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With Us (Or Without)

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It only took two days before Clint went to PetSmart.  Then he went to Home Hardware.  Then he remembered to hire someone to fix the stairwell fire door and get Anneke a proper front door.  Because he was a good building owner, just, sometimes he was a bit busy.

 

He impulsively bought a large wall print based in Amsterdam, because he associated the Netherlands with windmills, which reminded him of that time Phil had said it was okay to ride the massive Dutch windmill stock so he could get the proper height for a shot.  He hung the framed piece just inside the front door to his building, so everyone coming and going could see it.

 

Back in his apartment, he stopped inside his doorway to survey his domain.  Three monkeys watched him from the edge of the table, one sitting on the remote for the TV.  He had a pretty open floor plan.  The bathroom was walled off, but he’d bought the place because he liked the abnormally large space and the open metal and wood stairs that led up to his room, making it easy to see everywhere.  He had a fire escape exit outside his kitchen and bedroom windows, but it was easy enough to just shimmy down from any window ledge to window ledge if he needed to vacate in a pinch.

 

He’d installed barn beam boards on the wall that held his TV five months before, because he’d been bored and it had looked cool in the home décor show Sitwell always watched when he had control of the remote on missions.  Clint went to that wall now, bodily shoved the heavy oak bookshelf on the right side of the TV an extra two feet over, and got to work.

 

He’d purchased an honest-to-god cat-cave from the pet store, which was apparently all the rage at the moment if the associate was to be trusted.  He had no reason to doubt her, or care one way or the other.  Now he snagged his sewing repair kit from his junk drawer, grabbed the gray shirt he’d put in the monkey box, and started tearing it apart at the seams.   He cut a strip three inches wide, and a foot long, and hand stitched it just on the inside of the cat bed’s lip, pulling it over the edge so it hung out like a tongue.

 

Satisfied, he nailed the whole cave to the wall, at his eye-level.  The thing was shaped like a demented Hershey’s Kiss, was mostly purple and blended to gray at the bottom with green swirling vines and some kind of rose like flower stuck to the side of it.  It was hilarious.

 

Next he pulled out the cheap black wall brackets he’d bought, stuck them on the wall, and attached the wood he’d had cut to them.  There.  A shelf.  

 

He split the gray tongue he’d sewn into the cave in half, pulled out the thick brown hemp twine and quickly tied two long strips to the end of each tongue.  He pulled one mostly tight and stapled it to the wall near the center of the shelf.  The other piece he stapled directly to shelf, near the front, and then let it dangle all the way to the floor.

 

He eyed it, and then stapled the piece to the floor so it wouldn’t swing too much.  Ha.

 

He shoved the rest of the gray shirt into the cave, added the purple shirt, screwed the glass hamster water bottle to the wall just above the shelf, put the new silver cat dish with little black arrows (this was a judgement-free apartment, thank you very much) on the shelf, dropped some apple slices in it. He walked across the room and sat on the couch to admire his handy work.

 

It stuck out ridiculously.  It was awesome.  He looked at the marmosets that were still watching him from the edge of the coffee table.

 

“Well,” he nodded at wall cave.  They kept watching him.  “YouTube said you like to climb things.  Go, climb,” he ordered.

 

He waited.  He had nothing better to do.  They chittered and kind of picked each other's fur, which was looking better than the day before, but they didn’t leave the table.  After half an hour of sitting absolutely still, he’d had enough.

 

“Oh come on guys, you’re driving me crazy,” he muttered and stood.  He walked to them, noting they’d paused their grooming, and slowly moved his hand towards them.  They didn’t hesitate to jump onto his palm, clinging to his fingers and each other.  The big one wrapped its tail around his wrist.  “Here,” he stuck his hand into the purple felt cave and they climbed off.  “No more box for you, okay?  A nice squishy safe cave.”  He stood back and watched them sit there for a moment, before they started rolling around and occasionally making their weird little sounds.

 

He set up a pie tray on the floor beside the book shelf and filled it with the wood pellets for hamster cages.

 

“Hey,” he called and the tiniest one actually stuck its head out the cave opening, upside down, but it was looking at him.  “Poop down here,” he pointed at the tray.  The marmoset rolled its head with impressive flexibility to look where he was pointing, trilled at him, and disappeared back inside.

 

He hoped they didn’t use the cave as a washroom.  He spent eighty-five bucks on that thing.

 

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“Clint, we expected you at dinner last night.  Team meeting,” Steve greeted Clint with as he walked through the doors to the gym in Starks tower.  He paused to consider the guy, because he didn’t recall receiving the invite, and then decided he didn’t care.

 

“Hope you muddled through without me,” he grinned, and went to the stationary bike to warm up.

 

“I heard you got the SHIELD agent on your last run in deep water,” Tony said from the bench press, where Bruce was supposedly spotting him but was staring at a spot on the floor, evidently deep in thought.  “Apparently, that’s the sixth one you’re responsible for booting from SHIELD,” Tony pressed the words out between lifts and raised a pointed eyebrow.

 

“Keep your head flat,” Bruce admonished without looking away from the floor, and Tony dropped back with a thump and pushed through a few more reps.

 

“Quality control,” Clint said, forcing humour into his tone.  Dupont was being more than terminated from SHIELD, but it was clear that wasn’t common knowledge yet.  He wondered if Tony had looked into why the other five had been booted from the agency.

 

“Don’t worry, we hear you’re charming when you want to be,” Tony quipped, no bite in the words but it still twisted something inside that Clint didn’t feel like dealing with.  Not with near strangers, despite them and this tower being one of only three places he felt safe at the moment.

 

“My charm has all the agents running from the yard,” Clint put on a broad smile.  There must have been something a bit off about it though, as no one seemed to grin back and the atmosphere switched into slightly awkward mode.  He kind of hoped Nat would pop out from somewhere to break the sudden silence and then explain to him what he hadn’t hidden well enough.  Instead Steve shut down his running program and grabbed a towel.

 

“Want to spar?” he asked, and Clint took the olive branch gratefully.

 

“I’ll go easy on you,” Clint promised.

 

“Jarvis, record.” Tony ordered with smirk.

 

Of course, sir.”

 

Steve held back as they danced across the sparring mats, apparently worried about hurting the unenhanced guy.  That was okay though, because Clint held back as well.  Way back, enough that he was only a bit better than some of the guys Steve might have trained with at SHIELD.  Maybe it wasn’t fair, seeing as they were supposed to work together now, but Clint couldn’t give that much up yet.  There was no reason to give away all his skills to them, and he knew for a fact that they hadn’t really seen him fight during the battle, too busy staying alive themselves.  Besides, the only one he had ever sparred with, no holds barred, was Nat.  The only one they’d ever let watch, was Phil.

 

Holding back and making it look natural was an excellent form of training as well, and it was still fun.  He’d count it as a win.

 

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The marmosets used the litter tray.  They were smart little guys.  He felt proud and then stupid for caring.

 

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JARVIS allowed SHIELD to get a hold of him for an emergency the day before Natasha got home.  Clint, panicking a bit, managed to find and drag Simone into his apartment.

 

“Marmosets, meet Simone.” he announced as he stopped her near his couch.  “Simone, meet the marmosets, they’re living with me temporarily and I have to go deal with something.  Right now.  Could you please feed and water them?  Oh, and don’t tell anyone they’re here?  Like, anyone,” he emphasized to her somewhat startled face.  “Fruit and veggies are in the fridge, there’s sap balls in a jar under the couch.  Give them whatever you want, they’ll eat it.  Okay?  You’re the best.”  He grabbed his keys from the hook by the door, put them in her hands, and ran out to meet the quinjet on the roof.

 

Ahava Jones, one of the people who had helped nail Dupont's metaphorical coffin, was one of the agents that had gone missing after their jet was shot down in the north end of Paraguay.  Clint had put her on the list of people JARVIS would allow messages through for.  He hadn’t expected to repay his debt so soon.

 

Clint found them, all alive and not too injured.

 

So of course he was the one who got bit by a painted coral snake on their way back to the jet.  Fortunately, they had the best anti-venom in the business, stocked for just these occasions.  After three days, he finally stumbled back into his apartment, after leaving SHIELD medical against their advice.  They just wanted to keep him for more brain scans and he was so done with that.  He felt like shit, and he wasn’t going to feel better in a place where anyone could approach him anytime when he didn’t have someone to stand guard when he rested.  Nat would have stepped in, but after popping by to make sure he wasn’t dead she’d left on another mission.

 

He absolutely did not feel lonely without her. He truly did not resent her need to deal with the shit that was Loki and Phil by keeping busy.

 

“Clint,” JARVIS said as soon as he stumbled into his place, having to pick the locks because he’d given all his keys to Simone.  “You do not look well.  Mr. Stark would like to know why you have returned here and not to the tower, where you can convalesce with Dr. Banner as a nurse maid.”

 

“Bruce isn’t that kind of doctor,” Clint grumbled, basically collapsing on the couch, one leg still flopped on the floor.

 

They are considering coming over,” the AI warned.

 

“No,” Clint argued immediately.  He didn’t want them to see him knocked out like this.  The team was too new, they couldn’t keep seeing him injured or they’d start to doubt his ability to keep up with them in the field.  “I just want to rest, J.  Make up an excuse for me that won’t hurt their feelings or whatever, but I don’t want them in my space right now.”

 

Understood.  I will do my utmost.”

 

“You’re the best,” he muttered, and fell asleep.

 

He woke up to Simone draping a cool cloth over his forehead and setting a glass of water and what looked like orange juice on the coffee table.  He blinked, confused.

 

“Hey,” she said softly.  Behind her the kids sat on the floor, one of the marmosets jumping back and forth from their knees and Charlie had his hands over his mouth so he wouldn’t giggle too loudly.

 

“I’m confused,” he decided, because he’d never woken up to someone other than Nat and Phil, or a SHIELD nurse, fussing over him.  At least not that he could remember.

 

“One of your marmosets got into my apartment.  I came to bring it home, and found you here.  You’re a little warm, so I thought some fluids and a cool cloth might help,” she explained.  She didn’t seem put out at all to be here.  He was still confused, but drank the juice when she handed it to him, and then the water.  She refilled the water and put it on the table, and then sat in the armchair that was now beside his couch.  He looked at it, and was even more confused.

 

“Zeke helped me move it in a few hours ago,” now she looked a bit embarrassed.  “I didn’t want to leave you alone, you were kind of dead to the world,” she looked at him pointedly, making it clear the furniture addition was completely warranted.  “The kids are fine with the beanbag chairs, but my back still bothers me from time to time,” she explained.

 

“No, it’s fine,” he said, pushing to sit up but not getting far before deciding he was better off staying on his back for a bit.

 

“I’ve got some stew started in the kitchen.  The kids are happy to play with your pets, and when they get bored they can colour.  Dinner will be ready in an hour or so.  Go back to sleep, I’ll wake you when it’s time.

 

“Okay,” he decided.  She was a mom, so this was probably okay.  They sat in silence for a moment.

 

“You know, your marmosets are really smart,” she said.  “If I didn’t know any better I’d have sworn the golden one came to get me specifically to check on you.”

 

“Not my marmosets,” he mumbled, and fell back asleep.

 

He felt well enough to eat the stew, and then eat a second helping as he started to feel better.  Simone retreated not long after that, but insisted on doing the dishes first.  He helped, made sure the monkeys had enough food, and went to bed upstairs.

 

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The next morning he woke up with the three marmosets piled on his stomach, half curled and half sprawled in the crook of the arm he’d rested over his bellybutton.  The slightly larger stripe-headed one was watching him.  It quirked its head one way and then the other, soft little chirrups and quick whistles escaped it, and it kept opening and closing its mouth, tiny teeth displayed.

 

“Hey, it’s all good,” he crooned, reaching his other arm over to carefully pet it with one finger.  Its fur was so soft.  It tilted its head left and leaned into the gentle scratching.  “I’m okay, it was just a stupid snake that got me,” he explained.  It bared its teeth in disapproval, and then turned its head to nibble his finger playfully.  He was startled into a laugh.  The first in far too long.  The other two woke up, and suddenly he had a pile of chirruping, hopping mini-monkeys who seemed both upset at and happy with him.  It was confusing.  He tried to pet them all, amused that they actually seemed to enjoy the sort of massage.  He fell asleep mid-pet.

 

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The World Council wanted to interrogate Clint in a private bunker somewhere in Indonesia.  Apparently for reasons.

 

Fury told them to go fuck themselves with a stick of plutonium.

 

Hill relayed this information in a seedy dive bar at ten on a Thursday morning.  They’d both ordered Shirley Temples and been told to shove their Shirley where the sun don’t shine.  Five minutes later Andy delivered them to their corner booth with plastic-sword speared cherries resting on the rims and a disdainful sniff.  He also left a bowl of fresh peanuts; the honey roasted kind because he knew they were Hill’s favourite.

 

Clint had a marmoset tucked in his jacket pocket.  Situation update: apparently it wouldn’t let him leave the apartment unless he took it with him.  He swore the other two looked disappointed to be left behind, but it almost felt like they had agreed only one would go.

 

He’d had them for nearly a month now.  He really needed to take them to the zoo, but Nat still hadn’t seen them.

 

The marmoset dragged itself out from the confines of his pocket long enough to snag the sugar-infused cherry off the bright yellow sword before Clint could stop it.  Quick little bugger.  “Those are really bad for you!” he hissed at his pocket.  Hill didn’t look startled by the sudden appearance, she just watched Clint for a moment, taking a long sip from her straw.  She put her drink down.

 

“Is that a monkey in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

 

“Would you think less of me if I said both?” he asked.  They waited in silence a moment, watching each other, and then she proceeded to dish the dirt on exactly what Fury had done so the Council could never legally get their hands on Clint.   She also warned he should still watch his back.

 

Feeling a little more positive about SHIELD he let his good mood carry him into a bookstore on his walk home.

 

“Congratulations,” the cashier smiled widely when he handed his selected book over to scan and she realized what it was.  He grinned back like he meant it.  “Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?” she wondered and he honestly had no clue.  He’d never really thought about it.

 

“Triplets,” he said instead, and retreated quickly when she looked like she was about to ask more questions.  

 

When he got back to his place he put the book of names on the coffee table and watched as the two fluffballs that hadn’t been invited to the bar quickly slid down the ropes from their cave and jumped on the table to join the third.

 

“Okay, you guys need names.”  Because they should really have names for when he took them to the zoo, so the keepers wouldn’t get confused.  The book was pretty thick though, and the last time he’d named something with purpose had been the bow Phil had gifted him when he’d joined SHIELD.  His gut clenched unhappily and he flipped the book open quickly.  After five minutes he was irritated.  He’d pin some pages to the wall and throw darts at them to make the selection for him, but he couldn’t compel himself to throw poorly so there would be no randomness to the name he hit.

 

The three started trilling at him.  In unison.

 

“Fine, fine.  Shut up,” he ordered.  They did.  He frowned at them.

 

Simone was right: they were pretty smart.  He wondered how smart they were compared to normal marmosets.  The videos he’d watched hadn’t done much more than show people playing with them and mentioning how their biggest enemies seemed to be habitat loss and the pet trade.

 

Guilt bubbled in his stomach at that thought.  They should be in the wild somewhere-

 

The gold one chirped.

 

“Okay,” he allowed the distraction and flipped the book to a random page.  “I’m going to read ‘em out loud.  If you like it, whistle.” They chirped.  He eyed them, and then looked at the book.  “Fiona, Fionnguala, Flora, Gemma, Gertrude, Gillian, Gloria, Gobinet, Gobnait-” whistle.  Clint looked up.  The smallest one chittered at him, pushing up and down excitedly on tiny arms.  “Seriously?”  Clint asked, and it whistled.  “Gobnait?”  It whistled again, louder, and the other two were bobbing up and down.  “You want to be named Gob,” he considered, looked at the names meaning, and then grinned, genuinely amused.  “Okay then.  Next,” he closed and opened the book again.

 

His cell rang.  He answered it without looking.

 

“Barton.”

 

I hear you made a friend,” Natasha sounded amused on the other end.  Gunfire popped in the background, uneven and at various audio levels, suggesting more than one shooter.

 

“At least one more than you it sounds like,” he clenched a fist, forcing himself to not get up and order Stark to give him a quinjet so he could join her immediately.  He knew exactly where she was, because he didn’t need an AI to hack SHIELD, and not having her in his sights, knowing she was safe at all times, was scraping raw nerves he’d been trying to freeze for weeks- but that was never how they operated and he refused to let his current issues cloud their independent friendship.

 

What are you doing right now?” she asked, all faux innocent.

 

“Looking at a book of names.”

 

When did you last eat?”  She fired a heavy calibre weapon, the sound biting sharply in his ear.  He put the phone on speaker and set it in his lap.

 

“Had a wrap at Andy’s for lunch.”

 

Sleep?” She was running, and then jumping, there was a garbled yell that cut off quickly and a nearly inaudible thud.

 

“All last night.”

 

She stopped running, and he imagined her tilting her head in question.

 

All night?”

 

“Straight through.”

 

Aides?”

 

“None, I was just tired.”

 

So you’re not going to tell me about the snake bite?”  She was moving again, but he could tell she thought he wasn’t being straight with her.

 

“Not even a little bit,” he agreed.  “Hill?”

 

Sitwell.  Called me when he knew I was halfway through a night jump and still in comm range.”  He snorted and the sound around her muted.  She’d entered a structure.  “You really slept?  All the way through?”

 

“Got twelve hours before the retrieval mission, too.  No dreams lately,” to wake him up.  Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t had an uninterrupted, non-medically induced sleep that long since before his parents had died.  Maybe not even then.

 

I’d like to meet your new friend,” she said after a pointed pause.

 

“You know you can’t interrogate a monkey,” he pointed out and poked Gob in the chest.  She wrapped her tiny claws around the tip of his finger and tried to chew on his fingertip.  Her mouth was too small to get a good grip.  The golden one trilled.

 

Hmmm,” she said.  “See you when I see you,” and she hung up.  He didn’t need to ask about her sleep.  She never dreamed.  Her nightmares plagued when she was awake.  It was too bad her body didn’t allow her to sleep longer than five hours at a stretch.

 

He went back to reading names, flipping between pages and picking at random.

 

“Akira?”  The second striped one whistled.  Whistled, not clicked, chirped, or trilled.  Whistled.  Like he’d told them to.  “Akira.”  He whistled again.  This was easier than he thought it would be.

 

He closed and cracked open the book again and found a winner right away.  “Aurelia,” he looked the largest one and it looked like it was considering it.  “Means golden,” he said.  It cocked her head to the other.  “We could say Lia for short.” It made a funny little excited sound, the other two pressed close on either side, and then she whistled.  Really loudly.  Outside his open window, down the street, a dog started barking.

 

“Amazing.  I can stop calling you This, That, and the Other now.  Good choices, guys.  Tomorrow, an IQ test,” he decided.  “Now, it’s time for a nap,” because he hadn’t had any coffee today and he had another two days on his SHIELD hiatus.  He’d sleep while he could.