Captain Rogers and Tony Stark showed up at his apartment without calling ahead, which Clint felt was a little presumptuous. Then again, once you've killed a shitload of aliens together, a bond forms.
"Avenger business," Stark said, when Clint opened the door with the chain latch still on. "We come in peace."
Clint sighed and undid the chain, gesturing for them to come in.
"I thought we weren't hanging out, by mutual agreement," he said, rubbing his face.
"I didn't agree to that. Did you agree to that?" Stark asked, turning to Rogers.
"I did," Rogers said. "Things have changed."
"Okay, I come in peace. Cap has questions," Stark said. Clint led them towards the kitchen, hitching himself up on the counter and waving them into chairs at the breakfast table, still cluttered with plates and an empty pizza box. Stark lifted it with a questioning expression.
"What's the story?" Clint asked, ignoring him. The two men shared a look, fencing for who would go first, and then Stark spoke.
"I'm renovating the top floors of the Tower," he said. "As much sense as it made to keep a discreet distance after the attack, I think it's best if we're in a position to assemble quickly. You're officially invited to move in."
"What, and leave all this?" Clint inquired, waving at the walls. It wasn't that the place was rundown, but it sure wasn't the glass and new-carpet-smell of Stark Tower.
"It has its perks," Stark replied. "Privacy. Complete security. Heated swimming pool."
"You're on board with this?" Clint asked Rogers, who was examining the two dinner plates on the table with interest.
"More or less," he said, and looked up at Clint. "I wasn't that attached to my place in Brooklyn."
That got a small smile out of him. "Kinda empty."
"So, what, is this like a superhero dormitory? We get bunk beds?" Clint asked.
"Do you need bunk beds?" Rogers said, and then without waiting for Clint to answer, "Who's Izzy?"
"Where'd you hear that name?" Clint asked.
"Several places," Rogers replied. "I've been reviewing footage of Loki's incursion and the attacks prior to the main battle. At the Tesseract base when it was taken..."
Clint grimaced. "When he got me."
"Slightly after," Rogers said evenly. "The radio chatter after the base went down. Coulson asks where Izzy is. He's informed that she's under guard at home. When Coulson contacted Natasha about bringing Dr. Banner in, she asked if Izzy was being taken care of. Camera footage on the Helicarrier is fuzzy during the second attack, but when you were...waking up, the first lucid words you said were Where's Izzy? and Natasha replied she was safe. I'm curious as to who Izzy is."
At which point a small girl with pale hair and Captain America pajamas on came into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes. She looked at the men solemnly, then beelined for Clint, who hopped off the counter and gathered her up in his arms, propping her on one hip.
"Morning Poppa," she said, with a second curious glance at the other two. Stark was openly gaping.
"Morning, Iz," Clint said, kissing her hair. "Izzy, this is Captain Rogers and Mr. Stark. Captain, this is Isobel, my daughter."
Rogers, to his credit, didn't stare (Stark did). His eyes flicked to her and back to Clint, but he smiled. "Hello, Isobel."
"Hi," she said, and then looked up at Clint. "I want Kix."
"What do we say?"
"I want Kix please."
"Good girl. You know where they are," he said, putting her on the counter. She opened the cupboard and took out a cereal box, plopping down cross-legged next to him and eating fistfuls directly from the box.
"We kinda come as a set," Clint said to Stark.
It wasn't that Phil Coulson had ever been unobservant, or unaware of everything the agents in his care said and did. If he had been on his game, he would have known what had happened; he might even have known what would happen before it did.
But Coulson was recovering from a nasty dunk in an icy river, which had led to hypothermia and also included a broken leg. A week in the hospital and a month of mandatory sick leave was enough to put anyone off their game.
He knew, of course, that Natasha and Clint had been in Budapest a year ago, because he'd been with them. It was a clusterfuck of epic proportions involving a Hungarian heiress (innocent of any wrongdoing), two very wrongdoing MI-5 agents, a couple of freelance spies, a pickpocket, and a badly-timed delivery of cocaine. Clint and Natasha had been forced to shoot their way out of a nasty situation.
Clint had also at one point been forced -- well, perhaps forced was the wrong word, say situationally presented with an opportunity and inclined -- to seduce the heiress.
Phil had told Clint many times: "You need some stability in your life. You need some accountability. You need a dog, or a girlfriend, or a boyfriend. Some individual whose sad eyes will remind you to keep it in your pants."
"If I kept it in my pants Natasha would probably be pulling a Fury right now," Clint had told him, and covered his eye with one hand.
"Lies," Natasha had said calmly.
The point was, a year out from Budapest, Phil was a little creaky from the hypothermia when Clint was summoned back to Hungary to mop-up and retrieve a suitcase of delicate documents, now that the heat had died down. At this point the papers were worthless -- just slightly incriminating -- but it was SHIELD policy to be thorough. Sitwell went with him, so Phil was confident he was in good hands.
He got a text from Sitwell that they'd come back safely, and when he checked the SHIELD database he saw that Clint had done his post-mission medical and after-action report and then requested leave, also not unusual after a mission. Clint liked his downtime.
He could blame the lingering illness, or at least he had, for the fact that he didn't check Clint's alert status. Most of the time, Clint and Natasha took "conditional" downtime, meaning they could be called in when there were emergencies. If he'd looked, he would have seen a Do Not Interrupt order instead.
He was a little put out that Clint hadn't called since coming home; usually they were in pretty close contact, and Natasha had come by several times to bring him food and keep him company in her own quiet way. So when there was a knock on his door at two in the afternoon and he saw Clint through the peephole, he was considerably cheered, and opened the door with a smile.
Then he saw what Clint had in his arms, and slammed the door shut again.
"I don't care whose it is," he yelled through the door. "You can't bring a baby in here."
"You're the most obsessively tidy man I know," Clint yelled back. He'd clearly been expecting this. "You're not contagious and you disinfect everything. Broken limbs aren't catching."
"Why do you have a baby?" Coulson asked through the door.
"A healthy reproductive system and an inability to keep it in my pants," Clint replied.
Coulson opened the door.
"It's yours?" he asked. He hadn't noticed, though he did now, that Clint's eyes were rimmed in red and his hair was sticking out at odd angles.
"Only half," Clint said, and started laughing crazily until Coulson pulled him inside so the neighbors wouldn't see his ex-military specialist sniper having a nervous breakdown on his front step.
Once Clint had dispatched Isobel to the living room to watch cartoons, Rogers turned to him.
"You're on active service with a child that young?" he asked. "Where's her mother?"
"Hungary," Clint replied.
"Last I heard. Plenty of agents have kids."
Rogers rubbed his face. "This is a twenty-first century thing, isn't it?"
"Relax," Stark said, patting his head. He had to stand on tiptoe to do it. Rogers shot him an irritated look. "Let me handle this."
"Isobel isn't a thing to be handled," Clint said.
"I never thought she was," Stark said smoothly. "Stark Tower is state of the art. There's 24-hour monitoring. There's a daycare next door with a pediatrician's office above it."
Both of them looked at him.
"What? I have employees who have kids. Granted, I took you more for a swingin' bachelor pad kind of guy, but I haven't ordered the mirrors for the ceiling or anything." Stark peered into the living room. "She's tiny. There's room for her."
"I'm not entirely sure bringing a child to Stark Tower is wise," Rogers said.
"What are the odds of an evil megalomaniac using it as a conduit to another galaxy twice?" Stark asked. "Don't answer that. This changes nothing, except we're going to have to put prancy pony wallpaper on some of the walls. Or are you doing the cool no gender pigeonholes thing? I mean, I prefer fighter-jet wallpaper anyway, but ponies could be procured. Or like, neutral green paint."
The temptation was, oddly enough, strong. The neighbors could be loud and Clint didn't like the little boy down the hall who kept trying to play with Isobel. He was a biter and a bully and Isobel had been forced to punch him at least once previously. Clint would have liked the chance too but punching seven-year-olds was frowned upon.
"What's your security like?" Clint asked.
"Retinal scans for access to the residential levels. There's a resident AI who monitors potential threats. Well, and you know. Superheroes in residence. Does she need babyproofing?" Stark asked, looking uncertain.
Clint sighed. "She needs Isobel-proofing. She's a handful."
"How much of a handful can a kid that size be?"
"She made Sitwell cry once."
Stark seemed impressed. "I like her already. Hey, Izzy!" he called. Isobel hopped off the couch and came to the kitchen doorway, looking up at him curiously. Stark hitched his suit pants and crouched down to her level.
"You know who I am?" he asked. She shook her head. "You know who Iron Man is?"
She considered this.
"Are not," she announced.
"Izzy," Clint warned.
"Am so," Stark repeated.
"Are not times a million."
"Am so times infinity."
"It's nice to see a meeting of equal minds," Rogers remarked.
"All right, enough manipulating me through my weak spot," Clint said, picking Izzy up and turning her upside-down. She giggled. "Iz, Mr. Stark says we can come live with him in his tower if we want."
"Like a castle?" she asked.
"A little. You mind moving?"
"Can I bring my train set?"
Clint lifted her up so they were nose to nose. "Is that a dealbreaker?"
She poked him in the nose. He set her down carefully and she went running off to her room, presumably to start packing her train set.
"What on earth have you done?" Coulson asked, once he was convinced that he wouldn't kill the infant with germs and let them inside. "Where's its mother?"
"There's a story about that," Clint said, setting a bag down on the couch. He plopped the child carrier down next to it.
"I'm sure there is," Coulson replied. "Does Natasha know?"
"Probably?" Clint ventured. "I didn't tell her but...Natasha."
"Not yet," Clint sighed.
"Where did it come from?"
"First, she's not an it, she's a girl, and second, if you don't know that we're going to have to have a long talk first -- "
"Sorry. I'm deeply sleep-deprived," Clint replied wearily. "She fell asleep in the cab on the way over, I'm hoping for an hour of quiet or for you to put me out of my misery."
Coulson eyed the sleeping infant on his sofa. "If you've kidnapped a child -- "
"Her mother gave her to me. She said she was getting in the way of a very advantageous marriage. I said fair enough, I did the deed after all, and she gave me the kid. She also gave me this," Clint said, and handed Coulson a check for five hundred thousand dollars.
Coulson examined it. "I'd have held out for a million at least."
"Sit," Coulson said, steering him towards a chair. "I'll put her in the bedroom."
When he emerged, Clint was dozing in the chair. Coulson kicked his leg to wake him up as he passed, then returned from the kitchen with a glass of scotch.
"Relax, I'll drive. Metaphorically speaking," he said, as Clint waved it off.
"Do you know anything about babies?" Clint asked.
"Good point," Clint said, taking the glass. Coulson settled himself on the couch. "Sorry, I just...I'm back on duty in three days and I don't know anyone else I trust to look after her, and Sitwell already thinks I'm crazy, and I'd ask Natasha but she'd give me the eyebrow."
Coulson nodded. He was familiar with the eyebrow.
"I don't know what to do," Clint said, sounding like he was at the end of his rope.
"Let's start with how you acquired a child from a woman in a position to write you a check for five hundred grand," he said.
"You remember Budapest?"
"I told you to keep it in your pants."
"I used protection!"
"Then you must have very strong swimmers."
Clint set the glass aside. "If you're going to mock me, I can leave."
"No you can't."
"No, I can't," Clint sighed. "You saw I got signed out to go back and collect the documents. Well, she hunted me down while I was there and said I was half-responsible, and if I didn't take her I needed to sign release papers so she could give her up for adoption to, I don't know, peasant woodcutters or something."
"How'd you get her back here?"
"Swore Sitwell to silence and piloted the quinjet myself. Smuggled her off the Helicarrier in the dark of night."
"Are you sure she's yours?"
"Reasonably," Clint said, gesturing at his face. "She has the unfortunate Barton nose."
"So, the Hungarian heiress, hm?"
Clint leaned back and gave him a despairing look. "Her mother wasn't wrong. I'm half to blame. I couldn't leave her."
"Of course not."
"But I don't know what to do."
"Shocking," Coulson said drily.
"Are you going to make me ask?"
Coulson stood up, resting a hand on Clint's shoulder. "The first step is admitting you need help, Clint. But it's hard to humiliate a man in front of his daughter, so no."
"What do we do?"
"You are going to go to my spare room and get a decent night's sleep. I'll sit up with your little heiress and work out the rest."
Clint gave him a look of desperate gratitude. "Sleep?"
"Sleep. How much trouble can one child cause?"
Isobel took to Stark Tower like it was meant for her pleasure alone. It was possible parts of it were; Stark, probably for a laugh, had put bunk beds in her room.
She explored every crevice of the suite Stark had given them while Clint unpacked, but arranging her stuffed animals and setting up her trains and decorating the windows with stickers only took the better part of a day. Clint was almost finished unpacking their books when he turned around and yelled for her and found her gone.
"Izzy?" he called again. Normally he wouldn't worry -- everyone knew Isobel in their apartment building and she knew not to leave it -- but this was a new place with lots of elevators for curious children to ride around in, and probably Stark left bits of metal lying around, and he was barely sure of his own mental stability after Loki got to him, let alone any of the virtual strangers living here...
"Isobel?" he repeated, panic mounting in his voice. "Isobel!"
"Ms. Barton is in the common room, Agent Barton," a voice said, and Clint flinched. He'd forgotten about Stark's creepy AI.
"Where's that?" he asked, voice tight with suppressed fear.
"Down the hallway to your left. Dr. Banner is with her."
"Not reassuring!" he yelped, running down the hall. "Izzy!"
Izzy's head poked up over the edge of a couch. "I didn't go outside!" she said immediately. "This isn't outside!"
"Izzy, for the love of -- " Clint picked her up by her armpits. "I told you not to leave the apartment."
Izzy's lip wobbled.
"Don't even try it," he said, and the wobble stopped. She gave him an obstinate look as he set her down.
"I wanted to see the TV," she complained. Bruce Banner had turned on the sofa and was giving Clint a guilty look.
"I'm sorry, it's my fault," he said. "I didn't know she wasn't supposed to be here."
"Thanks, Doc, but don't throw yourself under a bus for her," Clint replied distractedly.
"But cartoons," Izzy said.
"Izzy, this is a big new place and you have to be careful," he said. "You have to tell me if you're going somewhere."
"Sorry, Poppa," she said, with a sincere look that she knew suckered him every time. "Can I stay? Bruce says I can."
"Bruce is not your poppa," Clint replied. "We have a TV in the living room if you want cartoons."
"But..." she pointed at the admittedly larger television on the wall. Clint sighed.
"I really don't mind," Banner said. "She's a sweet kid."
"She certainly gives that impression," Clint said. Izzy, sensing she'd won, hugged his leg before clambering over the couch to sit down again. Clint dropped down next to her and pulled her against his side.
"Did you put your clothes away like I asked?" he asked.
"Uh-huh," she said, eyes glued to the TV.
"What do you say to Dr. Banner?"
"Thank you for letting me watch cartoons," she recited.
"You're welcome," Banner answered with a smile. Clint noticed he had a science journal in one hand, bookmarked with a finger.
It took about five minutes for Isobel to pass out. Overstimulation, Clint figured. She whuffed softly against his side as she slept.
"Sorry to inflict her on you before you had time to build up any resistance," he said to Banner, changing the television over to a baseball game.
"Don't worry about it," Banner answered. "I like kids. I wasn't watching anything anyway. If I knew she was out of bounds I'd have brought her back."
"Izzy has a very loose definition of boundaries. Gets it from me, I suppose," Clint replied.
"How old is she?"
"Just turned six."
Banner nodded. "Look," he said, "I know you don't have a lot of reason to trust me, but she's not in any danger from me. Or the other guy. I'd go through a window before I'd hurt a child."
"You'd survive," Clint pointed out.
"Yes, but so would she."
Clint nodded. "Fair enough." He rubbed his eyes. "Thanks for distracting her, anyhow. I was worried she'd climbed into an elevator or something."
"Sir has instituted several safety protocols," the voice from nowhere said again. JARVIS, Clint remembered. He had, at least, lowered his volume. "I am not to allow anyone under the age of eighteen onto balconies or into elevators without escort from an Avenger or known associate. The gymnasium, laboratories, and workshop have also been declared off limits. In addition, I have been asked to alert the nearest adult should Ms. Barton be endangered."
"Can you keep her from turning on the stove?" Clint asked.
"I can incorporate such a protocol, yes."
"Good. She hasn't yet, and I've told her it's a no-no, but she does love dials."
Maybe JARVIS wasn't so creepy after all.
This was why Clint was a sniper and Coulson was a senior level handler: one of them sustained an utter failure to think more than two weeks into the future.
When Clint woke the following morning, really closer to noon, Coulson was curled up in a corner of the couch, feeding Isobel from a bottle, bluetooth in his ear.
"Good. Send the courier over anytime. Also I'll need those resumes in my inbox no later than close of business tomorrow," he said, nodding at Clint as he stared at him. There were bags labeled KIDSTITCH sitting next to the couch. "Great. No, you still owe me. All right."
He reached up with one hand to tap his bluetooth off, stood up, and neatly deposited Isobel in Clint's arms along with a towel. "She needs burping. Sitwell's couriering her paperwork and yours over, and we'll send the check back with the courier to be deposited."
Clint noticed Coulson's laptop had a spreadsheet open. It was headed OPERATION ENFANT TERRIBLE and had lines already filled in. (Diaper service? Was that something that existed?)
"What did you do?" Clint asked, vaguely aghast and still half-asleep. Isobel, head on his shoulder, let out a burp.
"Don't come to me if you don't want overwhelming efficiency," Coulson answered. "As of today, you are on paternity leave and Isobel has a birth certificate identifying her as your child, born in New York City. Social Security card's on its way. There's clothing in the bags."
"She was swaddled in a sweatshirt that read Archers Hit The Right Spot," Coulson replied.
"She's just going to poop all over anything you put on her."
"Well, at least now she'll look stylish while doing it."
"Did you shop?" Clint asked, poking through the bags. "Did you leave her here?"
"Don't be ridiculous. You had one of those baby carrying things in the bag, I took her with me."
"I can't believe you didn't wake me for that."
"Isobel thinks your taste is terrible," Coulson said.
"She doesn't get to criticize my style until she can control her own bowels," Clint replied. "What do I do with paternity leave, anyway?"
Coulson gave him an exasperated look. "You raise your infant child. Sitwell is also screening nannies for when you're unavailable. Though of course we could also desk you. You'd be miserable and resent her, though, and we are trying at SHIELD to foster a new kind of community lacking in daddy issues."
"She's like....three months old."
"It's never too early to prevent trauma," Coulson replied.
The Avengers, at least the ones in the tower so far, had varying reactions to Izzy.
Natasha was still on some mission in Japan, and Thor was off doing whatever he did in other dimensions, which left Stark, Banner, and Rogers, men who proved Coulson's long-ago point about daddy issues.
Rogers mostly avoided Izzy, which she (for once) allowed. Banner was quiet and careful around her, but Clint could see the obvious delight he took in interacting with her. Clint checked Banner's file and saw Natasha's notes; after that he was a little easier about things. Clint had gotten by accident a gift Banner would never now have. He could share her, as long as everyone remembered who Poppa, Ultimate Authority, was.
Stark was a different story altogether, because Isobel was mutually-ignoring Rogers and accepted Banner's indulgence happily but she adored Tony Stark.
The first time Isobel vanished and JARVIS said she was outside the workshop, Clint bolted for her, but he'd misjudged Stark's ability to keep his child safe. Isobel was standing in the hall with her nose and forehead pressed to the glass barrier between hallway and workshop. Stark, who hadn't apparently noticed her, was in his workshop grinding metal, sparks flying everywhere, and Izzy was enraptured.
The second time JARVIS announced she was outside the workshop, Clint just had him bring up a video; this time, Stark was crouched on the other side of the wall from Izzy, explaining something to her while she got nose prints all over the glass.
Eventually, if Izzy had disappeared and Tony wasn't around, Clint just pulled up the video on the workshop hallway. She never went inside, and Stark stayed on the other side of the glass, but his demonstrations for her became increasingly intricate and impressive.
When Tony wasn't in the workshop, Isobel followed him around like a puppy. She didn't say anything and Tony either ignored her or called her ludicrous nicknames while shooing her off.
"Why are you trailing me, Dandelion? Scram, go play in a bathtub."
"Does your father know you're here? If I trip over you, Octoroc, I'm suing him."
"Oh my god, Kidzilla, I'm going to sell you to an alligator ranch."
But then one morning, enjoying lying in bed and listening to Izzy chatter to herself in the next room, he heard an enraged squeal of metal and a panicked shriek.
Clint was a fast guy, and nimble; you had to be, as a sniper. He was pretty sure he set a new land-speed record, possibly teleported, into Izzy's room.
He did the instant parent check: nothing on fire, child conscious, no visible blood. Izzy was cradling a train engine to her chest, crying pitifully.
"What's wrong, baby?" he asked, lifting her up into his arms. She sobbed into his shoulder. "Izzy, are you hurt?"
He was subtly checking her ribs, skull, legs and arms while her tears subsided.
"Shhh, it's okay," he murmured, carrying her into the living room and settling in with her on the couch. "Are you hurt anywhere, baby?"
"No," she said into his shoulder.
"Okay. You breathe deep," Clint instructed. The train was jabbing him in the chest and Izzy had latched onto the short hair at the back of his head, which stung. She heaved an impossibly deep breath and exhaled gustily, and Clint struggled not to laugh.
After a few more breaths she started to squirm, so he let go of her and sat her on his knees, facing him.
"What happened?" he asked. She held out her train, which was completely collapsed on one side. "Aw, train. Did it break?"
She nodded mournfully. With incredible timing, one of the wheels fell off. Clint didn't bother asking how she'd done it; Isobel's capacity for chaos was infinite.
"It's okay, we can fix it," he said. Truthfully, outside of toothpicks laden with model glue, he didn't know much about fixing these things. "Hey, you want to see if Tony will fix it? JARVIS, is Tony in the workshop?"
"Sir is in the workshop," JARVIS confirmed. "If you are passing the kitchen, Agent Barton, please bring him some of the food Dr. Banner left on the stove."
Clint deftly navigated carrying Izzy, scooping some oatmeal into a bowl, and heading down to the workshop. He kicked on the door, and Tony looked up from the drawings he was working on.
"Hey, Hawkeye and Anklebiter. What's up?" Tony said, standing in the doorway. Izzy thrust her train in his face and Clint offered the oatmeal. "Is this an obscure form of charades?"
"I brought you food. Her train is broken," Clint said. "Iz, use your words."
"My train broke," Izzy said. "Can you fix it?" Clint only had to jostle her a little to get her to add, "Please?"
Tony looked at Clint. "You know I have an engineering degree from MIT."
"I was seventeen when I got my degree."
Clint nodded sagely.
"I am the head developer for a multi-billion-dollar technology company," Tony told Izzy.
Izzy gave this serious consideration. "Tape?" she suggested, waggling the engine.
Tony took the train out of her hands and turned to his workbench. Clint stepped inside the workshop, still holding Izzy firmly.
"Tell you what I will do, you insulting little menace," Tony said, deftly picking the train to pieces with a tiny flat-head screwdriver. Clint set the oatmeal down nearby. "I will build you a better train engine. Bigger. Faster. Cherry red. Gold rims. Blacklights for atmosphere. Wet bar."
Clint allowed Izzy to slither onto a reasonably clean-looking bench. She propped her elbows on the table and then rested her chin on her hands, expectantly.
"Out, Feathers," Tony said, without looking up from the train. "Out. Get out, Barton, Soul Sister and I have work to do."
Clint grinned and silently retreated.
He was pleased, in all honesty. Still a little wary, but Izzy seemed happy. She had Bruce, her new indulgent uncle, and Tony, who clearly enjoyed being a big brother.
Which just left Steve.
Clint took six months from SHIELD, in the end. He got three for paternity leave, the other three as Family Medical Leave, and he worried about the gap in his paycheck until Coulson pointed out that a) he never spent any of his money, so he had a sizeable savings, and b) he was earning his keep from the check Isobel's mother had given him.
It was a weird six months. He was no stranger to patience, to keeping still, to waiting, but the long gap between Budapest Part Two and returning to SHIELD was -- it was inactivity and it wasn't.
Leisure, he decided, lying on his couch with Isobel on his chest, watching television while she slept. For the first time in his life he neither had a job nor an empty belly. There was no hustle to keep himself fed and warm, no duty to anticipate, no reason to keep his go-bag by the door. (He still did. You just never knew.) He knew precisely when his next mission would be -- in six months' time.
Then five, then three, then one month left.
Clint knew Coulson was devious and suspected him of being manipulative. Clint had never had anything more complicated than a plant to look after in his entire life. No dog, no goldfish, and he'd killed a couple of the plants. Coulson had told him it would settle him, even if a baby wasn't perhaps what he'd had in mind.
In those first few weeks, exhausted and alone, he could have given Isobel up. Asked Coulson to find a good home for her. One more innocent briefly rescued and then passed along to others. It would have made him a hypocrite, given he wouldn't let Izzy's mother do the same thing, but he could have survived that.
Six months, though, of constantly being in Izzy's company, of the thousand things he never had to think about before but did now -- six months of just existing peacefully with her, of visits from Natasha and Sitwell and Coulson and once, terrifyingly, Fury...well, he knew how it felt to bind yourself to someone this tightly. It was how he'd felt for Natasha at first, the sense of never wanting her out of his sight not because he didn't trust her but because it felt like she was taking pieces of him with her. And he suspected that, unlike Natasha (who had amply proved that if she was taking pieces of him with her, they were in brutally safe hands) this would last forever.
"Maybe I should take that desk job," he said to Coulson, a week before he was scheduled to leave Isobel with a very, very thoroughly background-checked nanny and return to work.
"Do you want a desk job?" Coulson asked. "You don't even like writing your own after-actions. I can't see you enjoying reading others'."
"Well, when it's not me who did the action, they're like adventure novels," Clint said.
"No," Clint admitted. "But nine to five has its appeals."
"You have a lot more downtime between missions than you would working normal hours," Coulson pointed out. "You'll get more time with her this way, and in concentrated chunks. Three days away from her sounds worse than it is."
"Are they holding a mission for me?" Clint asked, head jerking up from where he'd been watching Izzy.
"No. I was averaging."
"Oh," Clint said, striving to keep the disappointment out of his voice.
"No desk job for you," Coulson remarked.
"I guess not." He chewed his lip. "What if I die?"
Coulson smiled. "Then I'd be obliged to take her in." Clint cast a sidelong glance at him. "If you trust me."
Trust me with your child, Clint realized.
"You're about the only one I do," he replied.
"What about Natasha?"
"Have you seen her around small children? I wouldn't do that to her if she were my enemy."
Coulson took Izzy out of his arms, carefully.
"Then you have to promise me one thing," he said, cradling her like she was a valuable treasure, or possibly an unexploded bomb.
"Anything," Clint replied before he thought about it.
"You have to let me be the one to buy her clothes."
Izzy began stalking Steve Rogers a few days after Tony built her the biggest, shiniest, fanciest and most durable train engine ever. Clint knew how durable it was because he stepped on the damn thing at least twice. Having wrapped Bruce and now Tony firmly around her little finger, she set out to do the same to Steve.
He could tell Iz was trying to be subtle about spying on Captain America. She peered around doorways and tiptoed with great exaggeration. It was like a weird game of hide and seek where Steve didn't realize he was It. Because, as klutzy as a six year old was at stalking, she was still light on her feet and sneaky. It was pretty gratifying, to be honest. Chip off the old block.
Clint watched, amused, as she got just a little closer each time. Steve was either oblivious or intentionally ignoring her when she snuck around, watching him cook or draw or poke determinedly at a laptop.
It came to a head one Saturday when he was sitting in a chair by one of the windows, working at a sketchpad with a graphite stick. Izzy actually got under his chair without his apparent notice, and then slowly, carefully eased up one side until her head appeared above the edge of the paper.
Steve yelped, flailed, and fell off the chair. The graphite stick went flying. Clint fell down laughing.
Izzy shrieked, but it ended on a giggle; she ran back to Clint, who was clutching his stomach, he was laughing so hard. She climbed over and ducked down behind him. Well, he was the nearest cover.
Steve picked himself up, dusting down his shirt. "Is she okay?" he called.
"She's fine," Clint managed around gasps of air. "You should have seen your face."
"It isn't nice to sneak up on people," Steve said sternly.
"No but it is -- " Clint bit down on fucking hilarious, " -- pretty funny."
"I could have hurt her!"
Clint pushed himself upright and tugged Izzy around to face him. "Izzy," he said. "Steve is right. That wasn't nice." It was a little ruined by how he almost laughed again. "Say you're sorry to Cap," he said. "Go on."
Izzy took a few steps forward and picked up the graphite stick. "Sorry," she said, holding it out.
"Well," Steve said awkwardly, taking the stick. "You weren't to know, I guess."
He gathered up his drawing pad and retreated. Clint gave in and laughed until he ached. Izzy flopped down next to him again.
He really shouldn't have laughed; it only encouraged her. Though he noticed that the next time, she made sure Steve heard her coming. When her head cast a shadow over the paper, Steve just tensed and then set the graphite down.
"Whatcha drawing?" she asked.
Clint watched, almost holding his breath, as Steve caved. He tipped up the pad to show her the city skyline he was sketching, holding it up to the window so she could see how the drawing matched the reality.
"Can you draw anything?" she asked, awed.
"Well, I can try," he said hesitantly. "What should I draw?"
Izzy gave this due consideration. "A butterfly," she said. Clint quietly withdrew.
Later, he found a Steve Rogers original attached to the wall with stickers. It was pretty good work.
He had to hand it to her; the sneak attacks worked after that. If Steve saw her coming too far in advance, he'd still manage to gently, painlessly avoid her. But if she crept up on him he'd sit still, a giant deer in a pair of very small headlights, until Izzy struck up a conversation. Half the time it was nonsense; she was still a little kid. Steve always took her seriously, though. Sometimes he drew pictures on request, which Izzy dutifully hung in her bedroom like a gallery at six-year-old eye level.
Clint didn't know what to make of it. He supposed, given everything, it made Steve her reluctant hero.
One night she said, "Steve's on my t-shirt, huh."
"Well, a drawing of him, yes," Clint replied.
"Phil gave me my t-shirt," she added, clearly struggling with something.
"Phil liked Captain America."
"Were they best friends?"
Clint smiled. "Well, no, not best friends."
"Not like Phil and you are best friends."
Clint paused. He'd...never thought of it that way. Coulson was simply a constant in his life, until suddenly he wasn't.
"We were," he said gently.
"I miss him."
Clint wasn't even supposed to be in New Mexico on the hammer job. ("Hammertime!" "No, Clint.")
"It's looking like it might be a long job," Coulson said over the phone. Clint was trying to corral Izzy after a bath. She was making it very difficult. "I wouldn't ask if there were anyone else I could use. Natasha's still on the Stark job -- now the Potts job -- "
"Really," Clint said.
"Don't ask. Everyone else I trust is on mission elsewhere."
"He's sitting next to me."
"And you want me there too? Are we making him feel inadequate?"
"You want to ask him that?"
"No," Clint said, and then swore under his breath as Izzy tipped over a half-full bowl of cereal. "Hey, you want a four year old? She's going cheap."
"Bribe her with ice cream."
"That's great parenting advice, Dr. Phil, thank you."
"If you ever call me Dr. Phil again, Izzy will not be your biggest problem."
"I'm rapidly recalibrating my desire to remain in my child's presence."
"Come to New Mexico. One of the usuals can look after her. It'll be a vacation," Coulson said. "For both of you."
Three days later, soaking wet and mud-spattered after Thor stormed the base, Clint trooped in from the rain and looked at Coulson, who was already miraculously dry.
"Come to New Mexico. It'll be a vacation," he said.
"Well, a change is as good as a rest," Coulson replied.
Life was, at least, somewhat predictable in the Tower. For Clint it was split between Izzy and the Avengers, child rearing and sparring practice. At least the others in the Tower seemed willing to look after her whenever it was needed, and JARVIS kept her entertained quite a bit.
Tony, with the usual suave offhandedness he showed whenever he gave someone a gift, let Clint know that he'd found her a spot at a really good private school nearby once summer was over. Clint suspected if he looked closely at the school he'd find a science lab or a scholarship paid for by the Maria Stark Foundation.
Natasha came home to a scream of joy from Izzy, and spent the rest of the day shanghai'd into an extended tea party with her. She'd grown much more friendly with Iz once she was out of diapers and developing a personality.
"How's she doing?" she asked Clint, after Izzy was in bed for the night. "With Coulson and everything."
"She's six. She's resilient."
"Oh, I'm in my thirties, I'm good," he replied, with a hollow grin. Natasha, bless her, let him get away with it.
"So, Stark Tower. It's awfully....male," she said.
"Pepper comes around sometimes. Usually to have a shouting match and then unsubtle eyesex with Tony."
"Whatever works for them, I guess."
"Keeps love sparky," he said. "Are you going to be Izzy's female role model, huh?"
"No," Natasha replied. "But I might -- "
She broke off. Clint looked at her, surprised.
"Coulson had a very clear line of succession for her if you died," she said. "Him, Sitwell, me, Fury -- "
Clint choked. "Fury looking after my little girl."
"No, I'm trying not to laugh. Did he agree to this?"
"I think if the four of us were dead he'd see the reasoning."
"Anyway, Sitwell's next in line. But...can you picture what kind of clothes he'd buy the kid?"
"Let me step in," she said. "Buy her some new clothes, hers are getting raggedy. I'll take her to lunch after. We can make a morning of it."
Clint swallowed and reached into his pocket. He had more bank accounts than he knew what to do with -- spreading the money around made sure some was always available in an emergency -- but the card on the account Coulson used for her clothes was usually in his wallet. He handed it to her. It still had Coulson's name on it.
"I'll get it changed," she said.
"She likes purple," he said. "Well. I like purple. Izzy doesn't really care about clothes. Just steer her towards the purple. And machine-washable."
It wasn't easy, raising Isobel. He had help, of course; Natasha carried more weight in their partnership, and Coulson was there when needed, though Clint didn't like to infringe on his time too much. Sitwell babysat her sometimes, when Clint needed a night, and there were a few other agents who were on a list in Clint's phone of "Badass Motherfuckers who will step up". They weren't all the tenderest babysitters, but they made sure Izzy was clean, fed, and (most importantly) safe.
Still, for the most part, it was just him. The identity of single-dad never really sunk in, but the identity of oh-shit-my-kid stuck fast. He was the one who panicked in the middle of the night when Izzy had a fever, the one who'd dabbed up her tears on the fifth or sixth unsuccessful and bumpy try at walking. He was the one who had to feed her and change her and walk her for hours when she was fussy, though Coulson did occasionally take over "fuss duty" on really difficult days.
It was exhausting and hard, and it only got harder when she did start walking and climbing and proved to be every inch her acrobatic father's child. She had inherited his penchant for leaping off things.
But there was a sort of pride in how fucking hard everything was. While his love for Isobel was a given, not even to be bothered about because it was so sure, there was also a sense of take that, old man to how carefully he raised her. His father had been a drunk and an asshole, had raised his hand to Clint often enough for it to be wearily expected, and was the one who'd made Clint struggle his entire life to trust anyone, ever. Daddy issues, indeed.
Clint was, quite plainly, better than his father. It wouldn't be hard, of course, but he still took a deep satisfaction in that. Izzy was happy and well-fed and fearless. He'd never once so much as considered hitting her. And if her manners were a little on the shady side, they were working on that. Clint had never learned manners too thoroughly himself, so it was a learning experience.
When Izzy was five, a few months after they'd found Captain America (Clint had never seen Coulson so excited; he beamed every time he saw Izzy in her Captain America shirt), Clint got the request to go to a SHIELD-leased facility in upstate New York.
"We need a certain level of paranoia," Coulson said, as Clint studied the file.
"This could be months," Clint replied. "Izzy's going to be starting kindergarten soon."
"I have a suggestion to float to you," Coulson said, leaning forward. "Have you considered home-schooling Izzy?"
"Home-schooling," Clint repeated flatly.
"At least for a few years."
"You have a very high opinion of my ability to teach a five year old anything."
"You're not stupid, Clint."
"No, I can teach her how to field strip and reassemble a -- "
"Clint," Coulson said, and Clint recognized an "I'm being patient with you" voice. Clint used it on Izzy once in a while. Now he knew where it came from.
"I don't think it'd be good for her," Clint protested.
"It might be good for both of you." Coulson handed him a second folder. "Paperwork and requisites for homeschooling. She's a kindergartener, Clint, not a Rhodes scholar."
"Yet," Clint said defensively. "I don't want to ruin her."
"You haven't yet," Coulson said. "Upstate is lovely. Beautiful country."
"Why do you want me out of the city?" Clint asked, penny dropping. "You want me somewhere safe."
"Why do you want me out of the city, Coulson?" Clint said, and then corrected himself. "Why do you want Izzy gone?"
Coulson looked faintly annoyed. And also somewhat embarrassed.
"I have instincts," he said quietly. Clint nodded. He understood what he was saying -- every soldier or agent who lived long enough knew the feeling. "Right now every one of them is screaming at me to get her somewhere safe."
"This assignment is safe?"
"As safe as you'd be here, at least, objectively."
"What's happening here?" Clint asked, leaning in.
"Nothing concrete. Stark's building here; Steve Rogers is here. SHIELD is staying close. You don't just get heroes where there are villains," Coulson said. "Any comic book will tell you. You also get villains where there are heroes. Something's going to happen. I couldn't tell you what. Just a feeling." He shrugged. "I'll be up weekly to check progress at the site, too."
Clint looked at the file. "Home-schooling, huh?"
"Just make sure she socializes properly. I'm informed most of kindergarten is crayons and butcher paper anyway. She's already reading."
Clint beamed proudly. Izzy had started reading young, and was ripping through a series of increasingly complicated children's books. He wasn't much of a reader himself, outside of thrillers and the occasional science fiction novel, but he liked to see Izzy curled up with a book.
"Monitor duty," Clint said. "Nice and quiet. Erik Selvig -- I remember him."
With Natasha in the Tower, a circle seemed to close. Thor wasn't there, of course, but to Clint he still seemed a little otherworldly, and his link to Loki made Clint just as happy he wasn't around. Clint felt like he could breathe again as Natasha settled in and life in the tower took on a sense of permanence.
He could talk to her the way he couldn't to the others, who were by now...colleagues, maybe friends, trusted with his daughter's happiness but not perhaps her actual life. Natasha was someone he knew bone-deep, and she understood what had been done to him in a way the others couldn't.
"I let you off the hook before," she said to him one morning, while they were lounging by Stark Tower's indoor pool. In the water, Bruce was teaching Izzy to swim in the shallow end while Cap did laps.
"About what?" Clint asked, waving back as Izzy waved at him, paddling along on her little kick board.
"Loki. And Coulson."
"Yes," she said.
"And I'm on the hook now."
"I just want to make sure you're actually okay, and not faking it for Izzy. She won't appreciate that, and it's not good for you."
Clint leaned forward, watching Iz, hands clasped between his knees. "Not...exactly faking," he hedged. "But she needs me to be stable and okay. And I am. For the most part."
"Do you blame yourself for what happened?"
"Part of me does. Always will. I couldn't be stronger, fight harder, move faster when Loki went after me. I know rationally there was nothing I could have done differently. But it's not like...I mean, if I have nightmares, I already had them anyhow, you know?"
Natasha nodded. "Do you need help?"
"What, like psychiatric help?"
"No. From me. From any of us," she said, as Izzy smacked Bruce in the head and he pretended to be ducked under the water. He came up with a splash, rocking Izzy on her kick board.
"I wouldn't know what to ask for," he said quietly.
"But if you did, you'd ask?"
"You know I would, Tash. Anyway you'd probably know before I did."
"Maybe," she said. "I know you were close with Coulson."
"So were you."
"Not like you were. He was my boss. Maybe a mentor. He was family to you."
Clint watched as Steve stopped swimming for a moment to hold an important conversation with Izzy about dog-paddling.
"Whenever I thought about our future," he said slowly, "which I tried to do at least some of, you know, you gotta plan ahead when you have a kid. When I thought about it, he was always there. Like, first day of real school, and growing up, learning to drive, going to college..." he shrugged. "He was the one who pointed out that was going to even be an option for her, y'know, college. It wasn't for me, but he...wanted me to dream big for her. I just always thought he'd be there. I assumed. I thought if anyone in Izzy's life was going to die it was most likely to be me, but I knew she'd be safe and happy with him. I had these weird daydreams about..."
He shook his head. "I don't know if he even wanted to be there. For all I know he just thought it was part of his job."
"He didn't. He was there because he wanted to be. He would have been there more if you'd asked."
"Except for the diapers," Clint said with a snort. "I asked him a zillion times to help change her. No, that's her father's job."
"Well, we all have boundaries," Natasha said with a smile.
"I think I was in love with him," Clint said. Natasha glanced at him. "For a long time. Even before Iz. The world lit up when he was around. Only other person ever made that happen was Izzy, and she's my blood."
"Do you think he knew?"
"I didn't even know. Not until he was dead. Does that make me an asshole?"
She shook her head. "I think it makes you very human. And it means that even if nothing ever happened, the loss for you is...larger, more difficult than for most."
"There's been some back-channel talk at SHIELD I think we may want to keep an eye on," she said, which was a tactful change of subject he appreciated. "We don't normally deal much in magic, but Fury's got his finger in some weirder-than-normal pies."
"What do you need from me?"
"Maybe some spying. I need to gather more intel first. Someone to spitball with, if I don't understand what I find."
"I'm not any kind of expert."
"Well, you were in New Mexico."
"Aw, shit, more Asgardian stuff?"
"I'm not entirely positive. I'm going up to the Helicarrier in a few days to find out more. Selvig's been brought back."
"Surprised he was willing to come."
"Foster's there too."
"Interesting," Clint murmured. Nearby, Steve hoisted himself out of the pool and headed, dripping and clad only in a speedo, towards the showers. They held a respectful moment of silence as a triumph of bioengineering passed by.
"I will never get tired of looking at that," Clint said.
"What's to get tired of? I want to play tic-tac-toe on his abs," Natasha replied.
"He'd probably let you. Boy doesn't get out enough."
"I'm playing a long game."
"Oh, is that what that is?" Clint asked, as Izzy climbed out of the pool too and ran to him, swaddled in a towel bigger than she was. She said hello to Natasha in Russian, then plopped her wet self down in Clint's lap.
"Did you see me swimming?" she asked.
"I did," he said, beaming at her. "Were you good for your lesson with Bruce?"
"Mostly," Bruce said, toweling off nearby. "Good enough she gets a veggie dog for lunch."
"Make her a real one!" Clint said, scooting her off his lap and standing up to follow them to the kitchen. "Nothing but the best processed meat by-product for my child."
"She'll thank me when she's older!" Bruce called.
The days upstate were good, for the most part. He spent the mornings, while staff security were covering Selvig, doing homeschool projects with Izzy at a little house just off-base. He dropped her off at daycare before lunch, relieved the morning staff, and did his checks. Daycare fed her dinner, and Clint picked her up at six, took her home, did the evening routine and let her read to him for a while before she fell asleep.
Coulson stayed with them for his weekly site visit; it wasn't really ever discussed, just expected by everyone.
"Oof," he said, setting Izzy down, that last week. "You're getting too big to leap on me, Isobel."
"Am not," she protested, and dragged him into the house so he could sit on the sofa with her and hear about her week. Clint watched from the kitchen doorway, smiling, as Coulson nodded in all the appropriate places and at one point examined her skinned elbow soberly. It had a Captain America band-aid on. Clint wasn't sure where those had come from; it seemed like these days, half his household supplies were Coulson-based.
Coulson looked up from Isobel, caught his eye, and smiled; Clint grinned back, until Izzy tapped Coulson's arm and cried "Phiiiiil," so he would pay attention to her again.
He cooked for them, something he also did at least once a week when they were in the city. Clint had found it welcome but strange when Izzy was a baby, and now had settled into it comfortably. He always showed up with a bag of groceries and made simple, healthy dishes: chicken and broccoli, eggplant lasagne, vegetable soup with crusty biscuits. It was probably the healthiest food Izzy got, though Clint had at least abandoned his days of take-out and freezer meals.
The day Loki took him wasn't different from any other, really. He kissed Iz goodbye and sent her off to eat lunch, then drove to the base with Coulson and left him at the security desk to go over the week's reports. He did his checks, monitored Selvig, got in some target practice. He was an hour from going off-shift when it happened.
Being taken -- that was how he tried to think of it -- was torment on a number of levels. He killed innocent people. He killed fellow SHIELD agents. He tried to kill Nick Fury. But the worst part, later, was that he never thought of Izzy. Not once. She'd been swept away from his memory, and the small, screaming part of him that recorded everything he did in vivid detail was terrified that Isobel had been left alone, turned over to the police, frightened, hungry, cold. He was sure that at times he'd clung to sanity only because he knew that Phil Coulson would risk hell, high water, and death for Izzy Barton.
His first words after leaving the fugue Loki had put him into were, "Where's Izzy?"
"Safe," Natasha said. "She's safe, we looked after her."
"Coulson?" Clint asked.
Natasha didn't flinch. "He got her to safety, yes."
"He's with her?"
"Some other agents. She's safe, Clint."
He didn't notice the deception, and then suddenly they were in the middle of the battle. By the time it was done, all he wanted was to see her, but SHIELD transport would be his best bet and SHIELD transport was going to be a while. He ate with the others, mainly because there was nothing better to do while he waited.
The transport that finally picked them up left him at their little temporary house upstate, and he hesitated. Fear scrambled up his throat, fear that some part of Loki was still in him, that he'd come out when Clint got too close to Izzy and try to harm her. He smelled like death and wet-wipes; he'd cleaned himself up as best he could en route, but he needed a shower and a change of clothes, which he should maybe do before he saw her --
But then the door flung open and Izzy threw herself into his arms, the way she always did when he came back from a mission. "Poppa!"
"Hi, Iz," he said, testing it like a sore tooth -- no hint of Loki, no murderous urges. Just overwhelming relief. "How's my baby?"
"Did you bring me anything?" she asked, grinning.
"Not this time," he replied, picking up to carry her into the house. The SHIELD guards, nodding at him, stayed where they were as he took her into the kitchen, seating her on the counter so he could look her over. "You sure you're okay?"
"The agents were nice to you?"
"Yes, Poppa. We had pizza."
"With the pepperoni picked off?"
She nodded. "Sergeant Bob picked it off for me."
Sergeant Bob was Agent Robert Braithwaite, who was a golden-gloves Naval boxer with biceps the size of Izzy's head. He had six children of his own, so he understood quirks like Izzy's love of pepperoni pizza only if it had been picked clean of actual pepperoni. He was one of the original Badass Motherfuckers from back in the pre-daycare days. Clint made a mental note to thank him.
"Are we going home?" she asked. Clint hugged her again.
"Soon," he said, holding on tight. "We'll go home soon."
"Isobel is exceptionally bright," the school principal said, when Clint brought Izzy in for some kind of pre-admission interview at the school Tony had found for her. "She's reading well above grade level. Very imaginative girl. Her math scores could use some work. You've been home-schooling her until now?"
"Math isn't my strongest subject," Clint said.
"She's very interested in biology. She likes to take things apart, too."
"She broke something, huh."
"Nothing we can't replace," the woman said with a smile. "And she broke it very...systematically. I understand her home life is a little unusual?"
Clint rubbed his face. "Look, I'm not that good with subtlety, either. Tony Stark bought her into this place, didn't he?"
"Yes," she said. "But I don't think she'll be a bad fit here. One tends to trust the evaluation of a man like Mr. Stark. Your relationship to him is...collegial?" she asked. "You are one of the, ah, Avengers."
"Dangerous work for a man with a small child."
"I've usually found it's worth it," he said. "She has a trust, if you're worried about tuition."
"No, your credit check was fine. I have to admit I can't understand why you do such a dangerous job when you don't seem to need to work at all..."
"I used to just...like the work," he said. "Now I find I have a vested interest in making sure the world stays in one piece. At least long enough for her to grow up."
"Quite in the spirit of the school," she said. "We value public service. Community engagement."
"And Tony says she'll be safe here."
"We have several students who, like Isobel, have parents in high-risk jobs. Ambassadors, judges, that kind of thing."
Clint snorted. "Guess my first PTA meeting's going to be interesting."
"Judging from Isobel, I think you'll find that you have a lot to offer as a parent, Mr. Barton," she said. "I did have one question about her documents, regarding security."
Clint knew that if Coulson had fixed her a birth certificate, it would be ironclad. "Oh?"
"Your paperwork lists an adoption."
"I understand her other father is a Mr....Philip Coulson?" she said, reading from a file. She looked up at him. He stared back in shock. "Don't misunderstand me, Isobel is not the only child here with two fathers or mothers, either. The school has no issue with same-sex parenting. Now we have several contacts listed in case of an emergency -- Ms. Natasha Romanoff, Mr. Jasper Sitwell, Mr. Stark of course, Captain Steven Rogers, Dr. Bruce Banner....but Mr. Coulson wasn't anywhere on the admissions paperwork."
God damn Phil Coulson. The asshole had adopted her. He knew why; just in case, in case Clint died or Izzy needed a second parent in an emergency. Just in fucking case. And he'd slid it right by Clint when he was still sleep-deprived from his kid keeping him up at all hours. He'd never bothered to look at her birth certificate.
"If he's going to be picking her up or dropping her off, or if you want him contacted in case of an emergency, he needs to sign a few forms -- "
"He's dead," Clint said. Perhaps a little more sharply than he intended. "Sorry. He, um, died during the Chitauri attack."
"I'm so sorry."
"Me too," Clint mumbled.
"Well," she said, looking faintly uncomfortable. "I think in that case, all your paperwork is complete. We have an orientation package here, list of school supplies, school calendar. She'll be placed in a mixed classroom, first and second grade. Do you have any questions or concerns for me?"
"No," Clint said, mostly eager to escape the pity in her eyes, pity he didn't even deserve. He hadn't been -- hadn't been like that with Coulson, whatever his daydreams might have been. "Thank you. I'm sure Izzy will love it here."
"We'll do our best."
Izzy was waiting for him in a playroom full of other kids, showing off her train engine to a little boy with both front teeth missing.
"Come on, Iz," he said, holding out his hand.
"I don't wanna go," she said.
"I know, you'll be back soon enough."
"But I want to staaaay."
"Isobel," Clint said. Izzy looked sulky, but took his hand and followed him down the hallway. Outside, in the middle of Manhattan, Clint picked her up.
"So you had fun?" he asked.
"Yes," she said sullenly.
"Good. Hey, guess what?"
"What?" she asked.
"I love you."
"Poppaaaa," she groaned theatrically.
Clint wanted to keep Isobel upstate until Loki was out of the city, but he knew he had to be there when Thor took him away. He had to see him gone or he wouldn't sleep at night. He didn't sleep much that night, anyway; he got an hour or two and then went to stand in the doorway of Izzy's bedroom, watching over her. He was a sniper. He knew how to watch.
Natasha came up to see them the day after the battle.
"We need to talk," she said. "Can someone take Isobel for an hour or two?"
"I'd rather not let her get too far away," Clint replied. "What about?"
"Where is she?"
"What's this about, Natasha?" Clint asked, putting a hand on her arm when she stood to look around. "Izzy's in her room."
Natasha looked at his hand on her arm, then sat down again. He let go.
"It's about Coulson," she said simply. "He died in the battle."
Clint felt his joints lock up, his hands get cold. Fight or flight instincts falling into place.
"Died?" he asked quietly.
"I'm sorry. I wanted to tell you earlier but I needed confirmation."
"Con...confirmation," Clint stuttered.
"He died in the attack on the Helicarrier."
Clint hoped Izzy's door was shut.
"Did I...?" he asked, searching Natasha's face. He didn't remember, but he'd wrought enough havoc --
"No," she said. "This was Loki. The attack, anything you did, it was Loki."
"But did I?" he insisted.
"Loki did it. Himself," she said. "Coulson bought us time."
"Time," Clint said disbelievingly.
"He went after Loki personally. He stalled him long enough for us to recover. Long enough for me to get you back, Clint," she said urgently.
"But he's dead."
"I don't...know what to say," he said, looking down. "Are you okay?"
"Are you?" she asked.
"No. But you're better at repressing," he said. It wasn't an insult; Natasha took pride in her ability to compartmentalize.
"True. There's a current...down deep," she said. "But I'm okay."
"So he was a hero."
"Well, he died one, but he lived one, so that's neither here nor there," she said.
"Can you, uh." He swallowed. "Sorry, Tash, can you go now?"
She stroked his hair. "Call if you need me. We're sending Loki away tomorrow. You should be there."
"I'm planning on it," Clint said distantly.
"Good. Bring Izzy home. Once he's gone, anyway."
"You got it," he said, and stayed still until she left. Then he got up and went to Izzy's room. The door was shut, and he could hear her reading aloud through the thin wood.
He knocked and then walked in -- knocking was good manners, even for Poppa. Izzy was sitting on a little chair with a few of her stuffed animals facing her.
"You want a story?" she asked, holding up the book by one edge.
"Yeah," he said, picking her up and sitting on her bed, pulling her into his lap. "But first I need to talk to you, okay?"
She twisted to look up at him. She was wearing a purple shirt Coulson had bought her. He still bought most of her clothes.
"You remember when we found that bird in the back yard?" he asked. "And we talked about how it was dead?"
"Remember I said people die too?" he asked. "But even if I died, I would always love you?"
"Are you gonna die?" she asked.
"No, Iz. But someone did, someone who also loved you."
Izzy looked confused.
"Phil died, Isobel," he said. He was desperately trying not to cry in front of her. "He was very brave, but he died."
Izzy buried her face in his shoulder. "But not forever, right?"
"That's what dying means," he said. "Forever."
"I don't really know," he said, blinking. A tear slipped out and he hastily wiped it away. "I don't know, Izzy, I'm sorry."
Izzy clung on to the front of his shirt, still and quiet in his arms. He held her there for a long time, wiping off tears whenever he thought she might not be looking.
The weekend after the interview at Izzy's new school, Clint took her to an open-air thrift market. In theory, of course, they had plenty of money, but Clint had set aside most of it for Izzy when she was old enough, and he wanted her to learn the value of a buck. They didn't live poor even before they moved to Stark Tower, but Clint's roots as a poor kid held strong.
Besides, it was fun poking through the junk, explaining the world to Izzy in a series of "Poppa, what's this?" and "What's that do?"
Halfway down the center aisle of the market, his phone buzzed; he pulled it out and saw a text from Natasha, which didn't mean a mission or an assemble call but definitely meant he should reply.
You need to come home right now.
What's wrong? he asked, texting with one hand as he picked up Izzy with the other.
Just come home. Fast as you can.
Clint hit the edge of the market and whistled sharply for a cab.
"Poppa?" Izzy asked uncertainly, as he managed to wave one down and climb in.
"It's okay, Izzy, Natasha wants us home," he said, sending back a reply. ETA 15mins. "Stark Tower," he told the driver. "Ten bucks says you can't do it in fifteen minutes."
The cabbie laughed. "You're on, buddy."
When they reached the tower, Clint handed the extra ten over on top of tip and fare, grabbed Izzy, and headed for the Avengers floor. He stepped out of the elevator into the living room, opened his mouth to demand to know what was going on, and almost dropped Izzy.
Sitting on the sofa, with Natasha next to him, was Phil Coulson.
"Phil!" Izzy yelled, and tried to squirm out of his arms. He tightened his grip. Phil Coulson was dead; this could be Loki playing mind games with him. He glanced at Natasha, who was unfolding from the sofa.
"I checked," she said, when she saw Clint's wild look. "I checked, it's him."
"Are you you?" he asked.
She smiled faintly. "Good point."
Izzy was still squirming in his arms; he kissed her head and whispered, "Be very still for me, okay? Button."
She went immediately still and silent, grabbing onto his shirt. Button was their code word; it meant Izzy should be quiet and obedient, and it was the one command she never, ever disobeyed because he used it so rarely. If a stranger bothered her, she knew to shout and run unless that stranger gave her the code word. Clint had taught his daughter many things, and the safety of her own life was the top of that list. Outside of the two of them, only Natasha knew the code word. Phil had, but Phil was dead --
"JARVIS?" Clint called.
"Agent Romanoff has had no unusual interactions since you left the tower," JARVIS said. "Biometric readings confirm that Agent Coulson appears, against all odds, to be alive and well."
"Odds," Clint muttered. "Where is everyone?"
"Sir is on the executive floor with Ms. Potts," JARVIS said. "Dr. Banner is not in the building. Captain Rogers is in the kitchen."
Clint saw Steve emerge, then, carrying a glass of water; Steve stopped a few feet into the living room and looked around warily.
"Steve?" Clint prompted.
"Let him explain," Steve said calmly, handing the water to Coulson -- or whatever was wearing his skin. Clint hadn't yet decided.
He trusted Natasha more than Steve -- but he also trusted the incorruptibility of Captain America. There was just something about him that you could read so easily, and which Clint had never seen anyone able to replicate. Natasha might not be herself, but you couldn't look at Steve and believe he was anyone other than Steve.
"I might have some mental issues I'm working through," Clint said slowly, turning to Coulson, "but I'm very positive I didn't hallucinate Natasha telling me you were dead."
He could feel Izzy's heartbeat against his ribcage, fragile and quick like a bird's.
"I was," Coulson said calmly. He was keeping still as well.
"He was on the Helicarrier," Natasha said. "I brought him here. I'm reasonably certain it's him."
"Zombie resurrection Coulson," Clint said, skating along the edges of what was probably a spectacular nervous breakdown.
"You remember when I said Fury had his fingers in some unusually weird pies?" Natasha asked. She gestured at Coulson. "Selvig and Foster found him. They brought him back last night."
"You weren't MIA," Clint said to Coulson.
"No. I was dead. Magic's a funny thing," Coulson replied. His tone was even. "Did they tell you what killed me?"
"With a spear. The spear."
Clint shuddered. He remembered the gentle tap of the spear against his chest, and how uncertainty and morality and Izzy all bled away into nothing at its contact.
"The physical properties of the spear are...unusual," Coulson said, choosing his words with care. "Dr. Selvig and Dr. Foster were able to reverse some of its effects. I can tell you the whole story, but it'll take some time."
Clint slowly eased Izzy to the floor. "Iz, stay here."
She stayed, staring at the odd tableau -- Steve to Clint's left, halfway between him and Natasha, Natasha standing in front of the sofa, Coulson still seated. Clint walked past Natasha, up to where Coulson sat. He rested his hands on the back of the sofa, on either side of Coulson's head so that his arms bracketed the seated man, and leaned in.
Coulson leaned back, tilting his head up to meet Clint's gaze. His eyes were clear, his stare steady and impassive. He looked gaunt, Clint noticed -- cheekbones too prominent, jaw too sharp. He was wearing a suit, but the collar was loose around his throat, even with a tie. His skin was pale.
"I wasn't conscious until yesterday," Coulson said. "If I had been alive, Clint, I would have come for you and Isobel."
Clint stared down at him, trying to decide if he could trust his own eyes, let alone anyone else's.
"Prove it," he said.
"When she was four she tripped and knocked out her left canine on the lower part of a metal rail," Coulson said. "Has it grown in yet?"
Clint leaned back, straightening.
"Izzy, c'mere," he said, holding out a hand. He heard her footsteps, then felt her hand in his.
"You said he was dead," she said, looking up at him.
"Yeah, I know."
"You said forever."
"Well, Phil has some tricks up his sleeve, I guess," Clint replied.
Isobel crawled up onto the sofa, knelt up, and put a hand on either side of Coulson's face. He swept his arm around -- Clint tensed for a second -- and pulled her into a tight hug.
"I'm sorry," Clint heard him say. Behind him, he heard a sniffle that was probably Steve. "I'm so sorry, Isobel, I know I missed your birthday."
"Poppa said -- "
Coulson hushed her, face buried in her hair. Clint noticed distractedly that it could probably use a washing.
He stood there, feeling suddenly awkward and uncertain, until Coulson let Isobel go.
"Did you bring me anything?" Izzy asked.
Natasha snorted. Clint covered his face with one hand.
"I'm afraid I didn't have the time," Coulson said. "Forgive me?"
Izzy nodded and flopped off his lap, down onto the sofa cushion next to him. "You want to watch cartoons?"
"Poppa and Phil need to have a talk," Clint said. "Cartoons a little later, okay Iz? Steve, will you..."
"Sure," Steve said, wiping suspiciously damp cheeks as he passed. "Come on, Izzy, let's go draw."
"With markers?" she asked. Clint caught Steve's wince out of the corner of his eye. Playing with his art markers was a special treat, because she tended to ruin them.
"Sure, with markers," he said, and cast Clint a significant look over his shoulder as he led her away. Natasha disappeared into the kitchen, only the rattle of cups and the sound of a tea kettle being put on the stove to indicate where she'd gone.
Coulson slowly, and with obvious difficulty, stood up. Clint didn't back away, which put them fairly close.
"I should punch you in the face," Clint said.
"Might make you feel better," Coulson agreed.
"You went after Loki alone."
"I had a big gun."
"You son of a bitch," Clint muttered, and took a half-step forward, wrapping his arms around Coulson's shoulders. He half expected that he'd pass right through him. "You son of a bitch, Izzy loved you and you left us -- "
"I know. I'm sorry."
Coulson was solid and warm, if not quite as steady as he usually was. He had one hand tangled in the back of Clint's shirt.
"I told her you were dead, she's gonna be all fucked up now," Clint said, and he could feel the twitch of Coulson's shoulders as he suppressed a laugh. He let go, stepping back to get another good look at him. "You look like death warmed over."
"Apparently the afterlife takes its toll." Coulson looked at him, and there was relief etched in his face, which confused Clint for a second. "The first thing Natasha told me when she found me on the Helicarrier was that they got you back."
Clint reeled a little, mentally, but it made sense -- the last Coulson had known, Clint was gone over to Loki, given up to him, probably irretrievable.
"She hit me really hard in the head," he said.
"That must have been very satisfying for her," Coulson said gravely.
Clint and Izzy celebrated her sixth birthday a few weeks after the battle, when the city was still reeling but already starting to rebuild. It seemed like there was a shortage of everything in New York, but Clint managed to scrounge a bag of paper engineer hats and a cake decorated like a train, and they had a train-themed party. He'd had the train set tucked away in the closet for her for months. She invited some friends from their apartment building -- not the biter down the hall -- and Sergeant Bob came over with a couple of his younger ones. They grilled hot dogs in the tiny yard of the apartment building and the kids rough-housed in the grass.
"Brought you some stuff," Bob said, handing him a bag as Clint tended the grill. "Birthday presents for Izzy from her admirers at SHIELD."
Clint looked at it, surprised. "That was....thoughtful, all things considered."
"You should come back to the Helicarrier when you can."
"I figured I wasn't the face people wanted to see right now," he said.
"Nobody thinks you were aware of your actions. For a start, nobody there thinks you'd just up sticks and abandon your kid."
"I killed people."
"Loki killed people. And their mamas might hate you for that, but none of us do. We know the risks of the job," Bob replied. "Besides, we've all seen the combat footage. You blew that motherfucker off his air bike, or whatever it was. That's redemption."
"It was a pretty good shot," Clint admitted.
"Folks want you to know we're sorry for your loss," Bob said. "Coulson was a hell of an agent. Hard to lose a handler, especially like that. How's Iz with it? She knew him, right?"
"Still torn up sometimes. It's getting better."
Bob clapped him on the shoulder. "Kids are durable. I'm going to go make sure they're not murdering each other."
"Oh, round 'em up, the hot dogs are done."
Bob saluted and went to gather up the kids. Clint poked curiously in the bag; there were several wrapped packages, and one smaller bag which, when he peered inside, turned out to hold an action figure in cardboard-and-plastic wrapping.
AVENGERS ACTION FIGURES SERIES #1, the top of the cardboard backing said. THE AMAZING HAWKEYE!
They hadn't done too badly. He was pretty sure his hips weren't shaped like that, but you couldn't ask for too much accuracy in an action figure. The back of the cardboard had images of all the other action figures and a discreet Stark Industries logo; he might have known. His figure came with a sturdy-looking bow, a quiver with arrows molded into it, and a collector's card.
There was a post-it stuck in the bag, with a short message in neat script: Don't let her choke on the small parts. -- NF
Clint became aware, over the course of the afternoon, that he was perhaps a paranoid asshole.
When Tony arrived and saw Coulson, he jabbed a finger at him and asked, "Magic?"
"Indeed," Coulson replied.
"Go fuck yourself," Tony told him, and punched him in the shoulder as he walked into the kitchen. "What's for dinner?"
Bruce just gaped for a while, then rubbed his forehead and said, "Well, welcome back."
Clint clung resolutely to his freakout. It was all he had left, emotionally speaking.
Izzy insisted on sitting next to Coulson at dinner, close enough that she occasionally got gravy on his sleeve. He ignored it -- he always ignored Izzy's casual approach to cutlery -- and spent a good deal of dinner speaking quietly with her. Clint assumed he was trying to explain the whole "back from the dead" thing. Which was good, because Clint had barely managed to get through explaining "dead" to her in the first place.
By the end of dinner, Coulson looked exhausted, and the others subtly made themselves scarce with the dishes, Tony carrying away Izzy to entertain her with something explosive in his workshop. Which left Clint to show Coulson to the guest quarters below the main Avengers level.
"You need help?" he asked hesitantly, as Coulson eased down into a chair.
"I'll be fine," he said. "The, ah, best experts in the field of magic -- this is so ridiculous -- say that it'll pass."
"Best experts, huh?"
"Very peculiar people. I'm not eager to experience that again."
"Me either," Clint said, before he thought about it. He found himself pacing, and forced himself to stand still.
"Sit down," Coulson said gently. "We need to discuss this."
"I don't need details -- "
"Clint." Coulson gestured to the chair facing his. "Sit."
Coulson regarded him carefully, across the narrow space that separated them.
"Before Izzy came," Coulson said, clearly choosing his words, "You...you were -- "
"Thoughtless sometimes," Coulson corrected, with a faint, stern look. "You were a good operative but you took risks you didn't need to. You made some epic messes. And some poor choices."
"When you came back to work after Isobel was born, it was different. Not all at once, but I could...I could see it happen."
"I grew up," Clint said. "You said I needed someone."
"What's this about, Coulson?"
"It made me think there was probably some room for improvement on my side, too," Coulson said. "I never thought about having children. I never thought that permanence was an option. My job was safer than yours, by a long mile, but I still lived like I was twenty-five and running around in the Rangers, getting shot at. Isobel didn't change just your life."
"She loved you like a father," Clint said.
"Which I don't think I entirely earned," Coulson said. He looked over at Clint, locking onto his gaze. "Not at first."
"You helped us. You saved my ass, those first few months."
"Why do you think I always bought her clothes?"
Clint shrugged. "Because I would have swung between overalls and fancy dresses made entirely out of lace? Plus don't think I didn't notice you sewed GPS chips into all of her clothes."
"I did it because it meant I saw more of her. And of you."
Clint went still. "Me."
"I liked you when you were an irresponsible mess-maker, Clint. When you started to change..." Coulson spread his hands. "I started to see a future. If not for myself, at least for a legacy in Isobel. And I started to think if I could be...on the edge of a family, your family, that would at least be -- "
He stopped, because Clint had leaned across the space between them and kissed him.
"I." Clint stuttered, jerking back. "Sorry, I -- "
"Don't be," Phil said. "Don't be sorry. You saved me an embarrassing confession."
Clint leaned his head against Phil's forehead, trying to control his breathing.
"I would have been there every day," Phil said quietly. "But I didn't want you to think I was...invading, trespassing, I don't know."
"You adopted her to protect her. You bought her clothes. You cooked her broccoli," Clint said, stumbling over the words. "I still don't know how you set up the diaper service, that was probably the nicest thing anyone has done for me in a long time. You picked pepperoni off my kid's pizza. You were never at the edge. You were never."
Phil smiled and leaned in again, kissing Clint this time, gently.
"The last thing I thought of before I died was you and Isobel," he said. "Not the mission or the fight or SHIELD. I thought, I hope he gets back to her."
"Come back upstairs," Clint said. "Stay with us tonight."
"Clint, I'm not in any condition to -- "
"No, just -- you can have the bed, I'll sleep on the couch. I don't want you so far from my daughter," Clint said.
Phil gave him a skeptical look. "Your daughter, huh?"
Clint smiled, filling with warmth. "I will carry you up if I have to, boss."
"Try it and I'll take your arm off."
Clint stood up and slid an arm around his waist, helping him up regardless. "Good luck with that."
Phil grumbled his way to the elevator, and down the hall to Clint's apartment. When Clint opened the door, he found Izzy in her pajamas in the living room, lying on her stomach with Tony next to her, surrounded by train tracks.
"Something wrong?" Tony asked, hastily getting to his feet.
"No, everything's fine," Clint said, and ignored Tony's obvious desire for him to elaborate further. "Thanks for covering my floor in trains right before bedtime."
"I live to serve," Tony said with a bow, and swept out, dignity still mainly intact. Izzy got up and came forward to latch onto Clint's leg. He dragged her along to the bedroom, where he deposited Phil on the edge of the bed and detached his daughter.
"Phil's gonna stay here with us tonight, okay?" he said. Izzy beamed. "But he's really tired, so he's going to sleep and we have to be quiet."
Izzy looked at Phil. "You want a story?" she asked.
"Baby, Phil's -- "
"I'd love a story," he said, petting her hair. "Go get your favorite while I get into bed, okay?"
Izzy squeaked and bolted.
"You spoil her," Clint said, as Phil undid his tie and pulled his shirt off. There was a thick white scar on his back. "Jesus Christ."
"Souvenir," Phil said, unconcerned. "Do you have some..." he gestured at his pants.
"Oh sure -- here," Clint replied, digging in his dresser and tossing a pair of purple sleep-pants and a t-shirt over to him.
"Flattering," Phil drawled as he pulled them on. Clint rested a hand on the back of his neck and kissed him again.
"You look good in anything," he said.
"You say that now," Phil replied, stepping away to pull the shirt over his head.
"If I didn't have a six-year-old I'm trying not to traumatize, I'd prove it."
To make his point, Izzy came running back into the room. She had a doll half as big as herself under one arm and a book in her hand.
Natasha had given her the doll for her birthday, though they all politely pretended that it had just appeared in their apartment. Izzy loved it and all its books and the entire box of clothing and accessories that had also "just appeared".
"Oh good," he said, as Izzy clambered onto the bed and arranged the doll against a pillow. "You get to Meet Rebecca."
"I get to what?" Phil asked, sliding under the blankets. Izzy curled up against his side. She waved the book at him.
"It's a doll thing, I don't really get it," Clint said. Izzy cleared her throat pointedly, something she had picked up from Bruce.
"Come to the living room when your book is done," Clint said.
"Don't worry about falling asleep, she doesn't need an audience to ham it up," he added to Phil.
"Okay Poppa, go away now," Izzy commanded. Clint gave her an eyebrow. "Go away now please."
Clint rolled his eyes at her, but he left as she dramatically cleared her throat again and began reading.
In the living room, he picked up the train set -- he'd have to have a word with Tony about making messes before bedtime. By the time he was done with that, and with checking the doors and turning out the lights, he realized he couldn't hear Izzy's voice.
When he peered into his bedroom, Phil was asleep, and Izzy was sacked out with her head on his shoulder, the well-thumbed book discarded on the bed. He gathered her up and carried her to her bedroom, tucking her in with a kiss on her forehead.
"You are the best thing that ever happened to me," he said softly, and shut the door carefully behind him.
He stopped in the doorway of his bedroom, turning the lights out; in the bed Phil was not much more than a shadow, and he was suddenly gripped with an irrational fear that he would disappear in the night. That this would be some kind of terrible dream, or hallucination. Or that whatever magic had brought him back wouldn't hold, and he would dissolve into the darkness.
He glanced at the couch, then back at the bed; slowly, he crept around to the empty side of it, and lay down on top of the covers on his side. He reached out a hand, resting it on Phil's chest, feeling the slow rise and fall of it.
He fell asleep that way, one hand on Phil, and woke the next morning to find he was still there. And the book about the doll was digging into Clint's ribs where he hadn't bothered to pick it up.
"POPPAAAAAA," Izzy yelled from the living room, and Clint started upright. Phil grunted and his eyes opened. "CAN I HAVE KIX? IS PHIL HERE? CAN WE WATCH CARTOONS NOW?"
Clint glanced at Phil.
"Cartoons," Phil rasped. "What ungodly hour is it?"
"Just past six. You should be happy, she slept in," Clint said, climbing off the bed. Phil pushed himself up under his own power, rubbing his face. Izzy appeared in the doorway with her doll.
"Cartoons!" she ordered imperiously. "Cereal! Please!"
Phil shot Clint a dry look.
"Hey, you asked for it," Clint said, and went to fix his daughter breakfast.