3 February 5193 (Earth Standard Date)
Clint sighed, leaning back in the really uncomfortable chair that had been pulled in for him to sit next to Phillip as his mate slept, the bone regenerator wrapped around his broken leg. He was trying to process the fact that he’d almost lost him, again, and it was taking a lot for Clint to come to terms with it.
They’d been taken to the Playground, and Phillip had been installed in the Shieldsmen’s own infirmary, the better to keep security tight around them. Steve trusted his men implicitly, especially the ones he’d put on guard just outside; then the Grand Master had left them alone, needing to start the investigation into just what had occurred at the Palace. Someone had to have planted those explosives, and Steve was determined to figure out who it was.
Melinda May had been in to visit…or, at least to get a good look at Phillip, making certain he was still alive and breathing. Then she’d made a threat about him not getting into trouble again without her there to watch his back, and had left once more, to help in the clean-up and enquiry into events.
Clint had thought it was funny; Phillip, who’d been awake at that point, not so much. However, the dragon could tell that his mate was touched by his Second’s concern. Phillip and May had been friends a long time, cared for each other in their own way, and he knew that Melinda would be getting her own form of vengeance against whoever had set that bomb and had tried to murder Phillip.
He wasn’t alone in the room. Everyone but Arthur was sitting vigil, in their own ways. Nicole was sleeping deeply on a cot that one of the medics had set up for her, lines of exhaustion on her pale face. Nathan was seated beside his twin, his attention divided between Nicole and his also sleeping dad. Lisa had taken up a space on the floor, back wedged into the corner and legs drawn up to her chest, head resting on the arms that were crossed over her bent knees, and Clint thought she might have been dozing.
Arthur was helping coordinate the investigation, on behalf of the Star Dragons. As Phillip was a family member, it was their right to be involved. Plus, of them all, Arthur had the most military-minded bent, which meant he was an excellent tactician, and would be the most help. He was off somewhere with Melinda, working with the teams she’d brought with her, especially the forensics personnel.
That left Merlin.
Clint’s nephew hadn’t left Phillip’s side, concern etched across his face. He’d been watching Phillip closely, as if afraid he was going to do something else unprecedented…not that Clint thought his mate would, especially while asleep, but Clint could understand the scrutiny. The magic that Phillip had brought to bear in order to save everyone…it should have been beyond him. Clint was very familiar with the limits of the ice magic, and that had gone far above and beyond them.
He wondered what Merlin could see, with his magical senses.
And so, he asked, quietly, in order not to awaken his mate or his daughter.
Merlin sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. He looked tired, but Clint knew his nephew was made of sterner stuff than to let a little magical weakening knock him on his arse. “I see…Uncle Clint, I’m not sure just what I see when I look at Uncle Phillip magically, not anymore. I’m going to have to do a full assessment, but I know it’ll have to wait until this is over with to get him to sit still long enough to perform it.” He sighed again. “I wish Dad was here. I could use his sonic screwdriver to do a comprehensive scan for the GH325 and see how it’s reacting to all this.”
Clint shuddered. “Is that a danger?” It hadn’t been all that long ago that the formula that was keeping his mate alive past his time had been overwhelmed by the dark magic he’d been exposed to. They’d all thought it had been fixed when FitzSimmons had whipped up another dose of GH325 and had injected it into his mate.
“I don’t think so…not this time. You saw how quickly he went back to normal afterward.”
He had. Phillip’s skin had been that awful white of magical overload, but had faded back to normal by the time they’d gotten him loaded onto the ambulance to bring him to the Playground.
“I think, if there was a danger of that sort of thing happening again, Uncle Phillip wouldn’t have settled back into normalcy. But I can’t help but wonder just how the GH325 was dealing with the damage that sort of exposure had done. We already know it’s healing his leg at its usual pace.”
That was true. The regenerator really hadn’t been necessary except to speed things along even faster than it would have taken to heal naturally. Well, naturally for Phillip, that was. It would have taken about three days to heal usually, and utilising the skeletal regenerator meant that Clint’s mate would be up on his feet by morning.
It had taken a little over two weeks for Phillip’s hand to grow back that time it had been chopped off, in order to save his life from the tainted Terrigen crystal he’d caught to keep it from killing anyone else. Clint still shivered to remember it.
“But he shouldn’t be that powerful,” Clint pointed out. “Would it have something to do with all that dark magic he was exposed to?”
Merlin flinched at that, and Clint couldn’t blame him. His nephew had taken all the fault for that, when in fact it had really been beyond his control. Merlin might have been the most powerful wizard of the age, but he wasn’t all-powerful. He was still a fallible individual, and hadn’t had time to consider the consequences of his attempt to stop Lucy Cole from using all that death energy.
No one blamed Merlin what had happened, least of all Phillip himself. Still, Clint had been a witness to the nightmares his mate was suffering, and the fact that Phillip hadn’t slept through the night in a while. Still, they’d had a new baby in the house as well, but Clint knew the majority of his mate’s insomnia had been caused by the resurgence of the terrors that had plagued him back at the beginning of everything, when his memories of TAHITI had been forced upon him by Raina and Centipede.
Which had actually been a blind for HYDRA.
He wasn’t going bring that up. Merlin had enough to deal with.
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Merlin admitted. “Like I said, I’m going to have to completely re-evaluate him to know the new extent of his magic. I only wish I’d done it before now.”
The guilt was rolling off the wizard in waves, and Clint needed to nip that in the bud before it ate Merlin alive. “Not your fault. You had no way of knowing this would happen.”
Clint wanted to get up and hug him, but in that moment First Shieldsman Charlton appeared in the doorway. He looked apologetic, but determined, and once again Clint couldn’t quite get past the idea that he’d met the man before.
“I was wondering if I could have a word with Mr. Jones-Coulson?” he requested, looking directly at Clint.
Clint frowned. “Has something happened?” he demanded, his heart rate ramping up a little in the beginnings of an adrenaline rush.
“No,” Charlton answered hastily. “I just…have some news I thought you needed to hear.”
“Go on, Uncle Clint,” Merlin said. “I’ll stay on guard.”
Merlin was fairly tired, but Clint trusted him. “Alright. If anyone wakes up, let them know I’ll be back shortly.” He turned back to the First Shieldsman. “This won’t take long, will it?”
The man looked torn, but replied, “No, Sir. I just need a little bit of your time.”
“Go on, Dad,” Nathan murmured. “Merlin and I will be fine. Besides, it must be important if Brant is wanting to talk to you.”
Charlton gave Nathan a grateful smile. “It is. Really important.”
Clint wondered when his son had gotten on a first-name basis with an Imperial Shieldsman, and he would be asking about that later, but for now he would trust Nathan. He got up from his chair, and followed Charlton out into the hallway.
“I wouldn’t be asking to speak to you if it wasn’t important,” Charlton reiterated Nathan’s words as he led Clint into a small conference area just off the main infirmary. It was empty, and the Shieldsman sealed the door behind them once they were inside. “Can I get you a coffee or something?” he asked, heading toward a small kitchenette in the corner of the room.
“Coffee would be fine.” He knew it wouldn’t be anything like his Tad’s, but that was okay for now. Clint needed the caffeine, and any source right now would work.
He took a seat at the round table in the middle of the room while Charlton fiddled with the coffee machine, pouring them each a cup. Then the Shieldsman set the mug down in front of Clint, taking the seat next to the dragon.
The man looked as if he really didn’t want to say anything, but Clint could see the exact moment with Charlton got himself together enough to speak.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of it,” he began, “but I was on the detail that stopped HYDRA from taking Prince Joshua from his school a couple of months ago.”
Clint hadn’t been aware of that, and said so.
“I’m really only telling you this because I need you to trust what I have to say,” Charlton continued. “It’s important that you know something about me that’s going to shock you, but I swear to you…it’s not as bad as you’re gonna think.”
Okay, Clint was officially confused. “If my son thinks you’re a good guy, then I can’t believe anything you have to say is going to make me change my trust in Nathan’s opinion of you.”
Charlton actually blushed a little. “Well, he doesn’t know about who I really am. If he did, he might take that back.”
It was the way he said it – sounding almost defeated – that has Clint’s inner alarm ringing a little.
But Steve had hired him. Had vetted the man, who’d risen within the ranks of the Shieldsmen until he’d become a First, the highest someone could go that wasn’t the Grand Master or Second of the organisation. Anything bad would have been discovered when Charlton had applied for a position…
Clint was suddenly on his feet, the chair dragging on the carpet. “You’re a reincarnation!”
Charlton sighed, hanging his head, staring into his coffee mug in chagrin. “You were always pretty smart, little brother, despite what I might have said to you when we were kids.”
The dragon suddenly couldn’t breathe.
“Barney?” he gasped in utter shock.
Charlton nodded faintly. “Yeah.”
With that confirmation, Clint fell back into his seat with a thud. It wasn’t possible…
Back in his first life, Barney had been his older brother. Barney had been the one to talk an impressionable kid into leaving the orphanage they’d ended up in after their then-parents had died and joining the circus where Clint had learned all about sharpshooting and had discovered his preternatural ability to hit everything he aimed at.
Where he’d become Hawkeye, the World’s Greatest Marksman.
Things hadn’t turned out all that well between him and Barney. Barney had gotten jealous of Clint’s skills, and had turned out just as abusive has their dad had been. Eventually, Barney had fallen into a life of crime, and had left Clint bleeding and bloody in a ditch in a rural part of America; Clint didn’t even remember the name of the place.
It had led him to becoming a mercenary…and had gotten him on SHIELD’s radar.
Where he’d met a certain SHIELD agent, who’d turned out to be his soulmate thousands of years into the future after Clint had died the first time.
“You…remember?” Clint asked faintly.
“Yeah,” Charlton – Barney – answered.
“But…how?” It was impossible. Barney shouldn’t have remembered anything of that past life…but it came to him in a rush, even as his former brother confirmed it.
“It was HYDRA. They found me, and made me remember who I’d been. They wanted me to join them, to be their man inside the Shieldsmen. It would be my chance to get revenge, they said.” Barney snorted. “Like I’d want revenge against you for being immortal, and for you dragging your ass up out of that ditch I’d left you in and making something of yourself.”
“You turned them down.” Clint couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips.
His brother, who’d ended up hating Clint so much during their lives together, hadn’t taken HYDRA up on their offer.
They’d suspected that HYDRA had found others and had forced their former life’s memories on them, but hadn’t been able to persuade them to sign their souls away to them. It had been confirmed by Agravaine unintentionally, during an interrogation session at Stormcage.
And, here was Barney, sitting across from him, and Clint had wondered why he hadn’t seen his brother in the Shieldsman opposite him.
“Hells yeah, I turned them down, but I didn’t bother to let them know that,” Barney scoffed. “I have a good life now. I love working with Steve and the Shieldsmen, and I have a wife and kids. I suppose it’s sort of a way for me to make amends for all the bad I did back then.”
“Did you know when the attempt on Prince Joshua took place?”
Barney nodded. “They’d wanted me to help them for that, which was why they tried to recruit me.”
“Does Steve know about it?”
“I told him the moment it happened,” Barney admitted. Then his smirked. “Why do you think he went ahead and put me on Prince-watching duty? It was a trap for HYDRA. I confessed everything to him, and that was how he knew he could trust me, and we made a plan. Didn’t turn out so good for HYDRA, in the end. Unfortunately, it also blew my cover, and I ended up nearly getting killed, but that’s fine.”
Clint shook his head in amusement. “That’s Steve for you.” He was a little surprised that the Grand Master hadn’t said anything to his Dad and Tad, back when they’d last been to Throneworld, but he could very easily Steve wanting to protect his people.
Barney chuckled. “Yeah. He’s probably the best boss I’ve ever had. Took my family into protective custody immediately, made sure HYDRA didn’t retaliate against them.”
There was nothing for it. Clint got up, went around the table, and gathered up his long-lost brother in a hug. It wasn’t quite the same as before; this Barney was built differently, more muscle and a bit taller, but it felt a little like coming back to a place he hadn’t even known he’d missed.
Not home…never home. That was with the family that was his for eternity. No, Barney was something completely different. Someone he wouldn’t mind having back in his life once more.
They clung to each other for a while, but finally Clint pulled away, taking his seat once more. He just knew the sappy smile on his face was a bit silly, but he didn’t care.
Barney was wiping his eyes self-consciously. “Been waiting a long time to do that. I’m hoping you’ll let me make up for some of the shit I did to you back then.”
“New life,” Clint shook his head, “new chance. Blank slate.”
The Shieldsman looked unbelievably grateful. “Still, I have to admit I have another reason for telling you this.”
“I figured.” Clint honestly believed that Barney might not have said a thing if he hadn’t needed to.
“Look,” Barney’s face turned grim, “I don’t have any proof of this…Steve was a little put out when my cover was burned after they tried to take little Joshua, so I can’t say for certain I’m right. But…I think your mate being here for that bomb going off wasn’t a coincidence.”
“I think the same.” It had been the first thing that had crossed his mind, after he’d stopped his major freak-out over nearly losing Phillip again. “I know Phillip thought his being called to Throneworld was some sort of power play, for the Council to try to get the Institute under their control, but after this…”
“Yeah, an obvious trap,” Barney agreed. “Thinking back on it, that is.”
“It could very well have taken out most of HYDRA’s more powerful opposition.”
“Yeah, but see…I don’t think that was their intention…at least, not in the way you think.”
Clint frowned. “But if their goal wasn’t to kill the Imperial family, Phillip, and Steve all in one shot…”
“HYDRA is very aware that your mate is immortal, only they don’t know how it works. I think, as far as they’re concerned, killing Phillip Coulson wasn’t gonna happen.” Barney took a deep breath. “Besides, there’s at least four other people perfectly capable of taking over Torchwood and keeping up the fight. No, they wanted to discredit Torchwood, and they were going to use Coulson to do it.”
The dragon leaned back in his chair, considering what Barney had just said. It made a horrible kind of sense. No one outside the family really understood what was keeping Phillip alive, and although he wasn’t one of the two true acknowledged immortals in the universe, anyone who didn’t know what was going on would have most likely assumed that the explosion wouldn’t have killed Phillip. And it could have. Maybe not easily, but his mate could very well have died under all that rubble if the Palace had collapsed with him in it.
And, Barney was correct about another thing: if something had happened to Phillip, either Melinda, Arthur, Anwyn, or his Dad could easily have stepped into the Director’s role until someone else could be appointed, and chances were it would have been someone within the family, so HYDRA wouldn’t have gotten a foothold in that way.
But, if they could discredit Torchwood in another way…
Clint, suddenly, got exactly what Barney was intimating.
“They were planning on framing Phillip for the bomb.”
Oh, but that made so much sense! It would throw a bad light onto Torchwood, if the Director of the Institute was implicated in the murder of the Imperial family. Torchwood had quite a lot of power and respect within the Empire, and sowing that sort of discord would be right up HYDRA’s alley.
Plus, it would most likely affect opinion on the Pendragon Protocol.
He wasn’t supposed to know about the Pendragon Protocol, but Phillip had been really unhappy about it, even if he’d been able to see the sense of it.
If it came out that Arthur had been named as successor in case the entire family was killed…it would look as if Torchwood had somehow influenced events, and with that Once and Future King shit hanging over Arthur’s head…oh, this would get so ugly, so fast.
However, as far as Clint was aware, HYDRA didn’t know about the protocol. Still, it would have played right into their hands if it had had to have been enacted.
Clint cursed, loudly and fluently in about six different languages, including Old Earth English.
“Pretty much,” Barney agreed. “But it won’t work now. The entire Empire just saw Coulson save the Imperial family. Any shade HYDRA had set up to throw over him won’t stick. He’s a hero, and the Empress will dispute any sort of finding like that in the investigation. So will Steve. They’re witnesses. The worst thing HYDRA could’ve done was getting Coulson here.”
If what Barney was guessing was right, then yes…HYDRA had just made a major blunder. In wanting to discredit Phillip and Torchwood, they’d just solidified the Institute’s stature and prestige. The Empress would stand up to whatever sort of evidence they’d managed to plant – and Steve would find that, soon enough – and immediately call out the attempt to frame the new hero of the Empire for what it was…a transparent attempt to bring down the Torchwood Institute.
Clint sighed, pushing his coffee cup away and resting his head on the hard surface of the table. Phillip had, inadvertently, catapulted himself onto the intergalactic scene. He didn’t think HYDRA could touch his mate now without serious repercussions. If they were hoping to take over the Empire like Uther Pendragon had bragged about, then they wouldn’t dare make a move on someone who was now most likely universally loved.
Chances were, Phillip was now safe from HYDRA’s machinations.
They could still do something, but Clint doubted it.
“You okay?” Barney enquired.
“Yeah.” He lifted his head back up, meeting his reincarnated brother’s worried gaze. “I need to go and talk to Arthur and Melinda. Have you mentioned this to Steve yet?”
Barney nodded. “He was the one who suggested I come and tell you. I mean, I might be far off base on this…”
“No. I don’t think you are.” Clint stood. “Do you know where Arthur and Melinda are?”
“I can take you to them.”
“Great. Let me stop and tell Merlin and Nathan where I’m going. Then, you and I have some work to do.”