The Key to A Heavy Door
By Maquis Leader
Author’s note: AU X-over of Avengers and The Bourne Legacy
“Do you have the target, Barton?”
Hawkeye rolled the arrow between his fingers, studying the people down below, one of whom was his target. He’d seen the man’s photographs and had honestly expected to see something different once he saw him in person. There was just no way this guy looked as much like him as he did. Only… He took another look at the guy. Bleeding, still fighting, and taking down SHIELD agents like they were rent-a-cops, still on his feet despite the wound that would have had anyone else down and out. That guy looked a lot like the guy he saw in the mirror every day.
“Do you have the target, Barton?” Coulson asked again. Just as patient as the first time.
“Yes, sir.” The archer shoved the arrow back into the quiver and let his fingers play over the coded shafts to another arrow. One already fitted with a special head. Pulling it out, he nocked it, pulled back to the sweet spot, and waited. “Target acquired.”
“Take him down.” There was no malice in Coulson's voice. It was just a simple command, as if he were ordering extra cheese on his burger.
“Yes, sir.” A soft release of breath and the relaxing of his fingers let the arrow fly true toward its target. The shaft exploded, sides falling away like the solid rocket boosters from the space shuttle, allowing the smaller tranq dart to continue onward. His lip began to curl upward slightly in anticipation of the strike.
Instead, the target seemed to sense the dart coming somehow and twisted. The man flung his arm up, and the tranq missed the archer’s chosen spot, kissing, barely, just barely, the target’s cheek instead, leaving behind a stripe of blood. It was still enough to deliver the tranquilizer into his system.
“Son of a bitch!” The words burst out before Hawkeye could stop them. An unbroken streak stretching back years had just snapped thanks to this – “Son of a bitch!”
The one word, spoken softly in his ear, brought him back under control. He was a professional and every condition could not be accounted for. A normal person wouldn’t have moved like that. Had to be a mutant. Fucking mutants!
The target was still moving, on his knees even after getting enough tranquilizer to put him down and out for hours. He pushed the woman away from him again, trying to hand her his leather jacket, but the woman refused to leave him, clutching at his arm instead and trying to pull him to his feet. And the target was still moving. Still fucking moving! Which just wasn’t possible.
Pulling another tranq shaft from his quiver, Hawkeye sent it after the first and if it slapped into the bare skin of the back of the man’s neck harder than was necessary to deliver the dose, well, nobody knew but him. Glancing down, he caught Coulson tilting his head slightly in his direction. Damn.
“We wanted to talk to him sometime this week, Barton.” Coulson's voice was calm, as if discussing the pleasant weather they were having.
“Non-fatal was the order, sir. Limited my options.” Considering he had been going to send a regular shaft into the target’s thigh, this was much less damaging. And judging by how the blood streaming from the target’s stomach hadn’t slowed him down much, probably useless anyway.
“Come on down and help with clean up.”
“I’m on way down. And yes, I’ll use the stairs, sir.” Considering he was in for a shit-ton of crap over the extra tranq arrow, he didn’t want to add to his ass chewing by sliding down a line from a grappling hook arrow he fired after he jumped from his nest. Like last time.
“Go… go… leave me…”
“No, Aaron, I won’t leave you.” Marta crouched protectively over Aaron, resisting his efforts to push her away. She’d finally taken the leather coat from him, if only to stop him from shoving it at her and aggravating the wound in his stomach. “I’m not leaving you.”
“You have… to go! Take the… money – “ Aaron could barely see her. His vision was being swallowed by whatever had been in that damn dart. “You’ve done enough… run… “
“No.” She was shaking, afraid Aaron would die, afraid this time their luck had run out. She was shaking, but she wasn’t going to leave him. If this was where it ended, then it ended with them together. She fired off the last rounds in her gun, catching one man in the thigh and sending him to the pavement and hitting another in the chest, spinning him around to crash into another man and send them both tumbling.
Undeterred, the men in their somber black suits moved closer, cautious, but closer. Marta wound the fingers of her free hand through his. “I love you.”
He smiled, happy this at least couldn’t be killed by anyone. “I love… “ Something stung the back of his neck and the world shut off.
Marta clung to him as the men moved closer. Her gun was empty, and she used it as a club, pistol whipping one man across the face and smashing another in the shin. When the gun was wrenched from her hand, she resorted to punching and clawing at them as they tried to pull Aaron from her. Pushing their hands away, she shrieked at them to leave him alone. “You’ve killed him! What more do you want? Just leave us alone!”
“Dr. Shearing? My name is Phil Coulson. I’m with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. We’re not trying to hurt either of you. Please let us help him.”
She turned toward the calm voice in the chaos, staring up at the man who’d spoken to her. He had a pleasant smile on his face, as if they were friends. The men with him paused and she pulled Aaron closer, locking her arms around him. “Help him? You’re trying to kill us and you want me to help you?”
“We’re not trying to kill you, Dr. Shearing. We’re the good guys.” He nodded as if agreeing with his own statement. In reality, it was a signal to his team to take advantage of the distraction.
Laughter burst from her, but it turned into a sob as they pried Aaron loose and carried him away. She leaped up to follow. “Please, please don’t hurt him. We just want to be left alone.”
Coulson watched two agents move in to block her. “Dr. Shearing, please believe me, we won’t hurt either of you. We just need some information. That’s all.”
He seemed so kind, and there’d been nothing but harshness in their lives since they’d fled Maryland. Marta wanted desperately to believe this man could and would help them. Aaron had told her not to trust anyone, and this man and his people had just killed him. She let her shoulders slump as if defeated. “Anything. Anything, just please don’t hurt him. Let us go.”
“We won’t hurt you, I promise, you have my word. You’re safe.” He stepped back as she spun and reached for him, hands outstretched and fingers curled into claws.
Behind her, an agent pressed a pressurized hypo to the back of her neck and she collapsed onto Coulson. He sighed. And now there was blood on his new suit.
“Got the girls falling at your feet?” Hawkeye quipped as he landed lightly beside Coulson.
“It’s my witty repartee.” He waited until Dr. Shearing had been lifted and carried away before examining the smear of blood on his suit. On the one hand, the jacket was ruined; on the other, they now had a convenient DNA sample from their target, and on the third – if he had a third hand – he could expense it to SHIELD as damaged during the op. He’d had worse days. “I thought you were taking the stairs.”
“I was until she went all psycho bitch. I bet Dziewinski’s nose is broken.” Clint picked up the spent tranq dart from the ground and slipped it into his pocket. “He looks like me.”
“He does.” Coulson took his suit jacket off and dropped it into the evidence bag Agent Martinez was holding out. Accepting a SHIELD field jacket from Martinez, Coulson pulled it on and headed to his car, confident that Hawkeye would follow.
“You thinking clone?” Barton asked as he snapped his seatbelt on.
“I was, until I got a closer look at his face.” He shook his head and frowned as he guided the car after the van carrying their captives. “He’s not an identical match.”
“You know that from what little you saw?”
“Considering how well I know your face?” Coulson smiled and let his hand drift from the steering wheel to briefly caress the archer’s thigh.
“If not a clone, then what?” Maybe Phil wasn’t mad at him after all.
“I’m not sure. And by the way…” He glanced away from the road for a moment, meeting the mosaic eyes. “I expect your detailed report in before we leave HQ. On time for a change.”
“We’ll discuss the rest of your punishment when we get home.” Phil turned his attention back to the street.
Clint grinned. He had no idea what kind of punishment Phil had in mind this time, but he couldn't wait to find out.
Barton eyed the other man through the one way glass. It was unnerving. It was like looking at himself. A slightly blurred version of himself, but the nose and jaw line were the same. Even the man’s eyes were an odd mix that seemed to shift colors as he was stripped out of the green shirt he’d been wearing and dressed in dark gray SHIELD-issued sweats. Clint had never thought much about his own eyes until Coulson had told him how much he loved they way they changed color.
“What do we have on this guy?” He asked Sitwell.
“Project Outcome, start up date September 2003, subject number five, Aaron Cross – “ Sitwell looked up from the folder. “Pretty sure that’s not his real name, they tend to issue new ones in these projects.”
“Really? You mean Hawkeye isn’t my real name?” Clint mocked.
“We’re gathering more info on Outcome. The Project has been shut down – “
“You mean they destroyed all the information and killed anyone who knew about it.”
“SOP with these projects.” The other agent’s lips twisted distastefully. “Waste of assets if you ask me. Outcome was for deep cover intelligence gathering and special operations. Chemically enhanced – great, another variation on the super soldier serum.”
“Sure, because that always works out well.” The man under discussion – Aaron Cross or whoever he was – was sitting quietly, doing a damn good impression of being unassuming and harmless. Clint frowned. That was Phil’s shtick – nobody else was supposed to do it this damn well.
“Jason Bourne went public on Operation Treadstone, which subsequently pulled Operation Blackbriar down with it. And I’m assuming Outcome was compromised somehow or was about to be, and they pulled the plug on it, too.”
“Which probably didn’t sit well with the people whose plugs were being pulled. Like this guy.”
“No doubt. Cross and Dr. Shearing have been on the run since August of last year.”
“How’s she figure into it?” Bringing your girlfriend along when you were running for your life was not cool at all. He’d been on the run, and it was hard enough on your own.
“Dr. Marta Shearing – “ Sitwell flipped to another page. “ – was one of the geneticists working at a lab in Maryland – private lab, surprise surprise – the only one to survive when one of the other doctors went on a shooting rampage. He killed himself before he could be questioned.”
“Of course.” Clint agreed. “I’ve seen that movie. It never ends well for the scientist types.”
“Of course. Crazy things just kept happening to the good doctor. Her house burned itself down – “ He glanced at Clint over the top of his glasses as they shared a look acknowledging the irony of that statement. “And several bodies were recovered that somehow vanished en route to the county morgue “
“Of course, again. So… he probably saved her or she got out and they hooked up. Can’t blame her, look at that face.” Clint grinned.
Sitwell rolled his eyes. He was not feeding Barton’s ego. “They hit a pharmaceutical company in Manila and left behind the body we brought in that tipped us off to the LARX program.”
“More super soldier crap. Some people never learn.” Cross was beginning to get on his nerves. The man was staring placidly at the window, and consequently at Clint. His eyes were saying I. Know. You. Are. There.
“No, they don’t.” Sitwell closed the folder. “At least now we know why there’s been the two attempts on your life and how your face was added to the facial recognition search the CIA says they weren’t aware they were running.”
“I’ve lost all respect for the CIA. Wait… I never had any.” The alphabet soup agencies seemed more concerned with covering up mistakes than trying to prevent them in the first place.
“His coat had close to fifty thousand dollars sewn in the lining, and their bags contained passports and identification for several people. As long as they look like Cross and Shearing, that is.”
“That’s why he was trying to get her to take the coat, so she’d have cash. Only she wouldn’t leave him behind. Touching.”
“Very touching.” Sitwell agreed.
“Touching but stupid.”
“Not necessarily. The people they were running from were waiting. Shearing wouldn’t have made it two blocks.”
Clint snatched the file from Sitwell. “I’m going to talk to my double and see what he can tell us about who’s trying to kill him – and me.”
“Coulson said to wait for him.” The other man pulled his glasses off and used his tie to clean the lenses.
Barton stepped into the interrogation room and the other man immediately turned his attention from the one way window to track him as he walked to the table and sat down across from him. Cross was handcuffed to the bars on the table legs and yet somehow gave the impression of a man waiting for a bus. No worries. No fears.
“Aaron Cross.” Barton tapped the file. “That’s your name.”
The other man didn’t answer, just stared calmly back at Barton.
“Not that there weren’t a dozen other names on the passports and drivers licenses you had with you. But I’m pretty sure it’s Aaron, right?”
Calm. Bland. Unconcerned. Not answering.
All of which pissed Barton off, but he kept it under wraps. “That’s what your girlfriend told us. And considering….” He grinned, all teeth. “I’m pretty sure she was telling the truth.”
A crack appeared in the calm façade, concern flaring in the odd blue eyes for a moment before vanishing.
“She’s not a professional like you are, is she? No, she’s soft. Didn’t take five minutes. Not that anybody ever lasts very long with Coulson once he wants an – “ Barton jumped backwards, tipping his chair over, as Cross lunged across the table at him. “Son of a – “
The other man had moved without telegraphing his intentions, and Barton felt fingertips brush his throat as he righted himself. Somehow Cross had gotten one of his hands free. No one – not even Natasha – had ever caught him off guard like that. Or moved that fast. It was small comfort that he’d broken the other man’s control.
“You have my face. How? Plastic surgery? Cloning?” Barton leaned back against the glass, out of reach, one hand resting on his hip, not far from his sidearm. “I’m sure she’ll be glad to tell us if you won’t.”
“Did you hurt her?” Cross asked softly.
“What do you think?” Clint heard a metallic whine. The table leg creaked from the strain as Cross pulled against the remaining handcuff.
The door opened and Coulson stepped into the room. “Mr. Cross, please have a seat. I’m Agent Coulson.” Righting the chair that had been knocked to the floor, he sat down and looked up at Cross. The idea that he was within arm’s reach did not seem to bother him. “Please. Have a seat.”
“Did you hurt her?” Cross asked again, just as softly as before.
“Of course not.” Coulson waited until Cross sat down. “Dr. Shearing was happy to give me the information I asked for once I assured her that we intend no harm to either of you.”
“No harm other than stabbing me in the gut and shooting me with an arrow?” He shot Barton a look over Coulson's shoulder. “Arrows? Really, Tonto?”
Barton shrugged. “So, you’re a clone?”
The other man arched an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I’m an original.”
“Isn’t that what every clone thinks?”
“Dr. Shearing assured me that you’re not a clone.” Coulson tipped his head slightly, studying Cross’ face intently. “You’re not identical, so I don’t believe you’re twins.”
“I want to see her.”
“Of course.” He smiled and nodded. “A perfectly reasonable request, and one I’ll be happy to accommodate after you answer a few questions for me.”
Cross wasn’t fooled by the calm and pleasant air the other man projected. He knew the routine.
Coulson smiled slightly. “Dr. Shearing told me that Eric Byer is the man behind Project Outcome. He’s a retired Air Force Colonel attached to the Department of Defense as a consultant. Or he was until recently. He’s also the director for a very large pharmaceutical company, the National Research Assay Group.”
“Byer was the man who recruited me for Outcome and to the best of my knowledge the man in charge. Whatever was hiding under the rocks Bourne flipped over – “ Cross waved his free hand. “It made him – or whoever’s above him and I don’t know who that is – decide to burn the program.”
“I’ve never quite understood that euphemism.” Phil admitted. “SHIELD’s problem is that the resemblance between yourself and Agent Barton has resulted in very real danger for Agent Barton, and we’d like that taken care of.”
“By handing me over to Byer?” Cross began to pull against the handcuff again, slowly and steadily.
The muscles going taut under the t-shirt didn’t concern Coulson, though he felt Barton shift behind him. “That isn’t the plan. What we’d like for you to do is remove Byer from the picture.”
A smile curved Cross’ lips. “You want me to do your dirty work for you?”
“If you’d like to put it that way. I like to think of it as removing an uncooperative liability. SHIELD can’t be… discovered… interfering in this problem. Even though our contacts in the CIA agree it’s obviously in all our best interests for it to end, they wouldn’t be able to cover for us if we were… discovered.”
“But if I were to take him out… “ Aaron nodded. He was a free agent, and if he were caught, SHIELD wouldn’t be implicated. Nor would they care.
“If you were to take him out, then it would solve your problem. The CIA’s problem. And SHIELD’s problem.”
“Meaning Tonto won’t have to worry about Byer’s people trying to kill him thinking he’s me.” Which was the real problem for SHIELD. Inter-agency cooperation sounded good, but they rarely gave a rat’s ass about each other’s problems. Until they bled over.
“Exactly.” To say the least. Phil was extremely annoyed that his favorite restaurant had asked him not to return after he and Clint had been ambushed there during the lunch rush.
“What’s in it for me? Other than the obvious, that is.”
“Freedom, Mr. Cross.” Phil smiled again. “The two of you won’t have to live your life on the run any longer.”
That was attractive. Too fucking attractive. “Do you think I haven’t thought of that? That killing Byer would bring an end to this?”
“From what I’ve read of your file – the portion we were able to retrieve from Outcome’s records – it leads me to believe that you have. And yet…” Coulson let the words trail off.
“I don’t have the resources.” He shrugged. And I have someone who depends on me too much to get myself killed.
“I’m sure you could acquire what you need. The real problem is Dr. Shearing. She depends on you completely for her survival.”
Cross wasn’t surprised that Coulson knew his soft spot. “And you’re going to tell me that you can protect her if I get myself killed?”
“We’d prefer that you didn’t get yourself killed.” Coulson assured him. “I’ll see to it that you’re properly supplied with what you need for a successful mission. After that, Dr. Shearing is welcome to work with SHIELD. She’s a brilliant geneticist.”
“And where do I fit in that plan? If I survive.”
“Given your skill set, I’m quite confident that you’ll survive, Mr. Cross, and your future would be up to you at that point. SHIELD would be happy to have you as an asset.” Happy was an understatement. Nick was practically drooling at the idea of having Cross as a SHIELD agent.
“She’s not going to try and recreate the chems that I took.” Cross shook his head.
“We’re not going to ask her to. Every attempt we’ve seen – excepting yourself and Captain Rogers – has resulted in massive failure.” Behind him, he heard Barton stifle a snort at the understatement of the century. “We are interested in Dr. Shearing’s work in accelerated healing. Our line of work can be dangerous, as you’re aware, and I hate losing agents to wounds that we might possibly be able to heal with the right knowledge.”
“Knowledge like how my cut is already half-healed and how I came out from under your tranquilizer in a lot less time than your medical department expected, judging by their reactions.” Cross allowed the amusement to show in his eyes as he remembered the scramble to secure the restraints that had been left loose by someone who thought he’d be out for much, much longer.
“That would be helpful.”
“I need to talk to her before I give you an answer.”
“I understand completely.” Coulson nodded in agreement. “I do have just a couple more questions for you first.”
“Not until I see her.”
“Just one, then? It’s a fairly simple question. What’s your real name, Mr. Cross?”
“Why does that matter?” Cross shrugged. “I don’t have any family. Didn’t have any friends.”
“Call it idle curiosity.”
“Take me to Dr. Shearing.” He leaned back and prepared to wait.
Recognizing that they were at an impasse, Coulson got up and tossed the key to the handcuffs on top of the folder. “If you’ll follow me.”
Aaron unlocked the remaining cuff and stood up, rubbing his wrists. He eyed the man’s back, knowing he could take him, but then he’d have to find Marta the hard way. He fell into step behind Coulson, aware of Barton trailing a safe distance behind him.
“Oh, by the way – “ Coulson said over his shoulder. “We didn’t stab you. That was Byer’s men, and we dealt with them. My orders were to capture, not kill.”
“Which is why you’re not in a box.” Barton added.
“Nice to know.” He wasn’t stupid, not anymore, he could still end up in a box.
Inside the room that Agent Coulson had left her in, Marta bolted up from where she’d been sitting and ran to Aaron, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his throat as he came in. He stroked a hand up and down her back. “Shh, it’s okay. We’re fine, we’re safe.”
“I thought you were dead.” She whispered into his skin.
“Me? No, no, that’s not part of the plan.” He breathed in the scent of her hair, letting his eyes drift closed for a moment. Every crazy minute of their lives was worth it when he could hold her and breathe in her sweet scent.
Aaron lifted his head after a moment and looked over his shoulder at Coulson who was waiting patiently in the hallway, apparently studying the wall next to the doorway. “Kenneth James Kitsom. I grew up in Reno, Nevada.”
Coulson smiled and nodded. “Thank you.”
“Anything else you want to know?”
“Not tonight.” He shook his head. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
The door closed, and Aaron didn’t hear any locks, but he knew the door wouldn’t open without more persuasion than he was able to give at the moment. Turning back to Marta, he nuzzled her hair and breathed deep again. For now he’d play SHIELD’s game. And wait.
Clint tossed the damp towel over the back of a chair before collapsing on the bed. Phil was sitting at the small desk, watching the security feed from Cross and Shearing’s room. The couple was sitting on the bed, still holding on to each other. “Please tell me you’re not going to watch that all night.”
“Just for a few minutes. I’ve found that after having been separated, people tend to let things slip when they’re reunited.” Coulson smiled fondly over his shoulder at his husband. “I’ll be there in a little bit.”
“Right.” He smiled back and slid under the blankets. The SHIELD issued bed wasn’t as comfortable as their bed back at the Tower, but agents on an op couldn’t be choosers. Phil was probably going to watch until he was convinced that there was nothing else to learn. “I’ll be here. Half naked. At your beck and call. Ready to service you.”
“I remember that part of our vows. Right after you promised to follow orders on an op.”
“I’m pretty sure I had my fingers crossed when I promised that.”
Phil turned back to the monitors. “I’m pretty sure that I had mine crossed when I promised to never loan you out to Agent Hutchinson’s ‘keep our city streets clean’ group.”
Clint narrowed his eyes and stuck his tongue out at Phil’s back as he curled up in the blankets. “You fight dirty.”
“That was part of the vows, too.”
“What did he promise you?”
“A chance to work. To publish – don’t do that!” She tickled Aaron’s ribs as he rolled his eyes. “It’s important! It’s how we share new discoveries and theories with our peers! Don’t you – super spy type guys – have anything like that?”
“Um… “Aaron bit his lip and looked thoughtful. Then his eyes widened as if a light bulb had gone off. “Yeah! Spy vs. Spy! We all read that.”
“You’re – “ She dug her fingers harder into his ribs, making him squirm away from her and laugh.
“I’m sorry, I’ll be serious.” He put on a serious face. It lasted for nearly thirty seconds.
“It’s a chance to continue working on increasing the healing factor of human cells. Not like we did with Outcome, but helping injuries to heal. Saving lives.”
“And you believe SHIELD is going to deliver on that?” Agent Coulson had seemed sincere, but that was one of the first roles learned in this line of work.
“I do.” She sighed and snuggled into his embrace again. “I hope.”
“Me, too.” He gave her a firm squeeze and kissed the top of her head again before releasing her and standing up. “I have to shower, they didn’t bother to clean me up.”
“I’ll be here.” Marta gestured to the room. “In the lap of luxury.”
“Don’t knock it, it’s the best place we’ve had to sleep in months.”
When Aaron finished showering, he toweled off and walked naked out of the bathroom. He knew the rooms – bedroom, bathroom, small living room – were monitored, and he didn’t care. He’d been monitored and poked and prodded by Outcome for years. If Coulson got his jollies watching him walk around naked, that was his problem. Marta, on the other hand, was his problem. She was watching him with a combination of admiration and exasperation.
“What?” He grinned as he stopped next to her and reached down to stroke her cheek.
“Put your clothes on.” Marta ran a hand up his arm, marveling at the muscle tone. Enhanced somewhat, but there was only so much the chems could do – there had to be a good framework to build on. Aaron – Kenneth – had been chosen partly for his solid, muscular build.
She shook her head. He had no modesty, but then again, she’d seen Aaron naked many times, and she was only one doctor of many who’d monitored him. Prodded and examined him like he was a lab rat. That reminded her of his injury, and she put her hands on his hips, turning him slightly so she could see the healing slash on his skin. The mostly healed wound ran down from just to one side of his navel, ending above his right hipbone.
“It doesn’t hurt.” He assured her.
Tracing it gently with her fingertip, Marta nodded approvingly at the stitches. They were small and neat, nicely done. Of course, Aaron would heal with no scar – that was part of the beauty of the chemical enhancements. “This will probably be completely healed tomorrow, and these stitches will have to come out. They’ll just be in the way.” His skin would heal over and reject the stitches, and there was no need for that discomfort, no matter how small.
She traced the healing skin again. “Amazing…”
“You do good work, Doc.” He shivered slightly at her touch. Even when she was in doctor mode – maybe especially when she was in doctor mode, her brow furrowed and her lips pursed into the unintentional pout he wanted to kiss – Aaron loved her touch on his body.
“I do.” Marta smiled smugly. Even if she couldn’t publish, here was proof that her crazy theories were in fact not so crazy at all, but firm fact. Too firm, in fact, as she noticed Aaron’s cock was half erect. Men. No matter the situation, they still wanted sex.
Shaking her head, she patted his hip and pushed him away. Sliding under the covers, she pointed to the spot next to her. “You need sleep.”
“I just slept for hours.” He crawled into bed next to her.
“That’s not sleep, that’s being drugged. Not the same thing.”
“Really? It felt like the same thing.” Aaron slid an arm around her and rolled them both so that her head rested on his shoulder. With his free hand, he pulled the blankets up over them.
“Sleep.” Marta gave him a chaste kiss, which he accepted and turned into a not so chaste kiss that made her skin tingle. “Aaron, this is – not – the place – “ She whispered between kisses.
“It’s a bed.” He rolled them over once again so that his weight rested on top of her. “We’re lying down.” Sliding a hand between their bodies, he teased the inside of her thigh until Marta shifted and spread her legs for him. “See? Just the place.”
It was only a partial surrender. Aaron would never force her if she said no and meant it, and while she wanted to believe nice Agent Coulson and the freedom he was offering, there was always the chance that he was the world’s greatest actor and really intending to kill them both and dissect Aaron. This could be the last time they were able to make love.
She threaded her fingers through Aaron’s soft hair and tugged until he raised his head to look at her. “I love you.” The smile he gave her made her heart stutter as it always did, and she pulled him into a kiss as he whispered “I love you” back to her.
As the couple began to move under the blankets, Coulson muted the volume, turned his attention to his Stark tablet, and began a search on Kenneth J. Kitsom. The computer would continue to monitor Cross and Dr. Shearing and alert him if they said anything not related to sex or if they got out of the bed. Everything was being recorded, and he could review it later if the need arose. He let his glance flick back to the screen for a moment, watching the movement of the muscles in Cross’ back and shoulders that reminded him of Clint’s, before turning away. He was not a peeping tom.
There was very little information on Kitsom. Byer and Outcome had either managed to erase it or Kitsom had been very under the radar in his life. Either and both were possibilities. Phil frowned at the screen. It wasn’t that his Google fu was weak – far from it. The information just didn’t exist. Or… he tapped the icon on the screen for Jarvis and typed in a request. This wasn’t technically an Avengers op, but Clint was an Avenger and Kitsom/Cross was – had to be – connected to him, which made it an Avengers op.
Jarvis responded with a promise to look for any relevant information on Kenneth J. Kitsom and kudos on his logical connection of Mr. Cross to the Avengers.
Phil smiled and sent back a thanks to the AI. He did not misuse or take advantage of Jarvis, no, sir.
After some time had passed, a flashing icon on his tablet alerted him of a change in activities on the monitor. He turned the volume back on at a low level and gave his attention back to Cross and Dr. Shearing.
“Why did you tell him about Kenneth?” Marta snuggled into Aaron’s side, trailing her fingers along his chest.
“I look a lot like one of their agents, didn’t you see him?”
“No. I’ve been in here since I woke up. Mr. Coulson is the only one I’ve talked to. He asked me about you.” She frowned and her fingers stopped moving. “What if he’s lying about wanting to recreate the Outcome chems?”
“I don’t think he is.” He kissed the top of her head. “I think the resemblance between me and Barton is what he’s interested in. It’s close enough that Byer’s people have mistaken him for me. Maybe he thinks we’re related. But – “ Aaron shook his head slightly. “I don’t have any family.”
“None? That’s sad.” She missed her sister and her idiot brother-in-law and bratty nieces. She even missed the horrible family holidays.
“My parents are dead. Mom had cancer – she died when I was eighteen -- and then Dad and I were on our own for a few years. He had Alzheimer’s.” He hadn’t thought about his parents in a long time. It was like someone else’s life sometimes. Kenneth wasn’t who he was anymore. “He, ah, I couldn’t take care of him. I really couldn’t take care of myself. I was retarded and – “
“Don’t say that.”
“I was.” There was no shame in who Kenneth had been. He just didn’t want to be him ever again. “The house was sold to pay for the home Dad had to move into – a nursing home kind of place – and I moved into a group home. It wasn’t too bad, it sounds bad, but it wasn’t. I had a job, but I visited him every day. Even when he started thinking I was his little brother, it was still a good visit.”
“So you have an uncle?”
“No, he died before I was born. Neither of them had any relatives. Or kids. That’s why they adopted me.”
“You were adopted?” Marta propped herself up on his chest, looking down at him. “I didn’t know that.”
“It’s not like we’ve talked about who I was before Outcome.” When she winced, he reached up and smoothed the frown from her face. “It’s okay, we’ve been a little busy. With, you know, the whole running for our lives thing.”
“Just a little, but we have had time to talk about my past and my family.”
“That’s because you have a life and family you miss. I don’t.” He smiled up at her. “You’re my life and my family.”
The open, honest love in his eyes made her tear up as it always did. Marta kissed him softly and gently. “You’re mine, too.”
“When Dad died, I was really lonely. I had friends at work and at the home, but… I missed him. And I missed his stories about the Army. He’d been in Vietnam and his dad had served in the Pacific in World War II. So when I saw the recruiter at the mall… I… just sat down and said I wanted to join up.”
“This is the recruiter who added points to your IQ?”
“Yeah, well he had to, I was retarded, I was under the requirement.”
“Please don’t say that!”
“Marta, I was. I was retarded. My IQ was barely above drooling idiot on the scale.”
“I don’t care.” She gave his nipple a gentle tweak. “It’s demeaning. You were mentally handicapped.”
“That’s a pretty title, but it doesn’t change the facts. I wasn’t able to live on my own – that’s why I was in the group home. I forgot to lock my doors and I invited people inside to stay with me that took advantage of me. I couldn’t keep track of my money and – ” He yelped as she tweaked his nipple harder.
“You had a job, that means you were capable.”
“I helped park cars, sometimes, at the casino, and I helped unload trucks and take inventory in the stock rooms. I was actually very good at that for some reason.” He grinned. “I took a lot of pride in keeping everything where it was supposed to be and knowing when we were low on something.”
She lay down again, shoving at Aaron until his head was on her chest and she could feel his breath against her throat. “That, I can imagine. What did you do in the Army? Besides drive over IEDs?”
“Hey, I wasn’t the one driving!” He nipped at the mark he’d left on her throat earlier, and then kissed it. “I was riding in the backseat, minding my own business. And what I did before that was work for the quartermaster’s office. I helped keep track of supplies.”
“Not really. The Army found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t really good at anything, and they were going to discharge me. I reorganized the supply closet while the sergeant was trying to get through to someone to send me home. Turns out I did have a skill they could use.”
“That explains why you pack the way you do. I’ve never met anyone that organized, and I have worked with some very anal doctors.”
“Can we not use ‘anal’ and ‘doctors’ in the same sentence?” Aaron yawned and snuggled closer.
Marta chuckled. No doubt he’d had too many exams that put those two words together. She began moving her hand in soothing circles on his back. “Go to sleep. I’ll keep watch.”
Aaron let himself drift to sleep.
Clint jerked awake. Phil was warm against his back, and a strong arm tightened around his waist. “Shh… it’s okay.” Comforting words were breathed softly in his ear.
After a few moments, his heart rate slowed and he felt less like he needed to sit with his back against a wall. Of course, Phil could probably count as a wall, but he was much warmer and more soothing.
“Nightmare?” Leaning up on an elbow, Phil reached for the bottle of water on the bedside table and handed it to Clint.
“Not exactly.” He twisted the lid off the bottle and took a deep drink. Handing it back to the other man, he turned to lie on his back. “It was…”
“Don’t say nothing.” They had rules, and one was that dreams were to be labeled and dealt with.
“Okay, okay. It was… “ He huffed out a breath. “Unsettling. One of those dreams that feel like a memory only not quite… right?”
“Tell me about it.” Putting the bottle back on the table, Phil switched the bedside lamp on to its dimmest setting and then propped his head on his hand, focusing on Clint’s face in the low light.
“It was – I was little. Like five or six maybe? And I was hiding under the bed. There was yelling and – “ He closed his eyes and sorted through the half-remembered dream. “Barney was getting it from Dad. Getting it bad – which happened. Sometimes. And I was hiding. Which happened. Barney took the licks a lot of the time so I didn’t.”
Phil didn’t say anything, didn’t want to derail Clint’s train of thought. Barney Barton was a sore subject. While Clint wavered back and forth on his feelings for his older brother, Phil had no such problem. The elder Barton had turned on his brother and left him to die. That made him a bad guy in Phil’s book. With a big black mark under his name. Period.
“There was another kid with me – in the dream – younger than me, like maybe two? And… I don’t know if he was real or not. In the dream, he was my brother, only I don’t have a little brother. Sometimes I dream that I do though. Haven’t for a long time, really, but I used to sometimes.
Clint was silent for a few moments before continuing. “Once I thought we had a dog. I remembered this dog – and I still remember the dog – and I remembered that we left it behind one of the times when we moved. And I was telling one of the girls that did the dog act about this dog. Barney told me we didn’t ever have a dog. It was the neighbor’s dog and was just around all the time. Somehow I was remembering it wrong.”
“And you think this little boy was a neighbor?”
“Maybe, but…” He opened his eyes and looked up at Phil. “Dad didn’t hit us in front of people. He made sure nobody ever saw that. He wasn’t completely stupid.”
Phil kept his thoughts on Clint’s father to himself the way he did about his sibling. Clint still had that childlike love for his abusive, thankfully long dead, father. Phil on the other hand, had no love for the man. “Then why was your father beating your brother if this other boy was there?”
“I dunno. Only it was… it felt like he was my brother, not just a neighbor kid. It was – sometimes I have these memories that pop up, only I’m not sure how real they are.” At the concerned look on Phil’s face, he grinned. “Not like implanted memories or sneaky spy memories. It’s like, when I was helping the kids out of the bus – that day – I watched them hold hands and go with the adults to get to safety. And I had this memory of getting off a bus – a school bus – and running inside a house and there was a little boy and… and… I don’t know.”
“That is odd.” And interesting.
“Barney was in school and I rode the bus to school with him. I remember thinking that I was a big boy just like he was. I came home on another bus – had to be kindergarten, probably – but we didn’t live there very long. I don’t remember a lot. I was a bum for Halloween – that’s what we were every year, no money for costumes. I take that back, I was Batman one year.” He grinned.
“Batman?” He smiled at the image of a young Clint dressed as Batman and running door to door for candy.
“Cape and everything. It must have been one of those times Dad was off the bottle and had a job.” The grin faded. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Rolling over, Clint pulled Phil down, wrapped his arms around him, and nuzzled his face against his throat.
He held Clint closer, rubbing a hand along the taut muscles of his back to his hip to pull him tighter against him.
“Love you.” He inhaled his husband’s warm, clean scent and wondered when Phil had taken a shower and gotten into bed without waking him up. He wasn’t usually that tired.
“I love you.” It was tempting to let the embrace turn into something more, but he’d spent too much time breaking Clint of his habit of offering physical intimacy in exchange for comfort and affection to backslide now. Phil returned his hand to his husband’s back and slid it up to settle at the nape of his neck. “Go back to sleep.”
“Mmmm…. kay…” Clint felt his muscles loosening again, nerves unwinding under Phil’s gentle caress. Just as he was at that last moment before sleep, something crept into his awareness. A memory of his brother, long forgotten. One of many taunts that had been thrown at him after Trickshot started training him instead of Barney. Too bad they didn’t… too bad they didn’t… didn’t leave… didn’t leave you…
Phil felt the shift, the muscles tightening even before Clint jerked against him. “What is it?”
“’Too bad they didn’t leave you’ – Barney said – “ He pulled back enough to meet Phil’s eyes. “’Too bad they didn’t leave you behind like they did him.’”
“I don’t know. He was mad at me and saying all kinds of things. How he took care of me and took whippings for me – I don’t remember if I asked him about it later or not. It didn’t make any sense anyway. And I may have thought he meant the dog. Maybe it was about the dog. Fuck, I don’t know.”
“Could be.” Wheels were turning in his head, and Phil desperately wanted to get up and check with Jarvis to see if he’d discovered any connection between Clint and Kitsom, but Clint needed him more than he needed the info. And they both needed a few hours of sleep. “Lay back down.” He pressed a kiss to Clint’s lips. “We’ve only got a few hours before we have to get up.”
Clint settled back down, his face once again pressed into the soft skin at Phil’s throat. Under the blankets, he rubbed a hand along Phil’s chest, feeling the scar under his t-shirt. It was a habit, oddly comforting, and he fell asleep with his fingers resting on the heartbeat underneath.
“I’ve got a couple more questions about your offer.”
“Of course.” Coulson took a sip of his coffee.
They’d collected Cross and Dr. Shearing at oh-nine-hundred and taken them to a conference room for breakfast. They didn’t have a security escort, as Coulson wanted to foster a feeling of trust, and the helicarrier was at cruising altitude so there was really nowhere for them to go if they did try to escape. In terminal velocity we trust.
“What if we say no?”
“Then you’re free to go.” He gave a slight shrug. “I’d be disappointed of course, but I’d understand. We’d find another way to convince Byer that you and Agent Barton are not the same person.”
“Free to go as in we walk out the door to where Byer’s men are waiting?” Cross assumed they weren’t in Mexico City any longer. There’d been a faint feeling of movement that reminded him of the time he’d spent onboard a Navy carrier. That didn’t mean that Byer’s men hadn’t followed.
“Absolutely not. We’d arrange to have you dropped off wherever you wanted to go and do our best to be sure you weren’t followed.”
“We’re not trying to get you killed.” Barton added. “We’re trying to keep me from getting killed. Or having people jump out at me when I’m trying to take a piss at a restaurant.”
“That’s such a cliché, going after a guy when he’s taking a leak.” Cross grinned at Barton. “Why not when you’re eating your twenty-third wing and have sauce all over your hands?”
“Exactly! That’s – “
“Mr. Cross, are you declining our offer?” Coulson broke in before Clint could start on one of his favorite topics. “As I said, I’d be very disappointed, and I’d like another chance to convince you to help us.”
“No, I’ll do it. I was just curious what you’d say.” He scooped up a forkful of hash browns and chewed, giving Coulson time to react.
“I understand that as well.” Coulson nodded. “How someone accepts a no is an important judge of character.”
“You understand I’m not going to do anything like what was done with Project Outcome.” Marta added. “I would love the opportunity to research improved healing – but I won’t go back down that path of chemical enhancement.”
“We won’t ask you to, Dr. Shearing. We’ve seen what happens with chemical enhancement and the results are rarely successful.” That was an understatement, and Phil was surprised Clint didn’t add his two cents. Possibly because he was busy eating his second omelet. “I’m sure you’ve seen footage of the attack on New York. We lost people that day and lost even more in the days after the battle due to the wounds they received. We’re hoping that you can help us improve the healing process, particularly on an immediate post-trauma basis.”
“I do have some ideas.” She admitted. “Things I had on the back burner.”
“And what about me?” Aaron leaned his elbows on the table, breakfast forgotten for a moment. “How do I fit in once I’ve taken Byer out of the picture?”
“That’s up to you.” Coulson told him. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“By this you mean the assassin stuff?” Clint asked.
“I did more than that. Infiltration, information gathering, sabotage – but, yeah – this.” Aaron tapped a finger on the tabletop. “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“That’s completely understandable, considering you’ve spent the last year in the wind. I imagine you’re tired of the spy game. I certainly would be.” Phil had spent long periods undercover and on the run, but never as long as Cross and Dr. Shearing had, and never without some kind of backup somewhere, even if it was only Nick.
“I don’t know what I want to do. Maybe I’ll stay home and be a kept man.” He nudged Marta with his shoulder. “How’s that work for you, darling?”
“That works just fine for me. Since you owe me a house, you can be a househusband.”
“Hey, hey, hey! You lit the fire!” He protested.
“You poured kerosene all over and handed me the lighter!”
“I was – “ He glanced at the men across the table. “I was trying to get rid of the bodies. What are you gonna do, right?”
Clint nodded in agreement. He’d read the report on the fire at Dr. Shearing’s house. “Otherwise they stink.”
“I’m not sure having these two in the same room is a good idea.” Phil told Marta.
“I may change my mind later, but for now – “ She smiled fondly at Aaron. “I’m enjoying it.”
“I’d like to show you something, and ask what you think, Doctor.” Phil picked up the folder he’d brought with him.
“Please, call me Marta.”
“Marta, then, and please, call me Phil.”
Aaron felt some of the tension ease up in the room. First name basis was always more comfortable. “Aaron.” He extended his hand to Coulson and then Barton.
Clint grinned as he shook the other man’s hand. “Clint.”
Reintroductions finished, Phil opened the folder and pulled out the page with the DNA results. “Aaron, the DNA sample we took from you indicates a likelihood that you’re related to Agent Barton. I’m interested in how that’s possible.”
Chasing the last of his omelet around the plate, Clint didn’t blink at Phil’s blatant lie. The DNA test said that Aaron was absolutely related to him. Then again, Phil always liked to find out what the other person knew first.
“It’s not. I don’t have any family.” Aaron shrugged and took another bite of toast. Technically, it was Marta’s toast but she had let him have it. His metabolism ran high, and he always ended up with half her toast.
Barton peered at the print out. It was upside down, and he could see there were printed patterns that he recognized as DNA markers, but he didn’t know how to read them. “I don’t have any family, either.”
“You both had family, or you wouldn’t be here.” Marta pulled the file closer and read the DNA information. “This is interesting – when did you take a sample of Aaron’s DNA?”
“While he was in Sickbay. It was properly collected, and the test has been run more than once to ensure it wasn’t a false result.” Coulson told her.
“I’d like to re-run the test myself.” She frowned at the data. “Not that I don’t trust your people, but – “
“You don’t trust anyone but yourself with certain things.” Coulson nodded. “I understand completely. We can go to the lab after we’re finished here.”
“There’s still bacon.” Clint looked at the piece on Phil’s plate.
Phil nodded and smiled as Clint snatched the bacon up and bit it in half with a grin.
“Given their matching appetites – “ Marta nudged Aaron’s leg with her own under the table. “I’d say they probably are related.”
“You weren’t going to eat the toast anyway.” He protested.
In Sickbay, Aaron hoisted himself up on the exam table and watched Marta pull on a pair of latex gloves. “Well, this is familiar.”
Looking up, she smiled. “I suppose it is.” How many times had they been in this situation?
“Thirteen.” When she looked startled, he grinned. “I was thinking the same thing and it’s thirteen. And it’s okay.” He reached out to touch her cheek as she flushed. “Just promise me you’ll put my name on this one.”
“I will. And I would have before only I wasn’t told your name.” She held the collection swab up. “Open wide.”
“I just brushed my teeth. Is that okay?”
“Yes, we can filter out toothpaste. We could have filtered out the eggs and bacon but thank you for brushing.” Cupping his jaw with her free hand, she swabbed the inside of his mouth, collecting the sample. She could feel the heat of his skin through the thin latex, making it hard to maintain any medical distance. “One more and we’re done.”
Quickly collecting the second sample, Marta put the swabs in the collection bag and sealed it. “I’ll oversee the tests. It should only take a few minutes. Phil said they have the newest Stark equipment.”
“And you can’t wait to get your hands on it.” He winked at her.
“And I can’t wait to get my hands on it.” She peeled off the gloves and tossed them in the trash. How had she not noticed those beautiful eyes before? Had she really been so involved in the science that she couldn’t see the man?
“I’m allowed my guilty feelings.” Leaning forward, she cupped his face in her hands. “I don’t wallow in them, but I do kick myself for not seeing you as a man.”
“And wanting to do dirty things to me while I was in that paper gown.” He leaned closer.
“And wanting to do very, very dirty things to you while you were in that paper gown.” It was her turn to wink. “And while you were unconscious.”
“Nice.” His grin was lewd and suggestive.
Marta gave in and kissed him, slow and easy, not too much tongue because there were cameras everywhere. Just enough to let him know she loved him and wished she could go back in time and molest the hell out of him every time he’d come in for an exam.
When the kiss ended, she ran a fingertip over his damp lips. “I’m going to go take care of this. Do you want to come along?”
“Nah, I got this to read.” He picked up the tablet that Coulson had given to him before he and Agent Barton had left them in Sickbay. “I’m curious as to what he found. Yesterday he didn’t know who I was. Today he does.”
“He had the DNA test.”
“He had that yesterday. It was in the file.” He’d gotten a glimpse of the print out when Barton had laid it on the table in the interrogation room. “He’s found something else since then.”
“Well then, you read and fill me in when I get back.” She leaned in for another quick kiss before leaving to run the DNA test.
Aaron watched her walk to the door and then down the hallway as far as he could before she was out of sight. The agent escorting her to wherever the equipment was looked competent but not threatening. He turned on the tablet. “Okay, Batman, riddle me this… “
“Jarvis has found some very interesting information on one Kitsom, Kenneth J.” Phil looked up from the tablet and motioned Clint to come around the desk. “He was adopted by the Kitsoms in 1980. They had fostered him for six months for the Sisters of Hope Orphanage in Carson City, Nevada and after that period were approved for the adoption.”
“I thought it was hard to adopt kids. People are always saying it’s hard to adopt.”
“It’s very hard to adopt. However, Kenneth was mentally handicapped and would probably have spent his life in an orphanage or group home – “
“So someone sped things up to get him out of the system.” Clint shrugged. “Having been in an orphanage and a couple foster homes – I’m glad they did.”
“There are good people in the system.” Phil held up a hand before they could get back into that particular running argument. “Adoption means that the birth certificate is changed to show the adoptive parents as birth parents, but there should still have been a record of the original birth certificate.”
“Only there wasn’t?”
“No. However, Jarvis did find an article about a toddler, a boy approximately eighteen months to two years of age, who was abandoned at a convenience store in Carson City in May of 1980. He was examined at the hospital, was perfectly healthy, although well below the mental level he should have been for his age. He said his name was ‘Kenny’. The DFS office placed him in two foster homes and then placed him at the Sisters – “
“– Of Hope Orphanage.” Clint finished for him as he cocked a hip on Phil’s desk.
Phil nodded. “They placed him in the Kitsoms’ care a month later.”
“Okay, so how does that connect him to me?”
“Jarvis did some digging into your background. You should probably sit down.” Phil motioned at the battered sofa.
“I’ve seen the DNA stuff. We’re related, which, okay, I’m sure I have cousins or whatever out there.” He waved a hand at the vastness that might contain the family trees his parents had come from.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to sit down? The sofa is more comfortable than my desk.”
“I thought you liked me sitting on your desk. You can admire my thighs.” He patted the inside of his thigh and winked.
“I do and I do.” Never one to beat around the bush, even if he had been doing just that, Phil bit the bullet. “Jarvis found a birth certificate for a third child born to your parents.”
“He found birth certificates for Bernard Edwin Barton, Clinton Francis Barton, and Kenneth Radford Barton.”
Clint nearly slid off the desk. “What? Wait, what? What?”
“This may not be the right moment, but I have to say your parents were very… creative with their children’s names.” Phil guided Clint to the couch. “Kenneth was born in Sacramento, California on – “
“Stop, stop – I need – gimme a second here!” Collapsing onto the couch, Clint raked his fingers through his short hair. “You’re telling me I had – have – have – another brother?”
“Yes. Born in September of 1977.” Phil sat next to him, leaning against his shoulder. “Do you remember where you were living in 1977?”
“No, I was like three years old. We – we moved – I remember lots of places and – “ He shook his head. “Dad wasn’t too good at holding down a job. Or paying the rent – I remember moving in the middle of the night a lot.”
Tapping on another document on his tablet, Phil stretched the image to find the names Jarvis had highlighted. “California DFS has the Bartons living in Sacramento in early 1977 with two sons: Barney, aged five and Clint, aged two. Kenneth was added to their records as a newborn in September. In 1979, Barney and Clint were both registered at Herbert Hoover Elementary School in Roseville, California.”
“Roseville! I remember living there!” He grinned at Phil. “I remember the big sign with the rose on it that lit up at night!”
“We lived in a little house with this big place we played. It was a dirt lot.” He rested his head back against the cushions and reached for vague memories. “There were other kids, a lot of them, and the little houses were all the same. Probably some government housing project or something I’ll bet.”
Phil turned slightly, watching and waiting. Clint seemed to be discovering old memories. Memories were funny things. Little things could remain fresh for years while large events could vanish forever. The mind remembered what it wanted. And often what was the least painful.
“There was a little kid – a little boy – I – Barney had marks on his back and I was putting the orange stuff on some of them. It stung, we hated it.”
“Mercurochrome.” Phil remembered the medicine that had been dabbed on scrapes and cuts that left an orange war-paint-like stripe.
“He said it was ‘his fault’… ‘his fault’. He went in his pants or something – not Barney, the other boy. And Barney got the whipping.” Opening his eyes, he frowned at Phil. “I think we were supposed to make sure that he went to the bathroom and we – he went in his pants. Dad grabbed Barney and held him – he held him up by his arm and hit him with the belt – he liked to do that – “
“That’s enough, Clint. You don’t need to remember any more of it.”
“No, it’s – it’s important. He always lifted us up like that. He’d grab our wrist or forearm – “ Clint curled the fingers of his left hand around his right wrist and squeezed. “ – hold us up off the ground and hit us with his belt or a strap or – I’d go hide and Barney would take the beating most of the time. Because he was bigger. The other boy…”
“Clint…” It hurt to hear the memories of Clint’s childhood. It hurt nearly as much as if they were his own. The thought of any child being abused in such a way was heartbreaking, but imagining his husband as a child – terrified and in pain – was so much worse. Clint’s fingers were nearly white with pressure, and Phil gently loosened them and rubbed at the red marks on his wrist.
“He said ‘the retard’.”
“No, Barney. He said ‘the retard’ – ‘it’s the retard’s fault’. The other boy, he kept calling him ‘the dummy’ and ‘the retard’. When we were outside, Barney didn’t want to play with him.”
Clint went quiet, closing his eyes and laying his head back once more.
Phil stayed silent as well. He flicked open another document, the next record in the timeline of the Barton family history and the one that was going to damn Clint’s parents to hell if they weren’t already there. It was DFS records from Salt Lake City, Utah listing the Barton family as having two sons. Barney and Clint. The box for ‘children under school age’ was marked ‘no’. Somewhere between Roseville and Salt Lake City, the Bartons had misplaced a child. Or abandoned one.
“How could I forget a little brother?” Clint said softly after Phil read the information to him.
“You were five years old, Clint. Your childhood was full of abuse and fear.” He put the tablet down and slid his arm around Clint’s shoulders, pulling him closer. “You had a little brother who was mentally handicapped and alcoholic parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of their children – let alone provide extra care for a child with special needs. They abandoned him – and you may have witnessed it, though I hope to God that you didn’t – is it any wonder that you don’t remember?”
“That’s a cop out, Phil.”
“No, it’s not. You were a child. Your mind protected you. That’s part of what it does.” He rested his forehead against his husband’s. “If I could, I’d go back and take care of you – and Kenneth and even Barney.”
“I’d love that, babe. But – “ Clint turned so their lips met. “ – then I might not be here now.”
“Do you want to go talk to your brother?”
“Yeah. In a minute.”
“Take your time.”
“They abandoned me?” Aaron had studied the documents on the tablet Coulson had given him when he’d left them in Sickbay. “I can understand that.”
“You can? Because I can’t.” Clint gave him a surprised look. “Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Look, I’m not saying it’s okay, because it’s not.” He shrugged. “But I don’t remember it. The first thing I really remember clearly is my fifth birthday. Mainly because there was a Scooby Doo holding the five on the cake, and I got Scooby Doo coloring books, and I loved Scooby Doo.” Aaron smiled at the memory. “I had a great childhood. My parents loved me and they took good care of me. I probably had a better childhood than I would have had with your parents.”
That was hard to argue with that. His – their – parents had been lousy parents. Abusive when they weren’t negligent, drifting from place to place, and job to job. Finally doing everyone a favor and killing themselves in a wreck.
“The DNA tests confirm the relationship.” Marta had stood over the machines and watched every step of the process and had then run them again just to be sure. “Not that the resemblance didn’t already. There’s no way two people who aren’t closely related look this much alike.”
“I’m better looking though, right?” Aaron batted his eyelashes at her.
“Stop that.” She ruined the stern comment with a smile. “I wanted to point out something I noticed in all this information.” Marta enlarged a particular record. “Kenneth was taken to a hospital with a head injury when he was thirteen months old. His parents said he’d hit his head on the coffee table when he fell. There’s a note by the attending nurse that she’d overheard Mrs. Barton say ‘you pushed him’ to Mr. Barton, but when the nurse questioned her, Mrs. Barton denied having said it.”
“My father pushed and hit us all the time.” Clint told her. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d pushed him.”
“They were reported to child services, but with no evidence, nothing happened. After a month at the hospital, Kenneth was released to his parents. They moved shortly after that.” She turned to Aaron. “There’s evidence of brain damage, so stop saying you were retarded. It’s offensive and not true.”
“Whatever you say, Doc.” He held up his hands in mock submission.
“The chems somehow repaired the damaged portion of your brain, that’s exciting – the potential is just so – think of people who have suffered severe head trauma! This could repair the damage and help them get back to normal when – “ She stopped. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
“That’s all right, Marta.” Phil smiled reassuringly. “That’s exactly what we’d like you to do for us – help our people who are injured beyond what current, conventional medicine can deal with. And of course, over time, introduce it to the civilian medical field.”
“You’ll be able to publish.” Aaron laced his fingers through hers. “No more secret agent crap.”
“Not even a James Bond movie.” She squeezed his hand.
“Now that the mystery is solved – “ Aaron tapped the screen, bringing up a document he’d created earlier before sliding the tablet across the table to Phil. “I made a list of things I’ll need for the op. I’ll need a day or two to find the best place to take care of Byer. As much as I’d like to make him suffer – natural causes or an accident will be the best way to handle it.”
“We have a nice selection of natural toxins.” Phil added a few notes of his own to Aaron’s list before forwarding it to his email. “Byer is going to be at his home in Connecticut for the foreseeable future. He has meetings with the board of directors of the National Research Assay Group scheduled over the next two weeks.”
“Heart attack while working at home.” Aaron’s smile was chilling. “Those Type A personalities always work too damn hard.”
Byer closed the door as he entered his study. There wasn’t a real need for privacy. His wife was away for a long weekend on a spa retreat with her yoga group, and his son rarely visited from college unless his mother was home. The boy hated him, but he didn’t mind dear old Dad paying his Ivy League tuition. He’d closed the door more out of habit, the need to make sure he was in a secure location ingrained into him by years of working on projects that didn’t exist to anyone but a handful of people.
Pouring his usual glass of scotch in a tumbler, he tugged his tie loose. Thank God it was Friday and he wouldn’t have to talk to those morons at NRAG about the costs of the LARX program. They wanted their super agents, but they didn’t want to pay for them.
“Fucking morons.” He muttered as he sat down at his desk. The scotch was smooth and smoky and slid down as easily as water, no burn until it hit his belly. He sighed and took another sip. This was how the day should always end.
After a few minutes of enjoying the quiet and the scotch, Byer set the tumbler on the desk and pressed a button under the edge of the desktop. The desktop slid to the side and a shelf holding a computer rose up into place, humming as it powered up. The computer wasn’t connected to the internet; it had no modem or wireless card and existed alone and unreachable. He finished off the last of the scotch as the screen lit up, briefly considering pouring a second one, but he’d kept to this routine for years. He didn’t want to start a trend of two that would lead to three that would lead to him being a loose lipped drunk.
The computer’s total isolation was one reason he’d been able to get off scot free when Bourne had outed the Treadstone, Blackbriar and Outcome programs. There was no evidence that linked him to any of the now dead programs. The only way to show his involvement in those programs would be to access the hard drive on this computer, and unless someone had the passwords and his retinal pattern – he leaned over to place his eye in front of the scanner disguised as the webcam – they were not getting into his computer. The poor lonely, living in a solitary world, computer.
“I’m just a lonely boy, lonely and blue.” He sang mockingly as he typed his passwords in. “I’m just a – “ The words ended abruptly as his jaw dropped open. The screen should have displayed his favorite boyhood comic hero Superman, just one more layer of security in case his wife or son were ever in the room. Instead, there was a very young Asian girl wearing nearly nothing that covered nearly nothing. “What – what – “
“I remembered you liked Asian girls from that op in San Francisco.” Aaron stepped out from behind the curtains covering the windows behind Byer, his gun leveled at the other man. “Little clichéd, but to each his own, right?”
Byer spun around, his heart leaping nearly through his chest and beginning to pound in double time. “You – how – you can’t – “
“You have a great security system.” Aaron told him. “I appreciate all the cameras – they were a great help locating what I needed.”
His heart was still pounding alarmingly, but Byer leaned back in his chair in feigned nonchalance as he watched Cross walk around his desk to sit in the chair across from him. The gun in the other man’s hand never wavered, and Byer wasn’t going to make any moves that would get him shot. He’d seen Cross in action and knew he’d be dead before he could reach the alarm button under the desktop.
“I got a good chance to study your routine, too.” Cross shook his head, making tsking sounds. “Didn’t you always warn us not to get into a routine? They’re deadly, remember? For instance, someone might notice that you indulge in a single drink of scotch every night. Just one. Glass never more than half full.”
“Would you like a glass? It’s twenty years old, shipped straight from Scotland.” His heart was pounding too hard, making his chest ache, and Byer took a deep breath, trying to center himself. Cross was a sentimental sap, and there was a chance he could talk him out of killing him, no reason to panic.
“Of that?” Aaron laughed. “No. Oh no. Besides, I’m more of a beer man myself.”
“So what do you want, Cross? Money? I can arrange for you to be a very rich man.” A twinge of pain deep in his chest made Byer wince.
“Money? Thanks, but I’ve already emptied your Cayman Island accounts – the ones in Switzerland, too. I’m sure they told you those were unhackable, but come on, you made me – “ He smiled slightly. “Made me smart – smarter – than the average man. Taught me how to read code like it’s a kid’s book. There may be a few viruses on your computer now, you know how insidious those things can be.”
“You hacked into my computer to put a virus on it?” He could only hope Cross hadn’t dug into the files on the computer. There was no way he could copy any of the files. There were no USB ports or writeable drives of any kind.
“It’s just one of the dangers of the internet.” He smiled slightly when Byer’s eyes darted to the computer. The girl was gone, and the screen was going from website to website almost faster than could be seen.
“How much of a challenge do you think it was to add a wireless card?” Aaron continued. “I can do that in my sleep.”
“I doesn’t have to be this way. We can still work together, Cross. We can use you in LARX – I can get you the chems to become even more than you are.” He gasped as pain radiated through his chest and into his left shoulder.
“I would have. Once.” Aaron made a sad face. “I was loyal, Byer. I was completely loyal to you. You changed my entire world, made me smarter than I ever could have dreamed of being. I would have disappeared if you’d told me to. Made sure to go so deep that nobody could find me until you told me to come out. But you betrayed me. Tried to kill me. I was like a loyal, faithful dog – and you tried to kill me – I had no choice but to turn on you to protect myself.” He smiled coldly. “And now, you’re going to die.”
“What have you – oh, God – “ Byer tried to stand up, but his legs wouldn’t support his weight, and he ended up slumped over in the chair. “What did you – “
“Poison. Natural toxin that won’t be found. If they even decide to do an autopsy for what is obviously a man who worked himself into a heart attack, that is.” Shrugging, he lowered the gun and put it away. Byer was beyond pressing the alarm button – not that it would work, since the entire system was being monitored by Phil back at Stark Tower.
“You could have let us go after it all came out and you were free and clear. We would have made a life somewhere, had a little house and with a white picket fence and never told anyone about Outcome or your part in it. But you wouldn’t leave us alone.”
“You – fucking retard and – damn scientist – out – “ Byer gasped, trying to pull air in through the constriction in his chest. “ – outsmarted – me – fuck you both – “
Of course it was pride that had made Byer keep pursuing them – Aaron had long ago guessed that was the motivation once Outcome had been made public and Byer hadn’t been connected to it. There was no reason to keep chasing him and Marta. No reason except that Byer’s ego couldn’t handle a formerly retarded man and an amateur escaping his grasp. “Don’t worry about LARX going public, Byer. I destroyed the files and wrote over them with more porn – nothing too kinky, just the standard stuff a fine upstanding businessman like yourself would have on his computer. SHIELD will make sure that the program quietly disappears.”
Byer didn’t answer, he had slumped further over, his hand knocking the tumbler off the desk and onto the floor. His eyes were open wide and his fingers twitched a few times before going still.
“I didn’t touch the money your wife knows about, or your son’s trust fund. Unlike some people, I’m not completely heartless. I doubt they’ll miss you too much, though. She’s having an affair with her yoga instructor, and your son – well, you know what he thinks of you, Byer. They’ll love you more dead than alive. Your wife won’t even have to lie when she tells the police about how you worked late every night and constantly took business trips all over the world.”
Aaron realized that he was talking to a dead man. He waited, expecting to feel triumph or pride. Something good. All he felt was tired.
Walking to where he’d stashed his car, Aaron breathed in the cool night air and felt himself relax for the first time since he’d seen the cabin in Alaska explode. No one was looking for him, nobody cared if he went to a movie or had dinner in a nice restaurant. Or bought a house somewhere. That house with the white picket fence that he and Marta could live in for the rest of their lives could be a reality now. Not just bullshit he’d thrown at Byer.
He stopped short when he saw someone leaning against the side of the parked car. A careful few steps forward brought his brother into focus. Shaking his head, he pulled the keys out of his pocket and walked past Clint to unlock the driver’s side door. “Aren’t you supposed to be back at Stark’s tower?”
“You didn’t really think you were going to do this alone, did you? And it’s just the tower or home.” Clint opened the passenger door and slid into the seat. “Tony tried calling it Avengers Tower for awhile, but we voted him down.”
“SHIELD was supposed to stay out of this.”
“All I did was monitor the situation.”
“And if it had gone sideways?” Aaron took his eyes off the road long enough to turn to Clint.
“I would have been just a concerned citizen who heard someone call for help.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m your big brother – it’s my job to keep an eye on you.”
The drive back to the tower – home, as Clint called it – was spent mostly in silence. Aaron didn’t feel like talking, and his brother respected his feelings, tuning the radio to a mid-eighties MTV flashback station to keep them company. The familiar music loosened the taut muscles in Aaron’s body, and by the time they pulled into the underground garage and parked, he was laughing at Clint’s efforts to sing along with Michael Jackson to Billie Jean. No way was he coming anywhere near those high notes.
Jarvis welcomed them home and sounded extremely smug for an emotionless AI as he told them he was taking Byer’s computer out to see the world. Aaron had the feeling that Jarvis had been appalled at the computer being kept in what amounted to solitary confinement. Who knew what Byer’s widow would find on it when she came home?
Marta was waiting with Phil in the living room of Phil and Clint’s apartment. She stood and rushed to Aaron, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing him tightly. “I listened – I know I said I wasn’t going to – but I had to know you were safe.”
“I know.” He rubbed his cheek along the top of her head. “We’re both safe now. We’re free, Marta. We’re finally free.”
“Do you really want a house with a white picket fence?” She leaned back to look up at him, a smile on her lips.
“Yeah.” He felt his face color at the admission. “And a garden. My parents used to sit on the back patio and rock and watch me play. I’d like to be able to do that with you.”
“I would, too.” Smiling, she pressed her lips to his in a soft kiss.
Three years later
Marta set her keys in the dish on the hallway table and hung her purse from one of the hooks. “Aaron, where are you?”
“Out here!” His voice called from the back of the house.
Kicking off her shoes and shimmying out of her pants and the shirt she’d worn to work, she grabbed the sundress lying across the back of the couch. It had been put there by Aaron, who knew her only too well. She slipped it on over her head and walked through the house and out the door onto the back patio. Stopping for a moment, she choked down a happy bubble of tears at the sight of Aaron sitting in the shallow end of the pool, sunlight bringing out the red in his hair and shining onto the little boy he was lifting up in the air and sitting back down into the water with a splash.
“And we go up!” He lifted his son up over his head, making him squeal in delight. “And we go down!” Bringing him down quickly but carefully, Aaron splashed him down waist deep in the water, earning another peal of laughter.
Catching sight of Marta, he smiled at her and turned the boy in her direction. “Look, Kenny, Momma’s home.”
“Momma!” He reached out for her as she walked to the side of the pool. “Dada make me splash!”
“I saw that.” Sitting down on the edge of the pool, she let her legs dangle into the water as she took Kenny into her arms. “Have you and Daddy been in the pool all day?”
“Nope. We had bre’fast and cartoons and wash dirty stuff.”
“All the usual househusband stuff.” Aaron winked as he leaned in and kissed his wife.
“I wanna kiss!” Kenny protested. “I wanna kiss!”
“You want a kiss? You want a kiss?” She lifted him up in the air for a moment and then swooped him down for a kiss. Aaron cupped one hand around their son’s head and reached for hers with the other, linking their fingers together.