“Sir,” Maria Hill entered Fury’s personal gym, heading straight to the bike at the back, not glancing up from the report she was reading as she deflty manouvered around excercise equipment and stopped beside him. Fury was peddling like a man inspired, glaring at the video screen in front of him. It displayed a fairly decent image of a road in France, and he was clearly fighting uphill.
“This asshole thinks he’s Chris Froome,” Fury huffed, and peddled harder when the wheel of another bike tried to surpass him on the screen. She’d caught him in his bi-monthly online race. She looked back to the report.
“I’ve got some reports about agents going missing in Arlington.”
“How many?” he asked, sweat dripping down the side of his face, soaking into the white tank top he always wore when riding. The wide mottled scars on his muscled right shoulder always stood out more when he was exercising.
“Aside from them not showing up to work after the long weekend?” she asked dryly. He pressed his lips together, annoyed. Good, because she was still pretty pissed about how they’d handled Coulson’s faked demise and was feeling vindictive. This was as far as she was willing to push it though. “One has a few marks in her file about missing shifts in the past, the other two are apparently associates of hers. It’s a small office, not classified within house, and the leads aren’t overly concerned yet but they are actively looking for them.”
“What’s your point?” he asked, because this was not usually the type of thing he needed to be informed about.
“Three days ago two agents disappeared in Guatemala. Last week four were killed in an apparent landslide twelve miles from their assigned base in Managua, and nobody can tell us what they were doing there in the first place. That same day the base in La Paz imploded.”
Fury stopped cycling. A bike on the screen zipped ahead and disappeared around a wooded corner.
“It was a research lab, focus on investigating sonic pulse applications and bionic limbs.” She didn’t bother consulting her notes for specifics, because the list she held were reports from four other facilities that had been damaged, broken into, or had missing personnel within the last four days. Fury was quiet for a long moment, his good eye glaring out the bullet resistant window that provided a spectacular view of cold Atlantic waters.
“The sonic lab was also developing the stabilizers for the carriers,” he noted.
“Yes sir,” she agreed. They were almost ready to begin the new series’ assembly, but Stark had been refusing to play ball and they needed him for the engines, or more specifically they needed the reactors he’d once been on board with supplying. He wasn’t so interested in being a part of the project at the moment. She wasn’t certain if it was because he was strangely loyal to Barton and Romanov, who he’d barely had time to get to know, or because he just liked dicking with Fury on principle.
“Anything missing?” He asked with a frown.
“We don’t know yet, teams are still digging it out. We believe five people may have been caught in the collapse.”
She was very carefully keeping her tone contained. She’d deal with the anger of losing so many agents when she was in private.
“You think it’s linked,” Fury said, more statement than question, and she kept quiet. She didn’t know what to think at this point, it was just - suspicious.
“Ah, hell, it’s linked,” he stepped off the bike, basketball shorts billowing around his legs and making him look decidedly un-director like. There was a reason she was the only one allowed access to this room outside of an emergency. “Get Coulson on it.”
“Sir, he’s looking for Agents Romanov and Barton,” she said, like he needed the reminder, and he cut her a look that said she should be smarter than this. It made her bristle inside, but also made her stop and think. “You think they’re attacking SHIELD, Sir?” Because no. She refused to even entertain the idea that they’d go after their own, no matter how pissed they were.
“Coulson has a shiny new plane and a shiny new team,” Fury grabbed a towel and rubbed it over his sweat-slick head, “he can multi-task.”
“Yes, sir,” she agreed, and couldn’t help thinking that she could use Sitwell’s help with this. There was never a good time for his mother to break her hip, but right now Maria wouldn’t have minded utilizing his network. She sent him a text to inform him that he was an asshole for leaving them in the lurch like this, and told Fury’s secretary to send a fruit bouquet with a get well soon card to his mother. Maybe Sitwell would step up and help from where he was parked at her bedside, because damnit, that was the job.
They couldn’t take James on a commercial flight because metal detectors and low profiles did not go hand in hand. Ha. So Clint ‘borrowed’ a rather old Piper while Natasha hopped over to Paris in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet. John Garrett was in Paris, and he was slated to be on Cap's next mission, so Clint and Nat made the executive decision to up their game, and take him out of the picture sooner rather than later. A few more days and their list of Hydra names would be substantial enough to hand over to Fury, but they weren’t going to take the chance that larger known players could jump ship before then.
James tumbled out of the Piper over Nebraska with Gob tucked safely inside a deep pocket he sewed up special, since the marmoset was pretty insistent that she would be sticking with him.
Clint did not feel jealous that she’d been so clingy with James. He was totally okay with it. He also absolutely did not miss Nat or the man-that-never-smiled the moment they were out of eye-sight. He was totally fine with solo work, because it was necessary and he was well aware that they were more than capable of not getting killed when he wasn’t around to watch their backs.
Also, he felt it was absolutely necessary to point out that Clint did not crash the plane. He was shot down.
Fortunately when they’d been getting supplies for this particular mission, Natasha had told James to get an extra parachute for Clint, even though his part of the plan involved a nice, inconspicuous landing, and not jumping to his target site.
Natasha was the best.
It was now a day and a half after James had sky-dived off to create his own mayhem, and he was rolling up the dirt road in a beat-up Ford truck that had thick rust around the wheel wells and a dent in the driver-side door. The guy looked genuinely impressed as he took in the aftermath of Clint’s work and pulled to a stop not far from where Clint was resting. Clint figured he must have driven all night to make it to this rendezvous so early.
“You look like shit,” James announced with a there and gone again grin as he climbed out the door to survey Clint, who sat on a boulder like it was his throne. The boulder had been a part of yet another creepy Hydra secret lair that was using SHIELD resources. Clint was becoming very adept at finding their munitions rooms and taking advantage. He looked at James watching him, and grinned. The guy’s hair was shorter than it had been when he jumped from the plane. Clint would bet the change had more to do with an unexpected introduction to fire than scissors, as it was also frizzier than he remembered. It was good to see him.
Clint had only been forty-percent sure James would meet up with him here, like they’d originally planned. He’d been sixty-percent sure James would have realized Clint wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to hang out with and would have gone off to find someone better to spend his time with, like Steve… or maybe Natasha. He didn’t expect the genuine warmth in this greeting, like James was actually glad to see him before he remembered that he was a recovering brainwashed assassin who was supposed to be pissed at the world and not attempting to hide it. No smiling allowed.
“You look like you lost a fight with a barbeque,” Clint grinned back. “Spare clothes?”
James nodded towards the truck’s cab, diverting his attention to check the surrounding forest, take in what was left of the crumbled cliff face, and watch the reunited marmosets screeching and wrestling like they’d been separated for years. Clint made it to the truck without limping, and dressed without complaint in the lemon yellow tshirt and dark jeans. He turned back to find James’ eyes on him, and the man didn’t look away when he was caught staring.
“You need stitches,” he said, the warmth from his arrival slipping back behind the stoic veneer.
“Nah, too late for that,” Clint shrugged it off and climbed into the trucks driver seat, ready to move on. James followed him right into the cab, literally, and Clint flailed and slid over when it became very clear that he would move or be sat on. “I bet you don’t even have a driver's licence,” he grumbled in irritation as he settled into the passenger seat and rolled down the window. Manually.
“Natalia gave me one,” James said. Clint frowned. As far as he knew, they’d never introduced her as Natalia. The thing was, she also rarely went by that name, not since she’d broken free of the Red Room, and that had been a long time ago. Natasha was older than she looked, Clint knew this because he’d met her when he was nineteen, and she’d barely changed. He turned bodily and stared at James, whose hands gripped the steering wheel but made no attempt to put the car in motion. The trio was still rolling in the dirt outside. Clint waited. The soldier actually looked a bit discomforted, which was new. “I think I trained her, once, a while ago,” he offered, looking only moderately certain.
“Exactly how old are you?” Clint asked, and James shrugged, the uncertainty bleeding away to cool indifference. Clint rolled with it, because he was easy like that. Some things take time, and some things you never spoke about. He leaned out the window, forcing the movements to look smooth and pretending he managed to get out of the cave-lair without a chunk of rock landing on him. “Let’s go,” he called, and like a well-oiled machine the mini-marmosets did their weird little monkey sprint to the car, and leapt through the open window with ease. They made exactly zero effort to move off Clint's lap after landing, despite his protests that he wasn’t a mattress. He looked at James. “Need navigation?”
“Good,” he decided, leaned back, and pretended to try and sleep. He was so good at pretending he didn’t notice when the real thing ambushed him.
In the driver's seat, the soldier slowly retreated and rolled back into James, who began to steal glances at the sleeping archer, who he’d yet to see use a bow. The guy was slumped over, yellow and gray bruising still fading from his face, new bruising taking its place. He was covered in dust and spots where blood may have been wiped away, most likely to hide injuries. His mouth hung slack, the occasional snort escaping, and the three monkeys were curled in a tight knot on his lap. They were partly tucked beneath a large, calloused, scraped-up hand that cradled them gently from one side.
It was one of the most ridiculous things James could recall seeing, but his memories were like jagged shards of a broken mirror waiting to be set back in place, so he didn’t have a lot to compare to at the moment. Still, he took another quick glance before focusing on the rocky, winding road once more, a near invisible smile riding his lips for the next few miles.
“So,” Clint collapsed on the deluxe motel room's orange tweed couch, and rolled his head to set a warm blue gaze on Nat. “I haven’t had this much fun since Budapest.” Beside him, her legs tucked up beneath her and hair pulled up in a messy ponytail with strands framing her face, Nat gave him a look.
“You and I remember Budapest very differently,” she said, and turned her attention back to the iPad, looking through their newest list of future targets. After a moment, when Clint made a show of snuggling deeper into the couch and staring at her plaintively, her lips quirked up. It was totally in agreement, and he stopped watching her pitifully and grinned.
“What was Budapest?” James asked from where he’d been standing, silently, by the window. He was keeping watch, as usual. What was unusual was that Natasha was willing to drop her guard around him enough to not be on constant alert. She was as relaxed as she ever got while they were on mission. Considering her initial reaction to James when they met breaking out of the AIM lab, Clint had only distantly hoped for this outcome. Lia popped up from behind the couch and settled on Clint’s shoulder, rubbing her face right behind his ear. He grinned, feeling stupidly content in this shitty motel room that they’d paid for with cash hustled from a dart game earlier in the evening. Clint tilted left, trying his luck as he settled his shoulder against Nat, absorbing her warmth. She quirked a brow, but didn’t move.
“A giant clusterfuck and the best krémes I’ve ever had,” Clint sighed wistfully. James watched them, there on the couch, for a long moment before going back to sentry duty. After half an hour of watching the screen Natasha was scrolling through, Clint scooped up the marmoset tangle on his shoulder and deposited the sleepy three in his partner's lap. She froze, her body locked in that unnatural stillness she harboured when she was assessing a potentially dangerous situation. Akira squirmed so he was lying on his back, dark eyes watching her, and after a hesitation she gently ran one scuffed finger down his exposed belly. He grasped at the tip playfully, and Natasha grinned for the second time that night. Across the room James pretended not to watch in the reflection from the TV.
“We should take care of Pierce soon, and maybe let Fury know what’s going on,” Clint said, digging through the food on the room’s table. Learning that Fury and Hill were clean of Hydra had been a relief neither of them had wanted to acknowledge openly. One leader in SHIELD being dark-side was enough to deal with. Clint pulled out the Caesar salad with chicken and went back to the couch.
“Maybe,” Natasha said, tone dripping non-committal, which meant that she was still pissed at them for leaving them out of the Coulson loop. She might be a little more pissed that their decisions had led to Clint pulling a runner from SHIELD, which had gone to shit but had also kind of worked out in their favour in the grand scheme. They hadn’t talked about any of this yet. That conversation was coming, he knew it, and he was going to avoid it as long as she’d let him. She was so much better at compartmentalizing than he was.
“Or,” Clint decided to offer an alternative option around a mouthful of lettuce, “we could blow more shit sky-high and then engineer an amazing exposé, super ex-Russian-assassin style.”
“You’re not Russian,” she pointed out.
“I don’t think James is either,” Clint shrugged, “but I could be the second cousin tag-along to your Duo of Destruction.”
“Says the man who literally imploded the last three bases he was just supposed to survey,” James said, tone somewhat flat but the effort was there and Clint rolled his head to share a bark of laughter.
“One of them was an accident,” he insisted and James raised an eyebrow that was genuinely amused. Maybe.
“I’d hate to see you on a clumsy day.”
“He only breaks himself on clumsy days,” Nat offered, looking at the soldier briefly before stealing a piece of Clint’s chicken. It was the end piece; he’d been saving it for last. He considered stabbing her quick fingers with his plastic fork, but he didn’t have the energy to protect himself from her retaliation.
“Tomorrow we split,” Clint decided, keeping the exhaustion that hugged him like a heavy, wet cloak, from his tone. They were all tired, worn down and in need of a proper rest. They’d get it soon, one way or another. “We’ll take out the Rocky Mountain run, which should crush the last of the experimental weapon and bio labs, and then move in on the financials,” he looked from Nat, who nodded her head, because that was more her area than his, to James, who seemed fine with this plan. Then again, he’d been fine with every plan. Clint knew this probably had a lot to do with years of following orders, but was also pretty sure James truly had no problem with their agenda for the time being, so they’d work on that later.
“Then Pierce,” Nat decided.
“Then Pierce,” Clint agreed.
Phil looked up from the reports Maria had sent him, to find Melinda leaning against the wall just inside the door to his office, her face severe as she watched him. He schooled his features to look expectant, hoping it hid everything else he was feeling right now.
“Something is off,” she started, which just made this afternoon that much worse. “The last two weeks he’s been slipping out for private calls, been more tense after every one, and he’s been accessing files more frequently than he’s supposed to. Skye looked into it for me.” Melinda pulled the slim folder from where she had it tucked beneath her arm, and gently deposited it on his desk. “She says he’s been using some extremely sophisticated programs to mask his access, and it would only be spotted if someone was very specifically rooting it out.”
Phil wasn’t sure he wanted to open the plain, blue folder. The ones generally used for pilot reports.
It only took a few moments to connect the links. He sat back in his seat.
“He’s looking up files for specific SHIELD sites that have recently been under attack,” he said.
“Attack?” she asked, tilting her head to think about it. “I’ve heard rumours the last few weeks about some agents being killed, and some distant bases being destroyed, here and overseas. These are what he’s looking at?”
“Yes,” Phil resisted rubbing at the growing headache in his temple. “And several more locations that I don’t recognize but will be looking into shortly. Also,” he met her gaze, “a number of agents have been failing to show up for duty, and we can’t find them.”
“Sitwell,” she said after a pause, because Maria had told her about that the day before. His disappearance was extremely concerning, since no one knew exactly how long he’d been gone. Melinda expected Phil would be placed on his search mission, since he was already looking for…wait.
“You think Clint and Natasha are involved,” she stated. He didn’t wince, exactly, just looked as pained as he ever did these days when their names cropped up. If they were involved, this would probably be the first time he was kept out of the loop by them on purpose. Had to sting.
“I suspect,” he admitted. “But the reports don’t add up, not if Maria is linking them correctly,” which meant they were compiled properly; Maria was thorough. “Even if they divide to conquer, there’s some damaged sites and missing personnel that are too far apart to accomplish with just two people. Unless Stark has given them a magical transporter to beam them from place to place.” He seemed pained at the idea.
“Or unless they’ve picked up a third,” she suggested. Phil didn’t look pleased at the prospect.
“Unlikely,” he denied.
“For Natasha, probably, but Clint picks up strays like you pick up pens,” she pointed out. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s started a new team of his own now that he’s bumped himself from SHIELD.”
“He’s still a part of the Avengers, and Fury hasn’t accepted his resignation,” Phil denied, a snap of temper biting into his words and she raised an unimpressed eyebrow. They both knew Clint likely didn’t care one way or another about what Fury did with his papers. Clint’d gone silent from SHIELD in a way he’d never done before, and it set a pretty clear impression of his opinion about how things had been handled. Melinda wasn’t sure it was only the direct results of Phil, Fury and Maria keeping him in the dark about Phil being alive. She’d been hearing about some rather nasty comments and actions directed towards Clint by general SHIELD agents since the attack from Loki. She’d been separate from it, first in her ‘cubical’ at headquarters and then her new assignment to Phil’s team, but it was clear Clint wasn’t happy with SHIELD in general at the moment. She couldn’t blame him.
Maria had apparently been unaware of the hazing, but that didn’t make it excusable. Bobbi had been the one to call Melinda about her suspicions, and they were looking into it now, but frankly it was too little too late. She didn’t know Clint as well as she might have liked, because despite all his brashness and laughter and easy-going friendliness, she remembered him when he first came to SHIELD. He’d changed very quickly to adapt to them, not the other way around, and a chameleon rarely exposed their true colours.
So no, she wasn’t surprised Clint had dropped SHIELD after the way his life had been going the last months. Natasha going dark as well had been unexpected. Then again, Melinda was aware that Clint was maybe the only person she’d cut all ties to a comfortable life for, whether he asked her to or not.
Phil knew that as well. Phil had once been the other part of that equation. Phil was now the catalyst.
“We need to deal with Ward,” Phil said. “He’s broken protocol enough that I don’t want to risk him running. We’ll figure out what’s going on once he’s locked down. Who’s he been calling?”
“John Garrett,” she didn’t sugar coat it.
That seemed to sum it up accurately.
“You sleep better with the monkeys,” Natasha decided, her face far too close to his as Clint opened his eyes, alert, from his nap.
“Marmosets,” he corrected around a big yawn.
“We need to keep an eye on this,” she decided and looked over to the hotel room’s other bed, where James lay flat on his back, on top of the blankets. His metal arm seemed to gleam in the glow coming from the bathroom light. It was still dark outside.
“It’s fine,” Clint said, and pushed up to his elbows in the bed, forcing her to move off a bit. “They’re like a sleeping pill without the hangover.”
“They are knocking you out,” she frowned.
“No,” he disagreed, meeting her eyes so she could get a solid read on him, “they’re buffering the dreams.”
“Almost completely. One still gets through now and then, and regular weird ones are loud and clear, but the majority of the shittastic ones leave me alone when they’re around.”
She watched him a long moment, eyes narrowing.
“You understand why I’m concerned?” she said and he shrugged, ignoring the deep ache in his shoulder that triggered with the movement.
“Loki,” he closed his eyes and swallowed, remembering too much, layered memories and actions and being held down and strapped down and-
“They are manipulating you as well,” she agreed, cutting through the sudden influx of emotions, allowing him to break out of it.
“Yeah, I guess,” he agreed, and took a breath, trying to figure out how to explain why this was different. How to put something that was pure emotion and feeling into words? “But it’s,” he floundered, “it’s not the same. There’s no…it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t dig and rip and-and- there’s nothing left behind, nothing latching on. It’s like buffering, there and gone. I’ve figured out when they’re doing it,” he looked up at her, noting the suspicion, noting the concern in the downward pull at the corner of her mouth. “It’s almost like sharing. They don’t change how I feel about things, don’t put anything in me that doesn’t belong. It’s more like communication than anything else, and it’s so basic.”
“How do you know they’re not making you feel this way, so you will keep them? Protect them?”
That was a good question.
“Do you remember the dog I had, Lucky?” She rolled her eyes at his question, like he was being particularly stupid and, yeah okay. Lucky had been pretty unforgettable, and also around for his first years at SHIELD. Clint had dragged the dog back to base after the first night he’d been allowed outside of SHIELD unsupervised, and had refused to give the dog up. He’d been testing SHIELD at the time, but he’d also been serious; he wasn’t putting that dog back out on the streets. Phil had created official therapy dog papers for the mutt so Clint could keep him on base. The animal had been a menace, much like Clint. “Okay, so, it feels like having him around again, just, a bit more connected. A bit more…I don’t know, Nat. I just like them, and they don’t scare me. At all.”
“They are strong enough to prevent James’ conditioning to trigger,” she pointed out.
“And if he has a problem with that we can come up with a solution then,” Clint shrugged. Nat kept watching him. “I’m keeping them,” he said through a wide yawn.
“We’re keeping an eye on this,” she repeated.
“Okay,” Clint agreed. His trio were hiding beneath his shirt, he could feel their tiny furry bodies just over his navel. They’d all agreed to get a full night in this hotel, but Nat wouldn’t actually rest for another day at least, so she was keeping guard. Clint was more than content with not moving if he didn’t have to, his body always sore for a variety of reasons. He dropped back down to his pillow, feeling her hand press slightly over his side, fingers gentle and comforting. He grasped it in his overly warm one and squeezed for a few moments before she pulled away after a soft squeeze of her own.