December 1, 2016
Clint leaned far back on the wicker love seat and slung his arm around his wife. His wife. Laura took a sip from her mug and tipped her head to rest against his chest. He didn’t bother trying to hide the deep sniff he took of her hair. God, he had missed her.
It was cold in Ottawa, and a light snow was falling, but the massive fire pit on the back deck of their safe house, hot toddies (plain cider for him since he was on sentry duty), and a lap quilt, combined to make it almost cozy outside. The kids were playing in the snow. Or rather, Lila and Cooper were building North America’s most massive snow fort and Wanda was entertaining Nathaniel with fat balls of snow that danced around his head and collapsed whenever he managed to get a hand on one.
“I am never leaving retirement again,” he announced decisively.
“Nat said Darcy is going to be meeting Steve at the White House.” Laura took another sip of her drink.
“Okay. Maybe, like, semi-retirement. Quasi-retirement. Is there a version where I get to watch Steve make an ass of himself and enjoy Stark’s fine taste in real estate but no one shoots at me?”
“I think that’s just being friends, Clint.”
“Hm. Friends. I suppose I could try that. Sounds nifty. Can we invite Tony and Pepper to a potluck? Does Tony know what a hot dish is? Would he just bring a very confused model? Oh, man,” Clint started to get excited about the idea, hugging his wife closer. “And Barnes. Fuck, er, I mean, fudge. Can you imagine what he’d bring? I got to tell you, Laur, that guy can’t make a tv dinner without effing it up. Once, in Senegal, I saw him burn baked yams. How is that even possible? They were wrapped in foil. There was no actual flame involved. It’s a scientific mystery.”
“I think they used to boil more food. When he was growing up.”
“Nuh-uh. No excuses. Steve is from the forties too, and he makes mac and cheese that is better than yours.” Laura elbowed him in the stomach. Clint grinned. “Ooof. No, I’m only telling the truth here. You need to get his recipe.”
“Maybe you should get his recipe. If you’re going to be semi-quasi-retired-friend-person. You can start doing the cooking. I have a job.”
“Okay. But only if there is fire. You know how I love grilling. It makes me feel so manly.”
“Yeah,” Laura continued as if she hadn’t heard him. Clint’s smile was so wide his face hurt, and he didn’t even care. “I like where this is going. I’ll expect you at the door each morning with a thermos of coffee for me and a packed lunch. And when I get home at night, you’ll have the kids doing homework and Nathaniel clean and changed.” She closed her eyes. “Ah, I can picture it now. Me, riding the elevator up after a long day at the lab. You, in your frilly apron-”
“Does it have to have frills?”
“-with a cocktail in hand-”
“Does it have to have a tail?”
“-and dinner in the oven. I think I can get behind this semi-quasi-thing.”
“Me too.” They were both silent for a long time, enjoying the last of the daylight until Wanda took Nathaniel inside and the kids started to pack up their fort -making tools. It was mostly kitchen utensils and a camp trowel that Barnes had produced from god knows where.
Clint took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Rip off the band-aid already,” Laura said quietly.
He winced. “You know me too well. Eighteen years of marriage-”
“Fifteen years of marriage and I have no secrets from you. The mystery is gone.”
“I think we should move to the country.” He didn’t exactly hold his breath. He was a trained spy; he continued to breathe easily and to take measured sips of his cider, while still watching the kids and scanning the perimeter. Still, he could feel her eyes boring into the side of his face.
Laura sat up slowly and pivoted to look fully at him. “I work for Stark Industries now. I like my work.” She didn’t sound upset, but Laura never sounded upset. She was calm and cool and steady – right up until she beaned someone with a cast iron pan and then hit them with shotgun spray. “I have my own lab. My own lab assistant. One of the interns on the floor fetches me coffee, Clint. I have a coffee fetcher.”
“Yes. I get that and it’s great so I was thinking-”
“I get to see people, Clint. Real adults that I can have conversations with which are not about the latest book at the library or the exorbitant price of milk. The kids are safe and I still get to talk to people. I forgot how much I missed that.”
“Hear me out-”
“You hear me out, Clinton Barton.”
And, there’s the shotgun coming out. She continued,
“I have spent the last decade and a half of my life-”
“My life,” she stressed, “staying at home and raising the kids and doing what it took to keep our family safe so you could do what you do. And I was fine with that. But now it is my turn. Now I get to do what I need to do while you are the rock for this family. Do we understand each other?”
“Crystal clear, honey.” She narrowed her eyes at him, as if expecting an argument, then flopped back against his chest. There was a lot more elbow jabs and shoulder nudges in the movement than he felt was really necessary. The kids trooped by, giving him tired high-fives, and he waited a few minutes after the door closed behind them before he opened his mouth again.
“Which is why I though that you might like a new and improved lab at Stark’s upstate facility where you could expand your experiments to include use of his new High-Throughput Plant Phenotyping System.”
She was quiet again for a long moment, and Clint braced himself. “Tony purchased a LemnaTec?”
“That’s what Nat said. He was going to put it in California – I guess some big wig out there wanted-”
“Dr. Liebwoetz,” Laura snarled.
“Sounds about right. But Nat thought you might get more use out of it if it were in-state, instead of you having to ship experiments out there and schedule computer time.”
Clint saw his opportunity. “And there’s a public school in the town just off base. Small, but the whole town was already been through a low-level security screening when the base was built. And Stark pretty much funds their pool, library, and school science program, so it wouldn’t be a problem to do more through background checks.” And place one or two people inside, he added silently. “The kids would get to go outside a lot more, have a lot more freedom. And I could keep my hand in with training, even while Nathaniel is little. And then once he starts school I could work at the base more, maybe.”
“And my coffee-fetcher?”
“There are already a couple of SI labs out there. If they don’t have an assistant or lab manager, I’m sure they need one.”
“I am not living in some sort of dormitory, Clint,” she warned.
“No, of course not.” He mentally crossed his fingers and did his best to keep his face innocent and sincere. “We’ll find a nice house – or we could always build one.” There was a long, telling silence.
“You already bought something. Didn’t you?”
“More of a purchase option. But it’s great, got great bones, Laur.”
She sighed. “You’re lucky I love you.”
“Don’t I know it.”