Stage Left: Jumping Fences, Dodging Trees
October 17, 2016
Clint shifted in his seat on an old mattress as the video call continued to ring. He was a few minutes early, but everything was quiet in the temporary base and Barnes was out checking the perimeter with Steve. He grinned at the thought. Barnes didn’t talk much, even when it was just the team, but the choppy one-liners and knowing looks had been irritating Steve in a way that Tony Stark would have marveled at. With his arm back and no more doctors or scientists poking at him, the assassin had stepped up his game, sliding through sly comments about Steve’s fashion sense, his endurance, and his way with the ladies. Steve was still riding the high of having his best friend back again, but Clint and Sam were taking bets on how much longer he would be able to grit his teeth and bite his tongue. Clint was figuring it would end in matching black eyes and a welcome respite from the eggshells around the former Winter Soldier. Sam was hoping Barnes would have a broken jaw for at least a day or two.
The ringing ended and Clint’s smile widened when he saw Lila sitting on the couch in their apartment. “Hey, jellybean, I missed you.”
“Dad! Dad! Dad, we had a science fair and you have to tell Mom to let me use one of the labs. Mr. Stark gave Coop a repulsor to help with his project, and it is totally not fair that I had to use only stuff normal kids can get. You have to tell her Dad.”
“Baby, you know I am not going to do that.” He should have been more stern with her, but he couldn’t help the smile that seemed to be irrevocably splitting his face. He worried sometimes, all the time, that his kids would grow up without him. And they were growing. He couldn’t ignore the bra strap peaking out of Lila’s oversized t-shirt or the acne dotting her chin. They still needed him, though. If for nothing else than to complain about each other.
“I know. But Dad, he is being such a butthole about-”
“-a jerk about it,” she quickly amended. “And even if his project looked cool, mine is way more practical. So I should have won.”
“Who did win?” Clint already knew the answer, but he could see Sam in his peripheral vision, working on lunch out in the kitchen, perking up with interest over the idea of a competition.
“Nobody.” Lila sulked back into the couch cushions. The level of pout combined with pre-teen disgust was palatable even across thousands of miles. “As usual. Mom gave us both A’s for our grade levels. But we presented them in the breakroom, and the SI staff had way more questions for him. They totally liked his better.”
“Totally, huh?” Clint raised an eyebrow. Laura had sent him an email about the projects. She sent an update on the kids almost every day, even if it was just a few lines. “And you didn’t have anybody, anybody at all, take an interest in your research?”
“Just Dr. K, and he is so completely old and boring. He doesn’t even have any sweet stuff in his lab, he just works on computer models.”
“Well, you know your old man, jellybean. I don’t know much about science,” he began. Lila scoffed. “But I know that Dr. Foster used some of his research to modify her machines, so I suppose even computer models of alternative energy sources might be really helpful to a lot of people.”
“Jane Foster? Really?” Lila, as seemed to have become usual in the last year, looked like she was trying to repress her excitement with skepticism. Excitement was, apparently, not cool.
“That is Doctor Foster to you, young lady. And yes.” Lila stayed on the line for a few more minutes, primarily telling him all about the gossip of SI employees and her own burning need for new soldering equipment. Then Cooper jumped over the back of the couch, irritating his sister and launching into an impassioned description of his science project, a new gymnastics move he had been working on, and the unfairness of spelling tests.
“Coop, that is pretty awesome. How’s the burn though? It doesn’t look too bad.”
“Nah, Dr. Helen stopped by and said it wouldn’t even leave a scar.” He held up his bandaged hand. “Which totally sucks, because you always get cool scars and I really-”
“Cooper Ryan Barton,” Clint felt his whole body relax as Laura’s voice came over the call. No matter how bad things had ever gotten for him, Laura was always home. Just hearing her, even reprimanding one of the kids, made him wish he was there. “Injuries are not badges of honor, which I am certain your father would agree with if he was here.”
Clint couldn’t see her yet, but he had been married long enough to know the correct response, “Your mother is right. Better go get your homework done, you too Lila. I love you.” Both kids called out responses, Lila even made a kissy face at the camera before they wandered off into the apartment.
Steve and Barnes were coming up the stairs into the tiny two-bedroom hovel the fugitives were camped out in, so Clint carefully shut the door to the room he had to himself. It wouldn’t keep the super soldiers from unintentionally eavesdropping, but they would do their best to tune him out.
Laura looked beautiful. It took his breath away, and Clint had to concentrate on exhaling carefully to keep himself under control. He had never been away so long before, and while he still thought he had made the right call to back up Steve, it took everything he had not to give in to the longing for his wife. Her hair was down. He liked it best that way, even if she complained that the baby tended to pull on it. The sun was steaming though the windows in New York, and it picked out all the little shades of blonde and gold and burnished copper. She was paler now, the Tower didn’t offer as much opportunity for time in the sun as the farm had, but she had lost all of the baby weight. Not that Clint minded when Laura was a little softer, but in the two weeks since his last call it was clear she had been keeping up with her workout routine. She liked how her ass looked in a smaller size of jeans. Clint liked that she could run holding a toddler and a shotgun if necessary.
“I have already talked to Tony about the repulsor. It was definitely not cool and Coop is not allowed to use unauthorized components for projects from now on.”
“I miss you.” Privately, Clint didn’t think the burn had looked that bad, and Coop was far more excited in science than he had ever been before – which had to be a good thing. But Laura was the primary parent whenever he was in the field, so her word was law. And he really didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Not when he could spend his time admiring Laura instead.
She let out a shaky sigh. “I miss you too. I know you and Nat don’t have a new safe house ready yet, but,” she smiled, and it was watery. Laura was a strong woman, it was part of why he had fallen in love with her, but that only made her tears more crushing. “Any chance for a conjugal visit?”
“Oh god,” he laughed. “I wish, but I think that’s only for federal prisoners. Not fugitives.” He found himself actually thinking about the logistics of it – which was foolish and too risky. But he missed his wife. She was shifting on the couch, her left hand coming up to graze against the side of her neck. He loved that spot on her neck. She loved that he loved that spot. Clint groaned under his breath.
“How is Nat?” Laura, thankfully, was sympathetic to his predicament. While she could spend the night alone in her bed, thinking of Clint, he was stuck with paper thin walls and three other men who had gone longer than him without company.
“You’d know better than me,” he smiled again. “I only saw her for a couple of hours over tacos before she took off with Wanda. I think she spends more time at the Tower than hanging out with us.”
“Well, we have better laundry service.” Laura laughed. Clint watched the column of her throat move. “And her godchildren. I think Nathaniel is going to speak Russian before English. I’ll be glad when she’s back. It wouldn’t be so awful if Ms. Potts were living here, but without her or Nat to keep him in line, Tony is driving everyone up the wall. Even Colonel Rhodes stopped in to have dinner with us the other night, avoiding our favorite billionaire.”
“Still trying to interfere with your experiments?”
“I shipped out new treatments for contaminated soil samples last week – of course, the soil in Bangui wouldn’t be contaminated if the UN Committee had just approved the request for Avengers assistance, but-” Laura stopped herself, and Clint nodded. They both tried not to talk about the Accords. It wasn’t something either of them could change; they could only make the best of things and hope that the people with more power figured out it had been a mistake. With an effort to change the topic, Laura rolled her eyes. “And what does he know about drought-resistant soybeans, I ask you? Nothing. He’s an engineer for crying out loud!” They both laughed, and Laura continued, “But Sweetie, honestly, do you have any ideas for how I can get SI headquarters relocated back to New York? I think he really…he needs her here.”
“That’s more Nat’s wheelhouse than mine, I’m afraid. But try not to be too hard on him. That’s how Tony makes friends.”
“By buying unnecessarily expensive, unasked for gifts and insulting people?”
“Yeah, pretty much. He doesn’t have the emotional maturity you are used to in a man.”
“Do you mean that of a five-year old, or were you talking about Coop?” Her grin was infectious.
“Ha-ha, very funny, Laura.”
“I know. I’m thinking of leaving agronomy to really give my stand-up career the attention it deserves. How are things there, really?” Her voice remained light, but he could see the worry in her eyes. “Is Barnes doing okay? Steve? Did Sam managed to get a hold of his mom for her birthday?”
“Sam’s good. His mom demanded to talk to each of us – made us promise to look out for him. He was so embarrassed – it was great. Barnes is…” Clint was extremely aware that the man in question could hear him, even over the music someone had turned on in the kitchen. “He’s doing a hell of a lot better than I would be.” Clint had to swallow, and he watched Laura do the same. There, but for the grace…he thought. “And Steve,” he laughed. He had almost forgotten the best gossip. Laura would love it. “Steve tried to pick up a girl – at the scene of a fire. Oh, god, Laur, you should have seen it. I mean, I was just listening, but it had to have been amazingly awful. She flirted, actually flirted, and he-” Clint laughed again, “Nat said she was pretty, too. You’ll have to have her tell you about it – I won’t do the story justice. I would pay good money to get them together. The entertainment value alone would be more than worth the property damage they could probably cause together.”
Clint and Natasha had already figured out who she was. Nat knew her first name, description, and the telling information of a license plate to one of Tony’s cars. Clint remembered her file from Thor’s landing and the security updates SHIELD had prepared on each of the Avengers. Between the two of them, they had Darcy Lewis’s occupation, parents’ names, favorite food, and current home address within an hour. They had agreed not to tell Steve yet – Nat had promised Clint the wait would be worth it. And if Clint had learned anything since he had married the smartest woman he had ever met and saved the world’s deadliest, it was to trust their sense of timing. And pretty much everything else about them.
He spent another twenty minutes with Laura. He even caught a little bit of time with his youngest child after Nathaniel woke up from his nap and before she had to take him to daycare and get back to work. He was getting so big. He was walking already and had a third tooth working its way out. When the call disconnected, Clint was left feeling both immeasurably better, and inexplicably worse. It was always like that. He loved to see them, but seeing them made it that much harder to be away.
When he reopened the bedroom door it was to the smell of carne asada and a stack of corn tortillas that Steve and Barnes were quickly demolishing.
“Better get out here, man, before they lick the plates clean,” Sam advised.
Steve smiled and swallowed politely before speaking. “I hope you gave Laura our best.”
Barnes wasn’t willing to let that misdirection go, “She got any sisters? I think Stevie could use the help.”
Things devolved from there into name-calling, good natured insults, and delicious lunch. It wasn’t ideal, but if Clint couldn’t be home, it was a pretty decent substitute.