Chapter 1: Prologue
“Sir, I don’t understand.”
“Understand what Agent? A direct order?”
“No sir I understand the order, but a full wipe?” Agent Douglas Addams didn’t make it a habit of questioning orders, especially when they came from someone so high up, but it was a peculiar order never the less, S.H.I.E.L.D was currently working at “full load” which meant everyone was called in. The events of the last two days had resulted in S.H.I.E.L.D escalating the threat level to Code Black, a direct threat to the general population.
Many of the agents, including Addams, had been working zealously for over forty-eight hours gathering the necessary intel for the team deployment in an hour. Douglas was the senior system technician on the floor now, which was why his station was within a special tinted glass office overlooking the other system agents on the floor. The glass allowed the senior operative to be able to look out, but no one to look in. Taking the events of the past days into consideration, it didn’t catch Douglas off guard when a member of the World Security Council wandering into his office. He was surprised however when the Councilman didn’t ask for a mission report update but wanted Addams to abandon the vital work in favor for another matter altogether.
“You have your orders Agent Addams – please proceed.” Lacking any other option other than to comply with the command, the agent’s hands went to the keyboard and typed the required sequence of codes. The Councilman was watching the process for the sole purpose of ensuring that the task was completed, not how it was done. This oversight did not go unnoticed by the technician, he was suddenly in survival mode. He wasn’t in this fight just for himself but for every agent around the world. Quickly before hitting the last key that would activate the given order. Addams punched in an additional six keys then hit the final button that would change everything.
A second past, then another. Addams blinked a few times and turned away from the computer and surveyed his surroundings. An older man in a gray suit stood before him. Panic flashed in the agent’s eyes once he recognized who the gentleman was. The councilman couldn’t hide the smile of amusement as the agent stumbled to get to his feet. “Sir, apologizes. I didn’t know you were there. How may I help you?” Douglas turned slightly and caught sight of his computer monitor seeing an open data coding screen processing. Returning his attention to the Council member he could see past him to the beehive of activity that was occurring down below. While he could not hear anything that was being said on the floor he could see the system analysts were in distress. Using all the variables available and applying them to the equation, Agent Addams deduced what had happened. They had been wiped.
The smile left the Councilman’s face as he turned his attention to retrieving an item from his suit jacket. “Dismissed agent.” Addams didn’t need to be told twice, he needed to inform his superiors immediately of the Council’s actions. Agent Addams never made it out of the tinted office. As soon as his back was turned, a bullet went through his skull. Returning the gun to his pocket the Councilman went into his pants pocket for his cellphone. Looking around the room to confirm his solitude his thumb traveled to a button on the cellphone and pressed it. Raising the phone to his ear he knew that there would not be any greeting or even an acknowledgment. The man waited until he was sure he had established a connection and spoke “It’s done”.
Chapter 2: Chapter One ~ Head Injuries?
“What was I just saying?”
“No clue. What happened to your arm?”
Clint Barton looked down and noticed that his right arm was in a sling. He also recognized a familiar pain in his chest. After a quick assessment, he concludes that he had no less than three cracked ribs with the possibility of at least one of the three being broken. Looking at the woman in front of him, Natasha Romanoff, he saw bandages on her forehead and collarbone. The redhead’s green eyes had a look that he had seen multiple times before which never ended well for him. She was judging the situation and evaluating the threat level. Deciding to get ahead of her assumptions he offered in a joking manner, “Maybe we both have head injuries. It wouldn’t be the first time”
Natasha stared at him for a moment not finding anything amusing about their current situation and countered his offer. “Would we both be just walking around here if we had a head injury bad enough to affect our memories?”
“Well” he paused “it is you and me so it is highly possible that we just walked out of medical against orders. Again – not the first time. You know as well as I do if it’s really that bad they will find us. They always do.”
As if on cue, Agent Phil Coulson rounded the corner of the hallway towards the agents. The impact of his polished shoes against the titled floor caused a sound to echo through the empty hall that Clint could only compare to the Jaws’ theme. Never looking at either of them or breaking his stride, he stared ahead. It was only when he passed by and put some distance between himself and the agents he called over his shoulder “Romanoff, Barton, my office now”. Phil was their handler. He wasn’t the first but the only one that could keep Romanoff and Barton in line and alive. He was responsible for selecting which missions they went on, what they did during the missions, and their recovery from any injuries sustained from the missions.
The last responsibility was the bane of Phil’s existence. Neither one of the members of Strike Team Delta openly reported any injuries, often believing that in-the-field medical treatments were “good enough” or taking the “walk it off” approach. When injuries were detected by either himself or the injury was too obvious to conceal, persuading either of the agents to receive medical treatment was often a challenge. Director Fury had gone as far as to have it added to Clint’s medical profile that he is to be restrain in a hospital bed, and when possible kept under heavy sedation anytime he was in medical. This was a result of numerous complaints about injuries the medical staff obtained while providing medical care to Barton. It became so bad that doctors would refuse to even assess a broken toe on Barton without him being sedated.
Standing at his office door, Agent Coulson waited until both Natasha and Clint were inside before closing it. Watching as they passed by him he made a mental checklist of the visual injuries the agents had. It seemed with his brief inspection that whatever happened they had received treatment. That was good enough for now. Broken bones, bumps and bruises were the least of their problems currently. While the situation was high enough that Fury had ordered “full load”, which some reason was already in place. The agency could afford a few days of recovery time for Clint and Natasha. Whatever had happened could result in the need for their specific skill sets. S.H.I.E.L.D needed them at their peak performance level for whatever was going to happen. Taking his time making his way to the desk chair Agent Coulson debated the best way to start the conversation. Politely gesturing to his agents that they should sit down in the chairs across from him he decided to be honest and blunt.
“What year is it?” he asked.
Natasha and Clint looked at each other and back to their handler. The question being posed to them seemed to all but confirm Clint’s earlier assumptions. Natasha and he had been injured somehow and in addition to their visual injuries suffered some sort of head trauma as well. They probably went to medical for treatment and left. Someone in medical got butthurt that they left without authorization and tattled on them to Phil. And here they were…
“Listen Coulson, I don’t know what they told you, but Nat and I…”
“What year is it?” Phil repeated cutting off Clint’s lame attempt at an excuse.
Natasha decided to answer the question cause unlike Clint she did have an evident head injury and while she didn’t know how bad it was, the latest edition of “Clint vs. Phil” was causing her head pains to spread to behind her eyeballs. She propped her left elbow on the chair’s arm and rested her head in her hand looking towards the wall “2001 and do you have any Advil?”
Opening the desk draw to his right Phil fished around for the requested item. “No on the year, yes to the meds”. He threw the bottle across the desk to Nat which she caught with her right hand without even turning from the wall. Closing the desk draw Phil bluntly stated,“It’s 2008”.
Chapter 3: Chapter Two ~ Caller Unknown
“So, I’ll just be taking my runner up prize of this brand-new sling” Clint declared pointing to his injured arm, “calling bullshit on the whole situation and taking my broken ass home”. With that statement left hanging in the air Clint hauled himself out of the chair and made his way to the door. He was almost there when Phil stopped him with a simple question.
“And where exactly would that be Agent Barton?”
“What?” Clint asked turning to Phil.
Coulson rephrased his question “Where do you live?”
“Why? Do you want to come over and watch the game later?” Clint was trying his best attempt of sounding light, like nothing was wrong but internally Phil’s question had him freaking out. He had no idea where home was. The worst thing was that Clint didn’t feel any pain in his head. While most of the time that is a good thing, wouldn’t his head be bothering him if he was hurt so bad that it prompted memory loss? Perhaps he was still under the influence of whatever they gave him in medical and it was blocking the pain and recall abilities. That revaluation didn’t comfort Clint any better, knowing that as soon as the medication wore off he was probably going to be in a world of hurt.
Clint gathered that if he could just keep talking then the information would come back to him. That was it – just keep talking. It’s a head injury, he just needed to wait it out until the meds left his system. He was just about to start up again with some smartass remarks when his cell phone rang. Pulling it out of his pocket, a piece of paper fell onto the floor, bending down to retrieve it, he read the caller ID: Laura – Home. Unfolding the paper to see if perhaps it held some clues he inhaled sharply. It was a sonogram.
Showing it to Nat and Phil, Clint answer the phone cautiously on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, sorry to interrupt you at work. I know you are busy finishing things up before tomorrow. I just wanted to confirm plans before I went to bed”. The woman’s voice that he assumed was Laura, hastily said.
Clint was processing a lot in very little time. The sonogram confirmed Phil’s story about the year since a date was printed clearly under the name Barton in the top left corner. “Tomorrow?” Phil was typing away at his computer. Obviously trying to get information to help Clint out.
“Please don’t tell me that another mission came up. We have been planning this for weeks. You promised that you would be home this weekend to help. The nursery needs to be painted, the crib is still in a box, plus Cooper really misses you.”
“Copper misses me and I promised to be home this weekend.” Clint was repeating the information for his audience in the office. Phil turned his monitor around so Clint could see. He recognized as one of the SH.I.E.L.D. sub personnel file. Everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D had a personnel file as with any employer, but only a select few agents had a sub file that was encrypted. Only certain people had the clearance level to access such information. Clint even as a level seven agent would not have the clearance needed to access his own file. Such a setup was the closest thing that S.H.I.E.L.D had to “off the record”. While he could identity his own picture on the screen the two others, who were probably the reason for the sub file, were a mystery. There was a picture of a woman with the name Laura Mitchel Barton captioned under it with a hyphen following the name and the word WIFE. The second picture was of a toddler captioned with Cooper Francis Barton – SON. Clint felt pure fear. He didn’t have any idea who these people were, and he was able to understand enough of the situation to assume that there would soon be another picture added to the file.
Phil never changed his expression during the phone conversation. He had a poker face that many would sell their own mother to be able to imitate. He tapped on a section on the screen to draw Clint’s attention to it. It was a set of coordinates. Phil clicked on the numbers and a map appeared which a location was clearly marked by a blue dot. Clint leaned in closer to get a look.
“Iowa!?” Clint couldn’t keep the disgust out of his voice. He grew up in Iowa, it was not fun times. All the places in the world to pick for settling down, he picked the location of the first act of the shitshow that would become his life?
“Clint? Are you alright?” Laura asked.
Clint shook his head in his latest attempt of mental recall without success. “Yeah…I’m good. You know me, just a bit banged up from a mission.” He suddenly wondered about his arm and ribs. What the hell happened? Hopefully he gave as good as he got. However, in the grand scheme of things that wasn’t important right now. Looking at Phil he mouthed “tomorrow?” Phil nodded. He had already decided to approve recovery leave for both Natasha and Clint in preparation for whatever would happen next. Clint continued “Yeah, I’ll be home tomorrow. I don’t know how much of the chore list I will be able to do. I busted a few ribs, but I’ll give it a go.”
There was a heavy sigh on the other end. Clint may not remember his wife but he sure as hell remember that sound. He has had the privilege of being on the receiving end of it numerous times in his life. It was the sound of a female frustrated with Clint Barton. “Did you even bother to ask Natasha if she wanted to visit?”
That got Clint’s attention. If he was going to this shitshow then at least he gets a plus one. Looking right at Natasha, Clint started in on his lie. “Of course, I invited Natasha. She is excited to come out and see you. She has a few bumps and bruises but between the two of us we should be able to knock off what needs to be done. Just pick us up tomorrow at the airport please. Once I have a flight number I’ll send it to you.” While Clint was mentally congratulating himself on how smooth he sounded, Natasha was softly cursing in Russian. He knew that should explain to Laura about the memory loss, but seriously, how do you explain to your wife that you have “lost” the last seven years which must have included meeting, marrying and producing one and a half kids with her? Hallmark definitely missed that target demographic.
His train of thought was broken by the sound of a child crying in the background. Something in the pit of Clint’s soul screamed out. His mind had no idea who these people were, but his heart knew the sound of his son.
“Okay hon, we will see you tomorrow. I’m looking for… Cooper stop… Hush… Okay one minute... I swear he acts like he doesn’t even know who I am. Love you. Bye.” Clint has never been so happy for someone to hang up on him. It saved him the awkwardness of having to respond to Laura’s “love you”. He found himself thinking back to the comments made just moments ago about Cooper’s behavior towards his mother.
Clint glanced at the sonogram one more time before refolding it. He shoved the photo and phone back into his pocket as he mumbled to himself, “like father like son.”
Chapter 4: Chapter Three ~ The Wipe
“Everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D has been wiped?” Natasha asked. Even as highly trained as she was to adapt to any event thrown at her, the surprise was clear in her question.
Phil nodded, at this point Maria Hill had joined them. Director Fury was out in the field when the crisis had occurred. He was currently on his way back to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in Washington D.C. Having a higher level of clearance and a firmer grasp of what was happening than Phil, she could explain the situation better. They had agents running data of possible outcomes of the entire S.H.I.E.L.D organization being crippled for no apparent reason. None of the results were promising. Director Fury had assigned Agent Hill to fill in the two senior mission operatives in case the situation became hostile and their “skills” were needed for containment. “Everyone from Fury to the pool cleaner at the gym doesn’t have any memories from 2001 to today.”
“So,” Clint interjected, “at any point in time you guys can just push a button to fry our brains making us forget everything.” He waited for a response and didn’t receive one so continued. “That’s just lovely. Did we agree to that or is it just part of the sign on bonus?”
Hill looked at Clint with a face that easily conveyed her annoyance with his interpretation. “When someone joins S.H.I.E.L.D they are required to participate in numerous screenings and assessments. The biggest one being the medical evaluation. During part of the evaluation the agent is put under and a cognitive recalibration unit is implanted on the prefrontal cortex within the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. The agent does sign an agreement prior to the surgery, but of course, the patient is ‘wiped’ once the procedure and recovery are completed. We can’t have our employees walking around paranoid that their memories could be erased at any moment. Plus, the initial wipe is more of a ‘test’ to ensure the implant is functioning correctly.”
Clint stared into the coffee cup that he had been given upon Hill’s entrance wishing it would magically refill before his eyes. “No, you surely can’t have that, now can you?”
“Think of it as a reset button for the brain. We deal in the world of spies and information. A lot of the latter is highly sensitive and a matter of world safety. To ensure the security of said information we occasionally must reduce the amount of people privy to it.”
It was Natasha’s turn to interrupt, “Even if that includes the people who risked their asses to retrieve the information?”
Without blinking Hill looked right at Natasha “Almost exclusively. Information can’t be interrogated out of you if you don’t know it.”
“Cause telling the nice torturer that I don’t know is a sure-fire way to get them to stop beating me”. Clint added dryly. He leaned back in his chair and rolled his eyes at Natasha.
Maria wasn’t going to take the bait. “Sometimes we do it to protect our agents. You two know better than most that there are plenty of tough calls made out in the field. Sometimes the actions and consequences of those calls follow the person home. Prior to the launch of the wiping program we had a seventeen percent suicide rate among our field agents. The last audit conducted just a few months ago now has us at three percent.”
Sitting up Clint placed his empty cup on the desk and stood. “I have just two questions, why did this happened and how many times have you had to wipe me?”
Clint could have sworn he saw Coulson crack a brief smile but when he looked again to confirm it Phil was back to what Clint liked to call “The Gambler” mode. Natasha’s face was expressionless to anyone who didn’t know her, but he did and knew that she was wondering the same things. Maria looked to Phil and arched her perfectly manicured eyebrow. This was her signal for Phil to take over. He understood her signal and accepted the responsibility, “The only entity that can authorize a full organizational wipe is the World Security Council. They answer to no one. Director Fury will be meeting with the W.S.C. as soon as possible requesting an explanation, but it is highly doubtful one will be offered. We can only assume that they had a valid reason to do so. The only option now is to move forward. This wipe has occurred and there is nothing that can change that. We must now just be prepared. A situation like this is unprecedented. There is no way for us to predict the fallout of this many people being affected. Missions have been compromised. Agents who were in deep cover are dead now because of this. We predict it will take a few days for the full impact to show, so I suggest, no I order you two to take this time for recovery from your injuries. Be back Tuesday at the latest and be ready for anything.”
There was nothing left to do. Phil was right. There wasn’t any way for them to know what would happen next. Clint and Natasha dialed back their anger about the whole thing, but there were numerous agents within the organization who would not. Fury, Hill and Coulson were in for an all-nighter of planning how to react to the actions of thousands of angry agents. It was easy to assume that there would be a lot of resignations over this mess. Clint could empathize with that.
Clint pushed the whole thing out of mind. Dealing with the aftermath was “Tuesday Clint’s” problem. He had a few days off and a wife and son to get reacquainted with. Perhaps he would find an opportunity to talk to Laura and be honest about everything. On second thought, the “fake it till you make it” plan was sounding like the better option.
Natasha gestured to Clint for them to leave. They had a flight to catch once it was booked. There was an entire department in S.H.I.E.L.D. for the sole purpose of travel arrangements. All that was needed to be said was when and where, and a ticket appeared. Clint and Natasha quickly said their goodbyes. Together the two Strike Team Delta agents walked towards the door. Natasha was the first person through it and as Clint had one foot over the threshold Phil casually threw his last comment at Clint, “And to answer question number two, more than you would want to know. Have a great weekend Barton.” Clint never looked back, he just nodded his head and over his shoulder extended his middle finger.
Once they were both in the hallway again Natasha glanced at her watch. “It’s 11:30 now, how long does it take to get out to Iowa?”
Clint answered as he took off walking. “The map shows my place about two hours northeast of Cedar Rapids. The flight itself is under four hours if we can get a nonstop.”
Nat matched his pace and the two took off to the travel department. “What’s wrong? You just answered my question without any stupid jokes or remarks.”
He stopped and turned to Nat. He wouldn’t look her in the eyes. He focused at an area off past her right shoulder. “I’m sure I’m a dick husband. Which makes me not even want to think about what kind of father I am.”
“Well you can be a dick, not going to argue with you about that one. When you are, there tends to be some sound sense behind it. Why don’t you think you’re a good husband and father?”
“Other than not remembering them?”
“Other than that. There is a very simple explanation for that one.”
Clint could not help but laugh at that statement. “Simple? If you call me allowing the government to do brain surgery on me for the sole purpose of erasing it when they believe it is warranted, then for Christmas I’m getting you a dictionary. That aside, the other reason is because she is picking us up from the airport.”
It’s not often that Natasha is speechless, but she decided to go easy on herself given the conditions. “Because she’s offering us a ride?”
“Yeah, what kind of husband does that? The airport is two hours away. That’s a four-hour roundtrip that she’s doing pregnant and with a toddler. It sounds pretty shitty to me.”
“Or perhaps you are such a great husband and father that she is excited to see you. Try being an optimist for once.” Natasha noticed that Clint seemed to relax a bit at her last comment. She knew he had demons from his childhood whose reappearance were probably prompted by the extremely sore topic of husbands and fathers. She wondered how many times they have had this conversation. How many times had Clint’s confidence taken a beaten leaving her to pick him up again? Blue eyes met her green ones. She could tell he was tired and scared. Natasha knew that he was never one to shrink away from a challenge, so he would take this one on and overcome his demons.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four ~ Apologies
Ten Years Later
“It’s not a bribe!”
“Tony, you show up to my house unannounced with a brand-new tractor and a puppy! How is that not a bribe.” Clint hollered as he made his way to his workbench in the barn. Tony Stark had arrived approximately ten minutes ago in a three-piece suit looking as if he was about to present the annual stock report to shareholders. Stark had magically appeared in the gravel driveway. The archer had no idea how Tony had gotten to the farm. He didn’t see any mode of transportation, but this was Tony Stark, so just because it could not be seen didn’t mean it wasn’t there. The numerous alarms that were set up to warn of approaching visitors didn’t go off either, that was something Clint would have to investigate later. The last time that he had seen Tony was when they were separated by a thick pane of glass at the Raft prison two years ago. Heated words were exchanged during that time, but Clint have mellowed greatly in the time apart. Especially since he believed Tony played a significant role in him being granted house arrest instead of being thrown back in jail for his part in the Avengers’ “Civil War” as the media dubbed it.
Tony really didn’t like having to explain himself, but he would if it resulted in him getting what he wanted. “It’s not a bribe because I don’t want anything from you. I just want you to have a nice tractor and a guard dog once he gets older. Which may I add you are in desperate need of. Do you know how easy it was for me to get on your property? It would also be swell if you could just forget the last two years and let me off the hook to the unfortunate remarks I said to you within earshot of Secretary Ross.”
“That is wanting something. Look, Tony, when I brought you all here during the whole Ultron mess, what was the first thing I said?”
Tony looked off into the distance trying to recall an event from almost four years ago. “I want to say that you said, ‘honey I’m home’. A bit too 1950’s for me, but who the hell am I to argue with the classics?”
A voice called from the haystack that was piled up towards the back of the barn. “Uncle Tony said a bad word! He has to pay a dollar!” Clint had forgotten Lila was there. She was so excited when Tony arrived and presented her with the dog. Clint was so angry at the impromptu visit, he didn’t even invite Tony into the house, just brought him into the barn for a talk. Lila had followed with the promise to behave and to let the grownups speak. He didn’t know until they arrived that Lila had brought the puppy with her. Laura must be having fun up at the house keeping the boys away from the barn.
Exchanging a quick glare with Tony, Clint shouted up to his daughter, “He’s not your uncle. You call him Mr. Stark, and he won’t say anymore bad words. Why don’t you go up to the house and let your brothers have a turn with the puppy?” He didn’t want to disclose it to Tony, but Clint had been begging Laura since Lila was little to get a dog without success. Now that the dog was here, Laura wouldn’t be able to pry the animal from the children, or him.
Tony placed his hand over his heart in a mocked gesture of offense, “If she feels that she needs to call me Uncle Tony then I think she should be able to. Clint you need to let your daughter feel her feelings.” Knowing that Clint was perhaps three seconds away from punching Tony for his last remark about parenting, he called the child over. “Sweetie come on down here”.
Lila climbed down with the puppy held under her arm from the haystack with the grace of a ballerina despite never wanting to participate in the activity much to the chagrin of Natasha. She skipped over to Tony excited to be included in the conversation. He kneeled to be at her level and reached into his jacket pocket to retrieve a wallet. “So, it’s a dollar a bad word, right?”, and handed her a fifty-dollar bill. “Here’s fifty because it’s going to be a long day. Your daddy is being a stubborn hawkass to Uncle Tony.” Clint stepped forward, this time he was going to hit Tony. Tony looked back to the girl and continued, “that is two bad words, I have forty-eight to go. That’s called subtraction.” Patting the girl on the head twice, he took his attention away from her and gave it to her father, “See Clint I’m teaching her. I can be a positive influence on children.”
Clint shook his head and shoed the child away happily with the cash held tightly in one hand and her new furry friend in the other. Once he knew she was far enough away, Clint watched Tony start to fiddle with tools laid out on the workbench. It was apparent from the millionaire’s clumsy handling of the items before him, Tony was anxious. While Clint didn’t appreciate Tony using his daughter as an awkward buffer, he was pleased to know that he was able to intimidate the Ironman.
“I said ‘Fury helped me set this up when I joined S.H.I.E.L.D and kept it off the record and I would like to keep it that way.’ That was my way of trusting you with my deepest and most treasured secret. I did that because you were my friend. What did you do? When you were given the first opportunity, you gave them up! You gave up the little girl that you want to call you Uncle Tony. You gave up my son who looks up to you and wants to invent things just like you do. You gave up the three-year-old that you have never met and has his whole life ahead of him. You gave up the woman who offered you sanctuary when you needed it because you created a murder bot. You didn’t even bat an eye. You were mad and hit where you knew it would hurt me. Guess what? It did. It hurt like hell. I was stuck in some cell miles under water losing my mind because I didn’t know if my family was safe or not.”
Tony’s attention to a hammer was broken by that. He didn’t know what to say. What can a person say when all their sins are laid out like that? All that can be done is to own it. Placing the hammer back down he turned to the marksman, “I messed up - there are you happy? You’re right, I was mad. No one knew if Rhodes was going to survive and if he did what the condition he would wake up in. You were already gone and enjoying your retirement. Hell, I was even trying to hang the suit up. Let the younger kids take over. We still don’t know where Banner and Thor are, but I’m sure they will show up sooner or later. We weren’t together, but we weren’t apart, you get me?”
Clint nodded, “We weren’t avenging but we were friends.”
“Exactly! I didn’t think the Sokovia Accords were going to be that big of a deal. Everyone who was active just had to sign the first draft that had a clause for the document to be revised with input from us within a year. Everything Rogers and the others didn’t like would’ve been fixed. The United Nations needed something – anything, to take the weight of the Avengers’ collateral damage off them and plus it was good PR for us.”
“What are you doing now? Is this the Tony Stark version of a reunion tour? Is everyone getting a visit and explanation of the inner workings of your mind, or is it just me?”
Kicking one of the tires on the recently replaced tractor Tony answered, “Rhodes and Vision have to listen to me every day about this. Rogers, Wilson, Romanoff and Maximoff are off secretly avenging” He placed the last two words in air quotes with an eyeroll, “I know where they are. They aren’t keeping it a huge secret and they are doing alright. Sometimes they get the bad guys and sometimes they don’t. If it wasn’t just the three of them and sometimes Wanda, I would swear Hydra had an inside man. They’re still out there fighting the good fight.” He added with a sly smile that disappeared when Clint gave Tony the ‘wrap it up’ cue with his index finger and proceeded with his testimony. “I really don’t know Scott, but he seemed cool. Got a kid himself you know? I made sure he made it home to her. He got a similar deal as you did, however not nearly as nice. While you have 160 acres to be restricted to, he has a two-bedroom apartment and roommates fattening him up with waffles. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, this whole thing snowballed out of control and I’m sorry for my part in that.”
“So, you thought if you got me on board with your apology then everyone else would follow? We could just forget the stupid, put the last two years out of mind and move on?” Clint concluded.
Tony looked at Clint with puppy dog eyes, “What do you say Hawkass?”
“Listen, I don’t care about the Accords. I didn’t then, really don’t now. Before you start in on me, I’m not trying to excuse my way out of what went down, but honestly, Steve just asked me to pick up Wanda and Scott and get them to the airport. Once we got there, everything changed. So, I say if that was your apology then I guess I accept it… Ironshit.” Tony stepped towards the archer to hug him, Clint put his hand up to stop him and shook his head, “Nope, we’re not like that,”
Tony left his arms out since he didn’t know what to do with the refusal of his affections. After a moment he pulled his hands together making an audible ‘clap’ and released the breath he didn’t know he was holding. “So, I do want something.”
Clint threw his head back and let out a groan. “I knew it!”
“I need your help with some S.H.I.E.L.D files. The ones that Romanoff and Rogers dumped on the www years ago. You remember that incident, right?” Clint grunted in acknowledgement. It was hard to forget something like that. “Well there are some interesting reads from about ten years ago that I need someone who was there at the time to help me sort.”
That whole event still gave Clint nightmares. What Natasha and Steve did with the data dump was nothing compared to the “2008 Full Load Wipe” as agents called it. In fact, the wiping indirectly led to the data dump. In all the confusion that was caused, HYDRA took advantage of the chaos to place their people within S.H.I.E.L.D. There were still some within the agency that believed the dump didn’t eliminate all the enemy agents. Clint was one of the subscribers to that belief, and it really didn’t help with his trust issues. Clint offered, “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that there are S.H.I.E.L.D files from ten years ago, but nothing from eleven to seventeen years ago?”
“That’s the thing Barton, there is.”
Chapter 6: Chapter Five ~ Off The Record
“You just find yourself injured without any knowledge of how it happened?” Tony asked as Clint placed a cup of coffee in front of him. The men had made their way back to the house and begged Laura to take the kids somewhere. The conditions of house arrest where very simple, stay at the house. Clint had an ankle monitor that was state of the art because of who he was. The government was also kind enough to bestow upon him four guards to watch his every move. In the beginning they were constantly on him, the guard detail following room to room changing out every twelve hours. In the two years they had been there they had let up a lot and had become family friends, even on occasion helping with some of the work around the homestead. He still didn’t like them being there, but at least they weren’t total assholes.
Clint sat down opposite Tony at the kitchen table with his own cup. “Yup, dislocated shoulder and some banged up ribs. Back in those days that was called ‘Thursday’, so being hurt wasn’t anything concerning to me, but…”
Tony interrupted, “Not knowing anything did?” Since the data dump Tony had been combing through the files more as a hobby than anything else. The files discarded were everywhere on the internet. Anyone with a decent encryption file on their hard drive was able to access it. He didn’t like the enemies of the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. having information that he did not. The mind wipe ten years ago took time for him to find out about since S.H.I.E.L.D never referred to the event in any of the reports afterwards. It was a dirty little secret that the agency went to great lengths to keep hidden. However, once he found out about the secret he unearthed one of his own that reemerged from the darkness that Tony referred to as the 80’s. When Tony exposed it, he created a program that filtered the files. The filtering system became the foundation of the investigation. He needed help. Tony had been looking for a reason to speak to Clint for a while now and the discovery he came across a few days ago motivated him to act. “So how did that work with all this?” he questioned as he waved his arms around the room.
“Honestly not great in the beginning. Laura and I had only been married for three years. Cooper was barely three himself and Lila was more than eager to make her debut at any time. I made Nat come with me here, so I would have backup. I attempted to fake it for a while and by ‘a while’ I mean maybe half a day. Laura, well you’ve met her, she knew something was wrong with us. By dinner I was confessing everything.”
“How did she take it?”
“Surprisingly well. She didn’t miss a beat. She pulled out some photos and told stories, it was great.” Letting out a small chuckle, “It was almost like I was there. Cooper didn’t handle it well though.” It was still hard for Clint to explain it. He had heard that children are highly receptive to adult emotions and body language. The archer thought at the time, and since looking back, that he did a decent show of hiding his emotions during that unpleasant incident. Somehow Cooper picked up on a trace of something, that was the only reason Clint could come up with for how his son acted for the first few weeks afterwards. “Like I said, he was only a toddler at the time, but his behavior was strange. He wouldn’t go near Laura and only wanted me. She told me that it was because I hadn’t been home in a while and he missed me. Even after I left to get back to S.H.I.E.L.D he was standoffish with her. I guess he picked up on me seeing Laura as a stranger and copied it. He stopped by the time I got back for Lila.”
That was very interesting to Tony, Cooper was a good kid. The boy had quickly become a target of Tony’s probing into files on the internet in the past days, but now wasn’t the time to open that Pandora’s box. Tony had as of today only met the eldest Barton offspring twice, but he seemed to be a smart kid with the promise of perhaps being a decent human being when he got older, which in the grand scheme of things is all you can hope for with this generation. Clint’s earlier comments about Cooper’s infatuation with him didn’t go unnoticed and Tony had already made a mental note to send some tech stuff to encourage the young inventor’s passion. “And S.H.I.E.L.D? How did it function afterwards?”
“We lost a lot of good people. There were agents in deep cover that with the wipe forgot their mission objectives and cover story. Most of them were killed, if you ask me they were the lucky ones.” Tony gave Clint a puzzling look but allowed him to continue without commenting. “The undercover agents that weren’t killed concluded that they were enemy agents and stayed on with the enemy. I have been unfortunate enough to meet some in my assignments around this big blue marble of ours. Others handed in their notice and left the agency behind. S.H.I.E.L.D is nothing if not resilient, when knocked down they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and keep going. It wasn’t overnight, but we got there with acceptable lost.” Knowing that Tony was going to interject on that last part, Clint quickly added, “Even with all the horrible things that happened, it could have been a lot worst.”
The two Avengers sat in a comfortable silence drinking their coffee. Tony studied Clint’s face, it was apparent that the man was lost in thought about what he had just disclosed. He had never really spent too much time thinking about Clint outside of work. He knew about the family, but how much did he really know about the man? During his research into the memory wipe and the events beforehand Tony had found that he may know more about Clint’s life in the 2000’s than the man himself did. While the memory wipe was a known event for any agents around during it, there were things that the higher ups kept from the employees. The most important in Tony’s opinion was that all the files in the S.H.I.E.L.D database were also wiped. That meant that there wasn’t any official documentation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s activities from 2001 until 2008. Since Clint already told Tony that he knew there weren’t any S.H.I.E.L.D records for those seven years, it was easy to assume that Clint was one of the few in the “know”.
“You were telling me as we were coming up to the house about how you found out about Laura after the wipe. That was a very lucky coincidence for you.” Clint threw a questionable look. He knew Tony was trying to imply something without just coming out and saying it. The whole song and dance was never Clint’s thing, but he was giving Tony some slack. “I mean imagine if she didn’t call at that precise moment. You would have been in the doghouse for not showing up that weekend and maybe missed the birth of your daughter.”
Clint replied remorsefully, “I did miss my daughter’s birth.” A father shouldn’t miss the birth of any child, but the birth of his only daughter still stung. “Nat and I were out on a mission cleaning up after the wipe. We were on radio silence due to the sensitive nature of the assignment for a week. Once we were on the chopper heading back to headquarters Coulson called and told me she was here. Lila came two days early, if she just waited ten hours... but that girl has never done what she was told to.”
Tony responded with a forced laugh, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. It had been years since he had heard Phil Coulson’s name. He would never admit it out loud, but he missed the stable presence of the S.H.I.E.L.D agent. Tony wondered what Coulson would say if he saw the Avengers in the state they were in today. It probably would have broken his heart, he was the driving force behind the formation of the group and had faith in them. Phil Coulson was a soldier and when he fought it was with everything he had. Tony had never seen Coulson in the field but following his death, Thor shared a story about his adventures in New Mexico and Phil’s role had impressed Tony. Of course, that wasn’t the best part of the story, that was when Thor was asked a question about something that happened there, and he was unable to answer. Clint interjected with the answer. It turned out that Clint had been on “hammer watch” down there and almost took Thor out in mortal form with an arrow to the head, the only reason it didn’t happen was because Coulson retracted the order at the last minute. This time the smile did reach his eyes, remembering how the group banded together to tease Thor about how close he came to the business end of one of Hawkeye’s famous arrows.
Now it was Clint’s turn to watch Tony lost in thought. “Tony, I know you are here about the wipe. The apology was just a way to get in the door. What do you want to ask me?”
Studying the open shelves that separated the kitchen from the living room Tony wondered if the variety of colored glass containers were family heirlooms or if someone had an obsession for collecting it. He was stalling and both he and Clint knew it. “Did you ever wonder why your personnel file was the way it was? Everything was wiped going back seven years, but your file was perfectly intact. It had your home location, a wife of two years, and a one-year old son. Do the math. None of that should have been in there.”
Without even hesitating Clint answered, “It was my private sub personnel file. Whoever did the wipe didn’t know it was there. It was off the record.”
“See that’s the problem here. You keep throwing ‘off the record’ around and I don’t really think you know what that phrase means Clint. ‘Off the record’ means there is no record of it.” Pulling out his Stark Pad Tony pulled up a screen and showed Clint. It was the “off the record” file that they had been talking about. “See – record.”
“There had to be some documentation of my family. If anything happened to me, S.H.I.E.L.D needed to know who to send my pension and insurance to. Only two people Fury and Hill, three if you count yourself, have access to it. It is called being responsible.” Clint stated in a matter of fact way.
“Yeah you are really responsible. I caught that while going through your information for the past seventeen years. You have always been sure to take care of the people who matter to you in case you never made it home one day. You know who you remind me of – Cap. You and he are cut from the same cloth you know. You two must be good friends. I wonder if you still would be if he found out you didn’t offer to help when he needed it?”
Clint didn’t like where this was going, it was getting dangerously close to sounding like Tony was suggesting that he was a coward for taking the home arrest offer and leaving the others to be fugitives. It was a sore subject for him despite having no regrets about the decision. “Steve understands I could not be on the run with a family back at home. We parted on good terms.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, but I’m happy to hear that you guys are good. No, I was talking about how Rogers would never take a dime from me for personal use. Especially when I offered to put him up in a ‘luxury apartment in the sky’ over in Brooklyn. You know he has always wanted to go back to his old stomping grounds. You on the other hand, he may have taken up on the offer.”
Tony was dangling a carrot hoping Clint would take the bait. Admitting to himself that he was curious about what Tony was getting at, he took it. “What the hell are you talking about? I get a pretty decent pension from S.H.I.E.L.D., but not nearly nice enough to be adding to my real estate holdings.”
Returning to the Stark Pad Tony swiped a few times and placed it before Clint. “Bedford-Stuyvesant Apartments, built in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York, current owner – one Clinton Francis Barton.” Touching the pad to swipe to the next frame he continued, “that is your signature on the deed correct? Dated Wednesday, October 6, 2004.”
Clint leaned in to study the document. Shaking his head in disbelief, “I have no idea about this honestly, but yes, that is my signature. I did live at that building when I was younger and stationed with S.H.I.E.L.D in the city.”
In his best game show host impression Tony said, “But wait, there’s more!” Then changed back into his normal voice, “You apparently before the wipe knew what ‘off the record’ meant because this building isn’t anywhere in your files or anything S.H.I.E.L.D has on you. Like I mentioned, you take care of people. There was an account set up to collect rent, pay bills, and miscellaneous odds and ends. It’s still active today.” Tony reached over the tablet to touch it again to show Clint the account information. “You even had a will to ensure everyone including your tenants were alright if anything happened to you. It was last updated in March of 2008, again ‘off the record’.” Tony leaned back into his chair, “And that my newly reestablished best friend is where things get…interesting… for both you and me.”
“That was two months before the wipe. What is so interesting about it and how does it involve you?”
Tony was again back to the tablet and with a few more swipes changed the world as Clint knew it, or remembered it forever, “It’s interesting because you left everything to a Katherine Elizabeth Bishop-Barton.”
“Who the hell is Katherine Bishop? Let me see that.” Clint demanded picking up the Stark Pad.
“Wipe” was too broad of a term for Tony’s liking. The technology that would be required for thousands of people to have a specific timespan erased did not exist currently, and certainly not the twenty or thirty years ago when the S.H.I.E.L.D implants were initiated. The memories were still contained within the brain, the person affected just didn’t have access to it. The implant was merely, in layman terms – a lock and storage system. To further complicate the situation, each time the device was stimulated to do a wipe, a different key was used. The research that he had conducted led him to the conclusion that while the wipe was permanent without some type of “key”, there was a possibility for something to be triggered. The information recovered didn’t support remembering a wiped event, but a trigger could have the capability to make the person feel a since of déjà vu. The effectiveness of the device came from the fact that there wasn’t a known key for the lock. While Tony would have gladly accepted the challenge to find the key for the specific 2008 Full Load Wipe, there were more than a few ethical dilemmas involved with any reversal effort. The wiping had resulted in the deaths of many and endangered international security which may have indirectly led to the deaths of thousands more around the world. The lives that were not ended were forever changed. Any interfering with undoing the implant system could cause similar results. S.H.I.E.L.D. would have to execute numerous safe guards prior to any reversal attempt. The behavior Clint was currently displaying was giving the impression to Tony that the name had triggered something in Clint’s mind just as he had hoped. “I think it would be easier to explain if you answer a few questions for me.
Clint was aggressively jabbing his finger on the pad’s screen, “What do you want to know?”
Tony stood up and walked around the table to take the tablet away from Barton. He worked quickly to bring up the will, positive that Clint would break the tablet trying to find it himself. Tony zoomed in on a specific passage of the legal document. There was no reason to show the entire paragraph yet. “I get who Cooper is, but who is L. E. Barton?”
Taking the device back Clint looked at the passage Tony was pointing to. “I know who that is. Don’t worry about it, you will think it’s stupid, so just continue please, before Laura gets back.”
“You don’t know what I think is stupid. I think it’s stupid when the Barista fills up the coffee all the way to the top then directs you to the cream and sugar counter. I mean – really? You just filled the cup completely full of hot liquid and I’m expected to somehow find some room to add…”
“Tony… just stop.” Clint surrendered, “To get this moving - fine, L. E. is Lila.”
“Why didn’t you just write down Lila then?’
“Because we didn’t know what her name would be, just her initials.” Clint countered as if that explanation would be satisfactory.
Tony wasn’t leaving it alone, “That doesn’t make any sense. How do you decide what the initials are but not the name? More importantly, this was drawn up before the wipe, you wouldn’t have any recall that you guys were struggling to find a name for the wee lassie.”
Clint could see the refrigerator from where he was standing, it was covered in school papers, takeout menus, and drawings being held on by a variety of magnets. His focus was locked onto a picture finger-painted by Nate. It was a family portrait, at least that is what Laura told him it was. “My grandmother, my mom’s mom, her name was Ellie. Her name was really Eliza, but everyone called her Ellie.” Returning his attention to Tony, “Died a year before my parents did.”
Tony thought he had a bad father but after reading Clint’s S.H.I.E.L.D file he realized that Howard Stark had nothing on Harold Barton. “Why not just call her Eliza or Ellie then?”
Clint sat back down in his chair and played with a paper napkin that one of the kids left on the table from lunch. He twisted the corner until it came to a point that reminded him of the toy unicorn Lila had. “Because that would have hit too close to home. She was the only person I ever saw stand up to my dad. She saw what was going on at home and she tried to do something. I don’t know what happened, but never saw her again after that. I decided a long time ago that if I ever had a daughter I would name her after grandma Ellie. Didn’t want to give her either of those names because it would just bring back too many memories, some good, but mostly bad. I figured that Ellie sounded like the letters L and E. It was the least painful way to honor her.” Dropping the napkin onto the table Clint looked up at Tony standing beside him still. “See told you that you would think it was stupid.”
Returning to his chair as well, Tony threw a quick peek to the window that overlooked the front yard. He needed to hurry this up before the family returned, but he needed to do it at Clint’s pace. “No, no, I don’t think it’s stupid at all. In fact, I hope you don’t lose some of your respect for me when I say that it is very…sweet and touching.”
Clearing his throat and sitting up in the chair Clint composed himself. “Have to have respect before you can lose it Stark.” He joked with a smile and a sparkle in his eyes.
Tony returned the smile, “Touché. Back to the matter at hand, you had a will that read…” taking back the document and taking in a very deep breath, “I bequest all my worldly possessions to my wife, Katherine Elizabeth Bishop-Barton, in the event she has preceded me in death I leave everything to my children, Cooper Francis Barton and L. E. Barton under the legal guidance of Natasha Romanoff.”
Clint answered as if it would solve everything. “That’s not my wife’s name.”
“No shit sherlock, solve the next case.” Stark joshed.
“But, why would it be like this?” The question was more for himself than Tony. “Everything in this will is something I would do. Leave everything to my wife, and if not, I would have Nat watch the kids until they were adults. I could go upstairs right now and show you Laura’s and my current will, the wording is the exact same, just the name has been altered.”
“I agree with you that the document has been altered, however I don’t think in the manner you’re thinking.” This time Tony reached into the briefcase that Clint didn’t realize he had. A thick file emerged. Tony dramatically dropped the file on the table which made a ‘thump” sound upon impact. Opening the file, he took the first page and placed it in front of Clint. “Meet Katherine Bishop, or Kate as she preferred.”
Clint looked down at the paper. It was a copy of an expired New York driver’s license. The black and white photo did not reveal a lot but her stats on the side of the license did. She was five feet seven inches, a hundred and thirty pounds, with black hair and blue eyes. There was something familiar, but Clint couldn’t put his finger on it. Then again, a tall woman with black hair and blue eyes running around New York wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.
“Do you know this woman? Some of the information I’ve gathered indicates that she may had been an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the early 2000’s.” Clint shook his head, so Tony continued, “I know it’s an old photo, but it was the most current one I could find. This was the last legal acknowledgement of her existence until your will. Kate graduated early from M.I.T. with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at twenty. Her transcripts show she was highly trained in numerous classes of martial arts, fencing…and archery.” Clint’s eyebrows rose at the mention of that. “She’s a trust fund baby, but due to an ‘incident’ in her teens, decided to go into public service. Visitor logs from M.I.T. at that time show S.H.I.E.L.D. recruiters meeting with her numerous times. There are even entries of S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to get appointments at Bishop Publishing, but they never made it through the front door.”
Clint knew of Bishop Publishing, it was a major company that did not only limit their focus to publishing but a variety of fields. The business was almost in the media as much as Stark Industries. “Why was S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to get into the company, and why has no one looked for her until now?”
“She is the daughter of Bishop Publishing owner Derek Bishop and pharmaceuticals heiress Eleonor Macintosh, at least that is what her birth certificate says.” Stark added the last part under his breath. “The mother died when she was younger, and dad quickly remarried.” Clint caught something in Tony’s face, was that sadness? He didn’t want to inquire, whatever was going on wasn’t just because of S.H.I.E.L.D. Tony was invested in this missing woman, and it was personal. “There is an older half-sister Susan, by the father, who got married almost twenty years ago. Apparently, something went down at the wedding and Kate cut off all ties with the family. She hasn’t touched her money, if fact it has been invested very well on her behalf. My best guess about the lack of searching for her was that as long as daddy had the money, he didn’t care where she was.”
“You think her birth certificate was tampered with?” Clint inquired thankful for the attention being off him for the moment.
“Not like government tampered, no, I think it was more like her prissy pants mother didn’t want to acknowledge the biological father because she was of the opinion that he wasn’t ‘mature’ enough to handle being a father and his parents agreed with her, so she married some dip-ass to give the kid a name and not embarrass her family kind of tampering.” The man said in one long breath.
Clint’s mouth hung open while he was trying to find the right words to reply to Tony’s confession. All he could come up with was, “Wow that was a lot there Tony, feel like sharing?”
Taking the picture back, Tony placed it into the file and closed it. “I think we have advanced to the part of this gettogether where we will need something stronger than coffee feather brains.” Clint got up in silent agreement and went into the living room. When he returned it was with a bottle of some brown liquid. Tony didn’t care what it was if it did its job. Holding up his mug to Clint he waited until the acceptable amount of liquor was poured until waving it off. Taking a long sip, he welcomed the familiar taste of bourbon into his system. “I knew Ellen was pregnant, really didn’t care at the time. I was eighteen. Put it all out of my mind until I found your will. Didn’t know anything about the kid, and I was fine with that. I suspect my dad threw money and Derek Bishop at her family to silence the potential high society scandal. The birth certificate and facial comparison from this photo,” gesturing to the closed file in front of him, “places Kate at a seventy-two percent chance of being my daughter.”
The archer drained his coffee cup and refilled it with straight bourbon. “Man, that…that just sucks. I’m sorry. I really wish I could help you, especially now that it’s your kid we are talking about. But I got…”
“Bathroom here?” Tony asked throwing a thumb behind him towards the door next to the far counter.
“No, that is the pantry, and my family and I would appreciate you not using it as a bathroom. I’m renovating the downstairs one, go on up, third door on the right.”
Tony stood and went up the stairs, looking at the pictures that decorated the ascending structure. Happy family pictures. No one ever puts up an unhappy or upsetting photo on the wall he thought to himself. Looking at the Barton family pictures the viewer would just assume it was a plain old normal Middle-American family. They would never guess the father was a trained assassin or the mother was …. what was Laura, he wondered. There was practically nothing on her from his research, but that was probably Fury and Clint’s doing. Completing the much-needed task, Tony quickly rejoined Clint at the table.
Taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out, Tony decided to rip off the band aid. “That wasn’t the only facial comparison I did.” Returning to the tablet that was abandoned to the side, Tony struck it a few times and presented it to Clint. The retired spy looked down and recognized the two pictures displayed. On the left was Kate, as he now knew her to be, and on the right, was Cooper. Tony hit the screen again and parts of the two faces were highlighted. “Clint, my program, which not to brag, but is the best out there puts these two people at a sixty-three percent match with facial comparison. That means that they are closely related.”
He activated the screen again and this time Kate’s face was replaced with Laura, a second tap by Tony highlighted the faces once more. Not as much was highlighted as in the last screen. “The system places Laura and Cooper at a nine percent match. The result – no relation. I’m not ready yet to make a definite conclusion on this data, I just need some DNA samples then we can …”
“Get the hell out of my house.” Clint demanded in a low and dangerous tone.
Collecting everything off the table to get it out of Clint’s view Tony rationalized for the archer, “Clint, I know this is a lot to take in all at once. I can get us answers, I just need your assistance. Let’s find out what we are dealing with here and then expand to the bigger picture. One step at a time.”
Clint stood up and in a hostile manner approached Stark. If he wasn’t going to leave on his own, then Barton would make him. The budding altercation was interrupted by Cooper and Lila running into the kitchen followed by Laura carrying the toddler, Nathanial. Clint casted one last angry glare at Tony before morphing into his ‘happy dad’ façade, catching as Lila jumped into his arms.
Placing Nathanial down Laura took off the numerous bags that were crisscrossed across her body. “Sorry we are back so soon, kids were getting hungry, and the state likes it when I feed them at least three times a day.” She grinned to Tony, “Mr. Stark, will you be joining us for dinner tonight? You are more than welcome to stay the night, I just need to prep the bedroom.”
Tony did hear Mrs. Barton but was too busy watching Cooper to answer the invitation. Clint’s saw this and made a sound that caused Tony to break off the captivation. “Sorry, thank you very much for the offer, but I got to be getting back. I have plans with Pepper later.” Focusing again on the boy, “Hey Cooper, your dad and I were talking about getting you to Stark Industries soon. What do you say? Want to play mad scientist with me?”
The boy moved his head up and down in an earnestness that Tony was sure would result in brain damage if not stopped. Releasing a small chuckle, he picked up his briefcase. “Then we will get to work on that, won’t we Clint?” Clint didn’t say anything to that, but offered a warm smile that the child could, and would, interpret as a ‘yes’. “Well then, I’ll be off. Thank you Laura for your hospitality, and Clint – we’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you for coming over. I know Clint has been going stir-crazy without outside contact.” Laura said looking down. “Mr. Stark what did you do to your pants? Do you need me to throw them in the dryer quickly before you leave, I’m sure Clint has something for you until they are done?”
Looking down Tony saw that his right pant leg had a softball size wet spot on it. “Oh, no it will dry, but thank you. Can’t take me anywhere you know”. He smiled at Laura, and with a final glance to Clint left as mysteriously as he arrived.
Please let me know what you think so far.
Dinner that evening was uneventful for the most part. Laura had taken the kids to a craft fair that the local high school was hosting to get them away, so Tony and Clint could speak in peace. Lila had taken pictures on her mother’s cellphone of the items she was excited to try to make herself instead of buying at the fair for a ridiculous price. In between bites of chicken she rattled off a supply list of what she would need. Laura interacted in the conversation while Clint was clearly only half listening. It was an important trait for her and Clint that the children were interested in crafting. While other kids at the fair were begging their parents for things, the Barton children saw the challenge in replicating and improving the items they were interested in.
Seeing that his mother and sister were busy planning a crafting day, Cooper took the opportunity to ask his father about what happened earlier. “Dad where you and Mr. Stark serious?”
“About what?” asked Clint as he pushed food around on his plate. Tony’s words had invaded his mind. He understood why Stark would be looking for Kate. Hell, if Clint found out he had a kid caught up in the wipe mess he would be looking under every rock himself. However, including Cooper and himself in it was the confusing part. Clint Barton wasn’t stupid, he knew what Tony was trying to get at with the comparisons of Laura, Kate, and Cooper. There had to be another explanation. Maybe Kate was in S.H.I.E.L.D. with him, perhaps they used her as a cover for Laura. Kate baring similar facial features as Cooper would have only strengthen the cover. It was very possible that he used Kate’s name in place of Laura’s to maintain the family’s security. That would explain why Cooper and Lila had been part of the pre-wipe will that he was shown earlier, but not Laura. Clint had also noticed that the document showed him as a resident of New York, not Iowa, when the document was filed. Those factors alone would keep any potential threat to his love ones caught up for days following the wrong lead.
“Taking me to New York, letting me see Stark Industries? I’ve never been to New York, I could see S.I., maybe even the Avengers compound?” He paused for a moment, then all the enthusiasm dropped from his voice, “never mind”.
Now the child had his father’s undivided attention. “Hey, what’s up Coop?”
Resisting eye contact with Clint, Cooper responded. “Even if you were serious about the trip, you can’t go.”
The tone of disappointment in his son’s words caused the weight of the ankle monitor to increase by twenty pounds. “Look at me Coop”, waiting until the younger blue eyes met his, was that a feature that was highlighted on Tony’s facial recognition software? Clint just always assumed that Cooper had inherited his eyes, while the other two took from their mother. He cast away the thought as quickly as it came. Tony messed up his chance for a family so in turn was trying to screw up Clint’s. “I’m sorry. I know this hasn’t been easy on you. This,” gesturing to the monitor, “and them,” pointing at a guard, “aren’t forever. This mess with the Accords will get sorted out eventually. Then we will go to New York. Have a nice vacation and see whatever you want. I promise.”
Laura stood up from her seat at the table. Clint didn’t realize that she and Lila had stopped their conversation and watched the Barton men talk. In a successful effort to end the heavy topic she produced a tray of brownies, onto the table and pulled from the freezer a tub of vanilla ice cream. Dessert wasn’t an everyday occurrence in the household, so the children were delighted. Placing one brownie and a scoop of ice cream on each plate she passed the treat around the table.
“So, you all thinking of putting the band back together?” she asked nonchalantly sitting back down.
Clint was feeding Nate some ice cream which required his complete attention unless he wanted to be wearing it. “Huh?”
He had been ‘going through the motions’ since Tony left. The kids didn’t seem to notice, but she did. He had been unfocused all evening, whatever he and Tony talked about earlier was still kicking about in his head. “You and Tony this afternoon? Is there a mission going on?”
The ‘clank’ of a spoon being dropped onto the dessert plate caused both parents to turn to the sound. What they found was Lila glowering at them appearing as if she would burst into tears at any moment. “Is dad leaving again?”
Laura quickly shut her eyes. Years ago, she established a ‘no shop talk’ rule at the table. The reason was because Natasha and Clint would entertain the children over meals with stories of their latest adventures, which would not always be age appropriate. She chided herself for breaking her own rule. Why didn’t she just wait until after the children went to bed? Opening her eyes, she saw that Clint was watching her, probably wondering the same damn thing.
In a fast attempt to defuse the situation, Clint filled his spoon up with equal parts brownie and ice cream. Just before eating it, he said “nope”, being sure to pop the ‘p’. Swallowing his food, he returned to the plate for a refill, “It’s nothing like that. He just wanted to ask me some questions about something that happened a long time ago.” Looking to his wife, “You know Tony…he’s exhausting.”
Laura knew a “dodge” when she heard one. They needed to talk, he needed to talk. She was thinking about how to persuade the kids to leave them alone for a moment. Then with perfect timing, as if it knew a distraction was needed, the puppy made its way over to the front door and begun to scratch at it. Wherever the dog had come from, she was grateful it was at least house trained. “Hey guys, if you’re done eating why don’t you take the puppy out while your dad and I clean up?” The teenager and his sister took off faster than one of Thor’s lightning bolts. Laura didn’t know if it was because of the puppy or the rare opportunity to get out of cleaning. She stood up and walked over to the sink to wet a paper towel for Clint to clean Nathaniel off with. Handing it to him in hopes that the cloth would aide in the rediscovery of their youngest child under the chocolate and melted ice cream, she asked seriously, “are you alright, you seem upset?”
Clint kept his eyes on the boy, “Nah, just feel off. Tony brought up some old memories, or to put it better – lack of old memories.”
“The wipe? That was years ago, and was Tony even around S.H.I.E.L.D. at that time?”
“He wasn’t around for the wipe. I believe his memory loss is probably due to his extreme partying back in the day.” Clint had assisted in prepping Natasha before she went out for an assignment to become Tony Stark’s new personal assistant. They discovered that his behavior in the 1980s and 1990s was extremely self-destructive. The concept of a child being conceived during that period wasn’t by any means a stretch of the imagination.
Clint had to stop and ponder what he was about to confide to Laura. He had never been one to keep secrets from her. Over the years he had repeatedly dismissed S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ‘suggested’ psychological sessions, in favor of talking to Laura in bed late at night without fear of anything getting back to the agency. She was his sound wall, and nothing bounced off. “Tony thinks he may have a daughter.”
At that announcement Laura made a “hmmm” noise that translated to “surprise… surprise...” and started to make her way around the table cleaning, and to gather the dishes.
“I know shocker, right?” Clint agreed. “All that playing around finally caught up with him. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner…or more often. Anyways, Tony thinks he has her being recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. right out of college almost twenty years ago. That is as far as he could track her because….”
“Everything is gone from that time.” Laura concluded for him as she stacked plates on each other.
“Yeah.” Clint admitted sadly, “it’s all gone. The trail goes cold after the recruiters.” Clint elected to keep the will screw up to himself for now. He had been thinking all afternoon about it and how with his limited resources at the farm to better investigate. When all the information was collected, then he would tell Laura. There was no need to possibly upset her with someone tampering with such a sacred document without all the information first. Perhaps Natasha could aide in some field reconnaissance since he wasn’t allowed pass the mailbox at the end of the driveway. It was probably a good idea to give her a call anyway and to let Nat know what Tony was up to in case any of his S.H.I.E.L.D. meddling caused her group’s missions some problems. Turning his attention again to Tony’s visit he continued, “I almost feel bad for the guy. Find out he may have a daughter, only to find out that she was caught up in that. The thing is that if she was there, and isn’t now, the reason cannot be good.”
Adding another dish to her stack she questioned, “What reason would that be?”
“Because she was probably killed in the fallout.” He answered lacking any emotion in his voice, Laura’s eyes widened in shock of the comment and sadness for the childless father, but Clint went on. “Only logical explanation there is Laura. Tony knows the intel on the wipe, he is fully aware of what happened afterwards. He’s smart, he is conscious of the probable outcome, especially after our discussion today. Tony is trying his best to place her at S.H.I.E.L.D. at that time, but right now all he has is circumstantial evidence that someone from the agency spoke to her a few times about signing up. Her recruitment, if it happened, would not be in the system because it lines up with the timeframe of the wipe. I think Tony came here to see if I knew something, just to give him…hope.”
“And did you?” She probed as Clint leaned back so she could have access to the used dishes in front of him.
“I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean he won’t stop looking for some. Tony walked into here with a lot of information to throw around and I am still processing it.” Laura was bringing the stack of dirty dishes to the sink while Clint decided that their son was clean enough to rejoin society. Undoing the buckles on the highchair to free the prisoner, Clint thought of something. “Hey, Did I ever mention an Agent Bishop to you?”
In the presence of anyone else, the small sudden body stiffening of his wife would have gone unnoticed, but Clint wasn’t anyone else. Just as quickly as it appeared, her body relaxed as she continued with what she was doing. “I think you and Nat have cursed out every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent there is at that very table, and I don’t remember a Bishop ever being mentioned.” She lightly called over her shoulder towards him.
‘Releasing the Kraken’, Clint placed Nate on the floor and followed the child to the entryway of the living room. Nate quickly discovered his toys and became distracted, allowing Clint to return to the conversation at hand. “It was a long shot. I’m going to give Natasha a call, just to give her a heads up that Tony is playing with the S.H.I.E.L.D. databases and see if she knows anything. Think you can handle bath and pajamas solo tonight if I do tuck in?”
Aggressively scrubbing some type of congealed substance from a serving platter she complained, “Calling Natasha is like a thirty-minute process and that is even before you actually speak to her.” Even before the Civil War, Clint and Nat would use burner phones to communicate with each other. They had a system set up relying on how many times to let the phone ring to signal the urgency of the call, and wait periods established on when to return the phone call. Laura didn’t have the patience to decode the system, but it worked for them. “It’s Saturday, we can postpone bedtime a bit for Lila and Cooper. Nate is the strict one.”
“Thanks, I really do appreciate you giving me some time alone today with Tony, but I just need forty-five minutes more. Then it’s back to business as usual for us.”
Placing the last of the dishes into the machine, Laura started the dishwasher. “I need to set up for bath time, can you call the kids in and watch Nate?”
A genuine smile appeared on Clint’s face. “No problem.” He leaned down to kissed her. Laura returned the smile and made her way upstairs as he walked to the front door. Cracking the front door a few inches he called out for Cooper to take out the trash, and for Lila to bring the dog in and get ready for bed. There were the expected protests from the pair, but without any additional prompts needed from their father, the duo returned to the house.
Clint supervised as the children wiped off their feet prior entering the house. A skill that was taught to them at an early age. It was mostly out of habit that Clint watched them. At thirteen and ten, Cooper and Lila were fully capable of handling this task alone. The puppy, who was still unnamed did not get the message and ran pass everyone to get to the water dish in the kitchen. One of the guards, Bobby, was a self-professed ‘dog guru’ and hastily took it upon himself to run to the local pet store for all the necessary items a dog could ever want or need. It wasn’t in Bobby’s job description to run errands for them, but Clint appreciated the flexibility.
Clint replaced the trash bag as Cooper brought the full one out. Listening to Nate babble and Lila play with the dog made him take a satisfying inhale of the life he had built for himself, a decent amount of land, a beautiful wife, three great kids, and now a dog. He was living the American Dream, if that dream included an ankle monitor and round the clock watch detail. Even with all the drama, it was still a good life. It was more than he ever dreamed of or deserved. His life inventory was suspended when Laura called down the stairs, “This is a weird question but do you by chance know where all of the toothbrushes are?”
Dropping his head to his chest he instantly became aware of what had occurred. Damn it Tony! Clint was pissed more at himself then the millionaire. All the signs were there and Clint missed each one. Tony’s trip to the bathroom, the request for DNA, and most importantly, the wet spot on the side of his pants. This was a new low for the Ironman, Tony stole his family’s toothbrushes. Quickly coming up with a story, he lied, “No clue honey, maybe the dog got to them. I’m sure they looked like chew toys to him.” Looking apologetic to the puppy, “sorry boy, but I need you to take one for the team.”
Laura conceded with a sigh, “We are all just going to have to deal with it then, it’s too late to go out tonight. I’ll run out in the morning and pick some up. Send Nate and Lila up.”
Clint knew there was a silent ‘I told you so’ about the dog somewhere in that comment. He directed the children upstairs and yelled up. “They’re coming up, I’m going to make that call now.” Once outside, Clint held the door for Cooper to go back in. He took in his surroundings. The sun was just kissing the horizon goodnight and giving off a beautiful orangish red glow against the darkness of the approaching night. He saw one of the guards on the opposite side of the porch. With a quick nod of acknowledgement, the man left giving Clint his privacy. No, they weren’t assholes. Pulling his phone out of his back pants pocket he scrolled through his contacts. The contact he needed didn’t have a name to identify it, just a phone number. Finding what he was looking for he hit ‘call’.
The top floor of the Barton home was where most of the bedrooms were. In addition to the five upstairs which were mostly for the family, there were two more on the ground floor. From the top of the stairs facing the house’s back, straight ahead was a guest room with Lila’s room to the left. A bathroom separated Lila’s bedroom from Nate’s. In the front of the house, Clint and Laura’s were across the hall from the toddler’s, with Cooper’s next to it. Originally, there were six rooms, but Clint’s first project of home renovation was to add a bathroom to the master bedroom. The guest room and the masters were diagonal from each other and the two larger of the five rooms. Clint did this for a reason, from these two rooms he would be able to see any threat that was looming and be able to create the proper counter measures.
Laura watched her husband pace in the front yard from her bedroom window. Clint said forty-five minutes and that was fifteen minutes ago. Nate had gone to bed surprisingly easy, but he did have a long day. Since they didn’t have toothbrushes, Laura went for broke and made Cooper and Lila hot chocolate to drink as a rare treat before bed. They were still downstairs drinking it when Laura came up to get an aerial view of her husband.
Laura turned from the window and saw her son standing there. The wave of emotions that passed through her were hard to identify, and none that she wanted to, even if she was able. The boy who was almost a man. He had been through so much in his thirteen years on this earth, did he have any idea of it? Finding her voice and pushing down all the emotions, as she tenderly asked, “Did you finish your drink and put the cup in the sink?”
Cooper nodded, “Yes ma’am, so did Lila. I think the dog wore us out more than we did him.” He yawned as he waited for a response.
“Early night then?”
“Yeah, Lila went straight to her room. She almost fell asleep at the table. Think I’m going to lay down and read some before going to sleep. ‘Night mom.” Laura walked over to her eldest child and kissed his cheek.
“Good night Coop.” She waited until he left, pulling the door shut behind him before checking the window again. Clint was still walking back and forth, which meant Natasha hadn’t called back yet. She leaned down to roll up the small area rug that was in front of the bed. She pushed with force on the end of one of the floor boards. Hearing a ‘click’, she was able to lift the board exposing what was hidden underneath. Laura quickly pulled out the black bag and unzipped it. Within the bag held a burner phone, a gun with a silencer already attached, ammunition, a few days’ worth of clothes for everyone, passports, and a lot of cash. She often wondered how Clint could pack so much into a small bag, he would tell her it was a spy’s gift.
Clint had always told Laura and the kids that it ‘isn’t paranoia if everyone is out to get you’. There were bug-out bags hidden everywhere around the home and property. The driveway to the house was two miles long. There were several trails that would accommodate a car around the property. Clint had Laura practice driving the trails often at night since that was prime time for an attack. He taught her how to navigate the trail without the use of any light. The genius to this plan was that the ‘roads’ he created where a shorter distance to the main road then the driveway was. The head start they had on any enemy by use of the trails was four to six minutes which Clint explained could be the difference between life and death. A car was parked behind the barn always with a full tank of gas and previsions for an extended road trip.
As soon as Cooper could understand, Clint had taken him around the house and showed the child what to do if anything ever happened. Since the boy turned twelve last year, Clint had started to take Cooper to the barn for ‘training’. Laura wasn’t enthusiastic about her son learning how to fight and shoot a gun but understood the necessity of it. Soon it would be Lila’s turn and before Laura could blink, Nate’s. Where had the years gone she wondered as she loaded the gun. Clint was, and always would be, the front line of defense for the family, but it gave him peace of mind knowing that if anyone or anything got through him, the family could handle themselves. The bug-out bags, the training, hidden car, and numerous trails resulted in the fact that at any point the Barton family could ‘disappear’ and fall even further off the grid then they had been before the Accords affair.
Kudos and comments make me happy!
Chapter 9: Chapter Eight ~ Innocence Lost
Clint, as a trained assassin was accustomed to waiting. Glancing down at his watch, he counted twenty-eight minutes since he let the burner phone ring twice before disconnecting. Two rings were Natasha’s and his signal for ‘not urgent, need to touch base’. The appropriate reply was a thirty-minute wait, followed by two rings, then Clint would call her again. At thirty minutes exactly, his screen lit up with the alert of an incoming call. One ring…two rings…then missed call notification. Immediately Clint hit ‘call back’ and started walking away from the house up the driveway, so the tree coverage would conceal his voice. “Hey Nat, how is everything going?”
“Same old-same old, how about you guys? What’s going on?” Clint heard a conversation take place on Nat’s end but could not make out the words until she told him, “Steve says hi.”
She knew from the system established that the Barton family was probably alright, or there would had been a different signal used, so Clint kept it cheerful. “We’re good here. Tony stopped by today.”
Again, the exchange on the other end started but this time he could make out Natasha saying, ‘Tony was at the farm today’ and Steve’s ‘what did he want?’. She inquired to Clint, “Was he alone or did he bring Ross with him to make sure you were being a good boy?”
Clint knew she was having a dig at him about the house arrest, back when the deal was offered and accepted she had been very supportive of his decision. “No Ross, but I’m sure the guards have reported back by now that Stark was here. Tony visited to apologize and ask some questions. His questions are actually what I was calling about.”
“He apologized to you?” The back and forth with Rogers started again.
Clint proposed, “Hey ‘Tasha, would it be easier just to put me on speaker? Unless you enjoy playing ‘telephone’?
Suddenly the sound on the call changed, Clint knew she had taken him up on his offer. He heard Steve’s voice bitterly getting straight to the point. “Clint, what did Stark want?”
Rolling his eyes, “Hello to you as well Steve, and yes thanks for asking, the family is doing great. What were you raised in a barn? It’s called proper phone etiquette.”
Steve actually sounded a bit embarrassed, “I’m sorry you’re right. Hello Clint. How are you? How is the family?”
“We are all good, but that’s not what this is about. Stay on target Rogers. Tony just apologized. Explained his role and why he did what he did. Well, he didn’t just apologize, he tried to bribe me with a tractor and gave my kids a dog?”
“What kind of dog?” The new energetic voice on the line was obviously Sam Wilson. Leave it to Sam to only take away the dog part from the conversation.
Clint was aware that each word was driving Steve insane, but he loved it. He had missed the back and forth with the gang. “There is a stack of paperwork inside, haven’t had the time yet to read through it. I think it’s a Labrador Retriever. Cutest little thing, only seven weeks old.”
“Got a name for it yet?” From the tone the Falcon was using it was clear to Clint that he was playing along.
“No, the kids are in discussions. I gave them the deadline of dinner tomorrow to name it or I will.” Clint knew he was pushing it with Steve’s patience.
He was correct, Steve had enough, “As interesting as this canine is, can we get back to Tony’s visit?”
“Damn Steve, it’s not like I’m fighting HYDRA out there like you guys. A new puppy is the most exciting thing that has happened on the farm since Bobby got stung by a bee, and he was allergic by the way.”
Getting more frustrated by the moment Steve asked, “Who’s Bobby?”
“Oh, he is just one of my keepers.”
“You have guards on you?” Rogers sounded offended on Clint’s behalf.
Did Steve really have no clue about the conditions of the house arrest? He would have supposed Natasha had filled the group in by now. “Like CNN - twenty-four, seven. It was part of the house arrest deal, that and the jewelry.”
“So, these questions?” Natasha asked redirecting everyone back on point.
Leave it to Nat to ruin a good time. “Yeah, Stark has been digging in the Wipe of ’08. Part of the reason I was calling was to let you know that he is playing in the S.H.I.E.L.D. databases in case it has some effect on your missions. Just be cautious, I don’t think he is going to stop anytime soon. His real reason for coming was to ask me about a possible S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Do you know anyone by the name of Kate or Katherine Bishop?”
The wipe was a touchy subject for any of the agents involved. It was rarely referred to, so Clint using their phone system to be asking anything about the event set off alarms in Natasha’s head. “I do not, should I?”
“Don’t know. Tony seems to have some documents that suggest I may have known her at some point. That is a long story. Anyways, her time, if any, in S.H.I.E.L.D. would have been erased. I’m thinking if anything, she was a cover for Laura. I was just checking to see if it rang any bells with you.”
“No sorry, why is Tony looking?” Nat was failing to see the urgency. A lot of people went missing after the wipe. There were probably many people in this Bishop woman’s position, lost and forgotten.
‘Here we go again’, Clint thought maybe it would just be easier to send out a group text about Tony’s paternity crisis. “Again, long story, but it is possible that Kate is his daughter.”
Steve had been tolerantly waiting for a pause in the dialogue between the two friends before interjecting, “I think I’m missing some information and back story, so I just need a few facts. First, who is Kate, what was the “Wipe of ‘08”, and why is he asking you about all of this?”
Clint and Natasha simultaneously took a deep breath, but Clint beat her to the explanation. “As far as I can tell Kate Bishop is a smart, rich girl from the city who is possibly the bastard child of Stark. The Wipe was when the World Security Council decided that they needed to erase seven years of memory from every agent in S.H.I.E.L.D. by using an implant that was installed on our brains during recruitment. And for the final question, I think Tony believes I had a connection to the lady. Anything else?”
There was a long silence on the line. Finally, it was Sam who found his voice. “Ok, that... wait, you have an implant in your head?”
Natasha added smoothly. “Every agent does. I doubt the agency stopped the procedure after the wipe.”
Steve threw a side glance to the Black Widow in disbelief of her indifferent attitude to the event. Then he alleged, “I am sure there is more to that, but we will have to wait on the whole story. Why don’t you just have it removed?”
Clint was insulted by the simplicity of Steve’s question. “Out of curiosity Steve, how many times have you volunteered for brain surgery? Don’t you think I have asked about that when I found out I had it and asked again when I retired, hoping that perhaps there had been some medical advancements over the years? The medical staff told me that removal could do more damage than the implant itself. Frankly Captain Sir, I have been hit in the head too many times in my life to roll those dice.” Clint never heard Steve’s response because the conversation was disrupted by the sound of a car speeding away behind him. Odd, he was staring down the driveway at the two cars the Barton’s owned, Clint’s truck and Laura’s SUV. The watch detail wasn’t scheduled to change for another hour, and they parked next to Clint’s truck. There was only one other car on the property. “Shit!”
“Hold on.” Arriving behind the barn, Clint’s suspicions were correct. The ‘getaway’ car was gone. Running back up to the house he could make out the shouting that was coming through on the phone, Natasha was screaming at him for a ‘report’.
Clint threw the front door to the house wide open, causing the door to smash into the wall. He took a hard left into the kitchen. What Clint saw made his blood run cold. The four bodies of his guards were spread out on the floor. Every night before the end of a shift the detail would gather in the kitchen for a cup of coffee, sometimes Clint would join them with something a bit stronger. Each man laid dead with a bullet to the forehead, an assassin’s shot. Clint stood in horror as the familiar smell of blood invaded upon his highly tuned senses. His nearest weapon was in the cabinet above the sink. Jumping over the bodies, Clint ran to the area. He was reaching up to open the cabinet when he saw it. Placed in the sink were two cups, he recognized each one immediately. Laura had given each child a personalized coffee cup with hot chocolate mix as a stocking stuffer last Christmas. Checking the coffee maker Clint saw that the machine was off, so the guards hadn’t yet begun their nightly ritual. He distinctly recalled that Laura had emptied the sink and started the dishwasher prior to getting the kids ready for bed, so there should not be any dirty dishes. There was a bit of dark substance on the bottom of Lila’s cup with white particles floating on the surface. Placing his index finger into it, he brought it up to his mouth and tasted. Clint recognized the danger immediately. In that second his instincts kicked in, reaching up into the cabinet, he pulled out two guns. He stuffed one into the back of his pants and retained the other in his left hand.
“Laura?! Cooper?! Lila?!” He screamed taking the steps to the second floor three at a time.
“Clint! Damn it Barton! What is going on?” Steve’s muffled voice demanded.
Without even speaking into the phone Clint shouted back, “I’ve been compromised. Someone shot my guards, there’s sedatives in the kids’ cups and my getaway car is gone.” Lila’s room was the first room accessible from the stairs. Hurling through her door, he found the girl sleeping in bed. Her breathing was much deeper than it was normally due to the use of the sedative. A quick check of her vitals proved she wasn’t in any immediate danger.
Running across the hallway to Cooper’s room, Clint found the boy in a similar state. Kneeling at the bed he placed the cellphone on the floor. The phone had long since gone quiet, but he knew they were still connected. If Clint had the time to guess, he would think they put him on ‘mute’ while they strategized. Cooper’s breathing wasn’t as deep as Lila’s was. Placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder Clint lightly shook. “Coop? Wake up Cooper.”
Cooper’s eyes shot wide open as he jerked his body upright. “Dad? What’s wrong?” He was only thirteen, but he was Clint Barton’s thirteen-year-old son. The teenager could easily comprehend something was happening, and it was bad.
“Coop how are you feeling?”
“Not great. My stomach hurts.”
Clint breathed out in relief at that statement. While none of the children had any known allergies, Cooper always had a sensitive stomach. The boy had already eaten ice cream and brownies for dessert, running around outside with a puppy and a hot chocolate drink spiked with a drug would have undoubtedly cause his to be upset. “Did you throw up?”
The boy nodded, and Clint thanked God as he told the kid to get up. Clint went back into the hallway only to reappear a moment later carrying Lila on his shoulder. With his one free hand Clint grabbed the back of Coopers head, pulling the teenager’s face towards his own, forcing eye contact. “Cooper, I need you to do something right now. All the training in the barn, everything I have taught you, you remember it, right?” Again, Cooper nodded. Clint broke the eye contact only to reestablish it with a remorseful look. Whatever innocence his son still had, Clint was about to rob him of it. “I need your help. Someone has been in the house. The guards, they are dead. The barn car is gone. Someone put something in yours and Lila’s drink to make you fall asleep.” Clint gestured with his eyes towards Lila. “I still need to find your mom and brother.” With the sigh of a heartbroken man, Clint released his son’s head and reached at his back to retrieve and hand Cooper the second gun.
Clint picked up the cellphone again and motioned for them to leave the room. Keeping Cooper behind him and Lila over his shoulder, they went to Nate’s. Much to Clint’s surprise, the toddler was standing up in his bed with hands on the crib’s railing, jumping up and down. Clint tried his best to sound like ‘daddy’ and not like ‘Agent Barton’ or ‘Hawkeye’. “Hey little man. Did daddy wake you up with all the door slamming?” Clint sure as hell hoped so. Of all the children, Nathanial was the lightest sleeper. The idea that his youngest son woke up to the sound of gunshots was too much to handle right now. Clint placed Lila in the rocking chair and instructed his son, “Cooper, I need you to stay with your brother and sister.” Lifting the cellphone to his ear Clint reported, “Lila has been drugged, but I have Cooper and Nate with me in the nursery. I need emergency services here to handle the bodies and the kids. I’m going to give you over to Cooper now to tell him what to do next while I look for Laura.” He then gave Cooper the cellphone, “Aunt Nat is on the phone, so is Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson. I need you to talk to them and do exactly what they say until I get back. Don’t let anyone in this room but me.”
Cooper watched his father leave the room. Willing his voice not to sound shaky or scared he spoke into the phone, “Aunt Nat.”
“Cooper, do you have a gun?” She asked bluntly.
“Good. Go over to the door and lock it.” Cooper complied. “Now I need you to open the closet, there should be a black backpack behind a box of Nate’s winter clothes.”
The teenager opened the closet door and pushed around assorted items until he found the bag. “Got it.”
“Check it, you should have another gun, some bullets, a phone, and clothes. There should also be two plastic bags, one full of money and the other with papers in it.”
Mentally checking off the items as she said them, he could confirm that everything was there. “Yes ma’am. All of that is in here.” He looked over to his baby brother still in the crib. Nathaniel was playing with a stuff animal, totally unaware to the danger he was in.
“Sam is working on getting the police over to you.” Wilson was on his own burner phone and using a laptop to bounce the cellular signal off numerous towers to hide the Secret Avenger’s location and to make the phone call look like it was coming from the house. “What is going to happen next is important. The police are going to show up along with some government officials. They are going to want to take you, Lila and Nate to the hospital to get checked out. The officials are going to want to talk to your dad, so he won’t be with you. Don’t fight it, your dad probably will, but you just go. You must be sure to take the bag with you. It looks like a normal bookbag but just in case they do go through it, I need you to wrap up the gun and bullets into some of the clothes and pack them at the bottom. Take the money out of the bag and put it in your pocket along with the phone. The second bag with the papers, throw into the winter clothes box.”
Cooper was working franticly following each instruction as soon as it was given. He paused when he heard his father screaming out his mother’s name. Nate heard it also and started to cry. Cooper said loudly over his brother’s cries, “Aunt Nat, dad is screaming.” The older brother moved to the toddler to comfort him. “Aunt Nat?”
“It’s ok Cooper, he’ll be fine. Police are on their way.” Natasha hoped she wasn’t lying to the child about his father. Sam showed her on the laptop that the E.T.A. for emergency response was under three minutes. “You just try to calm Nate down alright?” It was doubtful at this point there were any threats still inside the house, but she wasn’t in the habit of taking chances.
A voice called through the door. “Cooper, it’s me- open up.” Cooper slowly opened the door, peering around it to be sure it was his dad, with the gun hidden behind his back. Nate was quickly silence by the reappearance of his dad. Clint walked into the room, leaving the door open. That small gesture would have made Cooper feel more comfortable, but the look on Clint’s face told him that they were anything but safe. His father walked over to where Lila was still sleeping and bent down to check her, taking her pulse and checking her breathing. Clint returned to Cooper once done, “I need to talk to Natasha, stay here until either me or the police come. Don’t forget the bag.” Taking both the cell phone and the gun from Cooper, he left the room.
Clint walked back into his bedroom, so he could watch out the window for approaching vehicles. The house was clear, but he still preferred to keep all the children together in the nursery and away from the kitchen if possible. He could just barely see a glare of blue and red lights in the distance approaching. Raising the phone to his ear he said, “Nat, she’s gone.”
“She’s gone,” he repeated in disbelief. “The bug-out bag from the bedroom floor has been tossed. The gun, phone and money are missing.” Rubbing his hand over his face he raised his voice, imploring for another explanation than what his brain had already concluded, “Shit Nat, the kids were drugged and put to bed! The bag was pulled out and gone through. The person used the car and back trails without turning on the headlights…”
“Clint don’t jump to conclusions.” Despite her warning, Natasha was already there, and she knew Clint was painfully also. To say that they were both emotionally invested was an understatement, but both agents were professional enough to sort the evidence. She wished she could say she was shocked, but she had learned a long time ago that the people allowed to get the closest were the first to betray. Poison was a woman’s weapon, add the intimate knowledge of where specific things were located, and it all painted a horrifying picture of the unbelievable.
Chapter 10: Chapter Nine ~ We'll Always Have Egypt
“You know we have plans tonight right?” Pepper Potts called out as she punched in the keys to be granted access to inside Tony’s lab.
Tony was spinning around on his stool in front of his workbench. Every monitor in the lab was working at capacity shifting through data. He was now just waiting for a hit on his search filters and results from a few tests. Astonishing enough the room was clean. Usually when Pepper had to come down to get him, the room was cluttered with machinery and tools. “Yeah, something came up. How do you feel about ditching the reservations and finding a little hole in the wall down in Brooklyn?”
Looking up to see what had his attention she saw nothing, “Why Brooklyn? What is threatening the world now?”
“My genes.” Jumping off the stool, he went to where Pepper was.
She understood straightaway the meaning. “Kate.” Tony had come to her days ago and apologized for it. She let him explain, then when he was done she told him that there was nothing for him to apologize to her about. Many women would have been angry with a fiancé informing them of a long-lost child, Pepper was anything but that. She had been supportive from the start and encouraged the search. She was the one who urged him to go see Clint. “Did you talk to Clint?”
“Yes, I did.” Tony said walking to another monitor and with a hand gesture casted a 3-D interactive image to project around him.
Pepper probed. “And?”
As he was tapping on the hologram, Tony shook his head at the projection, and swiped it away. Informing Pepper of the developments, or lack of, “He doesn’t remember her. I think I may have triggered something, but nothing definite.”
She observed that he looked so tired. When was the last time he slept, three, four days ago? “So, you are back to the data dump autopsy?”
“Not quite.” Strolling to the workbench next to Pepper, he picked up a plastic bag filled with toothbrushes and shook it. “I didn’t come back empty handed.”
“How did you get those?” She didn’t know why she asked, there really wasn’t any acceptable answer to her question.
“I borrowed them,” Pepper rolled her eyes, “Don’t give me that look, if they really want them back I’ll overnight it. Clint hasn’t said anything… yet.” Checking his watch, “He may in a few hours, but nothing yet. If these results say what I think they will, I will need to go to Brooklyn.”
Right on cue, the tablet on the desk beeped. Tony ran over to the device and picked it up. Pepper waited until she thought he had enough time to study it. “Well? Are those the results you were waiting for?”
“That and some. I compared the DNA on all five toothbrushes and for a little spice added my own. FRIDAY run the results please.”
The large monitor on the far wall from where Pepper stood showed a screen of six pictures. Five of the images were of Clint, Laura, Cooper, Lila, and Nathaniel Barton, then there was a photograph of Tony. Tony’s natural-language user interface computer system, FRIDAY, started the announcements of the results. Pepper watched as a purple line from Clint’s photo connected to both Cooper’s and Nate’s picture. “Clinton Francis Barton is the father of both Cooper Francis Barton and Nathaniel Pietro Barton with a ninety-nine-point nine percent match of DNA.” Laura’s had a red line and linked to Nathaniel’s as well. “Laura Mitchel Barton is the Mother of Nathaniel Pietro Barton with a ninety-nine-point nine percent match of DNA.” Tony’s line was gold and went to Cooper’s picture. “Antony Edward Stark is the grandfather of Cooper Francis Barton with a ninety-nine-point nine percent match of DNA. Would you like anything else boss?”
Feeling pleased with himself Tony instructed the system, “Continue running the data on possible S.H.I.E.L.D activities within a week of the wipe please.”
Pepper whispered as she was looking at the screen, internalizing the implications of the results, “Oh my God.” Then resumed her normal volume, turning to Tony. “What does this all mean? What about Lila? Clint is only the father of Cooper and Nate.”
“I don’t know what it means. Clint told me earlier that he had the sonogram of Lila on him at the time of the wipe. Laura was pregnant when he got back to her, and he missed the girl’s birth by only ten hours due to early delivery.” Tony summarized, hoping that he had his facts straight.
Pepper just stared at the picture of Lila, the only picture without a line connected to it. “But how could that be if Lila isn’t biologically theirs? Perhaps an egg donor?”
Tony shook his head, “It’s doubtful that there were fertility issues. If you ask me, Laura got pregnant pretty quick after the battle of New York with Nate.”
Pepper felt the need to point out, “I think it is also doubtful that Clint would have just casually discussed with the Avengers if they were having difficulty conceiving.”
“I never got the impression that Nate was ‘planned’. I guess I always assumed after the whole ‘Loki thing’ Clint was put on the bench from S.H.I.E.L.D. until they were sure he was fit for duty. There is only so much work a person can do on a farm before its time to find a better way to spend the time if you catch my drift.” Taking a deep breath, Tony looked around the workshop, “I am not going to get any answers sitting here, I am going to have to talk to Clint again. The immediate takeaway right now is that Kate must be Cooper’s mother. Clint knew her.”
Pepper added sarcastically,” I think he did more than ‘know’ her Tony.”
Tony agreed, “I think so, but I still can’t for sure place her in S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Rolling her eyes again, Pepper stated, “That’s not what I meant.”
Not catching what Pepper was throwing, Tony questioned, “What?”
Tony wasn’t naïve by any means, but, Pepper believed that he may have not seen anything pass his goal of confirmation that Kate existed past 2001 when she graduated. He just gained four years placing her in 2005 giving birth to Cooper. “Tony, you are aware that Clint and Kate had to ‘be together’ for there to even be a Cooper, right?”
Tony stared at Pepper like she had a second head, searching for her meaning. All Pepper could do was wait him out, he would get it eventually. Suddenly, Tony’s eyes got wide. “That son of a bitch!”
“There it is.” She said with a sly smile.
It was the first time Tony had actually thought about the relationship of his friend and daughter, he screamed with a little panic mixed in, “Clint slept with my daughter. Do you know how many bro-codes that breaks?”
Counting off the reasons as she went, “Does the ‘bro-code’ apply when, one- you have never had anything to do with Kate, two- you didn’t know Clint back then, and three- they were grown adults?”
Tony was attempting to control his breathing, “FRIDAY add to my calendar to kick Clint’s ass. Sub note – bring the suit. I don’t stand a chance against him without it.”
The system responded, “Yes sir.”
Tony was more driven than ever, “I have to get to that apartment building.”
“Why? “A building owned by Clint that he hadn’t been in for ten years didn’t appear to Pepper like a goldmine of information.
He explained, “Clint didn’t just own the building, he used to live there. If I can get in that apartment, I may be able to find something.”
Pepper didn’t want to see Tony get hurt, and this was looking like a dead end. “It has been ten years at least since he has stepped foot in there. The building is probably abandoned and condemned by now.”
It was obvious that Tony had researched the situation, “Clint had the whole building outsourced to an apartment management company. They collected rent and did the everyday running of the building. When a tenant had an issue, they called the company. Clint was ‘hands off’.”
“Tony, you know I support you in almost all your endeavors, but again, it’s been ten years, what if there is nothing to find?”
Tony let Pepper’s words sink in as he leaned against the workbench for support. In a small vulnerable voice, he swore, “There has to be.”
The way Tony said that frighten her, “Why? What is so important about placing Kate at S.H.I.E.L.D. for the wipe?” It was time to be direct. While Pepper had been supportive in the beginning, every piece of new information was making it look worst for the fate of Kate. “You know that if she was there and no one has had contact with her…you could be chasing a ghost.”
The words hurt. They hurt hard. Of course, he knew of that possibility but refused to accept it until he had a grave or a witness. “She was recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. it’s the only explanation that fits all of this. If it wasn’t the wipe, then why isn’t there anything else on her? She has a bank account stuffed with money that she hasn’t withdrawn a dime from since her sister’s wedding. The evidence points to her not remembering S.H.I.E.L.D. but recalling enough of her training to go into hiding. Something happened. I’m telling you Pepper. If she ...died after the wipe, then Derek Bishop would have drained that account by now. Someone is watching it and preventing him from access but investing and investing wisely.”
Pepper looked down to find strength in what she was about to say, “Her being…gone would explain Laura. Let’s go with the ‘she joined S.H.I.E.L.D.’ theory of yours for a bit. What if she wasn’t taken out by the fallout of the wipe. What if it was a mission? Would it be possible that Clint married Laura afterwards? If for nothing else but to provide Cooper with a mother?”
Pushing himself upright, more determined than ever to prove his point, “If she died before the wipe, then Clint or Cooper would have inherited the money. Everything I have found on Kate tells me that she was too smart to die leaving a child behind without means to be supported.”
Pepper rationalized, “Then that would explain how Clint would have been able to buy the apartment building.”
“Pepper, please stop. She’s alive. I know it. She could not have been taken out by a mission. I couldn’t handle it.
“What?” Pepper wondered how he could be acting this way about a person he had never met. Tony knew Kate existed, and never mentioned her before, why the sudden change?
“The primary enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D is HYDRA, and the thought that she was killed by HYDRA… not again. Because if it’s true then HYDRA killed my parents and my daughter. They would have taken from me my past and my future.”
Pepper almost erupted in tears at the raw confession. In that statement, Tony Stark opened the door to all the demons that have been plaguing him since he found out the truth behind his parent’s death. She grabbed Tony gently and held him close to her. She could hear his heart racing. “No, they didn’t. They can’t take away all the amazing things you have done or will do. They didn’t take away me, they didn’t take away Cooper. You have Cooper now. You have a grandson Tony. He is the future.”
Autumn in New York was always a crapshoot. Currently the weather was a tad crisp but not enough for a jacket or sweater. Pepper knew the temperature would drop with the sun and scolded herself for not bringing some sort of covering. The weather be damned, she was just thankful to be standing on solid ground. Tony had broken various traffic laws getting them here in record time. In the case that Tony was correct, then the apartment that was supposedly untouched for ten years wasn’t going to go anywhere in the additional ten minutes it would have taken to stop at red lights, let people go in the crosswalk, or not take turns on two wheels. She didn’t know what he intended to find in the apartment. There was clearly a connection between Kate and Clint, and that connection was named Cooper, but there wasn’t any evidence to link the two together in the apartment. But if this is what he needed to get closure, she would stand by him every step of the way.
“This is it.” Tony proclaimed as he shut his car door and met Pepper on the sidewalk. They were both looking up at the older brick building wondering what treasures it held. The neighborhood seemed quiet compared to the bustling city life just a few blocks over. The few people who were outside were conducting domestic affairs, walking the dog, taking out the trash and so on. There was a very ‘suburban’ feel to the environment.
“I can’t believe Clint owns it, which one is his?”
Checking his phone for the details, Tony informed her, “Hawkeye? I’m shocked you have to ask, of course, he would be in apartment H.”
They went up two flights of stairs and down a hallway before arriving at the desired location. “Remember, this is a spy’s home, stay behind me. FRIDAY run a scan for potential hazards.”
“Boss, I do not detect any threats outside or within the apartment.” FRIDAY informed.
Tony and Pepper shared a concerning look. The lack of security of the apartment caused Tony to feel a bit uneasy. He had put a lot on this still being Clint’s apartment. It was customary practice he assumed for spies to set up traps and alarms for intruders. Trying the door knob first Tony wasn’t surprised at all that it was locked, but it was worth a try. Retrieving a gadget out of the bag he had on his shoulder he made quick work of unlocking it. Putting his hand once more on the knob he turned to Pepper, “What I am about to say comes from the heart, so I really don’t want to hear ‘I told you so’.”
“What are you talking about?”
He turned the knob to open the door a hair, “I think we could possibly be breaking into a stranger’s home.” With that, he opened the door all the way and walked in.
Pepper stood in a daze but followed suit, “Tony, I told you…um”
“Yeah, I know. So, I guess I told you so.” At first appearance, the apartment was bigger than it should be. The place must have at one point been two apartments consolidated into one. A white chair rail wrapped around the entire length of the apartment separating a gray bottom from a purple top paint job. Left from the door was a cozy kitchen that opened into a large living area. Taking a right from the entrance would send a person down a hallway with two doors on each side and one at the end. If anyone else would have walked in, the focal point of the apartment would be the big balcony doors that were straight ahead, but to Pepper and Tony it was the item that hung ornamentally over the couch, a bow.
After turning on the lights Tony saw the neglect of the home. Ten years of dust was caked on everything. The evening twilight coming through the window highlighted the particles that they had disrupted upon arrival floating in the air. They had only seen the living room and kitchen, but despite the dust, the place seemed clean and tidy. Two words that one would never use for Clint Barton. There wasn’t anything on the floor and the only surface that contained any items were the bookcases placed on each side of the balcony entrance. The cases were six shelves each with nothing on the bottom two. Since it was as good of a place to start as any, Tony gestured for Pepper to ‘divide and conquer’ the search.
Each taking a bookcase, Pepper was still skeptical. “Are we a hundred percent sure this is his place, or are we just running with the assumption since there is a bow hanging on the wall?”
Keeping his eyes trained scanning the numerous books, “It’s his place alright, if not we just found the mother of all coincidences. Imagine leasing to a person that also loves bows…” taking one book off the shelf, “and classic spy novels?” The book had seen better days for sure. The jacket was barely one piece. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Tony read out loud. The 1974 John le Carre classic must have been a very relatable read for Barton. Flipping through the pages, a photo fell out onto the light purple rug. Pepper watched as Tony bent down to retrieve it, causing more dust to fly up. Still in a kneeling position he turned his body to hand it to her and said in a tone that she couldn’t identify, “Pepper.”
Taking the photo from him she made an audible inhale. The photo was of a couple wearing S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms, sitting on a wall with the Pyramids of Egypt as a backdrop. A young Clint Barton sat with his arms draped over the woman Pepper now knew as Kate Bishop. Kate’s arms were crossed at the wrist in front of her chest holding his hands, both were looking at the camera and smiling. Two bows could be seen leaning against the wall. In Pepper’s eyes, the intimate picture showed two young people clearly in love and proudly showing it. She was now able to identify the tone Tony was using, it was hope.
Standing up to take the picture back, Tony stated about the photograph, “This proves everything.”
Agreeing, Pepper said, “It’s hard to dispute anything with this.”
Placing the photo into his bag he directed, “Let’s check out the other rooms.”
Going down the hallway, Tony opened the first door on the left. It was the master bedroom. The room at first glance didn’t give any clues to who the occupant could be. The far window had white sheen curtains that permitted the evening light in. The purple color scheme continued into the bedroom, taking the form of a bed spread that complimented the steel gray walls. The bed was against the center of the right wall with a night stand on each side. Across from the bed was a lowboy dresser in metallic finish. All the furniture they had seen so far in the apartment was very modern, even for ten years ago, which Tony again disbelieved highly was Clint’s style. The dresser had a few odds and ends scattered on it. The first personalization of the space other than the hidden picture they noticed. Pepper looked at the objects. Any doubt she had that it wasn’t Clint’s home were wiped out when she saw the various arrow heads littered all over the surface.
“Clint was never one to clean up after himself. Probably just dumped out his pockets.” Tony’s attention was on the ring jewelry box that sat towards the back of the dresser. Picking up the box he opened it. Seeing what it was he pulled the photo out of his bag. “It’s the same ring.”
Looking at the photo Pepper realized that she missed an important detail that apparently her fiancé had not. On Kate’s left ring finger was a small purple jeweled ring. The box that Tony was currently holding did indeed look to be storing the same ring. Seeing it in person it was not small but modestly sized. The purple gem which she assumed was an amethyst was shaped into the shape of an arrowhead set in white gold. The ring wasn’t the only inhabitant of the box there was a second ring also, a white gold wedding ring. Along with the photo, Tony placed everything in his carrier and walked to the left of the dresser into the ensuite.
Hitting the light switch, Tony was momentarily blinded with the reflection of the lights over the mirror onto the white tiled room. His eyes needed to adjust after only using natural light sources. The first thing he saw was a hairbrush laying carelessly on the sink counter among various other toiletries. Picking up the object for a closer inspection he could see the black hairs weaved into the bristles. Yet another thing to add to his collection. There was no doubt in his mind that Kate wasn’t his child but running her hair through his system against himself and Cooper wouldn’t hurt. Taking a tool out of his bag he used it to scan the brush, “FRIDAY darling please compare this hair against Cooper and myself.”
“Yes boss” the system obeyed.
Tony swept the room visually, not seeing anything of interest he opened the medicine cabinet. There wasn’t much there other than the staple items one would expect, pain relivers, cold medicines, bandages, and other types of medication. Going through the full prescription bottles he saw that they were all in Clint’s name, nothing for Kate. So, either she never needed medication, or she actually took hers unlike Clint. Examining the meds, he noticed that it was everything you would expect to see in a spy’s cabinet, pain killers, muscle relaxants and antibiotics.
“Tony, come here!” Pepper shouted. Throwing one of the bottles into the sink he ran out into the hallway. Pepper must have been checking out the other rooms. The door at the end was another bathroom. The room across from the master’s was a second bedroom. Tony stole a quick glance into the room then halted at what he saw. The room was painted in a soft blue. There wasn’t any question as to who’s room this was. A small bed was set up in the corner with the name Cooper decorated on the wall above. There were toys dispersed around. While the rest of the apartment lacked any personalization or sense of being lived in, this room shouted it.
Tony forgot all about Pepper’s call and entered the room going straight to the tall dresser. Unexpected since the only photo they had discovered was hidden, the dresser acted proudly as a display for the young family’s pictures. One picture in the center was apparently the designer’s intent to be the first one to catch the viewer’s attention. It was of Kate, Clint and a newborn Cooper. It was obviously taken in the hospital given the background and generic blanket and hat the baby was wrapped in.
There was a picture of Clint holding Cooper in his lap in front of a cake, with a “1” birthday candle on it. Another of all three in Santa hats beside a Christmas tree. The captured family moments were all here abandoned and covered in dust. The last image caused a feeling in Tony’s chest that he had never experienced before. In a wooden frame with the words ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ burned into the bottom panel was a picture of Kate holding her smiling son, throwing her head back in a laugh.
He was contemplating taking the picture with him when Pepper called again, “Tony you really need to see this.” Deciding to take the only picture he may ever have of his daughter and grandson together he carefully tucked it away with the other objects he had accumulated. Pepper was calling from the room right next door to Cooper’s. It took two steps into the bedroom for Tony to understand the panic from Pepper. This room was painted in a lovely rose pink, that’s hue instantly put out a soothing effect. A white crib was set up in the center of the far wall. White and pink were the color scheme in this room. The dressers and changing table all had a glossy white finish. The glider tucked into the corner did as well with pink upholstery.
Pepper was standing next to the dresser that like the other room was a showcase for pictures. However, this room only had two photographs displayed. The smaller of the two was a sonogram. The second was a family portrait. Tony felt his chest tighten and his breathing become labored. Clasping his hand to his chest he bent forward. Pepper had seen this many times before, he was having a panic attack. It had been a long time since he had experienced one, or at least that is what she had been told. Under these conditions she wasn’t surprised at all that this was happening now. Gently taking him by the upper arm she led him to the glider to sit in. Dust flew up from the cushion as he sat. She took his heavy shoulder bag from him and placed it on the floor beside the chair.
“I’m fine.” He assured Pepper, waving away the dust. “I just need a minute to think,”
“Tony what happened here?” She asked looking around the room and back to Tony.
“I need to think.” He repeated more for himself than her, “Please bring me that picture.”
Pepper didn’t need to be told which of the two he was requesting. Grabbing the bigger frame, she handed it to Tony. The picture featured the three Bartons. Clint and Kate were standing in front of the apartment building. Cooper was balanced awkwardly on Kate’s left hip. Clint was to the right of her with his left arm around Kate’s shoulders so that he could rest his hand on Cooper’s arm. His left hand was in front on Kate’s visibly very pregnant stomach. The white frame that Tony was holding with both hands had an engraved plaque on the bottom, “Coming Soon – Summer 2008”.
It all made sense. Moments ago, he was wondering about the lack of security in the apartment and the empty bottom shelves to the bookcases. They had a toddler running around and a newborn on the way. What good is the best security system when it was a possible threat to the very people it was installed to protect? Clint and Kate probably only had external measures in place to alarm them of any danger to the home. Ten years of exposure to the elements and lack of maintenance would make any system useless now.
“Tony? Is that baby Lila?” Pepper asked hopefully, but sadly already knew the answer.
Shaking his head at the impossible. “Would have gotten a hit off of Clint, Cooper and myself during the DNA test.”
“Then where is the little girl who was expected in ‘Summer of 2008”. Taking a deep breath to clear her mind Pepper reasoned. “Ok, so this isn’t all bad. You were attempting to attach Kate to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the wipe. You have accomplished both. However, this does mean she was pregnant when the wipe happened.”
Haven’t yet taken his eyes off the photograph he tiredly responded, “Appears that way. Now we just have to find out where she was at the time of the wipe.”
“What do you mean?”
He reasoned, “She wasn’t here or else she would have seen these pictures and done something to find her husband and son. Kate wasn’t at S.H.I.E.L.D. clearly. “
“And she wasn’t with Cooper because he was in Iowa with Laura, who was expecting Lila.” Pepper finished.
Tony had been thinking the same thing. Lila was born in June of 2008, possibly the same time Kate was due. Tony couldn’t even rely on government documents to help with the exact dates since he now knew they had been tampered with. Tampered by either S.H.I.E.L.D. or someone else. Cooper was already at the farm with Laura from what Clint had told him earlier. Tony started, “Clint said…” but drifted off in thought.
The only way any of this would make sense is if someone knew the wipe was going to happen. This was a long play, but what was the game? “Clint told me about the day of the wipe, or at least the part he was ‘permitted’ to remember. Laura called while he was in a briefing on the situation.”
“So?” Pepper asked.
“So, Cooper was acting up while she was on the phone with him. Laura said, and I quote, from Clint of course, ‘I swear he acts like he doesn’t even know who I am’. That’s because he didn’t!”
Pepper was not following at all. “Didn’t what?”
“He didn’t know her!” A light bulb went off in Tony’s head. “Clint said the kid was shy around Laura and clingy with him. It was because he was in a different house with a different mom. Clint was the only person he knew.” Tony held the frame up to Pepper, “He knew this was his mom. He knew who his family was.” Standing up he surveyed the room that was designed to belong to his granddaughter, “And some bastard took him from all of it, away from his mother.”
Having already had a panic attack, Pepper didn’t want Tony to work himself up to another, “Tony…”
“He was three Pepper!” He shouted, but quickly composed himself. “He was three and someone took him from this place.” Indicating the apartment. “They had Cooper, which meant they had Clint. He had the sonogram, he knew another baby was on the way.” Tony walked over to the dresser where one picture remained. “How much do you want to bet that sonogram was a copy of this picture?”
Pepper was processing everything Tony was telling her and arriving at her own conclusions, “But for that to work, someone…”
Tony finished her thought for her, “Someone would have had to know he had it. Yup, it’s an inside job Pep. Clint had a sonogram and I’m pretty sure he showed it around. Kate was also an agent so there would not be a need for anything to be a secret at S.H.I.E.L.D., like Laura and the farm were. People in the agency would have known that Clint and Kate were married with one kid and another on the way.”
“Why would someone do this?”
A lot of work went into rearranging the Barton family for their own purposes. Tony’s thinking turned to Laura Barton, the sweet farmwife. She had to be in on it. She wasn’t a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was wiped so she always knew she wasn’t Cooper’s mother. The more Tony thought about it the worst it appeared for the second Mrs. Barton, “It had to be HYDRA, but I don’t know why. Why was Clint and his family so important that they went to these extremes?” Grabbing his pack off the floor, “I need to go back to the farm tonight. I have to know what happened to Kate and her daughter after the wipe.”
Pepper’s head was spinning, “Clint already told you he doesn’t remember anything, and what are you going to tell him anyways?”
A cunning smile appeared on Tony’s lips, “It’s not Clint I need to speak to, and before I blow up Barton’s life, I would like some more information.”
“Boss.” FRIDAY’s voice spoke from Tony’s phone.
“Yes darling?” he answered.
The system reported, “There has been a call requesting police and emergency services at the Barton residence.”
Tony and Pepper turned to each other mirroring their partner’s look of terror. Tony knew that for Clint or Laura to call 911, there had to be a life or death situation, preparing himself for the worst he asked, “why?”
Immediately FRIDAY answered, “Gunshots fired, poisoning, and fatalities.”
“Prep the jet. We will take off as soon as I get there.” Addressing Pepper, he requested, “Can you drop me off at the airfield?”
“No.” Tony’s eyes went wide in shock of her refusal. “But I can drive to the jet since you are in no condition to drive.” She was right, Tony’s hands were shaking with rage and anxiety, and another panic attack was looming. “Then I will go with you to Iowa and help you find some answers.”
Clutching Pepper’s hand. Tony brought it up to his lips and placed a tender kiss on it while looking her straight in the eyes. “Thank you.”
Chapter 11: Chapter Ten ~ Candy Striper
Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments! I loved reading them, it keeps me going.
Never one to know what to do with his free time, Tony was thankful that FRIDAY had created a list of possible S.H.I.E.L.D. activities around the time of the wipe. Flying to Iowa gave Tony the time needed to narrow down the list to three possible events. In Los Angeles, California, a Romanian drug cartel was running a human trafficking ring out of a basement of a Children’s hospital. Four days before the wipe the group was arrested. While very possible for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be involved in, it was hesitant that the arrest of twelve people would have caused the need for the wipe by the World Security Council.
Two days later, the HYDRA research base, The Sandbox, had a contained explosion that gave off a decent amount of gamma radiation. Only a quarter of the facility was demolished at the time. A week later, the entire base was destroyed. The first part matched S.H.I.E.L.D.’s motives perfectly, but the attack a week later wasn’t in any of the agency’s records. Destruction of a HYDRA research lab would have found its way into a missions’ database no matter how secret it was, so Tony was quick to conclude that S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t the one who attacked second. The question was who went in afterwards to clean up S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mess?
The third incident was in Germany, an American Congressman was assassinated in Berlin while hosting the grand opening of a new embassy. The Congressman was rumored to have close professional and personal ties to HYDRA. Someone that deep in Washington would have shown up on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar in a big way. It happened six days prior to the wipe which would have given S.H.I.E.L.D plenty of time to cover it up. A major player in Washington being taken out of the game that way would give the W.S.C. a reason to wipe everyone. Especially considering how imbedded HYDRA was with the Council before the data dump.
Eliminating the Los Angeles’ arrests from the list, Tony was left with two possible causes for the Council to ‘push the button’. He had FRIDAY focus on the explosion and assassination. The computer notified its creator of the results from the hair sample that Tony submitted back in the apartment, which came back unexpectedly fast. The results were just as Tony had expected, Kate was a match to both Cooper and himself. Knowing it was one thing, but having the hard proof was another thing entirely.
“It’s official,” He started as he handed Pepper the tablet that he was reading the results from, “it’s a girl.” They were in a small two-person self-flying jet with the logo of Stark Industries plastered on the sides. Tony had somehow convinced the hospital into allowing him to land the jet on top of the parking garage that connected to the hospital.
“Congratulations.” Pepper said somberly as she quickly scanned the tablet’s screen and handed it back to its owner to put away before they arrived. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s activities weren’t the only thing Tony had been working on during their flight. He was also diligently collecting all the information on what had transpired at the Barton home that evening. What Tony was able to collect was very disturbing and she hadn’t yet been able to get past it, at least not until she saw that the children were safe. In a matter of a few days she had obtained a future step-daughter and step-grandson. This evening she learned of a step-granddaughter. Already Pepper had made the promise to herself that she would never use such labels as ‘step’ but embrace them as Tony’s family. In the event Kate was alive, Pepper would make every effort to be a good friend that just happened to be married to Kate’s father. The children were a different matter altogether, she was sure that she and Tony would enjoy every minute of grandparenthood, spoiling the children much to the irritation of their father. That was of course once Tony got past the shock of suddenly being a grandfather.
Waiting until the jet powered down, Tony opened the door and exited. When he had two feet on the ground he turned to assist Pepper while she made her descent. Pointing towards the door that connected the parking garage to the hospital, she followed, and got on the elevator. “Hospital records show them on the fourth level, the pediatric ward, “Tony said pushing the button that would get them there.
“Anything on Clint yet?” Pepper knew the Clint was originally supposed to go with the children to the hospital and give his statement there, but then the government officials arrived on order of Secretary Ross and demanded that he be detained.
“He was taken into the local police station and placed in an interrogation room.”
“He must be worried sick about the kids.” What a horrible situation for a husband and father to be in, Pepper contemplated to herself.
“Probably, I’m just thankful he hasn’t done anything stupid yet.” Tony had hijacked the tracking software to see where Clint was after the attack. Stark was very surprised to see that Clint didn’t even attempt to tamper with his ankle monitor. His best estimate was that it wouldn’t take Barton longer than five minutes to get out of it if he needed to.
A ‘ding’ indicated that they had arrived on the fourth floor. “Oh, I don’t know, what could a spy and trained assassin possibly do to get out of a small-town police station if he wanted?”
Tony placed his hand in the elevator door to keep it open for Pepper to step out of. The nurse’s reception area was directly ahead of them. A young woman who couldn’t be any older then twenty-five greeted the pair with a warm smile, Tony supposed that she must have just started her shift. He could see that the floor was crawling with police and people in black suits with ear pieces. The white technology was obvious against the dark colored cloth. He assumed the latter were government agents. Apparently, Tony wasn’t the only person who was unsure of what Clint would do if he really wanted to leave police custody and retrieve his children. He observed that as soon as he stepped out the elevator onto the ward, the suits started speaking into their communication devices.
“May I help you.” The nurse whose badge said ‘Vicki” inquired.
Pepper decided to handle this since Tony was distracted watching the guards, whose presence didn’t go unnoticed by Pepper either. “Yes please, we are looking for the Barton children. Would you please be kind enough to direct us to their rooms?”
The woman’s smile never fell, “I’m sorry, but no one is allowed to see them without approval from CPS.”
Tony didn’t even know that he had a line, but quickly did when he learned the children were put into ‘the system’. He asked in a voice louder then he intended, “Why is Child Protective Services involved?”
“Sir, please. We have patients sleeping. I ask that you keep your voice down. CPS was called in since there isn’t any immediate family to make the patients’ medical decisions. I’m sorry, but this department’s policy is that if a visitor is not with a patient, they must leave.”
That could have been the nicest ‘get the hell out’ that Tony has ever been on the receiving end of. He was about the take out his phone to wake up a hospital board member when Pepper did her magic on the nurse. “Ma’am, this is Tony Stark, also known as Ironman. I am sure that you have a ward full of children and parents who are sick of staring at the same four walls everyday wishing for something to break up the monotony. What better way to brighten their day then the real Ironman bringing them breakfast? All we would need is a room to wait in until you start serving. Tony you have a suit correct?”
Damn he loved that woman. The expression on Vicki’s face showed that she was buying it. Currently it was three o’clock in the morning, another four hours and the staff would be starting the breakfast deliveries. He may not be able to get into the Barton children’s room now, but Pepper had found a way to at least keep him on the floor with them until the morning. “I do have a suit. Like Pepper said, we just need an office or something. Can’t be sitting in the waiting room because, well, that would ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it.?”
“Of course, Mr. Stark what a lovely gesture. I would just need to run this by my supervisor.” As Nurse Vicki left, two of the guards positioned themselves on opposite sides of the reception area. Knowing that they wouldn’t do anything without being provoked, it was the children’s department after all, Tony just gave them a little wave of acknowledgment.
Vicki soon made her reappearance a bit out of breath. That poor lady must have run to her supervisor and back. “Nurse Ridgeway is beyond thrilled at your offer. She is with a patient now but would love to meet with you later. She has offered a small office down the hall that is not being used until the morning shift for you two to wait in. If you’re ready, I would be happy to show it to you.”
Tony was only half listening as he followed behind the two women. He made out Pepper’s remarks of gratitude to Vicki, but really nothing else. He was too busy scanning the floor. Finally, he found his target. There was one patient’s room that had two “Men in Black” posted in front of it. The cold stare that the men threw at him, Tony interpreted as ‘dare you to come over here’. This confirmed in his mind that he had the correct room. The children must be all in the same room since it was the only one guarded. It made sense Tony concluded, it would be easier to prevent unauthorized entries and exits of one room versus three.
His internal discussion was cut off when Pepper ordered, “Tony get inside”, as she held the office door open with one hand and pointed into it with the other. She wasn’t blind, she saw the stare down between the three men, and needed to remove Tony from the likely confrontation that would not only get them kicked off the ward, but probably the hospital as well. With one last look in the guards’ direction, Tony obeyed and entered the office.
The room was the typical hospital office to Tony. There was a desk to the left with a computer on top and two chairs in front. A dorm size refrigerator was behind the desk with a microwave on top. Next to the mini fridge was a small file cabinet with a coffee maker on it complete with cups and fixings. Against the wall to the left was a small couch. The chairs and couch were done in the common teal and pink abstract print fabric that was all the rage in 1986. A strong smell of disinfectant coated the air. Lacking any ventilation in the office, he wondered how long it would take for both Pepper and himself to get a headache from the overpowering odor. As Pepper and the nurse exchanged goodbyes, Tony made himself at home by sitting in the executive chair in front of the computer.
“What are you doing?” Pepper hissed in a low tone while she shut the door.
Looking up over the monitor Tony cynically replied, “I am almost hurt that you have to ask. You should know better by now, I’m tapping into the hospital’s patient records. That was some impressive work you did back there. Remind me to kiss you once I have had the chance to shower and brush my teeth.”
Deciding on one of the chairs in front of the computer, Pepper took a seat, “You do know how to make a girl feel special, I’ll give you that Tony Stark.”
Successfully breaking through the hospital’s firewall and passwords, he had access to the entire computer system. Tony swore to her, “I promise when this is all over you and I are going on a vacation somewhere far away.”
Letting a little smile appear Pepper returned, “Promises, promises.” Returning to the illegal matter at hand, “Find anything in the records database?”
“Yeah, I was able to pull up their vitals and such. Looks like Lila got the worst of it. Cooper was sick and threw up most of the sedative so there is only a trace amount left in his system. Nathanial interestingly enough didn’t have any foreign chemicals found in his blood work.”
Pepper didn’t see why it was interesting, Nate probably had a strict bedtime routine so there wasn’t a need to sedate him. “Why is that interesting?”
“The only kid who wasn’t poisoned was the only child who was actually Laura’s.”
Pepper didn’t even think to factor in the biological connection between Laura and Nate as a likely reason why the toddler was spared. “You think Laura did this?” Pepper could just see it now, Tony was going to go bankrupt with the therapy expenses these children were going to accumulate in the coming years.
Tony leaned back in the chair, “It’s hard to argue another way.” Laura still had not been located. Police were out now looking for her and the car. The poisoning, shooting and missing car all pointed to her or Clint. They were the only two people at the farm who knew and had access to everything. Hence why Clint was now being interrogated at the police station.
“If it was her, how did she have access to a sedative?”
“Come on Pep, the amount of times Barton gets injured on missions, you don’t think that house isn’t full of pain killers and some muscle relaxers? The part that made the situation extremely dangerous was that the person gave Lila enough of the medication to possibly kill her. The poisoner didn’t adjust for weight, a rookie mistake probably due to lack of time. The amount of a sedative a doctor would prescribe for Clint is vastly different then what would be suggested for Lila.”
“Will she be alright?” She was still struggling with the concept of someone deciding and carrying out drugging children.
Reading from the patient file, Tony summarized, “They have both Cooper and Lila hooked up to IVs to flush the stuff out. It doesn’t appear as if any permanent damage was done.”
The unlocking of the office’s door caught both by surprised. Tony didn’t know that Pepper had locked the door when she shut it earlier. She probably knew that whatever he was going to do in the office would require notice of any visitor. Quickly shutting off the computer, Tony leaned back in the chair and put his feet on the desk.
A hospital security officer appeared and used his body to prop the door open to allow one of the guards dressed in black in. The suit found a place to stand between the couch and the chairs. This position allowed the man to see absolutely everything that was transpiring in the ten by twelve office. Tony was just about to make a comment about the overkill of security when Secretary Thaddeus Ross entered.
In a condescending voice the salt and peppered headed former Army general started, “Tony, imagine my surprise when I was informed of your visit.”
Matching Ross’ tone, Tony asked, “Which one?” Secretary Ross wasn’t going to catch Tony off guard. He was fully aware that Clint’s detail reported back that he was at the farm earlier today, or was that yesterday? Checking his watch, it was four o’clock in the morning.
Releasing a chuckle, Ross took the seat next the Pepper and sat, crossing one leg over the other. “Oh, I do want to discuss with you about what you and Barton talked about yesterday, but right now I’m interested currently in your new vocation as a Candy Striper.”
Lacing his fingers and placing it behind his head Tony said, “You know I’m a giver.”
Ross countered quickly. “Such a giver that you flew out here twice in twenty-four hours?”
“I’m a busy man, I have to be in a lot of places within a day. Which is why I own jets.” Tony hadn’t moved from his lax position for the sole intent of showing the Secretary that he was in control of the conversation.
Uncrossing his legs, Ross leaned forward, “Cut the bull Stark! I know why you are here.”
Kicking his feet off the desk, Tony sat up, “Never was hiding it. Asked where the kids were as soon as we got here.” Pepper sent him a worried glance to which he answered with a reassuring smirk. “So, since you are here now, I guess you can speak with Child Protective Services, and have Pepper and I added to the list of allowed visitors?”
Thaddeus resumed his comfortable position and did his best phony attempt of reassuring Tony and Pepper, “I saw the children before I came in here with my own medical staff, the younger two are sleeping, the boy Copper…”
“Cooper” Tony corrected
The Secretary didn’t care, “Whatever, he seemed on edge. My staff believes that he is displaying symptoms of shock, not surprisingly at all considering everything that has happened. The boy refuses to lay down better yet sleep, just sits on his bed watching his siblings rest and clutching his school bag. My doctor has advised me that he plans on giving it another hour, if the kid doesn’t sleep, then they will give him something.”
“Your medical team is prescribing a sedative for a drugging victim? You do see the flaw in that logic correct? Pepper observed.
Ross nodded his head in admission. “I do, but I need the boy in top shape before he speaks to his father tomorrow.”
That sent a shiver down Tony’s spine, he knew there was no way that Ross was letting Clint see his son out of the goodness of his heart, there had to be an angle. “The kids don’t get visitors, but Clint does?”
Ross asked with a slimy smile on his face. “Are you aware that the use of psychological torture is an acceptable method of interrogation?”
Every alarm in Tony’s head was going off. Pepper was staring a hole into the side of his head willing him to look towards her. “No, I actually believe it is anything but acceptable. And I know that the use of children in any of it is strictly prohibited.”
Waving off Stark’s comment, the Secretary continued, “I wasn’t asking for your opinion on the method. As far as the ‘use of children’ goes, it’s all in how you interpret the law. I’m assuming you have read Agent Barton’s file at some point.”
“I may have.” Everyone in the room knew Tony had.
Standing up, Ross began to pace the short distance of the room. “Then you would be fully aware of the fact that Barton’s parents died in a car accident when he was six years old?”
Tony did not like where this was going but pressed on to see if Ross was ignorant enough to tell them his plans. “Yes, the father, Harold, was drunk and crashed the car with the entire family in it. What of it?”
Halting his stride, Thaddeus looked at Tony, “My point is, Clint and his brother were put into foster care following the death of their parents. All because their father essentially killed their mother.
The dots started to connect for Tony, standing up to match the stance of the Secretary he accused, “That’s why you called CPS, so you could use that against Clint? Having experienced “the system” himself, he would never want his children in it. That’s heartless even for you Mr. Secretary.” Tony was quickly thinking of who he could contact about this mistreatment of the children.
Facing his accuser, Ross glowered right into Tony’s eyes. “There is an eerie resemblance between the two unfortunate events, I will give you that Tony. Harold killed Edith Barton and Clint killed Laura Barton.”
“You know that’s not true.” Tony mentally kicked himself for not being able to hide the panic that he knew his face was showing. Ross couldn’t keep Clint in jail after the Airport Fight, and not even after the Raft break out. Finally, the Secretary could capture and jail one of the members of ‘Team Cap’.
Ross tilted his head to the side and back in disinterest. “Perhaps, but the evidence fits the story. I can even incriminate the rest of them, Rogers, Romanoff, Wilson and Maximoff. I am actually still debating whether or not to charge you as an accessory to the crimes.”
“What evidence do you have against anyone, and why do you need Cooper’s involvement? Hasn’t he been through enough?” Pepper asked remaining seated with her hands grasping the arms of the chair in frustration and anger.
Disregarding Pepper, Thaddeus kept his attention on the man known as Ironman. “I want Clint to look in his first-born’s eyes and know that I am the one in control. I want the boy to ask him ‘where’s mom’ and see how Barton reacts. I want that child in his father’s presence when CPS removes the boy from the room and away from Clint. You see, I’m not trying to interrogate information out of an agent, but a father. I can’t break Agent Barton into telling me where Rogers and his group of criminals are, but ‘daddy’ might.”
Every part of Tony’s body and soul was focused on not killing the man standing in front of him with his bare hands right then and there. Pepper saw the internal struggle her fiancée was experiencing and knew the options that he was weighing. As concerning as that was, she was more concerned about the fact that she didn’t know if she would stop him if he went through with it.
Ross turned to Pepper to answer the first part of her question, “As far as evidence Miss. Potts, I have plenty. Tony was at the farm mere hours before everything went to shit, then shows up here a few hours later attempting to get access to the children. Is everyone supposed to believe that is just a fluke? My men back at the farm were killed with a single bullet to the head. Presented to a jury, who do you think they would believe did it? I’ll save you the time, obviously it is the trained sniper. The children were poisoned with medication prescribed to Clint Barton, circumstantial of course, but when added to the rest of the story, it makes it’s point. We may not have Laura’s body, but any decent attorney could provide evidence to show that Clint was trained to never let a body be found.”
“What does this have to do with the rest of the Avengers?” Stark knew he was going to regret asking.
“Who do you think made the 911 call?” Lifting his cell phone up, Ross pressed a button and audio filled the silent room.
“Hello? I need to report a shooting. There are four men dead, all with gunshot wounds to the head. We have children present who may have been drugged ages thirteen, ten, and three. We need police and medical assistance immediately.” Ross hit the button again and the recording stopped.
Tony had of course heard the 911 conversation, and there wasn’t any doubt in his mind who was the voice behind it. “Could have been anyone.”
The Secretary sighed deeply, “Let’s stop playing games, you know as well as I do that it was Sam Wilson. I know they weren’t on the farm with the family when the shootings happened, which can only mean that Barton had to have contacted them. That alone is a violation of his house arrest. He was prohibited from contact with known criminals. Wilson scrambled the signal, so we are unable to currently track the origins of the call. I know that when we do, they won’t be there anymore.”
To gain any ground or control in the situation Tony knew that he would have to concede a few undeniable points. “Yeah, sure, that does sound like Sam. If I was you I wouldn’t even waste the man power on tracking that call because as you said, they will be long gone by the time you have boots on the ground. You spin a nice yarn sir, but it doesn’t hold up.” Tony sat down on the edge of the desk and motioned for Ross to take his seat back.
“First, you lack a motive. Why would Clint pick today of all days to snap? Why hurt the children, in fact why hurt Laura? Second, Clint didn’t tamper with his tracking device at all. I know the first thing I would do if I just went on a killing and drugging spree would be to get the hell out of dodge. Clint didn’t do either. And third…”
“And third, you are a dumb ass for thinking any of this would work Secretary Ross.” Everyone in the room looked towards the source of the comment. Standing within the entrance to the office was Director Nick Fury.
Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven ~ He's Been Under Worse
“Director Fury.” Secretary Ross greeted and extended his hand while walking over to Nick.
The hospital security personnel could be seen peeking behind Fury but was smart enough to remain outside the office. The government officer who was in the room put his hand on his gun, unclipping the snap that held the weapon in place on his belt. Director Nick Fury stood blocking the doorway with his hands in his pockets ignoring the customary greeting offered by the Secretary.
Fury returned, “Secretary Ross, seems that we have a bit of a problem here. Mr. Stark and Miss. Potts were acting on my behalf to secure the Barton children. They were able to get here clearly faster than I was. What is the reason that they are in here?”
Tony amused himself by thinking if Fury had two eyes, one would be winking at him to go along with the story. “We decided since the kids were sleeping we would do a little Avengers public relation while we were here. Secretary Ross was kindly helping us bide our time until breakfast with his tales of horrible threats against everyone we know and hold dear, and how he was planning to psychologically scar Clint’s kids later. I would love to say that it’s been fun, but it really hasn’t.”
It was evident on the Secretary’s face that he wasn’t sure if anyone was telling the truth. “I think the better question Nick is why are you here? S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have any jurisdiction here, especially since there is no longer a S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Laughing in a manner that made the hair on Pepper’s arm stand up, Nick took a few steps into the room. “I used to like bedtime stories as well Thaddeus, but then I turned eight. Whoever you have as your informant must have their information mixed up. S.H.I.E.L.D was never gone, just went underground until we could resurface.”
Ross’s slimy smile returned. Tony was starting to use that facial marker as a tell for when the Secretary thought he had the advantage. “That could very well be so, but it doesn’t change the Bartons’ status. The children are in custody of the government being cared for by CPS under my guidance.”
Nodding his head Nick agreed, “I agree, the children are in the custody of the government, but I’m afraid you have the wrong agency.” Tony was jumping up and down inside. He knew whatever trick Nick was about to pull from behind his eyepatch was going to be awesome. He caught Pepper’s attention and gave her a smile that said, ‘It’s all going to be alright’. He watched as Nick carefully formed his next sentence. “S.H.I.E.L.D. code 52281 subsection B, ‘all offspring of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are immediately put into the guardianship of S.H.I.E.L.D administration in the event the parents are unable to fulfill their parental duties’.”
The smile fell from Thaddeus’ face, “Nice try.”
“No, not a try, it’s happening. Children of agents may be privy to classified information that we cannot have out in the real world. The children must be contained within the agency to be properly vetted prior to finding an alternate placement. You are the Secretary of State. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a global agency. It is you who doesn’t have jurisdiction sir. I have already been in contact with the Secretary of Defense, who may I add is the only American official I have to answer to regarding domestic affairs, he has approved my request. I would very much appreciate it if your medical staff could catch my people up. The children’s health shouldn’t suffer because we have a bit of a disagreement, don’t you agree Secretary?”
Tony leaned over from his perch on the desk to Pepper and whispered, “Were we the only ones who didn’t bring our own medical staff? I feel left out, no one told me.” Pepper cut him off by hitting his arm and shushing him.
“If that is all Mr. Secretary, we don’t want to keep you up. Thank you for supervising the children until we arrived.” This time Nick did extend his hand, and Thaddeus accepted it in defeat and started to leave. “Oh, and Thaddeus.” The Secretary turned to the speaker, “I will also be needing my agent back.”
On a hairpin, Ross turned around and fired back at Fury, “There is no way in hell, absolutely not, he is still under investigation.”
Shrugging his shoulders Fury replied, “Trust me, he’s been under worse.” In any other circumstance Tony would laugh at that. Now he wasn’t sure that what Nick said was just a comment or innuendo and since he now had a daughter in the game, it wasn’t funny.
“You want me to release a man who murdered four of my guards, his wife and poisoned children.” The tension in the room thickened with the modest summary of what took place the day before.
The director repeated, “Like Stark said, you have no motive, not to mention, your evidence sucks. I have my Assistant Director enroute currently to collect Agent Barton from police custody. I would suggest you do as she asks; Assistant Director Hill isn’t as nice as me.”
The ‘tell’ appeared again, “Oh, I have a motive. Agent Barton was cuckolded. Stronger men than him have snapped due to such issues.”
Tony’s eyes got wide, “Wait, who held Clint’s what? He has only been in prison for maybe six hours?”
Pepper snapped, “Tony shut up!” She knew that Tony’s ‘play on words’ was a lame attempt of his to lightening the mood, but it really wasn’t the time or place.
Director Fury took a long step to close the gap between himself and the Secretary. “If you want to say something, just spit it out man. However, a word of caution, you are speaking about one of my finest employees and a good friend, so tread carefully.”
Ross didn’t allow himself to respond to the attempt of physical intimidation by Nick, “My staff ran the children’s blood work to isolate the sedative that was used in the drugging. Not only were they able to identify the substance but were also able to determine that Clint’s medication was the only thing of his that was in Lila Barton.”
Tony and Pepper looked to each other sharing an alarmed expression. Tony understood at that moment that this was probably the first time any of the Barton spawns have had their blood work done in a public medical facility. Clint undoubtedly had S.H.I.E.L.D. handle all the kids medical needs to avoid exposure of the family. Of course, Ross would have jumped at the opportunity to dissect the results.
Thaddeus continued to justify his actions, “Agent Barton spent a lot of the children’s early years away working. It was in the last two years that he became more of a stable presence in the home because of house arrest. Clint spending more time with the girl, caused him to suspect something wasn’t right. A man with Barton’s resources would be able to run a test without any barriers. Once he found out that his daughter was another man’s he acted out and killed his wife. This would also explain why Lila received the heaviest of the medication.”
That accusation hung heavy in the air within the silent room. The Director and Secretary were still imbedded in their staring contest, it was Fury who broke the silence, “Well then, I guess you are not only a stupid ass, but also a half ass for stopping at matching Miss. Barton to her father. If your people did their job properly they would have notice she doesn’t match her brothers or mother either. So, I would suggest before making false statements about a man’s wife, you be more thorough in your research.”
“You’re covering for him.”
“Sadly, you will never know. Again, it’s out of your jurisdiction. In the faith of interdepartmental collaboration, please see that your people work with mine regarding the Secretary of Defense’s orders.” Glancing at his watch, “I have to apologize Mr. Secretary, I have taken up too much of your time as it is, and you still have a lot to do. I won’t be taking up any more.”
Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross didn’t get to where he was by picking the battles he knew he would lose. This opportunity slipped through his fingers but there would be another one, and soon. The tragedy of the Barton family would cause certain people to come out of hiding, and when they did, he would be there. “Yes, of course Director. I will instruct my team to provide you with the children’s medical records and release Agent Barton into your care.” Showing that he was raised with manners, the Secretary said his partings, “Good bye Director, Tony, Miss. Potts.” With a final nod to his bodyguard, Secretary Ross finally left.
Tony rushed over to the door and checked the hallway for anyone remaining behind to eavesdrop on their conversation. Satisfied that no one was there, he shut and locked the door. “Natasha sent you.” It was a statement not a question. Tony had expected Natasha to kidnap the kids during the night, probably while Steve was breaking Clint out of jail again.
Fury removed his black leather jacket and draped it over his arm then sat down on the couch. “She was on the phone with Barton when he discovered the guards dead.”
Pepper, deciding that she had been sitting for far too long stood up and walked behind the desk to start up the coffee maker, casually stating as she did so, “I’m surprised she isn’t here. From what Tony has told me, she loves that family as her own.”
Leaning back to sink into the cushions of the couch Nick informed, “She knows that I can only play this card once. I can’t bail out every Avenger that Ross collects in his travels. Clint was technically retired from the Avengers and with a little creative backlogging on our agency’s personnel files, Clint was being used as a consultant for S.H.I.E.L.D. since the house arrest started, so the United Nations can’t do anything to him without the agency’s approval. Believe me, if Romanoff needed to be in this hospital she would be. It wouldn’t matter if Ross was present or not.” Returning his attention to the people in the office, “I thought it would be best to minimize the people involved given the nature of the evidence.”
Fury was referring to Lila’s paternity, Tony didn’t even want to think about what Natasha would have done if she was in the office when Ross started bragging about obtaining that information. “So, you know?”
In the typical Director Fury, ‘I’ll answer your question with a question’, spy technique, he responded, “I know everything Stark, so I will need you to be more specific.”
“Yes, I know. I’m hearing rumblings that you are investigating the wipe of 2008, a dangerous rabbit hole to enter.”
“Getting that.” Pushing himself off the door he was propping himself against, Tony propelled forward to the seats that Pepper and Ross vacated earlier. “Does Clint know any of this?” He arranged both chairs so that they were facing the couch now, a bit cozier, Tony thought to himself.
“No, could never find the words. In the beginning I was of the same belief as Ross, pretty farmwife, husband away for months at a time. There are some who wouldn’t blame her for straying. But damn if Clint didn’t love her, and the kids. I had no right to mess with his home.” It was probably the sincerest that Nick Fury had ever been with Tony. He knew that the director had it in him, Nick had a similar ‘talk’ with Tony about his father years ago, but not as ‘raw’ as this one.
Positioning himself in the chair, Tony rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his face in between his hands. “And how do you know any of this, weren’t you wiped as well?”
“While you have only had a few days to sniff around this, I have had ten years. Do you really think I would let the wipe happen and move on? Every second I had to spare when I wasn’t maintaining the safety of the world as Director was dedicated to my search for the reason why it happened. Things really didn’t start to click until after the Battle of New York and got a hell of a lot clearer after the data dump. Following the dump, I went underground by playing dead and was found pretty damn quickly.”
Pepper rejoined the men with three cups of coffee. It had been a long night and morning, and she didn’t see an end coming anytime soon. “How were you found?”
Nodding his ‘thanks’, Nick took the cup and answered. “I went to visit my godchildren at their family’s farm, to test a theory.”
“Clint’s home?” The idea of Nick playing Godfather was straight up hilarious to Tony.
“Yes, a place that had always been a safehouse. Wanted to see if it was still safe after my “death” at the hands of HYDRA.”
Finishing the story for him, Pepper resolved, “I’m assuming it wasn’t.”
“It was until I left the house. I was attacked about ten miles out from the homestead. They were waiting for me.”
“Laura?” Tony asked.
Nick confirmed with a head nod, “Laura. That one hurt more than losing my eye. The woman was never anything but kind. Even did my laundry for me. She washed my underwear for the love of God, that was sacred.”
“Clint was clueless?” The questions were forming faster than Tony could ask them. How could a highly trained spy and assassin not know what was going on under his very roof, and for ten years?
The way Nick was looking at Tony made Stark think that the Director was reading his mind. “It was the perfect cover. Something we never even thought about, better yet trained our agents to deal with. Clint was being groomed to one day be the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, and he would have done a great job. What better way to infiltrate the top then by starting at the bottom? By the time Clint was in power, Laura would be untouchable. HYDRA had people on the Council and with Laura, someone in a position of power in S.H.I.E.L.D. There would have been no end to their capabilities. Everyone in the agency was wiped, a woman claiming to be the wife, pregnant with baby number two, and a son who calls you ‘daddy’, it’s hard to not believe that they aren’t telling the truth.”
Stark was quick to respond, “Cooper was telling the truth, but how does Lila fit into this?”
“Yeah, he was.” Nick settled apologetically. “My best guess is that Laura was faking her pregnancy with Lila. Clint only saw her pregnant for two days. It would be easy enough to hide for that amount of time. At the ‘birth’, HYDRA procures a child and she passes it off as hers.”
Taking the seat next to Tony as she passed him a cup, Pepper asked her own question, “What happened after she found out that her planned attack on you didn’t work?”
“I don’t have anything to prove it, but I believe Laura knew after I survived that she had to strengthen her cover in case Clint started to suspect her. In the intelligence world we call it a blood cover. Something that strengthens the bond between the spy and their target. Something that the two have a common interest in.”
Another light bulb went off in Tony’s head, “Nathaniel. Damn, just when I thought we hit the bottom of this well of insanity, there is another three hundred feet to fall. You said that Clint was being trained for your job, what changed?”
“Loki and New York. Clint shot the current Director and attempted to kill the Assistant Director in a car chase. Not to mention the hundreds of people who were on the helicarrier who almost died when he blew it up to free Loki. Shit like that hurts morale. It was apparent that the organization wouldn’t trust him as their leader after that, mind control or not.” A heavy uncomfortable pause settled among the room’s occupants until Fury asked Tony a question for a change. “You just told me that you knew Cooper was telling the truth to Clint all those years ago, what do you know?”
“You know what they say about idle hands. Pepper is running the company, and I do love a puzzle.”
Pepper was tired. The adrenalin she had been using to get by these long hours was wearing down. “Tony, just tell him maybe he can assist.”
Admitting defeat, Tony confessed. “Fine, I was investigating Katherine Bishop.”
The Director’s eye brows rose in comprehension. “Now it’s all coming together. Tell me, is that why you went to Clint’s?”
“It was one of the reasons, he didn’t know anything.” Tony wondered, how was Kate’s involvement making the picture clearer to Fury?
“Does he know anything now?” Tony shook his head in answer, much to the quiet relief of Nick. Tony didn’t want to go into the will, apartment deed, and facial comparison data that he had shown Clint. “Good, probably not going to be able to keep it that way for much longer. Especially since you blew Laura’s cover which caused this turn of events. I would rather that information come from me.” Tony looked away in guilt, as he put all the pieces together and realized that his presence and actions at the farm earlier had set this in motion. The Director’s intent wasn’t to blame Tony or to cause him to feel guilty. “I’m not saying this was your fault. A cover like this could not be maintained forever, ten years was a damn good run if you ask me.”
A cover? Tony thought as the feeling of anger swelled up inside of him. A cover is what Natasha did when she came to Stark Industries as his new assistant. What Laura and HYDRA had done was not a cover, it was psychological abuse to Clint and his children. Who knew how any of them would handle this when everything was over and done with. Then there was Kate, there was no telling what condition she was in. Odds are that HYDRA didn’t set her up on a farm somewhere. It was the stuff that nightmares are made of. “Do you have any idea why this all happened? I get that HYDRA wanted someone with Clint as an informant. That would explain why some of Caps more recent missions have not worked out as planned. Natasha must have been talking to Clint, and he told Laura. HYDRA must have known the wipe was about to happen and placed Laura and Cooper at the farm prior to pushing the button. Two birds, one stone.”
Nick unearthed his cellphone from his draped jacket’s numerous folds and pockets, scrolling through his screen, he typed something and stated coolly, “Tony, what you had uncovered in less than a week took me years. There are undoubtedly some things you know that I don’t and vice versa. Tell me what you know, and I will do my best to fill in some gaps.”
It seemed like a good deal to Tony, “I have it narrowed down to a politician being killed who was in with HYDRA and a contained gamma explosion at a HYDRA research lab. One of these events caused the W.S.C. to wipe everyone.”
Fury looked up from his cellphone, placing it screen down on his thigh and followed up, “Did the assassination in your research lead you to any conclusion that HYDRA was negatively impacted?”
“No, at least there wasn’t any evidence of a lasting impact.” Tony admitted. The assassination was his best guess of a wipe cause and Nick’s response dashed any hope in that theory.
Processing the information Nick surmised, “So, you are left with a contained explosion of a research base operated by HYDRA that contaminated the area with gamma radiation in 2008. Anything else happen that year involving gamma radiation?”
Tony searched his mind, he was exhausted emotionally and physically. “Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything.”
Pepper impatiently answered, “Bruce Banner came out of hiding; the world was introduced to the Hulk.”
Giving Pepper with a small smile, the director stated, “Very good Miss. Potts. The Hulk made his first appearance, but he wasn’t the only one.”
Tony stood up and shouted, “Thunderbolt Ross!” The military nickname for Secretary Thaddeus Ross. “He tested Bruce’s serum on one of his men.”
The director acknowledged Tony’s statement, “And the world changed for the worst.”
Stark started to pace. Pacing always helped him to process intel and new intel was arriving by the second needing to be understood and connected with the whole picture. “Because it was used as a military weapon. HYDRA saw what happened in Harlem and wanted to replicate it.”
Watching Tony pace back and forth Pepper added, “If HYDRA was successful, who knows what would have happened. A contained blast would take out all their research and any samples they may have created. Especially if they were so far in their research that it was being tested on humans”
“Gold star for you.” Nick rewarded to Pepper.
“Yeah, she’s brilliant.” Pepper cut her eyes sharply to Tony. “Sorry, however there was a second blast that I don’t think your people were responsible for.”
“I know we weren’t the ones, but I know who did. It was a group with similar objectives as S.H.I.E.L.D. and I appreciate their assistance during a time where S.H.I.E.L.D. was weakened.”
Tony would bet his entire company that there was a lot more to Nick’s answer about the second attack. The information that Fury did provide aided in Tony’s conclusion of the reasoning behind the wipe. “There would have been no way in hell that HYDRA would be able to obtain the duplicate of Bruce’s serum without government input, specifically the World Security Council. The Sandbox mission exposed the depth of HYDRA’s cover in the Council. That would justify a wipe, they were ensuring their job security. But of course, this is all just a bunch of assumptions, we need proof.”
Standing up Nick rolled his neck from side to side getting the kinks out. He was half way around the world when Natasha contacted him. “Would copies of the research being sent to an anonymous database that didn’t have any connection to S.H.I.E.L.D. suffice you?”
Tony had to blink twice before what Fury had said sunk in, “Very much so, however, it seems impossible that such a database would exist. For anyone to successfully accomplish anything like that, they would need access to numerous mainframes at the same time, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, HYDRA’s and the anonymous one. Not to mention the person doing it would have to be the best encryption specialist and decoder ever, especially doing that in a hostile situation. Everything I have looked at doesn’t even hint at another database, and I am the best.”
Nick walked over to where Tony was standing next to Pepper, he looked Stark dead in the eyes, “Yes, you were. But then again, science was your passion, not math. Remember, at S.H.I.E.L.D. we only recruit the best.”
“Kate?” Tony asked in almost a whisper.
Fury dipped his head in affirmation, “How do you think I knew who she was? The Council was exposed, she knew she couldn’t send the intel through proper channels. It was a crazy ass move that ended in an explosion when HYDRA tracked her location and computer activities, but the mission was a success. The apple really didn’t fall far from the tree Tony, you would have been proud of her. She saw what was happening at the base and acted to save the world.”
“She was pregnant, why the hell was she even on the mission.” Pepper accused.
Nick looked to Pepper to acknowledge her question but returned his attention to Tony and answered. “I said it earlier, we only hire the best. I don’t know the details of the mission profile obviously. I can only hypothesize off the evidence I had accumulated throughout the years. I do know the best practices within the agency regarding medical conditions and participating in missions. Kate’s involvement on the mission must have been critical, a major player in the successfulness of the mission. We wouldn’t have just sent her in. We would have made every attempt to ensure her safety at all times.”
Sometimes you must be careful what you wish for. Tony had been searching for Kate’s involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. and now he had most of his questions answered. “Then why wasn’t she at S.H.I.E.L.D. when the wipe happened? The events are days apart.”
Breaking off the eye contact with Tony, Nick stated, “Like I said, we would have attempted to ensure her safety, but that doesn’t mean we were able to.”
Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve ~ Serving Breakfast
Assistant Director Maria Hill walked into the interrogation room with two S.H.I.E.L.D agents flanking her along with Mr. Townsend who was a representative from the Department of Defense. Her entrance was a shock to the government agents who were questioning Clint. “Thank you, but Agent Barton is now in the custody of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. We can take it from here.”
Both interrogators stood up to face the intruders, the man on the right was hesitant but said, “Excuse me but this is a closed interrogation.”
Hill was expecting some resistance but wasn’t in the mood for it. “Yes, it is closed to you. Please Mr. Townsend, explain the Secretary’s order to the gentleman…outside.” Townsend showed his identification to the men and motioned for them to leave the room. Without any additional instructions, the officials left. Maria waited until the door closed before taking a seat opposite Clint at the interrogation table. She hadn’t seen Clint in almost three years, not a lot of time for someone to change, at least physically. Hill chalked it up to the recent events as of the reason the man looked like he had aged ten years. Clint’s hands were handcuffed and chained to the table, as were his feet. Without a single word to anyone Maria gestured to the restraints and one of the agents stepped forward to unlock the shackles.
Once his hands were released Clint started to rub the circulation back into his wrist, “How bad is it Maria?”
Maria looked at the man in front of her. He was drowning and begging her to throw him a life preserver. “Clint you are too good of an agent to ask me that question, and I’m too good of a friend to answer it.”
“But, Laura?” he asked in a barely audible whisper.
“We are looking for her, we will find her. I know it is asking the impossible but try not to think about her right now. The children are fine. Medical is just about to clear them for discharge.”
“They’re alright, really?”
“I wouldn’t lie to you about that.” She would about a lot of other things, but not the health of his children. “Director Fury is with them.” She hesitated for a moment then added, “As are Tony Stark and Pepper Potts.”
“What the hell are Tony and Pepper doing there?”
“Frankly Clint, I think Tony feels guilty. His visit to the farm yesterday is probably what triggered the events of last night. Director Fury messaged me that he walked in on Stark and Secretary Ross ‘having it out’ over the children.”
“Ross” Clint hissed out. “He was supposed to show up this morning to question me with some irrefutable evidence on why I killed Laura and drugged the kids. Least I forget, also killed four innocent men who were just doing their jobs. What did he want with my kids?”
Director Fury did fill Maria in a little bit about Ross’ sick plan, but it was probably for the best to generalize it for Clint. “Nothing good, but Tony and the Director stopped it.”
Clint knew there was a lot more to it than ‘nothing good’, but he also knew that there would be no way in hell that Nick Fury would let anything bad happen to his children, so he would let it go for right now, but he and Secretary Ross were far from done. “I want to see them.”
Maria nodded, “We are going to meet up with the Director and your kids at the airport.” With that said, Agent Hill stood up and walked towards the door, “Oh, and if anyone asks, you have been a S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant for the past two years,”
“United Nations loophole?” Clint asked as he politely pushed in his chair before leaving.
Giving Clint a small sad smile, Hill confirmed, “United Nations loophole. Your house arrest has been lifted, let’s go.”
Shaking his head, Clint followed Maria out of the room, “Thank you for sitting on that one for two years.”
“So, she is dead?” Tony asked lowering his head and stared at the factory grade carpet that covered the floor of the small office he had been inside of for hours. He said that he would stop once he had a body or a witness to the death of Kate, and Nick’s testimony seemed to be the closest he would get.
Fury placed his right hand on Tony’s left shoulder. The Director lowered his own head to meet Tony’s eyes, willing the man to look up at him, “No Tony, your daughter isn’t dead.”
Of course, Nick Fury knew Kate was Tony’s daughter. This man’s secrets had secrets. As hope and tears filled Starks eyes he asked, “How did you know, who she was I mean?”:
Removing his hand, the Director remembered a time before the wipe, “Peggy Carter was always interested in Kate and worked tirelessly trying to persuade your father into recruiting her once she got old enough.”
“My father?” Tony’s parents knew about Tony and Eleanor and the ‘situation they created’ as his mother delicately phrased it all those years ago. Howard and Maria Stark never spoke of it again once Eleanor and Derek were married. Tony just plain put it out of his head, believing he had dodged a bullet. He never thought about his parents following the child through her life, but it didn’t surprise him. His mother would have made sure the child was cared for and loved as any grandmother, involved or not, would do. His father on the other hand would have watched the child with an interest to see just how much ‘Stark’ she had in her.
“Howard had a ‘Stark ban’ on S.H.I.E.L.D. He was very clear that you and Kate were never to be involved in the organization.” Nick had spoken to Tony before about Howard not wanting Tony in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s affairs, he had conveniently omitted the inclusion of Kate in the discussion.
“And yet here I am, and Kate was.” Tony knew about his father’s wishes, but it extending to Kate meant that his father knew that S.H.I.E.L.D. would want her at some point. It signified that Howard had to know that Kate’s strengths and abilities would align with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s objectives. Tony wondered if his parents had ever met their only grandchild, it was a small city. His mother would have bumped into the Bishop family during any of her numerous charity fundraisers. What relationship did his mother have with his daughter? Just how disappointed had Maria Stark been with her son for his reckless behavior that prevented her from openly playing the dutiful grandmother?
“Yeah, but you are stubborn,” Nick accused as he took out his phone again and appeared to be sending a message, then added, “and Peggy was too.”
“What does that mean?” Pepper asked, attempting to take some pressure off Tony. She knew that he was dealing with a lot now, separating the actions of the past from the happenings of the present.
Putting his phone away Nick answered Tony’s fiancée. “It means that Peggy assumed that Howard’s orders ended with him. As soon as Kate was enrolled in college, Peggy started sending me to recruit her.” Nick hated to say anything bad about Peggy Carter, but he believed then, and still believed today, that it was an ill-timed move to make in the wake of Howard and Maria’s death.
There was a knock on the door. Fury went over to open it to be confronted with a member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. medical staff. “Sir?” The man in a white coat asked as Director Fury ushered him into the office, this time leaving the door open.
Nick made the introductions, “This is Doctor Simmons, I brought him to lead the medical team. Dr. Simmons, this is Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. You may speak freely in front of them. They are concerned parties.”
Dr. Simmons shook both Pepper and Tony’s hand. Returning to his boss, he filled the director in of his finding since taking over from Secretary Ross’ team. “The latest blood work shows that the ‘rapid detox’ of the IV treatment worked wonderfully. The children do not have any traces of the drug in their systems.”
“So, Lila woke up?” Pepper asked enthusiastically, the relief clear on her face and in her voice.
“Yes ma’am. All three children are awake and very responsive.” The doctor returned to the Director, “I would like to recommend a therapist to speak to them. They have a lot of questions.”
“I’m sure they do, why should they be any different than the rest of us?” Tony said not so quietly to himself to which he received annoyed looks from everyone in the room.
Nick Fury indicated for the doctor to ignore Stark’s remark and continue, “The eldest,” checking his notes on the medical tablet, “Cooper Barton recognized the S.H.I.E.L.D badge on my coat.” The doctor pointed to the logo that was embroidered onto the pocket on the lab coat under his name. “He asked to speak to the team leader.”
Nick looked to Tony and Pepper and gestured to the door, “Shall we?”
Tony, always the gentleman allowed Pepper to be the first person out, following her, he looked out into the hallway and proclaimed, “About damn time.”
Without needing to be told which room the children were in, Tony got in front of Pepper to the room where the guards had earlier been stationed. The room was still being protected but the men in black suits had been replaced by men dressed in the familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform. The men must have recognized him, or a better guess would be that Nick Fury was right behind him, because the men moved from the door and silently permitted entrance.
The sight that Tony was greeted with in the hospital room was a comforting one. All three children were in one of the hospital beds, watching cartoons on the television that was placed high up on the wall. Nathaniel sat comfortably between his brother, who as Ross stated earlier was holding a black backpack, and his sister. Abandoned, was the second bed that was separated from the occupied one by a recliner and a crib below the television.
Putting on his ‘game face’ Tony alerted the children to his arrival, “Hey little agents, long time no see!”
“Uncle Tony” Lila screamed as she jumped out of the bed and into his arms. Tony had never been hugged by a child, better yet Lila Barton. He assumed her actions were because she was scared to wake up in the hospital and relieved to finally see a familiar face.
Nick and Pepper entered behind him. That was when Cooper’s face lit up, but then became blank. He had to control his voice to hide the fright and exhaustion. The boy greeted the Director, “Uncle Nick.”
Tony watched Cooper’s behavior from over Lila’s shoulder since the girl refused to release the death grip on him. He resolved that Cooper was trying to act like Clint. Tony thought back to the pictures that were displayed in the apartment of his milestones as an infant and toddler. The pictures of Kate’s little boy compared to the present before Tony’s very eyes. A child trying to be a man, trying to protect his siblings, trying to be strong. Not trying, he was strong. Even if he wasn’t Tony’s grandson, he would still be damn proud of the kid.
Nate made eye contact with the only woman in the room and put his hands up, “up”. Pepper took the cue and picked the toddler up and sat down in the recliner with him. Whispering things into the boy’s ears that no one could hear. Tony thought that Pepper looked so natural holding and comforting a child. That left Cooper alone in the bed, still clutching the bag.
“Hey Coop,” Tony called out waiting for the child to make eye contact with him, “why don’t you put that bag down and rest. We are here, no one will take it.”
Tony froze when he saw the alarm set in Cooper’s eyes. The blue eyes of the barely teenage boy darted between Tony and Nick, “No, I can’t. Aunt Nat.”
“Natasha told you not to let go of the bag, correct?” Nick asked, and the boy nodded. Nick looked to Pepper and Tony, “It’s a bug out bag in case anything happened. It has everything the kids would need if they escaped.”
Prying Lila from him, Tony said in disbelief, “What the hell? They are children. What do you mean if they had to escape?”
Nick defended, “Clint trained Cooper what to do in a situation such as this, and I am happy to see that Cooper did his job perfectly. I’m sure that when I tell your father and Aunt Natasha about this, they will be very proud.”
“Well, grandpa isn’t exactly over the moon about it.” Tony said under his breath and was relieved to see that no one had heard him. Lila was now holding his hand and swinging it.
“I know you have a lot of questions. That was some scary shit you went through, and I would be lying if I said it was over. As soon as you guys get some food in your bellies and discharged, I will be taking you all to New York. Cooper, I know you haven’t slept at all, so why don’t you get some kip before breakfast arrives?” Nick was sure to use Clint’s word for nap with Cooper to enforce the necessity for him to take one. Pepper felt the need to comment on Nick’s language choices but kept it to herself when she saw the Cooper was responding to the Director. Cooper understood the message and obeyed, he handed his bag to Fury and lied down.
Tony watched the exchange between Cooper and Fury. It didn’t take long before the room was filled with the deep breathing of a sleeping Cooper. Tony took this opportunity to finish his conversation with Nick. “Pepper do you mind sitting in here with Lila and Nathaniel while I speak to Nick in the hallway?”
Reaching for Lila’s hand, Pepper replied, “Of course, we will just wait in here.”
The two men walked into the hallway, it was still early which meant that there were not a lot of people around. Nick knew that Tony wanted the whole story about what happened to Kate, and he was willing to tell Stark what he knew.
Tony started, “So, Kate is not dead. How is she not dead if she was in the explosion?”
Shaking his head at the conundrum Nick responded, “I don’t know how she survived, but she did. HYDRA grabbed her after the explosion. They held her for a week before she was rescued,”
“By ‘a group with similar objectives as S.H.I.E.L.D?’” Tony asked, using the Director’s words from earlier.
“Yes, that group. I didn’t know about Kate’s rescue until recently, up until then I just assumed she died in the explosion.” Fury said rubbing his hand over his eye.
The short answers were eating away at Tony’s patience, “What changed recently?”
Checking his surroundings, he pulled Tony by the upper arm away from the S.H.I.E.L.D. guards to a small alcove a bit down the hallway and started, “Two years ago, I was contacted by an informant I used occasionally. The guy, Paul, is well known to always have his ear to the ground. Not only is he a good source of reliable information, but he also has a talent for setting up meetings between people who normally wouldn’t. Long story short,”
“Too late.” Tony observed dryly.
“As I was saying, my guy got a hold of me. Everyone knew S.H.I.E.L.D. was up and running again to a degree after the whole Ultron chaos. A party Paul was representing didn’t want to contact me through official channels, so they used him to initiate contact. The group had an employee, who was injured and required a CT Scan. When they were studying the scan, they discovered an implant on the brain that they were able to track back to S.H.I.E.L.D. They weren’t contacting me to return the agent, but to ask for any medical records the agency may have had on the person in question. They made that part very clear, the former agent was going to be remaining with them due to the ‘uniqueness of the situation’.”
“It was Kate.” Tony felt for the first time in the last twenty-four hours his heart return to a normal rhythm. She was alive and being care for by the ‘group’. “Hold on, HYDRA never contacted S.H.I.E.L.D. for a ransom or anything?” Tony would have thought that HYDRA having an agent like Kate in their hands would have been an advantage to any dealings between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the terrorist organization.
Nick really hated this conversation. It was everything he hated, HYDRA winning in a strange sort of way, innocent people being hurt, and someone else having to clean up his agency’s mess. Fury knew that as hard as it was to explain everything to Tony, it would be nothing compared to having the same discussion with Clint which would have to happen sooner rather than later. “They weren’t interested in the fact that she was S.H.I.E.L.D. HYDRA had been conducting human experimentation with Banner’s research without any success and suddenly, a pregnant woman is there. A woman, who is basically given a quadruple blast of the serum in pure energy form along with her unborn child, and both survived. It was the answer to their prayers.”
“The baby survived?” Tony questioned in confusion. It was beyond anything he could have hoped for given everything that had happened. When he heard about the explosion and capture, he just assumed the worst.
“Yes, she did, hence the ‘uniqueness’ of the situation that prohibited mother and baby from returning to the agency, well that and HYDRA.” Nick quickly added the last part. HYDRA was still a threat. Even more so now that Laura was involved in the mix. From the conversation Fury had with Natasha he knew that Clint was asking about Kate Bishop. It was highly likely that Clint had also asked Laura. By now Laura was probably debriefing with her people and informing them of the Kate search. HYDRA had to know that S.H.I.E.L.D. was linking the wipe to them and odds were that the organization was planning accordingly hoping that it would cause Kate and her child to resurface. Not to mention that Laura would be wanting Nathaniel back. The entire thing was a cluster. “Tony, the gamma radiation that Kate was exposed to in the blast affected her and the infant in different ways. Kate got the worst of it and there is no good way to put it, but she has been living with gamma radiation poisoning for the past ten years.”
And just like that, any optimism that Tony had shattered. “Oh my God.” And there was the fast heart pace again, “And the child?”
Now Nick had to get into the science of the whole mess, which he knew would require follow up questions from the science genius that Nick wouldn’t be able to answer. “Somewhere in the child’s DNA was what is referred to as a dormant X-gene that Kate didn’t have, which means it was on Clint’s side. Have you ever heard of it?”
Tony had, but that area of study was more Bruce’s thing. “Just in published studies. I read up on it when Wanda Maximoff joined the Avengers. It’s the mutant gene. It is dormant until activation which can be prompted by age, puberty, stress, or trauma. Millions of people have it and live their whole lives without the gene being activated.”
‘Here we go’ thought the Director, “Millions of people weren’t born premature in a HYDRA research base and tested on moments later.”
“Please explain what you mean by ‘tested on’,” Tony requested in a cold tone.
Director Fury put his right hand up to stop Tony before he proceeded, “Now isn’t the time to get into all of that. Just know that the infant was activated almost at birth. From what I have been told, it’s a first for the mutant world. They are safe with a group of similar people who are not only teaching the child how to control her ‘enhancements’ but keeping Kate alive with a drug protocol.”
Tony demanded of the Director, “Where are they now?”
“It’s a special school in upstate New York. The girl is enrolled as a student and Kate is employed there as a math teacher. Tony, they are safe there. I promise you that. “Tony believed Nick and allowed him to continue without interruption. “HYDRA never stopped looking for them. I’m positive they know Kate and her daughter are in the school, but HYDRA doesn’t have the man power to infiltrate the grounds. The moment they leave, that kid would be a target. Kate also needs the medical attention that can only be provided by the staff on campus. That is the way it is, accept it or not, but it’s for the best. Hell, if Banner was around to assist in a cure, and the Avengers were still together to provide protection, it could be an entirely different story but it’s not.”
Tony was about to ask no less than ten follow up questions when a voice behind him requested his attention. Turning around he found the voice belonged to Nurse Vicki. “Mr. Stark, we are about ready to start serving breakfast.”
“What?” Tony asked confused then he swiftly remembered, “Oh yeah, breakfast, let me get the suit on and I will be right there.” Vicki smiled and started to leave.
“Ma’am,” Fury asked to call the nurse back, “Could you please start the discharge process for the Barton children? I would like to get them back to their father soon.”
Vicki smiled at the Director. This woman must really love her job Tony assumed, cause here she was in the middle of her shift and still smiling. The world needed more people like Nurse Vicki. “It has already been started sir. Shouldn’t take too much longer. They should be ready to go by the time the kids finish their meals.”
Fury offered his hand to the Nurse which she happily accepted and shook. Releasing the handshake, the nurse looked down into her palm to see a business card with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo embossed onto it, had been placed there. Vicki looked up at the Director confused as he said, “Thank you very much. I know that this hasn’t exactly been an easy situation for you or your staff, but please know that the government appreciates it and your work here today won’t be forgotten.”
As the puzzled nurse left, Pepper joined them in the hallway, “They are starving, when is breakfast going to be served?”
“I would assume as soon as I deliver it, now wouldn’t it?” A smile appeared on Pepper’s face. She had forgotten the deal she made so they could stay in the ward. Tony was pressing a sequence into the bracelet on his wrist that would produce the Ironman suit, “So, I will meet you all back in New York. Pepper do you mind riding with them? Just so Nick and Clint have an extra set of hands with the kids? Where exactly are you going, S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters?”
“At the Avengers’ compound does Clint still have rooms there?” Director Fury inquired. Tony nodded his head. Each of the Avengers had a set of rooms inside the compound. Nick followed up, “Would it accommodate the kids?”
“I can ask Vision and Rhodes to work on it. With FRIDAY’s help it shouldn’t take long at all, can have it done by the time everyone arrives. Since I am going to be busy serving breakfast, Pepper would you see to it?” Pepper bobbed her head at Tony’s request already mentally writing a list of things that would need to be brought and done to make the compound ‘kid friendly’.
“Good, you do that. I think the compound would be the safest option now. We don’t know if Ross is going to try anything else, and honestly, I don’t think we have heard the last of Laura.” The Director explained cryptically in the manner that Tony was used to, but Pepper was not.
Tony was more than willing to let Fury take the lead on this as long as it resulted in him getting what he wanted and soon. He just needed to know where the man stood on certain issues before Tony saw Clint again. “So, you’re not planning on telling Clint about them, Kate and the baby?”
“What?” The mention of Kate and the missing child broke Pepper out of her concentration. Tony gave her that look of ‘tell you later’ which she accepted.
“Not today I’m not. The man will be dealing with a lot in the coming hours. Throwing a first wife and another daughter at him may be too much to handle all at once.” Pepper didn’t have nearly as much information as she needed to be an active participant in the conversation. She trusted the two men but had some conflicting feelings about withholding such valuable information from Clint. Nick Fury must have known what she was thinking and resumed, “I’m not saying that he won’t be told, let’s just give him some time to process everything on his plate first before we hand him anything else.” Addressing Tony, “I’m not asking you to drop this, I know you won’t. If I was in your shoes I wouldn’t. I am just asking that you wait to make your next move until everyone is safe back at the compound.”
That, Tony could promise to do. It was a realistic request. With a final tap on his bracelet, the Ironman suit pieces appeared and attached to Tony. Once the suit had completed its assembly and was ready to go, Tony opened the face mask to ask Nick a question. “These people who saved Kate and the baby, and run the school, they got a name?”
“Yeah, they have a name,” Nick Fury answered with a smile, “they call themselves the X-Men.”
Chapter 14: Chapter Thirteen ~ A Minimum Average of Thirty Seconds
The drive from the hospital to the small rural airfield had taken less than forty minutes. Nick Fury had been driving the large SUV that Pepper wouldn’t be surprised to learn was fitted out in all types of defense weaponry. It was just her, Nick and the children in this vehicle, her in the passenger seat and the children in the back two rows. Fury hadn’t trusted anyone but himself to safely deliver the children to Clint. Two similar cars followed them with one consisting of the medical team the Director had brought with him and another full of a security detail.
Pepper could see a similar convoy already parked on the tarmac as Nick took the final turn onto the runway. Behind the parked cars was a plane that was large enough to be a commercial aircraft, which was great given the amount of people who needed to board it. The plane was matte black with the logo of S.H.I.E.L.D. displayed proudly in silver towards the tail. The waiting party, seeing their arrival got out to meet them. Pepper could see Clint standing by Maria Hill, the anxiety clear on his face.
Lila was the first one to see Clint due to her position behind Nick in the car. Cooper having the longer legs sat behind Pepper while she moved the seat up as far as it would go to accommodate him, even if it meant crushing her knees in the process. Nate was one row back strapped into a car seat, blissfully oblivious to the events occurring around him.
“It’s dad!” She yelled and waved at the window, unknowing that the windows were deeply tinted and there was no way that she could be seen from outside.
Pepper twisted in her seat to face the back and saw that Lila was taking off her seat belt. “Just hold on until Director Fury tells you that it’s alright to get out, okay?” The girl paused in mid-motion deciding that it was not the best time to test the newly acquainted Ms. Potts’s limit and ceased. Finding Nick Fury watching her in the rearview mirror she decided on a different path.
“But Uncle Nick… “
Speaking as a person who had been in this exact situation numerous times before, Nick Fury didn’t delay. “You heard Miss. Potts, don’t you start Lila Evelyn Barton. It’s been a long day, night and day again, just don’t start. You stay until I tell you to move.” Pepper had to turn back around to look away and bite the inside of her cheek to not laugh. Tony would be so upset that she didn’t record the famous Director Fury disciplining a ten-year-old girl. Lila crossed her arms with a huff and forced herself further back into the seat.
Putting the car in to park and sending one last warning glance to Miss. Barton, Nick and Pepper opened their doors and met the assembled group. Maria had worked for both Stark Industries and the Avengers during the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., so she and Pepper were familiar with each other and exchange smiles. Clint shook Nick’s hand and looked to Pepper and greeted her, “Pepper.” The greeting was short, probably since a ‘good to see you again’ or anything resembling the sentiment was not fitting for this scenario, and he had nothing else to offer. “Where are the kids?”
Tilting his head in a small movement towards the car Nick replied, “In the car of course, couldn’t leave them on the side of the road to sell oranges with HYDRA and Ross watching us, now could I? Lila is lucky however I didn’t throw her out on that last turn. That girl is trouble, just wait another few years and you’ll be gray.”
Clint rolled his eyes, which Pepper interpreted to mean that he knew exactly the behavior that Nick was speaking about and deserted the group to unload his offspring. The door closest was the side Lila was on. The child sprung forward at her father like a tiger being release from a cage. Lila held onto Clint as if her life depended on it and he returned the gesture in the same intensity. It was then that Pepper saw that Lila was crying. The poor girl must have been scared to death, come to think of it Pepper thought, Clint must have been experiencing the same emotion. Clint didn’t have the luxury to give attitude, or cry, as was apparently Lila’s way of emoting, because he had to be ‘dad’ right now. She could hear Clint’s voice quietly speaking to Lila in a comforting manner. Whatever he said must have worked because Lila let go of the hug and nodded her head. Clint then told Cooper to come on out and watch his sister while he released Nate from the car seat. With so many people around willing to help it really wasn’t needed for Cooper to watch his younger sister, but Pepper figured it was Clint’s way of giving the boy something to do and to be responsible for.
As soon as Clint ducked his head into the car Nate started to bounce in his seat. Showing his years of experience, Clint made quick work of the belts and snaps to liberate his youngest. After a quick cuddle, the father put the child on the paved ground to walk after being in the hospital and car for so long, knowing that with as many strange faces as there were in the crowd, Nate wouldn’t wander off far. By this time the rest of the cars’ inhabitants had started to board the plane. This confirmed Clint’s feeling because Nate stayed close but was captivated by the lengthy line of people passing him, but never requested to be picked up.
Director Fury spotted one man making his way to the plane and called him over. “Clint, this is Doctor Martin Simmons. He was the leader of the medical team I assigned to monitor the children while they were in the hospital.” Clint and the Doctor shook hands and Clint expressed his gratitude for the man’s service. “I have asked Doctor Simmons to stay until we get everyone settled.” The fright was apparent in Clint’s eyes of his children continuing to need medical assistance. Nick was quick to calm him down, “just as a precaution. They are fine, I only want to ensure they stay that way.” Clint understood and appreciated the concern. The S.H.I.E.L.D. base was immense, with an entire wing devoted to medical. Personally, he hated every inch of the wing but knew Cooper would be thrilled to see the technology used there.
As every parent is trained to do, Clint took a moment from the conversation to do a head count. Lila and Nate were still within arm’s reach. Searching the area, he saw Cooper looking around, “Where’s mom?” Clint felt his stomach drop at the teenager’s question that he knew would eventually be asked.
Refusing to make eye contact with any of the adults that he knew were looking at him and waiting for Clint’s answer. Knowing that the lack of a prompt response to his son’s question was speaking louder than any words he could form. Clint had had some time to process what had happened last night at the farm. While none of it made any sense to him, Maria Hill told him on the drive over that the evidence fit with Laura taking out the guards and driving away. There hadn’t been any sighting of the car, and it was doubtful that there was a body to be found. There weren’t even any demands made. Everything lined up perfectly with Laura being HYDRA, at least that is what Maria had informed him. Exhausted from both the physical and emotional aspects of the last few hours, Clint had nothing in him to fight Maria’s story. His head and heart had declared war on each other, and he wasn’t sure who was currently winning. Clearing his head, Clint decided that he could not afford to think about that right now, he had responsibilities, one of those responsibilities was watching him with big bright blue eyes waiting for a response. Finally deciding to speak plainly, he truthfully said, “Mom won’t be making this trip with us Coop.” The blank expression on Cooper’s face told Clint that his son understood a lot more then he should, something bad had happened and his mother wasn’t coming back.
Lila was the next to twist the knife deeper into her father’s chest, “We can’t go to New York without mom, dad, where is she?”
“This is a daddy trip. Just you, your brothers, and me. We are going to see where dad and Uncle Nick work.” Clint explained hoping that his daughter wouldn’t bring up the fact that Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Pepper Potts, a medical team, and a very large security detail of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were also accompanying them on this ‘daddy trip.
Clearing his throat to get Clint’s attention, Nick Fury updated him, “We were thinking a place a bit more secluded and comfortable for the kids while we sort out our next step.”
“We’re going to the Avengers’ compound!” Cooper announced excitedly. Clint was taken aback by his son’s excitement considering the conversation they just had three seconds ago.
With a sideways glance at the boy for just blabbing out the plan like that, Nick rephrased, “I know things are tense with Stark and you now, but I have asked Tony if he could accommodate the large group.” Clint recognized what was going on immediately. Nick was trying his best to shield the children from the recent events, and by saying it was a trip to the compound sounded a hell of a lot better than ‘I can’t guarantee your family’s safety at headquarters because your wife went batshit crazy and we don’t know who to trust anymore’. “I was just trying to find the best way to ask if that was alright with you.”
Indifferent to the whole conversation, Cooper, since he was finally going to get to see the compound, came back with, “Well, Dad always says ‘shit or get off the pot.”
All the adults in the group looked at Clint disapprovingly. “In my defense, I am usually referring to the toilet.” The looks didn’t stop. “Hey! I currently have one working bathroom and five people needing it, one who is toilet training, they’re lucky I didn’t install a timer.”
There was laughter from the small group, but it wasn’t real. No one felt it was a suitable thing to do right now, not in front of Clint and not in the presence of his children. Their lives had been forever changed, it wasn’t the time to laugh. The pilot of the plane stood at the loading door and signal to them it was time to board and take off. Ushering his children up the steps and onto the plane he wasn’t surprised at all to see that Nick had thought of everything. The plane had numerous rows of seats, in groups of two. Towards the back, one row had been turned to another with one seat having a child’s seat installed onto it. Pepper helped to get Lila buckled in while Clint handled Nathaniel.
The entire seating and take off took less than ten minutes. Clint felt something in his chest as he watched the landscape of Iowa become further and further away. He asked to himself if they would ever return as he pressed his head to the window seeing clouds start to obstruct his view. The kids were safe, that was what was important right now, no, that was the only thing that was important. That was the last thought Clint had before the need for sleep consumed him.
Clint was hitting the cold steel door with his left hand formed into a fist, but it wasn’t cold, it was burning hot. That doesn’t make sense, his brain attempted to rationalize with his unconscious. He was screaming at something, no for someone. Bracing his right shoulder, he charged into the door, multiple times all the while, still screaming. Someone had a hold of his other arm, pulling him away. He looked at the person but could only see a dark shadow void of any shape or identifying physical trait.
The person was saying something, but he couldn’t make out any of the words in his dream. His swung his hand around and made contact with the puller’s head. Clint didn’t know why, but he felt instant regret at his action. Ignoring the emotion, he swiftly went back to the task of trying to get through the door. His shoulder hurt like hell, but he continued, again and again. The force was back trying to move him away, only there were two now. Words were being exchanged, he could not comprehend anything but the tone. Whatever was being said was being done so with urgency and emotion.
Summoning up all the strength he had, Clint was able to push both people away from him. He rammed his shoulder into the door again and screamed. He screamed out like a wounded animal, but it wasn’t because of the physical pain, it was because of whoever he was separated from. Hands grabbed his face and forced him to look at them. Again, it was the shadow, still unknown but strangely familiar. Hushed tones were being spoken to him. He felt his eyes sting with tears, heat, and soot. Where was the soot coming from? Looking around he was surrounded by the ruins of a building with debris still falling. The hands pulled him back to concentrate on the shadow and the words being said. Clint was unable to do either. His heart raced, he needed to open that door. Breaking free from the hands holding him, he rushed towards the door once more, slamming his already damaged shoulder into the immovable object.
He realized that he had never stopped screaming. His throat burned from the strain, but Clint didn’t know what words were coming out of his mouth, just that it needed to be said. Thankful that there were not any more attempted to remove him he retuned to his attack on the door. He was just setting himself up to strike the entry again when he felt a burning pain course through his body. There was only darkness afterwards.
Clint awoke with a start. Taking in his surrounding he saw he was still on the plane. Willing the vision from his sleep away he found that he could not. The dream, no nightmare was so vivid. He swore that he could still smell the burning in the air. Wiping his eyes, Clint discovered that there was moisture on his hand. Had he been crying in his sleep? He had experience with this type of thing. After Loki, Clint couldn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time without waking up screaming from the dreams. It took a long time and a lot of work before he could achieve any amount of restful sleep. The trauma at the farm must have brought it all back.
The feeling was the same, but at the same time, different. He couldn’t place any part of the dream. Usually when this happened, it was a flash back to something he had done while under Loki’s control. The most frequent dream had been him remembering his fight with Natasha on the hellicarrier. The dream tended to end once Natasha threw his head into the hand railing. It was a while before he could break the habit of waking up and immediately calling Nat to reassure himself that he did not fulfill Loki’s promise of him killing her.
His heart was still pounding against his chest from the adrenaline his dream form had mustered. Getting himself under control, Clint search the immediate area. He was briefly concerned when the only child who was near him was Cooper. Nick had filled Clint in a bit about Cooper’s role in watching over his siblings in the hospital, forfeiting any rest himself to ensure theirs. The child must have taken the cue from his father that it was safe to get some sleep since Cooper’s head was resting on Clint’s shoulder in a deep slumber. Counting one child safe, he looked around for the other two. He didn’t need to search long or far. Nate was sitting in Pepper’s lap diagonal from Clint and Cooper, smacking the tablet she held with both of his palms. Lila was a few rows further up sitting on the floor in front of Maria. She was sitting quietly as the Assistant Director to S.H.I.E.L.D. braiding her hair while reviewing mission profiles with another agent.
Feeling Cooper stirring, Clint looked back out the window. Slowly coming into view as the clouds became thinner was the property that housed the Avengers’ compound. Moving his right shoulder that his child rested on, Clint had to pause because something in his shoulder ached. He quickly shook it off, telling himself that is was only numb from Cooper’s heavy head and not a phantom pain from his dream. Moving his shoulder slightly to wake his eldest up he prompted, “Hey Coop, wake up. Have a look, it’s the compound. Here, switch seats with me so you can have a good look.”
Cooper was fast to take Clint up on his offer. Standing up to vacate his seat, Clint took his time walking up the aisle to where his daughter was. He needed to stretch his legs anyways. Coming up from behind the child he noticed she jolted a bit when he started his comment. “Lila, I need you to go back to your seat now honey. We are about to land.” Without any protest, she got up and returned to her seat across from her brother and joined in staring out the windows.
“Two down, one to go.” Clint announced approaching Pepper and Nate. He was greeted with the familiar sight of Nate’s smile that appeared whenever Clint showed up. “Think you have a new friend.” He said addressing Pepper.
Handing the boy to Clint, she held onto the toddler’s foot playfully. “He is a wonderful child Clint. I think we became fast friends in the hospital.”
“Yeah, about that. Thank you for what you and Tony did back there. I don’t know half the story yet, not by a long shot.” Pepper had to suppress the need to tell him that he didn’t even have a quarter of the entire story yet. “But I do know you and Tony stepped up and helped. You didn’t have to do that, and I don’t know why you did, but I am grateful.”
Pepper let go of Nate’s foot and placed her hand on Clint’s forearm. “Tony told me what you two talked about yesterday. You know why he did it, and even if that wasn’t the case, we would have been there anyway because we are friends.” A response wasn’t needed from Clint. It wasn’t the time or the place. Besides, Clint needed to make sure everyone was buckled in before landing.
It was twelve-thirty by the time everyone had exited the plane and entered the compound. Vision and Colonel James Rhodes greeted everyone in the foyer of the building. It had been awhile since either of them had seen Clint, and the last time wasn’t a party. Tony had updated Rhodes on the events, who in turn, told Vision. Tony hadn’t told them everything, feeling it was cruel for everyone but Clint to know about his own life. Rhodes instantly upon hearing the tragedy that have befallen his friend and his family decided to forgive and forget all of it. If there was any doubt in Clint’s mind that it wouldn’t be awkward back at the compound, it was forgotten when Rhodes pulled him into a hug. If any part of the embrace was surprising to anyone who witness the act, it was that Clint hugged back.
“This sucks man, I’m sorry.” Rhodes said in a low voice, so the children wouldn’t hear, unknowing to him that they had heard worst, and recently.
Releasing Rhodes, Clint nodded, “It definitely does, thanks.”
Vision took advantage of the pause in conversation to inform the party, “I have prepared lunch in the dining room. I didn’t know if your flight provided you with a meal, so I took it upon myself to set something up.”
“You’re the Vision.” Cooper said with awe.
“I am sir, and you must be Cooper Francis Barton, Clint’s eldest son.” The android responded very formally.
“Yeah, sorry, so introductions, this is Cooper as we just established.” Clint said as he pointed to the teenager, “this is Lila,” gesturing towards the girl next to Nick Fury, “and the tiny person with Pepper is Nathaniel, Nate. Kids, this is Colonel Rhodes and Vision.”
Rhodes walked over to greet Pepper, Fury and Hill. Then he leaned forward toward Pepper to look at Nate. “Wow Clint, Tony told me you had kids, but seeing is believing. How did you find the time?”
“The reproductive act can be accomplished at a minimum average of thirty seconds.” Vision informed Rhodes.
The room became very quiet after the impromptu trivia session, mostly since none of the adults wanted to laugh at such a statement with children around. It was Clint who took the responsibility to break the silence, “Well, Vision, if I had any self-confidence left after the last two days, you took care of it. How about we get the kids fed in the kitchen while everyone else uses the dining room?”
Vision was happy to help, and grateful Clint was allowing him to. “Very good Clint. Also, your rooms have been prepared for the additional company. If you find yourself needing anything else, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I would like to assist you and your children.”
Approaching Vision, Clint put his hand on Vision’s shoulder, “Thank you. I mean it, I could not thank either of you enough.”
“We didn’t do it for the ‘thanks’, we did it for you.” Vision informed Clint. After that, nothing else was said. Everyone followed Rhodes up to the Avengers’ personal communal floor to eat.
It turned out that serving breakfast to an entire ward full of children with their parents takes a while to complete. It seemed that every patient wanted a picture with Ironman. The staff had predicted this and assigned someone to follow Tony with a camera. When Tony was finally done the hospital had a floor filled with happy and well-fed patients, and it was almost time to start the lunch service. Tony had always thought of himself as the “throw money at it” kind of charitable person, the physical acts were more his mother’s thing. As a child, Maria Stark would often drag Tony around with her to a variety of fundraising and charity events, and he hated every moment of it. Those days were now in sharp contrast to the helpful activity that he just participated in that morning. Perhaps he would ask the public relations department at Stark Industries to make a habit of this, every month visiting a different hospital around the country. The words his mother told him years ago had finally made sense to him, ‘it feels good to do good’.
As far as Tony knew, the flight back to New York had been uneventful. Mostly because he slept for the entire duration of the trip. It was only when the jet landed, he woke up and checked his phone. The notification screen that displayed when the phone was activated was a never-ending scroll of messages. Most of the messages were from Pepper, narrating her own flight and arrival back at the compound.
It was almost seven in the evening by the time Tony arrived back at the Avengers’ compound. He wasn’t only delayed because of the hospital, but he had made what became a long detour back to the farm. Tony had faith that Pepper, and the gang had supplied everything the Barton family could need and more. However, he had learned at the hospital today that children need certain things from home to make them feel safe. Tony had seen in the children’s hospital rooms various ‘home comforts’ that the patients cherished. For some it was as simple as a favorite stuff animal, others needed items like the blanket from their own bed to help them sleep.
Tony had searched the farm house from room to room for such objects. It was a challenge since he didn’t know the Bartons, and definitely didn’t know what would make the children feel safe. The one thing he did find was the puppy he had given the family the day before. The damn lucky thing was hiding under the bed in Lila’s room. The S.H.I.E.L.D. clean up team had done an excellent job cleaning the crime scene, excluding missing that there was a puppy in the house. Walking in, one would have been clueless that a mass murder had occurred there the day prior. Hours later, and a lot of snooping, four boxes were full. He had one additional box full of the dog’s items he found in the corner of the kitchen. Someone, in the limited time between Tony’s visit and the attack, had gone out and purchased supplies for the animal, but other than food, everything was still in the shopping bags. Tony also grabbed a few pictures that he found, avoiding any with Laura in them. It was doubtful that after everything that had happened that the family would come back here. Tony’s goal wasn’t to clean out the house, Clint would have to do that when he was ready. He would help Clint with any moving that would need to be done in the future, and by ‘help’, he meant he would hire the moving company.
Standing next to the jet, Tony watched as the puppy did his business on the tarmac. He was positive that the dog had gone on the flight as well, but a quick command to FRIDAY arranged that clean up. He then texted Pepper that he was there and would meet up with her after he saw to a few things. She quickly texted back that she, along with a large group were outside on the patio and it would be nice for him to stop by. Responding with a quick ‘ok’, he then contacted Vision to ask him to carry the boxes inside for Clint to sort through later. Leaving the boxes for Vision to handle, Tony walked towards the patio carrying the puppy with him. By a ‘large group’ Pepper meant Nick Fury, Maria Hill, James Rhodes, and numerous agents. That didn’t even include the security guards that Nick had apparently stationed on every square foot of the property.
“Any updates?” Tony asked walking up towards the Director.
He caught the Director’s quick glance to Hill before he spoke, “A few, nothing urgent.”
Tony knew the Nick trusted Maria, Pepper and Rhodes, but he wasn’t so sure about the other agents. He kissed Pepper in greeting then spoke to Rhodes, “Hey Rhodey, do you mind bring this” holding the dog out, “up to the kids? I’m sure they are worried about him.” He handed the dog to Rhodes who turned and left to do as requested. Tony asked Nick, “Want to walk and fill me in?”
The Director stood as an answer to the question and followed Tony’s direction. Walking into the communal area of the compound, Tony was surprise to find it empty during this time of the day. Looking at the clock on the wall, he saw it was only eight-thirty. He assumed with all the drama and excitement over the arrivals, everyone went to bed early. Tony parted from Fury and walked over to the bar that took up the entire far wall. Picking up a bottle, he held it up to Nick and was returned with a nod of the head. Tony poured two glasses and rejoined Director Fury next to the window that overlooked the property. Each man took a sip and watched the scenery in quiet for a moment until Nick started, “I wanted to let you know that I have been in contact with Professor Charles Xavier.”
The name sounded familiar to Tony, but he couldn’t place it. “And who would that be?”
Neither man took their eyes away from the picturesque landscape that was laid out before them. “He is the leader of the X-Men and runs the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I wanted to warn him about the potential threat to his staff member and student.”
Turing away from the window Tony observed, “Hey Fury, I know you use labels like staff member, student, child, and so on, to detach yourself from the situation.” Fury looked to Stark, it was an accurate note that didn’t need a comment from him, so Tony went on, “But I don’t work that way, I need names.”
“What name would you like me to use?” Nick questioned, unmindful to Stark’s endgame.
Rolling his eyes at how clueless the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. could be sometimes, Tony decided not to make too much of it. Nobody could be top for the spy game all the time. He answered the posed question mockingly, “I don’t know, did Kate ever get around to naming her daughter?”
The Director understood immediately and kicked himself for not mentioning it earlier. He used to be very skilled at shifting between speaking to agents and civilians. Agents, he didn’t have to tell anything to that he felt they didn’t need to know. Civilians needed the personal attachment, they needed the reasons. He responded with just one word, “Charlotte.”
Tony let that sink in. His granddaughter’s name was Charlotte. The whole thing was so foreign to him. “Charlotte, that’s pretty. Clint is going to be pissed that Kate didn’t follow his ‘L and E initial’ rule for a daughter, but I approve.”
Smiling over the brim of the glass Nick joked, “Kate will be over the moon to have it I’m sure. I don’t think she openly ignored Clint’s so-called rule.” He recalled after Lila’s birth, Clint explaining the significance behind the girl’s name. “Other than not remembering it was the father’s wish, I think Kate named her after Xavier, you know, for saving their lives. Oh, side note for the coming days, Charlotte prefers to be called Charlie.”
Holding up his glass Stark smiled, “Then to Charlie.” Nick matched the gesture and the two drained their glasses. There was something in Nick’s tone during his comment that gave Tony the impression that the Director’s information didn’t come from a phone call with the mutant leader. Tony assumed it was straight from the source. “So, I take it you have met them?”
“About a year ago.” Nick admitted setting his empty glass down on a nearby table. “Once the school knew I was safe. Kate remembered me from recruitment, so she vouched for me.”
“How was she?” When an innocent probing into S.H.I.E.L.D. files uncovered the wipe and connection to Kate days ago, Tony didn’t even allow himself to dream about anything even remotely resembling the conversation he was having now. Kate and Charlie were literally an hour’s drive from the compound. Tony hadn’t research the school or the X-Men yet, but anywhere ‘upstate’ from the Avengers compound was about an hour.
“Confused, with good reason” Nick added, and Tony had to agree. “She just always assumed that it was HYDRA that cause her memory loss. Apparently with the X-Men, government preformed memory loss isn’t a rare occurrence. They asked that I allow her to continue believing it.” It was apparent from the expression Fury made along with his intonation that he didn’t agree with the request.
“It’s not like you were lying to her” Tony defended. “HYDRA was the reason for the wipe, you are just omitting a few things. Did she ask any questions? I’m sure she had plenty.”
“She did. She inquired about her work at S.H.I.E.L.D. I told her what I could. Her doctor, Henry McCoy requested that I keep my explanation to a minimum so not to overwhelm her.”
“Because of the gamma poisoning?” Tony would have given everything he owned to have Bruce Banner here right now. Bruce would be able to examine Kate’s medical file and explain it all to Tony. Earlier Nick had said that things would be different if Bruce was around, that perhaps he could develop a cure. Tony wasn’t as optimistic about a cure since Bruce struggled with his own condition and remedy for it. At the very least maybe Bruce could consult on the case. Who knew, maybe whatever drug protocol they had Kate on could help Bruce as well.
“Yes, he didn’t know what the stress of the ‘enlightenment’ would do to her condition. I agreed once he told me that. We have all seen the effect of stress on a person living with gamma radiation exposure.”
“Did she ask about Clint, or about the father of her child?” Tony knew she wouldn’t remember Clint, it was a long shot, that he felt needed to be ask. He would think for the benefit of Charlie, Kate would think to inquire about the other fifty percent of her daughter’s makeup
“Put yourself in her place Stark, after the wipe Kate found herself in premature labor in a terrorist organization’s medical room without any memories of how she got there. She was separated from the child at birth and left to die from gamma radiation poisoning, alone, while HYDRA experimented on her newborn. By the time I met her, it had been nine years since the wipe, that’s a long time and no one had come looking for her. The reason for all of that cannot be good in any way. So, to answer your question, no, she didn’t ask. As far as she knows, there isn’t a Clint. I honestly don’t know if the lack of questions about Charlie’s paternity was because she assumed I didn’t know anything about that, or she was afraid of the answer.”
The gravity of Fury’s explanation of what Kate had gone through and his observations of her behavior hit Tony like a semi-truck. Leaning against the wall next to the window, Tony slightly bent his knees, willing himself not to collapse, at least not until he understood it all. Fury had been keeping things to himself, probably by justifying to himself that Tony didn’t need to know the worst of it. The torture Kate experience…and his mind wouldn’t allow him to think about Charlie’s treatment. “Kate’s baby was taken from her and she was left to die?”
Nick moved in front of Tony. Professor Xavier said that he will let Nick know if HYDRA made a move on Kate or Charlie. During the phone call, the Director informed Xavier that there had been some recent developments in the ‘situation’. Charles’ practical response was to arrange a meeting soon to discuss it. Nick wanted to be the one to tell Tony and Clint about what happened at the HYDRA base. Fury himself had a similar reaction as Tony did, shock. The only difference is that Nick waited until he was alone to express it. Tony needed all the information before the meeting in case the details came up in conversation. “Kate was never the prize, it was Charlotte, always Charlotte. HYDRA was handed the opportunity by S.H.I.E.L.D. to raise a mutant from birth, who could possibly be a match to anything S.H.I.E.L.D. could throw at them. That baby and her DNA are worth more than gold. Still today, HYDRA wouldn’t hesitate to grab Charlie and resume their experiments.”
With Nick’s last remark, everything suddenly made sense to Tony. A giant disco ball of comprehension illuminated within his mind. “So that’s why the wipe was specifically a seven-year memory removal. They wanted everyone to forget that Kate ever existed within S.H.I.E.L.D. HYDRA probably had the same information I found. Kate wasn’t in contact with her Bishop family. No one outside the agency would be looking for her. Without the wipe, she is the wife of the future Director and mother to his children, one of which is also within HYDRA’s custody. Even if they assumed Kate died in the explosion, the Council would have still been exposed. Clint would lead countless S.H.I.E.L.D. missions himself to kill every Council member, and HYDRA goon, also to destroy every HYDRA base. Every agent in S.H.I.E.L.D. would have followed him into that fight because it was personal and hit the heart of the agency – the World Security Council. HYDRA didn’t stand a chance. Eliminating Kate from the equation got HYDRA their test subject and protected the Council’s cover.”
“The flaw in that logic Stark is that Peggy and I knew about her.”
Tony needed to pace and talk this through. “Not a flaw Fury, an unknown factor. HYDRA was working with Derek Bishop being Kate’s father, not me. We don’t have anything to say that Kate knew any different. You and Peggy knew she existed, but did anyone look for her?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Nick replied, “Peggy did a few times, but to no avail.”
The pacing distance became shorter and faster, “Because she was in hiding with these ‘X-Men’. Kate was wiped also, lying in a HYDRA base dying. A few days later she and her daughter are saved. The X-Men tell her that she is sick, and her child is in danger. Of course, she goes with them, its basic survival. She knows her family is high profile. She can’t go home, her own name would bring too much attention outside the safe confines of the school, so she stays. Why didn’t you ever try to undo it?”
Director Fury was highly offended by the question, “That is just a dumb ass question Stark. Of course, I investigated it. I investigated the hell out of it for ten long years. Don’t you think that I wanted to bring them home? Tell Clint everything and reunite his family? Take Laura in for questioning and see who else is involved within the agency? “
Feeling the anger and frustration coming to a boil, Tony yelled, “You could have done all of that. You could have at any point pulled everyone in off their missions and precious covers and undo the wipe.”
Nick matched Tony’s volume, “Yes, I could have done that, if we have the ability, but at what price? How many missions would have been compromised in the meantime? How many innocent people would have been killed or worst while S.H.I.E.L.D. shut down to cater to our own needs? Who else in the agency is in a cover like Laura’s who would tell their bosses about our “lunch break” and take advantage of it? To undo a wipe this big it would have to be done quickly without anyone knowing so the agency’s weakness doesn’t have time to be discovered. Not to mention that there isn’t anyone who could coordinate all the pieces precisely to prevent massive loss of personnel, and the general population.”
It was that moment that Tony ran out of patience. “No because the person who had that capability forgot she does and is now teaching a math class right down the damn road! For God’s sakes Nick, my daughter, and Clint’s wife was right down the God damn road this whole time!” Tony stopped yelling. He didn’t want to be so loud, he wanted to be clear and concise so that the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. could fully comprehend what he was going to say next, “I’m done, actually, I am the opposite of done, I’m starting. I am going to reverse the wipe, so you better find a way to ensure everyone’s safety cause it’s happening.”
“Um, is this a private conversation or can anyone join?” A voice inquired from across the room. Both men located the source in the form of Natasha Romanoff. The Black Widow was standing in the middle of the room. She had somehow not only gained access to the compound without anyone being alerted, but damn far into the room without either man being aware of it.
Tony was fast to regroup, “Natasha, how long had you been there?”
Continuing her journey to where Nick and Tony were, she matter-of-factly stated, “Long enough to know you guys are playing a dangerous game. Aren’t the stakes high enough as it is? Now you are withholding critical information from the man who is in desperate need for any of this to make sense to him?”
There were certain things that one doesn’t mess around with regarding Natasha. One being her missions, two being her weapons, and three and probably the most important, Clint Barton. Both Stark and Fury knew this, so Nick proceeded with caution. “Natasha, I was wondering when you would find your way here. A bit longer than I thought.”
Natasha knew that Fury didn’t mean it as a criticism of her abilities, “It wasn’t easy.” She started, “Secretary Ross had the hospital and airfields closely monitored. He has people stationed around the compound as well. There are check points set up and down every road that leads here. Oh, and did I mention that there are pockets of HYDRA agents dispersed around a five-mile perimeter?”
“In my defense, I knew about the Secretary’s men.” Tony revealed to the spy.
Fury added, “And I knew HYDRA would be tracking us.”
Romanoff waved it off, “Don’t worry, Steve has been looking for a rematch with HYDRA ever since our last mission. The intel was bad, by the time we got there, it was cleared out. He and Sam are taking care of it.”
Great Cap and Sam were in the area, that wouldn’t cause too much attention to the compound Tony told himself. “Did you by chance mention to Clint that you were heading that way?” Many of Tony’s theories had turned out to be accurate, he wanted to see if this last one kept his record intact.
In a roundabout way to confirm Tony’s assumption she replied, “So, it’s true, about Laura?”
It saddened Tony to know that Clint had been used as an informant by his ‘wife’ for ten years which had resulted in the failure of some missions. “Seems like it.” Addressing Director Fury, “before we do anything else, we have to tell Clint everything.”
Natasha snapped, “No, you’re not telling him.”
That was not the way either Nick or Tony thought the conversation would go. Natasha found Tony’s bar and started to look for something. Finding the item that she desired, she grabbed three shot glasses with her left hand and motioned to the men to sit down on the couch. Joining them, she placed a bottle of Stoli Elit Himalayan Edition vodka down. Natasha reminisced to herself as she arranged the glasses on the table and pour a sizable serving into each. Even with everything that had gone down with the Avengers, Tony still made sure to always have good vodka on hand. He had given Natasha a bottle of the same stuff a few years ago and she loved it. For a limited-edition brand, there didn’t seem to be any end to Tony’s supply of the liquor. Sliding a glass to both Tony and Director Fury she sat down in the armchair that faced the couch. “You are not going to tell him anything, I will. So, settle in gentleman. You are going to tell me everything you know or think you know, and we will drink our way through it.”
Chapter 15: Chapter Fourteen ~ Enlighten Me
I am so sorry I haven't updated in a while. I was on vacation with the family, and there were numerous technology issues. Thank you everyone for your comments and continuing support. This is my first story, and I love the feedback and encouragement.
“Thought I would find you up here. Couldn’t sleep?” Natasha asked stepping through the access door onto the roof of the compound.
Clint turned briefly, he was sitting on the ledge with his legs draped over the side, he knew she was there and had been for a while. He had abandoned all hope of rest after the twentieth kick from a sleeping Nate into his stomach. Rest was what he wanted, he knew sleep wouldn’t come. Clint only wanted to lay there and listen to the deep breaths of his children, knowing they were safe. The thoughts that plagued his mind were another barrier from any hope of a reprieve from reality. High places always exuded a feeling of safety and peace for the man. “Sleep isn’t my friend right now. I needed to think.”
“Well, you sure have a lot of that to do.” She stated as she sat next to him and swung her legs over the ledge to mirror his stance.
Clint dropped his head, “Yeah, I know.”
Natasha scooted closer to Clint, bumping her shoulder into his. “How are you doing? I know, stupid question, but are you hanging in there?”
Lifting his head to look out over the tree line, he was honest, “Barely, if it wasn’t for those kids down there, I don’t know what I would do.”
“I do,” she told him as she tilted her head a bit and offered a smile. “You would still make it, just not in the emotionally or physically healthiest way.”
Moving away, he gave himself room to pull back one leg on to the roof top, so he could straddle the ledge and look at her. “Why are you here? It’s too dangerous.”
Tracing the mortar line between the stones that made up the ledge she sincerely asked, “Where else would I be? Remember, I was on the phone with you. I heard your voice, I spoke to Cooper. I know what happened, this is where I need to be.”
Hearing Cooper’s name made Clint think about his kids, who were all tucked into the master bed, refusing to sleep anywhere that their father wasn’t. Even the teenage Cooper wasn’t shy about his need to sleep in dad’s bed. A king size bed wasn’t big enough for four people and a puppy, but they made it work. Clint assumed that he had a few more nights of this before they moved to the beds that Rhodes and Vision set up for the kids in another bedroom. The weight of the fallout was heavy on him. The children, his children, were afraid to sleep alone, were afraid that he would go away like mommy did. Why did this all happen? They were a happy family two days ago. Everything was good, they were good. Why did it change in a blink? Looking at Natasha, he felt the walls come down. “Damn it Nat, what the hell happened?”
“I’ve been talking to people about that.”
Clint knew what ‘people’ she was referring to, he had been using the same source for the past twenty-four hours. “I know what S.H.I.E.L.D. says happened. We both know how much the truth is worth to them, nothing if there isn’t an advantage. The problem I have been experiencing, among a lot of other things, is that I don’t see the advantage anywhere.”
Natasha understood, they were trained to look for the advantage, the gain in any mission as a motivation. Clint was handling it all by looking at it as a spy, not a husband and father. “Cause the only party that gained anything was HYDRA. Tony and Fury have an outline of what went down damn solid. Odd, since no one can remember any of it. They have witnesses and proof, it’s the details that are missing.”
There was an ever so slight slur in Natasha’s words that only a person who had the privilege of drinking with her numerous times over the years would have been able to pick out. “You’ve been drinking?”
“What I discussed with Nick and Tony was heavy. I don’t have to tell you that this whole mess hurts. Alcohol helped dull it a bit”
Clint had thought about a similar coping technique to help numb the pain. It was harder to do with kids running around afraid to let you out of their sight. “No, you don’t, I know.”
She would be lying to herself if she said that she was fully capable of doing this sober. Nat wasn’t drunk by any means. That job was being fulfilled by Tony, who was currently passed out on the sofa in the communal area. Any other night, she would have just called that ‘Tony being Tony’, but not tonight. Not after hearing everything that Nick and Tony told her. After that she didn’t blame Tony one bit for his actions. “Unfortunately, Clint, it is going to hurt a lot more before you totally understand the full scope of what happened.”
“See, that is where I think you are wrong. I know what happened, I was there, and nothing could hurt me more than that. ‘Tasha, I am being told that my wife of thirteen years was a HYDRA agent who was feeding intel back to the organization the entire time. Intel, she was getting from us when we thought my home was a safe place to talk. My home! Stark shows up and starts talking about the wipe and missing agents, and Laura supposes that her cover is about to be blown, so she poisons her own children, my kids, and starts killing people to escape. She hurt her own children, so she could get out, she knew I wouldn’t follow her if the kids were endangered. So, tell me, do I fully understand the full scope of what happened?”
Natasha took a deep breath, “No Clint, you’re not even close.”
He demanded, “Enlighten me.” Clint was done with the games that he and his family were pawns in.
Taking in the surroundings, Nat requested, “Let’s get off the roof and go inside.”
Natasha started walking back to the access door and realized that Clint was not following her. Turning around to ask again, he stopped her with a plead. “’Tasha, I don’t want to go back inside. You are stalling and removing me from any potential danger because you are afraid of what I am going to do. I’ve known you long enough to know that I should be a little more than concerned if you are afraid. So, away from everyone else, especially my kids, please just tell me.”
Natasha justified to herself, it was Clint’s life, he should be the one making the calls on this. “Ok, how do you want to do this?”
Understanding that she was giving him control about how the information would be given only heightened his concern of what he was about to be told. “Rip the band aide off. What about Laura?”
Nat braced herself as she broke her best friend’s heart, “HYDRA. Always has been. Our best intel suggests that they had been trying to get someone into the chain of command for a while. Fury saw potential in you, and had Coulson starting to train you to be able to one day be Director. Then, after S.H.I.E.L.D. conducted a mission in Africa in 2008, the World Security Council’s HYDRA connection was discovered. That was the reason for the wipe, it was to cover their own asses. The HYDRA people inside the Council gave the organization a twelve-hour window to set up their people inside S.H.I.E.L.D, and establish the cover for Laura, complete with family, at the farm. After that clock ran down, they wiped us. They knew that after a wipe no one would question your wife and children being anything other than what they said they were, and the Council would still be intact.”
“Set her up at the farm complete with family? No one would question my wife and children being anything but what they said they were. So, what were they?” Clint asked not completely sure he wanted the answer.
Natasha knew what was going on in his head, “Clint, Cooper is your son. I promise you that. S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark have the proof if you need to see it.” She knew that Clint wouldn’t, Cooper’s weren’t the results he would want to see. “But, Laura was not your wife, and never was.”
Thinking back to his conversation with Tony the day earlier, Clint reluctantly conceded to the theory that Stark danced around. “Katherine Bishop.”
The Black Widow was stuck on the way Clint had said the name. It was as if he was ‘trying it on’, seeing if he felt anything as his mouth formed the syllables of his real wife’s name. Reaching into her back jeans pocket, she pulled out a picture that Tony had requested she show Clint. He told her before he passed out that he had more when Clint was ready. Tony even had shown her Kate’s engagement and wedding rings he had found at their apartment. “Here.” She said as she handed him the picture that featured Clint and Kate at the Pyramids. She noticed a small tremor in his hand as he reached for it.
“What’s this?” Clint asked as he pulled the picture towards him to view. All Nat did was raise her eyebrows and gesture for him to look. Looking at the picture he was speechless. Part of his head screamed that the photo had been altered, the other part knew that if Natasha was showing it to him, then it was real. Finding his voice, “When was this taken?”
“My best guess would be sometime between 2001 and 2005. Kate was recruited around 2001 and it would have taken some time before she would have been ‘mission ready’, and Cooper was born in 2005. That ring she is wearing is your engagement ring to her.”
Holding the picture closer to inspect the ring, “How do you know that?”
“Tony and Pepper went to your old apartment.” Lifting her hand to block any interruption attempt. “Tony told you already about the building. After he left the farm, he went there. The room that he assumed was yours and Kate’s had the rings on the dresser.”
It was all surreal, he was looking at the face of a stranger in the picture. However, this woman wasn’t a stranger, it was his wife and the mother of his child, and he felt nothing. The man in the picture was young and happy, obviously in love with the woman he had his arms around, and still nothing. “So, Tony was correct, Cooper’s mother is, or was, Kate?” Knowing what Tony’s relationship with Kate could be, Clint would need more details later. Now he needed to ask the hardest question he would ever have to ask, or so he hoped, “and Lila?”
Natasha prepared herself mentally, ‘shit, here we go’. “Lila isn’t your daughter, at least not biologically. Director Fury believes that Laura was faking her pregnancy after the wipe. While we were away on that mission, HYDRA found a newborn and gave to her to pass off as yours. The whole ‘she was born early’ story was just a way for them to place the baby without anyone being suspicious.”
Lila was his child, blood or not. He knew that in his heart, but it didn’t cause the truth to hurt any less. There were some components surrounding Lila’s birth that still needed to be made clear, but it could wait. Cooper’s birth happened during the forgotten time of the wipe, so he could only assume he was there. He knew he was not present at Lila’s birth for numerous reasons, the biggest one being that Laura didn’t give birth. However, he was there every second, from water breaking to final push for his youngest’s arrival. “And Nate?”
Relieved to finally provide some good news, Natasha informed her best friend, “Yours, and Laura’s. He is the only child that you two biologically share.”
“Why?” For such a small word, it carried so much weight for Clint. He understood why Laura was placed. The question now was why the children had to be involved.
“The working theory is that they used Cooper to complete Laura’s cover. Cooper knew you, he was three. Him running up and calling you daddy with Laura waddling behind pregnant with baby number two, damn Clint, it was a good cover.” Natasha had to admit. “No one thought anything about it. We all lost our memories. Even if after the wipe you were doubtful of the story, a test would prove Cooper was your son. You really wouldn’t be able to believe Cooper without believing Laura. Laura was placed so as you rose in the ranks, she was privy to more classified information to feed HYDRA. A prime example is when Nick faked his death and hid out at your place. Laura told her people that he was still alive, and they jumped him outside of town. Of course, Fury survived, and the pieces started to fit about who was a mole. Laura had to create a blood cover to secure herself.”
Walking away from her, Clint went to the ledge once more. He stopped to place the picture of himself and Kate gently down on the ledge as if it was made of thin glass. He then paused for a moment. Natasha thought briefly that Clint just needed time to process the life altering information he had received. The thought was dashed when he started slamming his fists repeatedly into the ledge and let out a scream that crushed her heart.
Staying still in her place, she gave him the space and time he needed to vent his frustrations. Hoping that the people who were still up and walking around the compound would do the same. The last thing Clint needed was a bunch of concerned agents running up here and asking questions. Clint would need medical attention after he was done. He was hitting the stone ledge so hard that there was a sound created on impact. Knowing the Clint would refuse all medical assistance, Natasha put money on her ability to guilt him into it because of the children. Knowing that he would have to explain his injuries to the kids may be enough for him to cover the bruises and cuts up.
Regaining composure, Clint turned back to Natasha, “They grabbed a baby and called her mine, so a cover could be strengthened. That wasn’t good enough, so HYDRA told Laura to conceive her own child with me, because the cover was compromised. Nate’s entire existence is due to a mission’s objective and not a product of a loving marriage.” She knew he wasn’t saying it to her, he just needed to say it out loud to wrap his mind around it. “HYDRA put hands on my son Nat. They had to move him from where ever he was at the time to Iowa before they did the wipe.” Clint would kill any HYDRA agent he found from that day on, for that very reason.
“That part is still unclear. We don’t know where Cooper was before the phone call from Laura asking you to come home for the weekend.”
“Wasn’t he with Kate?” He didn’t know why he assumed that. Guess it just made more sense in his head that if HYDRA was going to do a ‘wife swap’, they would need Kate and Cooper.
“No, in fact that is the only hard proof we have. Kate was on a mission to the Sandbox, the HYDRA research base in Africa. Director Fury has her electronic signature on an intel transfer from the lab to an anonymous database on that day. After the wipe you and I ‘came to’ in the hallway, remember?” Clint nodded, trying to sort the timeline out in his head, “We were injured, Fury thinks we were also on the mission, but came back to headquarters to regroup and go back out.”
That was a huge assumption on Director Fury’s part, Clint alleged, “There could be as many as ten active missions going on simultaneously at S.H.I.E.L.D. on any given day, what makes Fury think that we were all on the same mission?”
“It is highly doubtful to anyone that knows you, that Kate would have been on that particular mission or any mission really, without you as back up.”
“Why? You just told me that there was a twelve-hour window to do everything in.” Twelve hours to deconstruct his life and reassemble it in HYDRA’s vision. There were too many moving parts in this conspiracy, the mission they were on, moving Cooper and setting up the farmhouse, now precious time was taken in the time allowance for Clint and Natasha to get back to S.H.I.E.L.D. without Kate apparently. Remembering back to that day, Clint was in a sling, so there is more time subtracted before the wipe because he must have seen a doctor. “How could that be, all of that in twelve-hours? Whoever was coordinating the events before the wipe must have been highly skilled to ensure that everything and everyone lined up perfectly. Because one wrong move by anyone in this, would have caused HYDRA to fail. There had to already be people from HYDRA inside S.H.I.E.L.D.
Natasha agreed. “Yes, it is the only way HYDRA would have had all the intel they did to line up the wipe.”
That comment was all Clint needed to get off his line of questioning. There were people in S.H.I.E.L.D. setting up everything for the Council to wipe them. “After the wipe, Laura called to ask about if we were still coming for the weekend. I had to lie my way through it because I didn’t want to come clean about what had happened.” He couldn’t help but laugh. He remembered being terrified to tell Laura that he had lost his memories, memories of her. His consideration of his ‘wife’s’ feelings were laughable now, she was in on it from the beginning. If Clint could afford the time, he would really like to evaluate himself, it was slightly concerning to him how fast Laura went from his loving wife who could do no wrong in his eyes, to his worst enemy, literally overnight. Natasha nodded to communicate that she remembered the phone conversation, and the visit to the farm afterwards. “Do you remember when she called, I found what I believed was Lila’s sonogram? How does that work with the time constraints? Someone would have had to place that on me. Again, that is a lot of work to do in little time.”
She knew that this was going to suck big time. “Clint, Kate was pregnant when the wipe occurred.” The look on Clint’s face upon hearing that was sheer horror, but Nat pushed on. “That was the sonogram you had in your pocket, it was your child with Kate. It wasn’t planted by HYDRA. Since Kate was also an agent, it’s doubtful that you kept your marriage and children a secret like you did with Laura. It makes sense that HYDRA’s people reported back that Kate was expecting again. You had the sonogram and Cooper was old enough to know that another baby was on the way. Laura’s ‘pregnancy’ not only cemented her cover, but it avoided any questioning by Cooper about a ‘new baby’.” Natasha remembered going to the farm that weekend, her first time it appeared. Cooper only wanted Clint, guess that mystery was solved now as to why. Natasha recalled Cooper running through the house talking about the new baby that would be there soon.
Clint was thinking the same thing, “I remember Cooper talking about ‘Mommy’s new baby’.” Bringing his hand up, he rubbed his forehead. “God damnit Natasha, he was talking about Kate! Cooper was attached to me for weeks because the woman who said she was his mother wasn’t and the kid was confused. And this whole time I thought it was my fault because he was picking up on my emotions.” The pain was visible on Clint’s face when he lowered his hand as he fully realized the pure hell his three-year-old was put through, and Clint’s ignorance of it at the time. “Why was Kate on a mission if she was pregnant?” It wasn’t as if Kate would have been the first agent who became pregnant working at S.H.I.E.L.D., but there were policies to follow in those cases, or so Clint thought there were. The main one being that the agent was almost automatically placed on desk duty until after delivery. Why was it different for Kate?
Natasha moved towards him, getting closer, but still permitting him his space. “The Director believes that Kate was ‘necessary personnel’ on the mission, pregnant or not. He would have put you and me on the mission as well to cover her and ensure she got through it. Plus, and this is my own two cents, I don’t think you would have been able to just sit back and listen to the communications of the mission knowing she was there, you would have wanted to be the one to take point and make sure she was always covered. And I would have gone to keep you in check.”
Natasha was damn right he would have been there. If asked, he didn’t even think he would have trusted Natasha enough to go in his place. Knowing himself, Kate’s safety would have trumped any mission objectives in his mind. So, what went wrong? Kate was gone, and so was the baby. The hits kept coming. “And we failed.”
“Didn’t fail the mission, and that was because of Kate. She did her job.” Natasha offered knowing it wouldn’t be of any comfort to him, not now, knowing what he had lost.
She was right, it didn’t help him at all knowing the mission was a success because he responded, “But, I didn’t do mine.”
“HYDRA tracked her to within the lab of the Sandbox base. The base’s communication lines were open and streaming live to the database to be stored, a database that only a few knew about. Fury has the entire recording when you want to hear it.” She would beg him not to but knew Clint would. “They knew where she was, and unfortunately, she was right next to a reactor that was storing the gamma radiation raw materials before it was added to the serum. They couldn’t get to her fast enough to stop what she was transferring, and she was transferring vital information. Information that would expose the Council, show the research and experimentation that HYDRA was doing on humans. The intel was imperative for the protection of not only S.H.I.E.L.D., but the world.” Natasha thought that knowing the stakes in the mission would help Clint compartmentalize the sacrifices that were made. “They weren’t able to get to her to stop what she was doing, but they could push a button and blow her and the file transfer up, along with their lab and all the progress they had made up to that point.” Taking a deep breath and looking up to the sky she excused their actions after the explosion more for herself than Clint, “Clint, we probably didn’t even know HYDRA was going to do it, we just found ourselves in the middle of an explosion. We weren’t killed or taken so it’s easy to assume that we were not in the room with Kate. Probably stationed somewhere close, but not with her. That big of a blast, S.H.I.E.L.D. must have put her as Killed in Action, and had us withdraw.”
The dream of him pounding on a door and screaming reappeared in the forefront of his mind. It wasn’t a dream, it was a flashback to right after the explosion, when Clint lost everything and everyone in one fiery moment. The scenes flashed before him again, this time he could make out that it was Kate’s name he was screaming. Why the hell was she on that mission, it didn’t matter to Clint if she was ‘necessary’ or not, she shouldn’t have been there. The baby shouldn’t have been there. The reality of what he had lost tightened in his chest making it difficult to breathe. It was not only the wife and child he had lost, but also any memory he had ever had of them. It was beyond cruel. He had to sit down before he passed out. Scanning around, he saw nothing nearby, and the ledge was not the best option right now. The roof was covered in rocks for rain collection, deciding it was better than nothing he sat down on the roof top leaning against the ledge as support. “I didn’t protect them.”
Natasha watched as Clint processed everything. The man had lost two wives in a matter of hours, and both to HYDRA. The unknown baby was just the cherry on the top of a disgusting sundae. Kneeling in front of him, she took Clint’s face into her hands. “Clint, they are alive. Both, alive. Nick has seen them himself.” The was a flicker of something in his eyes. He was a dead man coming back to life.
Not trusting his brain yet to complete full sentences, he put out the two words that stopped the world from spinning, “They’re alive?” Seeing her smile as an answer, she then released his face. His head was finally clear, “Damn it Nat, start with that information first!”
A quick reevaluation of their conversation caused Natasha to see his point, she did not do this in the best way. “You said ‘rip off the band aid.”
Clint leaned his head against the wall and let out a sigh, “Yeah, but most people don’t poke at it to make the wound reopen.” Thinking about what he was just told, he asked Nat, “If S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t know about the mission because it was before the wipe, and Kate was wiped from all records, who got to her?”
Deciding to take the pressure off her screaming knees from the kneeling, Natasha shifted back and sat down across from Clint, “There is a group, they are called the X-Men. They heard that HYDRA was experimenting with Banner’s serum on humans, trying to create mutants. That was what the mission in Africa was. It was a planned attack on The Sandbox to put an end to the experimentation.” She stopped her explanation, looking for some comprehension from Clint. His eyebrows rose as a cue for her to continue. “First, they just let S.H.I.E.L.D. handle it, and the explosion happened. We were probably getting ready to go back out to finish the job and to find out what happened to Kate when the wipe occurred. We were clueless the attack even happened, so we obviously wouldn’t know that there was still some clean up or even a rescue/recovery mission planned.” She was trying to give Clint all the information that would allow him to let himself off the hook for leaving her there, even though Natasha knew this was going to be a cross Clint would now carry the rest of his life. He left his wife and child behind. He would never forgive himself. “A week after S.H.I.E.L.D attacked and days after the wipe, the leader of the X-Men, a Charles Xavier saw that there was still a mutant there. He can see where any mutant is at any time by using a special machine. He sent his team to investigate and save anyone they could.”
Clint didn’t know anything about the X-Men, he had of course heard the team name from his time in S.H.I.E.L.D. but that was as far as his knowledge went. “They found Kate?”
Looking up from the tiny rock tower she was building on the roof, Natasha clarified, “They found Kate and the baby.”
Shocked at the inclusion of the baby in the rescue, Clint asked, “She had the baby in the lab?”
Dramatically knocking over the tower with the back of her hand Natasha decided to start with a disclaimer, “We are working with limited intel. Everything we know after the wipe is provided from Fury and Stark’s research and by the X-Men. The X-Men’s information is the combination of talking to Kate and interrogating HYDRA goons after the raid. HYDRA possibly matched Laura’s ‘pregnancy’ up with Kate’s since you had the sonogram. That means Kate would have had to be in her third trimester at the time of the mission. The explosion caused injuries to Kate, and she went into labor. HYDRA delivered the baby in the Sandbox, the part they didn’t blow up.”
Clint didn’t see why HYDRA would take time after an attack to deliver a baby, their humanitarian effort was not what the terrorist organization was widely known for. “Why go through all the trouble of delivering the baby and keeping them alive?”
“Kate was the golden goose that HYDRA didn’t even know about until they had her. It was the set up to a perfect storm. Kate was the only person who knew of HYDRA’s penetration into the Council and S.H.I.E.L.D., they didn’t know about the hidden database. HYDRA deleted all the agency’s databases going back seven years, all the ones they were able to access. That erased not only Kate but anything they assumed she transferred during the mission. HYDRA would still be in the clear by eliminating her. No one would be looking for her, because no one knew about her. She was your wife, and a valuable agent, the wipe gave them the opportunity to replace her with Laura. Her surviving the blast and gamma radiation, as well as her child is probably the only reason HYDRA didn’t take her out when they found her. Like I said, perfect storm.”
“That doesn’t add up to me Nat. If there were any mutants in the lab, they would have been terminated with the blast. That is unless they were like the Hulk, and in that case, they would have been pissed. We would have never made it back to HQ alive. And how the hell did Kate and the baby survive a detonation like that?”
“I didn’t say mutants Clint, I said Xavier saw that there was still a mutant there, singular. How Kate survived, I have no idea, but neither did HYDRA. Most of HYDRA’s experimentation of human subjects failed as soon as they were injected with Bruce’s serum. The ones that could have in any way been labeled a success were taken out in the explosion. The data Kate transferred prior to the blast suggests HYDRA was researching the X-gene but didn’t have any subjects with the chromosome mutation to confirm it was the key to successfully being able to administer the serum, so HYDRA was over joyed when tests confirmed the baby had it.”
None of what Natasha was saying was answering Clint’s questions, “A what gene?”
Natasha suppressed her laughter. She had said the exact same thing when Nick and Tony were explaining it to her. “An X-gene. It’s a mutation on the 23rd chromosome that causes a, well, a mutation or enhancement. It turned out to be a good thing the kid had it. Fury was told that HYDRA was shocked that the infant was born alive after the explosion, even more so given the raw radiation exposure. Those two factors should not add up to either Kate or the child surviving. They worked quickly to do their tests to see if the X-gene was the child’s secret to being alive. HYDRA lost all their research, but it didn’t work anyway, so the kid’s DNA gave them a fresh start in the right direction to creating their own mutants. Due to their testing, the baby was ‘activated’.”
The terms ‘testing’ and ‘activation’ being spoken in the same sentence as ‘baby’ did not give Clint a good feeling. He was about to question what it meant when Natasha predicted his question and provided, “It was the only thing that saved the baby’s life. She was too premature and weak without it to have survived.”
“She?” Clint had stored and processed all the medical and science information for later follow up, the only thing he currently needed additional knowledge on was the child.
“Yeah, she. Her name is Charlotte.” Natasha provided.
“And Fury has seen them, Kate and Charlotte? Where?”
Natasha worked fast to recall the details of the mutant school, “With the X-Men in Westchester County. They run a school up there for mutant children and serve as a haven for mutants. The Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters.”
“Westchester County, like in New York? That is maybe thirty minutes up the road.” Clint calculated as he stood up and extended his arms to assist Natasha up.
The irony of how close Kate was to the Avengers’ base did not go unnoticed by Natasha. “Yes, it is. HYDRA is still looking for them, so it was the safest place for them to be. Kate is apparently a teacher there and Charlotte is a student, so she can learn how to control her mutation.”
Upon hearing that his newly discovered family was in danger from the terrorist organization, Clint started planning, “HYDRA is still looking for them?”
Natasha clarified, “They are looking for Charlotte. They believe the secret to Bruce’s serum is in her blood. The interrogation ten years ago provided the intel that HYDRA was scanning for gamma signals, so they know where she is. It is the X-Men’s educated guess that as soon as Charlotte takes one step off campus, HYDRA will attempt to grab her. Fury thinks HYDRA has stepped up their game. Did you ask Laura about Kate?”
Clint nodded. That is what sparked this whole damn thing. The mention of Kate to Laura. Him telling Laura that Kate was Tony’s daughter and he was searching for her was the start to Laura’s cover being blown. She knew enough to understand that when Tony sunk his teeth into something, he didn’t let go. Add to the fact that Tony had brought Clint in to it, and the missing toothbrushes, it was just a matter of time before Laura was exposed. “Last night. It was after Tony questioned me about it. I thought that maybe you or I mentioned something at home about her that Laura may remember.”
“That would support Fury’s claim as of why HYDRA is stationed all over the outsides of the compound. They are waiting for you or Tony to bring Kate and Charlotte here.”
“HYDRA is outside the gates?” How did he not know about that? Clint really needed sleep, he was off his game, for several reasons.
Natasha added, “So are Secretary Ross’ men. They are hoping that your family drama will cause Steve and me to come out of hiding. It is very crowded out there. Steve and Sam are working on ‘crowd control’.”
“Ok, so, that is a hell of a lot of information. I do have a few follow up questions obviously. However, before I start that, is there anything else I should know?”
“Nothing that I can think of...” Then it hit Natasha, hard, there was one more critical piece of information that needed to be conveyed. “Yes, there is, while Charlotte was enhanced because of the gamma radiation exposure, Kate was…poisoned.”
“Come again?” How someone like Natasha could forget to provide that information was beyond him.
“Kate has gamma radiation poisoning from the explosion. That’s why HYDRA didn’t just kill her after she delivered. They wanted to see the effects of that much poison on the human body. The X-Men got to her and have been keeping her alive all this time with some type of medication.”
There was so much wrong with everything Natasha had just said, but Clint was able to pull out the life-threatening relevant intel, “But the medication is working?”
Being quick to reassure him, Natasha said, “Yes, but she has to stay close to the school because the dosage needs constant monitoring to be efficient.”
As far as bad news went, Kate needing to take a pill or two wasn’t a major issue. Clint could work with that, well he would have to. Moving on, he asked, “So, Charlotte, she like a mini Hulk? Is she green?”
Natasha was puzzled, “What?”
“You said it was the raw form of Bruce’s serum. That’s how the Hulk was created. She must go to a special school to learn how to control her mutation. What is her mutation?”
That was a good question she thought to herself, then admitted, “Shit, I never asked.” Clint moved quickly past her to the access door, “Wait where are you going?”
Answering over his shoulder, “Thirty minutes up the road, I’ll be back before the kids wake up. Do you mind watching them?” He stopped, remembering something, “and take the dog out please.”
Running after him, she reached the door before Clint did and placed herself between it and him. “You can’t just go up there in the middle of the night and demand a woman and her child who have no idea who you are. That shit is what makes up police dramas on television.” Pausing for a moment she added, “what dog?”
Conceding that Natasha may be right about what he was about to do, he stopped trying to get to the door. “So, what do I do? Just let it go, or wait for something to happen to them, again? Nat, you said it yourself, HYDRA is looking for them.”
Releasing the force she had on the door, Natasha caught her breath, “They aren’t looking for Charlotte, they have known where she and her mother have been for ten years. HYDRA doesn’t have the ability to go up against the X-Men. HYDRA is waiting around for you to do exactly what you were just about to do. Get emotional and attempt to take your wife and child off the school’s campus. Don’t do the bad guy’s work for them Clint, think smart. I’m not saying let it go, because there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of you doing that. Director Fury is arranging a meeting with Professor Xavier to discuss everything. Just wait until Fury provides us with additional information. He may even still be up, he was walking around the compound after our little ‘debriefing’.”
“Yeah, that debriefing I can smell from here.” Natasha moved her head back in offense, then put her hand up to exhale on it, smelling it, she knew Clint was right. Rolling his eyes at how easy it was to distract her, he pulled at another lose end, “How did Tony handle it?”
“Not well at all.” Nat informed. “He wanted to do the same thing, march up to the school and demand to see Kate and Charlotte. Tony is even threatening to undo the wipe, screw the consequences. The Director has talked him down and asked him to wait until the meeting. Fury is trying to get it set up for tomorrow, knowing that neither of you two are going to wait more than that. Tony didn’t like being told to wait, so he did what Tony tends to do, and as a result, he is passed out on the couch in the common area.”
Dropping his head, then lifting it, Clint asked, “It is true? Tony is Kate’s father.”
Tony spoke openly about it downstairs, and the way he was saying it gave her the impression that Clint was aware. “It is true.” Natasha confirmed, “Tony not only had Cooper’s DNA, why he had it I don’t know, but at your apartment he also found Kate’s hairbrush.”
Taking a few steps back, Clint laced his fingers together and place his hands on his head. “So, this has unbelievably gotten even worse.”
Nat understood what he meant, Stark was a liability. “I know, Tony acts on emotions. Fury has him on a tight leash though. I need you to think logically. Be the Yen to Tony’s Yang.”
Looking at her, Clint stated with a blank expression on his face, “I really need you to rephrase that, but that is not what I meant.”
Natasha combed through everything that was developing and could not come up with the threat Clint was referring to. “Really, I can’t think of anything that could possibly be worst then what we are dealing with now.”
Dropping his hands to his sides, he walked back up to her, “I can, Tony Stark is my father-in-law.”
The communal area was dark with only accent lightening casting shadows across the room. The bit of light allowed Clint to make out the sleeping figure of Tony Stark. He was carrying a tray that contained everything Clint and Tony would need for their conversation. A fresh pot of coffee balanced on the tray along with everything anyone could want to go along with it. Alcohol was Natasha and Stark’s way to cope and deal with stress. Clint’s was more caffeinated. He was sure to include in the coffee accessories, Stark strength pain reliever for the monster hangover Tony was sure to have.
Quietly with the grace of the spy he was, Clint set down the tray and poured two cups. He had been sure to have four in case Natasha and Nick showed up. Placing everything within arm’s reach from the couch, he looked towards the window. Clint thought about Steve and Sam out there taken on the numerous enemies that surrounded them. He would have to go out in the morning and locate them. They were here and in danger from the Secretary because of him and his family. Natasha had already come in, and he fathomed from the pass out form of Tony, the two had made up over the Accords issues. Next, he would have to talk to Tony about bringing Steve and Sam in. He had a few ideas of where Wanda was, and would reach out later. He knew that Vision would appreciate that. HYDRA was a player in this, and Clint needed all his friends and allies on board with him before his next move. Throwing himself down on the end of the long couch with great dramatics, so that the impact would wake the man, Clint loudly informed, “Wake up Stark, we need to talk.”
Chapter 16: Chapter Fifteen ~ Everyone Needs a Hobby
Feeling himself being thrown up into the air, Tony was jostled awake, and quickly moved into a sitting position with his feet on the floor. Clint reached him before Stark could activate the Ironman suit. “Whoa, whoa, Tony is just me.”
“Barton? What the hell?” Tony looked around the room wondering why he was not in his bedroom with Pepper lying beside him, then he remembered – vodka. Returning to Clint he saw the man shake two pills out of a bottle into his hand and stretch it to Tony. Nodding his thanks, he took his medicine and was surprise to see that now Barton was offering a cup of coffee. This gesture could only mean one of two things, Natasha was behind him about to slit his throat and was using Clint as a distraction, or Natasha had done as she said she would, and had spoken to Clint. Betting on the latter, he asked, “Nat talk to you?”
Grabbing the second cup of poured coffee, Clint leaned into the corner of the couch between the back cushion and armrest, angling his body so he could see Tony, “Yeah, we spoke. Thanks for not calling Ross on her.”
Assessing the man before him, Tony thought Clint looked aright. He appeared tired, but that was going around. No one would have suspected that this man before him had just had his entire life transformed in the past hour. He discerned that Clint was just holding it together, putting on a front. It was the right call having Natasha tell him, she probably handled it better than Tony or Nick would have. The fact that Clint didn’t jump off the roof or do something to the compound was reason enough for Tony to keep Nat around in the coming days. Somehow, she had managed what Tony thought was the impossible, but he wasn’t going to tell Barton that. “Who said I didn’t?”
Stating the obvious, Clint pointed out, “She’s still here, which means there isn’t a threat to her inside these walls. She also told me that Rogers and Wilson are out there beating back HYDRA.”
“Well, everyone needs a hobby.” The bitterness was unmistakable in Stark’s voice.
Clint ignored the tone, “Yeah, but people don’t come out of hiding for a hobby. They came out because I was in trouble. We could use some help in the coming days. There’s a fight coming Tony, I can feel the heat of it moving in.”
“You can feel the heat? Who says that?” However, Barton was correct, and Tony knew it. “Who do you suppose this fight is from? The X-Men, Secretary Ross, or HYDRA? Take your pick, there are all a potential fight waiting to happen.”
“I doubt the X-Men will do anything unless we provoke a fight with them.” Clint realized how close he had come to doing that very thing just minutes ago. Who knew how it would have ended if Clint had driven up there and demanded to see his newly discovered family.
Tony thought about the group, the X-Men had never contacted the Avengers. They had similar goals, but each stayed in their own corners and didn’t interfere with the other. “They could even be potential allies if we play this right. Like you said, we could use the help. People that protected Kate and her girl against HYDRA for ten years would probably be more than willing to join up, if only to protect the investment.”
“We could use any help we can get on this one. I don’t know if S.H.I.E.L.D. is a dependable resource to tap or not. Do you believe the data dump uncovered every HYDRA agent in S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Clint asked.
Shaking his head as he took another sip of coffee, Tony theorized, “No way in hell did it get rid of all of them. I don’t like kicking a man when he is down Clint, but Laura? And I think we are lying to ourselves if we truly believe that she was the only HYDRA informant looking to get access to Charlotte and Kate under the ruse of being a S.H.I.E.L.D. ally.”
“Good point.” Since the recent events, Clint had grown to suspect a few individuals from within the halls of S.H.I.E.L.D. In the little time between his discussion with Nat and coming down to speak with Tony, he had become wary of the entire organization. What would prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from doing the same thing to Charlotte that HYDRA wanted to do? Of course, they would justify it to him as ‘research’ and ‘noninvasive’, things he had heard them lie about before. “You know, my first instinct after Nat told me was to drive up to Westchester and speak to Kate.”
Tony had wanted to do the same thing, but Fury requested for the X-Men to tell Kate. There was no way to predict what the news would do to her condition, and they were the best people to gauge her reaction and act accordingly. Tony wondered if Clint had taken that into consideration. He wasn’t judging the archer, just wanted to know his angle. “What changed your mind?”
“Natasha, she didn’t think it was an excellent idea to do late at night, or is it early in the morning? Damn, I need to sleep. I can feel that I’m off my game.” Refilling his coffee, Clint downed the freshly poured cup in one swig and filled it again. “Probably be smart to get some rest before the meeting, whenever that is going to happen.”
“Not trying to ‘one up’ you or anything, but I haven’t known the date since before I got to your farm that day.” What day, he had no clue. Clint was right, everything was running together, and they would be of no use to their cause if they couldn’t even track day and time.
A silence fell between the two men, it wasn’t awkward or comfortable, it was just silence. Both lost in their own thoughts, wishing different choices had been made years ago. Finally, Clint quietly said, “Tony, I’m sorry.”
While he always loved to hear someone apologize to him, Tony liked to know what it was for, “For what?”
Clint moved his head side to side, some audible ‘pops’ were heard, which caused Tony to cringe. “For not believing you when you told me.”
It wasn’t something Clint should feel the need to apologize for in Tony’s opinion. A crazy man showed up at his home and told him a story about some government conspiracies he thought up, and to top it off, stole his toothbrush. There wasn’t a sane person alive who would have believed it. “If it is any consolation, I wouldn’t have believed me either. And I’m sorry also.”:
Now it was Clint’s turn to be confused, “For what?”
“For being right.” This could be the most important conversation he had ever had. This would determine not only his and Clint’s relationship from here on out, but possibly the relationship he would have with Kate and Charlie. Every fiber of Tony’s body was telling him to take this seriously, it was not a joke, but then he ruined it, “And the vasectomy I am going to schedule you for once this is all done.”
Clint’s eyes widen at how quickly the conversation had changed from HYDRA to birth control. Drinking from his cup, he smiled at the joke, at least he hoped it was a joke. “That was low.”
Shrugging it off Tony confessed, “Yeah, well it was supposed to be. ‘Mister I have more kids than fingers’.”
Knitting his eyebrows together in puzzlement, Clint asked, “How many fingers do you have?”
Waving him off, Stark excused himself, “Lay off, I’m still drunk.” He resumed his position laying down on the couch with his hand covering his eyes, “What do you want?”
Taking another swallow of coffee, Clint coolly requested, “I need you to forgive Steve for the Bucky stuff and Accords mess. Bring him back into the fold.”
Pushing himself up with the support of his arms behind him, Tony kept his legs stretched out. He could not believe the words that just came out of Clint’s mouth, “Bucky stuff? Steve helped the man who killed my parents.”
Clint didn’t want to go through this all again, been there, done that, got arrested. “But he could help your daughter and granddaughter live.”
Shifting all his weight to his left arm, Tony used the right one to point at Clint. “Now, that was low.”
“Did it work?” Tony bobbed his head slightly as a ‘yes’. Sitting completely up he ponder the need for another cup of coffee, having finished the first one. Clint was on his third cup and stated earlier that he hoped to get a few hours of sleep before the meeting. Tony wasn’t sure how that was going to work out but figured Clint had it covered. Deciding to forgo the coffee, he grabbed one of the water bottles that Clint had on the coffee tray, drinking half the bottle in one gulp he gave Clint his undivided attention, “Listen, I don’t know who to trust anymore. The one person I trusted with my life, my home, and my family turned out to be HYDRA. I know you are just as invested as I am in this, and Natasha will follow me to hell if I asked. But we are incredibly outnumbered here. We won’t know until we speak to these X-Men if they will help, but I know Steve would. No one knows HYDRA better then him. I would like to go out tomorrow and bring him and Sam in, but I won’t do anything that would upset you. This won’t work if you and I aren’t on the same page.”
Placing his right elbow on the armrest, Tony placed his forehead into his hand. He sat there filtering everything Clint had said. Running every possible scenario of how to do it without Cap didn’t get him close to the goals of the mission. “You’re right. I can’t believe I am saying this, but you are right, so go ahead, bring in the strays.” Throwing himself back into the couch, Tony covered his face with his hands and muffled, “You know, I hate HYDRA, like a lot.”
“Well, I think they are off the Barton Christmas card list.” Clint countered.
The actuality of Clint’s comment struck Tony as he uncovered his face, “I know you are making a joke, but the sad truth to that is they probably were on it.” Clint’s body stiffened, telling Tony that his comment was received in a way that was not intended. “So, I take it that we are not to the point yet where we can laugh about it.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Understood, I am sorry.”
Shaking it off, Clint replied, “No worries, you’re probably right anyways. The thing now is to protect Kate and the kids.”
“Well, they can’t get in here.” If there were any possibility of the security not holding up against HYDRA, Steve Rogers having a presence here would ensure failure of any attack attempt, Tony considered. “So that accounts for three of your progenies. We just have to find a way to get Kate and Charlie here.” Tony already had FRIDAY running schematics on improvements to the security system at the compound. He would need to find some time the next day to make each child a profile into the system, so FRIDAY would recognize them.
Clint was going to ask for access to the mainframe for reviewing FRIDAY’s security protocols, but the mention of the apparent nickname for his daughter caused him to lose his train of thought. “Charlie?”
Tony provided the explanation like the name was as natural to him as breathing, “Yeah, Fury told me Charlotte prefers to be called Charlie.”
“Huh,” Attempting to dislodge the lump in his throat, Clint brought his hand up to his mouth to cover a ‘cough’. “Nat didn’t mention that. Tony, what Nat did tell me about them, they can’t come here. Kate needs medicine and Charlotte, I mean, Charlie needs to go to school."
“The school is thirty minutes up the road. That is not a bad commute.” Tony was working under the assumption that everyone would stay and live at the compound like a big, happy, totally dysfunctional family. Tony wasn’t so far gone in his delusion to know that a discussion would have to happened between Clint and himself about relocation from Iowa. Kate would still be able to work, if she wanted to continue working, and Charlie could attend the mutant school, but Cooper and Lila would need to be placed in a school soon.
“No, it’s not.” Clint agreed, but supposed to himself, who said Kate would want to leave the school? They knew little to anything about Kate after the rescue, and here he was planning with Tony about her life without any input from her. What would their relationship take the form of once confronted again after years apart, would there even be a relationship? Who was to say that either of them would want one. Without the memories, just because Kate and he were married long ago, didn’t necessarily mean they would want to stay that way. It was beyond strange for Clint to be referring to someone else as his wife. It had only been a day since the end of Laura and him. The end of his marriage to Laura, that was a concept Clint was still struggling to accept. Kate could have remarried and had more children like himself. What if she hadn’t?
That one ‘what if’ opened the flood gates and that became all Clint could think about. What if what Nat said was true, and Tony could undo the wipe, what if he couldn’t. What if he and Kate found that even without the memories, something was still there between them and they wanted to try to make a ‘go’ of it again? God, how was he going to handle the ‘two extra kids’ conversation? ‘Hey honey (did he call her honey?), sorry it took me so long to find you. Who are these kids? Well, interesting story there, this is my daughter, Lila, who was given to me by HYDRA to replace Charlotte, and this toddler who already hates you for not being his mother is Nathanial, my child with a HYDRA agent who usurped your place in the family for ten years without me questioning it at all.’ What if, Kate couldn’t accept Laura’s children after everything that had happened? Using the little strength that he had left to control his voice, Clint summarized his internal monologue for Tony. “In the end it needs to be their choice. Right now, you and me, we are strangers to them. They have had ten years to build a new life, a safe one. After everything they have been through, I wouldn’t blame Kate for slamming the door in my face.”
From what Tony had learned about Kate, ‘being safe’ didn’t seem to be her priority. Without question, it was the priority regarding her daughter, but Kate appeared to be a fighter. “I thought I handled waking up in Afghanistan damn well, but I got nothing on giving birth in a HYDRA lab after being blown up. That Kate must be something special, to be able to survive all that.” Fury said that Tony should be proud of Kate. He had never met the woman, but she was already his greatest creation. Tony now understood the meaning behind the similar words his father recorded all those years ago for him, and with that, a part of him forgave Howard Stark.
He noticed that Clint’s face changed. Tony had seen the look before, many times, but it was usually staring back at him in the mirror, it was regret. “Torture aside, none of this is your fault.” Clint opened his mouth, but Tony wouldn’t let him speak, “No, really, none of this was your fault in any way. I didn’t know you back then, but I know you now Clint. I have been in battle with you, I have seen you with your kids, hell, I’ve even seen you with Laura. If you could have done anything on that mission to prevent what happened, you would have. You know that, so you got to let yourself off this one.”
“Easier said than done.” Tony had never heard Clint sound so defeated as he did saying those four words. Who wouldn’t sound like that after experiencing and learning everything the man had within a single day?
Tony decided to try the ‘tough love’ route, “Get it done then. This isn’t about you. You have three kids upstairs and one more down the road to protect. It’s not just Charlie you need to worry about. Do you really think Laura is not going to make a move for Nate? Who knows, maybe Lila also. HYDRA owes Laura for the job she did, and when she cashes in, we are in for a fight. So, put down the cross Barton, we need the wood.”
Clint hadn’t considered Laura still being a player in the game, but Tony’s assessment of the threat was accurate. He had the responsibility to make sure his family was safe. “Maybe Kate won’t even want anything to do with me and the problem will solve itself. Everyone goes back to how they were, and I try to rebuild off the grid to protect the three I have. But shit, I have known about Charlotte for less than an hour, and I would swear upon anything you placed in front of me here and now that I would kill for her. I don’t think I could just walk away from her. No matter what my relationship is with Kate.”
“I get that.” Clint gave him a look that Tony could interpret immediately. “Before you start, yes. I have known about Kate for over thirty years and didn’t care or did a damn thing for her. However, this past week, learning everything about the wipe and the life she had. Finding out that she was a real person, with her own family. Not just an inconvenience of one of my many bad relationships.” Taking a deep breath Tony attempted to organize his thoughts, “It didn’t hit until I saw Cooper, I mean I really saw Cooper. The boy is my grandson, the child my child brought into the world.” Uncomfortable with how much he was sharing, Tony switched gears, “Don’t get me wrong Barton, I know you had a hand in that, and believe me when I say we are going to have a conversation about your intentions towards my daughter.”
“Tony, if the wipe never happened, Kate and I would have been married for over thirteen years, and we have had two children together. My intentions should be very clear.” Clint had no idea if that was true or not. He was going off Cooper’s age, but for all he knew, they could have gotten married before Cooper was born, shot gunned it, or years afterwards. All he could confirm was that a marriage took place at some point in time because Tony had the rings. On the plus side, Tony didn’t know the truth about when the marriage happened either. “I had a dream, at least I think it was a dream."
Interested by the random comment, Tony asked, “Yeah, what about?”
Clint thought it would show his trust in the Ironman, and if he was honest with himself, Clint wanted to talk to someone about the dream. Even before he found out everything with Kate, the dream had been in the forefront of his mind, “An explosion. I was separated from something that was really important to me, and I was banging on the door to get it to open. People were trying to get me to leave and I fought them off. I was screaming at this damn door while stuff was falling from the sky.” He broke off the recollection and looked to Tony, “I had it before Nat talked to me. After she told me about the Sandbox mission, I now think I was yelling for Kate in the dream. I felt scared. I’m never scared on a mission. Pissed, angry, paranoid, but never scared. Scared gets people killed. How is any of that possible if I was wiped?”
“Memories can be triggered. Regaining the full memory isn’t possible that I know of, but little bits here and there are.” Tony was fixated on Clint’s confession of being scared, only one possible scenario fit the dream, “You were probably recalling the Sandbox mission.”
“That’s what I thought as well. It fits I guess, watching my wife and child blow up in front of me.” Clint trailed off towards the end. Obviously, he was having trouble fully accepting the situation.
So, there they were. They had spoken about their hopes, regrets, and their fears about the situation their lives had brought them to. Clint was correct, they had the same goal, but that is where the similarities ended. Tony had always set out to design the world to his expectations and predicted the best results from his actions. In contrast, Clint took it as it came and prepared for the worst. A quick study of Barton’s life presented a good case for the fact that the man probably didn’t know how to hope. The one good thing that he could claim was his family, and that had been tainted. Clint wasn’t the ‘all eggs in one basket’ type like Tony, no, Clint was the ‘let me smash all my eggs and set the basket on fire before anyone else could’ type. Tony took it upon himself to put things into perspective for Barton. “Clint, I am promising you right now, and you have to believe me. Not only because I am your friend, but I am now your family. Like it or not, we are stuck together for life. I will find a way to undo this. Maybe you and Kate find your way back together, pick up right were you guys left off ten years ago. A real fairy tale ending to this story. Perhaps you don’t, and you resume the lives you are living, as much as that would suck for you, given your current situation. That’s the gamble you have to take. However, there are children involved, and this is non-negotiable, Cooper and Charlie deserve to know their real mom and dad, and you and Kate deserve to know your children. If in the end, that is all that happens, you guys co-parent, then I would still say the good guys won. But you have to try.”
Clint froze as he managed what Tony had just said, then needed additional time to comprehend that it actually was Tony Stark who had said it. “Wow Tony, that was good. Like really good, and deep. Did you practice that speech?”
Feeling the tension in the room lift slightly, Tony admitted, “A little. Remember I have had more time to process this then you.”
“Dad?” Simultaneously, both Clint and Tony turned left to the speaker. Standing there with a distressing expression on his face, which was clearly the result of hearing part of their conversation, was Cooper.
“Cooper, what are you doing down here?” Checking his phone, Clint saw it was two thirty in the morning. It was way too late to even think about having this conversation.
Appearing to be afraid to enter the room, Cooper stood there unsure of his next move. Deciding if he was going to get in trouble for walking around the compound late at night and eavesdropping on adult conversations, he should just put everything out there. “I was looking for you. Are you guys talking about mom? Did she do something wrong? Is that why we are here and she’s not?”
A long time ago, Clint had made a promise to his children, he would never lie to them. The job that he did was dangerous, and there was always the possibility that he would not come home. The kids had no control in the situation, so Clint gave them some. They could ask him anything they wanted or needed to with the knowledge that their father would always answer and answer truthfully. If the answer was ‘I don’t know’, the kids could take comfort in the fact that it was the truth and he wasn’t trying to hide anything from them. That’s not to say that there hadn’t been the occasion that Clint had to stretch the definition of ‘truth’. Such was the occasion he found himself in now. “In a sense.”
“Clint, just tell him. He deserves to know.” Both heads now flew to the right to see that Nick Fury had joined them. Their necks were going to break if anymore unexpected company arrived.
“How do people keep getting into this room without me knowing it? Clint aren’t you supposed to be some sort of super spy, how are they getting the drop on you?”
Clint defended himself against the critique of his skills, “Nick is the one who oversaw my training, and I taught Cooper how to enter a room undetected. Besides, told you, off my game.” Clint slid over towards the middle of the couch, leaving the end open, “Come here Coop.” The boy did what was asked. Watching his son sit next to him, Clint put his arm around Cooper’s shoulders and pulled him closer. He wasn’t stupid, nor was his son. Clint knew this conversation was going to have to happen eventually, but he was hoping for a little more time.
Nick walked into the sitting area of the room, “FRIDAY, lights please.” The three men on the couch all winced and shielded their eyes at the sudden illumination of the room. Taking an evil satisfaction in it, Fury went on, “I spoke to Professor Xavier again, they will meet us here tomorrow at ten o’clock.”
Tony had expected that Professor Xavier would meet with them at the school. The leader had probably done his homework and didn’t want Clint or Tony on campus without speaking to them first to see where they stood, or what they were planning on doing. “Who is they?”
Taking the seat across from the couch, Fury revealed details from his phone conversation, “Professor Xavier and Doctor McCoy.” Nick then focused on Clint, “I strongly suggest you tell Cooper what is going on, not only do I feel he is old enough, but it affects him. Clint, the Professor has asked to see him.”
Clint was taken back by the Director’s ‘feelings’ of what he believed his son was old enough for. Nick had been a pillar in his children’s lives, but the final ruling of what Cooper was able to handle at his age should be Clint’s call. Defensively as a father, and not a spy, Clint retorted, “We can discuss it after the meeting, once I have more information to work with.”
“Again,” Nick said through clench teeth, trying to control his temper and to emphasize his point. There was a time not so long ago when Clint wouldn’t question him, just trusted Nick to do what was right. Those days were gone. “I would recommend telling him now, because for starters, he is awake and did hear some of your conversation with Stark.” Nick had watched the private session between the two men, knowing that it was vital that they spoke. Especially about Clint convincing Tony to bring Steve in. He was waiting for them to finish before joining with his information about the meeting when Cooper interrupted. “Also, when Xavier and McCoy go back to the campus to speak with Kate they would like to be able to inform her about Cooper and yourself. It would behoove them to be able to say that they had seen Cooper, and he is safe. As I said before, Dr. McCoy is concerned about how the revelations will affect her medically. Assuring her that you and Cooper are alright, may be the key to deescalating any reaction she has.”
Cooper was watching everyone speak and growing more confused and anxious by the moment. It only increased when Nick argued about him needing to be told something that seemed to be important, and his father disagreeing. He had no idea who these people where or why they were coming for a meeting and why they would want to see him. Cooper could only assume the worst. “Tell me what? About mom?”
Clint took a deep breath in, holding it for a while before letting it out. His eyes were down casted to the floor as he decided what to do. “Alright.”
The last thing Tony needed tonight was to witness the destruction of his grandson’s childhood. The kid didn’t need an audience when he was told that his life was a lie, and not only did Laura leave him, but his real mom had no idea he even existed. Also, he really should go to bed. “I’ll leave you guys to it, I’m going to sleep this off, so I can be cute and annoying at the meeting tomorrow.”
As Tony stood he heard a quiet voice call behind him. Turning he was surprised to find that the voice belonged to Clint, who had yet to look up from an apparently very interesting spot on the floor. “Tony, please stay.” Finally lifting his head to face the room, he spoke up and elaborated on his request, “This is about you as well. Cooper may have questions for you.” Facing the Director across from him, “You too Nick, I may not have all the facts straight.” The four men sat in the communal area as Clint explained to his son the events that led them to the Avengers compound that day, and for the foreseeable future. With the assistance of Tony and Nick, Cooper was informed of a life he had lived in the city with another mother. A life that he was robbed of at an early age, all for a small role in a HYDRA performance. A captivating tale about spies, lovers, and enemies.
Chapter 17: Chapter Sixteen ~ Gotta Pay to Play
Pepper had purchased full wardrobes for the entire Barton Family. While Clint appreciated the gesture immensely, the clothes available in the high-end stores in New York City were not what the rural Iowan based family was accustomed to. Lila was on cloud nine and taking forever deciding on an outfit to wear for the day. Both she and Nate woke up around six this morning and decided that it was a fine time for their father to wake up at as well. It wasn’t the first time that Clint had been responsible for getting the kids up, dressed, and fed in the morning. However, this morning was taking forever to get everyone ready. When they arrived yesterday afternoon, everyone stayed downstairs, it wasn’t until the kids started to get sleepy that they came up to Clint’s rooms. When they got up to the apartment finally, everyone went straight to the bedroom. Now in the light of day, Nate and Lila had to investigate their temporary, and they were temporary Clint told himself, living quarters. At the Avengers tower, everyone had their own floor, here at the compound, apartments were provided. Each apartment had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and living room. Rhoades and Vision had of course stocked the kitchen for them before they arrived, so Clint was able to make breakfast.
There was also a balcony overlooking the picture-perfect manicured landscape that the compound sat on. Someone had the foresight to put down grass patches and install a doggie door, for the dog to relieve himself. The access for the dog worried Clint, Nate was a curious child. Supervision was needed while the puppy was outside in case Nate decided to escape, and Clint couldn’t cook in the kitchen and watch Nate in the living room. Picking up Nate and resting the child on his hip, he entered the bedroom, “Just pick something Lila. Everyone is hungry, and I need you to watch Nate while I cook.”
Lila’s head turned from the clothes laid out on the bed towards him in a motion that Clint could only compare to The Exorcist. “Fine”, she said in total annoyance at her father. She then grabbed some outfit off the bed and stormed the bathroom. Deciding that it was too early for her attitude, Clint walked away to check the second bedroom. Cracking the door just enough to peek in to see that Cooper was still asleep. Last night’s discussion was tough for everyone, but mostly for Cooper. Clint could honestly say that last night was the toughest night he had ever experienced. Cooper’s questions had ranged from simple ones about his family to more complex enquiries about gamma radiation. Clint, Tony and Nick had tried their best to answer every questioned posed by Cooper. In the end, he had agreed to participate in the meeting. Clint didn’t blame the boy at all when Cooper had requested to stay in the spare bedroom afterwards, saying that he wanted to be alone to think. If either of the Barton men got any sleep, it was only for about two hours. Clint hated to wake the kid up, but they had a busy day ahead of them. Opening the door fully, Clint instructed, “Cooper start getting up. I’m making breakfast.”
Cooper stirred in his bed, “ok”.
Returning to the living room, Clint put Nate down and saw that the puppy had returned from outside. Relieved that he could lock the doggie door and allow Nate to wonder freely without fear of an accident, by either the dog or child. “Alright, I am now starting breakfast”, Clint announced to no one in particular.
He started to pull out some pans, thinking about making a simple meal of bacon and eggs for the family. “Dad, can you take a picture of my new outfit and text it to mom?” Lila asked from over the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen.
Clint deemed that the outfit she was wearing was actually very cute. She had picked out a pair of jeans that probably cost more than his first car, and a light blue peasant top that was decorated with beads along the collar. The whole outfit was pulled together with a pair of tan moccasin style sandals. Lila looked to Clint for an answer to her request, while he was chanting repeatedly in his head, ‘Don’t lie to your kid’. There would have to be a conversation with Lila soon about what had happened. Just telling her the diluted truth that Laura wasn’t coming on this trip would only pass for so long. A talk needed to happen, but Clint couldn’t do it now. The notion that his schedule was too packed to be truthful to his daughter didn’t sit well either with him. He was torn and searching for a solution, it was Cooper that answered the question. “No, he can’t.”
Lila was just about to start up when Clint put a stop to the whole thing, “Lila, not now.” Again, he was stretching the truth. Where Lila would interpret the ‘not now’ to mean he would take and send the picture later, Clint meant it as in the conversation about her ‘birth’ and family was ‘not now’ happening. “Cooper be nice to your sister.” With that routinely uttered phrase, he felt somewhat better at the normalcy, and attempted to start cooking. Opening the refrigerator to get the eggs and other supplies that would be needed, Clint had to halt at his son’s rebuttal.
“She’s not my sister.”
The scene that played in Clint’s head was the red alarm going off in a submarine like in the movies, complete with the sound effect. Shutting the door to the refrigerator emptyhanded, he growled in a low and dangerous voice towards Cooper, “Yes, she is.”
Cooper wasn’t going to give up, “Just like Laura was my mom?” Clint was worried about how quickly it went from ‘mom’ to ‘Laura’, but he was guilty of the same thing, swiftly going from ‘wife’ to ‘enemy’ in a matter of hours. There were a lot of emotions going on in the kid’s head, he would need to see someone about that, and soon. Clint checked himself for being a hypocrite about psychological services. However, this was a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do’.
The confused look on Lila’s face brought him back to the present. Returning to Cooper he pointed towards the spare bedroom, “Room now!” Cooper didn’t need to be told twice, the kid turned heels and marched into the room with typical teenage grace, complete with a door slam.
“Daddy?” The ‘daddy’ versus the normal ‘dad’ killed Clint. Lila knew that something was going on. The vail was falling faster than he could keep up.
“Lila, would you please take Nate to the bathroom. Then pick out some clothes for him?” The distraction of clothes was all Lila needed to get off the track she was sniffing out. Clint paused to ponder if he was setting his daughter up to see clothes and shopping as a coping skill. Well, if one kid was going to be seeing a therapist, why not see if they had a multi-family member discount? Watching as Lila ushered Nate into the master bedroom, Clint turned and headed to the other room.
Reaching the door knob, Clint was thankful to find that it wasn’t locked. Opening the door, he saw Cooper lying in his bed staring up, looking like he was lost in thought. Clint sat down at the end of the bed and picked out a spot on the opposite wall to talk to. “Coop, I know this is hard.”
Not taking his eyes off the ceiling Cooper replied, “You don’t.”
Clint could only put up with Cooper’s insolence for so long. “Excuse me? In case you didn’t notice, you are not the only one who had his life turned upside down. Yes, you have a lot to deal with right now, but buddy, so do I.” Exhaling loudly, feeling the pressure release from admitting that he was struggling also, Clint resumed, “What you just did out there, to Lila, was totally unacceptable. She didn’t do anything to you for you to treat her like that. You were told that Laura wasn’t your mom, but you now know that Kate is. You know where you fit, and where you came from. Lila won’t have that, we don’t know where or who she came from. There is going to be a void for her that I don’t know can be filled.” Not receiving any feedback that his son was even listening to him Clint looked to him and asked, “Cooper? Say something.”
Cooper sat up in the bed and glared at his father, “Why didn’t you save her?” Clint rapidly turned his head away as if the comment had physically hit him. Cooper’s question had been imprinted on Clint’s brain since he first heard about the failed mission. The mission was a success by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s standards but would always be a failure to Clint. Hearing his son ask him that was more then he could handle. It wasn’t bad enough that Clint would never forgive himself for not saving Kate and Charlie, but it appeared his son wouldn’t either, and he didn’t fault him for it. Summoning up all the courage he could to look at his son he saw tears streaming down the boy’s face.
That was it. Like Cooper, Clint had held back the tears. Hadn’t let one fall in this whole thing, telling himself to be strong. Cooper had done the same thing last night. There were plenty of times that Clint believed the boy would cry, but he held it together. The lump in his throat released and Clint let the tears fall. “I don’t know Cooper. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I am so sorry for this whole thing.” Cooper had never seen his father cry. The sight was scary, if his dad was acting this way, then they were in trouble. Wanting to do something, he moved to hug his dad. Clint grabbed the boy like his life depended on it. “I love you Coop, I failed you, I failed your sister, and I failed your mom.” All the walls came crashing down as the father and son held each other and cried.
“So, I am going to assume that things aren’t going well?” Both look to the door to see Tony standing there. He had a concern look on his face and a garment bag draped over his arm with a box under the other.
Releasing Cooper, Clint wiped his face with the back of his hand. “What gave you that impression?”
Tony lifted his arm that had the bag over it in front of him with the palm facing out, he moved the hand in a small circle towards the father and son, “this mess did.” He then turned to put the box down on the nearby dresser slowly, for the intended purpose of giving Clint and Cooper time to compose themselves. “I sent Lila and Nate downstairs with Pepper. Everyone is down there, so the kids will be supervised, well not everyone, Hill brought back a majority of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to headquarters this morning. Only a handful are still here, for protection Fury says. Vision made breakfast, and Lila said they hadn’t eaten yet and she was hungry.”
Lila complaining about not eating when she was a prime culprit in him not being able to cook made Clint smile a little, “Not by any lack of trying on my end. Every time I started, something happened.”
Still somewhat embarrassed by what he had witnessed between the father and son, Tony answered, “Yeah, I can see that. Hey, the guys and Pepper have volunteered to watch Lila and Nate while we are in our meeting.”
“Great, that solves that problem.” Clint didn’t want either of the two younger children there but didn’t want to explain to Lila why they couldn’t be at the meeting, but Cooper could. “I haven’t said anything to Lila yet, so I would prefer she not be within earshot of the meeting.”
Tony nodded in understanding of Clint’s dilemma, “Not a problem. We are going to hold it in my private office I keep here. Going for an intimate vibe with it, also sound canceling technology.”
“Sounds good. Thank you, Tony for everything.” Clint felt that he had been thanking people for the past two days. It was an unfamiliar position for him to be in, others stepping up and helping without being asked to. “I have a few things to do before the meeting, but I’ll be quick about it.”
“The prodigal son’s return?” Tony asked.
“Yes.” Clint responded, hoping that Tony wouldn’t recant on his earlier decision about Steve and Sam’s return.
Deciding that it was best to leave any ‘Captain’ talk for later, when Clint had returned with him. Tony addressed Cooper, “Cooper, Pepper made sure to get everyone clothes. Nothing formal, just everyday stuff. So, when Nick told me yesterday that he was going to get a meeting set up with the X-Men for today, I asked Pepper to order you and your dad a nice suit for it. I know your dad’s size from years of improving his uniform, but I had to guess on yours. I will get you a custom deal once things settle down. Shoes are in that box.” Tony pointed to the box he had just placed on the dresser and handed the garment bag to Cooper. “Clint, Pepper laid your gear out on the bed in your room.”
Cooper accepted the gift graciously, “Thank you, Mr.…Uncle…Tony…I’m confused, what do I call you now?” If anything that had transpired last night could be labeled ‘good’, it was Cooper’s acceptance of Tony being his grandfather.
Tony smiled, he was eager for this topic to come up by someone other than himself, “I was actually thinking about that when Lila called me Uncle Tony. Clint, we got to do something about who I am. I can’t have one of your kids calling me Uncle Tony and the other saying Grandpapa. That will get us a reality show of our own in five minutes.”
“Grandpapa?” Clint questioned with raised eyebrows and a grin on his face.
Tony returned the smile, “Like it? You have to say it with a European accent or it doesn’t work. I think the name screams class and dignity, don’t you agree?”
“Whatever, it is between you two, just keep it on the downlow until I speak to Lila please.” Clint said standing up and slapping his son on the back, “Come on, let’s get some food in you, and coffee in me. Once you have finished eating you can shower and dress for the meeting.”
Stepping off the elevator onto the communal floor of the compound, Tony, Clint and Cooper went straight to the kitchen. Like Tony said, a lot of people had left. Only Natasha, Pepper, Rhodey, Vision, and Nick were there sitting at the table. Lila sat at the head of the table eating her breakfast, with Vision to her left, and Pepper beside him. Vision, from the looks of it was in deep discussion with both. Not being able to eat himself, he still liked making the meals and contributing to the conversation. Natasha was to the right of Lila with Nate in her lap feeding him. Clint noticed that the dog had made his way down and a water and food dish had been provided for its breakfast. A name for the animal really did need to be made a priority.
As Tony and Cooper made their way over to the food that was set up ‘buffet style’, Clint went right to the coffee skipping any actual food. As he was pouring the beverage he asked Cooper, “Hey, while I’m gone could you please talk to your siblings and name that dog?” Cooper smiled and nodded his head. “Nat, how do you feel about a walk in the woods. See what we can find, maybe something spangled?”
With a side glance to Tony, Natasha asked over Nate’s head, “You sure?”
“He’s sure, go with him to keep him out of trouble, would you?” Tony called over while making his own plate.
Pepper stood up to take Natasha’s seat next to Rhodey and to take over the feeding of the toddler. The eagerness of her actions made Tony suspect that Pepper had been waiting for an opportunity to hold Nathaniel again, but wanted to respect the Widow’s rare time with her namesake. Tony saw that the provided booster seat had been discarded onto the floor. It was highly doubtful that between Nat and Pepper that Nate would ever use it.
Natasha joined Clint as he drained his mug. Reaching into a container that was on the counter, she grabbed a handful of protein bars out and filled her pockets. Watching her, Clint placed the cup down, he started to search the cabinets for something. “What are you looking for?” Tony asked as he barely avoided a cabinet door to the face.
“Any thermoses?” Clint questioned, combing the area.
Vision got up, as he had said yesterday, he was enthusiastic to help. He went to a specific cabinet and produced the desired item. “Clint, here you go.” Clint grabbed the thermos and thanked Vision. Returning to his precious coffee maker, Clint started to fill the container up. He didn’t even notice that Vision had followed him to that area of the kitchen. In a low voice that it was unlikely that the others could hear, Vision queried, “Clint, if the true goal of your excursion is what I believe it to be, then would it be safe to assume that it is possible for Ms. Maximoff to be joining us as well?”
Twisting the top tightly on the thermos Clint responded, “That was a lot of words to ask if Wanda is coming back. But, yes, I am going to put Nat on it as soon as we get back.” Vision smiled and returned to his place at the table. Grabbing two more coffee mugs, Clint gestured to Natasha for them to leave.
“Those cups better come back Barton, they are part of a set.” Tony yelled as the two trained assassins left, and he sat down next to Rhodes. Cooper watched as he took Pepper’s earlier vacated seat.
Rhodes asked the room, “Are they doing what I think they are doing?”
Placing his napkin on his lap, Tony answered, “Yup.”
Rhodey continued, “But Ross and HYDRA?”
“Yup.” Tony repeated taking a bite of bacon.
“They didn’t take any weapons, just coffee.” He observed.
Swallowing a mouthful of orange juice, Stark confirmed, “Yup.”
Letting a deep breath out Rhodes concluded, “Ok, I just wanted to make sure I had a good grasp on the situation.”
It wasn’t that hard to locate Steve and Sam, just had to follow the ruins of HYDRA sites. They had left Secretary Ross’ people alone it seemed, knowing that any attack on them would send the Secretary to the compound’s door. Finally, Natasha and Clint found an active one. Clint examined the site and determined where the most advantageous overlook would be, and voilà, there Rogers and Wilson were. Clint had them both jumping at least three feet in the air as he announced his and Nat’s arrival, “The people you run into while walking alone in the woods.”
Out of breath with the sudden shock, Steve smiled and extended his hand, “Clint.” He nodded to Natasha.
Shaking Steve’s hand then repeated the greeting with Sam, Clint asked, “Cap, Sam. How is the HYDRA hunt going?”
Sam placed both hands on his hips and reported on their activities as he looked over to the HYDRA cell below them, “Good, very good. We have taken out a few cells out here. But they are popping up faster than we can take them.”
Looking where Sam was, Clint commented, “Sounds like you need some help.”
Shaking his head, Steve rejected the offer, “You have enough going on with your family to be out here fighting.”
“You are out here fighting because of my family.” Clint countered as he produced the thermos of hot coffee. Nat was holding the two cups. “Steve, I’ve talked to Tony, he knows that you are a key player in this fight, and assistance is needed.” Natasha handed Steve and Sam each a cup. Clint poured the liquid gold into each and continued, “There are a lot of variables in this that you are not aware of. You can’t just fight this because it’s HYDRA, you have to know the mission.”
“Nat filled us in, we know Ross and his men are out here too. Real sorry about your, um, Laura.” Sam awkwardly offered as he savored the first sip of the warm drink.
Filling the top of the thermos up, Clint offered it to Nat to which she declined as she handed the protein bars she had gotten earlier out. Shrugging it off Clint took a gulp, this was taking too long. He didn’t have the time for a debate, so he just got to the point, “I need you to come in.”
“Come in where?” Steve asked skeptically.
“Steve, Clint is right. There are too many players in this. The only way we can do this is together.” Stopping Steve before he could add anything Natasha continued, “Together, all of us. Tony is on board. There are innocent people in the way, Clint’s kids, and an entire school possibly if HYDRA dares.”
Clint could see that Natasha’s words got to Steve, but he was still on the fence. The look on Sam’s face told Clint that the threat against children was enough to get him back onto the team but would follow Steve’s decision. Clint decided to hurry this up by hitting below the belt. “Steve are you going to stand there and let Stark be the mature and reasonable one of the two of you? It’s not just my kids, if HYDRA gets desperate they will attack a school. And judging by the trail of HYDRA we followed to find you, they are going to get desperate soon. Any lost is acceptable to them if they achieve their goal. They don’t care if thousands of HYDRA agents, school staff, and students get taken out, as long as they get Charlotte.”
Steve looked up from the brim of his cup, “Who’s Charlotte.”
Clint knew that a long explanation would be necessary later but hoped they would just take what he offered now. “My daughter, she is a student at a school up the road. HYDRA wants her.”
Sam pointed out, “So, you have a missing daughter too? I thought that was Stark’s story.”
“If it helps with clarification at all, Stark’s missing daughter is Clint’s missing daughter’s mother.” Natasha offered as resolution, the amusement clear on her face.
Shaking his head with each syllable, Sam answered, “It…does…not.”
“HYDRA is active here because of a school?” Steve inquired in total disbelief. “Then why are they out here and not scouting out the school? What’s so special about Charlotte and this school that HYDRA is doing all of this?”
Clint put both hands up, “Gotta pay to play Rodgers, you in?”
Steve looked down at the HYDRA cell again. They weren’t doing anything, they must be the back up to the back up. Steve presented his conditions of joining up again to Clint, “This doesn’t mean I support the Sokovia Accords. I want that clear.”
“Crystal.” Clint agreed.
Sam and Steve exchange a knowing look, as if mentally between the two coming to a decision. Finally, Steve resolved, “Ok, we’re in.”
The walk back to the compound was considerably longer then it was to get to Sam and Steve. The reason was that with the action of the two, HYDRA had increased their presence closer to the base of the Avengers. There was of course also Secretary Ross to worry about. It was easier for Clint and Natasha to sneak around, that was their job as spies, but Steve and Sam didn’t have that type of training.
There were only two people around when the four Avengers walked in, Cooper and Tony. The grandfather and grandson were absorbed into whatever was happening on a laptop that Cooper was holding in his lap and angling it towards Tony. They didn’t even notice the four people’s arrival.
“Hey Cooper, where is everyone?” Clint asked.
Both looked up at the greeting. Tony saw who walked in with Clint but decided for the moment to ignore it. “Hey Clint, the kids are outside with Pepper and Rhodey. They are trying to teach Lucky some tricks.”
Throwing himself down on the couch Clint questioned, “Lucky?”
Cooper’s face lit up in excitement, “Yeah, we did what you asked. We named the dog Lucky. Tony, I mean, grandpapa came up with it.”
Shutting the laptop and putting it to the side Tony affirmed, “Yeah, well anything that survived that shitshow that took place at your house should be called Lucky.” Clint threw a ‘what the hell? My kid is right here, watch your language’ look at Tony. “Please Clint, you’re his father and he was exposed to Natasha and Fury from a young age. I’m sure he has heard worse.” Tony looked at Sam, Natasha and Steve standing in front of him. God, the guys looked like hell.
“Tony.” Steve greeted in a monotone.
Tony returned in the same tone, “Steve.”
“I’m going to go shower and change.” Steve notified the group as he started to walk out of the room.
Tony just nodded at that, “Sure, everything is waiting for you in your rooms.”
Sam was stunned at the exchange, once Steve had left, he exclaimed, “That’s it. Two years of hiding out, and that’s it?”
“What were you expecting?” Natasha asked taking a seat next to Clint, leaving Sam as the last one standing.
“I don’t know, screaming, hugging, anything in between.” He replied in a voice that gave away just how exhausted he was from the fighting.
Clint smirked, “Don’t worry, it will happen.” Clint continued his explanation as if Tony wasn’t in the room listening, “They’re tired and both busy with their own agendas. They just don’t know that they have the same one. When the time comes, they will both suit up. Then, the ‘screaming, hugging, anything in between’ will happen.”
Tony felt the need to remind everyone that he was in the room, “Geez Clint, thank you so much for your vote of confidence in Steve and I.”
“Anytime grandpapa. Man, that’s just stupid, Grandpapa. Sorry Coop but accept it, it is.” All Cooper did was laugh at that. Clint was delighted to see his son laugh, it was a real laugh, even if it was only for a moment. If he and Cooper could laugh and forget about, as Tony so adequately phrased it, ‘shitshow’ for a moment, because of something as mundane as Stark’s title, then they could find their way to happy again. “Think Steve had the right idea. It’s getting close to ten. Cooper come on, let’s get ready.”
Tony, Nick Clint, and Cooper all sat in the living area of the communal floor dressed in their Sunday best. Everyone was quiet, they were all anticipating the possible implications of this oncoming meeting. Tony’s system came online, startling everyone out of their contemplations, “Boss?”
Tony composed himself after the sudden alert, “Yes FRIDAY.”
The automatic voice informed, “Professor Charles Xavier and Doctor Henry McCoy are here for your ten o’clock meeting.”
Standing up and adjusting his tie, Tony announced, “Well Gentlemen, it’s show time.”
Chapter 18: Chapter Seventeen ~ A Fair Assessment of the Scenario
Thank again to everyone leaving comments and kudos. This is my first attempt at fan fiction and the support I have received from you all is overwhelming!
Nick had volunteered to escort Professor Xavier and Dr. McCoy to the office. Tony sat behind his desk, while Cooper and Clint sat on the couch, leaving three chairs for the two X-Men and Fury. The tension in the room exuding off the three men was thick. There was no way to tell how this was going to go. Xavier and McCoy were the gate keepers to any of them having access to Kate or Charlie, they needed to make a good first impression.
Director Nick Fury had failed to mention a few things that most people would have thought to inform others prior to setting up a meeting. One specific thing would have been the physical appearance of the X-Men they were meeting with. Clint had been trained to maintain a blank expression in response to varies situations, and it seemed Cooper had been raised with impeccable manners. Tony didn’t have the benefit of either the training or the upbringing, by no fault of his mother, it just didn’t stick. So, when a bald man in a wheelchair and a big, furry, blue man walked in, Tony was unable to hide the surprise on his face. As soon as the men walked in with Fury trailing, Clint and Cooper stood up, seeing this, Tony quickly followed suit.
There was a look of hilarity on the older man’s face, apparently, he had anticipated Stark’s reaction. “Mr. Stark, I presume. Professor Charles Xavier, this is my colleague,” Xavier greeted with a posh British accent and gesturing towards the blue man next to him, “Doctor Henry McCoy.”
Tony extended his hand to welcome the professor. The doctor had set his eyes on Cooper as soon as they walked in, an action that didn’t go unnoticed by Clint or Nick, who was still standing behind the visitors. Dr. McCoy seemed to sense that his staring was making the men feel uncomfortable, “Which would have to make you Agent Barton and Mr. Barton?”
Clint offered his hand to both the Professor and the Doctor, then stepped back so Cooper could do the same. Tony was fascinated again by the manners the boy had, Clint had done something right. He was pulled out of his head when Clint spoke, “Yes, but please, call us Clint and Cooper. It’s a pleasure to meet you”
Smiling at the father and son in a way that conveyed to Clint that this doctor had a vested interest in this meeting. “Likewise,” he said, “my name is Hank.”
“What do you say we get down to it.” Tony proposed, thinking that the sooner they get this song and dance over with, the sooner the family could be reunited. He just had to tell them what they wanted to hear, so they would conclude that Clint and he weren’t a risk to the school and let them in.
I do believe Mr. Stark it will take a lot more than a song and dance for me to permit you access to the school, and the people in it.
“What the hell, who said that?” There was a voice in his head that sounded just like the man staring in his direction. Clint and Nick looked at Tony confused at the remark. Cooper was suppressing a chuckle at his grandpapa’s comment.
I did. I am among other things, a telepath. I felt in the need of full disclosure to let you know of my ability. I know you want to see them, lets work together to find the best solution for everyone. There is not a need to impress us, just be honest.
Not knowing how telepathy worked, Tony responded out loud, “Ok, we play it straight.” The looks around the room didn’t cease so Tony explained with a finger pointed at Xavier, “the guy can get into your head and talk to you.”
“Yeah, he’s a telepath.” Nick said as if it was common knowledge.
“Oh, is he now? It seems like you failed horribly in prepping us for this meeting Nick. Everyone, please take a seat.” As all the men and the room took their seats, Tony folded his hands and placed them on his desk and started the meeting, “So, where do we start?”
Dr. McCoy spoke up, “We would like to get a blood sample from Cooper if that is alright with his father.”
Clint answered to the request with a look to his son, “It’s his blood, ask him,” with a look back to the doctor he asked, “but what for?”
Xavier offered up the explanation, “DNA comparison to Katherine. We only need the confirmation, there isn’t any doubt in my mind, just looking at the young man its clear to me that he is hers. There are also some other things we would like to check for.”
“How so?” Clint asked, feeling uncomfortable with strangers seeing the resemblance between his son and his biological mother when he could not, for various reasons.
“He has her eyes,” Hank said warmly to the archer. He must have known that Clint was searching for answers to his hidden memories. “and some other physical traits.” Clint flashed back to the facial comparison that Tony had shown him between Kate and Cooper. Suddenly Clint wanted to know everything about her.
Cooper had yet to say anything Tony noticed, just sitting there being all polite. How was this kid a Stark? Then Tony got his answer with Cooper’s remarks, “You want my blood to see if I’m a mutant like my sister. Let me save you the trouble, I’m not. And before you start with all the ways that a person can become one, I know them all. I’m thirteen, and I went through a hell of a traumatic experience this week, that I honestly don’t see ending anytime soon. All of that and I wasn’t triggered, so I would assume it is safe to say I’m not a mutant.”
Apparently, Cooper sitting quietly was the calm before the storm, because it was all coming out now, “I’m just a kid from Iowa who was originally from Brooklyn until HYDRA took me. Which even though I don’t remember, must have also been traumatic, and still no triggering. Just because a girl they say” he pointed at his dad and Tony, “is my sister and a mutant doesn’t mean that I am too.” Clint didn’t do anything regarding his son’s outburst, Tony assumed he was allowing Cooper some slack.
“Well, if I felt there was any further need to confirm his maternity, that was it.” Charles said to Hank.
Laughing at his friend’s comment, Hank added, “Nature versus nurture I gather.”
Cooper was confused with the reaction to his burst, “What?”
Professor Xavier clarified, “Nature versus nurture. That means that you are your mother’s son despite not being raised by her. You share similar characteristics with her.” He went on seeing that the child needed additional information, “Katherine doesn’t believe what she can’t feel and touch. I could, and have, sat all day with her trying to explain something, but my words were worthless to her if I didn’t have the proof to support my statements. She is a mathematician, two and two are always going to equal four in her mind unless I provide a formula to arrive at a different conclusion. You appear to be the same way. People you love, and trust have told you about a different life, a life you had with a different mother. You want to believe them, because you have faith in them not to lie to you. Yet, you still can’t get yourself to accept it as true.”
Cooper crossed his arms and leaned back into the couch, taking a more laxed position as he scrutinized the speaker. Sarcastically he retorted, “Sounds cool, wish I remembered her.” Clint gave Cooper a stern ‘dad’ look which told the boy to stop the arrogance. The tone and body language that Cooper was using reminded Clint of Tony. It was exactly something he would say and do. Had his son always acted like this or was the behavior something new? He thought back to all the times someone told him that Cooper got his behavior from his father. It turns out that wasn’t the case, the Stark genes were strong in this one.
“Would you like to?” Xavier asked.
Clint didn’t see where this was going. The boy was only three when everything happened, the chances of any memories from that age were near impossible. He was already worried about the effects of the disturbing event back then and the ones recently on his son’s emotional health. The best solution to this mess was for Kate and Cooper to create some type of mother and son relationship and move on, forgetting the past. It didn’t matter if Clint and Kate got back together, the priority was for the kids having a somewhat stable and happy lives from this point on. But the chances for that were slim if these people were leading his son on with promises of remembering someone and something from long ago. Clint attempted to nicely get around the offer, “He wasn’t effected by the wipe.”
Xavier was aware of everything Clint was thinking. He didn’t want to evade the man’s private thoughts, but this was a unique situation. He needed to know how this father acted towards his children. Would he help or hinder Charlotte if permitted into her life? He was pleased to see that the agent seemed to be a good father, as Director Fury had told him earlier, but Professor X needed to see it himself. “Agent Barton, you can’t remember her because you do not have access to the memories. Your son doesn’t remember because he was too young to recall certain memories, not because he can’t retrieve them. I could assist in that, with your permission of course.”
This guy wasn’t taking Clint’s hint to leave it alone. What did he mean by assisting Cooper’s recall of his memories? “I don’t understand.”
Charles wanted Clint to allow him to investigate the child’s mind. He had spent ten years with Katherine, curious of her past. The implant that S.H.I.E.L.D. had installed on her brain had barred him from the seven years prior to her arrival on campus. He knew the implant was there, but Hank didn’t want to do a scan on Katherine, fearful of what the x-rays would do to the gamma radiation poisoning within her. Two years ago, two students got into a fight in the school’s hallway. Katherine attempted to break it up and only received a concussion for her troubles. The medical staff was concerned about a skull fracture, so Hank had agreed to a CT Scan on her, under his supervision. That was when finally, they saw the implant and tracked it to S.H.I.E.L.D. Xavier was also curious about Katherine’s relationship with Agent Barton, hopefully the young man would process memories of his parents together. It would make talking to Katherine later much easier if he had some of the more personal information, but he needed Clint’s permission to do anything. “I have the ability to read minds and recall the memories of others. I could access Cooper’s memories of Katherine and let him have them.”
Cooper tried to get his father’s attention, “Dad”
Putting his index finger up in Cooper’s direction, Clint protested, “Hold on Coop, Professor Xavier, I appreciate the offer, but I am afraid that will do more damage than it would help.”
“Dad, “the teenager tried to interject once more.
“I understand your concerns Clint,” Professor Xavier used his first name to make it more personal, “I can recall his memories with Katherine, in a sense giving him back his mother. I would stop prior to the switch and wipe. That is probably best left unknown to Cooper at this time.”
Cooper stood up, hoping that Clint would take notice of him, “Dad”
Clint quickly glanced to his son, then back to Xavier, “Can you guarantee that? I can only imagine how traumatic that experience was for him. He was three years old and someone took him and gave him to Laura. He was just a toddler and placed with a stranger. The only saving grace we have is that he doesn’t remember that.”
“Dad.” Cooper was starting to become frustrated. They were talking about him, but not allowing him to comment or express his opinion.
“God damn it Barton.” Everyone looked to Nick Fury who up until this point had not said a single word since the meeting started. Once Fury had everyone’s attention he continued, “Cooper would like to say something. Cooper, what were you trying to tell your dad?”
Suddenly the child was shy when he discovered that he was holding the room’s attention, finding his confidence he told his dad, “I want to do it.”
Clint stood up to match his son’s stance. “Cooper, this isn’t a magician asking for a volunteer at a show. This is serious.”
Cooper tried to unearth the words to support his thinking to his father, and everyone else. “I know, but I’m thinking if I remember her, then when I meet her it won’t feel weird. Because I’ll already know her.”
Thinking of others had never been a strong suit of Tony Stark, but there had recently been some changes to his priorities. In a matter of days, Cooper had become one of the most important people to him, and like Clint, had concerns about the boy’s mental health if he did this. Tony could only assume that Cooper thought that by remembering Kate, all his troubles would be over. Unfortunately, Tony had to burst that bubble, “Yes, you would have some memories of her, but she still won’t remember you.”
Charles didn’t have to read Clint and Tony’s mind to know what they were thinking, it was distinct on their faces and in their voices. He wasn’t sure if what he was about to suggest would help his argument or give them a stronger one against him. “I can give her the memories that Cooper has, and you also Clint. You won’t remember all of the seven years; just what Cooper has.”
Clint’s eyes widen in disbelief, and spoke so low as if he was trying his best to hide any emotion that may escape with his words, “Can you really do that?”
Professor X smiled at the notion of finally gaining some headway, “I wouldn’t have offered it if I couldn’t. I would just need a quiet place for us to do it in. Think about it Clint, you don’t have to decide anything right now, we can do it after the meeting has concluded. You know Cooper wants to, so it’s up to you now.” He didn’t like putting it all on Clint’s shoulders, especially when considering everything the man had just gone through, but he had a feeling that this Agent Barton could handle it.
Tony had watched the discussion with a rapid heartbeat that he was positive everyone in the room could hear. He was willing every cell in his body against going over and shaking Clint until he agreed to do it. Finally, when it looked like Xavier was making some progress, Tony was able to calm down. He was waiting until Cooper and Clint sat back down before continuing the meeting, “While Clint sits over there debating the moral implications of probing his son’s memory, tell us about Charlie and Kate.”
Professor Xavier addressed Tony, “Of course, that is why we are here. That and a few other matters we can get to later.” Then he turned away from Tony to ask Clint directly, “What would you like to know?”
Clint had a million questions, but suddenly he could not think of any to save his life. Reflecting on the numerous conversations he had about Charlie and Kate in the past days, he tried to pick out any question that he had asked and not been given an answer to. There was one such question he had with Natasha, “Charlie is a mutant correct? What are her abilities? Why is HYDRA so engaged in retrieving her?” For someone who was just searching moments ago for a question, he couldn’t stop them from coming, then another thought hit him, “I’m sorry, is that the acceptable term? I’m new to this and don’t want to start off by offending people.”
Charles released a small chuckle at the remark, “The scientific term is Homo sapiens superior or simply Homo superior, but the term mutant is perfectly acceptable. You aren’t offending anyone. Regarding your daughter’s specific mutation or enhancement, Charlotte has a condition known as Hyperthymesia.”
Tony cut in, “That’s like a photographic memory?”
The Professor was used to people interjecting when he was talking, but he hadn’t completed his diagnosis of the girl’s mutation before her grandfather interrupted with his layman term for the child’s condition. “They are commonly used interchangeably, but no. Hyperthymia is the condition when a person can recall every moment of their life, every image, date, day, color, and sensory input.
Stark started to laugh, the looks he received as a result made him swiftly stop. Why was he the only one who saw the ridiculousness? “I’m sorry, that was not appropriate, but that’s her super power? Her memory? I understand HYDRA wants her to use her DNA to create more mutants, but the ability to recall isn’t’ really a big deal to me. A cheap cell phone can do that. They could grab any mutant off the street and get their blood, why stalk a little girl for ten years?”
Not seeing the amusement in the issue at hand, Xavier countered in a serious tone, “Not a lot of mutants were exposed to gamma radiation in utero and had their X-gene triggered moments after birth. In fact, Charlotte is the first one. She is the youngest mutant we have record of. There are only a few cases of Hyperthymesia documented worldwide. And as far as her ‘super power’ goes, her main mutation is that she can manifest anything she has seen. Can a cheap cell phone do that Mr. Stark?”
Accepting that he had been put in his place, Tony replied, “Obviously not Professor Xavier.”
Clint had listened to each and every single word that had been said about his daughter and her abilities and understood that it was all important. The issues brought up, he would need to research for a better understanding of later. However, he was obsessing on a specific comment that the Professor made, “Before you go into all of that. Could you please expand on what you mean by ‘triggered moments after birth’? You aren’t the first one to mention that to me, but you are the only one who would have the explanation. I have heard about these triggering episodes, and there isn’t anything that I like about them.”
Xavier had always seen himself in the grandfather role for Charlotte, having been a part of her life since she was a week old. So, the topic of her triggering was difficult for Charles to discuss. Deciding that it was best for everyone, including himself, to generalize the information and avoid the unpleasant details, he explained, “The terrorist group was astonished to discover that mother and child lived after the explosion. Immediately following Charlotte’s birth, they started the testing. Blood test conducted on the infant informed the scientists that the child carried the X-gene. HYDRA believed that was the missing component to their experiments. While it is true that there was a level of success to their experiments, it was not at the level of their expectations. The organization had to conclude that the X-gene was crucial. The actual testing prior to the triggering of Charlotte is vague, but from what we have come to understand by questioning HYDRA agents at the scene is that HYDRA conducted a type of stress test on the infant. The purpose was so she would experience high stress and trauma, forcing the X-gene to activate.”
Clint wished he could unhear what the Professor just told him. A baby, HYDRA did that to a baby, his baby. The nightmares this conversation would inflict upon him would be nothing compared to his recent one. He had one card left to play - denial, “Then you really don’t know it happened. The guy could have been lying. She was a newborn.”
The Professor had to remind himself that he was speaking to Charlotte’s father, a man who appear to already care for the girl. He had to wonder if things would have been different if Clint had a hand in the upbringing, but then remembered the girl was only ten, there was still time for Clint to be a positive influence on her. Not saying that Charlotte didn’t have numerous people around her these last ten years, guiding her and teaching her about the way the world worked. And probably most importantly, how it would work for her as a mutant. Hank was staring at Charles, knowing what he was thinking. It was often that a mutant child had one supportive parent, but both parents on board was rare. Taking the lead on the conversation Hank answered Clint’s remarks, “We know it happened because the child was activated, and as Cooper pointed out earlier, there are only a few ways for a trigger to occur. Also, because Charlotte has told us. She remembers it. Her Hyperthymesia started with the activation. The few proven cases of the condition have the disadvantage of being influenced by personal interpretations of the memory, Charlotte’s is accurate without any of her own personal input into the memory. She described an incident in the HYDRA base where a nurse was feeding her, she was still hungry after she finished the bottle, so she created and placed another in the nurse’s hand. That nurse informed her superiors of it, and the experiments and testing were escalated. It only ended when we attacked the base and recovered her and Kate.”
Nope, that was the comment Clint wanted to unhear, in fact he wished he never agreed to this meeting. Should have just let Nick and Tony handle it, not involved himself or Cooper. That phone call about a multi-family member discount at the therapist’s office was moving higher and higher on Clint’s priory list. Cooper seemed to be handling the news of his sister’s torture better than himself due to the question the boy asked, “So, if I ask her to make me like a hundred dollars, since she has seen money, she could do that?”
Clint quickly shut his eyes, the entire topic of what happened to his infant sister, and Cooper asked that question? The teenager once again had the attention of the room on him. Professor Xavier took his time, finding the right words for the mutant’s older brother, “Yes, she could, and we have had a similar situation involving pennies and a fountain on campus. We however, do not encourage that type of behavior.”
Fury spoke up with concern, “Following that question about her ability, suppose if she had seen news footage of the battle of Sokovia. Would she be able to manifest an Ultron of her own?”
The professor nodded, “Director Fury, in the time it took you to say that sentence, she could have made thousands of Ultrons.”
Tony wasn’t buying it, “As the creator of Ultron, I am doubtful a ten-year-old could create a copy that would do as much damage as the real Ultron. It would probably just be a walking talking robot, it wouldn’t have the intellect or abilities of the original.”
“She doesn’t need to know how items work, it just does. Charlotte creates perfect replicas of the objects. Even as the creator, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the one you made versus the one Charlotte did.” Hank explained. “It’s actually very fascinating.”
Everyone just lapsed into silence, letting the weight of what was just said sink in. The importance of Charlie’s abilities and the danger it could cause in the wrong hands. It was the girl’s father who summed up the dilemma, “Ok, so that would be another reason for HYDRA to want her. Apparently, her blood isn’t the most valuable thing about her. Not only could she hold all the secrets to creating mutants in a lab, but she could single-handedly cripple both global economy and security.”
Charles Xavier agreed with the evaluation, “That would be on a small scale a fair assessment of the scenario.”
Clint question the recent change, “Why has HYDRA stepped up now? All because Laura’s cover was blown?”
The Professor answered, “Director Fury explained to me your domestic situation Agent Barton. Prior to a few days ago the only thing standing between HYDRA and Charlotte was the X-men. Things have now changed.”
Now that the meeting had turned strategic, Fury reported what he knew, “Our people inside have reported that Laura has been debriefed.” Clint was still needing a moment before getting into the mind frame of Laura being HYDRA. He was trying to digest Fury’s statement, his entire marriage and life to Laura had been reported to HYDRA as a mission debrief. Sadly, because to her all it was, was a mission.
Tony was always happy to call out hypocrites, and did so in a mocking manner, “And pray tell, how do you know that?”
The Director had nothing to be ashamed of as the tone of Tony’s voice implied, “Did you think it only worked one way? HYDRA had people in S.H.I.E.L.D. and we had no one there?”
“What did the debrief uncover?” Clint asked while keeping one eye on Cooper, unsure how the teenager would respond to a discussion about the terrorist acts of his ‘mother’.
Fury didn’t seem to have a problem with Cooper in the room and didn’t water down his report for the child’s behalf. “Laura’s recommendation is for HYDRA to strike now against the school before the Avengers get involved. They are hardly a match for the X-Men, but it is damn impossible with the X-Men and Avengers working together for a common goal.”
Sensing that there was more to the report, Clint prompted, “Was that all?”
“No, she also reported that it was highly likely that Clint would take the child off campus and hide her at the compound with the other children, undoubtedly with Tony’s assistance. That would be the reason why HYDRA is camped out all over the place.”
Hank followed up to the Director’s report, “We have had confirmation of HYDRA cells stationed off campus grounds, there was also a report of suspicious visitors attempting to get into the school just before classes started this morning. They, of course, were not granted access, and took off before they could be questioned. We have everyone on standby, waiting for instructions. We can coordinate between our two groups if that is alright. I don’t see the advantage in us both fighting the same fight alone when we should do it together and present a united front. That way everyone knows what everyone else is doing.”
The X-Men would help, that was one problem dealt with. HYDRA was breathing down their necks. The organization was slowly growing their presence and would have to make a move soon with that much manpower. Tony was silently grateful that he let Clint convince him to bring Captain in, “And Kate?”
Knowing that the question would come up sooner or later, the Professor had an answer ready to go, “She knows that HYDRA is up to something, but not the details. As you can imagine with her history, just saying the group’s name causes her to tense up. Hank and I have a meeting with her set up for this afternoon, in the meantime, we have added a few security measures for her and Charlotte.”
Clint was reassured to hear that Kate and Charlie’s safety was being seen to. “You’re going to tell her everything?” he asked.
“As much as she can handle, yes. Hank will ensure a safe environment.”
Dr. McCoy could see that Charles’ answer caused some to eye him with concern on what was meant by ‘safe environment’, and decided to expand on the explanation, “We are concerned about the impact of the information on her wellbeing. Don’t worry, she is perfectly fine, I just want to be cautious. I will be reading her vitals the entire time, and ready with a sedative if need be. Of course, you will be informed as soon as it is over.”
This was almost too easy for Clint. He seriously could not be that close to seeing Kate and Charlie himself, if she agreed to the meeting of course. Nothing in this whole mess had gone easy, there had to be a catch. “What happens then?”
Xavier saw the change in the facial expression on the archer’s face, the man almost looked hopeful. “Then you and Katherine take over. I hope I speak for everyone here when I say if Charlotte and Katherine are safe and healthy, then it’s your relationship to do with as you see fit. I fear there is a lot of trouble coming our way in the coming days, and there is no need to add anymore limitations on you two. If you allow me to access your son’s memories, and he permits me to share them with Katherine and yourself, then perhaps that could help things. Make the first meeting a little less awkward so to speak. I understand that Mr. Stark is working on a way to undo the memory wipe entirely.”
Nick Fury was quick to input, “That hasn’t been decided yet.”
Just as fast, Tony snapped, “Like hell it hasn’t. I just haven’t had the time yet to start, and you need time to get your people safe for it.”
Assuming everyone was on the same page when it came to Katherine and her child, Professor Xavier decided to move the meeting along to address what he considered lesser affairs on the agenda. “Now if there aren’t any more questions about Katherine and Charlotte, we have a few additional matters to discuss. We are interested in one of your members, or former members as it were, a Wanda Maximoff. I believe that the X-Men could help her control her abilities.”
Tony had been waiting for the X-Men to ask for something in return. He knew there was no way they would just volunteer to help. “So, what is this, a prisoner exchange? We give you Wanda, you’ll give us Kate?”
“Not at all Mr. Stark.” Xavier said starting to get irritated by the Ironman. “No one is giving anyone to anyone. Everything is dependent on their consent. However, I wouldn’t be honest if I said I haven’t seen the news, I know what happened to your group. Ms. Maximoff was never taught how to use her powers. It appears that she is just getting stronger without any guidance. I have experienced many students with a similar issue and would like to offer our assistance.”
Clint thought it was a good idea. Hell, they didn’t know how to train Wanda past anything physical, such as self-defense. The Avengers didn’t have the abilities to help Wanda control her powers, mostly because her full potential hadn’t manifested yet. There was however one tiny barrier, “Even if she was willing, she is in hiding after the Sokovia Accords, and…prison break.” Clint added the last part under his breath, but everyone still heard him.
Concluding that Clint was probably the most reasonable person in the room, Charles addressed his suggestion to him directly. “I believe that could be worked around. We have friends in D.C. and are attempting to make new ones. I am positive that a case could be presented for the United Nation to allow us to house Ms. Maximoff and train her.”
Clint nodded, seeing potential in the proposal. The Professor continued, “That brings me to our final piece of business. The Avengers have caused a bit of trouble for us with the Sokovia Accords. Secretary Thaddeus Ross has requested to visit our school and determine how much of a threat we are since he is in town already.” Xavier looked to Tony to drive home the point that the Avengers’ actions had consequences on others, not just themselves. “As I said, we have friends in the government who have been able to keep the United Nations and Secretary Ross off us for the past two years, but it seems they can’t buy us anymore time. The school is hosting a gathering tomorrow evening to honor the Secretary. Just a small get together with administration, staff, and a few selected students. We would be pleased for you all to join us.”
“Staff and students?” Clint inquired to the doctor.
Hearing both the posed question and the unspoken one, Hank answered Clint, “Pending on her emotional and physical reaction to this afternoon, yes, Kate will be there. The administration feels it is important to showcase our human instructor in unification with the mutant members of staff. I can’t guarantee Charlie’s attendance however, with the threat against her, it would probably be for the best to keep a low profile.”
“I’m game if you all are.” Tony said to Nick and Clint about the invitation. They didn’t say anything, so he took it as a ‘yes’. “So, Clint, come to a decision yet?”
Clint hadn’t been listening, just focused on his impending meeting with Kate. “About what?”
‘Seriously?’ Tony thought, “What else, getting your head messed with again, you know they say third times the charm.”
Turning to Tony, Clint stated to him, “I know you think you’re funny.”
“But?” Tony asked waiting for the punch line.
Disregarding Tony with a shrug of his shoulders, “Nothing, just I know you think you’re funny.” Pointing his interest to the Professor, “So, this memory thing, how does it work?”
“I can assure you, I am not ‘messing with your head’. I explore Cooper’s memories with a self-filter of only ones associated with Katherine. I have no need to see anything else, or desire to.” The last part of the statement was directed right at the teenager, knowing what possible fears Cooper may have of what Professor Xavier could see. “Once I am done, you will have full recall of anything I accessed. Then I will submit those same memories to your father’s mind. Then I will do the same thing to your mother this afternoon if she wants.”
Clint looked to Cooper, “You sure you want to do this?” The boy took a minute, then bobbed his head. “We’re ready when you are Professor.”
Nick Fury got up, “We will leave you to it then.”. He signaled to Tony for them to leave, seeing the indication, Hank stood up to joined them. The three left the office, giving Cooper and Clint the privacy that such an event would need.
Clint held his breath as the Professor placed a hand on each side of Cooper’s head. His son was lying down on the sofa in Tony’s office. Clint was standing across the room watching every move either Xavier or Cooper made. Charles Xavier leaned over Cooper’s head, “I’m about to start. You won’t feel anything physical.” Clint saw the rise of his son’s chest and the child said something that Clint could only assume was along the lines of ‘ok’. And just like that everything became silent and still. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Xavier spoke, “there she is”, as he turned his head towards Clint and smiled. The breath that Clint had been holding slowly released when he saw that Xavier wasn’t the only one smiling. Cooper, in his dream-like state had a smile on his face, clearly having a good memory.
About ten minutes later, the Professor opened his eyes and leaned back into his chair. He removed his hands from Cooper and folded them in his lap. Clint remained standing and waited for the older man to say something. Cooper stayed in his position lying on the couch, his eyes still shut, but Clint could tell that he wasn’t sleeping. Then he noticed it, a single tear had dislodged out of his son’s eye and was trailing down his face. “Cooper?”
At the sound of his name, Cooper opened his eyes and looked to his father. Suddenly aware of the tear, he brought his hand up and wiped it away. “I’m good dad.” The boy said knowing that the tear was why his dad was concerned. Cooper sat up on the couch and used the arms of the furniture to push himself up to be standing. Clint hastily made his way over to meet his son to steady him. “I’m good”, he repeated, waving off Clint’s assistance.
“Cooper?” Clint asked. It was a one-word question, but the teenager understood the whole meaning to it.
“Yeah dad, it worked. I remember her, I remember all of us, together. I remember my mom.” Cooper’s voice dropped with his last comment, he sounded sad. Clint wondered if the reason was the memories themselves or the lost the memories represented. The smile that had been on Clint’s son’s face slowly slipped away only to be replaced by a vacant expression. “Can I go to my room? I mean the room I used last night?”
There were a million things running through Clint’s head with Cooper’s request. He knew this was a bad idea. It was selfish of him to use his son in order to get answers to his own erased past. He was at a loss for words, the shame of what he just put his child through paralyzed him. “Clint,” a voice called him back to reality. Looking over to the Professor, Clint made eye contact, so the man knew he had his attention, and could speak, “he is alright, just as he said. I only gave him the good memories. A mother who loved him and his father, a happy home. He just needs time to process it all.” The older man grinned again, “Like I said, he is like his mother, he must see it to believe it. He has now seen it, so he needs time to accept and believe it.”
All Clint could do was accept Xavier and Cooper at their words, the child was alright. “Yeah, Coop, go right on up.” He scrutinized every aspect of the child as Cooper walked out the office, looking for something to be wrong. When the boy opened the door, Clint could see Tony sitting there in a chair against the hallway wall. As soon as Tony looked up to see Cooper coming out, he was up on his feet. He was just about to start bombarding the kid with questions when Clint yelled into the hallway, “Hey Tony, can you take Cooper up to my apartment? He can do it on his own, just watch him please so no one bothers him on his way there? He needs some time.” The look Tony gave told Clint that he got the message loud and clear, ‘leave the kid alone for now’.
“Are you ready now Clint?” Xavier asked, still in the same stance as Clint last saw him in.
Looking back into the hallway, Clint couldn’t see Cooper or Tony anymore. Shutting the door, he inquired skeptically, “What did you mean when you said that you only gave him the good memories?”
Xavier held out his hand towards the couch, indicating for Clint to come over and sit. “No one is perfect all the time Clint.”
Doing as required, Clint sat down decoding the meaning behind Xavier’s cryptic comment. “You mean we fought, in front of Cooper.”
Seeing that Clint was feeling uncomfortable by the X-Men leader having seen his domestic life, when he didn’t have access to it, Charles clarified. “It wasn’t just that. Yes, there was the occasional argument. Nothing that I doubt isn’t going on in every married couple’s home, I didn’t see the need for him to remember that. However, I was referring to the numerous, and unfortunately, I do mean numerous, times either you or Katherine came home injured. It frightened him at that age, as I’m sure it would now. So, I blocked his recall of those events.”
“Thank you?” Clint wasn’t positive that was the appropriate response, but it was all he could come up with in a timely manner.
“I can give you everything however, if that is what you want.” Xavier knew what the answer would be but still wanted to give Clint the option.
Clint swallow down any doubt he had about what he was about to do and demanded all of his courage to come to the surface, “Can’t take the good without the bad sir. Life isn’t just good memories, and that’s what I want, my life back.”
A person didn’t need to be a telepath to see that Clint was saying it for himself. Professor Xavier predicted during the meeting that Clint was going to become someone he could respect, after seeing Cooper’s memories of his parents, he now knew that he did not only respect the man before him, but possibly liked him. It wasn’t a mystery anymore to him what Katherine saw in the archer, and soon it wouldn’t be one to Clint either. “Then please lay down, and we will begin.”
Tony had stayed with Cooper until the boy went to take a nap. He assumed the stress of all the recent events finally caught up with the kid. He knew that Cooper hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since the day before his visit to the farm, and the start of all of this chaos. He patiently waited in the living room of Clint’s apartment until FRIDAY informed him that the child had fallen asleep. Tony had hoped the boy would have come out of his room to talk with him about what Xavier had shown him, but no such luck. Realizing that his grandson would sleep for a while, he returned to his chair in the hallway to wait for Clint to emerge from the office.
Xavier’s time with Clint was much longer than it had been with Cooper. However, finally Clint opened the door. Tony stood as he saw Barton moved back from the doorway to allow the Professor through first. “So?” Tony asked.
Charles Xavier offered his hand to Tony, “We are done here Mr. Stark, I look forward to seeing everyone tomorrow night. I will just collect Dr. McCoy and see ourselves out. We have another appointment to get to.”
Tony shook the hand and questioned about the participant of the next appointment, “Kate?”
Nodding his head, the Professor confirmed, “Yes, Katherine will be done with her classes by the time we get back.” With that, the Professor left, leaving Tony and Clint alone in the hallway.
“So?” Tony repeated, this time with a hint of annoyance.
“How is Cooper?” The concerned was thick with Barton’s question of his son’s wellbeing. That didn’t help Tony’s anxiety over what to two had been shown.
Tony was about to throttle the man if he didn’t give up the information soon, “Taking a nap upstairs. FRIDAY will inform me when he wakes up. Are you going to make me beg? What happened in there? What did you see?”
There was something funny about Tony using FRIDAY as a baby monitor, but Clint didn’t have the strength to make a joke. “That’s good, he needed to sleep.” Everything in the present was taking a back seat to the past playing in Clint’s head. At last, he processed that Tony said something after informing him of Cooper’s whereabouts. Deciding that he couldn’t emotionally or physically handle getting into everything now, he offered, “Cooper had a lot of memories of her. I know who she was to me now.”
Tony was in utter disbelief, “That’s it?”
“Stark,” Clint said in a very formal tones showing his seriousness, “I need to be alone for a little while. What I now know…it’s a lot.” Clint understood now why Cooper reacted the way he did after his own session with the Professor. “We’ll talk, I promise. But now, I have some thinking to do, and we have a whole heap of work to get going on. I’ll meet you all in a few hours.” Clint moved past Tony and started down the hallway to the elevator.
Not doubting that he had work to do, there was always work that needed to be done. However, clarification was needed, what work was Clint referring to? “What heap of work?”
Clint didn’t look back, “finding a safe way to both getting my wife and daughter back and undoing this damn wipe.”