Agent Coulson has been missing for two months when SHIELD calls off the search. Clint paces restlessly outside Fury’s office, muttering silent curses. Two months ago Coulson had been working with another asset on what should have been a simple mission to take out a minor arms dealer before he had a chance to become a major arms dealer. The mission itself had gone off without a hitch. And then Coulson had gone back to the safe house to work on his report and vanished while Smyth had been out buying cigarettes. Smyth doesn’t know anything - Clint had listened in on his interrogation from the ducts above and is convinced he was telling the truth.
Fury had refused to allow Clint to be part of the investigation, so for two months he had hacked, eavesdropped, and spied his way into every part of the search. There are literally no leads. Whoever has taken Coulson is professional and highly skilled. Clint should have seen this call coming - the investigators have been growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of information - but leads or no leads, Clint had thought Coulson is valuable enough to SHIELD that they wouldn’t abandon the search so quickly.
Clint’s gut churns with anger on his handler’s behalf - after everything Coulson has done for this organisation, they repay him by giving up so easily? Clint has known agents who had been missing for much longer than two months and still been found alive. It had, in fact, been Clint’s vociferous objections (and rather colourful language) hurled at the lead investigator who informed him they were closing the case that had him pacing this hall, waiting for Fury to summon him like a high-schooler sent to the principal’s office. Eventually the door opens and Fury waves him inside.
“This is bullshit, sir,” Clint snaps, as he throws himself into the chair opposite Fury’s desk, not even waiting for the Director to take his own seat. Fury has his ‘you are on extremely thin ice with me right now’ look on his face that usually stops Clint in his tracks - he generally doesn’t want to actually lose his job - but right now Clint can’t bring himself to care.
“You are seriously out of line, Agent Barton,” Fury says sternly, a warning tone to his voice that Clint completely ignores.
“With all due respect, sir, it’s this Agency that’s out of line. This is Coulson. He deserves better than to be abandoned-”
“You think this is easy for me?” Fury roars, slamming his hands on his desk and leaning forward, looming over Clint who matches him glare for glare. “He was my friend too,” he says, and Clint curls his lip at Fury’s use of the past tense, “but we have no evidence, no witnesses, and no leads.”
“If you’d just let me-” Clint tries again, but Fury cuts him off.
“No. It’s done. We can’t allocate any more resources looking for a needle in a haystack. As of right now you should consider yourself on administrative leave, Agent Barton. If I hear another word about your insubordination I’ll have you confined to quarters indefinitely. I’ll let you know when we’ve found you another handler.”
“Don’t bother, sir,” Clint snarls, turning the honorific into an insult. “I quit,” he declares, standing and walking out the door.
Clint takes a shortcut through the vents back to his on-base quarters. He packs the few things that are his, rather than SHIELD’s, into a single duffel. He also grabs his best bow, quiver, and as many arrows as he has on hand (all SHIELD issue, but he figures they owe him that much) and slings them over his shoulder. He’s just pulling himself up through the vent when he hears the sound of his door lock being overridden.
Fury has men posted at all the ground exits but they are laughably easy to avoid. Clint exits through a maintenance access door on the roof, having long-ago hacked the security system to accept his password, and moves from roof to roof until he’s well away from Headquarters. If SHIELD isn’t willing to do what it takes to find Coulson, then Clint will just have to do it himself.
It’s ironic, Clint thinks as he heads to the storage facility he rents under an alias created specifically for that purpose, it’s ironic that Coulson is the reason he’s quit SHIELD when Coulson is also the reason Clint has stayed as long as he has. It was never intended to be a long-term gig. SHIELD had tracked him down as Robert Lanham, a hitman-for-hire with exceptional aim but mediocre mission planning skills It was a fake identity, of course, one of many.
When SHIELD came recruiting for Robert Lanham Clint had initially feared that his cover had been blown, that they were there looking for Ronin. Instead, it seems they had linked the Lanham alias to Clint’s real identity but nothing else - they knew about his background, his parents and the circus, but they seemed to think that Robert Lanham was the only gig he had running. Clint didn’t disabuse them of the notion.
The storage unit Clint rents is full of the trappings of his old life - fake passports, emergency cash, weapons, various bits of tech and gear. Clint grabs the passports, the cash, the secure laptop he once used to negotiate contracts, and a variety of weapons. He knows he won’t be able to use his bow without giving himself away but he takes it with him anyway. Hanging in the corner of the unit is a mass of black and gold cloth. Clint stares at it for a moment. Once he’d revelled in the freedom that masked costume had given him, but now he is reluctant to touch it. He isn’t that man anymore - working with Coulson has changed him, for the better he thinks. But for Coulson, he will be that man again.
Clint stuffs the costume into his bag and locks the storage unit behind him. Ronin has people to see.
Clint’s first stop is Vienna.
“Hello, Willy,” Clint growls as he steps out of the shadows behind the mousy information broker. The man starts violently, spinning around, hand shaking around the gun he holds out. He puts the gun away as soon as he sees Clint, but he doesn’t stop shaking.
“R-ronin, long time n-no see, man.” Clint smirks behind his mask. Willy is so much fun to play with. “What c-can I do for y-you?”
“I need information,” Clint answers in his gravelly Ronin voice, narrowing his eyes. Seriously, what else do you go to an information broker for? “And if you’re very good, and tell me what I need to know, I’ll even pay you money for it, in addition to your life, of course.”
“Of c-course. What do you need to k-know?”
“Two months ago someone grabbed a SHIELD agent from a safehouse in Toledo. My source in SHIELD says they have no clue who it was. I know it wasn’t AIM and it wasn’t Hydra, so who was it?”
“You have a source in SHIELD?” Willy asks, incredulous. Anyone who is anyone in the global criminal underground has heard of SHIELD. They may like to think of themselves as a top secret organisation, and certainly agencies like the CIA and FBI seem oblivious to their existence, but SHIELD’s ongoing battles with outfits like Hydra and AIM have not gone unnoticed among the scum of the earth. No one had ever managed to get a mole inside though. It’s one of the reasons Clint had agreed when they’d offered Robert Lanham a job. The thought of being his own mole was just too good for Clint to pass up. It was supposed to be relatively short-term - he’d get in, scope it out, grab some decent intel, maybe plant a few bugs and get out.
That was before Coulson.
“If you already have a source what do you need with the agent?” Willy asks, his curiosity temporarily overwhelming his fear. Information brokers. Always too curious for their own good.
“I have business with the man,” Clint says, “and I don’t like it when other people play with my toys.”
Willy gulps. “I don’t know who took him.” Clint takes a menacing step forward and Willy raises his hands frantically, breaking into a sweat.
“I don’t know! Honest! It wasn’t my information!”
“Whose, then?” Clint asks. There are only a handful of really good information brokers, and Willy knows them all.
“Manuel. It was Manuel. I don’t know where he got the information and I don’t know who he sold it to, I swear.”
“If I find out you’ve lied to me, Willy, you’ll be selling information to the Devil in Hell, you got me?”
“Good.” Clint says, and melts back into the shadows, leaping up into the rafters and crawling out through a high window. Looks like he’ll be going to Madrid. He makes a mental note to wire a few thousand to Willy’s account. He might need him later.
Manuel will be a problem - he’s not as easy to intimidate as Willy is, and he won’t want to give up his buyer. For all they make a living selling other people’s secrets, the brokers are very careful to keep their own transactions confidential. The kind of people they work with tend to take a very dim view of betrayal.
By the time he gets to Madrid, Clint has decided that direct is the best way to deal with Manuel. Which is why he is sitting cross-legged on the floor of an abandoned warehouse with a wakizashi across his knees, waiting for Manuel to wake up.
“Wakey, wakey,” Clint says as Manuel starts to stir. He jerks on his bonds, which don’t give, of course. Clint strikes with the wakizashi, a thin line of red appearing on Manuel’s cheek. “Do I have your attention now?” he asks, as he places the sword on the floor to his right.
“You,” Manuel spits in Spanish, as he finally looks Clint in the eye.
“Yes, me,” Clint answers in the same language. “Miss me, did you?” he asks.
Manuel growls. Clint roars, which startles Manuel so much he nearly knocks his chair over backward. “What the hell was that?” he asks, eyes wide and for the first time, apprehensive. Good.
“That? I thought we were establishing dominance. Although really it should be obvious what with you tied to the chair and me free, but hey, I don’t mind reminding you.”
Clint picks up the cattle prod that lays on the floor at his left side. “Oh, and Manuel? Act like an animal and you will be treated like one,” he says, voice low and threatening, proving he is a much better growler as he reaches out with the cattle prod and taps Manuel in the ribs.
The information broker howls. Clint is glad for the mask - it means he doesn’t have to expend too much effort hiding how much he hates doing this. But if he is going to find Coulson, Clint needs Manuel to talk, and he doesn’t have time to wait for the more civilised techniques to work.
“Here’s the way this is going to work, Manuel,” he says, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees in a show of nonchalance. “I’m going to ask you some questions. You have several options. You can answer truthfully, in which case no harm will come to you. You can refuse to answer, in which case you will get another choice: the sword or the prod. I’m very good with the sword, as I’m sure you’re well aware. I can make it so you barely feel a thing. The prod will hurt. The sword will scar, and everyone will know why. Your choice.” Manuel is sweating now.
“Your final option,” Clint continues, “is to refuse to pick, or to try to lie to me. Both will get you the prod and the sword. In addition, you’ll have annoyed me, so I might be more enthusiastic than I would otherwise have been. Are the rules clear to you?” he asks, leaning back and sitting up straighter.
Clint is well aware of the image he makes: sitting calmly in his black attire, face covered by a black mask with openings only for the eyes, a cattle prod by one side and a sword by the other, both in easy reach. The fact that he is sitting on the floor and Manuel is in a chair is deliberate as well. In addition to it being a disconcerting reversal of traditional interrogation techniques - which Clint is sure Manuel has experienced several times - it also forces him to look down at Clint if he wants to be able to see what’s coming. When the interrogator is above you, you can stare straight ahead and still see blows coming in your peripheral vision. When he’s below you, you have to look down - it makes it harder to put distance between oneself and the interrogator. Clint is really hoping the end result will be that he gets the information he needs without having to resort to his implements too many times.
“It’s clear,” Manuel mutters sullenly.
“Excellent!” Clint says, injecting false excitement into his voice. “Let’s get started, shall we? Did you obtain and sell information regarding the location of a senior agent of SHIELD several months ago?” Clint really wants to shake him and demand to know where Coulson is, but he has to play this smart. Ask relatively easy to answer questions first, get him used to answering, before asking the important questions.
Manuel rolls his eyes. “Yes, but I’m sure you knew that when you grabbed me.”
Clint nods. “Wonderful. See how easy this can be?” Manuel grumbles, Clint ignores him and continues. “Did you obtain this information from someone within SHIELD?” he asks. Clint’s pretty sure the answer is no, so hopefully it will be another easy one.
“No.” Manuel says, smirking. Again, Clint ignores him and continues.
“Did you discover this information yourself?”
“From whom did you receive this information?”
This time Manuel hesitates. Clint reaches his hands out, a hand hovering over both weapons. Manuel’s eyes widen and he answers quickly. “Luis Sandoval. He’s a snitch of mine.”
“And how did Mr. Sandoval obtain this information?” Clint asks.
“He lives two doors down from the house the agents were staying in. He pegged them as government and sent me pictures in case I found them worth my while.”
Clint struggles to keep his disgust and anger out of his eyes. There are people at SHIELD responsible for making sure that their safe houses are safe and not right next door to someone associated with one of the best information men in the business. Clint almost wishes he hadn’t burned his bridges with SHIELD already so he could go back and find out who dropped the ball and express his displeasure.
“Did you put the information up for open auction?” Clint asks next. None of Clint’s contacts had heard about a SHIELD agent up for sale any time in the past six months, which leads Clint to believe Manuel had had a buyer in mind. But there’s no harm in being thorough.
“No,” Manuel hisses through gritted teeth. He clearly knows where this is all going and is probably having a vigorous inner debate on what he’ll do when the inevitable question comes up. Excellent.
“So you had a buyer in mind?” Clint asks to clarify.
“Yes,” Manuel is visibly jittery now, and Clint allows himself a satisfied smirk behind the mask.
“Did this buyer respond favourably to your offer?”
“Did you give them anything other than the name and location of the agent?”
“How much were you paid for the information?” Manuel looks startled, like he hadn’t expected to be asked that question. He stares at Clint mulishly for a second, but he answers quickly enough when Clint’s hands twitch toward the weapons.
“Five hundred thousand,” he mumbles sullenly. That narrows things down a bit, but not by much. Clint had already known it wasn’t a small operation by the professionalism of the grab.
“Who did you sell the information to?” Clint asks, forcing himself not to pause before the question, to not vary his tone from the earlier questions, despite the fact that his heart is pounding in his chest in anticipation of the answer.
Despite knowing the question was coming, Manuel blanches. “They’ll kill me,” he pleads.
Clint struggles to keep his reluctance out of his voice as he responds, “prod or sword?”
Manuel jerks back, eyes wide. “Come on, man, please! I answered all your other questions.”
“Are you refusing to choose, Manuel? Because you know what happens then,” Clint says, tone light.
“They’ll kill me if they find out I told you!” Manuel begs again, but Clint thinks of Coulson and clamps down on his emotions. Manuel told someone how to find Coulson. Manuel is not an innocent.
“Perhaps,” he allows, “but I imagine they would probably kill you quickly, yes? Bullet to the head, no mess or fuss? Whereas if you do not answer my question I will take my time. I will cut you up into little pieces, one at a time, and I will leave the pieces on display in your office as a warning to others who may decide to be less than cooperative.”
“Okay, okay!” Manuel shrieks desperately. “It was Triple A. I sold it to Triple A!”
It’s all Clint can do to not sag with relief. Coulson’s alive. Asset Acquisition Associates, better known as Triple A, are professional kidnappers. They take high profile targets, wear them down with solitude and lack of food, and sell them when weakened to the highest bidder. If Triple A had announced Coulson’s auction Clint would have heard about it. And it has only been two months. It would take longer than that to weaken Phil Coulson to the point that they’d be willing to move him in order to sell him. Clint still has time.
“When are they setting up the auction,” Clint asks Manuel.
“I don’t know, honest! They haven’t announced it yet.”
“Where are they keeping him?”
Manuel sighs in resignation, still eyeing Clint’s implements warily. “Bucharest. They have a facility there that they use to break their acquisitions. I don’t know where in the city it is though, I swear.”
“How do you contact them?”
“Encrypted email,” Manuel mumbles.
“Encryption program on your laptop?” Clint asks.
“Excellent. Thank you so much for your cooperation,” Clint says, letting a satisfied grin show in his voice.
He stands up in one fluid motion, pulls a syringe from a hidden pocket and stabs Manuel’s neck as he walks past. The information broker slumps in his chair and Clint drags him to his most recent stolen vehicle. He dumps the unconscious Manuel in the man’s office and cleans up any trace of his having been there. He takes the laptop with him.
Manuel’s computer is laughably easy to crack - Clint pulls up all the information the man has on Triple A. The idiot has the encryption key stored in a text file - but then Manuel never was a bright one. Sly as a fox, but not bright.
Clint sends an email using Manuel’s encryption to Triple A, letting them know he’s interested in their recent acquisition. Ronin is well-known for making odd requests and playing things close to the chest. They will wonder, but no one will question, so long as he offers enough cash.
The answer comes quickly enough. Clint offers to pay double their expected revenue and promises not to hold Triple A accountable for any problems he may encounter due to incomplete ‘training’. Clint’s stomach roils at the terms being used to discuss any human being, much less Coulson, but he keeps the tone of the messages professional.
A deal is struck, half in advance, half at delivery, and Clint wires Ronin’s money to the account Triple A provides. All that’s left is to meet the sellers and retrieve Coulson, hopefully without breaking his cover. Triple A insists on doing the exchange at a warehouse in their territory, which Clint isn’t thrilled about, but he’s not really in a position to protest. The fact that they still consider Coulson an escape risk during transfer gives Clint hope with regards to his condition.
Clint scopes out the location well before the meeting time. It’s a large empty warehouse - lots of lines of sight, almost no cover. Ronin is known for striking from shadows - they’ve just made sure he doesn’t have any to strike from. It’s far from ideal, and Clint’s gut tells him this isn’t going to be a straightforward trade, but it’s still his best chance to get Coulson back. And Clint will do anything to get Coulson back.
When Clint joined SHIELD it had been for the purpose of extracting information. Clint had gone through three handlers (no point in making it easy for them, after all) before being assigned to Coulson. Something about the man drew Clint in. He looks like just another suit, but underneath that unassuming exterior he is so much more. Coulson is a tactical genius, he has that unflappable calm that is both so very rare and so very valuable in the field. Most importantly, he is adaptable, willing to throw the rulebook out the window in favour of what works when necessary. Clint thinks that all the SHIELD agents who think Coulson is a by-the-book guy with a stick up his ass must be ocularly impaired.
Coulson has always treated Clint like a person, rather than an asset. It isn’t what he had been expecting. By the time Clint had accomplished his objectives in SHIELD he had been Coulson’s agent for three months, and he found himself respecting the man. To have an agent defect on his watch would bring down all sorts of censure upon a handler, and the more Clint worked with Coulson, the more reluctant he was to do that to him.
And truth be told, Clint doesn’t really mind working at SHIELD. It isn’t that much different than what he’d been doing on his own - sure, there’d been a kind of poetic justice in being paid large amounts of money by one scumbag to take out another scumbag, but by the time he joined SHIELD, Clint - or rather Ronin - had accumulated all the money he’d ever need.
It hadn’t been as hard as Clint had thought to put Ronin behind him. He’d simply allowed himself to fully occupy the role of Clint Barton, agent of SHIELD. He’d done it for Coulson, and for himself, because it felt better to trust in Coulson’s sense of what was right, what was necessary, than in his own skewed morality.
For Coulson, Clint had left Ronin behind. Now, for Coulson, he’s taken up that mantle again. For the last time, he hopes.
Clint debates long and hard, but in the end he decides to bring his bow. The Triple A people probably won’t recognise it, but Coulson certainly will. Clint will be in full Ronin dress, mask and all. If things go badly, and there’s a good chance they will, Clint needs Coulson to be ready to work with him, not against him.
Since there is no place to hide in the warehouse, Clint decides to make an impression. He arrives three hours early, and sits on the floor in the middle of the warehouse. Clint’s bow is slung over his shoulder. Like before with Manuel, he places his sword, a katana this time, across his knees. Clint closes his eyes, and waits.
About an hour before the scheduled meet, Clint hears Triple A’s men scouting out the place, stationing snipers outside the warehouse. Clint memorises their position by sound, but gives no indication he is aware of their presence.
The hand-off team arrives exactly on time. Clint looks up as they enter the warehouse. There are five of them, a smarmy man in a suit and glasses who is clearly in charge, two thugs flanking him, and two more behind, with Coulson between them.
Coulson’s hands are shackled, and his suit is filthy and hangs in tatters. He is noticeably thinner, and he hangs his head as if exhausted. He is stumbling badly as the two men drag him along behind the leader, but Clint can tell that much of it is exaggerated. Clint is once again glad that the mask hides his features, because he cannot quite help the relief that flows over him at seeing Coulson again, alive and unbroken.
Clint stands fluidly as the party nears, katana held loosely in one hand. He meets the leader’s gaze unflinchingly.
“As you see, we have your . . . purchase,” the man says, smirking like a Bond villain.
“And you have your money. You will get the other half when the package and I are clear,” Clint answers, hating himself for referring to Coulson that way but knowing it’s expected.
Coulson looks up at the sound of Clint’s voice, even disguised as it is, but the defeated expression on his face does not change. Instead, the corner of his eye twitches in what looks like an involuntary movement, but is actually a pre-arranged signal. Coulson knows who he is and is ready to follow his lead. Clint allows himself a tiny smile behind the mask.
The two men who are holding Coulson shove him forward so that he stumbles for real, and Clint reaches out an arm to catch him. At the same moment, the leader pulls out a pistol and points it at Clint.
Clint keeps one arm on Coulson, pulling him close so he can feel the outline of the gun Clint has concealed at the back of his hip, and glares at Smarmy. “We had a deal.”
“Yes, we did,” Smarmy answers, “but then my bosses had a thought. Why not two for the price of one? There are a great many people who would pay top dollar to get their hands on Ronin,” he says with a shrug.
Coulson is using the bulk of Clint’s body to hide the fact that he is efficiently picking his cuffs. Clint takes in the situation at a glance. Smarmy clearly thinks he has the upper hand to the point that he doesn’t even consider Clint or Coulson a threat, based on the way his thugs have yet to draw their weapons. Big mistake. Clint feels Coulson’s hand remove the gun from its hidden holster. He shifts his grip on the sword, and moves his foot slightly, tapping his shoe against Coulson’s.
Clint jumps to the side bringing up the katana at just the right angle to deflect the bullet that Smarmy reflexively fires - arrows aren’t the only thing Clint can aim. A split second later Coulson brings up the gun and shoots Smarmy dead center in the forehead.
The thugs are taken by surprise and Clint swings his bow into position catching two of the thugs with a pair of arrows fired together, while Coulson takes care of the others with two rapid shots.
Clint can hear shouting from outside and he knows they don’t have long before the rest of the Triple A guys are on their tail.
“I hope you have a way out of here, Barton,” Coulson says, voice cracked with disuse, but Clint has never heard anything so wonderful in his life.
“You know me, sir,” he replies as they run for the back entrance to the warehouse, “I always have a way out.”
Clint has an arrow drawn as they emerge from the building, and he picks off the snipers before they have a chance to draw a bead. Clint’s current vehicle is parked about 300 feet from the door and Clint spends every second it takes for them to cross that distance expecting a bullet in the back. Several of Triple A’s men have made their way through the warehouse and are firing in their direction but none of them are snipers and none of the shots hit home.
Clint opens the passenger door and dives in sliding over to the driver’s seat as Coulson throws himself in after. He puts the truck in drive and slams on the gas as soon as Coulson slams the door behind him.
“Are you injured, sir,” Clint asks breathlessly, glancing over at Coulson.
“No, Barton,” Coulson answers, “Just hungry and tired.”
Clint nods and neither of them say a word as Clint navigates through the streets of Bucharest. He knows better than to return to the same safe house but Clint has another just outside the city, and it is there that he travels, as soon as he is confident there are no tails.
They are still silent as they enter the house, and Clint sheds the mask and robe as soon as the door closes behind him, dumping the outfit and the sword on the kitchen table.
“This isn’t a SHIELD safe house,” Coulson observes, pulling out one of the kitchen chairs and sitting on it backward, watching Clint as he goes through the rote motions of boiling pasta.
“No,” Clint admits.
“You’re here on your own?” Coulson asks, with a tone of only mild curiosity.
“SHIELD called off the search ten days ago,” Clint says through gritted teeth, the bitterness of betrayal still fresh in his mind.
“And yet you found me,” Coulson says, eyebrow raised.
Clint dumps some tomato sauce in a bowl and sets it in the microwave to warm. “I have contacts that SHIELD doesn’t know about,” he says softly, knowing that Coulson knows and ready to face the fallout. The sooner, the better, so that Clint can start making plans. He needs to know if Coulson is planning to turn him in right away or if he’ll at least consider giving Clint a head start.
Coulson picks up the mask on the table and rubs the fabric between his fingers. He puts it back down and runs a cautious fingertip along the line of the blade. “This is all real, isn’t it?” he asks.
“Yes,” Clint admits, looking at the pile of cloth and steel on the table. His cover is broken now. There would have been cameras at the warehouse. Ronin is not known for being a marksman or for using a bow. They will see the bow, see the shots he made, they will see him and Coulson fighting together and they will know. Everyone knows about SHIELD’s pet archer.
Clint strains the pasta through the colander and adds a few spices to the sauce before tossing the whole thing together. He dishes out a bowl for Coulson, fills a glass with ice water, and hands them both to his handler, who is watching him as one might watch a skittish animal - or a dangerous one.
“I realise that it’s a lot to ask, sir,” Clint says conversationally as he fixes his own bowl, “but I would really appreciate it if you’d give me enough time to get out of the city before you call SHIELD.”
That provokes a reaction, finally. Coulson throws Clint a look that is halfway between incredulity and disappointment. Clint calls it the ‘Just how stupid are you, Barton?’ look.
“You have a pressing engagement elsewhere, Barton?” Coulson asks.
“More like a fervent desire to avoid SHIELD’s detention center, sir.”
“Do you honestly think I would let that happen?” Coulson asks softly, and damned if he doesn’t sound a little hurt.
“I think it might be out of your hands, sir,” Clint replies, trying to keep his voice steady and professional. Phil wasn’t supposed to fight him on this. No, not Phil, Coulson, damn it. He can’t let himself go there, he can’t. Clint has to get himself out of here before he starts thinking too hard about how much he really doesn’t want to leave. Doesn’t want to leave Phil.
“Clint, talk to me,” Phil says, and Clint’s defenses crumble, the words both familiar and new at the same time. It’s what Coulson always says in the field: ‘Barton, talk to me,’ only he said Clint this time and Barton can lie to Coulson, but Clint hasn’t quite learned how to lie to Phil.
“What do you want me to say?” he demands sharply, pain turned to frustration turned to anger. “Ronin is on SHIELD’s list of most wanted. I am Ronin, I always have been. And now everyone knows it.”
Clint abandons his food to pace the kitchen. “The good guys want to lock me up and now they know who they’re after, the bad guys want my head on a platter and now they know where to find it. The only thing I can do right now is go to ground and lie low and pray to God I can wait them out. I don’t have a choice in the matter and you can’t fix it!”
“Clint,” Phil says, and when did he get so close? “SHIELD gave up on me and you didn’t. You exposed an identity you’ve kept secret for years, you paid them money for me - two million up front, I heard them talking - you broke your cover to get me out. Why?”
Phil is standing right in front of him, in his space, eyes barely inches from Clint’s and they’re looking, searching for something. Clint knows what they’re looking for and he’s tired of hiding it. Not like it matters now anyway.
“Because I love you, ok? Is that what you wanted to hear? What difference does it make, anyhow? What’s done is done. You’re safe, you can go back to SHIELD and do what you’re meant to do and I can run. I’m good at that,” he adds bitterly.
Phil doesn’t look shocked, or uncomfortable, or any of the other things Clint always imagined he’d be if he ever found out. He looks . . . satisfied. Phil lifts his hands and places them on Clint’s shoulders, holding him still.
“I love you too,” he says, “and I can fix this. If you’ll let me.”
“Wha-?” That was not the response Clint had been expecting, and his mind blanks, refusing to produce any kind of response at all. He feels like he’s falling, like the entire world has turned upside down and he can’t catch himself, doesn’t even know which way is up.
“I guarantee you Fury would rather have Ronin on his side than locked up,” Phil continues, “And he owes me. I’ll make it a condition of my return that you be reinstated.”
“I don’t want to be Ronin anymore,” Clint says, because he’s felt different, off-center, wrong, since the moment he put the mask back on.
“Then don’t be,” Phil says with a soft smile. “Be Clint Barton. Be my partner. And come home with me.” Phil’s voice is steady and confident, but his eyes are pleading.
“Phil,” Clint whispers, allowing himself to say the name for the first time.
Phil leans forward, resting his forehead against Clint’s. “Please.”
“Yes,” Clint says and when Phil kisses him it feels like flying.
Phil uses one of Clint’s burner phones to call Fury on his private line. There are very few people who know that number, so he knows Fury will pick up, even he doesn’t recognise the number Phil’s calling from. Clint is standing in the kitchen, leaning up against the counter, fidgeting nervously.
Phil is a little nervous himself - despite his words to Clint, he’s not entirely sure he can convince Fury to give Ronin a chance, and Phil doesn’t want to tell Fury just who Ronin is until he has some assurance that he won’t be making Clint’s position even worse.
Fury picks up on the fifth ring - Phil can almost see the disgruntled look on his face after being unable to trace the call immediately. “Who the hell is this?” Fury growls into the phone.
“Hey, boss,” Phil answers casually. Professionalism is for when he he’s talking to Director Fury of SHIELD, not his old friend Nick. Director Fury would never simply accept a wanted criminal into the fold because one of his agents says so. Nick might do it for Phil though.
“Coulson?” Fury asks, incredulity and relief warring for dominance in his voice. “Where are you? Are you safe?”
“I’m safe,” Phil answers. “A little worse for wear but nothing to worry about.” By his side Clint snorts derisively, eyes wandering over Phil’s too-thin frame meaningfully.
“Phil . . .” Fury says, drawing out his name and sounding reluctant to speak. Phil’s heart starts beating faster - this is Nick’s bad news voice and he can’t help but think ‘what now?’ Clint picks up on the sudden tension and puts a hand on Phil’s shoulder, brow creased in concern.
“You should know,” Fury continues, “Barton went AWOL over a week ago.”
Phil relaxes, holding in a sigh of relief. Clint removes his hand and Phil grabs it, tangling their fingers together and squeezing in silent thanks. “I am aware of that,” he tells Fury, “but thank you anyway.”
“You know?” Nick says, surprised. “How? No, nevermind. Where are you? I can have a jet scrambled to pick you up.”
“Uh, yeah, about that . . .” Phil says. “I need to bring someone in with me.” Phil can practically hear Nick’s raised eyebrow.
“Code,” Fury snaps, and Phil rolls his eyes.
“Clementine. I’m not being coerced, Nick.”
Phil takes a deep breath. “Ronin”
“ARE YOU INSANE?” Fury yells, and Phil winces, pulling the phone back from his ear. Clint cringes, curling in on himself and Phil untangles their fingers to place a reassuring hand on Clint’s thigh. Going to ground is still an option and if it comes to that, Phil isn’t going to let Clint leave him behind. He’d rather convince Fury to take them both back, though.
“Not last time I checked,” Phil says dryly.
“Ronin is a wanted criminal. A murderer.”
“An assassin,” Phil corrects. “One who has never targeted an innocent. He got me out. I’ll vouch for him.”
“Vouch for him? Phil, you just met the guy, and his reputation is against him . . . wait, you did just meet him, right?”
Phil grimaces. Fury will be able to tell if he’s lying. But the more information Phil gives the faster he will figure it out. Nick isn’t stupid. Best he can do is make Nick work for it, and if it goes to hell, Phil’s pretty sure Clint has some boltholes even Fury won’t be able to track down easily.
“Not exactly,” he answers, finally, eyes flicking over to Clint who understands what he’s asking. Clint’s eyes are wary, but he takes a deep breath, swallows hard, and gives Phil a short nod.
“Coulson, are you telling me you withheld information on a known fugitive?” Fury asks, his voice low and menacing.
“I didn’t know I knew him until recently,” Phil answers.
“You didn’t know . . . Jesus, it's Barton isn't it? Are you telling me we’ve been giving Ronin unrestricted access to SHIELD for three years?” Fury sounds, well, furious.
“And wonder of wonders, the world hasn’t ended,” Phil returns dryly, hoping to diffuse some of Nick’s anger. Phil knows Fury’s mind is probably racing over might-have-beens and worst-case-scenarios and Phil wants to redirect his attention to the facts, which are that despite who he used to be, Clint has not betrayed them.
“He could have planted any number of bugs, compromised our security, sabotaged systems and we wouldn’t even know it, Coulson. I’m going to have to order a complete review of all systems, full scale search of the facilities . . .”
“Nick,” Phil interrupts, in that voice that he knows makes people, even Fury, sit up and pay attention. Fury’s frantic recital of countermeasures ceases. “You once said that you trusted my character judgement over any of the professional profilers you know. Is that still true?”
“Phil . . .” Nick says weakly.
“Barton hasn’t done anything to betray SHIELD since he started working for us. The only thing he has done is come find me and get me out when you had already given me up for dead. At great personal cost, I might add.”
“Phil,” Nick says again, voice actually shaky with guilt and Phil knows it was a low blow but he can’t bring himself to care. Because, yeah, abandoning the search may have been the correct strategic call but Phil had expected more out of his old friend.
“He exposed his identity to get me back, Nick. All of Ronin’s enemies will be coming for Clint Barton now. He needs the protection of SHIELD - he deserves at least that much.”
Fury sighs heavily over the line. “Phil,” he tries again, and Phil can hear the coming excuse in his voice.
“I’m not coming back without him, Nick. You take us both back, reinstate Barton at his previous rank and security clearance, and no one in SHIELD but the three of us have to know about Ronin. Or you refuse, and both of us will be gone to ground before you get anywhere close. Those are your options,” Phil says firmly, with a glance at Clint, who is watching him in wide-eyed awe.
Phil shifts closer to Clint so that their hips are touching and grabs Clint’s hand, interlacing their fingers and holding tight. He catches Clint’s eyes and tries to convey just how certain he is about this, tries to tell him without speaking that he most definitely is worth it, that Phil would happily give up a dozen careers if it means that Clint is safe and that they are together.
From the flicker in Clint’s eyes Phil knows that his message has been received. Maybe not believed yet, but definitely received.
“Damn it, Phil,” Fury says, resignation in his tone and Phil relaxes and lets a wide smile spread across his face. “If this all blows up in my face I’m holding you personally responsible,” Fury grumbles.
“Sure thing, boss,” Phil says, grinning at Clint, feeling the tension flow out of Clint’s body and basking in the light of his cautious smile.
“Now can you tell me where you are so I can have you picked up?” Nick asks, exasperated.
Clint pulls a map of Bucharest and the surrounding areas out of one of the kitchen drawers and motions to a spot on the map, well outside the city in the isolated area between Afumaţi and Cătruneşti. Phil rattles off the coordinates to Fury and they agree on a time for them to rendezvous with the jet.
“Phil,” Nick says, just as Phil is about to disconnect the call, and he thinks he’s heard his given name more times from Nick in this conversation than in all the years of their friendship and a little bit of his anger fades away. “I’m glad you’re ok,” Nick continues.
“Thank you, sir,” Phil says, but he lets Nick hear some of the warmth in his tone.
As soon as the call is disconnected, Clint is in front of Phil, taking the phone from his hand and tossing it on the table before leaning forward and capturing Phil’s mouth in a heated kiss.
“You are amazing, you know that?” he says when he finally pulls away.
“I could say the same about you,” Phil whispers, breathless. Clint scrunches up his nose and looks away in an unconscious gesture of skepticism and Phil brings his hands up to hold tightly to Clint’s upper arms.
“You risked everything to come after me - not just your career, but your life, your freedom. I saw how you looked at that costume, I know you’re not that person anymore but you used him to get to me anyway. Clint, no one has ever cared about me enough to take those kind of risks - for what I represent, sometimes, for what I can do, sure, but not for who I am. You are amazing, and I’ll tell you as many times as it takes for you to believe me.”
There is still some doubt on Clint’s face, but Phil ignores it and draws him in for another kiss, softer, less hurried. When he pulls back it is only slightly, leaning his head against Clint’s, their breath still ghosting over each others’ lips.
“You’re not going anywhere without me,” Phil says fiercely. “And if you ever try, I will track you down. You got that?” Because when Clint had suggested that Phil go back to SHIELD while Clint went to ground he had been terrified. Clint had already proved that he would do anything for Phil, and if he thought leaving was in Phil’s best interest . . . Phil shudders inwardly, digging his fingers into Clint’s arms instinctively, knowing they would probably bruise and liking it.
“I got it,” Clint says with a smile, and this time his eyes hold only joy, not doubt. Phil leans forward in relief, letting Clint hold his weight and trusting him not to let him fall.
“Now I’m tired,” Phil say. “I haven’t had any decent sleep in two months. So take me to bed,” he orders.
Clint’s smile turns into a smirk. “I’ll humour you, under the circumstances. But next time I take you to bed there won’t be much sleep involved.”
Phil grins. “I look forward to it.”
Phil refuses to leave Clint’s side during debriefing, which ticks Fury off to no end, but he doesn’t say anything, and Phil’s not above milking the ‘I’m sorry I gave up on you’ guilt for as long as he can. Clint answers all of Fury’s questions about how he tracked Phil down, but as soon as Fury starts talking about using Ronin’s reputation in the field Clint cuts him off.
“I’m not using that name again, sir,” he says respectful but adamant. “I’ll share my contacts and I’ll tell you everything I know, but Ronin is retired. Permanently.”
Fury looks a little disappointed, but he also looks at Clint with more respect and less wariness after that declaration, so Phil takes it as a win.
When Fury finally lets them go they head to Phil’s office out of habit, where Phil grabs a few things like his laptop and his backup phone before turning to Clint and asking “Your place or mine?”
Clint, who has just settled on the couch, probably expecting a marathon of paperwork, looks startled for a moment, then grins. Phil smiles back - paperwork can definitely wait.
“Well, my place is kinda bare,” Clint admits ruefully.
“Good,” Phil says. “So you won’t have much to pack.” Clint looks surprised again, and Phil has a moment of anxiety where he realises that he can’t realistically expect Clint to go along with all the plans in his head that he hasn’t even shared yet.
“I mean, that is, if you want to . . .” he stutters.
Clint’s eyes narrow. “Phil Coulson, are you asking me to move in with you?” he asks in a tone that makes Phil feel like he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Yes,” he answers, shoring up the remains of his confidence. “If you want to.”
Clint grins and the room is two shades lighter. “Hell yes, I’m moving in with you,” he says gleefully. “You’re a trouble magnet. You need someone watching your back 24/7.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “Pot, meet kettle,” he says in his dryest voice, but it’s ruined by the smile he can’t keep off his face.
“Guess we’re well matched then,” Clint says smugly, leaning back on the couch and putting his feet up to rest on the chair opposite Phil’s desk.
“Guess so,” Phil replies contentedly. He shoulders the laptop bag and checks to make sure he has his keys. “Come on, Clint. Let’s go home.”