Clint opens his eyes and Loki is standing in front of him, staff already moving toward his chest. When he feels those cold, snaky fingers wrapping around his brain he slams his shields up instinctively, just like the Architect had taught him, but he knows it won’t work. Nothing ever has. He’s had this nightmare more times than he can count, and it always goes the same way. Nothing he does can ever make it change.
Except that does. Work, that is. The coldness disappears and Loki takes a step back.
“This usually works,” he says, frowning in confusion at the staff. Clint’s thoughts are reeling but he still has the presence of mind to take advantage of the situation. He brings a leg up, sweeping Loki’s feet out from under him. The god is up again in an instant, but Clint has already leapt back, well out of reach of the staff.
Loki’s face twists in anger and he lashes out with the staff, throwing an energy bolt at Clint. He throws himself to the side, but not quite quick enough, and the blast wings him and sends him spinning across the room. He ducks and rolls out of the fall, just able to brace himself as he slams into the wall. When Clint looks up, Loki has Agent Webster under his control and is talking to Fury.
The longer this goes on the less it feels like a nightmare to Clint and the more it feels like a second chance. It’s probably not - it’s probably some new variation on his nightmare or some kind of mind trick. Maybe Clint got hurt and is in a coma - he’s heard coma-dreams can be very realistic.
But the only thing worse than thinking you have a second chance and then finding out it’s not real is to realise you actually had a second chance and you didn’t take it. Clint decides he’s going to operate on the assumption that this is real until he finds a good reason to think otherwise. He’s been wishing for a do-over for the past two months and if there’s even the slightest chance that this is actually happening Clint’s going to take it.
Clint knows how this is going to pan out. Loki will take Selvig next, and then he’ll have someone - probably Webster - shoot Fury. Webster’s no sharp shooter, so he always aims for center mass; with the armor Fury will be fine, just like before. Clint’s arrows are still up top and he knows from experience how little bullets mean to Loki. The demi-god seems to have forgotten him for now, but Clint knows that even with the element of surprise, the only thing that him attacking right now will accomplish is getting himself killed, so he stays put.
Loki takes Selvig, and the good doctor warns him that the whole structure is about to collapse. “Well then,” Loki says, and right on cue Webster shoots Fury in the chest. Fury goes down hard and Loki walks out of the room with the case, Webster and Selvig in attendance. Clint waits until he’s sure Loki is out of sight before dashing over to the Director.
“You all right, sir?” Clint asks, as Fury struggles up into a sitting position, groaning.
“Barton,” he says around clenched teeth, “get it back.”
Clint helps Fury to his feet. “Yes, sir,” he says, and races after Loki. He catches up just as the truck speeds off, Webster driving and Loki in the back.
“Get these people out of here,” Clint calls to Hill as he jumps into a jeep and tries to catch up to Webster. Loki is firing the staff at any SHIELD vehicle that gets in his way, most of whom are just trying to escape. Soon it’s just down to Clint and Webster. It’s a strange dissonance - last time he was in Webster’s place and Hill was in his place. The end result is the same though - Loki gets away and Clint ends up half-buried in the rubble.
Clint crawls out of the wrecked jeep and slams the door in frustration. Every wrecked car or truck represents good agents Clint has failed to protect, despite already knowing Loki’s every move. Good agents who are now buried in the rubble of the outpost, and mostly likely dead. Clint searches the cab trying to find his radio, but when he finally pulls it out from under the crumpled dash, it’s busted.
‘Great,’ Clint thinks. Now he has no way to contact Fury or anyone back at base. And also no way to call for help. He’s going to have to dig himself out on his own and hike until he finds a phone. Just wonderful.
Clint grabs everything he can salvage from the jeep and starts heading for the end of the tunnel. It takes Clint a good half hour of ducking under and scrambling over chunks of concrete to get free, back in open air of the New Mexico night.
Clint scrambles up to the edge of what is now a large crater where the outpost used to be. The range of destruction is devastating. Clint hopes Phil got most of their people out before the collapse and then falls to his knees at the sudden realisation.
Phil. Right here and now Phil is still alive. Probably on his way back to base. Clint has spent most of the last two months trying not to think about Phil, not quite ready to face the magnitude of his loss, and even with all that has happened it’s only now that he realises that he doesn’t just have a second chance to stop Loki - Clint has a second chance to save Phil.
A Phil who probably thinks Clint is now dead, what with the whole collapsed building and Clint without a working radio. The urgency to call in just got stronger.
Clint staggers to his feet. A few minutes of walking and he finds a wrecked helicopter that he thinks must be Fury’s. It’s empty, so Fury’s probably already been extracted, but after fiddling around in the cockpit Clint discovers to his delight that the cockpit radio still works.
“Agent Barton to base, anyone copy?” Clint calls through the radio. He gets an immediate answer.
“Base to Agent Barton, we copy. Transferring to AIC.” Clint waits in silence for about thirty seconds before the radio crackles to life again.
“Barton?” Phil’s voice comes over the radio, trying and failing for a professional tone. Hearing that voice again after two months is like a shock to Clint’s system - his heart actually stops for a moment, before trying to pound out of his chest. Clint knows he should take a moment to compose himself before answering but he remembers the half-hopeful, half-disbelieving tone in which Phil had said his name and he refuses to worry Phil even more by hesitating to answer.
“Hey,” he croaks, and it might not be professional but Clint can hear Phil’s heavy sigh of relief over the radio and knows Phil will hardly call him on it. In the brief silence that follows Clint can hear the muffled sounds of frenzied agents grow softer and then disappear with the click of a door and he knows Phil has just gotten them some privacy.
“God, Clint,” Phil says, still shaky. “Are you ok? Where are you?” It’s the tone Phil always uses when Clint manages to get himself hurt on assignment and Clint grins - he can’t help it. It’s familiar and it’s perfect and Clint never thought he’d get to hear it ever again.
“I’m fine, Phil,” he’s quick to assure his husband. “I got a little banged up when the tunnel collapsed on me but no broken bones, no head wounds, just scrapes and bruises, I promise. My radio got busted in the crash and I had to dig my way out, that’s why it took me so long to check in. I’m sorry,” he finishes, because he’s never not sorry for all the worry he puts Phil through, even when it’s unavoidable.
Clint can hear Phil take several deep breaths before he responds “Ok” in a slightly calmer tone. “Where are you?” Phil asks again.
“I’m at the downed helicopter right outside the tunnel,” Clint responds, “Luckily the cockpit radio still works or I would have had to hike into town to call in.”
“Ok,” Phil says, tone professional once more, “I’m going to get someone out there to pick you up as soon as possible. We’re scrambling to the helicarrier so I’ll meet you there.”
“Yes, sir,” Clint says, just barely across the line into flippant, and he can practically hear Phil smile.
“I’ve got to go,” Phil says, “I’ll see you soon,” he promises, more warmth than is strictly professional in his voice.
“Yeah, see you soon,” Clint replies, putting the radio back in its cradle and crawling out of the cockpit to sit on top of the helicopter. He leans back and watches the sun rise over the desert while he waits for his ride.
Phil watches the outpost collapse and feels his heart collapse along with it. He knows Clint was in there and so far there’s been no word from either him or Fury. Hill had made it up top with the last of the men she could find right before they took off, but Phil knows there are many more still unaccounted for. Now she sits next to him in the copter, watching the compound sink into the ground with a bleak look on her normally impassive face.
Phil lifts his radio to call Fury, hoping his old friend had made it out alive. “Director. Director Fury, do you copy?” Hill glances at him nervously. He doesn’t envy her her position. Fury had actually offered the Assistant Directorship to Phil first, but it would have meant leaving the field, and no longer being allowed to be Clint or Natasha’s handler, and Phil doesn’t trust any other agent with them.
The radio crackles to life and he hears Fury’s voice, “The tesseract is with a hostile force,” he says, and Phil watches Hill put her head in her hands. “I have men down,” the Director continues, “Barton? Barton, do you copy?” Phil holds his breath.
There’s silence on the line. For several heartbeats there there is no sound but the whipping of the rotors. Hill puts a hand on Phil’s shoulder, but he shrugs it off. This isn’t the time.
“Hill?” Fury finally says, making no comment about Clint.
“A lot of men still under,” Hill replies, “Don’t know how many survivors.”
“Sound a general call,” Fury orders, “I want every living soul not working rescue looking for that briefcase.”
“Roger that,” Hill confirms.
“Coulson, get back to base,” Fury tells him, and something in him clenches at the thought of leaving Clint behind. “This is a level seven,” Fury tells them, and Hill stiffens. “As of right now, we are at war.”
The pronouncement hangs over them like a heavy cloud. Phil feels lost - the enemy has the tesseract, they’ve lost too many good agents, SHIELD is at war, and Clint is . . . missing. The unflappable Agent Coulson has officially been flapped.
Normally when missions go to hell Phil’s head is awhirl with various scenarios, plans on top of plans to salvage as much as possible. But right now, Phil can’t think of a damn thing. “What do we do?” he asks Fury
Fury is quiet for a moment. “Assemble the Avengers,” he finally orders, and it’s the moment Phil has been waiting for ever since he started on the Initiative with Fury, but all he can think is that one of the Avengers is still down there, somewhere, buried under a ton of rubble, status unknown.
The chaos back at base is a welcome distraction. Hill radios ahead for a copter to pick up Fury from where his crashed. He gets back to base shortly after Phil does, and is barking orders from the moment he charges through the doors. Phil is organising the rescue teams, arranging for medical transport, and checking off each identified person, dead or alive, against the roster of agents still unaccounted for. He tries very hard not to think about the one name he both longs and dreads to hear.
Phil has just finished marking off the most recent list of names against the roster when one of the communication techs comes jogging over to him.
“Sir? It’s Barton,” he says, and Phil’s breath freezes in his lungs, his body feeling like he’s just been dumped into a freezing lake. He deliberately takes a deep breath, trying for some semblance of professionalism, trying desperately not to have a breakdown here in the middle of the operations center.
“Dead or alive?” Phil finally manages to ask.
The tech looks confused. “Uh . . . alive? He’s on the radio for you, sir,” the man says, holding out a comm link. Phil grabs the device from the man’s hand so fast that he jumps back, startled. Phil ignores him, placing the comm in his ear.
“Barton?” Phil asks, knowing the fear and hope are showing in his voice and not caring.
There’s the slightest of pauses and then, “Hey.” Clint’s voice is raw and broken but it’s the most beautiful sound Phil’s heard all day. All the tension runs out of Phil’s frame in an instant and he nearly collapses into his chair. Instead, he pulls one of the other agents aside and gestures for him to take over the station Phil had been working as he moves swiftly into the hallway, searching for an empty conference room.
When the door is closed behind him, he drops all attempt at professionalism. “God, Clint,” he says, worry and relief colouring his words as his brain wraps its head around the fact that Clint is alive. “Are you ok? Where are you?” Just because Clint’s alive doesn’t mean he’s safe. Phil had once gotten a call from Clint after the archer had missed check-in by three hours. He’d thought everything was ok until he heard the pain and regret in his husband’s voice and managed to drag out of him the fact that he was trapped in the enemies’ headquarters and bleeding out from a stomach wound. He’d only called because he’d wanted to hear Phil’s voice one last time.
Standing there, helpless, listening to Clint dying on the other end of the phone line and able to do nothing but pray that Natasha would get there in time was one of the worst experiences of Phil’s life, and although that incident eventually worked out (Tasha did get there on time and Clint’s wound healed well) he’d learned not to relax until he had all the information.
The reassurance is swift. “I’m fine, Phil,” Clint tells him quickly. “I got a little banged up when the tunnel collapsed on me but no broken bones, no head wounds, just scrapes and bruises, I promise. My radio got busted in the crash and I had to dig my way out, that’s why it took me so long to check in,” he explains, and the last of the tension melts from Phil’s shoulders. “I’m sorry,” Clint adds, and Phil can tell he’s not talking about anything he’s done - taking risks is part of the job and Phil knows that if Clint had it all to do over again he wouldn’t change a thing - but he is sorry for the worry he caused.
“Ok,” Phil says, and with his anxiety finally soothed he can start thinking logistics again. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the downed helicopter right outside the tunnel,” Clint responds, “Luckily the cockpit radio still works or I would have had to hike into town to call in.” Phil shudders at the thought of having to wait even longer to find out Clint is ok.
“Ok,” Phil says again, slipping back into Agent Coulson mode, “I’m going to get someone out there to pick you up as soon as possible. We’re scrambling to the helicarrier so I’ll meet you there.”
“Yes, sir,” Clint replies, and Phil smiles at the almost-but-not-quite insolent tone.
“I’ve got to go,” Phil says, because he really does, there’s work to be done, and he’s abandoned his duties too long already. “I’ll see you soon,” he tells Clint, more reassurance for himself than for his husband.
“Yeah, see you soon,” Clint says and the radio goes dead. Phil takes the comm set out of his ear and closes his eyes, taking several deep breaths. Clint is alive. Clint is fine. Phil will see him soon.
Phil repeats these three facts to himself like a mantra as he turns to go back to the operations center.
“I need to talk to you,” Clint hisses in Phil’s ear when they have a moment to catch their breath. “Alone.”
Phil glances over at Clint, and on seeing the serious look on his husband’s face he simply nods. “There’s nothing more we can do here anyway. Let’s go back to our quarters, we can talk there.”
Clint follows Phil through the helicarrier corridors until they reach the small room they are assigned when on board. As soon as the door closes behind them Clint pushes Phil up against the wall, kissing him fiercely.
“Phil. Oh, god Phil,” he whispers between desperate kisses. “You’re here. I can’t believe you’re here.” Clint presses his forehead to Phil’s, taking deep, shuddering breaths.
Phil clings to Clint just as desperately, remembering the cold emptiness that had overtaken him as he watched the compound collapse, not knowing if Clint had made it out or not. For forty agonising minutes he hadn’t known if his husband was dead or alive. The relief when Clint had finally called in, bruised but whole, had been immense. He’d caught a few glimpses of his husband once he’d arrived at the helicarrier but there was too much to be done to have a real reunion.
Still, they’ve been in dangerous situations before but Phil has never seen Clint this worked up.
“Clint? I’m ok. You’re ok,” he says, gripping Clint’s arms tightly, trying to reassure the younger man. Clint nods his head, but doesn’t stop trembling.
“Clint?” Phil asks, reaching his hands up to grasp Clint’s face, dipping his head to look Clint in the eye. Those beautiful blue eyes are wide with terror and, for some reason, grief. “You’re scaring me,” he says. This isn’t right. There is something going on here he doesn’t understand.
Clint huffs a shaky laugh. “I’m scaring myself.” He presses one more kiss to Phil’s lips. “God, Phil,” he murmurs, and takes a step back.
“I’ve been through this before,” he says, voice soft and lost-sounding.
“I don’t understand,” Phil says.
“But it was different,” Clint continues, as if he hasn’t heard. “You died. And it was all my fault.” Clint’s eyes are distant, as if he is looking at something only he could see.
Phil reaches out, grabbing Clint by the shoulder. “Clint, no. I’m right here. I’m alive. And even if I had died, it would never be your fault.”
“No, you’re not dead now. But you will be. Or would have been. I don’t know. Just promise me something,” Clint says fiercely, gripping Phil’s arms and shaking him gently. ”Don’t go after Loki alone, ok? No matter what.”
“Clint, you’re not making any sense.” Phil is really getting worried now.
“I know. Sorry. Look, Fury’s activating the Avengers Initiative, right?”
Phil starts. “How did you know that?”
“Because it’s what he did last time.”
“Last time?” Phil asks, confused.
Clint runs a hand over his face wearily. “Phil, when I went to bed last night it was July 12, 2012.”
“But that’s --”
“More than two months from now. I know. Look, I can’t explain it. Last night I went to bed in July, and next thing I know I’m back in the compound with damn Loki right in front of me. Fury tell you about his staff? The mind-control thing?”
“Yes,” Phil replies, head spinning. Fury had briefed him and Maria not long after arriving on the helicarrier. According to Fury, the intruder was Loki of Asgard, brother of Thor, and he’d had a staff that threw energy bolts and was apparently able to take over people’s minds when it touched them - he’d gotten Agent Webster and Dr. Selvig that way. Fury said Loki had used the staff on Clint first, but for some unknown reason it hadn’t worked on him, and Loki had blasted him into a wall in frustration. “He said it didn’t work on you for some reason.”
Clint sighs. “It did last time. It was horrible, Phil. It was like he was inside me and I couldn’t do anything about it. And when it was over, I didn’t care. It was still me, sort of. My brain, my thoughts, my skills - I just didn’t care about anything except pleasing Loki. He made me kill people, Phil - our people . ”
“Clint --” Phil tries to say, but Clint just keeps talking, lost in his memories.
“He made me attack the helicarrier. I killed so many people, so many good people. I was the diversion that let him escape. And you went after him, alone, and --” Clint swallows and takes a deep breath. “And he killed you.” Clint’s voice breaks on a sob. “And it was all my fault.”
“It was not your fault,” Phil says fiercely, skipping over the whole apparent time travel thing for the moment. “If you were under that bastard’s control nothing was your fault. Do you understand me?”
Clint nods reluctantly, but Phil can tell he isn’t convinced. They’d have to work on that later. Now, though, there are more pressing matters.
“You said things were different already, and Loki’s staff didn’t work on you this time. Why?”
“After . . . everything, I swore I would find a way to make sure nothing like it ever happened again. Turns out Tony -- er, Stark -- will actually move heaven and earth for the people he cares about. We were looking for something that would help Bruce have more control when he Hulks out.”
“Wait, Bruce? Bruce Banner?” They must have been really desperate to bring him in, Phil thinks.
“Yeah, Fury had him called in. You sent Natasha to fetch him. It’s a long story . . .”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“Anyway, so Tony got in touch with some mutant professor that he knows - a telepath. Asked him if he could help somehow. He said he couldn’t but he put Tony in touch with another mutant - one whose ability is mind-scaping. She can actually go in your head and make you see or think or feel things you wouldn’t otherwise. She scared the hell out of me, actually, but apparently she mostly works as a kind of mutant shrink. Anyway, I asked if she could do something to help me resist mind control in the future and she showed me how to build these shields in my head. Wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences, but they worked with Loki.”
“That’s a useful skill,” is all Phil can think to say.
Phil runs a hand over his face. “Ok. Ok, so basically what you’re saying is that you’ve experienced the future . . . a future. One that’s already different.”
“Alright - so we have to analyse what happened the first time and try to determine what will happen now that’s the same, and what’s likely to be different, right?” Clint nods. “What is Loki’s goal?,” Phil asks.
“He’s going to use the tesseract to open a portal to the other half of the universe, and bring in an alien army to help him conquer the earth.”
Phil blinks. “And you stopped it?” He tries to keep the incredulity out of his voice. It’s not that he doesn’t trust and believe in Clint and Natasha and the others designated for the Avengers, but battling an alien army and winning is beyond anything he’d been thinking.
“Well, the world didn’t end,” Clint replies with a half-smile. “A lot of people died though,” he says, serious again.
“Do you know where he is right now?” Phil asks.
Clint shakes his head. “No. I never knew where exactly his base was, even when I was working with him, and I didn’t care.”
“Ok then. We can talk to Fury in the morning. Let’s get some sleep.”
Clint looks like he’s about to object but then changes his mind. “Phil?” he says as Phil takes his hand to lead him to the bed.
“I’m really glad you’re not dead.”
Phil sits on the edge of the bed and pulls Clint down next to him, wrapping his arms around the archer. “I’m really glad you’re not brainwashed,” he says.
“Yeah, me too,” Clint snorts, then sighs. Phil lies back on the bed and Clint curls up next to him, head on Phil’s chest, right over his heart. His hand takes Phil’s and twines their fingers together.
“Sleep,” Phil orders.
“What if I wake up back where I started? What if I wake up and you’re dead again?” Clint’s grip on Phil’s hand tightens to where it’s almost painful, and then relaxes.
“I don’t know,” Phil says quietly. “I wish I could tell you that won’t happen but this isn’t anything I have experience with.”
Clint snorts. “Sometimes I almost wish you would lie and say everything’s going to be fine.”
“Do you really?” Phil asks.
“I love you,” Phil says, because it’s the only thing he knows is true, the only thing that nothing, not mad gods or time travel or death itself can ever change. And because he doesn’t say it nearly enough.
“I love you, too,” Clint answers, pressing his lips to Phil’s chest, his thumb rubbing softly against the wedding band on Phil’s left hand, bringing his other hand up to clasp his own ring where he wears it on a chain around his neck.
Phil sighs and inches closer, trying to burrow into Clint’s embrace - the strong, solid warmth of him that never fails to make him feel grounded, safe and secure.
Sorry for the wait folks, but I'm on a more normal posting schedule now, rather than the manic posting I was doing earlier. So this is probably the new normal. Also, this is probably the closest thing to a sex scene as you'll ever get from me, so enjoy :)
The first thing Clint sees when he wakes up is Phil watching him from the other side of the bed. “I’m still here,” Phil says, soft and sure, “and so are you.”
Clint just grabs Phil and wraps himself around the other man. “Thank God,” he whispers into Phil’s neck, clinging to the other man as if he could somehow burrow himself into Phil’s body, entwine them irrevocably if only he tries hard enough. Phil’s arms come up to hold him tight, anchoring him, and Phil’s scent surrounds him, smoothing out the rough edges of his mind.
Clint is convinced that this is real now, and he has never been so grateful. He remembers dreaming last night - his mind full of a chaotic mess of images and disconnected remembrances - Loki and the staff, the accusing faces of all the men and women he’d killed through the blue haze of Loki’s control, the stormy desperation in Natasha’s eyes belying her blank face when she’d told him Phil was dead, Fury’s cautious pity and the awkward sympathy of his teammates, Tasha’s tear-stained face as she begs him, vulnerable in a way he has never seen before, not to do anything stupid, not to leave her alone, making him promise when she knows that all he wants is to follow Phil.
Clint is pretty sure you don’t dream in a dream. So this must be real.
Clint is dragged from his reflections by the sound of Phil’s voice whispering soft reassurances in his ear and the feel of Phil’s hand running through his hair. Clint pushes himself up so that he is hovering over Phil on the bed, one hand trailing across Phil’s ribs, and watches as his pupils dilate turning his blue eyes dark with desire. Clint leans down and captures Phil’s lips, trying to pour everything he’s feeling into the kiss - all the love and desire and relief and awe and gratitude for this unbelievable second chance.
They make love slowly, almost reverently, and Clint gets lost in the feel of Phil strong and warm and present beneath him as he traces fingers and lips over every inch of bare skin, relearning each sensitive spot and committing to memory every minute reaction of the body he thought he’d never get to touch again. Phil makes beautiful encouraging noises but lets Clint do all the work, knowing instinctively that he needs this last bit of reassurance. And if Clint lingers, and returns again and again to the unblemished skin over Phil’s heart, Phil understands enough not to call him on it.
"I am not letting you out of my sight until all this is over, you do realise that, right?” Clint tells his husband as they stand together under the shower spray. He leans forward and wraps his arms around Phil from behind, nuzzling the base of his neck.
Phil leans back, exposing his neck to Clint’s exploring mouth. “I can live with that,” he says contentedly, before pulling away to turn the tap off. “We have a meeting with Fury and Hill in twenty minutes, you realise?” he reprimands Clint, as if Phil hadn’t been a willing participant in the morning’s activities. Clint sighs as he steps out of the shower behind Phil, drying off quickly and heading back to the bedroom to get dressed.
“Hey, Phil?” Clint asks from his seat on the side of the bed as he watches his husband do up his tie.
“Hmm?” Phil answers, distracted by the attention to detail he always puts in his work appearance.
“Can you think of any reason Fury would want to alienate the Avengers?” Phil drops his hands, leaving the tie comically half-tied as he turns around, startled, to face Clint.
“Is that what he did?” he asks, and Clint can practically see the wheels turning in his brilliant husband’s head, analysing this new piece of information, trying to figure out where it fits in the overall scheme of what he knows about Fury, SHIELD, and the Avengers Initiative.
Clint sighs. He’d found the Avengers’ lack of faith in Fury troubling, not because he disagreed but because he understood too well. Clint has never trusted easily, but he trusted Phil, and Phil trusted Fury. For years, that had been enough. But after what he’d heard of how Fury had acted on the helicarrier, particularly with regard to Steve and Tony, and without Phil there to reassure him that there was a higher purpose to Fury’s actions, he has become legitimately suspicious of the man and his intentions toward what Clint still considers his team, regardless of the fact that none of them have met him yet. But Phil trusted - trusts - Fury. Clint doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t like it.
“He lied about the Phase Two project, but left the prototypes where Steve could find them. He accused Thor to his face of being the reason we needed the weapons in the first place, which, yeah, kinda true but he could have phrased it more diplomatically, and-”
“Wait, Thor?” Phil asks, looking adorably confused.
“Oh, yeah,” Clint says with a grin. “He’ll show up later, looking for Loki. Handy man with a hammer. Good thing you told me not to shoot him.”
Phil pinches the bridge of his nose. “Go on.”
“Anyway, Fury played right into Banner and Stark’s paranoid conspiracy theories, he offended Cap’s sense of honesty and justice, he pushed all of Thor’s buttons, and then-” Clint breaks off, swallowing hard, the final nail in Fury’s coffin still too raw to talk about easily. “And then after you . . . he took your cards out of your locker, covered them in your blood, and threw them in Tony and Steve’s faces.” Clint covers his face with his hands and takes a deep shuddering breath.
“Clint . . .” Phil says, voice unsteady.
“He gave them back to me, you know, after everything,” Clint continues, monotone. “All warped and brown and stuck together with . . .”
“Clint!” Phil says forcefully, and warm arms wrap around Clint from behind, easing his trembling, and Clint hadn’t even noticed when Phil had sat down next to him but it doesn’t matter, because Phil is here, and the cards are still in his locker, still perfect and pristine.
“He said they needed the push,” Clint says, covering Phil’s arms with his own and holding tight. “Said they needed it to become a team, and we were a team, so maybe it worked although I think we would have gotten there anyway. But there was no trust left after that. None.”
Phil is silent, probably sensing that Clint isn’t done yet, and Clint’s grateful because it gives him a chance to calm down, collect his thoughts. “The was more to it,” he says because in retrospect, Fury’s handling of the Avengers seemed almost . . . clumsy. And Nick Fury is many things but he is never clumsy.
“There was something else going on but he never told us what, even after. I think it might have had to do with the Council because they overrode Fury’s authority and ordered a nuclear strike on Manhattan because they didn’t trust us to contain the threat. Tony nearly died . . . did die, I think, for a minute or two at least, getting rid of it.” And Clint remembers vividly being trapped in the building he’d crashed into after his perch got taken out - waiting, waiting for Tony to make it back through the portal, relief and dread coming fast on each others’ heels as he made it through but fell, as he was caught, but wasn’t breathing, and all Clint could do was listen on the comms and hope.
“I’ll talk to him,” Phil murmurs when Clint doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. “I’ll try and find out what’s going on. They didn’t deserve that, none of you do. And even if they can’t trust Fury, I swear to you, Clint, they can trust me."
Clint relaxes, leaning bonelessly against Phil, letting the other man hold him up. There had been a tiny part of him that had been afraid Phil would take Fury’s side if sides had to be taken and he hates himself just a little for his lack of faith. “Thank you,” he whispers.
Phil just holds him closer. “Any time.”
“I know he’s your friend,” Clint says.
“The man I call my friend would never be that cruel without a very good reason. I’m going to find out what it is, and then I’m going to find another way to accomplish whatever it is he was trying to accomplish.”
Clint rests his head against Phil’s shoulder. “Tony . . . he’s just so fragile in some ways, you know?”
“I know,” Phil says, and Clint realises that Phil has always known, that he had seen through Stark’s mask before anyone else, and that’s why he keeps insisting there’s more to the man than meets the eye. It’s why he keeps in touch with Pepper, keeps abreast of what Stark is doing, runs interference with Fury for him.
“Reminds me of me, sometimes,” Clint whispers.
“I know,” Phil says softly.
“And Bruce doesn’t trust anyone, especially himself. And Steve . . . he’s so lost, and so very afraid of failing us.”
“You know I’m jealous - you’re on a first name basis with Captain America and I haven’t even met him yet.”
Clint grins. “Well, technically neither have I.”
“You’re worried about telling Fury,” Phil says, and it’s not a question. Phil’s always been able to read Clint.
“Yeah,” Clint says with a sigh. “It’s just that we’re all so very messed up. Fury will take advantage of that, you know he will, if he thinks it’ll accomplish something. I’m . . . kinda protective.”
“I’m going to let you in on something Fury doesn’t want you to know,” Phil says. “There isn’t much tying the Avengers to SHIELD. The Initiative is a SHIELD project, but individually, only you and Tasha are SHIELD employees, and you can terminate your contracts at any time for any reason. Most everything for the Initiative comes from Stark anyway, and I know he doesn’t really need the money SHIELD pays him for it. SHIELD has no claim whatsoever on Rogers and Banner, not really.”
Clint doesn’t miss the fact that Phil hasn’t said ‘we’ once when referring to SHIELD. Clint is torn between the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from realising that Phil has already chosen his side - that he’s willing to stand with Clint and the Avengers against Fury and SHIELD if necessary - and the guilt that he’s responsible for making Phil doubt the organisation he’s worked for for twenty years and the friend he’s known for even longer.
“So here’s what we’re going to do,” Phil continues, pausing to kiss the top of Clint’s head, “We’re going to go meet with Fury and Hill and we’re going to tell them everything. But we’re going to tell the Avengers everything too, and if you feel Fury’s overstepping his bounds at any time, we’ll put a stop to it, ok?”
Clint twists around so that he is facing his husband, straddling Phil’s thighs. “Ok,” he says softly, and leans in for a kiss. It’s slow and sweet and Clint clutches Phil’s head as Phil’s hands rest on his ass and Clint is reminded all over again why he loves this man - this man who trusts him and believes in him and doesn’t question when he tells him he’s lived the future and who is willing to stand with him and risk a twenty-year career and a thirty-year friendship just on Clint’s say-so.
The reminder tone on Phil’s phone beeps as they are pulling apart. “Ready?” Phil asks, and Clint stands and takes his hand.
Fury doesn’t stand a chance.
Phil considers what Clint has told him as they make their way to the meeting room. He wishes he could say he is surprised by Clint’s recounting of Fury’s actions but he isn’t. Fury has a strong preference for the dramatic. Luckily, he’s good at it and it usually works for him, but sometimes he gets too caught up in the pageantry of it all.
Blood-stained trading cards may be a good way of making an impression but the gesture is so overtly manipulative that Phil can’t help but draw the conclusion that Nick wants the Avengers to distrust him. And since Phil knows that Nick’s intentions with regard to the Avengers match his own, it can only be because Fury wants the Avengers to distrust SHIELD. Which means Clint’s onto something when it comes to the WSC.
Phil has never really paid much attention to the Council - dealing with them has always been Fury’s job and when it comes right down to it, Phil doesn’t have the patience to deal with bureaucratic assholes in ways that don’t involve pissing them off and putting them in their place. So it’s probably a good thing he hasn’t been paying attention. But that might have to change. One of Nick’s strengths has always been his ability to commit to a plan of action and see it through, no matter what the obstacles, but Phil’s the one who thinks sideways. Pissing off the Avengers may be one way of getting them out from under the influence of the WSC, but Phil thinks he can probably come up with a better one.
Fury and Hill are both waiting for them when they enter the meeting room and he and Clint take a seat on the other side of the circular table.
“The tesseract is still out there, gentlemen. Care to tell me what is so important I had to take take time out of my busy schedule of trying to find it in order to come down here to talk with you?” Fury says impatiently.
“We know Loki’s ultimate plan,” Phil says steadily, “and we have some idea of how he intends to accomplish it.”
Fury leans back in his seat, face impassive as always, but the twitch of his cheek betrays his surprise. “I’m listening.”
“Loki is planning to use the tesseract to open a portal and bring in an alien army to help him conquer Earth,” Clint says, matter-of-factly.
Fury blinks. “And you know this how?”
Phil gives Clint’s hand a reassuring squeeze under the table. Clint’s eyes slide to Phil and he squeezes back.
“I know because I’ve lived this whole thing once before,” Clint answers.
Fury leans forward again, elbows resting on the table and looks Clint in the eye. “Are you trying to tell me that you are from the future?” he asks skeptically.
“Well, when you put it like that,” Clint says, cracking a smile, and Phil knows he’s started to get a little of his equilibrium back.
“Not physically,” Clint answers Fury. “I mean, I don’t think there’s another of me running around somewhere, but yeah, I remember everything that happens, all the way up through July when I go to bed and find myself right back here.”
“And you buy this?” Fury asks Phil, eyebrow raised.
“Yes, sir,” Phil answers firmly.
“Jesus Christ.” Fury rubs his hands over his face in frustration, “I hate magic.”
Maria still hasn’t said anything, but she’s staring at Clint like he’s sprouted two heads and while Clint hasn’t acknowledged her stare, the slight hunch to his shoulders proves he’s aware of her attention. Phil fights the childish urge to kick her under the table.
“I’m assuming the fact that you waited until this morning to bring this to my attention means you don’t have any information we can use right at this moment?” Fury says.
Clint nods, “Not yet, sir.”
“When exactly did you remember this ‘future’?”
“Right before Loki touched me with the spear, sir.”
“Could the spear have something to do with it?”
Clint swallows, and grips Phil’s hand a little tighter, but when he answers his voice is steady. “Yes, sir, I believe it might. The first time around . . . the spear worked.”
Fury’s eye widens as he takes in Clint’s defensive posture and immediately understands the reason for it. “What does it do, Barton?” Fury asks, tone almost gentle.
Clint looks down at his hands for a moment, but then forces himself to look Fury in the face. “It makes you want to please Loki with every fibre of your being, sir. You will do anything he asks, to the best of your ability. You will anticipate his needs and take initiative on his behalf and you will do it all gladly for a mocking smile and a pat on the head.” Clint takes a deep breath. “I have a lot of skills, sir,” he says. “Loki made use of them.”
“How do we reverse it?” Maria asks, her sudden entrance into the conversation almost surprising until Phil catches the barely-contained rage in the tightness of her lips and remembers Nicole. Agent Nicole Clancy, who had been captured by Hydra and subjected to all sorts of behavioural conditioning before they found her. Maria had been her handler, and the first person she tried to kill when they brought her back. They’d tried, but her mind was broken, and she’d slit her own throat in in the end.
“A kick in the head worked for me,” Clint answers ruefully. He meets Maria’s eyes with a shrug. “Tasha,” he says, as if it explains everything, and it does.
“So we can get Doctor Selvig and Agent Webster back?” Fury interrupts.
“I don’t honestly know what happened to Webster, sir, but we got Selvig back last time. He helped us close the portal.”
“And who exactly is 'us', Barton?”
“The Avengers, sir,” Clint answers with a smile, and Nick’s face smiles back, but it doesn’t reach his eye, in which Phil sees both pride and apprehension.
“Why exactly didn’t the spear work on you this time, Barton?” Maria asks, suspiciously.
“Because I went looking for a way to make sure it never happened again,” Clint says, pointedly not elaborating.
“A method you aren’t going to share?” Fury asks.
“If it was something that could be implemented on short notice, I would. But it isn’t. And it isn’t my secret to tell, either,” Clint says firmly, and Phil smiles at the disgruntled look on Fury’s face.
“All right,” he says, sighing. “What do we know? And what do we do about it?”
“We need to get the team together,” Phil says, re-joining the conversation.
“Loki needs something called ‘iridium’,” Clint says. “Last time he took it from a research center in Stuttgart. I planned the op and I got him a small army of mercenaries to help do the job. Webster doesn’t have half the contacts I do so I don’t know how much will be the same. I don’t even know if they’ll hit Germany this time. The tesseract . . . it shows you things. There are other facilities that contain iridium, but when I looked into the tesseract I just knew Stuttgart was the one to hit. Selvig said the thing practically walked him through its own assembly.”
Clint is trembling now, almost imperceptibly but Phil can feel it and he hates himself for making Clint remember. Clint had told him that his memories of being under Loki’s control are fuzzy - he has to try to remember, like trying to recall things said and done while drugged.
Nick must catch the glare Phil sends his way because he doesn’t ask Clint any more questions. “Hill, look up every possible source of iridium and get surveillance - cash in favours if you have to. Pay particular attention to the facility in Stuttgart but don’t ignore the others. Coulson, pull Romanoff and send her to pick up Banner, he’s still the expert on gamma radiation. And do whatever you have to to get Stark on board. I’ll bring in Rogers.”
“Yes, sir.” Phil says, idly noting that the division of responsibilities is exactly as Clint had said it would be. Not that he’d doubted his archer. Hill nods and leaves the room with one last unreadable glance at Clint.
“Barton, you think of anything else we need to know, tell Coulson. Coulson, don’t let Barton out of your sight.”
“Wasn’t planning on it, sir,” Phil says and Clint grins.
Fury looks between them and sighs. “Aliens, magic, time travel, why is this my life?” he mutters as he turns for the door.
“A moment of your time, if you don’t mind, Director,” Phil calls before Fury can leave. Fury turns back around and arches an eyebrow. Clint moves deliberately to the other side of the room and pulls out his StarkPad, sticking the headphones in. When Fury looks in his direction he grins and waves.
Even if Fury wouldn’t mind Phil letting Clint out of sight for this conversation, Phil knows Clint isn’t letting him out of sight for anything.
“What is the Council up to, Nick?” Phil asks directly, and takes a moment to enjoy the rare look of genuine surprise on Fury’s face.
“What are you talking about?” he tries to evade, but Phil isn’t buying it.
“You’re planning on doing everything you can to alienate this team we’re putting together. Clint already guessed it has something to do with the WSC, but what neither of us know is why.”
“So it works?” Fury asks, seeming both relieved and satisfied. Phil clamps down on the sudden urge to punch his old friend in his smug mouth.
“If you mean that you put together a damaged team that saved the world by the skin of their teeth comprised of broken people who no longer trust anyone - not themselves and especially not you or SHIELD, then yes, it worked, and God help us all next time they’re needed,” Phil snaps, voice harsh with anger and disappointment.
Fury’s eye widens at Phil’s vehemence but he recovers quickly. “The Avengers cannot remain under the Council’s authority. Which means they cannot remain under my authority either. Not if I want to maintain any kind of control over this organisation,” he returns fiercely.
Phil wants to roll his eyes. “And making sure they all hate you is the only way you could think of to cut them loose?” he asks skeptically.
Fury sighs. “If the Council suspects me of deliberately sabotaging . . . .”
“Then let me take care of it,” Phil insists.
“I won’t be able to protect you!” Fury argues almost desperately, and Phil can see the genuine turmoil in his eye. His glare softens slightly.
“Maybe not,” Phil answers. “But they can.”
Fury starts back as if stung. His single eye narrows. “So that’s how it is.” His tone radiates disappointment but Phil doesn’t even have to look in Clint’s direction to know he’s made the right choice.
“I told you a long time ago what would happen if it ever came down to a choice, so you can’t claim you weren’t warned,” he reminds Fury, because he had, years ago. Even before they were married Phil had warned Nick that if it ever came to a choice between Clint and SHIELD, between Clint and Fury, that Clint would win every time. He’d given Fury advance notice and told him to either fire him, or work around it.
“So I’ll be losing my one good eye, after all.”
“If you don’t do anything to antagonise them, and let me handle the split, I don’t see any reason why it has to be complete,” Phil offers in compensation. “The Avengers can still work closely with SHIELD and I can serve as liaison, we just won’t be under the Council’s jurisdiction. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“It’s not the same,” Fury says, in a tone that Phil would almost have called a whine.
“You would have lost me a lot more permanently if things had gone they way they did the first time, Nick,” Phil says softly, because for all his stubbornness and single-mindedness Nick Fury is his friend, and he deserves to know that much at least. To be reminded that there are personal stakes involved, not just global ones.
Nick’s eye widens in horror and glances over at Clint, who appears to be studying his pad diligently, but Phil knows he’s watching them out of the corner of his eyes.
“Jesus, Phil,” Nick says, actually putting a hand on Phil’s shoulder as if to make sure he’s still here. “How can he . . .”
“Because he’s strong,” Phil says, although the word sounds woefully insufficient. For all his vulnerability, or perhaps because of it, Phil has never met anyone as strong as Clint. “And because we can change it.”
Fury stares at Phil consideringly. “Dammit, this is your show, isn’t it?” he asks, and Phil can see him struggling with the idea of not being the one in control.
Phil considers the question. He hadn’t really been thinking of it like that but . . . Clint is one of the best strategic thinkers in the field that Phil has ever come across but even he readily acknowledges Phil’s superior skill in operational planning, so he’ll follow Phil’s lead, as always. He also doesn’t entirely trust Fury, for good reason, and neither does Stark.
Phil promised Clint that the Avengers could trust him if they couldn’t trust Fury, and he has no intention of going back on that promise. “Yes, sir. I guess it is,” he says.
“Fine,” Fury says. “The Avengers are yours. Let me know what you need.”
“Thank you, sir,” Phil says simply, as Fury turns with a dramatic swirl of his coat and leaves.
Phil sighs and sags into Clint as the strong arms wrap around him from behind. “You were watching?” he asks, although he already knows the answer. As a sniper, Clint is rarely within earshot of his targets, so he’s become a competent lip-reader.
“Yeah,” he says, resting his chin on Phil’s shoulder. “You think I’m strong?” he asks, not quite skeptically but curiously, as if the concept had never occurred to him.
“I think you’re the strongest man I know,” Phil says sincerely. “You’d never have made it this far if you weren’t.”
“Tell me it’s going to be all right,” Clint asks.
“It’s going to be all right.”
“Liar,” Clint snorts.
“We’ll make sure it will be all right,” Phil amends.
Phil turns in Clint’s arms and pushes him up against the meeting room wall, fisting his hands in Clint’s hair and kissing him hungrily.
“Come on,” he says as he pulls back, smirking at the stunned look in Clint’s eyes, pupils blown wide with lust. “Let’s go put your team together.”
Clint catches up as Phil reaches the door. “Our team,” he corrects.
“Our team,” Phil repeats with a smile.
I'm *so* sorry for the incredibly long wait. It's been a rough month and a half for me and I've been working on other projects at the same time, but I'm back to writing on this and Strength now, so I hope not to make you wait so long between chapters again.
Clint listens with a smile and no small amount of lust as Phil calmly and efficiently threatens the Russian arms dealer into handing the phone off to Natasha.
“We need you to come in,” Phil tells her. Clint leans in closer and Phil tilts the phone so they can both hear Tasha’s response.
“Are you kidding? I’m working!” she replies, clearly annoyed at having her ‘fun’ interrupted.
“This takes precedence,” Phil says in his Agent Coulson voice.
“I’m in the middle of an interrogation,” Tasha argues, “and this moron is giving me everything.” From a lesser woman it would almost be a whine.
Muffled in the background Clint can hear the arms dealer protest, bewildered, “I do not give everything,” and Clint has to grit his teeth to keep from laughing at his confusion, and at the ‘Oh, please!’ look he just knows Tasha is giving the man.
“Look, you can’t pull me out of this right now,” Tasha says, and Clint can hear the frustration in her voice, the dismay at the thought of months of undercover work being wasted. Tasha never has liked leaving things undone. Clint decides it’s time for him to step in.
“Tasha, I need you,” he says, and it’s their signal, their simple code for ‘I’m in a hole so deep I can’t even see the light and I need you to get me out.’ In lesser situations they may say, “I could use a little help,” or “I wouldn’t mind some company,” but only when they are truly in over their heads do they actually say they need the other.
There is a tense silence on the line as Tasha absorbs the severity of the situation. “Let me put you on hold,” she finally says, voice fully professional for the first time in this conversation.
Clint and Phil listen - Clint with a grin and Phil with a bored expression - as Tasha beats the crap out of the guys who probably thought they had been interrogating her. Eventually everything goes silent and Tasha’s voice comes over the line again.
“What do you need?” she asks, all her focus on the new mission at hand.
“A summary is being sent to your phone,” Phil says. “We’ll brief you on the details when you get back. But first, we need you to talk to the big guy.”
“Coulson, you know that Stark trusts me about as far as he can throw me,” she says in her, ‘this is a bad idea but I’ll do it if you insist’ tone. Clint refrains from pointing out that between Tasha’s small frame and the Iron Man armour Tony could probably throw her pretty far.
“No, I’ve got Stark,” Phil says. “You get the big guy.”
“Bozhe moi,” Tasha mutters as it sinks in just who they want her to go after and this time Clint doesn’t bother to hold back his laughter.
“And who do you get?” Tasha snarks at him. “Wanna trade?”
“I get to go after Stark with Phil,” Clint says smugly, as it was decided that Clint’s presence as Phil’s shadow is likely to arouse Tony’s curiosity, making him more amenable to joining, if just to figure out who Clint is.
“Lovely,” Tasha replies dryly, and Clint can hear the slam of a car door and the click of the Bluetooth engaging.
“Look,” Clint says after debating with himself for a few seconds, his tone serious again, “I can tell you how to handle Banner, but I can’t tell you how I know until you get back here. You just have to trust me.”
“All right,” Tasha says, and although Clint can practically hear her eyebrow raised there is no skepticism in her tone.
“Ok, first of all, Banner’s got a lot more control over himself than our current intel estimates. You don’t have to walk on eggshells with him, although calm and professional is good. Try not to be scared - the Hulk doesn’t like it when people are scared of him and while there’s not much risk of him getting out while you’re talking to Banner you really would rather be on his good side in case he does get unleashed.”
“I bet,” Tasha says.
“Next, Banner is going ask you if you’ve come alone. Don’t lie. He’ll know if you lie. Your best bet is to actually go alone but if you’re not comfortable with that then admit up front how many men you have and where. Banner doesn’t like things being kept from him because they tend to be bad for his health. And we want him to trust you. Also, he will test you, probably by raising his voice or slamming the table or something to make it seem like he’s losing control. He’s not, so try not to react too harshly and don’t draw your weapon.”
“You’re sure about all this?” Tasha asks, a tiny bit of skepticism creeping in. Phil is just watching Clint curiously.
“Yes,” Clint replies simply. “Lastly make sure you emphasise that we don’t want to use the Hulk. We want him for his expertise on gamma radiation, and that’s it. Banner’s not used to people wanting him and not the Hulk and more we can distance ourselves that asshole Ross and his army buddies the better. Go ahead and tell him all he wants to know about the tesseract. We’d be giving him the information when he gets here anyway and the less he feels like he’s being kept out of the loop the better this whole thing will go.”
“Any more sage advice?” Tasha asks, when Clint doesn’t say anything else.
“Yeah,” Clint says with a grin. “Play nice. Make new friends. I’ll see you when you get home.”
“Yes, Mom,” Tasha answers, and the call disconnects.
“I take it that didn’t go very well last time?” Phil asks curiously as he tucks the phone back into his pocket. Clint slouches up against the railing, both hands in the pockets of his jeans.
“It went ok in that she convinced him to come in,” Clint says, “but while Tasha gets through to Banner she doesn’t make a very good impression on the Hulk. He’s actually a lot smarter than people think, and he sees everything through Banner’s eyes. Bruce really isn’t doing himself any favours keeping the Hulk all suppressed like that, but it’ll take awhile to convince him. He was just starting to accept that it’s better to work with the Hulk than to try and control him when I ‘left’. Anyway, the first time through Loki manages to manipulate everyone using the staff Fury so helpfully confiscated for study. It makes everyone go at each others’ throats and when I . . . the Helicarrier is attacked, Bruce loses it.
“The Hulk wasn’t exactly very impressed when Tasha meets Banner and he ends up chasing Tasha through half the carrier. And even though he was awesome during the big battle Tasha and Bruce were still a bit wary around each other when I left.”
Phil nods in understanding and looks over at Clint as something occurs to him. “Wait, you mean the whole team sticks together even after you win?”
Clint smiles. “Tony’s idea,” he says. "I think it started because he really didn’t want Bruce to go disappear into India again. Tony and Bruce really bond - I think it’s the whole lonely misunderstood genius thing. Tony redesigns his Tower as he’s rebuilding and he ups the security and makes a set of rooms that are completely Hulk-proof. And he manages to convince Bruce that protection via famous egotistical billionaire with all kinds of fancy security and political connections and more money than God is even better than protection through obscurity.
“And then of course once Bruce agreed to move in, he started on the rest of us. Well, Thor took Loki and the tesseract back to Asgard, but Steve, I think, wanted to get out from under SHIELD and I . . . I just . . . . I couldn’t go back to the house and I stayed on the carrier at first but then everyone kept looking at me as if they thought I’d try to kill them if their back was turned and I just wanted some place where people weren’t afraid of me. Tasha came with me.”
Phil nudges Clint away from the railing and toward their quarters. When the door closes behind them Phil takes Clint in his arms and Clint buries his head in Phil’s shoulder and feels Phil place a soft kiss on his temple.
“I’m sorry they treated you like that,” he says, rubbing circles on Clint’s back. “It could have happened to any of them and if it had, it wouldn’t have been their fault any more than it is yours.”
Clint hums noncommittally. The fact that all the things he did under Loki’s control technically never happened and won’t happen this time has definitely helped the guilt he feels, but a part of him still feels responsible.
“Have I told you recently how proud I am of you?” Phil asks softly, walking them back toward the bed and pulling Clint up to lean against him as they settle against the headboard. Clint shakes his head as he places his hands over Phil’s clasped ones as Phil’s arms hold him tight and he rests his head against Phil’s chest so that he can hear that wonderful heartbeat.
Phil rests his chin on Clint’s shoulder from behind so that his lips are next to Clint’s ears as he speaks, softly, but with that unshakeable conviction Clint has always felt helpless in the face of.
“Alien gods with powerful mind controlling devices are nothing any of us could have anticipated and nothing you could have done at the time would have stopped him,” Phil says, “but you fought. And I know that you fought because when Loki had you shoot at Fury and Hill they both lived. And then when you were free you turned right around and fought again and you won. And then you went out and found a way to stop it from happening again and I know how hard it was for you to let that mutant in your head but you did it anyway. And then, when you turned around and had to do it all over again, you used what you were taught and you stopped him. I don’t know of anyone else who could have done what you did. ‘Strong’ isn’t nearly a strong enough word.”
Clint turns his head to look at Phil and there is such awe and pride in his eyes that Clint has to suppress a sob of relief. Clint’s mother had been Catholic and although his father had never let them go to Church Clint used to love to hear her stories. He thinks this must be what it feels like to be shriven.
“You’re amazing and I love you,” Phil whispers against Clint’s lips as they meet in a kiss. The position strains Clint’s neck but he ignores it because nothing is more important right now than Phil. Phil who loves him and trusts him and offers him absolution. When they break apart Clint lies his head back down on Phil’s chest and basks in the warmth and comfort of his husband’s arms.
Eventually, of course, they do have to go back to work. “So,” Phil asks, “ready to go mess with Stark’s head?”
Clint grins. “That’s one of my favourite pastimes,” he answers with glee.
“So, any sage advice like you gave Tasha?” Phil asks, as they enter the lobby of Stark Tower. Clint shrugs.
“Best way to get Tony to do something is to catch his interest,” he says. “So I’m gonna be . . . interesting,” he finishes with a grin.
Phil rolls his eyes and pulls out his phone, dialling Stark’s number. Clint can hear JARVIS’s precise tones as he answers. “My apologies, Agent Coulson, it appears that Mr. Stark is out at the moment.” Phil sighs.
“Just put me through to him, JARVIS, now,” he orders.
“I am sorry, Agent Coulson, but Mr. Stark left explicit instructions --”
Clint pulls out his tablet. “Here, let me,” he says as he pulls up the Tower’s connection to JARVIS and starts rewriting the phone transfer protocols.
Learning how to get around JARVIS was one of the first things Clint did when he first moved into the Tower because while he did eventually grow fond of the AI, the idea of living somewhere where everything is controlled by an intelligent computer is just a little too Space Odyssey for him. A minute later he’s nodding to Phil to indicate that the line is connected.
“Mr. Stark, we need to talk,” Phil says in his best Agent Coulson voice. It’s a good try, but Clint knows Tony well enough that he immediately starts in on the elevator controls.
“You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark. Please leave a message,” comes Tony’s voice over the phone. The elevator door in front of them dings open and Clint makes an exaggerated ‘after you’ gesture to Phil, who smirks at him as they enter, phone still held to his ear. Clint presses the button for the penthouse.
“This is urgent,” Phil is saying into the phone as the elevator shoots up.
“Then leave it urgently,” Tony retorts, just before the elevator doors open to reveal Pepper sitting on the couch, Tony kneeling in front of her, and both holding flutes of champagne.
“Mr. Stark,” Phil says as he lowers the phone.
“Security breach,” Tony says. “It’s on you,” he accuses Pepper, who puts her glass down on the table and stands up.
“Phil!” she exclaims happily, “come in.”
“Phil?” Tony echoes with confusion.
“I can’t stay,” Phil says, walking forward, and Clint trails after him taking in the decor, which is rather similar to that in Tony and Pepper’s suite in the rebuilt Tower, only more Spartan. Pepper comes over to greet Phil, and she’s as casual as Clint has ever seen her - cutoffs and a white blouse, and bare feet. Tony, dressed in black as usual, follows.
“Uh, his name is Agent,” Tony insists, pointing at Phil.
“Come on in,” Pepper says, ignoring Tony. “We’re celebrating.”
“Which is why he can’t stay,” Tony says pointedly, but his eyes are on Clint, a half-step behind Phil. Clint flashes Tony his most wicked smile and is rewarded narrowed eyes as Tony immediately slots him into the ‘puzzle’ category. First step accomplished.
“And who is this?” Pepper asks politely, turning to Clint.
“This is Agent Barton,” Phil replies, and Clint smiles genuinely at Pepper. He’s always liked her - she’s good for Tony. “We need you to look this over, as soon as possible,” Phil continues, holding out the tablet containing the files for each of the Avengers, and the background information on Loki and the Tesseract that Phil and Clint had put together before coming over.
Tony shakes his head, looking at the tablet as if it were a rattlesnake. “I don’t like being handed things,” he objects.
“That’s fine,” Pepper interrupts, reaching out, “because I love being handed things, so let’s trade,” and she takes the tablet handing Phil her champagne glass in return. She then takes Tony’s glass with an pert ‘thank you’ and drains it while pressing the tablet into his hands.
Clint smirks openly, keenly aware of Tony still watching him out of the corner of his eye. Clint’s deliberate casualness and unshielded reactions are a conscious counterpart to Phil’s blank professionalism, carefully calculated to attract Tony’s attention and hold it. By the look in Stark’s eyes, it’s working.
Tony focuses back on Phil, turning the tablet over in his hands like the manic fiddler he is and adopting a fake apologetic expression. “Official consulting hours are between eight and five every other Thursday,” he quips.
“This isn’t a consultation,” Phil replies seriously.
“Is this about the Avengers?” Pepper asks, “which I know nothing about,” she says quickly when Phil looks at her, and Clint makes a subtle ‘yeah, right’ cough, earning him a confused look from Pepper and a tiny twitch from Tony as he turns around, opening up the tablet as he walks toward the desk.
“Pffft,” he says eloquently. “The Avengers Initiative was scrapped, I thought,” he throws over his shoulder, accusingly. “And I didn’t even qualify.”
“I didn’t know that either,” Pepper claims, although she’s clearly not even trying to fool anyone. Clint smirks and Phil gives her a tight smile.
“Yeah, apparently I’m volatile, self-obsessed, don’t play well with others” Tony recites.
“That I did know,” Pepper comments, and Clint stifles a laugh that turns into a snort.
“This isn’t about personality profiles anymore,” Phil says, and Clint can hear some of the tension in his voice. The Tony-and-Pepper show is so much fun, Clint almost forgot why they were here, but now he sobers as well.
“Whatever,” Tony mutters carelessly. “Miss Potts?” he calls, waving a beckoning finger, “got a sec?”
Pepper throws Phil and Clint an apologetic look. “Half a mo’” she says, and goes to Tony’s side. Tony’s fingers are moving over the tablet as they have a murmured conversation Clint can’t quite make out. Tony glances back at Phil and Clint a few times, so he knows they’re talking about them.
Suddenly, Tony makes an expansive gesture on the tablet and the Avenger’s personnel files pop up in holographic display all around him. Clint can see footage of Steve, Hulk, and the Destroyer from when Thor landed in New Mexico, along with lots of text and face shots of Steve and Bruce. Tony and Pepper are staring at the images, silent.
Pepper says something and Tony turns to face her and they talk for a few moments. Clint still can’t hear, but the teasing is out of their voices now, tones serious. Pepper stands up on her tiptoes and whispers something in Tony’s ear. Tony looks shocked and a little impressed and Phil looks down to hide his smile before looking over at Clint, eyebrows raised. Clint just smiles flirtatiously and waggles his own eyebrows which causes Phil press his lips together hard to bite back a laugh. Phil’s eyes tell Clint all he needs to know about what his husband would be whispering in his ear, would it not be completely unprofessional.
Clint smiles softly as Tony and Pepper kiss, taking a step closer to Phil so that they’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder, arms just touching. It’s as close as he can get right now to following Tony’s example.
Pepper pulls away with a smile and turns, walking back toward Phil and Clint. Tony watches her go, a slightly wistful expression on his face.
“So, any chance you’re driving by LaGuardia?” Pepper asks them, as she nears.
“We can drop you,” Phil answers amiably as they turn back toward the elevator. Tony lifts one arm in a half-hearted wave, focus already back on the display in front of him.
“Fantastic!” Pepper says. “Oh, I want to hear about the, uh, cellist,” she says, and Clint’s eyes widen even as Phil’s ears turn pink. “Is that still a thing?” Pepper asks.
Phil hesitates, not saying anything until the elevator doors close before meeting Clint’s eyes. Clint lifts one shoulder in a tiny motion almost like a twitch. After four years of marriage, that’s all he needs to do to say ‘up to you.’
“Uh, there is no cellist,” Phil admits sheepishly. “It was a cover.”
“What?!” Pepper exclaims.
“It’s beneficial in my line of work to not advertise one’s relationships. Safer for everyone that way.” Phil explains, and Pepper’s face turns from slightly hurt to sympathetic.
“So you are in a relationship?” she asks, as the elevator opens and they enter the lobby, headed for the car.
“Married. Four years.” Phil says, a hint of a smile on his face as he glances at Clint, who is grinning.
“Wow,” Pepper says, clearly not expecting that answer. “Why tell me now?” she asks as they get in the car - Clint driving, Phil in the passenger seat and Pepper in the back. Phil had offered her the passenger side but she insisted that since she was only going to be dropped off, she’d sit in back.
Phil sighs. “I’m hoping we’re going to be working together a lot more closely. It’d come out some time.”
“Why a cellist?” Pepper asks curiously as Clint pulls out of the garage, and Clint doesn’t even bother stifling his laugh this time. Pepper looks over at him startled, as if only now remembering that he is there.
“Phil thinks he’s clever,” he answers with a grin. They do actually have a house in Portland, but the whole ‘cellist’ thing is something Clint never tires of teasing Phil about. Pepper looks at him blankly, raising an elegant eyebrow in query.
“I’m an archer,” Clint explains. “Cellists play with bows,” he says, trying to keep a straight face and failing almost immediately. Phil sighs and rolls his eyes at Clint but his look is fond.
“It was a good idea,” he protests.
“It was a horrible pun, Phil. I expect something like that out of me, not you!”
Clint watches in the rear-view mirror with amusement as Pepper glances between the two of them in confusion for a moment before it dawns.
“The two of you? Are married?”
“Yep,” Clint answers cheerfully.
“For my sins,” Phil drawls, and this is where Clint would usually elbow him in the gut, were he not driving.
“Wow,” Pepper says again. “Wait, I didn’t even get your full name,” she says to Clint, seemingly horrified at her lack of good manners.
“Clint,” he answers. “Clint Barton.”
“And I’m Pepper Potts,” Pepper says, “although I guess you already know that. It’s wonderful to officially meet you, Agent Barton.”
“Likewise, Ms. Potts,” Clint replies. “And it’s Clint, please.”
“Pepper, then,” she says decisively, and Clint smiles at her through the mirror. “So you work for SHIELD too?” Pepper asks.
“Clint is SHIELD’s top field agent,” Phil answers for him, pride evident in his voice.
Clint feels his face heat, matching the warm glow in his heart, the same as it always is when Phil brags about him. “You’re biased,” he accuses.
Phil shrugs, conceding the point. “But Fury’s not,” he counters, and then says more softly, “there is a reason you were assigned to New Mexico.”
Clint shudders a little at the reminder but he gets Phil’s point. Fury had put him in charge of guarding the Tesseract and the scientists studying it. It is pretty solid evidence of how much Fury appreciates his skills. Pepper listens to this conversation with interest, but doesn’t say anything. Clint appreciates her discretion. Speaking of which . . .
“Hey Phil, hand me my tablet would you?” he asks, and Phil reaches down to take it out of his briefcase where he usually keeps it when they’re together and Clint’s not actively using it. He passes it over and Clint takes it, one hand still on the wheel, and props it up awkwardly against the console. A few quick taps and he’s reopened the line to JARVIS.
“Hey, JARVIS - can you do me a favour and not tell Stark what we’ve been talking about?” he requests. “I wanna watch him figure it out himself,” he says with a grin.
“Do you promise not to override my protocols again, Agent Barton?” JARVIS replies, reprimand clear in his voice.
“I promise to discuss it with you first,” Clint negotiates. “How’s that?”
“Very well,” JARVIS answers resignedly. “I will not inform Mr. Stark of yours and Agent Coulson’s relationship. Would you be willing to do me a favour in return?”
“Could you make sure a line is open when Mr. Stark starts speculating? I imagine the result would be quite amusing.”
Clint laughs out loud. Yup, Tony’s AI is awesome. “I’ll do my best,” he promises.
They drop Pepper off and are heading back to SHIELD’s New York headquarters when Fury calls Phil’s cell.
“Captain Rogers is on board,” he says without preamble when Phil answers. “What about Stark?”
“We gave him some things to think about,” Phil answers. “He was going through the packet when we left. I think he’ll be intrigued enough to sign on.”
“Good,” Fury answers, “let me know when you hear from him. I left Rogers to go over the files as well, and I’ve still got some business here before I head back to the carrier. Can you pick him up and take him with you?”
Phil’s eyes widen a bit at the prospect of finally meeting (officially) his childhood hero and Clint smirks, but Phil’s voice is even and professional when he says “yes, sir.”
“Excellent,” Fury replies. “I’m sending the address to your phone now. See you back on the carrier,” he finishes, and hangs up. Phil enters the address into the car’s GPS and Clint obligingly turns in a new direction.
Steve is waiting when they pull up, wearing the brown trousers and plaid shirt combo he had favoured before Stark insisted on updating his wardrobe. The lumberjack look was all right occasionally, Tony had said, and Steve could definitely pull it off, but variety was the spice of life and the clothes make the man and eventually Steve had gone along just to stop Tony spouting more and more outlandish clichés.
He makes Phil and Clint show their ids, all the while blushing and apologising and talking about how Fury had told him you could never be too careful and all that. Two months of living with Tony had eventually mellowed Steve out, and Clint was both a bit surprised and rather charmed to see the naïve, unsure, but painfully sincere version of Cap in action once more.
Phil blushes a little through the introductions, but Steve is clearly still distracted by the information on the tablet Fury has left him, and they don’t speak much on the way to the airfield. Fury has a plane ready for them, complete with pilot, which makes Clint happy because while he’s perfectly capable of flying anything SHIELD could throw at him, he’d rather be in the back with Phil and Cap. Clint is secure enough in his relationship to find Phil’s crush on Captain America adorable rather than threatening, and he doesn’t want to miss the show. And of course, because he loves Phil, he intends to be around to make sure Phil doesn’t make too much of a fool of himself in front of his childhood hero.
Clint sits back and watches as Phil settles himself at the comm station first and foremost, always the consummate professional, checking in with Hill at the carrier and logging their itinerary, getting updates on Tasha (on her way home with Banner in tow, apparently without much trouble), and making sure she knows to call him immediately if Tony makes contact or Loki is found or Thor shows up early.
Hill has always been skeptical of the Avengers initiative and is only too happy to let Phil and Fury take the fall when it all (as she’s sure it will) falls apart. Clint respects Hill’s competence and talent, and recognises that there is always a place for a skeptic in an organisation like theirs, but he finds her imagination sorely lacking. Then again, Clint had been skeptical when Phil had first told him about it -- although, to be fair, Clint was most skeptical about his own supposed place on this team made up of superheroes -- so he supposes he can’t blame her for not having Phil’s faith or his insider knowledge.
Steve is sitting in one of the jump seats, still engrossed in the files Fury had given him on his tablet - for all that Tony likes to tease Cap about his confusion with ‘newfangled technology’, the guy actually has a really high learning curve and has quickly made himself comfortable with the most common technological tools. Clint’s not sure Steve will be hacking into anything any time soon, but his fingers move over the tablet efficiently and with confidence. Clint just leans back in his own seat and closes his eyes, content to let Phil and Steve both do their thing. A few minutes later he’s startled by the sound of Steve clearing his throat purposefully and blinks his eyes open to see Steve watching him consideringly.
“Your file is on here, you know,” he says cautiously, indicating the tablet now held in one hand. Steve’s tone is slightly apologetic, as if worried that Clint will be mad at him for reading it. Maybe Clint would have been if he hadn’t gotten to know Steve in the other timeline, if he didn’t already know that Cap won’t hold anything in there against him, despite his less-than-perfect past.
“Of course it is,” Clint replies casually. “You’re going to be in charge of this little ragtag army, aren’t you?” he asks with a smirk. Clint sees the flash of insecurity in Steve’s eyes and vows to be more supportive this time around. Fury is fond of throwing people into the deep without a life preserver just to see if they sink or swim, and sometimes that’s actually a good call, but for all his leadership experience during the War, Steve is still new to this century and it shows. He’s a bit lost himself, and asking him to take charge of a bunch of other people who are all lost in their own ways before he’s found his balance is a recipe for disaster. If Steve hadn’t been trying too hard, hadn’t fallen back on treating everyone like they were grunts out of simple familiarity, he and Tony wouldn’t have butted heads quite so spectacularly.
Steve is fidgeting a bit now, the way he does when he’s about to ask a question that reveals his ignorance of the twenty-first century and is worried about how that question will be received. Clint smiles at him encouragingly. After a moment Steve takes a deep breath and speaks.
“Your file says that you’re married,” Steve observes tentatively, and Clint knows exactly where this is going. “It says you’re married to Agent Coulson.” Steve’s tone turns the statement into a question as he glances surreptitiously at Phil, who is still on the comm with Hill.
Clint cocks his head to the side, watching Steve’s expression intently. “Is that a problem?” he asks carefully, working hard to ensure that there is nothing flippant or defensive in his tone. It hadn’t been a problem last time around, but Clint thinks it is probably easier to support a gay friend when you don’t actually have to deal with a live husband.
“No, of course not,” Steve assures Clint quickly, and there is nothing but earnest sincerity in his face. And maybe . . . empathy? Steve sets the tablet down and clasps his hands stiffly in his lap, the seated version of parade rest and a sure indicator that Steve is uncomfortable, but determined to speak anyway.
“There was-- I had a friend,” he says finally, voice so low as to almost be a whisper, lending an air of confession to his words. “He didn’t-- I know he didn’t think of me that way, but if he had, maybe . . .” Steve trails off, blushing, but his meaning is clear and wow, he hadn’t told Clint any of this last time. “I was just surprised to see something like that in an official file. Is the marriage actually . . . legal? And they still let you serve?” Steve sounds almost hopeful.
Clint relaxes with a smile. “Well, when we actually got married it was only legal in Massachusetts, but Phil is from Boston so that worked out ok. Nowadays it’s legal in a number of other states as well, including New York and Washington, DC, so we’re pretty much covered in all the places we spend a significant amount of time. It only became legal to serve openly in the military last September, but SHIELD isn’t technically military, and Fury’s never cared. He was actually Phil’s best man at the wedding,” Clint finishes, remembering the event fondly.
Steve just shakes his head in wonder. “And everyone knows?” he asks.
“No, not really. I mean, obviously Fury knows, and Tasha - Natasha Romanoff, she’s in your files, she’s my partner - and most of the other senior agents. And Phil’s parents and his brother and sister, too. We told Pepper Potts today,” Clint adds with a grin. “That’s really about it, but we keep it mostly secret so that we can’t be used against each other, not because of the gay thing. And we probably won’t be able to keep it secret much longer at all if this team thing works out.”
“Are you ok with that?” Steve asks, sounding worried. Clint shrugs.
“Like I said, if the team works out, Phil’s and my low-profile days are pretty much over. It’ll be nice not to have to hide all the time. We’ll just have to work that much harder at protecting each other.”
“I’ll help,” Steve says firmly, and Clint beams.
“Never doubted it.”
“We’re about forty minutes out from home base, sir,” Clint hears the pilot say, and Phil takes his headphones off, standing up from the comm center and heading back to where Clint and Steve were sitting.
“This a private conversation?” he asks, leaning up against the bulkhead near where Steve is sitting. Clint takes in Phil’s posture and bites back a smile. Phil is a study in feigned nonchalance, leaning against the bulkhead, arms crossed, trying to look casual. But Clint can see the slight tension in his shoulders and the subtle lines at the corners of his mouth where he’s trying to suppress a goofy smile. Clint grins up at him.
“I was just informing the good Captain of all the great advances in gay rights in the last seventy years,” Clint says cheerfully. Shock passes over Phil’s face for a split second before the professional mask comes down. Clint smiles at him reassuringly and Phil relaxes.
“And is this a good thing?” he asks with a raised eyebrow. He’s looking at Clint rather than at Steve, but he no longer seems worried.
“I think it’s a very good thing, Agent Coulson,” Steve says firmly, a hint of the righteous determination that rarely fails to motivate the most reluctant of heroes in his voice. “Like I told Agent Barton-”
“Clint,” Clint corrects firmly. The smile Steve gives him both sweet and wistful.
“Clint,” he agrees, before turning back to Phil.
“Like I told Clint,” Steve pauses and takes a deep breath, “I had a friend I would have liked to have been more, had such a thing been at all acceptable.” Steve’s cheeks and the tips of his ears are red, but he looks up at Phil earnestly. Phil looks poleaxed.
“Bucky,” he whispers, almost to himself, and Steve goes white. Phil realises his mistake immediately and he pales, dropping down heavily into the seat next to Clint.
“I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I’m so sorry, I had no right to say that.” Phil looks miserable, and Clint edges closer, shoulder to shoulder and puts his hand lightly on Phil’s thigh in comfort and reassurance.
When Clint first discovered Phil’s Captain America obsession, long before they were married, but well after he’d admitted to himself he was head over heels for his handler, he’d taken the time to learn as much as he could about the good Captain, or at least about the character as he was presented. The comics had started back when Steve was still doing USO shows, and had continued sporadically ever since. Phil’s childhood had coincided with a resurgence of all things Captain America and for Phil, a skinny kid prone to illness himself, Steve Rogers had been the ultimate role model. The fact that the comics were based, however loosely, on an actual person who had fought and died for his country only gave Phil’s obsession legitimacy. Other kids might have their Superman or Blue Beetle, but Captain America was real.
From what Clint has read, it’s not surprising that Phil guessed the identity of Steve’s ‘friend’ so easily. Bucky had pretty much always been portrayed as Captain America’s faithful sidekick in the comics, and Phil, whose comprehensive nature and attention to detail were inborn, not trained, had learned as much as possible about the real lives of the people the comic was based on.
Steve takes a deep breath and manages to look Phil in the eye, which takes effort, seeing as Phil is trying to look anywhere but at the Captain.
“It’s ok,” Steve says finally, when he has Phil’s attention. “I just didn’t think I’d been that obvious.”
“You probably weren’t,” Clint assures him. “You know there are comics about Captain America, right?” he asks Steve, which serves the dual purpose of explaining and getting Steve’s attention off Phil so the poor man can get his equilibrium back. Steve blushes bright red, but nods.
“Kids used to come up to me after the USO shows wanting me to sign them,” he says. Clint nods.
“Well, the comics continued, and your epic bromance with Bucky Barnes was a big part of a lot of the stories. They kinda made him out as your sidekick.”
“Bucky was not a sidekick,” Steve mutters indignantly, but without any real heat. “And what exactly is a ‘bromance’?” he asks, a small frown of confusion on his face. Phil must have gotten his composure back, because he’s the one who answers.
“It’s a modern slang term for a close, affectionate, lifelong friendship between two men. It’s more formally called a romantic friendship. Not generally considered to have any kind of sexual element, but there will always be people who read into things,” Phil explains, and Clint loves it when Phil sounds like a dictionary.
He's still a little amazed that this incredibly smart, highly educated man could want to be with Clint, who never actually got past fifth grade, at least officially. Clint knows he’s not stupid. He’d breezed through his GED his first year with SHIELD, and Phil has told him several times that what he’s taught himself about computer programming and systems would be enough for a PhD if he’d ever bothered to get the credits, but inside, Clint still thinks of himself as the rough, uneducated circus kid. It drives Phil crazy, but old habits die hard. Despite his background, or perhaps because of it, Clint has always found Phil showing off his book-learning incredibly hot.
Steve just nods and there’s an awkward silence for a few seconds before Clint turns to Phil.
“Who are we expecting back at the carrier when we land?” Clint asks, and both Phil and Steve look grateful for the change of subject.
“Tasha should be back with Dr. Banner,” Phil answers. “Sounds like it went well,” he says with a conspiratorial smile at Clint, who grins back.
“So, this Dr. Banner was trying to replicate the serum they used on me?” Steve asks, picking up the tablet again to flip through to Bruce’s file.
“A lot of people were,” Phil answers, slipping right back into lecture mode. Clint smirks and leans back to enjoy. “You were the world’s first superhero,” Phil continues, “Banner thought gamma radiation might hold the key to unlocking Erskine’s original formula.” Clint can hear the Hulk roar from the footage Steve must be watching on his tablet. From experience, Clint knows that particular sound is more pain than anger, and he balls his fists and grits his teeth against the surge of protective empathy it provokes.
“Didn’t really go his way, did it?” Steve asks grimly, eyes still glued on the screen.
“Not so much,” Phil replies, his eyes seeking out Clint’s and calming him with a single understanding look. “When he’s not-” Clint can hear the slight hesitation as Phil tries to come up with a non-offensive term, “transformed though, guy’s like a Stephen Hawking.”
Steve looks up at Phil blankly. Realising that Steve has no idea who Stephen Hawking is, Phil’s cheek colour slightly as he explains.
“He’s like a . . . smart person,” Phil finishes awkwardly, apparently unable to come up with a decent analog Steve might have heard of. Clint raises an eyebrow to show his incredulity.
‘Thomas Edison,’ he mouths at Phil, ‘Alexander Graham Bell. Einstein.’ Clint clucks his tongue and shakes his head with disappointment. He gives Phil a look that clearly says ‘I expected better out of you,’ and Phil rolls his eyes, but the small twitch at the corner of his mouth shows that he appreciates Clint’s teasing.
Steve is watching them with amusement when they turn back, and something about the slightly fond look on his face makes Phil straighten up.
“I gotta say,” Phil starts, cheeks and ears red, “it’s an honour to meet you, officially.” Steve’s smile turns bashful and a little strained. Clint sees Phil start to open his mouth to say something else and delivers a sharp warning kick to Phil’s ankle. Phil swallows whatever he was going to say, covering it with a slight clearing of the throat, and throws Clint a grateful glance. Clint just smiles smugly. Phil should know that Clint will always have his back, even when it comes to making sure he doesn’t embarrass himself with his fanboy tendencies.
Steve stands and makes his way to the front of the plane, peering down to look out the windshield at the ocean below.
“I just hope I’m the man for the job,” Steve mutters, and Clint can hear the doubt and insecurity in his tone. Phil must too, because he glances at Clint a split second before turning back to Steve.
“You will be,” Phil says quietly, and in his voice is the calm certainty that has pulled Clint back from the brink more times than he can count, backed by the awesome power of Phil’s faith. Steve straightens immediately, instinctively, and Clint catches a glimpse of the leader Clint knows he will become.
Phil turns the look that goes with that voice on Clint, and it warms him down to his toes. Seeing those three words from Phil banish the shadows of self-doubt from Steve’s face, Clint has never been so proud.
They land without incident on the helicarrier, Phil instructing a crewmember to put Steve’s gear in his room as Natasha moves to meet them at the bottom of the ramp.
“Agent Romanoff, Captain Rogers,” Phil introduces, a note of smug satisfaction in his voice that makes Clint grin.
“Ma’am,” Steve acknowledges, all earnest politeness.
Tasha counters with a slightly wary “hi,” clearly not used to that sort of greeting. In the other timeline it had taken poor Tash a while to truly accept that Steve wasn’t mocking her when he treated her with his peculiar mix of 1940s chivalry and honest respect for a strong, capable woman. That Steve is able to blend the two so seamlessly has often made Clint wonder if modern feminism has given chivalry an undeserved bad rap or if Steve is just that special. Clint strongly suspects the latter.
“They need you on the Bridge,” Tasha tells Phil, “They’re starting the face-trace.” Phil nods briefly and starts to head inside. When Clint goes to follow, Tasha raises an eyebrow, looking put out. Clint knows she expected him to stick around and answer all her questions but Clint was serious about not letting Phil out of his sight, and besides, if they’re starting the face-trace that means he’ll have to make a decision soon about who should go get Loki when he surfaces. Clint turns and walks backwards for a few steps, mouthing an apologetic “Later” to Tasha before turning forward again and jogging to catch up with Phil.
“So,” Clint says as he falls into step next to Phil, “first time around Tasha flew Steve out to Stuttgart to meet up with Loki. They exchange a few blows, Tony shows up in the suit, and between the two of them, they manage to ‘capture’ Loki,” Clint does air quotes to go along with the slightly mocking tone in his voice because, seriously, how could they have taken a capture that easy at face value? “and they all head back on the Quinjet together. Thor drops in, literally, about halfway back, he and Tony and Steve fight over Loki for a bit, during which time Loki doesn’t even try to escape, and it is eventually decided that Thor will come back to the Helicarrier as well.”
“You’re thinking we should do something different this time?” Phil asks.
“Actually, no,” Clint says. “I’m thinking maybe we should let things go the same way. And I’m thinking we shouldn’t explain about the whole do-over thing until they all get back. I’m just not sure if I’m right,” he adds a little skeptically, stuffing his hands into his pockets in a nervous gesture that he knows Phil will interpret (correctly) as self-doubt, but unable to really help himself.
“Ok, so walk me through it,” Phil says, and this is another one of many reasons why Clint loves his husband. No platitudes, no meaningless reassurances, just quiet support and sincere willingness to provide whatever Clint needs.
“Ok,” Clint says, dragging his thoughts in order. “The main reason I’m thinking we should let it go as it naturally would is because of Thor. I already told you that Steve and Tony don’t exactly hit it off, and the seeds of that discord are planted on the plane back from Stuttgart, which is why I’m not one-hundred percent sure I’m right.”
“But?” Phil prompts, when Clint pauses a moment too long.
“But, I think Thor’s the more important issue here,” Clint admits. “We can work on Tony and Cap later, but with Thor, this is our first impression. And I know it seems counterintuitive, but I think the fact that Steve and Tony fought him to a standstill is a big part of why he was as cooperative as he was the first time around.” Clint takes a big breath before he continues, because he hates saying bad things about his teammates, particularly when he is really only speculating from second-hand accounts, but he needs to get this out, see what Phil thinks of it, because apart from just being great at getting to the heart of things, Phil has met Thor before, while before the battle Clint had only seen him from behind the fletching of an arrow.
“From what I understand from talking to him, from hearing his ‘glorious saga’ about the fight,” Clint smirks a bit, remembering the epic tale Thor had woven when he’d asked them all to fill in all the details he’d missed, being on the wrong side and all, “he started out not really thinking humans capable of dealing with Loki at all. Not that he doesn’t respect us or anything, but his initial plan was pretty much to handle Loki on his own. But then Steve and Tony fought him to a standstill. I mean, yeah, he was holding back some on account of how he didn’t want to kill anybody, but it should have been an easy fight, and it wasn’t. That’s kind of when he decided that we might be worth working with, as equals.
“So I think we need to let that fight happen. Thor knows you - if you and I go he’s more likely to stop and talk. The Asgardians place a lot of importance on physical strength, and on bonds forged in battle. I think that initial fight showed Thor that we’re worth fighting with, and I don’t think it’ll come to a physical confrontation if you’re there.”
“So you want us to stay here,” Phil concludes with a nod, his tone indicating agreement, and Clint relaxes slightly. Team dynamics aside, he also really doesn’t want Phil or himself that close to Loki anytime soon. “Are you goingto tell Natasha and Captain Rogers what you know before they bring in Loki or after?” Phil asks.
“After, I’m thinking,” Clint replies. “I’ll probably give Tasha a bit of a heads-up regarding Thor. She’ll be annoyed I’m not telling her everything, but I really don’t want to explain it all twice and Tony will be pissed if I tell Tasha and Steve before him.”
“Speaking of which -” Phil starts, as they reach the bridge and head toward the stations performing the face-trace.
“I want to have a talk with Steve before they leave,” Clint answers, knowing where the question was headed. He leans up against the railing while Phil glances over the screens full of flickering images as the computers try to match the faces of Loki, Webster, and Selvig against millions of hacked images from cameras around the world. The technicians are studiously ignoring them.
“We never really gave Cap much of a rulebook here - he’s gonna start off treating everyone on the team like a soldier under his command because that’s what he’s used to. Tash won’t mind much ‘cause that’s what she’s used to too. Banner will start out being grateful for anything that doesn’t involve him and surgical table. But Stark - Tony won’t stand for it. He’ll resent the assumption and be even more insubordinate than usual just to piss Rogers off, and he’ll be successful, because Rogers won’t quite get why Stark’s being so difficult. It all builds from there.” Clint shrugs. “If I can get Cap to treat Tony like an equal from the start, I think they’ll learn to work together mostly on their own. With a discreet push now and then,” Clint concludes with a grin that drops from his face seconds later as he registers the words he just said.
Phil immediately notices and steps up next to Clint, placing a firm hand against the small of his back where it’s hidden by the wall, the best he can do while they’re on the job.
“I’m still here,” he murmurs low, knowing exactly what has Clint upset. “It won’t happen this time. You’ll be here to protect me,” he says, making sure his voice reflects his full confidence that Clint won’t let anything happen to him this time around. Clint shudders almost imperceptibly, but a moment later he’s pulled himself back together with a deep breath.
“Damn right,” he murmurs back, the corner of his mouth tilting up in a crooked smile. He bumps his shoulder against Phil’s briefly, and the corner of Phil’s eyes crinkle in the way that means he would be smiling widely if he weren’t currently on duty.
The sudden increase in activity around them indicates that the helicarrier is preparing for take-off, and Phil moves to look at the screens again, reminding the technicians to give priority to images captured from Stuttgart and the other cities that SHIELD’s researchers had determined contained likely sources of iridium.
They both look up when Natasha leads Steve and Bruce onto the bridge. Steve is looking around in impressed satisfaction, Bruce with trepidation. Yeah, Clint’s going to have to have a talk with Bruce too. Maybe while Steve and Tasha are off after Loki? Hmmm . . . he’ll have to think about that.
“Gentlemen,” Fury greets them after the helicarrier is level in the air and cloaked. Steve reaches into his trouser pocket and pulls out a billfold, handing Fury a ten dollar bill, which he accepts without comment. Clint snickers under his breath. Phil looks over at him, one eyebrow raised in amused query.
“Tell you later,” Clint promises with a grin.
“Doctor, thank you for coming,” Fury says as he shakes Bruce’s hand. Clint watches as Bruce looks anywhere but at Fury, eyes lowered, biting his bottom lip in a clear sign of anxiety. Clint desperately wants to go over there and put a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder, but of course, Bruce doesn’t know Clint from Adam right now. Clint really has to have that talk with Bruce as soon as possible.
“Thanks for asking nicely,” Bruce finally answers, a hint of self-mocking in his tone. “So, um, how long am I staying?” he asks warily.
“Once we get our hands on the Tesseract, you’re in the wind,” Fury promises sincerely, and Clint spares a brief moment to pray that nothing he changes will end up making that promise the truth.
“Well, where are you with that?” Bruce asks, sounding relieved to be getting down to business. Fury directs him over to the railing above where Clint and Phil are standing. Fury gestures to Phil.
“We’re sweeping every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet,” Phil reports, crossing his arms. Clint just leans back against the desk next to Jasper Sitwell, watching. Professional Phil is hot. “Cell phones, laptops,” Phil continues as Steve heads over to listen and Tasha crouches down next to one of the computers running the face trace on Loki. “If it’s connected to a satellite, it’s eyes and ears for us,” Phil concludes.
“It’s still not going to find him in time,” Tasha points out.
“You have to narrow your field,” Bruce says, confidence seeping into his tone as finds his way back to his comfort zone. “How many spectrometers do you have access to?” he asks Fury.
“How many are there?”
“Call every lab you know,” Bruce orders, taking off his jacket. He turns his attention to Phil. “Tell them to put the spectrometers on the roof and calibrate them for gamma rays,” he says turning back to face Fury. “I’ll rough out a tracking algorithm, basic cluster recognition. At least we could rule out a few places. You have somewhere for me to work?”
“Agent Romanoff?” Fury calls, “show Dr. Banner to his laboratory please.” Tasha nods and walks swiftly over to Fury and Bruce.
“You’re gonna love it, Doc,” she says, moving toward the elevator without stopping, Bruce following behind. “We’ve got all the toys.”
“So,” Steve says, coming to stand beside Phil and Clint, “Agent Romanov said something about trading cards?”
It’s the tone Clint notices first. Steve’s eyes are sparklingly and he’s grinning and the tone is cheeky and teasing. Clint has time to feel grateful that their talk seems to have given Steve back some of his equilibrium before the the words themselves register and all the blood drains from Clint’s face. He actually sways a little in shock at the sudden, brutal reminder of the last time he saw those cards, and when Phil grabs his arm to steady him, he can barely feel it over the panicked thump of his pulse loud in his ears and heavy in his chest. He forces himself to take a deep, shaky breath and opens eyes he doesn’t remember closing to see Steve watching him with anxious concern. Clint leans subtly against Phil until he can feel the strength and the warmth of him pressing up against Clint’s side.
“I’m so sorry,” Steve is saying but his voice sounds distant and Clint forces himself to snap back into focus.
“It’s ok,” he says finally, proud that his voice doesn’t waver. “It’s not your fault. Just . . . bad memories.” Half of Clint wants to drag Phil to the closest utility closet and fuck him up against the wall just to reassure himself that Phil really is still here. The other half wants to go grab the cards from Phil’s locker and make Steve sign them with the absurd conviction that if the cards are signed, Phil will be safe.
“We’ll explain later,” Phil says, just as Jasper turns around in his chair.
“We’ve got a hit,” he says, “sixty-seven percent match. Wait, cross-match. Seventy-nine percent.” Phil gives Clint a discreet shoulder-squeeze and moves forward to look at Sitwell’s terminal.
“Location?” Phil asks.
“Stuttgart, Germany. Twenty-eight Konigstrasse. He’s not exactly hiding.”
“Sir, we have confirmation from from our surveillance at the Stuttgart Institute. Webster is there with about a dozen mercs,” Hill reports from the other side of the room.
“Are all the workers evacuated?” Fury asks.
“What about the retinal scanner?”
“Then tell our people to hold back for now,” Fury orders, raising an eyebrow at Phil. Phil and Clint exchange glances and nod. Fury turns to Steve.
“Captain, you’re up.” Steve takes a deep breath and nods, turning to leave the bridge. Clint jogs a few steps to catch up with him, Phil right behind.
“Can we have a few minutes before you go?” he asks. Steve looks curious but glances at Fury first. Fury nods his permission, and Steve smiles.
“There’s a conference room just down the hall,” Phil says, leading the way.
They settle themselves at one end of the conference table, Phil at the head of the table and Clint and Steve opposite each other next to him.
“Ok,” Clint starts, “We’ll be quick. Just wanted to give you a few tips for dealing with Tony Stark.”
“Howard’s son?” Steve asks, clearly confused. “I haven’t met him yet.”
“You will,” Clint says, “If we know where Loki is then so does Tony, and that’s where he’ll be. And tip number one - don’t mention Howard.”
“I know he was your friend,” Phil adds. “But he changed after you crashed. He became more cynical and bitter. And by all accounts he wasn’t exactly a very good father.”
“The quickest way to piss off Tony Stark is by comparing him to Howard. He never knew the man you knew.” Steve looks like he wants to protest, perhaps defend Howard, but after looking at Clint and Phil’s serious faces, he sighs in resignation and nods.
“Ok, what else?” Steve asks seriously. Clint lets out a deep breath of relief. He’d worried it would take more to convince Steve to listen, to accept that Howard is a touchy subject.
“Don’t underestimate him. He’s twice the genius Howard was and he thinks so far out of the box it might as well not even be there. He talks constantly, it’s how he works things out in his head, so learn to tune it out if it bothers you. And don’t take his attitude at face value. He acts like he doesn’t take anything seriously and like he doesn’t give a damn but that’s just a defense mechanism. And lastly, Tony doesn’t work for SHIELD. He’s an independent contractor and he became Iron Man years before SHIELD got into the superhero business. He will, hopefully, choose to work with us, but he doesn’t answer to Fury, so don’t try giving him orders. Treat him like an equal and you should get along ok.”
“I can do that,” Steve says, nodding. Clint hops up from the table with a grin, Phil standing more sedately.
“Awesome. Go get ‘im, Tiger,” Clint says, slapping Steve on the shoulder as he heads for the door. Phil throws Steve an apologetic look as he follows.
“So,” Clint says to Phil as they walk down the hallway. “Tasha next.”
“What are you going to tell her?” Phil asks. Clint grimaces.
“I’m going to tell her that I can’t tell her what’s going on until she gets back with Loki, and then I’m going to grovel.” Phil tries and fails to suppress an amused smirk, earning a glare from Clint.
“I’ll help,” Phil promises, placatingly.
They find Tasha in the quinjet going through the standard pre-flight checks.
“Do I get to know what’s going on now?” she asks archly, but Clint can hear a bit of the hurt in her voice. He takes a deep breath.
“It’s a long story,” he says, “and we don’t have time for us to tell you all of it. We can give you the basic gist now, and you’ll have to hold your questions until you get back, or we can wait, and explain the whole thing later. Fury and Hill have already been read in, and we’re going to talk to Banner while you’re gone, because some of it concerns him and he’d probably rather hear that part without an audience. Stark and Rogers don’t know yet, but we’ll be telling them when you get back too.”
“This all centers around you, doesn’t it Clint?” Natasha says, and it’s not really a question. Clint closes his eyes briefly against the memories of a time that never really existed and answers.
“Yes. If you’d been here, Tash, you’d have been the first person I told after Phil. But I couldn’t tell you over the comms and we don’t have enough time for me to fill you in completely right now. I’m sorry.” Phil steps up behind him, putting a reassuring hand on Clint’s shoulder. Natasha’s gaze narrows.
“Ok, give me the quick explanation, because if I can tell that Coulson is freaked out it must be something really big.” Clint leans back against Phil and steels himself for her reaction.
“I’ve already lived through this whole thing once before. We won, but the losses were heavy . . . and personal.” Clint takes a shaky breath. “I don’t know how I was sent back, or why, but I’ve got another chance to do this right, and I’m taking it.”
“That’s how you knew about Banner,” Tasha says calmly, and Clint watches as she integrates this new information into her understand of the situation without a single hint of skepticism and he loves her for it.
“Yeah, I assume things went well there?” Tasha nods.
“I went alone, like you said. I think he was surprised by that. And you were right - he slammed his fist on the table but since I was expecting it, I didn’t react too badly.”
“Good,” Clint says. “The Hulk isn’t as mindless as Bruce thinks he is. And he sees everything Bruce sees. He really doesn’t like it when people are scared of him, and it’s hardly his fault he keeps getting shot at. It took some time, last time, to prove to him that we’re not like Ross and his guys, and you just made that job much easier.”
“What do I need to know now?” Tasha asks. LIke all SHIELD agents, she’s accustomed to only getting those parts of the mission details that are directly related to her task. She seems happy to accept Clint’s promise of details later.
“Ok, Loki will be on the ground when you get to Stuttgart. If everything still happens like it did before, and it should, he and Rogers will go at it for a bit and then Stark will show up. Loki will surrender - and yes, it is a trap but one we want to fall into for the time being. Partway through the trip home Thor will literally drop in, landing on the roof of the jet and taking Loki. Stark and Rogers will go after him. There will be a fight - and we need to let that fight happen, it’s important.” Tasha nods. “Eventually, Thor will agree to accompany you back to the Helicarrier. Fury’s got a cage ready for Loki when you get back, and then we’ll get the whole group together and I’ll tell you everything I know.” When Clint finishes, Tasha just looks at him with that way she has of seeing through people.
“I’ll do my best to keep everything on track,” she says seriously. “But you take care of you too, ok? I know you. Don’t go throwing your life away to save someone else, all right?” Tasha glances meaningfully between Clint and Phil. “You may be the one who was sent back, but you don’t have to do it all alone.”
“I won’t let him out of my sight,” Phil tells her, and his voice is a solemn vow.
“Likewise,” Clint says, glancing back at Phil who has wrapped his arms around Clint from behind. “We weren’t together last time. This time we will be. It won’t happen again,” he says fiercely, knowing Tasha will understand exactly what he means.
They fall into an easy silence that’s broken moments later when Steve enters the jet. He looks startled to see Clint and Phil so close, but he reacts with a wide smile.
“Ready?” he asks Tasha. She nods, and Clint and Phil make their way out of the jet.
“Let’s go get Loki,” Clint hears her say as he and Phil step out into the hanger, and they watch as the jet takes off for Germany. Clint watches it go.
“God I hope we’re doing the right thing,” he says softly. Phil stands by his side, and bumps his shoulder reassuringly against Clint’s.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we have. That’s all anyone can do.”
I know, I know, I fell off the face of the earth. I'm sorry - this has been a horrible year for me, personally, and a lot of real life challenges have conspired to make writing near impossible. Things are slowly getting better, and I'm hoping I won't continue to be months between updates, but we'll have to see how it goes. Meanwhile, thank you all for your patience!
“So, Doc, how’s it going?” Clint asks, once he and Phil have introduced themselves..
“Slowly,” he answers wryly. Clint smiles and jumps up to sit on one edge of the lab table that holds the equipment Bruce is fiddling with. Clint peers at the scrolling text on the glass screen above the table.
“So it’s mostly just scanning at the moment, right?” he asks. Bruce nods, looking momentarily surprised that Clint can tell what the program is doing and then abashed at his snap judgement. Clint grins.
“Not just a pretty face,” he says mildly, enough levity in his tone to convey that he’s not really insulted. He waves off Bruce’s embarrassed apology. “This thing gives out gamma rays, right?”
“Yes. Not a huge amount, but noticeable.”
“You think you can come up with a way to block them? A case, or something?”
Bruce tilts his head thoughtfully. “I might be able to come up with some ideas, but I wouldn’t have any idea how to build something like that.”
“That’s ok,” Phil says. “We’ve got Stark for that part.”
“Yup,” Clint affirms. “He’ll be here in a little bit. I know for a fact that he’s looking forward to meeting you,” he adds. Bruce raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“Is that supposed to be some sort of bribe to keep me here?”
“No,” Phil answers immediately. “We would like you to stay, to work with us, but we won’t stop you if you want to leave. You have my word.”
“And Phil’s word is his bond - he’s old fashioned that way,” Clint adds.
“And your director agrees with this?”
“Director Fury has put me in charge of the Avengers Initiative, and you have been on the list of potential recruits from the beginning. That means that I have the final say in any of SHIELD’s interactions with you. “At some point, hopefully after the current crisis has passed, I’d like to talk to you about the Initiative. But whatever decision you make, I will ensure that SHIELD abides by it.”
Bruce stares at Phil for a few long moments and then, apparently satisfied that Phil is sincere, he relaxes slightly. Not entirely - like Clint, Bruce’s trust issues are long-standing and ingrained - but enough that Clint decides that bringing up the topic he most wants to discuss probably won’t result in property damage.
“So,” he starts, having decided that honest and straightforward is the way to go, “what do you know about time loops or do-overs?”
Bruce startles and has a look of consternation on his face at the abrupt shift in conversation toward the even more bizarre and esoteric.
“You mean like those stories where time resets to a previous event until the ‘right’ (Bruce doesn’t actually make air-quotes, but they are implied in his tone) outcome is achieved? It’s science fiction,” Bruce answers. Clint raises an eyebrow.
“No offense Doc, but so are you,” he says with a grin. Bruce tilts his head to the side, conceding the point.
“Are you telling me that we are in one of these loops right now?” Bruce asks. He looks both intrigued and disconcerted at the idea. Clint relaxes slightly in relief - at least Bruce isn’t jumping immediately into denial, although he still looks a bit skeptical.
“Dunno if it’s a loop yet,” Clint replies. “This is only my second time around. But yeah, something like that.” Banner looks over at Phil.
“You too?” he asks. Phil shakes his head.
“No, but I trust Agent Barton. And several things that he predicted have already come true.” Bruce nods and looks back at Clint.
“Why you?” he asks. Clint shrugs uncomfortably.
“I’m not really sure. I mean, I’ve got an idea but I don’t really know what’s going on here, just that it is. And the whole story is something I’d rather wait until the whole team is here to tell.”
Bruce twitches a little at the word ‘team’ but doesn’t actually say anything.
“So why are you telling me now?” he asks instead.
“A couple of reasons,” Clint answers as Phil crosses his arms and leans up against the lab table Clint is perched on, Clint’s knee brushing Phil’s arm reassuringly. “The main thing is that I know you - I’ve known you for three months - but you don’t know me. And that doesn’t sit well with me.”
“Please,” Bruce scoffs. “You work for a spy agency. I would think knowing more about people than they know about you is standard operating procedure.”
“Not for friends,” Clint says softly. Bruce actually looks surprised at that.
“And I’m your friend?” Clint takes a deep breath.
“You both are,” he says firmly. Bruce tenses instantly.
“Both?” he asks warily.
“And that’s the second reason,” Clint says, dropping down from the table to stand straight and look Bruce in the eye. He feels more than sees Phil snap to readiness beside him. Bruce takes one step back, desperate denial flashing in his eyes.
“That’s--” he starts, then shakes his head. dangerous, Clint hears. Bruce takes a deep breath and tries again. “He’s not--”
“It’s not,” Clint responds to the first unfinished protest. “And he is. He’s my friend. He’s not mindless, and he’s not stupid, and he fought with us and followed direction and saved Tony Stark’s life all on his own the first time I met him.”
“Doctor Banner,” Phil speaks up softly, and Clint sees Bruce startle and knows he’d forgotten Phil was even there. “It’s not the Hulk’s fault you’ve only let him out when there are people trying to kill you.”
“He comes out when I’m angry,” Bruce protests.
“He comes out when you’re scared,” Clint returns, the sympathy in his voice directed at the hint of green he can see in Bruce’s eyes. “You’re always angry.”
Bruce’s hands curl into fists at his sides, and he closes his eyes, taking several deep breaths in through his nose and out through his mouth. When he opens his eyes again the green is gone but he is visibly cringing against the fear he expects to see.
Clint isn’t afraid, and neither is Phil. Clint knows he’s pushed harder than Phil was expecting, harder than he really intended, and Phil hasn’t met the Hulk so he should be scared but he isn’t. Phil is a calm, supportive strength at his side and Clint knows that Phil isn’t afraid because Phil trusts Clint. It overwhelms him sometimes, how much he loves this man, and how much he is loved in return. Clint reaches out and takes Phil’s hand gently because he needs the connection - and because he can.
“We’re not afraid of you,” Clint tells Bruce, whose gaze is flicking between their faces with the look of a man trying to find the catch.
“Just think about it, please,” Clint says, and Bruce nods reluctantly.
“I need to work,” he says firmly. Phil nods.
“We’ll be over here if you need us,” he tells Bruce, indicating a workstation on the other side of the lab. Clint gives Bruce a soft pat on the shoulder as he follows Phil, who is already logging into the station for an update.
Phil’s phone goes off before Clint can ask about Tasha.
“Coulson,” Phil answers, hitting the speaker button so Clint can hear as well.
“Romanov and Rogers just landed,” Hill’s voice reports. She hesitates for the briefest of moments, then, “They have Loki with them.”
He’d known it was coming, had made the decision to let it happen, but all the preparation in the world can’t stop this sudden chill of fear that runs down Clint’s spine.
“He’s here, Phil,” Clint says, turning to bury his head in Phil’s shoulder. Phil’s arm comes up to hold him close.
“I know,” he says softly.
“I don’t want him anywhere near you,” Clint says plaintively. “I don’t want him anywhere near me.”
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Phil says soothingly. Clint pulls back and puts his hands on either side of Phil’s face, holding him steady and looking directly into his husband’s eyes.
“I’m not doing it again, Phil,” he says seriously. “So no heroics, no crazy risks, promise me. I’m not living without you again. You get yourself killed this time around I’m following you, you got that?” Phil looks like he wants to object but it’s only for a moment before his face relaxes into acceptance.
“Then I guess I better not get myself killed,” he says, leaning forward to press his forehead against Clint’s.
A quiet cough behind them reminds Clint that they’re not alone. He smiles sheepishly at Bruce, but doesn’t let go of Phil.
“One of the events you need to change?” Bruce asks softly.
“Yeah,” Clint answers, fingers tightening on Phil’s shoulders. Bruce smiles gently.
“How long you two been together?” he asks.
“We’ve been together for seven years, and married for four of them,” Phil answers happily.
“And engaged in mutually oblivious pining for at least three years before that,” Clint says with a grin. Bruce smiles slowly.
“Congratulations,” he says.
“Thanks,” Clint replies, finally pulling back from Phil, although he keeps their hands entwined. Movement out of the corner of his eye startles him, and he turns to see several heavily armed agents walk by, with Loki handcuffed in the middle.
Clint draws a quick shocked breath in through his teeth, gripping Phil’s hand so hard it must hurt. Loki has a look of smug satisfaction on his face as he walks, looking for all the world like it is he who is escorting the agents, and not the other way around.
As they pass the door to the lab with its clear window, Loki leans over for a clearer look inside. The smirk on his face dies as he catches sight of Clint. Their eyes meet, and the mix of confusion and rage in Loki’s green gaze makes Clint shiver. Phil is a solid, comforting warmth at his side, and Clint is grateful that the solid low part of the door at least shields their clasped hands. Having resisted Loki’s mind control at Pegasus has already aroused the god’s interest in Clint. He doesn’t want Loki more ammunition against Phil.
The agents prod Loki forward as he stalls, and he bares his teeth at them before continuing on his way, smirk firmly back in place. In his peripheral vision, Clint sees Bruce rub the bridge of his nose, as if trying to banish a headache.
“What was Fury thinking, having him brought within sight of this room?” Clint hisses to Phil, frustrated at having been caught off-guard and furious at the advantage they’ve given Loki just by allowing him to even register their presence.
“It is the shortest path from the deck to the detention center,” Phil answers, and while his voice is calm and unconcerned, Clint can tell he’s keeping it that way by sheer force of will. “It might not have been a conscious decision.” Clint growls with annoyance at the possible oversight.
“You ok there, Bruce?” he asks the scientist. Bruce shakes his head as if to clear it.
“Just a tension headache I think,” he answers.
“Not a headache,” Clint replies tightly. “The scepter. We need to get that thing in a lead box ASAP. Let Bruce and Tony work out a better containment system later.” Phil nods.
“The storage containers for the Phase-2 weapons should work,” he says.
“Ok,” Clint agrees. “But I want one that’s never even been near one of the actual weapons. Since both the scepter and Phase-2 are Tesseract-based I don’t want to even think of the possible interactions.”
“There are still some in storage,” Phil says, and turns back to the comm system, barking out orders to have the scepter contained. Bruce watches them worriedly.
“We’ve got to go arrange some stuff before we meet with the team - you ok here for a bit?” Clint asks. He watches Bruce take a deep, calming breath.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” the scientist finally answers. “I’ll just keep an eye on -” and he gestures at the computer behind him. Clint nods, placing a quick hand on Bruce’s shoulder.
“Someone - probably Natasha - will be by in a little bit to show you where we’re all meeting up. Don’t worry, we’ll keep Loki well away from you, Doc.”
Having secured the scepter in lead-lined box and hidden it in their quarters where hopefully no one will think to look for it, Clint and Phil move side-by-side through the hellicarrier corridors toward the bridge, where the others are waiting. They are almost there when their luck runs out.
“Agent!” the loud, bright voice of Tony Stark echos from behind them, “and . . . OtherAgent! What a surprise, running into you here.” Stark catches up to them with a quick jog and a predatory smile. Clint surreptitiously reaches into his pocket and thumbs a couple of buttons on his pad, opening up a line to JARVIS as promised. Stark throws one arm around each of their shoulders, grinning up manically at Phil as he does so.
“So, what’s this I hear about a cellist?”
So sorry for the long wait folks, and for the fact that this chapter is pretty much word-for-word the scene in Avengers with a little bit of Phil and Clint thrown in. Next chapter is the explanation, and from there things start to really change.
Phil sighs resignedly. “There is no cellist, Mr. Stark,” he says firmly. Stark jogs a few steps ahead and turns around so he can see Phil’s face as he walks backwards down the hallway.
“Yeah, see, no. I’m not buying it. Pepper said there was a cellist, and Pepper is never wrong, ergo, there’s a cellist. That means you’re lying, and when people lie, it’s usually about something interesting. So what’s up with the cellist? Is she a super secret spy like you? I know, she’s undercover in the Philharmonic, investigating the dastardly world of . . . classical assassins? Nah, not cool enough. I’ll figure it out. Does her bow shoot lasers? Cuz that would be awesome!”
There’s a choked off laugh from beside him and Phil hears Clint mutter “Occasionally”, eyes dancing with amusement.
“There is no cellist, Mr. Stark, because the cellist was a cover story, intended to keep interfering busybodies from trying to save me by throwing women in my direction,” Phil says pointedly, throwing a disapproving look Stark’s way.
“Hey now, that was just one time. And how was I supposed to know you’d gotten her demoted? She seemed pretty responsible to me.”
“Everyone is pretty responsible compared to you Stark. Now focus,” Phil orders, as they came up to the meeting room door.
“I think it’s about the mechanics,” Bruce is saying from in the room. “Iridium. What do they need the iridium for?”
“It’s a stabilising agent,” Tony says as he walks in, Phil and Clint close behind. Tony’s ‘look at me how brilliant I am’ mask is firmly in place and not for the first time Clint wishes Tony didn’t feel the need to be acting all the time. Then Tony turns, walking half backwards as he faces Phil, and for a few moments he’s just Tony again.
“I’m just saying,” he says, “take a weekend, I’ll fly you and your not-cellist wherever you want.”
“That’s very nice,” Phil answers blandly before pointing Tony in the direction of the others, gathered around the table.
“Keep love alive,” Tony says, smirking, before turning back to look at the others as he continues his way into room. “Means the portal won’t collapse on itself as it did at SHIELD.”
“No hard feelings, Point Break,” he says as he walks up to Thor. “You’ve got a mean swing,” and he pats a bewildered and somewhat dismissive Thor on the shoulder.
“Also means the portal can open as wide and stay open as long as Loki wants.” Tony moves over toward the command screens near the balcony that looks over the bridge. “Uh, raise the mizzen mast,” he orders the agents below, “ship the topsails". Clint can see several agents look up at him in annoyance.
“That man is playing Galaga!” Tony accuses, pointing, “thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did.” Clint grins and holds back a chuckle. The bridge crew have weekly Galaga tournaments and call it training. It certainly improves hand-eye coordination.
Tony turns his focus once again on the command screens. He may look like a manic, scatterbrained crazy, but Clint knows the act is a distraction to cover the fact that he’s casing the joint quite efficiently. If he hasn’t already placed a bug, he will soon. Clint glances over at Phil to see an indulgent smile on his face. Phil knows what Tony is doing too, and clearly finds the whole thing amusing.
Tony looks between the screens, an artfully confused look on his face, and raises one hand to cover his left eye. “How does Fury even see these?” he asks, turning to Hill.
“He turns,” she replies dryly. Hill never did have much of a sense of humour.
“Sounds exhausting,” Tony replies. “The rest of the raw materials,” he runs his fingers along a nearby touch screen. It seems almost random but Clint knows he just did *something* to the system. He smiles and shrugs at Phil, who is looking a little more disgruntled this time. Doesn’t matter. When it comes to SHIELD’s system, Clint trusts Tony more than the people who built it. “Agent Webster can get his hands on pretty easily. Only major component he still needs is a power source of high energy density. Something to kickstart the cube.”
“When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics,” Hill asks challengingly.
“Last night,” Tony answers, with just the slightest bite to his words. Tony doesn’t like being challenged. “The packet -- Selvig’s notes, the extraction theory papers,” he elaborates, “Am I the only one who did the reading?”
“Does Loki need any particular kind of power source?” Steve asks, clearly trying to turn Tony’s monologue into a conversation.
“He’d have to heat the cube to one-hundred and twenty million kelvin just to break through the Coulomb barrier,” Bruce points out.
“Unless Selvig as figured out how to stabilize the quantum tunnelling effect.”
“Well, if he could do that he could achieve heavy ion fusion at any reactor on the planet.”
“Finally, someone who speaks English,” Tony says, walking toward Bruce with a pleased look on his face.
“Is that what just happened?” Steve mutters. Tony ignores him, reaching out to shake Bruce’s hand.
“It’s good to meet you, Dr Banner,” Tony says, and for once he is completely sincere. “Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of how you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”
Bruce is clearly stunned for a moment. “Thanks,” he finally says.
Clint nudges Phil and points his head in their direction with a wide grin. “Epic bromance,” he predicts with satisfaction. Phil nods with a tight smile before stepping forward to catch the attention of the others.
“Doctor Banner is only here to track the cube. And there’s a lot more to this situation than you know yet. Time to read you in.” Phil takes a seat at the table and Clint slides in next to him, all the levity of the Tony Stark show put aside.
Yes it is short. I wanted to give you all *something* since you've been so patient, and I am already working on the next part.
“Doctor Banner is only here to track the cube. And there’s a lot more to this situation than you know yet. Time to read you in.” Phil takes a seat at the table and Clint slides in next to him, all the levity of the Tony Stark show put aside.
“Right, the time loop,” Bruce says, and everyone around the table turns to look at him, except Natasha, who is looking at Clint.
“A time loop?” Tony asks incredulously as he sits down next to Banner. “Seriously?!”
“Yes, a time loop.” Phil says firmly, and Tony’s eyebrows migrate toward his hairline.
“Who?” he asks, “You?” He looks toward Bruce, who shakes his head vehemently.
“No, me,” Clint says, Phil’s hand on his thigh under the table giving him courage.
“And what’s so special about you?” Tony asks bluntly. Clint can see Rogers’ frown of disapproval at the apparent rudeness and reminds himself to have another talk with Steve. To most people, Tony’s question would sound demeaning, dismissive. Before he’d had a chance to get to know Tony, Clint would have taken offense. Now he knows that Tony’s question is just that -- a question. It’s not intended to be judgemental.
“In the previous go around,” Clint answers before Steve can utter the rebuke he clearly intends, “I was in Webster’s position.”
“Oh,” Tony says, eyes flicking down and then back up, a flash of pity on his face gone in an instant. “That sucks.” In the silence that follows, Steve raises his hand adorably.
“Um . . . what exactly is a ‘time loop’?” Phil opens his mouth to answer, but Tony beats him to it.
“It’s a plot device,” Tony says scathingly. “As in fiction, not real life.”
“Most people would say the same about aliens,” Bruce points out, and Tony concedes the point reluctantly. Phil clears his throat for attention before answering Steve’s question.
“A time loop is when time loops back on itself, repeating an event or series of events over and over until a particular set of circumstances occur, at which point time flows normally again. At Tony said, it is usually used as a plot device in fiction, in which the loop centers itself around a person or group of people who are the only ones who retain the memories of each previous loop, and are thus in a position to effect the ‘correct’ circumstances, whatever they may be, to break the loop.” Steve’s eyes grow wide. He turns to Clint.
“So you’ve lived through all of this before?” He asks, appalled. Clint looks down in remembered shame.
“Yeah. And the first time around, I was one of the people Loki took as a slave. It was . . .,” Clint trails off, looking back up at Steve before running a nervous hand through his hair, tugging on the ends. “It was goddamn awful, actually,” he says finally with a self-deprecating laugh.
Everyone is staring at him with various expressions of sympathy and horror, with the exceptions of Natasha and Phil. The former is blank-faced as always, but her eyes convey empathy and understanding to those good enough to read her -- namely Clint and Phil. Phil, on the other hand, leans closer to Clint, his hand finding Clint’s under the table and wrapping around it, eyes glaring at the others who are staring too long for Clint’s comfort. Tony’s gaze turns from disturbed to speculative in an instant and moments later Clint can practically see the light bulb flash over his head.
“Holy fuck, you’re the cellist!” Tony exclaims loudly, which earns him an immediate glare and a remonstration of “Language!” from Steve. Clint can’t help it - he leans back in his chair and laughs until there are tears streaming down his face. He makes the mistake of glancing over at his husband and Phil’s chagrinned expression sets him off yet again. It’s probably a good minute or two before he gets himself under control.
“Not a cellist, Stark,” he finally gasps between fading chuckles, “but I do have a bow!” Tony rolls his eyes at the cheesy pun.
“Whose idea was that?” he asks, and Clint points at Phil, whose ear tips have gone pink. “So you two --”
“Are married, yes. That a problem, Stark?” Phil asks, eyebrow raised. Tony grins manically.
“Nope, no problem with me,” he says, eyes sparkling as he tips his chair back, clasping his hands behind his head. “How ‘bout you, Captain?” Tony asks challengingly. “You ok with the Big Gay Love?” Steve frowns at Tony reprovingly.
“I think love is too precious to disdain simply because of the form it takes.”
“Well that’s ok then,” Tony says. “In fact, I have to congratulate you, Agent. He’s hot. I like him.”
Clint bats his eyelashes and coos “I like you too, Tony.” Phil just rolls his eyes.
“Now that Clint’s and my relationship status is confirmed, can we get back on topic?” he asks caustically.
“Of course,” Tony replies magnanimously. “So, time loop? Seriously? You believe that? How do you know he’s not just crazy?” Phil sighs.
“Yes, Stark. I believe it. Fury believes it. Hill believes it, grudgingly. So far we’ve been letting things proceed much as they did last time, and they have. Now that you’re all here, however, we have some decisions to make.”
“Like what?” Steve asks.
“Like whether or not we should let Loki escape when Webster comes for him in oh . . .” Clint looks down at his watch, “forty minutes or so now."