Chapter 1: Surprise Surprise
Not that Clint was one to complain, but this mission had turned to shit pretty much as soon as he’d slipped into the building, and he was pretty irritated about it. He didn’t think it was too much to ask that that if SHIELD had to assign him to missions, they at least give him competent handlers. Or maybe it was just him. He’d been coming to the sad conclusion, because at this point in his life it was difficult not to, that he was cursed. Being cursed was legitimately possible what with gods and magic being the new reality.
“You’re gonna wish your moma hadn’t pushed you out by the time I’m done with you,” the enormous guard, who wasn’t supposed to be here snarled at Clint from ten feet away. He was armed and angry, and Clint figured the curse theory had real merit. He seriously hated magic. However; he hated shit intel and bad decisions that led to what should have been preventable surprises even more. Shit intel led to unnecessary and preventable situations when infiltrating AIM secret-science bases such as this one. Alone.
Clint gave the guy a smile, hands held out harmlessly before him in a ‘lets talk’ pose that he absolutely did not mean.
With a sneer on his thin lips the man lunged towards Clint with obvious intent to cause some permanent damage. And, surprise-surprise, Clint’s comms activated just as tall and angry closed the gap between them.
“Hawkeye, what’s taking so long?” Agent Dupont, his mission lead, demanded in his ear. His voice was distant and loud in that special way reserved for radios and drill sergeants. Clint snatched up a metal stool that had been sitting in front of a stainless steel lab table, and just managed to block the knife that was more of a sword that the mountainous mercenary was thrusting at him. This guy had better accuracy than Clint was comfortable with, as well as some advanced training and an apparent personal grudge against anyone breathing in his general vicinity, which was all kinds of unfortunate for Clint.
“What’s taking so long?” Clint grunted in annoyance as the man grabbed the stool in one meaty hand and, instead of trying to rip it away, he used his towering mass to shove hard. Clint was forced backwards beneath his strength, his boots sliding with a screech across the linoleum floor.
“I’m gonna gut you like a mutt,” the man snarled, spittle spraying Clint’s face as the metal legs pressed into his chest. The guy shoved again and Clint was forced to step back with it or be bowled over. His back slammed into the row of stacked cages that he’d really been hoping to stay far away from, and he twisted just enough that the knife being thrust his way again shrieked as it forced its way between the cages metal bars.
Feral, snarling growls and throat-rattling barks erupted behind Clint. He felt a cold nose begin digging into the back of his head as the animal behind him tried to jam its muzzle through the cage to get at him. He tipped his head forward a bit, braced a foot against the bottom cage and used the leverage to quickly shove and spin out from under his attacker's weight. His arms strained with the effort and as he moved he felt a tug in the fabric at his back where a dog must have just managed to sink its teeth into his shirt. What was taking so long? Clint darkly thought over Dupont’s demand as he abandoned the stool, since his opponent clearly wanted it more. It gave Clint the chance to get a few steps away and re-group.
“Gut me like a mutt?” Clint asked the guy with his best unimpressed sneer. He twitched out of the way as the stool was heaved at his head in response, allowing just enough movement so it didn’t clip him. It flew across the room and smashed into a glass wall that separated the lab they were in from an examination alcove. Fortunately the glass held and the stool clanged loudly to the floor. “Is that what you’ve been doing to these animals?” Clint asked, assessing his opponent. As far as he could tell the guy was as strong as Rogers and, if the deeply bloodshot eyes and white pupils were anything to judge by, he was hopped up on something. In the cages that were now at the guy’s back, the large dogs snarled and frothed at the mouth and scratched at their thickly-barred cages in their excitement to join the party. The entire scenario made Clint feel a bit nauseated.
“Been doing a lot worse to ‘em,” the guy grinned with too pale lips. “Want a demonstration?” He lunged, knife deftly cutting through the air. Clint just managed a leap back in time and threw himself into a practiced back-roll over a mostly empty table. A glass beaker went skidding across the surface to smash on the ground. Shit. He was pretty sure it was an empty one, but still.
“Hawkeye, report your status,” Dupont rattled in his ear again.
“I’ll give you a report,” Clint snarled and grabbed the pen that had been lying on the stainless steel table that he’d stepped behind to give him some cover. He uncapped it, and gripped it lightly in his fist. “How about: you sent me into the center of a supposedly obsolete lab,” the guard lunged around the table and Clint darted the opposite way, keeping it between them, “with no back up and bad intel.” They’d been certain there’d be one or two guards at most. Clint had taken out seven before even reaching this target location, which to be fair had been easy as they’d only been armed with radios and tasers, and now he was dealing with Super Steroid Stan. Don’t get him wrong, he liked a challenge as much as the next adrenalin junkie, but this was shoddy work.
“Are you talking to yourself?” Stan asked, then snorted. “What an idiot,” he laughed, and looked like he was about to throw his knife at Clint before deciding against it. Damn it. Clint would not have minded snatching that bit of metal to use for himself.
“No weapons, Hawkeye,” Clint mimed his orders in a slightly exaggerated, high-pitched tone. “AIM has specialized sensors in the doors that can detect that,” Clint continued, because apparently talking was distracting this guy, and because he was pissed and needed an outlet. “No bow, no knife, no gun, and no, you can’t just use a window, Hawkeye, we have the code to the door.” Why the fuck hadn’t he taken one of the guard’s tasers? Seriously?
Okay, so mayyyybe he’d been jonesing for a fight, and maybe he’d been a cocky shit not bothering to grab a real weapon when he had the chance, but he’d been having a rough time of it lately, so what the fuck ever.
The guard grabbed the table between them and yanked it up with enough strength that it ripped the bolts holding it in place right out of the tiled floor. He picked the entire thing up, held it like a massive shield before him and charged at Clint with a bellow. Because of course he did. Clint charged in return, leapt, grabbed the table edge as he was in the air and used it as a vaulting platform to back spring over the guy’s head. He landed lightly behind him and turned as the guard came to a jarring stop. Clint swung a solid punch into his temple as he began to jerk around to attack again. Stan’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he crumbled. The table crashed loudly to the ground, half on top him, and the knife skittered across the floor. Clint watched him carefully where he lay sprawled. He noted the guy was still breathing, shallowly, and took a proper look around the lab for the first time since entering the room.
It wasn’t enormous, but the cages with abnormally thick bars that lined the walls were creepy as hell. There were three huge dogs digging ferociously along their prisons’ edges, their feral snarls loud and unnatural in the room. There was a dead chimp curled on the bottom of a lone cage off to his left, two coon cats that looked to be on their last breaths, IV’s stuck in one’s forearm where it twitched weakly. This place was a fucking nightmare. He wasn’t sure if the bright overhead lights illuminating the examination room and this lab actually made the place creepier than it would be under a dim swinging light bulb.
“Hawkeye, charges are set, what is your status?!” Dupont demanded, and shit, the ass couldn’t even wait until he knew Clint was still breathing before setting them? When most field leads said charges were set, they meant they were in place waiting to be activated, but Clint knew with Dupont it meant the countdown had already been triggered. Son of a bitch.
“Still alive, you asshole,” Clint muttered, words barely audible over the viciously growling dogs, and he finally reached up and activated his ear comm. Dupont had broken the predetermined radio silence timeline, and Clint should have had five more minutes before he was scheduled to report in. “At central lab location.” He barked out. “No scientists present, one armed guard,” he glanced at the unconscious man, “temporarily disabled. No sign of computers or notebooks, just a bunch of glass beakers and a fridge filled with sample jars. Caged animals, hostile and incapacitated.”
There was a delayed response, and in that time Clint spotted another cage, much smaller than the rest, sitting solo on a stainless steel side table. He saw something small and brown shift inside. Curious, he moved across the room, keeping time in his head. The charges had a five-minute countdown, so he should have about three and a half minutes to get out. The building wasn’t crazy large, but he was cutting it close. Come on Dupont, tell me I’m cleared to retreat he thought darkly. He made it to the table, looked inside the cage, and blinked. What the hell were these? They looked like…really tiny monkeys. There were three of them huddled together, almost in a pile, right in the middle of the cage. Clint felt a pang of sympathy for them. They didn’t look very healthy, but Clint wasn’t really an animal expert so what did he know?
He grew impatient, standing here looking at the tiny, pathetic little things, and activated his radio.
“I need orders, Dupont, before the countdown is too close for safe retreat,” he snapped into it, letting his irritation sound clear. He’d always hated working ops with this guy, but this was the first mission since Loki, which had only been a month and a half before, and Clint hadn’t been blind to the wariness and some of the hostility he’d been getting in-house. He was also aware that he was trying to not make more problems for SHIELD than he already had by confronting the bigger assholes. However, he was hard pressed to ignore that this op was being run poorly, and he was losing patience in general.
Nat always said he had a short fuse.
“Take a closer look, see if there’s any viable research notes to retrieve,” came the equally irritated response. Clint had the uneasy feeling that Dupont was stalling. He’d done it two years before on an op, placing Clint in a more dangerous position than he should have been in, and this was striking an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. He didn’t bother looking around again – he hadn’t spotted anything in his initial glance, nothing new would appear now.
Two of the monkey-like things opened their eyes, simultaneously, and looked up at him. Big black eyes in tiny little faces surrounded by frizzy, clumped, black-brown fur. One of them blinked slowly. Then the other one blinked. They couldn’t be any taller than his pinkie finger.
“There’s nothing,” Clint informed Dupont flatly. “Eight incapacitated guards in building,” he added on, in case that might change their decision to blow the place up. Clint thought the bombs were premature, and had said so before the start of this op, but he’d been told firmly that he was there as muscle, not strategy, so he should kindly shut up and do as he was told.
Dupont had never liked him and never made an effort to hide it. Then he’d lost his best friend when Clint had stormed the carrier under Loki’s orders.
Shit. Clint couldn’t linger any longer, or he’d bet he would be trapped in the blast along with everything else in this place. He was about to turn and leave, when the third little creature joined the other two staring up at him. He’d bet all three of them would easily fit in the palm of his hand.
All three obvious lab experiments. Unknown experiments. In an AIM lab.
Clint stepped away and looked towards the door, the hair on his nape prickling with foreboding. He looked back at three sets of wide, dark eyes.
“Fuck it,” he snarled, and unlatched the cage door, because running with the entire thing would slow him down. If they were easy to grab he’d take them with him and let SHIELD decide what to do. He couldn’t leave them in here, his instinct was telling him they hadn’t turned feral yet, not like the dogs. He reached in, expecting a bit of a chase, but all three rose at once and practically jumped into his hand. It was unexpected enough that it startled him, making him pause, before he shook his head and curled his fingers a bit. He didn’t close his hand too much, not wanting to crush them, but they were tiny enough that he barely noticed their weight. “Hold on,” he warned them, amused at himself as he pressed his hand to his chest, to sort of cage them in, and began sprinting out of the lab.
He was just approaching the back door when Dupont snapped into the radio.
“Hawkeye, retreat! The charges will blow in thirty seconds.”
That dirt-eating snake-toothed son of a bitch! Clint stepped out of the building that had taken him a full minute to exit, and kept moving until he knew he was out of the blast radius. It took him into the dense trees that edged the secret lab located in nowhere Minnesota. The building blew. He felt the three creatures in his hand flinch and huddle tighter together. He adjusted his fingers, keeping them secured in a more cupped grip.
“Easy guys, you’re good,” he crooned, then realized what he was doing and shook his head at himself.
“Hawkeye, report!” Dupont demanded, false urgency in his tone.
“Still alive, you asswipe,” he growled, not bothering to activate his comm. He fished his Stark-issued phone from his cargo’s left pocket. It was stupidly thin, like a credit card, but it would take a lot to break it. Clint had tried. He dialled a number and pressed it to his ear.
“Hill,” the newly minted deputy director answered, crisp and controlled, like always. She was scheduled to be in meetings with Fury and the World Security Council all week, but it had been long established that you don’t ignore calls from Clint, or things like Hawai’i almost sinking happen.
“Dupont is actively trying to kill me. Do something about it, or I will.” He hung up, watching the smoke rise from the imploded structure before turning and making his way around to the other side, where SHIELD had set up their base operations. Maria was well aware that if SHIELD chose to not do something about this, then they’d be down two agents, because Clint would not stick around after he took care of Dupont, and Dupont would no longer be capable of passing the physical field test.
Clint scouted his path ahead as far as he could see, and then looked down into the hand he had cupped against his chest. Three sets of big, dark eyes glittered up at him in the pre-dawn light. He stepped deftly through the woods while watching them, and stopped when he hit the edge of the forest where his SHIELD-assigned team was just getting out to search the rubble. Two of them looked genuinely worried, jogging as close to the collapsed structure as possible and calling for him, trying to see through the smoke. He took note of who they were. Dupont stood by the road that led to the building, black SUV at his back as he barked orders into the radio.
“Hawkeye, what’s your status, over,” his voice demanded in Clint’s ear again, while pointing at the second SUV that pulled in behind his to join the search. Clint pulled the radio out of his ear and crushed the delicate components between his thumb and forefinger. It was approximately twenty-two miles to the nearest town. He checked the direction the sun was rising, and turned back into the woods, heading East. He sent a quick one- handed text to Nat to let her know he hadn’t been blown up. If he stuck around here any longer he might take care of Dupont before Hill got the chance.
He would hand the tiny furballs over to SHIELD when he reported in at headquarters.
Clint eventually pinched a dark orange sweatshirt from a laundry line, leaving a hundred dollar bill from his emergency field cash in its place, dragged it over his head and caught a bus to Minneapolis. From there he paid cash for a private charter flight in a little two-seater back to New York. He hopped the local subway, got out five blocks before SHIELD’s headquarters, and stopped in Central Park to give the mini-monkeys another capful of water. Their tiny fingers gripped the lid like they were helping hold it steady as their faces squished around, taking turns to drink. It was as easy as the first time they’d done this, hidden from view in the back seat of the bus.
They seemed smart. But monkeys were smart right? He’d seen some nature documentaries, and he’d been stuck in that tree in Costa Rica with some, and they’d seemed intelligent. He didn’t think these ones were unusual.
He tucked them back in his lower cargo pocket, hidden away, and went to SHIELD, where he promptly walked by the headquarters front door. He flipped his middle finger at the concealed security cameras so they’d know he was back in town, and continued on his way to Brooklyn.
SHIELD protocol was to destroy all experimental animals obtained in the course of an operation on enemy ground.
Well, he was pretty pissed at them right now, because he’d told them two years ago he wouldn’t work with Dupont again, and they’d assigned him anyway, weighing on Clint’s guilt over what he did under Loki’s control to get what they wanted. It had worked.
So fuck them.
He was keeping the monkeys.
Chapter 2: Calithrix Pygmaea
Apparently Clint had forgotten to lock the door to his apartment. Again. Fortunately a cursory glance suggested that nothing was missing, and SHIELD had already come in and removed all the guns and explosives he’d kept in the bomb box under his bed when he’d been locked in medical after Loki, so he didn’t worry about those being taken.
At the time SHIELD had left his personal bow and arrows alone, which was good. For them. They hadn’t been touched while he'd been away for this mission and he relaxed slightly.
His place wasn’t that messy, but it wasn’t exactly in tip top shape either. He hadn’t really been up to his standard level of organization lately. He really hadn’t been too concerned with house chores between nightmares, exhaustion, grief, SHIELD meetings and interrogations, and the time he’d been spending at the tower at Tony and Steve’s insistence. Stark had an excellent gym, and Clint didn’t feel comfortable using SHIELD’s right now. He swallowed back the hurt, irritation, and guilt that always seemed to crowd in his chest these days, creeping up in unexpected moments and hitting hard. He distracted himself by looking around his main floor, which consisted of his kitchen, living and dining area.
He had to have a box somewhere… the recycling bin. He pulled it out from by the door, looked at the empty cans of chili and soup he’d been forcing himself to eat when he was home, and promptly dumped the box over. He ignored the four cans that rolled in different directions across the floor, and lightly dropped the bin by his coffee table. He then proceeded to move about his home until he had found and yanked out every piece of SHIELD’s latest surveillance equipment. This amounted to three audio and two audio-visual bugs, and as his search ended upstairs in his bedroom loft he used the convenient window to the right of his bed and tossed all of the expensive devices over the sill and into the open trashcan across the alley. It wasn’t as satisfying as it usually was.
He was growing tired of this game.
He snagged two old t-shirts from the floor and moved back down to the main level of his loft. Now that he had privacy he placed the blue bin on the coffee table, dropped the shirts in, and then carefully reached into the hoodies front pouch, where the monkeys had mostly remained, without complaint, for the better part of a day. He felt tiny little paws immediately wrap around his fingers and pulled his hand up, a bit perplexed to find the three fuzz balls hugging a finger each. He turned his hand upright and they stayed where they were, upside down, and blinking big eyes at him from his spread fingers. Their striped tails were curled together, holding onto each other across the back of his knuckles.
He went to put them in the box, thinking he might have to shake them off, but as soon as his hand hovered over the bunched up purple shirt, they slithered off and began rolling around, tiny paws gripping and pulling the material this way and that.
Okay, that was kind of adorable -if Clint acknowledged things that were adorable, which he didn’t. He watched them for a minute, but they seemed content so he went to the kitchen, found the tiniest bowl he had, which was probably still too big for them, and put a small amount of water in the bottom of it. Would they drown if he put too much water in there? He didn’t want to take the chance. He grabbed some paper towel on his way out of the kitchen, folding it in one hand as he went and put it in the corner away from the piled shirts the monkeys were still rolling in. They stopped, simultaneously, and watched him put the bowl and towel down.
“Uh,” he looked at three unblinking faces, suddenly feeling awkward and beyond glad nobody was here to witness this. “If you have to go,” he tapped the paper towel, “go here?”
He was talking to the monkeys like they understood. For a moment he wondered if he was as damaged as SHIELD psych insisted he was, and then forced the thoughts away with irritation. People talked to animals, right? He’d never had a pet, but it seemed reasonable. He’d talked to the animals at the circus all the time, and no one had ever looked at him oddly for it.
The monkeys blinked at him, watched him a moment more, and then went back to rolling around.
He scratched the back of his neck. He should probably feed them. They looked really tiny and...skinny? Maybe? He pondered his kitchen, which hadn’t had fresh food in it since before he’d been sent to New Mexico. He left his apartment and wandered down the hall and knocked on Simone’s door. She’d be home, right? It was just after four in the afternoon, and she had kids. School should be out…
The door opened. She stared at him a long, silent moment, her springy coils pulled up in a loose ponytail. He could hear her two kids banging around somewhere beyond his line of sight.
“Clint,” she breathed out, and he instantly felt awkward at the relief in her voice. He maybe should have stopped by one of the few times he’d been around after Loki, and let her know he was good. He didn’t have a lot of…acquaintances outside SHIELD, but the two of them had always been friendly. Hell, she’d even shoved her kids at him a few times when he’d been home and she’d had to run off to check on her mother at her care home.
Those had been some of the most awkward hours of Clint’s life. Though juggling almost non-stop, and pulling out all the tricks from his circus days, had been enough to get them all through it.
“Uh, hey,” he started, about to reach up and rub at his neck when she grabbed him and dragged him into a full-bodied hug. He barely managed not to flinch, and used all his control to not twist and throw her off of him. After a long, stiff moment he returned the hug.
Then he kind of…melted into it.
It was the first proper human contact, that didn’t involve the violence of missions and training, that he’d had since…well, since Phil. He swallowed thickly at the thought.
“Where have you been?” She asked into his shoulder with concern and anger, and he reacted by squeezing her a little tighter. God she was warm and soft and comforting and she smelt like apples and kids. Of course one of the first things he’d done, before shawarma and after putting Loki in secured lock-up, was check to see if his building had been attacked, or crushed by a falling space-whale. The relief at knowing that anyone who’d been there during the battle were safe had gotten him through dinner with everyone. Later he’d checked on the residents specifically. He might not know or like a good chunk of them, but he’d been here two years now, off and on, and kind of felt like they were his responsibility.
He’d checked on Simone and her kids first. But he’d never let them know he was okay. Hadn’t thought to, actually. He realized now that maybe she would have appreciated it. It made his stomach twist and flop in a mostly unfamiliar way.
“Sorry. Work, clean up, getting things back under control,” he said softly. He’d long ago suspected she figured out he worked for a government agency, though they’d never talked about it.
“Next time aliens attack the city, don’t wait so long to let me know you’re alive, okay?” She ordered in her ‘mom tone,’ which was new.
“Uh, Yeah. Sorry,” he added again, somewhat sheepishly and only partly an act. She released him suddenly, and he didn’t know what to do with his suddenly empty arms, or what to say. His ‘secret agent suaveness,’ as Sitwell had once labelled it, rarely helped him out when he wasn’t on mission. “I checked that you were okay,” he explained, “first thing,” because he didn’t want her to think he didn’t care.
“Oh, honey,” her eyes warmed as she put more space between them, “of course you did.” She sounded like it was pretty obvious that he would, but he didn’t get why she might think that. She opened the door wider to silently invite him in. It was a ritual that started after the first time she’d shoved a crying baby in his arms and a three year old at his legs and ran off with instructions that they shouldn’t be allowed around sharp objects, cleaning chemicals, or booze, and then promised to be back as soon as she could. He could smell fresh cookies in the air. He didn’t take her up on the invitation; he never did.
“I just wondered if maybe you had a banana I could borrow? Or have? I’ll replace it, of course,” because food wasn’t something to be taken lightly, though he was aware many people didn’t really get that. “I just haven’t had time to shop,” he clarified weakly.
“Of course,” she said, and instantly walked off and around the corner to her kitchen. A tiny dark head of curls poked around the wall and curious eyes stared at him, before widening into a shy smile.
“Hey, Charlie,” Clint greeted, giving a little wave, and Charlie giggled and disappeared. He reappeared with his mom, who held out three bananas, a large frozen Tupperware container, and a few cookies wrapped in a napkin.
“Dinner,” she announced, and shoved everything into his hands and let go so he had to hold it. She was clearly aware that he didn’t want to take her extra food and was not interested in his refusal. “Bring the dish back when you’re done,” she smiled, and shut the door in his face. He stood a moment, his protest stalled and the dish icy cool where he gripped it against his chest, then turned to head back to his apartment. At the end of the hall Tito, who had been clambering down the stairs from the floor above, had stopped and was watching Clint. He stood in the stairwell doorway - that was still missing a door. Anneke’s crazy ex had ripped her apartment door off its hinges about three months before so Clint had taken this one to replace it. Temporarily. He really needed to get a new one; he was pretty sure this was a fire code violation.
“You look like shit, man.” Tito announced, pushing his round glasses further up the bridge of his nose and then continued on his way downstairs. “Eat the food,” his voice echoed as Clint stepped back into his own place. A cursory look told him no one had broken in through the windows during his absence. He checked the monkeys who were flopped out on the shirts, and went to the kitchen where he diced up half a banana and put it on his only small plate. He didn’t want to just put the bananas on the box's floor, it might have nasty food germs on it or something. He put the plate in the box, and stood over it to watch.
The monkeys looked at the food, looked up at him, back at the food, and then at each other. He wondered, suddenly worried, that maybe they didn’t eat bananas. Didn’t all monkeys like bananas? They didn’t look very healthy, matted fur was missing in some patches, and there were spots on their boney little forearms and stomachs that had clearly been shaved. Maybe they were too weak to eat? They looked back up at him again, and then the largest one darted forward, grabbed the biggest chunk of banana, and brought it back to the other two, where they promptly started eating tiny bites and scratching it with their little claws.
Okay. Fed and watered and boxed up safely.
Clint allowed himself to finally relax a little. He wasn’t going to accidently kill the lab-mini-monkeys; he was back in his apartment that had been cleared of bugs; and he’d locked his door. He went over and armed it with the personal security system he’d installed for when he was home. Phil had helped, and was…had been the only person other than Nat who knew the code. Clint swallowed thickly, and went to wash off two days of shitty mission and travel from his skin.
When he left the shower, hips wrapped in a thick towel and chased by steam, he glanced to the living room and froze.
The three monkeys were sitting, side by side, on the blue rim of the box. Watching him.
“Okay, so you guys are good escape artists,” he said. The one in the middle cocked its head a bit, another one scratched its belly. Clint looked at the box, and then at the stairs that led up to his room and his bed. Ah, screw it; he’d never liked cages, why the hell should these guys? He went back into the bathroom and dropped the lid on the toilet seat closed, so they wouldn’t fall in.
“Don’t leave the loft, don’t chew the wires,” he started up the stairs, which needed a sweeping, “don’t get stuck somewhere I can’t find you, and don’t shit on the couch,” he ordered as he went. He looked down at them once more from the top of the staircase, considered all the trouble they could get in, and then went and flopped on the bed. He needed sleep, and if they weren’t around when he woke up, well, whatever.
The monkeys were still there when he woke up a few hours later. He looked with some surprise at where they were curled together in the purple shirt, only two of them partly visible. He blinked, having fully expected them to leave, and then he picked out the empty plate and dirty paper towel. He replaced the towel and put the other half of the banana in with them, ate the spaghetti dinner Simone had given him in front of the TV, and fell back asleep.
He woke to his cell phone ringing sharply.
He groaned and grabbed it from the coffee table, gently tipping the little monkey that sat on it off, and jammed it against the ear that wasn’t crushed into the couch.
“What?” he demanded.
“Dupont’s been taken care of,” Hill greeted him. He didn’t say anything, and could imagine her rolling her eyes. “He’s been stripped of field rank and is being detained. Mission control and psych will be conducting a complete review of the operation. Future action will be decided upon review conclusion.”
He grunted, because he hadn’t expected them to move that quickly, murder or not. They were stupid busy after Loki, still tying up so many loose ends. Hill clearly heard a question in his grunt because she continued.
“Three agents on the team came to me directly to report severe negligence in the field with accusations of radio tampering as they couldn’t get a connection to warn you to vacate the building. They were quite relieved to hear you hadn’t been vaporized with everything else. We’re sorry it came to this. I have Sitwell looking into the agent in charge of the team assignments since your file clearly states you weren’t supposed to work with Dupont.” She paused, pointedly. “It won’t happen again.”
“There were eight unconscious guards in there when it blew,” Clint said flatly. There was a long pause from the other end.
“We have another assignment-” she started, but Clint cut her off.
“Not interested. I’m taking the few weeks recommended by psych, don’t bug me,” he warned, and hung up. He looked at the phone a moment, and wondered. “Jarvis?” he asked, feeling ridiculous, and then vindicated when the accented voice softly responded.
“Yes, Agent Barton?” Clint rolled his face further into the couch cushion. It looked like a top of the line Stark phone, but he wasn’t surprised it came with something extra.
“Clint,” he told the AI, and then pressed his lips together to organize his still sleep-muzzy thoughts. “Can you please make sure SHIELD doesn’t hack my phone, and block all their incoming messages unless I’m needed for a real crisis, or if it has to do with that list of names I gave you?”
“Of course I can, sir,” JARVIS almost sounded offended that Clint had posed it as a question.
“That’s awesome,” he decided, the deep-seated tiredness and aches in his body making themselves more known. “Hey, there was an animal sitting on the phone a minute ago, did you happen to notice it?” Could his phone do that? He hadn’t really been paying close attention to the instructions when Tony had all but forced him to take it the week before. He’d been focusing on the fact that Natasha was being sent to Chile without him and that Bruce had been wearing a neon-yellow shirt and didn’t seem to notice.
“Pygmy marmoset, also known as Calithrix Pygmaea. Their natural habitats include Columbia, Brazil, Ecuador, and parts of Bolivia amongst a few other geographical locations. There are two sub-classifications based mainly on geographical barriers with few morphological differences.”
Clint eyed the one sitting on the table in front of him, the blue recycling box loomed behind it. It was slightly larger than the other two, and he’d noticed it had a more reddish-gold hue speckled throughout brown fur, like a tiny-lion, whereas the other two were a bit darker, their faces surrounded by gray tuft with a black stripe reaching from their foreheads to their backs. All three had stripes in their tails.
“Based on the weight and size scanned I’d judge your marmoset to have recently reached adulthood, or is on the cusp.”
“Not my marmoset,” Clint disagreed, because he’d take them to the local zoo or something soon. There was no way he could keep them, he was too busy.
“Of course, though research has shown that the presence of animals during recovery from-”
“Not my marmoset,” Clint repeated firmly. JARVIS was quiet a moment, before apparently having more to say on the subject.
“Pygmy marmosets are primarily active during the day and prefer to live in trees and elevated locations.” So, they had something in common with him, Clint thought with tired amusement. “I have taken the liberty to order the highest quality Gum Arabica to be delivered first thing tomorrow morning, and have arranged a grocery delivery that should arrive within the hour,” JARVIS informed him, and Clint…he rolled onto his back, accepting how tired his body still felt, and held the phone in front of his face so he could stare at it. “You’re welcome.” JARVIS sounded far too pleased for a computer.
Clint wasn’t sure how he felt about the interference in his personal life. Then again, JARVIS had informed him that when Natasha left for her mission she’d personally requested that he ‘keep an eye’ on Clint. Apparently that extended to when he was out of the tower as well. Clint dropped the phone on his chest and rolled his head to look at the marmoset. It was watching him.
Then it clicked at him.
“What? I just woke up,” he muttered at it. “I don’t speak pygmy,” which was not completely true, it was just the wrong species and he only knew a few generic Bantu greetings. From that time with the thing. It hadn’t been his best mission. Also hadn’t been his worst.
The monkey squealed at him, a high pitched sort of whistle that startled Clint enough that he fell into ready stillness. He watched it, it quirked its head jerkily to the side, and then lower still. There were two more clicky-whistles from in the box and the monkey in front of him lunged straight up to grab its blue edge, pulled itself up easily, and flipped back inside. Its stupidly long tail disappeared last.
“Marmosets are known for flinging their feces, so you may want to take precautions while it is in your care,” JARVIS announced into the quiet. Clint sighed and sat up, finally looking at the time on the phone. He blinked and looked at it again. Then he checked the date because it was sunny outside and he was pretty sure it had still been a few hours from sun down when he’d passed out on the couch. Sure enough it was a new day. He’d slept for almost seventeen hours straight.
He hadn’t slept for longer than two hours at a time since Loki. No wonder his body felt so wrecked. He could have also done without the ache in his forearms from blocking the metal stool the previous day.
He got the monkeys fresh water, and another half a banana. He ate the other half himself standing at the kitchen island while he watched the coffee percolate.
His coffee pot was only half filled when a knock sounded from his door. He considered ignoring it in favour of waiting for the coffee, before remembering JARVIS' warning about groceries for the monkeys. He shuffled over and flung it open to find two people, a tall brunette woman with a shirt announcing Hanson’s Wok, and a skinny college student in a ball cap with six rings in one ear and a dark blue beard. The two were eyeing each other, but that changed when Clint opened the door and they were now eyeing him. He realized belatedly that he was only wearing boxer-briefs…that had hearts with arrows piercing them printed liberally throughout.
“Uhhh, yeah. So, groceries?” the skinny guy asked, holding out three full bags which Clint accepted with one hand. “Oh, and I stopped at the PetSmart and picked up the crickets and mealworms,” he handed another bag, carefully sealed, over as well and looked at Clint like he was the weird one.
“Oh, that’s…great,” Clint took that bag as well, and then looked at the girl, who was staring at his chest. His fairly scarred, and currently still-bruised chest, but whatever, he knew he looked a little beaten, but also good. She looked up to find him watching her, blushed, and handed over a paper bag that she pulled from her insulated sack.
“Hanson’s Wok, fresh off the stove ten minutes ago,” she announced, like it was a promise. She was obviously bike delivery. She must have booked it to get here that fast.
“Awesome,” he said, because what else was there to say? Oh, right. “Hang on a sec, I’ll get my wallet.”
“No need on my part,” the guy said, “the tip was more than generous. Have a good night!” He turned, and the girl, smiling brightly, followed his lead. Clint watched them head to the stairwell, clearly trying not to laugh, and grinned a little himself as he stepped back inside and closed the door. He looked at all the bags hanging from his hands; the weight was not insubstantial.
He dropped them in the kitchen, and took the bugs to the blue box, because clearly that’s what they were for. He pulled out two plastic cups, looking between the mealworms and crickets. He’d eaten both before, and his preference ran to neither, so he looked to the monkeys for their opinion. He held up the cups for display.
“Which do you want?” He noticed the banana was gone, there was more waste soaked into the paper towel, and the water mostly gone.
The tiniest one and the lion one quirked their heads dramatically in opposite directions and the one picking at the lion one’s fur made a funny little chirp. Clint cracked the cricket lid and dumped the lot of them in there, figuring that six should be more than enough. They hopped about, but the monkeys were surprisingly quick as they darted out, nearly in sync, and began munching on their prey.
He didn’t need to watch this. He put the worms on the table, took the soiled paper away, and set up his own meal, hungry for the first time in what felt like ages.
“Thanks, Jarvis,” he muttered softly.
“You’re most welcome, Clint,” the AI spoke softly from the living room. Clint sighed and decided that having an AI around was probably healthier than only talking to monkeys, so he wouldn’t tell him to go away just yet.
Clint woke the next morning, after another full night of sleep, to an incoming text alert from Natasha telling him she’d be back in New York in a week.
Somehow the cup of grubs had ended up in the blue bin, lid still on but obviously reduced. Smart monkeys.
Clint had been planning to take them to the zoo, but if Nat was back in a week it would be a shame to not show them to her. Right?
He’d hold onto them for the week.
After making a pot of coffee he took the hot carafe and spent two hours watching marmoset YouTube videos from his laptop with JARVIS occasionally adding factual commentary.
He successfully didn’t think about Loki, dead SHIELD agents, or brainwashing the entire time.
It only took two days before Clint went to PetSmart. Then he went to Home Hardware. Then he remembered to hire someone to fix the stairwell fire door and get Anneke a proper front door. Because he was a good building owner, just, sometimes he was a bit busy.
He impulsively bought a large wall print based in Amsterdam, because he associated the Netherlands with windmills, which reminded him of that time Phil had said it was okay to ride the massive Dutch windmill stock so he could get the proper height for a shot. He hung the framed piece just inside the front door to his building, so everyone coming and going could see it.
Back in his apartment, he stopped inside his doorway to survey his domain. Three monkeys watched him from the edge of the table, one sitting on the remote for the TV. He had a pretty open floor plan. The bathroom was walled off, but he’d bought the place because he liked the abnormally large space and the open metal and wood stairs that led up to his room, making it easy to see everywhere. He had a fire escape exit outside his kitchen and bedroom windows, but it was easy enough to just shimmy down from any window ledge to window ledge if he needed to vacate in a pinch.
He’d installed barn beam boards on the wall that held his TV five months before, because he’d been bored and it had looked cool in the home décor show Sitwell always watched when he had control of the remote on missions. Clint went to that wall now, bodily shoved the heavy oak bookshelf on the right side of the TV an extra two feet over, and got to work.
He’d purchased an honest-to-god cat-cave from the pet store, which was apparently all the rage at the moment if the associate was to be trusted. He had no reason to doubt her, or care one way or the other. Now he snagged his sewing repair kit from his junk drawer, grabbed the gray shirt he’d put in the monkey box, and started tearing it apart at the seams. He cut a strip three inches wide, and a foot long, and hand stitched it just on the inside of the cat bed’s lip, pulling it over the edge so it hung out like a tongue.
Satisfied, he nailed the whole cave to the wall, at his eye-level. The thing was shaped like a demented Hershey’s Kiss, was mostly purple and blended to gray at the bottom with green swirling vines and some kind of rose like flower stuck to the side of it. It was hilarious.
Next he pulled out the cheap black wall brackets he’d bought, stuck them on the wall, and attached the wood he’d had cut to them. There. A shelf.
He split the gray tongue he’d sewn into the cave in half, pulled out the thick brown hemp twine and quickly tied two long strips to the end of each tongue. He pulled one mostly tight and stapled it to the wall near the center of the shelf. The other piece he stapled directly to shelf, near the front, and then let it dangle all the way to the floor.
He eyed it, and then stapled the piece to the floor so it wouldn’t swing too much. Ha.
He shoved the rest of the gray shirt into the cave, added the purple shirt, screwed the glass hamster water bottle to the wall just above the shelf, put the new silver cat dish with little black arrows (this was a judgement-free apartment, thank you very much) on the shelf, dropped some apple slices in it. He walked across the room and sat on the couch to admire his handy work.
It stuck out ridiculously. It was awesome. He looked at the marmosets that were still watching him from the edge of the coffee table.
“Well,” he nodded at wall cave. They kept watching him. “YouTube said you like to climb things. Go, climb,” he ordered.
He waited. He had nothing better to do. They chittered and kind of picked each other's fur, which was looking better than the day before, but they didn’t leave the table. After half an hour of sitting absolutely still, he’d had enough.
“Oh come on guys, you’re driving me crazy,” he muttered and stood. He walked to them, noting they’d paused their grooming, and slowly moved his hand towards them. They didn’t hesitate to jump onto his palm, clinging to his fingers and each other. The big one wrapped its tail around his wrist. “Here,” he stuck his hand into the purple felt cave and they climbed off. “No more box for you, okay? A nice squishy safe cave.” He stood back and watched them sit there for a moment, before they started rolling around and occasionally making their weird little sounds.
He set up a pie tray on the floor beside the book shelf and filled it with the wood pellets for hamster cages.
“Hey,” he called and the tiniest one actually stuck its head out the cave opening, upside down, but it was looking at him. “Poop down here,” he pointed at the tray. The marmoset rolled its head with impressive flexibility to look where he was pointing, trilled at him, and disappeared back inside.
He hoped they didn’t use the cave as a washroom. He spent eighty-five bucks on that thing.
“Clint, we expected you at dinner last night. Team meeting,” Steve greeted Clint with as he walked through the doors to the gym in Starks tower. He paused to consider the guy, because he didn’t recall receiving the invite, and then decided he didn’t care.
“Hope you muddled through without me,” he grinned, and went to the stationary bike to warm up.
“I heard you got the SHIELD agent on your last run in deep water,” Tony said from the bench press, where Bruce was supposedly spotting him but was staring at a spot on the floor, evidently deep in thought. “Apparently, that’s the sixth one you’re responsible for booting from SHIELD,” Tony pressed the words out between lifts and raised a pointed eyebrow.
“Keep your head flat,” Bruce admonished without looking away from the floor, and Tony dropped back with a thump and pushed through a few more reps.
“Quality control,” Clint said, forcing humour into his tone. Dupont was being more than terminated from SHIELD, but it was clear that wasn’t common knowledge yet. He wondered if Tony had looked into why the other five had been booted from the agency.
“Don’t worry, we hear you’re charming when you want to be,” Tony quipped, no bite in the words but it still twisted something inside that Clint didn’t feel like dealing with. Not with near strangers, despite them and this tower being one of only three places he felt safe at the moment.
“My charm has all the agents running from the yard,” Clint put on a broad smile. There must have been something a bit off about it though, as no one seemed to grin back and the atmosphere switched into slightly awkward mode. He kind of hoped Nat would pop out from somewhere to break the sudden silence and then explain to him what he hadn’t hidden well enough. Instead Steve shut down his running program and grabbed a towel.
“Want to spar?” he asked, and Clint took the olive branch gratefully.
“I’ll go easy on you,” Clint promised.
“Jarvis, record.” Tony ordered with smirk.
“Of course, sir.”
Steve held back as they danced across the sparring mats, apparently worried about hurting the unenhanced guy. That was okay though, because Clint held back as well. Way back, enough that he was only a bit better than some of the guys Steve might have trained with at SHIELD. Maybe it wasn’t fair, seeing as they were supposed to work together now, but Clint couldn’t give that much up yet. There was no reason to give away all his skills to them, and he knew for a fact that they hadn’t really seen him fight during the battle, too busy staying alive themselves. Besides, the only one he had ever sparred with, no holds barred, was Nat. The only one they’d ever let watch, was Phil.
Holding back and making it look natural was an excellent form of training as well, and it was still fun. He’d count it as a win.
The marmosets used the litter tray. They were smart little guys. He felt proud and then stupid for caring.
JARVIS allowed SHIELD to get a hold of him for an emergency the day before Natasha got home. Clint, panicking a bit, managed to find and drag Simone into his apartment.
“Marmosets, meet Simone.” he announced as he stopped her near his couch. “Simone, meet the marmosets, they’re living with me temporarily and I have to go deal with something. Right now. Could you please feed and water them? Oh, and don’t tell anyone they’re here? Like, anyone,” he emphasized to her somewhat startled face. “Fruit and veggies are in the fridge, there’s sap balls in a jar under the couch. Give them whatever you want, they’ll eat it. Okay? You’re the best.” He grabbed his keys from the hook by the door, put them in her hands, and ran out to meet the quinjet on the roof.
Ahava Jones, one of the people who had helped nail Dupont's metaphorical coffin, was one of the agents that had gone missing after their jet was shot down in the north end of Paraguay. Clint had put her on the list of people JARVIS would allow messages through for. He hadn’t expected to repay his debt so soon.
Clint found them, all alive and not too injured.
So of course he was the one who got bit by a painted coral snake on their way back to the jet. Fortunately, they had the best anti-venom in the business, stocked for just these occasions. After three days, he finally stumbled back into his apartment, after leaving SHIELD medical against their advice. They just wanted to keep him for more brain scans and he was so done with that. He felt like shit, and he wasn’t going to feel better in a place where anyone could approach him anytime when he didn’t have someone to stand guard when he rested. Nat would have stepped in, but after popping by to make sure he wasn’t dead she’d left on another mission.
He absolutely did not feel lonely without her. He truly did not resent her need to deal with the shit that was Loki and Phil by keeping busy.
“Clint,” JARVIS said as soon as he stumbled into his place, having to pick the locks because he’d given all his keys to Simone. “You do not look well. Mr. Stark would like to know why you have returned here and not to the tower, where you can convalesce with Dr. Banner as a nurse maid.”
“Bruce isn’t that kind of doctor,” Clint grumbled, basically collapsing on the couch, one leg still flopped on the floor.
“They are considering coming over,” the AI warned.
“No,” Clint argued immediately. He didn’t want them to see him knocked out like this. The team was too new, they couldn’t keep seeing him injured or they’d start to doubt his ability to keep up with them in the field. “I just want to rest, J. Make up an excuse for me that won’t hurt their feelings or whatever, but I don’t want them in my space right now.”
“Understood. I will do my utmost.”
“You’re the best,” he muttered, and fell asleep.
He woke up to Simone draping a cool cloth over his forehead and setting a glass of water and what looked like orange juice on the coffee table. He blinked, confused.
“Hey,” she said softly. Behind her the kids sat on the floor, one of the marmosets jumping back and forth from their knees and Charlie had his hands over his mouth so he wouldn’t giggle too loudly.
“I’m confused,” he decided, because he’d never woken up to someone other than Nat and Phil, or a SHIELD nurse, fussing over him. At least not that he could remember.
“One of your marmosets got into my apartment. I came to bring it home, and found you here. You’re a little warm, so I thought some fluids and a cool cloth might help,” she explained. She didn’t seem put out at all to be here. He was still confused, but drank the juice when she handed it to him, and then the water. She refilled the water and put it on the table, and then sat in the armchair that was now beside his couch. He looked at it, and was even more confused.
“Zeke helped me move it in a few hours ago,” now she looked a bit embarrassed. “I didn’t want to leave you alone, you were kind of dead to the world,” she looked at him pointedly, making it clear the furniture addition was completely warranted. “The kids are fine with the beanbag chairs, but my back still bothers me from time to time,” she explained.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, pushing to sit up but not getting far before deciding he was better off staying on his back for a bit.
“I’ve got some stew started in the kitchen. The kids are happy to play with your pets, and when they get bored they can colour. Dinner will be ready in an hour or so. Go back to sleep, I’ll wake you when it’s time.
“Okay,” he decided. She was a mom, so this was probably okay. They sat in silence for a moment.
“You know, your marmosets are really smart,” she said. “If I didn’t know any better I’d have sworn the golden one came to get me specifically to check on you.”
“Not my marmosets,” he mumbled, and fell back asleep.
He felt well enough to eat the stew, and then eat a second helping as he started to feel better. Simone retreated not long after that, but insisted on doing the dishes first. He helped, made sure the monkeys had enough food, and went to bed upstairs.
The next morning he woke up with the three marmosets piled on his stomach, half curled and half sprawled in the crook of the arm he’d rested over his bellybutton. The slightly larger stripe-headed one was watching him. It quirked its head one way and then the other, soft little chirrups and quick whistles escaped it, and it kept opening and closing its mouth, tiny teeth displayed.
“Hey, it’s all good,” he crooned, reaching his other arm over to carefully pet it with one finger. Its fur was so soft. It tilted its head left and leaned into the gentle scratching. “I’m okay, it was just a stupid snake that got me,” he explained. It bared its teeth in disapproval, and then turned its head to nibble his finger playfully. He was startled into a laugh. The first in far too long. The other two woke up, and suddenly he had a pile of chirruping, hopping mini-monkeys who seemed both upset at and happy with him. It was confusing. He tried to pet them all, amused that they actually seemed to enjoy the sort of massage. He fell asleep mid-pet.
The World Council wanted to interrogate Clint in a private bunker somewhere in Indonesia. Apparently for reasons.
Fury told them to go fuck themselves with a stick of plutonium.
Hill relayed this information in a seedy dive bar at ten on a Thursday morning. They’d both ordered Shirley Temples and been told to shove their Shirley where the sun don’t shine. Five minutes later Andy delivered them to their corner booth with plastic-sword speared cherries resting on the rims and a disdainful sniff. He also left a bowl of fresh peanuts; the honey roasted kind because he knew they were Hill’s favourite.
Clint had a marmoset tucked in his jacket pocket. Situation update: apparently it wouldn’t let him leave the apartment unless he took it with him. He swore the other two looked disappointed to be left behind, but it almost felt like they had agreed only one would go.
He’d had them for nearly a month now. He really needed to take them to the zoo, but Nat still hadn’t seen them.
The marmoset dragged itself out from the confines of his pocket long enough to snag the sugar-infused cherry off the bright yellow sword before Clint could stop it. Quick little bugger. “Those are really bad for you!” he hissed at his pocket. Hill didn’t look startled by the sudden appearance, she just watched Clint for a moment, taking a long sip from her straw. She put her drink down.
“Is that a monkey in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
“Would you think less of me if I said both?” he asked. They waited in silence a moment, watching each other, and then she proceeded to dish the dirt on exactly what Fury had done so the Council could never legally get their hands on Clint. She also warned he should still watch his back.
Feeling a little more positive about SHIELD he let his good mood carry him into a bookstore on his walk home.
“Congratulations,” the cashier smiled widely when he handed his selected book over to scan and she realized what it was. He grinned back like he meant it. “Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?” she wondered and he honestly had no clue. He’d never really thought about it.
“Triplets,” he said instead, and retreated quickly when she looked like she was about to ask more questions.
When he got back to his place he put the book of names on the coffee table and watched as the two fluffballs that hadn’t been invited to the bar quickly slid down the ropes from their cave and jumped on the table to join the third.
“Okay, you guys need names.” Because they should really have names for when he took them to the zoo, so the keepers wouldn’t get confused. The book was pretty thick though, and the last time he’d named something with purpose had been the bow Phil had gifted him when he’d joined SHIELD. His gut clenched unhappily and he flipped the book open quickly. After five minutes he was irritated. He’d pin some pages to the wall and throw darts at them to make the selection for him, but he couldn’t compel himself to throw poorly so there would be no randomness to the name he hit.
The three started trilling at him. In unison.
“Fine, fine. Shut up,” he ordered. They did. He frowned at them.
Simone was right: they were pretty smart. He wondered how smart they were compared to normal marmosets. The videos he’d watched hadn’t done much more than show people playing with them and mentioning how their biggest enemies seemed to be habitat loss and the pet trade.
Guilt bubbled in his stomach at that thought. They should be in the wild somewhere-
The gold one chirped.
“Okay,” he allowed the distraction and flipped the book to a random page. “I’m going to read ‘em out loud. If you like it, whistle.” They chirped. He eyed them, and then looked at the book. “Fiona, Fionnguala, Flora, Gemma, Gertrude, Gillian, Gloria, Gobinet, Gobnait-” whistle. Clint looked up. The smallest one chittered at him, pushing up and down excitedly on tiny arms. “Seriously?” Clint asked, and it whistled. “Gobnait?” It whistled again, louder, and the other two were bobbing up and down. “You want to be named Gob,” he considered, looked at the names meaning, and then grinned, genuinely amused. “Okay then. Next,” he closed and opened the book again.
His cell rang. He answered it without looking.
“I hear you made a friend,” Natasha sounded amused on the other end. Gunfire popped in the background, uneven and at various audio levels, suggesting more than one shooter.
“At least one more than you it sounds like,” he clenched a fist, forcing himself to not get up and order Stark to give him a quinjet so he could join her immediately. He knew exactly where she was, because he didn’t need an AI to hack SHIELD, and not having her in his sights, knowing she was safe at all times, was scraping raw nerves he’d been trying to freeze for weeks- but that was never how they operated and he refused to let his current issues cloud their independent friendship.
“What are you doing right now?” she asked, all faux innocent.
“Looking at a book of names.”
“When did you last eat?” She fired a heavy calibre weapon, the sound biting sharply in his ear. He put the phone on speaker and set it in his lap.
“Had a wrap at Andy’s for lunch.”
“Sleep?” She was running, and then jumping, there was a garbled yell that cut off quickly and a nearly inaudible thud.
“All last night.”
She stopped running, and he imagined her tilting her head in question.
“None, I was just tired.”
“So you’re not going to tell me about the snake bite?” She was moving again, but he could tell she thought he wasn’t being straight with her.
“Not even a little bit,” he agreed. “Hill?”
“Sitwell. Called me when he knew I was halfway through a night jump and still in comm range.” He snorted and the sound around her muted. She’d entered a structure. “You really slept? All the way through?”
“Got twelve hours before the retrieval mission, too. No dreams lately,” to wake him up. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t had an uninterrupted, non-medically induced sleep that long since before his parents had died. Maybe not even then.
“I’d like to meet your new friend,” she said after a pointed pause.
“You know you can’t interrogate a monkey,” he pointed out and poked Gob in the chest. She wrapped her tiny claws around the tip of his finger and tried to chew on his fingertip. Her mouth was too small to get a good grip. The golden one trilled.
“Hmmm,” she said. “See you when I see you,” and she hung up. He didn’t need to ask about her sleep. She never dreamed. Her nightmares plagued when she was awake. It was too bad her body didn’t allow her to sleep longer than five hours at a stretch.
He went back to reading names, flipping between pages and picking at random.
“Akira?” The second striped one whistled. Whistled, not clicked, chirped, or trilled. Whistled. Like he’d told them to. “Akira.” He whistled again. This was easier than he thought it would be.
He closed and cracked open the book again and found a winner right away. “Aurelia,” he looked the largest one and it looked like it was considering it. “Means golden,” he said. It cocked her head to the other. “We could say Lia for short.” It made a funny little excited sound, the other two pressed close on either side, and then she whistled. Really loudly. Outside his open window, down the street, a dog started barking.
“Amazing. I can stop calling you This, That, and the Other now. Good choices, guys. Tomorrow, an IQ test,” he decided. “Now, it’s time for a nap,” because he hadn’t had any coffee today and he had another two days on his SHIELD hiatus. He’d sleep while he could.
Names: Gobnait –female –Irish – “a mouth, a beak”
Akira –male –Japanese –“Intelligent, Smart”
Aurelia –female –Polish – “golden”
“They’re still letting you walk around unsupervised?” the words came from behind Clint, and they were almost identical to the words Brock Rumlow had said to him when they first met. At the moment the tall, thick shouldered, dark haired man was in civvies, but nobody had made an effort to stop him as he stepped past them in line to sidle up behind Clint. Clint forced himself to not tense up, and forced himself to not just turn around and put the guy onto the not-so-squeaky-clean tiled floor.
He hadn’t seen Rumlow since before Loki. He’d been perfectly copasetic with that. The two of them had never been particularly friendly. Clint hadn’t expected the guy to track him down now, and he wondered at the power play. Asshole. Clint had been aware of the STRIKE team agent the moment he’d stepped out of his SHIELD issue sedan across the street and strutted into the Starbucks, but he’d rather be aware of the guy leaving.
“Occasionally they even let me shoot people,” Clint agreed. “Columbian roast, medium, black,” the ordered and after getting a slightly disturbed look from the barista, the girl called it out to her fellow barista as Clint handed cash over.
“Probably not for long though,” Rumlow spoke close to his left ear, and Clint tilted his head towards him, getting his face closer to him. Rumlow took the warning for what it was and backed off, stepping out of Clint’s personal space. “People aren’t particularly pleased you got off so easy,” he said conversationally, ignoring the young woman who was trying to take his order.
“Easy,” Clint repeated flatly.
“All I’m saying is watch your back,” the guy’s tone had a smile, but it was sharp in the reflection coming off the silver coffee machine. “I’d hate for you to get hurt after everything you’ve been through.”
“Appreciate the support,” Clint said as he accepted his coffee from the other end of the counter, and turned around to meet Rumlow’s eyes. “I’ll be sure to remember it.” He pushed passed him, knocking his shoulder lightly, because the guy wasn’t moving out of his path, but Clint really didn’t care to knock him hard and play down to his game.
Well, he almost didn’t care to do it. As he stepped out of the coffee shop he made three little finger gun motions in the directions of the stooges Rumlow had brought with him. They didn’t look pleased that he’d know they were there, scattered through the street and obviously intending to be invisible. Clint looked back at Rumlow, winked, took a drink of his almost too hot coffee, and turned his back on them to go about his day.
When he went to leave for a run later that night, it became clear Akira had won the right to join him when he had leapt from the stairs and onto Clint’s shoulder as he moved to the door. Clint couldn’t run with him perched there; someone would probably report a pet monkey, or snap a photo of him and put it on the internet, and he wanted to just be another runner in the darkened city streets. With a pained sigh he dug deep into his closet and, emerging victorious, he clipped the water bottle carrier Natasha had given him years ago around his waist. The thing had been a gag gift, but Clint never threw out gifts as they were still pretty rare even after all these years. He’d also never used it before.
Akira didn’t need to be asked to jump into the bottle shaped pocket, but Clint was surprised when the other two leapt off the floor, latched onto its belt and then squished themselves in beside him.
“So this is a group outing now, huh?” he checked, just to be sure, and three tiny sets of eyes looked up at him from the recesses of the bottle holder. One of them whistled affirmatively. His life was strange.
In an effort to not jostle them too much, he turned his run into an exercise of stealth, because the quieter he ran the smoother he ran, even if it was a pain in the ass. After an hour he found a secluded spot in central park and let them run up a newly planted tree, apparently absolutely thrilled to be climbing it. He watched them, the thought that they might not come back to him when he was ready to go never crossed his mind. He watched them leap from branch to branch, obviously in their element.
“Jarvis-” he started.
“I’ll look into it, Clint.” Jarvis reassured before Clint could get his question out, apparently the AI was a mind reader now. Clint could live with that.
He was exhausted. Never let it be said Clint doesn’t pull his weight on team Avengers (so fuck you, half of SHIELD). Two days of marathon sprinting through San Francisco to complete undertakings that the “Task Master” set up before the assigned time ran out...oh yeah, good times. Clint hadn’t been allowed to involve SHIELD, or involve Hulk, and he basically wasn’t supposed to let anyone see him sprint through the city streets, and climb landmark buildings, and swim in giant water fountains, lest they know something nefarious was afoot. He’d shouted family scavenger hunt more times than he’d bothered counting, but he’d completed every challenge within their designated timeframe. This had really pissed of the Task Master because apparently he’d designed the entire game for people with enhanced stamina, like Steve and Thor, and brains like Tony.
The Task Master certainly didn’t have Tony’s brains seeing as he’d mistaken Clint for Steve and only realized half way through the second task that he’d taken the wrong Avenger hostage. Apparently all blondes look alike.
Steve and Tony hadn’t been very impressed with being captured and then having to watch Clint struggle through tasks meant for one of them. Clint hadn’t been impressed that everyone seemed to think he wouldn’t be able to get through the tasks to keep his teammates alive.
But it was over now, Clint had kept Taskguy distracted until Steve’s sedative burned out of his system enough that he’d turned the tables on the guy. The last thing Clint had heard as he’d departed the jet that had couriered them back to New York City, was the extremely well shackled villain of the week bemoaning the need for an updated contact prescription.
Point was, Clint was exhausted, and he had bypassed medical completely because he had no interest in letting them poke and prod and scan him just to tell him that all he needed was rest.
If Phil had been here… well, Phil wasn’t here anymore, and Clint was exhausted enough to allow that thought to escape the tightly locked box in the back of his mind. The hurt that always threatened to overwhelm him began fighting for attention as he nearly fell through the door into his apartment. He stopped two steps beyond the threshold, and took a moment to adjust to what he was seeing.
Akira, Gob, and Lia began whistling and clicking with enthusiastic joy from their branches in the tree that now sat beside Clint’s couch. Well, beside and over his couch actually.
“Hey, guys,” he’d never really understood how good it felt to have someone so enthusiastic to see him come home, but he was beginning to really understand the appeal as his entire body seemed to relax. Three trills that almost sounded like a rehearsed song erupted as the pygmies began jumping and climbing from branch to branch. Clearly showing off.
So, he had a tree in his living room. An actual tree. He hadn’t expected it to be quite so...large. Albeit the trunk probably only had a five inch diameter, and after a meter from its base it split into two trunks that seemed to wrap around each other in no specific formation, for about eight feet, before branches spread up and out. It must be about thirteen feet tall, and was more wide spread than round, pressed slightly into the wall and partly in the sun from the window beside his couch.
Clint stumbled on stiff legs to the waiting cushions; glad he’d changed into loose jeans and a t-shirt before leaving HQ, and he collapsed into the softness to stare up into dark green foliage.
“There is a tree in my apartment,” he announced.
“Yes,” Jarvis agree from his pocket. “A genetically modified Ficus Benjamina, also known as a weeping fig. I found it being cultivated in the back room of a privately run horticultural center; a business that takes pride in experimenting with tree shaping. I took the liberty of paying for it with your allotted SHIELD expense accounts, and had it delivered yesterday. It is a low maintenance tree, safe for marmosets, and this one will not grow larger so long as it remains in this pot or one of equivalent size.” JARVIS sounded really proud of himself. Clint had no idea how he’d managed to find this in the back room of a privately run center.
“Simone and Zeke oversaw the delivery process while Gobnait, Aurelia, and Akira hid in your bedroom.”
So the tree wouldn’t get bigger, and the only space it took up was the empty air above his couch, which was pretty substantial considering the high loft.
It was kind of nice.
“Thanks, J, it’s perfect,” he decided just as Gob dropped from the branch above him directly onto his chest. She was so light it barely aggravated the sore muscles from when he’d had to climb one of the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers. Twice.
Fuck you, Task Master. And fuck you, Steve and Tony, for looking surprised that he could handle it. Okay, they hadn’t really been surprised, maybe just a bit more impressed than Clint felt was warranted considering the missions he’d pulled off in the past. The ones they knew nothing about, but still…he bet they wouldn’t have doubted Natasha like that.
Akira and Lia plunked down as well, the three of them pressed tightly side-by-side on his chest and Clint made the monumental effort to lift a hand and rub their backs once, before the last of his energy reserves depleted.
Yeah, he wasn’t going to be taking them to a zoo. Ever.
“Akira came to get me this time,” Simone said when Clint opened his eyes to find her setting three large bottles of Gatorade on the coffee table, beside a bowl of what looked like pasta, and a bottle of painkillers.
The warm squirmy unfamiliar feeling was back in his gut, and he sat up long enough to dutifully eat and drink without complaint.
“Huh,” Tony said from where he looked at the tree. His Ironman suit was standing off to the side of Clint’s door, blocking the coat rack on the wall and waiting to be stepped back into at a moments notice. “Nice tree.” Clint looked back up at the green leaves spread out over his head from where he lay stretched out on the couch. He hadn’t moved since the day before, with the exception of washroom breaks, two hot showers, and to open the door for the blue bearded grocery guy. Simone had put the groceries away for him, making him feel pitiful and grateful. She’d also shoved some muscle relaxant into his hand and a bottle of orange sports drink to wash it down with. Clint still didn’t know how to react to her heavier presence in his life, and he fluctuated between adoring her, and fearing her continued presence.
Tony now sat in her armchair. Clint was still waiting for Simone and Zeke to reclaim it.
“So where is this monkey I’ve heard about?”
“It’s a pygmy marmoset, Sir,” JARVIS politely chimed in from Clint’s coffee table. Tony eyed the phone for a moment, like maybe he hadn’t expected JARVIS to be in it, but he rolled his eyes after a moment and gave Clint a ‘what can you do’ glance. At east, that’s how Clint interpreted it.
Aurelia poked her golden-brown little head out of the wall cave and chirped. Clint blinked over at her and waited. She was the only one that popped out though, and she scampered across the rope, climbed up the bookshelf and then leapt clear across the room to snag a tree branch and start dropping down closer to them.
“Fun fact, pygmy marmosets can jump fifteen feet,” Tony sounded distracted as he watched her chitter and chirp at him from a branch, twisting her head this way and that.
Clint didn’t know why Tony knew that, but his marmosets could actually jump about twenty-five feet, though Lia had made it twenty-seven feet that time he’d practiced with them in the cover of darkness on the roof.
Lia made no attempt to get closer to Tony, and Tony made no attempt to call her down. He did make Clint dinner. Literally. He honest to god actually stood in Clint’s kitchen and cooked up a broccoli beef stir-fry while giving live commentary on how he could build Lia a mini IronMan suit. Or IronMonkey suit?
“No,” Clint said from the couch, sucking down the second bottle of Gatorade Tony had basically shoved in his hand as he’d wandered through the living room between stirring the cooking food.
“I could install a built-in living floor for your tree, add proper irrigation and fertilization systems-”
“No,” Clint said again, because he didn’t need the tree to be any bigger than it was, and then he rolled his eyes when Aurelia started staring at him, clearly unimpressed with his denying them a larger jungle gym. “But if you really need to improve something around here, I could use a trap door from the apartment above this one. It’s empty,” he tagged on. He actually had seven empty apartments in the building, either from before he’d purchased it with complete legality (Phil had helped with the paperwork), or after he and Natasha had politely informed the secret mafia, who had been planning some hostile takeover of the neighbourhood, that it would be in their best interests to leave instead.
The mafia guys had laughed at Clint and his jeans and t-shirt, arrows clipped to his pants because his back-quiver’s strap had broken the week before due to an unplanned fall from a fire escape. Then they’d basically all run away when Natasha had stepped up behind him and casually name dropped ‘Natalia Romanova.’
Clint was glad she had insisted that she would join him in his meeting; he had the impression things would have been a lot shittier if he’d been stubborn and gone it alone.
Point being, Tony was here now because he felt like he needed to do something to make up for Clint helping him and Steve in their time of need. He wouldn’t be able to relax about it until he’d done something for Clint in return. Clint got that, though he thought Tony’s need sparked from years of people expecting him to do things for them because he was super-rich and should help without question. Clint’s need to balance the score sheet came from needing to not be in debt. Debt, he’d learned growing up, could hurt. He watched as Tony brightened with the requested work and decided not to let it bother him, as neither of them needed to dwell on their issues. Tony looked ready to run upstairs and begin measuring and breaking holes into his floors immediately. This wasn’t ideal, as Clint currently wanted his dinner not to burn more than he wanted a trap floor.
“There’s a freshly boiled egg on the counter,” he spoke up, drawing the genius’s attention “If you peel it I bet Lia would come and eat it from your hand,” Clint said, throwing an aching arm over his eyes and not watching Stark’s floor plans get derailed by intent egg peeling. Lia landed half on Clint’s arm and half on his face as she dropped from the tree, chittering quietly at him in what he assumed was slight annoyance at being used as a distraction, but it didn’t stop her from bouncing onto the kitchen island and nibbling the egg held carefully out by Tony. Clint lifted his arm to see Tony smiling softly as she wrapped her tail over his wrist and put a paw on his thumb, presumably for balance.
Tony seemed more settled after that. Clint felt better, and winked when the other two poked their heads quietly from the cave. He silently promised to get them an egg later if they didn’t feel like coming out now. They disappeared and he closed his eyes to wait for dinner.
SHIELD hadn’t been a wholly safe place for Clint when he’d initially signed up, because let’s face it, he sometimes had trouble with authority, and following other peoples rules, or expectations, or standard polite small talk. He’d grown up in a world that spun on a slightly different axel from the majority of people in SHIELD, and he wasn’t just talking about the shitty childhood and abuse he’d suffered through from a young age, because that was fucked up and awful, but he wasn’t the only person who went through that crap. Especially not in a place like SHIELD, and he did not judge people by an imaginary scale of shitty experiences they endured and survived. No, Clint had been awkward when he’d joined because he hadn’t understood the nuance of small talk, or what was proper versus improper topics of conversation, or how people outside of the carny or assassin-for-hire world generally lived. He hadn’t known when to stop pushing buttons, because in his world you didn’t stop testing limits, pressing peoples boiling points and stepping over boundaries.
That had made it difficult at first when he joined up, or, more specifically, when Coulson and Fury had tag-teamed him in a job in Canada, and dragged him back with an offer that he really hadn’t been all that interested in refusing at the time. SHIELD promised security, support, a chance to do better, to be good, to be a part of something that didn’t force him to live every day alone.
So when he joined and realized he didn’t quite fit the mould, it had taken a while to learn to curb some of his antics, to temper his need to make friends with people just to prove he could, to adapt to the organizations mannerisms and methodologies, and to try and blend in. He’d succeeded. After a while people began joining him at the cafeteria during lunch, or asking for pointers on the range, or inviting him to join in the celebration of a birthday for someone he barely knew. But he’d never forgotten the wary, or angry, or distrustful looks he’d been gifted when he’d joined, and he’d never stopped watching his own back unless Coulson or Nat were with him.
All that tension, all that strain to blend in and ‘be normal’ while also needing to be extra ordinary with his field skills, all that fight for the acceptance he’d earned through years of hard work and loyalty…it had flown to shit after Loki. Rumlow’s little visit had made that point, though that was more the guy rubbing it in his face than setting a current precedent.
Clint had been avoiding headquarters so he didn’t have to deal with people, but Medical demanded he return for a check up or they’d pull his field status, so here he was, walking the cheerful hallways of SHIELD’s New York high-rise.
“-Can’t believe he’s allowed to just walk around-”
“-does security know he’s here?-”
“-if he hadn’t caved to Loki’s fucking demands Marianne would still be alive-”
“-he almost killed everyone on the carrier-”
“-evil god or not that guy is dangerous-”
Clint had excellent eyesight, but his hearing never used to be this great and he’d put money on some of them thinking their words wouldn’t reach him. Most weren’t trying to hide their comments from him. They glared, knocked their shoulders into his as they passed, looked away in disgust when he neared. In fear. It made him sick inside, because he deserved it, deserved it all-
“Hey, Clint” Agent Morse gave him a huge smile as she sidled up next to him in the hallway, deftly forcing a group of glowering agents to walk around her and Clint as they moved through the hall.
“Agent Morse,” he greeted, looking straight ahead.
“What, you go and save Stark and Rogers ass all over San Fran and now you’re too good to call me Bobby?” She nudged her shoulder into his as they moved, gentle and friendly, and he relaxed a bit at the familiarity. He’d always liked Bobby, she was a firecracker and badass and typically had no patience for peoples bullshit. He hadn’t seen her since before Loki, he hadn’t been sure she’d want to keep their familiarity from before. Not many had.
“Last time we spoke I distinctly remember you telling me to shove my arrows in a pretty explicit place,” he gave her a little look, “I figured I’d play it safe.”
“Yeah, well don’t. It doesn’t suit you,” she said with her usual straight forwardness.
“Thought you were in Madagascar,” he commented, and smirked when she side-eyed him, because he wasn’t cleared to know that.
“Called back early,” she didn’t bother to deny it, and stopped them outside medical. “Got a new assignment coming down the line. You back in the field with us, or sticking to your new team?”
“Little of both, we’ll see who gets sick of me first,” he smirked, and went to push through the door. A hand on his forearm stopped him, and he tensed reactively. She retracted the light grip smoothly, and quicker than she might have before. She was eying him now, her concern obvious. From most he might feel aggravated by it, but they had history. It wasn’t all great history, but it was enough to warrant the right to care.
“You’re not alone here, Clint, and I’m glad you’re okay.” She smiled, dipped her head, and began to retrace the steps they’d taken to get here. He was thankful she didn’t tag on some platitude about how people would get over him being responsible for so many deaths and, arguably, the invasion in general. He was thankful to know she was one person he hadn’t lost in this sea of ill content that surrounded him whenever he stepped into SHIELD.
He took a breath and pushed into medical like he was their by choice, and called upon the learned skills that made it possible to at least get through whatever fresh medical hell they were going to demand he go through. Another day, another dollar, another donut. He kind of wished he could have brought one of the marmosets with him.
Natasha came by five days later, finally back in the city at the same time as him. It felt like he hadn’t seen her in a year.
She knocked on his door instead of just appearing in his apartment like usual, and he forced himself to not show his near-overwhelming relief that she was okay as he let her in before closing and locking the door. By the time he made it back to collapse on his couch she was lightly perched on the edge of Simone’s armchair, elbows braced on her knees, and had successfully engaged in a stare-down with Akira. Akira, sitting in complete stillness on the center of the coffee table, watched her back.
“Nice tree,” she commented.
“JARVIS,” he explained.
“Nice trap door,” she did not look up at the nearly invisible square indentation that outlined the door Tony had promised to not tell anyone about, and finished installing the day before. If opened, a rope would fall to the empty space where Clint usually stood to practice his archery. The shooting distance was short, but it was for stance and endurance practice more than anything. He was contemplating knocking out the wall to the empty apartment next door though, just so he could have more distance if he wanted. What was the point in owning the building if you couldn’t knock down walls when you wanted to?
“Tony,” he explained.
“You look good,” which meant he looked a hell of a lot better than she expected. She knew how much Phil had meant to him, how much he’d meant to both of them. She’d needed to disappear into work to deal with her grief, but Clint had always been terrible at letting grief go. He was doing better than he expected himself. Not great, but manageable.
“Feel good,” he said, almost surprised to realise it was true.
“What, you couldn’t get it out of him?” He gave Akira and impressed smirk.
“He’s unusually stoic,” she raised an eyebrow, still not breaking their staring contest.
“Akira,” Clint offered, and shuffled about enough to put the small cup with the crickets on the counter.
“Hmm,” she said thoughtfully. “You should probably get Simone a new armchair if you’re going to keep hers.” Yeah, he really should. “Minnesota?” she asked after another long moment, clearly aware she was already correct about where Akira came from, and Clint chuckled, as impressed as always.
“Are the three of them the only creatures to survive the explosion?” Akira twitched and Nat made a slightly amused sound. “Of course I know there’s three of you,” she admonished him, and he started chittering at her, his stillness broken. Lia trilled where she’d been still as a statue in the tree, and Clint’d bet Gob was upstairs, probably hiding under his pillow, or in his purple sneaker.
“Yeah. I couldn’t just leave them there, locked up like that.” He didn’t need to explain, not to her, but he did anyway. Sometimes she liked to be spoken to as though she didn’t already know all the answers. He felt like this was one of those times.
“They are highly intelligent.”
“Yeah.” He’d figured that out pretty quickly. He was just thrilled they were evolved beyond throwing their shit, because that would have caused all sorts of problems. An amused trill erupted from his room upstairs.
“Have you done any examinations to see what’s been done to them?”
“No tests,” he made it clear there wouldn’t be any tests if he had anything to say about it, and her shoulders finally relaxed the final fraction. She smiled warmly at him.
“Good.” She leaned back and Akira leapt up into the tree, joining Lia where they pressed together and chittered, and bopped, and basically just made a lot of noise. “I like the tree,” she decided.
Natasha stayed at his place for four days, helping him with long stretching routines to get his muscles back into their usual relaxed form. She made Clint go with her to buy a new chair for Simone. Then made him go with her to SHIELD to help with the paperwork she’d amassed on all the missions she’d been doing.
They did the paperwork in the cafeteria, and she kept shooting spitballs at the agents that had been giving Clint the dirtiest looks since Loki. When they tried to figure out who to blame she gave them a cold look until they scurried away. Clint hadn’t felt this relaxed on SHIELD property for what felt like a very long time.
He began to feel his ground stabilize more firmly beneath his feet, the tightness in his chest eased, and he breathed deeper in relief.
He was at the tower for a standard team meeting, feeling pretty fantastic for once. Sparring with Steve that morning had gone well. Clint still held back, of course, but Steve, now more aware of Clint’s stamina and strength since he’d basically climbed the entirety of San Francisco, twice, to save his and Starks ass, was putting more effort into their training sessions. It felt good.
He’d felt so good he’d even agreed to drink one of the protein shakes Tony swore by, slipping an apple slice from the fruit tray into his upper cargo pants pocket, and snagging one for himself.
Marmosets needed a healthy protein and carb diet, but he’d noticed his first week that they ate a lot for such tiny little things. He figured it was a by-product of experimentation, so he’d just accepted it. He’d started bringing all three of them with him to the tower the week before, when the team had begun getting more insistent that he show his face more often, though only Lia ever climbed out of his pocket to say hello to Steve, Bruce and Tony. Bruce eyed her suspiciously every time she made an appearance, but Steve and Tony had been kind of hilarious to watch as they thought they were being subtle about getting her to like one of them more than the other.
He snagged a seat at the glass oval conference table, put the half empty cup of green sludge down with a click, felt Lia begin to climb out of his pocket to check out the space. She apparently wasn’t interested in moving beyond his thigh. He took a cursory glance out the floor-to-ceiling windows to make sure there were no snipers in sight, no lasers, no threat. All clear. He relaxed further as a large part of the windows darkened, transforming into a screen that showed Fury and Hill looking back at them.
“Director Fury, Deputy-Director Hill,” Steve greeted, easy and pleasant, and Clint considered kicking his boots up on the table. He imagined Gob and Akira tumbling out of the pocket if he did that and refrained.
“What, are we starting already?” Tony asked, stepping into the room and decked out in an oil-covered, button-up silk shirt and expensive suit pants that would not be seeing any more formal functions. “I thought we were waiting for Coulson?”
For a moment Clint didn’t hear the question, caught up on checking that Lia was staying out of the video’s sight lines, but it only ever took a second for Phil’s name to register. Clint’s body went still automatically, and he flicked his gaze to the screen, to see Fury and Hill looking right at him. Fury looked irritated, Hill looked like she was trying very hard to remain impassive. Hill’s look told him everything he needed to know.
Clint swallowed slowly, throat feeling dry, and kept his glance neutral, because the three Avengers in the room with him didn’t seem to realize that anything was out of sorts.
His marmosets had stilled when he had, but Lia had turned to watch him before becoming a little statue.
Clint flicked his eyes to Tony, who was grabbing a chair and flopping into it with the energy levels of someone really needing ten hours of uninterrupted sleep. Steve and Bruce were looking over at Clint now, Steve curious and Bruce…Bruce seemed like he was putting together some puzzle that had been sitting on his table for a while.
“Yeah?” Clint asked and Natasha would be very proud of how light and easy, how natural, he managed to keep his tone. “How long have you known about Coulson?” he directed at Tony, who was always easiest to get answers from when he was tired or didn’t care to pay attention to the emotions in a room.
“What, like a month ago now?” He looked at Bruce for confirmation, and Bruce nodded. Slowly.
“Barton,” Fury started, but stopped when Clint looked back to him, forcing a smile on his lips that he knew looked completely casual and harmless. The picture perfect posture of ease.
“Huh. I bet Nat was pretty happy to see him,” he said, and took a drink from the smoothie. He couldn’t taste it anymore.
“How should I know? She wasn’t on that mission. You were still in medical from that snake bite, remember?” Tony said, but he was looking puzzled now.
“Hard to forget,” Clint agreed and put his glass on the table. He remembered that when he’d met back up with the team after recovering, they’d been a bit tense. He’d put it down to his injury.
“Barton,” Fury started up again.
“So is he here yet?” Clint looked around the room, trying to figure out exactly which seat Phil was slated to take. There were six empty ones left.
“Agent Coulson is on his way to the conference room now,” JARVIS informed him when nobody else spoke up.
“Hmm,” Clint said, and slowly rose from his seat. Lia, quick as lightening, slipped from his knee back into his pocket where the three of them remained still and silent. They were a warm little ball of heat over the side of his thigh.
“Barton, you will stand down and -”
“J, can you mute please?” he asked and Fury’s orders were instantly cut off. “Thanks, buddy, that’s a lot better,” he said with a smile and started for the door.
“Not now, Rogers,” Clint snapped, as the door to the conference room opened and, low and behold, in walked Phil Coulson. He looked harried, and a bit stressed, and then he saw Clint marching towards him.
“Clint -” Clint grabbed, twisted, used the advantage of surprise and the knowledge that Coulson probably didn’t want to fight right now, and pressed the man’s chest solidly into the wall. Clint was gentle with the final move, because he’d watched the security vids of Phil’s death about thirty times, was more than aware of the hole that had been forced through him, and even in his thickening sense of betrayal he could never hurt him.
“When I was eight, I had a foster brother in Iowa,” he said softly into Coulson’s ear.
“Sister, and she was unregistered. You saved her,” Phil said just as softly.
Clint’s gut churned.
“An umbrella -” he started pointedly.
“- is classy as fuck,” Coulson finished, and swallowed.
“Where do I go when Nat’s hurt?”
“Where do I go when I’m hurt?”
“Into Natasha’s secret weapons’ lock up, two doors down from bolt hole seven.”
“Barton,” Steve started, clearly trying to sound stern and soft. Clint had long admired that tone. “Just let him go and-”
“Take a step in our direction, Rogers, and we are going to have real problems,” Clint warned. Steve stayed where he was.
“Seven,” he asked Phil.
“Nine,” Phil answered. Phil was warm under his hands, his flesh malleable enough that it must be human and not robotic. Clint stepped back, satisfied that this really was Phil Coulson. Unless he was being mind controlled, which Clint doubted. He could put facts together, even with the rage and…and hurt that was making him feel physically ill. He controlled it because he would not puke in front of these people. He refused.
“Nice to see you’re not dead, Sir,” he said, calm as he could, and Phil turned around, equally as calm. Clearly, he was holding onto his masks for all he was worth.
“Life Model Decoy,” he explained, like it was obvious. Clint hadn’t been cleared to know they were functional yet, so no, it wasn’t obvious. Phil grimaced a little when Clint said nothing back. “Today’s meeting was to inform you -”
“That you weren’t actually stabbed through the chest by Loki?” Clint asked, tone flat. “I thought it was to strategize deployment methods in conjunction with the new SHIELD teams being set up cross-continent, to get the Avengers and support to them sooner in times of crisis. Funny how quickly things turn sideways.”
“One minute,” Clint continued right over Coulson’s soft tone, “you’re under the impression that you’re responsible for the death of a man you called brother, and the next you find out that the few people you were supposed to be able to trust at work, and your new teammates, knew he was actually alive all along while you were still twisting in the wind.”
“Clint -” Coulson tried again, but Clint wasn’t interested in what he had to say. What could he possibly say? Clint looked at the screen, where Fury and Hill were watching their interaction with undivided attention.
“Let me guess, orders?” He put another few steps between himself and the rest of the people in the room.
“You were compromised -” Fury began, JARVIS helpfully unmuting him. His tone brooked no apology. Hill clearly disagreed with this opinion, Clint had seen it in her eyes just before he put Coulson into the wall, but she still hadn’t told him. She had never even hinted that Phil might not actually be the ash that he had sifted through his fingers to be carried away in the wind over the Helicarrier’s bow. He wondered if her tale of Fury sticking his neck out for Clint with the Council was to soften him up for this eventual meeting. Pre-damage control.
“Does Natasha know?”
“She found out last night. She’s broken mission protocol to come here. Intelligence puts her arrival six hours from now,” Coulson said, and Clint barked out a sharp laugh, unable to hold it in, and he shook his head in disbelief.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me, Phil.” He felt like something was breaking inside all over again. “She found out last night, and now you guys are bringing me into the loop for control countermeasures.” Because there was no doubt in his mind that he’d be Nat’s first stop once she was Stateside, and she’d tell him everything she knew because they had promised that to each other years ago. And when it became clear SHIELD wouldn’t be able to keep him in the dark anymore, they’d wanted to make the reveal appear to be on their terms. Idiots. Someone at the tower would have said something eventually, especially since they’d grown more insistent that he come by more often.
“Agent Barton, you understand that -” Fury started and Clint cut him off for the third time, something that had probably not happened to the man since his time in basic. There was a vein throbbing above his eyepatch.
“I understand.” Clint said, and watched as Coulson’s shoulders stiffened and an air of resigned regret began to press around his mouth. The thing was, Clint did understand. He’d been compromised astronomically, and he’d given too many SHIELD secrets to Loki. At this point Phil’s living status must still be classified. They were playing it safe, and he didn’t blame them for that. He couldn’t, because he knew the nature of the game and had accepted it long ago.
But clearly he hadn’t been compromised enough to send on missions, and he hadn’t been compromised enough to join the Avengers, or be let loose amongst the civilian population. His head understood, but his heart? Natasha had once accused him of being led too easily with his heart.
“Brothers,” he huffed out, almost too soft for anyone to hear, but Phil heard, and he closed his eyes, the first full allowance of remorse. Too late.
“Barton -” Fury started and JARVIS muted him, dropping the room into a chilly silence.
“You probably shouldn’t have kept Natasha out of this particular loop,” he informed them in general, “and I think it’s best if we had some time apart,” Clint told Phil, losing his ability to meet the man’s eyes. He wanted to drag him into a hug, wanted to watch him breathing, wanted to check his pulse. They were beyond that now - weren’t they? Because Phil had made a promise to Clint that he wouldn’t leave him behind unless he had no other option. Phil understood how Clint felt about promises. Or at least Clint thought he had. “No more surveillance, of any kind, in my building. If I find more bugs after this, we’ll have real problems.”
Phil nodded. Clint turned to leave, because if he stayed much longer he’d say some truly regrettable things, and while that was not usually something he tried to avoid, he was too upset to risk it.
“Clint, we didn’t realize you were in the dark on this,” Bruce said softly as Clint went to leave.
“Yeah, I get it. I do. Call if there’s an emergency, but give me some space,” he ordered rather than asked.
He felt Phil - he felt Coulson’s eyes on him until the conference doors slid shut. He heard the muted sounds of Tony’s raised voice almost immediately after.
“Listen, J,” he said softly in the relative safety of the elevator. “I need to ask you a favour. It’s nothing personal, because you’re the best, but I’d like a little privacy. Do you think, for a few weeks, you could vacate my phone?“
“Of course I can, Clint. I never meant to intrude,” the AI said solemnly over the elevator speakers.
“You haven’t, not even a little bit,” Clint insisted, because it was true and because he didn’t want hurt whatever feelings the AI might have. He considered him a friend, if that was possible. “If you need me, or want to talk or something, you could just…call?” Wooooow. He was kind of pathetic.
“I am pleased to hear that. I regret that I did not think to inform yourself or Agent Romanov of Agent Coulson’s return. I fear that consideration did not process for me.”
“Awww, J. It’s not your fault. Don’t worry about it, okay?”
“Of course, Clint,” he agreed. Clint wished it could be that simple for himself. “I have removed all programming from your phone, it is now a standard mobile device.”
“Great. Next time I’m in the tower, you re-upload, okay?”
“Of course,” and Clint figured he imagined the relief in JARVIS' tone.
“See you around, J,” he stepped from the elevator, nodded at the desk security guard, and was on the streets. He decided walking home, the way he was feeling, would not be pleasant to his ride-alongs, so he stuck his arm out and a taxi immediately pulled up beside him. He slipped into the back.
“Brooklyn,” he ordered vaguely, and slumped back in the seat, distracted with jumbled thoughts. He felt exhaustion seep into his bones, like it had when he’d been sitting with the Avengers in that shwarma joint after the new York battle. A few minutes later he heard a light hissing and opened his eyes to find the driver watching him closely in the rear-view mirror; too closely.
He made to cause some damage, but the gas was already dragging him under.
I think this is the place where I explain that when I began writing this story it was only supposed to be a cute fluffy fic with Clint and marmosets. Also, it was supposed to be short. A short fluffy fic. :D
“Hurry it up, man. I want to be done before he wakes up.”
Clint’s head hurt and the anxious voice wasn’t doing anything to soothe the ache away.
“Relax,” a second, deeper voice ordered. “He’s locked down solid, you’re safe and sound.” Clearly bored and irritated, the deeper voiced guy was also mocking the anxious one.
Clint’s mouth was uncomfortably dry, tongue heavy and sticky and distracting.
“Like fuck we are. Only way we’ll be safe around this guy is if the -”
“Shut up. No titles, dipshit, you know the rules.”
“Fuck you. I don’t know why you’re so calm. Didn’t you hear what this guy did to Assink’s team? When they tried to jump ship after he hired them for that psycho-horned nut-job that attacked the Apple?”
“Stop making shit up. Assink’s team was taken out by Talkin’s crew. Retaliation for the Hanson drop.”
“Hooooo no. It was this guy, because they tried to back out of the job before he took them to attack SHIELD.”
“Assink had eight guys. Dolores was part of his team. We caught this guy asleep in a cab, in the middle of morning rush hour. He did not take out Assink’s crew.”
“No, not all of them, but the three left won’t be walking again anytime soon, if ever.”
Fuck. Clint had really hoped no one knew about that. What happened to Assink’s crew was one of the few things he’d managed to leave out of his report to SHIELD after Loki had been sent to Asguard. Before the attack on the hellicarrier Loki hadn’t cared for their level of commitment, hadn’t been impressed with them bowing out when he was gearing up for his grand hostile takeover of earth. He’d made it very clear that mercenaries failing at their agreed upon tasks wouldn’t be useful to anyone ever again. He’d used Clint to make his point.
Clint had tried to block out the majority of his dealings with all of the mercenaries he’d hired for Loki from his memory. He’d only been fractionally successful.
Clint shifted, the memory making him nauseous. He opened his eyes blearily, preferring to take on this fresh problem than risk the recollections. It was harder than it should be to peel his eyelids apart. The piercingly bright light overhead hurt like hell and he tried to turn away. His head didn’t move.
“Shit. Shit, he’s not supposed to be awake! We’ll need to start the scans over.”
Clint swallowed, tried to find moisture, tried to find his voice. He croaked. His throat burned.
“Then get in here and knock him back out,” the deeper voice growled. Clint saw movement to his left, too far behind him to see properly. Across the room was a large surgical lamp, gleaming almost like a mirror. He saw one guy behind him, decked out in black field gear, a gun out and aimed at Clint. He could feel thick straps around his wrists, chest, hips, and each ankle, but there was some kind of brace around his head and over his neck. He pulled at the straps, feeling their tightness holding him in place.
“Do I look like an anaesthesiologist? Like I have the drugs? What do you want me to do, smack him in the head? It would kind of defeat my purpose here,” the other guy snapped, and Clint could see him on the other side of a glass wall, behind a table with a monitor; skinny with olive skin and his dark hair looked like it had been professionally styled.
“Quit squirming, Barton.” the guy behind him ordered, sounding unconcerned but his weapon never wavered in the lamp’s reflective metal. Clint blinked slowly, trying to gain better focus.
“You have a reputation for being an overachiever, Agent Barton,” a new voice entered the picture, high and soft, and a woman in a red blazer appeared beside him. He startled, but didn’t go anywhere. “But your resistance to sedation is not listed in your medical files.”
Huh? He blinked, trying to focus on what she was doing, but only saw red as she leaned way too close to him.
“No matter, we’ll have the proper doses figured out by the time we get to the open-neurological-tissue sampling and exams.” She seemed pleased by this.
“Assssss -” his rebuttal slipped away as he did. But to those still awake in the room he probably got his point across.
“Complete the scans, and do so quickly. I don’t want him under sedation for much longer. Once the drugs clear his system we’ll get another series while he’s fully cognizant,” the woman ordered and left the room with a satisfied bounce.
“God, I hope Pascall is on shift for that one,” the tech in the monitor room bemoaned.
“No names!” the guard snapped, but it didn’t matter. Clint was out for the count.
“M’pants!” Panicked words tripped from Clint’s lips as he jackknifed up from where he lay flat on his back. He woke from his drugged sleep so sharply he nearly rolled off the cot he’d been placed on, but managed to catch himself just in time. His confused and muddled words were quickly pushed away as he forced the air from his lungs sharply, and then sucked in a deep breath. He held it in a moment, feeling the fullness beneath his ribs, before locking away any outward sign of distress with a slow and controlled exhale. Forcing calm. He looked around, his vision momentarily blurry as his eyes focused. He was in a cage, tall enough to stand in, wide enough for a cot, not deep enough that he couldn’t be easily reached through the shiny steel bars.
He took in the room beyond and was pretty unhappy with what he found. There was a reclining metal chair with all sorts of straps and odd machinery surrounding it. This space was different than the last one he’d awoken in, but was just as bright and sterile. There were a few more people here, several of which were gathered around a large monitor, staring intently at what looked like brain scans to his untrained eye.
He’d bet his entire building they were his brain scans.
“You’re finally awake,” a distantly familiar female voice called for his attention and he stood from his cot and turned to find the dark-haired woman from before standing five feet beyond the bars. She was wearing a dark green blazer this time and had a man looming behind her, still and staring. Ninety percent of Clint’s attention immediately attuned to him, because you didn’t have to be a highly experienced assassin to recognize the most dangerous threat in the room. Not when it was watching you with calculating, cold eyes.
Clint considered the new threat with a quick a glance. He was a bit taller than Clint, blue eyes and dark brown hair just long enough to flop over his ears and hug his chin in unruly strands. He was built like a weapon; sleek and broad shouldered, dressed in black from head to toe, his hands covered in gloves, but not carrying a single weapon that Clint could see. He didn’t look like a guard, and didn’t feel like a mercenary, so Clint would settle on classifying him as a loyal soldier.
When Clint kept his silence the woman quirked her head, and she smiled when she regained half his attention. The display seemed genuine, which was creepy, but Clint had dealt with worse responses to his presence.
“We were hoping you’d wake up hours ago. We’ll need to do some more scans now that you’re conscious, but first, how about some food?”
A new unarmed guy stepped forward at her suggestion with a plastic bowl in hand. He set it on the floor just outside the cage before retreating altogether. Clint made no move for the food.
“Come now, it’s not drugged. Clearly there’s no need for subterfuge in that department,” she explained. Clint looked around the room once more, not missing much despite the aching in his head and weakness lingering in his muscles. His eyes fell back on the tall soldier standing behind her at parade rest.
Clint looked down at himself. Huh. Scrub pants, no shirt, no extra bruising that he could see just yet, and no shoes, but he’d known that the moment his bare feet hit the floor. He very carefully did not panic about the fact that he wasn’t wearing his pants. His pants were gone. Anxiety began to build as he considered this. He must be slipping, because clearly she saw something in his posture change and it garnered a softly clucked reassurance.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Pet. I’ll make sure you’re well taken care of. You just do what I ask and we’ll have no problems.” Clint kept his face blank and looked away, focusing on a monitor across the room. The date was displayed in tiny digital print at one edge. It had been two days since the meeting with Phil…well shit. Of all the times to kick JARVIS out of his damn phone.
He’d been with these people for two days and his marmosets could be dead. He had no idea where they were.
He felt chilled. He looked at a corner of the bare cot, took a deep breath, then scratched at his head.
“What the fuck?” he broke his silence. It was completely warranted. He patted at his head, but the mess of hair he was accustomed to was gone. There was barely even a hint of stubble.
“Oh, don’t worry, you’re still a fine specimen even without your golden locks.” She seemed amused. “We’ll let you grow it back once our tests are complete. Now, eat your stew, because while the IV fluids we’ve had you on are sufficient for hydration, a full stomach will go a long way to stabilizing your glucose levels. I’ll be back in a few hours for some cognizant scans.” She clasped her hands before her, like she was some kind of deranged hostess, and moved across the room to join the apparent doctors in their discussion of the brain scans.
Clint looked at the soldier, still standing completely still and watching him with cold blue eyes. Clint stared back. They stayed like this for several long minutes.
“You know, your stare has nothing on Akira,” Clint decided, ignoring the twist of hot worry in his chest. The soldier didn’t seem concerned. “You better be nice to me or I’ll tell Natasha on you.” The guy's eye twitched. “Are you the one that shaved my head? You seem to have the opposite problem.” Clint scratched at his bare scalp, feeling colder now that he was aware he’d been sheared for their tests. He decided not to think too hard on it, not really needing to as it was pretty obvious what they were after.
He was surprised these people, whoever they were, had waited so long to try and get a look at his brain. SHIELD was pretty sure the majority of neuro-shifts that Loki had induced had settled back to Clint’s norm by now, so there wasn’t much to learn from him in the mind-control arena anymore. Then again SHIELD also hadn’t trusted him enough to let him know one of the few people he called family was alive, so…
“Any idea what happened to my pants? It’s just that I finally have them worked into that perfect fit, you know?” He got nothing. “Can I have your shirt? I’m pretty sure my nips are going to be hard enough to cut diamonds soon if they crank the air-conditioning any higher.”
“Eat,” the soldier ordered.
“Wow, that was impressive. I heard you speak but your face didn’t move.” The soldier’s eye twitched. Clint’s stomach rumbled. He made no move for the food. The soldier didn’t say anything further, just stood and stared. Clint sat on the cot, shifting back until the bars were sharply cold on his bared skin and pressed uncomfortably against his shoulders. He settled in to wait.
They came for the next set of scans after the promised hours passed. Clint cooperated, because he knew how and when to pick his battles and they were still too cautious around him. Too aware of his every move.
Nobody gave him a shirt. Voyeuristic assholes.
“Where is he?” Natasha asked, appearing from behind his door like a ghost after Phil had only made it a few steps into his office. She’d been off grid since she’d landed in DC a day and a half ago, not reporting to SHIELD nor, as far as SHIELD could tell, the Avengers. Phil wasn’t surprised she’d learned about the bus, figured out where it was hangared, or that she’d slipped onto the overly secured plane without anyone noticing. Phil took a deep breath and moved behind his desk.
“I don’t know,” his chest ached with the admission. “SHIELD is respecting his request for privacy.” Phil nudged a fingertip against the edge of a file sitting on his desk but felt too wound up to sit. He moved back to the front of the desk and instead leaned against it, taking her in for the first time in person since Loki. Natasha didn’t move from where she rested against the wall, watching him.
“No,” she corrected flatly, “SHIELD just can’t find him.” He pressed his lips together, because it was true. They had a dedicated team searching for Clint, but it seemed SHIELD had forgotten how good Clint was at disappearing when he was motivated. The re-emergence of this skillset, after years of loyalty, had a select group of people very concerned.
“I thought you were meeting up with him,” Phil admitted, because he knew how they operated and Clint wouldn’t have pulled a complete runner before getting in touch with her.
“Thinking has clearly been unhelpful to you lately,” she said softly, and moved to the door, ready to leave. Done with him.
“Natasha,” Phil called, his chest tight with nerves, worry, guilt, stubbornness - it didn’t matter. She looked back at him, gaze cool. “I argued to bring you both into the loop.” Everything had moved so quickly after the battle; his new assignment and team had taken off in the blink of an eye. He’d barely had time to breathe with the weight of it. He’d been on this plane before Loki had even been sent back to Asgard. Before Clint had been released from medical. She watched him for a long moment.
“Okay,” she said, and left on silent feet. It was far from forgiveness, but it was also much too early to hope for that.
He forced aside the worry that Natasha didn’t know where their archer was. If she wanted help finding him she’d demand it. This visit had just been reconnaissance for her. Clint wasn’t the only one upset about being kept in the dark about him.
Phil couldn’t blame either of them for their reactions.
In the privacy of his office he squeezed his eyes shut once in deep regret, and then pushed it aside. He had work to do. Natasha would find Clint, and in a few weeks or months maybe he could work towards fixing the trust he’d broken.
Hey! I just wanted to let you know that I am reading and adoring all the comments! Of course I decided to start posting at a very busy time for me and I'm leaving the country in a few days, so I haven't had a chance to respond to most of them yet. But I do appreciate them :D
“How did it feel when he gave you orders?” she asked, uncomfortably close, staring right into his eyes and Clint snarled, but he couldn’t blink to break the gaze. They’d pried his eyelids open with clamps and had been playing images intermittently as they asked questions. He was fucking terrified and pissed and expressed his feelings with silence and bared teeth.
“Really, Agent Barton, this will be much easier if you just cooperate.”
Across the room, the soldier sat ramrod straight in a metal folding chair, clearly not having a task other than watching Clint. Clint thought maybe these people were genuinely blind to the level of interest the soldier was giving Clint’s ‘interview.’ Based on how they’d all been treating the guy, and based on their area of research and intent with Clint, he was beginning to get the notion they were already practised in the art of programming brains.
He did not approve. He was going to burn this shithole to the ground.
Right after he made sure his little buddies weren’t in it.
It only took a short while longer before the scientists started smacking him around, thinking he might be more cooperative with some fists and batons helping to convince him. The anger it fuelled in him renewed his energy to be uncooperative, and whenever he could get away with it, without being spotted, he looked over and steadily met the soldiers’ blue eyes.
Day three’s breakfast was delivered by the soldier. It was an honest-to-god Egg McMuffin. Unwrapped, because apparently Clint could turn paper wrappers into weapons, or maybe transform it into lock picks, or perhaps a foil cellphone to call for help.
Clint plucked the muffin from the gloved hand, too hungry to protest, and shoved half of it in his mouth with the first bite.
“You already eat yours?” he asked around the food. The soldier blinked at him, still quiet, but he didn’t move away. The armed guards that stood around the room were utterly unconcerned about their soldier interacting with Clint. “You get a good night's sleep?” he asked, words muffled before he swallowed the salt and grease and took a smaller bite. “You tired of being a brainwashed lackey?” he wondered, and the man’s left eye twitched. He still didn’t move away. “Got any coffee?” After a long moment the guy moved swiftly over to the table that had apparently been designated as the ‘breakroom,’ and was littered with take-out bags and boxes. Clearly this was a lab that didn’t care about sample contamination. The guy came back with a paper coffee cup. He stopped a few feet from Clint’s cage and took a deep drink, observing Clint steadily over the rim.
“So, first sign of personality pegs you as a dick.” Clint watched as the guy took another pointed drink. He should be annoyed as fuck, but he was more amused than anything. Call him crazy but he felt like they were bonding. “We’ll get along just fine.” He decided, and flopped on his back so he could try and take a nap.
“He should be put back in the freezer,” one of the labcoats, a short stocky guy with a perpetual frown, declared. He wasn’t trying to keep his opinion to himself or hide the fact that he was assessing the soldier with suspicion.
“Nah,” the other labcoat in the room, the one that was obsessive about studying Clint’s brain scans, disagreed. “The boss wants him for another job and it always takes time for him to thaw fully. He’ll be good for another week, so just relax.” Most of his attention on his Starkpad, like usual.
“He’s acting weird,” the short guy said and Clint remained still on his cot, watching them through slit eyes with definite interest.
“He’s just restless. The mercs won’t train with him and he needs an outlet.” Brainscan guy dismissed. “Just put him on a treadmill or something.”
“He’s not supposed to need an outlet.” The short guy jabbed at the computer he was parked behind, tossing an annoyed glare at the floppy-haired soldier that sat two stools away from him, still and silent.
“Not our problem, we’re not his handlers, and he’s fine. Besides, the chair is almost calibrated for Barton’s specs. Macy wants to get him fitted for the neuro-gear so we can start the tests. She thinks he might be easier to flip based on his history.”
Clint did not like the sound of that. He didn’t imagine the soldier’s eyes flicking to him briefly, before resuming his intense focus on the short scientist.
Clint wondered if the team was looking for him. They had no obligation to.
More importantly, Clint wondered exactly how these people had known to grab him when they did, or if it was just a coincidence that they pulled him in right after he’d requested to be left alone. Right after Phil’s “but I’m not dead” reveal. No alarms would be raised immediately if everyone thought he’d just run off to lick his wounds.
Clint had a lot of time to wonder about a great deal of things in this place. Wonder, and watch.
He spotted Lia’s tiny face in the wall's high vent just as the guards were strapping him into the huge metal chair for the first time. The soldier saw the look and turned to follow Clint’s gaze, but Lia was gone and Clint managed to kick out the nearest guard's knee, which earned him some hits to his already tender gut and pointedly hurtful words. When he grinned at them while gasping for breath it had nothing to do with the small victory, and everything to do with relief.
It was the soldier that finally pinned Clint’s loose leg, reaching down with one arm and swiftly gripping his thigh when the guard, struggling to pin Clint’s arm, roughly ordered him to help out. The stony-eyed guy didn’t even look like he was trying as he pressed Clint’s leg flat against the seat, his large grip was a fucking vice that Clint knew would leave a hot and heavy bruise where it held him. Clint sucked in a sharp breath and stared at him, their eyes meeting through the crowd of bent heads and shoulders that worked to contain him. The soldier held his gaze a moment, and looked away, face blank.
In the vent above Lia popped her head back into view as Clint’s face was held still and his head was wrapped in cold metal-like hardware. She watched until he was pulled from the chair what felt like hours later, tired and cold and bruised more than he’d like. His head felt like it wanted to pop right off his neck. He threw up half way back to his cell, splattering the floor and the guards black boots. Clint didn’t glance anywhere near Lia as he was dropped back in his cage, and was relieved when she disappeared from sight as he crumpled onto his cot and curled up pitifully with his arms hugging his head.
She was alive and free. That meant they probably all were.
That was good.
He exhaled in soft relief, and passed out.
“You are not a tool,” Clint mouthed silently at the soldier, who was clear on the other side of the lab. The soldier stared back at him, because that was clearly his main skillset, and Clint just knew the guy could read lips. The guy blinked slowly, lazily, in response. Clint hadn’t seen that reaction before; it was a new mannerism. “You’re a person,” Clint mouthed, “and you’re getting out of here when I do. You’re coming with me.” Because Clint would be fucked if he was going to leave this asshole to be put back in the freezer or whatever the hell it was the scientists were doing to him.
“Is the subject saying something to you?” the short, suspicious scientist demanded suddenly, voice sharp in the mostly quiet room. The soldier looked to the guy, his bangs falling over his forehead and half masking his eyes. He hadn’t had a shave in a few days; the look was suitably dark for the overly bright venue.
“I heard nothing,” his heavily accented voice was bland. The scientist was not appeased with the soldier’s answer as he looked back and forth between the guy and Clint. Clint smiled at him, a closed lip effort that riled the scientist up even more
“He needs to be reprogrammed,” the guy argued to the other two sitting beside him as they did whatever it was they did at their fancy, paper thin computers all day. “He’s not right.”
“Take it up with his handler,” the plump one said. The soldier looked back at Clint, and then moved his gaze to stare at the floor, silent and obedient. The short scientist huffed and stormed from the room, presumably to do just that. The guards around the room shared a look, but remained easy. Clint lay down for a nap. When he woke up with the muddled memory of tiny, furry paws pressing against his fingers, he found a paperclip had been pushed into his half-closed hand, and he forced himself not to smile.
“Theoretically, your brain chemistry should be more susceptible to alteration,” the woman, Macy, said conversationally as Clint was herded, very carefully, from his cell. He had three tasers actively trained on him and the guards were a few steps too far for him to have an advantage in attacking. Clint forced himself to look unconcerned as he was moved to the evil dentist chair, straps and machines gleaming in greeting as he got closer and closer and his heart beat faster and faster. The soldier was standing closest to Clint, clearly the one in charge of Clint’s obedience. Clint considered Macy’s words, decided to ignore her and looked at the soldier.
“What’s your name?” he asked. The guy didn’t seem to react to his words, but Clint had sharp eyes and spotted the clenched muscle shift beneath the unshaven jaw. “You can call me Clint,” Clint decided. “When we get out of here, if you can’t remember your name, we’ll find one you like.”
“I was led to believe you had a higher IQ considering your standing within SHIELD and reputation in freelance,” Macy looked at Clint, amused. “He’s a weapon, he doesn’t care about names, and soon you won’t either. I suggest you save your breath, you’re going to need it.” Clint balked, five feet from the chair, his hands cuffed in front of him. He made to spin around, and was knocked in the stomach by the guard that had been assigned to lead him directly. That guard had no weapons on his person for Clint to steal, just his fists. Clint folded over himself, using the move to work on the cuffs with his gifted paperclip.
“Like hell, you crazy bitch,” he pressed out between clenched teeth. “Even if you did manage to turn me into whatever zombie you’re planning, you’re fooling yourself if you think it’s going to hold.”
“We have all the proof we need to know it will hold,” she looked at the soldier smugly. Clint grinned back, far less politely, and then a hand wrapped around his wrist, grip as tight as a fucking clamp; the move was so fast he hadn’t expected it. The soldier squeezed and then jerked his arm, exposing the fact that Clint had managed to uncuff one wrist. Clint stepped right into his space, intending to throw him off balance, but the guard behind him was sharper than he’d been expecting and she jammed a prod into his back as the soldier let go of him. The electric current jarred his entire body, momentarily stunning him enough that it took too long to regain his feet. He was turned and shoved into the chair as the low level shock wore off. He moved to attack, and couldn’t budge the arm that was once again in the soldier’s single-handed grip. Fuck. Despite the fact that it was taking two guys putting their weight around Clint’s left arm to pin it in place he was having more luck breaking free from them. They wrapped a thick strap over his wrist as he struggled.
“Doesn’t matter what you do,” Clint snarled, still struggling as one foot was strapped down. “You think SHIELD’s going to just let you keep me? First chance they get they’ll remove me from the picture, in cuffs or a box, it won’t matter to them. And let’s not forget,” he kicked with his left leg, using his bound wrist as leverage to try and tear his other arm from the soldiers unyielding grip. “I have Captain America on my side, and he doesn’t leave people behind.” The soldier, mostly unmoving where he loomed over Clint, seemed to go still. Sensing the change, Clint looked up and spotted the suddenly uneasy glances the people around him were sharing.
“Captain America?” The soldier said, his Slavic accent no longer present. Clint tugged at the arm he held, but there was still no give in the grip. At the other end of the room a guard started speaking rapidly into his radio. The entire focus of the room seemed to shift, and Clint stopped struggling and focused on the soldier.
“Yeah, Steve Rogers to his friends,” Clint agreed, watching as the guy processed this, clearly confused. Clint didn’t get it, but he knew how to adapt to shifts in any tide. “He’s a good guy if you can get past the spangled -” a fist slammed into his face from a guard on his left, and his teeth slammed together sharply, just missing his tongue.
“Shut up,” the guard snarled, and punched Clint again, knocking him back into the chairs headrest. Hot blood began to drip down his chin, the taste thick on his tongue.
“Wanna meet him?” Clint asked, meeting the soldier’s blue gaze, the blank mask replaced with too many emotions to get a read on. He was hit again, this time his head bounced harshly off the chair, a sharp ache of pain raced around his skull from the impact.
“Stand down, Soldier,” the tall raven-haired handler Clint had only seen a few times, ordered sternly. He stepped up beside Macy, levelling a foreboding glare at the soldier. Clint grinned, knowing his teeth were smeared red.
“I’d say it’s time we got out of here,” Clint said casually, waiting and watching. “We can grab a burger and go bug Steve.”
“Stevie,” the soldier said quietly, and his grip loosened on Clint’s wrist.
“I told you he needed reprogramming!” the suspicious scientist shrieked from somewhere behind Clint.
“Soldier,” the handler barked sharply, an edge of panic squeezed into his tone as the soldier's grip loosened further. Clint went to say more but was cut off with another fist to his face. The follow-up hit he saw coming right after failed to connect. It was captured in the hand that no longer pinned Clint down; the brittle sound of bones snapping filled the tense room just before the screams drowned them out. The soldier was unleashed, his interest in Clint shifting into an attack on everyone else. He threw a guy that must have weighed two-fifty across the room with one arm. He crashed with chaotic noise across a table and into a wall, leaving a hefty dent.
Clint didn’t bother watching the show closely as he swiftly unbuckled the strap on his trapped wrist, and then unbound one ankle. Fast as a snake he swept his newly freed arm out in time to snatch an electric prod just before it connected with his shoulder. In a move too quick to follow he flipped it and jabbed it into his attackers forehead while simultaneously unstrapping his other ankle.
With that done Clint looked up and flicked the paperclip he still had across the room. The thin end he’d peeled out to pick the cuffs with imbedded deeply into the eye of the man about to taze the soldier in the back. He went down with a bark of fear, hand cupping his eye while Clint claimed the gun from another guard he’d just put down. Clint promptly shot two more men in the knees as they began aiming tranquilizer guns at the soldier. Clint had one of those guns as well now, so he also hit them with a tranq before they could get their acts together and finish their task from the floor.
Clint considered the situation and decided it was nice to know they didn’t feel Clint was the primary threat here; it gave him a heavy advantage. Especially as armed men kept swarming through the room’s only door in a seemingly never-ending rush. Clint grabbed a new gun and double tapped the next three guards that came through: a neat bullet to their tack-vest to knock them back a bit, and a tranq to the neck to keep them down. Easy as pie. He took a steadying breath when the onslaught seemed to slow, but kept the weapon raised and ready as he looked to the soldier on the opposite end of the room.
“So, you have a thing for Steve, huh?” Clint grinned and the guy frowned at him, a tormented sort of look that Clint recognized from the mirror was the first response he got, before the guys face shifted to frustrated confusion. That was a look Clint was much more familiar with receiving from other people.
“Furnace -” the word, spoken in Russian, burst into the demolished room, loud enough that it pulsed over Clint’s skin and firm enough to clearly be important. Clint translated it without thought as he whirled around, looking for the source. He half expected to find someone with a bullhorn the size of a car pointed in their direction, but saw no one. It was coming from overhead speakers. Like a switch had been flipped the soldiers confusion was gone and agitation infested his body language. His already tense shoulders lifted further in distress and he slapped his hands against his ears. “Benign,” the voice was far too loud to block out with just a pair of hands. “Rusted.” It continued without pity.
“No no no,” the soldier muttered, moving towards the door, clearly intending to make an escape. He was shot in the thigh, twice. Then his other leg was hit, just above the knee. Shit. Clearly they weren’t worried about knocking him out anymore. Clint fired the last round in his current gun without needing to check the target location, cursing at himself for not seeing the guy approach sooner. He was too fucking slow, too fucking distracted. He scooped a beretta from the floor and fired a single shot out the door, reminding the people beyond his line of site that they should think hard before attempting entry. Clint made to help the soldier get behind an overturned table for cover. The guy waved him off harshly.
“Run,” the soldier growled. “You gotta run before they finish.” He was on his knees with his hands crushed against his ears, little puddles of red forming on the floor ans smearing beneath his agonized movements. He looked away from Clint to burn holes in the ground with his eyes. Clint rapidly shot the speakers he could see in the walls.
“One,” the voice boomed, still in Russian. So, he couldn’t kill this will bullets. Clint didn’t bother responding to the soldier’s order, because it was stupid. “Daybreak.” And Clint had a better idea.
“I’m gonna knock you out,” he announced, flipping the empty tranq gun in his hand, preparing to smash the heavier grip into the soldier’s head to achieve just that, because he had a feeling the chemicals would take too long to kick in…and they’d keep him down longer as well. The guy looked up at him with grateful eyes - and then Lia was popping out from somewhere, chittering loudly at Clint as she scrambled up the soldier's jacket and practically plastered herself over the hands clamped to his head.
“What!” The soldier made to throw her away.
“Don’t hurt her!” Clint snarled, and whether it was from the sudden force of the words or the definite threat in them, the soldier stopped. He looked up at Clint with pained blue eyes, hands over his ears, hair flowing in his face and a tiny marmoset clinging to the gloved hand.
“She’s a friend. None of them will hurt you,” Clint really hoped they wouldn’t make a liar out of him. Lia chittered and Gob appeared, leaping from a suspended light in the ceiling to land beside Clint’s foot, and then hopping over to scramble up the soldier and cling to where his other hand covered his ear.
“Go,” the soldier tried again, desperate, warning, and Clint got it. He did. He wasn’t a dummy and he could recognize trigger words for deep programming. He’d known Natasha a long time; she’d taught him what to look for. Also, it was kind of obvious what was happening.
The soldier closed his eyes at that word, and Clint prepared to snatch Lia back and knock the guy out the moment it became necessary. Lia looked at Clint like she could read his thoughts, yapping at him and bopping her head, her tiny arms wrapped around glove-covered fingers. “Freightcar.” The word was said with finality, and the soldier stilled. Clint did not hold his breath as they waited for a long moment, and then another. Then time was starting to slip away and they needed to act before the goons outside got their act together and dropped a tranq-grenade on them or something.
“You good?” Clint demanded softly in the oddly hushed room. Even the moans from the few people not unconscious or dead seemed distant to the invisible cocoon enveloping them. Clint felt tense all over, preparing for a threat from any direction when blue eyes looked up again, confused. After some hesitation the guy gently pulled his hands from his ears, Lia and Gob still wrapped around his fingers and chirping. Lia took the movement as a sign and launched herself at Clint, snagging his pants because he still didn’t have a shirt to cling to. She trilled unhappily and he quickly lifted her to his shoulder, where she dug her tiny claws into his neck and crooned.
“Wha -” the guy cleared his throat, looking freaking awful with blood pooling around his legs, his black pants clinging to thighs with shiny wet spots, his face pale and sweaty now where he’d been completely calm in the midst of the fight. Shock was setting in. Clint needed to get him out of here. “Why…how am I still -”
“Later,” Clint ordered. “Now, we get out of here.” Clint wrapped a hand under the soldiers armpit and hauled him to his feet. The guy groaned but allowed it. Lia manoeuvred with no issues as Clint dragged an oddly solid arm behind his neck and over his shoulders. Gob seemed good with scurrying up to cling to the soldier's wild hair, and Clint looked around.
“Where’s Akira?” he asked, hauling the soldier a bit closer, getting a better grip around his waist to secure him and keeping Clint’s left arm free for shooting. He could just see Lia’s tiny arm point ahead at the door. “Point him out when you see him,” he told her, feeling oddly certain she would comply, and he began pulling the soldier over bodies and debris to get to the door. They reached it just as the alarms in the hallway began to sound and emergency lights high in the walls began to flash.
Clint grit his teeth in irritation and leaned the guy against the wall. Lia jumped to join Gob clinging to dark messy hair, chattering and shrieking but keeping it oddly quiet. Clint grabbed the large shiny lamp that had been parked against the wall since his arrival in this place, and tossed it, wheeled stand and all, over the bodies in the doorway and into the hallway. Bullets pinged off it, making it roll and twitch in awkward reaction, but he’d seen enough in the reflection to stick an arm around the door and fire the three shots he needed. He grabbed the soldier again, hauling his arm back over his shoulder, and dragged him into the hallway. The guy was walking far better than Clint would be with three bullets in his legs; but he seemed to be an enhanced of some kind so Clint wasn’t overly surprised. He’d seen Steve do something similar. Natasha usually managed to just avoid getting shot.
He took them left, grabbing the weapon from the shooter he’d taken out moments before, and shoved his nearly empty gun into the soldier’s free hand.
“Don’t shoot my monkeys,” he said with a grin that he knew was a touch nasty, and pretended to not notice the extremely unimpressed glare he got for the effort as the marmosets chittered. Clint half dragged the guy down a metal gray corridor that stunk of underground bunker. Metal pipes trailed along the ceiling and occasionally down the walls to disappear into the floor. They made it around a few bends, and up two flights of stairs without encountering anyone new, and oddly there were no cameras that Clint could spot anywhere. He was beginning to get really worried about Akira and was taking careful note of the path he was dragging them along so he could plan his route when he came back for the little guy. He had to get the soldier outside and to cover before he could come back.
Of course, making plans usually meant that you wouldn’t get to use them as intended. This was proven when he came around a corridor to find two men standing halfway down the hall, one struggling with something in his hand and the other with an assault rifle already pointed in their direction. He got a shot off just before Clint did, but Clint’s hit his target and he kept them moving forward. The guard left standing took in the scene, and reacted somewhat differently. He held up one hand and Clint’s attention was guaranteed as a struggling Akira was gripped in the meaty palm. The guy pressed the muzzle of his Glock against the marmoset. Akira and Clint froze, the soldier half-draped over Clint grunted at the abrupt shift in momentum.
“That’s right, we heard you had some friends in the building,” the guy sneered, looking at the gun aimed his way pointedly. Clint shifted to point it wide, and realized abruptly that he recognized the man. He’d been a new recruit to SHIELD two years ago. Haps, or Harlow or something. Clint had been assigned to assess his intake group for long-range status, but he hadn’t made the cut. Clint remembered that he’d been pretty pissed off at the time, but had never protested the course results.
“What the fuck?” Clint asked, because if this place was SHIELD, if this was sanctioned and Phil – and Coulson and Fury had agreed to whatever the hell was happening here…
“Now, drop the Asset and your gun, and I won’t blow this little -” Clint fired his gun without shifting, the bullet ricocheted off the thick iron pipe against the wall and took down his target smoothly enough that he never had the chance to squeeze the trigger of his own gun. Akira squirmed out of the grip as the guy fell, and Clint dragged the soldier forward. He stumbled a bit beneath the weight and a moment of dizziness as he stuck a hand down and quickly scooped Akira up, placing him on the soldier’s stretched out shoulder so he could join Lia and Gob. They were almost disconcertingly quiet at the moment but Clint didn’t have time to consider it. He moved them on.
“Barton -” the guy draped over him muttered as he was pulled along. He wasn’t exactly improving as he stumbled with each step, but he wasn’t getting worse so that was something.
“Quiet -” Clint snapped, not interested in chatter after what just happened, and he dragged them around another corner, only to stop dead in his tracks.
There was basically a wall in front of them, built from six armed men. They stood four wide with two backing them, large riot-like shields held protectively before them and their weapons trained confidently through the slight gaps between. Two more men in plain civilian business suits, stood behind the barricade; The smaller one looked nervous, the other looked indifferent. The indifferent one began speaking immediately.
“Furnace,” he boomed, still in Russian, with a surprisingly deep voice that Clint recognized as the one from over the speakers earlier. “Benign,” he continued, unfazed by Clint’s weapon pointed in their direction. Pressed tightly as he was against Clint’s body he felt the soldier tense. The guy’s breath grew laboured in a way it hadn’t earlier despite having three bullets in him. Each exhalation felt unnecessarily loud so close to Clint’s ear.
“Stop him,” the guy said, practically begged Clint, voice soft. “Stop him or kill me.” Clint heard the conviction in the demand, he did! He just really didn’t care about it.
“Rusted,” The asshole behind the barricade continued. “One-”
Gob shrieked, and Lia chittered, and the second, nervous, scientist’s eyes widened as he noticed them.
“Sir! The marmosets!” he interrupted the Russian litany and the guy glared fiercely at him. The soldiers, barricaded behind their wall, remained unmoved. Clint could take out three before they got a decent shot off, which wasn’t enough. He figured the soldier could probably take out two in his state, if he knew how to shoot, but with Clint’s luck they’d both just shoot the same guard, which wouldn’t help. “They’re supposed to be dead.” The nervous suit looked more terrified now than he had when Clint and his prize had appeared before them.
“What are you -” the irritated commander started, clearly pissed, only to be cut off by the guy again.
“The marmosets! The Trio,” the smaller suit said insistently, but the other guy clearly wasn’t getting it and if Clint dropped the soldier he could use the surprise to take out one more guy, but that still wouldn’t be enough. One gun could still kill. “The psychic monkeys from the Capricorn site,” the guy hissed, failing at being discreet. “That’s why the Asset didn’t fall back in line earlier! The code isn’t going to work if they’re here. Activate the gas and we can sort it out later!” Oh, Clint did not like the sound of that. He’d rather get shot than end up back in that chair. He knew the soldier felt the same way.
Then the two soldiers and two suits standing tall behind their barricade stiffened in a sudden and familiar way. They began falling to the ground. Clint began firing at the riot shields, sending the bullets off harmlessly but forcing the remaining four to hold their position while they no doubt wondered why their partners weren’t firing back. It was only moments before they were tumbling to the ground as well. Clint heard a hiss of gas even as they toppled and the shields clattered loudly.
“Hold your breath!” he snapped and took a deep one of his own, before dragging his party forward, and grinning as Natasha approached from further down the corridor. She met his grin with a frown, looking him over before she turned and led the way to a door, and up another set of stairs. They were outside the building in about forty-five seconds, which was good because while Clint could hold his breath for almost four minutes, doing so while moving and hauling around two-hundred pounds of damaged person, was a completely different story. He sucked in a deep breath, tasting the fresh air, and the marmosets instantly began making soft, urgent noises from where they were clinging to the soldier’s shirt, just behind Clint’s neck.
“Hey, Nat, nice wheels,” he approved of the Humvee that was parked twenty feet away, engine running and six unmoving figures lying in various positions spread about the dirt road.
“You’re hurt,” she said, not moving closer, her eyes trained directly on the guy Clint was holding up.
“Nah, not my blood. It’s his,” his tilted his head at the soldier, who, come to think of it, was not leaning on Clint too heavily anymore. “Nat, this is…Indego, real name unknown. He’s cool.”
“You have no idea who he is, do you?” she sighed, but the potency of her gaze was starting to gain his attention more completely, now that the adrenalin was wearing off.
“He’s cool,” he repeated, frowning. Actually, he was feeling a little less cool and more decidedly warm beside Clint…and when did Clint’s arm become the one draped over his shoulders? Wasn’t he supposed to be unable to walk?
“You’re hurt,” Nat repeated, still making no move towards them.
“Nah, if anything it’s just a minor concussion,” he dismissed, because his head was pounding but he’d had far worse from sparring with her. She looked far from appeased and Clint finally noticed her tension, and her words registered properly. He looked down at himself. Oh, okay. That was clearly a bullet wound in his side.
“Just a graze. Clear through-n-through,” he decided, but the pain suddenly punched into him, a heavy, ripping-burning that was absolutely intent on taking all his focus now that he was aware of it and didn’t have to fight anyone.
“You’re bleeding too much,” the soldier said, soft, maybe a little bit wrecked, and Clint tried to shrug but the guy had an inch or two on him and with his arm draped over him the movement was difficult.
“Pot: kettle,” Clint muttered. “Nat, we need to get out of here. Can we settle whatever this is between you two later?”
She hesitated. Clint was shot and she hesitated. Clint side-eyed the soldier, wondering who the hell he was to get that reaction. “Look, Indego, Nat is my people. You go after her in any way, you’ll think these guys here were a public splash park giving away free ice cream,” he said gravely.
“What?” The guy sounded really confused. Clint was too actually. Okay, maybe he had lost a bit more blood than was probably healthy on top of days of minimum nourishment, sleep, and too many drugs. Nat, though, seemed to have lightened up a bit with his reassurance, even if she was still far too tense.
“Nat,” he looked at her, hoping she got his meaning because he was beginning to loose focus. “We gotta go dark for a bit. Completely. I’ll explain when I’m conscious just don’t-” he swallowed thickly and felt tiny hands scrambling around his neck, warm and comforting. “You guys get along, work together, cause no one else-”
Clint trailed off and slumped into unconsciousness. The slightly taller, broad shouldered man that had dragged Clint’s arm over his own shoulders only minutes before, didn’t let Clint fall to the dirt. Natasha was definitely surprised her partner wasn’t lying at the man’s feet, giving him the chance to free his limbs for a fight. She looked Clint over, noted his cleanly shaven head, pale skin littered with bruises, blood, and monitor stickers, and how he hung limply from a very careful grip. She looked at the Winter Soldier, trying to hide the absolute fury that he had Clint at his mercy and she was ten feet away, too far to free her partner safely. In the hands of this particular man, two feet might have been too far for her to save Clint.
The echo of alarms rang inside the building.
“I won’t hurt him,” the soldier promised, his tone both solemn and severe, and completely lacking the Russian accent she remembered. He sounded American. She stared at him. She could read the confusion where she remembered blankness, she saw fear where she remembered cold. She looked back to Clint, realized there was only one decision she would make here, and swiftly slipped her gun back into her thigh holster. The three little creatures that had recently become such fixtures in Clint’s life were trying to cling to her partners shoulders. They were having difficulty keeping their perch on his sweat slicked bare skin, but they clearly weren’t going anywhere but with them.
“Get him in the truck,” she ordered the Winter Soldier, and deliberately turned her back to them, running ahead to open the vehicle’s doors.
She kept all her weapons within easy reach.
The next few chapters might be spotty updates as I'm travelling and still want to get a final read-through in, but I promise you won't have to wait too long :)
Chapter 7: Good Times
“Romanov and Barton,” Grant Ward said before Phil made good on his chance to leave the meeting room. Melinda May, being the only other person still present after the team pre-mission brief, turned a curious gaze to their sharpshooter. She did not miss the way Phil’s shoulders drooped a moment, before straightening out as he faced Ward with expectation. “Word is Barton’s turned his back on SHIELD and Romanov’s gone to ground because of it,” Ward said, which was clearly not something Phil had expected to hear from their sniper if his momentary pause was any indication. She hadn’t expected it either.
“Who’s word?” Phil asked, head tilted in classic curiosity. He sounded polite and unconcerned. Melinda very carefully schooled her face into neutral attentiveness as she picked up her half full coffee mug and took a drink of the near cold liquid.
“No one specific,” Ward hedged, not appearing too invested in the rumour, which only served to fuel her own interest.
“Um hm,” Phil looked at Ward a long moment, before taking a breath and giving a little amused snort. “The problem with non-specific sources, is that they’re usually specifically wrong.” Phil shook his head lightly, clearly unworried. Ward cocked his head to his right, his right eye twitching briefly.
“So you’re in contact with the archer? I thought he wasn’t being read in on your being alive,” he asked innocently enough, but now Melinda was feeling decidedly unsettled, though she kept her posture as relaxed as she ever got and turned her visual attention to the datapad she held, looking over a file.
“Above your pay grade, specialist,” Phil said. “Leave Avengers’ business to the Avengers and keep focus on your own assignments. We land in six hours, get some rest.”
“Yes, Sir.” Ward agreed simply and pushed out of his chair. He wandered off as Phil strolled into his office. A moment later, after checking the autopilot readings on her tablet and ensuring they wouldn’t fly into the path of oncoming traffic, Melinda tapped lightly at Phil’s door and then entered. He was in his chair, elbows on the surface and interlaced hands resting at his chin. He lifted a curious look to her as she closed the door.
“Still no contact?” she asked, leaning against the vertical surface and crossing her arms.
“Not since Romanov was here, no.” Melinda did not like how he’d begun calling them by their surnames. She’d told Hill, when this planes wheels were still hot from leaving the tarmac for the first time, that if they didn’t read Natasha and Clint in on Phil’s survival it would end poorly. Sometimes she hated being right.
“That was almost three days ago,” she pointed out, and he lifted his eyebrows at her, clearly well aware. “And Clint’s been gone since the meeting, which is six days of complete radio silence.”
“He asked for time,” Phil said.
“Natasha didn’t.” Melinda shouldn’t have to point this out to him. She knew he was in a difficult place, having to choose between duty and emotion, but she didn’t have too much sympathy in this specific situation. Anyone who knew Clint and Natasha at least a little, knew trust was the one thing you didn’t dick them around on. Melinda decided to change the subject at his pained look. “Ward’s interest is…surprising.”
“It is,” he agreed slowly, a fresh frown on his face. The question had been out of the blue considering Ward's place on the team and in SHIELD. Sure, there had been a sort of rivalry between he and Clint, one that Clint was mostly unaware of because he didn’t care about other snipers’ opinions of him so long as he maintained his personal level of competence. He was sometimes surprisingly oblivious to the emotions of the people he worked and trained with, while at other times he was far too aware. “Think he was asked to try and get an inside scoop?” Phil wondered and she shrugged, because she had honestly never expected the attention in the first place. Hill had made a point of not putting Ward on ops that involved Clint, because there was rarely a need for two long-range specialists when Clint was involved, and Ward was too good to be used as back-up. “Think it has something to do with Loki?” he asked, and she shrugged again.
“There’s a lot of anger being carried around about Clint’s role in the attack, but it was made clear that his actions were absolutely involuntary. Ward never expressed any issues with the findings,” she said after considering it a moment.
“There isn’t supposed to be any intel on Romanov going dark,” Phil stared at something on his desk, clearly not seeing it, and she waited patiently. “I don’t like it. This could be nothing, but I want you to keep a discreet eye on Ward just in case. Don’t report to anyone but me, and if I’m not an option, keep it to Fury, or Hill.”
“You got it,” Melinda agreed easily, and left Phil to deal with his demons as he saw fit.
Clint regained awareness in slow increments. First he muzzily realized he was awake, which felt like a pretty big step. Then he noted exactly how much he didn’t feel like being awake; his body heavy and still, weighted by the lethargy of a deep, dark, sleep. His nose was itchy. He really, really didn’t want to move to do anything about it. A moment later two little hands were vigorously pawing at the tip of his nose, tiny claws scratching gently over the itch before sliding down to push more insistently at his cheek and lips. He peeled his gummy eyes open when he started feeling slightly anxious and wasn’t sure why. Two furry faces were far closer than he’d experienced yet and he closed his lids so he didn’t go cross-eyed trying to focus on them.
Clint grunted a greeting, not interested in forming words yet, and cracked his lids back open when he felt them move away from his face to sit on his chest. He smiled. Okay, so he’d been stupidly worried about them while they’d been in that facility. Whatever. They were tiny and furry and looked helpless and he’d found them in a cage. He was allowed to worry. He made himself lift his right hand and stroked their heads with the tips of his fingers. He absolutely did not croon at them. It took a moment to realize two did not equal three and Gob was missing. He swallowed dryly and looked around his surroundings, needing to find her.
He was in a barn. A very clean, nicely furnished barn. The sunlight spilling in through clouded windows told him it was mid-morning. Sitting about ten feet away, ramrod straight on a couch still covered in clear plastic, was the soldier. The soldier was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and had white bandages wrapped around his thighs where the shorts had ridden up slightly. He was also wearing a black t-shirt and apparently had a metal arm. That- explained a lot actually.
He was staring right at Clint, watching him take him in, his face set like a blank unemotional slate. Just like at that facility.
“Huh,” Clint blinked, feeling a little slow. Russian accent, really strong arm, stone cold detachment; it was everything Nat had told him to expect from the Winter Soldier. She hadn’t said anything about brainwashing. “How’s ‘er legs?” he croaked more than asked, his mouth feeling far too gummy, and Gob popped up from where she’d apparently sprawled on top of the soldier's head. She chirped happily and leapt across the space separating them in one huge jump, scampering up to join the other two on his chest. Clint smiled and gave her a little rub as well, instantly feeling better, before dropping his hand to his stomach and wincing at the sharp pain. He looked down at the bulge of bandages beneath his blanket-covered chest. The bandages weren’t too thick so the wound probably wasn’t too serious. He’d just passed out from a week of maltreatment and blood loss. No worries, then. He looked back at the Winter Soldier, who was watching him with a wary sort of confusion. He’d take that over the blankness. “So?” Clint asked, mouth moistening up finally and making words a bit easier.
The Soldier kept looking at him.
“Your legs,” Clint reminded, wondering if the guy had hit his head at some point during their escape. Clint didn’t remember anything like that, but he’d also missed a chunk of it at the end. “Are you okay?” he asked slower, just in case that was actually true. Plus the brain tampering could have left some ill effects.
“Yeah,” the guy finally answered and looked down briefly at the bandages, before staring at Clint again, clearly trying to put his bland mask back in place.
“Good. Cause I’ve got to tell you, you’re a heavy son-of-a-bitch to cart around.”
“Watch what you call my mother,” the guy growled, a flare of anger sparking and Clint, after a moment, nodded.
“Just an expression, nothing personal. Objection noted,” he smirked, and wished he had something to drink. “Where’s Nat?”
“Perimeter check,” he responded flatly.
“Get me some water?”
“I’m under strict orders to not leave this couch,” he said, almost looking apologetic, and a bit bemused. Clearly willing to tow the line though, which instantly had Clint wondering over the ‘conversation’ that must have taken place between him and Nat. “There’s a bottle on the floor beside you,” he offered when Clint huffed amusement. Clint groped carefully and found it. He took small sips. His friends were a familiar warmth on his chest. He poured water into the cap, only spilling a bit, and held it out to them, repeating as needed. The silence built. Clint looked over at his companion as Gob took her turn with the cap.
“What?” Clint asked, not caring for the continuous staring.
“I don’t get you,” the guy said, and Clint dropped his head back to the flat cushion, his wound was throbbing, but it was only a minor distraction. He was definitely on some kind of painkiller.
“I’m a pretty open and shut case,” he dismissed.
“You didn’t leave me behind,” was the firm response, like the soldier felt he owed an explanation, despite Clint not asking for one. Clint figured he was exceptionally confused about his current predicament and didn’t know how to deal yet. Maybe he was the kind of guy that liked to talk out loud to sort his head out.
“Told you I wouldn’t,” Clint took another small sip from the plastic bottle.
“You know who I am now,” the guy stated with such severity Clint almost rolled his eyes.
“Well, I know you’re not the six-million dollar man,” he smirked.
“Who?” The soldier asked sharply, and Clint carefully did not sigh. He was still so tired.
“Fictional TV character, not important. Look, I’m not saying I have any clue about what’s happened to you, because I really don’t, but I know a little about people playing with your brain, and I get when things are not in your control. There was no way in hell I was just gonna leave you there when you managed to break that control.”
“I’m a killer.”
“So am I. So is Natasha.” He thought about it and added, “and most of my kills were conscious decisions. So of the two of us which is scarier?”
“Romanov,” the guy said instantly, Russian accent thick with her name. Clint really wanted to know what she’d said to him. He held up his water bottle to salute the guy, and the soldier’s lips twitched. “You don’t know that my kills weren’t by choice.” The guy was back to his American accent now.
“Eh,” Clint flicked his fingers with as much effort as he felt the dismissal warranted. “We’ll sort that out later. So, do you have a name?”
“Seriously?” The guy glared. “I’m the Winter Soldier, one of the deadliest assassins on the planet. I have killed -” he faltered, and firmed his voice, resolute and self-loathing, which told Clint the rest of what he’d ever need to know about the guy’s basic morals. “I have killed and slaughtered. I have tortured and…and seduced, and hurt people just because I was told to. I could be a sleeper agent, I could turn on you any moment and kill everyone you ever cared about, and you’re just going to sit there and ask me my name? Like I’m just some person you met in line at the greengrocers?” He looked away briefly, and Clint swallowed thickly, emotions building in his chest from his own memories and self-loathing, failings and bad decisions. Clint shoved them back down deep where they belonged: buried and ignored, and shrugged lightly instead.
“I’m Hawkeye,” he responded with his best devil-may-care smirk. “I’m the greatest marksman in the world, one of the deadliest assassins on the planet,” he parroted, and stopped parroting, because he didn’t want this guy to really know how similar they were just yet; he didn’t want to take away the first potential safety net the guy had since he became a tool for those assholes at the AIM lab, because most of Clint’s actions had been by his own choice. Whether it was because he’d been a stupid kid, or a scared adult, the excuses were not important here, but being safe was. “Natasha Romanov is my forever bestie,” he declared, “I apparently have three psychic pygmy marmosets in my family, my primary weapon is a bow, and while I’ve only met him once, I’m pretty sure Hulk likes me best.” The guy was looking more confused by the minute. “I used to work for a secret government organization, am the only average Joe on a team of super-geniuses and enhanced badasses, and I own an apartment building in Bed-Stuy New York, that Nat and I pretty much stole from the Russian mob and a shady European conglomerate. And I hate ice cream.” He finished with a satisfied nod. He looked at the marmosets now lying in various poses across his chest, and relaxed a little.
The silence that followed was heavy, the guy clearly needed time to process and Clint was happy to give it to him. He fell asleep a few minutes later.
Clint woke up to find a chicken scraping its claws over the barn's concrete floor, slowly traversing the space between the soldier and himself. Clint watched it, wondering how well the bird’s mottled black and brown feathers would work for fletching as it scratched away at nothing. The soldier was still staring at Clint from his spot on the couch. Natasha was there now, sitting at a table off to the side and sharpening knives that Clint would bet couldn’t even get dull. Lia and Akira were curled up and asleep in the crook of his arm, and Gob was back on the soldier's head, lying flat and watching Clint with intense, dark eyes from her perch. Clint eyed the chicken and its fluffy ankles. It was a really slick looking bird.
“James,” the soldier broke the near silence in the lofty space, his face barely shifting as he spoke, and Clint looked back at him, trying to mask his surprise. “I think my name is James,” he offered again, a bit firmer and daring Clint to say something about it. Clint grinned, and looked at Nat, who was also watching the guy with complete focus. After a moment her shoulders loosened minutely, even if she still looked irritated.
“I’m Clint,” he offered, and the guy didn’t seem to know what to do with being handed information he already knew.
“I’m Romanov,” Natasha said, ready to give him a chance, which was enough to make Clint’s day. Hell, his month even. Nat was the best kind of person, willing to take a chance on someone who had clearly caused her some trauma in the past. Clint couldn’t help grinning as James looked down at his lap, uncertain how to proceed from there. Gob chittered at the movement and squirmed in the somewhat greasy locks, and Nat started putting her weapons away.
In the slightly less tense silence, Clint went back to sleep.
The next time Clint awoke, more clear-headed and focused than he had been since getting shot, he looked at Nat and said, softly, “one of the guards was SHIELD.”
Her face went icy cold.
“It’s not SHIELD,” James disagreed from the perch he’d taken in the empty hayloft above, keeping his gaze focused outside the window in front of him. He had an unfamiliar rifle leaning against the window's ledge and was wearing proper pants again. Natasha looked up at him sharply. “It’s Hydra.”
Well, okay then.
“Steve’s gonna love that,” he muttered, and wished he was still tired enough to fall back asleep so he could ignore this for a while longer. Instead, he got up and joined his partner at the table, resolutely ignoring the throbbing in his side and the aches everywhere else. After he sank into the wooden seat she kicked out a foot, rested her ankle against his, and handed him a sandwich. “Plans?” he wondered and she smiled sharply.
“You know I would never plan a hostile takeover without you, dear.”
“You say the sweetest things,” he hummed, and turned his attention to his food. His jaw hurt to chew, but he was starving, the bread was soft, and it was egg salad, so it was completely manageable. They needed a few more days of recovery for him, unless an emergency came up, so there was time to think things through.
He very deliberately shut away all emotion concerning SHIELD, because he knew that if one person had infiltrated it, than anyone could be the they worked with could be their target. Anyone. Neither he nor Nat could risk being compromised because they hoped their friends were not actually the enemy. Lately everything seemed all too possible.
“Remember the days when all we had to deal with were evil dictators, drug lords, and preventing nuclear war?” he muttered around a bite of bread and egg.
“Good times,” she agreed, and pulled up a list of names on her shiny new laptop.
“Hey, James?” Clint asked suddenly, hours after he and Nat began the first stages of planning, and he looked over to the corner of the room where the guy had just woken from a nap. James looked weary and a little bit lost. Gob and Lia chittered softly near him, climbing up and down a set of black leather horse reins hanging from hooks on the wall. “If we pulled up SHIELD's personnel files with photos, do you think you could spot the Hydra assholes?”
James swung his boot-covered feet over the edge of the cot and set them on the floor. He was silent a long time.
“Maybe. I didn’t - my contact outside of specific assignments was limited. Chances are I won’t know them, but I can try.”
“Eat something first,” Natasha said as she came in from an exterior perimeter check. She walked with more care than usual, and the light of the full moon chased her inside before it was shut away behind the wooden door. Akira was hanging onto the collar of her jacket, perfectly content riding her shoulder.
Awwww, Clint noted she was walking smoother so she wouldn’t jostle Akira. Clint smirked at her. She pretended to not see so Clint grinned bigger. Akira started clicking at him from her neck, telling a story that he just didn’t understand.
James sat at the end of the table and ate the food set out for him without question. He didn’t see the look Clint and Nat shared as he ate his sandwich with his head bowed. When this was over they’d need to spend some serious time training his automatic obedience out of him.
“Psychic?” Nat said softly as she changed Clint’s bandages.
“Apparently,” Clint agreed as he admired the stitching job over his wound. His head was itching in places where his hair was growing back in. He valiantly did not scratch at it. He still felt like shit, but maybe a bit more like warmed up shit versus the dried up stale crumbly kind, which was always an improvement. Seriously, where did his mind go sometimes?
“You already suspected,” she hummed, and he shrugged non-commital. Natasha watched him with one of her patented judgy looks. “So what, they deprogrammed the Winter Soldier with their brains?”
“Looks that way,” he contemplated as he watched James strip and reassemble his rifle at the only table in their barn for the fourth time in ten minutes. Practising and pretending to not pay attention to every word they spoke.
“Only you could convince psychic monkeys to adopt you,” she shook her head at Clint with amusement.
“Hey, I convinced you to adopt me, didn’t I? I didn’t even have to jump off a waterfall with these three,” he looked at the trio curled together in a heap beside his hip. He’d wrapped a t-shirt around them for warmth, because the barn got a little cool at night.
“Lazy,” she tutted and glanced pointedly at James. Clint followed her gaze and shrugged at the silent question.
“I’m starting a collection,” he decided, and only ducked half-heartedly when she swatted at his head. She turned the smack into a gentle caress, thumb rubbing over what he imagined was some pretty impressive bruising on the side of his face. It felt swollen and hot and she’d given him a few ice packs since he’d woken up, but not a mirror. She kissed the top of his bald head when she stood, and slipped out into the early morning light without another word.
“So,” Clint asked as James swiped picture after picture across the iPad they’d given him (Not a StarkPad, because Nat was paranoid and didn’t want to risk any involvement from the team until they knew exactly what was going on. Neither she nor Clint would put it past Tony to somehow program JARVIS to find them using one of his store bought pieces of tech). “Why was Steve Rogers such a massive, brain-realigning trigger for you?”
James froze mid-swipe, his entire being stilling, his breath held, before he smoothly continued his task of flipping through SHIELD personnel files.
“His name's familiar. I think I knew him.”
“Good knew him or bad knew him?”
“Knew him,” James said flatly. Clint shoved another iPad in his line of sight with a picture of Steve sitting pretty in the centre, wearing civvies and a sort of stunned look on his face. Natasha had been practicing her pick-up lines on him and Bruce had been ready with the camera. It was one of the few times Clint had been at the tower with the entire team, just before the mission he found the marmosets in fact, and Nat had been trying to set Clint at ease. She hadn’t been too concerned with Steve’s level of comfort at the time.
“This guy?” Clint asked, watching James’ reactions closely as he looked over the image.
“Yeah,” James swallowed thickly as he stared at it, his body still once more.
“You feel any kind of urge to hurt or kill him?”
“No,” James snapped, sounding offended at the mere suggestion he could have a problem with Steve. “No, he’s never been a mission -” he trailed off, staring like he really wanted to poke at Steve’s face, wanted to make sure it looked like it was supposed to. Clint watched him intently, but couldn’t read a lie. Honestly, James was a little too messed up right now to pull off a lie successfully; Clint and Nat could probably spot it without even looking at him straight on. Then again, Clint had managed to convince SHIELD he was absolutely fine after Loki, and they’d bought it hook line and sinker. Many of them bought it too easily. Clint and Nat had shared a milkshake as they’d gone through all Clint’s med reports, and scoffed at the gullible doctors’ evaluations even while she pointed out how Clint could mislead them more successfully in the future; because in the future SHIELD may have assigned him to a doctor who knew how to read through his bullshit.
That wouldn’t be a problem for Clint anymore.
Maybe it was better that James couldn’t lie for shit.
“I told you I’d introduce the two of you,” Clint reminded, casually. “If you’re good with it, I’ll make it happen once we figure out whatever this clusterfuck in SHIELD is.”
“Yeah, I just -” James did not look confident about this suggestion at all. “Check before we do it? I don’t know, he could be an enemy.” To which Clint snorted, but at the glare he got in return he backed off and James reoccupied himself with studying pictures once more, his face cool and blank. Blank like a scary, traumatized, one-armed cyborg soldier. It was not a good look on him, but Clint could see how it could work in his favour. He left James alone, but not before putting a bottle of orange juice beside his metal elbow.
When James silently pointed at the image of Brock Rumlow, neither Clint nor Natasha was surprised, just disappointed. Well, Clint wasn’t that disappointed, the guy had always been a dick to him. Alexander Pierce made them angry, but it was James’s refusal to speak in any detail about him that had something hot and furious broiling in Clint’s stomach while Natasha remained motionless at his side.
Jasper Sitwell made him cold, and it drilled right into his bones and took up brittle residence.
“We make sure he’s not a triple agent,” Clint said softly as they looked at Jasper’s SHIELD profile image.
“We go after him first,” Natasha agreed.
Sitwell was one of Phil’s closest friends.
Sitwell was not a triple agent.
Getting their hands on Sitwell was almost embarrassingly easy.
Natasha dropped in on him at his apartment and said she needed to speak with him, perhaps in a louder venue as she heavily implied suspicion of surveillance. He agreed, because why wouldn’t he? He had nothing to fear from them, and he never had. While Nat was upstairs convincing him she needed his help, Clint had found the mans car and proceeded to tear out the GPS, secondary tracking chip, and audio recording device that came standard in higher-ranking agents’ vehicles. Clint also removed the secondary tracking chip embedded in the spare tire’s rubber in the trunk, the one SHIELD agents weren’t supposed to know about. Then he removed one more, which was not of SHIELD design; Clint knew all the designs SHIELD favoured, and it always paid off.
Sitwell wasn’t expecting Clint to be waiting in his front seat when he followed Natasha into the parking garage, but clearly he wasn’t as thick as he occasionally played at. The moment he laid eyes on him Sitwell went to activate a silent alarm in his suit pocket, only to flounder slightly as Natasha basically hip-checked him into the backseat of his own vehicle and smoothly slid in beside him. Clint was pulling the black sedan out of its parking spot and up the exit ramp as soon as the door closed behind her. Natasha made a show of producing Sitwell’s emergency button like it popped into her hand with magic and examined it in interest as Clint rounded the building’s corner and merged with traffic.
“That doesn’t look like standard SHIELD issue,” Clint pondered from behind the steering wheel, obnoxious sunglasses over his eyes but no hat on his head. If people were searching for him he’d bet only a select few were looking for a bald world-class marksman. This was a better disguise than a ball cap. Maybe he should grow a moustache and keep shaving his head.
“Neither does your haircut,” Sitwell smirked, easy and friendly as he rubbed a palm along his own hairless scalp, but his posture was stiff. Nat threw the tiny gray box out the window, uncaring where it landed.
“Then maybe you should have told your people to go easy on the shaving cream,” Clint joked back, and did not react when Sitwell reached swiftly into his jacket for his weapon. He stalled when Natasha causally leaned forward in her seat and passed Sitwell’s Glock over the seat to Clint. He jammed it under his right thigh for easy access and swerved around a beige Toyota that was going ten below the limit. There weren’t a lot of cars on the roads at this late hour, but there was no excuse to drive that slowly.
“Aw, Jasper,” Clint forced a friendly tone, knowing Jasper was growing aware of exactly how much shit he was in with them, “you don’t need your gun, we’re all friends here.” Clint dropped the smile, watched as Jasper leaned back, face pallid as Natasha settled beside him. She twisted in the seat to lean her back against the door to watch him. Sitwell pulled his seatbelt on with a heavy click.
The three hour car ride was made in complete silence.
“Whatever you’re thinking, I had nothing to do with it,” Jasper broke the thick silence as Clint turned onto a gravel parking lot and drove through the rolled-up door of an old mechanics garage. He put the car in park as Sitwell unbuckled his seatbelt and turned slightly in the seat to get a better angle on Clint and Natasha. They sat there in the quiet, the cooling engine clicking and pinging as they contemplated each other. The bay door began closing behind them and Sitwell glanced out the back window. “You hired yourself some help?” he raised an eyebrow sceptically, and then apparently grew impatient. “Come on, we’re at your secret meeting place now, what’s going on?” He asked. Three hours of silence where the gig was obviously up and he was still willing to play the innocent game.
The car door beside him opened and a metal arm, gleaming in the dim garage’s interior lights, reached in and dragged Sitwell out by the front of his shirt.
“Oh, fuck no,” Sitwell grabbed the arm, fingers slipping over the intricately layered alloy as he tried to struggle away. It was like watching a kitten try to pry free from a vet’s determined grip with a bit of hissing and panic. He had no chance of getting loose. “Clint-” Sitwell looked over his shoulder to him, pleading.
“I’ve noticed that you haven’t tried to get help from Natasha,” Clint sighed as he hauled himself tiredly from the driver’s seat, his ass feeling a little like it had moulded in there.
“Don’t take it personally,” Sitwell stopped struggling as he was marched a few steps backwards and pressed into a metal fold-up chair. He made exactly zero attempts to get up when the soldier, and it was the soldier, not James, only moved two steps back, crossed his arms, and stared. “You just have the reputation of a bleeding heart,” Sitwell tried, in a sort of hopeful-yet-condescending way.
“You’re a jackass,” Clint grumbled and scratched at the back of his neck, wishing he had his quiver on, just for comfort. He pushed the sunglasses he hadn’t needed, as they’d driven in the dark, up to rest on the top of his head, wanting nothing interfering with his line of sight. This guy sitting in front of him, they’d known him for years. He was a friend.
“Asset,” Sitwell commanded, sharp and forceful, changing tactics. “Detain these two.”
James didn’t even twitch.
“Asset,” Sitwell glared at him. “You will follow orders, or you will be assigned to recalibration, program three.” At this James glare grew colder and he somehow managed to loom a bit more without moving a muscle. Clint watched, impressed by the shift. It wouldn’t have intimidated Clint, but he hadn’t been overly bothered by the looming when James had actually been someone else’s puppet threatening him, so…yeah. Clint looked up to find Natasha watching him from behind their guest. He lifted his eyebrows in silent inquiry.
What? He asked.
Not everyone is born with a complete lack of self-preservation instinct, her quirked lips and tilted head told him.
Please, that’s my best quality, he smirked.
Stop checking out the Winter Soldier's ass, her eyebrows retaliated, and he boggled a bit.
What? I wasn’t! He denied, though maybe a little too vehemently. He shouldn’t have used both eyebrows.
“You’re an idiot,” she grinned back, words sharp and gaze fond.
“Please, I’ve gotten away with this for how long now? I’m not the idiot in this room,” Sitwell grunted, slumping in his seat and completely missing their silent byplay. Clint knew Sitwell, he knew he was well aware that he was up shit creek and the boat was sinking. The guy really wasn’t an idiot…or else, like he said, they would have figured this out a long time ago.
“Oh yes, you are,” Nat didn’t bother stepping around to face him and Clint slumped back against the black car door, a clear line of sight on everyone. “You’re the one that told them when to take Clint.”
Clint considered this. It fit. If anyone in the agency would know when Phil was going to do his “I’m not dead” reveal to Clint, and it wasn’t Fury or Hill, it would probably be Sitwell. They were all kind of connected like that, a special inner circle linked to other inner circles.
“That hurts my feelings,” Clint decided. “I didn’t know you held such a grudge from Karaoke Thursday.”
“You ruined Wind Beneath My Wings forever. That is not okay,” Sitwell glowered, clearly still willing to play along as he tried to figure a way out of this.
“Did your bosses seriously think Barton would be a good candidate for your program?” Natasha scorned, shrugging when Clint eyed her. “He’s shit at taking orders.”
“He took them just fine for Loki,” Sitwell said, tilting his head to eye Clint with a speculative leer.
“We already know you wanted to see if you could advance your mind-controlling agenda, what I’d like to know is why,” Nat said, moving away to get another chair from where it leaned against the garages grimy wall. This one was wooden and it was oddly clean for their surroundings. She dragged it lightly across the cement floor, over grease stains and grit, and plunked it down a few feet behind Sitwell, but didn’t use it. “Clearly you already had a program that worked,” she didn’t look at James, and he remained utterly still with his ramrod posture and glacial glare. Sitwell shifted slightly, not sure if he wanted to move away from her at his back, or from the soldier at his front. He didn’t seem to be worried about Clint at all. She leaned closer to his ear. “Or at least, it used to. Your asset doesn’t seem very concerned with falling in line at the moment.”
“Oh, don’t worry Nat, he’ll get over that,” Sitwell said flatly, and looked back to Clint. “I hear orders aren’t the only thing you took from Loki,” he smirked. Clint felt his veins turn to ice, his heart thudded impatiently in his chest, but he’d been expecting this, because it’s where people like Sitwell always went when they turned out to be malicious dicks on the opposing side. So he kept his cool and allowed a very small curl to his lips.
“Jealous?” it wasn’t really a question. “Can’t figure out why I wouldn’t flip so easily when Hydra was gearing up for the takeover?” he paused and considered. “Or is it that I was promised to be your asset, like James here worked for Rumlow, and I wasn’t playing along?”
“The Asset works for whomever he’s assigned, he’ll remember soon enough. You though,” he tilted his head back to direct his opinion at Natasha. “Clint’s like a fresh peach ready for the picking. Brain all open and exposed, practically begging to be taken. It was all there in the scans medical took.” This was new information. He’d never been told this, and as far they knew Clint’s scans had turned up nothing. Sitwell had just given them a few more targets to look into at SHIELD. “But there was a bit of a time crunch. Honestly,” he looked at Clint, eyes tracking from head to feet, and back again, “I told them they should have taken you weeks ago, but they were too afraid of being exposed.” He shook his head. “Can I get a drink? That was a long drive.”
Clint got him a Gatorade from Sitwell’s own stash in the trunk and tossed it over. Sitwell caught it easily, cracked the lid, taking a good swallow before he eyed Clint again. “Anyway, I told them you’d be a shit asset; ‘deaf and delusional’ I said, but apparently Loki’s fix and your ass, excuse me, eyes, make up for it.” He leaned back in his seat and took another drink of his Gatorade. Clint was not amused by what Sitwell was implying he did for Loki. There was nothing humorous about it. It made his chest heavy and joints stiff, and seeing Sitwell’s lips twitch in an aborted grin made him want to knock his teeth out. Individually.
Sitwell looked to James. “We’re getting you a partner, someone to cover long distance,” he explained, like he was giving him a generous gift. “Times are changing, technology and skillsets are growing, so we’ll get you a pet of your very own to work and play with. Lock these two down and you’ll have this tool within the week.” He looked back to Clint. “We’ve got the program all worked out.”
“I’m beginning to feel like a third wheel,” Nat looked a little disgruntled at this and Sitwell scoffed, but didn’t have a reply. He and Nat had never gotten along, he was always too willing to talk your ear off and she was never interested in allowing it. It was good to know that bit about him was true. “So, you get Clint all emotionally turned around -”
“Hey,” Clint protested half-heartedly, and ignored the quick glance James broke his statuesque pose to give him.
“- because you know he’s been abnormally vigilant since Loki and you’re not getting an easy drop on him. Then you grab him in broad daylight. You and Coulson must have had a good laugh when you came up with that plan,” she did not hold back her bitterness.
For a moment, a brief moment that felt like a lifetime; felt like Clint had ages to make decisions and reactions; felt like that moment in the height of battle when everything was still and easy, despite the chaos; for that moment Sitwell looked completely confused. Then time rushed back and he schooled his features into a smug knowing little curl in his lips.
“We’ve been planning this since Clint went running from medical like he was responsible for almost ending the world as we know it,” he took another drink from his Gatorade.
Natasha didn’t pay attention to his answer, because she was looking at Clint. Her gaze had rested on him the entire conversation, getting her answers from Sitwell through him, lulling Sitwell into thinking she wasn’t seeing his every move. The thing was, a lot of SHIELD kept forgetting that Clint was more than a master marksman: his specialty was watching, assessing, seeing, and he’d been Natasha Romanov’s partner more than anyone else, ever.
Clint smiled, and seconds later she plunged a syringe into Sitwell’s neck. He slapped at the injection site, too slow to catch her.
“Thank you, for your cooperation,” she said softly, stepping around to watch dispassionately as Sitwell realized that he’d given them the answers they wanted. He looked pissed, and a bit confused. Sitwell preferred to talk his way through situations, throwing out so much information, real or not, that he would eventually lead you where he wanted. He’d never played with them when they didn’t trust him though, and -
“Your poker face is shit, that’s why you get fleeced every time we have a game,” Clint made no move to catch him as he toppled off the chair and smacked into the ground. The guy blinked a few times, wiggled, and then lost consciousness. Clint looked at Natasha, and they shared the first true smile that day.
“Coulson’s clean,” he said for James’ benefit.
Hydra never got to him. He hadn’t handed Clint over to them on a silver platter. Clint wasn’t going to have to take him out.
The relief was enormous.
“Who’s Coulson?” James asked after they dumped Sitwell into the mechanics pit, and chained his ankle to the ground. They left him a case of water, some boxes of stale pop tarts, and a bucket, before James dragged a massive, heavy steel plate to cover over the top with one arm. He didn’t even glance to Clint and Nat for help.
“He was a friend,” Clint answered after a long moment, when he decided it would be dumb to keep the guy in the dark. You don’t build trust that way, and while Clint might be short on it right now, James was a lot further down the line of ‘never again.’ “Now he’s an ally.” He tossed a bag of tools in the vehicle’s trunk, ignoring the look Natasha was giving him from where she sat, cross legged, on the roof of the car.
“We going to him now?” James asked, which was a reasonable question, and probably a reasonable plan. Clint’s stomach churned at the thought and the anger, the bitterness of the betrayal, was bubbling back to the surface now he wasn’t distracted by imprisonment and torture. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might prefer the imprisonment over dealing with Coulson at the moment.
“Fuck him,” Nat said, startling a laugh out of Clint, because he hadn’t heard her swear in years. She slid off the roof and stopped before him, reaching up to wrap a hand around the back of his prickly head and pull his forehead to rest against hers. “Fuck SHIELD,” she decided. He pulled back and raised his eyebrows. She grinned. “For a little while. We’ll clean up this mess, and then they’ll owe us one.”
Which was Natasha speak for reminding them of exactly whose emotions they’d played with, intentional or not, and she’d warned them about her zero tolerance policy when she’d joined. She wasn’t worried about her own feelings. Clint felt a kernel of warmth build in the pit of his chest.
“The team?” he asked, and Lia, Gob, and Akira dropped from where they’d been clinging to the top of a long skinny fluorescent ceiling light that they’d never bothered to turn on. They landed, mostly, on his shoulder. He lifted his elbow at the last moment so Gob could land on his bicep, and she scurried up to join the other two at his neck. They draped themselves over his right shoulder in a sort of pyramid pile. He felt better almost instantly. He grinned softly, wondering if he should be pissed at what he suspected was their subtle emotional manipulation.
With everyone trying to fuck with his head lately he knew he should be more concerned. Akria’s little paw pushed at his neck a moment.
Meh, he could deal for now.
“Maybe we’ll bring the team in later. Let’s keep them clean for now,” she said, and Clint’s grin grew. From the appreciative gleam in her own eyes he knew he looked slightly blood-thirsty. He felt like he hadn’t been on a proper hunt for years.
He turned to James, meeting the intense, intelligent blue eyes.
“We’re going to destroy Hydra,” he announced. “Interested?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” James smiled, and it was cutting, dark, and one hundred percent honest.
He was fucking beautiful.
That night, their last in the garage, James went on perimeter duty, because apparently, like Nat, he never got tired. Not long after he slipped outside Natasha looked at Clint, crowded into his space until he floundered back and fell on the couch in self-defence, and then she stood over him with crossed arms.
He preferred the couch in their secret barn, this one stank of old oil and metal dust.
“What?” he asked.
“He’s Hydra,” she said, no fuss about it.
“You were Red Room,” Clint pointed out, because she would appreciate it, despite being very well aware.
“And you were an idiot to trust me.”
“Just because you got me shot and electrocuted that first month before you followed me to SHIELD like a little imprinted duckling,” he waved it off as an unimportant detail, and then reconsidered. “Actually, I was shot and electrocuted with him as well, he just didn’t do the actual shooting or electrifying.” He raised an eyebrow in point.
“It was a graze,” she reminded him about their own first meeting, “and harpoons don’t count.”
“They do when you’re the one shot with them,” he argued.
“You’re okay,” she said, and he nodded, because it was true. “Clint,” he looked up at her, “you’re okay.” He broke his gaze away to stare at an old, dirty rag abandoned on the floor. He missed the chickens pecking and scratching at bare cement.
“They had plans, Nat,” he said softly. She sat beside him.
“I would kill them all,” she said.
“Would you kill me?” he wondered, and when she didn’t respond he didn’t press. He wouldn’t put that on her; she would do what she had to if it ever came to it, but he would never demand she agree. He took a long, steadying breath. “You heard about Assink’s crew?”
“I did,” she said simply, pressing her shoulder to his. He fidgeted, picking dirt out of his nails with his index finger. He never could seem to keep them clean. He didn’t say anything. “They had it coming,” she shrugged.
“Not like that,” he forced out. “Ronin-”
“It wasn’t you,” she cut him off, harshly.
“You know it wasn’t you, as Hawkeye, as Clint Barton, as Ronin. It wasn’t you, and you will not carry that.”
“He gave me my hearing back,” he choked out. It was old news now as it had become apparent to everyone as soon as Natasha had pulled him from Loki’s influence. That wasn’t the point, the point… he took a breath. He hadn’t told anyone, he hadn’t - “He fixed my ears as a reward, for-” he couldn’t finish the explanation, and he didn’t need to. Not with Natasha. She dragged him into her lap like he was a rag doll, and wrapped her arms around him like a vice. It pulled at his still healing wound, pressed into his still sore and bruised skin and aching ribs, but he barely noticed the pain. The shaking was starting, first in his hands, and then arms, and soon it would be all of him. He’d been holding off for so long, he’d been keeping it together for the team, for SHIELD, even for his enemies. He was so tired of keeping it all in.
Tiny warm hands wrapped around his neck. Warm, furry bodies tucking in close, pressing in where they could between the grip Nat had around him. They didn’t do anything to calm him, he was watching for it now, had realized he could tell the difference, and he always knew if they were sending him a message. They held off, only comforting with their presence, and he clung to Nat.
“He gave you back your hearing to hurt you,” she whispered, “just because he could.” She pressed her lips against the skin of his skull, despite the prickly blond hair trying to grow longer than a millimeter. “Do not let him,” she said.
He let the shakes come, and they sat there for a long time, not moving until the early morning sunlight began to filter through dirty windows and James, staying out far longer than had been expected, came back with an emotionless report of no activity, and some rabbits for breakfast.
He’d brought a handful of crickets as well.
Clint could work with that.
Thank you for the patience with the updates, and thank you profusely for all the wonderful compliments!! Brings a bright spot to my day :)
Chapter 9: Implosion
“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.
The mid-day sun made little impression through the large, photochromic windows that stretched along the length of the Avengers Tower communications room. Dimmed automatically by JARVIS, the glass allowed enough natural light into the room to easily see by, but not so much that it disrupted the holographic charts that were displayed vertically above the space’s central console. A console that Tony Stark stood before, valiantly resisting the urge to rock back and forth on his feet as he waited with as much patience as he could muster.
"So?" Tony managed an entire minute before he broke the silence. Steve was standing beside him, close enough that their arms bumped when Tony gesticulated at the charts, and he cocked his head to the right. He pursed his lips in contemplation, and tipped his head to the left side, before straightening into his Captain America posture.
"Yep," Steve agreed. "Something’s up."
"Something’s up?” Tony repeated, and exhaled with heavy exasperation. “Why yes, Captain, thank you for joining the party! Something’s up," he muttered the last words and glared at the screen. "Jarvis,” he demanded, “why didn't you tell me about this sooner."
"Because of reasons, Sir."
"Do not start that tone with me, Jarvis. Not today," Tony growled, rubbing at his temple and leaving a tiny smear of green grease behind. "Just because you miss them doesn't mean you get to be a dick. You barely know them.”
"Pot," Steve started.
"Kettle," Bruce finished from where he stood on Tony's other side, enough space between them that Tony would have to really try if he wanted to bump him for attention.
"Jarvis?" Tony ignored them both pointedly.
"On the surface the incidents represented as non-related entities. Without proper, unhindered access to SHIELDs mainframe I lacked the information needed to make the connections. Agent Coulson reached out to me a short while ago and sent fresh data that I used to compile these connections."
"Right, and now?" Tony reached out and flicked his fingers, scrolling through the information.
"Now, something is definitely up, Sir." Jarvis confirmed and Steve's lips twitched, which, okay. Nobody had been smiling much lately so Tony could let the AI’s snippiness slide. For now. "Without more definitive proof, I would surmise that SHIELD has been infiltrated by an organization, and that it began an unspecified but likely lengthy time ago."
"Hydra," Steve spat, all traces of humour evaporating with that word.
"Okay," Tony looked at Steve, standing there in a t-shirt and jeans and somehow looking more like Captain America than any of his patriotic propaganda films combined. "Just to be clear, and I don't mean this insensitively, but there are more evil organizations intent on some kind of world domination out there than Hydra, and it concerns me that you'd jump directly to that conclusion with no real evidence. That way lies obsession Steve, and trust me, I know that doesn't always lead somewhere good."
"The lineage of several missing or recently deceased SHIELD agents can be linked historically to both prominent and minor associates of Hydra. It is likely they are involved, Sir," Jarvis informed with near apologetic tone. Tony just knew a major headache was in his near future; it had started with freshly minted teammates going AWOL after an apparent betrayal of the heart, and was going to be exacerbated by Nazis digging into the cracks of SHIELD’s foundation. Fantastic.
“Okay. So most likely Hydra has tentacles somewhere in this heavily financed, heavily armed, and apparently heavily oblivious, SHIELD pie. It was Agent that gave you the heads up?”
“Yes sir.” JARVIS was quick to confirm.
“Did Coulson give an all-clear list?” Tony wondered, because a little help would be good. He could practically feel Steve vibrating with tension beside him. Bruce was being very still.
“Yes Sir. It consists of Director Fury, Deputy-director Hill, Miss Romanov and Mr. Barton.” JARVIS pulled their images to stack vertically at the side screen. Natasha looked flatly serene as she stared at the camera. Barton looked like he was just about to say something, or walk away, or maybe give the photographer the finger.
“Well…that’s comforting.” Bruce’s tone did not support his words. “So, are we adding Coulson to this non-compromised list? Because if not, we’ll need to start the investigation ground up.”
“I don’t think we’ll need to do too much,” Steve said and Tony contemplated the information again, eyes flicking rapidly from data, to personnel and base locations, to the list of missing locations. He saw what Steve had noticed, and was a little ticked that the guy had made the connection before him. Whatever, he hadn’t slept in a day, or was it two?
“Well,” Tony was a little hurt, “they could have at least told us what was going on before dropping off the map.” Their relatively unfriendly-neighbourhood-assassins were definitely getting late invitations to his next birthday shebang. See how they like being invited last minute.
“At least they told someone,” Bruce said, clearly not giving this snub from Romanov and Barton the level of concern it deserved. In fact Bruce was rocking an air of unsurprised acceptance, like he expected to not be trusted with the secret agendas of teammates they’d saved the world with. Tony wasn’t actually sure Natasha and Clint had told anyone about their actions across the globe these last few weeks. He figured it had probably just taken this long for SHIELD to cotton on to the fact that all the small attacks and employee disappearances and deaths were connected and that these two had something to do with it. Tony didn’t know Clint all that well, and he wasn’t sure he’d say he knew Natasha any better, but after the show down with Coulson what felt like ages ago, he’d put money down on the two not giving a fuck about telling SHIELD that they were going after internal corruption. Tony wouldn’t.
They could have at least warned him though. They knew he didn’t completely trust SHIELD.
“Stop dragging the energy of the room down, Brucie,” Tony glared at the images of Natasha and Clint for good measure. “We’ve got a SHIELD fixing-HYDRA wrecking party to join.”
“Jarvis, what’s their next likely target?” Steve had squared his shoulders and donned his business face. Tony began to bop slightly on his feet, energy ratcheting up. He was more than ready for a little action. It was inherently unfair that his teammates were blowing things up and he’d been sidelined without even knowing it.
“SHIELD headquarters,” JARVIS smothered the information Coulson had sent over with one solid image of SHIELD’s head office in DC. “The jet is ready.”
Right. Good. Tony went to the platform where JARVIS had his suit ready for donning. He would meet the jet in DC.
Iron Man arrived a few minutes late to the party due to a necessary detour that involved removing some ground to air missile platforms that were not a part of the Headquarters original blueprints. Blueprints or not the launch pads existed and had been intent vaporizing the team’s Quinjet. It only took a few minutes to destroy the weapons, ensure their launched missiles didn’t cause any kind of damage, and perform a quick scan of the building for more deadly surprises. Those few minutes, however, meant that Tony joined his teammates on the building’s top floor with more delay than he’d wanted. He’d planned on being first on scene.
To make up for the tardiness he flew through the massive floor to ceiling window that, sadly, had already been reduced to crumbled, no-longer-bullet-resistant, puddles of glass. It really messed with his dramatic entrance, but smashing in through the one remaining glass pane in the corner office just for the fun of it was not a sound safety choice. Or the mature option. Tony was just landing with a crunch on the broken glass when Steve, with excellent timing, kicked in the thick metal office door that separated he and Bruce from the room. Of course, being Steve, he hit the door with enough force that it flew off it’s hinges without protest and slid a good fifteen feet across the tiled floor. Captain America stormed into the considerable office with a scowl beneath the cowl and shield ready for action. Fury and Hill flooded in right behind him, one leather jacket flapping fiercely and three guns between them aimed and steady. Hill had a cut slowly leaking from her eyebrow and a very pissed off glint in her eye.
“Okay,” Tony retracted his faceplate the moment everyone seemed to still, and pointed accusingly at his no longer missing teammates. “If you can’t invite me to your Fiercely-Fun-Fridays than you will be vetoed from Wishful-Weapon-Wednesdays.”
Natasha didn’t seem impressed, but Barton looked mildly put out, or at least that was what Tony interpreted his look to mean beneath the facial bruising, butterfly bandages, and dirt. So much dirt. Plus the obvious exhaustion that made his eyes look bruised, let’s not discount that.
“You son-of-a bitch” Rumlow growled from where he was trussed up with handcuffs and tape and spread belly-down across a massive glass desk. He was making a nice cushion for Natasha as she sat primly on his Kevlar covered back but he was glaring with a special level of hate towards Clint. The pockets on his cargo pants rattled and clinked as he struggled like a landed fish. “I’m going to-” she jabbed him in between his shoulder blades with a widows-bite and, after a brief spasm, he fell still and silent beneath her. She appeared utterly unaffected by everything that was happening, and unsurprised to see them. Her legs kicked back and forth slightly from where the dangled over Rumlow and the tables edge.
“Explain,” Fury demanded into the silence that filled the space after Rumlow’s grunts and shaking stopped. His dark glare coated the room with severity, taking in all the players and their positions.
“Explain?” The incredulous question was repeated with a slightly higher toned voice. “What are you waiting for? Take these two into custody immediately!” Alexander Pierce, the head-honcho of SHIELD, ordered with slightly slurred words, though there was no mistaking the rage in his tone. He had blood trailing from his mouth and down his chin, staining his crisp blue shirt, and was practically frothing with rage. Fury looked to where Pierce was pinned to the office’s concrete wall with six arrows deeply embedded through key material points. His gaze then swept to the floor where a molar, bloody, white, and clearly half formed from some kind of glass capsule, rested near his feet.
Tony then followed Fury’s gaze to Clint, who was moving away from where he’d secured two unconscious men with what looked like strips of a tie. And a sock. Nobody was missing their shoes as far as Tony could see, and now he was curious about the foot coverings history.
“Nicholas!” Pierce snarled when nobody moved to comply with his orders immediately, and he spit on the floor to clear his mouth. Fury’s eye twitched but he kept his stare on Barton as the man moved with a near predatory gait that Tony hadn’t seen on him before. “What is wrong with you? They are traitors! Take them down, now!”
Natasha pulled a slim Stark phone from her pocket and threw it across the room to Maria, who holstered one gun as it sailed through the air, caught the phone without looking, shoved it into a pocket, and put both hands back on her remaining gun.
“He’s HYDRA,” the Black Widow said with barely a head nod towards Pierce. “They’ve infiltrated SHIELD. Confession’s on the phone, along with a couple addresses where we’ve detained a few of their loyalists. Might want to round them up sooner rather than later. Sitwell’s water supply will have run out yesterday.”
“Well, fuck.” Fury said flatly, weapon still raised. “Who the hell is that?” He nodded at the stranger that had somehow gone mostly unacknowledged to this point, standing off in the corner of the room: the corner furthest from Pierce, Rumlow, and the windows. He was armed for bear, decked out in Kevlar and black clothing, empty hands clenched at his side and he was pointedly not reaching for his weapons.
“He’s the Winter Soldier,” Pierce snarled. “You may recall he’s been on SHIELDs top five most wanted list for thirty years? He’s a murderer-” He shut up sharply when Clint slipped in front of him, an arrow knocked and drawn so smoothly it was difficult to trace the movement until he was already in place. Clint moved with that same, unfamiliar, predatory grace, and closed the gap, step by step, until the tip of the gleaming silver arrowhead pressed into Pierce’s neck. Right over his jugular. Clint’s face was completely flat, but his eyes, his eyes were gleaming with fury that Tony remembered from when he’d aimed his arrow at Loki with clear intent to use it.
Collectively the room stilled. After a long moment where Pierce swallowed very carefully and kept his breathing very even, Clint took a deep breath of his own.
“Say the word,” he said softly into what felt like an airless room despite the wind that howled outside the missing window and swept everyone hair around artistically.
“Stand down, Agent,” Fury said. Clint didn’t twitch, just kept staring into Pierce’s eyes; eyes that were beginning to look genuinely trapped. Clearly those weren’t the words Clint was looking for.
“Clint,” Steve tried after another tense moment passed. Natasha kept her eyes on the room, clearly covering her partners back. It was very obvious that Clint was her priority here.
Clint didn’t blink. Just waited, steady and strong, arms taut and hands relaxed, ready to loosen the fraction needed to let the arrow fly.
Slowly, the man in the corner moved forward, passing everyone with a shadows step. He moved beside Clint, shoulder to shoulder, and stared at Pierce for a long time. Then he rested a warm, metal, hand over Clint’s forearm, and gently pressed down. Clint firmed his lips, seemingly unhappy with the decision.
The scene was eerily reminiscent of when Natasha had gently rested her hand on Clint’s shoulder, when his arms had been shaking from exhaustion and pain and pointing a similar arrow at a self-proclaimed god dressed in green and gold. She wouldn’t have stopped him then, the decision had been his. Apparently the choice over whether or not Pierce lived, right here and now, wasn’t his.
Clint pulled the arrow tip from Pierce’s neck, leaving a tiny pinprick of blood, and released the tension on the bows string. In one swift move the arrow was back in his near empty quiver and the bow was lowered to his side. He stepped back and turned to face Fury, Hill, Steve, Tony, and Bruce, who had quietly slipped into the room after everyone else’s forceful entries. Clint watched them all with keen, wary eyes.
Pierce wisely didn’t struggle to move or say anything further from where he was pinned to the wall. One of the men on the floor groaned softly.
“He’s with us,” Clint stated flatly, a barely there head tilt towards the Winter Soldier, but obvious all the same. Fury didn’t seem keen on this idea.
“After we asses-”
“He’s. With. Us.” Clint’s tone changed, somehow promising severe retribution should anyone disagree. Natasha slid from her perch on Rumlow and smoothly stepped to his other side. The look on Clint’s face was a pretty convincing argument as far as Tony was concerned, but having the Black Widow and Winter Soldier flanking him put a pretty definite end to the argument they weren’t really having.
Fury looked pissed, but he holstered his gun and Hill followed suit.
“Is anyone else wondering how Barton got that filthy in a building made primarily from glass and steel?” Tony asked. “And what happened to your hair?” he took in the peach fuzz that was still short enough to show off his scalp.
A chirp piped up in answer from the only potted plant in the room. Then another chirp joined it. Then three ridiculously tiny marmosets hopped across the room in two leaps to scamper up Clint’s pants, over a multitude of pockets, weapon holsters, buckles, and shirt, to end their journey perched on his shoulders. They bopped up and down excitedly, but Clint didn’t react at all. He just kept on staring at Fury with his murder face.
“What the actual fuck,” Fury glared incredulously, “are monkey’s doing here?”
“They’re marmosets, Sir,” Hill corrected with absolutely no inflection.
“This is going into my greatest hits file,” Tony informed them all and tapped once near the camera built into his suit.
“They’re also with us,” Clint stated, not amused and clearly not giving two shits about anyone’s actual opinion of the matter. Two of the marmosets hopped from Clint’s stiff shoulders to his partners, clearly claiming the humans in return. Natasha’s lips quirked. The Winter Soldier continued to stare menacingly at them all, the marmoset lying flat on his head somehow not diminishing the general air of promised violence.
“Bucky?” Steve’s voice cracked into the new silence, uncertain, confused, and breathtakingly hopeful. The Soldier looked at him, blinked, and then his entire demeanour changed. It looked like he was taking his first breath of fresh air after being locked inside for years.
“Stevie?” he asked, his voice hushed, and just as hopeful as Steve’s.
And things slipped a little off track from there.
“So,” Tony kicked back in the Towers living room, feet up on the coffee table and a tall glass of iced tea in his hand. Clint, lying flat on his back with a wet cloth over his eyes, knees hanging over the couches arm so his legs dangled down the side, and two marmosets draped over his throat, didn’t react. “You had Steve’s long lost, world renowned, bestie fighting Hydra with you for weeks, and didn’t know it.” He was gleeful, because out of everything that had gone down since the fateful Coulson’s-not-dead reveal there had to be one funny thing in there. This was it.
It was pretty sad.
Standing over by the living room’s windows, staring out at buildings bathed in the early morning sun, Steve and Bucky Barnes were locked in soft conversation. They stood close, but were clearly giving each other space, like an awkward first date that was still going well but you didn’t want to risk more than a light touch on the shoulder as you stepped away from the table.
“Nope.” Clint replied, drowsy and unconcerned.
“The guys face is plastered all over the Smithsonian. His picture is in every Captain America file out there.”
“Like I have time for museums,” Clint grumbled, Lia and Akira rocking slightly as he spoke. “-n if I want to know something about Steve, I’ll ask Steve. Don’t want an exhibit.”
Across the room Steve turned to look at Clint, an expression of uncertain pleasure in his eyes, like he couldn’t decide how it made him feel that at least one person would learn about him on his own merit. Bucky Barnes followed his gaze, and his look was more difficult to read, but part of it seemed fond. Natasha, enjoying a cup of tea from the cushioned bucket seat next to Clint’s couch, didn’t look up from her book. Gob was partly hidden on her shoulder, tucked beneath her loose red hair and occasionally rubbing his face against her skin.
“Don’t you read SHIELD reports?” Tony wondered. “I thought the level seven agents were supposed to read reports. They even come with pictures.”
“Sleeping now,” Clint decided, and then clearly and deliberately slipped from consciousness. His pants were soggy where a homemade ice pack had melted against his hip not long ago. Tony looked at him with concerned amusement, before glancing at Natasha.
“How not okay is he?” He asked softly.
“He’ll be fine,” she looked at her partner with the marmosets making like living scarves over his neck, and allowed her affection to shine bright a moment, masking any concern, and they left it at that.
“Ward escaped midway through transport to the Raft,” Hill announced as she marched into Fury’s office on the Helicarrier. “No casualties.” Everyone seated around the conference table looked up at her, but Phil and Melinda didn’t seem surprised. Just annoyed, and maybe slightly resigned. They had warned the transport guards to be extra vigilant, and if their reports on Ward’s initial take down were accurate Ward should have been transported unconcious.
“That makes thirty-three agents on the list we were supplied with missing from our radar,” Victoria Hand looked back to the paper report on the desk before her. “Thirty-three known HYDRA-friendlies in the wind.”
“Twenty-nine dead from self-ingested hydrogen cyanide pills. Nine field agents who couldn’t have the tooth implant without it being discovered in medical exams shot themselves when being approached, two instigated anaphylactic death.” Maria laid out the stats as she took her own seat.
“This is seriously messed up,” Eric Koeing decided from his seat where he was tapping away at a tablet.
“We have eighty-two in custody, and Pierce.” Fury said. “We’re getting more information on programs they were involved in and names for our watch list, but how far the organization has built beyond SHIELD is what I want to know.”
“If we hadn’t caught this now, who knows how far it could have gone.” Victoria flipped a page in the status report. “As it is, we’re scrapping entire programs because we can no longer trust the work. Another three years and they would have been in a strong position for hostile takeover.” In the literal sense. They were all very aware.
“Why isn’t Agent Barton here?” Eric asked suddenly, looking over to Coulson who remained impassive in his seat next to Fury and May.
“Agent Barton is in stand down,” Fury said.
“Hawkeye has removed himself from SHIELD and will consent to contracts on my request only,” Natasha Romanov said from where she leaned against the far wall, a part of the meeting but not interested in joining them at the table; a silent statement none of them missed.
“I have not accepted his resignation,” Fury declared.
“He doesn’t care,” she said flatly and stepped away from the wall, eyes on Fury, “and that’s his choice. Push it and we’ll continue our investigation into HYDRA without you.”
That had everyone’s interest immediately, and they watched silently as she took her leave without another word. When the door slid shut behind her Fury looked at Coulson.
“He’ll be back,” he seemed unconcerned.
“Not the way we’d like, and not for a while” Phil said. “We leave him and Barnes alone.”
“You’re not seriously suggesting we release Hawkeye, not now, after everything they stirred up,” Victoria frowned.
“If we don’t let him go on his terms, we’ll lose him completely.” Melinda May said flatly. “We lose him, we may lose Romanov and the potential future aid of the Winter Soldier. I also wouldn’t bet on the continued easy support of any of the current Avengers. They were not happy to learn Barton met Bucky because he was being tortured by HYDRA with the endgame of turning him into a brainwashed weapon and no one knew.”
She glanced briefly at Phil, but kept her gaze travelling to everyone at the table. When Phil had learned about Barton’s capture he had disappeared himself. Nobody had known where he’d gone for six hours, before he returned to the bus like it was business as usual. He hadn’t brought it up once.
“That wasn’t SHIELD’s fault,” Eric pointed out.
“No,” Hill agreed before May could say more. “But other instances leading the Barton’s retreat are, and now they’re closing ranks. If we threaten any of them we risk alienating them. It’s not worth it. We work with Rogers and Stark, like they proposed, to deal with cleaning out SHIELD, and we move on.”
Phil and Fury’s eyes met, held, and they nodded to each other.
“Barton will be there if we need him, but he isn’t ours anymore,” Phil said, no room for argument, and no one was willing to challenge that particular tone. “Now, what happened with Ward?”
They moved on.
“You got space in your building?” James asked, stepping next to Clint, who was firing arrow after arrow at spots on the distant wall that would be difficult to spot without ocular modifications.
“Apartment next to me is empty,” Clint said as the shot he’d just released split an arrow at the far end of Tony’s range. Then he did it again, to show off. James seemed impressed, but was clearly trying to hide it with his bland staring face. “One right above is as well. Got a few on other floors.” He split the arrow again, a small pile splintered carbonfiber detritus beginning to pile up on the floor, and he contemplated how many arrows he wanted to wreck this way. He could easily destroy all but the last one in his quiver.
“Steve’ll front my first and last month until I get the bank thing sorted out.” James kept his gaze on the targets, and Clint appreciated the attention to his aim, but not the weird avoidance of eye contact. That wasn’t something the guy was known for.
“You got any references that’ll check out?” He asked and James cut him a stink eye, which was better. “Don’t like the tower?” He scratched absently at his two-day scruff, thinking he might shave soon.
“Wouldn’t mind some of my own space once in a while, and I hear you’ve got decent pest control,” James gave a little shrug. Clint pulled three arrows, knocked them all, drew, and looked at James.
“The apartment above mine has a trap door into the living room. Akira could have easy access,” he let them fly, the string scraping easily over his callused fingertips. Across the room three more arrows were split down the middle simultaneously, and James cracked a smile. Finally. Three weeks confined in the Tower, while Natasha, Tony and Steve worked with SHIELD, had been a bit strenuous for both of them, but mostly for James. It was easy to recognize a need to regroup after nearly two months of complete world re-arranging.
Clint just missed his own bed.
“James or Bucky?” He asked, because it had been bugging him these long weeks and he was tired of figuring out ways to address the guy without encroaching on potential identity minefields. He’d been waiting for him to say something, but if he was planning on being a more permanent neighbour this wasn’t going to fly.
“Either,” James said gruffly, and walked the short distance to the range’s exit and disappeared through it..
Clint looked at all the arrows at the far end of the room.
“Dum-E?” He asked, and the robot, waiting eagerly at his side, zoomed ahead to fetch his still functioning ammunition.
“SHIELD will start asking again in about a month,” Nat announced as she shoved bag of pre-packaged salad into Clint’s hands as she appeared in his apartment like a ghost.
“Not my problem,” Clint decided as he looked at the limp mixed-greens inside the plastic and tossed it on the counter beside a bowl he’d already prepared for her offering.
“A little bit your problem,” she grinned and jumped up to sit on the kitchen island, propping her flip-flop covered feet on one of the three backless stools he owned. Clint checked his watch and took a pull from his bottle of beer.
“You’ll let me know if I’m really needed.”
“Works for me.” She filched his beverage and finished it. He went and got another from the fridge, cracked it open and, leaning against the island, placed it between them. He checked his watch again, and looked at the oven. “He move in here yet?” She asked and Clint gave her a confused look.
“Buck moved in three weeks ago,” he reminded her. Clearly she was leading to something and he was contemplating questioning her after she raised her eyebrow at him in a pointed way, but the timer went off and recaptured his attention. Clint leapt to action donning giant, never before used, oven mitts and yanking the stove door wide to drag out a piping hot lasagne. He carefully put it on the stovetop, cheese broiled and bubbling over its surface, and then pulled out the second one.
“Yeah, he did,” Nat agreed, seemingly amused about something as she looked at the bubbling dishes. Clint frowned and was about to demand she use full sentences to explain what she seemed to think he should already know, when a knock on the door interrupted. Simone came in with a large salad bowl and warm smile, not bothering to wait to be greeted at the door. Then James appeared where the trap door in the ceiling was usually propped open, and came sliding down the rope that recently seemed to become a permanent fixture in Clint’s living room. His metal hand gripped it easily to bring him to a soft landing.
“Bucky!” Charlie, who had followed his mom into the apartment, ran over and wrapped himself around his jean-clad leg. James froze, and after a moment he pet the boy’s dark curls awkwardly.
“Nad,” Simone’s other child wobbled over and Natasha grinned, slipping from her stool to swing the tiny body up in her arms for a hug.
“It smells delicious, James,” Simone said with a soft grin, watching with pure amusement as he tried to pry Charlie from his leg without being obvious about it.
“Hey,” Clint frowned in affront at the compliments direction, and ignored Natasha’s smirk as she put the toddler down and took a pull from their beer.
“Good job not burning dinner, Clint,” Simone offered and helped herself to a drink from his fridge.
“I can cook,” Clint grumbled, and poked at one lasagne with his only spatula. Gob, Lia and Akira dropped to the floor from the tree and the kids immediately lost interest in their chosen adults and bolted for the marmosets. Clint and Bucky both managed to not flinch at the excited shriek that burst from the youngest.
“Let’s hope Steve can too,” Tony said, marching through the door like he owned the place and had been apart of their entire conversation, “because he wouldn’t let me buy dessert.”
“It’s a potluck Tony, you don’t buy pre-made food for a potluck,” Steve sounded like he’d been saying this all afternoon and would more than willingly keep saying it until Tony either accepted it or shut up about it. Clint looked pointedly at the pathetic bagged salad Natasha had brought, and Natasha looked pointedly at the lasagne Clint hadn’t made. “Hey Buck,” Steve grinned, almost shyly, at his brother. Bucky pulled him into a quick one-armed hug. Bruce, who had snuck in behind them both and was already squeezed into the suddenly much smaller kitchen, handed over two large paper bags.
“Garlic bread,” he said. “Ready for the oven.”
“There’s lemon water in the fridge,” Clint said, because if you were competent enough to save the world you were competent enough to manage to serve yourself a drink. Plus he was still trying to convince the guy he was welcome in this space. Clint raised a pointed eyebrow at Natasha, because yes, he could prepare proper drinks for people. He was a functioning adult. So there.
“Stark’s don’t do potlucks, and I’m embarrassed to be here,” Tony said, but he moved through the living room and plunked onto the couch happily enough. “Tunes Jarvis,” he requested.
“Clint?” JARVIS checked, voice coming from the phone tucked into his pants pocket, and Clint grinned at the betrayed look Tony threw at him.
“DJ’s choice, J,” Clint said, and leaned around James, from where he’d parked it beside him, to grab the dishtowel from the drawer handle. Neither really noticed the close contact from the action, having grown used to it the past few weeks. Steve looked from them to Natasha and raised an eyebrow. She raised an eyebrow of her own, and drank more of their beer.
“Clint?” Bruce said from where he was now stroking Akira’s back with his index finger, awkward but determined as the kids crowded him to watch on the living room floor. “You don’t have a dining table.”
Clint looked around his open plan apartment, like he hadn’t realized this before and was genuinely surprised.
“There’s tables and fold out chairs on the roof,” Simone said, and grinned when Clint looked thankfully at her. “And Zeke,” she added.
“What’s a Zeke?” Tony asked, pushing to his feet with clear intent to scope out a new avenue of the building. He marched to the door and out without waiting for an answer.
“Do not design a cloaking device for my roof while you’re up there, Tony,” Clint hollered after him.
“Nice,” Natasha approved as she slid from the table and went to wrangle Bruce into carrying the plates and cutlery up to the roof.
“Nice?” James asked, and Clint grinned at him, nudging his shoulder.
“Tell him you don’t want something that sounds complicated, and he decides it’s a challenge.”
“Nice,” James agreed. He looked to Steve. “You should suggest he couldn’t teach you to dance.”
“I could suggest he can’t throw you off the roof,” Steve pondered.
“I could teach you to dance,” Simone said, and grinned wickedly when Steve stumbled on his way to the door.
“Uhh-” Captain America responded eloquently.
“Gangnam style!” Charlie announced enthusiastically, and started doing a dance that looked more like an arm shuffle from side to side. Clint didn’t think that was gangnam style, but what did he know? Lia and Gob started hopping up and down on the coffee table.
“Let’s get upstairs,” Simone suggested. “I don’t want to miss Tony Stark meeting Zeke.” And Steve quickly followed her suggestion. In the kitchen Natasha bumped her hip against Clint and knocked him into Bucky, who barely shifted from the impact and steadied him with a grin.
“Breads going to burn,” she sing-songed, and wandered to the door with their beer. Akira dropped to her shoulder, digging into her hair happily.
James opened the oven and pulled the tray out with metal fingers.
“Handy,” Clint said as Lia and Gob bounced onto his own shoulders and began an odd mix of chittering and crooning as they poked at his ear. James glared at him, and then snorted when Clint just grinned unrepentantly.
Sometimes life kicked your ass, and people broke your heart and you had to kick and crawl and claw your way through it; and sometimes it was exactly what it needed to be. Lia licked his ear lobe, Natasha’s light laugh drifted from somewhere out of sight, and James prodded him to go find a bread knife with a hand still warm from holding the hot baking sheet.
It wasn’t perfect, far from it between moments like these, but Clint took a deep breath and found that, for now, he was more than happy to roll with it.
That’s all for this one folks! Thank you for joining me on this ride and I hope you liked it!! Feel free to let me know ;)
Juuust in case you care, I am slowly pecking away at a few more Clint fics and hope to be finished at least one of them in the next few months, so feel free to subscirbe so you don’t miss it.
Good day, good journey, good luck.