Unfortunately, Phil has other things to do in Russia besides stalking long-dead war heroes around dive bars.
Since the WSC contact turned out to be a bust, he’s fallen back on an old SHIELD contact, one he’s never met but who calls him back almost straight away with information on a research facility that’s believed to be storing Department X documentation.
Which is how Phil finds himself standing outside at just after midnight, attempting to jimmy the lock.
It’s times like this he misses his exploding putty and all the other things SHIELD R&D can come up with. He wishes he could have brought a bigger case and packed one of everything inside it, but that might have ruined his cover.
He bends his wrist down to an uncomfortable angle and feeds a third pick into the lock. With one final twist, the lock pops open and Phil pushes lightly against the door.
A shrill beep sounds to Phil’s left but he refuses to let himself worry. He pulls his glove back on, pulling the door shut behind himself, and snaps open the panel covering the alarm control pad.
Phil might not have Stark’s cell-deep understanding of machinery or Natasha’s ability to find himself a workaround past any electronic obstacle, but he’s no slouch when it comes to technology.
It takes three attempts, but he manages to persuade the alarm that he has the right code just before it starts to sound properly. He gives himself point five seconds to calm his breathing, then sets off for the guards’ break room he’s been assured is on this level.
Two corridors along and six rooms down, he presses his ear to the door. There are voices behind the wood, which confirms his intelligence that this is the right room. He drags an almost-invisible piece of pressure-sensitive twine between the doorframe and the handle and activates the setting on his watch that will tell him when it’s disturbed, then continues down the corridor.
Occasionally, field intelligence does still live up to its name, it seems, because the archive room is also exactly where his contact said it would be. It surprises him that the door is unlocked and unguarded, but he isn’t running this facility and it certainly makes it easier to take what he needs.
Phil stares at the row after row of filing cabinets in front of him, and nods, satisfied. The World Security Council wants evidence that Department X is still running; it’s all right here.
Phil doesn’t work for the WSC though, and SHIELD could make much better use of Department X’s files than just using them to score points with the Russians.
He steps up to the cabinet in the left hand corner, the only one that seems to have any security on it, and spends five minutes he probably doesn’t have hacking the lock and five more minutes rifling through the contents.
It would probably be easier if the records were computerised, but he’s missed this kind of work and it’s no real hardship. Something glossy and oversized pokes out the top of a file marked Destroy In 2011 and he stares at it in professional horror for a moment before flicking the file open and unfolding a map.
It’s highly detailed, colour-coded, and whoever was in charge of Department X’s data destruction procedure needs to be shot, because this should never have fallen into Phil’s hands.
He’s delighted that it has.
He slips it free of its plastic pocket, tucks it inside his jacket, and neatly replaces the folder exactly where it came from. He’s been wearing gloves the whole time, but he still wipes off the handle quickly before relocking the cabinet and turning to leave the room.
Which is when the alarm on his watch goes off.
Phil isn’t anything but mildly concerned – sometimes guards leave their break room, that doesn’t mean they’ve realised there’s an intruder – until he suddenly hears running feet heading this way. He drops his hand down to his thigh holster and fades back into the shadows.
The door to the archive room crashes open, and four men carrying flashlights come pouring in. Their beams are bright enough to light the whole archive, but Phil’s still tucked behind a filing cabinet and he manages to shoot one in the knee and another in the chest before they find him.
“Put down your weapon,” the lead guard yells at him in Russian.
Phil raises his gun and shoots at him in response. Since he’s simultaneously rolling away from a volley of shots, his own shot goes wide. His second hits the guy in the arm but a bullet lands close to Phil’s foot, so he abandons his position to make for higher ground.
Unfortunately, archive rooms don’t have a lot of higher ground. If he were Clint or Natasha, he could do something gymnastic and amazing with the top of a filing cabinet and the overhanging balcony, but he’s not, so the best he can do is make for the narrow metal staircase to his right.
Another bullet zips past his ear and a third smacks straight into his back.
He’s wearing a vest but the impact is huge from this close a range and he goes down hard, landing on his hands and knees and rolling quickly onto his back even though it hurts like hell. There’s a man leaning over him, so Phil shoots him in the face.
Two down, one wounded, only one left unharmed, but even one man is one too many when Phil’s aching and bruised and has nowhere to run.
He’s reaching behind himself for the knife taped to the small of his back when the last remaining guard rounds the corner, a machine gun in his hands.
“This was not supposed to be this difficult,” Phil tells him because he thinks the guy deserves to know that, even if he can’t understand.
The guy’s eyes land on Phil and narrow with the kind of malice that means he might not be getting out of this uninjured after all.
“Wait!” Phil snaps, all urgency and the guy does hesitate, just for a second but long enough for Phil to grab the hilt of his knife and fling it across the room.
The guard’s eyes track it and Phil shoots him in the stomach. He rolls to his knees and follows that up with a bullet to the head because he’s not going to leave a guy to bleed out slowly when he can end it quick.
Phil’s back aches when he pulls himself to his feet. He hasn’t been in a firefight in a while; he’d forgotten about the random pains. But Clint and Maria Hill fought off forty-three mercenaries once in Libya, while Phil and Natasha were cut off from them by a landslide. They came back blood-stained but smiling, so Phil isn’t going to complain about this.
He flicks the clip out of his gun – he lost count of how many rounds he’s fired, embarrassingly – and makes sure there’s a fresh cartridge in his pocket. He isn’t stupid enough to think that this group was it. The guard he winged will have gone for reinforcements and –
An alarm starts to blare overhead. Phil might have been better off blowing it up, rather than simply disabling it.
He slaps a new clip into place and brings his back pistol up, backing up towards the long, plate-glass window at the back of the room. He can hear voices and footsteps coming closer, so he fires one bullet straight up, knocking out the lights, then follows it up with a volley of shots into the darkness in front of him.
It’ll only take a minute for the new wave of guards to realise that there’s one of him and not dozens, but he makes quick use of that minute, reloading again and reaching behind himself to fumble with the catch on the window.
It swings open, which is great. He’s got an escape route. Except he’s three storeys off the ground, and he’s never been a fan of falling.
“This was supposed to be the easy part,” he mutters to himself, annoyed. If he’d been running this op from above, it would have gone without a hitch; having only himself to act as ground agent makes coordinating the mission much harder. It’s been so long since he didn’t have a team that he forgot how much harder it is.
A gun fires in the darkness in front of him. Phil steps backward out onto the ledge.
“Need a ride?” a voice asks above him, and then a hand catches the back of his collar, an arm wraps around his back, and he’s zip-lining down the side of the building, holding on tight to the shoulders of – they land on the ground with barely a bump and Phil tips his head back to see – Bucky Barnes.
“Thank you,” Phil says, dusting off his hands and checking them for rope burn. Not too bad.
Barnes shrugs. “This way,” he says, nodding his head into the darkness at the back of the building.
They run together, Phil ignoring the pain in his back, until they’re lost in shadows. Then Barnes stops, presses his back to the wall and motions for Phil to do the same.
“They won’t look in their own back yard,” Barnes murmurs.
Phil nods. He understood the plan immediately. They stand in silence for a long time, while the sounds of searching fade further into the distance.
Eventually, Barnes shifts just enough to put Phil on higher alert. “You said you know where Steve is,” he says quietly.
There’s a tiny, barely noticeable pause before he can say Rogers’s name. Phil thinks that’s telling.
“I do.” Phil can hear shouting above their heads, getting louder again. “Feel like making a daring escape with me? Then we can talk.”
Barnes grins, teeth bright in the darkness. “Buddy, that sounds like my idea of a good time.”
“I’m sorry, what do you want me to do with that?” The way Stark’s looking at the cat makes it seem more like Clint’s trying to hand him a bomb.
Actually, Stark seemed less appalled that time he had to carry a nuke.
“You’ve got a lot of space; I can’t exactly keep her at SHIELD.” Indy is curled up on Clint’s lap, one paw on his kneecap. She hadn’t enjoyed the car ride to Manhattan, but Millie helped Clint dig out a cat carrier before they left so at least she didn’t spend the whole journey trying to sit on his head like in those funny videos on YouTube.
Clint guesses it would have been less funny in real life.
Stark folds his arms and leans back against the bar. He was probably about as surprised to see Clint -- once JARVIS let him in -- as Clint was to be there, but his eyebrows have been climbing ever since.
“So you stole Coulson’s cat,” Stark says slowly, “and now you want to make me an accessory?” He smirks. “Not that I mind being involved in your criminal endeavours, but if we’re going down, shouldn’t it be for something more exciting? Unless it’s a super-powered mutant cat? Is it a super-powered mutant cat?”
Clint shakes his head. “I don’t think so.” He doesn’t know how to explain that this cat was Phil’s, that he picked her and cared for her and probably loved her, and Clint couldn’t leave her behind.
“Hey, you know what you should do with it,” Stark says, suddenly looking a bit more interested. He leans forward and rests his hands on the back of the armchair opposite of Clint’s.
“Her, not it,” Clint tells him, stroking the space between Indy’s ears. He’s not sure where it’s okay to touch her, but she seems to like that. She does seem kind of freaked out by all the scaffolding and plastic sheeting around them, but Clint’s hoping she’ll eventually get over that and try to go exploring. He’s never pitted his reflexes against a cat’s before; it could be fun.
Stark waves his hand, dismissing that. “You should take her to Coulson’s cellist. You know where she lives, right?”
It’s casual and unconcerned, but Clint’s occasionally a spy; he knows when he’s being played.
“Nope,” he says, pretending to be distracted by Indy. “No idea.”
“Huh,” Stark starts at the same time that a woman’s voice rings through the remains of the living room.
“Tony! You didn’t tell me that we had a guest.” She’s tall, wearing smart sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, red-blonde hair hanging down around her shoulders.
Clint would put money on this being Pepper Potts. He remembers the first time Stark really pissed Phil off and Phil tried to convince Fury to steal his PA because she was ‘the only good thing about the whole fiasco.’
“Well, no, but you were naked,” Stark says, earning himself a well-deserved punch in the stomach. “Ow. Ow. Barton, did you see that?”
“Sure did,” Clint agrees, holding his hand out. “Clint Barton, ma’am.” He waves down at the cat on his lap. “Sorry I can’t get up.”
“Pepper Potts,” she says, shaking his hand briskly. She picks up Indy’s paw. “And who’s this?”
“Coulson’s secret love-cat,” Stark tells her and Clint watches her eyes go wide for a second before she lifts her head, enquiring. “Or maybe his daemon. I’m trying to persuade Barton to take it to his cellist.”
“Oh,” Pepper says. She holds out her hand. “May I?”
Clint has no idea. “Sure, have at.” It makes him feel a bit better that Pepper just kind of pats Indy on the head; clearly she has no more idea how to interact with cute fluffy things than he does.
“Um, hello, no?” Stark waves his hands. “Don’t get attached; it’s not staying.”
Indy makes a soft, grumpy noise and rolls onto her back, stretching out long grey legs and making herself impossibly long.
Pepper laughs and draws her hand back. She kneels down on the floor beside the sofa and stretches out her own legs. “Of course not, why would she be? I’m sure she’ll be very happy with Agent Barton.”
“Yeah, no,” Clint tells her quickly. “I live in a, well, basically in a box. I was kind of hoping you guys could look after her for me. I figured since Stark’s adopted Banner, he might not mind having a tiny grey fluff monster too.”
Pepper smiles. “You don’t want her?” She’s looking at him like she maybe she doesn’t believe him, but he decides to put that down to his own paranoia. There’s no way he’s that transparent; he only met her ten seconds ago.
“Of course he does,” Stark says dismissively. “He’s an assassin and he’s got a kitten sleeping in his lap. The solution’s obvious, by the way.”
“Tony,” Pepper says warningly but Stark talks right over her.
“You and the cat can move in here,” Stark tells Clint, shrugging when Clint stares.
“I… No?” Clint tries. He waves a hand around. “It’s an awesome tower, Stark, but I’m pretty sure there’s no room for me here.”
“Well, not on this floor,” Stark says. He directs his voice at the ceiling. “JARVIS, bring up the plans for the ninth floor.”
“Do you mean the tenth, sir?” says the disembodied British voice that Clint was introduced to last time he was here. “You decided to move Agent Barton’s floor to the very top, remember.”
Stark clicks his fingers, nodding. “So I did. Yep, that one, show us that one.”
A floor plan appears in what’s basically mid-air, turning itself until it’s at the perfect angle for Clint to see. It’s labelled with things like ‘bedroom’, ‘other bedroom’, ‘300 ft range’, ‘balcony’ ‘crow’s nest?’. There’s a bow and arrow symbol in the top right corner.
“Um,” Clint says, leaning forward to study it as far as Indy will let him go. “What’s this?”
Stark shrugs. “I figured if we’re going to be a team, we should live together. There’s one for Thor too, because he’ll have to come back eventually, right? He’s got a girl here, apparently. It’s all very Romeo and… Scientist Chick.” He touches the screen and more plans line up next to Clint’s. The one next to his has a room fully stocked with gymnastics equipment, so it’s clearly for Natasha, while the one for Banner is glowing green not blue – either because he’s already moved in or because Stark is an asshole.
Clint stares at it. He waits to feel trapped but doesn’t, because this won’t actually be happening. “That’s a good idea,” he says, because it is. The Avengers will function way better if they get used to being in the same space. “But I’m not part of the Initiative.”
“No,” Stark says slowly, “I’m pretty sure you are. That was you up on that roof, right? Calling out plays? Not Robin Hood stopping by for a day trip?”
Clint almost smiles. “Sure, yeah, I was there, but only because I volunteered when Rogers came to find Natasha. I was never on Fury’s list.”
And that hadn’t stung at all. In no way did he care that he was losing his partner and his favourite handler to a club he hadn’t been invited to join.
“Really?” Stark frowns. “Well, that’s just stupid. I’ve read your files – ” He pauses like he’s expecting someone to protest there. Clint doesn’t, because he’s not surprised, and Pepper just sighs like she isn’t either. “You’re the world’s greatest marksman, you never miss and you were Coulson’s go-to agent for seven years. Fury’s eye patch doesn’t make him short-sighted as well as ruining the 3D movie experience, does it?”
Stark opens his mouth, clearly about to rant some more, when Clint’s cell starts ringing. While he’s fumbling for it and trying not to elbow Indy in the head, JARVIS comes online to tell Stark that he’s got a call.
Clint shoves his phone at his ear. “Barton?” It’s Hill. “We’ve got a situation. I need you at Eighth and Manila asap.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Clint says automatically. “What should I bring?”
To his left, he can hear Stark says, Oh man, there’s a Victoria’s Secret right there so Clint guesses he must he getting the same call. He stands up, then nods in thanks to Pepper when she catches Indy before she can dart into the construction work.
“Just yourself,” Hill answers. “We’ve got your bow here. Well, bring Stark. He might be useful.”
“Ma’am,” Clint agrees, clicking off the call. He doesn’t ask how she knows where he is; SHIELD always does.
“Eighth and Manila?” Starks asks, looking at Clint. He grins when Clint nods. “And you said you weren’t part of the team.”
“You are Bucky Barnes?” Phil asks, stirring his spoon through the steaming hot goulash they’ve been served in a tiny, rundown restaurant on the edge of town.
Barnes goes quiet. He’s drumming his spoon against the edge of his bowl, not eating. “You know I am,” he says eventually.
“I know you are,” Phil agrees. “What I don’t know is how.”
Barnes laughs. It’s hollow, but Phil thinks it’s genuine. “Yeah, well, welcome to the club,” he says.
He signals for another beer and waits until it’s come and the waitress is gone before he says another word.
“One minute, I’m falling off a train, right?” Barnes spreads his hands then stops, curling his right into a fist. “The next thing I know, I open my eyes and I’m kneeling in snow, covered in someone else’s blood with an AK47 in my hands. And I know it’s an AK47 even though we didn’t have those in 1944. And I know I’m in Russia and I know how to speak Russian but I don’t remember how.”
He leans across the table and fixes Phil with a steady gaze, blue eyes flinty. Phil gets the impression that he’s expecting Phil to call him a liar.
“You don’t remember anything?” Phil asks, making sure to keep his tone curious rather than doubtful. “And if I say the name Winter Soldier to you?”
Barnes sits back, picking up his beer, fingers slipping on the damp glass. “Yeah, I know who that is. The way everyone looks at me like I’m going to rip out their throats is kind of a clue and it’s been coming back, bits and pieces. But I’ve lost seventy years somewhere and I’m planning to find myself some fucking answers.”
Phil nods slowly. “I’m here for some of those myself,” he says, mentally recalculating and adjusting his plan to fit. “I could use some help.”
“With what?” Barnes isn’t eating, just drinking steadily. If he were one of Phil’s assets, Phil would be trying to trick him into at least eating some bread.
Actually, to hell with that, if Phil’s going to be working with him, he has the right to make sure Barnes is in reasonable fighting form.
“Bringing down Department X’s Red Room project,” Phil tells him, picking up a chunk of bread from the basket between them and dropping it in Barnes’ bowl.
Barnes stares down at the bread but doesn’t argue. “By yourself?” he asks.
Phil smiles blandly. “Well, not any more, I hope?”
“Yeah.” Barnes just watches him, eyes narrowed. “Tell me about Steve,” he says at last.
“He’s well,” Phil tells him. He isn’t sure where to start but he knows that’s the first thing he’d want to hear, if there were anyone he could ask about Clint.
“Yeah?” Barnes’s hand shakes and he puts his spoon down, picking up the bread instead. Phil stops himself from smiling.
“He’s in New York.” Or he was when Phil last heard about him. Phil doesn’t mention that. “He’s building a team.” More or less true.
Barnes smiles slowly. “Of course he is. You part of it?”
Phil shakes his head. “I was supposed to be in charge of it. Then I was put on this operation instead.” It doesn’t hurt. He accepted this assignment. He’s pleased to have been singled out, and he isn’t sorry to be here.
Phil would probably lose half his security clearance if anyone at SHIELD overheard this conversation. He’s playing a hunch, however, and he’s never been afraid of a reprimand.
“You work for the government?” Barnes asks shrewdly. “Steve’s working for the government?”
“SHIELD.” Phil moves his hand in a so-so gesture. “We’re the modern-day successor of the organisation you both always worked for during the War.”
Barnes scoffs, slouching further back in his chair. “Mr Coulson, I never gave a shit who I worked for. I was always just following Steve.”
It’s such an honest, telling thing to say, but Barnes says it like it’s simple.
“And now you’re interested in some Soviet-era science experiment?” Barnes presses. “Why? Hoping to build yourselves some assassins?”
There are a lot of reasons why the Red Room Project would be interesting to SHIELD. Phil doesn’t think any of them have to do with trying to use it. He hopes not, anyway. He’ll destroy it himself before he lets that happen.
He decides to tell Barnes why he’s interested in it. “We recruited a woman a few years ago who turned out to have been part of the Red Room experiment: she was known as the Black Widow.”
That gets a reaction, the second truly honest expression Phil thinks he’s seen on Barnes’ face. “Natalia?” he asks. He straightens, growing still and, Phil is sure, even deadlier, even before his hand slips inside his jacket. “You have Natalia and Steve but you didn’t come here for me?”
“Sergeant,” Phil says, deliberately unconcerned, “as far as anyone knew, you were dead. And most people believed the Winter Soldier was a myth made up to scare children.”
There’s a beat where Barnes studies him. Then he pastes on a wide, bright smile. “Darlin’,” he purrs, “I am as real as they make ‘em.”
Phil allows himself two moments to appreciate that Bucky Barnes is flirting with him, however insincerely, then rolls his eyes. “Save your smiles for someone they’ll work on, Sergeant, and tell me how you know the Black Widow.”
Phil has already heard this story from Natasha’s side, of course, but he wants to know what Barnes remembers, if it tallies with the memories Natasha held onto.
Barnes looks away, down at his plate. He eats some more bread to stall for time. “Department X found her when she was a child, gave her to the Red Room. She was seventeen the first time they sent us out together and she was already… terrifying.” He coughs, a nostalgic look in his eyes. “I tried to persuade her to run away with me once, but she was brainwashed, like we all were, always loyal to them. I’m glad she got away, eventually.”
“She went independent,” Phil tells him. “Then we found her.”
Barnes nods. “She work for you willingly?”
“She does,” Phil confirms.
Barnes keeps nodding. His fingers tap on the table. “Ask me how I found you?” he asks, very obviously changing the subject.
Phil looks at him levelly, making sure Barnes knows Phil’s onto his tactics. “I imagine you were following me.”
“Sure was. Wanted to see if you really were as fucking crazy as you sounded, planning to break into Department X. Turns out you were.”
“Well.” Phil steeples his fingers. “If you think that was crazy, wait until I tell you what I’m planning to do next.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Stark says, hovering a foot off the ground and staring with disgust down at the dog-sized rats swarming across the parking lot behind what’s got to be the Victoria’s Secret he mentioned earlier.
“Yeah.” Clint hops up onto a dumpster, which is ever so slightly higher than the roof of the car he’d been standing on previously. These rats don’t look over-interested in climbing anything but why tempt fate. “This is seriously disgusting.”
Across the way, standing on a dumpster of his own but managing to look way more regal about it, Captain America nods. “SHIELD’s scientists think it’s a side-effect from the Tesseract.”
“It’s possible.” Banner is back in the SHIELD van, being watched over by Natasha. Clint is insanely jealous of them both. “More likely, it’s a combination of that and the percussion from the nuclear warhead.”
“Which I laid down my life for,” Stark points out. A rat gets too close to his left boot, so he blasts it in the face. Its friends don’t like that.
“Yes, Tony,” Banner agrees patiently, “you were very brave.”
“Doc?” Clint asks. “You think maybe the Hulk could come out and squish some of these guys?”
“Sorry, Agent Barton,” Banner says, sounding genuinely apologetic, “rats just don’t get me angry.”
“Really big rats,” Clint points out. He bends at the waist, taking a better look at one of the nearest. It’s really fucking nasty and it snaps sharp, blood-covered teeth at him.
“Um, guys?” he asks. “We got any idea what these bastards have been eating?”
“Wildlife, three dogs and a domestic cat,” Rogers rattles off. “So far no humans, so please get out of that one’s face, Hawkeye; I don’t want that to change.”
Clint leans back.
“A cat?” Stark asks. “Don’t tell your new playmate, Barton. She won’t like that.”
“You got a cat?” Natasha asks, sounding like she’s laughing. “This I have to see. Does the Director know?”
“Um, guys, could we focus?” Rogers asks.
“She’s not my cat,” Clint says defensively. He doesn’t want to talk about this, and he’s hoping Natasha will pick that up from his tone and drop it. “She’s Stark’s now.”
Rogers laughs. Apparently his sense of responsibility can stand up to everything but the chance to mock Stark. “I cannot picture you with a cat, Stark,” he says. “Do you pay someone to pet her for you?”
“She was Coulson’s,” Stark snaps. Clint wishes he hadn’t because everyone goes quiet.
“Hey,” he says, into the fractured and smoking ruins of their attempt at team banter. “Who wants to see what these guys make of sonic arrows?”
“You sure this is the right place?” Barnes asks, leaning against the side of a tree and smoking. He looks far too casual for a man who Phil knows is armed to the teeth.
Phil looks past his shoulder at the nondescript little house that is their target. “It’s the address I was given before leaving SHIELD. If they’re lying to me about where the local contact lives, we have big problems.”
Barnes tosses his cigarette away and blows out one last ring of smoke. “More problems than your contact feeding you false information and maybe setting you up the other night?”
Phil shrugs. “That’s your theory.” Barnes doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the guards found Phil so easily. Phil’s hoping he’s wrong.
Barnes smiles at him, all teeth. “Time to test it?”
Phil steps out of the shadows, heading for the garden gate. “Stay behind me. Try not to mention anything about amnesia or assassinations.”
“Sure thing.” Barnes falls into step behind him. “Unless it becomes relevant.”
Phil doesn’t waste time glaring. Sometimes Barnes reminds him of Clint more than he’s comfortable with and, other times, there’s a deadness in his eyes as though there’s nothing there at all.
It’s past midnight, not the sort of time that contact is really supposed to be made with local liaisons. However, if Barnes is right and the liaison’s been compromised, a little loss of sleep is going to be the least of his worries.
“Front door?” Barnes asks. “Or?” He raises his eyebrows at the tree. One of the weaker branches stops within two feet of a half-open window.
The liaison’s name is Lukov. His bedroom is at the front of the house, and they watched him and his wife get ready for bed over an hour ago.
“That way,” Phil agrees, even though he’s getting too old to climb trees. Not that he’s going to say that to Barnes. Phil trusts him more than he probably should, but he’s not going to start pointing out his own weaknesses.
They scale the tree together in under a minute and then Barnes swings himself over onto the ledge, carefully sliding his hand through the gap between the window and the sill and reaching in to release the catch.
He disappears inside as soon as it’s open and Phil follows him quickly. The bed is in the centre of the room, Lukov’s wife asleep on her stomach and Lukov himself lying peacefully on his side, facing the window.
Barnes raises his eyebrows. Phil steps forward. It only takes a second to pin Lukov’s wrists together with one hand and cover his mouth with the other. Still half-asleep and frozen with panic, Lukov slides easily out of bed onto his knees on the carpeted floor, and then Phil and Barnes are pulling him up, hustling him out of the room.
The whole exercise takes eighteen seconds. Phil likes it when things are easy.
“Who are you?” Lukov demands as soon as they drop him into a chair at his kitchen table. “I have no money.”
“Authorisation code gamma seven six epsilon five,” Phil rattles off and watches Lukov’s eyes stretch wider.
“You are Agent Coulson?” he asks.
“He is.” Barnes smiles. He seems to be having fun.
Lukov had been busy looking appalled. Now he drags up a wide, painful-looking grin. “Welcome! I have been expecting you,” he says, spreading his arms. “You merely had to come to the front door, my friends.”
“Yes,” Phil says flatly, “Sorry about that.” He leans forward conspiratorially. “The truth is that we think there’s a mole in the organisation.” Lukov’s cheeks pale then tinge pink. Oh yeah, Barnes is right. Damn. “We need to be careful who we trust.”
“But we can trust you, can’t we?” Barnes asks, still with that nasty smirk.
Lukov folds his lips over his teeth, gnawing on his bottom lip. He nods slowly, eyes locked on Barnes. For someone who’s so slight and young-looking, too-long hair flopping in his eyes, Barnes is incredibly intimating, even without his reputation to back him up.
“You can trust me,” Lukov tells them earnestly. “I have worked for SHIELD for twenty years.” His eyes flick to Barnes. “When you were still a baby, yes?”
“I’m older than I look,” Barents tells him, expression flattening out. He pats his jacket pocket, clearly conveying and deadlier.
Lukov looks like he might pass out. Phil would prefer that not to happen until they have some answers.
“I followed your information to the Department X archives,” Phil tells him. “And somehow I was found out. Have you got any idea how that could have happened?”
Lukov shrugs. “Perhaps you were not stealthy enough? I did warn you that – ”
“No, that’s not it.” Phil looks him straight in the eye. “If you’re being threatened, we can help you.”
“No. No, I. No.” Lukov stares at them both in turn. “No. No, you do not think that I – ” He starts to push his chair away from the table but Barnes catches hold of the back, locking him in place.
“If you’re not being threatened,” Phil continues as though there was no interruption, “then there’s nothing we can do to help you. SHIELD doesn’t like traitors.”
Lukov looks as though he’s barely breathing. “Please. My wife is upstairs. She is pregnant and they said they would hurt the – ”
“You’re lying,” Barnes tells him pleasantly.
Phil agrees. Lukov is easily fifty and his wife looks the same age. Phil saw her through her bedroom window earlier and, if she’s pregnant, she’s not showing, and there’s no reason for anyone who might threaten Lukov to be aware.
Two seconds of silence tick by, then Lukov dives off his chair, falling to the left and scrabbling for something under the table.
Phil follows him down but Barnes gets there first – he’s fast, as preternaturally quick as Natasha is – stamping on Lukov’s wrist when he reaches for the semi-automatic tucked inside a box of cleaning supplies under the table.
Lukov screams but Phil silences him quickly, clamping a hand over his mouth.
“You don’t want to wake up your wife, do you?” he says in Lukov’s ear. “Not in her delicate condition.”
Lukov twists under his hands. He bites into Phil’s palm, making Phil curse but refuse to let go.
Phil is much, much more stubborn than he looks.
“Stop it,” Phil tells him through clenched teeth. “Your help would be useful, but you’re not so valuable that I won’t put a bullet through your brain if you keep on annoying me.”
Lukov glares up at him fiercely then goes limp, the fight draining out of him. He meets Phil’s eyes and nods.
“That was too easy,” Barnes growls but Phil ignores him, sitting back and pulling Lukov roughly to his feet.
“Mr Lukov is a SHIELD agent,” Phil tells Barnes, not looking away from Lukov. “He knows how to judge the best deal on the table.”
Lukov rubs the corner of his mouth, which is swollen red from the press of Phil’s thumb. “They asked me to tell you a few little lies, that is all. No one was harmed.”
“Because he’s damn good,” Barnes snaps, jerking his thumb at Phil. Phil tries not to feel pleased. “Otherwise he’d be a dead man. And so would you.” He tips his head. “Although I still wouldn’t rule that out.”
Lukov’s mouth flattens. “You are SHIELD. You will not kill me.”
Phil shakes his head. “You obviously don’t know us as well as you think you do.” He leans forward, hands spread and open on the table. “Tell me why? I assume it’s not the money.” For one, SHIELD pays its assets well and, for another, there’s no way he has a bank account that they’re not monitoring.
Lukov stares back at him. “You do not live here, you do not know what it’s like. You say Department X are gone, but they are not. They have been here all my life and all my father’s life. But they mostly leave me alone, they do not interfere with most of SHIELD’s business as long as we stay out of theirs.”
“How many other lies have you told us?” Phil demands. “You can’t seriously believe this is okay?”
Lukov shakes his head. “No, but I believe it has kept me and my family alive. I am okay with that.”
Phil would like to say he would never do what Lukov has done, but he can’t. He’s long since come to terms with the fact that he would do anything if the situation called for it.
“We have a problem,” he tells Lukov, keeping his face impassive. “I’ll have to let Director Fury know what’s been happening here, so you’ll need to give me a reason to go to bat for you.”
“What can I offer you?” Lukov asks. “I have some money, but not – ”
Barnes is watching Phil closely, Phil realises, almost as though he’s waiting to see how Phil responds. Phil isn’t surprised to find he’s being judged along with Lukov; of course he is, there’s no more reason for Barnes to trust him than there is for Barnes to trust Lukov.
“No,” Phil interrupts. “No.” He sits back in his chair. “No, you convince me.”
“Well, that was… disgusting,” Stark says, stepping out of the decontamination showers. He grabs a towel off the wall and uses it to scrub his hair, completely ignoring the fact that he’s stark (heh) fucking naked.
“Jesus,” Clint says, holding up a hand. “No one wants to see that.”
Stark smirks at him, managing to look superior even though he’s wearing the towel like a turban and has a whole mess of curls in his eyes. “Barton, everyone wants to see this.”
Bruce snorts. He didn’t get covered in rat guts, so no one made him shower, and he’s already done changing out of his extra-stretchy Hulk pants. “No, Tony, they really don’t.”
Stark pouts and turns away from them, giving them all a perfect view of his pasty white ass. It’s a nice ass, Clint is not dead, but he’s feeling kind of hemmed in by too much exposure to people, and the way Stark fills every gap is really not helping right now.
Bruce catches Clint’s eye and shakes his head. He’s smiling though; he obviously doesn’t really mind, and Clint’s starting to feel the same way he did the few times he tried to go to school, like everyone’s bonded with everyone but him.
Not that Clint is twelve years old anymore. He doesn’t care; he’d just rather be somewhere else right now.
He goes to his own locker and takes his time pulling out a clean shirt. By the time Clint’s dressed, Stark is futzing with his hair in the brown-spotted mirror over the sinks and Bruce has disappeared.
Clint tries to slink out without Stark seeing, but Stark obviously has some kind of superpower he’s never told anyone about because he turns at the last second, snagging the sleeve of Clint’s SHIELD sweatshirt and squinting at him.
“What?” Clint asks, trying to shake him off. “I still got rat guts in my eyebrows or something?”
“No.” Stark is looking at him far too closely; Clint would prefer to avoid this level of attention from anyone, especially someone as smart and sneakily good at reading people as Stark. “So, the cat, huh? You really want me to keep it? Me?”
Clint doesn’t know why he feels relieved; what else was Stark going to want to talk about.
“Sure,” he says, shrugging like it’s no big deal. “I mean, I can offer her to Thor if you don’t want her? I’m sure he’d love to give her to that girl of his. Total rom-com moment.”
“No, what, are you crazy?” Stark snaps. “He’ll end up training her to carry his damn hammer or some such shit. Did you know Thor can talk to animals? Let’s not think about that. If that’s the only other option you can come up with then fine, I suppose I’ll have to keep her.”
He makes it sound like such a hardship. Clint isn’t fooled.
“Thanks, man,” he says, making sure to sound casual, not like Stark was his only fucking hope.
As pathetic as it sounds, Clint doesn’t actually know anyone who lives in a actual house and, while he knows he should have just left Indy with the woman Phil actually picked to look after her, he kind of needs to do this himself.
He knows it’s dumb; he’s not fooling himself into thinking he’s making sensible decisions right now.
Stark claps him on the shoulder. “But you’re coming over tonight. Team dinner. No excuses accepted.”
Fuck. Clint is pretty sure he’s going to go batshit insane if he has to spend any more time talking to people today.
“Sure,” he lies. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “I got to go put away my bow but I’ll catch up with you later, yeah?”
“Fine, whatever.” Stark waves him off. “Make sure you bring your little Russian ninja too; Pepper’s ordered some special kind of apple pancake cake… thing.”
“Sharlotka,” Clint tells him, still backing toward the door, “and she’s not my anything; don’t let her hear you say that.”
Stark ignores him, going back to the mirror. “Seven p.m.” he calls after Clint. “Or, sorry, that’s nineteen hundred hours to you military types. Set your watch!”
Clint waves over his shoulder and hightails it out of there. He grabs his bow and jumps into the nearest elevator before anyone else can spring out and try to involve him in their team bonding shit.
Clint is a sniper. Snipers aren’t supposed to be bonded to a team. That’s how it works. He’s just better alone.
“You’re leaving him alive?” Barnes asks, once they’re outside Lukov’s house, the front door closed and double – no, triple – locked behind them.
“I am.” Phil zips his coat up to his chin and sets off down the path. He’s almost certain Lukov won’t take a pot-shot at them, but his shoulders don’t completely relax until they’re on the sidewalk and out of direct sight of the house.
Barnes doesn’t answer. He walks along beside Phil, very pointedly not answering. Secretly, Phil is surprised that Barnes is still here, that he’s following Phil’s lead at all, but he’s sure there’s a reason.
For now, he decides not to question it.
“What would you have done?” Phil asks. Barnes isn’t one of Phil’s agents; he can’t demand to know if they have a problem.
“Not left him alive,” Barnes says immediately, then stops abruptly, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I would have done.” The way he says it sounds confused, honestly questioning.
“That’s understandable,” Phil tells him, even though Phil doesn’t understand. Who could understand what Barnes is going through? Trying to work out who he is now after twenty-five years as one person and sixty-seven years as someone else.
Phil watched Natasha struggle with something similar, but it was different for her; she never had a chance to become her own person before Department X recruited her.
Barnes hums but doesn’t say anything else. He stops when they get to the beat-up but serviceable grey Lada Barnes found from somewhere to get them out here.
“Getting in?” Phil asks. He doesn’t have the keys, so he leans against the side of the car, taking the time to give Barnes a casual once-over. He looks exhausted, gritty-eyed, with permanent lines set around his mouth. Phil wonders what he gets up to during the hours he’s not with Phil.
“Yeah,” Barnes says, but shakes his head. “No.” He slides the keys across the top of the car, pushing off when Phil grabs them. “I’ve got some shit to do. What’s your next move?”
“I need to check out the address Lukov gave us,” Phil tells him. Apparently, he now has the name and address of Lukov’s Department X contact. He doubts it’ll be that simple, of course, but he wants to check it out.
“Right. Sure.” Barnes nods again. He looks like he’s barely there right now. Then his eyes suddenly zero in on Phil, sharp even in the suburban dark. “Do me a favour and wait on that a while.”
“Why?” Phil asks. “This is what I’m here to do.”
Barnes nods. “Just a day, maybe two. I’ll come meet you and we’ll check it out together. There’s other shit you can be doing in the meantime, right?”
“I suppose so,” Phil admits, agreeing reluctantly because Barnes seems serious about this, even if Phil doesn’t know why.
Once Barnes is done with whatever’s putting that far-away look in his eye, Phil is going to have to sit him down to discuss exactly what the parameters of their unexpected partnership are.
“Good.” Barnes nods once more, firmly, and steps all the way away from the car. “I’ll see you.”
“How are you getting back to the city?” Phil calls after him, watching him walk away.
Barnes doesn’t answer. Phil gets in the car and waits for fifteen minutes, but he doesn’t come back, so Phil puts the key in the ignition and sets off down the road.
Barnes is an adult and he isn’t Phil’s responsibility. If he says he’ll come back then Phil’s just going to have to trust that he will. In the meantime, Phil needs to arm himself up before they go check out this new lead.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Natasha asks, leaning against Clint’s open doorway. She’s ready to go: hair in waves and regular stilettos on her feet rather than the ones with the knives in the heel.
Clint doesn’t know how he feels about the fact that she’s obviously making an effort for this team that they’re not quite on yet.
“Damn sure,” he tells her, faking another yawn and stretching against the bed. “Early night. Rat chasing sure does take it out of you.”
She looks at him closely. “Bullshit,” she says, then shrugs before he can protest. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but don’t lie to me.”
“Sorry. I just, you know - ” Clint’s never been good with people and he’s not up for faking it these days.
Natasha nods. “I know. I’ll let you get away with it tonight, but you’re joining this team eventually, even if I have to drag you along by the chest hair.”
Clint laughs, automatically rubbing at his chest. “I’m not, I’m not ducking out of being on the team, Nat. Just the fake buddy-buddy bit. I’d have thought you’d hate that too.”
“Hmm,” she hums. “I would. I do, usually. I think maybe it’s not so fake, this time. Maybe it’s going to work.”
Clint smiles at him. “Natasha Romanoff: Eternal Optimist.”
She flips him off and shakes her head at him. “Okay, I’m going. I’ll tell Stark you’re unexpectedly allergic to Giant Rat fur or something but next time - ” She lets it hang.
“Yeah.” Clint sighs. “Next time, I promise.” For now, he just wants to sleep. It’s not so much that he’s tired, more that he’s never totally awake right now, always ten seconds from wanting to shut his eyes and block out the world for a couple more hours.
“Clint,” she says, but doesn’t follow it up with anything else so he rolls onto his side, away from her, and closes his eyes.
“Have a good time,” he tells her, waiting until he hears the lock engage before he actually relaxes into the comforter.
He’s in that hazy space where he’s not sure if he’s asleep or still awake when his doorbell chimes. Clint’s is the only room with a doorbell, probably because he’s the only agent who lives here and nowhere else.
“I’m sleeping, Tasha,” he yells, pulling a pillow down from the top of the bed and trying to decide whether to throw it at the door or smother himself with it.
“It’s not Natasha, Clint,” comes an apologetic voice. “It’s Steve. Sorry, did I wake you?”
Clint rolls off the bed and spends ten seconds straightening his shirt and rubbing some life back into his face before opening the door.
“Hey,” he says, leaning just his head and one shoulder around the doorframe so Steve won’t think he’s invited in or anything. “Shouldn’t you be at Stark’s?”
“I bumped into Natasha in the hallway,” Steve says. “She says you’re not going, either?”
“Nah, I’m – ” Clint stops. “Wait, ‘either’? You’re not going?” Now there’s a surprise; Clint would have thought Steve would be right at the top of the list when it came to People In Favour of Team Bonding Shit.
“No.” Steve shrugs. “I’m not really…” He shakes his head, looking awkward. “Feeling it tonight.”
Clint finally relaxes his deathgrip on the door, letting it swing open so he’s facing Steve properly. “You’re not really feeling it,” he echoes and grins. “Nice job on the lingo, Cap, you’ll soon be down with the kids.”
Steve looks like he’s not sure if he’s being mocked or not, then finally smiles tentatively. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of car keys. “I was wondering if you wanted to come for a drive with me?”
“A drive?” Clint asks. He’s actually surprised enough to be interested; he can’t remember the last time he was interested in anything. “No offense, dude, but I’m not sure how I feel about riding bitch on your bike.”
“Riding bit- ? Oh.” Steve shakes his head. “I bought a car. But, uh, I don’t actually have a driver’s licence yet.”
Clint laughs. “So why’d you buy a car?”
Steve looks distinctly uncomfortable. It’s possible Clint is being an asshole, but he’ll withhold judgement until the end of the conversation. “I woke up and someone showed me how to do online banking and I have… There’s a lot of money. I donated most of it but I thought it’d be okay to buy myself one stupid thing?”
“Totally okay.” Clint smacks him on the shoulder. “Sure you trust me to drive it?”
Steve smiles, looking relieved. “Yes,” he says. There’s nothing mocking about the way he says it; he just says it like he means it. Clint doesn’t know what to do with him.
“Give me ten minutes,” Clint tells him. “I’ll put some pants on and meet you in the parking lot.”
Steve’s eyes flick downward, apparently having failed to notice Clint’s hairy legs and boxer shorts until now.
“Sorry,” he says, staring very firmly at Clint’s face. “I’ll… leave.”
“Ten minutes,” Clint promises him, trying not to laugh at him. Maybe there was something to Phil’s Captain America appreciation; the dude definitely knows how to shake Clint out of a funk.
Phil is halfway through cleaning his .44 AutoMag when his living room window explodes inwards and a black-clad figure comes tumbling through.
He doesn’t waste time being surprised or alarmed, just grabs his Sig from under the table and drops down onto one knee.
The intruder shakes his head, splinters of glass flying out of his hair. It’s Barnes, Phil realises, and he jumps up, racing toward him while keeping an eye out for whoever chased him in here.
Barnes sits up abruptly, eyes scanning the room. They narrow when they land on Phil, and Phil has just long enough to realise that there’s no recognition there before Barnes brings a knife up and lunges for him.
“Hey!” Phil snaps, hopping backwards and bringing the barrel of his gun up to block Barnes’s knife. “Barnes! What the hell?”
Barnes releases a harsh growling sound from the back of his throat, making the hairs on Phil’s arms stand up, and leaps for him again.
Phil doesn’t want to hurt him, but even less does he want to get stabbed. He knees Barnes in the stomach and slams his forearm into Barnes’s face.
Barnes falls backwards, lower lip bleeding, but he’s back on his feet in seconds.
“Stop,” Phil barks, bringing his gun up and levelling it at Barnes’s face.
Barnes freezes. His eyes are wide, wild and there’s blood matted in his hair that didn’t come Phil.
“I don’t want to shoot you,” Phil tells him, careful to keep his voice even and non-threatening. “Tell me what happened.”
Barnes touches his lip with the hand not still clutching his knife. He looks down at the blood on his hands and swears in Russian. “Bastard,” he snarls.
Phil’s getting a bad feeling about this.
“Agent,” he snaps firmly. “Stand down.” He doesn’t know the language Department X employed, but he knows how to deal with rogue assets.
It almost works. Barnes stiffens in surprise, eyes narrowing. “Who are you?” he asks.
Phil raises his eyebrows. He hasn’t had to be cool, calm and collected Agent Coulson for a while now, but it’s like slipping on a well-worn jacket. “Don’t you know? You came to kill me.”
“I.” Barnes frowns. “No. I.” He shakes his head hard, looks down at his knife and seems to come to a decision. “Yes, I guess I did.”
He leans his weight forward onto his right foot as though he’s going to charge Phil, and Phil takes aim at his shoulder, ready to fire.
Barnes throws the knife instead. It drives through Phil’s gun arm, knocking it backwards and pinning him to the wall, the pain so bright and unexpected that he drops his gun.
“Barnes,” Phil barks, but his voice has lost its bite and Barnes doesn’t stop this time, pulling his knife free of Phil’s arm (tearing the skin on the way out; Phil tries to block out the pain) and pressing it up under Phil’s jaw.
“Who are you?” he asks quietly, lips an inch from Phil’s cheek.
Phil holds his breath and ignores the hot, slick trail of blood rolling down his arm, weighing down his sleeve. His good arm is trapped between Barnes and the wall, so he has no choice but to reach out with the damaged one, searching for anything to use as a weapon.
Right now, he doesn’t care if it’s a non-lethal one.
“Phil Coulson, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” Phil gets out. There are dark spots in the back of his eyeballs. It has to be shock; he doesn’t think he’s lost that much blood.
“Who are you?” Barnes repeats. The edge of his blade nicks Phil’s skin, and Phil’s hand wraps around the hot, bare bulb of the bedside lamp.
“Phil Coulson,” he repeats. “You know me. Put down the knife and we’ll – ” He manages to get a good grip on the lamp and swings.
The bulb burns his palm and the extra tug he has to give to rip the plug out of the wall pulls on the hole in his arm but he gets it there, the base of the lamp coming down hard on the back of Barnes’s head.
Barnes crumples to the floor. Phil takes three seconds to check that he’s staying down, then slides down the wall to join him.
Clint isn’t sure what kind of car he was expecting Steve to have splurged on, but it wasn’t a sleek, black Ford ’46 Mercury.
“Fuck,” Clint laughs, jumping into the driver’s seat and taking the keys that Steve hands him. “Why the hell’d you buy this?”
Steve just smiles at him, shaking his head. “Do you want to talk or are we going to drive?”
Clint never wants to talk, not even – or maybe especially – when he knows he’s being fobbed off. He turns the key and rolls them out of the parking garage instead.
“Where to?” he asks, once they’re in traffic. The roads aren’t too busy this time of night, but it’s still New York, so that’s still relative.
“Just – ” Steve points toward the BQE and the waterfront. “Go that way? I’ll direct you.”
“Sure,” Clint agrees, and doesn’t ask anything else. He isn’t mad about cars like some people, but he likes to drive when he doesn’t have a set place to be. (When he does have a set place to be, he prefers to take the roof. It’s a thing. Don’t ask.)
They drive until it’s full dark outside, and Steve’s voice gets quieter and quieter as he gives directions. Probably the only reason Clint hears him when he says to pull over is that Clint hears everything.
They drive down a narrow, mostly-empty street until Steve tells Clint to stop the car outside a boarded-up redbrick tenement building. Clint puts the car in park, then turns to look at Steve, questioning.
“We lived here,” Steve says slowly, eyes locked on one of the third storey windows. All Clint can see is cracked glass above a faded black storefront, but he’s guessing Steve can see something else.
“You and your folks?” Clint asks. It’s none of his business, but he doesn’t want Steve to think he can’t talk about it.
“No.” Steve wets his lips. “Me and my… He was my best friend.”
Ah, this Clint knows. “Bucky, right?” he asks. He paid attention to everything Phil ever told him, even though he pretended not to.
Steve genuinely flinches and Clint is really fucking sorry he said anything. Then Steve blows out a breath and nods. “Yes,” he says, dragging his eyes away from the building and smiling sadly over at Clint. “Bucky.”
Clint isn’t totally sure why Steve decided to share this moment with him , and he’s got no damn clue what to say. He reaches across the stick shift and pats Steve’s forearm.
“That’s rough, buddy,” he says, which is totally fucking inadequate. “I’m sorry.”
When Steve swallows, it’s harsh enough that Clint hears it. “You know I told you I lost someone in the war?”
“Yeah.” Clint nods. Then he catches the look on Steve’s face. “Oh shit. Shit. You and Bucky?”
At no point did Phil ever tell Clint that Captain America was queer; Clint hopes to god he knew.
Steve nods and doesn’t seem able to say anything else, so Clint just kind of squeezes his arm awkwardly and hopes it helps.
“Sorry,” Steve says after a minute. “I’m sure you don’t need me rambling on about my heartbreak, not when you have your own.”
“No.” Clint shakes his head quickly. “That’s not – ” the same. It’s not the same. Not if Steve had Bucky, not if they were together and in love. Clint never had Phil.
Steve carries on as though Clint never tried to interrupt. “Sometimes, everything feels fine and then out of nowhere, you just feel kind of… empty. Does that makes sense to you?”
He sounds kind of desperate, like he really needs someone who understands how he feels. Luckily, Clint really does.
“Yeah.” Clint nods. “Yeah, that. Empty’s, right. Lonely, too.” He can’t believe he’s saying this shit to anyone, let alone to Steve, who he barely knows.
Or maybe it’s better that Steve doesn’t know him. Everyone who knows Clint’s background looks at him like he should be used to loss by now.
Clint curves his mouth up into a smile shape and flashes it at Steve. Steve gives him one back, just as empty and unconvincing.
“I think I could have been kinder to Agent Coulson,” Steve says at last.
“You and me both, buddy,” Clint tells him then thinks about it. “How come? What’d you do to him?”
Steve looks down at Clint’s hand, still on his arm. “Nothing. It was just, he was very excited to meet me and it made me uncomfortable. He wanted me to be Captain America and I wanted to be anyone but that. I think, in a way, fighting the Chitauri helped me remember who I was.”
Clint has spent the past few weeks thinking about all the times that he chose to turn left toward his quarters rather than right towards Phil’s office. About the extra cups of coffee they could have had, the extra few seconds of just being with Phil.
“He thought you were so fucking awesome,” Clint tells Steve, not looking at him. “Most of the time, if I wanted to talk to him, I had to hang around and keep poking at him until he got fed up and gave in. But, dude, when they found you, he came looking for me and.” He pulls his knees up onto the seat and rests his chin on his folded arms. “He was so excited.”
“Clint,” Steve says and turns his hand in Clint’s, squeezing.
Clint shakes him off; he’s fine. He hasn’t cried yet and he’s sure as hell not going to do it in front of Steve.
Steve breathes out a faint laugh. “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
Clint can’t quite manage any kind of laugh but he huffs some air so Steve’ll know he’s trying. “We’re a fucking mess,” he agrees. He leans his head back and bumps it against the seatback. It doesn’t hurt, but Clint kind of wishes it had.
When Steve doesn’t answer him, Clint cracks his eyes open, looking at him. Steve’s kind of looking back at him, all deep blue eyes and thick dark eyelashes.
“Steve?” Clint asks. He hopes that’s not what a breakdown looks like; he is stupendously under qualified to give anyone any kind of grief counselling.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says and puts his hand on Clint’s face. “This is probably a terrible idea.”
Clint feels his eyes go wide. It’s definitely a terrible idea; what the fuck is happening here? But Clint’s skin feels hot where Steve’s touching it, like that tiny square of skin has come back to life after so long dead.
“Seriously?” is all Clint can think to say.
Steve nods. He looks very serious. And then he’s leaning forward, turning Clint’s face toward his.
This has got to be what madness feels like, Clint decides, leaning forward and closing the gap.