Saipan was all ragged jungle and rocks that jutted abruptly out of the sea to rip our clothes and cut our skin while we scrambled out of the water. We never landed on the beach. That was suicide. And just like every other island hellhole we’d landed on during the war, I hated it. After two weeks of mud, heat, and relentless combat, I still hated it.
“’S a hell of a place, Frankie,” my brother grumbled from beside me. My given name is Clinton Francis, Clint to friends and fellow Marines. Barney called me by my middle name, just like I called him by his. It’s kind of a thing with us.
Oily black smoke from burning jungle wafted over us, and I wished I could pull the collar of my shirt up over my mouth. Gunfire and mortars sounded all around us from Japanese positions on the next hill. My wet collar chafed against my neck. Oh, to be dry again. I shifted as much as my rifle stand would let me and adjusted my sights.
“You got that right,” I grunted. “We shoulda never left Iowa, Barn.”
I heard the whoosh of a flamethrower nearby followed by screams in a language I recognized as Japanese. Still didn’t understand the words, not even after two years at the front. The smoke took on the horrible smell of burnt flesh. My stomach churned.
“Close,” Barney said, lowering his binoculars to scan the nearby jungle. He shrugged, seemingly unruffled, and looked through his binoculars again. He was my spotter, and a damn good one, because he said: “Got him. Two rocks up from that bush with the big red flower.”
I sighted the bush and roved upward. A single ragged hibiscus flower clung tenaciously to its bush and for some reason it made me smile. I’d sent Bobbi a postcard with a red hibiscus before shipping out from Hawaii. It felt like a lifetime ago. I counted two rocks up the ridge, and sure enough, I spotted a distinctive light colored helmet. Our luck was in: an enemy officer.
“Nail him, little brother,” Barney said.
I had a shot. “That’s a rog,” I replied.
Maybe there was once a time when I would have hesitated to put my finger on the trigger with a man in my sights, but if there was, it was difficult to remember. That had been someone else, long ago. I took two quick breaths followed by a long deep one. My hand steadied. Time slowed. My crosshairs settled on the head under the white helmet. I exhaled slowly.
My finger began to tighten on the trigger as the scream of a mortar sounded directly overhead, but I did not move. We’d been getting shelled for days. But Barney swore. My eye was jerked away from the scope as his body slammed into mine, forcing me down into the mud. My rifle bucked in my hands but the crack of the shot was lost in the demonic howl of the falling mortar. It was right on top of us. I yelled, struggling even as Barney’s arms tightened protectively around me-
I jolted awake before the explosion. Something roared passed my window, drowning out my cry. I sat up, struggling in the tangled sheets, and ran my hands through my hair. They came away damp with cold sweat. I felt the trickle of sweat along one of my scars and a chill raced down my spine. The nightmare had lost none of its power in the five years since I’d been evacuated from Saipan, more dead than alive.
They shipped my brother Barney home too, after that. In a wooden box.
The roar outside my window faded to a distant rattle as the elevated train passed. I fumbled a cigarette from the package on my bedside table and lit it with shaking hands. I nearly dropped the lighter twice. It was only a train, I told myself firmly over my screaming nerves. Only a train. I was living in Lake View that year, not far from the El because the rent was cheap.
After a few heavy drags, I felt my heart beat begin to slow and I became more aware of my surroundings. The morning light streamed thickly through my bedroom window. I looked at the clock and swore. Coulson had warned me not to be late today, and late I was. I untangled the bedclothes and got to my feet, stretching with a cigarette still clamped between my lips while I hurried barefoot into the kitchen. With the memory of the flamethrowers fresh in my mind, the sight of bacon in the icebox was enough to turn my stomach. I put the coffee on while I shaved, and drank it black while I walked out the door.
The Federal Building, where our offices were, was at Dearborn and Jackson. The massive gold dome loomed over the Loop like that meddling great aunt you can’t seem to get rid of at family reunions. My luck was in today, despite the morning’s miserable start, and I managed not to get stuck in traffic. A keen wind howled off the lake, cutting straight through my coat and nearly blowing my hat off my head while I walked in after parking the Ford. I showed the day guard the badge proclaiming me to be Special Agent Clint Barton.
I took the stairs two at a time and nearly bowled over a couple of smart-suited lawyers in my rush to make it to the Bureau before Coulson realized I was late. But Maria Hill was waiting for me with her usual disapproving glare as I burst through the double doors marked Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chicago Field Office, panting and clutching my gray hat with one hand.
“Late again, Barton,” Maria said, glancing up at me coolly from her typewriter. She was tall for a woman, dark-haired and slender, with fine features. She’d probably have a great smile if she ever lightened up. I’d sure never seen it. She wore a no-nonsense black suit and her hair was pulled up into a no-nonsense knot to match. The edge of the handkerchief in her breast pocket looked sharp enough to cut myself on.
I went for my own handkerchief to mop my face, but I’d forgotten it in my rush. I shrugged and approached her desk. She eyed me. I leaned on the edge rakishly and fumbled in my breast pocket for a cigarette. I felt a new pair of eyes on my back, and glanced over my shoulder. A tall blond man I’d never met was sitting outside Coulson’s office, watching me with vague disapproval. I ignored him.
“Maybe they’ll bust me down to secretary and bump you up to agent,” I retorted with a grin. Maria gave me a look that suddenly reminded me she could hit the bullseye on the shooting range four times to my five. I flicked a match with my thumbnail but botched it: the phosphorous caught and burned my thumb instead of lighting my cigarette. I swore and dropped it in the ashtray. The blond man’s face darkened.
“Barton,” Special Agent In Charge Phil Coulson called from his office door, before Maria could say anything. He was old enough to be balding, roughly my height, and still well-muscled despite his age. “Get in here.”
I tipped my hat playfully to Maria Hill and strolled into Coulson’s office. I say office, but it was really more of a glass box. Blinds hung down from all sides, in case he wanted privacy. Today they were open, so whatever he had to say to me must not be all that important.
“Sit,” he ordered, and I dropped into a chair. I thought briefly about putting my feet up on his desk, just to see what kind of reaction the blond guy outside would have. Phil and I were old friends, all the way back to boot camp, so he probably wouldn’t punch me. Unlike Maria Hill. “You know how I feel about waiting.”
“Sorry, boss,” I said, immediately on guard. I knew my excuse was thinner than field hospital gruel, and Coulson probably knew it too. “You know what traffic’s like.”
It was a blatant lie and we both knew it. Without thought, I thumbed the ten-inch scar that ran from my hip to my ribs under my clothes. One of my souvenirs from Saipan. Coulson shot me a look that made me feel like I was being x-rayed, but he didn’t call me out. Instead he tapped a sheaf of papers into a neat stack and reached for a manila file. He held the manila folder up, but changed his mind and set it flat on the desk in front of him. He folded his hands on top of it.
I raised an eyebrow at this fidgeting. Coulson didn’t have a single nerve in his body; not in battle and certainly not behind a desk. “Just spill it, Coulson,” I drawled. “I don’t got all day.”
Coulson shot me an appraising look. He licked his lips and didn’t mince words. “I’m assigning you a partner, Barton.”
“What?” I exclaimed, surprised and more than a little annoyed. It felt like being assigned a babysitter, and Lord knew I’d never gotten along with most of the other agents in the Bureau. It had been one thing when I’d been partnered with Coulson, but then he went and got himself promoted, and- “Boss, you know I work alone! I’ve always worked-“
“I know,” Coulson said, raising his hands in a placating manner. “I tried to explain this to Director Fury, but he was adamant. He wants both his best and my best on this case, and that’s you, Barton.”
I scowled despite his attempted flattery. “Phil…”
“It’s happening, Barton, whether you like it or not,” Coulson suddenly snapped. “So I suggest you get accustomed to the idea, and clean the bottles out of your car.” My eyes narrowed angrily, and his face softened a little. “Look, I’m sorry, Clint. This case is very important, and I’m under a lot of pressure from above, here.”
I bit the inside of my lip. Lord also knew I knew the futility of arguing with orders that came down from On High. “Fine. Who’s the lucky chump?”
Coulson jerked his chin towards something outside the office and I turned. As if on cue, the blond man looked up. He looked somehow familiar, but I couldn’t quite place how. “That’s him. Agent Steven Rogers, DC branch.”
Steven Rogers. I frowned a little, trying to place the name. Steven Rogers. I felt my jaw drop. Sure, I recognized the name all right, along with every other American. It was straight out of the newsreels.
“Captain America?” I exclaimed incredulously, half-leaping out of my chair. “You stuck me with Captain America?”
Coulson made a face, but I swore I could see a glint of amusement in his eye. “I’d suggest you not call him that.”
“How old is he?” I demanded, standing and pushing the blinds open with my thumb and forefinger to get a better look at Rogers sitting outside. “Looks more like a boy scout than a Fed.”
Coulson cringed a little, and I rounded on him. “Graduated from the academy top of his class,” he said.
“Yeah, but what year?” I growled. I dropped back into my chair, glowering. Bad enough to get assigned a new partner, and a rookie partner to boot.
Phil avoided the question, and my heart sank. Stuck with a rookie. “His records are quite impressive, and Director Fury assures me he’s the best.”
I made a derogatory noise. Good on paper was one thing; good in the field was something else.
“There’s his war record to consider, too,” Coulson added sharply, and my eyes dropped to the floor. I couldn’t deny he had a point there. Like every American, I knew Rogers had done his part and done it well, just like me and Phil. But still, I wasn’t real happy about going from being assigned a babysitter to being the babysitter.
“Fine. But you owe me, Coulson.”
Phil grinned and got up from his desk. He never had been quite comfortable with ordering Maria around via an intercom. He stuck his head outside and called: “Agent Rogers, will you please join us?”
Special Agent Steven Rogers, formerly known as Captain America, was an even more impressive physical specimen in person than he’d been in the newsreels. His blond hair was cut short and combed to the side with the military neatness a lot of us hadn’t quite been able to shake since returning home. Under the blond hair were a pair of bright blue eyes and one damn patriotic jawline.
“Steve Rogers,” he said, extending a hand. I got up to shake it, and found he had a good three or four inches on me. From the way he filled out his crisp blue suit, he probably had a good twenty or thirty pounds of muscle on me as well.
There was a vaguely disappointed gleam in his eye, and I suddenly felt small and a little inadequate in my rumpled gray flannel and crooked tie. But I swallowed my doubts. Rogers was clearly as thrilled as I was about getting a new partner. That at least hinted at good sense; I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be partnered with me, either. I grinned at him. “Clint Barton. Good to meet you…Captain.”
The skin tightened around Coulson’s eyes and I stifled a chuckle. Rogers took the ribbing with good grace, however, and we all took our seats. I could practically see myself in the shine of his shoes.
“So you wanna cut to the chase, boss?” I asked Coulson, digging around in my pockets for a cigarette and another match. This time I didn’t screw up and the match flared to life without burning me when I flicked it. I lit the cigarette and inhaled the smoke gratefully. I offered one to Coulson, who looked like he wanted to hit me. I glanced to the left and saw Rogers’ lips had drawn into a thin line of disapproval.
Fantastic. Bet he was a teetotaler, too. I ignored him.
Coulson produced the manila folder he’d dug out when I first came in. He removed a photograph and held it up so Rogers and I could both see it. “This is Doctor Bruce Banner. He’s been missing for two days. You’re going to find him.”
Rogers took the file without protest, but it was my turn to look like I wanted to hit something. First a partner, then getting pulled off my other work (hey, Commie-catching is important, at least according to our bosses on the Hill) to work a missing persons’ case? I opened my mouth to protest, but Coulson shot me that murderous look that threatened to bust me back to Vice, so I shut up.
“A doctor?” Rogers asked, thumbing through the file with a frown.
I took the photograph from Coulson and studied it. Judging by his face, Banner was a little heavier than I was. He had dark curly hair that needed to be cut and soft dark eyes that looked a little sad. He looked like a professor, or a poet, or something equally non-threatening. Not the Fed’s usual person of interest, that was for sure.
“Scientist,” Coulson corrected. “He’s a physicist; based at the University’s new research facility outside of town. It’s all pretty hush-hush.”
“Oh,” Rogers said softly, as if that explained something. I raised an eyebrow at him. Coulson smiled a little.
“What’s the government want with some scientist?” I asked sourly, stubbing the end of my cigarette in Coulson’s ashtray. This was well below my paygrade.
“The A-bomb,” Rogers said, shooting a questioning glance at Coulson. He nodded encouragingly, and Rogers continued. “It’s all classified work, but judging from his background, I’d say he was one of the scientists that built the bomb.”
That got my attention. The newsreels called the atomic bomb the devastating new weapon of a post-war age. It was now the most important American secret in existence. Everyone, especially the Reds, were rabid to get it. It was one of the reasons I was supposed to keep tabs on all the Communists in town.
I swallowed. We Feds had seen photographs of the devastation of Japan after the war, after the bombs had been dropped. Most people only saw the mushroom clouds, but not us. The-Powers-That-Be called it motivation for us to do our jobs, and to do them well. They were right; even after the absolute hell I’d witnessed on Saipan, the images still made me sick. I glanced down at the photograph in my hand, and Dr. Bruce Banner’s soft eyes looked back at me. It was hard to believe this man could have helped end so many lives.
Maybe this case wasn’t below my paygrade after all.
“Where was he last seen?” I asked, tossing the photograph back onto Coulson’s desk. Rogers took it and tucked it back in the folder. Couldn’t even handle that little bit of disorder, could he? He was going to love my car.
“Tony Stark’s penthouse,” Coulson deadpanned. “Apparently Dr. Banner was in attendance at a party there two nights ago. He was supposed to run some kind of experiment in the morning and never showed.”
Interesting. I didn’t know Stark personally, of course, but he’d sure kept the Tribune’s gossip page well-supplied in the two years since he’d returned to Chicago. I’d always admired his flare.
“Tony Stark?” Rogers asked incredulously. “This Banner sounds like a pretty quiet guy. I have a hard time seeing him with someone of Stark’s…reputation.”
I grinned at the obvious disapproval in his voice. Tony Stark was only the richest, most famous alcoholic this side of the Mississippi. So Rogers was a teetotaler.
“Stark’s supposed to be brilliant in his own right, when he ain’t saturated,” I observed with a shrug. I roughed up my grammar on purpose, because Rogers looked like the type of guy it would irritate. “He’s a weapons manufacturer. Banner built bombs. Maybe they know each other socially.”
I got to my feet, and Rogers hastily followed suit. I adjusted my pistol in its shoulder holster, and felt to make sure I had my badge. “Well, there’s only one way to find out. Why don’t we go ask him about it, Captain?”
I could practically hear Rogers’ teeth grinding as we left Coulson’s office. My grin widened. Seemed like our partnership was off to a great start.