“The last time I was at the Rembrandt, I had to pad down the hall to take a bath.” Coulson’s voice was lazy.
“And to get to the WC.” Clint perched on an ottoman, already getting restless, ready for action.
“Yup.” Coulson sat in one of the room’s barrel chairs, his legs resting, quite without reverence, on the dignified side table he’d dragged over for that purpose once he noticed Clint had claimed the ottoman. He looked out the window as he spoke, onto a less than romantic view of brick walls and Knightsbridge roofs. It was sunny, though, and Clint saw his eyes begin to close. Could the man actually be relaxed enough to fall into post-coital slumber?
Coulson still looked weird in a terry bathrobe, even if the reason he was in it was completely reasonable, Clint decided. As much as he loved what was under the robe, the man needed the sensible black suit to be … yeah, to be Coulson.
Then again, for at least a little while longer today, he was Phil, and Phil looked great just as he was. Clint stifled the urge to jump up from the ottoman and begin pacing the room. Why not simply calm down and enjoy the view? The view from here was … nice. Nice was good.
“I was a patron of the Rembrandt in the late 1970s,” Natasha said, coming out of the en suite naked, toweling her hair until it lay in very delightful waves and damp ever-so-slight curls around her neck. “I enjoyed it. It was very British, and felt quite antithetical —”
“Anti-what?” Clint widened his eyes and stared at her the way he knew irritated her with its exaggerated and patently fake goofy ignorance. He kept the smile off his face.
“You know perfectly well. Stop playing the fool.” But her glance at Clint was fond. “It seemed to me to be truly the opposite of what I was fighting for. More decadent, in its own way, than any American luxury hotel. This was privilege—”
“ — Where you had to walk down the hall and share a toilet with strangers? Yeah, great privilege.” He could hear the undertone of real disbelief in his voice. The way her brain worked … as much time as he spent with Natasha in and out of bed, as much as he adored her and thought he got her, sometimes he just didn’t. It’s got to be some Russian thing, he thought.
“Hush. There is a privilege that comes from heritage. And this place had it,” she said, carefully folding the wet towel in thirds. She paused to give him a quick peck on the top of his head. Despite his desire to tease her, he almost gave it up as a hopeless task. Better to enjoy the kiss … but he still felt puckish.
“Does it have that privilege now? You know, without the dormitory bath facilities?”
“Of course.” She waved an elegant hand as she headed back into the en suite to hang the towel on the shower stall. He turned to admire her classically curved behind as she walked. So, he noticed, did Phil. They caught each other’s eye and grinned.
Without warning, all three of them heard it; the groaning, wheezing sound they’d been told to wait for.
Just not now.
“Damn. Double damn. Three hours too soon,” Clint said.
“Wow; it really does sound like something being dragged over piano strings,” Phil said, getting up with an admirable economy of motion, and grabbing for his pants. He was surprisingly fast on his feet for having been nearly asleep a moment before, Clint noticed approvingly as he leapt up to grab his own things.
“Then at least one thing the woman told us is true,” ‘Tasha said, returning to the main room. She frowned slightly as she spoke of their dodgy informant. Clint saw Phil’s eyes narrow at her tone, but he didn’t say anything. Or at least he was holding off on saying something.
While the two of them pulled tees and sweatshirts on over their heads (being undercover so far you’d need a bathysphere to get back to the surface meant absolutely no S.H.I.E.L.D. wear or ware), Natasha was already clothed in jeans and a denim shirt and was now donning a set of sturdy hiking boots. Clint was reasonably certain they had switchblades that could be deployed from the heel and ankle. He approved; he had personal knives and a military grade slingshot secreted about himself, having decided that bows and arrows weren’t low-profile enough for London, at least not this time around.
“The sound’s coming from ground level, in the utility courtyard,” Phil said after a quick look out the window. “Huh. Blue phone box, just like she said, so two true things. I’m surprised no one’s noticed it, though, with that noise.”
“The woman said the apparatus had a perception filter on it,” Natasha responded.
“Yeah, whatever the hell a perception filter is,” Phil said.
“I’d guess it’s probably a filter. You know, one that blunts perception.”
“Stop it.” Phil and Natasha, both of them sparing him an irritated frown.
Clint snickered slightly. “Sorry. I know, I know. We’re expecting it, so we can see it. If you’re not looking for it, you don’t see it.” Then he sobered up. “Phil, is there any movement from inside the box?”
The other man peered out the window again. “Not yet.”
“Not that you’ve seen,” Natasha corrected him.
Phil grimaced. “Noted. Next question: why is it three hours early? Did she give us wrong intel, or did the operator get the drop on her?”
A snap and crack behind them from inside the room’s closet. A smell of ozone.
“Bit of both, actually.”
“Sonuvabitch—!” Clint’s slingshot was out. So was ‘Tasha’s throwing knife.
The young woman who had somehow gotten into their room, apparently via the closet, didn’t look dangerous, but neither did most assassins until you got close enough to see their eyes. Which was almost always too late, Clint thought as he took in her entirety from a safe distance: short tartan skirt, black tights and low heels showing off very shapely legs, an odd piece of electronica around one of her wrists, olive complexion, shiny brown hair, big brown eyes.
In short, completely different than the hatchet faced woman with the mad grey gaze who’d first contacted them about “possible HYDRA tech in the hands of a dangerous alien.”
Phil hadn’t reacted to the out-of-closet incursion the way he and ‘Tasha had, Clint saw. Instead, he sat back down in the barrel chair, deliberately took out his gun from wherever he’d stashed it on his person, made sure the girl saw that the safety was on, not off, carefully divested himself of his shoes — that surprised Clint, but he went with it and sheathed his slingshot because it was Phil and Phil knew was he was doing, probably — put his feet back on the side table and said, “You’re not with our informant.”
“Missy? Not in a million years.” She looked disgusted. And just a bit scared, Clint thought. Definitely not a surprise. He’d only spent 15 minutes with the woman, and he’d kept his back to the wall the entire time.
“So you are—” Phil hesitated.
“Clara Oswald. You don’t know me, but you’ll read about me in a year or two. Zygons.”
With that opaque comment, the girl, Oswald, walked further into the room (how did she get into the closet? He saw the same question in Natasha’s eyes, although she, too, had tucked her weapon away.) “As for Missy, if I never have to spend another minute with her, it will be at least a universe’s worth of too soon,” she said. She sat on the bed, smoothing the rumpled sheets, looked briefly at him, then at ‘Tasha, before settling her sights on Phil — who was rapidly becoming Coulson again, to Clint’s fleeting regret.
“That’s what I’m here to tell you. Stay away from her. Don’t trust her. Whatever she told you, whatever she promised you, it’s a lie,” Oswald said, her tone flat. “I don’t care what it is, or how reasonable it sounds, it’s a lie. And if you listen to her, or do what she tells you to, it’ll get you killed. She’ll kill you. Sooner or later, and she generally prefers sooner.” The girl stopped. “Unless she wants to draw out her fun.”
“Why should we believe you?” Natasha didn’t sound threatening yet, just curious. “Or trust you?”
“Because we— because I’ve had experience with her.”
Coulson and Natasha had caught the initial pronoun. Natasha spoke again.
“Who is with you?”
Clint didn’t bother to hide his surprise. Nor, he saw, did Coulson or Natasha.
Every S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who spent any time in Britain or Europe inevitably ran across reports of someone using the sobriquet “The Doctor,” but almost no one had any live experience with whoever that might be. It was a title, not a name, and the information on each of the men using the title (descriptions, reports, even video captures going back into the early 1960s revealed multiple appearances, ages, heights, hair colors) generally placed him … them … whatever … in the midst of Britain’s remarkably active extraterrestrial culture.
Most of the intel came from UNIT, and was thus at least 80 percent not crazy, as Phil had put it. S.H.I.E.L.D. also had some information on The Doctor from the considerably less trustworthy Torchwood, but tended to dismiss that as coming from what some agents called the Harkness rabbit hole.
None of the available files indicated that “The Doctor” organization, whatever and whoever it was, was hostile to humanity. Far from it; the man, or men, repeatedly dealt with some of the world’s more Eurocentric ET problems, like the ridiculous looking but apparently dangerous Daleks, and other things that were far above Clint’s paygrade to know about. For instance, he’d caught references to a “Year That Wasn’t Paradox” case and a “Stolen Earth Incident,” when he was prepping for this mission, but neither Phil nor Natasha could enlighten him on what those referred to; they appeared just as confused as he was.
When their informant found her way into one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s maximum-security prisons, settled comfortably in one of the empty and supposedly escape-proof cells, she’d assured the interrogation teams that what would be waiting for them in Knightsbridge was worth sending someone over onto UNIT’s patch without alerting the British group.
If Fury wanted to penetrate an ally’s territory to get the jump on HYDRA, which he was for some reason convinced still had some active acolytes, then S.H.I.E.L.D. penetrated that territory. That he’d sent the three of them suggested he was both intrigued by the promised haul, and completely suspicious of their informant.
Running into The Doctor? Clint didn’t know whether that would be gravy or a great big stumbling block.
“The Doctor,” Coulson said mildly, bringing Clint back to the present.
“The Doctor.” Oswald tilted her head. “Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is. You’re S.H.I.E.L.D., right?”
“How do you know the woman known as Missy?” Coulson asked, ignoring her last question.
“She’ll try to kill me about a year and a half or so from now,” Oswald said.
Clint blinked. There was that weird tense thing again.
Coulson blinked, too. “Excuse me?”
Oswald groaned, clearly irritated. “Time travel. You’re S.H.I.E.L.D. for god’s sake. Don’t you pay attention to any reports UNIT sends you? I know they briefed you on this. The blue box? It’s a TARDIS.”
Coulson abruptly had one of his rare gobsmacked looks. He looked at Natasha, then at him. “That was the 20 percent still-crazy stuff I told you guys about. Not so crazy, apparently.”
“So you’re saying you do have access to UNIT information. Thought so. Is it some American thing to disregard what you get from the U.K.? Like, if it’s not giant robot-turtle serpents knocking New York down, or a flying airfield dropping into the Potomac, it’s not worth paying attention to?”
She sounded just a bit pissed. It wasn’t the first time a Brit had bitched about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s parochial attitude, but—
—Wait. A flying airfield dropped into the Potomac?
Clint, stared at Oswald, who was paying no attention to the sudden rigidity of the trio in front of her. She continued her not-quite-a-tirade.
“With what UNIT should have told you, I have to ask why in the world, or off it, would you lot pay attention to anything Missy says, instead of, oh, I don’t know, trying to kill her for the good of mankind?” Oswald’s face seemed to tighten with some unexplained sorrow. “You do know she was the one behind the Cybermen?”
Coulson stood up slowly, his face now that bland mask that most people knew. “Cybermen. I’m familiar with them, of course, from the attempted Dalek-Cyberman invasion.”
“No, not then. That wasn’t Missy. I’m talking about when she turned all the dead into Cybermen.” The pain metastasized into heartbreak.
“Weaponized corpses?” Natasha, like Coulson, was pretty clearly horrified.
She spun on her heel at the sound of the rough Scottish burr. “Doctor? You were supposed to stay inside—”
“Yeah, lied about that. Figured you’d need some help. Did the vortex manipulator scramble your brain? More than it is already, I mean?”
The grey-haired man hadn’t arrived via closet. He’d simply walked through the door, which Natasha had previously ensured was unopenable thanks to more than its regulation lock. His voice was very gentle, but his eyes, under their somewhat alarming eyebrows, weren’t, at least not while he was looking at them. His eyes when he glanced at Clara Oswald were another thing entirely.
He didn’t wait for an answer from Oswald to his rude comment, instead eying all three of them, then the bed. “Great. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sending out menages a trois now?”
“Doctor!” Oswald’s outrage appeared to be very pro forma.
“We’re a great team.” Coulson said, spreading his hands and smiling completely without warmth. “What’s this about things falling into the Potomac?”
“Don’t pay attention to that. She’s a liar.”
“Doctor….” Now she sounded really pissed.
“Uh-huh.” Coulson was unimpressed. “ I don’t think she’s lying. We’re talking time travel, apparently?”
The Doctor rolled his eyes. “Great. A smart one. Yeah. This is 2013 …”
Oswald looked thunderstruck. “Oh.”
The Doctor nodded, not even turning toward her. “Yeah. Oh.” He addressed Coulson again. “So I can’t tell you. But I suppose Fury ought to be given that phrase, about flying airfields and the Potomac. He’ll figure something out. Probably. Possibly.”
“You know Fury?” Natasha looked as if she was measuring the man for something. A coffin, maybe? Clint couldn’t tell.
He grunted. “Enough to stay out of his way. He’s almost as bad as Torchwood, and less useful than UNIT.” Then he looked at her closely. “What did they do to you? You’re not quite right.”
Only Clint and Phil would be able to see what entered Natasha’s eyes at that comment. Both of them stiffened slightly on her behalf, unconsciously waiting to see if they needed to go into action to stop her from doing the same.
They needn’t have worried. “I left the Red Room behind when I joined S.H.I.E.L.D.. I can’t undo its legacy, and I don’t know how many years it gave me. It doesn’t matter. People have been punished.”
The Doctor nodded slightly, his face sombre. “ I’m sorry.”
‘Tasha shrugged just as imperceptibly. “Thank you.”
With visible effort, and after one searching look into Natasha’s eyes, Coulson returned to the main issue. “You’ve arrived to tell us that we shouldn’t trust Missy.”
“In a nutshell, especially since I don’t have any HYDRA tech.” He caught Coulson’s glance out the window. “That? That’s my TARDIS. It’s mine, and you won’t get it, trust me. But I can assure you it will never be used against humanity.”
Something in his voice changed as he said that, some odd timbre that sent a chill down Clint’s spine. This weirdo was dangerous, he knew it as surely as he knew his own abilities. But not only did the weirdo mean everything he was saying, the chill Clint felt was in large part because he understood, without any actual evidence, that everything the guy said was true.
“So it’s probably useless to try to get at it.” Coulson’s raised eyebrow was priceless.
“Even if it was HYDRA.”
“HYDRA ... tchah. You deal with your terrestrial hurdies. I’ve got better targets.”
The room’s landline rang. When no one moved, the Doctor rolled his eyes again. “No one’s going to answer that? Clara, you answer it.”
“Why me?” She started to reach for the receiver.
“Because I don’t want to talk to her.”
Oswald’s hand stopped. She glared at him. “No. Oh, hell no. She’s your problem.”
Natasha gave a very small sigh. “Give it to me.”
Oswald grabbed the phone and handed it to Natasha without once breaking off the glare she aimed at her companion. “Like I said, don’t believe anything she says.”
Everyone watched as Natasha picked up the receiver. “Hello.”
Her eyes widened slightly, and one eyebrow shot up. She glanced at both intruders. “Yes, they’re here.”
The door opened, and the hatchet-faced crazy lady walked in, hugged the Doctor from behind and giggled briefly as he flinched, then bared her teeth at Oswald in what was pretty obviously not meant to be a smile. “All of us in the same room again. Imagine that!”
“I said I didn’t want to talk to her,” the Doctor said, extricating himself from Missy’s grasp with a panicked flail of arms and glowering accusatorially at Oswald. Oswald simply continued to glare at him. He dropped his gaze.
“And why not, when I went to all this trouble to get you here?” The crazy lady, Missy, actually pouted as the Doctor moved away from her, further into the room.
It was getting really crowded here, Clint thought. He checked the window from the corner of his eye, trying to figure the angles involved in that particular exit strategy.
Once free of Missy, the Doctor said, “Can’t you ever — ever — come up with a plan that isn’t stupidly Byzantine?”
“First off, I’m a Time Lady from Gallifrey. We don’t do simple. Second, I’m always elegantly Byzantine. Finally … would you have shown up if I’d emailed you?” Missy somehow managed to look sweet and hopeful as she said that. She also started to edge back toward the Doctor.
“No.” From both Oswald and the Doctor. Missy stopped edging; her eyes narrowed. “That’s not nice at all. Why don’t you say something nice?”
“Stop it. Right now. All of you,” Coulson snapped. “ I’ve had it.”
All three did stop, staring at him in amazement, as did Natasha. Clint figured none of them were used to taking orders. Well, Natasha, sure, but … he shook his head slightly to get clear of the ramblebushes.
Coulson stood up and pointed at their lying liar of an informant. “You, Missy; don’t contact S.H.I.E.L.D. again. We’re not your social calendar app. You, Doctor; she’s your remit. Keep her away from S.H.I.E.L.D., or we will find a way to stop her regeneration cycles, permanently.”
Clint was surprised to see the Doctor’s face harden at the last threat. He’d have thought anyone in their right mind would want Missy’s regeneration cycles, whatever regeneration cycles were, stopped permanently. She seemed to be the kind of person … entity … creature — whatever the hell she was — that needed permanent stopping.
“That’s right. She’s my remit. Don’t think you can do anything to her while I’m around.” The threat in his voice was bald now.
“See, I knew you cared,” Missy cooed.
“Shut up , Missy.” Again, a chorus from Oswald and the Doctor.
Now it was Coulson’s turn to sigh. “Doctor, I don’t want to do anything to anyone, but my government, and S.H.I.E.L.D. — which is not the same thing, as I’m sure you know — both took considerable efforts, and risks, to send us here—”
“Naw, not true. Fury sent you, using his own funds, because he’s like that,” the Doctor interrupted.
“ — to send us here,” Coulson continued, ignoring the interruption. “If this … alien Time Lady from Gallifrey lied to us just to get you here? Well —” he spread his hands again and smiled, mild and mirthless. “You may think the Colonel is ‘less useful than UNIT,’ but he does have his means, and he isn’t interested in being useful to you. He’s got a world to protect. Which I suspect means that you’re both on the same side, no?”
The Doctor blinked, frowned, then reluctantly nodded. “You won’t see her again.”
“What makes you think you have anything to say about it, Doctor?” The voice was pure poison. “If I want to play with your pet humans, there’s precious little you can —”
Missy stopped, mouth gaping, nose abruptly blossoming red. “Well, waddyu dnow aboudt thdadt?” she managed, before the grey eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed bonelessly onto the carpet.
Oswald cradled her still clenched right hand in her left. “Shit. That hurt more than I thought it would.”
The Doctor managed a very credible landed carp imitation. “Clara?”
She looked at him, both eyebrows raised. “She didn’t shut up.”
“Well that’s torn it,” he said. He tried to look angry, but Clint was fairly certain he was relieved. And possibly just a little proud of the Oswald girl. “You’re going to have to help me carry her to the TARDIS.”
“Can’t we leave her here?” Oswald eyed her purple clad opponent with distaste.
“We’d really rather you not do that,” Coulson said.
Oswald looked increasingly worried. “She’s not going to stay down for long. I’ve read that no one stays knocked out as long as you think they’d do from movies.”
“Most movies don’t involve Gallifreyans … here, you take her legs — no, no, wait, better idea, just get her up on my shoulder. I’ve lots of experience hauling sacks of potatoes.”
Oswald looked at him.
“What? I’m over a millennium old, Clara, I didn’t spend all that time in the TARDIS. And trust me, breaking a Time Lord’s nose the way you just did will keep her out for a good 10 minutes. I’d say half an hour, but let’s be cautious. Now come on, give us a hand, eh?”
Clint watched Natasha ruthlessly suppress a smile, as Oswald man-handled Missy into potato sack position on the Doctor’s shoulder. The wiry old guy was apparently stronger than he looked.
“You’re sure about this,” ‘Tasha said. “You don’t need our help?”
The Doctor shot her a speculative look, then adjusted his load slightly.
“Don’t worry. I can immobilize her long enough to find her TARDIS, trash its directional coordinates and lock her inside. It should take her years … well, weeks, or possibly days, certainly hours, to fix the damage. We’ll be long gone, and she’ll have lost interest in you three,” the Doctor said. Then he looked at them and tilted his head. “Although I’d suggest it’s time to check out of the Rembrandt and head back to the States.”
“As good as done,” Coulson replied.
“Awwww—” Clint had just about decided he wanted to spend another few days there.
“ — or I could scramble your bio-signs a bit. That should provide some insurance. She was never very good at bio-signs,” the Doctor said. “Consider it our apology for messing up a perfectly good opportunity for assignation.”
Out of nowhere, he smiled at the three of them. Clint saw the other two react the same way he did; the man’s entire face changed when he did that, like the sun coming out from behind a stormcloud. The smile didn’t last long, but Clint thought it lingered in the eyes under those fierce eyebrows. He liked that; the weirdo alien was all right.
“You know, people are going to stare if you take an unconscious woman out of the room,” Natasha pointed out.
“No, not really,” the Doctor said, pulling a … wand? A glowing blue wand of some sort out of one of his pockets. “Clara, when I give the word, activate your manipulator. I’ll boost its power. Get ready to be a little sick when we pop back into the TARDIS.”
“Will doing it this way keep Missy out a little longer?” Oswald sounded hopeful.
“Well, she might wake up long enough to throw up.”
“I can live with that.”
“It’s my shoulder she’s on.”
“You’re the one who wants to take her with us.”
The conversation might have gone on, but Coulson — who Clint could see really, really wanted to become Phil again — pointedly cleared his throat.
“Yeah, sorry about that. She’s slow.” The Doctor nodded apologetically.
“Not slow, just very irritated,” Oswald said, before moving around to his right side, and very gently putting one hand on his free shoulder. She smiled up at him. Smiles changed her face, too, Clint saw. “Let’s go.”
In the twist of light and the clap of air rushing to fill a suddenly empty spot, it might have been easy to miss the looks Oswald and Doctor shared, but Clint saw.
It was very quiet for a few moments. Then the wheezing and scraping of piano strings revved up, and out, leaving nothing in its wake but three bemused S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, one of whom immediately shucked his sweatshirt, another of whom kicked off her jackknife hiking boots, and the third who eyed his partners and grinned before unsnapping his jeans.
“How did he know we were —” Clint started to say as he kicked the jeans to one side. Natasha put one finger to his lips, silencing him.
“I think it best not to question how he knows anything,” she said.
“Even the Potomac?” Clint asked, encircling her waist with his arms.
“We’ll let Fury know,” Phil said. “But it can wait.”