Wire Mother, Cloth Mother

Agent Barton could count the people who still called him "Clint" on the fingers of one hand. (The left hand. It only had two fingers, unless you counted half a thumb.)

He had a good job, teaching surveillance tactics to rookies. They still lost a lot of them, of course, but fewer than they had before he'd taken over the post. Those who remembered his days in the field found this surprising. Barton didn't. It stood to reason that the more stupid-ass reckless stunts you'd pulled, the easier it was to anticipate what some kid might try to pull, and all the catastrophic ways they might fail.

He had a nice apartment, though he seldom spent a night there, because of reasons.

He had the respect of his colleagues. As each of his classes graduated, one or two of the ex-trainees would work up the nerve to ask him out for drinks. He'd gotten good at turning them down without causing offense.

He had a lover. Sort of.

Close enough.

She called him "Ben". It was the name he'd given her, without much thought.

He paid her in cash, on the first of every month.

Her name was Jana, and she was a stunt performer, working on TV shows and commercials and very rarely a movie gig. He was very understanding about her schedule. She picked which nights and which hotels, and he was quiet and clean and courteous. She'd been turning tricks on the side for a year when they hooked up, and between his generous stipend and a couple of industry contacts he'd gotten her, she didn't have to do that any more.

Her body was strong and agile and flexible and wiry, but she was tall and dark and broad-shouldered, and didn't remind him of... anyone. She liked to talk, and didn't mind that he didn't. She didn't mind the scars, or the arm, and she didn't ask. He appreciated that.

When she told him she'd gotten a contract for a three-film series, he congratulated her, thanked her for her time and asked if she knew anyone who might be willing to take over their arrangement.

She studied him a while, her red silk robe slipping down over one shoulder as she leaned back against the padded headboard.

"Maybe," she said. "How do you feel about boys?"

"If you're asking if I'm bisexual, I am," he said. "But I don't do kids."

"Oh hell no," she said. "Sorry! I meant males, not, like, actual boys. Ew. This guy's thirty-something."

"Okay," he said. "Talk to him, tell him the deal, see if he's interested. If he is, I'll meet with him. If not, no big deal."

"Will do," she said.

After a while he sat up, gathered his clothes and padded silently to the bathroom.

"Ben-" she began when he came out.

He shook his head, bent over her and kissed her cheek. "It's been nice," he said. "Good luck." And he left.

The next day he went to work, chewed out a rookie for failing to double-check his carabiner (for years now the graduates had kept their promise not to warn the newbies that he'd sabotage their gear), got lunch, taught the rookies how to improvise a Swiss seat and how to manage without one, and went home.

He showered and changed into clean jeans and a t-shirt and went back out.

Of the two people on his tail, one was a recent graduate and the other, though he didn't get a good look, was probably Hill. He led them to a bar where he had two beers, and then to a convenience store, and then back to his apartment. Then, after the kid got bored and left, he led probably-Hill into a leather club and ditched her by shimmying out the bathroom window.

He was a little late getting to the house, but Sylvia was used to his ways and just smiled indulgently.

"How'd she do today?" he asked.

"Pretty good," she said. "Keep an eye on that spot on her left heel. I don't like the look of it. Otherwise fine. She sat up for a long time by the window. I think she likes the sun."

"She always has," he agreed. "Thanks. See you tomorrow."

"You take care," said Sylvia. She had her coat on already, and she picked up her purse and was gone.

He washed his hands carefully and rubbed lotion into them, making sure there were no rough spots and filing down a tiny corner of a fingernail that might have snagged on something.

"Got a good class this time, Tasha," he said softly as he brushed her hair. "Two of them spotted me switching Bernard's beener, and they kept total poker faces."

Her hair had two distinct white streaks springing from the crown. They kept it short these days, for ease of care. He felt a tiny pang as he remembered burying his hands wrist-deep in auburn silk. He brought the cloth and the basin of warm water over and began washing her face. Her eyes roved slowly back and forth, without focusing on him.

"Davis tried to tail me tonight," he said. "The idiot. I doubt he knew he was being tailed too. Pretty sure that was Hill. I don't know why she bothers, except maybe for fun. She knows I'm coming here."

He dried her face and moved on to her neck and shoulders.

He sighed. "Jana's moving on," he said. "She finally got her break. Supposed to be sending me somebody to audition. I don't know. We'll see, I guess."

Right arm, left arm. He dried each area with a warmed towel as he finished, so she wouldn't get chilled.

"Sylvia said you got to sit in the sun for a while," he said. "Hope it was nice. It was kind of cold outside; too much wind. Supposed to be warmer tomorrow."

He washed her chest, her breasts, her abdomen, taking great care around the g-tube and checking for signs of irritation. There were none. He turned her on her side to wash her back.

"Heard from Steve," he went on. "He's over in Pakistan for the peace talks. Supposed to get back early next week."

He rolled her back onto her back, changed her briefs, worked his way down her thighs to her knees, calves, ankles. He smoothed lotion onto the pink spot on the back of the left heel and settled it carefully into a cup of soft foam, to distribute the pressure more evenly. Her feet were perfectly smooth now, no calluses on the soles. Nothing touched them these days but the sheets and her caregivers' hands.

And, on nights like this, his lips, brushing the sole of each foot once lightly, before he covered her up, dimmed the lights, and settled onto the mat beside her bed.

"Goodnight, Tasha," he said, and slept.