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Clint's Grand Easter Adventure (Without Eggs)

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+

“The wife?” Jensen asks, a smarmy grin on his face, the moment Clint hangs up the phone.

He, like most of SHIELD, thinks that ‘the wife’ is code for Natasha, which is completely fucking ridiculous and also a fantastic cover for the actual wife. The few agents who pride themselves in their observational skills think the actual ‘wife’ is Phil.

They’re idiots, too, and Clint, Phil and Nat regularly get drunk and laugh at them.

Still, this time, Jensen isn’t that far off the mark, because this time, while it was his actual wife calling, the words coming from her mouth were Nat’s.

Borsht.

“Fucking hell,” he repeats before punching in Phil’s number and leaving the room.

“Agent Barton,” his handler greets him within two rings. The worrywart was probably sitting on his phone, even though the mission is done and they’re just waiting for their ride back to the good old US of A.

Clint doesn’t bother with formalities. “I just got a call,” he starts. “About that red Corvette I was looking into buying?”

“Oh, did you get it?” Phil asks, not even pausing.

“Yep. But I need a couple days to pick her up. That alright boss? I’ll send my reports ahead with Jensen and head out right from the airport.”

“Well, you do have more than enough days piled up. I’ll file the paperwork for you, Agent Barton. But I expect a ride in your new car. Soon.”

Clint grins, waves at Jensen, who’s watching through the kitchen window of their safe house. “Sure thing, boss.”

The line goes dead.

+

Across the Atlantic, Phil Coulson sighs.

Red Corvette.

Damn it.

He files Clint’s request for leave as already approved, waits for an hour and then picks a small scale mission he’s had some input on. It’s been going badly and it’s not beyond the realm of the possible for him to head out personally to oversee it.

He doesn’t pull the call logs showing his and Clint’s conversation because absence, in this case, would be more suspicious than presence. Everyone knows Phil Coulson is Clint Barton’s work wife.

He’s gone three hours later.
+

By the time Clint gets home, the kids are in bed and Laura is sleepily sitting on the porch swing, a book in hand, tea gone cold by her side. Waiting for him.

She takes one look at his face, the desert dirt still clinging to his clothes, and sighs. “I was right. It was a warning, wasn’t it?”

He kisses her hello, because she’s beautiful and he loves her and hasn’t seen her in weeks, and then he nods. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

“What does it mean?”

He drops onto the swing next to her, setting it to, well, swing, rather vigorously for a moment. Wraps his wife in his arms and breathes in her smell, shampoo, laundry detergent, baby powder and grass and Laura. “It means ‘get the hell out now’.”

“Your mission?”

“SHIELD,” he corrects, and he can’t hide the bitter tinge in his voice, the fear. They made up their code words years ago, slightly drunk, all three of them, and it was Nat who insisted on that particular word, on that message. She was new to SHIELD, new to America, and she didn’t trust she wouldn’t need to run again.

They humored her, Clint and Phil, humored her and made up words for a worst-case scenario they knew would never come to pass.

And now, all of a sudden, after weeks of radio silence, there it is. Borscht. Red Corvette. Get the hell out of SHIELD now.

“Does Phil know? I considered calling him, but the message said only to call you.” Laura bites her lip, worried. Phil was her friend before he was Clint’s.

“I called him right after you called me. Knowing him, he’ll bring breakfast.”

She nods against his shoulder, but doesn’t really relax. Despite not being part of this life for years, Laura knows all too well how these games, code words and safe houses, secret escapes and clandestine meetings, tend to go.

“We’ll be fine,” he tells her and she smacks him for being a patronizing ass.

Then she rolls to her feet with a grace even two babies couldn’t take from her and announces, “Bed. Shower. Not in that order. We can worry when Phil gets here.”

“Aye, Aye, Captain.”

She laughs.

+

Phil does get there for breakfast. He brings groceries to make waffles and garnishes them with truck stop toys for the kids, who get syrupy handprints all over his jeans and t-shirt.

He doesn’t mind, helps Laura clean up afterward and then puts the idea of a picnic into the kids’ minds. They go scampering off to find a perfect spot, their mother following after with a knowing look and then the two men are alone.

“What’s going on, Barton?” Phil asks and Clint sighs, pulls the postcard Laura gave him out of his back pocket.

Phil studies it for a long moment, then pads over to the front door to retrieve his duffel and pull out three thick, cream colored files.

“All our active missions. I pulled them before I left. Whatever spooked Agent Romanov must be in here.” Clint reaches for the first file, the one with his own name across the top, then stops. Something in Phil’s expression…

“You already know which one.”

Flipping open Natasha’s folder, he pulls out a stack of photocopies held together with a rubber band. How very nineties of him. Clint only reads the topmost paper before sinking back into the sofa, groaning.

“Iron Man? Nat went after fucking Iron Man? Alone?”

“No. Natasha went after Natasha Stark. Or, more accurately, she went after Virginia Potts. She got found out and managed to convince Stark that she turned, making her a double agent. She has been working with Strike Team Delta and Captain America on this.”

Clint grimaces. He hates Strike. They’re all a bunch of steroid happy baby killers in his opinion and he has no idea what Captain America is doing with them. But then, he has been with SHIELD long enough to know that the good Captain probably wasn’t being given much of a choice. God knows Clint adores Fury and is loyal to him, but the man’s control issues have control issues.

“So are we thinking Stark somehow got her claws into SHIELD? Corrupted it? Or are we misreading the warning?”

Phil taps one file, leans back. “I don’t know. But we have to assume Stark is involved with this, somehow. She is the only threat large enough to make Natasha do as she has done.”

“You think she was coerced?” Read: tortured. Clint doesn’t say it, meets Phil’s gaze. Holds it. After a moment, both men snort.

Like that’s going to happen. Ever.

He shakes his head, grabs the postcard again. Looks it over. The message is short and to the point, no other codes hidden in it. But upon closer inspection, the address looks… weird. Nat’s handwriting, when she’s not faking it, is spiky, sharp. This is… Clint turns it to one side, to another, upside down.

The As in ‘Laura Barton’ look almost typewritten, but more fluid than that. “Does that look like a nine to you?” he asks, leaning forward again.

Phil hums. “The O is more zero than O,” he adds after a moment. And the T… a four? 9-9-9-4-0? Barton?”

Clint shakes his head. “The numbers aren’t important,” he imparts. “It’s that they’re there at all.”

+

There is no secure phone in house. At least, not one SHIELD doesn’t know about. So they write a note to Laura and head for the nearest bigger town, almost seventy miles away. Buy a burner, charge it in the car and head out another thirty miles before making a call to a phone number Clint memorized years ago.

It rings seven times – longer than most people would wait – and then Nat’s voice quietly announces, “You have reached the phone of Caroline Haynes. I’m in Chicago for the week, and I won’t be checking my phone. Leave a message only if it’s not urgent. Otherwise, call my office directly.”

Clint hangs up as soon as the beep sounds.

“Caroline Haynes, Chicago,” he parrots.

“I’ll go,” Phil volunteers. “I can follow the trail alone and you can spend a few more days with your children.”

“Might be dangerous,” Clint hedges, not really willing to let one friend go alone, not after the other had dropped an ominous warning and gone to ground.

But Phil seems to feel much the same, because he concedes the point after a moment. “We’ll find out what we can from here, first.”

+

Caroline Haynes, exists. More than one, in fact. Enough to make Clint feel a bit twitchy, which is ridiculous. But then, he’s an assassin playing spy games with a Russian with a really fucked-up sense of humor, so that’s probably a) what Nat wants and b) to be expected.

His life. Seriously.

Caroline Haynes – all of them – is boring. Regular. Nothing even close to worth mentioning, except for one Caroline Emiline Haynes, who is ninety-three and lives in an assisted living home, but still keeps a PO-box all the way across the city.

“It might be watched,” Clint announces when Phil declares that he’ll drive up to Chicago and empty it ASAP.

Phil looks at Clint. Clint looks at Phil. Then he goes, with the expression of a man heading to war, to take over Coop’s bath time from Laura. As they trade places, he hands his wife his laptop.

By the time he has put Coop to bed, changed clothes, cleaned up the bathroom and dried out the swamp his son made of the hallway carpeting, Laura and Phil are sitting in front of the TV, which is suddenly displaying a whole lot of illegally hacked traffic cameras around a certain post office in Illinois.

“You’re a queen,” Clint praises, pressing a kiss to his wife’s hair.

She glares. “I’m retired.”

Then she vacates her seat and leaves the boys to a riveting night of observing absolutely nothing.

By morning, Clint willingly lets Phil go, just so he can stop watching those damn cameras.

(He doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.)

+

It takes Phil four days to return to the farm with a sour expression and an arm full of papers.

Clint, who spent those four days chasing after his unruly children (they come after him and god, does he regret that), fighting with that damn tractor and trying to decide which direction to expand the house in next, is ridiculously glad to see his friend.

He’d never tell Laura (as if she doesn’t know) but everyday family life terrifies him. She didn’t even hesitate when she realized she was pregnant, hung up her gun and her shield and bought this damn farm, knowing full well he wouldn’t (couldn’t) follow.

He’s not like her. Isn’t a good person trying to protect innocents. Before SHIELD, Clint was an assassin for hire and even now, he’s more about blood and violence than he’ll ever be about protecting innocents. He tries, and Laura says that’s what makes him a good man, but he knows better.

And he knows that he could never settle for this, for a life where the only violence happens when the fucking tractor goes on strike again and the only blood is from knees skinned while playing catch on the gravel drive.

He’s not made for this and even though he’s ashamed of it, Phil and those files full of potential death and mayhem are an actual relief.

Laura, as always, forgives him with a kiss to his temple, taking a sleepy Lila from his lap and leaving them to play war.

Make war, from the look on Phil’s face.

“What have you got?”

The look on the older man’s face sours even more. “Old SHIELD personnel files.” He shakes his head. “I’m afraid Natasha wants us to draw our own conclusions.”

“Which isn’t all that easy when we don’t know what the actual question is.”

A small nod is his only response. They divvy up the files and settle in for a long night.

+

By morning, the entire kitchen is plastered over with pictures, notes and badly photocopied old reports. The kids get to have breakfast in front of the TV because the kitchen table is pretty much buried, never to be found again, and Laura uses the her biggest knife to slice strawberries and gives them until noon to set her kitchen to rights.

Even Phil gulps at that.

Clint always knew his friend was a smart man.

But before they undo the paper explosion, they need to understand it.

“This is a recruitment… tree. Or something. Who recruited who, who worked with who, who is related to who.”

“Whom,” Phil corrects, even as he traces an old friend – Garett – backwards up the tree through six decades right up to, “Project Paperclip. The integration of former enemy scientists into the SRR, and later SHIELD.”

Clint, taps the two passport pictures closest to his chair, a paper pusher in DC and a field agent deployed in India to keep an eye on a certain green menace. “What the hell do all those people have in common?” At the look that garners him, he rolls his eyes. “Paperclip. I get it. But why is that worthy of borscht?”

He can’t see it. SHIELD is old, older, if you count its previous incarnation. Almost everyone is tangled all up in someone else now. Spy agencies tend to recruit close to home, so theirs is an unusually high rate of blood relations being recruited. You can probably create a nice little map like this for every early SHIELD facility. Hell, Fury’s been Director for almost twenty years. His recruitment history probably looks exactly like this. So why is Nat running scared?

Phil stares at the mess they made for a long, long moment. Then he taps two words. Enemy Scientists.

“That’s code for ‘former Nazis’,” Clint supplies.

“It’s code for ‘former HYDRA’,” is the correction.

“HYDRA was rooted out by Carter and her people in the forties.”

Phil hums. “And yet,” he murmurs, tapping the words again. “Something survived.”

Clint turns that over, once, twice. Nope, still sounds like madness. “You can’t honestly tell me that you think SHIELD has been piggy-packing HYDRA for the past seventy years without knowing it.”

“Can’t I? I didn’t get much out of Agent Sitwell the last time we ran into each other. He thinks I’m trying to undermine him when I ask how my field agents do on his missions, but he did say something interesting.”

“Yeah?”

A hum.

“Coulson,” Clint prompts.

“He said Stark is buying into old conspiracy theories now.”

There’s a sinking feeling settling into Clint’s gut, right next to some excellent pancakes. “You think he meant this?”

“I think Natasha isn’t the kind of woman to fling around emergency codes without good reason.”

“So we actually think -“

Lips pressed into a thin line, Phil stats pushing papers together, piling them back onto the table where they started out. “I’m afraid so.”

Funny word choice, that. Clint has never seen Coulson afraid of anything.

+

Before they pack up the files completely, they make a list of all the active agents in those files.

Then they compare it with the Iron Man’s casualties.

Every man and woman Stark killed is on that list.

+

Phil beats on the tractor for the next three hours before Clint heads out there with a beer.

“You don’t want to believe it,” he opens. God knows he doesn’t either. SHIELD has been good to him. Him and his family. He doesn’t want it to be rotten to the core.

Phil pulls his head out of the engine and glares at the beer Clint put on top of the tool box for him. “I dedicated my life to SHIELD. I… No, I don’t want to believe it. Not without absolute proof.”

It’s not a slight against Nat, Clint knows. They both trust her implicitly. Which is why they’re even considering this. If the source were anyone else, they would have dismissed it out of hand. But it’s Nat.

Still, giving up on your life’s work, on twenty years of loyal service and everything you believe in on someone else’s word is just about as hard as you’d expect. Clint, at least, has a family. But Phil…

Back at SHIELD, people joke that the man sleeps with his gun and his paperwork.

They aren’t wrong.

“So how do we get proof?”

Phil throws a spanner down, grunts and grabs the beer. “The phone number Caroline Hayes left with the post office doesn’t match the one you had.”

+

“This is Samantha Collins. Leave a message after the beep.”

Just for shits and giggles, Clint tells the mailbox, “I hate you so much right now, I can’t even. Just thought you should know. Don’t die.”

He hangs up.

A few hours later, the TV blares news about a ship sinking in the middle of the Pacific, no survivors. Three hours later, SHIELD releases its own report on the incident.

Agent Natasha Romanov is listed among the dead.

+

“Samantha Collins?”

“It’s the alias she used on that one mission in Bogota.”

“Are we heading to Bogota, then?”

Because believing Nat is dead doesn’t even occur to either of them, even though Clint did get roaring drunk after reading the incident report. The Lemurian Star was simply Nat’s very flashy, very public exit and Clint will stick with that until proven otherwise. Which he will never be, because she’s not dead.

With what he knows, the papers Nat left them, the whole thing reads a bit different than it might have before. Iron Man killed everyone on that ship and blew it to high heaven. But Black Widow was playing double agent and Caroline Haynes’ PO box says it wasn’t for SHIELD. If Black Widow and Iron Man are actually working together, then a) Natasha is a traitor and b) she’s definitely not dead.

Clint shakes his head and regrets it when the little hangover gnomes start stampeding through his skull again.

“Nope. Sam was an exchange student. She came from New York.”

Phil hums. “Interesting. I don’t suppose she had an address there?”

“It just so happens that she did.”

+

At this point, Clint would like something made clear: He loathes Easter.

Always has. When he and Barnie were kids, Barnie always found all the candy first and ate it, as obnoxiously as he could, in front of Clint. Later, Easter was for other people, other kids, and watching them scamper about, happy and innocent and laughing made something rancid rise in Clint’s throat.

He stands it for the kids these days, because their joy is more important than his hang-ups, but he hates Easter.

Which Natasha knows.

So fuck her, for sending him on her very own, perverted Russian assassin version of an Easter egg hunt. Because they are all professionals here, and there would have been other options to communicate. There’s this thing called the internet today, for example. And good old fashioned mail. And fucking carrier pigeons.

“Seriously, fuck her. There must be an easier way,” he announces, standing in the middle of the crack den that is Sam’s former address.

At his angry exclamation, one of the junkies rouses enough to glare at Clint.

“Dude,” the man grouses, displaying a lovely lack of teeth. “Get that dog and get the fuck out.”

Clint is about to snarl something uncomplimentary, when a cool hand on his shoulder stops him. To his left, half a step behind him, Phil is squinting thoughtfully.

Clint stares at him for a beat. Then he frowns. “You don’t seriously think?”

But the man is already off, footfalls silent as he goes looking for a dog somewhere in this mess.

“Carrier pigeons,” Clint mutters as he heads the opposite way, occasionally whistling low under his breath. The fifth or sixth time, he gets an answering whimper from a pile of rags in one corner. The dog that crawls out of the pile is a scraggly, dirty thing, brownish grey and dangerously skinny. Its left foreleg is bloody from god knows what.

Clint crouches and holds out his hand, palm up. The dog is skittish, but slowly, it comes closer, whimpering, whining and finally burying its snout in his hand, tail wagging. A moment later, it bowls him over completely to squeeze closer, desperately seeking contact.

“Poor little bag of bones,” Clint murmurs, scratching behind its ears.

That’s where Phil finds them five minutes later, Clint sitting in the middle of a crack house with a skinny junkie dog sprawled across his legs, blissed out on some damn good ear scratches.

“Is there?” he starts and then stops, probably realizing there is no way to say what he wants to say without sounding completely ridiculous. Clint snorts.

“No, there is no secret message embedded in his non-existent collar. I tried asking him, but he’s not very talkative. Are you, Lucky?”

A wince. “Shouldn’t you ask Laura before you adopt?”

“You don’t think the two other dogs, seven cats and five rabbits at the farm followed me home from missions, do you?” Laura dragged those home. Every single one of them. And she still hasn’t told Clint where the rabbits came from.

Phil rubs the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “You two deserve each other. Since this appears a dead end for now, I suggest we get Lucky to the nearest vet and come back later tonight. Maybe we’ll find someone who knows something then.”

+

The nearest vet is three blocks away, a tiny rundown clinic with cheerful amateur photographs of happy pets on the walls.

The vet works alone, smiles hurriedly and treats Lucky’s bloody paw with ease. “Glass,” she mutters as she works the pliers. “We see that far too often around these parts. You should get this gent on a special diet real quick, too. Poor thing.” She coos at Lucky. “Yes, you, poor thing.”

Aggressive tail wagging.

Once she’s done, the vet lady pulls out a handheld scanner and holds it up. “Street dog like this, no-one’s probably missing him, but I like to check anyway. Sometimes there’s a happy ending.”

Clint pushes away from the wall to help steady Lucky. “If not, I’m taking this guy back home. Lots of space to run, once he’s healed up.”

She smiles, nods and activates the scanner. It beeps within seconds. “Well,” she exclaims, surprised, “This gentleman is called Rhodes and he lives in-“ while she rattles off an address, Clint fingers the dog’s neck until he comes upon a very small, very recent little mark.

Just big enough be caused by implanting a tracking chip. He ruffles Lucky’s fur to cover up the action and shoots Phil a meaningful look.

Forget carrier pigeons. Natasha Romanov just invented the carrier dog.

+

They manage to extract Lucky from the vet’s care with a lot of sweet talking and a solemn promise to take him home right this instant.

Then they buy themselves lunch, a bag of doggie chow for Lucky, and find a nearby park to settle down in.

“Rhodes is the name of Stark’s best friend,” Phil supplies.

“You think he’s our next stop?” Clint grouses, viciously biting into his sandwich. Nat’s doing this on purpose. All of it. She’s probably watching from somewhere, laughing her ass off, all while the future of SHIELD is apparently at stake. And because she knew he’d get pissed, she threw a dog at him. Clint is helpless against small things in need and damn her for using it against him.

Nat has strange ways of decompressing. And that’s what this is, and Clint is sticking with it, because the alternative is thinking about what other reasons she could have for this ridiculous, unbelievable game of cat and mouse, for this level of paranoia. And if Clint starts thinking about things that make the most terrifying person he knows that afraid, he’s going to have to go back home and lock himself and his family into the basement, never to come out again.

“We should drop by this address first,” Phil corrects, holding up the piece of paper the vet gave them. ‘Rhodes’’ home.

+

At least this one isn’t a crack house.

It’s a for rent little two story house in the kind of picturesque suburb that still makes Clint cringe, half expecting disgusted cries of, “Carnie freaks,” to come at him from somewhere.

They observe the place for a while before entering and finding it completely empty, except for three chairs in one of the upper bedrooms. The message is clear enough, so while Phil patrols the windows, Clint settles down to play with Lucky.

They wait for over two hours, before a harried looking Colonel James Rhodes lets himself in through the backdoor, a scowl set so deeply into his face, Clint is afraid it’ll stay that way.

The man slumps into one of the free chairs with a tired, aggravated grunt and, after a beat of silence, offers, “Is your Tasha as bad as my Tasha? Because I am going to murder mine as soon as we’re done here.”

Phil clears his throat suspiciously. Clint offers a weak, “Uhm.”

Rhodes waves a hand, dismissing his own question. “Nevermind. Not what we’re here for. I’ve been sent to read you in, because unlike everyone else in that damn mausoleum of a house, I’m neither declared dead, nor followed constantly.” He growls again and Clint thinks he might feel for the guy.

Phil just blandly observes, “You don’t seem too happy about that,” as he takes the last chair. Lucky sniffs around him for a moment and then places his head in Phil’s lap for ear scratches.

Rhodes snorts. Loudly. “Happy? I got back form a six month deployment three days ago to find out that Tasha and JARVIS have been filtering my media exposure to keep everything Iron Man related from me so I wouldn’t go AWOL to kick their asses for turning terrorist. I then got blindsided by Captain America sulking around and the Winter Goddamn Soldier – who turned out to be Bucky Barnes, of all people – hanging off my best friend like a cheap tie. They spoon-fed me the maddest conspiracy theory in the history of conspiracy theories and then packed me off to deal with you two before I slept off my hangover. Which, by the way, was the most deserved hangover of my life. And I’ve been problem-drinking Natasha Stark for twenty years. No, Agent Coulson, I am not happy to be here.”

He sets his jaw, crosses his arms like a petulant child and glowers. But Clint can see a certain glint in his eyes, the way he holds himself beneath the veneer of anger, that tells him the man is having a lot more fun than he admits. He always wondered who could put up with Natasha Stark on a permanent basis, figured they’d either need to be a saint or a mad person. He knows which side Rhodes falls on, now.

So he grins and answers the initial question, “Sounds like yours is almost as bad as ours, yes.”

At the same time, Phil manages a strangled, “You have Captain America?”

Which, okay, yeah, that part. Clint hadn’t quite reached that pat yet, but, “Wait. Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier? Did you really – Stark has him? Is that – are you shitting me?”

“I know,” Rhodes shoots back, dropping his arms and leaning forward. “The man was the mastermind behind all of the Howling Commandos more outrageous victories. I studied all his strategies at the Academy and then he just walks into Tasha Goddamn Stark’s living room like it’s perfectly alright for dead WWII soldiers to be hanging out.”

“And he’s the Winter Soldier? The best assassin ever recorded? Are you serious? Like, is that a proven fact? Why doesn’t SHIELD know this? The guy makes Nat get all shivery? His stats are one hundred percent, always, and some of the shots he’s taken aren’t physically possible. One time, in Belgrade – “

“Gentlemen,” Phil interrupts, and Clint can feel himself blush. Just a teensy-weensy bit. “Maybe we can deal with the conspiracy theory first?”

Clint kicks out at his shin weakly, getting a growl from Lucky in response. Traitor. “Like you aren’t trying to figure out a way to get Cap to sign your trading cards already. You never even managed to get close to the guy before-”

Well. Before he died, according to SHIELD. Him and Nat both. See? He knew she wasn’t gone.

The lack of protest is telling, but Rhodes deflates anyway, sighing. “It’s not a theory, Agent Coulson. I’m going to assume you’ve worked through the information that was given to you. HYDRA is alive and well and they are planning something big. Tasha, the Black Widow and the Winter Soldier looted the ship before they sank it and they found a program that,” he hesitates, “bear with me, I only got the bare minimum on that. Tasha says that program isn’t yet operational, but it’s supposed to do risk assessment. On people. Before they commit any crimes. If HYDRA gets it functional, that program will allow them to root out potential future enemies before they even finish high school. It’s that sophisticated.” He pauses again to rub a hand over his face. “If I understood everything right, that program is going be in the realm of ‘thought crimes’.”

Jesus fuck. Clint didn’t get half of that, but the other half is enough to make him shudder. Identifying enemies before they become enemies is some Minority Report SciFi bullshit and it should stay that way. Nothing good ever comes out of preventative murder. Ask Tom Cruise.

“On top of that, there’s a secret message encoded into almost every byte of SHIELD data JARVIS has analyzed so far. They cracked it a few days ago.”

“What does it say?”

“’Out of the shadows, into the light. Hail HYDRA.’ We think it’s an activation code for sleepers. A lot of sleepers.”

While Clint is still trying to parse that, Phil is already a step ahead. “That all sounds very ominous, Colonel, but where is your proof?”

“The Winter Soldier was their agent. Tasha has been working for months to gather data. Your friend believes them enough to betray SHIELD. That’s not proof to you?”

This time it’s Clint speaking up. “No.”

For a moment, Rhodes looks very tense, then, abruptly, his tension melts and he grins. “Good. We don’t need idiots around here.”

“We?” Phil demands. “I thought you only just got informed of what Miss Stark has been up to?” He’s trying to provoke a reaction from the other man.

It falls flat, though. “Look, man, if Tasha tells me the world is about to go to shit, I believe her. Because in all the years I’ve known her, Natasha Stark has never once been wrong, no matter how drunk, high, or emotionally compromised she was. She says HYDRA is real? Then it goddamn well is.” He pulls a flash drive out of one pocket and his phone out of another. “Besides, there is proof.”

He plugs one item into the other and pulls up an audio file. “This is from the first mission Iron Man and the Soldier ran against HYDRA.

”Is this gonna take long?” a tinny, female voice asks.

There is no answer, just the soft sounds of someone moving smoothly and quietly. Then another voice, startled, scared, “What do you want?”

“Do you know my face, Dr. Schüler?” A third voice, flat, dead, male.

Rhodes looks up from his phone, pausing the recording. “That’s the Winter Soldier. The other guy is a retired SHIELD scientist, or so I’m told.”

“Michael Schüler,” Phil offers. “I worked with him a time or two in the nineties.”

Rhodes presses play.

“No.”
“Liar.”
“No, please, I have no idea who you are! What do you want?!”
“Your father helped do this to me, Dr. Schüler. I need to know what you know.”
“He told me about you. Good Lord, I never thought… He said you were almost immortal, but I never really believed… but you don’t even look thirty. He developed the technology to graft the metal onto your nerve endings. Is it true you can control the arm like a real limb?”
“I’m sorry,” that’s Stark again, sounding raw. “If I ever sounded like that while talking about your arm, I am so sorry.”
“Your father told you. Taught you. About HYDRA.”
“Yes. He told me the day would come when the Hydra rises again, but I didn’t think… I didn’t really believe it anymore. Is that why you’re here? Is there something you need me to do for you? Your arm…”
“No.”
“Oh, then what…?”
“Tell him you need to destroy everything he has on HYDRA. That there’s someone coming for him. He’ll fall for it.” Stark orders and the Winter Soldier parrots her. There are sounds of movement, stairs, computer keys rattling.
“Is that all?”
Yes. Like I said, I was staring to… I have not worked on much of this for years. Why?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Why are you – “

Rhodes turns it off. “There’s your proof,” he says, flatly, pulling flash drive and phone apart, putting both back into separate pockets.
Silence falls between them, sick and heavy with the weight of what they just heard.
Clint looks over at Phil, carefully studying the other man’s face. Phil looks back, blankly. Between them, Lucky whimpers and presses close for more petting.

Clint takes a deep breath, curses Natasha, begs his wife for forgiveness and says, “What do you need us to do?”

+

+

[the end]