Prologue – March 2012
“Director Fury,” the crisp British voice says, sounding pissed, “this isn’t a request.”
Is it ever? Nick wonders. “You’re asking me to hand over one of my best field agents for an unknown period of time. You’ll forgive me if I’m hesitant.”
Jessica Waterbury of the World Security Council makes an impatient noise. “I’m aware Agent Coulson is your friend.”
Nick shakes his head, glaring up at the screen. “My objection isn’t personal.” Nick’s known Phil Coulson since he joined the Marines; at this point, Phil is less a friend and more just plain necessary. “There are other agents more qualified for this op. Agent Romanoff is the ideal – ”
Joe Chen, WSC representative from China, cuts him off mid-word. “Agent Romanoff isn’t an option. It took you nearly a year to de-programme her last time; who knows what repeat exposure to Department X would do to her.”
Privately, Nick agrees. Well, he’d send her anyway but he knows Phil wouldn’t let him, so he mostly agrees. Still, it’s a good bargaining chip: “You want to send an agent to Russia and gather evidence that the Department X project is still up and running. Who better than someone who was trained there?”
The official story from the Russian government is that Department X was closed down soon after the Cold War ended. It was a training ground for high level operatives, mostly assassins, and one of the conditions for letting Russia have a representative on the World Security Council was evidence that it was no longer running.
But the Russians aren’t stupid and Nick would have been surprised to discover that they actually had permanently shut down their highly successful espionage facility. Why the WSC are getting their panties in a knot about it now is anyone’s guess, and Nick would always rather not be involved in their internal politics.
“Is it Department X you want, or the Red Room?” he asks, raising his eyebrows at the screen.
“The Red Room is a myth,” Waterbury tells him. “A horror story to scare children into behaving. Do you really believe that, if the Russians had the ability to biologically and psychologically enhance children, we wouldn’t know about it?”
“The Red Room trained Agent Romanoff,” Nick returns, just as mildly.
Waterbury inclines her head. “Ask Agent Coulson to bring me evidence of that too,” she says, “and maybe I’ll believe you.”
“You just want evidence?” Nick asks her. “Or you want him to shut them down? Assuming I let him go, of course.”
“Just evidence for now,” Chen says. “He won’t be authorised to engage.” It isn’t surprising; even when the WSC decides to get off its ass, it rarely does so with any backbone.
Nick hates these people. He curls his fingers around the edge of his desk, out of their view, and wishes he had a button down here that fired stupidity-targeted missiles.
Maybe he could trick Stark into building him one.
“No one can know where Coulson is,” Chen says, as though Nick’s agreed to their crazy plan. “We’re talking the deepest cover possible, Fury.”
God, this is going to be a fucking nightmare. “That might be difficult. Coulson’s a popular guy.”
“How nice for him,” Waterbury says dryly. “Find an opportunity and get it done.”
The monitor flickers, then goes black.
Nick drops his head into his hands and massages his temples. “Because opportunities to completely disappear agents come along all the time,” he grumbles to empty air. Then he straightens up, sets his shoulders, and goes to steal some of Hill’s chamomile tea.
He thinks he’s earned it.
May 4, 2012
CCTV on the Helicarrier is full-colour HD with surround sound. Phil can see every twitch of Clint’s fingers against the blanket, study the stark red and purpling bruise in the centre of his forehead, and listen to his deep, even breathing.
It’s almost as good as being at his bedside, except that it’s not even close.
“Coulson,” Nick says, shutting the door to his inner office and then locking it with a firm click. “Time to go.”
“Yes, I’m ready.” Phil checks and double-checks his three hidden holsters, and then the knife in each boot. When it comes to concealed carry, he’s learned from the best.
There’s movement on the video monitor and Phil pauses, checking again, but Clint has just rolled over, his back to the camera now. There’s a cowlick curl at the nape of his neck that Phil first noticed on a long op in Sarajevo. He always thought he’d get to touch it one day, but now it looks like he never will.
Nick follows the line of Phil’s gaze and sighs. “He’s fine, Phil. Romanoff reported that he came back to himself before she knocked him out, you know that.”
Phil nods. “He’s going to wake up to the news that he helped kill one hundred and ninety-one agents,” and me, he doesn’t need to add. “He’s not fine.”
Nick smacks Phil on the shoulder. “Romanoff will look after him.”
Phil straightens, forces himself to reach over and turn the monitor off, the soothing drone of Clint’s breathing cutting off, leaving the office too quiet.
“All due respect, sir,” Phil says and earns a raised eyebrow for his trouble, “but if I wasn’t sure of that, I wouldn’t have accepted this mission.”
Nick doesn’t react, which is kind of him. Orders for this mission came straight down from the WSC, and it would have caused a headache that they don’t have time for if Phil had refused. Not that he would have given a damn about that, if Natasha hadn’t managed to fix Clint in her own unique style before it became Phil’s turn to try.
“Ready?” Nick asks, and Phil nods.
He holds out his hand. “Sir.”
“Good luck,” Nick tells him brusquely, shaking Phil’s hand for longer than Phil was expecting. They’ve worked together nearly twenty-five years, and stopped admitting to worrying about each other around the fifteen-year mark.
Phil nods and turns away, toward the escape hatch.
“Phil,” Nick says quietly and Phil sighs, turning back and reaching into his pocket.
“They’re mint,” he says, a useless protest but not a token one. He rubs his thumb over Captain America’s square-jawed face and drops the cards into Nick’s waiting palm.
“I’ll take good care of them,” Nick promises, fanning the cards out in his fist.
“No, you won’t,” Phil tells him, resigned. He unlocks the outer door and then pauses, hand on the doorframe, wind messing his hair. “Don’t let Barton sink too deep into his head. The Initiative would be a good fit for him.”
Nick salutes Phil with his trading cards. “Already thought of that,” he promises. He nods his head toward the open doorway and the Quinjet docking quietly just behind Phil. “Your ride’s here.”
“Sir,” Phil agrees, and lets the door swing closed between them.
Clint sends Phil five text messages before he starts to wonder if something’s wrong.
They’re in Stark’s hideously sleek private jet, ferrying Loki back to SHIELD, and Clint would have expected some kind of contact by now, even if it was just to mock him for running out of arrows. Phil’s always on at him to pack three times more ammo than he thinks he’ll need.
“Hey, Stark,” Clint says, waving his phone across the aisle. “You get signal in this old tin can, right?”
“Thirty thousand feet up in the air?” Banner asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Please,” Stark says, preening more for Banner than for Clint. “That’s Stark tech; I had signal right up until I hit another dimension.”
“Right.” Clint sinks back into his seat and tries not to feel stupid that he’s waiting this desperately for word from his handler. It’s just that it’s been a week since Loki blew up the JDEM lab, and Clint can’t remember the last time he went that long without at least hearing Phil’s voice in his ear once.
Natasha is sitting opposite Clint, and watching him way more closely than normal. He’s not sure what she thinks he’s going to do – if he were her, he’d be more worried about her new friend Banner and his Hulk-like ways – but he doesn’t like what it might imply.
“Nat?” he asks, shifting forward.
She leans forward too, bottom lip caught between her teeth for a moment. She’s uncertain. Now he’s definitely worried.
“I need to talk to you,” she says quietly, “as soon as we’re not – ” A quick tilt of her head to indicate all the guys sitting around them, trying and failing to pretend they’re not listening in.
Clint nods. “Sure?” he agrees, half-asking even though she’s just said she’s not going to give him an answer here.
She sits back in her chair, folding her arms loosely and looking out the window.
Okay, then, Clint thinks and flips his phone open again. Maybe the sixth time will be lucky and he’ll catch Phil during a break between briefings or whatever it is that Fury has him tied up with.
May 4, 2012 11:23
To: Coulson, Phil
Sorry about that. Reporting for duty sir.
May 4, 2012 13:00
To: Coulson, Phil
Ok dashing out to save the world. Don’t wait up.
May 5, 2012 00:02
To: Coulson, Phil
World saved. Do I get a gold star?
May 5, 2012 00:31
To: Coulson, Phil
May 5, 2012 01:32
To: Coulson, Phil
Cool. I get it. You’re busy and important. See you at base, napping now.
May 5, 2012 12.41 pm
To: Coulson, Phil
Phil? You’re ok yeah?
Phil wakes up because a rat runs across his calf.
He thinks that sentence through and decides to pretend that he never thought it. Then he stands up abruptly and dusts off his pants.
A quick check of his watch shows he slept for five hours, which means he should be somewhere on the outskirts of Kaluga by now. Latest intelligence puts the World Security Council’s contact in the centre of the city, but Phil doesn’t trust any intelligence that he didn’t gather himself or ask Natasha to gather for him.
The cargo container he’s travelling in smells musty and hot this morning, the straw which made such a good bed last night now aggravating non-existent allergies under the hem of his worn and grubby jeans.
Phil walks carefully across the car and drags the heavy metal door open, just far enough to look out. It’s already warm outside, the sun low in the sky but shining brightly in a hazy-blue sky. It glints off the top of rooftops as the train thunders past them, small towns just waking up and visible only to Phil.
The last time he snuck into Russia the unofficial way was the time they were sent to take out Natasha. That was a hot day, just like this, but he had Clint at his side then, complaining about the heat and insisting on sharing his water bottle with Phil.
The train’s approaching a bridge now, the Oka River wide and sparkling silver beneath it. Phil picks up his pack from where it’s propped in the corner and quickly checks the zipper and waterproof seals.
He waits until he knows the water will be a safe depth and then steps to the edge of the car. Somewhere back home, the Avengers are (hopefully) beating the shit out of an alien invasion; Phil can jump from a bridge if necessary. (Even if he does have a secret, private hatred of cold water.)
Folding his arms tight across his chest, he bounces where he stands once, twice, and then launches himself out into empty air, falling straight down.
They leave Clint alone for forty-eight hours after Thor takes Loki back to Asgard. He lies on his back on his SHIELD issue bed in his SHIELD issue room and calls himself every name in the book for wallowing.
He made this happen; he doesn’t have the right to be upset about it, but knowing that doesn’t stop him from feeling like shit.
Clint isn’t the kind of guy who stops to think all that often. He’s much more for doing than for thinking, but right now he can’t turn his brain off.
He remembers everything about his time with Loki, he remembers blowing up an engine and nearly killing everyone on board the ‘carrier and he remembers murdering agents who he’d passed in the corridors a million times.
What he doesn’t remember is Phil.
The last time he saw Phil, they were catching breakfast together in the canteen on the day the Tesseract went crazy. Clint was so tired that he missed his mouth while trying to drink his coffee, and ignored Phil mocking him for it. Phil told Clint all about how Captain America was reportedly out of isolation back home, and ignored Clint mocking him for that.
It’s not a bad memory as last memories of someone go. It’s just that Clint had a plan for them, he was playing the long game, and the fact that he never got to see it through makes his chest feel like someone attacked it with a blunt ice cream scoop.
The door opens, but Clint ignores it. Either it’s Natasha or it’s not and, if it’s not, Clint isn’t interested. There’s not a fuckload of privacy in SHIELD as it is; there's none at all for the recently mind-whammied.
“All right, Barton, on your feet.”
It’s not Natasha; it’s Hill. Clint stays where he is.
Clint likes Hill; she always talks to him like she wants to kill him. He appreciates honesty like that from a person.
“I’m on medical leave,” Clint says, still looking up at the ceiling. “Ma’am.”
“Bullshit,” Hill snaps, which is uncharacteristic enough that Clint swings his head around to look at her. Not that he doesn’t often make people swear at him, but he’s normally done something worse than lying down to provoke it.
“Ma’am?” Clint asks, meaning it a bit more this time. He sits up and frowns at her. “I really am on medical leave. There was a whole… Norse God in my head thing a while back. Maybe you remember?”
A pulse in Hill’s jaw ticks. “I need you back out there, Barton,” she says. “We’re hundreds down and it’s all hands on deck.”
Clint tries to imagine being out there, the friends and co-workers of the people he killed all waiting for him to go crazy again. Imagines standing in the control room without Phil somewhere on the edge of his sightline. It all feels so wrong that it makes his stomach churn.
“I’m a sniper,” he reminds her, “not much call for that at the moment.” They’re docked in the old Brooklyn navy yard for repairs and, last he heard, it wasn’t going too quick.
One thing you can say for Clint, when he betrays everything that matters to him, he does it thoroughly.
Hill uncrosses her arms and rests her hands on her hips instead. “You have hands, don’t you? There’s debris to clear up, doors to reattach, walls to paint. Name it and we need it done.” She narrows her eyes. “Tell me you don’t owe us at least that.”
Oh, she’s good. Also kind of an asshole. Clint swallows. “Where do you want me?” he asks.
“Start in the boiler room,” she suggests. “Captain Rogers is there repairing pipes, I’m sure he could use a hand.”
Clint doesn’t flinch. Even locked away in here, he knew that Rogers was back on board. Hell, Clint likes the guy; he’s glad he’s here to lend a hand. It’s not Rogers’ fault that Clint can’t even think about him without remembering Phil’s enthusiastic, surprisingly open smile all the times he told Clint the Epic Tale of Captain America.
“Yes, ma’am,” Clint says and forces himself to get off the bed.
It takes Phil three frustrating minutes to work out that the contact the WSC told him to meet is useless.
Worse than useless, even, because not only does he not know anything, he desperately wants Phil to believe that he does.
“What did they promise you?” Phil asks, leaning forward in the chair that the informant directed him to. They’re sitting on lawn chairs in the middle of a dusty, disused barn. Phil couldn’t have prearranged a less subtle meet.
“I don’t understand,” the man, Tsigler, tells him in Russian, glancing nervously toward the door and then, tellingly, the window to Phil’s left.
“You might want to stick to English,” Phil tells him. “Unless the men waiting outside this room can speak that too?”
Tsigler’s eyes flare. “No,” he says slowly, “no, they cannot.”
Phil smiles at him encouragingly. Now they’re talking. “You don’t know how to get into Department X, do you?”
“Department X, yes, that’s right,” he says, back to Russian, looking desperately at Phil. ”I’ll give you the access codes. Do you have the money?”
He waits until Phil is bending down, pretending to look through his bag before whispering in English. “My brother works for them. When they hear that your government is close, they say I have to make you come here or they kill him.”
Phil nods. This isn’t his first rodeo. He pulls a packet out of his bag and throws it at Tsigler. “Here’s your money.” he says at normal volume then adds, “I can deal with the men here and there’s enough money in there to get you and your brother a few provinces away.”
Tsigler’s eyes go wide as he opens the envelope and flicks through the bills folded up inside. “Why?” he whispers, staring at Phil like he’s a god. It’s not a look that Phil enjoys.
“Because I need your help.” Phil leans forward, nudging his bag open slightly with his knee and letting Tsigler see the small arsenal he’s toting.
Tsigler’s eyes go wider still.
“You obviously have no information for me, but I’m sure you can tell me who does.” Phil raises his eyebrows and looks from the window to the door pointedly.
Tsigler was already fairly pale, now he goes white. “No,” he says, “no, there is no one who – ”
Phil just keeps looking at him. “Now that’s just not true, is it?” he asks patiently.
Tsigler looks as though he’d rather be dead. But a lot of people look like that, until it becomes a probability. “I do not know his true name,” he says at least, speaking quickly. “But they call him the Winter Soldier. He is one of only two to escape from the Department.”
Yeah, and Phil knows who the other escapee was. Facts and rumours start running through his head, slotting together and creating a new plan. He’s heard of the Winter Soldier, but Natasha told them he was probably dead and SHIELD has the more recent sightings of him categorised as probable myth or copycat. “And where do I find him?”
Tsigler shakes his head. “I do not know.”
He’s lying, Phil thinks. From what Phil’s heard about the Winter Soldier, he can see why Tsigler wouldn’t want to be the person who sold him out, but it’s still annoying.
“That’s a shame,” Phil says, switching to loud Russian. “I was so hoping you’d be able to help - “
“Please,” Tsigler says, looking and sounding stricken. “Please. I do not know the Winter Soldier’s movements, but I know that there is a bar.” He turns over the sheaves of paper in his lap and writes something quickly in the top right corner. “This is the address.”
Phil takes the papers and memorises the address quickly before tucking it away into his bag. ”Thank you for your help, Mr Tsigler,” he says, standing up and offering his hand. ”My government will remember this.”
Tsigler takes his hand and the scrap of paper that Phil quickly palms to him. It’s a SHIELD emergency egress number. Their local contact endorsed the WSC’s faulty information, so he deserves to have to clean up this mess.
“Thank you,” Tsigler says and again in English, “Thank you.”
Phil nods. From outside, he can hear the soft click of someone flicking a safety catch off. “Mr Tsigler,” Phil says, hefting his bag up onto his recently vacated chair. “You might want to go crouch down in that corner over there. I recommend closing your eyes; this may get messy.”
Tsigler nods and darts out of the way, still clutching his money.
Phil reaches into his bag, pulls out a V-61 Scorpion, his least favourite of the submachine guns
that he packed, and takes a step toward the window.
“Can I ask you a question?” Rogers asks, tossing a wrench up at Clint.
Clint catches it easily and swings left, hanging by one hand to reach a particularly stubborn panel. “Sure.”
Rogers clears his throat. “You, uh, you might want to come down first.”
Clint has finally got a lock on the most stubborn nut, and he gives it a vicious twist. “Cap,” he says, “I don’t fall. Just ask your question.”
“All right,” Rogers says, but it still takes him a little time before he does. “I, um, I heard some people talking and… Tony said there was a cellist but a lot of the junior agents seem pretty convinced that you and Agent Coulson were, um.”
Clint’s wrench slips free and he settles for smacking the panel really hard a couple of times.
“Clint?” Rogers asks. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have - ”
“No,” Clint tells him steadily. “Coulson and I weren’t, we weren’t anything.”
It’s obvious Rogers is uncomfortable. “Right, okay. Sorry. Everyone just, they seemed pretty certain that you were important to each other.”
Clint sighs and swings back up until he’s sitting on the ladder he was hanging from. That panel’s not coming off.
“Right, yeah,” he says, looking down and offering Rogers a shrug. “I guess that part’s true.” A lot of people have been important to Clint. The fact that he seemed to matter to Phil too was what made it feel different.
Rogers looks up at him for a long moment or two, then swipes a hand across his forehead, smudging dust and oil up into his hair. “You know what,” he says, giving Clint a small, uncertain smile, “I think we’ve done enough for today. Want to go get a beer?”
Phil is nursing his second bottle of Baltika when the door pushes open and a young man in a thick leather jacket and heavy biker boots walks in.
Phil glances up at the bartender, the same way he has every time she’s gotten a new patron this evening. He’s got to admit he’s a little surprised when this is the time that she widens her eyes, just slightly, and turns a wine glass over on the shelf, their prearranged signal.
The man – the Winter Soldier, apparently, although he can’t be the same one Natasha knew a decade ago – leans against the bar and orders vodka, straight. Phil is near enough to hear that his Russian accent has a soft twang of somewhere else to it, but far enough away that it shouldn’t be obvious he’s listening.
While the bartender is fixing his drink, the Soldier looks around the bar, letting his eyes rest on everyone for a second before moving on. No one looks back at him, so Phil makes sure to lower his eyes too, ignoring how much it grates to take his eyes off the target.
When he hears the clink of a glass against the bar, Phil lets himself look back up. The Soldier is half-turned around still, a clearly defensive position. The only way of sneaking up on him would involve coming at him from behind the bar and, if he drinks here regularly, he’s obviously decided that’s unlikely.
Phil wasn’t planning on jumping him in the bar, not in front of everyone else, so he leans back in his seat and drinks one sip of beer for every three he pretends to take.
It’s dark in the bar and the Soldier has long, shaggy black hair, which falls into his face, creating a darker-still shadow over his eyes. Phil can’t get a good enough look at his face to see if he matches any of the e-fit images that Phil keeps in the back of his brain.
Phil has always been someone who likes to make plans and back-up plans, which is why he moved quickly from field agent to handler, so he isn’t comfortable going into this with no information. He knew from the start that this mission had to be handled without backup, though, so he’s going to have to roll with it.
He briefly imagines the looks Clint and Natasha would give him, and then each other, if they knew that he was out here, winging it. Then he forces himself to stop that, take a deep breath, refocus on the job at hand.
Thinking about Clint, about the people he left behind who presumably think he’s dead by now, is a distraction he can’t afford.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t look relaxed, even sitting at the bar, but he’s also showing no signs of moving on. He orders a second vodka and turns to rest his elbows on the bar, shoulders hunched. He isn’t a big man, Phil’s height or not much taller, and his jacket moulds perfectly to his upper body, revealing narrow hips and slender shoulders.
Phil knows better than to judge someone’s fighting ability on how they look – he knows Natasha – but he’s still surprised that this is the man who is talked about in fearful whispers everywhere that he’s known.
It takes more than an hour before the Soldier finishes his last drink and sets it on the bar with a decisive click.
“Good night,” he says to the bartender, voice surprisingly soft and polite, and nods to her when she smiles at him. Her eyes cut to Phil, who stays where he is, unmoving.
Phil waits to see what he’ll do next, whether he’ll head out now or maybe approach one of the girls who have been eyeing him from the back of the room. Instead of doing either, he stands up, and walks around to the left of the bar, disappearing through a side door, which Phil has already established is the restroom.
Phil waits sixty seconds, fingers itching against the rough material of his jeans. He gets up, takes his bottle back to the bar and orders another before heading through the door after the Winter Soldier.
“I think this beer is defective,” Clint tells Steve, setting his empty glass back on the table and frowning at it.
Steve (at some point he became Steve; Clint thinks it might have been between beers six and seven) licks foam off his top lip and says, “It tastes pretty good to me.”
Clint waves a hand at him, almost smacking him in the chest. That isn’t Clint’s fault; the guy has a lot of chest. “Right, yeah, it’s fine, but it’s not getting me drunk. I’d really like to be drunk, Cap.”
Steve raises an eyebrow at him. “Should I get you something else?” he asks. He’s the one going up and down to the bar, since he’s made best buddies with the bartender. Clint’s pretty sure she’s going to be slipping him her phone number soon.
He wonders what Steve’ll do when that happens. Probably blush so hard that he melts through the floor. For a guy who’s got to be the hottest man Clint’s ever seen in real life, aesthetically speaking, he’s turning out to be really bad at getting hit on.
“Nah,” Clint tells him, propping his cheek on his hand and staring across at Steve. “I know when I’m beat.”
Steve purses his lips. “If it helps, you seem a little tipsy to me.”
Clint laughs, giving Steve a lazy thumbs-up. “Thanks, buddy.” He is tipsy, sure, maybe more than, but his thoughts aren’t slowing down any and that sucks. He just wants to forget everything for a while, block it all out and kill some brain cells.
Steve finishes his own beer and then sighs, gets up and disappears into the Saturday evening crowd. Before Clint has time to wonder if it was something he said, he’s back, carrying four shot glasses per hand.
“Here,” he says, pushing half of them across to Clint. “I wasn’t sure what you like but it’s vodka, and everyone likes vodka, right?”
“Thanks,” Clint says, downing the first one without even thinking about it. It’s strong, tastes expensive, and it burns his throat better than the beer ever could. “Are you s’posed to be getting me drunk? Aren’t you all like - ” He waves a hand around. “Moral and stuff?”
Steve picks up one of his shots and runs a finger around the rim. “Sometimes you need to do what you’re doing - I lost someone too, in the war - sometimes you need something to help dull the pain. That doesn’t seem like the worst thing to me.”
That last shot has definitely done more for Clint than the beer managed to, but he does his best to look Steve straight in the eye. The guy is being nice enough to get Clint drunk, the least Clint can do is listen when he’s telling him painful-sounding stuff.
“You can’t get drunk, though, right?” he asks. “How’d you get it to stop hurting?”
Steve looks away. “I didn’t,” he says, with a smile that isn’t a smile at all.
Phil finds the Soldier at a sink, washing his hands. Phil isn’t surprised to see that he’s tracking Phil in the cracked, spotted mirror above the sink, following his movements across the small room.
“Good evening,” Phil says, and heads toward one of the two stalls that are lined up a few feet behind the Soldier.
Phil’s Russian is fluent but he learned it on a long-ago mission to Tajikistan, one of his first with Nick, so his accent won’t stand up to inspection, especially not from someone who’s already predisposed to suspicion. Especially right now, when he isn’t trying.
He pauses in the doorway, one hand on the frame and, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the Soldier tense.
They turn to each other at the same time. There’s a knife in the Soldier’s hand but Phil blocks it, grabs his wrist and follows the downswing, brings his arm up behind his back.
The Soldier lifts a foot and stamps on Phil’s instep, kicking him in the knee immediately after. It hurts but nothing dislocates or cracks, so Phil doesn’t loosen his grip.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says quickly, “I have a proposition.”
“I don’t care,” the Soldier tells him and flips his hand over, jabbing back with the knife in a cack-handed, backward move that still manages to nick Phil’s wrist bone and embed shallowly in his forearm.
Phil tugs sharply on the arm he’s holding, twisting them both backwards, kicks off the wall so he can push the Soldier into the bank of sinks, bend him backward, the top of his head an inch above a solid metal faucet.
He’s good, better than Phil, but Phil is confident that he could knock him out if he had to.
“Now,” Phil says, “will you listen to me? I’m not here to hurt you. I think we can work together.”
The Soldier glares up at Phil, looking murderous. He jerks his head forward like he wants to headbutt Phil in the face and his hair falls back off his face, letting Phil get his first clear look at him.
The Winter Soldier has pale skin, sharp blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones and a profile that Phil probably shouldn’t recognise, considering he’s only seen it on a handful of old newsreels, but he does. Immediately.
“Barnes?” he asks even though it’s not, it can’t be. Except. Except Phil has spent the better part of fifty years learning all there is to know about the Howling Commandos and he knows, no trace of a doubt, that’s exactly who this is. “You’re Sergeant Barnes.”
The Winter Soldier, James Barnes, a man who died sixty-eight years ago, goes very, very still. He stares at Phil from eyes that are suddenly wide, lost, and Phil thinks for a moment that he’s gotten through that easily, but then his expression shutters and he shoves Phil away.
Phil’s sufficiently stunned that he lets himself fall back. He lands against the frame between the stalls and watches as Barnes runs. Phil doesn’t try to stop him, just straightens up and pulls the knife from his arm, turning it over thoughtfully in his hands.
Because Steve Rogers is a good guy, he doesn’t leave Clint to drown in his own puke on the floor of the bar. Instead, he pulls him to his feet, slings an arm under his shoulders and totes him back to SHIELD.
Clint is eternally grateful. Or he will be once he’s sober enough to have feelings.
“Will you be all right?” Steve asks, stepping back after dropping Clint onto his bed.
Clint waves him away. “Yeah,” he promises, turning onto his side because he doesn’t want to choke on his own puke. That’s never a fun time.
Steve hovers. Clint isn’t used to that. Well, he is, Phil used to hover around when Clint got himself hurt, but he was way more subtle than Steve is, usually waving a form or a medal or a threat to fire him as an excuse to stay close.
Clint pokes at the memory cautiously. It aches, but it’s nice to be able to think about Phil while he’s too numb to get bowled over by the full force of the hurt.
“Go away, go home,” Clint groans, rolling onto his stomach and burying his face in his pillow. He can’t feel his lips. He needs to find out what kind of vodka it was that Steve plied him with and buy a whole fucking room full of it.
He listens to Steve move around the room, too blurry in the head to turn and check what he’s doing. He (mostly) trusts that Steve isn’t going to try to stab him in the back.
“There’s water here,” Steve says, followed by the thud of someone with super-strength trying to set a glass down quietly. “Want me to see if I can find some pain pills?”
Ugh, apparently Clint really does have to show proof of life. “S’fine,” he slurs, “I’ve got some.” He squints his eyes open and leans up far enough to meet Steve’s eyes. “Fuck off now, okay?”
Steve smiles slightly, not looking offended, which is kind of what Clint was aiming for; he’s glad he got it right. “Okay,” he says, “good night.” A pause. “Clint.”
“Night, Steve,” Clint says and flops back down, groaning in satisfaction when Steve flips off the light before leaving Clint alone.
For five minutes or so, Clint revels in the quiet, in the sluggish flow of his brain which can’t settle on a thought long enough to obsess over it.
It’s peaceful. Clint’s a big fan of peace.
Then he realises that he can’t fall asleep, that he’s apparently not going to pass out, and all of a sudden he isn’t just alone, he’s really fucking lonely. That doesn’t happen often; he isn’t big on needing people, but right now he’s drunk and the quiet’s so thick he thinks he’s going to suffocate on it.
He’s out of bed, out of his room before he’s thought it through, and standing in the middle of the corridor with no idea where it is he wants to go now, other than back in time.
It’s late by the time Phil finishes taping up the shallow knife wound in his arm and lies down on his hard, narrow bed. It’s the only immovable piece of furniture in the small, bare room, which he’s renting by the day from an elderly woman who clearly thinks he’s on the lam.
Intellectually, he knows that he needs to sleep – he had one lead and he fucked that up this evening, so he needs to spend tomorrow cultivating new ones – but his brain is busy chanting Bucky Barnes, that was Bucky Barnes at him in increasingly excited tones.
Concentrating on anything else is proving impossible.
He beats his pillow flat a few times and then rolls onto his back, staring up at the ceiling through the grainy, grey darkness.
Meeting Steve Rogers was everything and nothing like Phil had been expecting. He’d expected a good man, a driven man and he’d gotten one, but what he hadn’t been expecting – stupidly, because it was obvious in retrospect – was a very lost, very young man, grieving for everyone he ever knew.
Phil hasn’t let himself think about the possibility of going home after this mission – now that the WSC has a completely untraceable operative, they’re not going to give that up without a fight – but now he can’t help imagining what it would be like to be the man who brings Bucky Barnes home to Steve Rogers.
It’s a heady thought.
“What are you doing?” Natasha asks patiently, holding a knife to Clint’s throat before he’s even gotten his legs sorted out under the blanket.
“Don’t stab me,” he mumbles because he thinks that’s something he probably wouldn’t enjoy too much.
Natasha doesn’t lower her knife. It’s too dark to see her properly, but he imagines that she’s scowling. “You’re in my bed. I was sleeping.”
“Mmm. Sleeping, yeah, I like that plan.” Clint lies down, tucked up on one side so he’s not taking up all her space. He’s the dizzy kind of drunk now; it had taken all his concentration to get himself down to her room once he decided that that was where he wanted to go.
“Clint,” she says very firmly. “I will kick you out of this bed and you will not enjoy that very much.”
Clint groans. He’ll fuck off if she really wants him to, but right now she sounds confused more than genuinely annoyed. “Tasha,” he says carefully, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
She’s silent for long enough that his swimming brain tries to drag him down into sleep. He fights it off. Getting kicked to the floor while unconscious would hurt even worse.
“Fine,” she sighs eventually. “But don’t drool on my pillows.”
“Never,” he promises and carefully wipes off the corner of his mouth with his sleeve.
Natasha shifts around until her shoulder is pressed against Clint’s chest. “I don’t cuddle and I’m not going to spoon with you,” she warns him.
Clint smiles, presses his face into the top of her arm. After a minute, she reaches down and links their fingers together, giving his hand a squeeze.
The bartender looks surprised when Phil comes back. He doesn’t blame her; he wasn’t planning to be here again either. However, this is the end of a long and fruitless day, and he did enjoy the beer the other night.
“You need something else?” she asks him in heavily accented English. “You have already scared off my best customer.”
“Just a beer,” Phil tells her in Russian and pulls up a stool to the bar, the same place that Barnes sat last time. He waits until she’s set the bottle in front of him, then pays her five times what it’s worth. “How long has the Winter Soldier been coming here?”
She looks at him, her eyes narrowed then looks down at the money, considering. “Six months, maybe,” she says. “My father’s father told stories of him though,” she adds with a shrug, like she knows that’s impossible but it’s still the truth.
Phil finds himself growing increasingly curious. The Winter Soldier has been popping up in reports since back when SHIELD was a pipe dream in the back of Nick Fury Senior’s mind, so Barnes clearly wasn’t frozen in time like Captain Rogers. How he still looks like a man in his late twenties, Phil doesn’t know. It isn't a mystery he’s happy to leave unsolved.
The bartender pours Phil a shot of grappa that he didn’t order. He raises his eyebrows at her. She sighs, drinks the shot for him and pours him another.
“It’s not poisoned,” she says, laughing softly in the back of her throat. “Do you plan to kill him?”
Phil drinks his shot. It burns all the way down, but he learned to drink in the Rangers and then renewed his skills with Natasha so he doesn’t wince.
“Only as the very last resort,” he tells her because it’s best never to categorically promise not to kill anyone. You never know when circumstances might change.
She nods thoughtfully, then apparently decides that’s acceptable because she sticks out her hand. “I’m Nina. Are you hungry?”
Phil is, in point of fact, starving. “You serve food?”
Nina shakes her head. Her mouth keeps quirking when she looks at Phil, as though he’s entertaining her. Phil isn’t sure what to make of that; most civilians aren’t usually amused by potential murderers.
“No,” she says, “but I have soup warming upstairs. I could spare a bowl.”
“Oh.” Phil blinks, genuinely taken by surprise. He doesn’t expect to find kindness on missions like this. “Thank you. If you’re sure?”
She smiles at him, giving him a pat on the hand before stepping back out of sight. Phil watches her go, not sure what to make of that. Just in case, he puts his hand on his most accessible gun.
Nina doesn’t come back with a shotgun or a Department X militia though, just an earthenware bowl full of spicy-smelling soup, a few chunks of bread floating on top.
“Don’t tell me if it’s bad,” Nina tells him, handing him a spoon. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe.”
Phil has been subsisting on MREs and slightly brown cheese since he got to Russia, too busy to go out for a meal and not wanting to attract attention, either. He isn’t sure he’d notice if the soup were the worst food on earth. Luckily, it’s not; it’s rich and peppery enough to warm him all the way through.
He tells her that, adding a very sincere, “Thank you,” after it. He starts to reach for his wallet, but Nina stops him.
“My name is Nina Tsigler,” she tells him in careful English. “I think you are the man who saved my cousins’ lives. You don’t need to pay for soup.”
Phil pulls his hand back. He isn’t used to being rewarded for taking the fastest route to achieve his mission’s objective. He isn’t going to turn down her kindness, however.
Nina is looking at him closely when he looks up again. “The bar closes in an hour,” she tells him, back in Russian.
He’s just about to tell her that he knows that and that he’ll be gone by then, when he realises what she’s actually saying.
She’s half his age and very beautiful; it’s flattering.
“I’m married,” he tells her, thinking of Clint, who he hasn’t even gotten to kiss, but to whom he’s been committed for a long time, just waiting to make his move until he was no longer Clint’s direct superior.
Nina shrugs, straightening up and moving over to serve an old man who’s just bellied up to the bar. “I’m not,” she calls over her shoulder with an unapologetic little smile.
The funeral services for the personnel who died on the Helicarrier start on Monday. There are so many of them, more than anyone has time for, but no one complains about the time away from repairs.
Clint doesn’t go.
To be fair, he probably wouldn’t have gone to most of them even if he hadn’t been indirectly responsible for the whole damn thing. He’s not very good at having emotions in front of other people and he hates it when they have them anywhere near him. (It’s one of the reasons why he appreciates Natasha’s existence; she feels exactly the same way. Phil used to call them his little robots but… Never mind that, now.)
There are a couple of funerals he would have gone to under other circumstances though.
There was a girl who worked in R&D who always smiled at him in the lunchline and made jokes about the weird goop the cooks served that was supposed to be custard. Clint doesn’t know why she was down on the main levels, but he’s seen the footage: she was between him and Loki, and he shot her through the chest before she even knew he was there.
And there’s Phil. He would definitely have gone to Phil’s funeral. Hell, he might still go to Phil’s funeral and pretend like he can’t see the stares he’ll get, except that he can’t find out when it is.
Hill doesn’t look surprised when he corners her in the armoury, just shifts a box of cartridge cases to the left and makes a mark on her clipboard.
“Agent Barton,” she says, “want to help me audit our ammo stocks?”
“Not really,” Clint tells her, squatting down in front of her. “How come you’re not at Agent Morley’s service?”
Hill makes another mark on her clipboard. “This is more valuable,” she says shortly.
Clint shrugs. It is. And it’s seriously none of his business, not when he knows that Hill and Morley were regular sparring partners and that scuttlebutt says they shared an apartment when they were both junior agents.
“Ma’am,” he says, “When’s Agent Coulson’s funeral? It’s not on the list.”
Hill looks up at him. He appreciates that she didn’t ask why he’s not at Morley’s funeral, but he doesn’t appreciate the look of wide-open something in her eyes right now.
“Agent Coulson’s body has been shipped back to Massachusetts for a private funeral,” she tells him, rubbing at her chin with one dusty hand.
Clint frowns. “SHIELD agents don’t get family funerals.”
“This one did,” Hill says with a shrug.
“But that’s.” Clint stops himself. He’s not going to argue. He’s not going to do anything to make her look at him like he’s any more pathetic than she already is. “To his family?”
Phil told Clint once that he didn’t have any family, just a mother who was so far gone to Alzheimer’s that she thought he was his own grandfather every time he visited.
Clint thought Phil had been telling him the truth, but he guesses that was pretty naïve of him. Phil never told anyone anything important or personal; why would Clint have been the exception?
“Thank you, ma’am,” he says, standing up when she nods.
“Barton,” she calls and he stops.
She puts her clipboard down and stands up with him. “Let’s go to the gym,” she says, surprising the hell out of him. “I haven’t seen you train since the incident.”
Clint blinks. “Are you my new handler?” he asks. He doesn’t mind exactly, just. Well, he doesn’t want a new handler. That’s sentimental bullshit, though, so he pushes it aside.
“Please,” Hill tells him, “I’m Deputy Director of SHIELD, do you think I have time to be anyone’s handler?”
Despite everything, Clint smiles. “Just want to beat me up?” he asks.
“Yes,” Hill says. He can’t tell if she’s joking or not. It’s fair enough either way, he thinks, and falls into step with her. He’s tried everything else; maybe a couple of fists to the face will help.
“If you keep following me,” says a low, steady voice, “it’s not going to end well for you.”
Phil freezes. He didn’t hear Barnes enter the bar but he still doesn’t flinch.
“I was here first,” he points out calmly, signalling to Nina for another drink. “Drink?”
He isn’t expecting Barnes to take him up on his offer, but to his surprise, he sits down next to Phil and orders a glass of Medovukha, which Phil gladly pays for.
They don’t speak while they drink. Barnes is wire tense and Phil expects him to run at any moment. Fortunately, Phil has a long history of dealing with mistrustful people. On their first mission together, Clint wouldn’t eat any SHIELD-issue food, and it took him three years to trust arrows he hadn’t sourced himself.
Phil had waited him out; he can easily do the same with Barnes.
When Barnes finishes his drink, he puts the glass down and shakes his head when Nina offers him another.
“Whatever you’re offering, I’m not interested,” Barnes says eventually. If there’s a slight American curve to his Russian, there’s also a soft Russian twist to his Brooklyn accent.
Phil turns to look at him. Barnes sucks on his lower lip and widens his eyes at Phil, a mix between unconcern and defiance.
“I could say that if that were true, you wouldn’t still be here,” Phil says levelly, “but I don’t know you. That might not be true. Here’s something that is true: I’m not offering anything, I’m looking for your help.”
“My help?” Barnes asks. He picks up his glass, spins it from hand to hand. Phil watches and wonders how fast he could smash it and cut Phil’s throat. Phil’s quick but he’s not rating his chances if Barnes tries. “Why, you need someone shot?”
“No,” Phil says, “I already have someone for that.”
“Sure? I’m a good shot,” Barnes says, smiling with no humour.
Phil shrugs. “He’s the best. I need someone to help me break into Department X.”
Barnes stills. His blue eyes widen for a beat before he breathes out slowly. “That’s not a good idea, buddy.”
“Why?” Phil leans toward him, elbow on the bar. “That’s what you’re planning, isn’t it?” If Department X made Barnes whatever he is now, it would make sense for him to want revenge. Why else would he still be here?
Barnes shakes his head slowly. “You don’t want to know what I’m planning,” he says seriously. There’s no spark behind his eyes, nothing Phil can latch onto and manipulate.
“I know Steve Rogers,” Phil says, his trump card. Maybe he played it too early, but he doesn’t think so.
Barnes flinches; it’s fast, fast enough that Phil might have missed it if he hadn’t been looking, but it’s there. “Good for you,” he says, on a long breath. “What is he, your great-grandpa?”
Phil reaches – slowly – into his pocket, pulls out a neatly folded page torn from yesterday’s edition of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Look at the date,” he tells Barnes, handing it over.
He watches as Barnes unfolds the paper, glance quickly over the Russian-language report on the Battle of Manhattan (which they aren’t calling it yet, but Phil hopes they will) and the giant picture of Tony Stark in the centre.
Tucked into one corner, obviously taken by a photographer who didn’t know what they had, is a candid shot of Captain America, cowl blown back and dirt smudged across his face.
Barnes’ eyes flare, more life in them than Phil has seen so far.
“That’s a shitty trick, asshole,” he says, but his voice is shaking.
When Clint wakes up, there’s an email in his private account from Hill’s private account. That’s kind of creepy. For someone who’s adamantly not his new handler, she is definitely showing the requisite stalker-like behaviour.
To: World’s Greatest Marksman
Subject: <No subject>
Check the locker next to yours. Combination 4437.
Don’t thank me. Ever.
Clint isn’t sure whether to be curious or worried. SHIELD’s idea of an exciting gift is almost always a new way to kill people, which is a trait Clint strongly appreciates and knows how to react to. The fact that Hill’s emailing him privately could mean anything.
He showers slowly and shaves carefully and goes to the canteen for a proper breakfast, in case she’s watching him, because it’s always fun to frustrate people whenever possible. Eventually though, he can’t put it off any longer and he makes his way to the locker room.
The locker next to his is empty except for a crisp, brown envelope. Inside is a front door key and an address. Scribbled under the address is you have forty-eight hours, then we’re clearing it all out.
Clint stares until the words blur in front of his eyes. He knows who lives at that address, or rather who lived there. Clint never used it, but Phil gave him his home address in case of emergency years ago.
“Thanks,” Clint says to the empty locker room, hoping she really is watching him. He pockets the key, curls his fist around it in his pocket because his hands are shaking.
Phil’s house is just outside the city, and it takes Clint forty minutes to borrow a car and drive there. He isn’t going to need the full forty-eight hours, but he needs to get it done now.
The key Hill gave him turns easily in the lock. It feels like it shouldn’t somehow, like it’s been longer than a couple of weeks since Phil was last here. At the back of his mind, Clint’s expecting the key to grate in the lock and for the hallway to be thick with spiderwebs.
Phil’s dead; his house shouldn’t look like he’s just on vacation.
There’s a stack of mail on the table by the door, neatly lined up at the corners, and Clint realises Phil must have picked it up when he ran home between evacuating Project PEGASUS and moving onto the Helicarrier.
Clint sweeps up the stuff that’s come since then and adds it to the pile, mimicking Phil’s neat edges. He feels stupid as soon as he’s done it. It’s all junk mail, and it’s not like Phil’s here to care or to read it or –
Clint stops that line of thought right there and looks around instead. There’s a door on his left and a flight of stairs straight in front of him. It feels like ten kinds of wrong to go up to Phil’s bedroom, but he still can’t stop himself. Doing the stupid thing is pretty much his MO.
Phil’s bedroom is tidy but not OCD neat. There are shoes poking out from under the dresser and a tie over the back of one chair. His bed’s been stripped, thank god, so Clint doesn’t have to talk himself out of trying to smell his pillow.
For the record he wouldn’t do that; he’s already feeling kind of shaky in the chest-area and that wouldn’t help.
He pulls open Phil’s closet, just to see his suits. Some are in drycleaner bags but most are just sitting neatly on their hangers. Clint used to love trying to guess what kind of meeting Phil was going to based on how classy his suits were that day.
Phil had a whole theory on the correlation between suits and threat levels; they got drunk in a rainstorm one time and Clint made him explain the whole thing.
“Fuck,” Clint says out loud and spins around, striding out of the room.
He goes down the stairs three at a time, then takes long strides down the narrow hall until he hits the kitchen. It’s a small house, but it’s more lived-in than Clint was expecting. Clint has his own place too, but it looks more like a barracks than his room at SHIELD does.
Phil’s house, though, looks like a home. There’s an honest-to-god spice rack on the counter and postcards tacked neatly to the door of the fridge.
Curious, Clint’s crossing the room to check them out when he sees a mug sitting in front of the tea kettle and just… stops.
There’s a spoon poking out the top and a tea bag in the bottom and -
And Clint’s brain goes offline.
It’s stupid. It’s not like Phil left here still wanting a cup of tea and died immediately. He probably grabbed himself a Starbucks as soon as he was out the door - Phil was never knowingly undercaffeinated - except Clint’s heart is aching and he can’t seem to make it stop.
He puts his hand down on the counter and bows his head, doesn’t think about Phil standing right there.
He shouldn’t have come here.
Something brushes against his legs and he jumps half out of his skin, reaching for the knife in his jacket before he looks down and realises that it’s a cat.
“Huh,” he says, clearing his throat. “Hi?”
“Sorry,” a woman’s voice says from Clint’s left, and holy fuck, is he losing his edge this badly?
He spins around and finds an older lady in a bright red tunic dress standing at the kitchen window. She taps the glass in the door beside her, and Clint steps up automatically to open it.
The kitty door cut into the bottom brushes his foot, which at least explains the surprise ninja cat attack.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says, smiling at Clint as soon as he’s gotten the door open. “We heard noises through the wall and she got so excited because she thought Phil must be home.” A wider smile. “Is he here with you?”
“Uh.” Clint shakes his head. “No. No, he’s – ” He looks down at the cat. “Is she his?”
There’s no way Phil owned a cat, but here she is, running around the kitchen, nosing into every corner like she’s been here before and wants to check that nothing’s changed.
“She sure is. Her name’s Indy. I feed her for Phil when he’s away with work.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Millie.”
“Clint,” he tells her, automatically taking her hand. He can’t keep his eyes off the cat. Phil had a cat. It’s so human and personal; Clint feels like he shouldn’t have found out.
“Oh, I guessed that,” Millie tells him with a little laugh. At Clint’s probably epically confused expression, she points over his shoulder.
Tacked up in the middle of the fridge is a picture of him looking like an idiot with a party hat stuck on top of his head. It was taken on the Brandt op – Benji’s been cropped off one side – and he sent it to Phil because he couldn’t call him up to wish him a Merry Christmas.
Phil never mentioned having gotten it. He certainly never told Clint he’d kept it. Or that he apparently talked about Clint to his neighbours.
“He told me about you, how you were working away that year but… Are you all right, honey?” Millie interrupts herself, putting her hand on his arm. Clint isn’t good with comfort and he isn’t good with grandmotherly people but he stays still while she pats him.
He swallows and can’t make himself speak.
“Is Phil okay?” Millie asks him, too shrewd. “He’s been gone much longer than he said he would be.”
“No, he’s dead.” Clint says it too bluntly, but that’s okay; he’s hurting so everyone else should be too, right?
He regrets it as soon as he says it because she makes this noise, closer to a sob than anything he’s managed yet and has to catch herself against the kitchen counter.
“I’m sorry,” Clint says, uselessly. It’s his fault, after all. “I didn’t, um.”
“How?” Millie asks. The cat jumps up onto the counter to nose at her face and she strokes it absently.
“Did you see about the attack?” he asks. “The aliens in the city?” Stupid question, he tells himself, who didn’t see that?
She nods warily, clearly gearing herself up for some horrific story.
Clint folds his arms, not hugging himself, not quite. “He died saving people,” Clint tells her. “He was a hero.”