult for a wolf to bite, and could be reconfigured on the fly as necessary. Phil and Melinda took one skimmer and Bruce and Mack the other; Mack and Melinda would be piloting the craft while Bruce and Phil alternated between data analysis and gunning. Not for the first time, Phil wished that he had more long-distance sharpshooters on his team; he and Melinda did all right, but were both more comfortable with pistols than rifles, and Bruce was only comfortable shooting nonlethal payloads.

As Melinda sped around towards the wolves, zigzagging easily through the trees, Phil scanned the data coming up on his HUD.

“Something looks off about the pack,” he said. “Tony, Sam, are you seeing anything we aren’t picking up on the scans?”

“I’ll do another run to get close-range data,” Tony said, “but I can tell you already something’s definitely different. Either they’ve had a real tough winter or we aren’t seeing the whole pack.”

“Tony’s right,” Bruce said. “Only about half the individuals we’ve previously tagged as being affiliated with Alpha are here, and based on Tony’s scan I’m seeing more untagged wolves than I anticipated.”

“What does that mean?” Phil asked. “Could the pack have split, or is it possible something killed that many of them?”

“I’m afraid I just don’t know,” Bruce said. “Although there shouldn’t be anything on Stark’s World besides us even capable of killing acid wolves, at least in these numbers.”

The proximity indicator chimed. “Air team, we’re coming up on your position,” Phil said. “Bruce, do we need to make any changes to the mission parameters based on this new information?”

“Get tags in as many of those new wolves as you can,” Bruce said. “Tony’s close on the satellite reconfiguration; once we aren’t reliant on the local transmitters anymore, we’ll have a much better idea of their migration and hunting patterns.”

“You heard the man,” Phil said. He pulled out the first of the two compressed-air rifles he had to hand. It was loaded with small pellets containing the transmitters they used to tag wildlife specimens. As the skimmers rounded the western corner of the wall around Symphony, his HUD flashed, updating the tagged wolves with an overlay and scanning for the untagged ones.

“Ground team engaging,” he said. “Air team, keep those wolves off us.” He opened the hatch at the top of the skimmer and stood, his restraints sliding along their track to allow him to brace against a backrest while shooting. Twenty yards away, he saw Bruce doing the same.

“Tagging,” he said, and began to shoot.

The pellets were clever little things; the casing was just strong enough to penetrate an inch or so into flesh before breaking apart and releasing the transmitters, which drew their power from the electrical impulses in the animal’s nerves. Most of the animals that Stark Galactic tracked had their transmitters implanted while they were under sedation, either upon first being imported or during the annual wildlife census, but the acid wolves were too hard to capture, and tracking them was too important, for that approach to be enough.

Phil emptied clip after clip of transmitter pellets, trying to focus on the unmarked wolves but not taking the time to be absolutely sure. A double-tagged wolf could be accounted for in the software, and the packs learned too fast to waste time. There would only be a small window to work before the wolves would break off and scatter.

The first time he’d seen footage of acid wolves, Phil had thought Tony was playing a prank on him. They were absurd creatures, honestly, looking more like some horror-vid director’s idea of a monster than any proper animal. Standing, their backs would be level with a tall man’s waist; they were thick-boned and densely-muscled, their square jaws bulging with power. An adult acid wolf could bite straight through quarter-inch sheet metal. Phil had watched the video of three acid wolves ripping their way out of a holding pen in silence, then turned to Tony with a raised eyebrow.

“I find it hard to believe those are real,” he’d said.

Tony had just stared at the frozen stills on the screen, a sour look on his face. “Well, you’re half right,” he’d said. “They’re certainly made up, but unfortunately, they’re anything but fictional. Behold, dear old Obie’s final contribution to the Stark legacy.”

Phil’s jaw had dropped in horror. “Are you saying these are… genetically engineered? Enhanced?”

“Both,” Tony had said. “Apparently, the idea was some kind of super-trainable, super-deadly canine for military and security use.” He’d laughed, short and bitter. “Guess Obie never realized that you should never make something super-smart and super-aggressive without making sure it’s also super-loyal, or at least a vegetarian.”

Melinda steered the skimmer around in a long curve. “They’re starting to close, Phil,” she said. “If they get much closer we’ll have to close the hatches.”

“Switch to tranqs,” Phil ordered, already ducking into the compartment to pull up the modified tranquilizer rifle. They’d gone through scores of variations on the design, trying to find a consistently reliable delivery mechanism that could penetrate an acid wolf’s pelt non-lethally but wasn’t too delicate to be fired from a gun. He identified a likely-looking wolf—a young male, from the size and markings—and took aim.

Phil’s first shot glanced off the wolf’s thick brindled ruff, and he cursed under his breath as he slammed another dart into the rifle. He held his breath as he tracked the animal’s path, aiming for center mass, and squeezed the trigger when the wolf passed in front of the skimmer. He wasn’t sure at first if that shot had landed, but after a few seconds he saw the animal slowing, stumbling a little. Good. He reloaded; the sedatives only lasted so long, and from the time the first animal went down they had a limited window to work.

Between them, he and Bruce managed to tranq another three wolves before it was time to move to the next phase of the mission. The wolves were pressing closer together, their body language getting more aggressive; it was the most dangerous time, the point at which the pack might either attack or flee. Normally, at this point in an op, they would try to thin the pack, taking out as many older and wilier wolves as they could.

“Do we try to cull, Bruce?” Phil asked.

“Ordinarily I’d say yes, but I don’t like that the pack composition is so different from what we’ve seen,” Bruce said. “I think this time we might want to try to scatter them and see where they go. This pack was already acting odd coming all the way up here—there’s no food for them at Symphony, nothing to draw them here.”

“Nothing except bad memories,” Tony said. He and Sam were circling the pack from the air.

“No way,” Mack said. “Are you seriously suggesting that they, what, remember the lab their ancestors escaped from ten years ago?”

“It might not be their ancestors,” Bruce said. “Ten years is well within the projected lifespan.”

“Still, though.”

“It sounds like their behavior is strange enough that the eradication efforts will benefit more from additional data than from a cull today,” Phil broke in. “Let’s drive them away from Symphony, pattern Zeta-four.”

He and Bruce went back inside their skimmers, securing the hatches and switching to the skimmers’ front-mounted guns. The two teams would push the wolves further north, miles from the outpost, before scattering the pack. It wasn’t a permanent solution, but it gave them time to shore up Symphony’s defenses before the pack regrouped.

They drove the pack before them, nipping at their heels with shots that barely missed and sent up stinging showers of ice and snow, for nearly twenty miles before the pack started to slow. The team followed strafing patterns designed to break the pack up rapidly and send the animals fleeing in different directions. Once the pack had dispersed, they headed back toward Symphony at full speed; there wasn’t much time before the specimen wolves would start to rouse.

While Bruce and Mack secured the tranquilized wolves and Melinda and Sam analyzed the damage to the outer compound wall and made a list of required repairs and security upgrades, Tony and Phil went to debrief with the chief scientist and the head of security. Unfortunately, they didn’t get any information that hadn’t already been included in the emergency transmissions, and after promising an extra squad of security and some additional turret coverage (Phil), and reassuring the staff that they’d handled themselves well and would be getting a hazard bonus in their next check (Tony), they headed back toward the quinjet together.

“So,” Tony said. He was still wearing his armored flight suit, and his steps clanked heavily in the still, cold air, little showers of snow flying out beneath his feet as he walked. “First op since you got back. Whose turn was it to watch the kids this time?”

“I don’t know,” Phil said. “We didn’t need to call anyone; Clint’s watching them.”

“Hmm,” said Tony, obnoxiously.

“If you have something to say, then say it,” Phil said. “It’s not like I could stop you, anyway.”

“You trusted him with that awful fast,” Tony said.

“He had a deeper background check than they gave me when I joined NAVINT,” Phil said, annoyed. “He’s hardly an unknown quantity.”

“There’s ways around background checks. You and I both know that.”

“True,” Phil said. “But I trust him.” It was odd, saying it out loud, strange and at the same time freeing; it was true, was the thing, and Phil hadn’t realized how true until he’d actually said the words. He did trust Clint: to do his best by the girls, to try his hardest around the house, to put in real effort with Phil. He knew that there were operatives who were capable of feigning the kind of emotion Clint had shown, when he’d poured his heart onto paper for Phil to read and then waited for judgment the next day; he just didn’t think that Clint was one of them. And if he was… maybe Phil deserved to be fooled.

“You know, I was prepared to tease you about the man’s ass and his rocket arm,” Tony said. “I had a great line all worked out about how they’re supposed to screen for that sort of thing at customs. But now you’ve really got me worried.”

“Appreciated, but unnecessary,” Phil said.

“Well, excuse me for remembering how bad things got after Audrey died,” Tony said sharply, and Phil couldn’t hold back a wince.

“Aha,” said Tony, pointing at Phil. “See, that right there, that is why I worry. That is not the face of a man who is wholeheartedly embracing his newfound singlehood by importing a nubile young thing to warm his lonely nights.”

“If a face like that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be waiting a long time,” Phil said, his own voice getting a little heated. “Also, you know very well that’s not what this is about.”

“I’ve heard it all before. You’re taking this slow, it’s for the girls’ sake, don’t mention the m-word, blah blah blah. And yet he gets here and not a week goes by before you’re canoodling at Anna’s place and joyriding like teenagers. If Thor’s goats go off their feed and Pepper can’t get her chèvre, I’m blaming you, by the way.”

“I’m sure the goats will recover, and I do not canoodle.” Phil stopped walking, reaching out a hand and snagging one of the holds on Tony’s suit. “What’s this really about?”

Tony turned to face him, his usual sarcastic front fallen away, his eyes keen and searching. “I know it’s hard to believe, but I give a shit about people sometimes,” he said. “I know how hard it’s been for you and the girls; I was there. I know you aren’t a fast mover, but it seems like you’re moving fast right now, and… I dunno, I guess I just want to make sure I haven’t done more harm than good, approving the visa for this guy.”

“Well, to start with, it isn’t as though we didn’t correspond before he came here,” Phil said, because two letters counted as correspondence even without the ones they’d exchanged since. “We’re not total strangers.” He took a deep breath, trying to decide how much he wanted to say. “Clint is—a very special person,” he said, speaking slowly as he sorted through his thoughts. “It’s too soon for us to know for sure if things will work out long-term, but I like him a lot, and so do the girls. He’s not had an easy life, but he rises above his past and tries to do better than what was done to him. Everything on Stark’s World is completely different from what he’s known his entire life, but he’s thrown himself wholeheartedly into trying to adapt.” He could feel himself getting more animated as he spoke, starting to gesture; he wanted Tony to understand why Clint deserved all the chances they could give him. “He has such enormous potential,” he said at last. “It’s obvious in everything he does. He’d be an asset to any organization.”

“Yeah, but you aren’t an organization, Phil, much though you like to pretend otherwise,” Tony said. Phil had his full attention, he could tell; Tony’s interests was piqued, now, and he was turning his mind to the issue, bright and sharp as a blade. This was the man as Phil had first known him, and he kept his smile of triumph off his face with an effort; once you had Tony’s interest, the rest was a matter of time.

“I think I want to meet this paragon of yours,” Tony said at last. “I’ll bring Pepper. Pepper’s good at people, she’ll be able to tell if—well, if anything. She’ll just be able to tell.”

“I’m not sure I’d call Clint a paragon,” Phil said. “That sounds pretty boring, and he’s anything but. I’d love for him to meet you both, though. I think you’ll get along.”

Tony made a considering noise. “Fine,” he said at last. “But if he breaks your heart, just remember, Phil, I brought him here and I can send him back.”

“Now you sound like Peggy,” Phil said. “And while I appreciate the sentiment, that won’t be necessary.”

“We’ll see,” Tony said, starting to walk again. “We’ll find some time to do dinner. Maybe you can all come out to Starkville; I can show the future Mr. Coulson around Candyland. There has to be something he’d like researched or developed.”

“I’ll set something up,” Phil said, letting the “Mr. Coulson” thing slide. “Maybe next week? I was thinking of bringing Clint to the task force meeting on Tuesday, but aside from that we’re free.”

“Whenever,” Tony said, waving a gauntlet dismissively. “You know how to find me.”

That had gone fairly well, Phil thought. Tony had good reason to be protective, of his friends and his planet both; the acid wolves were proof enough of that. But he was thinking about Clint, now, paying attention, and that was all Phil really needed him to do. He was confident Clint could convince Tony that he was good for Stark’s World simply by being himself.

Later, on the way back to Starkville, Phil found his mind wandering away from the reports he was trying to do. It was funny, the way that even your closest friends sometimes had blind spots about you. Phil had been hard-pressed to keep a straight face when Tony had talked about him not moving fast, romantically speaking. Of course, Phil and Audrey had already been together when Phil and Tony had met, but he was surprised Tony had never heard the stories. He looked around the quinjet; the team were mostly dozing, though Bruce and Tony were in the corner, heads bent together over a tablet, discussing satellite amplification in low tones. He realized that maybe none of them knew what had happened, how he and Audrey had first met. He didn’t talk about those times anymore…


 

Phil hated Bekenstein. It was full of unpleasant people, cutthroat business owners and shady investment bankers and snobbish nouveau riche assholes who looked down on “colonials” despite the fact that Bekenstein was itself a colony. Unfortunately, it was also where Alliance Navy HQ was, so it was impossible to completely avoid going there. He’d tried to get out of this trip, to no avail; apparently when the Navy wanted to reward you for something, they did it by forcing you to hop an overcrowded transport for a week to get from your duty station to the Bek, and then further forcing you to wear your dress uniform and eat tiny, unsatisfying canapés while making uncomfortable small talk before being given a medal and then forgotten for another three years. If they really wanted to reward Phil for heroism, they’d have given him an extra week of leave and sent a crate of mini-donuts, but nobody asked lowly lieutenant commanders about that sort of thing.

The spaceport was the same as ever, a dizzying press of people, half of them rushing by on their way to somewhere and not caring who they knocked over, the other half gawping tourists who kept stopping entirely in the middle of the walkway. Phil hoisted his duffle higher on his shoulder and sighed as he threaded through the crowds toward the ground transport hub, where a car would be waiting for him. When he found his assigned bay, the waiting car was big and unwieldy, intended for seven or eight people. He checked the manifest to make sure that he wasn’t waiting for more passengers, but his was the only name on the list.

He was just opening the rear hatch to sling his duffel in when he heard a loud crash nearby. He jumped, whirling to put the car at his back before he registered a high-pitched voice engaging in very inventive and wide-ranging profanity; just an ordinary kind of airport baggage casualty then, he supposed. He craned his neck, giving in to the impulse to see what was causing the commotion, and found the answer in the loading bay next to his, where a slim brunette woman was swearing a blue streak at a jumbled mass of luggage that had apparently just fallen off her skim-scooter.

He wasn’t sure how she’d gotten it on in the first place, honestly; there was a lot of cargo scattered on the ground and very little available space evident on the scooter. While he watched, the woman wound down her streams of invective, sighed heavily, and kicked one of the boxes.

“And fuck you, too,” she told it, which was the best thing Phil had seen in days. It was like all the swearing he’d wanted to do all week and couldn’t because he was talking to superior officers or civilian dignitaries had been stored up and concentrated into the form of this small, grubby woman, swearing in the spaceport with glorious unconcern for the Bekkish society snobs.

“I beg your pardon,” Phil said, before he’d had a chance to think about it, because Phil was, everyone agreed, more than a little bit of an asshole sometimes.

She whirled around, looking horrified. “Shit! Not you, I mean. Motherfuc—no, not you! Argh!” She threw up her hands in theatrical exasperation. She had beautiful eyes, clear and brown and full of fire.

“I’m not sure it’s all going to fit,” Phil told her gravely, biting back a smile and nodding at her belongings.

“That’s what—no! Sorry!” She ran her hands through her hair, leaving a streak of dust. “Sorry for disturbing you, er, officer,” she said.

Phil made a face. “It’s Phil,” he said. “And I should be the one apologizing, I shouldn’t be so nosy.”

She looked him over, then seemed to come to a decision. “Audrey,” she said, stepping over a trunk and holding out her hand. It was slim, but strong, and interestingly calloused; a hand with a story to tell, Phil thought. In fact, everything about her piqued his interest, from her worn, patched travel clothes—unusual to see here—to the multitude of customs stamps littering her trunks.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked, gesturing at the mess.

“I don’t know, how are you at transcending the laws of physics?” She rolled her eyes. “I booked something with plenty of space, but when I got here, this was mysteriously all they had left.”

“Whereas I arrived to find coach service for eight waiting to take me and my one bag to base,” Phil said. “I think I see a potential solution; would you care to swap cars?”

“Are you sure you don’t mind? I can reimburse you for the difference,” Audrey said, looking hopeful.

“Don’t worry about it,” Phil said. “I didn’t pay for it, and I doubt the Navy cares as long as I end up on base at the end.”

“Well, in that case, I would appreciate it,” she said. She smiled at him, looking tired and a little wry, and he felt his face heat.

“Think nothing of it, ma’am,” he said, then wanted to drop through the floor. Keep your cool, Coulson.

“Ma’am?” She raised an eyebrow, shooting him an amused look. “Seriously?”

“Sorry,” Phil said. He could feel his ears getting hot. “Force of habit.”

She laughed. “Make it up to me by helping me load this crap into your car,” she said.

Under Audrey’s direction, they quickly swapped registrations and loaded the car, though Phil had stopped halfway through re-packing a burst-open suitcase when he realized that the pile of filmy, brightly-colored fabric he was sorting through was her… delicates. She laughed at the look on his face, and her laugh was so infectious it eased the embarrassment. When they finally had everything stowed, he stood a little awkwardly by the back hatch.

“I, uh. It was nice to meet you,” he said, all vestige of smoothness he might ever have claimed evaporated. What was the matter with him today? He was usually pretty good at this sort of thing, but Audrey made him feel like he was fifteen again and trying to ask Jamie Wu to the school dance. “I’m only here for a week, but, ah, if you would like to—I mean, I would be honored if—I’d like to take you out to dinner,” he said.

“I’m theoretically unopposed to that idea,” she said, her mouth quirking in a smile. Phil couldn’t look away from the shape of her mouth. “How about you leave me your comm code and I’ll get in touch once I see what my schedule’s like?” she added.

“Yes! I mean please, I mean thank you,” Phil said, finally biting his lip to stop himself babbling and jerking his eyes back up to meet her amused look. “Here.” He held up his comm card, and she bumped it with hers, receiving his contact information. She glanced over it and smiled. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you later, Lt. Commander Coulson,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Phil said, then barely resisted smacking himself in the face.

She grinned at him over her shoulder, her eyes dancing, and drove away.

Phil was feeling much better about this whole award ceremony trip.

By the time the actual ceremony rolled around the next day, Phil was starting to doubt that any date was enough to make up for the seemingly never-ending stream of political chit-chat he was expected to engage in while at HQ. He was fairly sure that he and the other honorees were just an excuse for yet another high-class Bekenstein society function; there was going to be chamber music, apparently, and then dancing after dinner. He wasn’t sure why they’d even needed to bring him, but his CO had insisted it would damage his career not to attend—“and fucking well dance, Cheese, and try to look like you’re enjoying it.”

Fortunately, the actual awarding part of the ceremony was first, so Phil didn’t have to do much more for the first hour or so but try to stand straight and look honored instead of bored. Finally, it was time for the music. He took his seat as the musicians filed onstage, glad for the chance to let his public face slip a bit, when he recognized one of the musicians, the cellist; it was Audrey from the spaceport, looking elegant and flawless in a wine-colored gown.

He suddenly found himself extremely interested in chamber music.

It explained a lot, he thought; her callouses, her strength, her bulky, well-traveled luggage. He wasn’t anything of a connoisseur, but he could tell that she was good. She played intensely, with her whole body, making her instrument sing and sob. He found himself wondering what other activities might warrant the same focus, if the strong, calloused fingers he remembered could play a man’s body like the strings of a cello.

It seemed like hardly any time had passed when they finished their last piece, and Phil clapped until his hands were sore, drawing a few amused looks from the blasé Bekkish socialites near him. He was struggling through the crowd toward the stage, hoping to catch her eye before dinner, when he was buttonholed by Admiral May—who had a daughter serving in Phil’s marine squadron and was therefore taking an interest—and drawn off “to meet some of the fair flowers of Bekenstein, my boy.”

Phil didn’t make a smartassed remark about it, but it was a near thing. He thanked all the luck of Mars for his restraint when he recognized one of the figures he was being guided toward. He made polite noises to everyone he was introduced to, and then—

“And of course, Miss Audrey Bishop,” the admiral said. “Miss Bishop recently received the Callahan Prize.”

Phil, who had no idea what that was, bowed over her hand, pulling up his best old-fashioned military manners. “Miss Bishop,” he murmured.

“Phil,” she replied. “Lt. Commander Coulson and I have already met,” she told the admiral, a twist of mirth in the corner of her mouth. “He very gallantly assisted me with my luggage at the spaceport yesterday afternoon.”

“It was my pleasure, ma’am,” Phil said, and she grinned at him for a moment before smoothing her face back into its serene expression, so different from the travel-worn woman shouting profanities at her luggage that he’d met the day before. He wondered which one was closer to the truth of her. He wanted very much to find out.

“Hm,” said Admiral May. “Well then, Coulson, you should take Miss Bishop in to dinner.”

Phil did. He wasn’t sure whether it was coincidence or whether the Admiral had changed the place cards around, but it turned out that they were actually seated next to each other.

“Don’t think this gets you out of buying me a meal,” Audrey told him. “Navy food doesn’t count; I’m still holding you to your offer.”

“I don’t usually bring my superior officers to my dates,” Phil assured her. He felt elated; he kept grinning like a fool then trying to smooth his expression back down into something less pathetically eager.

“Probably for the best,” she agreed.

Apparently one of the benefits of winning the Callahan Prize (whatever it was; Phil resolved to look it up as soon as the evening was over) was that Audrey, unlike the rest of the musicians, wasn’t expected to provide music for the dancing, and was free to socialize as she liked.

“Are you a dancer?” Audrey asked, as she crossed into the ballroom on Phil’s arm. “Or are you expected to talk shop and Navy politics all evening?”

“You’d be surprised how much dancing there is in the Navy,” Phil told her, straight-faced.

“I find myself skeptical,” she told him, not quite holding back a smile. “Perhaps you could demonstrate.”

There wasn’t actually much dancing in the Navy, but there had been a lot of dancing on Mars; the low gravity offered so much scope for creativity. Phil bowed to Audrey, the formal and old-fashioned bow he’d learned as a child.

“Miss Bishop,” he said, “Would you grant me the honor of a dance?”

She laughed in delight, and took his offered hand. “With great pleasure, sir,” she said, and Phil’s heart hammered as he led her onto the dance floor. She wasn’t a short woman—nearly as tall as he was in her evening shoes—but she felt tiny in his arms. The material of her dress was silky and skin-warm under the hand Phil rested at her waist.

He was a little stiff at first, he knew, concentrating on the steps a bit too much for grace. After a minute, though, his muscles had remembered their jobs. He gave Audrey an extra little twirl, and she followed his lead perfectly, the full skirt of her dress billowing with the motion.

“So, Phil,” she said. “Where do you live when you aren’t on the Bek getting medals?”

“I serve on the Portland,” he told her. “We’re part of a quick response unit, so we end up all over the place, but usually not for more than a few weeks at a time. What about you? Your luggage and vocabulary seemed well-traveled.”

She grinned at him, a bit sheepish. “You know, I usually make a much better first impression,” she said.

“Impossible,” he declared.

“Don’t lay it on too thick,” she told him, laughing. “In my defense, I’d been on Horizon for a few months; language customs are very different in the newer colonies.”

“Is there a lot of demand for chamber music there?” Phil asked. He couldn’t imagine newly-established colonists having time for many concerts, but maybe it was one of those themed colonies that popped up from time to time. He’d done a tour on one that was mainly some kind of textile collective.

She laughed. “I wasn’t performing,” she said. “I also work with an organization that provides musical education in places where it’s hard to come by. I usually alternate a performance tour with a field assignment.”

“Do you like it?” Phil asked. “The travel, I mean.”

“The variety is my favorite part.” She smiled up at him, eyes bright and happy as she spoke. “I actually grew up here, can you imagine? I couldn’t wait to leave.”

“What was your favorite field assignment?” he asked, and her face lit with enthusiasm as she spoke, telling him stories of a mining colony where she’d put together a community choir. The dance was over before the story was, so they danced again; Phil was wondering whether he could bribe someone to make the songs longer when he saw Admiral Pierce gesturing him over, and groaned.

“I have to go see what the Admiral needs,” he told Audrey apologetically. “Can I find you later, though?”

“I’d be very disappointed if you didn’t,” she said, fanning herself with her hand. Her cheeks were pink from dancing. “Go talk to who you have to talk to, and I’ll do the same, then once we’ve both met our obligations I expect another dance.”

There were far too many people who needed talking to, as it turned out, but Phil tried his best to be respectful and pleasant and not to be too obviously looking around to see where Audrey was. It was more than an hour before he finally broke free and made a beeline to where he could see her, sipping a flute of golden wine and chatting with Captain Singh and her wife. Audrey met his eyes over Marion Singh’s shoulder, and smiled. She said something Phil didn’t catch, and the Singhs smiled and nodded, the Captain waving Audrey away with a wink. Audrey laughed, then drained the last few sips of her wine and set the empty glass aside before crossing the few feet to where Phil was standing.

“Everything sorted out?” she asked.

“I’m a free man from here on out,” Phil told her.

“In that case,” she said, “would you like to take a walk with me? It’s a lovely night.”

Phil would, of course, and Audrey tucked her arm through his in a gesture that was already familiar and steered him out onto the starlit grounds. It was good to be out of the stuffy, noisy ballroom. There were a few dim lights lining the paths, but Bekenstein was in a densely populated cluster, and its night sky was brilliant with the light of thousands of stars and its four tiny moons, not to mention satellites and space stations and orbital traffic. They walked for a while in comfortable silence until they reached a secluded corner of the grounds, out of sight.

“Neither of us is in town for long,” Audrey said at last.

“No,” Phil agreed, feeling a pang.

“It would be a shame to waste time.”

Phil looked at her, breath quickening. “I’m good at time management,” he said.

“Ordinarily, I like to draw these things out a little.” Audrey ran a finger over the necklace she was wearing. Phil looked at the proud arch of her neck, the delicate lines of her collarbone, and wanted to trace them with his lips.

“That can be fun,” he agreed, his voice low. “Having something to look forward to.”

She reached up and cupped his cheek. Her hand felt cool against his skin, and she tugged him forward, lifting her face to his. The kiss was gentle at first, a whisper of contact that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck; then she made a soft sound and opened her lips, and Phil’s world narrowed to the soft and hot and silk of her mouth, the tremble of her body against his. When they finally parted, they kept their faces close, their breaths mingling in the secret space between them.

“Come back to my hotel,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The next night, Phil took Audrey out to dinner. He stood in the lobby of her hotel, waiting for her to leave the elevator, and wondered whether the staff recognized him as the same man who’d left early that morning in a dress uniform that had spent the night crumpled on the floor.

The elevator chimed, and she stepped out; she was the epitome of Bekkish style, demure in an emerald-green dress with her hair piled up into a glossy braided crown. He remembered her the night before, riding him, her body flushed and dewy, eyes wild, hair tangled from Phil’s clutching hands. He throbbed in his pants; he wanted to do it again, immediately, dinner be damned. He wanted to get past her smooth exterior and hear her voice go rough with passion, cursing him in three languages as she shook beneath his tongue.

“Ground control to Coulson,” Audrey said, and he blinked back to the present with a little jolt. “What are you thinking about that has you so distracted?”

He felt his face go hot, and she laughed, delighted.

“Later,” she said, and her eyes were wicked. “Dinner first; you’re going to need the energy.”

He’d thought that dinner would seem to take forever, that he would spend the whole time anxious for what came after. When the server came by to ask for the fourth time if they needed anything, though, he realized that they’d been sitting there for nearly three hours, trading stories. It had felt like no time at all.

Phil had been with people who were amazing in bed, and he’d known people who fascinated him, people who he could talk to for hours and never run out of things to say. It was just that they’d never all been the same person before. He tried to think about the future, of going back to the Portland and taking up his normal life again, of Audrey going on to play concerts and teach music in dusty corners of the galaxy, but his entire self shrank away from the image.

It was entirely possible, he thought, that he was in over his head.

The next day, Audrey took Phil out to lunch, just a few hours after he’d gone back to base from her hotel. This time, he brought his bag.

The day after that, they didn’t leave Audrey’s hotel room.

The day after that, they went to breakfast next to the spaceport; Audrey had a concert on Elysium the next week and couldn’t put off her departure any longer. Phil lingered over his coffee, his breakfast sitting like a stone. It had only been a few days; how could he possibly be this invested? But he was.

“This week has been amazing,” he said quietly, watching the way the pale morning light gleamed where it fell on Audrey’s hair.

“By far the best I’ve ever spent on Bekenstein,” she agreed.

“I’m just going to come out and say it,” he said. “I know that things will be complicated, with both of us traveling so much, but, do you think that—would you be interested in—”

“Yes, Phil,” Audrey said, laying a hand on his. “I want to keep seeing you, too.”

He couldn’t help grinning, wide and goofy, fizzy with happiness; the joy of it buoyed him all the way to the gate, towing Audrey’s luggage behind him on a gravcart. When the boarding call finally came, she wrapped a hand around the back of his neck and pulled him down to meet her in a lingering, lush kiss.

“Next time we get together,” she said, “let’s stay in the same hotel, hm?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Phil said, lips still tingling, and he stood there looking after her, gobsmacked, until the transport doors were sealed.

Six months later, they had eloped.


 

Phil hadn’t thought of Audrey like this—hadn’t let himself think of her like this—in a long time, and it was a bittersweet surprise to find that the memories had lost much of their pain. It had been like knives, at first, to remember; like he couldn’t breathe around the hole she’d left. There was still an ache there, now, but gentled, and he could feel the joy of the memories again. He missed her so much: his partner, his lover, her adventurous heart and level head and generous spirit. She’d always known the right thing to say to him, somehow, always been able to help him find his way out of any dilemma. He found himself wishing that he could talk to her about Clint. She would have liked him, Phil was pretty sure. She would have known the right thing to do.

Phil shook his head at the direction of his thoughts, and redirected his attention to the tablet that had been sitting idle in his hand. He wouldn’t get anywhere on the issue tonight; the next steps were up to Clint and Tony. For now, he should concentrate on getting his report done so that he could make it home before sunrise.

It was well after midnight when Phil finally got home, creased and sticky and queasy from fatigue. He spared a moment to be thankful that the girls were there, and didn’t need to be roused in the middle of the night and then put back into a different bed; that always made them cranky the next day.

There was a dim light shining from the kitchen, and Phil dragged himself back toward it; he needed to get something besides gulped-down ration bars into his system before he let himself rest. He wondered whether, the next time this happened, Clint might be amenable to getting the girls up the next day so Phil could sleep in.

He stepped fully into the kitchen and stopped moving, catching his breath. The stasis table was active, with a heaping bowl of noodles and several thick slices of garlic toast neatly laid out at Phil’s seat. To one side, in the living room, the light of a single lamp fell softly over the big green armchair in the corner. Clint was there, his feet up on the ottoman; he was sound asleep, his head leaning against the wing. His arms were wrapped snugly around Skye, who was sleeping with her doll in one arm and the other clinging to Clint’s shirt.

It hit Phil so hard he wobbled; he was home, and there was someone there who had kept it safe for him, had thought of him and left food for him. It was a simple gesture, and one that Clint had told him to expect, but Phil hadn’t realized until that moment how much it meant, to be the one cared-for as well as the carer. How much he had missed coming home to a light and a welcome instead of a dark, empty house.

He must have made some sound, or maybe it was his shadow changing the light; Clint stirred, his arms flexing a little tighter around Skye, then blinked awake, smiling sleepily when he saw Phil standing there.

“Hey Phil,” he said, then jostled Skye a little. “Look, baby girl, Daddy’s home,” he told her.

Phil looked at them, sleepy and rumpled and smiling up at him, and was helpless to do anything but smile softly back, his heart turning over in his chest.

“It’s good to be home,” he said, and he’d never meant anything more. He thought—he hoped—that given time, Clint would feel that way too. It was risky, maybe, to let himself want it, but while Phil had been busy thinking, his heart had made its decision.

He’d always been a fast mover, after all.

 

 

Chapter Text


The gentle chime of Clint’s message alert broke his concentration. He was reading several reports that Phil had given him, trying to prepare for the town hall meeting that night. Apparently most of the agenda would be taken up by reports from the Mariana Acid Wolf Task Force; if Phil was right, pretty much the whole town would be there, making it almost as much a social occasion as anything else.

Clint had thought the talk of acid wolves must be exaggerated, the natural consequence of living on a planet where very little could kill you. The reports quickly corrected his assumptions. They were pretty shocking, even through the dry language; when Phil had talked about “dangerous animals,” Clint had been envisioning, like, bears or something. Or maybe varren, like you got on shipping worlds; those things were easy to import by accident and all but impossible to get rid of. Phil’s caution on the ride back from the spaceport made a lot more sense, now. Most planets had some kind of dangerous creature, honestly. Nature was great at coming up with variations of with nasty claws and teeth and a desire to eat you. These, though? An animal with all that and also super-strong and smart, with a reinforced skeleton and acid spit? Nature wasn’t that fucked up. The reports were cagey about exactly where they’d come from, but Clint recognized the signs; these things had been developed on purpose, and their release on Stark’s World had to be either a containment accident or some kind of industrial sabotage. He hoped it wasn’t the former; he wanted to stay, and he wasn’t sure it would be a good idea if Stark Galactic was secretly in the horrific-monster business. If Clint had wanted to kill people for a living, he could have just stayed on Earth and let the syndicates take their course.

He sighed. There was plenty of time to worry about that later, once he knew more. And Phil definitely had secrets, but Clint didn’t think they were, like, mad-scientist sorts of secrets.

The alert chimed again, and he tabbed over to the messaging program to see what was up. There weren’t too many people it could be. Any communication from Nat was over the encrypted bridge, so anything to this address was either Phil, the school, or Darcy, who had taken to sending him random funny pictures and jokes.

|PC: Hey Clint, I’m so sorry, I forgot to ask earlier—would you like me to pick something up for dinner on the way home? I know we’re pressed for time tonight.

|CB: no need, I’ve got it handled. Should be ready right after the girls get home, that ok?

|PC: That’s perfect, and you’re a miracle worker. I’m on the way out, so I’ll see you soon. Thank you!

|CB: no problem :)

Clint set aside his tablet, preening a little as he stretched out his stiff back. After a little practice, he’d actually discovered that he enjoyed cooking, and he’d worked up to doing dinner three days a week. The fresh ingredients that were commonplace on Stark’s World still felt luxurious and indulgent to him, and it was reassuring to have tangible evidence of his contributions to the household. Besides, Phil appreciated it so much; Clint didn’t think he’d ever get tired of the way Phil’s face lit up when he came home from work to a laden table and clean, happy children. It was too early to be sure, of course, but Clint thought he was making excellent process on the making-himself-indispensable front.

He went downstairs to see to dinner. If Phil was leaving work now, he’d be home around the same time as the girls. There was a lot to do that evening; apparently all the girls’ regular sitters were going to be at the meeting, so the whole family was going, and everyone had to be fed and homework done before they left.

On top of all that, Katie’s teacher Jess had sent Clint a message asking him to bring his archery stuff that night; she was interested in having him do a demonstration at the school and wanted a preview so she could prepare lessons to go with it. He’d spent some time that morning going over his equipment, cleaning the risers and waxing the string, fixing bent fletching and loose nocks. It had felt good to fall into the practiced motions, the most familiar thing he’d done in a while.

He’d already assembled a casserole for dinner, so all that was left was to bake it. He could change clothes while Katie did her homework, they’d eat early, and with any luck they’d get to town in time for Phil to introduce Clint to some of his co-workers before the meeting.

The house proximity alert chimed just as the casserole finished, and a glance at the monitor showed the school shuttle and Phil coming down the drive one after the other. With a last look around the kitchen to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, Clint went out onto the porch to meet them. Phil waved as he pulled Lola around to the barn, and the shuttle pulled up in front of the house. Skye was the first off. She beamed when she saw Clint.

“Clint! Hi!” she said, running up to him and raising her arms to be picked up. He swung her up onto his hip and smooched her forehead.

“Hey there, sunshine,” he said. “Where’s your sister? Isn’t she supposed to hold your hand when you go on the shuttle?”

Skye leaned in, eyes wide. “Katie got in trouble at recess and had to go in time out,” she whispered loudly. “Miss Jessica sent home a note, and Katie’s mad.”

Clint looked at the shuttle, where Katie was stomping down the steps, her face a stormcloud, her purple backpack dragging on the ground behind her.

“Uh-oh,” Skye said.

“You got it, kid,” Clint muttered.

Katie stopped a few feet away, her little body tense.

“Hi, Katie,” Clint said gently. “You okay?”

“Fine,” she muttered. “Hey, Clint?”

“Yeah?”

“You remember how you said we could climb trees sometime if Daddy said, and Daddy said yes but we haven’t done it yet? Let’s climb trees today, okay?”

Clint blinked, taken aback. It had been at least a week since the last time they’d discussed it, and Katie had seemed all right waiting for the next sunny weekend. “I think we need to do that on a day when we have more time, Katie-Kate,” he said. “Remember, we all have to go into town tonight for the meeting.”

“Meetings are stupid!” Katie said. “I hate them! I don’t want to go!”

Clint had no idea what to say to that. “I’m sorry?” he tried.

“You could stay home with me,” Katie said, moving closer, “and we could climb trees instead! Please, Clint?”

“Katie, I have to meet some people while we’re there,” Clint tried to explain. “I promise, we can climb trees another day, but today there just isn’t time.”

“Those people are stupid too!” Katie said, setting her chin and crossing her arms. Her voice was getting higher and louder, sounding unsettlingly like she was about to cry. “Why do you like them more than me?”

“I don’t—” Clint stammered, trying to find the right words to reassure her. Just then, Phil came around the corner from the barn.

“Hey, sweethearts,” he said, smiling warmly at them. “How was school today?” He stopped then, looking from Clint to Katie, his smile fading as he took in the scene. “Is something wrong?”

“Katie got in trouble!” Skye piped up from Clint’s shoulder.

“Shut up, Skye!” Katie yelled. “Just—just mind your own business!”

“Katie!” Phil’s voice was firm. “We don’t yell, and we don’t tell people to shut up.”

“Sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry. “Daddy, I have a note.”

“Ah.” Phil shot a worried look at Clint. “Well, let me see it.”

Katie dug in the pocket of her bag and emerged with a crumpled piece of paper, which she handed over without a word. Apparently Phil wasn’t the only person on Stark’s World who liked to do things the old-fashioned way.

Phil read the note and sighed. “All right, Katie, let’s go inside and talk about this,” he said. “Clint, can you keep an eye on Skye?”

“Sure, Phil,” Clint said, pushing down an instinctive flare of nerves. He knew that Phil wouldn’t do anything to hurt Katie, no matter what kind of trouble she was in; the reaction was just habit, already starting to fade.

“Why does Skye get to stay with Clint?” Katie demanded. “That’s not fair!”

Phil took a deep breath. “Skye didn’t lose her temper at school today,” he said, his voice admirably calm.

“It’s not my fault!” Katie was practically trembling with temper, her hands clenched into little fists at her sides. “Whitney started it!”

Phil moved next to Katie and crouched down, putting himself on her level. He lowered his voice and said something that Clint couldn’t make out, forehead crinkling with concern as he spoke to his daughter. Clint tried to move away, feeling awkward and intrusive, and figuring the most useful thing he could do would be to take Skye inside and help her put away her school things. Before he made it to the door, though, Katie burst into noisy tears.

Clint wheeled around, startled—what on Earth had Phil said to bring that on? But Phil looked just as mystified as Clint, staring at Katie like she’d suddenly grown a third arm. After a moment, though, he shook off his surprise and stood.

“All right, Katie,” Phil said, raising his voice to be heard over her tears. “Come on, I think you need some space to calm down.”

“I—don’t—want—to,” Katie sobbed.

“I know, but you need to. Come on.” He wrapped an arm gently around her heaving shoulders and steered her into the house, pausing to make an apologetic face at Clint on the way.

“Katie’s gonna have time out again,” Skye said, and despite his worry, it was all Clint could do not to laugh at the smugness in her little voice.

“Oh yeah?” Clint bounced her on his hip, making her giggle. “How about you let Katie worry about Katie, and you worry about Skye? What did you do at school today?”

Skye chattered happily about coloring and alphabet time while Clint took her inside and helped her put away her book bag and lunchbox. Phil came back downstairs partway through her monologue, and leaned in the doorway listening.

“That sounds like a very exciting day of school,” Phil told her, bending down for a hug and kiss. “Thank you for telling us about it.”

“Welcome!” she said, grinning.

“Daddy needs to talk to Clint for a little bit. Can you go play with your blocks until time for dinner?”

“Okay, Daddy!” Skye agreed, and went to pull her box of construction toys out of the cubby in the living room where they lived.

Phil ran his hand over his face, pausing to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I am so sorry about that,” he said.

“Is she okay?”

“She’s calming down in her room. Ordinarily we’d talk it out as soon as she settled, but I’m afraid it’ll have to wait until we get home tonight.” He shook his head. “I’m sure you’re wondering what that was about.”

“Of course I wonder, but you don’t have to tell me,” Clint said. “I understand if it’s something private.”

“Not terribly,” Phil said, shrugging. “When she started crying, I was telling her that we needed to talk inside, unless she wanted you to see her acting that way.” He sighed. “That usually works; she’s really sensitive about people knowing that she’s gotten into trouble. I don’t know why it triggered a meltdown today; maybe she’s just over-stimulated from all the excitement lately.”

“I don’t want her to be embarrassed,” Clint said. “I won’t be upset if you don’t tell me.”

“You probably need to know,” Phil said wryly. “After all, this could have happened the day I was over in Symphony last week.”

Clint shuddered. “Is it bad if I say I’m really glad that didn’t happen?”

“Believe me, I’d avoid it too, if I could.” Phil crossed to the coffee machine. “Want a cup? I need something if I’m going to get through the rest of today unscathed.”

“Sure.”

“I don’t want to give you the wrong idea,” Phil said, as the coffee brewed. “Katie’s usually well-behaved, but she is only seven, and, well, she’s got a temper on her that she’s not quite got a handle on all the time. She’s just like her mom that way; I’m more likely to hold a silent grudge for years than to blow up at you.”

“Should I be worried?” Clint asked, only half joking.

“What? Oh,” Phil said. “No. I learned a long time ago not to let things fester inside the family; it’s my professional nemeses who have to worry about me becoming a silent enemy.”

“Good to know,” Clint said, feeling a little glow at being lumped in with family. “So… Katie’s mom was the hot-headed type?” Clint was always curious to hear more about Audrey; he felt like he saw corners and edges of her everywhere, in the spaces she had left behind, but he never quite got a full picture.

“Yeah.” Phil smiled, his eyes going wistful. “She swore like the Navy’s best, too, when she got going. It was something to see.”

“Sounds like it.” Clint tried to picture the woman in the pictures losing her temper. It was a little easier to imagine, now that he’d seen Katie getting mad.

“Anyway,” Phil said, moving to make their coffees as the machine finished brewing, “Katie had a fight with another girl at recess today. Mostly words, but it escalated to some shoving. Jess stepped in before things went too far, but neither Katie nor the other girl, Whitney Frost, would say what the fight was about.”

“Does this happen a lot?” Clint took the mug Phil offered him, and they sat at the table together.

Phil waggled his hand back and forth. “Not usually this severe, but Katie and Whitney don’t get along,” he said. “They used to play together all the time when they were Skye’s age, but then they started school and America Chavez moved in and Katie decided America was her new best friend. I gather Whitney said America was stupid, and Katie told Whitney her face was stupid. Then Whitney slapped Katie, and America pushed Whitney off the merry-go-round in Katie’s defense.”

“And the great cold war began?” Clint was trying not to laugh—it wasn’t funny, not really—but he couldn’t help picturing Katie as a tiny general, leading her troops to war on the playground.

“Something like that,” Phil agreed. “Though lately it’s been more about snubs in the lunchroom and not getting invited to birthday parties.” He sighed. “I probably should have expected something like this,” he said. “They’ve both been on company manners since you got here; it can’t last forever.”

“Natasha told me all children are horrors,” Clint confided, then nearly dropped his coffee when he realized what he’d said. “I mean, not that Katie and Skye—”

Phil chuckled. “I wouldn’t say horrors, exactly,” he said. “But all children can behave horribly sometimes. I happen to feel like the rest of the time makes it worth that, though.”

Clint relaxed, and smiled back, thinking of Katie’s braids, of Skye’s baths. “Yeah,” he said. “They are pretty great.”

“Even when they’re throwing tantrums?” Phil’s voice was light, but there was a serious look in his eyes.

“Tantrums aren’t that bad,” Clint said. “I’ve thrown a fair few myself, when I was younger.” His stomach flipped over with nerves—he didn’t want Phil to think he had some kind of anger management issues—but he kept talking. He understood how it felt to be small and overwhelmed, and he wanted Phil to know that he would treat the girls with compassion. “After—when me and Barney went into the home, they weren’t really set up to handle kids with, uh, problems,” he said. “I mean, I think they tried? But I didn’t hear good and I didn’t know what they wanted and I just felt so angry all the time. I used to just—yell, sometimes. Throw myself down on the floor and yell and kick. After a while they’d just leave me wherever I was until I tired myself out. So, I mean, I understand a little, how that feels. And I still think Katie’s a great kid even if she kicks and yells a little bit herself sometimes.”

“I—thank you for saying that,” Phil said. “For sharing that with me. I wish—I wish that things had been better for you then. But… I appreciate the person I know now, the man you became. And I’m glad we got to meet you.”

Clint drew a shaky breath, relieved that his confession hadn’t put Phil off. “Thanks,” he said, then trailed off awkwardly, unsure what else to say. They sat over their coffee in silence for a while; from the other room, he could faintly hear Skye singing as she played.

When the timer dinged, Phil stood. “I’ll go get Katie,” he said. “Do you need a hand with dinner?”

“I got this,” Clint told him, relieved to have something useful to do. “You go on upstairs. I can help Skye, too, as soon as I get this on the table.”

“Thanks,” Phil said again, on his way out of the kitchen.

It didn’t take long to serve up the food and clear away his and Phil’s coffee mugs. Clint flicked on the stasis field and went to get Skye.

She was sitting in the middle of a sprawling structure; her “blocks” were actually some kind of elaborate construction set that had arrived courtesy of “Uncle Tony”, and the pieces stuck together on their own. Skye was adding a little doll to the top of a tower, a frown of concentration on her chubby face.

“I like your building,” Clint told her, squatting down next to her creation.

“It’s a castle,” she told him seriously. “This is the tower, and that’s the swimming pool, and that’s the toy room, and that’s R&D.”

Clint blinked at her. “Did you say R&D?”

“Uh huh.” Skye pointed at one of her dolls, who appeared to be wearing a lab coat over a sparkly ball gown. “Doctor Princess Stephanie works there. Uncle Tony says R&D is like Candyland.”

Clint bit the inside of his cheek trying not to laugh. “That does sound like a great place to work,” he agreed. “But dinner’s about ready, so it’s time for Doctor Princess Stephanie to pack it in for the night, okay?”

Skye shrugged. “Okay,” she said, and Clint thanked what luck he had that whatever Katie’s trouble was didn’t seem to be catching.

By the time Clint had helped Skye put her toys away and wash her hands, Phil and Katie were downstairs; Phil looked tired, and Katie was quiet and sullen. Dinner was an awkward meal, with Katie speaking only in monosyllables, and they rushed through it. Clint thought the casserole had turned out pretty well, though, and Phil took the time to thank him for cooking, giving him a happy rush of pride.

Katie looked up. “Clint’s cooking is the best cooking,” she said, fiercely.

“Thank you, Katie,” Clint said. Once Katie looked away again, he tried to shoot Phil a what the hell? look behind her back. Phil shrugged, his face pretty clearly conveying your guess is as good as mine.

As soon as dinner was done, they got the girls into their jackets and piled into the ground car, Clint packing his bow case carefully into the back. It was a silent and uncomfortable ride, Katie’s bad mood putting a damper on everyone. Clint wanted to do something to lighten the atmosphere, but wasn’t sure what, if anything, would help, so he stayed quiet rather than risk making things worse.

The meeting was being held at the town hall, which Clint had only seen from a distance on his previous trip; instead of being in the middle of town the way he’d half expected, it was closer to the far end. They parked on the street a little distance away, and Clint swung his bow case over his shoulder and offered a hand down to Katie, who was uncharacteristically reluctant to let go once her feet hit the ground. Phil, lifting Skye out of her safety seat, simply said, “Keep hold of Clint’s hand, please.”

Katie nodded. Skye had fallen asleep on the way there and was still drowsy, so Phil hitched her up against his shoulder and carried her as he led the way to the hall. Katie’s grip was so tight her fingernails were digging into the back of Clint’s hand, but he shrugged it off; she wasn’t doing it on purpose, and if it made her feel better, Clint could take a little discomfort.

The Mariana Town Hall was a five-story red-brick building with an old-fashioned-looking clock tower. In front of the building, a decorative fountain splashed merrily in the center of a few rings of low shrubs and budding flowers, skirted by a stone-paved walking path. The entire area was full of people, sitting on benches or standing in small groups, talking while their children ran around nearby. Clint recognized several of the people he’d already met. Behind the building the town seemed to stop in favor of a wide sweep of green, dotted with trees and more of the same ornamental plants. It looked unstructured at first glance, but Clint could see more of the same stone paths.

“That’s the picnic grounds,” Phil said, noticing where he was looking. “Sometimes called Stark Park, though Tony’s not a fan of the rhyming.”

“What, you didn’t have enough nature?”

Phil laughed. “The idea is that the town will eventually grow around the park,” he explained. “But we’re taking it slow.”

“Probably for the best.”

“Katie! Katie, hi!” A little girl with curly brown hair, wearing a blue shirt with a white star, came running toward them. Clint vaguely remembered her from the day they had dropped the girls off at school. “Hi Mr. Phil,” she said. “Hi Mr. Clint.”

“Hi, America,” Phil said. Katie’s best friend, then. The merry-go-round-pusher. Clint liked her already. That Whitney kid sounded like a bully.

“Hi,” he told America.

Her duty to the grown-ups done, she turned to Katie, bouncing a little on her toes. “Katie, my mommies said if your daddy says yes you can come play in the playroom with me during the meeting!” The two girls turned wide eyes to Phil, almost in unison.

“Can Katie please come play with me, Mr. Phil?” America asked.

“Please, Daddy?” Katie added.

Clint was really glad they weren’t asking him; he wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to say no, even if Katie was in trouble.

“Not tonight, I’m afraid, girls,” Phil told them. “Tonight, Katie needs to sit in the meeting with me.” The girls’ faces fell.

“But Daddy—” Katie began.

“Katherine.” Phil’s voice was quiet, but there was a clear note of warning to it. Katie subsided, her thin shoulders slumping.

“I guess I can’t, tonight, America,” she said, in tragic tones.

“I’m sorry, Katie,” America said, and grabbed Katie in a hug. Katie dropped Clint’s hand at last to hug back.

“You can come play next time,” America told her. She pulled something out of her pocket and shoved it at Katie. “Here, Katie, you can hold my lucky rock,” she said, looking defiantly up at Phil and Clint.

Katie sniffled. “Thank you,” she whispered.

The corner of Phil’s mouth twitched. “Yes, thank you, America, that’s very kind,” he said, seriously.

“Playroom?” Clint murmured, as they started walking again.

“Childcare room,” Phil explained. “Ordinarily, I’d let the girls stay there during the meeting, but Whitney Ford is usually there, too. After everything that’s happened today, I’m not sure I want to tempt fate by throwing her together with Katie again so soon.”

“Ah,” Clint said, “makes sense. America looks like she’s ready to throw some punches.”

Phil chuckled. “Hopefully we can avoid that if we give everyone some time to calm down.”

As they walked toward the hall, Katie and America trading whispers, they drew near to a group of people Clint didn’t recognize. One of them, a dark-haired man with bright, searching eyes, looked over at them sharply as they approached. He looked familiar, but Clint didn’t remember meeting him before.

“Coulsons!” he called, leaving his previous conversation mid-sentence and walking over. “And… guest.”

Katie perked up, all trace of grumpiness leaving her face. “Uncle Tony!”

Holy shit, no wonder he looked familiar; it was Tony fucking Stark. In Clint’s defense, he looked a lot different from his dossier, face bare of his usual tinted glasses, wearing worn, comfortable-looking clothing instead of cutting-edge fashion. Still, though, it wasn’t as though Clint hadn’t seen him often enough. Only a week, and he was slipping; living here was making him soft. He needed to start training again.

Stark broke into a wide smile at Katie’s enthusiasm. “Well, if it isn’t my favorite junior engineer!” he said, holding out an arm. Katie ran over and wrapped her arms around his waist in a hug.

“Tony,” Phil said, nodding in friendly greeting. “Meet Clint Barton.”

Clint tried not to tense up; behind him, he felt Phil’s hand ghost reassuringly over his shoulder. He swallowed hard and gave Stark his best formal bow. “It’s my honor, Mr. Stark,” he said.

“Hmm,” Stark said. The soft expression fell off his face as he looked hard at Clint, his eyes flicking from his hair—had Skye mussed it when he was carrying her earlier?—to the shiny toes of his stiff new shoes. “Terran papers, Elysian fashion, and Bekkish manners,” Stark said. “An interesting combination. You’ve made quite the stir, Mr. Barton, and I don’t mean just among the livestock.”

Clint wasn’t sure how to respond; his manners and clothes—and, for that matter, his papers—all came from Natasha, and he hadn’t the faintest idea why she’d chosen those particular ones to give him. He decided just to go with what he knew about the man and hope to win him over that way.

“It’s great to meet the famous Uncle Tony,” he said. “The girls talk about you all the time.”

He couldn’t be sure—facial hair was good for masking expressions—but he thought Stark looked pleased at that comment, though he quickly smoothed the look away. As he was opening his mouth to say something else, Katie spoke up.

“Clint does my braids every day, Uncle Tony,” she said. “And he’s teaching me gymnastics and he’s going to teach me to climb a tree and he cooks for us and he’s our special friend who is staying in our house all the way until summertime.”

Stark glanced down at her, looking a little taken aback at her vehemence. Clint felt the same way. What was going on with her today? He couldn’t deny that it was good to hear it—more than good—but it was a little embarrassing for his first meeting with the man who owned the planet he was hoping to live on to be mostly taken up with a character reference from a seven-year-old.

“Right, Clint?” Katie demanded. She pressed herself into Stark’s side, and Clint could see concern on his face even as he patted her shoulder. “Right?”

“That’s right, Katie-Kate,” Clint said, as soothingly as he could. “You guys made a room for me and everything, my favorite color.” He looked over at Phil, wondering if he had any better idea what was going on. Phil shrugged, looking worried.

“Huh,” Stark said. “Sounds like you’ve made quite an impression.” He looked back down at Katie. “What’s going on with you today, Sprocket? Your back’s like a steel bar.”

“Nothing, Uncle Tony,” Katie said, lifting her chin stubbornly. “I’m fine.”

“Dear God, Phil, you’ve passed it down to the next generation,” Stark said, and Clint had to admit that there was a very Phil-ish cast to her little face at that moment. He was spared trying to think of a way to respond by the arrival of a tall, elegant woman with red-gold hair and a dusting of freckles across her nose.

“Tony, there you are,” she said, smiling. “I wondered where you’d gotten to. Hi, Phil. Hi, girls.”

“Hi, Aunt Pepper,” Katie said.

“Pepper,” Phil said, his answering smile broad and genuine. “How lovely to see you. I’m glad you came over, I’ve been wanting to introduce you to Clint.”

“Pepper Potts,” she said, turning her lovely smile on him.

He started to bow.

“Oh, please, there’s no need to be so formal,” she interrupted, holding out a hand to shake, Earth-fashion. He took it carefully, ignoring the urge to wipe it off on his pants first.

“Clint Barton,” he told her. “Though I’m sure you already know that.”

“It is a little hard to miss,” she said, with a laugh. “You’ve been the talk of the town! I’m so very glad to meet you at last. Darcy speaks very highly of you.”

“She does?” Clint blurted. “I mean, sorry, I mean, er, thank you.”

“Yes indeed. I hear great things about your hair-braiding and gymnastics prowess, though I admit I’m a little disappointed to see that the bionic third eye is a myth.” She smiled, as though inviting him to share in the joke.

He couldn’t help smiling back. “You never know,” he said seriously. “It might just be somewhere you can’t see.”

She laughed. “It’s wonderful to see you in town at last,” she said. “I was beginning to think Phil was planning to monopolize you for your entire visit.”

“You’ve discovered my secret plot,” Phil said lightly, eyes twinkling.

Clint smiled at them a little uncertainly, not sure how to respond. Katie detached herself from Stark’s side and attached herself to Clint’s; he rubbed her shoulder, thankful for her slight weight against him.

“I’m afraid I need to run,” Ms. Potts said, her tone apologetic. “I need to speak with Mayor Munroe before the meeting. It was lovely to meet you, Clint. We should all have dinner some time soon.” She swept Stark off in her wake, though he turned on the way out to shoot Clint another beady look.

Clint leaned close to speak into Phil’s ear. “Was it just me, or was he a little…” he trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.

“Tony’s a little paranoid and over-protective,” Phil said. “He’ll be fine once he gets used to you and realizes you aren’t here to break my heart or perform corporate espionage.”

“Oooh, did someone say corporate espionage?” It was Darcy, walking over to them accompanied by Steve, Peggy, and a handsome man with sparkling eyes.

“Only that there isn’t any,” Phil told her. “Sorry.”

“Oh well,” Darcy said. “I suppose I’ll just have to waste my skills tracking down budget anomalies for another quarter. Hey, Clint!” She slid between him and Phil, wrapping an arm around each of them for a quick squeeze, and somehow exchanged smacking kisses with Skye and ruffle Katie’s hair at the same time. Clint wasn’t sure how she managed it. “Clint, this is my husband, Sam Wilson. He wants to talk to you about pies.”

“Hey!” Steve said. “No fair, this was supposed to be introductions only.”

“Those two have an epic bromance,” Darcy told Clint. “Until the Victory Day Picnic rolls around, and then it’s all bitter pie acrimony for weeks. Pacrimony? Acripieny?”

“I prefer to call it a pie rivalry,” Phil said.

“Sweet,” Darcy said. “Pievalry, good one.”

“Um,” Clint said.

“They’re exaggerating, Clint,” Steve told him.

Sam—Clint had got to stop thinking of him as “Mister Sam with the horses”—rolled his eyes. “It’s a perfectly healthy friendly competition,” he said, holding out a hand to Clint. Clint disentangled himself from Darcy and shook it.

Phil coughed, and the cough sounded like he was saying “rhubarb crumble.”

Sometimes, this planet was so weird.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he told Sam. “Katie talks about your horses all the time.”

Sam grinned at him. He had a radiant smile, all dimples; it made Clint want to smile back. “Yeah?” Sam said. “I hear you’re a rider yourself.”

“Not for years, but yeah, once upon a time.”

“You want to pick it up again, just come by,” Sam said. “I can always use another hand exercising the horses, especially the bigger ones; they’re too strong for the kids to handle yet.”

Clint couldn’t help feeling a little wistful. He’d loved the animals in the circus, and except for Lucky, he hadn’t had much contact with them since. There weren’t a lot of pets in his line—in his former line of work. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to be a bother,” he said hesitantly, “but if it would help you out, it would be nice to be around horses again.”

“Yeah, anytime,” Sam said.

“I’ll send you his contact,” Darcy said. “You guys can set something up.”

“You should come with me next time, Clint,” Katie said, her hand tightening on the leg of his pants. “We can ride together. You said you’d come with me and meet Arrow!”

“We’ll have to see what else I need to do that day,” Clint told her. “But I’ll come if I can, okay?”

“We can work out the details later,” Phil said, checking his watch. “We should get inside; the meeting’s about to start.”

They headed into the town hall in a group. Nearly everyone that Clint had met so far was there; he saw Bruce, and the girls’ teachers Jessica and Luke, the Jarvises, and even Jennifer Walters, the attorney that Phil had hired to represent Clint during their contract negotiations. As they took their seats, he even saw Wade slipping into the back of the room.

Phil sat Katie down at the end of a row of chairs, and took his own seat next to her, putting Skye down on his other side. Clint took the seat next to Skye, and Darcy and Steve sat beside him, their respective spouses heading up towards the front of the room. Katie looked mutinous at her placement, her chin wobbling ominously, but she held it together, staring gloomily at her shoes and turning America’s lucky rock over and over in her hand.

A tall, stunning woman with dark skin and a shock of white hair climbed onto the stage. As if her presence was a signal, everyone started settling. Peggy and Sam went onto the stage, along with Bruce, two people Clint didn’t know, Pepper Potts, and, surprisingly, Wade Wilson.

“This meeting of the Mariana Acid Wolf Task Force is called to order,” Mayor Munroe said, and everyone quieted down and turned their attention to the front of the room as the meeting began.

It was… a meeting. Honestly, Clint had expected something with “acid wolf” in the name to be a lot more exciting. They started with a roll call, where Clint learned that the chair was the Mayor of Mariana, Ororo Munroe, and that the two other strangers were Maria Hill and Hank Pym from Stark Galactic. When Wade was introduced, Clint leaned over to whisper into Phil’s ear.

“I thought you said nobody knew how he got his visa?”

“Nobody does,” Phil whispered back, “but he showed up to the Task Force meeting a couple years back with a detailed migration model that worked better than any of the ones we’d had before. He’s some kind of wildlife tracking genius, apparently, so now that’s what he does.”

While they were whispering, the task force voted the minutes of the last meeting into the record. Then they had to approve the meeting agenda, which involved several minutes of debate about—as far as Clint could tell—whether they needed to read Tony Stark’s academic qualifications into the record or not before he spoke, which just seemed dumb considering they were at that moment having their meeting on a planet that he literally owned.

“All right,” the Mayor said at last. “First item on the agenda: Dr. Wilson will give a report on the spring migration survey.”

Wade leaned in, looking sharply into the audience like he was considering leaping over the table into their midst. “My little friends,” he said, “by which I mean the acid wolves, who are not actually my friends, because they want to eat me, and that is not friendship as we humans understand it—”

The Mayor cleared her throat.

“—have been busy over the winter.” Wade waved his hand in some kind of complicated gesture, and the lights in the hall dimmed, a holo-display rising out of the table. Clint recognized it from his reading; the globe of Stark’s World, its major landmasses separated mostly by shallow seas scattered with archipelagoes.

Wade gestured again, and the hologram grew a number of bright blue dots.

“Those are all the settlements, outposts, and installations,” Phil whispered, leaning so close his breath tickled Clint’s neck. “Everywhere people live or work.”

“So in case you guys have forgotten, or you’re new here,” Wade said, and Clint was pretty sure he looked straight at Clint through the hologram, “the acid wolf packs like to travel around. In the winter, they go on tropical vacations down around the equator, and then when it starts warming up again they head back to their home turf. Last year, the peak spread looked like this.” A yellow overlay appeared on the globe. Clint wasn’t exactly an animal or geography expert, but he could get the gist; the overlay covered a good chunk of the central part of the main continent, with a few bulges north or south that he assumed must contain, like, lots of wolf food or something.

“Now,” Wade continued, “Thanks to the heroic efforts of Brucie here,” he waved at Bruce, who made a resigned face, “and his tagging teams of wonder, we’ve been able to get a more accurate picture of the population this year. And that picture, ladies and gentlemen and people who are neither, is frankly sh—”

Ms. Potts, sitting next to him, jabbed an elbow into his side, her interested expression never wavering.

“—ocking,” he finished. Clint was pretty sure that wasn’t what he’d been going to say.

“Anyhow,” Wade continued, “Here are the most recent range estimates.” A new overlay appeared, this one bright red, and a murmur ran over the crowd. The new range was bigger—a lot bigger—with long, finger-like protrusions reaching out towards the settlements. The northernmost edge of the red only looked a few inches distant from the dot that marked Mariana; Clint wasn’t sure exactly how much distance that represented in real life, but he was pretty sure it was not enough.

Wade shifted uneasily, a frown creasing his scarred face. “Yeah, I don’t know either,” he said, in answer to no particular question. “None of the models predicted a spread like this, and they’ve gone pretty far away from where the dramiu flocks are hanging out.”

“Thank you, Dr. Wilson,” the Mayor said, shooting Wade a quelling look. “I believe Dr. Banner has some further light to shed on the migration topic.”

Bruce nodded, flicking through his tablet. “As of the end of last year, we had identified and tagged 37 individuals, belonging to three distinct packs,” he said. “However, the field expeditions so far this year have identified a large number of previously untagged individuals. Some are young, probably last year’s cubs, but the majority are adults. The data are still preliminary, of course, but we’ve revised our estimate of acid wolf prevalence upward to approximately 90 individuals.”

“And we know that’s bad,” Stark cut in, raising his voice to be heard from his seat in the front row of the audience, “but—”

“You’re out of order, Mr. Stark,” the Mayor said. “Your agenda item is next; please wait until Dr. Banner is finished with his report.”

“As Tony was saying,” Bruce said, his mouth wry, “we are definitely concerned with these numbers. However, given the ages of the untagged wolves, we think the most likely explanation is not a population boom, but that we undercounted in our previous surveys. The genetic markers in the specimens we’ve been able to obtain show considerable divergence from the main packs; we think these wolves may be from a different pack that had previously stayed out of human reach but is now integrating with the existing packs. However, the only way to be sure is to make a concerted effort to tag every wolf on Stark’s World, and to track their movements and associations in real time. And to that end—” he gestured to a small podium set up in the aisle. “Tony?”

Stark walked up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets, the casual slouch of his posture at odds with the tightness Clint could see in the back of his neck. “I’m very pleased to announce that the Mark V satellite system was placed in geosynchronous orbit late yesterday,” he said. “And if you know anyone who worked on that team, buy them a beer, because they worked their asses off to get it up there. It’ll take about 48 hours from launch to calibrate everything, and then we’ll be ready to take WolfNet live.”

“What good is that gonna do?” a burly man with profuse facial hair called from the other side of the hall. “We’ve already got surveillance towers all over the damn planet.”

“The towers have limited range,” Stark explained. “We’d have to have one every hundred square meters to cover everything, so we’ve been making do with strategic placement and extrapolation. The Mark V enables dynamic multicore load-shifting to—”

“Tony,” Ms. Potts said. “Lay language, please.”

He snorted. “The satellites boost the range,” he said. “Instead of catching the wolves when they go past a checkpoint and trying to recreate their movements, we’ll be able to monitor every tagged wolf on the continent in real time.”

“Thus figuring out what the hell they’re up to,” Wade cut in. “At least, that’s the plan.”

“I still say we just kill them all,” Mr. Muttonchops grumbled.

“And we will,” Stark said. “Just as soon as we’re sure we can do that without accidentally making the problem worse.” He scowled. “Stark’s World isn’t the only planet having this problem, but it is the best equipped to find a permanent solution instead of a series of stopgap measures. The best hope for everyone facing an acid wolf invasion, on world as well as off, is for us to find that solution here and then move quickly to stamp out the wolves everywhere they’ve spread.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stark,” said the Mayor. Stark nodded, retaking his seat.

“Next on the agenda,” the Mayor said, “is the town security report by Sheriff Wilson. Sheriff?”

Sam—who was the Sheriff, apparently, in addition to a riding instructor? leaned forward.

“Thank you, Mayor Munroe,” he said. “So, folks, I don’t need to tell you that we’re pretty concerned about what we’ve been seeing from the wolves this spring. Remember, this is breeding season, so the wolves will have pups to feed; that makes them more aggressive than normal, so watch out for your livestock and yourselves. Once WolfNet goes live, we’ll be pushing a software patch to all the perimeter sensors, but if your property sensors aren’t connected to the network, you’ll need to do a manual update. Other than that, it’s common sense; check the scanner before you go on any picnics and try not to get caught too far away from safety. The Watch are going to be stepping up patrols in town, but those of you who live outside city limits should take extra precautions. I’ll also take this opportunity to remind you all that the Watch is currently accepting volunteers, and Anna has agreed to do our orientation dinner this quarter, so it’ll be well worth your time.”

The audience laughed, and Sam smiled at them.

“Now,” he said, “let’s talk about the security arrangements for the Victory Day Picnic…”

The sun had just started setting as they left Town Hall, painting the clouds pink and gold. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry to leave, milling around in the square and chatting. Skye had fallen asleep during the meeting, and Phil had expertly managed to get her up on his hip without waking her. Katie was trailing a step or two behind them, scuffing her shoes along the ground, not quite far enough behind to be called out for deliberate disobedience, but more than enough to make her displeasure with the situation apparent.

“Phil! There you are.” Anna Jarvis appeared out of the crowd. “Hello, Clint, how wonderful to see you. I hope you’ll come visit us at the restaurant again soon.”

“It’s great to see you, too, Mrs. Jarvis,” Clint said, smiling at her. “I’m sure we’ll get over there before too long; I can’t wait to try more of your pies.”

She patted his arm. “I’m afraid I’m forbidden from feeding any of the judges pie until after the Victory Day Picnic,” she said. “For the integrity of the competition, you know.”

“Oh,” Clint said. “Um, of course. I understand.” He didn’t, really, but that was beside the point, which was that apparently the pie competition was serious business in Mariana.

“I’m terribly sorry, dear,” she continued, “but I’m afraid I need to steal Phil for a few minutes. The Picnic Committee needs to resolve a few things and we can’t wait until our next meeting.”

Phil sighed. “You know, we do have a virtual meeting room we could use for this,” he said.

“Nonsense, we’re all here now and it won’t take long. If we try to do it virtually, you-know-who will start spouting off and keep us there for hours with points of order and such.”

Phil looked at Clint, visibly wavering. “Clint, would you mind if—”

“Go on,” Clint told him. “I’ve got to find Katie’s teacher anyway, remember?”

“True.” Phil turned around and took a few steps over to where Katie was loitering sullenly. He spoke to her quietly, and she nodded and walked off into the crowd.

“I’ve sent Katie to Darcy,” Phil told him. “She’ll be fine there until we’re both done.”

“I’d offer to take Skye,” Clint said, “but I’m not sure what Jess is going to need me to do, and I’d rather not mess around with arrows while I’m holding her.”

“Not a problem,” Phil assured her. “Thor’s on the Picnic Committee, I’ll make him hold her for a while.”

He walked off with Mrs. Jarvis, and Clint looked around for Katie’s teacher, shifting the big duffel bag where he’d stowed his archery equipment higher on his shoulder. He caught sight of her across the square and she waved him over. He’d just started down the path when a bright voice behind him called, “Hi there! Are you Clint?”

He looked around, and then looked down, to see a petite, pale woman with sparkling eyes and short brown hair smiling up at him.

“Um,” he said. “Yes?”

“I’m so excited to finally meet you!” she said. “I’m Jan van Dyne. I run the boutique on Main Street.”

“Clint Barton,” Clint told her, holding out his hand to shake. “But you already knew that.”

She laughed, the sound infectious and joyful, and he smiled at her despite himself. “What do you think of Stark’s World so far?”

He took a breath, ready to launch into the “it’s very different from Earth but it’s beautiful and the people are so friendly” speech he’d already given to just about everyone he’d met, when the man from the task force—Henry something—stalked up to them, scowling.

“For heaven’s sake, Janet, leave the man alone,” he snapped.

She rolled her eyes, glancing sideways at Clint with a little grin, as though inviting him to share in a joke. “Don’t be such a grump, Hank,” she said. “You’re going to give Clint the wrong impression.”

“Maybe he’ll get the impression that some people here care more about doing their jobs than standing around gossiping in the square,” Hank said sourly.

“This is my husband Hank Pym, Clint,” Jan said. “Please don’t mind him, he gets like this when he doesn’t get his dinner on time.”

“This isn’t about blood sugar,” Hank said. “It’s about science!”

Clint wondered if he realized how much like a satvid mad scientist he sounded. “Nice to meet you,” he offered.

Pym nodded. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Come along, Janet.”

“I’d better go get some food into him,” Jan said, patting Clint’s arm with a small hand. “Come by the shop soon, yes? I’m dying to hear who did your clothes, you’ve got a very cosmopolitan aesthetic! See you then!”

She headed off into town, herding her big, grumpy husband in front of her and leaving Clint’s head spinning. He wondered if Hank Pym was the town crank, or if something about Clint brought out the worst in him. It was a shame, either way. Jan hadn’t seemed bothered, but he didn’t like to see angry men looming over small women. He sighed, trying to shake off the uneasy feeling the encounter had left him with, and resumed his course across the square.

This time, he was successful in making his way over to Jess. “Hey. I brought my stuff, but it’s kind of big… is there somewhere near here I could spread it out a little?”

“Thanks, Clint!” Jess said. “If we go over here, I think that bench might work.” They walked a few steps to one of the benches. Clint slung his duffle down off his shoulder onto the bench and started to take out his gear.

“Katie’s talked you up so much I think I’m going to have a mutiny on my hands if the other kids don’t get to see you do something cool soon,” Jess said. “You should have heard the commotion after show and tell.”

He chuckled sheepishly. “Well, I don’t know if it’s cool, but lemme show you what I’ve got,” he said.

He’d brought several different arm guards and a chest guard, as well as several different shooting gloves; he showed her each one, noting its purpose before moving to the next.

“Here are the arrows,” he said, unfastening his travel quiver. “The fletching is mostly synthetic; it’s hard to find natural feather on Earth. The shafts are carbon fiber. I’ve got several different sorts of arrowheads; these are for target shooting, for instance, and these are for hunting. I also have a few trick ones I used in my circus act, they do things like drop a net.”

“Can I touch it?”

“Sure, go ahead.” She picked up one of the target arrows, weighing it in her hand, testing the balance. “Can you put some kind of cap on the end so it’s safe for the kids to handle one? They’d probably love to get to hold it.”

“The target tips are pretty blunt already, but I think I could rig something,” Clint said. He looked around; they’d drawn a crowd of observers, all looking curiously at Clint and Jess. He straightened up a little, his old showman’s mannerisms creeping into the edges of his voice.

“And here’s the most important part,” he said, pulling out the bow and snapping it open with a pump of his arm. It wasn’t the most historically significant of his bows, but it was showy, so he’d guessed it would be a good option to show to the kids.

“Ooooh,” a dry voice said from behind his shoulder. “Ahhh.”

Clint felt his back tense. “Mr. Stark.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Tony,” Jess said. “I don’t see you coming down to the school for a demo.”

“Forgive me for being too busy making life-changing scientific advances to come play,” Stark said.

Clint shifted uneasily. He could tell there were undercurrents to the way Stark was treating him, but he couldn’t figure out what was driving the man’s behavior. If Stark hadn’t wanted Clint on his planet, he could have denied Phil’s visa request, so why did he suddenly seem to have such a problem with him?

“So, ah, I should probably go find Phil,” Clint said.

“Not so fast,” Stark said. “You brought all this along and you aren’t even going to demonstrate? And here I thought you were a star performer.”

Clint felt his face heat. He wasn’t sure why Stark was acting so strange, but he was painfully aware that his ultimate fate lay just as much in this man’s hands as in Phil’s. “It’s not exactly safe to have a trick shooting demo in the middle of a crowd, Mr. Stark.”

“We’ll clear a space,” Stark said, raising his voice. “Hey, who would like to see Barton here do some trick shooting?”

There was an excited murmur as everyone within earshot turned to face Clint.

“We don’t get much new entertainment in these parts,” Stark said. “Come on, Barton, do your part for the community.”

“I… fine, okay,” Clint said, and several people nearby let out a little cheer. “We should go to the park, though, and we’ll need to keep everyone behind the shooting line, I’m serious.”

“Oh, naturally.”

It was remarkable how quickly a man who owned a planet could make things happen. Less than ten minutes later, Clint was standing on a platform in the park behind Town Hall, looking at a series of targets that had been hung from the branches of various trees. Nearly everyone who had been at the meeting was gathered behind him, and Sam—Sheriff Wilson, just then—and a team of volunteers were policing the line.

It felt a little strange, to be getting ready to perform in his nice clothes, but soon enough he lost himself in the familiar routine, letting the old showman’s patter slip out as he did showy trick shots. He’d just finished the trick where he shot one arrow into the air and then hit it with another arrow to deflect it into the target, which had caused a gratifying amount of applause. For his finale, he was going to split an arrow; he had a few in his quiver that were specially designed to be splittable, and that trick was always impressive. He’d sunk the first arrow into the farthest target and was lining up a broadhead shot to finish the trick, taking it slow to make it look better.

As he paused at full draw, a piercing scream rang through the cool air, followed by a wavering howl that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

He ignored the worried mutters of the crowd, squinting through the gathering dusk in the direction of the noise. What had—oh fuck, fuck, it was Katie! Up in the branches of a tree—

—and a giant animal that could only be an acid wolf was leaping and snapping at her—

—and she was screaming, terrified, trying to scramble higher through branches that bent under her weight, and the wolf kept jumping—its teeth missed her foot by inches—

The first arrow was away before he even registered that he’d started to run.

He was distantly aware of chaos behind him, people running and shouting. It didn’t matter; he’d gone into the cold and silent steady place where nothing mattered but the target before him. He drew and fired, drew and fired, shot after shot at a dead flat-out run.

His first arrow drove deep into the creature’s side. It whirled to face the new threat, snarling and gathering itself to leap, and Clint fired again and again, still running.

One through each eye, fired simultaneously. Two through its throat, sending dark blood in a jet into the air. Four into center mass, hoping he’d hit lungs or heart, but it was still moving.

As he closed in on it, he pulled the knife out of his ankle sheath—old habits died hard—and plunged it deep into the back of the wolf’s neck.

It was big, brindled black and silver, and it reeked of old meat and foul breath. Even wounded as it was, it still thrashed and fought, jerking its head and snapping; Clint felt a line of fire sear across his arm as it struggled. He dropped his bow to use both hands, hanging onto the knife and twisting until he felt the sickening snap of the spine parting under the blade at last; the wolf gave a final convulsion and collapsed into a heap.

“Katie?” he called, scrubbing his hands on his pants and peering desperately into the tree. “Baby, are you there? Katie, answer me!”

For a moment—a second, maybe two, but it felt like an hour, it felt like eternity—there was silence.

“Clint!” Her thready cry was the only warning he got before she came crashing down the tree, terrifyingly careless; as soon as she got to the lower branches she launched herself off, straight into his outstretched arms. He clutched her little body tight, folding to his knees on the ground, huddling over her as she shook with sobs. She was safe, he had her; as the realization sank in, he felt the shakes come.

“Katie!” Phil’s voice was hardly recognizable, ragged and broken as he crashed to the ground beside them, reaching out with shaking hands. There were other people around, Clint vaguely noticed, but his attention was completely taken up with Katie and Phil.

“Da-ddy,” Katie hiccuped, reaching out with one skinny arm while still clinging to Clint with the other. There were smears of blood down the front of her dress where Clint had pressed her to his chest. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! I didn’t m-mean to!” She was still crying so hard she could hardly speak, and Phil crowded in close, wrapping his arms around her and, by extension, Clint.

“Are you hurt?” he demanded, in a sharp tone Clint had never heard from him before. “Are either of you hurt, do we need the doctor—whose blood is—Bruce!

“I hurt myself on the tree!” Katie sobbed. “An—and Clint had to fight the wolf! Clint, did it bite you? I’m sorry!

“I’m fine, Katie,” Clint whispered into her hair. Her braid was hanging half-undone, tangled with twigs and leaves. “Katie, I’m okay.” He wasn’t sure he’d know even if he had been hurt, honestly. Adrenaline and panic were running high in his blood; his fingers were numb, his heart hammering.

Phil’s grip on them was tight, but his face was grey and haunted. He looked years older. Clint could feel his body trembling where he was pressed against Clint’s side—or maybe that was Clint trembling. Maybe it was both of them. Phil had already lost so much. If—if the wolf had gotten Katie, if Phil had seen

Clint felt something wet on his arm. Looking down, he saw that it was where Katie was clutching him, the palm of her hand scraped raw by her desperate climb. A little trickle of blood was running down into the crook of Clint’s elbow. His eyes flicked to the wolf corpse, lying a few feet away with Clint’s arrows sprouting from it, horrible and frightening even in death.

It could have bitten Katie clean in half with one snap of those massive jaws.

It hit him like a fresh shock, a blow that would have knocked him over if he hadn’t already been on his knees; they’d almost lost her. If Clint hadn’t been in the park—if he hadn’t had his bow out and a broadhead arrow on the string—if he hadn’t been able to see Katie from where he was standing—if she hadn’t screamed…

The wolf had been leaping high into the air. The trunk of the tree was shredded from its claws, great splintery gouges going inches into the wood. It could have pulled the entire tree down to get to her.

If they hadn’t been in the park, they’d never have heard her. They would have finished chatting, taken their time wrapping up their business. They would have gone to pick her up from Darcy and found she wasn’t there. They’d have looked for her, first annoyed and then worried. They’d have questioned her friends, pulled together the townspeople and searched. Clint swallowed down bile, picturing what they might have found. Would the wolf have left… remains? Or would they have had nothing but Katie’s blood and the wreck of the tree to tell the tale?

It wasn’t just Phil who would have been shattered. It would have broken Clint, too. It would have been an unthinkable horror, an unrecoverable blow.

A sob caught in Clint’s throat, and he buried his face in Katie’s hair again, concentrating on the heaving of her little body against him as she cried. No matter what happened next, whether he and Phil married or not, whether he stayed on Stark’s World or not, Katie was his. She was Clint’s little girl—in his heart, where it mattered—and she always would be. He was in this deeper than he’d ever realized, and it was beautiful, and it was terrifying.

His eyes burned, and he forced himself to focus on the way she was here, breathing, alive in his arms. He counted each breath as he pressed terrified little kisses into her hair. His baby.

He wasn’t sure how long they’d knelt there when he heard a gentle voice saying his name. He looked over, and saw Bruce crouched nearby, watching them with concern in his face.

“I’d like to check the two of you over,” Bruce said.

“I’m fine.” Clint wasn’t the one who’d been treed by an acid wolf.

“You’re covered in blood and there are holes in your clothes,” Bruce told him. “I’d like to at least look.”

Clint took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure, though it was a bit late; half the town was standing around them, seemed like, and had been watching him cry into Katie’s hair. “Do Katie first, then.”

Bruce looked past Clint. “Phil,” he said.

Phil looked over, moving like it hurt him. When he met Bruce’s eyes, Bruce said, “spatter,” and Phil’s face somehow went even more pale.

“Let him look at you, please,” he said to Clint, his voice thready but certain. “Katie, can you come here for a minute while Doctor Bruce looks at Clint?”

“Okay,” she said through her tears, and shuffled over onto Phil’s lap. The two of them watched gravely while Bruce examined him, and Clint was struck with the resemblance between them in the moment, both foreheads creased in exactly the same way.

“I’m really fine,” he told them.

“Take off your shirt,” Bruce said.

Clint stared. “What?”

“There are holes,” Bruce said, “which means either you caught teeth or you caught acid spatter. Get it off, I need to check you.”

Clint shrugged, and pulled the shirt off over his head. Something pulled and burned on the back of his left arm, and he bit back a curse, hissing through his teeth.

“Okay, doc,” he said, voice a little shaky. “I think maybe there is something there to look at.”

“Hmm, yes, I see.” Bruce’s voice was still calm, but there was a thread of tension in it. “I need to neutralize this or it will keep—” he broke off, glancing over at Katie, who was staring at them with wet, frightened eyes. He cleared his throat. “It looks like the wolf caught you a glancing blow with its teeth when you were… in close quarters.” He started dabbing some kind of cream onto Clint’s arm, and the cessation of pain in that spot made him realize with some shock that his arm really hurt.

“The acid wolves have caustic saliva,” someone else said, and Clint looked up to see Stark, standing nearby and shifting his weight from heel to toe and back again. Behind his elaborate facial hair, his face had gone white; he looked like he’d aged ten years since he’d needled Clint into doing the demo.

Maybe Clint should thank him for being a jackass.

Bruce finished the last of the bandages on his arm. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

“Not really,” Clint said. “Cut my hands a little, trying to get the knife through. It wouldn’t stop thrashing.”

Bruce cocked his head expectantly, and Clint sighed, holding out his hands to be cleaned and bandaged. “Katie,” he said, as soon as Bruce was done.

Bruce nodded.

“Phil,” Clint said, laying a bandaged palm on Phil’s arm. “Hey, Phil, let the doctor look at Katie, okay?”

Phil looked up from where he’d been whispering to Katie, cupping her face in one big hand, his head tipped close as he kept alternating between brushing kisses over Katie’s cheeks and pulling back to inspect her for injuries. “What? Oh.” He blinked, and Clint could see the moment he came back to himself, his reddened eyes sharpening as he glanced around, taking in the crowd and Bruce before falling on Clint, widening in what looked like alarm.

“Bruce, did you—”

“Neutralized,” Bruce said. “We got it in time, there won’t be permanent tissue damage.”

Phil sagged in relief. “Good,” he murmured. “Good. Okay.” Katie was still crying, though the sobs had died down into occasional hiccups. Phil brushed her hair out of her face with gentle, trembling fingers. “Sweetheart,” he said. “Doctor Bruce is here. He’d like to see where you hurt yourself on the tree so he can help it feel better, okay?”

“C-can he look at me here?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“I can look at you right here, Katie,” Bruce said. He wasn’t moving any closer, and he kept his voice pitched soothing and low. Clint felt himself relax a fraction, even though it wasn’t aimed at him. “Can you maybe turn around, so I can see better?”

She sniffled, scrubbing at her tear-blotched face with the back of her hand. “Okay,” she said.

She was scraped and bloodied from ankle to knee, her purple dress dirty and torn, and the palms of her hands were still oozing blood from a multitude of small cuts. Clint couldn’t hold back an exclamation of dismay when he saw the extent of the damage. “Oh, Katie,” he said softly. “You did a number on yourself, honey.”

“It was gonna eat me,” she said, chin wobbling. “I had to climb so fast!

“You did, I saw you, you did,” Clint said. He would see the branches shaking in his nightmares. He exchanged glances with Phil, and saw the same truth on his face.

Katie was still while Bruce cleaned and bandaged her wounds, tears still spilling over her face but the worst of the sobbing calmed for the moment. When the last bandage was smoothed down, her little hands so wrapped up in gauze it looked like she was wearing mittens, she looked up at Stark, who was watching the proceedings in silence, looking like he was going to be sick.

“Uncle Tony,” Katie said, still halfway crying. “Uncle Tony, Clint saved me from the wolf!”

“Yeah,” Stark said, eyes going to the place behind Bruce where Clint knew the wolf corpse was. “Yeah, he sure did, Sprocket.” He cleared his throat, meeting Clint’s eyes. “Good job.”

Clint nodded. “Thanks.”

“So that means he can stay here, right?” Katie said, her voice getting higher. “Right, Uncle Tony?”

“He—what?” Stark looked perplexed.

“Clint’s staying with us until the summer, Katie,” Phil said gently. “Remember what we talked about?”

“B-but he doesn’t have a job!” she said, the words spilling from her as she started crying again in earnest. “Whitney said you h-have to have a j-job to stay here! She said Clint has to come work for her daddy and be just her t-teacher and never teach me to climb trees or else Uncle Tony will make him go away!” She scrambled to her feet and ran over to Stark, clutching at his pants clumsily with her bandaged hands. “Please, Uncle Tony, please don’t make Clint go away!”

“Um,” Stark said, and she burst into fresh sobs.

He looked panicked. “No, Katie, don’t cry, I’m not making him go anywhere!” He patted awkwardly at her shoulder, his eyes wide; somewhere underneath the tumult of Clint’s emotions, he thought he’d find it funny, later.

“He can shoot the wolves for you,” Katie sobbed. “H-he can—he—“

“Katie-Kate,” Clint said, trying to keep his voice soothing. He held out his undamaged arm. “Honey, your uncle isn’t going to send me anywhere.”

“B-but Whitney said,” Katie protested, and that was it, Clint really hated that Whitney kid.

“Whitney was wrong, Katie,” Phil said, his voice firm and sure. “It’s true that you need permission to come to Stark’s World, and that people usually get permission because they have a job here. But Clint has permission to come visit us already, and nobody is going to make him leave early.”

“I don’t want him to leave at all,” Katie cried. “People go away and they never c-come back and they leave you alone and—and I w-want my Mommy—

Phil made a sound, like he’d taken a blow, and Katie ran to him. They clung together, and from the way Phil’s shoulders shook Clint thought he was crying too.

Clint’s chest clenched, and he looked up to where Stark was still standing there, looking helpless. “Hey,” he said quietly. “Can you maybe clear away the audience? I know you probably need to debrief or something, but Phil and Katie don’t need the whole town watching this.”

“I—yeah,” Stark said, and Clint thought he looked relieved at the idea of having something useful to do. “Yeah, good idea, I’ll—I’ll get right on that.”

Stark’s efficiency came through again; soon, the only people close to them were Bruce and Steve. Bruce straightened up from where he’d been examining the wolf corpse and helped Clint to his feet.

“Keep an eye on that arm,” Bruce told him. “It should heal clean, but if you see anything unusual come to me at once; there’s no telling what sort of microorganisms you might have been exposed to.”

Clint nodded. “Anything to watch for with Katie?”

Bruce smiled at him. “Her injuries are all superficial,” he said. “She’ll be healed in a few days if she takes it easy on those hands.” He held out his own hand, and Clint shook it, a little puzzled.

“Thank you, Clint,” Bruce said, his voice catching a little. “If you hadn’t been here, I hate to think of what could have happened.”

“It sounds like if I hadn’t been here, Katie wouldn’t have run off,” Clint said, his mouth twisting. “I mean, I’m not sure what was going through her head, honestly, but it sounds like it was all tied up in that fight she had at school today about me.”

“I don’t just mean Katie,” Bruce said. “Listen, that wolf isn’t tagged; it could have come right into town and we wouldn’t have known until it attacked. If it had come into the square while everyone was coming out of the meeting…”

Clint sucked in a breath. “Shit.”

Bruce nodded. “It would have been a massacre.”

“How many untagged wolves are there?” He knew that they’d said, in the meeting, but he couldn’t remember, the numbers all gone from his head. This was a new side of Stark’s World, and a disturbing one. Clint should have known there’d be something underneath the shiny surface. Nowhere was as safe as Stark’s World claimed to be.

Bruce frowned. “More than I’d like,” he said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we call on you to go out with us the next time we do a tagging expedition. With aim like that, you could be a real asset to the team.”

“Yeah, of course,” Clint said. “I mean, I’ll have to coordinate with Phil, but if there’s anything I can do to help I’m happy to. This was—I don’t want anything like this to happen again.”

Bruce nodded, clapping him on his good shoulder before moving away. “I’ll leave you alone now,” he said. “Take care of your family tonight.”

“I—yeah,” Clint said. Bruce was right, he realized. They were his family, now. He had a family, and they needed him. “Yeah, I will.”

Chapter Text


It was well after dark when they got back into town, Steve and Sam and Bruce and Tony surrounding them in a rough circle as they walked. Phil carried Katie, her face nestled into his shoulder, silent tears still dripping down to wet his shirt. Clint walked beside them, so close their arms kept touching, his eyes darting from tree to tree, searching for threats in the shadows.

The crowd had mostly cleared away from the square, but there were still people scattered here and there. Mayor Munroe was standing in front of the hall, talking with some of the Watch, while the Jarvises were standing with Darcy and Peggy, who was holding Skye. The instant Skye saw them, she shrieked, wriggling to be let down and then running up to them as fast as her little legs could carry her; Clint met her halfway, scooping her up with his uninjured arm and bringing her back to them. Katie roused in Phil’s arms, reaching out to her sister in Clint’s, and they clung together, the four of them making a confused knot of limbs and broken murmurs.

“Phil,” Darcy said, and her voice wavered and broke. “Phil, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know—” Her eyes and nose were red, her cheeks wet; she loved the girls like her own sisters, he knew, and she would never let anything hurt them if she could help it.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he told her, voice rough. He wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, yet, but he was fairly certain that Katie had never gone to Darcy in the first place, no matter what she’d been told.

All he wanted was to get home, but he could tell he was in no state to drive. In the end, Peggy herded them into their car and took the controls, leaving them to huddle together in the back. Katie kept crying, and Skye, confused and frightened, would start up too whenever her sister did; Clint and Phil had their hands full trying to keep them calm enough not to make themselves ill. Phil was still shaking and sick from adrenaline. Clint looked even worse, blood-spattered and pale as milk; he held his wounded arm carefully, biting his lip whenever it got jostled by a bump in the road or a shifting child.

Phil tried not to think about what might have happened to him if Bruce hadn’t been carrying a sample of the neutralizer they’d been working on. He’d seen acid wolf saliva eat down to the bone in a matter of minutes. That had been a full bite, granted, and Clint’s wound had been more a rake of teeth as the wolf had bucked and flailed, trying to escape the knife. Still, though, it wasn’t to be taken lightly.

It was hours past the girls’ bedtimes when they got home, but there were still things that needed doing before they slept. Phil just had to hold himself together for a bit longer. Just a little while, and then he could… he could stop, and he wasn’t entirely sure what that would mean.

“Can you help Katie clean up and get ready for bed while I tuck Skye in?” he asked Clint. He felt a bolt of shame—he should be able to handle this—but he had to talk to Katie about what had happened, and he needed a little more time before he could manage to do that calmly.

“Of course,” Clint said, looking at Katie’s bandaged hands. “Come on, honey, let’s wash your face and get the twigs out of your hair, okay?”

She sniffled. “Okay,” she whispered, and made her way meekly up the stairs. It was hard to let her out of his sight, but it helped a little to see Clint following close on her heels. Neither his desire nor his ability to protect her could possibly be in doubt after the events of the day.

Phil turned his head to kiss Skye’s wispy hair. “How are you doing, baby?”

“Daddy, it was scary,” she said, her voice trembling on the verge of tears. “Everybody yelled and I didn’t know where you were and there was a monster.”

He squeezed her a little tighter, starting up the stairs. “I know, sweetheart, that was very scary,” he said. “But you were very good and stayed with Miss Anna while Daddy was gone. Thank you for minding so well.”

“Did the monster really try to eat Katie?” Her voice was tiny, fragile-sounding in a way he’d never really heard from her before.

“Yeah, baby, it did,” Phil said, and he couldn’t stop his own voice from breaking. “Daddy was scared too. Daddy was so scared. But you know what?”

“What?”

“Clint killed the monster, did you hear that? That monster can’t try to eat anyone ever again.” He set her down on her bed, helping her out of her clothes and into her nightgown. She was quiet and pensive, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth.

“I guess Clint is really brave, Daddy,” she said at last, as he tucked her in with her doll. “I guess he’ll save us from the monsters. And then you can go save him.”

He smoothed a hand over her hair and bent to kiss her cheek, his heart aching at the simple confidence that he knew he didn’t deserve. “You are a smart girl, Skye,” he told her. “I think you’re probably right.”

“If Katie’s still in trouble tomorrow,” Skye murmured, already slipping into sleep, “can I have her tiny pie?”

Phil laughed before he could stop himself. “Go to sleep, Skye,” he said. “Sweet dreams.”

“Night night,” she yawned. He sat beside her, stroking her hair, until she was well asleep. When he was sure she wouldn’t wake, he left the room as quietly as he could, activating the monitor after pulling the door closed.

One down, he thought. He just had to hold himself together a little longer.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and took a deep breath before turning toward Katie’s door. He could hear Clint and Katie talking, though their voices were too quiet to make out any words. He was a mess, still shattered with the horror that had gone through him like a spear when he’d heard Katie scream. He was angry, too, so angry it frightened him, furious that Katie had disobeyed him to wander off alone and nearly die. The anger churned in his belly, mixed in a toxic stew with guilt—how had he missed that she was up to something? How had he lost a seven-year old?—and the pain he’d felt when Katie had wailed for her mother.

For Audrey. Fuck, he missed her so much. For a moment, the grief of her loss was as sharp and fresh as it had been the day she’d died, and he would have given anything for her to be there, to be able to rest his head on her breast and feel her calloused musician’s fingers carding gently through his hair. She’d always been able to make anything seem manageable, as long as they tackled it together.

“Daddy?” Katie’s voice was wavering and uncertain, and he pulled himself up and pushed his looming emotional collapse down. His daughter needed him; there was time for all the rest later.

Katie was sitting up in bed, clutching Shady in her arms. Clint was putting the finishing touches on her bedtime braid, his bandaged hands clumsier than usual. He’d brushed the leaves and dirt out of her hair and washed the tear tracks off her cheeks; if not for the look on her face and the bandages, you’d never have been able to tell that she’d just been through an ordeal.

Phil sat on the edge of the bed and watched in silence as Clint tied off the end of the braid, then stroked the back of Katie’s head with tender hands, his face solemn.

“Daddy?” Katie asked again. “Are—are you mad at me?” She caught her breath in a little sob. “Clint said not, but… but I was…”

Clint shot him a panicked look over the top of her head; he was such a natural with the girls that sometimes Phil forgot he was new to parenting, though it wasn’t like questions like that got any easier to handle with experience. The truth was, Phil was angry with her, but he knew that it was all mixed in with anger at himself and sick fear over what had happened; Katie didn’t need to deal with any of that, not now when she was there in front of him so tiny and battered in her little bed.

“We’re disappointed in the choices you made today, Katie,” Phil said, keeping his voice level. Clint made a relieved face. “Do you understand why?”

“Because you told me to go to M-miss Darcy, and I said I would, and then I w-went and climbed the tree and the wolf almost got me,” she said, not meeting his eyes.

“You got hurt, Katie,” he said. “And Clint came to help you, and Clint got hurt, too.” Her chin started wobbling, her eyes getting bright with tears again. “What do you think might have happened if one of the other kids had seen you going to the park and tried to follow you? If it had been America, or Miles, or Skye?”

She gave a little sob, tears spilling down her cheeks. “The w-wolf could have eaten them!” she said. “Daddy, Clint, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get anybody hurt!”

He laid a comforting hand on her arm, noticing that Clint was rubbing her back at the same time and feeling a surge of warmth toward him for it. “I know you didn’t, sweetheart, but that’s why it’s important to think before you do something, and to listen to what your parents tell you.” He hesitated, but they needed to make sure they’d gotten to the bottom of whatever had happened between Katie and Whitney Frost that had caused the whole mess. “Can you tell me about what happened with Whitney at school today?”

Katie sighed, her whole body slumping. “Whitney was mad because Clint taught me gymnastics and she doesn’t know gymnastics yet,” she said. “And I was talking about Clint again at Show and Tell about how he was gonna teach me to climb trees next. And then at recess me and America were trying to pick out what tree would be the best kind to climb once we knew how and Whitney said we were stupid.” She wiped her arm across her wet face, sniffling. “I tried to do like you say, Daddy, and not pay attention, but then Whitney said that if you don’t have a job and you’re a grownup, you can’t stay on Stark’s World, and she was gonna get her daddy to hire Clint to teach her gymnastics and climbing trees and to say it was part of his job to not teach me anymore! And I told her,” she craned her head back to look at Clint, “I told her, Clint, you wouldn’t ever do that, you’re our special friend and you came to see us special, but she said if you didn’t then Uncle Tony was gonna kick you off the planet for not having a job!” She hiccuped, fat tears rolling down her face. “So then I pushed her off the slide.”

Clint made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a bark of laughter being forcibly turned into a cough. Phil sympathized; of course he couldn’t condone violence, but that didn’t mean he was immune to the humor in the situation. Also, he disapproved of people who raised their children to bully and be cruel. Someone in the Frost family certainly deserved to be pushed off a slide, though he wasn’t entirely sure it was the younger one.

Keeping his voice level through long practice, he asked, “And was that a good choice to make?”

She sniffed. “…No,” she said, though she didn’t sound entirely convinced.

“What could you have done instead of pushing Whitney?”

“I could have gone and got the teacher,” Katie said reluctantly. “We could have gone and played somewhere else.”

Phil nodded. “That’s right. You don’t ever have to stay when someone is being mean to you, but that doesn’t make it all right to be mean back.”

She sighed. “Yes, Daddy.”

“I know you were upset when you got home from school. Do you want to talk about that?”

“I wanted to climb trees with Clint,” she said.

“Because Whitney had told you she would tell her father to hire Clint not to do that with you?”

“Yeah.” She sniffled again. “I thought maybe if he taught me first then it wouldn’t count and we could still play.”

Clint’s face crumpled. “Oh, honey, I would never take a job that wouldn’t let me play with you,” he said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. “You’re way too important to me for that.”

“Really?” She tipped her head back, searching his face. “You promise?”

“I promise,” he said. “You have nothing to fear from Whitney’s dad.”

“Thank you,” she said, lip trembling again, and Phil rubbed the blanket-covered lump of her shins that was next to him on the bed. It was so good to see the tenderness between them, but it hurt, too, like some distant possibility dying while another was being born.

Enough. He wanted Clint and the girls to bond. That was the entire reason Clint was here. Pull yourself together, Coulson. He cleared his throat, trying to make sure his voice would stay level.

“Do you think if you had asked Clint, he would have told you this earlier today?” he asked.

“I… I guess so,” Katie said.

“I know that what Whitney said scared you, Katie. But when you’re scared or worried or sad about something, you can always come ask me or Clint about it, okay? You don’t have to fix it all by yourself.”

“But—but what if it makes you sad too, Daddy? I don’t want to make you sad!”

He caught himself rubbing his chest again, as though that would ease the ache. He knew the right thing to tell her, but somehow he couldn’t come up with the words to say it.

“Katie,” Clint said into the silence, his voice tentative. “Is this about your mom?”

Katie was quiet, biting her lip as fresh tears welled up and spilled over, but finally she nodded.

“I really miss her a lot sometimes,” she whispered. “But when I talk about her, people get sad.” She looked over at Phil and then down, and he felt sick all over again at the implication. “I don’t want to make people sad.”

Clint looked over at Phil, questions in his eyes, and Phil nodded; whatever Clint wanted to say, at this point, would probably be an improvement, since Phil had apparently made such a hash of things that Katie was afraid to talk to him about Audrey, wary of re-triggering his grief. How could he not have noticed that she was shielding him? Was he really that self-absorbed?

“You can talk to me,” Clint said. “I never met your mom, though she must have been really cool to have two little girls like you and Skye. I’d love to hear about her, Katie.”

Phil shot Clint a grateful look. “And, Katie, yes, sometimes it does make me sad to talk about Mommy, because I miss her too.” His voice nearly broke, and he cleared his throat, trying to keep it steady. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about her, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, and Phil moved closer so he could wrap an arm around her, Clint shuffling to the side a little to make room.

“I love you, Katie,” he said, his eyes and throat burning. “I love you so, so much. And I’m proud of you for thinking about what happened today and what you’ve learned.”

“I love you too, Daddy,” she said, leaning back against them both. “I’m sorry I was bad.”

You aren’t bad, sweetheart,” Phil said, tightening his hold on her a little. “You made some bad choices, but you can learn from them and do better next time, right?”

She nodded.

“Let’s talk about what happened after the meeting,” Phil said, “and then we’ll be done. Tell me what you did when I asked you to go wait with Miss Darcy.”

She sniffed. “I went into the park instead,” she whispered. “I thought that if I showed Clint I could climb trees by myself, what Whitney did wouldn’t count and we could still play.”

“You were pretty far into the park,” Phil said. “Why did you go so far away?”

“I was looking for the best tree,” Katie explained. “A really high one with lots of branches. I didn’t mean to go so far.”

“What happened then?”

“I was climbing the tree,” she said. “Then I heard a noise and I looked and the wolf was there!” She gulped, her tears starting up again. “He was gonna eat me! So I threw America’s lucky rock at him.” She raised her chin, stubbornly proud. “It hit him right in his head! So then I started climbing further up as fast as I could and I screamed and screamed, and I thought the wolf was gonna catch me, but then Clint came and killed the wolf and I came down out of the tree and then you were there, Daddy.” The words came spilling out of her in a rush, and by the end of her sentence she was flat-out sobbing again. “I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’m really, really, sorry, Daddy!”

He kissed her wet cheek, his breath unsteady. “I know you are, sweetheart, and I forgive you.”

She twisted around to face Clint. “I’m sorry, Clint! I’m sorry the wolf bit your arm!”

Clint’s face twisted and he bent in closer, his good arm wrapping around her. “Oh, honey, of course I forgive you too,” he said. “I know you never meant anyone to get hurt, I know.”

They cuddled her while she cried herself out, the posture awkward but neither of them willing to let go long enough to arrange them all more comfortably. When Katie’s sobs had died down into hiccups, Clint produced a soft damp cloth from somewhere and gently wiped off her face.

“There, now,” he crooned. “There you go, Katie. It’s okay. Everything will be okay now.” Phil’s heart squeezed in his chest at the picture they made.

He could almost imagine that this was it, what he had been looking for from the beginning. That the man wiping Katie’s tears with battered hands could love Phil’s girls as though they were his own. It was so soon, too soon to know for sure, but surely Clint wouldn’t have been so affected if the seed wasn’t already there.

He’d have been happier about it if he wasn’t so terrified. The thing he’d never considered, back when he was making plans, was that the kind of person who would be a good parent to Phil’s daughters would be exactly the kind of person who could become important to Phil, too. Exactly the kind of person Phil wouldn’t be able to stand losing.

Phil had lost his entire world twice in his life already. He wasn’t sure he could face the prospect of it happening again.

He pushed the thought aside, along with the memory of Clint throwing himself at the wolf to defend Katie. He still had work to do, still had a small vulnerable person in his arms, depending on him.

“Come on, sweetheart,” he told Katie softly. “Lie down, now, and try to sleep. Things will be better in the morning.”

“Stay with me?” she asked, trembling.

“Of course, honey,” Clint said. “We’ll stay.”

They smoothed her hair and tucked her in, then dimmed the lights and stayed with her until exhaustion claimed her. When they were sure she wouldn’t wake, they tiptoed into the hall and closed her door, activating the monitor. Phil let himself slump, leaning his head on the doorjamb. His hold on the roiling storm of emotion inside him was starting to slip, and he needed—he just needed—

“Um,” Clint said, looking uneasily at Phil. “Was that… okay? Did I say anything wrong?”

Phil sighed. It seemed he wasn’t quite done being reassuring for the night. Fair enough; Clint deserved all of that and more. He pulled himself upright and turned to face him.

“No, Clint,” he said. “That was good, that was just right. You did exactly the right things.”

Clint’s whole body eased with relief. “Oh, good,” he said. “Thanks. Hey, um, do you want to… to have a drink or something? I kinda feel like we should talk.”

Phil rubbed his hands over his aching eyes. Clint probably did need to talk; he’d nearly died that day, after all, nearly seen a child he loved die, and then had to work through a parenting challenge that would have taxed even an experienced caregiver. Clint didn’t seem particularly traumatized by the danger to himself, but he’d hovered over Katie with haunted eyes that reflected the same sick fear that was gnawing at Phil’s guts. Phil owed him a chance to process things, to talk it through, but he just… he couldn’t. He’d exhausted all his patience, and felt like all his nerves were twanging, sensitive and sickening; he was in no fit state to be around anyone, least of all someone he didn’t want to hurt. He was going to have to let someone down tonight, it seemed; he hoped Clint would be able to cope with drawing the short straw.

“You’re right,” he said. For a moment he thought of deflecting, but pushed that option away; the very least he owed Clint right now was honesty. “We should. But I… I’m sorry, Clint, but I don’t think I can right now. I need to burn some energy off, or something. I’m so angry at that stunt Katie pulled…” He broke off, laughing bitterly. “If I don’t work out the tension somehow I’m going to say something I’ll regret. I’m sorry, I know it’s not fair to you, but…” he broke off, shaking his head. “I can’t.”

Clint cocked his head, watching him with sharp and knowing eyes for a long moment before nodding, slowly.

“I get that,” Clint said. “And, you know—I appreciate that you, you’ve figured out ways to handle it that won’t hurt nobody. My—lotta guys never figure it out, how to channel it like that, they just let loose on whoever’s nearby. I’m glad you don’t. Anyway, I can wait. Take all the time you need, okay? I’ll keep an ear out for the girls.”

“Thank you,” Phil said. “Clint, I… I can’t even begin to thank you for—”

“Hey,” Clint interrupted, laying one warm hand gently on Phil’s arm. “Phil. Go take care of yourself for a little, okay? You look like you’re about to snap in half. Get your head clear; I’ll still be here after.”

“I’ll be in the barn if you need me,” Phil said, because if he said anything else he wasn’t going to make it outside before he broke down somehow.

Clint nodded. “I’ll find you if I need to,” he promised, and Phil fled down the stairs and out into the night.

The second floor of the barn was mostly empty space, with a big storage closet full of odds and ends. Phil opened the closet and pulled out the crate where his exercise equipment was stored; when they’d first moved in, this space had served as his rehab gym while he was recovering from his stab wound. In the last few years, though, he’d mostly used the facilities in Starkville, and he’d put his personal stuff away so as not to tempt curious little fingers.

Part of him ached to run, to strike out along the moonlit road and not stop until he’d exhausted himself. With a shameful swoop of relief, he realized that he could do just that, if he wanted; he wasn’t tethered to the house anymore, there was another trusted adult available to watch the girls. He looked longingly out the window at the cool silvery night, then forced his attention back inside. Stupid to do that tonight, when an untagged wolf had just—had nearly—had been so close to town.

He wrestled the treadmill into place and hit the button. As it unfolded, rails and console slotting neatly into place with the elegant whirr-click of StarkTech, he took the heavy bag and its chains out of the closet. Using the overturned crate as a stepladder, he hung the bag from the subtle ring-bolt sunk into his ceiling.

He was still dressed in the clothes he’d worn to the meeting, the slacks stained from the knee down with mud and grass from when he’d thrown himself to his knees beside Clint and Katie. Looking down, he noticed a stain on his shirt cuff that he hadn’t seen before; a streak of dried blood. He wasn’t sure if it was Katie’s blood, or Clint’s, or possibly the wolf’s; there’d been enough of all three.

He swallowed hard, his gorge rising at the thought, and he tore at his buttons, pulling the shirt off and throwing it aside. He pulled off his belt and tossed it on the floor as well, then jumped onto the treadmill and started to run.

He didn’t bother with warmups, future soreness the least of his concerns. He just ran, full-out, but it didn’t help; instead of drifting with the pound of his feet, Phil’s mind kept jolting back to earlier that evening, kept flashing to his frantic race through the trees, his feet gouging the rain-soft earth, desparate to reach the spot where Clint grappled with the wolf while Katie screamed.

He slowed his pace until he could get off the treadmill, swiping the sweat out of his eyes with his forearm as he kicked off his muddy, scuffed shoes and peeled out of his socks. The wide wood planks of the floor were smooth under his feet as he walked over to the heavy bag, his chest heaving.

Standing square in front of the bag, he shut his eyes and forced himself to relive the moment when he’d realized what was happening, to let himself feel the scalding fury he’d been pushing down all night. He was so angry, blisteringly and unfairly angry, at Katie for going into the park, at Darcy for not somehow divining what had happened and intercepting her, at everyone in town who hadn’t seen her and stopped her, even at Clint for encouraging her tree-climbing obsession. He knew that he didn’t mean it, didn’t really blame any of them except himself, but that didn’t mean he felt it any less, his mind a toxic stew of anger and fear and guilt.

He could have lost his Katie tonight, lost her and who knew how many others besides. There were so many ways things could have gone wrong, and the odds seemed so slender that it had somehow not happened that way.

It all came down to Clint, in the end. Clint, taking Tony’s needling with good grace. Clint, blossoming into confidence and swagger as he fell into obviously well-practiced routines, hitting targets and flirting with the crowd, keeping them on the string as much as his arrows. Clint’s body suddenly tensing when Katie’s screams rang out into the twilight, the showman falling away and a soldier emerging. Clint, shooting and running and saving Katie while Phil flailed, no weapon at hand, useless

The impact of the first blow was reverberating up his arm before he even realized he’d begun.

Phil had spent most of his life training to fight. This was nothing like that, nowhere near as controlled or as tidy; he attacked the bag with all his strength, wild blows from his fists and feet and elbows and knees, setting it swinging. The jarring ache of each hit felt good, somehow, appropriate; like he was leeching away the emotional hurt bit by bit through his body.

Thwack! The high, sharp sound of Katie’s scream of terror.

Thwack! The horrified faces of the Watch, turned as one toward the trees.

Thwack! The gory sight at the foot of the tree; Clint’s arms, holding Katie protectively, bloody to the elbow.

Thwack! Clint’s wounds, bubbling as the acid started to eat into his flesh.

Thwack! The streaks of blood on his neck from Katie’s mangled, desperate hands.

Thwack! The moment before dinner when he’d looked at his daughter and known something was going on and decided they’d talk about it later.

He’d almost signed her death warrant. He’d almost lost her. He’d almost lost her. He threw himself into the bag, hitting and hitting, a raw cry boiling out of him.

His baby.

Eventually, his arms burned too much to lift, and he slumped, his head coming to rest against the bag, his breath sawing in and out of his ravaged throat.

Someone knocked on the open door.

Phil turned around. Clint was standing uncertainly in the doorway, dressed in soft, warm clothes, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. For a long, shocked moment, Phil thought that’s it, he’s leaving, and his breath froze in his lungs.

Until that moment, he hadn’t even realized that he was afraid Clint would go.

“Hey, Phil,” Clint said quietly. “I, ah, I brought you some water? You’ve been out here a while, and I… I thought you might need it. Oh, and a towel? And one of those meal bar things. Just, it’s been a while since dinner, and… you know what, never mind, just, here.” He held the duffel bag out to Phil, coming a few steps into the room.

All Phil could do was look at him. He looked exhausted, worn thin and red-eyed, with bandages still peeking out under his cuff, but his eyes were clear and soft and worried as he looked at Phil, holding out his offering of care.

Phil had… not expected that. He’d thought, as much as he’d thought about it at all, that Clint would be sleeping, probably with the monitors turned up so he could hear if the girls needed him. But instead, here he was, looking at Phil with something of the same careful attention he’d given to Katie, as though Phil were the one who needed looking after and Clint stood ready to do it.

Phil opened his mouth to thank Clint, to reassure him, to pull his composure back into place and tell him everything was handled, but instead of words a great sob broke out of him. He pressed his hand to his lips, trying in vain to pull it back, but it was too late for that. The sobs caught painfully in his throat, tears scalding his eyes.

“Aw, Phil,” Clint said, his voice rough and warm and so, so kind, and he crossed the room to Phil in a few long strides. “Phil, hey, hey, it’s okay. Everyone’s okay.” He held his arms open, face uncertain, and Phil didn’t have the strength left not to let himself collapse against Clint’s chest and give himself over to weeping.

Clint, for his part, let the duffel fall to the floor with a thump and pulled Phil close, those strong arms closing around him and holding on. He felt secure and dependable as mag-boots on an EVA, as a tree rooted into the ground, as a pole to lash oneself to in a stormy sea. He smelled like disinfectant and a little like cider and cinnamon, and he spread his hands wide over Phil’s back, as though by covering more of Phil’s body with his touch he could protect him, somehow. He didn’t demand an explanation or get upset or want to be reassured or try to tell Phil not to cry; he just stayed there, rubbing Phil’s back, holding him up and waiting for him to be done.

Clint let Phil cry on him until his shirt was wet through, until Phil was lightheaded and slow with emotional and physical exhaustion and his sobs had trailed into uneven, wet breathing. When he had gone a minute or so without much more than a few extra-shuddery breaths, Clint turned his head so that his lips were nearly at Phil’s ear, and asked, “hey, you wanna sit down for a minute? Maybe drink that water?”

“Yeah,” Phil said, and just thinking of it made him realize that he was thirsty, terribly thirsty, and that water was the best idea anyone had ever had. “Yeah, okay.”

Clint shifted them, tucking Phil up under his good arm and guiding him over to the wall, helping him get down onto the floor. Phil slumped back against the wall, his legs flopped out in front of him gracelessly. He must be a mess, he thought distantly, barefoot and soaked with sweat in his undershirt and his filthy trousers, but as Clint folded himself up next to Phil’s legs, the expression on his face was gentle and—Phil thought—fond.

“There you go,” Clint murmured, rummaging around in the duffel and pulling out one of Phil’s own insulated water bottles. He held it out to Phil, waiting patiently as Phil tried to master his limp and shaking arms to grasp it, finally having to hold it in both hands to get it to his mouth. The water was cool and crisp and amazing on his throat, and he’d gulped down half of it before he was able to stop, not wanting to make himself sick.

When he finally looked back at Clint, he was holding a towel.

“You wanna dry off a little? You’ll get cold, now that you’ve stopped moving,” he said.

Phil jerked a nod, sniffling. The towel felt warm on his chilled skin, so much so that he wondered if Clint had heated it on purpose before coming out to check on him. The thought of such consideration made a lump rise in his throat again, his eyes burning.

It had been a long time since anyone had thought of Phil that way.

“You want a snack?” Clint asked, and Phil shook his head; his guts were still too sour to tempt with food.

“Okay.” Clint shuffled around until he was side-by-side with Phil against the wall, his arm radiating warmth. Phil gave in to temptation and leaned in an inch or so, so that their arms were pressed together. He should probably get up, go inside, take a bath and go to bed like a responsible member of society, but all he wanted to do was stay where he was, next to Clint on the floor of his barn in the middle of the night.

“I set the house to page me if the girls need anything,” Clint told him. “We can sit here as long as you want.”

Phil chuckled bitterly, letting his head fall back to clunk lightly against the wall. “Careful what you offer,” he said, his voice coming out raspy and wrecked. “I may never leave.”

“I know the feeling,” Clint said, nudging Phil’s water bottle closer to his hand. Phil took the hint and drank another swallow. “It’s not a bad spot. Out of the wind, lots of visibility. No acid wolves.”

Phil shuddered.

“Sorry,” Clint said hurriedly. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—I tend to joke about stuff when it freaks me out, I’m sorry.”

“I was in the Navy, Clint, I’m familiar with that particular coping mechanism,” Phil said, managing a ghost of his normal dry delivery that time.

He took a deep breath. He knew that Clint wanted to talk, and now that he’d worn the sharp edges off himself, Phil might actually be able to handle it. Hell, maybe it was better to do this when he was already emotionally depleted, his defenses down; it would be easier to be vulnerable with Clint if he just didn’t have the ability to be anything else, and Clint had earned that from him.

He looked over. Clint was watching him, patient and steady, looking like he’d sit there as long as Phil needed to. There was something new in the cast of his face, something settled and sure. It was the face of a man you could count on, and Phil found that he wanted to count on him, just… just for tonight.

“When I saw her,” Phil said, his voice scraped out of him. “When I saw you both there. I—all I could think was ‘it’s happening again.’ You kept shooting that thing and it kept not falling and then you went after it with a knife—a knife, Clint! And I just—I knew that I was going to watch it tear you to pieces, and then it would go for K-Katie and I would just have to watch—” his voice broke again, another sob almost choking him. He felt like a shell of himself, a fragile, brittle crust spread thin over a morass of emotion.

Clint leaned into him harder. “Hey,” he said, quietly. “Phil. It’s okay if you don’t want to, but… is it okay if I put my arm around you? I think maybe that would make us both feel better.”

Phil nodded wordlessly, the knot of suppressed tears and unspoken words snarled up in his throat, and Clint snaked his arm around Phil’s shoulders and drew him close against Clint’s warm side. Phil tried to hold himself up, tried not to just sink in, but he was so tired. And Clint… Clint was offering. Surely it wasn’t taking advantage to accept this? Just this, a quiet offer of comfort in the middle of the long night.

“Stop thinking so much,” Clint said. “I’m not going to freak out or whatever you’re afraid of. I want to help, Phil. Please let me.”

He let out a long breath, and let his body sag against Clint, his head drooping to rest on Clint’s shoulder.

“There, now,” Clint murmured. “Yeah, that’s right. You aren’t alone, Phil. I’m here for you. I came here for you. Let me do something for you besides the laundry for once, yeah?”

Phil barked out a rough, ugly laugh. “You mean besides saving my daughter from a horrible death?”

Clint’s arm tightened. “You know I didn’t do that for you.”

“Yeah. I know.” Clint and Katie loved each other, that much was obvious to anyone who met them. They’d taken to each other from the first, as though recognizing long-lost kindred. Phil might have been worried by it, honestly, if it hadn’t made Katie so happy, if Clint didn’t greet every expression of esteem with a wary and disbelieving gratitude that made Phil want to hunt down everyone who had hurt him and simultaneously wrap him in a blanket and feed him treats.

Of course, Clint wasn’t the one being wrapped and fed just now, was he?

“I’m sorry,” Phil said. “I’m such a mess.”

“I think you’re entitled, Phil. You’ve been through a lot.”

“I’m not the one with the acid burns,” Phil said. “I—shit, I fucked this up so badly. I’m so sorry.”

“How on Earth is any of this your fault?” Clint asked, sounding genuinely surprised.

“If I’d talked to Katie sooner instead of putting it off,” Phil said bitterly. “If I’d taken her to Darcy myself or kept her with me, instead of sending her off alone. If I’d had it out with Byron fucking Frost a year ago about his spoiled bully of a daughter—“

“Phil,” Clint interrupted him. “No. Do you think that this is my fault because I told Katie I would teach her to climb trees?”

“No.”

“Is it Jess’s fault for having Show and Tell, or America’s fault for being Katie’s friend instead of Whitney?”

“Of course not.” As much as he might like to have someone else to blame, that would be both illogical and unfair.

“Is it the Mayor’s fault for having the meeting tonight? Or maybe Stark’s for not having that wolf satellite thing up yet?”

Phil shook his head.

“That’s because it’s nobody’s fault,” Clint said, conviction strong in his voice. “Hell, it’s not even Katie’s fault, not really. If the wolf hadn’t been there, this would have been, like… like another thing to get time out for, or whatever. You’d do what you did tonight, she’d apologize and try to do better next time, end of story. The only reason we’re sitting here trying to pretend like we don’t both want to vomit our guts out is shit luck and that damn wolf.”

Phil’s eyes blurred, and he squeezed them shut, ignoring the hot tears that forced out. “I know, you’re right, it’s just… it…”

“If it’s you that fucked it up, maybe that means if you don’t fuck up again, it won’t happen again?” Clint said. “Yeah. I know that feeling too.” He sighed. “I was… on a job, once,” he said. “Security. I was protecting someone. And while I was covering her against snipers from a balcony, someone poisoned her drink. She got… real sick. My fault, I thought. Some security.”

Phil bit back the urge to tell Clint that there was no way he could have protected against long and short-range threats at the same time, that whoever had arranged the detail bore the blame, not him. “What happened?”

“She got better.” His voice wobbled. “And I went to her and I offered my resignation, and you know what she said?”

“What?”

“She said to stop being a ridiculous masochist and help her retool her screening algorithm.” He chuckled, the sound reverberating in his chest underneath Phil’s ear. “She said that nobody could prepare for all the shit that happens at random in this life, and that as long as everyone makes it out alive, the best you can do is,” he paused, clearing his throat, “the best you can do is leave nothing undone, keep your ledgers in balance, and add another hidden weapon to your load-out.”

Phil huffed a little laugh despite himself, and Clint’s arm squeezed him gently in response. “That’s… extremely good advice, actually.”

“Yeah. She’s good that way.” He was quiet for a long moment. “I feel like I need to tell you. Since we’re… I mean, okay. I know this probably isn’t the best time, but I feel like maybe we’ve been circling this for a while. At some point, we’re going to need to talk about things maybe being serious. Between us, I mean.”

Phil’s first impulse was to deny it, but he forced himself not to say anything. The thing was… the thing was, Clint was right. Somewhere between the letters and the cider and the confidences, between baths and pierogies and going flying, he and Clint had formed a… connection. The kind of connection that Phil had long since assumed he wouldn’t have again. It hurt to think of it, like feeling returning to a frostbitten limb, but somewhere underneath the hurt was… something else. Something he was afraid to examine too closely, but that didn’t matter. Clint deserved Phil’s honesty, and right now, Phil didn’t have the energy to give him anything else.

Phil took a deep breath. “I feel like we probably… should. If you’re all right with that.”

“Yeah. So, um. You should know. The person I worked for, back on Earth? She’s the Black Widow.”

“Huh.” He could feel Clint’s muscles tensing, as though Clint were bracing himself against rejection. “I figured it was probably something like that.”

“You… did?”

“You’re in good physical condition, you’re a sharpshooter, and you’re obviously trained with knives,” Phil said. “You had to be feeding yourself somehow, so you had steady work; your background check was clean, so it wasn’t Syndicate work. I figured a private employer was most likely, someone with enough influence to keep you clear of anything overtly illegal. The Black Widow referred you, so likely either her or one of her associates or contacts.”

“I’m not going to pretend I didn’t hope you’d feel that way.” Clint’s voice was thin and shaky. “But I was worried. I know that her reputation is… concerning, to some people.”

It was Phil’s turn to be reassuring, then, and he slipped his arm around Clint’s waist, squeezing a little. “I might not have been to Earth, Clint, but I was in NavInt, I know what life is like there,” he said. “As soon as I started getting to know you, I could tell that you’re a good person with a good heart, and that you came here in good faith. I didn’t have to know all the details of your history to know that you want to make your future better than your past. Why should I begrudge you trying to stay alive?”

“Lot of people would. Lot of people have.”

Phil nodded, trying to put his thoughts into words. “You worked private security for the Widow, right?”

“Yeah.”

“For her directly, and not the Red Room.”

“Yeah. She didn’t want me to… she said they’d make me do things I didn’t want to do. She… she said she’d seen the Red Room make enough soldiers in her life, and she didn’t want to see it again.”

“I am understanding more and more why Peggy holds her in such esteem,” Phil said. He wondered what the Black Widow had seen in Clint, that she’d been driven to protect him; not just once, from the sound of it, but over and over. He looked down at the water bottle he was still holding, and thought that he probably knew.

“Yeah,” Clint said. “The two of them working together… that must have been something to see. Fuckin’ masterclass.”

“I’ve been trying to get Peggy to tell me stories for years,” Phil offered, smiling a little. “She just rolls her eyes and says she’ll tell me when I’m older.”

Clint let out a rusty chuckle, but he still wasn’t relaxing.

“What else is it you want to say?” Phil asked, feeling a little bolder. “I can tell there’s something.”

“I didn’t tell you the whole truth about why I decided to take a contract,” Clint said, his words spilling out in a rush. “One of the syndicates heard about me. They wanted me to work for them. Not security, either. Assassinations. They—they have ways of getting you, if they want you. You can’t avoid them forever unless you’re already spoken for. The Widow, she has a lot of influence, but not enough to go up against a whole syndicate and win. I had to get off-planet, somewhere they didn’t have any power.”

That was it, then; the missing piece. Phil had known there must have been a threat to drive Clint away from his home; there was no logical reason for the twist of pain behind his sternum from the knowledge of exactly what sort of threat it was. It wasn’t like Phil had thought Clint had signed up to be a mail-order spouse out of some sort of romantic impulse.

“The Widow… I think she felt guilty that she couldn’t protect me on Earth,” Clint continued. “She pulled out contracts for me to pick from, all of them temporary, all of them sex-optional, all of them either with a stipend or a nice payment on completion. I could have taken any of them, been someone’s arm candy or bodyguard or escort for a couple years, and gone on my way with money in my pocket, free and clear. But once I started looking… I realized I didn’t want that.”

“You said… when we talked before. You said you picked my dossier.”

“You had a family, and you were looking for a person,” Clint said. “I’m a person. And if I was going to leave behind everything I knew, I… I wanted a shot at a family.” He sniffed, arm tightening around Phil again. “I promise I’m not any danger to the girls,” he said, his voice pleading. “Or to you, or anyone else here. Some of the details on my dossier may be fudged, but I swear, I swear I’m not lying to you about who I am or… how I feel.”

Phil went very still, his heart squeezing in his chest. “I believe you, Clint,” he said quietly. “I know you aren’t a danger to us, and I believe you’re here in good faith.”

Clint shuddered, slumping more heavily against Phil in relief. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you for believing me.”

Phil was quiet for a few moments. “You said,” he said slowly, “that you weren’t lying about how you feel. How… how is that?”

“I feel… like picking your dossier was one of the best choices I ever made,” Clint said. He spoke slowly, as though feeling his way through someplace unfamiliar. “I feel like I’m living in a dream sometimes. I’m worried that you still don’t think I know my own mind about the contract spouse thing. I think that I could fit here, but I’m terrified I’m going to fuck it up somehow.”

“We talked, before, about how important it was for me to make sure you could fully consent to any relationship we thought of having,” Phil said quietly. “You should know, I asked Tony to consider you for a special profession visa. Before tonight, I mean. I think that’s why he was such an asshole to you today; he’s worried you’ve, I don’t know, bewitched me with your charms or something. He’s been betrayed before, by people he trusted, so now he tries to preemptively get under your skin, see what you’ll do.”

“The girls love him,” Clint said. “He can’t be that bad. I mean, I’d be protective too. I just hope he can see that I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

“After tonight, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t,” Phil said. “The whole town saw what you can do, and I can think of four high-priority jobs right now that could use your skills. Obviously the acid wolves aren’t just a problem for the ecologists anymore; I think Mayor Munroe would probably hire you herself if Stark Galactic didn’t.”

“So, if I get this visa you asked for,” Clint said slowly, “what happens then? If I have a job, I can’t exactly watch the girls and get dinner on the table while you’re at work. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of me being here?”

“You know you aren’t here to be my housekeeper, Clint,” Phil said. “Frankly, that would have been a lot easier to find. You’re here because I want the girls to have a second parent. I’m not worried about housework, or logistics. I’m good at those. What I want—what I can’t provide alone—is someone else in the girls’ lives who chose to make them a priority. If you got a job… you wouldn’t be dependent on me to stay here, anymore. You’d still be safe, you’d be able to support yourself, regardless. You could make your decision about… us, without that being a factor. And I could know that the girls were getting someone who chose them freely. And even then, if we decide not to get married, you and the girls could still be part of each other’s lives. If you wanted to.”

“I would want to,” Clint said.

Phil blinked, his eyes prickling again at the simple certainty in his voice. “I’m glad.”

They sat in silence for a little while, Clint’s arm still wrapped around Phil. He might have expected it to feel like a fetter, but it didn’t; it felt like an anchor, or a tether. It felt like safety. How had Phil not noticed, before this, how the trust and affection had been growing in his own heart? He was a fool; how could he have thought that he could find his girls a father without that father being someone that Phil would—that he could—

Three years before, Phil had buried his wife, and with her the part of him that went on adventures and had moonlight trysts, that wrote love notes and took joyrides and fell into bed with a lover, laughing. He’d met his perfect match, the love of his life, and they’d run away together and had two beautiful children together, they’d fought and fucked and loved and lived together, and then she’d died and he’d been hollowed, withered.

She’d died, and he hadn’t, and the worst part was that some time, while he’d been focusing on living for his girls, surviving for his girls, somewhere underneath it all his heart had started wanting things again, and he was completely unequipped to deal with it.

How had he spent so much time trying to welcome Clint, encouraging him to make ties here, hoping that Clint would want to call Mariana home, and never seen the inevitable endpoint? How had he fooled himself into thinking that he could give Clint a place in his life but still hold himself separate?

He’d never held himself separate from anything, for all that he kept on making the attempt.

What a mess this was going to be.

He shuddered a little, and Clint tightened his arm a fraction, his thumb rubbing idly over Phil’s arm.

But what if it wasn’t?

Was that a chance he dared take? Was it a chance he dared let go by? Both were equally impossible.

“We’ve been talking a lot about choices,” Clint said at last. “I’d like to tell you a story about that, if it’s okay?”

And that was what Phil kept forgetting, wasn’t it? He wasn’t alone in this, to leap or to hang back and let the opportunity pass. Clint was risking just as much as he, that was the entire point of it. The choice had to be mutual, or it would be nothing at all.

“Of course,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady.

“I fell in love for the first time when I was thirteen,” Clint said.

Phil swallowed hard. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Clint sighed, the sound soft and dreamy.

Phil was surprised—and somewhat ashamed—to realize that he did not at all like hearing Clint talk about loving someone else. Had his heart really turned so small and grasping, that he would talk about his own lost love and deny Clint the same courtesy? He firmed his voice, careful to let nothing show in his tone but kindness. “I’d like to hear about it,” he said, “if you want to tell me.”

“Her name was Bobbi. She was a year older than me. She was really special, you know? The smartest person I ever met. She could think circles around even the adults in the circus, let alone the other kids. And she was funny, she could always make me laugh. And kind. Puberty was hitting me hard, I was scrawny and pimply and I had this squeaky voice, but she was always nice to me and I thought she’d burn off the Haze with the light of her eyes. She was an acrobat, and we started practicing together… well. I started hanging around making eyes at her and she told me if I was going to get in the way I should do something useful.” Clint chuckled warmly. “We ended up working up a double act. ‘Hawkeye and Mockingbird,’ they called us. It was something to see. We had this one trick where she’d do a tumbling run holding a target in one hand and I’d shoot it while she was on the move, it brought the house down every time. The first time we got it right in rehearsal, she was so excited she kissed me square on the mouth. My first kiss; I thought my life couldn’t get any better.”

“She sounds special,” Phil said, forcing his tone to stay level. It was absurd to feel jealous of a teenage love a decade or more in the past and half a galaxy away. “What happened?” Of course something had happened; Clint was here, after all, not back on Earth raising a flock of acrobatic children.

“When Bobbi was sixteen, she got beautiful,” Clint said. “I mean, she was always pretty, but that summer… she looked like she aged about five years in as many months. Gorgeous figure, big blue eyes, and this long wavy hair the color of gold. It must have looked pretty stupid, us running around together, her looking like a model and me still a rat-face puny kid. She still liked me, though. She said I liked her before, so she knew I meant it.”

“I don’t find that hard to believe,” Phil said. He could imagine how comforting it must have been, to have someone like Clint at one’s side in a time of great physical change. Clint, with his open, sincere face and loyal heart and protective nature, would be a boon to anyone.

“That was the beginning of the end,” Clint said. “People started to notice her. It’s… not great, to be noticed. Not on Earth. It’s too easy to end up someone’s… trophy.”

“Oh, no,” Phil whispered, his heart sinking. “Clint…”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Clint said hastily. “I mean, she didn’t disappear or nothing. Just… one day there was a big to-do before the show. Someone from Upstairs had bought the house out. Thrown money around like it was nothing, had their own chairs brought in, food, everything. We did the whole show for this group of maybe twenty people. And then after the show one of the servants came backstage and said her employer would like the chance to make Bobbi’s acquaintance.” He was quiet for a long moment, and when he started talking again his voice was softer, sadder.

“His name was Lincoln Slade, and he was high up in the Maggia,” Clint said. “He wanted to be Bobbi’s… he called it her ‘patron,’ but we all knew what he really meant.”

“She was a child,” Phil said, horrified.

“She’d been on her own since she was ten,” Clint said. “She was so smart, Phil, I’m talking genius smart. She wanted to learn, more than anything else in the world. She’d short herself on food to afford books any day. She wanted to be a scientist, figure out how to fix the environment, make things grow on Earth again. But she knew she’d never be able to get that kind of education in a fourth-rate circus that never went higher than the thirties.” He sighed, looking down at the floor, seeming to lose himself in the memory.

“Tell me the rest?” Phil asked gently, after a while.

Clint huffed a short breath, shaking his head as though to snap his attention back to the present. “He came back once a week for six weeks,” he said. “Every time, he’d throw around enough money to run the circus for a week. Every time, he’d send his servant after Bobbi, and she’d go eat his food and drink his wine. Thing was, he liked to think he was a patron to his… I dunno what to call them. Concubines? He had a whole stable of them, all of them special one way or another. They were like his collection. And he would… he had a boy who was a musician, and he paid for him to have lessons, bought him the best instruments to play. He had a girl who painted, and he took her all over the world to see beautiful things to paint.”

Phil swallowed down bile.

“After the last time, Bobbi snuck into my bunk in the middle of the night and pulled me out, snuck me off somewhere. She had some bolt-hole she’d found, not much but it was private and mostly clean. She said… she said Slade was going to send her to university. Pay for everything, sponsor her. She’d talked him up on how good it would look for him, to be the patron of the biologist who restored the Earth. And she’d looked into him, asked around. She said once you got old enough, he wouldn’t want you anymore, and he’d let you go. She had this whole list of people who it’d happened to. She said, as long as you stuck it out, you’d be set for life, after.” His voice wavered, and Phil pressed harder into his side.

“She told me… she said, ‘I’ve told him that I’m not a virgin, Clint. When I go to him tomorrow, I want that to be true.’ So we… well. You know.” Clint’s voice was thick. “It was… she was my first, too. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but Bobbi had… had read up. She kept me from making too much of a hash of things.” He sniffed again. “In the morning, she kissed me one last time, and then she went to him. And I never saw her again.”

“Clint,” Phil said, his voice shaking with horror. After that—after going through that, after seeing someone he loved go through that—and Phil had—

“I was heartbroken,” Clint said. “But I understood why she did it. Beautiful people, on the lower levels… they never lasted long. The lucky ones got to do what Bobbi did. The unlucky ones… well. A lot of people go missing. Most of them are never found. And there are… auctions. Better to sell yourself than to be sold. At least that way you might get to keep the profit.” He wiped his face with his bandaged arm, moving it stiffly and carefully, but kept his other arm around Phil’s shoulders.

“That’s why I told you I know you aren’t doing this to take advantage of me,” he said. “I’ve seen what that looks like, that kind of false choice. Lincoln Slade and men like him, they would go to people who had nothing and say, give me what I want and I’ll give you food, security, money. I’ll make your dreams come true. And you know that if you say no to him, the next guy who wants you may not be asking first. What kind of a choice can you really have? If you don’t have options, choice is an illusion at best, a story you tell yourself so you can feel better about your life.”

Phil tried to pull away, sick with guilt, but Clint pinned him in place.

“No, please, don’t go anywhere, Phil. That’s what I’m trying to explain. You’re not like that. You’ve done everything you can to give me options, real options. You’re tying yourself up in knots so that I can have a real choice. Lincoln Slade might have given Bobbi school tuition and clothes and food, but you can bet your life he never gave her a lawyer, or access to his bank account, or admin rights to his home. Everything he gave her was for his benefit, not hers. But you… from the very beginning, even before we met, you’ve done everything you can to keep me out of your debt. And I… it means so much to me, Phil. It means everything.”

Phil wanted to say something, but all the possible responses were a jumble in his head. Before he could sort one out, a piercing chime rang out, making them both jump.

“Sorry,” Clint said, pulling away from Phil and reaching into his pocket. “That’s the priority tone, I need to make sure everything’s okay with the girls.”

He unlocked his comm unit and glanced down. “No, not the house, it’s a message from… oh.” He tapped the screen, eyes flicking rapidly as he read, then scrolled back up, then read again; Phil felt a queasy curl of worry over what might be making him look so stricken.

“Oh,” Clint said again. “I—Phil. Phil, look.” He held out the comm in a shaking hand, and Phil took it. “Is this what—Phil, what does this say?”

Phil looked down at the message on the screen.

Barton,

After what happened tonight it’s clear to everyone that you’ve got a “unique skill set not currently present in the community.” I think I’d end up deposed in some kind of coup if I didn’t give you this. Also, you stopped what could have been a massacre tonight. I owe you one for that.

Talk to me before you accept any job offers. I’ve got several positions open and I think you’ll find the SG compensation packages very competitive.

On a personal note, I don’t have that many friends, and Phil Coulson is one of them. Don’t fuck with him, and we won’t have any problems.

Yours cordially etc all that official shit,

T. Stark

Phil’s hand shook as he clicked through and read the attachment. He looked up, meeting Clint’s eyes. Clint’s face was streaked with tears, but his expression was half hopeful and half terrified.

“Phil?” he asked.

“It’s… it’s a permanent resident visa,” Phil said. He felt hot-and-cold, elated and afraid. Everything was going to change, now, he thought. Everything. “Clint, you… you can stay here. Forever. Unconditionally.”

“No… no contingencies?” Clint asked. “Nothing can revoke it?”

“Not unless you commit a felony,” Phil said.

“Oh,” Clint said. He reached out, folding his hand around Phil’s hand, still holding the comm. “Wow. Um… in that case, that makes the other thing I wanted to talk about a lot more relevant.”

Phil’s stomach swooped. “I’m listening.”

“I hardly know where to start,” Clint said, half laughing. “I want to talk about us. About you and me.”

Phil nodded. His body was cold, except for the hand Clint was holding.

“I… I’m not going to pretend that I’ve had enough time to really get to know you and the girls,” Clint said, “but I do know that the thought of losing you—any of you—makes me sick. I can’t think of a future for myself where I don’t braid Katie’s hair or play dollhouse with Skye or, or sit with you and look at the stars. What you’ve offered me is… everything. A family. A home. I… I want it, Phil. But it’s more complicated than that.”

Phil wasn’t sure he was ready to hear what Clint was going to say, but he knew he couldn’t bear not to know. “Tell me,” he whispered. “Please.”

“Cards on the table,” Clint said, and Phil ached at the tension in his voice. “I… I know you said you weren’t looking for… for sex, or a r-relationship. I know you’re still grieving your wife. I would never want to get in the way of that or, or try to get you to consider something you don’t want, but… sometimes lately I’ve thought that maybe you might… that someday maybe you might consider…” he broke off, snorting in disgust. “Shit. What I mean to say, is that… I think I could fall in love with you, Phil.”

And there it was, Phil thought, quivering down to his bones. The possibility he’d been hiding from himself, laid out brave and unadorned. The choice he’d never thought he’d need to make again, now looming inescapable in his path.

“And if you can’t,” Clint continued, “if you don’t think you’ll ever think of me like that, please tell me? If I know… if I know it’ll never happen I can… I can try to, to come to terms with that, but Phil,” and his words started coming faster, his hands started gesturing, one graceful and fluid, one stiff. “I don’t think I can live with you and eat with you and take care of the girls together, I can’t see you smile at me for, for years maybe, and then just… step aside for somebody else when you want to get married for real.” His voice trembled with emotion, and Phil wanted to reassure him and comfort him and touch him—he wanted to shut his eyes and leave and not deal with it—he wanted things to be easy and uncomplicated, but it was too late for that, wasn’t it? It had been too late from the moment Clint wrote that letter to Katie.

“Just…” Clint sighed. “I won’t leave you in the lurch,” he said. “I can work as your nanny or something, if that’s the way it needs to be, but I don’t think I can marry you and not mean it, Phil, I just can’t.”

Phil swallowed hard. Clint’s face was heartbreakingly open and raw, eyes red, lips wet and trembling. He had so much courage, Phil felt ashamed of his own hesitance. Clint had reached out to him, met him more than halfway; Phil had to meet him there, as best he could.

He reached out and took Clint’s hand, letting the warm rough touch of it ground him.

“You’re right when you say that I’m still grieving A-Audrey,” he forced out. “But you’re also right that I—that I’ve started to—that you’ve come to matter to me. Very much.” Clint made a tiny, startled sound, but Phil couldn’t look at him and say what he needed to say; he kept his eyes focused on their joined hands.

“I don’t want to marry you without meaning it,” he said. “But I don’t know if I can—Clint.” He broke off, swallowing down the lump that kept trying to rise in his throat. “You… you are so incredibly brave. You just keep proving that, don’t you? Over and over.” He tried to steady his breath. “I’m… not.”

“Phil—”

“Please, let me finish.”

Clint subsided, nodding, and Phil squeezed his hand.

“You’re right that I thought… I never even considered trying to find someone else to… love, after Audrey. I thought that part of me died with her. But I didn’t want to punish the girls, so I… well. You know what I did.”

Clint nodded, the corner of his mouth quirking a little, a tiny phantom of a grin.

“I’m not ready for another relationship,” Phil said. “I… I like you, Clint. So much. You’re an amazing person. Everything I’ve come to learn about you has reinforced that. And it’s not just for the girls, despite what I thought. I like you for me, too. I… I hadn’t realized how lonely it was here after the girls were asleep, until you were here and I wasn’t alone anymore.” His voice threatened to break, and he paused, forcing himself back to composure. “I think about getting m-married again, really married, and it scares me to death, and to make it worse I’m not sure if I’m more afraid that it wouldn’t work out, or that it would.

Clint’s hand tightened around his, just a little. Phil let his eyes slide closed, let himself lean against Clint’s side again.

“I can’t truthfully promise you much, yet,” he said. “But I can promise you this: I won’t marry you under false pretenses. And… I’m not going to go looking for somebody else. If it’s going to be anyone, it’s going to be you.”

He opened his eyes, blinking away the haze of tears that kept coming back despite his best efforts, and looked at Clint, anxious. Clint was smiling at him gently, his face soft and open and sweet.

“That’s good, Phil,” he said. “That… that’s all I needed to know. I just had to be sure that… that it was safe to let myself feel what I was gonna feel, you know? I’ve got that visa now, so the time limit’s gone; we can take however long we need to figure out the rest. I’m good with that, as long as I know we’re figuring it out together.”

“You’ve given me so much,” Phil whispered. “I feel like I’m giving you very little in return.”

“You’ve given me your promise,” Clint said, just as soft. “You’ve given me honesty and courage. I know this is hard for you. Phil, part of the reason I l-like you so much is because it’s so hard. You love deep, and real. I don’t think you realize how rare that is. If I could somehow… earn something like that from you?” He huffed a small, incredulous laugh. “Phil. That… that’s a prize worth risking everything.”

Phil shook his head. “You don’t know me, Clint. I’m… I’m not much of a prize.”

“I know enough,” Clint said. “I know what I’ve seen you do. I know the way you treat people. I know how the whole town looks to you, how everyone smiles when they see you coming. I know enough to make my own decision.”

“But what if I can’t do it?” Phil asked, his voice slipping out of his control again. “What if the part of me that could be like that, could l-love like that, really is dead? What if you… wait, and try, and I can’t be what you need me to be?”

“I could say the same thing to you,” Clint said. “I mean, I’m not exactly an expert on relationships, you know? But I do know love don’t come with guarantees, not ever. All anyone can ever do is try. And if you fail… at least you failed at something, instead of succeeding at nothing.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Phil whispered.

“I don’t want to hurt you either,” Clint said, and his voice was so tender it ached to hear. “And that’s what makes me willing to take the chance.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“That’s what we both want,” Clint said simply. “To see what we could have, and not to hurt each other. And from what I’ve seen, we’re both pretty fucking great at getting what we want.”

Phil laughed, and if it maybe sounded a bit too much like a sob at the end, that was neither here nor there. “Put it like that, you make it sound so easy,” he said. He was still afraid, still uncertain and exhausted, but something in Clint’s simple confidence sent a tiny golden thread of hope into a part of himself that had been dark for years.

“Not easy,” Clint said. “But not impossible either.” He let go of Phil’s hand, leaving it cold. “Come here.” He opened his arms again, and Phil didn’t hesitate this time before letting himself move into them, letting Clint pull him half into his lap, cuddling him and humming soothing nonsense, his fingers tracing patterns on Phil’s back.

Phil let go of the last of his tension, his strength depleted. Clint could… Clint could carry things for a while. It would be okay.

Over Clint’s shoulder, through the window, he could see the faint light of the oncoming dawn.