Brooding 47

When Frigga led Clint into the dining room, Thor and Sif and the Warriors Three were already assembled around the long table. Their raucous laughter filled the space as Fandral teased Thor about dragging out his time on Earth to court the Lady Jane.

“So you have much to thank Loki and his strange anatomy for,” Fandral was saying as he gestured with one hand and held a goblet in the other. “He gave you the perfect excuse to go back to Midgard to see her! But now tell us: when can we expect the royal wedding? I have to get a new outfit prepared, you know!”

Thor was blushing but his friend’s last question left him looking torn. “I… I cannot say. I asked her if she might come to live on Asgard, but she is doing important work for her people. She feels honor-bound to stay there and see it through…”

“A most noble sentiment,” Frigga chimed in, making the others aware of her presence. They rose in one accord to greet her. “You cannot expect a woman to always accommodate a man’s desires; which is why I negotiated with Commander Fury to consider Clint Barton as being on loan to Asgard – so that one of our warriors may be loaned to Midgard in return.”

There was no mistaking her intent as she looked pointedly at her son with a raised eyebrow. Thor shifted uneasily on his feet.

“Mother, I… I did not know you were so eager to be rid of me…” he began, trying to sound jesting.

“Nonsense! I only wish what is best for you. And if that means you must spend some time seriously wooing the woman you love in her own realm, then so be it. As I have said before, I do hope that Loki will not be the only one who will gift me with grandchildren.”

Before Thor could come up with a response to that, Odin walked in from another door. Clint’s mouth hung open for a moment as he realized that this would be a meal with his virtual in-laws, without the benefit of Loki’s presence as a buffer; and not only that, but coming hard on the heels of his combative speech to Odin.

“Oh, this isn’t awkward at all…” he thought to himself, trying to remain calm – or at least to appear so.

“I see you have brought our new guest,” Odin remarked to his wife, placing a particular emphasis on that last word as he glanced at Clint with a hard gleam in his eye.

“Yes, of course,” Frigga replied with aplomb. “As the father of Loki’s child, he will take Loki’s place beside me.”

Odin grunted in a sound that could have been interpreted as approval or resignation before sitting down. Taking the seat offered to him by the Queen, Clint thought again, “No… not awkward at all!” He decided to focus on the food being set before them to avoid getting into any problematic conversations with the All-Father. Although Natasha had taught him which piece of silverware to use in fancy dinners, those were according to Earth rules, so he watched what the Queen was doing out of the corner of his eye or (since he was sitting right across from him) how Thor ate his food, hoping he wouldn’t do anything that would be an Asgardian faux pas. Thankfully, the Æsir did not seem to be too particular about table manners, as a glance down the table at Volstagg revealed. Clint was just beginning to relax when Fandral, who was sitting next to him, addressed him.

“So, Clint Barton… You have the unenviable distinction of being the father of Loki’s child and, from what we’ve heard, the best archer on Midgard.”

Clint swallowed his bite of bread before answering.

“I don’t know about ‘unenviable’… It’s not every day that a Human gets to have a kid with a demi-god, after all. And I’m not sure I’m the best, although it’s possible… there aren’t too many folks into archery anymore…”

“And a modest man on top of it all!” Fandral bantered jovially. “But I have to confess, I find it strange how taken Loki is with you… He was never known to be free with his heart – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him having a lover before – but he does seem to be truly smitten with you. Tell me, what is your secret? How did you manage to capture the master trickster himself?”

“Honestly? I have no idea,” Clint replied, his expression serious. “I’m just a regular guy. A ‘Midgardian mortal’ as Loki put it – no special powers or anything. Sure, I can shoot pretty well, but there are other guys with more impressive talents than that. So I guess I just got lucky. I happened to be there when Loki came through the Tesseract, and he decided he could use me for his ‘glorious purpose.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”

“I see how it is,” Fandral said with a grin. “If it’s not for your skills as a warrior, it must be for your skills as a lover. OW!”

His exclamation coincided with a sudden movement on Sif’s part. Clint was certain that Fandral had been the recipient of a well-aimed kick under the table.

“Mind your mouth!” Sif murmured in a deadly undertone.

“What?” Fandral protested. “I’m just curious! And I wasn’t about to ask him for any details… although I wouldn’t mind knowing…”

Clint finally managed a short chuckle. “I don’t have any secrets, sorry. I just… fell for him… pretty hard, to tell you the truth, although I didn’t realize it until after he’d been sent back here. It took me a while to sort through the jumble he’d left of my brain, but when I did, I… well, I felt bad that we’d parted on those terms. So I’m glad to get another chance with him… and that he felt the same way, too.”

Before Fandral could formulate a reply, Sif cleared her throat and pointedly changed the subject.

“Clint Barton, as a warrior, you must have seen many battles on Midgard. We know from observing your realm that there are always wars being fought. Of what acts of valor can you boast? What songs are sung of your great deeds?”

Clint laughed outright at that. “No songs – that’s not the sort of thing we do anymore, and in any case I’m probably not what you’d consider a ‘warrior’ at all. No, what I do for S.H.I.E.L.D. is more… specific.”

He could feel all eyes on him, and one in particular from the head of the table, but he realized that it was no use stopping now.

“I’m an assassin more than anything else. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s goal is to protect the Earth – from ourselves, in most cases – and we often deal with regimes that are not only causing problems for neighboring countries but also mistreating their own people. Sure, you could get a coalition of their neighbors to start an all-out war, but then what happens afterwards? That whole region could be left more unstable than before. Plus there would be a lot of collateral damage: innocent civilians killed or displaced, infrastructure destroyed, and people’s livelihoods gone. So instead, S.H.I.E.L.D. sends in a team with very specific skill sets… if everything works according to the plan, we’re in and out within forty-eight hours, and with surgical precision the person or persons causing all of the problems would be… eliminated.”

From their expressions, Clint knew they understood exactly what such a plan would entail. He spread his hands in a gesture of completion.

“The way we do it, there’s no fuss, no muss, and the ordinary people go on with their lives as though nothing happened. Sometimes there’s an accident; sometimes there’s a very deadly mutation of the flu; and sometimes, if there’s a rival leader who’s also a criminal, there’s a murder with incriminating evidence so he gets arrested as well – in essence killing two birds with one stone. But nobody ever hears about us. If we do our jobs right, we’re invisible; we don’t even exist.”

“So… your Shield… controls which rulers live or die?” Sif asked incredulously. Clint shook his head.

“Nah, not really. We just try to keep the crazy ones from getting out of hand, at least as much as possible. I believe we’ve managed to make our world a safer place, though. I wouldn’t have worked for them as long as I have if I didn’t think we were making a difference.”

“How long have you worked for S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Thor asked.

“Oh, man… Coulson recruited me when I was still green… It’s been over 15 years already.”

“What is the bravest thing you’ve done? And come now, don’t be modest!” Fandral insisted.

Clint thought for a moment before answering.

“I’m not sure it’s the bravest, but it was certainly the best thing I’ve ever done,” he finally began. “S.H.I.E.L.D. got intel that a militant faction in Chechnya had gotten their hands on a nuclear warhead – an old Soviet one that wouldn’t have traveled far but could still do a lot of damage wherever it landed. Tasha and I (that’s my partner) took out the rebel guards and managed to load the missile back onto the truck to transport it, but as I was driving it along this narrow road on the mountainside, a truck full of the rest of the rebels – the ones that had gone to a nearby town to get supplies – came back, heading straight at us. Of course they recognized our truck, since they’d stolen it themselves, and Tasha was in the back trying to defuse the damn bomb, so I had to take them out before they shot me, all while driving the truck and keeping it from going over the cliff.”

Cliff paused for a breath before continuing. His audience was rapt with attention, envisioning the scene as he described it with his words and hands.

“One arrow, straight through the driver’s eye, and their truck veered off and tumbled into the ravine. No survivors, of course, but knowing that they were willing to use a bomb that could kill tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, I can’t say that I lost any sleep over it. In fact I slept like a baby after that mission.”

A collective sigh of satisfaction went up around the table.

“It was well for your realm that the Norns chose you to be there,” Thor soberly commented. “Another man might have missed or not been swift enough.”

Clint nodded. “Of course it was my own ass – neck, I mean, excuse me – on the line, as well as my partner’s, so that was a pretty good motivation to get the job done. But yeah… if our truck had gone down instead, the old warhead might have detonated, leaving a crater in the ravine and a hundred-mile radius of radiation. So I’m proud that I was able to pull it off.”

“Your partner,” Sif asked, intensely curious, “is a woman?”

“Yeah. And the most dangerous person I know,” Clint replied with a fond grin. “I learned right away not to get her mad at me! You’d probably like her – she’s got a real warrior spirit. Her code name is the Black Widow, and she lives up to it.”

Since there were no black widow spiders on Asgard, Clint needed to explain the deadly arachnid to them, but as he did so he was much more relaxed, perhaps the most at ease he had been since arriving in this new realm. For in the process of telling his story, he had realized that the Asgardian warriors were not so different from Midgardian soldiers – or, for that matter, soldiers anywhere – who had stared death in the face and then made light of their experiences by telling jokes and tall tales about them. They were, in essence, already brothers in arms.

Odin wordlessly observed their growing camaraderie as he finished his meal. Clint Barton was a mere mortal – weak, limited, and insignificant by Asgardian standards – and yet he had challenged Odin’s ruling on Loki’s punishment with compelling arguments, and now he was being quickly accepted by some of the hardiest warriors Asgard could boast.

“He must be watched,” the All-Father resolved.

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