From The Desk Of Director Nicholas Fury
To All SHIELD Personnel:
This is an official reminder that EVERYTHING related to last week's AIM operation has been classified under a Level 5 clearance. Any agent caught so much as THINKING too loudly about any relevant details will soon find themselves with a permanent reassignment in glamorous Saskatoon.
There will be no further warnings.
Explosions during AIM raids were always worst case scenarios. Too much technology still in experimental stages, too much science that was theoretical and, to be kind, insane; experimental mishaps were the leading cause of early death among AIM agents, doing more damage than SHIELD could ever hope to match.
An explosion quickly followed by Clint's voice saying, "Um, sir? We have a situation," was a new level of situation SHIELD hadn't found an appropriate classification for yet. "Think the rest of the team should stay clear."
"Report," Coulson responded, putting aside the momentary panic for when he could find time for it.
"There's...I don't know, it's an AIM lab, just with more blinking lights and broken test tubes and gas everywhere."
"Then get out of there..." Coulson pulled to a stop, cursing silently when he realized what he would have to say next. "Wait. What have you been exposed to?"
"Is the lab sealed?"
"Yeah. Yeah, it did that automatically."
"We have to know what's in there before we extract you, you know that." Coulson swore to himself again, realizing what else it was he'd missed. "You said 'we.'"
"Nat's here too."
Of course she was. "Are the two of you secure?"
"Good as we can be, under the circumstance...oh hell."
Because that was what this situation needed, to get worse. "What is it?"
"The blinking's faster and there's an alarm now." Coulson could just make out the beeping over the comm, and it certainly did sound like it was getting louder and faster by the second. "That's probably not good."
Please don't be an auto destruct. "Disable it."
"Nat's working on it." The beeping turned into a blare. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Barton, I will have you reprimanded if you ever say something like that again."
"Let's hope you get the chance-"
The explosion rocked the entire building, shaking tiles loose from the ceiling and sending cracks spider webbing across the walls. Coulson broke into a run, heading toward the wing he'd sent Clint and Natasha to clear. By the time he got there the rest of the team had long since beat him; Stark had even found the time to take off his helmet, a stupid, stupid thing to do in a shattered AIM lab and Coulson was going to reprimand him the second he caught his breath and his chest stopped aching. "Hey, slow poke, what kept you?"
Coulson had to satisfy himself with glaring at Stark; his endurance had never come fully back even after he'd been declared recovered and he doubted it ever would, no matter what the liars in Medical told him. He strongly suspected Fury had pulled strings to get him cleared for the field again at all, because if it was someone under his own command Coulson knew he would never have cleared someone winded after a short sprint. He felt light-headed and it must have been obvious, because Stark put one steadying hand on his shoulder. Coulson nodded his thanks, forcing air into his scarred lung before straightening back up. "Situation report."
"Cap and Bruce are checking things out now." That was actually good thinking; with the lab compromised there was no point to a quarantine, Rogers was immune to most toxins and Banner had the scientific experience to at least have a chance of recognizing what they'd be looking at.
Before Coulson could debrief Stark any further Rogers' head peeked around the corner. "Oh good. Phil, you should take a look at this."
Coulson felt like a ten-year-old every time Captain America called him by his first name. Completely unprofessional, of course, but he couldn't bring himself to tell him to stop. "Are they alive?"
That was the least reassuring yes Coulson had ever heard in his entire life. "Show me." By the time he got to what remained of the lab he was so anxious he forgot protocol and pushed his way past Rogers, or at any rate Rogers allowed him to push his way past, and once he was at the entrance of the lab Coulson found himself having to stop and stare for a few seconds. "Oh."
Natasha and Clint were, as Rogers had said and to Coulson's very great relief, still breathing. And while unconscious they seemed, miraculously, completely unharmed, not sporting so much as a bruise despite the destruction surrounding them.
The problem was that they both appeared to be approximately five years old.
Coulson was so tired of Medical. It seemed like he'd just extricated himself from the constant attention of the SHIELD doctors and here he was again, this time pacing the floors and worrying. He never thought he would prefer being poked and prodded but anything would be better than this constant uncertainty. It had been three days with nothing but vague mentions of tests being run and "We'll have to see" and "It's just too soon." He was beginning to get the distinct feeling that the nursing staff was going to poison him if he kept on making a pest of himself, but he didn't know what else to do. He'd make sure payroll approved a nice bonus for them all when this was over.
The little he'd managed to glean wasn't very reassuring: the doctors seemed to think the age regression was static, which at least meant they weren't getting any younger, but no one seemed to have any clue how to change them back. And they seemed to believe that Clint and Natasha were aging normally, which Coulson supposed was some kind of bright side: at least no one seemed to think they would be five years old forever.
He'd also found out through unofficial channels that they'd lost Natasha twice, which was a surprise to Coulson in that it had only been twice. And that Clint had kicked two nurses, narrowly missed another with a thrown syringe and bitten one doctor to the point that the man required stitches, which Coulson couldn't officially approve of but absolutely understood. If he had the excuse of being five he didn't think he could have avoided biting a doctor while he'd been under their care either.
When Fury summoned him to his office Coulson assumed it was to tell him to stop haunting Medical for updates but realized his mistake when he walked in and saw one of SHIELD's top psychiatrists seated next to Fury's desk. "What's going on?" he said, wondering if he'd been skipping psych appointments.
"We're having a private briefing about Barton and Romanoff," Fury replied, motioning to a chair. "Have a seat." Coulson followed the direction, hoping his suspicion of the psychiatrist being there didn't show on his face. "Medical's finally decided to release them so we need to talk about going forward. I believe you know Dr. Samson."
"We've met," Coulson said as Samson nodded at him; they had, but only once or twice and very informally. The doctor had a good reputation though and Coulson knew Fury put a lot of stock in him, so he made his best effort to do the same.
"I've worked up profiles for both Barton and Romanoff, and I have to say, I don't know how AIM achieved it but it's absolutely remarkable..."
"Doctor Samson," Fury said, rubbing his forehead, "can we bypass how impressed we all are? I had enough of that from Medical this morning."
"Of course, Director, my apologies. It's just something I've never encountered before."
He went through the diagnostic protocols but Coulson didn't have patience to sit through the whole report, not when he knew he would be able to read it later at his leisure. "Can we cut to the prognosis, Doctor?"
"Of course," he said, flipping through the report. "What I find most fascinating is that Agents Barton and Romanoff retain all of their life experience and accumulated skills, relative to their physical capabilities, of course, but it's all being filtered through a child's psychology. You should anticipate the expected increased impulsive behavior, reduced self control, concrete thinking, everything one would expect from an average five year old but it's not a true regression. There's no amnesia, for instance, they haven't been reduced to their original five year old selves. It might be helpful to think of them as the same people, just being projected through a filter. But they will need supervision; while they may be more self-sufficient than an average five year old the poor impulse control will lead to them getting into trouble, especially considering the type of training they've both received."
"Thank you for your hard work, Dr. Samson," Fury said, rising to shake the doctor's hand. "I'll give you my notes on your report but I think we should get these agents settled before Medical stages a revolt."
Samson nodded, giving a Coulson a sympathetic look as he left the room. "Sir," Coulson said, very, very sure he didn't really want an answer to this question, "why did I get the feeling the doctor was speaking to me directly?" Fury just raised an eyebrow at him and Coulson desperately wished he could sink into the floor. "Sir, please, no."
"You've handled Barton and Romanoff their entire SHIELD careers. I don't see why there should be a disruption now."
"But I don't know anything about children. I've never been around them, I don't know how to deal with them..."
"I have every confidence in you," Fury said, cutting off him off with that grin he used when he was giving orders he was so happy to not have to deal with himself. "Obviously this is all extremely classified. You're on babysitting detail until we figure out a way to undo the damage or we figure out a more permanent solution." When Coulson started to protest again Fury raised one hand. "The decision's been made, Coulson. You're the best man for the job. And frankly, I can't think of anyone else who wouldn't run away screaming."
Coulson realized he couldn't either. "Yes, sir. I understand."
"Cheer up. How much more trouble than normal can the two of them really manage to be?"
Clint waited until the lab cleared out, then carefully removed the ceiling panel and lowered himself down, the rope Nat had stolen for him stinging his hands on the way down. He boosted himself up to Tony's control panel and entered in the password, grinning when Tony's AI welcomed him. "Did you forget something...oh, Agent Barton. What can I do for you?"
Clint typed a code into the control panel, the grin widening when the command was accepted. "Tony forgot something, he told me to take care of it for him."
"That...seems very unlikely."
"He gave me the password, right? Go back to sleep, Jarvis. I'm done." Clint shut down the control panel and climbed back up the rope, fitting the ceiling panel back into place. "Call me Legolas," he muttered to himself, coiling back up the rope. "See how you like this."
From The Desk Of Director Nicholas Fury
To All SHIELD Personnel:
Everyone is reminded that tampering with any ongoing experiments or equipment is strictly prohibited.
No matter how hilarious the end result.
It was too early in the morning for Coulson to have this big a headache. "Barton, we know you did it."
Clint crossed his arms over his chest, staring stubbornly at the floor. "Did what?"
Coulson sighed. "Program Stark's robots to only answer commands from 'Prince Legolas of Lothlorien,'
complete with your voice print."
Clint shrugged. "Someone musta stolen it."
"I know it was you."
"You can't know that for sure..." He trailed off, glaring at Natasha, who was leaning against the wall watching the proceedings. "Did you snitch on me?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "You were going to get caught anyway."
"I don't believe..."
Natasha turned away from Clint, looking up at Coulson. "Clint thinks you're pretty," she said, a curl to her lips that Coulson recognized as one she indulged in when she thought an interrogation was going particularly well. "He has forever, he's just too chicken to say so."
"Both of you, please stop." Five minutes and he'd already lost control of the situation. "Barton, we'll talk about you sabotaging Stark's equipment later. You'll be confined to quarters until then."
Clint raised one eyebrow. "Are...are you grounding me?"
Coulson wasn't sure. Maybe. "We'll discuss this later," he just repeated.
Clint hopped up on the bed, picking at his Medical-issue scrubs. "When are they fixing us? This sucks."
Coulson let out a deep breath. "They're still working on it. Until then both of you are being released into my custody while they keep running tests."
"You mean they can't turn us back?" Coulson hadn't expected Clint to look quite this appalled. "Are we stuck like this?"
"Just for now," Coulson reassured, hoping that wasn't a lie. "They've cleared out a section for us, since no one is technically supposed to see you. We don't want AIM to hear that their experiment actually worked, they'll come calling."
Even at five Coulson knew Clint couldn't deny the truth of that. "This sucks," he said again, then took off running. Coulson started to go after him but stopped when Natasha shook her head. "You know where he'll go?"
She nodded, giving him an Of course I do look. "He won't leave the compound, he's not that dumb."
"I hope not. Got get him, we'll talk about what's coming next. I think the two of you will like the quarters they've set up."
Natasha gave him her long, steady look, even more disarming than normal coming from a five year old's face. "We're not calling you dad."
"Please don't," Coulson said, knowing that came out panicked and not caring.
Natasha smiled at him, visibly taking pity. "It's true, you know. He does think you're pretty. I think you are, too."
"I'm not having this conversation with you, you're five."
"I'm not really five. You know that."
Coulson wondered if Natasha had ever really been five. "I do. We're still not having this conversation." He sat down on the bed, looking at her. "Tell me the truth: did you help Barton sabotage Stark's robots?"
"No," she said, with an insulted little huff. "I know Legolas is from Mirkwood." She hopped up on the bed and patted his shoulder in a there, there, it'll be all right gesture. "I'll go fetch Clint."
Then she ran out, leaving Coulson alone to wonder how many years this was going to wind up taking off his life.
Natasha finally found Clint hiding in one of the air vents above the testing range, which she knew had to be making the automatic sensors give all kinds of interesting readings. "Are you still mad at me?" she asked, curling up next to him.
"Why did you say that?"
Natasha shrugged. "You were mad about me snitching. I had to deflect the conversation."
He stared at her for a few moments, then shook his head. "You're even scarier now than you usually are." He picked at the scrubs he was still wearing and Natasha couldn't wait to get into some actual clothes, if only to see what whoever was in charge had picked out. "Why'd you snitch on me in the first place?"
"'Cause it was my idea and you went without me. Jerk."
Clint grinned. "I couldn't wait. And it was funny." The smile faded and he wrapped his arms around his knees. "This sucks, Nat. I didn't like being a kid the first time, I don't wanna do it again."
"It might not be so bad. We can get away with a lot of stuff right now."
"Stop trying to make me feel better."
She flicked her hair out her eyes. "Phil is so scared."
That got a real grin out of Clint. "Yeah. He's totally freaked out."
"We can't prank him. It would be too mean."
His eyes went wistful for a second, as if he'd really hoped they could, but finally he nodded. "Yeah, you're right."
She could feel the grumpiness starting to take him over again and nudged his shoulder. "Y'know, until we get fixed I'm pretty sure we're drawing a paycheck for watching cartoons all day." She frowned, tracing back through her memory. "Actually I don't think I've ever just watched cartoons all day."
Clint shook his head again. "Your life is so weird."
Which was true, but at least she'd cheered him up enough to get him to follow her back to Medical before anyone could start looking, which was the whole point. "C'mon, before he really does have to figure out a way to ground us."
Coulson was so tired. Clint and Natasha were high energy people at the best of times but he'd never imagined how much worse being regressed a couple of decades or so could make things. And if this was them trying to behave he knew he was going to have nightmares about what deliberate disobedience might be like.
At least for the moment they seemed calm, Clint sitting next to the couch in the rec room built for them and throwing a ball against the door while Natasha was seated cross-legged on the floor with an enormous bowl of half-melted ice cream in her lap as she watched what seemed like some atrocious looking TV show. "What is this?" Coulson said, sitting down on the couch behind her.
"Adventure Time," she answered, not even turning around.
Coulson watched for a few seconds and felt himself get completely lost. "What's going on in it?"
"I have no idea."
"That's because that show's stupid," Clint chimed in, throwing the ball harder against the door.
"Clint's mad because I didn't want to watch Brave again."
"At least Brave's not dumb."
"We've watched it five times. I'm tired of bears."
"Can't you two agree on what to watch?" Coulson said, feeling the need to mediate even though privately he agreed with Clint.
"Nat only likes dumb shows."
"Clint likes the pony show."
"I do not."
"Yes you do. You were all upset when the unicorn thought no one came to her party."
"She's not a unicorn, she's a pegas-" Clint caught his mistake too late, blushing bright red as he turned away. "Shut up."
Natasha smirked, scooting backward so she was next to the couch. "I like the pony show too," she said to Coulson in a conspiratorial whisper. "He's just fun to tease."
"You should be nicer," he whispered back.
"He's been grouchy all day, I'm tired of it."
Coulson nodded to the bowl in her lap. "I don't think ice cream technically counts as breakfast."
Natasha just smiled, enjoying another mouthful. "I was never able to watch cartoons and eat ice cream when I was really five. I was already in training," she said, which easily ranked up there as one of the sadder things Coulson had ever heard. "I felt like making up for lost time." A commercial came on and Natasha looked up at him. "How long will it take before I'm cleared for the field again?"
"Let's get you two back to being adults before we worry about that."
"I don't see why I should wait. I could be a very effective spy like this. No one cares what children overhear."
"Speaking of, tell me you haven't been getting out and skulking around to eavesdrop on your coworkers."
"I could tell you that."
Which of course carried the unspoken, Of course, I'd be lying. "Please don't do that."
"I wanted to test myself. Who caught me?"
"The security cameras on the third floor."
Natasha frowned. "I knew I missed one." The episode ended and Natasha left the now empty bowl on the floor. "I'm going to practice on the balance beam. I'm actually better now than before."
When she left the room Clint crept around the side of the couch and put a DVD in the player, settling back against the couch just as Natasha had as the Pixar logo came on the screen. For a few minutes all was quiet, then Clint said, "Does Medical have any idea how to fix us yet?"
"They're still working on it."
Clint frowned, his arms crossed over his knees. "We're gonna be stuck like this forever, aren't we."
Coulson could only sigh, because he honestly didn't know. "Not forever. You are growing normally now, so even if we can't find a way to reverse engineer the experiment you'll be an adult again, it will just take a while. If that helps at all."
Coulson leaned over. "You know, most people enjoy childhood."
Clint finally looked up at him again. "You didn't."
Coulson blinked. "What makes you say that?"
"C'mon," Clint scoffed. "The ones who like being kids are the normal kids, and they grow up into normal adults and have normal lives. Normal people don't join SHIELD."
"That's not necessarily true."
"Of course it is." Clint pulled his knees up to his chest. "Am I gonna be sent to a home?"
Coulson glanced down. "No."
Clint wrapped his arms around his legs tighter. "That's what they always say," he muttered under his breath.
Coulson tapped him on the shoulder. "Barton. Look at me." Clint finally looked up, his eyes tense like he had braced himself for bad news. "You're a SHIELD agent. We take care of our own. You know that."
Clint looked away again. "I'm not much of one right now."
Coulson shifted down to the floor to sit beside Clint and spent a few quiet minutes watching the movie. "I haven't seen this. What's it about?"
"She's a princess but she doesn't want to get married," he said, nodding at the red-headed girl on the screen. "She makes a deal with a witch and accidentally turns her mom into a bear."
"That...seems like a lot of plot. Is it good?"
"It's okay. Her archery form's pretty good. Y'know, for a cartoon." Which was high praise, considering how notoriously difficult to please Clint normally was with archery in movies. The two of them watched the action for a few more minutes before Clint spoke again. "I can't shoot my bow," he said, his voice almost as low as he could make it and Coulson had an Ah, there we have it moment. "The pull's too strong for me now, even the lightest one. I can't even hold them right."
"It's temporary, Barton. You'll be able to again."
"Nat can still do almost everything. She's even better at sneaking around now than she was before. Archery was the only thing I was good at."
"That is absolutely not true."
Clint went into a full sulk. "It's the only thing I ever cared about being good at, then."
There wasn't much else to say and the two of them finished watching the movie in silence.
"Why are we out here?" Clint said, looking around the deserted range. "I thought me and Nat weren't supposed to leave the freakshow wing."
"The two of you aren't in the freakshow wing," Coulson said, denying the statement out of habit even though he had to admit it was a little bit true. "Your cabin fever's getting debilitating, I thought we'd try to stave it off." If only to preserve his own sanity and to reduce the amount of hand cramps he was getting from writing the incident reports.
Clint poked the nearest target, having to hop to reach the center. "I am so short."
"Come back over here," Coulson said, snapping open the case showing Clint the disassembled recurve bow inside. "You still know how to put one of these together?"
"'Course I do," Clint said, kneeling down and immediately getting to work. It took less than a minute for Clint to finish putting the bow together and he was soon standing there holding a perfectly sized-to-Clint bow, giving Coulson a very skeptical look. "I don't like starter bows."
"It's not a starter," Coulson said, crouching down to eye level. "I had R&D examine your current recurve and create a smaller duplicate. It's the exact same bow, same materials, just sized for your current height. And Medical measured your strength while they were examining you, so the pull is adjusted for that."
Clint still looked very doubtful, but Coulson thought he saw a little tinge of hope, too. "Yeah?"
"Try it and see."
Clint picked up an arrow – also miniaturized duplicates – and nocked it against the bowstring. The first shot didn't quite reach the target he aimed at, but after he moved up a few feet his second shot hit just right of center. "It even slices a few degrees like my big one."
"Like I told you, I had it reproduced exactly. Tasha's staying in practice terrifying the junior agents, so I didn't see any reason why you couldn't stay in shape too."
"Thanks," Clint said softly, then loosed another shot. "The range is crap, though."
"Well, there's not much I can do about that."
"Yeah, I know." The third shot it dead center. "It's not gonna have a lot of stopping power. I'd have to go through the eye to kill anyone with this."
"Let's hope you won't have to kill anyone before you're full size again. That's not a report I want to write."
Clint loosed another shot, wincing and shaking his hand when he finished. "Stupid baby fingers."
"The callouses will come back with practice. If you want them to."
Clint glanced over at him. "What're you getting at, sir?"
Coulson sighed. "If this is permanent – and I'm not saying it is," Coulson said at the flash of horror in Clint's eyes, "but if we can't reverse it you might want to look at this as a second chance. SHIELD can train you for anything, you have unlimited potential in front of you. The both of you do."
"Picket fence lives, huh?"
Sometimes Coulson was forcefully reminded that there were still very adult minds hiding behind those innocent faces. "If that's what you want. I wish you were adjusting better, Tasha seems to have jumped right in."
Clint rolled his eyes. "Nat's performing. She's always performing. She never got to be a kid so she's trying it on now like it's a new haircut." Clint sat on the paved surface of the range and Coulson did the same. "Few years ago I would've jumped at the chance," he admitted. "Would've given anything for it, y'know? 'Cause I'd screwed up so much. But I like SHIELD. It's good here." He looked up at Coulson. "Would you want a do-over?"
Coulson shook his head. "I have responsibilities."
"But if you didn't?"
Coulson let out a deep breath. The truth was, he'd been a part of SHIELD so long he almost couldn't remember ever wanting anything else. He certainly had never wanted anything else since he had joined. "I think it's good here, too."
"Knew you'd say that."
"What gave me away?"
Clint just scoffed. "Fury could've set you up with a cushy retirement after the Invasion and you came right back here."
"He offered," Coulson admitted. "I threw him out of the room. Well, requested he leave, anyway."
"Told you." Clint flexed his fingers again. "Sorry you got stuck with babysitting duty. I mean, literally. It's a lousy assignment."
"It's certainly kept me occupied. And I think the two of you would have eaten alive any other agent assigned to you."
"Yeah," Clint said with a frankly malicious grin. "We've been easy on you." Which was a terrifying thought, but before he could dwell on it too much Clint said, "You'd've been a good dad, y'know," Clint said, standing up to start practice shooting again.
Coulson was so surprised he didn't know what to say for a few stunned seconds. "Thank you."
"I mean, I'm glad you didn't have kids, 'cause you would've quit SHIELD, but all the same. You'd've been good at it."
"You can have a family and stay with SHIELD."
"Yeah, tons of family men at SHIELD. Let's name them all."
It distressed Coulson that he actually couldn't name any, at least not any who didn't boast strings of divorces. "Point taken."
"See." Clint took two more shots, wincing each time but not stopping. "I'm gonna practice a while. You can head out if you want, I won't make a run for it."
"I like watching you shoot."
Clint smiled, shifting a few feet to the left to make the shot harder. "If Medical's able to fix me I know the first thing I'm gonna do."
Clint shook his head. "It's a secret. You'll be the first one to find out, though." The smile widened when he made a perfect bullseye. "Promise."
Natasha almost fell over laughing when Coulson announced she and Clint were going to start having mandatory nap times. "Please stop," he said, looking so forlorn she almost felt guilty. "Medical says you're not getting enough sleep."
"Okay, okay," she said, getting the giggles under control. Getting the giggles like that in the first place was a novel experience. She wondered what else could touch them off. "I think you're supposed to tuck us in, though."
She didn't think she'd ever seen a man look so totally defeated, but he dutifully marched them into the bedroom she and Clint were sharing and tucked them in, Clint hugging his bow case under his arm like a teddy bear. "You should tell us a story, too."
"No," Coulson said, finally putting his foot down. "I'm terrible at stories."
"It's true," Clint said, already snuggled in the blankets.
"Neither of you are any fun." She sighed, mostly because she wasn't all that sleepy. "Can I ask you a question instead?"
He raised one eyebrow, clearly wary, but he said, "Of course."
"Why didn't you ever get married?" Because honestly, if she had the perfect excuse to ask any question that came to mind she was certainly going to use it.
Clint groaned, hiding his head under the pillow. "Nat, leave him alone."
"I'm curious. There's nothing wrong with the question."
Coulson let out a deep sigh. "If I ever find someone who can put up with me, I will."
Natasha narrowed her eyes at him. "We didn't like the cellist," she said, enjoying both the way Coulson startled and Clint groaned. "Well, we didn't," she insisted again, nudging Clint. "She was silly and didn't think your job was important enough."
"We're not having this discussion."
"Right. Because I'm five."
"No, we're just not having this discussion."
Natasha grinned, curling up under the blanket. "Okay. But you're supposed to stay until we fall asleep."
"I know. I will."
Natasha counted off four minutes before looking back up to find Coulson fast asleep. She nudged Clint again. "He's out like a light."
Clint rolled over and curled up on the bed. "Planting that report at Medical was a good idea."
"If anyone needs the excuse to nap, it's him," she said, tucking the blanket around him.
"Why'd you ask him that? Why do you keep saying stuff?"
She shrugged. "I have an excuse no one questions. Why not ask? And it's true, anyway." She glanced over at Clint. "Are you gonna sit there and watch him sleep the whole time?"
Clint just shrugged. "Maybe."
"You're so creepy sometimes. I'm surprised you're not hiding in the ceiling like you usually are."
"Hey, that got me Stark's codes, didn't it? And I fit better now, it's pretty much the only good thing about this."
Natasha put her head on his shoulder for a second to let him know she was only teasing. "You know he's not gonna die if you stop watching him, right?" she said, keeping her voice gentle.
Clint ran his tongue over his lips. "He almost did, once. When he was in recovery. I was up in the crawl space there watching, and just as I got ready to leave the machines started to...you know, go crazy." Just the memory was enough to make his hands shake. "I got the doctors, they got there in time, no harm, no foul."
She'd wondered where exactly that new nightmare he wouldn't discuss had come from, since it could be any number of Invasion and Loki related things. "Is that why you were sleeping up there for a while?"
Clint looked away. "Maybe." Then he grinned, the tension lifting. "Besides, he doesn't mind. I used to break into his place all the time when I first joined up. I'd sneak around while he was out and move his stuff around."
"You are such a stalker. Why?"
"So I could make sure he knew that I knew where he lived."
Clint shrugged. "'Cause I was a big jerk back then. And I didn't trust anybody. Anyway, I did that for about six months and he never told on me once. One night I was up on the roof and this agent from...I don't remember what country, one of the old Soviet ones. So I was up there, just watching this guy sneak around and he never once looked up." Natasha knew that smile and didn't need to ask what had become of the agent. "Turned out Coulson'd known the guy was gunning for him and made it easy to get in. When Fury'd asked him why he said he knew it would be okay 'cause he had his best agent on it." Natasha made sure to look away while Clint wrestled his emotions back under control. "Figured I should start calling him sir after that."
Natasha nudged him again. "You two should get married. When we're all grown up again, we should all get married."
"I...yeah?" Clint said, brows furrowing. "I mean, is that even legal?"
"Some places. Canada."
Natasha nodded. "One of the provinces. And Tibet. Maybe India, too."
Natasha squeezed his hand. "You wanna mess with Stark's robots some more later?" It was as close to an apology for making Clint get mushy as she felt like getting.
Clint grinned. "Always."
Bruce was just shutting down the lab for the night when he heard a scraping sound come from the ceiling. He turned out the lights and crouched behind one of the tables, smiling to himself when he heard two small thumps a few seconds later. He flipped the lights back on and jumped out, earning himself a half-sized arrow pointed right at his face. "Whoa," he said, both hands up. "Pretty sure we're all still friends here, right?"
Clint lowered the bow and Natasha rolled her eyes. "I told you we made too much noise."
"So, um...what're you kids doing here?"
They exchanged a pair of guilty looks. "Nothing."
Bruce crouched down. "You guys were after Tony's robots again. Right?"
They exchanged another look, then Clint shrugged. "Yeah."
Bruce leaned closer. "Okay, now don't tell anyone I said this, but that whole Lord of the Rings prank? That was pretty funny. I used to do that kind of thing...man, all the time in grad school. But it made Tony really, really cranky and I have to work with that. So can we please leave Tony's pets alone?" he asked, putting his hands together in a begging gesture.
More guilty looks. "Sure," Clint finally said.
"Great. But if you two really do want to play with some robots, Dr. Pym over in R&D has a lab full of robots and he's not even using half of them."
Oh, Natasha, she was very, very smart. "Why're you siccing us on Dr. Pym?"
Bruce shrugged. "He and Tony don't get along. Tony...kind of used to date his wife and it's a whole thing. It would really cheer us both up if you could help us out with this little prank," he said, holding up the key card. "You won't even need to break in, see?"
Clint and Natasha looked at each other, having a private little conversation, then they both nodded. "Okay. As long as there's robots."
The two of them snatched the key and scrambled back up into the ceiling. Bruce watched after them for a while, then hit two on his speed dial. "Hey, Tony, remember that bet? You owe me that twenty bucks," he said, shutting down the lab. "Yeah, I guess it was a mistake for Pym to call you a 'rockstar hack'..."
From The Desk Of Director Nicholas Fury
To All SHIELD Personnel:
This memo is to state for the record that there is no evidence the recent incident code named ULTRON has any link at all to the disturbance in Dr. Pym's lab a few months ago. Any agent caught spreading rumors to the contrary will face an immediate and severe reprimand.
And yes, Dr. Pym that most certainly includes you.
Clint startled awake to find the room dark, the low level hum from the security system replaced by a repetitive beeping. "Hey. Hey, Nat," he hissed, shaking her awake. "Something's up."
Natasha could always be wide awake in the space of a second and being physically five did nothing to change that. She slid her knife out of her boot and motioned for him to check the door, but when he did he found it locked, the red light on the handle blinking. "I think we're in lockdown," he said, taking out his bow.
Clint shook his head. "Don't know. How'd they find us?"
"It's not like they don't know where we work."
And speaking of people who worked for SHIELD. "Where's Coulson? Why didn't he wake us up before starting the lock down?"
"'Cause it's his job to keep AIM away from us."
Clint squeezed his bow, fighting down the flash of panic. "It's too quiet," he realized, that piece sliding into place. "It's gotta be a localized lock down, agents would be swarming all over the place." Natasha glanced up at the ceiling vent and Clint was right behind her on that idea. "Try to backtrack his signal, he might still be in range."
Natasha was already on it, switching frequencies on her earpiece until she nodded. "Got it."
Clint nodded. "Cool. Let's go. We got some scores to settle with AIM anyway."
It took around fifteen minutes of crawling through the vents before they heard voices, each second dragging by like years. The signal from Coulson's earpiece stayed static and despite how much easier that made it to find the location Clint wished it was moving instead. The signal was proof of location, not proof of life; the signal could be in one place because Coulson was tied up, sure, but the reason could just as easily be...
Clint refused to finish the thought and shut out the accompanying mental images. The single worst moment of his life was Nat sitting him down before Stark dragged them all off to that shwarma place and telling him what Loki had done while he'd been mind controlled barely 100 feet away and the single best was finding out almost a day later that Fury had lied. He couldn't do that again, he knew he'd crack like an egg. Hell, he'd barely had the self-control to not break down into a crying mess then, let alone now.
But he could make out Coulson's voice and the relief hit him like a speeding truck. He motioned to Nat, pointing down, and they arrayed themselves around the vent opening. Clint aimed while Nat soundlessly removed the vent slats; there was no one better at sneak work, in SHIELD or out. With his view unobstructed Clint could make out Coulson tied to a chair, bruised up but not too much the worse for wear, talking to an older man in a suit. "That's not an AIM uniform," he whispered, and Nat nodded.
"He looks familiar. Doesn't he look familiar?"
Clint sucked in a shocked breath when he was finally able to place the face. "Oh crap," he whispered. "That's Stanton." When Nat quirked an eyebrow Clint explained, "Loki took him right before he took me. I never saw him after we got out of the research station, I assumed he'd died."
"That's right, his name is on the plaque."
He couldn't make out every word, too much echo from the vents, but the little he could hear made sense now, ranting about Loki and domination and for your own good, all things that echoed through Clint's nightmares. "You okay?" Nat whispered to him.
Clint nodded, although catching a flash of those unnaturally blue eyes made him think he really, really wasn't. "Listen to him. The connection to Loki being messed up has him like a broken record, how'd he'd even manage to get in here?"
"They must not have canceled his codes during the clean up."
"Fury's gonna kill someone for that." He still didn't have a shot; Stanton kept pacing around just out of his range. He could hear Coulson's quiet voice trying to talk him down but not the words; still whatever he said must have struck a nerve because Stanton suddenly lunged forward and backhanded him across the face, shouting that the dead don't talk. "That's why he's here, for Coulson, not us. He was on TV during that Stark press conference last week, remember? Once Stanton started having dreams about the stuff Loki did he must've remembered the stabbing and freaked at Coulson not being dead."
He'd said too much, Nat was giving him that look. "How do you know he's having Loki dreams?"
Clint bit his lip. "'Cause I have them all the time." Just then Stanton brandished a long knife and there was no more time for talking. "Oh man, Fury is definitely going to kill someone," he whispered to himself, squinting as he lined up his shot.
"I thought you said you couldn't kill anyone with that thing."
"I don't need to kill him," Clint murmured back, aiming for center of mass just as Stanton raised the knife. The loosed arrow hit home and Clint knew he didn't get lethal penetration but that didn't matter; Stanton staggered backward, knocking his head against the computer console. "Just hit him hard in the head." Clint slumped back against the vent when Stanton stayed down, shaking too hard to even wave back when Coulson looked up at the vent opening. "You're right," he said, trying to catch his breath and wondering if five year olds could have heart attacks. "When we get fixed we should definitely all get married."
Nat kissed him on the cheek. "You have to do the asking, though," she said, dropping down through the vent to untie Coulson and tie up Stanton.
When Coulson tapped his earpiece active to check in Fury responded so loudly Clint could overhear the private channel even up in the vent, echo or no echo. "Why in the hell have you been dark for the past forty-five minutes? Your section's in a non-emergency lockdown."
Clint put his ear to the vent and could just make out Coulson say, "I didn't want you to call in the troops. We had a situation but it's resolved. And incidentally, we need to remove Jerry Stanton's name from the memorial plaque."
Fury never did need help reading between the lines. "Why didn't you use an emergency code?"
Clint saw Coulson glance up again. "I knew I had my two best already on it."
Two weeks after that incident they finally captured the AIM scientist who'd designed the experiment in the first place and after being threatened with being locked in the interrogation room with the Hulk while everyone else found something else to do for the next half hour decided that cooperating sounded like something right up his alley. His first day back in his proper adult body Clint spent the entire day shooting every bow he owned until he could really believe that long nightmare was really over.
Then he had a promise to keep, and it wasn't the first thing he'd done only because Coulson had been locked in meetings the entire day that Medical had cut him loose. Clint lurked outside the briefing room, waiting for the agents to file out, then caught Coulson's eye. "Sir? A word?"
Coulson nodded, motioning Clint over to a more or less private corridor. "Barton? What can I do for you?"
"Remember that conversation we had in the practice yard, when you gave me the bow?"
"Said I had something to do. Something I wanted to keep a secret." Then before Clint could lose his nerve – and looking around to make sure there were none of SHIELD's omnipresent cameras trained on them – Clint kissed him, pressing him against the wall for as long as he dared. "Probably should have done that at your place but I didn't want to lose my nerve."
"That's okay," Coulson said, sounding a little dazed even though really, Nat had warned him about this.
"Look, sir, one more thing. I have a question I need to ask. You don't have to answer now, or y'know, ever really, but I promised Nat I'd ask. Say no and I'll never bring it up again."
Coulson looked both curious and confused, which was about all Clint knew he could hope for. "What if I say yes?"
Clint grinned. "Then Nat's gonna plan a trip."
From The Desk Of Director Nicholas Fury
To All SHIELD Personnel:
All agents are reminded that the personal lives of your colleagues are none of your damn business and that idle gossip will be met with brutal reassignments. Likewise, the vacation plans of your colleagues are also none of your damn business. Any agents with too much free time on their hands are instructed to come by my office and discuss how we might fill your hours more efficiently.
And finally, the Director of SHIELD can throw congratulatory parties for any reason he pleases and does not need to discuss those plans with anyone. See the above request to consult with me on better uses for your time and how the Tuscaloosa office could be in need of your special services.
There will be no further warnings.