Given the kind of pain medication he was still taking and the speed at which the other man talked, Clint thought he was justified for needing five whole minutes to realize that the crazy, grease-stained mechanic who’d come to see him earlier at the base hospital was the same man as the one standing in front of him in the outrageously-expensive suit – Tony Stark, billionaire inventor, and he wanted to give Clint a job.
“Wait,” said Clint. “What?”
Tony frowned. “I’m going to cut you some slack because you’re recently injured,” he said, fiddling with the tie of his very, very expensive suit. “But from now on, you’re going to have to be faster on the uptake if you’re going to work with me.”
“But why do you want to work with me?” asked Clint. “I’m not a soldier— my medical discharge went through this morning— and even when I was, my only skill was shooting people. And I hear that’s frowned upon in civilian life.”
Tony looked around at the peeling paint of the VA hospital lobby. “Look, I’ll be honest. I had you checked out, Barton, and I read your file. All of it. Your file told me that you don’t follow orders blindly, but you’re willing to do some pretty reckless things if you think the risk is worth it. The rest tells me that you’ve got no family, no job prospects, and no place to live.”
“Gee, thanks,” Clint snorted.
“And I want to give you a job.”
“Doing what?” asked Clint.
The first time he’d seen Tony— they hadn’t exactly met, since he’d had no idea who the man was— Tony had babbled about some kind of project, new technology, saving lives, and how Clint was perfect, and he just had to run it by Jarvis and Pepper, whoever or whatever they were. Clint had been very, very recently out of surgery, and until Tony had shown back up again on the morning of Clint’s discharge, this time cleaned up and wearing a suit, Clint had thought it had been a particularly strange dream.
“Testing,” said Tony, now. “I’m working on an interactive holographic tactical training— you ever watch Star Trek?”
“You’re building a holodeck?”
“Only better,” said Tony, then admitted, “At least, in theory. We need someone to test it, someone on the inside. A soldier.”
“Medical discharge,” Clint repeated.
“Your body is broken,” Tony said, bluntly, “but your brain is fine, and that’s the part we want. And I’ve read your medical file— in a couple of weeks, you’ll be back to the full range of motion for a normal, non-Black Ops human. Besides, it won’t really matter if your knee craps out on you in the middle of any given test, we can always reset and start again.”
“Thanks,” Clint deadpanned, but Tony’s insensitive honesty was starting to grow on him. “And you want me to be your test dummy?”
“What?” said Tony. “No. Dummies are easy to find. We want you to take the incredibly brilliant and ground-breaking technology my team and I are creating, and actually tell us how to make it viable. There’s a generous salary, paid vacation, 401k, a health plan— very good dental, as I understand— and…”
He trailed off, glancing around the lobby again. “You need a place to stay? I’ve got a floor of empty apartments in my building.”
Clint looked at him and thought about the crumpled newspaper, with half-a-dozen crappy apartment listings circled in red, sitting on the top of the duffel beside him that held everything he owned.
“You did what?” said Natasha.
The background behind her on the video feed looked like every other temporary standard-issue shelter Clint had used in the Army. Natasha could be anywhere in the world— she hadn’t said, and he wouldn’t ask— but he couldn’t help the flicker of guilt that he wasn’t there to watch her back.
Clint shrugged. “Got a job.”
She scowled. “I don’t hear a word from you for months after you’re shipped home for a medical discharge, and that’s all you have to say?”
“Hey, I e-mailed.”
“Sending ‘Nat, it’s me, I’m alive’ every few weeks doesn’t count,” she said, then sighed. “A job?”
“I… I like it,” Clint said, surprised. “Stark is, well, he’s insane, and—”
“You work for Tony Stark?” Natasha interrupted.
“Um, yeah?” He smiled. “You don’t actually read those tabloids, do you, Nat?”
She snorted. “Of course not.”
“Because they’re mostly lies,” Clint continued. “I mean, he’s insane, but he really cares. Not just about the science, but… he does about a thousand safety checks before he lets me test anything.”
Anyone else would have missed Natasha’s smile. “Good,” she said. “You shouldn’t be alone, Clint.”
“You shouldn’t, either,” he replied, just as he began to hear raised voices shouting orders. “Be safe.”
“You, too,” she said, and the screen went dark.
“Please hold still, Mr. Barton,” said Bruce Banner, one hand barely touching Clint’s t-shirt-covered shoulder as he took another measurement.
“I’ve said, doc, you can call me Clint. Seeing as you’ve measured every inch of me by now.”
“Not every inch,” said Bruce, with a smile. He was a bio-chemist, to Tony’s mechanical engineering and Jane Foster’s mostly-theoretical physics, and he had a subtly dark sense of humor that most people missed. “Tony?”
“I got it!” the other man called, from where he was surrounded by floating holographic displays.
As Clint understood it, they were trying to use this technology to create an interactive three-dimensional environment, with so far pretty limited success, but Tony, Bruce and Jane seemed determined.
“Okay, that should be the last one,” said Jane.
Clint wasn’t a tall guy, but Jane hardly came up to his chin. “So, you’re done with me?”
“She is,” said Darcy, the scientists’ assistant. “But I’m not. I’ve got your suit.”
In order to interact with the as-of-now intangible environment, Clint would have to wear a bio-feedback suit that would translate the computer-generated ‘world’ into actual physical sensations. Fortunately, while Tony and Bruce had designed all of the internal interface components, the actual design of the suit had been left to Darcy— who matched the color of her sneakers to her nail polish on a daily basis.
“I think you’ll like it,” Darcy told him, opening the door to an empty side room where he could change. “It’s got as much mobility as we could give it with all those gizmos in there. And it’ll really show off your ass.”
“Thanks, Darce,” he laughed, ignoring her pout as he took the box holding the suit and closed the door.
The suit was black, with subtle purple detailing, and the fabric felt thick, textured like Kevlar but more flexible. When he set down the boots and unfolded it, Clint saw that it was sleeveless, something he’d been arguing with Tony about for weeks and had apparently won. He changed quickly out of his jeans and t-shirt, bending and shifting to check the give of his new suit.
Darcy was waiting in the hallway. “Give us a turn,” she demanded, and Clint obligingly spun on his heel. She was the only other person in this place who spoke understandable English, and he might have let their flirting get more serious, if he didn’t know how hard she was crushing on Bruce. “Very nice.”
“There you are,” said Tony, when they got back to his lab, as though they’d been gone for hours instead of ten minutes. “We’re ready to start. How’s the suit?”
“Works for me,” said Clint. “What’s all this science stuff you’ve got in here?”
“Science stuff,” Tony repeated, sounding horrified. “We have been working on this for months— months, Barton— and all you can… Bruce tell him, please.”
Smiling, Bruce peered out from behind his own bank of holographic monitors. “The science stuff is working just fine, Clint.”
“Hey!” Tony protested.
Jane ignored all of them, setting a briefcase-sized box on the table. “Here’s the rest of your gear. The arm guards will track your movement, relative to the holographic environment, and the goggles will provide a more realistic experience, in addition to providing you with tactical information.
“They won’t affect my range of vision?” he asked, warily.
“No,” said Tony. “I mean, it shouldn’t. But it’s a prototype.”
“Which means you need to tell us as much as you can about how everything works for you,” said Bruce, and Clint nodded— he wasn’t always great with words, but he was getting better.
“And you’ll need this,” added Jane, handing him what looked like a standard handgun, except for its florescent orange grip. “Laser gun. It’s got weight and recoil like the real thing, but it doesn’t fire, not even blanks.”
“The system will register your shots and represent them visually,” said Tony.
“So this thing shoots holographic bullets?” Clint asked, then his eyes widened. “Am I actually testing the holodeck today?”
“It’s not a holodeck,” the three scientists chorused.
“But, yes,” said Tony. “We’ve done everything we can without getting actual real-time feedback from an actual human being.”
Clint grinned and slid on the goggles. “Put me in, coach.”
“You seem… better,” said Natasha. On the computer screen, she sat in front of a different identical Army-issue tent in a different identical undisclosed location, and Clint felt only the barest twinge of regret, now, that he wasn’t there with her.
“I am better,” he admitted. “I wish I could tell you about the stuff I’m working on. It’s… it’s great.”
When he’d taken the job, Clint had thought he’d be comfortable helping to make a program that taught people to kill, but the more progress Tony and Jane made with the holographic interface, the more they began programming not just tactical dilemmas to solve but moral ones— not could he make the shot, but should he— and now, Clint felt nothing but gratitude that he’d been included in making this happen.
“It sounds interesting,” said Natasha.
“Oh, it is,” said Clint. “And then there’s Thor.”
“Thor?” Natasha repeated, arching one eyebrow.
“Thor Odinson. He looks exactly like that sounds— big, blonde, from somewhere in Scandinavia— but he runs the Stark Industries cafeteria. Man knows his way around a pie crust.”
“Doesn’t sound like your type, Clint,” she teased.
He grinned. “Even if he was, he’s dating Jane and they’re, well, equal parts adorable and sickening, you know?”
“I know,” said Natasha. “So, you’re not seeing anyone?”
“Nat,” he protested, then sighed when she continued to stare at him. “What do I have to offer anyone right now? I’m still on enough meds to open a small pharmacy, and I live above an experimental physics lab because I have nowhere else to go.”
Natasha was quiet for a moment. “I should argue with you, but I know you won’t listen,” she said. “But can you at least promise that you won’t sabotage yourself if someone is interested?”
“Okay,” said Clint. “I promise.”
Clint crouched behind a half-crumbling wall that was made only of light, clutching a gun that didn’t really shoot.
Well, his brain knew that both of those things were true, but it really was a good simulation, and his muscle memory was ahead of his conscious thoughts. He rose, gun coming up, and took a shot at the dark-clothed figure that appeared over another pile of holographic debris. It collapsed to the sand, bleeding realistically for a moment before everything blinked briefly bright and vanished.
“The blood’s a nice touch,” he called up to the Tactical Simulation Room’s control booth.
“Really?” said Jane. “It’s not too much?”
Clint shook his head. “Nah. Actions should have consequences, even in training.”
“I agree,” said Tony. “Which is why we’re going to send you on a mission.”
“You finished one?” Clint asked, brightening. So far, he’d been testing individual scenes, often ones that started in the middle of the action, but the goal had always been recreating an entire operation. “You got a holographic team programmed?”
“Well, no,” Tony admitted. “It’ll be just you, Hawkeye. But we’ve added something to compensate— a handler.”
“Maybe the term should be ‘mission control’?” suggested Bruce.
Jane nodded. “Even if we can’t program an actual, visual holographic team, we can create the illusion that you’re not alone by having the handler relay a fictional team’s positions and actions to you.”
“Cool,” said Clint. “Is that ready? Can we do that now?”
Tony grinned at the other two scientists. “And you said I was crazy when I hired him.”
“You’re both crazy,” said Bruce, but he was smiling. “Clint, we’ll be monitoring everything, but you won’t be able to hear us this time. We’re going for realism, remember?”
“Got it,” said Clint, settling his goggles back over his eyes. “Ready when you are.”
Around him, the walls of holo-generating tech flickered away, replaced with a forced-perspective horizon and a half-bombed landscape that could have been anywhere in the world.
“Status report, Agent Barton,” said a voice.
“Control?” asked Clint.
“I guess you could say that.” There was a pause. “You can call me Coulson.”
Clint grinned— where did Tony get these names? First a robot-butler-voice named Jarvis, now a virtual mission controller named Coulson? “What’s the mission, sir?”
“Infiltration and extraction,” said Coulson. “An American agent is being held behind enemy lines, and your mission is to retrieve her.”
“Cool,” said Clint. “I mean, sorry— Acknowledged, Control.”
“I’ll have eyes on you the whole time,” said Coulson, and his voice sounded warm, like Clint’s slip had amused him. “And I’ll be able to send additional data to your goggles.”
On cue, numbers began appearing at the edge of Clint’s vision, distances and wind speeds and energy signatures, faint enough to ignore if Clint needed to concentrate.
“Move, Barton,” Coulson said, suddenly. “Three possible hostiles on your six.”
They were hostile, and Clint took out each of them with a double-tap of holographic bullets, then ducked into an alcove. “Well, that looks like an evil hideout.”
Tony and Jane had clearly been watching too many bad sci-fi movies, because the target location was a dark building, not just still standing but twice as fortified as anything around it had been.
“Heat signatures indicate four people inside,” said Coulson. “One stationary.”
Clint guessed that there were satellites or aerial equipment that Coulson’s program had theoretical access to, to give him that kind of information. “Probably our captured agent,” he said. “Keep me updated on their movement.”
Clint rested a hand on the wall beside him, testing it. His glove tingled, imitating the physical resistance of a solid object, but he knew it wouldn’t hold his weight if he were to lean on it.
“One hostile moving your way,” said Coulson, just as the holographic door opened.
Tony might still be having trouble with person-to-hologram solidity, but hologram-on-hologram worked just fine, and when Clint tripped him, the virtual bad guy flew head-first into the virtual wall with a very realistic crack.
“More hostiles are converging on this location,” said Coulson. “Your team is moving to intercept.”
“My team?” Clint repeated.
“Agents Smith and Jones.”
“Creative,” he snorted. “I assume I won’t be able to see or hear them?”
“You assume correctly.”
Clint raised his gun and moved to the door. “Hostiles inside?”
“Headed your way,” said Coulson. “Two of them, both armed.”
The first shadowy opponent went down before he’d even registered Clint’s presence, and the second before he could do anything about it. “Clear,” said Clint.
“Agent Jones reports an additional group of hostiles moving toward your location,” Coulson told him. “You have five minutes.”
“That’s plenty, boss,” said Clint, and he burst through the holographic door.
Darcy was sitting on a stool, iPod earbud in one ear, filing her nails. “My hero!” she cried, raising the back of her hand to her forehead and wobbling dangerously.
Clint grabbed her arm to steady her. “You’re supposed to be a captured federal agent, not a damsel in distress.”
“I’m only here because somebody,” she raised her voice a little, even though Tony could already hear her just fine, “still can’t build holos you can interact with.”
Darcy gave the wall behind her a sharp tap with her nail file— and it sparked brightly, dissolving the hologram back into the testing room.
“Oops?” she offered.
“Hey!” called Tony.
Clint laughed and pulled out his earwig. “It worked great until you broke it, Stark,” he said.
“I didn’t—” Tony began.
“We’ll re-set the test,” interrupted Jane. “Darcy…”
“Coming, boss lady,” said Darcy, and Clint grabbed her stool before following her up to the control room.
“It was a good scenario,” he told Bruce, as Tony and Jane began arguing about what exactly had gone wrong. “Adding a handler was great, just what it needed.”
“Good,” said Bruce. “We’ve been tossing around the idea of humanoid robotic bases, to give you opponents you can actually engage hand-to-hand. Then you wouldn’t need the handler.”
“No, no,” said Clint. “I mean, yes, you should absolutely make holographic fighting robots. But you should keep the handler. It’s good for a soldier to know there’s someone there, even if he’s not there, you know?”
“I think I do,” Bruce said.
Clint smiled. “And where’d you come up with Coulson, anyway?”
“Oh, that was all Tony’s idea,” Bruce laughed. “He—”
“Bruce!” called Tony, interrupting. “Please come and tell Foster how wrong she is!”
“Yes, because I love hearing fiction!” Jane snapped, and Clint made an escape while he could.
“I don’t have long to talk,” said Natasha. Behind her, Clint could see the shadows of trucks passing by her tent.
“You find your new team?” he asked, trying not to remember when it had just been him and her against the world.
Natasha nodded. “I’ve got Hill with me,” she said, and he nodded back, because Maria was a good soldier, and she’d watch Natasha’s back, “and we’ll have Bishop as our sniper.”
“Bishop?” Clint repeated, grinning. “Little Katie-Kate passed her qualifications?”
“You know she hates to be called that.”
“Oh, I know,” he said, easily.
“I’ll tell her you said ‘hi’,” said Natasha, then she paused. “Clint…”
“It wasn’t your fault, Nat,” he said, softly. “Of course I wish I was still out there watching your back, but where I am isn’t so bad. I’m making friends.”
Her lips twitched. “Thor, the god of baked goods?”
“Damn straight,” said Clint. “I’ve gotten myself made unofficial taste-tester.”
Natasha did smile at that. “I’d call security on you.”
“Nah,” he said. “Steve’s the other tester, and he’s head of security. Keeps saying he’ll hire me, if I ever get sick of being Stark’s guinea pig.”
“Get sick of it? Probably not. But if I did, I’d work for Steve. He’s a good guy.”
“Someday,” said Natasha, “I’d love to meet him. All of them.”
“Yeah,” said Clint, meaning it. “Be careful out there, Nat.”
“I’m always careful. I’ll call you as soon as I can, Clint.”
“Yeah,” he said again, and the screen went dark.
Clint clipped his shoulder hard against the corner of a wall— he had to remember to tell Tony and Jane that it was almost entirely realistic— as he ran through the office building’s seemingly-endless hallways, firing back over his shoulder by instinct as much as sight.
“Barton, there’s one unknown on your three o’clock,” said Coulson’s voice in his earwig. “Possibly hostile.”
A holographic bullet impacted the wall just beside Clint’s left shoulder. “Definitely hostile, sir,” he said, ducking back out of sight.
“Double back,” said Coulson. “Your team will meet you at corridor seven.”
Clint had a team now— two silver-jointed robots with multi-colored patchwork padding and built-in holographic generators that gave them the appearance of United States Marines and the personalities of bread pudding. He couldn’t wait for Tony to finish working on the physical issues so he could get to those additional AIs he was always talking about. If they were even a quarter as interesting as Coulson, Clint might forget they weren’t real and go back to his default of nearly-flirting and innuendo.
He’d already passed that point with Coulson.
“Hey, boss, any plans for the weekend?” he asked.
“Nothing much,” the handler replied. “I’m really more of a homebody.”
Clint grinned— mostly, Coulson kept to their task, talking Clint through the mission and either ignoring or gently correcting Clint’s tendency for irrelevant conversation, but sometimes he snarked right back, and Clint had begun looking forward to those moments more and more. Coulson also frequently talked as though he wasn’t just a computer-generated voice in Clint’s ear, like he and Clint might bump into each other in the lobby of Stark Tower and go for coffee.
And now that Clint had thought of it, he found that it hurt to know they’d never get the chance.
“Barton, pay attention,” Coulson snapped.
Clint shook his head and flashed a grin at one of the security cameras, the way his handler was keeping watch on him during this mission. “You got a first name, Coulson?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant to this operation,” his handler replied.
“C’mon, you know absolutely everything about me,” Clint protested, even as he crept forward, all his senses alert. “You probably know what kind of underwear I’ve got on. If any.”
“That is information I neither have nor want, Barton,” Coulson told him, mildly. “I do know that you should be focused on your mission.”
“I’m focused,” said Clint. “I’m all about the focus.”
“Are you all about getting shot by the two hostiles coming up the service corridor to your left?”
Clint swore. “Where’s my team?”
“On your right,” said Coulson. “Still two corridors away.”
“Tell them to hustle,” said Clint.
He came to the end of the hall and stopped, peering around the corner and immediately ducking back as a bullet went whizzing by.
“Tell them to hustle more!” Clint yelled.
“ETA, thirty seconds,” said Coulson.
Clint fired around the corner, knowing he probably wouldn’t hit anyone but needing a break in the enemy fire for his team to join him. “Report,” he snapped.
The holograms of ‘Smith’ and ‘Jones’ had apparently been taken from the Marine Corps recruiting material— except for the differing skin tones for cultural diversity, they were identically muscled and square-jawed.
“Six hostiles have been neutralized,” said Jones, his dark eyes emotionless.
“We have also located the hostage,” Smith added. “She is being held one hundred yards in that direction.”
He pointed toward the corridor where the hostiles had begun firing again.
“Of course she is,” said Clint, returning fire. “Coulson…?”
“I’m reading one human-shaped heat signature, stationary in room six-thirty-seven,” his handler reported. “Security footage is grainy, but shows a woman matching Miss Lewis’s description entering, and no one leaving.”
“Okay,” said Clint. “Okay. Smith, you get to the hostage and you get her out. Jones, you’re with me. We make sure nothing gets in his way. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” both holo-Marines chorused.
“Good. Let’s go.”
Clint began firing again, this time stepping out behind it and rushing forward. He caught one of the hostiles by the wrist, forcing his gun up and following with an elbow to the nose. The holo-robot bad guy let out a fairly realistic gasp, and dropped his weapon.
“Move, Smith!” Clint yelled.
Jones had engaged the other bad guy, wrestling with his assault rifle, and Clint took the opportunity to pistol-whip the one he’d been fighting.
Only, he must have hit it a little too hard, because the robot sparked violently and Clint jerked back. He twisted his bad knee at exactly the wrong angle and it buckled beneath him, sending him backwards to hit his head, hard, on the semi-tangible holographic wall.
Clint landed in a heap, only vaguely hearing Coulson’s voice shout, “Shut down the program! Yes, all of it, shut it down now!”
Around Clint, the holo-robots crumpled like puppets with their strings cut, and the holographic environment began to fade, as the polarization that made it tangible was allowed to dissipate. He tried to sit up, before he fell through the vanishing wall, but only succeeded in slumping over sideways.
“Agent Barton, report!” snapped Coulson’s voice.
“ ‘M fine,” Clint mumbled.
“You are not fine,” said Coulson. His voice sounded tense, worried, and Clint would have to remember to tell Tony and Jane that it was a nice touch. “You need to stay awake until the medics come.”
Something about that struck Clint, and he smiled, despite the darkness beginning to creep onto the edges of his vision. “You in the Army, Coulson?”
“I was,” his handler replied. “Rangers. What makes you ask?”
“You said ‘medics’,” Clint explained. “Civilians never say that. Hey, why are you still here if the program’s shut down?”
“Because you still need me,” said Coulson. “No sleeping, Barton!”
Clint’s head snapped up and he winced at the motion. “Hurts…”
“I know,” said Coulson. “You’ve got a head injury, Clint, and you need to stay awake.”
“Called me Clint,” he said, smiling, as the darkness closed in. “Fair’s fair.”
“Life isn’t—” Coulson began, but something began beeping and he said, “Clint? Clint!”
Clint tried to answer, but he didn’t quite succeed, and the last thing he heard before he lost consciousness was, “Phil. My name is Phil.”
“You passed out?” said Natasha, her voice low and dangerous.
“For five minutes,” Clint protested. “Honestly, Nat, I’ve gotten worse sparring with you.”
“That was when I was there to keep an eye on you,” she said.
“I really am okay. I mean, my knee’s going to be sore for a few days, but I didn’t do any serious damage. I was awake by the time the paramedics arrived, and I know what day it is and the name of the President and I still don’t know the atomic weight boron, no matter how often Tony and Bruce ask.”
“I’m not sure that’s part of the standard concussion check,” said Natasha.
“They’ve been really great, though,” Clint said, quietly, not meeting her eyes on the screen. “Bruce sorted out all my meds for me. Steve helped me walk up to my room, then stayed until he was sure I could put weight on my knee. Thor made me enough dinner— and pie— for the next week. And Tony and Jane seemed much more worried that I passed out than that I broke their robots.”
“Because they’re your friends,” she told him, smiling. “And what about Coulson?”
Clint frowned. “Huh? What does that have to do with anything?”
Natasha arched an eyebrow. “You only talk about him all the time, Barton. Didn’t you have something he could help you with during your convalescence?”
“I—” Clint had a sudden, sharp memory of Coulson’s voice calling his name when he’d collapsed, followed by a twist in his stomach. “Nat, he’s not— he isn’t— he’s part of the program. He’s just a voice, controlled by the computer. He’s not a real person.”
Her expression softened, just a little. “Clint…”
“I know, I’m an idiot,” he said. “I’ve known he’s not real from the beginning, and I still…”
“Hey,” said Natasha. “I approve of anyone who helps me keep you out of trouble, even if he is just a computer.”
“Well, good,” said Clint, managing a smile. “Be careful out there.”
Natasha snorted a laugh. “I’m not the injured one here.”
On the third morning that Clint showed up to the lab, only to find Tony and Jane shouting at each other over dismantled holo-robots, Clint told Bruce he’d keep his phone turned on in case they needed him, and left Stark Tower.
It wasn’t as though he’d been a hermit, before, but it had been weeks since he’d been outside without some kind of time-sensitive errand, and Clint had forgotten just how many people could be in New York on a random Wednesday morning. Men, women and children, old and young, harried businessmen and gawking tourists, people speaking just about every language— a wash of noise and color that paradoxically began to ease the rough edges of Clint’s thoughts.
He just kept walking, not even paying attention to where he was going, until he found himself suddenly in Central Park, heading toward a familiar figure sitting at the base of a tree with a sketchbook in his lap.
“Hey, Steve,” said Clint. “What are you doing here?”
The head of SI security smiled. “It’s my lunch break. Your knee doing all right?”
“I— yeah,” said Clint. The walking had actually helped, and his knee felt a little sore, but loose. “Yeah.”
“Well, sit down anyway. You look like a man with something on your mind.”
“Yeah,” Clint said again, and dropped onto the grass beside him.
Steve went back to working on his sketch. “Relationship trouble?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Hmm,” said Steve, then frowned. “It’s not Darcy, is it?”
Clint laughed. “No. I mean, I love her, but not like that. She just needs someone to commiserate with about the fact that Bruce can’t take any hints at all, let alone the small ones.”
“Commiserate, huh?” asked Steve, who was really too smart for Clint’s own good. “Then the girl you’re into hasn’t noticed you, either?”
“Guy,” Clint corrected, managing the ghost of a smile when Steve just waved and switched pronouns.
“He doesn’t know you exist?”
“That’s not exactly the problem. And I’m not sure there’s anything you or I can do to fix it, Steve.”
The other man nodded. “I can listen,” he offered.
“I’ll remember that,” Clint promised. “And, you know, back at’cha.”
He gestured at the picture that Steve was still working on, not a sketch of any of the passersby around them, but a fairly detailed portrait of Tony Stark.
Steve flushed pink, but didn’t hide the drawing. “We’re friends,” he said.
“We’re friends,” Clint countered. “Are there any pictures of me like that in there?”
“No,” Steve admitted. “But we’re not— I don’t— Tony dates women.”
“So did you,” said Clint, reasonably, because it had come up in conversation before. “Ever give him a reason to change his mind?”
“I—” Steve flushed again. “Do you feel like getting some pie?”
Clint let himself be pulled carefully to his feet. “I think relationship troubles are probably a good enough reason for Thor to make us a few extras.”
“Thursdays are a good enough reason for Thor to make extra pie,” said Steve, but when they got to the lobby of Stark Tower, he told JARVIS to take their elevator to the cafeteria floor.
And the pies were delicious.
“Don’t say anything,” Natasha snapped, sitting in front of a tent that looked slightly more stationary than any of her previous calls.
Clint pointedly didn’t look at the half-healed bruise around her left eye. “Can I at least ask if the other guy looks worse?”
That got him a smile. “Much worse.”
He smiled back. “Meet anyone interesting out there, Nat?”
Natasha glared. “You mean, like the CEO of Stark Industries, who came into a war zone wearing high heels to personally inspect the body armor and vehicle plating her company’s been testing?”
“The heels really did it for you, didn’t they?” Clint asked, smirking.
Her smile was a little softer. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I would! C’mon, Nat, we always shared everything before.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Clint, but all I did was escort Miss Potts around the base, and see her safely onto the very nice private jet back home.” She narrowed her eyes. “And don’t even pretend you weren’t the one who told her to ask for me.”
“Me? Would I do something like that?” He held the innocent expression for another moment, then smiled. “I just thought you two would get along. You could use a few more friends, too, Nat.”
“Maybe I could,” she agreed, softly. “How are you, Clint?”
“I’m all healed up,” he said, purposely misinterpreting her question. “I even went for a run with Steve. Well, part of a run.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Are you going to be able to keep going with this thing you’re working on, whatever it is?”
Clint snorted, a little bitterly. “What, because I developed an unhealthy attachment to a video game computer voice? I’m not going to ruin all of Tony and Jane and Bruce’s hard work just because I’m an idiot.”
“This doesn’t make you an idiot, Clint,” said Natasha. “The kind of childhood you had, what you chose to do for a living… you should have turned out to be a heartless bastard, like me. But you’re not. You can even make friends with computers.”
“Yeah,” said Clint, smiling. “Well, he’s a pretty cool computer.”
She nodded. “Hill and I are leaving for a new mission soon. Might be out of touch for a while.”
“Okay,” Clint sighed. “Be careful out there.”
Natasha snorted a laugh. “I’m always careful, Barton,” she said, and he smiled at her as the screen went dark.
“So, the holo-bots aren’t back up and running yet,” said Tony, apologetically.
Clint knew that he and Jane could have repaired the robot he’d broken within a few hours, an all-nighter at the very most, but he also knew that they wouldn’t just fix it up the way it had been when there was the possibility that someone— Clint— could get hurt.
“It wasn’t your fault, Tony,” Clint said.
The engineer scowled at him. “I built a fighting robot that couldn’t handle a fight. Of course it’s my fault.”
“Save it, Barton. Foster, where’s his new suit?”
Clint took the box Jane handed him. “We did a few more upgrades,” said Jane. “More monitoring sensors, and we reinforced the knee joints especially.”
“Really?” said Clint. “Thanks, guys.”
Bruce smiled. “Actually, that part was—”
“Hey, are we going to test things today or what?” Tony interrupted.
“Test the suit?” Clint asked.
“Partly,” said Jane. “But with the holo-bots down, we decided to focus in another direction.”
“Weather,” said Tony. “Okay, just wind and sun, so far. Turns out that even simulated rain and delicate electronics don’t really mix.”
“I’ll bet,” said Clint. “So, we’re talking long-distance shooting with real-life-like wind conditions? Because I know you know I was a sniper in the Army.”
Tony smirked. “Oh, I know more than that, Legolas. I know you can use this.”
He pulled a case up and onto the work bench and popped the clasps. Inside was a beautiful recurve bow and an empty quiver.
“Wow,” Clint breathed. “Does this…?”
“Fire holographic arrows?” Tony finished. “You bet your ass it does.”
“We thought it might be a good idea to start back up with, shall we say, ‘low-impact’ scenarios,” said Bruce, smiling. “Go suit up, and we can get started.”
As quickly as Clint rushed to change, he still took a moment to appreciate the reinforcements to the knees of his new suit. It was more than just an extra layer of padding, there was a carefully-shaped support for the joints, without hindering his motion at all. Still grinning, he grabbed the bow and the quiver, which was now full of straight, unfletched shafts.
“They should work just like real arrows,” said Jane, tugging him toward the door to the simulation room. “Tell us if they don’t.”
Clint nodded. “Thanks for this.”
“We’ve had so many more good ideas since you joined us, Clint,” she said, smiling, and handed him an earwig. “Go on in, it’s already on.”
He put the earwig in automatically and stepped through the door, only vaguely registering the holographic surroundings— rolling green hills, an apparently-endless blue sky and a gentle spring breeze— when a voice said, “How are you feeling, Agent Barton?”
He grinned. “Is your name really Phil?”
There was something like a sigh from the other end of the line. “Yes.”
“It’s a good name,” said Clint. “I like it. Shame I had to almost die to hear it.”
“You were in no danger of dying, Barton,” said Coulson, mildly. “Although, you might be now if Mr. Stark and Dr. Foster discover you’re just standing around talking to me instead of testing their new scenario.”
“But I like talking to you,” Clint protested, even as he brought his bow up, already nocking an arrow shaft.
He was standing at the base of a low hill, and a target appeared at its top, a standard red-and-white bullseye. A moment later, data began scrolling at the edges of Clint’s goggles— wind speed, air temperature, the angle of the hill…
Clint took a deep breath, pulled back the string, and loosed. The arrow suddenly had a broad metal head and sleek purple fletching, and he watched it fly, watched it strike the target exactly in the center, a perfect bullseye—
And everything exploded.
For a split second, Clint thought the sudden burst of light was just a surge of the hologram generators. Then, he found himself being thrown backwards, tumbling across the floor to hit the rear wall of generators, hard. Alarms were blaring all around him, and over the noise, he could hear Tony yell, “Dammit, Bruce, turn off that wailing, we know he’s hurt!”
Clint struggled to sit up— if somebody was hurt, he ought to help them.
“Don’t move, Barton,” Coulson snapped, and Clint froze automatically.
He coughed. “What the hell, sir?”
“Don’t move,” Coulson repeated. “And I don’t know. All my monitoring equipment has gone dead. How bad are you?”
Oh, Clint was the one who was hurt. Carefully and without moving much, he took stock of himself. “Head wound,” he admitted. “Bleeding pretty good. It’s… is it getting warmer in here? And there’s a lot of smoke… Everything kind of hurts, sir.”
“Just hang in there, Barton,” said Coulson. “Help is on the way.”
“You sendin’ in the Rangers, sir?” Clint asked.
He could hear the slur in his own voice, and he knew that it was a bad sign. Somewhere far away, Jane was yelling at Tony to just shut down the whole system and somebody get those sprinklers back online, what is wrong with you, Stark?
“Just one Ranger,” Coulson said, in Clint’s ear. But closer, too, like there was an echo.
It was very warm all of a sudden, and Clint tried to roll away from the heat, only for his ribs to protest, vehemently. “Sir?”
“Stay still, Clint,” said Coulson’s voice, but it wasn’t coming from his earwig at all.
Then, there were broad hands on Clint’s shoulder, gentle fingers carding through his hair, just skirting the edge of his wound. He tried to blink up at the person those hands belonged to, but everything was hazy and he could barely make out the shape of a face looking down at him.
Clint’s breath caught in a way that had nothing to do with his possibly-cracked ribs. “Coulson?”
And he thought maybe this time he was dying, because he had to be hallucinating that impossible voice saying, “Clint? Please, Clint, stay awake, stay with me…”
And maybe Clint wasn’t dying, because every time he regained consciousness, he hurt a little less, vaguely aware of the hum of hospital equipment and the murmur of voices.
Tony was there most often and always alone, ranting threats at someone or something named Hammer and swearing that Clint would be fine, because Tony might not be a doctor, but he was a billionaire and he could make these things happen. Bruce and Jane came together, Bruce talking seriously with Clint’s doctor, and Jane holding his hand in both of hers and carrying on an entirely one-sided conversation. Steve came by with Thor and a woman it took him an embarrassingly long time to recognize as Pepper. Darcy flitted in and out regularly, talking to herself as much as to Clint even when he was mostly awake.
And once, long after visiting hours and just after the nurses had cut back on his painkillers, when the room was dark and everything hurt, Clint could have sworn he heard Coulson’s voice telling him that everything would be all right.
But it was Natasha who was sitting beside his bed when he finally woke up lucid, still wearing her fatigues.
“You with us, Barton?” she asked.
“Nat?” he asked, blinking at her. “What are you doing here?”
“Emergency leave,” said Natasha, and held out a cup of water. “Your boss called in a favor with my boss.”
“Fury owed Tony a favor?” Clint asked, incredulous.
“Not just the one,” said Tony, coming into the room with Bruce, Jane and Steve. “But I’m a patient man.”
Steve snorted his opinion of that statement and settled a large hand on Clint’s ankle. “How’re you feeling?”
“Sore,” Clint said, honestly. “What happened?”
“Justin Hammer happened,” Tony said, darkly. “It’s bad enough he tries to steal my tech, but he’s so incompetent that he ends up destroying it!”
“Destroying?” Clint repeated, something in his gut twisting painfully.
Tony sighed. “Mostly, yeah. More than half of the holo-generators overloaded, and the ones that didn’t were damaged in the fire. We’ve still got the base programming, but it was designed to be a learning system, like JARVIS, and losing that much data will put us back at square one, even once we’ve got all the equipment back up.”
“But you shouldn’t worry about that, Clint,” said Bruce. “We can repair it, and we can keep the project going, even if you wouldn’t want to test it, after this.”
“What?” said Clint. “No, I— I want to help.”
“When you’re better,” said Steve, gently. “You were banged up pretty good, there, mister.”
“Seven stitches, a concussion, two cracked ribs and bruises pretty much everywhere,” said Bruce. “But the suit helped, and now we know what kind of safety measures we really need.”
“We got you out as fast as we could,” said Jane, moving to take his hand again, on the opposite side of the bed from Natasha. “If it wasn’t for— Oh, Clint, you had us so worried! Especially—”
“I have finished my baking just in time!” boomed Thor, standing in the doorway and still wearing his flour-dusted apron. “I thought some pie would help bolster our sprits as we waited for you to recover, Clint, but they will taste sweeter when eaten in celebration.”
Clint smiled. “Thanks, buddy, but I don’t think I’m allowed to eat pie just yet. But you should totally bolster everyone else.”
“We should let you get some rest, anyway,” said Bruce.
Everyone followed Thor back outside, except Natasha, who moved to perch on the side of Clint’s bed. “What?” she asked.
“It’s stupid,” he mumbled, knowing it was pointless to pretend there wasn’t something wrong. “Tony’s whole lab was wrecked, and all of his and Jane’s and Bruce’s hard work is gone, and I’m looking at lots of PT, again, and all I can think about is…”
“Coulson,” Natasha finished.
Clint nodded. “You heard Tony, it’s a learning program Even if the base program is still intact, without all the data, he’s not… he won’t be my Coulson.”
“You love him,” said Natasha. It wasn’t a question or a judgment, and Clint nodded miserably.
“I know he’s not real, Nat, I’ve known that all along. But it feels like he’s died.”
“Your head knows,” said Natasha. “But your heart still feels it. It’ll get better.”
“Yeah,” he said, not quite ready to believe it.
There was a sudden clatter of heels on the linoleum hallway outside, and they both looked up as Pepper Potts stopped in the doorway.
“Clint!” she said, with a genuinely happy smile. “Tasha said you were awake, but I was trying to convince—’
She seemed to realize her slip half a sentence too late, and Clint grinned.
“ ‘Tasha’?” he repeated.
Pepper flushed a delicate shade of pink. “Major Romanov was very helpful during my recent visit to the Middle East.”
“I’m sure she was,” Clint said, which earned him a gentler-than-usual elbow to the shin.
“I really am glad you’re all right, Clint,” said Pepper. “You were out for so long… I didn’t know who else to call for you, besides Tasha.”
It meant a lot that she bothered to call anyone at all, but Clint didn’t know how to explain that without feeling any more pathetic than he already did, so he settled for squeezing her wrist, gently. “She’s pretty much it,” he said. “Thanks.”
Pepper smiled. “Of course. And I should let you rest.”
She rose, but Natasha stayed where she was, and Clint said, “You should go with her, Nat. I’ll be okay.”
“Really?” she asked.
He took a deep breath and found that it was true. “Yeah.”
Natasha leaned down to kiss his cheek. “If you need anything…”
Clint smiled. “I know.”
Physical therapy wasn’t so bad the second time around. Possibly because Tony had promised Clint would still have a job with Stark Industries, no matter how his recovery went. Possibly because Steve had nominated himself Clint’s training partner and eased him tactfully through every setback. Possibly because Thor had expanded from pies to cupcakes and had a new, mouth-watering flavor waiting after each session.
So, Clint was nearly back to his previous post-discharge range of motion when Tony waylaid him on the way back up to his room from the Stark Tower gym.
“Get dressed and get down to the lab,” he said, without preamble, then frowned. “Shower, get dressed and get down to the lab.”
“What?” said Clint, so used to this sort of behavior that he wasn’t offended. “Why?”
“I got the holo-generators up and working,” said Tony, then he paused again. “Maybe Foster helped. And there’s really not enough of the original program to make it work yet. But Bruce wants to take your measurements so he can get his medical equipment calibrated again. And something about your suit? I don’t know, wasn’t listening, what am I, your messenger? And what are you doing still standing here, Barton? Get moving.”
Clint grinned and offered him a lazy salute. “Yessir.”
The three scientists were already working when Clint entered the lab, Tony and Jane arguing even as they passed tools between them, and Bruce frowning over his glasses at his computer screen. Darcy stood by the lab bench, examining Clint’s tac-suit and cataloging possible alterations to an unremarkable man in a dark suit.
No, not unremarkable— Clint wasn’t called Hawkeye for nothing, and he could see the breadth of the shoulders under the ill-fitting jacket, could see the that although the man seemed relaxed, he was holding his left side more stiffly, like he might be in pain.
Darcy spotted Clint in the lab doorway and grinned. “Long time, no see, soldier.”
The man in the suit turned and Clint only just registered the sparkling blue eyes and the pattern of old scars down the left side of his face, when a very familiar voice said, “Clint! I mean, Agent Barton, it’s good to see you up—” and Clint’s whole world tilted.
He sat down, hard, on the linoleum floor, trying to get his suddenly-rapid breathing under control. There were hands on his shoulders, familiar strong hands, and Clint looked up sharply. “Coulson.”
The other man blinked at him. “Yes. Are you all right? Are you hurt? I can—”
“No!” He’d moved to pull away, and Clint caught his wrist, feeling the thrum of a pulse beneath his fingers. “You’re real.”
“I’m— Oh. Oh. I didn’t—” Coulson didn’t try to move his wrist out of Clint’s grip, but he shifted, a little uncomfortable. “I thought someone had told you— You never seemed to— I don’t really leave my office much, but— I thought you didn’t want— and I understand, who would want?— Then you got hurt, and you were upset— I thought you were angry that I hadn’t been able to get to you faster— that I’m so—”
Coulson scowled down at his left knee, bent up while he knelt on the other one, where Clint could see the outline of a brace under the soft fabric of Coulson’s suit pants. Without knowing he was going to, Clint reached out, but stopped himself before his fingers quite made contact.
“I was mourning,” he blurted. “I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t angry, I was— I thought I knew you weren’t real and I still— but then it crashed and I thought— I thought you were dead and I—”
“You… you liked me,” said Coulson, as though that was something he couldn’t possibly understand, “when I was just a voice in your ear.”
“Yes,” said Clint. “And… more?”
“More?” Coulson repeated, bewildered.
Clint reached out slowly, giving the other man time to pull away if he wanted to, but Coulson held tremblingly still, until Clint’s hand had come to rest on the side of his face, the left side, fingertips tingling over the uneven scars. Clint wanted nothing more than to learn those scars by touch, by taste, even if it took a lifetime. He was kind of hoping it would.
“Oh, yeah,” Clint said, breathless. “Phil—”
Coulson surged up to kiss him, gentle but insistent, and Clint was already short of breath before they started, but he didn’t dare let go.
Then, somebody sniffed loudly and they sprang apart, abruptly remembering they weren’t alone.
“What?” said Darcy, sniffling again as everyone frowned at her. “It’s beautiful. There are romance novels that aren’t as romantic as this— yes, I read them, don’t judge.”
“Who, us?” asked Tony.
Clint snorted a laugh. “Just you, Stark,” he said, then his expression softened. “Hey, Phil, maybe we could take this somewhere more private? And comfortable?”
“Yes, yes,” agreed Coulson— Phil— and Bruce moved to help him to his feet.
“You can come in for your measurements later,” the scientist told Clint, helping him up, too. “Much later.”
“Thanks,” Clint muttered, and Phil took his hand.
In the elevator, Phil hesitated, and Clint said, “JARVIS, my room, please.”
Phil grinned and laced their fingers together.
“Who are you?” Natasha said, an Army-issue tent behind her on the screen. Then her eyes widened, as good as an audible gasp from anyone else. “You’re Coulson. You’re— Clint.”
“Yeah,” Clint agreed, knowing his smile was ridiculous. “Natasha Romanov, Phil Coulson.”
“I’m the head of the Stark Industries accounting department,” Phil added.
“He is now,” put in Clint. “Phil was a Ranger, Nat. He’s totally badass.”
“I’m not…” said Phil, but Natasha smiled.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” she said. “And I’m glad you’re real.”
Phil ducked his head. “I never meant to give anyone the impression that I wasn’t.”
“Oh, I’m sure that was all Clint,” said Natasha. “For someone with such good eyesight, he can be amazingly blind.”
“Hey,” Clint protested, and Phil reached over to take his hand.
“I think we’ve both learned something from the experience,” Phil said. “About assumptions and expectations.”
“Valuable lessons,” said Natasha. She looked at him for a long moment, long enough for Phil’s fingers to start twitching in Clint’s grip. “Did Clint tell you about the circumstances of his discharge?”
Phil squeezed Clint’s hand, once. “Yes,” he said, steadily. “And I told him about mine.”
Her expression softened. “I have spent a long time looking after Clint Barton. It’s about time I got some help.”
“Hey,” Clint protested again. “Still right here!”
Phil smiled and brought their joined hands up to press a brief kiss to Clint’s knuckles. “I’ll send you weekly status updates.”
“Hey,” Clint repeated, but he was laughing.
“Romanov! called Hill’s voice, from the background of the video. “Wheels up in five!”
“Be safe out there,” said Clint.
“You, too,” said Natasha. “Both of you.”
Clint stood on the holographic rooftop, his bow in his hands, and looked out over a landscape that wasn’t really there.
“The battle’s moving your way, Hawkeye,” said Phil’s voice in his ear.
“Copy that,” said Clint, just as the red-and-gold blur of Iron Man shot past.
He was a hologram, controlled by Tony from the lab, as was Thor, Norse god of Thunder— physically based on SI’s head chef and controlled by Jane. The Black Widow was the most advanced of the holo-robots, modeled on Natasha and personally approved on her last visit to Pepper (and Clint. But mostly Pepper) and Captain America was actually Steve, wearing a bio-monitoring suit like Clint’s. They were still trying to get Bruce to choose a superhero alter ego, but he seemed to have fun controlling their array of holographic villains— especially when Darcy was the hostage.
Clint loosed an arrow at the army of holographic pixies, sent by a cloaked wizard, who cackled with Bruce’s laughter.
“Hawkeye, on your nine o’clock,” said Phil, and Clint grinned, readying another arrow.
He had the best job in the world.