The vans for Operation This-Will-Most-Likely-Explode, as Skye had taken to calling it, were waiting in Virginia where the teams would split off for their perspective jobs. Much of the equipment was already installed since Phil had gotten Jasper Sitwell to loan them out for what was supposed to be training purposes.
Clint was still anxious and he found Phil in one of the computer labs running over a delicately laid-out plan for CIA infiltration.
“Hey,” Clint said. He leaned one hip against the table.
“Hi.” Phil kept his attention on the screen.
“So, Ethan asked to switch with Aaron for tomorrow.”
“Oh?” Then Phil did look over. “There a problem?”
“No, I think he likes running ops with Will. You okay with that?”
“It’s fine. Ethan’s always prepared for these kinds of things.”
“Good.” Clint glanced down at the small earpiece on the table. He picked up and rolled it between his fingers.
“Anything else?” Phil had stopped and was looking at Clint with the “you can come to me with anything” look.
“No,” Clint denied, then he sighed. “It’s just this time around you’re going in and I’ll be here watching over everything.”
“You’ll be the voice in my ear,” Phil softly replied. “I like that.”
“It’s fucking weird, is what it is,” Clint groused.
Clint straightened. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Phil stood and put his hands around Clint’s waist. “I’ve seen this before. In fact, it’s a normal response in these situations.”
“What would that be, Dr. Phil,” Clint snorted.
Resisting the urge to laugh, Phil said, “You’re now realizing what the worst part of my job was when I was your handler and overseeing operations.”
“I’m not going to be there to watch your back,” Clint answered.
“There’s that, but it’s the utter helplessness you feel when you watch an operation go pear-shaped and there’s not a damn thing you can do but watch.”
“Is that how I made you feel when shit hit so hard on our ops?”
“Yes, but I felt that way about every one of them when they went bad.”
“What did you do?”
“The reason why it always seemed like I had my shit together, Clint, is because I did my damndest to make sure every option was on the table. The more I had, the more I could offer my teams so they could complete the mission and come out of it alive. Plus, it helps to have good people close by that can see what you can’t.”
“Yeah, okay.” Clint nodded. “Still doesn’t make it easy. I’m not cut out for this shit, being in charge and all.”
Then Phil did laugh. “Clint, you’ve been ready far longer than you know. Had you stayed with SHIELD, you would be leading your own teams and overseeing large scale operations by now. You’re a damn good leader.”
“Okay, now I know you’re fucking with me.” Clint stepped away and rubbed the back of his neck. “Everyone knows I’m just feeling my way around in the dark here, Phil. Hell, Will gives me the side-look as if I’ve got no right to be calling the shots!”
“This is about yesterday before the briefing?”
“Fuck, he’s an analyst and he’s done this shit before. I should just…”
“Stop and don’t say another word,” Phil ordered. He stood close to Clint and was eye to eye. “Will was challenging you, Clint. He wanted to see how far and hard he could push. He needed to know where your limits are and if you would make the hard call.”
“Like picking one brother over the other.”
“Possibly. Either way, you did what you were supposed to do. Everyone saw it, Clint, and not one of them, even Ethan, was going to upend your authority. They knew exactly what Will was doing. Your handling of it on the spot as you did sent a clear message. They will trust you to make the right call.”
Phil ended the conversation with a lingering kiss and Clint knew it was more than just love and passion. It was all the trust and faith his husband had in him. When it ended, Clint walked away and kept looking over his shoulder at Phil who was grinning at him until he was out of sight.
A quinjet piloted by Natasha ferried the teams to their locations. Clint stayed at the tower overseeing the two operations, nervously chewing at his nail until Skye nudged him. He cleared his throat and gave the go-ahead once everyone was in position.
Natasha’s job was the easiest. With Marta’s assistance she got inside flashing her credentials and a sharp frown. The Natalie Rushman persona was on full display as she made her way around the building as an auditor for the FDA. It wouldn’t get her the security clearances, but she didn’t need them.
A low-level administrator directed her to a cubicle where she was given just enough access into the system for Natasha to set Stark’s bug to work. It only took a few seconds once the bureaucrat was gone. Clint had to laugh as she spent the next half hour playing spider solitaire.
On the other hand, it was Phil’s part that had Clint biting his nails again. Phil’s job was to go into the belly of the CIA’s annex outside Langley where the hardcopy files of antique ops took place. There was no firm when or where to start and in order to not raise alarms, Phil’s pretense to hunt down old Hydra operatives the CIA might have encountered made for a good cover. His credentials weren’t questioned and to even further cement his credibility, Phil was asked about working at SHIELD, praised for various operations around the world and even got a salute from former army rangers that had made their home with the covert agency.
His husband spent a good three hours making his way through the records and then took another hour to offer advice on an active operation in Indonesia. Clint didn’t start breathing normally until Phil was safely home.
Tony Stark was coming into the room as everyone arrived.
“Dr. Shearing, Bruce needs you in the lab. Jarvis is spitting out data and he needs some help.”
“Of course.” Marta exchanged a look with Aaron before leaving.
“Tony?” Clint asked.
“It’s a bio thing. That’s all I know.”
Clint caught Phil crossing the room with a too-serious look on his face.
“Everyone needs to meet in the conference room now.” Phil didn’t even break a stride as he walked past Clint with the briefcase in hand.
Once all the brothers were on their way, Clint followed. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. He sat next to Phil who was laying the comic book face-down. Three documents popped up on the screen.
“The only mention of Doghouse,” Phil began, “was a defunct op somewhere in California during the seventies. It was incomplete. The only key piece of information I managed to dig up was Albert Hirsch.”
“He was there?” Aaron asked. Clint noted the sudden tenseness.
“At one time the CIA listed him as a military behavioral psychologist. An initial outtake on what was called a resident had his signature. No dates, other names or any identifying information was included in this report. From what I’ve been able to gather is that it wasn’t uncommon for paperwork to be this incomplete in those days.”
“Plausible deniability,” Will murmured.
“Phil, sounds like you’re talking a dead end,” Cory commented.
“I mined for what information I could from a few of the lifers while there and I got the distinct feeling they’d heard of it.”
“Wait,” James said. “How in the hell would some exec like Terrence Ward talk about it like he did in that video, let alone know what the fuck it was about?”
“It means he was in bed with the CIA long before Sterisyn-Morlanta,” Clint stated.
“Ethan pulled in every favor to get Ward’s backstory,” Will offered. “His history is as vanilla as they come. He didn’t even have a security clearance before Sterisyn.”
“Shit,” James muttered.
When Marta entered the room, she was flanked by Bruce. There was an uncertain look on her face.
“I was wrong,” She said in a low voice.
“About what?” Aaron stood.
Marta glanced around the room before answering.
“We have Aaron’s genetic files before he was put in the program. The comparisons with everyone’s DNA will help narrow down…” Marta sunk in a seat next to Aaron.
Bruce came forward. “Jarvis went through their entire system and discovered that Eric Beyer had his private server linked to Sterisyn. Aaron’s tests, history and everything done to him was sent to Beyer.”
“No surprise there,” Aaron bit out. “The fucker stalked me.”
“There’s more,” Marta softly said. “He had the donor’s genetic files that were sent from Dr. Hillcott’s computer.”
Aaron shot up out of his chair. “Goddamn it! He knew who the donor was and I fucking killed him.”
“You don’t know that,” Clint stated. “Hell, what did Beyer know about genetics?”
“Nothing,” Bruce said. “If what you guys say is true about the guy. It was the reports that came with it that got his interest.
“What are you talking about, Bruce?” Clint asked.
“Have you ever heard of Henrietta Lacks?” Marta asked. The room was silent and she continued. “During the fifties a woman died from cervical cancer. Doctors took samples of the cells from the tumors and they didn’t die. To this day there are millions of those cells still thriving after decades. They’re basically immortal. Those cells are still instrumental in medical advances now.”
“The donor?” Brian asked with a smirk.
“No,” Marta answered.
“The donor’s genetic material has the same properties as the HeLa cells,” Bruce explained. “They’re resilient against a variety of disease.”
“It’s why the scientists at Ft. Dettrick died,” Marta said. “They were testing it with live virus. Not only was it just resistant, it went on the attack. It may have started out as a germ warfare type of weapon, but when they saw they could use viruses as a delivery system to manipulate chromosomes of this kind of genome, they could make a super-soldier of sorts.”
“Dettrick happened in ’87,” Aaron said. “We were born before that.”
“That’s one question we can’t answer,” Bruce told the room. “The donor’s involvement is still a mystery, but we may be one step closer to finding him. We need to track down Hillcott.”
“Well, he’s dead,” Marta blurted out.
“What?” Phil asked. He glanced at Aaron and then Marta. “We have no records of his death.”
“Donald Foite killed him in front of me at the lab,” Marta asserted. “I said as much to the police when they questioned me.”
Aaron took Marta’s hand in his when she shuddered at the memories.
“It was wiped,” Will stated. “If it had been included in the investigation there would have been questions about the work being done. Since you made it out alive, they had to discredit you. Throw the focus off.”
“Dan Hillcott planned on expanding the research from Outcome,” Marta said. “He was willing to go along with anything they wanted in order to reach the goal.”
“Which was?” Clint asked. He thought he already knew the answer.
“To make better humans.”
No one said much as they filed out of the room.
Brian made his way to the kitchen and worked on making coffee. He thought about the expensive booze Stark kept in the lab, but he didn’t want to ask the billionaire. When Phil came in, Brian held up the pot. He watched the man take down a coffee cup.
“I hear you like it black as midnight,” Brian said.
“As strong as Hulk’s bicep,” Phil fired back.
After filling the cup, Brian poured one of his own.
“You didn’t say much during the briefing,” Phil observed.
“Above my paygrade.” Brian leaned against the counter and took a hot sip. “You said the op in California was defunct.”
“It basically blew up before it was completed. The CIA managed to cover it up on their end and quite possibly with anyone else that was involved. The few pieces I managed to uncover were from incidental reports with no direct information. They called the facility “The Castle”.”
“Medieval wouldn’t you say?” Brian grinned. He’d heard Clint talk how good of spy Coulson was. Now was the test.
“Must be an alphabet thing. Didn’t you spend some time at the Farm?”
Brian gave Phil a toast.
“So, what is it you know?” Phil asked.
“Not to try to get one over on you,” Brian answered. He sighed. “It’s just one of those things that feel familiar, but you don’t know why.”
“Okay.” Phil finished his coffee and left.
That was when Brian decided Phil was a good guy and could be trusted.
Brian figured now was as good of time as any. Clint was talking to Skye and Marta about tracing the deceased Dr. Hillcott’s whereabouts prior to the accident at Ft. Dettrick. Ethan, Will and Phil were brainstorming their next move on finding more information about Terrence Ward. James was busying trying to talk Cory into some weird museum in Queens.
He went to the conference room with a fresh cup of coffee.
“Mr. Gamble, how may I be of assistance?” The AI asked.
“I’ve got a friend I need to talk face-to-face. Can you..?”
“Of course, Mr. Gamble. Name please.”
“Minnie Kaplan in LA. She’s got a place…”
“It’s dialing now.”
“Wow, I’d call you a man of all seasons if you were one,” Brian complimented.
A few minutes later, the elderly face of a woman with wild curly grey hair came on the screen and she broadly smiled at seeing him.
Minnie Kaplan wasn’t your ordinary retired police officer. She was a legend and beloved. Since leaving the force, she opened a bar and taught yoga part-time. Brian and Minnie struck up a friendship from the beginning trading good-natured barbs. When his life went to hell and he went on the bad guy track, he’d felt lost. He’d noticed the repaired photo frame of him and Jim together the day he showed up at the bar.
After coming back from the CIA misery, his first stop had been Minnie’s. She’d been angry up until he spilled his guts. Minnie took the bottle of Jack out of his hand, took him home and cleaned him up all the while yelling about how he’d forgotten the people that cared about him. It was Minnie who’d gotten Jim and him to get their acts together. She was a mother of sorts to him and he loved her.
Right now, he needed the woman who had the greatest knowledge of California law enforcement history he’d ever known.
“Well, if it ain’t trashy boy.”
“Hey, Minnie. How’s your swing?”
“Just as good as your bump and grind,” she laughed. “How’s that hot man of yours, Jim Street.”
“Still hot as hell and no, you can’t have him.”
“As if anyone’s got a chance with a fine ass like yours.” Minnie peered in closer to the camera. “Where the hell have you gotten to, Brian?”
“A thing out of town.” Brian scratched the back of his head feeling uncomfortable. He had to watch his words. “Listen, I remember hearing a rumor about a bust from back in the day.”
“Oh, dear, you’re asking the wrong old woman, baby.”
“You’ve never been old a day in your life,” Brian fired back with a grin. “Anyway, it was something about a castle. Ring any bells?”
“I remember a cop friend waxing poetic about a crazy Black Baron who flew him and his partner to one.”
“Out of our jurisdiction at the time,” Minnie informed him. “No arrests or reports on our end.”
“But something happened, right?”
“They had fed, state and county involved in whatever it was. It should’ve made news, but got put away fast and orders were to forget it ever happened. I’m telling you more than I should. Why the interest?”
“You wouldn’t know when, would you?”
“The only reason I remember is that friend I told you about…his fiancé was murdered a month later.”
“Shit,” Brian breathed.
“January 1977.” Seeing the serious look on his face, Minnie’s brows furrowed. “What’s this about, Brian?”
“I can’t say right now, Minnie. There’s got to be some kind of record somewhere.”
“Shit,” Minnie blurted. “One that I know of and it’s informal at best. I only know because I kept track of all the private notes for a friend who was looking to protect his boys.”
“Can you get them?”
“Honey, those papers haven’t seen the light of day since.”
“Please, Minnie. I will owe you big.” Then it hit him. “Captain America’s personally signed photo.”
“Tempting. Throw in the rest and you’ve got a deal.”
“All of them?”
“Every last Avenger, sexy thing.”
“Deal.” He was going to get killed. Brian was sure of it. “I need it as soon as possible, Minnie.”
“You’ll have it tomorrow morning. Just tell that Jarvis fellow where to send it.”
“You got it. Thanks, Minnie.”
Then her smile came back. “Anytime, trashy boy. You take care.”
“You, too, honky tonk woman.”
That night as Brian readied for bed, he glanced over at Jim who was already under the covers reading the messages on his phone. He never could keep anything from the guy. It was especially true since they’d poured their hearts on the floor to one another after the whole fiasco had nearly cost them both their lives.
“Minnie’s asking about you,” Jim stated.
Brian stilled for a moment and then proceeded to strip off his shirt. “Oh?”
Without saying another word, Brian finished undressing and slipped in between the sheets.
“Yeah, I talked to her,” Brian admitted with a sigh. “It’s stupid, you know.”
“She didn’t say much. Minnie worries about you.”
“It was Coulson talking about Doghouse,” Brian said feeling exasperated. “There’s something about it that keeps bugging me.”
He felt Jim’s hand run along his forearm. Brian wanted to fall into the man’s arms, but he sat upright.
“You’ve always had good instincts,” Jim confidently replied.
“I’ve got instincts for shit!” Brian snapped. “Fuck, I nearly killed you and that’s not counting the fucking garbage that I did after.”
Brian felt his world starting to come undone when Jim’s arms came around him. He was shaking.
“You didn’t kill me and you wouldn’t no matter how much everything went to shit. You think I didn’t think about any of this? You think I didn’t cry on Sanchez’s shoulder over it?”
Smirking a little, Brian said, “Not Minnie’s?”
“She had her hands full with you,” Jim reminded him. “Bri, I know this is a demon you’re going to fight for a while. I’ll fight it with you every damn day if need be. I trust you and I always will.”
Signing in relief, Brian leaned into him. “God, I fucking love you.”
“I love you.”
Early mornings were always a thing for Cory. He loved the sunrise and the cold fresh air that he could breathe into his lungs. It wasn’t quite five yet and he made sure to fix a large pot of coffee before the brothers and everyone else woke. He was determined to have the first fresh cup before anyone else.
Cory glanced over his shoulder at Natasha as she entered the kitchen. He took down a cup and poured hers before he filled his own.
“Never knew you to be an early riser,” Cory said.
Natasha picked up the cup. “I’ve been up for an hour.”
“What gets Natasha Romanov up so early?”
“A strenuous enough of a workout to make most men cry.”
Chuckling, Cory nodded. He didn’t doubt it. “Think none of us can keep up?”
Then she smiled a little. “I know for a fact. It’s mostly stretches, flexibility and upper body strength.”
“I’ll take your word for it, although I can probably outwrestle a bear if I’ve got my knife.”
He watched her come around the counter and add a spoon of sugar to her coffee.
“Why don’t you drink?”
“No beating around the bush?” Cory said lifting an eyebrow.
“It’s a waste of time. Does it have to do with your daughter?”
Cory took a drink trying to decide if he was going to be an asshole to the attractive woman or not.
“For a little while. Made it easier not to think, but the feelings were harder. Then I drank more. Didn’t take long to realize the shitty pain had to happen. Plus, I still had the job of being a father to Casey. No good to him at the bottom of a bottle.”
“Wow,” Natasha simply replied. “I half expected you to be an asshole about it and tell me it’s none of my business.”
“You’re like extended family. Might as well tell it like it is,” Cory said with a shrug.
Natasha gave a dramatic sigh. “If I were to return the favor, you might think it incestuous.”
Damn, Cory thought. “Anytime, sweetheart. I wouldn’t dream of thinking otherwise.”
She had a sly look in her eye as she glided away. Cory’s eyes followed her out of the room. He must have stood stock still for ten minutes when Clint walked into the kitchen with a yawn.
“Fuck me, you made coffee.” Clint grabbed two cups and filled them.
“Phil not awake?”
“He’s not human until after he’s got a cup in him.” Clint turned and looked at Cory. “Something wrong with you?”
“Um…yeah. I mean. Listen, Clint. Would you give me a shovel talk if I asked Nat out to eat or something?”
He saw the surprised look in Clint’s eyes. It took a moment before it registered.
“Cory, trust me when I say you’ll never get a shovel talk from anyone in this building.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Only because if you hurt Natasha, she’ll be the first in killing you and hiding the body.”
Clint was laughing so hard he almost spilled the hot coffee on his way out.