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Next New Message

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Clint Barton loves his cell phone.

It's not a good cell phone. It's old, flips open, doesn't have a real keyboard or a touchscreen or an internet connection, and has service through some tiny carrier with terrible coverage that Clint had picked at random from a phonebook. Natasha teases him about it ceaselessly. Tony Stark mocks him, his phone, and the fact that he apparently still has a phonebook. (Tony also offers him a fancy Stark-branded smart phone to replace it, free of charge, which Clint declines.) Even Steve Rogers has commented on how old and outdated it is, and, Tony Stark reminds them, Steve Rogers is an expert at that sort of thing.

Still, Clint loves his sad old phone, for exactly the reasons everyone else thinks it's a joke. There are areas of the world, areas of the country--hell, areas of his apartment--where his phone just refuses to receive calls or text messages. He can't use it to check his email or get online news updates. It's a cell phone he can carry and use and yet still plausibly be off the grid when he needs to be. It works when he needs it, mostly, but lets him ignore everything when he needs it too. It drives his handlers crazy, but he's also got a SHIELD phone and an earpiece he uses when he's working, so fuck 'em. His phone is the best.

This is how Clint Barton walks off his flight at LaGuardia, turns on his cell phone, and things go horribly wrong.

The phone takes a while to boot up, so he has made it all the way to the airport food court for coffee before he notices anything is up. While he waits for his coffee, he turns back to the food court and scans idly across it; the TV above the bar shows what looks like a large building that's on fire. Everyone here is calm, so it can't be a building in New York, at least. He gets his coffee and checks his phone again, to see if it's finished booting up. It's on, and the voicemail icon blinks at him insistently. He looks up at the TV, back down at his phone, and figures he'd probably better listen to that.

VOICEMAIL, his off-brand carrier's robotic menu voice says. YOU HAVE THIRTY. SEVEN. NEW MESSAGES.

Clint squints up at the TV again. This can't be good.

FIRST NEW MESSAGE, the phone says. Natasha's voice is insistent in his ear. "Barton, it's Natasha. Call me back." The second, third, and fourth voicemails are all variations on that theme. By the fifth one, she sounds genuinely shaken, but still offers no details. It's not a secure line, so that makes sense.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. Natasha's voice is terse and angry. "Barton, I'm not fucking around. Fury is dead. Wherever you are, get your ass back here."

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. It's his landlord; apparently they're doing some work on the building's plumbing, and he can expect not to have any hot water for a few days.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. It's Natasha again, three messages in a row. She says the name Winter Soldier, and Clint hears a respect that's almost fear in her voice. He replays the message, listens more closely to the timestamp the robotic voice gives, stares hard at the TV.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. Natasha again. This time she makes fake small talk, using their agreed-upon code phrase, the one that means shit has gone way sideways and I need you to come get me, no questions asked. This is the first time she's had to use it, and the bottom drops out of Clint's stomach. She repeats the phrase more urgently over two more messages, adding a dire undertone to "my mother is having an allergic reaction" that Clint hadn't known the phrase could hold.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. Natasha one more time. She says plaintively, "Barton, we could really use your help." That's even worse than the code words. And who is 'we'?

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. Clint gets his answer. "Barton, this is Steve Rogers. Nat thinks you might be ignoring her calls, so I thought maybe you'd answer someone else. She also says we can trust you, and we could use some help. You have my number." Then two similar messages, in which Captain America grows more exasperated and Clint Barton just wants to die. He wonders if "making people want to never disappoint you" is a side effect of the super-soldier serum or something Rogers had just been born with.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. Three messages from Maria Hill, all identical. He hadn't thought it was possible to be terser than Natasha Romanov, but Maria Hill has managed it. "Barton, Hill. Call me back on a secure channel when you get this."

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. An unexpected call from Jasper Sitwell. His voice is full of forced cheerfulness. "Hey, Barton, if you know where Agents Romanov and Rogers are, we could really use your help. Please give me a call back when you get a chance." Something sounds off, and he's glad he didn't have to actually answer that call. He's not sure what he would have told Agent Sitwell.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. Two messages, one each from Natasha and Rogers, back to back. Natasha's voice is flat and businesslike; she says, "HQ's been compromised. We're hitting a target, one that you know. We could use you, Barton." Rogers sounds resolute; he talks about duty and trust, but his message is basically the same.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. The next message--twenty-something, Clint's lost count--is a surprise. A voice he doesn't recognize says, "Hey, Barton, my name is Sam Wilson. You don't know me, but I'm a friend of Cap's, I guess. I'm helping him and Natasha with this crazy op they're pulling, and Natasha says I'm supposed to ask you to help. Oh, and she also says that the next time she sees you, she's going to set your shitty-ass phone on fire and throw it in the river? Good luck, man."

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. The next five to ten messages are a mixture of Natasha and Rogers. He gleans a few more details: Sitwell's dirty, and Hydra's involved, and Fury again somehow? And Rogers knows the Winter Soldier, which might be good? But probably isn't good. Natasha thinks it'll make him make mistakes. Rogers can't keep the note of longing from his voice when he says that name, Bucky.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. He gets the feeling that at this point his voicemail inbox is more a wall for them to bounce their own voices, ideas, and insecurities against than it is something they expect a response from. This message is from Sam Wilson, calling on his own this time. He rambles for a good minute or so about how Clint's friends are ridiculous and crazy and he really hopes this works and he's never even met Clint but he's sure they could use him. "C'mon, man, it's Captain America," he finishes. It's a bold move to guilt-trip somebody you've never even met.

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. The next message--surely he is almost out of messages--is from Maria Hill. "We're taking down Project Insight," she says, the most solid detail he's received so far. "If this doesn't work, if Insight goes online, you need to be underground. Go off the grid. Hide. Get someplace deep and safe and stay there. I mean, we could use your help--we've got three targets, two assets, and a narrow window for action--but at this point it's a little late for that. All you can do is lie low. Stay safe."

He looks back up at the TV. The wreckage there make more sense now: three Insight helicarriers in the Potomac, at least one of which had trashed the Triskelion on its way down. It sounds like that counts as a success?

NEXT NEW MESSAGE. "Are you happy with your cable service?" Clint almost throws his phone across the food court.

LAST NEW MESSAGE, the phone says. Clint lets out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding when he hears Natasha's voice. "Hey," she says, sounding strangely cheerful, "Let me know when you're around, because we need to catch up!" He does not doubt Sam Wilson's claim that she is going to set his phone on fire and throw it in the river--if the TV is any indication, she has already proved that she is great at lighting things on fire and throwing them in the river.

Well, there's no avoiding this. He takes a deep breath and dials Natasha's number. "Hey, Nat, I just got back in town," he says, trying his best to sound nonchalant. "How's it going?"