Forty five minutes later, I land next to a tumbleweed in Harkens, Kansas.
“You guys know the plan.” Cap barks over the comms, “Stick to it!”
“Sir Yes sir, Cap!” I rocket upwards, higher and higher until I can see the entire town. It’s not that big – a square two miles maybe. Poor Hawkeye is perched on the tallest building in town – Town Hall. The archer is balanced between a wall and a statue that looks like a cheap knockoff of Lady Justice.
“You okay, Hawkeye?” I ask, biting back both a laugh and true concern at his position.
“I’m fine Beta. Don’t worry about me.” Yeah, that’ll happen when pigs fly. “You got eyes on the Zygone?”
“Affirmative. Iron Man and Doctor Banner are on your one o’clock.”
“I can see that. Now we wait and watch.”
“You see anything worth worry?”
“Unless pigeons worry you, then no.”
“They don’t worry me; just mess up my paint job.”
“Will you two stop flirting already and work?” Steve is using the tone I hear so often directed at my dad.
We both fall silent, but can just catch – if I squint – the smirk Clint sends my way.
His smirk is still so adorable…Focus, Taylor!
“Iron Man, how are those samples coming?”
“Almost done, Beta. Can you fly over here and pick them up for delivery back to the jet?”
I jump off the roof I was situated on and take off with a whooshing roar, touch down by dad, collect the samples in my arms like a newborn baby, and take off towards the jet.
About halfway there, something in my suit starts sputtering.
Sputtering is never good, but I brush it off and continue towards the jet.
That is, until I’m suddenly not flying, but falling – plummeting – towards the sands of Kansas.
I curl into a ball, the safety of the samples long forgotten, and prepare for impact.
And it never comes.
I peek one of my eyes open to see a red and gold faceplate I have never been so glad to see before in my life.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I say with shuddering breath, “Thanks.”
“We will be talking when we get home.” His cold, clipped, almost furious tone stuns me into silence.
Why would he be mad?
“Just stick to the side and wait by the jet, we’ll be done soon.”
I bow my head and do just that.
The plane ride home his filled with awkward silence, and almost everyone is either looking at me oddly or sending my sympathetic glances.
I hate sympathy.
Once we land, I try and bolt down to my room without my dad noticing, but I only make it to the living room because he’s standing there, arms crossed and glaring.
“Dad, what’s – “
I sat, albeit however warily.
“Explain to me what happened out there.”
“I was flying back with the samples when my suit started sputtering and died.”
“What were you thinking?”
“What were you thinking out there? Why didn’t you tell me your suit was having issues? Why didn’t you land right away? Were you too busy staring at Barton?”
“What?! Dad, I thought-“
“No! No, you didn’t think, Taylor! You could have gotten yourself killed out there! Or hurt someone else! We can’t have you on the team and endangering it at the same time!”
“Excuse me?! That’s rich, coming from Mister I-can-do-this, if-it-fails-no-big-deal, my-middle-name-is-reckless!”
“Do no talk back to me, young lady!”
“You’ve never had a problem with me doing it before!”
“Not my point! We can’t have you endangering the team with your reckless decisions! You have no backup plan!”
“You mean like you?”
“I have multiple suits! You’ve been too busy becoming a mini-Hawkeye to bother doing that!”
“Well excuse me for being good at something other than tinkering! Clint says I have talent!”
“Well go fight next to him then! I don’t want you fighting next to me if you’re not DEDICATED!”
“Well then, she might just be able to fight beside me, then.” A cool voice interrupts our shouting match.
To my horror, Clint is leaning against the door frame. I can only imagine how we look right now, red faced and in each other’s faces, screaming for all the tower to hear.
“No. Stark, I heard everything. You have vents, I use vents.” He walks over to stand slightly in front of me, almost protectively.
Is Clint protecting me? From my own father?
“You have no right-“
“I have every right. I have every right in the world to defend talent. Your daughter is a damn good archer, Stark, one I would be proud to fight next to. If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, then I will.” Clint growls out that last bit. My dad and Clint are now standing face to face, noses almost touching, fists clenched and eyes scorching with rage.
My dad doesn’t verbally respond, instead glaring at me, at Clint, huffing, and stomping away – predictably to the labs.
Me? I’m left blinking at Clint and the space previously occupied by my dad.
“Ah, Taylor –“
“Um, eh, I-I’ll be – down – range.” I stutter out as I beat a hasty retreat towards the stairs.
Once I’m down on the range floor, I fling open the archery range door and run for a table.
My vision is blurred with tears as I slam my palms down onto the table, curling my fingers into trembling fists.
The first screaming, howling sob escapes my clenched jaw as I all but collapse onto the cold, hard, cement range floor.
Why? Why did my dad say these things? Did he mean them? Or was it heat of the battle, heat of the moment?
How could he say I’m not dedicated to what I do? Iron Beta and Iron Man have been fighting together for over two years now. Ever since Afghanistan. When I searched day and night for three months, barely eating or sleeping, not living because I was so absorbed in my computer screens, running ten scans at once because I refused to believe the people pitying me, saying he was dead and I was going to drive myself insane.
When he was found I was beyond ecstatic. I jumped head first into the Iron Man idea, once again working around the clock to make a new image of the name Stark. I supported him through the press conferences, through the entire Obie – Stane – debacle, through Vanko and Hammer, and I was even strong when I found out my dad – my hero, my idol – was dying.
What has changed?
I was so busy curling into a ball and bursting into a fresh round of sobs I didn’t hear the door open.
Clint…oh god no…
“Go ‘w-way, C-clint.” I manage to sniffle between cries.
“Not a chance. Come on, sit up.”
And suddenly, the rough and calloused hands I love, are on my back and slowly bringing me into a crumpled but sitting mess, and my head is suddenly on a broad shoulder, curled into a warm neck. One arm is thrown around my back – for both support and comfort – while the other hand strokes my arm.
“Hey, hey, shhh, it’s okay…”
“N-no, it’s not! How, h-how could he…”
“I know, Taylor, I know. I was five seconds away from introducing my fist and his nose.”
This draws a small giggle from me, and I can almost feel the happiness and accomplishment spread through Clint.
“Now, I got you something, but you got to stop crying and sit up first. Can you do that?”
I nod against Clint’s shoulder, so he slowly moves his arms as I lift my head.
Once he’s sure I’m supporting my own weight, Clint points up at the table. ”It’s up there. Come on, let me help you up.”
I take the hand that is offered to me and use it to boost myself to my feet. I walk back over to the table as I rub the salt and dried tears from my eyes and run my hands through my disheveled hair.
On the table, there is a black, rectangle box about three feet long and wrapped in purple ribbon. I glance bewilderedly at Clint, who just makes small encouraging ‘well, go on!’ gestures.
I gently pull the ribbon of and gingerly open the top.
What is inside makes my jaw drop.
Because there, sitting in the violet velvet padding, is the most beautiful bow I have ever seen. It’s smaller than Clint’s, gracefully curved, midnight black with pearl lines spider webbing out from the center grip, which is thick and looks really comfortable.
“Well, go on, don’t just stare at it! Pick it up!”
I chuckle breathlessly and ease the bow of its box. The wood is smooth, the pearl lines only slightly raised from the matte black paint.
“Wow, Clint, you really didn’t have to-“
“Yes,” he cuts me off, “I did. With how you were shooting yesterday, I figured that if you really wanted to pursue archery, you would need your own bow.”
“Clint, I-thank you.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal, it wasn’t all that expensive, and Natasha helped-“
“No. Not only this, for what you said out there.”
“It was true, you know. You are really good, and if you can’t be Iron Beta anymore, maybe you can be Sparrow of something.”
I shake my head. “No, I’ll always be Iron Beta.” He opens his mouth to object. ”Ah-ah-ah, let me finish. I know what was said earlier. I don’t like it, but my dad has a tendency to say things in the heat of anger he doesn’t mean. I’ve worked with him for two years, Clint, and if I let one argument ruin two years of hard work, then I’m a fool.”
He nods, his face showing he understands, then his beautiful blue-green-gray eyes brighten.
“Okay, enough mushy stuff, let’s get you geared up and start shooting stuff!”
He grabs my hand, unknowingly sending shivers up and down my spine, and pulls me towards a pile of Velcro and plastic in the corner.
I end up choosing a black quiver like Clint, except mine has a purple rim and bottom. I also picked out a pair of black, fingerless, almost netted gloves to protect my fingers, and a standard arm brace.
It turns out Clint and I have a completely different working relationship than my dad and I – moments of silence, but also moments of laughter and banter, heavy metal eighties music replaced by chatter, bowstrings being pulled, and arrows hitting the target.
Deep breaths…pull back…
Both eyes open…steady hands….
“Hey birdbrain, think you can split that?”
“Please,” he snorts, “Step aside and let the master work.”
I roll my eyes but move aside anyways.
I watch as his eyes gain a focus he only brings to the range, his breath evens to a deep, steady rhythm, he brings his arm up, pulls back, lines up the shot, let it fly…
…and his arrow pierces mine dead center.
“I should have put money on that!”
“You owe me an arrow!”
He just shrugs with that adorable smirk on his face. On his way back to his table, he pauses.
“Hey, Taylor, you want to see the vents and the rafters?”
I freeze from where I’m trying to get my arrow pieces out of the target.
“Are-are you sure? I mean, that’s sort of your thing…”
He shrugs again. “And so is archery. I figured you’d appreciate them as much as me. C’mon, it’ll be fun!”
I can’t keep the grin off my face as I reply. “Okay. Let’s go!”
“Alright. Just strap your bow to your back, there like that, and come over here.”
I walk over to where he is standing, over by the far wall.
“See that vent cover over there? You can get up there by either jumping or using a grappling arrow. I suggest saving your grappling arrows and letting me jump and pull you up, then you follow me in. Sound good?”
He nods and motions for me to back up a little, and once I do, he takes a flying leap towards the vent, grabs on, swings it open, and dives inside.
“You that showy every time you do that, or are you just showing off?”
“Ah, you got me. Now come on, jump up.” He’s turned around on his stomach now so his arms are facing out.
I back up a few steps, run, and spring towards his arms, and he instantly catches me and pulls me up.
“Wow, it is really spacious in here. I mean, for a vent.”
He nods and chuckles. “Where to, my lady?”
The title is meant to tease, but I really hope he can’t see me blush.
“Can we go to Natasha’s room? Haven’t talked to her in a while.”
“Alright then. This way.”
He crawls off to the left, and I’m hot on his heels.
A few turns and an unintelligible amount of time later, we reach a grate cover.
Clint rattles the cover. “Knock, knock, anyone home?”
“Hi Clint, what brings you to this part of town?”
“Showing my protégé the ways of the hawk.”
“So…vents and rafters?”
“…yeah. Can we come down?”
With that, he shoves the cover open, drops out, and then calls back up to me.
“Taylor, if you think you can land feet-first, you can jump. If not, I can catch you.”
I contemplate this for a second. He catching me would reveal some major feelings via blush and stutter to Natasha, Ms. Super spy.
But, a part of me argues, you don’t know if you can make the jump safely.
Well, there’s no time for discovery like the present.
“Okay, swing your feet around in front of you so you’re sitting normally. Then scoot to the edge of the vent, and push off really hard.
I do what he says, push, and jump…
…and land on my feet but fall to my knees.
“Yeah, nothing bruised but my pride.”
“Good to see you, stranger.”
“How’ve you been, Ms. Mini-Hawkeye?”
“Oh please tell me that isn’t catching on. I will never live that down.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
I groan and shove her shoulder playfully.
She dodges and goes to sit on her bed.
“All joking aside, Taylor…I heard what your dad said earlier. I was five seconds from punching him. I’ve seen the work you’ve done with him, and you deserve better than what he gave you today.”
“Clint said the same thing…about punching my dad.”
She nods, seemingly satisfied, and quickly changes the subject.
“Speaking of the hawk, is that a new bow I see?”
“Oh yeah! He said you helped pick it out. Thank you so much!”
“You are welcome, plemyannitsa.”
“I said, you are welcome, niece.”
“Aww, thanks, Natasha.”
“Please, call me Tasha.”
“M’kay, Tasha. Hey, can you teach me Russian?”
“I’d love to. I-“
Natasha – Tasha – is interrupted by her phone beeping.
“That’s Bruce. He says he ordered Chinese, and to tell Taylor he got honey chicken.”
“Oh, yum! Can we take the vents back?”
“To the vents!”
The rest of my evening is spent chowing down on Chinese food, crawling through vents, lounging in rafters, and learning Russian.
My dad is never seen once, and Bruce says he’s locked himself in the lab, which means I can’t repair my suit.
I briefly consider seeking him out and apologizing, but I figured that – as stubborn as my dad is – apologizing before he is ready will simply cause another fight.
I sink into my pillow that night happy and content yet frustrated and tense all at the same time.