Chapter 1: Encounter one: an explosive beginning
The first time Clint encountered Phil Coulson, number seven in the list of all time bad guys, SHIELD was raiding a Hydra base and things went bad. A voice told him to duck, and Clint ducked... and the wall behind him exploded. Then Clint was helped to his feet by a mild mannered man who happened to be on SHIELD's shoot-to-kill list. It was a little hard for Clint to appreciate the severity of the situation, when faced with the reality that Coulson wore a pocket protector and apparently kept three pens with him at all time.
“Aren't you meant to be one of the bad guys?” Clint asked, and Coulson shrugged.
“I hear you on the comms,” he said by way of explanation. “You're actually a highlight...” Coulson trailed off, and he and Clint observed one another for a moment. It was hard to know how to reply to the admission – a man who had done such horrible things found him funny. But Coulson had a small smile on his face, like in amongst the fire and rubble, meeting Clint was an honestly enthralling event. Clint didn't know how to fight that – there was no snappy comeback for that smile, and knocking Coulson out and killing him in cold blood seemed to be a poor way to thank him for saving Clint’s life.
So he let Coulson go.
Later, upon considering that small and modest smile, Clint wondered if he had finally been compromised.
Chapter 2: Encounter two: infiltrating communications
The second time they encountered one another, Clint was doing his best to beat up Hydra scum. It was an uneven fight, due to a mix of Tesseract-charged blasters, superior numbers, and eugenics. Clint really, really hated going into Hydra bases. It was his least favourite hobby. Coulson was watching the fight from the catwalk above, his forearms resting on the railing. From the glimpses Clint saw of the other man, he looked amused.
“I hope you're enjoying the show,” Clint said into his comm. Coulson had admitted that he eavesdropped on SHIELD communications, and using the comm already in place seemed a lot easier than scaling the wall and climbing onto the catwalk without getting shot, vaporised, and killed. Clint was quietly thrilled to hear Coulson's voice in his ear after a short, contemplative pause.
“Some parts more than others,” Coulson replied. “Watch your eight o'clock.”
Clint spun around, and smacked a Hydra goon in the face with his bow, knocking it on its ass. “I'm better at a distance,” Clint admitted in return.
“You're not without charm up close,” Coulson replied easily over the comm. “I wouldn't go through that door, by the way.”
Clint panted, and looked around the warehouse area. Most of the goons were down, but that hadn’t been his mission at all, and he was in entirely the wrong part of the compound. “You should stop helping me,” Clint chided, weighing up his options. “It's unprofessional.”
“You should stop needing it,” Coulson replied and Clint sprinted towards the door. “Have fun, Agent Barton.”
Later, much later, when Clint was getting stitched up and Natasha was yelling at him for choosing to take a shortcut through the Hydra training rooms, Clint made a mental note to maybe follow Coulson’s advice next time. At the very least, Coulson’s intel on the layout of Hydra bases seemed to be more up to date than SHIELD’s. And despite the habit of designing and releasing creatures of terror at random intervals, Coulson seemed like a pretty nice guy. Clint could appreciate someone who knew how to banter over the comms.
When Fury finally dragged Clint in for a debriefing, and demanded to know why Coulson remained without an arrow through his brain, Clint could only reply that he'd been a little busy at the time.
Fury stared at Clint with his one good eye, hard and unwavering. Fury had a stare that could see all. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I’ll bet you were.”
Chapter 3: Encounter three: locationally compromised
The worst part wasn’t that Clint was crawling through the air ducts of a Hydra base in the mountains. The worst part wasn’t that he was freezing his ass off and possibly lost. The worst part wasn’t even the horrible realisation that the junction in front of him was too small the wriggle through, and that his belt had gotten impossibly caught on part of a vent above him, rendering him trapped for the moment in some freezing cold air ducts in a Hydra base in the mountains where he would, shortly, literally freeze his ass off.
The worst part was that the vent to his left looked right out over Coulson’s computer, and that Coulson had been sitting there for the past twenty minutes, listing to Clint curse and wriggle and generally make the situation worse for himself. At one point he’d shushed Clint.
These were the moments they never warned you about in training.
“Would you like some help?” Coulson eventually asked. “It’s just that this analysis needs to be done by morning, and you’re a little loud for a spy.”
“In my defence,” Clint started, “you’re not exactly a ruthless killing machine. It’s not like I’m going to get cut into itty bitty bits if you find me.”
“No,” Coulson said agreeably. “I’d harvest whole tissues from you and then incinerate the rest.” There was a pause just long enough for Clint to wonder which tissues, exactly, Coulson had in mind. “I’m going to open the vent now,” Coulson said by way of warning, before climbing up onto his desk. One screw was loosened, and the vent cover slid easily to one side. Clint would have to remember that. It seemed significantly more stealthy than kicking the vents off. Coulson reached in, his hand warm at Clint’s lower back, and unhooked his belt.
“Thanks,” Clint said as Coulson fixed the vent cover back into place. “Listen, you don’t happen to know where Doctor...” Clint squinted at the writing on his forearm, “Skerzge- Sgerksfcow- um.”
“Szegeczowska?” Coulson supplied. “Next wing along, on you left. Plays a lot of opera music at full volume. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” Clint said again.
“Are you blowing anything up?” Coulson asked, sounding mildly curious. Clint got the impression that Coulson wouldn't exactly mind some explosions in the near future, that he would find them preferable to completing his analysis.
“No,” Clint replied. “Not this time. And most explosions are from you guys setting off the self-destruct anyway.”
“I know,” Coulson said with a sigh. “It’s really hard to get anything done, working for Hydra.” He perked up slightly. “But they have a great health plan if you don’t mind gene splicing.”
“I’ll keep that in mind next time SHIELD sends me to a public hospital,” Clint replied. Coulson returned his attention to his computer, and after a moment Clint started shuffling back through the air duct.
“See you next time,” Coulson called after him.
Chapter 4: Encounter four: rookie mistakes
“You just can’t stay away,” Coulson sighed as the door to the cell locked behind him.
Tony cut in before Clint could reply. “Well, that’s kind of our job. Thwarting evil and all.”
Rather than engage Tony in a discussion of comparative morality, Coulson un-holstered the gun at his thigh, and shot Tony point blank in the face. Clint yelped. He felt that he could be forgiven from doing so, given the way Tony’s lifeless body slumped to one side. Oh yeah, Clint’s inner monologue supplied. Coulson’s number six now.
Coulson nudged Tony with the toe of his boot, and then turned to Clint. He had a small, proud smile, which dropped away the moment he saw the mix of anger and fear on Clint’s face. He held up the gun for Clint to inspect in the dim light of the cell. “Sound blaster,” Coulson explained. “It emits a tightly controlled burst of noise, with intended effects on the target ranging from dizziness to unconsciousness.”
Clint considered this information. “So... he’s not dead?”
“No,” Coulson seemed quite happy about this news. “It’s been tweaked a little. In the first round of testing, it had the unfortunate side effect of shattering all of the bones in the target’s face. Which did render them unconscious, so it wasn’t a total failure. They just tended to suffocate on blood before they woke up. A lot of brain damage, too.” Coulson frowned, and re-holstered the blaster. “But I’ve had some offers to turn the mark one into a demolition canon, so there’s a silver lining there.”
Clint considered this information, then considered the fact that he was quite thoroughly restrained in a room with the man who was number six on SHIELD’s list of people to ‘shoot first, don’t even ask any questions, just shoot – we are serious about this’. “Congratulations,” he said at last. “So how many people have been part of the second round of testing?”
“So far? One.” Coulson replied, before crouching down beside Clint. “I’m taking some blood,” he said conversationally. “Do you have a preference for which arm?”
Coulson set about clipping a needle and syringe together. “Well, there are some nice blood vessels in other places. Back of the hand, neck, the thigh.”
“Oh, you’ll say anything to get into my pants,” Clint quipped. Coulson smiled, tugged Clint forwards, and swabbed the inside of his right elbow. “How come you don’t dress like every other idiot in Hydra?” Clint asked. Coulson was wearing a polo shirt and slacks under a mostly-white lab coat.
“I kept getting all of the pouches on the utility belt mixed up,” Coulson replied. “And it’s hard to get out of those things in a hurry.”
“Do you often need to strip off in the line of duty?” Clint asked.
Coulson smirked, but didn’t take his eyes away from the task of sliding the needle into Clint’s vein. “It’s a relevant skill,” he replied.
“I think you’re better at this than the SHIELD medicos,” Clint continued as Coulson removed the needle and pressed a sterile pad of gauze against the vein.
“I used to be a doctor,” Coulson said. Clint considered telling Coulson that he already knew that, but he’d read Coulson’s file and in all honestly, the less time they spent talking about the transition from good doctor to evil eugenicist and handyman, the better.
“You going to clone me from that?” Clint asked, nodding at the syringe full of his blood.
“This is just for blood typing,” Coulson replied. The conversation paused for a moment as he held the syringe between his teeth, and put a small, round bandaid on the inside of Clint’s elbow. “The boss wants you to be in good health for the duration of your stay. For cloning, I’d ideally take a tissue sample and grow it up. Get a large volume of purified DNA from that.”
Coulson patted Clint on the shoulder, and stood up again. He transferred the blood from the syringe into a vacuum tube, and swished it around to make sure it mixed with the solution already inside. “You should rest up,” Coulson advised. “You and Mister Stark are booked in with Three Finger Harry tomorrow morning.”
Clint swallowed, but did his best to hold his head high. “I’ve heard of his torture techniques,” he said, aiming for a careless affectation.
Coulson gave Clint an oddly fond smile. “I don’t think you have,” he said gently. He checked his watch, and then headed towards the door. “Stark should start to regain the use of his limbs in four minutes. And the lights will flicker ten minutes after that – don’t worry, that will just be the generator rebooting.” Coulson carelessly dropped the used needle onto the floor of the cell. “Enjoy your stay.” The door closed behind him, and Clint heard the electric lock slide back into place.
“I think he likes you,” Tony slurred into the concrete floor.
Clint flushed as he stretched his foot out, desperately trying to drag the needle closer so that he could pick the knots tying his hands together loose, and declined to comment.
Chapter 5: Encounter five: team-building exercises
Clint was crouched defensively at a dead end of a corridor. The mission was blown, Hydra idiots were shooting at each other, and Clint was thoroughly lost. He wasn’t even meant to be in a Hydra base. They’d been aiming to infiltrate a Secret Empire hideout, only to find that there had been some kind of real estate trade off a few months ago. Clint was going to kill whoever had fed them this out of date intel. Right after he put an arrow through whoever was sneaking towards him.
A twang and a gasp later, Phil Coulson – back down to number eight on the list of ‘People SHIELD would really like to have been killed yesterday’ – was slumped against a wall and staring down at the arrow sticking out of his abdomen. The look he then aimed at Clint was so reproachful that Clint couldn’t help apologising. Coulson clawed his way up the wall with a groan and stumbled towards Clint. Clint, who already had his back against the wall and Coulson cutting off his escape. He didn’t have the heart to notch another arrow though, not when Coulson had helped him in the past.
Then Coulson was standing in front of Clint. He gripped the vest of Clint’s tactical uniform with one hand and took Clint’s free hand with the other. He pressed himself close, hissed as the armour of Clint’s vest pressed against the tail of the arrow, placed Clint’s hand beside it to hold the arrow steady. Then he took a steadying breath, closed his eyes, and pressed his body against Clint’s, forcing the barbed arrow head out through his back and making a small whimper when it finally tore through his skin. Coulson slumped against Clint for a moment, his face tucked against Clint’s shoulder and Clint couldn’t help petting the back of Coulson’s neck.
Cold-blooded murderer and morally-deficient scientist aside, Clint had a lot of respect for a person who could press an arrow out of themselves with minimal fuss.
Coulson finally pulled back, a little unsteady on his feet and his blue-grey eyes impossibly bright against his pale face. He was wearing a yellow t-shirt with A.I.M. printed on the front (short for Advanced Idea Mechanics, Hydra’s research branch). It was a little oversized and rumpled, as well as being bloodstained and recently personalised via a hole through the front.
“Digging the casual look,” Clint commented, to break the silence.
“The explosions woke me up,” Coulson replied. He patted the pockets of his black tactical pants until he found the one he was looking for, and pulled out a pair of bolt cutters. Awkwardly, he reached behind his back and clipped off the barbed arrow head. He handed it to Clint, who took it simply because he couldn’t think of a polite way to decline. “It seems we’re having a house inspection, and getting shot in my bed isn’t on my list of life goals,” Coulson added, as a blast of gunfire and screaming tore into the moment.
“I figured it was house inspection or firework testing season,” Clint replied. “Can you get us out of here?”
Coulson pressed one hand against the entry wound with the end of the arrow sticking out of it, and gave Clint a deeply unimpressed look.
“I shoot things!” Clint exclaimed. “It’s what I do! You don’t get to take it personally.”
Coulson grimaced as he turned away. “How about next time, I show you what I do?” he replied drily.
“I think I’ll pass on that one.” Clint replied, trailing after Coulson. “Look, please?”
Coulson was pale, and clearly a little worse for wear. He took a moment to consider his options. “Get me to my lab,” he said at last. “If you get me to safety, I’ll get you out of here.”
“And don’t shoot me again.”
“... How about I agree not to shoot you before we get to the lab?” Clint offered.
Coulson waved a hand at Clint, gesturing for him to keep quiet, and stumbled back toward the junction he’d come skidding around only moments before. He paused at the corner, then stepped into the hallway and blasted an approaching figure with his sound gun. The figure collapsed, and Coulson pulled the Hydra uniform hood off as the body went down. It took longer for him to get the tunic off, his movements restricted by his injury, but soon he had enough of a hideous yellow uniform to effectively disguise Clint.
“These things aren’t exactly subtle,” Clint complained as he tugged the hood into place.
“You’re right,” Coulson said agreeably. “The Avengers are far more restrained in their presentation. Practically stealthy.”
“Yeah yeah,” Clint returned. “No need to get all snippy at me.”
“I apologise,” Coulson replied. “I’ve been a little testy ever since someone shot me.”
“Look, I’ve already apologised for that.”
It took a long time to get to the labs. They had to skirt several skirmishes, and twice Clint had to stop to clear debris while Coulson leant against a wall, one hand pressed to his stomach and the other holding his blaster, keeping watch. Twice they had to take down Secret Empire scouts, Clint getting them on the ground and Coulson blasting them repeatedly in the face until they stopped moving and started gurgling. Coulson had apparently decided that shattered faces were back in season.
The labs were in the basement, which made Clint uncomfortable – he didn’t like being underground. Thankfully, no one had noticed SHIELD’s presence on site. Clint had been the only agent in the building when things went to hell, which Clint was slightly less thankful about. But since Coulson was struggling with stairs Clint didn’t think his own complaints would be tolerated especially well. Towards the end, Clint had to prod Coulson to keep him moving.
“Nearly there,” Clint coaxed, his hand resting between Coulson’s shoulder blades.
“You don’t know where we’re going.”
“Well, if we’re not nearly there by now then we’ve been going around in a big circle. And I like to think you’re smarter than that.”
“Oh you,” Coulson replied drily. “Flattering me at a time like this. Next left.”
“See? Nearly there.”
“You know, you’re a lot more entertaining from a safe distance,” Coulson said. There was a raspy edge to his voice that Clint didn’t like. “And when you haven’t shot me.”
“I said I was sorry!”
Coulson used his swipe card to unlock the door and gestured for Clint to enter first, which was both polite and a good way to ensure that no one was going to ambush him upon entry. Coulson locked the door behind them and pushed a filing cabinet in front of the door. Which would do nothing if someone wanted to break in, but it at least covered the little observation window in the door.
Clint pulled the hood off looked around the lab. It held standard science-y things. Things that people used to science. Clint wasn’t an expert in these things, but he did see one item that Tony had assured him was mandatory for any lab – a glass-door fridge with biohazard stickers on the front, and a sign reading ‘warning: not to be used for storing food or drink’ taped below them. Clint could see two cans of diet Coke and a lunchbox on one of the shelves. There were a few cages of rabbits, a lot of body parts in jars, and a Captain America paperweight. Clint was torn between commenting on the paperweight, and Coulson’s collection of eyeballs. Clint kept his mouth shut and helped Coulson patch himself up, cutting the shirt away to reveal the entry and exit wounds.
Coulson kept himself pretty fit. Not that it was an appropriate time to be noticing such things. Not when Clint was yanking an arrow out of someone he had kind of sworn to kill not more than a week ago. (Hill had taken to making them all swear on a regular basis to eliminate the ten people on the ‘do not allow to live’ list. She had a real issue with some of them. Possibly because they were evil. Possibly because Hill seemed to have issues with most people.)
Physique aside, Clint was also impressed by the way Coulson was able to stitch his own back up while Clint kept pressure on the entry wound at his stomach. That would be a handy talent to have.
“Are you going to be okay?” he asked.
“Better luck next time,” Coulson replied with a tired smile. Coulson, damn him, had a sweetly understated smile. “Point blank range and you still managed to miss anything vital.”
“I don’t miss ,” Clint replied. “Any and all flesh wounds are completely intentional.”
“Of course,” Coulson replied calmly, scrunching up the wrappings from his first round of first aid and dropping them into the bin by his knee.
“So,” Clint said, taking a step back so Coulson could address the gently leaking entry wound. “How are we getting out of here?”
“There’s a window next door in the tissue culture room, high in the wall. It’s not alarmed. It’ll let you out near the woods.” Clint opened his mouth to ask if Coulson was in any condition to make a break for the wilderness, then stopped himself.
Coulson would be staying with Hydra. Of course Coulson would be staying behind. “Thanks,” he said at last, so awkward that Coulson looked up from tying off the sutures. “For the help.”
“And yet this is how you repay me.”
“Okay, seriously, I am not apologising to you again.” The rumble of an explosion cut their exchange short, and Clint glanced nervously at the door. “Are you sure you’re going to be fine?”
Coulson was already pulling flash bombs out of his desk drawer. “Get out of here before I cut your fingers off,” he instructed.
Clint snorted, a said “Yessir, Mister Evil Scientist,” in response.
“Hail Hydra,” Coulson called absently after him as Clint slipped into the pressure room. Clint bit his tongue, and got the hell out of there.
Chapter 6: Encounter six: Home team advantage
I'd like to
blamethank Mikey and Frankie over on twitter, who are a very inspiring pair of enablers.
Clint was talking to Steve in one of the many corridors of the New York SHIELD headquarters. It may have actually been a small argument. Steve was of the opinion that Tony wasn’t taking his role as a superhero seriously enough, and that he was affecting the professionalism of the team. Clint was of the opinion that telling Tony to behave was the most sure-fire way to be certain that Tony would never behave again. And then a man in a lab coat tapped Steve on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, Captain Rogers,” in a mild-mannered voice.
And then Steve got hit in the neck with a stunning voltage of electricity. Literally stunning. Clint had just enough time to open his mouth before Coulson shot him in the face with the sound blaster, and oh wow was that gun a whole lot less cool when it was being used on Clint. Clint slumped to the floor beside Steve, could only watch through blurred vision as Coulson jabbed Steve in the neck with a sedative, said “It really is a pleasure to meet you, Captain,” and bound his hands together with zip ties. Coulson stuck a needle in Steve’s arm, and quietly and neatly filled four vacuum tubes.
Clint was amazed that there were no footsteps running towards them, no sign that anyone even knew that Captain America had been taken down in broad daylight. Broad daylight in the middle of a SHIELD base. By Coulson.
“Could you let me know how long it takes him to get out of these?” Coulson asked as he pulled out the needle and put a band aid over the little hole in Steve’s arm. “Thank you.” And then Coulson left. He just straightened up, put the vials of Steve’s blood in his jacket pocket, and walked away.
Clint couldn’t help admiring that. Even two hours later, stuck in a briefing room with a bag of frozen peas pressed to his face to help the swelling go down, Clint had to admit that Coulson was a ballsy fucker.
“He got in with this,” Fury said, holding up a SHIELD swipe card. “It’s been hacked to access all areas.”
“Well that’s completely irresponsible,” Tony said loudly. “Why would you even make a security pass that can be hacked?” Fury peeled Coulson’s photo off the pass. Tony’s picture lay underneath, smirking at the camera. “… My original point still stands,” Tony replied, as Fury seethed at him.
“How long ago did you lose your pass, Tony?” Steve asked in that no-nonsense voice of his.
“I don’t know,” Tony replied. “I honestly don’t. I have about three, so-”
“You have three security passes?”
“I keep misplacing them!”
Fury pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. “I want everything there is on this man. I want every single scrap of information about him that exists, and I want it in my hand by the end of the day, do you hear me? I want to know how he tracked Captain Rogers down in our own damn facility.”
“Apparently he asked for directions,” Natasha chipped in. She had been going over the security footage with Hill. “He came in through the front door, stole a coat from one of the labs and a clipboard from maintenance, and then just asked people. Left the pass at the front desk on his way out.”
Fury was still pinching the bridge of his nose. “We are a security and intelligence agency, and no one thought to look at his face?”
“He’s white and middle-aged with brown hair,” Natasha said with a shrug. “That describes about half of the staff.”
“He was wearing an AIM polo shirt!”
Hill’s face was determinedly blank. “Initial interviews indicate that SHIELD staff thought the shirt was ironic.”
Fury’s response was postponed by a timid knock at the meeting room door. Clint recognised the projectile technician who ducked into the room as one of the small team who worked on his arrows. She had a folded sheet of paper in her hands.
“You asked for everything we had on Doctor Coulson? Well, someone in archives added this to the pile.”
Fury took the piece of paper and unfolded it. Clint could see that the paper had a small hole in it, like it had been pinned to a wall or cubicle. “Where did they get this?” Fury asked after inspecting the photograph.
“It was through non-official-”
“… It was on twitter, sir.”
Fury dropped the piece of paper on the table. It was a printout of a photo of Coulson cuddling a fluffy, white bunny. Both man and rabbit seemed perfectly content with the arrangement. It was captioned ‘Stevie and Cheese’.
“This man posts photos of himself on twitter-”
“They believe the account belongs to one of his hirelings.”
“-and walks into our busiest base, takes down Captain America in the middle of a crowded hallway, and somehow still isn’t dead? What the hell are you all doing?”
Clint cleared his throat. “In my defence, sir, I did shoot him that one time.”
Fury fixed his one-eyed stare on Clint. “I wouldn’t be bragging about a non-lethal shot at four feet, Barton.”
“What I want to know,” Tony said, studying the printout, “is which one of these two is Stevie and which one is Cheese.”
“If his name is Philip, then he’d be Cheese,” Steve said, helpfully pointing to Coulson. “That makes the rabbit Stevie.”
“How do you get ‘Cheese’ from ‘Philip’?”
“Philadelphia Cream Cheese,” Steve replied instantly.
“Did they even have cream cheese before you got frozen?”
“As hard as it is for you to believe it, some things are older than I am. Including cream cheese.”
“Well, thanks for explaining that,” Tony said, dropping the sheet of paper back onto the table. “Now how about you tell me how Cheese here managed to get to drop on you and steal your fluids? Was he using the rabbit as an enforcer?”
“Will you two pipe down?” Hill said sternly. “He could be doing anything with that blood. He could be cloning an army.”
“Actually-” Clint could have kicked himself for opening his mouth again, but since Fury was already glaring at him and Maria’s glare had nothing on that, he decided to press on. “Actually, he has mentioned that he prefers to use tissue samples for cloning.”
“That’s true,” Tony chipped in. “It did come up in conversation. Remember when he shot me in the face? Fun times.”
“Shot-in-the-face bros,” Clint said, and he and Tony bumped fists.
Natasha assured him later that it was the exploding fistbump that led to Fury putting everyone in the room on toilet-cleaning duty. Clint preferred to think that it was just the final straw.
Chapter 7: Encounter seven: Digestive reconnaissance
AIM had been running silent for weeks, as far as SHIELD’s intel was concerned. There were no break ins at SHIELD labs. No reports of abandoned bases in the mountains suddenly bustling with activity. No giant bionic lab rats terrorising cities. Not that such things would have increased Clint’s workload all that much – he’d been pulled off any and all AIM-related missions in favour of performing surveillance on a hotspot for criminals who just so happened to also be mutants. And when that had been shut down, no one had thought to sign him back onto the AIM missions. Or the Hydra missions. Or even the Secret Empire missions.
Clint was pretty certain his name was on a list somewhere. It was probably a bad one. It was probably titled ‘people for me to keep my one remaining eye on’. But there wasn’t much for Clint to do but grin and bear it, and then snoop around and discover when the next Hydra-related mission was rolling out. And then go AWOL and sneak on board the personnel carrier.
Clint may not always think his plans through, but at least he was proactive.
It did mean that Clint, having snuck off the personnel carrier when it touched down, was stranded alone, in winter, without any luggage or a passport or currency. In France. He stood by the taxi rank, hunkered down in his black polar-fleece jacket, and spent a moment staring blankly into space and rethinking his recent life choices. Then his gaze focused, and Coulson was staring back at him from the other side of the nearest taxi. Well, awkward.
“You in town for the conference?” Clint asked. Neither Coulson nor his usual aliases had been on the attendee list for the fifth international Conference of Unusual Morality (Tony had nearly wet himself at the acronym), but Clint suspected that didn’t mean much.
“No,” Coulson replied. “I’m on holiday. My connecting flight’s been delayed.”
“Oh,” Clint replied.
“Are you here for the conference?”
“No,” Clint admitted. “I kinda just tagged along.”
Coulson toyed with the strap of his satchel bag for a moment, considering Clint. His hand was bandaged, and Clint wondered what SHIELD intel had missed. “So we’re both off duty?” Coulson asked, just to clarify.
“Yup,” Clint replied. “Looks like.”
Coulson looked at the airport to his left, and then back to Clint. “Want to split a taxi into town?” he asked.
Clint considered his options. He had a few knives on him, but no artillery. He was also cold, damp, and hungry. And the walk into town looked like a long one. “Sure,” he replied, and then they both got in.
“So,” Clint said as they settled into their booth. (In his defence, he’d missed out on the in-flight meal on account of being hidden in the baggage area, and when Coulson had asked if Clint knew any good places to eat it had just been one temptation too far. Plus, Clint hadn’t read anywhere in the SHIELD interaction protocols that eating pizza with a member of an enemy organisation was specifically and explicitly forbidden. Also, Coulson was paying.) “How’s the research going? Grow any new monsters with rocket launchers in their backs?”
“Actual research has been pretty slow,” Coulson said and he looked quite sad about it. “Contracts are up for renewal, so I’m in the middle of negotiations with the Hireling Employment Alliance. And my minion wants us to hire someone to do the paperwork.”
Clint raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You just have one minion?” SHIELD had Coulson down as one of the top researchers of AIM. At SHIELD, such a position meant that you were the driving force behind the overall direction of the research. From what Clint had seen, it didn’t actually involve getting your hands dirty.
Coulson gave Clint a quizzical look. “Why? How many do you have?”
“Well, none I guess. Not personally. Weapons Div have minions on my behalf. I don’t know, I’d’ve thought you’d have twenty people working under you or something.”
Coulson smiled, revealing a shallow dimple at one corner of his mouth. “In my experience, the more people you have in a lab, the less likely you are to know what’s going on. You need a small, focused team.” His face took on an innocent look that put Clint on his guard. “Aren’t the Avengers meant to be an example of that?”
“Ouch, my pride,” Clint moaned, pressing one hand to his chest. “So, if you were the head of Hydra and wanted to take over the world, you’d just want a super crack squad to do it?”
Coulson appeared to think the idea over. “I wouldn’t need a whole squad,” he said after some consideration. “Just three of us. Five, if I wanted to keep researching.”
“An army of three, huh?”
Coulson glanced over at Clint with a sly smile. “I’m all about efficiency,” he said.
Clint watched Coulson as their drinks were served – Coulson had a diet Coke and Clint stuck with water. If anything got slipped into his drink, he was damn well going to see it. Coulson dressed for travel like he dressed for most things, a neat kind of workplace casual. He wore a white button up shirt and a blue and grey tie, with a charcoal sweater vest over the top. His wind breaker sat folded on the bench beside him. He looked polite, unassuming, and probably very efficient. Clint, in his black SHIELD tactical uniform and his black SHIELD fleecy jacket and his black SHIELD regulation boots, felt practically sloppy in comparison. It was also a little ironic that the other patrons kept glancing over at him like we was a criminal, while the evil genius sitting opposite garnered only sympathetic attention by being in Clint’s proximity.
“Your little blood collection prank was certainly pretty efficient,” Clint said, accompanying the admission with a glare. Coulson looked pleased at the assessment, rested both of his elbows on the table and smiled contentedly. “Though the part where you told Steve that it was a pleasure meeting him? That was really classy.”
Coulson looked a little sheepish. “It never hurts to be polite,” he said, and he huffed a little as Clint smirked at him.
“You were certainly polite. No one’s sure if you came in for the blood, or if you just wanted a chance to shake Cap’s hand,” Clint teased. Coulson rolled his eyes in response.
“If you must know, I was gathering material for a protein analysis.”
“Sure,” Clint said, smirking all the while. “And how did that go? Or have you been too busy comparing notes with your minion about how tall Steve is and how his eyes are as blue as the sea?”
Coulson gave Clint a deeply unimpressed look, and Clint couldn’t help laughing at him. “The first trial didn’t go especially well,” Coulson admitted, gesturing with his bandaged hand.
“Were you too busy remembering his dreamy smile to pay attention to the controls?” Coulson’s unimpressed look was bordering on a death glare, and Clint forced himself to sober up and show at least a little bit of respect. “So what’s this protein thingy you’re doing?”
Coulson gave Clint a weary look. “You really want to know?”
“Well… I can’t guarantee that I’ll understand it. But we’ve got a while before our dinner gets out here. Maybe I’ll learn something.”
Coulson’s theory was that the Super Soldier Serum devised by Erskine had a multitude of effects. “Everyone treats the serum like it is one reagent that leads to one effect, and that’s just plain naive. You don’t have one cell type in your body, you don’t have just one gene that gets affected by vita-rays.”
“It was still just the one serum though,” Clint felt obliged to point out.
“But everyone is trying to reverse synthesise that one serum from all of these downstream effects,” Coulson argued as their pizza arrived. They’d ordered half vegetarian and half chicken and pineapple. “It’s like assuming a marksman has good aim just because they hit a target.”
“Well, that’s a pretty good assumption,” Clint replied, loading his plate up with three slices. “I don’t miss, and I have awesome aim.”
Coulson snorted derisively as he researched for a slice of pizza with his good hand, and Clint grabbed his wrist. “You got a problem with my aim?” he asked in a low voice. Because Clint would accept criticism on anything from his cooking skills to his general worth as a human being. But no one criticised his aim. Because his aim was as close to perfect as humanly possible.
Coulson and Clint locked eyes for a long moment, before Coulson said, “You shoot with the wrong hand.”
Clint let go of Coulson’s wrist, shoving his hand away. “I think I know which hand to shoot with,” he replied. “And I shoot with either, so that’s a moot point.”
“You favour the left though,” Coulson countered. “You’re left-handed but you aim right-eyed.” He reached over the table and put a hand on Clint’s cheek, even as Clint recoiled a little. Coulson held Clint’s face in place, the soft bandage catching slightly on Clint’s short stubble, then raised one finger and moved it to one side. Of course Clint tracked the movement, and of course Coulson studied the way Clint’s eyes moved, leaning close with his thumb hot on the skin just below Clint’s eye. He smiled as Clint proved his point, his right eye focussing slightly before the left.
“You have incredible eyes,” Coulson said, staring at Clint with something like pride on his face. The compliment was aimed at Clint’s vision and nothing more, but Coulson had a hand on Clint’s face and this little smile on his lips, and Clint had to remind himself that he could kill Coulson so quickly the other patrons wouldn’t even notice. That killing Coulson was meant to be the top priority of all SHIELD agents.
“You must being doing some impressive recalculations to correct your aim,” Coulson continued, taking his hand away. Clint’s cheek felt cool despite the warmth of the restaurant. “Or maybe it’s instinctive.”
The compliments did little to soothe Clint’s raised hackles. “I hit my targets,” Clint said flatly. As if that were all he cared about. As if he hadn’t spent years trying to perfect the art.
“Imagine how much better you’d be if you corrected your form,” Coulson replied, before smiling. “But then, I might be dead by now and you’d have to buy your own dinner.”
“Okay, for the last time, I did not miss. It was a fully intentional non-lethal shot.”
“Of course,” Coulson said, taking a bite of pizza to hide his smirk. “Trained assassins always avoid a kill shot in a conflict scenario.”
“Hey, speaking of kill shots,” Clint returned. “How about that time you shot me in the face?”
“It was set to stun!”
“You’re alive, aren’t you?”
“And so are you,” Clint said irritably. An awkward moment stretched between them, both of them occupying themselves with their pizza for a moment – Clint shoving a large bite in his mouth, and Coulson picking tiny sections of bell pepper out of the layer of cheese.
Even in Paris on a not-date with a super villain, Clint couldn’t escape pizza night.
“The point still stands,” Coulson said, breaking the silence. “With reverse engineering the serum from biological samples. It’s like taking a bucket of popcorn and a box of Cheerios, and trying to make a corn on the cob.”
“I’ll take your word from it,” Clint replied. “The most I know how to make is one of those origami cranes.”
“I was never very good at those,” Coulson admitted, before finally taking a bite of his dinner.
“Really? They’re super easy.”
“No, seriously,” Clint insisted around a mouthful of pizza. “I’ll show you.”
Which led to an interesting evening of eating pizza and arguing about origami with a man who wasn’t just on SHIELDs ‘most wanted dead (don’t even bother bringing him in alive)’ list, but was also on the bounty list (Fury was offering a rocket launcher or a company car to anyone who brought in one of Coulson’s limbs. He’d taken Coulson waltzing into SHIELD headquarters very personally). The weirdest thing about it was that it didn’t feel weird. It was nice to just sit down and hang out with someone who knew the ins and outs of the industry without the pressure of living up to the standard of the ideal SHIELD agent. It was nice to hang out with someone who called bullshit every now and then.
It was nice to hang out with someone who poked his tongue out from under his front teeth when doing the tricky, kind-of-inside-out folds in origami.
“I’m guessing the convention is crawling with SHIELD agents?” Coulson asked as they stood outside the restaurant, preparing to part ways.
“I don’t know,” Clint replied innocently. “I’m not here on business.”
Coulson gave him a long, critical look. “Enjoy your time in France, Agent Barton,” he said at last.
“You too, Doctor Coulson,” Clint replied. “Or wherever you end up.”
Coulson smiled, and waved, and walked into the night. Clint licked his teeth, his mouth tasting like pizza and soda. He had an origami crane sticking out of the breast pocket of his tactical uniform.
He was so very, very screwed.
Chapter 8: Encounters 8-10: Changes to standard operating procedure
There was an explosion of activity after, as Tony insisted on calling it, the French C.U.M.-fest. (Clint liked Tony well enough, but there were times when he wished that there was someone at SHIELD who could keep him in line. There was a limit to how many semen jokes he could handle during a single mission briefing.) There was a new recreational drug on the market and, like all new drugs, possession and sale of it hadn’t yet been criminalised. It sped up metabolism and gave short periods of increased strength and speed, to the point where people were collapsing due to vitamin deficiency, tissue damage, and dehydration. It also caused violent hallucinations, which meant that the new breed of addict spent their increased energy tearing everything around them to shreds.
Tony called it Hulk-crack. Bruce icily told Tony to stop naming things. SHIELD was requested to do its best to limit the drug’s availability through any means at their disposal.
It had only taken a quick catch up and/or interrogation with one of the Maggia’s drug runners to discover that the drug was being produced by Hyrda of all organisations. It was a bizarre change of MO – the organisation typically spent its time attacking UN summits and organising terrorist attacks. Drug pushing was an entirely new activity for them.
“They probably need the money,” Natasha pointed out. “In the past they paid their way by auctioning off valuables stolen during the Second World War.”
“I guess they figured out that crack kitchens have a faster return,” Tony commented drily.
“Well,” Clint said into the silence that followed. “Let’s go blow up some labs.”
Of course, it was nowhere near that easy.
Of course, Clint was given duties elsewhere. That actually suited Clint fine. Clint had made it his unofficial mission to hunt Coulson down, and the scientist wouldn’t be wasting his time supervising a drug assembly line. Coulson would be hunkered down, working on his protein problem just as Clint worked on his Coulson problem.
The problem, as Clint saw it, was that Coulson was a dangerous, murderous, scheming evil-doer who was unfortunately charming to the point that Clint lost sight of his goals. Clint was a marksman. Losing sight was not acceptable.
Phil Coulson had been a clinician, back when he had been a civilian. As Clint curled up on a saggy motel room bed, he read about how Coulson had been researching in the field of lysosomal storage disorders. After reading and rereading the attached summaries, Clint came to the conclusion that such disorders had something to do with cells. Maybe.
The point of the matter was that the disorders led to some messed up conditions, and Coulson had been involved in research largely on the patient side of things, getting sick kids enrolled in treatment trials and talking every year at the international LSD summit. According to the file, Coulson had apparently gotten fed up with the slow but careful system of applying for approval from the ethics committee and then performing tightly structured medication trials, and had attempted to commit what was later classed as a terrorist attack against the hospital he had worked at in Cleveland. He had planned to release a virus containing a specific gene cassette (or, as Clint understood it, blah-blah-blah-science) into the filtered air supply (after the filtration point, of course).
The attack hadn’t succeeded, Coulson had been arrested, and he’d disappeared from police custody three days later. That, and a few transcripts of talks he’d given at the summit, was all of the background present in Coulson’s file. The transcripts were censored. Clint was certain that SHIELD had more on Coulson than what he held in his hand. That meant that Coulson had a second, classified file. Clint could spend his time crawling around in the archives and dodging SHIELD security. He’d done it before. It was good to keep the archivists on their toes.
Instead he decided to go to the source. After all, he owed Coulson dinner.
Clint tracked a string of small-scale thefts across Canada – very small-scale, each theft consisted of a single part of a much larger machine. Coulson was sneaking in (with his usual complete lack of sneak) as a company technician needing to update some running protocols. He waited until he was alone, whipped the casing open, and pulled out what he needed. He told the lab techs that the machine needed to be offline for the next day to recalibrate, and then waved goodbye to security as he walked out of the front door with some expensive and sensitive component tucked under one arm.
Clint kind of liked that Coulson was so blatant about it.
Clint didn’t know a lot about lab equipment but he could spot a pattern and he could predict trajectory. Coulson had been right – Clint used his brain to aim, and that was why he never missed. He dropped down from the ceiling and landed behind Coulson just as he was pulling a panel off.
“Could you pass me the screwdriver set?” Coulson asked, holding a hand out.
“Would it kill you to look surprised?” Clint griped in response, picking out the box of tiny screwdrivers and slapping it onto Coulson’s palm.
“I saw your bike on the street,” Coulson replied.
Clint blinked. He’d moved into position before light that morning, his rental motorbike parked one block over. “How’d you know I was on a bike?”
“I track your credit cards,” Coulson replied, his words a little muffled as he held a screwdriver between his teeth.
Clint opened his mouth to point out that he had a lot of credit cards, that SHIELD didn’t even know how many he had, and then reconsidered. “I guess you know what I’m getting you for your birthday then,” he replied.
“Subs for dinner and a night in a cheap motel?”
“Only the best of cheap motels,” Clint said with a nod. Coulson snorted a laugh, and snaked his arm into the machine. “So what are you collecting?” Clint asked.
“I’m harvesting vibranium,” Coulson replied. “It’s used here as a thin stabilising plate, which means you can now slap these things anywhere,” he said, nodding his head at the bulk of the machine. “They used to be clustered around elevator shafts, which are the most stable parts of a building. Then someone figured out that if you boost the cost of the machine by making it insensitive to vibration, you can cut costs in building the facility.”
“Does that even out?”
Coulson shrugged the shoulder that was still outside the device. “Not when you can’t afford the new model in the first place.”
Clint crouched down and wrapped his arms around his knees, peering inside the neat arrangement of tubes and wires. “Is this what you thought you’d do with your life?” he asked. “Low budget science with a bit of theft on the side?”
“You say that like there’s medical research out there with secure funding,” Coulson replied. “This may be a bit more pro-active than just writing out a grant application, but it has far more reliable results.” Coulson allowed himself a smile as he eased one section free. He rested it on a foam mat on the floor, and set about pulling the section into smaller parts.
“Is that why you work for Hydra?” Clint asked. “It’s just more convenient?”
“It was in the beginning,” Coulson admitted. “Tell a bad guy you’re interested in gene replacement therapy using viral vectors and they think all of their Christmases have come at once. Then they realise that you’re ten years minimum from what they even think that means and the love starts to fade. So I get shoved into other areas.” Coulson shrugged as he carefully pulled a tube free of the section it was attached to. “It’s like any research; no one has the patience for long term goals.”
“Sounds like a pain,” Clint replied, and Coulson waved his compassion off, focussed on his work. “Do you regret it?” he asked. “What you did at the hospital?”
Coulson looked up at him for a moment, studied Clint’s face until he found the intention. “I regret that I acted rashly,” he replied, looking back down at his hands as he wrapped the tube carefully in a soft material. “Or perhaps not rashly enough. I had good intentions, just poor execution.” He tucked the bundle into a technician’s satchel bag, and focussed on putting the machine back together.
“Were you planning on trying to stop me at some point?” Coulson asked, half buried in the machine. “I only ask because I am on a schedule.”
“No,” Clint replied, rolling back up onto his feet. “I’m on leave. For the moment.”
“Then I hope you enjoy your time off,” Coulson replied as he fitted the cover on and swiftly screwed it back in place.
“Thanks,” Clint said, and then leapt up and grabbed the edge of the hole in the ceiling, pulling himself back up into the cavity above the ceiling tiles. Coulson waved up at him, and then headed out of the lab.
Clint sat in the dark for a long moment, running the conversation over in his mind. What kind of good intention could Coulson have possibly had for poisoning a bunch of sick kids? Clint examined the idea that perhaps they were so sick Coulson had seen it as putting them out of their misery, but that didn’t fit with the passionate talks he’d given at countless seminars about advancing therapeutic treatments.
That left Clint with an interesting alternative. Maybe Coulson hadn’t been trying to harm anyone at all.
Clint did more digging into the incident at the Cleveland hospital. He searched fluidly, allowing one piece of information to carry him to another and another. He found the uncensored talks that Phil gave at the various conferences, and read through them carefully. He was starting to understand some of the ‘blah-blah-science’ sections, though admittedly that had been the purpose of the talks in the first place. Conferences where researchers and the families of patients had met and discussed the problems that were facing them, held every year and slowly growing. Much of Coulson’s presence had been erased from them, as would be expected of any organisation wishing to distance itself from a man marked as a terrorist, but Clint had good eyes. He could see Coulson in group photographs. He could see the shape of the hole he left behind.
He tracked Coulson to a storage facility, to a locker the size of Clint’s SHIELD accommodation, and a machine slowly taking place.
“And you turned your nose up at my cheap motel room,” he said as he slipped through the gap at the bottom of the roller door.
“I was playing hard to get,” Coulson replied, not looking up from the circuit board he was intently prodding with a soldering iron.
“I knew it,” Clint replied, dropping to sit on the floor opposite Coulson. The locker contained Coulson, a lot of parts that were waiting to be assembled into something important, three takeaway cups of coffee, and the Captain America paperweight sitting jauntily on top of a toolbox. “So, does this mean the protein thing is not happening?”
Coulson frowned. “It happened,” he replied. “It didn’t work. Better luck next time.”
“That’s a shame,” Clint said. “Because your theory about modifying proteins for use in enzyme replacement theory seemed really interesting. Not that I’m a biologist, but I asked a friend about it who dabbles in that field and he said it sounded pretty awesome.”
Coulson stared at Clint silently, one eyebrow slightly raised, and Clint beamed back. “I may only type with two fingers, but my Google skills are unparalleled,” he said.
“I’ll have to add that to your file,” Coulson said, returning his attention to the circuit board. “You certainly seem to be padding out the one on me.”
“Eh,” Clint leaned back on one hand and let his legs sprawl out. “I was getting sick of the same old bedtime reading.”
“How tragic,” Coulson replied in a bland, not-unkind voice.
“I know,” Clint replied, rocking one outstretched foot back and forth so he tapped Coulson’s thigh. “I thought I’d better go see a doctor about it.” Coulson glanced over at Clint again, and Clint fluttered his eyelashes. Coulson rolled his eyes, but there was an amused curve to his lips.
“I’m not a doctor anymore,” Coulson replied.
“I know,” Clint replied. “They revoked your licence when you were found guilty of killing your department head.”
Coulson held up a finger in rebuke. “I wasn’t found guilty,” he insisted. “It never went to court.”
“Because they couldn’t find you.”
“Innocent until proven guilty.”
“They found his body parts in your apartment.”
Coulson shrugged. “I never said I didn’t do it,” he replied.
Clint had to laugh at the nitpick. Agent Sitwell was fond of saying that ‘the devil is in the details’. That expression seemed to fit Coulson perfectly. “Is it true that you brained him with a monkey wrench?” Clint asked.
“No,” Coulson looked scandalised at the suggestion. “I incapacitated him with the wrench. I killed him by removing his internal organs for tissue culture.”
“Oh, that’s much nicer,” Clint replied with his best poker face.
Coulson smiled, as though there was something about the incident that had become funny with time. “He was under anaesthetic. Mostly.”
“Ugh,” Clint replied, wrinkling his nose. Coulson set one circuit board aside to cool, and picked up another from the stack beside the toolbox. “What’s with the Captain America thing?” he asked, staring at the paperweight. The grinning bust of Captain America stared back. It was actually a little creepy.
“Just something I collected,” Coulson replied, almost absently. Clint kept tapping at Coulson’s thigh with his foot, wearing the man down. “One of my patients had it in his hospital room,” Coulson finally explained.
“He didn’t mind you stealing it?”
“He was dead at the time.” Coulson looked up from his work when Clint stilled. “Not me,” he clarified.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Clint said honestly.
Coulson returned his attention to the circuit board, tracing a pathway with the tip of his finger. “So was I.”
Clint leaned back on his elbows and stared up at the grey, concrete ceiling of the storage locker. He was piecing together a more solid timeline of the month in which Phillip Coulson, MD had gone from being a passionate and well-liked clinician to being a bioterrorist and unhinged murderer. It had been a busy month, nearly fifteen years ago, that much was certain.
“Do you think-” Clint was cut off by a box at Phil’s side letting out a soft beep, and then flashing. Coulson held a finger up to his lips and picked up the box, examining the small screen. After a moment, Clint heard footsteps approaching.
It was an awful hiding space, he’d told himself that as he’d gone in to find Coulson. Concrete boxes with no escape and only one entrance. Coulson didn’t even have anything to hide behind. Clint was armed, of course, but without knowing who was in the hallway any kind of offence was ill-advised and defence was going to be nigh impossible. Clint unsheathed the throwing knives strapped to his thigh in preparation as the footsteps drew closer. Coulson calmly moved the Captain America paperweight to the floor and slowly opened to the toolbox. Clint really hoped he had an escape tunnel stashed in there, because he could see the feet of three men drawing to a standstill on the other side of the roller door and Clint’s world slowed down as his heartbeat sped up, as his gaze locked onto those three pairs of feet and he prepared to-
Clint didn’t get the chance to prepare for anything. Coulson pulled a gun out of the toolbox and blew some sizeable holes through the roller door and the men standing on the other side. Clint sat there, stunned, as his ears rang from the gunshots in the small, echoing space.
“You shot them,” he said.
“That’s not your blaster,” he pointed out.
Coulson frowned. “It’s not great at long distance,” he admitted.
Clint watched as a pool of blood spread and started infringing on Coulson’s territory. Coulson pushed himself up off the ground with a grunt, and pulled the roller door up. “Hm,” Coulson said, before administering headshots to three people who were already dying quickly.
“Anyone I know?” Clint asked. He wondered if that was how his life was going to end – hunted down by SHIELD because he had sat by idly while a known super villain executed SHIELD field agents.
“The manager is here,” Coulson said, striding back into the locker. “You may have passed him on the way in. The other two are Hydra.”
Clint blinked as Coulson started packing things up. “Hydra? Why are they after you?”
“I’d love to stay and chat,” Coulson said, straightening up, “but-”
Ah, and there was his sound blaster. Clint cringed in anticipation, and perhaps in response Coulson stepped back and lowered his aim. The blast hit Clint in the chest, knocking the wind out of him. Clint was going to be a distraction in case any other Hydra agents were in the building and had heard the shots. It wasn’t a bad ploy, in all honesty. Coulson was good at thinking on his feet. But Clint didn’t want to encourage his Clint-blasting hobby.
When he could breathe without wheezing, Clint called the incident in. He lied through his teeth about it, but at least he called it in.
There was a bar halfway between the hospital and the graveyard. Clint found Coulson there two weeks later, dressed in a fine but forgettable black suit, nursing a glass of something honey coloured and alcoholic, and staring out at the street.
“Hey,” Clint said quietly, sliding onto the stool beside Coulson.
“What are you playing at?” Coulson asked, not looking away from the foot traffic outside.
“I was going to buy you a drink,” Clint quipped. Coulson didn’t respond, just sat with his chin propped on his open palm. “I’ve been taken off all Hydra missions,” Clint confessed. “Which is probably a good thing.” He waved to the bartender and indicated for a beer. “You’ve kind of become a highlight for me.”
Coulson huffed a laugh. “Sorry,” he said, sounding perfectly honest. “I never meant to sabotage anyone else’s career.”
“If it helps,” Clint said, leaning forwards and trying to catch Coulson’s eye, “I’m not exactly great at not being a screw up.” It was the day of emotional honesty, after all. Coulson turned to face Clint then, looking mildly distressed at Clint’s confession. “It’s true,” Clint said defensively.
Coulson turned his attention back to the large window and the view beyond. “You’re not a screw up,” he replied.
Clint wondered if pointing out that taking Coulson’s word on damn near anything would pretty much count as solid proof of being a screw up would lighten the situation. He decided that it wouldn’t. “Well, you’re not much of a screw up either,” he finally replied. Phil held up his glass in a silent toast, and Clint clinked his own against it. They both drank.
“Did you ever finish your kill box or whatever that thing was?” Clint asked.
“It’s a work in progress,” Coulson replied.
“You seem to have a lot of those.”
“I try not to box myself in.”
“You’re allowed to finish things, you know.”
Coulson frowned. “Is this going anywhere, Agent Barton? Because I do have plans.”
Clint shrugged. “It looked like your research was leading somewhere good, that’s all,” he said lightly. “Your old research, back before the career change.”
“It still is,” Coulson replied. “Do you know what happens every time SHIELD busts in on an AIM lab?” Clint had a fair idea – he’d helped light some of the fires. “They take everything. You take all of the data, and most of the samples, and you hand it to your science teams, and they filter it down to their collaborating labs, and within the year it gets published. The viral delivery system I tried to use in Cleveland? That’s now being used by Oscorp. They didn’t even bother tweaking it – it still has my signature in the viral protein structure.”
Clink blinked at the outburst. “I figured a virus was just a virus.”
Coulson huffed a laugh. “You have no idea.”
“Still, you wanted to help sick people. Oscorp is helping sick people. That works out, right?”
Coulson’s smile was wry, and a little sad as he stared down into his drink. “I do more good now that I’m getting paid to kill people than I did when I was trying to save lives. If that’s not incentive to give up on humanity, I don’t know what is.”
“Imagine how many more people you’d help if you stopped trying to kill them.”
Coulson shrugged one shoulder. “The greatest scientific advancements are always made in times of conflict,” he said. “And I can’t say I don’t like the speed that comes with playing for the other team.”
“If only you didn’t have to deal with raids on your labs and your own employers hunting you down,” Clint said drily.
Coulson inclined his head. “Keeps life interesting.”
Clint nodded. He could understand that. People got used to the strangest things in this life. “Is your rabbit okay?” he asked.
“I have a few,” Coulson replied. “And they’re fine. They’re at a secure facility.” Clint wondered if it was any more secure than the ‘secure facilities’ he’d already infiltrated. In an odd way, he hoped so.
“It’s cute that you’re so fond of them.”
“They’re valuable research assets.”
“I saw the photo on twitter,” Clint replied.
Coulson frowned. “I am going to kill that damn tech.”
Clint huffed a laugh. “Aww, I think it was sweet. It’s probably great PR. Almost as good as the ‘Hotties of Hydra’ calendar that was proposed.”
Phil shifted so his face was covered by his hand. “Slowly,” he said, his voice slightly muffled. “And painfully.”
“I like the idea of you as Mister December, but I gotta admit, I always saw you as more of an Autumn guy. I don’t know what it is, maybe something about your skin tone?”
Coulson looked up them, levelling a glare at Clint that was made somewhat less potent by the redness of his ears.
“I think it’ll be a big seller,” Clint said with a firm nod. “Making Stevie Mister March is only going to boost sales.”
Coulson sighed, and gave Clint a long, level look. “You think you’re being funny.”
“I think I’m hilarious,” Clint replied with a grin. “That’s why you started snooping on me in the first place, right?”
Coulson fought to hide a small smile. “It was mainly to laugh at you.”
Clint held his hands out to either side. “Happy to be of service.”
Coulson smiled for a moment, an honest and genuine smile, and then it was gone as quickly as it had come. “What are you playing at?” he asked again. He sounded tired and Clint didn’t know how to tell Coulson that he had no idea, that he had a bunch of half-plans and some good intentions, and nothing more than that.
“I figured today would be a rough day for you,” he said at last. “And the last time you had a rough day an innocent ventilation system got attacked.”
“So you’re here to keep me in line?”
“Actually, I was hoping to cheer you up a little. But, I mean, if you want to get kinky this early on in the relationship...” Coulson snorted a laugh, and Clint indulged in a satisfied smile. “So, I don’t have to worry about protecting the virtue of any air-conditioning systems?”
“Not today,” Coulson replied, staring down at his drink once more. “And there’s little point in repeating a stupid plan.”
“I’d say that I wish all villains were as logical as you in that regard, but in all honesty it would make my job a lot harder.”
“You mean you’re not ready to step up from killing the same old Doombots?”
“Okay, seriously, fuck that guy. Do you have any idea how many autonomous robotic limbs I have chased down this year? Too many! Who does that, anyway? If you can make an autonomous robotic limb, then why don’t you just make them not limb shaped? If it ever occurs to him to just make little robots instead we are going to be so boned.”
“What if he made one giant foot robot instead?”
“I would not be surprised, I tell you,” Clint replied. “He is scary as all get out, but some of his ideas, you know? Ugh.”
Coulson nodded seriously. “I’ll pass on the giant foot idea.”
Clint laughed. He couldn’t help it, an honest laugh that only stretched further when he glanced over and saw Coulson waiting patiently for him to compose himself, his brows drawing together to create an expression that was simultaneously irritated and tolerant. It would be easier, Clint thought, if Coulson wasn’t so much fun to be around.
“You must have been a great brother,” he said, and then froze. The wide smile on his face was stuck in a horrible parody. It was like the entire bar was frozen in time for one long, mortifying moment, and then started up again as Coulson calmly looked out the wide window.
“I did my best,” Coulson replied, and then finished his drink with one long swallow. “Is that everything you need?” he asked. “Or was there something else you wanted to dig up?”
Clint swallowed and resisted the urge to avert his eyes. He stared at Coulson with his heart on his sleeve. “I didn’t mean to,” he said. “I was curious but... It’s a little different to what’s in your file.”
Coulson’s mouth twitched into a bitter smile that disappeared so quickly Clint wondered if it had been a trick of the light. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said, tilting his glass to one side and watching the ice cubes tumble within. “With liars on both sides of the desk I think we’re lucky if we get any of the facts straight.” He looked up at Clint then, his gaze level and penetrating. “The Hydra file on you says that you used to be a criminal.”
Clint held Coulson’s gaze. “I made a few bad decisions,” he admitted.
Coulson looked away, stared at the ice in the bottom of his glass again with a contemplative look on his face. “Haven’t we all?”
He shouldn’t want to wrap one of his sworn enemies up in a hug, Clint was sure of that. He shouldn’t want to take the tired man beside him somewhere warm and safe and quiet. Clint had two different half-baked schemes in his mind, and no idea which one would make him a bad person.
“Let’s get going,” Clint said, pushing away from the bar. “Out the back.” There was an alley behind the bar, a crooked one that was good for some types of business and bad for others. There was a light drizzle of rain, and Clint held the door open for Coulson and gestured for him to leave first. Coulson stood inside the safety of the building to inspect the alley for hidden dangers, but once he saw the way was clear he stepped out into the narrow and damp space with what hesitation.
Trust, Clint realised. Just enough trust to make his stomach turn as he followed Coulson and tugged the door closed behind him.
“I’m taking you in,” Clint said softly but firmly. Ahead of him, Coulson paused. Clint pulled a gun from the small of his back and pointed it at Coulson, took his aim. The safety was off, his finger was on the trigger, and Clint was not going to miss. As if sensing the severity of the situation, Coulson slowly brought his hands up.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” Coulson called over his shoulder, before slowly turning around.
They stared at each other in the light rain. There were no glares, no need for posturing. Coulson took a careful step towards Clint. Clint adjusted his aim accordingly and didn’t let his grip on the gun in his hands falter.
“I’ve got a job to do,” Clint said. Coulson reached his right hand out to him, slowly and easily, as if Clint were a spooked animal. Clint took a step back and adjusted his aim. “It’s nothing personal.” Coulson watched Clint for a moment, and then snapped the wrist of his outstretched hand back with a sharp, sudden movement. There was a ringing boom, and Clint was thrown back against the wall of the alley.
Of course. Coulson and his fucking blasters. Of course he was armed. Coulson was on him in an instant, had Clint pressed against the rough brick wall. Clint’s own gun was pressed against the soft skin under his chin, forcing his head up and back, and Coulson had a hand pressed at Clint’s left side, his fingertips pressed firmly at the base of Clint’s ribcage. They were nose to nose, and Clint could see Coulson’s breath fogging the edge of his vision.
“If I were to use the sound blaster on you right now,” Coulson said softly, “it would rupture your spleen. And then I would shoot you in the knee. And then I would leave you here, because there’s a hospital within walking distance and I’m honestly curious as to whether you’d make it.”
Clint locked eyes with Coulson, with the calm irritation he found there. “What happens if you don’t blast me?” Clint asked evenly.
Coulson was pressed close – closer than he should be, because Natasha would have had him on his back by now – but Clint was certain that picking a fight in that moment would get him injured in new and interesting ways. That had always been the pattern: Coulson got Clint out of trouble, and Clint let Coulson go. Coulson didn’t seem to be angry that Clint had broken the rules of their engagement, just frustrated that he was required to find new footing.
“Why did you help me?” Clint asked abruptly. “All those times?”
Coulson paused, visibly changed track with his thinking and regarded Clint with a look that cut through all of the layers that SHIELD had piled upon him over the years and got to the person Clint was underneath. “You’re interesting,” Coulson said at last.
“You keep me alive because I’m interesting,” Clint repeated flatly.
“I keep you safe,” Coulson corrected. His voice was quiet, and calm, and hypnotic. Clint lived in a world where people shouted, but his ears had become perfectly trained to catch Coulson’s clear murmur.
“One day we’re going to meet, and we’ll both mean business. There will be no distractions, and no one competing for your time, and no nice little holding cell waiting for me. And I will have you, Agent Barton. My way. I will take you apart and I will put you back together over and over again until I make something new from your very bones.”
Clint shuddered, and licked his dry lips. “Clint,” he said at last. “My name’s Clint.”
Coulson’s mouth twitched at one corner, the smallest of smiles, and he touched two fingers to his forelock in a casual salute. “Until we meet again, Clint.” He stepped back, toyed with the blast-device strapped to his forearm, and used it to stun Clint. In the face. Clint was really not keen on this becoming a ritual. Coulson disappeared in the time it took Clint to regain the use of his limbs. He’d left the gun but taken the clip. Clint did a half-hearted check of the surrounding area, but the scientist was long gone.
The problem of Coulson was still there. Cruel, smart, charming Coulson. But like all problems, the target looked different if you came at it from another angle. SHIELD’s problem was that Coulson was a bad person who kept slipping through their net.
Clint’s problem was that Coulson was a good person who just happened to do bad things. Those problems were kind of Clint’s speciality.
He walked into Fury’s office four days later with his head held high. Despite having been AWOL for the past few weeks, Clint felt that he deserved a little slack. Fury himself had ordered that Coulson be made everyone’s top priority, and Clint had been sending back the bits and pieces that he dug up. He had sent them to the Avengers, rather than Fury, but that’s what Fury got for keeping classified information from someone who was, technically, a spy.
“I have an update on Doctor Coulson, Sir,” Clint said sharply.
“So do I,” Fury replied, leaning back in his chair. “We’ve got him.”
Chapter 9: Encounter 2b: Conflict Hospitality
Steve walked through the laboratories with purpose, his shield up and his gun at the ready. SHIELD had intel that Hydra was building something big, and Fury wanted every single AIM researcher – from the guys at the top to the hirelings doing data entry – rounded up. The director was sick and tired of Hydra raising its head over and over again.
The director was sick of Coulson slipping through their fingers.
Steve was certain that wouldn’t happen this time, if only because Coulson wasn’t in the building. Clint’s intel, however reluctant Agent Hill was to trust it, had Coulson last sighted in Cleveland and it looked as though he hadn’t made it back to the base before SHIELD had launched its raid. Tony had gone over the compound with an infrared scanner and the only heat signatures were from the test animals, the small fires in the compound, and the cooling bodies. All SHIELD agents remained on full alert though, because technology meant that you no longer needed a body on the ground to do a lot of damage. SHIELD was intending to level the base with an airstrike once the personnel were removed and the mainframe was liberated.
Which was bad news for the bunnies.
Steve stared at the wall of cages and sighed. He’d damn near been stuck in a lab for testing himself, and he knew well enough that an airstrike didn’t guarantee a quick death. The rabbits stared back at him with large brown eyes, absently chewing the dried grass in their cages. Steve spotted one with tan markings – the ‘Stevie’ from the now infamous candid portrait of one of SHIELD’s top three most wanted. The rabbit was cleaning its paws then stopped, blinked at him, and sneezed.
“Okay, lads,” Steve said quietly to the rabbits. “I can’t give you safe passage out of here. Once these doors are open, you’re on your own.”
He reached for the electronic locking mechanism that kept the cages closed and paused to study it. He almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of a polite, “Excuse me,” behind him. Then he felt something press against his neck, and everything went dark.
Steve was laid out on a couch when he came to. His feet hung off the end, and it was slightly too narrow for his shoulders, but in all honesty it was one of the nicer ways he’d regained consciousness of late. “Sorry to sneak up on you,” a soft, calm voice said. “But releasing my rabbits would have been very irresponsible. It was a sweet notion, but rabbits aren’t big on contraceptives and there are a few surprises hidden in them that we don’t want getting out into the wider population.”
Steve rolled his head to one side. Coulson sat on a kitchen chair, bent forwards with his elbows on his knees, watching Steve intently. Steve blinked at him, and Coulson blinked back. Coulson had a nasty cut at his temple that had started to bruise, and his left pupil was larger than the right.
“May I?” Coulson asked, holding up a small flashlight. Steve tried to talk and could only make a low whine, which Coulson took as a sign of consent. He shone the light in first one, then the other of Steve’s eyes, then covered both with his hand for a moment. When he removed his hand, he watched closely to see how quickly Steve’s pupils responded to the light. Steve pondered that – a concussed man checking someone else for concussion. Despite all of the destruction that could be laid at his feet, Coulson apparently still took the Hippocratic Oath seriously.
He shifted out of his chair to crouch down beside the couch, and looped one of Steve’s arms around his neck. “Come on,” he said, preparing to straighten. “Up.”
For all that Tony complained that Steve weighed as much as a horse and was harder to shift, Coulson managed to get him upright (if immobile) with a single grunt and some straining. Once Steve was vertical, he felt the fuzziness in his head starting to ebb.
“There,” Coulson said as he pulled away, pausing to tug his polo shirt straight. It had a dark bloodstain at one shoulder. “The effects should wear off fairly quickly. If you could not kill me once you’ve regained control of your limbs, that would be much appreciated.” He turned away, and walked to a neat little kitchenette. “Are you thirsty?”
Steve looked around the room. It looked a lot like the bedsit he’d rented back in Brooklyn, before the war – a shared kitchen-dining-entertainment area, with a room off to the side that presumably contained a bedroom and bathroom. There was a playpen set up in the living area, filled with rabbits who were either eating their grass or sleeping in a pile. They didn’t seem particularly concerned about their change of accommodation. There were no windows.
“Where am I?”
“One of my hidey holes,” Coulson explained, putting the kettle on to boil. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you where, specifically. But we’re still in the Americas and you won’t be here long.”
“You’re going to hand me over to Hydra.”
“I’d rather not,” Coulson replied, though his tone suggested that he might reconsider if Steve absolutely insisted on it. “I know what they’d do to you, and there’s nothing I hate more than a waste of resources.” Clint’s latest report, which had been mostly speculation and a little concerning, certainly supported that statement. Coulson apparently had a history of reacting strongly to wasted opportunities.
Steve considered his situation. His head was clearing, and he could feel his feet again. Whatever Coulson had hit him with was wearing off fast. On the other hand, Coulson had assisted his recovery which meant that he did not see Steve as a threat, and he no doubt had a few more tricks up his sleeve. Steve was well aware that Coulson did not respond well to rash actions. And if there was one person who Steve absolutely believed was capable of killing him, it was Coulson.
“What are you going to do with me?” he asked. His utility belt was on the floor by the couch, as were his cowl and gloves. He snagged the belt and checked its pockets. His bullets and small explosives were gone, but the rest of the contents – electronics included – seemed to be in shape. He clipped it on as Coulson replied.
“Well, if you were one of my usual guests,” Coulson said, reaching up to pull a tin of ground coffee beans down from a shelf, “I’d offer you a drink. But I like to think you’d be too smart to accept the offer.”
“You’d be right,” Steve replied. He leaned forwards and, after some consideration and use of the chair that Coulson had vacated, pulled himself to his feet. He was conscious of Coulson watching the process, and when he looked over at him the scientist had a contemplative look on his face. “Do I even want to know what you’re thinking?”
“I was taking a moment to be thankful that you didn’t vomit on yourself. Many of the test subjects did. Also, I was considering the data on your metabolism. My theory that the gospel that it’s ‘four times faster than normal’ is woefully inaccurate seems to be correct.”
“Do you Hydra guys have a betting pool on this kind of thing?” Steve asked, straightening up and rolling his shoulders.
“No. It’s not wise to encourage gambling in a population known to hold grudges,” Coulson replied over the sound of the kettle boiling. He tipped a healthy volume of coffee grounds into a plunger pot, and then topped it up with hot water.
Steve looked around the space again as Coulson started digging through cupboards for a mug. He saw a flash of red and blue on a shelf above the rabbits and carefully walked over to investigate. It was a statuette, a little bust of Captain America throwing his shield, resting on a short stack of academic articles.
“If you’re planning on smashing something over my head,” Coulson called from inside a cupboard, “I’d appreciate it if you chose something else.” He emerged, victorious, with a dusty mug in one hand. “It is a cheap thing, likely to shatter without doing me much damage. And it has some sentimental value.”
So. Clint’s report had been correct on that point, too.
“I heard this was in the Secret Empire base,” Steve replied as he gently wiped some dust away from the tiny, plaster shield. “You move it around with you.”
“It belonged to a friend,” Coulson explained.
There was the slightest pause before Coulson said, “Yes,” but Steve heard the empty sound. “It doesn’t do a very good job as a paperweight,” Coulson continued, “but it did quite a good job of brightening up a hospital room.”
Steve stepped away, careful not to knock the playpen, and was back in the small kitchenette with three strides. “Coffee?” Coulson offered, pouring the thick black liquid into a mug.
“I’ll have to decline,” Steve replied. “You’ve already poisoned me once today.”
“What if I offered to be your official taster?”
Steve smiled, despite the precariousness of his situation. “That’s very kind of you, but what if you have an immunity to small doses of whatever you’ve laced it with?”
“Ah,” Coulson said, turning his attention back to the cupboards. “I see you’ve thought of everything.”
“Not everything,” Steve admitted. “I still don’t know why you brought me here.”
“‘Here’ is just a brief layover,” Coulson replied. He pulled a box of cereal and a carton of UHT milk out of the cupboard, and then sat down at the small table to examine their expiry dates. “As for you, that was slightly less planned.”
“I must have slowed you down,” Steve said, leaning a hip against the table.
“No more than the rabbits.”
“It would have been smarter just to leave me there.”
“Even geniuses have our off days.”
Steve leaned close to Coulson, using every bit of intimidation his large frame had to offer. “You have a motive for bringing me here.”
Coulson looked up at Steve and, while the scientist’s ears were red, he looked otherwise unaffected by Steve attempts at looming. They stared at one another, locked in a stalemate for over a minute until Coulson finally looked away. “I wanted to meet you,” he mumbled.
Steve eased back, surprised by the admission. He slipped on the Captain America persona, needing the security of bravado in the face of the unpredictable man. “I would have thought Hydra would frown on hero worship. Your team and I have been locked in a battle since before you were born.”
Coulson snorted derisively. “I knew that Hydra believed that, but I didn’t think you did.” Steve raised an eyebrow at Coulson , who took a sip of his black coffee before continuing. “Kraken and Lady Hydra, even the Red Skull before his death. They all parade around like we’re two sides of a conflict, as though Hydra will one day take over the world. As though we have some use for such a thing. This posturing of us as mortal enemies,” Coulson wrinkled his nose in distaste. “It’s redundant.”
“How would you classify it then?” Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Coulson looked up at him, suddenly amused by Steve’s apparent inability to keep up. “You’re the heroes,” he said simply. “We’re just training exercises.”
Steve allowed his brow to furrow. “Training for what?”
Coulson’s smile shifted, looking less amused and more despairing. “For whatever comes,” he said. “At our very best, we’re still just keeping your side in shape.” He took a long drink of his coffee, refilled the mug and then pushed it to the middle of the table, abandoning it as he stood up and moved over to the pen of rabbits. When he put his hand inside the pen, one loped over to it and sniffed Coulson’s digits. Steve watched as Coulson tugged the rabbit’s ears playfully. An oddly sweet scene in a small room that smelled like good coffee.
“You’re worried that I’m going to kill you,” Coulson said conversationally. “I have to admit, Captain, I think there are greater uses for you than grinding you into dust in the futile attempt t recreate you.”
“Am I to believe that you’ve suddenly given up the eugenics track? No more trying to clone me?”
“Hardly,” Coulson replied. He looked up at Steve, a warm and friendly smile on his face. “But I won’t let you become dust.”
Steve gave in, and stole what was left of Coulson’s coffee, drinking it in a few gulps and holding the still-warm mug in his hands. Snippets from Clint’s reports wove their way through Steve’s train of thought. Fury wanted Coulson dead; though Clint had tried to keep his reports professional there had been a warmth to them. And as far as Steve was concerned, Clint was a slightly better judge of character.
Coulson had rescued the rabbits. Coulson had rescued Steve.
“SHIELD could use a man like you,” he said seriously.
“That’s very kind of you to say, Capitan. But experience has shown me that when an organisation says they could use a man like me, what they really want is another man like you.”
There was a sad smile to Coulson’s face, and Steve wanted to assure him that it wouldn’t be like that, that SHIELD could offer so much to Coulson if he would be willing to accept it. But Steve’s tongue felt thick in his mouth, and his head felt heavy. The mug of coffee fell to the floor. Steve was suddenly unable to stand, buckling at the knees, and it was only Coulson shoving him back so he tumbled down onto a kitchen chair that stopped him from crashing to the floor.
“Poisoned me,” he said accusingly.
Coulson gave him a small smile, both of his hands still gripping the shoulders of Steve’s uniform to keep him steady. “You were right. I built up an immunity during several years researching poisons in Australia.”
Steve squinted at Coulson, the closest he could manage to a piercing look. “True?”
“No, but it’s a lot more interesting than the reality.”
Steve seriously doubted that, but the room was spinning and his jaw wasn’t obeying orders, and he could feel a second round of unconsciousness creeping up on him. With the last of his energy he slurred, “Don’t tell I fell for...”
The last thing Steve heard before sleep claimed him was Coulson’s mild, polite voice saying, “As you wish.”
Steve woke up in a taxi as it pulled away from a small airport. The tip of his left ring finger had been sliced off and, while it had been expertly bandaged, it throbbed painfully. There was a note pinned to the front of his uniform that read, The taxi has been paid for so enjoy your trip. Your gun and other belongings are in the tote bag. The tote bag in question had a message printed on one side, advising people to recycle.
The taxi took him to a Stark Enterprises manufacturing plant, and from there it was only a few hours until Steve was back in New York, confronted with Director Fury’s glare.
“Please tell me you managed to put a bullet in that son of a bitch’s head.”
“I’m afraid I failed that objective, sir.” Steve replied.
He thought about Coulson, of the strange, patient calm about the man and the way he was weakened by a few broad, dangerous cracks. He thought about the Captain America paperweight, and the small tracking device he’d managed to slip onto the underside of the little plaster shield.
“But I may have given us a way to track him.”
Chapter 10: Mission report: an informal account of an informal acquisition.
Clint slouched in his chair in the Avengers debriefing room, which looked suspiciously like a staff lounge that had been hit with one too many budget cuts – Clint’s ‘chair’ was a seat claimed at one end of a sagging couch. Bruce typically sat cross legged by a coffee table that sported three different styles of leg. Tony and Steve had computer chairs by the round table that had been down in the cafeteria before it had been refurbished. They’d started out with an actual meeting table and chairs, but there was a strong correlation between the team ‘underperforming’ and their stuff being relocated to other departments. Fury liked to let the Avengers know that they didn’t have top billing at SHIELD.
Fury hadn’t exactly been thrilled that Coulson had been brought in at all, since the orders had been, “Kill that bastard, and I don’t care how many bullets it takes.” Before Coulson had become a guest of SHIELD, they’d had a coffee maker and a refrigerator in one corner. They were down to a bucket of ice and half a tin of Caterers’ Choice instant coffee.
"You need to hear the story of how they brought him in," Bruce said as he ate his cereal at the coffee table. "It's hilarious."
“It’s not funny,” Steve said sternly. The effect of his Captain America brand of disapproval was lessened by the way he had the front of his uniform unzipped, and his boots off and set neatly beside his chair. Tony was wearing the black shirt and running pants he typically wore under the suit, and had a pair of red slippers on his feet. Bruce was in a Stark Enterprises jumper and his usual slacks. Clint was feeling overdressed, simply by virtue of being the only person in the room with actual shoes on.
“It’s very funny,” Bruce assured Clint, seriously. “This has been the highlight of my week.”
Tony scowled at Bruce. “I like you a lot more when you’re laughing at other people.”
Bruce smiled around a mouthful of cocoa puffs. “I can tell him,” he offered.
Tony let out an exaggerated groan. “You’ve gone a built it up now.”
“It’s really not funny,” Steve told Clint.
“My expectations have been sufficiently lowered,” Clint assured them.
Steve and Tony exchanged a look. “It was a simple operation,” Steve said. “Coulson had been tracked to a motel, he’d been confirmed to be on site, and it was unlikely that he was armed. All we had to do was enter the room and put him down.”
“I’d like to point out that Stevie-boy here was the one nominated to do the actual assassinating,” Tony cut in. “I know I kill a lot of people. And monsters. And monster-people. But I’m not a murderer. A killer, sure, but that’s different.”
“Completely different,” Steve agreed flatly.
“So we bust in there at some ungodly hour-”
“It was nine-thirty,” Steve corrected. “In the morning.”
“Right, like I said. And Coulson is in there all right – he’s still asleep in bed.”
“Or he was, until Tony blasted the door down.”
“I was in the suit and you were hanging around in your patriotic candy striper uniform. I didn’t exactly think we were doing the stealth thing. But Coulson was still in his jammies, and he is really not a guy who is functioning before his morning coffee.”
“He had his blaster strapped on, so he was armed,” Steve said, when Tony had to pause for breath.
“Right, so the Cap has his gun out, doing the standoff thing, and I’ve got my repulsors aimed at him, just in case bullets don’t work, and he’s there trying to set his blaster off, but it won’t work.”
“The mechanism had gotten jammed,” Steve explained. “It was just clicking and he was getting more and more frustrated.”
Bruce tilted his head back to smile up at Clint. “Notice how it didn’t occur to either of them to shoot Coulson while he was functionally unarmed and was a non-moving target.”
Tony scowled at Bruce. “Look, chuckles, when you go and fuck up a hit, then you can smirk about this all you want.”
“It just seemed impolite,” Steve said, looking incredibly sheepish. “I’ve never…”
“We’re both more used to returning fire,” Tony explained.
“No, I get it,” Clint said. “It’s tough to just get thrown in there like that.”
“Fury had intended to send in a whole SHIELD response team,” Steve explained.
“I prefer to think of them as swarms,” Tony interjected. “A swarm of SHIELD.”
“But Coulson has a way of disappearing in crowds,” Clint finished. “Trust me, I know.”
“But back to you both having your guns trained on your target, and politely waiting for him to fire first,” Bruce prompted.
“So Coulson started fiddling with his blaster,” Steve started.
“And I would like to point out that at no point did he aim it at his face while doing so,” Tony interjected. “So this guy is already smarter than about half the people we usually deal with. He had it aimed to one side, towards the bedside table-”
“And when it finally went off…” Steve continued.
“He obliterated that shitty little paperweight,” Tony said. “Blasted it to smithereens.”
Clint winced. “Ouch.”
Steve actually looked a little crestfallen. “He just sat there staring at what was left of it for a while, this smear of plaster on the wall.”
“Little bits of red and blue paint floating in the air,” Tony added.
“And then he just gave up, and flopped back down on the bed.”
“Actually, he said ‘Fuck everything,’ and then flopped back down on the bed. And then he pulled a pillow over his face.”
The four of them sat in silence for a moment, three of them giving Clint the space to reflect on the scene. “And then?” Clint finally prompted.
Steve and Tony exchanged a look. “By that point we had ascertained from both your reports and what we saw in the room that he was on the run.”
“And not just from us,” Tony added. “He was on the run from Hydra. There’s been a lot of mess going on there and it looked like he was trying to get as far away from it as possible.”
“So you brought him in,” Clint surmised.
“We thought he’d be useful,” Steve said.
“I mean, he’s the top AIM guy, right? Potentially a very useful person to have a chat with.”
“A great opportunity to gather information,” Steve said firmly.
“Uh-huh,” Clint replied. “And how long was Fury yelling at you for deviating from the plan?”
Tony lifted a hand and tugged on his earlobe. “I think technically he’s still yelling at us.”
“He’s been doing it in shifts,” Steve explained.
Bruce was smiling into the last of his cereal. “Tell Clint why it took so long for you to bring him in.”
Steve and Tony looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Well,” Steve began. “We let him get dressed. Shoes, jacket. And we took the blaster off. Safety first.” Clint watched Bruce as Steve listed letting Coulson brush his teeth and comb his hair. Bruce’s smile was getting wider and wider, anticipating the good bit.
Eventually Tony sighed in defeat. “We may have stopped for breakfast on the way back to headquarters.”
“It was Tony’s idea,” Steve admitted.
“I hadn’t eaten yet! And his yawning was making me sleepy.”
“We only intended to hit up the nearest drive-thru,” Steve said, giving Tony a pointed glance.
“The nearest drive-thru was Krispy Kreme and, no, I am sorry but their coffee is literally the worst thing on the planet. It is the one substance I absolutely will not allow in my body, and you all know that I typically have low standards on that score.”
“So then we had to drive on to Dunkin Donuts because Tony had his heart set on coffee and donuts. But they didn’t have the newspaper yet, so we had to carry on to Starbucks.”
“Um, excuse me? Starbucks was not my idea. I could have lived without the paper. You’re the one with the spinach and feta breakfast wrap fetish.”
“It’s not a fetish.”
“You bought five of them!”
“And how many donuts had you eaten by that time?” Steve shot back.
“The important thing,” Tony said, returning his attention to Clint, “is that we may have bought the bad guy a croissant and a grande low fat caramel latte for brunch.”
Clint considered this. “Do Starbucks even do croissants?” he asked.
Steve’s ears were bright red. “There was a bakery across the road,” he said. “We’d already been across town twice…”
“We ate in the park,” Tony said. “There were ducks and everything. It was a very calming experience.”
“That… sounds a lot like Coulson,” Clint admitted.
“He didn’t even suggest any of it!” Steve said.
“It’s really hard to be a big, mean superhero at a guy who just wants to stay in bed until his life gets better,” Tony added. “I wish my enemies were half as considerate on my bad days.”
“You’re leading by example,” Bruce said kindly.
“Oh, fuck you,” Tony replied, though his tone lacked any malice.
“But you got him checked in?” Clint asked, just to make sure.
“Delivered and processed,” Steve answered. “Four hours later than the ETA.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “So we took the scenic route back. We were near the world’s third-largest ball of twine and Pepper always teases me about not bringing her back any souvenirs.”
“He got her a miniature replica,” Bruce said. “He bought her an actual ball of twine.”
“It’s a very fetching ball and she assured me she would keep it on her desk.”
“Coulson agreed that we should get her a pen,” Steve told Clint. Everything in Steve’s expression let Clint know that Steve and Coulson had probably launched a considerable ‘pro pen’ campaign.
“The guy had a statue of you by his bed,” Tony shot back. “I don’t think I’m wrong to question his judgement. But the long story short is that we got the job done and no one died, and Fury really should be thanking us.”
“Except the job actually required that someone die,” Bruce pointed out. “I’m new to this whole government taskforce thing, but assassinations usually require some kind of death.”
“It is a key theme,” Clint agreed.
“Then Fury should have sent one of his actual assassins,” Tony shot back.
“Natasha’s been following up the drug thing,” Bruce explained. “And you were AWOL. And apparently no one else was really keen to go up against Coulson after that time he killed three people with a screwdriver.”
“Technically one of them died from septicaemia,” Clint corrected.
“Screwdriver mediated septicaemia,” Bruce said by way of compromise.
“So where’s he being held?” Clint asked. He was met with the heavy silence of three people very pointedly not looking at each other. “I’m on another list, aren’t I?”
“This one is a ‘shoot on sight’ list,” Tony said cheerfully.
“You’re not to be told Coulson’s location. And if you attempt to look it up, you’ll be locked out of the system and all of your remaining security access will be revoked. And if you approach the facility for any reason…”
Clint mulled this information over, and compared it to what he knew of SHIELD’s holding facilities. “Is he in the Vault?” he asked.
Tony and Steve gave him matching unimpressed looks, and Bruce nodded. “Fury has at least one associate level five or up watching him at all times, which is why we’re all camped out here.” Clint was down to an associate level four. “Natasha is with him now.”
“And then it’s my shift,” Tony said, frowning. “I don’t know why I got roped into babysitting duty.”
“It probably has a lot to do with the two of you being really bad assassins,” Bruce offered.
Tony huffed, Steve looked stoically disappointed with the whole experience, and Clint sat back and considered the changed situation. “Well, have fun with it,” Clint said at last. The smart thing for him to do would be to step back and wash his hands of Coulson altogether. He was in the Vault, there were no immediate plans to kill him, Coulson wouldn’t be producing anything that could terrorise small cities. From the right point of view, it was a more positive outcome than Clint could have hoped for.
Tony snorted. “Watching a guy sit in a cell for six hours? Yeah, that’s going to be thrilling. The most exciting time of my life.”
The lights in the room dimmed suddenly, and the blue light of the silent alarm started flashing. Steve zipped his uniform up, and Tony pressed a hand to his face. “Me and my big mouth,” he groaned.
Clint settled back into the couch. He was sitting this one out. He was not getting involved at all. He had orders to follow and he would follow them to the letter.
Or at least adhere to the general spirit of the orders.
Chapter 11: Unofficial submission: security surveillance notes
In keeping with the reasonable volume of common sense that Clint possessed (and the Vault security’s ‘shoot to kill’ order that had his face attached to it), Clint kept far, far away from the cell in which Coulson was enjoying the very best of SHIELD’s mediocre hospitality. Like any normal and rational person who was not getting involved at all, Clint kept an eye on things through the security feeds.
The cells in the Vault typically had one wall made of a thick, transparent polymer. The door of the cell led to a small vestibule, the inner door of which would only open if the outer door were secured, and vice versa. The cell had a narrow bed in one corner, a shower head and ablutions area in the opposite corner, and a table with two chairs fixed to the floor. Despite numerous requests made by the prisoners held there, Director Fury was still refusing to install shag carpeting.
Surveillance notes: discussion one – Director N. Fury
“As a general rule,” Fury said as he strode into Coulson’s cell, “I don’t deal with motherfuckers crazier than I am. But I decided to make an exception in your case.”
“I’m flattered,” Coulson replied with a small smile. He closed the crossword magazine that he wasn’t allowed to have, and set it to one side. Fury took the seat opposite Coulson and stared at him for a long, hard moment.
“We had agents of Hydra attempt to break into several of our facilities last night. You know anything about that?” Fury asked.
“I’ve been a little out of the loop.”
“I only ask because it seems like they’re looking for something, and there are a finite number of things that belong to Hydra in our possession.”
“If I think of what they might be after, I’ll be sure to let you know,” Coulson replied.
“I am going to be very frank with you, Doctor Coulson, because I honestly don’t have the patience or the disposition to do otherwise. I want every single scrap of information we can wring out of you. I want every single detail you have about Hydra and I want it immediately. And I want to make it very clear to you that you will never, ever be walking out of this facility. The only thing you will gain by cooperating is the possibility that I will not turn my impressive imagination over to the task of finding new ways to make your life unbearable.”
Coulson looked at Fury with an easy smile on his face. “That’s a very kind offer, Director,” he said, before allowing his smile to melt into an apologetic grimace, “but I don’t think you understand the position I’m in.”
“We understand that you’re second in charge of AIM,” Fury said flatly. “And that makes you one of the top five brass of Hydra.”
Coulson stared at them for a long moment, and then laughed. Easy, genuine amusement pulled his mouth into a smile when he finally replied, “You really don’t understand my position.”
Fury laced his fingers together on the table top and leaned back in his seat. “Enlighten me.”
Coulson shrugged one shoulder. “I’m a researcher. I get excited about proteins.”
Fury raised an eyebrow. “Proteins that are classed as addictive substances, and cause rioting in the streets. You’re clogging emergency rooms with your little party drug.”
Coulson waved a dismissive hand. “Actually, those were a bit of a disappointment. An unwanted by-product.” He then looked at Fury with concern. “Are people actually taking them as a drug? That stuff could kill you.”
“I’m aware,” Fury replied flatly.
“I was trying to amplify an enzymatic signal in the complement pathway,” Coulson explained.
He gave Fury a hopeful look. “It’s part of the innate immune system.”
“I don’t care.”
Coulson frowned. (Several buildings away, Clint frowned along with him.) “It’s just a job,” Coulson said at last.
Fury leaned forwards, crowding into Coulson’s space even though the table remained between them. His posture was irritated, not intimidating. That was how Fury generally conducted himself – he didn’t see the point in trying to scare people who should already know to be very concerned when faced with his annoyed disposition. “You kill people,” Fury said flatly. “You’re a crazy-ass, narcissistic terrorist who kills innocent people in cruel and unusual ways.”
Coulson pulled one side of his mouth back in a grin. “So it’s a fun job.”
Fury stood up, taking his time to rise from his seat and cast his eye around the cell. “A lot of agents are going to be talking to you over the coming days. I will have no problem disposing of you if you fail to be useful. Understand?”
Coulson nodded and gave Fury a little finger wave as the director stalked out of the cell.
Surveillance notes: discussion two – Consultant A. Stark
“I just don’t get why you’re using Hammer Tech,” Tony said, lounging against the polymer wall in his Iron Man suit. “I mean, it’s not exactly the best on the market.”
“It’s compatible with everything,” Coulson replied without looking up from his crossword. “If I use an integral component from Stark Industries then at least half of the surrounding components need to be Stark. Using a Hammer integral means I can piece things together as I need. It can even plug into Stark tech with acceptable compatibility.”
Tony snorted. “Yeah, because he reverse engineers my stuff and he does a crappy job of it. You don’t get the kind of performance stability that you need. Or any performance stability, for that matter.”
Coulson gave Tony a pointed look from inside his cell. “Do I really look like someone who’s in the market for a long-term investment?”
Tony frowned and conceded his point. “How’re you going with that crossword?” he asked.
“It’d be easier if I had a pen.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not making that mistake again.” (Clint could have told them that it was a bad idea to give Coulson anything more sturdy than a paper plate to keep in his cell, but Clint had not been invited to give his opinion on the matter and was keeping well away from the whole situation.) “I just don’t get why you were building this thing from scratch. Mass spectrometry units aren’t exactly rare items.”
“They’re a little heavy,” Coulson replied delicately. “And people tend to notice when you remove them in their entirety.”
“Why steal the Captain when you can just take some fluids, right?” Tony said.
“An apt analogy,” Coulson agreed, before returning his attention to his crossword. On the other side of the polymer wall, Tony started fidgeting.
“I don’t know why they won’t let me bring a tablet down or something.”
“Presumably because you’re meant to be focussed,” Coulson replied.
“Yeah, but you get to have a book. I feel like I’m disadvantaged here by being one of the good guys.”
“Could you put that away for a minute? You’re somehow more boring when you’re awake than when you’re asleep.”
“Really?” Coulson asked without looking up.
“At least in your sleep you drool on things, and that’s kind of funny.”
“That’s nice,” Coulson replied absently, like he was tuning Tony out completely and was only responding to seem polite.
Tony frowned, and shifted again. He didn’t like being stuck in the suit while he was inactive, but Fury had marked Coulson as an extremely high risk prisoner and that meant that all level fives and above had to be suited up at all times. (Watching Tony trying to use cutlery while in the suit had kept Clint entertained for a good hour the night before.)
“Come on,” Tony said at last. “Throw one of your clues at me or something. I’m going crazy here.”
“‘It's found in the ocean, and briefly in barnacles’,” Coulson read. “Eight across.”
Tony thunked his head against the polymer wall. “Is it a food?” he asked. “Is there anything below barnacles in the food chain?”
(“It’s hidden in the word,” Clint informed the security monitor. “It’s a cryptic crossword, you idiot. Ask him how many letters.”)
“They’re suspension feeders,” Coulson replied. “They eat everything in the environment.”
“Does ‘environment’ fit?”
(Clint, who had written out the clue and stared at it with some consideration, underlined the ‘nacl’ in ‘barnacle’. “It’s salt,” he informed the security feed. “I know I was wrong about the motorcycle one, but trust me here.”)
“Well, what does fit?”
“Sodium chloride,” Coulson replied. “NaCl.” (Clint allowed himself a small victory dance in front of the monitor.)
Tony flopped against the wall as much as he could in articulated full body armour made of a gold/titanium alloy. “Being a superhero is not the exciting life I thought it would be.”
“You should try being a villain sometime,” Coulson replied, leaning back in his chair. “It’s thrilling stuff.”
“I’m not sure I could handle the crosswords and the bunnies.”
“There are people who look after the rabbits for you,” Coulson said, running his finger down the list of clues. “And no one really minds if you cheat and look up the answers. It’s actually expected.”
“Huh. You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“They have an incentivisation schema in place for recruiters,” Coulson explained. “If I recruit another three people by the end of the year, my lab gets a toaster oven.”
“It almost makes up for the way they’ve been trying to kill you,” Tony commented lightly.
Coulson dipped his head, acknowledging at Tony had a point. “They’re certainly not as friendly when they try to kill me as the Avengers have been,” he replied slyly.
Tony scowled. “Just give me another clue.”
Surveillance notes: discussion three – Consultant B. Banner
“The problem isn’t that the blood is unstable,” Coulson said, gesturing with one hand. “The problem is that no one bothers to do immuno-profiling prior to exposure. You have a known mutagen that actively targets blood cells as a precursor to vastly modifying tissue structures. Of course the innate and acquired immune systems are going to be key to changes in phenotype.”
Bruce sat cross-legged on the other side of the polymer wall, a box of noodles held in one hand and chopsticks in the other. “But all mammals have the same immune structures at work in their bodies,” Bruce replied. “That doesn’t explain why there are such widely varying effects.”
“This is why we shouldn’t let physicists do biology,” Coulson replied around a mouthful of his sandwich. “It comes back to self and non-self tissues. If you mutagenise the blood first, then the patrolling blood cells suddenly see the body’s tissues as non-self. That leads to inflammation, which in this context is really just a device that increases the delivery of the mutagen. There are different effects in different subjects because the subjects are the point of variance.”
“Well, if every animal has a different immune-profile, then how can we ever hope to have an animal model that will generate anything of relevance?”
“Clones,” Coulson replied.
Bruce rolled his eyes. “You can’t use clones as your answer for everything.”
“Why not?” Coulson replied. “Get a few genomes sequenced and from there you can isolate the gene-coding regions that show non-homology. We could replicate your unique immuno-profile in a small mammal within maybe six weeks of starting the project.”
“I’m just not convinced that’s how the immune system works at all,” Bruce said, shaking his head.
“And I suppose you’re the expert out of the two of us,” Coulson retorted.
“I’m the expert on my body out of the two of us,” Bruce replied. “There’s a clear correlation between heart rate and change. The Other Guy doesn’t come out when I get the sniffles.”
“But elevated heart rate is a stress response and the immune system is heavily involved in mediating stressors,” Coulson argued, exasperation starting to show through in his voice. “You’re sending your immune system signals telling it to be on its guard and then giving it nothing to attack, so you have primed immune cells patrolling your body and failing to recognise self-tissues as such. The blood is where all of the growth-signalling cytokines are, and what you essentially have is an induced period of extreme, controlled growth. The fact that it’s controlled is what marks this as a structured process in the tissues rather than the uncontrolled growth observed when the cycle of cell reproduction gets disrupted.”
Bruce shook his head again and returned his attention to his noodles. “It just sounds very far-fetched to me.”
“Immune inhibitors,” Coulson said firmly. “Look into it.”
Surveillance notes: absence of discussion – Agent N. Romanov
Natasha was the only person who didn’t talk to Coulson during her watch. Like everyone else, she had been given the list of areas of interest that Hill had identified. She just ignored it. She spent all six hours of her shift with her arms crossed, ignoring the agent on duty with her, and glaring at Coulson.
(Clint had no idea if the forty minute shower that Coulson took while she was there was some kind of attempt to weaken her focus through nudity, or if the guy just really enjoyed indulgent showers.
It was the most boring six hours of footage that Clint had ever reviewed. Aside from the shower.)
Surveillance notes: discussion five – unidentified intruder
“They need the recycled newspaper kitty litter, and you need to change it twice a week,” Coulson said, though it was hard to hear his voice over the blaring of the intruder alarm.
“And you need to supplement their diet with grass hay. Don’t just give them vegetables, you know that Stevie makes himself sick on them.”
“No vegetables,” Coulson’s minion repeated, nodding.
“And make sure you’re storing the blood samples right. Use the protocol I printed out for you.” The minion gave Coulson a pointed look. “I don’t want to have to scrap five years of work just because a blood pellet got suspended in the wrong buffer,” Coulson returned pointedly.
“And don’t let them gang up on Bucky,” Coulson said firmly. “Make sure you check him for bites.”
“But Dr C, Are you sure you don’t just want me to-”
Coulson glanced at the clock in the hallway. “You’re cutting it close,” he said bluntly. The minion made a hand gesture that seemed equally likely to be a vulgar signal or a kind of salute, and then made their exit.
“And check to make sure Steven isn’t a girl,” Coulson called after the retreating figure.
Surveillance notes: discussion six – Agent M. Hill
Hill stared down at Coulson with could detachment. “We’re curious as to why a Hydra agent would break in to rescue you, and then not rescue you.”
“It’s nice to know you’re contemplating the big issues,” Coulson replied. He was doing his best to sprawl on the narrow bed. It was the early hours of the morning, and Agent Hill had woken him up.
“We’re very curious as to why you didn’t use that opportunity to its full potential.”
“I’d heard that the eggs Benedict here is to die for,” Coulson replied with a smile. “I’m not going to skip out before I’ve had the joys of your Sunday brunch menu.”
Agent Hill gave Coulson a tight, cold smile in return. She reached out to the control panel for his cell, and punched in a code. “I’ll try to make sure our menu keeps you stimulated,” she replied. (Clint saw on the security feed that she had reduced Coulson’s food allowance by sixty percent.)
“I’ve heard that your cooking is quite a treat, Agent Hill,” Coulson said, lacing his hands behind his head. He smiled languidly up at the ceiling. “I look forward to sampling your delights.”
Hill increased the brightness of the lights in Coulson’s cell, until he was wincing. “Thank you for cooperating with SHIELD procedure,” she said with false politeness, before turning on her heel and walking down the hallway.
Coulson waved at her retreating figure. “Hail Hydra,” he called absently. After a long period of staring at the ceiling of his cell, he rolled over onto his stomach and pulled the thin pillow over his head to try and block out some of the light.
Coulson didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, and Clint tried not to take it personally. He tried to avoid having any feelings at all on the ways in which SHIELD encouraged cooperation from their prisoners. The goal was to keep as many people safe as possible and if that meant that a few select people had to suffer, well...
Coulson had been right – they were just doing their jobs.
Chapter 12: Unofficial submission: morale issues associated with containment of Hydra threat STK-3-Coul
Point of concern: Agent C. Barton
Coulson did not respond well to the new conditions of his captivity. There was just something about prolonged physical discomfort that made the guests of SHIELD sullen and unpredictable. He had yet to escalate to violence, but there was a coiled tension in his posture that Clint knew shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Your concern is noted, Agent Barton,” Hill said crisply, watching Clint as he watched the security feeds. “But keeping Coulson under pressure is in our best interests.”
Clint was hunched forwards, both elbows planted on the desk in front of him. “Sure,” he replied without looking away from the screen. “It’s just that when this guy is under pressure, people tend to die.”
“Agents of SHIELD are not defenceless civilians,” Hill replied. “Some of us know how to do our jobs.”
Clint kept his eyes glued to the screen, watching Coulson sprawled out on the floor of his cell. Eventually Agent Hill tired of waiting for a response and stalked away. When she was safely out of earshot, Clint muttered a tetchy “Hail Hydra” under his breath.
Point of concern: Captain S. Rogers
Steve took a chair with him when he visited Tony during guard duty. Coulson had been less entertaining, by Tony’s standards, since Hill had implemented the new conditions of care, and Tony had been complaining loudly about the misuse of his time ever since.
Tony perked up when he spotted Steve walking down the long corridor. “Please tell me there’s a landslide or a terrorist threat or something.”
Steve shook his head. “Couldn’t sleep,” he replied. “Thought I’d cover you and Agent Beachcroft for a break.”
Agent Beachcroft shook his head. “That’s very considerate of you, but orders are that there need to be two guards on duty at all-”
Tony cut the man off. “Agent, when a super soldier busts into a top secret prison facility and tells you to go and get a midnight snack? You do what the man says.” Tony gripped the agent’s shoulder with a red and gold glove that was hard to argue with, and propelled him down the corridor Steve had just walked. “We’ll be back in ten minutes,” Tony called over his shoulder. “Or before dawn.”
Steve waited until Tony and Beachcroft had cleared the level, and then set his chair down next to the clear polymer wall. Coulson had given up on the narrow bed in his cell and had taken to stretching out on the floor with his thin pillow folded double under his head and his crossword book covering his face. Tony had taken to reporting that the man had died from a terminal case of the sulks, right up until Hill had removed his clearance to file reports.
“Good evening, Doctor Coulson,” Steve said as he sat down, greeting Coulson as he always did. Coulson waved a hand vaguely in Steve’s direction in response. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I was hoping we could talk.”
Coulson lifted his book at and turned his head to stare at Steve for a long moment. Eventually he pushed himself up and rearranged himself so he was sitting with his back against the bed and his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, facing Steve. “Your company,” he said in a voice that was calm and charming despite the wear evident in it as he scrubbed at his tired face with one hand, “is always a pleasure, Captain.”
“I hope it remains so,” Steve returned. “I have some questions that you may not want to answer.”
“I believe the correct phrase is ‘ve haf vays of makink you talk’.”
Steve smiled and ducked his head, taking a moment to compose himself. “I was hoping you could tell me about your time as a paediatrician.”
“I was a doctor,” Coulson replied simply. “I worked with children.”
“Children with... a metabolism disorder?”
“Mucopolysaccharidoses, metabolic disorders caused by a lack of functional lysosomal proteins.” Coulson clarified. “Excess products tagged for degradation and clearance accumulate in the cell.”
“And your brother had one of these disorders?”
Coulson paused, the easy smile on his face faltering. “Yes,” he said at last.
“I found his obituary,” Steve said. “I’ve developed quite a knack for that kind of thing. You had a sister, too.”
“I don’t remember her,” Coulson replied.
“She died very young.”
“Yes. They didn’t know she was sick until the autopsy,” Coulson explained. “Genetic testing was virtually unheard of, and of course no one thinks to look for these things if they don’t know they’re there.”
“I guess if you know you can make preparations,” Steve said at last.
“It was stupid of him to have another child,” Coulson commented, his voice sounding vague as he thought back to his family. “But some people think that one chance in four that your kid will be perfectly healthy is good enough odds. He met my stepmother at a conference for lysosomal storage disorder families. Her first daughter had lived to six years.”
“And they had your little brother.”
Coulson nodded. “Baby Stephen. I was eleven when he was born.”
“And you looked after him.”
Coulson nodded again. “I looked after him.”
“And that’s why you became a doctor?”
“It made sense at the time.” Coulson came back to himself a little, blinking and focussing on Steve again. “There are early symptoms,” he explained. “It’s such a rare thing that most doctors don’t know to look for it. Enlarged spleen at four months. Mild facial dysmorphism in some cases. Distinctive tissue morphology. Early detection and treatment greatly improves the lifespan.”
“And you were involved in treatment research.”
Coulson inclined his head. “Gene therapy. Enzyme replacement therapy is expensive even now, and it has a lot of destructive side effects. Sometimes it seemed worse than the disease. You could explain it with a comic book though,” he said, his gaze sharpening on Steve. “You have a sick person, and then you give him a serum, and then he gets better for a while, strong. And kids in hospital, they need some colour around.”
Steve felt awkward under the weight of Coulson’s gaze. The doctor had a thoughtful look on his face as he studied Steve, as though he were assessing all of the potential Steve had, one attribute at a time. “Did the gene therapy help?” Steve finally asked.
Coulson looked down at his hands, a bitter smile on his face. “You know, I never really got to see it in action. Even now, from the literature on what’s being done, it’s not used to its full potential.”
Coulson shrugged one shoulder. “People are cautious. Things need to be tested, they need to be safe. You have ethics committees filled with people who don’t know the science making decisions about what research is sound. We were so close. Our research group had been close to human trials for seven years. But we were always told that we needed more data. More data from more animals they would always decide weren’t relevant enough. Seven fucking years and kids were dying in our hospital because the legal department thought we needed more publications before progressing to human trials.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Coulson laughed, a short, soft, bitter sound. “Not as sorry as I was.”
“Your brother, was he going to be part of the trial?”
“He’d been on the waiting list since I’d joined the group. I managed to get him in as an outlier. Usually they like all of the candidates to be the same age, the optimal age for treatment. He was too old by then to be of quantitative use. But late stage treatment... I think that’s always the goal, to be able to do something no matter how far gone someone is.” Coulson looked up at Steve, a dazed smile on his face as though he still had trouble believing it all. “We had the viral vector in storage, ready to go. But our application for the trial was rejected and he died before I’d even finished drafting the rebuttal.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said again, aware of how weak those two words sounded.
“But it wasn’t a completely wasted opportunity,” Coulson said wryly, looking down at his hands as he cleaned dirt out from under his short fingernails. “Because the department head came across some tissues from an LSD patient. In research you have in vivo and in vitro models, animals and cells. And suddenly there were these whole tissues available – that’s... it’s not common at all – and we could try the viral vector out on those, get some good solid data on how it affected human tissues in isolation that could be paired with the systemic results from the animal models. He assured me that it was very promising.”
Coulson looked up at Steve and smiled, the shape of his mouth doing nothing to hide the bemused sadness he carried with him. “He took his organs,” he said at last. “That’s how I found out he’d died. They’d rushed Stevie into surgery as soon as he’d gone into arrest, and they harvested every single thing of use out of him. It was part of the research trial agreement, that in case of death the group had the opportunity to utilize the resources made available. He wasn’t even an active test subject, just on the waiting list. And I was supposed to see the objective value in dissecting him like a frog.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, because there was nothing else to say.
Coulson picked idly at the cotton pants he wore. “But my dear old director was right. Whole tissues and wider systems are very useful when it comes to treatment research. He even helped me iron out a few kinks in the vector. Not willingly, unfortunately. But it’s amazing what you can achieve if you throw caution to the wind for a weekend.” He looked up at Steve once more, a small smile curving the side of his mouth. “Impatience is a character flaw of mine,” he admitted.
Steve couldn’t fault Coulson for wanting some kind of revenge, not with the lengths Steve had gone to in avenging Bucky. And despite his pain Coulson’s revenge had still been productive. It had been twisted and reprehensible, but the data Coulson had generated had been valuable.
“We were always told that you were heartless,” Steve said at last. “That you did the things you do because you had so little value for life.”
“I think life has the ultimate value,” Coulson replied. “Why else would I take such pride in my work?”
Steve heard the elevator at the end of the corridor open, and checked his watch. Agent Beachcroft had wrangled Tony back from his break in admirable time. Steve stood up and stretched, before grabbing the back of his chair, ready to take it with him. “Thank you,” he said simply to Coulson.
“Thank you, Captain,” Coulson replied. “I’ve not talked about this before. It was quite cathartic.”
Steve opened his mouth to assure Coulson that they could talk anytime, and then stopped himself. “Enjoy the rest of your night,” he said instead, awkwardly aware that even that was not the correct response.
Coulson gave Steve a small smile. He looked less strung out as a result of talking, quietly contemplative. “Captain, may I make a request of you?” he asked.
“What is the date?”
Steve looked at Coulson for a long moment. Hill had turned off the light and dark cycle in Coulson’s cell in order to disorient him, and it had been an effective tactic. But at the same time Coulson had been tracking shift changes as a measure of time, and Steve couldn’t see the harm in giving some stability to a man who had been untethered for so long. “It’s the fourteenth,” he eventually replied.
Coulson smiled politely and nodded his head. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.
Steve turned towards Tony’s heavy, metallic footsteps, and left without another word.
Chapter 13: Drafted document: A guide to professional inter-agency relations
“Are you here for more information, Agent Hill?” Coulson asked when Hill stepped through the antechamber and into his cell.
“Not today,” Hill replied with forced lightness. “It’s a little boring upstairs. I thought I’d come down for a chat.” While Fury tended to cut to the chase and get right to the point, Hill preferred to let people talk. A mix of paranoia and ego loosening the tongue often revealed more than letting the subject know exactly what SHIELD was intending to place them against the wall for. And if that failed, Hill was skilled at loosening the tongue manually.
“I have been told that I’m very entertaining,” Coulson replied.
“I’ve heard. That was quite a sob story you told earlier,” she commented, referring to the conversation Coulson had had with Captain Rogers. While his classified file was still locked away, there were several official stories circulating as to his entry into the life of a morally bereft criminal, and the story Coulson had told himself was generating a lot of discussion. Steve had been removed from the security roster after it had leaked out into the wider division, much to Tony’s disgust.
“Did you like it?” Coulson asked. “I’ve been practising.”
“I found it a little heavy-handed,” Hill replied with a tight smile. “Like most things you get yourself into.”
“And of course, SHIELD always manages itself with such delicacy and comport.”
Hill levelled a cold look at Coulson. “I’d keep in mind which one of us is imprisoned without hope of ever escaping before I got too sassy,” she returned.
“There’s always hope,” Coulson replied with a small smile. There was something charming and innocent in his optimism, as though he honestly believed the trite phrase.
“My hope is that you’ll rot down here,” Hill said bluntly. “The sooner the better.”
Coulson grinned at her. “Holding grudges is bad for your health,” he said teasingly. “You should be watching your blood pressure, a high-stress job and all.”
Hill offered Coulson a tight smile in response. “And how much easier my job would be with a few less sociopaths like you running around.”
Hill had a special talent for goading people. While Natasha’s strength was in playing weak until people revealed their vulnerabilities to her, Hill used self-assured arrogance to press people into trying to one-up her. Young agents sometimes critiqued Hill’s posturing as a waste of time, but she was sharp and she was shrewd, and she always learned more than people gave her credit for. There was a reason she held the position she did.
“Is that my official diagnosis?” Coulson asked. “Or do you have a new word of the day calendar?”
“The official diagnosis is that you’re criminally insane,” Hill said bluntly. “And the second we start even thinking that we should be concerned about having you here, we’re going to fill you with bullets and set you on fire.”
Coulson sat back in his chair and made a show of thinking this revelation over. “A bit extreme as a treatment regime,” he finally said, before flashing a grin at Hill. “I like it.”
(Up in the nest Clint had made of the security feed room, Tony peered at the monitor. “Are they flirting?” he asked. “She hasn’t punched anyone and he’s keeping both hands on the table.”
“They’re not flirting,” Clint mumbled. “They’re just riling each other up.”
“It looks a little like flirting,” Steve said awkwardly.
“Can you make copies of the recordings?” Tony asked. “If her jumpsuit comes off, I’m going to want proof that she’s not a robot underneath.”
“They’re not flirting.”)
“Do you really think you’re any better than me?” Coulson asked curiously. “We follow the same standard model of operations.”
“You murder people,” Hill said flatly.
“As do you,” Coulson returned. “If not yourself, then through your underlings.”
“We execute dangerous individuals in accordance with the most humane operating procedures for such things. You torture and torment in your personal dealings, and relish in destruction and chaos in your professional designs.”
“You’re still upset about the primrose virus, aren’t you? In testing it just made rats bleed quietly from the eyes and then die – I didn’t know it’d make people violent and mildly cannibalistic.” Coulson made a show of shaking his head ruefully. “I do take full responsibility for that. I should have tested it more thoroughly. Those unexpected side effects were actually quite promising. And really,” he continued with a teasing smile and a small shrug, “at least my work keeps things interesting.”
“That virus resulted in the deaths of fifty thousand people in Eastern Europe,” Hill said coldly.
“It was a little irresponsible,” Coulson admitted. “I was working through some emotional baggage at the time.”
(“He’s psychotic,” Steve said, staring at the security feed.
“Psychotic means deluded,” Clint replied. “Coulson’s not deluded. He’s just...”
“Not great at anger management?” Tony suggested.
“You’re the expert,” Tony said to Bruce. “What do you think?”
“Well,” Bruce said, reaching over Steve’s shoulder to grab a handful of popcorn. “We certainly seem to have different means of expressing ourselves.”
“You mean you’ve never knocked a guy out and harvested his organs over a weekend?” Tony said sweetly.
Clint shrugged in Coulson’s defence. “At least it’s a productive anger.” No one could deny that.)
“It’s a sick man who puts the lives of innocent people at risk for his own amusement,” Hill said sharply
“Not for amusement, Maria. Because I can.” Coulson looked up at Hill, a puzzled smile on his face. Coulson was a person who liked problems, who liked getting into tangles and either solving things neatly or making a bigger mess. Coulson, Clint knew, liked getting under people’s skin. “Why does Fury wear the patch?” Coulson asked at last. “It can’t be that hard to grow a new eye.”
Hill stared at Coulson, weighing up the question, and possibly the question behind the question. “Sometimes you need to learn from a mistake,” she said at last.
“And yet here I am. Under your roof once again.”
Hill unholstered the gun at her thigh and had the barrel an inch away from Coulson’s face in the wink of an eye. “I could kill you,” she said conversationally. “That seems to be a pretty good way to fix a lot of mistakes. I’d have the problem of your brains splattered across the wall of this very nice cell to deal with, but Fury already has someone in mind to clean that up. And you’ve made a mess of enough of our agents that it would be worth the inconvenience of picking the fragments of your scalp out of the corners.”
“An eye for an eye,” Coulson said calmly, meeting Hill’s cold stare. “That’s how you do it at SHIELD, right?”Coulson slowly leaned forwards, until the barrel of Hill’s gun was pressed firmly against his forehead. “You have even less remorse for killing than I do. You want something,” he said levelly. “And I’m perfectly safe until you figure out how you’re going to ask for it.”
Hill’s face twisted in distaste as she stepped back and reholstered her gun. Then she leaned across the table, grabbed one of Coulson’s hands with a quick, hard movement and laid it flat on the table. She snatched one of the throwing knives from her belt and stabbed it through the back of Coulson’s palm, embedding the blade in the table. Coulson howled with pain, and the sound made Clint jump.
“’Safe’ was an overstatement,” Hill said flatly as she stood up tore the knife out of Coulson’s hand.
Coulson’s cry stuttered and rolled, turning into loud peals of laughter. Clint could make out tears at the corners of Coulson’s eyes, though he honestly couldn’t tell if they were from pain or amusement. “Safe and sound,” Coulson insisted, when he had enough composure to talk. The agent outside of Coulson’s cell had a first aid kit in his hands, ready to patch Coulson up. Hill stepped to one side and gestured for the agent to enter. Coulson sat calmly, his arm outstretched and both hands in clear sight. He grinned, as though Hill’s anger was a deeply pleasing thing.
“Thank you,” he said to the agent as the needle first pierced the skin of his palm to stitch it back together. “You have a good technique.”
“Thanks,” the agent replied awkwardly. Coulson held his body at a safe distance, but kept his head lowered, watching the agent’s hands keenly.
(“I don’t know how he can watch that,” Bruce said, turning away from the screen. “That’s too much.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to catch a glimpse of the time?” Steve suggested dryly.
Clint peered at the security feed, and then looked down at his own watch to confirm that the agent in Coulson’s cell was wearing the same SHIELD-issue device. Clint had a strong feeling that it wasn’t the position of hands on the watch face that held Coulson’s attention. There was a very good chance it was the tiny little window that was set into the watch face, proudly displaying the date.)
“I’ll be back in a few days,” Hill said coolly when Coulson was patched up. “When I’m bored enough to tolerate you.”
“I’ll see if I can rustle up some candles for the occasion,” Coulson replied with a wry smile. Hill turned on her heel, and left him to contemplate his future.
(Up in the nest, Tony turned to Clint with raised eyebrows, and Clint shrugged sullenly in response. He was pretty sure they weren’t flirting.)
Chapter 14: Security Department Memo: idle chatter is not encouraged.
Tony was on guard duty, and complaining loudly about the many ways in which his security obligations were cramping his style, when Coulson pulled one off his own teeth out. “You’re really getting bored down here, aren’t you?” Tony asked, staring at Coulson incredulously.
“It’s a crown,” Coulson replied, inspecting the chunk of enamel carefully. “It’s been loose for a while now.”
“You need someone to look at that?”
“No, it’s fine,” Coulson said, setting the crown on table. “I don’t need a glamorous smile in here anyway. You were telling me about the Hammer Expo?” he prompted.
“It’s going to be a disaster. And I’m going to have to be there, watching it be a disaster. And it’s just....” Coulson made sympathetic noises as Tony rambled on and on. Tony was yet to be marked down as compromised only because he complained to everyone without distinction. So long as he avoided revealing any information about Hydra’s recent conflicts and skirmishes to Coulson, his meandering complaints to Coulson were seen as a therapeutic outlet for the rest of the staff. Natasha had commented in passing that if Coulson were willing to listen to Tony whine about the billionaire lifestyle, they should keep him around indefinitely to make everyone else’s lives easier.
Coulson fiddled with his crossword magazine as Tony shifted to wondering aloud what to get Pepper for their maybe-anniversary. “Does she like mass destruction by any chance?”
“Not overly fond of it,” Tony replied. “Explosions make her cranky.”
“Then I don’t think I’ll be much help,” Coulson replied apologetically. “Jewellery, maybe?”
“Maybe,” Tony conceded, though the uncertainty in his voice clearly telegraphed that he had no real idea what kind of bling Pepper would approve of. (Clint was not an expert on Pepper, but he suspected that anything that could be counted as ‘bling’ in the first place would not meet with her approval.)
“The last anniversary present I gave someone was a sterile electroporater, which isn’t terribly romantic.”
“Did she like it?” Tony asked.
“Well, that’s all you need,” Tony said. “I guess you evil scientists are easy to buy for.”
“We always need something,” Coulson agreed as he pulled a staple free of his magazine. “Maybe Miss Potts is the same. Is there something that she couldn’t get for herself, or wouldn’t?”
“I don’t know,” Tony admitted. “Steve is easy to buy for – anything that can only be ordered online, you know? If it’s not in stores then he usually doesn’t know that it exists. And Bruce tries so hard not to step on anyone’s toes that any kind of indulgent gift just makes him all squishy. But Pepper is just so good at doing things. I don’t think there’s a single thing that she couldn’t get or do for herself if she put her mind to it.”
“She sounds formidable,” Coulson said approvingly as he inspected the staple.
“She’s great,” Tony agreed, flopping back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.
“Perhaps you could make her something?” Coulson suggested as he pulled his shirt up to expose his stomach.
“Like a macaroni card?” Tony asked sarcastically.
“I think we both know you could do better than that,” Coulson replied as he prodded at his stomach with a finger, feeling the puffy little knot of scar tissue where one of Clint’s arrows had run through him months earlier. Coulson shoved a sharp end of the staple into the scar, and let out a small hiss of discomfort.
“What are you doing?” Tony asked, pushing himself up and out of his slouch.
“Maybe you could engineer a new strain of flower for her?” Coulson suggested as he pulled the staple out. He flipped it around and poked the other end, which had been twisted into a crude hook, into the hole. “That’s thoughtful and unique. Very romantic.”
“Hey, quit that.”
“I’m almost done,” Coulson replied, sounding mildly put out at being rushed.
“What are- I’m calling security,” Tony said, putting his faceplate up.
“I thought you were security,” Coulson returned, and Tony took the time to flip him off before putting the call. Up in his security nest, Clint winced. Tony should have put the call in as soon as Coulson started playing with staples. He had proven over and over that he would take any object that could inflict even the smallest amount of harm and use it beyond its potential. (Clint was excused from any security notification responsibilities by virtue of having been forbidden to keep tabs on Coulson at all.)
Coulson pulled the staple out of his belly, and managed to remove something small and dark along with it. He took the tiny object and clipped it into the crown on the table. As the doors at the end of the hall burst open, Coulson casually lobbed the transmitter into the corner of his cell designated as a shower cubicle. It skittered across the floor and fell neatly into the drain.
The plumbing in the Vault was specifically designed to ensure that it could not be used to transport items to the inmates. To that end, it was also designed to ensure that anything that went down the drain disappeared and could not be retrieved without far more effort than it would surely be worth. Which meant that if Coulson had just assembled a tracking transmitter, it would be of no real help unless Hydra had a deep and pressing interest in finding the SHIELD sewerage processing station. In contrast, if the transmitter was designed to send out some kind of notification signal then it would be a pain in the ass to track it down and shut it off.
Considering that Coulson had clearly been tracking the date since he had arrived in the Vault, Clint had a strong suspicion that it was the latter.
“You had to go and make me look bad, didn’t you?” Tony said from behind the Iron Man faceplate. “You couldn’t wait to do that stuff when it was Nat’s shift.”
Steve bounded into place beside Tony, his shield up and his cowl off, looking as bright and eager as a Labrador with a strong sense of justice. “Status,” he said sharply, and Coulson smiled as though Steve’s professionalism was all very charismatic and endearing.
“I could use a bandaid,” he said plainly. He had a finger pressed over his little wound, though Clint was sure that it would heal up fine on its own. It had been a pretty good plan – hide a tiny electronic device under scar tissue so that if it was picked up on any security or medical scans it would likely be passed off as some lodged shrapnel. Clint idly wondered how long it would take for SHIELD to adopt it as standard practice for hiding tracking devices on their agents.
“So,” Tony said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Does this mean we’ll get some more Hydra morons busting down here to try and rescue you?”
“No,” Coulson replied idly. He was picking at something in the magazine, and Clint could tell by the way Tony fidgeted that he really wanted to bust in there and rip it out of Coulson’s hands. Tony and Steve were flanked by a lot of the SHIELD strike security team. Everyone seemed quietly unnerved by Coulson’s unwavering interest in sitting at the table and behaving himself. It wasn’t an activity most of them had been trained to deal with.
“Why not?” Steve asked. “You’re practically the top scientist in Hydra.”
“Unfortunately, Captain,” Coulson replied as he pulled a crossword page free, “I’m merely the top of SHIELD’s list. And, like every other research organisation, Hydra does get tired of people who keep asking for money.” He smiled, and folded the page in half diagonally. “Besides, I like it here.”
Steve’s eyes fluttered closed for a pained moment as connections strengthened themselves. “You’ve already cut your ties with Hydra. Being in here is keeping you safe from them.”
“Mm-hmm,” Coulson hummed absently, folding the paper again and again. “And the SHIELD hospitality is honestly unparalleled.” Despite Hill’s treatment, SHIELD used various forms of torture a lot less than other organisations, and considerably less than Hydra itself. Clint knew Hydra’s hospitality first-hand, and had been very grateful of the little mercies that Coulson had shown him over time.
“So that stunt right now,” Tony said, gesturing to the drain in Coulson’s cell. “Was that for them, or someone else?”
“Your interrogation technique needs some work,” Coulson replied airily. “I’ll leave that up to your imagination.”
“Goddamnit,” Steve said, thoroughly exasperated. Coulson had given them some information on Hydra’s workings and future goals, but the confirmation that Coulson was no longer part of the inner-circle made all of the intel he’d ‘reluctantly’ given them questionable at best and useless at the most accurate.
“Thank you for donating the design of the microtransmitter, by the way,” Coulson added with a small smile. “I appropriated the battery from the one you left on my paperweight.”
Steve gave Coulson a thoroughly withering look that Coulson happily ignored, his attention apparently focussed on the paper in his hands. He was slowly and carefully making an origami crane. Up in his nest, Clint gnawed on his thumbnail and tried not to think too deeply about the possible symbolism of the little paper bird.
Chapter 15: Security Department Memo: visiting hours are not recommended for high security residents
It took another two days for the break-in to occur. Hydra had been very quiet since just before Coulson had been brought in, which the activity analysts put down to internal politics resulting from Hydra’s quite successful foray into the recreational drug market. In that time Coulson had refused to offer any information as to the purpose of the transmitter he’d secreted into the Vault, and Hill hadn’t managed to beat it out of him. Coulson lost another tooth in the process. And a fingernail. Hill did not approve of other people keeping secrets under her roof.
It was a more coordinated attack than SHIELD was used to seeing, with several aspects of the Vault hit hard and fast – the power station, the Northern emergency exit, and the sewerage system. It was well above Hydra’s usual standard of throwing some grenades at a door and then swarming through the hole like the dumbest of ants. It wasn’t Hydra agents systematically taking out the Vault’s systems.
“I got Secret Empire on my screens,” Clint said sharply over the comms.
“I hate those guys,” Natasha complained. “They have no sense of personal space.”
“And they keep trying to overthrow key governing bodies,” Steve added sharply.
“Revolutions I can handle,” Natasha replied. “I just don’t know why they have to be so handsy about it.”
“I give you full permission to break their fingers,” Hill said over the comms. “Just cut back on the chatter.”
Hill set each Avenger to their own task with her usual neat efficiency. Tony was sent to clear and fix the power station, Bruce was given the request to Hulk out the emergency exit, and Steve drew the short straw and had to wriggle his way through the narrow hatch to the sewers. Natasha had the more glamorous job of taking out the advance scout parties. Clint was firmly reminded that he was no longer authorised to enter the Vault and that, given the day the security department was having, there would be a very real possibility of him getting a bullet in the face if he showed up and tried to help.
“So I’m just supposed to sit here and watch the feeds?” Clint asked, thoroughly disgusted with the situation.
“You’re allowed to watch the feeds now?” Natasha asked.
“No,” Hill replied sharply. She was on the roof, taking out the small drones that had been sent as a distraction with her usual pinpoint accuracy and a very big gun.
“He told Hill that he was either watching the feeds or getting a dog,” Bruce explained as he hustled down to the emergency exit. “And Hill said ‘No pets in SHIELD facilities’.”
“That is basically the same thing as permission,” Natasha agreed, her words bitten out between the sounds of a small scuffle. There was a howl of pain that didn’t come from her, and Clint assumed that she had taken Hill’s suggestion about breaking fingers to heart.
“As soon as Coulson is taken care of,” Hill bit out over the comms, “I am taking you all off high security and putting you on public relations duty.”
Clint peered at the screens in his nest. “Hey, speaking of Coulson-”
“No,” Hill said flatly.
“Not a word. You have been removed from all missions and procedures that have even the slightest chance of connecting to a Hydra-related incident. Strictly speaking, you don’t even have the clearance to say his name. You are not getting involved with anything to do with our guest, understood?”
Clint scowled at Hill’s words, and slumped back in his computer chair. “Fine,” he snapped. “Sure. I got it.”
“But he’s got some visitors.”
Hill cursed sharply, and Clint couldn’t help smirking as he watched her sprint across the roof of the Vault and then slide towards the emergency drop shaft.
“Oh Phil,” she said, reaching out and tapping the wall with a fingernail. “I wish I’d thought of simply locking you up,”
“Perhaps you’ll still get the chance,” Coulson replied, a warm tease in his voice that carried over the security feeds and made Clint clench his fists. “I’m surprised to see you here,” he added in a more platonic, curious tone.
“Surprised to see me alive?” she countered.
“Surprised to see you socialising,” Coulson returned. “Though it’s always a pleasure.”
Kamei smiled at him again, fond and indulgent. A pace behind her, the incredibly large Secret Empire heavy shifted awkwardly. Then Kamei sighed with a clear lack of sincerity. “This isn’t a rescue,” she said flatly.
Coulson stared at her for a long moment. “I see,” he said finally, and Kamei’s mouth twitched into a smile once more. There was a heaviness to his voice to let Clint know that the moment unfolding in the Vault was just another in a long line of plans that didn’t go entirely as expected.
“You’re lucky you didn’t activate the tracking beacon earlier, or we might have missed it in amongst the excitement of evicting Hydra from our new roost. Were you waiting for the dust to settle, or did you finally get sick of your new friends?”
“The more mess SHIELD has to deal with, the happier I am,” Coulson replied simply. “Why are you here?”
“Information,” Kamei replied. “The Secret Empire now has control of the key AIM labs and we are very interested in picking up some avenues of research that Hydra has been neglecting.”
“We killed the pests,” Kamei said bluntly, and Coulson staggered under the impact of her words, planting a hand on the table in his cell to steady himself. “Those we didn’t throw into the incinerator were turned into gloves.” She smiled, taking a special pleasure in the whiteness of Coulson’s face. “Did you know that rabbits can scream?” she asked sweetly.
“Then what do you want from me?” he finally returned, after taking a moment to straighten his posture and lift his chin.
“The datastore in the Ag facility is locked down,” Kamei said flatly, all of her previous charm stripped away now that they had come to the point of her visit. “We’re here to get your passcode for it.”
Coulson shook his head. “The datastore doesn’t have a passcode,” he replied. “It uses a retinal scan.”
“Yes,” Kamei replied calmly, as her bodyguard opened the outer door to Coulson’s cell. “We know.”
Chapter 16: Security Department Memo: medical response procedures should only be carried out by medical response staff
“So,” Natasha said as she ran along the corridors of the vault, one of Coulson’s arms slung around her neck as she held him up and dragged him along, “I’m guessing that didn’t go according to plan.”
“Story of my fucking life,” Coulson replied. His thin cotton shirt was balled up and held against the bloody mess of his face with one hand, and his other eye was shut for most of their dash to the infirmary, his face scrunched up in pain. He’d taken out Kamei’s guard with the crossword magazine – and Natasha was going to make Clint show her the tape of that later, because just seeing the aftermath had impressed her, not that she’d ever admit it. But Kamei had won round two and had claimed her prize. Hunting down Kamei was Hill’s job; Natasha merely had to keep Coulson alive.
“Were you expecting to get fucked over by someone who has built her entire reputation on fucking people over?” Natasha asked as she fobbed open the door to the medical bay and shoved Coulson inside. “Or was that a nice surprise for you?”
Coulson groaned and rested against the high bed in the bay. “You know how sometimes a couple will break up and agree to be friends?” he asked.
“No,” Natasha replied honestly.
Coulson grimaced. “Same, apparently.”
Natasha snorted and keyed a combination code into the keypad by the door, summoning some of the medical staff that had scattered when the attack began. “You two would have been a great pair,” she observed. “You have a lot in common. Was she going to be the next Mrs Coulson?”
“I think I would have become Mr Kamei, to be honest,” Coulson replied. He started to ease the shirt away from his eye socket, and then quickly changed his mind. “I need drugs.”
“The medical response team are on their way.”
“I’ve just had one of my fucking eyes pulled out,” Coulson replied.
“And you’ll sit quietly unless you want to be separated from the other,” Natasha returned sharply. Coulson gave her a wounded look, and between the paleness of his face and the drying blood splattered across it, his remaining eye seemed unnaturally blue and clear. “Don’t give me that look, she said flatly. “There is not a single good reason for me to do anything more than stand here and watch you suffer.”
“I could have had Agent Barton killed a number of times,” Coulson said after a pause. “But I didn’t.”
“That’s between you and the idiot,” Natasha replied.
“You owe him a debt,” Coulson said bluntly. “He owes me one. You can pay it out now and complete the circle.”
Natasha raised a cool eyebrow. “And what do you think you know of my debts?”
Coulson laughed, though the sound was tight through the pain. “Are you kidding? When you defected from the Red Room the Unusual Morality Committee put out a fucking newsletter. Natasha Romanova, seduced by a pretty face and some American chocolate.”
Natasha regarded Coulson for a long moment. “I wouldn’t call Barton ‘pretty’,” she said at last, but she punched in her security code to unlock the drug cabinet. “You can have one thing to tide you over until the team gets here, so pick wisely.”
“Can you see any Amoxicillin?” Coulson asked. “Should have a white label with a green stripe.”
Natasha found the green section of the little bottles and picked them out one at a time, keeping Coulson in her field of view. “No,” she said at last. “There’s Ampicillin and Amphotericin.”
“Give me both.”
“I said one.”
“They’re both anti-infection agents. That’s one thing.” Natasha huffed, but she put both bottles on the bench top. It was smart of Coulson to go for the meds before the painkillers, and a little impressive as well. Most people would have gone into shock and passed out with what he’d been through. But then, perhaps his previous relationship with Kamei had desensitised him to personal atrocities. “Now I’m going to need a—”
“You think I’m going to give you a needle?” Natasha asked, giving Coulson a disbelieving look. She clipped a syringe onto a 21 gauge needle and removed the cap. “Just shut up and put your arm out.”
Natasha had enough training in field medicine from various organisations to estimate a dosage of the antibiotic and the antifungal agent, and if she dosed too high and Coulson had to deal with hives and the runs, well, it might make him less of a threat and that would be in everyone’s best interests. She secured his free hand to the side of the bed with a cable tie, pulling it tight so that it bit into the skin. Coulson didn’t protest – he knew how these situations needed to play out. He twisted his arm so his inner elbow was face up, and there was a nice thick vein for injection running down the middle of it.
Natasha filled the needle with one fluid and then the other, and jabbed the needle into Coulson’s arm, making him wince. She had to ease the needle back out slowly until the tip sat inside the vein, evidenced by the little swirl of blood entering the syringe. Natasha pressed her thumb firmly against the plunger top and pressed the drugs into his vein. She pulled the needle out quickly and stepped back out of range, dropping the needle and syringe into the yellow sharps bucket. Natasha snatched up a strip of small, circular bandages and pressed one against the little hole at the inside of Coulson’s arm.
“Not going to put pressure on it until it stops bleeding?” Coulson asked.
“You’re welcome to do that yourself,” Natasha replied. “If it’s such a big priority.”
Coulson snorted and adjusted his grip on the shirt pressed to his face. “Are SHIELD medical teams always this slow?” he asked.
“They’re probably drawing straws to see who has to deal with you,” Natasha returned. “Or maybe they’re just waiting until you pass out from blood loss.”
Coulson was covered in a lot of his own blood, and the skin of his torso had enough scars for Natasha to think that he might be used to it. It looked like he’d dug a few bullets out of himself in the past, and he had the puckered lines of someone who had firsthand experience with knife fights. Natasha had always assumed that being a researcher would be a quiet, lazy job. None of the excitement and danger and bruising of being an agent in the field. But labs had been stormed with increasing frequency in recent years, and Clint had reported that Coulson had a curious disposition. In retrospect, it seemed unlikely that any job in the industry of good and evil would be truly safe.
“Any chance you saw some Vecuronium in that cabinet?” Coulson asked, his voice tired and strained. He had his head tilted back, lolling to one side and resting on his right shoulder. His left eye had been pulled out, which was the kinder option as far as Natasha was concerned, considering that Coulson was right-handed. He may have lost his depth-perception, but he still had his dominant eye to aim with. “And not to be demanding or anything, but maybe you could lay out some gauze and the like?”
“Pushy,” Natasha returned. “Where the hell is that medical team?” she asked into her comm.
“They’re coming,” Steve replied. “You’re not the highest priority right now, but they’re working their way to your location.”
“Well what’s the ETA?”
Steve paused before replying, and Natasha huffed irritably at him. “Less than half an hour,” he answered. “Probably.” Natasha glanced over at Coulson, who was slumped against the bed. The adrenalin from Kamei’s attack would be wearing off, and he would be tired and in an incredible amount of pain.
“What was your plan, anyway?” she asked, keeping both eyes on him as she opened the cabinet again.
“It’ll be a blue bottle,” Coulson said. “And I wanted to get out.”
“That’s it?” Natasha asked. “You just wanted out of the Vault?”
“Out of everything,” Coulson replied with a sigh. “But the situation has changed more than I’d expected.”
“You really thought she’d help you?”
“I thought she’d stab me in the back,” Coulson admitted. “I was just hoping she’d wait until we were elsewhere.”
“Well, she got you out of your cell at least,” Natasha replied, as she checked bottle after bottle with her peripheral vision. It wasn’t an effective way to look for a drug, but she wasn’t going to take her eyes off Coulson any time soon.
“Forgive me if I don’t appreciate the view,” Coulson replied dryly.
Natasha eventually found the Vecuronium and set it on the bench, along with a syringe and a capped needle. She riffled through a box on the countertop and found a roll of gauze still wrapped up in plastic, and set it next to the other supplies. She kept her Widow’s Bite aimed at Coulson the whole time, but he had his good eye closed and seemed to be taking slow, shallow breaths. Eventually he started rolling his left shoulder, as if the arm holding his shirt to his face was getting sore. The fingers of his right hand were starting to go blue at the tips due to the restricted circulation as a result of the tie cutting into his wrist, and they twitched occasionally in an effort to keep the blood moving along his digits.
Coulson tilted his head right back, letting gravity hold his shirt against his face as he stretched his arm out and rotated it, making his shoulder crack. That was the funny thing about excruciating pain, eventually the body started blocking it out and other concerns took over. Natasha knew the feeling well – she’d once been stabbed in the stomach on a mission, but by the time she got to the extraction point it was the splinters in her palms that were her first demand when it came to treatment.
Coulson pulled his arm back to his body and tilted his head down as he brought his hand back up to the shirt against his face. The heel of his palm knocked against the balled up mess of blood and cotton, sending it tumbling towards the floor. He flailed out to grab it, but his movements were clumsy from pain and exhaustion, and his body was struggling between the two instincts to grab the shirt and to protect the mess of his eye socket. He curled in on himself, his right arm twisting at an awkward angle with his wrist tied to the bed, his left hand hovering near his face but not quite touching the raw and meaty mess. It was a moment of deep, agonising vulnerability and Natasha felt empathy for Coulson even if she held no sympathy for him.
She moved cautiously, keeping her attention on him and her Widow’s Bite aimed squarely at his torso as she snagged a handful of paper towels from the dispenser above the sink. She kept her distance, stretching her arm out as far as it could reach to offer them to Coulson. He reached out vaguely in her direction, keeping his empty eye socket turned away from her despite the way the twist of his neck restricted the movement of his free arm. Some might think it vanity, but Natasha could recognise his shame at such a moment of weakness. As much as she was firmly on the side of good, she could easily have been in his place and the only thing that had saved her from an even more violent fate had been simple and considerate kindness. Clint’s bleeding heart was going to get him killed one day, but it had certainly saved a few lives thus far.
Natasha inched closer, putting her hand in the way of Coulson’s vague grasp. His hand brushed against the paper towels and he patted the bundle, feeling out the shape of it. His hand drifted down the side of the bunch of towels as if to grasp it where Natasha’s thumb held them in a messy stack, then he reached forwards and quickly tucked his fingers under the back of her bracelet, yanking her close and headbutting her. Natasha grunted and shot an electric charge at him, but he smashed his forehead into her nose once more and, while she was reeling, shifted his grip to the back of her neck and kicked her knee, making her stumble enough that he could force her down, ramming his knee into her face. She was reeling, and her main priority was clawing her way up to Coulson’s face and ramming her thumb into that empty eye socket of his and messing it up even more. But she was disoriented from the blows and Coulson had a firm grip on her hair, dragging her behind him so her face was pressed into the edge of the mattress. Then he had one of his legs around her neck, his calf crushing her windpipe and cutting off the supply of air to her lungs.
With the weight of his body pinning her shoulders she didn’t have the reach to hit him with a charge in a vulnerable place, and hitting him in the thigh would only lock the muscles in place and aid his goal of suffocating her. She suspected that no attack would do much good – pain and fear can be excellent providers of strength. It was a lesson that everyone in the business learned eventually. She could faintly hear Coulson fumbling around above her, the rustle of paper and plastic wrapping being torn free. Just before she lost consciousness the pressure against her throat eased. Mindless and instinctive, she twisted her head to one side so her mouth was no longer full of mattress and sucked in a deep, desperate breath of air. Then she felt the sharp, angry sting of a needle in her neck and within moments her body was completely unresponsive.
Chapter 17: Meeting Transcript: an expert analysis of a complete debacle
“If it helps,” Tony said to Natasha as soon as they were all seated just above the bridge in the helicarrier’s meeting room, “we’ll let you join our punched-in-the-face club.” Natasha scowled at him. “Hey, a little respect please,” Tony chided her. “Our club has some very distinguished members.”
“Though it’s not as exclusive as the drugged-and-dropped-in-a-hallway club,” Bruce countered, jabbing his thumb at Steve.
Steve rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. “Look, I thought we all agreed that could happen to anyone.”
“Hm,” Tony replied with a smirk. “Given that the second time you got drugged ended with some couch action, I think it’s pretty clear that you’re the favourite.”
Natasha gave every sign of ignoring their bickering. Coulson had incapacitated her and tied her to the medical bed with her own stash of cable ties. He’d spent a few minutes cleaning up his face and applying a more durable bandage to his eye, before turning his attention to Natasha. He’d elevated the head of the bed so that the blood from her newly-broken nose wouldn’t pool in her sinuses, and had managed to dig up a cool-pack that he then strapped to her face to reduce swelling. After that, he had stolen her Widow’s Bite, pulled on some medical scrubs, and had then disappeared into the hallways of the Vault. From there he had taken down one of the security team and liberated their uniform and weaponry. After that he had disappeared.
Natasha’s suit was zipped all the way up for once, hiding the bruising around her neck. She had a neat plaster across her nose that only accentuated the two black eyes she had as souvenirs from her encounter with Coulson. Clint knew that the biggest injury of all was to Natasha’s pride. It hadn’t helped that Tony had been positively gleeful about Coulson having gotten the drop on Natasha. He’d been making cracks about the usefulness of SHIELD’s ‘master assassins’ all morning. From the tightness of ‘Tasha’s jaw, Clint was very certain that Tony would regret each and every one of his snide remarks.
Hill had been positively livid at Coulson’s escape. She’d told the medical team heading to Natasha’s location that they had higher priorities. Hill had no doubt been intending to leave Natasha there until the lesson about underestimating Coulson had well and truly sunk in. Clint had been out of his nest as soon as Kamei had entered Coulson’s cell, and had reached Natasha fairly swiftly. He’d stayed with her partly out of concern for her condition, and partly because he’d been shot in the leg on his way to rescue her. The bullet had taken a chunk out of the outside of his thigh, and the wound still smarted uncomfortably. The shoot-to-kill order on him had apparently not been an exaggeration.
Hill was still down at the Vault, coordinating the searches for Coulson and Kamei with the extended crew that Fury had delivered. Kamei had taken off in a four-wheel drive,and was probably several states away, still cackling with glee over her prize. Coulson, in contrast, was assumed to be on foot since Kamei had left him behind and no SHIELD vehicles were missing from the site. He wouldn’t be travelling fast, but the scrub around the Vault offered enough cover to make searching for a man in a heat-shielding tactical uniform a pain in the ass.
It was a sign of how far Clint had fallen that he hadn’t been sent out to track Coulson down. It was a sign of how far the whole team had fallen that they were cooped up in a meeting room instead of tracking down SHIELD’s number one most wanted. Bruce was technically in the clear – Clint didn’t know if Coulson had a healthy fear of the Hulk or if he’d simply enjoyed talking with another scientist, but he had largely behaved himself on Bruce’s shifts. If anything, Bruce was probably present so that he would be able to pass all of the dirty details on to Thor next time the god set foot in their realm. Bruce took a deep pleasure in collecting all of the Avengers-related gossip. Clint supposed that it was a side effect of not getting out much.
Fury strode into the room and everyone quickly quit their teasing. “I want Coulson caught and I want it immediately,” he said flatly. “Tell me what you know.”
“He’s an arrogant, obnoxious flirt,” Natasha said darkly. “And I’m going to pull his fingers off.”
Tony snorted. “Flirt? He barely even talked to you.”
“He knows my missions,” Natasha replied. “He dropped locations and code words like they were part of those stupid crosswords while he was in holding. And he knew the details of my recruitment to SHIELD.”
Tony looked doubtful. “Bringing up old hits is flirting for assassins?”
“Yes,” Natasha said simply.
“Focus people,” Fury said, snapping his fingers to get their attention. “What are his priorities? Where is he going?”
“Revenge,” Steve replied. “It seems like that’s always his priority.”
“He’d want to get away from here,” Tony added. “He wants time to plan. A lab. If he’s out for blood then he’s going to make sure that he gets it.”
Clint shook his head, though he regretted the motion when Fury fixed his eye on him. “All of his killings,” Clint started.
“Murders,” Steve corrected.
“Then we’re all murderers and none of us should be on the street,” Bruce countered tiredly.
Steve shrugged, apparently okay with being reclassified as such. “Murder and assassination are part of security,” he said. “But committing acts or murder because they’re convenient is unforgivable. Killing another person shouldn’t be easy.”
“I think it’s easy to be a bad guy,” Bruce said in that mild, mellow voice of his, “once you know what kind of people are on the good side.”
Fury gave Bruce an unimpressed look, his chin cupped in his palm. “Are we done being melodramatic about morality?” he asked. “Are we ready to do our jobs now?”
“They’ve all been crimes of opportunity,” Clint continued, tugging the conversation back on track. “Someone’s fallen into his lap, or surprised him. He’s not a premeditated killer.”
“Yeah, but his life’s work has just been destroyed,” Tony countered. “He’s not going to walk away from that.”
Clint shrugged. “Right now, we don’t know that he’s able to walk anywhere.” Having an eye pulled out was not an injury that people just bounced back from. If Clint were in Coulson’s position, his two main priorities would be to curl up somewhere safe and then to never move again.
“Give me some actual intel,” Fury said impatiently. “Please tell me that one of you five geniuses managed to get some real information out of this embarrassment of a security detail.”
“He got into contact with someone shortly after he was cleared by medical,” Tony said, leaning back in his seat. He pulled out his phone and tabbed through it, looking at the information he had lifted from SHIELD’s systems. “He borrowed a commtab from one of the downed security guards. Set himself up a five minute e-mail address, made a twitter account with it, and sent out a ping message.”
“And what was the ping?” Fury asked.
“In this case it was literally a ping. He went to a specific tweet and replied to it with ‘ping’.”
Steve looked perplexed. “What does that mean?”
Tony shrugged. “Could mean anything. The whole point of a ping is that it’s a short, sweet message. It’s hard to decipher because there’s no real information in it. All of the value comes from knowing the context and, put simply, we know jack. The tweet he replied to could be significant or it could be random. The twitter handle he registered could be a code sequence or it could be the password to his Hydranet e-mail account.”
“You tracked the IPs of the people who viewed his ping?” Fury asked.
“Ah, this is where it gets especially clever. The account he pinged is basically dead. It has all of eighteen tweets but it gets incredibly high traffic due to a mix of the username and the content.”
“What’s the name?” Steve asked.
“It’s got some punctuation in there, so it’s a little hard to pronounce, but my best attempt to vocalise it would be ‘Steve times Bucky less-than-three’.” Steve’s face went blank, and Bruce hid his smirk behind one hand.
“What’s the content?” Natasha asked in her most business-like tone.
“Rabbit photos. I couldn’t see the infamous Stevie in there, but identification software is still a little buggy when it comes to bunnies.”
“Were there any replies to the ping?” Steve asked, his voice professional and determined despite the pink flush colouring his ears.
“Hundreds,” Tony replied. “It’s kind of the nature of the beast. About twenty people replied with ‘pong’. There were retweets, favourites, replies. It became a popular hashtag for about an hour, though it came nowhere close to trending.” Steve’s eyes had glazed over, as often happened when Tony’s vocabulary clashed with Steve’s still-tenuous understanding of modern life. “Long-story-short, there’s too much activity to know if any of it is actually meaningful. But from what I know of Coulson, if he thought that the time taken to make the ping was justified then he’ll have an army of minions out there waiting to receive it.”
“One minion,” Clint clarified.
“He only has one minion. A lab tech.” The information was met with a lot of incredulous stares, but Bruce nodded. One minion per evil genius clearly made sense to him. “What? I swear I put that in one of my reports.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, stretching the word out. “We stopped reading those once you started drawing hearts in the margins.” Clint scowled and kicked Tony under the table, and Tony kicked him back.
“Children,” Fury said in a tone that clearly telegraphed that he was running out of patience.
“Look,” Clint said, getting a final kick at Tony’s shin out of the way and then tucking his own feet safely under his chair. “I think it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t have any friends at Hydra right now. Or if he does, they won’t be in any position to drop everything and come rescue him. Seems like Hydra has its own problems.”
“That’s been confirmed,” Natasha chipped in. “The Secret Empire has taken over a number of bases in the past two days, and it seems like many of them could be research-oriented. Hydra has been responding but they don’t seem to be making much headway.”
“So he’s either on his own or he has an army of one other person, and neither of those are ideal options for launching any kind of retaliatory assault,” Clint said. “If he’s smart – and he’s shown that he’s smart enough to play us for fools – then he’s going to lie low and regroup.”
“And that’s your professional opinion?” Fury asked with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s what I would do,” Clint said simply. “I mean, I’m not a science person or anything. But when someone pisses in your research-cereal you gotta take some time to rebuild, right?”
Tony stared at Clint for a long moment. “You are just so fucking eloquent,” he said.
“How about I put a fucking eloquent arrow through your butt?”
“Both of you shut up before I shut you up,” Fury snapped. “We’re going to keep working on the assumption that he’s in the general vicinity of the Vault. Rogers, I want you coordinating with the intel department on this Secret Empire bullshit. I want to know exactly how worried I should be. Banner and Stark, see if you can’t go and cook something up that’ll help the manhunt we’ve got going on.” Fury finally cast his eye on the two assassins, and sighed. “Barton, take Agent Romanov back to medical and make sure she stays there.”
Clint let the displeasure at being cut out of the escape response procedures show on his face, but he nodded and said “Yes, sir,” and committed himself to doing as he was told for the rest of the foreseeable future.
“Once you two are patched up and in the clear, you’ll be working with Rogers,” Fury continued. “Now all of you, get the hell out of here and go be useful.”
Natasha pulled Clint aside as the others filed out of the meeting room. “He’s in over his head,” she said in a low voice.
“He can handle himself,” Clint replied.
“He knows he’s in over his head,” Natasha countered, her grip on his arm tightening to emphasise her point. Calling in the cavalry had not gone according to plan, and Coulson would be stuck in fight-or-flight mode until he found something resembling security. That meant that he would be unpredictable. It also meant that he was more likely to make mistakes than he had been in the past. Natasha was warning Clint to stay back, to let Coulson burn out without intervention. Clint frowned at her. Coulson would undoubtedly be desperate, but that wouldn’t make him stupid.
The lighting strips above the doorways suddenly switched to yellow, indicating that the helicarrier had been armed for combat. After another moment, Clint heard the loud ‘whoomp’ of a missile being discharged.
Fury stuck his head out of the meeting room and peered down the hallway. “Was that one of my missiles?” he asked. There were several more ‘whoomps’ as Fury stepped out into the hallway and glared at the team.
“Sounds like four of your missiles,” Bruce said helpfully.
“He did not. That fucker did not sneak on board my goddamned ship,” Fury said, storming down the corridor. “And he did not just launch my goddamn, motherfucking missiles.”
“Way over his head,” Natasha said with a sigh.
Tony clapped Clint on the shoulder. “Looks like you just lost your expert rating when it comes to our pet bad-guy.”
“Come talk to me when you’ve learned how to tell two rabbits apart,” Clint shot back.
“You coming?” Bruce asked as he trailed after Tony, who was gleefully following Fury down the hallway.
“No,” Clint replied. Natasha rolled her eyes, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him along.
Chapter 18: Encounter eleven: proximity alert registering
The problem with a floating fortress was that the security design was reliant on the concept that the enemy would always be on the outside. Outside of the helicarrier, outside of the bridge, outside of the weapon armament station. Coulson been escorted into a high clearance area and then had disabled the security feeds by the tried and tested method of ripping the cameras out and stomping on them. He had been out of the Vault for about half a day, and on the helicarrier for a minimum of four hours. Given that the helicarrier was essentially a flying armoury that was also heavily stocked with medical supplies and surgical tools, it was highly likely that Coulson have been very productive in those four hours.
There was an agent slumped farther down the corridor where Coulson had dumped him – hands fastened behind his back, both shoes removed, needles jammed under his toenails. A little discomfort and a lot of pain shouldn’t have been enough to loosen the agent’s tongue, but Coulson had quite a reputation for being resourceful, for being brightly creative. Clint imagined Coulson hunkered down in a quiet corner, calmly and carefully making it very clear that desperate people have no time for guilt.
“Get suited up,” Fury snapped at Tony. “I want this door down and everyone on the other side blasted into paste.”
Clint slipped his comm into his ear and scrolled through the frequencies until he heard the sound of Coulson humming under his breath. He was most likely listening in on several channels, but SHIELD comms broadcasted on at least one chanel at all times. It was impossible to go silent on a mission unless the operative had ceased making noise altogether. “He’s on channel thirteen, sir,” Clint told Fury.
“Spoilsport,” Coulson muttered over the comm.
“I have the prelim intel on the first two targets,” Steve reported, holding a tablet out to Fury. The director glanced at it and then switched to channel thirteen.
“You bust in here and you steal my missiles,” Fury said flatly to Coulson. “When I get my hands on you, I am going to teach you some fucking manners. You do not fuck with my missiles.”
“I’ll swap you an eye for the missiles,” Coulson replied. “My only condition is that you find the eye.”
“Third missile has landed,” Steve reported. “Took out some suspected AIM labs in Florida.”
“Hill on channel two,” Natasha cut in. “Apparently the Canadian government wants to know why we just blew up one of their forests.”
Fury pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is why we don’t let just anyone in the missile room,” he said tersely. “This is why is it meant to be really fucking hard to launch my missiles.”
“You probably shouldn’t have used your birthday as part of the passcode,” Coulson replied over the comms.
Tony arrived then with his gauntlets on and a protective face shield in place. There were some strict rules about suiting up on the helicarrier, and given the day Fury was having Tony clearly didn’t want to push his luck. “How does he know your birthday?” he asked. “I don’t know your birthday.”
“I can hear him tapping,” Clint mentioned casually. “How many missiles do we have on this boat?”
“Get that goddamned door open,” Fury said tersely.
“Such language,” Coulson chided. “You’re setting a bad example for the children.”
“Once I get in there I’m going to set a great example for how to rip an arm off.”
“Yeah, there might be a problem with that,” Tony said as he tapped at the security panel on the wall. “It looks like there may have been some hasty rewiring in this door’s recent past. How about we go back to the birthday thing while I make sure this isn’t rigged to blow?”
“The director and I go way back,” Coulson said calmly. There was a pause, followed by the whoomp of another missile firing.
“Open the goddamned door!”
“Fourth missile is still in the air,” Steve reported. “Looks like it’s heading towards the Pacific.”
Tony snorted. “What could he possibly want to take out down there?”
“There’s an AIM facility in Australia,” Natasha piped up.
“Storage facility,” Coulson clarified.
“That sounds really inconvenient,” Clint commented.
“The land was cheap at the time,” Coulson replied, and Clint could imagine him shrugging as he spoke. The typing had stopped, but Clint could hear the small noises of industrious movement carrying over the comm.
“Since you’re in a chatty mood anyway,” Steve said, “would you care to enlighten us as to why you’re taking out your own bases?”
“It’s not like you were having much luck with the task,” Coulson replied.
Fury scowled at the door. “I will not tolerate getting sassed at by a goddamn stowaway.”
“You’re going to have to get used to it.”
“You’re going to have to get used to my foot up your ass.”
There was a clatter from inside the room, and then the comms went silent as Coulson flicked to a different frequency. Fury unholstered one of his guns and aimed it at the control panel. Tony grabbed Bruce and Steve and dragged them down the hall. Clint and Natasha darted the other way, and ducked behind a corner just in time to avoid the small explosion Coulson had rigged.
“That would have killed him,” Steve commented from down the hall.
“Not likely,” Fury replied. Clint and Natasha stuck their heads around the corner and watched as Fury beat out some of the flames that were attempting to eat his long coat. The director dragged the door to the launch room partway open and slipped inside, gun drawn.
The Avengers eased up the corridor on high alert. Steve pushed the door the rest of the way open with an absent ease. The room was empty of evil geniuses, though the comm Coulson had been using was clipped neatly to a cup holder. A panel from the ceiling had been ripped off and it looked like Coulson had dragged himself up and through the wiring, hoping to wriggle through the small space until he hit either a shaft he could drag himself along or a vent into a quiet room he could drop down through. The helicarrier was not designed to have people crawling between its levels, and he’d be moving slowly. Fury was already standing on the control desk and preparing to follow him, but Natasha pushed up past him and grabbed onto the edge of the gap in the ceiling.
“No offence,” she said as she hauled herself up and into the ceiling.
“Better your ass get stuck up there than mine,” Fury returned, grabbing her feet and giving her a boost. “Rogers, you got the schematics of my bird up yet?”
“Stark’s already on it,” Steve replied, sounding a little exasperated.
“I wouldn’t keep stealing your tablet if you knew how to use it,” Tony returned in a sing-song voice.
“How am I going to get better if you keep snatching it away?”
Clint glanced over at Fury, who had a deeply disappointed look on his face. “Starting to think I should have hired a damn nanny,” Fury said, exasperation clear in his voice.
“It would help us stick to our bedtimes,” Bruce quipped, and Fury sighed. Assembling a team of superheroes just never went as smoothly as it should.
“Stark and Rogers, I want you two leading the teams. Banner, no offence, but get the hell away from this skirmish.”
“I didn’t want to play anyway,” Bruce replied, kicking one toe against the floor.
“Barton...” Clint straightened his back and looked cool and professional. “You’re coordinating on the comms.”
Clint cringed. “Yes sir,” he said. “Got it, sir.”
The helicarrier was Clint’s territory. He’d never been up against Coulson on SHIELD turf before. It would be harder to let him slip away, easier for Clint to claw back some of the credibility he’d lost since Coulson had first piped up in his ear.
All he needed to do was track Coulson down and call him in. Nothing difficult, nothing confrontational. Just a little step back in the right direction. So Clint nodded, and headed to the comm centre, and carefully scrolled through the comm channels keeping an ear out for Coulson as he went.
Coulson would pick up another comm. Clint would hunt him down. Simple.
Chapter 19: Encounter twelve: official prioritisation guidelines for a conflict scenario
Tracking Coulson was a delicate operation, but it wasn’t exactly difficult. Clint guessed that Coulson’s knowledge of SHIELD systems was maybe five years out of date, which was still far more current than SHIELD would have liked. Clint was able to track the locations of all SHIELD comms within a certain radius through the communications hub. SHIELD tactical uniforms also had GPS transmitters within the core body armour to assist in locating downed agents during cleanup. Working on the assumption that Phil was still using the comm from a medical officer and the tactical armour of a ground agent, all Clint had to do was look for a comm signature that didn’t match up to the uniform signature. He had to do it manually, switching between the communications array and the tracking array. Fury no doubt already had one of the analysts on the bridge cobbling together a program in order to do the same thing. The process was hindered by the swarms of SHIELD agents and consultants shifting through the helicarrier, all of the little points of information intersecting and crowding together. But Clint had good eyes, and he felt that he had a good handle on what Coulson’s movements would be.
His only chance of getting off the helicarrier without being in SHIELD custody was to wait until it had to land in the ocean to refuel. The helicarrier could travel for three days without refuelling if it started on a full tank. Clint didn’t know if Coulson knew that the hydrogen reserves were already half used up, or that the solar power it collected powered the weapons and not much else, but he was pretty certain that Coulson would be hunkering down somewhere in the hopes that he could slip out unnoticed with the change of guard. He would either be near one of the exit points or near the personnel quarters, ready to mingle with the various crews responsible for the shift to nautical mode.
Fury had ordered that all personnel remove any gear that obscured their faces. There were a finite number of SHIELD agents with an eye missing, and Coulson was going to stand out one way or another. Clint didn’t know how long that particular plan would last – there were always things that needed fixing on a flying aircraft carrier, and the technicians needed their personal protective equipment in place if they were going to do their jobs. Hill could demand as many role calls as she liked, but Fury’s bird simply needed too many people keeping it in the air for everyone to be perfectly accounted for. It wouldn’t be impossible for Coulson to hide himself away for days.
Clint was able to direct Steve and Tony over the comms, got them to do a physical confirmation of the identities of each operative in their cluster. From there he sent them sweeping through the busier decks, the places where someone might be able to hide in a crowd. While Steve worked his way though research and Tony gleefully supervised the sweeps of the sleeping quarters, Clint carefully tracked the identification signatures of armour and ear pieces in the quieter areas. He nearly missed it, talking Natasha through the ventilation system and flipping between screens, but he saw two comm Ids walking towards one another in a corridor. They met and it looked almost like one comm immediately turned back the way it had come while the other stayed in place. Clint switched the GPS view and saw that the comm moving away from the interaction did not match the armour code. Simple.
Clint tucked his tablet under his arm and raced down the hall, scrolling through the comm frequencies in an effort to find Coulson’s voice again. He reported the agent Coulson had taken down to Stark on a closed channel. Natasha would leave the body and go after Coulson, and Steve would point out that Clint should still be up at the bridge and scold him from leaving his post. Tony wouldn’t follow the protocol exactly, but he’d stay out of Clint’s way.
Coulson was at the main hanger deck and heading down and out, towards the turbine engines. It occurred to Clint that Coulson might not have to wait for the helicarrier to land for fuel – he could probably make it drop out of the sky. Clint vaulted down a flight of stairs and bounced his shoulder off the wall to propel himself around the corner. He could hear Coulson breathing in his ear, and he wondered if Coulson was listening in on him too.
He checked his screen another two levels down. Coulson was somewhere ahead. There were bodies in the spaces around them, but in that stretch of service hallway they were alone. Clint slipped his tablet into a pocket at his thigh, and pulled out a small but potent stun gun.
“Coulson?” he called over the comm, his voice sounding uncertain to his own ears. “I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Only the one eye?” Coulson replied. “That seems to be going around.” With his voice in Clint’s ear, it sounded as though Coulson was standing just behind Clint’s shoulder. Clint swallowed and eased forwards, treading quietly as he went.
“How are you going with that?” Clint asked. “Gotta be hurting by now.”
“What doesn’t kill you, Agent Barton,” Coulson replied, his voice sounding like a wry tease.
“It just seems strange to me,” Clint pushed on, craning his head to check the ceiling grilles above him, looking for the shape of a body perhaps hidden amongst the pipes and wires. “You probably have more people interested in your safety on this boat than you do on the ground.”
“Have you seen the state of my hands of late?” Coulson countered. “At least my old friends just want to kill me.”
“Even now?” Clint asked in response. “Even after you took out what looks like every major research centre for Hydra?”
“Not Hydra’s anymore,” Coulson replied. “If there is still a Hydra.”
“Hydra always comes back,” Clint said reassuringly, and then mentally kicked himself.
“Do you know how to kill a hydra?” Coulson asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“Can’t say I’ve ever gone up against one,” Clint replied, his eyes fixed on the end of the narrow hallway. It was a T-junction. Clint glanced down at his tablet sitting snug against his thigh. His signal was right on top of Coulson’s. Coulson would be tucked around the corner, waiting to jump out at him. Clint adjusted his grip on the stun gun, and eased forwards once more.
“You should look it up sometime,” Coulson advised.
Clint reached the end of the hallway and, after taking a steadying breath, poked his head out into the T-junction. No Coulson. “Where are you?” Clint asked. “If you turn yourself in-”
“Not necessary,” Coulson said quietly, sounding just as though he were standing behind Clint’s shoulder. Then something sharp pressed into the side of Clint’s neck and he hissed. Coulson pressed Clint up against the wall and as Clint’s head lolled he saw one of the closed access hatches that he had passed was now open. He blinked and then forgot how to open his eyes. Coulson grabbed Clint’s jaw with one hand and held his face steady. “Look at me,” Coulson hissed as he pulled Clint’s eyelids up with the pad of his thumb, one at a time.
Clint stared at Coulson – the dark goggles covering his face were a good enough disguise, but up close Clint could make out the edge of a bandage on Coulson’s left cheekbone. Clint blinked again and his peripheral vision swam with colour. The air between them tasted sweet and Coulson’s ragged breathing sounded like the strained notes of a breaking cello. Warmth was spreading through Clint’s body as Coulson glared at him from behind the goggles. Clint wanted to pull them off, wanted to see Coulson’s face again.
“You are going to help me,” Coulson said firmly, and his words stroked up the side of Clint’s neck, ghosted across his lips and replaced all of the words other people had put in his mouth over the years. Clint’s skin was prickling with sweat and if it weren’t for Coulson’s hand at his jaw he would have toppled over. His blood smelled of pizza in Paris, sounded like bolt cutters clipping through an arrow. Clint nodded. Of course he would help.
Coulson looped Clint’s arm around his shoulders and held Clint upright, his free hand pressed sharply at Clint’s side. His free hand holding something small but undoubtedly dangerous against the soft stretch of skin under Clint’s ribs. Clint resented his armoured vest, the layers of safety that kept him from feeling the shape of Coulson’s arm across his back, the clever sharpness of a plan B that would slide so easily between his ribs. They were probably the same height, Clint noted sluggishly. Why had he never noticed that they were the same height?
“You look good in our uniform,” Clint slurred, his muscles not entirely sure which electrical signals were friends and which were foes.
“Everything goes with black,” Coulson replied as he all but dragged Clint down the arm of the T-junction leading to the stern. Clint was a passport as they passed other SHIELD agents, was reassurance and confirmation and fire and sugar. Coulson was taking him somewhere safe. Coulson had promised that he would take Clint apart and Clint’s skin was already peeling away and leaving everything raw needy inside him exposed. He bent the elbow of the arm that was looped around Coulson’s neck, pulling the other man closer. Clint’s feet were clumsy and with their arms around one another they were dancing.
Coulson pushed Clint into a washroom and Clint stumbled until his hip banged against the skink. He stayed slumped against it as Coulson locked the door behind them and pulled off the goggles, dropping them to the floor. “Look at me,” he said, grabbing Clint by the chin once more. “Look at me.” Clint did, staring at Coulson’s eye, letting his sight track over the white bandage that covered a third of Coulson’s face, the lines of clear skin that showed between the grime and sticky sweat of someone who was running on energy they didn’t have. “How do you feel?” he asked, and Clint tried to nuzzle his cheek against Coulson’s hand in response. His hands had moved without him asking them to, his fingers were tangling themselves into the straps and pockets of Coulson’s stolen tactical uniform. Clint was a vine and Coulson was a brick wall full of little gaps and crevices. Clint would cover him whole with enough time.
Coulson sighed. “Never get the fucking ratios right,” he muttered to himself. He pulled another injection pen out of his pocket and adjusted the dosage volume it would administer. Clint whined at the loss of skin against his face, and tried to press forwards. “Neck,” Coulson ordered, and Clint tipped his head to one side obligingly, exposing the side of his throat, exposing any part of him that Coulson would care to take. Coulson pressed something hot and seething into Clint’s artery, and Clint groaned at the feeling of it sinking through him.
Coulson slipped the injection pen back against his person and cupped Clint’s face in both hands. “You’re going to help me,” Coulson said again, and his words sank into the soft, easy haze of Clint’s mind. “You’re going to help me get out of here alive, and I don’t care if you have to die doing so. Do you understand me?”
Clint nodded. “Whatever you need,” he mumbled, his words thickened by the press of Coulson’s palms against his cheeks.
“Good boy,” Coulson replied, dropping his hands away. Clint caught one of Coulson’s wrists, and then reached past Coulson and tugged some paper towels from the dispenser on the wall. He held them under the motion sensor tap until they were damp and then slowly brought the crumpled tissue up to Coulson’s right cheek, wiping it clean with clumsy, uncertain movements. Coulson stared at Clint unwaveringly, until Clint dragged the pad of his thumb over the line of Coulson’s cheekbone, wet skin catching on wet skin. Then Coulson let his eye flutter closed and the tension in his stance ebbed out of him suddenly, leaving him sagging forwards with one hand planted against the sink and holding him upright as Clint wiped him down.
Clint ran the damp paper towel across the top of Coulson’s forehead, just below his hairline, and then down the side of his face and along his jaw. With each movement Clint’s body seemed to settle into itself. The ecstasy of sensation faded away as the second burn of an injection evened out Clint’s senses. Coulson’s lips parted as Clint ran the towel down the line of Coulson’s neck, and he tipped his head back slightly to give Clint better access. Clint unzipped the tactical jumpsuit down to Coulson’s sternum and pushed the stiff material aside. Coulson was wearing the blue cotton shirt that was part of the pilfered medical uniform underneath. Clint tugged the neck of the shirt down and dragged the damp towel further down Coulson’s neck, across the hard edge of a collarbone, cleaning up the remnants of the blood that had dried hours and hours ago.
“You need a shower,” Clint said absently as he gently rubbed away the blood and grime.
“I need to get off this ship,” Coulson replied.
“Fury knows you’re onboard,” Clint said. “We won’t be landing until you’re captured. No aircraft are cleared for takeoff while we’re on lockdown. You’d be shot out of the sky.”
“I can’t fly a plane anyway,” Coulson replied. “There must be another way off here. Some kind of evacuation procedure.”
Clint hummed noncommittally, focussed on getting as much of Coulson cleaned up as possible. And he needed hydration. Food and water. Clint was halfway through mapping out a path to the nearest ration store when Coulson gripped Clint’s chin once more, forcing Clint to meet his gaze.
“How did you find me?” he asked.
“Uniform,” Clint replied. “And the comm. They have different...” he trailed off, distracted by the feel of Coulson’s short stubble against his fingertips, by the different colours of the tiny hairs. Coulson was going grey at the sides of his chin, and Clint was enthralled by the way those little, rough patches felt against the pads of his thumbs.
“Could someone be tracking me now?” Coulson asked.
“Sure,” Clint replied, his mouth twisting into a smile as he slid his palms along Coulson’s jaw. He had never seen the other man up so close before.
Clint slid a hand down Coulson’s neck and over his chest, tapping a fingernail against a panel of the uniform. “Here,” he said. “Thing. It didn’t match.”
“Didn’t match what?” Coulson asked patiently.
Clint slid his other hand along and wrapped his fingers around the back of Coulson’s neck, pressed his thumb against the comm in Coulson’s ear. They were so close in the warm, cramped space. Clint’s legs tangled through Coulson’s and Coulson still braced above him. Clint let his eyelids flutter closed, tilted his head to one side and eased forwards.
Coulson stepped back suddenly, and Clint fumbled to regain his balance without the press of Coulson’s body holding him upright. Coulson pulled a disposable scalpel set out of one of the many pockets of the tactical uniform and set about clipping it together. He then held the handle of the scalpel between his teeth and slid an arm out of the tactical uniform, peeling the body armour away from his chest and examining the inside of the suit.
“Where is the tracer?” he asked, and Clint pointed out its approximate location. He relaxed back against the sink and watched as Coulson carefully and quickly cut through the fabric. The GPS locators were relatively easy to remove because there had been enough missions where agents had needed to disappear without wanting to give up the safety of their tactical dress. Coulson had even acquired the fingerless gloves, an item Clint usually went without. Clint trailed his fingers along Coulson’s exposed forearm as he hacked away at the uniform, feeling the way muscle shifted under sticky skin. He’d lost weight in the Vault, and Clint worried about him.
Coulson glanced up at Clint and then returned his attention to the uniform, finally prising the locator unit out of its surrounds. He set it down on the countertop and gestured to Clint. Clint pulled his stun gun out of its holster and smashed the little device into oblivion. “Thank you,” Coulson said as he righted his stolen uniform, and Clint felt a happy surge of pride coil around his ribs. “Now, tell me how I can get out of here.”
“You can’t,” Clint replied, his mind still on the larger problem of helping Coulson, of getting him back to full health. “It’s a floating fortress. The only evacuation protocol operational would be the chutes, but the release system to get you outside is locked down unless a command officer clears for evac and you’d need a drop suit to survive the impact. You’d get fried by...” Clint trailed off, distracted by the sharpness of Coulson’s cheekbone. “You need to eat.”
Coulson frowned impatiently. “Tell me about the security on the release system.”
“When did you last eat?” Clint pushed at the unzipped uniform, running a hand over Coulson’s chest and feeling the jut of his ribs.
“Agent Barton,” Coulson said sharply, grabbing Clint’s face again.
“Clint,” he corrected absently, glancing up at Coulson. “I told you to call me Clint.”
Coulson frowned and peered into Clint’s face, looking for something past the wide-eyed concern. “I was never a chemist,” he sighed to himself. “Focus, Barton.”
“Clint,” Clint insisted.
“Fine, Clint, tell me about the release system.”
“Can I call you Phil?”
“I have some B rations in my belt.”
Clint frowned at Coulson, deeply wounded by his curtness. “I’m helping you,” he said sullenly.
“Tell me how to get out of here.”
Coulson was still holding Clint’s face in place, and Clint gripped Coulson’s forearm. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
Clint and Coulson stared at one another, locked in a battle of wills until Coulson’s mouth twisted into a scowl. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll take the rations.”
Clint pulled the packet out of his belt. B rations were a tan brick of mush wrapped in a dark, waxy plastic. One brick could keep a grown person alive for several days, and could make the average digestive tract rebel if it was eaten too fast. “And you’ll eat them?”
“As soon as people stop trying to kill me.”
Clint considered the compromise. “That’ll never happen, eat them now.”
Coulson glared at Clint and pressed through the wrapper with a jagged thumbnail. There was a lot of blood under Coulson’s fingernails, not all of it his own. Clint took one of Coulson’s hands in his own and pulled the fingerless glove off. He twisted around so he could wash Coulson’s in the sink, his side pressed against Coulson’s chest as he carefully cleaned away the mess, as he gently rubbed his fingertips against the edges of the clear bandages that covered the twin lines of stitches holding together the back of Phil’s hand and the centre of his palm. The healing skin was inflamed, would leave a thick scar as a permanent reminder of Hill’s knife sliding between the second and third metacarpals.
“These need to be cleaned,” Clint said, picking at the edge of one of the bandages.
“Leave it. Tell me about the evacuation SOP.”
“Eat your dinner,” Clint replied as he finally managed to peel the edge of the bandage up.
“I said leave it.”
“It’s inflamed.” Coulson snorted and yanked his hand away. “Hey!” Clint protested, turning around to face Coulson in the cramped space. “I’m helping.”
Coulson shoved Clint so he was bent backwards over the sink, the heat that had settled in his bones sending out jagged pain in warning as his spine was forced back at an unkind angle. Coulson pressed close, pinned Clint down and pressed even further until they were nose-to-nose. Coulson had his hands planted to the mirror either side of Clint’s shoulders, looming over him with tensed muscles. Clint’s eyes were wide open in confusion and Coulson’s furious glare had his heart stuttering.
“Don’t think you can fix me, Agent Barton,” Coulson said slowly, carefully. Every word sank into Clint just as each of Coulson’s previous instructions had.
Clint raised a hand and gripped the back of Coulson’s neck, rose up on his toes and tilted his head so their foreheads were pressed together. “I don’t,” Clint breathed. He dipped his head and pressed his lips against Coulson’s, a dry and simple kiss that nevertheless sent shivers down Clint’s spine. After a long moment of simply enjoying the feeling of skin against skin, Clint eased away and inhaled a shuddering breath.
“You have the strangest priorities,” Coulson observed.
“You too,” Clint returned, and then he kissed Coulson again. It was a harder kiss, demanding. Open mouthed and Clint pressed his tongue between Coulson’s teeth, tasted stale saliva and sharp hunger and old blood. He pressed with more strength and more need until Coulson was up against the opposite wall. Until Clint was sucking Coulson’s lower lip into his mouth and gripping Coulson’s hip hard enough to bruise and Coulson had the fingers of one hand threaded through Clint’s hair, dragging him even closer.
The kiss went on and on. One would pull away for air and the other would press forward to recapture lost lips. They kissed until the taste of their mouths were uniform, until the feel of noses and chins and cheeks was familiar, until Clint had Coulson’s mouth perfectly mapped out and his body started to yearn for other undiscovered territory. Clint felt flushed and giddy when they finally parted. The enormity of his actions was catching up to him. He couldn’t be indulging himself. He shouldn’t be pressed against Coulson of all people. He wanted to kiss Coulson all day and help him out of this mess but the very feeling of his own uniform against his skin was a reminder that there were guidelines to follow, that Coulson needed to be turned in.
He had him. Coulson was running on empty and had no options, and Clint could hold him down in that little washroom long enough for one of the big guns to come and take over. All he had to do was call it in. All he had —
Coulson lifted a hand and pressed the injection pen against Clint’s neck once more. Clint hissed and then buried his face in the crook of Coulson’s neck, groaning his complaint as a yellow, minty heat was sucked into his heart and then pumped out to his limbs. Coulson stroked the back of Clint’s neck soothingly, and then pushed him away so he could look into Clint’s eyes.
“Is there any other way out of the ship?” Coulson asked slowly and clearly. “Any way not blocked off?”
“There’s the brig,” Clint replied slowly, his words thick once more.
The brig was a hole in the bottom of the ship, a neat little duct that ran through the few feet of fibreglass and aluminium that made up the base of the helicarrier. In the initial design a laser canon was slated to go there, but the funding for it had been cut. The duct had been left in place in the hopes that one day the laser canon would become a reality. As the helicarrier was not designed with a great deal of holding facilities for prisoners, Fury made sure that every member of the crew knew that anyone committing an act of mutiny would be thrown in the brig, and that the only punishment they would have to face would be gravity.
The brig had one hatch at its mouth in the hangar area, and could be opened by anyone who had both a maintenance code and a priority code. Clint passed all of this information along to Coulson as he sagged against him, prompted along by questioning hums and the feel of Coulson’s fingers combing through the hair at the back of Clint’s neck.
“Good,” Coulson said. “You’ve done very good, Barton.”
“Of course. I just need two more things from you. First, what’s a drop suit?”
Chapter 20: Unauthorised briefing regarding classified materials.
Clint limped along the hallway towards Bruce’s research nook. After dragging out every piece of relevant information Clint had in him, Coulson had jabbed him one more time in the neck, shoved him into a storage locker, and told him to stay. And so Clint had. Clint had sat, crammed in that locker with his knees pressed up against his chin, for about seven hours. Even after the most severe effects of the drug had worn off Clint couldn’t bring himself to try to break out or to call for help. He needed to stay, and so he had sat there in the tiny, dark space until Natasha found him.
“What took you so long?” he had grouched at her as he braced his arm on the dark wall of the corridor and she tried to press the cramp out of his lower back so he could walk without hobbling.
“No tracer on you,” she had replied simply. “We thought you’d left.”
Clint had stretched his arms above his head, making his shoulders pop. He was sore, and hungry, and his body had that sick kind of hurt running down his core that was not unlike a hangover. “So why’d you come looking for me?” he had asked.
“You wouldn’t leave your bow,” Natasha had replied, and then they had made their slow way to the medical wing in silence.
Coulson had dropped a used injection pen on top of Clint before slamming the door on him, so at least Clint had a firm alibi for his disappearance. He also had a string of purple-red bruises along his neck from the injections. They bore a depressing similarity to love bites.
Clint had some blood taken, was given some gauze to press against a wound at his ear, and was told to get out of the medical wing and go eat something. Coulson had left a trail of casual destruction and very precise mutilation as he had worked his way through the helicarrier. There were a lot of agents who hadn’t been treated with anywhere near as much kindness in their encounters with him.
But all the same. Coulson was long gone, and Clint had spent the night drooling on his own kneecaps.
Clint fobbed open the door to Bruce’s nook, and slumped against the doorway. “You asked to see me?”
“Come in,” Bruce said, waving Clint over without looking up from the papers spread neatly in front of him. The door whooshed shut behind Clint and he clambered awkwardly up onto a stool, gauze still pressed to his ear.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Fury is in a meeting with the WSC,” Bruce replied, glancing over the top of his glasses at Clint. “Apparently they’re very interested to know how he happened to ‘lose’ some missiles yesterday. I’m assuming he’ll want to see you after that.”
Clint sighed. “Yeah. That’s a solid assumption.” He had already been lined up to be in a lot of trouble. Having to deal with the director’s post-meeting rage meant that Clint was likely to get thrown in the brig.
“I thought this might come in useful,” Bruce said, turning his attention back to the papers in front of him. He was organising them into a folder according to his own special filing system. “While you were all off running through hallways and having fun, I asked the archive department to send through Coulson’s file.”
Clint looked at the sheer volume of paper present. It wasn’t the same file he had been given access to. Bruce had sourced Coulson’s primary, heavily-classified file. “How did you get this?” he asked, leaning over the bench for a better look.
“The head of archives like me,” Bruce replied, with a small smile. “Apparently she is very appreciative of the fact that archives is the one department I haven’t smashed yet. So,” Bruce shuffled some papers and looked up at Clint with the kind of pleased pride that lit up his face. “What do you want to know about our favourite enemy?”
Clint looked at the file for a long, stunned moment. Coulson’s high school report cards were probably in there. His childhood vaccination record. SHIELD could find just about anything when the agents were properly motivated, and judging by the barely-contained excitement in Bruce there was some very juicy information within all of those reports.
“Tell me about his family,” Clint said. Coulson seemed to be carrying a lot of baggage there, which was a harsh judgement coming from Clint of all people. Clint wanted to know full story, and that seemed like a good place to begin.
“Parents divorced when he was about nine, after the death of his sister at two years,” Bruce said, flipping through the file. “Mother had custody, she died about five years ago and had no contact with Coulson after he left conventional medicine. His father did get remarried and there was a half-brother, that much is true. Stephen Robert Coulson. Born December of seventy-six and died April of ninety-seven, aged twenty. Diagnosed with a lysosomal storage disorderat three months of age. Both of his parents were heavily involved in the LSD community by then, and Stephen was almost immediately put on a treatment regime, which extended his life past expectations. But,” here Bruce flipped to a different part of the file.
“Coulson didn’t have any contact with his father until he was at university, when he was encouraged to reconnect by one of his supervisors. His father had cancer. He and the second wife were travelling to Europe for a treatment trial when their light aircraft when down. It was requested in his father’s will that he take care of Stephen, and as the kid’s closest living relative he was made legal guardian. He was doing his residency at the time.”
“Huh,” Clint said as it sank in. Not quite the same story Coulson had told Steve. But then, Hill had commented that the story got more dramatic each time she heard it. “So he got stuck with a sick brother he didn’t even like.”
“Well...” Bruce said. He flipped through the file again and then spun it around, showing Clint a photo. Coulson crouched beside a boy in a wheelchair. Stephen wasn’t quite looking at the camera, and Coulson was looking at Stevie with affection, a wide smile on his face. Coulson looked so much younger, and the expression on his face was startling in how unreserved it was. Quite different from the man Clint knew.
“From all accounts, Coulson became quite devoted to his brother. His first LSD conference talk was on developing speech therapy exercises through creative play. He spent a lot of time just hanging out, walking around and talking to him and helping him get dressed.
“He was engaged to another resident, a surgeon, but that didn’t last.” Bruce glanced up at Clint then. “Not a lot of information on that one, though SHIELD did interview her. Apparently she wanted a family and Coulson didn’t, and then she didn’t want their life taken up by caring for an invalid and Coulson broke it off. She transferred to a hospital in another state to complete her residency.”
“That sucks,” Clint observed, and Bruce nodded. “What about the brother? How did he die?”
“That part of the recount is basically accurate,” Bruce said, flipping a few pages back. “His brother had a seizure and suffocated. He was enrolled in a clinical trial at the time. There had been some academic clashes over the procedures in place should a child in the study experience organ failure or arrest – the primary researcher felt that the decision to attempt resuscitation should be left to the doctor on duty, and that consideration should be given to patient history and the experiences of the family.”
“So some dick decided not to perform mouth-to-mouth,” Clint summarised.
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yup.” Bruce flipped to the final page of the medical report. “Stephen had been deteriorating significantly for a considerable while. The doctor on duty justified the lack of a vigorous attempt to resuscitate by arguing that the quality of life experienced by the patient was not worth sustaining.”
“And Coulson didn’t agree,” Clint concluded.
Bruce shrugged one shoulder. “Saying that he was not pleased is an understatement, as you know, but he knew that his brother was on the way out. It was more the organ harvesting that annoyed him. Even I wonder if there were ulterior motives for letting him die,” Bruce added as he flipped that section of the file shut.
Clint stared at the photo of Coulson and Stephen for a while. “Science is messed up,” he said at last.
“Yeah,” Bruce said, scratching the back of his head. “It can be.”
Clint scrubbed a hand over his face. While the little wander through Coulson’s family tree hadn’t been particularly illuminating, it had at least confirmed something that Clint had suspected – Coulson was not above bending the truth to get a little sympathy. And Clint was probably the prime example of why Coulson shouldn’t be given sympathy. Give the man an inch and he would take a mile, a blood sample, and steal some equipment on the way out.
“Tell me about Kamei,” Clint said, and Bruce’s face split into a grin.
“This section is juicy,” he said as he flipped through the file. “If the superhero thing doesn’t work out for me, I’m going to see if I can pitch this as a soap opera.” There was a ‘known accomplices’ section of the file, and Kamei seemed to take up a great deal of it.
“They were both Hydra when they met, though she was meant to be researching in Europe. Coulson’s area of expertise is proteomics with an interest in using viral vectors for distribution, and Kamei’s is in human resources. For once that’s not a euphemism – she puts together research teams and then seems to terrorise them until she gets a result. When it comes to science, she knows her stuff but she doesn’t actually have a PhD.” Bruce looked over the rims of his glasses conspiratorially. “She’s a bit of a hobbyist,” he explained.
“But from a research perspective, they were practically made for each other. Kamei had a lot more experience in the ‘ruthless and remorseless’ department,” Bruce continued. “Coulson was essentially just a researcher, but Kamei had clawed her way up to phase planning. She saw him as something of a protégé. It was in the mid stages of their relationship that Coulson went from just being a person of interest to being classified as an enemy of SHIELD. Apparently even the higher ups of Hydra were concerned about the team they made – Kamei and Coulson were assigned to labs on opposite coasts for a while, but their work together was just so good that they kept slipping past any restrictions placed upon them.”
“And were they dating?” It felt strange for Clint to ask, like he was suddenly prying. The thick folder in front of Bruce, that was just part of the job. But Clint had seen the way Coulson and Kamei spoke to one another, and his need to know about the unfinished business that was not entirely professional.
“Apparently,” Bruce replied. “SHIELD got different reports from different people after they split. The people close to Kamei said that she was fucking him to keep anyone else from snatching him away from her. The people close to Coulson said they were engaged.”
“And neither of them would have a problem with misrepresenting whatever was going on there if it was useful,” Clint added.
“Pretty much. Though the fallout from their breakup suggests that there was something significant going on between them. They were staying just outside Minsk at the time, and between property destruction and the Primrose Virus, Belarus was left a little sore from the breakup.”
“What happened to cause the split?” Clint asked, and Bruce’s face lit up with barely disguised glee. He got such a high from scandal and gossip.
“So, according to the most reliable source SHIELD managed to track down, they both got busted sleeping with other people. She was sleeping with his lab tech at the time. Apparently he had a personal project that he kept close to his chest and she wanted all of the details. When he found out he took the tech off for a stern talk and he was never seen again.”
“He was sleeping with her security guard, who incidentally is the POI that SHIELD got this whole wonderful story from.” Bruce’s eyes were twinkling. There was some nugget of information that was absolutely delighting him.
“Who was the guard?” Clint asked with a sigh.
Bruce grinned, and slipped a file across the bench. “It seems that Coulson has a type,” he said simply.
Clint stared at the photo attached to the front of the file. “Well, shit,” he said at last. Barney Barton, codename Trickshot. “I didn’t know he was running around with Hydra.”
“He wasn’t,” Bruce replied. “Kamei had hired him privately. She ended the contract when she found out he was sleeping with Coulson. And she tried to kill him.”
“Fancy that,” Clint replied dryly. He pushed the file back over to Bruce. He felt a little numb, and decided that he could deal with that new information later. His short-term goal was to get through a meeting with Fury without getting shot, and to do that he’d have to convince the director that he could still be useful in hunting Coulson down. “Know anything about Coulson’s personal project then?”
“Ah,” Bruce said, flipping through the Book of Coulson. “I actually wish I’d known this while he was still in holding, the opportunity to pick his brain... Here it is. The medical trial he was working with aimed to use gene therapy to replace mutated genes, which would result in normal protein expression and degradation, and would stop disease advancement and might even help undo some of the damage. Now, usually you get a section of the relevant DNA and transpose it into another organism. That can cause problems if the DNA selection isn’t ideal.
“Now, Coulson proposed getting around this by looking at the functionality of the final protein, extrapolating ways that it could be improved to address a long-term systemic deficiency, and then he recoded the gene sequence accordingly.”
Clint looked at Bruce blankly.
“He made a new gene for the sick people,” Bruce explained. “Apparently he did all of the sequence design on his lunch breaks, because he wasn’t meant to be developing research theories.”
“So... it was a big deal?” Clint asked.
“A very big deal,” Bruce replied. “In fact, just given his success in taking an end-stage protein and working back to create a coding sequence, SHIELD was very interested in recruiting him out of the hospital system to work on Weapon Plus.”
“The Super Soldier project?”
“That’s it. Unfortunately his brother died and he did not manage his grief in the most legal of manners. SHIELD generally doesn’t like employing unhinged people to work in their labs. However, that hasn’t stopped him continuing his own research. There’s nothing solid, but all of the research acquired from his labs during various raids have been based around sequencing and characterising some abnormal proteins, such as those found in your average metahuman, and repurposing them.”
“That sounds big.”
“It’s incredible,” Bruce said, admiration clear in his voice. “It’s a shame he’s mixed up with all of those silly ‘overthrow the government plots’ because if he had just been able to work on this without distractions...” Bruce was clearly in science-geek heaven, and while Clint didn’t understand everything that had just been explained to him, he appreciated that Bruce didn’t nerdgasm over just any crazy idea.
Clint looked down at the thick file. “So it was all looking great until he killed his chance with SHIELD, huh.”
“Not exactly,” Bruce replied. He flipped towards the front of the file, a section he had labelled ‘recruitment’. It was a lot thicker than Clint had expected. “You’ll be called into the headmaster’s office soon, so I’m going to answer one of Tony’s questions because it’s pretty relevant: how exactly does Coulson know Director Fury?” Bruce flipped the folder around and pushed it across the bench to Clint.
Clint read through an appraisal of Coulson that had been written during his perfectly legal research, then a report of the incident at the hospital. Those were followed by a rough transcript of an interview in a holding cell, a summary of the conclusions the R and D department had made of the contents of Coulson’s office, and a contract.
“They tried to recruit him anyway,” Clint said.
“With the caveat that he direct research rather than participate,” Bruce elaborated. “He wouldn’t have been allowed near a lab. Despite an exceptional SHIELD agent keeping watch, someone managed to get to him and make a better offer.”
Clint looked down at the signature at the bottom of the interview transcript. And then he flipped forward, through early reports of Coulson’s movements and additional attempts to reach out to him. The same agent signing off on each report.
“Fury tried to recruit him,” Clint said. “Huh.”
“Several times,” Bruce clarified. “Apparently he took the rejection quite personally.”
“That’s... I was not expecting that,” Clint admitted. He could imagine Fury and Coulson taking shots at one another across a burning lab. He couldn’t imagine Fury pitching a desk job with reasonable health insurance to one of SHIELD’s most wanted.
“It kind of explains why he let you get dragged along for so long,” Bruce commented, watching Clint carefully.
Clint pressed his mouth into a thin line, and flipped the folder closed with a heavy thud. Bruce had a point, and it riled Clint up. “I’m keeping this,” he said, resting a hand flat on the cover of the folder.
“You might want to stash it in a locker before you get chewed out,” Bruce replied, and Clint nodded. He stood up and, with some difficulty, managed to heft the folder up into his aching arms. “Hey,” Clint said, turning back to Bruce with another thought. “You remember a while back when Steve had a brief stay at Chateau du Colson?”
“Coulson clipped the tip of his finger off. What was that about?”
“Tissue sample,” Bruce explained. “If you have a nice little cluster of cells you can grow them up in culture medium.”
“And that’s... useful?”
“Can be. You can extract DNA, proteins, look at cell growth. Sometimes you can study tissue morphology. We’re assuming Coulson took it so he could get a nice, high-concentration extraction of Steve’s DNA. People have been trying to achieve that since before he hit the ice.” Bruce included. “Why do you ask?”
Clint carefully reached up and pulled the fluffy white gauze away from the side of his face. Before locking him in the closet, Coulson had clipped a little chip of skin and cartilage out of the top of Clint’s ear. It hurt like hell, and had left Clint looking not unlike an alley cat who had lost a couple of fights.
Bruce sighed heavily. “Oh, Clint,” he said.
Clint nodded. That about summed it up.
Chapter 21: Mission debrief
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Fury was waiting for Clint by the brig. The neat little hole that dropped all the way down into nothingness. The backdoor that Coulson had slipped out of, encased in a dropsuit that, if worn correctly, would allow him to plunge into the water below with minimal injury. He had used one of Tony’s little catflaps into the security system to find a clearance code that would open it, so at least Clint wasn’t the only one in trouble for his hospitality.
But Tony Stark hadn’t been curled up for hours with Coulson’s voice threading around his skull, with the feel of Coulson’s sweat on his palms. Perhaps Clint smelled like Coulson still, perhaps there were fingerprints at his jaw that Fury’s sharp eyes could see. Perhaps the tiredness in Clint’s face was enough like the aftermath of Loki’s attack that Fury would go easy on him.
“I see you’ve been keeping yourself busy, Agent Barton,” Fury said by way of greeting.
Perhaps hell would freeze over first.
“I do my best, sir,” Clint replied.
“And a fine effort that’s proven to be,” Fury returned. He stared at the brig for a long moment, considering its dimensions, and Clint followed his gaze. Fury wasn’t someone who wasted words, no matter how meandering his path to the point may seem. He seemed contemplative, and Clint knew that any words that Fury was kind enough to impart on him would be worth listening to.
“I don’t know if you know this about SHIELD,” Fury said at last. “We don’t exactly put it in the pamphlet. But we know that this work is hard, that sometimes it’s hard to make the right call.” He paused, considering his words. “Sometimes the call made by some asshole back at base and away from the fire isn’t the right one.”
Clint didn’t say anything. Didn’t shift his gaze or soften his posture. Clint always took the shot that he was meant to take. If he couldn’t take it then it wasn’t meant to be. It was the simple logic that had ruled his life as an agent, and Fury had heard it before.
“You get one lapse of judgement,” Fury said bluntly. “I don’t mean making a different call for the same end. Sometimes things in the field don’t happen like they should, and you get exactly one moment of questioning what you should be doing out there.” Fury’s gaze flicked up to Clint for a moment. “Yours was Agent Romanov, so at least you have good taste.”
“Sir, Romanov is a fine—”
“One of the best,” Fury agreed, cutting Clint off. “But you brought a leopard into our base with that one and she hasn’t changed her spots. She’s not domesticated like you are, and the only reason she stuck with SHIELD was that it was easier than getting away and more interesting in the long run.”
Clint shifted his jaw. “It was the right choice,” he said at last.
“Perhaps,” Fury replied, letting Clint know that however much an asset Natasha may be, in SHIELD’s eyes killing her would not have been the wrong choice.
“Coulson was your lapse,” Clint said after a pause, his words sounding like an accusation that he had no right to make.
“Yes,” Fury replied.
“And how’s that working out for you?”
Fury looked over at Clint again, a smile tugging the corner of his mouth. “He was a lesson that I needed to learn. Perhaps the more relevant question is, how’s it working out for you?”
Clint stared at the hatch of the brig, the little square Coulson had slid through shortly after locking Clint down and leaving him to sweat it out. Natasha had known that Clint hadn’t deserted SHIELD because his equipment was still in its place. That was the only clue as to his allegiance that she could find. And while Clint knew that wasn’t about him, that everything Coulson did was driven by something hard and hurting inside him, he wondered why Coulson had found it so easy to leave him behind.
“I wasn’t the best judge of character,” Fury continued, having seen in Clint whatever sign he was looking for. “I’m still not. I have people to judge character for me. But I do have responsibilities. And I can’t have people who are rooting for the other team running around on my boat.”
Clint held his breath then, held still and didn’t blink. Fury valued Clint’s sight, but he had his own gift for seeing things exactly as they were.
“You think you can fuck around on this job?” Fury asked, sharpness finally entering his voice. Disappointment and anger all tightly controlled and disguised as irritated annoyance. Clint felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “You think your little conflict of interest again might not be a big fucking problem for me?”
When Clint finally spoke his voice came from a distance, came without any input from his brain. “I really wasn’t thinking about you,” he answered.
“No shit,” Fury spat back at him. They stood in silence for a moment, Clint staring blankly at the floor because he didn’t know what else to do, and Fury standing still with the heel of his palm pressed against his good eye. Quick to anger, quicker to find the right path through.
“You are no longer part of the Avengers Initiative,” Fury said in a low, level voice. “You are no longer part of SHIELD. When we land you have all of four minutes to get off my damn ship.”
“Sir,” Clint said weakly, and then found he had nothing to follow with. He was getting off easy. That was the honest truth. It was also true that Fury was stripping Clint of everything he had. SHIELD had been Clint’s life for so long that he had no backup plan. He lived in SHIELD housing. He was homeless, jobless, friendless. SHIELD was good at keeping its assets, at least in part because the job ensured there would be nothing waiting if someone were to walk away. In many ways it would have been kinder if Fury had cut off one of his hands. And Fury knew that.
“You want back in SHIELD,” Fury said in a low, dangerous voice, “you bring me Coulson’s head on a spit. But until that day comes, your name will not even be mentioned in SHIELD hallways.”
Clint stared down at the hatch, at the bloody finger prints at the edge of it where Coulson had held on before dropping. Felt an itch of similar shape along his jaw. In retrospect, he had always been following the trajectory to this end. From the first moments of hearing Coulson over the comms, from the first incident he had kept out of his reports. It was always going to bite him in the ass, and now that the moment had finally come he felt too numb to register the sting.
He swallowed, and nodded, and finally looked up to meet Fury’s eye. “Understood,” he said in a clipped voice. After a moment he added, “I will get him.” Because Fury had taken a risk with Clint, and as lost as Coulson was he was still nothing on the state Clint had been in when SHIELD had found him.
“I have no doubt of that,” Fury replied.
With nothing left to say between them, Clint turned on his heel and left.
Chapter 22: Unofficial submission: a study on laying low.
If it weren’t for the fact that Natasha had been on the ocean-search team that had finally concluded that Coulson was still alive and kicking, Clint would have been forced to conclude that his nemesis had simply gone splat into the ocean and then sunk down to a watery grave. The last time Clint had tracked down Coulson there had been a pattern to follow, things that he needed or places he would show up at. Coulson had been, essentially, going about his daily business at the time.
But his stay with SHIELD had overlapped with what seemed to be the complete destruction of the patterns Coulson had once followed. Hydra had been largely taken over by the Secret Empire, and what few holdouts remained were dedicated to defending their boarders rather than the kind of imaginative research that held Coulson’s interest. The Secret Empire, in a similar vein, was busy taking stock of their new assets and signing all Hydra staff over to the SE employee benefits program. While both organisations certainly still held an interest in Coulson (the Hydra factions could use the bargaining chip, and reports from SHIELD indicated that a single eyeball had not opened as many doors as Kamei had hoped) neither seemed all too committed to treating him nicely if they should get their hands on him, and they certainly weren’t devoting any energy to tracking him down.
Given the loss of resources, it was likely that Coulson would be forced to keep his head down and his actions mostly-legal. Aligning himself with another villainous cause would be inadvisable until the Secret Empire settled into a new place in the hierarchy, and Coulson didn’t have the funds or the equipment to set up a lab for himself. And, given the dossier Bruce had handed over, Clint thought it was unlikely that Coulson would be keen to start his research over from scratch and less likely that he would be able to if his biological samples really had been seized.
In truth, Clint had heard through the Avenging grapevine that the World Security Council had lowered Coulson’s threat rating to reflect how utterly screwed he was. If it weren’t for the substantial grudge that several key people in SHIELD had against him, Coulson would possibly have been allowed to make a quiet life for himself somewhere. But Fury wasn’t the forgiving type, Coulson didn’t seem to be the type to settle for a picket fence in the suburbs and a job teaching biology at the local high school, and Clint had been given only one chance to get back into the relatively comfortable life that SHIELD had provided him. Clint had spent a lot of his life desperate, and enough of it being a criminal. He’d be able to track down Coulson eventually.
It was a new kind of puzzle for Clint, trying to chase down Coulson at his most unpredictable. In the past Coulson had always followed a kind of code of honour. He moved around obstacles right up until the point that he had to go through them, and when they had first crossed paths Coulson had been gifted with enough resources to move around most things.
Clint had tracked the currents of the ocean and had managed to estimate a few likely population centres along the West Coast that Coulson could have washed up near. The drop suits were water resistant but not exactly water proof, and more than dry clothes Coulson would need clean dressings. He would also need money – probably he could steal wallets to get him by until he could get some new ID and scam some credit cards of his own. Probably Coulson knew how to do those things. It was always hard to tell when it came to the research types.
There were no convenient reports of a one-eyed man being admitted to hospitals or snatching purses, but Clint did manage to spot a report on the attack of a young vet who had been working the overnight shift at an emergency animal hospital. She’d been put in a strangle-hold until she passed out and then locked in a consulting room. Clint had to look up what some of the medicines that had been stolen did, but they all seemed to be antibiotics, anti-inflammatory meds, and painkillers. A clothing store nearby had been broken into the same night.
Human and animal health services got held up with depressing regularity and stores got robbed all the time, and there were enough incidents of the two happening in the same suburb to make it a flawed way of tracking Coulson. But it would take someone who was both composed and desperate to rob a vet without a weapon, to be willing to risk getting an arm broken if they grabbed their victim wrong. The dumpsters by the clothing store had been emptied by the time Clint got into town, so he couldn’t check for discarded clothes with little SHIELD logos printed on them, but in casing the two crime scenes they looked like the kind of places that Coulson would hit up if he were forced into petty crime. And given that the clothes stolen leaned towards polo shirts and cashmere-wool blend sweaters with patches on the elbows, Clint felt that loaned some authority to his hunch.
Clint knew that Coulson was already gone by the time he got into town, but he spent three days walking the streets anyway. Looking at restaurants and wondering if Coulson had stopped to finally grab a solid meal before pushing on. Standing on the balcony of the shitty motel he was rooming in and scrolling through twitter, reading the various replies to Coulson’s ‘ping’ message. Coulson had reached out to someone, and what kind of reply he’d received (if any at all) would be determining his next movements. Clint had no way of identifying a meaningful tweet if he were to see it. He’d read through the account that had supplied the ‘Stevie and Cheese’ photo, which had been posted months before Clint had even seen Phil in the flesh. It had been silent for a long time, which could imply any number of things.
Clint frowned down at his phone, and then looked out over the parking lot of the motel and towards the shore beyond it. Clint could think of three things that criminals regularly enjoyed when forced into taking a vacation due to everything around them going to shit: indulging in some gambling to bulk up finances, investing in some artillery with which to defend the finances, and getting some sun. Hell, if Clint weren’t keeping busy with trying to hunt down Coulson, he’d probably be doing the same thing. SHIELD ballistics did good work with his arrows, but there was something satisfying about sweating it out in a tin shed and nearly blowing his own fingers off over some explosive tips.
There was also the benefit that gambling and guns tended to lead to interacting with some morally questionable types, and Coulson would need to be networking if he ever wanted to be in a position to take on Kamei (and Clint had fucked up in just enough relationships to be grateful that none of his exes had ever screwed him over so thoroughly when he’d called on them for help. Coulson had a dangerous tempter in that it simmered and took its time to boil over – Clint was sure that Kamei wouldn’t be easily forgiven).
Clint allowed himself a smile as he used his phone to book a rental car. They were on the West Coast already, and Clint liked driving through deserts. When it came to both getting lost in a crowd and finding a needle in a haystack, no city was as full of fortune as Las Vegas. And if Coulson wasn’t there, Clint would have to hit up the blackjack tables himself – SHIELD wasn’t footing the bill for this chase, and Clint wasn’t sure how long he would be following Coulson’s trail. He felt like he had been trailing after Coulson for long enough already.