“There. See that? She’s at it again.”
The recruit beside him - Patel, his name tag says - flinches and for a moment Clint wonders whether he may have overdone the bit with the elbow. Ah, the hell with it. Baby agents need to learn how to cope with a little pain.
Besides, right now Clint actually feels like hurting someone. Pretty much all of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been treating him like a leper since he brought in the Black Widow, so he may as well act the asshole with the one guy unable to get up and leave.
“Uh, emm, I’m sorry sir, I don’t see it,” Patel stammers. “Whatever it is, sir.”
How did someone that un-observant ever make it through the S.H.I.E.L.D. recruitment process? Clint tries to inhale some patience.
“Hill. Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.? And that blonde she’s talking to? Yesterday, it was Drew. Today, it’s … her. The blonde. Bobbi Morse.”
“Sorry, sir. I’m afraid I still don’t understand. I’ve only been with S.H.I.E.L.D. for a week.”
“Don’t sir me, Patel. And for God’s sake, stop apologizing for everything. You’re a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent now. Own your ignorance.”
“Sorry, sir. It’s just… Sorry?”
Clint feels the tiniest little wave of empathy starting to lap at his conscience. Junior recruits are krill in the S.H.I.E.L.D. food chain and Clint … Well, if he’s not exactly a shark, he’s at least a mid-sized barracuda. Plus apparently branded a traitor now, so of course the kid would be flustered. Time to make an important point.
“Just don’t, son, okay? We’re all equals here, regardless of when we started or how much we fuck up. Name’s Barton. You can call me Hawkeye in the field, if they ever let me back out. Hey, you, if you can’t remember, or if Rumlow is around and you need to demonstrate that you’re a Real Man.”
The guy is a bit confused and a little apprehensive, but seems to be processing the information well enough, so Clint continues.
“Basically, the only people you need to call ‘sir’ are Fury, Hill and Coulson. Sitwell will expect it, but isn't entitled to any respect. Capisce?”
Patel nods bravely.
“Yes, sir,” he says, swallows and tries again without the quaver in his voice. “Yes, Agent Barton.”
What does Coulson always say, about most progress being incremental? Clint decides to let the matter go. Besides, mentoring hour is over; Drew just walked in and is joining the other two women at the table. What is she even doing here, two days in a row? She doesn’t work for S.H.I.E.L.D. full-time – maybe she’s interviewing for a new job?
Seems to be an excellent time to be the boss this baby agent obviously needs in his life and issue some orders.
“So, here’s what I need you to do, Patel: Get your butt over there and find out what they’re talking about. I can’t read their lips when they’re turned sideways like that. With luck, you'll learn something.”
Apparently, Patel has hearing issues, too.
“Me, Agent Barton?”
“Yes, you. You do want to be a spy when you grow up, no? That’s why you joined S.H.I.E.L.D., innit? Suggest you start acting like one.”
No one will be surprised if Patel leaves his table; just about everyone else, from Sitwell on down, has been doing the same thing whenever Clint has been trying to sit down where there was company to be had. Like he was toxic, or something. Eau de Black Widow.
Clint tosses one of Doreen’s baklavas up into the air and into his mouth. They’re heavy on the pistachios, like baklavas are meant to be; having to calculate the stickiness and dribble quotients into the trajectory adds challenge. He washes it down with a swig of coffee and pretends to bury himself in his briefing notes.
Patel gets the hint; conversation is over, time to do as he’s been told. He heads obediently, if none too energetically, towards where Hill is having a lively discussion with Jessica Drew and Dr. Bobbi Morse. He grabs a seat at the table next to them where Rumlow and his cohort are just clearing out, leaving a mess of trays with dirty dishes behind - probably with an order to the newbie to clean up after them, if Rollins’ smirk is anything to go by. Ass hats.
But in the meantime, there's Bobbi to consider and stare at.
Bobbi Morse - returned from the dead a few months ago only to present her presumed widower with divorce papers. One of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sharpest minds, with the notable exception of the period she’d spent shackled to a former carnie with delusions of grandeur. She is presently giggling about something Drew said. Hill’s lip curls a little in return - the Deputy Director equivalent of ‘raucous laughter’ - and yes, they’re all looking in Clint’s direction now.
Clint is pretty sure that Bobbi isn’t bad-mouthing him, as such; they’ve always gotten along too well for that, even if he wasn’t exactly domestic bliss material. Their ending wasn’t just his fault either, Bobbi’s always been fair about that. Besides, she’s got that merc guy now, Hunter something, so she’d have no reason to be vindictive.
And Jess? They’re still friends too, even if the benefits had stopped when she’d found him with that redhead. But, anyway. What are they saying about him that has Hill raising an eyebrow and writing into her notebook?
Patel, for some reason, is desperately trying not to inhale his coffee. Recovered, he pretends to be tapping a text into his smartphone when Melinda May joins the table.
May lowers herself into one of those plastic chairs with the languid grace of a terminally bored cat. She’s facing Clint; he can see her lips forming the words ‘So, what do you want to know?’ in Hill’s direction.
But then she casts him one of her looks. One of those looks that says, very clearly, “Read my lips and I’ll have your balls for breakfast, Barton.” It’s a good look, particularly when delivered at the tail end of an op, just before an adrenaline-soaked fuck against the nearest wall - not so much in a cafeteria full of baby agents, the boss, the ex-wife and a former girlfriend. Besides, May has a steady guy of her own now, so that cuts down on the smoulder quite a bit.
It occurs to him briefly that all of his exes have managed to land themselves someone decent. What does that make Clint Barton, then? Training wheels? You don’t get to be the World’s Top Marksman without being able to spot a pattern, and Clint can see that writing on the wall without even looking. Then again, they’re all still speaking to him, so there’s that.
Clint’s phone alarm beeps the Rocky theme, reminding him that he really should be in the gym, and he packs up his file. Just as well, getting out while leaving is still good. Barton specialty, that.
He stops by the vending machine to text Patel, who’s still holding the fort across the way:
“Gotta go. Report at 18:00, men’s locker room.”
Of course, there’s that thing about the best laid plans, and all that.
Clint hates running, but he decides to spend the first thirty minutes of his workout on the treadmill. Mostly out of a sense of duty, although maybe a mindless activity right now will give him time to think. Problem is, the thinking results in little more than a deeply felt, ‘The fuck?’ He’s just about done his run- and his thinking - when the shitty PA system creaks out his name and an order: “Agent Barton, please report to the Deputy Director’s office.”
So much for getting that intel from Patel. He runs into him on his way out of the gym level and makes the eyes-on-you sign, lest the rookie think he’ll forget about their deal.
Hill’s office is a study in meticulous counter-intelligence neatness. Her computer screen is angled to face away from the entry and the window, just in case someone might look into the 47th floor from across the Potomac. There’s a neat pile of paper files, which Fury had re-introduced for all Level 7 and up matters after the latest Russian hack attempt; all are face down so no one can read the titles.
As for the décor – there isn’t any. No plants, no photographs, not even a paper weight. Zero evidence of personality from which to draw conclusions. Except… the pens on the desk are stuck into an old, chipped FBI mug, and at random angles. Secret sense of humour?
“You asked for me, sir?”
Hill looks up from her screen and touches a button, presumably to make whatever Clint can’t see anyway disappear, and takes his measure with a look that lingers on his sweat-damp hair. Clint can practically see her concluding that he probably spent the last hour of his life in accordance with S.H.I.E.L.D. regulations. She nods curtly.
“I did,” she says, in that clipped tone that strikes fear into the hearts of lesser men than Hawkeye.
Clint takes the response as an invitation to pull up one of the chairs in front of her desk. He flips it around and sits down, straddling it and resting his elbows on its back and waits.
Presumably if Hill wants him to know something she will tell him eventually; no point looking too eager. S.H.I.E.L.D. poker they call it; Clint is pretty good at it. He slows down his breathing, like he would before letting go one of his arrows, and is gratified to notice her eyes narrowing.
“I assume you have been reading your briefing notes?” she asks.
“Albanian mafia in London,” he says, waiting. “Pretty generic stuff. Nothing I didn’t know already.”
“Deep background,” she says. “Context for your next mission.”
Clint perks up.
“So I’m off the bench then?”
“Probation,” Hill says. “You’ll have a partner.”
Oh, goody. Clint mentally starts ticking off names of people senior brass could inflict on him to make him suffer a while longer. Ward? He’d kill the arrogant little weasel inside 24 hours, so probably not. Miyazaki? Not after the Managua Meltdown. Was that why Drew and May were …? He doesn’t get to finish the thought.
“Romanoff,” Hill says, and there’s disapproval in her voice. “Not my idea, trust me. But Nick Fury said something to the effect that ‘you kill it, you clean it.’”
She slides over the file on top of the pile.
“Except in this case, of course, you didn’t. Kill her, I mean. But she definitely needs to be cleaned.”
An odd little smile crosses Hill’s lips as Clint’s mouth opens and closes without a sound coming out.
“Op Callisto,” she says. “You leave tomorrow at 0700. Don’t screw this up. Council has its eyes on you.”
The mission goes about as well as you can expect something to go when your job isn’t just to take out a human trafficking den, but also to make sure your partner doesn’t take out you or a dozen innocents in the process. Maybe it’s because halfway through, Clint decides to pretty much ignore that bit of his brief and just gets on with it. If the Black Widow wanted him dead, he’d have assumed room temperature weeks ago - and that killing bystanders thing? The woman is just as compulsive about protecting civilians as Clint is himself, possibly more so, and trust is a two-way street.
Turns out, he and Romanoff actually work together pretty well. She snarks at him for doing things too fast, not fast enough, too middle, or in the wrong direction; he snarks at her about how communication is a Thing whenever there’s two on the trapeze, and somehow it all works. At the end of the day, only the people who are supposed to be dead are, and Coulson mutters something about ‘adequacy’.
They don’t get much time to rest on their laurels though; they’re still on the Quinjet when a call comes through for another mission. This one’s called ‘Europa,’ which is odd given that it involves extracting a dissident from death row in Ashgabat, and last time Clint looked that was in Central Asia. But eh. Beats code names like “Steely Resolve,” “Enduring Freedom” or, Lord forbid, "Dynamic Mongoose."
Whatever the op’s name, Clint ends up spending more time than he had planned in the Turkmenbashi’s rather medieval jail; the security folks were tipped off by someone and Romanoff ends up late for their rendezvous. But they get out their mark in one piece, and she doesn’t say anything when, as a parting shot, he sends an explosive arrow into one of the facilities where the Great Dictator’s propaganda bullshit gets printed. In fact she points out the best window for the shot, which almost makes up for the lice.
Back in DC, Clint heads straight for the locker room. It’s a bit of a ritual, washing off any GSR, grime and memories from places where nightmares are the wallpaper of daily life. The hot water feels good; he lets it rain down on his head and back for a long time.
He has just grabbed one of those shitty S.H.I.E.L.D. issue towels when he sees a shadow by the door. Quickly, he winds the fabric into a rope – lack of fluffiness does have its upside – steps forward and cracks it into the figure’s face like a whip.
“Ouch,” says a vaguely familiar voice. “That hurt!”
“That’s how you spell p-r-i-v-a-c-y, Patel,” Clint says, unmoved. He flicks the towel back into its original shape and rubs himself off. “Next time, say something. Don’t just lurk.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” Patel spits out some lint. “Agent Barton, I mean. I know it’s been a while, but I heard you were back and thought you’d want me to report as soon as I could.”
Huh? Report? About… Ah, yes. The Gathering Of The Coven. He nods for Patel to go ahead.
“They were talking about you,” Patel says, trying hard now to keep his desperately blinking eyes off Clint’s assets, which are bouncing as he scrubs his hair. “Those women, I mean, and the Deputy Director.”
Clint feels a moment of uncharacteristic pity. He wraps the damp towel around his hips, reaches for a t-shirt and generally assumes the briefing position.
“Well, duh. I guessed that much - why I sent you out for that recce in the first place. What were they saying? And why were they saying it?”
“Why, they didn’t say, sir, nor did I acquire enough data to come to a conclusion.” Learning the language of analysis and standing up for himself a little? Maybe there’s hope for the boy.
“But as to the what … They were just observations, I believe. About … you.” Patel takes a deep breath, presses his lips together and fishes a little notebook out of his pocket. “Personal observations. Very personal.”
His already dark ears turn a shade darker as he turns a page and reads.
“Impervious to the most basic norms and standards of human coexistence; always leaves his socks on the floor and the toilet seat up. The abs almost make up for that, though. Nice visuals, and useful when you need a lift.”
Clint nods. That sounds like May. He briefly wonders how that new boyfriend of hers is coping with her toilet seat fetish. What’s his name again, Andrew? A shrink, or something. Probably busy analyzing whatever possessed her to sleep with Clint Barton.
Patel goes silent as he watches Clint digest his words. Not entirely unobservant, either. Good.
“Won’t shut up over the comm, like ever, but a lot of what he says is actually useful once you learn how to speak Hawkeye.”
Ha. That could be any one of them. No one ever appreciates the Barton sense of humour.
“Purple. LOVES purple. Doesn’t seem to threaten his masculinity. But sometimes he goes on a bender and next thing you know, you’re looking at a purple jockstrap under that tac suit.”
Gotta be Drew. Jessica always rolled her eyes when he mentioned his favourite colour. Didn’t stop her from walking out with his favourite purple hoodie, though; she still wears it, too.
Well, so far, so innocuous, if - yes - a tad personal. But then again...
The rookie shakes his head and stares at his notes. Clint has a feeling that he’s leaving something out and is about to grab the pad from him, when Patel coughs and says, “Does not…”
“Does not what? Spit it out, man.”
Patel clears his throat.
“Does not feel compelled to act the gentleman under fire.” Patel blushes a little, like it’s his fault what’s in his notes. Obviously he hasn’t learned yet that intel is just facts – it’s what you do with the data (or not) that fucks people up. “Sir, sorry sir, but that’s what she said. Agent May, sir.”
Clint waves him off. Truth is truth. Seriously, who has the time to put on kid gloves, especially when the women he works with are just as, if not more, competent than he is? Plus, May always was the ‘hold my beer’ kinda gal; reason they clicked so well in the field.
Patel’s eyes are a little wild now, and he shakes his head in denial. He grips his notebook for support, like a drowning man would at a rubber duck, with about as much effect. Clint takes it from him, dropping the towel in the process. And there it is, in meticulous script:
“Don’t expect him to ever remember to pick up the milk on the way home, but he’ll give you a blow job that’ll make you see the moons of Jupiter.”
Well, shit. Bobbi. Clint smiles fondly. When things were good between them, they were really good… Grabbing the towel off the floor and tying it back around his hips, a little tighter this time, he can practically hear his ex-wife’s cackle.
“You do realize this is the moment they figured out you were listening in, Patel.”
“Sir? I mean…”
“Agent Barton, Patel. You mean you didn’t notice?”
That’d be a ‘no’ then. But that would have been the end of any useful info Patel might have gleaned - and still no clue as to the main question: Why? He asks, just in case.
Patel fidgets and blushes again.
“No, sir … Agent Barton. I couldn’t stay for the rest of the conversation. Deputy Director Hill…”
“Let me guess. She told you to fuck off?”
Patel nods, visibly relieved at not having to admit to his failure out loud.
"A little more politely, but yes."
Clint looks around, inhaling the underwhelming aroma of unwashed body and anti-lice shampoo. Maybe women just prefer the cafeteria for locker room conversations? Can’t blame them, really. He should probably just be flattered that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fiercest and finest consider him still worthy of discussion, even if none of them ever seem interested in sticking around for the long haul.
“Sir? Agent Barton, I mean? Can I go now?”
Huh? Oh yes, Patel. Still here, waiting to be dismissed. He probably deserves a little payment for his service, so Clint puts on his mentor face.
“No, that’s it, thanks. But here’s a pro tip for you, junior. Next time you spy on someone in a food place, bring food. Preferably something drippy. Be a slob. Weaponize people’s disgust, and they’ll ignore you.” As an afterthought, he adds, “Works with public displays of affection, too, especially non-het. ‘Smooching a guy hides the spy’, as the saying goes.”
Clint claps Patel on the shoulder, a move that doubles as a shove out the door. He needs to think, plus delousing is best done in private.
Three days later, and Clint is summoned to Hill’s office again.
“Another op already?” he says as he walks in. “Aren’t there union rules about that?”
Hill ignores him.
“I don’t know what you told your little spy minion, Barton, but he just aced Surveillance. Two weeks ago, he was last in his class; during yesterday’s field test he was the only one Sitwell didn’t make. I thought you might like to know.”
Clint does, but he’s pretty sure that’s not why he’s here.
“That’s not why I sent for you though,” she confirms. “The Director and I have agreed on making a change to your working arrangement with S.H.I.E.L.D.”
For a moment Clint sees his career flash before his eyes, including some Slow-Mo moments for all the times some stick-up-you-ass middle manager like Hand took exception at his methods. Hill waves him off.
“We are assigning you a permanent partner. The choice was made after careful assessment of field performance and reference checks.”
She taps a file with a short but well-shaped fingernail. The polish is red, slightly metallic. I’m Not Really A Waitress, if memory serves - popular among S.H.I.E.L.D. women for some reason. Bobbi used it, too. And suddenly, everything falls into place.
“Reference checks?” he says. “That convo in the caf. That was …”
“Research? Of course.” Hill raises an eyebrow in his direction. “You are, despite your recent lapses in judgment, a valued S.H.I.E.L.D. asset, Barton. And the Black Widow, as we all know, is a woman with a history of … well … devouring every man in her immediate orbit. I wanted to make sure you’d be able to survive before I sent you out together in the field - and there’s no one better qualified to make that assessment than women who may have had every motive and opportunity to kill you in the past, but haven’t.”
There really isn’t much to say to that and so Clint, wisely, doesn’t. But Hill isn’t done.
“You may like to know that none of the observations of a more … personal nature have made it into your active personnel file, Barton. The ladies insisted. Seems that in addition to various other under-reported qualities, you also inspire loyalty.”
Hill pushes a call button on her desk. The door opens and Romanoff stalks in, projecting her usual confidence but with an element of curiosity as to what to expect. She raises an eyebrow at Clint in greeting, but her focus is on Hill.
“You passed probation, Agent Romanoff. Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Hill says. “You will be part of Strike Team Delta. I trust there are no issues as to our choice of partner. Report to Coulson in the morning, both of you.”
She slides a file across the table; the words ‘Op Ganymede’ are prominent on the cover. Romanoff is not impressed.
"First Callisto, then Europa - now this. What is it with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Jupiter?"
There’s a hard-to-read look in those ice-blue eyes as the Deputy Director stares at Clint.
"Sixty-nine possible code names for operations in those moons," she says. "And with Barton as your partner, who knows - you may get to see them all."