I'll Fly Away
Chapter Twelve: I Am Bound for the Promised Land
[Author's Note: some of the events in this story are described from a different point of view in "Resilience I: A Door That Locks Behind You".]
When I got a text from Clint that said I need a favor, I answered You got it without asking any questions.
Amazingly, it was a totally routine request: fly two passengers from Fairbanks to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back. Well, not totally routine; he did ask if he could pilot the plane. But since I know he can fly pretty much anything with wings, that wasn't really an issue. I cleared my schedule as fast as I could and met him and his fellow-passenger at the Fairbanks airport.
"Jeannine, this is Natasha. Natasha, Jeannine."
Clint hadn't been kidding about the gorgeous women. This one nearly knocked me over. Red hair, flawless skin, intense blue eyes; a lithe, muscular body; delicate, graceful hands; packing at least one pistol and probably a knife—Jesus God. That Natasha? Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, the deadliest assassin in Russia's arsenal—
—and the unnamed SHIELD agent who had brought her in and turned her would be my boy Clint Barton. God in heaven.
And this was the woman I'd dropped, along with Clint himself, and left them to find their own way out of a live-fire zone.
"Oh Lord," I said, and it was genuinely a prayer. "Listen, about Budapest—"
She gave me a penetrating once-over. Probably reading my entire life history, blood type, pulse rate and taste in women.
"Don't worry about it," she said. "I don't need to know."
"Okay, but this flight's on the house," I said. "And the one after that. And if you need anything else, just ask." I was babbling, but at least she didn't look like she was planning to kill me immediately. She could have; they certainly didn't need me now that they had my plane. Christ, whatever magic Clint had, I was grateful for it. I focused on my preflight check and tried to keep from shaking to pieces.
Over the next few hours, as we left Fairbanks behind and headed out to ANWR, I calmed down and started paying attention. The weather was beautiful and Clint was handling the plane well, so I was able to spare some attention for him. Natasha was behind me (Jesus God), but I could see Clint without being too obvious about scoping him out.
He looked terrible. Almost as bad as he had after Rachel's death. He had that same shut-down look I'd gotten to know so well. He had several fading bruises on his face and hands, and what looked like a bite mark on his forearm. Normally at the controls of a plane he was relaxed, even contented. Not today.
I ran my first encounter with Natasha back in my head. I'm not much for looks myself—"retired roller derby" would be about right, though I don't have any tats—but I have had the experience of approaching a straight couple and having the woman give me that dog-guarding-her-bone look. "Back off, bitch, he's mine." Familiar territory.
Natasha had been more like Secret-Service-guarding-the-President. "Bitch, any bullet you have for him's going to have to go through me, and you better be sure the first one drops me." Entirely new ground.
Well, whatever had happened to him recently, it looked like he was in good hands. Just as well, because anything that could chew Clint Barton up and spit him out was way out of my league.
We flew on in silence for a good long while.
"Sometime in the next hour," I said at last. "So I'll have enough fuel to get home."
"Okay," Clint answered. "Where's a good place to set down?"
"Turn ten degrees east," I said. "You'll see a stream in about four or five minutes. There's a pretty level area on the other side."
"Roger that," he said. "Can you pick us up in five days?"
"Sure. How about ten a.m. on Saturday?"
He glanced back at Natasha. She apparently approved.
"That'll be fine," he said. He flew on for a while, then apparently saw the stream well before I did, as he began a slow descent. He circled once to get the lay of the land, then brought us down with one small bounce.
"Need more practice, Robin Hood," I said in mock disapproval.
He actually smiled a little. "Yeah. More props, fewer jets."
"More flying, less shooting," I suggested.
"And less being shot at. Thanks, Jeannine."
"Any time." I turned to Natasha. I was about to do a supremely stupid thing. It had taken me most of the flight here to get up the nerve. I met her eyes. "Nice meeting you. Maybe another time we can compare notes. Inside and outside perspectives on SHIELD, sort of."
She picked up on that immediately. I saw the spark of interest; I knew she'd meant for me to see it. "I'll look forward to it," she said.
I helped them unload, then I waved goodbye and got the hell out of Dodge. My shoulder blades itched for a good half-hour after takeoff. I was nearly back across the border of the Refuge before my heartbeat settled back to normal and my palms quit sweating.
I spent the next five days shuttling the usual hunters, fishermen and hikers back and forth between Fairbanks and the bush. I missed Tricia. She was visiting her family in New Haven. I imagined her reaction when I told her who I'd been ferrying around. Then I imagined keeping it a secret from her. Then I decided I'd be an idiot to try. Finally Saturday rolled around and I went to collect my very interesting passengers.
Their camp was right where I expected it to be. I circled, gave a wing-tilt, and set down. They hefted their first load and met me as soon as I stopped rolling.
"Good trip?" I asked. Clint nodded. He looked more or less human, now. The bruises had faded and he'd relaxed out of the braced-for-the-next-hit posture he'd had before.
"Headed back to Fairbanks?" I asked. He didn't answer, but glanced at Natasha.
"For the night," she said. "Then I need to have a talk with a guy in New York."
I took the copilot's seat again. This trip, Clint was just as silent, but more present. When Natasha got a text, he alerted immediately; but apparently it was nothing critical.
When I shook hands with Natasha, she passed me a little slip of paper. I glanced at it after they'd left. It said arachnid at starkindustries dot com.
That night I emailed her.
Would it be possible to meet face-to-face? I'll be passing thru Logan week after next.
She replied within a few minutes.
Sure. I'll buy you a drink. You pick the bar, day, and time.
I made sure my will was up to date, just in case, before I flew out to Boston.
This had to be the strangest girl-talk session of my misspent life. We met, she ordered, we sat down. We exchanged pleasantries about the weather and our respective trips to get here.
She looked so normal. I couldn't reconcile the pretty, petite woman across from me with the killing machine I'd seen on the TV replays. I'd been deep in the bush during the attack on Manhattan, and for days afterwards I'd only had radio and email to connect me to the outside. But eventually I'd caught up with the rest of the world. Those images were vivid enough to stick even in my fragile memory: Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America—and Clint and Natasha. Fighting off aliens. It was hard to adjust to.
Not surprisingly, she quickly cut to the chase. "You have something you need to tell me," she said.
I nodded and took a steadying breath.
"How much do you know about Clint's past?" I asked her. "His childhood?"
She shrugged. "Just what's in his file. Orphaned early, abusive foster home, ran away with his brother to join the circus..."
I was so caught off-guard I burst out laughing. "The circus? Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle. And to think how hard we tried to get him into a pair of tights when he was eleven." I looked her in the eye. "One hundred percent of that is bullshit. Clint's an only child. His dad died when he was five; he was hit by police fire during a shootout after a bank robbery. Clint's mom was raped and murdered when he was fifteen. Clint found the body. To be precise, she wasn't quite dead when he found her."
"And you know this how?" she asked.
"I was there. I was the one he called to pick him up from the hospital after Rachel was killed. And later, I saw her body in the morgue. And I handed him off to his uncle, who took care of him till he went to train for the Olympics."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"The man who raped and murdered Rachel is still alive. His name is Marshall Gilbert. Back in '92, after whatever happened in Barcelona, Clint disappeared for almost three years. The next time he surfaced, he tried to get himself imprisoned so he could kill Gilbert. Someone in SHIELD smelled a rat; they disappeared him and recruited him; sounds like they also rewrote his history. I imagine you know a lot better than me what he's been up to since then."
"Just before I flew the two of you to ANWR, there was an escape attempt from the state prison in Reidsville. Gilbert was involved. He didn't get out, but it was close, and he obviously had help from outside. I know Clint's been busy lately; he may not have heard about this yet. But he will. So, anyway, to get to the point: I can't think of any reason why an aging scumbag in a Georgia penitentiary would be worth anything to anybody—except one. I think he'd be damn good bait if you wanted to go after Clint. And I'm telling you this because I'm afraid Clint won't; and somebody needs to have his back."
She nodded again. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I said. "Hope it helps make up for Budapest."
"We're good," she said.
"Thanks for the drink," I said, and stood up to go.
"May I ask you a question?" she said.
"Sure," I said.
"What are you doing in Boston?"
My smile was probably a little twisted. "I'm getting married."
She looked surprised. "You didn't invite Clint?"
"I did. He sent regrets. For both of you. I figured—well, ask him about Nigeria. And Uzbekistan. Especially Uzbekistan."
"Hold on," she said, and pulled out her phone. She typed rapidly and hit "send" with particular emphasis. Less than a minute later she got a reply. She glanced back up at me. "Day after tomorrow?"
I nodded. "Three o'clock. St. John's in Harvard Square."
"We'll be there. And thank you for the invitation."
And so at Tricia's and my wedding, the guest list was even more interesting than Good Measure would account for.
Donnie was there, in a wheelchair. Before I had a chance to exclaim and ask what had happened, a voice behind me said, "Dupree?" and Donnie and I both turned to see Clint staring at us.
"I'm an idiot," he said. "You two are related?"
I snorted. "And you with a merit badge in genealogy."
Clint and Donnie exchanged a two-handed handshake that seemed way warmer than just working for the same agency would explain. Donnie's glance at me was a complicated blend of I underestimated you and Uh-oh, I've been leaking intel. Natasha looked amused by the situation in general.
I called Tricia over with a glance and introduced them. "Tricia Chandler, Natasha Romanov," I said, and stepped back a tad.
They regarded each other like cats, for two long seconds. Then Tricia held out a hand.
"Welcome to the clear," she said. "It's scary at first, but you get used to it."
Natasha smiled. "Thanks," she said.
"Donnie—I'm sorry. Don," and he grinned a no-hard-feelings grin, "have you met Natasha?"
"I haven't had the pleasure," he said winningly, "but I've seen the highlights reel. And I'm honored to meet you." He sketched an odd gesture, brushing two fingertips over his heart like an abbreviated salaam, and added, "For more reasons than one."
While the SHIELD mini-reunion continued, I led Tricia out to dance to "I'm Your Moon." Later, I sighed in admiration as Clint and Natasha danced with each other, and then Tricia and I each got to dance with each of them. Donnie, whose endurance wasn't so hot, split one dance between me and Tricia and then collapsed back into his chair. I brought him some champagne.
"Most weddings don't double as multi-level intelligence summits," he said, still trying to catch his breath.
"Most people have less interesting friends than I do," I said, and went to dance with Stavros while Tricia danced with Jackson.
But even the most interesting friends couldn't tempt us to put off our wedding night for very long. We cut the cake, threw our bouquets and garters (we both had both) and left our interesting friends to amuse each other.
for Sar-kaz-m, whose review came at just the right time
"Watch the pattern," said Clint.
"Okay," said Natasha after a moment. "Simple."
"After the first time, two variations: anyone can jump in at any point, cut another dancer, and take their place. No physical contact. Or, either at the beginning or the midpoint of the tune, a couple can jump in at the head of the line. That turns all the Couple Ones into Twos, and the Twos into Ones."
Natasha grinned. "Machiavellian folkdance. I like it."
"And also," said Clint, "when they do it for real, it'll be twice this fast."
The DJ cued up "Personal Jesus."
[Author's note on the drabble: there's this dance called Hole in the Wall that's popular in the SCA. It's danced by pairs of couples in a long line. Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" fits the pattern of the dance, but is about twice as fast as the original music. And there's a custom called "sharking" that...well, Clint describes it pretty well. I would love to see the havoc these two would wreak.]
[Author's notes on music: Searching on YouTube for the chapter titles will bring up some beautiful things.
The song that Clint and Jeannine are listening to in the bardic circle is "Ballad of Bedivere", by the late, lamented Jed O'Connor (Master Jed Silverstar). As far as I know, the only recording of it is an insanely rare LP called "Merlin's Song", but there are still people in Meridies and Trimaris who could sing it for you.
"I'm Your Moon" is by Jonathan Coulton. You can hear it on the composer's website, or on the albums "JoCo Looks Back" and "Thing a Week Four". It's a love song from Charon to Pluto (the ex-planet, not the god). Captain Valor does a great American Sign Language version on YouTube.
Final author's note: Thanks to everyone who's been reading this thing and has stuck with it. It's been fun. Now I'm going to go read some books, but I'll be back!]