Agent Hill has a bum knee.
From four years and hundreds of hours of physical therapy out you'd never know it, but Clint had been a part of the AIM warehouse sweep where she took that bullet right to the kneecap. It's part of why she transitioned from the field to an admin position in the first place, although rumors had been swirling even then about Fury grooming her for something more. He's seen her in the practice ring and knows without the bad leg her jiu-jitsu outmatches his krav maga, she's almost as good as Nat hand to hand although she doesn't get the credit for that, but she favors the knee when she's tired and leaves herself open. Clint knows he could take her.
Which means if the mind control comes back now while they're all locked in this room she won't be able to put him down.
Clint knows it's only a matter of time. He can feel in in the back of his mind, lurking there like a cancer doctors couldn't quite get all of, a tiny pinprick of ice that he knows any moment can metastasize and overwhelm. He can't risk letting himself be compromised again.
He should be listening to the briefing but his skin feels like it's crawling with spiders because the room's not safe. He scans the rest of the agents sitting around the table, sizing up who would try to get between him and the door if his eyes go blue again (he hasn't missed the sudden uptick in eye contact from strangers, people who in the past would have not given him a second thought suddenly staring right at him, that visible tension in their shoulders until they're reassured his eyes are the right color. Clint can't blame them; there's a reason he doesn't wear his sunglasses indoors anymore.) Sitwell was good in his prime but he's let himself go; Simmons next to him has a bad heart and an artificial shoulder, and Kwan's a code-breaker, not a field agent, though he's seen in the ring that she does have a mean left hook. He continues going around the table, picturing exactly how he would take out these people he's worked with for years and who've kept him alive and showed him pictures of their kids if today is the day Loki's voice whispers back in his ear.
It only stops when he gets to Fury, holding court at the head of the conference table like God giving orders out to the Heavenly Host; Fury's never apologized for looking at Clint's eyes to check if they've turned and Clint's always appreciated the honesty. Fury stares right into his eyes now and Clint knows down to the soles of his boots that not only has Fury been watching him since the second he walked into the room, the instant he ever saw Clint turn he would take out his sidearm and put one right between Clint's icy blue eyes. Not only that, but that he would do it without question or the slightest flicker of hesitation.
Clint feels the tightness in his chest recede as the comfort of that washes through him. The roar in his ears fades and he can focus on the briefing again, secure he'd be dead before he hit the ground.
There's only one other person on the elevator, some junior agent who looks all of twelve with one of those new Chitauri-style rifles R&D's so proud of. He does the eye check when Clint steps in – nice and subtle about it, Clint approves – but then he lets Clint get behind him and he can't imagine what's going through the kid's head. He's tempted to take down the agent's name and find out who trained him this badly.
The elevator starts moving and Clint runs through the math: if it happened now, how fast could this guy swing that rifle around and stop him? He wishes he could spot a side arm, that would be faster, but there's just the energy rifle so either this guy's a courier or he's headed to the testing floor, and if that's true the rifle might not even work. Still, the real problem is the other agent's not even paying attention; Clint feels that cold sweat break out over his arms and tries to control his breathing, looking around for the surveillance camera to make sure he's in frame. He knows the ice rushing over him is just his mind working overtime, the real thing feels sharper and deeper than this, feels like it did when he broke through the ice playing hockey when he was a kid, a cold so deep it burns. If this was real he would be snapping this kid's neck right now, one hand around his mouth, the other at the back of his head and then the quick twist.
Clint shifts to the other side of the elevator, far enough that if he did move forward there'd be enough time to react. He sees the agent's gaze slide toward Clint as he enters his peripheral vision, nice and subtle, and this time he keeps it up. If Clint didn't spend so much time with covert agents he might not have noticed, giving him hope that some of the greenness might be a put on.
In any case, the junior agent does get off at the testing floor and Clint feels his heart beat double time against his ribs as the doors close again. He's going up to the roof for some air and some height to clear his head but he keeps glancing up at the camera, trying to remember if the elevator ones are black and white or full color. He doesn't even know who's monitoring today and the air in the elevator starts to feel thin; he's never been at his best in small spaces and that's only gotten worse since Loki. A year ago this would have been mildly uncomfortable; now the walls are pressing in and all he can think is that if it happens now no one will stop him. No one will know, not until it's too late.
Clint pushes the floor button and stumbles out thirty floors below where he'd planned, slumping against the wall as his vision swims. He's lightheaded and that deep ache is back in his chest; he doesn't quite go off his feet or black out but it's close, closer than he really cares for. He scraps his plans and heads down to one of the indoor ranges, the closest one he can find. When he gets the shakes like this Clint knows the only way to stop them is with a bow in his hands, and the ranges are guarded with riflemen at the doors and emergency medical standing by in case of an accident.
Even though he's armed Clint knows that if he turned on the practice range he'd never leave it. Repeating that over and over is what finally gets his jackhammering heart back to normal and as he pulls the bowstring back he feels that relief as his mind empties of everything except distance and trajectory and the mechanics of the draw. He shoots arrow after arrow until his fingers bleed and his hands cramp, because not being capable of putting up a fight is its own kind of security.
He still watches Selvig work. No one's ever revoked the order that put him on monitor duty so technically it still stands, so as soon as Selvig's cleared all of Psych's fun little tests and gets back to work Clint's back up in his perch watching. He knows it unsettles people, seeing the two of them in the same room again.
Clint's glad it unsettles people. It means they keep a closer eye on him.
Sometimes Selvig talks to him, especially when an experiment hits a boring patch or isn't cooperating. It sounds a lot like the way Stark talks to his robots but Clint finds it relaxing. They're the only two people on the planet who know what it's like to have god steal their minds and being around someone who gets it is like getting into a warm bed after a hard mission.
Clint finds the guards posted in front of the research area exits relaxing, too.
One day Selvig waves him down, saying he needs a pair of steady hands. It's late, just the night guards and the members of Selvig's team who drew the short straws with them, and the next few hours pass in comfortable quiet as Selvig tells him to hold this or keep that wire steady or to make sure these vials stay perfectly level. The science is leagues beyond him but he spends enough time around Stark and Banner nowadays for Clint to be used to that. During a lull in the experiment he can't stop himself from asking, "What's your plan for when it happens again?"
He doesn't have to clarify the statement; Selvig just gives him a sideways grin and glances over at the guards. "Should I be worried about their aim?"
"Always good to have a contingency plan."
Selvig's grin widens. There really is nothing like shared horrific experience to bond people together. He gestures over to his assistants. "After...everything," he says with a shrug, clearly unwilling to even say that name out loud, "I arranged for all of my people to have gun licenses. Took them to the shooting ranges, made sure each of them knew what they were doing. Told them we were with dangerous people and it was for their own protection," he said, giving Clint an apologetic look. "Then when they were all proficient I sat them down and told them that if they ever see my eyes change color they were to...I think the term you people use is 'double tap,'" he says, patting the back of his head. "Then I fired everyone who didn't agree. Great weight off my mind, let me tell you." He gave Clint an appraising look. "But then I'm hardly a physical threat to anyone. I'm guessing it's been more difficult for you."
Clint can't exactly deny that. "You could say that."
There's nothing but sympathy in Selvig's eyes. "So what will you do?"
Clint shakes his head. "I'm working on it."
Clint jolts awake, panic squeezing his chest like a steel vice. The sheets are twined around his legs and he's soaked in sweat; it takes a few minutes of staring at the ceiling to stop hyperventilating long enough to glance at the clock. Two hours this time. Not so bad.
He's averaging four hours on a good night, never at a stretch and always ending in screaming and the sweats. He never remembers the dream that wakes him. He hasn't remembered a dream since he woke up cuffed to a bed with Nat staring down at him, his head ringing and his body one big bruise. It's one of the many things he hasn't told Psych, not like he needs confirmation that he's broken.
It doesn't take long for the vise to start tightening again. Their private quarters aren't monitored on Stark's insistence and Clint can't even bug his own room because Stark's stupid pet AI does regular sweeps for surveillance equipment, Stark paranoid that SHIELD will work around him. Which they probably to do try anyway, Clint would bet, but his room is one of the few places where he knows no one's watching him. It's why he doesn't spend much time there.
He dresses and heads downstairs; there's noise coming from the rec room and Clint moves toward it, finding Rogers sprawled on one side of the gigantic leather sectional that probably cost more than Clint's first car. He lurks in the doorway until Rogers picks up his head. "Hey, Clint. Don't you sleep?"
"Not as much as most people," he replies with a shrug, cracking open another Coca-Cola can. He nods to the the sofa and Clint takes the invitation, throwing himself down on the other side. Rogers is watching an old Jimmy Stewart western on the classic movie channel and Clint raises an eyebrow. "Stark's gonna say you're not adjusting."
"Look, Tony forced me to watch 'modern' TV all day. I can only take so much," he answers back with only barely-exaggerated exasperation.
"Hey, I'm not going to complain about Jimmy Stewart. I like the later Hitchcock stuff better, though."
"Oh yeah? I asked the girl who lived down the block to see The 39 Steps when that came out. I had a serious thing for her."
"How'd that go?"
"Went by myself. Still liked it a lot." He nods towards the screen. "This is a Stewart marathon, anything good I should be looking out for?"
"I like Vertigo. Nat's a Rear Window fan." Which is true, although also kind of a joke between them about how those two should really be reversed. Rogers tosses him a Coke and Clint lets it settle for a minute before opening it. "You're just putting on that you hate all the new stuff to drive Stark nuts, aren't you."
"I like Doctor Who," he admits, and Clint can't help grinning at that.
"It's a good show!" He takes another sip, frowning down at the can. "This doesn't taste as good as I remember."
"They don't make it with real sugar anymore. It's all corn syrup."
Rogers gives him a look like Clint had just said he'd killed Santa. "Why would they change Coke?"
"By the way, the Dodgers play in LA now."
Rogers gives him a look that should be weaponized and Clint settles back against the arm of the sofa, trying piece together the plot of the movie.
"That was a good shot you made the other day. Got that robot right in the eye."
That had been a weird mission. They were almost always weird missions, at least the team ones, but giant-robot-attacking-New York was a little too Godzilla for Clint to believe it was really his life now. "I don't make bad shots."
Rogers sucks in a quick, harsh breath and panic washes over Clint like a wave. For a second he thinks it's happened, he's turned, but the icy feeling doesn't come and Clint realizes Rogers looks shaken, not on alert. "I say something wrong?"
Rogers shakes his head, a quick, sad smile on his face Clint's lived long enough to recognize very well. "No, nothing like that. You just reminded me of someone."
He's talking about Barnes, Clint knows. His first anniversary with SHIELD Clint tracked down a mint condition Bucky Barnes card and gave it to Coulson, basically as a thank you for putting up with him when he hadn't made it easy. Made the guy so happy he practically grew wings and flew (apparently the Howling Commando cards are rare commodities, who knew?). He hears the unspoken invitation to ask questions but doesn't take it; Rogers' voice sounds raw already and Clint doesn't want to push. Easier for both of them if he just asks Rogers to catch him up with the plot as they settle back into the movie. "You've been pretty decent to me," Clint says during a lull in the action. "After everything."
Rogers gives him that inward smile again. "Served with a fine sniper in my last unit. Feels good to know I have one watching my back in the new one."
Rogers focuses back on the movie as a gunfight breaks out and Clint studies him. He thinks he might actually be better trained than Rogers at hand-to-hand, at least technique wise, but that only goes so far when the person you're fighting can pick you up over his head and throw you across the room before you can blink. Even if he catches him off guard Rogers can take him apart without breaking sweat and the relief of that is so powerful Clint feels it like a drug.
He catches himself nodding off and warns, "Shouldn't let me fall asleep. There's reasons I'm up watching '30s Westerns."
"I won't say anything about your nightmares if you'll do the same about mine."
Clint wakes up hours later with the room empty and sunlight streaming through the windows. He looks around, feeling the low-level anxiety that's been living in his bones creep back and sighs as he pushes himself back to his feet.
That had been nice while it lasted.
He remembers everything.
He denies this every time he's asked of course, and the lie's good enough to fool three SHIELD shrinks and two polygraphs (he's pretty sure Fury knows he's full of it but then Director Fury doesn't have a leg to stand on when it comes to lying, does he?) Normally getting out of talking to Psych would be good enough reason to lie about anything but in this case Clint doesn't even know where to start with the truth.
It would mean explaining that the scepter hadn't just stolen his will – it had forged a connection.
It would mean explaining that everything means everything. It means feeling everything Loki did like it was his hands doing it. Feeling everything he felt, hearing every diseased thought in his divine head. It all plays behind his eyes like a movie he can't mute or turn off, sneaking up whenever he lets down his guard. He'll be in the mess having breakfast (he'll give this to Stark, the food's gotten miles better since moving into the Tower) and the memory of holding a man down and ripping his eye out will rise up and choke him, made all the worse because Clint knows he was the one who'd come up with that plan.
Sometimes he remembers worse things.
One day Nat's watching him test out new bows from R&D – the balance is all off on one, whoever's designed the next must have forgotten he shoots lefty because it's fine from the right but the arrows hook too many degrees from the left, and another one fucking talks, which he's hoping is Stark messing with him and not something R&D expects him to take seriously – and Nat seems to find his increasing dismay with the tools R&D is throwing at him hilarious. "I like the talking one. It'll keep you company when you're stuck in a perch for hours."
"Why would they make it Australian?"
And that's enough to make her lose it completely, doubling over laughing at him and his hideous talking bow. He leans against the wall and just watches her; he can count on one hand the number of times he's seen her laugh until she couldn't breathe and the flush it spreads across her cheeks is something he wants to tattoo onto his memory. She looks up at him as the spell finally starts to pass, her hands still on her knees, and the way she flicks her hair out of her eyes makes him lightheaded in the best possible way.
She starts to make another argument insisting that the bow isn't an abomination but Clint doesn't hear her; instead it's Loki's voice he hears, sliding into his mind like an oil slick: I won't touch Barton. Not until I make him kill you. Slowly. Intimately, in every way he knows you fear. And it's not just the words; Clint's mind is full of full of exactly what ran through Loki's mind at that moment and just how vivid a god's imagination can be.
He loses the next few minutes entirely. The next thing Clint knows he's huddled in the corner of the outdoor range, the guards politely overlooking him freaking out. SHIELD agents are always good about that.
Nat eventually finds him and sits next to him against the wall. "What was that?"
"Nothing," he says, shaking his head. It's raining but Clint barely feels it. "Just hit me hard all of a sudden."
She purses her lips at that because he's lying and she knows it and doesn't know why. "If this happens every time I laugh at you I don't think we can be friends anymore. I'm not going to stop."
"It's no big deal." He takes her hand and squeezes tight once. "Like I said, just hit me hard. You know how it is."
Which is another partial lie and Clint can see her adding it to the mental list. "You've been skipping your Psych appointments."
"Are you checking up on me?"
"Yes?" she says, as if that's a perfectly ridiculous question.
Clint watches the rain drip down from his fingers. "Why didn't you kill me?" He risks looking up at her. "After you knocked me out, why didn't you finish the job?""
Nat smooths her wet hair out of her face, one eyebrow raised. "Because you were unconscious? There was no need to."
"You had no way of knowing I'd wake up right."
She shrugs. "I had no way of knowing you wouldn't. It would be a little shortsighted to pull the trigger before I had all the information, don't you think?"
It's comforting to know Nat would kill him if it came to it. "How's Coulson?"
"You could just go see him and find out for yourself."
He shakes his head. "I can't, you know that. It's not safe," he says, the words slipping out before he can stop them.
And of course Nat pounces. "What do you mean, 'not safe'?"
Clint looks away. "You know what I mean."
"You have no reason to think it's going to happen again."
"I have no reason to think it won't," he counters, an edge to the words. "Loki doesn't strike me as the type to give up his toys."
She is so angry at him right now, he can see her strangling down the urge to grab him by his shoulders and shake him. "Since you asked, he's bored," she says, her voice flat. "The physical therapy people are having fun torturing him."
Clint can't help grinning at that. "It's like PT only hires sadists." He goes back to staring at his hands. "Out of everything I've done at SHIELD, recruiting you is the single thing I'm most proud of. I want you to know that, in case...you know. In case anything ever happens."
He can't see her face but the tone in her voice startles him. Nat's far from an easy scare. "What do you think is going to happen?"
Clint shakes his head again. "Just in case."
She presses her face against his shoulder for an moment. "Clint, please talk to me."
He should. Nat rarely asks him for anything and guilt starts clawing its way up his stomach for worrying her. She has her own fallout when it comes to dealing with everything that happened, it's not fair to make her carry his, too.
So what comes out instead is, "C'mon. Help me think of new ways to say 'I hate this, do better' so I can finish those reports for R&D." With that he stands and heads back in, hunching his shoulders against the rain and looking over his shoulder once to make sure she's following.
The first time Coulson invites him to join SHIELD Clint says no. He'd been working out a contract in Moldova back then and to this day he doesn't know how Coulson just waltzed into the camp that night; it seemed like Clint just looked up and there he was, wearing a black suit in the summer heat and making a pitch for something called SHIELD.
It didn't sound like much of a deal to Clint. The last thing on his mind back then was joining anything that sounded a whole lot like a group of Feds, and besides he'd already signed on with a unit heading into Afghanistan. He remembers Coulson giving him that tight little smile when he'd said thanks but no thanks. "Of course. We'll be in touch."
It wasn't one of his better decisions. Things went south fast and Afghanistan is the last place you want to be when that kind of thing happens; one month to the day after that conversation Clint was on a mountain ledge with a broken leg and a bullet in his hip, watching the unit chopper take off without him and about a hundred enemy militiaman surrounding him to finish the job. He'd been on the verge of giving up and letting them come when he'd heard a series of ear-ringing explosions; when he opened his eyes Clint found himself surrounded by a ring of SHIELD agents instead. The last thing he saw before passing out from the blood loss was Coulson staring down at him, in that same suit and shades on against the sun as cool as if this was an average day at the office. "I thought you might have reconsidered our offer."
(When he told that story later Stark suggested that Coulson might have made the mission go bad to set up that little rescue, as if that had never occurred to Clint. He didn't argue back that it didn't matter one way or the other, because the road he'd been traveling down meant he'd have wound up bleeding out alone someday with or without SHIELD's help.)
When he lets his mind wander the image of Coulson staring down at him superimposes over that last memory of seeing him sprawled on the floor fighting for air. He thinks that's what some of the nightmares he can never remember are, the memory of driving that scepter into Coulson's back with so much force it goes all the way through. That sharp, surprised sound he let out that curls around Clint's brain, the sudden weight on the scepter when Coulson's legs went out from under him and the scepter was the only thing holding him up, it's all so close to the surface Clint can almost touch it. When Nat came to him in such a rage that for a few seconds she lost her English to tell him Fury had lied Clint couldn't believe it, not when the last thing he'd seen through the connection before Nat put him down was Coulson in a pool of blood.
Clint knows he's been a failure as a human being. He likes his new team well enough but his entire life the only two people he's let close enough to call friends are Natasha Romanov and Phil Coulson. One of them came within seconds of bleeding to death and Clint knows what Loki wanted him to do to the other.
He doesn't know why SHIELD lets him walk around free but he can't compound that mistake by being careless. He knows too well who'll pay.
This. This is why they shouldn't let Stark and Banner play with radiation.
Clint looks over the edge of the Flatiron Building and wonders how long it's going to take the rest of the team to herd the mutated giant guinea pigs past him, seriously beginning to consider the possibility that he never woke up from that concussion and the past few weeks have been a bizarre fever dream.
He used to love being up in his perch. It used to be like playing chess with reality, each sense sharpened to a razor edge as his fingers pull the bowstring back and hold it steady.
Now all he can think is that if the mind control comes back now there's no one to stop him. He has the whole city spread out below him and any second his team is going to put themselves in front of his bow. As strong as Rogers is he can't shrug off an arrow to the eye and even from this height Clint knows he can make that shot. He has explosive arrows that can get through Stark's suit, even EMP ones Stark designed himself. Nat doesn't wear body armor. With Thor in Asgard the only one he's not sure he can take out in those first few seconds is Hulk, but Clint's quick on his feet, he's sure he'd think of something. And that's assuming Loki doesn't tell him to disappear, to melt away the way he did before.
He shouldn't be on this mission. He shouldn't be on any mission, he's too big a security risk and the certainty of what would happen if the ice wraps back around his mind pushes bile up into his throat; he feels himself hyperventilating and crouches down, putting his head between his knees as spots start to obscure his vision. This can't happen here, this plan is all on him and if he can't make the bottleneck they need the city's looking at a lot of destruction, he knows that. He forces himself to breathe around the ache in his chest as he hears the rumble of something big coming; he leans forward on one knee and fires two explosive arrows on the same pull, tearing up the pavement at the choke point Rogers sketched out. Clint feels a little surge of pride that no matter what's wrong with the rest of him his hands still never shake when he's holding a bow.
The things rear back from the noise and smoke of the explosion, one of them bumping into the building hard enough to make the shudder travel all the way up. When it happens again Clint has to hold on to keep from falling and it occurs to him that he could just...take a step. One step is all would take to make sure he's never used to hurt anyone again, the one sure way to put him beyond Loki and the scepter and the ever present threat of his mind turning to ice.
He inches closer to the ledge and the building quivers again, this time from one of Stark's percussive blasts. With all this chaos no one would even question it. Just a bad accident, the kind of thing that happens when tall buildings start to shake. The team would be sad for a while and it might bring some things back for Rogers but they'll get past it. Better to deal with that than Clint's eyes going blue and him painting a bullseye on all of their backs.
He's standing right at the ledge now, and if the building shakes like that again he knows he won't have to take a step. There's no surviving from his height, he's high enough that shock might get him before he even hits pavement. He inches closer again, the toe of his right boot over the ledge.
Clint catches Nat looking right at him and takes a step back, waving at her in a way he hopes is convincing. She'd never believe he just fell. And even if he did think he could fool her he can't do it here, not when she would watch him fall, where she'd have to see his body. They've been through too much together, she deserves better than that from him.
When he hears Rogers call the all clear he answers with a joke about Stark's science projects that makes him chuckle and Stark swear. Clint feels the opportunity pass him by like a missed shot.
"Nat, can you at least warn me about what R&D has for me this time?"
She just shakes her head. "Sorry. You have to see it."
Clint follows her down to the testing wing, feeling his heartbeat pick up as he passes the long line of sound proof rooms. He isn't armed and he can see Nat's sidearm on her hip, and that's not even counting the knife he knows she keeps hidden in her boot, but he still makes sure to keep enough distance between them that he can't surprise her.
"In there," she finally says, nodding toward a testing lab at the end of the hall as she taps a code into the door keypad.
Clint hesitates, something in his gut bothering him as she swings the door open. "You're not going in too?"
She just rolls her eyes at him. "I'm just the messenger, Clint. I couldn't have less interest in whatever new toys R&D has for you."
"Why would they send you to get me?"
"Because you scare them."
Clint can see that. Even before Loki he'd made a hobby of intimidating R&D. It makes them work harder. "Okay, let's get this over with."
The moment Clint steps through the door he knows he should always trust his gut; the room is empty and before he can blink Nat slams the door shut behind him, the electronic lock going active with an audible click. Clint feel relief wash over him. So SHIELD's finally decided he's too big a security risk and decided to take care of it. Good. About time.
"Been a while, Barton."
Clint spins around and feels fear climb up his spine when he sees Coulson leaning against the heavy door. Clint hasn't been in the same room as Coulson since Loki, he hasn't dared. "Sir, you shouldn't be here." He doesn't know why he's bothering to keep his voice calm when he's backpedaling this fast, desperate to put distance between them until his back hits the wall.
"That's true. PT's probably going to make me pay for skipping my session."
"You had Nat trick me."
Coulson shrugs. "If the mountain won't come to Mohammed. Think of this as exposure therapy." His expression softens. "She's afraid for you. We both are."
Clint slumps down against the wall. "Sir. Please. You have to get away from me."
Coulson just tilts his head to the side. "Why? What do you think is going to happen?"
Coulson knows, he just wants Clint to say it. He's been interrogated by Coulson before, he knows how this works. "Open the door."
"Because you know what I think is going to happen?" he says instead, ignoring Clint completely. "I think I'm going to walk over there and sit next to you, and we're going to talk for a while." There's an unspoken order there and Clint forces himself to stay put, holding his breath as he watches Coulson make his way over, each step as careful as someone picking their way through a minefield. Clint's been through the PT treadmill himself after getting shot on a bad mission years ago and knows Coulson has no business walking on his own yet; it takes all of his self-control not to jump up to help but he knows Coulson too well to think he'd welcome it.
Coulson's forehead is beaded with sweat by the time he reaches Clint and he takes a minute to catch his breath; Clint closes his eyes and puts his head against his knees against the sudden, visceral flashback of sitting behind Loki's eyes and watching Coulson crumple to the floor gasping for air.
By the time that passes Coulson's managed to lower himself to the floor next to Clint, still breathing heavily but doing his best to pretend he's just fine, thank you. "Please try not to throw up."
"I'm doing my best, sir." Clint shakes his head. "I need to be under guard."
"I think I agree but I'm sure not for the reasons you mean." He gives Clint a long, hard look. "Promise me you're not going to hurt yourself."
Clint can't return the look. "I'm a security risk. We both know that."
Coulson sighs. "Well, that's not the answer I was hoping for."
Clint lets a few long minutes pass by. "Do you know what he wanted me to do to Nat?"
He can see Coulson choosing his words. "I've read Tasha's report."
Clint just gives him a look. "Are you having Nat sneak you reports?"
Coulson glances away at that. "I like working."
"God, no wonder PT's putting you through the paces." He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to blot out the nightmare living behind them. "I can still see it. It's not just words, I can see everything in his head, everything he...." Clint rubs his hands over his face. "I can always see it. Hear it, smell it, feel it, everything." He looks at Coulson and sees immediately that none of this is much of a surprise. "So how long have you known I've been lying to Psych about not remembering?"
"A while now," he admits. "Tasha and I worked it out. We were discussing how sure you were I had to be dead and she realized with all the chaos that day she'd never gotten the chance to break the news I'd died in the first place."
It figures he'd miss something so basic. "Why haven't you two snitched yet?"
"Because the day you're entirely forthcoming with Psych is the day I really do start worrying."
Clint stares down at his hands. "I remember stabbing you. The way the scepter felt, all of it." He recalls a mission briefing long ago, back when he was probationary and his record still clung to him like a bloody shadow (and isn't he glad to have those good old days back again) when he'd overheard another handler ask Coulson how he could turn his back on "that animal" in the field. Coulson had just given the guy that look he had, the one that reminded you all at once just why he was the one Fury handed all the important jobs. "Do you wear a vest in the field, Agent...Avery?" he'd asked, visibly adding a note next to the guy's name in his mental database.
"Of course I do."
Then Coulson had given him that smile that was absolutely not really a smile. "If you had Agent Barton in the field with you to watch your back you wouldn't have to."
He wonders if that conversation was why Loki, the coward, had decided to stab him in the back and make Clint watch.
Coulson sighs, breaking into Clint's thoughts. "You didn't stab me. I know saying that doesn't make a difference right now but I'm going to anyway. And I don't remember much about it, if that helps at all."
Clint feels his lips curl up, remembering those last few seconds before Nat shut his lights out. "You were on the floor bleeding out and still told Loki he was going to lose. That he lacked conviction."
"Did I?" Coulson says, clearly pleased with himself.
"There'll be no living with you now." Another few minutes slide by and Clint wonders how long Coulson can sit like this; pain lines are already deep around his eyes and he's sweating again. "Sir, maybe you should...."
"I didn't believe you were alive when they told me, either."
"What? I don't...."
"The last thing I knew you were still under Loki's control, then suddenly I wake up in Medical and they're telling me Tasha recovered you and everything's fine?" He shakes his head. "I assumed they were trying to placate me."
"Why wouldn't you believe them?"
"Because if you'd been recovered where were you?"
Clint looks away, hot shame flushing over his skin. "Fury didn't want me there." Which is both true and an excuse.
"I don't believe he said that."
"He didn't have to say it."
He can see Coulson considering that. "All right. That I believe. I'm just curious why you listened, you never have before."
"The first few days Medical carried on like you'd die if someone breathed on you the wrong way, let alone if I...."
He feels Coulson's gaze slide toward him like a sighthound who'd just spotted some prey. "If you what?"
Clint doesn't see the point in answering that. "Why haven't I been blacked out?"
Coulson's jaw goes tight. "You know I don't like that term."
Even SHIELD agents screw up. They may be a group of very competent, very scary people but they were still people, the occasional screw up was inevitable (excepting the ones who were really LMDs of course, and even those were programed to think like people.) But sometimes agents really screw up – someone develops a gambling problem and gets in deep with the wrong people, or someone overestimates their intelligence and tries to play both sides, or even gets stupid enough to start sleeping with the enemy, a cliché Clint's seen play out so much more often than he thinks anyone would believe. The kind of screw-up that can't be fixed with a low-stress reassignment and some long sad sessions with Psych; by the time Clint signed up the term "blacked out" had already been well established, a nice euphemism for those agents who just...disappeared, their files redacted into line after thick black line. "That's not an answer."
"Why do you think you should be?"
Clint shakes his head. "I let the wolf in the door."
Coulson sighs again. "The wolf let himself in. And we opened the door ourselves by not understanding how it worked. Neither of those were your fault."
"I was compromised. Since when does SHIELD just let that go?"
"You weren't caught accepting kickbacks, you were mind controlled by an alien artifact. That's not exactly something we have policy for. Although we will now, obviously," he says, almost as an afterthought.
"That's my point. We don't even know how the scepter works. I could flip again any second and next time I might have a bow in my hands when it happens. It's an unacceptable level of risk and we both know it."
Coulson's quiet for a long time. The first argument with Coulson he ever won was when he went against orders and brought back an assassin named Natasha Romanov. He wonders if he's just scored his second. "Barton, what would you say if I told you we had very good reason to believe the Red Room" – Clint can hear the hate clipping those words short; he's never read Nat's file and never wants to, he knows all he needs to from the fury that wraps around Coulson whenever he talks about the people who trained her – "routinely programmed sleeper personalities into their agents and we have no idea what the trigger phrase might be?"
Clint feels like the floor just dropped from under him. "Is that true?"
"It's a hypothetical, Barton. Keep up."
"Sir, I don't think that's...."
"I'm overdue for my pain medication. Answer the question. What if it was true? Should we black out Tasha because she might flip at any moment?"
Clint feels horror reach into his gut and squeeze. "It's not the same," he insists. "Sleeper personalities are a known quantity, SHIELD's used them too. We know how that works, we can fix it."
He watches Coulson drum his fingers against his knee. "Do you know how long it took Medical to restart my heart?"
Clint nods, his mouth dry. "Yeah. Three and a half."
"Over six," he says, a mirthless little smile twisting his lips. "Six minutes and seventeen seconds, if we're going to be precise. My file happens to be one of the ones I had Tasha acquire."
For a second Clint's not sure he remembers how words work. "But that's...no, that can't be right. People can't come back after...."
"That's true. People can't." Clint recognizes that quick flash of emotion in Coulson's eyes - it's the same fear he sees in his own in the mirror every morning. "By all rights I should be long dead and no one can explain why I'm not. Right now the leading theory is that it's something to do with the scepter but that's all just guesswork. It could be luck or there could be a purpose behind it that we won't understand until it's too late. So how about it?" he says, snapping Clint back to attention. "Would you recommend that I be blacked out because I might be compromised by something we can't possibly understand?"
Clint just looks away and he hears Coulson sigh. "I want you to look at your team," Clint hears him say, driving his point home like a knife in the ribs. "Every one of them could be considered a security risk. After seventy years we still have no idea how the super soldier serum works...."
Clint can't stop himself from scoffing. "Please. You don't really believe for a second Rogers is a risk."
That does make him pause. "No," he finally admits. "But it's my job to prepare for the possibility, and it is true that we don't know how the serum works. And we certainly don't know how it let him survive being frozen for seventy years because it was never supposed to be an immortality drug. Stark runs all of his tech – and I don't mean his suits, I've been in his house – through an independent AI and I think we both can think of all the ways that can go poorly. Thor, though I don't know he would ever admit it, has divided loyalties, has been stripped of his powers once before, and has access to weaponry that may well make Loki's scepter look like a cheap card trick. Banner...well, Banner is Banner. Do you really think none of them have thought about what it would mean if they were compromised?"
"I don't think Stark's considered it."
"Stark worries about his technology being compromised," he says, like he's returning a volley. "And I wouldn't be so sure he hasn't considered things further. You should let him surprise you."
Coulson shifts against the wall, trying to find a comfortable position that doesn't exist. "You need to trust your team," he says softly.
"If you did we wouldn't be here now. You need to trust them to be able to handle it if things go wrong. If you're always watching yourself you can't watch them and that is why you're there." He hisses out a short, sharp breath, pressing his head back against the wall. "I will be very glad when this is healed," he says through his teeth and Clint knows how that feels, he's been there. "Do you know why I didn't take no for an answer when I first tried to recruit you?"
"Because you never take no for an answer."
"That's true. But it's also because there's no one on earth who can do what you do. I couldn't stand by and watch you waste that talent. And I don't intend to let you do it now." Clint stares down at his shaking hands, startling slightly when Coulson reaches over to steady them. "We need you to trust us."
Everything in Clint still screams to get out of this room before his bloody hands get redder. "And when it happens again? What then?"
"First of all, that's an if, not a when. And if it happens then we'll deal with it, the same way we would if it were Tasha or me or Stark or Rogers or Banner. And I guarantee it will be Banner long before it's you, not that the Hulk going on a rampage will be anymore his fault than Loki was yours. Barton, I promise you, if we eliminated every agent who could be compromised SHIELD would be down to Director Fury in an empty building. Do you understand?"
Clint can only nod. "Yes, sir."
"Now promise me you're not going to hurt yourself."
Clint feels the change in topic snap him off guard. "Yes, sir," he says, the words coming out almost against his will.
"Good. Now what else haven't you been telling Psych?"
It's easy to forget sometimes how good Coulson is at interrogation. "There's something wrong with the way I'm dreaming. I wake up every night but I never remember, not since I came to after everything."
Coulson nods. "That's somewhere to start, at least." He lets out a long sigh. "We should probably get me back to PT before they send out a search party."
"You can't get up by yourself, can you."
"Not a chance." And he sounds so uncharacteristically pitiful when he says it.
Clint still hesitates before offering him a hand up. Since the adrenaline rush of the Chitauri fight faded Clint's avoided touching anyone, at least anyone who couldn't break his wrist if needed. Too risky, if Loki really is waiting for his shot out there somewhere he couldn't ask for anything better than Clint literally having someone in his grasp.
But Coulson's still looking up at him, not checking his eyes but just meeting them as if nothing's changed. He supposes that if Coulson's still the only handler in SHIELD with enough trust to keep his back turned to Clint Barton the least he can do is return the favor and extend his arm.
Coulson's legs go out from under him in seconds and Clint has to catch him, making sure to grab him around the waist to not put any pressure on the wound. "Careful, careful. You pull any stitches and everyone's going to assume I really did flip. Fury'll throw me into the pit before I can blink."
"Director Fury does...." He took a second to catch his breath, leaning against Clint. "Does not have a pit."
"You sure about that?"
"Thought so." Coulson pushes himself back, swaying on his feet but staying up. "You good?"
"No. I don't want to go to PT."
"Yeah, no one ever does." He doesn't feel all that steady on his feet himself. "Want some company?" he says, forcing the words out before he loses his nerve.
"Are you sure?"
Clint's not, the PT room isn't guarded the way the ranges are, there's equipment lying around he could easily improvise into weapons and there'd be plenty injured people who couldn't put up a fight.
Clint swallows that down. He's stood against flying alien dragon bugs with nothing but a bow and some high-tech arrows. He can do this too. "Yes, sir."
"We'll invite Tasha, too. She'll enjoy the show." He gives Clint a knowing look. "Baby steps, Barton," he says softly.
Coulson just sighs. "I know. It won't be her first time watching me embarrass myself." He winces as he fishes a remote out of his pocket and Clint hears the electronic lock ping open. The corridor beyond feels cavernous as the door opens.
Clint feels the sudden urge to let Coulson go through the door and then lock himself back in, to break the lock and then sit in the sealed lab until the air runs out.
"Barton? Coming?" Coulson says at just the right second like it's his superpower, not bothering to look behind to check.
He doesn't check because Clint knows Coulson doesn't ask questions he doesn't already know the answers to. "Yes, sir," Clint says, letting the temptation fade like a breaking fever.
He still isn't sure the decision to let him roam free is the right one but it's one that's been made. Good people are expecting him to be there to watch their backs.
Clint knows all too well he's blown through enough second chances for twenty lifetimes. His only job now is to make sure no one ever regrets handing him one more.