Pepper Potts eyed the second pair of Louboutins, a set of peep toes that screamed her name. The first were leather and cork wedges that would be perfect for summer, but you couldn't go wrong with black heels. Turning her ankle to look at the side view, she just couldn't decide between them, so she nodded to the sales clerk that she'd take both. What was the purpose of being CEO of Stark Industries if she couldn't indulge herself now and then?
"How are we doing on time, Amy?" Pepper asked her assistant. Brown hair, grey suit, and sensible shoes, Amy Carr was non-descript and very ordinary looking, but she was hell on wheels when it came to organizing Pepper's life. They'd met at a fundraiser for the World Health Organization; Amy had been an intern for the UN tasked with running the raffle table but she ended up stepping in when tables were mixed up and place cards in all the wrong order. Not long after, Pepper had snapped her up, putting her unique talents to work. Young though she might be, Amy had faced down Tony in one of his manic moods, getting him to show up at a board meeting when even Pepper had given up on him.
"If we're out of here in ten minutes, there's time to stop at Creed before your meeting." She pushed her Harry Potter wire rimmed glasses back up her nose as she checked her Starkphone.
The sales clerk had her checked out in six and they were exiting the store, heading down the street to her favorite French perfumery, just two blocks away. Happy trailed along behind, Tom, the other bodyguard, taking point. Her mind was already on the new proposal and how to handle the very recalcitrant Swede who owned the company.
"Ms. Potts, if you have a moment."
The man looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't put her finger on where she'd seen him before. He was wearing an army fatigue jacket, a t-shirt and scruffy jeans. Before she could react, Happy put himself between Pepper and the man.
"Back off." Happy pushed him; blue eyes narrowed, blinked, then the man smiled at Pepper. He reached a business card her way and Happy snatched it from his hands.
"Please, Ms. Potts, for Clint's benefit. Just check that. You'll know how to contact me if you're interested." He ducked his head, giving Happy a sour look before he darted out into the crowd and disappeared.
"You want me to tail him?" Happy asked.
Pepper took the card from his hand; it held a web address and nothing else. "No. Just let him go."
"What did you think of those two?" Tony spun about on his stool, pushing the picture over to Clint's screen.
"I thought she'd be the snooty type, what with her background and all, but I liked her. I could get used to another female on the team. Natasha would appreciate someone else to field the 'do you wear underwear under your suit' questions." Clint looked at the professional photo of the woman with black hair and lovely blue eyes.
"He's brilliant, hands down. A little socially awkward; did you see the way he flinched when I asked him about their relationship?" Tony spun the video of the man in his red suit. "And that helmet? Screams science nerd."
"First, we've got plenty of socially awkward already, so he'll fit right in. And you asked if he and Janet were, quote, learning about each other's birds and bees, end quote. I'd punch you if you said that to me the first time we met." Clint looked over at Tony. "And science nerd?"
"Fine, fine. But ants!" Tony was only giving Clint grief; Clint knew both Pym and Van Dyne were on the fast track for the expansion of the Initiative. It was time they got more help; they were running themselves ragged now that the X-Men were broken up and scattered. Plus Reed and Sue were taking some time off to 'work on their relationship' which was code for 'not break up or kill each other.'
"And wasps. Hey, it works," Clint shrugged, knowing not rising to Tony's bait was the best strategy if they were going to get through all the files. That's why they worked so well together; Tony's brand of crazy didn't bother Clint and Clint's sarcasm just rolled off Tony's back. "What about Wilson? Steve's hot on him."
"Good one," Tony complimented him on his double entendre. "The whole wing thing is cool, but can your ego handle it? Another bird brain on the team?"
"Aw, I'll just retire and live off of my rich teammate. Island, remember?" Clint said. "But the more airborne the merrier. Plus, he's worked with Steve and he's young, not a dinosaur like us."
"You calling me old?" Tony turned. "Excuse me, but I seem to remember Agent Agent dragging your sorry ass back from medical last night."
"Hey, I hurt my hip kicking that robot in the line of duty!" They were about to get off track, Clint could tell. Tony was looking for an excuse to find something else to do besides work. "You're the one who installed the trapeze and the stripper pole."
"TMI, dude, TMI. I do NOT want to know about your varied and kinky sex life." Tony shook his head.
"Don't you have a meeting to go to? The UV tech startup company, remember?" Clint reminded the other man.
"Damn." He glanced at the time on the screen. "I'm already late. JARVIS! Why didn't you warn me?"
"I did, sir. Four times."
The man was waiting in the lobby, a manila envelope in his hand. "Mr. Stark. If I may have a minute?"
"I'm in a hurry," Tony brushed past the dirty blonde, barely glancing his way. "Give your address to my assistant and she'll send you an autographed picture."
"I don't think you want anyone to see these photos." Familiar blue-grey eyes grabbed Tony's attention and he turned to see the edge peeping from the open flap. "Copies, of course."
"Look, I'm not interested."
"Sure, sure. Just, here's my card. If you change your mind." The guy reached to hand both to Tony; his PA of the day, Richardson, intervened and took the white rectangle and envelope.
"What the hell?" Tony grabbed the envelope and looked inside. One glimpse was all he needed. His stomach churned as the black and white image burned into his retinas, no way to unsee it. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"A friend." The man rubbed a hand absently over his hair. "I'll give you the negatives for the right price."
"God damn it." Stepping closer, Tony was angry enough to want to bury his fist in the man's face. "I'm not paying you one cent, you understand."
"Have it your way. Just trying to do a good deed." He turned and walked purposefully away, head hung down between his shoulders.
"JARVIS, I want full facial recognition on that guy. Take the security cams and any other pics you can get. Find out who he is."
"Of course, sir," the A. I. replied through Tony's earpiece. "Shall I alert Agent Barton, sir?"
"No. Let's find out what we can first, and then we'll bring Clint into this." The image haunted Tony as he walked to the elevator bank. First order of business was to get somewhere secure so JARVIS could start tracking down the names of the people Tony needed to destroy.
No way he'd ever admit it, but the world spun a little bit counterclockwise when his back hit the mat and he'd swear he literally saw stars. Natasha was on a tear today about something and she wasn't pulling any punches; her weight slammed down on Clint's chest, pressing all the air out of his lungs. The edges of his vision blackened and he tapped out, deciding that living to eat dinner was a good idea.
"What's got your panties in a twist?" Clint coughed and tried to drag in a deeper breath. Laying still sounded good, so he did.
"You need to take better care of yourself," Natasha shot back, not bothering to answer the question. She never gave Clint a straight answer, but ducking it meant there was something there. "You're favoring your right leg and left shoulder."
"I hurt my hip yesterday, if you remember, so, yeah, it's weak. Doesn't mean I can't …" He surged up and caught her arm, twisting it around as he flipped them both, trying to pin her, but she was too fast. He managed only to sit on a leg and hold onto her wrist. She could break free easily if she wanted to, but she didn't.
"Slow and sluggish. Stop fucking around with Coulson so much and heal up." She glowered at him and he could read what she wasn't saying in her words. I'm worried about your vanilla human ass. You're not like Steve or me. Don't take stupid chances. I need you to stay alive.
"Doc said to go back to normal so it doesn't seize up." He was telling her he was okay, that he'd be fine. "Kicking my ass is normal, right?"
She grinned then and rolled away from him, back up into a fighting stance. "Yeah, well you're an old married man now. Don't be getting complacent on me."
"You think Phil would stand for that?" Clint rolled his neck and shoulder as he waited on her to make her move. "And quit avoiding the question. Is everything okay with Steve?"
A roundhouse punch was followed by a sweep kick; Clint dodged and rolled to the left. For the next few minutes, he thought of nothing but keeping one step ahead of her and not getting his ass handed to him on a platter. Sweat dripped from his nose as they moved around the whole space, no move out of bounds. Finally, he stretched to the right to avoid an elbow to the side and he felt the yank of his muscle, overused and tense.
"Enough." Natasha declared. "You need a massage and some sauna time."
Last thing Clint wanted was some SHIELD appointed therapist poking around his body; too often an appointment with them led to being benched for days. "No thanks. I'll do the hot tub here."
"That's too bad. I called Lu and he has a spot open."
"Lu?" Clint practically drooled at the thought of a deep tissue Thai massage with the best hands in New York City. Knuckles digging into the most tender spots, pain that would bring relief? "Hell, yes. Do I have time to shower?"
"If you hurry." Natasha smiled and Clint knew he'd been played. This was all about getting him to accept some help.
"Okay JARVIS, what have you got?"
Tony was seething on the inside; the damn meeting had run far too long and there had been only so much he could do on his tablet while he sat at the head of the table. For once, Pepper hadn't admonished him for his lack of attention; she'd seemed distracted herself, coming in just on time rather than her usual five minutes early. He'd almost left three times, but the founder of the company was damn good and the technology would make a great addition to the next suit. Usually he would have asked a ton of questions, ignored the money people and dragged the inventor to lunch. But not today.
The picture of the man who'd handed him the envelope came up on the screen. "Records indicate …" JARVIS began, but a voice cut him off.
"Charles Bernard Barton. Clint's brother." Natasha stepped up beside him, her face set in a dark scowl. "He's been in town for three days. I take it you had a run in with him."
"Tony, I have to … oh my God, that's him. That's the guy from earlier." Pepper strode into the room, anxious and worried. "He gave me this card with a web address. I wanted JARVIS to check it out."
"Been busy, I see." Natasha tapped her fingernails on the table. "He's after something."
"Money," Tony answered, "in exchange for …"
The website came up and Pepper gasped, her eyes widening and hand flying to cover her mouth. The picture was black and white – probably to look artistic and not as blatant as they really were – with dark shadows making the boy's white skin stand out in stark relief. The slim pre-pubescent body was the center of the frame, held in place by older hands, but the haunted look in those all too knowing eyes reached out and begged for help.
"Tony." Pepper breathed the word, her fingers curling around Tony's clenched fist. "He can't be more than 13."
"Fucking son-of-a-bitch." Natasha's voice was cold and Tony couldn't suppress the shiver it gave him.
"Track that website back JARVIS; find out who put it up and take every one of those damn things down," Tony ordered.
"The pictures were uploaded from a public computer in the Des Moines Public Library, the downtown branch. The page was created on a common public hosting platform … I downloaded the code to your secure server and erased it from the site, sir."
"Every one?" Pepper asked. "There's more than one?"
Tossing the envelope on the table in front of Natasha, Tony nodded to it. "A whole roll of film, it looks like."
"What are you going to do?" Pepper looked between both of them. Tony turned to Natasha.
"I can't touch him; Clint made me promise a long time ago." She grimaced at the show of sentimentality. "As if blood makes a difference when you're a bastard."
"Wouldn't know." Tony was an only child. "Not sure I want to."
A moment of thought and then Natasha decided. "Good thing Barney doesn't know I made that promise, eh?"
He felt completely boneless, twenty pounds lighter, all the kinks worked out. Why he didn't make a standing appointment with Lu he wasn't sure, except he'd miss most of them with his crazy schedule. Maybe he could talk Tony into putting Lu on retainer … yeah, no, Lu liked his little crappy storefront down in Queens.
Tossing his leather coat on the chair, Clint stopped as he heard the clack of computer keys. Phil was at his desk in just his shirt, sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened. He enjoyed the feel of the keys beneath his fingers, having learned on typewriters; he had the potential candidates spread on the screen, entering data about each one.
"Good massage?" Phil asked without looking up. "You're smiling; I take it Lu was as thorough as always."
"You should go." Clint circled the couch and came up behind Phil; he leaned down and kissed the spot behind Phil's ear then slid his hands along his shoulders, his thumbs running up the tense muscles of Phil's neck. "You're tight."
"And you love me that way, or so you say." Phil peered over the edge of his black frames. He knew what that did to Clint, using the move as an opening gambit.
"I do, and you know it." He dug his fingers into the trigger point where the bones met; Phil melted under his touch, sitting back and dropping his hands onto the arm rest. "Tired of shopping yet?"
"Someone needs to meet with Parker at 4:30, after school." Tilting his head back, he gave Clint that special smile, the one only he ever saw, reserved for these moments when they could let down their guards and just be two people who loved each other. "I've got Danvers lined up from Andrews or I'd go myself."
"The kid? Yeah, I can do that one." Clint's hand slipped inside the open collar, stroking the line of Phil's collar bone. "Smart mouth, sassy attitude, rule breaker … what's not to like?"
"Maybe putting the two of you together is a mistake?" Phil asked.
Clint bent down and kissed the mouth of the best man he'd ever known, the person he'd gladly give his life for. "Come on, Sir, how much trouble can we get into?"
Phil's only response was a soft, breathy moan.
The black fabric was pulled off his head, bright light blinding him for a few seconds. Slowly, the room came into focus; a lab of some kind, black topped tables with equipment he'd never seen before, fancy, new, expensive. Shaking his head, he saw the man and woman standing in front of him; she had her arms crossed, her slim grey suit with classic lines and a perfect pair of lilac pumps that matched her shirt. He was wearing a Rolling Stones fade t-shirt with a ragged hem and ratty old blue jeans. Pepper Potts and Tony Stark.
"You could have just called the number," Barney said. "We could do this online."
A hand surrounded his throat like a vice and forced his head back, cutting off all but a little air flow. He tried to drag in a breath, but the relentless pressure didn't let up. Cold green eyes stared down at where he sat, tied to a chair so tight there was no wiggle room. Curls fell over her face, a carven image of a beautiful goddess of death. The Black Widow. Oh God, but he was absolutely screwed. His source had said she was out of town or he'd have never come. Everyone was terrified of Romanov. The Russians, the Mexicans, and especially the Tong refused to mess with her.
"Who are you in to?" she asked.
He was not going to embarrass himself. "You can't hurt me. Clint won't be happy. I'm his brother."
Her face came down until her lips brushed his ear. "You think I have to do it? I know all about Vladyiov. One word in his ear is all it would take."
Fucking hell. Vlad would take his time killing Barney, and he'd wish for death long before Vlad would let it happen. She let up just enough for him to sputter the answer. "Jamison, okay? He's a hard-hearted bastard who doesn't understand that startups take time."
"Not much, not really." Barney sucked in air then she dropped her forearm against his throat again, and he blinked back tears.
"How much? Last time."
"250 Gs, okay?" He rubbed his neck as she stepped away.
"That's the cost of selling out your brother?" Stark asked. Disgust showed on his face and Barney got pissed off. What the hell did rich boy know about anything? He'd always had money, had never scrabbled for food.
"I'm going to give him those pictures he posed for, all right? I'm watching out for him." And that's exactly how he saw it. He was protecting Clint; dumb kid went and got himself famous and all sorts of people were coming out of the woodwork.
"He posed? He was just a kid!" Stark protested, indignant.
"Look, lady, he knew what he was doing. Clint wasn't ever a kid." Not with their Dad's tendency to crawl into the bottom of a liquor bottle.
The fist landed just below his left eye, snapping his head back. It wasn't Stark, but the strawberry blonde who was wringing her hand.
"Good hit, Pep. Did you remember to tuck your thumb outside this time?" Stark took her hand and turned the fist over to check.
"Yes, Tony, I know how to punch. Natasha's been teaching me." Pepper Potts looked pleased with herself. "Son of a bitch deserved it."
"Okay, we're done here," the Black Widow said. "You are going to do exactly what I tell you, or I'll hand you over to Jamison myself, do you understand?"
Damn it, he didn't have a choice. Maybe they'd pay off his debt at least. They weren't going to kill him … he didn't think.
"Fine. What do you want me to do?"
"Mrs. Parker, that was delicious." Clint pushed back his empty plate. He wasn't lying; the marinara sauce was homemade and the garlic bread thick and slathered with butter, just like he liked it. There was something so comforting about a simple bowl of pasta at the kitchen table. "Thanks again for inviting me to stay. I'd have been eating leftover take out otherwise."
"We're happy to have you, Mr. Barton. I know Peter is so thrilled to be invited to be part of your program." May Parker stood and gathered up Clint's plate along with her own. "I can't believe Tony Stark is offering him this scholarship opportunity. It's a dream come true, I tell you. I know he'll work hard, won't you Peter?"
"Aunt May." Peter ducked his head, blushing in embarrassment. Clint didn't feel any sympathy for the kid; he had a loving aunt who'd taken him in and raised him. If anything, Clint was just a touch jealous, but not really. He was glad for Peter.
"Peter." That voice, the one Clint heard Pepper use with Tony. The 'I-love-you-so-listen-to-me' voice. "An internship with Stark Industries? That can open doors for your future career."
Clint didn't snort, but just barely. Peter Parker's future job was pretty clear. Spiderman was on the fast track to being an Avenger. "Well, I think it's time for me to head back to Stark Tower." Clint started to stand. "Let me help you with the dishes first."
"No, no, you're a guest in my house." She smiled at him and patted his hand just like she'd done to Peter earlier. "Besides, there's pie."
"Oh, you have to stay for Aunt May's Caramel Apple Pie," Peter jumped up when May nudged him and grabbed the rest of the dishes to clear the table. "With ice cream."
Clint sat back down. He could stay for pie.
The guy behind the desk in the lobby – more of a cage really with glass and bars – took one look at his already swelling face and went right back to watching a Honey Boo Boo rerun on his small black and white television with rabbit ears. The sign on the ancient elevator that proclaimed it was out of service was old and battered and may have been permanent, so Barney took the stairs up the four flights to the tiny closet that cost him far too much of the dwindling reserves of cash he had on hand. The decent set of clothes he'd bought at the thrift shop had taken a chunk, and he really shouldn't have gone down to that bar but, damn it, he needed liquid courage. He'd hoped to have the money by now, sitting in a safe little account, maybe move to a nicer hotel, do a little shopping and treat himself to a nice steak dinner. Yeah, he'd padded the amount he needed, like Jamison would trust him with a quarter of a million. But he had this job on the line that would make that amount seem paltry in comparison, if he could just come up with $50,000 or so to sink into it.
But now there was no money for him, and he had to suck up his pride and do what they wanted because, hello, Black Widow. She would do exactly what she threatened, he had no doubt. He'd been working a job awhile back when she took out the boss's boss; only the fact that Barney was on the lowest rung, just a hired gun, saved his ass. SHIELD was more interested in the big guys and he'd beat feet like the others in his little team. Truth was, Barney knew some truly scary people and they would piss their pants if they heard this woman was after them. So, yeah, he was going to do it … with his own little addition.
The door to his room stuck on the carpet, and he had to put his shoulder into getting it open. That's why he didn't see the guy standing by the window that overlooked the elevated train tracks until he'd shut it behind him and thrown the two deadbolts. A suit, perfectly pulled together, older, some kind of Fed or something, the man merely notched an eyebrow and said, "Charles Barton, I presume?"
"Who wants to know?" He went with belligerent for his defense even though every instinct was telling him this guy wasn't the typical government agent. A military bearing for one thing and there was an air of competency that Barney usually only saw in contract killers. Oh God, maybe this guy was here to end him. He'd always known it would come to this; he'd skirted some nasty situations and maybe one of them had come back to bite his ass.
"Philip J. Coulson, SHIELD." The suit made no move to offer his hand, just stood with his hands clasped behind his back as if waiting for Barney to say something. "I hear you're peddling some pictures. I'm here to take them into custody. As far as I see it, you've got two options: you give them up freely and walk out of here. Or you try to play me and find out how you like your cell in The Freezer."
Oh shit. Everyone had heard of the SHIELD prison; once you went in, you never came out. How the hell had this gotten so out of control? He'd just needed some money, that's all.
"Look, I'm just here to do my brother a favor, okay? Don't want this to get out any more than he does. I didn't go to SHIELD because I wasn't sure who to trust, you understand?" He reached under the bed and slid out an envelope; a gun appeared in the suit's hand before Barney even registered he'd moved. "Hey, hey. Calm down. Here's this set. I've got the originals and the negatives in a safe place. Just name the time and place and I'll bring them. After we talk about the reward."
Both eyebrows rose on the agent's face in response to that. "There is no reward, Mr. Barton, other than your freedom. Bring the originals to Al's Diner on 48th at 8 p.m. tonight. Come alone. We'll know if you try to run or contact anyone else. It's what we do."
The man was at the door before Barney could get his thoughts together. "Clint will reimburse me; I had to pay those guys off to keep their mouths shut. Maybe I'll just call him."
The suit stopped, and his stillness made Barney's stomach clench and every warning bell went off in his head. He was pretty sure he had pushed too far. What did a bullet to the brain feel like?
"Be at the location, Mr. Barton. Or I will track you down."
As soon as the door shut, Barney sank down on the bed, shaking all over. Clint's friends were the scariest S.O.B.s he'd ever run into. What a clusterfuck this had become.
The coffee was good as always, exact temperature, just the right hint of bitterness mixed with the smooth cream. Clint curled his hands around the porcelain mug and let the steam waft up. The clock over the counter was circled in neon pink and green and read 8:17 p.m. His contact was running late.
He'd gotten the text just as he was leaving Peter Parker's house and heading back downtown; for the last few months, since their impromptu marriage in Connecticut, Clint had put feelers out for any information on that psycho Marcher who'd escaped with his vendetta against Phil still intact. It was only a matter of time before the want-to-be villain made another run against them and Clint wanted to be ahead of the game. Any knowledge of where Marcher was or what he was planning could be very important.
Al's still had a bell above the door and it jiggled when it opened, admitting the sandy haired man in the canvas jacket and beat up combat boots. Clint recognized him immediately and Barney needed only a second or two to realize that they'd both been set up. Walking down the aisle, his brother hunched his shoulders as he slid into the booth opposite Clint, dropping a manila envelope on the table.
"Hey," Barney said. Clint couldn't help but notice the red swollen skin around Barney's eye and the dark marks growing on his neck; he'd been in a fight recently. He was looking more haggard, eyes bloodshot and hands with the slightest of shakes. He was still drinking it seemed; as Tony would have said, Barney looked like he'd been rode hard and put up wet. And that deflated the anger that immediately bubbled up. Barney looked old.
"Hey," Clint answered, keeping his eyes on Barney's face. His brother wasn't the greatest liar in the world and Clint knew all of his tells. Right now, he was pissed off, scared, and resigned; whatever he'd been planning, Clint's appearance here blew it all to hell.
"You want anything to drink?" The waitress, Annie, stopped to ask; she looked at Barney's face but didn't blanch. She'd seen Clint come in with bruises before. He'd used the excuse of boxing so she probably thought Barney was one of his friends from the gym. "We've got Salisbury Steak on special and it's good with mashed potatoes. The pie today is Dutch apple."
"Cup of coffee," Barney mumbled.
"He'll have the special with the pie," Clint ordered. Barney scowled at him. "I'll take a chocolate milkshake." He looked at his brother. "Want one with your dinner? They make good ones here."
"Nah. The other's enough." Barney tapped his fingers on the table top, not looking at Clint as Annie left, sitting in silence until she came back with coffee then retreated again.
"So you're not my contact, I take it." Clint said, sitting back in the booth.
"And you're not the person I was expecting either." Barney poured enough sugar in his coffee to float a spoon, then three little cups of creamer. "But this is for the best I guess." He slid the envelope across the table. "Ran into the Orly brothers a month or so ago. Got this for ya. Don't ever say I never gave you anything."
He didn't have to open the flap; the name was enough for Clint to know exactly what was inside. A little spike of fear jumped in his throat. Life was good right now. Really good. Of course something from his past was going to mess it up. "They still around? I'd have figured someone would have taken offense a long time ago."
"Aye, they never were too bright, were they? Damn idiots. Remember how Tilman liked to say he was an artist?" Barney grinned then, the lopsided one that meant he was amused. "Anyway, they're down in Florida now, in their 60s. They got into food photography, if you can imagine, and they're living in a shitty condo."
Clint could read between the lines. Barney had scammed them out of the pictures, probably for next to nothing, and had hightailed it to New York to sell them at a much higher profit margin. All-in-all, he should be glad that Barney hadn't gone right to the media. Of course, after the last time they met and Clint had told him in no uncertain terms to never bother him again for money, Barney couldn't just come to Clint. Question was, who had he gone to? Oh. Right.
"How much did you pay them?" Clint kept the question light, didn't ask how much Barney wanted. His brother liked to save face; accusing him of extortion wasn't going to get through this conversation without a fight. "Did they even know what they had?"
Barney's eyes tightened a little at the first question but cleared at the second. "Ten times what they paid us, which is a drop in the bucket for what they could get. They didn't have a clue; you're keeping a pretty low profile for a famous dude."
"I try." Clint nodded to Annie as she sat down Barney's dinner and Clint's shake. She'd brought a tall shake glass full as well as the silver mixing cup with what was left of his drink. Soon as she left, Clint pushed the silver over to Barney. Old habits die hard. They always shared shakes. "So, what have you been up to besides that?"
Knife and fork clattered against the porcelain place as Barney set to eating like a starving man which, Clint imagined, wasn't far from the mark. A day late and a dollar short that was Barney. Lean and hungry and never quite satisfied.
"Did Georgia for a while – Atlanta's got some hot women not that that'd matter to you – then worked for a bit up in Michigan, the Detroit area. That place is falling apart, but there's opportunities there, ya know?" As he talked, Barney sounded more and more like the brother Clint remembered, full of possibilities and ideas. "Got this new one lined up to do with that Keystone pipeline they're building in Canada. Those guys need equipment and there's this guy talking about outfitting RVs to rent to the workers so they can take them from place to place as they move. Going to get in on the ground floor of that and make some money while we can."
"Makes sense." Just like most of Barney's schemes, it did. He'd just cut corners and duck regulations to make it happen faster. "No need to find a place in every town."
The steak was disappearing in steady bites; Barney swirled each one in the creamy mashed potatoes, made sure it was covered with gravy, before he ate it. "Exactly! Going to leave first thing in the morning so we're ready to go when the government up there approves the next section." Barney was silent for a few more bites before he spoke again. "I'd ask about you, but the TV's taken care of that. Anything new you can actually tell me?"
Despite their differences, Barney knew Clint was a SHIELD agent. Over the years, they'd met up a few times that weren't about money or on the wrong side of an operation. Barney was strictly nickel and dime stuff and as Clint moved up the hierarchy, there'd been less chance he'd find his brother in his scope. Still, having a criminal for a brother wasn't the most digestible piece of information. Most of the time, their visits were short and involved a lot of yelling.
"Well, I'm traveling a lot," Clint said for a laugh. Barney obliged and snorted around his last fork of steak. "Got a new bow, nice baby made from a lightweight metal polymer. Shoots like a dream. Oh, and boomerang arrows."
Barney did laugh at that one. He cleaned up the last of the gravy with his roll, sopping it around the plate before he popped it in his mouth. "Boomerangs? You have cause to use that shit?"
The plate of pie appeared with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on it; Annie whisked the empty plate away. "You have no idea, bro." He shook his head and wondered if he should get a piece of that to go for Phil.
"Still playing the field?" Barney asked. "My little brother, breaking hearts in every town. Now you can do it all over the world."
"Nah, sort of settled down." The edges of Clint's mouth turned up in a soft smile. "Imagine that."
"Don't you grow up on me," Barney mumbled around a mouthful of pie. "Can't have that."
Suddenly his eyes widened as he looked over Clint's shoulder; Clint didn't have to turn to know who was coming to a stop by the booth. Sliding over, he made room for Phil to sit next to him.
"You want a piece of pie? Looks good," Clint asked to break the tension.
"It does." Phil waved to Annie and pointed at Barney's plate. She nodded, message received. "You're not eating?"
"Had homemade spaghetti already," Clint explained. "By the way, Phil, this is my brother Barney, but you already know that. Barney, this is my husband, Phil."
Barney's reaction was almost comical; he dropped his fork onto the last of his pie, and his face froze in surprise. "Husband? As in married? To death do you … yeah, no, let's not mention death, okay. Forget I said that."
"Rings and vows and everything." Clint wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or yell at them both to explain themselves. But he trusted Phil, so he just waited.
"Damn, bro, you run with the Widow and you hitch yourself to secret bad-ass man?" Barney shook his head as he gathered his composure, hiding behind his usual bravado. "No wonder I got my ass handed to me."
Shrugging, Clint bumped his knee into Phil's under the table to let him know all was well between them. Phil had that invisible furrow between his eyes that meant he was worried. "His bad-assness is one of his endearing qualities, I must say."
"Well, been nice chatting, but I'm off to Canada bright and early." Barney was eager to leave; he pulled his wallet from his pants and started to leave some money on the table.
"My treat," Phil said, pushing the wallet closed. "Nice to finally meet Clint's brother."
With an almost imperceptible nod from Phil, Clint laid his phone on the table. "Give me your number and I'll arrange to repay you," he said to Barney.
"What? No. I mean, I didn't come here for that." His brother was getting worked up, his pride hurt by the offer.
"You said you paid the Orlys 20 times the going rate. Least I can do is reimburse you." The lie worked because Barney relaxed, his eyes darting from side to side like when he was calculating the odds. He never even mentioned Clint upping the amount. "You can use it to sink into the new business, right?"
"Yeah, man, I could." He rattled off his phone number as Clint typed it in. "I'll let you know how it goes, okay?"
"Sure." Clint agreed. It was throwing money away but Barney looked like he needed it, needed a little bit of a score to regain his confidence. They all three got out of the booth, Clint tucking the envelope into his inner jacket pocket; Phil shook Barney's hand then Clint avoided the outstretched hand to gather his brother up in a hug. "Be safe, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, don't get all sappy on me," Barney replied. He leaned in and whispered in Clint's ear. "They're all there, no copies or nothing. Don't know about the others though. Always intended they got back to you."
"I know," Clint said with one last squeeze. Barney was too thin, needed meat on his bones.
They were never ones for long goodbyes; Barney was gone into the night and Clint sat back down. Phil took the opposite seat and thanked Annie for his pie when she came.
"He was into Ginger Jamison for over $100,000." Phil was watching Clint intently.
"You could have told me." Which, of course, Phil did by sending Barney right into Clint's path.
"Could have. Thought you'd rather hear it from him."
Clint thought about the way Barney had inhaled his meal, the dark circles under his eyes. "It was good to see him. Know he's alive even if he hasn't changed."
Neither of them spoke about the pictures in the envelope as Phil finished his pie and they walked the blocks back to the Tower, nor did Clint need Phil to confirm he'd planted a tracker on Barney before he left. Instead, they discussed Carol Danvers and Peter Parker and May Parker's cooking skills instead. As they entered their apartment, a shadow unfolded from their couch; Natasha stood and stretched as Phil flipped on the lights. She carefully examined them both then gave a curt nod.
"Jamison is taken care of," she told Phil. Her fingers whispered down the side of Clint's face, a gentle brush. "You, misha, are not to wrap yourself up in knots over this, you hear me? You are not alone anymore." With that she let herself out, leaving them alone.
"I was 15," Clint began.
"You don't have to explain," Phil protested, but Clint took him by the hand and led him over to the couch, sitting them down together.
"I was 15 and we had no money. The carnival was on hiatus. Carson didn't pay us in the winter and neither of us was ever good at saving what little pay we got. So it was cold and we were hungry and this guy came up to me in a Piggly-Wiggly where I was shoplifting food and offered me $2000 to pose for some pictures." Clint could remember the gnawing feeling in his stomach, the desperation in Barney's eyes. "Barney was with me the whole time, negotiated what I would and wouldn't do. No penetration. No swallowing. No chains. The guys, two brothers, fancied themselves artists and wanted to do these black and white sorts of shots, so they agreed. Still Barney wouldn't leave me alone with them."
"Clint. Please. You don't have to justify yourself to me." Phil slipped his hand along Clint's jawline and stroked his cheek with his thumb.
"I want you to understand," Clint tried to explain. "Barney took the money, gave me fifty for myself. For the rest of that winter, we had a heated room and all the ramen noodles I could slurp down. And some warm clothes from the Salvation Army store. It was important." He could remember the store for some reason but not the name of the town. "Two years later, I woke up in a hospital bed after Duquesne left me for dead, the circus moved on, and Barney gone. One day, a nurse came in and left a duffle bag, said it was mine that my brother had given it to her to give me. When I snuck out to avoid the questions and the bills, I took it with me. Clothes, a map, a book I'd carried with me, and my favorite bow were in there. And tucked down in the toe of a pair of scratchy wool socks was $950. My cut of the money. It got me to another town and a recruiter's office where I lied about my age and enlisted in the army."
Phil was silent for a minute, but he never looked away and Clint saw the complete acceptance in his eyes. "I love you. Best thing I ever did was marry you. Barney's part of the package, but I won't let him hurt you. What that means is I will help you deal with his baggage."
"And mine too. I have a lot of it. Those pictures aren't the only things that could pop up from my past." Clint wanted Phil to understand just what he'd let himself in for. "Bad things, Phil."
"You think you're the only one with history? There's a reason you've never met my family."
That was the first time Phil had ever openly mentioned his past. Clint knew a few things about his childhood like where he'd grown up and that his father had been military, but Phil's life started when he went to college then joined the Rangers as far as most people knew. Letting out the breath he'd been holding, Clint leaned until their foreheads were touching. "We're a pair, huh?"
"Why we work so well," Phil agreed.
Clint closed his eyes and rested in Phil's easy touch and the rise and fall of his breaths.
"So, who punched Barney? You or Natasha?"
"Actually, that would be Pepper."
He sat back and stared. "Pepper? She saw?"
"Barney went to Pepper and Tony first. Thought they'd pay." Phil was just as calm as a second before and Clint's panic receded. "IF you want, JARVIS has it on tape. She throws a mean right hook."
Tony and Pepper knew. Natasha was one thing, but the others? He could only repeat himself. "Pepper?"
"She's seen all of Tony's sex tapes, even the ones he made himself. A few black and white photos aren't going to throw her. She's worried about you." Phil stood up and pulled Clint with him. "Come on. Standard operating procedure."
"Ice cream sundaes? I'm still full from dinner," Clint protested
"Nuclear option. Princess Bride on the big screen and white cheddar jalapeno popcorn. Your choice of beer."
Clint couldn't have loved his husband any more than that moment. "As you wish."