Book I Parallels
Clint is late to the party, as always. He stops behind the last line of trees on the banks of the Potomac, watching the helicarriers crash around the Triskelion when he notices movement to the side. He carefully shifts up the tree, draws an arrow from his quiver. He doesn't have long to wait before the water surface breaks and the ghost Natasha's briefed him about walks out. He carries something, it's heavy, and Clint recognizes Steve being dropped at the edge of the water.
The Winter Soldier moves away then, and Clint watches him disappear between the trees before jumping down. He checks on the Captain, finds a pulse, before fishing his phone out. He tries a few numbers, and finally gets a hold of Hill. When he's got confirmation Natasha's alive and kicking, and that help is on its way for Steve, Clint moves through the trees himself.
It's about an hour later when he catches up with the Soldier, on the bad side of the abandoned warehouse cluster right at the outskirts of an old shipping yard. Clint peeks over the edge of the roof at the figure below, holding his breath as steady as possible.
The Soldier is leaning heavily onto a corner, his back to Clint, pushing his right shoulder into the exposed brick. It looks dislocated.
"Why are you following me?" Clint hears in a raspy voice from below, and it surprises him so much, that he almost flails himself off the roof.
He takes his time to consider his answer. "Curiosity," he finally says. In times like this, raw truth is the best option.
The Soldier grunts noncommittally before slamming his shoulder into the wall. It doesn't work, given the way his arm still hangs awkwardly by his side."Not an animal to gape at," he grits.
"Not gaping," Clint says, "admiring."
At this, the Soldier turns to look up at Clint. His eyes are just as sharp as Clint remembers them. It's been almost twenty years and he hasn't aged a single day. Clint shivers.
"Hold on," he adds, "I'm coming down."
A gun is pointed at him before he can even move from his position, the Soldier's metal arm steady in its aim. Clint sighs. So he has to do this the hard way.
"Nemo," Clint says. "It's tattooed on your wrist, right here," he lifts his right hand and taps his left index finger where his palm ends.
The Soldier's eyes widen. "How do you know this?"
"I put it there."
All he can hear are his own rugged gasps, all he can smell is wet dirt and the lingering burn of tires from where the truck had sped off the asphalt. There's pain, everywhere, a sharp one in his leg where Trickshot's arrow had pierced his flesh, a throbbing one in his dislocated right shoulder, Barney's doing, and a bright web in his left hand, under the rock they've both placed on it before rushing off. His own brother and his mentor had left him cold and wounded, to die in a ditch on the side of the road.
Tears fill his eyes, because this can't be real, it can't happen. He's just turned sixteen and he's dying. Clint is dying.
Funny thing is, as daylight fades away and the pain swoops in more and more intense with each breath, that he's starting to wish for it. The hurt is deeper than the wounds of his body, the sort that Clint already knows won't ever go away. By the time the clouds in the sky clear and stars show up surrounding the cold light of the moon, Clint is welcoming it. He's wishing for death.
A car drives by, stops close, but Clint is right at the bottom of the ditch, hidden in the bushes, air too thin in his lungs. He thinks for a moment that someone might have climbed out of the car, but it soon speeds away, and no other noises follows. Again, all he can hear are his own gasping breaths, all he can feel is pain, and Clint shivers. It might have been hours, it might have been minutes, but the next thing he sees is a man standing over him, watching.
He's tall, shoulders wide and boots too clean to have been a drifter on foot along the deserted highway. His long hair is falling messily around his face, framing his eyes, bright blue and pained, but cold. He draws a gun from the holster strapped to his leg, and finally... finally it's come for him. Clint closes his eyes.
"Thank you," he breathes.
Clint shakes his head. "I can prove it," he says, motioning to his pocket. "Gonna get a pen, 'k?"
It takes a few seconds, but the Soldier nods. His aim is still steady onto Clint as he fishes out a pen and small notepad from his pocket. His writing has softened since he was a kid, but it mostly remained the same blocky scratch. He writes down 'Nemo' and he could do that with his eyes closed holding the pen in his teeth.
"Here," he says, throwing the pad down with a twitch of his wrist.
It lands right in front of the Soldier, page up, and Clint waits. He can see the disbelief in the Soldier's eyes as he carefully studies the scribble. The hand holding the gun trembles slightly before the Soldier looks back up, jaw set.
"Now you write it," Clint adds, throws down the pen as well. "Oh, wait, your shoulder's dislocated, what was I thinking," Clint rolls his eyes, and perhaps sarcasm isn't the best choice right now.
But the Soldier snorts. Clint smiles to himself. Yeah, just like he remembers.
"Here's what I'm gonna do," Clint adds. "I'll come down there, help you with that shoulder, and if you still don't believe me, then you'll be better fit to fight, higher chances of taking me out."
The Soldier considers this, eyes skittering about, but never really off of Clint. It doesn't take long for him to jerk his chin in agreement, and Clint fixes a grappling arrow on the edge of the roof before sliding to the ground.
He's standing there, nozzle pointed at his head, the man in front of him tall, shoulders wide, hair falling messily around his face. His eyes are blue and pained, sharp in the lowering dusk.
Instead of a gun shot, there's silence. Instead of pain, there are cold fingertips pushing away the hair on his forehead. Clint keeps his eyes closed, because if death is this gentle, he doesn't want to spoil it.
The rock pinning his hand is removed, and Clint bites down on the sound trying to make its way out of his throat as a fresh wave of hurt radiates through his palm. He is then lifted, cradled against leather that smells like iron and disinfectant. Scrubbed away blood. The movement jostles the arrow shaft in his leg, but Clint presses his lips as close together as possible, buries his face in the chest there. This is better than anything, and he doesn't want the hallucination to go away.
He forces himself not to count the footsteps barely audible on the side of the road. A door opens and closes, and they should be in the abandoned gas station that Clint had seen in the distance before... before the ditch. Before this, whatever it is. It's not a dream, though, not when the smell of the place, dank and rotting, is making him gag. Fingers press his head closer to that vest, but its stink is not as vile. Underneath it there's something soothing, and Clint breathes it in with short draws, heart pounding in his chest.
Something heavy drops on the floor, a bag perhaps, and then Clint is lowered down as well.
"Open your eyes."
The voice is hushed, rusty and gritty and it makes Clint shudder. He doesn't want to, but he lifts his eyelids anyway.
"Bite," the man says again, pushing something against Clint's lips.
It's leather again, and it tastes just like the vest smells. Somehow, Clint can't bring himself to care, not when sharp blue eyes watch him clinically.
And then the man moves, pulls at Clint's arm. The pop of his shoulder joint sliding back in its place is accompanied by too much pain to bear. His teeth clench down on the leather, shout muffled beneath it. Fingers poke and prod at his shoulder, then move to his palm. It's a continuous flow of hurt, and Clint shakes with it.
Clint's jaw relaxes, eyes rolling in his head. The last thing he sees before darkness takes over is the knife dropping from his mouth, leather handle worn with too many toothmarks to be only his getting caught by a metal hand.
"May I?" Clint asks, pointing at the Soldier's right shoulder.
A beat, and the man nods before leaning back into the wall behind him. The gun is still in his left hand, gripped tightly, but he lowers it as Clint approaches.
Clint moves carefully, presses a palm against the Soldier's collarbone, pulls at his arm. The joint gives with a pop Clint recognizes all to well, but the pain the other man must be feeling is only visible in the tightening around his eyes, and Clint moves a couple of steps back, hands raised.
The Soldier huffs before making a fist with his right hand, a low growling sound escaping him as he rotates his shoulder.
Clint waits patiently for a while, but the gun doesn't raise again. Instead, he's being watched, assessed. He nods, bends down to pick up the notepad and the pen.
"Now you write it," he holds the items out.
With a long inhale, the Soldier pushes away from the wall. He takes the pen, writes 'Nemo' on the pad in Clint's hand. The lines are a little wobbly, but they hold the same slant that Clint has traced with the tips of his fingers over and over again.
"Ok," Clint says, handing the notepad over. "This is your handwriting, yeah?"
The man tips his chin in acknowledgement.
"Ok," Clint repeats, before unclasping his arm guard. He pulls it off to reveal the matching tattoo on his skin there, a bit faded but unmistakably the same as the Soldier's scribble.
"Who are you?"
"Nobody," Clint says, rearranging his gear, "just like you."
Clint opens his eyes with a grunt, aching everywhere. The first thing he sees is his leg, neatly bandaged, arrow removed from his thigh. His pants are right next to him, folded carefully, and the back of his head is pounding in tandem with the beats of his heart. It's dark, save for the soft light coming from a lamp set nearby on the the dusty floor. Clint can't see it from his position slumped against the counter of the gas station. With a deep breath, he straightens, looking around, and the movement hurts behind his eyes.
The man from the road is leaning against the wall on Clint's left, his face hidden beneath his hair. He is immobile, as he watches Clint unblinking, legs stretched in front of him, a hand on a gun resting on his thigh. Clint hasn't imagined it, his left hand is metal indeed, glinting in the low light. It's entirely out of this world.
"Am I dead?" Clint rasps.
Silence follows for a beat, two, three.
Clint's breath hitches.
"My mission will be over sometime in the next four days. I will kill you then."
The air flow stutters on its way down Clint's throat and his chest throbs painfully. He is dead, after all.
"Why not now?" Why delay? Why make it hurt? Another betrayal...
"You are very young," comes back in the same raspy monotone.
Clint's jaw trembles, stinging gathering at the base of his nose. He is, he's a fucking kid, and it dawns on him just how much he doesn't want to die. He thought he was ready, but he isn't, not by a long shot. The man moves then, places his gun on the floor before coming closer to kneel next to Clint. He cups Clint's cheek with the metal palm, and Clint's hands immediately raise to wrap around his forearm.
"Shh," the man croons.
With a wet gasp, Clint shakes his head.
"I thought you'd want a last wish before going. If I can provide, I will."
His eyes are so sincere, so cold, but so alive.
"I'll make sure it won't hurt," follows in a whisper.
A sob rips out of Clint. His vision grows blurry, and with it, the man's face takes a crestfallen shade.
"I can do it now if it's easier for you."
Clint shakes his head, he doesn't want now, he doesn't want later, and he curls in on himself, shoulders shuddering with his tears, as he grips tightly at the metal wrist.
"Why do you even want to find this guy, Clint?" Natasha asks as they gear up for their next mission.
"Y'know," Clint shrugs, "gotta make sure I'm the best sniper around."
She doesn't believe him, she never does, not when Clint refuses to tell her why he's looking for the metal armed man. The ghost known as the Winter Soldier. But she lets it go, and he loves her for it.
"What do you want?"
"Nothing," Clint says. "But I can offer help, if you're willing to take it."
"Why?" comes back, in the same gritty tone.
Clint raises his eyebrows. "I'd say it's obvious," and the Soldier huffs at that, "but apparently not. Look, it's a long story, one best told out of the way," Clint gestures around them. "I can provide shelter."
All he gets in return is a long motionless stare.
"I will never hurt you," Clint adds. "Am I lying?"
Blue eyes watch him, carefully this time.
"No," the Soldier finally says.
"Come on, then," Clint waves as he turns his back on the assassin.
Brainwashing, Nat had said, and isn't that funny.
He doesn't wait, but starts at a slow run toward the airport. He has a car parked there with spare clothes and money. He makes a quick mental check of his safehouses, and he has only one nearby that hasn't been in SHIELD's files. It goes with one of his favorite covers, Frank Roth, wilderness photographer, which means he has an explanation why he looks run down after returning from his work trips. Mrs. Geller from next door always pinches his cheek and brings him cookies. His other two neighbors are a flight attendant who's never home and Mrs. Sawyer who makes the best lasagna ever.
The Soldier's footsteps are so light that Clint barely registers them, but he's following and Clint is somewhat relieved.
They have to take back alleys, and for a stretch, it's a long run across rooftops, but they make it to the airport parking lot unnoticed. Night time helps. The Soldier eyes Clint with a little bit of appreciation and Clint grins at him.
They change inside the car to avoid cameras, but they both keep at least a gun handy each. Clint drives them through the streets, a winding path to avoid the areas law enforcement is currently converging on, and then through the suburbs until they arrive, early morning, at his house nestled with other three in a cul-de-sac.
"This is not defensible," the Soldier grits as Clint parks in the driveway.
He nods. "That's why I bought that house, too," he points at the one behind his own, "and built an underground passage between them, if I ever need to escape. I'll show you where it is."
It earns him a head tilt, and Clint reckons this is all that he's going to get, for a while anyway.
"Hi Mrs. Sawyer," he returns as he rolls the window down. "Stay here," he tells his companion before sliding out of the car.
He makes the usual chat with the old lady, learns about the weather, how the Samson girls down the street broke another window playing soccer, and she looks way too proud of it. He is promised a casserole for lunch, more like is threatened with one, and Clint barely manages to convince her to bring it over in the afternoon instead, claiming exhaustion from the flight home. In fact, he is quite tired already, after running most of the night.
He moves to unlock the garage door before driving the car inside.
"Who is that?" the Soldier asks as the door slides closed behind them.
"Neighbor. I think she has a crush on my other neighbor," Clint comments, "but she's stubborn about it."
Clint scratches his head. Oh...
"She's sweet on Mrs. Geller?"
That earns him a blink before the Soldier looks away to stare through the windshield.
"Yeah, ok," Clint mumbles. "Come on, I have hot water and comfy mattresses, let's get you cleaned up."
It's still dark outside by the time the sobs subside, and Clint accepts the offered bottle of water with a shaking hand.
"Why do you have to kill me anyway?" he asks.
If he's going to die, there's no need for caution. No more need for fear. There's nothing that can happen between now and his last breath that can be worse than what he's already been through.
The man sits back down against the wall, but doesn't pick up his weapon. Instead, he draws his right knee to his chest, rests his elbow on it. "It's better for you."
"Better than what?"
A pause follows. "Than being taken," the man says with a flutter of his eyelashes that sends a jolt of something horrible up Clint's spine.
"You a spy or something?" Clint asks again, losing the filter on his mouth. It's no longer necessary, no one can hurt him for speaking anymore.
The man watches silently, unmoving.
"What's your mission?"
"You a soldier?"
The man's index finger twitches. "Be quiet."
It's not barked, like an order. The words are soft, nonthreatening, more like a plea than anything else. Clint swallows, but closes his mouth, and watches back.
There's something calming in his stillness, something akin to the serene moments right before he releases his arrows, and Clint slides back into that space. It stretches with the minutes and the hours, the beat of his heart slowing down. It takes a while, but soon the rise and fall of Clint's chest, minute as it is, matches the man's own steady breathing. Something shifts then, in the man's eyes, their blue somehow softer, their sharpness somehow deeper.
Dawn approaches and soon sunlight slants over the junk spread out in the abandoned gas station. There's dust settled on the empty shelves and Clint rubs the back of his hand under his nose with a sniff.
"Don't you sleep?" he asks.
The man blinks. "I will sleep enough later," he says, a quiet tone to his words that hasn't been there before.
With a swallow, Clint nods. Exhaustion is starting to seep into his bones, the ache in his body doubling with it. "Need to take a piss," he mumbles.
An index finger points somewhere behind Clint and he struggles to raise to his feet, starts limping toward the door there.
"Aren't you afraid I'll escape?"
"You can't outrun me," the man says.
Clint believes him, there's a certain grace to his movements that reminds Clint of the tigers at the circus, but unlike those cats, this man is actually dangerous. Clint feels it in his bones.
The bathroom is filthy, but Clint does what he needs to quickly, before limping back.
"There's no water," he says.
A soft snort follows, and the man shifts to his bag. There are actually two, a backpack and a long black case sitting ominously near the wall. He rifles through the first one before throwing a large pack of wet wipes at Clint. They're actually quite soft and refreshing, and Clint ends up pulling another one to rub over his face.
Everything fucking hurts, so he sits back down. His shoulder throbs, his left hand is one big bruise, palm swollen, and it takes a while to pull his pants back on. The blood on them has dried already, but it smells rank. Clint grimaces, wondering just how bad the rest of him looks. With a deep breath, he unzips his hoodie, struggles out of it, then pulls his t-shirt over his head.
A hand pushes him forward suddenly. Fuck, he hasn't even heard the man move. And Clint shivers, not from the sight of reddened skin on his shoulder, but from the way the man looks at Clint's back.
"What did this to you?"
A pained laugh leaves Clint despite himself. The most recent marks are from a month ago, Trickshot had a way of making arrow shafts leave bleeding gashes. They're healed now, but still visible.
"Missing my shot," he manages.
Metal fingers grip Clint's chin and the man turns his face to look at Clint. There's a beginning of a grimace on his face, like he knows what that means, and something breaks in Clint's heart. But the man's expression turns impassive again and his flesh fingers rub through Clint's dusty hair before he stands back up, turning away.
"Who are you?" Clint breathes.
"I wanna be nobody," Clint murmurs, and that makes the man halt in his steps.
He stands there unmoving for long minutes, watching the highway through the windows and Clint doesn't dare break his silence, dressing back quickly. Sleep catches him unawares, between one breath and the next.
He catches up with the assassin known as Black Widow somewhere in a shipping yard on the outskirts of Budapest. She reminds him of cold eyes and an impassive face, as she stands there, full of defiance while bleeding from her shoulder. Clint lowers his weapon, says 'hello' and offers her another life.
Fury's not happy, Coulson's not happy, but Clint has a feeling about this.
Clint jolts awake with a pained gasp and it takes a few seconds to get his bearings. The man is sitting next to him this time, cross legged on the floor, his jacket off and Clint can see his entire left arm is made of entwined metal plates. A red star is etched on its outer side near the shoulder disappearing under the sleeve of his black t-shirt. He's also eating something out of a gray plastic bag and Clint's stomach gives a loud rumble. Without missing a beat, the man shoves the bag and the small plastic spoon at him.
"I don't have enough for two, so you'll have to settle for half," he says before drinking from a water bottle and then setting it down next to Clint.
Clint's not quite so sure wasting food on him would be the wisest choice right now, but he digs in anyway. The thing is mushy, kind of a bland strew, but he's so hungry, it tastes divine. "What's this?" he mumbles, mouth full.
"So you're a soldier," Clint frowns.
The man watches him for a while, and it should be creepy, but instead it's comforting. Nobody's really looked at Clint before.
"Assassin," comes back quietly, and Clint's skin breaks in goosebumps.
He swallows his bite, drinks a bit of water, mind working a mile a minute.
"You're here to kill someone and can't leave witnesses," he concludes.
A slow nod follows and Clint shakes his head.
"Shouldn't feed the strays then, might get attached" he quips, but continues eating.
The man huffs, a corner of his mouth raising slightly. "Don't be a punk."
Clint grins at him. Well, if he's going to die, might as well enjoy his last days, right?
So he finishes the meal, and he's still hungry, but it's better now. He's wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when the man drags over a small bag, and he opens it to reveal medical supplies inside. Clint doesn't get it, why tend to a wound when he's not leaving the gas station alive... but he lets the man change the bandages. It doesn't look so bad in daylight, the arrow must have lodged in less than Clint's initially thought. Well, it doesn't matter anymore.
"What's your name?" Clint asks to distract himself from the pain while the man rubs a smelly cream into his skin.
Blue eyes raise to meet Clint's, and there's a blink followed by the man's mouth opening and closing.
"I don't have one," he finally says as he leans back over Clint's leg.
"Fine, captain nobody," Clint murmurs.
It pulls an unexpected snort out of the man, and Clint raises his eyebrows.
"That's a real name," he says. "Captain Nemo, that's Latin for Captain Nobody."
"Captain is Latin for Captain?" Clint asks, unable to hide his smile even through the ache in his leg, and that earns him an eye roll.
"So he has a boat or what?"
"Huh," Clint chews on his lip. "And?"
"And what?" the man looks back at Clint as he finishes taping gauze over the wound.
"What's he doing with it?"
The man opens his mouth, raising his hand, but then he frowns. "I don't know."
Clint smiles as he pulls his pants back on. "Can I call you Nemo?"
"Knock yourself out," comes back as the man turns to put the medical kit away.
"Don't you wanna know my name?"
It's simple, short, devoid of emotion.
Clint's hands keep shaking for very long hours.