The guy sitting across his kitchen table with the flyer from the bodega was a killer, Clint knew that right away. He wasn’t exactly dirty but his hair was greasy and not pulled back and he was unshaven. He was the very picture of a man come home from something terrible and he wanted a place to stay.
His face was sort of familiar but Clint had gone out on loan a lot before Thor had landed in the desert. They might have shared a rooftop perch, or maybe Clint had seen him down a scope. With SHIELD gone and Natasha in hiding, there was no one to ask.
Things sucked a lot right now. Until he’d seen them arrest Cap live on TV, he’d still carried his SHIELD badge even if he hadn’t been sure he was ever going back. It wasn’t just Natasha’s secrets out there, it was his. The whole world knew what he’d done to his friends under Loki’s control. He’d spent the past week trying to convince Stark he was fine in Bed-Stuy and no one was going to come kill him in his sleep. This guy, though… “Got a couple questions for you, kid.” The man gave him a blank, impassive stare and for a moment, Clint expected to see blue. “You HYDRA?”
“No.” His voice lacked any inflection, he didn’t even sound offended.
“Okay.” That was going to have to do. He didn’t think anyone else was going to be willing to rent to this guy and Clint had both space and the capacity to defend himself if it turned out the guy was trouble. He went and got a lease from the desk, found a pen underneath one of the cupboards. It looked like Lucky had been chewing on it but it still wrote. “You got a name to put on here or should I make something up?”
The guy hesitated so long Clint assumed he was thinking up a lie. “James.”
Uhuh. Sure. Clint printed ‘James Smith’ on the lease and slid it across the table. “Sign here. Month to month lease, rent’s due on the first. I’ll need this month’s rent and a security deposit today. Also, the dog has the run of the building.”
The man signed and Clint caught sight of his other arm. It was a Cybertek prosthetic, high end. This guy had been someone, once. “You need help carrying your stuff in?”
“No.” The man, James, Clint was just going to run with the name James, hefted his duffle bag. He also had a smaller suitcase, the kind you would find in a SHIELD safehouse, stuffed with local currency.
When Clint led him to the completely empty apartment, James set down his bag and took out a bed roll. Something terrible occurred to Clint, because he’d some something similar coming home from his hitch in the army. “Do you own anything? A bed? A table?”
“No.” Someone had been running his life for him. Phil had done it for him, years ago but not like this. He’d been helping, not making Clint helpless.
“How much did you take from whoever you were working for?” Nat and Fury’s redactions aside, a lot of black-books operations had been going dark in the past few weeks.
“I didn’t count.” He unzipped what Clint had correctly identified as a bag full of cash and seemed completely unconcerned about showing a complete stranger the stacks of strapped twenties and fifties. He counted out the rent and security deposit and gave it to Clint.
“You can’t live like this. It’s really, really suspicious.” If the guy wanted to sleep on a bed roll, that was fine, Clint wasn’t going to stop him but there needed to be some stuff in his apartment or even the mind-your-own-business types that lived here were going to start noticing. “We’ll go to Goodwill, get you some stuff.”
The worst part was James had no preferences, no opinions. Clint picked out a couch, a table, a dresser and a microwave. From housewares he grabbed a frying pan, a big pot, a small pot, some dishes and cutlery. It was the bare minimum but enough not to raise eyebrows. He found a boom box on the way to the cash register and threw that in too. It was going to get too quiet in that apartment, better to have something that made noise.
Driving back, Clint glanced over and saw James was still wearing that same vacant expression. “Where ever you were, whatever you did and whoever you did it for, it’s over. You need to pretend to be a person now, okay?”
No, that was worse. He did not need this kid sir-ing him. “Can you feed yourself?” The circus had taught him that much about being normal, at least, but he’d served with people who’d joined up on their eighteenth birthday and been skilled (or unskilled) enough never to have to work the kitchen. James nodded. “Okay we’ll start on that tomorrow.”
Potato chips, flour, onions, potatoes, salt, pepper, a spice rack. Apples, bananas, carrots, beef, chicken and pork. A bag of rice, pasta and jarred sauce, boxed mac and cheese, frozen vegetables. James pushed the cart and said nothing.
His silence and compliance was starting to freak Clint out. He held out two jars of peanut butter. “Remember what I said about pretending? One of these is chunky, one is smooth. Pretend you care and pick one.”
James took the regular peanut butter and dropped it into the cart. Clint clapped him on the shoulder and grabbed a loaf of bread. “Come on. We’ll get you some lunch meat.”
They had turkey and swiss sandwiches after they put the groceries away. He gave James one with mustard and one with mayo. He ate them both without comment, with chips and an apple that he ate in a weird way that didn’t leave a core. Clint winced a little and wondered when he’d last eaten. “You need to eat on a schedule. Do you know how much you need to eat to maintain your enhancements?” Because that wasn’t just a Cybertek hand, it was his whole arm and no way that was all that they’d done to him.
“Yes.” James washed their plates without any instructions and set them in the rack to dry. And then he did something that made Clint feel a little less worried. He asked for something. “I need information.”
At least the guy seemed interested in living a few more days. They used his lease to get him a library card and Clint meant to go check on him, he really did but the Tracksuit Mafia started some trouble and Kate showed up and things went to hell for a few days.
On Friday, it occurred to Clint that he really needed to check on James. When he went down to knock, Mrs. Ladu stuck her head out. “Is he alright? He yells a lot, at night.”
“He’s a vet, Mrs. Ladu. Just got back.” It wasn’t even a lie. There was something military about him. When he rapped on the door, it opened. “Good morning.”
“Hello.” James let him in and Clint took in the kitchen. There was a plate on the table, eggs half eaten, and a book. The radio was playing softly in the background. It would have all looked perfectly normal if the other half of the table hadn’t been taken up by an arsenal of disassembled weapons.
Clint ignored the guns and picked up the book. “You like fiction, James?”
“I’ve read it before.” James went back to his breakfast. That was fine, social niceties weren’t Clint’s style either. “But I don’t remember when or how it ends.”
The novel was a collection of old sci-fi stories, not the kind of thing even the most anxious of employers could justify prying out of an asset’s brain post-mission. The depth of his blankness made sense now. “They were wiping you.” James had been working for some bad people if they had wiped him this deep.
“Yes.” The eggs were fried, with soft yolks he dipped his toast into. Food always came back first. “It’s coming back while I sleep.”
“Is that good, or bad?” Maybe it was good that he’d disassembled everything.
“I don’t know.” James reached for the book. It was used and Clint hadn’t bought it. He’d been out in the world, at least. “I don’t like how it feels.”
Clint slipped a pamphlet for his shrink under James’ door. She was a nice lady and an empath so she could see right through your bullshit. The noise complaints dropped off after a couple months.
Winter ended, eventually, and sometimes he found James up on the roof, using his multi-million dollar top secret prosthetic to knit socks. Lucky was at his feet, watching in fascination. Clint, who had been going to start the grill, agreed with the dog and just stopped and stared for a minute. Eventually, James looked up. He seemed less blank, at least, and he was doing a better impression of a human being. “Evening.”
“Hi.” Clint dropped into one of the folding chairs so he could gawk more comfortably. “That’s a lot of needles.”
“You only use two at a time.” The yarn was some weird multicolored blob that was somehow falling into neat stripes. “It’s not hard.”
Clint, who calculated arrow trajectories and wind speeds with his vanilla-human brain, watched his tenant turn the heel of a sock without so much as a pattern and decided he disagreed. “If you say so.”
He started the grill and James stayed when the rest of the crew drifted up, even if he didn’t talk to anyone. The socks turned up a week later in Clint’s mailbox with care instructions printed on an index card in hideously perfect handwriting.
Clint, who spent the majority of the past ten years with SHIELD agents like Phil (dead), Natasha (hiding), Fury (on the run) and Sitwell (traitor) and bonding over missions and bad cafeteria food, wondered if he’d made a friend.
One night, when Natasha had dropped completely off the planet and he was so bored he was considering calling Stark, Clint decided to test out his theory.
He got a six-pack of beer, a pizza and went downstairs to invite James up.
James, who was apparently as bad at this as Clint was, looked at the DVD, turned it over and stared at the back. “What’s it about?”
“I have no idea.” When Phil had died, his collections had needed homes. He had no family, just his fellow agents and Audrey so they’d divvied it up. Natasha hadn’t wanted much and Audrey lived in a shoebox so most of it had ended up with Clint. A few favorites had been missing from the DVD collection and Clint had never asked but he was sure Fury had taken them. “They were a friend’s.”
“Okay.” James handed the movie back. “Is there popcorn?”
They only burned the first batch then piled onto Clint’s couch. The movie was some terrible 80’s fish out of water comedy and Clint almost jumped out of his seat when James laughed.
He was a good guest, even washed out his beer bottle and set it by the sink. Clint’s socks were drying thrown over a cupboard door. “Do they fit okay?”
“Yeah, they’re great.” Clint was taking good care of them. They fit suspiciously well, actually, considering he’d never told James what size his feet were or tried them on.
James drifted over to the movie collection. “Can I pick the next one?”
Two years after New York, when Clint was afraid to even step outside for fear of leading the paparazzi home, he watched the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner with James. On screen, Edward James Olmos said, “It’s a shame she won’t live,” and it occurred to Clint that this might not have been the best topic to show James.
It made him quiet, at the very least, and Clint felt bad as he shut off the DVD player. The TV was playing some news station and, of course, all they were showing was footage of the Battle for New York. The current feature was, of course, Clint and there was plenty of wild speculation about where he’d been for the past two years and why no one had caught more than a glimpse of him.
Clint groaned and covered his eyes while James laughed. “I’ve been meaning to ask. Is it your eyes? Your brain?”
So he’d known. It wasn’t like Clint had been wearing a mask. He should have told Phil he wanted a mask. Clint peeked out between his fingers. “Huh?”
“Your modifications.” On screen, news camera footage of him shooting the exploding arrow at Loki was playing. “Or is the bow magic?”
“No magic, no modifications.” Clint muted the TV. “It’s why I was selected for the Avengers.”
James just gave a low whistle. “Hell of a shot. I would know.”
“Thanks.” Clint wasn’t sure what to say. He’d known, just by looking, that James had been a weapon and not a particularly well maintained one. James must have seen something similar in Clint but they’d never talked about it.
James flexed his fingers. “I was an operative. I followed orders, I did things.”
“Yeah, I hear you.” There was no blue anywhere in Clint’s apartment. It made it a little easier to sleep. The silence dragged on a little and Clint said, “Wanna watch a cartoon?”
“Animaniacs?” James pushed up off the couch and went to get the DVDs.
“See, I just don’t believe you.” James chalked a line on the floor of the bar. He’d gotten the idea from Star Trek, apparently. “You’re a mutant. Admit it.”
“I am not.” SHIELD had checked. Twice.
James handed over the darts. “Then you’re a science experiment.”
“I’m not lying to you.” James seemed to be joking but Clint didn’t want him to think Clint was keeping something from him. “I’m just a carnie.”
He shot a perfect game from twenty feet behind the normal range while everyone in the bar pretended not to notice. A few pictures would probably end up in the paper, people had rent to pay, but people always forgot about Clint whenever Tony did something flashy. “Dinner’s on you next week.”
James plucked the darts from the board and gave them back to the bartender. He came back with two beers. “I was an experiment.”
Clint twisted the cap off his bottle and banked it off the ceiling so it ended up in the cap bucket. “I wasn’t going to ask.”
“I know.” James peeled a strip of label off his bottle with a human fingernail, his metal arm hidden away under shirt sleeves and a glove. “But Niki said I should tell someone.”
Niki had been right about the apartment and the dog, back after New York, when Clint had been a barely functional grieving mess. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
Another strip of label came off. “She said you would understand.”
“I do. That’s why you don’t have to.”
Much, much later when it’s three am and they’re watching ‘Hot Fuzz’ and James was curled up with Lucky he said, “There was a mission. The mark recognized me but I didn’t know him. Back then, I didn’t know anyone. I killed him and his wife. I remember him now. He was a friend.”
“I killed my best friend.” It didn’t matter that he hadn’t pulled the trigger himself, Phil was just as dead. “Not on purpose, I was a thing then. So were you. We’re not responsible for what they did.”
“That’s Niki talking. How long until I believe it?”
Clint shook his head. “I’ll let you know.”
“Where did you even learn how to do this?” Clint tried not to ask James too many questions, really he did. Anything having to do with his impeccable knife skills and the way he could chop vegetables into an identically sized dice was certainly job related. The way he knew how to fix things, that was also probably job related. You’d want your asset to be able to maintain his own equipment in the field. But knitting? There was no way his employers had taught him this.
“From my mother. Arms up.” James dropped the skein over Clint’s arms. “Besides. Everyone can knit.”
“No, they can’t.” If Clint was going to have to stare at it, at least the yarn was a nice purple.
“Hey.” James paused mid-wind. “What’s an Etsy and why would I need one?”
“Maybe we need an engineer?” Clint was a highly trained field agent, skilled in infiltration and combat. He would bet good money James had received similar training. It was horribly embarrassing for them to be thwarted by a piece of some assembly required furniture.
James groped for the Allen wrench where it had skittered under the dresser. “Got one on speed dial?”
“Not unless I want to move to Manhattan.” Stark was getting sort of insistent about the whole moving in thing. If Clint called him, he’d probably show up with a moving truck.
“Got it.” James stood over the pile of bed frame parts, looked at it, looked at the Allen wrench.
“Maybe I could just put the mattress on the floor.”
“Wait. Is this part backwards?”
One Saturday morning, Clint went looking for James to get lunch and ran into a woman leaving. She wasn’t doing a walk of shame as much as a strut of triumph.
James was in his kitchen, shirtless, drinking coffee and Clint slid into what had become his chair. “So.”
“Don’t.” James shoved a cup of coffee at him, which was a pretty good way to shut Clint up normally.
This wasn’t normally. “She looked like a conquering hero.” He could push a little, he’d earned it. “Or like you were a mountain she’d scaled.”
“You just can’t help yourself, can you?” James pulled a shirt on and covered up the jagged place where metal met flesh. Clint was a little surprised he’d let a stranger see it, that he’d let Clint see it. “I met her in a bar. She got blown up overseas. We had a very short conversation about our replacement parts and then she asked where I lived.”
The voice in the back of his head that sounded like Phil said, ‘I’m not here to save you, Barton. I’m here to give you what you need to save yourself.’ Clint hadn’t done a whole lot he was proud of the past few years but helping James was one of them. “Is it better? Being a person again?”
“Getting there.” He grabbed his wallet and pulled on a pair of sneakers. “I want pork buns.”
They were repainting one of the empty units when it occurred to Clint that there was no way the man who’d turned up here, barely verbal, had actually wanted to rent an apartment. “What the hell are you doing here, anyway?”
“You’re not going to like it.” James laid down painter’s tape around the window pane. He was doing it very carefully, giving it a lot more attention than he had the last three windows.
“You can buy me sushi instead of pizza this week, then.” They needed to sand the drywall patches. He would need to get sand paper. “Come on.”
“I had a list of high-level SHIELD agents. You were the highest ranking agent not dead or in hiding.”
That was actually really sad. Really? Everyone? “I was too hiding.” Maybe not as well as Natasha managed but he hadn’t been trained by the Red Room. No one else had managed to find him.
“Not well enough. I needed to report in to *someone.*” James finished taping the widow and looked over at Clint. “I got lucky. If it had been one of the others, I’d still be that thing. The Sevens and Eights were heavily infiltrated by HYDRA.”
“You were SHIELD.” He’d suspected but damn it, he’d given a lot of years to SHIELD, years he’d imagined he was fighting the good fight. When he’d been ordered to stay away during Thor’s battle in London and Tony’s excursion in California, the orders had seemed dumb. Now it all felt sinister. Why should he be surprised SHIELD was capable of something like this?
James shrugged, clearly uncomfortable. “I was a soldier. I followed orders. You didn’t give me any besides eat regularly and act human. Anyway, I appreciate it.”
Natasha finally turned up just as fall was starting to fade into winter. She had Steve in tow and some guy Clint didn’t recognize. “Sam needs a place to stay while his wings heal.”
“Wings?” It was three am, it was way too early for this. The guy’s arm was in a sling, which was a clue at least. “Come in.” He needed coffee if he was going to be woken up this early.
Steve looked sooty and tired in a way that the serum was supposed to prevent. He took a mug from Clint even though there was zero chance the caffeine was going to do anything for him. “Thanks.”
“Where have you guys been?” It had been months since Natasha had done more than drop him a postcard and he hadn’t talked to Steve since he’d packed up for DC.
“Chasing ghosts.” Sam took his own cup left handed and hissed when the coffee splashed on him. “Cutting off snake heads.”
“Running for my life. The usual.” Natasha did look a little less polished than usual. “Then I had to go fish these two out of a collapsed building outside Buffalo.”
“Steve broke a structural support. A piano fell on me.” Sam didn’t sound upset, just resigned. A lot of Clint’s stories went like that too.
“I said I was sorry.” Steve wasn’t drinking his coffee so much as he was staring into his cup. “I just… What do I have to do? Tear down the whole world to find him?”
“Cap is hunting the Winter Soldier.” He got the whole story from Natasha, hours later. When the sun was actually up. “It’s not going very well.”
“Was he expecting it to?” The Winter Soldier was an espionage agent’s boogey man. He’d taken out Fury. Hell, he’d taken down Steve.
“Steve knew him and that means Steve wants to save him.” She couldn’t quite hide the irritation in her voice. “The Winter Soldier fished him out of the river and now Steve is going to search every corner of the Earth until he finds him. And he’s dragging Sam along for the ride.”
Being Phil’s asset, being his friend, meant they had both received an incredibly detailed education on Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. Clint had never really believed someone that honest, that good, could really have existed. It was only the passage of time that made heroes perfect. But Cap was apparently the real deal. Clint could see how that was irritating. “I helped you.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It is.” He couldn’t believe her, that it was possible to be beyond saving. She’d been a weapon once too and now she was sitting in his apartment, drinking tea he kept just for her because of how fussy she was about it. There was a man downstairs who had killed people for a living and now he knit socks.
“Department X makes the Red Room look like a nursery school. Someday, Cap’s going to find him and one of them is leaving in a box. I want to make sure they don’t drag Sam down with them.” She was a cynic, but she wasn’t wrong. They were, the three of them, only human. Captain America and the Winter Soldier were more. “This isn’t the first time he’s shown suicidal tendencies. It’s all wrapped up in duty but it’s there. I thought about taking him to Stark…”
“But the Tower is basically the Hotel California.” Banner had checked in, intending to stay no longer than a week. That had been more than two years ago.
“When we go, we all go together.” She understood it too. The next time the Avengers assembled, it would be for good. “He won’t kill himself if there’s a mission. I just need to keep him alive long enough for the team to reform. I can’t stay but I can’t leave them with Stark either.”
“I can put them up.” The apartment he and James were working on was almost finished. Clint doubted Steve would care if the baseboards weren’t painted. “As long as you tell me who Sam is and why he’s here.”
“Someone’s moved in upstairs.” James showed up at eight on Friday with a Blu-ray of Frozen. “Also, I’ve decided to blindfold you the next time we play darts. I’m sick of buying you dinner.”
“Whatever lets you sleep at night.” Clint had learned to shoot from a miserable abusive circus performer. Trickshot would have beaten him half to death if he’s screwed up something as simple as blind-folded darts. “This is really what you want to watch?”
“The Internet says I have to.” James had developed a motley crew of knitting friends online and he took their suggestions very seriously.
They called for a pizza and put it on. James watched in with a weird intensity that Clint tried to ignore. Right around when Idina Menzel told everyone the cold never bothered her anyway someone knocked on the door.
“I’ll get it. We’ll have to eat it quick before your mutt notices it’s here.” James practically jumped to his feet. His joke sounded forced as he pulled out his wallet and went for the door. “Seriously, blindfolded. And I’m going to spin you around first. What-“
He just stopped mid-sentence, which was weird. Clint got up to check on him. If someone had finally come for one of them, Clint wasn’t going to be caught off guard. But it was only Steve at the door, holding a bent screwdriver. He’d probably been coming to borrow one.
“Hey, Steve.” They were just staring at each other. James had been SHIELD and Steve had been running the Strike team. Maybe they’d worked together? With Clint AWOL and Ward pulled for some secret project there couldn’t have been that many world class snipers you could trust Captain America to. “Do we have a problem, Steve?”
“Bucky.” It came out broken, like saying it hurt him. “Bucky, I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve been right here.” He stepped aside. “Come on in, Stevie. The neighbors are nosey.”
“You jerk.” There was no heat to the insult and everything slid into place for Clint. Oh shit. “I’ve been scouring the globe for you and you’ve been… you and in New York the whole time?”
“Not exactly.” James was guiding Steve over to a chair which was a good call. If he passed out, they would have a hell of a time getting him up again. “What showed up here wasn’t exactly a person.”
So Clint had apparently been harboring the Winter Soldier. That was going to look great the next time he got hauled before a review board.
“Sam’s going to be so pissed at me. We had to ask Stark to replace his wings three times and now he’s calling at all hours asking about carpeting and paint chips.” That was why Clint never answered his phone anymore. It meant he’d missed two dozen desperate calls from Natasha during the whole SHIELD is HYDRA thing and he was going to be apologizing to her for the rest of his life but at least he didn’t have to have any more conversations about kitchen tile.
Steve had his hands on James’ shoulder and Clint was starting to feel like a voyeur. If by some miracle Phil had survived his injuries and turned up on his doorstep alive, Clint wouldn’t want anyone to see it. “I’m just gonna go intercept the pizza guy, take Lucky for a walk.”
He made it halfway to the door before Steve called out, “Thank you for saving him.”
“I didn’t save anyone.” Saving people was for men like Cap. “Just paying it forward.”
Clint grabbed the leash from its hook and Lucky appeared from the bedroom without being called. All Clint had to do was think ‘Walk’ and Lucky was ready to go.
He caught the pizza guy and paid him off before redirecting him to Sam and Steve’s apartment. At least someone should eat dinner tonight.
Phil Coulson hadn’t been an easy man to befriend. The bar was set high, by Fury but also by his obsession because really, what friendship could live up to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’? Clint had managed it though. Being a sniper had probably helped.
Right after DC, when SHIELD facilities had been falling like dominoes, Clint had almost been glad Phil was gone. At least he hadn’t lived to see what SHIELD really was. He wouldn’t have taken it well.
But now? Captain America and Bucky Barnes reunited? Phil would have given up an organ to see it. Clint was never going to pay back what he owed Phil, not even if he’d lived, but helping out Steve and Bucky, even a little bit, was one last chance at getting in the black.