Prologue – March 2012
“Director Fury,” the crisp British voice says, sounding pissed, “this isn’t a request.”
Is it ever? Nick wonders. “You’re asking me to hand over one of my best field agents for an unknown period of time. You’ll forgive me if I’m hesitant.”
Jessica Waterbury of the World Security Council makes an impatient noise. “I’m aware Agent Coulson is your friend.”
Nick shakes his head, glaring up at the screen. “My objection isn’t personal.” Nick’s known Phil Coulson since he joined the Marines; at this point, Phil is less a friend and more just plain necessary. “There are other agents more qualified for this op. Agent Romanoff is the ideal – ”
Joe Chen, WSC representative from China, cuts him off mid-word. “Agent Romanoff isn’t an option. It took you nearly a year to de-programme her last time; who knows what repeat exposure to Department X would do to her.”
Privately, Nick agrees. Well, he’d send her anyway but he knows Phil wouldn’t let him, so he mostly agrees. Still, it’s a good bargaining chip: “You want to send an agent to Russia and gather evidence that the Department X project is still up and running. Who better than someone who was trained there?”
The official story from the Russian government is that Department X was closed down soon after the Cold War ended. It was a training ground for high level operatives, mostly assassins, and one of the conditions for letting Russia have a representative on the World Security Council was evidence that it was no longer running.
But the Russians aren’t stupid and Nick would have been surprised to discover that they actually had permanently shut down their highly successful espionage facility. Why the WSC are getting their panties in a knot about it now is anyone’s guess, and Nick would always rather not be involved in their internal politics.
“Is it Department X you want, or the Red Room?” he asks, raising his eyebrows at the screen.
“The Red Room is a myth,” Waterbury tells him. “A horror story to scare children into behaving. Do you really believe that, if the Russians had the ability to biologically and psychologically enhance children, we wouldn’t know about it?”
“The Red Room trained Agent Romanoff,” Nick returns, just as mildly.
Waterbury inclines her head. “Ask Agent Coulson to bring me evidence of that too,” she says, “and maybe I’ll believe you.”
“You just want evidence?” Nick asks her. “Or you want him to shut them down? Assuming I let him go, of course.”
“Just evidence for now,” Chen says. “He won’t be authorised to engage.” It isn’t surprising; even when the WSC decides to get off its ass, it rarely does so with any backbone.
Nick hates these people. He curls his fingers around the edge of his desk, out of their view, and wishes he had a button down here that fired stupidity-targeted missiles.
Maybe he could trick Stark into building him one.
“No one can know where Coulson is,” Chen says, as though Nick’s agreed to their crazy plan. “We’re talking the deepest cover possible, Fury.”
God, this is going to be a fucking nightmare. “That might be difficult. Coulson’s a popular guy.”
“How nice for him,” Waterbury says dryly. “Find an opportunity and get it done.”
The monitor flickers, then goes black.
Nick drops his head into his hands and massages his temples. “Because opportunities to completely disappear agents come along all the time,” he grumbles to empty air. Then he straightens up, sets his shoulders, and goes to steal some of Hill’s chamomile tea.
He thinks he’s earned it.
CCTV on the Helicarrier is full-colour HD with surround sound. Phil can see every twitch of Clint’s fingers against the blanket, study the stark red and purpling bruise in the centre of his forehead, and listen to his deep, even breathing.
It’s almost as good as being at his bedside, except that it’s not even close.
“Coulson,” Nick says, shutting the door to his inner office and then locking it with a firm click. “Time to go.”
“Yes, I’m ready.” Phil checks and double-checks his three hidden holsters, and then the knife in each boot. When it comes to concealed carry, he’s learned from the best.
There’s movement on the video monitor and Phil pauses, checking again, but Clint has just rolled over, his back to the camera now. There’s a cowlick curl at the nape of his neck that Phil first noticed on a long op in Sarajevo. He always thought he’d get to touch it one day, but now it looks like he never will.
Nick follows the line of Phil’s gaze and sighs. “He’s fine, Phil. Romanoff reported that he came back to himself before she knocked him out, you know that.”
Phil nods. “He’s going to wake up to the news that he helped kill one hundred and ninety-one agents,” and me, he doesn’t need to add. “He’s not fine.”
Nick smacks Phil on the shoulder. “Romanoff will look after him.”
Phil straightens, forces himself to reach over and turn the monitor off, the soothing drone of Clint’s breathing cutting off, leaving the office too quiet.
“All due respect, sir,” Phil says and earns a raised eyebrow for his trouble, “but if I wasn’t sure of that, I wouldn’t have accepted this mission.”
Nick doesn’t react, which is kind of him. Orders for this mission came straight down from the WSC, and it would have caused a headache that they don’t have time for if Phil had refused. Not that he would have given a damn about that, if Natasha hadn’t managed to fix Clint in her own unique style before it became Phil’s turn to try.
“Ready?” Nick asks, and Phil nods.
He holds out his hand. “Sir.”
“Good luck,” Nick tells him brusquely, shaking Phil’s hand for longer than Phil was expecting. They’ve worked together nearly twenty-five years, and stopped admitting to worrying about each other around the fifteen-year mark.
Phil nods and turns away, toward the escape hatch.
“Phil,” Nick says quietly and Phil sighs, turning back and reaching into his pocket.
“They’re mint,” he says, a useless protest but not a token one. He rubs his thumb over Captain America’s square-jawed face and drops the cards into Nick’s waiting palm.
“I’ll take good care of them,” Nick promises, fanning the cards out in his fist.
“No, you won’t,” Phil tells him, resigned. He unlocks the outer door and then pauses, hand on the doorframe, wind messing his hair. “Don’t let Barton sink too deep into his head. The Initiative would be a good fit for him.”
Nick salutes Phil with his trading cards. “Already thought of that,” he promises. He nods his head toward the open doorway and the Quinjet docking quietly just behind Phil. “Your ride’s here.”
“Sir,” Phil agrees, and lets the door swing closed between them.
They’re in Stark’s hideously sleek private jet, ferrying Loki back to SHIELD, and Clint would have expected some kind of contact by now, even if it was just to mock him for running out of arrows. Phil’s always on at him to pack three times more ammo than he thinks he’ll need.
“Hey, Stark,” Clint says, waving his phone across the aisle. “You get signal in this old tin can, right?”
“Thirty thousand feet up in the air?” Banner asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Please,” Stark says, preening more for Banner than for Clint. “That’s Stark tech; I had signal right up until I hit another dimension.”
“Right.” Clint sinks back into his seat and tries not to feel stupid that he’s waiting this desperately for word from his handler. It’s just that it’s been a week since Loki blew up the JDEM lab, and Clint can’t remember the last time he went that long without at least hearing Phil’s voice in his ear once.
Natasha is sitting opposite Clint, and watching him way more closely than normal. He’s not sure what she thinks he’s going to do – if he were her, he’d be more worried about her new friend Banner and his Hulk-like ways – but he doesn’t like what it might imply.
“Nat?” he asks, shifting forward.
She leans forward too, bottom lip caught between her teeth for a moment. She’s uncertain. Now he’s definitely worried.
“I need to talk to you,” she says quietly, “as soon as we’re not – ” A quick tilt of her head to indicate all the guys sitting around them, trying and failing to pretend they’re not listening in.
Clint nods. “Sure?” he agrees, half-asking even though she’s just said she’s not going to give him an answer here.
She sits back in her chair, folding her arms loosely and looking out the window.
Okay, then, Clint thinks and flips his phone open again. Maybe the sixth time will be lucky and he’ll catch Phil during a break between briefings or whatever it is that Fury has him tied up with.
To: Coulson, Phil
Sorry about that. Reporting for duty sir.
May 4, 2012 13:00
To: Coulson, Phil
Ok dashing out to save the world. Don’t wait up.
May 5, 2012 00:02
To: Coulson, Phil
World saved. Do I get a gold star?
May 5, 2012 00:31
To: Coulson, Phil
May 5, 2012 01:32
To: Coulson, Phil
Cool. I get it. You’re busy and important. See you at base, napping now.
May 5, 2012 12.41 pm
To: Coulson, Phil
Phil? You’re ok yeah?
He thinks that sentence through and decides to pretend that he never thought it. Then he stands up abruptly and dusts off his pants.
A quick check of his watch shows he slept for five hours, which means he should be somewhere on the outskirts of Kaluga by now. Latest intelligence puts the World Security Council’s contact in the centre of the city, but Phil doesn’t trust any intelligence that he didn’t gather himself or ask Natasha to gather for him.
The cargo container he’s travelling in smells musty and hot this morning, the straw which made such a good bed last night now aggravating non-existent allergies under the hem of his worn and grubby jeans.
Phil walks carefully across the car and drags the heavy metal door open, just far enough to look out. It’s already warm outside, the sun low in the sky but shining brightly in a hazy-blue sky. It glints off the top of rooftops as the train thunders past them, small towns just waking up and visible only to Phil.
The last time he snuck into Russia the unofficial way was the time they were sent to take out Natasha. That was a hot day, just like this, but he had Clint at his side then, complaining about the heat and insisting on sharing his water bottle with Phil.
The train’s approaching a bridge now, the Oka River wide and sparkling silver beneath it. Phil picks up his pack from where it’s propped in the corner and quickly checks the zipper and waterproof seals.
He waits until he knows the water will be a safe depth and then steps to the edge of the car. Somewhere back home, the Avengers are (hopefully) beating the shit out of an alien invasion; Phil can jump from a bridge if necessary. (Even if he does have a secret, private hatred of cold water.)
Folding his arms tight across his chest, he bounces where he stands once, twice, and then launches himself out into empty air, falling straight down.
He made this happen; he doesn’t have the right to be upset about it, but knowing that doesn’t stop him from feeling like shit.
Clint isn’t the kind of guy who stops to think all that often. He’s much more for doing than for thinking, but right now he can’t turn his brain off.
He remembers everything about his time with Loki, he remembers blowing up an engine and nearly killing everyone on board the ‘carrier and he remembers murdering agents who he’d passed in the corridors a million times.
What he doesn’t remember is Phil.
The last time he saw Phil, they were catching breakfast together in the canteen on the day the Tesseract went crazy. Clint was so tired that he missed his mouth while trying to drink his coffee, and ignored Phil mocking him for it. Phil told Clint all about how Captain America was reportedly out of isolation back home, and ignored Clint mocking him for that.
It’s not a bad memory as last memories of someone go. It’s just that Clint had a plan for them, he was playing the long game, and the fact that he never got to see it through makes his chest feel like someone attacked it with a blunt ice cream scoop.
The door opens, but Clint ignores it. Either it’s Natasha or it’s not and, if it’s not, Clint isn’t interested. There’s not a fuckload of privacy in SHIELD as it is; there's none at all for the recently mind-whammied.
“All right, Barton, on your feet.”
It’s not Natasha; it’s Hill. Clint stays where he is.
Clint likes Hill; she always talks to him like she wants to kill him. He appreciates honesty like that from a person.
“I’m on medical leave,” Clint says, still looking up at the ceiling. “Ma’am.”
“Bullshit,” Hill snaps, which is uncharacteristic enough that Clint swings his head around to look at her. Not that he doesn’t often make people swear at him, but he’s normally done something worse than lying down to provoke it.
“Ma’am?” Clint asks, meaning it a bit more this time. He sits up and frowns at her. “I really am on medical leave. There was a whole… Norse God in my head thing a while back. Maybe you remember?”
A pulse in Hill’s jaw ticks. “I need you back out there, Barton,” she says. “We’re hundreds down and it’s all hands on deck.”
Clint tries to imagine being out there, the friends and co-workers of the people he killed all waiting for him to go crazy again. Imagines standing in the control room without Phil somewhere on the edge of his sightline. It all feels so wrong that it makes his stomach churn.
“I’m a sniper,” he reminds her, “not much call for that at the moment.” They’re docked in the old Brooklyn navy yard for repairs and, last he heard, it wasn’t going too quick.
One thing you can say for Clint, when he betrays everything that matters to him, he does it thoroughly.
Hill uncrosses her arms and rests her hands on her hips instead. “You have hands, don’t you? There’s debris to clear up, doors to reattach, walls to paint. Name it and we need it done.” She narrows her eyes. “Tell me you don’t owe us at least that.”
Oh, she’s good. Also kind of an asshole. Clint swallows. “Where do you want me?” he asks.
“Start in the boiler room,” she suggests. “Captain Rogers is there repairing pipes, I’m sure he could use a hand.”
Clint doesn’t flinch. Even locked away in here, he knew that Rogers was back on board. Hell, Clint likes the guy; he’s glad he’s here to lend a hand. It’s not Rogers’ fault that Clint can’t even think about him without remembering Phil’s enthusiastic, surprisingly open smile all the times he told Clint the Epic Tale of Captain America.
“Yes, ma’am,” Clint says and forces himself to get off the bed.
Worse than useless, even, because not only does he not know anything, he desperately wants Phil to believe that he does.
“What did they promise you?” Phil asks, leaning forward in the chair that the informant directed him to. They’re sitting on lawn chairs in the middle of a dusty, disused barn. Phil couldn’t have prearranged a less subtle meet.
“I don’t understand,” the man, Tsigler, tells him in Russian, glancing nervously toward the door and then, tellingly, the window to Phil’s left.
“You might want to stick to English,” Phil tells him. “Unless the men waiting outside this room can speak that too?”
Tsigler’s eyes flare. “No,” he says slowly, “no, they cannot.”
Phil smiles at him encouragingly. Now they’re talking. “You don’t know how to get into Department X, do you?”
“Department X, yes, that’s right,” he says, back to Russian, looking desperately at Phil. ”I’ll give you the access codes. Do you have the money?”
He waits until Phil is bending down, pretending to look through his bag before whispering in English. “My brother works for them. When they hear that your government is close, they say I have to make you come here or they kill him.”
Phil nods. This isn’t his first rodeo. He pulls a packet out of his bag and throws it at Tsigler. “Here’s your money.” he says at normal volume then adds, “I can deal with the men here and there’s enough money in there to get you and your brother a few provinces away.”
Tsigler’s eyes go wide as he opens the envelope and flicks through the bills folded up inside. “Why?” he whispers, staring at Phil like he’s a god. It’s not a look that Phil enjoys.
“Because I need your help.” Phil leans forward, nudging his bag open slightly with his knee and letting Tsigler see the small arsenal he’s toting.
Tsigler’s eyes go wider still.
“You obviously have no information for me, but I’m sure you can tell me who does.” Phil raises his eyebrows and looks from the window to the door pointedly.
Tsigler was already fairly pale, now he goes white. “No,” he says, “no, there is no one who – ”
Phil just keeps looking at him. “Now that’s just not true, is it?” he asks patiently.
Tsigler looks as though he’d rather be dead. But a lot of people look like that, until it becomes a probability. “I do not know his true name,” he says at least, speaking quickly. “But they call him the Winter Soldier. He is one of only two to escape from the Department.”
Yeah, and Phil knows who the other escapee was. Facts and rumours start running through his head, slotting together and creating a new plan. He’s heard of the Winter Soldier, but Natasha told them he was probably dead and SHIELD has the more recent sightings of him categorised as probable myth or copycat. “And where do I find him?”
Tsigler shakes his head. “I do not know.”
He’s lying, Phil thinks. From what Phil’s heard about the Winter Soldier, he can see why Tsigler wouldn’t want to be the person who sold him out, but it’s still annoying.
“That’s a shame,” Phil says, switching to loud Russian. “I was so hoping you’d be able to help - “
“Please,” Tsigler says, looking and sounding stricken. “Please. I do not know the Winter Soldier’s movements, but I know that there is a bar.” He turns over the sheaves of paper in his lap and writes something quickly in the top right corner. “This is the address.”
Phil takes the papers and memorises the address quickly before tucking it away into his bag. ”Thank you for your help, Mr Tsigler,” he says, standing up and offering his hand. ”My government will remember this.”
Tsigler takes his hand and the scrap of paper that Phil quickly palms to him. It’s a SHIELD emergency egress number. Their local contact endorsed the WSC’s faulty information, so he deserves to have to clean up this mess.
“Thank you,” Tsigler says and again in English, “Thank you.”
Phil nods. From outside, he can hear the soft click of someone flicking a safety catch off. “Mr Tsigler,” Phil says, hefting his bag up onto his recently vacated chair. “You might want to go crouch down in that corner over there. I recommend closing your eyes; this may get messy.”
Tsigler nods and darts out of the way, still clutching his money.
Phil reaches into his bag, pulls out a V-61 Scorpion, his least favourite of the submachine guns
that he packed, and takes a step toward the window.
Clint catches it easily and swings left, hanging by one hand to reach a particularly stubborn panel. “Sure.”
Rogers clears his throat. “You, uh, you might want to come down first.”
Clint has finally got a lock on the most stubborn nut, and he gives it a vicious twist. “Cap,” he says, “I don’t fall. Just ask your question.”
“All right,” Rogers says, but it still takes him a little time before he does. “I, um, I heard some people talking and… Tony said there was a cellist but a lot of the junior agents seem pretty convinced that you and Agent Coulson were, um.”
Clint’s wrench slips free and he settles for smacking the panel really hard a couple of times.
“Clint?” Rogers asks. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have - ”
“No,” Clint tells him steadily. “Coulson and I weren’t, we weren’t anything.”
It’s obvious Rogers is uncomfortable. “Right, okay. Sorry. Everyone just, they seemed pretty certain that you were important to each other.”
Clint sighs and swings back up until he’s sitting on the ladder he was hanging from. That panel’s not coming off.
“Right, yeah,” he says, looking down and offering Rogers a shrug. “I guess that part’s true.” A lot of people have been important to Clint. The fact that he seemed to matter to Phil too was what made it feel different.
Rogers looks up at him for a long moment or two, then swipes a hand across his forehead, smudging dust and oil up into his hair. “You know what,” he says, giving Clint a small, uncertain smile, “I think we’ve done enough for today. Want to go get a beer?”
Phil glances up at the bartender, the same way he has every time she’s gotten a new patron this evening. He’s got to admit he’s a little surprised when this is the time that she widens her eyes, just slightly, and turns a wine glass over on the shelf, their prearranged signal.
The man – the Winter Soldier, apparently, although he can’t be the same one Natasha knew a decade ago – leans against the bar and orders vodka, straight. Phil is near enough to hear that his Russian accent has a soft twang of somewhere else to it, but far enough away that it shouldn’t be obvious he’s listening.
While the bartender is fixing his drink, the Soldier looks around the bar, letting his eyes rest on everyone for a second before moving on. No one looks back at him, so Phil makes sure to lower his eyes too, ignoring how much it grates to take his eyes off the target.
When he hears the clink of a glass against the bar, Phil lets himself look back up. The Soldier is half-turned around still, a clearly defensive position. The only way of sneaking up on him would involve coming at him from behind the bar and, if he drinks here regularly, he’s obviously decided that’s unlikely.
Phil wasn’t planning on jumping him in the bar, not in front of everyone else, so he leans back in his seat and drinks one sip of beer for every three he pretends to take.
It’s dark in the bar and the Soldier has long, shaggy black hair, which falls into his face, creating a darker-still shadow over his eyes. Phil can’t get a good enough look at his face to see if he matches any of the e-fit images that Phil keeps in the back of his brain.
Phil has always been someone who likes to make plans and back-up plans, which is why he moved quickly from field agent to handler, so he isn’t comfortable going into this with no information. He knew from the start that this mission had to be handled without backup, though, so he’s going to have to roll with it.
He briefly imagines the looks Clint and Natasha would give him, and then each other, if they knew that he was out here, winging it. Then he forces himself to stop that, take a deep breath, refocus on the job at hand.
Thinking about Clint, about the people he left behind who presumably think he’s dead by now, is a distraction he can’t afford.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t look relaxed, even sitting at the bar, but he’s also showing no signs of moving on. He orders a second vodka and turns to rest his elbows on the bar, shoulders hunched. He isn’t a big man, Phil’s height or not much taller, and his jacket moulds perfectly to his upper body, revealing narrow hips and slender shoulders.
Phil knows better than to judge someone’s fighting ability on how they look – he knows Natasha – but he’s still surprised that this is the man who is talked about in fearful whispers everywhere that he’s known.
It takes more than an hour before the Soldier finishes his last drink and sets it on the bar with a decisive click.
“Good night,” he says to the bartender, voice surprisingly soft and polite, and nods to her when she smiles at him. Her eyes cut to Phil, who stays where he is, unmoving.
Phil waits to see what he’ll do next, whether he’ll head out now or maybe approach one of the girls who have been eyeing him from the back of the room. Instead of doing either, he stands up, and walks around to the left of the bar, disappearing through a side door, which Phil has already established is the restroom.
Phil waits sixty seconds, fingers itching against the rough material of his jeans. He gets up, takes his bottle back to the bar and orders another before heading through the door after the Winter Soldier.
Steve (at some point he became Steve; Clint thinks it might have been between beers six and seven) licks foam off his top lip and says, “It tastes pretty good to me.”
Clint waves a hand at him, almost smacking him in the chest. That isn’t Clint’s fault; the guy has a lot of chest. “Right, yeah, it’s fine, but it’s not getting me drunk. I’d really like to be drunk, Cap.”
Steve raises an eyebrow at him. “Should I get you something else?” he asks. He’s the one going up and down to the bar, since he’s made best buddies with the bartender. Clint’s pretty sure she’s going to be slipping him her phone number soon.
He wonders what Steve’ll do when that happens. Probably blush so hard that he melts through the floor. For a guy who’s got to be the hottest man Clint’s ever seen in real life, aesthetically speaking, he’s turning out to be really bad at getting hit on.
“Nah,” Clint tells him, propping his cheek on his hand and staring across at Steve. “I know when I’m beat.”
Steve purses his lips. “If it helps, you seem a little tipsy to me.”
Clint laughs, giving Steve a lazy thumbs-up. “Thanks, buddy.” He is tipsy, sure, maybe more than, but his thoughts aren’t slowing down any and that sucks. He just wants to forget everything for a while, block it all out and kill some brain cells.
Steve finishes his own beer and then sighs, gets up and disappears into the Saturday evening crowd. Before Clint has time to wonder if it was something he said, he’s back, carrying four shot glasses per hand.
“Here,” he says, pushing half of them across to Clint. “I wasn’t sure what you like but it’s vodka, and everyone likes vodka, right?”
“Thanks,” Clint says, downing the first one without even thinking about it. It’s strong, tastes expensive, and it burns his throat better than the beer ever could. “Are you s’posed to be getting me drunk? Aren’t you all like - ” He waves a hand around. “Moral and stuff?”
Steve picks up one of his shots and runs a finger around the rim. “Sometimes you need to do what you’re doing - I lost someone too, in the war - sometimes you need something to help dull the pain. That doesn’t seem like the worst thing to me.”
That last shot has definitely done more for Clint than the beer managed to, but he does his best to look Steve straight in the eye. The guy is being nice enough to get Clint drunk, the least Clint can do is listen when he’s telling him painful-sounding stuff.
“You can’t get drunk, though, right?” he asks. “How’d you get it to stop hurting?”
Steve looks away. “I didn’t,” he says, with a smile that isn’t a smile at all.
“Good evening,” Phil says, and heads toward one of the two stalls that are lined up a few feet behind the Soldier.
Phil’s Russian is fluent but he learned it on a long-ago mission to Tajikistan, one of his first with Nick, so his accent won’t stand up to inspection, especially not from someone who’s already predisposed to suspicion. Especially right now, when he isn’t trying.
He pauses in the doorway, one hand on the frame and, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the Soldier tense.
They turn to each other at the same time. There’s a knife in the Soldier’s hand but Phil blocks it, grabs his wrist and follows the downswing, brings his arm up behind his back.
The Soldier lifts a foot and stamps on Phil’s instep, kicking him in the knee immediately after. It hurts but nothing dislocates or cracks, so Phil doesn’t loosen his grip.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says quickly, “I have a proposition.”
“I don’t care,” the Soldier tells him and flips his hand over, jabbing back with the knife in a cack-handed, backward move that still manages to nick Phil’s wrist bone and embed shallowly in his forearm.
Phil tugs sharply on the arm he’s holding, twisting them both backwards, kicks off the wall so he can push the Soldier into the bank of sinks, bend him backward, the top of his head an inch above a solid metal faucet.
He’s good, better than Phil, but Phil is confident that he could knock him out if he had to.
“Now,” Phil says, “will you listen to me? I’m not here to hurt you. I think we can work together.”
The Soldier glares up at Phil, looking murderous. He jerks his head forward like he wants to headbutt Phil in the face and his hair falls back off his face, letting Phil get his first clear look at him.
The Winter Soldier has pale skin, sharp blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones and a profile that Phil probably shouldn’t recognise, considering he’s only seen it on a handful of old newsreels, but he does. Immediately.
“Barnes?” he asks even though it’s not, it can’t be. Except. Except Phil has spent the better part of fifty years learning all there is to know about the Howling Commandos and he knows, no trace of a doubt, that’s exactly who this is. “You’re Sergeant Barnes.”
The Winter Soldier, James Barnes, a man who died sixty-eight years ago, goes very, very still. He stares at Phil from eyes that are suddenly wide, lost, and Phil thinks for a moment that he’s gotten through that easily, but then his expression shutters and he shoves Phil away.
Phil’s sufficiently stunned that he lets himself fall back. He lands against the frame between the stalls and watches as Barnes runs. Phil doesn’t try to stop him, just straightens up and pulls the knife from his arm, turning it over thoughtfully in his hands.
Clint is eternally grateful. Or he will be once he’s sober enough to have feelings.
“Will you be all right?” Steve asks, stepping back after dropping Clint onto his bed.
Clint waves him away. “Yeah,” he promises, turning onto his side because he doesn’t want to choke on his own puke. That’s never a fun time.
Steve hovers. Clint isn’t used to that. Well, he is, Phil used to hover around when Clint got himself hurt, but he was way more subtle than Steve is, usually waving a form or a medal or a threat to fire him as an excuse to stay close.
Clint pokes at the memory cautiously. It aches, but it’s nice to be able to think about Phil while he’s too numb to get bowled over by the full force of the hurt.
“Go away, go home,” Clint groans, rolling onto his stomach and burying his face in his pillow. He can’t feel his lips. He needs to find out what kind of vodka it was that Steve plied him with and buy a whole fucking room full of it.
He listens to Steve move around the room, too blurry in the head to turn and check what he’s doing. He (mostly) trusts that Steve isn’t going to try to stab him in the back.
“There’s water here,” Steve says, followed by the thud of someone with super-strength trying to set a glass down quietly. “Want me to see if I can find some pain pills?”
Ugh, apparently Clint really does have to show proof of life. “S’fine,” he slurs, “I’ve got some.” He squints his eyes open and leans up far enough to meet Steve’s eyes. “Fuck off now, okay?”
Steve smiles slightly, not looking offended, which is kind of what Clint was aiming for; he’s glad he got it right. “Okay,” he says, “good night.” A pause. “Clint.”
“Night, Steve,” Clint says and flops back down, groaning in satisfaction when Steve flips off the light before leaving Clint alone.
For five minutes or so, Clint revels in the quiet, in the sluggish flow of his brain which can’t settle on a thought long enough to obsess over it.
It’s peaceful. Clint’s a big fan of peace.
Then he realises that he can’t fall asleep, that he’s apparently not going to pass out, and all of a sudden he isn’t just alone, he’s really fucking lonely. That doesn’t happen often; he isn’t big on needing people, but right now he’s drunk and the quiet’s so thick he thinks he’s going to suffocate on it.
He’s out of bed, out of his room before he’s thought it through, and standing in the middle of the corridor with no idea where it is he wants to go now, other than back in time.
Intellectually, he knows that he needs to sleep – he had one lead and he fucked that up this evening, so he needs to spend tomorrow cultivating new ones – but his brain is busy chanting Bucky Barnes, that was Bucky Barnes at him in increasingly excited tones.
Concentrating on anything else is proving impossible.
He beats his pillow flat a few times and then rolls onto his back, staring up at the ceiling through the grainy, grey darkness.
Meeting Steve Rogers was everything and nothing like Phil had been expecting. He’d expected a good man, a driven man and he’d gotten one, but what he hadn’t been expecting – stupidly, because it was obvious in retrospect – was a very lost, very young man, grieving for everyone he ever knew.
Phil hasn’t let himself think about the possibility of going home after this mission – now that the WSC has a completely untraceable operative, they’re not going to give that up without a fight – but now he can’t help imagining what it would be like to be the man who brings Bucky Barnes home to Steve Rogers.
It’s a heady thought.
“Don’t stab me,” he mumbles because he thinks that’s something he probably wouldn’t enjoy too much.
Natasha doesn’t lower her knife. It’s too dark to see her properly, but he imagines that she’s scowling. “You’re in my bed. I was sleeping.”
“Mmm. Sleeping, yeah, I like that plan.” Clint lies down, tucked up on one side so he’s not taking up all her space. He’s the dizzy kind of drunk now; it had taken all his concentration to get himself down to her room once he decided that that was where he wanted to go.
“Clint,” she says very firmly. “I will kick you out of this bed and you will not enjoy that very much.”
Clint groans. He’ll fuck off if she really wants him to, but right now she sounds confused more than genuinely annoyed. “Tasha,” he says carefully, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
She’s silent for long enough that his swimming brain tries to drag him down into sleep. He fights it off. Getting kicked to the floor while unconscious would hurt even worse.
“Fine,” she sighs eventually. “But don’t drool on my pillows.”
“Never,” he promises and carefully wipes off the corner of his mouth with his sleeve.
Natasha shifts around until her shoulder is pressed against Clint’s chest. “I don’t cuddle and I’m not going to spoon with you,” she warns him.
Clint smiles, presses his face into the top of her arm. After a minute, she reaches down and links their fingers together, giving his hand a squeeze.
“You need something else?” she asks him in heavily accented English. “You have already scared off my best customer.”
“Just a beer,” Phil tells her in Russian and pulls up a stool to the bar, the same place that Barnes sat last time. He waits until she’s set the bottle in front of him, then pays her five times what it’s worth. “How long has the Winter Soldier been coming here?”
She looks at him, her eyes narrowed then looks down at the money, considering. “Six months, maybe,” she says. “My father’s father told stories of him though,” she adds with a shrug, like she knows that’s impossible but it’s still the truth.
Phil finds himself growing increasingly curious. The Winter Soldier has been popping up in reports since back when SHIELD was a pipe dream in the back of Nick Fury Senior’s mind, so Barnes clearly wasn’t frozen in time like Captain Rogers. How he still looks like a man in his late twenties, Phil doesn’t know. It isn't a mystery he’s happy to leave unsolved.
The bartender pours Phil a shot of grappa that he didn’t order. He raises his eyebrows at her. She sighs, drinks the shot for him and pours him another.
“It’s not poisoned,” she says, laughing softly in the back of her throat. “Do you plan to kill him?”
Phil drinks his shot. It burns all the way down, but he learned to drink in the Rangers and then renewed his skills with Natasha so he doesn’t wince.
“Only as the very last resort,” he tells her because it’s best never to categorically promise not to kill anyone. You never know when circumstances might change.
She nods thoughtfully, then apparently decides that’s acceptable because she sticks out her hand. “I’m Nina. Are you hungry?”
Phil is, in point of fact, starving. “You serve food?”
Nina shakes her head. Her mouth keeps quirking when she looks at Phil, as though he’s entertaining her. Phil isn’t sure what to make of that; most civilians aren’t usually amused by potential murderers.
“No,” she says, “but I have soup warming upstairs. I could spare a bowl.”
“Oh.” Phil blinks, genuinely taken by surprise. He doesn’t expect to find kindness on missions like this. “Thank you. If you’re sure?”
She smiles at him, giving him a pat on the hand before stepping back out of sight. Phil watches her go, not sure what to make of that. Just in case, he puts his hand on his most accessible gun.
Nina doesn’t come back with a shotgun or a Department X militia though, just an earthenware bowl full of spicy-smelling soup, a few chunks of bread floating on top.
“Don’t tell me if it’s bad,” Nina tells him, handing him a spoon. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe.”
Phil has been subsisting on MREs and slightly brown cheese since he got to Russia, too busy to go out for a meal and not wanting to attract attention, either. He isn’t sure he’d notice if the soup were the worst food on earth. Luckily, it’s not; it’s rich and peppery enough to warm him all the way through.
He tells her that, adding a very sincere, “Thank you,” after it. He starts to reach for his wallet, but Nina stops him.
“My name is Nina Tsigler,” she tells him in careful English. “I think you are the man who saved my cousins’ lives. You don’t need to pay for soup.”
Phil pulls his hand back. He isn’t used to being rewarded for taking the fastest route to achieve his mission’s objective. He isn’t going to turn down her kindness, however.
Nina is looking at him closely when he looks up again. “The bar closes in an hour,” she tells him, back in Russian.
He’s just about to tell her that he knows that and that he’ll be gone by then, when he realises what she’s actually saying.
She’s half his age and very beautiful; it’s flattering.
“I’m married,” he tells her, thinking of Clint, who he hasn’t even gotten to kiss, but to whom he’s been committed for a long time, just waiting to make his move until he was no longer Clint’s direct superior.
Nina shrugs, straightening up and moving over to serve an old man who’s just bellied up to the bar. “I’m not,” she calls over her shoulder with an unapologetic little smile.
Clint doesn’t go.
To be fair, he probably wouldn’t have gone to most of them even if he hadn’t been indirectly responsible for the whole damn thing. He’s not very good at having emotions in front of other people and he hates it when they have them anywhere near him. (It’s one of the reasons why he appreciates Natasha’s existence; she feels exactly the same way. Phil used to call them his little robots but… Never mind that, now.)
There are a couple of funerals he would have gone to under other circumstances though.
There was a girl who worked in R&D who always smiled at him in the lunchline and made jokes about the weird goop the cooks served that was supposed to be custard. Clint doesn’t know why she was down on the main levels, but he’s seen the footage: she was between him and Loki, and he shot her through the chest before she even knew he was there.
And there’s Phil. He would definitely have gone to Phil’s funeral. Hell, he might still go to Phil’s funeral and pretend like he can’t see the stares he’ll get, except that he can’t find out when it is.
Hill doesn’t look surprised when he corners her in the armoury, just shifts a box of cartridge cases to the left and makes a mark on her clipboard.
“Agent Barton,” she says, “want to help me audit our ammo stocks?”
“Not really,” Clint tells her, squatting down in front of her. “How come you’re not at Agent Morley’s service?”
Hill makes another mark on her clipboard. “This is more valuable,” she says shortly.
Clint shrugs. It is. And it’s seriously none of his business, not when he knows that Hill and Morley were regular sparring partners and that scuttlebutt says they shared an apartment when they were both junior agents.
“Ma’am,” he says, “When’s Agent Coulson’s funeral? It’s not on the list.”
Hill looks up at him. He appreciates that she didn’t ask why he’s not at Morley’s funeral, but he doesn’t appreciate the look of wide-open something in her eyes right now.
“Agent Coulson’s body has been shipped back to Massachusetts for a private funeral,” she tells him, rubbing at her chin with one dusty hand.
Clint frowns. “SHIELD agents don’t get family funerals.”
“This one did,” Hill says with a shrug.
“But that’s.” Clint stops himself. He’s not going to argue. He’s not going to do anything to make her look at him like he’s any more pathetic than she already is. “To his family?”
Phil told Clint once that he didn’t have any family, just a mother who was so far gone to Alzheimer’s that she thought he was his own grandfather every time he visited.
Clint thought Phil had been telling him the truth, but he guesses that was pretty naïve of him. Phil never told anyone anything important or personal; why would Clint have been the exception?
“Thank you, ma’am,” he says, standing up when she nods.
“Barton,” she calls and he stops.
She puts her clipboard down and stands up with him. “Let’s go to the gym,” she says, surprising the hell out of him. “I haven’t seen you train since the incident.”
Clint blinks. “Are you my new handler?” he asks. He doesn’t mind exactly, just. Well, he doesn’t want a new handler. That’s sentimental bullshit, though, so he pushes it aside.
“Please,” Hill tells him, “I’m Deputy Director of SHIELD, do you think I have time to be anyone’s handler?”
Despite everything, Clint smiles. “Just want to beat me up?” he asks.
“Yes,” Hill says. He can’t tell if she’s joking or not. It’s fair enough either way, he thinks, and falls into step with her. He’s tried everything else; maybe a couple of fists to the face will help.
Phil freezes. He didn’t hear Barnes enter the bar but he still doesn’t flinch.
“I was here first,” he points out calmly, signalling to Nina for another drink. “Drink?”
He isn’t expecting Barnes to take him up on his offer, but to his surprise, he sits down next to Phil and orders a glass of Medovukha, which Phil gladly pays for.
They don’t speak while they drink. Barnes is wire tense and Phil expects him to run at any moment. Fortunately, Phil has a long history of dealing with mistrustful people. On their first mission together, Clint wouldn’t eat any SHIELD-issue food, and it took him three years to trust arrows he hadn’t sourced himself.
Phil had waited him out; he can easily do the same with Barnes.
When Barnes finishes his drink, he puts the glass down and shakes his head when Nina offers him another.
“Whatever you’re offering, I’m not interested,” Barnes says eventually. If there’s a slight American curve to his Russian, there’s also a soft Russian twist to his Brooklyn accent.
Phil turns to look at him. Barnes sucks on his lower lip and widens his eyes at Phil, a mix between unconcern and defiance.
“I could say that if that were true, you wouldn’t still be here,” Phil says levelly, “but I don’t know you. That might not be true. Here’s something that is true: I’m not offering anything, I’m looking for your help.”
“My help?” Barnes asks. He picks up his glass, spins it from hand to hand. Phil watches and wonders how fast he could smash it and cut Phil’s throat. Phil’s quick but he’s not rating his chances if Barnes tries. “Why, you need someone shot?”
“No,” Phil says, “I already have someone for that.”
“Sure? I’m a good shot,” Barnes says, smiling with no humour.
Phil shrugs. “He’s the best. I need someone to help me break into Department X.”
Barnes stills. His blue eyes widen for a beat before he breathes out slowly. “That’s not a good idea, buddy.”
“Why?” Phil leans toward him, elbow on the bar. “That’s what you’re planning, isn’t it?” If Department X made Barnes whatever he is now, it would make sense for him to want revenge. Why else would he still be here?
Barnes shakes his head slowly. “You don’t want to know what I’m planning,” he says seriously. There’s no spark behind his eyes, nothing Phil can latch onto and manipulate.
“I know Steve Rogers,” Phil says, his trump card. Maybe he played it too early, but he doesn’t think so.
Barnes flinches; it’s fast, fast enough that Phil might have missed it if he hadn’t been looking, but it’s there. “Good for you,” he says, on a long breath. “What is he, your great-grandpa?”
Phil reaches – slowly – into his pocket, pulls out a neatly folded page torn from yesterday’s edition of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Look at the date,” he tells Barnes, handing it over.
He watches as Barnes unfolds the paper, glance quickly over the Russian-language report on the Battle of Manhattan (which they aren’t calling it yet, but Phil hopes they will) and the giant picture of Tony Stark in the centre.
Tucked into one corner, obviously taken by a photographer who didn’t know what they had, is a candid shot of Captain America, cowl blown back and dirt smudged across his face.
Barnes’ eyes flare, more life in them than Phil has seen so far.
“That’s a shitty trick, asshole,” he says, but his voice is shaking.
From: Maria Hill To: World’s Greatest Marksman
Subject: No subject>
Check the locker next to yours. Combination 4437.
Don’t thank me. Ever.
Clint isn’t sure whether to be curious or worried. SHIELD’s idea of an exciting gift is almost always a new way to kill people, which is a trait Clint strongly appreciates and knows how to react to. The fact that Hill’s emailing him privately could mean anything.
He showers slowly and shaves carefully and goes to the canteen for a proper breakfast, in case she’s watching him, because it’s always fun to frustrate people whenever possible. Eventually though, he can’t put it off any longer and he makes his way to the locker room.
The locker next to his is empty except for a crisp, brown envelope. Inside is a front door key and an address. Scribbled under the address is you have forty-eight hours, then we’re clearing it all out.
Clint stares until the words blur in front of his eyes. He knows who lives at that address, or rather who lived there. Clint never used it, but Phil gave him his home address in case of emergency years ago.
“Thanks,” Clint says to the empty locker room, hoping she really is watching him. He pockets the key, curls his fist around it in his pocket because his hands are shaking.
Phil’s house is just outside the city, and it takes Clint forty minutes to borrow a car and drive there. He isn’t going to need the full forty-eight hours, but he needs to get it done now.
The key Hill gave him turns easily in the lock. It feels like it shouldn’t somehow, like it’s been longer than a couple of weeks since Phil was last here. At the back of his mind, Clint’s expecting the key to grate in the lock and for the hallway to be thick with spiderwebs.
Phil’s dead; his house shouldn’t look like he’s just on vacation.
There’s a stack of mail on the table by the door, neatly lined up at the corners, and Clint realises Phil must have picked it up when he ran home between evacuating Project PEGASUS and moving onto the Helicarrier.
Clint sweeps up the stuff that’s come since then and adds it to the pile, mimicking Phil’s neat edges. He feels stupid as soon as he’s done it. It’s all junk mail, and it’s not like Phil’s here to care or to read it or –
Clint stops that line of thought right there and looks around instead. There’s a door on his left and a flight of stairs straight in front of him. It feels like ten kinds of wrong to go up to Phil’s bedroom, but he still can’t stop himself. Doing the stupid thing is pretty much his MO.
Phil’s bedroom is tidy but not OCD neat. There are shoes poking out from under the dresser and a tie over the back of one chair. His bed’s been stripped, thank god, so Clint doesn’t have to talk himself out of trying to smell his pillow.
For the record he wouldn’t do that; he’s already feeling kind of shaky in the chest-area and that wouldn’t help.
He pulls open Phil’s closet, just to see his suits. Some are in drycleaner bags but most are just sitting neatly on their hangers. Clint used to love trying to guess what kind of meeting Phil was going to based on how classy his suits were that day.
Phil had a whole theory on the correlation between suits and threat levels; they got drunk in a rainstorm one time and Clint made him explain the whole thing.
“Fuck,” Clint says out loud and spins around, striding out of the room.
He goes down the stairs three at a time, then takes long strides down the narrow hall until he hits the kitchen. It’s a small house, but it’s more lived-in than Clint was expecting. Clint has his own place too, but it looks more like a barracks than his room at SHIELD does.
Phil’s house, though, looks like a home. There’s an honest-to-god spice rack on the counter and postcards tacked neatly to the door of the fridge.
Curious, Clint’s crossing the room to check them out when he sees a mug sitting in front of the tea kettle and just… stops.
There’s a spoon poking out the top and a tea bag in the bottom and -
And Clint’s brain goes offline.
It’s stupid. It’s not like Phil left here still wanting a cup of tea and died immediately. He probably grabbed himself a Starbucks as soon as he was out the door - Phil was never knowingly undercaffeinated - except Clint’s heart is aching and he can’t seem to make it stop.
He puts his hand down on the counter and bows his head, doesn’t think about Phil standing right there.
He shouldn’t have come here.
Something brushes against his legs and he jumps half out of his skin, reaching for the knife in his jacket before he looks down and realises that it’s a cat.
“Huh,” he says, clearing his throat. “Hi?”
“Sorry,” a woman’s voice says from Clint’s left, and holy fuck, is he losing his edge this badly?
He spins around and finds an older lady in a bright red tunic dress standing at the kitchen window. She taps the glass in the door beside her, and Clint steps up automatically to open it.
The kitty door cut into the bottom brushes his foot, which at least explains the surprise ninja cat attack.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says, smiling at Clint as soon as he’s gotten the door open. “We heard noises through the wall and she got so excited because she thought Phil must be home.” A wider smile. “Is he here with you?”
“Uh.” Clint shakes his head. “No. No, he’s – ” He looks down at the cat. “Is she his?”
There’s no way Phil owned a cat, but here she is, running around the kitchen, nosing into every corner like she’s been here before and wants to check that nothing’s changed.
“She sure is. Her name’s Indy. I feed her for Phil when he’s away with work.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Millie.”
“Clint,” he tells her, automatically taking her hand. He can’t keep his eyes off the cat. Phil had a cat. It’s so human and personal; Clint feels like he shouldn’t have found out.
“Oh, I guessed that,” Millie tells him with a little laugh. At Clint’s probably epically confused expression, she points over his shoulder.
Tacked up in the middle of the fridge is a picture of him looking like an idiot with a party hat stuck on top of his head. It was taken on the Brandt op – Benji’s been cropped off one side – and he sent it to Phil because he couldn’t call him up to wish him a Merry Christmas.
Phil never mentioned having gotten it. He certainly never told Clint he’d kept it. Or that he apparently talked about Clint to his neighbours.
“He told me about you, how you were working away that year but… Are you all right, honey?” Millie interrupts herself, putting her hand on his arm. Clint isn’t good with comfort and he isn’t good with grandmotherly people but he stays still while she pats him.
He swallows and can’t make himself speak.
“Is Phil okay?” Millie asks him, too shrewd. “He’s been gone much longer than he said he would be.”
“No, he’s dead.” Clint says it too bluntly, but that’s okay; he’s hurting so everyone else should be too, right?
He regrets it as soon as he says it because she makes this noise, closer to a sob than anything he’s managed yet and has to catch herself against the kitchen counter.
“I’m sorry,” Clint says, uselessly. It’s his fault, after all. “I didn’t, um.”
“How?” Millie asks. The cat jumps up onto the counter to nose at her face and she strokes it absently.
“Did you see about the attack?” he asks. “The aliens in the city?” Stupid question, he tells himself, who didn’t see that?
She nods warily, clearly gearing herself up for some horrific story.
Clint folds his arms, not hugging himself, not quite. “He died saving people,” Clint tells her. “He was a hero.”
Since the WSC contact turned out to be a bust, he’s fallen back on an old SHIELD contact, one he’s never met but who calls him back almost straight away with information on a research facility that’s believed to be storing Department X documentation.
Which is how Phil finds himself standing outside at just after midnight, attempting to jimmy the lock.
It’s times like this he misses his exploding putty and all the other things SHIELD R&D can come up with. He wishes he could have brought a bigger case and packed one of everything inside it, but that might have ruined his cover.
He bends his wrist down to an uncomfortable angle and feeds a third pick into the lock. With one final twist, the lock pops open and Phil pushes lightly against the door.
A shrill beep sounds to Phil’s left but he refuses to let himself worry. He pulls his glove back on, pulling the door shut behind himself, and snaps open the panel covering the alarm control pad.
Phil might not have Stark’s cell-deep understanding of machinery or Natasha’s ability to find himself a workaround past any electronic obstacle, but he’s no slouch when it comes to technology.
It takes three attempts, but he manages to persuade the alarm that he has the right code just before it starts to sound properly. He gives himself point five seconds to calm his breathing, then sets off for the guards’ break room he’s been assured is on this level.
Two corridors along and six rooms down, he presses his ear to the door. There are voices behind the wood, which confirms his intelligence that this is the right room. He drags an almost-invisible piece of pressure-sensitive twine between the doorframe and the handle and activates the setting on his watch that will tell him when it’s disturbed, then continues down the corridor.
Occasionally, field intelligence does still live up to its name, it seems, because the archive room is also exactly where his contact said it would be. It surprises him that the door is unlocked and unguarded, but he isn’t running this facility and it certainly makes it easier to take what he needs.
Phil stares at the row after row of filing cabinets in front of him, and nods, satisfied. The World Security Council wants evidence that Department X is still running; it’s all right here.
Phil doesn’t work for the WSC though, and SHIELD could make much better use of Department X’s files than just using them to score points with the Russians.
He steps up to the cabinet in the left hand corner, the only one that seems to have any security on it, and spends five minutes he probably doesn’t have hacking the lock and five more minutes rifling through the contents.
It would probably be easier if the records were computerised, but he’s missed this kind of work and it’s no real hardship. Something glossy and oversized pokes out the top of a file marked Destroy In 2011 and he stares at it in professional horror for a moment before flicking the file open and unfolding a map.
It’s highly detailed, colour-coded, and whoever was in charge of Department X’s data destruction procedure needs to be shot, because this should never have fallen into Phil’s hands.
He’s delighted that it has.
He slips it free of its plastic pocket, tucks it inside his jacket, and neatly replaces the folder exactly where it came from. He’s been wearing gloves the whole time, but he still wipes off the handle quickly before relocking the cabinet and turning to leave the room.
Which is when the alarm on his watch goes off.
Phil isn’t anything but mildly concerned – sometimes guards leave their break room, that doesn’t mean they’ve realised there’s an intruder – until he suddenly hears running feet heading this way. He drops his hand down to his thigh holster and fades back into the shadows.
The door to the archive room crashes open, and four men carrying flashlights come pouring in. Their beams are bright enough to light the whole archive, but Phil’s still tucked behind a filing cabinet and he manages to shoot one in the knee and another in the chest before they find him.
“Put down your weapon,” the lead guard yells at him in Russian.
Phil raises his gun and shoots at him in response. Since he’s simultaneously rolling away from a volley of shots, his own shot goes wide. His second hits the guy in the arm but a bullet lands close to Phil’s foot, so he abandons his position to make for higher ground.
Unfortunately, archive rooms don’t have a lot of higher ground. If he were Clint or Natasha, he could do something gymnastic and amazing with the top of a filing cabinet and the overhanging balcony, but he’s not, so the best he can do is make for the narrow metal staircase to his right.
Another bullet zips past his ear and a third smacks straight into his back.
He’s wearing a vest but the impact is huge from this close a range and he goes down hard, landing on his hands and knees and rolling quickly onto his back even though it hurts like hell. There’s a man leaning over him, so Phil shoots him in the face.
Two down, one wounded, only one left unharmed, but even one man is one too many when Phil’s aching and bruised and has nowhere to run.
He’s reaching behind himself for the knife taped to the small of his back when the last remaining guard rounds the corner, a machine gun in his hands.
“This was not supposed to be this difficult,” Phil tells him because he thinks the guy deserves to know that, even if he can’t understand.
The guy’s eyes land on Phil and narrow with the kind of malice that means he might not be getting out of this uninjured after all.
“Wait!” Phil snaps, all urgency and the guy does hesitate, just for a second but long enough for Phil to grab the hilt of his knife and fling it across the room.
The guard’s eyes track it and Phil shoots him in the stomach. He rolls to his knees and follows that up with a bullet to the head because he’s not going to leave a guy to bleed out slowly when he can end it quick.
Phil’s back aches when he pulls himself to his feet. He hasn’t been in a firefight in a while; he’d forgotten about the random pains. But Clint and Maria Hill fought off forty-three mercenaries once in Libya, while Phil and Natasha were cut off from them by a landslide. They came back blood-stained but smiling, so Phil isn’t going to complain about this.
He flicks the clip out of his gun – he lost count of how many rounds he’s fired, embarrassingly – and makes sure there’s a fresh cartridge in his pocket. He isn’t stupid enough to think that this group was it. The guard he winged will have gone for reinforcements and –
An alarm starts to blare overhead. Phil might have been better off blowing it up, rather than simply disabling it.
He slaps a new clip into place and brings his back pistol up, backing up towards the long, plate-glass window at the back of the room. He can hear voices and footsteps coming closer, so he fires one bullet straight up, knocking out the lights, then follows it up with a volley of shots into the darkness in front of him.
It’ll only take a minute for the new wave of guards to realise that there’s one of him and not dozens, but he makes quick use of that minute, reloading again and reaching behind himself to fumble with the catch on the window.
It swings open, which is great. He’s got an escape route. Except he’s three storeys off the ground, and he’s never been a fan of falling.
“This was supposed to be the easy part,” he mutters to himself, annoyed. If he’d been running this op from above, it would have gone without a hitch; having only himself to act as ground agent makes coordinating the mission much harder. It’s been so long since he didn’t have a team that he forgot how much harder it is.
A gun fires in the darkness in front of him. Phil steps backward out onto the ledge.
“Need a ride?” a voice asks above him, and then a hand catches the back of his collar, an arm wraps around his back, and he’s zip-lining down the side of the building, holding on tight to the shoulders of – they land on the ground with barely a bump and Phil tips his head back to see – Bucky Barnes.
“Thank you,” Phil says, dusting off his hands and checking them for rope burn. Not too bad.
Barnes shrugs. “This way,” he says, nodding his head into the darkness at the back of the building.
They run together, Phil ignoring the pain in his back, until they’re lost in shadows. Then Barnes stops, presses his back to the wall and motions for Phil to do the same.
“They won’t look in their own back yard,” Barnes murmurs.
Phil nods. He understood the plan immediately. They stand in silence for a long time, while the sounds of searching fade further into the distance.
Eventually, Barnes shifts just enough to put Phil on higher alert. “You said you know where Steve is,” he says quietly.
There’s a tiny, barely noticeable pause before he can say Rogers’s name. Phil thinks that’s telling.
“I do.” Phil can hear shouting above their heads, getting louder again. “Feel like making a daring escape with me? Then we can talk.”
Barnes grins, teeth bright in the darkness. “Buddy, that sounds like my idea of a good time.”
Actually, Stark seemed less appalled that time he had to carry a nuke.
“You’ve got a lot of space; I can’t exactly keep her at SHIELD.” Indy is curled up on Clint’s lap, one paw on his kneecap. She hadn’t enjoyed the car ride to Manhattan, but Millie helped Clint dig out a cat carrier before they left so at least she didn’t spend the whole journey trying to sit on his head like in those funny videos on YouTube.
Clint guesses it would have been less funny in real life.
Stark folds his arms and leans back against the bar. He was probably about as surprised to see Clint -- once JARVIS let him in -- as Clint was to be there, but his eyebrows have been climbing ever since.
“So you stole Coulson’s cat,” Stark says slowly, “and now you want to make me an accessory?” He smirks. “Not that I mind being involved in your criminal endeavours, but if we’re going down, shouldn’t it be for something more exciting? Unless it’s a super-powered mutant cat? Is it a super-powered mutant cat?”
Clint shakes his head. “I don’t think so.” He doesn’t know how to explain that this cat was Phil’s, that he picked her and cared for her and probably loved her, and Clint couldn’t leave her behind.
“Hey, you know what you should do with it,” Stark says, suddenly looking a bit more interested. He leans forward and rests his hands on the back of the armchair opposite of Clint’s.
“Her, not it,” Clint tells him, stroking the space between Indy’s ears. He’s not sure where it’s okay to touch her, but she seems to like that. She does seem kind of freaked out by all the scaffolding and plastic sheeting around them, but Clint’s hoping she’ll eventually get over that and try to go exploring. He’s never pitted his reflexes against a cat’s before; it could be fun.
Stark waves his hand, dismissing that. “You should take her to Coulson’s cellist. You know where she lives, right?”
It’s casual and unconcerned, but Clint’s occasionally a spy; he knows when he’s being played.
“Nope,” he says, pretending to be distracted by Indy. “No idea.”
“Huh,” Stark starts at the same time that a woman’s voice rings through the remains of the living room.
“Tony! You didn’t tell me that we had a guest.” She’s tall, wearing smart sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, red-blonde hair hanging down around her shoulders.
Clint would put money on this being Pepper Potts. He remembers the first time Stark really pissed Phil off and Phil tried to convince Fury to steal his PA because she was ‘the only good thing about the whole fiasco.’
“Well, no, but you were naked,” Stark says, earning himself a well-deserved punch in the stomach. “Ow. Ow. Barton, did you see that?”
“Sure did,” Clint agrees, holding his hand out. “Clint Barton, ma’am.” He waves down at the cat on his lap. “Sorry I can’t get up.”
“Pepper Potts,” she says, shaking his hand briskly. She picks up Indy’s paw. “And who’s this?”
“Coulson’s secret love-cat,” Stark tells her and Clint watches her eyes go wide for a second before she lifts her head, enquiring. “Or maybe his daemon. I’m trying to persuade Barton to take it to his cellist.”
“Oh,” Pepper says. She holds out her hand. “May I?”
Clint has no idea. “Sure, have at.” It makes him feel a bit better that Pepper just kind of pats Indy on the head; clearly she has no more idea how to interact with cute fluffy things than he does.
“Um, hello, no?” Stark waves his hands. “Don’t get attached; it’s not staying.”
Indy makes a soft, grumpy noise and rolls onto her back, stretching out long grey legs and making herself impossibly long.
Pepper laughs and draws her hand back. She kneels down on the floor beside the sofa and stretches out her own legs. “Of course not, why would she be? I’m sure she’ll be very happy with Agent Barton.”
“Yeah, no,” Clint tells her quickly. “I live in a, well, basically in a box. I was kind of hoping you guys could look after her for me. I figured since Stark’s adopted Banner, he might not mind having a tiny grey fluff monster too.”
Pepper smiles. “You don’t want her?” She’s looking at him like she maybe she doesn’t believe him, but he decides to put that down to his own paranoia. There’s no way he’s that transparent; he only met her ten seconds ago.
“Of course he does,” Stark says dismissively. “He’s an assassin and he’s got a kitten sleeping in his lap. The solution’s obvious, by the way.”
“Tony,” Pepper says warningly but Stark talks right over her.
“You and the cat can move in here,” Stark tells Clint, shrugging when Clint stares.
“I… No?” Clint tries. He waves a hand around. “It’s an awesome tower, Stark, but I’m pretty sure there’s no room for me here.”
“Well, not on this floor,” Stark says. He directs his voice at the ceiling. “JARVIS, bring up the plans for the ninth floor.”
“Do you mean the tenth, sir?” says the disembodied British voice that Clint was introduced to last time he was here. “You decided to move Agent Barton’s floor to the very top, remember.”
Stark clicks his fingers, nodding. “So I did. Yep, that one, show us that one.”
A floor plan appears in what’s basically mid-air, turning itself until it’s at the perfect angle for Clint to see. It’s labelled with things like ‘bedroom’, ‘other bedroom’, ‘300 ft range’, ‘balcony’ ‘crow’s nest?’. There’s a bow and arrow symbol in the top right corner.
“Um,” Clint says, leaning forward to study it as far as Indy will let him go. “What’s this?”
Stark shrugs. “I figured if we’re going to be a team, we should live together. There’s one for Thor too, because he’ll have to come back eventually, right? He’s got a girl here, apparently. It’s all very Romeo and… Scientist Chick.” He touches the screen and more plans line up next to Clint’s. The one next to his has a room fully stocked with gymnastics equipment, so it’s clearly for Natasha, while the one for Banner is glowing green not blue – either because he’s already moved in or because Stark is an asshole.
Clint stares at it. He waits to feel trapped but doesn’t, because this won’t actually be happening. “That’s a good idea,” he says, because it is. The Avengers will function way better if they get used to being in the same space. “But I’m not part of the Initiative.”
“No,” Stark says slowly, “I’m pretty sure you are. That was you up on that roof, right? Calling out plays? Not Robin Hood stopping by for a day trip?”
Clint almost smiles. “Sure, yeah, I was there, but only because I volunteered when Rogers came to find Natasha. I was never on Fury’s list.”
And that hadn’t stung at all. In no way did he care that he was losing his partner and his favourite handler to a club he hadn’t been invited to join.
“Really?” Stark frowns. “Well, that’s just stupid. I’ve read your files – ” He pauses like he’s expecting someone to protest there. Clint doesn’t, because he’s not surprised, and Pepper just sighs like she isn’t either. “You’re the world’s greatest marksman, you never miss and you were Coulson’s go-to agent for seven years. Fury’s eye patch doesn’t make him short-sighted as well as ruining the 3D movie experience, does it?”
Stark opens his mouth, clearly about to rant some more, when Clint’s cell starts ringing. While he’s fumbling for it and trying not to elbow Indy in the head, JARVIS comes online to tell Stark that he’s got a call.
Clint shoves his phone at his ear. “Barton?” It’s Hill. “We’ve got a situation. I need you at Eighth and Manila asap.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Clint says automatically. “What should I bring?”
To his left, he can hear Stark says, Oh man, there’s a Victoria’s Secret right there so Clint guesses he must he getting the same call. He stands up, then nods in thanks to Pepper when she catches Indy before she can dart into the construction work.
“Just yourself,” Hill answers. “We’ve got your bow here. Well, bring Stark. He might be useful.”
“Ma’am,” Clint agrees, clicking off the call. He doesn’t ask how she knows where he is; SHIELD always does.
“Eighth and Manila?” Starks asks, looking at Clint. He grins when Clint nods. “And you said you weren’t part of the team.”
Barnes goes quiet. He’s drumming his spoon against the edge of his bowl, not eating. “You know I am,” he says eventually.
“I know you are,” Phil agrees. “What I don’t know is how.”
Barnes laughs. It’s hollow, but Phil thinks it’s genuine. “Yeah, well, welcome to the club,” he says.
He signals for another beer and waits until it’s come and the waitress is gone before he says another word.
“One minute, I’m falling off a train, right?” Barnes spreads his hands then stops, curling his right into a fist. “The next thing I know, I open my eyes and I’m kneeling in snow, covered in someone else’s blood with an AK47 in my hands. And I know it’s an AK47 even though we didn’t have those in 1944. And I know I’m in Russia and I know how to speak Russian but I don’t remember how.”
He leans across the table and fixes Phil with a steady gaze, blue eyes flinty. Phil gets the impression that he’s expecting Phil to call him a liar.
“You don’t remember anything?” Phil asks, making sure to keep his tone curious rather than doubtful. “And if I say the name Winter Soldier to you?”
Barnes sits back, picking up his beer, fingers slipping on the damp glass. “Yeah, I know who that is. The way everyone looks at me like I’m going to rip out their throats is kind of a clue and it’s been coming back, bits and pieces. But I’ve lost seventy years somewhere and I’m planning to find myself some fucking answers.”
Phil nods slowly. “I’m here for some of those myself,” he says, mentally recalculating and adjusting his plan to fit. “I could use some help.”
“With what?” Barnes isn’t eating, just drinking steadily. If he were one of Phil’s assets, Phil would be trying to trick him into at least eating some bread.
Actually, to hell with that, if Phil’s going to be working with him, he has the right to make sure Barnes is in reasonable fighting form.
“Bringing down Department X’s Red Room project,” Phil tells him, picking up a chunk of bread from the basket between them and dropping it in Barnes’ bowl.
Barnes stares down at the bread but doesn’t argue. “By yourself?” he asks.
Phil smiles blandly. “Well, not any more, I hope?”
“Yeah.” Barnes just watches him, eyes narrowed. “Tell me about Steve,” he says at last.
“He’s well,” Phil tells him. He isn’t sure where to start but he knows that’s the first thing he’d want to hear, if there were anyone he could ask about Clint.
“Yeah?” Barnes’s hand shakes and he puts his spoon down, picking up the bread instead. Phil stops himself from smiling.
“He’s in New York.” Or he was when Phil last heard about him. Phil doesn’t mention that. “He’s building a team.” More or less true.
Barnes smiles slowly. “Of course he is. You part of it?”
Phil shakes his head. “I was supposed to be in charge of it. Then I was put on this operation instead.” It doesn’t hurt. He accepted this assignment. He’s pleased to have been singled out, and he isn’t sorry to be here.
Phil would probably lose half his security clearance if anyone at SHIELD overheard this conversation. He’s playing a hunch, however, and he’s never been afraid of a reprimand.
“You work for the government?” Barnes asks shrewdly. “Steve’s working for the government?”
“SHIELD.” Phil moves his hand in a so-so gesture. “We’re the modern-day successor of the organisation you both always worked for during the War.”
Barnes scoffs, slouching further back in his chair. “Mr Coulson, I never gave a shit who I worked for. I was always just following Steve.”
It’s such an honest, telling thing to say, but Barnes says it like it’s simple.
“And now you’re interested in some Soviet-era science experiment?” Barnes presses. “Why? Hoping to build yourselves some assassins?”
There are a lot of reasons why the Red Room Project would be interesting to SHIELD. Phil doesn’t think any of them have to do with trying to use it. He hopes not, anyway. He’ll destroy it himself before he lets that happen.
He decides to tell Barnes why he’s interested in it. “We recruited a woman a few years ago who turned out to have been part of the Red Room experiment: she was known as the Black Widow.”
That gets a reaction, the second truly honest expression Phil thinks he’s seen on Barnes’ face. “Natalia?” he asks. He straightens, growing still and, Phil is sure, even deadlier, even before his hand slips inside his jacket. “You have Natalia and Steve but you didn’t come here for me?”
“Sergeant,” Phil says, deliberately unconcerned, “as far as anyone knew, you were dead. And most people believed the Winter Soldier was a myth made up to scare children.”
There’s a beat where Barnes studies him. Then he pastes on a wide, bright smile. “Darlin’,” he purrs, “I am as real as they make ‘em.”
Phil allows himself two moments to appreciate that Bucky Barnes is flirting with him, however insincerely, then rolls his eyes. “Save your smiles for someone they’ll work on, Sergeant, and tell me how you know the Black Widow.”
Phil has already heard this story from Natasha’s side, of course, but he wants to know what Barnes remembers, if it tallies with the memories Natasha held onto.
Barnes looks away, down at his plate. He eats some more bread to stall for time. “Department X found her when she was a child, gave her to the Red Room. She was seventeen the first time they sent us out together and she was already… terrifying.” He coughs, a nostalgic look in his eyes. “I tried to persuade her to run away with me once, but she was brainwashed, like we all were, always loyal to them. I’m glad she got away, eventually.”
“She went independent,” Phil tells him. “Then we found her.”
Barnes nods. “She work for you willingly?”
“She does,” Phil confirms.
Barnes keeps nodding. His fingers tap on the table. “Ask me how I found you?” he asks, very obviously changing the subject.
Phil looks at him levelly, making sure Barnes knows Phil’s onto his tactics. “I imagine you were following me.”
“Sure was. Wanted to see if you really were as fucking crazy as you sounded, planning to break into Department X. Turns out you were.”
“Well.” Phil steeples his fingers. “If you think that was crazy, wait until I tell you what I’m planning to do next.”
“Yeah.” Clint hops up onto a dumpster, which is ever so slightly higher than the roof of the car he’d been standing on previously. These rats don’t look over-interested in climbing anything but why tempt fate. “This is seriously disgusting.”
Across the way, standing on a dumpster of his own but managing to look way more regal about it, Captain America nods. “SHIELD’s scientists think it’s a side-effect from the Tesseract.”
“It’s possible.” Banner is back in the SHIELD van, being watched over by Natasha. Clint is insanely jealous of them both. “More likely, it’s a combination of that and the percussion from the nuclear warhead.”
“Which I laid down my life for,” Stark points out. A rat gets too close to his left boot, so he blasts it in the face. Its friends don’t like that.
“Yes, Tony,” Banner agrees patiently, “you were very brave.”
“Doc?” Clint asks. “You think maybe the Hulk could come out and squish some of these guys?”
“Sorry, Agent Barton,” Banner says, sounding genuinely apologetic, “rats just don’t get me angry.”
“Really big rats,” Clint points out. He bends at the waist, taking a better look at one of the nearest. It’s really fucking nasty and it snaps sharp, blood-covered teeth at him.
“Um, guys?” he asks. “We got any idea what these bastards have been eating?”
“Wildlife, three dogs and a domestic cat,” Rogers rattles off. “So far no humans, so please get out of that one’s face, Hawkeye; I don’t want that to change.”
Clint leans back.
“A cat?” Stark asks. “Don’t tell your new playmate, Barton. She won’t like that.”
“You got a cat?” Natasha asks, sounding like she’s laughing. “This I have to see. Does the Director know?”
“Um, guys, could we focus?” Rogers asks.
“She’s not my cat,” Clint says defensively. He doesn’t want to talk about this, and he’s hoping Natasha will pick that up from his tone and drop it. “She’s Stark’s now.”
Rogers laughs. Apparently his sense of responsibility can stand up to everything but the chance to mock Stark. “I cannot picture you with a cat, Stark,” he says. “Do you pay someone to pet her for you?”
“She was Coulson’s,” Stark snaps. Clint wishes he hadn’t because everyone goes quiet.
“Hey,” he says, into the fractured and smoking ruins of their attempt at team banter. “Who wants to see what these guys make of sonic arrows?”
Phil looks past his shoulder at the nondescript little house that is their target. “It’s the address I was given before leaving SHIELD. If they’re lying to me about where the local contact lives, we have big problems.”
Barnes tosses his cigarette away and blows out one last ring of smoke. “More problems than your contact feeding you false information and maybe setting you up the other night?”
Phil shrugs. “That’s your theory.” Barnes doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the guards found Phil so easily. Phil’s hoping he’s wrong.
Barnes smiles at him, all teeth. “Time to test it?”
Phil steps out of the shadows, heading for the garden gate. “Stay behind me. Try not to mention anything about amnesia or assassinations.”
“Sure thing.” Barnes falls into step behind him. “Unless it becomes relevant.”
Phil doesn’t waste time glaring. Sometimes Barnes reminds him of Clint more than he’s comfortable with and, other times, there’s a deadness in his eyes as though there’s nothing there at all.
It’s past midnight, not the sort of time that contact is really supposed to be made with local liaisons. However, if Barnes is right and the liaison’s been compromised, a little loss of sleep is going to be the least of his worries.
“Front door?” Barnes asks. “Or?” He raises his eyebrows at the tree. One of the weaker branches stops within two feet of a half-open window.
The liaison’s name is Lukov. His bedroom is at the front of the house, and they watched him and his wife get ready for bed over an hour ago.
“That way,” Phil agrees, even though he’s getting too old to climb trees. Not that he’s going to say that to Barnes. Phil trusts him more than he probably should, but he’s not going to start pointing out his own weaknesses.
They scale the tree together in under a minute and then Barnes swings himself over onto the ledge, carefully sliding his hand through the gap between the window and the sill and reaching in to release the catch.
He disappears inside as soon as it’s open and Phil follows him quickly. The bed is in the centre of the room, Lukov’s wife asleep on her stomach and Lukov himself lying peacefully on his side, facing the window.
Barnes raises his eyebrows. Phil steps forward. It only takes a second to pin Lukov’s wrists together with one hand and cover his mouth with the other. Still half-asleep and frozen with panic, Lukov slides easily out of bed onto his knees on the carpeted floor, and then Phil and Barnes are pulling him up, hustling him out of the room.
The whole exercise takes eighteen seconds. Phil likes it when things are easy.
“Who are you?” Lukov demands as soon as they drop him into a chair at his kitchen table. “I have no money.”
“Authorisation code gamma seven six epsilon five,” Phil rattles off and watches Lukov’s eyes stretch wider.
“You are Agent Coulson?” he asks.
“He is.” Barnes smiles. He seems to be having fun.
Lukov had been busy looking appalled. Now he drags up a wide, painful-looking grin. “Welcome! I have been expecting you,” he says, spreading his arms. “You merely had to come to the front door, my friends.”
“Yes,” Phil says flatly, “Sorry about that.” He leans forward conspiratorially. “The truth is that we think there’s a mole in the organisation.” Lukov’s cheeks pale then tinge pink. Oh yeah, Barnes is right. Damn. “We need to be careful who we trust.”
“But we can trust you, can’t we?” Barnes asks, still with that nasty smirk.
Lukov folds his lips over his teeth, gnawing on his bottom lip. He nods slowly, eyes locked on Barnes. For someone who’s so slight and young-looking, too-long hair flopping in his eyes, Barnes is incredibly intimating, even without his reputation to back him up.
“You can trust me,” Lukov tells them earnestly. “I have worked for SHIELD for twenty years.” His eyes flick to Barnes. “When you were still a baby, yes?”
“I’m older than I look,” Barents tells him, expression flattening out. He pats his jacket pocket, clearly conveying and deadlier.
Lukov looks like he might pass out. Phil would prefer that not to happen until they have some answers.
“I followed your information to the Department X archives,” Phil tells him. “And somehow I was found out. Have you got any idea how that could have happened?”
Lukov shrugs. “Perhaps you were not stealthy enough? I did warn you that – ”
“No, that’s not it.” Phil looks him straight in the eye. “If you’re being threatened, we can help you.”
“No. No, I. No.” Lukov stares at them both in turn. “No. No, you do not think that I – ” He starts to push his chair away from the table but Barnes catches hold of the back, locking him in place.
“If you’re not being threatened,” Phil continues as though there was no interruption, “then there’s nothing we can do to help you. SHIELD doesn’t like traitors.”
Lukov looks as though he’s barely breathing. “Please. My wife is upstairs. She is pregnant and they said they would hurt the – ”
“You’re lying,” Barnes tells him pleasantly.
Phil agrees. Lukov is easily fifty and his wife looks the same age. Phil saw her through her bedroom window earlier and, if she’s pregnant, she’s not showing, and there’s no reason for anyone who might threaten Lukov to be aware.
Two seconds of silence tick by, then Lukov dives off his chair, falling to the left and scrabbling for something under the table.
Phil follows him down but Barnes gets there first – he’s fast, as preternaturally quick as Natasha is – stamping on Lukov’s wrist when he reaches for the semi-automatic tucked inside a box of cleaning supplies under the table.
Lukov screams but Phil silences him quickly, clamping a hand over his mouth.
“You don’t want to wake up your wife, do you?” he says in Lukov’s ear. “Not in her delicate condition.”
Lukov twists under his hands. He bites into Phil’s palm, making Phil curse but refuse to let go.
Phil is much, much more stubborn than he looks.
“Stop it,” Phil tells him through clenched teeth. “Your help would be useful, but you’re not so valuable that I won’t put a bullet through your brain if you keep on annoying me.”
Lukov glares up at him fiercely then goes limp, the fight draining out of him. He meets Phil’s eyes and nods.
“That was too easy,” Barnes growls but Phil ignores him, sitting back and pulling Lukov roughly to his feet.
“Mr Lukov is a SHIELD agent,” Phil tells Barnes, not looking away from Lukov. “He knows how to judge the best deal on the table.”
Lukov rubs the corner of his mouth, which is swollen red from the press of Phil’s thumb. “They asked me to tell you a few little lies, that is all. No one was harmed.”
“Because he’s damn good,” Barnes snaps, jerking his thumb at Phil. Phil tries not to feel pleased. “Otherwise he’d be a dead man. And so would you.” He tips his head. “Although I still wouldn’t rule that out.”
Lukov’s mouth flattens. “You are SHIELD. You will not kill me.”
Phil shakes his head. “You obviously don’t know us as well as you think you do.” He leans forward, hands spread and open on the table. “Tell me why? I assume it’s not the money.” For one, SHIELD pays its assets well and, for another, there’s no way he has a bank account that they’re not monitoring.
Lukov stares back at him. “You do not live here, you do not know what it’s like. You say Department X are gone, but they are not. They have been here all my life and all my father’s life. But they mostly leave me alone, they do not interfere with most of SHIELD’s business as long as we stay out of theirs.”
“How many other lies have you told us?” Phil demands. “You can’t seriously believe this is okay?”
Lukov shakes his head. “No, but I believe it has kept me and my family alive. I am okay with that.”
Phil would like to say he would never do what Lukov has done, but he can’t. He’s long since come to terms with the fact that he would do anything if the situation called for it.
“We have a problem,” he tells Lukov, keeping his face impassive. “I’ll have to let Director Fury know what’s been happening here, so you’ll need to give me a reason to go to bat for you.”
“What can I offer you?” Lukov asks. “I have some money, but not – ”
Barnes is watching Phil closely, Phil realises, almost as though he’s waiting to see how Phil responds. Phil isn’t surprised to find he’s being judged along with Lukov; of course he is, there’s no more reason for Barnes to trust him than there is for Barnes to trust Lukov.
“No,” Phil interrupts. “No.” He sits back in his chair. “No, you convince me.”
“Jesus,” Clint says, holding up a hand. “No one wants to see that.”
Stark smirks at him, managing to look superior even though he’s wearing the towel like a turban and has a whole mess of curls in his eyes. “Barton, everyone wants to see this.”
Bruce snorts. He didn’t get covered in rat guts, so no one made him shower, and he’s already done changing out of his extra-stretchy Hulk pants. “No, Tony, they really don’t.”
Stark pouts and turns away from them, giving them all a perfect view of his pasty white ass. It’s a nice ass, Clint is not dead, but he’s feeling kind of hemmed in by too much exposure to people, and the way Stark fills every gap is really not helping right now.
Bruce catches Clint’s eye and shakes his head. He’s smiling though; he obviously doesn’t really mind, and Clint’s starting to feel the same way he did the few times he tried to go to school, like everyone’s bonded with everyone but him.
Not that Clint is twelve years old anymore. He doesn’t care; he’d just rather be somewhere else right now.
He goes to his own locker and takes his time pulling out a clean shirt. By the time Clint’s dressed, Stark is futzing with his hair in the brown-spotted mirror over the sinks and Bruce has disappeared.
Clint tries to slink out without Stark seeing, but Stark obviously has some kind of superpower he’s never told anyone about because he turns at the last second, snagging the sleeve of Clint’s SHIELD sweatshirt and squinting at him.
“What?” Clint asks, trying to shake him off. “I still got rat guts in my eyebrows or something?”
“No.” Stark is looking at him far too closely; Clint would prefer to avoid this level of attention from anyone, especially someone as smart and sneakily good at reading people as Stark. “So, the cat, huh? You really want me to keep it? Me?”
Clint doesn’t know why he feels relieved; what else was Stark going to want to talk about.
“Sure,” he says, shrugging like it’s no big deal. “I mean, I can offer her to Thor if you don’t want her? I’m sure he’d love to give her to that girl of his. Total rom-com moment.”
“No, what, are you crazy?” Stark snaps. “He’ll end up training her to carry his damn hammer or some such shit. Did you know Thor can talk to animals? Let’s not think about that. If that’s the only other option you can come up with then fine, I suppose I’ll have to keep her.”
He makes it sound like such a hardship. Clint isn’t fooled.
“Thanks, man,” he says, making sure to sound casual, not like Stark was his only fucking hope.
As pathetic as it sounds, Clint doesn’t actually know anyone who lives in a actual house and, while he knows he should have just left Indy with the woman Phil actually picked to look after her, he kind of needs to do this himself.
He knows it’s dumb; he’s not fooling himself into thinking he’s making sensible decisions right now.
Stark claps him on the shoulder. “But you’re coming over tonight. Team dinner. No excuses accepted.”
Fuck. Clint is pretty sure he’s going to go batshit insane if he has to spend any more time talking to people today.
“Sure,” he lies. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “I got to go put away my bow but I’ll catch up with you later, yeah?"
“Fine, whatever.” Stark waves him off. “Make sure you bring your little Russian ninja too; Pepper’s ordered some special kind of apple pancake cake… thing.”
“Sharlotka,” Clint tells him, still backing toward the door, “and she’s not my anything; don’t let her hear you say that.”
Stark ignores him, going back to the mirror. “Seven p.m.” he calls after Clint. “Or, sorry, that’s nineteen hundred hours to you military types. Set your watch!”
Clint waves over his shoulder and hightails it out of there. He grabs his bow and jumps into the nearest elevator before anyone else can spring out and try to involve him in their team bonding shit.
Clint is a sniper. Snipers aren’t supposed to be bonded to a team. That’s how it works. He’s just better alone.
“I am.” Phil zips his coat up to his chin and sets off down the path. He’s almost certain Lukov won’t take a pot-shot at them, but his shoulders don’t completely relax until they’re on the sidewalk and out of direct sight of the house.
Barnes doesn’t answer. He walks along beside Phil, very pointedly not answering. Secretly, Phil is surprised that Barnes is still here, that he’s following Phil’s lead at all, but he’s sure there’s a reason.
For now, he decides not to question it.
“What would you have done?” Phil asks. Barnes isn’t one of Phil’s agents; he can’t demand to know if they have a problem.
“Not left him alive,” Barnes says immediately, then stops abruptly, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I would have done.” The way he says it sounds confused, honestly questioning.
“That’s understandable,” Phil tells him, even though Phil doesn’t understand. Who could understand what Barnes is going through? Trying to work out who he is now after twenty-five years as one person and sixty-seven years as someone else.
Phil watched Natasha struggle with something similar, but it was different for her; she never had a chance to become her own person before Department X recruited her.
Barnes hums but doesn’t say anything else. He stops when they get to the beat-up but serviceable grey Lada Barnes found from somewhere to get them out here.
“Getting in?” Phil asks. He doesn’t have the keys, so he leans against the side of the car, taking the time to give Barnes a casual once-over. He looks exhausted, gritty-eyed, with permanent lines set around his mouth. Phil wonders what he gets up to during the hours he’s not with Phil.
“Yeah,” Barnes says, but shakes his head. “No.” He slides the keys across the top of the car, pushing off when Phil grabs them. “I’ve got some shit to do. What’s your next move?”
“I need to check out the address Lukov gave us,” Phil tells him. Apparently, he now has the name and address of Lukov’s Department X contact. He doubts it’ll be that simple, of course, but he wants to check it out.
“Right. Sure.” Barnes nods again. He looks like he’s barely there right now. Then his eyes suddenly zero in on Phil, sharp even in the suburban dark. “Do me a favour and wait on that a while.”
“Why?” Phil asks. “This is what I’m here to do.”
Barnes nods. “Just a day, maybe two. I’ll come meet you and we’ll check it out together. There’s other shit you can be doing in the meantime, right?”
“I suppose so,” Phil admits, agreeing reluctantly because Barnes seems serious about this, even if Phil doesn’t know why.
Once Barnes is done with whatever’s putting that far-away look in his eye, Phil is going to have to sit him down to discuss exactly what the parameters of their unexpected partnership are.
“Good.” Barnes nods once more, firmly, and steps all the way away from the car. “I’ll see you.”
“How are you getting back to the city?” Phil calls after him, watching him walk away.
Barnes doesn’t answer. Phil gets in the car and waits for fifteen minutes, but he doesn’t come back, so Phil puts the key in the ignition and sets off down the road.
Barnes is an adult and he isn’t Phil’s responsibility. If he says he’ll come back then Phil’s just going to have to trust that he will. In the meantime, Phil needs to arm himself up before they go check out this new lead.
Clint doesn’t know how he feels about the fact that she’s obviously making an effort for this team that they’re not quite on yet.
“Damn sure,” he tells her, faking another yawn and stretching against the bed. “Early night. Rat chasing sure does take it out of you.”
She looks at him closely. “Bullshit,” she says, then shrugs before he can protest. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but don’t lie to me.”
“Sorry. I just, you know - ” Clint’s never been good with people and he’s not up for faking it these days.
Natasha nods. “I know. I’ll let you get away with it tonight, but you’re joining this team eventually, even if I have to drag you along by the chest hair.”
Clint laughs, automatically rubbing at his chest. “I’m not, I’m not ducking out of being on the team, Nat. Just the fake buddy-buddy bit. I’d have thought you’d hate that too.”
“Hmm,” she hums. “I would. I do, usually. I think maybe it’s not so fake, this time. Maybe it’s going to work.”
Clint smiles at him. “Natasha Romanoff: Eternal Optimist.”
She flips him off and shakes her head at him. “Okay, I’m going. I’ll tell Stark you’re unexpectedly allergic to Giant Rat fur or something but next time - ” She lets it hang.
“Yeah.” Clint sighs. “Next time, I promise.” For now, he just wants to sleep. It’s not so much that he’s tired, more that he’s never totally awake right now, always ten seconds from wanting to shut his eyes and block out the world for a couple more hours.
“Clint,” she says, but doesn’t follow it up with anything else so he rolls onto his side, away from her, and closes his eyes.
“Have a good time,” he tells her, waiting until he hears the lock engage before he actually relaxes into the comforter.
He’s in that hazy space where he’s not sure if he’s asleep or still awake when his doorbell chimes. Clint’s is the only room with a doorbell, probably because he’s the only agent who lives here and nowhere else.
“I’m sleeping, Tasha,” he yells, pulling a pillow down from the top of the bed and trying to decide whether to throw it at the door or smother himself with it.
“It’s not Natasha, Clint,” comes an apologetic voice. “It’s Steve. Sorry, did I wake you?”
Clint rolls off the bed and spends ten seconds straightening his shirt and rubbing some life back into his face before opening the door.
“Hey,” he says, leaning just his head and one shoulder around the doorframe so Steve won’t think he’s invited in or anything. “Shouldn’t you be at Stark’s?”
“I bumped into Natasha in the hallway,” Steve says. “She says you’re not going, either?”
“Nah, I’m – ” Clint stops. “Wait, ‘either’? You’re not going?” Now there’s a surprise; Clint would have thought Steve would be right at the top of the list when it came to People In Favour of Team Bonding Shit.
“No.” Steve shrugs. “I’m not really…” He shakes his head, looking awkward. “Feeling it tonight.”
Clint finally relaxes his deathgrip on the door, letting it swing open so he’s facing Steve properly. “You’re not really feeling it,” he echoes and grins. “Nice job on the lingo, Cap, you’ll soon be down with the kids.”
Steve looks like he’s not sure if he’s being mocked or not, then finally smiles tentatively. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of car keys. “I was wondering if you wanted to come for a drive with me?”
“A drive?” Clint asks. He’s actually surprised enough to be interested; he can’t remember the last time he was interested in anything. “No offense, dude, but I’m not sure how I feel about riding bitch on your bike.”
“Riding bit- ? Oh.” Steve shakes his head. “I bought a car. But, uh, I don’t actually have a driver’s licence yet.”
Clint laughs. “So why’d you buy a car?”
Steve looks distinctly uncomfortable. It’s possible Clint is being an asshole, but he’ll withhold judgement until the end of the conversation. “I woke up and someone showed me how to do online banking and I have… There’s a lot of money. I donated most of it but I thought it’d be okay to buy myself one stupid thing?”
“Totally okay.” Clint smacks him on the shoulder. “Sure you trust me to drive it?”
Steve smiles, looking relieved. “Yes,” he says. There’s nothing mocking about the way he says it; he just says it like he means it. Clint doesn’t know what to do with him.
“Give me ten minutes,” Clint tells him. “I’ll put some pants on and meet you in the parking lot.”
Steve’s eyes flick downward, apparently having failed to notice Clint’s hairy legs and boxer shorts until now.
“Sorry,” he says, staring very firmly at Clint’s face. “I’ll… leave.”
“Ten minutes,” Clint promises him, trying not to laugh at him. Maybe there was something to Phil’s Captain America appreciation; the dude definitely knows how to shake Clint out of a funk.
He doesn’t waste time being surprised or alarmed, just grabs his Sig from under the table and drops down onto one knee.
The intruder shakes his head, splinters of glass flying out of his hair. It’s Barnes, Phil realises, and he jumps up, racing toward him while keeping an eye out for whoever chased him in here.
Barnes sits up abruptly, eyes scanning the room. They narrow when they land on Phil, and Phil has just long enough to realise that there’s no recognition there before Barnes brings a knife up and lunges for him.
“Hey!” Phil snaps, hopping backwards and bringing the barrel of his gun up to block Barnes’s knife. “Barnes! What the hell?”
Barnes releases a harsh growling sound from the back of his throat, making the hairs on Phil’s arms stand up, and leaps for him again.
Phil doesn’t want to hurt him, but even less does he want to get stabbed. He knees Barnes in the stomach and slams his forearm into Barnes’s face.
Barnes falls backwards, lower lip bleeding, but he’s back on his feet in seconds.
“Stop,” Phil barks, bringing his gun up and levelling it at Barnes’s face.
Barnes freezes. His eyes are wide, wild and there’s blood matted in his hair that didn’t come Phil.
“I don’t want to shoot you,” Phil tells him, careful to keep his voice even and non-threatening. “Tell me what happened.”
Barnes touches his lip with the hand not still clutching his knife. He looks down at the blood on his hands and swears in Russian. “Bastard,” he snarls.
Phil’s getting a bad feeling about this.
“Agent,” he snaps firmly. “Stand down.” He doesn’t know the language Department X employed, but he knows how to deal with rogue assets.
It almost works. Barnes stiffens in surprise, eyes narrowing. “Who are you?” he asks.
Phil raises his eyebrows. He hasn’t had to be cool, calm and collected Agent Coulson for a while now, but it’s like slipping on a well-worn jacket. “Don’t you know? You came to kill me.”
“I.” Barnes frowns. “No. I.” He shakes his head hard, looks down at his knife and seems to come to a decision. “Yes, I guess I did.”
He leans his weight forward onto his right foot as though he’s going to charge Phil, and Phil takes aim at his shoulder, ready to fire.
Barnes throws the knife instead. It drives through Phil’s gun arm, knocking it backwards and pinning him to the wall, the pain so bright and unexpected that he drops his gun.
“Barnes,” Phil barks, but his voice has lost its bite and Barnes doesn’t stop this time, pulling his knife free of Phil’s arm (tearing the skin on the way out; Phil tries to block out the pain) and pressing it up under Phil’s jaw.
“Who are you?” he asks quietly, lips an inch from Phil’s cheek.
Phil holds his breath and ignores the hot, slick trail of blood rolling down his arm, weighing down his sleeve. His good arm is trapped between Barnes and the wall, so he has no choice but to reach out with the damaged one, searching for anything to use as a weapon.
Right now, he doesn’t care if it’s a non-lethal one.
“Phil Coulson, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” Phil gets out. There are dark spots in the back of his eyeballs. It has to be shock; he doesn’t think he’s lost that much blood.
“Who are you?” Barnes repeats. The edge of his blade nicks Phil’s skin, and Phil’s hand wraps around the hot, bare bulb of the bedside lamp.
“Phil Coulson,” he repeats. “You know me. Put down the knife and we’ll – ” He manages to get a good grip on the lamp and swings.
The bulb burns his palm and the extra tug he has to give to rip the plug out of the wall pulls on the hole in his arm but he gets it there, the base of the lamp coming down hard on the back of Barnes’s head.
Barnes crumples to the floor. Phil takes three seconds to check that he’s staying down, then slides down the wall to join him.
“Fuck,” Clint laughs, jumping into the driver’s seat and taking the keys that Steve hands him. “Why the hell’d you buy this?”
Steve just smiles at him, shaking his head. “Do you want to talk or are we going to drive?”
Clint never wants to talk, not even – or maybe especially – when he knows he’s being fobbed off. He turns the key and rolls them out of the parking garage instead.
“Where to?” he asks, once they’re in traffic. The roads aren’t too busy this time of night, but it’s still New York, so that’s still relative.
“Just – ” Steve points toward the BQE and the waterfront. “Go that way? I’ll direct you.”
“Sure,” Clint agrees, and doesn’t ask anything else. He isn’t mad about cars like some people, but he likes to drive when he doesn’t have a set place to be. (When he does have a set place to be, he prefers to take the roof. It’s a thing. Don’t ask.)
They drive until it’s full dark outside, and Steve’s voice gets quieter and quieter as he gives directions. Probably the only reason Clint hears him when he says to pull over is that Clint hears everything.
They drive down a narrow, mostly-empty street until Steve tells Clint to stop the car outside a boarded-up redbrick tenement building. Clint puts the car in park, then turns to look at Steve, questioning.
“We lived here,” Steve says slowly, eyes locked on one of the third storey windows. All Clint can see is cracked glass above a faded black storefront, but he’s guessing Steve can see something else.
“You and your folks?” Clint asks. It’s none of his business, but he doesn’t want Steve to think he can’t talk about it.
“No.” Steve wets his lips. “Me and my… He was my best friend.”
Ah, this Clint knows. “Bucky, right?” he asks. He paid attention to everything Phil ever told him, even though he pretended not to.
Steve genuinely flinches and Clint is really fucking sorry he said anything. Then Steve blows out a breath and nods. “Yes,” he says, dragging his eyes away from the building and smiling sadly over at Clint. “Bucky.”
Clint isn’t totally sure why Steve decided to share this moment with him , and he’s got no damn clue what to say. He reaches across the stick shift and pats Steve’s forearm.
“That’s rough, buddy,” he says, which is totally fucking inadequate. “I’m sorry.”
When Steve swallows, it’s harsh enough that Clint hears it. “You know I told you I lost someone in the war?”
“Yeah.” Clint nods. Then he catches the look on Steve’s face. “Oh shit. Shit. You and Bucky?”
At no point did Phil ever tell Clint that Captain America was queer; Clint hopes to god he knew.
Steve nods and doesn’t seem able to say anything else, so Clint just kind of squeezes his arm awkwardly and hopes it helps.
“Sorry,” Steve says after a minute. “I’m sure you don’t need me rambling on about my heartbreak, not when you have your own.”
“No.” Clint shakes his head quickly. “That’s not – ” the same. It’s not the same. Not if Steve had Bucky, not if they were together and in love. Clint never had Phil.
Steve carries on as though Clint never tried to interrupt. “Sometimes, everything feels fine and then out of nowhere, you just feel kind of… empty. Does that makes sense to you?”
He sounds kind of desperate, like he really needs someone who understands how he feels. Luckily, Clint really does.
“Yeah.” Clint nods. “Yeah, that. Empty’s, right. Lonely, too.” He can’t believe he’s saying this shit to anyone, let alone to Steve, who he barely knows.
Or maybe it’s better that Steve doesn’t know him. Everyone who knows Clint’s background looks at him like he should be used to loss by now.
Clint curves his mouth up into a smile shape and flashes it at Steve. Steve gives him one back, just as empty and unconvincing.
“I think I could have been kinder to Agent Coulson,” Steve says at last.
“You and me both, buddy,” Clint tells him then thinks about it. “How come? What’d you do to him?”
Steve looks down at Clint’s hand, still on his arm. “Nothing. It was just, he was very excited to meet me and it made me uncomfortable. He wanted me to be Captain America and I wanted to be anyone but that. I think, in a way, fighting the Chitauri helped me remember who I was.”
Clint has spent the past few weeks thinking about all the times that he chose to turn left toward his quarters rather than right towards Phil’s office. About the extra cups of coffee they could have had, the extra few seconds of just being with Phil.
“He thought you were so fucking awesome,” Clint tells Steve, not looking at him. “Most of the time, if I wanted to talk to him, I had to hang around and keep poking at him until he got fed up and gave in. But, dude, when they found you, he came looking for me and.” He pulls his knees up onto the seat and rests his chin on his folded arms. “He was so excited.”
“Clint,” Steve says and turns his hand in Clint’s, squeezing.
Clint shakes him off; he’s fine. He hasn’t cried yet and he’s sure as hell not going to do it in front of Steve.
Steve breathes out a faint laugh. “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
Clint can’t quite manage any kind of laugh but he huffs some air so Steve’ll know he’s trying. “We’re a fucking mess,” he agrees. He leans his head back and bumps it against the seatback. It doesn’t hurt, but Clint kind of wishes it had.
When Steve doesn’t answer him, Clint cracks his eyes open, looking at him. Steve’s kind of looking back at him, all deep blue eyes and thick dark eyelashes.
“Steve?” Clint asks. He hopes that’s not what a breakdown looks like; he is stupendously under qualified to give anyone any kind of grief counselling.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says and puts his hand on Clint’s face. “This is probably a terrible idea.”
Clint feels his eyes go wide. It’s definitely a terrible idea; what the fuck is happening here? But Clint’s skin feels hot where Steve’s touching it, like that tiny square of skin has come back to life after so long dead.
“Seriously?” is all Clint can think to say.
Steve nods. He looks very serious. And then he’s leaning forward, turning Clint’s face toward his.
This has got to be what madness feels like, Clint decides, leaning forward and closing the gap.
Phil tries to scramble upright immediately, but his arm is pinned and movement only makes him choke back a gasp of pain.
“Whoa,” Barnes says, in English, which Phil decides to take as a good sign. He holds up both his hands, releasing Phil’s arm, and Phil takes the opportunity to force himself to sit up straight.
He pulls his arm up protectively against his body, looking around quickly in case there are any more convenient lamps to use as coshes.
“Look,” Barnes says carefully, “I completely understand why you look like you wish you had your gun in your – . Wait, hold up.” He interrupts himself and scoots backwards, picking Phil’s gun up off the floor and handing it to him, butt first. “Better?”
“Much,” Phil agrees, flicking the safety off but doing Barnes the courtesy of not pointing it directly at him just yet.
“Okay,” Barnes says, still acting like Phil’s a skittish colt. “Now you’re armed, I’m not, can I get back to seeing to your arm?”
Phil lets himself have two seconds to glance down. It’s been cleaned, skin tinged pink with blood that didn’t quite wash away. He can see that the knife went clean through the fleshy part of his forearm, missing all the bones and tendons, thank god, even though it still looks a mess.
“That was – ” Phil blinks; he still feels lightheaded. “That’s a pretty good aim you’ve got.” Almost as good as Clint’s, but Phil isn’t sure he’s going to survive this moment, so he’s trying not to think about home.
“Not me,” Barnes tells him, reaching out questioningly. Phil holds out his arm, tightening his grip on the gun with his left hand. “That wasn’t me.”
“Looked like you.” Phil holds back a hiss when Barnes presses the edges of the wound together and starts to sew it up. He’s using black cotton thread but the tip of the needle feels hot, as though he managed to sterilise it somehow.
Phil sees a lighter sitting on Barnes’s thigh and guesses that that’s how.
Barnes shakes his head. “I don’t remember.” He isn’t meeting Phil’s eye but Phil can’t tell if that’s because he’s lying or because he’s ashamed. “I woke up on the floor and you were bleeding and I was bleeding and I kinda put it all together.” Now he looks up. “I attacked you, right?”
There is nothing but honest confusion – and maybe a little bit of fear – in his eyes. Phil nods. “You did. Don’t ask me why, you didn’t stop to chat first.”
Barnes looks down again, focusing on the small, neat little lines he’s using to stich Phil back together. This is obviously not his first time doing this.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Fuck.”
Phil shrugs with one shoulder. “It was interesting to meet the Winter Soldier, I suppose.” He smiles sardonically at the top of Barnes’s head.
Barnes snorts. “That what you think happened to me?” he asks. “You think I went backward?”
“Didn’t you?” Now that Phil’s looking, he can see that Barnes’s thick, dark hair is matted with dry blood, but he’s stopped bleeding and Phil can’t see a cut. Either that’s enhanced heeling, or he has a very thick skull.
“I have no fucking clue,” Barnes says flatly, and reaches back for his knife, slicing the end of the thread then tying it off tightly. “How’s that feel?”
Phil touches the edges of the wound, feeling for any swelling or anywhere that feels hot. It hurts and it will definitely scar, but he doesn’t think it’s infected.
“Good,” he says, “thanks. How’s your head?”
Barnes rocks back on his heels. “Sore,” he admits. “But it’s fine. It’s no big deal; I heal fast.”
“Naturally?” Phil asks. “Or?”
“Nah.” Barnes flicks blood of his knife with the edge of his thumbnail. Phil’s blood. “I don’t know, but I been thinking about it. HYDRA got hold of me in the war, you know that?”
“Right, of course you do. They were trying to recreate what Erskin did to Steve. I don’t know, I’m not saying I’m a supersoldier or anything, but they put some shit in me and then I fell off a train and didn’t die. I had something going for me even before the Russians found me and put me in the Red Room.”
Phil stretches out his fingers, hoping to distract Barnes with checking out his arm while he rearranges himself against the wall, letting it take more of the weight of his head, which feels too light to hold up right now.
“What happened last night?” he asks. He assumes it was last night; the sky outside the window is grey with either dawn or dusk and he can’t have been out that long.
Barnes is quiet for long enough that Phil starts to wonder if he’s going to answer. If he doesn’t answer, Phil isn’t sure he’ll be able to keep working with him and that will be difficult.
“That address Lukov gave you?” Barnes says at last. “It’s genuine. I recognised it soon as he said it. The old man who lives there used to head up the medical wing at Department X. He’s the one who experimented on the kids when they were first recruited.”
“The kids?” Phil asks, thinking.
Barnes nods. “From what Natalia told me, he handled her training personally.”
Phil swallows. “Why did you want to go there without me?”
Barnes sucks on his lower lip, clearly trying to decide how much he wants Phil to know. “This guy, Dr Yenin? I’m pretty sure he’s got the intel you’re looking for. I didn’t want you find that out and then decide he was too valuable for me to kill.”
“Did you kill him?” Phil doesn’t know what he wants the answer to be. He has a pretty good idea what Natasha’s ‘training’ involved.
“No. He wasn’t there.” Barnes reaches into his jacket pocket and throws a packet of papers at Phil. “Stole this for you, though. Don’t know if it’ll help.”
Phil nudges at the packet with the edge of his pistol. “What is it?”
“Schematics, equations, shit like that. I don’t know, Coulson, you’re the ideas man, you decide if it’s useful.”
“I’m the ideas man until you feel like running off on your own,” Phil grouses. He raises his eyebrows when Barnes frowns at him. “So what happened to you?”
“I told you I don’t know.” Barnes looks at him closely. “I’m telling the truth; I don’t know.”
Phil sighs. He isn’t feeling at his best right now; he could do without the growing signs that Barnes is about to freak out. “Tell me what you do know.”
Barnes nods. He sits down on the floor in front of Phil and breathes out slowly. “I got in and out Yenin’s place no problem. I…” He squeezes his eyes shut. “I don’t know. Fuck.”
“Hey.” Phil makes sure to sound firm but non-confrontational. “We’ll work it out.”
Barnes smiles at him humourlessly. “Maybe it’d be best if I just walk away from you. You can do this without my help, right?”
“I can.” Phil knows that running around with Barnes has slowed down his mission. The problem is that Phil has a nasty habit of finding strays and believing in them. Barnes has tapped straight into the same protective place that Clint then Natasha unearthed in him years ago.
“Right.” Barnes nods. “I’ll fuck off. You – ” He shakes his head. “Good luck.”
“Barnes.” Phil stops him. “I can do this without you, but I don’t feel any need to. I trust you.”
Barnes stares at him. “You trust me? I put a goddamn knife in your goddamn arm.”
“Yes.” Phil smiles at him faintly. “Don’t do that again.”
Barnes rakes a hand back through his hair, wincing when it gets stuck in the blood still gluing the strands together. “You’re crazy.”
“You’re not the first person to tell me that.” Phil reaches up and grabs the corner of the nightstand, pulling himself up slowly. “Now I’m going to have a look at whatever it is you’ve brought me; why don’t you go take a shower?”
“A shower?” Barnes echoes, as though he’s never heard the word before.
“Yes,” Phil says briskly, “you know, water falling from the ceiling in a small, confined space?”
Barnes rolls his eyes. It’s the most humorous expression Phil has seen from him. “Are you sure you don’t just want me naked and unarmed so you can kill me?”
“I don’t want you naked and unarmed for any reason,” Phil tells him, distracted, sitting on the bed and opening the packet. He feels drained and exhausted, achy from sleeping on the floor, but he can push that away in the face of fresh information.
He listens as Barnes steps into the room’s tiny bathroom, completely unsurprised to hear the click of the lock engaging. The water starts running, and then Phil loses himself in Dr Yenin’s research.
Steve presses in closer still, hand sliding from Clint’s face into his hair. He’s so damn careful and that isn’t Clint’s usual thing at all, but it’s kind of nice right now.
Clint flicks out his tongue, licking Steve’s bottom lip experimentally and Steve’s mouth opens on a gasp.
“Come here,” Clint says, tugging on Steve’s arm and pulling him as close as he can get with the fucking handbrake in the way.
Clint shoves his hand up the side of Steve’s t-shirt, clawing his nails into warm, smooth, solid skin (obviously Steve is physically perfect; that’s kind of the point, Clint knows that but it’s still distracting.)
Steve’s kisses are light, but he’s pressing deeper now, like he could sink inside Clint and block out the world for a while. Or maybe that’s not how Steve’s feeling, maybe that’s just what Clint wants. Clint doesn’t know, but he kisses back desperately anyway.
This is such a stupid fucking idea, but Steve is big and solid and warm and no one has kissed Clint in so damn long because, because he’s been waiting and hoping and – “Stop.”
Steve pulls back. The muscles in his arms are ridiculous and the way he holds himself over Clint makes sleeping parts of Clint think about reacting.
“Sorry?” Steve asks. “Did you not want - ?”
Clint bunches a fist in Steve’s shirt and pulling Steve in, biting at his bottom lip. This is Steve, this is Phil’s Captain America and -
Clint needs to stop.
“I’m not kissing you for good reasons,” he admits carefully.
Steve frowns down at him. “There are bad reasons to kiss someone?” he asks and fuck, fuck for a ninety-year-old, he’s so young.
“Yeah,” Clint says. He sits up straighter, and winces when he sees how wrinkled Steve’s shirt is. “Sorry.” Smoothing it out doesn’t do a whole load of good but he tries anyway.
“No, my god, I’m sorry.” Steve tries to scoot backwards but ends up mostly sitting in the window. Since this is a nice car that doesn’t deserve Captain America’s ass dents in it, Clint pulls him forwards again.
“Seriously, it’s fine.” He lets his hand drift up Steve’s chest, not trying to start something, just getting the feel for his muscles. “It’s more that fine; you’re very easy on the eyes. And mouth.”
Steve blushes, which is just gosh darn adorable. He leans back properly this time, settling down in the passenger seat and straightening his clothes. Clint sneaks a glance down at Steve’s crotch but he isn’t hard. Neither is Clint.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he tells Clint quietly. “I thought it might help.”
“My kisses are known for their healing powers,” Clint says flippantly, smiling.
Steve doesn’t smile back. He shakes his head. “When you touched my arm, that helped. I thought maybe more touching would help more.” He laughs shakily. “Something has to help eventually, doesn’t it?”
Clint wishes he knew. “I hope so,” is the best he can manage. He rakes up a smile from the place he keeps all his fake emotions. “Hey, at least I got to kiss you. Phil, Phil would be really jealous.”
He tripped over Phil’s name. Fucking fuck, he hates that he did that.
Steve reaches out again but Clint freezes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think more kissing is going to – Oh.” Clint subsides because Steve isn’t going in for a kiss this time; he’s going in for a hug.
Clint leans back against Steve’s solid shoulder, squirms his own arm behind Steve’s back. It’s not a good hug, but it’s contact that isn’t embarrassingly ill-advised kissing, so he’ll take it.
It’s all in Russian, obviously, and while Phil’s Russian is fluent, there are one or two words that annoy him by being unfamiliar.
Splashed across the title page, for example, is one word: полтергейст and it’s been driving Phil crazy trying to work out what it can mean in the context of assassins and brainwashed children and science experiments.
The shower cuts off while Phil is still musing and he gets up, knocking on the bathroom door.
“Yeah?” Barnes calls, followed by the click of the door unlocking.
Phil leans on the handle and sticks his head in. Barnes is standing in front of the mirror, an off-white hand towel around his waist, rifling through Phil’s shaving kit.
“I’ll get you some underwear,” Phil tells him, keeping his eyes carefully above waist height.
He thinks he sees Barnes grin in the mirror, but he’s too busy backing out again to be sure.
When Phil returns, he chucks a clean pair of boxers at Barnes’s back. Barnes catches them without turning around, then drops the towel easily before pulling them on.
Phil clears his throat. There was a time, a long time ago, when Bucky Barnes naked and freshly showered was Phil’s number one fantasy.
That was a long time ago, though; now Barnes is too young and too strange a hybrid of Clint’s defensive sass and Natasha’s brittleness to be anything other than someone Phil wants to help.
Which doesn’t mean that this isn’t slightly uncomfortable.
“Did you need to get in here?” Barnes asks. His wet hair is pushed back off his face, and now he looks more like the photos in his SHIELD docket and the old newsreel footage.
“I wanted to check a word with you,” Phil says. “Do you know what полтергейст means?”
Barnes freezes. Phil thought he’d seen other people go still before, but it’s nothing to this. Phil’s razor falls out of Barnes’ hands which drop to the edge of the sink, knuckles straining white through the thin skin.
“You need to get out here,” Barnes tells him, pushing the words through clenched teeth.
Instead, Phil takes a step forward. “What? Barnes, what’s - ?”
Barnes brings a knee up and slams it hard into the underside of the sink. He makes a choked off noise of pain but his eyes are clear when he focuses on Phil’s reflection in the mirror. “Now. Get out and don’t open the door, no matter what.”
“Barnes?” Phil repeats but he stops arguing when Barnes’ expression washes suddenly blank, face shutting down.
He spins around, razor blade once more clutched in his hand, slicing his own palm open before aiming it at Phil, and Phil slams the door between them, leaning all his weight onto it to keep it shut until he can fumble a coin out of his pocket and jam it under the door handle, turning the lock from the wrong side.
That will hold for as long as it takes Barnes to realise what he’s done and unlock it from the inside, so Phil grabs hold of the heavy, iron bedstead and drags it across the room. It takes all his strength and his arm starts to bleed between the stiches by the time he’s done, but no matter how hard Barnes shoves at the door, it’s not budging anymore.
Phil sinks down onto the bed and breathes out hard. At least that explains why Barnes went unexpectedly Winter Soldier last night: a trigger word. One that’s written across every page of Yenin’s notes, presumably so that none of the poor bastards he experimented on would ever have a chance to read what he’d done and help themselves.
Phil wonders if that word works on Natasha too. They’ll need to test it, but he isn’t relishing the prospect.
Barnes kicks at the door and swears at Phil in inventive, furiously angry Russian.
“Might as well sit down,” Phil shouts back, “I’m not letting you out until you give me Sergeant Barnes back.”
“Fuck you,” the Winter Soldier shouts back.
Well then. A stalemate. He opens up Yenin’s work again, wondering if he can find a word to turn off the trigger. He isn’t hopeful, but he’s got to try.
The rhythmic sound of Stark hammering metal bulkhead sheets together doesn’t waver. Clint should have known this was a trap when Stark offered to work down in the depths of the Helicarrier with him today.
“Sorry, Katniss, I just don’t take no for an answer.”
Clint groans. He’s sanding down the edge of a doorframe that bulked under the weight of something – Hulk, maybe. “I told you, I don’t want to live in your cute little frat house.”
Stark hums. “Is it a frat house if Agent Romanoff’s there too?”
Clint’s head snaps up; he can’t help it. “No way has Natasha agreed to move in with you.”
“Why not?” Stark asks, eyes wide and innocent. “She’s lived with me before.”
“Yeah, undercover. And under protest.” Clint stares at him. “Seriously? She said yes.”
He ignores the way the thought of that scrapes at his insides, hollowing him out just a little bit more at the idea of losing Natasha to the Avengers.
“Yep,” Stark says smugly. Then he rolls his eyes under Clint’s scrutiny. “Okay, so not quite. But I nearly got her to agree. She said she will if you will. You will, right?”
“What part of no do you have trouble with?” Clint asks him, speaking as slowly as he knows how (which is damn slowly) in case it’s listening that Stark has a problem with.
“Um, mostly the ‘n’,” Stark says, shrugging, “but also the ‘o’.”
Clint doesn’t want to laugh, but he can’t help it. “Stark,” he sighs. “I can’t.”
Stark finally puts down his hammer. Then he picks it back up, spins it in his hand and points the handle at Clint. “Why?”
The way he’s looking straight at Clint tells Clint that he won’t be accepting any bullshit as an answer. “I’m not good company,” Clint finds himself saying. And shit, that’s way too honest. Clint needs to get away from these people; they make him say stuff.
“Dude.” Stark throws the hammer up and grabs it out of the air. “Do you think I am? What about Banner? Romanoff is fucking terrifying and Thor… Okay, well, Thor’s probably not too bad when he’s here, but the rest of us.”
“Yeah, you’re really not selling this to me,” Clint warns him. “And you didn’t mention Rogers.”
For the first time, Stark actually looks a little frustrated. “Captain Stubborn Pants is still a work in progress.” He smirks slowly. “But I bet he’d agree if you did. How was your little drive last night? Did he park up and try to get to second base while Glenn Miller played your favourite tune?”
Clint takes a breath and doesn’t ask how Stark knows about everything. “It was Duke Ellington, actually,” he says and just keeps his expression blank and unblinking when Stark does a double take.
“I hate spies,” Stark grouses. “I never know when you’re lying.”
“That’s kind of the point,” Clint tells him. He reaches out and tugs the hammer out of Stark’s hand. “Now, can we get back to work or d’you want to stand around chin-wagging all day?”
“I’ll have you know, I can multi-task,” Stark tells him, but miraculously it seems like he’s going to stop pushing. “Come over dinner tonight, okay?” Or maybe not.
“Dinner again?” Clint asks. “Is that what life’s like for you?”
“I’m investing,” Stark tells him, “if I can’t win you over with the beauty of my architecture, I’ll do it with my ability to call for takeout.”
“No way do you call for your own takeout,” Clint argues, but he’s feeling slightly less panicked about the idea of going to Stark Tower than he was last night.
“Well. No. JARVIS is better at that sort of thing.” Stark widens his eyes at Clint. It’s ridiculous. “Come on. Come to dinner.”
“Fuck,” Clint snaps, but he isn’t mad. He wants to be, but it’s harder than it should be. “Fine. Fucking fine. I will have dinner with you, if you’re that much in love with me.”
Stark shoves him. “Bring Cap, too. And maybe a nice bunch of flowers for Pepper. No strawberries, though. She’s allergic.”
“Why the fuck would I bring strawberries to a – ” Clint stops himself. He’s clearly missing something. “We can stop talking now, right?”
“Hmm, what?” Stark snaps his goggles over his eyes. He wasn’t wearing them before, so they’re clearly just for show. “Get back to work, Barton, or I’ll tell Fury you’re lollygagging.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Clint says, flipping him off, and gets back to work.
“Yes?” he calls.
“Are you all right? I heard banging.” It’s Larissa, the middle-aged woman who runs the building.
He looks around the room, the displaced bed, the still occasional shouts and bangs coming from the bathroom and decides he cannot let anyone in.
“Yes. Thank you. Everything’s fine.”
“You let me in,” she says firmly. “Open the door.”
Phil rolls off the bed, grabs a sweatshirt from his rucksack and drags it on, hiding the blood and stitches on his arm.
He opens the door the smallest amount possible and smiles blandly out at her. “I’m sorry. Did I disturb you?”
Her eyes flick to the door. “Is there someone in there with you?”
“Only my girlfriend.” He can’t make himself blush on demand, but he can duck his head, bite his lip as though embarrassed. “We got a little carried away.”
There’s a crash behind him. “Open the door and I promise to kill you quickly,” the Winter Soldier says, very clearly audible.
Phil sighs, internally. “When I said ‘girlfriend’,” he tries.
Larissa puts her hand on the door. Phil shoves his knee behind it, stopping her from opening it. “Open the door,” she repeats, but she doesn’t sound angry, she sounds desperate.
Phil’s opening his mouth to ask if she’s all right when there’s a barely-there buzz of displaced air, a tiny hole appears in the middle of her forehead, and a bullet thuds into the woodwork to the right of Phil’s neck. She pushes once more against the door, as though the blood leaking into her eyes hasn’t registered yet, and then she slumps forward.
It’s instinct to catch her.
It’s a stupid instinct to catch her and he shouldn’t have done it but it’s too late to realise that now when his hands are trapped under her arms, her body blocking his escape route.
The door of the apartment opposite crashes open and six, no, seven men and women come spilling through, guns raised and pointed straight at Phil.
Phil ducks and a bullet thwacks into Larissa’s back. She’s dead, she can’t feel it, but it still gives Phil the push he needs, the anger that these bastards would shoot an unarmed woman in the back.
He’s hopelessly outmatched, he’s not going to get out of this without a miracle, but he’s going to take some of them down first.
He dives to the side, kicking the door as hard as he can, using it as a starting block to propel himself across the room. He doesn’t stop to move the bed, just picks up his M60 and slams it against the central panel in the bathroom door.
The wood splinters but doesn’t crack. Phil can hear someone curse as they trip over Larissa’s body.
He has one more chance.
He hits the door again and, this time, the panel splits. The Winter Soldier’s face looms into view, startled and menacing at once, and Phil shoves his M60 through to him.
“Don’t shoot me, shoot the people behind me,” he tells him, and rolls off the bed, grabbing his handgun from the mattress and slipping underneath.
They’re in the room now so a hail of bullets follow him, but it doesn’t matter. He shoots high above the first foot he sees and hears someone howl in pain, then Barnes starts firing.
The machine gun keeps firing,
A woman falls to her knees, gun clutched in bloody fingers, but Phil holds off on shooting her, expecting her to die any second without his help.
She lifts her head and looks straight up at Barnes. “D4TWS,” she says, just a string of numbers and letters but the machine gun jolts and then the bullets stop coming.
So there is an off-switch for the trigger, then.
She grabs up her gun and points upward.
Phil shoots her and crawls out from under the bed. He makes sure to keep the bed between himself and Barnes, his back pressed to the wall so that Barnes couldn’t get the machine gun to point that way if he tried.
“You okay?” Phil asks.
Phil is not a rookie, he’s not going to put himself in the firing line to take a peak at his brainwashed Russian assassin.
There’s a harsh breath then, “What the fuck did I just do?” Barnes asks, soft.
“You killed some people who were trying to kill you.” Well, Phil assumes that they were going to kill Barnes; they were definitely going to kill Phil. He does understand that putting a gun in the Winter Soldier’s hands and telling him to shoot makes him no better than Department X, but Phil will have to wait until later to feel bad about it. “How are you feeling? Can I let you out?”
“Yeah.” Barnes breathes and then, again, “Fuck.”
Phil is getting tired of shoving this bed around. “Come on,” he says, pulling the bathroom door open, “we’ve got to get out of here.”
Barnes steps out of the room, face closing down at he takes in body after body.
Phil grabs him by the shoulder. They don’t have time for regrets right now. “They were trying to kill you,” he repeats.
Barnes looks at him blankly. “Don’t worry, Coulson, I can deal. I’m just getting mighty tired of this. When I kill someone, I prefer to remember when and why.”
“You were triggered,” Phil tells him, throwing Barnes’s clothes at him and then picking up Yenin’s notes, shoving them and the rest of his stuff back into his backpack. “That woman – ” He points over his shoulder. “ – knew the code to bring you back.”
“Huh.” Barnes walks over and looks down at her. “Yeah, I recognise her; she’s Department X.” He straightens. “This code, you know it now?”
Phil nods sharply. “I do.”
Barnes expression flickers with something that might be relief. “Well, there’s something,” he drawls. He stiffens suddenly. “Someone’s coming.”
Phil raises an eyebrow. “Several someones, I imagine,” he agrees and hoists his pack onto his back. “Ready?”
Barnes finishes fastening his belt buckle and swings Phil’s M60 over his shoulder. “Ready.”
They take the window. It’s already smashed from Barnes’s entrance and Phil’s room is only on the fifth floor, so it isn’t the hardest descent Phil’s ever made.
Halfway down, though, someone starts firing, and that makes it more interesting.
“You told me to,” Clint reminds him, rolling his eyes even though, okay, he’s never bought a hostess gift before and he’s kind of embarrassed.
“Leave him alone, Tony,” Pepper scolds. She’s curled up on the opposite end of one sofa to Stark, laptop on her lap and box of Chinese takeout on the arm of the chair. She smiles at Clint. “The flowers were lovely.”
Clint squirms and gives her something that hopefully looks a bit like a smile and stares down hard at his pork balls. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but he’s not sure what it is.
Across the room, Steve and Banner are having what looks like a way more interesting discussion and Clint can’t help wishes he was over there instead.
He’s got Natasha over here with him, but she’s leaving him to make his own way through the conversation, which isn’t helpful or best-friend-like at all.
“So, like,” Clint starts, which he personally thinks is a brilliant way to start a conversation, “how’s the rebuilding coming along?” Considering they’re sitting in the middle of a building site, he’s guessing not very well.
“Slowly,” Pepper tells him, rolling her eyes. “It would be much quicker if Tony would stop changing his mind about what he wants every few minutes.”
“I resent that,” Stark tells her. “I know what I want. It’s other people, who are the problem. Not to be a tattletale, but there’s a guy, not a million miles from us right now, who is refusing to move into the perfectly lovely apartment I’ve built for him but still expects me to build a room for his damn cat.”
“She’s not my – Wait, you built a room for Indy?” Clint stares at him. “A room? For a cat?”
Stark blinks back. “Well, she can’t live with the bots; they’d try to knit a hat out of her fur. Where else was she supposed to go?”
“It’s a nice room?” Pepper offers, like that’s the problem Clint’s having here. “We went to Pets’r’Us. No, well, that’s not quite true. We bought a branch of Pets’r’Us.”
Clint shakes his head, helplessly. “Thank you,” he says. “You didn’t need to do that.”
Pepper clears her throat. “Phil was my friend,” she says.
Clint’s chest prickles, unexpected and painful. “Thanks,” is all he manages. Natasha kicks him with the round toe of her shoe. It helps.
“You could thank us by moving in,” Stark says.
It looks like Natasha has finally had enough because she sighs, straightening up. “Stark, are you a record that’s stuck? Would you like me to smack you?”
“No, but really.” Stark moves back a couple of inches from Natasha’s glare. It’s hilarious. “What’s keeping him? Is he married?”
“Tony,” Pepper chides.
“What? He could be married. I’m engaged and, really, who saw that one coming?”
“Not me,” Pepper mumbles under her breath.
“I’m not married,” Clint tells him. Inside he sighs, mentally saying goodbye to ever having peace again. “If I say yes, will you shut up for five minutes?”
“Three,” Stark offers then bobs his head. “Okay, probably two and a half.”
Clint nods. “Deal.”
Stark lights up like a fucking Christmas tree, like Stark Tower itself. “Deal?” he echoes. “Is that a yes? That’s totally a yes. Which means that, Romanoff, you promised you’d come too. Rogers.” He raises his voice. “I’ve got Barton, you in now?”
“We’re not a set of trading cards; you don’t have to collect us all,” Steve calls back and everyone flinches. Steve’s eyes find Clint’s. “Sorry, I didn’t – ”
Clint curls one hand into a fist, nails biting into his palm. He can do this. “We are definitely not in mint condition,” he agrees and knows he said the right thing in the right way when Steve smiles at him and nods.
Phil flips his backpack over on his lap and doesn’t look up. “Anywhere, just put your foot down.”
He knows there are at least three police cars on their tail, but he’s not too worried about those. They can outdrive the cops; it’s Department X that he’s concerned about. They won’t be interested in keeping Phil and Barnes alive long enough to put them on trial.
“I’m seriously hoping you’re about to pull out a canon,” Barnes tells him, swinging the steering wheel left and making an abrupt U-turn when a blue and white patrol car peels out from a junction up ahead.
“That’s next,” Phil promises and pulls out his knife, slitting the bottom of the pack in two sharp motions. He swallows a sigh of relief when his emergency cell phone tumbles out, intact and apparently undamaged. Damn, R&D are good sometimes.
The light up ahead on the highway turns red but Barnes doesn’t stop, slamming his foot down on the gas and racing through the light and the oncoming traffic.
Two of the cars chasing them are close enough behind that they make it through in Barnes’s wake but the rest are trapped, hemmed in by wildly careening cars.
“Shit,” Phil yells. He’ll deny laughing later but it’s been a while since he was in a car chase. The last time involved Natasha, a souped-up sports car, and a half-dozen pissed off Mets fans. If anyone asks, he hasn’t missed it.
Barnes glances across at him, narrowly missing a truck as he does. “Who the fuck are you calling?”
Phil braces a hand on the roof and uses the other to dial a familiar number. “We need backup,” he explains, holding the phone to his ear and waiting while it cycles through the generic call centre menu options.
He’s instructed to press 8 if he requires any other service. He presses 9.
“Bailing out on us already?” Barnes asks, changing gears jerkily.
“I said backup, not extraction,” Phil says. He doesn’t mention that when he bails, he’s taking Barnes with him. Now might be a bad time for that.
“Fiona’s Fabulous Flowers, can I help you?” asks a chirpy voice.
“Authorisation code nine seven five - ” They hit a pothole and the whole car bounces. “Golf November nine Zulu.”
“Transferring you!” he says, still chirpy, and puts Phil on hold.
It’s one of the most surreal moments of Phil’s life, watching Bucky Barnes lead a car chase through suburban Russia while his cell plays Mack the Knife in his ear.
Something explodes to their right and Barnes curses in Russian.
“What was that?” Phil snaps at him, craning his head around to see. There’s a man on a motorbike four cars back, pointing a grenade launcher right at them. “Fuck, drive.”
“The actual hell do you think I’m doing?” Barnes demands. He takes a rapid left, then another. They’re moving away from areas Phil recognises, the river suddenly looming up on Phil’s side of the car.
There’s another explosion, closer to them this time, and the car veers toward the river for a second before Barnes yanks it back on course.
“Wheel hit?” Phil asks.
“Pretty sure,” Barnes agrees, suddenly eerily calm. He takes one arm off the wheel, shrugging Phil’s M60 off his shoulder and handing it back to Phil. “Shoot that fucker for me, yeah?”
Phil takes the machine gun at the same moment as Music to Watch Girls By fades out and Nick Fury’s voice replaces it.
“Coulson? What’s happening?” He sounds annoyed, which means he’s worried.
“Sorry, sir.” Phil can’t talk and shoot. He misses his radio. He misses his team, who could be left to do the shooting while Phil checked in. “Got to call you back.” He shoves his cell in his pants pocket and twists, resting the machine gun’s barrel on the back of his chair and shooting one quick volley to knock out the back window.
The motorcycle swerves as though Phil were aiming for it, which he wasn’t. Yet.
“There’s a block of empty factories down this way,” Barnes tells him, having to yell over the sudden increase in noise now that air and traffic sounds are rushing in through their broken window. “No point leading him straight there though.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it.” Phil leans heavily into the gun, forcing it still, and takes aim. He isn’t Clint, he might not make this shot first time, but he’s going to give it a damn good try.
The car bounces and Barnes curses again, but Phil doesn’t spare a glance to find out why. He can hear a car horn blaring from somewhere on their right, but he ignores that too.
The motorcyclist lifts his grenade launcher again. Phil aims at his face and fires, dragging the muzzle down the length of his body, raking his chest and hoping that enough bullets make contact to count.
The bike goes one way and its rider another, bouncing off the back of their car and falling away. The bike hits the kerb, flips over and comes flying their way.
“Barnes, left!” Phil snaps. The car swerves immediately, and the bike hits the ground just behind them, landing with a crash and the angry spinning of wheels.
Phil sinks back into his seat and is just letting himself sigh in relief when a junction appears out of nowhere, a truck taking the same blind corner that Barnes is aiming for.
There’s no time to stop. Barnes slams on the brakes so the truck hits the hood of their car rather than level with the front seats, but the collision is still massive and they fly across the road.
There a couple of seconds where Phil thinks they’re going to be fine, but then their back wheels hit something and they flip, the sky then the ground then the river the only things Phil can see.
Not that he has all that much stuff, but still. That’s kind of a liberty.
“JARVIS?” he asks the ceiling, wondering if that’s how this works. If not, he’s just a dude talking to himself and he’d rather not feel more crazy than he already does.
“Yes, Agent Barton,” JARVIS’s voice answers immediately.
Clint feels a little bit smug. It worked. “Oh, hey, there. Um. How are you?”
“I am perfectly well, thank you. However, I am a computer and will therefore always be well, so there is no need to make small talk before asking for my assistance.”
Huh. “What if I want to?” Clint asks curiously.
There’s no way that an AI can sound pleased but this one sounds, well, kind of pleased. “Then you would immediately become my favourite of Mr Stark’s new friends.”
Clint laughs. “It’s okay, JARVIS, you can call us strays.”
JARVIS doesn’t answer, which Clint assumes is the polite, fake-British way of not having to agree that that’s exactly what they are.
“So,” Clint tries. “If I want something, I can ask you and you’ll do it?”
“Unless it contravenes one of Mr Stark’s orders, yes.”
All right, that’s a little bit cool. “Okay, so. Where is Stark?” Clint doesn’t mention that he needs to know so he can kick Stark’s ass, figuring that might contravene an order or two.
“Mr Stark asked not to be disturbed this evening,” JARVIS tells him, “but, at this time of night, he can often be found on level five, in Dr Banner’s lab.”
Clint grins at the ceiling. “Thanks, JARVIS.”
JARVIS makes a little circuit-y noise that might be a cough. “You’re quite welcome, sir.”
Clint makes his way down the corridor, back to the elevator – they’re barely elevators, they’re all blue-lit, flashy little closets, more like sci-fi-style transporters. Which is okay, Clint’s whole life is a sci-fi movie, lately.
He finds Banner’s lab pretty easily. Mostly because Banner’s lab is actually an entire floor of labs, glass walls and buzzing, whirring, gurgling machines set up all over.
Banner himself is sitting at a desk in the middle, looking more relaxed than Clint has ever seen him.
He actually waves when he sees Clint. “Agent Barton,” he says, nodding and doing that half-smile thing of his. “Taking a look around?”
“Looking for Stark,” Clint tells him, turning slowly, to take in the… everything, everywhere. “He around?”
Banner looks at Clint over the top of his glasses and shakes his head. “He and Pepper are, um.” He raises his eyebrows pointedly. “Taking the evening to themselves.”
“Ah.” Clint takes a second to parse that. Stark’s hot and Pepper’s hot but he doesn’t want to think about them together.
“Mmm,” Banner hums. “It’s got to be strange for her, all of us living here in her home.”
Clint has always lived with a whole bunch of other people; to him the idea of only living with people he’s handpicked seems weirder, but he can kind of see how it’d be strange for Pepper.
“You’d think life with Stark would always be strange,” he says and pats the shiny surface of one of Banner’s emptier workbenches. “You mind?”
Banner shakes his head so Clint hops up, idly swinging his legs. He waves a hand at Banner. “Don’t worry about me, get back to whatever you’re doing. What are you doing?”
“Do you really want to know?” Banner asks, frowning at Clint.
“Yep.” Clint never got to spend much time in school but he likes science; anything with any kind of real world application is something he wants to learn.
It’s pretty soothing, sitting here under the bright strip lights, listening to Banner explaining some kind of bastardised KERS system that he and Stark want to trial in the Quinjets.
Clint thinks that anything that makes the ‘jets more badass is a-okay with him.
“So what would that mean for cornering?” he asks, leaning forward to see Banner’s schematics clearer. It’s weird feeling interested in shit again, but he’s not going to think about it too closely in case it goes away.
“It’d probably – ” Banner starts then the PA system clicks and they both stop talking.
“We have an incoming message from Agent Hill of SHIELD,” JARVIS announces. Clint can hear his voice echo around the entire floor and guesses that this message is going out everywhere in the Tower.
“Sure, go ahead,” Banner tells him.
“Avengers.” That’s Hill’s voice. She sounds particularly pissed off tonight. “We have a situation. Assemble at SHIELD asap.”
Bruce and Clint look at each other. “Assemble?” Bruce asks, making a face. “What does that involve?”
Clint shrugs. “Get suited up, go kick some ass?”
Bruce sighs. “I’ll go find some stretchy pants. Meet you on the roof?”
“Got it,” Clint tells him and hops down off the bench.
Phil grabs the edge of the chassis and heaves, almost dropping it again when Barnes screams.
“Barnes, open your eyes,” Phil snaps. “You need to move with me here.”
The truck that hit them didn’t stop and the motorcycle that was chasing them is a burnt out husk on the road, but the cops or Department X – or both – will be here soon.
Barnes groans and tries to roll toward Phil, eyes squeezed tightly shut. He stops before he can get far, choking out a curse, and sinks back.
“I can’t,” he slurs, voice barely there. He drags his eyes open and squints up at Phil. “Get out of here.”
Phil doesn’t bother responding. His shoulders and arms are starting to scream at him and he can’t brace the weight of the car much longer, but he can’t stand the thought of letting it fall back onto Barnes.
He leans in, trying to get a better look at how exactly Barnes is pinned, and has to call on all his years of playing the poker-faced SHIELD agent not to curse out loud.
It’s bad. The front axle is snapped and half-buried in Barnes’s shoulder. What Phil can see of his arm is a crushed and bloody mess; Phil can’t see his hand but he hopes like hell that that’s just because it’s dark under the car.
“Coulson.” Barnes turns his head, forehead brushing Phil’s knee. “Seriously, fuck, go.” He lifts his other arm and pushes weakly at Phil’s chest.
Phil’s strength finally gives out and the car slips out of his hands. Barnes groans and arches away instinctively, biting back a scream when the weight of everything holds him back.
“Sorry, shit, sorry.” Phil rolls from his knees into a crouch, pressing his fingers to the underside of Barnes’s jaw, checking to see how he’s doing. His pulse is fast and thready, falling fast off the edge into shock.
In the distance, Phil can hear the drone of an engine coming closer. He pushes that out of his mind. If he focuses on it, it’ll be here before he can do anything else.
“I’m going to lift the car again,” he tells Barnes. “It’ll hurt and I’m sorry but I need you to move.”
Barnes stares blankly up at a space past Phil’s shoulder. He shakes his head. “Won’t work. I’m pretty sure I’ll pass out if I try.”
Phil wouldn’t be surprised: Barnes is grey-pale and his breathing is uneven. “That’s okay,” Phil tells him. “As long as you do it after you’re clear of the car, I can get you to safety.”
Barnes laughs shakily. “You’re a stubborn motherfucker,” he says, but there’s more strength in his voice when he says it. “Okay. One more time. But if it doesn’t work, you’ve got to fucking leave me, okay.”
Phil makes a humming noise and doesn’t commit to anything. He pushes his hands back under the chassis, ignoring the throb of his bruised palms.
Barnes takes a deep breath and nods. “Three,” he says and Phil lifts.
The noise Barnes makes isn’t one that Phil ever wants to hear again, but he manages to drag himself a couple of torturous-looking inches before sinking back down, panting.
Phil can see more of his arm now and it doesn’t look good: swollen and purple where the flesh hasn’t been sheered off.
Barnes looks at Phil rather than down at his own arm. “It’s bad, right?”
Phil has lied to a lot of people in his life, several of whom were worse off than Barnes. Not today. “It’s bad,” he agrees. He can hear a siren now, the whine of more than one engine.
Barnes manages to focus on Phil’s face and stares hard, a lot of expressions shifting through his eyes. Then all of a sudden, he moves, uncurling his good hand from Phil’s shirt and fumbling with his belt instead.
“What are you - ?” Phil asks then stops when Barnes hands him a wickedly sharp-looking blade.
“Do it for me, yeah?” Barnes asks.
Phil knows what he’s asking but he still shakes his head, saying, “What?”
Barnes tries to move again and doesn’t get anywhere this time. The axle is in deeper than Phil thought and, even if it weren’t, Phil can see now that the whole middle section of the car has collapsed, holding Barnes’s hand firmly pinned. Phil can’t work out a way to lift enough of the car at once to get him free.
“Am I getting out of here with my arm like this?” Barnes asks him. He’s talking around deep gulping breaths, like even that hurts. Phil shakes his head. “Are you going to leave me?” Phil swallows, shaking his head again. “Then cut off my fucking arm, Coulson, shit.”
Phil stares at the blade then back to Barnes. “No,” he says.
Barnes’s eyes slide shut and it looks painful to open them again. “C’mon,” he begs. “It’s okay. Please. Phil.”
Phil takes the knife.
“Potential?” Steve asks, looking up at her.
“Russia?” Natasha asks, flipping quickly through the pack.
Clint pulls another folder toward himself, opening it up while Hill says, “We have an agent working in Kagula, deep cover. He called Fury a couple of hours ago, then immediately lost contact. It could be nothing, but Fury wants you on hand in case it’s something.”
“What agent?” Clint asks. The docket is telling him fuck all and if it’s someone important enough for Fury to send the Avengers after, it’s got to be someone he knows.
Hill’s expression is briefly annoyed then completely blank. “I don’t know,” she says. It sounds like it hurts her to say.
“You don’t know? Huh.” Stark kicks back in his chair. “Aren’t you like, Fury Lite?”
“I know what I need to know,” she tells him smartly. She clicks her wireless mouse and a map pops up on the whiteboard behind her. “It would be helpful for you all to learn the lay of the land. Hopefully, by the time we’re done, Fury will be able to give us the go order.”
“Or let us go home to bed,” Clint mutters, more to be grousing than anything else. When he glances up, Natasha is looking at him, frowning slightly.
What? he mouths.
She doesn’t answer, just wrinkles her nose.
Clint nods; he agrees. If something’s going down that Hill doesn’t know about, it must be the end of the damn world.
Except, wait. She did know about that when it was happening.
“What?” Phil asks, still trying desperately to get his cell phone to work. It survived his trip around Russia, but apparently a car crash was beyond it. He takes back all his charitable thoughts about R&D.
“Steve,” Barnes repeats then makes a sharp, pained noise.
Phil’s head snaps up. “What’s wrong?” he demands, reaching out to steady Barnes, eyes skittering away once from the place where his arm used to be before he forces himself to focus on it.
There are a lot of things Phil has done in his life, but he’s never amputated a man’s arm before. He lost his lunch once it was over and he can’t think about it without feeling nauseated all over again.
Barnes laughs brokenly. “It hurts,” he says, “my fucking hand hurts.”
“Your hand?” Phil looks at Barnes’s one remaining hand. It’s clutching Phil’s thigh tight, but it looks fine.
“Yeah, yes, the one that’s not there anymore.” Barnes presses his face into Phil’s stomach and shakes.
He’s actually doing better than Phil had feared; shock hasn’t killed him yet, maybe it won’t. Phil’s checked and rechecked the tourniquet and the combat gauze and the bleeding is under control.
If they weren’t holed up in a warehouse in the middle of god knows where, Phil would give him even odds of surviving this. As it is, he doesn’t know.
Helpless, Phil sets his phone through another refresh cycle, then sets it down on the floor by his thigh, reaching down to push sweaty hair off Barnes’s forehead.
“You need to tell him… don’t tell him.” Barnes tugs hard at Phil’s sweatshirt. “If you tell him you found me, he’s going to kill himself fretting about how he should have found me first. You can’t tell him.”
They’re back to Captain Rogers, apparently.
“It’s okay,” Phil tells him. “Help’s on its way.”
Barnes smiles faintly. “Liar,” he croaks, and Phil frowns at Barnes’s glassy eyes, too-slow breathing.
Phil curses internally. He’s not losing Barnes now, not when they’re safe for the moment. He knows there’s a search going on outside, but no one’s come near their building yet. Phil is not prepared to sit here with Bucky Barnes’s dead body and wait to be found.
“Peggy Carter was my great aunt,” he says quietly. No one but Nick knows that; Phil never found a moment to tell Captain Rogers.
Bucky’s eyes seem to focus at that, but Phil might just be seeing what he wants to see.
“She told me about you and Captain Ro- You and Steve.”
Bucky’s lips part. “Yeah?” he croaks.
Phil nods. “It was important to me,” he says slowly, “when I was a kid, growing up, to know that you could be gay and still be a hero.”
Barnes doesn’t blink, but he does seem to be staying awake to listen. Phil can work with that.
“I left someone behind too,” he hears himself say. “And if I can get this phone to work, then he and Steve are going to move heaven and earth to get us out of here.”
“Don’t tell Steve,” Bucky says again, eyes closing.
Phil swears. “Stay the fuck awake, Sergeant,” he orders. “I’m not telling Steve anything; I want to be able to leave that to you.”
Barnes hums. “S’not going to happen.”
And then Phil’s cell phone beeps and switches itself on.
Never let it be said that Clint’s job doesn’t take him to glamorous places.
“There are two groups of unknown persons at your six and eight o’clock,” Hill tells them over the radio, “assume hostile.” She pauses. “Get off the streets, guys.”
“Ma’am,” Steve says, and runs forward ten paces, stopping at the end of a block and holding up his hand for everyone to do the same.
They all glance at each other, everyone apparently realising when Clint did that Steve expected them to be following him.
They are not exactly rocking this team thing yet.
“Let me get this straight,” Stark hisses, voice echoing weirdly from this close to the Iron Man suit, “there are, what, fifty buildings, spread out over twenty blocks? And our unknown agent is in one of them. Anyone got a pencil? We can draw lots.”
“Fury said he crashed his car,” Steve points out. “Once we find that, Agent Hill can sweep the area.”
“This is ridiculous. I can just – ” Stark fires up his boots, rising a couple inches off the ground. Steve sticks out an arm without looking and yanks him back down.
“He’s got a point,” Clint offers. He’s not sure he’s spoken since they changed planes in Germany. Natasha napped for the last part of the journey, and Clint didn’t really feel like talking to anyone else.
Hill sighs at them all. “Okay, Hawkeye,” she says. “Up you go.”
Clint salutes empty air. He used to do that to Phil all the time. The pang he feels at the memory is better somehow; not much, but less furiously painful.
Maybe he’s getting used to Phil being dead. He doesn’t want that to be it.
“Hey, how come he gets to have fun?” Stark grouses, but Clint’s already scaling the outside of the nearest building. The old, rusty ironwork takes his weight easily, and he’s on the roof before Hill’s even thought of a comeback.
From up here, he can see that Hill’s intel was spot on. There’s a gaggle of what looks like cops approaching from the northeast and a bigger, better-armed group of unknowns circling around a sturdy-looking red-brick building four blocks up from Clint’s rooftop.
Two blocks west from that, he can see an upturned car and the burnt-out remains of what was probably a motorbike.
“Think I’ve got them, Cap,” he says, stepping onto the edge of the wall to get a closer look. As he watches, more reinforcements arrive to back up the bigger group. Even from this far away, he can see how shiny and plentiful their guns are.
Fifteen seconds later, there’s the clomp of boots and Iron Man lands beside him.
“Jesus,” Tony whistles, “there’s a whole damn army down there.”
“Whoever they’re looking for must be someone special,” Bruce says thoughtfully.
Natasha makes the growling sound in her throat that means she’s rolling her eyes. “Then let’s stop talking and go get them.”
He takes the safety off his pistol and runs a hand over the line of carefully assembled and loaded firearms at his elbow.
He and Barnes have moved as far as possible from the window now, but there’s no hope of them getting out of this room before the attack comes. Shifting Barnes ten feet set off a fresh wave of bleeding that Phil only just managed to deal with.
“Okay, Barnes, show time,” he says, carefully sliding out from under Barnes and kneeling in front of him instead. It doesn’t do much to shield Barnes’s legs, but it should stop him taking a direct hit in the head or torso. For as long as Phil remains upright, anyway.
There’s an almighty explosion downstairs, hard enough that it shakes the foundations of the building, Phil swaying on his knees. He’s still fighting to regain his balance when the door caves in and the doorway fills with Department X grunts.
Phil lifts his gun.
The window to his left smashes inwards and the Hulk comes roaring through.
Phil allows himself one blink of surprise.
Hulk comes face to face with the grunts, stops, and roars, grabbing the nearest by the throat and throwing him into the wall.
Phil sinks back onto his ass, gun still clutched in both hands to keep it steady.
Before Hulk can grab the next guy, an arrow flies over his shoulder, barely brushing his ear, and the doorway explodes.
“Nice shot,” Phil hears, in Tony Stark’s voice, and then Iron Man touches down in the broken window, Clint hitching a ride on his side.
“He’s made trickier shots than that, Stark,” Phil finds himself saying, and everything goes quiet.
Clint’s hallucination is apparently bizarrely specific and bloody.
Before anyone can say anything, Steve and Natasha come running through the doorway from downstairs.
Natasha’s first. She freezes, staring at Phil, and then at the crumpled, unconscious dude tucked into the corner behind him. She goes very, very white and takes a step back. Clint’s never seen her react like that.
“Natasha?” Steve asks, putting a hand on her back, but she shrugs him off.
Steve looks past her, obviously looking for the source of whatever’s shaken her up. His eyes go very wide when he sees Phil - everyone can see Phil; what kind of a hallucination is this? - and then they focus on the bleeding guy.
His mouth opens and no sound comes out.
“Captain,” Phil says, standing up. He’s moving and walking and talking and other people can see him. Clint’s higher brain functions shut down. “We need a medevac right now. Sergeant Barnes is in a bad way.”
Steve still isn’t moving. “Bucky?” he finally manages - at least that’s what Clint thinks he says, except that can’t be what he’s saying; maybe they’ve both flipped out - and then finally, he’s stumbling forward, falling to his knees. “Bucky,” he says again, reaching around Phil to put his hands on the other guy.
Phil squeezes Steve’s shoulder. The fabric of Steve’s uniform crinkles under the pressure. This is a really detailed hallucination. Clint has been locked up and drugged by supervillains and not even then did he have hallucinations that were this detailed.
“Steve,” Phil says firmly. “We need to get him out of here.”
“Okay,” Tony says slowly, retracting his helmet so Clint can see he looks as baffled as Clint feels. “I have no idea what’s going on. Are we in heaven? I would have thought there’d be more dancing girls and less explosions in heaven, but whatever, I can roll with this. Ghost Coulson says we need a medevac, I will get us a medevac.”
“Thanks, Stark,” Phil says, looking up at him. He glances around the rest of the room, frowning at Natasha and nodding at Hulk, who just looks confused, before his eyes stop on Clint.
There are a lot of things that Clint wants to say but they all get stuck in his throat.
Clint doesn’t want to look at Phil, but he can’t bring himself to look away. His brain feels like it’s about to split in two.
He takes two steps backwards, away from all this shit he doesn’t understand, and puts himself between Natasha and the rest of the room.
“Agent, you need to get on board,” she tells him firmly. “Unless you have a superpower you haven’t mentioned, you were in that car crash too.”
“I’m fine.” Phil takes another step away from the helicopter. He’d align himself with the Avengers, but he’s not sure he’s welcome right now. “Captain Rogers can take my place.”
Rogers is shaking, staring at Barnes as though he can’t quite see him. He hasn’t moved more than two feet away but he’s currently outside the chopper, looking like it’s killing him not to get in.
The doctor huffs, dark hair whipping out when the rotor blades start up. “Fine then, get him on board, I don’t have time to waste.”
“Captain,” Phil says, folding his arms. “They need to leave; you’re holding them up.”
Still looking like a stun grenade blew up in his face, Steve climbs aboard without saying anything, not even a token protest that he can’t take Phil’s place.
Phil can’t imagine how this feels for him. He spends some time contemplating that so he won’t have to think about the empty, unblinking way Clint’s still staring at him.
They watch in silence as the helicopter takes off, then Phil turns on his heel and orders everyone into the waiting Quinjet. He hopes that if he acts as though he’s just been away and as though he isn’t covered in blood and dirt and day-old sweat, no one else will comment on it either.
It’s quiet and awkward on the Quinjet. Natasha is silent, and that’s something Phil is going to have to worry about very soon. He’s distracted by Clint, though, by Clint’s complete lack of reaction other than to flinch every time he looks Phil’s way.
“So.” It’s Banner who breaks the silence. Of all of them, he’s the one Phil knows the least well, so presumably Phil’s miraculous return is less of a shock to him. “You’re less dead than reported?”
Phil offers him a smile. “Quite a lot so, yes.”
Stark stands up suddenly. “That was shitty,” he says, “just so you know.” He stands over Phil and waves a hand. “Stand up.”
“Are you going to punch me, Mr Stark?” Phil asks, standing up.
Stark snorts. “I should,” he says and then Phil is being hugged. It only lasts a two-count but it’s incredibly disturbing. It’s also the most physical contact Phil has had in weeks from someone who wasn’t dying or trying to kill him.
Stark slaps him on the shoulder once he’s stepped back. “Life-Model Decoy?” he asks.
“Something like that,” Phil agrees; then, when Stark keeps looking at him, he sighs. “Or exactly that, yes.”
There’s a sound from the bulkhead and all of a sudden Clint’s slammed out, into the cockpit.
Phil doesn’t bother to hide his wince or the fact that he’s watching him go.
“Hm,” Stark says, tipping his head thoughtfully. “Temper.”
He walks with Natasha across the landing strip; she still isn’t saying a word.
“Medical wing?” he asks her, because he doesn’t know what’s going on with her but he knows it has to do with Phil’s new buddy, and dealing with her issues sounds way more fun that thinking about his own.
She nods shortly and turns that way, striding ahead so he has to actually stretch his legs to keep up. He doesn’t ask her if she’s okay; if he does, she might ask him the same. The difference, though, is that she knows what’s wrong with him; he has no idea why she spooked like this.
The first person Clint sees when they reach the medical wing is Fury. He’s filling the doorway of one curtained-off room, pissed-off growl sending doctors and nurses scurrying.
Clint guesses that’s where they’re seeing to Phil. Phil who isn’t dead. Phil pretended to be dead so he could fuck off to Russia and do god knows what.
Clint can’t deal.
So he doesn’t.
He follows Natasha toward the surgery wing and doesn’t think about anything other than the set, slightly uneven line of her shoulders.
They find Steve in the corridor, pressed against the glass display window that looks down into one of the operating rooms. Steve looks like Clint feels: like he’s been hit by a truck and has no idea if he likes it.
“Hey?” Clint says, walking up to him and watching Natasha try to decide if she wants to stand with them or pace. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
One of Steve’s hands is flat against the window. Clint glances down and wishes he hadn’t; there’s a lot of blood and something that looks a lot like a handheld saw is coming into play.
“You called him Bucky,” Clint presses.
“But he’s not... really Bucky?”
Steve nods again.
Holy shit. “Holy shit,” Clint breathes. “So today’s the day for ghosts, huh?”
For the first time, Steve manages to look more aware of his surroundings. He doesn’t take his eyes off Bucky fucking Barnes, but he’s definitely talking to Clint when he asks, “Are you okay?”
Clint laughs shakily. “Am I? Dude, I’m not the one who just had my boyfriend brought back from the dead.” Not technically, anyway.
Natasha makes a harsh sound, which is when Clint realises that he probably shouldn’t have said that. He doesn’t have secrets from Natasha, though, except possibly he should sometimes.
“James,” she says, stepping up next to Steve. “When I knew him his name was James.”
That gets Steve’s attention. “When you knew him?” he repeats.
She nods. “In Russia. I was... I was very young. He tried to help me.”
Clint feels his eyes go wide. He knows about Natasha’s James, the first man she ever loved; he never in a million years would have put that together with Steve’s Bucky Barnes.
“Do you love him?” Natasha asks softly.
Steve doesn’t twitch. “Yes.”
She looks as though she already knew that. “And he loves you?”
Steve’s fingers bend backwards from how hard he’s holding onto the windowsill. “He used to. A lifetime ago.”
Natasha nods slowly, to herself Clint thinks. “SHIELD has the best doctors money can’t buy. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Then she turns around and leaves.
“Is she okay?” Steve asks Clint, attention drifting back to Bucky. Clint can hear the faint vibration of the saw getting to work. He hopes Steve can’t.
“I have no idea about anything right now,” Clint tells him honestly.
He turns to go, whether to give Steve space or track down Natasha or go sit in a dark room by himself for a while, he isn’t sure.
The door opens before he can get there, and then there’s Phil. Right in front of Clint. Being alive and relatively whole and Clint... can’t. He just can’t. He needs Phil’s face to not be there right now.
Clint draws his fist back and punches, not quite as hard as he can but nearly.
He stays long enough to see Phil rock back on his heels, to make sure he stays on his feet, and then he shoves his way past Steve, who reaches out for him, and past Phil, who doesn’t.
In the grand scheme of things, Phil doesn’t mind that too much. He aches everywhere; what’s one more.
“Well, I’ve had better welcomes,” Phil tells Rogers, since he has no idea where to start with him either.
“Coulson.” Rogers clears his throat. He looks shattered; Phil suspects that that’s not because of Phil’s apparent return from the grave. “Phil. You found him.”
Phil puts his hand on Rogers’ arm. He feels a hundred years older than the last time he saw Rogers; he’ll probably get back to babbling at him soon, but right now, he feels the overwhelming urge to mother him.
“I couldn’t save his arm,” Phil says. “I’m sorry.” They’ve let him wash his hands, but he knows he’s still wearing Barnes’s blood everywhere.
Rogers makes a strangled, startled laugh that sounds shockingly close to a sob from someone who’s normally so composed.
“You found him,” he repeats. “I didn’t even know he was - ” He shakes his head and turns away.
Phil glances down at the operating table. It looks as though Barnes is losing the rest of his bicep; Phil isn’t surprised, it was already crushed and that tourniquet was tight.
“What happened to him?” Rogers asks.
Phil hesitates. “He should tell you the details,” he hedges. “But he was found by the Russians and trained to work for them. They somehow put him in stasis between missions; that’s why he still looks the way he used to.”
“Does he remember me?” Rogers asks. “Does he remember him?”
“He remembers you,” Phil promises. “He told me that if he died, I wasn’t allowed to mention I’d ever seen him.”
Steve’s laugh is definitely a sob this time.
Phil pats him once on the back and steps away. “I’ll leave you alone,” he says and feels awkward when he adds, “I hope he’ll be fine. He’s a good man.”
He walks away before he can say anything else.
Natasha is waiting just outside the door. She grabs his arm, hand painfully tight around Phil’s wrist, and drags him into an empty examination room.
“You’re not dead,” she says, hands on hips, expression blindingly angry. “You went to Russia, you found the Winter Soldier, and you’re not dead.”
“Yes,” Phil agrees. He licks his lips. “I’m sorry?”
Natasha clenches her hands into fists. “I was going to punch you, but it looks like someone already did that.” She peers at his cheek. “Clint?”
“Who else?” It’s a solid punch, designed to bruise but not break; of course it was Clint.
“In that case,” Natasha says, and shocks the hell out of him by wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her face into his chest.
She’s shaking. Phil can’t fault her for that; he’s exhausted and he never expected to be back here. He’s shaking too.
“You went to take down Department X?” she asks. “By yourself.”
“No, just to fact-find for the World Security Council. It wasn’t supposed to get that dramatic.” He laughs shakily and her fingernails bite into his back.
“But you went to Department X.”
Phil nods into her hair. “You were Fury’s first choice for the mission. The Council made the call not to put you back in that situation.” Honesty forces him to add, “I wouldn’t have let him send you, anyway.”
She tips her head back, looking up at him for a second before disengaging herself and stepping back. “You don’t trust me, Phil? Still?”
He shakes his head, then catches the edge of something which he thinks is meant to be a smile. “You know that’s not it.”
She straightens and tucks her hair back behind her ears. “Thank you,” she says. “I could have handled it, but thank you.”
He shrugs. “I’d say it was no big deal, but – ”
“Yes,” Natasha agrees. She folds her arms. “I’ll forgive you for lying to me eventually, but I’m not sure Clint will. You broke his heart.”
Phil doesn’t think that can be true. Or, he wants to believe that it can’t be. He isn’t stupid, though, and he isn’t blind; he’s never doubted that Clint felt the same way about him that he feels about Clint. And he knows what it would do to him if Clint were to be killed.
“I’ll work something out,” he promises her. He pauses, then has to ask, “Barnes remembers parts of his time with Department X. Do you plan to fill in the gaps for him?”
Slowly, Natasha shakes her head. “No,” she says, “that’s in the past, another lifetime ago.”
“I understand,” he says. Then he hesitates. It feels strange for him to feel protective of someone other than Natasha in this situation, but he can’t resist adding, “Although I think it would help him to know. You remember how tough it is to come back from something like that. If you can stand to talk to him, I think it might help you both.”
She looks at him for a second then nods very slightly. When she turns away, he figures that’s his cue to leave.
He hotwires the first car he finds and peels out of the parking lot already doing sixty.
Phil’s face had felt solid and real under Clint’s fist. Phil’s real. He’s real and alive and Clint is so angry he can’t breathe.
It’s late afternoon and New York City isn’t a good place to try to drive off his rage, but Clint genuinely does not give a shit. Traffic had better fucking part for him; he’s got no plans to slow down for anyone.
“Welcome back,” Nick says dryly. “Have fun?”
Phil is too tired to banter. “No,” he says honestly. “I can honestly say that I didn’t.”
“You did your best, Coulson,” Nick tells him. Which is crap, Phil wants to say, he’s fucked up everything with Clint and he got compromised. That isn’t even close to his best.
“Permission to sleep for a week?” he asks.
Nick looks thoughtful. “Forty-eight hours,” he bargains. His hand shoots out before Phil can slump over right there. “Not here. Go home.”
Phil hesitates. “I still have a home?”
“Huh,” Nick says, like he’d forgotten that little wrinkle. “Stark has a lot of rooms. Ask nicely.”
Phil groans but stands up. “Sir, I’ve changed my mind. Permission to work myself into an early grave instead.”
Nick’s lip twitches. “Denied.” He looks up. “And Phil, put some ice on that eye. You can’t get out of Russia without a scratch and get a black eye on home turf, that’s just embarrassing.”
“Sir,” Phil agrees tiredly. He tosses Nick a tired salute that neither of them are properly dressed to give or receive and lets himself out of Nick’s office.
And walks straight into Maria Hill. Has SHIELD always been this crowded?
Maria freezes. She looks at him, then over his shoulder at Nick’s closing door, and back to him before breathing out very slightly, gaze turning warm.
“Hi.” Maria raises her eyebrows. “I’m pleased you aren’t dead.”
Phil smiles thinly. “That puts you in a category of two.” He thinks of Nick’s almost-smile. “Maybe two and a half. But thank you.”
She shrugs. “Want to get a drink sometime? You can tell me nothing about your mission and I can complain about your damn Initiative.”
“Sounds great,” Phil tells her, meaning it. “I’ll hold you to that.”
He stays where he is, sun warm on his back and hood hard under his ass.
His cell stops ringing, starts again.
He ignores it.
“Room 10.2, tenth floor,” Stark tells him, throwing it casually over his shoulder. “JARVIS’ll show you where it is.”
Still suspicious, but deciding that Stark probably isn’t trying to kill him right now, Phil steps into the elevator and tells JARVIS where he’d like to go.
“Very good, sir,” JARVIS says and deposits him on the tenth floor in the blink of an eye. Or maybe Phil fell asleep in the elevator; he’s so tired that that is definitely possible.
Phil walks down the corridor and privately curses Stark for putting his bedrooms so far from his elevators. Every ache he’s picked up over the last few days is waking up and making itself known.
No one’s watching him now, but it’s hard to remember that he can let himself limp. It’s always hard to shake off an undercover assignment, even one where he wasn’t playing any specific role, and it’s harder than normal this time because there was no satisfying conclusion.
He’s ten feet away from where JARVIS has promised him there’s a bed waiting when something flings itself at the inside of the door he’s passing and lets out a loud – and very familiar – cry.
Half expecting a robot or a sabre-toothed tiger to jump out, Phil reaches out and turns the door handle.
A cat – his cat – comes racing out and leaps up at him, meowing at the top of her lungs and dancing around him like he’s the world’s tallest catnip tree.
“Indy?” Phil says, and kneels down next to her, letting her jump all over him. She’s definitely his cat, but what she’s doing here is another matter. “JARVIS? How did Stark steal my cat?”
“I believe Agent Barton asked Mr Stark and Miss Potts to look after her, since you were… indisposed.”
Indy’s mouth is wet as she rubs her jaw back and forward over Phil’s hands. It should be disgusting, but it’s so nice to be welcomed by someone that he doesn’t care. Besides, he spent an hour showering blood and shit and gristle off his body at SHIELD, so a bit of cat drool is nothing.
“You can say I was dead, JARVIS,” Phil says, smiling despite everything.
“I could,” JARVIS agrees, “but it would appear that that would be inaccurate.”
Is Phil getting sniped at by a computer? Phil honestly hopes he is. It makes him feel like he’s never been away.
Indy squeaks suddenly, a different pitch from before, and runs once around Phil before loping off down the corridor.
“Hey,” Phil calls after her, and then stops, eyes falling on a pair of sneakers, two very familiar legs. He stands up slowly, swiping cat fur off his pants compulsively. “Clint.”
Clint is staring at him, ignoring Indy even when she puts her paws on his thighs and noses at his hand. It’s bizarre to see them together. Phil always wanted to take Clint home, but he never got to do it.
“You gave Stark my cat?” Phil asks when Clint still doesn’t say anything.
Clint nods. Then shakes his head. “I told your neighbour you were dead.”
“That’s okay,” Phil tells him. “Probably for the best.”
“You were dead,” Clint repeats. “Fuck you. Fuck you, you were dead. Fuck.” His hands start shaking, and Phil watches him tuck them away behind his back.
Phil closes the gap between them, reaching out to put a hand on Clint’s shoulder. He can’t watch Clint stare at him, pale and lost, without trying to help.
Clint shudders and knocks his hand away. Then he steps up to Phil and grabs the collar of his shirt. “I’m so mad at you,” he says hoarsely.
“I’m sorry,” Phil tells him, trying to show how very much he means that. “Fury needed me and I thought I was doing the right thing.”
Clint’s hand slides from Phil’s collar to the back of his neck, squeezing too hard. The shock of his skin against Phil’s makes Phil shake too.
“I hate you. I thought we were going to... I thought we were on the same page and then you were gone and I couldn’t, I can’t – ”
“I’m sorry,” Phil says again, bringing his hands up and curling them in the front of Clint’s sweatshirt. He’s seen Clint upset before, but never at him; Phil’s always tried to be something Clint can rely on.
“Hate you,” Clint repeats and kisses him.
Phil stops thinking. Clint shoves him back into the nearest wall and every bruise on Phil’s back explodes into pain, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is Clint’s mouth on his, the way Clint’s biting his lips and his tongue and his jaw.
“Clint,” Phil groans, digging his hands hard into Clint’s back and dragging him in closer, tighter, furiously angry with every inch of space between them.
“No, shut up,” Clint tells him and pushes Phil back into the wall again.
“I have a room,” Phil says, sliding his hands up into Clint’s hair, tugging because he can.
Clint pulls back, glaring at him, and Phil knows this is serious, he does, but Clint’s here and Phil can’t help laughing, walking backwards and dragging Clint along until they reach what’s hopefully the right door.
Clint trips him as soon as they’re inside and Phil lets himself fall, pulling Clint down on top of him. He kicks the door shut, ignoring Indy’s mew of protest from outside, and gets both hands under Clint’s shirt, shoving it up under his armpits.
There’s a couple of frantic moments while Clint shrugs out of his t-shirt and then he’s back on Phil, sucking on his tongue, hands between them getting both their flies open.
Phil hasn’t had sex in a long – long – time but he won’t pretend that’s the only reason he moans when Clint rubs their erections together.
“Shut up,” Clint says again, dropping his head to Phil’s neck, biting the fleshy part of Phil’s shoulder, teeth nipping Phil’s skin in time with the uneven jerks of his hips against Phil’s.
“I’m not saying anything, Barton,” Phil reminds him and rolls them over. He meant to let Clint run this show but it’s too much, Phil’s been away for so long and wanted this even longer.
Clint’s back hits the floor with a louder smack than Phil intended, but Clint doesn’t look as though he cares, dragging his legs apart and Phil down between them, hands finding Phil’s ass and rocking up into him until they’re both making noises they can’t hide.
This was never going to last long; these last few weeks have been draining and Phil’s running on empty. He starts to feel the hot rush of his orgasm racing up from his toes; he just has time to thrust his dick up against Clint’s belly, the head dragging through Clint’s rough treasure trail, before he’s shaking through spasms that knock him off his knees, dropping his full weight down onto Clint.
Clint swears, and his arms come up, holding Phil tight and kissing Phil’s mouth, murmuring, “Shh, shut up, shut up,” like it’s all he can remember how to say.
Phil drops his head onto Clint’s neck and shifts just far enough to get his hand on Clint’s cock. It’s wet with some combination of Phil’s come and Clint’s pre-come; hot and solid in Phil’s hand.
“I can’t believe this is finally happening,” Phil says into Clint’s skin, drunk on orgasm and exhaustion and Clint. Most of all Clint.
Clint goes still, breath catching in his throat, and then he grabs Phil’s hand and jerks himself off with it, squeezing Phil’s fingers into a tighter and tighter fist until it has to hurt, but he doesn’t stop.
“Clint.” Phil kisses Clint’s throat, which doesn’t get any reaction, and bites it, which does.
“Fuck,” Clint chokes, sounding broken open, and turns his head away, gasping as he comes.
His hand falls away from Phil’s and Phil gives him one more squeeze before shifting, trying to catch Clint’s mouth in a kiss.
Clint shoves him away, hard enough that Phil loses his balance and falls back onto the carpet.
“I’m,” Clint starts, then shakes his head before he scrambles up and runs for the bathroom.
Phil flops over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. At least he didn’t punch me again, he thinks wryly, and closes his eyes.
You’d think that would be enough to finally make Clint’s brain believe that Phil’s real and here and alive but it’s not.
Clint just stands in the middle of the bathroom, the room filling up with steam from a shower he doesn’t want to get into, and watches his reflection disappear as the wall mirror steams up.
He definitely just had sex. He definitely just had sex with Phil.
He wishes he could make himself believe this is really happening.
Groaning, he drags himself up onto his knees and tucks his cock away. The shower’s still running in the bathroom, and he’s ninety percent sure that’s where the crash came from.
“Clint?” he calls, knocking softly. He should just back up and leave Clint alone, but the crash worried him and he’ll never stop being Clint’s handler just because Clint hates him right now.
He tries the door handle, surprised when it opens easily. Clint must have been really desperate to get away from Phil, if he forgot to lock the door.
“Clint,” Phil calls again, then pushes the door open. A wall of steam hits him, but he squints through it to see Clint sitting on the bathroom floor, barefoot and shirtless but still in his jeans, staring at nothing.
“Clint.” Phil crouches down in front of him. “What happened?”
Clint tips his head back, staring up at Phil. “You died,” he says. He doesn’t sound all there, but that’s okay, this isn’t the first time Clint has disappeared inside his own head. It’s the first time Phil’s been directly responsible though.
“I’m fine now,” Phil reminds him slowly, patiently. He shuffles closer and picks up Clint’s hands, puts them on Phil’s thighs. “See?”
Clint rolls up onto his knees and Phil rocks back in case he wants to escape. The noises Clint makes when Phil puts space between them has Phil crowding back close before he’s even thought about it.
Clint’s hands grip Phil’s thighs, fingers digging hard enough to leave bruises. Phil stays still.
“You died,” Clint says again. Phil’s horrified to hear his voice break.
“I’m sorry,” Phil says, honest, automatic, meaning it just as much as he did the other times he’s said it tonight. He reaches out cautiously, seeing if Clint will let himself be pulled into Phil’s arms.
Clint folds against him, face pressing into Phil’s chest, hands still holding on desperately tight. The angle is awkward but Phil works with it, holding Clint back just as hard, cheek against the top of Clint’s head, murmuring “Sorry, god, I’m sorry,” and other useless, helpless things.
When he gets out, clean t-shirt and boxers on, towel around his shoulders, Phil’s sitting on his bed, reading the same supernatural crime paperback that Clint remembers him reading during downtime at PEGASUS. He has no idea how or why Stark managed to find it and bring it here, and he isn’t asking.
“I’m pretty sure the boyfriend did it,” Phil tells him, putting the book back where it was, making sure the spine lines up straight with the edge of the nightstand.
“Yeah, sure,” Clint agrees. He’s not sure where to put himself. He might be hovering. There’s a bruise on Phil’s cheek that he only half remembers causing, and he can’t stop looking at it. “You want some ice for that?”
“What? Oh.” Phil touches the edge of the bruise then drops his hand. “No, it’s fine.”
Thwarted, Clint can’t think of anything else to do. He’s spent weeks beating himself up about letting Phil die without ever having told him how he feels about him, but now Phil’s here again and Clint fucked him while half out of his mind with shock, but Clint still hasn’t told him anything.
“Come here?” Phil asks, and then he catches Clint by the wrist, pulling him to stand between Phil’s legs. Clint’s not a big fan of being pulled around, but this is kind of where he’d like to be anyway.
Phil’s wearing pyjama pants, which is weird, and his hair is damp at the ends so he must have showered back at SHIELD. His knee is hard and warm through the thin cotton, pressing against Clint’s bare inner thigh. Clint can’t breathe.
“Clint,” Phil says, stroking his thumb over the inside of Clint’s wrist.
Clint isn’t much given to talking when he could be doing, but right now he feels like he has to say something or he’s going to burst. Hell, he might burst anyway.
“Sir?” he says, turning his hand in Phil’s and holding on.
“I wanted to – ” Phil starts.
Clint shakes his head. “No. Can I go first?”
Phil tips his head back to look up at him. His eyes are warm and soft and open. Shit, Clint loves him.
“I’m sorry.” Clint takes a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have hit you and I shouldn’t have…” He waves his hand, hoping that’ll tell Phil that he means fucked you on the floor without saying hi. “But you died, and I’ve, I haven’t been dealing well. Like, at all.”
Phil shakes his head helplessly. “I’m not denying that you deserve more than an apology for that,” he says. “But that’s all I’ve got. I can’t go back and make it never have happened.”
“Would you, if you could?” Clint asks, curious.
“Yes,” Phil says then, “No. No, I wouldn’t. It was a disaster and a good man got hurt, but it had the potential to be really important. I made the call that it was worth it to try; I have to stick by that.”
Clint nods. That’s fair. He likes when people are honest with him.
“I had this plan,” he admits. He lay awake wishing he’d said this to Phil and now he is. It’s almost enough to send him back to the crazy denial place. “I was gonna ask you out and like, date you properly and shit, but I never did and then you died and I realised I’d just been futzing around, putting shit off because I was scared. Only now you’re kind of.” He squeezes Phil’s fingers. “You’re kind of holding my hand and you really didn’t seem to mind… all that on the floor earlier, so maybe you won’t mind if I – ”
“Clint,” Phil says firmly, “come here.”
He tugs on Clint’s arm again and Clint bends down over him, stopping with his mouth an inch from Phil’s, just for a second, just long enough to really take in the view.
Then Clint’s kissing Phil or maybe Phil’s kissing him. Actually, judging by the way Clint’s being manhandled down to sit the bed, Phil’s arms firm and tight around his back, Phil’s definitely kissing him.
Clint breathes out hard, a shiver rolling from the back of his neck down to his toes. He pushes his hands up into Phil’s hair and opens his mouth, licking at Phil’s teeth until Phil makes a harsh noise and chases Clint’s tongue back into his own mouth.
Fingers dig into Clint’s hips, tight enough to really fucking hurt and it’s too much, except it’s not enough at all.
Phil’s laughing shakily when he breaks the kiss. He rests his forehead against Clint’s and trembles, still holding on too tight.
With an effort, Clint pulls his hands out of Phil’s hair and strokes them down his back instead. “So,” he tries, “this something you can maybe see working for you?”
Phil laughs again in answer, dropping his head onto Clint’s shoulder. Clint thinks about the god-awful few weeks that have just passed and then tries to imagine what they’ve been like for Phil. No mission that ends surrounded by guys with guns and having to saw a guy’s arm off is the kind that’s easily shaken off.
“Hey,” Clint murmurs into Phil’s ear, “you okay?”
“Exhausted,” Phil tells him after two beats.
Clint turns his head and kisses the corner of Phil’s mouth. Phil doesn’t disappear or suddenly change his mind and shove him away, and one more of the million broken pieces in Clint’s chest stitches itself back together.
“Want a rain check? I could leave, let you get some sleep?” Clint asks, even though it kind of hurts to offer. But because he is fucked up over Phil, the idea of Phil pushing himself to the brink over Clint hurts worse.
“No,” Phil says quickly and Clint refuses to feel relieved. Refuses. Phil’s hand cups the side of Clint’s face for a second and then slides up, pushing Clint’s damp hair off his forehead and smoothing his thumb across the skin he’s revealed.
“What are you doing?” Clint asks, holding still because Phil looks intent. Clint hopes he hasn’t spontaneously turned into a Cyclops or something; Scott Summers is not Clint’s role model.
Phil shrugs slightly. “The last time I saw you, you had a big red bruise right here.” Apparently wherever Phil puts his fingers is going to turn Clint on, good to know.
Clint frowns. “After Tasha hit me? When did you see that?”
Phil looks like he really doesn’t want to say, but he forces himself. Clint appreciates that. “I checked in on you via the CCTV. I wasn’t going anywhere if you weren’t okay.”
It’s stupid to get choked up over that; Clint knows it is. He still has to clear his throat. “That’s surprisingly romantic of you, sir,” he says and watches, fascinated, as Phil blushes.
“You know me, full of romance,” Phil says, and smiles that soft, heart-stoppingly sweet smile that Clint’s only seen a handful of times and kind of wants to keep in a jar forever.
It hits Clint all over again that Phil’s back. Clint has never been this lucky. He has to cover up a sudden wave of feelings by faking a yawn and flopping down beside Phil.
“We gonna sleep, then?” he asks, surprised when his fake yawn becomes a real one. Shit, he’s tired, and he hasn’t been through anything like the amount of crap Phil has.
Phil rolls onto his side and winces. “We are,” he agrees, “just as soon as I find a position that doesn’t hurt.”
Clint rolls up onto an elbow, frowning down at Phil. “You hurt, sir?” he asks and keeps glaring until Phil sighs and pushes up his t-shirt.
“Holy shit. Phil,” Clint swears, reaching out to touch Phil’s side and then letting his hand drop.
Phil is covered in bruises, an older, blackened one in the centre of his back that reminds Clint of the times he’s been shot through a vest, and scores of other, fresher ones that leave Clint wondering how he’s still moving around.
“It’s fine,” Phil tells him, “mostly. Unless I think about it. Or move.”
Clint reaches out and traces his finger around one bruise then another. He wants to kiss them but if they start that, they’ll never get to sleep. “I guess I shouldn’t have pushed you into so many walls, then?” he asks.
Phil laughs. “No, feel free to keep doing that,” he says, pointedly putting his t-shirt back in place and pulling Clint down beside him. “If you can,” he adds, mouth right against Clint’s ear.
Clint shivers. “You got yourself a deal,” he agrees, and lets Phil pin him to the bed.
Clint breathes in the shampoo scent of Phil’s hair and closes his eyes, Phil’s solid weight and the heat coming off him finally enough to let Clint relax.
He’s automatically reaching for his gun before he realises that it’s across the room, and the reason he can’t move his arm is because Clint’s sleeping on it.
The door swings open silently and Stark’s robot, Dummy, comes rolling in. He’s holding a tea tray with what looks like breakfast food laid out on it.
“Thank you?” Phil whispers, trying not to wake Clint.
It’s not quiet enough, though, and Clint sits up, blinking blearily. He chokes out a laugh when he sees Dummy and holds out his hand. “Oh hey, buddy,” he says.
Dummy stops rolling forward when he sees Clint and whirs in alarm instead, rocking backwards. The two little pincer/finger/antennae things on top of his head wave frantically in the air and he races out of the room.
“Huh.” Clint flops back down onto the bed. “That was weird?”
Phil looks down at Clint, sleep-rumpled and warm-looking, and feels his mouth go dry. “Weird,” he agrees. He clears his throat. “I can’t imagine anything in Stark Tower, not being weird. What on earth possessed you to move in here?”
“Natasha,” Clint says with a shrug. “She made me. Well, Natasha and Steve.”
Phil raises his eyebrows. “Steve?” he asks.
Clint rolls his eyes and slaps him on the arm, managing to avoid every bruise and the still-painful knife wound. “Don’t look at me like that, I saw you after they found him, remember? And everyone told me what you were like when you finally got to meet him.”
Phil doesn’t blush. He doesn’t. He’s an adult and an agent of SHIELD; he doesn’t blush. “I’m not the one calling him Steve.”
He expects Clint to tease him straight back – that’s always how they communicate – so it’s a surprise when Clint bites his lip and glances away instead.
“Clint?” Phil prompts. “What have I missed?” Probably a million things; he doesn’t even know how Clint’s dealing with what Loki did to him or anything yet.
“So this is like, nine million shades of awkward,” Clint says in a rush, “but you should probably know that I, I kind of made out with Steve a bit? This one time?”
Phil blinks. “Made out with?” he asks.
Clint waves a hand at him. “Just kissing. We were talking about you and Bucky and he was fucked up and I was fucked up and, I don’t know. It just kind of happened.”
Phil tries to picture that. His brain is still too tired to do anything but turn to static. “How was it?” he asks.
It’s Clint’s turn to blink. “How was it?” he asks. He laughs, pressing his hand to his mouth as though to hide it, and ends up chuckling from between his fingers. “Of course that’s what you ask. Phil, fuck, I love you.”
He grabs Phil’s shoulder and pulls him down into a kiss before Phil can respond to that. Phil kisses back eagerly, trying to pour me too, god, me too into Clint’s mouth so he doesn’t have to pull back far enough to say it.
Things are just starting to get interesting when Phil hears the tapping at his door again.
“Ignore it,” Clint says into his mouth, “that robot’s got a screw loose.”
Phil laughs and willingly complies, sliding his hands up Clint’s chest and stroking his thumbs over Clint’s nipples.
The door opens.
“Look, I don’t know what you’ve done to my – Oh shit,” Phil hears and then he and Clint are both sitting up rapidly, although not really putting any space between themselves, Phil’s pleased to note.
For once, Stark looks honestly surprised. Phil savours this moment.
“Ohh,” Stark says slowly, looking from Clint to Phil and back. “Oh, of course, that’s why –” He trails off, looking down at Dummy instead. “Right, I understand now, two for breakfast.” He pats Dummy’s two still-waving fingers absently. “Let’s go ask Bruce nicely if he’ll cook up some more then. Come on.”
He drifts out, still talking to Dummy and completely ignoring Clint and Phil.
Phil laughs helplessly, turning to bump his shoulder against Clint’s. “This place is a madhouse,” he sighs.
“Yes, sir.” Clint nods. “But I think we might live here, now.”
Before Phil can reply, there’s a very disgruntled meow from the floor and Indy leaps up on them, padding across Phil’s legs to get to Clint and curling up in the crook of his knees.
“My cat loves you more than me,” Phil says sadly.
Clint reaches down and pets Indy between the ears, making her purr. “How come you have a cat?” he asks. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t strike me as a pet person.”
“I’m not,” Phil agrees easily. He watches Indy lick her foot, then lick Clint’s fingers, then bend her head to bite between her toes. She looks like she’s settling in to stay, which puts paid to Phil’s plan for morning sex. “I found her on the side of the road one night; I didn’t plan to keep her but I never found the time to get her a new home.”
Clint’s eyes go soft. “You collect too many strays,” he says. “You and Stark have that in common.”
Phil makes his mouth go round and shocked. “Take that back, Agent Barton.”
Clint smiles at him. There’s still something wondering in his expression every time he looks at Phil. Phil hopes that goes away soon; he wants Clint to trust that he’s really here.
Careful of Indy, Phil leans in close, ghosting his lips over Clint’s. “Last night,” he says, and feels Clint stiffen. Phil has no intention of bringing up anything Clint doesn’t want to talk about right now, though, so he kisses Clint to tell him that.
“Last night, what?” Clint asks warily.
“You asked if I could see this working,” Phil reminds him. His hands are curved around Clint’s ribs, so he feels him relax. Phil goes to collect his courage for what he’s going to say next, and finds that it’s already waiting for him; he wants to say this. “I see this working permanently.”
Clint turns his face into Phil’s neck. “I like permanently,” he agrees. “But right now, it’s kind of hard for me to believe you’re really here.” It sounds like it’s also hard for him to say that. Phil hates that he did that to Clint.
“What can I do to convince you?” Phil asks him.
“Lots of sex,” Clint tells him, grinning, then turns serious. “Just be here?”
Phil lets his hand trail up the back of Clint’s spine, finding the one little cowlick he’s always wanted to play with. It curls around his finger and he tugs lightly. “I promise,” he says and means it more than he’s ever meant anything.
Sadly, they don’t get to stay in bed, making up for lost time, for nearly as long as Clint would like. Now that they’ve discovered Dummy will deliver takeout to any room in the Tower, Clint had kind of been hoping to move into Phil’s bed and stay there ‘til they run out of condoms.
SHIELD has other ideas.
SHIELD always has other ideas; it’s the bane of Clint’s life.
“In my wisdom,” Fury tells them, standing at the head of the conference room table and favouring everyone individually with a look that says don’t say a damn word, “I’ve decided to send you all back to Russia. Try not to blow it all up this time.”
“Back?” Stark asks innocently. “I’m sorry, I thought you only sent Phil last time?”
“I sent you after him, didn’t I?” Fury demands.
Next to Clint, Phil looks like he’s paying complete attention. He’s also bump-bumping his ankle against Clint’s, so looks are clearly kind of deceptive.
“What’s the plan, sir?” Natasha asks, tapping her stylus against her tablet.
Clint presses the toe of his shoe against Phil’s. Phil presses back. It’s ridiculous but Clint just doesn’t care.
“My plan is that I’m sick of these Department X leftovers, running around like the Cold War is still occurring. My plan is that you take your team in and wipe them out.”
“The World Security Council won’t like that,” Hill says from the back of the room. Clint would have thought she’d be relieved to pass them back over to Phil, but she’s stuck around some.
Fury gives her his ask me if I give a fuck look. Clint would like to be Fury when he grows up. “I’m aware,” he agrees. “I no longer give a good god damn what the Security Council want, okay?”
“Okay.” Stark claps his hands together. “Now, this sounds more fun than giant rats.”
“Tony,” Banner says quietly, “I think we might need to check your definition of fun.”
Stark winks at him. “I am the definition of fun, baby,” he says. Predictably.
“Wait.” Clint looks around the room. “Where’s Steve?” He knew someone was missing. When Thor comes back, it’ll presumably be even harder to keep track of everybody. He’s normally only had to worry about Phil and Natasha before.
“Captain Rogers is spending time in medical until you leave,” Fury tells them, raising his eyebrow pointedly.
Stark, obviously, ignores his point. “Wait, so, Cap gets to skip briefings so he can get in some quality time with his boyfriend, Barton gets to bring his boyfriend on missions; that’s it, I’m dragging Pepper to the next one of these shindigs. You guys won’t know what hit you.”
Fury’s eyebrow comes back down. “Ms Potts has already been fully briefed,” he says, and it’s at the point where Stark is approaching apoplectic that Fury dismisses them.
Phil hangs back to talk to Natasha, and Clint hangs back to wait for the both of them. He needs to check in on Natasha and make sure going back to Department X isn’t freaking her out too bad.
If he knows her, she’s itching to spill some creepy, child-napping scientist blood, but it doesn’t hurt to check.
She looks up from whatever Phil’s saying to her, and sees Clint waiting. She leans over and says something to Phil, who pointedly taps his watch at Clint, but lets her go to him.
“You look like you need to pee, so I guess you want to say something supportive?” she says. She sounds snappy, but Clint knows that if she really hadn’t wanted to talk to him, she just wouldn’t have talked to him.
“Just wanted to check you were okay with all this,” Clint says. “I don’t think anyone would blame you if you wanted to sit this one out.”
She laughs, short and loud. “Trust me, I’ve been looking forward to going back there for a long time.”
“Yeah, right, but.” Clint stops, rubs the back of his neck. She’s right; he hates talking about this shit. But he remembers the first time he met her, how tired and worn down she was. Department X did that to her. “I mean there are, you know, people in my past who I fantasise about getting to shoot in the face.” The list is pretty long, actually. “But I might feel different when it actually came to it.”
Natasha jerks her head, graceless for once. Then she breathes out and looks up at him. “Thank you,” she says. She tucks her hair back behind her ears and squares her shoulders. “But I don’t feel different.”
“Okay.” He’s not going to argue with her; she knows what’ll help her better than he does. She missed a strand of hair, so Clint tugs on it gently. “I’ll see you on the ‘jet.”
She smacks his hand away but squeezes it before letting it drop. “See you.”
Clint waves to her, then to Phil, and heads out to the corridor. He finds Steve there, chatting quietly with Bruce, and he smiles and waves when he sees Clint.
“Hey, man,” Clint says, leaning against the wall beside him. “Everything good?”
“Excuse me,” Banner says and slinks away. Clint decides they’re going to need to do something about that; he likes Banner, he should feel free to stay and chat with them.
“Yes,” Steve says, still smiling. It’s edged with a fuckload of stress and sadness, but it looks like the smile’s permanent, anyway. “Yes, everything’s good.”
Clint smiles at him. “I’m glad,” he says, bumping his elbow against Steve’s. He looks up and down the corridor then says quietly, “I’m good, too.”
Steve nods quickly. “I know. Tony’s not very discreet. Congratulations.”
Talking of permanent smiles, Clint really needs to do something about his. “Thanks, man,” he says. He nods his head toward the conference room. “You waiting for one of them?”
“Bucky - ” There’s the smile, getting brighter. “Bucky wants to see Phil before we leave.”
That makes sense. “Cool.” Clint nods. “I’ll leave you guys to it. See you on the plane?”
“See you,” Steve agrees. “And Clint?” he calls, once Clint’s started to leave.
Clint turns back, walking backwards. “Yep?”
“Thanks,” Steve says. He shrugs, like he hopes Clint knows what he’s thanking him for.
Clint does. Or, he knows what he wants to thank Steve for anyway. The last few weeks were hell, but they weren’t a hell that he couldn’t crawl back out of, and that’s largely thanks to Steve. “Right back at you,” he says, and heads for the armoury.
All of that seems like complete overkill when Phil lets himself in and finds Barnes lying back against his pillows, practically as white as the sheets pooled down to his waist.
The absence of his arm is stark and obvious, as is the steady drone of the machines he’s taped up to.
“Hi,” Barnes croaks when he sees Phil. According to the doctors he’s fighting an infection, and it looks like it’s taking a lot out of him.
“Hello.” Phil comes in and stands by the bed. “How are you feeling?”
Barnes rolls his eyes. “I am seriously damn peachy, Coulson, how are you?”
“Excellent,” Phil tells him blandly.
Barnes laughs softly. “I thought there was no way you were as much of an asshole as I remembered, but you are. Hey. That’s cool.”
Phil smiles. “Thank you,” he says, which makes Barnes laugh louder.
“Listen, though,” Barnes says, turning serious. “You guys are going back in, now? Already?”
Phil shrugs. “The Director wants it done.”
Barnes pushes himself upright, with some difficulty. Phil waits, ready to help, but not unless Barnes asks him to. Barnes doesn’t.
“You’ll get it done easier and quicker with me there,” he says.
“Maybe,” Phil allows, “but we’ll have Natasha. Natalia.”
Barnes nods. “She hasn’t been there for years, though; I have. You need my help.”
“You just want to be the one to blow the Red Room to the ground,” Phil says shrewdly.
“Well, yeah.” Barnes shrugs one shoulder. “But I’m still right.”
He is, but, “Are you up to it?”
“Buddy, you have idea how much pain I can power through,” Barnes tells him, which isn’t an answer but still tells Phil all he needs to know.
“I’ll speak to the Director,” Phil promises. His watch beeps discreetly, which means he’s holding everybody up. There’s something more he needs to say before he can leave, though. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking Barnes in the eye, “that I couldn’t save your arm.”
Barnes glances away. When he looks back, his face is a mask of nonchalance. “Yeah, that’s gonna fuck up my career with the Giants, huh?”
Phil doesn’t react. Barnes sighs.
“Jeez, you’re more stubborn than Steve. It’s fine, we’re fine, you did your best, I know that, and you brought me home. I’d pay more than one arm for that. Besides.” He shrugs, and now he looks more genuine. “Howard’s kid’s been by, wants to build me some kind of robot arm. I don't know, man, but it could be cool.”
Privately, Phil agrees. Outwardly, he shakes his head. “Be very wary of anything Tony Stark brings you,” he warns. “It’s liable to explode.”
Barnes tips his head back against the pillow and smiles. “I am a big fan of explosions,” he says.
“Cap, you’ve got nine coming at you from the east. Someone want to get over there?” Clint asks, keeping an eye on Steve while shooting a guy he sees out the corner of his eye.
Bastard was stupid enough to try and sneak up on Natasha; Clint’s doing him a favour by shooting him quick.
“Barton?” Phil asks. “How am I looking?”
“Mighty fine, sir,” Clint says automatically, then actually scans the ground below for Phil. The one part of this mission that Clint’s not enjoying is that Phil’s taking an active part. “You’ve got hostiles on your two, but otherwise, clear run into the building.”
“Bet you wish you were down there,” says a new voice in Clint’s ear, and Clint frowns.
“Who’s that?” He shoots one of the two guys heading for Phil while he waits for an answer.
“I hear you’ve been getting up close and personal with my guy, Barton,” the voice says.
Clint grins. “Hey, Bucky Barnes,” he says. “Welcome to the party.”
Barnes laughs softly. “Go on, get down there,” he says, “I’ve got satellites on the whole area, I can see better than you can.”
“Fuck you,” Clint tells him, stowing his bow. “I’m the best in the world.”
“That’s only because you didn’t know I was in the world, darling,” Barnes says, with certainty.
Oh man, this is going to be fun. “Call me up when you’re out of bed, Sergeant, and we’ll see who’s best,” Clint says. He leans over the edge of the roof. There’s a fire escape three storeys down, and what’s life without a little adventure? He jumps.
“Crazy bastard,” Barnes tells him, “you’re all seriously insane.”
“You’re going to love us,” Clint promises, and makes a couple more jumps so he lands in the middle of the action. A quick arrow to someone’s throat really makes him feel like part of the team.
“Hawkeye?” Steve comes jogging over. “Who’s keeping watch?”
Clint points straight up at the sky at the same time that Barnes says, “Hi, Cap,” over the team frequency.
Steve startles. “Bucky?” he asks, smiling slow and uncertain. “What the heck? Where are you?”
“Tucked up safe and warm at HQ,” Bucky promises. His voice turns warmer when he speaks to Steve, but Clint would bet he’d deny it. “Fury gave me a laptop and I already know how to hack these assholes’ system so I have cameras everywhere. I can watch your backs. Speaking of, two hostiles at six o’clock.”
Clint glances across at Phil, who’s got a pistol in one hand and a really satisfied grin in place. “Shall we?” he asks, nodding toward the main building.
Steve steps up next to Clint and Natasha flanks Phil. Across the way, Hulk roars and Stark says something to him that Clint doesn’t catch. In their ears, Barnes keeps calling out plays.
Phil’s smile changes shape, taking them all in. “Together?”
Clint nods. “Together,” he agrees and plucks an arrow from his quiver.