Phil goes to sleep under a well-worn red-white-and-blue comforter, and wakes up in a war zone.
He’s never been one to snap awake, and so he drifts into awareness with nothing but the vague but growing conviction that something is wrong. Something’s gone strange with his bed; it feels more like broken pavement under his back than an actual mattress, and there are faint but persistent noises filtering through the still mostly pleasant haze of sleep: sirens, shouting, pounding footsteps. It’s the smell that finally wakes him up fully: smoke and melting rubber, and beneath it the mostly unidentifiable scent of something, well, unidentifiable, but probably somehow vital, burning.
He jerks upward, panicked, and immediately has to lean over to the side and seriously contemplate throwing up, head spinning. Something is -- there’s something weird; his skin feels too-tight, his limbs don’t want to work right; he falls over from his tenuously upright position when his arms give out, trembling, and stares up at the sky from his back. It’s full of skyscrapers and smog, although the smog might be from the fires he can still hear and smell burning merrily away somewhere nearby.
There’s a voice in his head saying, “Coulson,” with increasing persistence. He forces himself to sit up again and shakes his head a few times, violently; out of the corner of his eye something small and black flies away from his ear and the voice, thank god, stops.
Or, okay, maybe not. A man skids into view, and the small part of Phil’s brain that is not preoccupied with shell-shock makes a mental ticky note in the “hunk” column before noticing that the guy is holding a bow and has a quiver on his back, at which point it gives up entirely. “Coulson?” the guy says, sounding horrified.
“Join the club,” Phil says, realizing, belatedly, that this is not actually how conversations work. Question. Response. “How do you know my name?”
Mr Bow-and-Arrow, in the process of taking two steps forward, halts abruptly and stares at Phil from three feet away, an an indecipherable expression on his face. “What’s the last thing you remember?” he says.
“What’s the last thing I -- going to sleep,” Phil says, “I went to bed. I have school in the morning. What’s happening?”
“Oh, Jesus,” says Mr Bow-and-Arrow. “Yes, I found him,” he adds, “fuck, yes -- no, I don’t know, come see for yourselves.”
“Okay,” Phil says, slowly. “Well. I’m just going to go now, if it’s all the same to you.” He climbs painfully to his feet, the man still staring at him in a way that’s rapidly crossing the line from weird to extremely uncomfortable. What would Captain America do, Phil thinks to himself, a little hysterically. He thinks the answer to that might be, sock the bad guy in the face, but this guy’s arms are pretty much three times the size of Phil’s neck and, well, he knows his own strength.
Phil takes one wobbly step and trips over his own feet, landing hard on the pavement and realizing on the way down, with a certain degree of horror, that he’s wearing clothes that are definitely not his. Phil has never owned a suit this nice in his entire life, and he thinks that if he did he would probably want it to fit better than this.
“Approach on foot,” says Mr Bow-and-Arrow, tightly, and then makes a face that might be supposed to be a smile. It falls a little short of reassuring. “How old are you, Coulson?”
Phil says, “I’m sixteen,” hoping that his voice isn’t shaking, and knows from the crestfallen expression on the man’s face that this is, in some way, the wrong answer.
“Did you catch that?” Mr Bow-and-Arrow asks. “Yeah. ETA?”
“Who are you --” Phil starts, and is interrupted by three people coming cautiously around the corner, dressed bizarrely, all looking a little worse for the wear and staring at Phil, just like Mr Bow-and-Arrow.
“Coulson?” one of them says; Phil doesn’t quite catch who.
“How did I get here? What’s going on? How do you all know my name?”
A fourth person steps into sight wearing a full Captain America costume. It’s maybe the best one he’s ever seen, for all that it’s subtly inaccurate. It’s too showy: it has a cowl instead of a functional helmet; the material is weirdly thin; the colours too bright. Still, it must have cost a fortune. “That’s really great,” Phil says, momentarily distracted from where am I and what happened and ow.
The small crowd in front of him exchange glances, and then the one wearing some sort of suit of armour laughs nervously and says, “Oh man, that’s totally him, isn’t it. It’s actually him. What the actual fuck.”
“Is this - is this Comic-Con?” Phil asks, hopefully.
It isn’t Comic-Con.
Phil gets offered a hand from the woman with bright red hair, who yanks him upright like it’s nothing, for all that he’s taller than her. She says, “Hmm,” and then briskly and efficiently locates and removes two handguns and three knives of varying sizes from holsters and pockets that Phil only becomes aware of when she reveals them.
“Those are -- those are not mine. Why am I carrying weapons?” Phil says, plaintively. No one answers. He’s hustled into the backseat of a car with black-tinted windows; the woman, Mr Bow-and-Arrow, and Mr Suit-of-Armour get in with him; the Captain America roleplayer and the guy with the cape say, “See you back at base,” and close the door after them.
This is not where he fell asleep last night. These are not his clothes, or his shoes, and he suspects that this is not even his state, let alone his city. This is, however, his tiny, discrete panic attack in a nondescript car with a bunch of strangers.
The man in the suit of armour -- “Tony Stark,” he says, like it’s something Phil should already know; it rings a bell somewhere in Phil’s brain but comes with no additional useful information -- leans in close and squints at him.
“Back off,” Mr Bow-and-Arrow says. He’s sitting in the front passenger’s seat; the woman -- “Natasha Romanov” -- is driving. He hasn’t turned around; he’s got his forehead pressed against the window glass.
“Make me, Barton,” Stark suggests.
Ms. Romanov clears her throat, and Stark sits back in his seat. “Well,” he says. “This is a pickle, huh? Any chance you remember the weapon that hit you?”
“Weapon?” Phil manages.
“Back off,” Barton says, again.
They blindfold Phil in the car, which makes panic curl in his chest, again, making it hard to breathe deep and steady like none of this is phasing him. Barton clambers into the backseat and Phil takes off his tie for him to use and Barton says, “Is this okay?” with a note in his voice that Phil can’t even begin to decipher. Stark’s armoured hands are surprisingly gentle on Phil’s arm and shoulder, guiding him carefully out of the car.
“Just until we get you into the interview room,” says Ms. Romanov, unseen. “Not long. Ten minutes.”
They don’t trust him.
That’s fine; it’s mutual.
There’s a physical examination, and someone takes some of his blood; they test his reflexes and take his fingerprints and stick him in some sort of medical machine that takes pictures of his insides and another one that takes moving pictures of his brain. They give him a questionnaire to fill out that looks like what you would give to someone with amnesia in the movies. They hook him up to a lie detector and ask him questions about codes and missions and people he’s never heard of before.
When that’s all over, they give him a sandwich and a donut and a soda and leave him in an interview room with woman who introduces herself as “Agent Hill.”
“Hi, Coulson,” she says. “This is very strange, huh.”
“Yes,” Phil says, in between inhaling all the food. “It sucks and I would like to go home.” No one has said anything at all about when he can go home, which he’s trying not to think about too hard because he’s pretty sure if he thinks about it too hard he’s going to start screaming.
“Remind me how old you are?”
“Sixteen,” Phil says, again, immediately. “I’m a minor. You should probably call my mom.”
“Okay,” she says, and makes a ticky note on her pad of paper and no movement whatsoever towards a phone. “And the year?”
“1978,” Phil says; this question has already come up four times, and Phil has a terrible suspicion that whatever she’s going to say in response to this is not going to be something he wants to hear.
“Hmmm,” she says, and makes another ticky note. The hand not holding a pencil rises to her ear; she looks right at Phil but when she says “Yes,” and “sir,” and “that’s what I think, too,” it’s clear she’s not talking to him. Phil fidgets under her gaze; rubs his finger-tips along the too-large cuffs of the strange suit until she brings her hand back down and shrugs at him.
“So far, so good, Coulson,” Agent Hill says. “I’ll be back in later, okay?”
“Okay,” Phil echoes, wondering what could possibly be “good”, and is relieved when she steps out of the door. He’s less relieved to hear the click of a lock sliding into place.
Phil puts his head down on the table and concentrates very hard on breathing slowly and steadily. He realizes, a moment too late, that he’s put his forehead into a thin layer of something sticky; he really, sincerely hopes that it’s soda or something. What kind of secret interrogation room has sticky spots on its secret interrogation tables? Probably not one where he wants to spend any length of time.
He’s not sure how long he’s in there. Long enough to become increasingly uncomfortable, stiff and a little cold in the hard plastic chair, but in the absence of a watch or a clock on the wall he’s adrift in time. Someone knocks once, twice, three times on the door, and then it opens a crack and the Captain America look-alike pokes his head through to stare at Phil. He really is very talented -- even the way he stands is right -- and luck of genetics or maybe some expensive artificial assistance has given him exactly the right looks, too, down to the build and the blue eyes, visible past the cowl.
"Hi there," the man says. "Mind if I sit?"
Nobody else has cared if Phil minds or not. They all just sat down. "Um," Phil says. "No." He concentrates very hard on not turning that last part into a question.
"My name is Steve Rogers," says the man, and he smiles at Phil - a nice smile, without the sharp edges of the man with the armour or the man with the eyepatch or the woman in black leather, or, well, everyone else Phil has had contact with since waking up in an alley in someone else's clothes -- and he reaches up, slowly, like he's worried Phil is going to spook, and pulls the cowl back from his head.
Phil spooks. "No," he says, blank. He’s watched a hundred different newsreels and spent hours organizing trading cards and visiting archives to pull up pictures and the few declassified documents available. This face is more familiar to him than his own father's.
Not that that would take much.
“Why are you -- how are you --” Phil is only distantly embarrassed when his voice cracks.
“I’m not sure how this will sound to you,” the man -- oh, god, Captain America? -- says. “But -”
“Oh,” Phil interrupts, blank, suddenly and totally certain of his place in the world. “Oh, of course.”
“I’m dead,” Phil says. “It’s the only explanation. I died and went to --” he pauses, aware, suddenly, that he’s on rocky theological/metaphysical ground he hasn’t previously had much interest in exploring. “Um. Heaven?”
“This may come as a surprise, but there are a lot of alternative explanations,” Captain America says, looking -- sheepish? Sheepish and a mix of something else; oh, god, Phil feels a little faint. All these previously uncharted facial expressions!
“Like losing my mind?” Phil suggests.
“Other than that,” Captain America says. “You, ah -- your name is Phil Coulson. The year is 2013, and you’re fifty-two years old. You handle a team of -- well, of heroes -- people who save the world on a regular basis -- and today you got hit by an unknown weapon and went radio silent, and by the time we got to you, you were this you, not fifty-two-years-old-in-2013 you.”
Phil stares. His hands are trembling again; he tucks them under his knees, out of sight. He needs a pen, and a camera, and some form of reality check, because apparently everything Billy Yates suggested while pushing him off of/into various things every day from ages eight through ten, inclusive, is true: Phil loves Captain America so much that it’s broken his grip on reality.
Captain America smiles tentatively at him across the table. Phil kind of has no regrets.
“I’m not happy about this,” Phil says, trying that sentiment on for size. It sounds better than, Can I please have your autograph.
“Nobody is,” sighs Captain America. “I mean, we’re all happy to meet -- you. This you. But this is not exactly an ideal situation. The working theory is that you’re still you, just … younger, and that you’ve lost your memory. We need you back to your adult self. The team needs you.”
Phil digests that for a moment; savours Captain America saying we need you. “So I haven’t actually been snatched from my bed; I already grew up and hopefully I’ll -- turn back?” Phil says.
“2013,” Phil says.
“But how are you --”
“I know a little something about waking up in a world you don’t recognize,” Captain America says, and puts his hand on Phil’s shoulder.
“I do,” says Captain America, “and this is my chance to return a favour. You’ve been -- your adult self, I mean -- helping me get up to speed.”
A disembodied voice comes through an intercom that Phil can’t actually locate in the room, but confirms that yeah, there are people watching from the other side of the two-way glass. “Hey, I’ve been helping too!”
“Tony, you laughed in my face when I asked why nobody had flying cars.”
“Comedy gold,” Mr Stark crows. “I still regret not making a YouTube video of that.” Phil is pretty sure he doesn’t like Mr Stark, but then Captain America glances down at the table and cracks a tiny, tiny smile, and Phil doesn’t know what to think anymore.
“There are no flying cars in the future?” Phil asks.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Mr Stark says, not sounding sorry at all.
Under Captain America’s supervision, Phil is allowed to leave the base. A tall black man with an eyepatch sees them off; he tells Phil that if he doesn’t change back, he has some suggestions for what he might want to do with his life.
“Maybe later, Director Fury,” Captain America says. Behind Captain America’s back, Director Fury winks at Phil, although it’s a little hard to tell with the eyepatch.
Despite his best efforts Phil dozes off in the car and only wakes up when they pull up outside a skyscraper. It has a giant, neon “A” attached to the side of it, up up up near the top.
“Home sweet home,” says Stark, appearing outside the front doors.
The Avengers Tower is -- well, it’s huge, and apparently all the heroes under Phil’s watchful eye have their very own floors, and Phil does, too. Everything is too amazing to be real. Everything. The Tower is looked after by an artificial intelligence called JARVIS, which almost makes up for the disappointment of the flying cars, and Tony tells it to keep on an eye on Phil and do whatever he asks “unless he’s doing evil; use your best judgment, buddy.” JARVIS helpfully tells Phil where all his (too-big) clothes are, and what Phil does when he gets home from work (remove tie, strip down to undershirt, comfy pants), and which television shows he likes to watch (mostly something called “reality TV”), but the very best part is the closet full of a hundred different Captain America collectibles he’s only ever dreamed of owning.
And everything is wonderful, except for the part where he lies awake at night in a body that he has apparently outgrown, and misses his friends and his mother and, you know, his actual life, which is not a science fiction fairy tale but is mostly comfortable and all his. No one mentioned his mother, and he’s too afraid to ask about her. 2013 is such a long way from 1978.
For a whole week, he gets up and eats meals with superheroes. He doesn’t go to school. He watches television with Captain America, who combines this with ‘Welcome to 2013’ trivia. He tries to answer questions from Agent Hill and Dr. Banner and Stark.
“Does this look familiar?” Dr Banner asks, pulling over a screen and tilting it for Phil to see. It’s some sort of futuristic-looking weapon. He can’t tell if it looks like something out of sci fi to everyone else, or whether this is normal, now; either way, it’s unfamiliar. He shakes his head.
“It was a long shot, anyway,” Stark says, talking right over Phil’s head. “He hasn’t remembered anything useful yet.”
“Thanks,” Phil says.
“How many times,” says Agent Barton, lurking in the corner. He doesn’t actually finish the sentence. Agent Barton is frequently to be found in the same room as Phil, although not usually within five feet of him. Captain America told him not to worry about it, but, well. Phil’s pretty sure anyone would worry about someone sitting in shadowy corners, watching you watch TV with disconcerting intensity.
“Remind me to have a conversation with you, Barton,” Stark says. Across the room, Dr Banner puts his face down into his hands, gently. His shoulders shake. “Or, actually, JARVIS, remind me I want to have a conversation with Barton while the kid isn’t in the room.”
Barton looks murderous, but like Tony, JARVIS is fearless. “Noted,” JARVIS says. “Also, sir, SHIELD has just contacted us with information regarding the potential culprit. Shall I display on-screen?”
“Go for it,” says Tony, and Barton and the entire north wall of the lab disappear behind a blue-tinted, larger-than-life rendering of the person who (theoretically) took away three decades of Phil’s life. They stare.
“It’s Emperor Palpatine,” Tony says, at last. “Someone back me up.”
“Emperor who?” asks Phil.
“Star Wars trilogy?” Tony says. “Darth Vader? ‘Luke, I am your --’”
“Hey, hey,” Phil snaps, alarmed, “1978! I’ve only seen the first one!”
“It does, though,” Dr Banner says. “Look like him, I mean.”
Barton steps gingerly through the hologram and back into sight. “SHIELD send us a name for this guy?”
“No name attached,” JARVIS says. “Subject history unknown.”
“Will you guys -- will the Avengers go after him, if we find him?”
“You bet your ass we will,” Stark says.
“And you’re all okay with the possibility that you could just -- end up like -- well, like me?”
“Oh, hell, no,” says Stark, “for obvious reasons, that would be a really, really bad thing, but we’ve hopefully got it kind of a little bit covered.”
Barton and Bruce both look a little awkward, but they nod at this last part. “Contingency plans,” Bruce says.
“Contingency plans in case of accidental teenagering,” says Stark.
“Message in a bottle,” Bruce offers.
“Not everyone would be as sweet and kind as you were when you woke up,” says Stark.
“Hopefully we won’t need them,” says Bruce, and then winces when Tony jerks his head around to glare at him. “Tempting fate, I know,” he says.
“Bruce, my man, you walk the line. JARVIS, dear, attach ‘Emperor Palpatine’ to my copy of the file,” Tony says. “Barton, take Phil upstairs and go watch Empire. We’re doing science here. But let us know when you get past the ice planet.”
They’re halfway through Return of the Jedi when the call comes in. "Emperor Palpatine has been spotted," Jarvis says. “He is conducting an armed assault upon the Met. An evacuation of the museum and surrounding blocks is in progress.
The rest of the team drifted in throughout Empire Strikes Back, joining Phil and Agent Barton in a loose cluster around the wall JARVIS is using to display the movie. Agent Romanov doesn’t make any noticeable movements, but Phil feels suddenly intensely uncomfortable about sitting within her reach. “Alone? With associates?” she demands.
“Accompanied by ten agile men and women dressed in black. Two law enforcement agents have been killed since making contact fifteen minutes ago. SHIELD engaged three minutes ago; no casualties thus far.”
“Anyone else end up like Coulson?”
“Nothing confirmed,” JARVIS says. “One patrol officer reported MIA; nothing conclusive in terms of civilian numbers as of yet.”
“Go ahead, Cap,” Tony says, already standing. Everyone’s already rising. “Say it. Make Phil’s day.”
“Suit up,” Cap sighs, and Mr Stark is an asshole but that was pretty great. “Tony, Thor, we’ll meet up with you both on-site. Tony, liaise with whoever SHIELD’s got on the ground and please try not to cause any aneurysms.”
“See you slow-pokes there,” Stark says, already making a dash for the balcony, Thor right behind him.
Phil rides along in the surveillance van that screeches to a halt outside the tower and disgorges an Agent Willoughby, who shakes his hand and tells him not to do anything stupid.
There was a brief but intense argument on the way to the jet -- Phil is living in a tower that’s large enough to house a jet and Phil didn’t even know it was there -- about whether Phil should come along, but no one knows how the teenager-ray works, or if they’ll need proximity to fix Phil. It’s entirely possible that if something happens they’ll need Phil right there to take advantage of it, and so Phil is riding in the van and he’s not to get out unless explicitly told that it’s safe to do so, but he’s quietly ecstatic anyway. He’s going on missions with Captain America.
It’s much less exciting when they actually pull up to the edge of a barricade, where Phil can see people being loaded into ambulances and dragged out of the danger zone, all from the safety of the surveillance van. It’s chaos outside, and Phil feels suddenly itchy in his own skin, like he needs to get out and move, needs to go out and be helpful, even if it’s just directing people to safety.
“Don’t even think about it,” says Agent Willoughby, without looking at him.
“But I --”
“Nope. If I let something happen to you I will immediately have about ten people after my head, which is normally not a big deal, but half of these people have superpowers or skill sets that make them really good at being assassins, and the other half are my superiors, so. Don’t you dare.”
“What if I --”
“No,” Agent Willoughby says. “You want to be helpful? You can help me keep track of what’s happening. We can be a second set of eyes today, okay? Satellite images, security cameras. Lots of different views to cycle through. Keep track of the Avengers, let me know if you see anything horrifying. Especially let me know if you see -- what did Stark call him?”
“Emperor Palpatine,” Phil says, a little sullen, but he sits back down and pulls his chair up to stare intently at the TV screens.
Once the Avengers hit the scene, the tide of the fighting turns pretty swiftly. The people in black -- “Mercenaries,” Willoughby explains -- begin to disappear. Phil sees Stark take out two with some sort of blast that comes out of his hands, and Cap brings down a third with his shield in a move that makes Phil need to take a moment before he realizes that they’re the only two Avengers he can see.
“Where’s everyone else?” Phil says.
“Looking for Palpatine,” Willoughby says. “The incident isn’t major enough that all of them need to be on the ground, fighting.” She taps at her earpiece. “Hawkeye and Thor are searching the surrounding area right now. Romanov is inside the Met.”
“And Dr. Banner?”
“Same deal; not major enough that we need the Hulk to come out and smash. If it weren’t for the weird tech and -- well, the aftermath--” she eyes him up and down and Phil fights down a blush -- “this wouldn’t involve the Avengers at all. A few more minutes and the local PD would’ve had the mercenary situation, at least, in hand. Dr. Banner is sitting in the jet; Cap’ll deploy him whenever we come across that tech.”
Phil watches the screens for a moment longer, searching for the team members he hasn’t seen yet, then says, “Can I listen to what you’re listening to?”
“I guess,” she says, and then Cap’s voice says, “-- role-call.”
“This is Widow,” Agent Romanov says. “Ground floor cleared. No sign of Palpatine; PD is still clearing the first floor before we move up to second.”
“Cap,” Agent Barton says, breaking in. “I’ve got eyes on Palpatine. Approaching the Met from Central Park; west side of the building. Passing the street vendor with the red-and-white umbrella … now.”
There’s a pause, and then Cap says, “Got him. He has the weapon; everyone move cautiously. Hawkeye, can you bring him down? Non-lethal.”
Another pause. “Yes,” Hawkeye says, voice tight, “but there’s someone on the roof across the street with a bead on me.”
Phil can feel cold sweat starting to prickle the back of his neck, and down along his back. On the screens, he can just make out a figure, hooded and cloaked, stalking on foot toward the Met; he can’t see Hawkeye -- or the second shooter -- at all.
“Get out of there, Hawkeye,” says Cap. “Thor?”
“Yes,” Thor says. The previously sunny skies begin to darken, and an ominous crack of thunder makes both Phil and Agent Willoughby jump in their seats.
“Hawkeye?” Cap says.
“I can still make the shot,” Hawkeye says. He sounds almost preternaturally calm.
“That’s a negative, Hawkeye, Thor’s got Palpatine. Iron Man, retrieve Hawkeye.”
“Yeah, Cap? I don’t think Hawkeye heard you.”
On one of the screens, a flash of movement catches Phil’s eye: Agent Barton -- Hawkeye, Hawkeye in the field -- shifting on a roof. He’s moving, slowly and deliberately, toward the edge.
“Ohhh boy,” says Agent Willoughby, and when Phil glances over, she’s staring intently at Palpatine on the screen; he’s swiveling around and pointing at --
When Phil looks back at his own screen, Hawkeye is already a blur, leaping into the air, firing, swinging around on the end of a line and pulling out something that might be -- a handgun? -- aiming for what Phil assumes is Palpatine, out of sight of Phil’s camera angle. Over the radio, there’s the sharp retort of gunfire, the second shooter suddenly visible on a nearby roof. Iron Man says, “A ha!” and swoops by, and then something makes a BA-THWUMPPPP sound at almost exactly the same moment that Agent Barton swings out of sight.
Chaos on the radio.
“Palpatine is running!” Cap says. On-screen, he tackles another mercenary; all around them, the other bad guys are breaking off the fighting, making a run for it too. Phil thinks he can see one of them stripping off her black shirt and flipping it inside-out, still making a beeline for Central Park. The other side says, “I <3 NY.”
“Is that -- guys, I’m getting some weird energy readings,” Dr Banner says.
“Palpatine discharged the weapon,” Stark says, “is that what --”
“Yeah, no, that registered, but there’s something else, too --”
On-screen, Black Widow bursts out of the front doors of the Met and sprints down the steps. “He’s heading for a vehicle! Black! No license plates!”
“Anyone close enough to intercept?” Cap says. He’s running now, too.
Thor says, “I will --” just as Palpatine makes it inside the little black car. Ten seconds later, it takes off down the street and then lifts up into the air, zooming away above the buildings.
“That’s a flying car,” Captain America says, voice flat.
Thor makes a -- the best way to describe it is honestly a “battle cry”, and then launches himself into the air, speeding after the little vehicle. The dark clouds that were gathering ominously over the fight are yanked right after him; he’s out of sight in moments and the sky is abruptly blue again.
“Shit,” Mr Stark says, and then again, more vehemently: “Shit, guys, I’ve lost visual on Hawkeye; anyone able to confirm --”
“I’ve lost radio contact with him too,” Agent Romanov confirms, voice clipped. “Give me a last known position --”
“I have the breathing space; I’ll retrieve him,” Captain America says, “just give me a location, someone --”
“I saw him,” Phil blurts into the radio. Agent Willoughby gives him a horrified look and reaches out for the ear-piece he hijacked from the counter; Phil pushes his chair back to avoid her arm and then rolls out of it and presses his back to the door. “I can get him. You need him fast, right? He won’t remember anything. If we don’t get to him in time he might run.”
Silence from the com-line, and then, “Do it,” says Agent Romanov.
Phil takes that for sufficient permission and immediately sails out the van door, ignoring the chorus of concerned protests sounding in his ear. He takes a moment to get his bearings: low white building; medium-sized brick buildings; Fifth Avenue -- and there, the flutter of Agent Barton’s zip line. Phil ducks around an empty taxi, all the doors open and the engines still running, and dashes through an eerily empty intersection; sure enough, there is Agent Barton, underneath a tree on the sidewalk, crumpled in a heap of ill-fitting uniform and medieval weaponry and teenager-ness. He’s already starting to wake up.
“Got him,” Phil says, and rattles off his location. He drops down to his heels and keeps himself right where Agent Barton can see him. “Agent -- I mean. Clint. Clint, can you hear me?”
“Whathfck,” Clint slurs, and Phil can see the precise moment he wakes up fully and the panic kicks in. His eyes go wide and he immediately starts to sit up, struggling to get his legs under him to rise and probably to run. Phil throws himself across Clint’s chest and they both hit the ground with an oomph; Phil watched Agent Barton do an inventory on the plane and he knows there are weapons hiding everywhere under that suit, and Phil would really prefer not to end his shining moment of helping out Captain America by getting skewered by a confused, de-aged, super-secret-spy-agent.
“Get -- get off me,” Clint says, voice high and tight, and he bucks, trying to dislodge Phil. He’s smaller than he was ten minutes ago, but he still has more muscles than Phil, who’s a runner, not a weight-lifter, thanks. On the other hand, Phil has the advantage of two whole weeks spent adjusting to waking up in a body that should be exactly like normal, but in actuality is full of shakiness and odd weaknesses and doesn’t seem to fit quite right.
“Sorry, nope,” Phil says. “I promise I’m a friend, though -- when Captain America gets here, he’ll explain it to you --”
Agent Romanov’s voice in his ear says, somewhat unhelpfully, “Be advised, Barton will probably be uncooperative.”
“Captain of what?” Clint asks, stilling momentarily, and then he says, “no, let me go, I have to go --” and redoubles his efforts to get free.
“Check the inside pocket of his vest for his contingency plan,” Agent Romanov orders.
“Great, thanks,” Phil gasps. Clint bucks again, then does something twisty with his spine that results in Phil getting a knee to the side of his head. “Ow. Clint? You need to reach into your vest, okay? There’s a paper you need to read. I know this is weird. The same thing happened to me. It’s still weird! But this is the worst part.”
That’s not entirely true, but Clint doesn’t need to know that, and Phil is moderately certain that Agent Barton won’t mind too much that Phil is lying to his de-aged self to keep him from doing something stupid.
“I’ve got eyes on you both,” Mr Stark says. He sounds relieved. “Coming in for a landing.”
“Maybe you should wait until --” Phil starts, but Mr Stark zooms by and then lands on his giant metal feet with a thump that startles Clint badly; he twists under Phil’s hold again and manages to flip them over over so Phil is under him. He knees Phil in the stomach in what Phil is mostly certain is an accident but punches all the air out from his lungs anyway, and then Clint is up and running, bow and quiver still slung over his back.
“Son of a--” Mr Stark says, jetting back into the air again. He goes right over Phil and snatches Clint up, setting back down on the ground with an armful of uncooperative teenager clutched against his chest.
Clint makes a ragged, terrified noise, legs kicking out uselessly, and Phil struggles to his feet, wheezes, “Stop it, you’re scaring him!” with what little air he’s managed to get back into his lungs; Mr Stark loosens his grip reflexively and Clint immediately wriggles out of it and dashes down the street, scrambling over abandoned vehicles and heading straight for Central Park.
“Oh,” Phil says, staring after him as Clint disappears into the trees. “Fuck.”
Mr Stark barks out a laugh and says, “Widow, you have him?” and then, “Remind me to take audio of you swearing, kiddo; it’s hilarious.”
“Please don’t call me ‘kiddo,’ Mr Stark,” Phil says, absently. There’s a scuffling sound and then Agent Romanov appears from amidst the greenery, Clint slung across her back. “He wasn’t really interested in hearing what I had to say,” she says, setting him down. His head lolls and she puts one hand on his shoulder. Leaves it there.
They stick Clint in a hospital bed to wake up from whatever Agent Romanov did to him, and Phil gets to attend a mission debriefing and explain to everyone why he thought it was a good idea to leave the van and go out into the big wide dangerous world on his own. Natasha keeps flashing him a surreptitious thumbs-up when nobody else is looking, and Phil keeps losing the thread of the conversation. He tells himself it's because Captain America is sitting right across the table, but that's a lie. His brain insists on replaying what happened this afternoon in an unhelpful, emotionally charged sort of way; he can't actually answer the question of why he told Mr Stark to leave Clint alone. It seemed like the right thing to do, at the time.
“Whatever, no harm done,” Stark says. “I mean, it’s done, right, we got him. Mission a success, except for the part where Barton’s lost a few decades and Thor’s gone off god knows where -- does that phrase function better or worse as applied to Thor? -- and we still haven’t figured out why this happened or how to reverse it. So, yeah. Not really a success, but Phil’s in the clear.”
“Agreed,” says Captain America, and that seems to be that. Stark says, “Go play with your new friend,” and Phil is ejected from the conference room and pointed down the hallway back to Medical.
He lurks outside the appropriate door and peers through the window. Clint has his eyes closed, and Phil can see his chest rising, slowly and steadily; Phil can also see the “Dear Teenaged Self, Don’t Panic” letter sitting on the bedside table, crumpled and worn like it’s already been read and re-read a hundred times in the last hour.
It’s terrible, but there’s a tiny spark of excitement threading its way through Phil’s brain, the same sort of feeling that crept up on him at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, whenever a new kid showed up in class. It’s a mix of possibility; the quiet thrill that maybe this person will have something in common with him, will maybe want to -- no, it’s safe inside his own head, Phil can say this to himself -- be his friend.
“That is not pathetic at all,” Phil mutters, breath fogging up the glass momentarily. When it clears, Clint has his eyes open. He’s looking right at Phil.
Phil waves, tentatively, and Clint scowls at him. Phil opens the door anyway, takes three steps in, and is promptly set upon by two nurses and a doctor, who shoo him out of the room in a flurry of scrubs and stethoscopes; the door is shut behind him with great finality. Back in his old spot, Phil looks at Clint, and shrugs.
Clint slowly, tentatively, quirks his mouth into a half-smile, and shrugs back.
Thor shows up again with someone he calls “Lady Jane” in tow and a really magnificent sad face. “The vehicle engaged some form of defensive cloaking,” he says. “I lost it nearly immediately. When I explained the situation to Jane, however, she thought she may be able provide assistance to you, Stark, and Dr. Banner.”
Hill groans something that sounds like “security clearance”, and Stark says, “Dr. Foster, great to see you again, but I’m not sure if this is --”
“Two words,” Jane says. “Time travel.”
“Hmm,” says Dr. Banner. The rest of the conversation is way, way over Phil’s head.
Phil is too far behind to be superhero material. With the introduction of Clint to Phil’s worldview, it becomes increasingly unsurprising that his adult self wound up as the Avengers’ government liaison, rather than on the team himself.
At sixteen, Clint is a terrifyingly good shot, and can swing a sword around like he’s not at all concerned that he might take someone’s head off with it. All Phil has in his favour is self-defense classes twice a week with Mr Ben-Asher down the street.
Clint is way too cool to hang out with Phil, and Phil feels a little like he should hate him for growing up to be the superhero to Phil’s support staff, but Clint starts showing up in whatever room Phil happens to be in, looking hopeful and alternating between too much eye contact -- just like his grown-up self -- and keeping his gaze everywhere but Phil’s face. Clint is too cool to hang out with Phil, but he seems to want to do it anyway; Clint has no opinions on Captain America, but he spends a series of afternoons showing Phil how to hold a bow and watches movies with him on the couch in the evenings.
All Phil has to say is, “Hey, uh. You wanna hang out?” and Clint always, always says “Yeah, okay.” Phil, shamelessly, says “You wanna hang out?” a lot.
Clint spends a lot of his not-Phil-time playing video games with Mr Stark (“They get along horrifyingly well,” says Ms Potts), or trailing after Agent Romanov. Phil spends a lot of his not-Clint-time trailing after Captain America. What. It’s Captain America. The best part of the day is pretty much always the golden hour when Agent Romanov and Captain America spar in the gym. He and Clint watch closely so they can try to replicate their moves later, bouncing off the bed in Phil’s room and crashing into the walls and each other.
It’s not like this is Phil’s first crush.
It’s not even like this is Phil’s first crush on a boy. His mom and her brother sat him down when he was fourteen for the “birds and the bees” talk, Uncle Robert filling in for Phil’s father. Unlike most kids in Phil’s small town, Phil’s talk included “when a boy likes a boy” as well as “when a boy likes a girl”, because Uncle Robert’s roommate is actually his long-term partner and Phil’s unofficial second uncle, and yet another reason why Phil’s family are the unofficial, unrepentant, town pariahs.
So, crushes on boys. None of his crushes, boy or girl, ever made him feel like all the air was going out of the room, or like his face was on fire, or like simultaneously shouting “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME” and curling up into a small, invisible ball. It’s not dissimilar to how he feels about Captain America, actually, but even in real life, standing next to him, Phil can’t help but feel that Cap is someone to be admired from afar.
(This feeling persists even after seeing Captain America in his pajamas eating Cheerios, or trashing Thor at one of the many shiny video games available in the tower, the victorious thrust of his arms into the air knocking over a large bowl of popcorn as well as everyone’s drinks.)
Clint has a Tragic Past that Phil is desperate to know about, but he isn’t sure he’s allowed to ask, and his mother taught him never to snoop except in cases of proactive self defense. Phil doesn’t want to proactively defend himself from Clint. He’s pretty sure he’ll never need it.
Phil has a daydream that goes like this:
Captain America said, “Phil, intruders in the tower! Go get Clint and get out!”
“Yes, sir!” Phil said, already leaping off the couch and out of Dr. Banner-becoming-Hulk’s reach. He raced through the tower until he found Clint, engaged in a fight for his life with five ninjas wielding a variety of sharp objects. Phil didn’t even hesitate; he leapt straight for the nearest ninja and landed around his knees, knocking him to the ground and twisting around to kick at the masked face.
“Phil!” Clint cried. He was fighting well, but clearly overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Phil got back up, but his ninja didn’t. “Catch!”
Phil caught the knife that Clint tossed at him; Clint was whirling about, using his bow as a blunt weapon. The sword Clint used to practice with was still hanging, desperately out of reach, against a far wall. Still, it was now four against two, far better odds. Clint knocked one out with the butt of his bow -- three against two! -- and then took a fist to the face and went down hard.
“No!” Phil shouted. Like a man possessed, he swept up Clint’s bow and immediately began battering at the other ninjas, frenzied; they fell back before his wrath, away from Clint’s fallen form. One down. Two down. Three was more difficult; he swiped at Phil’s arm with a long, sharp knife, slicing Phil’s shirt and scoring a bleeding wound across his bicep. Phil ignored the pain and with one last herculean effort, took advantage of the ninja’s overreach to step in and jab him in the stomach with Clint’s bow. The last ninja went down like a sack of potatoes, and Phil hit him in the head again to make sure he didn’t back get up.
“Clint,” Phil said, panting, dropping down beside Clint. He cupped his face in his hands. “Clint, open your eyes! Are you okay?”
Clint’s long eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks. He moaned, then started awake. “Phil --?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay -- I got the rest of them.”
“You --” Clint struggled into a sitting position, then stared around, eyes wide. “That’s -- Phil, you saved my life.”
Phil said, modestly, “Well, you would have done the --” and Clint surged up and kissed him, one hand on the back of Phil’s neck; he crawled up into Phil’s lap and said his name, again, like Phil was the most important thing in --
“Phil,” Clint says, with the air of someone who has been saying someone’s name for many, many repetitions and is getting a little tired of it.
Phil starts. “What?”
“I said, it’s movie night. Tony says they’re hitting play in ten minutes even if we’re not there.”
“Right,” Phil says.
He doesn’t even get to sit next to Clint, sandwiched instead between Thor and Dr. Banner because all the other seats are taken.
One otherwise normal Tuesday afternoon, Phil shows up at the gym and Clint doesn’t. He doesn’t show at breakfast the next day, or lunch. He appears, briefly, for supper with Natasha and Bruce and Phil, but vanishes immediately after wolfing down three helpings of everything. He does the same thing on Thursday, and on Friday, and every time Phil approaches him Clint immediately finds somewhere else to be.
On Saturday, Phil mopes his way into some sort of sitting room he wasn’t even aware existed, and discovers Ms Potts, Captain America, and Thor sitting around a small round table, having tea and coffee and cookies. They take one look at him and insist he sit down with them; he folds himself into a chair, feeling awkward. He knocks over a cup and spills tea everywhere, but Captain America waves him off and starts cleaning it up himself, and Thor says, “What is troubling you, Son of Coul?”
Phil stares at his shoes. “Clint,” he mutters. It’s embarassing to even try to relate Phil’s misadventures in friendship to people who save the world on a regular basis, although he’s beginning to suspect that they are all not nearly as put-together as they seem in the “nice” magazines (the gossip rags, on the other hand, have all at one point or another been convinced that every Avenger is sleeping with/pregnant with/eating small children with another Avenger, and sometimes the whole team simultaneously.
Phil is keeping a tally of the number of times the word ‘orgy’ comes up. It’s in the double digits.
“Maybe it would help if you talked to him,” Ms Potts says. “I bet it’s not actually as bad as it seems.”
“You don’t think he’s avoiding me?”
“Oh, I definitely think he’s avoiding you,” says Ms Potts, “but he’s avoiding everyone. You’ve probably got the best shot at figuring out why.” She pauses, then grins at him. “You know, Phil, this is actually not the first time we’ve had relationship advice talk.”
“I talk to you about problems with friends?”
“Friends, partners,” Ms Potts says, vaguely. “We have coffee, we chat, it’s good. Steve, any suggestions?”
“Tell him you’re his friend,” suggests Cap. “And that you’re there for him.”
Phil makes a face, which is when he knows some of the magic is wearing off. “Isn’t that a little …”
“‘Lame’?” asks Cap, and curls his fingers around in the air like he’s quoting from something. He smiles at Phil, lopsided. “You don’t have to actually say it. Just go do something about it.”
“I believe he is in the labs with Dr Banner and the Lady Jane,” Thor offers. “I saw him there earlier in the day.”
Phil eats three fortifying cookies, then makes his way to the appropriate floor, JARVIS providing helpful directions. Sure enough, there’s Clint, sprawled all over the beanbag chair in the corner of Dr. Banner’s lab.
“It could be time travel,” Dr. Foster says. She’s staring at a clear screen, tapping it occasionally and making numbers appear and disappear.
“They showed up wearing their adult selves’ clothing,” Dr. Banner points out. “It’s probably not? But I guess we can’t rule anything out, at this point."
Clint is not-watching with a studied nonchalance that doesn't quite conceal how hard he's paying attention. Nothing Dr Banner and Dr Foster have said is actually new information, and nothing they've said for the last week has been new information, so Phil is at a bit of a loss as to why here in the lab is the apparently fascinating place to be, as opposed to, say, watching Captain America spar or begging to hang out on the deck of a giant flying ship making its way through the clouds.
"Clint," Phil hisses. "Hey, Clint."
Clint pretends not to have heard him, but Phil can tell when someone is being an asshole. With Clint, it's especially easy to tell, because he’s starting to get the idea that the answer to, "is Clint being an asshole?" is always "yes". That’s okay. Phil mostly doesn’t mind. Sometimes Phil can be an asshole, too.
Phil realizes, belatedly, that both Dr Foster and Dr Banner have put down their computer screens and are eying him with some interest. Clint takes the opportunity to vanish through the side door and Phil, who has had enough of this, waves half-heartedly in their direction before taking off after him.
He catches up outside of the elevator, tackles Clint in as the door opens, and says, “JARVIS, stop the elevator!” JARVIS helpfully complies; the elevator jerks to a halt and makes a quiet, urgent beeping noise.
“I estimate you have a maximum of three minutes before someone comes to investigate,” JARVIS says.
Clint sits up, rubbing his elbow, and scowls at Phil. “What’s your problem?”
“What’s your problem,” Phil counters.
“I asked first,” Clint says, which is no surprise. Phil is prepared..
“My problem is you’ve been avoiding everyone, and you’ve been -- you seem stressed, and I know you don’t want to talk about it and I know that it’s not -- cool -- to talk about stuff like this, but --” Phil thinks back to what Captain America said, and adds, “I’m your friend and I’m here to help.”
They’re quiet for a few moments, Clint still pointedly rubbing his elbow, and then he sighs, heavily, and tucks his knees up to his chest. “D’you think they’re right?”
“About us being … de-aged?”
“Yeah. And not just -- swapping with our grown-up selves. I mean. What if. What if we have to go back?”
“You don’t want to go back?”
“No,” Clint says. “I -- I like it here. Lots of cool shit,” he adds, but it’s a half-hearted attempt.
“I think they’re right,” says Phil, firmly, “and I kind of want to go back, so. Yeah. I think they’re right.”
“I guess,” says Clint.
“And if they’re not,” Phil says, “then -- we should try and find each other. Where do you live?”
Clint pauses. “All over.”
“I live in Portland,” Phil says. “Can you get to Portland?”
Clint nods, slowly. “But you’re from further back, right? You’d get back years before I did. What if you move?”
“I won’t,” Phil says. “Or, well. If I do, I’ll leave a way for you to find me, wherever I end up. It’ll be like those Back to the Future movies last week -- wait, is that what made you freak?”
“Shut up,” says Clint.
“You shut up,” Phil says, shoving at him. Clint rocks away with the force of the push, and rocks back again, closer than he was before. “When we’re not in the elevator anymore I’ll write down my phone number and my address, and you can memorize it, and we’ll find each other.”
Clint huffs out a laugh, and relaxes abruptly. He knocks his knee against Phil’s, then tips over a little, so they’re pressed shoulder-to-shoulder. “I’m pretty sure Portland’s lame.”
“It is not,” Phil says, too distracted by the warm spots where Clint’s tucked against his side to offer a more effective retort. He’s glad they’re not facing each other; Phil can’t quite stop the smile that’s taking over his face.
“Mr Stark is overriding the elevator emergency protocols,” JARVIS says. “You have twenty seconds, gentlemen.”
Clint punches him in the shoulder and it all goes downhill from there. Clint gets Phil in a headlock, but Phil has one of Clint’s legs twisted around in a way that has to be painful. Phil’s cheek presses half against purple cotton, and half against the smooth skin stretched over Clint’s ribs, and for one long moment they stay there, panting, and Phil doesn’t actually want to move unless it’s to press more of himself against more of Clint. He thinks Clint must feel the same -- he must -- because he doesn’t move, either, even when the elevator door dings open.
“No,” says Mr Stark, after a moment. “No, you’re babies.”
Ms Potts slaps at his shoulder and then smiles at Phil and Clint. “Everything all right, boys?”
“Yeah,” Clint says, loosening his grip on Phil’s neck. He really does seem less upset than he was fifteen minutes ago, and Phil mouths Success! to Ms. Potts. He scrambles to his feet and turns to help Clint up, gripping his hand tight.
There are no breakthroughs on the science part of the accidental teenagering, which Dr Foster and Dr Banner and Stark all seem to be taking personally, but one day Agent Hill stops by, looking put-upon. “Team meeting,” she says. “Avengers assemble, or whatever ridiculous battle cry you’re using this week.”
They assemble, grudgingly. “They sent me with a PowerPoint slide, but I’m not going to use it,” says Agent Hill. “SHIELD’s been working the connections angle, and we think we’ve found a usable one. There’s a school -- intel indicates that one of Emperor Palpatine’s financial backers has assets in place at that location.”
They take a moment to parse that. “When you say ‘assets,’ do you mean ‘children’?” Dr. Banner says, exceedingly calm and quiet.
“I do,” Agent Hill says. Phil’s actually impressed at the way she’s unflinching in the face of the Avengers’ collective disbelief. “We intend to send agents in, to monitor the situation and attempt to gather any useful information. So far we’ve been unsuccessful in placing anyone in Barbara Collett’s house, or making any meaningful incursion technologically. She’s the height of paranoid about the sanctity of her home and office, and has the money to support that paranoia. However! The children are a weak point. Children never go according to plan.”
“Still feeling uncomfortable about this,” Cap says. “But for the sake of argument -- you’re sending agents in to be -- teachers? custodial workers? Are you planting bugs? What?”
“Details are still … in development,” Agent Hill says, “but yes, in all likelihood, they’ll be posing as employees at the school, maybe the mall. It’s not like we have actual teenagers to go in and befriend the kids.”
As one, the entire table turns to stare at Clint and Phil.
“I volunteer,” says Phil, immediately.
“Who let them watch Hunger Games,” Tony demands. “Who even thought that was a good idea? And speaking of terrible ideas --”
“You did that on purpose,” Captain America tells Agent Hill.
There is a whole lot of arguing after that. Clint and Phil get sent out of the meeting to play video games, so they wait impatiently in the rec room for a few minutes until JARVIS helpfully provides them with an audio feed of what they're missing. It's hard to tell who's actually talking when so many people are shouting. "If you do this, I'm going with you," Clint says, right at Phil’s shoulder. His eyes are very, very blue in this lighting, and Phil needs to stop staring into them.
"Thanks," Phil says, heart pounding.
"Are you even allowed to send them in?" Tony is saying. "Aren't there laws against that? Child labor? Child endangerment?"
"Oddly enough, the law doesn't cover de-aged government agents," says Hill. "And they're our agents, Stark. We want to keep them unharmed as much as you do."
Clint huffs out a breath; when Phil turns to see whether this was a skeptical breath or something else, he spots Director Fury, looming immediately behind Clint, whose shoulders are already hunching in, like he knows, instinctively, that something intimidating is now in the room with them.
“Mind if I sit?” Fury says. Clint glances at Phil, and then nudges a third beanbag chair over to Fury using his foot, who nods, sweeping his coat over the side and sitting down. The beanbag creaks around him. He looks weirdly unridiculous for a very large man with an eyepatch sitting in an Iron Man-red beanbag chair.
“We did plan this, and Agent Hill’s right when she says that the last thing we want to do is lose you two,” Director Fury says. “But the second-last thing we want is to lose who you’re supposed to be right now.”
“What if this is who we’re supposed to be right now?” Phil says.
Fury spreads his hands wide, palms up. “Then doing this might be one way to find out,” he says.
The target is one Colin Collett -- “Pronounced like the body-part,” Fury says, “not like the name.” -- and he’s a year older and a grade ahead of Phil, so they’ll be going in pretending to be older than they actually are. Colin has dark messy hair, a scraggly beard, and a Facebook page that he keeps making public and his mother keeps locking down again. He tags photos of himself drinking beer upside down and jumping off of things. He has a series of YouTube videos in which he plays guitar, shirtless. Three-quarters of his Twitter messages are about how much he hates his mom.
Phil has a sinking feeling that this is going to be impossible, but he’s never backed down from anything in his entire life, and he’s not going to start now. “Be his friend, get invited to his house?”
“That’s the general idea, but if something else comes up that might be useful, let us know. And I do mean let us know; don’t go off and do something on your own.” Fury closes the file folder and hands out two new ones. “That was Colin,” he says, “and this is you.”
“Frank Prichard?” Clint says, upon flipping his folder open. “Frank?”
“The other one under consideration was ‘Francis’,” Director Fury says. “We can change it, if you’d prefer that one.”
“No,” Clint mutters. “What’d you get, Phil?”
“Jake Prichard,” says Phil. “You used our middle names?”
“We’re hoping they’ll be a little easier for you to remember than something completely random. Those folders have blueprints of the school, and background info on your cover identities. Think of it as pre-homework homework. We’ve embedded multiple agents into the school to help ensure your safety, but there is still some risk here. Once again: both of you are prepared to proceed?”
Phil exchanges a look with Clint, who nods, once, and bumps his shoulder against Phil’s. “Yeah,” Phil says. “We are.”
“Tony made us watch eight episodes of 21 Jump Street and the movie yesterday,” Clint adds. “We’re totally prepared.”
Director Fury makes a pained noise.
The whole team gathers around to see them off in the morning. Thor hands them each a paper bag full of massive, carefully constructed sandwiches, little baggies of tomatoes and celery, and two chocolate cupcakes each. “YouTube,” Thor explains, when they give him funny looks. “I wanted to celebrate this day with you. Chef Roberta had most excellent instructions. Jane is concerned the other students will laugh, but I am confident in your abilities to defend your honour.”
“Thanks,” Phil says, when it becomes clear that Clint isn’t going to say anything at all; he’s still looking down at his paper bag lunch with an expression on his face that makes everybody glance away, politely. Stark clears his throat after a moment, and pulls out two backpacks from the other side of the counter.
“One for you,” he says, shoving one at Phil, then at Clint, “and one for you. Pepper and I did some late-night research, and we’re pretty sure these won’t get you beaten up on the playground. They’re cool.”
“What sort of research told you which backpacks are ‘cool’?” Bruce says.
“Focus groups,” Pepper says. “Don’t ask, it was a nightmare.”
Phil’s backpack is, of course, Captain America themed; Clint’s is from Black Widow’s mechandise line. Clint jerks his head up and grins at Agent Romanov, spinning the bag around so she can take a look, and Phil fights down a completely nonsensical wave of jealousy, distracting himself instead by opening up his bag and investigating the mysterious weight inside; there’s a tablet and a StarkPhone, complete with earbuds, nestled at the bottom. “Survival kit,” Stark says.
Agent Romanov walks them down to the car, and shoves them both against the wall just beyond the outside door; the SHIELD agent playing their father for the duration cranes his neck to look at them, but sits back down in the car when she waves him off. “Presents,” she says, passing them each a black box, the kind that Phil’s uncle gets his expensive watches in. “Don’t tell.” There’s an impressive-looking black-handled knife inside, and when he glances over he finds that Clint has already unsheathed his, and is testing the tip of an equally black blade against his thumb.
“Um,” says Phil. “Thanks.”
“Ceramic, undetectable by your new school’s security measures. They’re for protection, and they’re a very last resort,” she says. “Don’t bring a knife to a fist fight, and don’t bring a knife to a fight at all unless you know how to use it.”
“I know how to use it,” Clint says.
“You know how to throw it in front of an audience,” she says. “I mean it. Last resort, for both of you. You don’t bring it out for a fight; you bring it out for a beating someone’s not going to survive. Watch each other’s backs.”
When they get into the backseat of the car, knives shoved carefully into the bottom of their bags, Agent Romanov waves at them. “Bye,” she calls. She looks terribly amused, in sharp contrast to the serious, dark expression she’d been wearing only a couple of minutes earlier. “Have a good day at school!”
They’re dropped off around the corner from the school, and Agent Roberts says, “Mr Stark’s your eye in the sky today, and we have agents who’ll shadow you at the school. You’ll both be fine. Call me if you have any problems, guys,” he adds, raising his voice a little for that part.
“Thanks for the ride, Dad,” says Phil, a phrase that feels unnatural coming out of his mouth. There are butterflies bashing themselves against the inside of his stomach.
“Thanks, Dad,” says Clint. He grimaces, takes a breath, and then grins at Phil, big and wide. “Showtime.”
They were both warned that high school had probably changed a lot since they were last attendees (one month ago, otherwise known as, two or three decades). Clint barked out a laugh at that, said, “I’m not exactly in school,” and then subsided into silence. No one looked surprised at this revelation.
Phil thinks that grown-up Agent Coulson must have known this about Clint, not that this is much help to Phil now; Phil never knows what to think when Clint drops information like this, oh-so-casually, although it makes him want to do -- something. Tuck him away somewhere safe, which Clint would in no way appreciate.
“This is -- you’re cool from here?” Phil asks, after they exit the admin offices with their locker numbers and class schedules. There isn’t a lot of overlap. Phil’s in AP everything and Clint has a lot of slots blocked off for “tennis tryouts” and “lacrosse practice”, but they’re both in AP Math with Colin.
“I’m cool,” Clint mutters. “You?”
They stand awkwardly in the hall for a moment, surrounded by people shoving past or staring down at their phones. “Well. Bye, Frank,” Phil says, and forces himself to take two steps back, away from Clint.
“Bye, J,” Clint says, which is not a nickname Phil authorized at all, but makes something warm bloom under his ribs.
It’s … not a great day. Probably this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Not even Cap’s ‘Welcome to 2013’ lessons have prepared him for this. He doesn’t know what Twilight is, or GTL, and does not have a Tumblr or a Twitter account. Hardly anyone talks to him, and he only sees Clint from across the cafeteria at lunch, sitting with an entire table of guys that look exactly like the kids who used to pick on Phil before Phil started fighting back.
Colin shows up for his first two classes, and disappears long, long before math.
By the time Agent Roberts picks them up, Phil is exhausted and disheartened, and his only consolation is that Clint seems to feel exactly the same way, although while Phil falls face-down on his bed after supper and doesn’t move for ten hours, Clint pretty much vibrates his way through three hamburgers and disappears into the top floors of the tower.
Phil wakes up at five the next morning to discover Clint sprawled on top of the covers, breath huffing out slow and peaceful against Phil’s neck. He’s quiet for a moment, staring, right up in Clint’s personal space with what basically amounts to a license to stare. Phil’s been cataloging Clint’s facial expressions, the same way he does Captain America’s, but while Captain America always made -- makes -- Phil feel steadier, being around Clint sometimes feels like he’s running full-tilt towards something that might be a cliff. Or maybe a wall.
Clint shifts in his sleep, makes a noise at the back of his throat and drags his knuckles up Phil’s blanket-covered side as he turns over. Phil slithers out from under the covers and beats an immediate, hasty retreat to the shower, where he beats something else entirely to the tune of that noise Clint made, and emerges, flushed and fervently hoping that he was sufficiently quiet, to find that Clint has gone.
“Good night?” Phil asks later, around a mouthful of cold waffle on the walk to the car.
Clint shrugs and says, “Yeah, no complaints,” and Phil has no idea what to do with that.
On day two, Clint makes the lacrosse team and corners Phil at his locker. “What is it?” Phil asks, clutching at his backpack. “Did you find him?”
“Team sports,” says Clint, shoulders hunched in. “I found team sports.”
“Is that a good thing or a --”
“Please eat lunch with me today,” Clint blurts, over top of Phil’s question, and all Phil hears is exactly what Phil’s been thinking, on repeat, which is: Please don’t leave me . “Please.”
Phil can feel the tips of his ears going red, which is such a stupid reaction, and of course Clint notices, of course he does, except then Phil spots the flush slowly spreading up over the collar of Clint’s t-shirt and up his neck, which makes Phil’s mouth go dry and his face go hot and then Clint’s face goes red too and they’re caught in some sort of horrible mortified feedback loop, but at least they’re caught in it together.
“Okay,” Phil croaks, face flaming. “I’ll meet you here after the last morning period.”
“Okay,” Clint agrees, and flees.
Phil collapses back against the locker, gently. The next one over slams closed and, to Phil’s horror, Colin appears, just as scraggly-looking as his pictures. They regard one another for a moment, and then Colin says, “Is that your brother?”
Phil thinks back to what the file actually says and he’s pretty sure their cover is in fact biological brothers, so he says, “Yes,” without really thinking that one through.
Colin says, “Really,” in this long, drawn-out way, and he’s eying Phil with more interest than Phil is comfortable with, and so Phil says “Yes” again, a little defensively this time.
Colin says, “Are you guys fucking?” and Phil splutters and says, “What -- what? --” but does not actually deny it, and Colin looks like all his birthdays have come at once when he says, “Hey, listen, man, I think you and your brother should really come over for supper.”
“Do you even know my name?” Phil says.
“Do you know mine?” Colin counters, which means Phil of course has to say “No,” and so they introduce themselves and perform the bro fist bump that Thor taught him, and Phil somehow agrees to go to what will probably be the most awkward family dinner of all time. Phil has been to awkward family dinners: he absolutely knows what he’s talking about.
Tony laughs for a long, long time at the briefing that evening, and when he’s done laughing, he says, “He’s going to try to use you two and your “secret forbidden brotherly love” to drive his mother batshit.”
“Well, yeah,” says Phil, “I got that already.”
Mrs Collett does not show up to dinner, and so they are spared that particular awkwardness, at least. Unfortunately, Phil discovers that he and Clint are perfectly capable of generating their own particular awkwardness field, particularly when Colin keeps ducking to check where their hands are under the table.
Phil would really like to take Clint’s hand, or maybe set one on Clint’s leg and leave it there, but he can’t decide if that would be -- should he do it in the name of their cover? Would that be taking advantage if he wants to do it anyway, but Clint doesn’t? Clint’s been pretty meticulous about establishing the borders of his personal space, but--
Clint kicks him under the table.
“I said,” Colin says, “I have a bedroom you guys can use if you want.”
“... thank you?” Phil says.
It’s pretty clear, once Colin closes the door behind him on his way out, that he fully expects Phil and Clint to have brotherly sex on top of his mother’s bed.
“Oh man,” Clint says. “I almost gotta admire him.”
“Pick a corner to start in,” Phil says, and starts to go through Mrs Collett’s drawers. He can feel the presence of the bed over his shoulder like -- like something with a large dangerous mouth and a lot of patience.
“Maybe we should jump up and down on it a few times,” Clint says. He closes the nightstand drawer and kneels up on the bed, bouncing up and down experimentally. “Bang the headboard into the wall. That sort of thing.”
When Phil glances over, Clint has stilled on the bed; eyes focused on something in the middle distance, the muscles in his arms and back flexing under his t-shirt as he works to keep his balance, up on his heels on the mattress. He looks pensive. He also looks extremely hot. Mission, Phil reminds himself. MISSION. He imagines telling Captain America, “and then Clint and I made out on the bad guy’s bed”, and once he gets over the initial surge of almost painful desire, the disappointed expression on Imagined Captain America’s face pretty much destroys that urge.
Additional incentive: SHIELD is listening to an audio feed of their conversation right now, and is only ever two to three minutes away from crashing into the Collett home when Phil or Clint say, “cool beans”.
Phil feels like there are words trying to worm their way out of his throat. He wants to tell Clint -- he wants to tell Clint everything. He does not, however, want to tell SHIELD everything, and so he lets Clint bounce up and down on the bed while he methodically goes through every drawer and closet. When they’re safely back in the car, along with an invitation from Colin to return the next day, Clint leans right up against Phil in the backseat, and Phil pretends to doze off so that he can rest his head on Clint’s shoulder without saying anything at all.
That might have been the end of it, except Phil blinks awake from a light sleep at two in the morning to discover Clint beside him again, sprawled out so that their arms and legs are touching on top of the blankets. Clint isn’t asleep this time. He’s staring right at Phil, and he flinches when Phil startles, pulling up and away.
“Sorry,” Clint says, his whole face falling. He curls in on himself on the bed for a moment, then rolls toward the edge. ”Fuck, sorry, Phil, I --”
“I don’t think of you as a brother,” Phil blurts. There is a strong possibility he might throw up. “I don’t -- I really like you, Clint. I really, really like you, and I was wondering if -- will you --? With me --?”
The words are not coming out right at all, despite how many times Phil practiced them in his head.
Clint looks startled, like he can’t believe this is actually happening, which is an infinitely more desirable reaction than disgusted. “You mean it?” Clint says. This is so ridiculous; if anyone’s not going to be able to believe this is actually happening, it’s going to be Phil: Captain of the McKinnley High Captain America Fan Club.
“Yeah, I -- I really, really, do; of course I do.”
“Oh,” Clint breathes. The startled expression seems to be sticking around, but he reaches out and curls his hands around Phil’s shoulders; throws a leg over Phil’s and leans in closer, closer, until Phil can feel Clint’s breath against his cheek, and then they’re kissing, slow and thorough and somehow much more satisfying than it’s been in his daydreams or with anyone else Phil’s been with, and Phil’s brain says IT’S HAPPENING and throws a tiny party on his behalf. Clint makes a noise when Phil pulls away for a moment, low and ragged, that goes straight to Phil’s cock, and he --
“Gentlemen,” JARVIS says, startling both of them badly enough that they knock their foreheads together, painfully.
“JARVIS?” Phil groans.
“Mr Stark and Captain Rogers have asked me to monitor your vitals for warning signs,” JARVIS says. “May I remind you both that given your current status as unexpected minors, you are under near-constant surveillance for your own safety?”
“Nooooo,” Clint says, clutching at Phil’s arms, panting. “Seriously? JARVIS? I thought you were on our side! Or Phil’s side, anyway.”
“I am, regrettably, bound to my programming,” JARVIS says, not sounding regretful at all, but it’s a sentiment that Phil can get behind, as only half his brain, mindful of the concealed cameras, is concerned with willing down the erection tenting his pants. The other half is still far too interested in the way Clint feels underneath him.
“Mr Stark is on his way up to invite you to movie night,” JARVIS adds, helpfully.
“At two in the morning?”
There’s a pause. “Mr Stark would like you to know that it is an Insomniac Science Bros movie night, and your attendance is mandatory.”
“Tomorrow,” Phil whispers, quickly. He can hear the elevator arriving on his floor; Tony bellowing “MY DARLING CHILDREN” from inside of it. “I’ll get some stuff. We can -- tomorrow evening.” He feels, rather than sees, Clint’s answering smile against his collarbone.
Phil is a planner by nature. The next morning, he packs a blanket next to his math textbook in his bag, safely covering up his knife, as well as the packet of tissues and the lube and condoms that JARVIS helped him find in Tony’s suite of rooms. “In the absence of an ability to prevent, I can at the very least ensure you are up-to-date on safe sexual practices,” JARVIS sighed. Phil’s phone is loaded with a playlist he spent all night post-movie putting together, and his tablet has a map that charts a route from the Collett’s house to the large and park-like backyard of one of Stark’s other properties.
Fake Dad plays Queen all the way to school. “Don’t stop me noooow” wails Freddie Mercury. Damn straight.
The second supper is immediately more successful, for a given value of “successful”.
Colin announces that Phil and Clint have a love that cannot be denied and that society refuses to acknowledge, and in the frigid silence that ensues, Phil exchanges one desperate, surreptitious glance with Clint, and knows that they are never getting back into this house.
At the briefing, Fury said, “Stick together, don’t snoop unless it’s safe. Get out if anything goes weird. There’s always next time.”
There won’t be a next time. Mrs Collett has a white-knuckled grip on her fork and knife, and it’s now or never.
“May I use your washroom?” Phil says, drawing upon every crime and spy drama he’s ever come across, as well as his mother’s story of the time the local Ladies’ Aid/vicious gossip circle invited her over for tea. Twelve unsupervised minutes in her host’s house and a four-minute quiet conversation in the kitchen ensured that no one ever said anything about her and Phil again, and she brought home all the leftover tiny sandwiches and cakes.
Phil really wishes his mom was here.
“Down the hall, second door to the right,” Colin says cheerfully. “You guys know where it is.”
“Excuse me?” Mrs Collett says.
“Didn’t I tell you? Frank and Jake were here yesterday, too. You know,” he adds, thoughtfully, “I had to take a phone call and they disappeared into your bedroom for a while. What were you doing in there, dudes?”
This is excruciating. Phil takes it back; worst dinner of all time. It’s not like he didn’t see it coming! But oh, god. He can feel himself flushing again, but he and Clint are simultaneously rescued and totally destroyed when there’s the sound of a door banging, then shouting in the entryway, and Emperor Palpatine himself appears in the doorway.
“You!” Emperor Palpatine shouts immediately, pointing at Clint. “Traitor!” he adds, pointing at Mrs Collett. Apparently Clint is recognizable even at sixteen, and Phil is not. Although, Phil thinks, a little detached from the scene unfolding in front of him, it’s also entirely possible that Emperor Palpatine had no idea who Phil was even when he was shooting at him. It’s not like his adult self shows up in the TV footage a lot.
“What?” Mrs Collett says. Her eyes narrow, dangerously. “What did you call me?”
“You let an Avenger into your house! What were you thinking?”
“How can he be an Avenger?” Mrs Collett shouts back. “He’s a kid, for Christ’s sake!”
“I know! I turned him into one!” Emperor Palpatine says. He fumbles under his robes for a moment and then produces the same sci-fi-esque weapon Bruce and Tony showed Phil, all those weeks ago in the Tower labs. Clint shrinks a little closer to Phil, hands tightened into fists under the table.
“Kyle, what are you talking about? Turned him into -- oh, my god. This is about your research, isn’t it. That’s why you you were at the Met. You -- you found it? You made it work with your designs?”
“The Ray of Youth,” croons Emperor -- no, croons Kyle. “All the cutting edge engineering money can buy, powered by a priceless historical artifact.“
Too late, Phil realizes that Clint has his fork in one of his clenched fists; a moment later, the same fork is embedded in one of Kyle’s eyes. Kyle wails, clapping his hands around the wound and then apparently thinking better of yanking the fork out. “I’m not sure that was the best plan!” Phil has to shout it in order to be heard over all the screaming.
Clint doesn’t answer, just grabs Phil’s hand and yanks him out of the chair, past Colin, who is staring at his mother’s back as she disappears out the way Kyle came, his eyes wide and his jaw dropped open. “I’ll get the gun; you get SHIELD,” Clint hisses, turning and sprinting back toward Kyle and leaving Phil safely outside the splatter zone.
“Cool beans,” Phil bellows; there’s a click from the radio tucked discreetly in his ear and then a cool, collected voice says, “ETA for backup is one minute.”
“Already?” Phil says. Kyle roars, “I will kill you,” as Clint inches closer; Kyle’s fists flail out but Clint ducks once, twice, and wrestles the gun out of his hands, staggering back two steps.
“Screaming is a good indication that assistance is required,” the voice says. “Don’t engage; find a safe place and wait for us.”
Mrs Collett comes barrelling back through the door; four heavily armed men hot on her heels. “That one!” she says, pointing at Clint just like Kyle did.
“Mom?” Colin says.
The goons head straight for Clint, ignoring Phil and Colin completely; Colin dives over the table and cowers behind it, and Phil scrambles forward against SHIELD advice and engages in a brief, desperately futile struggle with four men. One of them knocks him over and into a toppled chair; he hits his head in a glancing blow against it, knocking his earpiece out. By the time he struggles up again, Kyle is sweeping out of the room, Colin’s mother and the four goons -- one of them with Clint draped over his shoulder -- right behind him. It’s all over in thirty seconds.
Colin pops his head up over the table and says, “Holy fuck, man, holy fuck, I think those were fucking ninjas --”
“Mercenaries,” Phil says, blank, flashing back to the briefing he sat through after Agent Barton became Clint. Oh, god, Clint. He steadies himself against the table, trying to work up the to the ability to run after them; Colin staggers over and buries his hands in his fluffy hair, still babbling.
“My mother’s a fucking ninja, on my god, what the actual fuck --” He’s kind of grinning like this is beyond his wildest dreams, like he despises his mother but the idea of her as an evil badass is the best thing ever, and so Phil punches him in the fucking face, because fuck you, Colin.
“They’re not ninjas!” Phil shouts at him. They’re mercenaries, and they’ve taken Clint.
Colin goes down and Phil finds that the rage that’s burning through him seems to be clearing away the dizziness, so he runs. He snags his backpack and tumbles out into the front yard, squelching through the wet grass and the sprinklers until he hits the driveway. At the end of it, a van with dark-tinted windows turns onto the main road, tires squealing.
Phil sprints past the manned guard station and runs, and runs, and runs, and after a moment, still far back but gaining, he can hear the pounding footsteps that mean that someone is chasing him, just as he is chasing Clint.
Phil’s daydreamed about this. Reality is so much less fun, and so much more traumatizing.
In no world is Phil going to be able to catch up with a vehicle while on foot and possibly suffering from a head injury, and so he watches the van recede into the distance with a sense of resigned despair. He realizes with a start that his earpiece is still lying on the floor of the Collett house, and while it’s likely to be crawling with SHIELD agents and Avengers right now, they’ll have no idea where he is.
Phil … actually isn’t sure where he is, either. He’s been running for ten minutes, maybe, but he cut through a lot of backyards and driveways, one eye on the ground in front of him and the other on the van headlights, moving far too quickly to be caught. Phil puts his hands on his knees and bends over, panting.
He shouldn’t have run. He should have picked up his earpiece. He’s got the van license plate number, but no one to tell. The footsteps behind him slow, and then stop, and he looks over just in time to see a man leap up on top of a low brick wall. There’s something about his face that’s niggling at Phil, but he refocuses on the visible weaponry the man is carrying, instead.
“Are you here to--” he starts, backing up a step, but the man shakes his head.
“Take out your knife,” he says.
“I went through your backpack last week at school,” the man says, conversationally. “In about three minutes you’re gonna have company. Not the nice kind. Take out your knife.”
“I’m not supposed to use it unless --” Phil starts, and gets interrupted again.
“Unless it’s serious, I know. Trust me, it’s serious.”
Phil takes out his knife. He says, “Are you … here to help me?”
The man shakes his head again. His face keeps twisting into an expression that makes Phil want to run and hide, then smoothing out again, blank and blandly pleasant. It’s unnerving. “I’m not the nice kind of company either, but I’m not gonna kill you,” he says. “That’s about the best I can do, kid.”
That seems both like an enormous favour and terrifyingly little help, given the squealing tires and slamming doors Phil can now hear from around the corner. “Please,” he says. He can’t get Clint back on his own. There’s no way, and there’s no time, and he’s out here all alone with someone who’s giving him the serious heebie jeebies and still represents the most likely option for getting out of this alive.
“Tell Captain America to come find me,” the man says. “Once he’s got time. And tell him -- tell him to be ready for a fight.” He stands, then, expression still flickering between almost-kind and death incarnate; he nods at Phil, once, and disappears back over the side of the wall.
“But I’m about to be in the middle of a fight!” Phil shouts at him, and then he is.
Two men; one big and bulky, the other slim and fast on his feet, advancing on him at speed. Phil is still half-hidden by shadows, and while it’s obvious that they know he’s there, it becomes equally obvious, by the surprised expression on their faces, that they hadn’t spotted his knife until it’s embedded in Slim’s gut. Slim gurgles and Phil stumbles away, the knife still in his hand, slick and horrific.
Big makes a bellowing noise and launches himself at Phil, who shoves aside his fledgling morality crisis to turn and run again, flat-out, hoping against hope that Big is not in possession of any projectile weapons.
There’s a muffled thump from somewhere close by and Phil whirls, startled; out of the half-gloom, Natasha appears, dressed all in black. Big is crumpled behind her, his head lolled at an unnatural angle beside Slim’s twitching legs. “You didn’t wait for backup,” she says, expression unreadable.
Phil concentrates on breathing, great, gulping gasps, then gives in and throws up Mrs Collett’s chef’s cooking. When he straightens up, Natasha is right beside him, one hand tentative on his back. “It gets easier,” she says.
“Yeah?” He wipes his mouth on his sleeve. The sick feeling hasn’t gone away, but he’s pretty sure it won’t be solved by throwing up again. “Have I killed a lot of people?”
“Yes,” she says. “It got easier. That’s what you tell junior agents.”
“It was always easy,” she says, and this -- Phil suspects this is a line she tells other people; Natasha is physically tiny and still makes Phil feel small in a big wide world, and he can’t imagine her lying to herself.
“The Met,” Natasha says. She takes the knife from him, gently, and moves back over to the bodies. There’s a noise that Phil has no desire to investigate, and then Slim’s legs stop twitching. “Emperor Palpatine --”
“Kyle,” Phil interrupts.
“Kyle needs something from there, but we’re not sure what. He made two weapons: one to take away decades of people’s lives and memories, the other to return them. Unmaking and remaking. The first one works; the second is still missing a component. He didn’t get what he needed on his first visit to the Met.”
“I want to go.”
“We agreed,” Natasha says. “Once you’re safe, I keep you safe. The others are working to retrieve Clint.”
“Please,” says Phil. “I’m not too young. I can help.”
Natasha looks at him for a long moment, eyes lingering on the blood drying sticky on his hands. “I know,” she says.
The blocks around the Met don’t look that different from the first time Phil saw them, the day he met Clint. They should; everything should look different. Everything feels different.
“Fewer mercenaries,” Natasha whispers to him. “We’ve taken many of them out of play, and we think Kyle’s losing funds too quickly to replace them. You stick close to me, and you don’t do anything stupid, got it?”
“Got it,” Phil says.
They enter, silently. The Met itself is not silent, however; faint sounds of fighting echo through the exhibit hallways. From the sounds of it, many, many priceless pieces of history are being smashed. The floor under their feet rumbles occasionally. They skirt past one body, two, and Phil thinks about throwing up again, but doesn’t; his heart feels like it’s pounding out of his chest, and there’s a pool of sweat gathering at the small of his back. Clint could be anywhere in this building, and he could be alive or he could be like one of the bodies they passed, long gone.
“Don’t do that,” Natasha says. “Clint is fine.”
Phil looks at her.
“Because I say so,” she adds. “Time to sprint.”
Natasha leads the way through a medieval exhibit, then past a room of sculptures; there’s a woman slumped on the floor in a corner of it, breathing in short raspy gusts. It’s -- oh. It’s Mrs Collett. Natasha ignores her and so Phil does too, onward, onward, up a flight of stairs and then, abruptly, into a long room filled with musical instruments. Natasha hustles them halfway down it, then stops and looks -- relieved?
“Stark. Gallery Seven-Oh-Four.”
“What’s Tony doing?”
“Hulk herding,” Natasha says.
“Hulk?” Phil says. “Here?” The floor rumbles again, and then a voice roars, “HULK FIND.”
“Come on,” Natasha says, and they go out into another gallery, this one with a balcony overlooking the Hulk, big and green and terrifying, but -- Phil’s breath catches -- the Hulk is holding Clint carefully in the palms of both hands.
Natasha shudders next to him, one quick shake and then gone, and calls, “Bring him here, Hulk.”
“Hulk FIND,” the Hulk says again, insistent, but moves closer, the building rattling with every footstep. Display cases shatter beneath his feet. Hulk reaches up, careful, careful, and then Clint is right in front of Phil, looking woozy and alive and slightly -- ha -- green, and Phil is pressed up against the edge of the balcony, arms outstretched, without any conscious decision on his part.
“Carefully,” Natasha says, and when Hulk tips his hands over, Clint tumbles into Phil’s arms and they both hit the floor.
“Oof,” Clint says, right up next to Phil’s ear, and Phil barks out a laugh that hurts coming out of his throat and probably sounds unpleasant. He clings, unabashed, but Clint’s clinging right back, so that’s all right, then.
“Are you okay?” Phil says. He smooths his hands down Clint’s back, sits up a little so that he can hold Clint’s face in his hands and poke at the goose egg forming by his left eyebrow. There’s little bits of duct tape still clinging to his wrists, leftovers from being ripped off in a hurry.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Clint says. “Phil --”
“What the fuck are you doing here, kiddo,” Stark says, jetting over the side of the balcony and narrowly missing the Hulk’s head. The armoured helmet swivels around to, presumably, give Natasha the stink-eye, and then comes back around to regard Clint and Phil, still on the floor. “No, never mind,” he says. “Maybe it’s for the best, though: presents!”
Stark has both guns. “The re-aging one,” he says, holding it up. He puts the other one down on a display case, off to the side. “We held off on attacking until Emperor Palpatine put it together, and when he cackled a lot we figured he’d gotten it right.”
“Do you have him in custody?” Natasha says, making gimme hands until Stark hands the thing over.
Stark shakes his head. “Nope, he ran. Thor went after him but lost him somewhere in modern art.”
“Find him,” Natasha suggests. Phil gets the distinct feeling that Stark is rolling his eyes, but all he says is, “Yeah, on it -- Hulk, stay here and look after the kids!” and he’s off again. Natasha hoists the gun up and points it at them, waiting impatiently until they clamber to their feet; Phil tangles his fingers with Clint’s and holds on tight, trying to push down the sudden rush of terror.
“On the count of three,” she says, and Phil’s heart-rate spikes. What if it doesn’t work? What if --?
There’s burst of golden light; it takes up Phil’s entire field of vision, growing and spreading until he can’t tell if he’s still standing up, or which way is up; his only reference point is Clint’s hand in his, still gripping hard; he feels like he’s tipping up and over and then headfirst into a chasm that’s deep and wide and cold and home.
Phil blinks open his eyes, laid out flat on the floor, and remembers: Tasha doesn’t count to three.
“Civilian in the line of fire in six-nine-nine!” Cap shouts, distant. Phil wonders what happened to his radio. “Little help here!”
“Good?” Tasha says, already shoving the gun away and reaching for her own familiar pistols.
“Good,” Phil manages, forcing himself to sit up, and she takes off.
It’s dizzying for a moment, and not just the physical sensations of his body shifting around him, grown and changed, becoming more comfortable and familiar; beyond the physical is what’s happening inside his brain, the abrupt changes in self-awareness and his awareness of the world around him; he clicks rapid-fire through several different options to get everyone out of this alive, things he didn’t know or wasn’t even able to effectively think through ten minutes and decades ago.
His memories -- fifty-two and sixteen again -- run into each other in his brain and promptly destroy any pleasant sensations of relief he’s been experiencing.
He looks over at Clint, who has a horrified expression on his face, and Phil thinks about what almost happened, and the -- the hopeful supplies he has packed in his bag, and feels ill. He came so close to -- he almost -- Jesus Christ, what he almost did to Clint, who never ever asked for Phil to inconveniently fall in love with him and then have those feelings bleed over into being accidentally sixteen, when Clint didn’t know any better and God knows Phil didn’t, either.
“It’s -- I’m sorry,” he says, low and fast. “We were just -- it was a teenage infatuation. We’re okay, right? Hormones, close proximity; we don’t have to -- we can keep going like it never happened. Okay?”
Clint clutches at Phil’s hand, reflexively, which is when they both realize they’re still clinging to one another, let go, and scramble back and away.
“Fine,” Clint says, back to the wall. “Fine. That’s -- that’s fine.”
“I’m sorry,” Phil says, and decides to blame the way his voice wavers on his recent adolescence. This is also the moment when Emperor Palpatine careens around the corner, arms waving in the air, shrieking at them. Phil leaps to his feet and almost immediately starts to topple over again; there’s a tight, painful feeling in his chest that’s still agonizingly familiar despite having been absent all these weeks; it’s not … it’s not quite the same kind of agony, though, it -- hurts less. His range of movement is better, but Phil doesn’t have to look to know that Clint’s already moving to cover him.
Clint always covers him.
“Where is it?” Kyle is saying. His one good eye is bloodshot, his complexion dangerously grey. There’s a haphazard bandage slapped over the fork-wound, but it’s fairly obvious there hasn’t been any real medical attention. One man with an enormous blind spot against two men with an enormous grudge. Phil almost feels sorry for him.
“Hulk smash?” says Hulk. Kyle glances over, jumps a foot in the air, and then visibly deflates.
“Not just yet. This is a good time to think about surrendering, Kyle,” Phil suggests. Kyle’s gaze is drawn to him, away from Hulk, away from Clint, crouched over and only a few vicious movements away from ending Kyle’s life. “Who are -- oh,” Kyle says. “Oh, oh, ohhhhh, oh my god, it’s you. The Ray of Youth did fire that day! It was you in Collett’s house!”
“You didn’t recognize me,” Phil says. Distraction.
“I tripped,” Kyle says. “I tripped and the Ray went off, but I couldn’t be sure that -- it must have hit you. Huh.”
“It was an accident,” Phil says. “You made a mistake. Put down the gun so that you don’t make another one.”
Kyle looks, briefly, wistful. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” he says, glancing over the balcony where Hulk is still standing, watching intently.
“That would be another one,” Phil says. “Smashing is ... messy.”
Kyle reaches into his robes and pulls out a hand-gun; he considers it for a moment, then clicks the safety off and points it directly at Phil’s head. “But at least it’s --”
Clint dives across the floor, springing up on top of the display case and then bringing the de-aging gun up to his shoulder and firing. Kyle goes down in a flurry of adolescent limbs.
“That,” says Phil, “is going to be a nightmare.”
“As opposed to all the other nightmares SHIELD deals with,” Clint says, dry.
“Yes,” Phil says. “And Barton -- good work.” It isn’t at all what he wants to say, but -- he can’t say what he wants to say.
“Barton!” Stark shouts, zipping back into the room. “Did you seriously just -- I wanted to ask Palpatine questions about his flying fucking car!”
“You’re the genius, reverse-engineer it,” Clint shouts back. He gives Phil one last glance, almost nervous, and then stalks over to the balcony railing and hitches a ride down on Hulk’s shoulder. From the sound of it, the fighting is drawing to a close; there are fewer thudding noises and cries of pain, and more declarations of surrender.
Thor dashes by and says, triumphantly, “Son of Coul!”, brandishing Mjolnir in what is probably meant to be an encouraging manner, and Phil sighs and goes to secure the bad guy before he wakes up.
“Good to have you back, Coulson,” Steve says, grinning, when he comes upon Phil twenty minutes later, and Phil reflexively shoves his personal crisis deep down where Captain America can’t see it.
“Good to be back, Cap. Where are the others?”
“Banner’s back to being Banner and helping Stark dismantle all of Emperor Palpatine’s technology while wearing clothing stolen from the Costume Institute; I’m pretty sure they’re about to get in a fight with Director Fury about who actually gets to keep it. The technology, I mean, not the clothes.”
“Yup,” Fury says, neatly demonstrating his impeccable talent for appearing both when most and least useful. “Captain, I’d appreciate it if you helped convince Stark that SHIELD deserves some of the spoils, too.”
“Oh, yeah, that’ll be easy,” Cap says, but goes.
“Nice to see you again, Phil,” says Director Fury -- except right now, he’s not Director Fury at all -- he’s Nick, the asshole, one of Phil’s oldest, well, friends. The circles under his eye say he’s been sleeping worse than usual.
“Naaah,” says Fury. “This shit happens to us all the time. We’ve survived everything thrown at us so far; I was pretty sure adolescence wouldn’t keep you down for long.”
Phil resists the urge to rub at his chest, but only barely. “Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
Professional wrap-up from the entire Emperor Palpatine SNAFU is pretty simple, at least on Phil’s end. There are still things they don’t know -- Mrs Collett’s precise relationship to Kyle No-Last-Name, or what to do with Kyle now that he’s re-aged -- but Phil is spared the truly egregious paperwork on account of being a minor while most of it occurred. He’s not used to not being involved with the ongoing details of a case or a mission as they come up, and when he flips through the reports filed by SHIELD agents and the Avengers, he discovers all sorts of details that he wasn’t party to as a sixteen-year-old. It’s the same decision he would have made, had he been himself, but it’s an … interesting perspective.
The personal wrap-up is much more complicated. In the interests of putting off Talking To Clint, Phil knocks on the door of Natasha’s room first. She’s laid out eleven knives of varying sizes and shapes, and is cleaning and sharpening them methodically.
“Go ahead,” she says. “I know what you want to say.”
“We left you all alone,” Phil says, “and I’m sorry for that.”
“Clint was by earlier,” Natasha says. “He said the same thing. It’s not --” She pauses, momentarily lost for words, an honesty that most people don’t get to see. “There’s no need for apologies.”
“It doesn’t mean I’m not sorry,” Phil says. “Thank you. For looking out for us.”
“It was -- more difficult -- when you couldn’t look out for yourselves,” Natasha allows. “It was like when I first met Clint, except there were two of you. I’m not used to my people being helpless. Not since -- not for a long, long time.”
Phil sits down beside her on the bed; she passes one of the knives and a whetstone over to him. The scraaape of weapons being sharpened is comforting again in a way it wasn’t when he was sixteen. “You were willing to let the others get Clint back without you. Without me.”
“I guess I wasn’t completely alone, after all,” Natasha says.
They’re silent for a moment, breathing in sync together, and then Natasha says, “Did you see him out there too?”
“He told me to fight,” says Phil, “and he asked for Steve.”
Natasha taken care of, Phil has only two conversations left on his mental to-do list, neither of which he feels prepared to deal with yet. Steve will have to wait until Fury and Hill have a discussion, so that one’s out of his hands even if he wishes it wasn’t. Clint will have to wait until Phil stops being a coward or until Natasha finds out, whichever comes first. He figures he has about one day’s grace.
“Hey listen,” Stark says, appearing out of nowhere and leaping into the elevator with Phil just before the doors close. “No hard feelings re: cockblocking your adorable teenage selves, huh? We talked it over as a team -- you’ll be proud of us when you’re less embarrassed! -- and we all agreed: teenagers do their own thing and no one can stop them, but we didn’t want you turning back into super spy agents and feeling like you made some less-than-stellar choices under the influence of adolescence.”
This is absolutely the very last thing Phil wants to deal with. “Thanks,” he says.
Stark’s studying him like he knows something Phil doesn’t, but all he does is say, “Pepper says hi, by the way,” and give a lazy, haphazard wave on his way back out the elevator doors.
Safely hidden away on his own floor of the tower, Phil discovers that someone has dropped off the contents of their school lockers as well as both backpacks, stacked against the wall just outside the elevator.
He leaves the garbage bag of gym clothes and pencil cases in favour of picking up the backpacks and dumping them out on the couch, wincing at the cascade of condoms and lube amongst school supplies and Stark tech. The jostling knocks the StarkPhone on when it hits the covers, displaying a screen that says Barry Manilow: “Can’t Smile Without You”, track one of what Phil knows, with the gift of adulthood, to be an overly optimistic thirty-song playlist.
Phil’s alone, and so he allows himself one drawn-out, mortified, “Oh god.”
He sweeps all the condoms and supplies and the StarkPhone back into his backpack, shoving it into a mental space marked “deal with later”, and picks through the wrappers and crumpled papers from Clint’s pack, sorting them into ‘garbage” and “recycle” and “keep.” One piece of paper is partially glued to the tablet with a mixture of ketchup and who-knows-what-else, and he’s reading it absently while picking at the ketchup gunk when he abruptly realizes what it is he’s picked up:
...so obviously it’s gonna be weird, but don’t panic. Be nice to Phil, okay, he’s freaked out too. Be his friend. Trust me, it’s not like you’re gonna get that chance again, so enjoy it while you can. You know that issue we have with only falling for unattainable people? Yeah. See, now you know this must be from your future self, because who else would...
“Hey, Barton,” Phil says. He pokes his head into Clint’s suite of rooms. “You got a minute?”
“Sure thing, sir,” Clint says, turning off the television. Phil has to admire the way he manages to say that without actually betraying how awkward the entire situation is, but then, both of them are pros at that. “What’s up?”
“We need to talk.”
Clint makes a face, but moves over on the couch while Phil closes the door behind him, locks it quietly, and join him. “If this is about -- I’m really, really sorry about that, I mean -- If I could take that back for you, I would --”
“Teenage infatuation,” Phil interrupts. “That’s what I said to you.”
“Yeah,” Clint says. He’s sprawled on the couch but Phil can see his muscles are tensed, ready to run. At sixteen, Phil loved Clint -- and was certain it was, in fact, love -- for a lot of different reasons, with all the force of a well-meaning but, in hindsight, somewhat embarrassingly self-centered desire; at fifty-two, Phil loves Clint for for the history between them, for a decade of shared experiences, spilt blood and deeds done in the dark. Clint is a steady, lethal presence, an accidental villain who’s somehow become one of Phil’s moral compasses. Clint is impossible, utterly loyal and utterly brave; sixteen-year-old Phil had only the barest inkling of Clint’s history and no idea how to ask about it, had no clue what kind of mental resilience it must have taken Clint to be who he was, to act how he acted. How he acts.
Maybe it was teenage infatuation. This isn’t.
He sits down, slowly, slowly, and puts his hand on Clint’s ankle, sweeps his thumb across the skin under his jeans. Clint’s eyes are wide, now, confused. “Sir --?”
“I am not actually your superior anymore, Clint,” Phil says. “The Avengers changed more than just your job description.”
“Phil,” Clint says, rough. “Phil, are you --”
“Is this something you want?” Phil says, and again, slowly, slowly, giving Clint time and space to move, to make up his mind, he leans over him and presses a kiss, dry and chaste, to the corner of his mouth. To his neck. To his collarbone. Clint makes that same satisfied sigh he made half-asleep and safe in Phil’s bed, after a hard day at school and before another one, but Clint is agonizingly still against him, muscles locked, and then he shudders all over. When Phil looks up, his eyes are squeezed shut.
“You read my letter,” he says, eyes still closed. He’s always been good at inference. His voice is carefully, deliberately flat.
“I did,” Phil says. “It was an accident, and I’m sorry. But -- I didn’t know.” He shifts again, kneeling on either side of Clint’s thighs, covering Clint with his body, and Clint goes with it, moves with Phil; they’ve always worked well together, always been able to function in sync with one another. Clint clutches at Phil’s shoulders, briefly, before letting go and going still again.
“Why are you--”
“Adolescent infatuation,” says Phil, rolling his hips; he tucks his chin over Clint’s shoulder and speaks quietly, right next to his ear. “I wanted to give you an easy way out, but the truth is that I wanted -- desperately -- to be your friend.”
“You were,” Clint gasps, “you were the best friend I ever --”
Phil keeps going; if he doesn't get this out now, he might never manage it. “I wanted to stand up on tables and make declarations. I wanted you to see me.”
Clint’s hands come up again, twist encouragingly into the back of Phil’s shirt. “I always see you, Coulson.”
“I’m starting to get that. I wanted you to talk to me, Barton,” Phil says. “I wanted to protect you --” Clint makes a noise of protest and Phil muffles it by moving in and kissing him again, not so chaste this time. Clint opens his mouth and lets him in; by the time Phil pulls back so he can speak again, they’re both panting, increasingly wrecked. “I wanted you to look after me. I wanted you to touch me.”
Clint’s hands tighten in Phil’s shirt, reflexively, then relax; he smooths them across Phil’s back, then dips one up, under Phil’s shirt, pressing warm and calloused against his skin; the other slides down, slips under the waist of Phil’s pants and curves over his ass. “Coulson, please--”
“And I wanted to touch you, too." Phil slides his own hands under Clint's shirt; curls over him; surrounds him. "And the thing that you really need to know is--” Phil breaks off as Clint’s hips jerk up, trying to match his own increasingly desperate rhythm; he heaves in a fortifying breath and continues, “the thing you need to know is that everything, all of that -- I wanted it before I woke up sixteen in an alley.”
That’s apparently all the confirmation Clint needs, because he surges up and flips Phil over, smoothly, impressive in the confined space offered by the couch. Their legs tangle up together briefly, before they manage to sort themselves out and Clint slows down and kisses him again.
"And I still wanted it," Phil pants, when he can speak again. Clint huffs out a laugh against Phil's neck, fumbling open buttons and zippers and belts with unsteady fingers. Phil closes his eyes, grounds himself as Clint moves down and presses his lips to the head of Phil’s cock, then swallows him down. His hips buck, his words vanishing in the sparks of pleasure setting all his nerve endings on fire. “I still wanted it,” he manages, because it seems important. Clint looks up at him through his eyelashes, and Phil moans. Buries his hand in Clint’s hair. “I still wanted it when I woke up fifty-two again.”
"God," Clint says, pulling off. “Phil, you can’t just say stuff like that --"
Phil tugs him closer again, kneeling up and tucking his chin over Clint’s shoulder. He reaches down and wraps his hand around Clint’s cock, holds it against his own, smearing pre-come and saliva; just enough slickness to not have to stop or pause for supplies. Clint heaves in a breath and mirrors Phil’s posture; Phil can feel Clint’s eyelashes against his neck, Clint’s arms solid and sweaty around Phil’s back.
“Teenage infatuation. Was trying to give you an easy way out.” Phil says.
“But I don’t want an easy way out,” Clint says. “I want -- you want this?”
It’s becoming impossible to carry a thought through to completion, but “I want you” floats to the top of Phil’s blood-starved brain and he says it, meaning every bit of it.
“Fuck me,” Clint breathes, both a response and a request, and Phil is going, going, gone.
“Um,” Clint says after, muffled, into Phil’s chest. “That wasn’t -- I usually -- it’s not usually over that fast.”
Phil hmmms thoughtfully. “Medical thought something like this might happen.”
“Medical thought we’d have mutually satisfying but shockingly speedy orgasms?” Clint says.
“Medical thought there might be some lingering physiological side effects,” Phil corrects. “I didn’t feel right for a few days after I hit sixteen, and my chest is actually improving far more quickly than it should be now that we’ve changed back. It shouldn’t last.”
Clint tenses against him. “You’re gonna get worse again?”
“No,” Phil says. “We’ll just have increasingly fantastic sex as our adolescence wears off.”
“Oh yeah, talk sexy to me, baby,” Clint says, relaxing again.
"Next time, we’re doing this in a bed, naked, instead of coming in our pants like -- ha. Like teenagers."
"Ha fucking ha," Clint says. He sits up, still straddling Phil, and throws his head back and laughs for real. “We are way too awesome at this covert shit for our own good,” he says, still -- well, Phil is prepared to call that giggling. “Do you even know how long we could have been doing this?”
“Years,” Phil says, smiling up at him, because, yes, their adult selves have been pretty much been the dictionary definition of Intimacy and Trust Issues, and Clint stills, pupils wide and dark; his voice is rough when he says, “Yeah, Phil. Years.”
“I guess we have some lost time to make up,” Phil says, reasonably.