In the early morning, the transport was all but empty; Clint and his master had a compartment to themselves, a miracle, and Clint fought the urge to stretch out and sleep. He was more than used to getting up at the crack of dawn, but this was excessive. Surely their new assignment could wait a few more hours.
Coulson looked him over, frowning. "You're not allowed to remove your braid."
"It was messing with my look," Clint told him.
"You're a padawan," Coulson said, raising his eyebrow. "You look exactly like everyone else."
"So you see my problem, then." When Coulson was still unamused, Clint sighed. "Look, don't worry about it, I kept it. If you're that concerned about it, I'll braid it back in."
"See that you do."
Clint reached into his pocket, pulling out the braid in question and a length of fine thread. He set to weaving it into his short hair, prepared for this eventuality; truth be told, he'd only done it to see what his new master would do. "So this guy, this Rogers guy, what's he like?"
Coulson sighed. "Barton, there was an extensive briefing-"
"All of which I paid attention to, thanks," Clint said. "But I want to know about him. He's from Coruscant, you're from Coruscant, that's something right there."
Coulson's face went a little distant. "I was still a youngling when-" He paused. "When the incident with the carbonite occurred. We knew about him, of course, even in the temple."
"Seems like it would have been hard not to, the way people talk about him."
"He was an inspiration even before," Coulson said, and Clint could read his excitement even below his calm exterior. "We were devastated when he was lost, but there were those among us who still held out hope."
"Like you, Master," Clint said.
The corner of Coulson's mouth ticked up. "Like me, padawan. But now he's returned, and they couldn't get him into the Senate fast enough."
"Not much of a use for heroes during peacetime," Clint said.
"Peace here doesn't mean peace everywhere," Coulson said, an unreadable expression on his face.
"So where's our backup?" Clint asked, smoothing over it. "I haven't seen-"
"She's not coming," Coulson said flatly.
Clint raised an eyebrow at him. "And they're not sending anybody else?"
"Do you think we can't handle it?" Coulson asked, more of a challenge than a question.
"If there's one thing I love, it's spreading the blame," Clint said, grinning, and Coulson rolled his eyes.
The transport dropped them off at the Senate residences, the clean lines of the building gleaming in the early sunlight. All Clint could really think about was how quickly a few bombs could take out so many delegates; but then, nobody ever made a good Jedi by being optimistic.
As they ascended to the correct floor, Clint glanced over at Coulson. He was full of nervous excitement, and Clint turned away, smiling. This would at least be very entertaining.
The doors slid open, and Coulson still managed to walk in confidently, no hesitation in his stride. The senator and his contingent had clearly been waiting to receive them, and Clint wondered if the senator ever slept, if he was this happy to be up this early. He'd seen images of Rogers, but they didn't do him justice, didn't show how handsome he was, the way he radiated a kind of genuine, bashful strength, the kind that was only hard-won.
They were going to eat him alive in the Senate.
"Master Jedi," Rogers said, bowing. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Coulson bowed in response. "I'm glad. I mean, I'm glad it's a pleasure." He looked panicked. "What I meant was, thank you for allowing us your time, Senator." Rogers looked at him for a moment, an amused smile on his face, until Coulson started. "This is my padawan, Clinton Barton," he added quickly.
"Nice to meet you," Rogers said. He bowed and Clint bowed and Clint felt like bowing to Coulson, because there just wasn't bowing enough.
"An honor, Senator Rogers," Clint said, trying not to grin at the way Coulson was probably kicking himself right now.
"Allow me to introduce my bodyguard, James Barnes," Steve said, indicating the man next to him. He was a little shorter than Steve, not as built; Clint knew that more than a few people would be put off by his mechanical arm, especially given the fact that he was wearing it so openly. But then, Coulson had some mechanical parts, so Clint had a hard time caring about that. It was much easier to care about Barnes's body language, the way he carried himself, because it all shouted that he did not want them to be there and that he wanted them to know it. He made a token head nod, which Coulson returned, and Clint got the feeling that that was going to be the last civility that Barnes would show them.
"And this is-" Senator Rogers began.
"Tony Stark," the man on his right finished. "Look, you already know who I am, so let's get down to business." That was an understatement if Clint ever heard one; the man was made of money and had a reputation that would make the Grand Master blush, and there was no mistaking the one-of-a-kind artificial heart that glowed faintly from underneath his shirt. Rogers gave him an exasperated look, but Stark continued unabated. "I had you called in because we had a security breach. This one turned out okay, but we're not risking a second one, not even when it's against our boy here," he said, clapping Rogers on the shoulder, "who, if you haven't noticed, could lift that sofa with both of you on it. Over his head. One-handed.
"So you're here- two reasons. First, If there are holes in my system that you can open with your-" he wiggled his fingers- "then I need to know about it. I literally need to know about it yesterday. Second, we need more muscle in here in case anything else does happen." He looked over. "Also Bucky's pissed off that he missed it. And that I just said that. And that you're here. Bucky's just pissed off in general." Barnes crossed his arms, looking annoyed, but he said nothing in response.
"We can start with what happened the other night," the senator suggested. "Buc- Officer Barnes, can you walk them through it?"
"Fairly standard attempt," Barnes said stiffly. "The balcony out there has a forcefield generator. "Of course, like everybody knows," he looked at Stark, "it's a shield and not a bubble. The generator is usually located on the inside of the balustrade. So whether or not it's protected by the shield from the front, you can always go around the bottom and blow it out. That's the first thing they did."
"And like everybody knows, that's a bluff and a warning system," Stark replied. "Getting your balcony blown up doesn't compare to your secondary system not triggering in time."
"It also doesn't do any good if your secondary system doesn't trigger at all," Barnes snapped back, and Stark didn't have an answer for that one. "So the tertiary system kicked in, or we wouldn't be standing here talking."
"Unless the-" Stark stopped. He made a summoning motion with his hand. "Y'know, the fourth one, I never remember the name-"
"Quaternary," Coulson supplied.
"Right, the quaternary system, unless it kicked in," Stark said. "And there is a quaternary system, is my point. We're all the way up to whatever six is." He sighed. "But Bucky's right. This was still too close."
"Do you have any information at all on who could have done this?" Coulson asked.
"There was someone sighted in the area," Rogers said. "No one seems to know his name, but he wears red and black and tends to show up around assassinations. He's kind of a legend."
"He's an urban legend," Barnes said, "and his name is Deadpool. But it doesn't matter, because of course he was long gone before anybody caught up to him, if he was even here at all."
"We're talking to guys who make magic happen when they wave their hands," Tony said. "You could stand to suspend your disbelief a little."
"If it's alright, Senator," Coulson said, before Barnes and Stark could snipe at each other any more, "we'll check the area and evaluate the system as it stands, then we'll discuss how to go about-" he looked at Barnes, and Clint could hear him choosing his words- "assisting the security detail appropriately."
"That would be great," Rogers said, smiling, and Clint wondered whether he was going to have to catch Coulson when he swooned.
Coulson was about to say something when there was a noise, a little 'plink' sound, and Barnes looked at his arm. "Get down!" he said, dropping to the floor and pulling Rogers with him; Stark didn't need to be told twice, joining them. However, Clint was a Jedi, and that was Jedi for 'Draw your lightsaber,' so he and Coulson did just that. There was another shot, and another, and Coulson batted them neatly away towards the walls.
It wasn't good enough, Clint knew. They'd just keep firing and firing until one side got exhausted and gave up, and Clint wasn't having that. He all but pushed Coulson out of the way, catching the next shot and angling it back. A figure dropped out of a window across from them, tumbling to the ground below.
He looked to his master, expecting congratulations on making such a tricky shot, but that wasn't what he got at all.
"Stay here," Coulson said sharply. "Officer Barnes?"
"Let's go," Barnes said, nodding, and they took off.
Clint sheathed his saber, crouching down. "Alright, Senator?"
"I'm fine," Rogers said, sitting up.
"Thanks for your concern," Stark said sarcastically. "I think I scratched my knee. I'm going to take this up with the Council."
"It was the senator's floor," Clint told him. "I think you better take it up with him."
"Good gods, it made a joke," Stark said. "Are they going to kick you out of the Order now?"
"I wonder that every day, Mister Stark," Clint said dryly.
"I think I want some coffee after that," Rogers said, sounding oddly calm for someone who was just nearly assassinated.
"You have to try vine-coffee," Stark said, as they crawled towards the coffee machine.
"I told you," Rogers said. "If my constituents can't afford it, then I don't want to have it. Besides, I don't like fancy stuff anyway."
"I'm just going to keep offering it to you until you take it, you know that, right?"
Rogers sighed. "Yeah, Tony, I know."
Clint kept watch while Rogers and Stark drank their coffee, sitting up against the wall and bickering with each other. He drew his lightsaber when the elevator approached; just because he could feel his master's presence inside didn't mean there wasn't anyone with him that he should be worried about. "Dead when we got there," Barnes said gruffly, when he and Coulson stepped out. "Couldn't ID her."
"They must have known," Coulson said. "They knew the forcefield was down on the balcony, and they took advantage. It suggests that they know your schedule, Senator."
"It also suggests you better get those damn systems back online, Stark," Barnes snapped.
"You wanted your generator up, I was putting your generator up," Stark reminded him. "You wanted my techs vetted, my techs are being vetted. As amazing as I am, I am only one man. It's taking time."
"My padawan will assist you in your repairs," Coulson offered. "He'll get a chance to learn the system."
"Me and you then," Stark said to Clint. "Hope you like getting grease on your robes."
Chimes sounded from somewhere in the apartment. "I hate to cut this short, but it's time for my workout," Rogers said.
"If Officer Barnes doesn't object, I thought it would be best if I helped escort you today," Coulson said.
"For today," Barnes said, though he didn't look very happy about it.
"Good," Rogers said, pretending to ignore Barnes's attitude. "Well, I guess we'll leave you to it," he told Clint and Stark. "Tony, please don't set the drapes on fire again."
"You have an accident with a torch one time," Stark grumbled.
"May the Force be with you," Coulson said, and Clint had never heard that phrase sound more like 'You're going to need it before I'm done with you, Barton,' than it did in that moment.
"May the Force be with you," Clint echoed, apologetically, and Stark added a sarcastic little salute. Rogers, Coulson, and Barnes took their leave, headed off to wherever it was that people who were up at this hour went.
"You are in deep shit," Stark said, after the elevator doors closed.
"Yes," Clint replied. "Yes, I am."
"Come with me," Stark said, steering him towards the senator's bedroom. "Are you any good with tools?"
"I'm sure I can figure it out, Mister Stark," Clint told him.
Stark made a face. "For the love of the gods, call me Tony. Sit there and hold this."
Tony wasn't particularly talkative for the next hour or two, unless you counted swearing and snapping orders at Clint, but finally he flipped the switch on the box that he'd been working in. Nothing happened; he banged on it a few times with his fist until something crackled to life, lines of blue around all of the windows. "Don't touch it," Tony warned him. He held up one of his gloves to demonstrate, tapping it against the window, and it immediately started smoking. Tony beat it out against the floor, moving his toolbox to hide the smudge of soot. "So tell me how to Jedi-proof the house."
"You already let two Jedi in," Clint told him, raising an eyebrow. "Your opportunity's long gone."
"Tell me how a rogue Jedi would do it," Tony coaxed. "I can think like an engineer, and I don't have an assassin who's willing to tell me what they'd do. Next on the list is Jedi. Preferably one who's made a break for it. Happens all the time, I'm sure."
Clint considered it. "We're assuming a talented Force user armed with a lightsaber here, right? First, they'd- well, right now I'd come through the balcony, what's left of it."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, everybody's angry about the balcony, let's move on."
"I wouldn't assume I had time to dismantle everything, so I'd destroy it. I'd crush the generator first, then I'd look for other mechanical devices. Honestly, I'd crush everything up and including the morning alarm chimes. Then I'd open the balcony doors and walk in."
"How would you get out?" Tony asked.
"You didn't say anything about getting out," Clint told him.
"Okay, so, there's that," Tony said, picking up his tablet to take notes. "Keep going."
"If you want to slow them down, lots and lots of locks on everything, lots of complicated machinery, redundant systems," Clint advised. "If they're trying to be subtle, they won't be ripping the doors apart, but unlatching them and sliding them open. "Wouldn't hurt if you added charges that went off when the locks were tripped," Clint added. "Well, it wouldn't hurt you."
Tony snorted. "Alright, give me another scenario. What if you got access to the floors above and below?"
"That one's too easy," Clint said. "That's what a lightsaber was invented for."
"What if the floor and ceiling were thicker?" he asked.
"Nothing is thick enough to be Jedi-proof," Clint told hm.
Tony considered this. "You're going to tell me you could tunnel through it with a lightsaber, which, good luck." He paused, looking contemplative. "But hypothetically, doesn't work for this application, thought experiment, but you could make something thick enough that a single Jedi couldn't cut through it within their lifespan. What then?"
Clint grinned. "Then they'd call another Jedi."
"Ask a stupid question," Tony said, shaking his head.
"Those are the two major ways I see it going down," Clint said. "Not counting an inside job."
"Tell me more," Tony said.
"Anybody could do this, though Jedi skills would definitely make it easier," Clint told him. "How many people come in and out of here in a day? Five? Ten? Barnes is checking your workers, that's good, but he hasn't checked everybody. How could he even try against a Force adept? One good 'You don't need to see my credentials' and you're screwed."
"But that's why we've got you and the other guy, what's his name, Master-"
"Coulson," Clint supplied.
"Right, because you could tell."
"Yeah," Clint said. "So one of us needs to be here and awake at all times just in case. That would have been easier, but our-" He bit his tongue, realizing he probably shouldn't talk about their lack of backup, not that he knew much at all about it himself. "Never mind."
"Jedi staffing problem?" Tony said. "Now I really have heard everything. So those are the main weak points?"
"As far as I can see right this second," Clint told him. "I'm sure there will be more. But this is all hypothetical. You wouldn't need to keep a Jedi out."
"What about a Sith?" Tony asked.
Clint's face darkened. "A Sith, you couldn't." He got it back together quickly, keeping his composure. "I told you all that, maybe you can trade me for something I need to know."
"Tell me what it is, and I'll tell you if I will," Tony said.
"Why is Barnes so angry about us being here?"
Tony frowned. "He's not a big fan of the Force," he said. "He used to have two arms, but he ran into a little Sith problem."
"I see," Clint said, and boy, he did, he really did. Before they had a Sith problem, Coulson had had two real lungs, and Clint had-
Better to just shut down that thought right there.
"The Sith aren't the Jedi," Clint said firmly.
"I'm pretty sure it's better safe than sorry with him," Tony said. "The Jedi chased him a little too, it gets very complicated."
"But Rogers still trusts him?"
"More than me, more than you, more than anyone," Tony said, with conviction. "Barnes will do anything in the galaxy to keep Steve safe, but if it involves Jedi, he won't be too happy about it."
"Thanks for the information," Clint said.
"Any time," Tony said, "and by that I mean 'whenever I feel like it.' Take this wrench, put it there, and twist it like this until it clicks. Yeah, like that. Do all the ones on that row. I'm calling for breakfast. You'd drink vine-coffee with me, wouldn't you? Of course you would. Where the hell is my protocol droid when I need him? You, go and find JARVIS."
Tony kept him busy, only pausing to feed him bits of incredibly rich food, until Rogers and his entourage joined them in the late evening. Clint was grimy and exhausted and reasonably chastised, though he got the distinct impression that he was still going to get a Talk from his master at the nearest opportunity. "Hi, honey, how was work?" Tony said, smirking.
"Well-" Steve began.
"Not you," Tony said, waving him off. "I was talking to the Jedi."
Coulson raised an eyebrow at him. "Everything went smoothly, with no unexpected interruptions."
"By which you mean nobody shot at you," Tony said.
Coulson looked amused. "Yes."
"Step in the right direction," Tony said approvingly. "We've made a few rudimentary changes in here, but tomorrow we need an overhaul on the-" and whatever he said next was completely over the heads of anyone in the room. That included Clint, who'd had his hands in it up to the elbows all day long.
"You can have some of your techs back," Barnes said; he seemed to be in less of a horrible mood than he had been in the morning, though he still looked unhappy. "They're clean."
Tony shook his head. "They need to be rechecked by-"
"Officer Barnes allowed me to review the candidates," Coulson said. "There should be no problems."
"Then we're back in business, gentlemen and Jedi," Tony said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date, and I have to go pick which one. See you in the morning- not as early tomorrow, okay? Some of us go to bed after you get up."
"Night, Tony," Steve said, ignoring most of that, and Tony left, giving a little wave as the elevator doors closed.
"You'll sleep out here," Barnes said. "The senator sleeps in his bedroom, of course."
"And you?" Coulson asked.
"I don't sleep," Barnes said. "But if you need me, I'll be in the antechamber."
"He sleeps while I'm on the Senate floor," Rogers said, sounding fond.
"Which is one reason we need added security," Barnes said reluctantly. "And having a Jedi looks better than having me up there." He looked over at Rogers. "The senator is tired," he said pointedly.
"It is past my bedtime," Rogers said, smiling wryly. "Us old folks, we have to go to bed early."
"We'll be waiting to assist you in the morning," Coulson assured him, which didn't bode well for Clint getting a lot of rest; again he wished that whatever had happened with their backup hadn't happened. "We should have things under control out here for the night."
"Good," the senator said, nodding. "I appreciate having you here to help. It means a lot to me."
"It's an honor, Senator," Coulson said, and Clint didn't look over to see if his eyes were sparkling.
"Have a good night," he said, and he left, Barnes giving a nod and following after him.
"I'd like some answers, Barton," Coulson said, as soon as they were alone.
"Me too," Clint said, trying to defuse the situation. "How does Barnes survive when the Senate's not in session?"
"Not the time," Coulson snapped, and Clint knew better than to point out that it never was, not with Coulson. "What was that stunt earlier?"
"They weren't going to stop until someone stopped them," Clint said. "We were going to be standing there all day defending."
"If that's what it takes, then that's what we do," Coulson told him. "You could have gotten all of us assassinated, including yourself and the senator, and you killed our only lead."
"I had the shot, Master," Clint protested. "I had to take it."
Coulson took a step closer. "You take the shot when I say you take the shot. I don't care how it used to be before. You listen to me now. You do what I tell you, for as long as I can tell you. That's how it is now."
Clint didn't even know he had shut his eyes until he opened them again, feeling the warm weight of Coulson's hand on the back of his neck. He used it as a focus, calming his breathing. "Clint, I don't care about what happened before," Coulson said softly. "I don't want to get back at you or hurt you. I just want you to learn. Trust me. I won't steer you wrong."
"Yes, Master," Clint said. Despite its brevity, he hadn't had an upbraiding like that since before he was a padawan; his former master had been too subtle for that, preferring to work on Clint in more insidious ways. It hurt, knowing he'd let Coulson down, but it was a hurt he could handle, one he could start working on, address directly and quickly. "It won't happen again."
"Don't worry about 'again,'" Coulson told him. "I can guarantee you that next time won't be the same at all, no matter what it is." He rubbed Clint's shoulder. "You're exhausted. I'll take first watch."
"Thank you, Master," he replied. He went to the bathroom and performed his ablutions before coming back into the living area and bedding down on the thick mattress of the folded-down sofa that Coulson had prepared for him. Coulson was standing by the window, studying the nighttime skyline. "Don't touch the windowpanes," Clint told him. "Security system's a menace."
"I'll keep that in mind," Coulson replied. "Go to sleep, padawan."
"Good night, Master," Clint said, closing his eyes.
It took a few days to get accustomed to the senator's schedule. Clint learned pretty quickly that it wasn't that Rogers didn't sleep; it was just that nobody around him- Barnes, Tony, and now Clint and Coulson- slept. Clint seemed to be the only person who had a problem with this- Barnes was too paranoid to notice, Tony always seemed to be just naturally wired to his eyebrows, and Clint wasn't sure if Coulson slept at all. He would get very still and his breathing would relax, but he always did it sitting cross-legged, so it could have been meditation for all Clint knew.
Clint loved to sleep. He'd long wondered if his power to sleep anywhere was Force-related. He'd place his bet on yes.
Despite initial misgivings, they settled into a steady pattern, Clint keeping watch at the apartment, Coulson keeping watch at the Senate. His master seemed perfectly happy with this arrangement; Clint was pretty sure that it didn't hurt that Coulson got to watch his boyhood hero work out every day, but he was good enough not to mention it.
Clint's real job, it turned out, was wrangling Tony Stark. By about day four, it was clear that Tony had taken over most of the senator's apartment and didn't really intend to leave. His associates- mostly Rhodey, who did something in the Corellian navy that Clint was fuzzy on, and Pepper Potts, the long-suffering woman who ran his company- came and went as Tony pleased, not to mention his droids. Rogers didn't seem to care a lot about it, seemingly inured to the way that Tony was infringing on his space. Barnes didn't even seem to notice, as long as Tony's stuff wasn't actively in his way, at which point he would swear effusively at it and then go back to his business.
It was a far cry from what Clint had been up to before- not that that was a bad thing- but he actually didn't like it too much. Here he was, supposed to be in training, and most days, he saw Coulson for one quiet hour in the middle of the night. If he was really honest with himself, he'd rather be spending his time getting to know his master personally; he was an intriguing man, and Clint had been so wrapped up in his last master and his world that he barely even noticed Coulson before. It was more coincidence than anything that brought him and Coulson together, coincidence and Coulson's bravery, which was above and beyond even for a Jedi. He respected the shit out of the guy, but he couldn't tell you anything about him at all.
In the space between Coulson's rising and Clint's setting, they sat together, eating whatever meal it was that one ate exactly at that time in exactly that situation- surely somebody had a name for it. They spoke softly, sitting on the floor; they probably could have been as loud as they wanted, because the senator snored like a broken motor, but it was nice like this, intimate.
"Why did you never take a padawan before?" Clint asked him, one of these nights; Coulson didn't seem to mind his prying questions, so Clint kept right on asking them.
Coulson snorted, amused. "Because I'm no good with younglings." Clint laughed. "They're loud and they don't know what to do with themselves."
"That's where you come in," Clint told him. "You were a youngling once, you know," he added, though he didn't actually believe that. Coulson had emerged fully-formed from some column in the temple, already wearing robes.
"And I was loud and didn't know what to do with myself," Coulson said, and Clint shook his head. "Because there were better plans for me," Coulson said, more seriously. "Because you needed me more."
A silence settled over them, and Clint tried to decide how to deal with a statement like that, if he should really do what he was fairly sure he was about to. Clint's old master had taught him to get what he wanted, so long as it benefited others- his master was very bad at that last part- and that was one of the things he'd never unlearned, still made sense to him despite everything that had happened.
Clint went up on his knees, crawling until he was all but in Coulson's lap; Coulson watched him do it impassively, not raising a finger. "What are you doing, padawan?" he murmured.
"Nothing yet," Clint said coyly. "You said I needed you. You were right."
"We already had a talk about you not doing what you're told," Coulson said.
"Then tell me to stop," Clint said. He tugged Coulson towards him, kissing him softly; despite his protests, Coulson opened up for him, kissing back.
"We can't," Coulson said gently, when they finally broke apart, running his fingers through Clint's hair. He sounded reluctant, and Clint's instinct was to work on that weakness, open up the little crack there.
"Come on," Clint said, smiling. "The Master-and-padawan thing is a grand old tradition."
Coulson's face changed. "Clint, before, your Master never-"
"No," Clint said, moving away from him. "But thanks for killing the mood, though. I appreciate it."
"There shouldn't be a mood at all," Coulson said.
"Yeah, got it, no need to rub it in," Clint said, getting up. "I'm gonna go check on Barnes."
Coulson didn't reply, just let Clint walk away from him. He wasn't there when Clint came back.
Clint curled up and pretended to sleep.
There was something oddly inevitable about the fact that, just as soon as the upgraded security system was complete, the senator was called away on a very important, unexpected diplomatic mission, one that couldn't wait, on a planet just far enough away to be inconvenient. It was almost funny, except for the part where it really, really wasn't.
Clint had never heard anyone swear quite like Tony did when the senator announced that they were going. "This apartment is a fortress, and you're leaving?! Do you actually want to die? I thought I was spending all my time here so that you wouldn't. Gods, I can't-" Tony stopped, too angry to continue. "I can't, Rogers. You do whatever the hell you want."
"It's not what I want," Rogers protested. "Tony, it's never about what I want. I keep trying to tell you that, and you never listen."
"I don't listen because it's bullshit," Tony snapped.
"Some of us aren't like you," the senator said. "We don't get whatever we want whenever we want it."
Clint would have liked it very much if a hole had opened up in the floor and swallowed him right then; he wished he had his lightsaber on him so he could just make one for himself, anything to get out of this unbelievably awkward situation.
Apparently, that was exactly the wrong thing to say to Tony. Clint could see the exact moment he stopped himself from screaming, and that was the moment he turned and walked out.
"We'll be prepared to leave in two hours," Barnes said, ignoring what had just happened entirely, which seemed to Clint to be the only logical thing to do.
"I'll be ready," Rogers replied, sighing. "Master Jedi?"
"We're always at your service, Senator," Coulson said, and it was ridiculous that something about that sentence made Clint jealous.
The ship was pretty nice, fairly standard diplomatic craft from what Clint could tell; it didn't escape his notice that, despite the fight, Tony had still performed modifications to the defense systems. Clint and Coulson shared a cabin, which was, of course, painfully awkward- it wasn't that they hadn't been sharing a bed in a literal sense this entire time, but they'd never been asleep at the same time. Now Clint could lie there and be lulled to sleep by the regular sound of Coulson's breathing in the bed below his, which hurt and felt so comforting all at once.
On the bright side, he was actually getting to sleep. That was pretty great.
It was what passed for morning of the second day, and they were alone; Coulson was at the sink washing his face, undressed from the waist up, and Clint was trying not to look at the scars on his back, the ones that really weren't that old at all, in the grand scheme of things.
"Look, I'm really sorry about what happened the other night," Clint blurted.
Coulson stopped, looking up at Clint in the mirror. "It's fine," he told Clint. "I shouldn't have encouraged you."
That was a new one on Clint. "You didn't seem very encouraging to me."
"This isn't a discussion we need to have," Coulson said firmly. "We should consider the matter closed."
"It's not closed," Clint said, dropping down from his bed. "I want to know what you meant."
"Padawan," Coulson said, in a warning tone, "I'm not fighting with you, so stop trying to make me."
"I'm not trying to have a fight, I'm trying to get an explanation," Clint told him. He left out the part where he was happy to fight if it would get him what he wanted. He took a step closer, not that he really needed to, not when the room was so small. "If you were encouraging me, I want to know why."
"It's not appropriate, Barton," Coulson told him, turning to face him.
"That's not what I asked," Clint pushed. "I don't care about appropriate. I want to know-"
"That's enough," Coulson said, and Clint stopped dead. He'd never heard Coulson speak like that before, that forcefully, and it made him want to cower. "We're done. Stop this."
Clint swallowed. "Yes, Master. I'm sorry."
"Good," Coulson said.
Clint hooked his thumb towards the door. "I'm gonna-" he searched for an excuse, something to get him the hell out of this room- "see if there's anything to eat. I could stand some breakfast."
"See you soon, padawan," Coulson said, turning to splash more water onto his face. Clint didn't dare bring it up again, but that didn't mean he stopped thinking about it.
Clint had never been on a diplomatic visit before, not one like this; the only time he'd even gone, his assignment was to just stay with the ship and twiddle his thumbs. He had expected all the circumstance, the posturing; he just hadn't expected that it would be so boring. With all the presenting and speechifying and congratulating, the simplest event became a mind-numbingly long spectacle.
Clint missed the senator's couch.
The overly long day of overly long ceremony culminated in a feast, and that part Clint could get behind. Of course, the food sat there getting cold while the hospitality committee talked and talked about how great it was, but at least they did stop eventually.
Clint was barely halfway through his meal when there was a tingling in his brain, a sense of something dreadful coming. "Someone's here," he said to his master, as quietly as he could. "I can feel it, and I don't like it."
"I sense it too," Coulson replied, unhappy. "You stay here. I'm going to take a look around."
"Got it," Clint said, his hand lingering over his lightsaber.
Coulson had only been gone for a few minutes when there was a sudden ringing in Clint's ears, like someone was pressing on the sides of his head. He shook it, trying to clear it, and that was exactly the moment when it happened. The woman seated next to him suddenly toppled backwards; a red stain bloomed over her shirt, spreading out from the dagger in her chest.
Clint sprang to his feet, drawing his saber; he could see the second dagger coming, but there was no way he'd deflect it in time. With speed that impressed even Clint, Rogers picked up one of the serving trays, holding it up in front of him, and the second knife bounced harmlessly away.
"Stay on the senator!" Barnes shouted, standing up and vaulting straight over the table, headed for the darkened colonnade on the other side of the room. That was when Clint spotted her; a young woman in a flowing dress peeked around one of the columns before darting out of sight.
"We have to get these people out of here," Rogers said, standing and looking around, still holding the tray in front of him. "They're perfect targets."
"If we send them out, they might be nothing but more interesting prey," Clint told him, getting back to back with him and scanning the room.
"At least a moving target's harder to hit," the senator said. "I need everyone to quickly exit the room, please," Rogers said, in a perfect commanding tone. "Please don't push. Get to another building as soon as you can, and avoid open spaces."
The other guests poured out of the room, until only Clint and Rogers were left. "I think the danger's passed," Rogers said.
"I think I'm not moving until I know for sure, Senator."
"I didn't say anything at all about moving," Rogers told him.
They were still on guard when Barnes and Coulson returned. "We swept the building, but you'll want to move out fast," Barnes told him. "The hospitality committee's coming to apologize."
"Let's go," Rogers said, still not relinquishing his serving tray as they left.
The hospitality committee found them anyway, arriving quickly at the quarters they'd been given for the night. Clint thought they really should have gotten back on the ship and gotten the hell out of there, but then again, they were equally likely to be attacked on the way to either place. It was political thing, one that Clint understood but didn't like, having to prove that Rogers wasn't afraid of assassination or mistrustful of his allies.
Clint sat in the back while they discussed what had happened, everybody giving extended apologies to everybody else, and for once he was glad to be ignored. It took approximately a thousand years, but finally they left, Rogers following them, talking softly with one of the leaders and closing the door behind him.
After some minutes, the door swung back open, and Coulson called Clint forward to join them at the table. Rogers looked somber, upset; he was holding an envelope, and he opened it, shaking the contents onto the table, carefully not touching them.
They were regular throwing knives, the kind you could pick up absolutely anywhere; the only thing that made them stand out was the hourglass design on the handles.
It was bad news.
Clint had heard of the Black Widow, because everyone had heard of the Black Widow. Her Lorrdian heritage made her a near-perfect mimic, which made her an ideal assassin. She was known to have no scruples whatsoever, taking jobs that other assassins wouldn't touch, no matter the reason, and she never let a target go. If she was behind this, Clint honestly didn't know if any of them would get out alive.
Barnes stared down at them for a long time, saying nothing. "It wasn't her," he said, looking up at the senator.
"This was all we found," Coulson said. "No one saw her come in, no one saw her go out, no one noticed anyone unexpected. It was if she was never there at all."
"She wasn't there," Barnes insisted. "Steve, this was amateur stuff. If she wanted you dead, you'd be dead."
"This isn't her usual method?" Clint asked.
"The Black Widow left traces at a few assassinations, when her clients asked for it," Barnes said. "She did hundreds silently. She also never failed." He shook his head. "This is a ruse."
"Bucky, I-" Rogers rubbed his forehead. "You have no idea how much it hurts to do this, but if there's a chance she had something to do with this-"
"Steve," Barnes said, looking so shocked and distraught that Clint looked away. "You can't- I would never- I haven't even seen her in years, you know that-"
"I know," Rogers said. "Believe me, I know. But I'm not allowed to take chances anymore."
"You're telling me to go," Barnes said in disbelief. "Me? Steve-" He looked around, sighing unhappily, annoyed once again at being surrounded by outsiders. "If you want me to, I'll go. But this is a mistake."
"I have to agree," Coulson said, and Clint frowned; he hadn't been expecting that one. "The Black Widow is not involved, so there's no reason for Officer Barnes to have to leave."
"I can't prove that she wasn't involved," Rogers said, shaking his head. "All I have is evidence for, not against. Bucky, I'm so sorry."
Barnes didn't say anything else; he reached up and took the comm off his ear, setting it down on the table and walking out. Rogers ran his hand through his hair, suddenly looking years older. "Let's regroup in the morning," he said. "I don't think we're going to find any new information tonight. The best thing to do is get some rest."
"Of course, Senator," Coulson said, his tone very carefully neutral. "We will see you in the morning." Rogers nodded, walking off; Clint hadn't seen anybody looking so miserable in a very, very long time.
The senator's happiness, however, wasn't the foremost thing on Clint's mind.
Clint turned to his master. "You know the Black Widow had nothing to do with this," he accused. "You weren't speculating."
"Speculating is one of the things I'm required to do," Coulson replied, with the same neutrality.
"That's not an answer," Clint insisted. "You're hiding something."
Coulson sighed. "I know because I know who she's working for now, and he has no interest in seeing the senator harmed. Exactly the opposite, in fact."
Clint's eyes grew wide. "What? How are you- Who is it?"
"You don't need to know," Coulson said; he made to walk around Clint, but Clint grabbed him by the arm.
"If I didn't need to know, you wouldn't have answered at all," Clint told him. "You're testing me."
Coulson looked at him speculatively, long enough that Clint felt a little uncomfortable. "She's working with the Jedi who trained me."
"You still- Master, I don't know if you noticed," Clint said, trying not to snap at him, "but Fury isn't a Jedi anymore. They say he's halfway to the Dark Side by now."
"You have to believe in the power of the Dark Side to fall, just as you have to believe in the righteousness of the Jedi Order to rise," Coulson said.
"Then what does Fury believe in?" Clint demanded.
Coulson smiled. "Himself," he said. "He's far from the only one who has chosen that path."
Clint put his hand to his forehead; in the category of things he needed, another master with questionable affiliations was nowhere on the list, especially not when he already had questionable affections for this one. "Anything else you need to share?"
"Clint," Coulson said gravely, "some things are going to happen. They're going to happen very quickly, and dealing with them won't be easy, but you can handle it. I just can't tell you what they are. You have to trust me with everything. I need to know if you can do that."
"If you know what's going to happen, why don't you stop it?" Clint asked.
"If we give away that we know the game, the game will change," Coulson said cryptically. "And this game, I think we can win."
"I trust you," Clint said, not needing to think about it.
"Good," Coulson said, putting his hand on Clint's shoulder. Clint half expected Coulson to pull him in; he could tell Coulson did too by the way he suddenly let go. "That's good."
"There's something you might need to know," Clint said. "Back during the attack, there was- I think someone was trying to get to me. I could feel it in my head."
Coulson just nodded, not seeming surprised. "You were right to tell me. You were also right not to tell the others."
"Does this match up with the grand secret plan?" Clint asked.
"More than you know, Clint," Coulson said.
"I don't know if that's a good thing or not."
"It's a thing, alright," Coulson told him. "It's definitely a thing."
Their return to the capital was delayed by the memorial for the young woman; she wasn't a person of great importance, just someone's niece. That only made it worse, the murder of someone who had nothing to do with the senator, nothing to do with the rulers. She was just an innocent, a woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was a joyous occasion, a celebration of her life and her release, but Clint didn't enjoy a single second of it.
Tony was pointedly not waiting for them when they arrived back at the senator's apartment, but Clint had kind of suspected that would be the case. He'd clearly left the place exactly as it had been when he walked out; there were no signs anyone had been in at all since they'd left.
"He could have watered the plants," Rogers said, sounding exhausted more than anything else. Coulson said nothing, remaining as carefully uninvolved in Rogers's personal troubles as he'd been the entire time. Clint was starting to get suspicious of that. He was a Jedi, sure, but Coulson seemed to be going beyond it, letting things unfold, letting Rogers continue to dig himself into the hole that he'd already started on when he left Coruscant, maybe since he let Clint and Coulson guard him at all.
Attendants flowed in with the senator's personal effects, with food that the senator didn't touch, and Clint carefully scanned every one of them, finding nothing. Even that was starting to be suspicious; Clint was officially on high alert now, knowing that the next strike was going to come sooner rather than later. The assassin or assassins knew their movements, knew their weaknesses, and, more than anything, knew they'd all be worn down by being constantly vigilant.
If Clint was going to strike, this was exactly the time he'd do it, maybe today, maybe tomorrow when they were a little more off-guard. He didn't like the part of his brain that calculated how easy it would be to wipe all of them out, but at least it served him well right then.
On the morning of day three, Clint was just about to go mad from the tension of it, the waiting game. He'd been sleeping next to his saber, and it said something that Coulson didn't even call him on it, the potential for him to injure an innocent if he were woken unexpectedly. Things were even rougher than they had been, now that Tony and Barnes were gone; there was no backup, no relief, nothing but relentless worry. For his part, Coulson seemed unmoved, but it sure as hell moved Clint, and he could read it off the senator, too, the way it was grinding on him.
"I'm going to try locking up the house today," Rogers said, as they stood in the living room for the morning report that had become customary. "If Tony- if the security system's not being worked on, then there's nothing essential that can't be done after I get home."
"Of course, Senator," Coulson said. "We'll make arrangements."
Rogers was talking, but Clint wasn't listening. His ears were ringing, the same way they'd done before, and he drew his lightsaber, not heeding the way the senator looked at him. Something flashed in the corner of Clint's eye, and he looked over; a speeder had pulled up beside the window, a figure standing up on it. The figure raised its staff, pointing it towards the window forming the wall of the living room, and Clint realized too late that there was one thing they hadn't prepared for: a full frontal daytime assault from a complete madman.
"Hit the deck!" Clint shouted, jumping out of the way as the window exploded, hit by a massive energy blast; the senator wasn't as lucky, catching a rain of the flying glass, the pieces scratching him up. Metal curtains clunked down from the ceiling, another defense system, but blast from the staff, and they were gone just as quickly, the metal simply melted away.
By the time Clint got on his feet, Coulson was nowhere to be found.
A figure jumped out of the speeder, landing lightly inside the living room, the speeder taking off as soon as he was gone. "My padawan," Loki said, smiling, opening his arms to Clint.
"I'm not your padawan," Clint snapped.
"I'm hurt," Loki told him, feigning sadness. "You greet me like this, after I went to all that trouble training you. I made you just like me, padawan. Never forget that."
"If this is your way of asking me to join you, then fuck off," Clint said.
"Language," Loki scolded. "You already had that choice and refused," he told Clint. "Instead you took up with- who was it? I couldn't see his face from behind."
Clint very nearly charged him, but he caught himself just in time, slowing his breathing, calming himself. Anger led to the Dark Side, but Clint was way more concerned right at that moment with anger leading to him getting his ass kicked. Maybe more important than that, this was his chance to prove himself, to prove that he wasn't Loki's creation, wasn't destined to fall like him.
"You've got nothing to say to me?" Loki prompted. "I really did teach you better than that."
"I've got a few words for you," Rogers said, standing and brushing himself off. "Starts with 'Get out of my house,' but I've got to warn you, it gets more colorful from there."
Loki looked at him curiously. "You're interesting, human," Loki told him. "Hard to kill."
"They haven't done it yet," Rogers said. "And worse men than you have tried."
"If you're talking about Red Skull, you don't have to worry about him trying again," Loki told him. "I have that famous skull in a box."
"Thanks for taking care of that for me," Rogers said, not flinching. "I appreciate the service."
"Always glad to help the fine delegates of our Senate," Loki said, with an ironic bow.
"You can help by telling me why you're trying to kill me," Rogers said. "I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish."
Loki shrugged. "What's not fun about killing a politician, especially one who takes so long to die?"
Clint wasn't about to let Loki see it, but he was quietly panicking, unable to feel his master's presence anywhere; Clint was very good at imagining worst-case scenarios, and he had some great ones going. "Especially the representative of the most important planet in the Republic," Clint said.
"Oh good, my padawan, glad you've caught up," Loki said condescendingly.
Coulson came walking across the room, and if Clint wasn't seeing him with his own two eyes, he'd think he didn't exist, just a spot of blankness where a person should be, just like one of Loki's projections. "Caught up to you," Clint said, keeping Loki distracted while he figured out what was going on.
Loki gave him a look, oblivious to Coulson walking up behind him. "Did I or did I not just break through your window? You seem fuzzy on the sequence of-" Just then, Coulson clocked him in the back of the head with the hilt of his lightsaber, hitting him hard enough that it made a loud thud.
Loki stumbled, stunned, and Coulson hit him again before Loki forced him back; now Clint could feel his master beside him, warm and comforting. "Interesting trick," Loki said, rubbing his head and wincing. "You won't be using it again."
"Clint," Coulson said, not taking his eyes away from Loki.
"Yes, Master," Clint said, using his title just so Loki could hear it.
"You get the shot, you take the shot," Coulson told him.
Clint grinned. "It would be my pleasure, Master."
"You're very sweet together," Loki said, rolling his eyes. "I'm busy," he said, catching sight of Rogers out of the corner of his eye; Rogers had picked up one of the huge planters that lined the back wall, readying to throw it. Loki held out a hand, and a beam of ice shot from it, something Clint had only seen once, when Loki had attacked the temple and stabbed Coulson. Loki aimed for the planter and not the senator, which was a critical mistake; Rogers let it go, making a noise of pain, but he didn't drop it, flinging it into Loki's face instead. The brittle material shattered, the shards stinging his eyes. While he was blinded, Clint took the chance to strike, taking a run at him. He realized an instant too late that he'd misjudged; he still took a chunk out of Loki's thigh, but Loki swatted him away with his staff, hitting him in the ribs and throwing him across the room.
He landed hard next to Rogers, and from there he could clearly see the burns on the senator's hands. He and Rogers were down for the count; it was all up to Coulson now.
Coulson didn't waste his time with banter, going directly for Loki before Loki even had a chance to square off against him. It wasn't a move that Loki was expecting, and he tagged Loki in the arm, leaving a neat slice in his skin.
"You can tire yourself out if you want, Master Jedi," Loki said mockingly, "but the only thing that's going to be different is that this time, I'm going to see your face when you fall."
Coulson smiled. "Kill me once, shame on you."
"Enough talking," Loki said, something Clint was sure he'd never said before and would never say again; Coulson was actually getting under his skin, which is what Coulson really needed to do. "Face me."
Loki was first on the attack this time, leaping and coming down on him, but Coulson twisted out of the way in time, his lightsaber swinging out. Loki caught it with his staff, batting him back, and the duel was on. The advantage swung back and forth; they seemed evenly matched at this, despite how much older Loki was and how much more training he'd had. Clint had never actually seen his master do more than spar, but he knew by now that everything Coulson did was impressive, unexpected, no matter what it was.
Clint really hoped they didn't die, because he was pretty sure he was in love.
There was a loud sound from the other room, a screech of metal and a huge crash, and Loki turned to look; Coulson didn't, catching Loki with a kick to the chest and sending him sprawling on the floor.
A figure sauntered in, walking over and standing over him. "Hello, Loki," Sif said, holding her lightsaber inches from his neck.
Of course their renegade backup would choose now to finally show up. "Oh, we do the work and she gets the good part," Clint said, but no one seemed to hear him.
"My lady," Loki greeted her, trying to hide the fact that he kept glancing at her blade.
"You always come back, don't you," she said. "You always find a way."
"Always," Loki said, a curious smile on his face. Loki drew his staff into his hand, and Sif leapt backwards out of the way. Loki rolled to his feet, holding it out and readying himself to fight.
"I didn't come to duel you," Sif told him, advancing slowly on him. "I came to kill you."
"As usual," Loki said, haughty despite the fact that he was losing ground. "It's not working out very well for you, is it?"
She stepped forwards again and Loki stepped backwards, but this time he wasn't paying enough attention. He'd gone too far, teetering on the window ledge. Sif smiled, holding up her hand; he threw his out just in time, and they fought against each other, each of them trying to knock the other down. "My lady," he said, in a pleading voice, the kind that Loki was so good at faking, and she smiled.
Then she shoved him over the edge.
"We have to go as quickly as possible," Coulson said. "If there's any chance he may have survived, however small-"
"He will not be there," Sif said, stepping back a few paces. "You will not catch him." She smiled, full of teeth. "I will."
"Master Sif-" Coulson started.
"Send my respects to the Council," she said. "I am not coming back."
"Sif, let's think about this," Coulson said carefully.
"I will kill him, or he will kill me," she told them. "That has always been the way, and it always will be. Now good bye, my friends."
Before they could speak another word, she took off running, leaping from the window. Coulson rushed over, but by the time he reached it, she was gone, disappeared somewhere into the fog.
Clint hobbled over to the window, clutching his wounded side. "Well, that was something."
"The Council isn't going to be happy about this," Coulson sighed.
"Never in my entire life has the Council been happy about one thing," Clint said. "Ever." He blinked; the room was spinning a little, and he didn't enjoy it. "I'm gonna lay down. Right here. Here is good."
Coulson was at his side immediately, putting Clint's arm around his shoulders and his arm around Clint's waist. "Let's get him to my bed," Steve said. "Well, if there's anything left of it."
"Look, I'm fine, I can make it to the-" and Clint never finished that sentence, too busy passing out.
Clint wasn't sure where he woke up, only that he felt sleepy and very, very sore. He tried to sit up, but a warm hand held him back, pressing him gently into the bed. "Don't try to move," Coulson said. "You have a concussion and some broken ribs."
Clint tried to say something coherent, ask questions about their situation, but the best he got on the first try was something like, "Eeugh."
"Believe me, I know exactly how you feel," Coulson told him.
"What happened?" Clint asked, his mouth dry. "The last thing I remember is Sif going crazy."
"There's been no sign of her or Loki since," Coulson said, picking up the cup beside his bed. "I don't expect to hear from either of them for a long while. Here." He held out an ice chip from the cup, and Clint opened his mouth; Coulson's warm fingertips brushed against his lips as he fed Clint the ice, and Clint resisted the urge to kiss them.
"I have some of this worked out," Clint said. "There was no woman at the banquet. It was Loki's projection."
"That's what I believe," Coulson told him. "It wasn't a real attempt. He was framing the Black Widow to further discredit Master Fury, as if he really needed to. Loki has plans that go beyond us."
"I can't figure out whether the whole diplomatic thing was Loki's influence or not," Clint said.
"Neither can I," Coulson replied. "Loki used it to his advantage, certainly, but it makes sense if he did it to eliminate Stark, just like he did to Officer Barnes."
"You had to let it happen, didn't you?" Clint said. "Loki had to think he won that round, or he would have changed his strategy." Coulson didn't respond. "How is Barnes doing?"
"He's very upset, but he saw reason," Coulson said. "He's taken back his position as the senator's guard."
"Good," Clint said, around another piece of ice. "You have got to teach me your disappearing trick."
Coulson smiled. "That's what I'm here for, padawan."
"I thought about it again," Clint said, after a long pause, putting his hand on Coulson's chest, his thumb tracking over the folds of his robe, "and I, uh, if we- What I'm trying-" he shut his eyes, resolving himself to not keep screwing this up. "We could die, and I don't want to have any regrets." It was only a tiny part of the whole thing, a very minor reason why he wanted this, wanted Coulson so badly, but he figured it was the safest place to start, the part that hurt the least.
"A Jedi never has any regrets, as long as they follow the righteous ways of the Force," Coulson said placidly.
Clint gave him a look. "Do you actually believe that?"
"No," Coulson said, without shame. "But I thought it might work."
"Did you actually think it might work?"
"No," Coulson repeated, smiling. "But at least I could say that I tried."
"You didn't try very hard," Clint said.
"Nobody said I had to try hard," Coulson said. "That's another issue."
Clint thought he should have some response, some witty line to fill the space while he strained upwards, pulling Coulson towards him. It hurt badly, but it was worth it, it was going to be-
Coulson sighed, pushing him down against the bed again. "Clint, we can't."
Clint kind of felt like punching something. "Okay, I won't bring it up-"
"Not what I meant," Coulson said softly. "There are too many people around, and you're injured."
Clint raised his eyebrows. "I like the implications of that statement."
Coulson smiled. "I would hope so."
"Can I have more ice?" Clint said, opening his mouth like a baby bird. This time, when Coulson offered it to him, Clint caught his fingertips, sucking the water off them.
"Has anyone ever told you that you're a handful?" Coulson said; he sounded a little exasperated, but he was smiling.
Clint grinned. "As long as they're your hands, I think I'm okay."