Showdown at Aisle 17
The yellow smiley face greeted Clint from the cardboard sign designating Pringles potato chips were on sale, two for the price of one. It seemed to mock him with it’s all too cheery smile. Almost as if it knew he should be spread out across his bed quietly (or not so quietly if one believed Wanda’s claims that he snored) sleeping. But one could never underestimate Janet Van Dyne’s persuasion skills and before he could rub the sleep from his eyes she was ushering him along to the store to act as her hired muscle to lift a new television in and out of the car.
Clint turned his head as the squeak of wheels gave away Jan’s approach from behind with a newly found shopping cart. He waited for the cart to pass him by and walked alongside her, one hand easing into the front pocket of his jeans.
“I can’t believe you woke me up before the sun to buy a TV.”
“Eight o’clock isn’t that early,” Jan said, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, “At least not to people that get up before noon.”
Clint shrugged, unapologetic of his sleeping habits. “I always figured setting our own hours was one of those little perks of saving the world.”
“Tell that to Steve.”
When Jan pushed the shopping cart forward rather than veering to the left toward the electronics department Clint grabbed the side to slow them to a stop. He jerked his thumb to the left. “TV’s are over there.”
“I know. I just want to grab this cute pair of sandals.” Jan was quick to reassure him, “It’ll take five minutes.”
Clint couldn’t remember a time when Jan bought anything, let alone shoes, in five minutes. If it took less than twenty minutes he would qualify it as a small miracle. His eyebrows rose as he skeptically repeated, “Five minutes…”
“Ten at the most.”
“Fine,” Jan sighed and dismissed him with a wave, “Go play with your toys and I’ll find you when I’m done.”
Her submission made him grin. “Take your time.”
Cut free from the shoe shopping torture, Clint was quick to head toward the electronics section where he knew there to be a bounty of B-grade movies stockpiled like Cold War rations (and were just as desirable). If Jan hadn’t finished in the shoe aisle by the time he tired of browsing through the best movies one dollar could buy he could switch over to whatever video game demos were set up.
It was a good a plan as any for killing time. That plan, however, was quick to crumble when something worthy of his attention and affection caught his eye.
Clint wouldn’t normally get a bow from the same store he bought his underwear but there was no harm in checking out the stock while he waited on Janet. She would probably be busy for well past ten minutes anyway, deciding which style of buckle complimented her handbag the best. He would be doing himself a favor with greater entertainment than a pile of bad movies could provide.
His feet were already edging him toward the sporting goods section before his mind had come to a decision. He strode decisively through the tunnel of fishing rods, ignoring the weak sour scent that emanated from a number of the plastic baits. The bows, along with the firearms, were against the back wall behind a sales counter, kept out of the reach of mischievous hands.
Clint approached the counter and rested his arms on it. The selection of bows was small but not bad considering it was just a department store. Many of them were compounds bows which he never cared much for with the use of pulleys and cams that reduced the strength needed to pull back the string. It felt too artificial and automated for his tastes. There were, however, several recurve bows made of wood and fiberglass composites that were closer to his likening.
“’scuse me, can I see that bow,” Clint asked the back of blue vested employee and pointed to a bow he had his eye on.
The clerk turned and Clint looked down at the square faced framed by short rusty brown hair. His wide set eyes were matched by a wide smile and thick nose. He placed big hands on the glass counter and leaned forward, the swell of his stomach pressed against the counter. Chuck, as the nametag labeled the clerk, was the spitting image of Paul Bunyan (if Paul had been short and fat). He turned his head to follow Clint’s finger to the bow he asked about.
It was a Hunter recurve bow manufactured by Martin Archery. The riser was carved from robust birch wood and the limbs made of hard maple laminations and fiberglass. The fiberglass was painted black and the wood of the riser was dyed a lighter black as not to hide the beautiful wood grain. It was no machine made bow pumped out for mass production. It was hand made by an experienced bowyer and because of that the price tag was over five hundred dollars. A hefty price to pay but Clint thought it was worth it. His own Hunter was a thing of beauty.
“You have a good eye. That’s a Martin recurve bow,” Chuck said as he got the Hunter from the back peg board. “Do you shoot?”
Clint did his best to ignore Chuck’s reference to archery as ‘shooting’ as he ran his hands down the length of the Hunter. The surface was smooth without a flaw. He didn’t break his eyes away from the bow, replying, “You could say I dabble in it.”
“It’s a wonderful sport. I’m something of a professional amateur you could say,” Chuck boasted, “Yeah, I’ve won the county archery competition two times.”
Clint raised the Hunter and hooked his index and middle fingers behind the bowstring. He eased back the string, the tension being no problem for his back muscles. Clint held the string for a moment then let the tension pull the string back to its normal straight state.
“It’s a wonder you haven’t broke into the Olympics with those kinds of credentials,” Clint said dryly. Chuck’s robust laughter momentarily broke his focus from the Hunter.
“Say, why don’t I set up a target,” Chuck said and gave the counter an enthusiastic smack with his hand. “Let you get a feel for the bow.”
Taking his eyes off the Hunter, Clint looked to the left and the right of the aisle. A rack of pink meaty blobs the labels insisted were fishing bait jutted out in the pathway to his right. On his left there was a display stand of packaged golf balls. There wasn’t much space to move but what worried Clint the most was customers, especially kids, wandering around and not paying attention.
“Inside,” Clint asked, placing the Hunter on the counter.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. I’ll help you out with some pointers.”
“You wouldn’t happen to also have some pointers for treating arrow wounds, wouldja?”
“You’re a funny guy,” Chuck said, chuckling while he reached for a practice target. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll shoot first so you can see how’s it done.”
“You don’t have to-,“ Clint weakly protested.
“Now watch carefully here. You want a nice even stance,” Chuck instructed as he got in position. He was as graceful as an ox but his stance wasn’t bad. It was a simple even stance with feet spread shoulder width apart though the minimal string clearance wasn’t ideal for a barrel chested man like Chuck. “Pull back the arrow and let it fly.” The string hit Chuck’s arm and skewed the shot, the arrow hitting three inches off center. The arrow wouldn’t have hit dead center judging by his arm position though it showed Clint that Chuck wasn’t just all talk. “Go on, give it a try.”
Clint could already hear the lecture Steve would launch into about responsibility and as a veteran Avenger he was supposed to be an example to the younger members but still the Hunter found its way into his hands. Some things were too good to pass up.
“Okay but I’m not that good.”
Rather than taking up the even stance Chuck used, Clint positioned his feet with his left foot angled toward the target and his right heel lined up with the toe of his left in an uneven stance mainly used by expert archers. He notched the arrow and drew back the string to the anchor point on his cheek. He took aim at the target and released the string. The string launched the arrow forward through the air. The arrowhead pierced the target with a soft thump.
“You…you hit the center,” Chuck said dumbfounded.
Clint grinned and replied nonchalantly, “Beginner’s luck.”
“Yeah. You’re a natural.” Chuck regained his previous bravado, adding, “I mean, you’re no county champion but you’ve got potential.”
Clint frowned. A dead center shot should have instilled more than five seconds of humility in a bigheaded clerk. It wasn’t worth the risk of hitting a bystander. Worst yet, he could get lectured for nothing. He put the Hunter down on the counter. “I think I’ll leave the archery to Hawkeye.”
“Hawkeye? Forget that guy. All of those Avengers are doughy pretty boys with steroids and surgery. Now you have some real talent.”
“Doughy,” Clint silently mouthed, hand on his stomach. He would rather stare down the Kree Army than tell Wanda her breasts aren’t real or that Natasha isn’t a natural redhead. There were some things even he didn’t have the courage to say. “Those Avengers saved your butt at least a dozen times in the last year alone. It wouldn’t hurt to show a little gratitude.”
“Easy big fella. I’m not saying they aren’t great but you’d think they’d be able to keep those Doom guys locked up,” Chuck didn’t skip a beat, adding, “But now you’ve got some real potential and because of it I’ll throw in the arrows for half price.”
Clint was about to point out Doctor Doom was Reed’s pet project, not the Avengers, among other less tactful arguments when his tirade was interrupted, “Whoa, is that…”
The stunned expression painted on Chuck’s face was enough to divert Clint’s interest away from the insult against the Avengers. He looked over his shoulder to see Jan pushing the squeaky wheels of the shopping cart, a shoe box nestled in the child’s seat. So she could buy a pair of sandals in under an hour.
“Janet Van Dyne.” A grin returned to Clint’s face. He turned back to Chuck, asking, “Do you want me to ask about the plastic surgery or should I?”
“Hey now, wait a second.”
“Hey Jan,” Clint called, “settle a bet between me and my new pal, Chuck. Did you get the full face lift or just the eyebrows?”
It was a dangerous question to ask. There was no way to guarantee Jan wouldn’t throw a tackle box at his head. Clint was banking she would read his face and voice and recognize his intent to torture Chuck opposed to teasing her beauty regiments. Lucky for his head, Jan had caught on even if the skepticism across her face showed her confusion.
Chuck’s face had become as white as a ghost. “Mi-Miss Van Dyne, please ignore him. He’s just joking.”
“Don’t get shy now,” Clint said, “After all, those Avengers are just, how’d you put it, pretty boys with steroids and surgery.”
“You misheard me. That’s what I-I said they weren’t. The Avengers are heroes. You’ve saved the world a dozen times in the last year alone.”
“They have potential but they aren’t two time county archery champs like Chuck here,” Clint said. His grin grew as he continued to turn Chuck’s words against him.
Jan raised her eyebrows. “Two times?”
Chuck flushed. “It’s nothing compared to what you do.”
“He’s so modest,” Clint said and pointed to the target. “Why look at that beautiful shot he took. Only a couple inches off the center.”
“I’m no Hawkeye,” Chuck said, shaking his head.
Clint’s smile turned wry. “Who is.”
“Are you done,” Jan asked though he had a feeling she wasn’t talking about him ogling the archery bows.
“Yeah, I’m done.” Unable to resist one last jab, Clint turned to Chuck, saying, “I hope you don’t mind if I come back for tips sometime.”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Chuck replied and bashfully added, “It was a pleasure to meet you Miss Van Dyne.”
Jan nodded and gave Chuck a polite smile. “Likewise.”
The cart was turned around and Jan pushed it out of the sports department with Clint walking beside her. Behind them Clint heard the rustling of Chuck putting away the Hunter and the practice target. He looked to Jan, waiting for the reprimand as they moved out of listening distance from Chuck. She didn’t say anything immediately. She didn’t look angry either.
“Have fun,” Jan finally asked.
Clint grinned. ”Always do.”
Don't Sweat The Small Stuff
There has never been anything as treasured or fleeting for an Avenger than that much fabled entity known as “free time”. Some say it doesn’t exist. That it’s just a myth created by Steve Rogers to give us something to dream about on those days when your body is almost too sore to move and your brain barely has the cognitive ability to open a jar of pickles. Others claim that it is real. Pietro brags he once had an entire week of free time. I never believed him, but for just moment this morning, I almost thought it was possible.
There were no training sessions, no meetings to sit through, or officials to meet, and I had already spent an hour on the treadmill to take care of the daily fitness needs. Barring any emergencies, I had the next hour to relax in the summer sun sipping my café mocha and reading a sugary romance book that would guarantee to draw snickers and gagging from my male (and some female) teammates. So, naturally I hadn’t sat down for more than three minutes when Hank approached looking dire and needing my help.
It came down to one word: antiperspirant.
I wish I could say I was surprised that he pleaded with me to run to the corner store to pick up deodorant when Steve always keeps more than enough stocked up (it’s adorable how much of a boy scout he can be), but I’d be lying. Steve’s deodorant, and everyone else’s, dare contain antiperspirant, an unforgivable sin as far as Hank is concerned.
It’s not antiperspirant’s fault, really. It’s just a common additive to many deodorants. Marketers slap it onto labels and promote its’ usefulness in reducing embarrassing sweat stains and elimination of body odor. Most people don’t know that antiperspirants work by plugging up the ducts of the sweat glands or that there’s health concerns of the chemicals’ affect on the body. Most people don’t care.
Hank Pym, however, is not a ‘most’ person.
For starters, he talks in his sleep, loudly. The first time I heard him I spent ten minutes trying to talk back. When he jabbered on without properly answering, I got angry and barely talked to him the next day. It wasn’t until after dinner did he finally ask what was wrong and it was an entire week before I believed his sleep talking claim. It still catches me off-guard some nights, but now I find it funny more than anything. Not that he does it, but that he always rambles on about one scientific tangent or another. Leave it to Hank to talk technobabble even in his sleep.
But it’s a part of who he is. The same as how he dog-ears all his books (bookmarks fall out, he claims), guzzles down Mountain Dew like his stomach is on fire, and yes, has an aversion to antiperspirant. So, here I am spending my morning staring at a row of deodorants, willing them offer just one without antiperspirant.
Sighing, I pick up a stick of Old Spice and sniff it. Steve uses Old Spice, which doesn’t shock me one bit. A classic brand for a classic man. It has a nice scent, though reminds me little too much of my father for comfort. Of course, Dad doesn’t have the chiseled chest Steve does but I’m still all the more grateful Hank prefers other brands. I love my Dad, but there’s certain situations when I’d rather not think about him – namely in bed.
I put the Old Spice back and scan the other labels lined up on the shelf. Solid, gel, power strips, invisible, visible, “sport”, clinical strengthen. It’s a smorgasbord of aroma hygiene products, but none that Hank would approved of. Still, at least I can buy his deodorant at the store.
Tony, as much as he loathes to admit it, needs prescription strength deodorant. As well designed as the Iron Man armor is, Tony can’t engineer metal to breathe and he ends up sweating buckets after most missions. It doesn’t seem to have any affect on his dating though. Tony could charm the habit off a nun, and probably has. It still doesn’t stop Clint from cracking a few jokes at Tony’s expense.
Clint is undoubtedly the least picky and wears whatever label grabs his attention first. I swear he once wore women’s deodorant; the scent was a little too flowery to be men’s brand.
“What’s that smell,” I asked after he plopped down on the seat next to me in the Quinjet.
Hair still wet from his shower, Clint shrugged. “Dunno, I don’t smell anything.”
I sniffed him, getting a strong hit of flowers. “Are you wearing Bobbi’s deodorant?”
“What? No, I just bought it yesterday. It’s got a black label.”
“Well, it smells like a women’s brand.”
The next day he switched to a different deodorant.
But at least Clint wears it, unlike Thor. He laughs off suggestions to try even an aerosol spray, questioning why a man would want to mask his musk. Granted, I have to admit a hint of sweat makes my stomach do backflips, but there’s something to be said about the cleanliness of deodorant. At any rate, Thor showers frequently enough that it’s never a problem (though I prefer not to get stuck next to him in the Quinjet after a long mission).
I tried convincing Hank into adapting Thor’s method, just for the morning to give me a chance to read a few chapters of my book in peace, but he stared back at me, his face screwed into a grimace.
“I’ll smell,” Hank protested.
“Thor does it all the time and no one says anything.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a Viking. People expect him to smell. I can’t have SHIELD agents thinking I never shower.”
Without looking up from my book, I replied, “They don’t have much room to criticize. Have you smelled those operation rooms? They reek of tobacco smoke and feet.”
“You’re not helping.”
There would be no changing his mind. Hank refused to go to the meeting wearing anything less than antiperspirant-less deodorant and like the dope I am, I gave in to his pleads. It wasn’t without anger that I abandoned my reading and café mocha to trudge inside to get my purse, but leave it to Bobbi to put things in perspective.
I had found her sitting next to the window, sifting through a mess of papers spread out on the table before her. She looked up as I entered and her eyes fell to my purse. “What happened to your date with bad prose and shirtless pirates?”
I ignored the dig at my romance books. “I have to buy Hank deodorant.”
“We have deodorant here.”
“They all have antiperspirant, which he refuses to use.” I shook my head. “I’m married to a very strange man.”
Bobbi laughed then turned back to her work, saying, “Point me to one here that isn’t.”
Smiling now, I pick up a stick of Right Guard Sport and check the back. There’s no mention of antiperspirant. I hesitate, then take off the top and sniff the fresh, cool aroma. It has a somewhat generic chemical smell to it, but I’m sure it’d be favorable to flowers. I grab a second stick, just to have, and turn to head for the cashier desk. The clinical strength deodorants and aerosol sprays catch my eye as I walk by.
I may not have found that elusive creature Free Time, and I may never, but I think I’ll be okay. I know not to sweat the small stuff.
The Woman in Snake Skin Boots
The cold winter chill cut across Natasha’s face as she stepped outside, snow crunching under her heel. For a moment she did nothing, drinking in the incandescent exhibition of thousands of buzzing lights that was London’s Piccadilly Circus. Every inch of the city seemed to glow with excitement and nightlife. Store windows were alight with Christmas trees and holiday sales. Colorful floodlights of blues, reds, and greens shone across the off-white surface of centuries old buildings. Hundreds of tiny twinkle lights formed banners of blue present boxes and shooting stars that stretched over the streets. An enormous red ribbon decorated the exterior of a clothing’s store, giving it the look of Christmas present fit for a giant. And, as the always, the Monico took center stage with the massive Coca-Cola, TDK, and Sanyo neon signs staring down at her from where she had just emerged from the London Underground.
Natasha smiled at the electric wonderland before her. It was more than a little excessive (though Piccadilly Circus always was), but she appreciated a bit of holiday cheer, even if she rarely had the chance to indulge in it herself.
Pulling the long brown wool coat around herself, Natasha left the mouth of the Underground and strolled across the snow crusted plaza. There was no hurry to get to the restaurant. While it attracted many Japanese people with its high quality food, Ten Ten Tei was rarely crowded, and she was eating alone tonight. It left her with time to take in the sights and enjoy the down time, having just finished a troubling assignment investigating a Greek arms dealer two hours earlier. In twelve hours, Natasha would be on a plane and on to the next mission, but for now, she had nothing but time to kill.
Her feet found their way to the base of the statue of Eros, the winged archer, and staring up at it, her thoughts started to drift toward another archer and the present she would get him for the holidays. Abruptly, those thoughts were cut short. Something was wrong.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted something strange, half hidden behind the passing crowds. A pair of brown and black snake skin boots. More specifically it was the same pair of brown and black snake skin boots Natasha had saw on the Tube on the way to Piccadilly Circus. At the time, the face that belonged to the snake skin boots had been stuck in a book and never looked up, but there was no mistaking those shoes. They were same ones. The face still wasn’t looking at her, not directly, but she had the distinct feeling of being watched in the reflection of the store window.
At the same unhurried pace, Natasha headed to the right of large glowing Sanyo sign and down Shaftesbury Avenue. Maybe she was jumping the gun accusing the woman in snake skin boots of stalking. Investigating the Greek arms dealer, a man of the name of Stavros, had been tougher than she had anticipated. The security upgrade that had been planned for the first week of December had been quietly down at an earlier date as Stavros expected one rival or another to try to take advantage of the situation. It worked as Natasha was forced to cancel her original plan and a form a riskier one posing as a Russian buyer. Even with her underworld contacts Stavros showed no trust in her and nothing less than two cameras, a laser microphone, and a pair of “private investigators” followed her every moment of the day. He was a paranoid man, but a shrewd one as well. Her investigation was slowed to a crawl and it came as no surprise when it ended with bloodshed.
But even with the mission completed, she feared it had left her nerves feeling raw and tense, which made the next twelve hours so precious. She needed that time to relax and get back to the proper frame of mind. A spy that couldn’t distinguish between the real threats and imagined ones wasn’t a successful spy.
What Natasha had to uncover was which category the woman in snake skin boots fell under.
So she walked down the sidewalk, neither trying to disguise nor draw attention to herself. Her hands clenched into fists insides the pockets of her jacket. It felt like a pair of eyes were burning into her back. An unfamiliar voice of temptation whispered in her ear, coaxing her to spare a glance over her shoulder. Just one little look couldn’t hurt. She was planning to turn left onto Denman Street anyway, she wouldn’t even need to move her head to look behind her. No one might even notice…
“Idiot,” Natasha chided, mentally shaking those thoughts from her mind. She was too well trained to succumb to a stupid paranoia.
Even if she didn’t already have a plan, trying to pick out snake skin boots amongst a crowd of people and feet would be a near impossible task. Denman Street was a very narrow one way street, hidden in the shadows of buildings and far less crowded than the busy main streets. The woman in snake skin boots, or anyone, would have little place to hide. However, Natasha knew there to be a small corner store not that far down the street next to the back entrance to one of the larger stores. The front door was angled so that it looked down the length of the street and anyone walking down it would be clearly seen.
Light spilled through that very front door and parts of the store window not plastered with ads, making it easy to spot in the growing darkness. Flecks of snow dotted the sky and laid a fresh layer of white on the ground that was promptly disturbed by footprints. Natasha strained her ears to hear the click of boots on the sidewalk behind her, but even with the street being near empty, the noise of the city made it difficult to pinpoint a specific clatter of feet. Soon, it wouldn’t matter as she would reach the corner store in a moment’s time and yet…
…that nagging paranoia was back. It was imploring her to whip around, to attack her stalker and anything that moved.
A gust of wind rattled through street, blowing snow into her face. Natasha readjusted her coat, though she was far to accustomed to bitter Russian winters to be cold. Maybe she would call out from the next scheduled mission and return to New York to visit friends. One of Tony’s famous Christmas parties would do wonders in erasing the memory of her hand clamped onto Stavros’s throat, thumb digging into his esophagus, while her other wrestled with a blood drenched knife. That face still lingered in her thoughts. Bloodied nose, eyes wild with blood lust, and…had that been a smile on those split lips? She had thought she heard him rasp out final words before the last breath was choked from his body and eyes went blank. What was it again?
“Pretty bad out there, yeah?”
Natasha’s head snapped to the voice. She blinked and stared at the smiling store keeper. “What?”
“The snow,” he said, jabbing a thumb toward the window, “It’s gettin’ heavy.”
Confusion untangled as her mind returned to the present. “Oh, yes, it is.”
Natasha took a newspaper from the rack then grabbed a bottle green tea and returned to the store keeper to pay. Stuffing the change into her pocket, she turned to the front door and cracked open the green tea. Lingering in the distance was woman with stylishly cut brown hair, a brown leather jacket zipped over a plaid shirt, cream trouser, and…
Black and brown snake skin boots.
Without skipping a beat, Natasha was out the door and turned left up the street, her back to the woman in snake skin boots. At the same slow pace, she strode down the sidewalk and soon came to a T intersection with a large building across the street undergoing renovation as evident by the dumpster lined in front of it. She turned onto the new street, walked past the dumpster by several steps, and quietly laid her newspaper and green tea on the ground as if dropped. With a well-practiced ease, Natasha walked backwards in her own footprints until she was alongside the dumpster and climbed in just as silently. She slipped off her wool coat so it wouldn’t encumber her and crouched down, her hand sliding to the heel of shoe where she always kept an electro-shock cartridge.
Seconds ticked by. The snow continued to fall in big white flakes on her shoulders and head. Natasha didn’t move, laying patient like a crocodile beneath the surface waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. The light footed click of footsteps signified her prey approaching the dumpster. They followed the footprints past the dumpster, as Natasha intended, then paused. There was a crinkle of newspaper then the shuffling of feet of someone looking around.
“Damn it,” a female voice tensely swore under her breath.
As the footsteps turned to the dumpster and Natasha readied the cartridge in hand, her mind once again found itself drifting back to the fatal confrontation with Stavros. She recalled those strange arcane artifacts, the likes of which she had never seen, that lined his warehouse. Their purpose she didn’t know, but they seemed to radiate malevolence and brought back the image of that thin lipped, bloodied smile. Stavros’s final words echoed in her head as the face of the woman in snake skin boots peaked into the dumpster.
“Ο θάνατος δεν είναι το τέλος.”
Death is not the end.
Natasha’s fist shot forward and the woman’s nose erupted with blood as she onto her back. Quick as a cat, Natasha hopped up on to the edge of the dumpster and pounced onto the woman, cartridge striking the carotid artery as she landed. The woman let out a short cry, muffled by Natasha’s hand, before quickly losing consciousness. Grabbing the woman’s arm and leg, Natasha lifted her up in a fireman’s carry and rolled her into the dumpster where she wouldn’t be spotted.
“Madame Hydra is getting sloppy if this is who she sends to trail me,” Natasha murmured, slipping her coat back on.
“But you didn’t think you’d get rid of me that easily, did you, love,” a raspy voice purred in Greek in her ear.
Natasha gasped and spun around, swinging a backhanded a fist.
But no one was there.
Treading the Wind and Rain
The snake’s beady black eyes made the hairs on the back of Clint’s neck stand on end. It was watching him. It was watching him take a piss.
Clint hadn’t meant to get so close. The cauliflower yellow of its scaly little body had hidden it perfectly amongst the sun dried weeds that he hadn’t noticed it till he stood no more than a foot away. Even then he didn’t spot it for as much as half a minute and only after the rustling underbrush drew his attention. He had looked down expecting one harmless animal or another and saw the slithering movement through the brush. Its little head rose off the ground and it looked straight at him with the forked tongue flapping.
Now they were at a stalemate. Clint didn’t know whether to stop or move. The last thing he needed was for it to strike. Not when he was exposed like he was. Clint had seen those animal attack shows before and the snakes could lunge pretty damn high. And he didn’t want to think about what that bite could do to him. Snake venom was notoriously potent, it could damage him. It could make things…fall off.
Clint bristled at the last thought. He slowly leaned his body away from the snake. Maybe if he didn’t do anything it wouldn’t attack. If he just kept to himself it would do the same. It was a reasonable truce. No one had to get hurt, least of all him. They could both mind their own business and go their separate ways.
“Jesus, Clint, how much do you drink?”
Clint didn’t respond to the question. He kept his eyes on the snake and continued to draw as little attention to himself as he could. A handful of seconds later he was finished. His movements were slow and deliberate as he tucked himself back inside his jeans. The noisy zipping made Clint grimace but the layers of fabric gave him much needed protection. Clint exhaled and slowly took a step back then another. The snake seemed to have lost interest and slithered back through the brush. The tension dissipated in an instant and he turned to walk back to the car no longer holding his breath.
Dust caked the rented Land Rover, distorting the dark green paint into a dirtier brownish color, and muddying the windshield save for the semi-circled cleaned by the windshield wipers. Bobbi was leaning against the front fender with water bottle in hand stretching her legs after a long car ride. They were both out of costume. Bobbi in jeans and a worn blue t-shirt with the Rolling Stones logo printed across the front and Clint with cut-off jeans and a short sleeved orange shirt that wasn’t completely buttoned. It was too hot for anything more. Clint wiped his hands on the shirt tails as he approached her.
“There was a snake,” he said, explaining the delay.
Bobbi’s eyebrows drew together. “What kind of snake?”
“The skinny kind that slithers.”
Bobbi snorted, the edges of her lips turned up in amusement. She wasn’t afraid of snakes, or any reptiles. “It probably wasn’t venomous.”
“They don’t need venom to bite.”
“Wuss,” she replied, laughing. Her smile was brief as she looked past him. A light breeze picked up and he could smell the sunscreen on her skin. “Check out that sky.”
Clint turned his head following Bobbi’s sight line to the road ahead. Sculpted red clay jutted into the pale sky parallel to the right of the road and curved with the winding path. Brown hills rolled out to the left of the road with pockets of trees and vegetation dotted across the landscape. The afternoon sun hung heavy above their heads and beat down on them with its molten glare without a wisp of cloud to dampen the heat. All the clouds were waiting off in the distance, a heavy dark grey wall peaking out from beyond the red cliffs. Its presence was watchful and ominous like a sniper hiding in the grass.
“That’s one mean lookin’ storm. I thought it wasn’t supposed to hit til later tonight.”
“Maybe it left early to beat the traffic.”
No one had to say another word. Clint took one last look at the skyline then circled to the side of the car and climbed inside. Bobbi already had the keys in the ignition and turned the engine over. The rumbling engine sent vibrations through the chassis. Bobbi was driving. It was a WCA mission and the reigns were in her hands. Clint didn’t mind taking the backseat, especially if it got him out of trying to navigate a terrain that all looked the same to him. The South Dakota Badlands was a big deserted area with rest stops few and far between. It was because of that isolation that Bobbi had packed a hefty first aide kit and Clint extra arrows.
Clint helped himself to Bobbi’s water and downed a mouthful. “How much farther till we get to this Emery Airforce place?”
“Emery Aviation Research Facility,” she corrected and continued, “Fifteen minutes, give or take.”
“Guess it’s no mystery why this place got closed down. By the time you get there half the day is over.”
“All the better for your mad scientist needs. You’d never have to worry about any pesky test subjects escaping and calling the police.”
“Some people are just so rude,” Clint replied. He glanced out the window as Bobbi slowed down to take the curve. It was dark and cool in the shadow of the cliffside. ”So what do ya think we’ll find?”
“I don’t know. The only reports I could find about Project Black Dog were sketchy at best.”
“But we’re sure it’s bad?”
“All the test subjects died.”
“That would be bad.”
Bobbi hummed in agreement. “With any luck we’ll find a few clues to figure out how bad.”
The road curved out of the shadow of cliff. Light crept across the high cheekbones and strong jawline of Bobbi’s face. She wasn’t tense, not like their mission in Spain, but she wasn’t relaxed either. Her eyes gave away what her loose posture didn’t with the focused stare ahead as if she suspected something would pop out from the bushes to attack them. She didn’t talk much about it. Good little SHIELD agents turn off emotion and throw themselves into their work. Clint was starting to worry that maybe it was too much work. After spending years as a fugitive amongst the Skrulls she deserved a long vacation free from stress, not working two jobs with little rest.
“You alright with all this?”
Bobbi quirked an eyebrow and looked at him with the corner of her eye. “With all what?”
“The double workload – the Avengers and the WCA.”
“I’m fine,” she replied and continued to watch him. “You starting to get tired in your old age?”
“I’ve got as much stamina as ever, birdie.”
“Remind me to take you up on that,” she said with a sly smile.
Clint couldn’t keep the grin off his face, encouraged by the easy fall back into their old flirting even as he knew it to be hollow suggestions. They hadn’t had sex yet as part of the agreement to take it slow though they both agreed that trying to forbid any fooling around would be a pointless promise they’d break within five minutes of making it. At first they hadn’t done more than heavy petting. Kisses that were as much about feeling each other out as they were passion. It had been a long time since they had seen each other. They both had dealt with a lot of pain and went through their moments of Hell.
That was never more apparent when one of their necking sessions had gone from hot and heavy to ice cold in a heartbeat. It had started innocent enough with Bobbi helping to peel Clint out of his shirt after a 2x4 cracked across the back had left him unable to lift his arms. She had set him on the edge of the bed and stood in front, easing the collar over his head. Clint tried to turn his head to inspect the damage but pain flared in his neck. He bowed his head and felt the mattress dip as Bobbi knelt on it to get a better look at his back, hand resting on his shoulder for balance.
“How’s it look?”
“Bad news, Clint, it doesn’t look like you’ll be fit to enter the Ice Princess figure skating contest this year.”
“And just when I perfected my triple lutz.”
“The world is worse off without it,” Bobbi said, leaning back. Her hand remained on his shoulder. “It’s pretty red but you’ll live. How’s the rest of you?”
Clint weakly shrugged, grimacing as he did so, and glanced down at his bare torso. He had a couple minor bumps and a thin cut across his index finger from an arrowhead he mishandled but was relatively healthy outside of a sore back. “Same old, same old.”
“The way you’re gawking I didn’t think you’d complain,” Clint said, grinning because it was true. She was taking a rather long look at his shirtless upper body that had nothing to do with injuries.
Bobbi smiled and shifted to straddle his lap, his hand moving to rest on her hip. “I never could resist a man in purple pirate boots.”
“She only loves me for my shoes.”
“Try higher,” she said and closed the distance between them to seal her mouth over his.
The kiss was slow and relaxed and Bobbi’s hand rose to cup his jaw, thumb rubbing against two day’s worth of stubble. For a moment, the soreness of his back melted away and he couldn’t think beyond lips and tongue. When her hand slipped to his chest and gave a gentle push he obeyed, leaning back onto the mattress. A sharp sting reminded him of forgotten pain. Grunting, he turned his hips and rolled over to put Bobbi on her back instead. Kissing intensified and Bobbi’s grip on his shoulder grew fierce. Whatever they had said about taking it slow was quickly becoming obsolete.
Bobbi pushed at his shoulder again to roll him over and he resisted, vaguely aware it would hurt his back. She pushed again -- hard. And she was breaking off the kiss, her eyes flashing panic. Clint pulled back. Bobbi slipped off the bed and took several steps back, putting space between. She was breathing heavy but not, he thought, from excitement.
“Don’t do that,” she said tensely.
Mind hazy from the heavy petting Clint blinked and dimly asked, “What just happened?”
As quickly as Clint had blinked Bobbi had grew calm and stoic, burying her panic. “It’s nothing. Forget it.”
“Yeah, like I believe that for a second.”
“I’m fine,” she said, tone warning him not to continue. Clint ignored it and opened his mouth to argue. She cut him off, “I have get ice for your back.”
And Bobbi disappeared out of the bedroom, stopping the conversation dead. Clint moved to the edge of the bed to follow but stopped short. He didn’t want to get into a fight.
But whatever Bobbi said she wasn’t fine. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome wasn’t something she could bury and ignore. But that was typical Bobbi. She had never been one to talk about emotions, unless it involved yelling. No, she was a physical person. Not that Clint complained for a second. Together they had the best sex he’d ever had. She was by no means a blushing virgin and never had been as long as he had known her. He couldn’t even imagine her being anything but forward. It was something to be joked about and had in different places and different ways. For Bobbi sex was fun.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that they ditched the formalities of sleeping separately. They both appreciated the company of having someone to fall asleep with and wake up to. The physical closeness of it. After Bobbi’s panic attack it was clear that there were pitfalls to stumble over before they got to sex and sleeping together was as close as they would get for the time being.
Though if Clint’s mind had ruled out the possibility of sex his body was less understanding. He couldn’t will himself not to find her attractive anymore than he could tell his stomach not to crave food. It was a basic instinct that he couldn’t ignore regardless of whether she was sleeping on top of him in only a flimsy cotton shirt and shorts or standing on the other side of the room wrapped in her duster coat. Bobbi wasn’t ignorant of it. She knew how the male body worked and his daily habits. A few jokes about hand cramps would greet him when he returned from the bathroom but she never showed disapproval or stopped him.
Not until three mornings after her panic attack.
Clint had been sitting up to get out of bed when her hand touched his chest and stopped him halfway. She pushed him back onto the bed and pressed her mouth onto his. What he had expected to be a quick peck turned out to be a heated kiss made somewhat sloppy by the haze of sleep. Clint enjoyed the kiss even as hormones raged but there was no harm done with a little necking. Not until she didn’t let him get up.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Clint said, pulling away the kiss, “or have gone numb below the waist,” he propped himself up with his arm, “ya gotta let me up.”
There was humor in her smile but her eyes were all lust. “And here I thought you were bringing your arrows to bed again.”
“It ain’t gonna go away if we keep this up.”
“That’s kind of the point.”
Clint studied her face. The panic attack still lingered in his thoughts and he didn’t want a repeat performance. “You sure? Cause last time-“
Bobbi brushed her lips across his in a fleeting kiss and slid her hand below his stomach. “Shut up and enjoy it, Clint.”
From then on the abstinence was broken. Positioning was still something Clint was mindful of and he didn’t attempt to go beyond using his hands but just the limited sex was a sweet release. He was more than happy with it until she was comfortable enough to go further. It was a small sacrifice to make for having her back in his life.
Clint lingered on the thought, staring out the Land Rover’s window, until a gray spot in the distance caught his attention, the research facility. It was a wide building with a rounded roof and stuck out as the only structure for miles around. At first he didn’t see much damage to the exterior but the closer they got the more flaws became evident. The roof was badly torn up with visible wind damage and pieces of sheet metal twisted and hanging from the fasteners. The walls were scratched up and rusted around the edges. Years of weather damage had taken its toll on the facility.
With Bobbi’s lead foot it didn’t take long before they were nearly on top of the facility. She turned the car onto a cracked side road that had fallen into disarray with the rest of the facility. The car rumbled across the unsteady surface. It stretched on for a minute until opening up to a neglected parking lot barely visible beneath layers of dirt. Ignoring the parking lot, Bobbi drove up to the front of the building and turned the car to park it facing the road they arrived from for a quick exit if necessary.
“Well, isn’t this a cozy little summer cottage,” Clint said, peering through the windshield at the facility. He eyed the gaping hole in the roof and the twisted sheet metal. “You sure this place is stable?”
“Now I feel safe.”
Bobbi’s smile was dry. “Welcome to the world of espionage.”
She reached past him to get a flashlight out of the glove compartment and got out of the car. He did the same. Clint opened the backdoor and grabbed his quiver, slinging it over his shoulder. He did a quick inspection of the arrows then stuffed them into quiver. By the time he had his bow Bobbi was already standing in front of the facility looking it over from top to bottom. His eyes were caught by the flat black piece of metal hanging from her hip. He didn’t like her using guns. Guns led to more guns and people getting shot. More importantly Bobbi didn’t need a gun. She kicked his butt more than enough times to prove that. But that gun made her feel more comfortable and after what she went through he couldn’t force her to take that comfort away.
“So should we knock or let ourselves in,” he asked, joining beside her.
“Well, you can kick it open if you want.” Bobbi stepped forward to open the door. “But this works good too.”
“Now you’re showing off.”
“All those years in SHIELD weren’t for nothing, sport.”
The facility was dark save for the sunlight that streamed through the damaged roof casting a spotlight a few feet left of the center of the room. Disturbed dust speckled the light and hung heavy in the air. Bobbi clicked the flashlight to life shining a beam that speared the shadows and glinted off a few scraps of metal that must have fallen from the roof. At one point the area had been a lobby with a half circle security desk still standing tall under layers of grim and heavy doors to either side of it that separated the visitors from the employees. That was a long time ago.
“This place is...creepy,” Clint said, rubbing his forearm where the dry cool temperature had given him goosebumps.
“You were expecting something else from an abandoned building?”
“A welcome wagon would be nice.”
Bobbi smiled at his cheek, replying, “Next time I’ll call ahead and get you a fruit basket.”
“Shouldn’t there be foot prints around here,” Clint asked, walking alongside the security desk. He ran a finger through the heavy dust leaving a clean line in its wake. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here in years.”
“They were probably washed away by rain water or covered up by new dust. There’s a couple pounds of it floating in the air.”
Clint nodded at the explanation. He didn’t know how much rain the Badlands received but the sizeable hole in the roof exposed the room to all kinds of weather that could erase footprints. Whatever the reason they were gone now and the bare lobby held nothing to investigate. Clint approached the door to the right of the security desk and gave it a push. The door didn’t budge. He put his shoulder against the door and threw his weight into it to the same result. Clint stepped back to stand beside Bobbi and motioned toward the door. “You wanna work your magic here?”
Bobbi crouched down to inspect the lock then tested the door handle giving the door a weak push. “It’s not locked. Someone must’ve blocked the other side. Check the other door.”
A quick walk to the other side of the room put Clint in front of the second door. He grabbed the handle and pushed. The door swung open. “I’m good.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Clint,” she replied with a pat on his shoulder.
Breathing out a laugh Clint followed behind Bobbi into the hallway, flashlight pointing the way. Unlike the lobby the air wasn’t choked with dust and there was considerably less of it blanketing the floor. Instead many of the ceramic floor tiles were cracked, some missing entirely, with plants and grass growing up from the ground. They passed by a thick leafy vine that crawled up the wall and across the ceiling.
“So you still remember that trick with the dust.”
It was a question as much as a statement. Bobbi had been the one that taught him how to use a thin layer of dust or powder as a low-tech security system to reveal when intruders have been snooping around. However Clint doubted it was the trick itself that she was on her mind so much as when she taught it to him – their first adventure together. “How could I forget? Your bad housekeeping saved us from getting blown into another state.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“You don’t forget the important stuff.”
Bobbi tipped her head back and eyed him amused. “Like bad housekeeping?”
“That and your complete lack of cooking skills. I never saw anyone burn water before,” he teased. ”Do you remember?”
“I remember you still owe me 90 bucks. Those arrows weren’t cheap,” she replied, teasing him back.
Clint grinned. “Do you take a check?”
“Not one of yours.” Clint laughed and for a couple beats no one said anything, the only noise being that of their shoes’ soft clapping against the floor tiles. Finally Bobbi broke the silence, saying,”I remember everything.”
And that, Clint thought, was the closest Bobbi would get to being sentimental. There were no rambled memories or misty eyes, simply a joke and a blunt admission.
They continued down the hallway in silence for several yards finding very little of interest, only an occasional rat that scurried away as quickly as it was seen and interspersed plants growing inside the facility. The single door in the hall opened up to nothing more than a tiny janitor’s closest barely big enough for one person with a couple rusty cans littered on the floor. So they continued onward when nearing the end of the hall where it turned sharply right the flashlight came upon a clunky object perpendicular to the left wall. It was close to thirty inches in height and thirty-five in length and comprised of metal with tiny holes erratically peppered across it. As Clint got closer he realized it was not one object but two stacked on top of each other.
“Filing cabinets,” he said aloud, realizing what he was staring at. Two filing cabinets laid sideways and stacked on top of each other.
“It’s a weird place to leave them and in such a specific position.”
“It’s gotta be deliberate.”
Bobbi approached the filing cabinets and ran her hand over the holes. “Bullet holes. Someone built it as cover.”
“That’s why the door was blocked,” Clint said, his mind piecing together the clues. “They musta closed it off to funnel people through this hall where they’d be exposed and tried to gun ‘em down.”
“That’d explain why we have no survivors but not what Black Dog was,” the flashlight settled on the dented wall behind the cabinet barrier, “or what did that.”
Clint felt his eyebrows rise. “Something strong.”
“I’d say so.”
For the next hour and a half they continued their search through the facility going from one near empty room to another finding little more than leftover trash, rats, and dilapidated furniture. Occasionally they would come across a locked door giving them hope that the answers to the nature of Black Dog were guarded behind it but each time led to disappoint. Outside of the bullet ridden filing cabinets found in the hall and a couple scattered bullet holes there didn’t seem to be any evidence Black Dog had ever existed. Whoever had conducted the project had done a good job of cleaning up after themselves. If Clint didn’t know better he wouldn’t have thought anything had happened in the hollowed out remains of the research facility.
They were back in the hallway again after a very quick inspection of a bathroom that was sure to stick in Clint’s head for the next two weeks, not to mention his nose. The sewage tank had overflowed with the excess pushed out of a splintered toilet and formed a thin layer of sludge on the floor. They were careful not to step in it but the smell still seemed to linger.
“Here’s a thought,” Clint said as he followed Bobbi out the door, “let’s not look in anymore bathrooms.”
“Not without a hazmat suit, at least,” she added.
Their pace was quick to put distance between them and the horrors of the bathroom that Clint didn’t catch sight of an ascending staircase until he was a few strides away. He stopped in front of them and peered up but the stairs turned to the left and he couldn’t see past the wall. “Where do those stairs go?”
“They go up,” Bobbi said and started up the stairs.
Clint followed a few steps behind. It was a narrow stairwell, barely wide enough to fit two people walking side-by-side, and the metal creaked with every foot fall. He had no doubt that with a little extra weight he could make the steps break and would have to keep that mind when they came back down. At the top of the stairs they found an open door that led into an average sized room with an overturned table and a couple crates in the back and a large cloudy window that ran the length of the room. Clint approached the window then cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed against the window trying to see past the grime. It was hard to make out but it looked like a huge empty two story room was on the other side of the glass.
“What is this place?”
“An observation room above a test chamber.”
Clint turned to look at Bobbi, repeating, “Test chamber?”
“Not like you’re thinking. It was probably a wind tunnel for studying the aerodynamics of planes.”
“Doesn’t mean that the Black Dogs weren’t using it for something else.”
“We’ll check-,“ Bobbi stopped mid-sentence, her mouth parted and eyes narrowed.
Clint obeyed. Straining his ears he caught faint rustling noises coming from the back of the room behind the overturned table. Bobbi whipped out her gun and quietly moved toward the noise. Clint notched up an arrow to back her up if need be and approached the table from the left. They might have finally found the break in the case they spent all afternoon trying to find. The answer to what was Black Dog. Heart beating fast in anticipation he peaked over the rusted edge of the table and saw…a dog. Not black but reddish brown and it was sitting down gnawing at the remains of a rat cradled in its paws.
“It’s a coyote,” Clint said, lowering his bow. He noticed Bobbi didn’t put away her gun. “He musta came in here for the shelter and rat buffet.”
“Who wouldn’t with all the rave reviews,” she said, finally holstering her gun and moved toward the door. “Let’s go and leave him to his buffet. I don’t see anything up here that’ll help us.”
Clint followed, remembering to stay a few steps behind Bobbi as they descended the stairs. “There were no paw prints in the lobby. I wonder where that little guy got in here.”
“Given the shape of this place there’s probably a handful of holes he could’ve squeezed through.”
Just as Clint’s foot hit the bottom step a muffled beeping came from Bobbi’s jeans. She pulled a phone from her front pocket and looked at the screen, her brows creasing the longer she read. Clint craned his neck to look over her shoulder but she snapped it shut and shoved it back into her pocket before he could see anything.
“We have to go,” she said brusquely.
“A little explanation would be nice.”
“Remember that storm that wasn’t supposed to hit until tonight? It’s almost on top of us and,” Bobbi paused, her jaw clenched, “there’s a tornado watch.”
“S***,” Clint cursed, the news of a possible tornado seizing his chest. “We gotta run.”
He took off down the hall with a second clap of footsteps letting him know that Bobbi wasn’t far behind. Tornado or not, the winds could still rip apart the facility, which was being held together with duct tape and a prayer as it was. Just one good gust and they could have a two inch thick hunk of metal rocketing at their heads. Even the rough and tumble Land Rover wouldn’t be able to protect them from the velocity of a flying guillotine. And that would be just one of the ways the storm could wreak havoc. With turrets of rain, hail the size of softballs, and lightning itching for a place to strike, there was no shortage of danger. They had to get out before the storm struck.
Halfway through the building the rain started. It was slow at first, a quiet tapping on the roof to remind them of what was coming, but it wouldn’t remain quiet for long. When they had reached the overturned filing cabinets the taps jolted into a violent pounding that reverberated throughout the near-empty facility. Water trickled through the cracks. Thunder roared. Their time was running out.
Clint raced through the lobby, barely noticing the waterfall cascading through the hole in the ceiling on his way out the door. Even knowing the heavy wind and rain that awaited him Clint wasn’t prepared for just how intense the storm had grown. Angry black clouds had descended upon them, suffocating the light, as rain pelted him and an air gust threatened to knock him off his feet. His skin stung beneath drenched clothes after only seconds of expose. The Land Rover suddenly seemed a mile away.
With stubborn resolution, Clint charged through the slashing wind to the Land Rover and threw open the passenger’s door. He looked back, seeing Bobbi follow his lead, and pressed his body against the door, shouting, “Get in!”
The whooshing wind drowned out the sound of Clint’s voice but Bobbi understood the gesture climbing into the driver’s seat through the passenger side. He hopped in behind her, slamming the door shut and locking it for good measure. Clint hadn’t had the chance to catch his breath when he felt the Rover lurch forward. Wiggling in the seat, he managed to shrug off his bow and quiver and tossed them into the backseat so he could snap in the seat belt.
“I feel like the dirt someone pressure washed off a car,” Clint said, slicking back the wet hair that stuck to his face. His body still stung from the heavy rain. “If that’s ‘almost’ on top of us I don’t wanna wait around for it to squat on our heads.”
“I’m working on it but the rain isn’t making this easy.”
“How’s the traction?”
“Like a slip-and-slide.”
Clint frowned. With wind slamming the Land Rover it would take just the slightest slip to throw them into a tailspin. A slip that was all too likely with winding roads and a downpour of rain that the frantic windshield wipers did little to clear. They were hours away from the nearest town and the open country offered few places for shelter. “That truck stop was, what, 90 minutes away?”
“With any luck I can shave it down to 60.”
“Don’t push it. Not in this weather.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, cause this weather is what I’d call fine,” he replied, peering at the sky.
The increasingly heavy clouds dimmed the headlights to a mere glow. Hail soon followed thumping against the car’s hull. The storm was catching up with them. Bobbi squinted and strained to see the road through the sheets of rain and fog to keep the Rover at its blistering pace. She was determined to stay in front of the storm but she was fighting a losing battle. The window of escape was almost closed and they were on the wrong side of it. An egg sized hunk of hail punched the corner windshield. A web of cracks splintered out before them. Clint opened his mouth but words never left his lips. The tires had hit a wet patch and lost traction.
It happened faster than they could react. The back end of the Land Rover slid out, skidding horizontal on the road. Wind barreled into the exposed driver’s side. Clint felt the Rover tilt before pain sparked in his head and darkness stole his sight. Faintly he heard the crunch of metal.
Dizzy and disoriented, Clint sat unmoving watching the rainbow splotches that danced across his eyes. Minutes passed. Something touched his jaw and he weakly flailed a hand to brush it away. The touch returned with garbled noises.
“-way,” Clint mumbled, waving at the annoying noise.
Something grabbed his hand to stop him from waving. The voice continued, “Clint, we can’t stay here. We could get hit. Are you okay to walk?”
Clint groaned, his mind starting to clear. He remembered his encounter with the snake, the Aviation Research facility, their hurried exit and struggling through the storm. He remembered, groggily, the crash. Reaching up, his fingers grazed the side of his head that struck the window. Even the light touch brought a grimace and he dropped his hand, there’d be time to worry about it later. For the moment he had to get his bearings. Clint glanced around the Rover seeing the cracked windshield, crunched headlights, and Bobbi seated in the driver’s seat and realized something unusual. Everything was sideways.
Clint leaned back and groaned again, this time in frustration. They weren’t going anywhere with the Land Rover lying on the passenger side.
“Clint?” Bobbi’s voice was tense, she was worried.
“I’m fine. A little...achy but fine.”
“You better not be lying or I’ll kick your ass,” she replied no less somber.
“All right,” she replied, though her tone was no less troubled. “The Emery facility isn’t too far away. If we follow the road we should be able to find our way back. We’ve got road flares to use as a torch, they’re our best bet at cutting through this black fog.”
“Whatever you say,” Clint said then added, “What about you? I mean, are you okay? You didn’t hit your head or nothing?”
“Nothing serious. Now help me kick this windshield out.”
Clint felt for the seat adjuster controls and brought his legs up to move the seat forward as much as he could without trapping himself. Sliding in his seat to get a better angle, he pressed the soles of his boots flat against the cracked windshield, bent knees up to his chest. He paused, glancing up at Bobbi fiddling with the steering wheel to give her more room, and waited until she had her feet resting against the windshield. On Bobbi’s word they pushed. The windshield resisted. Clint stomped, hoping to knock the windshield loose. On his third try the windshield relented, loosening its grip on the frame enough that rain dripped inside the cab. Encouraged by the result Clint doubled his effort pounding the glass until it finally popped free.
Water spilled into the Land Rover, ruining their dry sanctuary. Clint ripped off his seatbelt and crawled free through the opening. He was greeted with the same torrents of rain and wind that beat him outside the facility. Shielding himself with his arms, he turned his back to the storm to watch Bobbi and provide assistance if needed. It wouldn’t be necessary as she managed to unbuckle and climb safely out of her sideways seat to the ground. Instead of joining him, she briefly retreated deeper into the Land Rover, coming back carrying the first aid kit in one hand and road flares in the other. She shoved the kit into his hands.
“Cover your head!”
Clint pushed it back. “You need it!”
“You already hit your head once,” Bobbi shouted, her voice growing fierce to rise above the storm.
“Which is why you need to stay clear!”
“Don’t argue!” She struck a road flare and the red flame cut into the black clouds. “I’ll stay close!”
As much as Clint’s heart wanted to further argue for Bobbi’s safety he knew they couldn’t stand around yelling. Not when he ultimately knew she was right. One potential head injury was bad enough; a second hit from a piece of hail would have dangerous consequences. Sighing, he gave in and held the kit over his head.
With flare stretched forward as a guiding light they braved the storm. As Bobbi promised she stayed close, only a step ahead of him with a handful of his shirt held in a death grip as if she feared he would get blown away. Faintly through the dark Clint saw the silhouettes of trees bending like heated metal under the command of the fierce gales roaring through the valley. Its strength was immense. In only five minutes his calves and thighs were burning with exertion. He was soaked to the bone and his waterlogged boots felt heavier and heavier with every step.
Clint stumbled through his memory of the car ride, trying to determine the distance to the facility. How long had they been driving – ten, maybe fifteen minutes? Had they gotten to the bend in the road shadowed by the cliffside? He couldn’t remember. It all felt cloudy and muddled.
If they had one bit of luck it was the road led almost directly to the facility. As long as they followed it and kept their eyes sharp for the left turn they wouldn’t get lost. That is as long as their flare stayed lit. Were it to get snuffed out by the rain they would be left to fumble blind in the middle of storm. Clint tried not to think about it. They had enough problems as it was without blindness further complicating things. He couldn’t let his paranoia drag them down.
Distracted by his thoughts, Clint didn’t realize Bobbi had slipped until her death grip on his shirt nearly toppled him over. Instinctively he dug his heels in and his right arm lashed around her waist stopping her fall, the first aide kit softly thumping against his head. Lightning slit the sky in a vivid streak that for an instant returned the world to light. Through rain blurred eyes a hint of metal glinted in the distance. It was large and flat, the side of the facility. And then it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. The curtain of darkness dropped around the soft red glow of the road flare. Thunder rumbled like an upcoming freight train, sending a chill up Clint’s spine.
“I saw it,” Clint shouted, finally letting go of her waist. “We’re almost there!”
They charged ahead, encouraged by the sight of the facility and the promise of dry shelter. As if on cue the storm intensified to counter their efforts. Hail pounded against the first aid kit. His eyes burned at the dust and rain blown into his face. Wind tore at his skin. Clint grit his teeth and ignored it all. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, urging him on harder and faster. He couldn’t let the storm beat him now. Not when they were so close.
Suddenly, he felt his shirt being jerked to the left. Bobbi was pulling him off the main road. Clint looked down and saw the cracked, uneven pavement beneath his feet. He couldn’t see the facility yet but he knew it was there at the end of the road. Giddy with excitement, he just wanted to throw away the first aide kit and race the rest of the way, rain and wind be damned. Bobbi’s pace had quickened, tugging him along, evident that she was thinking the same. Neither of them concerned with the high pitched screech emitted from the direction of the facility.
It moved at a breakneck speed, so fast it seemingly appeared out of thin air. No time to think, only react. Clint dove for the ground, his face unprotected as it crashed into the cold, sharp pavement, his left knee hitting the ground shortly after. Pain flooded his mind. Experience overrode it, forcing his eyes open to catch the whirling sheet metal slice the air above him. Clint was pushing up as soon as it had left his field of vision.
“Go” Clint yelled, snatching up the kit with one hand and pushing Bobbi ahead with the other.
He didn’t bother covering his head or following the dying road flare, Clint ran. Footsteps pounded the pavement. The monstrous dark silhouette of the facility split the fog, slowly coming into sight. Bobbi, being the faster of the two, reached the door first and tugged it halfway open despite the opposing wind. He gave her a gentle push as he slipped inside behind her. The door clanged shut behind them.
They were greeted not with warmth and safety but more water. The lobby was flooded past their ankles and still rising as rain poured through the hole in the roof. Clint darted to the door on the right and tried to yank it open. The door resisted. He looked down at the water creeping up his calf; it wasn’t nearly high enough to pressure it closed but still the door resisted to another pull. His mind raced for a solution.
“Clint,” Bobbi shouted, “wrong door!”
Clint looked over at Bobbi sloshing toward the door on his left and it clicked. “Wrong door.”
Hurrying over to the other side of the room, he reached the door a step ahead of her and opened it. Water streamed through the doorway and between Clint’s legs. The hallway was as badly flooded as the lobby with rain trickling down the walls and ceiling. Clint ventured forward, unperturbed. They moved quickly through the hallway and past the overturned cabinet. He wasn’t sure where he was headed, their previous visit hadn’t revealed a storm cellar, but they couldn’t stand around and get rained on.
They hadn’t gone far before catching a whiff of a foul odor. The further they went the stronger it got until its putrid stench seared Clint’s nose. He turned his head to get away from the stink, coughing harshly.
“Something smells rank.”
Bobbi waved the road flare over the top of the water. Unlike the clear water in the lobby, it was a diluted brown color with odd flecks. “Jesus, it’s the sewage.”
“I thought I recognized that funk. The flooding musta got into the bathroom too.”
“Swimming in sewage isn’t on my bucket list, let’s get to high ground.”
Bobbi pushed forward, the light of the flare bouncing off the walls and tainted water. There was only one high ground they knew of and it was the observation room above the testing chamber. It was deep within the facility and they wasted no time sloshing through the foot high water, unheeded by its vile nature. Quickly, they trudged through dark, dank corridors and past empty offices. Above their heads, the wind rattled the roof, threatening to rip it apart. It drove Clint’s tiring body harder.
Their noses told them they had reached the bathrooms, the source of the sewage, before their eyes did. The suffocating stench clawed at Clint’s throat and made his stomach churn. No amount of breath holding could keep it away, the smell penetrated his senses.
They sped past the bathroom. Clint idly noticed a couple dead rats floating on the surface, having drowned in the fetid water, but didn’t think much of it. Not until he came upon the stairway. Crammed together without so much as an inch of the steps visible were rats. Hundreds of rats. Many of which were drenched from the flooding and stinking of sewage.
“Dammit,” Clint huffed, feeling the prick of frustration. Nothing was coming easy.
“I’ll go first,” Bobbi said, “I’m lighter.”
“Careful with those stairs, take ‘em slow.”
Bobbi grimaced as she nudged rats off the first step to give her a spot to put her foot. “It’s not the stairs that are moving.”
Standing off to the side, Clint watched as she cautiously took her first step onto the stairs, poised for action should something go wrong. The brittle structure creaked and groaned. She ignored the warning and shifted her weight onto her right foot to lift her left onto the next step. Wood cracked. Her foot crashed through the step and disappeared. Clint nearly dropped the first aid kit but Bobbi kept her balance, reaching out to the wall to steady herself. Her face wore a grimace.
“That went well,” Bobbi muttered.
Clint offered his arm for support. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” she said, carefully stepping off the stairs and back into the water. “But that idea is shot.”
“Okay, new plan,” he said. “Let’s wing it.”
“Well, at least you put some thought into it.”
“Either we explore more of this place and try to find somewhere dry or go back to the lobby and get soaked. I figure this is the better option.”
“Remind me to go over the definition of ‘better’ with you when we aren’t knee deep in sewage.”
Despite her comments, Bobbi moved past Clint and led the way into the unexplored area of the facility. He knew the plan was a gamble. They could wander around for an hour and not find anything but a nasty case of trench foot. However, he didn’t think sitting on the table in the lobby exposed to the elements would do them any good. He was willing to take a chance on a dry sanctuary that may or may not exist.
They followed the hallway, bypassing offices that would likely be flooded, until coming upon intersection. Pausing in the middle, Bobbi took a minute to survey their options. Red light licked the ceiling and walls but didn’t penetrate deep enough to see where each corridor led. Abruptly, she turned left.
Clint trailed behind her, his legs feeling heavy as energy waned. “Whattaya think is over here?”
“I don’t know,” she said and glanced at him with amused eyes. “I’m winging it.”
The wretched cry of twisted metal stopped Clint short. Spinning on his heels, he stared, mouth parted, as the ceiling bugled and collapsed. Huge slabs of debris plummeted into the narrow hallway only two yards away from him, kicking up water that doused his shirt and pants. More water spilled through the now gaping hole and trickled down the heap of debris. They weren’t going back that way. The hallway was completely blocked.
Bobbi appeared at his side, the flare casting its glow across the debris. “What the hell happened?”
“The sky is falling.”
Craning his neck, Clint looked up through the hole seeing only darkness and rain. “Looks like the weight of the water musta made it collapse.”
“Nothing we can do about that. Let’s keep moving, there’s no going back now.”
Clint lingered, taking a final look at the debris, then followed. The adrenaline rush that had guided him through the storm was all but crushed by the mounting obstacles of the facility. His body felt leadened, weighed down by stress and fatigue. It cried out for relief from the downward spiral they found themselves in but none would come. Every room they came upon was as flooded and damaged as the last. Not even a goodly sized box to sit on could be found.
Irritation coiled in his stomach and grew tighter and tighter with each failure. He wanted a problem he could fight. Something tangible he could touch. The storm, the flooding, made him feel helpless. He hated it more than anything.
Bobbi had taken to the challenge with a stubborn resolution. Steady and determined, she marched through the water from one room to the next. If there was any disappointment in finding the latest door locked and unmovable she didn’t show it. Her aloofness pricked his anger. She was so damnably calm it made him feel stupid for being frustrated. He wanted to yell at her just to make her react.
But he didn’t.
Bobbi wasn’t saying much, undoubtedly sensing his straining temper, and ignoring him. He trailed behind, pre-occupied with his anger, as she took charge of the search. Belatedly, he realized there was no exit to the hallway as they reached the last door. A blank wall capped the end of the hall. Not a single vent, window, or staircase to offer hope. Clint’s frown deepened. He didn’t like where this was going.
Standing off to the side, he couldn’t see past her body into the room, and had to wait for her to enter before following. Anger swelled and snapped his discipline. Clint swung his arm at the wall next to him, the edge of his fist smashing through brittle drywall.
“Nothing,” he sneered at the flooded storage room. It was moderately sized with pieces of a broken metal shelf submerged in water.
“It’s one room.”
“It’s all the rooms. The whole damn place is a swamp.”
“You want to tone it down, Clint? You’re just a little too chipper.”
Clint turned his glare on Bobbi. “Don’t pretend you’re not pissed. We’ve been wading through a toilet for the past hour and now we’re trapped.”
“It sucks but you deal with it, not punch holes in the wall,” she replied, gesturing at the hole and...
Immediately dropping the conversation, Clint faced the wall, running his hang over broken drywall. The hallways had metal paneling, as did many of the rooms they visited, that they couldn’t break through without tools. The dent by the filing cabinet proved that. But the storage room wasn’t so sturdy. Drywall was easily broken. Clint picked off a piece of the wall and crumbled it in his hand. A grin split his face as he looked at the crumbs in his palm.
Clint punched the wall, increasing the size of the hole. He hit it again. And again. It attracted Bobbi’s attention, asking, “What the hell are you doing?”
He looked over at her, grin still firmly in place. “Bustin’ outta this dead end.”
For a moment, Bobbi stared at him, clearly confused, then her face lit up with realization. She returned his smile and joined him. “Move over.”
Bobbi switched the flare from her right hand to her left and settled in next to him, tearing away at the drywall. Between the two of them they made quick work of the wall. It took only a few minutes before they had a hole big enough to fit a man’s head. Clint peaked through and squinted at the darkness. He couldn’t see a thing. For a moment, he debated tossing a flare through the hole to see the room, but the flooding would likely snuff out the light. So they went back to work punching and tearing, the water around them becoming littered with drywall.
“I got this one,” Bobbi said once the hole big enough to squeeze her shoulders through. The storage room grew dark as Bobbi’s upper torso went through the hole. A muffled shout quickly followed.
“What happened,” Clint tensely asked, belatedly realizing it was unlikely she could understand him anymore than he did of her.
Bobbi’s torso reappeared with a mile wide smile. “It’s dry!”
“No, I’m doing it just to screw with you,” Bobbi replied, the smile giving away her dry tone. “Yeah, it’s dry. Toss the first aid kit in and let’s get this hole big enough to crawl through.”
Clint grinned, throwing the first aide kit through the hole, and tore into the wall with both hands. Adrenaline surged with the promise of dry shelter, giving energy to his tired body. Careful not to get too close to the water level, they ripped open the hole, making it bigger and wider. Soon it was big enough for a person to climb through. Bobbi tossed the flare through the hole and went first, sticking her leg through the opening and ducking inside. Clint waited a moment to give her time to get out of the way then gracelessly dove through the hole, landing in a heap.
“Very smooth,” Bobbi said, extending her right hand and helping him back to his feet.
And for a minute, they stood and looked at each other. They were drenched from head to toe. Clint was all too conscious of how the t-shirt clung to Bobbi’s chest, though it wasn’t the reason for the gut drop feeling that froze him. It was that look. Lips parted with the corner of her mouth turned up in a smirk and an intense stare that burned. She was having fun and so was he, previous frustrations aside.
“You’re soaked,” he said finally, sounding a little out of breath.
Bobbi stalked forward, closing what little gap there was between them. He could feel the heat radiating from her. “You’re not looking so dry yourself.”
Grinning, Clint slid his hands onto her hips and tilted his head down as she threaded a hand through his hair and crushed her lips into his.
Her mouth was eager, tongue stroking him, and he replied with vigor. Bobbi was a wall of heat pressed against his chest, separated by only a layer of wet cotton. Annoyed by it, Clint pushed up the shirt past her navel, seeking soft flesh slick with water and sweat. He wanted to the shirt off her, but that meant breaking the kiss and he was reluctant to pull away just yet. Bobbi had no such problems, and pulled at the buttons to open up his shirt and run her hand over his chest.
He leaned into her and shuffled his feet forward, forcing her to take a step back lest lose her balance. He continued to press, getting her to blindly walk backwards deeper into the room. Past the blood pounding in his ears, he dimly heard the clumsy scraps of their shoes and a low groan, though he wasn’t sure who it came from. Bobbi’s right hand was gripping his bare shoulder, the shirt pushed off though wet cotton clung to his back. She pulled back, breaking the kiss and he let her, mouthing his way to her neck. He felt the rapid thump of her heart beat against his lips.
“Where are you going,” she asked, sounding out of breath.
For a beat, he didn’t answer. Then Clint lifted his head to look at her and said, “I don’t know.”
Bobbi laughed, breathless. “Winging it, huh?”
She pushed at his shoulder to move him backwards. “Let me handle this one.”
Clint let go of her waist and shrugged off his shirt while she maneuvered him through the room. He didn’t bother to look over his shoulder to see where they were going, he trusted her, and was more interested in what was in front of him. His grin was cheeky as he said, “You’re so bossy.”
“God knows I can’t leave it up to you. You’d back us into a lake.”
“You look good wet.”
One hand brushed a strand of wet matted hair behind Bobbi’s ear while the other found its way to high on her ribcage. Clint bent his head for a hard kiss that he kept brief. He still wanted that shirt off her and took the opportunity to snake his hands under the fabric to lift it up. Reading his intentions, Bobbi grabbed the hem and whipped it over her head, tossing it to the ground with a wet thud. Clint was met with a gray sports bra and if it wasn’t the complete bare skin he was seeking it was closer than he was before.
The skin-on-skin contact of Bobbi’s body pressing against him to lick the water off his Adam’s apple quickly took away what little ability to think he had left. Eyes closed, Clint rolled his head back and enjoyed it. Abruptly, a cold, hard edge pressed against the back of his thigh. He looked over his shoulder to see where Bobbi had led him and found the brown rusted surface of a table. A hand reached for the right side of his head, turning him to face forward, and he flinched, still sore from the crash. Bobbi didn’t seem to notice, leaning up to kiss the side of his mouth. He grabbed her wrist to move it. Pain flashed across her face.
Clint apologized with a kiss to her palm. “Did you hurt it on the stairs?”
“No,” she said, expression transported as he put a lingering kiss in the crook of her elbow, “earlier.”
“Running in the storm?”
“In the crash. I smacked it against the steering wheel.”
“In the crash,” he repeated, looking up. “So when I asked if you were alright and you said yes, what was that? A creative interpretation?
“I’m fine.” She pulled her arm away from him. “I hurt my wrist, Clint. It’s not exactly life threatening.”
“It could’ve been. You didn’t know what would happen, how a weak grip coulda got both of us hurt.”
Bobbi took a step back and her face shifted, eyes narrowing with a growing annoyance. “Staying in that storm is a bigger risk than my wrist. We couldn’t waste time playing with a brace for a wrist that might not even be broken.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth, I didn’t say a damn thing about stopping, but you should’ve told me. Just so I’d know if something went wrong,” he said stubbornly. He hated how she assumed he’d have stopped to treat a sore wrist in the middle of a storm like he was blind to the danger. He was an Iowa boy, he knew the power of tornados first hand, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t take two seconds to say she was injured.
“Because you’re taking it so well now.”
Clint tsked and pushed away from the table. “I wouldn’t be pissed if you’d told me from start instead hiding it. Is it so hard to trust me?”
“Oh, bullshit,” she replied, voice rising, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust you! I trust you with my life so don’t even try to pull that crap.”
His voice rose to match her, yelling, “Then tell me what’s going on. I’m sick of these little secrets and you freaking out on me.”
“I’m not the one having a fit because you don’t tell me about every hangnail you get.”
“No, instead you wait until we’re in bed and freak out over,” he paused, “I don’t even know what!”
Bobbi huffed. “You’re still on that? I told you it was nothing.”
“You wanna try that again with a lie that’s actually believable?”
“Go **** yourself,” she snapped. “Is that believable enough for you?”
Clint glared at her back as she marched to the other side of the room to cut off any reply. Huffing, he turned his back to hers and walked to the far side of the table, not wanting to look at her. Neither of them could leave the room, there was no where else to go. The most they could do was stay in their corners and ignore each other. He was left to stare at the wall, cursing her damn pride in his head. She just couldn’t put it aside for one minute and admit she was hurt.
With a frustrated snarl, he pounded his fist against the wall. For a couple beats he stood still. Anger washed over him then left, leaving Clint suddenly feeling very tired. He pressed against the wall for support and slumped to the floor, legs sprawled out in front him. His adrenaline rush had crashed. It had sustained him long enough to get through the storm but his body had enough. It wanted to rest. But before Clint would grant it, he yanked off his waterlogged boots which were soon followed by his socks. He looked down at his jeans, contemplating it a second, then stripped nude and wrung out his boxer-briefs. He pulled his underwear back on but left his jeans, still heavy with water, in a pile with his boots.
Finally satisfied, Clint rolled his head back and let his eyelids droop closed. There was a chill in the room that made him shiver. Rain thumped against the roof, the storm reminding him it was still out there. However, it was Bobbi that was on his mind. He replayed the conversation in his mind, cringing at his hot-tempered mistakes. His mouth had got away from him, but her isolated nature was frustrating and would get someone hurt. He had enough of fumbling around blind trying to figure out what was going on with her.
Twenty minutes of silence passed before he heard the slow, soft clap of footsteps.
“You know, most people would’ve put clothes on after a fight, not take more off.”
Clint cracked his eyes open. Bobbi stood several feet away, arms wrapped around her torso, looking as exhausted as he felt. “I like to think I’m an innovator.”
“Any excuse to show-off, huh,” she replied, a brief smile turning up the corner of her mouth before fading. She took a step forward. “I won’t apologize for not telling you about my wrist, I think you’re blowing that out of proportion, but I know I owe you explanation about the other night.” She sighed, dropping her hands to lean on the table behind her. “You know I’m not good at opening up.”
She looked down for a moment, collecting her thoughts, as the flare’s light turned her blonde hair red. In the distance, thunder rumbled.
“When I was on the Skrull’s planet I had to stay in control. I couldn’t let my guard down for one minute; I couldn’t let myself slip into a precarious position where I couldn’t fully protect myself. If I did,” Bobbi trailed off, the rest of the sentence not needing to be spoken. “So when you were laid out on top of me I guess I felt trapped. You’re not exactly small, and with the weight, I couldn’t really move. I panicked.” She shrugged. “I don’t know why I did it. It was stupid and I should’ve just rolled you over instead of running away. I wasn’t going to let it happen again so it didn’t seem necessary to tell you about it. But it wasn’t something you did, I screwed up.”
Clint stood up slowly and walked toward her until he was less than a yard away. “You didn’t screw up.” He paused then corrected, “Well, you did, but not cause of a panic attack.”
Bobbi breathed out a laugh. “Gee, thanks.”
“I can’t blame you for freaking out, and if you didn’t wanna explain right then what set ya off I wouldn’t press. Just tell me later, it’s frustrating as hell not knowing if you’re really okay. I don’t want ya to suffer alone.”
“I’m okay, and so is the wrist,” she said and held up her arm to show him. “How’s your head?”
“Sore, but I’ll live. I got a hard head.”
Another smile played across her face, but this one was different. Bobbi was smiling at him, not his words, and he could feel the mood starting to shift again. “So, what now?”
“I don’t know, I was expecting this fight to at least last out the storm.”
“I know, right? We’re so out of practice,” she replied. “I guess we’ll have to kill time another way.”
Clint stepped forward, thinning the gap, but hesitating to pin her against the table. He wouldn’t make the mistake of trapping her again. The next move would have to be hers. “Got any ideas?”
“One or two.”
In response, Bobbi grabbed the waistband of his underwear and gave it a light tug, urging him to come closer. He obliged, sliding his hands over her hips. With a hand cupping his jaw, she pulled his face down and planted a heated kiss, continuing where they left off.
This time there was no interruptions.
Heavy kisses and roaming hands soon brought back their previous state. Regardless of what Bobbi said about the panic attack being an isolated incident, Clint wasn’t going to risk it and sat on the table, having her straddle his lap as not to trap her. If it wasn’t the most comfortable thing he ever sat on, it was better than the floor and he wasn’t about to complain. Soon clothes were being shed and problems faded in the heat of the moment. Between their mutual excitement and little patience for slow caresses, it wasn’t long they hit their peaks and collapsed together in a sweaty, panting heap. Later after recovering, they took their time with unhurried kisses and touches, continuing long after the storm ended.
The chill of the building eventually forced them to redress, though their clothes were still slightly damp from the rain, and they both took a couple Advils from the first aide kit for their injuries. With the storm over they were left with little reason to stay in the room and left through a door to a yet unexplored hallway. Like their sanctuary, it was relatively dry and free from sewage.
“Well, we can officially cross sex-during-a-tornado off the list,” Clint said, looking across at Bobbi as they walked side by side through the hall.
Bobbi smirked. “That sounds like a cocktail.”
“I’d try it,” he replied. “So any clue where we’re going?”
“Not a one.”
“Maybe we can follow the smell-”
“Wait,” Bobbi cut him off. “What’s that?”
Squinting, he peered down the long hallway, trying to spot whatever it was that Bobbi did. At first he didn’t see anything, it looked like any other hallway they had been in that day, but a glint of light caught his eye as his mouth opened to speak. He snapped it shut and jogged toward the soft glow of daylight that crept across the floor. The negative part of his brain warned him that it could be the sun peeking through a window or holes in the ceiling, but the angle of light looked like the source was much closer to the floor. As they got closer he could make out the jagged outline of a misshapen hole born out of long years of neglect.
“This musta been where the coyote and all the rats got in,” Clint said as they approached the hole. It was smaller than he thought it would be, it was going to be a tight fit.
“I’ll go first.”
Bobbi crouched as low as she could manage and, careful to cut herself, angled her body through the cramped opening. Clint passed the first aide kit to her then crouched to go next, but it was obvious that even crouched he was too tall to sneak through. He tried to get lower, laying flat on his stomach, and this time there was enough clearance as he crawled through. Unprepared for the harsh sunlight, Clint was momentarily left blinded by bright yellow as he got to his feet and shielded his eyes with his hand. Slowly the blindness receded and the rocky landscape of the Badlands faded into view. Numerous trees were upturned or bent and debris from the Emery facility was scattered across the area. Down the road, he saw the overturned remains of the Land Rover. The sky had returned to a vivid blue with a streak of white clouds, no sign of the heavy blackness that had descended upon them earlier.
“Found where we parked the car,” Bobbi said with a wry smile.
“It doesn’t look like it’ll be driving anytime soon. I guess we gotta leg it.”
“I’ll leave that to you,” she replied and pulled the cell phone from her pocket. “I’m just going to call for a pick-up.”
“Well, if you wanna do it the easy way…”
“Trust me, nothing with you is ever easy.”
Clint laughed and idly walked forward, enjoying the sun’s warmth as it dried his damp clothes. A few feet away, a snake slithered out from the brush and into the light.
A Girl and Her Jaguar
The switch flicked on and fluorescent light flooded the small sterile garage, glinting off the cherry red tool cabinet and a row of open ended wrenches perfectly aligned on the bleach white peg board. The unmistakable aroma of oil and gasoline clung to the air belying the tidy appearance. It was a welcome smell to Bobbi’s nose. She happily inhaled the scent, the corners of her mouth tugging up in a soft smile. It was good to be home.
“It’s me,” she said aloud to the sole occupant of the garage.
The paint chipped blue Jaguar didn’t reply. It sat stone silent in the middle of the garage, as it always did. With its battery sitting under the workbench it wasn’t going to make so much as a whimper, but that was the least of its worries with a failing alternator and a transmission in bad need of repairs. Not to mention a host of other problems, big and small.
“I have a present,” she said and set the brown paper bag she had been carrying on the workbench, relieving her tired arms of the weight. A six pack of Guinness emerged from the bag and her smile grew. “That’s my present. This” –a small box labeled as a distributor cap and rotor kit followed the beer-- “is yours.”
Bobbi set aside the box to grab a black bottle of Guinness, twisting off the top and tossing it onto the bench with a sharp clatter. The strong bitter stout hit her taste buds as she took a long pull from the bottle, hoping to dull the ache in her temples. It had been a long day and Bobbi was glad to be finally off-duty for the next 36 hours. She approached the front of the Jaguar, crouching down to view it eye-to-headlamp, and affectionately ran her hand along the fender.
She had always thought it was funny the attachment Clint had for his bows or Cap to his shield. Bobbi had never felt anything for her battle staves. They were good reliable weapons, but it was inanimate springs and metal. It was something to use, not form an emotional bond with. That she would find herself petting the Jaguar like a cherished family dog wasn’t something she’d expect herself doing, especially at three in the morning.
“I guess I can’t tease Clint about mothering his bows anymore. At least not as much,” Bobbi said to herself. She dropped her hand away. “Right. Time to get to work.”
The Guinness was replaced with a screwdriver and Bobbi popped the hood to start unscrewing the old distributor cap.
Despite the hours she had put into restoring it, the Jaguar still wasn’t much better than when she had found it beat up and neglected by the side of the road with a large red ‘For Sale’ sign pressed against the cracked windshield. It wouldn’t have fetched much money from a scrap yard, but there was something about that old hunk of junk that drew Bobbi in even then. Beneath the dents and rust, she could see what the Jaguar used to be when it rolled off the line in ’84. Sleek and powerful, like its namesake. So, she bought it off the previous owner for dirt cheap and had it towed from New Jersey to a rented storage unit in New York.
She could’ve bought a new Jaguar or one already restored, but where was the fun in that?
It was nice to have a project to work on when sleep won’t come and old X-Files reruns have lost their appeal. It was something that had been happening a lot lately, resulting in many hours spent with the Jaguar. She chalked it up to simple stress. Not from any dramatic mission or psyche scarring experience, just the daily pressures of being Mockingbird. Sometimes, that was enough.
“When was the last time anyone replaced this,” Bobbi mumbled, eyeing the chalky white carbon build up on the metal contacts inside the distributor cap. Having finished unscrewing it, she pulled the cap off and moved it aside, the spark plug wires left attached for the moment. The rotor, now exposed, was next to be removed with an easy tug. She swapped it for the new one, putting it on in the same position as the previous rotor.
As she started switching the spark plug wires to the new cap, her phone beeped from the depths of her pants pocket, signifying the arrival of a new text message. Bobbi ignored it. A bit irresponsible given her profession, she knew, but when she stepped through the threshold Bobbi left that part of her life at the door. Inside the 10 by 20 storage unit the only thing on her mind was the Jaguar. This was her time. The world could wait two minutes.
Bobbi continued her work, unperturbed by the unseen text, till all the wires were correctly connected to the new distributor cap. She screwed it back into place then tossed the old cap into the box to be thrown away when she left. She paused a moment then grabbed the battery sitting below the workbench and lugged it over to the Jaguar, quickly hooking it up. She had previously unhooked the battery to stop the broken alternator from sapping the charge when the engine was off, but a brief test of her handiwork wouldn’t hurt it any. A quick key turn and the Jaguar roared to life.
With beer in hand, Bobbi watched the idling engine, the edge of her mouth tipped up. There was a soothing satisfaction in being able to diagnose and fix a simple problem. So much of her work was stressful situations with complicated solutions and physically demanding marathons. No one could argue being a costumed hero was an easy job. She couldn’t stem AIM’s sale of illegal technology in five minutes, but she could rejuvenate an old Jaguar with a new distributor cap.
Bobbi sighed and plucked the phone from her pocket. Sanctuary or not, she couldn’t put off answering it for more than a moment.
“’Beer thief. You better save me some when you and the Jaguar finish your date’,” Bobbi recited the text from Clint and laughed. “We’ll see about that.” She tipped the beer toward the Jaguar. “Cheers.”
The Jaguar rumbled back. As she drained the dark stout from its bottle, she felt the ache in her head wane and exhaustion set in. Though some stress still remained Bobbi would deal with it one part at a time.
Hey man, another awesome addition to your collection! I particularly loved this one but I’m sure you can guess why, haha.
I really loved the moments where Bobbi interacted and showed affection towards the Jaguar, it’s not exactly something you see often with Bobbi. Plus, it’s just always fun to see characters let their guard down and relax a bit, though in this case I think it’s even better because we get to see what Bobbi does to wind down when she’s stressed and feeling exhausted from being an Avenger. A broken run-down car being her project is perfect for her too. It fits her personality since we know Bobbi ain’t the type for bubble baths with a glass of wine, haha. She’s a scientist so it makes sense that she’d want to focus on something with tangible solutions and results.
Also, the scenes were brief but I thought you did a great job describing the details of Bobbi actually fixing the car with changing car parts and what not. It probably wasn’t a problem for you but naming car parts and how they’re removed and changed seems like a pain in the ass to write, especially since I know next to nothing about cars, haha. Overall though, all the scenes were well described and written, making Bobbi’s feelings clear and why the car is important for her.
I also loved the little Clint “cameo” at the end with the text message haha. She shoulda known to leave him at least one bottle of beer! But anyways, awesome snack sized story (once again)!
Thanks for the review, man!
Bobbi showing affection toward the Jaguar was pretty fun to write since as much as she likes the car, she's also a bit embarassed for being so attached to it. But yeah, I think it's a good choice for her. I wouldn't consider her a gear head, but she appreciates a good car and the technical side to them. I definitely can't see her sitting around reading bad romance books like Jan, haha.
Haha, replacing the distributor cap and rotor is very simple to do. But I thought it best for Bobbi to do something simple as to keep it simple for the reader. I was still a bit worried about some of the car stuff being unclear, but I didn't wanna spend too much time describing the distributor cap since the act of replacing it is more important than what it is.
Haha, I was trying not to include Clint cause this is Bobbi's story about her and not her relationship, but I wouldn't help myself. I think I have a problem.
So, these are my more in-depth thoughts (at least, they're as in-depth as my thoughts get):
You did a really good job of showing how Bobbi uses the car as a way to relieve stress even though she can never totally eliminate that stress, and I liked how you had her ignore a message on her phone for a second (but only a second) to demonstrate how important having that time to herself is (rather than just having her complain constantly about being stressed, which would obviously get real annoying), even if it means ignoring a message about an impending alien invasion or something. To be fair, the Avengers probably don't text you for that. That's probably worth an actual phone call.
Having her do something really simple with the car worked out for the best, I think, since you didn't have to go into any real in-depth technical descriptions, and you could focus your attention on what actually matters in the story, which is Bobbi's surprising affection for the car and her need to blow off steam by working on it. If you had to sit there and describe a 20-step process of fixing the car, it'd get real boring fast.
So, basically, it's another fun story. Though it's clearly lacking two-time county archery champions.
Thanks for the review Rogue!
Good pick-up on the phone. I wanted there to be underlying stress throughout the entire story without her having to come out and say she's stressed, since she's the only person in the store. Her arms are sore and tired, she's got a headache, it's three in the morning, and she ignored the text message. I was a bit worried that the stress wouldn't come through enough since she smiles a bit and her general mood isn't cranky, but I think there's enough there to show that she's stressed while also relieved to be in her little sanctuary away from everything.
haha, I'm sure eyes would start to glaze over by the time I got to the sixth step.
Yeah, I felt like the stress totally came through, and the phone was a real important part of it. If you take that out, then you just got a few hints here and there. She would seem maybe a bit stressed or tired, but not anything too out of the ordinary, at least (especially for three in the morning, when someone would naturally be tired anyway). That was the clincher, I think.
That's got me beat, though. I'm sure I couldn't make it past the third step.